Saturday, 31 October 2009

Swinburne: The problem of evil

This chapter is completely misnamed, because Swinburne doesn't seem to find evil any kind of problem at all.

His first line of argument is that some evils can serve greater good. Parents rightly allow a dentist to cause pain to their children for the greater good of healthy adult teeth. And God (if he exists) can cause or allow what appear to be evils in the service of a greater good which we cannot necessarily yet perceive. He states that one important greater good is that without evils and suffering, our ability to have and show concern for others is impaired. We cannot be concerned for somebody's welfare and take action to assure it unless that person's welfare is somehow at risk, and if there is no suffering there is no possibility of that happening.

His next line of argument is the "Argument from the Need for Knowledge", that we are endowed with free choices, and without natural evils our ability to make choices would be impaired in that the choices would have no effect. Also, without the chance to observe evil outcomes, we have no knowledge as to the likely good or bad effects of a choice, and no means ever of obtaining such knowledge. Since knowledge is a good thing, this is a greater good that is served by the presence of evil.

He then argues God's right to inflict harm, that parents have a right to do some degree of harm to their children for their own long-term good, and that God, being so much more than parents to us all, similarly has a right to inflict harm for the good of our souls.

He then goes on to address the quantity of evil in the world, the idea that, even given all these arguments, with things such as Hiroshima, the Holocaust, ther Lisbon Earthquake and the Black Death, God might have overdone it a bit. This is his response.

Suppose that one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Then there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy; one less piece of information about the effects of atomic radiation, less people (relatives of the person burnt) who would have had a strong desire to campaign for nuclear disarmament and against imperialist expansion. Ando so on. Of course, removal of one bad state or the possibility of one bad state will not remove much good, any more than the removal of one grain of sand will make much difference to the fact that you still have a heap of sand. But the removal of one grain of sand will make a bit of a difference, and so will the removal of one bad state.
What he seems to be arguing is that evil is in fact good, in that the more evil there is, the more opportunity there is for people to do good in response. This is a torturer's charter. "I'm only doing this to you for the good of your family, so they can show sympathy to you in your injured state once I have finished with you." It excuses all kinds of evil. It is easy enough for people to do evil believing they are doing good without cover from this kind of fatuous philosophy. If the Hiroshima bomb had never been built, nobody would have been burned by it, and if nuclear weapons had never been developed, there would have been no need for people to campaign for nuclear disamament, and could perhaps have turned to other more substantive forms of good work.

It also suggests that there is ultimately nothing that can be done to reduce the total amount of evil in the world - that God decides how much evil there should be, and that everything is always for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.

There are two issues here. The first is how nauseatingly grotesque this philosophy is, and how easily it can be turned to the service of evil actions. The second is how completely without evidence all this hypothesising is. It depends on us making the assumption without specific evidence that there is a God, that he is good, that he allows evil for the the benefit of our immortal souls, that the amount of evil is at its optimum value for God's perfectly good purposes, and that the removal of even one small amount of human or natural evil will remove as much or more opportunity for humans to be good in response. Phooey.

But it gets worse. Swinburne's next argument is the "Argument from Hiddenness", the idea that keeping himself largely hidden from human sight is just the sort of thing a perfect God would do, since too obvious a Godly presence inhibits the ability of humans to make a free choice whether or not to worship God, and that allowing evil into the world is a part of the process of keeping God hidden from view. If you take this argument, then God ceases to be any kind of scientific proposition at all, he becomes a mechanism by which any possible phenomenon can be interpreted as being consistent with God's existence. If there is no possible phenomenon that can be shown, even in principle, to be incompatible with God's existence, then you now have an unfalsifiable proposition, and therefore all Swinburne's ideas of probability, flawed though they were from the outset, go out of the window, because probability has no meaning at all in the context of unfalsifiable propositions, and no evidence one way or the other can affect one's thinking on the matter.

But for all that, he grandly concludes that the existence of evil in the world does not form a C-inductive argument against God, and the probability of God's existence is unimpaired. There is no explaining going on here, merely explaining-away.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The inquiry at Ealing Abbey

Following the sexual crimes of Fr David Pearce, Abbot Shipperlee has written in a letter to all parents at St Benedict's School

I am instructing an independent review into this matter to examine what there is to be learned in order to ensure that there can never be a recurrence of this situation.

I hope in due course to find out more about this review, about who will be conducting it, what its scope and terms of reference will be, who it will report to, and whether its report will be made public. I don't even know whether the inquiry has started its work yet.

From the comments that have been posted on my previous articles on this subject, it is quite obvious that there much more has been going on that is covered by the 5 victims of Fr Pearce who were the subject of the criminal charges against him.

I suspect that there are many of you out there who have suffered abuse and do not feel able to describe any kinds of details of them in a public forum such as the comments on this blog. I think it is appropriate that you should have an opportunity to recount your experiences and for them to form a part of the evidence to this inquiry.

If you wish to contact me by email, I will do all in my power to see that your experiences are placed before the inquiry. Include "Fr Pearce" or "David Pearce" in the subject line, so I can quickly and easily identify messages on the subject.

I promise that anything you write to me by email will be kept entirely confidential, except in as far as you authorise me to communicate it to anybody else apart from those conducting the inquiry. In particular, I shall not use any of your emails as material for this blog unless you specifically tell me I can. I just want to ensure that any evidence that the inquiry should be aware of is made available to them. I take the view that a review of procedures at the Abbey and the school can't be adequate unless it is carried out will the fullest possible knowledge of the failures that have occurred in the past. And that knowledge requires that as many victims as possible come forward to describe their experiences.

I don't expect that any evidence would result in further charges against Fr Pearce. As I understand it, the police have closed their file on him as a result of their successful prosecution. But even if the evidence you provide does not result in prosecutions against Fr Pearce or anybody else, I still think the inquiry needs to hear it. I suspect that there has been as assumption in the past that if the evidence is not sufficient for a criminal prosecution, then no other action should be taken. If so, then that needs to change - the safety and welfare of the children in the school's care should be the higher priority, and that requires that action to protect a child should be taken even in cases where the evidence is insufficient for criminal prosecutions.

It looks as if some reviewing has already been carried out internally, there are new documents on the Information for Parents page of the St Benedict's School website.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Swinburne: Arguments from Consciousness, Morality and Providence

Time to skip though a bit faster, so I'm taking the next two chapters together: Arguments from Consciousness and Morality, and The Argument from Providence. The form of the argument will by now be fairly familiar, so I don't need to rehearse it in such detail, even though the subject matter is different.

In Arguments from Consciousness and Morality, Swinburne makes the same general point, that he finds it hard to conceive of a way in which consciousness could have come about through natural processes. He accepts evolution as a means by which animals have come about, but finds it hard to understand why thought should have evolved. The only quotation he provides in the whole of the two chapters is from the 17th century philosopher John Locke

Divide matter into as many parts as you will ... vary the figure and motion of it, as much as you please ... and you may as rationally expect to produce sense, thought, and knowledge by putting together in a certain figure and motion, gross particles of matter, as by those that are the very minutest, that do anywhere exist. They knock, impel, and resist each other just as the greater do, and that is all they can do.

On the other hand, Swinburne thinks that human beings who think are just the sort of thing that God would make if he exists, and so he regards this as a good C-inductive argument for God.

He takes a similar line with The Argument from Moral Truth, which he comes to later in the chapter, that there is no reason for an awareness of moral truth to come to use by natural means, but implanting an awareness of them in us is just what God would do.

In essence, this is what Dawkins calls the Argument from Personal Incredulity. Just because Swinburne finds it hard to think of a way that these phenomena could have occurred naturally, he therefore assumes them to be extremely unlikely to be natural phenomena. This simply highlights the subjective nature of his assessments, since scientists with more knowledge of the subject are apt to regard the natural explanation as perfectly plausible and likely.

In The Argument from Providence, Swinburne regards it as wonderfully helpful of God to have created a world in which mankind can look after himself (feed himself, clothe himself) without apparent divine intervention every day. That the universe should have configured itself that way naturally he thinks to be unlikely, and so again it is regarded as a C-inductive argument for God.

Similarly, he is most impressed by the fact that the world offers us opportunities to help each other. he goes through various kinds of worlds that God might want to create, and settles on what he calls world-IV as being the most likely, in which there is exist humanly free agents who are born and die. In other words, he regards this is the best of all possible worlds, and therefore the one that God would most want to create. He argues

Given that ... we may expect God to create humanly free agents with a large degree of free choice and responsibility, subject to a limit of harm (that is, positive evil) they can do to each other, it is moderately probable that God will make a World-IV, including natural death for all and free agents having the power to cause death.

It seems to me that there is a glaring hole here (quite in addition to all the holes I've already identified in this general form of argument) and that is that we are not in a World-IV by Swinburne's description. We live in a universe where humans in fact have unlimited power to do evil to each other, to the extent of being able to use atomic weapons in such a way as to extinguish all life from the planet. So far we have chosen not to. But that doesn't change the fact that the power exists for us to do unlimited harm.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A big "Thank you"

Attending the sentencing hearing of Fr David Pearce, and hearing the nature of the abuses he committed, I was particularly impressed by the courage of the victims who came forward and were prepared to give evidence, and who almost until the day of the trial believed that they would have to face Fr Pearce in court to give evidence.

That is courage of a very special kind. Not many people can say "I helped put a paedophile behind bars", but you can. That is an achievement to be proud of.

Other children are safer because of what you did. Thank you.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Sentencing of Fr David Pearce

Just two very quick items, I'll report in more detail later.

Fr Pearce today was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his offences against boys at St Benedict's School. According to law, he will serve half and the other half will be suspended. He will be placed on the sex offenders' register for life, and the judge also made an order that he must not have any unsupervised contact with any child under the age of 18, not be involved unsupervised in any educational activity with any child under the age of 18, and not undertake unsupervised any religious service in the presence of any child under the age of 18.

The Abbot was not present and no statement on behalf of the Abbey was made to the press at the court (though a press statement was issued later). I understand from discussions with journalists present that he has been refusing all calls from the press recently.

The story has hit the news. It was lead item on ITV's news programme "London Tonight". So far, the fullest written account is in The Independent, but the Ealing Gazette, the Press Association, and the BBC website are also carrying the story.

I'm not going to compete with the Independent's account, written by Wesley Johnson and Anisha Ahmed of the Press Association. Their journalists have better shorthand than mine and their account is a substantially accurate summary of the offences committed by Fr Pearce. Also, the victims have had their lives messed with enough, I don't want to invade their privacy any further by repeating the details all over again. I met one of the police officers who had conducted the investigation and she advised me that the case was under reporting restrictions as regards the names of the victims, but I assured her that even without restrictions I had no intention of naming any victims.

But there are a few points which I made a particular note of.

Firstly, it is quite clear from the account given by the prosecuting barrister that Fr Pearce got himself into a position of trust and authority and then used that position to prevent his victims from speaking up, and to prevent them for a long time from being believed even when they did speak up. One victim was even estranged from his own parents for a time as they found the accusations to be unbelievable.

Second, although the physical acts involved were not the most serious possible sexual offences, it is quite clear that it has had a devastating effect on the lives of the victims, as much from the abuse of trust as from the physical abuse. Statements read out in court from more than one victim mentioned how Fr David "was everywhere" in their life. It is quite clear that the victims were in no way able to deal with the psychological manipulations he inflicted on them, they just didn't have the age and maturity.

If any of the victims read this, let me assure you that from the description given in court, there is no reason at all for you to feel in any way guilty about your own actions. You were manipulated and you were not responsible for the abuse done to you. The mere fact that there was little or no physical coercion is entirely irrelevant, Fr Pearce was in such a position of authority over you, and in some cases over your parents, that there is no way that somebody of your age could have resisted an adult with the age, authority, education and sophistication of Fr Pearce. Psychologically it was the equivalent of putting a 9-year old into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson. There's no way you could possibly have been expected to withstand that. You have my every best wish and sincere hope that now Fr Pearce is behind bars for a substantial time you will be able to get on with your lives in peace and privacy.

Thirdly, I'd like to mention some of the points made in plea of mitigation by the defending barrister. I happened to be sat next to one of the victims in the public seats during the hearing, and could sense his hackles rise at some of the statements being made. But I don't blame the barrister for making pleas of mitigation - it is his job, and it is necessary for the judge to hear whatever good points there are to be made. But there was very little that really could be said that would have much mitigating effect. Here are some of the points made.
  • the defendant wished to apologise to the victims for the acts committed, and the barrister was now doing so on his behalf
  • he had shown sufficient contact with reality (in contrast to many other sex offenders) that he had changed his plea to guilty, albeit at a very late date
  • he did not set out to cause distress
  • the judge had a duty to sentence only on the basis of the charges to which Pearce had pleaded guilty (about half the charges originally brought - the rest were dropped by the prosecution in exchange for the guilty plea)
  • he had also done much good in the world, that he had been a good and effective teacher, that he had participated in and led a great many out-of-hours school activities, and that many pupils had benefited from the education he had had a part in providing
  • many people had come forward to act as character witnesses for him, including pillars of the local community, even though they were aware of his offences and that he had pleaded guilty
  • he hadn't acted as a predator - the crime career of a sexual predator classically involves an escalation in the seriousness of offences over time, which didn't happen in this case
  • the victim impact statements should be read with some caution, not because they should be regarded as in any way untrue, but rather that they should be read as the effect of all the abuse suffered by the victims, and that some of the victim impact statements made mention of abuse inflicted by others in addition to that by Fr Pearce
The judge was thoroughly unimpressed by most of this, and this was reflected in the points he made in giving sentence.

Fourth, I was very much struck by one point made by the prosecuting barrister, almost as an aside. After the civil case in 2006, Fr Pearce was placed on a "restricted ministry" by the Abbot. Part of a letter from the Abbot was read out in court which stated that Fr Pearce:
  • was not to have any public ministry
  • must celebrate mass only in private within the monastery
  • must have no contact with children
The reason given in the letter for this restricted ministry was "to protect Fr David from unfounded allegations". No mention was made in court of any other reason given.

The last of his victims was befriended by Fr Pearce after the civil case, despite the restrictions supposedly imposed by the Abbot.

Fifth, there was no sign of the Abbot. He was not present, despite the fact that he had led me to understand that he would use the occasion to make a statement. A press statement was issued later by the Abbey. I don't yet have a copy, because as far as I can tell it hasn't been posted either on the Abbey website or that of the Diocese of Westminster, so all I can do is quote what was included in the report in the Independent.
In a statement issued by Ealing Abbey, Abbot Martin Shipperlee said: "The crimes perpetrated by David Pearce were a betrayal of the trust placed in him as a teacher and priest.

"His exploitation of the most vulnerable was brought to an end by the courage of those of his victims who came forward and revealed what had been happening.

"I would like to apologise in every way I can to the victims and to everyone else who has been affected by this case.

"I will remember in my prayers all those whose lives have been troubled by David Pearce's actions."

The Abbot said he was launching an independent review into the case "to examine what there is to be learned to ensure that there can never be a recurrence of this situation".

He added: "David Pearce's future as a priest will now be reviewed by my superiors in accordance with the child protection procedures of the church."
That is not nearly good enough. It leaves entirely unstated what of his own personal failures or the Abbey's institutional failures he was apologising for. After all, these failures were what permitted Fr Pearce to continue his abuse for so long. The words are very slightly less weaselly than those which followed the civil case, but fall far short of what the victims can and should reasonably expect from the Abbey.

Even the statement about the "independent review" could be interpreted as weasel words. "A recurrence of this situation" could be read to mean "a recurrence of things being found out to the extent that it got to court and embarrassed the church." I warned the Abbot against the use of euphemisms and circumlocutions, that an apology would have to be full and frank if it was going to do much good. Certainly I am comprehensively unimpressed with what has been offered so far.

I think that the victims deserve something a little more substantial in terms of support than that the Abbot will "remember in my prayers all those whose lives have been troubled by David Pearce's actions".

But I'm pleased about the independent review. I would like to learn more about it - who will be conducting it, what their terms of reference will be, and whether its report will be published. The details of this matter, and unless I know it is going to have a broad remit, unqualified cooperation from everyone at the Abbey and its schools from the Abbot down, a public report, and be conducted by secular non-catholic experts, then I'm going to be skeptical as to whether this is any more than window dressing. However, it it does have all those characteristics, then there is every chance that future abuse can be prevented and any other past abuse brought to light.

I intend keeping an eye on this and seeing what happens in future.