A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas

I change my mind, therefore the ‘market place’ exists.

Last week I asserted that the ‘marketplace of ideas’, a primary justification for the concept of freedom of expression, probably doesn’t exist. I ended my post with a promise to present some arguments in favour of the so-called market place, and how the concept could be rehabilitated.

The first such argument begins with a comment I made at the end of my guest appearance on the Kraken podcast in February. Winding up, I made the point that “changing your mind can be euphoric”.

What the reveals, of course, is that I have changed my mind in the past. This entire blog is testimony to how a person might iterate and refine their ideas and politics over a period of time. I can think of many examples where I have come to believe something different to my prior assumptions. And in a few cases, I have made a 180 degree turn in my opinions. Continue reading “A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas”

The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?

An intellectual problem for those who defend freedom of expression

Amid all the concern about ‘Fake News’ and the increasing polarisation in politics, there is a psychological insight that I have seen explained and shared in many forms: when presented with a fact that contradicts a strongly held belief, people often reject the fact and double-down in their belief.

This is the Backfire Effect, a phrase coined by the American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Here’s part of the abstract to their 2006 paper ‘When Corrections Fail‘:

Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

Continue reading “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?”

Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

TWR Today invited me to discuss the tension between free speech and freedom of religion.

Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.

During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.

To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend.  I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN.  Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence.  There is none.

Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion.  Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:

We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.

You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.

Continue reading “Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR”

On memory, mind, death and teleportation

But the comic in question has changed my mind. The revelation experienced by the central character was a revelation for me too… that it is the patterns that matter, not the substrate.

Together in my timeline last week, two tweets on memory:

Ben Philips had all his creative work deleted by hackers. Continue reading “On memory, mind, death and teleportation”

In defence of partisan party politics, mendacious politicians and the Westminster bubble

The European and local elections are just one day away and there are plenty of pre-mortems around about the rise of UKIP, the disintegration of the Liberal Democrats and the failure of both the Conservative and Labour parties to build public support.

There are also lots of anti-political sentiments around too. On the Today Programme at the beginning of the week, we heard from some British voters who were lamenting the poor quality of our politicians. They’re duplicitous and lazy, apparently.

What’s lazy is that attitude.
Continue reading “In defence of partisan party politics, mendacious politicians and the Westminster bubble”

The Chain of Life

In the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers lovingly traces his son’s family tree, back through grandparents, to distant ancestors, to the origins of life. Its a nice, secular take on the beauty of creation.

Happy four billionth birthday, son.

The piece puts me in the mind of the opening to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘Virtue‘, which traces the origins of a good cigar, a plate of oysters, a cut of lamb.

For these are animals and there is something that inspires awe in the thought that since the surface of the earth became capable of supporting life from generation to generation for millions upon millions of years creatures have come into existence to end at last upon a plate of crushed ice or silver grill. It may be that a sluggish fancy cannot grasp the dreadful solemnity of eating an oyster and evolution has taught us that the bivalve has through the ages kept itself to itself in a manner that inevitably alienates sympathy. There is an aloofness in it that is offensive to the aspiring spirit of man and a self complacency that is obnoxious to its vanity. But I do not know how anyone can look upon a lamb cutlet without thoughts too deep for tears : here man himself has taken a hand and the history of the race is bound up with the tender morsel on your plate.

Continue reading “The Chain of Life”

The ontology of London house prices

The questions that preoccupy Philosophy students often cause them to be teased by their peers. In my case, ontology was the big hilarity, as we studied the history of philosophers asking, “how do we know that this chair actually exists?“. My science-studying friends ribbed me for examining something that was (in their eyes) completely futile. I do not have the wit to explain to them that the same thought processes should lead us to examine whether other things could also be trusted to exist—scientific data, for example.

Discussion around house prices has flared again. Right Move have published data showing that house prices in London and its orbit have risen 2% in the past quarter, and 10% in the past month alone. (These figures seem so extraordinary I wonder if we need a freshman philosophy student to ask whether they actually exist!  Meanwhile, Right Move calls them ‘unsustainable‘)

We know that house prices do not really exist in the same way that our chairs exist. They are constructs of human interaction, a rough guess at the point of intersection on a supply-and-demand graph that no-one actually gets to see. Continue reading “The ontology of London house prices”

Synecdoche, New York and Directing our own lives

I watched Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York the other day. It is at times compelling, hilarious, and mysterious.

The story follows a theatre director, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Awarded a grant to produce a expansive artwork, he recreates scenes from his own life inside a huge warehouse. But of course, after a while, his own life revolves around producing the theatre piece… So that gets recreated inside the warehouse too. He has to recruit an actor to play himself, and eventually an actor to play the actor that plays himself! Likewise with the other important people in his life and the production. The play becomes more and more recursive, in the manner of Borges’ The Circular Ruins (a dream within a dream).

Continue reading “Synecdoche, New York and Directing our own lives”

The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate

Abortion is undecidable. We should spend our time promoting sex education and access to contraception instead.

Mehdi Hasan has provoked a big online debate about abortion, after publishing a column in the New Statesman on whether abortion is a Left/Right issue in politics. Mehdi says that although the Left is usually identified with the pro-choice* argument and the Right with pro-life*, the arguments deployed are (in his view) the opposite of what the Left and Right usually deploy. The Left use the language of individualism and choice, while the Right use the language of vulnerability and equality.

This article sparked a furious online debate about the central issue – Kenan Malik has an excellent pro-choice rejoinder to Hasan’s piece.  There has also been a meta-debate about whether it was even possible to have a reasoned debate about the issue. I was taken with Hopi Sen’s analysis, comparing what a person thinks they said with what people on the opposing side actually hear (see these amusing stanzas for a shortened version).

I tend to think of the central question as a Devil’s Alternative type question. Whatever you choose, the outcome is bad. Trying to devise rules – legal or ethical – for a Devil’s Alternative problem seems futile. Is abortion right? is a trick question: The stuff of utilitarian philosophy lectures and episodes of 24, where you try to work out the course of action that causes least hurt… Knowing full well that any choice you make leads to permenant unpleasant consequences. Perhaps the only way out of the mire is to punt on the central ethical question, declaring it essentially incomplete in Gödel‘s sense: we are not equipped to process such a question properly. It is undecidable. A paradox that exposes the limits of our language and ethical structures. Continue reading “The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate”