The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Religion

No Nonsense

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Recently a copy of A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic passed through S I Towers, and it caused quite a stir. It’s a short book and very readable – and, I was amazed to learn, was written when the author was younger than I am. It is a beautifully argued manifesto of logical positivism.

Philosophy, for most people, is the asking of Big Questions. Is there a god? What happens after we die? Does the world disappear when we close our eyes? What is ‘truth’? What is ‘good’? And these questions are called Big Questions precisely because thousands of years of arguing have got us no closer to answering them.

Logical positivism was an attempt to tackle these issues from a different angle. Rather than attempting to answer these questions, the project of the positivists was to decide whether or not the questions could be answered. Here, briefly, is how they set about it.

Forget about what you can see. Think instead about what you can say.

The human vocal apparatus make it possible for you to generate all sorts of noises. Most noises are just that – noises – but some are words. Most combinations of words are nonsense: “Mill food only here bushes pardon speak and.” However, some combinations are full sentences, like “I am wearing shoes” or “The sky is green”.

The important point is that almost everything you could possibly say is actually nonsense. The things that actually mean anything – sentences – are a tiny minority. What is it about these particular utterances that makes them important? Well, sentences have a structure. They obey rules. They are not self-contradictory, like the sentence “X is and is not Y”, which is meaningless and indistinguishable from noise.

In fact, there are only two kinds of sentences that are worth talking about: sentences describing the world, and sentences describing other sentences. Any other kind of sentence is uninteresting, because hearing them does not increase one’s knowledge of the world. It’s just noise.

Now, how do we know which sentences describe the world? That’s easy: these are the sentences that can be checked against what we observe around us. “The sky is green” is an attempt to describe the world, and it is well-phrased, logical, and verifiable. It just happens to be false, because it does not match observations that show the sky is blue. The sentence “I am wearing shoes” is true (at the moment).

If you know all the meaningful, true sentences about the world, and all the meaningful, true sentences about other sentences, you will know everything that it is possible to know about the universe. Obviously, in our lifetimes we will never have this perfect knowledge. There are some things that we will never know. However, adopting this stance gives us a tool for cutting away the layers of nonsense that surround us and prevent us from understanding the world.

Does god exist? If you mean, does he exist in the world, does he have an actual location and mass and velocity we could check, then the answer is – maybe. We don’t know, but we could in principle find out. But if you mean, does he exist somehow outside the world, in a place we can never experience, then there is no question here to answer, because in that case sentences containing the word “god” are meaningless. It is impossible for an atheist to disprove the existence of god, but at the same time, anybody religious who talks about god is just making noises. What happens after we die? Again, things that happen outside the “real world” are not subject to verification, anyone who talks about it is taking nonsense. Likewise the question about the world disappearing when we close our eyes: it’s not a question that can be meaningfully answered. What is truth? Good correspondence between a sentence and observation. What is good? Whatever people say is good; people argue about it, but they argue by appeal to emotion, not to logic, unless it is to show that one’s values are inconsistent.

A lot of this is not new. Hume, much earlier, said that a book that didn’t talk about things observed or calculated should be cast onto the flames because there was nothing in it worth reading. But what the logical positivists added was the system of formal logic developed by Russell and Wittgenstein. For lovers of clarity and precision of writing, the appeal is still strong.



As always, I am not a philosopher, and could easily be getting aspects of this wrong. If so, I would be delighted to be set right by someone who knows more about it than me.

A J Ayer’s book was Language, Truth and Logic. The reference to Hume comes from his Enquiry.

Written by The S I

April 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm

The Good Book

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At the end of the film The Time Machine (the scene does not appear in H G Wells’ original novella), the Time Traveller leaves the present day to spend the rest of his life in the distant future, helping to rebuild the society he has helped to liberate. Before he goes, he takes with him three books from the library, and we are not told what they are. It is an open question directed at the film’s audience: what three books would you take with you?

I’d be tempted to say The Origin of Species. I’d like to get that one absolutely sorted out on day one.

Evolution is a fact. It really, really is. I can just about imagine someone who can look at the overwhelming evidence in its favour and come to some other conclusion; I wouldn’t mind meeting this person, we might talk about it over coffee and an apple danish, it’d be fun. But the existence of people who think that to acknowledge the truth of evolution is a political stance rather than an empirical one truly astonishes me.

And yet people like this do exist. There are countries when a candidate can lose an election for acknowledging that evolution is real, or that climate change is real. Fine, if the objections raised are grounded in facts – but they are not. They have become matters of personal identity, religious orthodoxy and party-political loyalty. To call attention to facts is seen as a personal attack on one’s values. And other people’s values are to be respected, however baseless they are.

What do I ask for, then, in a well-run society? That the veracity of evolution be constitutionally protected?

No. That kind of mindset would only make things worse in the long run.

And this is why, over and above The Origin of Species, I would choose another book. I would find space in my time machine for Mill’s On Liberty. Although Darwin’s book is invaluable for showing us, better than anything else, our true position in the universe, I would argue that On Liberty transcends even this in importance, because it tells us about how to react to theories like Darwin’s.

This book, written in the 1850s, is a brutal attack on anyone who wants to see an idea ­– any idea at all – as being above criticism. It says, beautifully, that the only way of arriving at the truth, or of preventing us forgetting the truths we’ve already uncovered, is by exposing it to constant criticism. Yes, feel free to have your opinions, but be prepared to fight for them. By calling on everyone to attack opinions they do not like – and to defend against attack the ones they hold dear – it casts suspicion on anyone who holds an opinion for any reason other than because they have evidence for it.

The power to criticise ideas – all ideas, held for whatever reason – and to see which ones stand and which ones fall based solely on what the arguments for and against are them are, is a necessary condition for a decent, well-constructed, compassionate society. It might even be a sufficient one.


On Liberty can be found here. Don’t be put off by this man’s egregiously long sentences; his stuff is gold.

Written by The S I

October 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Thank Goodness!

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I’m away from the computer just now, so here’s an excellent essay by Daniel C Dennett describing how his life was saved by a heart operation – and what it really means when an atheist says “Thank goodness!

I have created a Facebook page for this blog, which those of you who are so inclined may wish to like.

Also, on yet another note, for times like this when I physically cannot get to a computer to update this place, I am thinking of recruiting some guest contributors so I have something to fall back on. If you’re interested in writing a post here on practically any topic, for a general audience and in under 500 words, drop me a comment and we’ll see what we can work out.

Written by The S I

October 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Fry on Catholicism

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Just a quick one for you today, folks. If you haven’t already seen it, this is Stephen Fry’s speech against the motion that “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Breathtaking and relevant stuff. Enjoy!

Part One

And Two

Written by The S I

September 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Politics

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Enforcing Freedom

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One of the central tenets of liberalism, perhaps the central tenet, is tolerance: letting other people go about their business, as long as it doesn’t affect you. But there are limits. If you look across the courtyard and see a scene of domestic violence through the window of a neighbouring flat, should you exercise tolerance? Should you respect the rights of self-determination for the abuser and his victim? Certainly not. To do so would be a moral failure. There are some things that no good liberal should tolerate.

This, then, is the dilemma of liberalism: how far should one’s liberal principles extend to people around you? In particular, should they extend to those who do not share your enlightened values?

Imagine you live in your country alongside a religious sect that oppresses some of its members. Pick any oppression of any group you like, as long as it appals you. Say, for example, that women are treated as objects and ritualistically beaten; they are forbidden from speaking to men until their parents have married them off, and they must spend the rest of their lives veiled, mute and obedient.

Imagine that you can be born into this sect; and imagine that the penalty for apostasy is death.

Should this state of affairs be allowed to continue? As long as that last paragraph holds, I say certainly not. If this is something you can be born into and can never leave, then it is a form of imprisonment. There is can be no more fundamental human right than the freedom to escape unjustified coercion, and it is the duty of a liberal society to facilitate this escape in others.

So a government can, I believe, justifiably enact laws that break down these barriers to freedom.

Imagine now that the death penalty for apostasy has been abolished. Anybody who feels oppressed and wants to leave the sect is now free to do so.

Imagine that there are some who choose not to. The women decide they prefer their traditional roles. They continue to be covered from head to toe. They remain ignorant of men and sex. And they continue to be beaten. They have chosen to remain oppressed.

Here we enter tricky ground. These women are oppressed, but since they are legally entitled to leave, is it wrong to do more? Should we respect their choice to remain enslaved? Or should we, essentially, force them to be free?

Ultimately, their choice must be respected; but it’s important to recognise that there are mental barriers to freedom as well as legal ones, and choice is only really choice when it’s an informed choice. You cannot force people to be free and should not try. But you can enforce awareness of the available options, by breaking down censorship and insularity, and by demanding good standards of education.

If, having been exposed to pros and cons of other ways of living, they go back to their traditional lives, so be it. It should be the duty of liberal societies everywhere to give people that option.


The SEP’s entry on liberalism is well worth a read, particularly section 4, which poses the question to which this essay is my attempt at an answer.

Written by The S I

September 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Mechanical Soul

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(And now for some wild speculation.)

If we accept that evolution is true, we must also come to terms with humans being a blurred region on a continuum that we share with animals, fungi, plants, and bacteria. And this is why some people don’t accept it.

Nobody likes to be told he is not special, and that is precisely what evolution tells us. There is nothing inherently special about being human. We are not the Chosen Ones. And some people cannot take this ­– can’t take the idea, not just that we are related to apes, but that we are apes. These people would rather ignore evidence and lie to themselves (and, by banning its teaching, effectively lie to their children) than accept the knock to human dignity.

My prediction is that, just as evolution has shown us that there is nothing special about being human, advances in artificial intelligence will tell us that there is nothing special about being alive.

People cling to the idea of an immaterial soul, and strongly resist the notion that it might have a biological origin. If all we are is bits of brain tissue, mechanical and deterministic, what’s the point of being alive at all?

But when AI really takes off, we will be forced to re-examine these beliefs. Not only will we someday build machines that are as able to think and feel and care as we are; we will also, on the way, build all the machines that come between. We will show, again, that we are on a continuum, with our minds differing only by complexity and computational power from Babbage’s difference engines.

How will people react to this?

Many will simply not care. The discovery of natural selection will have prepared the ground; the appearance of AI will only serve to confirm a hypothesis already believed my many. And anyway, what does it matter? We still need to pay the bills.

There will be others who will react with the flat hostility of present-day Creationists. Deny it all! Refuse to believe! Ban this immoral research! Computers are only a theory!

But many – one hopes – will find their own lives improved by the knowledge. It is good for the soul to know one’s place in the world, and understanding the ways in which we are not special will highlight and even enhance our awareness of the ways in which we are. They who already peer into the night sky and marvel at its cold beauty will turn their gazes inward, and will be just as awed by what they see there.




All I’ll say is that Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a wondrous, wonderful book.

Written by The S I

August 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Harris and Chomsky On Drugs

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One of the roles of government is to prohibit and enforce the prohibition of activities that reproducibly result in a lowering of the populace’s quality of life. Governments insist that people surrender certain freedoms in the name of the greater good: the freedom not to bash people over the head with mallets, for example.

The illegality of an act should be proportional to its harmfulness (to society, that is; to you is another matter). While I can understand and condone banning the sale of crack cocaine because it reproducibly creates a huge amount of misery and suffering, it is difficult to see why the government bans cannabis ­­– particularly when tobacco, a much deadlier poison, is sold quite legally. I have recently read two different explanations of this strange inversion. One is by the fascinating if slightly scary writer Sam Harris; the other is by Noam Chomsky.

Harris’s contention is that the enemy is religion. Many drugs, he says, allow one  to experience states of extreme bliss and personal fulfilment, often with no damaging side-effects and in the privacy of one’s own home. There should be no harm in that. But religion wants the monopoly on spiritual experiences, and sees drugs as being unwelcome competition. Drugs are deemed wicked for their positive aspects, for their ability to make you happy or alter the way you see the world; their harmfulness is not even considered.

Chomsky’s idea is, if anything, even more cynical. The crucial difference between tobacco and marijuana, he says, is that tobacco is difficult to grow. Weed is a weed: you can grow it in your back garden. Big businesses have no interest in its legalisation because it would give them no scarcity power – nobody would profit from it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is a difficult crop, requiring a substantial investment of technology and capital. A nation’s tobacco industry can be owned in the way a national marijuana industry could never be, and businesses can make huge amounts of money from monopolising it. It will stay legal, in spite of its harmfulness, because it pays.

I don’t know which of these two theories I like most, or even if either of them comes close to the truth. But until the illegality of what substances you choose ingest correlates with the damage it does to people around you, I will be suspicious of the motives of those who tell you what you can and cannot do.

Governments have the power to stop people doing things. Sometimes this power is used wisely and fairly; but often it is not. Whenever a government asks you to surrender one of your freedoms, it’s worth thinking about who benefits from it. And if it’s not you, it’s time to start worrying.



Noam Chomsky – Understanding Power, p49.

Sam Harris ­– The End of Faith, also his blog post:

Written by The S I

July 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm