Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Religion - Marcus Brigstocke

(h/t to Pharyngula)

Coming out week: The Alpha and the Omega

Before I "met" Larry in this digital forum, I never really referred to myself openly as an atheist. In some senses, I still don’t, in that my identity as an atheist isn’t a big part of who I am as a person. I consider metaphysical musings to be trivial. While I enjoy such musings, much as I enjoy the intellectual wankery of amateur-hour policy wonkery, both hobbies really aren’t much more than a cognitive form of ego masturbation. Et la, I try not to let such an identity define me. It’s not that I think poorly of people who do choose to fight that fight – and I’ll jump in if I feel it’s warranted or amusing – but I simply can’t get worked up about something I don’t particularly care that much about.

Interacting with the people here in the forum Larry provides, however, made me see that this very attitude made it important to be forthright about my atheism. There exists in this world a very wide swath of people for whom adherence to the right kind of faith, or at least some kind of faith, in a God is felt to be crucial to participating in the larger community. George H.W. Bush and Joe Lieberman both stated publicly that atheists cannot be good people and should not be allowed to be citizens of a participatory democracy. Frequently, theists of all stripes ask how one can be good without God. I not so humbly contend that I am living proof that God is not necessary: I work day in and day out to help individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, making sure they are not denied access to their rights, medical care, education, and work. I do this for a relatively modest salary compared to what my personal ability and education make possible. I have always done thus, for no better reason than I felt that it was important to give to the community by helping people in need. I feel good doing good. How do I know my work is good? Because it has observable positive effects, and the people on the receiving end say so: just like anyone else.

Self-identifying as an atheist is important because there are theists dedicated to tearing down atheism and atheists. Men like Peter Berkowitz and Michael Novak have penned what amount to, even if they are beautifully written and highly intelligent, little more than hit pieces that prey on fear. The charge that one cannot be good if one is an atheist is a terrible accusation of monstrosity, equating atheists with sociopaths (and frequently sociopaths, like Hitler and Stalin, are equated with atheists in order to distance theists from their ilk): Atheists should fear the community, and the community should fear atheists.

I was not raised religious, never attending church despite my parents’ nominally Protestant upbringing. My mother never talks about religion, and seems to have lost faith around the time of her mother’s early death. My father maintains a quiet, personal faith in something resembling Spinoza’s god. I have never found a need for faith, and that lack is far more telling to me than absence of evidence (though I see none of that, either). At age twelve, at the height of my parents’ contentious divorce, in the throes of suicidal ideation, no faith appeared out of my despair. At the loss of my beloved grandfather when I was fourteen, I did not want to believe my grandfather was gone for good, but again simply found no need for a belief in the afterlife to console me; I had his writings, his gifts, my memories, and the parts of me I recognized as his teachings and influence to shelter my grief. Facing a life-threatening open-heart surgery at sixteen, again I felt no need to resort to prayer or faith to comfort my anxiety: things would play out as they would play out, and I had to trust in the skill of my doctors or not at all. I chose to trust my fellow man and here I remain today, twelve years later.

The one thing that keeps me sympathetic to the theist is the one or two nights a month where I remain awake, breaths coming shallow and rapid, a tight constriction in my chest. These are the nights where I contemplate the possibility of oblivion. Nothing terrifies me so much as the thought of my mind ceasing to exist. I can live with that terror or find solace in comforting belief; ultimately, because I have experienced no need in my life and no revelatory experience, and absent a childhood of gentle indoctrination, I do not turn to belief. I spend some nights afraid, and go on with my life.

One thing I don’t think most theists understand is that I would love to be wrong. I constantly search for reasons why I am wrong in my politics, in my lack of faith, in my morals, in everything. If I am wrong, I want to know; and being insecure as I often am, I must always deal with the uncertain feeling that I could be wrong about any given thing. If I trust to anything, it is my openness to this possibility and my constant search for contradictory information. Sometimes that leads to a changing of opinion. In terms of atheism, despite actively seeking out writers like Messrs. Berkowitz and Novak, C.S. Lewis, the Bible, Sikh and Hindu and Buddhist teachers, and so on, I have yet to find anything that convinces me. To say, for example, that Christians (one sect, all sects, whatever) are correct and I will experience Hell is a gamble I can live with because the consequence if I am wrong still means that my mind continues to exist. And so, Hell holds far less terror for me.

Given so many scriptures to choose from, it seems to me that the only acceptable answer lies in either a Hindu conception (thousands of gods, or one God with many faces) or a Unitarian one (vague Spinoza-esque God thing out there somewhere). I have never been able to reconcile the idea of a loving God requiring worship and belief. Love is not unconditional among humans, but either God is greater than we are – and so should have unconditioned love for all life (or contempt, or indifference; who are we to say?) – or God is no greater than Man, only more terrible and powerful. Just as I do not bow to those I don't respect, whatever their authority, and would struggle against a human tyrant, I cannot worship at the feet of the contradictory conceptions of the Abrahamic God.

Ultimately, I find that I am comfortable with a Mysterian position: there are some things that are simply too complex or ethereal for us to conceptualize or comprehend in our current form. As a student of history, if I have faith in any one thing, it is in man’s potential for further progression as a thinking, feeling creature, since that progress is amply demonstrated in the few millennia’s worth of information we have available to us. Maybe one day we will possess deeper insights into the nature of metaphysics. But it seems to me, as we grow more enmeshed with technology and our thought ascends past rudimentary tribalism into more complex forms, we have moved past the need for a God. Our growing technological interconnection moves us past the need for tribal cohesion. Teleology can be found in unity in leaving a better world for our children. Moral lessons and thought have progressed, allowing Scripture to pass into Literature (there is a reason why logos translates into both "god" and "word"), serving now the same educational function that mythology and folk lore does. Our incredible ability to learn and adapt leads to an expanding base of knowledge, allowing us to accept that there are things we don’t know but may one day, superseding the need for a supernatural explanation for events whose causes seem beyond our ken.

My atheism is, in the end, about confidence in the forward progression of our species and the positive effects we can choose to have. I am an atheist precisely because I am also a humanist. We are our own Alpha and Omega. I guess, in the end, my atheism informs who I am far more than I first thought when beginning this essay.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Coming Out Week Heroine

Here's another heroic atheist for "Coming Out Week": Nicole Smalkowski, a teen-aged young woman from Oklahoma, a publicly declared atheist despite considerable personal sacrifice and the oppression of small-minded theistards straight out of a Tim Kreider cartoon.

(h/t to News Video Club)

The housing bubble

An interesting website on The US Housing Bubble.

What really burns my ass is that if the Republicans win, they'll use my tax dollars to bail out predatory lenders. If the Democrats win, they'll use my tax dollars to bail out irrational homeowners. Sound a bit like the S&L bailout?

Coming Out Week Hero

According to Andrew Sullivan, it turns out that corporal Pat Tillman, former player for the NFL's Arizona Cardinal and Army Ranger, who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire, was a proud atheist. He also, according to Sullivan, opposed the Iraq War. From the Sports Illustrated article about the new revelations that Tillman may have been shot at very close range by an M-16 (via Sullivan):
As bullets flew above their heads, the young soldier at Pat Tillman's side started praying. "I thought I was praying to myself, but I guess he heard me," Sgt. Bryan O'Neal recalled in an interview Saturday with The Associated Press. "He said something like, 'Hey, O'Neal, why are you praying? God can't help us now."

Scott Adams is an idiot

Idiot Scott Adams falls for the Worst. Apologetic. Ever.

Someone give me a lobotomy so I too can become a rich and famous cartoonist. I already can't draw, so I'm good there.

(h/t to 20 gram Soul via Planet Atheism)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

How to get laid at an anti-abortion rally

It's all about the culture of life.

(h/t to BEEP! BEEP! IT'S ME)

Coming out

An insane, immoral war in Iraq, built on lies and delusion. Another war, equally insane, equally immoral, equally founded on lies and delusion, brewing with Iran. Global warming threatening the whole planet. The supply of oil declining. Clean fresh water becoming increasingly scarce. Widening inequality between the very richest and the very poorest, and the middle class—the engine of every civilized society—on the decline.

These are but a few of the problems facing our society. None of them are fundamentally ideological: They are problems caused by reality, and require rational, sensible solutions. To discover and implement these solutions requires that human beings become, in general, rational and sensible. And we are not. And not only are we not rational and sensible, there are social forces in all societies that actively deprecate, dismiss, and marginalize rationality and sensibility.

Religion is definitely not the only such social force, but it is one of them, with the longest history and most force. And it is, furthermore, the most egregiously irrational, insensible and ridiculous set of ideas. The idea that a magical sky daddy is going to make everything all right—in this world or the next—if only we adhere strictly to a set of social and sexual mores invented by iron-age pre-technological savages and justified with a blatantly fictitious mythology staggers the rational imagination.

I know a lot of people who don't believe in any god, have no use whatsoever for religious bullshit, but who don't call themselves atheists. I understand, really: Self-identification as an atheist is a political statement, and people have every right to choose their political battles. I don't want to shame anyone into self-identification, but I do want to exhort them.

I'm asking you to self-identify as an atheist and do so publicly. Nothing more. You don't have to write letters to the editor. You don't have to vote the atheist party line (but please do vote). You don't have to come to the Evil Atheist Conspiracy picnics. Just decide you're an atheist and when the topic of religion comes up, say you're an atheist. You don't have to be hostile, confrontational or argumentative, just honest.

Self-identifying in public as an atheist entails the rejection of the most pervasive and socially acceptable irrational superstitions. Public self-identification will not automatically make society rational, but it will help, at least, make it a little less irrational.

You don't have to be certain there's no god to be an atheist. If you're a rational, sensible person, you know we can't be certain about anything. Saying you're an atheist is saying nothing more than that, based on the evidence you presently have, according to your natural reason, there's simply no justification for believing in any god, and thus disbelief is justified. And any god that might exist—given the same evidence—would be unworthy of belief, undeserving of worship, and unconcerned with the well-being of humanity. Yes, a god might be hiding behind your couch, but is such a god worthy of your consideration? I think not.

Atheism does not entail renouncing spirituality, at least if you define "spirituality" to mean something other than believing in some brand of superstitious woo-woo. Spirituality is nothing more—and nothing less—than the recognition that people have values, emotions and preferences and that they're important; that human life is more than just the neutral collection of objective knowledge. We can celebrate life, and life is manifestly real. We can sometimes act irrationally because of emotion, but emotions are not intrinsically irrational: They are facts, and the rational person accepts the facts.

You don't have to judge others to call yourself an atheist: You can simply say that's what you yourself believe. But you can judge: If you really believe that religion is irrational and irrationality is self-destructive, to withhold even the knowledge of an alternative seems profoundly indifferent to the suffering of others. It doesn't violate anyone's autonomy to say or imply their beliefs are irrational; anyone who expresses offense is trying only to violate your autonomy.

There are, I suspect, millions of people who are troubled in their own minds by the irrationality of their religion, but who cling to it simply because they are not aware there's an alternative. Who knows? You might just say, one day, "I'm an atheist", and such a troubled person hearing your declaration might investigate and release him- or herself from the bondage of irrational superstition.

Come out against superstition and bullshit. Come out for rationality and sensibility. Come out of the closet and into the streets!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Yes, I know this will be a shock, but I'm coming out... as an atheist! As PZ Myers says,
It's a freakin' t-shirt or bumper sticker, not the High Holy Cathedral of the Sacred Letter A. You can wear it or you can skip it. You can use it to wipe the sweat off after a workout. You might wear it to a barbecue at the park. Wear it while you're doing the dishes. It's casual wear. It's a nice shirt that sends a straightforward message about your willingness to be unafraid, nothing more, with no other deep significance. It will not be part of the dress code.
Fellow atheists: Out of the closet and into the street!

Weekly World News

The Weekly World News is going out of business. Through my ultra-secret contacts, I've received a picture of the cover of their final issue:

[Image created by Meanwhile... and originally published on Fark.com. Used with permission.]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Religion and religion

It seems obvious to me that there are at least two entirely different conceptions of "religion" that various commentators and intellectuals are addressing. It seems puzzling that this distinction is not more widely recognized.

The first sort of religion is religion as truth: The "otherworldly elements" or supernatural explanations of the universe and especially human and social psychology; elements held as real, literal truths. These truths might be revealed only dimly or imperfectly by scripture, but at some level these otherworldly elements are held as no less truthful than any scientific truths, themselves perhaps only dimly and imperfectly illuminated by experiment.

The second sort of religion represents all the rituals, beliefs, ideas, art, literature and most especially "cultural" practices that accrete around the aforementioned otherworldly elements.

It is tempting to simply dismiss the supposed "truthfulness" of the otherworldly elements and simply concentrate on the cultural aspects. Roger Scruton notes that the Enlightenment thinkers, especially Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, decisively established "the claims of faith to be without rational foundation," and no one since, notably Dawkins and Hitchens, has added anything substantively new.

Scruton is perhaps correct: I personally found in neither The God Delusion nor god is not Great any philosophical arguments that I didn't figure out on my own, and if little ol' me can figure it out, it must have been child's play for the Enlightenment philosophers. But I think the facile dismissal of modern atheist writers that follows from this observation is too hasty for two reasons.

The first reason is, of course, the sheer number of people who actually do consider their scripture to be absolutely literally truthful. Richard Dawkins is a scientist; he wouldn't even be a part of the debate were it not for the considerable political power and influence of Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. Hundreds of millions of Muslim women live in terrible oppression precisely because Muslims hold the literal truth of the Koran and its prescriptions on the status and role of women. While one can justly note the spiritual dimension of religion, one cannot so blithely claim that religion is viewed by all or even most only in a spiritual sense.

The second reason is that any anthropological study of religion must critically examine the claims of truth of religions' otherworldly elements in relation to the cultural practices of the religious. To simply dismiss as unimportant religions' claims of truth simply because they are patently absurd is to ignore what sets religious cultural practice apart from secular practice. One might just as well try to study the difference between birds and mammals by first dismissing the element of flight as a distinguishing characteristic (indeed it's true that a few birds cannot fly; a few mammals can).

The dismissal of otherworldly truth claims, for instance, renders Wilson's sample study of religion banal and scientifically trivial. Cultural practices are prima facie adaptive, finding that some of those practices happen to fall under the rubric of religion tells us nothing. To learn something about religion we need to carefully study the causal efficacy of the otherworldly elements themselves as well as their belief as truth among the religious. This is precisely the study Wilson doesn't perform; one suspects that Wilson (an atheist) simply hand-waves over this lack precisely because he considers the truth claims unimportant because they are absurd.

Another reason the dismissal is too hasty is that if the absurd truth-claims of literal scripture are simply dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant, the reader is free to establish a "spiritual" authority for a scripture without ever critically examining why any sort of authority would get the facts wrong.

We see this sort of uncritical spiritual authority all over the place: Religion is another way of "knowing". Scruton uncritically declares scripture to be spiritual truth: it is about "what happens always and repeatedly;" "rehearses [the world's] permanent spiritual significance'" quoting Hegel, "the eternal and necessary history of humanity;" and "conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship, about our relation to nature and mortality." [emphasis added]

But does religious scripture really have any sort of truth content? It's certainly data, it's very interesting, it's often profound literature, but does its content really deserve the sort of authority claimed by those such as Somerville and Scruton, as well as religious "moderates" such as Andrew Sullivan? Why should we grant religious scripture and religious belief any authority over universal spiritual "truths" when it makes claims about factual truths which are blatantly absurd?

I'm willing to grant the possibility that some specifically religious cultural practices are valuable, or that some valuable cultural practices have survived because they were specifically religious. But we cannot make much scientific progress in the study of humanity in general until we get a few things straight: It's not only that the factual truth claims of religion are absurd, but it's also important that these claims are absurd. Religious scripture does not have any kind of authority, spiritual or factual; scripture has no more authority than any other work of fiction, be it Macbeth, Atlas Shrugged or My Little Pony. There is no magical truth in religion, neither factual nor spiritual, neither in practice, belief nor scripture. Whatever knowledge is gleaned from scripture will be the same sort of knowledge gleaned from any work of literary fiction, and gleaned by the same scientific methods as all other knowledge.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An obvious Democratic strategy

The Democratic strategy for dealing with Iraq, especially given the importance given to withdrawal by the electorate in the 2006 elections, should have been obvious.

First, put pressure on Bush himself and keep it there. Don't let up. Articles of impeachment, censure, special prosecutors, investigations, throw everything but the kitchen sink at the guy. This is the most unpopular and worst President that we've ever had. The Republicans and conservative Democrats will vote down or otherwise obstruct these measures, but keep the narrative simple: "The problems in Iraq are due to Bush's lies getting us involved and his incompetence in prosecuting the occupation. And he's gutting the Constitution in the process." Whatever happens in Iraq is Bush's fault, either directly or by virtue of the buck stopping at his desk. Keep the narrative focused on Bush himself; don't put the spotlight even on Cheney (except to impeach him as well).

Second, put pressure on the commercial media. Have press conferences and talk about every lie, every distortion, every misstep. The commercial media will probably back off and become more neutral, or they will be exposed indubitably as conservative shills.

Step 1: Fail dramatically; construct a narrative.

Introduce a bill asking for everything: "Here's $10 billion, get all the troops out in 90 days." Pelosi & Reid can force it out of committee, even if a Democrat doesn't support the bill: "Although I don't support this bill, because of its importance, Speaker Pelosi/Majority Leader Reid has asked me to release it from committee so the full House/Senate can debate its merits." It gets voted down, but now the progressives have a strong tool to use against conservative Democrats in the 2008 primaries. Let the Republicans blather, and keep the narrative simple: "We're trying to end the war in Iraq. Period. The illegal/immoral/incompetent occupation prevents any other means from achieving progress."

Step 2: Ju jitsu

When things get financially critical, use ju jitsu: Tell Bush he can have anything he wants for six months, let him write the bill, and make sure it passes without debate. The narrative is then, "We weren't willing to sacrifice the troops. Bush obstructed our efforts to end the war and forced this bill down our throats using our soldiers as hostages. Anything bad that happens is his fault." Once the bill passes, nitpick every fault in the conduct of the war, past and present.

Keep up the pressure on Bush personally. Use the narrative of "holding the troops hostage" to sway fence-sitting Democrats and moderate Republicans concerned about how their support of Bush will look. Who knows, Bush might stumble so badly writing his own bill that impeachment might actually happen, or, even better, force a resignation.

Step 3: End the war

Repeat step 1. Now the narrative is even more compelling: "We tried to stop the war, we were stymied only by Bush holding the troops hostage, we have to stop the war now and any bad consequences are Bush's fault." It'll pass. Keep up the pressure on Bush personally; even if Bush hasn't resigned, the pressure will have rendered him ineffective.

End result: The Republican party is marginalized. The right-wing commercial media is neutralized. Conservative pro-war Democrats are undermined. The war in Iraq ends early in 2008. The 2008 election gives us a Democratic president (whichever of Clinton or Obama who fought most strongly) and a solid progressive Democratic majority in the legislature, which outweighs the right-wing domination of the Supreme Court.

This is not rocket science. I'm writing this now instead of eighteen months ago just because I'm not a political analyst. It's still pretty obvious, Negotiation 101 stuff. So why didn't the Democrats pursue this strategy? Why is congress's ratings so low? Why is there still some chance that fascist Giuliani or yet another damn Republican actor might be elected President in 2008? Why are we talking about Edwards' haircut and Clinton's cleavage?

I can't do much more than speculate, but here are my speculations.

One reason is the historical structural disorganization of the Democratic Party. As Will Rogers said, "I don't belong to an organized political party: I'm a Democrat." The Republicans pick up most of the authoritarian, traditionalist sheep; The Democrats get the most of the splintered counter-cultural idiots and the people who use logic and reason. Logic and reason are much more difficult to sell than conservative, traditionalist dogma.

Another reason is the role the pro-Israel* lobby, such as AIPAC, has in the Democratic party. This lobby clearly wants a hot war with the Middle-Eastern Islamic nations, thinking (erroneously, I suspect, but at least a bit more rationally than Bush & Co.) that war will enhance Israel's status and power. No Democratic politician can mount an effective bid for President without their support, and if the Democratic candidates for President don't support a political strategy, it's doomed to failure.

*Unless Israel declares itself something other than a secular democracy, pro- or anti-Israel has absolutely nothing to do with pro- or antisemitism. Most Americans who are Jewish oppose the war in Iraq. I don't know about Israeli Jews, but last I heard the U.S. government doesn't represent them.

Another reason is the love that progressives, especially progressive political bloggers have for inside baseball. Strategy and tactics, demographics, the details of political horse trading; progressives love to talk about this stuff. The progressive movement is chock full of armchair quarterbacks. The rank-and-file Republicans, and the conservative, right-wing bloggers, on the other hand, push a moral narrative. It's a rotten moral narrative, full of lies, distortion and bullshit, but it's always about good and evil, not how to squeeze out a few more votes. Progressive moralists, such as Arthur Silber and Dennis Perrin are more or less marginalized. Compare and contrast the TLB "higher beings" and the difference is obvious.

Fundamentally, though, I think the biggest reason is that most Democratic politicians are supported by the same economic elite that owns the commercial media and supports the Republican party. This elite supports Democratic politicians so as to give the appearance of dissent, not to have them actually change anything.

And both Democrats and Republicans have their eyes on the second largest oil reserves in the world.

I'm appalled by the sheer evil and suffering in Iraq, and I'm very pessimistic about the political situation here. I think if a Republican candidate is not elected outright, Clinton or Obama will eke out a narrow victory, compromised by support for war against Iran and tepid opposition to the war in Iraq. Democrats will not obtain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. At best, we'll withdraw half our troops from Iraq, leaving tens of thousands (and tens of thousands of mercenaries private contractors) acting as a permanent political irritant. Even a Democratic President will probably start yet another war in Iran, if Bush doesn't get there first.

Experimental results

Please comment on this post to report your results from An experiment in dialog with the religious. Try to give a neutral (as neutral as possible) description of your experience, and post links to the comments. If any of your comments are edited or deleted, keep records and report honestly on the original content.

An experiment in dialog with the religious

Go on any religiously-themed message board (not a blog; blogs are a special case). Tell them you're an atheist, but that you're open-minded and committed to critically examining your beliefs in a context of good will. Be honest and sincere, but admit that these are merely your beliefs and might well be wrong. Bend over backwards to avoid giving offense, and interpret every comment, even the most blatantly insulting, in a charitable manner. Don't be afraid to over-use opinion qualifiers like "I think", "I suspect", "it seems to me", "according to my experience/understanding", etc.

The only special rule is: Don't talk about abortion; sincere or not, profess indecision and your discomfort with discussing the topic. Abortion makes everyone crazy; it's simply not fair to evaluate the religious on this topic.

This is not at all an insincere experiment. You should be open-minded and committed to critically examining your beliefs in a context of good will; you should discuss your beliefs in a dialectical manner with people who disagree with you. You should at least practice expressing your ideas using a lot of opinion language: Unless you claim omniscience, the opinion language should always at least be implied in your mind.

I've performed this experiment a half-dozen times, and I predict you will receive the following results.

Every time you'll at least one form of Aquinas' five arguments (usually the First Cause argument), the argument from morality, Lewis's trilemma... and you'll get Pascal's Wager. Every time. You'll often get the Fine Tuning version of the Argument from Design. You'll usually get the "atheism is just another religion" argument, and the argument that atheism is irrational because it fallaciously concludes certainty.

Interestingly enough, you'll almost never get the Argument from Design of living creatures: Any venue which supports outright creationism will ban you outright or harass you away before they make any arguments at all. "Guided evolution" is usually considered too tenuous even by its believers to use as a direct apologetic.

Regardless of your demeanor, it will not be long before you are in fact directly insulted. You may well be insulted before you even open your mouth again; otherwise you will be insulted soon after your first rebuttal of a fallacious argument. Forget more than once or twice to explicitly use opinion qualifiers (indeed often on the first omission) and you will be accused of arrogance. You will inevitably be accused of bad faith, ill will, a hidden agenda, intellectual dishonesty, outright stupidity, or moral corruption. Usually all of these.

Message boards are the preferred venue; any venue (unlike an individual's blog) where no one person has privileged status in the discussion. You can also try the experiment on an individual's (or small group's) blog, but you have to be careful to directly engage and count only the privileged person's or persons' responses, and you'll have more variance.

Feel free to actually try this experiment and report back on your results in the comments to the results post; the comments for this post should pertain to analysis and criticism of the experiment itself.

Science is the only way of knowing

Science is the only way of knowing.

Science is, briefly, the process of finding the simplest explanation which accounts for experience. Phenomenological, personal science accounts for individual experience; public science accounts for public, shared experience.

This is not to say that you have to conduct a peer-reviewed double-blind study with sound statistical methods to know your keys are always where you left them. All of the techniques and protocols of the sort of Big Science conducted by people in white lab coats doing uncomfortable things to mice are all peripheral to the fundamental scientific method. These techniques exist to investigate subtle questions where it's important that everyone is talking precisely about exactly the same shared experiences. The fundamental methodology: the simplest account of experience, remains unchanged.

Margaret Somerville gives us some woo-woo bullshit about "other ways of knowing"*. Unlike other commentators, she actually gives us a list of these supposed other ways:
  1. human memory**
  2. imagination and creativity
  3. looking forward***
  4. intuition -- especially moral intuition
  5. experiential knowledge
  6. "examined" emotions.
It's important to note that except for imagination, creativity and foresight, all of these items, memory, intuition, experiential knowledge, and emotions are themselves experiences, the foundation of science.

*h/t to Black Sun Journal
** I have no idea what she's on about with her "seven generations" nonsense
*** She includes foresight under imagination and creativity, but it deserves a separate entry.

Imagination is an essential component of the scientific method. We must creatively invent explanations to apply the scientific method. It's crucial to note that the scientific method does not establish accounts which follow from experience in a deductive sense; the scientific method privileges accounts from which experience deductively follows. It's very important that imagination and creativity by themselves—and indeed experience by itself—are not epistemic. It is only by conjoining the two in a logical manner that we are able to get an epistemology that does the job we expect.

Imagination by itself does not, as Somerville implies, give us foresight. I can imagine all sorts of things that will not—indeed in many cases cannot—come to pass. It is only by logically combining imagination with experience in the scientific manner that I can gain useful foresight.

Somerville gets all the elements of the scientific method; it is on their conjunction that she goes wrong. You cannot pick apart the individual elements—especially imagination and creativity—of the scientific method and still get an epistemic system. (In a trivial sense, you can isolate experience, but without logically connecting imaginative hypotheses to experience, your knowledge is merely an enumeration of statements of experience.)

(Somerville is simply wrong about metaphysics, and I'll discuss her position on ethics in a separate post.)

But what about art? Literature? Music? Sports? Sex? Aren't these worthwhile pursuits? Of course they are, and there's nothing at all irrational about any of them. Acquiring knowledge is not the only worthwhile pursuit, but to the extent that knowledge is worthwhile, science is the only way to get it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Bible

(h/t to my [confined] space and The Unchurched)

I don't have a dog

I don't have a dog.

(h/t to hell's handmaiden)

Worst. Apologetic. Ever.

Phritz and I have been having a... spirited... discussion about Pascal's Wager. Phritz's inanity aside, Pascal's Wager has the distinction of being the worst apologetic argument ever employed. It is literally invalid, unsound, and ridiculous at every point; as such, it is at least instructive as an example of what not to do in philosophy. (It's controversial whether or not Pascal himself intended the Wager as an apologetic argument; I'll leave the assignment of blame to better scholars than myself. It is manifestly the case, however, that many Christians and Muslims (and even agnostics) employ Pascal's Wager as an apologetic argument.)

To recap, Pascal's Wager sets up a probabilistic decision matrix on two dimensions: The existence or non-existence of God, and the presence or absence of belief:

God existsGod does not exist
Believe in GodInfinite rewardZero cost
Diselieve in GodInfinite penaltyZero reward
If there is a non-zero probability (Pascal himself puts the probability at 50%) that God exists, then the choice to believe in God dominates the choice not to believe.

Let's enumerate all the ways that this argument is bullshit through and through: Every assumption is unjustified and controversial.

First of all, the Wager demands an ontological commitment to objective probability; The Wager makes no sense at all expressed in terms of epistemic probability. It's entirely unclear, however, whether—despite its manifest utility—objective probability is at all physical.

Consider the case where I choose a poker hand of five random cards from a standard deck but don't look at them. In a linguistic sense, I can talk usefully about the probability of those five cards being a royal flush. But physically (unless we are willing to abandon all our notions of objective reality) those cards have exactly one definite content: The "objective" physical probability of the hand being a royal flush is either 1 or 0. We are merely expressing our epistemic ignorance—as we have not looked at the cards, we don't know their content—in terms of objective probability as a valuable shortcut. We must view any argument that relies exclusively on objective probability as inherently suspect.

The second general probabilistic difficulty is Pascal's assumption that the probability that God exists is not infinitesimal. But this assumption is completely unjustified, even if we assume arguendo that the probability is non-zero. If the probability were infinitesimal, then we can draw no conclusions about the resulting value, because simple multiplication of an infinity by an infinitesimal is undefined. Again, since Pascal predicates infinite reward, it seems legitimate consider also infinitesimal probability.

The two possibilities that Pascal enumerates are much too restrictive: We must consider not only the case that God exists, but several other conditionals:
  1. God exists and
  2. God rewards belief and
  3. God rewards the particular belief the believer adopts
Given the Christian context of the argument as well as the consistent Christian deprecation of "heresy", it seems entirely legitimate to discuss correct vs. incorrect belief. An honest decision matrix would embed all of these assumptions, each with its own probability:

God existsGod does not exist



RB: God rewards belief; RA: God rewards all belief and punishes only disbelief; RC: God rewards only correct belief and punishes incorrect belief as well as disbelief; BC: The believer believes, and believes correctly; ~ means "not".

We can turn then to the supposed "choice": Whether to believe or disbelieve. But belief itself is not a choice. I can choose to say things, to act in particular ways, but one cannot choose what to actually believe: Belief must be coerced, either by reality's evidence, one's intrinsic nature, torture or (if you go for that sort of thing) divine inspiration. I can't choose to believe in a God: It is simply a fact of my consciousness, over which I have no power of will, that I believe that no God exists. Furthermore, even if belief were a matter of choice, it seems difficult to understand how one could "choose" to believe correctly.

Not only are the rows and columns of the decision matrix unjustified in Pascal's formulation, the assignment of all of the costs and benefits are also unjustified. What does an "infinite" reward mean? An "infinite" punishment? These concepts are not directly comprehensible. To apprehend any infinity in a meaningful sense, one's mind must become infinite. But our minds are finite: There are only a finite (albeit quite large) number of states any finite mind is capable of: After some finite time, all possible states of reward or punishment would be exhausted.

And, furthermore, the assumption that God would reward or punish infinitely (even if that were coherent) is unjustified. We must add yet another category of columns—God rewards/punishes finitely vs. infinitely—each with its own individual probability.

Likewise, the assumption that belief or disbelief has zero cost is likewise unjustified. What sort of God would create an infinite reward for an action that had no cost whatsoever, a belief that had no ethical or moral dimension at all? Clearly belief in God, to be other than entirely vacuous, must have some cost, even if it were finite. And a non-zero cost renders the decision matrix invalid under an infinitesimal probability of God existing (or rewarding only correct belief).

In a sense, all conditionals are "true": If God exists and if God rewards belief and punishes disbelief and if God rewards any sort of belief and punishes only disbelief and if the probability that God exists is not infinitesimal and if God rewards belief infinitely or belief entails zero cost... if all of these things, then yes, it is a good bet to believe in God.

Of course, one could say with an equal amount of "truth" that if the Moon were made of green cheese and if we could convince a billion Chinese that cheese was tasty, and if we could get to the moon by flapping our arms then it would be a good bet to invest in my lunar cheese mining stock.

If you buy Pascal's wager, email me and I'll send you a prospectus.

Postmodernism and epistemic nihilism

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom attribute the flaws of postmodernism to juvenile contrarianism. One of the key concepts that I read from this article is the notion of epistemology relative to ethics: If one supports an ethical principle, then an epistemology is "valid" if it supports that ethical principle.
Louise Lamphere, for example, a past president of the American Anthropological Association, claims that there is an “urgent need” for an “engaged anthropology,” within which moral commitment trumps impersonal scientific concern, and where the communities that anthropologists work with are treated as equal partners in the research process.
I submit that this tendency should not be labeled as just "relativism", but rather as epistemological nihilism: If you're committed a priori to believing some proposition, ethical or otherwise, adding post hoc epistemic support for the proposition itself is pointless.

This anti-epistemology is subtly but fundamentally different from the scientific method. Although the scientific method attempts to construct logical accounts for perceptual evidence, the task is not to justify the perceptual evidence, it is to justify the logical account. Furthermore, the foundation of the scientific method, perceptual evidence, is just that evidence which is in fact accepted by everyone. The postmodernist anti-epistemology acts in the opposite way: A post hoc pseudo-epistemology exists only to justify the ethical beliefs in question, "proving" that we "know" these beliefs are "true"—or at least "true for us".

Actually, these sorts of postmodernists don't even bother with an actual epistemic method at all; they merely denounce any method that doesn't result in justifying whatever ethical belief is at issue as "fascist": As Benson and Stangroom quote Holmes, et al.
[T]he objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge. As such, we assert that the evidence-based movement in health sciences constitutes a good example of microfascism at play in the contemporary scientific arena.
justified by Pearson by the
notion that no one view, theory or understanding should be privileged over another (or that no discourse should be silenced).
Calling some mode of discourse "microfascism" seems clearly—at least in postmodern terms—a hypocritical attempt to silence that discourse.

The characterization of evidence-basis as "microfascist" seems especially telling. If it is indeed the case that the sine qua non of any epistemic system is to generate principled agreement, then any epistemic system will be "fascist": The whole point of principled agreement is that by accepting the principles, one is inexorably "forced" to agree (in the same sense that one is inexorably forced to accelerate towards the Earth at ~10 m/s²). To denounce an epistemic system because it is principled, and therefore "fascist", is to deny epistemology and endorse epistemic nihilism.

It's interesting to compare and contrast the "leftist" postmodernism that Benson and Stangroom critique with the religious approach to epistemology. From Andrew Sullivan's debate with Sam Harris: He asserts that Harris has "allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode," as if that were a good thing. Couple this with Sullivan's deprecation of religious fundamentalism as unable to "to integrate doubt into faith" and you have exactly the same sort of "leftist" postmodernism from a Christian conservative: Religious faith is a different form of "truth-seeking" which results in truths that are different for everyone.

At least people such as Kenneth are a little more politically sound: He at least tries to establish some sort of method which substantiates a universal ethical stance, instead of embracing Sullivan's ethical relativism.

The really stupid part of the "leftist" postmodernism is that it's utterly unnecessary. Evidence-based science has no primary ethical content at all. Science tells us only what is, not which is the "better" of realistic alternatives. At best, science gives us only secondary ethical content: How best (or better) achieve a preferred result. Even if one wishes, as Benson and Stangroom attribute to Marglin, to "problemati[ze] the binary opposition that Western medicine invokes—not unreasonably, one might think—between disease and health, death and life," and contrast it "unfavourably with the traditional Indian worship of Sitala, the goddess of smallpox," one does not need to discuss epistemology—at least not scientific epistemology—at all. Science merely tells us that smallpox is caused by a particular bacillus virus; science does not at all tell us whether smallpox is good or bad.

Furthermore, as Benson and Stangroom point out, Marglin's goal is not to discuss the primary ethical value of smallpox itself, but rather to undermine the scientific description of smallpox as caused by a bacillus virus, "to challenge science’s claim to be a superior form of knowledge which renders obsolete more traditional systems of thought." It's just as "true", Marglin would seem to assert, that smallpox is some sort of divine punishment as it is that smallpox is the result of infection by a mindless bacillus virus.

I'm a postmodernist myself: I strongly disagree with the fundamental program of Modernism that primary ethics—what is "intrinsically" good and bad—is a matter of objective truth: Nothing is intrinsically good or bad; good and bad are fundamentally subjective evaluations. Infection by smallpox is bad because it causes people to suffer; infection by E-coli bacteria in our intestines is good because it causes people to feel good. Objectively, both are infestations of foreign organisms, with little to differentiate the two.

But I think a commitment to scientific truth—always descriptive, never primarily normative—is critical to the fundamental postmodernist program, because, whatever your primary ethical beliefs, science will always tell you how to achieve them.

Furthermore, to the extent that one values social cooperation, this goal is not achieved by blanket tolerance and epistemic nihilism. Blanket tolerance must tolerate ethically intolerance: If all value systems are equally true, then the ethically (and not just descriptively) totalitarian and "fascist" value systems of Islam and extremist Christianity are equally true, and their intolerance must be tolerated. To actually cooperate we must have two things: Agreement about the arena—objective reality—in which we must cooperate, and some basis for coming to ethical compromise, which entails a degree of tolerance and a degree of intolerance.

The only alternative is pure separatism: If we can't agree on how reality is, if we cannot construct ethical compromises, we have no choice but to live separately. But separatism is impossible: We cannot construct ideological or physical walls strong enough to resist human will. Even ignoring the ethical dimensions of genocide, as has been proven time and again, it is impossible in practice to physically exterminate even a tiny subset of those who disagree. We must learn to cooperate, and this is not a normative "must", but a scientific "must": If the human species survives at all, those who do learn to cooperate will eventually dominate those who do not or cannot cooperate.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Pascal's Wager

In this comment Phritz asserts
[A]s Pascal said, if you are mistaken (you have faith, and "God" does not exist---a definite possibility), you have not really lost anything.
Game theory does not apply to beliefs, it applies to decisions. A decision with no cost is no decision at all; to decide to believe sans evidence in God if that decision entails nothing about one's life is no belief at all: Such a "believer" is just as much an atheist as I am.

In practice, I think tell the thousands (tens of thousands?) of children molested by pedophile priests and tell them that their decision and their parents' decision to believe in God was without cost. Tell the people, many of them desperately poor, who have contributed their hard-earned money to televangelists that their decision to believe in God was without cost. Tell the millions of gay people, wracked with guilt, shame and neurosis because they've been indoctrinated by almost every Christian and Muslim sect that their ordinary desire to love one another without harming anyone is horribly sinful that their belief in God was without cost. It's too late to tell my late grandmother—but there are millions of others in the same situation—that her belief that God wanted her to stay married to an abusive man for forty years was without cost.

Without cost my ass.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Christian Domestic Discipline

Infidelis Maximus and A Whore in the Temple of Reason have written recently on Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD). The topic touches on a number of important ethical and meta-ethical principles.

On the one hand, I think I have to disagree (just a little) with the Slut: In the broadest sense of "consent"—the sort of consent we apply specifically to criminalization—any activity that a participant actively and directly agrees to for whatever reason short of threat of immediate violence must be viewed as consensual.

There are some extreme lifestyles such as Gorean sex slavery within the BDSM community. Most ordinary people might well see such lifestyles as disagreeable and morally objectionable. But the key consideration is that these lifestyles emerge to satisfy the full inner subjective nature of the participants. In the non-Christian BDSM community we typically see that the ideology is constructed to conform to the participants' inner nature: People construct, adopt and elaborate a "Gorean" ideology to match their subjective nature; they do not typically engage in Gorean slavery because they are convinced of its objective truth.

Another ethical standard that is seen throughout the BDSM community is that the greater the power exchange within a game, the stronger the requirement to negotiate the limitations outside the game, in an environment and context structured to strongly establish and reinforce the equality of the participants.

We don't see either of these ethical principles within CDD. Reading the blogs of some of the submissive victims (and I use the word "victim" intentionally), it seems very clear that they do not participate in their lifestyle purely because it fulfills their full inner subjective nature. Rather, a strong component derives from the delusional conviction that the (suitably cherry-picked) prescriptions of the Christian Bible are literally true. They are convinced that this lifestyle is true and normative without regard to their full inner nature. While there is no immediate, temporal coercion, there certainly seems to be a degree of "supernatural" coercion.

Furthermore, the negotiation of the limitations of this lifestyle never appears to occur in a purely egalitarian context: Even "outside" the game, the husband negotiates from a position of power and authority conferred from the Bible.

While we must view CDD as consensual in the broadest sense, it is clearly not rationally informed consent.

From an purely objective standpoint, of course, every activity—even outright violent coercion—happens according to the totality of the inner nature of the participants. If I give my wallet to an armed robber, it is because I value my life more than my money; the robber values my money more than my life. To an purely ethically neutral observer, these are just facts from which one can construct scientific theories that accurately predict future behavior.

But, of course, none of us are Vulcans* or computers. We are not ethically neutral, we are not purely objective. We value certain states of others' minds over their alternatives. One important state of mind to which I attach tremendous value is belief in the truth: I actively condemn others' desire to be deluded, and I'll equally deprecate any choice which follows from that desire.

*It's arguable that even Vulcans have arbitrary values, their lip service to purely logical analysis notwithstanding.

Because I also value personal autonomy, however, I won't support legal coercive measures to correct a situation—even a situation I will verbally condemn—unless the participant actively and directly desires the intervention of society. By contrast, the victim of an armed robbery does in fact desire assistance, and since I disapprove of the perpetrator's value system, I'm happy to help. As much as I condemn and deprecate CDD, unless the wife actively wants out of the relationship, and unless the husband physically forces her to stay, I feel helpless to intervene directly.

One reason I condemn religious moderates is that they necessarily and fundamentally undermine the strongest philosophical argument against something like CDD: They fail to condemn the delusion itself which differentiates between CDD and rationally informed BDSM. They condemn CDD, of course, (and good for them, I guess) but why? They cannot condemn CDD because it is based in delusion; it is based, after all, on the same sort of delusional thinking that they themselves explicitly endorse. They must, I suppose, condemn it only because they condemn dominant/submissive lifestyles in general (or because it is based on the "wrong" arbitrary assignment of metaphor to scripture).

But by condemning all dominant/submissive lifestyles, they must condemn rationally informed consensual BDSM as well, which entails two troubling consequences: They must deny the primacy of rationally informed consent, and they must deny the primacy of a full expression of one's inner nature*. Without condemning the delusion itself, the religious moderate must, to condemn CDD, condemn small-ell libertarianism and humanism itself, in favor of authoritarianism and the value of conformity. The religious moderate is letting into the tent the nose of a particularly odious camel.

*That does not, of course, in any way compromise the expression of anyone else's inner nature.

To condemn CDD without condemning BDSM under rationally informed consent, someone such as myself must condemn the whole edifice of delusional brainwashing which constitutes modern religion, which necessarily condemns the religious moderates in the same breath. Happily, I'm willing to do so.

On the one hand, I'm pleased that religious moderates approve and disapprove of most of the same things I do—they've retrojected on their God most of the same sort of humanist values that I hold directly. Most, but not all, however: By definition, they cannot retroject on the authority of their God most important meta-values of humanism: anti-authoritarian libertarianism and the universal condemnation of human suffering.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Spineless pushovers

Shalini tells it like it is. The war
is not about one issue or another. It is not about young earth creationism, ID, evolution, climate change, stem cell research, marijuana or the latest hot-button issue. These are merely battles in the course of the real war -- the war between rationalism and superstition. In this war, only one side will be the winner. There is no room for appeasers, and the superstitious, at least, will have none of this cowardly garbage.
Preach on, sister!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Who says I'm moral?

In Friendly Atheist's questionnaire I answered the question "Where do your morals come from?" with a question: Who says I'm moral?

On some accounts of morality, I'm absolutely, completely, utterly without a shred of morality.

If one defines a moral act as an act performed in submission to a God's command, well, I'm an atheist, so that's pretty much out. Muslims, for whom submission to God's will is the sine qua non of their religion, have to consider me absolutely immoral.

Kant defined (or at least many people interpret Kant as having defined) a moral act as one taken without any self-interest whatsoever. Well, I do everything out of self-interest, broadly construed. How could I not do so? Everything I do happens because of some motivation in my mind, and all motivations are, by definition, the interests of the self. If one defines self-interest more narrowly, why that narrow definition instead of another?

I tell the truth because I want people to believe and trust me: It's nice to be able to sign for something. I contribute to charity for the same reason I take an aspirin when I have a headache: I feel pain at others' suffering, and a charitable donation provides at least temporary relief.

It happens to be the case that I am indeed empathic: The happiness of others causes me a degree of pleasure, and the suffering of others causes me pain. But that's a result of my genes and my upbringing: I can't take any more credit for my empathy than I can take blame for my lack of musical talent.

Because I'm normally empathic, and because I'm reasonably intelligent, I can behave in ways that benefit my neighbors, usually earning their approval: Perhaps it is that that my neighbors call my "morals". But my neighbors' approval itself does not strongly motivate my behavior: If I want to do something that they don't approve of, but which I don't believe will actually harm them, I'll do it (in private) with a clear conscience. So even in the sense of acting according to others' approval, I'm not in the least bit moral.

Like every other lump of matter in the universe, rocks, trees, and even you yourself, gentle reader, I act according to my nature. My nature happens to be considerably more complicated than the nature of a rock, and a lot nicer than Charles Manson's. But other than that complexity, there's nothing magical or mysterious or qualitatively different about me or you or any other human being.

Short and sweet

Friendly Atheist is asking for short and sweet answers to common questions asked of atheists. Here are my answers:

Why do you not believe in God? What god?

Where do your morals come from? Who says I'm moral?

What is the meaning of life? Human life is the process of creating meaning.

Is atheism a religion? Yes, if bald is a hair color and not collecting stamps is a hobby.

If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times? Try to fix the trouble.

Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God? Yes.

Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists? Atheism is not a moral philosophy. Theism is a moral philosophy, but one fit only for slaves.

How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God? The same way that hundreds of millions could be wrong that the Earth was flat.

Why does the universe exist? Why not?

How did life originate? I don't know. Ask a scientist, not a philosopher.

Is all religion harmful? Yes, if you define "religion" to mean bullshit and falsity asserted as truth.

Is there anything redeeming about religion? No, see above.

Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected? No, see above.

Would the world be better off without any religion? Yes, see above.

What’s so bad about religious moderates? They protect religious extremists.

What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)? I'm pretty much screwed.

Are atheists smarter than theists? No, just better informed.

How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity? The same way Christians deal with the historical Muhammad.

What happens when we die? Worm food.

Barefoot Bumf

According to Technorati, I've been linked to by a site called "The Barefoot Bumf" (http://barefootbumf.blogspot.com). The bits excerpted by Technorati do not seem particularly complimentary; still, I'd be thrilled to pieces if I had my very own parody site. (The traffic and uptick to my link stats wouldn't hurt either.)

Unfortunately, either I've been blocked or the author has taken down the blog. Does anyone know anything about this site?

Faith and politics

Kelly Gorski posts her thoughts on faith and politics. She asks for our thoughts on the matter, so here are mine.

First of all, at the end of the day, everyone can vote and (with very limited exceptions) write as they please; I'm not advocating forcing anyone to vote or not vote, or write or not write in any particular way. If you want to vote to repeal the Constitution and replace it with a theocracy, if write in support of that idea (so long as you don't advocate the violent overthrow of the government), well, that's your right. If the police arrest you or the courts imprison you for holding or expressing such opinions, I'll be proud that my contributions to the ACLU will go to defending you.

But yes, as a fellow citizen of a (presumably) secular democracy, I'm asking for people of faith to keep some of their opinions and ideas out of the public political discourse, to keep private elements of their faith, their unfalsifiable ideas about God.

Kelly does not offer any examples, but two recent items come immediately to mind. The first is the efforts by Christian activist Laura Lopez to ban books that contradict her religious beliefs. Another is Orson Scott Card's anti-atheist bigotry which Norm Doering has so ably deconstructed.

It's not just the book banning and implicit discrimination which rankles my secular mind: I object to the these writers' explicit reference to their religious beliefs as a primary justification for their political views. If you can't make a political argument on a secular, non-religious basis, leave the issue in your church.

While I'm not interested in what your God thinks (or what you think your God thinks) about anything, and I view even bringing up your God in a political discussion as objectionable and completely inappropriate, I do care what you personally think, whether I agree or disagree. If you personally just hate homosexuals, then say so; say, "I personally hate homosexuals and think they ought to be marginalize, oppressed and discriminated against." Take some personal responsibility for your views; don't pawn off your opinions on God: It just makes you look like a pusillanimous pissant.

If you want to argue for a specifically Christian basis to our civil law, again, take a grain of responsibility for your views: Call explicitly for the repeal or modification of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Don't try to import the Bible into our secular Constitution with a wink and a nod.

Bush repeals the Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Our fearless leader:
[A]ll property and interests in property of the following persons... are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury...
"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."

Happily, we can rely on the Supreme Court to nullify this egregiously unconstitutional order.

One small step for [a] man

... one giant leap for mankind. On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the Moon. Accompanying him were Michael Collins and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin, and their achievement was made possible by hundreds of NASA technicians, the American people, and, in a very important sense, the efforts of all of humanity, past and present.

The Eagle has landed

Theological subtlety

Jesus and Mo on theological subtlety: "People who are mature in their faith know that God is a metaphor."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Religion v. Atheism

Stephen Wells's comment on Pharyngula:
Fundamentalists: believe 2+2 =5 because It Is Written. Somewhere. They have a lot of trouble on their tax returns.

"Moderate" believers: live their lives on the basis that 2+2=4. but go regularly to church to be told that 2+2 once made 5, or will one day make 5, or in a very real and spiritual sense should make 5.

"Moderate" atheists: know that 2+2 =4 but think it impolite to say so too loudly as people who think 2+2=5 might be offended.

"Militant" atheists: "Oh for pity's sake. HERE. Two pebbles. Two more pebbles. FOUR pebbles. What is WRONG with you people?"

(h/t to ywut)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali v. Avi Lewis

Update: This post has been cited by Wikipedia as support for the claim that Avi Lewis expressed "anti-American bias". Much as I'm pleased to be cited as a source, I claim here only that Lewis is stupid, not biased. Noting "American clichés" does not establish bias; even the most jingoistic supporter of the United States would probably admit that there are some peculiarly American clichés. It is stupidly fallacious, however, to "rebut" Hirsi Ali's arguments simply by dismissing them as clichés of any nationality.

(h/t to RichardDawkins.net)

Hirsi Ali makes some excellent points, and Lewis acts like an ignorant buffoon.

Her critique of Islam is spot-on:
Islam means submission to the will of Allah, a doctrine that requires from the individual to become a slave. In my view, it's bad. Islam limits the imagination to what you can find in the Koran, and to follow in the example of the prophet Muhammad. I think that's bad, and that's what keeps people in the Islamic world backward. Islam treats women, at least says... subordinates women to men, is obsessed with obedience, cold for the matter of gays, for adulterers, and is therefore very violent and inhuman. All this is in the Koran, all this is in the Hadith, and anywhere Islamic Sharia, Islamic rule is implemented, you see that these things are carried out.
The last sentence is especially important: Were these strictures not implemented in self-described Islamic law, one might legitimately claim that they had no actual moral force. Since they are implemented—implemented universally when any nation explicitly labels its law "Islamic" (i.e. unlike Turkey, which has an explicitly secular legal system)—this objection loses all force.

Avi Lewis takes his first stupid pill, and states, "Surely there are many versions of Islam, like there are many versions of Christianity, of Judaism, of all major religions; you're presenting it as one thing, and it's just obviously not." First, does deliberate equivocation shield an ideology from criticism? There were (and are) many versions of Communism, even Nazism; are we not then allowed to criticize these ideologies? One can draw generalizations across diverse versions of an ideology, especially when one is talking about features common across different versions. Third, Hirsi Ali asserts that Islam is in fact monolithic, presumably in the same sense that something like the Catholic Church is monolithic; variations in opinion within the Church are trivial and fundamentally inessential.

Lewis immediately swallows his second stupid pill: "I could point to other things in other holy books that are equally offensive." This is a pure tu quoque fallacy. And Hirsi Ali is right on the money in her rebuttal. The proof of the essential character of a doctrine is how it's put into practice. The offensive elements of the Old Testament, at least, are not anywhere implemented in civil practice, nor is civil practice anywhere justified purely on the basis of Old Testament law; it has indeed become "almost obsolete".

Hirsi Ali makes a couple of overstatements, She says, "There are no Christians who want to have the Bible replace any constitution in Western society," and, "There is no such thing as Islamophobia." Yes, these are overstatements, but she is quick to correct and amplify her views. Christian Dominionists are (at least presently) politically marginalized, and acts of religiously motivated violence are severely punished by civil authorities. The situation is reversed in the Islamic world: Religiously motivated violence is often dealt with lightly and it is the reformers and those attempting to reconcile Islam with humanistic, Enlightenment values who are politically marginalized.

And of course there are "Islamophobes", people who don't like Islam merely because it is different from their own irrational superstitions. But Hirsi Ali points out that legitimate, rational criticism of what is essentially a political ideology is fundamentally different in character from merely hating someone because they are different, especially different by virtue of ineluctable characteristics such as skin color, ancestry or sexual orientation.

Hirsi Ali makes an important point that my wife makes to me, especially when I virulently criticize the United States: Western civilization—if not the US itself (although given the Dutch government's apparent inability to protect her life and their shameful betrayal of her, I can see why she would especially like the US)—really is the best place to be, at least at present. In response, Lewis swallows the whole bottle of stupid pills and openly mocks Hirsi Ali: "Is there a school where they teach you these American clichés?"

On the one hand, it's not just my privilege but my duty as a citizen to criticize the government and society; I can leave the hosannas to our virtue to the PR flacks. Thus I tend to take my freedom for granted, at least in the sense of not spending a lot of time being grateful for it; I do not however, take my freedom for granted by refusing to exercise it, or condemning others for exercising it.

On the other hand, I don't argue, as Lewis appears to argue, that because our society is imperfect, it is therefore equivalent to other imperfect societies, governments or religious-political ideologies, that there is no basis for preferential comparison.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Stopper v. Berlinerblau

<Berlinerblau> Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious people as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the common good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists, pedophiles, bearers of false consciousness, authoritarian despots, and so forth? Is that possible?

<Stopper> Not for the /professionals/.

Ship of fools

Ship of Fools:
I am standing waist-deep in the Pacific Ocean, both chilling and burning, indulging in the polite chit-chat beloved by vacationing Americans. A sweet elderly lady from Los Angeles is sitting on the rocks nearby, telling me dreamily about her son. "Is he your only child?" I ask. "Yes," she says. "Do you have a child back in England?" she asks. No, I say. Her face darkens. "You'd better start," she says. "The Muslims are breeding. Soon, they'll have the whole of Europe.
We're giving a fuck of a lot of money to some very stupid, very evil people.

Up with capitalism!

Dawkins interviews McGrath

It's painful to watch; I got about halfway through before I gave up. McGrath just goes around in circles: It makes us feel good because it's true; it's true because it makes us feel good.

[h/t to Debunking Christianity via Stephen Law]

Monday, July 16, 2007

Protestants are from Mars, Catholics are from Venus

Readers are no doubt aware of the encyclical published by the Vatican of Pope Benedict XVI re-affirming not just the pre-eminence of Roman Catholicism but also its status as the sole corporeal representative of Jesus Christ on Earth and declaring that all people who professed to be Christians but belonged to other denominations were in danger of foregoing salvation. Baptists, Lutherans, evangelicals, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Episcopalians, and the many various and sundry others are "wounded" congregations and should return to the one, true church. A rather un-Paulian point of view for the Church that Paul founded, but no matter. What surprised me was the outcry from the other denominations, decrying this affront to ecumenical dialogue and good-faith relations between the disparate sects.

One does not rise to become the high priest of a cult – especially one with a billion adherents or so – by being pragmatic on the matter of its relative truth to other interpretations of its scripture. Pope Benedict XVI may have been doing harm to interfaith relationships, true, but he was hardly acting outside of his job description. Rather, he was fulfilling it. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary or unprecedented gesture; it’s rude and unseemly in this modern age, true.

Or is it? It would seem to me that such action was only to be expected from the man who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, presided over some of the most stringent enforcement of Catholic orthodoxy seen since the Inquisition. The worst aspects of the international situation can be ascribed to rigid adherence to orthodoxy. Fundamentalists, from Salafist jihadis to Orthodox Jews have set a whole swath of this world, from the Mediterranean coast to the Indian Ocean, on fire with bloodshed over ancient tribal and religious disputes. This translates into upsurges in intra-faith oppression as the fundamentalists seek to reassert control over their denominations as the One True Faith.

The United States has not been immune. While we have so far seemed reluctant to engage in schismatic conflict such as Europe experienced during the Protestant Reformation or the Muslim world experiences today, Christian traditionalism seems to be expanding its crusade against religious diversity from being against those who have no faith to those who practice unfamiliar faiths. Last week, for the first time in the history of this nation, a Hindu priest gave the opening prayer in the Senate. His monotheistic prayer was interrupted by Christian protestors.

Now, I’m firmly of the opinion that atheists who think that if they rid us of religion they will be ushering in an age of untold peace and intellectual prosperity are taking one too many hits off the peace pipe, if you catch my meaning. But, really, they have a larger point. At least without organized religion, human beings would have one less thing to get exercised about and kill each other over.

There are lots of good arguments for believing in a god, and there are many people who require, for reasons completely unfathomable to me, a spiritual life that delves into mysteries they can’t ever actually answer. That’s fine and dandy, and they’re probably ultimately issues that will never be resolved in a grand sense. But it’s completely legitimate to take someone who can make all the arguments they want for "a god," but then blithely steps around the matter of the scriptural interpretation they choose to regard as wholly and solely legitimate, and hold their feet to the fire. The larger difficulty of the grand metaphysical question – "God: Why or Why Not?" – obscures the very specific and far more difficult to shrug off question of "But why your specific religion?"

Which brings us full circle to Pope Benedict XVI. He’s simply doing what he should be doing: Telling everyone else that they’re wrong. But then, he shouldn’t be surprised when others say the same thing about his particular scriptural tradition. I have mentioned before that my wife was raised Seventh Day Adventist, a Christian denomination that takes the book of Leviticus very literally: God’s commandments are God’s commandments and you shouldn’t stop following them just because the Messiah appeared. My wife once stated, quite definitively and as though there were simply no question, that Catholics are not Christians. And you know what? That makes sense, based on her scriptural tradition. She was simply doing unto the Pope what the Pope would later do unto her.

But at least she was civil about it, and kept it to herself.

[This essay first appeared on James F. Elliott's blog Often Right, Rarely Correct—Ed.]

Who we are

All Iraqi men viewed as insurgents:
"We were told to crank up the violence level," said Lopezromo, testifying for the defense.

When a juror asked for further explanation, Lopezromo said: "We beat people, sir." ...

[T]the Marines and corpsman dragged another man from his house, fatally shot him, and then planted an AK-47 assault rifle near the body to make it appear he had been killed in a shootout...

"I don't see it as an execution, sir," he told the judge. "I see it as killing the enemy."

He said Marines consider all Iraqi men part of the insurgency.
This is who we are, who we've chosen to become.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Presuppositions and hypotheses

To understand the strong atheist position that it is provable and proven that God does not exist, we have to delve a little deeper into metaphysics to understand the foundation in metaphysical naturalism for this position.

Metaphysics and metaphysical presuppositions are a necessary feature of any logical philosophy, at least under our current conceptions of logic. Although they have some similar features, metaphysical presuppositions are very different from scientific hypotheses.

Both metaphysical presuppositions and hypotheses have the same logical function: They are axioms (a.k.a. premises) from which statements are derived using logical deduction. The difference is that if a statement contradicts a metaphysical presupposition, the statement is considered false. If a statement known to be true contradicts an hypothesis, the hypothesis is considered false. The italicized qualifier is critical: Hypotheses are offered to explain and account for statements known prior to logical deduction to be true.

Note that the definition of "hypothesis" offered above is a metaphysical presupposition. A statement that contradicts that definition is false by virtue of contradicting that definition. Implicit in this metaphysical presupposition is that we cannot know the the truth of any statement independently of deduction from the metaphysical presupposition.

One feature that distinguishes different metaphysical systems is whether the metaphysical system is open or closed. A closed metaphysical system enumerates all the statements that are considered true by definition; only those statements which can be rigorously derived from the metaphysical presuppositions are true. An open metaphysical system gives us some system for adding additional statements which are true by definition, not by derivation.

All empirical metaphysical systems are open by definition because they include the metaphysical presupposition: All statements of subjective experience are known directly to be true or false. (True statements about experience are properly basic).

Technically, from logic and mathematics, an axiom is simply a statement held true by definition; the set of axioms[1] defines a formal system. But because of the traditional use of logic in mathematics, axioms are usually chosen so that interesting statements can be formally derived from those axioms. This procedure works well in mathematics, but, as the Logical Positivists showed and as I discuss in more detail on my series on The Scientific Method, it fails miserably in trying to deal with statements of experience: Even when known directly to be true, statements of experience are too complex to draw any logical deductions from. We thus label statements about experience as evidence to distinguish them from mathematical axioms suitable as a basis for deduction.

Since we cannot straightforwardly draw deductions from experiential statements, we need a different meta-system to do more than simply enumerate such statements. We thus define "ontology": An ontological system is an axiomatic formal system in which true statements about experience are specific theorems of that formal system. In other words, an ontological system is a series of axioms—in the sense that they are suitable for derivation—which logically account for the evidence. Since these ontological axioms are not held by definition to be true in the same sense as metaphysical presuppositions or mathematical axioms, we label them as hypotheses.

There's one more problem: We can derive any finite set of theorems from an infinite number of axiomatic formal systems. At the very least, we can always add an irrelevant axiom—an axiom which does not entail any new theorems or nontheorems—to any axiom set. Therefore we add one additional metaphysical presupposition: If two ontological systems account for the same evidence, then the simpler system, the one with the fewer hypotheses, is better than the more complex system.

To recap, we have three metaphysical presuppositions:
  1. All statements of subjective experience are known directly to be true or false.
  2. An ontological system is an axiomatic formal system in which true statements about experience are specific theorems of that formal system.
  3. If two ontological systems account for the same evidence, then the simpler system, the one with the fewer hypotheses, is better than the more complex system.
This metaphysical system is Metaphysical Naturalism. Notice that Metaphysical Naturalism does not specifically talk about existence, reality, causality, nor does it even specify canonical logic (propositional calculus). All metaphysical naturalism presupposes is subjective experience, non-contradiction, weak countability (strict less-than ordering), and the preference for simplicity.

Given this definition, we are in a position to discuss the existence of God according to Metaphysical naturalism.

Before denying the existence of God, the metaphysical naturalist must assign meaning to the statement, "God exists". This task is rather difficult, since Metaphysical Naturalism does not directly assign any meaning at all to "God" or "exists". The statement, "God exists" is not by itself meaningful according to Metaphysical Naturalism. Because Metaphysical Naturalism only talks about axiomatic formal systems, not specific statements (other than statements of experience, and "God exists" is not a statement of experience), we must embed the statement in some hypothetical formal system, and evaluate the formal system according to Metaphysical Naturalism. This task is non-trivial: Every different sect of every religion defines a different formal system, and there is considerable individual variation even within the same sect. Even so, an examination of the most popular formal systems in which "God exists" is a valid theorem reveals three broad classes which can be evaluated in general:
  1. Trivial definitions (e.g. Einstein's God)
  2. Hypothetical systems
  3. Metaphysical definitions
We can dismiss the first class, which includes definitions of God like "'God' is everything that exists." "God exists" is true in this sense (everything that exists does indeed exist), but so what? We can—as Dawkins notes—"sex up" Metaphysical Naturalism as "pantheism", but we still end up with atheism in the sense implied by most practicing theists, especially as it seems silly to "worship" everything that exists.

Sometimes "God exists" is embedded in a prosaic formal system: "God exists" is an hypothesis in a collection of hypotheses, and the hypothetical system entails statements about experience. (I'll discuss truly metaphysical conceptions of God in a later essay.) What we invariably find, though, is that either the entailment is "degenerate" (the system entails statements like "the sun will rise tomorrow or the sun will not rise tomorrow"), false-to-fact (the system entails that if you pray for something it will be or become true), or are simply irrelevant elaborations of simpler ontological systems.

It is typically on the evaluation of hypothetical ontological formal systems which include "God exists" either as an hypothesis or a theorem which follows from other hypotheses that the atheist denies that "God exists" is true. Furthermore there are a sufficient number of hypothetical ontologies which are specifically false-to-fact that the active denial, "God does not exist," is meaningful and true.

[1] The derivation method also defines the formal system, but almost all formal systems use propositional calculus as a derivation method, so this criterion does not draw many distinctions in ordinary practice.