Sunday, June 29, 2008

Intense Debates Comments

On the advice of db0 (I agree that Blogger comments are kind of sucky), I've installed Intense Debates comments. Let me know what y'all think. There may be some problems as I work out any unexpected bugs.

The new system is enabled only on posts with no preexisting comments. Posts with existing comments will still use the Blogger system.


The Exterminator gives us an astoundingly bad argument against the death penalty. I don't want to talk about the death penalty (I'm no big fan of it) or even the poor quality of this particular argument (anyone with a basic understanding of logic and rhetoric can find an abundance of flaws).

I want to talk about a particular definition in this argument (that has nothing to do with the death penalty:
Definition 7: A reasonable person is an individual who does not rely on conclusions that can’t be drawn logically.
This definition commits The Exterminator to deductivism: one can rely on only the conclusions of logical arguments. But deductivism is internally inconsistent. The conclusions of logical arguments always rely on premises, which are themselves not derived from logical arguments. Interpreted one way, the standard is impossible to meet. Interpreted to allow the free creation of premises, the standard is vacuous: it prohibits only actions that are themselves contradictory (e.g. putting someone to death and not putting them to death), which are already prohibited by nature.

The exclusive reliance on logic is precisely why Christian philosophers furiously spun their wheels in mental masturbation for a thousand years. If we could justify premises directly (foundationally) — useful premises, premises suited for nontrivial logical deduction — then deductivism might work. But we cannot. Almost three millennia of secular and religious philosophy have failed to identify any useful premises that can be justified directly. Not even one. Every nontrivial deductivist philosophical argument is subject to the Universal Philosophical Refutation.

The Exterminator's proof fails as a proof because he opens a subtle loophole between "primal urges" and revenge:
Definition 5: A primal urge is an unthinking, instinctual action, most likely the result of evolutionary development. ...

Premise 6: Revenge is a passionate act, driven by a primal urge, not reason.
The definition contradicts the premise. According to the definition, a primal urge is an action; but he defines "revenge" as an action driven by a primal urge. Laudably, he resist the temptation to declare revenge itself unjustifiable (although that conclusion would seem to follow from the implicit praise of reasonability); instead he states that the death penalty cannot be revenge because it is taken "dispassionately". But this conclusion is a non sequitur, because he allows a step ("driven by") between the passionate motivation and the performance of the action.

We can put quite a lot of deliberation in the "driven by". When I cook, for instance, I cook deliberately and dispassionately. I measure my ingredients. I perform steps in a predefined order, and I time many of steps, or evaluate their state by observation. I carefully regulate the heat of the oven and stove. But it seems fairly obvious that all this dispassionate deliberation is still driven by my primal needs to satisfy my hunger to enjoy tasty food. Absent these primal urges, the whole endeavor would be ridiculous, however careful, deliberate and dispassionate the individual steps were: I might as well be making Crunchy Frog.

Even absent the numerous flaws and inconsistencies in The Exterminator's argument, the whole endeavor is simply pointless given the flawed and nonsensical standard of "reasonability" he operates under.

[Update: It appears The Exterminator was taking the piss a little. Good show: I bit.]

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Intentional Communities

Rev. Reed Braden and Splendid Elles are reporting a community meltdown at the Richard Dawkins forum chat room [my brain knew that but failed to communicate with my fingers]. There seem to be many similarities to the multiple meltdowns at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board community.

I have a little bit of personal experience with meltdowns in intentional communities. I was a member of the Kerista Commune in the 1980s, and I watched it melt down in the early 90's. I was an administrator at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (as SingleDad, still considered insane by some of the few who still remember me), part of my own community meltdown, and I followed the contretemps closely when EverlastingGodStopper was banned.

An intentional community is just some socially interacting group of people where membership in the group is directly by virtue of some explicit social intention, both on the part of the founders as well as the participants. It's a community a member explicitly chooses because of the social qualities of the community itself... and it's one where the community chooses members based on their compatibility with the existing social qualities.

Intentional communities stand in contrast to (more-or-less) open communities, such as geographical communities like cities, where social intention is not a criterion (or a very weak criterion) for community membership. When I moved to my fair city, for example, nobody asked me about my political, religious, or social views. Unlike an intentional community, such beliefs are irrelevant to my status as a member of the this specific geographical community. (Of course, legal requirements apply, but they apply to all geographical communities.)

Intentional communities stand in contrast also to workplace communities. While a workplace does have selection criteria, those criteria are typically much looser in a social sense, while being much tighter in an economic sense.

Part of the problem is that while they're not precisely new, people don't have a lot of experience coexisting in intentional communities. The members of the community tend to apply thinking appropriate to geographical communities, while those who founded and are administering the community tend to apply thinking appropriate to workplace communities. The latter is especially seen in intentional communities on the internet, where someone needs to pay the server bills, and someone usually owns a trademark on the name of the community, an important asset.

All the community meltdowns I've seen have started with those who administer the community (usually by virtue of ownership of assets, but sometimes (as in Kerista) by the founder's authority) start exercising their authority to maintain the intention of the community. The members — even and sometimes especially those members who are in fact aligned with the community's intentions — resist this exercise of authority in the same terms they would resist an authority in an open community.

Neither side typically addresses the actual situation: the community is neither a workplace nor an open community. Since everyone is pretty much ignoring important truths, and since it's much harder to reconcile fantasy than truth, the controversy spins out of control. The community dissolves, or a chunk of people leave with bad feelings. Those who remain seem always diminished, guarded and less trusting.

The truth is that an intentional community must maintain some sort of intention. An intentional community cannot afford and does not benefit from the absolute freedom of speech that applies to and benefits open communities. There are many open communities on the internet. If anyone wants to belong to a community with true freedom of speech, there are any number of venues for that purpose, notably unmoderated usenet newsgroups.

Once the notion of absolute freedom of speech is abandoned within an intentional community, the question becomes not whether to restrict speech, but how, to what degree, and most importantly on whose authority.

Another truth is that an intentional community is a community, and the social quality of the community is the only quality on which the community can be judged. An intentional community does not have the external, objective constraint of profitability that constrains authority in a workplace community. Nobody is getting paid to be there, and nobody is there to make money. When the administrators, moderators and leaders of an intentional community start acting in ways appropriate to executives and managers in the workplace, they ignore that they are not in fact in a workplace.

This truth is a bitter pill for those who own assets important to the community. The name itself of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board or the Richard Dawkins chat room does half the job of making the community what it is. The name draws in new members, and these names are reasonably and fairly owned by their respective foundations.

But the name does only half the job. The members of the community do the other half. If they do not share authority to maintain the intentionality of the community, they will not be members of a community, they will be consumers of a service. If the owners of a trademarked name wish to provide a service for people to consume, that's their prerogative, but if they truly wish to form a community, they have to sacrifice a great deal of control.

To effectively manage an intentional community, we can borrow a page from the political science of democracy.

The founders and owners of an intentional community should establish a "constitution", a statement of the basic intentions and processes of the community. The constitution should specify most of these basic intentions in an objective way: It should be objectively determinable whether any member is or is not in compliance. The founders should enforce the objective provisions of the constitution directly, but they should leave any vague provisions to the membership.

The constitution should be difficult to change without the consent of both the owners and most of the members of the community.

The members should be responsible for day-to-day operation and the fine details of the community's standards, either directly by means of issue-by-issue votes, or indirectly by delegating authority by election.

Other than provisions in the constitution, the members must be in control of the membership, using a process specified in the constitution. The owners should be able to unilaterally expel a member only for objectively determinable violations of the constitution (or legal violations), and only after member-driven processes have failed.

In 2000, I became an administrator at the Internet Infidels Discussion board. I was chosen by the owners, and my job was to represent their interests. My first real crisis was Eternal, the greatest troll I've ever seen, before or since. To this day I'm not sure whether the guy (?) was sincere and completely stupid, brilliant and completely insincere, or just plain nuts. In any event, his posts were contributing very little of substance and generating enormous ill-will and bad feeling.

After discussing the issue among the owners and other administrators, we (mostly me) decided to ban him. This was our (mostly my) big mistake.

I think if I had put it to a vote, I could have gotten a majority (or perhaps even a super-majority) in favor of banning him. But because I exercised non-democratic authority, the move was seen as autocratic and indifferent to the feelings of the members.

I can't guarantee that as community will follow my advice; I offered it to IIDB and it was politely ignored. I can't guarantee that any community that does follow my advice will survive: Every time we solve one problem, two more spring up in its place. That's life. But I believe that a community run by its members will have fewer controversies, problems and outright blowouts than one run autocratically, however benign and enlightened that autocracy.


Anyone have any idea what these folks are saying about me?
Sa zicem ca vreun tip din Miorita îsi va face sau deja a facut un blog


Stilu' . Cum este aceasta idee receptata de restul comunitatii?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Gun Control and the Second Amendment

DBB writes on the recent Supreme Court ruling on gun ownership.

I'm one of those "leftists" (insofar as this word has any real meaning) who think the private ownership of guns is a Bad Idea. If the Second Amendment came up for repeal (by a new Constitutional amendment), I would support it wholeheartedly. I could give you a ton of arguments — good arguments — why private gun ownership is a Bad Idea.

But I won't, because the Second Amendment is not up for repeal, and until it is, my arguments and beliefs against private gun ownership are completely irrelevant. That's what the Constitution does: It makes the beliefs of the citizenry — even a majority of the citizenry — pretty much irrelevant. My beliefs against private gun ownership are as irrelevant as other people's approval of "under God" and "In God We Trust". I can argue against private gun ownership until I'm blue in the face, give you pages of facts and figures, and any opponent can simply say, "Second Amendment" and win the debate. The argument against private gun ownership is a non-starter.

The Constitution, and the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, tells me (barring arguing for another amendment) what I new laws I can and cannot argue for; it doesn't tell me what I have to believe is good. Specifically, I cannot argue for laws that simply ignore the Constitution. Maintaining the integrity of the Constitution is vastly more important to me than having my way about eliminating the private ownership of guns.

On the other hand, the Constitution is not holy writ. It tells us what is legal, not what is good. There's no tension whatsoever between my personal opinion that the private ownership of guns is a Bad Idea and my investment in maintaining the integrity of the Constitution.

Leftists and gun-control advocates are typically not quite as stupid as rightists. We can read, and we know what the second amendment says. We know that the laws and regulations we argue for must be compatible with this amendment. Because the words "well-regulated militia" appear in the amendment itself, we believe that regulations and controls on gun ownership are constitutional. There's a great deal of controversy about precisely what sort of regulations and controls are constitutional, but we have a court system precisely to settle this sort of controversy.

A persistent theme in anti-gun-control arguments is a pure non sequitur/slippery slope fallacy. Gun control advocates want at some level to eliminate the private ownership of guns. For many advocates, myself included, this is true. Therefore any position put forward for regulation and control are designed to eliminate private ownership in open defiance of the Constitution. The conclusion simply does not follow from the premise.

This argument ignores two facts. First, gun control advocates are not just against guns because they are guns. Guns cause death, injury and suffering, and we're against death, injury and suffering. Many of us believe that this death, injury and suffering would be best alleviated by eliminating private gun ownership, but we know we can't have that (at least not easily, without a constitution amendment). So we argue for laws that will alleviate death, injury and suffering without eliminating private gun ownership. If some law is compatible with the second amendment, then it's compatible, even if its advocates and proponents have desires and beliefs that are not compatible with the second amendment.

It is the case, of course, that sometimes gun-control advocates do argue for laws that are unconstitutional. Nobody's perfect. Bad arguments are bad in themselves, not by virtue of the desires of their proponents, and we have the Supreme Court to determine that those arguments are bad. And that's how negotiation works: ask for everything, and then give things up. The opposite, ask for a little, then ask for more, never works (as the Democratic party has proven time and again).

This article is not about gun control per se. It's about the role of the Constitution in shaping and limiting law and political discussion. The Constitution governs laws, not opinions, and constrains what laws we can argue for, enact, and enforce, not what ideas and desires we can hold. It is the laws, not the opinions of their advocates, that must fundamentally be judged.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #94

Carnival of the Godless #34

The 94th Carnival of the Godless is up at Earthman’s Notebook.

Quotation of the day

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.

— Frederick Douglass, 1857

The Lesser of Two Evils

My first post at We Op-Ed is up: The Lesser of Two Evils.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I ordinarily submit an article to each Carnival of the Godless. I don't presently submit any of my work to other carnivals. If you think any of my articles would be appropriate for some carnival, please feel free to submit it without further permission. It would be nice if you posted a comment on the article so I can have the pleasure of seeing my work published.

Consensus, truth and reality

Stephen Law offers a concise and clear summary of C. S. Pierce's consensus theory of truth, and explores some of the philosophical issues that follow from this definition.

Defining "truth" is a notoriously difficult task, because philosophers typically place the definition at a fundamental metaphysical level, before we have defined notions such as "reality" or "correspondence". To tightly couple truth and reality, then, philosophers typically raise notions of reality to the metaphysical level, i.e. metaphysical realism.

According to Law, Pierce defines truth as "what those who investigate a matter will all eventually agree on." Truth is, in (presumably) Pierce's own words, "The opinion which is fated to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth and the object represented by this opinion is the real."

The typical counterexamples to the consensus theory of truth do not seem to directly rebut Pierce's notion. The most common counterexample is the observation that at one time everyone believed the Earth was flat; despite this consensus, they were all mistaken: the Earth is more-or-less spherical. Law offers his own counterexample:

The suggestion that truth is, at root, whatever we agree it to be might seem open to a very obvious sort of counter-example. Suppose I manage to convince both myself and others that Earth is ruled by Lizard-people from outer space. If the truth is what ever we end up agreeing it to be, then it is true that the Earth is ruled by lizard people from outer space. But of course, this is ridiculous – we can’t just make a claim true by collectively agreeing to it, can we?

These sorts of counterexamples, however, trade on the fact that not everyone agrees to the specified premise. We ourselves do not believe that the Earth is flat, nor do we believe that the Earth is ruled by Lizard-people from outer space. Since there is in fact no consensus, we cannot conclude that these propositions are true by virtue of any consensus. Furthermore, it might be the case that we ourselves are mistaken: The Earth really is flat; Lizard-people do indeed rule the world. Anyone who has swallowed Quantum Mechanics can easily be persuaded that it's possible that a common-sense opinion, which seems blatantly obvious, can actually be mistaken at a fundamental level.

Furthermore, it seems reasonable to take Pierce at his word: The opinion which is fated to by all who investigate, not the opinion which some people, even a large number of people, happen to believe. To do the philosophical job, a counterexample along these lines would have to assert the falsity of an opinion to which everyone believes, including the writer and the readers. This bar seems impossibly high. We cannot tell the difference between a proposition that everyone believes, ourselves included, and a proposition that everyone believes because it's true.

We can, however, critique Pierce's definition on technical grounds. Specifically, the qualifiers "fated to" and those who "investigate" seem vague. How do we tell which beliefs are "fated" and which are mistaken? And what precisely does Pierce mean by "investigate"? Even if we charitably presume he means scientifically investigate, he seems to be begging the question: Why should we privilege scientific investigation a priori? Worse yet, it's not an analytic property of scientific investigation that all investigators are in fact fated to come to the same conclusion.

Pierce's definition fails on pragmatic grounds: It does not do the job we typically expect definitions to do. It is not ostensive (we can point to a chair and say "chair"), it's not operational (length is what we measure with a ruler), and it's not analytic (a bachelor is an unmarried man).

As a concept, however, the coupling between consensus and truth seems appealing. If we look at this coupling in an evidentiary sense, the difficulties with Pierce's use of the concept as a definition evaporate.

We are always surprised, in a deep philosophical sense, by consensus. (In the purely phenomenological sense, we are philosophically surprised when our subjective experiences correlate in unexpected ways.) If people were independently making up arbitrary beliefs, we would expect a range of opinion, not a consensus. All consensus -- indeed any agreement between sufficiently large numbers of people -- calls for some sort of explanation.

Therefore we can modify Pierce's definition to remove the problems: Truth is not what we agree on, truth is what causes agreement. Any time we see agreement, there is some sort of truth causing that agreement. This construction allows us to more flexibility in determining specifically what sort of truth underlies agreement.

In Pierce's construction, we say "if everyone agrees that p, then p is true." Too facile. In the modified construction, we can say, "If everyone agrees that p, then some proposition q is true, and q implies that everyone agrees that p." If q also implies that p, then of course p is true as well.

Looking at the evidence of our daily life, we can discern three primary mechanisms which cause people to widely agree on some proposition: reality: a lot of people agree that the Earth is round because the Earth really is round; deduction: a lot of mathematicians agree that 2+2=4 is a theorem of arithmetic because it's deducible from the axioms of arithmetic; and social construction: a lot of Christians agree that Jesus is the son of God because they have been told so and believed it.

In the first two cases, it's easy to see that what causes the belief to be shared also implies the truth of the belief itself; in the third case (social construction) we can determine the truth of what causes the agreement, but the truth of the cause of the agreement does not imply the truth of what is agreed-upon.

Thus in Law's counterexample, if everyone agreed that Lizard-people from outer space rule the Earth, then there should be some cause of that agreement: it's true by definition that something or other causes the agreement, but that cause may or may not imply that Lizard-people from outer space really do rule the Earth.

Taibbi on McCain

McCain's Playbook: Hate, Fear and Caveman Politics:
Some of us who have been mesmerized by the Obama-Clinton cage match during the past six months may have developed certain delusions about the state of American politics, in two areas in particular. One is the idea, much pushed by wishful-thinking media commentators like myself, that the abject failure and unpopularity of the Bush administration somehow means the Republican revolution is over, and the mean-ass hate-radio conservatism of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh is finally dead. The other is the even more quaint notion that the historic, groundbreakingly successful candidacies of a black man and a woman have ushered in a futuristic era of political tolerance and open-mindedness.

It's bunk, all of it, and nobody understands this better than John McCain. With his chameleonlike, whatever-gets-you-through-the-night ideology, McCain intends to use the same below-the-belt, commie-baiting, watermelon-waving smear tactics that [idiot reporters allege] Clinton used against Obama in the Democratic primaries, except at tenfold intensity. Once the victim of a classic racist smear job in backwoods South Carolina (where he was whipped in the 2000 primary after a Karl Rove whispering campaign suggested he had an illegitimate black daughter), McCain has now positioned himself on the business end of that same deal.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ali Eteraz

The Pakistani Heretical Girl gives "moderate" muslim Ali Eteraz the business.

Money quote: Eteraz' "denial of Islam’s own part in the making of Muslim male mysogony and his blaming of local ‘culture’ rather than Islam sinks any claim to be a true reformer."

Quotation of the day

Sam Harris occasionally manages to say something intelligent:
While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question (i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us) religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

(h/t to Radical Atheist)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Structural violence in Islam

Fuck You - Punjab Medical College. The violent oppression of the Ahmadis demonstrates conclusively that the mindless intolerance and stupidity of Islam goes all the way to the official, legal and governmental expressions; it is not just a failure of a few outliers and fringe elements.

(h/t to The Apostate)

Obama is a conservative (more)

Obama is a conservative (part 3):
There are so many [major conservatives who support Obama] that they even have a name: the “Obamacons.” These Obamacons are the biggest argument for me against the claim that Obama is a “progressive.”

Biology lesson

(h/t to Pharyngula)

The Atheist Thirteen

I've been tagged by Chicken Girl and Friar Zero. I also just installed Windows Live Writer, so we'll see how that goes.

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

An atheist is someone who does not believe that any god, i.e. a being with supernatural attributes exists in reality. Many religious people seem to say that they do not believe that god "exists", but this interpretation seems usually to turn on a very restrictive interpretation of "exists".

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

I was raised more-or-less as a Quaker. There's very little to distinguish how Quakers view "god" from the way rational people view their own personal conscience. Other than shared notions of nonviolence, pacifism and universal humanism, Quakers -- at least those I've met -- require no other endorsements of belief or faith.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

Artificial Intelligence.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

Nothing. The atheist community is completely self-selected, and each person brings his or her individual judgment and conscience to the table, whether or not I personally agree with that judgment.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

"I hope that works out well for you."

Q7. What’s your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Fine Tuning. The refutation requires a non-trivial understanding of the metaphysics of probability. I love this sort of esoteric shit.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I'm very critical of even the smallest sort of appeasement of the religious. I'm also becoming interested in communism and socialism. And Randians and Libertarians annoy the shit out of me.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

Dennett. He's one of the few philosophers who is not only not a complete doofus, but actually very intelligent and clear-minded, and he writes clearly and succinctly.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

It's not my job to convince other people. I just say what I think. If you're convinced or not convinced, that's your issue, not mine.

Now name three other atheist blogs that you’d like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet:

P.S. Windows Live Writer appears to be working well.

Back-tagging: Bacchus Veritas and Geoff Arnold

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I know where I'm going

I know where I'm going. Do you?

(h/t to Chicken Girl)

Yet another reason...

Here's yet another reason I'm no longer a member of the Democratic party.

The Democratic party will not get my vote by default. I will not choose the lesser of two evils. I will not vote for misogyny. I will not vote for a conservative, even if he's not batshit crazy. I will vote for a good candidate, even if I have to write him or her in.

A democracy is not supposed to be about choosing between completely fucking stupid and evil, and only slightly less stupid and evil. That's bullshit framing and I refuse to be sucked into it as if I were making a serious decision.

If you don't like it, work on giving me better choices. And don't tell me that it's my responsibility to create better choices. Fuck that. I'm not rich, I work for a living, I vote, I pay my taxes and I speak my mind. My duties as a citizen end there.

There are a million people in this country who want to lead, who have the talent, ability and means to shape the discourse and frame the discussion. I am not one of them. They want the power, they want the responsibility; they can bloody well exercise that responsibility if they want my support at the ballot box.

If McCain wins, he wins. If I end up not voting for Obama, I will gladly accept my 1/100,000,000 responsibility for that win. If it takes yet another batshit crazy whackaloon driving our nation into the ground to change the framing and shape of our national discourse, then that's what it takes.

I'm just a snowflake in the avalanche. All I can do is push in the direction I myself want to go. I'm not going to push in a direction I don't want to go simply because 50,000,000 deluded fucktards want to go in a direction that's even worse.

(h/t to The Apostate)

The law of fives

Here's a challenge to my fellow bloggers who continually, obsessively post about the state of creationism in both politics and religion.

Spend one week–just one full week — that's all I ask — actively looking for the number 5. Focus on the number 5. Look for the number 5 everywhere you go, everywhere you are, during everything you do.

Here’s a prediction: if you look diligently, you will quickly (probably within just the first few hours), observe that the number five is freaking everywhere. Observing fives is the direct result of our facility to identify patterns and fixate on any random thing, event or idea, coupled with that incredible human facility to anthropomorphically and ubiquitously apply subjective meaning to literally anything we desire to correlate.

The point? Certain individuals involved in politics and religion are indeed creationists, but not all such people are inherently or even necessarily so. Some people have speech patterns that are actually derived from habit and are otherwise innocuous. But if all you do is spend your time looking for examples of creationism, you’ll find them. And if, frankly, you conduct this search so ineptly as to ignore societal speech patterns and mannerisms, you’ll find yourself believing even that many scientists are creationists. But of course, being hyper-focused on the religious, you completely ignore the same phraseology and verbiage coming out of the mouths of scientists, even well-respected scientists. And as a result, the assertion that these politicians and religious leaders are inherently creationists simply by virtue of how you interpret what they say is a) puerile, b) self-defeating, and c) well beneath the level of intelligence you otherwise exemplify.

And if you’re really worried about confronting/combating creationism, you might try doing something other than jumping up and down and throwing a temper-tantrum about it like a three-year-old... altar boy.

(Inspired by commander other's cretinist-level fucktarded stupidity)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The worst person in the world

An Affair To Remember:
Bob's family was horrified at the idea that his relationship with Dorothy might have become sexual. At his age, they wouldn't have thought it possible. But when Bob's son walked in and saw his dad's 82-year-old girlfriend performing oral sex on his 95-year-old father last December, incredulity turned into full-blown panic. "I didn't know where this was going to end," said the manager of the assisted-living facility where Bob and Dorothy lived. "It was pretty volatile." ...

Bob's son became determined to keep the two apart and asked the facility's staff to ensure that they were never left alone together.

After that, Dorothy stopped eating. She lost 21 pounds, was treated for depression, and was hospitalized for dehydration. When Bob was finally moved out of the facility in January, she sat in the window for weeks waiting for him. She doesn't do that anymore, though: "Her Alzheimer's is protecting her at this point," says her doctor, who thinks the loss might have killed her if its memory hadn't faded so mercifully fast.
He's not really the worst person in the world, but Bob's son is a definitely a contemptible piece of shit. If the article had named this bluenosed asshole, I'd be tempted to fly out there and slap this miserable cretin with a trout.

Barefoot no more

I have a new job now. Presently, it's occupying 100% of my time and attention, even outside nominal work hours. Ramp-up time is always a pain in the ass, especially at the managerial level where you don't get any slack at all to learn the system. I'm expected to be productive from day one.

As soon as things settle down, I'll be posting more. Until then, I'll be posting links to interesting articles I find. You can also read The Apostate, a vastly better written (and thus more popular) blog than my own.

Update: OMG! Shoes!

Palestine and non-violent resistance

Israel, Palestine and Terror by Stephen Law

Obama is a conservative

Obama is a conservative (pt 1)
Obama is a conservative (pt 2)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Our hopes and expectations/Black holes and revelations

Until recently, my knowledge of even basic formal logic has been woefully inadequate; however, an interest in developing effective argumentation and reasoning skills led me to remedy that lack. In my explorations, I came across Leibniz's reduction ad absurdum and proof method. Using this method, you can essentially prove the truth-value of a contradiction (not(not-p), and once you do that, anything logically follows (thus proving the limited utility of abstract logic!).
Some readers may have noted that I have off-hand mentioned that belief in god is "just as reasonable" as non-belief. I have always maintained that I would be convinced by a revelatory experience but that, absent such experience, I must conclude there is no such entity. It seems to me that the existence of god is not logically provable or disprovable in the abstract; there remains a 50/50 split chance one is right or wrong. This, however, is applicable only to god in the abstract, as some kind of supernatural/metaphysical entity with or without consciousness, typically beyond the ken of conscious inquiry. Once you start getting down to brass tacks and trying to discuss the nature of this entity you believe in, you start getting in to a lot of trouble.

In this, Rev. Sam Norton and I essentially agree. However, where I see this as the end of discussion -- how can one remain intellectually honest and proceed past "I have this sense of the divine?" -- he sees it as an opening to run amok with the linguistic acrobatics of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's logic, which emphasizes the discovery of meaning through the context of usage in language, would seem to open logic systems to abuse of contradiction, allowing theologists to claim mind-bending logical positions, such as idolatry: god is a member of no set including the set of things which are not members of sets, thus causing the ghosts of Leibniz and Russell to disappear in puffs of logic. This, claims Sam, places god outside of definitions, such that discussing god must be done analogously if at all.

This, however, creates something of a paradox, I believe: By even analogously discussing god, theologians and the lay religious create a context to place it in, thus constraining its nature and giving it shape and form -- which should not be possible. So, in ascribing characteristics -- via scripture -- even via analogy, the religious violate the ineffableness of god by placing him within their scriptural tradition! This opens the various religions to logical systems; and it is impossible to rationally, logically arrive at any religious interpretation of god as true.

Like many amateur philosophers, I found Wittgenstein deeply stimulating and persuasive at first. So much so that I went out and bought every book of his I could find. I am no longer convinced of his superiority, though his radical views on language remain of utility. There's a tendency in us all to ascribe "all" the answers we need to one philosopher; I used to do that for Derrida, until I came to my senses (though I find some of his ideas, such as arbitrary binary pairing, retain immense utility).

I think the reason Sam, and many a theologian, is accused of being "slippery" is that they've taken Wittgenstein's emphasis on the importance of context and bastardized the sucker beyond recognition: the definition they ascribe to certain words -- i.e. god -- changes within the same context in one's dialogs with them. It's endlessly frustrating; it's like walking on ever-shifting sand. I can only speak for myself: I attempt to reason and argue within the frame of reference provided as often as possible, but find their frames changing upon the shifting needs of the debate. The "inability to define god" is ridiculous; this should lead to the ineffable conclusion, then, that all scriptural traditions are invalid because they draw certain conclusions regarding god's nature. Their own non-definition definition should, were they rigorous in their own thought, lead away from their scriptural tradition.

By engaging in linguistic prestidigitation to get away with it, they in fact personify my theory of religion as social order within a theistic framing with words like "...and it is only by attending to the practice of Christian life, most of all in the Eucharist, that Christian understandings of God can be found." [These are Sam's final words in the post linked above, emphasis mine.]

This is an immensely revealing statement about the choice inherent in adhering to scriptural traditions. It's not an argument for the truth of the Christ mythos or the Judeo-Christian god; it's an argument for the truth-value of the Christian tradition as a form of framing.

Which is fine, as far as it goes, if one is honest. But when you use the Wittgensteinian ever-shifting context argument to get around having to admit that you've basically successfully argued against the absolute truth of the Christian god, you basically create a conversation that is fundamentally dishonest. Instead, what you should have is scripture as an attempt to foster understanding of that ineffable feeling of the divine you believe you've experienced. (Again, I will leave it to neurologists and psychologists far smarter than I am to explore just where that feeling comes from; I think a good start can be found in Robert Burton's On Being Certain.) Where religion begins to fall apart, and where conflict begins, in the transposition of belief in truth from the revelation of god to the scriptural interpretation thereof.

I will explore further in future posts the utility of scriptural traditions as tools of socialization and whether or not those tools still require the presence of a god-figure (here's a hint: they don't).

[My thanks to the band Muse for the title; they're from the lyrics to the song "Starlight." Originally published at Often Right, Rarely Correct.]

Monday, June 09, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #93

The 93rd Carnival of the Godless is up at Disillusioned Words.

Sine qua non

Let me preface this by saying that I like Reverend Sam Norton. I think he is a decent, sincere man with a genuine interest in the well-being of others. I also think that he’s stubbornly incapable of stepping outside his own axioms while insisting atheists do precisely that. I find this endlessly frustrating, partially because I make it a personal point to do so whenever possible, but mostly because as a former atheist, the good reverend shouldn’t have that much trouble with it when discussing atheism and morality.

This is what makes discussions with theists about atheism and morality endlessly frustrating and, ultimately, discussions that broaden beyond the scope of apologetics and axioms totally fruitless. A theist typically – and wrongly – believes that morality flows from god one way or another. Either god is the source of morality or the prime mover behind laws of universal applicability. Either view is flawed, though – to borrow Rev. Sam’s words – one is more “sophisticated” than the other.

If morality flows from god, then morality cannot be absolute, no matter god’s nature: If god is capable of dictating what is and is not correct at any given time, then god is capable of changing that, which makes morality totally mutable by the whims of god. This view is simply an authoritarian one – we follow god’s wishes because they come from god. If god told the Israelites, “Slaughter me some Medianites” or “Stone thee thine disobedient children,” then they damn well did it, “Thou shalt not kill” notwithstanding. There are always pragmatic exceptions to even the most hard and fast rules under this view, and it requires endless semantic peregrinations to claim otherwise. This is the view of god as morality that falls prey to “The Euthyphro.” Morality, if it is directly of god, cannot be absolute, because then by their nature as dictates from god they are mutable by god. Which makes them subjective to god’s view (whether that changes or no; the very tale that Rev. Norton believes in, that of the Christ, argues that it does), which essentially creates an unfortunate bind for the theist: Moral subjectivism is the default state, and the argument simply becomes whose moral subjectivism is legitimate, god’s or man’s, returning one to the discussion of axioms.

Now, while I have interacted with or read no end of theists who believe the above (“Vox Dei,” he of the “I’ll kill babies if God tells me to,” might be perhaps one of the most notorious in the blogosphere), I don’t think Rev. Norton is one of them. I would ascribe to him the more “sophisticated” view that moral absolutes exist because god set them in motion. Much like the laws of physics, they are what they are. This removes the above problem of default moral subjectivism. This has the added bonus of neatly undermining the “but atheists are moral too!” argument: Of course we are; god’s rules in creating man mean we all have that moral compass that follows the rules of morality, regardless of whether we acknowledge its origin or not.

This is also wrong, but far more interesting, since both atheists and theists can get on board with similar premises so long as they agree to disagree on the axiomatic origin of these rules. The analogy to laws of physics, though, is inapt. Were morals absolute, they would be like the laws of physics and we would be incapable of broaching them. I should be no more able to murder than I am able to contravene gravity and drift into the stratosphere. Free will is not directly analogous to the physics of thrust, which allows flight, though. Murder is an act of finality, with a definite start and stop. Were an engine to stop generating thrust, gravity would re-assert itself with its own finality. So, by virtue of having free will (how much is a question I leave to psychologists and neurologists far brighter than I), and thus the ability to contravene moral rules in discrete acts, morality cannot be “absolute” in the sense intended by religious moral absolutists.

Neither of the above are proofs against the existence of god. What they do, however, is demonstrate that even if god is taken as axiomatic, one cannot arrive at moral absolutism. Moral objectivism independent of god is another issue entirely.

I find the existence of moral instinct in general pretty fascinating, and on the whole very convincing of a type of moral objectivism: there are clearly rules the average person is either loathe to contravene or will feel genuine self-generated repercussions for doing so (guilt, sadness, leading to repentance or suicide, etc.). But these rules are self-evidently not hard and fast. Not only that, but people can be trained to subsume their moral compass – or even born without one to begin with, and suffer few punishments, or even none at all.

Take the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for example. A whole section of disorders, called Personality Disorders, are “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.” Included – erroneously, I feel, based on the quoted definition – in these is Antisocial Personality Disorder, more commonly referred to as sociopathy. Such an individual has no conscience. They can learn moral rules, such as those taught by Christianity, and even mimic them, but do not feel their legitimacy. It is simply more convenient to follow them. They lack empathy for their fellows and feel no guilt or remorse when they abridge moral “laws.” This should simply not be possible were these laws as absolute as the laws of physics – a sociopath who jumps off an overpass still, just like a schizophrenic or a suicide, plummets straight down.

And so we are brought to the question of where moral laws come from. Rev. Norton, approvingly citing Peter Hitchens latest “but without god how can atheists be moral?” claptrap, makes an implicit nod to this when he argues that, wherever the ultimate authority for moral law comes from, in an explicitly Christian culture, atheists are undermining that culture by denying its legitimacy. This is not directly true. Though in subsequent posts Rev. Norton has trotted out the “atheism equals moral relativism” arguments, the original thread seems to me to be the more honest one: by denying the authority (not to mention existence) of god, atheists undermine the social order. But how so? Only if morality then, is like religion, which, to quote John Cleese from a lecture I was privileged to attend, “is simply crowd control.” Religion is one way in which moral rules – rules for social order – are instilled. But if the populace accede to these rules, then the legitimacy of god has no bearing on the legitimacy of – and willing adherence to – those rules. That they are successful for creating a social order deemed acceptable (if not desirable) by a sufficient threshold of people is all that matters.

Thus bringing us back to axioms. In Hitchens’ view, it is the denial of a final arbiter of justice that he finds offensive. This creates an undeniable tension: given the fallibility of man-made justice, how then are we to convince those lacking a moral compass to adhere to the moral laws? The myth of god, the all-seeing and -knowing archon who will adjudicate your sins, then, is an extremely useful, if outdated, social tool. Hitchens and Rev. Norton unwittingly concede that point when they argue that atheists “undermine” the social fabric. This is only true if an arbiter is necessary in order for their to be moral laws. I would argue not; however, the subject of moral objectivism versus moral subjectivism, and whether or not atheism must entail either, is very interesting, and deserves more elaboration later.

[Cross-posted at Often Right, Rarely Correct.]

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Absolute morality

One of the stupider concepts in ethics is the notion of "absolute" morality. Without further qualification this phrase is completely meaningless. Everything is relative to something; even under the most rigid notions of metaphysical realism, the truth of any statement is relative to how the world really is.

The phrase "absolute" morality becomes meaningful only when one explicitly states something that the truth of moral statements is not relative to.

For example, Einstein's theory of relativity states (as Minkowski showed) that the space-time separation between two events is not relative to the velocity or acceleration of the observer. The spatial and temporal separation, however, are individually relative to the observer. And, of course, the truth of statements about the spatial, temporal or space-time separation of two events is relative to the actual physical state of affairs.

Furthermore, any relatively true statement can be made absolutely true by simply including the details of the relation. The statement "My keys are in my pocket" is, for instance, true or false relative to time (sometimes my keys are in my pocket, sometimes they are not). The statement, "My keys are in my pocket at 8 Jun 2008 2:49 PM" is absolutely false (they're on the dresser). And, of course, even the most "absolute" statement about where my keys are is true or false relative to where my keys actually are. (And we won't even think about the meanings of the individual words that appear in the statement.)

These points may seem pedantic, but so many complaints against atheist, humanist, and other philosophical ethics trade directly on the ambiguity of "absolute" and "relative". The charge that atheism fails to deliver "absolute" morality is simply meaningless without further clarification.

There are two kinds of "absolute" (in the sense of "not relative to") that we can reasonably guess theists typically mean by this complaint: not relative to time and place (i.e. universal), and not relative to individual opinion (i.e. objective). The charge is more precisely stated, then, that atheism fails to deliver moral realism.

The notion that atheism cannot possibly deliver moral realism — that universal, objective moral truth is analytically (i.e. by definition) precluded by atheism — is completely retarded. Atheism easily accommodates our ordinary notions of objective, universal laws of physical reality; there's no reason that atheism would analytically exclude moral realism. If some evidence were most simply explained by moral realism — just as the evidence of our senses is most simply explained by physical realism — then atheists would be moral realists.

The charge, however, that moral realism fails to most simply explain any evidence is, however, not retarded; indeed, I would actually agree. But what of it? If moral realism fails as an explanation, then it fails. The theist's charge is then not that naturalism fails to explain something, but that there is nothing for a subjectively preferred explanation to actually explain.

That's moral subjectivism with a vengeance!

Right-wing crap

Dave Neiwert nails it: How right-wing crap polluted Democrats' political waters:
That's how right-wing crap works. It's not meant to advance or even partake of discourse; it's meant to end it. One can argue the worth of Hillary's policies or her voting record or her position on the war till the cows come home; but when she's reduced to being a bitch, that pretty much ends the discussion. And when it's as pervasive as it's become in the past decade, its effects are paralyzingly toxic.

And it's important to remember that the same holds true regarding right-wing attitudes about a black man like Obama winning the White House. The most polite versions of right-wing cant hold that Obama's not experienced enough to be president, but the underlying drumbeat of this meme has been all about his foreign-sounding name or his supposed Muslim ties or his "weakness" on national security ... about his being a black man. ...

Let's all acknowledge some realities here that fly in the face of right-wing bullshit. Hillary is a superb politician and a fighter, a master of policy whose competence and qualifications are unquestionable -- and she is far from the cold, ugly human being the right and now her left-wing critics wish to paint her as. Obama, likewise, is a supremely gifted politician and a natural leader capable of convention-shattering feats, whose qualities in those regards progressives should never underestimate -- though of course, it's our hope that the right will.

The sooner both sides -- not just the leaders at the top, but the rank and file troops -- acknowledge these realities, and reject the right's pervasive and toxic crap, the better off we will all be.
I'm no longer a registered Democrat not because Clinton will not be nominated. The number one reason, rather, is precisely this: Democrats — leaders and rank-and-file — fall for right-wing crap time and again. We've stopped discussing liberal or progressive politics; the discourse is at best sports reporting and at worst just a regurgitation of Rush Limbaugh talking points.

Unlike Dave, I'm not an optimist: I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell that the Democratic party or ordinary liberals and progressives will reject right-wing propaganda. It's not going to do any good whatsoever — none, zero, zilch — to elect a non-batshit-crazy conservative such as Obama if he will serve only as a scapegoat for the conservative catastrophe of the last eight years. It doesn't even buy liberals, progressives and Americans time; it buys the batshit crazy conservatives time to regroup and re-focus their message. They will come back in 2012 (or 2016 only if Obama proves as phenomenally capable as Bill Clinton) with a regime that makes the Cheney Bush administration look sensible, reasonable, tolerant and compassionate.

It may be impossible for the Democratic party to become effective. The mainstream, national media is bought and paid for by conservatives. A national democracy such as the United States stands or falls on its national media. The active hostility of the national media is probably impossible to overcome within the system. Because the media is owned by people who are batshit-crazy, it may be impossible to stave off collapse, despite the best efforts of sensible, intelligent people.

I no longer have any confidence that working within the system in the Democratic party is at all an effective use of my time and energy.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

One more time

The Other Hitchens (Peter, not Christopher) on atheism:
Once people don't acknowledge any moral authority outside themselves, they can choose which rules to take seriously and which not to entirely according to their own feelings at any time. ...

There's no rational point, really, in being good in circumstances where being good gets you knifed. It's an irrational act — unless you have been taught to recognise the importance of absolute good.
Sigh. Where to begin?

God doesn't get you to absolute good. It gets you only to a good relative to what God wants. And, amazingly enough, God always wants what the theists want according to their own feelings at any time. And, of course, God doesn't exist, so basing our moral beliefs on the capricious desires of a non-existent being is stupid.

If being "good" really is irrational, what precisely does one mean by "good"? It must mean an act that has absolutely no benefit to the individual whatsoever, concrete or abstract, short or long term. An irrational act cannot have any benefit. If there's some benefit, then the act is a rational means to producing that benefit. The only work this sort of notion of irrational absolute good does is to enable exploitation: to convince someone else to act in my benefit without offering her a compensating benefit in return.

Peter contradicts himself:
One of the key features of atheism is that atheists themselves are unable to grasp this point. We're just as good as religious people, they respond, if not better. Maybe so. Religious people who understand their creeds know perfectly well that they're no better than anyone else. That's not the issue. What is?
I'm still in the dark. If Christians and atheists as individuals are about equally morally good, then in what sense are atheists undermining the "general good"? If the general good is worth having, then it has individual benefit, and it's rational for individual atheists to promote it. If the "general good" doesn't have individual benefit, then in what sense is it the general good?

What Peter seems to miss is authority, the authority of the priesthood. That's the only moral belief that atheists decisively reject. And for good reason: The priesthood is just as prone to the corruption of authority as any other group of human beings.

Priests are perhaps even more susceptible to corruption. Even the worst secular tyrant has to make the trains run on time. (Mussolini was hanged in no small part because he failed to do so.) But an ecclesiastical tyrant, especially one beholden to the apocalyptic scripture that is the Christian bible, doesn't have even that constraint. A secular tyrant can only kill and torture in this life. An ecclesiastical tyrant can threaten eternal damnation; if he's believed, he has more power than any secular tyrant can even dream of.

(h/t to a doofus by way of James F. Elliott)

Other people have opinions!

Shorter Katie Kish [Google cache*]: Like, OMG! some atheists have, you know, opinions that I don't share. That's like SO ANNOYING! OMG!

(h/t to Larry Moran)

*Thanks, Micah!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Part I: The definition of the village
Part II: Value and cost
Part III: The plow
Part IV: Material bottlenecks
Part V: Capital

Update: Fixed up the numbers

Suppose it takes 10,000 hours (~1,000 days or ~3 years) for a family to make its first plow. The family has learn how to make plows, and create specialized tools. This capital will last about 100,000 hours (~10,000 days or ~30 years), so it can be amortized over ~10,000 plows, adding ~1 hour to the cost of each plow; clearly the investment is worthwhile.

There's a problem, though. While a family can suspend growing food for nine days to create its own plow, there's simply no way for even the most productive family to suspend growing food for almost three years, even if one could store food and other life-support for so long: it would take a lifetime to accumulate that much surplus. The capital requirements for making plows creates a physical bottleneck.

Let's suppose that somehow Alice's family overcomes this physical bottleneck. She has at least three years before anyone can compete with her, which gives her at least the temporary capacity to set the price of plows well above the opportunity-adjusted cost. Since food cannot be accumulated (and, as yet, food is the only medium of exchange) Alice can realize this higher price only by working less and producing fewer plows. This strategy restricts the supply of plows, making demand in excess of supply.

But Alice cannot make this bottleneck permanent. The higher she sets the price of a plow, the more incentive there is for another family to overcome the bottleneck. Instead of amortizing the capital cost over the family's entire lifetime of plow-making, the cost can be amortized over only a portion of the production of plows. For example, if Alice sets the price of a plow at 500 pounds of food, then Bob will realize he can sell plows for 482 pounds of food as well, and amortize the 10,000 capital hours over 25 plows. Since Alice is working at about 1/5 speed, there's room for Charlie, Dave, and Erin to get into the act. Heck, even Frank, Gail, Henry and Irene might try their hands at making plows.

The only way Alice can make it economically infeasible for anyone to compete with her would be to set the price of a plow so low that others cannot recoup their capital investment. But if she does that, she can't recoup her own investment. Sooner or later, there will be too much plow-making knowledge and tools in the village, and the price will drop to the opportunity-adjusted cost, with the capital investment amortized over almost all of the plow-makers' lifetime production.

But there's another problem — a political problem — which I will address in the next installment of the series.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Old and busted: Sit down and shut the fuck up. New hotness: Stand up and speak out!

Philosophers’ Carnival #70

Apparently, someone submitted my article on modal logic to the 70th edition of the Philosophers’ Carnival at Big Ideas.

The imprimatur of truth

Leila Hussein — the mother of 17-year-old Rand Abdel-Qader, savagely murdered in an "honor" killing by her unrepentant father, Abdel-Qader Ali, for falling in love with a British soldier — died on May 17, murdered by unknown assailants in a hail of gunfire that also left two women's rights workers injured. [h/t to Pharyngula, twice]

The idea that the murder of young Rand was the aberration of a monster is obviously contradicted by the facts:
[A]s Rand was put into the ground, without ceremony, her uncles spat on her covered corpse because she had brought shame on the family. ...

Her mother, "screamed and called out for her two brothers so they could get their father away from her. But when he told them the reason, instead of saving her they helped him end her life." ...

The murdering father boasts, "The [police] officers were by my side during all the time I was there, congratulating me on what I had done."
And, of course, Abdel-Qader Ali did not himself kill his wife.

It is possibly the case that Leila's murder was incidental.
Police said the incident was a sectarian attack and that there was nothing to link Leila's death to her family. 'Her ex-husband was not in Basra when it happened. We found out he was visiting relatives in Nassiriya with his two sons,' said Hassan Alaa, a senior officer at the local police station in Basra. 'We believe the target was the women activists, rather than Mrs Hussein, and that she was unlucky to be in that place at that time.'

It is plausible. Campaigners for women's' rights are not acceptable to many sections of Iraqi society, especially in Basra where militias have partial control in some districts and impose strict laws on locals, including what clothing they should wear and what religious practice they should follow.
But that's no excuse.

Islamic apologists will (and probably already have) made the argument that it is Iraqi culture, not the Islamic religion, that is responsible for these brutal murders. They are, in a sense, correct. The Islamic religion is not responsible, because there is no such thing as the Islamic religion: there is no such thing as religion.

I mean by "no such thing as religion" that there are no gods. All religion lacks extensional meaning. Religion does not refer to anything at all in objective reality.

But of course there is some such thing as religion. Lacking extensional meaning, religion can have only intensional meaning. Religion refers to a set of ideas within our heads. And the ideas that religion refer to are invariably pernicious: social, cultural constructs that are falsely and fallaciously given the imprimatur of objective truth. And it is precisely this religious component of Islamic culture that is directly responsible for these brutal murders.

Very few people, I would imagine, would be willing to suborn murder, rape, segregation and marginalization on their personal preference. The guy who says, "Women who disgrace and dishonor their families must die because it's the truth that God wants it that way," sounds like a righteous paragon of morality; the guy who says, "Women who don't toe the line should be murdered just because I hate those fucking bitches," just sounds like a complete asshole.

Without the imprimatur of objective truth, when people are forced to take personal responsibility for their moral beliefs, the murderous misogyny of Islamic religious culture would have evaporated five hundred years ago.

The religious "moderates" aid and abet this extremism by supporting and endorsing the idea that there is some definite truth to the way God wants things, as opposed to the way we ourselves want things. It's completely irrelevant that the moderates claim that God wants all the same thing that sensible, civilized, empathic and feeling human beings want. It should be enough just that sensible, civilized, empathic and feeling human beings want something; there's no need to bring God into the discussion.

Worse yet, because this God is kind of shy, all the moderates have are the scriptures, delivered to ancients of a vastly different culture. And the scriptures — Jewish, Christian, and Islamic — are terrible, reflecting as they do the harsh prejudices of ignorant savages living on the edge of starvation and in conditions of brutal exploitation. The extremists have the fundamentals — the literal meaning of the scriptures — on their side. The moderates have to actually do more violence to logic and reason to read a modern, humanistic morality into these ancient mythologies.

People are still, by and large, creepy assholes. Basing our society directly on what people want, rather than what they believe God wants, is not a panacea, not a recipe for instant Utopia. But removing specifically religious belief from our society, undermining the imprimatur of objective truth religion gives to arbitrary social constructs, and forcing people to take personal responsibility for the moral beliefs they wish to impose on their fellow human beings, gives us at least a chance at improving our society.


In my extensive travels I recall one curious country where economic and political opportunity and status was strictly allocated by height. Tall people received advanced education and managerial jobs, and the seven footers usually became CEOs. The President of the country was, of course, pushing 8', the tallest man in the country. Short people became janitors and sewage workers.

I remarked to one of the citizens that this arrangement appeared... well... somewhat counterintuitive. He angrily retorted, "What would you have us do? Cut all the tall people off at the knees?"

Of course not.

When I condemn elitism, I am not condemning the fact that people have different abilities and skills. I understand that some people are more industrious than others. I realize that these many of these differences in skill and character have real economic consequences. Being against elitism is not to endorse the idea of making everyone the same. I am against elitism in the sense of being against socially constructed differences in political power and economic wealth.

The primary arguments in favor of elitism are wrong.

The primary argument is that the (innately) "superior" create more value and therefore deserve membership in the (socially constructed) "elite". But as we see time and again, a truly free market does not strongly correlate individual reward to the creation of excess value: excess value becomes more-or-less equally diffused throughout the entire society.

It's also impossible both to unambiguously determine who is actually adding value. Who is responsible for creating the excess value of the plow? The person who makes the plow, or the person who uses the plow to actually grow food?

Value itself, subjective and variable, is itself impossible to determine unambiguously. What is the value of a pound of food? If you're starving, the value of a pound of food is infinite; if you already have more than enough to eat, it's negligible.

In the most extreme case, there is perhaps a hundred-fold difference in individual skill and character that have direct, physical economic consequences; it is implausible to believe there is more than a thousand-fold difference. The difference in actual wealth, however, is many orders of magnitude higher. The idea that people with great wealth innately "deserve" that wealth — by virtue of creating it directly — is clearly ludicrous.

The second argument is that by creating a meritocracy, a set of social constructions that amplify the rewards due to innate skill and character, those with superior skill and character will have an incentive to use their abilities at least to some degree for the mutual benefit of everyone. This is not a terrible argument, but the limits of meritocracy are easy to determine. Economic wealth is a form of indirect political power, and political power — direct or indirect — is a privileged position to shape our social constructions. People who become wealthy and powerful for whatever reason have an obvious incentive to reward being, not becoming, wealthy and powerful. The tendency of every elite in every society to "shut the door behind them" is universal and without exception.

Furthermore, just because people have economically useful skills and abilities does not mean they are wise and intelligent in other matters. All socially constructed elites tend to correlate their power with peripheral non-economic characteristics: race, religion, and, of course, familial relationships. Argument: George W. Bush. Case closed.

The only argument for elitism is the ecological argument: Where you have prey, you will have predators; "there's a sucker born every minute, and two to take him". But this is most definitely not a moral or ethical argument.

So, no, when I argue against elitism, I am not arguing that individual differences should be erased. I argue, rather, that we should not amplify (even at best) these individual differences to economic and political privilege.

The tip of the iceberg

Dave at Orcinus has a long article about the Phineas Priesthood, a Christianist terrorist organization. This organization is well financed, with an extremely well-disciplined cell structure.

The Phineas Priesthood was recently endorsed by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

Link love:

In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest by Dave Neiwert

Mark Kleiman on The Phineas Priesthood
Tony & Phineas
Religious Right, Still Wrong
Holy Hell
Mainstreaming Our Confederate-American Heritage [satire]

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Price, value and cost

In my series on economics I'm trying to really nail down the counterintuitive point that in a free market, prices tend downwards towards the cost, not upwards to the value. Even in oddball edge cases, like novelists or NBA players, physical bottlenecks just cause the cost (often externalized) to rise towards the price: So the price of any commodity always tends to be a function of its cost, not its value.

The incredible differences in wealth we see in any elitist society, whether it be the Capitalist societies of the West or the (revisionist) Communist societies of the East, are not because the elites produce more value. Even if they did produce tremendous value, that still would not entail that they receive a price commensurate with the value.

A related myth is that differences in individual skill or character are the cause of vast differences in wealth. This myth is even held by some Communists, who see the eradication of any difference in material wealth due to skill as the key point for creating a classless society. In a free market, differences in price due to differences in skill is not the difference between the most skilled and the least skilled, but rather the difference between the most skilled and the second or third most skilled (i.e. the most skilled who do not produce the commodity, i.e. the opportunity-adjusted cost). In other words, the economic consequences of inherent skill differentials are relatively small. Furthermore, as society becomes more specialized, people will tend to gravitate to the fields for which they have the most skill; most people will be performing the occupations for which they are relatively the most skilled.

In a truly free market, excess value always accrues to the common good, not the purely individual good. A truly free market tends towards communism.

The vast differences in wealth are always due to pure social constructions that at best amplify differences in skill by many orders of magnitude or at worst create vast differences based on non-economically-related qualities (usually birth* and/or religious/ideological conformity).

*Is skill inherited? Compare and contrast Conrad and Paris Hilton. I rest my case.

We ourselves, as sapient beings, create pure social constructions; they are not imposed upon us by objective reality. In ecology — economics with only the most basic, limited social constructions — we see no vast differences in wealth at all. An apex predator, relatively speaking, lives just as close to the edge of starvation as the animals and plants at the bottom of the food chain.

The biological facts of human psychology form the only objective constraints on our pure social constructions, but we already know that human biological psychology is extremely labile. We can and do learn to think mostly not as our brains compel us to think but as we're taught to think.

We are not constrained in our economic arrangements by our brains. We are not constrained by our history. We are constrained only by our own illusions, our own gullibility, and our own fear.