Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Gary Gutting responds to shaunphilly's query, saying,
Of course, you can use the terms the way you think best. But your way of putting things ignores two importantly different ways of not believing that God exists. You might not believe in the sense that you withhold judgment as to whether God exists OR in the sense that you believe that God does not exist. In ordinary usage, the first sense of not believing in God is called “agnosticism” and the second is called “atheism”. It seems to me that this is a useful distinction, and I don’t see what you gain by eliminating it.
But I think Gutting himself is erasing a distinction between two or three different kinds of agnosticism.

Atheism is primarily a social and political term. Millions of people who are not professional philosophers or theologians, who don't care what distinctions philosophers and theologians care to make, self-identify as atheists primarily because they're convinced that all these priests, bishops, popes, rabbis, imams, gurus, and other assorted spokesmodels for God are completely full of shit, and they aren't afraid of saying so. But that's beside the point.

The point is that philosophically aware atheists, do not, as Gutting asserts, want to erase the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. Rather, they want to draw the distinction between not knowing because we haven't yet looked and "not knowing" because the proposition is not knowable.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins distinguishes between Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP) and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). Under TAP, the speaker believes that the information to answer the question is available; she just doesn't actually have it. For example, there might or might not be life on Europa or Titan. I believe that it's a question we could answer, the information is "out there", but we don't yet actually have the information to draw a firm conclusion. Under PAP, the information to decide one way or another is just not logically possible to have. There is no way of knowing one way or another, for example, whether or not there's a ninja hiding in my bedroom. (This principle is purely epistemic. The ontological status of the assertion is not really relevant: there's nothing ontologically exceptional about a ninja hiding in my bedroom.)

(There's also the sense of "agnosticism" as not making specifically a priori assumptions about some proposition, either because one checks a posteriori or because the proposition is irrelevant. Notepad (the simple text editor that comes with Windows) is agnostic about ASCII and Unicode: it will check and try to determine the encoding of a file. A program that does a binary comparison of two files is also agnostic about ASCII and Unicode; in this case, the encoding is irrelevant.)

There's asymmetric agnosticism: where we could in principle know only the truth of some proposition, but we cannot in principle know its falsity (or it would be many orders of magnitude more difficult to know the falsity or the truth). If a ninja stepped out of the closet and said, "Hello!" I could easily know it's true that there's a ninja in my bedroom, but I cannot ever know it's false; the ninja might be hiding.

It's important to draw this distinction between kinds of agnosticism because it's a routine apologetic strategy to draw the distinction between atheism and (some form of) agnosticism and then equivocate between the different forms of agnosticism: since you're an agnostic, maybe you should actually look before you draw a conclusion. Anyone who's following my The Stupid! It Burns! series will see examples of this kind of thinking. Indeed, by chance the most recent example shows this thinking: "Absolute knowlege [sic] is required to make such a claim that 'God does not exist'."

It is, I think, subtly but deeply misleading to say that one does not know the truth of a proposition that one cannot know. To say that one does not know implies to the ordinary human mind that one might know. At a more philosophical level, it's been asserted by actual canonical philosophers (e.g. William James' "Leap of Faith") that one is actually in a sense justified in having any position on a proposition one cannot know.

But this attitude leads to a severe problem when the proposition in question is about the real world. We intuitively believe that propositions about the world are inherently truth-apt: all (definite and fully-qualified) statements about the world are either true or false. If one is actually justified in believing both the truth and falsity of a truth-apt proposition, then we have a logical contradiction. If I'm justified in believing that "God exists" (for an unknowable God), a statement about the real world, then in a sense "God exists" is true; if I'm equally justified in believing "God does not exist", then "God exists" is false. The only way out is to hold that both statements are actually meaningless, albeit "meaningless" in a more abstract sense than "goo goo ga ga". And why should we require atheists to have any position on a meaningless proposition? When the theist defines God as unknowable, he has not challenged the atheist's position, he has merely lapsed into incoherent babble.

Why should a professional philosopher — in a profession that claims to be about clarity and precision of thought — endorse incoherent babble?

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (non-existent edition)

the stupid! it burns! Proof Atheists Don't Exist
To make a claim like atheism is to claim that "God does not exist". This is the classic dictionary definition of atheism but to make that claim relies on one premise that no human can possibly overcome. Absolute knowlege is required to make such a claim that "God does not exist". How can any human being have enough knowledge to make such a claim. It is impossible for any human to possess all the knowledge that exists inside the universe.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (omniscient edition)

the stupid! it burns! Christian Arguments Against Atheism:
The atheistic worldview presupposes the non-existence of any gods. ...

Strong atheism is complete denial of the existence of deity in any form... To date, there has been zero conclusive scientific or philosophical arguments that disprove the existence of divinity. One who professes to be a strong atheist must then prove that he or she is omniscient (all knowing).

Here is the contradiction. A strong atheist must deny divinity by attributing man with divine abilities.
For the record, there are two ways of looking at strong atheism. The first is just a statement of opinion: The strong atheist has the opinion that no gods exist; what supports or justifies this opinion is stated separately, and in individual cases might not be sound.

The more philosophically aware strong atheist says that she concludes from the facts in evidence that no meaningful, relevant notion of god she's ever heard about actually exists. If additional facts were to be discovered or a substantially new conception of theism were proffered, the conclusion would have to be re-evaluated.

Why a labor theory of value?

A reader asks a number of good questions about a labor theory of value:
What good is an idealization? It seems to me that an idealization may serve two purposes: either it provides by itself a good enough approximation to reality for certain problems, or it can be easily combined with other idealizations to yield a useful picture of the world.
Indeed. all theories in economics are, to some extent, idealizations. And no economic theory is all that good at predicting reality, at least not nearly as good as theories in the physical sciences.

One method I've brought from my study of the physical sciences is to be extremely conscious of your units of measure. Not only do you want to be rigorously consistent about your units, you want to know what your units mean. The meaning of a unit has two components: the operational definition: how precisely do you measure things in that unit, and the physical definition: what actually existing physical property of the object being measured corresponds to that unit. There are cases where scientists operate with units and quantities that aren't physical (such as with the ideal gas law), but by and large it's Very Important to assign a physical meaning to your units of measure.

Most of economics use some currency as the direct unit of measure. But currency by itself does not have any sort of physical referent. Indeed, because currency defines a relationship between quantities that (presumably) have the same underlying units of measure, a quantity qualified by currency is a dimensionless quantity: it has no units of measure. Dimensionless quantities are important in and of themselves, but it's also important to be able to talk about real physical things using real physical units of measure.

A labor theory of value gets us at least closer to thinking about economics using units of measure that directly reference a physical quantity: human time and effort. It doesn't get us all the way there, because of the "abstract" (subjective) and "socially necessary" (statistical) components of the definition. And a labor theory of value seems at least intuitively better than referencing the prices of specific commodities to tie prices to objective physical reality.

As far as understanding market prices is concerned, the labour theory of value does neither, since there is no theory of 'frictions' that can be added on to the theory to make it more realistic.
Not all economists endorse the methodology of adding "frictions" to an ideal model to generate a predictive model.

But I'm not at all convinced that one can't add "frictions" to a labor theory of value. I haven't studied enough economics to offer a rigorous mathematical rebuttal, but in general replacing perfect rationality with an evolutionary model using uncorrelated heritable variation and natural selection seems to have considerable potential, giving us a mechanism that might result over time the equilibrium that perfectly rational people would figure out instantaneously.

To my mind the debate on the transformation problem shows that there is no meaningful connection between labour values and prices.
I'm not yet convinced* that the transformation problem is (a) unsolved, (b) important at all or (c) a problem specifically for a labor theory of value. Marx seems to consider the transformation problem to make very specific predictions about capitalism; he does not seem to treat it directly as a way of connecting the LTV to observed prices in general. It's also worth noting that according to the Wikipedia article cited by the commenter, the transformation problem assumes that the use of capital requires not just compensation for its creation, but a continuing rate of return. This assumption might constitute an externality, which would require a specific kind of mathematical treatment. As I noted earlier, my understanding of mathematical economics is not yet sufficiently sophisticated to address the problem more rigorously.

When I use this particular phrase, it should be noted that I'm equally unconvinced of the opposite; I'm truly agnostic.

On the other hand the standard micro discussion of prices (or Sraffa's prices of production for those so inclines) is no more complex than the labour theory of value and much more convincing empirically.
It would be nice to have a link to an authoritative description of these models; a superficial search of Wikipedia doesn't yield anything particularly illuminating.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (No True Scotsman edition)

the stupid! it burns! More teens becoming 'fake' Christians
If you're the parent of a Christian teenager, Kenda Creasy Dean has this warning:

Your child is following a "mutant" form of Christianity, and you may be responsible.

Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls "moralistic therapeutic deism." Translation: It's a watered-down faith that portrays God as a "divine therapist" whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem.

From each according to his ability

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

— Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Chapter I

Notes on a labor theory of value

I very strongly suspect that I can further qualify the ideal form of the labor theory of value. In my earlier essay, I talked about the "absence of 'complicating factors.'" I think this restriction can be more precisely stated as under conditions of perfect competition without externalities.

Of course, no market is perfectly competitive. One important advantage, I think, of a labor theory of value is that the theory "degrades gracefully"; it still remains approximately true when the conditions of perfect competition are relaxed.

I can think of three ways to empirically confirm a labor theory of value. One is to observe a general positive correlation between nominal price and total raw labor time (i.e. ignoring the "abstract" and "socially necessary" components of the labor theory of value, but including all raw labor time included in capital creation and training/education). Another is to control for other factors, and look for a very close correlation between total raw labor time and price. Yet another is to control for total raw labor time, and look for other factors (subjective labor undesirability, regulation, externalities, etc.) to "pop out" of the data.

What is economic efficiency?

In general, efficiency is a ratio: output divided by input. The efficiency of a gasoline engine, for example, is the mechanical energy produced at the drive shaft (in joules) divided by the energy contained in the gasoline burned (also in joules). Because engines are lossy, the ratio will be less than one. Another way to measure efficiency is miles driven (output) divided by gallons of gasoline (input).

There are two ways of looking at economic efficiency. The efficiency of a capitalist company is usually the revenue divided by the total costs (excluding dividends and reinvestment). A company that operates with an efficiency greater than one is profitable. (If we include dividends (the cost of capital) and reinvestment, then this measure of efficiency can never be greater than one.) So a company can be more efficient, i.e. more profitable, if it can get more revenue for the same costs, or lower the cost to receive the same amount of revenue. The advantage of this conception of efficiency is that (the complexities of accountancy notwithstanding) it's relatively easy to measure. Since both the numerator and denominator are measured in nominal dollars, I'll call this the nominal efficiency.

Another way of looking at economic efficiency is use-value produced divided abstract labor time. This measure has intuitive appeal because it directly states what we think we should really be doing economically: using human time and effort to make our lives better. This sense of efficiency is enormously difficult to measure directly. Use-value is completely subjective, and abstract labor time itself has subjective components. One of the chief tasks of economists (and one reason economics is so difficult) is trying to extract some rational sense of this measure of efficiency from the raw data. The difficulties notwithstanding, we have an intuitive sense that improving this sense of efficiency is what we're really trying to do, so I'll call it the real efficiency.

One of the big problems with nominal efficiency is that there are two different methods of lowering costs: using less abstract labor time, or by paying the workers less for the same amount of work. The first method, while it sometimes causes local problems for displaced workers, raises the real efficiency of the economy (assuming the company produces the same amount of use-value).

The second method — paying workers less — actually reduces real efficiency. Similarly, paying workers more increases real efficiency while reducing nominal efficiency. (And, similarly, raising and lowering revenue has opposite effects on nominal and real efficiency.) The reason for the opposite effect is the falling marginal value of consumption.

Economists often make a simplifying assumption at the macroeconomic level that all dollars are equal: one dollar buys the same amount of use-value regardless of who spends it. But at the microeconomic level, the concept of the falling marginal value of consumption is well-understood. Margin in economics simply means "the effect of one more". If I already have nine widgets, then there is some value — the marginal value — specifically attached to obtaining the tenth. The marginal value of the tenth widget is different from the marginal value of the ninth; all my widgets are not alike. If Donald McCapitalist buys a hat-making machine for $1,000,000.00, and it takes one minute of abstract labor time (paid at $12/hour) to operate the machine to make one hat, then the marginal cost of the first hat (the difference between one hat and zero hats) is $1,000,000.20 and the marginal cost of the second hat is $0.20.

To understand the falling marginal value of consumption, imagine that you walk into a fast food joint around lunchtime on Monday. You're hungry, so you buy a hamburger for $1 and you eat (consume) it; you're no longer as hungry as when you walked in. You have just obtained use-value: you're less hungry and you had the pleasure of eating a burger. The marginal use-value of consuming the first hamburger is rather high, and the cost is $1, or 5 minutes of labor if you're the guy making hats. You're still a little hungry, so you buy and eat another hamburger. You weren't quite as hungry as you were a minute ago, so the value of relieving your hunger is a little lower. You also just had a hamburger, so we can imagine that the pleasure of eating another hamburger is also reduced. After two hamburgers, you're not hungry, but you're not really full, so you buy a third. There's really no point to eating a fourth, and after a fifth you're in Mr. Creosote territory. The more hamburgers you eat (in a short period of time), the smaller the pleasure you derive from eating the next one: the marginal value of consumption is falling.

The real efficiency of eating the hamburger is the output (the use-value) divided by the input (cost). It's hard to assign an actual number to the use-value, but we can order the marginal use-values: the use-value of the second hamburger is definitely less than that of the first, and the third is less than the second. Since the cost ($1 or 5 minutes of labor) remains the same, so the marginal efficiency of buying and eating each hamburger likewise falls.

You walk into work on Tuesday morning, and your boss tells you that they're cutting your wages to $6/hour (grumble grumble). When you walk into the fast food joint on Tuesday noon the marginal use-value of eating hamburgers is about the same, but the cost has doubled: a hamburger now costs you 10 minutes of labor. So your real marginal efficiency of consumption has been halved.

(There's another measure of efficiency: use-value per transaction. When you have less money (things cost more labor time), you're going to concentrate your individual purchases on high value items. On Monday you might have bought three hamburgers; on Tuesday you'll only buy one or two. If you have to cut spending, you'll cut out the lower value purchases. Lowering wages thus increases the transactional efficiency.)

Since presumably Acme Hats is still charging the same price for hats, their nominal efficiency has increased. More importantly, their revenue is still going somewhere, presumably paid to Donald McCapitalist, who owns the hat-making machine. But Donald McCapitalist already has a lot of money and he already consumes a lot. If it's really true that the more you consume, the lower your marginal use-value (and thus marginal efficiency), then the increased use-value of Don's additional consumption should be in some sense lower than the loss of use-value caused by your falling wages: Don can now afford to buy the 20th hamburger at lunch, but so what?

There are, of course, a lot of other factors. If Don lowers the wages at Acme Hats, then presumably all the other hat makers can lower their wages too. Eventually someone will lower their prices, forcing Don to lower his own prices, thus decreasing his revenue and bringing his nominal efficiency back to where it was. If everyone follows suit, you'll only be making $6/hour, but a hamburger will cost only $0.50, and your consumption efficiency will eventually also return to where it was. But there's a catch! The hat making machine, bought when wages were $12/hour, still has a nominal cost of $1,000,000 regardless of deflation. Even though his nominal marginal cost has been cut from $0.20 to $0.10, the $1,000,000 for the machine still has to be amortized across, say, a million hats. Although prices have halved, Don still has to charge more than $1.10 per hat instead of $1.20 per hat to make a profit. Overall prices "ought" to be cut in half, but Don can cut his own prices only ~9%!

Worse yet, a new competitor can buy the exact same machine for only $500,000, and he has to charge more than only $0.60 per hat to make a nominal profit. If Don is clever, though, he'll put Acme Hats in receivership, start a new company, buy the used machine for $400,000, and the bank that lent him the original $1,000,000 will be holding the bag. But of course the banker is not stupid either: he'll just raise your credit card interest, the credit card you're using to survive on $6/hour until all the prices eventually lower themselves. For the worker, capitalism is heads I win, tails you lose: they get you coming, going and standing still.

Friday, August 27, 2010

You've got mail!

I got an email a few minutes ago from Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, which included this little gem:
Elective: Critical Thinking

Join Robert Bowman this Fall as he takes you through issues in critical thinking in 8 weeks. You can expect a clearer understanding of what logical fallacies entail, common mistakes people make when presenting arguments, and how to avoid these mistakes yourself.

Rob is a well know apologist and author of several books. His teaching approach is thorough and informative yet tangible.

To get the gears turning in your head enroll now.
I wonder how I got on their mailing list.

The Stupid! It Burns! (furry edition)

the stupid! it burns! Interesting facts that atheists don't want you to know.
4. In the Salem Witch Trials, all the girls who were executed were Christians accused by witches of being witches to throw everyone off.

SOURCE: "The Force" by Jack Chick
(check out the link for the incredible cartoons)

Something for nothing

One cannot but wonder at this constantly recurring phrase getting something for nothing, as if it were the peculiar and perverse ambition of disturbers of society. Except for our animal outfit, practically all we have is handed us gratis. Can the most complacent reactionary flatter himself that he invented the art of writing or the printing press, or discovered his religious, economic, and moral convictions, or any of the devices which supply him with meat and raiment or any of the sources of such pleasure as he may derive from literature or the fine arts? In short, civilization is little else than getting something for nothing.

— James Harvey Robinson

(via my history professor)

The labor theory of value

Maxine Udall asks,
Could I get [an English PhD student] to explain coherently the labor theory of value, please? Or if not explain it, point me to a reliable way of identifying the value of labor as opposed to the value of capital across all the production processes that exist today (under my naive assumption that incentives matter so there probably has to be some return to capital if we're hoping to deploy it in a way that serves us all well)?
I'm not an English PhD student (and I probably won't be a Political Science/Economics PhD student for some years). And I don't know if I can explain the labor theory of value, or even Marx's theory. I think I can, however, explain a reasonably coherent labor theory of value.

As I see it, my labor theory of value is an ideal theory, in the sense of a partial explanation excluding certain distorting or complicating conditions. In much the same sense, the theory of gravity is — on the surface of the Earth — an ideal theory that ignores, however ubiquitous, the complicating conditions of aerodynamics. Even though it's obviously not the case that airplanes actually fall towards the surface of the Earth accelerating at 10m/s2, gravity and gravity alone does indeed exert a force or the airplane that must somehow be counteracted.

The ideal theory is that absent complicating factors, commodities produced for exchange will trade according to the total amount of socially necessary abstract labor time consumed in their production.

The abstract labor time is actual physical human time spent creating the commodity modified by subjective and objective factors. The subjective factors discuss the "inherent undesirability" of a particular task: an hour spent cleaning a sewer or doing manual labor in the hot sun is generally considered more inherently undesirable than sitting in an air conditioned office typing at a keyboard. The objective factors discuss the "intensity" of the work: if everything else being equal Alice can create twice as many widgets as Bob in an hour's time, then Alice is putting in twice as many hours as Bob of abstract labor time.

It is typically the case (with notable exceptions) that many different firms (or individuals) act as suppliers of a commodity in a non-trivial market. These individuals will typically produce the same or similar goods by consuming different amounts of abstract labor time. The socially necessary labor time is a statistical property of the individual labor times, specifically the labor time actually used by the least efficient firm producing the commodity at the market clearing price. Firms which produce the commodity more efficiently receive something of a premium; firms which would produce the commodity less efficiently go bankrupt and are eliminated.

The total amount of socially necessary labor time is simply the sum of all the socially necessary abstract labor time consumed in producing the good, including all time spent creating capital and performing lower- or higher-level managerial and administrative tasks, including transaction costs. We consume labor time to create factories and equipment; we consume labor time to train and educate skilled workers, managers and administrators. It is not the case (at least under my labor theory of value) that we make a distinction between the value of capital and labor: capital requires labor to produce and has the value of the labor used to provide the capital. The distinction is more precisely captured by contrasting the value labor with the value of the ownership of capital, independently of its (labor) cost of creation.

The labor theory of value is most important, I think, when looking at the dichotomy between labor and labor power, i.e. the difference between the total amount of socially necessary labor time required to create a commodity vs. the total socially necessary labor time required to create labor time, i.e. the difference between the amount of labor necessary to create a commodity vs. the amount of labor necessary to feed, clothe, house, etc. a worker. We see a surplus economic growth when the cost of labor power is lower than the labor produced by that cost.

As I noted at the beginning, my labor theory of value is an ideal theory, and it might be the case that complicating factors are not merely ubiquitous but actually desirable — analogously, airplanes cannot fly without the "complicating factor" of aerodynamics.

Specifically, we must make decisions about how much labor to allocate directly to the production of commodities that will be directly consumed in the short term, and how much labor to allocate to investment and creation of capital to improve productivity in the medium and long term. I suspect that absent these complicating factors, a market based exclusively or ideally on the trade of socially necessary would "naturally" invest very little in future productivity.

The Stupid! It Burns! (postmodernist edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheism is a religion:
[W]hether atheists like it or not, Atheism is a religion. But what is religion? Simply put, religion is a set of beliefs (world-view) origin, nature, and purpose of the universe. ...

As such, atheism should be subject to the same rules as other religions... Perhaps then, they will think twice before claiming that Intelligent Design isn't real science just because the objective, observable, and repeatable experiments have metaphysical implications.

Arizona SB 1070

[I'm actually going to college after all these years. In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, I'll be posting some of my class assignments here, as well as posting supplementary material inspired by class discussions.]

Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (Wikipedia) implements a number of measures against illegal immigration, including making it a state misdemeanor crime for an alien in Arizona to fail to carry the required documentation, and obliges the police to attempt to determine the immigration status of a person during a "lawful stop, detention or arrest" if there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person is an alien unlawfully present in the United States.

There are a number of larger issues relating to illegal immigration. That illegal immigration is significant social problem seem uncontroversial, but there is considerable disagreement about what component of illegal immigration is the fundamental problem. Are there simply too many foreign nationals in the United States? Are there too many of the wrong sort of foreign nationals, and if so, who precisely constitutes that "wrong sort"? Or is the problem simply that immigration law is is so complicated and unnecessarily exclusive that people whom we might otherwise accept as temporary or permanent residents find it impossible or unacceptably difficult to comply with the law and thus circumvent it, creating subsequent problems? These larger questions are outside the scope of this essay, however; I want to focus instead on the specific problems posed by imposing the obligation on police to determine the immigration status of those they reasonably suspect to be aliens unlawfully present in the United States.

One must charitably assume that if the Arizona legislature is sincere in their stated intentions, they believe that there are too many foreign nationals in the United States, or too many of the "wrong sort", and that federal immigration law, if vigorously enforced, would adequately restrict immigration to the correct numbers and types of people. The question then becomes: does this provision constitute vigorous enforcement of federal law? More importantly, does it constitute only enforcement of federal law? If either answer is negative, then there is ground to doubt both the appropriateness of the provision as well as the motivation of the legislature.

The overall sincerity of the legislature is somewhat supported by other statutes. The legislature has recognized the economic incentive underlying illegal immigration in Arizona with House Bill 2745, the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which mandates that employers verify their employees' immigration status. However, "law-enforcement officials have said that the law includes little budget support for these new obligations" [citation], and the statute does not include criminal penalties for employers hiring illegal immigrants; enforcement is limited to suspension or revocation of offending business's licenses. A law that is not adequately enforced is no law at all.

The provision for reasonable suspicion, however, does not appear to enable vigorous enforcement of immigration law. If this provision were strictly followed, police would discover illegal immigrants in only very narrow circumstances. To be discovered, an illegal immigrant would have to display evidence of other unlawful behavior to justify a "lawful stop, detention or arrest." More importantly, an immigrant would have to display this evidence in a context where documentary evidence relating to his or her immigration status was required by law. In practice, these elements would be present only if an illegal immigrant was operating a motor vehicle in an unlawful manner and did not possess a driver's license. It is as well already at least a violation, and a class 1 misdemeanor if an illegal immigrant were held to be ineligible for a drivers license); if an illegal immigrant were eligible for a drivers license, then failure to possess one while driving would not constitute reasonable suspicion of an immigration violation. This provision therefore adds little additional actual enforcement of immigration law.

The provision for reasonable suspicion also does not appear to constitute only enforcement of immigration laws. Our legal requirements regarding police procedure are typically enforced not by civil or criminal sanctions against individual police officers, but rather by exclusion of evidence during criminal proceedings. Furthermore, exclusion of evidence has "teeth" only when the case a criminal or civil defendant would otherwise be found guilty at trial. While this method of enforcing police procedure might seem counter-intuitive and actively perverse, it has good theoretical and empirical justification.

However, when the adverse effects of a police procedure are never relevant to the introduction of evidence at trial, this method of enforcement becomes entirely inoperative. We cannot merely tell police officers to follow some procedure, we must establish consequences when they fail to do so. When police fail to adhere to correct procedure in ordinary criminal matters, the state might fail to convict someone who would otherwise be convicted; this sanction strikes directly to the motive and purpose of the entire criminal justice process, and gives the police an important incentive to adhere to correct procedure. But what are the sanctions under this provision? Suppose a police officer does not actually have reasonable suspicion that someone might be an illegal immigrant? If the detainee is actually a citizen or legal resident, the officer will not face any individual sanctions. If the person is not a legal resident, they will still be deported. Lacking any way to sanction violations of reasonable suspicion, this provision becomes indistinguishable from the arbitrary decision of the officer.

Worse yet, the provision undermines adherence to standards governing a lawful stop, detention or arrest. If an officer unlawfully detains a person and finds evidence of a crime as a result of that unlawful detention, it is possible and perhaps likely for the detainee to escape the consequences of that crime even though he or she might otherwise have been convicted on the basis of lawfully obtained evidence. However, the reasonable suspicion provision of SB 1070 creates a positive incentive to detain a person — to check their immigration status — while failing to implement a corresponding negative incentive to restrict the officer from unlawfully detaining a person. There is no sanction at all if an officer simply "fails to notice" any evidence of a crime during an otherwise unlawful detention in which the officer only checks the immigration status of the detainee.

We must (at least if we accept the necessity or desirability of the police) give honest and well-intentioned police officers the tools and social permission to do their jobs. But we must also recognize that there are officers who are not entirely honest and well-intentioned. We must take as much or more care to ensure that the latter officers follow correct procedures despite their personal inclinations. The reasonable suspicion provision appears to not only fail to give the well-intentioned officer substantial new tools to enforce the law but also gives bad-intentioned officers the ability to act contrary to correct procedures.

Not only must we reject the specific "reasonable suspicion" provision, we have grounds to call into question the motivation or competence of the Arizona legislature. Even if the legislature is sincerely and legitimately concerned with illegal immigration, this sincere concern might be mixed with illegitimate concerns, especially racial prejudice. We cannot of course definitely conclude that the legislature is motivated by racism — legislative constitutional incompetence is hardly remarkable — but a measure appears to do nothing but give police the ability to harass brown people without fear of sanction raises reasonable suspicions.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (cold-blooded killer edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheism does kill:
The more important question, of course, is how much more likely atheist doctors were to strangle their patients with their bare hands or to perform horrific scientific experiments upon them. I expect that percentage would be rather more than double. Unfortunately, it would appear the study didn't cover that one.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (child safety edition)

the stupid! it burns! Are you going to let atheists control your future and family?
[FEMA says,] "Children are a part of every community."

Really? This is neospeak for usurping the nuclear family. Minor children are part of their own family and normally are not considered a part of the general community for their own safety.

One more time, on atheism (from the aptly named The Pleasures of Conformity):
Let's assume that one of atheists' goals is political power.... Let's also assume that atheists want to use this political power to change society so that important decisions align closely with the scientific method. That is, they want laws and rules based on actual evidence and logical, provable conclusions.

If these assumptions are true, then atheists have done their cause an incredible disservice by excluding from their ranks the huge number of rational, logical, considerate, and tolerant god-fearing individuals among the voting public.

What is Atheism?:
I wonder, though, if atheists have considered fully the implications of a belief that there is no God. If there is no God, then how did everything in nature come to exist in its present form? If God did not create the universe, the only other option is that it somehow miraculously developed on its own (the theory of evolution). Those who believe in evolution think everything around us is the result of random events over millions of years. ...

A final thought about atheism: it is the ultimate arrogance. Every atheist should ask himself the following question: “Is it possible that God exists even though I don’t believe there is a God?” The atheists who answer no are not really atheists - they do worship a God, one they see as perfect and all knowing. It is actually an imperfect and flawed God that is really no God at all: themselves. Proverbs 26:12 describes them perfectly: “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

HG Wells on Russia

Russia in the Shadows:
And this spectacle of misery and ebbing energy is, you will say, the result of Bolshevist rule! I do not believe it is. I will deal with the Bolshevist Government when I have painted the general scenery of our problem. But let me say here that this desolate Russia is not a system that has been attacked and destroyed by something vigorous and malignant. It is an unsound system that has worked itself out and fallen down. It was not communism which built up these great, impossible cities, but capitalism. It was not communism that plunged this huge, creaking, bankrupt empire into six years of exhausting war. It was European imperialism. Nor is it communism that has pestered this suffering and perhaps dying Russia with a series of subsidised raids, invasions, and insurrections, and inflicted upon it an atrocious blockade. The vindictive French creditor, the journalistic British oaf, are far more responsible for these deathbed miseries than any communist...

(via Brad DeLong)

The value of truth

Geoff Arnold does some good philosophy:
Dr. Vallicella’s “life-enhancing illusions” are not free. They have baggage. And they are incompatible with a commitment to reason. They do not “enhance” my life, nor that of countless others.
There's good a slippery slope argument here:
  1. We can't know some statements at all (God exists), so it's OK to believe what you want, either way.
  2. We can't know some statements with confidence (extraterrestrial intelligence exists), so it's OK to believe what you want.
  3. We don't care whether some statements are true or false (insert some arcane fact here), so it's OK to believe what you want.
  4. We can't know some statements with certainty (vaccines are safe), so it's OK to believe what you want.
If religion and other forms of woo-woo were explicitly regarded by billions of their believers as life-enhancing illusions, we skeptics might look askance at such people, but it would hardly be a topic of fervent social controversy. If you're going to murder abortion doctors, cut off women's noses, imprison or execute homosexuals, excuse and protect rapists, child molesters and child abusers, and then justify these acts by appealing to your God, you don't get to escape criticism by arguing your beliefs about God are just life-enhancing illusions.

The morality of truth is not like other ethical beliefs. It does not simply consist of arbitrary rules that have evolved to manage interpersonal relations. The fundamental principle of truth morality is to not fool yourself; if you don't bend over backwards to avoid fooling yourself, all the ethical "rules" in the world aren't going to help you. Indeed the rules won't help you even if despite your best efforts you still manage to fool yourself.

Most of us believe as true what we are taught to believe; most of anyone's beliefs are received. It's "economically" impossible for each individual to independently subject every belief, or even most beliefs, to full, rigorous skeptical inquiry. Hawking says that black holes emit radiation, and I believe it. I know enough physics to follow his argument, and it seems plausible, but I certainly have not investigated every scientifically plausible alternative hypothesis. The best I can do is keep my eyes open, and if I chance across a counter-argument, to evaluate it with an open mind: to look at the argument itself, and not prejudicially dismiss it because it contradicts what I already believe.

The problem is that the religious and the woo-woos assert as true statements that are either false or neither true nor false. They say God really does exist; they say vaccines really do cause autism. The present their beliefs as firmly in the realm of truth, but when pressed for justification they retreat to the realm of preference (and often outrageously assert that skeptics are indifferent to the truth). Anyone who actually cares deeply about the truth can see this position as nothing more than rank hypocrisy and outright fraud.

The Stupid! It Burns! (anti-semitism edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists and Anti-Semites
For starters, atheists reject the historical consensus on God. Never mind that every culture, large or small, believes in some sort of deity. Secondly, they reject the common consensus that is the faith of their peers. As a practical matter... the vast majority of people believe in some kind of superior being. ...

Another axiom for militant atheism is invective — laying the history of bad behavior at the feet of traditional religion. This is more than a little like blaming war on soldiers and crime on cops. A corollary of invective is ad hominem attacks — cherry-picking religious figures to vilify. ...

Polemicists like Maher and Hitchens confuse God with religion. Our entire ethical, legal, and democratic tradition is a linear descendant of Judaism and Christianity. A temple or church is only one of many public institutions, each populated with saints and sinners. Yet without these influences, democratic capitalism is impossible. ...

Many modern anti-religious zealots, unlike Pascal, are not tempered by humility or doubt. They cannot say, I do not know. The cannot say, I may never know. What they do say is that all that will be known shall be known by people like me: an enlightened, progressive, liberal, rational, scientific, intellectual elite. ...

The heart of evangelical atheism is cowardice. What many cannot say is what they truly believe. They believe that they, and only they, know the way forward — all others are backward. They believe that they should not be constrained by “arbitrary” ethics, morality, or law; sounds too much like religion. Hitchens uses the phrase “unfettered scientific inquiry” to describe his vision of the future. Josef Mengele would be comfortable with such a charter.

A profound — some would say fatal — conceit infects secular rationalists: the belief that there could not be any intelligence superior to their intelligence. They also believe what tyrants and oligarchs have always believed since the birth of philosophy: they are the philosopher kings (Plato), they are the vanguard (Lenin), and they are the master race (Hitler). They believe that they should do the thinking for the rest of us. They believe that men like Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky [Noam Chomsky!?] are as godlike as it gets. ...

Karl Marx was not so much a descendant of the “rabbinical line” as he was a product of Teutonic philosophy and a virulent, self-loathing anti-Semite. ...

National Socialism and Soviet Communism shared anti-Semitic roots. And now, at the start of a new century, anti-Semitism is again the legit motif of yet another “ism” — Islamism. Indeed, the convergence of the secular left and the Islamic right is one of the great ciphers of the new millennium — a merger where ecumenicism and suicide pacts are interchangeable.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (atheist accomodationist edition)

the stupid! it burns! Padraig Reidy is an atheist, but anti-Catholic rhetoric is making him nervous: "The church's critics have been mobilised by the Pope's visit but the rhetoric is tipping over into the extreme". Let's look at some extreme rhetoric that's making Mr. Reidy nervous.
A Facebook invitation asks me to "Give Pope Benedict a lesson in British Values of Equality". ... [O]ne writer, discussing the Vatican's stance on euthanasia, tells us: "This is, after all, a church that expects its followers to mumble incantations in front of a large statue of a mostly naked European bloke nailed to Roman torture implement and includes an act of ritual cannibalism in its rites… so who's really obsessed with death here."

Examine the language here. "Incantations", "cannibalism". This is the tone of Ian Paisley's rabidly anti-papist Free Presbyterian church, not of rational secular debate. ...

[Noted secularist Claire Rayner] says [the Pope's] views are "so disgusting, so repellent, and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him".
This is not extremism. Extreme rhetoric is not about "tone", it's about calling openly for violence, oppression and disenfranchisement against human beings. It's in no way "extreme" to mock an evil religion led by sexually frustrated men in ridiculous hats. If Mr. Reidy likes the taste of Ratzo's withered cock, that's his business, but it ain't going in this atheist's mouth.

(via Fr Stephen Smuts)

Secrecy and privacy

"Sir Humphrey Appleby" reviews Yes, Prime Minister: The Diaries of the Rt. Hon. James Hacker MP. Although embedded in several layers of fiction (the actual author is of course Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister creator and writer Jonathan Lynn) there's some real truth* in this article.

*How to interpret fiction in a social and political context is not at all trivial, but we can at least say that an author of a fictional work usually believes that the underlying themes of the work correspond in some sense to reality, and a work that achieves substantial popularity must somehow appeal to the audience's own beliefs about reality. We can feel even more confident about works such as Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, which are only one step removed from pure roman à clef.

"Sir Humphrey" observes that "the movement to 'open up' government," by making public the deliberations of politicians, "if successful, always achieves a gratifying increase in level of secrecy. The reason is obvious."
Once a meeting - Parliament, local council, Cabinet - is opened up to the public, it is used by those attending as a propaganda platform and not as a genuine debating forum. The true discussions take place privately in smaller informal groups. In government these smaller groups often contain one or more senior civil servants, so that some element of intelligence and practicability can be built into proposals before they become public and have to be defended with arguments which represent a victory of personal pride over commonsense. So the move to greater openness in public affairs has greatly strengthened the level of secrecy and therefore the quality of decision-making in the higher echelons of government.
We can see an analogous situation with regard to physicians.

We normally expect physicians to have a strong ethical duty to full disclosure to their patients. Their analyses of decisions made on specific cases and the outcome of those decisions, however, are usually made confidentially. Medicine is an enormously complicated field, and physicians have to make life-and-death decisions with limited information and under enormous time pressure. It's inevitable that they will make decisions they would have made differently knowing the outcome and with the leisure of unlimited deliberation. The profession considers it more important for individual physicians to learn from their mistakes and for the profession as a whole to use adverse outcomes to improve their practices and procedures than it is to assign and punish blame.

It would be nice in the abstract if the general public could "listen in" on these conversations with the same goals and interests in mind, and the same detachment from finding fault, but people aren't really built that way. And given an environment of competing interests, it seems inevitable that there will be some interests hostile to understanding and improving scientific medicine; it seems unwise to blithely hand ammunition to such hostile interests.

Of course, this tradition of confidentiality has its drawbacks. Keeping discussions of inevitable and entirely forgivable human error private seems to create a tendency in physicians to cover up outright and egregious incompetence. It's a trade-off: closure and honesty vs. protection of incompetence, openness and propaganda and disingenuity and exposure of incompetence. There are more incompetent physicians than I would like, but most physicians really are highly competent, and most medical practices and procedures really are effective and efficient.

I think the same has to be true of even a democratic political process. Leaving aside the judiciary, pure direct democracy, where every political decision is made by a vote of all the people, seems inefficient in a society of even a few million, much less the hundreds of millions of people in the United States. Some form of representation — with all the social institutions and constructions to manage that representation — seems enormously beneficial. The question then becomes what sort of social institutions do we need to ensure that democratic representatives are truly the servants of people and not their masters? How do we ensure that our representatives really act like experts, and not authorities?

Taking our cue from the medical profession, it seems crucial to separate issues of material fact from professional opinion and deliberation. It is grossly unethical for a physician to withhold any issue of material fact from her patient. If some test or symptom contradicts an earlier diagnosis or treatment, that fact must be disclosed and the diagnosis or treatment altered, regardless of any embarrassment to the physician. Not only must such facts not be withheld, they must be actively brought to the attention of the patient and their objective meaning and implication carefully and accurately described. On the other hand, it seems legitimate to keep deliberations, especially after the fact analyses of individual cases, entirely private, to encourage honesty.

It might be difficult, but it is not impossible to allow political representatives to deliberate honestly (or at least sincerely) in private while ensuring they always strongly publicly disclose issues of material fact. If we can do it reasonably well for physicians, we can do it for politicians.

The Stupid! It Burns! (Jesus penis edition)

the stupid! it burns! Marriage: a 'hang up' or God's plan?:
Living in an age of relativism and one marked by sound-bite triviality rather than thoughtful reasoning, such labeling of opposing opinions as “hang ups” may come across as persuasive to some. But if looked at logically, and especially if seen from the perspective of God’s plan for marriage revealed in the first chapters of the Bible (as well as from the perspective of natural law), it comes off as absurd and only nominally rational. ...

Both Church teaching and the study of reality, the natural law, show that homosexuality is an objective disorder — that is, it does not correspond to the God-given reality of the sexually differentiated human being. Therefore, to condone the homosexual lifestyle is never a move in favor of a person’s true happiness. Moreover, to change the legal and societal definition of the fundamental institution of marriage in order to suit an adult sexual preference is a selfish and irresponsible corruption of the truth. The truth is that the reason why the state cannot redefine marriage is because it never defined it in the first place; it is a truth received, not created. It is God who defined marriage.

(via LifeSiteNews.com and Denver Atheists)

In honor of Bishop Olmsted's burning stupidity, I'll re-run this excellent performance by Eric Schwartz, still as relevant today as it was in 2006.

The Stupid! It Burns! (narcissist edition)

the stupid! it burns! Most Atheists Are Narcissists, and Liars:
It seems that most atheists are narcissists from my experience, and this is not surprising to me and shouldn’t be to any theist, because by denying that God exists or any God-like being and therefore universal morality and truth, they then play king of their life themselves and that includes king of truth and morality and their heart, and so act as if they are God, the being that is to have perfect love and worship because of his goodness.

They are all destructive mimics and parasites filled with hate and resentment. It is because of this that I believe atheists should be imprisoned and not allowed to be leaders of any kind and should not be trusted for any job except ones of no consequence.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Antony Flew and God

David Kenney mentions atheist philosopher Antony Flew's "conversion": There Is A God – How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew. One should not draw many conclusions from this conversion; certainly the conclusion that Kenney draws
The lesson is obvious—if Flew, a son of a Methodist minister, can go so far away from Christianity as to affirm in public discourse that there is no God, make an academic career as a philosophical atheist, but be turned to theism based on evidence, then the case for God is far stronger than many may have considered.
is entirely unwarranted.

(Of course, not only is Flew not the world's most notorious atheist (Dawkins has probably wrested that title from Madelyn Murray O'Hair), Flew is not even in the top 10 notorious atheists. To the extent that any philosopher can be notorious*, Flew is not even the most notorious atheist philosopher (that title almost certainly belongs to Daniel Dennett, or perhaps Michael Martin).

*Hence the Wikipedia links for all the philosophers, so you'll know who I'm talking about.

That any philosopher accepts anything should not impress anyone. Philosophy is, after all, a profession where idiots such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne are held in real esteem even by their nominally atheist colleagues. And whatever else they might be good at, philosophers have very little training in making and evaluating specifically evidentiary arguments; philosophers (at best) specialize in making logical arguments. I can't overstate the value of specialized training: it's not enough to be clever, you need to know the right questions to ask. Scientists, for example, are notoriously bad at debunking fraudulent psychics; the most renowned debunker is James "The Amazing" Randi, a professional magician.

Flew's conversion rests on the flimsiest of evidence. Historian and atheist philosopher Richard Carrier corresponded with Antony Flew regarding his conversion. Carrier reports that Flew emphasizes repeatedly that
My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species ... [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms.
But Flew himself later concedes that
I now realize that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction.
Antony Flew did not convert to any sort of theism; at best he converted to the most abstract and mechanical deism. Flew writes to Carrier in October 2004 that
I do not think I will ever make that assertion [that probably God exists], precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense ... I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations. [emphasis added]
Evidence for one proposition is not by definition evidence for a different, fundamentally distinct proposition. A deistic "God" is no closer to Christian theism than is the most materialistic atheism.

Worst of all, using Flew's "conversion" in any sense is sad, pathetic and patently offensive. Death comes to us all, all too often preceded by infirmity physical and mental. Flew's so-called conversion comes when he was 81 years old, and his friends paint a picture of a man with mind succumbing to the depredations and indignities of old age. Carrier writes
During the course of 2005, Flew cut off all correspondence and now refuses to speak to any member of the press. When Matt Donnelly, a reporter for Science and Theology News, asked him for permission to read and quote his letters to me, Flew refused, and insisted that even his phone conversations with Donnelly not be used. A friend and eyewitness whom I trust reported to me that he and another prominent secular humanist spoke to Flew in private during his recent visit to New York for the 25th Anniversary conference of the Council for Secular Humanism in October of 2005. They found him to be philosophically incoherent. He affirmed his belief in an uncaring, uninvolved, unconscious (yes, unconscious) Jeffersonian Deity, but despite half an hour of questioning as to why, he could not give any specific reason for this belief. ...

In recognition of his "conversion," [in May 2006] Antony Flew was awarded the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth at Biola, an Evangelical Christian university in La Mirada, California. Flew accepted it in person... I have received communications from several eyewitnesses in attendance who all confirm that Flew appeared to sleep through most of it, said little, and what he did say was difficult to understand.
In November 2007, Carrier writes,
Flew has now confessed to the fact that he did not write a word of [There Is A God, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind] (even though it is sold under his name), and apparently knows (or remembers) little of its contents, despite the publisher's assurance that he signed off on it (though even his publisher confesses doubts about Flew's ability to remember essential details). Oppenheimer presents sufficient evidence to confirm that Flew's failing memory is what I would call clinically serious, and I believe his mental decline is now more or less confirmed.
Really, is this the best, or anywhere near the best, that Christians can do? An aged man with a failing memory, taking a position far away from their own on the flimsiest of evidence?

Democracy and republic

I've heard it in various forms for many years: "The United States isn't a democracy, it's a republic." I've always thought this was a bullshit right-wing quibble until Aaron Sorkin, or one of the other writers on the solidly liberal show The West Wing put the line in President Jed Bartlett's (Martin Sheen) mouth, with the explanation, "The people don't rule the country, they choose their rulers."

There are some serious theoretical and pragmatic problems with this position. In one sense it might seem analogous to the position that people don't treat themselves medically, they choose their physicians. But there's a crucial difference that undermines the analogy: people do not (or have no need to) cede any moral authority whatsoever to their physicians. A patient does not in any way ask her physician what she wants: she knows what she wants. She asks her physician how to achieve what she wants. Most of the time, everyone completely understands and sympathizes with what any patient wants, but we can see this crucial difference in some unusual edge cases.

Gender reassignment is a fairly well-settled example. There was a lot of resistance at first, because it's difficult for most people to sympathize* with the desire to change one's apparent gender, but once we convinced ourselves that the desire to change gender wasn't pathologically self-destructive (and, more importantly, got over some of our bullshit hangups) it became a clear instance of physicians implementing the patient's own desires and will, without moral judgment. (Well, not too much; physicians do try to influence the patient's will: when the patient has conflicting desires, for example, a good physician will advocate for the desires that promote good health. But when push comes to shove, the physician must give way to the patient's choices.)

*I mean sympathy in the literal sense of sharing the same actual feelings. I cannot even indirectly share the feelings of a person who wishes to change gender. All I can do is understand that my lack of sympathy in this regard is completely irrelevant, and since changing gender definitely does not harm anyone else, sympathize more abstractly with transgender people's desire to be happy, whatever that takes, and provide the assistance and support they ask for.

But it's definitely counter-intuitive to say that someone we call a leader actually subordinates his* will to anyone else's. And, of course, our leaders just don't act in anything like the same way that physicians act. They act much more like I acted when I was a manager and executive: the people who worked for me were there to implement my will. They could of course ask to change my mind, but when push came to shove it was my desires that won out.

The vast majority of political leaders are, of course, men, showing that women are weak and unfit to lead. </sarcasm>

It really is a giant contradiction for anyone to choose to whom I submit their will. Will is the exercise of choice: if it's me that's making a choice, in what sense am I submitting my will? I cannot say that I am choosing to submit my will, for example, to someone who wants to help the poor as opposed to someone who wants to treat the poor indifferently, and then say I'm helping the poor only because my leader demands it.

The only way this choice isn't a giant contradiction is if I really am more or less indifferent to the details of the will of those to whom I'm submitting, if I'm making my choice on considerations other than what the person to whom I'm submitting actually wants. A physician doesn't treat people based on whether she thinks they ought to live; a defense lawyer does not (to any large extent) represent only those defendants he thinks ought to go free. Indeed any good physician who wants everyone to live must still respect the wishes of the patient who refuses treatment; no good defense lawyer who wants everyone to go free can prevent a defendant from confessing and pleading guilty.

And indeed in republican government we see all sorts of features that are designed to insulate political leaders from the will (such as it is) of the people. I can easily fire my physician or lawyer at any time if I do not believe she is competently representing my own interests. The people, however united, cannot easily fire their republican leaders. My physician or lawyer cannot keep secrets from me; secrecy in republican government is so routine as to pass almost unnoticed.

Republican government is not all bad; it's definitely an enormous improvement over feudal monarchism. In a republican government, the people act as a selection force in a dialectical relationship with the ruling class, affording some opportunity for evolution over time. But I don't think republican government is anywhere near the best we can do.

In a democratic society, the official government acts as a true "expert" class, more or less indifferent to the details of the will of the people, concentrating on the details of implementation, which are usually matters of objective truth. Going back to the Paris Commune*, we can identify four components necessary to a democratic government, a government that serves as experts, not leaders:
  1. Individuals must personally know their representatives
  2. Individuals must have the effective power to arbitrarily replace their representatives at any time
  3. Representatives cannot keep relevant information secret from those they represent
  4. Representatives cannot explicitly or implicitly obtain moral privilege over those they represent
The observant reader will note that all of these components apply in our relations with those who are uncontroversially acting as experts (e.g. physicians), and none of them operate in our relations that are uncontroversially hierarchical (e.g. business executives or military officers). And of course none of them operate in republican government.

*The high regard for the Paris Commune among all the founders of communism, especially Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, decisively refutes the notion that "party rule" is an explicit component of communist theory. Although I myself would argue for the negative, whether party rule necessarily or generally emerges from other perhaps more fundamental components of communist theory is a legitimate matter for debate.

I honestly do not believe we can have a communist society that is not truly democratic right from the start. I'm no historian, but I suspect that the emergence of non-democratic party rule resulted from massive pressures of immediate life-or-death expediency faced by Revolutionary Russia and China. Lenin and Stalin in Russia had to face the Russian Civil War followed on its heels by the existential threat posed by a massively industrialized Nazi Germany. China had to face the awesomely daunting prospect of feeding seven hundred million who had been living for centuries on the edge of starvation, with millions periodically falling off that edge. (The Good Earth is a notable work of historical fiction illustrating this issue.) And if there is any legitimate criticism of the Paris Commune, it is that they did not act decisively enough to consolidate, defend and expand their own revolution.

Furthermore, there is a certain extent to which capitalist republican government and its precursors does develop social institutions and habits of thought among the people that make true democracy easier; both Russia and China lacked any of these precursors. One cannot exactly approve of someone who behaves badly under overwhelming pressure, but one can more easily ascribe the fault to a failure of nerve rather than actual malice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is written for a popular audience; it is explicitly not intended as a work of technical philosophy or to respond to the more abstruse versions theological bullshit. It's explicitly addressed to the billions of people who hold a very specific kind of notion about God and who use a particular set of apologetic arguments, arguments they have mostly received second-hand.

I can't read Dawkins' mind, but I suspect that — besides wanting to make some actual money — there are two reasons he chose to write a popular book. First, he wanted to talk to the sort of people who are not at all interested in works of technical philosophy. Second, I suspect that Dawkins realizes that professional philosophers are mostly complete idiots. Even the ones I more or less like — or for whom I at least don't have utter contempt — are genial buffoons.

With an infinitesimal minority of exceptions, professional academic philosophy is completely intellectually bankrupt. It is at best totally, utterly and completely useless, and I think the profession is actually holding back humanity's intellectual progress. It's simply a waste of a thinking person's time to take any philosopher seriously.

The Stupid! It Burns! (brutal reality edition)

the stupid! it burns! 7 Brutal Truths About Atheism:
  1. Your life has no meaning or purpose
  2. You are an atheist by virtue of when and where you were born
  3. You can never be certain that what you believe to be true is true
  4. There is no objective way to evaluate moral choices
  5. The most brutal regimes have been atheistic
  6. Human rights and equality don’t exist
  7. You will always be a small minority

The Stupid! It Burns! (long-winded rant version)

the stupid! it burns! 31 Reasons Atheism and ”Patience” Are Wrong: My Reply to An Atheist: 6,136 words, each word burning the mind of the thinking reader more painfully than the last.

And I thought I was a long-winded bastard!

The essence of politics

Everything you ever wanted to know about politics in three panels

The Stupid! It Burns! (reasonable edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists and Reason:
The Catholic Church teaches definitively that God’s existence can be known by reason. Arguments of many stripes can be put forth demonstrating the rationality of belief in God. I have done so on this blog and betters have done so elsewhere — but for now, the simple point is that reason doesn’t end at the laboratory door. We can think rationally about deeper levels of reality. ...

When the the rational questions go beyond that which can be measured in the laboratory, these empiricists simply wave away the questions without further consideration, swallowing a myriad of necessary prior assumptions without further thought. Needless to say, such a position is itself a tremendous leap of faith.
Richard Dawkins taken to the cleaners—in The New York Times
[approvingly quoting The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser] Secularism can never truly rest on reason, but only 'faith,' as secularists themselves understand that term (or rather misunderstand it, as we shall see): an unshakeable commitment grounded not in reason but rather in sheer willfulness, a deeply ingrained desire to want things to be a certain way regardless of whether the evidence shows they are that way.

Today's pièce de résistance of burning stupidity, however, is the article cited by both previous posts, On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response by Gary Gutting, a philosopher who admits he can't answer any questions:
As formulated, [Dawkins'] argument is an obvious non-sequitur. The premises (1-6), if true, show only that God cannot be posited as the explanation for the apparent design of the universe, which can rather be explained by natural selection. They do nothing to show that “God almost certainly does not exist” (189). ...

[P]hilosophers from Thomas Aquinas through contemporary thinkers have offered detailed discussions of the question that provide intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about a simple substance that has the power and knowledge attributed to God. ...

Dawkins’ argument ignores the possibility that God is a necessary being (that is, a being that, by its very nature, must exist, no matter what). On this traditional view, God’s existence would be, so to speak, self-explanatory and so need no explanation, contrary to Dawkins’ premise 3.
But here's the money quote:

[S]uccessful or not, philosophers offer the best rational thinking about such questions.

Howls of derisive laughter, Bruce!

Fiscal conservatism (again!)

One view of fiscal conservatism is that it entails that we should spend our money wisely, especially with a sharp eye on the future. At the individual level, this is a meaningful debate: there are a lot of people (myself included, sadly) who tend to spend money foolishly, without much regard for the future. To a certain extent, however, especially in a relatively abundant economy such as that in the United States, saving money now to spend in the future is a trade with people who want to spend money now. Pretty much everything that gets produced today must get consumed today by someone or it will be wasted; savings is a matter of relative, not absolute, consumption.

At the political and whole-economy level, though, there really isn't much of a debate about whether we should run our government wisely or foolishly; the debate is about what sort of spending is wise or foolish. We cannot "save" at the whole-economy level: our choices are only to (a) consume or (b) invest to make tomorrow's production more efficient.

The individual habit of saving just doesn't translate to whole-economy thinking, since there is nothing for the whole economy to relate to. National economies do have relations in an international context, but the relations in international economics are very different from individuals in a nation, and international economics are becoming very closely integrated in the the 21st century global economy. Powerful nations such as the US and China as well as international bodies such as the European Union simply cannot afford to let an international economy just emerge from nations acting in their individual national interest.

Every society must necessarily address certain questions. How do we allocate our productive surplus between investment and consumption? How do we allocate investment between different candidate projects? How do we allocate consumption between different individuals and classes of individuals?

Unlike things such as the price of a given commodity relative to other commodities, beyond a certain point (a point reached at the latest in the middle of the 19th century and perhaps much earlier) there are no objectively correct answers to these questions that can emerge from an essentially non-teleological process such as a market. The answers to these questions are rather "baked into" the social institutions and social constructions that create the economic context in which our day-to-day markets function. However a society happens to be organized, the specific details of its organization directly answer these questions; if we want specific answers these questions, we must set up our social institutions to answer them in that way. We can't set up our social institutions to allow the objectively correct answers to these questions to emerge because there aren't objectively correct answers to these questions.

Which brings us, at long last, to Laura's comment, where she says, "[T]rue fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with social issues. It's more about free trade*, lower taxes, and limited government involvement."

*There are two senses of "free trade" that seem appropriate here. There's free trade in an international context, which is a specialized question outside the scope of this article. I'll interpret free trade here in a domestic context, which seems to suggest (especially juxtaposed with lower taxes and limited government) deprecating and limiting government regulations and other involvement with specific micro-economic decisions.

This description represents the tip of the iceberg, there are many underlying ideas that most people just don't think about. In one sense, who doesn't want lower taxes? In much the same sense, who doesn't want to save money? But of course anyone can save money by living poorly, yet most people who advocate "fiscal conservatism" live moderately well (and good for them): they're certainly not eating the minimum amount of the cheapest food, living in the smallest and cheapest housing that will afford only not freezing to death, etc.. We all want to live a good life, and that entails actually consuming stuff, and what is consumed must, of course, be produced. Our goal is not to consume as little as possible, but rather to consume as much as possible as efficiently as possible.

All of the measures that Laura suggests tend to (at an abstract level) answer our societal questions in a particular way. Specifically, they structure our answers to satisfy the wants and needs of the owners of capital over the wants and needs of the non-capital-owning workers. By definition, workers cannot effectively exercise economic power; if they are going to exert power at all, they must exert democratic power. Fiscal conservatism as Laura describes it minimizes democratic control over the answers in favor of private control.

Just having private control of capital answers the high level allocation questions even more specifically. Private ownership of capital allocates investment in activities that will benefit the individual owners of the capital being allocated. Activities with a general benefit that's too evenly spread out, abstract, or too-easily susceptible to "free riding" do not benefit the individual owners of capital and tend to be deprecated.

In our modern economy, capital, especially finance capital, is the essential bottleneck of production. In any free market economy, resources gravitate to the bottlenecks. Free markets have an awesome power to address physical bottlenecks, such as a shortage of oil or trees. This "gravitation" automatically adjusts the whole economy in more-or-less equilibrium to all the bottlenecks without having to analytically solve computationally intractable problems. Even better, throwing a lot of labor time at bottlenecks in an evolutionary environment generates novel ways of actually eliminating them, by finding alternative ways of fulfilling the underlying need or of supplying the needed resource. Gravitating labor time towards these physical bottlenecks has an overall negative feedback effect.

When the bottleneck is social, however, the free market still causes labor time to gravitate to the bottleneck, but that gravitation often has a purely positive feedback effect. Labor time that gravitates to most social bottlenecks enhances the power and prestige of those people "sitting on" the social bottleneck, which allows them more power to narrow rather than widen the bottleneck. Thus we can see that private ownership of finance capital, a purely social construct, makes access to finance capital narrower rather than broader, and allocates all consumption not strictly necessary for the maintenance of life itself to the "owners" of finance capital.

I was specifically referring to these effects when I said, "'[F]iscal conservatism' means using the social constructions around money [i.e. finance capital] to bring about conservative social values, especially preserving and enhancing the status of the ruling class and maintaining the subordination of the working class."

Of course, there are answers to the "big" economic questions that are poorly solved by democratic means and are much more efficiently solved by private means. It's nonsense to put the price of bread to a vote: There is an objectively correct answer to how much a loaf of bread should cost, because there's an objectively correct answer to how much labor it takes to produce a loaf of bread, and the price must, one way or another, represent the cost of production. We can no more vote on what the price of bread ought to be than we can on what the gravitational content ought to be. The best we can do is vote on how that price is allocated.

The point of all of this is that we really can't just create an economic system that will automatically answer the big economic questions in the same way that we can create an economic system that will automatically answer the "little" economic questions, such as the price of bread. Our economic system doesn't generate the answers; our economic system is the answer.

There are even deeper relationships between our economic system and what appear to be purely "social" issues, issues that don't appear at first glance to have any sort of economic impact, such as racism, sexism, and even secularism and religion. I'll discuss these relationships in a later essay.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Liberal Christians

We atheists really do get it that liberal Christians (and liberal Muslims, etc.) aren't "fundamentalists". We are not all that impressed with your particular flavor of theological bullshit, but we do recognize that that your bullshit is very different from fundamentalist bullshit. We really do understand that when you're talking about "God", you really aren't talking about an invisible man in the sky. We really do understand that you have a lot of the humanistic values we atheists admire; you're a thousand times better than the fundamentalists. Good for you, rah. We really do get it.

First, we are not primarily interested in your sort of "God". Indeed, we might not even be interested at all in your sort of God. If you've defined God to the metaphorical level that Einstein used, for example, then fine, knock yourself out: we have nothing to say to you. The vast majority of atheists are not so stupid as to mean that we are absolutely certain every possible use of the letters G + o + d in the English language to be utterly and completely deluded, or that every use of these letters in combination consists of believing that there's an invisible man in the sky.

There really are billions of people, though, who really are "fundamentalists", who really do believe that there's an invisible man in the sky, with a list of ten things he doesn't want you to do, and it really is the purpose of those who have the correct understanding of what this invisible man wants to ensure that the rest of us follow his wishes. Our primary political purpose, especially for those of us who self-identify as Gnu Atheists*, is to marginalize and undermine the social and legal privilege of people who claim to know what this invisible man wants.

*I love you, Dr. Myers, and I want to have your babies.

We self-identify as atheists because so many of these invisible man believers argue about which invisible man really exists and what he really wants; we want to escape this particular conversation. It's not a matter of which or what, but of whether any invisible man exists, and we say none does.

If you're not that sort of person, if you don't think there's an invisible man in the sky and its important to find out what he wants and make sure every acts accordingly, we're simply not talking directly to you: if the shoe does not fit, you're not obliged to wear it. The Gnu Atheists deny specific assertions about reality because they are not true, and they are not true for very specific reasons. We focus on (fundamentalist) religion because the religious who affirm these specific assertions have caused a great deal of unnecessary human suffering and death. When liberal Christians become upset at the Gnu Atheist critique of (fundamentalist) religion, therefore, we conclude that we really are talking about you, that we really are denying some belief or principle you actually affirm.

The argument is:
  1. Billions of people affirm statements about reality that are false
  2. They either perpetrate or fail to resist the imposition of human suffering on the basis of these statements about reality
  3. We can remove or encourage people to resist many impositions of suffering if we undermine the social privilege of people who make false statements about reality
Given this argument, it is simply not a rebuttal that you affirm statements about reality that atheists would consider false, but you do not perpetrate or fail to resist the imposition of suffering. In the same sense, it is simply not a rebuttal to the syllogism
  • All human beings are mortal
  • Socrates is a human being
  • Therefore Socrates is mortal
to reply that you are a human being but you are not Socrates. False beliefs about reality, especially religious false beliefs, are necessary but not sufficient to perpetrate human suffering.

If you say that you don't have false beliefs about reality, and you really don't have false beliefs about reality according to what Gnu Atheists consider false, then why would you think for a moment that we're talking about you? "God," you might say, "is something like a literary metaphor for what we consider good and just and loving." Woo hoo! If you want to use "God" that way, knock yourself out. I'm all for literary metaphors, and you're in the same camp as the good Doctor Einstein. We're not talking about literary metaphors, we're not talking about you at all, we're talking about people who really do believe that an invisible man really does exist and so forth.

We see the liberal Christian response to the Gnu Atheist critique of religion very differently though. We see this response as the position that it's acceptable to have false beliefs about reality so long as we have the right sort of false beliefs. Sometimes the liberal Christian response goes so far as to assert that it's not only acceptable but necessary to have the right sort of false beliefs about reality; having only true beliefs about reality will lead to even more suffering and death than even the wrong sort of false beliefs.

The alert reader will notice that I'm being outrageously tendentious, referring without qualification to beliefs as true or false when I really mean beliefs that atheists conclude to be false for specific reasons, notably scientific empiricism. When we deny fundamentalist religious beliefs because they are not scientifically valid, we are actually criticizing liberal religious beliefs (those that are not entirely literary) on the same grounds. In just the same sense, to condemn the anti-vaccination position because it is scientifically invalid is in the same breath to condemn other activities relatively harmless compared to opposition to vaccination but equally scientifically invalid.

And indeed the liberal Christian response really is to often ask: what's so great about scientific empiricism? Why should the conclusion that some statement about religion is scientifically false even relevant to the discussion?

I'm not going to answer this question right now, but I want to make it clear that this question is the crux of the biscuit. The Gnu Atheists are not saying that all religions are exactly the same. We are not saying that all religions are equally morally reprehensible, or have perpetrated an equal or comparable amount of human suffering. We do say, however, that everyone fundamentalist and liberal who goes substantively beyond scientific empiricism to assert truths about the world has something in common, i.e. that they go substantively beyond scientific empiricism, and we disagree in the strongest possible terms with this position.