The elephants in the classroom

Justine Toh at CPX talks here about where there is some place for religious instruction in schools. Her argument is much broader than that though; it’s about the impossibility of neutrality or value-free positions and so it challenges the secular claim to be value-free.

Tolerance and what’s natural about marriage?

This is an interesting article that wanders through political theory, the ‘natural’ in heterosexual marriage and the fall of Mozilla’s Brendan Eich for his conservative views. Interesting… and here. As usual: posted to stimulate the little grey cells not because it’s gospel.

The problem of knowledge—musings on a thesis

I’m beginning to think that the word ‘knowledge’ is positively unhelpful. It is a lie clad in truth’s clothing. It makes us think we can have something distinct from belief or opinion but on closer examination it is just posturing. And both faith and science are similar in this regard.

It’s over two and half millennia since Socrates (in Plato’s Theaetetus) tried to nail down what we mean when we talk of knowledge. One commonly accepted view is that to say you know something is the same as having justified true belief. So knowledge is a belief that has more conditions added; it must be a true belief and it must be justified (i.e. there must be good reasons for thinking it is true.)

Why does something need to be true and justified to count as knowledge? Because if you believe something that isn’t true then we don’t normally call it knowledge. And if you believe something that is true but don’t have any good reason for believing it then again we don’t normally call it knowledge; it’s more a case of luck.

But Socrates knew even then that to define knowledge in terms of truth was a problem. If knowledge is justified true belief then how do you know (there’s the word) it’s true? In other words you have to already have knowledge that something is true before you can call it knowledge. To put it another way, you say “I know X because I have a justified true belief that X.” But someone asks, “But how do you know that your belief is a true belief? Before you can claim to have knowledge you have to know that your belief is true.” Sounds circular—you need knowledge before you can have knowledge.

The alternative is that you can have a sort of knowledge (justified, true belief) but you can never know that it’s true. So you can know things but you can never know for sure that you know. This isn’t circular but it just means we can never be sure of what we call knowledge. And normally when we speak of knowledge we mean something we are sure about.

So let’s be honest; when we say we know something we ought to say we believe and then modify that by saying how strong our belief is. So we might say ‘I’m absolutely convinced’ or ‘I’m pretty sure’ or ‘I believe… but I have my doubts.’

And that’s where religious faith and climate science offer examples: both are about what we believe to be true (perhaps with absolute conviction) but we can’t prove either of them.

So the language of belief and faith and conviction and confidence is more transparent than the language of knowledge and for clarity’s sake we ought to stop using the word knowledge.

I’d be very happy for a vigorous discussion to ensue.

Hard cases make bad euthanasia laws

This short piece recounts various sufferers’ perspectives on both sides of the euthanasia debate and argues that individual stories, while compelling, do not make an argument in favor of euthanasia.

Marion Maddox, church, state and Big Secularism

This article at ABC Religion and Ethics is an important one; it deals with the latest round in the heated church-state discussion in Australia (Marion Maddox’s latest book, Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education?).

More on the moral confusion of our time

In the light of questions about fueling hospital heating, Archbishop Cranmer provocatively questions the confusion about the status of human foetuses. Here.

Science and faith integrated in the life of a medical specialist

Here’s a very thoughtful article by a top ranking scientist/medical specialist and President of ISCAST on the way science and faith are both central to his vocation. Highly recommended, especially for science/technology types who are also believers or who doubt that Christian belief and a wholehearted commitment to science can go hand in hand.

Gravity waves and the meaning of life

If you haven’t caught the news, it appears that we have detected the elusive gravity waves that reveal something of the first instants of the big bang. Google it… So what? you may ask, as does this commentator.

I am not defined by my desires

hands“I am a woman who desires men,” starts this article on the danger of confusing identity and desire.

Bono: Jesus is the Messiah, son of God, who rose physically from the dead


Sharia law for some in Britain?

Interesting… how far does a ‘Christian’ country go to accommodate groups of other faiths and none? When multiculturalism reaches the level of laws it seems that chaos might be the outcome.

Therapy or Brave New World?

Mitochondrial transfer which results in ‘three parent embryos’ is touted as a way to eliminate some genetic diseases at the embryo stage. But is this simply therapeutic or is it a case of eugenics and a path on the road to designer babies? (And if you haven’t read Brave New World lately, you must.) See here where a prominent scientist voices concerns.

Human dignity and rights: but why?

Notions of human rights and dignity are central to global discourse about justice, war crimes, international development as well as to feminist dialogue, racial dialogue, etc. But lurking under the surface is an abyss. This article explores the issue. Quote:

Jacques Maritain, a member of the multinational group of philosophers consulted by UNESCO in connection with the preparation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights famously remarked, “We agree about the rights so long as no one asks us why.” In their Report on the Theoretical Foundations of Human Rights, the UNESCO philosophers’ committee said they were confident that “the members of the United Nations share common convictions upon which human rights depend,” but they had to acknowledge that “those common convictions are stated in terms of different philosophic principles and on the background of divergent political and economic systems.”


Climate denial is a disorder?

Screen Shot 2013-12-25 at 6.53.16 AMYesterday I had the ‘privilege’ of being cited by Andrew Bolt, a conservative and provocative columnist here in Melbourne. I don’t always disagree with him but his style is inflammatory.

Bolt took offence at me using the word ‘disorder’ when describing climate change denial, although Bolt misrepresented me by saying that I called climate scepticism a disorder. Scepticism is not denial and the distinction is important. Scepticism is a part of good science, denial in the face of overwhelming evidence is not.

Some people asked for the whole article (which I assume Bolt did not read). An earlier version appears below and although it isn’t the exact version that appeared in The Melbourne Anglican this month, it is in all significant respects the same.

I should say that in using the word ‘disorder’ I meant to be provocative and was not using it in a medical sense. My apologies if that caused offence to anyone. Read the article and see both the context which starts off deliberately humorous and provocative, and the later parts of the article including the affirmation that there are doubts.

In short, there is a difference between conceivable doubt and reasonable doubt. Philosophers and scientists (and religious people) all know about conceivable doubt, but action depends on weighing up reasonable doubt.

Peace and joy to all this Christmas.

The FAQs about climate change

Published in The Melbourne Anglican, December 2013 in a slightly edited form.

The emperor is in denial

I grew up fascinated with Hans Christian Andersen’s story about an emperor in denial who was duped into wearing no clothes—although I admit it was his nakedness rather than his psychological disabilities that captured my interest. I’m afraid that when it comes to climate change, our new prime minister is dressed in little more than his infamous Speedos.

It is time to name climate change denial as the disorder it is and to deal with the indisputable facts of the matter. According to almost all scientists working in the field, human beings are causing significant planetary warming and the consequences will be dire if the global community does not take more urgent action to reduce emissions.

But according to PM, Tony Abbott, the carbon tax is a “toxic tax” and a “wrecking ball through the economy”, while an emissions trading scheme is a “so-called market in the non­delivery of an invisible substance to no one.” Siding with the climate change doubters, the coalition’s alternative way forward is its minimalist Direct Action plan, which according to many experts cannot hope to achieve even its very modest goal.

Last month the Public Affairs Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia called for Christians to study the latest scientific report on climate change as a matter of “theological urgency as well as political and economic significance.” The Commission spoke of the reality of human-induced climate change and said, “in order to avoid drastic and irreversible changes we need to act decisively as a nation, as churches and as individuals.” The Commission describes the current Australian proposed response as inadequate and unreasonable. Continue reading

Transhumanism: this is your future

If you don’t know what the transhumanism movement is about then it’s time to learn. Here’s some maths: currently, every year human technology lengthens the average human lifespan. So what happens when technological progress gets to the point that every year we can lengthen the average human lifespan by more than a year? Yep, the maths says we’ll live forever (if you’re average!). This article is a short theological reflection on transhumanism.