the new ussr illustrated

assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics

the myth of holistic medicine

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It does get my goat rather that so-called naturopaths, in spite of having varied and often contradictory therapies, love to call themselves practitioners of holistic medicine. It’s a feel-good term that, like spirituality, seems to make a virtue of its own vagueness. Of course, holistic medicine can be defined in a superficial sense – it’s treating the whole person, right? But how does that work in reality, and how do naturopaths manage it?

Well, the obvious answer is, they don’t. It’s nothing more than a propaganda term.

Clearly, holistic, whole-person treatment would be fabulous if it could be achieved, but it would entail not only knowing the whole anatomy and physiology of the client, but her psychology and her entire medical history from birth, and even before. Would there be any other way of treating ‘the whole person’?

Personalised medicine may in fact become the way of the future – I’ve heard as much – but that has nothing to do with naturopathy. That has to do with science – your personal microbiome, your heart rhythms, your cholesterol, your triglycerides, your lung function, your bowel movements, your bone density (not to mention your sequenced genome), taking more responsibility for those things as far as is possible and in co-operation with healthcare providers. Naturopathy is something else altogether – it’s about herbs instead of pills (unless they’re homeopathic), ‘age-old’ treatments such as reflexology and TCM rather than invasive tests and vaccinations, getting in tune with or detoxifying your body rather than taking impersonal prescriptions to your local impersonal pharmacist.

So the question is – how did taking an entirely chemical herbal treatment from a naturopath come to seem more holistic than taking a chemical such as theophylline prescribed by your specialist?

I don’t see how a naturopath would or could treat a client as a ‘whole person’ any more than a conventional GP could. Limited info, limited time, it’s the same whether your treatments are science-based or traditional. But I do know at least one happy client who swears by her naturopath, who really does treat the whole person, unlike the medical establishment, according to her. I haven’t pressed her to explain this, but I have my own nasty theory. The woman is clearly obese, and wouldn’t take kindly to being told so, and she’s found a practitioner whose greatest skill is to tell her everything but what she most needs to hear. At last, someone who really understands her, who really listens and accepts her own expertise about her own body. And it must be said that many doctors, full to the brim of years and years of training and practice, do sometimes treat their clients in an offhand or specimen-like way. The psychological effects of healthcare practice are surely underestimated. So many people, but especially the unhealthy, want to be seen as, or made, whole. ‘Holistic medicine’ therefore, makes for a very effective propaganda label.

Yet many treatments that eagerly make use of the holistic banner are about as far from being individualised as can be imagined.

Acupuncture supposedly manipulates your ‘chi’ or ‘qi’, a system of energy flow that, if it existed, could be individualised to the client. Some clients might have a different chi from others, just as we have different blood types, different hormonal levels, different cholesterol levels, different insulin levels, etc, all of which can be measured. But acupuncturists don’t measure our chi levels and give us a read-out. Why ever not? Surely that would be the holistic, personalised thing to do. The fact is, nobody, in the supposedly thousands of years of acupunctural history, has ever thought to isolate this energy force and describe its wave function or the molecules or particles associated with its action. Nobody has even shown the slightest curiosity about the physical properties of what is advertised as a fundamental energy source in humans and perhaps all other living things. That’s fucking amazing – the only amazing thing I can say about acupuncture. Yet, apparently, there are particular points in the body where chi is more abundant, and that’s where you should stick your needles, and at a certain depth, otherwise you won’t be in touch with the chi. So acupuncture depends entirely upon chi being a physical, measurable entity…

Say no more. Your chi can’t be personalised and made a part of your whole-person profile because it doesn’t exist.

Homeopathy also likes to travel under the holistic banner, and you’ll find it advertised in all those brochures featuring glowingly healthy individuals, often dressed in white, meditating or staring lovingly at the sky-spirits. The trouble is, homeopathic treatments are designed to treat the illness, not the individual. The bogus ‘law of similars’ involves swallowing pills which are supposed to contain material ‘like’ whatever it was that made you sick. If that doesn’t sound very scientific, don’t blame me. It’s obviously a problem if you don’t know what made you sick, but the solution is simple. Just pay attention to your symptoms – say itchy skin or funny-coloured urine – and take pills containing a substance that produces similar symptoms. But hang on, won’t that just make you more sick? No, not at all, because the offending substance will be diluted to infinitesimal proportions. Okay, but won’t that render it useless? Ah but you’re clearly unaware of the ‘law of infinitesimals’ which defines a substance as increasing in potency the more it’s diluted. Welcome to the world of homeopathy, where the more truth is watered down, the more obviously true it becomes.

But the point I wanted to make here, before becoming entranced by the homeopathic mindset, was a simple one. Far from treating clients as ‘whole people’, it is solely concerned with physical symptoms. A homeopathic treatment would work just as well on a horse or a hedgehog as on a human. The client’s humanity, let alone her particular history or psychological make-up, isn’t a factor. It’s as far removed from holistic medicine as you can get.

I could go on – reflexology, iridology, reiki, chiropractic – these are all bogus, and the fact that they all jump eagerly onto the holistic bandwagon is further evidence of their crappiness. Holistic medicine is an impossible ideal, though personalised medicine, where you take personal responsibility to educate yourself about and keep records of your own health and physical maintenance, in collaboration with health specialists, is a great way to go. And that involves a lot more than just holding hands in a smiley circle.

Written by stewart henderson

March 28, 2015 at 12:38 pm

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 1

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(Being a thousand words or so of mental drivel)

I’d prefer not to be coy about the title but I’ve a job to protect.

the delightful enthusiasm of children

the delightful enthusiasm of children

Began watching documentary series chronicles of the third reich, yet another rake-over of that terrible but ghoulishly fascinating period, and it kicked off with noted historian Ian Kershaw saying that the regime was unique in that it aimed to overthrow the entire Judeo-Christian system of ethics that sustained western Europe for centuries. Bullshit I say. No such thing. What nazism was overthrowing, or delaying or subverting, was the progress of western Europe, for example the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, movements towards democracy, individual liberty, internationalism, none of which owed anything to the Judeo-Christian belief system. This lazy thinking and remarking continually goes unchallenged. At the height of Judeo-Christian control we had monarchical dictatorships, divine right, religious authoritarianism, extreme corruption, torture, rigid hierarchies, feudal slavery, etc, a world of inhumanity and brutality. Not saying that Christianity caused this, life wouldn’t have been any better in China or Japan, doubtless. Depended on chance and ‘birthright’ as to how well you fared.


Reading the big bio of Darwin by Desmond and Moore, thinking how so much that was radical or extreme becomes mainstream within a few generations, such as materialism, atheism, democratic principles, equality for women, humans as apes. Chartism’s aims – extension of suffrage, taxation reform, the repeal of laws too unjust to be enacted nowadays, all horrific to the upper classes, who armed themselves with crowbars to protect their homes and privileges. And among them, quite a few favouring transmutation (though not of the Darwinian kind – more a sort of Lamarckian progressive development towards the human pinnacle) and atheistic science. Makes you think of today’s accelerating trends, e.g gay marriage. All these ideas were opposed because they would bring down civilisation as we know it. Rock n roll was another one.
Also thinking how science threatened and continues to threaten religion. Moslem student asked me last week, do you think humans come from apes? Could see what his hopes were, was happy to crush them and move on. No doubt he’ll return to Saudi, ask the question again and be reassured as to his human specialness. But maybe not. But in Darwin’s day, so many associates, Sedgwick, Henslow, Lyell, Owen, Whewell, even Herschel, even bloody Wallace, couldn’t countenance our ‘demotion’ to a primate, on grounds some of them didn’t even recognise as religious. How can it possibly be argued that religion and science are compatible? Only if we have a very different religion, and perhaps a very different science – panpsychism, spooky action at a distance, positively conscious positrons.

A love-hate thing with Darwin, all his stuffy aristocratic connectedness, his family’s money, but then his boldness of ideas, but then his timidity born of an unwillingness to offend, a need to be admired, feted, but two kinds of glory, the one for a grand idea that might just outlast the opprobrium of his elite class in mid-nineteenth century England, the other for being a model member of that class, civilized, restrained, highly intelligent, pushing gently outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The tension between immediate, hail-fellow-well-met acceptance and something more, his dangerous idea, something barely digestible but profoundly transformative.


Keep reading about the hard problem of consciousness, without greatly focusing. Don’t really believe in it. We’re surely just at the beginning of getting to grips with this stuff – but how much time do we have? Dennett talks of the mind as cultural construct, Cartesian theatre as he calls it, and you don’t need to have ever heard of Descartes to wonder at how memories, rehearsals, fantasies can be played out inside the head, inaccessible to everyone but yourself, but without the boundaries of the skull, or of a theatre, no straightforward boundaries of space or time, yet composed of reality-bits, physical and emotional. One of my first serious wonderings, I seem to remember (not trustworthy) was about this boundary-less but secret place-thing called the mind. Not sure about a cultural construct, seemed very real and self-evident to me, and a wonderful safe haven where you can think and do things for which you’ll never get arrested, never have to apologise, a theatre of blood, sex and brilliance…

But I don’t think I thought then, and I don’t think now, that this was anything other than a product of the brain because to me the brain was like every other organ, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, they were all mysterious, I didn’t know how any of them worked, and though I knew that I could learn a lot more about them, and would over the course of my life, I suspected that nobody knew everything about how any of them functioned, and the brain was just more complex and so would contain more mysteries than any of the others perhaps put together, but it had to come from the brain because, well everybody said thoughts were produced by the brain and these were just thoughts after all and where else could they come from – there was no alternative. And it seems we’re slowly nutting it out, but humans are understandably impatient to find answers, solutions. We like to give prizes for them.


Also reading Natalie Angier’s Woman, a revised version of a book brought out in the nineties. It’s a popular biology book from a good feminist perspective, and I’m learning much about breast milk and infant formula, about the breast itself, about menstruation, about the controversies around hysterectomies and so on, but her style often irritates, drawing attention to too much clever-clever writing rather than the subject at hand. It’s a tricky area, you want your writing lively and engaging, not like reading an encyclopedia, but especially with science writing you want it all to be comprehensible and transparent – like an encyclopedia. Angier sometimes uses metaphors and puns and (for me) arcane pop references which have me scratching my head and losing the plot, but to be fair it’s worth persevering for the content. But it shouldn’t be about persevering.

the most absolute way to lose credibility

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now I know not buy a used car from this guy

now I know not buy a used car from this guy

Daniel Dennett, in his most recent writings, excerpted in the second issue of The new philosopher (a mag which will be a part of my regular reading from now on) made this interesting point:

When you’re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document, and check each occurrence.

Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument. Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning).

Dennett goes on to prove the point with some examples. He performs a useful service here, for “surely” and similar terms like “clearly” seem anodyne enough to pass under our radar. The term “absolutely, not so, and as such, it’s far less sophisticated. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious signposts for BS that we have, and it should send any worthwhile skeptic’s antennae bouncing off the ceiling. The anti-vaccination guru screams that vaccination is absolutely the worst medical intervention in human history, the creationist that evilution is absolutely contrary to their god’s plan, and the climate-change denier asseverates that there’s absolutely no credible evidence…

Step no further, for here lurks the big bad demon of absolutely committed ideology. It’s not the sort of term you read in the philosophical articles Dennett has been targeting, but of course it’s everywhere on the internet, and in the generally unsophisticated arena of political debate.

So I was amused to hear our current human rights commissioner Tim Wilson falling into the trap, like a drunken stumblebum falling off a well-signposted cliff. Wilson was on a panel of the ABC’s current affairs program The drum, and one of the topics discussed was the impact that the anti-vaccination movement was having on the incidence of measles in the USA. Wilson’s response was essentially pro-science, and so condemnatory of the anti-vaccination trend, though he also invoked the interesting argument that this was to protect children, while adults should be free to be as anti-science as they liked, and presumably free to promote the kind of anti-science agenda that’s causing all the problems in the first place.

But while it’s a thorny question as to whether or not good science should be enforced in some way, it was Wilson’s response to another panel commentator that really tickled me. The commentator pointed out the parallels between the anti-vaccination movement and climate change deniers – a fairly obvious point, I would’ve thought – and Wilson jumped in with the claim that ‘there are absolutely no parallels…’

Considering the fairly obvious parallels, Wilson’s remark (which he wasn’t able to elaborate on due to to it being made just as the final credits were about to roll), was a massive red flag, which immediately prompted me to check his bonafides on anthropogenic global warming.

But before checking out Wilson, let me state the parallels. First, both the vaccination debate and the AGW debate are loud and passionate. They also both exhibit the age-old truism that there’s an inverse relation between passionately-held positions and knowledge of the subject. Third and most important, they are both debates over what is essentially settled science. In the case of vaccination, the science tells us that vaccinations have led to the prevention and reduction of multiple diseases around the world over many decades, and that the negative effects of vaccination, if any, are far outweighed by the lives saved and the suffering minimised. In the case of AGW, climate scientists are in consensus that the globe is experiencing a warming event, and that this warming event, as measured through atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, is being significantly contributed to by human activity, and emissions of CO2 in particular.

Wilson’s impressive resumé here tells me that he’s ‘currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Energy and the Environment (Climate Science and Global Warming) at Perth’s Murdoch University’ and that he’s an ‘international public policy analyst specialising in international trade, health, intellectual property and climate change policy’, so he’s presumably well acquainted with climate science, which makes his ‘absolutely’ claim all the more odd. Digging deeper though, we find that for some time he was the policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a well-known free market think tank. Free marketeers are not always keen on accepting AGW, as it tends to interfere with business…

Wilson himself has been pretty careful about his public comments on AGW – at least I can’t find any outrageously silly remarks from him, but in 2010, while he was the IPA’s director of climate change policy, the organisation brought out a publication called Climate change: the facts, which is largely anti-climate science propaganda, as is evidenced by the fact that none of the contributors agree with the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, i.e. that AGW is a serious problem that we need to act upon. Some of the authors accept AGW but minimise its extent and its negative effects while others simply deny its existence. The publication includes as authors the wholly discredited Ian Plimer, and the quite literally insane Christopher Monckton, who has no scientific training whatsoever. It also includes ‘old guard’ scientists such as Garth Partridge, Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter and William Kininmouth, all well into their seventies, and with links to the fossil fuel industries. One contributor, Willie Soon, has since been found to be a hireling of the fossil fuel lobby, to the tune of over $1 million. Others, such as Nigel Lawson, the eighty-something-year-old ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher, just make the publication look more embarrassingly irrelevant than it might have been for propaganda purposes. One has to wonder why the book was published – it must surely have harmed the climate deniers’ cause amongst the fence-sitters at whom it was presumably targeted.

The quality of the work can be judged by its brief introduction, written by John Roskam, current executive director of the IPA. Take this excerpt:

We don’t believe ‘the science is settled’. As a think tank committed to the ideals of free and open enquiry and debate we are not afraid to stand against the mainstream of prevailing elite opinion.

Why is the word elite in there, in a book supposedly dedicated to debating the facts? Scientists are always debating, criticising each other’s published work, suggesting alternative interpretations of raw data – that’s a standard scientific process. Skepticism as to results is a sine qua non of scientific enquiry. But they never describe those they disagree with as elites. That would suggest that something else was at play. It seems particularly inappropriate when the writers themselves are Lords, ex-leaders of government, and linked to some of the world’s largest corporations, while those accused of elitism are usually living on an unreliable stream of grants and scholarships.

Welcome, though, to the world of climate change denial, which, far from presenting alternative facts, is largely fact-free. Although I’ve not read Climate change: the facts, I expect it will present the same variety of views, many of them contradicting each other, that Naomi Klein describes in the first chapter of her book on the politics of climate change, This changes everything. Her description – which hits you like an icy cold shower – is of a conference dedicated to climate change denial run by the USA’s Heartland Institute, another right-wing think tank, though much bigger and more bullish than the IPA. And surprise surprise, a number of the Australian book’s contributors were speakers at that conference. As it turns out, right-wing think tanks are almost solely responsible for the slew of anti-AGW propaganda that assails us today, and of all the contentious scientific issues, this one divides most neatly along politico-ideological lines.

So this helps to explain why Tim Wilson says he finds ‘absolutely no parallels’ between AGW and the vaccination ‘debate’. For him, though not for climate scientists, the science is not settled. But, being educated on the matter, he also knows that what he wants to be true, really isn’t. So, to cover what he knows to be bullshit, he resorts, quite unthinkingly, to the word ‘absolutely’. What a fine mess bad faith gets people into, and how painfully obvious it all is.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2015 at 2:19 pm

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ‘empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

the anthropic principle lives on and on

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The anthropic principle, the idea that the universe – and let’s not muddle up our heads with multiverses – appears to be tweaked just right, in a variety of ways, for the existence and flourishing of humans, has long been popular with the religious, those invested in the idea of human specialness, a specialness which evokes guided evolution, both in the biological and the cosmological sense. And, of course, God is our guide.

Wikipedia, God bless it, does an excellent job with the principle, introducing it straight off as the obvious fact that anyone able to ascertain the various parameters of the universe must necessarily be living in a universe, or a particular part of it, that enables her to do the ascertaining. In other words the human specialness mob have it arse backwards.

So I’ll happily refer all those questing to understand the anthropic principle, in strong and weak forms, it proponents and critics, etc, to Wikipedia. I’ve been brought to reflect on it again by my reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, ‘mind and supermind’, in his 1985 collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. 

Yes, the anthropic principle, which many tend to think is a clever new tool for deists, invented by the very materialists who dismiss the idea of supernatural agency as unscientific, is an old idea – much more than 30 years old, because Gould was critiquing not only Freeman Dyson’s reflections on it in the eighties, but those of Alfred Russel Wallace more than a century ago, in his 1903 book Man’s Place in the Universe. Gould had good reason for comparing Dyson and Wallace; their speculations, almost a century apart, were based on vastly different understandings of the universe. It reminds us that our understanding of the universe, or that of the best cosmologists, continues to develop, and, I strongly suspect, will never be settled.

Theories and debates about our universe, or multiverse, its shape and properties, are more common, and fascinating, than ever, and accompanied by enough mathematics to make my brain bleed. The other day one of my regular emails from Huff Po science declared that maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning after all. This apparently from some scientists trying to grab attention in a pretty noisy field. I’ve only scanned the piece, which I would hardly be qualified to pass judgment on. But not long ago I read The Unknown Universe, a collection of essays from New Scientist magazine, dedicated to all ideas cosmological. I didn’t understand all of it of course, but genuine questions were raised about whether the universe is finite or infinite, about whether we really understand the time dimension, about how the laws that govern the universe came into being, and many other fundamental concepts. It’s interesting then to look back to more than a century ago, before Einstein, quantum mechanics, and space probes, and to reflect on the scientific understanding of the universe at that time.

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin's calculations, used by Wallace

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin’s calculations, used by Wallace

In Wallace’s time (a rather vague term because the great scientist’s life spanned 90 years, which saw substantial developments in astronomy) the universe, though considered almost unimaginably massive, was calculated to be much smaller than today’s reckoning. According to a diagram in Man’s Place in the Universe, it ended a little outside the Milky Way galaxy, because we had no tools at the time to measure any further, though Lord Kelvin, the dominant figure in physics and astronomy in the late 19th century, made a number of dodgy calculations that were taken seriously at the time. In fact, Kelvin’s figures for the size of the universe, and for the age of the earth, though too small by orders of magnitude, were considered outrageously huge by most of his contemporaries; but they at least began to accustom the educated public to the idea of ginormity in space and time.

But size wasn’t of course the only thing that made the universe of that time so different from our own conceptions. The universe of Wallace’s imagination was stable, timeless, and, to Wallace’s mind, lifeless, apart of course from our planet. However, he doesn’t appear to have any good argument for this, only improbability. And an odd kind of hope, that we are unique. This hope is revealed in a passage of his book where he goes off the scientific rails just a bit, in a paean to our gloriously unique humanity. A plurality of intelligent life-forms in the universe

… would imply that to produce the living soul in the marvellous and glorious body of man – man with his faculties, his aspirations, his powers for good and evil – that this was an easy matter which could be brought about anywhere, in any world. It would imply man is an animal and nothing more, is of no importance in the universe, needed no great preparations for his advent, only, perhaps, a second-rate demon, and a third or fourth-rate earth.

Wallace, though by no means Christian, was given to ‘spiritualism’, souls and the supernatural, all in relation to humans exclusively. That’s to say, he was wedded to ‘human specialness’, somewhat surprisingly for his theory of evolution by wholly natural selection from random variation. This is the chain, it seems, that links him to modern clingers-to the anthropic principle, such as William Lane Craig and his epigones, who must needs believe in a value-laden universe, with their god as the source of value, and we humans, platonically created as the feeble facsimiles of the godhead, struggling to achieve enlightenment in the form of closeness to the Creator, with its appropriate heavenly rewards. And so we have such typical WL Craigisms as ‘God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths’, ‘God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings’ and ‘God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe [by humans of course]’. These best explanation ‘arguments’ can be added to ad nauseum, of course, for they’re all of a part, and all connected to the Wallace quote above. We’re special, we must be special, we must be central to the creator’s plan, and our amazingness, our so-much-more-than-animalness, in spite of our many flaws, suggests a truly amazing creator, who made all this just for us.

That’s the hope, captured well by the great French biologist Jaques Monod when he wrote

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

I think modern philosophy has largely moved on from desperate denialism, but Monod’s remarks certainly hold true for religions, past present and future. Basically, the denial of our contingency is the central business of religion. It’s hardly surprising then that the relationship between religion and science is uneasy at best, and antagonistic at its heart. The multiverse could surely be described as religion’s worst nightmare. But that’s another story.

a couple of controversial subjects

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Our state government has, surprisingly, ordered a Royal Commission into nuclear power, which will bring on the usual controversy, but everything I’ve read on the science and energy front suggests that our energy future will rely on a mix of sources, including renewables, clean coal (if that’s not an oxymoron), nuclear energy and perhaps even fusion. Fukushima scared everyone, but it was an old reactor, built in the wrong place, and nuclear technology has advanced considerably since then. I hope to write more on this, probably on my much-neglected solutions ok? blog.




VLAD SOKHIN These men call their gang “Dirty Dons 585” and admit to rapes and armed robberies in the Port Moresby area. They say two-thirds of their victims are women. Photo taken from The Global Mail


I was shocked to hear the other day about people (mostly women, but also children) being accused of witchcraft/sorcery in PNG, right on our doorstep, over the past couple of years, and hunted down and brutally slaughtered, often in bizarrely sexualised ways. Somehow this story has passed me by until now. The country, or part of it, seems to have been gripped by a witch craze, like those that broke out in Europe from time to time, especially in the seventeenth century, not really so long ago. And they fizzled out as mysteriously as they burst into being. In fact the USA’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry was reporting on these horrors from back in 2008, with some 50 victims claimed for that year. The article ended on an optimistic note:

Papua New Guinea is in dire need of skepticism, education, and legal reform. It appears that the latter is finally happening. These latest horrific killings, and no doubt the ensuing media outrage, have prompted the country’s Constitutional Review and Law Reform Commission to create new laws to prevent (or at least reduce) witchcraft-related deaths.

However, this 2013 article, from the sadly no longer extant Global Mail, indicates that the problem is far more deeply-rooted and long-standing than first thought, and it’s mutating and shifting to different regions of the country. Brutality is on the increase, fuelled by drugs and alcohol, but above all by massive social dysfunction, with children being regularly indoctrinated in methods of public torture. Sanguma, or sorcerers, are usually blamed for any deaths, and gangs of unemployed men (and almost all the men of the region are unemployed) go hunting for them amongst the most marginalised and unprotected women in the community. The article makes for harrowing reading, going into some detail on the suffering of these women, and highlighting the intractability of the problem. There are heroes too, including Catholic priests and nuns working at the coal-face. Unfortunately, tossing around terms like skepticism, education and legal reform won’t cut it here. This is a problem of deep social malaise, suspicion, superstition, poverty and despair that will take generations to resolve, it seems.

Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2015 at 6:19 pm

some reflections on Christianity in the 1630s

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puritans off to benight the new world

puritans off to benight the new world

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

L P Hartley,  The go-between, 1953

You occasionally read that atheists or non-believers are having a hard time of it these days, and I’ve certainly encountered some Dawkins-haters and ‘arrogant atheist’ bashers, both in person and online. I’ve even had a go at the likes of Terry Eagleton, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Jacobson for their puerile arguments – which I’m really quite fond of doing. But the fact is that we atheists have never had it so good, and it’s getting better all the time.

This post is partly a response to one by the Friendly Atheist, in which he expresses skepticism about a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) on the worldwide treatment of non-believers, but doesn’t really develop his argument. It’s also partly inspired by a book I’m reading, God’s fury, England’s fire: a new history of the English civil wars, by Michael Braddick, which is extraordinarily detailed and begins with a comprehensive scene-setting, describing the civil and ecclesiastical context in which ordinary lives were lived in England circa 380 years ago.

I’ve written before about taking the long view. We tend to be impatient, understandably, for our lives are short, and we’re keen to see worldwide transformation within its span, but I invite you to travel back in time to another country, our ‘mother country’, or mine at least, to see for yourself how foreign, and how hostile to non-belief, it was back then.

Essentially, there were no atheists in Britain in the 1630s, and the way Christianity was practiced was a hot political issue, central to most people’s lives. Sunday church attendance was compulsory, subject to government fines, but there was a plurality of positions within both Protestantism and the more or less outlawed Catholicism. Due to the horrific religious wars then raging in the Germanic regions, there was more than a whiff of the Last Days in the air. Parishes often took up collections for the distressed Protestants of Europe, and although the government of Charles I maintained an uneasy neutrality, many volunteers, especially from Scotland, went off to join the fighting on the continent.

Braddick’s book begins with an event that underlines the everyday religiosity of the era. In 1640, a Scottish army passed solemnly through Flodden, just south of the border with England. It wasn’t an invasion, though, it was more like a funeral procession. The Scots were engaging in a very public mourning of ‘the death of the Bible’. Trumpeters death-marched in front, followed by religious ministers bearing a Bible covered by a funeral shroud. After them came a number of elderly citizens, petitions in hand, and then the troops, their pikes trailing in the ground. Everyone was wearing black ribbons or other signs of mourning.

This was not quite an official Scottish army, it was an army of the Covenanters, essentially Calvinists or Presbyterians, defenders of the ‘true religion’, who were protesting about the imposition, in 1637, of a new Prayer book upon their congregations. Considering the history of Scots-English warfare, this was a provocative incursion, but the Scots met with little resistance, and after a brief battle at Newburn, they marched into Newcastle, a major northern English town, unopposed.

To understand how this bizarre event could’ve occurred involves analysing the complex religious politics of Britain at a time when religion and politics were almost impossible to separate – as any analysis of the contemporaneous Thirty Years’ War would show. The fact is that many of the English were sympathetic to the Scots cause and becoming increasingly disgruntled at the government of Charles, the long proroguing of parliament, and the perceived turning away from the ‘true religion’ towards a more embellished form that resembled the dreaded ‘papism’.

England and Scotland were both governed by Charles I, a nominally Scots king who, since moving to London to join his father as a young child in 1604, had never been back to his native country. However, as is still the case today, the two countries perceived themselves as, and in fact were, quite distinct, with separate churches, laws, administration and institutions. The Covenanters, were in a sense, nationalists, though their attitude to Charles was, unsurprisingly, ambivalent. In a propaganda campaign preceding their march south, they generally made it clear that they had no quarrel with England (though some went further and hoped to ‘rescue’ England from religious error), but were acting to defend their religious liberty.

Charles and his advisers were naturally alarmed at this development, and a proclamation was issued describing the Covenanters as ‘rebels and traitors’. At the same time it was felt that Charles’ physical presence, if not in Scotland at least in the north of England, was needed to stop the traitorous rot. Charles’ attitude was that if he was to enter ‘foreign territory’, it had better be at the head of an army. However, to raise and arm a military force required money, which required taxation – usually sanctioned by parliament. It also required the goodwill of the people, from whom a force would have to be raised, and here’s where politics, bureaucratic administration and religious attitudes could combine to create a dangerous brew, a brew made more poisonous by the king’s unbending temperament.

Charles was married to a Catholic, the not-so popular Henrietta Maria of France. Henrietta Maria’s Catholicism was devout, public and extravagant. The famous architect Inigo Jones designed a chapel for her in a style that outraged the puritans, and she held her own court at which Catholics were welcomed and protected. Charles’ own tastes, too, were hardly in line with the move towards austere Protestantism that was sweeping the country (though there were plenty who resisted it). Charles had in fact been moving in the opposite direction since his accession to the throne in the 1620s, as had his father James I. It wasn’t that they were about to embrace Catholicism, but they were reacting against strict Calvinism, in terms of outward display if not in terms of theology. But in many ways it was the theology of Calvinism – not only the weird doctrine of predestinarianism but the ideas of justification by faith alone, and of a direct, unmediated connection with the deity – that attracted the populace, to varying degrees, though it never caught on as strongly in England as in Scotland. The term ‘popery’, which didn’t always refer in an uncomplicated way to Catholicism, was increasingly used to indicate suspect if not heretical tendencies.

A key figure in all this turmoil was William Laud, the most influential religious authority in England. He was the Bishop of London from 1628, and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. It was Laud who was largely responsible for issuing the new prayer-book in 1637, along with many other reforms in line with Charles’ more formal approach to Protestant religious practice, an approach that later became known as High Church Anglicanism. But so much was at stake with even the mildest reforms, and by the end of the thirties, a wave of puritan hysteria was gripping the country, which created an equal and opposite reaction. Laud was arrested and imprisoned in the tower in 1641, and executed in 1645, by which time the civil war was in full swing, with the tide having turned decisively against Charles.

However, I don’t want to get into the details of the religious factionalism and strife of those days here, I’m simply wanting to emphasise just how religious – and barbaric – those days were. The civil war was horrifically brutal, and as the primary documents reveal, it was accompanied by wagonloads of biblical rhetoric and god-invocations on both sides. The royalists’ principal argument was the king’s divine right to rule, while parliament was always referred to as ‘God’s own’. It was theocracy in turmoil, though many of the points of discontent were decidedly worldly, such as taxation and what we would now call conscription – forced service in the the king’s military. Besides monitoring of church attendance there were the ‘Holy Days of Obligation’ such as Ascension Day and the Rogation Days surrounding it, when the bounds of the parish were marked out on foot – and sometimes by boat if it was a seaside parish – so that jurisdictions were imprinted in the minds of God’s subjects, for in those days the local church had control and responsibility over the care of the poor, elderly and infirm. Certainly in those days the church acted as a kind of social glue, keeping communities together, but it was never as idyllic and harmonious as it sounds. Rogation processions were often proscribed or limited to ‘respectable citizens’ because of the drunken revelry they attracted, and there were always the political dissensions, usually related to some church leader or other being too popish or too puritan. Just like today, it was a world of noisy, opinionated, half-informed people, some of them very clever and frustrated, who demanded to be heard.

Witchcraft, though, was very much a thing in this period. Recently a workmate was expressing understandable disgust at the brutish burning of infidels or traitors or whatever by the Sunni invaders of northern Iraq – and she might also have mentioned the brutish slaughter of women and children as ‘witches’ on our own doorstep in Papua New Guinea. When I mentioned that our culture, too, used to burn witches, the response was predictable – ‘but that was in the Middle Ages’. We like to push these atrocities back in time as far we can get away with. In fact, the largest witch-hunt in English history occurred in East Anglia in 1645, when 36 women were put on trial, 19 were executed and only one was acquitted. Like an earthquake, this mass trial caused a number of aftershocks throughout the country, with some 250 women tried and more than 100 executed. A large proportion of all the witch-killings in England occurred in this one year. These women were hanged rather than burnt, but burning at the stake – the punishment reserved for heresy, an indication of how theocratic the state was – wasn’t abandoned until 1676, under Charles II.

We should be grateful for having emerged from the theocratic thinking of earlier centuries, and we can look around at theocratic states today, or just at those with theocratic mindsets, to see how damaging they can be. To have gods on your side is to be absolutely right, fighting against or punishing the absolutely wrong. In this superhuman world with its superhuman stakes, the mere human is a cypher to be trampled in the dust, or burned, beheaded, sacrificed on the altar of Divine Justice. The past, our past, is another country, but we need to visit it from time to time, and examine it unflinchingly, though it’s sometimes hard not to shudder.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 11:24 pm


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