Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Atheism
I have begun reading Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything. Early signs: brilliant. I especially liked this bit (pp. 7-10), about modern ideas in the ancient world:
A ‘skyhook’ is an imaginary device for hanging an object from the sky. The word originated in a sarcastic remark by a frustrated pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the First World War, when told to stay in the same place for an hour: ‘This machine is not fitted with skyhooks,’ he replied. The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the skyhook as a metaphor for the argument that life shows evidence of an intelligent designer. He contrasted skyhooks with cranes - the first impose a solution, explanation or plan on the world from on high; the second allow solutions, explanations or patterns to emerge from the ground up, as natural selection does.
The history of Western thought is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning. Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced. Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development - souls - within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God’s word as transmitted through the Koran. Luther said that your fate was in God’s hands. Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called ‘Leviathan’ - the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience. Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies. Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.
But there is another stream of thought that has tried and usually failed to break through. Perhaps its earliest exponent was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher about whom we know very little. From what later writers said about his writings, we know that he was born in 341 BC and thought (as far as we can tell) that the physical world, the living world, human society and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them. As interpreted by his followers, Epicurus believed, following another Greek philosopher, Dernocritus, that the world consisted not of lots of special substances including spirits and humours, but simply of two kinds of thing: voids and atoms. Everything, said Epicurus, is made of invisibly small and indestructible atoms, separated by voids; the atoms obey the laws of nature and every phenomenon is the result of natural causes. This was a startlingly prescient conclusion for the fourth century BC.
Unfortunately Epicurus’s writings did not survive. But three hundred years later, his ideas were revived and explored in a lengthy, eloquent and unfinished poem, De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who probably died in mid-stanza around 49 BC, just as dictatorship was looming in Rome. Around this time, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, ‘when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone’. Exaggerated maybe, but free thinking was at least more possible then than before or after. Lucretius was more subversive, open-minded and far-seeing than either of those politicians (Cicero admired, but disagreed with, him). His poem rejects all magic, mysticism, superstition, religion and myth. It sticks to an unalloyed empiricism.
As the Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt has documented, a bald list of the propositions Lucretius advances in the unfinished 7,400 hexameters of De Rerum Natura could serve as an agenda for modernity. He anticipated modern physics by arguing that everything is made of different combinations of a limited set of invisible particles, moving in a void. He grasped the current idea that the universe has no creator, Providence is a fantasy and there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance. He foreshadowed Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments, and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive. He was with modern philosophers and historians in suggesting that the universe was not created for or about human beings, that we are not special, and there was no Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past, but only a primitive battle for survival. He was like modern atheists in arguing that the soul dies, there is no afterlife, all organised religions are superstitious delusions and invariably cruel, and angels, demons or ghosts do not exist. In his ethics he thought the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
Thanks largely to Greenblatt’s marvellous book The Swerve, I have only recently come to know Lucretius, and to appreciate the extent to which I am, and always have been without knowing it, a Lucretian/Epicurean. Reading his poem in A.E. Stallings’s beautiful translation in my sixth decade is to be left fuming at my educators. How could they have made me waste all those years at school plodding through the tedious platitudes and pedestrian prose of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, when they could have been telling me about Lucretius instead, or as well? Even Virgil was writing partly in reaction to Lucretius, keen to re-establish respect for gods, rulers and top-down ideas in general. Lucretius’s notion of the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances - which the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana called the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon - has been one of the persistent themes of my own writing. It is the central idea behind not just physics and chemistry, but evolution, ecology and economics too. Had the Christians not suppressed Lucretius, we would surely have discovered Darwinism centuries before we did.
Last night I did a posting at Samizdata about Milo Yiannopoulos.
Until today, when I dug him up on YouTube, I didn’t even know what nationality this guy is. American would have been my guess, but basically I didn’t know, although I did learn yesterday what he looks like. But for me he was basically a name, that I couldn’t spell.
Turns out he’s British. Very British. Who knew? Everybody except me, presumably. Blog and learn.
I asked for the opinions of Samizdata commentariat, and got some. I don’t know why, but I expected more variety in these responses, more doubts, more reservations. Actually, the Samizdata commentariat has, so far, been uniformly approving of this guy.
Now I’m listening to him babble away, and it turns out that, being a libertarian and an atheist, I’m “touchy” - meaning oversensitive about being criticised - times two. As a libertarian I’m obsessed with marijuana and with computer hacking. (Actually: No, times two.) As an atheist, well, it turns out I dress stupidly. (Yes. True.) He does love to wind people up, which he does by saying slightly untrue and quite funny things. He’s like that classic old Fleet Street type, the Opinionated Female Columnist, whose job is to overgeneralise in ways that are quite popular and pile up the readers, and to make the Outraged Classes really really outraged, and who eventually gets … old.
I’m starting to think he may soon be a bit of a has been. But, at least he now is.
I think the article that I linked to from Samizdata may have been a peak. It is truly brilliant.
What I do like is his interest in the tactics of how to spread ideas, how to win arguments, how to be able to make arguments despite the efforts of people who want nothing except to shut him up, by saying things that shut them up.
I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism. And very good it is. Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:
After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal. Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism. Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.
Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control. Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run. Nor was Owen a political revolutionary. What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work. Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.
Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve. Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.
Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester. Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year. Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill. He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time). However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.
Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits. New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families. It was most necessary for orphans. Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands. David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well. By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.
Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.
The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire. According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit. But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.
Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop. Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.
At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer. One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.
Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical. John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”
Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”
Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia. Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.
Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose. Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan. He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.
Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success. Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”
New Harmony soon started to fall apart. Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all. A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.
The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare. When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate. (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)
After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.
One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.
The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories. He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism. Mexico demurred. Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures. He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year. Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product. The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices. The labour exchanges collapsed too.
Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:
Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.
Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground. One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.
Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world. Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.
I see that of Counting Cats, in the person of Julie near Chicago, recently linked to a piece by the late Antony Flew entitled The Terrors of Islam, a piece which I had totally forgotten about. But I am sure that this piece influenced me very strongly when I read it. And I definitely did read it because I published it, for the Libertarian Alliance (Chris Tame Tendency).
It always pleases me hugely when someone links to an old LA effort of mine like this. Not exclusively mine, you understand. Somebody else had to write it. But … mine. And this particular piece of Flew’s is downright prophetic.
Counting Cats had a strange outbreak of junk postings about fake university essays a week or two back but seems to be over it now.
Sadly Jacob Rees-Mogg is not taking part, his cat wasn’t feline up to it. The big pussy. ...
Guido keeps going on about the Guidoisation of politics. But he, it would appear, is on the receiving end of the ever rising tide of internet cat references.
I’ve just been listening to Christopher Hitchens reading out what is apparently one of the chapters of his book God Is Not Great, and there is a cat reference in that also. Although down on dogs, it seems that the Muslims have tended, historically, to be nicer to cats than the Christians, because Christians have been in the habit of associating cats with the Devil.
Good grief! More Guido moggy-blogging.
This afternoon, The Guru is coming by to reconstruct God, so God (the other one) willing, I will be back in serious computing business by this evening.
When I was recently in Brittany, my hosts supplied me with a state-of-the-art laptop and a state-of-the-art internet connection. These last few days, without God (my one) and having to make do with Dawkins (my obsolete and clunky little laptop, the thing I am typing into now), I have felt less connected to the world than I did in Brittany. I am connected, after a fashion. But Dawkins is so slow and clunky that I have been doing only essentials (like finding out about England being hammered in the ODI yesterday), and checking incoming emails, and shoving anything however bad up here once every day. It’s like I’ve regressed to about 2000.
I have managed to put up a few pictures here, in God’s absence. But Dawkins’ screen makes these pictures look terrible. I am looking forward to seeing God’s version of these pictures and hope they will be greatly improved compared to what I am seeing now.
Thank God (the other one) I haven’t been depending on God (my one) for music. As I have surely explained here many times, one big reason I prefer CDs (and separate CD players scattered around my home) to all this twenty first century computerised music on a computer is that if God goes wrong, as he just has, I don’t lose music. I also have music concerts recorded off of the telly, onto DVDs, which I can play on my telly, which is likewise a completely separate set-up to God.
In general, the argument against having everything done by one great big master computer is that when something goes wrong with that master computer, everything else in your life also goes wrong, just when you may need those things not to. One of the things that willgo wrong, rather regularly, with your all-in-one master computer is when this or that particular one of its excessively numerous functions becomes seriously out of date. I mean, if it has a vacuum cleaner included, what happens if vacuum cleaners suddenly get hugely better? In Brian world, all I have to do is get another new and improved vacuum cleaner, and chuck out the old one. In all-in-one master computer world, you are stuck with your obsolete vacuum cleaner. Or, if you can, you have to break open your all-in-one master computer and fit a new vacuum cleaner, and probably also lots of other new stuff to make sure the new vacuum cleaner works, which buggers up a couple of your other functions that used to work fine but which no longer work fine. Or at all. I prefer to keep things simple, and separate.
Something rather similar applies with how to handle (the other) God. That is another arrangement you don’t want to have running the whole of your life for you either. It’s okay if you do God for some of the time and keep Him in his place, but you want scientists telling you about science, doctors about medicine, and your work colleagues about your work, and so on. If, on the other hand, absolutely everything in your life, and worse, everything in the entire world you live in, is controlled by ((your version of) the other) God, everything is very liable to go to Hell. (Aka: Separation of Church and State. Aks: don’t be a religious nutter.)
I have my own particular take on (the other) God, which is that He is made-up nonsense. But just as wise believers in (the other) God don’t let that dominate their thinking on non-God things, nor do I think that my opinions about (the other) God can explain everything else as well. These opinions merely explain the particular matter of (the other) God being made-up nonsense.
Do not, as they say, put all your eggs in one basket.
From the Preface of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins:
A lawyer or a politician is paid to exercise his passion and his persuasion on behalf of a client or a cause in which he may not privately believe. I have never done this and I never shall. I may not always be right, but I care passionately about what is true and I never say anything that I do not believe to be right. I remember being shocked when visiting a university debating society to debate with creationists. At dinner after the debate, I was placed next to a young woman who had made a relatively powerful speech in favour of creationism. She clearly couldn’t be a creationist, so I asked her to tell me honestly why she had done it. She freely admitted that she was simply practising her debating skills, and found it more challenging to advocate a position in which she did not believe. Apparently it is common practice in university debating societies for speakers simply to be told on which side they are to speak. Their own beliefs don’t come into it. I had come a long way to perform the disagreeable task of public speaking, because I believed in the truth of the motion that I had been asked to propose. When I discovered that members of the society were using the motion as a vehicle for playing arguing games, I resolved to decline future invitations from debating societies that encourage insincere advocacy on issues where scientific truth is at stake.
I uphold the right of people to indulge in such debating games, but share Dawkins’s extreme distaste for having any part in them myself. I also think that Dawkins makes his point very well, as is usual with him.
The thing that pissed me off about university debating societies like this one was not so much the insincerity, as the fact that they seemed to use the argument as a mere excuse to do bad stand-up comedy. They weren’t seriously pretending to take the other side. They frivolously refused to take any side at all, and didn’t give a damn that they made this entirely obvious. Poor, pathetic you for taking the subject so absurdly seriously, for caring about it all, for getting so involved.
The thing some people don’t seem to get about Dawkins is how much emotion is involved in his fiercely logical harangues. They assume that because he is trying so hard to be logical, which he is, that therefore no deep feeling can be involved. But there is no necessary conflict between logic and depth of feeling, any more than there is a necessary conflict between a car engine and petrol.
Just now I am on the look out for little (or big) things from books, so that I can practice scanning stuff in, to my new computer, with my new scanner. Right now it is still a bit of a struggle, so expect more bits from more books.
Today (this being the small hours of “tomorrow") I had a huge new computer delivered. Well, it’s actually the same size as the old one, but being much more formidable in what it does, in particular in how fast it does what it does, it seems bigger, the way formidable people also seem bigger. The old one was Windows XP. Now it’s Windows 7.
I admire the new machine, but have yet to bond with it. I respect it enormously, but do not, as yet, like it. It has as its regular screen picture a succession of horribly Photoshop-enhanced photos of classic British Isles coastal scenes, which I did not take, the sunset behind what I think must be the Giants Causeway (somewhere in (Northern?) Ireland) being particularly garish and ugly and tasteless. Everything else on the screen also looks more or less different, and hence more or less wrong. The keyboard is the usual huge nuclear power station controller, ostentatiously crammed with an unprecedented gaggle of incomprehensible bells and whistles doing who knows what, and this keyboard, unlike any of its predecessors, is physically unconnected to anything, instead communicating telepathically with a pod on a wire. I have already plugged in my lovely old Mac keyboard. But, I’ll get used to it. I’ll have to, because the old one was also taken away, what remained of it after its various hard discs of data had all been removed or transferred. That boat has been burned.
Defeating Islam (2): Conversion to Christianity will trump higher birth rates in Islamic countries
St Matthew reinterpreted
Links to this and that
Everybody draw Mohammed every day!
Everybody draw Mohammed on May 20th!
Truth is true
The impossibility of God but the possibility of Michael Flatley’s cure and of super-super-flees
Mark Holland on believing in something and believing in nothing
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Glenn Gould on the hereafter
The extreme memes spread by moderate Muslims
A Happy Christmas to all my readers
I am an atheist but I often prefer the Christians
How can intelligent decent people be so badly mistaken? And did 9/11 make you more opinionated?