Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

scientism A common criticism of science is that it must make foundational assumptions that have to be taken on faith. It is, the critic asserts, just one world view among other, equally “valid”, world views that are based on different starting assumptions. Thus, the critic declares, science adopts naturalism as an axiom of faith, whereas a religious view is more complete in that it also allows for supernaturalism.

This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.

Any part of this web of ideas can be examined and replaced, if replacing it improves the overall match to reality. Even basic axioms of maths and logic can be evaluated, and thus they are ultimately accepted for empirical reasons, namely that they model the real world.

This view of knowledge was promoted by the Vienna Circle philosophers such as Otto Neurath, who gave the metaphor of knowledge being a raft floating at sea, where any part of it may be replaced. As worded by Quine: Continue reading

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joins those trying to silence secularists

With only 50 days until a UK General Election I’m running out of parties to vote for. On solely economic concerns I’d likely vote centre-right Tory, but Cameron’s government has been giving full rein to evangelical Christians such as Local-Government Minister Eric Pickles, who seem to regard the non-religious as second-class citizens whose feelings don’t matter.

The Conservatives’ whole pitch is aimed at UKIP-voting Christians with no sign that they want the vote of the non-religious. They rejected humanist marriages, which would cost them nothing, just because they see it as a minority concern. Behaving to type, they are pushing through a bill enabling Christians to impose prayers on Local Council meetings, even though 55% of the public don’t want such prayers, with only 26% in favour.

Labour are little better of course. They could readily sink the council-prayer bill if they wanted to. And in 13 years of office up until 2010 they did much to promote and entrench “faith” schools. With Opus-Dei-member Ruth Kelly as Education Secretary, they renewed the legislation that compels school children to worship the Christian god, while their flagship legislation, the 2010 Equality Act, contained a specific exemption allowing state-funded schools to continue to discriminate over religion. Continue reading

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Are a quarter of British Muslims really extremists?

I hope not to write again about Islam for a while, having already written three pieces since the Charlie Hebdo killings. I aim that this will be the last for a while.

But, suppose that, in a poll of British UKIP voters, a quarter had shown support for violence to achieve their ends. You can bet that the BBC would broadcast that statistic with the highest condemnation, painting the whole UKIP party as extremist.

Well, in the BBC’s poll published today, out of 1000 British Muslims who were asked, two hundred and forty four disagreed with the statement that “acts of violence against those who publish images of the Prophet Mohammed can never be justified”. Scaled to the British population that is 800,000 Islamic believers who think that violence against those who merely draw cartoons can indeed be justified.

How did the BBC present this finding? Its headline was “Most British Muslims ‘oppose Muhammad cartoons reprisals’.”. Is the idea that most Muslims are not violent now sufficiently remarkable that it becomes the headline? Are we so used to the idea that Muslims are violent that saying that they are not so is now news? Or is this spin, aimed at avoiding emphasis on the fact that a whole quarter of the British Muslims are sufficiently extreme that they do indeed accept violence against what is mere speech?

Note the BBC’s word “reprisals”, which didn’t feature in the actual wording of the poll. “Reprisal” means the “act of returning an attack”, and its use implies that violence is somehow an equivalent retaliation to drawing a cartoon. Continue reading

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The Chapel Hill shooting, Craig Hicks’s anti-theism, and The Guardian’s biases

In the heightened tension of multiple shootings related to religion and free-speech there is sometimes a tendency to claim that vocal atheists can be just as “extreme” as the Islamists. In Craig Hicks, murderer of three innocent people who were Muslims, perhaps there is the proof?

The Guardian certainly thinks so. In an editorial published yesterday, The Guardian says that the Chapel Hill shooting was an “act of terrorism” and that Hicks’s target was “freedom itself”, in this case the freedom to be a Muslim.

We should and do unreservedly condemn the murders of Deah Barakat, of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the youngest only 19. If the act was in any way related to the atheistic views of Craig Hicks then we unreservedly condemn it. If the motive was unrelated to religion we again condemn it.

The Guardian thinks it knows Craig Hicks’s motives, but does it? Hicks has been described as “an angry, confrontational man who constantly harangued residents about where they parked their car and the noise level at the condominium complex where they lived”. Hicks was also an advocate of the right to carry guns, which on occasion he brandished to neighbours.

The families of those murdered regard this as a hate crime, directed at the victims because they were Muslim. They may be right. Hicks’s wife, though, has denied that the motive was religious. Mental health issues have been suggested. Many people are gunned down in gun-toting America each year. The fact that the victims were religious is not sufficient for concluding that the motive was religious. Continue reading

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Mainstream Islam is not moderate

As I write this thousands of Muslims are marching through London to “Defend the Honour of the Holy Prophet” and denounce the “insulting depictions of our Holy Prophet” by Charlie Hebdo.

They have every right to do so, of course. They have every right to voice their views, even though they would deny that right to others, if they could. It is also entirely within their rights to regard this issue as a more urgent reason for taking to the streets than, for example, the activities of ISIS. Does burning people to death, beheading children, and selling girls as sex slaves — when done in the name of Islam by the Islamic State — not demean the honour of the Prophet of Islam?

The media are quick to label ISIS and their fellow Jihadi Islamists as extremists, which they certainly are. But the implication is that mainstream Islam is moderate. Let’s consider some basic principles of any “moderate” worldview in the West nowadays. Continue reading

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Dear Muslims, about Muhammed cartoons

Islam star and crescentI am the sort of person who would draw a Mohammed cartoon, if I could draw, which I can’t, and if I was good at satirical cartoons, which I’m not. Yes, we do understand that you find cartoons depicting Muhammed offensive. We understand that you value the reputation of Muhammed more than that of your own family, and that Western cartoons about your prophet are, to you, utterly disrespectful and blasphemous. We are not drawing cartoons just for the sake of being insulting, nor because we hate you. We draw cartoons because we regard doing so as important for a free society.

Over human history many ideologies have been totalitarian. The Christian religion used to burn people at the stake for heresy. The Soviet Communists sent people to the Gulag for any dissent from communist ideology. The Nazis murdered millions to further their fascist ideology.

All totalitarian regimes control what people can say, and in particular they repress any questioning of themselves and their control of society. The right to question authority is among the most fundamental rights in a free society. Even the right to vote is predicated on the right to discuss and argue about the merits and demerits of the government. Where people cannot question their rulers, society is not free. And that means, overwhelmingly, that economic prosperity is lower, technological advance is hampered, cultural flourishing is restricted, and quality of life is lower. Across the world these things correlate with political freedom and thus with freedom of speech.

The Islamic world, sadly, is different. Political freedom is not accepted. Rather, the greatest good is held to be unquestioning acceptance of Islam. Where Islam dominates, Islam is totalitarian, controlling what people can do and say. Continue reading

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Je Suis Charlie: the moral duty to draw Mohammed

Je_suis_CharlieLike many people over the last few days I’ve been pondering whether free speech really should extend to insulting people’s deeply held beliefs. Would it be possible to achieve all the benefits of free speech while stopping short of being offensive? If it were, self-censorship might be the moral choice.

Free speech is not an end in itself, we value it because we use it to examine and criticize influential ideas. There are many good ideas: democracy and human rights, for example, and plenty of bad ones, such as fascism and totalitarian communism. We can only sort the good from the bad if we can debate their merits and we can only overthrow the bad if we can advocate against it. That’s why all totalitarian regimes control and repress speech. Satirical cartoons are a time-honoured and effective means of challenging ideas and prompting people to think.

The Islamic ban on drawing Mohammed is a theological taboo. The whole idea is to place Mohammed, and thus Islam, above human criticism. Drawing Mohammed is seen as disrespectful because it involves the drawer thinking for themselves about Mohammed and possibly coming to un-Islamic conclusions. Islam, which means “submission”, is a matter of accepting the Koran and Mohammed’s words and example as perfect and unquestionable. Continue reading

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