Monday, March 31, 2008

Carnival of the Godless

The Carnival of the Godless #88 is up at Atheist FAQ.

Progressive Conservatism -or- A brief guide to political ideology

"Progressive Conservative" at The Big Stick requests that I define what I mean by various political ideological labels.

We can make a very useful distinction in politics just by looking at how much one wants to change things, and on what basis, without considering the actual substance of those changes. This analysis is suggested by the literal meanings of words commonly employed to designate political ideologies, notably "progressive" and "conservative".

A radical wants to make foundational changes in society, culture and law. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China, as well as the American adoption of democracy in the 18th century, are paradigmatic examples of radical change. (Radical change is never quite as radical as expected; the Communist party leaders became the new Tsars and Emperors, and the American wealthy became the new aristocracy, today almost completely hereditary.)

A progressive wants to improve her society. She wants to make changes where she beliefs those changes will result making society better.

A traditionalist wants to keep everything more-or-less the same. He is willing to make changes only if some aspect of society is clearly failing.

For a traditionalist, the notion that an idea is traditional (and not an obvious failure) is sufficient reason to preserve it unchanged. For a progressive, that an idea is traditional is not sufficient reason; even if something is working, that it's possible that it could be working better is sufficient reason to change it.

Of course there are finer gradations. A cautious progressive is aware of the law of unintended consequences; she still wants to improve society, but recognizes that changes have to be incremental and evolutionary. Traditionalists too differ as to what degree of failure justifies change.

The specific term "liberal" came into political discourse around the time of the American Revolution and became fixed into specifically democratic discourse in the early 19th century. At that time, the liberals were progressive, at times even radical (they wanted to change things). The conservatives were the traditionalists of that time; they wanted to conserve traditional modes of governance and culture.

Therefore, conservatism became associated with the specific ideas the traditionalists of the late 18th/early 19th centuries wished to conserve: Political authoritarianism, rigid (and usually hereditary) class distinctions, militarism, the positive value of profoundly unequal distribution of wealth, and a narrow withhold-by-default construction of individual civil rights; liberalism then came to designate the progressive changes people wanted to make at the time: democratization, classlessness and/or meritocracy, pacifism, equal distribution of wealth, and broad grant-by-default civil rights.

19th century liberalism has, in general and with no small few setbacks, become traditional, sanctioned by two centuries of implementation in the West. Furthermore, we achieved a very liberal society by the middle of the of the 20th century, and liberals became profoundly traditional, unwilling to improve traditional liberal ideas even when improvement was possible.

We can describe a modern conservative, then, is someone who likes the pre-revolutionary society in general, but without some ideas that are clearly failures. (Few modern-day conservatives consciously want an explicitly hereditary absolute monarchy, slavery or explicit serfdom; most conservatives do favor some degree of meritocracy.) A modern liberal is a liberal traditionalist, who wants to keep our liberal institutions unchanged (or at least unchanged relative to the acme of liberal democracy in the US, pre-Nixon or pre-Reagan).

We are in the weird situation where "conservatives" want to change things: They want to erase many of the liberal ideas implemented since the late 17th century. They're not quite reactionary, they don't want to implement a society that's exactly the same as before the American revolution, but they view as Bad Ideas many of those liberal ideas implemented since then, especially those explicitly contrary to authoritarianism and classism.

So how are we to understand Progressive Conservative (the impetus for this post)?

All modern conservatives are in some sense "progressive", according to my terminology: they want to change modern society. However, conservatives usually bill themselves as traditionalists. They achieve this verbal sleight-of-hand by declaring that ideas implemented since their preferred time (ranging from the middle of the 17th century to beginning of the 20th) are a priori "experimental", i.e. not traditional.

Of course, we cannot expect Progressive Conservative to have employed my idiosyncratic nomenclature. Unfortunately, the subtitle of his blog ("Defining a progressive conservative agenda for the 21st century") notwithstanding, he appears leery of actually defining anything, preferring vague generalities. The sole substantive point he explains in more than a sentence is a preference for environmental "conservation" over "preservation", a position which is still rather vague as to the details and probably unrealistic: with six billion people on the planet, only a very small few could actually use natural areas without turning them completely artificial.

We see a clear preference for traditionalism. He praises the Boy Scouts (an explicitly anti-gay and anti-atheist organization) for their "commitment to traditional morality and values." He quotes Joel Kotkin approvingly for Kotkin's condemnation (itself a canard) of liberalism as indifferent to "traditional American moral or religious ideals" such as discipline and self-reliance. And he states his traditionalism explicitly*:
For me, conservatism is not about a reluctance to change. It is about tradition. Traditional values, traditional ethics, tradtional morality. It is my belief that we can pursue progressive goals within a conservative framework, hince [sic] progressive conservatism.
[emphasis added in each of the above quotations]

*His template does not seem to allow linking to specific comments.

Both his adulation of Theodore Roosevelt and his "specifics",
- A complete evaluation of existing social programs, both public and private. Use a conservative approach to eliminate waste, loopholes and those taking advantage of the system.

- Union busting. The big unions are now as corrupt as the corporations they were created to fight.

- Conservation, conservation, conservation.

- Social justice through a cooperative effort of government, private and religious institutions.

- Education reform across the board based on the traditional model. Elimination of federal funding of education and return power to the states.
reveal (where actually specific; "social justice" is a vacuous phrase without more detail) a classically conservative agenda.

While I'm sympathetic to the idea of trying to redefine terminology by sheer force of will, Progressive Conservative will have to do more than simply employ Orwellian doublespeak to re-define "progressivism" as the conservative traditions established in the first decade of the 20th century and do more to differentiate himself from the garden-variety conservative to have any hope of altering our definition of "progressivism" in any honest, substantive, and non-bullshit way.

Googlebombing Expelled

Expelled, the movie
Ben Stein
Intelligent Design

[h/t to half the atheist blogosphere]

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fuck Spartacus, I'm Shalini

According to a commenter at Evolved and Rational [h/t to Splendid Elles] you're Shalini Sehkar if you use the word "theistard"; you're a "Nazi Darwinist"; you worship science; and you're arrogant (of course, I've had to clean up the usual theistard illiteracy from the original comment). I do think the theory of evolution is as true as any scientific theory gets, I am definitely arrogant, I "worship" science as much as or more than I "worship" anything else, and I do loooooove the word "theistard".

Therefore I'm Shalini Sehkar. Won't my wife be surprised.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Beware the believers

This is some seriously funny shit.

[h/t to PTET and Pharygula]

The argument from moral knowledge

On my first trip to Pakistan, to meet for the first time the woman would become my wife, the person in the seat next to me asked my religion (usually the first question most Muslims will ask you after your name) and I stupidly replied that I was not religious.

The guy behind me took umbrage, and fancied himself a philosopher. For forty five minutes, I had my neck twisted around while I listened to an "argument" that boiled down to "If you're not religious, you can't know that it's not OK to have sex with your sister." (Yes, he used that precise analogy.) The argument is stupid. If as an atheist I already know (or believe) it's not OK to have sex with my sister, I don't need to be religious. If I don't already know it's not OK, then why should I adopt a religion just to tell me that something I think is OK isn't OK? If I don't know it's not OK, then my Muslim friend might as well have said, "If you're not religious, you can't know that it's required to rub blue mud in your navel."

It would be nice if this were just an isolated incident of a psuedo-intellectual dumbass on an airplane, but we see this retarded argument from all over the place.

Most recently we see the theistard Mike S. Adams make essentially the same sort of case; he rejected Christianity "because it would not have allowed me to continue getting drunk and high every night while splitting time between four girlfriends." At James blog, theistard and chickenshit coward Croath endorses Adams views: "It is true, though, that with atheism anything goes." In other words, an atheist has no way of knowing (or believing) that it's wrong to get drunk and high every night and split his time between four girlfriends. Of course, if true, the argument has no force: If an atheist truly doesn't know that all this is wrong, it would be moronic to adopt Christianity just so that something he believes to be good would be called bad.

There's a weaker interpretation of this argument, which is not quite so obviously contradictory: The atheist might guess or suspect that having sex with your sister, or getting drunk or high every night, etc. is wrong, but the theist knows it; knowledge is unobjectionably superior to guesswork or suspicion.

There's a persistent tendency in not only theistic philosophy but also in secular philosophy that belief held as the conclusion of a logical argument is superior to belief held without logical argument.

This idea is completely retarded.

Any statement which is the conclusion of a logical argument is only as well-justified as the premises of that argument, and the premises of an argument are, by definition, not the conclusion of a logical argument. A conclusion is no stronger just by virtue of being a conclusion, because conclusions are only as strong as the premises from which one draws the conclusion. The theist (and, sadly, many secular ethical philosophers) just moves the guesswork from the statement about morality to some premises about a god and what it wants.

A related argument is that atheists' "moral framework has no grounds for rejecting such behaviour. [Atheists] can only argue on pragmatic grounds rooted in personal goals." We can note the trivial contradiction, pragmatic grounds is some grounds, not no grounds, and recast the statement to the slightly more sensible, "An atheist has no grounds except the pragmatic to construct a moral framework."

But what's so bad about pragmatic grounds? Essentially, this sort of argument asserts that it's a bad reason (or, if we take the argument literally, no reason at all) to do something because we want to. The only good reason to do something is obedience, whether to some principle or, more often, to some specific person.

We inevitably find in such an "obedience" proponent, a person who wants to do something, but lacks the will or the ability. It's a fair bet that Mike S. Adams wants to get drunk and high every night, and split his time between four girlfriends, but he lacks the ability to do so. He's probably pathetically shy, got falling-down drunk on two beers for the first time as a college freshman, clumsily tried to molest the head cheerleader, got slapped down, puked in her shoes, and converted to Christianity because he was an utter failure at even the most basic, benign hedonism. He's afraid that he won't be able to satisfy a woman who likes sex, so I suspect he's married to some anhedonic "close your eyes and think of England" woman. Nobody likes this guy because he's a tight-assed pathetic loser, so he prefers to think that everyone hates him because he's a righteous man of God.

Christianity and religion in general not only causes people to be monumentally stupid, but all too often turns them into them into sanctimonious moralists, deathly afraid that some people might consider themselves — oh, the humanity! — free to have a good time, enjoy themselves, and do what they want to do. Worse yet, instead of being upfront and honest about their self-righteousness — and everyone who expresses any moral belief is being self-righteous — they hide their self-righteousness behind their ludicrous invisible sky-fairy. Feh. What a blight on humanity are these religious assholes.

Friday, March 28, 2008


In comments, Alonzo Fyfe asserts he can avoid the complications of game theory. I think he can only hand wave around them.

He charges that "PD situations are highly contrived and ignore many real-world facts that are morally relevant..."

Well, yes. The analysis of a simple game is not the analysis of a complex game. Game theory is a rich and varied field with volumes of serious academic work. As a philosopher, though, I'm entitled to look at how the essential features of some simple games illuminate our fundamental understanding of ethics.

Alonzo might as well argue against the "oversimplification" of gravitation. It is certainly the case that just m1*m2 / d2 ignores many complications in actually describing the motions of planets. But without a sound fundamental understanding of various ideal cases, we can't get very far in making sense of complex phenomena.

The specific cases Alonzo gives, "variable pay-offs, the possibility of anonymous defection, the possibility of deception, and the possibility of affecting desires," all (except perhaps the last, which I shall address in a moment) easily handled by more complicated game-theoretical analysis. But these more complicated analyses don't change anything about the fundamental way we interpret game theoretic analysis in an ethical sense.

He asks, "What happens if we raise our children so that they simply acquire a desire for cooperation or an aversion to defection?"

That seems like an overly simplistic strategy, leading to a susceptibility to exploitation. More importantly, even if children were infinitely labile (which they're not) it begs the question: why should we raise our children thus? Why is cooperation better than defection?

Should we not give our children a sound theoretical understanding of what's going on, so they can analyze and respond to complicated situations where simplistic strategies will not suffice?

To a certain extent, as Alonzo mentioned earlier, we can indeed change desires, to a certain extent. But which desires should we change? Why? How can we justify making those changes? These are all questions that game theory and meta-game theory attempt to answer in a consistent manner.

His next objection,
If we look at your original account from Wednesday's post, and raise children so they assign 2 units of value to cooperation itself, then the value of cooperation increases from 3.3 to 5.3,and exceeds the value of defection. We solve the same problem without any of the complexities of game theory.
is difficult to understand. Alonzo has to use game theory to perform this analysis and reach the conclusion that we should change the game by raising children in a particular way. He has employed game theory, not avoided it.

Real-life examples

John Morales asks for some real-life examples of game theory in ethics.

In many instances where game theory intersects real life, we just play the game according to the (local) Nash equilibrium. The phrase "All's fair in love and war" says that one is free to pursue the strategy that will bring the greatest immediate individual benefit. We construct specifically ethical systems when for one reason or another, we have to go "outside" the game to achieve what we intuitively feel is the best overall outcome.

For example, I can go into a restaurant, eat a meal, and then be presented with the bill. This is an example of a related game, the asymmetric closed bag exchange. Regardless of whether or not I'm actually served a good meal, I am always "better off" not paying (I get to eat the meal and keep my money). Paying before I eat (like at McDonalds) just changes the asymmetry; whether or not I pay, it's always "better" for the restaurant to not feed me (defect) once I've paid (cooperated).

The Pareto optimum (and usually the global maximum), though, is for the restaurant to serve me a good meal and for me to pay.

In a small community, we can play tit-for-tat. If I don't pay on Monday (he cooperates, I defect), the restaurant won't serve me again until I pay without eating (he "defects", I cooperate). However, a rational person with foresight will simply see the outcome of the repeated iterations. We call this foresight the ethical evaluation that you should pay for your meal.

In a larger community, where there are more non-communicating restaurants than I can eat meals, tit-for-tat doesn't work; I can play as many one-shot games as I like without fear of reprisal. So we make laws which follow from our idealized tit-for-tat strategy (i.e. good laws follow from good ethics).

But we can observe that the law is relatively easy to circumvent: There isn't a police officer standing at the door to every restaurant. Instead, we cultivate in ourselves ethical habits. In this case, the the thinking is one level more abstract: If too many people in general were to eat without paying, no one (myself included) could eat at restaurants, so we police ourselves.

There are other examples. I can work hard (cooperate) or slack off and just look busy (defect); my company can give me a raise next year (cooperate) or stiff me (defect). As an exercise, use game theory to relate the Communist slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," with the cynical Soviet observation, "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

A lot of human behavior can be modeled just by reducing it to pure game theory and locally rational choice. But as the Prisoner's Dilemma shows, some situations are not so easy to reduce, even in theory. It is precisely those Prisoner's Dilemma and similar games which cause us to go outside the game and create ethics and laws.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ethics and game theory

Atheist ethicist Alonzo Fyfe weighs in with some objections to my earlier post on the Prisoner's Dilemma.
I am afraid that I do not find the prisoner's dilemma to make ethics interesting. In fact, I seldom find its relevance to ethics.
I spoke somewhat loosely in my earlier post. To be more precise, game theory in general is what makes ethics interesting, specifically those elements of game theory where Pareto optima and Nash Equilibria conflict or are undefined or ambiguous. The Prisoner's Dilemma is the best known of these sorts of games, and we can generalize the analysis of the Prisoner's Dilemma to related games, such as the Stag Hunt).

I'm not, of course, the only person interested in the connection between ethics and game theory. From the Wikipedia article:
While it is sometimes thought that morality must involve the constraint of self-interest, David Gauthier famously argues that co-operating in the prisoners dilemma on moral principles is consistent with self-interest and the axioms of game theory. It is most prudent to give up straightforward maximizing and instead adopt a disposition of constrained maximization, according to which one resolves to cooperate with all similarly disposed persons and defect on the rest. In other words, moral constraints are justified because they make us all better off, in terms of our preferences (whatever they may be). This form of contractarianism claims that good moral thinking is just an elevated and subtly strategic version of plain old means-end reasoning. Those that defect can be predicted because people are not completely opaque.

Douglas Hofstadter expresses a strong personal belief that the mathematical symmetry is reinforced by a moral symmetry, along the lines of the Kantian categorical imperative: defecting in the hope that the other player cooperates is morally indefensible. If players treat each other as they would treat themselves, then off-diagonal results cannot occur.
I find myself in almost complete agreement with this point of view.

Game theory takes the magic out of ethics. Instead of talking about some mysterious, mystical ethical realism, a game-theoretic ethics makes ethics about something physical — or at least no more unphysical than consciousness in general. Ethics is about the mind directly, about our subjective preferences and desires and about the complex emergent properties of the subjective preferences interacting in a society. Even better, games such as the Prisoner's Dilemma show us that a game-theoretic understanding is not an over-simplification of our ethical intuitions.

Alonzo complains that the Prisoner's Dilemma is "contrived".
It is a highly contrived situation that some skillful interrogators may put into practice to extract confessions from the accused [I'm curious if Alonzo actually read the Wikipedia article], but it does not describe a real-world situation.
But it is not so much contrived as it is stripped to its essence. In a very simple game, which can be described precisely in just a few sentences, we find profound emergent properties that force us to reconsider our notions of rationality itself. Any philosopher interested in something other than bloviation and obfuscation should, I think, admire the simplicity, clarity and depth of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Mark Rowlands on Iraq

Mark Rowlands suggests applying some ethical philosophy to the issue of withdrawing from the occupation of Iraq.

There are a number of problems with his analysis.

[There is] every indication that [the situation in Iraq] is going to get even worse if we should leave.
There is every indication that the situation in Iraq is going to get worse whether or not we leave. I don't think anyone can state with very much confidence that things will be substantially worse were we to leave compared to how things would be were we to stay.

Rowlands creates a ludicrous and inapt analogy:
Suppose you suspect – groundlessly as it turns out – that your neighbor is throwing garbage into your yard. So, you do what seems to you to be the best thing: you invade his house and largely destroy it, rendering it uninhabitable. Realizing your mistake, you volunteer to stay on and help him or her rebuild it. But, you soon weary of this for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s hitting you financially because you can’t go to work. So, the best thing to do – you decided – is withdraw. If you decide this, then ‘best’ clearly means ‘best for you’.
There is no evidence that the Bush administration suspected Iraq of hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction. They knew there were no such weapons; the justification was not mistaken, it was a lie.

There is little evidence that — lip service aside — there is any serious intention to actually help to rebuild Iraq, at least any intention not conditioned on demanding a disproportionate share of our their oil in return. And the "rebuilding" seems to consist mostly of Halliburton putting up a few hovels and charging the taxpayers for a score of mansions.

And the notion — even by analogy — of George W. Bush realizing his mistake is completely insane.

The analogy fails even as a pure analogy. If someone invaded my house and burnt it down — for any reason, not just for the sake of an obvious lie — I would not want him to stick around and help rebuild it. I most definitely wouldn't want him in charge of the process, especially if he spent a considerable amount of his time killing the surviving inhabitants who were justifiably pissed off that he burnt down the house in the first place and wanted him to get the fuck out.

Here’s one way to think morally, a way that has a lineage that runs from John Rawls, through Immanuel Kant, to, dare I say it, a certain Nazarene carpenter. Imagine you don’t know who you are. You don’t know whether you are American, or an Iraqi Sunni, an Iraqi Shia, or an Iraqi Kurd. Then ask yourself: what would I like to happen? I don’t know what answer you would come up with.
Why is this a good way to think about the occupation? Just because a bunch of then out-of-touch and now-dead white European intellectuals liked to think that way? It doesn't lead to any determinable answer, or at least an answer Rowlands himself thinks he can predict. Yes, let's encourage people to come up with a lot of different answers, that'll do the trick. </snark>

But of course Rowland's analysis does lead to an obvious answer (just not the one he likes): The Iraqi people mostly want us to get the hell out of Iraq and let them solve their own problems. It's a subtle and controversial evaluation, but I suspect that's why they keep shooting at us.

The people of Iraq apparently want to solve their problems with a civil war. It's important to note that our occupation of Iraq is not preventing civil war, it's making us a participant in civil war. (Little known fact: The United States itself fought a civil war, quite a bloody one, for reasons we thought were necessary and sufficient. We ourselves would have rejected any interference in our sovereign affairs, for probably justifiable reasons: sovereign means sovereign.)

Yes, we have ethical obligations to Iraq, ethical obligations that will survive the end of the occupation. We broke it, we bought it, and at the end of the day we're going to have to cough up a great deal of money, on top of what we've already spent. And we're going to have to give it away, and let other people, the Iraqis themselves, determine how it is spent.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Prisoner's Dilemma

The Prisoner's Dilemma is what makes ethics interesting. It's an apparent paradox. Given some game with the payoff matrix:

A rational person would prefer the Cooperate/Cooperate outcome [Pareto optimum] (and gain 3) to the Defect/Defect outcome (and gain 1). However, it is the dominant strategy to defect [Nash Equilibrium]: for either of my opponent's strategies, defection always has the higher payoff to me. If my opponent defects, then I win 1 if I defect instead of 0 if I cooperate; if my opponent cooperates then I win 5 if I defect instead of 3 if I cooperate. Of course, defection is my opponent's dominant strategy as well. So on one analysis, Cooperate/Cooperate is the preferred outcome; on another analysis, Defect/Defect is the preferred outcome.

There are two ways to resolve the Prisoner's Dilemma for the Pareto optimum. The first is to iterate the game an indefinite number of times and play "tit-for-tat". But it's not always possible to iterate a game indefinitely.

The second is to change the game by changing the payoff matrix, usually by threatening external punishment for defection. For example, if the townspeople agree to get together and beat either of us senseless if either cheats in a closed bag exchange, then we've changed the payoff for defection from 0,5 to 0,-1000, making cooperation the dominant strategy, and making one choice unambiguously rational (the Pareto optimum is also the Nash Equilibrium).

However, if you can change the game in one way, you can change it in other ways. We can just as easily change the game so that it's asymmetric, making it for instance always rational for brown-eyed people to cooperate and blue-eyed people to defect by punishing only brown-eyed people for defecting. Changing the low-level game just makes another Prisoner's Dilemma at a more abstract level: Cooperate becomes "make the game symmetric" (or make good laws/obey the law); "Defect" becomes "make the game asymmetric" (or make bad laws/disobey the law); the Nash Equilibrium is for the authority to make bad laws and the subjects to disobey them.

For this reason, purely authoritarian approaches to solving the Prisoner's Dilemma always fail. The authority will try to change the game for its exclusive benefit, sooner or later depending on how rational and intelligent the authority is; the subjects will then resist the authority. Authoritarian solutions to the Prisoner's Dilemma are dynamically unstable.

To a certain extent, religion can coerce the Cooperate/Cooperate outcome by changing the game: God will punish you for defecting and/or reward you for cooperating (and perhaps reward you more if your opponent defects). This is the sense I spoke of earlier of how religion could have an overall beneficial effect. The effect is weak; religion is a dynamically unstable authoritarian strategy.

(Pseudo-authoritarian solutions are possible, but only where you have competing authorities, who themselves play tit-for-tat. However, within-authority conflicts will always revert to the Nash Equilibrium.)

Democracy is a clever way of solving the Prisoner's Dilemma in a dynamically stable way. The people and the government play a abstract-level game of tit-for-tat — we need to make sure that only one abstract-level authority/submission game is iterated — and can thus implement any number of concrete-level Pareto optima where direct iteration is impractical. Of course, like any system in dynamic equilibrium, democracy is susceptible to sufficiently large "random" forces to push it to a state where the equilibrium cannot be maintained. If the government becomes too powerful, the people cannot "punish" the government sufficiently and the government can "defect" with impunity; likewise a too-weak government invites the people to "defect" into anarchy and chaos.

Rejecting Christianity

Theistard Mike S. Adams writes that he rejected Christianity "because it would not have allowed me to continue getting drunk and high every night while splitting time between four girlfriends." (Uh huh, this guy had four girlfriends. And I have a bridge to sell you.)

Adams doesn't quite get it, though.

One adopts Christianity (or any other religion) so one can get God's approval for getting drunk and high every night while splitting your time between four girlfriends... or, if one's tastes are more refined and sophisticated, getting God's approval for torturing and murdering Jews, heretics and homosexuals, enslaving blacks, and stealing everyone else's land and resources.

Get out or else

The occupation of Iraq is, regardless of your position, the stupidest thing this country has ever done. We need to either do it right or get out, all the way out.

To occupy Iraq correctly entails implementing Soviet- or Nazi-style oppression. (You can call it "Roman-style" if you want to avoid uncomfortable historical analogies.) Alternatively, we can just kill most of the Iraqis and just settle the country ourselves.

I don't want to do either, so the only option acceptable to me is to get all the way out.

It's the Republicans' job to convince us to do the job right. They can, if they choose. A country that has countenanced the genocide of the American Indians, the internment of tens of thousands of actual citizens in WWII, the conquest of the Philippines, and centuries of slavery can be convinced to occupy or sterilize Iraq.

It's the Democrats' job, therefore, to get us out. Forget "change"; forget transforming our society; forget health care, the financial crisis, or the size of Barack's penis or Hillary's breasts. This is a no-brainer: if the Democrats cannot get us all the way out of Iraq, they are completely useless.

I'm going to vote Democratic one last time. But, if the Democrats do not end the occupation of Iraq by November 2010, I am never voting Democratic again for the rest of my life. I'll change my affiliation and destroy my altar to Walter Mondale. If they get their shit together after 2010, well, too bad for them. I'll wish them the best, but they can go on without me.

Everything else is open to negotiation and compromise. But if they can't do this one simple, rational thing; if they can't reverse a not only completely immoral and heinous but also obviously stupid half-assed occupation, they are worthless.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Expelled, summarized

[midwifetoad on; h/t to Pharyngula]

A funny kind of Christian

Giles Fraser calls Bush A funny kind of Christian and accuses Bush of missing the point of Easter:
The crucifixion... is the story of a God who deliberately takes the place of the despised and rejected so as to expose the moral degeneracy of a society that purchases its own togetherness at the cost of innocent suffering.
[h/t to Himself] That's an interesting interpretation, and I categorically approve of people calling Bush nasty names, but it is Fraser himself who appears to be a funny kind of Christian, at least in the historical sense.

Because, of course, the various Christian churches have been happily scapegoating the innocent since Christianity was adopted by Constantine as the state religion in the fourth century. Perhaps Jesus called forth a new society, the kingdom of God, "without scapegoating, without the blood of the victim," and tasked "Christians is to further this kingdom, 'on earth as it is in heaven,'" but this call was honored entirely in the breach, not the observance.

It is (sadly) Fraser — not Bush — who is the funny kind of Christian.

Fraser is, of course, the better kind of Christian, but to find him better requires human, not divine, morality and conscience. Not only do we not need God to scapegoat his son to disapprove of scapegoating, it didn't even work!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Peter Hitchens' hypocrisy and stupidity

Peter Hitchens (Christopher Hitchens' brother) is very worried: "[I]f we reject the idea of absolute unchanging goodness, we will become like that mob [baying or sneering at Golgotha, exactly the same snarling, contorted, heedless faces you find on the drunken streets of our country], and part of it."

What is this standard of absolute, unchanging goodness that the English are rejecting? Hold onto your hat, gentle reader, because it's a doozy: People are gambling on Good Friday. Oh, the humanity!

Hitchens doesn't appear to have anything against gambling per se, it's the fact that English gamblers are not going out of their way to respect his particular literary metaphor for Hitchens' standard of absolute, unchanging goodness du jour.

In his criticism of his brother's book, Peter extols the virtues of doubt, reason and change:
But it is obvious to anyone that vast numbers of believers in every faith are filled with doubt, and open to reason. The Church of England’s greatest martyr, Thomas Cranmer, was burned at the stake for changing his mind once too often.

The noblest thinker of that Church, Richard Hooker, enthroned reason, alongside tradition and scripture, as one of the governing principles of faith, and warned against crude literal use of the Bible to justify or prohibit any action.
You can cut the hypocrisy with a knife. Peter is so enamored of the crude literal meaning of a painting of a description of an allegorical event, and so certain of his moral judgment, that it is the failure to respect this literary metaphor thrice removed (at least!) from his theology that he would damn his entire society with the relentless mockery he criticizes in (and no doubt learned from) his brother.

This is the biggest reason why I'm anti-theism and anti-religion. I've never met a religious person — aside from those whose religion consists of nothing but vacuous, vaguely comforting slogans — who wasn't a complete fucking retard on the subject of his religion. Not just mistaken or confused, but lobotomy-level stupid.

If Christianity is your preferred literary metaphor for your ethics, and you consider gambling on Good Friday to be "obscene" because it's contrary to a painting of a description of that literary metaphor of an allegorical event, then don't fucking gamble on Good Friday. What other people do, those who use different literary metaphors, is no more of Hitchens' business than his choice of metaphor is any of my business.

[h/t to Why Don't You Blog?]

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Paradox of Motivation and MESR

The Paradox of Motivation isn't at all a paradox under meta-ethical subjective relativism. Under MESR, all of our discussion about ethics is a discussion about our motivations; there is no need to supply motivations between the evaluation of good and the performance of actions.

Under MESR, the Paradox of Motivation translates to, "I don't want to do X, but I will do X," which is still puzzling.

I'm always adding a proviso to specific statements about ethics; with the proviso, the problem with the PoM becomes a little more clear: "Some things considered, I don't want to do X, but all things considered, I will." With the proviso, it's clear that the statement is not at all puzzling.

It is a trope in the scientific study of psychology and cognition that the human mind is not a singular, perfectly synchronized entity; the human mind is made up of parts, parts that often compete. You have Freud's id, ego and superego; Berne's child, adult and parent; Wilson and Leary's circuits; Minsky's agents; and the layered evolutionary nature of the brain.

Ethical Philosophy tends to focus on — and thus privilege — only one of the parties to the conversation: that part of our minds concerned with logical, abstract thought. But such arbitrary privilege is prima facie unjustified; worse yet, logical abstract thought requires facts as a foundation (see The Scientific Method).

Furthermore, many of our ethical beliefs are not a result of logical, abstract thought, but are rather socially and culturally constructed: i.e. the product of some sort of social evolution (which, although employing very different specific mechanisms from biological evolution, still retains the fundamental mechanism of natural selection). It is at least a partial justification for some ethical beliefs that, regardless of their origins, we alter them at our peril: they have worked (in some sense) for scores or hundreds of years, and many of our other beliefs depend on those "traditionally justified" beliefs.

It seems obvious that our feelings of empathy and sympathy, of identifying the feelings of others with our own feelings, depends critically on our faculties of logical, abstract reasoning: to identify the "other" with the "self" requires a sense of self, which is a considerably abstract notion. It's likewise seemingly obvious that our concerns about our future self require abstract reasoning; the future is as much an abstract concept as the self.

But the entailment is only one way: a sense of self does not entail any sort of empathy; that we human beings are in truth empathic is a result of our specific evolutionary history, of specifically how our species itself evolved conscious minds. Abstract thought is necessary to conceive of the well-being of others and one's future self, but to desire the well being of others additionally requires the desire itself.

Under MESR, the dilemma of the Happiness rapist is obvious: He has a conflict between two desires: the desire not to hurt other people, and the desire to have sex with young boys. The plural-mind theory renders this simply a conflict rather than a paradox, and MESR obviates the need to discuss anything other than his desires.

There is an irritating tendency in ethical philosophy to label our desires, especially our "primitive" desires (those with the longest evolutionary history) as irrational by definition, because they are not strongly related (as is empathy) to our abstract reasoning. Desires, from our most primitive to our most abstract, are facts, and the facts are as intrinsically a part of rationality as is logical, abstract thought.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Quotation of the day

[The American Indians] didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. ... What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.

-- Ayn Rand, 1974

[I do not approve of Rand's sentiments here. I've reproduced this quotation just to demonstrate what kind of an asshole she was.]

[Update: Following links, I lost the original impetus for this post. Happily, Mark has commented, and I can tip my hat to Daylight Atheism]

I shouldn't, but I will

The Paradox of Motivation: "I shouldn't do X, but I will do X."

This is a very puzzling statement. To me, it appears as wildly absurd implausible for anyone to even say such a thing, as absurd as saying "P, but I don't believe that P." [Moore's Paradox] If you're not going to do X, what precisely do you mean by "should"?

But unlike Moore's Paradox, people actually do say, "I shouldn't do X, but I will do X." What can they possibly mean? People seem say it sincerely, and it seems intuitively to make some sort of sense for me; I can't conclude such people regularly become suddenly insane and start speaking gibberish.

Of course the speaker might just be bullshitting the listener. "[You expect me to say] I shouldn't do X [but I myself don't believe it] but I [therefore] will do X." I suppose such a speaker prefers to be thought a hypocrite or weakling rather than a libertine.

But there are more sincere instances. In the movie Happiness, for example, one of the characters, a homosexual pedophile, "breaks down" and rapes two ten year-old boys (his son's friends). You can see the wheels turning in his head: "I shouldn't rape these boys, but I will." He's not literally insane, not in any sort of unconscious "fugue"; he consciously makes complex preparations. But he's so quickly arrested that he must have realized he would be. He's not bullshitting anyone else; he doesn't try to justify his behavior, and if he himself merely believed that society didn't want him to rape those boys, he wouldn't have so easily allowed himself to be caught. Clearly he's absolutely sincere about both clauses of the Paradox of Motivation.

To anyone who holds "outer-directed" ethics, whether theistic ethics or non-theistic moral objectivism, is going to have trouble with the Paradox of Motivation. By explicitly decoupling ethics from (subjective, "inner-directed") motivation, they must answer the question: what motivates a person to do what they believe is good?

There are two alternatives: Either the evaluation of what is good is itself a motivation, or the evaluation of what is good is not itself a motivation. In the first case, we're talking explicitly about meta-ethical subjective relativism: A person does X because they evaluate X to be good. In the second case, though, a person will, by definition, do what they are motivated to do (i.e. a "motive" is defined to be that brain structure which causes action), and it's pointless to discuss how to evaluate the good; we are better off discussing what motivates people, and we're back to meta-ethical subjective relativism.

If you do what you believe to be good because you want to do what's "good", then doing good different is doing what you want. And if you don't want to do good, why are you doing it? If there's some extrinsic magic causal force that makes you do good, regardless of what you want, then how is doing good any more of a choice than "obeying" the law of gravity?

We can see the same sort of thing in Micah Cowan's answers to my questions:
Obviously, if it was good, then it was what God wanted me to do. And, likewise, if it was something God wanted me to do, then it was good. ...

The thing is, I really loved God. That's an understatement. I was absolutely, 100% in love with God (not in the South Park sense ;) ). I would go well out of my way to do something if I "knew" it was what God wanted.
But Micah isn't explaining his motivation, he's just restating it. He does things because he loves God, but "loves God" is just a way of saying that he does things because he thinks God wants him to do it. But he also things that God wants him to do it if he already thinks it's good. He's saying, in effect that at least for some things, he's doing what he thinks is good; some of his religious belief are the effects of his beliefs about the good, not the cause.

But we can reasonably conclude that Micah's religious beliefs entailed that he would do some things that he determined extrinsically (e.g. by reading the Bible or listening to his clergy-critter) that God wanted him to do. He wants to do good, and it's good to do what God wants, and there are some things he concludes that God wants other than the totality of his innate desires. In this case, his beliefs about God have not supplied the motivation (i.e. he still wants to do what he thinks is good); rather, his religious belief have altered his evaluation of what is good. And we can conclude that his religious beliefs have altered his evaluation only to the extent that his beliefs have changed now that he's an atheist.

Micah cannot say that he wanted to do good because God wanted him to do good. "God wants me to do X" is, for some of his beliefs, just an elaborate way of saying, "I myself want to do X." We can conclude that his religious beliefs motivated him to do only those things which, as an atheist, he no longer believes to be good. Therefore, we can conclude that his religious belief did not motivate him at all to be good, at least by his own evaluation. Indeed, we can conclude that religious belief never motivates a person to do that which he would consider good if he did not believe in God; it can motivate him — only indirectly by changing what he believes to be good — only to do that which he would not consider good if he did not believe.

It is, of course, obviously the case that religion can motivate someone else to do that which I myself consider to be good. But my perspective is not privileged (except to myself).

In the next post, I'll talk about the Paradox of Motivation directly from the perspective of meta-ethical subjective relativism.

Also, there is one sense in which religion can in some sense "motivate" doing good, which I'll discuss in the following post.

Update: Fixed the title and the closing.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Evo Psych

Mike the Mad Biologist delivers the smackdown on Evolutionary Psychology pseudoscience:
One colleague, a male evolutionary biologist, characterized to me evolutionary psychology as "the discipline which justifies middle-aged professors sleeping with their younger graduate students."
The really sad thing is that it really is true that [per a comment on Pandagon]
evo psych is potentially useful, so it's really frustrating that its principle application appears to be putting a pseudo-scientific facade on social norms and gender roles that are really not organic at all. After all, there is clearly some evolutionary history behind human behavior, e.g. why we are social instead of solitary, why we need sleep, etc.

Raining McCain

How freakishly bizarre.

[h/t to Uncle Gastly]


For both of my readers who don't also read Pharyngula, PZ Myers was expelled from Ben Stein's mendacious stupidity Expelled... but they let Richard Dawkins in! The postscript.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The transformative power of atheism

Greta Christina thinks the atheist movement is doomed (but in a good way), much like the queer movement (her phrase) was "doomed" to make it normal to be homosexual. I think her analysis, good as far as it goes, is too superficial, though.

She's right: atheists are no more inherently extraordinary or amazing than anyone else; at worst (cough Ayn Rand) an atheist has one fewer stupid belief than a theist. In just the same sense, gay people are not inherently extraordinary, nor are women, or black/brown/yellow/red people, or Protestants, or monotheists, or anyone else.

On the other hand, I think the queer movement had an amazingly transformative effect not just on society but on individuals of every kind of sexuality. Yes, it's true that it's no big deal to be queer, but the idea that "it's no big deal to be queer" is a very big deal. And not just for gay people, because if it's nothing special to be queer, then there's no objectively right way to express your sexuality, straight, queer or bi; vanilla or kinky; by yourself, with one partner or a roomful.

In just the same sense the idea that "it's no big deal to be a woman (or black)" is a big deal, and it entails that you don't have to construct, protect or defend your masculinity or your whiteness any more than you have to submit to slavery and oppression if you're female or black.

And, in just the same sense, the idea that "it's no big deal to be atheist" is equally a big deal, because it entails that our moral, ethical, political and economic beliefs are our own, that these beliefs are fully human, and not the result or commandments of God, whether you construe God as a old guy with a white beard living in the sky or any sort of new-age woo-woo about cosmic forces. If it's no big deal to be an atheist, then obedience is no longer a virtue; rationally apprehensible mutual benefit, not Hobbesean submission to absolute authority, becomes the sine qua non of morality.

All rebellion is initiated not by those who choose not to submit, but by those who cannot submit, to whom submission is death. Only the queers could lead us all, straights as well, out of the grip of sexual conformity. Only the black people (in the US) could lead us out of racial conformity. Only the women could lead us out of gender conformity.

And only the atheists — those who would rather die than mouth the lies and bend their knees to the supreme authority of God — can lead us all out of the worship of obedience itself.

Obama and race

I must say, I like Obama's latest speech. James F. Elliott likes it too, as does The Rude Pundit. [Update: Badtux also likes it (and has additional comments), as does The Political Cat.] It's very much non-bullshit; Obama talks about race in a straightforward, honest and direct manner. His heart seems like it's in the right place.

I'm also encouraged by A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq promulgated by Darcy Burner and other Democratic Congressional candidates. [h/t to Orcinus]

The question is: can they fight?

To some extent, yes, we have to work together in a nontrivial way. I suspect that there will be some criticism from the left for Obama's emphasis on racism, especially anti-black racism, giving only a passing nod to misogyny, classism, nationalist bigotry, hatred of immigrants, and economic exploitation and slavery. The persistent howl from the left is that one's own pet problems are being insufficiently addressed. I'm not that worried: racism is at least not the worst place to start.

There's a bigger, more pressing issue than mere racism, misogyny, etc. It's an issue that, to my knowledge, no "serious" Democratic politician has yet addressed.

In order for any society, however imperfect, to survive, it must curb and punish the excesses of those whose amoral greed and selfishness is unadulterated by empathy, compassion and any care about the future. Every society always fails when such amoral people seize the reins of power and embezzle the wealth and productivity of the society for their own immediate gratification.

And there is no better example of the purely amoral seizing the reins of power than the Bush administration — not even the Nixon or Reagan administrations come even close — with the collusion of the commercial media.

We closed our eyes and just wished Nixon and his ilk would go away. And we got Reagan. We closed our eyes and wished Reagan would go away and we got Bush fils. We can close our eyes and wish Bush would go away, elect Obama (or Clinton)... and who will we get after him? The tactics of the amoral always escalate, and after the war in Iraq, where else can we go but nuclear war with China or world war with Islam? After the coming depression (which will be as brutal as the Great Depression, if not worse) where will we go but totalitarian fascism?

I'm vastly less concerned with improving our society — a project that will take generations — than I am with avoiding the immediate catastrophic collapse of global civilization. And, unless we deal decisively right now with the amoral neocon bastards who have gutted our economy and our political foundations for nothing more than a third SUV and another house in the Hamptons, they will find a way to get back behind the wheel. And with depression, Islam, Iraq, Iran, Scalia, Alito, Roberts, Thomas, global warming, shitty health care, no unions, and theocratic Christianity, we are far too close to the edge of the cliff to risk giving these assholes another turn at the wheel.

Perhaps it's just because we're still in the primaries, but I've heard nothing from Obama or Clinton about curbing these bastards sufficiently that they don't take over again in 2012 or 2016. Much will depend on what the nominee (probably Obama) says in the general election. If he "reaches out" to these bastards, if he wants to "work together" with the Republican party, we're doomed. Doomed regardless of how sensible and intelligent Obama is about race or anything else.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Benefit and good

In natural languages such as English almost all words — and all short words — have multiple meanings. These meanings are usually related in some way, but they are all different. Look at any dictionary: you'll see an enumeration of different meanings for almost all words. We automatically and usually subconsciously disambiguate these variant meanings by appealing to the context in which words appear.

Such is the case with a word such as "good". I want to discuss one specific meaning of "good": the meaning of "individual benefit".

The best way to understand our brains is as goal-seeking computers: We are always evaluating our internal and external state and seeking, all things considered and given present circumstances, to perform the optimal action. We may be (and often are) confused or mistaken about what the effects of some action will actually be, but, given our understanding, we always seek what we believe to be the best course of action, the course of action that will result in what we believe will be the best physically possible outcome.

In short, we always do, by definition, what we think will be best, what we think will deliver the most benefit.

This is a definition, but it is not strictly tautological: Our brains might not be goal seeking machines. A computer, for example, can be programmed to be a goal-seeking machine, but there are other ways of programming computers. It's logically possible that we might be sphexish, but it is actually true that we are not.

When judging another person's behavior, motivation or belief, their personal benefit cannot affect my own evaluation because I already know that the action is — to the other person — of maximum physically possible utility. Everyone, from the nicest, most considerate person to the most depraved tyrant, mass murderer or child rapist believes that he or she is not just doing good, but doing what is best. It's pointless to try to make any kind of distinction on something that's absolutely invariant.

(Well, not entirely pointless. We employ this sort of reasoning, when a person behaves very strangely, to conclude that they are actually insane; that the goal-seeking character of their brain has been deeply undermined. But real insanity is relatively rare and not an ethical issue.)

I can't rely on the other person's evaluation of the benefits (since that's always the same: optimal), so I have to rely on (among other things) my own evaluation of the benefits of an action: how it does or would benefit me. (And, since I'm a normal human being capable of abstract reasoning, I evaluate not just the particular benefits, but also the abstract categories the benefits belongs to.)

So, yes, in this sense, religion — like everything else — gives its practitioners what they believe to be maximal benefit. But that's completely irrelevant from an ethical perspective: By this criterion everything is perfectly good; each person lives in the best of all possible worlds.

Lorem ipsum

Doing some work for my mom, I needed some dummy text to show how the layout would look. Because I know a thing or two about typesetting, I naturally turned to "lorem ipsum", a couple of paragraphs in Latin that have been used as a placeholder since the dawn of printing. Imagine my surprise when I found the correct text and translation of the paragraphs, which turns out to be some rather profound ethical philosophy from Cicero.
But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. These cases are perfectly simple and easy to distinguish. In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammelled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.
You never know when you'll stumble upon something interesting, in the most unlikely places.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Questions for Micah Cowan

In his criticism, Micah Cowan says,
While a Christian, I can think of specific instances when I performed acts of charity or helpfulness that I was very disinclined to do, but did anyway in the end because I realized “that’s what God would want me to do” (yeah, WWJD), and would not have done them apart from that. Things like cleaning up after a large group meeting, or setting up chairs, etc, before. Helping a bed-ridden acquaintance with their yard work. All of these are instances of good done that followed directly from religious belief.

I have also been on the receiving end of good done specifically for reasons that stem from religious belief. Including twice having been donated cars from church members, at two different times when we were without transportation or means to obtain it.

Some of these things I continue to do on occasion, but for different reasons. So obviously one can’t make the argument (though many do anyway) that only theists will go out of their way to do good. There are other things, though, that I’m less apt to do these days, partly because I now have a more balanced view of my own needs versus other peoples’ needs—and I doubt anyone that I’m not really close to will be giving me a car any time soon.
I have some questions, though.

The idea that these things were "what god wanted you to do" sounds like an evaluation, a determination about what was good, rather than a motivation. In what sense were you motivated to do what god wanted you to do? How does that differ from being motivated to do what you think is good?

Is it just a coincidence that you believed that god wanted you to do things that any rational, caring person would do because they truly valued the well-being of other people? If you had believed that god wanted you to rape, murder, pillage and burn, would you have done it equally cheerfully? To what extent were you — as I described in my original essay — simply assigning to your religious belief that which you already evaluated to be good?

If you believed that these actions were "what god wanted you to do", now that you don't believe in any god, why do you still consider them to be good? Likewise, if you are indeed less inclined to do these things now, in what sense do you now actually believe them to be good?

To what extent were you motivated by more prosaic issues, such as wanting to be a liked and respected member of a social community... and, perhaps, aware of the likelihood of actually receiving a couple of free cars? Again, to what extent were you hiding your self-interested motivation (Christian propaganda notwithstanding, there's nothing wrong with moderate and reasonable self-interest) with "religious" motivation?

The less dramatic examples are, of course, irrelevant. "Some of these things I continue to do on occasion." Indeed. You don't need be religious to be helpful or charitable, and, in fact, I've seen no evidence at all that religious people are more than ordinarily polite and helpful. If you subtract the vast sums of money given to transparently obvious parasites and con artists, I don't think religious people are any more charitable than anyone else. You need only to care about your fellow human beings, and realize that the more helpfulness you put into a society, the more helpful that society will be, and the more you can expect helpfulness in return when needed.

I also have to question whether the more dramatic example — the donation of the cars — is really all that good. (Or, perhaps, how dramatic it really was; I wouldn't be all that impressed if some rich guy donated the beater after the the dad bought a new Lexus and pushed the Camry down to his son.)

There's a persistent concept in Western civilization that an action is truly good only if it involves considerable personal sacrifice, or, if we take Kant at his word, only if it involves no personal benefit whatsoever. This idea is pure and utter bullshit. It's pure slave morality. I'd rather have Bill Gates give me $10,000 than some homeless person give me his last $10.

The rational, caring person knows that charity, when done correctly, helps both the recipient and the donor. The donor receives not only emotional satisfaction, which is important and valuable in itself, but also material benefits in the form of a calmer, more cooperative society: desperate people are dangerous.

Carnival of the Godless

The 87th Carnival of the Godless is up at Ironwolf.


I saw Zeitgeist last night. It's kind of good, especially the argument (which I found persuasive) that Christianity is mostly warmed-over astrology, but the last two thirds was too heavy on conspiracy theory.

The movie makes way too much of the idea that 9/11 was supposedly an inside job, which is just bullshit. It's especially stupid because it's irrelevant. All the Bush Administration had to do — and what it's been uncontroversially proven to have done — is turn off all the alarms, leave the front door unlocked and publicly taunt the burglars. Surprise, surprise, surprise, the house got robbed.

It's really not all that important how 9/11 was arranged/allowed to happen (likewise the sinking of the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the Reichstag fire, to which the movie compares 9/11). What seems vastly more important are the massive propaganda campaigns that accompanied all of these incidents. The documentary Leading to War [h/t to Democratic Underground] sounds much more on point (I'm going to watch it later today).

But the basic point is straightforward: According to the movie, a small group of amoral, sociopathic people (mostly men) arranges and exploits crises to enslave and exploit the general population.

Well duh.

I figured that out when I was twelve. What took me a few decades more to figure out is that this arrangement is precisely what the general population wants.

The problem with this sort of tendentious and factually compromised pseudo-documentary is that the "truth" (or even the actual truth) will not set you free; the truth is pretty much irrelevant to most people's lives. The people want to believe that their leaders are intelligent, wise and benevolent; that everything is going to turn out well if they keep their heads down and get to work on time; and that the people who are oppressed and exploited by the system deserve to be oppressed and exploited.

The world has been running on lies and bullshit since the beginning of recorded history. You don't have to like it, you don't have to believe that it's inexorable, but it's stupidly naive to think that just pointing out the lies and bullshit is going to dramatically change everything.

Zombie Feynman

Zombie Feynman says, "'Ideas are tested by experience experiment.' That is the core of science. Everything else is bookkeeping."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Some good in everything?

In his criticism of my essay, Micah Cowan says, "Nothing is pure evil; not one thing." [emphasis original]

I'm glad that Micah can find the good in rape, slaughter, slavery, tyranny, Nazism, Stalinism, pedophilia, torture, mass murder, human sacrifice, pestilence, famine, plague, and the Bush administration, because I sure can't.

With all due respect, Micah, please get a clue: there's a lot in this world that's pure, unadulterated evil.

Pure Evil?

Micah Cowan has criticized my earlier essay, Good religion?, in his post, The Good Side of Religion. I think it's a good, thought-provoking piece, and I intend to discuss the various points he raises in a number of posts here. The crucial point, the connection between knowledge of or belief about what is good and the actual motivation to act on that belief, is subtle and complicated, so I'm leaving it for last.

Micah asserts that I think religion is pure evil:
It’s concerning to me that many atheists I’ve conversed with (and for those who do not know me, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that I am, in fact, firmly an atheist myself) wish to paint particular (or all) religions (and/or their practitioners) in black-and-white. If no good ever follows from religious belief, while of course evil does and has demonstrably followed therefrom, it follows that religious belief (at least those which have demonstrably resulted in evil, which doesn’t necessarily include all religious beliefs) is pure evil. Nothing is pure evil; not one thing. It may certainly be argued that religious belief, and in particular, certain religious beliefs, produce more evil (much more evil, even) than good; and even that the beliefs themselves are therefore evil. But nothing is evil in all of its aspects. Nothing in life is ever that black-and-white.

This is not quite the case. First, I say that some religious belief is simply vacuous; vacuous is not even bad, much less evil. Secondly, I assert that some religious belief is caused by one's beliefs about what is good; that sort of belief per se is bad or evil only to the extent that one's bad or evil beliefs, not one's good beliefs, are causing one's religious beliefs. I criticize the practice at a more abstract level — I think it's always bad to justify any practice, however otherwise good, by virtue of submission to authority — but a religious belief caused by a good belief is not itself bad. To say that no good — and much bad and sometimes evil — follows from religious belief is not to say that religious belief is universally bad.

However, I do think that religious belief is never good. If I thought it were sometimes good, then I would sometimes be religious. But I'm never religious; where religion isn't bad, it is — in my not-at-all humble opinion — simply irrelevant, meaningless, ludicrous or just dumb. So Micah is not too far off the mark.

More importantly, though, I think Micah is conflating bad with evil. Shooting yourself in the foot is bad. Shooting someone else in the foot is evil. I think religious belief causes the most harm to believers themselves. I also think that most clergy are just as deeply deluded as their followers, and sincerely (but mistakenly) believe they are doing their followers good, not harm. Still bad, still dumb, but not evil. For me to call something evil, it must not only cause harm, but intentionally and knowingly cause harm to others.

I'll deal with the more substantive criticism of Micah's post later this week, but I'll say this now: Religion is often evil, usually bad, and never good.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Good religion?

The other day, I discussed the four classes of religious belief, three of them negative and the fourth irrelevant. But what about all the good that follows from religious belief?

No one does any good that follows from religious belief. Zero. The key phrase is "follows from". (It's mostly irrelevant to this argument whether or not good follows from God; the argument is whether or not doing good follows from belief in God.)

It's either the case that following religious belief is doing good, or it's the case that we can talk about doing good independently of religious belief. The first case isn't an argument, it's a definition. It's obvious that the religious assume that we can talk about doing good independently of belief. When they argue the point, they discuss examples like feeding the poor, providing medical care, helping old ladies across the street, etc. They usually don't mention their efforts to stamp out idolatry, polytheism, conversions under torture, wars of aggression, and murdering letting die evil slutty women (but just the poor ones) who dare to fuck or get raped without the permission of the parasitic priests — all of which have been performed as "religious" acts.

By definition, though, determining that something is good determines that doing that something is preferable, that a person does actually want to do it (all things considered); that's what "good" has to mean. But if you already want to do something, and you can tell that people in general want to do it independently of religious belief, then there's no additional justification necessary to actually do it.

There's only two possibilities for the connection between good behavior and religious belief.

One possibility is that the person really doesn't want to do what other people typically consider good; they do "good" only because they fear some bullshit fantastical posthumous reward/punishment. Anyone who argues that they don't want to kill me because of their religious belief is basically telling me that they're a dangerous asshole who would otherwise want to kill me. And because most people get their information about religious belief from some authority, they're also telling me that if some authority convinced them that God wanted them to kill me, they would cheerfully do so.

Happily my innate skepticism and ordinary psychological knowledge usually impels me to conclude that people making such an argument are simply deluded and stupid, and not actually inherently evil. (With the exception of those such as future toddler chopper Vox Day, whom I think really would cheerfully kill toddlers if some authority told him to.)

The more benign alternative is that one's religious belief follows from one's desires. Almost all human societies have adopted the metaphor of religious belief to express their (usually their higher-order, more abstract) beliefs about what is good.

This sort of reverse entailment is at best vacuous and at worst deeply confusing, but it's definitely the case that at best doing good doesn't follow from religious belief, but the other way around.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chris Hedges is a liar

Yes, Chris Hedges is, in addition to being an idiot and an asshole, also a liar.

PZ Myers delivers the smackdown.

This is why I'm a "militant" atheist. A day doesn't go by when someone, left or right, doesn't malign with outright lies our very simple refusal to adopt ludicrous, hateful fantasies.

Today's Reading

Everyone's talking about poor Eliot Spitzer.

The Apostate on The Silly Spitzer and Ph.D.’d Porn Models

The Rude Pundit discusses lessons learned and the religious right's reaction to the scandal.

Jon Swift thinks that Spitzer could save himself by standing up for the rights of whoremonger-Americans.

James F. Elliott gives us the definitive name for the scandal: Spitznotswallowsgate.

[Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about. I'm shocked, shocked! to learn of hypocrisy in politics. Give me a break. If a Democrat does it, it's a major scandal and he's busted down to janitor. If a Republican or religious leader does it, everyone yawns and the guy keeps his job.]

In other news...

Badtux the Snarky Penguin talks about the disconnect between reporting the truth and transcribing the statements of those in power.

Greta Christina discusses the positive moral message of American Pie.

Chuck Shepherd reports Pope Ratzo's problems canonizing Padre Pio.

Geoff Arnold notes Mukasey's Mikado legal theories.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cherished beliefs

The Evolutionary Middleman asks, "Do we really want everyone giving up the cherished beliefs that keep them going?" [h/t to Primordial Blog]

Well not really. That's not the point.

It's at best disingenuous and at worst patently dishonest to characterize religious belief as just cherished beliefs that keep people going. That's not what religious belief does, or what it's typically for. There are four categories of religious belief:

The first category includes vague, vacuous slogans that make people feel better. "God loves you and wants you to be happy." That's dumb, of course (what the fuck has to be wrong with God when you're unhappy) but nobody cares about this sort of slogan any more than they care about, "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better."

If all — or even most — religious belief were in this category, there would be no atheists. But this sort of vague, vacuous sloganeering is actually relatively rare. There are a lot of religious people who dishonestly say that their beliefs are this vacuous, but to even bother to raise their voices in defense of such beliefs belies their vacuity. Sooner or later, you'll find that most religious people's beliefs fall into one or the other of the more pernicious categories.

The most obviously pernicious category is, of course, "If you don't have the same superstitious beliefs that I do, I'm going to kill you, rape your wife, torture your children, and plow salt in your land." There are at the very least hundreds of millions of people who support this sort of violent imposition of religion. Of course, this sort of religion is mixed up in complicated ways with all the other reasons why people cheerfully slaughter each other, but it's definitely the case that you can't get the tribe, clan or nation involved in wholesale slaughter unless you convince them that God is on their side.

If your cherished beliefs that keep you going involve murdering homosexuals, abortion doctors, infidels, heretics, apostates, or those damned sand niggers sitting on our oil, then yes, I do in fact want to strip you of your cherished beliefs.

A slightly less overtly violent form of religion is the sort of belief that make believers feel guilty and ashamed of their ordinary human feelings and emotions, mostly sexual. I cannot imagine anyone "cherishing" the belief that God hates them and will damn them to eternal punishment if they even think about physically expressing their sexual and emotional love for someone of the same sex, or of a different race, or before they're married, or if they're married to someone else, or whatever.

Related to the above is the sort of belief that reconciles the believer to mitigable suffering. Yes, some suffering is inevitable, and there are times when there's no help but to suck it up and adopt some stoicism, but religions heavily fetishize suffering for its own sake, even when that suffering is easily ameliorated (and often when, per the preceding paragraph, the suffering is actually induced by the religion itself). It's a hell of a lot easier to exploit someone if they've been indoctrinated that the resulting suffering is at best deserved and at worst desired, and that all will be made "right" in a ludicrous posthumous fantasy world... so long as you obey in this life.

Again, if the cherished beliefs that keep you going make you susceptible to exploitation and mitigable suffering, then yes I do want to strip you of those beliefs so you'll stand up and make your life better and stop being a patsy and a fool, a victim of parasites and predators.

To talk about the atheist political project as being against just vague, vacuous comforting slogans is to dishonestly trivialize the project. As PZ Myers puts it, "We want to eliminate [religion] in the same sense that we want to eliminate illiteracy." But just because we want to eliminate illiteracy doesn't mean we have anything against those who don't much care to read often: we just want to give them the choice.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ray Comfort's challenge

Banana-loving moron Ray Comfort has a challenge: "As briefly as you can, give me your best reasons why you think that God doesn’t exist, or why the Bible isn’t His Word."

Fine, I'll keep it brief: Because I'm not a fucking idiot.

(h/t to The Friendly Atheist)

Thank God I'm an atheist

People say it's soooooo hard to be an atheist, what with all the "existential angst" and being an "oppressed minority". Well, that's bullshit.

Existential angst is only a problem for people who are only halfway out of theistic brainwashing. I didn't grow up thinking that being a God's slave and suffer-bot is the most terrifically, wonderful thing there is, and freedom doesn't scare me in the least. I like life, and I'm not looking forward to dying, but the idea being dead doesn't scare me. I'm part of the grand human struggle to defeat death by science, not "deal with it" by fantasy and bullshit. And I like being part of an oppressed minority; It's not like I'm ever going to run for President anyway.

The so-called "problems" of atheism are a giggle. A walk in the park. If any theist wants to pity me, it's because I'm free, happy and I'm living a satisfied, fulfilled life with no more fear than is justified by living in a hostile universe. I think somehow I can find a way to live with that.

On the other hand, the idea of being a theist gives me the heebie-jeebies. To be filled with guilt and self-digust about my normal sexual feelings? To constantly dread not just death but eternal damnation if I put one toe out of line? It's hard enough to worry about one of my children earning a Darwin award in this life, but to worry that my children might face eternal damnation if they happen to be momentarily exposed to logic and reason? To stay in an abusive, possibly violent marriage (or face lifelong celibacy) because some idiot priest God commands that I stay married, no matter what? To let some pedophile priest rape my children and choose loyalty to Church and God over protecting my children?

Nope. Not gonna do it. I'm very happy with the trivial problems of atheism compared with the horror, degradation and exploitation of theism. I pity the poor theists. Living their lives in fear, sacrificing their one and only life for a pack of lies.

You might ask, "What about the 'liberal', humanistic theists? They don't believe in all that evil bullshit." Indeed. But, frankly, stupid is almost as bad as evil. "God loves us, and wants us to be happy!" Oh yeah? "War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades." If this is the work of God's love, God can take His love and shove it up His divine Ass. Sideways. I'll help push, up to the shoulder. Everything truly good the world is a result of human effort, not "divine grace".

God is love? Bullshit. It takes human beings — not a god — to love, to care, to be charitable, to be compassionate. It's taken human will, human effort, human intelligence to lift even a fraction of humanity out of perpetual misery, abject, unceasing fear and painful death, and it's going to take more human will, effort and intelligence to lift the rest of humanity out of the toilet. Every breath spent praising the most liberal, humanistic conception of a deity is still a breath wasted, a breath that could have been spent — at the very least — damning the parasites and predators who feed on our misery in the name of God (or, for that matter, any other sort of superstitious bullshit, from Crystals to Communism).

I don't pity the liberal theists like I do the fundies, but damn, they believe some stupid shit. It's still a waste.

Theistic arguments

In comments, The Celtic Chimp pretty well summarizes the arguments for belief in God.
God does want you to believe, he just doesn't want to give you any kind of testable evidence. After all, where would the fun be in that.

I don't doubt God cracks up every time he looks in on the creation museum. How could you not explode in laughter when look at a bunch of 'scientists' trying to convince themselves that humans and velociraptors cohabited peacefully as vegetarians. Those huge claws, and razor sharp teeth are perfect for eating grass and those powerful hind legs allow it to run at great speed; very handy for chasing down the faster species of tree.

And lets not forget, being a gullible dupe is the highest virtue. You should be more virtuous and believe what the guy in the fancy costume is telling you. Don't be cynical now. Just because he relies on you buying his fairytale to make a living he is really only calling you names like fallen and sinner for your own good. He has the magic formula that can prevent you from being eternally boiled in lava by the omnibenevolent, loving and forgiving God so you had better show that dude some respect. Honestly Larry, loads more people believe this than don't so you must be wrong. I mean when has the mob ever been wrong before???

You want evidence you say. Well I saw a statue move once and I had a kind of a dream about a snake. I think it was singing karaoke tunes....anyway that obviously means that God wants us to repent ours sins. Oh and that statue, I was staring at it without blinking for five hours and I can tell you it definitely moved at least a quarter of a centimeter. FACT. QED.

I don't know Larry, sometimes I think you just don't want to believe. All this evidence and still you don't fall to you knees to thank Jesus Christ, your personal savior for saving you from being punished by the all-merciful God for something you didn't do. Talk about ungrateful.

I will pray for you Larry, no need to thank me.
The Chimp has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, but the truth is that theistic "arguments" are just this ridiculous. The only "sophistication" you'll ever see in these "arguments" is in throwing enough big words, vaguely-defined terms and circuitous pseudo-logical babble to hide the underlying stupidity. "I don't understand him, therefore he must be smarter than me."

Religious believers are in a terrible bind. (I'm not talking here about the deists, the mystics, the sloganeers and even the woo-woos, with whom I have other problems. I'm talking about the hundreds of millions of people actively supporting parasites and predators.) They've lived their lives in mortal fear, sacrificed pleasure, comfort and peace of mind, parted with substantial amount of money, and, in many cases not only allowed the clergy to rape their children but actually defended them. If you've sacrificed yourself, your money and your children, how could you ever admit that it's a lie, that you've been played for a fool? You can't. You'll swallow any lie, condone any atrocity, rather than admit you're an idiot.

I'm a lot luckier than I am smart: I was raised without any sort of indoctrination or brainwashing. I was indoctrinated only to be honest and caring. I'm not stupid, but I'm not that smart, but I don't bullshit and lie because I don't want to bullshit and lie to myself. I can't take credit for this honesty, though. I just happened not to have been raised to believe that some lie was the most important truth, so important that it should be protected against reason itself. Develop an antipathy to bullshitting yourself, and you'll almost automatically seem twice as smart, twice as courageous, and much better looking.

People such as my wife and DagoodS deserve the real admiration. They actually had to think their way out of their brainwashing, lose their community and lose or risk their families, all for the sake of the truth. That takes real brains and real courage, not just my own accident of a benign upbringing.

There's no one in Nigeria sitting on a million dollars that needs only your bank account to access. The Brooklyn Bridge is not for sale. And not a single one of your priests or prophets or the authors of your scripture knows anything more than you do about God (and you don't know fuck all): Anyone who says differently is trying to con you. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and what could sound more too-good-to-be-true than the promise of everlasting paradise (the bait) and the threat of everlasting punishment (the hook).

I'm sorry you've been played for a fool, but you have been. There's no easy or respectful way of saying it, but I'm really not trying to insult you; I'm trying to help you: I'm trying to shock you into taking that priest's hand out of your pocket, and out of your son or daughter's pants.