Against Meritocracy

(Warning: Rant Ahead)

We are so smug, so secure in our privilege. The clever ones. We understand the world, and we smirk at people who don’t. “How could they be so dumb as to vote for that?” “What on earth were they thinking?” “I could do a better job than that half asleep.”

And you know what? We’re right. We are the clever ones. It doesn’t matter what your skin colour is, or your gender, or your sexuality. You can be a black lesbian in a wheelchair and if you’re smart, you’re still a member of the most privileged group of all. You can whine about how society oppresses you, but frankly if you live in any advanced society you have no idea what a society designed to oppress you looks like.
Continue reading

Liberalism and Diversity

Recently, I have come to think that I have been confusing two desirable situations when thinking about tolerance, diversity, and liberty. Here, I will refer to them as “diversity” and “liberalism”, not because I think that is how the words are generally used (I think a lot of people confuse them), but because I think these words fit the respective situations quite well. Both concepts apply primarily to societies, and to individuals insofar as they support that kind of society.

A diverse society is one that approves of a wide variety of people and lifestyles. The opposite of a diverse society is a uniform society, which only approves of a narrow range of people and lifestyles.

A liberal society is one that tolerates people and lifestyles of which it disapproves. The opposite of a liberal society is a repressive society, which attempts to suppress people and lifestyles of which it disapproves.

As should be clear from my choice of labels for the positions, I think that a diverse, liberal society is the best, and that a uniform, repressive society is the worst. However, once written like this, it is also clear that these two labels are, in theory, completely independent. Diversity and uniformity are concerned with the range of things of which a society approves, while liberalism and repression are concerned with its attitude to the things of which it does not approve. Thus, a diverse, repressive society and a uniform, liberal society are both entirely possible. I think merging the two ideas makes it hard to see this; at least, it made it hard for me.

Let us be a bit judgemental. A uniform society is evil, just because it only approves of a limited range of options. Thinking about sexism makes this particularly clear. Being a full-time mother is not a bad choice for a woman. In fact, I would say that it is a very good choice. There is a significant amount of self-sacrifice involved, and such a woman is likely to make a large, positive contribution to the well-being of a number of people, not just her own children. Traditional gender roles are not an evil because they force women to do something bad, because they do not; they are an evil because they say that one good thing is the only thing that women should do. On the other hand, a diverse society is good. It allows people to choose from a wide range of good lives. Women can stay at home and raise their children, or they can become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Naturally, only the extremes are clearly good or evil. A society that gives women a dozen choices is clearly better than one that gives them only one, but not as good as one that gives them a hundred. We might be forced to say that societies in the middle are neutral.

Liberal and repressive societies should be described with different terms, so that we do not reinforce the confusion. A liberal society is chaotic. People are permitted to do things of which society does not approve, so plans for society keep getting disrupted by people doing things that society would prefer them not to. I suspect that it is not possible to produce a beautiful society in a liberal society, because someone will build an ugly house in the middle of your historic area, or insist on wearing hot pink to your goth gathering. On the other hand, a repressive society is lawful, because people only do what they are supposed to do. There may be a wide range of things to choose from within that, if the society is also diverse, but society only permits the options of which it approves. This means that you can have a diverse, yet beautiful, society. There can be many kinds of flowers in the garden, but you exclude the weeds. In a liberal society, almost anything is allowed to grow, so your ability to create any sort of pattern is very limited.

In a liberal society, people are willing to let people do things that they disapprove of, and that they think are bad. As long as they do not cause too much harm to other people, they are left alone, although other people may try to avoid having too much to do with them. Hate speech is a good example in Japan. We recently completed an interview survey of foreign residents of Kawasaki, and the general attitude of the Koreans to hate speech was that they didn’t like it, and would rather it didn’t happen, but that it couldn’t be stopped, because people have various opinions. They just wanted to avoid getting caught up in it. That is a very good example of tolerance in its pure form: they disapprove of something, but do not want to take active steps to stop it, as long as they can stay away from it.

In a repressive society, people are not willing to let people do things that they disapprove of. I could argue that this is an important source of the culture wars in the USA. Neither side is willing to let people do things of which they disapprove (practise homosexuality, or preach orthodox Christianity, depending on which side you mean). It is true that one side is typically called “liberal”, and uses arguments about toleration, but in the terms I’m using here, they are diverse, not liberal. The other side is typically neither diverse nor liberal, however, so if I have to pick one side or the other, it’s easy. However, while the choice between “uniform and repressive” and “diverse and repressive” is indeed easy, neither is my preferred option.

Indeed, if asked to rank “diverse and repressive” and “uniform and liberal”, I would have to say that “uniform and liberal” is better. No matter where your preferences are in relation to wider society, you can at least live according to them in a liberal society, whereas in a diverse and repressive society, you are in trouble if you fall outside the charmed circle of societal approval. A diverse and liberal society is better than both, of course.

The distinction between approval and toleration may not be entirely clear, so let me use homosexual relationships as a concrete example. A society tolerates homosexual relationships if they are legal, and if they are not generally treated as grounds for refusing employment, housing, or services. They are welcomed and approved of if homosexual relationships are portrayed positively in the media, and the law recognises gay marriage. It should be obvious from this why I think a diverse and liberal society is better than a uniform and liberal society; it is clearly much better to be gay in a society that approves of your orientation than in one that simply tolerates it.

This is not to say that diversity and liberalism are easy. Liberalism requires us to tolerate things that do small amounts of damage to other people, on the grounds that the damage is less serious than that inflicted by suppressing the behaviour. However, drawing the line is hard. It is, to me, obvious that we should tolerate comedians who insult, mock, and belittle [insert group name here]. We can disapprove and criticise (remember, that’s what “tolerate” means, as opposed to “welcome”), but we mustn’t try to silence them. On the other hand, if that comedian stands outside a school for children from the target group with a massive sound system every day, that’s much harder. To take a different case, people should certainly be allowed to make the claim that abortion is murder, and strongly criticise anyone who is involved in abortions, but should they be allowed to constantly picket abortion clinics? There has to be a limit, and liberals have always recognised this, but deciding on where the limit has to be is a very hard problem. It is hard to specify the standard by which we should decide, and hard to apply that standard to actual cases. Even worse, the hard cases are common in real life.

Diversity has a very similar problem: drawing the line around the things society approves of. If approving of more things is good, one can always ask why we should stop here, wherever here is. Liberals in the US are typically dismissive of the argument that allowing gay marriage will lead to the acceptance of polygamy and bestiality, but that argument is aimed at this problem. Diversity is good, so we should approve of homosexuality. But then, why shouldn’t we approve of bestiality as well? Diversity is good, right? Indeed, there is a substantial group of people (the poly community) who do think that the next step after allowing gay marriage should be to allow polygamy, because they want legal recognition of their relationships, as well. Should society approve of them? Just as with the line-drawing problem for tolerance, the far extreme is approving of people who rape and murder for fun, so the line really does have to be drawn somewhere, and it is hard to see how to justify drawing it in any particular place.

In a diverse and liberal society, this problem is mainly intellectual. People who get put outside the charmed circle can still pursue their lives as they wish to a great extent and campaign for change if they wish, and society asks them to tolerate the unaccepting attitudes of most people, just as most people tolerate their behaviour. Things are not symmetrical, but they are not obviously inconsistent.

However, in a diverse and repressive society, things are harder. There are people who do not approve of the things that society approves of, and society is demanding that they be tolerant. For example, conservative Christians do not approve of homosexual relationships, and society demands that they be tolerant: that they not treat homosexuality as grounds for discrimination in employment, accommodation, or services. However, society itself is not tolerant. It does attempt to repress the things of which it does not approve, such as homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, or racism. Conservative Christians agree with society on some of these points; most of them think that sexism and racism are wrong and should be suppressed. On the other hand they, quite reasonably, do not see why they should put up with things that they think are wrong when society as a whole refuses to put up with things that it thinks are wrong. The result is likely to be a culture war.

In the context of roleplaying games, this distinction allows me to articulate exactly why I have a problem with the SJWs. They are pushing, energetically, for a diverse and repressive society. They put a lot of energy into increasing the diversity of RPGs, by actively seeking out authors who are not WhiCH American men, and by increasing the range of characters portrayed (positively) in games. On the other hand, they also put a lot of energy into trying to suppress things that they don’t like, such as chainmail bikinis.

I am entirely, 100%, behind the push for increased diversity. I am also entirely, 100%, opposed to the push to suppress certain games and elements in games. I think it is at least as important to stand up against the repressive side of the campaign as to stand up in support of the diverse side. However, the polarising rhetoric doesn’t leave space for four sides in the battle. This is odd, because roleplayers should have the conceptual tools ready to hand; indeed, I have already introduced them.

Diversity is good, uniformity evil. Repression is lawful, liberty chaotic. The SJWs are Lawful Good. They are paladins, the classic social justice warriors. I am Chaotic Good. I am happy to work with paladins, although I will work to channel their energy into promoting good, rather than law. Sometimes, we will get into arguments. And I think that, sometimes, it is very important to distract the paladin.

The Freedom to Publish and Safe Spaces

A month or so ago, I wrote an article saying that I disagreed with OneBookShelf’s decision to start refusing to sell “offensive content”. In the discussion of that on my Facebook page, a number of people expressed incredulity at the idea that anyone might have a right to be sold. That comment thread was not a good place to discuss the issue, and I promised to come back to it. It’s taken some time, but this article will address that question, and related issues, in more detail. Three thousand words of more detail, it turns out.

First, I should sketch out my basic position. I start from the foundations of classical liberalism: freedom and equality. That is, everyone should have as much freedom as possible, and everyone’s freedom is equally important. I believe that the state’s role is to ensure that everyone has as wide a range of opportunities for action as possible. This means that people need to be healthy, educated, financially secure, and living in a peaceful, orderly state with a functioning infrastructure, so the state ends up being quite substantial. In addition, I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. I think that ensuring the freedom of others must be an important part of anyone’s personal ethics, and that someone acting in a way that excessively limits the freedom of others is behaving unethically.

On the other hand, material property is not that significant to me. People only have a right to private property because, on the whole, that maximises their freedom and ability to plan their lives, so there is no problem with taxation to ensure that other people also have that freedom. Conversely, there is no reason to seek material equality, although particularly gross inequality may well limit the freedom of many people, particularly the poor. Thus, I am neither a libertarian nor a socialist, although in practice I think I tend to end up closer to the socialists on economic policy, and closer to the libertarians on social policy.

I don’t claim that this position is obviously right and indisputable, and there are many difficult problems to be solved if it is to be put into practice. However, in this article I’m not going to defend it, and I will do my best not to respond to comments querying it. As I mentioned, this is already 3,000 words long, and it would be far longer if I tried to deal with those issues. What I do plan to do is engage, in detail, with one of the difficult problems: should DriveThruRPG sell products like Tournament of Rapists?

The Right to be Sold

Let me start from the point that raised the most incredulity: the claim that there is something like a right to be sold for publishers of RPG material. No-one commenting on my article thought that the authors of Tournament of Rapists should be legally prevented from writing and publishing it. Some people do, but my commenters were mostly authors and publishers, so they can see the clear threat to freedom of speech involved in going that way. What they could not see was why those considerations obliged DriveThruRPG to sell it.

The discussion did allow me to clarify my own position in my own mind. It is not purely about freedom of expression; it is also about freedom of employment.

First, freedom of expression. Recall that I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. If a certain private entity has an effective monopoly, or even a near-monopoly, on important means of expression, then that private entity acquires obligations to protect freedom of expression, even if it strongly disagrees with some of the content. The same applies to an oligopoly, except in that case the obligation is that they collectively protect freedom of expression. For example, if there are only five major newspapers, but they all have similar circulations, and all can easily be purchased, then as long as any opinion can find a publisher in at least one newspaper, the individual newspapers are free to exclude people with whom they disagree. If, however, all of the publishers disagree with, say, Islam, they do have an obligation to publish Muslim pieces, despite their disagreement. If they do not, Muslims are effectively deprived of freedom of expression.

This is, essentially, the idea that society can silence minorities by depriving them of a platform, and the claim that media outlets have a moral obligation to provide such a platform. I would also say that the state is permitted to force the media outlets to provide a platform.

On this basis, DTRPG probably does not need to sell Tournament of Rapists if Paizo or e23 is happy to do so. Paizo and e23 are not as big as DTRPG, by a large margin, but they are probably still big enough to count as providing a reasonable platform for expression. “Selling from your own website”, however, probably does not. (On the other hand, in table-top roleplaying, publishers have no obligation to publish anything they dislike, because “start your own publisher” is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.)

This raises an important point about these rights. The obligations of private entities depend on the scale of their influence. An independent bookshop has no individual obligation to support freedom of speech, because it is clearly possible to sell a book elsewhere. If that independent bookshop develops into a national chain that is the only way to acquire books in most cities, then it acquires obligations to sell anything (through special order, if necessary; they are not obliged to stock everything). Obviously, then, there is an empirical question about just how big and influential an entity is, and this will not always be easy to answer. However, the fact that some moral questions are difficult is not a reason to abandon morality.

Next, freedom of employment. The freedom to choose your own career is guaranteed by the Japanese constitution (Article 22), and it is a fundamental part of any meaningful freedom. It is, however, a difficult freedom to pin down. We cannot sensibly say that I have the right to be a world-famous film star. On the other hand, it does seem reasonable to say that I have the right to try to be a film star, to audition for roles at least. It also seems reasonable to criticise the film industry if it simply never hires, say, black people or women to play leading roles. Black people and women also have the right to aim at being film stars. Saying what this means in detail is very hard, so I’m not going to even try to address the general question here. Instead, I want to consider what it means for table-top roleplaying.

First, it is obvious that no-one has anything approaching a right to make a living wage in table-top roleplaying. In our industry, that dizzy height is reserved for the people who achieve major break-out success. Equally, there is no right to a proper job, with medical insurance and a pension. However, no-one should be excluded from being a freelancer, and for historically excluded groups that means that it is a good thing if publishers actively encourage them. One feature of our industry is that most publishers are micro-companies run in their owners’ spare time, and such publishers can compete with the largest companies we have. This is, I think, a very good thing. If a group of conservative Muslims decide that nothing available in roleplaying reflects their experience or the games they want to play, they can start a publishing company and publish the game.

However, they must be able to offer it for sale to the public. We are talking about the right to employment, not the right to a hobby, so new publishers must be able to offer their product to the market. That is the equivalent, in our industry, of applying for a job. Further, you must be able to offer it to most of the market, because otherwise there is no chance at all of making any money. The market is tiny to start with; restricting access to a small fraction of it is effectively a bar.

For electronic products, I believe this means that you must be able to sell on DTRPG. I don’t think Paizo or e23 is large enough (and the numbers I have heard from people who sell on two or more of those sites backs this up). If someone is to have a genuine chance to apply for the job of RPG publisher, they must be able to sell on DTRPG. This only applies to DTRPG, because of its size and dominance. Paizo can refuse anyone it likes, because it is small and largely irrelevant if you aren’t selling Pathfinder products, and not critical even if you are.

An analogous situation to DTRPG refusing to offer something for sale because of its content would be 1950s Hollywood refusing to hire people because they were, say, Communists. It would, effectively, deprive people of the freedom to even attempt a career in a particular field.

To summarise, then, freedom of expression suggests that DTRPG probably, for ethical reasons, offer Tournament of Rapists for sale, while freedom of employment provides an much stronger argument that it is obliged to.

Safe Spaces

“But what sort of signal does that send to women?” I hear you ask. The signal it ought to send is “Even if you want to write an RPG inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, you will be able to offer it for sale on DTRPG. We respect your freedom to try to work in this industry, not matter what you want to write”. The argument that group A can only be welcomed if group B is excluded is one that is frequently used by powerful groups to exclude and oppress minorities, and it is a bad argument. In a free society, you have to accept that you are living with people with whom you strongly disagree, and that you will see evidence of them doing things you disagree with. This is why conservative Christians have to put up with same-sex marriage, and why feminists have to put up with rape fetishists (but not rapists).

The problem that must be taken seriously here is that of “triggering”. For some people, certain themes or images provoke extremely strong negative reactions, and cause significant distress. The correct response to this is not “Free Speech! Get Over It!”. However, the correct response is not easy to determine.

Let us take food allergies as an analogy. I am very aware of the risk of trivialisation here. Food allergies can kill their sufferers, painfully, in a matter of minutes, and interfere significantly with eating, an activity necessary for life. Psychological distress caused by a hobby game product is not even close to being the same level of problem. However, this does mean that a response that is appropriate to food allergies cannot be an inadequate response to triggering, although it could be an over-reaction. If it turns out that food-allergy-like policies could be implemented without imposing excessive burdens, then that’s fine; when we are talking about the risk of harming people, some degree of over-reaction is good, as long as it does not cause other problems.

These days, I suppose most people know how food allergies are dealt with. Food products are clearly labelled with the common allergens that they contain; in Japan, there appears to be a standard set. This does lead to slightly daft situations, such as packets of mixed nuts with “Warning: Contains Nuts” printed on, but “slightly daft” is much better than “accidentally killed someone”. Further, these steps are taken even in cases where there is some doubt about the existence or prevalence of the allergy. For example, it is somewhat controversial as to whether gluten intolerance is actually a thing (although I think the consensus is that it is), and its prevalence is very controversial. Even so, “gluten” is listed, and gluten-free products are available. Even if it is not really a problem, gluten-containing products are still available for the people who want to consume them, so it is reasonable to issue a warning for people who may, genuinely, need to avoid it.

Moreover, I believe that in many cases it is possible to overcome food allergies, and, obviously, a good idea to do so. Nevertheless, this cannot be done instantly, and we have no right to force people to do so. Thus, the information should be made available, and people with allergies should be able to avoid those foods. Obviously, people with very unusual allergies cannot expect everything to be labelled, so they have to ask about ingredients individually.

Note that labelling a product as containing nuts is in no way a judgement of the culinary worth of the product. It is simply a warning so that people who are allergic to nuts can avoid it.

Can a similar approach be taken to roleplaying products? It seems so. DTRPG already has an “adult” filter, although it is applied very inconsistently. (I find it astounding that the Worlds of Darkness are not behind the filter, for example, given that every book includes an explicit “this is mature content” warning, and most books include nudity.) With a bit of thought and research, themes that seem likely to cause serious distress to a large number of people could be filtered out.

The immediately obvious theme is sexual violence. This is distressing to a large number of people, and should clearly be flagged, and people should be able to hide it from themselves. I think this is a very good idea.

Another theme is “nipples”. Sorry, nudity. This is largely a US hang-up, but it is quite an important one there, so people should be able to exclude such products from their searches.

However, there is another important class that seems to get overlooked: phobias. Arachnophobia is not a rare condition, and such people can be triggered by pictures of spiders. It might not be obvious to someone new to the hobby that “City of the Drow” is likely to contain lots of giant spider pictures, so it should be possible to hide spiders. Snakes and blood are also common problems, as I understand it.

More generally, it should be possible to filter out horror games in general. The whole point of horror games is to take disturbing images and work them into the game, because some people enjoy that. However, it is not always obvious from the title that something is horror, and the blurbs themselves are sometimes disturbing, so filtering them from searches should be an easily available option.

It is also an undeniable fact that a large number of people in the US and the rest of the world claim to be deeply offended and upset by portrayals of same-sex sexual relationships. Now, I think that it would be better for them to get over it, but, as with food allergies, that is unlikely to be instant, and we do not get to tell them that they must change. I think it would be wise to include a “LGBT” filter. It could even be made bivalent, so that you could set DTRPG to only show you LGBT products, something that the LGBT community might find useful. In fact, all the filters could be set up like that, to make it clear that this is not a moral judgement.

The filter topics are not obvious, and would require some research. If we use “internet outrage” as our standard (and this is not a bad standard; avoiding internet outrage is a sensible strategy for a company), then sexual violence, nudity, explicit sexual content, and LGBT content are the current leading issues. If we use “clinical prevalence of people who are triggered”, then I have no idea what the list will be, but it could be very different. Research would be necessary. Indeed, it might be a good idea to cover both: internet hot-button issues mainly for PR reasons, and clinically prevalent reasons primarily to protect vulnerable people.

The elephant in the room, as far as RPGs are concerned, is violence. I am sure some people are triggered by violence, but a filter to hide all violent RPGs would leave you with nothing but Golden Sky Stories. (The “spiders” filter would get it, however.) It is true that violence is ubiquitous in US entertainment, but in most fields it is not quite as all-consuming as it is in tabletop RPGs. Even computer games seem to do better in this respect. Still, this is not DTRPG’s problem, and I am exaggerating (very slightly) for rhetorical effect.

It does, however, bring home the point that, if everything that contains a fairly common trigger were placed behind a filter that was on by default, DTRPG would display no products to the casual browser, and that would almost certainly be very bad for business. As this was another objection that was raised to my position, I’d like to conclude by considering it.

The Duty to Go Bankrupt

It was suggested that, if DTRPG were to sell Tournament of Rapists, the backlash would drive them out of business. Can we really require them to do something that will drive them out of business?

In general, the answer is “yes”. If you can only sell cars by adding software to cheat the emissions tests, then you should be driven out of the business of selling cars. Going back to my fundamental position, no-one has the right to a job that requires excessive restrictions on the freedoms of others. However, the answer in this specific case is not obvious. The fact that, sometimes, going out of business is the only ethical option does not mean that it always is.

The filter problem is a good example of this. DTRPG probably would go out of business if the filters were on by default. That means that it is permissible to have them off by default, as long as casual browsers can easily turn them on, and the user interface for doing so is very easy to find. Requiring someone who is triggered by violence to click on a “trigger filters” link and then select “hide violence” is not an unreasonable restriction of freedom, particularly if the alternative is going out of business.

What about the original question? What if the backlash against a product would drive the company out of business?

The first thing to note is that, if this would actually happen, the group threatening the boycott is not a marginalised group; it is the dominant group in the industry. Furthermore, it is a dominant group trying to drive a marginalised group out completely. (If you think the Black Tokyo line is mainstream, you need to learn a bit more about our hobby.) So, the question is, is it ethically permitted to cave in to a dominant group in its attempts to exclude a minority, if the alternative is going out of business?

This is a hard problem. I think you should err on the side of not caving in, because boycotts are almost never as effective as threatened, and we know from history how easy it is to get caught up in persecuting people. In this case, I do not think that the backlash would drive DTRPG out of business, particularly if they were introducing more consistent trigger filters at the same time.

Three thousand words later, where am I? (I would say “where are we?”, but I doubt anyone has read this far.) I still think that DTRPG is making the wrong decision, and that it should be selling offensive content. I also think that it should be working on better filtering for triggering content, so that people can make the site into a safe browsing environment for themselves, without restricting the freedom of others to aim at a career in table-top roleplaying games.

OneBookShelf’s Offensive Content Policy

On September 1st, OneBookShelf, the company that runs DriveThruRPG, announced an offensive content policy in reaction to the outrage over a product entitled “Tournament of Rapists”. Steve Wieck, the CEO, published a blog post explaining his decision. It is a thoughtful and serious attempt to wrestle with a difficult issue, and one that recognises the complexity of the situation, particularly the fact that OneBookShelf’s marketplace dominance means that its decision to not sell a product is de facto censorship. Nevertheless, I think he came to the wrong decision. There are several reasons, and I will start from the least serious. (If you haven’t read his blog post, it would be a good idea, because the rest of this post will make little sense without it.)

First, I think it will be very hard to implement the reporting policy. It will have to be limited to genuine accounts, so “genuine accounts” will have to be defined, and there will have to be a way to block people who use it frivolously, so there will need to be a definition of “frivolous reporting”. Neither of these will be easy to determine, let alone code. It will almost certainly have to be limited to people who have bought the product in question, but I doubt that OBS will be in a legal or financial situation to offer refunds. A product that has been challenged and passed will have to be removed from the flagging system, which means that OBS will put a badge of approval on fairly offensive books and high profile books that attracted protest flags, but not on uncontroversial books from small publishers. It’s going to be messy.

Second, the new policy is a PR disaster waiting to happen. If Mr Wieck is serious in his intention to err in the side of permitting books, and I believe him, then at some point he is going to refuse to drop a product that someone in the SJW community has challenged. Now, you and I know that there is a big difference between “This is bad, but not bad enough to justify banning it” and “I am a wholehearted supporter of the ideology expressed in this product”, but do you seriously think that the internet mob is going to respect that distinction? Similarly, it is very likely that he is going to have to exclude someone in the SJW community from the flagging system, because they are flagging too many books that don’t merit censorship. At this point, he is not only Steve Wieck, rape advocate, he is also an agent of white male oppression, silencing the voices of queer women of colour.

If the disaster waits for a month after the implementation of the policy, I will be pleasantly surprised.

Third, this was a major change to fundamental policy made as a snap response to a single crisis. By a roleplayer! All GMs know that it is a really bad idea to make general changes to house rules at the table in response to a problem that has just come up in play. You make a spot ruling to fix that problem, then think about a suitable general response, discuss it with the players, and come back in a week or two with the longterm solution. This principle becomes more important as the decision becomes more important. I realise that the internet feels that taking an hour to respond is a clear sign that you are ignoring their concerns, but the internet is wrong. A couple of days is the right timeframe to make a decision about this case; a month, at least, is an appropriate time frame to make decisions about the longterm policy. These snap decisions are almost always bad, and very often illiberal.

Now, those three reasons are quite important for OBS, but not good enough reasons for me to stick my head above the parapet. That’s reserved for the final reason.

I think it is an unethical decision.

No-one will be surprised to learn that this is a free speech issue. I find it a little difficult to make this point, because I actually agree with the SJWs that this particular product was almost certainly harmful and unethical. I haven’t read it, as it has been censored, but it is in the tentacle porn genre, and what I have seen of that genre convinces me that, in general, it valorises hurtful and harmful attitudes to women, sex, and female sexuality, and I am concerned that it might actually promote them as well. I think it is unethical to make and publish such things.

However, freedom of speech applies to unethical, harmful, and hurtful speech. Indeed, this is exactly the speech it has to apply to. No-one tries to ban speech they think is harmless. The people trying to ban RPGs for being Satanic in the 1980s didn’t sit there thinking “What harmless hobby should we try to ban? My DM killed my thief, so let’s try to ban D&D!”. They (at least most of them) genuinely believed that RPGs were harmful. Yes, there were some bandwagon-riders, I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that that’s true of the SJWs. Freedom of speech means protecting people’s right to say things that you believe are wrong, harmful, and pernicious. It also means defending your right to criticise them for being unethical, but you must not silence them, and you must not try to exclude them from the general marketplace, whether of ideas or of products.

Now, that does not mean that you cannot try to create a marketplace or environment where they are not present, but that must be, in an important sense, a marginal environment. Safe spaces are important, but you must not create them by excluding groups from the main space. You can limit certain sorts of behaviour, such as harassment, but speech has to be free. (And yes, I have thought about the distinction, but this is going to be too long anyway, so I’m not going to go into it here.)

I think that preserving this sort of freedom, the freedom to say unethical things, and make hurtful and harmful statements, is an essential part of social justice. That is why I have abbreviated the standard name to “SJW”. The people strongly advocating this censorship are, in this case, fighting against social justice.

Now, there are a lot of points on which I agree with the SJWs, from the judgement that “Tournament of Rapists” is almost certainly harmful and unethical to the need to create societies that are more inclusive of people who are not members of the dominant group. I’m generally in favour of quotas to drive the participation of historically excluded groups, such as women, because waiting for it to happen naturally seems to be far too slow. I would like to work with them on those issues, which is why I have avoided criticising them on the points I don’t agree with in the past. But freedom of speech is too important. If we got everything else and lost freedom of speech, even for rape fetishists, we would not have created a just society. I fear that this will mean I won’t be able to cooperate with them in the future, although I hope I am wrong about that.

I should say that, as ad hominem arguments appear to be de rigueur in this field, that although I am a white, cis, heterosexual man, I live in Japan, so I am not a member of the socially dominant group. I have chaired a meeting attended by several Japanese men (that is, members of the locally dominant group) who had expressed their hostility and intent to confront us online, in advance. The local police thought that their comments made it wise to send a squad of riot police (out of sight) and a couple of plain clothes officers (in the audience) to ensure my safety and that of my colleagues. And I still called on the hostile group to speak, several times, as long as they confined themselves to speaking, even though they were arguing that we, as non-Japanese, should not be allowed to speak out about social issues. When they got a bit too vehement, the police encouraged them to quietly leave the room, and they did. I am fully aware, from personal experience, of what it is like to be a member of a minority and to face hostility from members of the majority, to have members of the majority try to silence you, to face a real risk of violence from them, and to live in a culture in which you are not the norm and do not blend in. I do not take that to be a reason to restrict freedom of speech, no matter how hurtful and harmful the speech, as long as it is restricted to speech.

So, what do I think OBS should do? I think they should rescind the decision. They should say something like “On reflection, we over-reacted to an internet campaign. While we are glad that the publisher chose to withdraw the product in question, and hope that it does not reappear, free speech is an extremely important part of social justice. We will not be implementing any censorship on our sites.”. Yes, this will cause a massive explosion of outrage. As I mentioned earlier, however, I don’t think they can avoid that at this point, and if they take a stand in favour of free speech they can, at least, expect to have allies, and the confidence that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing.

But I know that reasonable people sometimes disagree with me, even about ethical issues, and even about important ethical issues. As I said to start with, I think Mr Wieck has thought seriously about the right problems here, and while I think I should publicly disagree with his decision, I don’t think he is a bad person for making it, nor do I plan to boycott OBS over it. I hope he changes his mind, but I hope he changes his mind because he is convinced, not because he has been threatened.

Edit: I have posted a follow-up going into more detail about my ethical position on this, and the reasons for it.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama giving his lectureToday, the Dalai Lama gave a lecture to members of the Japanese Diet, and I was invited to attend. Not, of course, because I’m a member of the Japanese Diet, but one of my students is, and I helped out a little bit with the preparations for the event, so I got an invitation in return. Obviously, this is the sort of invitation you don’t pass up; it’s not an opportunity that comes along very often, even with the Dalai Lama’s energetic schedule of public engagements.

There were 130 or so parliamentarians there, from all parties. The prime minister didn’t attend, because China gets very annoyed when people pay attention to the Dalai Lama, but Shinzo Abe, the leader of the opposition, was there, because he really doesn’t mind annoying China. He spoke briefly at the beginning, and was given a white scarf as a symbol of friendship by the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama spoke in English, with a following translation into Japanese. The interpreter was very good; on a couple of occasions the Dalai Lama spoke for almost ten minutes before letting her translate, but although she got the order of things a bit jumbled a couple of times, she did cover everything he said, and did so accurately. I don’t think she got a script in advance, so it was a very impressive performance. However, I have to say that the Dalai Lama told his own jokes better than she did.

The Dalai Lama started by saying that he thinks of all people as brothers and sisters, and would speak frankly, so he apologised in advance if he went against any local traditions. He mentioned that he has visited Japan a number of times, and has become quite familiar with the culture, and doesn’t really like it when people sit too stiffly and formally while he’s speaking. I still tried not to slouch, though.

His lecture fell into three main parts. First, he spoke as a human being, second as a Buddhist monk, and finally as a Tibetan. Speaking as a human being, he said that he wanted to emphasise that everyone was fundamentally the same, physically and psychologically, and that Tibetans and Japanese, in particular, looked pretty much the same. Everyone, he said, has the right to seek happiness, and we should support them in that. He pointed out that, in the past, there has been a strong barrier between “us” and “them”, and this has led to people trying to defeat “them” in order to secure more for “us”, whether through cheating, bullying, or outright war. However, he believes that in the 21st century we need to dismantle that barrier, and think of everyone as part of a large “us”. We should be working for the happiness of everyone in the world, not just for the betterment of our own group, and part of that is not emphasising the differences between groups.

He said that when we cheat or bully others, we are also hurting ourselves, because human beings are social animals, and always rely on others. In addition, hatred and hostility are physically bad for us, while habitual lying causes great stress. On the other hand, working honestly to benefit others gives rise to self-confidence and inner peace. We all need real friends, artificial ones not so much, and the only way to make them is to behave honestly and transparently, so that we can build trust with them.

Speaking as a Buddhist, he quoted a quantum physicist he met in Argentina, who said it was important for him not to get attached to quantum mechanics. He said that, as a Buddhist, he should also not get attached to Buddhism, because if you do that, you become biased, and unable to understand the other person’s point of view. He pointed out that, although religions claim to teach compassion and forgiveness, they have often been the cause of violence and oppression, a sad state of affairs. Religions, he noted, vary a great deal in their philosophy, some having a creator, while others, like Buddhism, have no creator and instead believe in self-creation. However, he insisted that these differences were good, because people are all different, and no one philosophy can be suitable for all of them. He said that if religions had respect for each other, they could get back to their original purpose of being a force for good in the world.

He went on to say that human beings have a great advantage over other animals: their intelligence. Other animals are controlled by their emotions, but humans do not have to be. They can use their intelligence to override their emotions, and suppress the destructive ones while encouraging compassion and toleration. He said that a lot of the problems with religion arise when people do not properly use their intelligence, and instead rely purely on their emotions.

Finally, he spoke as a Tibetan. His first point was about the ecology of the Tibetan plateau, which a Chinese ecologist has called the “third pole”, in addition to the north and south poles. (That phrase seems to have spread; I’ve seen it several times in Nature.) It is suffering from global warming and deforestation, but that doesn’t just affect the six million Tibetans. Around a billion people in Asia live along rivers that rise in the Tibetan glaciers, although there is no direct connection to any Japanese rivers. Preserving the environment in Tibet is also vital for their life.

Then there is the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. This, again, is not valued only by Tibetans, but also by people around the world, including a large number of Chinese. He stressed that there was no necessary connection between Tibetan Buddhism and separatism, pointing to the example of India, where languages, writing systems, and religions differ greatly across the country, but there is no risk of separatism. If the Tibetans were given the freedom to practise their culture within China, there would be no need for them to leave.

He then excused himself from talking directly about politics, saying that he had retired from politics completely, and that if, after saying that, he went on making comments about it, he would be a hypocrite. Finally, he mentioned that there were a lot of female Diet members in the audience (there were; I think they were probably somewhat over-represented), and commented that this made him very happy. He mentioned that when he visited the European Parliament, there were a lot of female parliamentarians, some of whom were very attractive, and that also made him very happy. (When you’re the Dalai Lama, you can get away with that. Especially when the translator uses a Japanese word that is less directly connected to physical appearance.) His main point, however, was that equality between men and women was an essential part of the modern world, and that he was happy to see that it was recognised in Japan.

There was only time for one question at the end, and one Diet member asked what they could do to help Tibet. The Dalai Lama suggested that they visit Tibet, taking ecologists and journalists with them, to see what was happening. He expressed concern that the central government in China was not receiving accurate reports from regional officials, but that foreign visitors might be able to tell them what was really going on.

The event finished with a declaration of support for Tibetans, and the announcement of the formation of a group of Diet members dedicated to working to support the Tibetans.

After this lecture, I can see why the Dalai Lama has a reputation for wisdom; everything he said struck me as wise (except, possible, the comment about female MEPs). Obviously, in a one hour lecture (half an hour when you factor in the need to translate) he had to leave a lot of the practical problems untouched, but I can’t find anything to disagree with in his general suggestions. It is, of course, refreshing to find a major religious leader stressing that the world needs lots of different religions, but I agree with everything else he said, as well. Does that mean I’m wise? Maybe I have one three hundred millionth of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom just as, as an EU citizen, I have one three hundred millionth of a Nobel Peace Prize.

The Happiness Hypothesis

This book is about happiness. It’s based in psychology, and draws on both ancient philosophies and modern empirical findings to discuss what makes people happy. Most of what the author comes up with are things I already do, which might explain why I’m happy. It’s a very interesting book, with a couple of things that were new to me.

The evidence currently suggests that everyone has a happiness range, and that this varies considerably from person to person. Events and circumstances move you up and down in the range, but how happy a particular event makes you depends on your natural range. There are two ways to make people happier within this. The first is to move them up in their natural range. This is what meditation, cognitive therapy, and changes to lifestyle do. The second is to move the range up. This is what Prozac does.

If this is right, then Prozac isn’t a crutch, it’s a treatment for a disability. My range seems to be fairly high, so I don’t need it, but that makes it very easy for me to say that no-one does. That’s wrong, of course. If you have perfect eyesight you don’t need glasses, but that doesn’t mean that, if I just tried harder, I could function without them. On the other hand, Prozac isn’t the whole solution, either. It might move the range up, but if you’re still functioning at the bottom of the range, that might not make you terribly happy. (Of course, if you had a very low range and functioned near the top of it, Prozac would make you very happy all of a sudden.)

The things you should do to be happy are fairly easy to explain. Relationships with other people are important, as is having something that you really enjoy doing, something that involves a good amount of skill and concentration. Involvement in something larger than yourself is also a major positive factor; religious belief tends to make people happy (and that’s the bit I hadn’t come across before).

Money is a bit more complex. Broadly, money doesn’t make you happy, but lack of money does make you miserable. The level at which increasing income stops making you happier varies from one society to another; as I recall it was about $40,000/year in the USA. On the other hand, if you use money to buy experiences, particularly with friends or family, then that can make you happier. Spending money on a holiday probably will make you happier, assuming that you have fairly good relationships with the people you go with. What’s more, the happiness tends to last, unlike money spent on things.

That raises an obvious question: is a book a thing or an experience? (It’s obvious to me.) Obviously, it is a thing, but the physical object is not what you buy. Rather, you buy the experience of reading it. In these terms, books might be experiences, but only if you read them. Similar considerations presumably apply to DVDs and CDs, and they should apply to RPGs in spades.

These results suggest that contemporary Western society is set up badly wrong. People try to get things, rather than building relationships or skills, and are surprised when it doesn’t make them happy. Japanese society may be slightly better off; Japanese consumerism is rather more focused on experiences, such as holidays and trips to famous hot springs, which are, apparently, better at making you happy. Still, the tendency towards individualism is visible here, and bad from a general perspective.

However, the nice thing about the results is that they suggest that making people happy could be good for society. If most people were involved in several deep, positive relationships with others, involved in a skillful activity and some projects aiming at larger things than personal goals, and were not constantly trying to get new toys, I think you’d have a fairly pleasant place to live. A bit of conscious design would be needed, but you should be able to be completely upfront about that. In short, I think that there may be the makings of a political program here, in addition to the recommendations for personal life. Definitely an interesting and useful read.

A Place for Consciousness

This is the book about consciousness that I noted a little while ago, and I’ve just got around to reading it. It’s very good.

In the first section, Rosenberg raises most of the problems about consciousness that had occurred to me. In short, no matter how good a physical description you have, there is nothing in there about where consciousness comes from, so something has to be added to physical theories to say “and this gives rise to conscious experiences”. It seems very likely that that is the way to go, since even if global waves of electrical activity across the brain are the physical correlates of consciousness, current theory does not say that they would be conscious, so something must be missing. However, if we add consciousness properties to electrons and the like, it is deeply obscure how they could give rise to the unified conscious experience that we have.

While these problems are not accepted by everyone, they are fairly generally known. However, the fact that Rosenberg was promising to address the problems I see head-on was very promising. The meat of the book, then, is his solution to the problems.

The basic outline of the solution is very simple. He creates a new theory of causation, in which there are both effective and receptive properties, which combine to make individuals. Effective properties are conscious experiences, and a receptive property is a field of conscious experience. These receptive properties exist at different levels, so there is no reason why there cannot be a single receptive property for human minds, which would explain why we have a single unified experience.

Obviously, I’ve cut all the arguments and details from the above. However, it’s a very clever move. There are definitely problems in the theory of causation, and this theory does answer some of them. His argument that Humean theories have no way to define the universe was particularly interesting; I suspect that he may be right. Humean theories say that there are just individual events, with no links between them, and causation is simply the patterns that occur. However, in strict Humeanism you construct space, time, and causation from the events, which means that you can’t define the universe as “causally linked events” or “events in the same space” or “events in the same time”. You need the set of events first. That means that Humeans need a reason to exclude Tolkien’s Middle Earth from the universe. “It’s made up” isn’t enough, because they have no obvious way to pick out the set of “real events”, other than arbitrary stipulation. And the fact that Middle Earth does not exist is not an arbitrary stipulation; it reflects a deep truth about the universe.

So, back to the main argument of the book. The claim that metaphysics needs “real” causation is quite convincing, and Rosenberg’s split between symmetric and asymmetric constraints has the potential to do a lot of useful work. Similarly, the argument that the relational properties of physics (negative charge is just different from positive charge, there is nothing inherent about them) need some sort of categorical basis is prima facie convincing. Using conscious experiences to fill the role is, frankly, a brilliant idea. They are categorical properties that we know exist, and so it is metaphysically parsimonious to do things this way.

This is by far the best attempt to grapple with the hard problem of consciousness that I’ve ever seen, and I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in the issue.

I’m not, however, fully convinced. One problem is that I’m not quite sure how the causal theory will work out in detail. This is simply due to the fact that I haven’t gone through it with a fine tooth comb yet; it’s possible that, when I do so, everything will be fine, or that there will be small changes that solve the problems. (The theory is unlikely to be perfect at this point, even if it is fundamentally right.)

I do have a more philosophical worry, however. The experiential basis of a particular physical property could be anything. There might be good reasons for all the visual experiences being based on the same sort of thing, but none were canvassed in the book. The unity of the physical process is not, by itself, enough; that does not feed down to the level of the experiences. Thus, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why red isn’t a sound rather than a colour.

More fundamentally, it seems entirely possible that pleasure could feel like pain, and vice versa. That is, something could be exactly the experience that pain is, and not be aversive. It is, on this theory, pure good luck that we have evolved to seek out things that feel good. We were bound to evolve to seek out things that feel, since an experiential basis was needed for those causal properties, but the experiential basis could have been agony. If it had, we would seek out agony, say we liked it, and call it “pleasure”, but it would still feel horrible.

I’m not entirely sure that this is even coherent as a thought experiment, but since failure of imagination is a poor philosophical argument I’ll let that pass. The other problem is that it means that the theory means that there is no possible investigation that can tell us anything about conscious experiences. We might be able to determine whether something has them or not, but even that is a bit tricky. We certainly wouldn’t be able to determine what they were like. (Parsimony would let us say that other people had similar ones to ours.) Now, this might be the way the world is; there is no reason why everything should be accessible to investigation. However, given that we are only just starting to investigate consciousness, I think I’d like to try a more optimistic approach first.

Of course, that means coming up with an alternative theory of consciousness, and given how thin on the ground they are, that’s far from a trivial proposition.

So, this book is great. But I think I hope it’s completely wrong.

Peter Lipton, 1954-2007

This morning I received an email from one of my friends from my Master’s course at Cambridge, informing me that Peter Lipton, my Ph.D. supervisor, had died. This was a great shock; he was only in his fifties. There are good general obituaries in the Guardian and on the Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science website, but I want to write a bit about his impact on me, because it was substantial.

I first met Peter (and it was “Peter” from very early on) in November 1992. Six weeks into the final year of my Physics undergraduate degree, I had suddenly come to the realisation that I didn’t want to study physics, and certainly didn’t want to spend my life doing it. I thought about changing to HPS for graduate work, but looking at the past exam papers made me think that I’d really rather be doing that subject now. So, I asked about changing subjects. Fortunately, at Cambridge Physics and HPS are, administratively, the same subject, both being part of the Natural Sciences Tripos, so the change was not impossible. My tutor dispatched me to talk to Trinity’s Director of Studies in HPS, Peter Lipton.

As I remember the meeting, Peter listened, told me that it would be difficult but possible, and then walked down to the corridor with me to the much bigger office of the then-Head of Department, Professor Redhead, to make sure that it would be permissible for me to transfer.

It is entirely characteristic of Peter that, when Professor Redhead retired, he did not move to the bigger office, instead converting it for use by graduate students as a computer room, and as an office for junior members of the Department; I had a desk in there for a few months while working on Starry Messenger.

As both obituaries note, Peter was a brilliant teacher. My late transfer deprived me of the pleasure of attending many of his lectures as an undergraduate, but when I later became a supervisor I had a good excuse to attend the courses my students were taking. His lectures were always clear, amusing, and memorable. Indeed, they were so memorable that the “transcribed Lipton lecture” was a persistent problem among submitted essays. In many years, the students produced a spoof exam paper, and for several years one of the questions was “Produce a transcription of your favourite Peter Lipton lecture. Remember to include stage directions for all visual jokes”. I have never attended any other undergraduate lectures of that quality, and, despite taking them as a model, my own efforts fell far, far short.

However, his teaching was not limited to his lectures. He also founded and ran the Epistemology Reading Group, a seminar that focused on a single text over the course of a term, whether a book or a collection of papers. At those seminars, and at others he chaired, he was skilled at drawing people into the discussion, and at giving people at all levels the opportunity to make the initial presentation. One of my contemporaries remarked that he also had a talent for “clarifying” student questions in a way that made them vastly more intelligent than the initial questioner had managed, all the while giving all the credit to the student. That group appears to have inspired many other similar groups; the HPS seminar page lists over half a dozen groups, with others on hiatus this term. The only group I know it inspired is the Medieval Science and Philosophy Reading Group that I organised, but the other groups all followed it in time while being contiguous in space, and thus a good Humean would conclude that Peter’s example caused them to come into existence.

And then there are his talents as a Ph.D. supervisor. My thesis was immeasurably better as a result of his comments and the discussions we had. Quite a common situation was for us to spend twenty minutes or so discussing a single sentence, leading me inexorably to the conclusion that, perhaps, I needed to devote a little more space to unpacking that idea. He would never start by saying that an idea was poor, but would, instead, raise objections to it, and let you work out for yourself that it was a non-starter.

Of course, if you could overcome the objections, so much the better. A chapter of my dissertation was devoted to his book, Inference to the Best Explanation. More specifically, it was devoted to why it was fundamentally wrong. Despite that, he supported me in my attempts to make the arguments as strong as possible. In 1994, during my M.Phil studies, Peter gave me a copy of the book, with the inscription “To David, Who may come up with a better explanation”. That encapsulates his attitude to his students; the desire to see them do well, rather than to preserve some sort of intellectual superiority.

As well as this attitude, he mastered all the basic skills needed in a good supervisor, but so often lacking. He read all the drafts I gave him, no matter how many, making comments all over. Appointments could be made for a couple of days later, just long enough to give him time to read, and during the meetings he would always give me his full attention. I thought at the time, and still think now, that I could not have had a better supervisor.

As if this were not enough, Peter also gave me my first opportunity to teach, recruiting me to supervise the final year undergraduate course during my MPhil year. This was provoked by an established supervisor getting a job and suddenly vanishing, and it took me a little while to get into the swing of supervising. I know that I tried to model much of my teaching on Peter, and that, in many respects, I fell short.

Both obituaries mention Peter’s sense of humour, which was good and never cruel. Students and colleagues could always laugh at his jokes, because they were never the butt. Characteristic was his response when I sent him the (Japanese) invitation to my wedding: “Thank you for the invitation, which is very pretty if entirely lacking in accessible semantic content”. It is an in-joke, but one that we could share.

The last time I was in Cambridge, with my (then) wife-to-be, we almost literally bumped into him in the HPS Department, and he immediately invited us for coffee. I was very pleased that we’d had the chance then, but I never imagined that it would be the last time I would see him, or the only time that my wife would. Even though my life has moved a long way from Cambridge, I feel a profound sense of loss that he is no longer there, explaining to undergraduates why it is difficult to demonstrate that it is a better idea to leave the third-floor lecture room by the door than the window. He was always part of Cambridge HPS for me, and I had naturally assumed that he always would be.

The Department has established a Peter Lipton Memorial Fund, to support undergraduate, post-graduate, and post-doctoral research. I cannot think of a more fitting way to remember the best teacher and nurturer of new researchers it has been my privilege to know.

The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Another fairly self-explanatory title… The series of Cambridge Companions aim to provide a range of scholarly essays on a topic or philosopher, to help advanced students to get to grips with them. Thus, they are introductory from one perspective, but very far from superficial, which makes them an interesting read.

One interesting thing about this book was the number of important medieval Jewish philosophers I’d never heard of. Given that I’ve studied medieval philosophy in some detail, that was a little surprising; not even the names had come up with any frequency. Of course, there were some, Maimonides and Gersonides, most notably, of whom I had heard; I’ve even read Maimonides. One question running through the book is the degree to which Jewish philosophers engaged with Christian and Islamic philosophers in the period, and vice versa, and in many cases the evidence for engagement seems fairly slender. Maimonides and Gersonides are exceptions, which might well be why they were the two I’d heard of; I’ve tended to approach medieval philosophy from the Christian direction.

Another interesting point was the discussion of Judah Halevi, an early twelfth century philosopher who wrote a book known as the Kuzari, dramatising the conversion of the Kazars to Judaism. In this text, he apparently argued that the Jews were racially superior to all other people, and that only Jews could ever be truly virtuous. Conversion was not an option; you had to be a genuine blood descendant of Israel. It’s the first time I’ve come across clear ideas of racial supremacy in a medieval context; the Christians were big on ideological and religious supremacy, but don’t seem to have cared very much about races. Jews (or Muslims) who converted to Christianity were just as good as those who were born that way. Of course, Halevi may have been isolated; certainly, Maimonides seems to have been much less racist. But it was still something of a shock to come across such a pure form of racial supremacy in a medieval text. It’s also something of a shock to come across Jews being racist; they are normally the victims of prejudice in the period. (Not just in the medieval period, either, of course.)

The book also discusses the origins of Kabbalah, albeit somewhat indirectly. Kabbalah tended to be mystical rather than philosophical, and some of its practitioners were opposed to philosophy. Similarly, there was a strong current of medieval Jewish philosophy that thought Kabbalah was a load of rubbish. However, there was also a group, quite important in some areas, that combined Kabbalah and philosophy, generally in a Platonic way. They influenced some Christians who were important in the Renaissance, such as Pico della Mirandola, and that seems to be how Kabbalah broke out of the Judaism and found its way into the mainstream of European occultism.

The book covered far more than I’ve mentioned here, and I now feel like I have a much better grip on what was happening in Jewish philosophy in the period, which should help when it comes to studying Christian philosophy from the same era. It’s rather specialist, but I think it’s a good book.

Atheism and Agnosticism

Recently, atheism has become a a major topic of discussion. One of the most notable proponents is Richard Dawkins, professor of zoology and originally author of The Selfish Gene (which is, incidentally, a very good book). The debate has even made it into the Guardian with some frequency. All this attention to the topic makes me want to write my own blog article about where I stand, because my position is a little complex.

I’m only going to attempt to explain my position, not convince anyone else; I won’t be providing all of the evidence for my assertions. Since I suspect it will get quite long, I’ll also hide most of it from the front page.
Continue reading