Allallt believes in Objective Morality

I’ve called this ‘Allallt believes in Objective Morality’ because the issue of morality is actually beyond the confines of “atheism”. I doubt many of the other authors on this blog agree with me on this one. However, the discussion that is likely to follow, I hope, will offer elucidation on atheists.

I believe in objective morality. I know that puts me at odds with some of the authors on this blog; that doubles my need to be articulate here. I want to describe what objective morality is, why I think it’s real and what it looks like.

What is objective morality?

By objective, I mean that it can definitely be said to be right or wrong. For example, 2+2=5 is objective because it can definitely be said to be wrong, where 2+2=4 is also objective and can be said to be right. But it is not just quantitative data; light waves between certain ranges can qualitatively but objectively be said to be green. It doesn’t universally matter that we call it green (or see kieaw if you’re Thai) but if you call it red (see derng) or grey (see taw) you’re objectively wrong. I know that because I am red-green colour blind, and that is an objective diagnosis.

To be objective, something does not need to be universally relevant; it just has to be right or wrong. Although “green” and “white” (Thai: see kaw, ‘colour of rice’) are objective, the universe certainly doesn’t care. And in the absence of eyes and minds to process colour, there is no objective colour. The same is true of health: in the absence of life, health is a meaningless concept. But in the presence of life, health is tangible and medical science is objective.

What is objective morality?

Morality is an issue I feel is confused by a number of issues. The first is the issue of moral intuitions. These are ideas and concepts that have made their way into our psychology. They are unreliable, change based on our emotions, vary by culture and are completely flipped by high-pressure contexts. We think it is wrong to kill so fervently that many of us struggle with the idea that killing a terrorist to stop a tragedy is wrong, yet after a terrorist has wronged us we celebrate in the streets at the killing of a terrorist (think about the news that we got Osama Bin Laden; person I was sickened by the jubilance of people). Another issue that clouds morality is the profundity of morality; it gets tied up in discussions of the afterlife, impenetrable and content-free titles like “Kantian duty”1.

Is there a difference between moral intuitions and objective morality?

Yes. Moral intuitions are things we think are right. There are culturally specific moral intuitions, like the certainty of some that men have dominion over women. There are also general moral rules that have to exist in any society that propagates, like the tendency to not want to kill. Without that intuition you would kill the person in front of you on the street for walking too slow. Intuitions are very good at staying close to true morality and are an important force in limiting our behaviour. But they are not objective morality.

Morality cannot be subjective and open to whim if it is to be objective. Once I have outlined what I mean by morality I will explain why it is objective.

Once you do away with profound sounding statements and take an issue that is not covered by religious ideas of morality you can see the kind of economic discussion that goes on to decide whether something is objective: wellbeing. At this point I will confess to basically holding to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape. For example, is it okay to discipline a child in such a way that makes them sad? In the UK it is a crime to spank a child, and I agree with that. There are equally effective, if not more effective, ways to discipline children. But discipline makes children sad i.e. it lowers their wellbeing. If wellbeing is the basis of morality, how can discipline be said to be okay? If that seems like a pertinent question to you, I want you to stop reading for a moment and consider whether you believe that discipline increases happiness or sadness in the universe. If you think if increases sadness, why do you ever do it? The likelihood is that discipline increases the wellbeing of the person being disciplined in the long run: it helps to nurture more meaningful relationships and friendship. But it also increases the wellbeing of everyone around them; a disciplined person is less likely to espouse social taboos and make people uncomfortable or steal a TV just because they want it.

The general rule here is that if an action increases the wellbeing universally then it is morally good. Except that is too simple. There may be times where every conceivable action and decision will still lower wellbeing; is there a morally good option in these situations? Yes. The option or action that lowers wellbeing the least—i.e. the option that safeguards wellbeing—is the moral option. And that rule allows nuance like spanking children being illegal while discipline in general is okay; spanking is too high an investment in low wellbeing for much the same returns. It is economic.

Why do you define ‘safeguarding wellbeing’ as morally good?

This is a fair question; as I’ve already alluded to,  the universe does not care about morality. The question of how we assign “good” and “bad” to an issue the universe doesn’t care about isn’t an easy one. I want to play a game on bad form before I actually defend my position: if I fail to justify the label of morally good, theists are in no stronger a position; theistic morality depends on accepting the opinion of a stronger Being. It is morally good if God approves it Or, to word that differently, might is right. And that doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to our wellbeing, meaning murder rape and torture could well be okay.

There are compatibilists I’ve read on this issue, where the claim is that God knows what will heighten or safeguard our wellbeing. No matter how counter-intuitive it is, things like Noah’s flood and the war on Canaan do safeguard our morality. There is no evidence to support this, but it is a nice idea. As well as being a nice idea, it doesn’t do away with this moral framework; it supports it. The compatibilists claim the same moral ideas, plus a God that is knowledgeable enough to support it.

However, I need to defend my claim, not just try to burn down the claims of others. Again, I am taking my labels from listening to what people mean when they talk about morality. If by morality people mean safeguarding morality then by definition safeguarding morality is a moral success. And when you sidestep religious domains by talking about questions of animal testing, or even within religious frameworks trying to decide when Jesus would turn the other cheek and when a tooth, a tooth applies or when God’s pre-emptive ideas apply, the conversation comes back to wellbeing.

But wellbeing is all this experiential subjective stuff, so…

Where’s the objectivity in wellbeing?

Your brain and your mind are different things. Your brain is the material thing in your head. Your mind is the immaterial and conceptual ‘space’ where you have things like thoughts, memories and feelings. But the distinction is just academic2. There are brains without minds (dead people), but there are no minds without brains3. In fact, if I do something to your brain (like put a pole through it) it will wildly alter the state of your mind.

As it happens the relationship between your brain and your mind is much more nuanced and delicate than physical manipulation; if we have enough information about your brain we can make reliable predictions about your mind. And your wellbeing is in your mind. Your wellbeing is based on an observable series of facts about your material brain; your wellbeing is readable based on truths about your brain. We have devices that are getting ever more advanced and precise at readings the brain (and therefore mind); the best device we have is the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.

If you set yourself the goal of maximising or safeguarding wellbeing, we can objectively measure how well you did. And we call the goal of maximising or safeguarding wellbeing morality.

Is this not moral semantics?

I don’t think so. I think it is very important to be precise about what we mean by “morality”. Not only is my definition based on what I observe people to mean when they talk about moral issues, but I am yet to hear of an argument that can justify a moral idea that seems both moral and increases the overall suffering in the universe.

What would this framework look like? Give me a practical example of a moral rule.

This framework does not permit itself to rules and precepts in the conventional sense. “Thou shalt not murder” and “murder is wrong” simply do not apply. Although these ideas do work as generalised ideas that work in almost all situations, there are times where killing someone is permissible. An objective idea can have a relative application, and indeed this one does. For example, there is a certain amount of tension and suffering that comes from trying to alter ones culture or moral intuitions. Harmless cultural values, like taking your shoes off before you walk into a house, never need to be altered and the resistance you would encounter would make overturning it immoral.

The overall suffering in the universe (although I don’t have the data in) would probably be decreased if governments simply ignored the anti-stem cell research lobby and just tried to develop the medicine and cures. The overall bliss and peace in the world would increase if we decided against mutilating infant female (and male) genitals; this is almost definitely true. Even though the conservatives in those parts of the world feel strongly about it, half of the population would regain the ability to orgasm4 and the more squeamish people globally (myself included) would be more comfortable. My use of the phrase “almost definitely” aside, the point is that it that it is a knowable thing.

I can think of something we should do that is not moral…

I doubt you can. That would suggest you can think of something we should do which will lower the wellbeing of the universe in total. But I’d love to hear an example.

1 – I truly challenge anyone to give one duty that is irrevocably consistent with Kantian duty. Kant (the real pronunciation of his name is oddly apt) said that if you can permit something ever you must permit it always. But he gives no way to know what you should and should not permit.

2 – If you have a tumour of the brain, you have a ball of malignant and replicating cells that physically exist in your head. If you have a cancer of the mind you have a particularly malignant thought.

3 – the exception your thinking of—God—is not confirmed.

4 – that’s not just a carnal thing; orgasm are an important part of developing a health relationship with a partner.

A Problem with Existence

The proposition “God exists” has two words in it which need clarification. The word “god” is confusing to a lot of people as it is full of paradoxes and unclear claims. That is a post for another day. Perhaps less obviously, “exists” is also in desperate need of clarification. That is the focus of this post.

There is more than one type of existence. The one to lead with is almost self-evident existence: the matter and energy that compose the material world. Material existence is basically predictable and very familiar to us. It is self-evident and barely worth a discussion at this point. Our brains are material, and yet they offer us things with are not material: thoughts, emotions, feeling, desires and values. These exist in something I have previously called our ‘internal reality‘. To be consistent,  I am going to call this internal reality “internal existence”. To some, I am already being controversial; there are many who believe that as an atheist I should not be able to acknowledge this internal existence. The confusion sprouts from equating atheism with philosophical materialism: accepting only material existence.

The difference between the average materialist and me is a definition question: what does it mean to exist? I have no trouble believing that internal existence is dependent on material existence, a materialist might call that illusory. I’m merely adopting a broader definition of existence.

After this we run  into much more abstract ideas of existence: abstract concepts. Numbers, for example. Do they exist? Again, I have made reference to this question before, and the answer is many tiered for there is more than type of number: there are numbers which literally count, this is a finite set of numbers with its limit being the total number of countable particles in the universe (after this number, there is nothing left to count and so no more numbers); there are calculating number, again finite as the biggest number that ever made it into an equation was Graham’s number; there is the infinite, where you can always add one; there is even the Penn and Teller limit to numbers where after the biggest number you can meaningfully picture without grouping (about 4). The short answer is that I think all numbers are conceptual, unambiguous and dependent tools. Numbers do exist so long as they refer to something real. For a number to exist at any given time it must be used as a tool by a mind; the existence of numbers is dependent on a function and a mind to conceive of them. After all, they are concepts. All other numbers–the ones not being used–are part of a huge tool box. The toolbox, containing all possible numbers, can either be thought of as a concept that transcends time or as a concept limited to minds conceiving of them, else as not existing. If the set transcends time, it is because we can conceive of the set being applicable to non-temporal universes.

God does not exist by any of these definitions. We have to invent an entirely new branch of existence to account for God. So far as I can understand from what believers have told me, God is immaterial (does not exist like material things exist), independent (does not exist internally), and exists in Its own right (does not exist as a concept like numbers do).

This is the scale of the improbability of a god. Not only does a god not exist by any understood definition of what it means to exist, so you have to invent an entirely new branch of what it means to exist, but then you have to demonstrate that within that set of existence something worthy of being called a god is what exist there (instead of some transcendent impossible to experience smell). And I imagine you’ll want it to be your God according to your book with your history.

Balls in your court.

A Challenge to Christians and Atheists

The problem of evil is ubiquitous. However, this argument only works against certain definitions of a god. If you believe in a particular God that is incompatible with the nature of suffering then you should throw out the definition of God. Normally this is not what happens. People either cut their definitions of God or redefine their terms and then argue with the same vehemence that they have always believed in their new adaptation.

But it is not the nature of the argument I am here to critique; I am here to discuss whether freewill necessarily permits suffering and whether God could stop our suffering without infringing on our freewill. I want also to extend the question: if ending our suffering does mean removing our freewill, should He do it? To all these I want to answer that not only could God end our suffering, but to protect our freewill He must end our suffering.

Consider, first, an analogy. At an advertising firm the Executive Director, Graham (or “G” for short and ingenious hipster irony), permits sexual harassment in the workplace because it is necessary for his employees’ creativity. G believes, and the shareholders agree, that ending sexual harassment will ruin creativity. “Sexual harassment is a part of our expression…” G explained to an incredulous collection of 12 of his peers, “… thus it feeds our creativity”. Occasionally when employees finishes working at G-Advertising the police punish the offenders, but there are no consequences during their employment.

The problem is that Jethro disagrees. Jethro is an ex-psychologist who started to work at G-Advertising 8 months ago. Holly is sexually harassing Jethro and Jethro has noticed a decline in his own psychological wellbeing and that has changed his ability to think clearly and to be creative. Although Jethro recognises G’s argument that sexual harassment appears as a spin-off from creativity, he cannot understand why G favours the creativity of those who are willing to sexually harass others over people like himself, whose creativity depends on not being sexually harassed.

To protect the creativity of Jethro and others like him, G necessary must create and enforce a policy that forbids sexual harassment. He may even consider only hiring people he believes will not sexually harass others in the office as a part of a new team development policy.

I hope the analogy stands on its own with explanation. This is how it is with God. Children will not to be abused and beaten. People will not to be kidnapped and killed. Citizens will not to be oppressed. Property owners will not to be stolen from. If our freewill were really being protected, these wills would matter. However, it is the will of the child abuser, kidnapper, oppressive government and thieves that God favours (else, none of this could happen). The world we really see is not one where we have freewill, but one where our wills are realised in proportion to our force. Sometimes this is good; the joint will of people has generated charities. However, human caused suffering appears when ill-will has more brute force or deception behind it than the strong opposing will.

One of the options for doing this is increasing our empathy so that we don’t want to cause other people harm. We already have some empathy (each of us at different levels). That empathy stops us pushing new-mothers with their babies in their pram into the road so we can walk past. If you disagree that it is empathy that stops us doing that, we can at least agree something is stopping us from committing infanticide? And whatever that is, no one has complained that has interfered with our freewill. So, more of that, please. God, if you read this, I will that all people have more of whatever this is. That should end intentional human-caused suffering.

The idea that force is what turns will into reality appears very natural. To an atheist, this is the unfortunate way of things. But it is also the pitiless indifference of nature and certainly no sign of a benevolent overseer. We have will that is recognised according to our physical strength and chance. If our freewill is to be protected, it must be realised according to a democratic system. It should not exclude the weak and the vulnerable. No matter how much one person wills to hurt me, my will and the will of those who care about me would be enough to prohibit that behaviour. Suffering would end. Because that is what we do will.

Not only could God end human-caused suffering and protect our freewill, but to protect our freewill He must end our suffering.

Sex, gender and pronouns

For most of my life I have been pretty sure that “gender” was the word used by people either too prudish to say “sex” or wanted to make a clear distinction between ‘gender’ and copulation. But there appears to be a conversation that suggests I’m wrong. The argument centres around transgenderism, an issue I’m not against in anyway but am struggling to find the nuance of the discussion around.

The distinction, so far as I can see, is this:

Sex is the scientific and biological term. We are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning the overwhelming majority of the human population is represented in one of two sexes: male or female. These terms are defined by anatomy and genetics. There does exist a limited number of defined other groups: hermaphrodites and XXY chromosomes. In this paradigm, a transgender person is a person who has undergone a change to their anatomy.

Gender, however, is not identical to this. Instead, gender relates to cultural stereotypes that relate to gender. (You can nitpick, claim you find the word “stereotype” offensive or prefer the term “social expectation” if you want. But I’m going to ignore that unless it makes a substantive change to the argument I am making here. I am not going to obsess over inconsequential distinctions.) Gender may be better thought of not as “male/female” but “masculine/feminine”. Exactly what masculinity and femininity look like changes in different cultures, however it would be remiss to not point out there are considerable similarities between cultures in these stereotypes.

Using this distinction, then, people seem to be choosing to eschew the false dichotomy of thinking of themselves as masculine or feminine. And, on that point, I think we can all agree. The narrow definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine is a very long way from encompassing the breadth of human personality. I thought, as a society, generations ago, we were laughing off the restrictive definitions of masculinity and femininity.

But some people seem to think they are laughing off and eschewing these shackles of stereotypes harder than everyone else, and instead of being a part of the natural evolution of language they are demanding new terms for themselves: new gender pronouns. These terms still relates to sex, as the original gender pronouns do. But, this time, they also relate to style of deviation from the archaic stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.

And so far, so good. I’m fully in support of this. In fact, the less-than-40 new nontraditional gender pronouns are insufficient. We should keep throwing more in. Until there are hundred. Thousands. Billions. In fact, maybe we could just start calling our names our ‘genders’; after all, doesn’t our name capture our identity better than any group term?

But this goes one further, I think. If we continue to use group terms that relate to sex but also relate to how we feel we deviate from sex-stereotypes (i.e. traditional gender), and you’ve got a new gender pronoun that you think encapsulates a useful idea ― a term like ‘genderqueer’ ― I don’t see how it’s then up to you as to whether you fulfil that defined idea. You may advocate 40 new terms, but I don’t then see how that empowers you to pick which one you fall into.

Although I can see the concept of ‘gender’ as something that relates to sex, but it more gradated, resolute and certainly has a nonlinear relationship to sex, I don’t see how you then get to pick which of these terms describes you. There is no linguistic utility in me having a word for how you feel; instead, the word is only useful for how you come across to me. And you don’t get to dictate to me how you come across to me. You may see the utility in having “it” as a gender pronoun, but you might come across to me as a “zhe”. And that much isn’t up to you.

Can science tell us there is no God?

This post is a continuation of my discussion with Michael. This time, I want to discuss the power of science and what it can do to tell us a claim isn’t true. To do this, I am going to look at a few discarded scientific models of the past, and how it is we have come to know they are no longer true. But I am also going to at least pay lip service to the process and methods of science. To give any justice to explaining what science is and it’s methods, I would have to spend 2,000 words on it, minimum, and to do it full justice I would have to write a rather large book. I am not going to do that.

In my last post, I shared Sean Carroll’s description of how science works: models are created from observation and data, those models are then tested (and where there is more than one model, the models are compared in their ability to explain the data). Michael made a rather immature complaint about that, but none of his criticisms really hit the mark (see here). So, I will made some explanation on that original description, but only in the context of the discarded models I shall explore.

It is worth sharing at this point that Michael has expressed absolutely no interest in the actual data in the published journal he attempted to cite last time. My concerns about science in the media (i.e. the imperfect chain of custody that leads to sensationalised, inaccurate or outright wrong things being reported) from my last post may have warned against simply reading headlines or not researching a story further, but I didn’t even think to guard against someone who suddenly decides the data isn’t as important as what they already believed. Unlike confirmation bias (as a cognitive error), that is intentional and disingenuous.

The reason this topic remains relevant to the initial discussion (‘Does Dawkins misrepresent science?’) is because Dawkins claims that science shows God is wildly unlikely. Michael’s counterargument, then, is that there are no experiments that directly deal with that question, and so Dawkins must be misrepresenting science. I am here to argue this simply isn’t the case: scientific conclusions have reach beyond their initial and parochial experiments. If they didn’t, a scientific experiment would be nothing more than a heavily recorded event in history. Instead, science relies on induction for the experiment to be grouped with like experiments to start making predictions about the future.

This is important: induction is not simply an add-on, superfluous to the essential character of science, it is vital. Induction is the difference between ‘Steve was really hurt when that horse kicked him’ and ‘horse kicks are very dangerous’.

Going back to Carroll’s model-comparison idea of science, imagine a scientist a few generations ago trying to compare two models of disease: the Germ Theory of Disease, and the Smell Theory of Disease. Many people held to the Smell Theory of Disease, and they believed this model of reality not just because of superstitions, but because they actually observed people getting sick near unpleasant smelling things and becoming unpleasant smelly when they were ill (and then that one person could become ill from an unpleasant smelling ill person). There were no controlled experiments on the issue, but there were observations and data that informed a model.

In addition to this model, we also have a scientist who believes the modern Germ Theory of Disease. The data used in support of Smell Theory also supported Germ Theory, because germs and smells often cohabitate. It is important, then, to make sure the two models used are well-defined enough for robust differences between the models to be proclaimed. We have two such models, in this instance. Smell Theory asserts that disease is spread by unpleasant smells, and these can be masked (which should also stop the spread of disease, if the model is true). That is an experiment that can be run: potpourri would stop the spread of a disease. But, it would not stop germs. This is a real difference that could be explored.

Alternatively, germs do not exclusively live alongside unpleasant smells, so if a disease could be induced absent a bad smell, that would support Germ Theory.

Historical records suggest variations of this were tried in people’s personal hygiene, but never run as an experiment. Ever. The Smell Theory of Disease has not been falsified. But it is declared not true, by science. How does this work? It is simply the case that one model was better at accounting for the data than the other. Smell Theory was never formally falsified, it just stopped getting talked about because the Germ Theory had so much more explanatory power. This is science, correctly, declaring one thing highly unlikely to be true without directly testing it; it just got out competed by another model.

A precursor to Plate Tectonics was that land moved through the ocean bed. The model accounted for the data: that South America seems to fit into the West Coast of Africa, and that ― if they were together ― there are extinct animal fossils in contiguous locations. But, the model never took off. It never took off, despite never being empirically tested. Instead, it was thrown out of mathematical grounds: the energy required for continents to plough through the oceanic crust simply stopped it being a sensible model. The model was explored to see if it was even sensible before it was tested. Yet again, something was declared unlikely to be true by science, without experiment.

Experiment may be considered iconic part of science, and it is a critical part of creating new data. But that doesn’t mean all science has to use it in every case. For example, plate tectonics was not empirically validated until very recently. In the meantime, it was accepted for its immense power to explain the data: moving plates, contiguous fossils, volcanoes, earthquakes, and alternating magnetism in the sea floor. (Actually, that last one could be considered empirical data in support of the claim.)

Here comes in the issue: the difference between primary data collected for a particular question (empirical support) and secondary data that is relevant, which a model still has to account for. Both are important in science.

This is, indeed, a long way off being a comprehensive look at science. But with these tools alone, can science tell us God is wildly unlikely? Yes. Any well defined model that includes a God always fails in comparison to natural models trying to explain the same data. Like the Smell Theory, God-based models are consistently outcompeted. And, like Smell Theory, that means such models are discarded and not considered true.

The big contrast between Smell Theory and God-based models is that Smell Theory was well-defined. You can define a God-based model really well, and people have, but such models always fail intellectual or empirical analysis. A well-defined God-model is subject to the Problem of Suffering; but the model survives because it is not well defined and the model moulds. Suddenly God is not omnibenevolent, and so the suffering is permitted. (Or, some other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma.)

In biology, where Dawkins worked, this is overwhelmingly the case. The natural model of evolution outcompetes the God-model in accounting for the evidence. Sure, ‘tests of faith’ can be asserted to make the God-model account for more data, but that is a symptom of it being poorly defined, and not at all a strength of the idea. And this process repeats through cosmology, another domain people like to assert God-models to explain. Sean Carroll explains this very informatively to William Lane Craig in this debate.

The real misrepresentation happening here is people who refuse to claim God has an effect on cosmology or biology or chemistry. The idea that God created the Universe and Life is a claim, and the Biblical claim in particular is specific about what that looked like. And even if you want to claim that God set it all up to look exactly like a natural process, calling on just the natural process is still a better model than calling on some agent that intentionally made it look like It wasn’t there.

As a model, God makes predictions about reality. And the areas those predictions are in are better explained by naturalism. And, it doesn’t take much induction to say they always will be. God is highly unlikely. That claim is within the purview of science.

Does Dawkins misrepresent science?

It is a very difficult question, whether a person misrepresents science. It is not like the philosophy of science is some settled issue, with a clear and monolithic interpretation. There have been attempts to boil it down to its essentials: evidence-led critical and rational thinking, or the criticism of rational or empirically inspired conjecture. But all the detail is still up for debate. I find Sean Carroll’s take on science to be a very good one: empirically-led conjectures (or ‘models’) are created and their ability to specifically account for data is compared. The model that fairs least well slowly stops getting cited.

Given this debate, I don’t know whether Dawkins misrepresents science with any real level of certainty. I do, however, think his discussions of what science can do and of science in general is within broadly used philosophies of science. But here’s something that simply doesn’t defend the premise that Dawkins does misrepresent science: a news article making the claim other scientists say he does.

Let’s be clear about media outlets science: it may be very good, but it’s difficult to report well on the science because there’s an imperfect chain of custody. No matter how good a published journal article is, news outlets rarely get the real article. Instead, they get a ‘press-release’ version. This press release version may be intentionally more controversial than the actual study (for purposes of self-promotion), or it may be simplified and so certain nuances have to be dropped, or it may have high fidelity to the original article. You never know. (Here’s an informative look at that process from John Oliver.) Despite that, here’s the claim of the Phys.org article linked above:

Title: Most British scientists cited in study feel Richard Dawkins’ work misrepresents science

Argument: “of British scientists reveals that a majority who mentioned Dawkins’ work during research interviews reject his approach to public engagement and said his work misrepresents science and scientists”

Now, here’s the problem. This is a link to the actual article (Johnson et al., 2016). You can read the article, and I implore you to. When you do, you may notice that the title seems to agree with the media article, so what’s the issue? Well, here’s my summary of the problems. Bare in mind, this is only the problems, there may be good things about the article:

 

  • The interviews were not conducted for this purpose. Instead, the interview questions came from a study by Ecklund et al (2016) called ‘Religion among Scientists in International Context’. Ecklund was part of both studies, but the first study was not designed for the second question.
  • The participants talk about effective communication. The nuts and bolts of science, philosophy of science and its limitations is not really discussed in this paper, and never substantively. Instead, the paper focuses on whether the communication technique is constructive. That is a very different question.
  • The sample is self-selecting. Of all the scientists that were asked questions by Ecklund, it is only those who mentioned Dawkins that are then being called on. The questioner only asked questions about Dawkins where the participant mentioned him first.
  • Only British participants in this study. This isn’t a design flaw so much as evidence of the personal nature of the bias. Given the international context of the initial research and Dawkins’ global notoriety, it certainly looks to be biased that, of the 20,000 scientists who were surveyed ― 1,581 of them being British ― and the 137 British respondents questioned further, the study of Dawkins only has 48 participants, all British.
  • This is only opinions. The study at no point asks the participants to substantiate their opinion with a discussion about where Dawkins’ approaches or philosophy is an outlier or not representative of science in its broader context, or even within just the hard sciences.
  • The majority of opinions does not form a fact. The people who really seem to revel in this news piece ― like Michael over at Shadow to Light ― are the same people who would not accept the majority of scientists’ view on God to be representative of a fact.

 

I even have a challenge for anyone who read the journal article: see if you can complete this table:

Number of participants

Of which are nonreligious

Of which are religious

In total
Express the view that Dawkins misrepresents the processes of science
Express the view that Dawkins accurately represents the processes of science
Express no view either way as to whether Dawkins represents the processes of science

To be honest, you’d expect that table to be in the article.

(Even if you can complete that table, all the other criticisms still stand.)

To be clear, an interesting conversation could be had about whether Dawkins misrepresents science. It would involve an understanding of the diversity philosophies employed by different scientists and understanding exactly what philosophies Dawkins is advocating, and then exploring whether that is representative. That’s a big undertaking, I admit. And given my resources, I would rely largely on YouTube debates including people like Sean Carroll. So, my research on the topic would not be worth all that much (not least because I would only have access to ‘celebrity scientists’). However, there is a real study to be done, if this is the question you want to answer.

My point here is that this study is not the study to be done on that question.

The article, whose title alludes to Dawkins misrepresenting science, misrepresents science! It behaves although the undefended opinions of scientists is what constitutes truth, and it’s breath-takingly unselfconscious of its selection bias and design flaws.

It turns out I may have sparked a discussion with Michael about this. On the off-chance that we are going to do a post-exchange debate (informally) on the issue, I’m going to break my Wednesday-only posting for this. Michael sometimes posts multiple times a day, so being a week behind would be impractical. Besides, it’s a distraction from my dissertation.

Arguing with Michael is, partly, the point here. If you go to Michael’s post you may notice he goes even further than the Phys.org article. See, Michael already believes Dawkins misrepresents science, and he seems to enjoy these glorified opinion pieces to substantiate his preconception and thus seems to enjoy avoiding substantive discussions about positions one can actually defend. It’s the perfect echo-chamber. I have provided the original article to him, and he hasn’t replied to any of the content of the actual article. Instead, he says he intentionally chided me into making the defense I made. I’m sure that’s a good sign of honest discussion.

References

Ecklund, E.H., Johnson, D.R., Scheitle, C.P., Matthews, K.R.W. and Lewis, S.W. (2016) Religion among Scientists in International Context A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World. 2 pp. 2378023116664353.

Johnson, D.R., Ecklund, E.H., Di, D. and Matthews, K.R.W. (2016) Responding to Richard: Celebrity and (mis) representation of science. Public understanding of science . pp. 0963662516673501.

Can I trust my brain?

According to some apologists, the mind can only work if it is designed or permitted to work by a God. The mind can only access ‘logic’ and reason because such things are authored and exist in some sort of platonic realm. If the world were different to this ― i.e. if it were strictly natural ― the mind would be evolved for survival and would have no access to logic, because logic only functions if authored.

I think this argument is a complete nonsense. Before I argue that, we must be careful to not misrepresent the positions: this is not the argument that naturalists’ brains don’t work or that naturalists can’t be logical. This is merely the argument that naturalism cannot account for why their minds work as well as they do.

Again, I think this is nonsense. I’m going to argue this with reference to Occam’s razor as well as taking the proper scientific approach to this: exploring which model (theism or naturalism) best fits the data.

Occam’s razor

Simply under Occam’s razor, it makes no sense to presuppose a rational God. The apologetic, as presented, asserts: a perfectly logical and rational entity; platonically extant logic, a means by which the logical entity can grant minds access to that logic. That is a lot of entities taken on brute assertion.

Instead, simply asserting that the mind is rational is better in several instances. First of all, although it may start as a brute assertion, it becomes a self-cleansing proposition; if empirical inputs constantly undermined rational ones, we could identify that there are problems and that the mind falls short of being entirely rational. My rationality can be moderated by experience and correlated with others.

To be clear, I understand that the apologetic offered in this post purports to explain why the mind is reliable. But, simply being one level deeper (i.e. an explanation) doesn’t mean it supersedes the initial explanation. There are two reasons for this: without evidence, this “explanation” is nothing more than conjecture, speculation and wishful thinking; the apologetic is offered as ‘if my theistic explanation of rationality isn’t true, then rationality isn’t true’, which is to say that it claims to be the only possible explanation of rational thought.

Put simply, the apologetic offered is more convoluted than the alternative, on a lesser evidential basis, but also proclaims exclusivity.

Which model fits the data?

You have to break that assumption of exclusivity to truly assess the models being offered: theism and naturalism.

What would you expect if a perfectly logical being wrote logic and reason and also designed your mind? By comparison, what would you expect if the mind developed over time by a natural, chaotic and clumsy process that utilises that diversity to select ‘more suitable’ minds? Keep those expectations at the front of your mind while we explore, briefly (and far from completely) the imperfect mind.

The human mind burps up cognitive errors all the time. Selection biases make us evaluate as ‘more rational’ things that we agree with, and ‘gambler’s biases’ make us mis-assess risk. If you’ve got to this blog, it’s probably because you engage in conversations where you experience other people’s cognitive biases all the time.

In general, are cognitive biases and errors better explained by evolution or design (which is to say: naturalism or theism)? Evolution actually offers a very good explanation to this: the evolutionary cost to increasing the rationality of the mind (in calories spent, in increased complexity and precision) must exceed the evolutionary costs. We could reorder society in such a way that the dimmest people carry a social cost so great that it impedes their ability to reproduce, and that would change the dynamic. But, as reality actually looks, the cost of being dim is very low or, by some evaluations, the evolutionary cost is actually in increased intelligence (as they tend to have fewer children).

Evolution explains the data of cognitive errors. And such an explanation can probably be expressed in terms of mathematical Game Theory (although such a task is well beyond me). By contrast, theism does not offer an explanation, it offers an excuse. Allow me to expand on the distinction (as I’m using it).

Abrahamic theism calls on the Fall to “explain” every imperfection. But it gives no account of scale. The Fall may offer a reason for less-than-perfect reason, but it makes no gains of explaining why we are more intelligent than a sea cucumber. The scale of the imperfection, even in principle, cannot be accounted for. An excuse gives a sense of direction, maybe, but an explanation accounts for scale as well.

There’s a more interesting data point: another cognitive error called apophenia. Put simply, being overzealous is spotting patterns; seeing patterns where there are none (like seeing faces in the stars). Instead of being a dulling from the idea of being rational, like other cognitive errors, this is an over-sharpening of a sense. We are too good at seeing patterns, to the point of getting false positives.

Again, evolution gives an explanation of this: the cost of a false positive (e.g. seeing a face where there isn’t one) is small, in this case a couple of dozen calories running away; the cost of a false negative (e.g. not seeing a face when there is one) could be extremely high, in this case death. It is this game theory analysis that explains why evolution would develop such an error.

Under theism, there is no explanation. The above reasoning explains why not for Abrahamic theism, so I want to explain this time using John Zande’s theism with the evil God ‘The Owner of All Infernal Names’. This God set up a universe to run itself ― self-complicating and evolving ― for the purposes of increasing pain and suffering. Such a God makes a better excuse for cognitive errors (and the problem of suffering) but still fails to make it as an ‘explanation’, and the reason is the same: it offers no account of scale. Why do we not see terrifying faces everywhere? Why, instead, is it only mildly frightening in some circumstances? Again, evolution offers an explanation that permits itself to account for scale (even if only in principle), whereas the malevolent God does not.

Science and the imperfect brain

There does seem to be a problem here. Not accepting theism as able to account for the data, and accepting naturalism for accounting for the data much better, does seem to leave us with a brain not equipped to understand the universe. And yet, is that not exactly what we’re using it for? In a word, no.

The evolutionary cost of a brain capable of understanding the universe by sheer brute force of thought alone far exceeds its biological reward (even if we believe it to have moral reward). However, the force of thought required to be responsive to experience is a lot lower. The mind-investment in scientific tools is within the reach of what evolution has afforded us. That is to say, our niche of understanding and complex thought has allowed us to develop and criticise philosophies and institutions dedicated to understanding.

We still live in Dawkins’ “Middle world”, with a brain equipped to have deep understanding of middling lengths of time and size. And, as that is not at all representative of the universe we live in, that is probably another type of cognitive error. However, we have structures of understanding applied to vastly big and vanishingly small times and sizes, and building those structures was within our reach.

Conclusion

The apologetic offered assumes an exclusivity that would preclude it from honest enquiry, while also violating Occam’s Razor by multiplying entities without resting on evidence. Once you violate the assumption of exclusivity, you can compare the apologetic as an explanatory model against another model (in this case, evolution). In doing that, the apologetic fails wildly to account for the imperfections of the human mind i.e. the data.

Does our solar system point to God?

Obviously, our solar system is not arrow shaped: if it has a shape, it’s a slightly oval disc. It literally does not point to anything.

But, is there something remarkably unique about our solar system that would lead a sufficiently curious and rational mind to believe it counts as evidence in favour of the existence of God? I think not, and I think not on several levels. But, this short little rebel (SLR) is of the opposite mind.

This needs a caution. SLR confuses a lot of science and as her comment to me makes clear, she’d rather accuse someone of being condescending than to attempt to learn some of the nuance of scientific language. This means that when I try to delve into her reasoning ― which I shall ― I run the risk of coming across extraordinarily muddled.

As another flag in the ground, I want to open by playing Devil’s Advocate. Let us assume SLR can demonstrate there is something remarkably unique about our solar system. Then what? If there is something uniquely hospitably about our solar system, that’s where we’d expect to be. We wouldn’t expect to be somewhere wholly inhospitable looking at the hospitable place; if we were in that situation, we’d have to question our ability to define our terms. Equally, if one could demonstrate our solar system were unremarkably run-of-the-mill and life was generally possible around ‘oodles’ of stars on oodles of planets, then we could agree that life is not borne of remarkable processes (even if life itself is remarkable).

SLR’s argument is far too broad to address all of it: she also argues that the “tight, perfect harmony” of the universe points towards God. More specifically, she argues that it points towards a question we don’t have an answer to, therefore God. Again, playing Devil’s Advocate, if we grant there is some meaningful definition of “tight, perfect harmony” and a lack of an explanation for whatever that means, how do you get to God from there? Not without logical fallacies.

I play Devil’s Advocate to highlight two things about logical syllogisms. SLR insists her arguments are “perfectly logical”, whoever even if one were to accept her premises as true, the conclusions still don’t follow. This is an example of an argument that is invalid. I had to play Devil’s Advocate because, actually, the premises can’t be accepted as true; this is an example of an unsound argument. (If she lets my comment through moderation, it will appear here.)

With that introduction out of the way, let’s have a look at the argument put forward by SLR:

She is flummoxed by the blindness of scientists to understand what is staring them in the face; if life were some automatic and natural process, we should expect to see life happening everywhere, all the time. That, she asserts, is the definition of a natural law: “it happens all the time, everywhere”.

“Thus,” she believes, “if evolution- or the idea that life just ‘happens’ from the primordial ooze, is Natural, then every planet would be seething with its own version of Life. It would be Life that could live on that planet. Who made the rule that Life had to be adjusted to H2O, Carbon and Hydrogen? Why not the gases on Saturn? Why not the heat on Mercury? or the cold on Venus? After all, even here on earth, we find life in the most amazing places where toxic chemicals, astounding heat or extreme cold would kill most other life forms. Life on earth appears to ‘just happen’ according to the environment it finds itself in. It doesn’t appear to be very picky about that- it is a powerful force.”

And already, there’s a lot of low-level understanding to clean up. So, I’m going to try and address it in order:

Why don’t scientists see my easy to follow argument?

The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to the phenomenon of those with a lower ability in a subject being deluded into believing they are far superior in that same subject. The explanation most often given is that one lacks the familiarity with the discipline to even know what benchmarks they should be evaluating themselves against. Although it some across as hilariously arrogant, it may actually be a cognitive error. In that respect, I would like to give SLR the benefit of the doubt.

But here is the issue: cognitive error or sinful arrogance, SLR still believes that the entire community of scientists can’t follow her year-7 reasoning.

To put this in perspective, she is not introducing new evidence; she doesn’t have a new measurement or observation that overturns the establishment. She’s not contributing something new to the conversation.

If something is natural law, it happens all the time, everywhere

False. If something is a natural law, it is true everywhere. The language might be subtle, but the meaning is profoundly different. See, laws describe the relationships between things. The law of gravity describes the relationship between mass and spacetime; the germ theory of disease describes the relationship between biological systems and foreign microbes. In the absence of the things in that relationship, it is still true that they would behave that way together, but it’s not actually happening. Hoyle’s gas laws are true in the vacuum of space, even if there are no gasses to be behaving according to them.

Life is a natural law, and so should be everywhere

That’s wrong on all accounts. As described above, laws do not have to be actualised everywhere; it simply has to be the case that the behaviour laws describe would be actualised, in the presence of the entities those laws govern. That’s it.

But, also, I can’t fathom where she is getting the idea that life is a law. There is the argument that life is a natural consequence of entropy in an open system with high energy. But that still relies on the existence of compounds capable of endothermic reactions and a lot of other technicalities..

Why is life so hardy? (Or is it?)

SLR notices that life appears on Earth in a variety of extreme conditions: chemical and thermal. Given that, why isn’t life on Saturn? SLR relates to the answer to carbon and hydrogen; that seems very vulnerable, given how hardy life obviously is. Now what?

This is another confused concept. The core of Saturn is 11,700 degrees Celsius, but it’s surface is -173 degrees Celsius. And, it’s gas. So, it convects. Anything that forms in one extreme will be destroyed in the other extreme. Evolution has never been seen to adapt to either of those extremes, let alone a lifecycle that convects between the two. Not that evolution is even the point here.

“Life” is a good catch-all term for both abiogenesis and evolution. Yet, they are very different ideas. Abiogenesis is more chemically sensitive than evolved biological systems (members of a species). Life must form at some state (abiogenesis) and then is able to adapt to other states.

 

SLR goes on:

“The very fact that it [life] only exists on one planet should absolutely astound every scientist who claims there is no God and that evolution is a Natural Law.  Their own logic demands it!  This should bother them from morning till night. It should embarrass them from meeting to meeting. And yet, they don’t see the incredible fallacy. It astounds me.”

Does life only exist on one planet? How do you know that? I’m not saying life definitely exists on other planets (but given what we know about life and the universe, it’s looking increasingly likely that is the case). But I am asking how you can claim to know there is no other life out there.

 

SLR goes on to say, three times, Einstein believed in God ― and all smart people must; “the evidence is overwhelming”. But no evidence was provided.

What is a person?

I am a person (I promise). You are a person (I say that with confidence, as I am only addressing those that can read this). But, what exactly is a person? I’m not going to go through much ground work to establish that “living human” and “person” are non-identical terms, because I think that much is obvious. I am then going to offer a few ideas for defining it.

If we were met by an alien race, a species with complex language, intelligence and social structures, I do not believe we would be too hesitant to call those persons. But they certainly are not human. My background as a language teacher means I have often defined “person” in terms of its familial semantic group, words that share a root word. To be a person is to have personal interests and/or a persona. As it turns out, there are other definitions floating around that very much embody the same ideas.

Being “future oriented”, for example. That means “the degree to which a collectivity encourages and rewards future-oriented behaviors such as planning and delaying gratification” (House et al. 2004). Although that is actually a definition from a Business Management book, you can see how it applies to individuals: it requires the capacity for abstract and complex thought; to conceive of the future and understand the future will depend, in some way, on your actions.

We should guard against thinking of this, I think, in binary terms. If we articulate a set of criteria that convince us a thing is ‘future oriented’ ― like it appears to make plans or demonstrates anticipation or fear ― and then we discover a dog meets all those criteria, we should not think a dog is therefore as much a person as we are. However, it is still a person. This concept exists in a sliding scale. Peter Singer (2011 p 75) defines a person in a similar way: “A rational and self-aware being.” I think we can more clearly see this as a sliding scale.

This is not just navel-gazing to see if I can get my dog considered a person. (Although, I am waiting for data for my MSc dissertation, so there’s some navel-gazing.) Instead, this concept has important legal and moral consequences. We think of ‘people’ as having certain legal and moral rights. There are a number of issues for consideration here, then. In Animal Liberation Singer (1995) argues that moral considerations should be afforded to all individuals (or persons) in relation to their interests. For the sake of this argument, we can say that the moral value of an individual relates directly to how they would score on some ‘person index’; the extent to which the individual is future oriented, has personal interests, is self aware and rational. It is a moral consideration that would alter the operation of huge elements of our society.

This definition of personhood and its relationship to moral considerations is very compelling, in its own right. In addition, I have not come across a rebuttal (and neither can I conceive of one) that doesn’t fall foul of the criticism of being ‘speciesist’. There are ways around that, by claiming some varieties of moral nihilism or divine privilege; they bypasses concerns about speciesism quite readily. But, in general, so long as a person thinks it valuable to consider the worth of our actions, this is a compelling idea to many.

I say this as a person who has argued that it is only by recognising our special place among animals that we can have moral responsibilities toward the environment. I said this in rebuttal to the idea that we should behave more modestly in the environment because we are not special among life on earth. I disagreed that that reasoning followed: it is only by recognising our advanced level of future orientation that we can ever start to look at what responsibilities we have.

It may be that speciesist biases are deeply innate in us. I have been aware of the consequences of this type of thinking for a long time: I should be vegan, but I’m not. Arguably, an insectivorous diet is also morally defensible, but I have also not bothered myself with that consideration.

But we do get into interesting questions with this definition: potential people. If we do away with our basic index case of “living human” = “person”, can we have human nonpersons? Is a person in a coma, who might recover, not a person right now? Is that human not granted legal or moral rights? Don’t bypass this question with ‘contrary rights’, the economics of freeing those doctors and that equipment up for other patients. That’s a cop out. Simply, is it murder to walk into a hospital with a gun and shoot a person in a coma? Does the likelihood of their recovery make a difference?

What about a sleeping person? Is that now an oxymoron? Do you surrender your rights when you fall asleep because you are no longer future oriented?

I think we do away with the ‘sleepy’ problem, quickly. A sleeping person still very much has the capacity for personhood; when they wake up, which they will, they will be future oriented again. The coma patient seems like a Schrödinger’s cat situation; until the human is irretrievably dead or wakes up, it is impossible to make a meaningful call on whether that human has the capacity for what we defined here as a ‘person’. Only the future can inform us of the present.

To take us back to the hospital shooting situation: the human in a coma is a person and has therefore been murdered if, and only if, that human would otherwise have recovered from that coma. It is only in them waking up that we can see they had the capacity to be a person, and therefore were a person all a long.

The question of ‘potentials’ isn’t done there. We have to consider what our criteria is for being a ‘meaningful’ potential. Given currently technology, one could be cloned from blood spilled shaving; but no one is offering moral consideration to lives lost from shaving and nail cutting going mildly awry. What about the female menstrual cycle? Is the egg a potential life? Is failing to have sex at every opportunity a monthly murder by negligence? Worse, is male masturbation a genocide?

Or, to preempt where the comments are about to go, what is it about ‘conception’ that makes that unit potential enough to be considered a person, whereas sperm, egg and small quantities of spilled blood are not?

You may have noticed that I have done a rather poor job of dealing with the question of ‘potential’ humans. The honest answer is that I don’t know; everywhere I look there seems to be some obvious problem with reasoning. It seems to be an obvious moral mistake to say that humans are not persons when they are in a coma, but simultaneously that is the logical conclusion of the definition of person I use. I can get around that by saying a human likely to recover from their coma will be a person and thus is a person, with respect to moral and legal considerations. But then I’ve opened myself up to the obvious question of how far removed from the criteria of being a person something can be, and fairly be considered a ‘potential person’. It might be worth considering steps of human intervention as the metric for the levels of potential. After all, many steps of human intervention have to take place to turn spilled shaving blood into a person. There’s at least one intentional and human intervening step to draw the distinction between ejaculate and a blastocyst. However, a person under general anaesthetic will naturally come around and a foetus will naturally become a person.

But this distinction draws into question medical intervention. A person in a coma will die without intentional medical intervention; by the metric in the paragraph above, that would make the comatose human no more a person than an egg cell. Whereas the need for a complex and technological and human intervention is what stops blood being a potential person, the need for complex and technological intentional intervention doesn’t stop us considering a human in a coma, otherwise realising precisely no traits of being a person, still a person.

Maybe it’s easier to just be speciesist.

A second Brexit Referendum?

Brexit means Brexit, don’t you know. Now that 52% of people have voted for Brexit (noun) we should now Brexit (verb). End of story. Or do you not believe in democracy?!

brexit-1

But, what does Brexit actually mean? This meme of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ doesn’t actually tell us anything. “Brexit” was a word the media made up less than a year ago. It’s a blanket term that relates an incredibly wide variety of things. If ‘Brexit’ means anything, it relates to a first step; it is to say you want to embark on a journey, but it doesn’t really say why or where you want to go. All this makes the political gesturing going on in the UK at the moment a little strange.

brexit-2
It’s not as pretty, is it? And maybe that’s the point.

The gesturing is going in many directions. The first points towards the fact that no post-Brexit plan has been laid out. It’s not just that the government can’t guarantee it will get its way when negotiating with the EU, but that no one has taken the time to articulate what it is the UK wants from the negotiation. Is staying in the single market preferable? Was this debate about immigration or sovereignty over our own laws? Was this about the ‘democracy’ or otherwise of the EU? What are the problems we wish to set out to solve and therefore what direction are we going in? Put another way, when people put a cross in the “Leave” box, what were they showing support for? Couple with lack of direction and no legislative documents with the reported 7% ‘buyer’s remorse’ among Brexit voters, a certain level of the population wants the EU referendum to be held again, this time with clear legislation giving a sense of the direction the UK will take with respect to the single market, immigration, legislation and trade.

Another group wants a referendum to make a decision based on the outcome of negotiations. Negotiations are necessarily messy and no guarantees can be made, so many people want argue that a referendum at the far-end of negotiations is an appropriate safety net. It seems that should be a beneficial idea. After all, if the Brexit ‘side’ is confident in the UK’s negotiating power, then they should be confident the UK will vote in support of whatever deal the government can arrange. Equally, if the EU decides to try to drive a hard bargain for the UK, then perhaps even the Brexiteers would like a chance to change their mind. Moreover, social tensions might be a little alleviated if the Remainers could see a safety net in sight.

This safety net makes sense in the context of a third voice: the Hard Brexiteers. These are people who want to invoke Article 50 now, get things under way, sever all ties and get on with things. After all, Brexit means whatever you want it to mean Brexit. This is saying we should all jump in the car and go on a family holiday, knowing full well there’s no agreement on where we should go, and nearly half the people involved don’t want to go on the holiday. Nevertheless, we should all jump in the car and head off.

I’m going to take this metaphor a little further. See, a few years ago we allocated a designated Driver: David ‘Designated Dave‘ Cameron. We might not always agree with where he takes us, but we had collectively all decided to trust his judgement well ahead of time. Now we’re jumping into the car, we find Theresa ‘No nickname available‘ May is sat behind the wheel. She didn’t want to go on holiday either. Not only that, but she’s been talking to tour operators without us. She hasn’t told us what she’s looking for in a holiday destination, what prices she is looking at, or what she’s using as leverage to get a better price for us. ‘I don’t think you understand the vote we had on 23rd June’ she says, ‘Holiday means holiday’. So, where are we going? ‘Holiday means holiday’ doesn’t really answer the question.

Theresa May does at least appear to be texting the tour guides, having a discussion about where to go. But she’s doing it silently. And we don’t know if she’s aiming to go to a museum or a theme park; the beach or a city getaway. And still there is screaming from some obnoxious backseat driver demanding she take off the handbrake and start the journey. We don’t even know if she has breakdown cover and I, for one, didn’t check the oil in the 1982 Mini Cooper we’re sat in.

So, a safety-net referendum doesn’t seem like a bad idea. I thought it would be easy to convince even the most convinced Brexiteers of that.