There is a religion which oppresses women, which is enthusiastically adopted by marginalised groups, which hates democracy and which has declared the modern world to be a heresy they call “Americanism”. This religion, which is run entirely by men, demands of its adherents loyalty to a small group of clerics overseas, in a pseudostate set up by extremists. Its doctrine, to be sure, is hardly consistently adopted by many of its followers who have adapted to democratic civil society, but taken at face value that doctrine requires a theocracy imposed upon all who live under its rule. It has underlain many wars and atrocities, and collaborates with dictatorial states so long as they support its interests, although it has been known to turn on them too, when the chance arises.

Adherents of this religion are often accused of being terrorists and disloyal to their home nation. They are said to follow a legal system that they put above the laws of the land, and to undertake religious wars in the name of justice. Secularists have often attacked this religion in the name of modern society, and egalitarianism, which this religion opposes. It has generally rejected attempts at cross religious dialogue or tolerance for nonbelievers. It opposes secular education, and has set up schools run by clerics and religious authorities to ensure that its next generation is unaware of alternative views. It has media figures that attack everything they hate and wish to impose their views upon those who are not part of its society.

Clerics in this religion attack socially progressive viewpoints and proponents as going against the will of God, and insist that the only way to live is theirs, and so they justify horrible atrocities like killing Jews, stealing children, and prohibiting medical treatment of various kinds because it offends them as a way to “make the world just”.

What is this religion? It is Catholicism.

Any student of recent history (for a historian, the last 200 years are recent) knows these things about Catholicism. As recently as my childhood (granted, that is a long time ago in dog years) people were declaiming that the Catholics would outbreed us all (us being Protestants, and in my suburb, Anglicans and Presbyterians) and throwing stones at their children.

Ask yourself, gentle reader: do you fear the coming Catholic takeover of your democratic society? Sure, the various popes and archbishops (and one cardinal in particular) say fundamentally indecent things about how the rights and welfare of women and children are to be subordinated to the interests and dogmas of the Church, and if they had half a chance they’d block abortion even in life or death situations for mothers, but secular societies have forced the rank and file to accept that they are not in charge, and that they must live by the laws and mores of a modern society. Most Catholics in western societies even think contraception is acceptable, and more than half agree divorce and abortion are okay as well.

So why don’t we scream in the streets that Catholics are a threat to our values, way of life, and safety? Because they have changed how they live, and in the process, changed their religion as well. In the short space of a century (and believe me, in the lifetime of a religion, that is very short indeed) we have gone from the Catholic Church arrogating to itself the role of theocratic arbiter of what is right in every country to it being one among a plurality of religions, viewpoints and ways of life. More remains to be done, but it happens.

The same thing will happen with Islam. Indeed, Muslims have been enthusiastic adopters of secularism in many countries (pre-revolution Iran, pre-Erdogan Turkey, Indonesia) already. Most of the extremists are from the countryside, and rural peasants always are more conservative than urbanites, no matter what the nation, ethnicity or religion. But there’s another concern here: the sacrificial lamb, to use a religious metaphor.

Jews know this. They were used to justify every grab for power and money from Richard II to Hitler, and to denigrate every nation from Spain to America. They were a nice distraction from the real issues facing a political elite. Problems with the economy? The Jews. Problems with employment? The Jews. Terrorist acts by (in recent years) Muslims? The Jews set it up.

Muslims have a large number of extremists, to be sure, among their ranks. I suspect, however, this has more to do with dislocation, dispossession and marginalisation than it does with the admittedly awful doctrines of Islam, just as it did with Catholics before them. Dislocate, dispossess and marginalise any group at all, and they will become extremists. Workers in Europe before the Third Reich were the same (and unions were a convenient whipping boy for the Nazis also, as they are in rapaciously capitalist America). Kick a group long enough and it will try to kick back.

I have personally known many urbane, sophisticated, secular and science-based Muslims, working at a medical research institute for a decade. They came from the Arabian peninsula, from Pakistan, Turkey and other nations. All that mattered for them to be medical researchers was that they adopted the science. Likewise, all that matters for a Muslim to be a good citizen of a secular democratic nation is that they adopt our laws, civic values and practices. And they are. But marginalise them, exclude them from public discourse, and take away their citizenship, and you get what you should expect.

A while back, Richard Dawkins said some very silly things on PZ Myer’s blog Pharyngula [see this discussion at the time for details]. He wrote, in response to justified claims of sexual harassment of women at supposedly progressive skeptical conference, the following:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

It went from bad to worse from there, with Dawkins totally tone deaf about his white male western privilege and the very real problem of women in all societies. Despite a very recent and much overdue apology, it is clear that he really doesn’t get it. But that’s not what this post is about.

I want to dub the following “argument” the Muslima Problem:

Because something is very bad in one case, we should not attend with human decency to less bad things in another. And to demonstrate this, PZ Myers himself dropped a smelly Muslima Problem on his blog just recently. He wrote:

I’m sorry to report that comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, an event of great import and grief to his family. But his sacrifice has been a great boon to the the news cycle and the electoral machinery — thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people.

Tone deafness strikes again. One could say just as easily that as tragic as Williams’ death is, let’s not lose sight of the other tragic events. Or note simply that the media’s love of celebrity is causing it to lose sight of those racially charged events. But Paul instead went on to say

Boy, I hate to say it, but it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction. No one wants to think the police might be untrustworthy.

And think of the politicians! Midterm elections are coming up. Those are important! So people like Barack Obama need to be able to show their human side and connect with the real concerns of the American people by immediately issuing a safe, kind statement about Robin Williams, while navigating the dangerous shoals of police brutality and black oppression by avoiding them. Wouldn’t want to antagonize those lovely law-and-order folks before an election, you see.

Now I am not going to plump for the old saying, speak no ill of the dead or anything (which sounds so much more important in Latin: De mortuis nil nisi bonum). PZ did not speak ill of Williams or his death. But it implies that a progressive cannot be concerned about large or small tragedies simultaneously. Williams’ wealth (which he got through hard work and talent, and no small measure of generosity for others, not by inheritance or fraud) is irrelevant. He was loved because he was such a positive influence in so many people’s lives for so long; his suicide is a loss to those he touched this way. My own kids count a dozen or so of his films as seminal influences on their childhoods, and many of his lines are family in-jokes. I am allowed to grieve that the person who gave us these has died. This is no mere cult of celebrity. Williams’ death matters because in the end he was a damned decent person who made my family’s and many others’ lives better.

The implication that we can’t justly be concerned about two things at once is, in the end, profoundly insulting for progressives. It’s like the argument that we can’t enjoy our lives because others are suffering. It’s ridiculous, but given way too much credence among skeptics, atheists and progressive thinkers.

Yes, the media is obsessed with celebrities; it does not follow that every celebrity’s death is unimportant. Yes the media, particularly in America, avoids dealing with police violence, racial profiling and racism in general. It doesn’t follow that the other things they do report are unimportant all the time. This is lazy thinking.

I’ve known (and been involved in many fun mutual insulting matches with) PZ for over 20 years, and I know him to be a decent man, who himself does things that he takes no credit for, to help others. But this was unworthy of him. I am sorry to see him say such things.

We can care about more than one thing at a time, or else we are not decent human beings.

Comic2 724

Something that bugs the hell out of me, literally, is the misuse of English. Of course, I was trained as a subeditor in the days when such things mattered even to journalists, so I am a fossilised dinosaur in this respect. I even try to use adverbs correctly. One thing that literally makes my head explode, is the misuse by academics of the phrase “begs the question” to mean “raises a question”.

“Begging the question” is a colloquial translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, which means to petition the premise of an argument in your conclusion. Whately defines it thus: [it] “takes place when one of the Premisses (whether true or false) is either plainly equivalent to the conclusion, or depends upon that for its own reception.” This is also called “circular reasoning” or “arguing in a vicious circle”.

However, even among the cognoscenti, it has come to mean “raises a question in a context”. For example, I hear commentators say that a particular fact “begs the question why”… and I give an involuntary shudder every time.

Linguistic usage, however, trumps rules of style. Unfortunately, how people use a language determines the meaning of a term or phrase, and if all but a few use it this way, then it has come to mean that. During the transition from the older use to the newer, curmudgeons like me can assert that the new use is an error, but once the tide has washed in, too late. Descriptivism overrules prescriptivism.

But now we need a phrase for the older meaning. It is a basic logical error, and “vicious circle” doesn’t quite capture the mistake. I would suggest that a lot of the work of the older phrase was done by the term “beg”, and that is what changed its overall connotations, leading to the drift in meaning of the phrase. So what is it to “beg” a question? It is to help yourself to something that is not earned (the premise in question). How about we go a little more forcefully, and call it “stealing” the question (like stealing a base in American baseball)? You don’t get there by hitting a ball but by sneaky activity in the background.

Henceforth, all you cognoscenti must call this “stealing the question”, and allow all those logical illiterates to continue to call raising a question “begging the question”. And we purists will continue to vomit a little each time.

In seeking tales and informations [Henry VIII, Act V, scene 3]

For some time now* I have had problems with the notion of information. Not, please note, with this or that piece of information, but with the notion itself, especially in the natural sciences. In this age of computers and internets, we have taken to mistaking the thing described for the thing itself, and treat information as a property out there in the world, not a representation in our heads and language.

Let me set the scene. Back when Dawkins wrote about biology, he proposed the idea that genes were a special case of what he called the Replicator:

A replicator may be defined as any entity in the universe of which copies are made. [“Replicators and Vehicles” 1982]

Notice the word “copy”. I can copy things in a number of ways, from imitation to tracing, but Dawkins has a particular sense in mind, which he explored in an especially purple prose passage in The Blind Watchmaker (1986):

It is raining DNA outside. … [downy seeds from willow trees] The cotton wool is mostly made of cellulose, and it dwarfs the tiny capsule that contains the DNA, the genetic information. The DNA content must be a small proportion of the total, so why did I say that it was raining DNA rather than cellulose? The answer is that it is the DNA that matters… whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees… It is raining instructions out there, it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy disks. [Chapter 5, p 111]

DNA, and the replicators they are a special case of, are information. This is not a metaphor. Similarly, physicists will occasionally assert the same claim about physical things. The physical world is just a mathematical construct, and things like electrons have only mathematical properties, says Max Tegmark, a physicist at MIT:

… all the properties that electrons have are purely mathematical. It’s just a list of numbers. So in that sense, an electron is a purely mathematical object. In fact, there’s no evidence right now that there’s anything at all in our universe that is not mathematical.

We get the “it” from “bit”. Some mischievous philosophers have even suggested that we do, actually, live in the Matrix, although what the Matrix lives in is unclear…

So, why am I unhappy? Is this wrong? I think it is.

To get at this I need to hit you with a little bit of natural philosophy from the Greeks, in particular from Plato and Aristotle. Plato famously proposed that the real world was the world of Forms, or ideas (the Greek word he used was ideai, from the root eidos, meaning appearance, something seen). Forms were more real than what you see around you. A physical circle is at best an imperfect instantiation of the real circle, which exists nowhere in physical form.

Aristotle, in contrast, explained the physical things in the world by supposing that they had matter, which filled space and gave weight (made from several admixtures of the four elements, two light and two heavy) which the scholastics called substance (substantia, meaning that which stands under), and form, the structure and mathematical properties of a thing. This matter/form dualism is called hylomorphism, from the two Greek words hule, meaning stuff (it originally meant “wood”) and morphe, or form. Hylomorphism was intended to be an alternative view to atomistic materialism, which had become a widely held (and generally atheistical) view in his day. Epicurus, his contemporary, had an entire philosophical school based upon the older Democritan atomism [see this excellent review just revised in the Stanford Encyclopedia].

Now hylomorphism was roundly demolished as a scientific hypothesis when Daltonian elements were named and investigated in the nineteenth century. By 1900, terms like “substance” (for matter that is propertyless apart from mass and extension in space) and “form” had taken on a largely philosophical sense that differed extensively from Aristotle’s own views. Instead, an increasingly elaborate atomism had won the day, far beyond anything Epicurus or Democritus had posited. The properties of things, including their mass and filling of space, were the result of fields in space-time.

And yet, a kind of hylomorphism remained, even in science. Biologists argued that form determined many properties of organisms in ways that could not be reduced to their parts, and this kind of thinking remained and was co-opted by the molecular biologists and geneticists in the 1950s, especially since around that time, computers were getting going and information was a hot topic (it had not been much prior to that time). Thus, we get the “Central Dogma” in genetics:

The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred back from protein to either protein or nucleic acid. [Crick in 1958]

Read physically, this means only that the structure of the DNA molecule is not reproduced from the structure of proteins, a perfectly reasonable account of the molecular processes. But because Crick used the word “information”, some scientists, including Dawkins, took this to mean genes are informational entities, that “code” for organismic traits from the molecular level up to the entire organism and even beyond.

Likewise, physicists like Tegmark, Wheeler and so on, who say that the physical world is “just” information can be read as saying that there is physical structure in the world. This is harmless.

But this is not how “information” is interpreted usually. Instead, we get the idea that information is itself a kind of universal property that underlies all physical things. Information, which is the modern equivalent of Aristotle’s morphe, has become the equivalent also of Aristotle’s hule. And this is where I part company.

When scientists talk about the information content or the informational entropy of something, they can mean several things. They can mean the entropy of the string of characters that are used to measure or describe that thing, like a mathematical description of a process, or a sequence of symbols like the G, T, A, and C, of DNA. But DNA is not composed of G, T, A, or C. It is composed of molecules, nucleotides, that bear the symbols as names, and they have properties that mean that occasionally they do not follow the mathematical or semantic descriptions of these names. For example, there is a “fifth nucleotide”, 5-methyldeoxycytidine (5-mC), which can pair up in 5′-CG-3′ dinucleotide positions. 5-mC is a molecule in methylation molecules, which themselves modify the expression of the DNA. The informational entropy (or information content) of a sequence is therefore just a measure of how the DNA is represented. 5-mC can even breech the Central Dogma.

The point here is that the representation abstracts away from the physical properties of the molecules. Measures of the informational entropy are therefore actually measures of the abstract representations, not the things themselves. But suppose we had a simulation or representation of the things right down to the level of quarks (if that were physically possible): would the informational entropy of the objects be identical to the physical properties? Would we have the physical informational entropy of the objects? I’ll get back to that. First I’d like to consider some of the other meanings of “information” in science.

Another meaning of “information” is the semantic meaning: what one thing (e.g., a gene) represents (e.g., the phenotype). This is the “information as signal” view, based loosely or strictly on Shannon’s Communication Theory account. One thing “refers” to another (in Shannon’s theory, the received message “refers” to the sent message). This, as Shannon noted, is not a theory of the content of a signal. After all, a gene sequence does not represent the phenotype by describing it. A similar view is Wiener’s notion of information as control, the cybernetic account. It is very hard to think of these kinds of information underpinning the physicists’ view above. Here, the properties are just informational, or as they put it, mathematical. Program-style accounts of genes are in this class.

A third kind of information is the information, or rather the accuracy, of measurements. This is called “Fisher information” after its originator. It is roughly the point on a curve of measurements where the second derivative is zero, or where the error curve is flat. This cannot apply to either physical or biological information, as it is a measure of how well and closely we can measure a physical system. Ironically, it is in my view the only actual physical sense of information, since it requires a physical state to be measured, and a physical system to do the measuring.

So let us get back to the physicists’ claim that the universe is just information. I have argued before [see note] that if an electron has mathematical properties, this is not the same thing as saying that the electron is just a mathematical object. An analogy might make this clear. Suppose I program my computer as an orrery, a simulation of the solar system. If I do this, the computer represents the mass and physical constants as numbers, and processes them according to the mathematical equations of physics. But that solar system in my computer doesn’t have the mass of a real solar system (luckily for me, and everyone else on earth). Instead it has an abstract mass, and the ways the abstract sun and planets interact is, well, abstract. A mathematical description of a system like the solar system is abstract. Apart from instances of that description in physical objects like heads, paper or computers, it exists nowhere in space or time. Consequently, abstract properties do not cause anything in the physical world.

Moreover, the abstractions must leave something out. As the genetic A, C, G, and T leaves out the actual physical properties of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, which can do things occasionally the symbols cannot, even the most well specified and detailed representation of a thing, at least above the fundamental building blocks of the universe if we ever can say we have them, will leave out properties and capacities we are not interested in representing, and so they will, sometimes but inevitably, deviate in their representation from the actual things. And if we have the fundamental objects (quantum fields?) of the universe, we could not compute the system without first constructing a computer capable of dealing with the whole system, and for a universe, that would have to be a universe-as-computer.

When physicists or philosophers say that we are living in the Matrix, or equivalent statements like the properties of atomic and subatomic objects are merely mathematical, they make a classical mistake, even worse than getting involved in a land war in Asia. They are mistaking the representation of a thing for the thing. The late medieval scholastics like Lombard knew this error and named it long before Saussure: the sign is not the thing signified. The word is not the world. If we are living in the Matrix, what does the Matrix live in? We know of no information processing system that is not, itself, physical.

This is the New Hylomorphism. Information is, as a commentator on Antievolution.org said, seen by Intelligent Design proponents as a kind of caloric or phlogiston. But it isn’t. It causes nothing at all. An abstraction cannot cause a physical process, and to think otherwise is a category error, unfortunately common among theoreticians as well as Intelligent Designists.

The notion of “information” in genetics is an honorary one. It can only mean causal specificity, not anything involving “real” information (on this, see Griffiths and Stotz’ Genetics and Philosophy). And since we have no real reason to adopt hylomorphist views on the real world any more (atomism, or its linear descendants, won the battle), one has to wonder why some scientists and some philosophers think it necessary to reintroduce form as information. Replicators are not informational objects; they are molecules and systems of molecules (Griesemer 2005, Waters 2000). For this reason I much prefer the notion of a “reproducer”, which is a physical entity (or class of entities).

It is time that we stopped making this mistake in science. It is time to give up on hylomorphisms, old or new. In the end, these metaphors (and they are metaphors) only mislead us.

I think that is enough about information from me [too much information].


Crick, Francis H.C. 1958. On Protein Synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII, 139-163.

Dawkins, Richard. 1982. “Replicators and vehicles.” In Current problems in sociobiology, 45-64. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The blind watchmaker. Harlow: Longman Scientific and Technical.

Griesemer, James R. 2005. “The informational gene and the substantial body: on the generalization of evolutionary theory by abstraction.” In Idealization XII: Correcting the Model. Idealization and Abstraction in the Sciences, edited by Martin R. Jones and Nancy Cartwright, 59-115. Amsterdam: Rodopi Publishers.

Griffiths, Paul, and Karola Stotz. 2013. Genetics and philosophy: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tegmark, Max. 2008. “The mathematical universe.” Foundations of Physics 38 (2):101-150.

Waters, Kenneth. 2000. “Molecules Made Biological.” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 54 (4):539-564.


2014 03 16 13 26 55

Outside the State Parliament in Spring Street Melbourne.

I attended the March in March protest against the current government of Australia yesterday. My legs still hurt. I’m sure that demonstrations were not so arduous thirty years ago.

I noticed that this was a privative demonstration. It was not about something so much as against something, and the something it was against varied by protestor. Some did the standard anti-government protests of thirty years ago – I’m looking at you, Socialist Alliance – but the range of signs was rather disconcerting. Some were against adoption, some against laws restricting abortion. Some held that the problem was the man Tony Abbott, our very conservative prime minister. Others that all political parties were the problem. One even attacked democracy, making full use of their democratic rights, such as they still are. A lot of people compared Tony Abbott and his ministers to Nazis.

There were the usual suspects, of course, but there were also many people who looked out of place, chanting and raising their fists. Elderly people, suburban people and people with kids and dogs. While I would not go so far as to say this was a sign of general disenchantment in Australia society, it clearly indicated a level of disenchantment that is, in my view unsustainable in a democratic society.

These particular protests, held around Australia and ignored of course by the mass media, were a sign of something, but what? And what is the solution?

Had I been asked by the absent media why I was marching (well, hobbling, really. Next time I take a walking stick), my answer would have been this: For thirty years we have been carefully crafting a fascist state, only without the overt symbols of the 1920s. Not a Nazi state, but definitely a fascist state. It all began, in my view, when we made The Economy the single most important aspect of our social fabric, under the neoliberal agenda adopted by the notional progressive, Paul Keating.

This statistical abstraction became more important than our environmental well being, than the rights of individuals, than the democratic order itself, so that now we think, in a country which had a welfare system that worked well and a health system that was the envy of the world, that the well being of financial institutions and companies, and of mining interests, is so important we will take away support for those who cannot find work in an internationalised labor market. We will take away health care in favour of a mixture of health insurance for the rich and the long waiting lists for the poor.

In 2012, I tore a ligament in my leg that connects the quadriceps muscle to the patella. As a result, my quadriceps cramped up in a knot in my upper leg. I was unemployed and had no health insurance. It too six months to get a doctor to examine me, because the emergency doctor, without examining me, wrongly diagnosed an anterior curate ligament tear. No doctor would even look at my leg while I was in excruciating pain and walking around at home on my backside because I couldn’t navigate the steps there.

I was put on a waiting list for “elective surgery” despite my constant complaints and requests. I was dropped from that list because, it appears, one way to trim the waiting lists is to see if people complain. Eventuallly, in the operating theatre where I was scheduled for an arthroscopy, the surgeon took one look at my leg and saw that it was not an elective nuisance, but a serious and urgent survey, and he did it then. Bless him.

My point is that this only happened because of the deliberate bastardry of the neoliberal view of government, with its user-pays principle, and deliberate defunding of the system to below a sustainable level (and then you claim that the system as broken is unsustainable, and defund it some more). Likewise, welfare support, not just for the young, nor for the unemployed, but for single mothers, the elderly and the disabled, has been deliberately dropped below a liveable amount. You simply cannot live on what the government provides you when you are most vulnerable.

And if you have mental health issues, then the system is designed to drive you away, with five hour waiting queues in the Centrelink offices, repetitive annoying “public service announcements” you cannot turn off, and a general level of low level nastiness from many staff, who treat welfare recipients as probably criminals. The system is designed to make you wait five hours each time, send you away with bad information, like that you must log online, except that you cannot because you first have to see someone to do X, where X is something nobody had mentioned, online or off.

I know one young person who has literally no money for food. She will not get any payments until she goes to an appointment they have set two months after she first applied for benefits. She spent six months before that living on her own money as she did not want to be a burden on the state. When she asked how she could live, they gave her a list of churches that hand out food. When I asked the same question last year, when it looked like I would lose my home, I was told to contact mens’ halfway houses; when I did they were all full. I got to the point where I was physically looking at bridges to live under, as I would have had to sell my car (my only possession after forty years of work).

This is not a civil society, and it has been deliberately engineered. The old commonwealth of Australia has become a plutocracy of Australia, where a decreasing percentage of the nation is able to access the resources needed to live, let alone live well. And the only beneficiaries are the already-wealthy; those who run and own financial institutions and property. Follow the money, and you will see who Australia is now run on behalf of.

The issue of refugees is another one of the hot button topics at the rally. Once upon a time, Australia was a country where genuine refugees could make a new life; much of the country was constructed by them. In 1992, a supposedly progressive minister in Keating’s Labor government, Gerry Hand, instituted “mandatory detention” for refugees who had arrived in the country. In effect, not a quarantine (which would have made sense) nor a processing of credentials, but punishment for those who managed to make it here. When PM John Howard said in 2001 that “we” decided who came here, the racism was unleashed and uncontrolled. Nearly all “debate” in the media and political forums about refugees is a racist dog whistle and appeal to fear of the others. We have institutionalised racism. That a few score thousand people around the nation still care enough to protest that is a sign that we still have some common decency left in Australia.

Now, let me sum up what the protests were against:

  • The predominance of The Economy
  • The beneficiaries are corporations and the rich
  • A nationalistic racism
  • The valuing of the State over the citizenry
  • A failure of care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unfortunate

If that doesn’t look like fascism to you, then you do not know much history.

Back in the supposedly radical 70s I used to ignore or mock those who said we were heading into a fascist society, and at that time I do not think we were, but the radicals scared a lot of people, worldwide, and vested interests began to fund opposing movements. These ranged from the obvious (tobacco public relations) to the subtle (founding of “think tanks” that legitimised points of view). But notice that this kind of fascism is bi-partisan. Both sides adopt the same strategies. Much of the damage to the common weal was done by the Labor party. Once done, the conservatives built upon it, because the convention that government has a duty of care had been disrupted by the “progressives”.

And this is why most Australians are fed up with the present political alternatives. They know, either intuitively or explicitly, that a choice between two corporatist quasi fascist parties that merely serve different forms of corporate interests (unions, big business, financial institutions, the military*) is not a democratic choice. That is why that group wanted to “fuck democracy” – only they did not see that what they rejected wasn’t even close to democracy. It was careful management of the populace. It is fascism.

Political parties are clearly not the solution, but it is not clear what is. We cannot disrupt the political constitution of the country any further, because further disruption since the conventions that made it work were destroyed will only have even worse effects. We cannot therefore expect that violent revolution, even if it were something Australians would engage in, will resolve this. Nor can we “work from within” because the system that exists in practice now is self-sustaining, and merely ramps up the expectations to the pout that genuine reformers will not survive from long “within”.

And we cannot “opt-out”; in order to even have money these days, you must have a bank account, and that means you have “opted in” to the financial system, the oppressive degree of licenses and qualifications and identification that fifty years ago would have been seen as what we had fought against in the second world war.

So what? All I can think of, and I have a poor imagination for these things, is civil noncompliance, the kind that Saul Alinsky pioneered.

Go to the voting booths, but return blank votes. Do as little of what you are asked as possible; fill out the forms to the minimum, make the services offered to you do as much work as you can force them to. Show no enthusiasm for anything except what you value. Drown “the system” in apathy. But do not let it be taken advantage of. If they start relying upon apathy, become activists. Make the system, or rather those who the system now benefits, take the back foot. Insist upon all your rights, as a worker, as a citizen, as a parent or partner. Set things up so that the best solution for those in control is to give us what we should have in a decent society.

And then take away their power to give us rights. We should have rights because the entire society assigns them, not because the rich and powerful give in or make them available at their whim. If most Australians want equality of marriage laws, and they surely do, there is no justification for the political parties, the churches that represent less than a quarter of the population or the media that is run by people who dislike homosexuality, to withhold it from us. If they can to this sort of bastardry to one group of Australians, they can do it to everybody, and the evidence is they will.

As Aldous Huxley said

All war propaganda consists, in the last resort, in substituting diabolical abstractions for human beings. [“Pacifism and Philosophy” (1936)]

The word “war” is no longer necessary. Here is a longer quote from Huxley, in 1958, shortly before Eisenhower wanted against the “military industrial complex” we now see as reality about us in every western and developed nation:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.
… In “Brave New World” non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in their calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those would manipulate and control it.” [p43]


This Power Elite directly employs several millions of the country´s working force in its factories, offices and stores, controls many millions more by lending them the money to buy its products, and, through its ownership of the media of mass communication, influences the thoughts, the feelings and the actions of virtually everybody. To parody the words of W. Churchill, never have so many been manipulated so much by few. [p26]
[Brave New World Revisited]

The first novel I ever read was Brave New World, when I was eight. I did not expect that we would ignore these warnings and enthusiastically set up the dystopias described in this and similar books. I was wrong.

*Australia is building up its military at a time when we face no threats. Why?

The Australian government is looking at extending the pension age to 70, so that older Australians, especially those in the Baby Boom demographic, will be free of the public purse for another 5 years over the present age of 65. Except that it is not the case that older Australians will work another 5 years, as there are no jobs for older Australians. Partly this is due to the unemployment level being at a long time high right now. But even more so, in my view, is that it is due to the inherent ageism of Australian employers.

I have been unemployed for most of the past three years. I am 58. I have applied for nearly 400 jobs in that time, and had precisely no interviews. I have skills in computing, management, design, lecturing, training, office management, and analysis of systems and procedures. Not one interview. I cannot believe that in 400 job hires, I have been the least qualified or that there are applicants who have all my skills and more. I have concluded, after much thought, that employers are ageist.

Now this is hard to prove, just as any other kind of discrimination, and although it is especially illegal in government-related hires, such as university employment, I can think of no other reason why I do not even get interviewed with my experience and record. I’m not boasting, I’m just being realistic. I used to manage a department of 12 staff with a $2 million a year discretionary budget. I have lectured at four of Australia’s biggest and most highly ranked universities. Not one interview.

And I am hardly the only person complaining about this, in Australia or overseas. It is endemic across the western world. Older people will not get considered for jobs if there are younger people who can apply for them, and they will not compete on a level playing field. So we will end up on unemployment anyway. All the fine rhetoric about experience, corporate memory and the like is just that, rhetoric. It is not even honoured much verbally any more unless somebody pushes employer’s federations or government spokespeople.

Given that this is against the Australian, and I warrant most western countries, law, why are there not attempts to police employment practices? I am not suggesting that there should be positive discrimination quotas, but any large enough employer who does not employ a fraction of old people in their hires that is roughly in line with the candidate field generally, should be asked to explain by those who enforce the law, and universities and other institutions that have a demonstrated youth bias (where “youth” < 40 years of age) should be fined the equivalent of what wages those older people would draw, in order to fund our unemployment benefits. That might give a reason to employ people based not upon how good their skin looks, but upon what they can do.

In the meantime, if you can offer an old man some cash, go to my Tip Jar above…

Larry Moran quotes Jason Rosenhouse disputing Phil Plait:

So, after all, that, let us return to Plait’s argument. He tells us that the problem is too many people perceiving evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs. Indeed, but why do they perceive it that way? Is it a failure of messaging on the part of scientists? Is it because Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers make snide remarks about religion? No, those are not the reasons.

It is because these people have noticed all the same problems the scholars of Darwin’s time were writing about. It is because evolution really does conflict with their religious beliefs, but not because of an overly idiosyncratic interpretation of one part of the Bible. It is because the version of evolution that so worried the religious scholars of Darwin’s time, that of a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought, is precisely the version that has triumphed among modern scientists. And it is because the objections raised to that version of evolution in the nineteenth century have not lost any of their force today.

It is true that what most theists (usually very far from fundamentalists) of the nineteenth century objected to with Darwin’s view of evolution, or rather the popular version of it presented by writers like the anti-clericalist Haeckel, was the implication that evolution was, as Jason puts it, “a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought”. Basically the theist account of intellectual Christians presumed that humans were part of God’s plan, and so the idea that there was no purpose to our existence was, to put it mildly, a stumbling block for the brightest religious of the day. But it was not insuperable.

Almost immediately, theists appealed to a distinction that had a long history in theology: that of a distinction between primary cause (God’s actions creating and supporting the world) and secondary causes (the laws of nature acting as if they were basically mechanical causes. Some, like Asa Gray, argued that God intervenes to make the requisite variations occur (for the causes of variation in heredity were as yet unknown) so that natural selection, a secondary cause, would result in humans, like a cook who regulates the heat in cooking to ensure the right outcome, or as he put it

“that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” [Quoted by Darwin in his Variation under Domestication (1868) Vol. 2: 432]

Others held that God had foreordained the ways the mechanism of selection would work by choosing the right initial conditions. In effect, God chose this world to make knowing, as he must, that humans would be the result. Much appeal to Matthew 10:29 – that not a sparrow falls with God knowing it – was made.

Darwin, of course, rejected this interpretation:

There is another point on which I have occasionally wished to say a few words.— I believe you think with Asa Gray that I have not allowed enough for the stream of variation having been guided by a Higher power.— I have had lately a good deal of correspondence on this head. Herschel in his Phy. Geograph. has sentence with respect to the Origin something to the effect that the higher law of providential arrangement shd. always be stated. But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet & planet.— The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. [Letter to Lyell, 1 August 1861]

and he repeated this argument in the Variations chapter above. But the point to be made here is that some religious were able to accommodate Darwinian blind evolution by natural selection as a secondary cause. Darwin is right, I think, to reject Gray’s irrigator model of a divine intervention from time to time to keep things on track. It is ad hoc and certainly not good theology. But Gray was no theologian. Both are scientists trying to do science (one in the context of prior belief; the other dismissing this as beyond a modified monkey’s brain).

So let us return to Rosenhouse’s claim: that evolution, of itself, challenges religion. Secondary causes were discussed as long ago as Aquinas in the 12th century, and he did not invent the idea (Wikipedia has Augustine, in the 4th century, as the originator of this). His mentor Albertus Magnus, no mean naturalist himself, wrote:

In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass. [De vegetabilibus et plants l.2 tr.2 c.1. Some more on Albert as a scientist here: PDF]

This is very like what Darwin said in the Variation: science addresses how things occur by natural law, not by God’s direct intervention. And note that this rather modern view is seven centuries before the Origin. So it is at best rather anachronistic to assert that “religion” could not adopt evolution, when the intellectual resources were not only there in theology, but were in fact the “default” opinion even since the “One Truth doctrine” had been asserted against the Occasionalists and Averroes in the middle ages. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous for Jason and Larry to assert that religion necessarily contradicts Darwinian evolution. The use of this notion has even become the standard Catholic approach to the issue.

It is true that much of the debate about Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century was focused on God’s agency and purpose. However, usually the folk doing the debating were public intellectuals rather than theologians. Often they defended a theological perspective that was at best questionable even within their own tradition (as Dewey said, we do not solve philosophical problems, we get over them. This is uneven and cyclical even within a doctrinal community). And it is true that natural selection undercut the purposiveness of living things that was assumed by natural theology and similar traditions. But natural theology was dying out as Darwin wrote (and not because of him precisely) and even the “God of the gaps” theme now so beloved of exclusionists was invented by a religious writer dealing with Darwin. Henry Drummond wrote in his Ascent of Man (1894):

There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps – gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode? What needs altering in such finely jealous souls is at once their view of Nature and of God. Nature is God’s writing, and can only tell the truth; God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.

If by the accumulation of irresistible evidence we are driven – may not one say permitted – to accept Evolution as God’s method in creation, it is a mistaken policy to glory in what it cannot account for. The reason why men grudge to Evolution each of its fresh claims to show how things have been made is the groundless fear that if we discover how they are made we minimize their divinity. When things are known, that is to say, we conceive them as natural, on Man’s level; when they are unknown, we call them divine – as if our ignorance of a thing were the stamp of its divinity. If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the disorders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. If God appears periodically, he disappears periodically. If he comes upon the scene at special crises he is absent from the scene in the intervals. Whether is all-God or occasional-God the nobler theory? Positively, the idea of an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology. Negatively, the older view is not only the less worthy, it is discredited by science. [333-4]

Drummond argues that science’s job is not to final moral purpose in the world; this cannot be done. But its job is to find how things have evolved.

So when we read this comment by Jason, I am left wondering what the reference class of the term “religion” is for him and Larry, and others. I am sure that they would not wish to adopt the parlour trick of Richard Dawkins and say “we are not talking about the god of the philosophers, but the god of ordinary religion” and then slip in conclusions applying to all religion based on arguments against that type only. That would be disingenuous indeed. Certainly that was not how Darwin or Huxley approached the matter.

“Religion” is one of the more slippery terms in modern discourse.The dictionary will not help, as dictionaries are maps to common usage, not a technical definition (unless they also give one or more such technical definitions). And being slippery, one can elide from a more inclusive definition to a specific, and back again, in one’s arguments. This is known as the fallacy of ambiguity. As religious anthropologist James Dowe noted

“Religion” is, in fact, a folk category in Western culture. Comparative analysis can flounder on efforts to use folk categories in scientific analysis. [A scientific definition of religion, p5]


Religion is a collection of behavior that is only unified in our Western conception of it. [p7]

To aver that religion is necessarily opposed to evolutionary theory, when there are so many instances of it not being, is a category error. Jason and Larry might reject the idea that this view is “religion” as they understand it. That would be to put the folk definition in a privileged position, when even the scientists who study the phenomenon do not. But allow that these philosophically minded views are part of religion, at least historically, and you find the claim untenable.

What we need to do is to specify the degree of religion that finds evolution impossible to reconcile with belief, for there surely is some, and a lot of it. I think of a particular religion as a series of concentric circles. At the most broad, one’s religion is label and a set of rituals (including statements of belief) that includes anything that falls under that rubric. “Christian” includes folk beliefs in demons and spirits as well as theologically refined views like Drummond’s or Aquinas’. But folk religion is rarely what the more educated people think, and so the superstitions of religion fall away as you move inwards. The average educated believer knows that somehow religion and evolution are not at odds, but they probably do not know how, and take it on faith the two are consistent. More refined thinkers find ways to reconcile the secondary causation of science and the primary causation of God. A few theologians, not all by any means, give the arguments; the extent of their approach is restricted, but logically coherent.

Now any religious community consists of many theological and philosophical traditions, and they are often at odds. A strand of the Christian community appeals to Aristotelian notions of causation and teleology against what they see as the soulless and mindless actions of natural law in modern scientific theories, to be sure. These thinkers strive to show that Darwinian selection is incomplete, or simply wrongheaded, and apply all kinds of arguments like irreducible complexity or design. But they are not the entirety of the tradition, nor are they, at least outside the United States and Turkey, the majority of religious thinkers. They use the resources of secondary causation to deal with things, and their problem is not whether or not natural selection works, but how it reconciles with providentialist theology (I wrote a paper on this very topic, by the way, giving at least one way this might be done, using Leibnizian multiple worlds). How they do it is not my concern, but the fact that they do do it is itself a counter instance to the claim Jason and Larry make.

Few theologians of any note are literalists, no matter what the tent preacher might assert. Nor is religion necessarily superstitious (unless one holds the a priori view that belief in any deity is superstition, a position I am not inclined to defend). At the least, there are varieties of religious belief that are not anti-scientific. Accommodationism is not yet dismissed. Evolution is inconsistent with some religious views, no doubt about that. But it is not inconsistent with “religion”. To say otherwise is to equivocate. Plait is right, and Jason and Larry are not.

I think this is due, in large part, to the media presence of the fundamentalists in north America, something that is not the same throughout the world. I have never understood why Dawkins adopted the “folk religion is religion simpliciter” approach in The God Delusion. He’s British, for Darwin’s sake! In Britain and other countries like Australia that noisy minority is, in fact a small minority, and forms of religion are not so straightforward as he made out. Larry and Jason I can understand. The “metaphysical purpose with a cup of tea” approach of British and Continental religions is rare there. I used to find comforting the older British style Baptists, and like Larry and Jason I decry the obsessive and combative attempts of the Southern Baptist style of fundamentalism to control public debate. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the majority of theists are not literalists, and they can rather easily find the resources to accept evolution, real evolution including unguided natural selection. It takes a while for traditions to change and catch up, that is all.

Mind, ask me about the problem of evil, and you’ll get a different answer. But we aren’t discussing that here.

Late note: I am mostly arguing against Larry, here, but Jason has cited a number of religious sources where authorities have attacked evolution, and historians have interpreted this. I am particularly fond of Artigas, who he cites, on Catholic trends. My argument, however, is that religions are not of necessity opposed to evolution. His argument is that the reason why evolution is problematic for religion is the loss of moral purpose in nature. We are both correct, and it is not Dawkins’ or PZ Misty’s fault that this happens. We are at one.