Monday, December 31, 2007

Reasoning by analogy

Reasoning by analogy is always dangerous. Heinlein gives an amusing example in Starship Troopers:
"It doesn't matter whether it's a thousand - or just one, sir. You fight."

"Aha! The number of prisoners is irrelevant. Good. Now prove your answer."

I was stuck. I knew it was the right answer. But I didn't know why. He kept hounding me. "Speak up, Mr. Rico. This is an exact science. You made a mathematical statement; you must give proof. Someone may claim that you have asserted, by analogy, that one potato is worth the same price, no more, no less, as one thousand potatoes. No?"

"No, sir!"

"Why not? Prove it."

"Men are not potatoes."
(Heinlein is bullshitting us here: Mr. Rico does not actually prove his assertion, he merely rebuts a fallacious counterargument; to construe the rebuttal as a proof is the fallacy fallacy.) But Heinlein does have a point: analogy, metaphor, simile, allegory and other such literary devices can be useful to explain an idea, but they are never useful for proving a point or describing an idea precisely.

Norm Doering and Stephen Law comment on English Bishop Richard Harries' recent article It is possible to be moral without God. I want to note Harries' reliance on two fallacious arguments from analogy.

Harries asks, "How far are we living on moral capital?" The analogy is absurd. In what sense could morality possibly be related to economic capital? Morality is not in any sense at all like equipment in a factory or even money in the bank. We don't use anything up by acting in moral ways, no matter how you construe morality. We really must suspect that Harries is unable, unwilling or just too lazy to give any thought to the actual substance of his remarks.

Harries likens religion to the symphony from which morality is extracted as individual passages:
Take an analogy: someone hears a great piece of music and responds to it in itself. But someone else knows that the piece is part of a symphony and can be even more appreciated when heard as part of the whole in which it has a crucial place. As human beings we can recognise and respond to particular moral insights. But a religious believer claims to understand these as part of a much larger whole in which they have a vital place: in particular, there is a fount and origin of all our moral insights which is good, perfect good, all good, our true and everlasting good. For a Christian, this is above all shown in the willingness of God to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within.
A nice analogy. But is it apt? Is it accurate? Note that Harries does not actually assert that the religious believer understands morality better by putting it in a larger, religious context.

Perhaps most importantly, are our modern moral beliefs even a part of the religion in the first place? It is definitely the case that any citizen of a Western democracy who took the moral assertions of the Christian Bible both seriously and literally would — depending on which he followed first — starve, be imprisoned, or be committed to an insane asylum. Very few modern moral notions — democracy, pluralism, the prohibition of slavery and rape, equal rights for women — can be extracted directly from the Bible, and the Bible enthusiastically supports any number of notions we find today to be atrocious: murder, slavery, rape, human sacrifice, wars of aggression, incest, infanticide... the list goes on and on. One might assert that one can best understand a Bach Cantata in the context of a John Cage symphony.

There is one moral category, however, that necessarily fails by putting morality into a religious context, even the mostly vacuous context of a perfectly good God willing "to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within." The moral values of freedom and liberty for themselves, as a final and not just instrumental good, cannot survive God, especially an intervening God. To contextualize morality in this sense makes obedience the highest meta-value, as a final, and not just instrumental good. What is this "all good" God trying to redeem us from? The original sin of disobedience, of course.

The question isn't whether it's possible to be good without God: the question is whether it's possible to be good with God. The best that we can say is that the socially acceptable behavior of a billion Christians shows that it's possible to be good despite God, or at least despite Christian scripture.

Beelzebub, brooms, beauty parlors and the boy blasphemer

Yes, I'm resurrecting the Top Ten Religious Idiots theme. I'm going to be doing it in a slightly different way: Rather than updating a numbered list, I'll post the individual stories as I find them. When I get ten, I'll publish a list.

Also: About 90% of my religious idiots come from News of the Weird Daily and Fark. To save a little time and typing, I'll just be crediting them as NOTWD and FARK, without a link for each story. I'll continue to link to the primary source.

Today's first religious idiot is Pope Ratzo Benedict, who has decided to give the problem of demonic possession his full attention [NOTWD]. Ratzo is joined by Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests, who fought a pitched battle with brooms in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace [Himself].

Islam gets its turn with Iraqi Muslim extremists concerned with the existential threat of beauty parlors to Islamic society [FARK].

British headmaster Ian Davidson counters the growing threat of militant atheism by barring nine-year-old Douglas Stewart from his class Christmas party because the boy's mother removed him from religious education classes [NOTWD].

Update: PZ Myers has his own list. Himself puts his two cents in as well.

Criticizing evolution

I don't understand why any individual amateur would choose to criticize evolution. Any amateur is hopelessly outnumbered, probably by a factor of 10,000 or 100,000 to 1. Scientists have been working on the various hypotheses and theories under the evolutionary paradigm for more than fifteen decades. Even if they were completely, egregiously wrong, the attempt to prove them wrong seems a Sisyphean task for any individual, much less an amateur. Of course it doesn't help that organizations such as the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis and Harun Yahya have been so frequently caught in inexcusable sloppiness and outright lies. But amateurs do try to criticize evolution, so it's worthwhile going over some basic points.

First, The Barefoot Bum is a philosophy blog, not a science blog. Although I'm scientifically literate, I'm not a professional scientist: I'm a professional engineer and an amateur philosopher. Professional scientists such as PZ Myers, Shalini and the denizens of the IIDB Evolution/Creation forum (and many others) have forgotten more biology than ten people like me will ever learn. If you want to discuss evolution here, I'm much more interested in discussing things like scientific epistemology, metaphysical naturalism, and the ethical implications of evolution. Still, I am scientifically literate, and I'm willing to discuss the science of evolution.

If you're going to criticize what scientists say, it's very important to criticize what scientists actually say, rather than what you want them to say. I understand that demolishing a straw man is easy and satisfying. But straw men are not only fallacious: evolution and its criticism have been around long enough that there is simply no excuse for misrepresenting the scientific position. Misrepresentation is justifiably characterized as a lie.

There's also the pernicious practice of quote mining, taking a statement made by a scientist or philosopher out of context and thus changing its meaning to be critical of evolution. Any time an advocate of evolution seems to say something deeply critical of the endeavor, any reasonable person must be suspicious that something is amiss. Quote mining is lying.

I have better things to do with my time than correct lies about evolution. If you want to lie, do it on your own blog or in a more appropriate venue; I refuse to publish lies.

Here are some specifics:

Evolution is not a scientific theory about the origin of terrestrial life. The origin of terrestrial life is an interesting scientific field in itself (all the more interesting because the evidence is buried under billions of years of history), but it has nothing to do with evolution. Even if the first living thing were intentionally created by a space alien, a deity or the systems administrator of the computer we're all inhabiting, evolutionary theory would not change at all.

No scientific theory in the field of evolution says that the characteristics of modern organisms arose by chance alone. All evolutionary theories discuss the interplay between chance changes to organisms and natural selection; natural selection is driven by physical law, the opposite of chance.

Yes, there have been instances of scientific fraud as well as honest mistakes. Science is an error-correcting endeavor, precisely because errors do arise. What "error" actually means and how errors are corrected is an interesting topic of philosophical inquiry, but Piltdown Man and Haeckel's embryology are not by themselves probative of anything... except perhaps in the sense that scientists have actually discovered and corrected such errors.

Scientists have actually observed speciation.

Radiocarbon dating is accurate to only tens of thousands of years. Scientists employ other methods, including other types of radiometric dating, to establish ages on the order of mega- and giga-years. The validity of radiometric dating is established primarily by nuclear physics and quantum mechanics.

Charles Darwin was not baffled by the eye. His "bafflement" in The Origin of Species was a rhetorical device: he goes on to explain how the eye actually did evolve. This assertion is probably the most famous instance of quote mining. Nor did Darwin renounce evolution on his deathbed. This claim is an outright lie.

Regardless, science is not theology, and no scientist is an authority. Nothing in science is believed just because some scientist, however well-respected, has asserted it. Even Newton, Einstein, Darwin and Feynman had to show their work, and the idea stands or falls on its own merits, independent of the reputation of the person. Darwin himself made mistakes, and those mistakes have been discovered and corrected.

The attitude of scientists and scientific philosophy regarding the "supernatural" is not unique to evolution. I'm more than happy to discuss scientific philosophy, methodological and metaphysical naturalism, in as much (or more) detail as you wish, but philosophically, any argument concerning naturalism applies to all science, not just the sciences of biology, archeology, paleontology, genetics, ecology, etc. which adopt an evolutionary paradigm.

In general, I'm going to evaluate any criticism of evolution by first investigating what Talk.Origins has to say about it. I don't demand that anyone accept Talk.Origins uncritically or at all, but you will save us both a lot of time if you examine their arguments before you comment, and address them within your comment.

And, lastly, the complaint that scientists and advocates of science tend to bury criticism in a flood of information is a non-starter. Rational people settle these sorts of arguments by evaluating the evidence. If there's a ton of evidence against your position, boo hoo, too bad for you.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

On Power

In my previous essay I noted that might does not make right: "Right" is an issue that applies only between parties roughly equal in power. But I left unsaid precisely what I mean by "power".

Power is the ability to coerce someone else. To the extent that I can coerce you, I have power over you. I coerce you whenever I frustrate your will using physical force.

There are many different kinds of power, some, but not all, of them intuitively objectionable. The most obvious kind of power is holding a gun to your head: Do what I tell you or I'll physically kill you. (Presumably you don't want to do it, otherwise why bother to threaten to kill you?) Even such a blatant exercise of power is not always objectionable: It's the sort of power an armed robber uses to coerce a bank teller to give him money, but it's also the power a police officer uses to demand the robber disarm himself. The issue of rights becomes important when a police officer confronts an armed robber precisely because, both having guns, they are roughly equal in power. The sensible officer would prefer not to risk actually shooting it out, therefore he (indirectly) grants the robber certain rights (humane treatment, a fair trial, and finite worst-case consequences) so that the robber himself will also prefer not to shoot it out.

There are other ways of coercing people. When I lock my front door, I am physically coercing everyone who wants to come into my house to take my stuff. And again, we have to introduce the panoply of property rights because the burglar with his crowbar has a rough parity of power with my lock. If I could lock my door well enough to eliminate the possibility of burglary, I wouldn't need laws to protect my property.

I can, in some circumstances, actually coerce someone by dying: If a person wishes to employ my labor, I can frustrate his will by dying. Coercion by dying is not, of course, always effective, but it has been effective in some circumstances.

Why go to all the trouble, then, of talking about these complicated "rights" when you can simply enforce your will by overwhelming strength? There's no a priori answer to this question; if anything Occam's razor suggests that the simplicity of force is superior to the complications of "rights". It is, for instance, definitely the case that human beings do what they can to animals, and animals suffer what they must, so long as people eat meat and compete for territory with animals. If this state of affairs were to change, it would not be because of the arguments of moral philosophers (at least not directly), but rather the actions of humans exerting coercive power for the benefit of animals.

But between human beings, superiority of force sufficient to impose one's will in an unrestricted manner is more difficult than it looks. As noted above, Athens coerced the Melians, Sparta conquered Athens, Phillip of Macedon conquered all of Greece, the Romans conquered most everyone and fell in turn to the barbarians. We can see today the people of tiny, impoverished Iraq fighting the United States Military to a standstill (and probably eventual defeat), as did the Vietnamese in the middle of the twentieth century. The Nazis and the Soviets ruled by force unrestricted to a unique degree in modern times; Africa and India were ruled by brute force in colonial times, and none of these regimes remain in power: The Nazis were defeated, the Soviets collapsed into anarchy and kleptocracy, and the colonial European powers have lost all but a handful of islands.

In human society, "strength" is a matter of mostly organization and will, neither ineluctable. We are the descendants of those who transformed themselves from prey to predator by the force of will and the application of intelligence [the book to read is Blood Rites, by Barbara Ehrenreich]. We can be sure the weak will be applying all their will and brains to gaining strength; should the strong flag even for a moment, the situation could well be (and has been) immediately reversed.

Furthermore, once the paradigm of overwhelming strength becomes dominant, it becomes ever narrower. First a society achieves power over its neighbors, then a faction achieves power over the rest of the society, then an oligarchy achieves strength over the faction, and then a single person achieves power over the oligarchy. When that person dies, there is no infrastructure of rights or institutions concerned with negotiations between equals, and succession often becomes bloody and sometimes suicidal, as we see in the fall of the Roman Empire after a half century of civil war.

Rough equality of power is necessary to make a discourse of rights coherent, but as noted above, it isn't sufficient. And the equality of power necessary to make coherent the discourse of rights is at best only meta-stable and requires conscious attention. The present-day United States is a case in point: all the institutions — notably the press and the opposition political party — that are supposed to provide negative feedback loops to maintain a rough equality of power between the people and the government are failing, leaving us to the cruder, brutal negative feedback loops of physical reality.

My thesis is twofold: First, that rights become coherent only when there is equality of power. Second, that societies based primarily on overwhelming power — i.e. where rights are incoherent — are unstable in the medium- and long-term.

The present structure of Chinese society and government, about which I am almost completely ignorant, might well form a decisive counterexample to my thesis. They seem to lack the democratic institutions typically employed by Western countries to maintain equality between the people and the government, but they do not appear to be spiraling into autocracy, aggression for its own sake or dangerous delusions, and their economy seems as robust as the West's near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Clearly they have some internal structures preventing suicidal insanity, unmovable stasis and widespread rebellion. (The Communist revolution in the twentieth century decisively demonstrates that the Chinese people can in fact rebel.) Are "rights" coherent in Chinese society? If so, are the structures which make rights coherent based in some subtle way on an equality of power between the people and the government? If not, how does Chinese society achieve stability without rights? Of course, Chinese Communism is barely five decades old. It has lasted longer than other non-democratic societies, but is still an order of magnitude younger than Western Enlightenment.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Might makes right?

The origin of the concept of "might makes right" is often attributed to Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue. But it is instructive to read Thucydides' words carefully:
[R]ight, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
But this quotation does not express the idea that "might makes right"; when there is an imbalance of power, there is no right; right "is only in question between equals in power."

This is an important passage, because it states a descriptive truth about the world: normative values are applicable only between equals; when there is an imbalance of power, there are no normative values at all, no "right", just the strong exerting their will upon the weak. Might does not make "make" anything; might is might, no more, and, more importantly, no less. Anyone who reads this statement as "might makes right" has failed to comprehend the meaning of ordinary language.

The Athenians are stronger than the Melians, and demand tribute on that basis. The Melians object on various normative principles, refuse to submit, and are conquered. Quelle surprise. Of course, Athens is later conquered by Sparta, but who are they to complain?

That "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" is a truth about the world, true whether you or I like it or not (I don't like it much myself, but there it is), and anyone who denies this truth has failed to draw basic conclusions from not only the study of history but also the reality of police and prisons. Normative values must take second place to truth: No matter how much you deserve to walk on the Moon, you must first learn rocket science to get there. Likewise, to even talk about notions of "right", you must first achieve parity of power.

Philosophers, especially ethical philosophers, are sometimes said to long for an argument so compelling that one's head would literally explode if it were not accepted. Such a desire is, of course, a longing for power, not truth. Of course, the real truth does — if you do not believe it — make your head explode, or literally gets you eaten by a tiger, smashed at the bottom of a cliff, or conquered by Athens.

When I was a Cub Scout, lo, these many years ago, I was taught a short rhyme: "Here lies the body of Jonathan Day / Died for insisting on his right of way." If you walk in front of a speeding car, it matters not in the least that two thousand years of ethical philosophy and legal reasoning make you absolutely 100% right and the driver 100% wrong: You will be dead and he won't be.

The lesson is simple: The Melians were stupid. They were "right", and they ended up dead. The better strategy would have been to suffer what they must, gain power, and negotiate as equals. Athens too failed to heed the advice Thucydides puts in their mouths. Exactly equal parity is not strictly necessary; it is necessary only to have enough power to make negotiation rationally desirable. Had Athens and Sparta negotiated the "right" as equals or near-equals when their power was near parity, The Athenians might well have avoided their own conquest.

If you want to talk about right, first acquire equality of power. If you have power, be careful: your opponent might not be as weak as he seems.

Jon Swift is a deity

Just for his writing, we can safely conclude that Jon Swift is a genius. But that's not all. Jon Swift is incredibly generous with his blogroll, giving exposure and support to hundreds of bloggers (myself included), many (myself not included) given the cold shoulder by the liberal blogging elite, and for this we must call him a hero. Most people would be well satisfied to just stop there, but Jon Swift gives us more.

He's asked all the members of his blogroll to offer their best post of 2007, and he's published them today. And not only does he just give us the links, it appears he's actually read each offering and supplied witty capsule summaries for them all.

No other conclusion can stand the test of reason: Jon Swift is a god among bloggers. Go there, and worship in awe.

Benazir Bhutto killed

According to the BBC, Benazir Bhutto has been killed, apparently in a suicide bombing.

(thanks to Himself)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Appeasement and Censorship

I am, like Christopher Hitchens and very much like Shalini, an "angry" atheist. I have nothing but contempt for religion, supernaturalism, woo-woo, and secular philosophical bullshit, and I'm more than willing to say so in no uncertain terms. I don't think simple rational argument is enough. If people really could be swayed by simple rational argument, we would have been rid of supernatural bullshit a thousand years ago. It's really not that difficult intellectually; you don't have to be a genius.

The fundamental problem that I see are the socially constructed values which promote supernaturalism and deprecate naturalism. The problem is not that we haven't thought the issues through well enough, the problem is that all human societies, including Western civilization, deprecate to some extent the activity of thinking things through and accepting the conclusions. Values are facts, not rational conclusions, and cannot be established by truth-seeking discourse. They must be established by propaganda and negotiation.

Truth-seeking discourse is still an important and indispensable tool. Many arguments for supernaturalist claims use truth-seeking discourse as a model, and it's important to be able to rationally deconstruct and disprove these truth-claims. If you're going to call someone a liar and a bullshit artists, it's important to be able to prove these labels. But, on the other hand, you need not stop at deconstruction and disproof: you can then go on to employ specifically pejorative labels.

I don't just think it's possible, I think it's important to do so. I think it's important to say out loud that there are not only millions of rational naturalists who disagree with the religious, superstitious and supernaturalists, but also that there are a lot of people who hold such ideas in contempt. I'm in favor of some degree of tolerance and pluralism, but I have my limits. And lies and bullshit, essential components of supernaturalism, cross some of those limits. So I speak up and say what I say.

Not everyone has the same opinion. Some atheists favor a more friendly approach. Good for them. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. More power to 'em. I have been, on occasion, intolerant of such people in the past for no better reason than they choose a different approach to promoting rationalism and naturalism. I was wrong and I apologize.

Friendly atheists (as a class, not just Hemant) do not use pejorative words, but still hold the line that supernaturalism is still wrong. They may not call you a liar and a bullshit artist to your face, but they will still point out the falsity and fallacy in your supernaturalism and the suffering it creates. Fair enough.

I'm not, however, going to apologize for my hostility towards appeasement and rhetorical censorship. These positions go beyond mere advocacy of friendliness.

Appeasement entails that we recognize superstition and supernaturalism as "just as good" as rationalism and naturalism, that the conflict between supernaturalism and naturalism is a fundamentally irreconcilable difference of opinion, of no more moment than chocolate vs. vanilla, or classical vs. punk rock. Appeasement is often based on appeals to "pluralism" and "tolerance".

I'll hammer on DJW yet again: "A society that contains deep disagreements regarding these sorts of questions will be benefited by deep pluralism and ecumenicalism." There can be no misinterpreting DJW's position: If there is deep disagreement about "these sorts of questions" (questions on which DJW does not have a strong opinion?) no one should judge the other position.

I'll hammer on Robert Farley yet again: "Dawkins statement [that teaching Catholicism to children is more harmful than child sexual abuse]... isn't just illiberal; it's virtually totalitarian," for no better reason than that, if true, we might then use the violent oppression of the state to prohibit the religious indoctrination of children by the threat of torture.

The enormity of this appeasement is staggering. It is very clear that the truth or falsity of Dawkins' opinions is not immediately relevant to DJW's or Farley's argument. DJW says that "In addition to being demonstrably false, this view is an awful and appalling thing to say." In addition to is the key phrase here. If Dawkins view were simply false, why not condemn it for being false? Why condemn it for reasons other than its falsity? It's important to note that neither DJW nor Farley actually demonstrates the "demonstrable" falsity of Dawkins' statement.

If Dawkins' statement is bad for reasons other than its truth or falsity, we must therefore conclude that it would be bad even if it were true. Therefore, we must conclude that DJW and Robert Farley would (in theory) condone an activity as harmful as child sexual abuse in the name of "deep pluralism and ecumencalism."

I have to repeat: I don't condemn DJW and Farley for disagreeing with Dawkins. If Dawkins' statement really were false, it would be perfectly acceptable and entirely sufficient to demonstrate its falsity and then, if they were so moved, condemn Dawkins for error, stupidity or mendacity. But to condemn the statement because it is "virtually totalitarian*" or non-pluralist in addition to perhaps being false, is to imply that the condemnation would still stand even Dawkins were correct.

*I really would like Farley to explain precisely how it is "virtually totalitarian" to use the violent oppression of the state to prevent children from being threatened with hellfire and damnation. Especially since such threats establish priests' coercive authority facilitating the sexual abuse Dawkins uses as comparison.

Shalini objects to some atheists' rhetorical censorship: demands that angry atheists sit down and shut up, not because our position is false, but because it "hurts the cause". Rhetorical censorship is not so egregious and despicable as appeasement, but it's still profoundly objectionable.

It's a bullshit position for several reasons. First, it's not demonstrably true: how does anyone know angry atheism is hurting any cause other than the cause of appeasement, tolerance and respect for supernaturalism, which we're explicitly trying to hurt? Furthermore, precisely what cause are they talking about? My statements may hurt their cause, whatever it might be, but my cause is different: I'm not particularly interested in converting individual theists. I explicitly want to make it so that supernaturalists — i.e. theists, woo-woos, and bullshit artists in general — ashamed, embarrassed, defensive, and ultimately socially marginalized in polite society.

Third, why should I shut up just because I'm hurting any cause? One of the causes I support is that people should, with few restrictions*, say whatever the hell they damn well please. Advocate anything you please: Child molestation, Nazism, Stalinism, Catholicism, Islam, or mopery on the high seas. I'll tell you why I think you're wrong, I'll tell you that I disagree so profoundly that I hold your opinions in contempt and disgust, but I'll never explicitly demand that you shut up just because I don't like what you have to say.

*specifically advocating extra-legal violence, lying, and negligently repeating lies.

Please note that I don't demand the appeasers or censors shut up. I grant them every right to say what they please, and I demand only the same right to say that they're full of shit.

I'm an angry atheist, and damn proud of it. If you don't like it, tough. Go start your own blog.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Humanism and the Hijab

In response to The Apostate's mighty rant, a muse u offers her personal experiences regarding the hijab:
my assumptions and western conditioning were challenged when I lived in a moderate Muslim country for several months.

I had the opportunity to experience cover as a westerner passing for local on a temporary basis. ...

When I returned to the states, NYC first, I missed the cover. I missed the freedom of not being hit on constantly, not having to think about who i was turning on. ... Now, in my western way, I fend off such advances with 30lbs of fat added to my frame.

I’m not defending Veils or Hijab, nor am I pretending we are as free as many may think we are here. I simply felt the desire to share a glimpse of an experience I had that challenged my assumptions.
Very central to this experience is that it was fundamentally voluntary. Even though it was taken to conform to a culture, the commenter was visiting voluntarily and could (and did) leave whenever she pleased without harm or loss.

In most Islamic cultures, the hijab is coerced, not just by social pressure, but also by legal and extra-legal violence. Conformance to an act enforced by violence cannot be in any sense "liberating". At the very best, such conformance is a tolerable submission, the sacrifice of a smaller value for a larger. (For example, by conforming to violently enforced laws against stealing, I sacrifice the lesser value of being able to arbitrarily take property for the larger value of protecting my lawfully acquired property. It is still the case that not stealing cannot be actually "liberating"; it is still a sacrifice, albeit tolerable.)

There's no evidence, no good argument, that women in Islamic culture acquire any larger value by their act of submission in donning the hijab. Actual sexual exploitation is prevalent in Islamic culture; it merely takes different forms than in the West. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh's film Submission dramatizes the submission of women's sexuality in toto in Islamic culture. It is clear that the stated instrumental value of the hijab — to protect women from sexual exploitation — is a hypocritical lie. It actually facilitates male sexual exploitation; we must conclude it exists in Islamic culture entirely to disempower and subordinate women, not only sexually but socially and individually.

That the commenter personally found it liberating and instrumental in avoiding sexual exploitation is due to the entirely different semiotics of the act in Western culture.

There is a deep paradox in social constructs such as the hijab. On the one hand, it seems intuitive that ideally everyone should be permitted to fully express his or her sexuality*; ideally one should not have to take any individual measures at all, much less measures that undermine one's own sexuality, to fend off unwanted advances or otherwise avoid exploitation. These measures should, in the ideal case, be entirely the responsibility of the legal system, not the individual.

*subject, of course, to the more general ethical constraints of consent and reciprocity. All further ethical assertions include this proviso.

On the other hand, people have the feelings they have — good, bad and indifferent — about sexuality; these feelings are just as much facts about a person's nature as any of their other genetically, socially or idiosyncratically constructed feelings.

Furthermore, there are a lot of people who behave in oppressive and exploitative ways, and it would be nonsense to demand for any reason that someone not protect herself against such behavior in whatever way she sees fit.

No one can fault an individual for trying to adapt and behave so as to maximize her own happiness and minimize her suffering, no matter how she happen to be, no matter how she constructs happiness and suffering. On the other hand, any time an individual appears to diminish himself to negotiate society, any person with a broader vision of human happiness than the purely individual must be concerned.

So, on the one hand, I don't fault at all any individual woman who wears the hijab, nor do I fault any individual woman for putting on 30 lbs. of unwanted fat to avoid unwanted attention. On the other hand, I definitely fault the social and cultural constructs that push women into making these choices which, to my mind, make them choose between how to diminish themselves and take away the choices which would augment themselves.

... to segue to more abstract theoretics...

It is entirely possible to have an entirely different judgment of an act at the individual level and at the social and cultural level. I have to presume that every individual's choices are taken to maximize her own happiness and minimize her own suffering; I can judge an individual's actions only on the direct and foreseeable effect of those actions on other people. But on a social level, I have to judge socially constructed actions on their effects on an idealized individual, on my opinion about how a person should be.

Without this standard, I cannot judge at all; I cannot make any comparisons at all. I cannot judge Nazi Germany, I cannot judge Stalinist Russia, I cannot judge the dystopian society of 1984. I cannot even judge the elements in my own society that lead to the commenter's own suffering: I can no more condemn the men who make unwanted advances than I can condemn her response. Without appeal to the ideal individual, I cannot say anything but observe that each person "legitimately" tries to maximize his own happiness and minimize his own suffering. I cannot even apply the provisos of consent and reciprocity.

All ethical judgments must reference some conception of the ideal individual, and that idealization is a matter of individual opinion, not truth. There is no other basis on which one can judge. All other bases reduce to this opinion. There is only more or less honesty in admitting and being explicit about this basis.

The difference between modernism and "good" (or coherent) postmodernism is the postmodernist admission that the basis of ethical judgment is individual. Good postmodernism differs from bullshit postmodernism in that the good postmodernist has the "existential courage" to actually make judgments on the authority of her opinion; the bullshit postmodernist just wraps his judgments in a flavor of bullshit different from modernism.

Because I am a human being, I make and express judgments. Because I am myself, I make the particular judgments I make. Because I recognize that my judgment reduces to my opinion (my opinion, moreover, about something, the ideal individual, that does not actually exist) I express my judgments in words rather than going around hitting people on the head when they do not agree with me.

Because I do judge, I judge Islam to be odious, which seems to piss off a lot of people who call themselves liberal. I'm very explicit: my ideal individual has nothing to do with being white, or Christian (ha!), or doing any of the cultural things I enjoy as an American. My ideal individual is happy, avoids physical suffering, and, most importantly chooses as she herself pleases. Full stop. It is against that standard and only that standard that I judge.

On the other hand, because I know my opinion is in fact an opinion, I don't support making war or violently repressing a culture I consider odious, which seems to piss off a lot of people who call themselves conservative.

Happily, I'm used to pissing most everyone off and it doesn't bother me in the least.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Analytic Philosophy

A friend of mine turned me on to Colin McGinn's blog. McGinn seems to operate in the mode of the "Socratic provocateur"; he asks open ended questions to generate discussion. I responded to a few of the questions there; since I'm out of ideas for what to write today, I'll repost my responses here. I hope McGinn will not object to my reproducing his questions in full.
The paradox of infallibility: It has been generally supposed that certain self-ascriptions, such as "I am in pain", are infallible. This seems right. However, it is clear enough that the self-ascriptive thought is not identical to the state ascribed: the pain isn't the same as the thought about it. This means that these are "distinct existences", in the Humean sense. But if they are distinct existences, they can be conceived apart, which implies that they are contingently connected. So there must be worlds in which the ascription occurs without the state ascribed--which would make the ascription false. So the ascription is fallible. How then can we maintain infallibility while accepting that distinct existences are contingently connected? This is the puzzle of infallibility. How can the metaphysics (distinct existences) be made to fit with the epistemology (infallibility)?
The theorem "2+2=4" seems distinct enough from, i.e. not identical to, each of the axioms of arithmetic and the derivation rules of propositional calculus. But of course "2+2=4" is a theorem in *all* possible worlds where the axioms are true and the derivation rules sound; one could, I think, legitimately say that 2+2=4 is both distinct and infallibly a theorem of arithmetic. It would thus appear that there is an enthymeme in the argument which is, if not definitely false, then at least poorly-defined.

Do we need ontological infallibility, though, especially when infallibility is explicitly discussed in an epistemic sense? Could we not simply look at at epistemic "infallibility" as simply the impossibility of knowing one was wrong? What's the difference, in pragmatic, practical terms, between a belief which is actually true and a belief which is logically impossible to determine is false? To even differentiate these sorts of beliefs, would we not need to gratuitously introduce ontological elements which have no explanatory power?

I must also dissent from affirming that "phantom" pain from a missing limb is in any sense a canonical example of a specifically false pain. It would seem that on a simple, scientific view, the experience of such pain is just as genuine as the experience of pain that results from actual stimulation of the peripheral nerves. In other words, if we use some super-duper sensor to look at people's brains, we would find brain states similar in all respects.

Indeed, just because we might hypothesize two entities: the experience of pain and the self-ascription of pain, does that mean that there is necessarily an essentialist definition of either? We might, rather, define a "pain experience" as just that sort of experience necessary to elicit the corresponding self-ascription. We might then be able to talk about pain experiences in reductive, neurological terms, but that reduction would depend on the more fundamental operational definition, and the reduction would apply at best only to typical human beings or perhaps might always be idiosyncratic.
Whence Value? Is something valuable because we value it or do we recognize value in something that it has independently of being valued? (Compare: is something good because the gods say it's good or is goodness something that the gods in their wisdom recognize?) One way to answer this question is to ask if there can be mistakes of value--this suggesting that value is logically independent of valuing. Consider a tribe that eats both carrots and broccoli. Both nourish them and taste equally good. They have value. However, the religion of the tribe decrees (for no good reason) that carrots are the godlier vegetable and dedicates a good deal of reverence and ritual to the act of carrot eating. They regard carrots as of far more value than broccoli. Aren't they simply wrong about this? Carrots and broccoli have equal value, in fact ("objectively"), but they are mistaken about this; they have been misled by their religious ideology. (Compare the value placed on chastity in our religious tradition.) Thus, value is not determined by valuing.
I think the McGinn's argument fails on a number of fundamental points.

Let us assume arguendo that valuing really does not determine value. In this case, however, we must admit not only "latent" value (value that is not valued) but also "hallucinatory" value (specifically the "wrong" valuing that McGinn ascribes to the tribe's differentiation between carrots and broccoli). Since we have to grant both, there is no mutually determinable way for McGinn and the tribe to resolve their difference: McGinn might be correct that the tribe is engaging in "hallucinatory" value, but it is equally plausible that the tribe might be correct: they have discovered a "latent" value to which McGinn is blind. Separating value from valuing thus does not epistemically differ from conflating value and valuing: a difference which makes no difference is no difference.

The notion that the experience of eating carrots is identical (and thus deserves the same value) as the experience of eating broccoli depends on the same sort of essentialist definition of experience I denied in my comment to The paradox of infallibility above. If we admit to only an operational definition of experience, then we can infer identity of experience only from identity of reportage. In this case, since the tribe makes different reports about eating the different vegetables, we have no basis in evidence for concluding that the experiences are identical. And again, we might find a neurologically reductive explanation, but that reductive explanation, being dependent on the operational definition, would therefore not be an essential definition.
The Constitution of Value: It is often held that something has value only in virtue of being valued by some evaluative being: value is conferred on something by the attitude of valuing. This is supposed to be true even of pleasure. But is the act of valuing itself something that has value? If not, it is hard to see how it could confer value on other things. But if it does have value, then it must do so in virtue of some further act of valuing. Then that valuing in turn must either lack value or have it in virtue of a further act of valuing. An infinite regress results from the latter horn of the dilemma. Therefore, not all value can be had in virtue of acts or attitudes of valuing. Pleasure, for example, is valuable in itself, irrespective of whether anyone regards it as valuable.
I think the first sentence of the post, "It is often held that something has value only in virtue of being valued by some evaluative being: value is conferred on something by the attitude of valuing," is so deeply idiomatic and metaphorical that it cannot serve as a basis for any deep philosophical investigation. Under coherent subjectivist views of valuation, things don't have value. Full stop. There are only evaluative beings making evaluations. Value is not ever "conferred" in any literal sense.

That we speak of things or states having value is simply an idiomatic metaphor. We employ the metaphor because language has to be initially socially constructed by appeal to the physical, extrinsic properties of real objects, and is therefore biased towards those sorts of descriptions.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rhetorical Censorship

Censorship is, in the descriptive sense, any action which tends to restrict speech, to leave some thoughts unspoken (or unwritten or unpublished). It ranges from the threat to imprison or otherwise employ the power of the state to coercively prevent someone from speaking to an editor's decision to not publish some article or commentary, even to an individuals decision not to speak his own mind.

Not all censorship is intolerable. The First Amendment notwithstanding, even coercive government censorship is relatively uncontroversial in some cases, notably libel and criminal conspiracy. But it is still a deep tenet of liberal values that censorship is objectionable enough that we should restrict its public application to only the most egregiously objectionable and immediately dangerous speech.

I have noticed recently that a form of censorship is rearing its ugly head in supposedly liberal circles: Rhetorical censorship, public speech which asserts that some ideas should not be spoken. (Rhetorical censorship is, of course, already commonplace in batshit crazy conservative circles.)

I want to distinguish rhetorical censorship from simple criticism. Simple criticism is arguing (or just calling) some idea false, erroneous, ugly or just plain stupid. Simple criticism is censorious: we ordinarily do not wish to make false or stupid statements. I wish to restrict rhetorical censorship to the sense of directly asserting that some ideas should not be spoken, and the implication that some idea should not be spoken irrespective of its intrinsic qualities.

I find rhetorical censorship, in this narrow sense, entirely objectionable.

Here some examples of rhetorical censorship in liberal circles:
In addition to being demonstrably false, this view is an awful and appalling thing to say, and [Dawkins] clearly deserves strong criticism for it. ["New Atheism"]
Notice the phrasing of the proviso: In addition to being demonstrably false. Why this proviso? Isn't being demonstrably false sufficient reason to deserve criticism? Clearly DJW wishes to condemn Dawkins for reasons other than the truth or falsity of his statement. DJW thus explicitly moves his remarks from simple criticism to rhetorical censorship.

DJW immediately contradicts himself: "A society that contains deep disagreements regarding these sorts of questions will be benefited by deep pluralism and ecumenicalism." Apparently "deep pluralism and ecumenicalism" does not include, at least in DJW's view, value judgments he himself finds disagreeable.

Another form of rhetorical censorship is drawing obviously unwarranted or false inferences from some idea, and condemning the idea based on those inferences. Robert Farley's follow-up to DJW's comments illustrates this form of rhetorical censorship:
Dawkins statement on Catholicism... isn't just illiberal; it's virtually totalitarian. ... Dawkins is, essentially, arguing that raising children as Catholic is worse than sexually abusing them. Since we all agree that sexually abusing children merits the violent retribution of the state, the next logical step is pretty much unavoidable.
The next logical step — on batshit crazy alternative definitions of "logical" — presumably being that raising children as Catholic merits the violent retribution of the state. The supposed logic here is so specious that simple error fails as an explanation; we can only decide whether gross stupidity or intentional mendacity is the more charitable explanation.

(We can, of course, apply the same reasoning to Farley's own comments. Farley calls Dawkins "virtually totalitarian". Since we all agree that totalitarianism justifies not only the violent retribution of the state but actual warfare, the next logical step is pretty much unavoidable.)

Like DJW, Farley goes on to contradict himself and defines liberalism "as, in large part, a political recognition of the fact of pluralism." Again, we have to suppose that Farley considers that pluralism does not encompass strong negative value judgments, at least those he finds disagreeable.

We see another example in James F. Elliott's exposition on liberal commenters who are "ready to drown Saletan in the waters of reactionary tolerance" for his egregiously stupid series on the (nonexistent) correlation between ethnicity and intelligence. Again, it is one thing to criticize Saletan for being mistaken (and grossly negligent); it is another to criticize him as being racist for merely discussing the subject. If reality were racist (which, according to sound science, it is not), so much the worse for our ethical beliefs about race.

It is blatant hypocrisy to condemn any speech for being somehow illiberal. Liberalism and pluralism holds that every idea, even the idea that liberalism itself is bad, deserves to be honestly condemned or praised on its merits.

We all take some shortcuts. I judge right off the bat that anyone who affirms a correlation between race and intelligence, a global conspiracy of Jewish bankers, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the existence of God is either a moron, a liar or an infantile shit-disturber. Not because it's inherently bad to affirm these beliefs, regardless of their truth, but rather because I've investigated these ideas thoroughly enough that I'm satisfied they're actually false.

It is unwarranted, however, to infer from these "shortcuts" an approval for rhetorical censorship, that certain kinds of criticism are inherently objectionable and illiberal and should not for that reason be spoken. Every new argument must be evaluated on its inherent merits, not on the mere fact of its criticality. Without this basic tenet, liberalism is incoherent and begins to label merely a new brand of totalitarian dogma.

Atheist Fundamentalism

We return to the the old canard of "atheist fundamentalism" yet again with a piece of inane bullshit excreted by The Archbishop of Wales, Dr. Barry Morgan. The poor quality of this work casts serious doubts on the basic standards of those who granted him a doctorate and any sort of position of responsibility or authority.

The phrase "atheist fundamentalism" is an oxymoron: There are no "fundamentals" on which any atheist can rely: no scripture, no canonical interpretation, no authority. Anyone who uses the phrase "atheist fundamentalism" or its derivatives is using doublespeak, and has no regard at all for basic standards of precision in language. It's ironic too: "fundamentalism" is a rhetorical stand-in for "violent extremism" precisely because religious fundamentalists — in the descriptive sense of those who rely exclusively on traditional religious scriptural authority — are so often violent extremists.

Dr. Morgan mistakes atheism for secularism, the idea that religion ought to be excluded from government and arenas, such as the workplace, where individuals do not have free choice to participate. The terrible effects that Dr. Morgan attributes to "atheist fundamentalism" are nothing more than:
  • councils calling Christmas "Winterval"
  • Schools refusing to put on nativity plays
  • hospitals removing all Christian symbols from their chapels
  • schools refusing to allow children to send Christmas cards with a Christian message.
  • things like "airlines refusing staff the freedom to wear a cross round their necks"
But the worst, the very worst, sin of atheist fundamentalism is that it holds "that religion in general and Christianity in particular have no substance" and views faith as "superstitious nonsense." We can only cry out, "Oh! the humanity!" at such egregious oppression leading to the suffering of dozens. We must admire Dr. Morgan's forbearance in not adding divorce, abortion, animal cruelty, mopery on the high seas, poor television programming, and the difficulty of finding a plumber on Sunday to the list of atheist fundamentalism's deleterious effects.

Of course, Dr. Morgan does not tell us precisely how atheist fundamentalism is undermining the bedrock of Western Civilization (I mean, really: were it not for Nativity plays in school, we'd still be living in caves.) He can say only that atheist fundamentalism "leads to the language of expulsion and exclusivity, of extremism and polarisation, and the claim that, because God is on our side, he is not on yours." [emphasis added]

I would really like to know how atheist fundamentalism leads to any sort of positive claims about God. Perhaps I missed a memo from the Evil Atheist Conspiracy. In an amusing bit of sophistry he characterizes atheist fundamentalist attacks as ""virulent, almost irrational". Almost irrational? Almost irrational means rational, just as almost pregnant means not pregnant. We must ask whether Dr. Morgan's words are connected to anything even remotely resembling a thought process.

It's a fair cop that secularism does indeed adopt the language of at least expulsion and exclusion: Secularists wish to expel and exclude religion from government. Secularism is, of course, a position that benefits the religious as much as atheists. (Perhaps more: atheists are irritated by government-supported religion, but members of minority religions might find their immortal souls in jeopardy.) Of course, as a member of the state supported religion, Dr. Morgan might lose his fat taxpayer-supported paycheck if the UK ever got serious about secularism, but I'm sure this fact doesn't bias Dr. Morgan's opinion at all.

Dr. Morgan is not some obscure blogger or anonymous commenter. He's not just a priest, he's an Archbishop. And someone has given him a doctorate. I cannot even hope to damn the vacuity, stupidity, inanity and outright corruption of religion as effectively as has Dr. Morgan.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Good" theology

A frequent criticism of atheism is that we concentrate on the "bad" theology. George Carlin's notion that
[T]here's an invisible man who lives in the sky and watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And who has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do.

And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to remain and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, till the end of time. But he loves you!
is obviously absurd, and atheists are doing a disservice to religion by focusing on such absurd notions.

Let's — at least for the moment — take theologians such as John Haught at their word. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that these theologians have indeed constructed a viable, sensible, not-too-illogical theology that, while it might not engender agreement with atheists, at least legitimately escapes our obloquy.

Even granted this assumption, though, something goes thud instead of ding. If it were really the case that the good theology could escape the atheist critique aimed at ridiculous "invisible man in the sky" theologies, why do the good theologians spend so much time criticizing atheism?

There are hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people who really do believe in theologies which at best differ from "invisible man in the sky" theologies by a little obfuscation of the underlying absurdity. Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, etc. ad nauseam have millions, tens of millions of followers. There are millions of cdesign proponentsists, and they have tons of money, and they have taken over several school boards, including the entire Texas state education bureaucracy. And that's not to mention hundreds of millions of Muslims. I could go on, but we all read the news; you know exactly what I'm talking about. I know that not everybody believes this nonsense, but a hell of a lot of people do believe it.

If the "good" theologians could really escape the opprobrium and criticism atheists such as Dawkins' level at "bad" theology, why not make common cause with us? It's not like The American Atheists put out press releases reading, "Protest scheduled after minister says, 'Jesus is love.'" We go after the people and ideas that the "good" theologians ought to agree are bastards, assholes, hatemongers, and outright con-men. The atheist critique of religion is motivated by the suffering that the "bad" religions impose and the happiness they prevent. As far as humanism goes, we're all on the same side, we just contextualize it differently. We atheists would be doing nothing but driving people from "bad" religion right into the arms of the "good" theologians. And this would be a good thing, right?

Apparently not. All of these "good" theologians — without any exceptions that I'm aware of — go after atheism. Earlier this year, I was treated to a supposedly "good" theologian — a philosophy professor, no less — who assured me that God did not exist, and then spent thousands of words criticizing (quite dishonestly) The God Delusion for... wait for it... trying to prove that God did not exist.

The "good" theologians have to go after atheism, because we atheists and rationalists are aiming at the foundation of both "bad" and "good" religion: lies and bullshit. The "good" theologians know we're coming after them next. They can defend themselves from atheist, rationalist critique only at the cost of defending "bad" religion from the same critique.

The difference between "good" and "bad" theology is the element of humanism: "Good" theology is humanist: it concerns itself with human happiness and well-being. "Bad" theology is anti-humanist to the degree that it tolerates human suffering for supposedly "transcendent" reasons. But "good" theology really is just somewhat more humanist than "bad" theology. If it were completely humanist, it would cease to be any kind of theology at all. I don't care whether or not God wants me to be happy; I want to be happy all on my own.

Supposedly "good" theologians are — like "bad" theologians — engaged in a "bait-and-switch" operation. They want to first convince you that God wants you to be happy, and then they want to tell you what it means to be happy. It's what they say God says happiness is. But the notion is absurd: You already know what it means to be happy. A person can be in the dark only on the point of how to achieve happiness, and how to reconcile their happiness with the happiness of others. These are the domains of psychologists and politicians, not theologians. It is indeed the case that the clergy — to the extent that they are not simply useless parasites — are indeed nothing more or less than psychologists and politicians.

Any theologian, good, bad or indifferent, to be writing as a theologian and not as a politician or as a scientific psychologist or sociologist, has to convince you that he knows what God thinks is good (or that he knows what schizophrenic iron-age barbarians knew what God thinks) in a way that you fundamentally cannot know. To do so, he must employ lies and bullshit, because there is (at best) no way to detect falsity in theology.

The problem with lies and bullshit is not that they always lead to immediate badness. You can justify anything, good, bad, or indifferent, using lies and bullshit. You can even justify completely rational, scientifically justified ideas using lies and bullshit. And that's the deeper problem. Once someone learns to like the taste of bullshit, they will actually swallow anything. Even the best theologian can justify only good ideas, but he won't live forever and the next bullshitter might not be such a great guy.

Pope Ratzo is a nicer guy than Fred Phelps (I know, not a high bar). In just the same way, Deepak Chopra is more sincere and helpful than outright frauds such as Silvia Browne or Uri Geller. But the nice, sincere people must protect the frauds because what undermines one undermines the other. Take away the lies and bullshit, and Ratzo would have to get a real job, Chopra would have to do actual research, and that's hard work. They're not going to jump off the gravy train just because a few assholes are hanging on.

Transhumanism and Transsimianism

Aaron Diaz of Dresden Codak gives us a compelling defense of transhumanism in his spot-on satire of anti-transhumanism arguments, Enough is Enough: A Thinking Ape’s Critique of Trans-Simianism. Thog (Professor of Finding an Animal and then Killing It, The University of the Woods) expresses his incredulity that transcending the limitations of simian thought might be either feasible or desirable.
Notice that Klomp cherry-picks discoveries to better support his argument of an exponential growth. It took more than a million years to develop fire and the hand-ax, and yet Klomp [unjustifiably and ahistorically] believes simply because it took only 2,000 years to develop bows and arrows that new inventions will spring up in even shorter timeframes. ...

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that such a post-simian future is possible or even probable. Is it really a world we should want to strive for, where our very ape nature is stripped away in the name of efficiency? Technologies such as the bow and arrow already desimianize the act of hunting. While our ancestors were able to experience the pure ape feeling of clubbing an animal to death with a rock, we are left with the cold, sterilized bow that kills cleanly and quickly from a safe distance. This separation from basic daily activities is a slippery slope. What would happen if we no longer had to gather fruits and nuts, and they simply grew wherever we wanted them, or had drinking water flow right to our feet instead of wandering in search of streams for days? These seeming conveniences would rob us of what it means to be an ape.

On the one hand, unless we exterminate ourselves, transhumanism is not only possible, but inevitable, and a transhuman society will be evaluated by their desires, not ours. On the other hand, professor Thag is correct (as are his contemporary counterparts): we cannot even imagine the nature of a transhuman society.

That transhumanism is possible is easy to see: One need only identify those aspects of the modern world where quantitative improvements are possible and likely to have a qualitative effect. We know we can improve the minimum, average and median quality of life for the current population of the planet by at least an order of magnitude using existing technology. Many of our current economic problems are due to overproduction, and just reducing arms and defense production — currently employed mostly to promulgate and defend unfalsifiable bullshit ideologies — would have an immediate and substantial impact on the quality of life. Even our environmental problems are caused in no small part by large-scale structural inefficiencies; in the United States primarily by having people typically live far from their work.

We know that we capture and put to use only a fraction of the energy differential created by the sunlight that reaches Earth, and only a minuscule, almost infinitesimal fraction of the Sun's overall power. Where there is energy available, life will evolve to make use of it: that population and wealth will grow by many orders of magnitude is not only possible but inevitable.

Another fairly obvious modern trend is the growing focus on non-physical, intellectual wealth, wealth that derives its value not from the labor, materials and energy applied to its creation but rather the thought applied.

Medical technology continues to advance, and our understanding of the fundamentals of biochemistry is still in its infancy. The potential for just a single order-of-magnitude increase in human lifespan — at least for some people — seems fairly obvious.

These are foreseeable quantitative improvements, and that they are both possible and desirable in the short term make them inevitable. But quantitative improvements, especially when they are even moderately large — i.e. less than one order of magnitude — have, time and again, effected qualitative changes in human society. Who could have foreseen that quantitative improvements in manufacturing technology would have led to qualitative changes in, for instance, political theory? And anyone who has studied evolution knows that a fundamentally quantitative accumulation of small changes to genomes routinely leads to qualitative changes in the resulting organisms.

But it is, by definition, impossible to foresee the precise nature of evolutionary qualitative changes. Our whole way of thinking will change, and we cannot think at all, in the current way, about the nature of a qualitatively different way of thinking. Transhumanism will be an evolutionary change, caused by random changes we cannot predict, and subject to selective pressures we cannot imagine.

In Again, Dangerous Visions Bernard Wolfe notes that
All [science fiction authors] had prefigured was the physical displacement of human beings from earth to moon, which meant that they had prefigured nothing. Not the diversionary nature of the gala, to take our minds off the unsatisfactory results of the displacement of U. S. citizens to Vietnam. Not the vomitous showbizz inanity. Not the PR milking of the solemn moment by Tacky Dick, the everybody-wants-to-get-into-the-act circus atmosphere.
If people who make their living trying to prefigure the effects of qualitative change on society cannot get even such a relatively small issue anywhere near correct, we cannot have any hope of predicting or prefiguring transhumanism.

For these reasons, I simultaneously believe that transhumanism is inevitable, but modern transhumanist philosophers (as philosophers) are by necessity completely full of shit.

Transhumanism will — if we are not completely annihilated — happen on its own. We need not — indeed we cannot — prefigure, predict, guide, or directly and intentionally influence the nature of transhuman society. By the same token, we cannot — short of species suicide — stop or otherwise hinder our evolution: Any attempt to "hinder" transhumanism will be, by definition, one of the selective pressures that will shape transhumanism.

Likewise, it's simply irrelevant to judge a transhuman society, just as the judgment of our ancestors is irrelevant to our own judgment of our own society. It really doesn't matter what they would have thought about how we live today: They don't have to live in our society.

The only thing we can "know" about transhumanism is that it will happen no matter what we do, whether we like it or not, and that transhumanism will be utterly unlike anything we have imagined it might be.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Emotion and Rationality

I want to revisit a point from Robert Farley's exercise in mendacious stupidity on which I wrote earlier:
And one more bit on the rational/irrational point; most of the commitments we feel are, in some sense, irrational. I love my wife, and I'm not sure that there's a version of rationality that can sufficiently explain what that means. I love the Oregon Ducks and hate the Washington Huskies, but I can't give a rational account for the one vs. the other, or for either instead of some third attachment. As such, if we're going to start worrying about people have irrational attachments and convictions, religion is only the first of our problems. Moreover, it seems to me that evaluating and condemning such convictions is absolutely the last thing that we should want the state to do.
It bears repeating: the idea that the state should have anything to say about rational or irrational belief is a pure invention of Farley's imagination; to give the impression the idea is Dawkins' is nothing better than a lie.

Notice the weasel qualifier: "[M]ost of the commitments we feel are, in some sense, irrational." In some sense? Everything is "irrational" in some sense. "Two plus two equals four," is irrational and meaningless in Lithuanian. The point is not that ideas about God are irrational in some sense, the point is that ideas about God are irrational in every sense. (Except the sense of pure literary metaphor; academics might say snarky things about each other, but as far as I know, no ordinary, normal person has ever killed or tortured anyone over a literary metaphor, and the framers did not consider literary metaphor an important enough issue to mention in the Constitution.)

Loving your wife or rooting for a sports team is not by itself irrational at all. Indeed, emotions in general are not irrational. Emotions are facts about our minds, and it is rational by definition to believe in the facts. Everything else being the same, it is rational to do something because you want to. (Everything else is often not equal, but that's a discussion for another day.) If you want to love someone, if you want to root for a sports team, then it's rational to do so.

It is possible that Farley has some beliefs that are false-to-fact and thus irrational: He might, for instance, believe that his wife really is the prettiest, smartest, sweetest and most charming woman in the world. He is, of course, mistaken: my wife really is the prettiest, etc. Even so, this sort of irrationality is completely irrelevant to the discussion of Dawkins' opinions: Dawkins condemns religion not just because it is irrational, but because it also causes, or so he believes, human suffering. Even if Farley did hold irrational beliefs, we would have to conclude that those beliefs really did cause profound suffering before we could condemn them in the same breath as religion.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bullshit and Philosophy

I've read Frankfurt's On Bullshit, and I'm halfway through Bullshit and philosophy by Hardcastle and Reisch (Editors). There's some good stuff there, but, like all philosophy, quite a lot of bullshit.

The first problem is that all the work I've read so far tries to define bullshit in terms of truth. Second, many of the pieces try to draw deep distinctions between bullshitting and lying. Third, many of the pieces try to make the descriptive sense of bullshit precisely match the normative sense. The first task is impossible, the second trivial, the third unnecessary.

Since nobody has any idea what truth is, it makes more sense to define bullshit in terms of falsity. On this view, bullshit can be relatively easily defined as any discourse that makes it harder to detect falsity. As such, a lie can be defined as a special case of bullshit: a statement the speaker knows to be false, and intends to convince the listener to believe as not false.

Statements can be bullshit on one level, and not bullshit on another level. Arbitrarily pick any layer of abstraction; if the statement makes it harder to detect falsity at that layer, it is bullshit at that layer. And bullshit is pejorative only to the extent that we are interested in detecting falsity.

When I say, "How are you?" and you say, "I'm fine," we are bullshitting each other: I don't particularly want to know how you actually are, at least not at the superficial level, and you don't want to tell me. But neither of us really cares about detecting falsity on that level, so the bullshit is benign.

On another level, the utterances "How are you?" and, "I'm fine," really are concerned with detecting falsity, and do the job well. I want to tell you, "I acknowledge your existence as a sapient human being and I'm interested, at some level, in your well-being." And you want to tell me, "I acknowledge your interest, and there is no immediate need for concern." If I didn't say, "How are you?" in situations where it was expected, you would detect that I didn't really care. We're not necessarily establishing "truth" — one or both of us might actually be lying — but we are excluding at least some possibilities, that either of us might be indifferent to the other.

Furthermore, at yet another level, the query, "How are you?" opens the door to a request for help, at least to the extent of requesting an expression of sympathy. While I don't necessarily want to hear every trivial complaint you might have, if something is seriously wrong, if you just found out you have cancer, or lost your job, or you're in jail and need to be bailed out, I'm seriously giving you the opportunity to ask me for help.

Likewise, fiction is bullshit on one level — writing a book of fiction doesn't help us detect whether or not the events depicted really happened — but that's unobjectionable bullshit: We don't care whether or not there really was a prince of Denmark named Hamlet. But fiction is not bullshit on another level: We really care that the events depicted could have in some sense happened. We get mad and feel cheated when an author gratuitously violates verisimilitude. That's bullshit on a different level than just mere fictionality, on the level where we really are interested in reading fiction to detect falsity. If an author is going to try to contravene our intuitive notions of verisimilitude, she has to convince us those intuitive notions are mistaken, and thus help, and not hinder, the detection of falsity.

We don't always have to avoid bullshit on every level. The search for truth (even by the indirect means of eliminating falsity) is important, but it's not all important. But contrawise, although the search is not all important, it's still important. And when we wish to be taken seriously on matters of truth and falsity, it's important to avoid bullshit.

Given this pretty straightforward understanding of bullshit and its normative implications, we can then catalog its various flavors.

As mentioned above, there's lying. You know it's false at some level, and you're trying to convince someone it's not false at that level. It's straightforward that lying hinders the effort to detect falsity, and a false statement is a lie (and thus pejorative) because by definition the listener cares about (or the speaker believes the listener cares about) detecting falsity.

Everyone understands, I think, the bullshit we see in advertising and public relations. As Frankfurt notes, these speakers really don't care what the truth is; they avoid direct lies, but they're trying to convince their listeners of propositions they don't really care might or might not be false. Indeed, they want to convince their listeners not to examine their claims carefully enough to detect falsity.

As mentioned in my previous essay there are ideas formulated so that it's impossible to detect falsity. Again, if you express yourself such that I cannot in principle detect falsity, you are hindering my effort to do so, and it's thus bullshit.

The kind of bullshit we typically see in a lot of secular philosophy is pomposity and obfuscation. If you make it difficult for me to figure out what you're actually talking about, you hinder my attempt to my attempt to determine if you're mistaken. It's bullshit. There's no excuse for this kind of bullshit. If physicists can make General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics comprehensible to the ordinarily intelligent reader with an interest in the subject and the willingness to put a little effort into comprehending the subject, there's no reason for philosophers to plead their subjects are too complicated for any kind of clarity. (Indeed, reading Bullshit and Philosophy, I kept imagining the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the crowd shouts, "Get on with it!" Too many philosophers seem to try to bore their readers into agreement.)

Simple mistakes are the weakest and least pejorative kind of bullshit. If you express yourself clearly, concisely, directly, and succinctly, you'll first of all detect falsity in your own thinking. And if you cannot express an idea clearly, you should be clued in that you don't understand it at all. If you do your best to be clear and you do make a mistake, you're at least making it easier for the reader to detect it.

Truth and falsity

What is truth?

Pontius Pilate asks this question (John 18:38), as have philosophers and intellectuals since the beginning of recorded history. And no one has been able to supply a satisfactory answer. To be honest, I don't know what's true; I don't even know what truth is. And neither do you. Nobody knows.

But I do know what falsity is. If you tell me that the sun will rise tomorrow over here, and it rises tomorrow over there, you're mistaken. I'm absolutely certain you're mistaken. I don't necessarily know where you're mistaken, but I'm certain that you're mistaken somewhere.

I can't just say that the opposite of mistaken is correct, because the law of the excluded middle doesn't always work in real life: there's mistaken, correct, and unsure. Even if you're not mistaken, you could be correct by accident or coincidence, or you could be fooling me, or you could be correct in a limited sense, only by virtue of making some approximation, but mistaken in the larger sense (as was Newton regarding gravitation).

This observation about how I have to construct my ideas about the world stands in stark contrast to canonical logic. As Gödel showed us, we can prove that we are correct that 2+2=4, and we can prove that we can prove ourselves correct (and prove that we can prove that we can prove... etc.), but we can't ever prove that some mistake really is a mistake: We can't prove that 2+2=5 is a mistake.

For this reason, I'm not just suspicious of, I'm positively dismissive of any attempt to prove anything about the real world using just logic. Logic is a terrific — indeed indispensable — tool, but it is just a tool. It doesn't get to the bottom of things at all, and we know it cannot. It works extremely well for speaking precisely, but it doesn't ensure we are speaking truthfully, indeed it cannot tell us at all if we are mistaken.

We didn't make very much progress in knowing things about the world until we stopped being hung up on knowing and accepting the truth and started being very careful about knowing and rejecting falsity. Genius is not about how quickly or accurately you can perform complicated intellectual tasks. Genius consists of looking at something that everybody knows, realizing that it's mistaken, and explaining to everyone else precisely why it's mistaken.

And the genius of those who developed The Scientific Method, from Galileo to Popper, is realizing that what everybody knew — that the search for knowledge was the search for truth — was mistaken! The search for knowledge is the search for falsity. Sherlock Holmes hit close to the mark when he said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Whatever remains might not be the "truth" — whatever that is — but that's what you run with. If tomorrow you find it's mistaken, you throw it out and you keep working.

Philosophers are, understandably, uncomfortable with this mode of reasoning. Too bad for philosophers. The scientific method is at least "self-referentially coherent": If the scientific method were mistaken, we would know it; that we have not yet found it mistaken, even after very thorough, hostile examination, is sufficient warrant to run with it. If we find out tomorrow it's mistaken, we'll look for something else; we'll cross that bridge when and if we come to it. For now, we've never proven the scientific method mistaken: Every mistake ever made by every scientist has been attributable to either not having enough evidence, not examining enough possible explanations, or using some method other than the scientific method.

And that's what bugs me about theists. I've never had any theist explain — and commit to — a method by which I might in principle discover that she is mistaken. Not one. Ever. I've seen a few theists float trial balloons, but careful examination has shown me that when I apply the method they propose, they are actually mistaken. And when I point this determination out, they withdraw the method. It doesn't have to be the scientific method; the scientific method is not assumed a priori. We don't have to use perceptual evidence that everyone (or most everyone) affirms. I personally am stumped for an alternative, but hey, I don't know that I'm correct, I know only that I'm not yet mistaken.

This is the problem with faith, theism, woo-woo and conspiracy theories in general. They may well be "true", whatever that means. But until I have some way of determining in principle that some idea might be mistaken, I just don't know how to think about it. I don't know how to find a way to believe it.

I have no method to determine in principle whether or not Christian theism is actually mistaken. The scientific method won't work: Christianity is compatible with everything I might observe, whether I actually observe it or not. By the same token, I have no method to determine whether Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Norse theism (Odin, etc.) or any other woo-woo bullshit might be mistaken. These might all be better or worse literary metaphors, but they have nothing at all to do with truth and — more importantly — falsity.

This situation is very different, for instance, for evolution, or relativity, or quantum mechanics, or thermodynamics, or any other scientific theory: I do have a method, the application of method would detect a mistake, people have applied the method and found that these theories are not yet mistaken.

Skeptics, careful skeptics, look for falsifiability. We — like everyone else — have no clue what "truth" is, so we concentrate on detecting falsity. If we can detect falsity, and we don't actually detect it, well then, we have some basis for confidence. But if we cannot in principle detect falsity, we have no basis for confidence. Skeptics also have to bend over backwards to be honest: to have confidence in some idea, we have to assure ourselves that we have looked as hard as we can to find falsity, that we have considered every possibility and looked at all the evidence.

Furthermore, because we know we cannot actually evaluate every possibility, because we cannot examine all the evidence, we can never be absolutely certain that our ideas are not actually mistaken. All we can say is that our ideas are not yet mistaken, and our confidence in our ideas is warranted precisely to the extent that we have undertaken a thorough and honest search for mistake. And to have confidence by this warrant requires that it means something to discover a mistake.

Wiley on History

Wiley on History
Now we just make up our own facts, and if anyone refutes it, we brand them as a hatemonger!
It's nice to see the liberals getting with the program. We cannot let the right wing keep their monopoly on lies and bullshit!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sing-along DVD

British children targeted with terror sing-along DVD for would-be suicide bombers
A shocking sing-along children's DVD which glorifies suicide bombing is being investigated by anti-terrorist police after being found on sale in one of Britain's terrorist hotbeds.

The disc - part of an Egyptian-made series - is on sale in West Yorkshire, where three of the July 7 bombers lived, and is aimed at youngsters from the local Muslim community. [read more]
This is, of course, the religion that British Educator Ibrahim Lawson wishes to teach to children as unquestionably true.

This is the problem with teaching anything as unquestionably true. I have no real doubt that Lawson condemns suicide bombings. But if you teach Islam as unquestionably true, you have no guarantee that your own version of Islam is what the person will believe. You've created an "Islam-shaped hole" in a person's critical faculties, and anyone who can shape a belief to fit that hole will bypass the last, best defense a person has against being exploited or used for evil purposes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Back on the Atheist Blogroll

Mojoey at Deep Thoughts runs the atheist blogroll, which I'm back on. There are now 520 people proud to declare their atheism and join the fray against religion and bullshit in general.

Illiberal liberalism

I was going to write soon on Damon Linker's atheist hit-job in The New Republic, but the inimitable James F. Elliott delivers the goods.
In order to arrive at his conclusion [that the strident New Atheists are a threat to liberal secularism], Linker has to be rather mendacious. He accuses Dawkins of not owning up to the totalitarian impulse to outlaw religion as we’ve outlawed child abuse. Dennett, he says, wants schools to teach that “God is dead.” Harris, apparently, advocates pogroms. And Hitchens’ real crime, it appears, is that he’s an asshole. ...

Linker is essentially lying in order to arrive at his central thesis; he egregiously misrepresents his subjects’ actual views in order to make them seem more risible than they are.
Now, I'm as "liberal" (in the traditional sense) as anyone else. If someone disagrees with me, we can discuss the issue rationally. But my blood boils when people lie to make their case.

I expect mendacity, willful ignorance and outright hallucination from The National Review, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, etc. ad nauseam. They're conservatives, they went completely batshit insane many years ago, and they're no longer capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality. Sad, but whatcha gonna do, eh? And I'll cut Sullivan and Hitchens a little slack: Sullivan is just stupid and shallow, and Hitchens is so obviously and so frequently sloshed that we overlook his stupid shit; when he's right, he's right on target.

But The New Republic? Robert Farley? Matthew Fucking Yglesias?

These are the guys we trust. We trust them to not only tell us the truth but to spot lies and bullshit at dusk from 50 yards. And they've let us down. Big time.

I think James is right to blame the rampant postmodern "tolerance as a virtue for its own sake" that's been pushed by a segment of the academic humanities and social sciences for the last five or six decades [the books to read are The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh by Frederick C. Crews]. I argued earlier this year that this attitude hasn't leaked into the political left, but now I have to admit I was wrong.

It's here, it's getting worse, and the Christian and Islamic theocrats are going to exploit this glaring weakness in modern liberalism. The liberals will defend the theocrats' "religious" freedom right up to the point where the theocrats march the liberals to the firing squad and gas chamber.

James experience with Saletan's article is telling. I'm convinced that the connection between race and intelligence is bad science. That's enough by itself, at least for me. But apparently many have elevated a rational, scientific point of view to the level of absolute, certain dogma. It's not enough that it's just not actually true — at least to presently understood science — to these liberal dogmatists, it must be that it cannot possibly be true, no matter what. And when a sensible, rational person detects the whiff of dogma, he can't help but investigate more closely. Why insist that something cannot possibly be true unless you're reasonably afraid that it actually is true?

I am old enough to remember a relatively popular conservative president, re-elected by a landslide, removed from office in disgrace in no small part by his own party for nothing worse than lying to the American people. Conservatives then had a very different moral view than liberals, but both had at least some commitment to the universal virtues of honesty, rationality and sensibility... enough at least to be embarrassed and ashamed about getting caught.

Today, rational, sensible people have been almost completely eliminated from the right wing. It's telling that the most rational conservative commenter is Andrew Sullivan, and the most rational conservative politician is either Arnold Schwartzenegger or Ron Paul. These three owe their position to not being completely batshit insane; they are, respectively, stupid, without principle, and garden-variety insane.

And now the purge of rationality begins from the left. It starts with the "militant" atheists. It continues with those who denounce Islam — because of a father's religiously-motivated murder of his sixteen year old daughter — themselves denounced and rejected for their intolerance, bigotry and racism.

I thought we were well and truly fucked when the conservatives were insane, the Democratic party weak and the liberal intelligentsia marginalized. I thought things couldn't be worse. I was wrong. Perhaps I'm six decades late, but I'm now seeing the liberal intelligentsia itself falling inexorably into the clutches of their own batshit insane dogmatic fantasy land. And why not? There's money to be made, power to be had, in pandering to irrational fantasies of both the right and left. And that, gentle reader, begins to erode the last, desperate hope of Western Civilization.

With all good luck, perhaps we won't wipe out the whole world as we slide into insanity, and — God help us all — the Chinese or the Indians will have their turn.