Friday, February 29, 2008


One I really wanted to see at the cinema but missed. Worth the wait.

Bible meme

Tagged by Paul. Original spelling of 'favorite'.

1. What translation of the Bible do you like best?
Probably the RSV but this is definitely in flux at the moment. I'm enjoying reading the New Living Translation on a daily basis. See this post. I don't like the NIV much, no, not at all.

2. Old or New Testament?
I'm loving the Old more and more as time goes on, but I can't see any real choice here for a Christian.

3. Favorite Book of the Bible?
The Gospel of John.

4. Favorite Chapter?
Either 1 or 6. The farewell discourse is pretty good stuff too...

5. Favorite Verse? (feel free to explain yourself if you have to)
Probably John 10.10. There are lots!

6. Bible character you think you’re most like?
St Paul.

7. One thing from the Bible that confuses you?
The book of Revelation. St Paul.

8. Moses or Paul?
Don't really understand the question. Does it mean 'Law or Grace'? But I've answered St Paul twice already, so the answer must be Moses.

9. A teaching from the Bible that you struggle with or don’t get?
There are lots in Leviticus (which I'm reading at the moment).

10. Coolest name in the Bible?
Elizaphan of course.

I tag: Michael, John, bls, Steve and, because I didn't tag him on the other one, Tim.

Something on creationism

I thought this was rather interesting, and revealing. Discovered via Ian, glad to see him back in action and - just by the by - Ian is a 'down to earth' example of a sophisticated atheist ;-)

My views on creationism etc can be found here.


Lots to do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Last TBTM until Friday as I'm off to Pleshey on a training course (How to look after curates....)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (12): Humourless = unserious?

Dan S, in his comment here, links to a discussion here, where John Haught is quoted as arguing:
In this respect the new atheism is very much like the old secular humanism that was rebuked by the hard-core atheists for its mousiness in facing up to what the absence of God should really mean. If you're going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that? You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. Don't you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape? Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman's sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness”. You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.

Predictably, nothing so shaking shows up in the thoughts of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Apart from its intolerance of tolerance and the heavy dose of Darwinism that grounds many of its declarations, soft-core atheism differs scarcely at all from the older secular humanism that the hard-core atheists roundly chastised for its laxity. The new softcore atheists assume that, by dint of Darwinism, we can just drop God like Santa Claus without having to witness the complete collapse of Western culture -- including our sense of what is rational and moral. At least the hardcore atheists understood that if we are truly sincere in our atheism, the whole web of of meanings and values that have clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center. (Emphasis in Original)

I basically agree with this perspective, so I found the discussion there quite interesting. I think I would want to argue for the following:

- historically in the West the Christian story has provided the context within which moral values have been worked out and taught;
- rejecting Christianity requires accepting either a) nihilism or b) an alternative framework for values;
- you can't get to b) without understanding the full force of a) (ie unless you've understood a) you're still functioning within the Christian framework, however much that is denied. That's the main burden of Milbank's magnum opus.);
- you can't provide b) without some sort of non-rational narrative which articulates meaning in an emotionally engaging fashion (I suspect this is a 'hard-wired' truth about how our brains are constructed - this is why I wrote this post in the sequence);
- the provision of b) is the hallmark of the sophisticated atheist, as I am using the term in this sequence.

I'm sorry to have lagged behind in this sequence over the last ten days or so - I've been particularly busy. I hope to have some more posts up soon which will continue to explain what is meant by idolatry, and, as part of that, how religious language functions. This will meet at least some of the objections that objectors have been raising.


The devil is in the detail.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Taken quickly, hence the slight blur - but I'm rather pleased with it!

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Life is not a vending machine where you put in virtue and take out happiness.

Reasonable Atheism (11): Of Theisms Humourless and Sophisticated

This is a brief one, and more 'for the record' than anything else.

The aspect-blindness that I am in the process of criticising as 'humourless' when it appears in an atheistic perspective is not at all a logically necessary part of atheism - it also appears in a great deal of apparently theistic argument too. Most especially in North American Protestantism.

I have no desire to defend a humourless theism. As I see it the arguments between atheists and (some) theists is best characterised by what is shared between the two perspectives, that being the sense that the Bible is best understood literally and 'all-or-nothing', that facts are the most important forms of knowledge, and that science is the royal road to establishing such facts. (It might seem paradoxical to say that theists give such a high role to science, but historically it is indisputable, and it is the source of the venom and antagonism displayed towards Darwinism - an idol is being dethroned).

I've written a lot about this elsewhere. See in particular Why I hate fundamentalism.

Conservatism and Trust

This is picking up on a comment that Al made here. Al argues that "Conservatives like short sharp shocks, prison and capital punishment" and "Trusting properly is of course a huge ask. You might end up getting nailed to a tree. But I think it's clear that that is what the Gospels ask us to do. And politically they ask us to tend away from punishing and towards liberalism."

My trouble with your perspective, Al, is that you have defined the terms to suit your argument. A conservative is, by your definition, someone who does not trust; they are therefore deficient in some way (not quite fully enlightened); and their position needs more psychoanalytic treatment than reasoned argument. (You're describing what I would call a reactionary.)

There is no reason on earth why a conservative shouldn't embrace carrots as much as sticks - whatever works is good, that's a very pragmatic (=conservative) approach.

It's a bit like a race that everyone's invited to, but then the rules are revealed saying that only those who can place their feet on the ground one after another can win, so all those in some way handicapped (as just defined by those rules) get excluded from participation. There aren't enough steps between there and the gulag for me to feel comfortable.

As for trust, I think the issue isn't about whether one side or the other is trusting or not, it's about where the emphasis of trust is placed. Conservatives place their trust in local and customary relationships, emphasising the face to face and the personal virtues. Progressives (at least if I can also indulge in something of a caricature) trust the representatives of a well-meaning state ideology to 'do good' on behalf of other people. What conservatives actively distrust is that those latter people are all too willing to use force to achieve their point, and that their well-intentioned interventions often accomplish more harm than good.


I'm just a prodigal
Who's too scared to come home

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

He'd be frightened by the Full Monty

(via Dave Walker)

There will be blood

This was a magnificent film; a tremendous portrait of a man descending into the depths in every sense. Lots of rich imagery and symbolism to ponder (I especially loved the 'anointing' of HW very early in the film). However - and you knew there was a however coming - this is not as spiritually rich as 'Magnolia' principally because there was no orthodox view represented; thus no redemption. That was probably the director's intent, but it is still a disappointment.

4.5 out of 5.

Book tag

Byron tagged me with this meme, which was nice, because I never get tagged :-(

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five other people.

As it happens, I have Kim Paffenroth's 'Gospel of the Living Dead' next to my elbow. So the relevant text is:

Out in the streets, a further setback for the human survivors is that the electrified fence is still turned on, and therefore they cannot escape out of the city, making Riley's earlier observation of the fence all the more prescient and chilling: "I can't help but think we're all locked in." We see a crowd of people trapped at the fence, with zombies closing in on them. Riley anticipates this problem, and as he drives Dead Reckoning towards the fence, he shoots off fireworks to try and save the trapped people, but now it is to no avail, as the zombies are no longer distracted by them.

It's from a synopsis of 2005's 'Land of the Dead' - but I haven't got to that point in my re-watching yet (though I have seen the film a couple of times).

I tag: Paul, Tom, Joe, Jonathan and Juliet.

All comments gratefully received

I've just received this e-mail, which I plan to reply to probably tomorrow, and I already have a good idea how I'm going to reply to it (it's from somebody that I've met in real-life as opposed to over the internet!) but I'd be interested to know how other theologians/clerics would reply.

I wonder if I can ask you about something which is puzzling me, and which I cannot ask the average Christian. I do not expect the average Christian to have read Leviticus 25, but I assume that one does not become a vicar without reading the complete Bible.

While browsing your site I found “3rd November - shibboleth #1 - "But the Bible says..." “. Were Leviticus 25 verses 20 and 21 amongst those discussed.

I find these verses very interesting. It is the only place I can think of where God makes a clear promise that something verifiable will happen at a regular time, i.e. every 7 years the crops in Israel will yield “the fruits of 3 years”. It is also the only promise which is not dependant on the behaviour or belief of people. God promises the bumper harvest so that the following year the Israelites will be able to keep the commandment to let the land lie fallow.

God clearly does not keep this promise. Charitable appeals are made to support the farmers who do keep the Shmitta year, and the Rabbis and Israeli Supreme court jump through hoops to keep most Israelis from obeying the restrictions in Leviticus 25. I have asked several people who claim that the restrictions should be observed if they can give any figures to show how harvests vary over the years. They have all been silent.

Christianity requires that one has faith that God will keep His promises. How do you and other thinking Christians cope with the fact that there is a clear promise which it is easy to prove God does not keep? (I don’t trust anyone who does not keep promises.)


Tilting at windmills. Allegedly.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Christian Duty to Boycott Tesco

And if you want cheap food well here's the deal:
Family farms are brought to heel
by the hammer blows of size and scale,
Foot and mouth the final nail
in the coffin of our English dream
that lies out on the village green;
While agri-barons, CAP in hand
Strip this green and pleasant land
Of meadow, woodland, hedgerow, pond
What remains gets built upon
No trains, no jobs
No shops, no pubs
What went wrong?
What went wrong?
(from the song 'Country Life' by Show of Hands)

It would surely be impossible to argue that God is uninterested in the way that humanity engages in economic activity, and we can see this in two Scriptural forms: specific injunctions against particular practices and more general injunctions in favour of social justice, obedience to God and, as Jesus put it, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon". Examples of the former are found in Deuteronomy 25.13 ("Do not have two differing weights...") and Isaiah 5.8 ("Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land."); examples of the latter are the repeated prophetic calls to look after the widows and orphans, with the promise of divine chastisement if these calls are ignored.

This is the context in which I read "Tescopoly" by Andrew Simms, a very thorough overview of the way in which Tesco functions as a monopolist: one who has joined all the fields together until it is left alone in the land. In many ways Tesco is simply a highly efficient corporation, a (rare) example of world-class management in a British company. Yet it is precisely the fact that it is so efficient, so effective in accomplishing its aims, that it has had such dispiriting and impoverishing effects on our communities.

Simms details the ways in which, through the use and abuse of its dominant market position, Tesco actively harms those who supply it with goods, those who work within its walls, and the communities within which it finds itself operating. For example, Tesco consistently pays its suppliers less than the industry average, it is consistently late in paying invoices presented to it, especially by the smallest suppliers, and, through the exercise of essentially bullying tactics, it is able to 'borrow' more than £2bn a year from its suppliers for free. Internationally it suppresses wages in the third world and strips communities of their dignity (I was astonished to read that in a farm in Zimbabwe children are taught to sing "Tesco is our dear friend" in order to impress the visiting potentates.)

My own concern is primarily with the impact on local communities in England, and here Simms marshalls fascinating evidence. For every £1 spent in a supermarket more than 90p leaves a local community; whereas the impact of a 'local box scheme' (ie locally produced and delivered vegetables) is quite the reverse - for every £1 spent, £2.50 is generated in local wealth. In terms of jobs, supermarkets undermine a community further: it takes £95,000 worth of sales in a supermarket to sustain a single job, the figure for smaller stores is £42,000. Beyond this, the supermarkets, especially Tesco, support the use of casual and unlicensed labour leading to what is effectively a modern form of serfdom. Put simply the arrival of a supermarket chain in a town sucks money and livelihoods away from the local area in order to agglomerate capital for shareholders. Supermarkets impoverish communities in terms of income, social life and common civility.

At this point a common defence is to claim that this is the operation of 'the free market', and that if the market chooses to support Tesco, and people benefit from its cheap prices, then we shouldn't interfere. Such a response is either naively ill-informed or else the expression of an understanding already corrupted by an anti-Christian value system. No sane person advocates a wholly unrestrained free market, or else bin Laden would have been able to purchase nuclear weapons long ago, and so the question becomes: is it right for the free market to operate here, in these circumstances? Is the operation of a free market in this context something that will foster and support our social values or will those values and goods be undermined by the free market? In other words, higher values are applied. Yet, of course, particularly with regard to Tesco: what does it mean to talk about a free market when we have at best an oligopoly and at worst, in so many areas, a monopolistic environment? Simms points out that in 81 of the 121 British postcode areas Tesco is the dominant grocer, and is the number 2 in a further 24 areas. The operation of the free market is considered by the government to be inhibited whenever one trader gets more than 8% of the market - and Tesco has vastly more than that, in some areas going beyond 50%. In such a situation invoking 'the free market' functions as a ritualistic response in which all other considerations are subordinated to the one dominant value of Mammon. In other words, it is simply the expression of idolatry.

As such it is not something that the living God will allow to endure in perpetuity, and indeed, the ways in which this system will collapse can already be discerned. The operation of the supermarkets are dependent upon the ready supply of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, especially oil, which allow for the worldwide transport of food and the complicated logistics and processing undertaken by the corporations in this country. As a result of the worldwide peaking of oil supplies such energy is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, and we will all be required to change our patterns of life and consumption with, most particularly, a return to the patterns of local food production that obtained before the last half of the twentieth century. This will come as a shock to the economic system and an ecological truth will then be applicable: the most efficient organisms, which are most finely tuned to a particular environment, are the most vulnerable when that environment changes. There is a trade-off between efficiency and resilience, and the 'just-in-time' model of food distribution which works well in our present context will be insupportable in the world we are moving into.

We live today in a society which has abandoned the Scriptural concern with social justice, and which has given itself over to the worship of Mammon. Consequently we have left ourselves open to the judgement proclaimed by the prophets. We must repent of such choices and turn once again to the living God: it is the duty of all Christians to boycott Tesco.

(A version of this article has appeared in the journal 'Gospel and our Culture')

UPDATE: I must be right, because Simon Heffer disagrees with me.

A brief post on politics

Al raises a number of political points, which right now I don't have the time to go into in great detail - though I have done before and will do again. For those interested in pursuing, this post is probably the clearest: Why I am a Conservative and what I mean by that.

For my views on poverty go here.
For my views on the right way to react to Islamist terrorism go here.

I would reiterate that at this moment in time my political stance is a fairly dark shade of green; I just don't see that as eclipsing the traditional left/right classifications, and even if we do achieve a relocalised steady-state economy, those traditional political arguments will still be there.


Hmmm diesel engines.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Day of the Dead (Romero)

I'm still slowly working my way through Kim Paffenroth's book; this is the third in the sequence. (Kim's book is very good by the way).

This was a good film, and I can understand why it's counted as one of the classics of the genre, but it's also extremely slow cinematically. Probably a four out five, just because of the conceptual weight.

The Fog

I was really in the mood for horror films yesterday, but this wasn't very good. The basic story was sound, so I'll probably seek out the original John Carpenter, but this was barely adequate. And the blonde girl (who was also in Lost I think?) simply cannot act. She can simper quite sweetly though...
2 1/2 out of 5.

Just so you know...

I am open to alternative points of view:

(HT Mahablog)

DVD on Pirsig - coming soon

Nice day at the beach

No TBTM today - I achieved a real lie-in for the first time in weeks! This photo was taken yesterday afternoon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cloverfield, Obama and Islamists

I got woken up by one of the kids in the middle of the night a few days ago, and couldn't get back to sleep. I was thinking about Cloverfield and the review I posted of it. Whilst I still think that it was dramatically flat, further reflection makes me wonder if it may function - possibly unwittingly - as a parable of the United States at this time.

What I have in mind is this: there is a clear invoking of 9/11 in Cloverfield, and the incomprehensible nature of the monster is quite a good proxy for the failure to understand Islamic terrorism. Here is a monster that is laying waste to Manhattan, causing the pyroclastic flow of ash to run down the city streets.

If the monster is terrorism, what is the response of the lead characters? (By the way, if I had been more emotionally invested in them, this would probably never have occurred to me.) Well, they play out a romantic script. This is not a monster movie where the hero saves the day. This is a monster movie where the hero tries to save the life of someone who was once his girlfriend. The hero is playing out a script, inculturated through a million love songs, about what is important and valuable in contemporary life. Choose life. Your identity is found in romantic engagement. All politics is corrupt, life-destroying and, worst of all, boring. So the only intelligible choice within this value system is: save the maybe-girlfriend. This has all sorts of nobility possible within it - but as a response to the devastation being wrought, it misses the point.

Which is why I wonder whether Cloverfield is a parable for the United States at the moment, most especially in the hopes swirling around Obama. Consider the video of 'Yes we can':

This is very moving, even inspiring. I think Obama is a gifted orator. It's just that the sight of all the pop stars and pretty actresses exclaiming 'yes we can' is so reminiscent of the hero in Cloverfield choosing to rescue the maybe-girlfriend. This is not a cowardly choice but it is a choice which rather ignores the context of the monster flattening skyscrapers. It is also a choice which places the friends who follow into danger and ends up taking their lives. Not in order to slay the monster, but in order to preserve the integrity of the romantic ethos within which the hero is playing out his drama. It is not that the hero doesn't care for, even love his friends. It is that the horizon for his choices doesn't include the monster. It is not a factor in his thinking.

Whenever there is a time of stress there is a desire to avoid facing up to the nature of the problem. The United States is facing increasing stresses at the moment and it seems to me that Obama represents an avoidance of the existential issue. He is drawing on the rhetoric of hope and change. He looks the part: JFK (or maybe Bobby?) reincarnate, come to save the States from themselves. Someone who can redeem the people from their mistakes and make them feel better about themselves. And he seems to have integrity, not least through his consistent opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet that seems to be precisely the problem: Obama doesn't recognise the existence of the monster.

Reasonable atheism (10): emotions and decisions

There is a developing awareness amongst neuro-psychology that the emotions play an important part in our reasoning skills, and that it is no longer possible, even in principle, to consider rationality as something separate from our body.

Interesting research has been undertaken into the predicament of patients suffering from anasognosia, which is an inability to experience emotion, although the disorder leaves rationality (logic) and linguistic abilities intact. In one case, an investigator was discussing with a patient the possibility of a meeting at a later date, and gave the patient the option of choosing between two dates. The patient then began analysing which of the two dates would be preferable and considered the pros and cons of each in considerable detail. In fact, the consideration only stopped - after half an hour of thought - when the investigator himself stated a preference for one of the dates.

The body, particularly the emotions, play a central part in our reasoning capacity, most importantly when it comes to making decisions. An example may make things clearer: in playing chess there are an extremely large number of possible moves. A normal player will automatically exclude certain moves from consideration, for example those which lead directly to the loss of a queen, thus winnowing down the number of options that have to be considered. In practice, the player will consider only a small handful of potential moves, and the choice amongst those options will depend upon a wide variety of factors, including previous training and experience, the understanding of the opponent's abilities and temperament, and the mood of the player concerned. These decisions are ultimately based upon the emotions, which play this role within normal human reasoning. When the brain is considering certain courses of action it ‘presents’ the outcome to the body, and makes decisions based on how the body reacts. In the example of a chess match, the player concerned will envisage a particular move, and imagine the situation that would result (better players imagine the situation that would result after more moves). In playing the game, assuming a desire to win, certain situations will be desired more than others. For example, a strong pawn structure and well developed pieces will be seen as desirable or valuable, and a situation which results in the loss of a queen will - other things being equal - be seen as very undesirable and lacking in value.

In saying that certain outcomes are desired or not desired, or are seen as more or less valuable, what is at issue is the emotional weight given to those different imagined scenarios. The player will physically react to those scenarios, and a decision will be reached based on that reaction. Our decision making capacity rests upon our biological nature - our existence as homo sapiens, with all the biological heritage consequent upon that fact. We are human beings, not simply rational intellects, and as such we have an embodied existence – our intellects are dependent upon our biology. As Antonio Damasio, one of the principal researchers in this field, puts it: ‘It does not seem sensible to leave emotions and feelings out of any overall concept of mind’ – in other words, it is an illusion to think that we can make decisions without regard to our emotions; on the contrary, full rationality requires a comparably complete emotional engagement. Rationality is dependent upon our emotional development, or, as Hume put it, our reason is a slave to our passions.

About Elizaphanian (with Index of posts)

Why Elizaphanian? Well...

When I got my first independent e-mail address it was with hotmail (still used) and all the obvious 'Sam Norton @...' addresses had been taken. So I got out the good book and opened it at the Old Testament and read this. I thought it sort of fitted me, so I added the 'ian' at the end to indicate a likeness.

The real me is the Rector of West Mersea, Essex, England - along with three neighbouring parishes. It's very close to where I grew up, and I'm very proud of being an Essex boy. I'm married with kids; a bit of an ageing libertarian-conservative-hippy hairy biker but principally an orthodox Christian trying, failing, and trying again to live out the faith. I like beer and wine, sailing, walking the dog on the beach, reading to the kids, all the usual stuff. I am also a bit fanatical about Chelsea FC but try not to mention that too often.

This blog is my penseive, the place where I think out loud about whatever is on my mind at the time. Sometimes I will take an idea, run with it, argue for it and end up rejecting it. Othertimes the idea sticks. Time will tell, so: don't take any one post too seriously! Please note that my quest for Truth borders on the pathological. Also, please note that articles linked are not necessarily representative of my own views. I link to what makes me think and I am often more stimulated by something that I don't agree with. If you must know, I believe (beyond the obvious) in human flourishing and human freedom - in that order.

I will often put up TBTMs or TBTEs - these stand for The Beach This Morning/Evening. Highlights can be found on my flickr page.

I also use it to list the films I watch - mostly junk, but I flatter myself with the ability to recognise the occasional diamond when it crosses my path.

An explanation of the subtitle of the blog is here.

This is an index of some of the main themes of my writing on this blog:

Click here for my talks about Christianity and Peak Oil - if I have anything of value to say to the world, it's contained here.

Autobiographical (what this blog is mainly about)

My Testimony

The colour of my shirt

The Old Testament Heart

Guarding the Holy Fire

Workload, priorities, vocation

Laying George Herbert to rest

Ride out!

I confess

Why I blog

Inertia, theoria, blogging

Dust and Bones

Prayer and grief

Watching the tide come in

Rage and comic book heroes

Socrates or Jesus?

Scripture, Evangelicalism, Liberalism, Fundamentalism

What I think about the Bible

My talks on evangelicalism

Anglican liberalism and the interpretation of Scripture

The Authority of Scripture

A bit more on Scripture

Some thoughts about evangelism

Why I hate fundamentalism

Getting personal with fundamentalism

On the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

Not by our own feelings (criticism of 'conversion')

Catholicism trumps Liberalism

My posts on atheism

Church-related writings

Reflecting on the Incarnation

Tearing down the curtain

Why liturgy?

Excrement smeared across a church wall

Leaving Satan behind

Music in worship


What I'm optimistic about


What do I mean when I talk about 'God'?


On Intelligent Design

On Miracles

Only love can believe

Why I love Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein and Radical Orthodoxy

Wittgenstein, Plato and Pickstock: The Sense of Relgious Language

Whose wrath?

Peak Oil related

The Great Dislocation


Prophecy and Peak Oil

Misplacing the Apocalypse

SUV Spirituality

A Fully Wired Future

What I'm optimistic about

Review of Economist article on Peak Oil

It's the secondary effects, stupid

The Holiness of Stuart Staniford

Gandalf, Gunpowder and Neil Gaiman's cats

Scandalous subjects

Scandalous Cartoons

Sin City

On Divorce

On Homosexuality

Why I am a Conservative

My posts on Obama

My posts on Palin

Wrestling with violence

Ante-bellum thoughts on Iraq

Continuing to wrestle with violence

Sam, Sam, pick up thi musket

The non-violent image

Non-violence from a different angle

Metaphysics (including the Metaphysics of Quality)
Introducing the MoQ

A Christian interpretation of the MoQ

The question of character

The Eudaimonic MoQ

The Religion of Metaphysics

The Grammar of Salvation

Wittgenstein's Mystical Method

Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Love

On Religious Experience

The Mythology of Science

The apathistic stance

Parfit, Persons and Integrity

I-monk on good form

"As much “Contemporary Christian Music” as possible please, It’s the soundtrack of apostasy, as far as I can tell. Nothing smells quite as inauthentic, juvenile, manufactured and phony. In fact, we need some down here for the more despairing and tortured areas. Is it on iTunes?"
Go read.

Images of love (February Synchroblog)

Share the love:
Phil Wyman at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Jenelle D'Alessandro at Hello Said Jenelle
Billy Calderwood at Billy Calderwood
Sally Coleman at Eternal Echoes
Mike Bursell at Mike's Musings
Julie Clawson at One Hand Clapping
Steve Hayes at Notes from the Underground
Sonja Andrews at Calacirian
David Fisher at Be the Revolution
Erin Word at Decompressing Faith
KW Leslie at The Evening of Kent
Paul Walker at Out of the Cocoon
Reba Baskett at In Reba's World

Reasonable atheism (9): Wittgenstein on language

It's possible that my request 'what sort of language is acceptable for talking about wisdom' is unclear [hint: the answer isn't 'English' :) ]

When I am talking about the sorts of language that are possible, I am referring to what Wittgenstein calls 'depth grammar'. We do things with words, and it is the doing (the practice, the form of life) which gives language sense and meaning. So the point of my question is: give me examples of discussions of wisdom (the teaching of wisdom) that you do not think are nonsense. As it happens, I don't believe that such examples can be given which don't then fall foul of the same criticisms made of theology. That is the cancer at the heart of our culture. If the criticisms made of theology are valid, then those criticisms also apply to any sort of wisdom teaching - and the prevalent acceptance of those criticisms is why our culture is so unwise, and why we are in the mess that we are in.

Here is something I've written before, which may help to clarify things.


Wittgenstein once said 'It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn't satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.' Wittgenstein had in mind a passage such as this one, from Socrates' first speech in the Phaedrus: 'in every discussion there is only one way of beginning if one is to come to a sound conclusion, and that is to know what one is discussing... Let us then begin by agreeing upon a definition'. In the conclusion of the Phaedrus Socrates restates this: 'a man must know the truth about any subject that he deals with; he must be able to define it.' For Wittgenstein it is this emphasis upon definability in words which is the source of all our metaphysical illusions, illusions which 'lie as deep in us as the forms of our language'. Wittgenstein's view, in contrast, is that "in most cases, but not in all, the meaning of a word lies in its use in the language game".

Wittgenstein's positive philosophical achievement lies in an understanding of language which is not predicated on this Socratic perspective. The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein's view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have. Think of the expression 'I need some water'. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: 'I need some water' - where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In other words, the surface grammar of a comment may be the same, but the depth grammar is radically different dependent on the situation at hand. For Wittgenstein, true understanding came not from the search for definitions but from grammatical investigation - ie, looking at
real situations and seeing what is being discussed.

Now, for Wittgenstein, the point of this grammatical investigation was that you achieved clarity about any questions that are at issue. If there is a philosophical discussion, then the way to proceed is to conduct a grammatical investigation of the words and concepts that are in dispute, to look at how different words are used in their normal context. For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are the result of conceptual confusion and to meet these problems what is needed is conceptual clarification. The task of the philosopher is carefully to depict the relationships between different concepts, in other words, to investigate their grammar. The concepts are the ones used in our everyday language, and it is the fact that the concepts *are* used in our language that gives them their importance. A grammatical investigation in the Wittgensteinian sense is one that looks at how words are used within a lived context. Hence there is the need to investigate the nature of "language games" and "forms of life", which are the usual phrases which you hear when people talk about Wittgenstein. This is a method, and it is with this method that Wittgenstein's true genius lies. In contrast to almost all philosophers within the Western tradition Wittgenstein was not concerned with providing answers to particular questions. Rather, he wished to gain clarity about the question at issue, in order therefore to dissolve the controversy. He wrote: 'Philosophy can in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.'

An example might help to make his view clearer. A traditional metaphysical question might be 'What is time'? We want to know what the word means, and because the word is a noun we look to see what it is that is referred to. Yet there is nothing to which we can point and say 'That is time'. Thus philosophers are puzzled, and trying to answer questions such as this is the classic job of a philosopher, or more precisely, a metaphysician. For Wittgenstein, though, the question is without sense. Wittgenstein would say, why do we assume that there must be something to which the word refers? Look at how the word is actually used in our language, and see if that enlightens your consideration. Thus, when we look at the contexts in which we use the sentence 'Time flew by' they would tend to describe moments when we are particularly absorbed in a piece of work, or where we are with friends having an enjoyable evening. The phrase derives its meaning from that context. To then ask, 'What is time?' would be absurd. What we must always have at the forefront of our minds is the organic basis of the language that we use. Language has evolved for particular purposes, it has various distinct uses, and there is no necessity that there is a clear and logical basis for it. One of Wittgenstein's best images is to suggest looking at language as like a tool box, with different tools to perform different functions. Why should there be something which all tools have in common? And why are you so concerned to find it? Wittgenstein is very concerned to ease the philosophical mind away from its tendency for abstract theorising, and to focus it on everyday details, to see what language is actually doing in a given situation.


One of the main reasons why I'm going slowly - and I understand that it might be frustrating - is because of this need to raise the awareness of different sorts of language, and, eventually, to point out what sort of language theology is, and the place it has in our understandings.

To continue to ask for an explanation of theology in terms of other language games - which is what the humourless atheist requests - is to make a category mistake. This is what leads to the criticisms like "standard theological obscurantism, obfuscation and semantic masturbation". I can see why it might appear that way, but the description is false.

Wittgenstein, PI 373: "Grammar tells us what kind of an object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)"

I am - in an image Wittgenstein uses - guiding you around a city, walking from street to street, not in a logical way, but in the way that a local would walk around them. Slowly an understanding of the locale would grow, and you will no longer need a guide. 'Light dawns gradually over the whole'.


Lights will guide you home

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


My song is love
Love to the loveless shown
And it goes on
You don't have to be alone

Your heavy heart
Is made of stone
And its so hard to see clearly
You don't have to be on your own

Monday, February 11, 2008

Reasonable atheism (8): the fundamental theological rule

"The way you use the word 'God' does not show whom you mean but rather what you mean." (Wittgenstein)

The most important element of monotheistic religions is the prohibition on idolatry. Idolatry is the raising up of some created facet of the world (so either an object, an ideology or a value) and giving it the importance that should be reserved for the creator alone. It is about getting our priorities wrong. Terrible consequences always follow from idolatry.

There are a number of ways in which to discern if idolatry is taking place. The most straightforward comes when actually using the language of God. For the rule is: the living God cannot be the member of any set. If you are attributing something to God which can also be attributed to another object or value, and you are not prepared to entertain any negations or qualifications to that attribution, then you are engaged in idolatry.

So, for example, we can take the claim that 'God exists'. This makes God a member of the set of 'existent things'. Thus it is a theological mistake. God is not a member of the set of 'existent things'. It would therefore be strictly accurate to say that God does not exist.

Or take the set of 'good things'. God is not a member of the set of 'good things'. It would therefore be strictly accurate to say that God is not good.

And so on.

This undoubtedly will sound like 'cobblers' to the humourless atheist - but that is, I argue, because they have a restricted understanding of what it means for language to 'make sense'. Theologians do different things with language. But I'll say more about that, particularly the nature of analogical language, in due course. For now I just want to emphasise this basic rule of theological grammar: all idolatries are prohibited. God can never be the member of a set.

One defining feature of humourless atheism is that it depends upon the violation of this rule.

Reasonable atheism (7): a brief comment about structure

I thought it would be worthwhile to say a little something about 'where am I going with this?' as it may not be clear. Just as my Virgin Birth tirade evolved from what I thought was going to be two posts into a great long series of over a dozen, so too this sequence I now expect to stretch over at least twenty posts. This is how I see the structure of it panning out:
- first some conceptual ground clearing, especially on the difference between atheisms (mostly now done);
- then I'm going to talk about how wisdom is taught, and how 'wisdom language' and traditions function, not least in neurological terms;
- then I'm going to talk about the nature of theological language, when it'll become clearer (I hope) why I'm talking about wisdom so much - I see theological language as a means of forming wise people;
- then I'm going to talk in more specific terms about what it means to be a Christian, not least in terms of the claim that Jesus is wisdom incarnate, and, therefore, what a Christian is actually committed to claiming over against the humourless atheist critique. This is where the 'meat' of positive assertion will come; I'm holding it off until the end because I don't believe it can be properly understood without the prior clarifications.

Along the way I want to disinter some 'theological mistakes' made by humourless atheists (and many Christians). This is my list at the moment:
1. Why God does not 'exist' (this will explain the basic principle of idolatry).
2. The fallacy of 'I only don't believe in one more God than you'.
3. Christians don't believe in 'the supernatural'
4. The fallacy of "You're just a liberal and you don't believe anything, you're not really a Christian".
5. The nature of magic and superstition.
If there are any others that people can think of I'd be happy to add them in.


One step closer to knowing.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The collapse of complex societies (Joseph Tainter)

I had been meaning to read this work for quite some time, as it has quite a high reputation in peak oil circles. In particular, it has been cited directly to me in contexts where I have disputed the inevitability of the collapse of our civilisation. Now that I have read it, I can see that the high reputation is definitely deserved, although I have drawn somewhat optimistic conclusions from it. Click 'full post' for text.

Summary of Tainter's argument
Tainter's work was originally published in 1988 and has the feel of a work which is establishing a new field of study. Tainter is concerned to explore what 'collapse' means, when applied to a society; how collapse happens; and, in the conclusion, to draw some possible lessons for our present situation. The first chapter is a swift survey of eighteen historical examples of collapsed societies around the world, from the Harappans to the Hohokams. This serves to introduce the field that Tainter wishes to study, and also indicates the absence of rigorous empirical investigation. This is the cue for Tainter to begin his systematic analysis. He outlines what is meant by 'collapse', describing it as "a matter of rapid substantial decline in an established level of complexity. A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterised by fewer specialised parts..." Then in chapter three, Tainter surveys the explanations commonly given for why a particular society collapses, finding them all more or less deficient, and saving an especial scorn for 'mystical explanations' (eg Spengler or Toynbee), about which he writes: "Mystical explanations fail totally to account scientifically for collapse. They are crippled by reliance on a biological growth analogy, by value judgements, and by explanation by reference to intangibles." In the course of this chapter he also gives a resounding declaration of the benefit of excluding value-judgements: "A scholar trained in anthropology learns early on that such valuations are scientifically inadmissible, detrimental to the cause of understanding, intellectually indefensible, and simply unfair". This reads rather quaintly today, not least if the arguments that Robert Pirsig advances about anthropology in Lila are anywhere near being correct. However, this doesn't really impact upon Tainter's project.

Tainter then takes the best existing explanation for collapse (economic) and proceeds to develop a hypothesis to explain why complex societies might suddenly shift from a more complex to a less complex state. His thesis can be concisely stated: increasing complexity gives rise to diminishing marginal returns on investment; when those returns become negative, the society has a progressively diminishing capacity to withstand stress, and is vulnerable to collapse.
Essentially at point C3 there is no benefit from the increase of complexity (C3-C1) - hence the collapse from C3 to C1.

This thesis is built upon four working assumptions:
- human societies are problem-solving organisations;
- sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
- increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
- investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

What happens is that, as a complex society initially develops, there is a very high return on investment in complexity - the resources made available through that adoption of complexity are far higher than are used up through the complex organisation itself. However, over time, the 'low hanging fruit' are used up, and for every increase in complexity there is a lower and lower resource return until there comes a point where simply maintaining the existing complexity has a negative impact upon available resources - in other words, the resources are more efficiently deployed through a less complex system.

Tainter gives a number of different specific and small-scale examples where this decline in marginal returns applies, for example in terms of the return on research and development investment, or medical research, but his next chapter applies the theory to understanding three different examples of collapse. The most telling example, to my mind, was that of the farmers in the latter stages of the Western Roman Empire, who were taxed more and more heavily in order to maintain the apparatus of the Roman state, and who eventually welcomed the barbarian invasions as a release from what had become Roman oppression. A Roman structure of high complexity had been viable for as long as there were increasing resources made available - and this was accomplished through conquest. However, once the limits of conquest were reached (either with the German tribes, whose relative poverty made their conquest uneconomic, or through coming up against another Empire strong enough to resist Rome, eg the Parthian) then the model of development became untenable. The accumulated resources available to Rome were drawn down, its capacity to absorb shocks to the system was eroded, and thus the collapse of that form of complexity became a matter of time. As Tainter writes, "Once a complex society enters the stage of declining marginal returns, collapse becomes a mathematical likelihood, requiring little more than sufficient passage of time to make probable an insurmountable calamity". As a complex society enters into this terminal phase, the advantages to retreating to a previously existing level of complexity become more and more obvious, and local communities start to shift their allegiance: "...a society reaches a state where the benefits available for a level of investment are no higher than those available for some lower level...Complexity at such a point is decidedly advantageous, and the society is in danger of collapse from decomposition or external threat". The only way to avoid a collapse is for the society to access a new resource which increases the return on investment once more.

One intriguing aspect that Tainter draws out in his closing remarks is that collapse is only possible where there is a power vacuum. That is, in a situation of conflict between states collapse does not occur, there is simply a transfer of control from one polity to another, without any diminishment in levels of complexity. However, this does mean that when collapse happens it happens systemically across several different polities simultaneously.

Comments and questions
To this lay reader Tainter's principal conclusions seem both sound and helpful. The idea that societies collapse into lower levels of complexity as a direct result of decreasing marginal returns on investment seems plausible, robust and open to various forms of empirical investigation. How far Tainter is correct in this thesis is something that professionals in his field can take forward. My interest is with the implications for our present crisis, for it seems unarguable that our existing society has entered the realm of diminishing returns on investment (seen most clearly through peak oil) and so I end with these various comments and questions.

- There seems to be a trade off between efficiency and resilience; that is, the most efficient forms of complexity are the most susceptible to a sudden collapse. In contrast, those that are less efficient have deeper levels of resilience. (This seems a good way to describe Dmitry Orlov's comparison of the US and USSR.);

- the theme of diminishing returns on complexity appears to explain much of contemporary politics. In the UK for example we have seen a significant increase in the resources made available from the centre for the purposes of health care. This has had either no or negative benefits upon the health of the population. It would seem that the NHS has gone past the point of optimum complexity and is now ripe for a collapse into more local arrangements. One more piece of evidence confirming that Gordon Brown's pathological centralising tendencies are a disaster;

- more broadly Tainter's analysis is very encouraging for all those wishing to see a relocalisation of economies, especially with regard to food supply.

- in global terms, Tainter writes that "Collapse, if and when it comes again, will be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilisation will disintegrate as a whole." It seems unarguable that our present form of industrial civilisation will collapse; what is not clear to me is whether it makes sense to equate 'industrial civilisation' with 'technically advanced and humane civilisation'. In particular there seems no reason why it should not be possible to shift to a 'steady-state' type of economy;

- in this context I found Stuart Staniford's 2050 scenario fascinating. What Staniford was outlining was one way in which a new energy subsidy (solar power) might be tapped in order to maintain the existing levels of complexity. I do not see the existing levels of complexity as desirable; just as the late-Roman farmers found it in their interest to let the central structures collapse, so too might the majority of the industrialised nations find it in their interest to let the gigantic state structures, built up through the twentieth century, collapse in turn. (The Shield of Achilles is relevant to this argument.);

- I would be very interested to read an analysis of Tainter that was also informed about the nature of contemporary capitalism, especially the nature of financial instruments. Much of the discourse about economics in peak oil circles seems at best incomplete, if not ignorant (especially talk about 'fiat' currencies). It seems to me that capitalism is a new development of the last few centuries, and that the financial resources made available, whilst not overcoming the problems Tainter outlines, do make the outcomes very different. This could apply in two ways: the present financial crisis may be more severe as a result of financial creativity, but it also may be possible to pull up an economy by its own bootstraps in ways that were not possible before. (See here for a related book review.)

So why have I come away from Tainter with an optimistic outlook? The answer is that Tainter makes plain that the collapse of complexity is not necessarily a universal bane. On the contrary, whilst those most closely invested in the centralised structures do badly in a collapse, it is quite possible that the majority of a community will benefit, not least because for a long time leading up to a collapse the maintenance of the status quo had exacted an increasing burden upon ordinary citizens. The removal of a particular level of human complexity does not, of itself, lead to depopulation. It seems quite possible that the twenty-first century future will be local, resilient and humane, and without an over-bearing state recklessly absorbing and wasting scarce resources that prospect seems very attractive. Of course, getting to that point will likely be very scary...

One step closer (Christian Scharen)

A very interesting analysis of U2's songs according to Scriptural criteria. I think it would also serve as a good introduction to the nature of Christian faith, in many ways. Recommended if you're a fan, as I am.

Undeniably mainstream now

Way back in the year of 2017
The sun was growing hotter
And oil was way beyond its peak
When crazy Hector Johnson broke into a refinery
And the black gold started flowing
Just like Boston tea

About Rowan and Sharia

I wasn't going to say anything about this - the signal to noise ratio on the issue is already appalling - but I would direct people to this post if they are genuinely interested in knowing what Rowan said.


Do you know where I was at your age?
Any idea where I was at your age?
I was working downtown for the minimum wage
And I'm not gonna let you just throw it all away!
I'm through being cute, I'm through being nice
O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Reasonable atheism (6): what is acceptable to the humourless atheist?

"People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them - that does not occur to them." (Wittgenstein, 1939)

I want to explore the comment I ended my last post on the topic with, that atheism of the humourless variety not only is aspect blind to something crucial, but that, in a very real and concrete sense, the salvation of our society rests upon our being able to shift away, as a culture, from the tenets of humourless atheism. Clearly this requires some further explanation.

Let's begin by taking an example of atheist criticism of religious language, Stephen Law's criticisms (eg here). Stephen finds the resort to mystical language 'cobblers' and comments: "The appeal to mystery and the mystical has of course been a bog-standard technique of cultists and other purveyors of snake oil down through the centuries whenever they are accused of talking cobblers." I want to ask: what would count as not being 'cobblers'? In other words, what sort of language meets the standard that is being applied? I take Stephen to be a representative of the Humean tradition (if I'm wrong I'll amend this post!) so as a guess I would have thought that at least two forms of language would meet Stephen's criteria for not being cobblers: language of mathematical and symbolic logic, and language that was supported by empirical science. Do other forms of language have anything other than emotionally-expressive value (that is, it makes us feel good but has no other cognitive weight)?

If we take poetry for example, it may well be that poetic language and verse has a useful function to play within a human society, as something which gives pleasure to people, but which is of no wider interest to those concerned with 'truth'. Poetry can function in the way that football functions - it is entertainment, and might end up being economically significant, but as a discipline with the capacity to teach us truths about human nature and our place in the world it is without merit, and must give way to more scientific investigation.

My problem with this Humean perspective, however, is that it is impossible to teach wisdom with language that is acceptable. In other words, it is impossible to teach wisdom with language that is only a) logical, b) empirical or (at a stretch for the Humean) c) emotionally expressive. In order to teach wisdom - and for our civilisation to survive this crisis - we need something more.

The grey champion

Long, long may it be, ere he comes again! His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader's step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come...
(With a nod towards Strauss and Howe, and conscious of their warnings.)


I was absolutely floored by a cold yesterday. I guess my system is still not back to anything like full strength.

Here's a bonus piccie for all you Ollie lovers out there (click to enlarge it):

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Moderately entertaining; not sure I'd recommend it. Would have been better as a half hour sketch on a TV show. Three out of five.


An early Cronenberg, which I watched some twenty years ago. It stands up reasonably well today; some of its satire still has bite. Three out of five.


Derivative and formulaic, but also charming and very entertaining. Three out of five.


A very interesting idea, that was well executed but ultimately unsatisfying, almost boring, as a movie. You need more than one dimension to make a film successful. "Why is this happening?" says a character at the end - quite. Three out of five.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Reasonable atheism (5): is wisdom necessary?

I don't propose to spend too long on this part of the question - although I could - because it seems that the following propositions are self-evident:
- the world is in a bit of a mess;
- the answers are not easy; and
- we will have to change our behaviour if we want to get out of the mess.

What I have in mind is all the material I covered in the LUBH sessions, eg Peak Oil, Global Warming, soil erosion, overpopulation, declining water availability, excess pollution, resource wars....

Wisdom, it seems to me, is what enables the change of behaviour to occur. Wisdom is what makes the difference between an alcoholic having just another drink and giving up; what makes a smoker quit; what makes an obese man (like the Mersea Rector) sign up to the gym to become healthier. Wisdom is also what enables communities to function; it provides means of creative conflict resolution; it allows for the full panoply of human flourishing to progress.

So I'm not minded to argue for the virtue of wisdom. What I will argue for, however, is why the humourless atheist is aspect-blind to wisdom and why getting our civilisation out of its present predicament involves abandoning the central tenets of humourless atheism. That is, the commitments made by a humourless atheist (as evidenced in the arguments levelled against Christianity) have the necessary corollary that wisdom is undermined. I think this has two aspects, which are closely interwoven: a lack of respect for narrative and it's place in human understanding; and an excessively elevated respect for 'facts'.

We are trained in this world to accept only what is rational and logical. Have you ever wondered why?

Neo shakes his head.

As children, we do not separate the possible from the impossible which is why the younger a mind is the easier it is to free, while a mind like yours can be very difficult.

Free from what?

From the Matrix.

Neo looks at his eyes but only sees a reflection of himself.

Do you want to know what it is, Neo?

Neo swallows and nods his head.

It's that feeling you have had all your life. That feeling that something was wrong with the world. You don't know what it is but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad, driving you to me. But what is it?

The leather creaks as he leans back.

The Matrix is everywhere, it's all around us, here even in this room. You can see it out your window, or on your television. You feel it when you go to work, or go to church or pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

What truth?

That you are a slave, Neo. That you, like everyone else, was born into bondage... kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison - for your mind.

Reasonable atheism (4): two quotations

I don't know who said this (it came to me via Matt Kundert on the MoQ list) but I think it is excellent:

"The 'third rate' critic attacks the original thinker on the basis of the rhetorical consequences of his thought and defends the status quo against the corrupting effects of the philosopher's rhetoric. 'Second rate' critics defend the same received wisdom by semantic analyses of the thinker which highlight ambiguities and vagueness in his terms and arguments. But 'first rate' critics "delight in the originality of those they criticise...; they attack an optimal version of the philosopher's position--one in which the holes in the argument have been plugged or politely ignored."

The second one, inevitably, is from Wittgenstein:

"Even to have expressed a false thought boldly and clearly is already to have gained a great deal."

That's what I'm aiming for - to express thoughts boldly and clearly, and invite first-rate critical responses.