Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

(post hoc, ergo propter hoc: following, therefore because of, a classical logical fallacy)

(h/t Splendid Elles)

A fucking genius

The Digital Cuttlefish is a fucking genius. Read him, link to him, give him your love.

Atheism and human needs

James F. Elliott worries that atheism ignores some human needs. It's a legitimate worry, but I think Greta Christina offers a terrific response:
There were many wonderful things about the service, and it clearly offered something of value to the members of the church. There was joy, community, celebration of life, transcendence and ecstasy, wonderful music (really -- the choir was something special), a shared sense of purpose and meaning, etc. etc. But all the things that I liked about the service, all the things I found meaningful and moving, were all things that I can and do get from other areas of my life. I can get them from dancing, from music, from good food, from good conversation, from reading, from writing, from nature, from art, from sex.

PrayerAnd the things I didn't like... well, those were all the actual religious parts. And I don't want them. I found them alien, and alienating. They didn't make sense to me -- not intellectually, not emotionally, not viscerally, not in any way. I found them baffling and mysterious, and not in an enticingly mysterious way.
To a certain extent, atheism cannot address some real human needs: the need to embrace (and not resolve) mystery, the need for sanctimony, the need to privilege one's personal moral opinions as God's will, the need to believe in life after death. But there are many human needs which are perfectly compatible with atheism: community, emotional exhilaration, happiness and joy.

And there are some human needs that atheism seems especially well-positioned to address: Pervasive religious guilt and shame, especially about ordinary human emotions, especially sex and sensual pleasure, but also negative emotions such as anger, unhappiness and despair: no longer are the "negative" emotions terrible sins against God, but the ordinary storms of human psychology that can be ridden out and safely put aside once the feelings have subsided.

Pat Condell on DVD

Pat Condell is coming to a theater near you! Well, it would have to be very near you, in your living room to be precise.

Here's an opportunity to support Pat Condell, Dawkins, and the scarlet A.

Or you can watch Condell on YouTube for free.

(h/t to PZ Myers; image stolen from Hemant Mehta)

Scientific proof of Intelligent Design

To call "Intelligent Design" a scientific theory, one must take the following steps:
  1. Create an actual scientific theory, a structure employing hypothetical premises that logically entail specific empirically testable consequences. Hypothesize anything you please, an abstract "intelligent designer", God, space aliens, or invisible elves.
  2. Take pains to avoid Cargo Cult Science; carefully consider and exclude simpler theories which would entail the same empirical consequences.
  3. Differentiate the theory from existing non-telelogical evolutionary theories: Your alternative theory should predict different empirical consequences from existing theories. Note that employing straw-man constructions of existing theories is insufficient; you must deal with scientific theories in actual currency.
  4. Show that the empirical evidence is consistent with your theory, and falsifies existing theories.
That's it. That's all you have to do. That's what every scientist propounding a novel and controversial scientific theory — from plate tectonics to quantum mechanics to endosymbiosis — has to do.

We love to fly, and it shows!

The brilliant Jen Sorensen illustrates reason #258 why I don't like to fly.

*The slogan "We love to fly, and it shows!" is a trademark of Delta Airlines. Used without permission under fair use to express sarcasm.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Former Young Earth Creationists?

I think there are few former Young Earth Creationists reading the blog, who have since become convinced as to the scientific validity of evolution and/or an old (i.e. billions of years) Earth. Stephen Law is interested in talking to you.

Also, are any former atheists or scientists, who have since become convinced of Young Earth Creationism?


Why do scientists their supporters get frustrated and annoyed with creationists, Intelligent Design advocates, and their ilk?

DagoodS offers a perspicacious analogy:

It is frustration borne out of deliberate embrace of willful refusal to inform oneself. Past experience has demonstrated these advocates have a complete lack of empathy for any argument that does not exactly conform to their own limited view of the world; therefore I do not expect them to understand the comparison. Perhaps a lurker would like to know.

Imagine I wanted to discuss Christianity. Only I use the derogative term “Xian” because… well… because I simply want to be derogatory, I guess. And within the discussion, it soon becomes apparent while I know the terms “Roman Catholic” and “Protestant” I have no clue as to the depth of history between the two, nor the differences which each embraces. It becomes clear I have not read Luther or Calvin, or Eusebius, or any book whatsoever on systematic theology. I don’t know what a Christian… oh, excuse me... an “Xian” means by inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration, canon, free will, sovereign, incarnation, atonement, substitution, faith, grace, or a plethora of other words.

I’ve never read the Bible. I have no intention of reading it in Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or Coptic, either. In fact, it becomes obvious that the ONLY source of my understanding of Christianity comes from reading The God Delusion — written by an atheist.

Yet I continue to insist on discussing the topic as if I have a remote clue as to what I am talking about. Not only have a clue, but as if I am an authority on it! And every time anyone dares to question my depth of understanding of Christianity… er… ”Xianity” I simply engage my standard tactic:
  1. Google-whack the topic,
  2. Make sure I ONLY use non-Christian sources on the topic,
  3. Ignore completely anything any Christian says on the topic,
  4. Repeat what the non-Christian sources say about Christianity.
Every time a new topic comes up, I repeat the exercise.

After a bit of this useless discussion, perhaps… just perhaps… one could understand why people who hold to evolution appear to have some animosity. We bend only so far. I have asked and asked and asked Christian after Christian after Christian what books on evolution they have read, written by scientists, against creationism. Do you know, in three years of asking, I have only met one (1) Christian who has done so? One.

Here it is, a prevailing view of scientists (and by “prevailing” I mean 95% of ALL scientists and 99.9% of scientists in biology) and these people want to claim to have knowledge on the subject without ever having read a book on the topic? Oh, that’s right — they read something on the internet…

Give me a break.

[More excellent work from DagoodS, the author of this essay, can be found on his blog, Thoughts from a Sandwich — ed.]

Defining racism

What is "racism"? What constitutes racism? Under what circumstances should a civilized, caring person call racism, and how should such a person respond to accusations of racism? I don't think there's One Correct Answer; I think the vagueness of the term calls for proportionate response.

In one sense, anything that has to do with race other than pure physical description or medical science constitutes racism. On the other hand, not all "racism" is tantamount to actual oppression and slavery.

Open racism — even the mildest — isn't generally condoned in the US. Even if you really are racist in a substantive sense, even if you consider black people or brown people or Jewish people to be typically inferior, lazy, greedy or whatnot, you can't just come out and say it. But after centuries, if not millennia, of explicit racism, socially and legally established, it would be egregiously stupid to believe that racism no longer exists.

One can define racism too far "up": You can't be called a racist unless you're seen to be whipping a chained-up black man while chanting "nigger nigger nigger". Nixon's Southern Strategy? States' rights, not racism. Welfare queens and strapping young bucks? Entitlements, not racism. Willy Horton? Crime, not racism. The Confederate flag? Heritage and history, not racism. Immigration? Border security, not racism.

It's bullshit, of course. Defining racism up is a tactic employed by racists who don't want to be called racists (and the occasional clueless fucktard) but still want to exploit racism for political power and personal gain.

So we pretty much have to define racism "down" and make it more general. But to do so, we have to respond proportionately. How egregious is the racism? What's the context? What's the intent? Just as carelessly bumping into someone isn't battery, a unintentional, mild racist comment or action isn't an endorsement of slavery. But similarly, it's still wrong, and merits an apology... and forgiveness.

Much of this analysis applies equally well to sexism, sexual orientation, national origin and other forms of discrimination.

I'm a straight white well-educated middle-class male from a Christian family. Name your social privilege, I've got it. I do my best to be feminist, anti-racist, non-hetero-normative, multicultural, diverse and sensitive. Do I fail occasionally? Probably. If I do, feel free to point it out. Just saying that I said something racist or sexist or whatnot is not going to make me want to hang myself. But I'm not going to cry about it, feel guilty, or invest hours in self-flagellation. If I fuck up, I'll admit it, apologize, do what I can to correct the mistake, and then move on.

The enemy of my enemy

The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

Conservative and neoconservative writers are among the most vocal and strident critics of Islam. My long-time readers will know that I'm no friend of Islam, but the neoconservative critique of Islam cuts no ice with me.

Any critique of Islam coming from a Christian, especially someone raised Roman Catholic such as Fitna creator Geert Wilders, cannot be considered a critique against religion in general, not even against irrational, violent, hateful or extremist expressions of religion; Christianity is every bit as irrational, violent, hateful and extremist as Islam. The neoconservative critique of Islam is similar to the Christian fundamentalist critique of Hitler. They don't condemn the genocide per se, (the Christian Bible explicitly condones instances of genocide), it's that Hitler didn't have the proper authorization to kill six million Jews. There's really no way to look at any neoconservative critique of Islam except as a complaint that these [brown] people are violent and hateful in service to the wrong imaginary friend.

The neoconservative critique is not necessarily racist, although not just neoconservatives but garden-variety conservatives rarely shy away from exploiting racism in the population. The neoconservative critique exists to justify American imperialism, especially the war in Iraq and the coming war in Iran. Islam has to be presented as not only an putrid example of human superstition (which it is) but as a terrifying threat to the very existence of the West (which it's not).

The neoconservative critique is not necessarily pro-Christian, but again, they rarely shy away from exploiting religious fundamentalism. The neoconservative critique also exists to justify political authoritarianism, necessary to turn back the onrushing hordes of stinky brown wogs Islamic extremists... while ignoring and excusing the clean, pure white folk Christian extremists who form the rock-solid base of the neoconservative movement and the Republican party they dominate.

I agree completely that Islam, like Christianity, deserves the harshest criticism. But when that criticism is employed to justify racism, imperialism, militarism, authoritarianism, Christian theocracy, torture, wars of aggression and the clear-cutting of our civil rights, I'm going to complain. Not to protect or demand respect for Islam, but to protect and demand respect for humanism, democracy and liberty.

Interview with Michael Edmondson

Bloggasm interviews Michael Edmondson, co-creator, with writer Matt Chandler, of the hilarious and multi-layered viral video, Beware the Believers.
At surface level, the video is targeting the atheists and scientists it depicts. Creationists and religious apologists have long complained of the supposed elitism of prominent atheists, and here is a two-dimensional rendition of the alleged snobbery. ...

But seen another way, the video is mocking those very believers. The characters appearing in the piece are literally cut-out, enlarged heads bobbling to-and-fro over dancing real bodies — they’re essentially caricatures. Viewed in this light, the video is riffing on the often-bizarre paranoia of creationists who think “Big Science” is actively trying to suppress scientists who don’t subscribe to some kind of mainstream scientific doctrine, e.g. evolutionary theory.
Regardless of its message (Edmondson says, "I hope no one over five years old learns really important things about the world through the song and dance of cartoon characters.") the video is smart, funny, well-written and well-produced.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #90

Oh, and Carnival of the Godless #90 is up at No More Mr. Nice Guy.

One fewer stupid idea

Chris Hallquist proves that sometimes an atheist is someone with just one fewer stupid idea than a theist. Hallquist weighs in with a stunning display of mindless irony, faulty reasoning and an utter lack of concern with notions of factual truth more typically associated with Christian fundamentalists and neoconservative fascists. (We know he isn't a fundamentalist, so that kind of narrows it down.)
PZ posted a link to [Geert Wilder's film Fitna], and after some angry comments, declared he didn’t really endorse the video, and called Wilders a racist. This sort of overblown rhetoric, directed at people with different political perspectives than he [sic], is something we’ve seen from PZ before. The idea that the film itself is racist is a lie of Orwellian proportions, a sign the speaker is trying to bully the truth into submission, or is at best thoughtlessly passing the Kool Aid served by someone of the first type. Islam isn’t a race, it’s a religion, a belief system, and deserves to be judged as any other belief system would be. (Or, as As Jihad Watch puts it, “He’s a racist, but not toward a race. Got it.”) Sure, people are in some sense born into it, but the fact that a belief system relies mainly on people unthinkingly adopting the beliefs of their parents is reason for embarrassment, not grounds for respect.
First, let's look at PZ Myers actual comment, which prompts Hallquist's own overblown rhetoric (e.g. "a lie of Orwellian proportions") directed at someone with a different (i.e. sane) political perspective. Sayeth PZ:
I think Wilders is a flaming nutcase; I deplore his racist angle and his desire to exclude and oppress rather than educate.

Let's examine Hallquist's stupidity point by point.

First, where is Myers' overblown rhetoric? "Flaming nutcase" and deploring a "racist angle" seems like rather mild rhetoric to me. If Hallquist believes this to be overblown rhetoric, I hope he doesn't ever read PhysioProf or The Rude Pundit; his poor little Republican head will probably explode.

Second, note how abruptly Hallquist transforms "PZ... called Wilders a racist" to "The idea that the film itself is racist..." without even a segue. Then Hallquist develops actual telepathy to determine that Myers calls Wilders racist because Myers disagrees with Wilders' politics.

Hallquist maintains that the "idea that the film itself is racist is a lie of Orwellian proportions." Why? Because "Islam isn’t a race, it’s a religion," don'tcha know. This is a non sequitur fallacy, and a particularly retarded one. Yes, Islam is a religion, a religion practiced mostly by brown people, Arabs and South Asians. If Wilders were to denounce the "dirty and smelly" immigrants, I'm sure Hallquist would call a charge of racism a lie of Orwellian proportions: the comment is about hygiene, innit, not about race.

Third, the notion that PZ Myers would even indirectly or peripherally demand respect for any religion on any grounds is so monumentally retarded that I'm tempted to call 911: I suspect a screwdriver has become deeply lodged in Hallquist's frontal cortex.

Yes folks, all you have to do to be an atheist is not believe in God. As Hallquist shows, we have no standards on intelligence, honesty, and character.

Intelligent Design

With the release of Expelled, it's worth talking about some of the philosophy underlying Intelligent Design and the academic scientific community's response.

By itself, "Intelligent Design" is just a label. It has certain connotations, but without an explicit definition, the connotations don't add up to an actual meaning, at least not a meaning that we can discuss in a sensible manner.

At its most vacuous, "Intelligent Design" is a synonym for "theistic evolution", which is the unfalsifiable religious belief that God employed evolution to create present-day terrestrial life, including human beings. Why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity — or even a moderately powerful, knowledgeable, and good deity — would employ such a half-assed, wasteful "design" process is completely beyond me, but I'm not a theologian; God works in mysterious ways, don'tcha know.

The academic scientific community and the citizens (such as myself) who support them, don't really give that much of a shit about the details of any scientist's theology or religion. As long as they keep their religion out of the classroom and laboratory, our response will likewise stay outside the classroom and laboratory. Ken Miller for instance keeps his science and Christianity well-enough separated. His standing as a scientist in the scientific community is not threatened by anyone's views on his religious beliefs.

While I'm a passionate — perhaps even "militant" and "strident" — anti-religious atheist, I also passionately believe that the conflict between superstition and intelligence and common sense must be played out in the marketplace of ideas, not in the legislature, courts, or the workplace. No matter how stupid and ridiculous I think your ideas are, I believe that everyone must have the freedom to believe as they will and express those beliefs in ordinarily appropriate venues without fear of criminal penalty or civil discrimination. If anyone were to discriminate against anyone, scientist, journalist, teacher, computer programmer or janitor, just because of their religious beliefs, or just because they expressed their beliefs in an appropriate manner and venue, I would join the chorus of those crying, "Foul!"

But scientists, teachers etc. are not being systematically discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.

The qualifiers of "appropriate manner and venue" are important. Until the Supreme Court decides otherwise, or until we change the First Amendment to the Constitution, the government and its agents are forbidden by law from establishing religion. And teachers in publicly supported schools and universities are agents of the government. Forswear government funds, go to a truly private school, and you can say whatever you want. But if you accept taxpayer dollars, you have to leave your religion at the door. That's the law.

If you don't like it, there's are processes in place to petition the Supreme Court to change its mind, and to amend the Constitution. I advise against such an effort, and not just to protect atheists and scientists: the First Amendment was conceived in no small part to prevent sectarian conflict, conflicts between adherents of different religions. It your call, though; it's a free country.

And, of course, it's outright fraud to call "Intelligent Design" a scientific theory but define it as a religious belief.

There are any number of advocates, including Ben Stein and Mark Mathis (Expelled), the Dover, PA school board, and many others who unequivocally present Intelligent Design as a scientific theory.

If advocates call "Intelligent Design" a scientific theory and define it in a falsifiable manner, then its truth must be decided by appeal to experimental data... all the data. If the data were to uphold a falsifiable theory of Intelligent Design, then it would be very wrong — and rank hypocrisy — for scientists to reject it on political grounds. Science is about letting the data decide. Full stop.

No falsifiable form of Intelligent Design has stood up to the most cursory experimental data.

All falsifiable versions of Intelligent Design have been found to be actually false, with almost ridiculous ease.

If you construct "Intelligent Design" as a religious belief, and you teach it in a state-supported classroom, you're breaking the law, and you should be penalized. Not for your religious beliefs per se, but for expressing them in an inappropriate venue.

If you call "Intelligent Design" a scientific theory, but you formulate it in an unfalsifiable manner, then you're a fraud, and you should be penalized.

If you call "Intelligent Design" a scientific theory, and you formulate it in an falsifiable manner, but you distort, misrepresent or cherry-pick the data to support the theory, you're a fraud or an incompetent, and you should be penalized.

When and if someone constructs a theory of Intelligent Design that is falsifiable and not immediately proven false by the data — i.e. unlike every form of Intelligent Design that's yet been proffered by anyone — I'll reconsider my position. Until then, the concept has no place in the classroom and it has no place in the laboratory. Indeed it has no place outside the church, the venue we have agreed that people may legally set aside rational thought and common sense.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The rich are different

The $300,000 Watch That Doesn’t Tell Time:
"With no display for the hours, minutes or seconds, the Day&Night offers a new way of measuring time, splitting the universe of time into two fundamentally opposing sections: day versus night." ...

The company’s chief executive, Yvan Arpa, cited statistical studies to explain how the watch better reflects the time-philosophy of today’s wealthy.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I Am The Very Model Of A Devious Creationist

I Am The Very Model Of A Devious Creationist by The Digital Cuttlefish.

Teh funnay!

(h/t to Podblack Cat)

Investigating Atheism

Part I: Definition of Atheism

Current Controversies

This is a thin section, describing the publication of The Four Atheist Books That Everyone's Heard About. It's notable only in that the authors slip in "strident" and "militant" atheism, both pejorative adjectives unbecoming to an effort dedicated to "discourag[ing] oversimplification of the debate."

Causes of “New Atheism”

Another thin section, marred by inane tendentiousness and scholarly sloppiness.
As for the motivation of the New Atheists themselves, some believers (and also some nonbelievers) are inclined to interpret the present renaissance of public atheism as a sort of panic on the part of the secularists, as they realise that faith remains a powerful force in the contemporary world.[1]


[1] See Rachel Zoll's article 'Atheist authors grapple with believers' in the Los Angeles Times of 26 May 2007, republished on Sam Harris' website.
It is not necessary to speculate on the motivation of the New Atheists; to the extent that the authors mean Harris, et al., they can just be asked; regardless, it seems trivially obvious that asking any believers — much less the Fox News-like banality of "some" believers — about the motivation of atheists is an exercise in pure bias. Furthermore, the attribution of the footnote is inaccurate: The cited article does not at all support the notion that the New Atheists are motivated by panic.

This misattribution goes beyond even a rookie mistake and falls into the area of negligent intellectual dishonesty. It is intellectually dishonest to present a indirectly-derived conclusion as directly supported by a text by the placement of a footnote. Even if the conclusion is warranted, the author should quote and attribute the original text, and then present the conclusion as his or her own.


A mostly accurate section. The authors do not, however, understand the meaning of the word "irony":
Ironically, some of the sternest critics of the New Atheists to date have been fellow atheists.
It would have been ironic only if fellow atheists had not been among the New Atheists' sternest critics.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Evolution and authority

I ran this quotation about a year ago, but with the release of Expelled, it bears repeating:
Scientific creationists are part of a movement that seeks to establish through government policies a particular religious doctrine contrary to the principles of the United States Constitution. The movement is strongly authoritarian, patriarchal, militaristic, and opposed to public support of social welfare programs. This New Religious-Political Right represents not just a disagreement about scientific interpretations but a serious effort to buttress the economic and political power of the traditional American bourgeoisie. The debate over evolution versus creation is at once a side effect of the movement's world view of antitheses and a means of identifying those who will follow authority in the movement. To put one's signature to a declaration that one accepts on faith the "absolute inerrancy of the Bible" is public witness of one's willing submission to authority. Nothing scientists outside the movement can say can change the minds of those who have declared their a priori commitment to "Biblical revelations (as) absolutely authoritative." Scientists who feel compelled to challenge the movement must look to the political arena.

Alice B. Kehoe, Scientific Creationism: World View, not Science (1987)
That's really all there is to it. There's nothing terribly bad about evolution per se from a theological perspective. Religious theodicy has subsumed plagues, earthquakes, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the genocide of the Armenians and American Indians, cancer of the rectum and jock itch; theology can handle evolution without too much trouble.

A large number of religions are authoritarian, to a greater or lesser degree, with priests and prophets acting as proxies for the ultimate authority, God. All authorities require a shibboleth, and the most tyrannical of authorities require some proof of submission, proof that his supposed authority is not vacuous, like that of the Little Prince's King, who commands the stars to do what they would do anyway.

Evolution is a perfect candidate not because it poses any theological difficulty but precisely because it is so well established. A reasonable, educated person not in thrall to a religious authority cannot rationally deny the scientific validity of evolution. Therefore, an authoritarian submissive denies evolution to prove his submission overrides his rationality and education.

Heliocentrism, quantum mechanics, General Relativity, any of these ideas could suffice almost as easily; evolution happened to be the controversial idea facially at odds with religious dogma at the time of the American religious revival in the early 20th century.

Evolution denial has very little to do with either science or theology. It's all about the authority.

Investigating Atheism

The Friendly Atheist points us to Investigating Atheism.

It's nonsensical for scholars of Divinity to be "investigating" atheism, just as nonsensical as an entirely male group "investigating" feminism, or an entirely white group "investigating" racism. Their stated purpose is patently dishonest. They are too structurally biased to investigate atheism; at best they can investigate only the theological response to atheism. However, the latter investigation has merit, so I'll address their work on that basis.

Definition of Atheism

One example of bias is the association of certainty with knowledge:
It is worth noting that the 'positive atheist' need not have certainty that God doesn't exist: it is a matter of belief, not knowledge.
That knowledge entails certainty is a controversial notion; the alternative view that knowledge is established by sufficient justification or warrant is widely held, even by some theists. Since they are dealing here explicitly with the definition of atheism, not its epistemic basis, this sentence could be rephrased uncontroversially as, It is worth noting that the 'positive atheist' need not have knowledge or certainty that God doesn't exist: the definition pertains to belief, not knowledge.

They get another aspect of the definition and justification incorrect:
In the current atheist debates the New Atheists generally deny that there are good reasons to believe in the sort of personal God believed in by members of the Abrahamic religions. This is because they perceive the great Abrahamic religions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - as the greatest threat to the integrity of science and the rule of secular law.
The New Atheists (presumably exemplified by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris) deny there are good reasons reasons to believe in the Abrahamic constructions of God because they believe the reasons proffered by adherents are not actually good. Since the reasons for belief are not good, it is therefore the case that these religions pose a great threat to science and secular law.

This reversal of causality is not quite a rookie mistake. All the New Atheists to some extent take the value of science and secular law for granted; this implicit attitude is, however, sufficiently justified by centuries of experience as to the value of science and secular law. I expect professional academics to rely on more than a superficial, context-free reading of any work.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Property -or- The myth of the free market

To some degree, all property rights are socially constructed; some property rights are, however, more socially constructed than others. Being socially constructed is what makes some state of affairs a matter of rights as opposed to the pure individual exercise of physical force. (Alternatively, one could label individual force primitive or irreducible property rights, in which case we can talk about the alternative of complex, social property rights. The distinction remains, regardless of the label.)

We speak of a right when a group of cooperating individuals agree to organize their power of coercion to a specific end. An individual has a right (or a social right, as opposed to a primitive right) to the property she physically possesses, for example, not just because she can physically control that property, but also because any individual attempt to take the property will be met by the organized resistance of the community. This organization has to come about by some sort of mechanism establishing an agreement between multiple individuals; in this sense all rights are therefore socially constructed.

If we label the organization of coercion as "government", then by definition all rights come about because of government infringement of individual freedom. We have a specific right to life only because the government infringes upon people's individual freedom to kill each other. We have a right to possess property only because the government infringes on the individual freedom to take stuff as one pleases.

Furthermore, while it is logically possible, there are in practice no rights at all that are established by universal explicit agreement, without the coercion of some dissidents. (Well, perhaps they are, but I can't think of any.) The right to life is important because there are people who, without the threat of coercion, would in fact kill others; there are those who would otherwise take others' things.

Thus the notion of the free market is even at this basic level necessarily an approximation, an idiomatic usage of "free". For there to be any sort of market — in the ordinary sense of the word — there has to be some limitation of individual freedom enforced by organized coercion. Without such government interference, there wouldn't be a market, there would be only a battle.

The notion of the free market gets even more idiomatic when we consider physical versus abstract ownership.

Physical ownership is established by physical possession, control, use and/or occupation. I occupy and use my house; I control and use my car; I possess my books even when I'm not using them. Social construction is not necessary to establish physical ownership. Even an alien observer from Sirius, completely ignorant of our language or symbolic communication, could determine physical possession by observation. Even though rights to physical ownership are socially constructed, the fact of physical ownership is, well, physical.

Abstract ownership, alternatively, is ownership that is established by social construction. The fact that my landlord "owns" my house is completely socially constructed; there is no physical fact at all that establishes her ownership, even though I physically occupy and use the house. (The deed records ownership, it doesn't physically establish ownership.)

Related to the notion of abstract ownership is abstract property, property with its very existence due entirely to social construction. The most obvious and pervasive example of abstract property is, of course, money. The value of my bank account or the dollar bills in my pocket, or even the gold in my safe-deposit box is not a matter of the physical value of what I own; it is valuable only because most everyone agrees that it has value. Naturally, all abstract property is abstractly owned.

Just as rights to physical property have to be enforced, abstract ownership has to be enforced as well. My landlord owns my property only to the extent that the members of society (notably the armed sherriffs) will physically evict me from the premises if I don't pay my rent.

Thus any market in modern society requires not just government interference to establish rights, but it also requires government interference to establish abstract ownership and to create abstract property.

I'm not objecting to the concept of abstract ownership per se. Money is a terrific invention, I don't object in principle to paying rent, and there are no end of uses of abstract ownership that have obvious pragmatic value. It is a contradiction, however, to treat abstract ownership as if it were physical ownership, specifically to argue that because some right pertains to physical ownership, it must therefore necessarily apply to abstract ownership.

TANSTAAFM: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Market.

To have a market in the first place, there has to be some form of government infringement on individual freedom. As the old joke goes, "We've established what you are; now we're just arguing over the price." The choice is not whether to have a "free" market, but rather how much and in what ways to restrict freedom to have a market, And more importantly, who decides how and how much to restrict freedom. All the varying theories of political economics are different positions over who gets to decide how the market is to be restricted.

Capitalism is the idea that the owners of capital should decide how to restrict the market. But capital itself is an instance of of abstract property; both the property itself and its ownership is socially constructed, the result of nothing but agreement. Thus to remain internally coherent, Capitalism must necessarily enforce the value and ownership of capital.

Once the the value and ownership of capital is enforced, and the decisions about what should be enforced is handed to those who enforce capital's value and ownership, they will, as we expect of all self-interested individuals, do whatever it takes to retain their position as those who decide what's enforced. The individual freedom to change the system and assign privilege to a different group will always be coercively restricted. Privilege, once granted, is self-perpetuating.

Human beings typically have a narrow view of who qualifies as equals, as "real" human beings. More importantly capital (like many other resources, physical and abstract) is more effective when it is concentrated rather than diffused. Therefore, a capitalist social system will inevitably concentrate capital and the privilege its ownership entails. A capitalist society is inevitably elitist. Not the irrelevant elitism of individual merit, but rather the elitism of self-perpetuating privilege concentrated in a narrow group, concentrated by virtue of having had privilege concentrated in a narrow group.

It may well be the case that capitalism is the best we can do. There are some features of capitalism, notably that capital has to actually be used to be effective, and what can be used risks being lost. There is at least a degree of meritocracy within the capitalist elite. Furthermore there are avenues of entry for the arbitrary individual into the capitalist elite: One need only accumulate capital and use it effectively.

The above considerations are pragmatic and at a high level of abstraction. The notion that Capitalism is intrinsically justified, or justified by our notions about freedom or about physical ownership, are at best fantasies and at worst outright lies.

Capitalism and free markets

Yes, Michael Shermer is still an idiot. In his defense of Capitalism he goes off the rails in the second paragraph:
Capitalism may not need apologists and propagandists, but it does need a vigorous scientific and rational defense as evidenced by the fact that so many people still distrust free markets.
Capitalism is not about free markets, any more than Communism is about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Free markets are an anarchist notion. Capitalism is about vesting the power to restrict and control markets to the owners of capital.

You cannot establish abstract property, property established by social construction (I'll write more on this topic later), in a truly free market; a free market respects only physical property, property established by physical possession.

That Capitalism has anything to do with free markets is not simply wrong, it is a fantasy and lie as egregious as anything Christianity has produced.

(h/t to a dime a dozen blog, who seems to have fallen for the lie hook, line and sinker.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Another feminist gets her wings

Melissa McEwan nails it: "Every time some dude has to spend 799 words explaining why a woman's victory isn't a real victory, another feminist gets her wings."

Danica Patrick (as well as drag racing champion Shirley Muldowney) has my absolutely unqualified admiration.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Theistic morality and objectivism

Some assert that non-theistic morality fails to be "objective". Leaving aside for the moment why we should want or need an "objective" morality, it's worth noting that theistic morality completely fails to deliver objectivity.

The word "objective" is — like most words in any natural language — ambiguous. It has three different meanings pertinent to this context: (1) pertaining to the world outside mind or minds (as opposed to subjective) (2) consistently determinable and (3) unchanging. Conflation occurs because the truth of ideas about the world outside our minds is consistently determinable (consistent determination is necessary, but not sufficient, to establish objective truth), and many truths about ideas outside our minds are (or seem) universal, i.e. unchanging.

Any moral system established by a personal God is necessarily subjective (in opposition to the first sense of "objective"): It pertains to a property of a mind, God's mind, which is by definition a subjective entity.

Furthermore, it's logically possible that knowledge about God's mind could in theory be consistently determinable, but in practice people's statements about God's mind are strongly inconsistent.

The claim that some scripture provides a consistently determinable morality is a different claim than that God provides a consistently determinable morality. A scriptural claim, though, is no stronger than the related claim that a body of law, such as United States federal law, or the laws of the state of California provide a consistently determinable morality.

Again, while a scriptural basis is in theory an easier case to make, we find that it's does not happen in practice that morality can be consistently determined on the basis of most scriptures, the Christian Bible in particular. The sheer number of Christian sects — Catholics to Quakers — with an incredible diversity of moral beliefs testifies to this conclusion.

In sort, Jim Holman's criticism founders on the simple basis that theistic moral theories do not supply what he finds lacking in non-theistic morality.

The idea of God gives us only a theoretical ontological basis for morality.

If it were the case that we saw a consistently determinable, universal, unchanging moral beliefs; if it were the case that we saw that moral beliefs were shared across time and space in ways that could not be explained by biological similarities and social construction; if it were the case that some consistency in the world stood in need of an explanation for which local physical causality could not stand; if all these factors were the case, then God and/or scripture might serve as an explanation worthy of study.

However, the preconditions do not obtain. Theistic morality is not only an explanation in search of something to be explained, its simplest form actually contradicts our experience. We can add all sorts of ad hoc and rococo epicycles to a theistic theory of morality, but then we really do have to conclude that God is either a comedian with a very sadistic sense of humor, or just a complete bastard.

Anything you can do...

... I can do better.*

Danica Patrick is the first woman to win a major auto race, winning the Indy Japan 300.

*Bonus points if you get the reference.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: "If your love for America were ice cream, what flavor would it be?"

(h/t to Pharyngula)

"Deeper" atheism

Over at Friendly Atheist, Pastor Mike Clawson promotes theologian Dr. John Haught's book God and the New Atheism. Clawson endorses Haught's criticism of the New Atheists for not being sufficiently "deep",
that their contemporary brand of anti-theism is not nearly as deep or as challenging as that of past generations, for instance the great atheist-existentialist thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, and thus presents little challenge to the more noteworthy theologians of our own time.
The problem with Haught's Clawson's criticism is that there is no "deeper" position for atheists to address. Yes, modern atheists are recycling Enlightenment arguments against god because Hume nailed the case in the 18th century and (perhaps other than evolution, although Hume nailed even the argument from design) there's been nothing new and interesting since then.

The "great atheist-existentialist thinkers" Clawson mentions were primarily existentialist thinkers who happened to be atheists; existentialism has only an indirect connection to atheism. (And identifying Nietzsche as an "existentialist" stretches the boundaries of the term.) It's worth noting that Nietzsche, Sartre or Camus themselves added nothing to Hume's refutation of apologetics. These thinkers essentially asked, "OK, God is dead, we can't console ourselves with fairy tales any more, what now?"

Atheists, as slut mentions, are not typically interested in theology; they're interested in apologetics. What little post-enlightenment apologetics we've seen (e.g. Plantigna Plantinga*, Van Til, Swinburne) is such utter bullshit that it's barely escaped the halls of academic philosophy and has found almost no traction whatsoever in the general population of theists, much less atheists. Go on any message board or blog — theistic or nontheistic — which features actual apologetics and you'll get the same arguments, almost in the same order: First Cause, Pascal's Wager, Paley's Watch, and then, "You're not being sincere; if you were sincere you'd be a believer by now."

*I seem to have a persistent mental block about spelling his name correctly.

No prominent atheist has ever claimed that each and every religious person is a violent fundamentalist, so the observation that there are theologies that are not violent or fundamentalist is of no relevance. The actual claim is that violent fundamentalism requires anti-skeptical, authoritarian thinking, and the world's religions (as well as some nontheistic philosophies) all promote that sort of thought. In just the same sense, just the fact that some people, even a lot of people, can remain asymptomatic when infected with some organism does not argue against the germ theory of disease.

The further claim, made explicitly by Harris and implied by Dawkins and Hitchens (Dennett barely condemns religion at all) is that the moderate religious provide intellectual and political cover for the violent fundamentalists. By supplying an irrelevant, fallacious arguments to protect the violent fundamentalists from prominent atheists' explicitly targeted and well-supported criticism, Clawson and Haught are both doing precisely what Harris explicitly condemns.

Has Haught written any books drawing upon theologians such as Tillich, Bultmann, Ricoeur, McFague and Pannenberg explicitly to refute some of the fundamentalists' claims? (That's not a rhetorical question; I don't pay much attention to the intramural disputes of fairy-tale believers.) If so good for him, but I'll have to see it to believe it.

Clemson descends to sixth-grade trash talk:
I honestly can’t see Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens going toe to toe with the likes of NT Wright, Nick Wolterstorff, Miroslav Volf, Jack Caputo, Walter Bruggeman or even John Haught.
Who cares what Clawson (an obviously biased party) can and cannot "see"? We're interested in what he can argue.

Have all the authors Clemson mentions together sold a tenth as many books as the fewest of Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens alone? I could just as easily say I can't see the Pope going toe to toe with me, or Hemant or the sacred slut, or even PZ Myers. So what?

Are these authors apologists? If they're theologians, why should any atheist go toe to toe with them? We freely admit we have no skill whatsoever in fraud, bullshit, mendacity and reconciling the mythology of barely literate savages with a modern humanistic ethic. If we're going to talk about theology, then yes, we cannot compete.

In apologetics, I could take all of these guys on at once, with three beers in me just to give them a sporting chance. I'd take Clawson on himself, but if I drank enough alcohol to give him a chance I'd be unconscious, which makes for a rather boring debate.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Finger

I was wrong; I'm persuaded that Obama really did give The Finger to Clinton.

Will someone be so kind as to drop me a line when we're done choosing our sixth grade class president?

Subjectivity, relativism and preference

The notion of "objectively better" is an analytic contradiction in the same sense as is "concrete abstraction". Furthermore, preferences are relative, not absolute. "Better" and "worse" (and similar words) describe preferences, and preferences are relations between physically real state of affairs to minds, i.e. subjective entities.

Furthermore, preferences are relations not to the low-level physical characteristics of minds (i.e. they are not relations to neurons), they are relations to abstract, high-level arrangements of whatever physical substrate the mind on which the mind is instantiated.

Some of our preferences, of course, relate to gross physical characteristics of our bodies and brains. When we are hungry, we ordinarily prefer to eat food; when some of our sensory neurons are stimulated, we feel pain and ordinarily prefer its immediate cessation. But this is just to say that some of our abstract subjective characteristics have a direct relationship to some physical properties of our bodies and brains. But there are those who prefer to experience the physical sensations usually labeled as "pain", and there are those who feel little subjective distress at the sensations usually labeled as hunger. A purely physical comparison between such people and "ordinary" would reveal no difference in the gross physical characteristics of their bodies, but differences only in the abstract arrangement and connectivity of the neurons of their brains.

As Stephen J. Gould spent most of his career showing, our physical characteristics are to a considerable degree accidents of historical evolution. While physical law and the constraints of evolution preclude some forms, they permit vastly many more forms. Only a minuscule fraction of possible forms have ever found expression in the four billion years of terrestrial life. Our present forms, both human and non-human, owe as much or more to the pure luck of which organisms happened to survive global catastrophes than to inviolable constraints of physical law.

Thus, even many preferences grounded on deep physical characteristics of human beings — especially those more sophisticated than hunger and avoidance of pain — can be considered in a substantive sense to be arbitrary accidents of evolution.

Some of our preferences are established not by our biology, but by our culture and society. We in the West have, for instance, come to agreements about preserving freedom of speech (and even that agreement is not as solid as we would like). Socially constructed agreements are self-perpetuating in the same sense that our genetic heritage is self-perpetuating: I prefer freedom of speech (and I really do prefer freedom of speech) because I was socialized in a society and culture which most of the people preferred freedom of speech. Had I been socialized elsewhere, it's probable that I would not prefer freedom of speech. (In just the same sense, I have two legs because my parents had two legs, and I share their genetic heritage.)

Attempts to reduce these sorts of socially constructed agreements to even to biology, much less some sort of abstract norm fail on the evidence. That some socially constructed agreement such as freedom of speech cannot be necessitated either by physical law or the general properties of human brains, because we can observe that people lived for hundreds of thousands of years — and billions of people currently live — without such agreements.

(Of course, there are some agreements that cannot be socially constructed, or at least not for long. A large-scale society and culture that prefers not to physically reproduce will not be around for very long; any group of people (myself included) who do prefer not to have babies will always exist within a larger culture that does prefer to have babies. But as we see in biological evolution, the notion that some forms are prohibited does not entail that one single form is necessitated.)

And, of course, some of each person's preferences are the result of nothing more than the personal genetic and environmental accidents which have led to her present mental state. Furthermore, some of these preferences are persistent, but others can be capricious, changing from time to time, some never to return.

I don't want to diminish the importance or value of individual preferences and socially constructed agreements by categorizing them as accidental, subjective, and self-perpetuating.

The subjective is, of course, real: minds are real abstract properties of real physical brains. And just that any particular form is the result of accidents is still to acknowledge that the accidents really happened, and here we are, stuck in our present forms.

[Ugh. Too many many mistakes. I'll clean it up later.]

Today's reading

The LA Times raises their editorial standards a notch, joining the ranks of Fox News and ABC. [Update: I stand corrected; he really did give her The Finger]

Sara at Orcinus argues persuasively that the FLDS women really are being brainwashed, i.e. coerced.

My friend Kelly is having a baby! I hope she's had enough sex and sleep.

Ben Stein courageously defends a controversial alternative to mainstream "scientific" dogma. [h/t to the atheist blogosphere]

There's a new Web 2.0 hangout for atheists.

Jonathan Yeo has created an interesting portrait of George W. Bush. The detail views are NSFW.

Russell Blackford defends Expelled for using John Lennon's Imagine, calling it fair use.

The end of an era

Scott Adams is a woo-woo with a brain the size of a peanut. Even so, I've been a fan of the Dilbert comic strip for many years. What can I say? I've been in the computer business for thirty years, and Dilbert is a documentary. He mocks the stupid and arrogant, an activity I heartily approve of.

Today, however, I can't load the Dilbert website in either Firefox or IE, because it's apparently all Flash and scripts, and I have my security turned up rather high.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Economics: bottlenecks, supply and demand

Part I: Value and cost
Part II: Price and competition

See the Proviso.

(I'm being quite cavalier about precisely what I mean by a "dollar", and precisely what sort of quantity dollars are measuring. This omission is by design. At present, these quantities can be taken just as expressions of strict less-than comparability between the various commodities:
  1. the "worth" of a gizmo is less than that of a widget
  2. the effort involved to make a gizmo (the cost) is the same as that to make a widget
  3. the effort to make each of the products is less than its "worth"
I've arbitrarily chosen the specific numbers. As the series progresses, I'll more rigorously relate these abstractions to more concrete considerations.)

In the previous posts, I talked about various abstract products (commodities): Everything costs $1.00 to make, but the abstract products have different inherent values:
  • widgets: $2.00
  • gizmos: $1.60
  • doodads: $1.50
  • geegaws: $1.40

We've seen that opportunity-adjusted cost to make any product tends towards its true cost, and the competition-adjusted price also tends towards its true cost. Thus the excess value of a product, under the simplifying assumptions so far, accrues to its consumer, not its producer.

There is, however, an exception (albeit temporary) to the above tendency: If there is a labor bottleneck, then competition is impossible, and the price will tend towards the inherent value, not it's true cost. (Note that we need to consider only labor bottlenecks; a bottleneck in the supply chain (i.e. a limited physical amount of iron) just moves the problem to a different area of endeavor.

If, for example, there is only one person who knows how to make a gizmo, then the doodad and (potential) geegaw producers cannot offer to compete with him, and drive down the price. Therefore, the one gizmo-guy can now charge $1.60 for a gizmo (and pay the other 9 people the usual $1.41 / 10 to keep them from making gizmos).

In this case, a gizmo ($1.60) would be more expensive than a higher-value widget ($1.40), and the gizmo-guy will benefit more than the widget producer.

This is the law of supply and demand: where the demand for labor is high relative to supply, the price tends toward the value, not the cost.

This creates an obvious incentive for other people to learn how to create gizmos. Assuming that one does not have to be a super-genius to create a gizmo (and we can look at the modern computer to see an enormously complicated device reduced to near its cost to understand that only the most esoteric products cannot generate competition) then sooner or later enough people will learn how to produce gizmos that the bottleneck will be relieved, and the price of gizmos will drop to its cost.

What pays in a truly free market (but only for a finite time) is not the production of the most value, but rather control of a bottleneck.

A bottleneck can delay the tendency of the price to go to the cost, but it cannot prevent this tendency.

This is about all we can say about theoretic economics at the lower level. If people were not intelligent, economics would reduce to a kind of thermodynamics, with an analog of the second law: "The price of a product will tend to reach equilibrium with its true cost over time." (And rather quickly in a large enough economy.)

But human beings are intelligent; unlike atoms, we can "change the game" and make economics move away from equilibrium.

Guidelines for comments

The primary criterion I use for approving and rejecting comments is how interesting the comment is. Mostly how interesting the comment is to me personally, although I do try also to interest my readers.

I'm right up front about one point. You don't have any freedoms or rights whatsoever on my blog other than the integrity of your text; you have only the privileges I grant you. If you want the freedom to say anything you please, get your own blog. The only unconditional right I grant is to the integrity of your text: I'll either publish your comment precisely as written or reject it entirely. (Note that Blogger, unlike Wordpress, does not permit editing comments, including my own.)

On the other hand, I do not assert any demands on you the reader: You are under no obligation to believe what I say, agree with me, take me seriously or even read me. The only demands I make are that if you quote me, quote me accurately and preserve the in-context meaning, and, of course, cite me properly.

You're may comment and do nothing more than call me a undereducated poo-poo head. Unless it's completely illiterate, I'll publish at least one such comment, and usually a few, but abuse bores me fast. I get your point; if you think I'm that dumb, stop reading the blog. SIWOTI syndrome is a losing game for everyone. Let it go, move on.

(You may, of course, tell me what a great guy I am. Praise is endlessly fascinating.)

There are some subjects I'm not interested in discussing. If you want to propagandize the merits of genocide, slavery, torture, racism, sexism, etc. do so elsewhere. Likewise, I'm not interested in patent lies, whether or not you yourself know you're lying.

This is a blog, not an academic philosophy journal. I very rarely write with complete rigor, because complete rigor is boring. On the other hand, I've been programming computers for thirty years, I'm capable of as much rigor as anyone could possibly demand. If you think my argument is insufficiently rigorous to be persuasive, you need but ask for clarification.

Criticize what I actually say, not what you think I mean. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. If you cannot substantiate an interpretation with a quotation, then you're probably on the wrong track.

Things will go more smoothly if you grant me ordinary charity.

If there's one dictionary meaning of the words I use that makes no sense at all, and another that does make sense, you can pretty much conclude that I'm using the sensible meaning. If I explicitly define a word, then I always mean the explicit definition. If my explicit definition is clearly contradictory or completely unrelated to all the dictionary meanings, you may have cause for complaint; otherwise I'm not interested in trivial semantic quibbles. You're always welcome to ask for clarification.

If a categorical statement makes no sense as a universal but does make sense as a generalization, I usually mean the generalization. Again, you're welcome to ask for clarification.

If you want to do more than just call me dumb, you need to make an actual argument.

I'm entirely unimpressed by all authority and expertise: even Stephen Hawking has to tell me why he thinks black holes radiate. You may use another's argument, but you'll have to actually reproduce the argument itself, either by quotation or summary supported by quotation, and cite the source. (I don't have access to a university library, so I prefer internet citations where available. Project Gutenberg has a lot of the philosophical canon, so that's a good place to start.) In the same sense, I'm not impressed by the assertion, even if true, that my beliefs contradict the majority opinion of philosophers, scientists, politicians, pundits, or anyone else. If I disagree with them, then I think they're wrong. I could be mistaken, but you'll still have to argue the point itself to persuade me.

Once you've made an argument, it's made. Repeating an already-made argument is boring.

Keep comments relatively short, to the point and on-topic.

If you have a longer comment that addresses multiple points or covers several of my posts, or if you don't want your work buried in comments, you have a couple of better options. You can create your own blog, publish your criticism there and bring it to my attention, either by email or in a comment. I will most likely link to your post and respond to your criticism. Alternatively, you can ask that I publish your criticism here as a post. I'll probably do so, subject to ordinary editorial standards of form and intellectual integrity.

I myself don't like to bury elaborate rebuttals in comments, so I'll either ignore long comments covering multiple points or create a new post and link to the comment.

I typically don't reproduce comments in full as posts, but do remember that by commenting here, you're giving me a non-exclusive copyright (required to publish your comment at all). If I do reproduce your comment, I will, of course, cite the original.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quotation of the day

"Deconstruction thus contains within itself … an endless metatheoretical regression that can no longer be brought to a stop by any practical decision or effective political engagement." Translating the esoteric mumbo jumbo: deconstruction is worthless intellectual masturbation. ...

I must agree with physicist Alan Sokal... when he says that "When one analyzes [post-modernist and deconstruction] writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous and that can be given two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true."

-- Massimo Pigliucci

I tell you, it warms the cockles of my goddamn heart when a professional philosopher makes a simple, declarative sentence; so much the better when it's unequivocal, judgmental, and spot-on.

Racist assholery

The thing is, there aren't any other standards for being called an atheist other than not believing in God. You can be a Libertarian, a Randian cultist, a pseudointellectual, a superstitious Buddhist or woo-woo lover, or even a racist asshole just as much as you can be a famous scientist, serious philosopher, eloquent but alcoholic chain-smoking sexist warmonger, or mercurial and perpetually pissed-off blogger.

Here's the thing. Atheist Rob Sherman was subjected to an inexcusibly vicious anti-atheist verbal tirade by Illinois state representative Monique Davis. But the retard had to reply with this bit of nonsense:
Now that Negroes like Representative Monique Davis have political power, it seems that they have no problem at all with discrimination, just as long as it isn’t them who are being discriminated against.
(Sherman has apparently removed this paragraph from his web site. He's been QFT'd by numerous sources; I'm relying on Hemant Mehta.)

Just using the term "Negro" seems like a bit of a side issue. "Negro" is tone-deaf and grating, but the more important point is that the passage doesn't get even a tiny bit better if we substitute an alternative label such as "African-American".

The problem is that the passage as written asserts that black people — regardless of label — have no problem discriminating. This assertion is facially racist and factually untrue. It attributes a negative characteristic to people on the basis of the color of their skin. The last I checked epidermal melanin does not substantially contribute to one's neurological or cognitive function.

Sherman tries to wriggle out of the charge of racism with the excuse that
They have demanded that I apologize to Rep. Davis for not using a euphemism, such as Black or African-American, when referring to her in the context of her being a member of a group that suffered past discrimination.
The technical term in serious analytic philosophy for this sort of statement is "complete bullshit" (some philosophers might prefer "bollocks").

If Sherman had meant to say, "member of a group that has suffered past discrimination," he should have said... let me think... how about... "member of a group that has suffered past discrimination." The term "Negro", in addition to being archaic and grating, does not mean "member of a group that has suffered past discrimination," it means "black person", and any association with a characteristic associates that characteristic with race, not history.

Sorry, Rob, your problem is obvious:

A pretty clear case of recto-cranial inversion.

[Update: I also just noticed that Sherman digs his hole a little deeper by calling the terms "Black" and "African-American" euphemisms. They are not euphemisms, they are (mostly) descriptive terms, preferred by those being labeled, which we use as a matter of common civilized courtesy. They are not "euphemisms" any more than "atheist" is a euphemism for "god-hating communist devil-worshiper".]

Election excitement

Tim Kreider captures perfectly why I'm soooooo excited about the 2008 elections.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Contra moral objectivism

The Celtic Chimp offers an excellent rebuttal to Thomas Metcalf's argument that objective moral facts exist. I suppose Metcalf himself cannot be blamed for throwing together an equivocation fallacy and a laundry-list of moral straw men — he's merely repeating faulty arguments well-established in the philosophical canon — but one cannot admire Metcalf's credulity or the shallowness of his analysis.

I have only a few quibbles with the Chimp's well-argued rebuttal.

First of all, it's necessary to distinguish between facts and truths: facts are truths that are uncontroversial (usually by virtue of being directly (or shallowly) epistemically available): the facts are what we observe directly, and can quickly confirm that everyone else observes as well. In this sense, we cannot be in very much disagreement about the facts: If we are in disagreement about some proposition, it is not a fact (although it might well still be true).

There are, of course, matters of truth on which a lot of people disagree; for every matter of truth on which a lot of people disagree, however, there is some body of fact to which (most) everyone does agree. We may disagree about who shot JFK (even though we do agree that someone did so; we have good reason to believe there is some truth to the matter, even if we don't know the specifics.) But there are matters of fact on which we all agree: The Zapruder film, the testimony of witnesses, are all are facts, in the sense that the images on the film are what they are, and the witnesses said what they said.

Epistemic reasoning in general tries to reason from the facts to non-fact truths. It is a fact that when I dropped my coffee cup a moment ago, it fell to the floor, and it is a body of fact that every time I've dropped something, it's fallen to the floor. From those facts I employ the scientific method to conclude that the simplest explanation for those facts is that there's some "force" (let's call it "gravity") that causes the things I drop to fall to the floor.

If you want to dig to the phenomenological , the facts are that I saw the coffee cup fall to the floor, and that I've always seen things fall to the floor. In which case, the simplest explanation is that they really did fall to the floor; the alternative explanation that I might have a consistent delusion about things falling (or things in general) is more complicated.

We see the result of this equivocation fallacy in Metcalf's stunningly retarded non sequitur, "If [moral intuitions are evidence], then objective moral realism obviously wins."

Moral intuitions are evidence, because anyone can observe that person A has intuition X (you just ask them). However, just because intuitions are evidentiary doesn't mean by itself that objective moral realism is the simplest explanation for this evidence.

Metcalf is correct that the concept of objective moral realism doesn't pose a problem for atheism any more than objective physical reality poses a problem for atheism. However, Metcalf's mode of reasoning is a problem not just for atheism but for skepticism and scientific reasoning. Metcalf equivocates fact and truth, asserts the lack of an absolute disproof, enumerates a few competing straw-men, and calls this not only epistemic justification, but obvious epistemic justification. It does not take a Wittgenstein to see that this is precisely the same sort of "reasoning" that theists, woo-woo's and credulous idiots in general regularly swallow.

Progressivism and socialism

Working for and advocating the establishment of rough equality* is the essential property of progressivism. I call this notion "progressivism" because we are making progress away from the elitist authoritarianism that was the essential character of past political systems — most notably the maximally elitist absolute power of the individual monarch — in favor of more politically egalitarian democracy.

*Dismissing (out-of-hand, for the moment) the Harrison Bergeron almost-straw-man notion that equality entails erasing individual differences.

Under this definition, one cannot be a progressive while being sexist, i.e. holding that women are inferior just by virtue of their gender. In the same sense, one cannot be a progressive while being racist, or a homophobe, or a nationalist**, or holding any other bullshit establishment of inequality. But while eliminating these bullshit distinctions is necessary, it is not sufficient to implement progressivism.

**In the sense of holding that some people are inferior just by virtue of their nationality.

We are still left with the more refractory notion of economic class. Class is not transparently bullshit in the same sense that racism is transparently bullshit. When class was explicitly determined by virtue of heredity, as during feudalism, it was transparently bullshit; The West, however, especially the United States, has to a substantial extent transformed class into a sort of meritocracy. Class by merit is a definite improvement over class by birth (or race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or nationality, etc.) but it's not enough. Class itself, however it is established, is inherently unequal.

First of all, the notion of "meritocracy" is ambiguous and subject to equivocation. There are two definitions of meritocracy. The first is the unobjectionable notion that we should reward people according to their individual merit. The more problematic notion is that we should concentrate power ten-million-fold and give that concentrated power to the "best" among us. To equivocate these two notions entails holding that Bill Gates is ten million times better than an African subsistence farmer. Another way of looking at it is that the United States' 300+ billionaires are worth more than 90-95% of the people of China put together.

Such a notion is patently absurd. (There are those who would argue this sort of meritocracy directly and explicitly, notably Ayn Rand, gleefully contemplating the fall of civilization when a few thousand rich bastards exempt themselves from human society). The notion that one human being could be ten times better than another is barely credible; just a hundred times better is obviously ridiculous. Ten dumpy out-of-shape middle aged white guys like me could beat the NBA MVP in a game of basketball. I'm a damn good computer programmer, but you could take a hundred random people off the street, give them the same sort of training that I had, and they would certainly out-produce me, probably by an order of magnitude. And these examples arein a areas of narrow specialization, where "better" and "worse" can be objectively measured.

Why does Bill Gates have tens of billions of dollars? There's no possible way he could actually personally consume that much wealth, even with the help of his immediate family. There's only one reason to have that much money: To control what gets made and who gets to use it. In short, to gain power. And this sort of economic power is of the same essential character as political power: Whether or not a person gets enough to eat, and has a right to dignity at work is just as important as his liberty, dignity and well-being at home.

Even the most cursory study of history (real history, not fourth-grade civics propaganda) shows that concentrating power is a Bad Idea in general. Power, by its nature, perpetuates itself, and once you give real, concentrated power to an individual, it is he (and it's usually been men) who decides who gets the power when he decides. Once the people create a King and become his subjects, the only way they themselves can decide who becomes the next King is violent, destructive, wasteful rebellion. Even if we luck out and make a saint our King, that's fine for today, but what about tomorrow?

We have learned that it's best not to concentrate political power too narrowly, and when we do concentrate political power at all, we must create elaborate democratic institutions to make those who exercise that concentrated power responsible to an informed, realistic electorate.

We don't know that democracy is the correct solution to the concentration of political power, but we do know that every society that has concentrated political power without democracy has eventually oppressed the population to the extent that they had no choice but to starve to death, rise up in rebellion, or degenerate into anarchy and Mafia rule. Yes, Stalin turned the most backward country on the Eurasian continent into a global superpower in a generation, but two generations later the Communist party ran Russia into the ground, perpetuating the cycle of totalitarianism and chaos. While the jury is not yet in on China, I expect the same thing to happen; the cycle of totalitarianism and chaos is readily apparent in Chinese history.

It is ridiculous that any person could be ten million times better than any other person — great economic wealth is not earned by inherent individual merit — therefore such wealth must be socially constructed: it is granted by the people at large. Since great wealth cannot be deserved by individual merit, we must evaluate schemes that grant great wealth to individuals not on the scheme's "intrinsic" merit, but on its consequences. And the consequences of concentrating power have invariably been bad for everyone, even those who actually held the concentrated power (just ask Czar Nicolas or Marie Antoinette).

Thus we can conclude that the only progressive position on economics is to distribute wealth many orders of magnitude more equally than it is presently distributed. Furthermore, where wealth is concentrated, it must be under the power of democratic political institutions. In short, progressivism entails socialism.

Nothing changes, nothing stays the same. The only choices are progressivism (more equality), regressivism (less equality) or passivity. The "true" conservative, someone who wants things to stay exactly the same is deluded or dishonest. You are either progressive, regressive, or an instrument of progressives or regressives.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Florida license plates

Florida has a new license plate template available:

I think they'd look a little better like this:

(Thanks to Kevin Dorner and Pharyngula)

Violent Acres

We see yet again that Violent Acres is a retard and a shit-disturber in addition to being a racist.

I think I have her figured out, though. She's angling for a job as a political pundit on Fox News. They have a severe limit on the maximum IQ, but I think V would fit right in.

Holy Books

The short film Schism (Islam's answer to Fitna) ends with the statement
It is easy to take parts of any holy book and make it sound like the most inhuman book ever written.

The qualification is telling. It's easy to take parts of the three Abrahamic holy books and make them sound inhuman because they are in fact inhuman. One does not have to quote-mine, take statements out of context or otherwise misrepresent the plain meaning of the text to "make" these holy books sound inhuman: all you have to do is read them.

Try taking the Humanist Manifestos and make them sound inhuman. How about the Declaration of Independence or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not so easy, eh? If you could do it at all, you'd have to quote-mine like a cretinist on crack.

If it's easy to make your book sound inhuman, perhaps you should re-think its holiness.

[h/t to The Freethinker]

Falsification and likelihood

A couple of years ago, Mike the Mad Biologist compared likelihood statistics to falsification (he mentions the article today).

Let me first say that Mike is absolutely correct that likelihood statistics is a more productive approach for many many scientific problems. But Mike forgets, I think, that philosophy and working science have different goals and evaluate methodologies in different ways.

Regardless of what Karl Popper might have actually intended, he was not a professional scientist. Any scientist would be foolish, I think, to take Popper's writing as a guide to how to conduct an actual practical scientific inquiry on a specific question. Philosophers are usually — when they are doing anything productive at all — interested in creating the weakest possible definition for a term, the minimal definition.

I'm not a professional statistician, and I don't know that it's always possible to prove falsifiability from likelihood statistics (but I suspect that's the case). However, I can say that by Popper's definition every scientific inquiry using likelihood statistics is in principle also falsifiable.

Popper's falsifiability criterion is not necessarily the best way to do science. It is best viewed as the simplest possible way of distinguishing science from non-science. The falsifiability criterion has the advantage of not itself depending on any statistical assumptions. (Statistical assumptions are required, of course, when the hypothesis itself is statistical.) All that is necessary is that you have a way, some way, any way, of determining if the hypothesis were false.

Carnival of the Godless #89

Carnival of the Godless #89 is up at Rational Response Squad.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Shut the fuck up, bitches

Shorter Badtux the Snarky Penguin: "Shut the fuck up, bitches, get back to the kitchen, and thank God at least you're not black men."

Whining and complaining

What's the difference between a complaint and a whine? Why is objecting to "nappy-headed ho's" a legitimate complaint, but objecting to "Take out the garbage" a loser's whine?

It seems prima facie ridiculous to condemn all complaints as whining. Why should trash-talk, insults and demeaning speech be socially protected*, but objections to such talk socially condemned and dismissed as "playing the 'victim' card?" (Except, of course, objecting to objections to which the social protection hypocritically remains.)

*I'm not talking about legal protections; all (almost all) speech, regardless of how insulting or hateful, is and should be legally protected.

There are some useful substantive distinctions we can draw, though, to make a sensible distinction.

Of course, any criticism of speech should be directed at the speaker. This criterion is one reason why Badtux is either being intellectually dishonest for condemning Hillary Clinton for her supporter's speech or he is really directing his criticism against women for complaining about sexism.

If what you're complaining about isn't a problem in the first place, it's a whine, not a complaint. In this sense, one must infer that if Badtux is not being intellectually dishonest, he doesn't consider the anti-Clinton sexism in the media problematic. One must likewise infer that Violent Acres does not consider religion to be a problem, despite pedophile priests, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science fundamentalists. (Well, it's well-known that V is dumber than a box of hammers, so she can be excused on Hanlon's Razor.)

On the other hand, to say that that religious people whining about being discriminated against because they can't proselytize in public schools means that excluding religion proselytization in public schools is not a problem, a position I have no problem explicitly endorsing.

Secondly, a complaint has to specify or imply corrective action; without some sort of correction, it's just a whine. To just say, "black people have to choose between segregation (bad) or living in a white-majority society (bad)" is a whine because — even though someone might legitimately feel bad about either or both options — there's no possibility of correction; the alternatives are (mostly) exhaustive. (The speaker might really advocate that most white people should commit suicide, but I think it's more charitable to interpret such statements as whining rather than genocidal.)

On the other hand, it doesn't seem very objectionable to make the social (not legal) demand that people not make gratuitously insulting statements.

To call a statement a whine, you have to show that the speech lacks at least one of these elements.

Quotation of the day

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

-- Karl Marx

(h/t to A Whore in the Temple of Reason)

Friday, April 11, 2008

When's the last time?

In reference to my criticism of Badtux's post, Badtux asks, "[H]ow many times has Hillary Clinton been pulled over by the cops over the past ten years for Driving While Being A White Woman?"

I have some questions in return, meant in the same general spirit as I assume Badtux's question was asked.

How many times has Obama (or men like him) had to choose between abstinence, an unwanted pregnancy or a back-alley abortion?

How many times has Obama been raped?

How many times has Obama been forced to go to a shelter because his wife was beating him?

How many times has Obama been told to fuck his boss or lose his job?

Black men got the vote in 1870. Women got the vote in 1920.

I don't want to trivialize racism. It's real, it's bad. And what progress we've made has been because black people didn't STFU and suck it up. Don't trivialize sexism; don't tell the women to STFU and suck it up.

Rah rah Chicken Girl

Chicken Girl lays the smackdown on Violent Acres. V can add anti-atheist bigotry to her list of faults, including sanctimony, racism, egregious stupidity and undeserved popularity.

Of course, it's ironic that V condemns atheists for whining, while her entire blog consists of whining about bullshit that annoys her.

Go Chicken Girl! You rock! Welcome to Planet Atheism and skippy's blogtopia.

The personal is moral

Here’s the thing you need to remember about Ayn Rand, first and foremost: her mentor was William Graham Sumner. Sumner was one of America’s first sociologists and truly a nut for "social Darwinism," of which he was one of the most successful advocates. Sumner, in turn, sat in the academic lap of Herbert Spencer, that Lamarckian twit who gave us "survival of the fittest." If some people detect a Nietzschean strain in Rand’s Objectivism, it is because Spencer – and later his disciple Sumner – posited a "natural progression" through the "law of evolution" towards "the perfect man in the perfect society." Poor Nietzsche’s ubermensch is often misappropriated and misunderstood; rather than actuating self-reliance and self-worth, in a Nietzchean sense, the Randian pursues the individual perfection of man as a rational social creature. (Indeed, by The Fountainhead, Rand seems to be soundly rejecting the emotionality of Zarathustra; however, this rejection is not wholesale, so the question remains somewhat open.)

Spencer posited that this perfect society was "industrial," composed of voluntary and transactional associations. The experience of competitive interaction allowed man to develop the internal moral and psychological rules and structures necessary to interact in the most "perfect" way, developed over time and handed down to offspring. This requires that no one be shielded from the full consequences of their actions. The attraction of Rand’s pedigree to self-styled libertarians should be immediately apparent by now (even though she herself rejected them).

Thus, Rand’s bias and prejudice wasn’t so much a racial thing as an anthropological one: those backwards-ass wogs needed an advanced colonial power to push forward their development, and if they couldn’t adapt, then too damned bad. Under the Spencer/Sumner-inflected teachings that fueled Objectivism, it was actually a profoundly moral act to coercively colonize other, less industrialized cultures. Despite Rand’s atheism, there is an almost Calvinistic fatalism about this ideology: suffering is necessary for progress. Anything that inhibits pure industrial progress – and thus social and moral progress – is verboten: charity, especially structural charity in the Christian and liberal models, does more harm than good.

There is a sense of the Hegelian dialectic here, of a progress towards a final, perfect equilibrium. But getting there requires a struggle, one where the success of the individual is translated to their offspring – thus, individual rights and success are of paramount importance. Individual struggle being not only necessary but the natural moral state of things, then, leads to unprincipled laissez-faire capitalism. Rand seemed to recognize that this "anything goes" mentality could lead directly to coercion; she countered this with the admonition that the individual "must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others or others to himself." The individual must not only act on his own, for his own ends, but rely only on himself.

To be fair to Rand, she was a consistent anti-collectivist and eschewed racism and discrimination as rampant tribalism. Unfortunately, however, her anthropological views on the primacy of the individual’s struggle – and the intellectual line from whence it came – stand tall to justify such actions. Indeed, in so privileging the individual perspective, she defended not only the right to be racist but the use of unequal power structures (such as prospective employer to applicant) to enact such opinions, free of social correction. For a social action to be acceptable, it must be the aggregate of individual actions, such as a boycott. This seems arbitrary: some collective actions (i.e. capitalist ones) are viewed as the simple massing of individual acts while others are "collectivist" – which simply isn’t possible without the willing consent (and thus an action) of the separate individuals making the whole; all social actions are really the aggregate of individual actions. Further, even though her theory of individual actuation requires consensual transactions, she ignores the natural tendency of individuals to aggregate power under laissez-faire systems; in decrying physical coercion, she completely ignored the economic coercion historically apparent under her preferred economic system. Having embraced the mechanics of Adam Smith’s capitalism, she ignored what he did not: that human relations are transactional, and therefore not zero-sum. This very dynamic means that human social systems, even a capitalism free from state entanglement, are inherently fluid and multi-variate.

Where her philosophical progenitors gave us "survival of the fittest," Rand gave us "selfishness is a virtue." In rightly repudiating the stolid, self-abnegating collectivism of the likes of Immanuel Kant, Rand catapulted herself too far to the other side and neglected the social, empathetic nature that is part of what makes us human. In trying to get away from Herbert Spencer, she came back around: how can individual acts of exploitation be wrong if perpetrated against people who didn’t have the wherewithal to conceive of them? If it’s not willing to condemn consequences beyond the abstract, then Objectivism is simply worthless as a philosophy for living, which, after all, is never a solitary act.

[This post also appears on Often Right, Rarely Correct. Welcome back, James! - Ed.]