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Magic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Magic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Owen Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Corpse juice eye drops, 29 Jun. 2012
As initiations go, eating fried bananas doesn't sound too bad, but that's only part of the ritual. To become a fully qualified magician for the Marind of New Guinea, the novice has to drink this potion repeatedly while corpse juice is dripped into his eyes and nose. Thus refreshed, the magician is believed to be able to communicate with the spirit world. It's a vivid illustration of the diversity of magical beliefs, and Owen Davies manages to draw in many more similarly fascinating details in this Very Short Introduction, covering a lot of ground both culturally and historically. Also impressive is his treatment of the broader trends, and the sense he conveys of how attitudes towards magic have changed over time. To the (pagan) Roman authorities, for example, early Christian practices such as making the sign of the cross and the Eucharist "smacked of magic". A few centuries later, these same rituals would be fully endorsed by the Roman (Catholic) authorities, and later still Protestants would come up with their own interpretations.

Particularly interesting for me is the way Davies traces sceptical attitudes towards magic, and sketches in the intimate and often prickly relationship between magic and religion (during many historical periods, "to deny the belief in magic, or at least its diabolic expression, was to attract accusations of atheism"). For Epicurus, for example, the gods existed but kept their distance, and so prayers and conjurations were a waste of time. In the mid 16th century, the Neapolitan occult scientist Giambattista della Porta studied the "divers ways to see, that one thing may seem to be another" - a key sceptical insight. In England, in the wake of the Reformation, a small but significant number of educated people "expressed concerns about the rationality of magical belief" and sought natural explanations for the seemingly magical. Magic, it was argued, was either "deception and illusion" or "a psychological condition".

Two English sceptics in particular, the Elizabethan gentleman Reginald Scot and the mid-17th-century author Thomas Ady, were fascinated by what we would today call stage magic. They were also as horrified by the witch trials as we would be (not all their contemporaries were). By explaining how tricks were performed, "they hoped to demonstrate that many of the manifestations attributed to magic or witchcraft could easily be replicated by props and sleight of hand". Even more impressive is their realization, long before psychology existed as a scientific discipline, that "the key to the imposture of magic" lay in the mind. Ady understood the importance of the techniques of distraction, of using "a dark composure of words", as he put it, "to blinde the eyes of the beholders".

Davies admits that defining magic is "a maddening task" and such candour is to be welcomed, given the range of magical practices and beliefs over the whole of human history. He has digested a mountain of scholarship and has succeeded in providing a readable introduction and in untangling some of the complex themes. As for his personal beliefs, there are hints in references to the contemporary and "so-called 'psychic detectives' [who] say they require an item of a dead or missing person's clothing to be able to activate their clairvoyance". His use of scare quotes makes it clear that he distances himself from such beliefs. However, in his conclusion, he writes that magic "cannot be consigned to the past" and that "it has accrued a range of meanings that ensure it retains its relevance in every society today". Magic, apparently, "is far more than a venerable collection of practices". As for science, it "can help explain magic but cannot explain it away - magic is always an alternative".

Is it? My reservations begin with his use of the word "venerable" and continue with these rather sweeping statements. While I think Davies is right that magic should not be seen "as a marker of primitivism" and that "the adult belief in magic cannot be reduced to pathological explanations", surely the claim that "magic is always an alternative" to science is too strong? The sceptical strategy of Scot and Ady has been refined, and we've come a long way from the views of the 19th-century anthropologists Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer. Modern, scientific psychology takes a serious interest in the study of magical beliefs as a way of understanding how the mind works. In Supersense: From Superstition to Religion - The Brain Science of Belief, for example, Bruce Hood argues persuasively for what he calls our "supersense" but he doesn't believe there are hidden dimensions to reality: "Everybody likes a good magic trick. Why? Because we don't believe in magic." In contrast Owen Davies concludes: "An atheist can believe in magic." I suppose it's possible, but is it likely?
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2013 9:18 AM GMT

The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present
The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present
by Paul Seabright
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.86

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Conflict as the shadow cast by cooperation, 23 May 2012
There's never been a shortage of advice on how to have the perfect relationship, and on how to fix it when it goes wrong. Rather less attention is paid to whether such "conflict-free relationships" are even possible, let alone attainable. In this fascinating book, Paul Seabright explains why conflict comes as a package deal with the kind of cooperation that is unique to our species and that characterizes all our relationships, personal or professional. The romantics among us will be reassured that understanding the biology of human evolution does not mean the end of love. And although this book will leave you a little less misty-eyed about the business of coupling, there is still plenty of mystery to keep you on your toes.

Seabright's central claim is that conflict "exists in a particularly complicated form between men and women because human beings are the most cooperative species on earth". Driving the evolution of cooperation was our ancestors' colonization of a very risky evolutionary niche: the long childhood. Giving birth to helpless offspring and having them hang around for years in a state of utter dependence on kin does not sound like a recipe for evolutionary success, and it nearly didn't work out for us (every other hominin species went extinct). Yet here we are, not only in vast numbers on the planet but working together in groups of a size not seen elsewhere in nature. (Seabright has written about this in The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Revised Edition) and Jonathan Haidt emphasizes our capacity for non-kin groupishness in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.)

The book "is about the traces our evolutionary past have left on the economic relations between men and women in the twenty-first century". If "economic relations" sounds a bit dry, Seabright is referring here to the systematic ways in which we negotiate over things we value, "whether these are obviously economic goods like money and food, or other, nonmonetary resources like time, effort, and self-esteem". In other words, all those things familiar to anyone who's ever been in a relationship. And how do we negotiate? Rationally, as perfect economic agents with access to complete information? Or do we sometimes rely more on our instincts and emotions to do the work?

Many thinkers from David Hume to Robert Frank (Passions within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions) have recognized the power of the emotions (which fact has also kept many novelists and poets in work). The importance of the emotions in decision making is also becoming better appreciated (see, for example, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain). Seabright emphasizes their evolutionary history, that while our emotions "started out as natural selection's way of directing our attention to things that mattered for our fitness" they "have become the things that matter in themselves". That can be a problem, when the fitness landscape (which now includes things like contraception) they used to help navigate has changed beyond all recognition.

Add to this that natural selection "does not fashion optimal relationships, not even in the limited sense in which it has fashioned optimal physical hearts", and it's not surprising that evolution has not given us relationships that last a lifetime. "If relationships do last a lifetime, it is because the parties can be lucid and constructive about reconciling their conflicting interests."

What has any of this got to do with the world of work? How can it explain why women represent only 32 percent of lawyers and 1.3 percent of airline pilots, or why women's salaries continue to be lower than men's even within occupations, or why "many of the most prestigious and highly remunerated positions continue to have startlingly low rates of representation of women"?

These are highly puzzling facts. Before the 20th century there would of course have been nothing strange about the absence of women from many workplaces. Now, given the remarkable and unprecedented century-long social experiment to remove obstacles to the division of labour between men and women, it's a different story. There are many more women in the labour market, and they are even in a slight majority in "management, professional and related occupations". However, inequalities remain. Seabright argues that a combination of two factors is responsible. There are differences in preferences for which woman pay a high price, and there are subtle differences "between men and women that can operate to make the talents of women less conspicuous to potential colleagues and employers than those of equivalently talented men." For example, women "caring for children signal a quality - conscientiousness - that employers really value [but] employers are not present to observe them with their children, and women continue to pay a high price for their absence from the workplace during those years."

One thing both sides of the war between the sexes can agree on is that we have bigger brains than peacocks. Unlike the peacock, we humans can devise "less wasteful ways to reveal our talents and motivations to each other" and so escape the signalling trap that condemns the male birdbrain to an arms race of tail feathers and strutting to and fro. Whether we will is another question, of course, although our chances will be improved by reading Paul Seabright.

The Blood of the Lamb
The Blood of the Lamb
by Peter De Vries
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On a pilgrimage away from the City of God, 2 May 2012
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This review is from: The Blood of the Lamb (Paperback)
Few novels include within their first dozen pages dialogue containing a plausible use of the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" - and fewer still are funny in the process. By the time the narrator's older brother is arguing about evolution with their Uncle Hans (an Iowa clergyman), Peter De Vries has already deftly sketched in the main characters of the Wanderhope household, and has set the sceptical tone for what will turn into a wonderful novel. The way in which Uncle Hans replies to Louie's question - "I am not impressed by big words" - gains him a moment of sympathy (after all, how many of us know what that phrase means?), which is then dissolved by the acerbic observation that this is a man who is always ready to bandy around words like "predestination" and "infralapsarianism".

The comic tone is set early on as well, when we learn that Don Wanderhope's father had accidentally emigrated from Holland. This is also cosmically absurd: the way in which such an important decision - in which country, on which continent, to live - can turn on the merest chance (Ben Wanderhope couldn't face the return voyage because of a "ghastly seasickness"). Chance events, of course, often determine tragic outcomes - lives cut short - and De Vries goes on to tell a moving story of love and loss and the "vanity (if not outrage) of trying to cage this dance of atoms".

Among the many things that appealed to me was the emphasis on the commonplace, on "the list of pleasures to be extorted from Simple Things" and on the idea "that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is". This is couched in the narrator's intensely personal experience, but it's a lesson we can all profit from, without having to go through the trials and tribulations of Don Wanderhope.

A more overt statement of his philosophy of life is included by the device of a request from the editors of his college paper: "I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race. Philosophy can really give us nothing permanent to believe either; it is too rich in answers, each canceling out the rest. The quest for Meaning is foredoomed. Human life 'means' nothing. But that is not to say it is not worth living. ... Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: Reason, Courage, and Grace. And the first plus the second equals the third."

This would come across as didactic if it appeared on the first page, but by the time I reached this passage in the novel the character of Don Wanderhope was largely drawn, and this detail emerged naturally out of the story. It also shows the versatility of Peter De Vries: he's an author who can move from serious reflection to the more absurd kind of observation, in a flowing style that is fully joined up and never tiresome. In pondering the mysteries of life and death, "of miracles supplanted by scientific fact as conducive to reverence as the miracles", the twelve-year-old Don Wanderhope returns to what his older brother had said: "I thought I understood now the helplessness of newborn babes: they were weak, not because they were infants or tiny, but because they had just got through recapitulating a billion years of evolution. Enough to tucker anybody out!"

(I first came across this novel when it was mentioned in passing by Austin Dacey during a lecture he was giving on blasphemy. It's no accident that the theme of secular sacred values that runs through the De Vries is also found in Dacey's two books: Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life and The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights.)

In from the Cold: The Rise of Russian Capitalism
In from the Cold: The Rise of Russian Capitalism
by Peter Westin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £31.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Three generations of Rockefellers in one, 25 April 2012
What is the biggest economic story of our time? The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near-meltdown of Western capitalism? China's continuing growth and its imminent status as the world's number one economy? Or Russia's economic renaissance since the end of the Cold War, and its tenfold increase in GDP in a decade? There is no simple answer: these stories are still being played out and no economic story unfolds in isolation. That said, that Russia's transformation from communist basket case to capitalist BRIC country even ranks as a contender is impressive.

Peter Westin has gathered together in one volume thirteen contributors from a range of professions, including economics, journalism and portfolio management. Many have lived and worked in Russia since the inception of the market in the early 1990s, and they all write about Russia from an informed perspective and with a personal touch. Business trips can be dull affairs, but some of those taken by Russia's capitalist pioneers on rickety airplanes seemed to take them to the edge of the known world. The importance of a presence on the ground was a hard-won lesson, and a valuable one for investing in an emerging market.

To some, given the difficulties of Western capitalism, the rise of a Russian version is hardly something to be celebrated. To a non-professional like myself, who isn't ideologically opposed to markets and trade, I gained many insights into some of the positive ways in which capitalism works, especially in a country undergoing radical change. Peter Elam Håkansson, for example, recalls a period in the early nineties when companies had to resort to physical barter, and he reminds us of one of the fundamental problems with the communist regime: it did not "give the individual sufficient incentive to do anything beyond the bare minimum". Initiative was not rewarded. Capitalism has its flaws, but the alternatives are often worse. This mirrors one of the main themes of the book: there are still many challenges facing Russia, but its positive achievements are to be celebrated.

One of the reasons bankers in their offices on Wall Street or Canary Wharf have got a bad name is that they are far removed from the consequences of their actions. The same charge cannot be levelled at the investor who takes a direct stake in a Russian company and gets involved in running the business. Visiting the company and eating in the canteen alongside the workers provide the kind of information spreadsheets can't, and visiting in winter reveals whether the company can afford to heat its premises. On the one hand, managers often find themselves running not just the company "but in some cases an entire community" (not necessarily as a result of any explicit policy promoting "social responsibility"). On the other hand, when working towards higher levels of environmental awareness, East Capital (Elam Håkansson's company) has more than once told management they might be forced to sell their shares unless the managers take action in the right direction. This is more "a question of encouraging the standards that are demanded by the international community" than a threat.

Just as the West is having to revise its image of China as a place of cheap labour and low innovation, so Western observers will have to move beyond the clichés of Russia as a place ruled by oligarchs, soaked in vodka and mired in Soviet-era decay. Although much remains to be done, progress has been made in terms of economics, political freedom and corporate governance. The oligarchs, for example, are no more. (They are still rich, but they no longer have the political influence they once had.) Ben Aris reminds us that oligarchs are not businessmen, but opportunists, who "got so rich so fast because they saw how the collapse of the Soviet Union could be turned to their advantage". It was Mikhail Khodorkovsky who said, with a nod in the direction of the Rockefellers, "What took 100 years to happen in America is taking 10 years here."

Unlike the speed and the way in which a few individuals got rich at the expense of the Russian people, the enormous strides made by Russia towards creating a free market are something to be admired. While greed is hardly headline news, few at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 would have predicted that the Russian equity market would be on several occasions the world's best-performing stock market. Balancing this rosy economic picture (which has not been widely enough recognized in the West), the editor strikes a note of caution: Russia's economic outlook is far from secure, especially as it remains alarmingly dependent on the price of oil, and further progress may be stymied by systemic corruption. What is not in doubt is that there will be more surprises in store, especially given that few
countries are as poorly understood as Russia.

(This reviewer would like to declare a financial interest in the publisher of this book.)

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt
Edition: Hardcover

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charming the elephant, 10 April 2012
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The title of this astonishing book by Jonathan Haidt appears simple enough, and to be an unpalatable conclusion of any enquiry into the human condition. Who wants to think of themselves as righteous, let alone self-righteous? And who wants to read a book with the take-home message, however ancient, that "we are all self-righteous hypocrites"? Of course, when it comes to science, whether or not we like the conclusion has no bearing on its truth. But is it true? Insofar as I understand the arguments in the book (and Haidt provides copious references to the scientific literature), I'm persuaded by them (I'm also reassured that the author knows the difference between explanation and speculation). However, it should come as no surprise that any "portrait of human nature that is somewhat cynical" is not the whole story. Yes, we do "care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality" and, yes, people are selfish, but it's also true that people are "groupish". I found this approach to understanding ultrasociality particularly fascinating, especially how it begins with cognitive psychology and then draws upon moral and political psychology.

The three parts of the book deal with three principles of moral psychology: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second; there's more to morality than harm and fairness; and morality binds and blinds. Alongside these principles come three striking metaphors: "the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant"; "the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors"; "human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee".

The first metaphor aids our understanding of a crucial fact, that the mind is more than just consciousness, and that what is going on outside of conscious awareness matters. The elephant (broadly speaking, unconscious automatic processes) came first in evolutionary history, long before the rider (conscious controlled processes) appeared on the scene. The rider evolved to serve the elephant, and one of its main jobs is "to be the full time in-house press secretary for the elephant". Hence we want to look good and will sometimes distort reality to preserve our reputations.

Haidt argues "that the Humean model (reason is a servant) fits the facts better than the Platonic model (reason could and should rule) or the Jeffersonian model (head and heart are co-emperors)". However, Hume went too far in describing reason as the "slave" of the passions, since a slave is never supposed to question his master. "The rider-and-elephant metaphor works well here. The rider evolved to serve the elephant, but it's a dignified partnership, more like a lawyer serving a client than a slave serving a master." When it comes to designing an ethical society, the most important principle is to "make sure that everyone's reputation is on the line all the time", so that bad behaviour will always bring bad consequences. (Elephant and rider correspond to System 1 and System 2 in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

The second metaphor helps us get beyond "moral monism" - the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle, such as avoiding harm. Haidt and his colleagues have developed an approach they call "Moral Foundations Theory", which seeks to explain how our various moral principles might have come about. There's no fixed number, but Haidt starts with five possible "taste receptors of the righteous mind": care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These correspond to five adaptive challenges: "caring for vulnerable children, forming partnerships with non-kin to reap the benefits of reciprocity, forming coalitions to compete with other coalitions, negotiating status hierarchies, and keeping oneself and one's kin free from parasites and pathogens".

Although Haidt stresses that morality is rich and complex, he's not saying that "anything goes" or that all moral principles are equally good. His experience of living in India, where he studied a culture that was very different to that back home in America, was key to this broadening worldview. Just as we humans all have the same five taste receptors, but don't all like the same foods, so the same righteous mind can produce a range of moral judgements. "Moral Foundations Theory also tries to explain how that first draft gets revised during childhood to produce the diversity of moralities that we find across cultures - and across the political spectrum."

The third metaphor shouldn't be taken too literally, and does not diminish the peculiar uniqueness of the human species. Indeed, Haidt was struck by a remark made by Michael Tomasello: "It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together." As Haidt puts it, if you see one hundred insects working together toward a common goal, it's a sure bet they're siblings. "But when you see one hundred people working on a construction site or marching off to war, you'd be astonished if they all turned out to be members of one large family. Human beings are the world champions of cooperation beyond kinship, and we do it in large part by creating systems of formal and informal accountability." (Although Haidt doesn't cite The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Revised Edition), Paul Seabright's book is another powerful argument celebrating human cooperation.)

So, we're not always selfish hypocrites. "We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group." This is good news, in that this aspect of our nature facilitates altruism and heroism, not so good in that it also makes possible war and genocide.

I've barely touched on this book's subtitle - "why good people are divided by politics and religion" - or on the rather uncomfortable conclusion (for anyone on the left of American politics, like Haidt himself) that Republicans appeal to a broader range of moral foundations than do Democrats. There's so much to recommend that any synopsis will inevitably leave something interesting out. The author's ability to handle sometimes difficult arguments with clarity, humour and style is, however, a constant throughout. Making things more complex than we think they are is often necessary, but rarely rewarding. In the case of righteous anger, which often demands a black-and-white judgement ("we are right, they are wrong"), moving beyond simplicity turns out to be a good thing. Understanding the righteous mind is worth the effort, and may even be the first step to a better place.

How To Be An Agnostic
How To Be An Agnostic
by Mark Vernon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The spirit of religion and a love of wonder, 23 Mar. 2012
This review is from: How To Be An Agnostic (Paperback)
According to Mark Vernon, "if someone's thoughts on God seem logical, reasonable and clear, then only one thing can be said for sure; the meditation is not on God but on some reduced concept of divinity". To me, being logical, reasonable and clear are not only good things in themselves, they are worthwhile aims, virtues that should be cultivated, and at the core of what it means to be human. They are the sacred secular values at the heart of any liberal society. They are the kinds of values despised by totalitarians, who embrace contradiction, unreason and obfuscation. When it comes to meditating on God (whatever that may mean), it seems that Vernon is prepared to ditch these good things in favour of... what, precisely? He supplies phrases such as "sacred ignorance" and "learned ignorance" and endlessly carps on about the limits of "human reason" and "the limitations of human understanding" and the heart as an "organ of an altogether different kind of knowledge" - and yet under the letter T in the A-Z appendix we find not Truth but Therapy. Perhaps that's what this book is, therapy for those who are assailed by what is true and who itch with lust for doubt.

On my understanding, what is so wonderful about reason is its limitlessness. We are guided by reasons in all our projects, including the big ones of living a good and meaningful life. However, while we are endlessly creative in coming up with reasons, they're not guaranteed to be good reasons, especially if we downplay the importance of logic and of understanding the world as it is.

Vernon has a similarly narrow view of science, which he thinks studies "the natural world, not the spiritual". He is making an unwarranted assumption. Science is a truth-seeking enquiry and is interested in whatever exists, and when it comes to metaphysical assumptions it travels light. After all, the whole point of science is to move from ignorance to knowledge, to push beyond the limits as they are currently perceived. As Stenger puts it (Has Science Found God?: The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe), the naturalism of science is methodological and not necessarily ontological, and in that important sense it has no limits.

Vernon believes that the agnostic's "questioning sensibility" is the best kind. On the contrary, it is scientists who are paid to have doubts, but unlike Vernon they do not sideline reason and logic. Charles Darwin, for example, lived a life of organized scepticism: endlessly curious, he sailed around the world asking why, and - importantly - he provided a big answer to a very big question. Vernon heaps scorn on atheists, describing them pejoratively as "conviction" and "militant". The atheists I admire are prepared to listen to reason, which is a better defence against dogmatism than Vernon's brand of agnosticism.

Vernon quotes with approval a theologian who asserts that "religious feeling is primary, dogmatics secondary". Downplaying belief is currently fashionable (in a non-ironic way) for those believers without a sense of history. In Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, Ehrman contrasts Christianity with the paganism it supplanted: the "Christian religion came to be firmly rooted in truth claims, which were eventually embedded in highly ritualized formulations, such as the Nicene Creed".

We're back full circle to the concept of truth. While Vernon doesn't talk much about truth, he does mention Wittgenstein's "celebrated intuition" that "there are things that can only be shown or intuited" - without recognizing the circularity of this line of thought. (This solecism is not surprising, given his philosophical cloth ear when it comes to using the phrase "begs the question".) In any case, Vernon is wrong on both counts: intuitions are neither beyond scientific study nor a source of reliable knowledge. Wonderful as they are, like our emotions, our intuitions are grounded in the physical world, in the multitude of ways in which we have interacted with the environment and with each other over millions of years. And, crucially, our intuitions sometimes mislead us (see, for example, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow).

One distasteful aspect of the book is Vernon's attitude towards atheists and humanists, who according to him suffer a "poverty of spirit". There are more snide references to militant non-believers and fierce atheists and to "flimsy" and "materialistic humanism" which "finds it hard to address the questions of morality, values and spirit." He ought to try engaging with the many fine contemporary humanist thinkers such as Austin Dacey, Sam Harris, Stephen Law, Richard Norman and many others, each of whom is serious about such questions and has more to contribute than Vernon or the average religious specialist.

Vernon was an Anglican priest for a while. Then he became an atheist. Then he backslid into agnosticism. For a fuller and more inspiring account of a (successful) move from belief to unbelief, I would recommend Dan Barker's Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists. Just as Vernon makes sweeping claims about the inadequacy of humanist ethics, he asserts that the "thread of transcendence that runs through being human... eludes the best descriptions of biologists, psychologists and sociologists" - a cheap shot, which ignores the appropriate level of explanation each of these disciplines operates within. In Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence, Raymond Tallis shows how even atheists and humanists - indeed, all humans - engage in a transcendence that doesn't invoke the supernatural.

I began by merely disliking this book, and ended by thinking it dispiriting and literally demoralizing. In the final chapter, Vernon recaps a theme that recurs throughout the book, and which I believe to be fundamentally mistaken: "all human knowledge is capable of being revised". He agrees with Popper that "certainty is not available to human beings" and asserts that what "is taken as knowledge at any particular time must, therefore, be only an approximation to the truth". This, of course, is nonsense. Take the number 92. For millennia, some of the best minds have wondered how many basic elements make up the world around us (one of those big questions that people like Vernon are so fond of, at least until they are answered by science and then they seem to be relegated to the status of mere fact). The number of naturally occurring elements in the universe is 92. That is a piece of knowledge of the most profound kind, and it is not revisable. (See Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science.)

In Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking McInerny reminds us that grey can only exist because there are the distinct alternatives of black and white. For McInerny and for most sensible people, certainty "is a real possibility" - and that is a good thing. At a time when a greater public understanding of science is vital for the future of the planet, Vernon's mistaken ideas about scientific knowledge are bad enough. Worse is Vernon's parroting of Socrates' desire to "show how little humans understand about moral good". Is Vernon unsure about the wrongness of slavery and genocide? Does he entertain the possibility that we may revise our moral knowledge in light of new information, and conclude that we were mistaken in thinking these activities abhorrent? For someone who thinks nothing is certain, anything goes. Instead of god-talk (whatever that means), I would rather reflect upon Dacey's idea that "open talk makes wisdom".
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 16, 2012 12:30 AM BST

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking
Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking
by D. Q. McInerny
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.00

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All about reality, 22 Mar. 2012
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A superb guide to straight thinking by D. Q. McInerny, short enough for an afternoon's diversion, significant enough for its lessons to last a lifetime. I'm pretty sure that few of us as children wanted to be logical when we grew up. We wanted to be liked, loved, to have a laugh - but logical? Even sensible grownups rarely include being logical on their list of aspirations. McInerny's direct and clear style of writing, his avoidance of jargon and appeal to simple examples all combine to draw the reader into a subject that may seem a million miles away from everyday concerns. His first success is to remind us that logical thinking is a normal part of ordinary thinking, something we do all the time and even take for granted (until it goes wrong). He then sharpens our skills and deepens our appreciation of the subject. His greatest achievement, perhaps, is to show how being logical is a good thing in itself, an essential part of being human: the "art of logic is like no other, for it goes to the very core of what we are".

It's not only mathematicians or rocket scientists who need logic in their working lives, and it's not just in our working lives where logical thinking is important. McInerny suggests that "the first principles of logic" and "the first principles of human reason" amount to the same thing. Indeed, for much of the time being logical comes perfectly naturally. We don't need to read a book on critical thinking to know that if Jim is in London he cannot also be in Oxford. Most of us would easily recognize and reject a contradictory statement that claimed that Jim was both in London and in Oxford at the same time. Where a book like McInerny's is important and fascinating is in sketching out the bigger picture, showing the connections between several familiar ideas.

Part One is "Preparing the Mind for Logic" but might as well be called "Preparing the Mind for the Day Ahead" so fundamental is its content. Words like "fact", "idea", "truth" and "word" itself are so commonplace that we can easily forget how deep are the assumptions that underpin them. That there is a world out there, existing independently of our minds; that this world contains things and events, which can both become facts corresponding to ideas in the mind; that these ideas can be described by words; that language can reliably communicate these ideas from one mind to another; that knowledge about the world can thereby be compiled and maintained over time.

A contradictory statement "in effect speaks against itself, for it is saying something that does not correspond to the objective facts". The avoidance of contradiction is therefore "simply the avoidance of falsehood". Objectivity, facts, truth, falsehood - almost without realizing it, suddenly we're dealing with that most basic and often elusive thing: human knowledge. McInerny keeps it simple (I don't think he even uses the word "epistemology"), and lists the three basic components: an objective fact (e.g. a cat), the idea of a cat, and the word we apply to the idea (e.g. "cat").

This shows how "logic and language are inseparable" and how being logical "presupposes our having a healthy respect for the firm factualness of the world". Language allows us to describe that world, and anyone who values language ought also to value logic. We should be wary of anyone who scorns logic while at the same time glorifying language as if it were the sole guide to truth. They may be trafficking in bad ideas, which have ceased to faithfully reflect the objective world. (Bad ideas can still be informative - "about the subjective state of the persons who nourish those ideas".)

While words are important in describing ideas, "it is the statement that logic starts with, for it is only at the level of the statement that the question of truth or falsity is introduced, and logic is all about establishing what is true and distinguishing it from what is false". It would be meaningless to enquire whether or not the words "dog" and "garage" are true or false, but if we combine them into a simple statement -- "the dog is in the garage" - then either "true" or "false" is the appropriate response.

More tricky is the evaluative statement - "that dog is ugly" - since "it combines both subjective and objective elements". Evaluative statements are open to argument, since they "do not lend themselves to a simple true-or-false response". (Statements of objective fact, so long as they are true, are not open to argument.)

The remaining parts of the book cover the basic principles of logic, argument, the sources of illogical thinking, and the principal forms of illogical thinking (a long list of fallacies). The delicious thing about stripping fallacies down to their bare essentials is that while you're wondering how on earth anyone could make such a blunder you're also remembering all those examples of when a politician or a businessman or you yourself did just that. As McInerny says of one particular fallacy, it's "a pretty obvious mistake to claim that something is necessarily true for a whole group because it happens to be true for a part of the group" - and yet it happens all the time, and easily qualifies as one of the human family's favourite fallacies.

Public health initiatives and the owners of private gyms are forever encouraging us to exercise our bodies. Some exercise is essential, of course, although no one seems to agree on just how much. When it comes to exercise for the mind, I would recommend McInerny's "Being Logical" over puzzles or mental arithmetic. While few of us will ever do much more than jog around the park, most of us are more than capable of being logical, especially with the help of books like this.

Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life
Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life
by Austin Dacey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.50

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Conscience is the soul of secularism, 16 Feb. 2012
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Being secular and being liberal often means being on the back foot when it comes to certain kinds of talk. Words like "conscience", "sacred", "values" and "soul" are all used with such confidence by the religious that the non-believer shuffles along, as if past a crime scene, rubbernecking to see what all the fuss is about but glad not to be involved. Austin Dacey is not so squeamish: he's rolled his sleeves up and produced a magnificent book for secularists who suspect they too have a conscience, a few values, an idea of the sacred and even a soul of sorts.

The traditional image of the conscience is as a mirror of revelation, a "still, small voice" within. Matters of conscience - religion, ethics, values - are supposed to be private, so that sectarian beliefs are kept out of politics and public life. This backfires in two ways. First, "freedom of belief means believers are free to speak their minds in public" anyway. Second, if private means personal and subjective, then questions of conscience are "placed out of bounds of serious critical evaluation". This is not a good for secularism.

Dacey identifies two important fallacies. "Conscience is personal, so politeness and civility forbid bringing it up in public. Call this the Privacy Fallacy. Conscience is free, so it must be liberated from shared objective standards of rightness and truth. Call this the Liberty Fallacy." Instead of encouraging conscience to retreat inwards, Dacey suggests that the sound of conscience should be the clamour of conversation, "not the eerie whisper of revelation".

Liberals are especially prone to these fallacies. Under the Liberty Fallacy we "fall into an all-values-are-equal relativism" and make the mistake of thinking "that because conscience is free from coercion, it must be free from criticism, reason, truth, or independent, objective standards of right and wrong". Dacey reminds us that "there is nothing illiberal about asserting an objective truth, a claim that is made true by the way the world is". When you give the time of day to someone, you don't force that person into believing it is noon, you give him a reason to believe it.

The Privacy Fallacy assumes "that because matters of conscience are private in the sense of nongovernmental, they are private in the sense of personal preference". Rejecting this fallacy does not mean making conscience "a subject for coercive law or decision by majority vote" but it does mean bringing conscience out into the open, into the public sphere. Secularists who insist that belief be left at home will find it hard to defend their own positive moral vision in politics, and leave the field open to religious leaders and politicians who have no compunction in appealing to the baser kinds of religious sentiment.

Pope Benedict is not right about many things, but he is correct to think that secular values can turn a society inside out. In post-Christian Europe, "entire nations have been plunged into endemic health, skyrocketing education, and hopelessly low rates of violent crime" (see also Steven Pinker's compelling argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes). The secular values responsible for these changes - "honesty, consistency, rationality, evidential support, feasibility, legality, morality, and revisability" - do not require supernatural aid. In dismissing what he calls "relativism" Benedict would do away with the values of secular liberalism: "individual autonomy, equal rights, and freedom of belief". (In his latest book The Future of Blasphemy: Democracy, Faith and Freedom of Expression: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights Dacey argues that these are sacred values in the sense of being inviolable and incommensurable. While the religious often bandy the word "sacred" around as a fig leaf for their own prejudices, Dacey provides compelling reasons why certain rights and values really are sacred.)

The standards that define the nature of conscience are the thoroughly secular "standards of reason, impartiality, and concern for others". "Secularism does not privatize conscience. It keeps conscience open... Conscience weighs what we have most reason to think or do. Therefore, it constantly seeks out the interests and reasons of others... there is no viable alternative to reasoning together... The common, impartial point of view - conscience's eye view - expands to include more and more reasons and interests, and the commonwealth of conscience is enlarged and enriched."

No viable alternative? What about God's law? The Ten Commandments? The moral lessons of scripture? The traditions of the church? Religious leaders down the ages have rehearsed the mantra that, when it comes to ethics, there is no viable alternative - to religion. There are many ways to defeat this claim. Consider the antislavery enterprise, bearing in mind the biblical endorsement of slavery, and Abraham Lincoln's position in the middle of the Civil War. He was receiving the counsel of clergy both for and against the Emancipation Proclamation: "I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will." He recognized that no revelation was going to decide the matter one way or the other: "I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right."

This is a powerful illustration of Dacey's argument. "With his talk of facts, practical wisdom, and moral right, Lincoln was using a vocabulary of public discourse that is secular in the most important sense - nonreligious, grounded in human reason, and oriented toward the human affairs of this world." What the religious forget is that "God is always of many minds" and can be wheeled in to support virtually any position. What is needed is "a law higher than God's" if we wish to coexist in peace. "That higher law is the rule of conscience."

The caricature of secularism put about by influential public figures such as the pope needs to be challenged, and substituted with a positive argument for secularism. For Spinoza, for example, questions of religion and value could be discussed critically and openly on the basis of shared norms. For Dacey, faith "cannot escape the judgment of reason" and conscience "is the soul of secularism". We are all members of the community of conscience, the people who must choose for themselves.

The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights
The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights
by Austin Dacey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This higher mischief, 30 Jan. 2012
Given Austin Dacey's impeccable atheist humanist credentials, the surprising conclusion of this tremendous and vitally important book is that the future of blasphemy is one of continued transformation, not elimination. The narrow concept of blasphemy as a verbal insult to a divine being has already "been reframed within the secular idiom of respect for persons" - with the lamentable result that we must all defer to "religious feelings" however violently expressed as the last word on any matter. The religious have persuaded themselves and the rest of us that the sacred is their business, and theirs alone, but this privileging of religion is simply a prejudice. The domain of the sacred is wider and deeper than any faith, and should be open to all.

We have some way to go before we reach the promised land of responsible sacrilege, where blasphemy is a human right exercised by those who are serious about the sacred. As things stand today, the "European regimes of personal blasphemy are no longer defensible" and their laws are "liable to manipulation and misuse". Dacey has first-hand experience of this, having sat in on the negotiations surrounding a draft resolution brought before the United Nations by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The resolution stressed the need to "combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular". Dacey notes how "states with deplorable human rights records" hoist "the language of respect and tolerance as a shield". For example, while representatives of Pakistan lecture the West in Geneva, back home Ahmadiyya Muslims (who are in the minority) as well as Christians face death sentences for "defaming the Prophet".

The language of respect often conceals illiberal motives and is intended to confound and not promote open debate. Overlooked is the fundamental distinction between the person who holds the belief and the belief itself: "persons have rights; religions do not". Although it can be hard to recognize someone's equal standing while finding their worldview contemptible, we should try. According to the liberal tradition, a person is "intrinsically, incomparably valuable and inviolable" and "the language of human rights is designed to defend the individual from the arbitrary power of states" - but no one viewpoint is privileged and no one is above criticism. The principle of equality and the liberty of conscience stand alone without the need for supernatural warrant, and freedom of expression guarantees a healthy public discourse. From the perspective of universal human rights, regulation of speech by governments should be "content-neutral".

We cannot construct the future of blasphemy without understanding its past, and Dacey outlines enough history to show how the idea has changed. Leviticus 24 is where the crime of blasphemy gets going in the Western tradition, with the report of a stranger who came among the Israelites and said something really terrible. While we will never know what he said that was so terrible, we do know his fate. The Israelites waited, and God decided, apparently, that the man should be stoned to death.

The ancient conception of blasphemy ("a direct verbal affront to the divine") became to medieval minds "a seditious challenge to the sanctity of law, the public order or common good" and finally developed into the modern notion of blasphemy as "an offence against the sensibilities, rights, or dignity of individual religion believers" (some of whom are delicate souls indeed). "These conceptions of blasphemy correspond roughly to three models of authority: the biblical model with God as the source of normativity, a medieval model of authority in the hands of a divinely sanctioned ecclesiastical or temporal ruler, and the modern model in which the individual person is the ultimate source of normativity."

Ethical language can be hard to follow for those of us without much or any formal training in moral philosophy. Fortunately, Dacey uses examples to keep us on track through some abstract arguments. A recurring and important phrase is "the space of reasons" - not just the logical kind but anything that explains an attitude or action (reasons can therefore include emotions). What matters "is their normative force" - how they guide our behaviour in the world. So, "the difference between the mockery of the mentally disabled and the mockery of corrupt politicians" is that the politician has certain commitments, the kinds of things for which reasons can be requested and given. In a way not true of the biological accidents of our birth, say, our commitments exist in "the space of reasons" and should be open to scrutiny.

The din of religious voices often obscures the fact that there is a difference between morally acceptable sacrilegious speech and hate speech, and it lies in this distinction "between conditions that exist in the space of reasons and those that do not": mocking a politician for claiming unreasonable expenses is fine, mocking a person for receiving disability allowance is not.

Dacey makes a compelling case for the sacred in secular life, and where the sacred leads blasphemy follows. "What we should be talking about is where sacredness can be found. To talk about that, we have to be free to talk about where it cannot be found." It's an argument worth making, especially given the accreted confusions of centuries of religious tradition. Plenty of secularists, humanists and atheists "already accept some things that satisfy the normative criteria for the sacred" - there are few atheist parents, for example, who would consider selling their children into slavery, if only the price were right. Some things are of incomparable value and are simply not tradable, and we don't need supernatural beliefs to tell us this. The book is itself a fine example of the author's commitment to reasoned argument and clarity of thought. It's not always an easy read and there is no easy solution, but in getting us to think about creating a non-supernatural normative theory of the sacred he is doing those of us with a secular conscience a great service.

Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order
Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order
by Philip Coggan
Edition: Hardcover

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern money is debt and debt is money, 23 Jan. 2012
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This is a book about debt, and why "money is debt" - one of those striking phrases that starts simple and gets murkier, so that even after reading Philip Coggan's intelligent analysis of the credit crisis, I'm left wondering just how much I've really understood. That's probably a good thing, given the combination of complexity, reflexivity and intangibility that is peculiar to economics, and given Coggan's own admission: "If there is a fundamental theme of this book, it is that there are no easy answers in economics."

Despite its familiarity, money remains "a nebulous concept". Fortunately, Coggan is not a nebulous author, and in this clearly written guide he coordinates detail and theory in terms that this non-economist could (just about) follow. It's worth persevering through the intellectual vertigo and the numerical indigestion provoked by trade figures and debt ratios, especially given how crucial these issues are to all our lives. However, just as there there are no easy answers, there is no happy ending. Promises will be broken, and the result will be economic turmoil, as both debtors and creditors suffer. "The global economy is changing; for many in the West, it will not be for the better." Many of us might welcome a new order, but we should be aware that, "like so many of the goods sold in Western supermarkets, it will be made in China".

Coggan balances abstruse talk of the Triffin dilemma and the trilemma of currency policy (how do we juggle fixed exchange rates, free capital movements and interest rates?) with the kind of historical detail that we can all grasp (John Law hiring tramps to boost confidence in his emerging markets fund). The text is peppered with characters like Law (both hero and villain: he was the first Keynesian, the first modern economist, he introduced paper money into France - and he duped investors) and also out-and-out villains like Bernie Madoff and Charles Ponzi. (Strangely, out-and-out good guys are few and far between in the world of finance.)

To those of us civilians not trained in economics, some lines of thought can seem to be leading us down the rabbit hole. Money is debt, and there has been a vast increase in debt since 1971, which means there's been a vast increase in money, and more money is usually a good thing, right? So how is it, as Coggan argues in this book, "that we have reached another of the great crisis points in history"? Borrowers will fail to pay back their debts and creditors will demand a new system to protect their rights.

For me, one of the strangest ideas is that we can create money out of thin air, "with the click of a computer mouse" ("fiat money"). Indeed, banks "can create money simply by extending an overdraft" - and "this money is clearly also a debt". Coggan's emphasis is on the ability of central banks and governments to do this (the "fundamental worry of creditors is that governments can issue as much money as they like"), rather than on commercial banks, which are responsible for the bulk of debt money in circulation.

Money is not a commodity dug out of the ground like gold but a public good, and while its creation is largely in the hands of private banks, Coggan does emphasize the ultimate role of the state and its central bank in backing any financial system. Money only works because "we have faith in the government that stands behind it" and "our faith in paper money is the key to its survival". Although there are plenty of quasi-theological debates in economics, the relevant meaning of "faith" here leans more towards "trust" and "confidence" than the religious "belief without evidence". Wherever we stand on the political spectrum in Britain, we have more reason to trust the state than does the population of, say, Zimbabwe (which is not to say we shouldn't be more active in holding our politicians to account).

The two main functions of money - as a medium of exchange and a store of value - pull in opposite directions: creditors want to restrict the supply of money; debtors want expansion. More money is good for trade, less is good for savings, and both creditors and debtors have their very own patches on the moral high ground from which to bellyache. Our economic history has seen a series of systems devised to diffuse this tension, with varying success. The gold standard didn't last long, and Bretton Woods got us as far as flared trousers.

One of the most important qualities we can bring to this subject is scepticism. Words like trust and confidence underpin how money works, but these ought always to be firmly grounded in reason, not blind faith: printing money is no substitute for the wealth that flows from manufacturing industry, for example. Questioning assumptions is a key habit of the sceptical mind, and, in my opinion, at least a couple have slipped a little too easily into this book. Coggan rightly highlights the role of credit in a modern economy, but his blanket statement that without it "businesses would be unable to grow and create jobs" ignores the German model of Mittelstand, in which firms grow over many generations and not as a result of bank loans taken out in a dash for profit.

A second assumption that ought to be questioned is that declining populations are necessarily a bad thing. In assessing our future prospects, Coggan comments that "the demographies of Western Europe are very poor indeed" - and yet the only logical alternative to declining populations is unsustainable increase.

These assumptions are not minor quibbles, of course, but they are not the focus of the book and do not detract from its main theme, which is "the ancient battle between creditors and debtors" and the explosion in the amount of debt that we have experienced in our generation. As a result, we in the West have gratified our desire to consume and to speculate. Central banks stood by and watched. Indeed, "by intervening when markets fell, but not when they rose, they encouraged speculation" and, inevitably, "the pyramid scheme ran out of new clients". Now the music has stopped, it may be that only the Chinese are sitting comfortably.

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