Sunday, August 12, 2012

Good news/bad news

Good news: I have a paying freelance writing gig thing.

Bad news: unpaid work has to take a back seat in order to hit my deadline. Back in early September.

Friday, August 03, 2012

On Religion. 3. Epistemology (3/3)

So what's the alternative? Again, we could just move away from faith as epistemological at all, and talk about faith as a feeling or faith as trust. But the first isn't really worth much, and the second gets us into ethics.

We could also just insist that there's something commendable about believing in things that aren't knowable. But the inference there is really hard to figure out. Not everything we can do as humans -- that is, not every option open to us, without regressing to some non-rational state -- is necessarily a good idea, something worth praising or recommending or admiring.

The best option I know to make that inference work is something called "fideism". ("Fides" is Latin for "faith".) Fideists believe that reason is inadequate to reach truth, and all actual knowledge ultimately rests on assumptions which are held as a matter of faith. In other words, faith is an epistemological attitude like belief or committment or acceptance, but taken towards axioms -- things that can't be questioned because they form the basis of one's set of knowledge. And that might seem to work, at least at first glance. It's worth believing in things that aren't knowable because you have to believe in things that aren't knowable. That's how your knowledge gets started: you have assumptions, and knowledge proceeds from them.

There's two problems here. First, fideism is pretty untenable. It's hard to find anyone who really believes it any more. Kierkegaard's account of faith fits in here, and it's illustrative of just how weird the idea is. According to him, believing in Christ -- the perfect, absolute god in limited, imperfect flesh -- requires a leap of faith. It is a paradox, an impossibility, and to accept it thus requires doing something frightening and absurd, believing what you really shouldn't believe at all.

So, on the fideist view, faith is just accepting things, even if they're things that don't make sense, even if they're actively crazy. If that's supposed to make faith appear attractive and worth of commendation, it's a pretty dismal failure.

Second, it's not clear that knowledge works by building up from a set of axioms. In fact, that's pretty much only the way knowledge works in some very limited, very formal domains. Mathematics is the obvious example. Starting with basic principles -- which, ultimately, aren't proven, only assumed -- and derive consequences from them. Of course, this example shows how poor this view of knowledge really is. You can't defend the axioms, because they are where defenses start.

But, practicing mathematicians will (probably) tell you that this isn't actually true. They can and do defend their choice of axiom sets. And they do it by appealing to the consequences derived from them.

Here's an example of how that works. When you're doing geometric proofs, you can assume, following Euclid, that parallel lines never meet. Or you can assume, following the non-Euclidean elliptic geometry, that they do. Whichever set of axioms you're using, you can defend them by looking at the consequences of the axioms and what sorts of problems you're trying to solve. The set of axioms which works best with the problems you're interested in is the one that you're likely to use.

What this shows is that it's a caricature of knowledge to say that is does -- or, really, that it should -- proceed by deducing things from axioms, whether those axioms are proven by reason or accepted on faith. Knowledge actually works as more of a set of interconnected claims. Sometimes axioms provide support for consequences; but sometimes consequences provide support for axioms. (Support can also go laterally, as axioms support each other, but that's tangential.)

And if fideism depends on caricaturing how knowledge works, then it's not a position people should adopt. And if that's the alternative to Kantian rational faith, then Kantian rational faith is the best version of faith available.

Which means that there's nothing worthwhile about faith. It's an option. It's not crazy to have faith. But it's completely unnecessary, and certainly not admirable.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

On Religion. 2. Epistemology (2/3)

In what sense is the thought of god rational, though? There's a couple of senses of "rational" possible, after all. Something can be rational in the sense of being commendable. We say it's rational or reasonable to plan financially for your future as a way of praising careful financial planning. This is rational in contrast to irrational. However, there's another sense of "rational" floating around, which contrasts with a different opposite term. This is "rational" as a descriptive term, where it is used to state the difference between the rational and the non-rational. So, this sort of rational is the difference between a human -- rational -- and a rock -- non-rational.

The former isn't the sense that I have in mind in saying that faith in god might be rational. If it were, it'd be easy to knock down faith. After all, it's irrational to have faith (epistemically) in things that don't make any sense. The concept of god depends on the concept of the supernatural. And the concept of the supernatural doesn't make sense. So, it's irrational to have faith in god.

Beyond just that problem, the commending sense of "rational" doesn't easily apply to something as difficult to specify, and to prove, as god or the supernatural generally. We usually reserve rational-as-commendation for things that make sense to do or to think. Things like financially planning for the future, or looking both ways before crossing the street, or not eating yellow snow. We commend those things by calling them "rational" because they antecedently make sense. When it comes to religious matters, though, there is real controversy about whether they actually do make sense. So, you don't have that before-the-fact assurance that religious faith makes sense, and that puts up a pretty significant roadblock to attempts to treat faith as rational in this way.

Generally, then, I think it's fairer to think of faith as rational in the second sense. That's certainly the sense that Kant is aiming at. It's rational because it forms part of human reason, not because it necessarily deserves any sort of commendation. And that does at least save some idea of faith from destruction -- having faith is believing in things that are beyond what's knowable.

However, people who talk about faith -- religious people, that is -- do actually want to commend faith, even recommend faith to others. So, they're probably not going to be satisfied with an account which holds that faith is rational descriptively. They might then start to think that I've done something wrong in thinking of faith as rational in the descriptive sense.

Monday, July 30, 2012

On Religion. 2. Epistemology (1/3)

So, let's talk about faith. Faith is a common term to many religions, particularly the Judeo-Christo-Islamic axis. It's unfortunately also an ambiguous term, which is used in a number of different contexts to mean a number of different things.

In this part, I'm dealing with faith in terms of epistemology. "Epistemology" is one of those ten-dollar words that philosophers have coined by stealing from the Greeks. "Episteme" means either "knowledge" or "understanding", depending on how you want to read the relevant chunks of ancient Greek. So, "epistemology" is the study of knowledge. This means that the sense of faith I'm interested in is the one which treats faith as a way of knowing something about god or the divine or the supernatural. (Last part's arguments about the coherence of the supernatural as a concept notwithstanding.)

Faith can be used differently. It can be used to express an attitude of trust or confidence sufficient to justify action. That is, one can have faith in god by trusting that god will make sure things work out for the best, and act on that basis. This connection to action, though, makes this sort of faith really a matter of ethics, and so I'll deal with it when I get to religion and morality.

Faith can also be used to express a sort of feeling, such as a sense of confidence that there is a god or hope that god exists. This also clearly has nothing to do with knowledge. It's also worth noting that it makes faith a pretty random thing. As with most feelings, faith will come in and out of existence, and will vary widely between people. If that's what religious faith really is, then I don't see why it's worth worrying about at all.

The best version of faith I know comes from Immanuel Kant, and it goes something like this. On the one hand, there's what can be known -- the knowable. Whatever is knowable lies within our cognitive capacity. That is, the knowable is what our minds are capable of grasping and understanding. (Okay, there's more to it, but this is the bit that matters now.) On the other hand, there's faith. Faith relates to the limits of cognition, the boundaries around knowledge.

The idea is that your mind functions on the basis of certain rules. Whatever the rules do for your mind -- whatever they make it possible for you to conceive, for example -- that is knowable. But the rules themselves can't be known. They aren't knowable. This is because they say what the knowable is; they set the conditions on something being knowable. But whatever sets the conditions on something can't be that thing itself.

Not everything -able works like this. Reflecting, refracting or otherwise being affected by light is the condition (well, one of them) on something's being visible, and you can very well see that light is being reflected, refracted or what have you. But some do. But that's a physical process; most abstract -ables, like knowable, are such that the conditions lie outside what they are conditions on. Something is admirable because, among other things, it deserves praise. But that condition -- deserving praise -- is not itself admirable. It is the things that deserve praise that are admirable; the condition of deserving praise is not admirable at all.

Taking another example, something is imaginable, approximately, if an image of that something can be brought to mind. But that condition -- being an image of something which can be brought to mind -- is not itself imaginable. (Because it's not actually an image; it's a verbal definition.)

Knowable is like that, according to Kant, anyway. There is the condition on something's being knowable, and then there are the things that condition determines to be knowable. But the condition does not so determine itself.

So what is the condition, then? According to Kant, it is something thinkable, rather than knowable. It's something we can construct a thought for -- so, we can say it in a grammatical sentence. And, as something thinkable rather than knowable, we can take it on faith. According to Kant, this sort of faith is rational.

Applying this back to the religious case, which Kant actually does, we can say that god is a thought and a condition on the knowable. (It doesn't matter, but according to Kant, god is the condition on moral knowledge. Moral knowledge relates to happiness, and happiness to god.) So, you can think the thought of god and be rational to do so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Religion. 1. Metaphysics (3/3)

[Ed: Yes, it used to say "/4", now it says "/3". The last bit got away from me, so I smooshed the next two sections into this one.]

Okay, now, at this point, you might be thinking I was just a tad unfair. After all, lots of clever people have thought religion and its metaphysical claims made a lot of sense, so maybe there's more to them than what I'm allowing.

When it comes to the explanatory arguments, the attempts to defend the strategy come out more as attempts to evade the criticism. This is sometimes referred to as the hypothesis of the "god of the gaps". That is, wherever there's something that's difficult to understand or where naturalistic explanations are incomplete, well then, that's because a supernatural explanation is the way to go.

That, to me, exposes how silly this line of argument really is. There's no positive reason to take the explanation seriously; it's all "well, what else have you got?" The lack of a naturalistic explanation actually doesn't imply the presence of a supernatural one. I may not be able to explain the crack in the wall or the noise in the attic, but that doesn't imply they're a portal to another world or ghosts, respectively.

When it comes to the ontological argument, I'm not going to get into the details of all the various attempts to kep that one afloat. Suffice to say, they are very, very complicated. And, to my eye, they don't address the fundamental concern.

That, of course, is the basic emptiness of the concept of the supernatural. Immanuel Kant has a nice way of thinking about this -- he actually uses it to address the god issue. According to Kant, there are the things you know, and then there are the things you can think. What you can know is something you can, at least potentially, experience. If you can't ever have some sort of experience of it -- which boils down, basically, to a perception of it -- then you can't know it.

However, our minds are capable of doing more than simply recording what we find in perception. Our minds can draw inferences from perceptions. And, in some cases, those inferences can outrun perceptions, in the sense that we infer something which, although coherent and apparently sensible, is entirely unknowable because not something we can experience.

One example Kant gives is freedom, in the sense of being free-willed, i.e., being able to make decisions which are your own. As far as he's concerned, and he's probably right, this is not something we can ever know to be true. You can't ever find evidence which shows you that people are free-willed; in fact, if you actually look into the evidence, it starts to look like we aren't.

But, the thought persists. Somehow, we are led to conceive of the idea of freedom. And, even though we can't know that we are free, we are nonetheless allowed to believe we are. After all, the thought makes sense.

That's the key, though. In Kant's system, a thought has to make sense in order for it to be a permissible thing to think, even if it is, strictly, not known. And it seems to me that the concept of the supernatural doesn't even pass that test. So, I can tell you what freedom is like -- it's the ability to make your own decisions, without compulsion from anything else -- but I can't tell you what the supernatural is. Indeed, no one can.

Moving away from Kant, here's another way of making the same point. We can't ever experience a mathematical operation like addition. We can experience instances of it -- here's one now: 1+1=2 -- but the general process of addition is something we have to infer from those instances. So, mathematics is inferential knowledge, not experiential (or empirical) knowledge.

Is the supernatural like that? Is it something we infer from our common experience? Certainly the explanatory and ontological arguments are attempts to infer the existence of the supernatural from common experience. But what, exactly, is inferred?

When it comes to mathematics, I can tell you what's being inferred. What's being inferred is a general rule: in fact, a set of general rules, which are used to manipulate certain symbols (mathematical ones, that is). I don't know what's being inferred when someone says that thus-and-so shows that the supernatural exists.

And, I continue to hold, no one really knows what it is. The supernatural is literally unknowable. To say that the supernatural exists is thus to say literally nothing.

Of course, at this point, religious folks will come back and talk to me about faith, as a special process of knowing which allows us access to the supernatural realm. So that's what I'll talk about next.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On Religion. 1. Metaphysics (2/4)


There's two basic problems about the metaphysical claim of religion, and when I say "basic", I mean very, very basic. Basic in the sense of fundamental, ground-level, at root.

Problem the first: the standard arguments in favour of the existence of the supernatural are awful. Problem the second: this is not because these arguments are unsophisticated, careless or poorly thought-out, but because the idea of the supernatural is completely empty.

Let me start, just to be crazy, with the first problem. You can argue for the existence of the supernatural in two ways. You can argue that there's something about the natural world which doesn't make sense, can't be explained, or couldn't exist without the supernatural. So, for example, you could argue (following the Catholic saint and philosopher Thomas Aquinas) that God explains the existence of motion. The details aren't important; what's important is that this argument starts by identifying something that exists in the everyday natural world -- motion -- and then tries to infer that the supernatural -- God -- is what makes this possible.

There's a long tradition of this sort of argument, especially on the Christian side of things. The (in)famous argument from design is another example. This argument, which can be found in the ancient Greek philosophers, but was most famously made by the 18th-century philosopher William Paley, Paley shows us something about the natural world, namely that it, in many ways, resembles a mechanical device. It consists of lots of parts which work together to produce sophisticated and unusual effects. Now, there are some things like that -- Paley uses the example of a watch -- which we know are made by a designer. So, something much more complicated, made of many more parts, which achieves more sophisticated and unusual effects than a watch -- like, say, a living being -- must have been made by a very sophisticated and powerful designer. And that designer must be a supernatural being, namely God.

It's the same basic argument again. Feature of the world must be explained by the supernatural.

These arguments never really work, though. The problem is that they trade on unexpressed assumptions and/or deep ignorance of the non-supernatural alternatives. Aquinas' argument about motion, for example, assumes that motion must start in something unmoving. He borrows this assumption from Aristotle, and it leads in an odd direction. If the movement of one thing must be started by another thing, then that second thing must already by moving. After all, it couldn't transfer motion to something if it weren't already moving itself. That means, then, there must a third moving thing which made the second thing move. And a fourth moving thing. And a fifth. And so on. Ultimately, both Aquinas and Aristotle end up believing in an Unmoved Mover -- something which is in motion, but is itself not moved. Aquinas calls this thing (eventually) God.

But this is in contradiction to our current best physics. (Okay, to be fair to Aquinas, he did live in the 13th century, so it's not like he could've known this.) According to current physical theory, all objects are made up of small particles which are in constant motion. It's only at a limit point of temperature -- absolute zero -- that the motion of basic particles stops. When objects move, then, what's happening is that the particles which constitute those objects are energized -- literally; they receive more energy -- and that energy is translated into movement of the object.

Yes, that is over-simplified. But the point I'm making is not something arcane about modern physics; instead, I'm pointing out how odd the Aristotelian physics that Aquinas' argument relies on really is. There are perfectly good alternatives which don't need an Unmoved Mover in order to explain motion, that can explain motion by appealing to motion that already existed, affected by energy which is either added to the object by an energy source (such as a star), or is redistributed within the object. Nothing supernatural needed.

The same sort of point can be made against Paley. (And it's worse for Paley, because he actually knew about the natural alternative to his supernatural explanation.) Paley seems to confuse the appearance of design with the presence of intent. Certainly some things, like living beings, look like they were designed for certain purposes. And usually when we see things designed for certain purposes, we know that they are designed for that purpose by a designer, a human being who intended that the object serve that purpose. In the case of objects that are not made by humans, though, the appearance of design is just that -- an appearance.

How does this appearance of being designed come about? The short answer is "natural selection", but as with many such common terms, it's not much of an explanation of the process. Here's the gist. You start with a simple living thing, so simple that we couldn't possibly think it was designed, unless we were being really obstinate. So, a single-celled organism, with no complexity and thus no purpose which it serves. We need, first, some instability in this organism. When it reproduces, it doesn't produce perfect copies of itself. Every once in a while, there's a copying error. So, we get variation in the population of one-celled organisms; they aren't all the same.

Now, some of these variations -- most of them -- are either neutral or maladaptive. The former means that there's no benefit or detriment to being different than the other single-celled organisms, where benefit and detriment basically boil down to ability to reproduce successfully. A benefit is thus the ability to have more offspring survive to produce offspring of their own; a detriment is the opposite. So, a difference that is maladaptive, then, is one which produces a detriment to the ability to produce offspring.

However, a few of the variations are actually beneficial. This means that the organisms which have them tend to be more reproductively successful. They might reproduce faster, or have more offspring survive to adulthood, or be able to kill off the offspring of other single-celled organisms. (Hey, anyone who told you nature was nice was lying.) Whatever the exact mechanism, these few organisms with a benefit will, eventually, overwhelm the organisms without the benefit and take over the population.

There is a wrinkle here, though, in that what is beneficial in one environment may be detrimental in another. So, say a single-celled organism suddenly develops a slightly higher tolerance to cold. This means that it will be able to reproduce more effectively in cold environments. However, there may be a trade-off; this organism will not do as well in warm environments. So, the cold-adapted organism will take over in cold environments, but will not take over in warm environments. This will then give us two seperate species of single-celled organisms: the original ones, who are in the warm environments, and the cold-adapted ones, who are in the cold environments.

You should be able to see at this point how this process -- which is called "evolution", if you weren't clear -- can give rise to the presence of design. If you keep repeating this process of slight changes from generation to generation, some of which produce benefit, you will eventually end up with a wide range of different species, all of whom seem perfectly suited to their environments. But it's an illusion. It's a function of limited perspective, because we can't see evolution happen on a mass scale, that we think these organisms must have sprung into being, designed exactly as they are by a great creator.

Even if you don't believe in evolution -- or modern physics, for that matter -- one thing you have to concede at this point is that they are totally naturalistic views, with no feature of the supernatural whatsoever. Any view which includes the supernatural, therefore, is going to have a problem. Because such a view wants to start with the natural and argue that the supernatural explains it. But these alternatives show that the natural features identified can be explained without the supernatural.

Although I can't show it here, because that would be a massive undertaking, every example of something in the world that has been trotted out to show that there must be a supernatural force producing it is a failure. And the failures work pretty much like the two discussed above. Once you start looking at what's been assumed, you'll find that there's something that's been overlooked, a naturalistic possibility that is at least as plausible -- in most case, more plausible, but let's be modest -- as the supernatural claim.

Now, there's another possible way to argue for the supernatural which I should say a little something about, and that's the idea that the supernatural is somehow necessary. This is not the claim that the supernatural is the explanation for some natural feature of the world. It's a much stronger -- stronger in the logical sense, of being committed to more -- view, which holds that the supernatural cannot fail to exist.

The most famous version of this argument is what's called the "ontological argument", which is a really terrible name for it, but we're kinda stuck with it due to hundreds of years of use. So. Ontological arguments try to show us that something about the very idea of the supernatural implies that the supernatural must exist, cannot fail to exist, is necessary in the strongest sense. The 11th century Catholic philosopher and saint Anselm had a version of this, as did the 17th century French philosopher Ren&233; Descartes. The outline is always the same, though.

We start by characterizing which features of the supernatural are essential or of greatest importance. Anselm says that the supernatural -- God -- is the greatest possible being that can be conceived. Descartes said something similar; God is that being which can be clearly and distinctly perceived as supremely perfect. The point, however exactly you phrase it, is the supernatural has something essential or basic to it, a fundamental quality.

We then conclude that this fundamental quality is such that it cannot fail to exist. Anselm holds that a being which exists is more perfect than a being which does not, and thus the most perfect being that can be conceived is a real God. Descartes similarly argues that the clear and distinct perception of God as a supremely perfect being would not be such a perception if there weren't a real supremely perfect being which it was a perception of.

It's a weird bit of reasoning, isn't it? It's clearly pretty clever; I've summarized drastically here, but the original presentations are worth looking at, just for the level of care that goes into them. And there are many newer variants which are even more sophisticated. But, for all that, the ontological argument has more than a whiff of sleight of hand about it, almost as if we temporarily looked away while the arguer was pulling the card out of his sleeve or the rabbit out of the hat, thus leaving us disconcerted when it "magically" appears in his hand.

There's actually a lot of attempts to show what's gone wrong with the ontological argument, which are even more careful and sophisticated and complex. I won't get into them, though, as I think it's really enough to show just how weird the logic of the argument is. The exact diagnosis of what the weirdness is, and what sort of weirdness it is, and whether there are other arguments with similar weirdness, can be someone else's problem.

We start with a concept, an idea we have. That idea has a feature. This feature implies that the idea is of a real thing. There's problems with every step in this sort of reasoning. First, not everyone has the same concept of what the supernatural is; it's a loose concept, after all, and it's implausible that everyone shares the same idea. Second, not all ideas of the supernatural share the same features, let alone the feature of being perfect. (More on that in just a bit.) And, third, it seems very weird to conclude that an idea is of a real thing because of some feature of the idea. Usually, it works the other way around: we know our ideas are of real things because of the way the things are. So, my idea of a zebra is of a real thing because I can go and find some real things which match my idea. I know my idea of a unicorn is not of a real thing because I cannot do so; any things which match my idea are fictional objects, not real ones.

Now, what's gone wrong here? Why are these arguments bad? The people who advanced them aren't ignorant or stupid; and the arguments themselves are pretty carefully put together. There's even long, long debates about how such smart people could give us arguments that are this bad. I think it's because of the second problem I mentioned above: the idea of the supernatural is completely empty. And given that, it's impossible to have a serious debate about whether the supernatural exists. It's a debate without any real content, because the word "supernatural" doesn't actually mean anything.

I don't intend here to say that "supernatural" has no clear meaning or a disputed meaning. A word like "liberty" has a disputed meaning; it means slightly different things to different people, depending on overall political or ethical orientation. However, the different meanings are clear (more or less). It's a case where there are several possibilities, and arguments arise over which of the possibilities is better. Similarly, a word like "small" has an unclear meaning. The central idea of the word is straightforward -- it's the opposite of big, it's related to tiny -- but exactly which things count as small, where the boundary between small and big lies, and so on, are not settled. And, really, probably can't be settled; "small" seems to be a word that will never be clear.

But what can we make of "supernatural"? If we look at the construction of the word, it just means "above natural" or "beyond natural", which is unhelpful. After all, these are just metaphors. The natural isn't a place, so you can't literally be above it or beyond it. Metaphors are nice to illustrate a point, often quite vividly, but they don't actually make a point on their own. I mean, if I tell you that light is a wave, that's a nice metaphor: you know what waves are like, so you can get the idea of light flowing in a similar way. But that doesn't actually tell you what it means to say that light is a wave; that work is done by a stack of physical theories which take a while to explain (but everyone really should have at least a passing familiarity with).

You could also, I suppose, say that "supernatural" means "not natural". But that's pretty useless, too. After all, you can tack "not" in front of anything; it's a purely formal move. "Unreal" just means "not real"; "unwanted" means "not wanted"; "undead" means "not dead". And the list goes on. In no case does this actually tell us anything about what the unreal is like, what it is to be unwanted, and whether anything is actually undead. Why not? Because all we're told is what these things aren't.

Now, I hasten to add, often being told what something isn't is a useful way to triangulate on what it is. If I know that, say, the undead aren't dead, then that can help me to discern what they are like. I know that the dead don't move around, so I expect the undead to move around. And so on. But when it comes to the natural and the supernatural, taking the latter to be not the former doesn't serve that kind of purpose. And that's obvious once you start looking at some of the ways the supernatural gets characterized.

For example, the supernatural is a realm beyond time, space and causality. I mean, really: what is this supposed to mean? Every single thing I have experienced in my life is a thing within space and time, is a thing with a location and a duration. Furthermore, every single thing I have experienced is related to other things by cause and effect; it causes some things to happen, in certain circumstances, and it is caused to undergo change by other things, again in certain circumstances.

To make matters worse, I have literally no idea what a thing outside of space, time and causality is. I can't think of a thing like that. And, really, neither can you. Our thoughts are of things we can possibly experience. Maybe not things we have actually experienced -- we can creatively imagine, after all -- but at least possible objects of experience. So, things which have locations in space, durations in time, and stand in cause and effect relations.

In fact, the possible objects of experience have lots of other features too, which we are unable to conceive of things without. So, saying the supernatural is without space and time is like saying it is without perceptible qualities, like colour and shape for objects, timbre and pitch for sounds, and so on. Everything that we are capable of thinking of, bringing to our minds at all, has some qualities we can perceive, at least potentially.

In short, "supernatural" is a label people pull out when they don't want to say something is natural, but haven't a clue what it's actually like. So, we get metaphor -- beyond natural, above natural -- and arbitrary nonsense -- beyond space and time -- instead. The term "supernatural" is thrown around like it means something, such that religious people even say that the supernatural exists, but really, at heart, the term has no meaning at all.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Religion. 1. Metaphysics (1/4)

What are the metaphysical claims of religions? It sort of depends on the religion. I say "sort of" because, although there are distinctions between the ways religions deal with metaphysics, these distinctions aren't really all that important. It's like changing the icing without changing the cake; it may look and taste a little different, but it's still the same old cake underneath.

"Metaphysics", for those who aren't familiar with or, worse, have a really screwed-up idea of, the term is a word that derives from the works of Aristotle. In the standard way of organizing them in the Middle Ages, there was a book called the "physics" which dealt primarily with motion. Then there was the book after the physics and, in Latin, "meta" means something like "after". So, the "metaphysics" is the book after the "physics".

However. The meaning of the name quickly got changed so that, instead of just referring to the book as a title, it instead referred to what the book was about. And Aristotle's Metaphysics discusses the fundamental nature of the world, including what it is to exist, what sorts of things exist, and how things can continue to exist and yet still change. So, that's what "metaphysics" now means: it's the branch of thought that deals with fundamental questions of existence and reality.

Now, let me be clear: there's nothing wrong with metaphysics, as long as you do it carefully. Real, rigorous philosophical metaphysics is worth studying, if only because it makes your brain hurt and leaves you questioning what actually exists, anyway. (There are reasons most academic philosophers drink.) But these are important questions and they are not answered by any science; science, after all, is only capable of talking about the world that exists, not about what makes that world capable of existing. If you wonder what atoms are like and how they work, then you're interested in doing some science; if you wonder why there are atoms at all and what it means to say that atoms exist, then you're interested in doing some philosophical metaphysics.

Religion, clearly, makes metaphysical claims. The standard Judeo-Christo-Islamic axis -- we could throw in Zoroastrianism too, of course -- claims that there is a supernatural being of unlimited power, intelligence and compassion who created us and all things that exist. If anything's a metaphysical claim, that is. It doesn't tell us anything about motion or light or any of the other standard concerns of physics; instead, it tells us how existence is possible, where existence came from, and how the world came to be at all.

This sort of approach to the metaphysical derives from a much earlier, much older tradition which saw the entire world as imbued with spiritual entities. Rivers had spirits, as did trees, the weather, natural disasters such as earthquakes, fire, and so on. The Judeo-Christo-Islamic version takes this to the ultimate degree -- instead of treating gods and spirits as a superior order of living being, God becomes the superior order of being Him/Itself. There is no longer a sort of additional species, the spiritual one, but a single being which contains all the power that was previously attributed to the pantheons of ancient gods.

Of course, this isn't the only way that religions make metaphysical claims. It's a common mistake to focus just on the Western religious traditions. These are clearly very important, having dominated history in the West for millennia, as well as significantly affecting the East. But they're not the whole story.

For example, some versions of Buddhism hold that there are no divine beings, strictly speaking. (Some versions disagree; there are strands of Chinese Buddhism, in particular, which treat spiritual beings called bodhisattvas as at least quasi-divine.) Instead, there is a process which underlies the physical world that we observe and interact with, a process of reincarnation which accounts for the existence of the living beings that we see, and for how they change and develop.

Similarly, Taoism holds, more or less, that there is a literally indescribable process -- called Tao -- which underlies all change and development in the physical world. Taoism counsels us to, effectively, surrender to this process and allow it to determine our fate.

There are also versions of Hinduism which discard literal talk of deities in favour of, again, an underlying or unifying principle -- the Brahman -- from which all existence and all things that exist emanate.

So, it would be a mistake to think that the metaphysical claims of religion are best understood as being about particular beings. They could be, as in ancient spiritual traditions, and as in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic axis, but that's not fundamental. What's fundamental is that religion, in making metaphysical claims -- claims about existence, how things come to exist, what things actually exist -- makes those claims about some other order of reality.

That is, rather than appealing to something about the natural world which makes it exist -- its necessity, its inevitability, its unity, its basic laws -- religions think that the natural world is a secondary world, which depends for its existence on another sort of world. The simplest name for this other world (and there are many names) is the supernatural.

So, that's the basic metaphysical claim of religion: that the supernatural exists, and the natural depends upon it. Unfortunately -- for the religious, although not for disreputable atheists like me -- it's nonsense.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On future plans.

As I'm heading into one of my periodic moments of frustration and disgust with politics and current affairs in this third-rate, bush-league country of ours (I mean, seriously, do we need another superficial nitwit trading on his father's name for influence and power? Whether the name is Trudeau or Ford, it's equally disgraceful; say what you like about Harper, but at least he earned his position by good old-fashioned brown-nosing and a certain innate tendency towards ruthlessness. Not to mention that the Libs are still incapable of articulating a policy vision that's substantially different from that of the Conservatives and, unlike the Conservatives, have no real ambition for making the country great. The Conservatives' problem is their ambitions are flawed and doomed to failure by their policies, but at least they want something for Canada. The Liberals only want things for themselves -- still, now and always. Anyway, for an aside, this is getting long, so back to the point) I intend to go back to a point I last touched on some months ago. I don't find it sufficiently interesting or important to make it into a book segment -- and if you aren't reading the other blog, you just suck -- but a long pamphlet seems about right.

That topic, dear readers, is religion.

As I see it, there's four areas of concern within the topic, and I'd like to talk about them all.

First is the metaphysical aspect. This is the obvious one, but also the least relevant. Very few religious people, in my view, believe in a deity as a straightforward objective reality. At some point, people clearly did, but I suspect that this belief is holding on as little more than a formula. Anyone who seriously believes there's some sort of super-being outside normal space and time -- who doesn't take it as a metaphor or an abstraction or a moral ideal or some such -- is so deeply irrational that they should probably be kept away from sharp objects. That said, it's a fun point to play with because it sets the stage for pointing out the problems with the other aspects of religion; the metaphysical aspect is so obviously screwed up that starting with it gives a bit of a rhetorical edge to the later points.

Second, there's the epistemological issue. This is, simply, the problem of faith. "Faith" can be a weasel word, used by cowards to insulate some cherised beliefs from rational scrutiny. In that sense, faith isn't worth talking about because it's just a disavowal of responsibility for one's beliefs, and a refusal to engage seriously with the beliefs of those who disagree with you. There are, however, other senses of faith which are worth taking more seriously. For example, Kant's sense of rational faith, applied to the things that one can choose to believe in but never really know, for they lie outside the reach of experience (and, we could add, logical inference), and thus are literally unknowable. There is no proof for them, but also no proof against them, and thus one can only have faith in them. That sort of thing is an interesting attitude, and it's worth considering where it goes wrong.

Third, there's the moral issues. Many people rely on their religious beliefs to provide them with moral teachings. This is a basically juvenile approach, pushing responsibility for what one does and says onto some external force which (see point one) doesn't actually exist. But not only does religion teach us to be dependent for our moral views, it also warps us by eliminating or degrading our sense of human dignity, leading us into a sort of slavery. And religion also inculcates a list of vices which is pretends are actually virtues, modesty and humility among them.

Finally, there are political issues. This requires reading "political" broadly; the issue worth talking has nothing to do with, say, the US Catholic bishops taking shots at Obama for daring to say that health insurance should cover contraception. No, this is political in the sense of communal, of involving relations between people. It's probably the strongest argument in favour of religion that it provides people with a community, devoted to some sort of common purpose, many of which purposes are justifiably considered good. However, I suspect that there's very little that's actually religious here. That is, while it is true that groups can be good, and common purpose can be good, it's not true that these are necessary, nor is true that religious communities are a necessary or even preferable form of political unit.

So, stay tuned. This should be fun, at least for me. If it goes well, I may throw things together, tighten and edit them up a little, and e-publish it on Amazon or something as a little experiment in e-publishing. I'm not at all convinced that one can make a living publishing things any more, but it might be possible to at least make some pocket money.

Friday, June 22, 2012

On universities and climate change deniers; mortgages, immigration, and policy-on-the-fly

A few things for today. First, I noticed Michael Coren whining last night about an OSU prof named Nicholas Drapela, who was allegedly fired for denying climate change!!!!!

Nonsense. Drapela's webpage (which is still up as of this writing; see here) lists his academic appointments as follows:
  • Visiting Assistant Professor, Whitman College 1998-99
  • Visiting Assistant Professor, Colorado College 1999-2000
  • Assistant Professor, St. Martin's College, 2000-02
  • Instructor, Oregon State University, 2002-
And his BS and PhD are both from OSU.

Here's how you read this, for the non-academics out there. Drapela got his PhD from OSU and went out into the wilds of the academic job market. He lucked out, and landed a few VAP jobs. A VAP is a long-term contract position. It's term-limited, and there's usually a ceiling on the number of times they will renew the contract. It is quite rare to be hired to a full-time gig -- so, tenure-track, i.e., a straight Assistant Prof -- at the same place where you're doing your VAP. Usually, you have to leave for a bit and come back.

So, after his two VAP's, he lucked out again, and got an Assistant Prof job at St. Martin's College. Which lasted 2 years. Eep. That's not good. Unless this was another limited-term appointment like the VAPs and just had an inflated title, then leaving after 2 years means either he was shitcanned or he failed his tenure review. (Two years is a short time for a tenure review, at least in philosophy, but the timelines may be more truncated in chemistry.) Either way, he was shown the door. I suppose he could have quit, but in this market, no one who wants to be an academic quits a tenure-track gig.

Worth noting, incidentally, that both Whitman and St. Martin's are in WA state, so he didn't really travel far from OSU, except for that Colorado gig. Not usually a good sign; usually, in order to succeed as an academic, you have to be willing to move around quite a bit before you hit that TT job.

Consequently, he winds up as a contract instructor -- which means that the contracts are short-term and course-by-course -- at his alma mater. Probably, he called them up and asked for help, and was given something as a favour. And either it didn't work out particularly well, or (more likely) they didn't have an additional course to give him for next term, so he didn't get another contract. There may be seniority rules in play here -- more senior OSU instructors get first dibs, so nothing was left to give to him -- or there may be some sort of internal thing going on -- e.g., a new TT hire has a trailing spouse (i.e., one academic is hired to the tenure-track, but is married to another academic, and negotiates for contract jobs for his/her spouse). Or they just don't feel like helping him out any more; he may have burned a bridge or two.
The guy wasn't fired, for his views on climate change or anything. He didn't get another contract. Contract work is tenuous -- the (not funny but true) joke is that it's the "tenuous-track" in academia. You may not get hired back. It may be because of something you did or didn't do; it may also be because of broader factors which are not within your control. For anyone to claim there's some sort of conspiracy to get climate change denialists is laughable anyway; to use this sort of case as an example moves the bar from laughable to utterly hysterical. (In both senses of the term "hysterical".)

Anyway. Second point. Deficit Jim tells us that he needs to adjust the mortgage rules to cool off the housing market. And Jason "No Funny Nickname" Kenney tells us that there's hordes of foreign, probably brown, criminals that need to be hurried out of Canada before they blow us up or burn down our churches, and they can't possibly have any sort of appeal or opportunity to explain themselves, dontcha know.

What is with this government and making up policy on cocktail napkins at 2 o'clock in the morning? I'm not even going to say that these are necessarily bad ideas, but there are big, gaping, obvious objections to them. Just off the top of my head, for the mortgage thing:
  1. How does this help those who cannot afford homes due to income not keeping pace with prices?
  2. What impact will this have on those who were hoping to downsize when retiring?
  3. What impact will this have on homes currently on the market?
And for the immigration thing:
  1. What if you plead guilty to a crime because, under the old rules, that would keep you from being deported but, under the new rules, the sentence is enough to get you deported?
  2. What about families where the children are born here, but one (or both) parents is not a citizen and convicted of something?
  3. How many foreign criminals are there in Canada, really, and are they all so bad they need to be removed from the country without any appeal whatsoever?


It's the omnibus budget bill all over again. Everyone jumped up and down as if that, that were the worst example of how Il Duce Harper and his minions run this country. But it never was any such thing; it's typical of the way these guys make policy. They don't think about consequences. They don't consider alternative points of view. They come up with an idea, ram it through the legal channels, and leave everyone else to live in the mess they've made.

2015 can't come soon enough.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pressed for time.

So, no update today. However, there will be an update tomorrow (unusual, as I generally only update Monday to Thursday).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On preserving the past.

The Conservative Party of Canada talks a really good game about a lot of things. The economy, for example. We've all heard how they are masters of the economy, creating jobs, opening up opportunities, developing new sectors, and so on. It's not working out so great, but they don't really seem to care. After all, for them and their base -- and, for that matter, the idiot media -- it's all about the narrative. It's all about the story. As long as you tell the right story, then reality and all its messy attendants -- suffering, misery, death -- can be airily dismissed.

Speaking of stories, the Conservatives under Il Duce Harper proclaim themselves the guardians and protectors of our great Canadian history. They want us to be proud of being Canadian, to see how glorious our past has been, how great our future can be.

Except, there's certain parts of our history they don't seem to be very big fans of. For example (and I'm working from memory here, so some details may be a tish hazy): last night, watching the news, saw something from, I believe, Brandon, MB about a new memorial wall for WWII pilots. Which is fine. I'm not objecting to this. And the feds ponied up some money for it. Again, still fine.

But I was also watching the news from Winnipeg, only to see that the Louis Riel House has had its federal funding cut. You remember Riel, right? Metis dude, rebelled against the federal government back in the 19th century, helped found Manitoba, ended up getting executed for treason. Anyway, he has a house -- technically, it's the house where he lay in state after being hanged -- in Winnipeg which you could go and see, and have a guided tour. The feds pulled the funding for the tour, which means that you could now only go and look at the outside of the house and look around the grounds.

Isn't that interesting? Money for a monument to pilots, no money for tours about a (disputed) Father of Confederation.

(This one has a somewhat happy ending, as the Metis Foundation has stepped up to fundraise like nuts to keep the house open to the public. But, really, it's part of our history -- why do they have to keep it open to the public?)

Another example. Everybody and their sibling has been flipping out over the Conservatives' austerity budget. And there's lots to hate there. But here's a cut that doesn't make any sense: lighthouses. Not just regular ol' lighthouses which ships navigate by; historic lighthouses, which serve as a physical connection to our maritime history. But, the federal government has decided that it no longer has any money to pay for upkeep, and wants to ditch them. That's over 500 lighthouses.

There is a process to apply to Parks Canada to get them designated as national heritage sites, which would fold them into the Parks Canada budget. (Which is also being cut, in case you hadn't noticed. Reduced hours and reduced staff at national parks this summer, folks. Happy camping!) Parks expects about half of the lighthouses designated for closure to get their applications in on time; there is no indication yet as to how many might get approved. I'm guessing not many, given that Parks doesn't have enough money to handle what it's already trying to run.

The lighthouses scheduled for closure and sale include the well-known Peggy's Cove lighthouse. Fortunately, the government of Nova Scotia is trying to buy that one from the feds. Unfortunately, the feds are refusing to restore it to a decent condition before selling it. The paint is peeling badly, and restoring that would require stripping the paint back to concrete and starting over, which could cost about $500K. The NS government is saying, reasonably enough, that since the paint degraded when the feds were in control, it's their problem to fix. The feds are saying, effectively, that they'll cheerfully let the lighthouse rot before they spend a dime on it.

Isn't that interesting? There's money for military history, lots of money, apparently; and lots of government attention, too. (Heritage Minister James Moore was in TO at Fort York for the bicentennial of the War of 1812.) But there's no money for maritime history. Unless there's warships or submarines involved or something, I suppose.

The Conservatives say that they want to preserve our history and make sure we remember our glorious past. That's what you'd expect conservatives to say. But what they're actually doing is quite radical -- they are rewriting our past, obliterating elements they don't like, overemphasizing the elements they do.

And since this government is clearly not willing to listen to anybody but sycophants and ideologues, the best bet for all concerned is to start leaning on the provinces and the cities and towns. If the Government of Canada isn't concerned with Canada's past, then there's no other way that I can see to preserve it.

(On an unrelated note: Ottawa, you lucky bastards. I watched Rogers' Talk Ottawa last night, and they had an actual, serious, informed debate about building light rail lines and public transit generally. You lucky, lucky bastards. Not sure it makes up for having to live in Ottawa, though. I kid... mostly.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Apparently, the BC Supreme Court has legalized physician-assisted suicide, leading inevitably to a mass slaughter of everyone over the age of -- let's say -- 50.

Yeah, there's a lot of bullshit being tossed around about the decision. Without going into the nitty-gritty -- because I really don't have time or inclination to read a lengthy legal document -- here are some useful distinctions which might actually inform the debate. Although, gods forbid we have an informed debate about an important issue; let's just be partisan and sling mud!

(Too much Sun News is really, really bad for you, BTW.)

So, first point: physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is not equivalent to euthanasia. It's a form of euthanasia, but not the only one. Euthanasia, strictly, is the killing of a person who is otherwise going to die from some progressive illness. (Some folks want to expand the definition beyond that, but I tend to think that's just garden-variety suicide or murder. Possibly justifiable in both cases, but not euthanasia.) Euthanasia is usually divided into active and passive forms (there are some other distinctions, but this one is crucial). Active euthanasia involves actually doing something in order to hasten someone's death. Passive euthanasia involves refraining from doing something in order to hasten someone's death. So, administering a fatal overdose of a drug is active euthanasia; allowing someone to refuse nutrition is passive euthanasia.

I think most people don't object to active or passive euthanasia, when they're administered by the person who is dying. That is, when they are strictly suicide. We can all sort of understand being in terrible pain and seeing little point to prolonging it; even if we might decide differently for ourselves, it seems reasonable to allow people to make this decision on their own, without interference from others.

The sticky point comes when you get someone else involved. That's where PAS comes in. PAS, and other forms of assisted euthanasia, involve a third-party helping a dying person to kill themselves. So, when the dying person can't, because of physical or cognitive limitations, actually go through with euthanasia, the physician -- or whomever -- gets involved, and helps carry out the person's wishes. This could be passive, technically -- by ensuring that the dying person is not provided with treatment or nutrition, for example -- but is usually active.

Now, again, I don't really see any serious objections to this. I quite understand if individual physicians, or whomever, may not want to assist someone in dying. (Although, that said, maybe they should go and talk to vets, who do it all the time, about whether it's kinder to let someone suffer or to ease them on their way.) I wouldn't suggest that anyone be forced to assist in euthanasia. However, if the assistant is okay with it, and it's a clearly-expressed wish of the person being euthanized (so, no coercion, clear mind, etc., etc., the standard set of conditions for determining if someone really wants something or not), I see no important objections to assisted active euthanasia.

What I'm noticing, though, is that people who object to the court's decision have failed to distinguish the above form of assisted active euthanasia, where an assistant, often a physician, helps a dying person fulfill a clear request, with a slightly different form of euthanasia, which is much more problematic. This is active, assisted euthanasia where the dying person's wishes are unclear, coerced, or simply unexpressed; in other words, where the physician, or whomever, substitutes his or her judgement for that of the dying person.

Often, we are okay with this, legally and, I think, ethically. When someone is not capable of making important medical decisions for themselves, we expect those who are close to them -- or officially-appointed delegates -- to take on the burden of making those decisions. So, I don't see the problem if that's the case: if the physician, or other assistant, has been given the power to make medical decisions for the dying person, and decides that now is the time for euthanasia, either active or passive in form.

If we're dealing with a case where a person has clearly stated they do not wish to be euthanized, then there is equally no problem. This person should not be euthanized, at least not actively. Passively is a different story; given that medical resources are always scarce, there comes a point where it is, I think, legitimate to remove scarce resources from a dying person and provide only palliative care.

The only problematic case that I see is where the decision-making power is ambiguous or not delegated, and/or where the person's expressed wishes are unclear.

But. It's nonsense to say that all cases of euthanasia are like this one. Not all cases are active. Not all cases are assisted. Not all assisted cases are cases where the dying person's wishes are unclear.

It's nonsense to say that we should make broad, sweeping laws in order to deal with narrowly-defined cases. This is a general point, but it's worth repeating: laws can be crafted more carefully; trying to deal with difficult issues requires precision, not brute force.

It's nonsense to say that seniors will be butchered by uncaring physicians, because in most case of euthanasia, we're dealing with people who have clearly expressed a wish to die (or, equivalently, have given the power to decide that to someone else, who expresses such a wish). This one's actually very bad, as it's a general slander on physicians who work with the dying; I've yet to run into even one who wants a patient, even a difficult one, to die.

And it's nonsense to say that it is clearly wrong to euthanize someone where it's not clear that they wish to be euthanized and/or it's not clear who has the power to make that decision. The point of such a case is that it's not clear. There's no general principle to appeal to here; nothing you can use to make the decision easier. This is the hardest of hard cases, where you have to collect as much information as possible and make the best decision on that basis that you can, allowing that you might get it wrong. For laws to get in the way and dictate that decision one way or the other strikes me as frankly juvenile.

(Oh, and, the less said about Margaret Somerville's recent nonsense the better. I now know that she is philosophically informed, so the fact that she spouts such foolishness is clearly a result of inclination, not ignorance.)

Monday, June 18, 2012

On the glories of politics.

Anybody who thinks they can explain how an anti-austerity, pro-stimulus party won in France, a pro-austerity, anti-citizen group of parties won in Greece, and a religious radical won in Egypt -- all in about 24 hours -- is either lying or crazy or both.

Oh, and, apparently Justin Trudeau will save the Liberal Party of Canada. No, really, some people think that.

Some nights, you've just gotta laugh at politics. It doesn't make sense, because people don't make sense.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On "Tax Freedom Day"

Well, that was two rather unpleasant weeks.

I've decided to do away with the Sun Talk thing. The joke was getting old, I think. There's only so many ways to call lying imbeciles lying imbeciles before it gets boring.

However, I do have the advantage of watching a metric shit-tonne of news and news-related talk every night, so that does give me some grist for the mill.

For example: did you know that the haven of old right-wing white men, the Fraser Institute, has put out a trendy music video on how taxes are evil and we should all celebrate "Tax Freedom Day"? Such hipsters they are; so cool and with-it, as the kids say.

The whole concept is ridiculous, really. Rousseau and Locke both argue persuasively that the sort of freedom you have outside of a society is a freedom appropriate to brutes; the sort of freedom which is worth having only comes as part of forming a social unit with others. And that freedom comes with a price tag, namely, taxes.

Yes, I know: the Fraserites always say that they're just putting out information and you can't make a decision about what level of taxation is good or bad unless you know what taxes are actually being paid. And that's fine, except it's total bullshit.

It's true that you need to know what a situation is before you can begin to evaluate it. However, it's false that the Fraser Institute doesn't evaluate the situation. It's in the name, after all: "Tax Freedom Day". The day when you are liberated from the horrible chains of taxation. They've already decided that we are "overtaxed" (which is term that means anything, hence nothing), and are cherry-picking data in order to prop up that claim.

It's dishonest, and transparently so.

I don't know -- and don't care -- about the details of how the Fraserites calculate the amount of taxes paid by the average family. I suspect it's a mean number, which is misleading to begin with; and I also suspect there's some double-counting involved, as well as some totally arbitrary exclusion of tax credits and refunds. I have no evidence really for these claims, except to say: I know the type of people who think they are "overtaxed", and this is how they think.

Generally, I find it a poor argument to complain that someone doesn't deal with thus-and-so when they are clearly trying to address such-and-such, only tangentially related to thus-and-so. "Men's rights" advocates do this when they complain that campaigns to end violence against women and children don't talk about men; and hardline Israeli supporters do this when they complain that groups against Israeli apartheid aren't condemning the actions of the Iranian regime. It's a complete non sequitur. If someone is trying to talk about topic x, it's irrelevant to say that they aren't talking about topic y.

Unless the reason that they are talking about x is because they really what to talk about z, which is also related to y. In other words, you've gotta connect the dots a little. "You didn't talk about this!" is nothing; "you said you were going to talk about this, but you've completely ignored this other aspect" is pretty damning.

The Fraser Institute claims it supports "greater choice, less government intervention, and more personal responsibility". Forget, for a moment, that it's a nonsensical grab-bag of glibertarian buzzwords. Just focus on that first bit: "greater choice".

You know who really limits individual choice? It isn't the government. It's massive corporations, whose influence on the market is so dominant that they can crowd out new entrants, buy up (and squelch) new technologies and delivery models, and prevent consumers from getting what they clearly demonstrate they want. Where is the Fraser Institute's annual report on that? Where is the Fraser Institute's annual "Corporate Freedom Day", the day where we stop working for corporate interests? Where is the concern with the ability of gigantic multinationals to come into our country, dig up our resources, pocket the profits, and leave us to clean up the mess?

The Fraser Institute is yet another one of those groups that proclaims itself a believer in freedom, but really believes in feudalism. The lords -- of industry, of capital -- can do as they like, and the peasants -- the peons and workhorses -- will have to like what they are given.

Friday, June 01, 2012

On Sun Talk for May 31, 2012.

Quick one, as I'm pressed for time.

The Magnotta obsession continues! Standing by what I said yesterday, BTW. Giving the guy too much attention is exactly he wants. Report on the situation, then move on to other news. Giving him hours and hours of airtime is letting him win (and scaring people for no reason).

Daily Brief

Yeah, I got nothing. Mostly Magnotta last night. A bit on Mulcair and the oilsands, but I've already talked about that: Mulcair is right, and the fact that execs are starting to try to sell the oilsands to provinces other than Alberta proves that they think he has a point. And then some malarkey on the US Presidential election; their politics is so screwed up that, were I to ever live there, I'd probably have to put blocks on the web and TV to avoid reading news about it.

The Arena

Oh, dear. Coren was in fine form last night, pretending to be some sort of moderate intellectual who is bullied by the devious left -- while shouting people down, talking over them, substituting rhetoric for logic, and lying his ass off.

It's hard to pick on just one of the topics he covered -- media bias (it's left-wing, doncha know, despite most major media outlets endorsing the Cons in the last election), atheists (who are all angry and dishonest, totally unlike certain Catholics I could name), same-sex marriage (which is a violation of natural laws, where "natural laws" are whatever the celibate Pope says they are), and abortion (there's a right to life, y'know, unless you're Iranian).

Let me just say, then, that I'm still waiting for the day when Coren grows up and realizes how empty and detached from reality his ideology really is. Last night's show was a perfect example of how deluded he really is.

Oh, and, Dave Silverman's ability to retain his sense of humour is superhuman.

Adler

There was a profoundly bullshit segment here trying to excuse the failure of Baby Boomers -- as a generation -- to build a society which would leave their children better off than they are. The facts really speak for themselves, and the failure of Bonokoski to even mention them shows how dishonest he is.

Generation X on down will, clearly and objectively, have worse lives than the generations before them. And it's not the post-WW2 generation who's to blame here. Either the Boomers can realize, finally, that the world doesn't revolve around them and they have to start giving back. Or, the rest of us can stop taking their shit and make 'em.

Or we can do what Gen X has always been good at, and the Millennials are learning how to do, and whine pointlessly rather than do something constructive.

News Update

Magnotta, Magnotta, Magnotta. Whatever.

Byline

I loved the "Hunt for a Killer" graphic Lilley was using here. Dark background, metallic lettering, a splash of blood (literally, an animated splash of blood spattering on the letters), a slab-of-meat sound effect -- glorious.

Unfortunately, he meant it seriously, not as parody.

The death penalty discussion came up again, this time in relation to Magnotta. I'm very tired of how dishonest the arguments about capital punishment are amongst those who are in favour of it.

Here's the thing. The moral arguments against capital punishment don't work. They either turn on implausible general principles -- pacifism, anti-violence -- or deliberately misrepresent the intentions of capital punishment -- e.g., the intent to execute is the same as the intent to murder.

However. That doesn't mean we should reinstitute a policy of capital punishment. The moral principle is only part of the issue; the other part is whether we can make that principle work in our world. And I think Lilley realizes we can't, at least dimly, hence why he kept referring to needing to have "incontrovertible proof" of someone's guilt before executing them.

The problem is that such proof doesn't exist -- unless we're doing certain kinds of mathematical or formal logical problems. Even in the sciences, "proof" is always provisional, always at least in theory subject to refutation. In law, it's even less likely that our proof is actually incontrovertible -- it might be very strong, but it's never going to be perfect.

Which means that any policy of capital punishment will, inevitably, lead to executing someone who was proven to be guilty, but who was actually innocent. (And, indeed, someone proven guilty who is, post-execution, proved innocent.) That's the question that has to be focused on: can we justify a policy which is intended to punish the guilty but ends up killing the innocent?

In my calculation, killing the innocent is worse than not punishing the guilty. Perhaps Brian Lilley adds things up differently; if so, he should be honest about it, tell us so, and offer what justification he has. Otherwise, this is all just air.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On Sun Talk for May 30, 2012.

Daily Brief and Arena

Pre-empted by coverage of the crazy foot guy. I generally think it's not a good idea to give someone like that too much attention. It's a variant on the "don't feed the trolls" motto; some people do things for attention, and this guy seems like a clear case. (As of right now, of course. Yesterday, I didn't consider that he might be genuinely sociopathic, which now seems to be the case.) Furthermore, overemphasis on violent crimes, without noting that they are becoming less and less common, leaves people jumping at shadows.

Actually, I'm pretty sure that's why Sun News did it. It's easier to sell people bullshit when they're afraid.

Adler

The stupid it burns.

Bonokoski thinks that separation of church and state means that religious institutions should stay out of politics (correct), and that governments should not tell publicly-funded religious schools what to do (incorrect).

Bonokoski thinks that no one should tell parents what to do with their children, unless their children aren't being active "enough" (whatever that means), in which case he and he alone can tell parents to stop being such pussies and let their kids play.

Honestly, this one's a little tragic, as I don't disagree with the conclusion, but the way he makes it is just idiotic. It's true that parents are paranoid and should let their kids play. It's also true, though, that you can't consistently complain about parents being told how to parent and then go ahead and... tell parents how to parent.

Oh, and, Ian Lee of the Sprott School of Business continues to disgrace himself. This time, he was comparing our EI system to Greece and Spain -- and these people accuse the left of hyperbole? -- and saying it's a good thing to force people to take lower-paying jobs that are beneath their skill level. Because what they want or what leads to a fulfilling life for them is apparently not worth worrying about.

Byline

Really not much here. As I said, Lilley's having an off-week. He really doesn't have much to talk about, so he's just going back to his tried and true stand-bys -- and saying the same old thing about them.

One new thing that cropped up was the abortion issue. I know you'll be shocked, but the Sunites are "pro-life", in the sense of the phrase which means pro-capital punishment, anti-abortion, anti-welfare state.

Here's the thing. You can't discuss abortion seriously and focus entirely on the interests of the fetus. For one, it's obscure how a fetus can have interests. It's not a separate biological entity, after all, never mind a developed person. For two, there's some very obvious people who thus get overlooked -- in particular, the woman who is actually bearing this fetus.

The only sensible argument against abortion that I know points out that a woman cannot demand that her fetus die. That's true; the most that a woman can reasonably demand is that the fetus be removed and, thus, no longer her responsibility. Right now, that means that the fetus will die. Medical techology being what it is, I can see a day where that isn't the case; that is, where fetuses can be removed even very early in development, and still develop to term.

In that case, I can see policies about abortion allowing women to give up their fetuses, and have them become wards of the state. (Then, into the foster system and onto adoption. All fine and dandy.) As things stand, though, the options are: force women to carry their fetuses to term (and criminally charge them if they don't) or allow abortion.

The "poor little babies" argument is the usual anti-abortion argument trotted out, though. And it's stupid. It's blatant emotional manipulation, and it pretends that a potential person's interests -- the fetus -- automatically override the interests of an actual person -- the woman in question.

There is something deeply morally wrong about treating an actual person as some sort of prop in a romantic fantasy.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Sun Talk for May 29, 2012.

The Sunites are really sleepwalking through this week. It's honestly hard to find new things to say about their topics, as they keep rehashing the same old nonsense. It's one thing to have a series of topics that you keep returning to; it's quite another to keep saying the same thing about them. The former speaks to interest, but the latter speaks to obsession -- and a lack of both insight and imagination.

Daily Brief

Akin is always reliable, in that, as the closest to a news program on the slate, he always has new things to talk about. And he's also, I think, the brightest of the four -- certainly the one with the broadest interests -- thus he rarely runs out of things to say.

Yesterday was no different. Did you know there's a Minister of International Trade? Yeah, me neither. His name's Ed Fast, and he's the MP from Abbotsford, BC. He was on to talk about a "blue chip panel" to advise the government on free trade.

This is fine, in theory, except for two problems. First, I can't find a list anywhere of who's on the panel. If some folks are advising the federal government on policy, shouldn't we at least know who they are? (To be fair, this may just be a failure of my Google-fu.)

Second, the folks on the panel are all CEOs, as if the only interests that matter in free trade are business interests. Certainly, business should be at the table. But who is going to speak for the rest of us? In theory, the Minister, I suppose, but how likely is that? What about labour? Environmental groups? Aboriginal peoples?

It's disturbing to think that, not only are bad free trade deals going to be negotiated that favour multinational business over anyone else, but representatives of business are going to be the only ones at the table. It's the same crap that led to (for example) that terrible copyright bill, which protected industry at the expense of everyone else.

Let me be clear: I think business should have a voice in free trade negotiations, and I have no in principle objections to free trade. However, bad free trade deals result when one voice drowns out the rest; and that's guaranteed to happen when only one voice gets to speak.

Arena

Poor oppressed Catholics have to live in society with the rest of us and can't do whatever they want with public money. Waah. Next.

News Update

This human foot story is weird. I was reading updates about it all night, in the other part of my job. Initially, I thought it might just be a sick prank -- fake foot, fake blood, maybe with some raw meat thrown in to generate the smell. Then I read that the foot was real, and still thought it was a really sick prank, from someone with access to body parts. (Not as odd as you might think. Someone who worked in a medical lab or for a medical supply company could have access.)

Then we hear that there's a torso in Montreal and another body part sitting in a Canada Post sorting facility and... yeah. This isn't just a joke from someone with a weird sense of humour. This is something else. I"m not sure what. Some sort of a "don't fuck with us" message? If that was the idea, then there would've been some sort of indication of who was responsible -- the person we're not supposed to be fucking with. The only other idea I have is that this is a mistake. The foot wasn't meant to go to the Conservatives, but somewhere else.

Adler

It's so wrong that I miss Adler, but, while Adler's amusingly crazy, Bonokoski is just obnoxious. Bonokoski was pushing the climate change denial line with some douche offering fatuous, simplified arguments on a complex problem. The latest cherry-picked data point is that the planet hasn't warmed in 15 years. Which is, of course, meaningless, as the claim is about an overall trend, not one line from one arbitrary historical point to now.

I really don't see why the right has to oppose the reality of climate change, honestly. What could be wrong about saying that, hey, let's make less pollution and maybe use our resources more efficiently? Aren't efficiency and keeping to yourself supposed to be classical conservative values? (That this breed of "conservatives" don't actually hold to conservative values is one reason for refusing to call them such.)

As far as I can tell, it's not ideology, but cruelty, that motivates the opposition. Some people are passionately worried about the environment, so let's make them feel bad. And nothing about that deserves to be called conservative, or taken particularly seriously.

Byline

Lilley is having a really off week. Like his heart just isn't in it. Some paint-by-numbers smears of Tom Mulcair, which make Lilley look stupid rather than Mulcair look bad. And some bizarre conspiracy-theorizing about the UN. Apparently they want to rule the world or something.

I guess Brian Lilley doesn't pay too much attention to how things work internationally, but the threat to sovereignty and liberty doesn't come from the UN turning into some sort of One World Government. They're far too bureaucratic and consumed by in-fighting.

No, the real threat is the fact that the businesses which exist domestically, and are at least somewhat restrained by domestic governments, are largely unrestrained internationally. There is no authority that they answer to other than themselves, once they cross borders or step outside them completely.

In other words, it's not that there are no governing institutions internationally, and we need to resist the creation of one. It's that there are governing institutions, but they are distorted. The international realm is governed by international business. And that's probably the biggest threat to our freedom there is.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On Sun Talk for May 28, 2012

Here we go again! In case you're wondering, I only work Sun-Thurs, so I don't get to watch the Friday Sun shows. Not to mention that they don't produce new ones on the weekend. Guess that's the vaunted right-wing work ethic. They might bitch about unions, but when it comes to something like a weekend, which unions got for us, they're totally cool with taking it.

Daily Brief

Ted Opitz -- y'know, the Con MP whose election was nullified by a court -- was on, trying to defend his appeal of the court decision to the SCoC. Here's my thing: Opitz has every right to appeal. That's the process; and, since the whole issue is about technical details of process, I don't think anyone can reasonably deny the man the use of a part of that process.

However, Opitz didn't argue that point. Instead, he tried to argue that nullifying the election would disenfranchise all the people who voted for him. Memo to Ted: dude, that's just first-past-the-post. If Wrzesnewskyj actually won, then, yes, technically, everyone who didn't vote for him wasted their time in voting. And?

Second memo to Ted: dude, if you didn't win, then you're disenfranchising all the people who voted for Wrzesnewskyj by staying in office. Why doesn't that bother you?

Arena

Michael Coren likes to end his show with a segment he calls "Corenucopia" (which doesn't even work, as the "en" adds an extra syllable), where he presents some weird or unusual story. There was certainly a cornucopia of bullshit in last night's show, though. Is that the truly weird bit? That someone this uninformed and logically deficient gets to go on TV and spew his nonsense?

Here's one: it's, apparently, religious indoctrination for a professor to pressure Catholic students to critically examine their religious beliefs. No, seriously, he said that.

Here's another: it's bigotry to point out that Catholics are bigots when they oppose same-sex marriage, but it's not bigotry to oppose same-sex marriage, as long as you're nice when you say it. He said that, too.

Third one: Coren agrees with author David Cohen that "liberal" ideals are best served by "conservative" policies. (Scare-quoted because they actually mean something more like "social democratic" and "socon libertarian", respectively.) One such ideal is equality, which is currently being decimated by the policies of our Conservative government. Counter-examples are apparently not worth mentioning in Coren's world....

News Update

In Krista Erickson's world, Thomas Mulcair raising concerns about the development of Western resources is "bashing" the Western economies. The fact is that AB Premier Redford and SK Premier Wall (ignoring BC Premier Clark, who isn't going to be Premier much longer, and MB Premier Selinger who at least seems to understand the point) are screwing over their provinces, by letting foreign -- principally, American -- companies extract resources and take the overwhelming majority of the wealth home; screwing over the rest of Canada, by turning us into a precarious resource economy, rather than a stable mixed-economy; and screwing over the world, by allowing extraction, and thus burning, of resources which will accelerate climate change and further poison our air and water.

But, y'know, if you point any of that out, it's "bashing". Honestly, what is with these people? First Christy Clark calls Mulcair "goofy", now people say he's "bashing" them. Did no one actually graduate from high school?

Adler

I'm not really going to bother with Mark Bonokoski's opening "editorial", where he rambled on about how he's morally superior because he never drew EI, even when he could, and thus no one else should be able to draw it, unless he thinks it's acceptable. It's much more fun to point out how stupid he is when it comes to transgender rights.

Bonokoski went on and on about how it's somehow bigoted to support transgendered people's right to determine their own gender identity. Apparently, this is part of the homosexual agenda (really, someone should start a newsletter or something with that title, then sue if people like this claim the "Homosexual Agenda" said something it didn't). His big example was of a transgender woman who wanted to use the women's changing facilities and showers at a healthclub, and the women objected. No, really. It's bigoted to say that since you identify as a woman, you should be able to use the women's facilities.

This was followed by the lovely suggestion that the real reason people are transgendered is that they have some sort of mental illness. Really. And the reason given was that not every transgendered person is happier after sex-reassignment surgery. No, really, that's the argument.

And this was capped off with a claim that transgendered people are such a small fraction of the population that it's really not worth worrying about their interests and needs. Yet, it was worth an entire segment smearing and dismissing their concerns.

Ya gotta laugh at these people, or else you might start taking them seriously.

Byline

So, Brian Lilley tried to revive the Yellow Menace last night. Apparently, the Chinese are doing something nefariously anti-Western by... investing in lots of Canadian companies. Because nothing says "we hate the West" like "hey, make a bunch of money for us, please".

The meat of the show was a totally incoherent attempt at an argument -- it's not even a bad argument, just mush -- where Lilley stated that the government was trying to control our lives and remove our freedom of religion because of such nefarious initiatives as schools trying to socialize children, regulating water heaters, and requiring the publicly-funded Catholic schools allow gay-straight alliances.

At no point did Lilley notice that the federal government is trying to control our lives by forcing us into lower-paying, more distant jobs through the gutting of the EI system. Because, you see, he agrees with that, so it's an acceptable form of social control.

I'd have a lot more respect for this line -- and might consider it a real argument -- if Lilley could manage a little consistency. Either you're against the government getting involved in people's private lives, or you're for it (possibly under a set of independent conditions). You can't just be against it when it negatively affects you, and for it when it doesn't. That's completely self-serving and not worthy of the slightest further consideration.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On Sun Talk for May 24, 2012.

I'm not sure what was up with the Sunites yesterday. I mean, they all went through the motions, but it really seemed -- to me, at any rate -- like their hearts just weren't in it.

Daily Brief

Perfect example. This was the least Con-friendly Daily Brief to my memory. A discussion of pork-barrelling by government MPs with someone from the odious Canadian Taxpayers Federation -- oh, and, memo to the CTF: I'm a Canadian taxpayer, and you don't represent me; so who, exactly, do you speak for? And an interview with Borys Wrzesnewskyj on a judge invalidating the Etobicoke-Centre election. Which, to be fair, did fall into the Conservative-friendly frame of "it's all Elections Canada's fault!", but that's pretty thin stuff.

So, yeah. No real issues for me here.

Arena

You'd think Michael Coren wouldn't disappoint me. But, he kinda got schooled by Sandy Hudson of the Canadian Federation of Students -- he couldn't even condescend to her properly -- and then there was a lot of nonsense about civility and "riot culture" and the sort of pseudofascist paint-by-numbers that Coren usually doesn't stoop to. (His stupidity is more sophisticated than that.)

Adler

And the trend continues! Bonokoski tried to hard to keep scaremongering about the mentally ill in relation to Vincent Li, but he completely botched it by inviting on Chris Summervile, the CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada. I don't think Bonokoski really knew what hit him when Summerville accused the Sun generally of allowing prejudice and hatred against the mentally ill to be spread on their network, in their newspapers and on their websites. And then he called Bonokoski ignorant to boot.

We should send the guy a fruit basket or something. If you can find the clip somewhere, it was freaking classic. Summerville completely smacked the taste out of his mouth.

News Updates

They actually featured Tim Hudak, who is apparently running to be Premier of Alberta. Why else would he go to Calgary and talk about how the oilsands are wonderful for Ontario?

Ontario PCs, seriously: you can do better than this guy.

Byline

More paint-by-numbers. Blah blah, CBC wasting money. This was actually more incoherent than Brian Lilley's usual blathering. The CBC is bad, you see, because they're using their status as a large broadcaster to set up (online) services which compete with private (radio, TV) companies. This includes a deal with Sirus XM satellite radio (a small private radio company). And that's bad because there's so many services available through private companies (if you're willing to pay through the nose and get a terrible service and/or don't live in Canada).

Yeah. It was that bad. And even Lilley got schooled, this time by lawyer Gail Davidson when trying to scaremonger about Omar Khadr. Davidson, who actually knows what the law says, pointed out that Khadr really can't be kept out indefinitely, and the longer he's out, the more compensation he'll likely win. And Lilley tried to talk over her, and she wouldn't have it, and he looked like even more of a tool than usual.

Oh, and, apparently Peggy Nash is a former "union boss". This came up during a discussion of the Cons' gutting of EI. It's really a lovely smear of a term; but, remember, Lilley's the same guy who whines whenever anyone says anything nasty about "corporate bosses", like Mitt Romney.

Not a good night for them, overall. It's says something when even the Conservative shills are getting tired of shilling.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Sun Talk for May 23, 2012.

Still playing with the format a little here. Rather than complain about everything the Sunites (good name? bad name?) have to say, I'll stick to just the main topics. Otherwise, this gets very long, and pretty tedious for me. I can only complain so much!

Daily Brief

I suppose I should say at least something official about the whole "Dutch Disease" thing, and it did come up in Akin's show. Tony Clement wandered around pretending to represent all Ontarians and said that Mulcair didn't know what he was talking about.

Yes, "Gazebo" Tony Clement tried to criticize someone else's grasp of sound economic thinking.

In any event. Dutch Disease is part of the problem, unquestionably; if you don't believe that, you don't know what Dutch Disease is.

The overall decline of manufacturing in North America is another part of the problem, however. Every manufacturing sector is hurting, likely because of the inevitable march of efficiency. All economies which focus heavily on one sector -- whether it's farming or resource extraction or manufacturing -- run into this. Sooner or later, any sector will be able to produce as much as is needed, if not more, with fewer and fewer workers. Efficiency gains are inevitable, as said, and they ultimately lead to unemployment. Unless you have a mixed economy, of course, plus some reasonable ideas on how to transition people into new sectors.

The other part of the problem is the unmanaged shift of the Canadian economy from a producer to a supplier. I call it "unmanaged" because it is. Effectively, the provinces and the feds are inviting foreign multinationals to come in, extract what they like, pay some pittance of a royalty, and skedaddle back to where they came from, laughing all the way. Going whole-hog for resources will lead to decline, either when the prices crash or, as noted above, when we get so good at doing it that we don't need as many workers.

The solution is to have a real industrial policy, with an emphasis on overall sustainability. (A word I'm starting to like, incidentally.) That would be not only environmental, but also economic. The Cons aren't providing that; the Liberals never have. Give Mulcair credit for seeing that we have a huge gaping policy hole and trying to draw attention to it. Like most, I'm waiting to see what the NDP comes up with in terms of fixes, but I'm willing to give them time to construct something. (Rather than the standard Liberal trick of stealing an NDP idea and using it to brand a pre-existing Conservative policy.)

Arena

You should see my notes here. Yeesh. The stupid, it does indeed burn.

The fundamental problem I have with Coren is he doesn't understand what he's talking about most of the time, and yet is too arrogant to just shut up and let someone more intelligent/informed explain things to him. For example, last night he was whinging about freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. In his view, both are violated when governments do such horrible things as, say, require Catholic employers to fund all healthcare for their employees, including reproductive services (this would be the US), or require Catholic schools to allow gay-straight alliance clubs, with the primary goal of illustrating that gays are not sub-human (this would be Ontario).

He's a very silly man, clearly. Freedom of conscience stops when it starts to infringe on other people's lives. You can believe whatever you want. You can do whatever you want. The moment it starts having a negative impact on me, however, then your freedom is exhausted. There is no freedom for someone -- Catholic, Muslim, Wiccan, whatever -- to impact on my life through their beliefs. If you're a Catholic employer and you don't want to provide healthcare for your employees, then you're basically screwed. Either don't employ people at all, or give them the healthcare they want and need.

Similarly, there is no freedom to take public money and spend it in a way which harms other people. If Catholic schools want to teach students how icky it is to be gay, then they can simply return all that lovely tax money they've received, and we'll plow that into the public school system. Hey, there's an idea for McGuinty: if he really wants to save money, why not dissolve the Catholic school system?

And, no, I have no idea how this all relates to freedom of speech. Coren invoked it a few times and I didn't understand what the hell he was talking about. Freedom of speech, legally, just means that the government can't force you to shut up. In these cases, actions other than speech are clearly what matters, so it's not even relevant. Furthermore, the government isn't telling people not to say things. So, who knows.

Adler

Mark Bonokoski. That's who this knob is.

We had a lot more nonsense tonight about "victim's rights", including the Vince Li case. Did you know that the mother of Tim McLean, the guy Li beheaded, is trying to get a law passed forcing all mentally ill people to be hospitalized indefinitely against their will?

You won't find this on the Tim's Law website, though. (Incidentally, if anyone from that site finds this page: it's "moot" point not "mute" point. Although, being mute would probably be a good idea in your case. Remember what Kipling said about fools.) They're very careful not to reveal the actual agenda, but Bonokoski tipped their hand a tish too far. The idea is that mentally ill people are so super scary, and psychiatry so super stupid, that all people who are mentally ill should be treated as sub-human animals and locked up to protect us decent normal folks.

I've frequently noted that there's a concerted effort in the world to wind things back to the Middle Ages. At least Bonokoski et al only want to wind us back to the Victorian era, with all its glorious asylums and abuse of the mentally ill.

Yes, of course, victims matter. The point is that offenders, mentally ill or not, matter, too. All this bullshit we're currently seeing, about reintroducing the death penalty (post-Rafferty trial), chucking the mentally ill into asylums, even those execrable "victim impact statements" that are now being read in courtrooms, shows a frightening degree of deference to the judgement of emotionally overwrought people, to such an extent that we forget that all people, even criminal people, are still people. And I know of no decent, reasonable morality that treats some people are deserving of more consideration than others.

(Suck it, egoists.)

Byline

Tra-la-la, climate change denialism. Love how they didn't mention that this is the last ever Heartland Institute Conference on Climate Change Nonsense. Open up your chequebooks, Sunites! You have nothing to lose but what little sanity still remains! Oh, and Tim Ball was on, with no mention of his economic ties to the oil and gas industry. Straight talk! What the consensus media won't tell you! And so on.

"Progressive" Blogger Warren Kinsella was featured in a bit on human rights. (I've never seen Kinsella as all that progressive, unless we draw the silly inference from Liberal to progressive. Furthermore, any aggregator that thinks the interests of women can be dispensed with in a discussion of abortion is not particularly progressive, either.) The discussion was about Human Rights Commissions "inventing" "fake" human rights. Scare-quotes for a reason; keep reading.

I'm with Bentham on this one, folks; rights are nonsense, and natural rights are nonsense on stilts. Now, I'm not enough of a Bentham historian to be sure, but I've always interpreted this as a point about morality, rather than a point about law. (With Bentham, it really could be either; his greatest work was, after all, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.) So, morally, rights are nonsense, unless you've got some kind of constructivist metaethic, in which case they are superfluous. (Everything a right does theoretically can be done by a carefully formulated duty; the converse, however, does not hold.)

Legally, however, rights make good sense. There are lots of laws which create rights, and those laws have (more or less) justification behind them. But that's the trick, innit: the law invents legal rights. They don't exist out in space somewhere, waiting for the law to recognize them. Law makes them up. So any debate which turns on a distinction between invented legal rights and non-invented legal rights is fatuous. All legal rights are invented.

The right question to ask is whether a legal right should be invented. The answer's not always "yes", of course, but it's equally not always "no".

The other point raised in the discussion related to the Charter, but anyone who takes the Canadian Charter as the last word on legal rights needs to swot up a bit. There are many other legal frameworks of rights, and it's far from clear that ours is the best. I'd suggest, in fact, given that the Charter does not protect a right to necessities of life nor a right to strike, that it very clearly isn't.