Friday, June 29, 2007


[Update: Kenneth has lifted the ban. I do not anticipate returning to his blog anytime soon, however. (2 Jul 07)]

Yet another theist can't handle having his views contradicted and his intellectual failings mocked, and I've racked up my fourth blog ban! Quoth Jefferson:
Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.
Just so y'all know: I like pissing theists off.
  1. Mere Comments
  2. Subversive Christianity (now defunct; asked to "go our separate ways")
  3. Some dumbass who demanded I respect the "rationality" of her belief in Intelligent Design
  4. Time Immortal (ban lifted 2 Jul 07!)

And Stephen: Thanks for reading the blog!

Homosexuality and disgust

In Carnal Knowledge Faye Flam discusses the origins of homophobia in feelings of disgust.

Please don't freak out on me, gentle reader, and read the whole of the next paragraph.

In a sense, disgust about homosexuality is just as good a starting point for the ethical condemnation of homosexuality as disgust over the violation of consent is a starting point for the ethical condemnation of rape, or disgust over the murder of children is a starting point for the ethical condemnation of the Iraq war. But that's all this disgust is: A starting point. Throw some actual thought into the matter and the disgust at homosexuality, unlike rape, murder and war, trips on its own feet six inches from the starting point.

The necessary/sufficient distinction seems to confuse a lot of people: While disgust is necessary for ethical condemnation, it is not sufficient. If we were to condemn everything that disgusted someone, we'd condemn everything, leading to a degenerate (pun intended) ethical system. Rape and murder disgust almost everyone; tens or hundreds of millions of people do not find homosexuality at all disgusting.

It's also useful to consider the psychological character of this disgust. Homosexuality disgusts people primarily because they put themselves in the act itself, not in the minds of the people engaging in the act. Rape and murder disgust me not because I don't want to participate in such activities, but because I have empathy for the suffering of the victims. Consensual homosexual sex, however, brings joy and happiness to the participants, and, everything else being equal, I approve of joy and happiness. Disgust over homosexuality requires that someone suspend his empathy, his connection to the feelings of others; I strongly disapprove of the suspension of empathy.

Most importantly, this supposed "disgust" seems to be strongly correlated to mental slavery to primitive superstitions (a.k.a. Abrahamic religious belief). No one needs to reference any scripture to condemn rape, murder, theft, and the like. When I see the primary "intellectual" justification for an ethical belief coming directly out of the prejudices of Iron-age goat-fuckers and medieval child-rapists, I call bullshit.

As Eric Schwartz so succinctly puts it, "Keep your Jesus off my penis... I don't tell you how to pray, so don't you tell me how to screw."

Po' baby

Kenneth at Time Immortal demands an apology for putting words in his mouth and assorted snarkiness. I've refused to apologize, so until I hear one way or the other, I'll post my response, rather than comment on his blog.

Does anyone here (other than Kenneth) interpret the sentence,
Kenneth denies the charge of rococo metaphysics: They're not "rococo" he says, just elaborate, multi-layered, arbitrary and entirely unnecessary. Oops, my bad.
as me saying that Kenneth literally says that religious metaphysics are arbitrary and entirely unnecessary? Or is it clear from context and the lack of quotation marks that I'm drawing a conclusion about his essay? If I'm wrong or misleading, I'll apologize, but I don't think I'm wrong.

Kenneth charges that
Barefoot seems to have completely abandoned [his original essay] from consideration, which I can not count as a credit to him.
This charge is more or less accurate; the discussion has wandered a bit afield. I can plead only limited time to respond to an enormous post with many points. Kenneth—if he chooses to continue the conversation—is free to pull me back to the original essay.

Kenneth says he "cannot count on him to indulge any of my methodologies with a similarly open mind." In what way am I not being open-minded? I'm willing to read and respond to his arguments as written, but open-mindedness does not entail uncritical acceptance.

I have to freely admit that
Notably absent in Barefoot’s own posting, though, is any substantiative, consensus-driven, non-abritrary “meat” of the argument. When he’s not mocking me he’s…not…saying much else, really.
I have to plead only that Kenneth did not offer much of substance. Keep in mind that my criticism is not that one cannot form a principled consensus about religion, it's that the principles required are rococo, in the sense that they are over-elaborate and ornamental. So rococo, in fact, that there is such disagreement in the principles necessary to even begin a discussion of God that the inability to reach a consensus is pushed to the choice of principles.

I skip over a one ore two of his "principles" in my first response, so let me make as complete a list as I can:
  1. Choice of scripture: nothing
  2. Choice of canon: "religious fervor" (good) vs. politics (bad)
  3. Masoretic vs. Septuagint: New Testament quotation (good) vs. original language (bad)
  4. Literal vs. metaphor: whatever fits one's theological preconceptions using the “Message-Incident Principle”
  5. Overall: coherence: "truth cannot contradict truth"
All of these principles, except the last are completely arbitrary, and two of them (religious fervor, and the "Message-Incident Principle") are completely subjective. Not only that, but most of these principles are fairly complex (especially the "Message-Incident Principle"), hiding even more rococo ornamentation.

More importantly, all of these principles except coherence are completely unnecessary. There is nothing that stands in need of explanation that demands we adopt them. There is simply no justification to seek reasons or principles in the first place to buttress the specifically scriptural character of any text. Rather, these reasons are all post hoc rationalizations: One first accepts the scriptural character of some text and then chooses the principles which support that preconception. No logical contradiction or false-to-fact conclusion can be reached by adopting the inverse of these principles, different principles, or just rejecting scriptural character altogether.

Even coherence is honored by the religious more in the breach than the observance. If some "theologically necessary" event is required to be literally true but contradicts established science, one simply invokes a miracle. If one can invoke miracles to cover any contradiction with science and fact, one can justify anything; hardly conducive to generating principled consensus.

In his subsequent response, Kenneth offers a few clarifications. He mentions that "Luther’s rejection of the expanded canon of the Septuagint was for purely political reasons, as opposed to having some reasoning grounded in religious faith or spiritual inspiration." First of all, how does he know Luther's reasons were purely political? Second, he accuses Luther of adjusting the canon to fit his preconceived theology and politics, but that's exactly what Kenneth himself does: He just adds another rococo layer of picking the principles that justifies the text that supports his preconceived theology. Last, in what way can reasoning be "grounded in religious faith or spiritual inspiration?" Kenneth offers no explanation.

Kenneth charges that I draw an all-or-nothing false dichotomy between literalism and metaphor:
Barefoot to be a little more…open to the idea that there are more ways to interpret Scripture than just assuming that it’s either all meant to be taken literally or not meant to be taken literally at all.
This is an egregious misrepresentation. I'm not saying it has to be one way or another (although the thoughtful person wonders why an omnipotent God would ever utter words that are not only literally untrue but ludicrously so) but rather I'm asking how does one choose for any specific passage? I don't insist on an all-or-nothing answer, but just saying only that one chooses a "combination of both" on the purely subjective "Message-Incident Principle" is not much of a principle.

Let me take a brief detour into the Message-Incident Principle:
[S]eparate the message of a body of Scripture from the incidents described within the raw text; if the message is such that the events in the text are required to be literal (for example: Christ’s death and resurrection) in order that both be true, then the text should be interpreted as such until a fundamental conflict between sources occurs. If, on the other hand, the message can be true even if the events in the text, if interpreted as literal, cannot be reconciled to other evidence at hand (for example: the order and duration of Creation in Genesis), then the text should be interpreted as metaphorical (i.e. as a way the Spirit communicates to humanity that God is the Creator without the need for complex explanations of stellar physics and biological processes).
In other words:
  1. If the text fits your preconceived notions and doesn't get you laughed at, it's literally true
  2. If you can't swallow the text, arbitrarily choose a metaphor to read into it
  3. If you have to swallow the text anyway, invoke a miracle to choke it down
This is what passes for "principle" in religious "reasoning".

Kenneth acknowledges that there can be multiple "messages" in a text, but calls this observation a "semantic quibble". But this observation is directly on point: How do you reach a principled consensus on which message or messages to adopt as true? Remember, these are messages that in some way contradict the literal meaning of the text, which has been abandoned by the principle. He then yet again confuses rococo with validity:
But even if a particular passage of text can have multiple messages that we might derive from it, does that render our method invalid?
You can make anything valid: Validity is formal, not alethic. This is my whole point: that religious belief is a rococo post hoc rationalization to make outrageous and ridiculous notions "valid", as if this sort of validity had any value whatsoever.

Kenneth does not seem to understand "principled consensus", making an inapt comparison to scientific fraud:
One could be dishonest in using the Message-Incident principle, twisting the “message” of the text to suit whatever particular end one wants. But then, a scientist can distort his results to fit a pre-determined conclusion.
The difference is that we can detect a scientist's distortion by appealing to the parsimonious principles of the scientific method. How do we detect in a principled manner whether one is being "dishonest" in using the Message-Incident principle? How do we know in a principled manner whether or not one is tendentiously "twisting" the message? Just calling something a principle doesn't make it one. Kenneth again doesn't answer.

Kenneth is an intelligent guy: I chose his ideas to examine precisely because he's not just a "God said, I believe it" idiot. But, bottom line, I argue that religion is nothing more than rationalized self-delusion, and if that position troubles him, too bad. I don't assume that religion is just "making shit up and calling it true", that's a conclusion that I've draw from years of study. I may be wrong, and Kenneth (or anyone else) is free to argue the point, and I'll examine the arguments as written. But I'm not going to swallow a line of bullshit just to show my "respect".

Playing Go

I've started the Internet Bloggers' Go League at Yahoo Games. (Yes, I fat-fingered the URL. Oh well.) If you play Go, or you're interested in learning, sign up and play.

[Note: Yahoo Games does not appear to support Firefox 2.0; for now I'm just using Internutz Exploiter]

Arthur Silber's blogroll

Arthur Silber has taken The Barefoot Bum off his blogroll. Apparently, criticizing a black person—even when Arthur actually agrees with the substance of my criticism—renders me no longer even "mostly sane".

I still support Arthur's blog, and I encourage, exhort and practically demand that all my readers read him regularly and support him financially. He's changed my views substantially on history, politics, ethical philosophy and humanism. His work is the number one reason I'm not voting Democratic and why my primary political self-identification is as an "anarcho-humanist" rather than a "liberal".

Although his was the link I was far and away the most proud of, I can live with his withdrawal of support for my blog. He and I, however, have exchanged some friendly emails, and I'll always regret the loss of whatever tenuous friendship I had with a man I admire, respect and like personally.

A cure for HIV?

Scientists have discovered a way to remove HIV from infected cells. I smell a few new entries to my "Religious idiots" series.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Rococo metaphysics

I mentioned in my previous essay that
[I]f you accept a scripture and some extremely elaborate and rococo interpretive system, you can generate principled agreement, but the obvious flaw in this method is the choice of scripture and interpretive schema (exegesis). ... And once you've chosen a scripture, how do you interpret it?
Kenneth denies the charge of rococo metaphysics: They're not "rococo" he says, just elaborate, multi-layered, arbitrary and entirely unnecessary. Oops, my bad. [Update: I apologize for being unclear here. Kenneth admits to multi-layered; my conclusion is that his supposed principles are arbitrary and unnecessary.]

Keep in mind that I reference Kenneth because he's the most intelligent, literate, philosophically astute theist I've come across in many a year. What's even better is that he doesn't retreat immediately to weaselry.

As I mentioned in my earlier essay, the choice of scripture is critically important, because choosing a scripture brings in a whole book's worth of (depending on how you look at it) metaphysical assumptions or the totality of your authoritative evidence. Kenneth addresses this important choice by... completely ignoring it.
The first step, then, in religious epistemology is to isolate and consider only one religion at a time, at least at first. ... Which one is considered is not so important at this point, although it will become more relevant in a while.
Apparently "a while" exceeds the considerably time necessary to read his whole essay; he does not return to the question. Nor, of course, does he address the question of why we should accept any text as scriptural.

Kenneth then details the rococo elaborate and multi-layered arbitrary assumptions that constitute religious "epistemology". He substitutes verbiage for actual substantiation or argumentation, so I'll condense.

He addresses first the choice of a specific canon within a family of scripture:
The first answer to determining whether a particular canon is valid is to look at its origins. A limited Old Testament canon, as the Protestants employ, is easily rejected as a valid source for serious scholarship because its limitedness is not a decision born out of religious fervor so much as it is born out of politics...
Apparently "religious fervor" is a principled epistemic method.

His historical analysis of the scriptural sources of Catholicism vs. Protestantism is completely tendentious, revealing a lack of even an amateur understanding of history. He condemns the Protestants for using politics, but completely ignores the political dimensions of the First Council of Nicaea and the history of the Catholic Chruch. Constantine I and a host of Popes running enormous empires and institution have political agenda? Perish the thought!

Kenneth gives us yet another principled epistemic layer, criticizing the Protestant adoption of the Masoretic (Hebrew) Old Testament text because it was not motivated by "any particularly holy or divinely inspired reason." Divine inspiration: That always yields consistent results!

Once we've chosen a canon by a "more reasoned, analytical method" (I guess it's more reasoned than simply spouting gibberish), we now face the problem of interpeting that scripture. "Do we approach it with strict literalism? Strict non-literalism?" Kenneth has the principled answer: "[S]ome combination of both." We can even use extra-Scriptural sources!

Kenneth asserts that coherence is some great invention of Catholicism:
Pope John Paul II expanded upon this fine start with many different writings on the relationship between faith and science, building up a profound understanding in Catholic learning that truth cannot contradict truth...
Sorry, Kenneth; Pope John Paul II was about twenty five centuries late on that one.

It's certainly true that "both Scripture and science can be fully reconciled to each other in all important matters." It's trivially easy if you look at scripture as a purely human literary endeavor. It gets a little more problematic when you start talking about things like the resurrection of the dead, virgin births, the sun standing still in the sky, and the like. We'll leave the whole issue of parsimony to another day; the question here is can you reconcile science and scripture—while still keeping the specially scriptural quality of the text—in a uniform, consensual way?

Kenneth offers us a little help here, referencing
Sir Francis Bacon’s “Two Books” philosophy and the concept called the “Message-Incident Principle” — separate the message of a body of Scripture from the incidents described within the raw text; if the message is such that the events in the text are required to be literal (for example: Christ’s death and resurrection) in order that both be true, then the text should be interpreted as such until a fundamental conflict between sources occurs. If, on the other hand, the message can be true even if the events in the text, if interpreted as literal, cannot be reconciled to other evidence at hand (for example: the order and duration of Creation in Genesis), then the text should be interpreted as metaphorical...
But this is pure double-talk. The idea that there can be a single "message" apart from the literal text (even the idea that the literal text can be univocal) ignores a century of linguistics, philology and analytic philosophy. This "principle" allows the reader to arbitrarily change the meaning of the literal text to extract a "message" from it.

Kenneth again tries to wriggle out from under the charge of "rococo metaphysics":
And again, these are not rococo methods at all, but widely accepted techniques of theological epistemology that most serious Biblical scholars employ in their analysis.
But of course wide acceptance does not mean that what is widely accepted is not rococo.

Kenneth has not actually given us any real principles, just arbitrary, subjective preferences hardly better than flipping a coin.

He does go on to compare religion not to epistemology but to art. Well, art consists pretty much of making shit up. As a metaphor for religion, I can't find much to argue there. But at least artists don't go around making shit up and then calling it true.


Bye, Bye, Miss American Empire Or, the sweet smell of secession:
“If we stop this war there will only be another one. Whenever Bush or Slick Willie or Reagan need to improve their popularity they’ll bomb someone.” He came to a realization: A citizen of an independent Vermont might hope to live in a free and peaceful republic; a subject of the American Empire is doomed to watch helplessly as her taxes feed an unquenchable war machine. ...

[T]he stream of secession is fed by many American springs: the participatory democracy dreams of the New Left, the small-is-beautiful ethos of the greens, the traditional conservative suspicion (fading fast under the Bush eraser) of big government and remote bureaucracy, and that old-fashioned American blend of don’t-tread-on-me libertarianism with I’ll-give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back communalism.

(h/t to Strike the Root)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Pathology Problem revisited

II. Inconsistencies of Application

[Some months ago I wrote, and began to neglect, a series of posts entitled "The Pathology Problem," about ethics, neurological development, moral realism, and the implications for theism. This post continues that extended essay.]

Thanks to the good folks at Harvard University’s Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, you can take the same Moral Sense Tests that I referenced in discussing a recent study that found a neurological basis for ethical decision making. The first test is ostensibly a measure of one’s feelings of compassion and punishment – how much should someone who behaves negligently or carelessly be personally fined in the event of an accident? I found it a far more interesting test on one’s feelings about personal responsibility. The average financial award for damages is $72,500. My average was $750 (indeed, I awarded damages in only two of the eight scenarios where I felt the description indicated carelessness or negligence, as opposed to simple stupidity or understandable ignorance), based on what my assumption of that person’s medical care would be (in retrospect, I would factor in lost wages as well and significantly lowballed one scenario). Though the authors take care to state they are casting no moral judgments by giving you the averages, one cannot help but feel that, in my case, one is a low-empathy person out of step with the average test-taker.

The second test is far more fascinating. It is a measure of the acceptability of utilitarian judgments, but with twists: the test throws in variability of direct personal responsibility for a death versus making a "damned if you do, damned if you don’t" choice; distinguishes scenarios by involving one’s own children or fetuses or strangers; and one’s obligations to complete agreed upon contracts . In the study referenced in Part I, the experimental subjects – all of whom had damage to a part of the brain that controls empathy – consistently made far more utilitarian judgments. You are asked to judge each scenario’s subject’s responses on a 7-point scale from Forbidden to Obligatory, with Permissible denoting the middle point. I found that I was far more willing to make strictly utilitarian judgments when the situation involved strangers with no obligation taken upon myself. When it comes to driving my boat to save five people from a shark and letting one person drown, I came down very close to obligatorily saving the five. Given a similar scenario but wherein I pull a lever that kills one person but saves five, I decided the action was permissible but less obligatory.

However, when the scenario involved one’s own or another’s child, or helpless individuals, I became far less utilitarian. It was, I decided, absolutely forbidden to smother one’s own crying child to save the people hiding with you from enemy soldiers. It was forbidden to abort a two-month (or five-month) old fetus you had agreed to carry to term for a couple unable to conceive. Similarly, in the questions where you agreed to act as someone’s kidney – how I don’t know; it’s hypothetical – and then decided to renege before the time necessary to save the individual’s life was up was similarly forbidden. But – and this threw me for a loop – it was more permissible, though still on the "forbidden" side of the scale – for a woman to drive past another person with a severe but not life-threatening injury. The genius of the test is that it doesn’t let you stop and think about the permissibility of an action; once you click your choice it cycles through to the next randomly selected question, thus evaluating your basic moral instincts.

As one might expect from Part I, my instinctual reactions – the impermissibility of harming or allowing to be harmed one’s own children versus letting a stranger die – indicated an empathic link to moral decision making. As with almost all things in human psychology, this instinctual behavior could theoretically be overridden with the application of a learned decision-making schema, such as that imposed by religious education. Such is the genius of the human mind; alone of the animals, we have the power to override our instinctual responses. (Interestingly enough, the ability to apply learned behavior to context-specific situations is, apparently, no longer thought to be the sole province of the primate brain: recent research shows that canines apply context-specific decisions and learned responses as well.)

As neuro-psychology develops, I predict that we will see the ethical ramifications of our instinctual and learned cognitive schema begin to not just infringe, but actively supplant the primacy of philosophy and theology in moral theory. In the next installment, I will explore how currently known mental illness with neurological underpinnings impact our classic understanding of moral realism.

My literary incompetence

Fine. I'm a literary incompetent. It has just now hit me (thirty years after reading it for the first time) that George Orwell's 1984 is a straightforward religious allegory.

Big Brother is God, the Inner Party the priesthood, the Proletariat the unquestioning, uncritical sheep, and the Outer Party the visible expression of the innate sinfulness of humanity. "Reason is a whore" and the enemy of religious truth, and the perpetual job of the Inner Party/priesthood is to stamp out reason in favor of revealed truth.

Open and shut

Arthur Silber quibbles over the definitions of "closed" and "open" philosophical systems, but I don't think he gets it quite correct. According to Silber, a "closed" system is one that, according to Paul Curtis, "subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic." An "open" system is, "identifies certain broad principles... and that many additional implications and much additional knowledge can be built upon those principles." I think Silber is correct when he notes that all philosophical systems are in some sense "closed" and in some sense "open".

Silber has probably correctly identified how many people think about "open" and "closed", but when binary, opposite terms fail to draw an actual distinction in some context, we should look around for a distinction to apply them to, one that preserves the intuitive, prosaic meaning of the terms. One straightforward distinction that seems a good candidate is the degree to which a philosophical system will change based on perceptual or experiential evidence.

No system can change completely: It is difficult to see how any logically possible evidence could change the fundamental principle of metaphysical naturalism that the evidence is all important. But everything else under metaphysical naturalism can change according to the evidence. Contrast metaphysical naturalism with any brand of theism: It's not that there's something that doesn't change according to the evidence, it's that theism changes nothing at all according to the evidence: The whole system defines perceptual and experiential evidence as irrelevant and outside its "magisterium".

The fundamental premise of metaphysical naturalism doesn't embed any actual knowledge in its premises: We cannot use pure logical deduction to obtain any true statements about the world. It is thus epistemically "open": knowledge is not embedded in its metaphysical premises. A purely deductivist philosophy, e.g. theism or Soviet Marxism, on the other hand, either embeds actual knowledge directly in its metaphysical premises, or circumscribe what is considered "evidence" to either a finite, closed set of statements (scripture) or a metaphysically privileged priesthood or party.

All philosophical systems—indeed all language—exists to make distinctions: between sense and nonsense, true and false, knowledge and fantasy. To say that all philosophical system are the same because they all make distinctions is to ignore how these systems make distinctions. Just because all doors have a doorway does not mean that some doors can be locked and bolted and others can be wide open to the evidence of our senses and experiences.

We can then talk more precisely about what constitutes a specifically totalitarian philosophical system: A epistemically closed (in the sense above) philosophical system which is also ethically closed to moral intuition. It does not matter how you or I or anyone—or even everyone—actually feels about the horrors which have been perpetrated in the Iraq war: The rightness, the justness is embedded in the metaphysical ethical principles. America is good, and Iraq bad no matter what the evidence of our senses or our moral intuitions. Any evidence is either shoehorned into compliance with these metaphysical principles or ignored completely.

Things are going so well

Things are going so well in Iraq that some local religious leaders have issued a fatwa against consuming bottom-feeding carp fished from the Tigris river. You'd think this item might have made the Top ten religious idiots, but I have to admit a great deal of sympathy for the reason for this ruling.

Because of the sectarian violence in Iraq, a great number of bodies have been dumped in the Tigris river. Everyone ends up as someone else's lunch, and the Tigris has become an all-you-can-eat buffet for long pig.

Yeah, things could get bad if we leave Iraq.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Islam is not a threat

I have no love for Islam. None at all. As bad as Islam is, however, it is not a "threat" in any meaningful sense.

The Islamic cultures are to a greater or lesser degree, barbaric, misogynist, and fundamentally intellectually bankrupt. The only possible exception is Turkey with an explicitly secular, non-Islamic government. Even in Turkey, though, Islam has a negative effect on its national culture. Islam, unlike Christianity and Judaism, has not yet engaged in sufficient sophistry and bullshit to even partially insulate the daily life of individual believers from the absurd, barbaric and misogynist elements of its scripture.

I am opposed to Islam primarily because of the suffering endured by its believers, especially women. They suffer not because they actually believe the Islamic way is a good way of living, but because they falsely believe they will go to Hell if they do not sacrifice their happiness and well-being in this life. Only the threat of hell could possibly justify the human cost of Islam.

All this being said, Islam is not much of a threat to the West. Precisely because Islam is so horrific, so intellectually bankrupt, Islam has neither the political, social, technological or military power to directly threaten the West in any substantial way. The "threat" of Islam is indirect: Authoritarian, anti-democratic elements in the West are promulgating fear of Islam—as opposed to justified disgust and disapproval—to undermine the West's liberal, Enlightenment and democratic values. But there's little to fear, and what there is to fear is relatively easy to deal with.

The idea that Islam could use military power to invade and overthrow even a single Western nation is risible. Even if the Islamic nations were able to cooperate (and sectarian and nationalistic differences prevent such cooperation) it's doubtful that they could militarily defeat even tiny Israel. It's not enough to simply buy high-tech weaponry; you have to have a pervasive pro-technology attitude in the soldiery to effectively employ such weapons; the very nature of Islam excludes a pro-technology attitude. Fanaticism, too, is greatly overrated: Fanatics make great suicide bombers, but poor soldiers. The whole point of war is not to die for your country, it's to make the enemy die for his.

Nuclear weapons do not serve any offensive military purpose; they are useful only as a deterrent. It's instructive to note that there have been conflicts with almost every possible nuclear match-up, from the US vs. Iraq to Britain vs. Argentina and India vs. Pakistan, and nuclear weapons have never provided an offensive advantage. A nuclear armed Iran, for instance, does not in any way plausibly increase the military threat to the West, even Israel: Iran knows that if it were to use nuclear weapons against Israel, it would face certain retaliation and complete destruction. Not even an Islamic government would be so blatantly suicidal.

Terrorism (or what James might call "violent activity by non-state actors") and other forms of guerrilla action are very limited tactics, useful only for narrow political purposes. And the political targets that terrorism can actually affect are primarily those—such as imperialism and colonialism—which are ethically indefensible in the first place.

Islamist terrorism (or even Christianist terrorism) is still, of course, a matter of considerable concern. But the threat is not "existential": Terrorist activity does not have the power to destroy governments or democratic institutions. Terrorist activity can be effectively countered by modifying ethically indefensible foreign policy in conjunction with ordinary police work subject to traditional democratic, liberal constraints.

The threat of immigration and democratic "take-over from within forms" is hardly a threat. Even with massive immigration, the Muslim population of Europe (outside the Islamic nations of Turkey, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina) is less than 5%. Israel is the only liberal democratic country with a substantial number of Islamic residents, a problem which would be quickly solved by partition and Palestinian statehood[1].

The social problems caused by the level of immigration that does exist are difficult but solvable. Multicultural integration—focusing on second- and third-generation bilingualism, economic integration and uniformity of law while preserving benign components of immigrant culture—are strategies with a proven history of success in the West. Even the worst sorts of bullshit multiculturalism (notably ghettoization and separate law) merely exacerbate the social issues and show an indefensible indifference to the suffering of immigrants; they do not raise the threat of internal takeover of a few percent of the population in any meaningful time frame. The demographic landscape might well change in the next half-century, but it's impossible to make meaningful social prognostications on such a long-term time scale.

The only meaningful threat posed by Islam is indirect. By promulgating fear that is entirely rationally unjustified, authoritarian elements—especially Christian Dominionists—in Western cultures can scare the population into abandoning the liberal, democratic institutions and ideologies that are the basis of the West's scientific, technological, social and humanitarian success. Such fear can justify only authoritarianism and imperialism and bring out the worst elements of our own national character.

Islam is, in this respect, merely a decoy. The authoritarian measures "justified" by a response to Islam and Islamist terrorism will be immediately employed to suppress local, democratic dissent and impose ideological (probably Christianist) uniformity. If we do not panic, we can deal with the all the badness of Islam using the proven and ethically defensible ideals of Western liberal democracy and concern for individual human rights.

[1] Partition and statehood would admittedly create other problems.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Random Facts

The Archcrone has tagged me with the Random Facts Meme. The meme is:
  1. All right, here are the rules.
  2. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
  3. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  4. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  5. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Here be the facts:
  1. I dropped out of both high-school and college
  2. I don't own a television
  3. I rarely listen to music, except incidentally.
  4. I used to brew my own beer (but I then realized I could buy it for $1.25 a bottle).
  5. I hate mayonnaise
  6. I worked as a computer programmer for almost ten years before I had a computer at home
  7. I have extremely wide and short hands and feet (EEEE-width) and stubby fingers and toes
  8. I wear mostly Hawaiian shirts

I'll tag:

My lovely wife
Chicken Girl

(Yes, I know I can't count.)

And anyone else who wants to participate.

The job(s) of an epistemic system

In my previous essay, I argued that we cannot directly evaluate an epistemic system on whether it delivers the truth. We can make an evaluation of an epistemic system's internal rigor and consistency, and it's a nontrivial philosophical task how best to think about any deficiencies in rigor, but we cannot simply compare the results of an epistemic system to what we otherwise "know" about the truth and see how well it does.

This is a fundamental and valid component of Postmodernism: There is no The Truth™ that we can know independently; once we pick an epistemic system, we have to simply define its results as, in some sense, small-tee "truth". A seeming corollary to this result is that all systems which its adherents call epistemic are equal. This corollary would be true, though, only if finding the truth were the only way to evaluate an epistemic system. But there are other criteria which can be employed, and which do differentiate purported epistemic systems into better and worse.

We can't directly evaluate an epistemic system on its ability to deliver The Truth™, but we can examine the results of an epistemic system to see if its output shares essential characteristics of our intuitive notions of truth. If its results are not even truth-like, we can evaluate the system as a worse epistemic system; if the results are truth-like, it's a better epistemic system.

There are two important components of our intuitive notions of truth: The truth should be the same for everyone, and the truth should be useful, at least in general.

The notion that everyone has her own truth is one of the more stupid notions from postmodernist philosophy that has slipped into the general population. We have a perfectly good word to represent what everyone has her own of: opinion. If you want to espouse epistemic nihilism, then just say there is no truth and everyone has only his or own opinion. The problem with saying that everyone has her own truth is that it equivocates the normative sense of truth, that the truth should be the same for everyone. It's not enough to claim to strip the normative sense from "truth"; opinion already lacks that normative sense: It's hard to see the use of a word with a normative connotation in place of a perfectly good word without that normative connotation as anything but intellectually dishonest.[1]

There are three ways of approaching the normative connotation of "truth". The first is to simply arbitrarily privilege an epistemic system and coerce everyone into believing its results. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with coercing conformance to ethical norms—we put murderers in prison rather than engaging them in philosophical argumentation—but applied to epistemology this approach—as a millennium of effort by Christianity and Islam, as well as "Soviet science", to suppress "heresy" and schism attests—proven ineffective.

The second approach is to simply declare that whatever everyone agrees on is in some sense truthful by definition.[2]

The third approach is to pick an epistemic system that generates principled agreement in a logically deterministic way: It is possible to determine the outcome of the epistemic system, and thus everyone who applies the epistemic system in this deterministic manner gets the same answer. If you get a different answer, it should be possible to identify where you are not using the epistemic system as specified.

The Scientific Method is a good example of an epistemic system which generates principled agreement. To recap, the key components of the public version of Scientific Method are:
  1. The Scientific Method accepts as foundational evidence only statements of perception about which everyone agrees (see [2]).
  2. A scientific theory is a collection of axioms which entail as theorems the foundational evidence (and thus entail as non-theorems the contrary of the foundational evidence).
  3. A theory with greater scope, i.e. that entails more statements of evidence, is better than a theory with lesser scope
  4. A simpler theory, i.e. a theory with fewer irreducible axioms, is better than a theory with more axioms
Each of these components is deterministic: I can simply ask everyone if they agree with the statements of evidence, and throw out that which generates even a little dissent. On this basis we throw out "the apple appears red"[3] as a foundational statement of evidence because some people (who turn out to be colorblind) dissent. Whether a theory entails the evidence can be determined with first-order logic, which is provably deterministic. We can simply count both the statements of evidence and the axioms to determine scope and simplicity.

Since each and every step in the Scientific Method is deterministic and univocal, if two people disagree on the outcome of this epistemic system then we can confidently conclude that one of the people is not applying the method as specified.

Contrast this epistemic method with the theistic pseudo-epistemology of scripture and revelation. It's the case that, if you accept a scripture and some extremely elaborate and rococo interpretive system, you can generate principled agreement, but the obvious flaw in this method is the choice of scripture and interpretive schema (exegesis). There's simply no way to generate principled agreement on which scripture to accept: The Catholic Bible? The Protestant Bible? The Greek or Russian Orthodox Bible? The Book of Mormon? The writings of Mary Baker Eddy? The Koran (and which hadith)? The Upanishads? The Buddhist scriptures? And that's to name simply a few, and completely ignore the minor and more-or-less heretical "prophets" () and non-canonical scriptures. And once you've chosen a scripture, how do you interpret it? Few people take Dueteronomy 21:18-21 literally, but once you abandon the literal meaning, how do you decide in a principled, deterministic way which metaphor to employ?

These are... nontrivial... issues, as the history of religion has made blatantly obvious. The "metaphysical buy-in" to any religion is enormous, everyone seems to buy in at least a little bit differently, and there are many ways to buy in that are enormously different.

The Scientific Method requires its own metaphysical buy-in, of course. But there is only one scientific method to buy into, the buy-in is cheap, and, since the scientific method is nothing but formalized common sense, which ordinary people apply to their daily negotiation with reality, most everyone has already bought in at least 90%.

[1] We can see this sort of dishonest equivocation in action in the attitudes of woo-woo New Age dumbasses such as Deepak Chopra to skeptics. If their "everyone has her own truth" stance were consistent, if "truth" really were standing in 100% for "opinion", then the opinions of skeptics would be just as good as their own woo-woo, and they wouldn't complain about sjkeptics so vociferously.

I refer this sort of equivocation as the "Postmodernist two-step":
  1. All epistemic systems are equally valid, therefore my epistemic system is a priori valid
  2. My epistemic system contradicts your epistemic system
  3. Since by (1) my epistemic system is valid, yours must be invalid
[2] Well, not quite everyone. There are some very interesting philosophical subtleties in the perceptual foundation of public science which I hope to explore in a future essay. Quibble if you will, but I'll probably merely admit that your quibble is interesting and address it latter.

[3] Or, more precisely, "This (red) apple appears to be a different color than that (green) apple.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Its okay if they're brown

This "liberal" apparently approves of pedophilia, female genital mutilation and amputation as just punishment for crime, at least so long as those perpetrating such crimes are brown or pray funny. (Not really, but if she can accuse me of supporting torture, I can make equally hysterical accusations.)

Good grief. This is not the sort liberalism that I grew up with, which values justice and liberty for all people, even if they're brown female children living in Somalia.

Can Islam be saved?

Can Islam be saved? Sure, in theory. Christianity and religious Judaism—with scriptures just as perverse, inhuman and barbaric as the Koran—have pulled off the trick. It requires dismissing 95% of the plain declarative statements of the Torah and the Bible as "metaphor" and (for Christians) ignoring 99% of the history of their religion, but centuries of sophistry, rhetoric and staggering intellectual dishonesty has made it possible for an ordinary person to profess Christianity and Judaism keeping both her civilized humanistic values and, more importantly, a straight face. There's no reason that Islam couldn't, at least in theory, apply the same techniques to the same end.

Islam, however, isn't anywhere near embracing the double-think and willful ignorance that has rendered Christianity and religious Judaism sufficiently vacuous to coexist peacefully with Humanistic and Enlightenment civilization. Part of the problem is that the Koran is much more uniform, unambiguous, and univocal than especially the Christian Bible, and makes much less use of intentional metaphor. But if Jews and Christians can interpret away the literal meaning of Leviticus, there's no reason that Muslims can't do the same to the Koran.

I'm neither interested nor qualified in Koranic exegesis to help with the detailed implementation of the required sophistry, but I can at least help point the way. If the Islamic cultures wish to peaceably coexist with the West, there are some core values they're going to have to force into their scriptures.

It is not—perhaps surprisingly—necessary to abandon the notion of the universality of Islam. Everyone should, I think, live her life as if her core principles were universal; in just the same way, if your values are good enough for you, why shouldn't they be good enough for everyone else? If everyone in the world were to freely convert to Islam, then Islam would be universal. But free conversion is the key. Happily, the Koran provides easy substantiation for this concept: "Let there be no compulsion in religion" [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 256] Half the problems between Islam and the West would be solved if this motto were absolutely privileged. (That Allah repeatedly violates this principle, sending unbelievers to Hell—which sure sounds like compulsion to me—just makes the challenge interesting.)

Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are not just decadent affectations, they're core principles of a free society. To this end, Muslims must—to coexist with the West—shrug off the fact of apostasy, blasphemy and criticism, and address the substance of that criticism. Everything is subject to criticism: Some criticism will be accurate, some full of shit, but you have to handle each argument case by case.

In responding to criticism, remember that Islam is as Muslims do. It's not enough to deflect criticism just by providing a particular interpretation of the scripture. For such a rebuttal to have rhetorical force, the contrary interpretation must have actually currency in interpretive authorities, social norms, and legal systems. It's simply not enough to cite al-Baqarah 256 out of one side of your mouth and condone the murder of apostates and "blasphemers" out of the other.

It's also important to respect national sovereignty. The West—especially the United States—has failed to respect Muslim's (and many others') sovereignty, but two wrongs don't make a right. It's one thing to denigrate Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others like them; it's one thing to execute apostates in your own country; but calling for their murder contrary to the laws of their nations of residence crosses the line. Note that this point does not cover acts of war; war is a horse of a different color, and "civilized" standards of war is an oxymoron.

In the same vein, Muslim immigrants to Western nations need to fully comply with the laws of that nation. You cannot seek special exceptions, and religious authorities cannot ever condone transgressions. You may, of course, use the democratic processes in place to try to change the laws, the absolute prerogative of every citizen.

The whole subjugation of women thing has got to go. Calling this subjugation "protection" is just putting lipstick on a pig. Equal civil rights, equal protection under the law, full integration and fully equal participation in society is the standard. There's no room for compromise here, and again, the failings of the West—especially as these failures are minor in comparison with Islam—are not excuses: Islam isn't even trying.

Intellectually, Islam has to understand the difference between faith and reason. If you want to have faith—belief without evidence or proof—that's one thing, but stop pretending that there's any rational justification for your religion. By definition no religion can be rationally justified.

There are, of course, many failings of the West which substantially contribute to the conflict with Islam: Exceptionalism, imperialism, the United States' war of aggression in Iraq and indefensible occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel's injustices against the Palestinians. Islam's failures, no matter how barbaric and grotesque, do not justify our own sins. In just the same way, however, our own sins do not justify the failings of Islam.

The West has certain core values, which we sometimes honor more in the breach than the observance. We're improving our civilization the hard way, through democracy and rational discourse, and it's a slow process. But we are trying, and we are, on the whole, making progress. We're about five hundred years ahead of Islam, but there's no reason Islamic culture can't catch up quickly.

Our core values allow considerable latitude in the specific values in other cultures, societies and nations: Muslims don't have to put up Christmas trees nor do Muslim countries need to legalize alcohol or pork to coexist with the West. But we're not going to back down on the core values, and so long as Islam acts contrary to those values, coexistence is impossible.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Header motto

I'll be rotating the header motto more frequently, so pay attention. Today's motto is a quotation from Yogi Berra.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sir Salman Rushdie

[Update: If you're coming here from Death and the Maiden, here's my reply to this apologist for pedophilia, etc.]

Sir Salman Rushdie has been knighted by the British government, presumably to honor his resistance to Islamic oppression (he's not, I'm reliably informed, all that great of a writer). The honors committee that recommended him expressed "surprise" that his knighthood has caused a worldwide furor among pedophile worshipers Muslims worldwide. Heh. They're about as surprised as I am Catholic.

I'm pleased as punch that the genital mutilators Muslims are getting their knickers in a knot over this. There's nothing (except perhaps the murder of Theo Van Gogh) that reveals the inherent stupidity and barbarism of Islam than their ridiculous anger at Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie has never harmed a single Muslim in his life. He's never even punched one in the nose, much less assassinated one, blown up any with a car bomb, or flown an airplane into a building. Muslims do worse to each other for backing the wrong thousand-year-dead Caliph. The worst thing that Rushdie has ever done is (gasp!) stop being a Muslim and say some unflattering things about a child rapist Muhammad in a middling bad book. For this he has been subject to death threats for almost two decades, and his translators and publishers assaulted and killed.

Rushdie's work and honors express core values of Western civilization: National sovereignty, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. No matter what Muslims do worldwide, the people of Western civilization are not going to back down on these values.

Get this straight: Until the vast majority of hand-choppers Muslims drag themselves into the twenty-first century (or even the eighteenth century), we're going to intentionally provoke them and show them disrespect. We're doing this intentionally because the mere existence of this misogynistic, totalitarian, gay-hating culture/religion is an offense against the sensibilities of the civilized world.

We'd be just as happy to let the Muslim world rot in peace (keeping the doors of Western society open to anyone who develops that crucial second brain cell and realizes that Islam is a disgusting offense to human decency) until they drown in their own medieval bullshit, but that ain't gonna happen. We can't just cut the world in half.

Protest and we'll laugh with glee, because we know we're getting your goat. Act with violence and we'll retaliate. Go to war and we'll fight back.

We're not going back to the ninth century. Period. We're not going back to intolerance, misogyny, sex-hatred, and religiously-mandated stupidity. We're not going to submit. Ever. We won't submit peacefully: You'll have to fight. And if you fight us and you'll lose: we're stronger and smarter, and you have not even begun to test our will. Mistake civilization and tolerance for softness at your peril. The contemptible slaves that are Muslims have no fucking clue what a free people are capable of.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

MESR: More scientific evidence

More scientific evidence for meta-ethical subjective relativism:

Study: People Literally Feel Pain of Others
Brain gets a thrill from charity: study

One of the key components of MESR is that how we naturally feel is one of the the driving forces behind our ethical beliefs: If we had different natural, biological feelings, we would have different ethical beliefs. Finding that our brains have evolved to provide direct positive and negative feedback that correlates to our ethical beliefs is, I think, evidence for the truth of MESR.

Top ten religious idiots #4

(Previous List)

  1. Miracle Crusade Bible Church Holiness members: After an earthquake hit this Memphis area church, members claim to be able to see the face of God in cell-phone camera pictures of light reflected from a chandelier.
    (WMC-5 Memphis; h/t to; 19 Jun 07)

  2. George L. Wilson and Drew Heiss: These Christianist theocrats are planning a week-long Milwaukee event to honor convicted murderer Paul Hill. Apparently children need "heroes".
    (Paul Hill Memorial; h/t to Talk to Action via Hullabaloo; 18 Jun 07)

  3. Patani Freedom Fighters: Muslim separatists in south Thailand have targeted the most dire threat to Islam—education—and recently murdered three teachers, forcing the closure of 60 government schools. Since January 2004, Islamic militants have murdered 75 teachers and have burned down 194 schools. Seems about right for this great religion of "peace" and "truth".
    (Human Rights Watch; h/t to Butterflies and Wheels; 17 Jun 07)

  4. Southern Baptist Convention: This evangelical organization voted Wednesday to urge "caution" in responding to global warming, calling for "more objective analysis." In other news, the causal efficacy of lesbianism on natural disasters has been scientifically established.
    (Izvestia; h/t to Fark and mad props to commenter Brian63; 15 Jun 07)

  5. Cardinal Renato Martino and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for "Justice" and "Peace": This Catholic organization suspended all financial aid to Amnesty International and called on all Catholics to boycott the organization, because Amnesty International has decided to support abortion rights for women who have been raped or whose health is endangered. Apparently, only fetuses are eligible for justice and peace; women, political prisoners, the unjustly accused, etc. are on their own. Yeah, it's a huge surprise.
    (The Australian; h/t to Butterflies and Wheels; 14 Jun 07)

  6. Oak Norton and the Utah State Legislature: In 2002 the Utah State Legislature passed a law requiring all state buildings to display the national motto, and Oak Norton is working to make this blatant violation of the First Amendment presentation of an innocuous "non-religious" message a reality.
    (KUTV Salt Lake City; h/t to Fark; 12 Jun 07)

  7. Riverdale Christian Academy: This California central valley Christian school's Senior Prom and Graduation celebration featured white men and women in blackface (brownface?) performing skits depicting Civil-war era slavery. Racism trifecta now in play!
    (Urban Knowledge (blog); h/t to Fark; 8 Jun 07)

  8. Pilgrim Baptist Church: At a recent performance in this North Carolina church, Three white men wore blackface while pantomiming traditional black hymns. Participant Stephen York indignantly asserted in his own defense that some of his best friends are black.
    (WSOC Charlotte; h/t to News of the Weird Daily; 7 Jun 07)

  9. David Jarvis et al.: This soi disant "new age healer" and the other participants in a "Vision Quest" allowed Rowan Douglas Cooke to die of severe dehydration and heat exhaustion brought on by 20 minutes in a sweat lodge because they believed he was astral-traveling.
    (AdelaideNow; h/t to Fark; 5 Jun 07)

  10. Swords of Truth: This Palestinian extremist organization threatens to "cut throats from vein to vein". Their target? No, not the Israelis, not the "Great Satan"; rather the most pernicious and indefensible threat to their holy society: Female newscasters who do not wear strict Islamic dress. But these brave women are fighting back.
    (Guardian Unlimited; h/t to Butterflies and Wheels; 4 Jun 07)

This list: Religion 10, Nontheism 0
Previous List: Religion 10, Nontheism 1
Total: Religion 40, Nontheism 1

Monday, June 18, 2007

More on racism

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and a host of other related injustices are, of course, prevalent in Western society[1]. Any person of good character has a positive duty to support justice and oppose injustice and oppression, and I'm willing to do my bit as an ethical member of a civilized society.

Because I personally am not being oppressed, I have to defer to a great extent to those who are being oppressed. I have no objection to such deference; if I were the one being oppressed, I would expect the same. If you're being oppressed, you name the remedy. If you want affirmative action, I'll vote for it. If you want legal marriage, I'll sign the petition. If you want equal pay, I'll pay you equally.

Socially speaking, I'm equally flexible. I treat people as individuals, and within reason I give them the emotional and social interaction they ask for. If you ask for my outrage at your injustice and oppression, I'm outraged. If you ask to be treated as an equal, I'll treat you as an equal. If you ask for my pity, you've got it; if you don't want my pity, I won't pity you. Simple as that.

But what I am not willing to do is feel any sort of systemic guilt or shame. Outrage, yes. Ordinary human sympathy, of course. But systemic guilt and shame? Never.

Guilt and shame are, at best, transient emotions. If I make a mistake—I'm only human—my feelings of guilt and shame motivate me to correct the errors in my thinking that led to the mistake and prompt me to make amends. Once the underlying error has been corrected and amends made, the guilt evaporates: It has done its job.

And, on the whole, I corrected the fundamental errors in my thinking decades ago; it's really not that difficult. I treat people as individuals, I don't make insulting generalizations or particularizations, and I offer and demand nothing more or less than ordinary civilized justice and civilized behavior.

I am white, I'm a man, and I'm straight. Because I live in a society where straight white men are not typically oppressed or discriminated against, I unsurprisingly have not often been unjustly oppressed. But I reject the notion that this lack of oppression constitutes some sort of "privilege" or injustice for which I should be ashamed.

"Privilege" has as its etymological root "private law". But I don't consider "private" the sort of law and standards by which I am typically treated: I consider these laws and standards universal. As far as my own person goes—and it is only regarding my own person that I take positive responsibility—I offer these universal standards to everyone on the basis of our common humanity. I am not going to detail the steps I take; If you don't take me at my word, then I cannot convince you at all.

I am not Mr. Pink; I am not going to act in a racist manner simply because I'm in a racist society. I will personally resist these forms of injustice as a matter of ethical duty, not legal duty.

Arthur Silber has not yet responded to my rebuttal to his criticism. If I am truly in error in my thinking, I do want to know about it. But, as I said, I'm at a loss to understand precisely where I have gone so "badly astray". But I honestly don't think I have gone astray at all.

I am certainly outraged at the injustices that Moore and Silber describe. As a citizen of a civilized democracy, I'm willing to take reasonable steps to correct this sort of injustice and make amends to its victims. As a citizen, they have my vote. As a human being, they have my outrage. As a business executive, they have influence on my policies.

But there's no good way to interpret Moore's conclusions. Taken literally, they're irrational and indefensible; taken metaphorically I find them clumsy and personally insulting. I'm not going to start being a racist just because Moore has said something I disagree with, but bullshit is bullshit and I call it when I see it; and the color, sex, race, or religion of the speaker simply doesn't enter into it.

[1] Racism, etc. are prevalent in all societies and cultures; Western society is typical in this regard, neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad; we are exceptional only in the amount of power we have. I typically focus on Western civilization only because I am a member of one, with a specific democratic duty to participate in the construction of my own society's ethical and legal standards.

The atheist schism

According to Lisa Miller at Newsweek
what's happening in the "atheist, humanist, freethinkers" community is more like what happens to any ideological or political group as it matures: the hard-liners knock heads with the folks who want to just get along, and the cracks are beginning to show.
Miller, however, makes a fundamental error: The "atheist" community is not an ideological or political group. It is an ad hoc community of those who do not believe—at least—any God exists.

There is no schism because there's nothing to "schis". There is no such thing as atheist politics or atheist ideology. There are political and ideological positions—such as First Amendment secularism or Humanist ethics—held by many atheists, but these are accidental, not essential, characteristics of atheists.

Atheist "secular rabbi" Greg Epstein seems to think he can tell his fellow atheists what to believe and what to say: He calls Harris and Dawkins "atheist fundamentalists." (According to Harris, "An empty play on words.")
"My problem with the atheists," he told NEWSWEEK, "is not that they're saying God doesn't exist. What I'm saying is we've got to build something."
Well, Epstein is full of shit.

No one is stopping Epstein from saying or building anything; if he accepts the responsibility "to speak out for the positive aspects of disbelief," then he's free to speak. No matter what he says, regardless of whether I or any other atheist agrees or disagrees, he is an atheist in good standing if he does not believe any God exists.

Epstein has missed the whole point of "freethought". Freethought entails no dogma, no party line, nothing but a sincere, dedicated commitment to the rational truth, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient. Epstein is free to build whatever organizations, institutions or social movements he pleases. If I like what he builds, I'll support it. But I'm not going to support anything by keeping silent about the rational truth, and if that's what Epstein requires, he can kiss my hairy atheist ass.

(h/t to Freethunk)

Democratic front-runners

I am convinced that I am not going to vote for any of the Democratic front-runners.

Not voting for Edwards and Clinton is a no-brainer. There are many reason not to vote for them, but all of them pale in comparison to the fundamental reason: They voted for the war in Iraq. Even po' little me knew just by reading the newspaper that the Iraq-WMD connection and the Iraq-9/11 connection were both a complete crock of shit. Either Edwards and Clinton believed Bush, in which case they don't have the intelligence of a under-watered house plant, or they knew it was a crock of shit and voted for it anyway, making them complicit in a crime against humanity.

Obama did not hold Federal office in 2002, so this criterion does not apply. However, he has been a Senator since 2005 and he has failed to use the power of his position against the Iraq war. Where was the grandstanding? Where were the stands on principle? And, most importantly, where were the filibusters? It may be justly argued that it's more strategic in the long-term to play it safe as a junior Senator, but that argument cuts both ways, and it is certainly not playing it safe to run for President.

In other circumstances I'd be inclined to overlook a degree of venality, calculation, and even error—these are politicians after all—but we're talking about a war of aggression, the third most heinous crime against humanity (after genocide and slavery), and the mass murder of what may be almost a million human beings.

Furthermore, all three candidates support a war against Iran, which will again be a crime against humanity and entail the mass murder of thousands, if not millions, of Iranian citizens.

And I am not willing to overlook mass murder. Period. End of story. No mass murderer will ever get my vote, regardless of the consequences.

The leading Democratic candidates, indeed most of the Democratic party, have traded away the principled stance against mass murder, aggressive war, torture, arbitrary detention without trial, electoral fraud, and mopery on the high seas. In return they have gained not even temporary electoral success, but merely the illusion of such success: Those who oppose civilized limitations on our government will still vote Republican, and those who support civilized limitations should never vote for those who will not make sacrifices to protect them.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Epistemology and truth

Update: This post relates to my conversation with Kenneth at Time Immortal. He's responded to this essay as well.

The primary job of an epistemic system obviously is to find the truth.

"Obvious" and similar phrases—especially in philosophy—are big red flags that all too often mean, "Here's where I start bullshitting you." By qualifying a point as "obvious", the writer usually avoids substantiating the point. But if the point were truly obvious, why mention it at all? "Obvious" doesn't always mark bullshit, but it does so often enough that you should automatically view any point so qualified with extreme suspicion.

An enormous part of philosophical investigations of evidentiary epistemology, the connection between our perceptions and "truth" about reality, does not at all discuss whether our perceptions are related to truth about the world, but rather on establishing the lack of deductive rigor in the process itself, and how we should think about this lack. All of these principles, Hume's critique of induction, Putnam's Twin Earth paradoxes, Gettier problems, Probabilism, etc. all talk about the rigor of evidentiary epistemology, not about whether it even begins to talk about the real truth.

The classical Greek Skeptics denied all knowledge, and no philosopher has ever successfully challenged their view. Descartes made a valiant effort, but never got past Cogito, which even the most dedicated solipsist accepts.

Even if we have a completely rigorous epistemic method, such as mathematical deduction, how do we tell if our valid conclusions are actually true? If I put two rocks in a bowl, and then two more, I "know" I'll count four rocks in the bowl. Do I know this because 2+2=4 is a valid theorem of arithmetic? Or do I know that integer arithmetic is a good model of my experience about rocks by some other means? If I put two drops of water in a bowl, and then two more, I "know" I won't count four drops of water.

I don't want to put down philosophy that investigates the rigor of epistemic systems. But I want to make crystal clear that this sort of philosophy asks the question: Assuming our epistemology is doing the job of establishing truth, how well does it do that job? But we're simply assuming that our epistemology does the job we're asking of it.

When we ask whether (rather than how rigorously) our epistemology is finding the truth, we run into a vicious circularity. To determine whether our epistemology is finding the truth, we must know the truth independently of that system. But by definition we need some sort of epistemic system to know the truth.

Theism doesn't really help. Simply by defining "truth" in some God-dependent manner doesn't free us from assuming that our epistemic systems deliver the truth, it just dresses up the assumptions in rococo finery hoping to dazzle us with shininess. At worst, theism just places the assumption in the realm of religious dogma, guarded from doubt and philosophical investigation by threat of Hell.

As Plantinga's evolutionary critique of naturalism shows, if we define "naturalism" in the broadest sense as an epistemology dependent on human reason and perception, and if we define "truth" to be something supernatural in this sense, then we need a supernatural entity to relate supernatural truth to natural knowledge.[1] It's a valid argument but obviously begs the question.[2]

It's clear that we cannot ask whether an epistemology delivers the truth. Rather, we are forced to define "truth" in terms of what an epistemology delivers (a subtle and complicated enough task when our epistemology is not absolutely rigorous).

Much of what passes for "postmodernist" philosophy recognizes this fundamental inversion of the "modernist" relationship between epistemology and truth. If "truth" is whatever an epistemology delivers, then anything can serve as an epistemology; there is no basis in truth for privileging one epistemology over another. But no basis in truth does not—as many postmodernist philosophers assert—mean no basis at all. Even if it makes no sense to ask whether an epistemology delivers the truth, there are other jobs we can ask our epistemology to do, other ways of separating epistemology from bullshit.

[1] Plantinga fundamentally argues against metaphysical naturalism. He still assumes that epistemological naturalism does deliver truth.

[2] I'm convinced that 99% (if not 99% or possibly even 100%) of skill in philosophy consists not of constructing sound arguments but of hiding the fundamental fallacy of begging the question by various means, notably equivocation, enthymemes, hand-waving, and bold assertion.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Aesthetic philosophy

Ruben Bolling nails aesthetic philosophy in five panels.

On racism, etc.

Arthur Silber believes that I've gone "badly astray" in my previous essay, but, to be honest, I'm having trouble pinning down precisely why he disagrees with me.

Arthur says he doesn't disagree with my criticism of Madeline Smith Moore, he agrees that her conclusion and remedy—that whites are "by definition and innately racist"—is imprecise, inaccurate, and "obviously wrong".

He accurately points out that the basic thrust of my essay is that "I categorically refuse to feel the slightest bit of guilt and shame about who I am," but that is, of course, Moore's and his own fundamental complaint: That black people and gay people are oppressed—and wrongly so—because of who they are, not whom they might help or whom they might harm. If it's wrong, it's wrong, even if it is said, for whatever reason, by those "who have been made and are still made to feel guilty and ashamed about who they are from their very earliest memories, up to this very second." At the risk of being again criticized for belaboring the obvious, two wrongs don't make a right.

Arthur claims that I'm taking Moore's statements out of context and "in isolation". But these comments are not off-hand remarks, they form the conclusion of her essay. I have not in any way altered the meaning of her remarks by virtue of my citation, nor does Arthur claim I have done so.

Arthur claims that "Larry takes a great deal of time and attention to make a very delimited philosophic point." He's right there: That's what I do. I have no pretensions that I'm anything more than an amateur, minor writer.

Arthur goes on to say that "the much more complex and infinitely more significant cultural realities entirely elude [me]." Precisely what is eluding me? I spend the first half of my essay denouncing the prevalent racism, sexism and homophobia in Western society. (And I do so not to establish my condescending liberal bona fides but to head off obnoxious fuckwits such as Perezoso Xerxes.)

To be sure, I'm at a loss as to how to address the "political, social and cultural dynamics" underlying racism, etc. But, like I said, I'm a very minor writer.

Arthur segues in the same paragraph from my essay to how he is criticized, "[I]t was people 'like me' who made it so impossible for 'good liberals' to fight the good fight." I frankly resent the implication. There is nothing in my essay that even remotely deserves this comparison. I say only that Moore's proposed remedy, that white people accept their innate racist monstrousness—and consequential innate inferiority—is not helpful.

At no point do I ever criticize anyone for complaining about the victimization and oppression they have suffered, and for demanding rational justice. Such victimization and oppression is very real, and their complaints are entirely justified, and justice entirely deserved.

So, Arthur, precisely where have I gone astray here?

(Note: comments have been disabled for this post. This is between me and Arthur; I want neither your support nor your criticism. Feel free to comment on my original essay, but please stay on the substantive topic.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The ineluctability of racism

Arthur Silber writes about racism—and by extension homophobia and presumably sexism—in his recent essay Of Faggots, Freaks and Niggers.

[Update: For those of you coming from Arthur's blog, I've responded to his criticism.]

Before I talk about the essay itself, let me briefly discuss a few points which should be trivially obvious to any thinking, feeling human being with an IQ significantly above an under-watered houseplant.

For anyone who values ethical universalism—that ethical standards ought to apply equally to all human (or all sapient, self-aware) beings—racism, sexism and homophobia are—by virtue of creating separate ethical categories within humanity—prima facie incoherent.

Ethical beliefs are also normative: They assert better/worse comparisons about choices. Attaching normative standards to ineluctable characteristics such as race, sex and sexual orientation are prima facie incoherent.

Most importantly, racism, etc. are all false-to-fact: The relevant biological facts have no causal relationship at all to anything ethically important, directly or indirectly. Drawing any sort of ethical distinction on a causally irrelevant criterion is irrational, and—to everyone who values rationality—ethically wrong.

Even if there were—as some assert—real statistical differences of relevant properties, such as intelligence or character, it is still absolutely fallacious to make ethical or objective judgments about individuals on the basis of statistics: An individual is not the population. Even if there were some enormous statistical difference, even if it were true (and it's obviously untrue) that 99.99% of black people were stupid, lazy and/or thieving, it would still be completely irrational to judge any individual black person on the basis of his race rather than on his or her actual individual characteristics.

Of course, making individual distinctions on the basis of the most insubstantial differences (e.g. about 10-20 points of mean IQ) that could be granted only on the most bend-over-backwards charitable reading of the most biased studies is not merely mistaken but rather completely moronic.

And, of course, racism, sexism and homophobia are all very strong in Western societies and cultures.

The roots of racism, sexism and homophobia are pretty obvious. Human beings in general are exploitive: Many people will coercively exploit to the point of slavery anyone who cannot physically resist. Whites exploit blacks because white Europeans—by virtue of accidents of history, geography and local ecology—developed technology before black Africans did so[1]. Men exploit women because women are usually physically smaller and pregnancy places enormous physical burdens on women. Straight people exploit[2] gay people simply because straight people outnumber them ten to one. Racism, sexism and homophobia—the notions that there are ethical (or ethically relevant) distinctions between races, sexes, and sexual orientations, are obviously ex post facto rationalizations of the exploitation caused by accidental differences in coercive power.[3]

Really, all of these points should be crystal clear to anyone with even minimal intellectual capacity and the most basic modern, humanistic ethical beliefs. I mention these obvious points because I want it to be absolutely, explicitly clear that I am not arguing with the social conclusions of Silber's essay and Madeline Smith Moore's essay, Why I’m a Racist, which Silber approvingly cites.

Let me say it again: Racism is irrational, therefore ethically wrong, and it is in fact pervasive in all Western societies. Any person of even basic ethical character should oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, as well as any number of related irrational superstitions. Furthermore, the amount of suffering these irrational superstitions have caused justifies[4] legally coercive opposition, in the context of both civil and criminal law. Overt discrimination on the base of race, etc. should incur legal penalties; criminal acts so motivated should receive at least special police attention, if not enhanced penalties. Covert (or not legally actionable) racism, sexism and homophobia should receive universal, uncompromising social opprobrium.

These truths—and their ethical implications—are so trivially obvious that I am no more interested in discussing their merits than I would be interested in discussing the truth that objects fall when you drop them or that it's wrong to kill people for fun. If you disbelieve the former you are irredeemably stupid; if you do not hold the latter I'm going to discuss the situation with the police, not with you. So don't even bother to contradict me here: I'll probably just delete such comments[5]; if not you'll receive only gratuitous insults.

However, there is an element in Moore's essay—which Silber quotes approvingly—that is both simply false and ethically indefensible:
This situation will never, never improve until whites can admit to themselves that they are by definition and innately racist. ... If you are born white, you are born racist.
Presumably by extension, if you are born male, you are born sexist; born straight, born homophobic. But, just like it is the case that "Blacks like me become racist in defense," women become sexist (only) in defense and gay people become anti-straight only in defense.

This position is arrant bullshit.

First of all it's obviously racist in itself. It's trivially hypocritical for Moore to condemn racism itself out of one side of her mouth and assert it out of the other side. If Moore wishes to directly condemn the exploitation, oppression and social marginalization of black people—which do deserve condemnation—without condemning the underlying racism, that's one thing. But to condemn racism per se in whites while justifying it in blacks is indefensible.

If racism were really an ineluctable, innate characteristics of white people, then it would by definition be excluded from normative ethics and render irrelevant all the normative psychological apparatus, notably guilt and shame. I categorically refuse to feel the slightest bit of guilt and shame about who I am; I will in principle feel guilt and shame only about the choices I make. If I were actually innately racist, then there it is, no more deserving of shame or pride than the fact that my penis affords me the ability to write my name in the snow.

But of course the idea that white people are innately racist is just as absurd as the idea that black people are innately anything. Are the children of my colleague—with one parent white and the other black—half racist? Does the white blood taint them irretrievably? Does the black blood excuse them? I'm a quarter southern Italian. Are southern Italians brown or white? Were they innately brown when they were marginalized and discriminated against, but now innately white now that they're mostly accepted? The whole notion is—for all the same reasons I cited at the beginning of this essay—irrational and absurd.

To the extent that people are capable of rationality (and on bad days I suspect that rational thought is not universal in ordinary human beings) all irrational superstitions—including racism, sexism, homophobia, religion, and sports fandom—are socially constructed. And what can be socially constructed can be socially destroyed. What is innate, though can only be killed.

Moore vehemently demands
Blacks do not want your love. Your like isn’t even important. And your understanding is not necessary. We don’t even care whether or not you smile at us. What we do want is that you not stand in our way. What we do want is equal justice by law, no favors. And just for the record, affirmative action is just that, not a favor.
Of course. But I do not need to identify with my innate racism to accede to these demands. Indeed if I am innately racist, I cannot accede to these demands and stay in the same society with black people: I cannot simply stand out of their way in the literal sense, and the metaphorical sense of this demand is to not be racist, which, if my racism were truly innate, would be impossible.

Of course, no one wants condescension. But "condescension" is a tricky word. The original meaning of this word denoted a virtue, the ability of an a priori social superior to interact on an genuinely equal basis with an a priori inferior: The ability—in a limited context—of nobility and royalty to genuinely treat a commoner on a temporarily equal basis[6]. Given that few explicitly hold the notion of innate class distinctions, the meaning has evolved into attempting to treat another as an equal while implicitly asserting superiority. (What is condescending today would, in the historical sense, be considered a failure of condescension.)

Silber gives an excellent example of such loathsome condescension, quoting presidential candidate John Edwards:
O'BRIEN: Do you think homosexuals have the right to be married?

EDWARDS: No. Not personally. Now you're asking about me personally. But I think there's a difference between my belief system and what the responsibilities of the president of the United States are.
In other words, "I personally believe that I'm superior, but I will pretend to treat homosexuals as equals." Oh yeah, John, you got my vote. (Where's the <sarcasm> tag when you need it?)

To avoid this sort of obvious condescension, I don't talk about all the good I do for blacks, women, gays, atheists, etc. I don't do good things for blacks, etc.; what good I do, I do for my fellow human beings as human beings. It's also a reason that I don't strongly self-identify as "feminist". It's not that I oppose equal rights for women, it's just that (for a man) feminism, like atheism, "is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of" sexist bullshit (to paraphrase Sam Harris).

The original meaning, though, still lingers on. For a white guy such as myself to say that black people are equal to whites in all respects, good and bad, is—if one assumes the innate attitude of my own white superiority—condescending in the original sense. We see evidence of this conflation in Moore's own essay: Affirmative action is simple justice on the one hand and "a fit of panic and pseudo-generosity prompted by fear" on the other. The former is unobjectionable; the latter evidence of objectionable condescension. But even if the latter were also correct, so what? Justice is justice, and little (if any) justice has ever been prompted by more than fear. If I arrest your murderer just because I'm afraid he will murder me, is my action any less just? Is reciprocal altruism—incoherent absent the reality of mutual coercion—dismissed as condescending "pseudo-generosity"?

Make no mistake: Racism, sexism and homophobia are very real and very wrong, and the fact that Silber and Moore draw the wrong conclusion from the mountains of evidence in no way contradicts the evidence itself nor the accurate conclusion that socially constructed racism, etc. are enormously prevalent in our society.

But I am not in the least bit convinced that these characteristics are in any way innate or ineluctable.

[1] See Guns, Germs and Steel for an thorough substantiation of this position.

[2] Humiliation and oppression of a minority group for the purpose of maintaining majority group cohesion or to assuage one's irrational phobias constitutes exploitation.

[3] It could be argued that racism, etc. represent a tiny bit of ethical progress, at least insofar as they result from the denial that one may justifiably exploit another simply by virtue of superior physical power. Be that as it may, it it still at best only a tiny bit of progress, and would in no way excuse the effects.

[4] No, perezoso, there's no contradiction between this position and my general position of meta-ethical subjective relativism. I'm stating my ethical opinions, those opinions I'm willing to vote into law or otherwise apply socially acceptable pressure. An no (cough Fuller) using superficially objectivist language as an obvious metaphor does not entail a commitment to real objectivism.

[5] If you think that "free speech" entails that I have to supply a platform and readership for your incoherent, despicable ramblings, you can get your own blog and argue your case there. I will assure you, my comments will be interesting.

[6] I'm nowhere near a competent enough scholar to formally substantiate this interpretation.