Monday, June 6, 2011

Irrationality, John Locke and the twin towers

To: Ian H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Irrationality, John Locke and the twin towers
Date: 2 December 2002 11:39

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 20 November, with your fourth essay for the Associate program, 'Irrationality, John Locke and The Twin Towers'.

This is an excellent choice of topic which rounds of your essay portfolio nicely. The idea is fundamentally sound, and gives a fresh perspective on Locke's views on religious toleration.

However (as usual) it was impossible for me to read your essay without covering it copiously in red pencil. Not all of your arguments look convincing, at least, as they are stated. And more needs to be done to bolster the argument at critical points.

I will deal with the points in the order in which they occur in the essay, rather than in order of importance.

1. In the first paragraph, you describe the State's toleration of one and only one orthodox belief as 'in effect a form of positive liberty'. This has certainly been argued by philosophers of a Hegelian inclination (see Isiah Berlin 'Four Essays on Liberty'). However, inserting the parenthetical remark at this point just looks like a non-sequitur. Why mention it at all, since you are not concerned in this essay with dealing with objections to Locke from supporters of the idea of positive liberty?

2. Picky point: It is not much more than 300 years since Locke wrote his letter!

3. Instead of 'Radical Moslems...are open to the absurd consequences move' just say, 'reductio ad absurdum'. You are entitled to assume that the reader knows what this means.

However, I am not sure about your argument here, on several counts.

a) Only a non-believer could assert that 'God only exists so long as there are people who believe in him'.

b) You are not entitled to assume that the aim of 11/9 was merely to eradicate the infidels. It was also to punish them.

Taking a) and b) together, it is not logically inconceivable that there might be circumstances under which the only way to 'do God's will' entails the destruction of both infidels and believers. (Just as in the flood, everyone perished - except for one token example of each species - innocent and guilty alike. So it could be argued that there is a precedent in the bible for this kind of action.)

c) To argue that the act is 'demeaning' to Allah is a quite separate argument, not part of your reductio ad absurdum. I fully agree with the argument. But where can you find it in Locke?

4. The meat of your essay is in the discussion of whether belief can be coerced. Your gloss on the quotes from Locke, 'the concept of belief is a highly personal, deeply held concept' does not really capture the point here, as expressed by Williams. (Here it would have helped if you had used a longer quote.) The point is a purely logical one, about the relation between belief and desire: If a desire is unsatisfied, it is the world that is 'wrong'. Whereas, if a belief is false, it is the belief that is 'wrong'. In other words, belief is - in the normal case - a response to perceived evidence.

Your discussion here of the argument between Horton and Mendus was OK. However, I puzzled over the sentence that ends, '...consistency demands that if we rule out indirectly coerced religious beliefs as not genuine, we have to rule out directly coerced religious beliefs as well, which would be absurd.' Didn't you mean to say, '...we have to rule out *indirectly* coerced *non-religious* beliefs as well'?

5. Regarding the 'Unchristian argument', the issue is about the virtues of charity and also mercy. When you say, 'it is inconsistent to expect someone to acknowledge the wrongness of their actions by wreaking a terrible revenge upon them', you seem to be talking about mercy rather than charity. When you go on to the 'Inconsistency argument' the quote from Locke talks about ' of men's souls'. A quote from Locke would have helped the exposition of the Unchristian argument.

6. The 'Inconsistency argument' looks to me the weakest, when applied to the Islamic fundamentalists. However valid Locke's observations might appear when applied to Christian Britain in the Eighteenth century, one thing that the Islamic fundamentalist can point to is the terrible punishments for all manner of wrong doing, both major and minor: amputations, stonings, beheading. Difficult to fault them on consistency here! One could almost put the case for drawing attention to the contrast here, rather than trying to squeeze fundamentalist Islam into the same bag as Christianity.

All in all, a promising essay. I am confident that you will be able to take my comments in your stride.

All the best,