Incompleteness and the precautionary principle

by John Q on December 8, 2004

As commenters and my last post, and others, have pointed out, there’s a logical gap in my argument that, given imperfect knowledge and the recognition that we tend to overestimate our own capabilities, we should adopt a rule-based version of consequentialism which would include rules against pre-emptive or preventive wars[1]. The problem of imperfect knowledge also applies to the consequences of deciding not to start a pre-emptive war. As I’ll argue though, the symmetry is only apparent and the case for caution is strong.

[click to continue…]

Deus absconditus

by Henry Farrell on December 8, 2004

I’m trying very hard to imagine what the film version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is going to be like if “The Times”: is to be believed. According to an article today, the film’s director is cutting all references to God and the church from the script, for fear “of a backlash from the Christian Right in the United States.” Instead, the sinister ‘Authority’ (read horrid amalgam of Calvinism and the Catholic Church) of the novel will be taken as representing any old repressive establishment that you might care to oppose yourself – totalitarian, Marxist or what-have-you. This seems to me (and I suspect to most of Pullman’s readers) to be utterly mad – the entire point of the series is that it’s an extended diatribe against organized religion. Pullman is a vociferous member of the Devil’s party, even if his vague humanistic alternative to Christianity (described in the greatly inferior final volume of the series), is decidedly “droopy”:

It also says some interesting things about the comparative state of debate over religion in the UK and the US. In the UK, the Anglican establishment seemed to be “quite delighted”:,11710,1165873,00.html with Pullman’s books – that someone took Christianity seriously enough to attack it was cause for celebration. In the US, in contrast, the movie’s financial backers are clearly terrified of a backlash from fundamentalists who are anything but interested in vigorous debate about the merits and defects of organized Christianity. Anti-semitic movies about the Passion are all very well and good, but pull-no-punches atheism and criticism of organized religion apparently are not. Of course, this may just be nerves on the part of the money people (in fairness, Gibson’s magnum opus got squeamish responses from potential backers too), but it is interesting how little public space there is for the expression of atheistic views in the US. I’m neither religious nor a card-carrying atheist myself (I’d describe myself as a mostly-lapsed Catholic), but it seems to me that it doesn’t do any great service to genuine religious debate if a well argued and intellectually coherent perspective on religion is denied any space in popular culture.

Update: slightly revised following comments.

Home Alone in America

by Harry on December 8, 2004

Laura’s been running a three part review of Mary Ebersatdt’s Home Alone America. Eberstadt’s argument is that women entering the workforce has done untold damage to America’s children. Laura doesn’t exactly savage the book, and hasn’t even persuaded me not to read it, but the review is very interesting, and so are the discussions (now that she has her own comments section). Go there and discuss.

The National Council of Churches has issued a nice statement on the refusal of NBC and CBS to air the bizarrely controversial advertisement by the United Church of Christ.

bq. Advocacy advertising abounds on TV: agribusinesses, drug manufacturers, gambling casinos, oil companies, even some government agencies regularly expose viewers to messages advocating their products and programs, in the interest of shaping public attitudes and building support for their points of view.

bq. Are only the ideas and attitudes of faith groups now off limits? Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and freedom of speech, not to mention common fairness, beg for leadership by the FCC to assure that America’s faith community has full and equal access to the nation’s airwaves, to deliver positive messages that seek to build and enrich the quality of life.

If you watch evening network TV you may well, I suppose, think that such an ad would be completely out of place — there are no grisly murders, no-one has sex with someone they don’t know, there is no irrational anger, and the bouncers do not physically assault the people they turn away. Even the humiliation of the rejected congregants is mild compared with that heaped on numerous participants in reality shows. I suppose that is what makes the ad so controversial. Or perhaps it is part of a conspiracy to improve UCC’s visibility. If you want to help pile on to the networks, UCC has some suggestions here. Oh, and if you’re not American, and don’t live in the States, please watch the ad; it’ll cheer you up.

Philosophy radio

by Chris Bertram on December 8, 2004

The postgraduate colloquium at La Trobe have “archived their radio show”: on the web. I’ve listened to bits of the “democracy” programme and to this Pom’s ears, the participants begin by exuding a certain antipodean charm and thereby remind me of a certain Monty Python sketch … but the discussion gets serious pretty quickly. It continues the be marked by a certain Australian robustness, however, as when one participant utters the words:

bq. “.. if only those stupid arseholes out there would vote the right way, and take the right decision … yet we can’t disenfrancise any of them ….”

Other programmes have a bit too much of a po-mo ring about them for my taste, but others will disagree.

How to Make People Feel Awkward About Religion

by Belle Waring on December 8, 2004

Speaking of spirituality designed to get one out of going to church, I offer you the following passage from Stephen Potter’s superlative Lifesmanship. This could very well come in handy if you are ever invited to the sort of English country house where everyone is expected to go to church on Sunday. (I know little about such things, but my reading of Wodehouse leads me to additionally suggest that you not get involved in a church fête of any kind, in any capacity.) Potter:

The man who lets it be known that he is religious is in a strong life position. There is one basic rule. It is: go one better. Fenn went too far. This is his method–in his own words:

To take the most ordinary instance, the simple Sunday churchgoer. “Are you coming to church with us?” my host says. It is a little country church, and my host, Moulton, who has some claims to be a local squire, wants me to come, I know, because he is going to read the lesson. He reads it very well. He enjoys reading it. I heard him practising it to himself immediately after breakfast.

“Yes, why don’t you come to church for once, you old sinner?” Mrs. Moulton will say.

Do not mumble in reply to this: “No, I’m afraid…I’m not awfully good at that sort of thing…my letters…catch post.”

On the contrary, deepen and intensify your voice, lay your hand on her shoulder and say, “Elsa” (calling her by her Christian name for perhaps the first time):

“Elsa, when the painted glass is scattered from the windows, and the roof is opened to the sky, and ordinary simple flowers grow in the crevices of pew and transept–then, and not till then will your church, as I believe, be fit for worship.”

Not only does this reply completely silence opponent; but it will be possible to go out and win ten shillings on the golf course, come back very slightly buzzed from Sunday pre-lunch drinks, and suggest, by your direct and untroubled look, before which their glance may actually shift, that your host and hostess, however innocently, have only been playing at religion.

Potter is a genius, and it seems his books are coming back in print! Now millions more can learn those methods of winning without actually cheating so dear to my heart and to those of fellow Yeovil alums.