Sunday, November 30, 2008

All else Pales in the Face of Palin

Reader Kelly Kilpatrick contributes the following analysis of Sarah Palin and the Republican Party.

It’s an American election like no other – first we had the undignified spats between senators Obama and Clinton. And now that Obama has emerged the clear winner (but not by too much of a distance) of that race, the focus has shifted to the three-ring circus run by McCain where Sarah Palin is the star attraction. From virtual nobodies, the Republicans have pulled out of nowhere to take centre stage in the media circus that was dominated by the Democrats throughout the primaries.

For now, the spotlight is on Palin and her remarkable (and frightening) similarity to George W Bush, mostly in the way they both seem to spout incomprehensible inanities and end up with their foot in their mouth so often that you’d think they would have gotten tired of the taste of old leather and sweaty socks. It’s like the nation has forgotten that it’s Senator McCain who’s running for president, and that Palin is just his running mate. Probably what the Republican think tank was looking for in the first place – to divert all the attention to their camp after Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama stole it during the primaries by virtue of being the first woman and black respectively to vie for the highest office in the country.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and so Palin was sprung on an unsuspecting nation. With her “folksy” appeal and supposedly down-to-earth hockey mom attitude, she was supposed to charm a nation of working class people and have them eating out of her hands, something that McCain could not do even if he were to stand upside down for hours. Much has been said about her expensive makeover, her dictatorial attitude towards those who oppose her or those close to her, her regressive outlook, and, well, the list could go on and on.

Republicans who support her stand against abortion would elevate her to sainthood if they could, for her “moral” decision to give birth to a child she knew had Down’s Syndrome. Yes, Palin is a saint – who else would be so adamantly against sex education in schools even though her teenage daughter is pregnant by her equally teenage boyfriend? It’s all well and good for Palin to take strong stands on such issues – she’s not as unlucky as the single mother who has to give up her sole means of making a living to stay at home and raise a baby with a lifelong disability; her daughter’s not as unfortunate as the teen who has to quit school to raise a baby that she didn’t want in the first place; and her child and grandchild are not as unlucky as the babies that are born to parents who have neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to care for them.

Yes, under the circumstances, Sarah Palin is definitely a saint, one that this country needs as much as it needs another George W Bush. But aren’t we the folks who wanted another four years of the man even though the first four were markedly torturous? So who knows? Maybe we’re masochistic enough to wish this woman and her ilk on us for the next four years, and the four after too. God save America!

This post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of a masters program for criminal justice. She invites your feedback at kellykilpatrick24 at gmail dot com

[Note: the article was written before the November 4 election. I think it still has relevance both as a commentary on the election and concerning Palin's interest in the 2012 election. -- Ed.]

Communism on one foot

In the spirit of Rabbi Hillel, I want to explain communism while standing on one foot.

<deep breath>

Communism is the elimination of all economic, political, social and psychological relations of exploitation, and the implementation of corresponding relations of mutual benefit. The rest is commentary.

Quotation of the day

Any discussion of China always invites criticism of its anti-democratic governance. It is worth remembering that the philosophical defense of democracy lies in the proposition that it is more likely over time to serve the interests of the electorate than a system which disenfranchises the people from the determination of their leadership. If the democratically elected governments - through their appointed executives and central bankers - are free over an extended timespan to ignore the interests of the people, then how is a Western democracy superior to a Chinese bureaucracy? From looking at the policies and practices of the past year, the merits of Western democracy are not immediately apparent in ensuring that policy responses to the financial crisis are aligned with the interests of the people. Even over the past decade, it is not clear that the policies of the democratic Western governments have aimed to strengthen and broaden the economy to benefit of the electorate rather than a narrow, self-serving elite.

London Banker

[h/t to kevin]

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Capitalism! don'tcha just love it?

(see also Jon Swift)

[h/t Butterflies and Wheels]

Feminism, communism and reformism

I am completely sympathetic and supportive of reforms within capitalism to mitigate the more egregious oppression and exploitation of women, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTs, and other systemically screwed groups. I vote, I protest, and I do what I can within the system to mitigate the worst effects of oppression.

But it's important to understand that reformism can at best mitigate only the very worst effects of exploitation and oppression, and even then only partially. The bourgeoisie in a capitalist society always select some easily identified group for hyper-exploitation. If it's not blacks, it'll be immigrants, or Muslims, or short people, or people with trivial genetic disorders, but it will always be someone. And, given the persistence and virulence of misogyny and racism within the United States, women and racial minorities don't have much of a chance. And the women within Islam are completely and irredeemably screwed without revolutionary change.

You do have to treat the symptoms, if only to buy time. But at some point you have to step back and treat the cause of the disease. And imperialistic capitalism (the last ruling/ruled political-economic system) is the cause of the diseases of racism and misogyny.

Update: Let me be more specific: so long as you have an economic basis of exploitation and oppression, you will have political and social exploitation and oppression. It's possible, perhaps, to completely eliminate the oppression and hyper-exploitation of specifically women, but only at the cost of finding some other group to systemically oppress. You cannot eliminate all exploitation without eliminating economic exploitation.

Sure. Treat the more egregious symptoms. No argument there. But that's what we've been doing, with some success... but the success has been faltering in the last 20 years. It's time to take the fight to the next level, to not just ameliorate but eliminate misogyny and racism; indeed to eliminate all forms of oppression.

Update: I also want to restate a point from the original article. Fundamentally, bourgeois reformism can at best achieve equal access to the bourgeoisie for various marginalized groups. But the bourgeoisie can comprise only about 10% of the population: 90% of any marginalized group will still be oppressed.


Woo hoo! I got my first bullshit PC comment:
Also, why are "retards" not allowed to post? Are the opinions of those with developmental disabilities automatically inferior? For someone who claims to care so much about the downtrodden, you sure have a potty mouth.
presumably in reference to my comment header, "Idiotic comments will still be deleted, and I'll turn moderation back on if the trolls and retards return in force."

Let me make a couple of points.

First, I don't refer to developmentally disabled people as retards. They're not retards. Retards are people who, despite presumably ordinary mental abilities, say incredibly stupid things... i.e. the above commenter. (And shouldn't that be "differently-abled" people? Why the judgment that they're disabled and inferior?)

Second, the world is not going to magically become a better place if we just say all the right words, if we make sure no one's feelings are hurt.

If being dismissive and rude to idiots bothers you, go read a different blog. I hear lolcats is very inoffensive. Maybe if we post enough inoffensive pictures of cute cats, the bourgeoisie will suddenly realize the error of their ways and voluntarily create a classless society free of oppression.

Feminism, racism and communism

Of course there's white privilege. And of course there's male privilege.

But I think Womanist is not digging deep enough: Why is there white privilege? Why is there male privilege?

Is it simply because white people are inherently racist (and men inherently sexist)? Is it simply because there are more white people than non-white? I say both explanations are false, and therefore attempting to eliminating/extending specifically white and specifically male privilege will fail; even if it were to succeed, we would not achieve justice, we would simply distribute the injustice differently.

The reformist program of the "liberal" bourgeoisie is not to eliminate economic and social injustice, it is to ensure that injustice is not arbitrarily imposed by race or gender. Oppression and exploitation are not inherently wrong, it is wrong only to oppress non-white people because they are not white, and women because they are women.

The reformist program will fail because given the necessity of exploitation under capitalism, there will always be some easily identified group of people who will be pushed down simply because they are easily identified. This tactic serves two purposes: First, it makes some group of people directly ripe for hyper-exploitation. Second, it distracts the rest of the ruled-class from their own oppression: "Sit down and shut up, cracker. Things could be worse: You could be black."

But reformist program can liberate only a tiny fraction of women and non-white people; the bourgeoisie can be only a fraction of the population. The vast majority of people will still be crushed by the capitalist, imperialist system. I suppose it will be a comfort to a working class black woman to know she's being crushed because she's poor, not because she's black or a woman, but she'll still be crushed.

And the bourgeoisie is perfectly OK with the vast majority of people being crushed by the system, just so long as their own economic privilege is maintained.

I say that feminism and anti-racism are absolutely necessary and central to communism and socialism. But I also say that communism and socialism are also absolutely necessary and central to feminism and anti-racism.

Quotation of the day

"Andrew Sullivan has been wrong, about everything, his entire life."


[The tag refers to Sullivan, of course, not driftglass]

Quotation of the day

For at least five thousand years, popular movements have tended to center on struggles over debt—this was true long before capitalism even existed. There is a reason for this. Debt is the most efficient means ever created to take relations that are fundamentally based on violence and violent inequality and to make them seem right and moral to everyone concerned. When the trick no longer works, everything explodes. As it is now. Clearly, debt has shown itself to be the point of greatest weakness of the system, the point where it spirals out of anyone’s control. It also allows endless opportunities for organizing. [emphasis added]

David Graeber

[h/t to db0]

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Generalissimo Obama

The Cuteocracy is dead. Long live Cuteocracy!

What you mean "we", white man?

driftglass brings to my attention this quotation from Andrew Sullivan:
Evceryone is acting as if the worst thing that could possibly happen is that we should all feel the full impact of the massive fiscal recklessness of the past decade.

Why? Why does the world owe us a soft landing after the insanity of the last decade? Haven't the excesses of the past shown that it is only through such market discipline that we will ever avoid the easy path of borrowing out of greed? Yes, innocents will suffer terribly, and many of the guilty will escape. But that is life: we can and should try to help the poorest, but avoiding our collective responsibility for this insanity seems a very bad signal to send to ourselves.

The truth is: we had this coming. We deserve it. And we deserve leaders who are able to tell us that.
What you mean "we", white man?

Andrew Sullivan is not going to suffer; he himself will be one of the guilty who will escape. Indeed all (or almost all) of the guilty will escape, and almost all who will suffer will be innocents. The bourgeoisie who got us into this mess will not only escape, they will profit.

When Andrew Sullivan says we had this coming, we deserve it, he doesn't mean "we", he means you: you had this coming, you deserve it. Why? Because you listened to Andrew Sullivan and his ilk, but more importantly because you're not rich (or attached, like Sullivan, remora-like to the rich).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monty Python's YouTube channel

Go to Monty Python's YouTube channel for all your Pythonic goodness! Now with legal copyright goodness!

[h/t to Homosecular Gaytheist]

Skeptical epistemology

A lot of philosophy discusses whether people should or should not believe specific propositions based on evidentiary support. Kyle discusses this issue: "Although it acceptable, in certain circumstances, to believe things without adequate evidential support, it is not acceptable to act on those beliefs." Jeffery Archer discusses this issue directly.

Technically, a skeptic never actually believes anything other than the evidence of her senses. If it is possible to believe or disbelieve some proposition, then she holds an epistemic belief about the probability or plausibility of some proposition; she never has a bare epistemic belief about the proposition itself. She does not believe that p; she believes P(p|E) = n. (If she's a statistician then she has a belief about the probability of the probability, but a simple probability is good enough for practical purposes.)

So it is misleading to ask whether we should believe some proposition on the basis of evidence. The better question should be: How should we act given that we know the probability that some proposition is true? In some cases, we can just distribute our actions according to the probabilities (e.g. I can diversify my investment portfolio according to the probabilities that some companies will fail or succeed). But in many cases, we cannot distribute our actions: We must act as if some proposition were definitely true or definitely false. We don't have to "believe" some proposition to act as if it were true; we can be conscious and explicit about separating the choice of action from the evaluation of the probability.

I know, for example, that there's a non-zero, finite probability that I will die in a fiery car crash on my way to work. But I have only two choices: act as if I will definitely die (and stay home) or act as if I will definitely not die (and drive to work). I can't 99.99% drive to work and 0.01% stay home. But I'm not deluding myself that I'm certain I won't die in a car crash, even though I'm acting as if I definitely would not.

Quite a lot of "weird" epistemic cases can be resolved simply by understanding that we don't actually need to believe definite, true/false propositions, but rather that we need to have an accurate understanding of the probability or plausibility of some proposition. The confusion comes from taking a metaphor for literal truth: If the belief that the probability is sufficiently high that some proposition is true, one's actions are indistinguishable in practice from being absolutely certain the proposition is true, and we talk about "believing" the proposition. But there's simply no specific, constant threshold where the belief that the probability of p is indistinguishable from the belief that p. The threshold varies according to the consequences of acting as if p were true or false.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Misunderstanding Communism

db0 has begun a good series correcting many misunderstandings about communism.

Misunderstanding Communism I: It’s not USSR
Misunderstanding Communism II: It’s not a religion

There are some who would dispute db0 and say that Stalin (and Mao) really were communists, and place the fall of communism at Khrushchev & Deng. Personally, my opinion of both leaders is so deeply colored by Western propaganda that I'm agnostic awaiting further investigation.

Be that as it may, there are several things that one must keep in mind that we do know. Both pre-revolutionary Russia and China were desperately poor in a purely material sense. Both Russia and China had been profoundly authoritarian societies for millennia; neither had very much connection with the philosophical and political tradition of Western Enlightenment. Marx noted that all societies inherit from the past not only the means of production but also the political superstructure. Any western communist society would likely be very different from the USSR & China because we would be inheriting very different economic and political traditions.

Both countries (but especially the USSR) were threatened with imminent attack; the Soviet Union was in fact attacked by Germany because the USSR was communist. The USSR had to recover from WW-I (the classic internecine imperialist war), the civil war (with the rebels provoked, aided and abetted by anti-communist capitalist, imperialist countries) and WW-II (a nakedly imperialist war of aggression). The Soviet Union could not have looked on Patton's desire to keep rolling into Moscow, nor the obvious hostility of the West towards the USSR during the Cold War, with anything other than the best-justified paranoia; just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

The historical record seem crystal clear on Hitler: he intentionally and deliberately murdered millions of people simply because he didn't like them. The historical record is much less clear on Stalin and Mao: Did millions of people die? Probably. But the question is: Did they die because Stalin or Mao simply didn't like them? Or did the people die because the leaders made blunders trying to recapitulate in a couple of generations (with their very survival at stake) the economic and political developments that took the West centuries to achieve? And, especially in Maoist China, did many of those people die simply because people had been dying from natural causes (famine, drought, flood, etc.) by the millions from time to time in China for millennia? Mobo Gao (The Battle for China's Past) notes that four million people fewer people died in China during the time of the Cultural Revolution than in India during the same period.

Keep in mind too that the West has had its share of blunders causing the deaths of millions. Even excluding the almost continuous warfare, just the Spanish Flu — in no small part a consequence of the massive, rapid urbanization of the Western population — killed 20 million people. If communism must be called to account for its blunders (and it must), capitalism does not deserve a free pass.

To what degree are the people who died under Stalin or Mao (especially Mao) offset by those that were saved? Compared to both societies before their revolutions, what was the improvement in material standards of living and medical care, both of which profoundly expect both life expectancy and quality of life? Yes, many people lived in grim, poorly constructed apartment buildings after the revolution, but many were living in mud huts before the revolutions.

Too many people, I think, fault the USSR and the PRC for not catching all the way up to the West, for not achieving in 50 years what the West achieved in 500 years.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The End of Wall Street's Boom

The End of Wall Street's Boom

[h/t to Cassiopea and kevin]

Reliabilism part 1

Stephen Law talks about reliabilism and externalist theories of knowledge.
a knows that P iff:
(i) a believes that P
(ii) P is true
(iii) a's belief that P is produced by the state of affairs P via a reliable mechanism

This is a simple RELIABILIST theory of knowledge.

Suppose your senses are reliable mechanisms for producing true beliefs. If there's an orange on the table in front of you, your eyes etc. will cause you to believe there's an orange there. Remove the orange, and that will cause you to stop believing there's an orange there. Because your senses are fairly reliable belief-producing mechanisms, your beliefs "track the truth" in a fairly reliable way.

If that is the case, then you can be a knower. You can know there's an orange on the table in front of you. You can know this, despite not inferring that the orange is there from evidence. You simply, directly, know. Non-inferentially. And, indeed, without justification (unless you want to redefine justification so that being in this situation counts as "being justified").

Moreover, add some philosophers, it is pretty reasonable for you to believe there is an orange there if that is how it directly seems to you.

So you can have a belief, unsupported by any inference, unjustified, yet nevertheless qualifying as both reasonable and (if the reliable mechanism is doing its stuff) knowledge.

First, the idea that "it is pretty reasonable for you to believe there is an orange there if that is how it directly seems to you" seems to employ a very imprecise and vague sense of "reasonable", which literally means, "supported by reasoning", a conscious, explicit, formal and precise mechanism. I think it would be more precise for those philosophers to say it might be permissible for you to believe there is an orange there if that is how it directly seems to you. To make the belief reasonable, you should supply actual reasons.

Of course, "It seems there is an orange there," might itself a reason to believe, "There really is an orange there." But to make the former an actual reason requires an enthymeme: "If it seems that X, then it really is that X." "Seeming" is taken a priori to be a reliable mechanism for determining truth.

One can actually go pretty far with such a simplistic theory. If you don't look too deeply at the world — if, when this simplistic theory produces weird results, one says, "Hm, that's weird," and avoids similar situations — an actual human being can live his whole life without ever seriously challenging this sort of naive realism.

But of course scientists and philosophers do want to look more deeply at the world.

This "seeming entails being" sort of naive realism might really be true. It might really be the case that when you put a pencil halfway in a bowl of water, the water actually does bends the pencil. It might really be the case that putting on rose-colored glasses really does change all the physical properties of the world making them appear rose-colored. We can preserve the statement, "If it seems that X, it really is that X," come what may. We would end up with a lot of universal statements that appear highly weird to us, but we can build a structure around naive realism that is both logically consistent and empirically correct.

There are two problems, though, with accepting "seeming entails being".

The first is that on the one hand, we accepted "seeming entails being" because it's intuitively appealing. Most of the time, we believe that things exist for no better reason than they seem to exist. On the other hand, accepting this intuitive concept at face value leads to counter-intuitive results: It is not intuitively appealing to believe that water really does bend pencils. If we accept "seeming entails being" because it is intuitively appealing, then by what virtue do we accept "seeming entails being" despite drawing intuitively unappealing conclusions?

The other problem is just that we end up with a lot of universals; our "laws of physics" are extremely complicated. So complicated, in fact, that it becomes impossible in practice to learn even a small fraction of them. For example, when I put on some specific pair of glasses, the world changes in such a way that I see what we modern humans would call a "distortion" (because of flaws in the optical properties of the glass). If I accept "seeming entails being", then I have to create a whole set of "laws of physics" that apply only when wearing those specific glasses. Also, we again have a intuitively unappealing result (a very complicated set of physical laws) justified foundationally by an appeal to intuition.

Perhaps probabilism and reliabilism can help us get out. Perhaps it's not the case that seeming entails being, but that seeming usually (or probably) implies being. Instead of, "If it seems that X, then it really is that X," we say, "If it seems that X, then it usually/probably really is that X, but sometimes not." But this sort of "bare" reliabilism (where we don't have a rigorous or precise definition of "usually" or "probably") has its own problems.

Looked at in binary true/false logic, bare reliabilism becomes vacuous; it reduces to "If it seems that X, then it really is that X or it's not really that X." We are no longer saying anything about the world; we're just expressing one of the valid (and more boring) derivation rules of formal logic. "If it seems that the moon is made of green cheese, than the moon really is made of green cheese or the moon isn't really made of green cheese." Valid, yes, but vacuous and boring.

Stating the rule in probabilistic terms doesn't really help us. We can say, "If it seems that there's an orange then the probability that there really is an orange is 51%; if the probability that some statement is true is >= 51%, it is justified to believe that statement is true." But what does this get us? If we embed a constant probability into our statement then we are saying "If seems X, then probably X, therefore we believe X." But we're saying nothing different than we were with seeming entails being except adding the inconsequential provsio, "I may be wrong but I'm sure." If we embed a conditional probability (if it seems that X, then the probability it really is X is x; if it seems that Y, the probability it really is Y is y") but we don't know the actual probabilities, we're just back to the vacuous "If it seems that X, it might really be that X, or it might not really be that X."

Invoking a "reliable mechanism" without telling us precisely what "reliable mechanism" means in a deeper sense than "usually produces true beliefs" just moves the mystery around. We must give "reliable mechanism" more semantic content to make it do any philosophical work. I'll talk about this additional semantic content in part 2.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Picking and Choosing

Sunsara Taylor's "debate*" with Scott Bartchy brought up an important theme in epistemology, ethics and politics: "picking and choosing".

*It wasn't a true debate; Sunsara didn't have the opportunity to address Bartchy's commentary at all.

Atheists often charge that religious people pick and choose from their scripture. Bartchy's rebuttal is that picking and choosing is routine; since everyone picks and chooses, the activity cannot be used to differentiate religion from other epistemic, ethical and political activities. In a sense, Bartchy is correct. Scientists have chosen Einstein's theory of gravitation over Newtons; Darwin's theory of evolution over Lamarck's. Ethical humanism is rife with paternalism and condescension: the road to hell is indeed often paved with good humanist intentions. Modern communists — even those who call themselves Marxist-Leninist-Maoist — typically do not want to replicate Lenin's Red Terror, Stalin's permanent bureaucracy, or Mao's hyper-collectivization of agriculture.

Yes, picking and choosing is routine. What is important, however, is the basis on which one picks and chooses.

Scientists pick and choose theories, but they do not — even a little bit — get to pick and choose experimental results; scientists pick and choose theories based on the experimental results. Experimental results are thus authoritative and foundational.

Two philosophical notions are often employed to rebut the idea that experimental results are authoritative and foundational to scientific epistemology: experimental error and theory-laden observations. If experimental results are authoritative, in what sense can they be found to be in error? If experimental results rest on a theoretical structure, in what sense are they foundational? These notions, however, challenge only our equivocal understandings of authority and foundationalism.

Scientists must account for the literal meaning of all experimental results. To deem a result an "error" does not entail that it is simply ignored; an experimental "error" is simply a result that is explained in a particular way. The theory-ladeness of any observation determines the observations meaning, but it never determines the actual result. A volt-meter is a rather complicated, theory-laden device, but the definition of a volt-meter does not tell me anything about the actual, specific result I will see when I hook it up to some arbitrary battery.

The question we should ask of the religious is not whether they pick and choose, but what do they not pick and choose? What stays constant? What cannot be ignored? What stands as true, literally true?

Christians "pick and choose" about the literal meaning of their scripture. Fair enough, but if you pick and choose from your scripture, then your scripture is not authoritative. Christians "pick and choose" about intuitive notions about God; they do not seem to accept my own atheistic intuitions as veridical. So intuitions about God are not authoritative.

Even the supposedly "axiomatic" assumption that God is omnibenevolent is not authoritative, unless we are to believe that "war, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades" are examples of benevolence. To assign "benevolence" to a God is to rob the term of any meaning: whatever happens, no matter how we might feel about it, must be the highest good, and we should all walk around saying, "It's a good life."

So fine, everyone picks and chooses, at least sometimes. But if you're not going to descend into pure bullshit postmodernism, you have to draw some line in the sand: you have to say, "When it comes to X, I'm not going to pick and choose."

With regard to religion, where is this line?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A peek into the mind

... of a deeply deluded but articulate conservative. I don't endorse P.J.'s opinions; I mention the article because I find his schizophrenia absolutely fascinating.

On the one hand, he seems to grasp, at least dimly, that conservatism failed not just on an effective level, but on a deeply moral level. And yet he still insists that the fundamental message of conservatism is moral.

Just as schizophrenic Christians justify human value by an appeal to the absolute, inherent human depravity, schizophrenic conservatives try to justify social cooperation by an appeal to every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost. The doublethink really is spectacular.

A true conservative, I think, should be proud of the Bush regime: It's allowed the best of us (i.e. the richest) to accumulate their due, and left the liberals to herd the hoi polloi into compliance.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Is atheism foolish or wise

In 2004, I participated in a debate with Rev. Timothy G. Muse: Is atheism foolish or wise?. Reading it over four years later, it's not half bad.

I'll be reposting here my contributions to the debate over the next month or so. The Internet Infidels and Rev. Muse own the copyright to his contribution, so I can't reprint it directly.

Rev. Muse's opening.

My response follows.

What are Theism's Answers?

Thank you all, the administration and staff of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board who make this debate possible and the readers who make it relevant. Thanks also to the members of the Peanut Gallery for their support and encouragement. Special thanks to Rev. Timothy G. Muse for devoting his time, energy, and considerable wit and intelligence to the education, edification and "sharpening" of my own mind and, hopefully, the minds of our readers. Thanks also to my spouse for support, advice, editing, and most importantly, forbearance for the time I have and will continue devote to this debate.

The question is whether atheism is foolish. Rev. Muse presents the case that atheism is foolish because it fails to answer many deep philosophical questions. But implicit in Rev. Muse's charges is the implied assertion that theism does reasonably, substantively and satisfactorily answer and explain the questions that atheism supposedly fails to answer. Atheism is thus foolish only if theism gives better answers. So the reasonableness, substance and satisfaction of theistic answers to these questions are equally at issue. Given that many of these questions are important, it would be folly indeed to abandon a position that gives reasonable, substantive and satisfying answers for one that does not. But Rev. Muse has not yet made the case that theism does indeed offer such answers.

Rev. Muse's charges go far beyond the mere position of atheism. Even so, Rev. Muse is correct in one sense: When one chooses atheism, one must necessarily abandon the epistemology of divine revelation, the teleology and eschatology of divine purpose, and the ethics of divine command. And indeed, one cannot merely leave a vacuum where theistic philosophy at least attempted answers. Although ancillary naturalistic philosophies such as scientific materialism, psychology, methodological naturalism and political secular humanism are compatible with some forms of theism, the atheist must turn to them, or something similar, and their reasonableness thus becomes directly at issue.

A full explanation of these philosophies would require more space than our debate allows; indeed, one would need to recapitulate at least five centuries of philosophy. Fortunately, the proposition at issue, "Atheism Is Foolish", can be rebutted by showing that the naturalistic philosophical alternatives have at least reasonable promise for answering the legitimate questions that Rev. Muse raises. For some questions, I will endeavor to show that naturalistic philosophy that atheism must turn to actually improves upon its theistic equivalent.

Therefore I will devote Part I primarily to asking the same questions of theism that Rev. Muse asks of atheism, and critiquing his answers. I will devote Part II to the answers from the atheistic, naturalistic, secular position.

I also wish to point out to our readers that Rev. Muse in his opening statement has added some rhetorical flourishes to the definitions of "atheism" and "foolishness". I will refer our readers to the definitions given in the parameters of this debate; I assume that we both are still adhering to the stipulated definitions.

Epistemological Issues

Rev. Muse states that there is no positive or unquestionable proof that there is no God. This is correct in some senses and incorrect in others. When one is talking about a god who is perfectly- or at least well-hidden by nature or by design, no, one cannot absolutely prove the non-existence of such a god. But these are precisely the gods towards whom, by definition, disbelief is justified by the very existence of such a deity and thus not foolish.

We can draw a similar conclusion regarding "a God (transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, etc.) who either chose not to reveal himself to man, or chose to reveal himself to some but not to others, or chose to reveal himself progressively." Even under a epistemology of revelation, I cannot have knowledge of a god who does not reveal itself to me, and thus my disbelief is not only justified but compelled. Likewise, "inabilities or restrictions inherent to the present condition of man (such as his blindness, lack of understanding, powerlessness...)" (I'm sure that Rev. Muse includes "moral resistance" and "intentional rejection of the truth" only from pedantic completeness) would justify the belief in the nonexistence of god. To use his own metaphor, if a man keeps "his existence and supremacy known from an ant," one cannot justly call the ant a fool for disbelieving in the man. And what about a god who, like the author of a play or novel, wishes or requires the positive suspension of belief in itself? If we can posit a god who requires belief without proof, we can just as easily posit a god who requires disbelief without or even with proof.

Gods who reasonably engender agnosticism are irrelevant; the only gods for whom disbelief is at all relevant to questions of wisdom or foolishness are the gods to which "all the evidence points," if, of course, such evidence were to actually exist. In these cases lack of evidence, if indeed it is lacking, makes positive disbelief reasonable and justifiable. Since evil exists, I know with certainty that no god exists who has both the power and will to abolish evil as we presently understand it. Since I believe that no god exists, I know with certainty that no god exists who has the power and will to engender my belief. Furthermore, since no universal belief in any particular deity exists, I know with certainty that no god exists with the power and will to engender such universal belief.

The requirement of absolute proof is consistent only with Rev. Muse's rhetorical additions to the position of atheism. If atheism were indeed the dogmatic assertion of any god's nonexistence, if the atheistic belief were "absolute" and "utter" (in the sense of being unchangeable), if the atheist showed "absolute faith", then yes, with anything less than absolute proof, atheism would be foolish indeed. But atheism does not entail such dogmatic, absolute belief. To require absolute proof for any belief entails holding no beliefs, to descend into a paralyzed solipsism. The atheist such as myself, rather, has examined the evidence, and come to the belief to which the evidence points. If new evidence or a new argument comes to my attention--if, for instance, a god were to reveal itself to me--I would change my belief.

Indeed it is the theist who dogmatically believes in god, whose belief is absolute and utter, and from whom absolute faith is expected. By Rev. Muse's own argument, we expect from the theist not merely the preponderance of evidence, not merely one or some or even many subtle arguments, but absolute, unquestionable, undeniable proof of the existence of a god to refrain from calling foolish his absolute faith.

I am curious about Rev. Muse's claim that atheism "monopolizes on a method that doesn't make sense". While the idea that the scientific method does not entirely eliminate metaphysics (as the positivists would like to have done), does Rev. Muse actually ask us to believe that appealing to science, our experience and the evidence of our senses makes no sense? No sense at all? What does theism offer as an alternative? If the answer is divine revelation, to what degree should we rely on revelation? Which revelation? And where does that put those of us, such as myself, who have had no revelation at all?

Rev. Muse does get one thing correct about atheism: "The very idea or question of the existence of a transcendent, intervening, and wonder working God by definition departs from the idea of everything always working according to the subordinate laws governing the universe." It does indeed. I fail to understand only why Rev. Muse is so amazed that atheists use this argument.

The Origin, Existence, and Nature of the Universe

I will expound more on the atheistic and scientific nature of the origin and existence of the Universe in Part II, so that Rev. Muse will have a more specific and thorough position to critique.

Rev. Muse repeats Blanchard's claim that "Matter is either 'eternal, self-creative, or created by a self-existent God.'" What support can Rev. Muse offer for this trilemma? Has Rev. Muse considered the alternatives, such as Hawking's speculation that matter and energy exist in a finite but unbounded space-time[1]? That our universe arose from a fluctuation in a non-spatial/non-temporal vacuum? That matter might be, rather than self-created, self-existent, as the theist god is purported to be? To show that atheism is foolish, Rev. Muse must show not just that these alternatives are not absolutely proven, but logically impossible or empirically disproved.

Rev. Muse asserts that the claim that the universe "just is" is an “unreasonable and insensible approach�? towards the "enormous, detailed, intricate universe which displays such great depth of wisdom, purpose, intelligence, ingenuity, beauty, and function." I would certainly agree that the universe is enormous, detailed and intricate; I would also agree that I find it beautiful. And, of course, it does function. But there is no evidence that the universe displays intelligence, wisdom, purpose or ingenuity. And how does this position differ from the theistic position that God--who Himself is purportedly an "enormous, detailed, intricate" being who "displays such great depth of wisdom, purpose, intelligence, ingenuity, beauty, and function"--that such a God Himself "just exists"?

The theistic answer to the origin of the universe, "God did it," just gives a different label to our ignorance. If the atheist does not know how or why the universe exists, the theist cannot tell us how or why god created the universe. Both the theist and atheist can speculate on why there is something (god/the universe) rather than nothing (no god/no universe), but neither can give a conclusive answer. Fundamentally something has to “just exist�?; at least we know the universe does indeed exist.

The theistic answers to the nature of the universe are even more unsatisfactory. Leaving the origin aside, why is the universe the way it is instead of somehow different? Why do we have stars, planets, galaxies, clusters, super-clusters? Why an enormous universe instead of a small one? I've seen the theist offer only the wholly unsatisfactory answer, "I guess that's how God must have wanted it."

Life and Humanity

Rev. Muse claims that "the essence of life itself cannot be explained by the tenets of atheism." What is the theistic alternative to the biological sciences? Animistic theories have been long since abandoned; however uncertain we are about the origin of terrestrial life, there is nothing mystical about its existence. Even Rev. Muse himself says that "Evidence suggests the world can simply continue, sustain, and propagate life."

Rev. Muse claims that "it is of utmost foolishness for man to put his absolute confidence and trust in a belief system or religion that cannot provide answers for its own basic existence and life." The only theistic answer that Rev. Muse offers is that, "A supernatural transcendent being who possesses life in himself and who has given and breathed life into his creation." A metaphor is not answers. Why are we mortal? Why do we so often die with such pain and indignity? Again, anyone can speculate; ideas about the "fall of man" and "original sin" are just that: speculation. Can Rev. Muse offer proof? Or even Evidence?

What are Rev. Muse's "satisfactory and sensibly pleasing arguments regarding, the purpose, and solutions or comforts of life"? What answer does theism provide for the purpose of terrestrial life other than to shamelessly flatter some deity? What is the purpose of our suffering? Why can an omnipotent god not simply create us directly in The Big Rock Candy Mountain the theist calls heaven?

Furthermore, I have lost count of the times that I've heard a theist call his god's purposes mysterious, unknown or even unknowable. Calling a purpose mysterious is the precise opposite of a "satisfactory and sensibly pleasing" argument, explanation or justification.

This lack of an answer is even more obvious when the theist moves away from the broadest generalizations. What's the purpose of a child dying painfully from cancer? What's the purpose of the millions killed in earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, famines and plagues? What is the purpose of Bubonic plague, Alzheimer's disease, cancer of the rectum? We ask not only why we so often die in pain and indignity but also what is the purpose of such apparently pointless suffering? What's the purpose of childhood diabetes, gout, arthritis, menstruation? Looking at the world, if there were a god, we might reasonably conclude that its purpose was the sadistic desire to inflict as much suffering on humanity as possible. I would rather believe in no god than the existence of such a malign thug.

What answer does theism offer (aside, that is, from the dubious promise of The Big Rock Candy Mountain) to suffering and pain other than to "deal with it or get over it"? What reasons, proofs or evidence support and justify the answers? For instance, I'm frankly astounded that even a single Christian accepts the "explanation" that Yahweh has inflicted or permitted his or her suffering for the purpose of punishing Adam's sin. Good grief, it's been 6000 years; Yahweh sure does hold a grudge!

The Future

Rev. Muse claims that atheism provides less that satisfactory and comforting answers concerning the future. Indeed, I must again ask about the theistic alternatives. The theist can speculate and spin fantasies about a Big Rock Candy Mountain, but can such speculation be more than empty promises? But neither atheism nor any materialistic science entails logically that there is no life after death. Life itself is an ordinary, naturalistic phenomenon; if there were indeed some "evidence [that] provides some hope of life after death," then ordinary naturalistic science could investigate it. Atheists who believe the finality of death do so because the evidence points to only that conclusion.

So where is the evidence that not only justifies the belief in some form of afterlife, but also justifies the idea of a god being necessarily responsible? Rev. Muse offers his analogy of the seed. But this analogy is inapt. What does it mean that a "seed must die that new life might come"? And even if this is true in some unusual sense, it seems obvious that people are not plants, our "seeds" never die, and the metaphor speaks to reproduction, not to any personal resurrection--not even of the plant itself. This is a slender reed indeed upon which to lay any hope of human resurrection.

I must agree with Rev. Muse: "All reasonable men desire life and more of it, while at the same time death is clearly an enemy, bringing separation and destruction." But where does theism claim death came from? Given an omnipotent god, it could come only from that god. And what has theism done to defeat and ameliorate death? When will god's revelation provide us with a cure for cancer or for aging?

What about the future of terrestrial life? What does religion have to say about this? Buddhism offers nothing; Judaism offers nothing; Islam and Christianity offer only Armageddon; Hinduism offers an endless cycle of suffering at the hands of their gods. If we wish answers to the future of Earth and humanity, what advice does theism offers us besides the vague reassurance that, "Daddy will make it all right in the end"?


Rev. Muse claims that, "Atheism offers no real answer for the historical evidence concerning the religious nature of man." I will address the position of atheism and natural science on this point in Part II, but for now I wish to examine the position of theism. What answer does theism offer for the variety and lack of agreement among mankind’s religions? If a god were truly to exist, we would instead expect to see widespread agreement. All people, regardless of culture, agree on what is blue, what is one foot long, what weighs ten pounds--all of these are objectively true. Why do they then disagree so completely, violently and passionately about their religion? Sure, the theist might speculate and fantasize about an all-good, all-just, all-powerful god who completely misleads and fools its creation about such an important issue, but such speculation seems entirely implausible.

Ethics, Justice and Morality

Rev. Muse makes one good point: As Stalinism and Maoism show, atheism is no panacea when tyrannically imposed. I will explore this point more thoroughly in Part II of this debate when I discuss political secularism. In this part, though, I will ask Rev. Muse to address explicitly religious governments. Rev. Muse claims that, "When God is removed from government and society, it opens the door in varying degrees according to the situation to abuse of power, to oppression of the beliefs of others, and in some cases to brutality." But when God is explicitly part of government, the record is no better; oppression, intolerance and brutality appear, sadly, to be part of the human condition.

What does Rev. Muse have to say about the European Middle Ages, a thousand years of tyranny, ignorance, death and disease, ruled and directed by Christianity? What does Rev. Muse have to say about present-day Islam in the Middle East? If democracy is so theistic, why did it require a group of naturalistic deists, atheists and Unitarians to establish the first modern democracy in 18th Century America? Rev. Muse quotes Bourne's charges: "'Modern Atheism' is a mass phenomenon, and its stern tolerance means to rule over the whole future of mankind." Has not this been true of many, if not most, religions?

There are other issues with theistic politics. Why is revelation disallowed as testimony in court? Why does no body of religious writing give us in whole our modern legal system? What happened to the divine right of kings? Why must we bother with legislatures, elections, courts and trials? All of which we've had to work out for ourselves using natural reason with no consistent, explicit guidance from any deity.

I will discuss naturalistic morality in more depth in Part II. My question for this part is, where is this "transcendent authority"? Where is the "absolute truth"? Where are the laws that transcend time and experience"? Every sect of every religion seems to have a different idea about what constitutes the absolute truth from the transcendent deity. Slavery was condoned by good, sincere Christians up to the Civil War[2] and has extensive support in the Christian bible[3]. How can a transcendent authority providing the absolute truth about laws that transcend time and space get such a big issue as slavery so wrong for so long? And slavery is not the only issue; Theodore Drange offers a list of Christian laws that supposedly transcend time and experience.[4]:

We no longer execute people for having the wrong religion or for working on the Sabbath or for a few dozen other (at best) minor offenses. The Bible discriminates against women. We now believe in women's rights, children's rights, and animal rights, all of which are ideas totally foreign to the Bible. God is supposed to have ordered female virgins to be taken as war plunder (Num. 31:18-40) and to marry their attackers if they are seduced or raped (Exod. 22:16, Deut. 22:28-29). Such ideas are totally foreign to modern morality. Even the Sermon on the Mount presents us with impossible standards. Jesus tells us there to not resist evil, not defend ourselves against violence, and give away everything that anyone might ask of us (Matt. 5:38-42), but really if people were to follow such advice then they would not survive long in our world. Maybe among the extinct tribes of the world there are some who actually tried to live by the Sermon on the Mount. Anyway, our current conceptions of morality have very little to do with what is written in the Bible. I think that most people who advocate Biblical ethics are simply ignorant about the Bible and unaware of what that ethics amounts to.
Rev. Muse claims that, “Atheism provides no acceptable answer to the victim of one [who] suffers at the hands of an evil perpetrator who for all practical purposes seems 'to get away' with their crimes here on earth." But what comfort does theism give? Perhaps it might comfort the victims to fantasize that the perpetrators suffer eternal punishment, but even an atheist can fantasize. Such abstract comfort does nothing to restore their loved ones nor prevent a future disaster. And the comforting theist would of course not be so tasteless as to mention that, according to many theologies, the victims will be right there in hell next to the perpetrators, having adhered to the wrong religion, died in a state of sin, or just because God's grace had been arbitrarily withheld. And what about those who die of natural disasters? The victims are just as dead, the families are just as bereft, but who precisely is getting away with what?

Rev. Muse charges that "The atheist does not deal thoroughly either with the acknowledged experience and evidence of guilt." But Rev. Muse offers a perfectly reasonable naturalistic response: "It is enough to apologize and ask forgiveness from the person you have done wrong." It is indeed "simply on the basis that you determined (or both of you agreed) that it was wrong." One might speculate further, but why, and on what basis?

Rev. Muse asks if atheism has "an acceptable answer for why man acts against what his conscience tells him is wrong, or why man fails 'to do what he wants to do' but 'does what he hates.'" What evidence is there that people typically or usually act this way? It's been my experience that most people act in concert with their conscience, they do what they want, and they refrain from doing what they hate. It seems that it is, in the main, it is only theists who have such a struggle; and what more explanation is required than that the conflicted theist has needlessly adopted a moral code in conflict with his nature and reason?

Other Issues

I don't understand Etienne Borne's comment that atheism "cannot escape another most serious and most significant ambiguity." Bourne seems to confuse worship with desire. This comment is entirely opaque to me.

I also don't understand what Rev. Muse means when he claims that atheism "does not substantively and reasonably provide answers to the paradoxes in life." What paradoxes? In life, we usually find that the lowly are born lowly, live lowly and die lowly; the weak are exploited by the strong; when we give something away we don't have it any more; when we die, we die; we live by satisfying our self and our desires, and a person who possesses nothing has nothing.

Rev. Muse charges that atheism "chooses to deny the implications that... point to a future judgment." What implications are these?

Conclusion: Reasons for Adopting a Philosophy

Rev. Muse argues that, "Atheism as a belief system fails historically and socially to provide an incentive for embracing it." It must be admitted that historically and socially, theism has indeed found many adherents. Some incentives no doubt exist, but we are justified in considering the nature of these incentives. What does theism appeal to (when it has not been imposed by naked oppression and threat), if not only our fear and ignorance? Why does theism place its inducements, its promises and threats, beyond rational or sensible inquiry?

Before science, it is arguable that theism's supernatural promises had some value as comfort. But now that we have the means to alleviate suffering here and now, theism's anachronistic supernatural fairy tales only retard our progress. What are the reasons for embracing theism today? Today, we have science, technology, philosophies and political systems that seem to be improving the lot of mankind in this world. And these philosophies ignore, deny, marginalize, or give only lip service to revelation and supernaturalism; all of them are entirely compatible with atheism.

I charge that, although theism does attempt to answer the questions posed by Rev. Muse, Rev. Muse has not shown that these answers are reasonable, substantive or satisfactory. Absent such answers it is wise to turn to atheism and naturalistic philosophy if only from desperation.



[1] Stephen Hawking, "A Brief History of Time"

[2] Edward T. Babinski, "The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience"

[3] Skeptic’s Annotated Dictionary, "Slavery and the Bible"

[4] Theodore Drange, "Why Be Moral?"

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Great American God-Out

The Great American God-Out will be held on Saturday, November 15 at the Westfield shopping center in San Francisco. The featured speaker will be Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the The Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Catastrophe, atrocity and ideology

To what degree do the catastrophes and atrocities of the socialist/communist governments reflect on socialism and communism? A related question: to what degree do the catastrophes and atrocities of Islamic governments reflect on Islam? Yet another related question: Why do the catastrophes* and atrocities of capitalist/imperialist governments almost never reflect on capitalism? Yet another related question: Why do the the catastrophes and atrocities of science almost never reflect on science itself?

*It seems obvious that the massive urbanization of capitalist societies had a dramatic impact on the epidemiology of the Spanish Flu.

If some ideology, program or methodology — some some mode of thought — leads to severely bad results, should not those results be sufficient justification to abandon that mode of thought? Contrawise, if we are willing to preserve science and capitalism despite its catastrophes and atrocities, saying that they were not reflective of "true" capitalism and science, why then should we not preserve Islam and accept the excuse that the catastrophes and atrocities were not reflective of "true" Islam? And how does this distinction reflect on socialism?

It's simply insufficient to say, "If X leads to bad results, then X is bad." If we believed that, we would believe nothing else: every organized mode of thought, even Buddhism, has led to bad results. We must always — even in the case of Islam and Christianity — look deeper to understand and eliminate the actual cause of bad results. We must look deeper even into Islam and Christianity before dismissing them.

The key question to ask is: what is the core of the ideology, and what is the connection between the core ideology and the bad results? These are nontrivial questions.

In the case of Christianity and Islam, we can find the core ideology — or at least part of it — in its scriptures. Without some authority given in some sense to the Bible and the Koran you simply do not have Christianity or Islam at all. You cannot simply throw the Koran in the trash and honestly call yourself a Muslim; you cannot relegate the Bible to a work of entirely human literature and honestly call yourself a Christian.

If the scripture is part of the core ideology of a religion, then its canonical exegesis — its "interpretive schema" — must form the rest of the ideology. The interpretation must be canonical, endorsed by some authoritative body, to rise even to the level of ideology. Were there no canonical interpretation at all, then I — a dedicated "militant" atheist — could "honestly" call myself a Muslim: I certainly agree that the Koran exists, and if my interpretation is just as good as anyone else's then I'm just as good a Muslim as anyone else.

There's another problem too, a big problem, with religious scriptures. The plain meaning of the text is, in too many places, simply incompatible with humanistic ethics, ethics which place at the most foundational level the emotional and material well-being of human beings. The religious believer has a trilemma: abandon the authority of scripture, abandon the authority of humanism, or somehow interpret the anti-humanistic elements of scripture in a humanistic way. The first option leads to atheism; the second to "Phelpsism"; the third is simply schizophrenic, preserving humanism at the expense of rationality. And the third way is always incomplete. If you interpreted all the scripture humanistically you would just be, for all practical purposes, an atheist; why have a scripture at all if humanism is universally dominant? But the temptation to interpret scripture to justify one's prejudices is very strong: the inherent function of scripture is to justify ethical principles that cannot be justified humanistically.

So we see that fundamentally atrocities of religion cannot be divorced from the core ideology of the religion. Therefore we must conclude that the core ideology of religion is a sufficient causal reason for its atrocities, and rationally deserves the blame.

The core ideology of science is the scientific method. The scientific method is purely epistemic; it has almost no ethical content. Regardless of ethics, it is still true that if you compress a couple of kilograms of plutonium with some high explosives, you get a hell of a big bang. The only ethical content of the scientific method relates to our ethical beliefs about truth itself. Science tells us what the choices are, not — at a fundamental level — how to choose between them.

So in this sense, the core ideology of science is fundamentally good: To make choices, it is necessary and good to rationally apprehend the nature of the choices, good and bad. The core ideology of science can be divorced in an important sense from the atrocities of some scientists.

How about capitalism? It is clear that many (but not all) of the atrocities of capitalism, including imperialist world wars and wars of aggression, recessions and depressions, systemic poverty and hyper-exploitation stem directly from the notion of private property, especially absentee ownership. You simply cannot remove the atrocities without somehow compromising the notion of private property as an essential ethical principle, and you cannot have capitalism without private property any more than you can have Christianity without Jesus or Islam without Muhammad. Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but at least she's absolutely honest about this point: no atrocity, no catastrophe — not even the fall of civilization and the death of millions — justifies the least interference with private property. She was as vocal and dedicated an opponent of Keynesian liberalism as she was of totalitarian fascism, in just the same sense that one can and should be a vocal and dedicated opponent of the murder of one person as the murder of millions. And, of course, in just the same sense that if the Bible really is the word of God, one should be a vocal and dedicated opponent of throwing away (or interpreting away) a single verse as of throwing away the whole book.

What about socialism?

The problem with socialism (and communism) is that socialism has no core ideology. There is simply no widespread agreement over even a single point among self-identified socialists... especially if one counts the government of China, which still self-identifies as socialist*. There is no authoritative body whatsoever that specifies a canon of literature or a canonical interpretation. The word "socialism" — without additional qualification — actually means nothing at all. (Or almost nothing. If I tell you I'm a socialist, I've at least told you that I'm definitely not a Randian, that I do not consider private property an absolute, essential ethical principle. But even capitalists don't hold private property as absolutely inviolate. And I can more easily tell you that I'm not a Randian by saying that I'm not an idiot and a complete asshole.)

We simply cannot address socialism or communism as a category, good, bad or indifferent. We have to address individual expressions of socialism individually. If we want to understand the Soviet Union or Maoist China, we have to look at the Soviet Union and Maoist China. When we have learned all we can from them, we find we have learned about the Soviet Union's socialism and Maoist China's socialism (and sometimes just the Soviet Union and Maoist China), not socialism in general.

One persistent habit of scientists is that any general field of study is never named after an individual. It's evolutionary biology, not Darwinism; relativity, not Einsteinianism; electromagnetism, not Maxwellianism; quantum mechanics, not Heisenbergism or Schroedingerism. To name a field of study after person is to elevate their writings, if not to scripture, then to a core ideology, tying yourself to their errors and omissions as well as their insights. (The reference to specifically Newtonian mechanics is a reference to Newton's limitations, to make clear one is using a simplification and approximation of real (relativistic) physics.)

It's notable that the most pseudoscientific of the "scientific" disciplines, Freudianism, is indeed named after its founder. And don't even get me started on fucking academic philosophy, which is lousy with personalization.

For this reason, I have never and will never self-identify as a Marxist or Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. There is no doubt that Marx, Lenin, and Mao had profound insights, learned important lessons and explicated important ideas. If one believes that a revolution is necessary to overcome the evils inherent in capitalist/imperialist ideology, then it is foolish to ignore the only two people who have led successful revolutions against imperialist capitalism and attempted to actually implement a non-capitalist society. But on the other hand, I'm unwilling to allow even the writings of Marx himself to form my "core ideology"; to do so would be to tie myself to his failures as well as his successes. For the same reason, I will never join a group that explicitly calls itself Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, even if they are actually critical of Marx's, Lenin's and Mao's thought. For the same reason, if you want me take seriously what you have to say about psychology and psychoanalysis, you can't call yourself a Freudian.

I call myself a communist and socialist for the same reason (and with the same vagueness) that I call myself an atheist. Which is to say, I'm saying nothing except that I'm not religious, and I do not consider capitalism — even Keynesian regulated/stimulus capitalism — the bee's knees. Beyond that, if you want to find out what I do believe, you'll have to read what I personally have to say.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Reddit & Digg

Please don't submit my posts to reddit, digg, and those sorts of sites, nor to various carnivals. I'm simply not interested in submitting my work to the judgment of intellectually lazy morons.

Adding my posts to your shared items, linking to me, or responding to my posts, even critically, is fine. I'm happy with individual judgments, good or bad.

But the search for truth is not well served by voting down ideas you disagree with... or even voting up ideas you agree with.

Update: Oh! the irony! I'm getting a ton of hits from this post from twitter and friendfeed, whatever the fuck those are.

Update 2: Yes, I'm a snob. If that's a problem for you, go read lolcats.

Update 3: Seriously, if you're coming here from the socialism reddit, I'm just not interested.

Corporatism and hierarchy

db0 draws a comparison between corporatism and Stalinism. I think he's mistaken on a number of points.

First of all, there's a lot of confusion, even within the socialist/communist world, between the economic foundation of a society and its political superstructure. Even Marx acknowledged that these two components of a society have a large degree of independence from each other. While some economic foundations might be incompatible with some political superstructures, it is equally the case that a particular economic foundation does not entail one particular superstructure.

People concentrate too much, I think, on the details of the formal structures of organizations. But the key question, in my opinion, is the underlying balance of power, and how well the structure is suited to and maintains that balance of power.

db0 observes that corporations, like Stalinist communism, are top-down and hierarchical. However, merely having a hierarchical organization does not necessarily mean that those at the top of the hierarchy have all the power and those at the bottom have none. (Of course, such an imbalance is, however, possible.)

In a capitalist corporation, those at the bottom have — or can have — the power to quit, the power to strike, and the power to slack. Those at the top need not only the worker's work but also their more-or-less willing cooperation: a cooperative worker produces more surplus value than one mindlessly obeying out of fear of starvation.

When you have proper unionization and the effective freedom to quit (both of which have been effectively realized in practice), the power of the workers balances the power of management to the benefit of both. The problem with capitalism is not that it employs hierarchical management, but rather that it tends to destabilize this balance of power, especially when the economy is static or contracting.

Those interested in socialist political systems must focus on restoring the balance of power between competing interests that is being systematically eroded by capitalists — and there is little evidence that President-elect Obama intends to restore that balance — and take steps to preserve that balance. Preserve the balance; the fine details of decision making will evolve on their own.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Proposition 8 and gay rights

The people of California have denied gay people a right we afford to convicted mass murderers. Even Charles Manson can marry. There is absolutely no reason to deny gay people the freedom to marry except to punish them.

If you support Proposition 8, but you do not support the imprisonment of gay people, you are worse than a bigot, you're a hypocrite. If you think gay people are bad and should be removed from society, then have the courage and honesty to say so publicly.

But not here. I'm just not interested. If you want to call for gay people to be imprisoned, exiled or murdered; if you want to try to weasel your way out of your contemptible hypocrisy; get your own damn blog.

Proposition 8 and universal human rights

Let's say that there's a controversy over whether people should be required to eat Brussels sprouts or whether they should be prohibited from eating Brussels sprouts. (I know it's a false dichotomy, but run with me here.) Obviously, we'd have a big fight on our hands. People (such as myself) who find Brussels sprouts disgusting would strongly resist any attempt to force us to eat the damn things. Likewise, those who (inexplicably) find them delicious would strongly resist any attempt to force them to go without Brussels sprouts.

Sometimes, there are issues we just have to fight about. Should, for example, husbands be permitted to rape their wives? It is only recently that the law has answered this question in the negative. There are some who disagree, and we fight them: we put them in jail if they disobey, and any philosophical argument they might raise in their defense to justify their behavior is simply irrelevant.

If we look at the Brussels sprouts issue, we realize that the same issue applied to every kind of food: spinach, broccoli, ice cream (which a lot of people find vile), and on and on. If we simply let the majority rule on each individual food item, we find that the majority of people (indeed almost everyone) will be denied one food or another, with no compensation. Majority rule leads in this case to majority dissatisfaction. We must look at this issue more deeply.

(We don't have to find that majority rule leads to majority dissatisfaction to look more deeply; just the fact of a strong, deep controversy is sufficient grounds to look. But that there are occasions where majority rule leads to majority dissatisfaction justifies looking more deeply in general in powerful way.)

One way of looking at an ethical issue more deeply is to ask a more general, abstract question: how do we feel about food in general, without naming the specific foods? Can we come to a broad, relatively non-controversial agreement on general principles, and apply them in such a way that the majority is satisfied? And of course we can: we eat what we like; we are prohibited from eating (or more precisely selling) only food that will kill us quickly.

The same analysis also applies to speech.

Let me be frank: I wish the Nazis, the racists, Fred Phelps, etc. ad nauseam would just shut the fuck up, and if they did, I would be unabashedly happy. If you asked me the question in isolation — Should we force these assholes to remain silent? — I'd probably say yes.

But of course everyone has some sort of minority opinion, so answering each question of speech in the particular would lead to most everyone forced to be silent about something. (There are, as John Stuart Mill explained, additional arguments against silencing minority opinions.) So we have to ask the general question: What in general should people be permitted or prohibited from speaking? And the answer we've come up with is to permit everything except provable libel, slander, incitement to riot, treason and conspiracy.

We can ask an even more general question: what activities should be tolerated in general for everyone. More specifically, what comprises the set of universal human rights?

What California Proposition 8 has done is remove the right to marry from the set of universal human rights. It is now acceptable for the government to arbitrarily determine, subject only to the will of the majority, who may marry and who may not. And far from "protecting" marriage, they have made marriage more vulnerable.

I am married. I'm in an interracial, atheist, intentionally childless marriage. All of those are minority positions. Now that Proposition 8 has passed, now that marriage is not a universal human right, it is legitimate for the government or the majority of people to deny me the freedom to marry on the basis of any of those factors. Traditionally people marry others of their own race: I did not. Traditionally people are married by a member of the clergy: I was not. Traditionally people are married to provide for their children: My wife and I will not have children (indeed we cannot; I've had a vasectomy). (And traditionally people marry others of approximately the same age: My wife is 20 years younger than me.)

Traditionally Americans are married in a Christian church. Those who are not Christians do not. Traditionally Americans are married in a Protestant Christian church. Those who are not Protestant Christians do not. Traditionally people marry someone from their local community. Traditionally people marry someone of the same religious faith. Traditionally people marry someone at about the same level of physical attractiveness. Traditionally people marry in their 20s.

Since we have now set a precedent of answering the question of who should marry in the particular, that the majority has a right to judge this question at the specific level, everyone whose marriage is non-traditional in any way could lose their right to marry by the arbitrary will of the majority.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Oh! the irony!

But two fundamental conservative stands [Sarah Palin] took mattered greatly to me: She vigorously defended the Second Amendment and the sanctity of life more eloquently in practice than any of the educated conservative aristocracy.

Michelle Malkin

[h/t to Michael Bérubé]

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Comments are working

Apparently, Google is finding it difficult to embed the comment form on the post itself. I've switched back to the old style of comments on a new page. Comments should be working now.

Reform, subversion and revolution, part 1

The $64 question: Reform, subversion or revolution? The answer: yes.

Even the most hard-core no-compromises revolutionary must admit that even the most dramatic revolution in state power will still inherit both the physical means of production as well as the psychological, social/sociological and political superstructure of a capitalist state. Capitalism has been shaping people's values and ethics for hundreds of years, and ruling class/working class politics have been doing so for thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of years. Not even the most brutal ideological repression can erase this millennial influence in a generation.

For this reason, every communist thinker and statesman, from Lenin to Mao, understands that a transition from capitalism to communism (i.e. the liberation of all humanity from all forms of exploitation and oppression) requires a transitional period of socialism. And socialism is differentiated from communism precisely in that socialism includes some capitalist features, including class distinctions (you can't have a dictatorship of the proletariat without having a proletariat distinct from the bourgeois), private property and private enterprise, money, and differences in standards of living. Even Marx said that, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," is the goal of communism, not the strategy of achieving it.

Measured against the ideal of real communism, any practically possible revolution must be incomplete, and therefore in an important sense will be a reform.

In addition, both reformism (and economism) and subversion can be used to to good effect as strategies and tactics for creating a revolution. I'll talk about this aspect in a future post.


I want to congratulate Barack Obama on his victory, and congratulate the American people on electing a black man as president of the United States, and dealing the forces of evil Republican party a substantial setback. These are both Good Things.

Tomorrow we can get down to the messy business of criticizing our new president and Democratic party rule, but for today, I'm just happy.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The "tragedy" of the commons

The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons:
The author of “The Tragedy of the Commons” was Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor who until then was best known as the author of a biology textbook that argued for “control of breeding” of “genetically defective” people (Hardin 1966: 707). In his 1968 essay he argued that communities that share resources inevitably pave the way for their own destruction; instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none. ...

Given the subsequent influence of Hardin’s essay, it’s shocking to realise that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the “tragedy” was inevitable — but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.
Author Ian Angus responds to criticism of the essay.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Socialism and free software

Why Socialists must learn from the Free Software movement:
So how can socialism use a similar method? How about working within Capitalism? Here’s a rough idea...

Say it ain't so

Say It Ain’t So, Capitalism?:
“This is nothing like Socialism at all”, Hudson proclaimed against the charges thrown at the bailout. “When you give away money to the wealthiest class, this is old fashion Kleptocracy and it’s a step back toward Feudalism. It is not a step toward Socialism at all.”

[h/t to db0]

Socialism is not enough

Socialism, the idea that the government should control property, especially absentee ownership, is a critical step on the road to communism, a step that cannot be omitted. On the one hand, just about any form of socialism, even regulatory capitalism, would represent a drastic improvement over the present dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism and imperialism that reached its apotheosis in the Bush administration. On the other hand, to a communist, any old form of socialism is not good enough.

There are two ways socialism can go wrong. The first, as we have seen in the US, is the too-weak socialism of regulatory capitalism. While Roosevelt and Johnson did improve the general welfare of a lot of the people, and broadened incredibly access to surplus value relative to the narrow concentration of wealth in laissez faire capitalism, this too-weak socialism leaves capitalists too much power to propagandize and brainwash the masses of people and destroy what little protection they have won by political means, and even convince them to actively support not just laissez faire capitalism but even blatant kleptocracy. As Göring noted,
... it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. ...voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

The other insufficient kind of socialism is one that does not intentionally perpetuate class struggle. The most important lesson we have learned from both the Soviet Union and China is that socialism, while an important advance over communism, sets up a new ruling class. Socialism does not by itself end class struggle, it changes the class struggle.

It is possible to do worse than capitalism, and it is possible to do worse than capitalism while still maintaining the form and appearance of socialism. It is possible to reestablish feudalism under a nominally socialist society. Feudalism was, after all, in history the control of property by the government: it was explicitly the government of people who owned land, the critical property of that time.

I think this insistence on the right kind of socialism, as well as considerable disagreement on precisely what kind of socialism is truly the right kind, causes some friction between communists and socialists. "If socialism is better than capitalism," argue the socialists, "so shouldn't we get whatever socialism we can?" But socialism isn't necessarily better; some forms of socialism — not just governments such as National "Socialism" that just call themselves socialist — are worse than capitalism.

Even Marx has praise for capitalism. The establishment of "bourgeois right" under capitalism was an important innovation: it gave the bourgeois the power to struggle against feudal aristocracy by economic, political and ideological means rather than exclusively by violent, military means. And the need to first establish economic power independently of the political government (i.e. the proximate commanders of the army and the police) persisted even after the bourgeois won their class struggle, with at least some real separation between government coercion and economic activity. It's interesting to note that no capitalist country has ever created an explicit, direct plutocracy; even under the dictatorship of the bourgeois, the bourgeois still must act indirectly through propaganda and bribes campaign contributions to acquire popular legitimate control over the coercive apparatus of the state. Many capitalist countries — and all of the "advanced" capitalist countries of the West — have resisted for an amazingly long time even too-blatant indirect plutocracy.

This indirection, this institutionalization of political struggle and an external check on government power is one of the best innovations of capitalism and the bourgeois, and must, I think, be preserved and equally institutionalized in a socialist state even as the role of the private bourgeois as the primary opponent is eliminated.


Not my term, but that of Sequoia Capital, a premier venture capitalist company with perspicacious and prescient management, free of illusions.

Inside Details of Sequoia Capital’s Doomsday Meeting With its Companies

They are predicting a fifteen year recession... In other words a depression, one that will rival the Great Depression and the economic turmoil of the 19th century.

One of the key components of this depression? Significant excess productive capacity. We are too wealthy, therefore the capitalist class must impoverish us all until they can make it profitable for them to put ordinary people to work.

There are no physical factors that are causing us to be impoverished. We haven't lost people. We haven't lost productive capabilities; indeed according to the capitalists themselves we have "too much" productive capability, thus driving prices down below profitability.

This depression is a failure only of imagination and will; there is no physical reason we cannot simply think our way out of it.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


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

Credit is one of the most mysterious and yet fundamentally essential features of capitalism. It is fair to say that without credit you don't have capitalism, and that if you do have capitalism you must have credit. Credit is possible only when a society constructs the notion of ownership of money, and credit is the only way that an owner of money can derive value from his ownership.

Credit is not, in a global sense, "living beyond one's means" or "borrowing from the future." In a global sense, these ideas are not physically possible: one cannot consume in the present commodities that will be created in the future.

To understand how credit works in a capitalist system, we can use to good effect the invention of the plow in our toy model of Village Economics.

To recap: Under normal conditions, the socially necessary time to produce "life support", represented for simplicity as pounds of food, is one hour of labor for one pound of food. When we invent the plow, we can reduce the socially necessary time to produce a pound of food to 0.9 hours; the plow reduces the cost of food, therefore the plow has objective* measurable value (use-value). A plow also has its own cost: The socially necessary time to produce a plow is 90 hours, plus a one-time "start-up" cost of 10,000 hours.

*To be precise, an objective relationship to the subjective value of food.

The start-up cost forms the underlying justification for credit. The family learning how to make plows must be fed for a few years before they actually produce anything of value, so other families must produce that food and give it to our plow-makers. Furthermore, if only one family learns to make plows it will be about 900 days (about three years) before everyone has their first plow, so the introduction of the plow will initially create more inequality.

Credit is not physically necessary to fund the start-up costs and smooth out the inequalities of supplying the whole village with plows. Since there's slack in food productivity, the village can raise its average production by a little over 1%. Those who initially receive the first plows can distribute a portion of the extra productivity either to those families still awaiting plows, or can fund additional families to make plows to distribute the production. Since everyone benefits, there is no fundamental reason why the start-up costs need to be paid back. Everyone contributes to the start-up costs, and everyone is repaid by by getting actual plows.

When you add credit to the equation, though, and the ownership of credit, the situation changes dramatically. Credit is a symbolic representation of surplus value: It represents the actuality of more commodities than are required for equilibrium, or the ability to produce those surplus commodities.

In our village, we can assume that there's a normal distribution of productivity: Some families can produce more food per hour than others. So some families will work 11 hours per day (the maximum sustainable) to produce 9 pounds of food per day (the minimum sustainable); others might work 9 hours per day to produce 11 pounds of food. Even though there's a difference in productivity, and there are local surpluses, credit is still irrelevant. Those with surpluses have nothing they want from those without surpluses, and those without surpluses have nothing to give in exchange for others' surpluses.

But the invention of the plow changes the dynamic. Not everyone can raise their production even 1%: Those at the absolute limit of productivity don't have even 1% slack. If we make the uniform percentage 2%, there will be those who can raise their productivity only 1%. There is no single percentage that can be uniformly applied to all families, even all families that have some surplus productive ability. So we have to implement a progressive "tax" to finance the plow.

"But wait!" the half-dozen most productive families say, "We'll pay all the start-up costs, if you'll promise pay us back later for those costs. And not only can you pay us back later, we'll let you pay us only a portion of the extra production you'll get from the plow. It's a win-win situation all around: you don't have to work extra for three years, it's easy for us to increase our production 10% (and very hard for those at the lower end to increase production 1%). You'll be getting plows for free."

So the most productive finance the start-up costs, and sell plows for more than their socially necessary labor time to make up for the start-up costs. If these nascent capitalists are honest, fair people, concerned with good of their fellow villagers, they will ask only that the actual start-up costs be paid back; once they're paid back, acquisition of plows can be put on a direct equivalent basis (i.e. the farmer pays the plow maker as much food as he can produce (using a plow) in the same amount of time the plow maker takes to make a plow.)

But there's a hidden danger in this supposedly win-win deal: It requires promises, and for a statement to be a promise it must be coercively enforced. It makes no sense to just hand someone a plow if you can't make them give you even the actual cost of the plow, much less make them pay the start-up costs. It's not that everyone would refuse to pay, most people are honest, but it's entirely plausible that one person might refuse to pay... and it took real resources to make that plow, resources that everyone else then has to pay for, violating our intuitive moral sense of fairness.

Once you have this coercive structure in place, there are now a range of rational prices for a plow: from ~10 pounds of food, the minimum of the socially necessary time (including start-up costs amortized over the plow-maker's productive lifetime) to ~810 pounds of food, the the total surplus value a plow will produce. It's rational to demand any price within that range; it's rational to pay it; any price in that range is mutually beneficial.

It's not only possible but highly desirable for about a half dozen of these nascent capitalist families to do no additional work whatsoever and do so in perpetuity. By raising the productivity of the rest of the village by 10%, they can take 9% (or 9.5% or 9.9999%) of that surplus forever and still leave everyone else something more than they had before.

But this arrangement is possible only with a coercive apparatus. Once the start-up costs have been paid for (much less paid back), there's simply no incentive to continue supporting these non-working families.