Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sufficient pause

I like Stephen Law; he's a bright guy and speaks directly and plainly. But I think he gives too much credit to theistard William Hawthorne, treating Hawthorne's pathetic excuse for argument with something less than outright derision and contempt. Hawthorne argues that
if many extremely brilliant people have thought about p carefully, subjected p to rigorous logical analysis, and have come to believe that p, this should give us reason to refrain from lazily dismissing p as childish or delusional. A more thorough investigation would be called for.
Well duh. This argument is positively retarded in its triviality. We shouldn't even lazily dismiss the Flying Spaghetti Monster without some sort of investigation.

Implicit in Hawthorne's ridiculous excuse for an argument is that this sort of lazy, superficial dismissal is prevalent enough to notice and actually argue in philosophical terminology. This assumption is so false-to-fact that one must suspect Hawthorne of either traumatic brain injury our outright dishonesty.

It's always meta-this and meta-that with these retards "brilliant people". "We can't be certain!" (No, but we can be extremely confident.) "Theism isn't logically impossible!" (Just ridiculously inconsistent with the actual facts.) "There are other ways of knowing!" (Perhaps, but making shit up and calling it true does not rise to the level of an epistemology.) But when they get down to making an actual case, these supposed "rigorous logical analys[es]*" turn out to be at best a sham and at worst a lie, nothing but more or less clever attempts to clothe egregious bullshit and wildly implausible assumptions in the most obfuscatory philosophical terminology.

*And notice how they always talk about other people's "rigorous logical analys[es]" but never actually present an analysis? Somehow these analyses are always another hand-wave away.

It irritates me no end to give retards like Hawthorne even the standing to appear in the arena of reasoned debate. Without exception, they lack the competence and/or the intellectual good faith to actually engage in reasoned analysis. Thousands of years of engaging with the lies, bullshit, stupidity and outright evil of theism is sufficient pause to justify treating this form of stupidity and mendacity with nothing but mockery and moral condemnation.

Rationality is not enough

Rationality — in the sense of understanding objective reality by means of logic and the evidence of the senses — is necessary, but it's not sufficient. Values are real, but inherently subjective, and are susceptible to only a trivial kind of rationality. Ideology — in the sense of explicitly stating one's values — has been a cause of irrationality. However, you can't throw out the baby of subjective value with the bathwater of irrationally justifying those values.

DBB self-identifies as a "moderate", largely because he's reality based:
I like to think I'm a moderate because I like to find the facts and find out what works rather than starting at an ideology or a party and working backwards (like the party hacks and pundits seem to do). I also am intellectually honest and consistent in my positions. Unlike the political parties.
I can't fault DBB at all for sticking to the facts: I'm 100% in agreement. Facts and reality are necessary.

But they're not sufficient.

It's very frustrating in today's society to be intelligent and sensible with a personal relationship to reality. It seems like everyone with some sort of interest is not only willing but eager to bullshit, distort, spin, and lie outright to persuade others. It's tempting to blame ideology itself for these sins against the truth. You're not going to sin against the truth without any motivation, without s something you want, some way you want the world to be. The remedy would then seem to be to abandon ideology and, like DBB, just stick to the (objective) facts.

But you can't do that.

Of course, if you define "ideology" as being some system of thought that overrides true beliefs about reality, then of course ideology sins by definition against the truth. But under that definition, liberalism, conservatism, humanism, egotism, or any ethical system — even, in a certain sense, Nazism or Stalinism — is not necessarily an ideology. Yes, sinning against the truth is indeed sinning against the truth, but by calling these sins "ideology" you've merely applied a new label to these sins; you haven't explained them.

Everyone wants something. Everyone has values. If you're explicit about these wants and values, if you've stated them precisely enough to communicate them, you've created, in a sense, an ideology. There's nothing in this sense of ideology that analytically entails lies and bullshit, so we can look instead to causal connections.

Of course, if your wants and values are exploitive, if you want to gain at others' loss, then you won't value the truth for its own sake, at least not regarding those you want to exploit. Contrawise, a dedication to truth for its own sake tends to act against exploitation: if I tell you straight out I intend to exploit you, I cannot expect your efficient compliance. Anyone who does not consider himself absolutely immune to exploitation then has a good instrumental reason to value the truth.

However, lies and bullshit as instruments for exploitive ideologies doesn't go nearly far enough to explaining their connection to ideology.

There's also laziness. If I think value is good for us both, it often seems easier to promote the value by lying or bullshtting. It's very easy to rationalize this tactic, especially if the value is subtle. It's not like I'm doing you any harm by persuading you to accept the value. If I tell you that God demands that you behave cooperatively (and will surely catch you out and punish you if you do not), surely the mutual benefits of cooperation outweighs the minor sin of bullshitting you about the demands of a nonexistent entity. Especially since trying to explain cooperation in purely rational terms is a lot more complicated than it looks, requiring the subtle mathematics of advanced game theory, probability and recursion to fully justify.

Of course this laziness is more damaging than it first appears. To get people to swallow any kind of bullshit, however well-intentioned, you have to get them to suspend rationality, to refuse to apply rational thought to some domain of inquiry. But once you learn to swallow one kind of bullshit, you'll swallow any kind of bullshit, precisely because you've abandoned rational thought. Once you irrationally believe that God can demand something, however benign, you're ready to believe that God can demand anything. It's a small step, cognitively speaking, to go from "God demands that you behave cooperatively" to "God demands that you kill all the Jews." You've already been conditioned to suspend your rationality and self-interest when you hear a sentence that begins "God demands..."

Hence Diderot's condemnation of the just and enlightened prince*:
The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.
*Yes, I flog this quotation unmercifully. It is, in my not-at-all-humble opinion, one of the wisest sayings ever uttered.

But even laziness is not a sufficient explanation for the connection between ideology and lies and bullshit. It's not that hard to explain things rationally; you don't have to be a super-genius to understand the benefits of cooperation, fairness, egalitarianism, rationality and any other non-exploitive ethical and social system. The hard work is in coming up with these explanations; it's relatively easy to understand something once it's been explained.

An enormous part of our brains are dedicated to understanding objective reality, and our notions of truth are inexorably bound up with our urgent and unceasing evaluation of objective reality. Because so much of our brains are dedicated to objective reality, it's inevitable that we use metaphors borrowed from that understanding to explain our values, especially where our values relate to objective reality. We say "stealing is bad" to communicate how we feel about people walking off with our stuff.

There's nothing wrong per se with using metaphors, so long as you don't confuse the metaphor with reality. And that's the fundamental problem with our discourse and notions about ideology and values in general.

It's tempting to believe that people with values fundamentally different from our own are actually mistaken, that they have failed to correctly apprehend objective reality in the same sense that someone who believes the Earth is flat or that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago is mistaken and has failed to correctly apprehend objective reality. We want to believe that our own values are correct in the same sense, especially when we want to justify punishing or inconveniencing others for the sake of our own values. We want to believe that stealing really is wrong, that a thief is not only an asshole, but also mistaken, and — if he persists in his stealing — actually irrational.

The problem, much as I'd like to believe it myself, is that it's just not true. The idea that values are actually true or false in the same sense that our descriptions of objective reality are true or false is flat-out no-bullshit not rationally justifiable.

(Values are rationally justifiable in a trivial sense: you are aware of your own values introspectively in the same sense that you are aware of the evidence of your senses; your own values are facts about yourself. Facts are foundational and don't require elaborate rational justification; rational justification is the process of justifying abstract beliefs on the basis of the facts. Of course, actually fulfilling your values often requires a deep rational understanding of how reality works.)

It's irrational to take ideology and values as objective truth. It's equally irrational, though, to deny ideology completely. To deny ideology completely is to say that you don't have any values at all, or to say that your values are inherently mystical, and fundamentally transcend descriptive language. But both assertions are obviously bullshit. Of course everyone has values, and those values can be adequately communicated in ordinary language: I like this, I dislike that, and I dislike the other so intensely that I'm willing to use force to stop it.

It is, for example, not the case that rape is objectively bad. It's simply the case that I dislike rape so intensely that if you rape someone, I would — in principle — personally hunt you down and kill you. (Of course, I live in a civilized society, and I'm happy to delegate that job to the police, and give them guns to do the job. And if some rapists makes himself so obstreperous as to require the police to actually use their guns, I won't shed a tear.)

Conditioned as is much of humanity to subservience, obedience and mental slavery, it seems very scary to many people to justify coercion on nothing better than their own values. But it is the case that all coercion is justified on nothing other than the opinion of at least one person. It's comforting to pass the buck, to the government, to society, and eventually to God and scripture. But society and government are nothing more than people with opinions, and of course, there is no God, only priests and prophets, themselves nothing more than people with opinions.

Furthermore, to pass the buck is itself a choice, the fulfillment of a value. If you eat meat, you are killing an animal; it matters not that the butcher actually performs the task. If you choose to allow "God" to decide what is right and wrong, you are just as responsible — even if God were to actually exist — for those decisions as you would be if you just decided for yourself. No one can escape the reality of choice: even if someone holds a gun to your head, you must choose compliance over death. (Of course, most people would naturally consider the alternative of immediate death to justify many (but not all) choices that they would not otherwise condone.)

The obvious objection to this argument is that if everyone just did what they wanted, we would have no society at all, no cooperation, the most banal sort of law-of-the-jungle anarchy. But this objection is specious. A cooperative society can be justified on the basis of mutual benefit, of people getting more of what they want by cooperating than by competing. It is rational to scratch my back if I scratch yours if and only if you desire me scratching your back more than you object to the effort of scratching mine. Cooperation for mutual value rests foundationally on the existence of individual value; cooperation without mutual value is just exploitation.

It irritates me no end when people with whom I share many values lie and bullshit in support of those values. But I'm not going to deny my values just because some dumbass politician or rhetorician bullshits in their favor. I might change political parties, I might support or oppose particular organizations or individuals, but no amount of bullshit for the sake of humanism will stop me from holding and advocating humanist values.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Why I'll never study philosophy

A philosophy student told me:
[I]if you want to interact with the philosophical community as a whole on this issue, you have to be able to consider the idea that there's a difference, even if there isn't, in order to interact with them fruitfully. [emphasis added]
I appreciate his candor, but this sounds way too much exactly like theology to me.

More on expertise

Brian63 has convinced me that the argument from expertise is not necessary fallacious. It is possible to understand and believe a statement such as "The Earth is 4.5 billion years old" without understanding, even in principle, the actual scientific justification for this belief.

(Chris Hallquist has also been tracking this subject.)

I still don't like the argument from expertise.

While it's not necessarily fallacious, it can be fallacious in the manner I describe earlier. It seems difficult if not impossible to understand a statement such as "light is both a particle and a wave" without understanding its justification. This fallacy is especially applicable to statements about God, especially philosophers' statements. What a philosopher means by "God" is quite often "the sort of being justified by argument X". The "God" established by Plantinga's modal argument is very different from the "God" established by Aquinas' arguments, which is very different from the character depicted in Christian scriptures.

It's very easy to misconstrue an argument from expertise as an argument from authority. Arguments from "true" authority are typically sound: Catholic doctrine is what the Pope says it is; the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means, the defendant is legally guilty or not guilty according to what the jury declares.

The problem is exacerbated in the sciences because scientists are authorities on what science says, but they are merely experts about how the universe actually works. The conflation between authority and expertise crops up all the time in discussions of evolution: Cretinists often misrepresent what science says, or argue that they should have equal authority to declare what science says, often arguing that the lack of perfection entailed by scientists' mere expertise about how the universe actually works undermines their authority to establish what science says.

Most importantly, though, the argument from expertise is lazy. Laziness is all right, I suppose, when you don't care much for some topic (I really don't care whether the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, or 3 billion, or 6 billion), but if you don't care about the topic, why should you care enough to bother to argue the point?

When you do care about a topic, however, the argument from expertise is inexcusably lazy. The vast majority of most experts' training is in how to do original work in their field. But lay people don't need to do original work, we need only to understand the work actually completed. If you want to understand the arguments establishing the age of the Earth at 4.5 billion years, all you have to do is go to Talk.Origins, search "age of the earth", and read for a couple of hours. To understand an argument it takes only a minuscule fraction of the time it did to construct the argument.

There are fields (e.g. quantum mechanics) where understanding the justification takes considerable work. However, it is precisely these fields where it is difficult to understand the proposition (e.g. light is a particle and a wave) without understanding the justification, i.e. where the argument from expertise is indeed fallacious.

The argument from expertise is dodgy, has pitfalls, can be fallacious, and even when it works it saves the reader only a trivial amount of time. Who can say anything good about this argument?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

New blogs on the blogroll

There's a couple new blogs on the blogroll: oocRadio (I apologize for the delay!) and Wetmachine! ¡Viva la blogroll amnesty!!

Since I'm here, I'll mention a few of my friends' and frequent commenters' blogs so they get some Technorati love: The Apostate, Chicken Girl, The Choice is Now, Disgusted Beyond Belief, Geoff Arnold,, Often Right, Rarely Correct, Only in America, Plognark, Thalesian Fools, Thoughts from a Sandwich and A Whore in the Temple of Reason. (If I've left you off the list, it's only because I'm a dumbass. Leave a comment and give me the 20 lashes with a wet noodle I justly deserve.)

Update: 20 lashes to me for missing A Blog from Hell. Ouch!

And of course I cannot fail to mention the heroes of blogtopia (yes, skippy coined the phrase), skippy the bush kangaroo and the incomparable Jon Swift.

Libertarians are retards

Big Ell Libertarians piss me off worse than Christians (worse than Muslims even, and you know how much they piss me off). Theistards have at least the defense that they're either stone-cold stupid and/or have been massively indoctrinated since childhood. Libertards (Libertarian retards) have no such excuse.

Libertarianism rests on absurd hypocrisy. Pacifists notwithstanding, I don't think it's rational to absolutely denounce coercion (you have to defend yourself); Libertarianism denounces, rather, the "initiation" of coercion. However people have been coercing each other since the dawn of recorded history. Denouncing the "initiation" of coercion means just, "Go back until someone else acted coercively, and then justify my own coercion as a defense against that coercion." If (American) Libertarians were serious about the "initiation" of coercion, they'd give their land back to the Indians and move back to Europe.

Any notion of property rights requires the acceptable initiation of coercion. If something is property, then someone has to make that something his property for the first time. I have to, for example, fence off some piece of land to make it my property. But how is that not the "initiation" of coercion? Until I put up the fence, you were free to use that land as you pleased; now I'm forcing you to stay off of it; only I can now use the land as I please.

Libertarians refuse to be obligated to protect my rights, but demand that I protect their property. Fuck you. Defend your own damn property against robbery and theft. If those ten guys over there can overpower you and take your stuff, what business of it is mine? You should have hired more bodyguards. (And if your bodyguards realize they can take your stuff, too bad for you.)

Libertarians tend to be upper-middle-class professionals. What these Libertard upper-middle-class professionals fail to realize is that their status and wealth is protected by un-Libertarian law and custom (i.e. requiring law degrees and bar examinations; why not let the market decide who should be a lawyer?)

The truly wealthy realize they don't need a political philosophy to protect their wealth. Indeed, the very wealthy usually realize their wealth — just like the wealth of most of the middle-class — derives precisely from the non-Libertarian structure of society. Henry Ford couldn't have become rich unless his workers were paid sufficiently above cost to afford to buy his automobiles. Welfare props up the above-cost value of lower-class physical labor, which props up the value of middle-class intellectual labor, which props up the value of upper-class ownership.

Positive feedback dominates a finite free market: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Most of Libertarianism's economic absurdities come from extending the simplifying assumptions of infinity to actual truths about the finite world. Given that the "initiation" of coercion is an inherently incoherent, contradictory concept, in a finite free market, power will accrue not to the most "productive" but to those best able to marshal coercive power: To borrow from Napoleon, "The coercion was initiated by the side with the worst artillery." The last "free market" society was 18th century France, and look how that turned out.

There's nothing wrong with individual liberty and property rights. Both are valuable tools for managing a productive economy which provides happiness and material benefits for everyone, not just the ruthless few. But they are human constructs; they were not written by God Himself into the fabric of the universe.

Libertarianism is nothing more than the infantile, puerile whining of children who demand to keep the toys the other children shared with them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Say no! to abortion rights

Yesterday was Blog for Choice Day (I'm a day late, sue me). I'd like to talk about why abortion should not be legally protected.

The only morally relevant organ in a woman's body is her uterus. Women's brains have been nothing but trouble since Eve fucked things up in the Garden of Eden, and it's not at all clear that women are even sapient or self-aware. In any kind of moral conflict &mdash not just conflicts regarding pregnancy — a woman must receive lesser status, and whatever interests she actually has must give way to the greater interests of men and children.

A huge problem is that an unborn baby is innocent, innocent even of Original Sin. All those aborted babies? They're going straight to heaven. This is a problem: God is very selective. Life is a test, and only the select few will pass. The space in heaven is limited, and a gazillion fetuses floating about will clog the place up. As Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." Babies need to be given a chance to be born, so they can partake of original sin, suffer through a sinful life, and so most of them can go to hell where they will suffer eternally for the pleasure and entertainment of the elect. And for the few babies that do manage to please God, think how much more they will value heaven, having earned it with a life of self-sacrifice and suffering, rather than having it just handed to them on a technicality.

Sex is dirty, sinful, and wrong. The world would be a much better place if no one ever had sex. Sex must be punished, as severely and thoroughly as we punish murder, apostasy or blasphemy. Men, of course, can't control themselves sexually (and it's women's fault men have sexual desire in the first place), so we must punish women for having sex. If a woman has an abortion, she is escaping her just punishment ("twenty lashes" of childbirth plus 18 years to life "imprisonment" to the child's care). It's as if we convicted someone of murder and then said, "Well, go on home now, hope you learned your lesson."

Here's a picture of a six-week old fetus, the age most commonly murdered by abortionists:

Now how could anyone be so heartless as to kill something this cute?

Militant atheists, friendly atheists and appeasers

Shalini Sehkar's blog Scientia Natura is presently closed because, according to a Sandwalk commenter, there's "some bad stuff going on." I hope Shalini resolves whatever is going on and returns to blogging. But rather than kiss her ass and tell her how great I think she is, I'll write instead about a topic I think she would find interesting.

I've identified three stances of atheist writers towards theism: "Militant" atheists (myself, Shalini, P.Z. Myers, Pat Condell, perhaps Hitchens); friendly atheists (Hemant Mehta, Dawkins); and appeasers (Shermer).

Friendly atheists are willing to engage logically, rationally and politely with theists. Militant atheists are not. In my case, I've tried being nice, and the level of bullshit, obfuscation and direct personal attacks have entirely worn away my patience. Theism is, in my opinion, all bollocks from start to finish, and its adherents are impervious to reason. But that's just me; I'm not a very patient person to begin with. If you want to be patient, reasonable and polite in your advocacy of atheism and naturalism, more power to you. I don't even need to be "patient" at all with friendly atheists; I don't object to friendliness per se.

But I personally am not "friendly" about atheism, and I resent being told directly or indirectly* to tone down my rhetoric or be more friendly. I bristle when anyone demands that I change what I write or say for any reason other than the truthfulness of my words. And if you think I'm wrong about something, don't tell me to shut up, just tell me where and why I'm wrong.

*Easy way to spot an appeaser: He calls Dawkins a "militant" atheist or criticizes Dawkins for his stridency, shrillness, fundamentalism or similar characterizations. Dawkins is one of the most patient, reasonable and polite atheist advocates ever; his worst "crime" is making atheism popular.

The number of stone cold stupid atheists seems vanishingly small. I've hung out extensively on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, I subscribe to Planet Atheism, I regularly audit blogs on the Atheist Blogroll, and I follow the Carnival of the Godless. I even go to the occasional meatspace American Atheists meeting. Out of the thousands of atheists I know or have read, I can't remember ever meeting one who was an illiterate asshole.

There will never be an atheist mass movement*. Atheists are individualists and proud to be individualists. Our individuality is our greatest weakness (especially in a democracy that deifies mass movements), but it's also our greatest strength: We cannot be easily manipulated or driven like a herd of sheep off the cliff of some ridiculous ideology like Stalinism.

*It is possible to make the members of a mass movement atheists, usually by virtually deifying some person, but that's a little different.

So, if you want to be friendly, be friendly. I won't criticize you for being friendly, and I won't demand that you say "theistard" and "cretinist" or that you relentlessly mock religion a la Pat Condell. In return, I expect that you won't criticize me for saying that theism and supernaturalism is utter bullshit, and simply mocking and not bothering to rebut for the thousandth time the dumb theist argument du jour.

Tell me (or anyone else) to shut up, tell me to toe the atheist party line, and I'll say, "Fuck you very much, appeasing bastard," and keep on writing the way I want to write.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How to sniff out bullshit

There are some techniques I've developed for sniffing out bullshit. Bullshit has some characteristic features: If you detect these features, you should examine the work very carefully to see if it's bullshit.

Exclusive reliance on logical consistency

Any work that proudly proclaims its logical consistency, to the exclusion of other forms of evaluation, is probably bullshit. Logical consistency is not by itself all that impressive: UFO-ology, homeopathy, flat-earthism, religion, conspiracy theories and paranoid delusions are all logically consistent. Logical consistency is necessary but not sufficient to exclude bullshit.

Any purely deductive argument can be denied by denying one of its premises. (Keep in mind that "almost everything" is as much of a denial of "everything" as is "nothing".) By definition, the premises of an argument are not deductively justified.

For example, a core premise of ordinary arithmetic is that zero is not the successor of any natural number. However, if you deny this premise, you just get modulo arithmetic (like clocks: 23 + 1 = 0; zero is the successor of 23). Similarly, if you deny Euclid's parallel postulate, you get not falsity but either bounded or unbounded curved geometry.

Note that philosophy, just like theology, depends almost exclusively on establishing logical consistency, which is why we shouldn't be surprised when quite a lot of philosophy turns out to be bullshit.

Rationality combines logical consistency with sensibility. Sensibility is agreement with the evidence of our senses. Any notion that is insulated from and irrelevant to our senses is just as nonsensical as a notion that contradicts our senses.

Conflating uncertainty with epistemic nihilism

The argument goes, "We don't know anything with certainty, therefore don't know anything." If you want to define knowledge that way, fine. But if we don't know anything, then everything is bullshit, including what the speaker is proffering: If we can't make any distinctions at all, then how are we supposed to distinguish his tasty bullshit from the alternative nasty bullshit? Indeed, if a speaker asserts such nihilism, how are we to distinguish his words from "goo goo gaa gaa"?

Any time someone argues for epistemic nihilism, you can confidently bet that they will follow it up with this kind of argument: "Since we don't know anything, your assertion that you know that no God exists is false. Therefore, we know that God exists." Stated so baldly, the fallacy is obvious.

We don't really know, but...

The proper place for the period in a sentence like this is immediately before the "but". I'm not interested in your fantasies, delusions, wishful thinking, stupidity, ignorance and errors. Tell me what you know or peddle your bullshit elsewhere.

Complicated grammar and gratuitous jargon

When you read something, and it looks complicated and hard to figure out what the author is actually saying, you should immediately suspect bullshit. The author is at least writing poorly, and if his writing is unclear, his thinking is at least unclear. Good expository writers use simple declarative sentences and relatively uncomplicated grammar; they leave the linguistic flash and bang (cough James Joyce) to the writers of fiction.

Often it turns out to be the case that the writer is hiding a trivial or obvious idea behind a complicated expression. In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman Feynman tries to read a sociology paper at a conference.
I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn't make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn't read any of the books on [the provided] list. I had this uneasy feeling of "I'm not adequate," until finally I said to myself, "I'm gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means."

So I stopped — at random — and read the next sentence very carefully. I can't remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: "The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels." I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? "People read."
You should also be wary of undefined jargon, especially outside a purely professional context (even often within a professional context, especially philosophy). If an author is using a term in a manner apparently at odds with or unrelated to its dictionary definition, you should be immediately suspicious. Even the most professional jargon retains some connection with ordinary meaning.

Dumbing it down

Expressing things clearly does not entail actually dumbing things down. Clarity enhances precision; To deny precision and accuracy for the sake of clarity is just an admission that the speaker doesn't understand what he's talking about.

If you can read well and remember learning algebra well enough to know at least that it's not magic when someone says that the square root of x2 + 2x + 1 is x + 1*, then you should be able to learn the at least the basics of anything, including quantum mechanics.

*And if you do think it's magic, you really should go back and study. Basic algebra isn't that difficult.

Argument by analogy and metaphor

Analogy, simile and metaphor are great literary devices, and they're somewhat useful as explanations, providing a starting point for understanding a topic, but analogy is unsuited for argument or proof.

Anyone who starts, "God is like..." or, "Intelligent design is like..." can be counted on never to show that the analogy is accurate or true.

My opponents are idiots

Any time a writer treats his opponents as complete idiots and imbeciles, you should suspect bullshit*. There are exceptions, but it's rare for a class of people to be entirely stupid about their life's work. If someone's argument depends on their opponents making very obvious, stupid mistakes, you have to wonder if they are representing their opponents arguments accurately.

*The irony has not escaped me.

None of these elements are absolute proof of bullshit. Depending on the subject matter, the context and the intention of the speaker, any of these elements might be necessary to describe some point of view correctly and optimally. It's sometimes valuable to focus on logical consistency. Pure speculation, identified as such, has its place. Some ideas really are complicated and require specialized, counterintuitive jargon. Analogy is sometimes a useful tool for understanding a complicated idea. And yes, sometimes the proponents of some idea really are complete idiots.

I offer these points not to prove what is and isn't bullshit, but rather to arouse skepticism and provoke careful investigation.

Further reading:
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
Cargo Cult Science
Logic and Fallacies

Terror of the Transgender Tits

Transgendered woman Charlene Hastings claims that Catholic Seton Medical Center refuses to perform her breast augmentation surgery on religious grounds.

I have a connection to this story: I now know why Seton Medical Center tried to charge me almost $3,000 to give me three stitches on my finger when I cut it the day before my insurance started. Christian charity indeed!

So what?

Jesus and Mo on multiculturalism.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Arguments from expertise

Stephen Law, David Friedman* (quoted approvingly by Andrew Sullivan) and The Uncredible Hallq talk directly and indirectly about the argument from expertise (a.k.a. the argument from authority). Friedman says:
Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God--including one I am married to.
*Friedman's post talks about more than just the argument from expertise, but I'll leave his other points for later.

Stephen Law notes the weakness of the trope "Many leading philosophers are [religious] believers, so it can't be that unreasonable, can it?"

The argument from expertise as a justification for a belief is always a fallacy. If you agree with an expert about an issue without understanding her argument, then you are not really agreeing, because you don't understand what the expert is saying. Whereas if you do understand the expert's argument, then you agree with her on the basis of the argument itself, not her expertise. What one believes is inexorably bound up in how one believes it, because the arguments in favor of a proposition serve as part of the definition of that proposition.

An individual proposition doesn't have meaning on its own; a proposition always has meaning relative to some linguistic or theoretical context, and the justification of the proposition is part of that context. You cannot understand a proposition without understanding its context, including its justification.

Expertise as a fallacious justification for belief is different from expertise as a sound rational justification for action. I don't have to understand how my engine works to rationally justify paying my mechanic $1,000 to fix it. I neither believe her nor disbelieve her when she tells me the framistam is fershluggener. I don't understand her, and I don't care that I don't understand her. All I care about is that after I pay her $1,000, I'll be able to drive my car to work.

Expertise, though, is a poor basis for justifying even action. I don't really care where or even whether my mechanic went to school, and — since I don't understand engines — I have no way of judging directly how well she understands engines. What I do understand, though, is the reliability of the outcome. Regardless of what she does, whether she performs a scientific diagnosis or psychically heals the framistam with woo-woo crystal power, I can still evaluate directly whether or not I can drive the car to work when she's done. I don't really want her degrees and certifications; I want, rather, a guarantee: if I can't drive the car to work when she's done, I want my money back. Any useful indirect method of measuring "expertise" is really a method of measuring reliability, in terms I can understand.

When it comes to fields where reliability can't be measured at all — theology, philosophy, literary criticism — or fields where you can't measure reliability in a practical way — e.g. theoretical physics, the argument from expertise becomes entirely vapid. When you can't measure reliability, expertise has little utility. You either have to dig in and look at the arguments directly, or you have to profess pure agnosticism, regardless of the opinion of the experts.

Looking at the arguments directly, though, is not as hard as it seems. Most of the training that soi disant experts receive is focused on affording the ability to do original work in the field. But I don't have to be capable of doing original work to understand an argument, just as I don't have to be a concert pianist to appreciate Horowitz. I have a pretty good grasp of Quantum Mechanics, for example, even though I don't have a PhD in physics. I can't even contemplate doing original work in physics, but I can follow a physicist's argument for a concept, and thereby understand it directly.

Without appeal to the underlying arguments, I would have no way of even understanding, much less believing, a physicist when she says, "Light is both a particle and a wave."

I think expertise, especially without a corresponding notion of comprehensible reliability, has a corrosive effect on society. It's become too easy for someone to grind through a PhD program and then spout whatever bullshit he pleases. George W. Bush, for example, has a Master's degree — in Business Administration — and the guy can't operate a lemonade stand at a profit, much less the United States.

Postmodernism and language

Kelly Gorski is pessimistic about language. I must say, I don't share Kelly's pessimism.

She quotes Derrida approvingly. But Derrida's genius was that he raised complete and utter bullshit to a high art. One must stand in speechless admiration of his skill, but it's a mistake to take him too seriously, at least after abandoning the notion of The One Truth, which he relentlessly and justly mocks.

We can never completely rigorously formalize our notions of truth and bullshit, but that doesn't mean that truth and bullshit lose all meaning, it just means rigorous formalization itself isn't all that and a bag of chips. Language transcends formalization, and it always has; formalization, although of no small value, is a specialized and late-appearing tool.

Look at Auster, for instance. Do nouns represent functions? Often, yes. Is function The One Truth of a noun's meaning? Well, if one takes postmodernism seriously, there is no One Truth about a noun's meaning: Nouns don't capture the "essence" of things, not because they (or we) are somehow deficient, but because there is no "the essence" to be captured. There are only the myriad ways individuals relate to objects, language describes those relationships, thus all language is relative. But relativism doesn't entail total vacuity or meaninglessness.

Half the postmodernist bullshit is a demand for a new absolutism, a new One True Essence, a new "modernism"; such a demand is a betrayal of the pioneering postmodernists who showed that the idea of absolute truth (independent of the speaker's and lister's relationship to the world) is nonsense.

The other half of postmodernist bullshit (and anti-postmodern bullshit) is the idea that relativism entails nihilism, vacuity, meaninglessness. And that's bullshit. Yes, language expresses relations, but I am still me and you are still you (and that guy over there is still him), we're real people, and our relationships to reality are real.

No, I don't know what you mean... but then again, do you yourself even have exactly One True meaning? Which you? The you now or the you in the past that expressed the words? Your whole mind or some of the parts?

Words aren't dead; even if their writer is dead, the words belong in part to the reader, and the words are alive so long as the reader is alive.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Celtic Chimp

There's a new blogger in town, Barefoot Bum reader Gary Connolly posting at The Celtic Chimp. Welcome to the blogosphere, Gary!

(As soon as Blogger starts behaving, I'll add The Celtic Chimp to the blogtopia (and yes, skippy coined the phrase) on the sidebar.)

Carnival of the Godless

The latest Peer Reviewed Journal of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Tangled Up in Blue Guy. The peer-reviewed journal format is very amusing.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Interest rates and inflation

Worst Inflation in 17 Years:
Shills for Wall Street gamblers said that, even though prices for shit that ordinary people need to survive are skyrocketing, prices for shit they can do without are not going up quite as fast, thus justifying actions by the Fed that are going to further increase the rate of skyrocketing price increases for the shit that ordinary people need to survive, while at the same time floating a massive cash infusion to the Wall Street gamblers to bet with so they can try to keep making the same obscene profits they had been, supported by, and ultimately ended by, their own purposeful courses of action that inflated, and then burst, the housing bubble and secondary pile-of-shit-in-a-pretty-dress bubble.

(h/t to Mike the Mad Biologist)

Flavors of bullshit

Yesterday I wrote about agnosticism and/or atheism. I neglected to mention that one does not need to commit to a single philosophical position towards different ideas about god, just as one does not have to have a single attitude towards different purported scientific theories. Some purported theories (e.g. Intelligent Design) are not falsifiable (at least not as typically presented); some are false (phlogiston, the luminiferous aether); many, of course, are actually true.

There are eight skitty zillion different conceptions of gods. Some differ only in the fine details, others are completely different at a fundamental level. The ideas range from Deism and Pantheism to intentional or unintentional absurdities such as Christianity, Islam or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Still, in a long-established running debate, one must settle on a label. One reason I myself have settled on the label "atheist" is because, fundamentally, I have the attitude, "Tell me what definition of 'god' you're using, and I'll tell you why the idea is bullshit."

If you define "god" as unknowable, it's bullshit because it's meaningless. If you define "god" as difficult to know, it's bullshit because it's irrelevant. If you define god as practically knowable, it's bullshit because it's false (and almost always obviously false and egregiously stupid).

(And if you define "god" as known to be true, it's bullshit because it's trivial. Yes, we know everything that exists does exist, but to define "god" as merely "everything that exists" is trivial unless you assert that "everything that exists" has at least some of the properties typically attributed to god, such as a separately determinable consciousness.)

One could just as easily refuse to call oneself a scientist (in the philosophical sense) because it's impossible to refute every form of pseudoscience with the exact same argument. Intelligent Design is bullshit for different reasons than is Velikovskyism, which is bullshit for different reasons than crystal healing woo-woo, which is bullshit for different reasons than are insane conspiracy theories.

Atheists don't have to be defensive just because religion comes in many different flavors of bullshit. The flavors may vary, but it's all bullshit.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Agnostic and/or atheist

Are you agnostic or atheist? Perhaps you are both.

Politically and socially, the two words can represent a desire to take or not take a particular position on the issue of God. You can self-identify as an agnostic to indicate you're just not interested in discussing the issue. If you self-identify as an atheist, you're declaring at least that you do have a definite position.

There's nothing at all wrong with self-identifying politically and socially as an agnostic. If you don't want to discuss the issue, if you don't want to take any particular position (at least in public), you're free to do so. If you don't believe that a god exists, I would certainly encourage you to publicly self-identify as an atheist, but I won't fault you if you choose otherwise.

If you're interested in the philosophical implications of your choice, however, you might find the rest of this post informative.

Philosophically, the words agnostic and atheist (and their derivatives) represent two very different concepts. Agnosticism is about knowledge; atheism is about existence. In philosophical jargon, agnosticism is an epistemic term; atheism is an ontological term.

If you're a philosophical agnostic, you're saying that you don't know whether or not a god exists. If you're a philosophical atheist, you're saying at least that you don't believe a god exists (weak atheist) or that you believe no god exists.

Right off the bat, if you don't know whether or not a god exists, you are therefore either a fideistic theist (you believe in god on faith, not knowledge) or you are at least a weak atheist: if you don't know, and you don't believe on faith, then you don't believe. Many religious people consider lack of belief to be as atheistic as you need to be to be at least excluded from the religion and at worst susceptible to eternal damnation.

Agnosticism doesn't just apply to god; in general uses, there are two distinct meanings: 1) possible to know but not actually known; and 2) impossible (or deeply impractical) to know.

An example of agnosticism in the first sense would be about the present or historical existence of life on Mars. It is (or seems) possible to know; we just have not yet looked particularly thoroughly. The obvious conclusion from this sort of agnosticism is &mdash if you're interested in the question — to gather more evidence, to look more thoroughly.

In the second sense, it's impossible to know that there aren't really invisible elves pushing us towards the center of the earth, instead of the prosaic gravitational field (or the space-time warping of General Relativity). It's also impossible know how many Apaches are hiding in this room (if we knew about any, they wouldn't be hiding, they'd be failing to hide). It's possible in the most general principle to know that there's no extraterrestrial life in the observable universe (since the observable universe is finite) but it's deeply impractical (at least by present technology) to actually look.

There are more subtle forms of unknowability. Godel's second incompleteness theorem proves that we can't know that the inverse of a theorem in arithmetic is not derivable. We know that 2+2=4, and we know we can know it (and we can know we know, etc.), but we cannot know that it's impossible to derive the contrary.

The status of statements whose truth or falsity is impossible in principle to determine by any means is a matter of no small philosophical controversy. One the one hand, we do consider truth to be independent of our knowledge: there are true statements (or so we intuitively believe) which are true even if we don't know they're true, or even if we think we know they're false: we can be ignorant of or even mistaken about the truth. But this construction would seem to apply most strongly to knowledge that's deeply impractical, or statements we have evaluated in a biased, lazy, restricted or otherwise deficient manner.

We cannot, however, blithely extend our beliefs about impractical or deficient knowledge to impossible knowledge. The proof is simple. We can recast our beliefs about impractical or deficient knowledge exclusively in terms of justification. There are statements we cannot not presently justify one way or the other that we could justify, at least in principle. (This principle applies, mutatis mutandis to mistaken justification, as well as finding the "right" answer with the "wrong" justification.) We cannot, however, cast our beliefs about impossible knowledge exclusively in terms of justification. It is a blatant contradiction to assert that there are statements we cannot in principle justify that can in principle justify.

Of course, that's not to say that statements impossible to know aren't truth-apt; it's to say only that the extension of our beliefs about impractical knowledge require an enthymeme to extend to impossible knowledge. You can assert without contradiction both that statements impractical to know are truth-apt and statements impossible to know categorically are not truth-apt. (You deny the enthymeme that connects the two cases.) And you can do so without giving up your ordinary notions about prosaic objective reality. (It does appear to be the case, however, that asserting the truth-aptness of statements impossible to know underlies a considerable portion of — and perhaps even the entirety of — theological and philosophical metaphysical bullshit.)

(There are still some subtleties: What about propositions that can be justified, but require an infinitely long justification? How about propositions (such as an individual Godel statement) not provable in a language, but provable in a meta-language? These are side issues though; the sort of god that requires advanced transfinite mathematics or meta-mathematics just to define does not seem the sort of god the vast majority of religious believers are talking about; not the sort of god obsessed with the correct enjoyment of our naughty bits.)

One problem with the meaning of "agnostic" that crops up in ordinary conversation (especially between theists and atheists) is an equivocation between knowledge and certainty. In ordinary conversation, we say we "know" things about which we are not certain, especially if we grant — as most atheists do grant — that professional scientists are gaining actual knowledge. It doesn't appear that we know with absolute certainty anything that passes informally or intuitively for knowledge, at least not with our finite minds. If we construct "agnostic" to mean "not absolutely certain" then we must admit agnosticism about everything, rendering the term vacuous.

(Another problem is the equivocation between not known positivistically but known on general principles. If you claim that you dropped something and it didn't fall, even though I didn't actually see it (not) happen, I know that your statement is false precisely as well as I know the law of gravity is true. Although Russell probably intended his teapot example as a metaphor, he missed an epistemological trick: his example can be known to be false on general principles without positivistic knowledge.)

The truth-aptness of the impossible to know and the equivocation between known and known-with-certainty forms a fallacious argument trotted out in various guises by theists: You cannot "know" (i.e. you can't be certain, or "god exists" is unknowable) god exists that god does not exist. Therefore your belief that god does not exists is false. Therefore god exists. Stated clearly the underlying fallacy is obvious (you don't "know" that there's no elephant in your living room, therefore your belief that there's no elephant in your living room is false, therefore there's an elephant in your living room); rhetorical skill can, however, obscure the fallacy.

(The basis of this fallacy is often invoked with confident assertion that "you can't prove a negative." This assertion is trivially false: Euclid, for example, proved that there is no largest prime number. Many negatives can be proven, and, depending on which standard of proof you apply, there are many positives that cannot be proven.)

It all boils down to three cases:

1: It is impossible to know "a god exists" or "no god exists"

In this case, it is entirely legitimate to conclude that both statements are entirely meaningless, or at least meaningless as to truth (i.e. saying "God exists" is like saying, "Yay!") If you think "god exists" is meaningless, you definitely do not believe that god exists, and you're an atheist.

2: It is possible but impractical to know whether "a god exists" or "no god exists".

Who cares? Presumably a god who wants itself to be known will not hide; contrawise a god that makes itself difficult to know does not want to be known. It's definitely the case that the characters in most theistic scriptures did not hide at all.

3: It is practical to know whether "a god exists" or "no god exists", but not with certainty.

In this case, we know at least as well as we know anything that no god exists. If you're going to refuse strong atheism on this case, then you should refuse to acknowledge that no elephant exists in your living room. (You might, for example, be hallucinating or subconsciously denying your perceptions whenever you look. In which case I can get you a great deal on an elephant shit shovel; email me.)

In the philosophical sense, if you are agnostic about god, you are (if not a theist) at least a weak atheist. If you believe that the existence of god can be known practically but without certainty, you are as much a strong atheist about god as you are about elephants in your living room.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Best of the Blogosphere

Vatican Condemns Harry Potter: I won't spoil Jared's excellent quip. Go read it for yourself.

Order and chaos in chess:
Is chess ultimately governed by fixed rules and logic, or is it just a ‘random’ game? A comparison with science. ...

Sure, we have many practical rules of thumb (”put rooks on an open file, develop your pieces, etc.”) but because they don’t always work, they’re not real formulas, like E=mc^2 or V=(4/3)*pi*(r^3). Are such formulas in principe possible in chess, even though they may look entirely different? Is chess ultimately a game of order, or a game of chaos? What do you believe?

Self interest

One of the very stupidest ideas in moral philosophy is the idea that morality has to run contrary to one's self-interest. Such philosophers typically reduce self-interest to immediate material self-interest to make their case.

But I live in a house I could not have built by myself. I eat food I could not have grown myself. I drive a car I could not have built myself. I use a computer I could not have built myself, and could not myself have discovered the subtle, scientific principles on which it's constructed. Even though I'm a computer programmer, I use software I could not possibly have had the time to write myself. I see a physician who knows more about my body than I could have learned myself. There are soldiers, police and lawyers who protect me in ways I cannot protect myself. I've been educated, edified, entertained and amused by thousands of books, plays, movies and television shows I could not have written or produced myself. I've been taught a body of knowledge I could not have created myself by teachers, scholars and scientists.

The notion that these items do not accrue to my self-interest is absolutely idiotic.

And yet all of these benefits rely on the moral beliefs both I myself and the members of my society have adopted: Don't steal, don't hit people, don't lie. Without these moral beliefs, we would have no cooperation, no society, no civilization: We would, as individuals, be little more that brute animals living on the brink of starvation.

Yes, I have to "sacrifice" my immediate, material self-interest. I cannot simply take what I want from the grocery store: I have to pay for it. I cannot simply occupy a house that pleases me, I have to pay rent or a mortgage. I cannot simply punch someone who annoys me.

Well whoop de fucking do. Living in a civilized society? Or living in a cave, eluding tigers and killing antelopes with rocks? You do the math.

Morality is contrary to self-interest my house-living, car-driving, grocery-store-shopping ass.

The problems are the same

The problems are the same, the only difference is that the pay is better.

(h/t to skippy)

Debt to China

James F. Elliott disapproves of the magnitude of our $1.53 trillion debt to China. I have to disagree: I'm not that worried about China. (Nor am I particularly worried about bin Laden or Islamic terrorism; I'm at less risk of dying in a terrorist incident than I am of drowning in a toilet.)

$1.53 trillion dollars is about 15% of our annual GDP. High? I don't know. Many people, especially homeowners, have debt which exceeds their annual income, sometimes by an order of magnitude.

Trade and mutual ownership creates interdependence. Interdependence creates trust far more effectively than mutual independence: Independence facilitates the ability to act unilaterally, the sine qua non of untrustworthy behavior.

Keep in mind that China's ownership of our debt does not permit them to act unilaterally: If they were to "eviscerate the dollar", the value of their debt would be equally eviscerated. This ownership gives them a degree of power, but as Thucydides put it: "[R]ight, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power."

By employing specifically economic tools, China is attempting to establish equality with the United States, to secure her rights.

Of course, I'm not entirely happy about having an entirely undemocratic, totalitarian state as an international equal.

Still and all, I am not Chinese. The chief criticism of totalitarianism is that it doesn't work: It does not further the happiness or interests of the population. But this criticism is empirical and pragmatic, not foundational. If the Chinese can remain relatively happy and productive under totalitarianism, who am I to demand that they sacrifice their happiness to adopt my values?

We have to get used to not being the biggest kid on the block. Sure, the United States has used its enormous power for good, but as Lord Acton notes, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." It took one attack to turn a relatively benignly arrogant superpower into a monstrous nightmare of creeping authoritarianism and casual evil. The United States is not in any way supernaturally special; we are not divinely protected from the corruption of power.

If that means we have to deal with countries that don't share our core* values of democracy and individual liberty, well, that's what national boundaries are for. If the Chinese people truly want democracy, they will have to fight for it themselves. We can help, if they want and need it, but we are no more entitled to unilaterally impose "democracy" on anyone than we are, as the lovely Ms. Coulter advocates, to unilaterally "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

*Well, they used to be our core values, at least as far as lip service goes.

Who goes Nazi?

A new addition to the references section: Who goes Nazi? by Dorothy Thompson, 1941:
It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times–in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis. ...

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.

Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t-whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi. It’s an amusing game. Try it at the next big party you go to.

(h/t to Sara at Orcinus)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bruce throws a hissy fit

Bruce at The Crybaby's Playpen Thinker's Podium throws a hissy fit. Since he's specifically invited me to respond on my blog — and blocked any other avenue — I guess I'll take him up on the invitation.

Apparently he takes criticism of his ideas so personally that he considers my essay on metaphysical objectivism to be a personal attack (ok, I do throw in a little snark). He's banned me from commenting on his blog (oh! I'm so disappointed!) and has preemptively blocked email from me.

I want to thank Bruce for showing us how a mature blogger reacts to criticism.

Tolerance and multiculturalism

The comments on Stephen Law's response to Ibrahim Lawson [link fixed] have become a conversation about multiculturalism.

Steve Chester appears to argue that condemning any behavior under the umbrella of a religion is tantamount to totalitarian oppression.

The problem with that stance, though, is that nobody supports absolute tolerance. We don't tolerate murderers, thieves, rapists, people who don't pay their taxes, or even people who jaywalk. The Nazis presumably had some sort of prosaic law enforcement, but we are not Nazi-like just because we enforce prosaic civil law.

The question is not whether to be intolerant of anything, it's about what specifically to be intolerant of; not whether but where to draw the line.

It's one thing to argue that we should tolerate some particular behavior. It's a horse of a different color to try to protect some behavior by arguing that we should draw no lines at all. It's so patently false — precisely because we do draw entirely uncontroversial lines — that one wonders why the speaker wishes to distract attention from the specifics of the behavior.

"Multiculturalism" has been assigned so many incompatible meanings that it's been rhetorically bludgeoned into meaninglessness. It can range anywhere from tolerating varying styles of dress to racial tolerance all the way to permitting and condoning the murder and mutilation of one's own children for trivial or even imagined sexual misbehavior.

Part of the problem is that multiculturalism and anti-multiculturalism have been adopted as smokescreens by people with objectionable hidden agendas. Right-wing extremists have adopted anti-multiculturalism to justify naked racism, racial oppression, and to justify wars of aggression to get those damn wogs off of our oil. Religious extremists have adopted multiculturalism to shield abhorrent misogyny and a genuinely totalitarian political ideology from democratic criticism. (Islam is not necessarily totalitarian, but Islamic totalitarianism is hardly a fringe movement, as evidenced by Saudi Arabia, the Afghani Taliban, the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan, and any number of fundamentalist movements in other Islamic countries, even secular Turkey.

If people are going to live and work together, they need to establish some core values that are affirmed by everyone in that society. However, determining specifically what those core values are or should be is a nontrivial task, because it is also the case that beyond those core values, there is a considerable range of value that can be tolerated, and in many cases a range of values has value in itself.

It's a fundamental value of Western civilization from the dawn of the enlightenment that verbal criticism should never be suppressed. Although J. S. Mill makes the case most forcefully and coherently in On Liberty, it's arguable that freedom of speech is the sine qua non of Western Civilization. I view any attempt to suppress or condemn speech as speech on any basis — multiculturalism included — to attack the very foundation of my own values. Criticize the content of any speech to your heart's content, but to demand that anyone just absolutely shut the fuck up on any basis is beyond the pale.

Within my own (or other Western societies) if Muslims want to defend the practice of murdering their daughters, throwing acid in their faces, crippling their education, or restricting them from full civic participation and equal rights, let them argue the merits of these demands and submit them to full, vigorous democratic debate. To hide behind "multiculturalism" is nothing more than pure cowardice.

And if the racists and colonialists want to defend the practice of subjugating and denying full civil rights to brown people, if they want to defend wars of aggression and robbery on a national scale, if they want to enforce Christianity, let them defend those demands on their own merits. To hide behind "anti-multiculturalism" is equally cowardly.

Update: Here's an example of bullshit anti-multiculturalism (h/t to Political Crank):
Juashaunna Kelly, a Theodore Roosevelt High School senior who has the fastest mile and two-mile times of any girls' runner in the District this winter, was disqualified from Saturday's Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet after officials said her Muslim clothing violated national competition rules.

Kelly was wearing the same uniform she has worn for the past three seasons while running for Theodore Roosevelt's cross-country and track teams: a custom-made, one-piece blue and orange unitard that covers her head, arms, torso and legs. On top of the unitard, Kelly wore the same orange and blue T-shirt and shorts as her teammates.
I'm no fan at all of Islamic dress codes for women. I think these codes are inherently misogynist and oppressive, and they deserve criticism. On the other hand, singling out Ms. Kelly in this manner is just egregiously stupid, and the supposed justification is just slavish, authoritarian adherence to a different arbitrary dress code. When multiculturalism vs. anti-multiculturalism becomes a heated argument over which kind of petty authoritarianism to enforce in society, we have entirely missed the point of liberal democracy.

Ancient copies of the Koran rediscovered

Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci Code
Islam watchers blogged all weekend about news that a secret archive of ancient Islamic texts had surfaced after 60 years of suppression. Andrew Higgins' Wall Street Journal report that the photographic record of Koranic manuscripts, supposedly destroyed during World War II but occulted by a scholar of alleged Nazi sympathies, reads like a conflation of the Da Vinci Code with Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail. ...

What if scholars can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Koran was not dictated by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammad during the 7th century, but rather was redacted by later writers drawing on a variety of extant Christian and Jewish sources? That would be the precise equivalent of proving that the Jesus Christ of the Gospels really was a composite of several individuals, some of whom lived a century or two apart.

It has long been known that variant copies of the Koran exist, including some found in 1972 in a paper grave at Sa'na in Yemen, the subject of a cover story in the January 1999 Atlantic Monthly. Before the Yemeni authorities shut the door to Western scholars, two German academics, Gerhard R Puin and H C Graf von Bothmer, made 35,000 microfilm copies, which remain at the University of the Saarland. Many scholars believe that the German archive, which includes photocopies of manuscripts as old as 700 AD, will provide more evidence of variation in the Koran. ...

Throughout the Internet, Islamist sites denounce the work of a handful of marginalized scholars as evidence of a plot by Christian missionaries to sabotage Islam. What the Muslim world cannot conceal is its vulnerability and fear in the face of Koranic criticism. In the great battle for converts through the Global South, this may turn out to be a paralyzing disadvantage.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Uncle Ghastly is back!

Yes, brethren and sistren, he's back! Hallelujah!

Our saint of Jesuses Aryan, jihad and drunk and bitter! Mocker of fnanps, furries and fundamentalists! Tireless voice of tentacle monsters and the women who love them! Kinky, perverted and all-around terrific guy, our wise and talented Uncle Ghastly is climbing back in the saddle — at least a little — with a new comic, Blog is Hell.

I don't want to put too much pressure on the guy, but I cried like baby when he stopped drawing Ghastly's Ghastly Comic. I'm excited about his new effort.

Huckabee vs. The Constitution

"I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."

Mike Huckabee

(The Raw Story via The Information Paradox)

What is this "election" of which you speak?

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Best of the atheosphere

Getting In Touch with Your Inner Fish:
Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers—and you have a recipe for problems. We can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price. In a perfectly designed world—one with no history—we would not have to suffer everything from hemorrhoids to cancer.

What's the Harm in a Little Woo?
I'll say this right upfront: While I do think woo is harmful, I certainly don't think it's as harmful as mainstream religion. Mostly because it's not as powerful. It's not as widespread, as wealthy, as symbiotically intertwined with governments -- either subtly or overtly -- as, say, The Big Three, Christianity and Judaism and Islam. So please don't come back at me in the comments with, "How can you compare Wicca to Christianity?" I'm not. There is a difference of degree, and it's a big one.

But the fact that it's not as harmful doesn't mean it's not harmful at all.

Jesus and Mo:
Can you really justify such faith in yourself?

Metaphysical objectivism

In Bruce's response to my essay, he appears to argue that metaphysical objectivism (a.k.a. metaphysical realism) is an intrinsic part of science.
When Popper talks about scientific discovery, he implies that truth is out there as yet independent of observation. ...

I’ve (albeit casually) quizzed scientists on their belief in an objective reality independent of the observer and its importance to their work as scientists. Generally their views are similar to what I’ve attributed to Popper. ...

Heck, popular skeptics... aren’t exactly in denial of metaphysical objectivism either. Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society (not speaking on their behalf) has opined his view of an objective metaphysical reality (as oddly un-Kantian as this may seem for a skeptic). ...
Even taking Bruce at his word about Shermer's views (he doesn't cite any source, and his latest essay shows his... relaxed... standards about careful reading) should we conclude that scientists and skeptics are indeed committed to metaphysical objectivism? I argue that yes, scientists do believe objective reality, but no, this belief isn't metaphysical in any nontrivial sense. The notions of "reality" and "objective reality" are falsifiable, and thus scientific, not metaphysical.

(Be forewarned: I unapologetically take some cheap shots at philosophy and philosophers in general along the way.)

It's not even clear that all scientists believe that their work has much to do at all with reality. In The Universe in a Nutshell Stephen Hawking opines:
[A] scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested.
Of course, Hawking speaks only for himself, but he's famous enough that we can conclude his views are shared by a nontrivial number of other scientists.

Conspicuous by its absence in the above quotation is any mention of reality. To the extent we can draw conclusions about Hawking's philosophical view on reality, we must conclude that scientific work has nothing at all to do with this metaphysical objective reality: science describes and codifies observations, not "objective reality".

(I suspect, however, that Hawking is being politely disingenuous here. I myself am not quite so polite: I'll say right out loud that I read this statement as a big "fuck you" to theological philosophical bullshit: "Yes, doofus, we scientists are talking about truth and reality, but three thousand years of philosophical mental masturbation have sown too much confusion about these terms; I want to avoid these idiots and do some science.")

I suspect that — Hawking notwithstanding — most scientists believe at some level in an objective reality, with existence and properties independent of the human mind, and that this objective reality can be accurately described by scientific means.

We can assume arguendo that scientists are typically unreflective about their belief in objective reality. (To the extent that they are reflective, at least publicly, one can examine their arguments directly and not appeal to mere facts of belief.) Scientists are not philosophers. The existence of objective reality seems (outside philosophical circles) uncontroversial; no scientist is going to get grant money to publish a peer-reviewed paper establishing that yes, reality does in fact exist.

Unfortunately, the word "metaphysical" and its derivatives have been deeply abused by the philosophical canon, bludgeoned — if one is not selective about its interpretation — into meaninglessness. In one sense, "metaphysical" is a synonym for "ontological" (pertaining to existence); in this sense, of course, any belief about existence and reality is metaphysical by definition. But that doesn't seem a particularly interesting definition in the current context. Other definitions are all over the place. If we're committed to taking into account everything every philosopher has ever said or implied was "metaphysical" in print, we're doomed to a hopeless morass of confusion and ambiguity.

(Such a morass seems to suit (at least some) professional philosophers just fine. They can bloviate endlessly about a fundamentally ambiguous topic, free of the danger that they will eventually reach an actual conclusion and thus be forced to attempt original work. Philosophy is all about the questions, dontcha know; not about the answers.)

The key word here is metaphysical. Are scientists' unreflective beliefs in reality specifically metaphysical? Does the fact that a belief is held without reflection establish by itself that the belief is therefore metaphysical?

Bruce's argument that scientists typically believe objective reality without offering any specific arguments would seem — on a non-trivial substantive definition of "metaphysical" — to be an argument from non-reflection. (Bruce might claim a trivial, vacuous or at least obviously unproblematic definition of "metaphysical"; good for him, but even in the best case of an obviously unproblematic definition, his argument would thus be a restatement of the obvious.)

If we want from philosophy something more than admiration of the philosopher's bullshitting skill, we want a meatier definition of "metaphysical" than simply "unreflective": We'd like the word to actually do some real work.

One of Popper's key points — contra the Logical Positivists — is that falsifiability is explicitly a demarcation criterion, not a criterion of meaning. Good for him: otherwise the statement, "Falsifiability distinguishes between science and metaphysics," would be unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless. If some statement is falsifiable, it is scientific; if it is not falsifiable, it is metaphysical.

(Complicating the issue somewhat is that not all unfalsifiable statements are metaphysical; some — such as "asdf ghjkl qwertyuiop" — are indeed totally meaningless. Further complicating the issue is that falsifiability is ambiguous — fatally so — regarding individual statements; an individual statement cannot even in the most abstract principle — be decisively isolated from its theoretical and linguistic context. Some individual statements, however, can justly be called falsifiable on their own merits relative to some context; other statements seem to resist being seen as falsifiable without changing the context so radically as to be unintelligible.)

If, of course, we are interested only in what actual human scientists actually think, we need not go beyond asking them what they think and cataloging their responses; we might even draw some conclusions from those responses. But those conclusions will be conclusions about what scientists think, not about the world, at least not about the world outside scientists' minds. (And even this simplistic approach has its problems. Who, for example, counts as a "scientist"? Should we admit astrologers, chiropractors, intelligent design advocates? How about psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists. Should Camille Paglia* be admitted on the same basis as Bob Altemeyer**?) Again, though, if one expects more from philosophy than mere lexicography or psychology, it seems possible investigate the issue a little more deeply.

*At best a polemicist; at worst an idiot
**A terrific scientist

If we follow Popper's definition of metaphysics as "meaningful but unfalsifiable statements", then the question becomes simply: can we falsify our belief in an objective reality independent of our beliefs? If so, it's a scientific statement; if not, it's metaphysical. Much depends, however, on how we define "independent", "objective" and "reality"; in other words, the linguistic context necessary to assign meaning to the statement is not fixed, even by arbitrary linguistic convention.

If we take independence in its strongest sense as "absolutely uncorrelated" and belief in its broadest sense of "stuff that happens in our minds", then of course the idea of an independent reality is entirely metaphysical. There's nothing that can happen in our minds that can possibly falsify a proposition defined to be absolutely uncorrelated with what happens in our minds.

But of course it is precisely this sense of "independence" that scientists are, by definition, entirely unconcerned with, at least in a professional sense. (We are no more concerned with their private opinions than we are with their tastes in food; scientists might typically consume large quantities of caffeine, but it seems unproductive to make such consumption essential to the definition of science.) The sense of realism entailed by these definitions is irrelevant to science; quite the contrary to the claim that science depends upon metaphysical objectivism or realism. As Hawking notes, science holds as foundational observations, which are, in the broadest sense, beliefs (at least when we state our perceptual experiences in words).

Clearly, some of our definitions have to be adjusted to make realism relevant to science. (Or we have to bite the bullet and say that science has nothing to do with reality... but then what does? Philosophy? Ha!)

Indeed our high-level, abstract (and perhaps naive) intuitions about reality deny this strong sense of independence: We can see and touch real things like rocks and trees. Moreover, we can actually manipulate real things: we can pick them up, put them down, break things, build things, etc. These are high-level intuitions, and therefore not a priori veridical (i.e. their content may be false), but they are authoritative: any good complete scientific theory must explain why we believe as we do. Whatever our intuitions about ordinary prosaic reality are, they do not include the strongest sense of "independence" and the broadest sense of "belief".

Can we productively take different — but not so different as to render our language unintelligible — definitions? It seems uncontroversial that we can talk about "independence" in a weaker sense, as being not absolutely but rather partially uncorrelated, and we can talk about "beliefs" in a more restricted sense, as certain kinds of things that happen in our minds.

(We have to take a little detour here, and note that "reality" and "objective reality" are not synonyms. In the sense of objective as "outside, or independent (even weakly independent) of the mind", to hold that "reality" and "objective reality" are synonyms denies that the mind is real, which is a... er... somewhat counterintuitive notion at the least. We have a trivial semantic problem with "objective" in the sense "truth-apt": Statements (in isolation or en suite) are truth-apt; it's at least vacuous and at worst meaningless to say that reality corresponds to reality. In the sense of "objective" as "determinably true", determinably would prima facie deny a metaphysical meaning.)

But... if we relax, even by a little, any of our definitions, our notions of reality and objective reality become falsifiable. If our notion of reality bears any sort of relationship to (i.e. has a dependency on) our observations, our perceptions, our experiences — i.e. our beliefs — then that notion is at least falsifiable (and perhaps even verifiable) by experience.

The most minimal construction compatible with science, "reality is that which 'causes' our perception," would seem metaphysical; it's an arbitrary definition, after all. But even then, this construction would be metaphysical if and only if we assert without justification in experience or belief in any sense that it is definitely true that something actually does cause our perception. But it could be the case that nothing can be found to have any sort of causal relationship (with "causal" defined non-vacuously) with our perception. It could be the case that simply listing out all our perceptual experience is the most compact way of "thinking" about them. In which case it seems unlikely that any mind — much less a mind capable even the illusion of linguistic communication — could possibly exist. In which case, the very presence of our minds confirms* that there is something does indeed cause perception). (Technically, it is the null hypothesis — that there is nothing which causes perception — that is falsifiable, falsified, and therefore justifies belief in the inverse.)

Likewise, we can falsify notions relating to objective reality in two ways: One is by noting that some of our beliefs can be determinably false: I can be mistaken, and discover I'm mistaken, that the Earth is flat (without substantively changing the meaning of the assertion. There are some truths that appear to be absolutely uncorrelated with some of my beliefs. Furthermore, we can observe that in certain, well defined circumstances, other people can "read our minds" by uttering the same words as we use to describe our internal experience. If my friend and I are standing next to each other looking at a tree, I can think, "I'm looking at a tree," and he says out loud, "You're looking at a tree." There are alternative explanations, but if we admit Occam's Razor — and why shouldn't we? One can hardly exclude Occam's Razor from science on either philosophical or sociological grounds — then these sorts of observations confirm and justify specifically objective reality (in all three senses listed above).

In short, that scientists — and everyone else — accept notions of reality and objective reality without (much) reflection can be explained not because they are "metaphysical" or in any sense a priori, but because they are falsifiable notions so well-established by ordinary experience that they can be reasonably accepted as true. Science does require some metaphysical assumptions (notably falsifiability as a demarcation criterion), but realism of any sort is not among them.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Disgusted Beyond Belief

In a stunning display of incompetence, I had forgotten to add Disgusted Beyond Belief, whom I've been reading for quite some time, to my blogroll. I don't always agree with DBB, but he is always a sensible, logical writer with an open mind and a good heart.

My oversight has been corrected.

Top Ten Religious Idiots

Oh, what's the use. Go read today's News of the Weird, featuring poonsgoo, the Hollywood Prayer Network, troglodyte cultists, Vladimir Putin, the Holy Prepuce, and Mr. Born God Supreme Thompson.