Saturday, September 26, 2009

Freedom of expression

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

This sentiment is attributed to Voltaire though he never actually said it (even in French). The nearest quotes are: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too." and "Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."

It is a defence put forward by those who give room to unpopular or discredited views. Recently a film was shown at Cambridge University which propagated the discredited view that HIV does not cause AIDS. "Defence of free speech" screamed the organizers. Similarly, the BBC decided that the British National Party should be given time of British TV since many people voted for them at the European elections. It should be clear to everyone that the support for the BNP echoes their dislike of the European Union, but in no way endorses their racist policies.

So what position should rational people take of the free speech defence?

We do not allow racists to incite people to kill or attack black people, though we allow much more leeway to Islamists who encourage violence against Christians and Jews. We prosecute people who assert that the Bible opposes homosexual acts, yet we suspend police officers who decline to guard Gay Pride marches in which the marchers engage in acts of public indecency. Often our attitudes to censorship are colored by the political views of the government.

There are many instances where unpopular views have been censored by the church, or by government. Michael Servetus (whose 398th anniversary is on Tuesday), Galileo, Aung San Suu Kyi (incidentally did you know that it was the policy of the British Government to still call the country 'Burma' rather than 'Myanmar' because that is what the Democracy Movement there prefers?), William Tyndale and Gerry Adams are all people whose opinions were censored. Servetus and Tyndale paid the ultimate price for their opinions and so did Leon Trotsky. Censorship is surely preferable to assassination, and many would defend the silencing of Islamist preachers who have been the subject of 'control orders' by the British Government.

The libertarian view would be that we are grown ups and can decide for ourselves what we want to believe without the nanny state shutting people up. But what about those who are not grown up? Even libertarians will often endorse suppressing material aimed at children. Most people would want to restrict children's access to pornography and many would do the same for ultra-violent movies and computer games. Viewing child-pornography is regarded as a crime in many countries, principally because somewhere a child has been abused to produce the stuff. But how would the authorities regard Pixar-like cartoons of child pornography where every image was the figment of a warped imagination yet no child was harmed in its manufacture? Would it still be banned because of its tendency to incite?

There was a time when censorship of anything with a sexual content was routine. Bedroom scenes in movies were only passed by the censor if the actors kept one foot on the floor and even married couples always slept in separate beds. In Islamic countries similar standards are still applied. Yet we have become blase about watching advertisements with scantily-clad women (and men) much in evidence. The other day I visited the newly-restored Boscombe Pier. It sported photographs of the town at the beginning of the twentieth century. The clothes that women were required to wear when bathing at that time would astound viewers of Baywatch.

Cynics say that there is no such thing as bad publicity - getting your name in the papers is everything. Therefore when defenders of free speech publicise an unpopular view, intending to expose wrong-thinking to criticism, the 'wrong-thinkers' are delighted because some people will come out of the woodwork to agree with them and they are often able to misconstrue the public's response to them by lies and distortions. Benevolent liberals offer platforms in the interests of balance, but perhaps they would do better to be more judgemental. Discrimination has got a bad name, but we revere people with discriminating taste. Jesus said "Judge not that ye be not judged" but that text is usually taken out of context. We should certainly not be prejudicial, but elsewhere the Bible tells us to "test everything" and to "evaluate all things" and "choose between good and evil".

One of the great problems of denying free speech is in ensuring that you are not carried along by the popular view, just because it is the popular view and one endorsed by the the great organs of the press. I have made a study of scientific fraud and would no more agree with a point of view because "scientists have claimed..." any more that I would is "Barak Obama said..." or "Sarah Palin said...".

I admit to holding some unorthodox views myself. For example, I still think that there is a place for chlorambucil in the treatment of CLL. But I also have yet to see an adequate defence by Darwinists of how evolution escapes the rules of the Second Law of Thermodynamics or how they might come to terms with irreducible complexity. I find myself unconvinced by the idea anthropomorphic global warming. I am however convinced that the earth is not flat, nor is it travelling through space on the backs of four elephants supported by a giant turtle.

In science everything is contingent. Newton was correct until Einstein pointed out the exceptions. Our knowledge of the Universe is incomplete and science can never explain beauty, love, altruism, kindness, faith, harmony and self-sacrifice in anything other than descriptive terms. Stephen J Gould talked about different Magisteria; realms where science and religion held separate sway. I think he was right.

I am not sure that censorship is wrong in every circumstance.


Burke said...

"In science everything is contingent."

You have no idea how out of date you are, doc. I think such a statement by an internationally-recognized physician is a perfect illustration of the claim being frequently made that the mysticism of Immanuel Kant has permeated into the physical sciences as well as social sciences.

First, the statement is a self contradiction. If everything were contingent, the statement itself would be contingent and, therefore, dubious itself.

Second, the foundation of our knowledge is our senses, which are physical entities responding to physical stimuli. They have a limited range and can be damaged or destroyed, but when working are incapable of error. Those who deny this are left trying to establish their claim without engaging in the contradiction of relying on their supposedly "fallible" senses in doing so.

Everything we know grows from this foundation, and we are capable of error on the conceptual level, but the existence of the things we perceive with our senses is never contingent even though our knowledge expands.

The silliness of the idea of "contingent" facts is dealt with in an essay by Leonard Peikoff in the best book you probably never heard of:

Terry Hamblin said...

Probably we are using 'contingent' in a different sense. It is self evident that scientific conclusions are contingent on the information we have. Since we never have all knowledge, our conclusions are contingent on what knowledge we do have, but another set of experiments might alter that and it often does. Sometimes we make a paradigm shift because the model we have adopted fits so poorly with the observed facts.

A good example was the teaching that CLL was tumor of early B cells arising before entry into the germinal center. I was brought up to believe this, but our discovery that at least half of CLLs had passed through the germinal center produced a paradigm shift that opened up a completely new pathway to investigate the disease.

Of course we make assumptions about the veracity of our senses and our memories. For all I know, the world was created this morning, fully formed with built in (false) memories in every individual - but I take it on faith that this is not so. Alternatively we might all be living in a Matrix-like fantasy. But I doubt it. Keanu Reeves might prove me wrong!

Burke said...

Where I disagree with you doc is in the idea that "everything" is contingent. Essentially, you are claiming to know with certainty that man can know nothing with certainty, a contradiction. Your conflict here is with Aristotle.

Religious "faith" is not synonymous with "confidence." It is belief without evidence, belief for the sake of belief. Is there any evidence that we live in a matrix? If not, then believing we do would be an act of faith.

The fact that I'm not omniscient does not mean that I can know nothing with certainty. The fact that I can't see the back side of the moon doesn't mean that I don't know what the front side looks like.

Our senses put us in touch with reality, REAL reality, not some Kantian contingent "phenomenal" world. With the power of reason, men have used the knowledge gained with their senses to cure cancer (sometimes) and to walk on the moon.

Other animals can't do that. We can because we can make wider identifications with our senses by forming concepts and using logic, things they can't do.

When people looked around and saw that the area of the Earth immediately around them was (mostly) flat, they incorrectly assumed that the entire Earth was flat. With the use of reason and more observation (sailboat masts disappearing when going over the horizon, round heavenly bodies, etc.), they were able to conclude that the Earth was round.

But this does not mean their senses had been deceiving them originally. They had just made some incorrect assumptions at the conceptual level.

Terry Hamblin said...

OK perhaps 'everything' is overstating it. What I mean is that science is never a complete answer. A scientific theory may explain the facts that are known but the possibility exists that there are unknown facts that it doesn't explain - indeed it is our experience that this is often the case. I am not trying to deny that 2+2=4, but much of what we assume to be true and what we are told is true because scientists say so turns out to be false in the long run. I shall be blogging on the supposed truth that heroin is harmful shortly.

Anonymous said...

I find it incredible that someone could be prosecuted for asserting that the Bible condemns homosexuality. That has not happened in the US that I'm aware of.

Also, how can evolution violate the second law of thermodynamics? A mutation that would drive evolution would result (sometimes) in a different, but viable, creature.

A classic example of this is the preferential growth of brown moths over white moths in a polluted environment that has darkened every tree branch, trunk, and everything else.

Perhaps a better example for someone such as you is the development of a drug-resistant cancer, virus, or bacterium. By selecting for drug resistance, eventually virtually the entire population will eventually be resistant to the drug.

Terry Hamblin said...

People have been arrested in the UK for stating that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

No-one denies survival of the fittest within species, it is the appearance of new species with this method that is questionable.

The peppered moth in Northern England that you refer to and the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria are both examples of microevolution. Neither required a mutation since the different populations were already present when the selective pressure began.

By the way did you know that the pictures you see in text books of peppered moths were manufactured? If you look carefully you can see where the (dead) moths were pined to the trees. Peppered moths rest on the underside of leaves, not on the bark of trees.