Friday, 22 February 2008

A thought for British readers

Or, indeed, anyone from anywhere with licence fee-funded television.

Imagine if TV licences were like driving licences; like, you had to earn (not just pay for) the right to have one. I think there's definitely a sci-fi story in this...

NOTE: This post was inspired by my receiving a TV licence extortion reminder letter. Seeing as I don't even have a TV, I thought this was a bit much, and considered the possibility of sending some joke reply. But I'm not sure if I can be bothered.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

I've no real idea what this means

Which Great US President Are You Most Like?
created with
You scored as Dwight Eisenhower

34th President, in office from 1953-1961
Born: 1890 Died: 1969

Dwight Eisenhower


Ronald Reagan


Theodore Roosevelt


George Washington


Abraham Lincoln


Franklin Roosevelt


Thomas Jefferson


Woodrow Wilson


John Kennedy


Lyndon Johnson


Harry Truman


Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Ugley Vicar on rendering unto Caesar in modern Britain

In this post John Richardson provides a clear and helpful background perspective against which to consider some of the conflicts Bible-believing Christians seem to have been having with various power structures in the UK every five minutes over the last couple of years. It was prompted by the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent highly controversial (and taken wildly out of context) remarks about the integration of Sharia law within the British legal system. I agree with Richardson's view that "although the suggestions he [Rowan Williams, the AoC] made were wrong, the questions he raised were entirely right", and found myself nodding throughout the rest of the post, too.

It seems a follow-up post is in the works in which Richardson has promised to tackle specific cases, which I am looking forward to reading (I don't have a monolithic view of all the stuff that's happened, Ms Eweida).

HT: Anglican Mainstream, which is well worth a look, whether or not you're an Anglican

Monday, 11 February 2008

A quick quiz

Sorry if this seems very much like being back at school. I don't mind being recognised as a nerd.

Name the 49 European Countries in less than five minutes

(NB this means the 49 countries of the continent, not to be confused with the 27 countries of the European Union)

How did you do? I scored 45. Three countries I clean forgot and one I couldn't remember how to spell. I'll leave you to guess which one that was.

UPDATE (18/02/2008): It seems this quiz is already out of date. I feel I should repeat some comments on this situation from a Salvadorian friend of mine:
It seems to me that Europe cannot rid itself of its old habit of re-drawing its maps every fortnight, at least.

Call it instability?
Lol. Who's to argue?

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

A drop in the meme pool

I just (well, a few hours ago) realised that Ken tagged me in this post, meaning that this blog is now infected with a book meme. Its memetic sequence is as follows:
  • Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
  • Open the book to page 123.
  • Find the fifth sentence.
  • Post the next three sentences.
  • Tag five people.
The nearest book to hand on reading this was Neil Smith's Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), which I'm re-reading because I'm in the process of applying for postgraduate study in Linguistics. Or rather, because my mind had been parasitized by a "read a book about Linguistics" meme. Right now, however, my mind is being parasitized by a "write a blog post" meme, so I'd better get back to it. The fifth, sixth and seventh sentences on page 123 are:

From a position where language learning (even if not teaching) was self-evidently the correct way of conceptualizing the child's development of its first language, we now have a position where the favored conceptualization is in terms of the switch-setting metaphor of Principles and Parameters theory: a selection process.

If this view is correct, and if the discussion in chapter 2 to the effect that parametric variation is limited to the set of functional categories is right, we can turn to the prediction that language acquisition should be largely endogenously driven rather than being just a reaction to external stimuli. The development of other biological systems is subject to maturational control, often taking place in a particular window of opportunity referred to as the critical period.

From the section Psychological reality > Language acquisition (Plato's problem) > Parameter setting. Quite why a book published in the UK should have to have American spelling I don't know. Anyway, there now only remains to pass on the memetic information to the next memeration. The blogs to receive the memome are:
(Guys, obviously if you don't want to play you don't have to. Your memetic resistance may be stronger than mine;)

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Human values and the value of humans

The reason I cast my moral argument in terms of human rights rather than, say, an objective values syllogism like William Lane Craig[1] or natural law like C.S. Lewis or J. Budziszewski is that denial of human specialness seems to be not so much an unintended consequence of atheism as an impressive mark of humility of which many thinkers are quite proud[2]. Atheist shpokeshman Christopher Hitchens regards Christian belief to be reflective of
a deformity or shortcoming in the human personality, because the religion keeps stressing how humble it is, and how meek it is, and how accepting, and, um, almost to the point of [...] It actually makes extraordinarily arrogant claims, because it says, "I suddenly realize the universe is all about me".[3]
Given, then, that human cosmic insignificance is not just maintained but actually welcomed, it becomes exceedignly difficult to see how on atheism human dignity and value can be affirmed is a sense more robust than that of bald assertion. So it should hardly be surprising that some take the logic of this line of thought further than others. Here is an example of some of the stuff Pekka-Eric Auvinen was coming out with on the 'net before he put his money where his mouth was and shot up his school:

Life is just a coincidence… result of long process of evolution and many several factors, causes and effects. However, life is also something that an individual wants and determines it to be. And I… I’m the dictator of my own life. [...]


Human life is not sacred. Humans are just a species among other animals and world does not exist only for humans. Death is not a tragedy, it happens in nature all the time between species. Not all human lives are important or worth saving. Sometimes I feel like no-one is really worth of life at all. [...]

There are no other universal laws than the laws of nature[4]

Now, these implications are worrying. And Paul Wright has taken this on board. In a comment on my last post he relates some of his "ultimate fallback position"[5] in case human value cannot be established on atheism:
Humans are valuable because I say so. If you agree, we'd better convince others of that, work to bring about a society which believes that, and oppose (by force if necessary, as it was in World War II, to use your example) those who want to treat people as things. A consequence of the lack of ethical absolutes is that we can lose and the universe will not care. We're all treading water in the deep ocean and we can't touch bedrock to hold us up. Better get working.
I hope Paul won't mind my saying that the comment has something of the feel of unfinished business about it after our last discussion on the topic, so readers may find that useful background reading (the bit about morality is almost right at the end) .

I agree ("humans are valuable") and I disagree ("because I say so"), but that second part reveals that we mean something different by "valuable" here. Value is part of my ontology: on my view, all humans have value, objectively, as one of their properties. Like material bodies have mass. But on the "because I say so" view, humans are valuable not in themselves but merely to Paul - which tells us something (good!) about Paul but nothing about humans.

As a result, I wonder what to "convince" in this context would look like. We're certainly not talking about convincing people of a truth, but merely of an opinion. So will we go all the way? Will we say to people "all human beings have intrinsic value and you should believe this because it's true", or will we say "there is no such thing as intrinsic value, but all the same you ought to value humans"? If the former, then Paul is talking about trying to convince people of something he himself is not entitled to believe, as I've taken pains to show. If the latter, then precisely how is this supposed to make any fewer Auvinens (or Nazis, to keep that example running) than we have already? And what in the heck is "ought" supposed to mean in this context, anyway?

So yes, I am very much up for bringing about a society which believes that humans (including the unborn) are valuable, in the first of those senses. Knowing myself to be right and everyone else to be wrong would be scant consolation if everyone else became a moral nihilist, so I don't see any advantage to believing in a "lack of ethical absolutes" here. All the same, it is important, otherwise right really does make right and we're staring down the barrel of the Abolition of Man. [6]

UPDATE: I forgot to tip my hat to Alex Fear for the info on Auvinen. My bad.

[1] In short:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Of course, the human rights argument can be used to support premise 2. of this syllogism: if humans have instrinsic value, then we have an objective moral duty not to harm them for no reason, and so at least one objective moral duty exists. But I think the HR argument also stands alone.
[2] Proud of humility. Go figure.
[3] 13:05 into this video. I'll pass over the question of whether Christians actually do think the universe is "all about us".
[4] This is probably going to be my standard response to the fundy atheists who occasionally try to tell me that people have done bad things in the name of belief but never in the name of unbelief. Just tell me which part of what I've quoted Auvinen as saying you disagree with, and why.
[5] Which can be found in full here.
[6] Read this. Read this now.