Thursday, September 30, 2010

The argument from morality

The general theistic philosophical argument from morality* essentially states that without a god, there are no objective (or absolute) moral standards; without objective moral standards, we have no basis to call anything good or bad. There are three important rebuttals to this argument.

*The separate evidentiary argument states that it is impossible to offer a good naturalistic account for observed human moral behavior.

I. Even if there were no god, there might still be objective moral standards. There are, of course, objective physical truths that naturalists can account for without a god; perhaps the same might be true of moral standards. Many non-theistic philosophers (and some theistic ones) have offered natural accounts for objective moral standards, notably moral realism. I think these arguments fail, but they fail on epistemic grounds; there is nothing ontologically outrageous about moral realism.

II. Theism does not offer objective moral standards. In the sense of "objective" as "not a property of a mind", theistic morality is established by the mind of god, and ipso facto subjective. In the sense of "objective" as "rationally determinable" (in the sense that it is objectively true, i.e. rationally determinable, that "2+2=4" is a theorem of arithmetic), theism offers no rational epistemic method to determine properties of the mind of god.

III. Even without objective moral standards, we still have a basis for calling things good and bad: our subjective preferences. Of course, a subjective account of morality fails to offer a basis for calling some moral beliefs mistaken or false, but there's no particular reason to require that the good be the true. It's not false or contradictory to say that I disapprove of slavery, and I disapprove so strongly that I'm willing to employ coercion to eradicate, prevent or punish it. If you believe just as strongly that slavery ought to be tolerated, we'll just have to fight it out. An examination of human history — notably the American Civil War — shows that this is actually how many moral arguments have been settled.

That we can and have settled some moral arguments just by talking about them does not entail that there is some objective truth to moral questions. Moral discourse is substantively different from scientific discourse: science relies on falsifiability and evidence; moral discourse relies on compromise, negotiation and propaganda (in the broadest sense of trying directly to change others' subjective preferences). We've developed preferences at an abstract level: We prefer to compromise some of our concrete moral preferences rather than fight about every moral question.

The contradiction in the argument that we would prefer to have an objectivist account of morality and therefore there actually is an objective account of morality should be obvious.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tea & Crackers

Tea & Crackers: How corporate interests and Republican insiders built the Tea Party monster.
A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.
(via PZ Myers)

Atheism, conviction and certainty

A theme that appears with some regularity is the charge that atheists are absolutely certain there is no god. I suppose there are a few atheists who really are absolutely certain there is no god, but I haven't met a single one... and I know a lot of atheists. The hardest, most "militant" atheists I know (and I'm one of them) explicitly and vociferously disclaim certainty. I'm not certain even about the conceptions of God that are logically impossible or obviously contradicted by experience: my deduction might be faulty; my experiences might be hallucinatory.

I am however convinced that there's no god, at least according to the usual notions of god, the "invisible man in the sky" sorts of conceptions that billions of people believe. I'm convinced in precisely the same sense that I'm convinced that humans and apes (and humans and bananas) evolved from a common ancestor. I'm convinced in precisely the same sense that I'm convinced the universe is about 15 billion years old, that things (near the surface of the Earth) fall when you drop them, that airplanes can indeed fly. I'm convinced: I'm persuaded by the evidence I have and the arguments I've heard that no god exists. Give me more evidence or different arguments, and I might change my mind. I don't really expect additional evidence or arguments to change my mind — I've been doing this whole atheism thing for a long time — but I've been surprised before and I'm sure I'll be surprised again.

Not just theists and agnostics but also other atheists have argued with me that we cannot and should not say we are convinced, that we know there is no god, because we cannot be absolutely certain there is no god. But I'm puzzled* by this position: in no other endeavor**, not even mathematics, is absolute certainty a prerequisite for a legitimate claim of knowledge. Am I convinced that Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are true? Yes. Am I absolutely certain that no other theory will come along to supplant them as Relativity supplanted Newtonian Mechanics. Of course not. So what's so special about god that we need absolute certainty to claim the knowledge that no god exists?

*I'm not really puzzled, I'm just trying to be nice. Don't worry: it won't last.
**Well, maybe philosophy, but philosophers are just bullshit artists slightly more sophisticated than theologians.

(The flip side of this fallacy is the theists' claim that they cannot supply atheists' demands for absolute certainty about claims of a god's existence or properties. We do not demand absolute certainty. We'd like to see a case made beyond a reasonable doubt, but at this point I'd settle for probable cause or even reasonable suspicion.)

If you personally are not convinced that no god exists, then you're not convinced. I'm happy to discuss the issue with you in a friendly way. But what irks me is the argument (unless you're a big-ess Skeptic or epistemic nihilist who believes we can't know anything) that just because I am convinced that no god exists it is necessarily the case that I am being in some sense dogmatic or committing some grave epistemic error. It might happen to be the case that I am indeed dogmatic, but you have to look at the details of my actual position to discover that: you cannot tell that I am being dogmatic just because I'm an atheist.

Part of the problem is, of course, that theologians and apologists have been trying to obfuscate the issue, mostly arguing (when you cut through the bullshit) that the existence or nonexistence of god is not something that can be scientifically known. OK, ha ha, you got me: I admit that I don't know that a god whose existence or nonexistence cannot be scientifically known does not actually exist. But so what? If you have some other means of knowing whether or not such a god exists, please clue me in. And I do mean knowing; simply choosing to believe one way or another is not knowledge. If there's no way at all of actually knowing, then who cares? I just don't care that a god might be hiding behind my couch, or that invisible fairies are pushing everything towards the center of the Earth.

The problem is that every day I read this or that atrocity against human well-being and happiness — atrocities that shock my conscience to the core — being not just perpetrated but proudly perpetrated by people in name of their god. It's not just the "newsworthy" atrocities — acid in a young girl's face, the murder of an abortion doctor, the rape of a child — it's the systematic and persistent efforts of so many religious people to marginalize, oppress and exploit some large segment of the population: heretics, foreigners, homosexuals, and of course women.

All of this would be irrelevant if it were true that a god actually existed. The truth is the truth; nuclear physics is still true even if it means we can incinerate tens of thousands in a heartbeat; it's still true even if we annihilate the entire terrestrial biosphere in a nuclear holocaust.

But it's not true. There is no god. We're on our own, a microscopic speck of life in an indifferent universe that cares nothing for our happiness or our survival. Bullshit in the service of good is still bullshit; the defense of bullshit in the service of good equally defends that bullshit in the service of evil.

I'm an atheist: I'm not buying the bullshit. If you want to buy the bullshit, well, that's your problem, not mine. And fuck you! if you demand that I buy the bullshit just so you don't feel bad about your reliance on infantile fantasies.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bullshit poisons everything

It's not really religion — it's certainly not just religion — that poisons everything: bullshit poisons everything.

Even if we could completely eliminate bullshit, we would not turn the world into a Utopia. Figuring out how the world works is an enormously difficult task. Even just figuring out physics at the most basic level, simplified level has taken the lifetime effort of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people for centuries; throw in all the physical sciences and the cost is staggering. Of course, the benefits to humanity (even counting all the drawbacks, like oil spills and nuclear weapons) have exceeded the costs by orders of magnitude. And if science is hard, politics and economics — negotiating all the competing interests, preferences, talents and abilities of billions of self-interested people — is even harder.

Bullshit is not our only problem, and it's probably not even our worst problem. The elimination of bullshit is not a panacea: it's not a sufficient condition to solve any, much less all, of the world's problems. But bullshit makes everything harder. Bullshit and the toleration of bullshit actively blocks solutions to our political and economic problems. We know this because the most important advance of science has been the scientific method — experimental, empirical falsifiability — which detects and eliminates instances of bullshit.

I can't stress the point too strongly. Scientists today are no more clever or intelligent than people were a thousand years ago. We did not magically leave the stupid field in Francis Bacon's or Gallileo's day. The key to science is not naturalism: Thales was a naturalist a generation before Socrates; the key to science is not logic: Aristotle discovered the laws of logic; the key to science is not reliance on evidence and thorough investigation of the facts: Thucydides pioneered these methods. And yet modern science had to wait a hundred generations after these pioneers. Science had to wait on its true key: total and intentional commitment to the elimination of falsity and bullshit on the basis of evidence and experiment.

Science has not, of course, eliminated all bullshit. The point is that scientists have intentionally adopted the attitude — and built the social systems to fulfill that attitude — that bullshit is intolerable: when they do find an instance of bullshit (and they find it all the time), they ruthlessly extirpate it. Hence, despite their considerable scientific achievements, scientists and devotees of science such as myself look askance at scientists such as Ken Miller or Francis Collins. The essence of science is the intolerance of bullshit, and here are these guys tolerating egregious bullshit in their personal lives. (It's not their conclusion that God exists, it's rather their justification for that conclusion that reeks of bullshit.)

The total commitment to the detection and elimination of bullshit is not a sufficient condition to solving or ameliorating our problems. It is, however, a necessary condition. And the only way to develop this commitment is to socially select against* habits of thought and institutions that definitionally or actually tolerate bullshit.

*As I've often noted, social selection does not mean killing people; indeed killing people is almost always an ineffective and always a grossly inefficient way of selecting against ideas and social constructions.

It's not at all that confrontationalist, anti-religious atheists such as myself have any abhorrence to belief in gods per se. We object, rather, to the bullshit that necessarily supports these beliefs, and the toleration of bullshit necessary to maintain these beliefs and their associated institutions. And it's not that religion has any corner on bullshit; religion is, rather, a "paradigmatic" bullshit-tolerating social institution. Religion too might be the keystone in the edifice of bullshit we've been building for millennia. Undermine religion — and undermine it using a dedication to the detection and extirpation of bullshit — and all the other forms of bullshit — e.g. woo, counterfactual denialism and historical revisionism, epistemic nihilism, Libertarianism — are thereby weakened, perhaps fatally.

It is this abhorrence not of god but of bullshit that I think the accommodationists at best fail to see and at worst refuse to see.

If our goal were only to get people to somehow believe — or believe in, whatever that means — evolution, then it's crucial to make religious bullshit compatible with evolution. We can make bullshit say whatever we want it to say; bullshit can be just as easily compatible with evolution as with creationism. It might take some effort, but anyone who's studied even a little theology knows that theologians have explained away more troubling ideas than a measly four billion years of evolution. And people hold their bullshit near and dear to their hearts: to demand that people not just believe evolution but believe evolution because that's what you have to believe when you have eliminated bullshit, those intent on holding onto their bullshit will be more likely to reject evolution. The accommodationists are absolutely, 100% correct: the anti-religious confrontational stance is not just unnecessary but seriously counterproductive to the goal of persuading people to accept this or that scientific truth.

But that's not our goal. Of course we'd like people to accept evolution — even if you have some bullshit support for it, evolution is absolutely necessary to understand biology — but acceptance of evolution per se is not our goal. Our goal really is to establish the intolerance and abhorrence of bullshit itself into all of our larger social institutions, and we do so by condemning institutions — especially religion — that are built on the foundation of tolerating and promoting bullshit. And of course the accommodationist position is not just unnecessary but at least somewhat counterproductive to our goal.

There's an important asymmetry, though. Accommodationist tactics are not really fatal to the confrontationalist position, but confrontationalist tactics are probably fatal to accommodationism. Accommodationism is just one more form of bullshit, and the confrontationalist position is that bullshit will always be with us; we need to develop attitudes and institutions that continuously detect and eliminate bullshit. But confrontationalism actively and fatally undermines accommodationist tactics: how can the accommodationists say that there's no conflict between science and religious bullshit when people who believe the very same scientific truths are loudly asserting that those truths actively undermine religious bullshit? Confrontationalists don't need the accommodationists to shut up, we need only to openly observe and condemn their toleration for bullshit. But the accommodationists desperately need the confrontationalist to shut up and not make our case, because they cannot openly rebut our case without undermining the foundations of science itself. We cannot actually eliminate the intolerance of bullshit necessary to make scientific progress, but to make accommodationism work it has to remain a dirty little secret that we cannot reveal to the religious.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Theology in a nutshell

Assuming that:
  1. God exists
  2. God created the universe
  3. God wants people to behave exactly as I would like them to behave
  4. but
  5. God is not quite as big of an asshole as I am
what can we then say about God?

That's it, folks: that's all there is to theology.

The Stupid! It Burns! (rottweiler edition, part 2)

the stupid! it burns! Before I continue my criticism of Imagine, I want to lay out my own position.

I'm going to repeat a theme over and over because I want to really hammer it home: If you're going to make a value judgment, and you want to have even a chance at being persuasive, you have to at least tell your readers what it is you're judging; unless it's blindingly obvious, you have to also say why you're judging it that way. If you do not do so, you are at best simply whining, behaving exactly like the petulant child not just making vicious personal attacks, but making unsubstantiated vicious attacks.

In the most abstract sense, nocenslupus is free to write whatever she pleases. No matter how much I disagree with her position, on whatever level I disagree, I do not and would not demand that she not write. At a more concrete level, she's free to express her opinion as an opinion, without much commentary from me. Had she simply said, "I think Richard Dawkins acts like a petulant child," my response would be to shrug and say to myself, "Whatever; I think he's cool, but you're entitled to your opinion." She's free to argue that Dawkins or the New Atheist "confrontationalists" are mistaken, either as to matters of truth or matters of political tactics; I would address her argument without condemning her personally. Even if I were to disagree completely with her argument, it's no sin to be mistaken, however deeply mistaken one might happen to be.

There are two sides to the accommodationist position, and I have different opinions about them.

First, I do think the accommodationists are fundamentally mistaken: I believe it is impossible, or at least deeply impractical, to actually accommodate in any meaningful way religion with a scientific society. I do not believe it is possible to "build bridges" between the scientific and religious. However much one might want to accommodate the religious, however much one might want to gently persuade them to voluntarily relinquish their more egregiously harmful beliefs, I do not believe such a task is possible. But I could be mistaken. Maybe the accommodationists are correct. If they want to argue their position reasonably, I'm willing to consider the argument as an argument, and not condemn them for simply having a different opinion than my own. And hey, if they want to do their thing, I won't tell them they shouldn't do it just because I disagree with them: go for it, give it a whirl. I'd love to be surprised.

The second side of the accommodationist position, though, is a purely ethical position: One should not condemn religion for being false even when one knows it is false. One should not condemn the religious for ethical and moral failures even when one knows they have acted harmfully. It's one thing to argue that evolution doesn't actually affect religious belief; it's quite another to say that yes, we know evolution really does compromise religious belief, but we shouldn't actually say so for fear of scaring off the religious. It's one thing to argue that the Pope is not actually complicit in the cover-up of massive child abuse; it's quite another to say that even if we know he is complicit, we shouldn't actually say so for fear of scaring off the Catholics or hardening their opposition.

The problem is, of course, that we do know a lot of religious people believe that the truth of evolution — as well as other scientific theories and the empirical, rational foundations metaphysical naturalism; witness the religious outrage over Stephen Hawking's latest book — really does deeply undermine their religion. And their arguments — at least at the first level — seem sound: if you believe that human beings' relationship with God really is the ultimate purpose of the universe, I can't see how you could accept the accidental, ephemeral and cosmically trivial position of humanity that science unequivocally paints.

The problem is, of course, that we do know a lot of important religious people have done great evil. We have not yet had a trial, but were the Pope a subject of any Western nation with a rule of law, we know he would have long since been indicted for a criminal conspiracy. The only "arguments" one can make to exempt him from legal action are that he is the head of state of a sovereign nation or that he is a religious leader. The first argument, however, argues implicitly that he should be subject to the same sort of international condemnation we apply to the heads of state and government of any "rogue nation", and possibly that there is a case to declare war on the Vatican.

The position that the Pope should be exempt from legal action because he is religious is the very heart of the New Atheist "confrontationalist" position: it's one thing to have an imaginary friend, but that you do have an imaginary friend does not in any way, shape or form exempt you from legal, ethical, or truthful criticism.

It uncontroversial that if you abuse or molest a child you should go to jail; if you have definite knowledge of such abuse and you merely fail to notify the legal authorities — not to mention actively assisting the perpetrator to avoid justice — you should go to jail. It is uncontroversial that if you speak a falsehood, you should be corrected; if you knowingly speak a falsehood, you should be condemned as a liar; if you knowingly speak a harmful falsehood, you are liable for civil penalties for slander and libel.

When it becomes equally uncontroversial that the shape of your hat and your sincere convictions about your imaginary friend are no more relevant to such judgments than your height, your race or your nationality, we can talk about whether the anti-religious confrontationalist position is ethically justified. I cannot tell you how anti-religious confrontationalists will behave when that day comes. But until that day, I will condemn anyone who directly or indirectly excuses any immoral behavior, behavior that harms another person or harms the truth, because of anyone's religious beliefs, and I will condemn religion because people — even atheists — do in fact use religion to exempt people from criticism.

I may sound like a "petulant child", but I can live with that. I will at least offer justification for my "vicious personal attacks".

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (rottweiler edition, part 1)

the stupid! it burns! Normally, I reserve The Stupid! It Burns! for stupidity so egregious and obvious that no commentary is necessary. Where I feel commentary is necessary to highlight the errors of some work, it's hard to support the notion that the stupidity is actually burning. But in this case, I'll make an exception. I feel that I have a duty to be more explicit in criticizing my fellow atheists.

In her elaborately titled post, Play A Perfect Circle’s Version of “Imagine” in the Background While You Read This… What? I Like It Better Than Lennon’s Original, nocenslupus sharply condemns the "New Atheists" and its notable intellectuals, especially Dawkins. Her condemnation is not only inaccurate, the author simply fails to justify her judgment. The only meaningful point is that she doesn't like the New Atheist approach to the criticism of religion. That's all well and good: she's under no obligation to identify with the New Atheists. But if she's going to do more than simply disagree with New Atheists and Dawkins, if she's going to condemn them, then a sound justification is necessary. She utterly fails to do so. She exhibits the worst feature of the religious: how dare anyone disagree with her!? It really is true, as I've noted time and again: sometimes an atheist is just someone with one fewer stupid idea than a theist.

She starts off not just comparing but equating Dawkins' speech condemning the Pope to the Pope's equation of atheism and Nazism.
Naturally, I was appalled at comments by Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Kasper effectively comparing atheism to Nazism, among other slanders. Of course I was.

However, I found Richard Dawkins’ response speech to be equally as frustrating:

Let me detour for a moment to something I find extremely frustrating in the modern mixed-media environment: posting videos as evidentiary support for one's assertions. This technique is not always bad; naturally I want some evidence that someone actually said what someone alleges he said, and I want the whole context of their remarks. On the other hand, to post an almost nine minute video as the only description of the statements one is criticizing is as intellectually indefensible as posting only the title of a book and saying some parts of it are bad. Which parts are bad? Which parts does the author think are bad?

Our author gives us no clue. Some unspecified parts of Dawkins speech are "snide comments and vicious attacks," some parts are factual. Well, which parts? What statements constitute snide comments? Which are vicious attacks? Which are factual? I've watched the speech and I found nothing objectionable, but maybe I'm missing something. All I know is that the author doesn't like Dawkins, but I have no idea specifically what she doesn't like; if I don't even know what she doesn't like, how can I figure out why she doesn't like them? If she is trying to persuade me — since I definitely do self-identify as a New Atheist, and I admire Richard Dawkins — she has to fail, since I have no idea what she would like me to actually change.

Even if her evaluations were accurate, why is Dawkins' speech equally as frustrating as the Pope's? Atheists condemn the Pope's comparison of atheists and Nazis not because it is a vicious attack — the Pope obviously thinks atheism is dangerous and evil; he therefore ought to viciously attack us — but because it's not just factually incorrect, it's so deeply and obviously incorrect that it goes beyond mere slander to a level of contempt and indifference to truth itself. Our author does not even allege that Dawkins is in any way factually inaccurate, much less as egregiously inaccurate as the Pope. In essence, our author is saying that a group's defense against outright aggression is "equally as frustrating" as the aggression itself. It is not always true that, "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger." (Proverbs 15:1) Sometimes a soft answer signals nothing but weakness and encourages more wrath.

Remember: the Pope is the member of a conspiracy — a conspiracy that would be blatantly criminal had it been committed by subjects of an ordinary democracy — to cover up the despicable physical, emotional and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children. To say so out loud is indeed a "vicious attack"; a vicious attack entirely justified by its actual truth. Indeed the Pope's only defense is not on the facts but on standing: the sovereignty of the Vatican* — established by Mussolini, since we're on the subject of 1930's and 40's era fascism — grants him immunity from prosecution unless it can be shown that his actions are not just illegal under national law but constitute a crime against humanity in international law.

*I am not a lawyer.

The author from there makes her own attack against the New Atheists, an attack that if it were true would constitute blatant hypocrisy. The author asserts that
"Darwin’s Rottweiler" has inspired the New Atheist "movement that demands that atheists take a less accommodating stance toward religion and instead call them out, criticize, and attack their beliefs whenever possible." The New Atheists do not demand that atheists take a less accommodating stance, we merely ourselves take this stance. Even were her assertion true, the author is entirely hypocritical since she is in effect demanding that atheists take a more accommodating stance. Indeed the New Atheist criticism of accommodationism is not that accommodationists want individually to take a more conciliatory stance towards the religious, it is precisely because accommodationists demand that the New Atheists exempt religion from accurate criticism. If you want to play good cop to my bad cop, more power to you. But I really am — intellectually speaking — a cop, and part of my job is to charge people with crimes against the truth, a vicious attack no matter how you slice it. You can condemn me for not doing my job, you can condemn me for doing it wrong, but if you condemn me for actually doing my job then you are saying that my job does not need to be done, that the truth needs no defense.

(Damn, I'm only up to the second paragraph of a rather long post, a post that actually gets stupider as it goes on. Further criticism will have to await another post.)

Why I'm a revolutionary communist

I'm a revolutionary communist, but not because I have some burning desire to change the world or any real grievance, personal or social, against the capitalist system. At heart, I'm very conservative: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And if a system can creep along, grinding down only two thirds of the population, I have some sympathy with the argument that the system ain't broke enough to replace it entirely. Not because I'm indifferent to the suffering of billions, but because any student of history knows the terrible costs of revolution to those selfsame billions, even when revolution is inevitable or obviously justified.

I'm a revolutionary communist because I see the portents of catastrophic failure of liberal capitalism. If liberal capitalists were to say with truth that they were actually improving the lives and well-being of all humanity, however slowly, my innate conservatism would side with them. And indeed for most of my life I really did side with them. I've always been a "progressive", wanting to ameliorate the conditions of all humanity, but I accepted — not entirely blindly — the foundations of capitalist society, especially the private ownership of capital and the small-r republican style of government.

But for most of my life, from the mid-1970s to the present, the well-being has declined for most humanity, including all but the highest levels of the capitalist class and the professional-managerial middle class. It's more apparent in hindsight than it was at the time, especially since personally I had found a niche where my own well-being and standard of living almost effortlessly rose over two decades.

I'm of course irritated and displeased that I personally have been unceremoniously ejected (twice!) from the professional-managerial middle class, and my change in status has led me to question a lot of assumptions about liberal capitalism, but I don't nurse much of a grievance. I'm a resourceful and clever guy, with a good personal support system. I know I'll do reasonably well; I won't face homelessness and starvation. And I'm enjoying my life more, much more, on $25,000 a year than I did only a few years ago on $180,000. If the liberal capitalist system as a whole were working, I wouldn't be at all aggrieved by the changes in my personal fortunes, even though these changes were thrust upon me, since even in a time of crisis I'm still doing quite well by my own standards.

But the system as a whole isn't working. What's happened to me is happening in one way or another to a hundred million people in the United States, and a billion around the world, and most of them have neither my enormous social privilege nor the "philosophical" resources I happen to have developed. And there are only a very few slots to avoid a personal catastrophe for someone such as myself to find as much by luck as by cleverness, diligence and talent. I'm selfish enough to keep my privileged slot, but I'm observant enough not to assume that because I personally (at least presently) found a slot that a slot exists for everyone, if only they choose to take it.

I'm a revolutionary communist in no small part because a revolution is already underway. I'm not really fighting against liberal capitalism; I'm fighting against the Randian reactionary revolution that's overwhelming liberal capitalism. It's been a "slow" revolution, because it was a revolution against a political-economic system that — while very far from perfect — was working fairly efficiently and making real gains for a hundred million people. The first thirty years of the Randian revolution was spent in an effort to undermine liberal capitalism. And the last bastion of liberal capitalism in the capitalist ruling class — the liberal billionaires and their representatives in the "progressive" wing of the Democratic party — show no sign of even understanding, much less resisting, this revolutionary tide.

My major "conservative" objection to revolution — even a "good" revolution — is no longer operative: whether I like it or not, a revolution is underway. And it's a bad revolution, a revolution that is explicitly intent on making life worse for all but the handful of people at the very top, a revolution in which I can see the portents of intentional genocide and mass-murder on a Hitlerian scale. The Randians will find that people are more resilient than they think — the mediocre in large numbers have surprising resources — and will not implode in self-destruction as quickly as they think. There will be, I think, increasing motivation and will to accelerate that destruction, and actively perpetrate it to achieve the purity of values that is the heart of the Randian reactionary revolution.

The Randian revolution too is doing all of the morally questionable work of any mass movement, especially destroying the social institutions — e.g. church*, family, neighborhood, labor union — that give individuals a sense of "belonging" and solidarity, and forcing those individuals into one mass movement or another to find that solidarity. Indeed this morally questionable work might prevent me from supporting any mass movement de nuovo; but given that a bad revolution has already destroyed these institutions, and only a competing mass movement can resist and finally overthrow the Randians, these moral issues are eased, in exactly the same sense that a physician has more moral license to experiment on a patient — with her consent — who is suffering and moribund: the first canon is "do no harm", but what more harm can be done?

*The role of churches in providing belonging and solidarity for frustrated individuals within a system and the changes necessary to for churches to organize frustrated individuals into a mass movement to implement a new system are complicated. That the role of churches can be so easily co-opted lies at the heart of my specifically atheist contempt of religion in general.

A revolution is already happening. I am not so much to foment revolution but to foment a counter-revolution.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (joke edition)

the stupid! it burns!
The joke is the dogged persistence of atheists trying in the face of common sense to persuade the world as to the wisdom they see in their every utterance. Another way of putting it would be, atheism is the joke. ...

Who is likely to grow mute in the face of a bald claim that the universe more or less invented itself? Was Hawking there with his camera? That would be the first question. Soon other questions would follow. The vast variety of life -- that was spontaneous, too? The human organism -- the brain, the eye, the ear, the digestive tract -- just sort of, you know, happened? The sky, the seas, the seasons, not to mention human reproduction -- those things, too? ...

It's really all too funny, as things tend to get when certain people -- over and over without pause -- do the same stupid things. Such as instruct the whole of human history to get off this God thing and start believing in spontaneous creation. I can see it all now, can't you? -- The Church of Spontaneous Creation; services whenever you're feeling spontaneous; come feel the creative power surge through your veins; learn to laugh at fools and frauds and idiots stupid enough to disagree with the doctrine of "It All Just Happened."
(via the good atheist)

Science fiction

Science Fiction is a Genre That Everyone Should Read

Science fiction authors are rarely great stylists. "A lot of the best known science fiction looks either dated (Jules Verne, HG Wells) or dumb: the platitudinous and banal ‘philosophical’ discussions of the Star Trek crew on their pointless and endless galactic cruise."

The value of science fiction is neither stylistic or strictly scientific; its value is truly literary, in the highest sense.
It is fiction that asks questions about the human condition and the meaning of life by taking us beyond everyday life. We go to strange planets, far distant futures or even to our own past — in order to learn about who we really are. Science fiction takes its readers to far off galaxies in order to help them understand life on earth more clearly — just as Dorothy traveled to Oz to learn what Kansas was really all about. The results can be startling and profound...
(via toomanytribbles)

Global and local burdens of proof

DagoodS's comment in Atheism and the burden of proof illustrates an important distinction between the related but different concepts that I'll label as the more-or-less static "global" burden of proof and the ever-shifting "local" burden of proof.

In a legal case, the prosecution and the defense have substantively different tasks: the prosecution (or plaintiff in a civil case) has to prove the specific charge. The defense, however, never has to prove the opposite of the specific charge; the defense (absent an affirmative defense) must merely undermine the prosecution's case. This is, as best I understand it, the point DagoodS is making about the technical legal definition of the "burden of proof"; we can see this as the global burden of proof.

There is also, even in a legal case with a static global burden of proof, a de facto shifting local burden of proof. Once the prosecution introduces some evidence supporting the specific charge, if the defense does nothing, the jury might conclude that because the defense has not raised any doubt at trial no doubt actually exists. The defense — if they wish to prevail — now has the burden of raising doubt. This burden is for all practical purposes, a burden of proof, since the defense must give a reason to raise doubt. It's in some sense a "lesser" burden, since the defense does not need to prove the opposite of the overall charge; they need only prove the lesser point that the prosecution's evidence is not as probative as the prosecution would have the jury believe.

The prosecution might have to prove, for example, that the defendant was near the scene of the crime. Because they have a global burden of proof, they cannot merely allege that the defendant might have been near the scene of the crime, they have to introduce actual evidence proving that the defendant actually was at the scene. The defense never has to prove that the defendant was not at the scene of the crime, they merely have to cast doubt on the prosecution's case: they can in effect prove only that the defendant might have been elsewhere. The prosecution has the global burden of proof.

But the prosecution might bring in an eyewitness who will testify that he saw the defendant near the scene of the crime. At this point, the defense has a local burden of proof. They cannot merely allege that the witness might have been mistaken; they must introduce actual evidence to prove that the witness was mistaken (or at least unreliable enough to raise a reasonable doubt). The defense has a local burden of proof.

The point of global and local burdens of proof is that the burden is on one party to perform a specific kind of task, not on each party to perform the same kind of task more effectively than the other.

What is a burden of proof?

In comments, Vinny asks why burdens of proof are a big deal in the first place?

What do we really mean by a burden of proof? Vinny gets right to the crux of the biscuit:
"Burden of proof" assertions between atheists and theists often boil down to "I can offer no positive proof for my position, but I am going to declare myself the winner anyway since you cannot offer any for yours either."
He's descriptively correct, but I think he underestimates the power of this position. A burden of proof requires one party in a controversy to actively do something positive; if that party fails to do what's required, her opponent need do nothing to actually win.

Note that the quoted description is very different from Vinny's other characterization: a burden of proof "is sort of like the 'tie goes to the runner' rule we used as kids playing baseball." But in this situation, both parties have to do something active to succeed; there is no "default" if neither party actively performs the required task: the runner must actively run from home plate to first base, and the defense must actively move the ball to first base. Furthermore, given enough time, neither party will fail. If the runner stands still, he will eventually be put out. If the shortstop holds the ball, the runner will eventually be safe.

There are situations where it seems important to asymmetrically set one party a task she can fail to perform, and require a task from her opponent only if she succeeds. To carry on the baseball allegory*, the pitcher has an asymmetric task of throwing a strike: he can fail at that task (since he gets only one try), and if he does fail, the batter need not do anything to be safe. If the pitcher throws a strike, he has successfully transferred a metaphorical "burden of proof" to the batter: the batter must make contact with the ball: if he fails to do so, the defense need not do anything for the batter to be out.

*Using grossly oversimplified rules of baseball.

So why do we need the concept of "burden of proof" in argument? Are arguments more like the metaphorical symmetric situation, where the "burden of proof" is applicable only if both parties perform their active tasks exactly equally? Or are there some situations where we might say that one party has a requirement to actively fulfill some requirement, achieve some task; a good try doesn't count if the requirement is not actually fulfilled.

In criminal* cases, however, the prosecution has the initial burden of proof, a burden that's different from the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof she must eventually achieve. The prosecution must actively introduce some evidence establishing the elements of the crime. If she fails to do so, the defense can effectively rest without introducing additional evidence, and in closing remark only on the prosecutor's failure to meet her burden of introducing some evidence.

*As best I understand with my Law & Order J.D., which focuses on criminal procedure and law.

If, however, the prosecutor does introduce some evidence, the defense now has a burden to cast reasonable doubt on that evidence (or to raise an affirmative defense); if the defense fails to do so, a conviction will probably result* without further argument by the prosecution. What we see are shifting burdens of proof to achieve a standard of proof.

*Unless as in Twelve Angry Men the jury does the defense attorney's work for him.

The notion of "innocent until proven guilty" establishes neither a burden nor a standard of proof: it only specifies what happens if the standard is not met by the process of shifting burdens of proof.

Given this notion of what a burden of proof is, I'll talk about its applicability in philosophy in the next a future post.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (bulldada edition)

the stupid! it burns! There's nothing I can actually quote from this post; it's an exercise in pure bulldada: The Arrogance of Atheism

Atheism and the burden of proof

There's often a big controversy over whether atheists or theists have the burden of proof. I think the big mistake that both atheists and theists make lies in the article: it is a category error to think of THE burden of proof, as if there were only one burden that must be borne by one side or the other. In any argument, burdens of proof shift back and forth, which is why not only prosecutors but also defense attorneys introduce evidence into a trial. Theists can easily place various burdens of proof on atheists; happily we can just as easily meet those burdens.

One of the reasons atheists often state their position as "lack of a belief in any god" is not to escape THE burden of proof, but rather to correctly place the initial burden of proof on the theist.

Most of the basic theistic apologetic arguments — especially the first cause and design families of argument — do in fact place a burden of proof back on the atheist. The world — and especially the terrestrial biosphere — really is complex, that complexity really does calls for an explanation, and we know that prosaic intelligent activity (i.e. human endeavor) really does produce astonishing complexity. The design argument ultimately fails, but it successfully places a burden of proof on an atheist.

It is important to acknowledge that the design argument really does place a burden of proof on an atheist: it's a burden that an atheist can cheerfully bear, because it can and has been met. We must make a positive argument to respond to the argument from design, and we can make a positive argument.

There are three families of positive argument: Hume makes the first two with reasonably good rigor: First, the world (and especially the terrestrial biosphere) exhibits features radically and deeply inconsistent with intelligent design; we must posit an "intelligent" designer of either astonishing incompetence or mysterious abilities (a mystery is of course the very antithesis of an explanation). Second, the complexity of an intelligent designer calls out for just as much explanation as the complexity of the world, an argument that Richard Dawkins summarizes in The God Delusion. The third family is of course the scientific theory of evolution, which explains the complexity of the terrestrial biosphere; indeed it explains not only the appearance of "design" but also the appearance of "incompetent" design.

They may be very weak serves, but it's important to emphasize that the standard apologetic arguments really do serve a burden of proof to the atheist's court. The standard atheist philosophical training consists of learning to anticipate and return these serves. We do not escape our own burdens of proof, we meet them. It is the theist who is unable to meet his own burdens.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (just scraping by edition)

the stupid! it burns! In a break from the anti-atheist stupidity I usually highlight, I'm linking to Brad DeLong's exposé of Todd "Just Scraping by at $400K+ a Year in Family Economic Income" Henderson upper-middle-class twit of the year's egregious stupidity. I could just cut & paste professor DeLong's cut & paste of Henderson's stupidity, but you should get in the habit of reading the good professor yourself.

The Stupid! It Burns! (student loan edition)

the stupid! it burns! I'm seeing a lot of egregious stupidity on what appear to be single-topic forums. This latest example is from Student Loan Zone, with a .cc domain (Cocos (Keeling) Islands). The New Atheists and Their Recent Attacks
Dawkins has been quoted as saying that Christians have no right to raise their children as Christians*. It is a new overt assault on our faith. This new surge of atheistic zeal is really a form of secular fundamentalism.

I define a fundamentalist as anyone who is deeply committed to the basic or fundamental doctrines of his or her faith. I consider myself a Christian fundamentalist.

The atheistic fundamentalists are deeply committed to the belief that life formed by accidental collisions of atoms and death causes the ending of consciousness. Not surprisingly, they are deeply committed to evolution as an explanation of origins. ...

The rejection of God and of God's morality because of Darwinism brought the rise of communism and fascism as atheist political philosophies. (Though Nazism was technically an occultic system it was heavily influenced by evolution based racial theories.) ...

As evolution and its implicit atheism is taught in taxpayer funded schools it has caused the secularization of society. The schools turn out many scruffy, ill-mannered people with no moral compass, guided only by their base, animal appetites.

*The quotation from Dawkins is "[W]e should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe in the literal truth of the Bible than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out. [emphasis added]"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Freedom and equality

In The True Believer Eric Hoffer makes the case that freedom and equality are opposites: thesis and antithesis. The true believer is drawn to a mass movement precisely because it offers him equality, an escape from freedom into an environment where his worth and value is established without regard to his individual characteristics. His individual self has decisively failed him; the true believer thus must search outside himself for value and worth. This ideal is the antithesis of the the ideal of freedom, that each individual ought to be judged on his individual characteristics.

The problem is that judgments are always relative: We pick out the top 10% (or some small fraction) on some measure as "successful" and judge the bottom 90% as "failures". Self-esteem is, I think, best seen as a dialectical relationship between the individual's own conception of herself and her peers' social regard; the concept of freedom thus ineluctably consigns a substantial portion of the population to the negative regard of society and the corrosive effects such a negative regard has on their self-esteem.

It is both the power and the downfall of capitalism that the precise characteristic that distinguishes the capitalist ruling class — their ruthless economic competitiveness — tends to destroy the institutions that give meaning and purpose to those who fail the judgment of freedom. By elevating freedom to the highest or even the only virtue, they hold each individual up to merciless scrutiny, and offer no escape to those who must necessarily fail that scrutiny. But human beings are not so easily thwarted. The frustrated and disaffected individual does not simply lie down and die; she seeks some alternative means to create a dialectic that will generate positive self-esteem. Freedom has failed her — as freedom must necessarily fail most — so she seeks equality. The only way to combat this tendency under the paradigm of freedom is to force those who fail the judgment of freedom into a daily struggle for life and death.

On the other hand, people are not actually equal. So long as people can be led, leaders will select themselves. They will then label some set of characteristics they happen to posses as "superior" to justify their position as leaders. Equality also must be somehow enforced. Even if all that's required is that one say the prayers; the prayers must still be said, with the appearance of sincerely and without irony. Those who do not say the prayers, those who do not sound or act sincere, must be excluded. But enforcement implies some privileged to actually perform the enforcement, to determine compliance, sincerity and authenticity; those so privileged are manifestly not equal.

It is not enough to say that at some stage of human development people can maintain equality "on their own", that the vast majority of people ever will be actually equal, and small deviations can be corrected without some minority privileged to correct them. Such an attitude is not precisely unrealistic — we can definitely observe social organisms that have near-total equality; even the queen bee is subservient to the hive and her life bound entirely to duty — but such equality seems to lose something ineluctably human.

It is perhaps possible that self-esteem could become independent of social regard, that each person's evaluation of her own self simply did not take into account the judgment of her peers. If one ignores Ayn Rand's hostility and contempt for those she considers sub-human, and her delight in their ruin, the human progression to true socially-independent autonomy is probably her most admirable idea. But I think our evolutionary history works against this idea. More importantly I think the tasks an immense and complex universe affords us require a high degree of social cooperation for even the longest-term foreseeable future. It might be the case that some, even many, individuals will develop socially-independent autonomy, but I suspect those individuals will simply remove themselves from the narrative of history and human development.

I have to say I'm a proponent of neither absolute freedom nor absolute equality. I have to see freedom and equality as existing in a dialectical relationship, both affecting the other with complicated and impossible-to-predict feedback effects.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (over-sensitive edition)

the stupid! it burns! Over-sensitive atheists
The Pope’s visit to Britain has inflamed the pious sensibilities of numerous atheists, many of whom signed a letter to the Guardian bewailing the fact that the Pope acts and speaks like a Catholic and claiming he didn’t address the child abuse problems in the Church – even though he did.

Pope Benedict, in his address at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh pointed out that ... Hitler and his Nazis were not so much atheists as anti-theists – against God – just as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are. Hitchens and Dawkins would protest that they are not Nazis, but they are unable to point to an objective standard of right and wrong that would tell them that they shouldn’t be.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Britain's child slaves

Britain's child slaves:
The tunnel was narrow, and a mere 16in high in places. The workers could barely kneel in it, let alone stand. Thick,choking coal dust filled their lungs as they crawled through the darkness, their knees scraping on the rough surface and their muscles contracting with pain.

A single 'hurrier' pulled the heavy cart of coal, weighing as much as 500lb, attached by a chain to a belt worn around the waist, while one or more 'thrusters' pushed from behind. Acrid water dripped from the tunnel ceiling, soaking their ragged clothes.

Many would die from lung cancer and other diseases before they reached 25. For, shockingly, these human beasts of burden were children, some only five years old.
19th century Britain was hardly a backward country; it was at the time the acme of capitalism. Is it any wonder that Marx believed we could do better?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reflections on reflections

Self-described campus minister chab123 posts his (?) Reflections-Advice on Atheist/Christian Discussions.

His first complaint, that atheists insist that "we can only use the empirical or scientific method to examine the existence of God," misses the mark. The implication is that there are all these other methods we can use; atheists are arbitrarily excluding these alternatives. He goes on at great length discussing the purported limitations and shortcomings of the scientific/empirical methods, and even throws in a swipe at the long-discredited logical positivism.

But what does he offer as an alternative? Nothing other than the scientific method itself!
I think that one of the best solutions to dealing with the issue of evidence and arguments for God’s existence is to utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. This type of explanation is commonly called “abduction” since it is a type of reasoning that is different from induction and deduction. Inference to the best explanation is commonly utilized by apologists that use the cumulative case method. In a cumulative case method, each argument has evidential value but will never lead to any kind of mathematical or logical certainty. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. For example, since we can’t observe gravity directly, we only observe its effects. And since we can’t observe God directly, we can draw general conclusions from specific observations.
The problem, though, is that the cumulative inference to the best explanation — the best explanation for the empirical evidence of our senses, that is — is that there is no God, which is precisely the crux of the atheist argument. Apologists use the "scientific method" only by either arbitrarily excluding evidence (the "minimal evidence" paradigm) or by introducing evidentially undecidable components that complicate rather than simplify the theory.

The author claims that the theists believe it takes faith to believe in evolution (which he more-or-less accurately represents as the combination of the laws of physics, chance, and time). Theists are mistaken: evolution is the best explanation inferred from a mountain of evidence.

The author asserts that "Christian scholars have provided solid answers" to the question, "[i]s The God of the Old Testament is a God of genocide?" Have they now? I'd like to see these solid answers. The only answers that I've seen is are bullshit rationalizations that externally impose the interpretation that God is not genocidal, and assume on faith whatever ad hoc hypotheses are necessary not to explain the plain textual evidence but to explain it away. But why shouldn't the god of the Old Testament be genocidal? Maybe our own discomfort with genocide (not to mention slavery, rape, human sacrifice, wars of aggression, misogyny and sexism, and homophobia) is merely unjustified sentimentality. I don't mind too much imposing our own human moral beliefs on the Bible, but once we do so, it ceases to have any sort of moral authority.

The author sidesteps the question, "Does religion cause evil?" with a fallacy of the excluded middle. The issue is not whether religion causes more evil than non-theism, the questions are: what evils does religion — specifically the supernatural component of religion that distinguishes it from naturalism — cause? Why does it cause these evils? Can we ameliorate these evils without losing supernaturalism? Is a religion without supernaturalism really a religion, or at least an objectionable religion? (If you want to label as "religious" your desire that everyone be as happy as possible and suffer as little as possible, without assigning a supernatural justification for that belief, I have no quarrel with either your "religion" or your choice of label.)

The argument has never been that religion is wholly evil; it's never been that religion does more evil than good. The minor argument is that religion holds itself up as a moral paragon: their evils — whatever they happen to be — undermine this stance.

The major specifically moral atheist critique of religion is that a supernatural justification for a moral belief — regardless of the content of that belief — cannot be critically examined. Supernaturalism is just as easily employed to justify "evil" moral beliefs (beliefs one might disapprove of) as to justify "good" moral beliefs. No matter what your belief happens to be, once you have retreated into faith the criticism that your belief is inconsistent becomes irrelevant: God can distinguish on whatever basis He chooses; it's irrelevant that we ourselves might think the distinction is trivial or specious. God can cause whatever suffering He chooses: the argument from empathy — that the suffering of others caused by some moral belief shocks our conscience — becomes irrelevant: if our conscience is shocked, so much the worse for our conscience. If we can actually determine that religion even does the smallest evil, then we must presuppose that we can evaluate good and evil independently of religion: we can critically examine moral beliefs, and therefore supernaturalism is unjustified.

The author mentions that "I have been told that on the Ohio State campus where I am a campus minister that the Philosophy 101 class went over the God Delusion and demonstrated why Dawkins should probably stick to biology." Could we imagine a more egregious example of completely bullshit third- and fourth-hand hearsay and a pure argument from authority? And what kind of authority do we even grant to an introductory philosophy class?

The God Delusion is not book of philosophy. The philosophical arguments it contains are directed at a lay audience, not a technical or academic audience, and are rebuttals to one particular conception of God and a few particular arguments for the existence of a God. Even his one more-or-less positive argument for the non-existence of God is still addressed primarily to the conception of God implicit in the apologetic argument from design — an argument about which Dawkins has a legitimate claim to expertise.

The author is "saddened to say that one of the predominant reasons our culture rejects our faith is because of a lack of information." But is this really true? And if it's actually true, or he believed it to be true, why does he not offer any new information?

I'll tell you what we atheists want from believers: we want you to stop trying to flagrantly bullshit us. If you have faith — belief without or contrary to sufficient evidence or argument — then just say so. If you think you have an evidentiary or argumentative case, then just make it. Don't deprecate evidentialism, don't retreat to faith when your argumentative case fails. Don't try to make up new rules of evidence just to give you the conclusion you want; give us a positive reason to accept different rules. Remember: at the very heart of it, atheism is the conviction that everyone who says they speak for God is completely full of shit: if any god were to exist, it is a completely mysterious god, a god no one can speak for. And as Hume noted a mysterious god is no god at all.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Republican Party

(via Daniel Fincke)

Subway science map

Totally, incredibly, awesomely cool, in a totally geeky way.

click to embiggen

The Original Post (with commentary)

Also check out the Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense:

click to embiggen

(via Ken)

Leftist science fiction

Mack Reynolds. Reynolds' novels feature "hyper-industrialism", where most of the necessities of life are provided by highly automated factories and most people do not perform productive labor (they're supported monetarily by the Negative Income Tax). He also features a professional-managerial "meritocratic" ruling class. Sadly, most of his work is out of print, but it can still be found in used bookstores.

Notable works (that I've read) include Commune 2000 A.D. (1974) and The Towers of Utopia (1975).

The works of Greg Egan. Many of Egan's works — especially Diaspora (1997); Schild's Ladder (2002), and Incandescence (2008) — describe a post-industrial "virtual" society, where consciousness is implemented both biologically and electronically. Productive activity is entirely voluntary and ethical beliefs have widespread agreement and near-uniform compliance. Although perhaps Utopian, these works are probably the best fictional description of a classless society. He also discusses a more contemporary vision of a politically isolated left-anarchist society in Distress (1995). He seems extremely liberal/progressive, atheistic and not particularly religion-friendly (see especially his novellas Oceanic and The Moral Virologist). In addition to political philosophy, his novels and short stories explore subtle philosophical issues of ontology, epistemology and ethics.

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, especially the original series, is often considered socialist, depicting a society without money. Later series use the often slightly ridiculous alien Ferenghi to poke fun at modern capitalism.

If anyone has any suggestions, please offer them here in comments. I think science/speculative fiction is an excellent medium for discussing and exploring political philosophy and philosophy in general.

Update: China Miéville's Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read (thanks to a commenter)

A communist programme: Magical version (part 1)

Before getting into a more realistic programme, I think it's useful to explore what I would propose if I could somehow magically* change modern American society into a communist democracy.

*The naivete of Democratic Socialism is that a fundamentally capitalist country can actually be transformed step-by-step into a socialist or communist society. Reforms are helpful, they can increase the political and social power of the working class, but as the working class gains power they come into increasing conflict with the capitalist class. Every time this conflict has become sharp, the Democratic Socialists have come down on the side of the capitalists. Furthermore, Democratic Socialists seem all to often to early on want to take power away from the hands of the working class to prevent this conflict. As Elena Kagan documents, at the first victory the Democratic Socialists gave away the New York City garment unions' power to strike.

First, what do we want to keep? Nobody is wrong all the time, and republican capitalism has achieved some notable innovations that seem worth keeping, with perhaps some modifications.

The first worthy innovation is the rule of law. (What makes the rule of law a "bourgeois right" is not that it's wrong, it's that it's too limited: we have to consider the content of the law, not just the fact that we have any law at all.) The rule of law means that the government — even a democratic government — has to govern by consistent rules that have to be applied according to objective criteria. The rule of law stands opposite to personal rule, i.e. governance according to the day-to-day opinions of some privileged person or persons.

You cannot have the rule of law unless you institutionally separate the formation of law from its interpretation; otherwise, you just get personal rule in the interpretation. Thus we have to have a more-or-less independent judiciary. We would probably need a wholesale replacement of individual judges, but we can keep the present-day judicial structure largely intact. At the community level we have judges elected directly or appointed by an elected body for a fixed term; at the appellate level we have appointed judges with lifetime tenure. This structure would be advantageous for a magical in-place communist revolution, insulating for a time a communist constitution from the influence of unofficial capitalist-based social and political constructions remaining in society.

The second innovation, related to the rule of law, is establishing constitutional protections for individual and minority rights. There are certain principles we need to strongly insulate from even the majority, most specifically the power of a minority to attempt to become a majority. We can, in fact, keep the existing Bill of Rights virtually intact, tweaking only the Second Amendment to make it less ambiguous* and the Fifth to distinguish between personal property and the ownership of capital. I would additionally incorporate the UN Declaration of Human Rights, again distinguishing personal property from capital in Article 17.

*I'm in favor of the Second Amendment — the armed proletariat is a crucial component of communist theory — although I have some issues with its present interpretation. I read the "well regulated Militia" clause as broadly permitting government regulation of the ownership of firearms, such as registration, mandatory training, and safety and security regulations. I would even go so far as to say that it would be legitimate to require membership in an organization establishing military discipline, so long as membership in that organization was a broadly protected individual right.

Although it's hardly an innovation of republican capitalism, we are compelled, I think, to keep a civil service: every civilization since the invention of writing has had a more-or-less distinct civil service, increasingly operating according to quasi-legal rules established by a policy-making body. Even private organizations of more than a few dozen people include a bureaucracy. Indeed bureaucracy might well be a sine qua non of civilization itself. We need to maintain an institution that knows how to "turn on the lights", and a stable civil service acts as a dialectical counterweight to volatility of popular sentiment. In any event, I'm unable to think of an plausible, practical alternative. I will, however, propose substantial changes to how the civil service should operate.

Ethics and logical consistency

Why is logical consistency so important in ethics? Superficially, logical consistency always seems important for its own sake, but if we dig a little deeper, we're not so sure.

Being fundamentally subjective — the foundation of any person's ethical system rests on her own subjective preferences and her understanding and evaluation of other people's preferences — it's not a tremendously difficult project to make any ethical system logically consistent. Since each different event (action, outcome or state of affairs) is in objectively different from every other event, there's always some objective difference to attach an ethical distinction to. It might be silly, but it's not logically inconsistent, for example, to make ethical distinctions on the basis of gender, religion, national origin, race, hair color, height or even handedness. Since any ethical system — except one that has two distinct evaluations of the exact same event — can be made logically consistent, the consistency criterion seems vacuous.

(Related to the apparent vacuity of the consistency criterion is the fallacy of similarity: one can find many similarities between events and sets of events, and fallaciously argue that the similarity logically entails that the same ethical evaluation be made to both.)

Consistency by itself is substantive only when establishing consistency with some canonical and relatively unambiguous point of reference, such as legal consistency with statute, precedent or a constitution. But when we're talking about the ethical basis of law, consistency doesn't affect the content: any content can be made logically consistent.

But if we dig deeper still, we find the criterion of consistency to be important for a secondary purpose: to establish honesty. For an ethical system to be effective, it must be shared; if you want an ethical system to become socially current, you must convince other people to adopt your beliefs, or at least convince others to permit you to act on them without social consequence. And what might make an ethical system consistent might be incompatible with what's necessary to sell that ethical system to other people.

Once you're in the realm of persuasion, consistency becomes an important check on the honesty of the proponent. If the public justification of an ethical system is internally inconsistent or inconsistent with objective truth, then the proponent is trying to bullshit you (or he may be bullshitting himself). Either way, if you are considering adopting some ethical belief or system, you must look at its consistent formulation to make a rational judgment as to its value.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The easy way and the hard way

The communist movement missed an historic opportunity to implement communism the "easy way", i.e. by accumulating economic power and using that economic power to effect a revolution against the capitalist ruling class.

In the mid to late 19th century, the sine qua non of economic power was control of physical, industrial capital. The supply chain was very short, consisting of only one or two steps of industrial production: trees to lumber mills to factories to furniture. Control the factories and at the very least you have a fighting chance against the imperialist control of raw materials and emerging markets. And with an organized, unionized industrial labor force, you have the real possibility of physically controlling the factories either directly by actually taking over factories or indirectly through the threat of local and general strikes.

And the world came very close to actually trying this kind of revolution. The first Imperialist War, which was primarily a struggle for the great imperialist powers to control sources of raw materials and (to a lesser extent) emerging markets, had the secondary effect of breaking the power of industrial labor in Europe to effect any kind of revolution.

We cannot at all blame the capitalist ruling class for this failure. We should expect them to hold onto their power and privilege by any means necessary, including the deaths of tens of millions of people. Thus it has been with every ruling class in the history of humanity; we cannot expect any better of the capitalists, regardless of their propaganda. We must lay the blame, I think, at the feet of the European Democratic Socialists of the 19th and early 20th century.

The "essence" of Democratic Socialism* is, I think, the position that we should improve the position of labor within the capitalist system while preserving and maintaining the capitalist system itself. The aim is not "true" socialism: the actual control by the working class of the government and pervasive social and political constructions. The Democratic Socialist position is at least superficially admirable: their aim was, I think, very similar to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (except without Keynes understanding of economics), which was in its limited way moderately successful.

*In other words, it is reasonable to label this political position as "Democratic Socialism" for the purpose of discussion.

But as superficially admirable as it was, it was not really feasible without Keynes' contributions to economic theory and, on the eve of the First Imperialist War it was a position that transcended simple naivete and fell firmly into a treasonous betrayal of the working class by politicians and leaders who had promised to protect and extend the interests of the working class.

On the eve of the First Imperialist war, the specific historical conditions of capitalism in opening years of the 20th century Europe demanded a continent-wide war, as the various capitalists competed violently for access to raw materials and a hyper-exploitable population of workers to extract those raw materials. This war could only be fought by the working class itself — the idea of the capitalists themselves picking up guns and fighting each other directly was obviously ludicrous. So the Democratic Socialists were in a bind: supporting capitalism meant supporting the war, a war that would be fought by worker against worker, both in the trenches and in the factories; opposing the war meant making a decisive break with the industrial capitalist ruling class. The position of the Democratic Socialist leaders themselves was in no small part supported by a faction of capitalist class: the Democratic Leaders could no longer stay on the fence.

As history has shown us, the leaders of every socialist movement in every European country at the eve of the First Imperialist war — with the exception of Lenin's Bolsheviks and a few dissident figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht — came down on the side of capitalism. Either they were absolutely cynical or they utterly naive and believed that the capitalist ruling class of the winning nations would be sufficiently grateful for the working class's blood and suffering on the capitalists behalf that they would offer the workers substantial concessions.

As history has shown us as well, the "winners" of the First Imperialist War showed no gratitude at all to the working class that had shed so much blood on its behalf. The close of the war saw an increase in the exploitation and oppression of the industrial workers and a catastrophic global financial crisis a mere two decades after the war's end. (Remember: a financial crisis — the Great Depression as well as today's economic catastrophe — is a failure of capitalism itself, not an "external" crisis that individual capitalists fail to adequately respond to.)

We missed two further opportunities for a relatively "easy" revolution.

In Failure of a Revolution, Sebastian Haffner documents a popular socialist uprising after Germany's humiliating defeat in the First Imperialist war. This uprising failed not just because it was opposed by the German capitalist class, but also because the socialist leaders of the time actively betrayed the people they had promised to represent and recruited and encouraged the extreme right wing to violently suppress the revolution. This right wing opposition to the popular uprising formed the seeds of Nazi Germany and an important foundation of the Second Imperialist War.

The last opportunity was the co-option of the socialist left by "Democratic Socialism" (by this time beginning to transform itself into the capitalist welfare state) in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. As Norman Thomas famously remarked, "Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher." The co-option of the socialist left by Democratic Socialism and the formation of the capitalist welfare state is prefigured in the conflict within the labor union movement. Elena Kagan describes one aspect of this conflict in her senior thesis, To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City. Grasping this opportunity was a slim chance, but it was the final chance to gain the economic power necessary to fight the capitalist class toe to toe.

Now, of course, it's just too late to do things the "easy" way. The supply chain for even the simplest industry such as food production is tens of layers deep and includes thousands of interacting companies, factories, and supply and distribution channels. Even if the workers managed to decisively control all the physical industrial capital (farms, factories, trains and trucks, grocery stores) productivity would grind to a halt without the finely tuned web of relationships, promises and obligations of the global financial system, a system firmly in the hands of the capitalist class and the upper levels of the professional-managerial class who can be absolutely trusted to maintain the power and privilege of the capitalists.

If we are to have a communist revolution, it will have to follow the catastrophic and complete internal failure of the capitalist ruling class. We will have to rebuild the global industrial and productive infrastructure after it has collapsed. The price of this catastrophe and rebuilding will be immense and terrible, so terrible that I do not believe any person with the conscience, love of humanity and hatred of human suffering necessary to be what I would call a good communist could possibly contemplate actively bringing about, even if it were feasible to do so, which it probably isn't.

But the capitalist ruling class, and the contradictions inherent in capitalism, seem poised to bring about this catastrophe on itself — and, unfortunately, all of us. All we can do is (1) continue to point out that capitalism is nowhere close to the best that humanity can do, (2) build some sort of communist economic and political theory that will be applicable to conditions following capitalism apparently imminent demise and (3) create enough of an organization so that humanistic communism has sufficient social credibility and power to take control after the collapse of capitalism. We must become, I think (and if you'll pardon the hackneyed fantasy) at least metaphorically like Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

A communist programme: Preamble

I want to outline a skeleton programme for a "dictatorship of the proletariat". It's important to understand, though, that if there were a communist revolution, and the power and privilege of the capitalist class were decisively broken, at least temporarily, the actual programme immediately following must and should be a matter of politics, i.e. negotiation and compromise (with some propaganda thrown in). What follows is just a collection of ideas, not a system of government I think a successful revolutionary force should impose in toto following a revolution without regard to the specific opinions and preferences of those with some social and political credibility.

It's also important to remember that the governments immediately following the Russian and Chinese revolutions faced a severe theoretical problem: the actual industrial proletariat in those societies was a minority, overwhelmed numerically by a class seen only in primitive feudal societies: the mostly illiterate agricultural peasant class. Agricultural peasants have a very different economic relation to the feudal landowners than industrial workers have to the owners of capital. Canonical Marxist theory (i.e. the theories that Marx and Engels themselves proposed) depended not just on the industrial proletariat forming a numerical majority, but also on specific features of the industrial proletariat and their relation to the capitalist class. Most of the pre-Lenin communist, socialist and anarchist theoreticians were, after all, living in the rapidly industrializing Western Europe.

Lacking this majority, and starting from the majority with an entirely distinct set of economic relations between peasant and landowners, the Russians and Chinese revolutionaries faced enormous uncharted theoretical ground. And they did so under the enormous pressure of life-and-death expediency faced by rulers of countries not just faced by primitive on-the-verge-of-starvation productive forces but also countries under the pressure of severe international hostility. The nascent Soviet Union started out with a primitive agrarian economy; what little industry they had was mostly colonial-submissive and administered by its foreign owners or those specifically chosen for their submission to those foreign owners. And then this primitive economy and its labor force was shattered by the First Imperialist War. Lenin inherited a country in shambles. And then they had to overcome a civil war and blockade fomented and encouraged by the capitalist West, knew that a Second Imperialist War was in the works (it's arguable that the West's hesitancy in confronting Hitler was in no small part due to Hitler's hostility to the Bolsheviks), and even afterward knew that there was substantial support for a Western invasion of the Soviet Union.

Similarly, forty years later Mao Zedong had to take seriously the profound existential threat of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union already leaning away from internationalizing socialism and toward its own brand of imperialist hegemony. And of course revolutionary China escaped actual nuclear war with the United States only by the narrowest of margins: MacArthur actually had nuclear weapons (granted to him by the Joint Chiefs of Staff) with the explicit intent of using them on China when Truman successfully faced down what was a de facto military coup. if Dewey had won the election, if Truman didn't have (if you'll excuse the gendered metaphor) balls of steel, if MacArthur hadn't backed down, things might have turned out very differently.

I've had a gun pointed at me, and I know you do whatever you have to do at the moment to survive. I can't really judge the behavior of a government that has nuclear weapons pointed at their country.

Regardless of the specific conditions that might obtain immediately after a communist revolution, we don't face these conditions in the United States. We will not face the predominance of an illiterate peasant class and their economic relations to a feudal land-owning class. We will not start from a barely subsistence-level economic infrastructure. While we might have to deal with some destruction of infrastructure caused by civil conflict, we won't have to face the devastation of an international war against a determined and industrialized enemy. We will probably not face an existential threat from the remaining nuclear powers: China, the European Union, India/Pakistan, and possibly a Brazilian dominated South America. We will have considerably more freedom and luxury to experiment, as well as to tolerate temporary inefficiency.

There are only two conditions that historically have led to an internal revolution. First, some class by virtue of its socially constructed characteristics achieves substantial economic power unavailable to the contemporaneous ruling class, and resists and overthrows the ruling class from a position of strength. These conditions allowed the nascent merchant and industrial-owning "middle" classes to overthrow the feudal ruling class. Second, the ruling class completely self-destructs, and whoever happens to be the most organized at the time has the reins of power thrust into their hands. These conditions placed power in the hands of the Russian Bolsheviks and Mao's Chinese Communist Party. (To a certain extent, the Chinese Revolution was a mixture of the two conditions: Mao had gained at least some economic power before the revolution by organizing and governing areas in China's interior.)

In all probability, the conditions that would obtain for a communist revolution in the United States would, regrettably, be the latter. (Although, like Mao, it is possible for communists to create some sort of economic base before a revolution.) This means that while a communist revolution would not be starting with a fundamentally subsistence-level economy, they probably will be starting with an catastrophic economic conditions that will be causing profound suffering, starvation and disease, and that will require immediate measures to correct. They will inherit quite a few pervasive social and economic conditions favorable to increased production; they will have some luxury for experiment and inefficiency, but the devastation will limit these options. It is with these historical observations and imaginative conditions that I'll be outlining a proposed skeleton programme for a post-revolutionary communist government.

The dictatorship of the proletariat

The dictatorship of the proletariat is an important concept in communist theory. But why specifically the proletariat? Why talk about the working class, and not the people? Communism is all about democracy — real democracy, not the sham republicanism of the modern United States — so why not cut to the chase and talk about the people directly? And why the dictatorship? Why not "government" or "state"? There are several reasons.

People's social and political beliefs are shaped by economic relations in general, and shaped by how each individual participates in those economic relations. And people tend to group themselves socially and politically according to their commonalities in how they participate, i.e. their economic class. There are, of course, additional factions, sub-groupings and cross-groupings, but economic class solidarity and commonality is an important concept. The capitalist ruling class is especially aware of and adheres to a concept of class solidarity, solidarity that survives even very deep factional differences.

We can identify three primary classes in modern society. First of course is the capitalist class, the class of people whose primary economic activity consists of owning the means of production and renting that means of production to others to perform useful work. They might own physical capital, i.e. factories and machines; more often they own financial capital, i.e. the money used to purchase labor to effect actual production. Opposite the capitalist class are those who sell their labor power to the capitalists and who actually do the production. Members of the capitalist class often do actually perform labor: they typically have to administer and manage the use of their capital. The point is not that they don't work, but rather that they don't sell their labor to someone else.

Within this second group are two classes: the professional-managerial class and the working class. The professional-managerial middle class typically possesses "human capital", i.e. education; more specifically credentialed education, where there is some limit in theory and practice on the availability of the credential. Physicians and lawyers, who have to have a MD or JD, are the most clear-cut examples of credentialed members of the professional-managerial middle class. The working class are those who sell their labor power to the capitalists without relying on some limited-availability credential.

The class structure of society is not a set of hard-and-fast divisions; it is, rather, a loose and abstract way of looking at general commonalities in attitudes and circumstances. Modern economic relations are extremely complicated, and many individuals can operate as if they were members of each of these classes in the course of a day. There are fine gradations within each class: both radiologists and physicians rely on credentials, but the value of those credentials are very different. There are also additional classes outside the working/professional/capitalist system, such as students, criminals, the unemployed, the hyper-exploited working class, etc.. But there are real and important generalities we can draw about the social and political behavior of people by looking at their economic class.

One of the interesting features of the capitalist system is the distinction between the formal government and the capitalist ruling class. Before the capitalist republics, the ruling class was the highest level of government. In contrast, members of the government — even elected members or those appointed directly by elected members — are often not members of the capitalist ruling class. Presidents Obama and Clinton, for example, were members of the professional-managerial class, albeit in the highest level of that class. On the other hand, George W. Bush was himself a member of the capitalist class. And every government since ancient Sumer and Egypt has relied on an army of professional-managerial bureaucrats, who have formed a distinct economic class.

The important observation about class and government, though, is that elections notwithstanding, the formal government is more-or-less* dominated by the capitalist class. And not just the government: the domination of the capitalist class pervades all of our social, political and economic relations. One obvious example is the aversion of members of the working and professional classes to discuss their salaries, which is a direct denial of the "perfect information" component of a free market. This aversion is a social construction within members of the working class that furthers no interests but those of the capitalist class.

*In addition to the class struggle of the working class, there's also a class struggle between the professional-managerial class and the capitalist class. I suspect this struggle explains a lot of the 20th century, especially the American "golden age" immediately following the Second Imperialist War, where the professional-managerial class achieved a degree of ascendancy over the capitalist class, due to the class "treason" of Franklin Roosevelt, himself a member of the capitalist class.

Our government as well as our pervasive social and political constructions operate for the interests of the capitalist class and against the interests of the other classes, especially the working class. Any time these constructions operate against the interests of a class, they are by definition oppressive and exploitative. This domination therefore acquires the label of dictatorship, i.e. the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The immediate goal of communism transitioning from capitalism then is to create a formal government and pervasive social and political constructions that operate for the interests of the working class and against the interests of the capitalist class (and, to a certain extent against the interests of the professional-managerial class), i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat. The capitalist class is not going to disappear overnight, even after their resistance to losing their status as the ruling class has been successfully overcome. If they are not to regain power and restore the capitalist system, their interests must to some degree be actively worked against, i.e. they must be oppressed.

There's a big difference between the the domination by the capitalist class and the proposed domination by the working class: the oppression and exploitation of the working class is interminable: the capitalist class must have a working class, which must be interminably oppressed to maintain the position of the capitalist class as the ruling class. The working class, however, does not need the capitalist class; the oppression of the capitalist class is terminable. The capitalist class cannot absorb the working class, but the working class can absorb the members of the capitalist class and eliminate the class. (I'm talking about eliminating a class, not the people in it. We don't need to kill the members of the capitalist class to eliminate the class, we merely need to invite the capitalists into the new ruling class by making them workers.)

My ex-wife2 gave me (perhaps inadvertently) an interesting analogy. There are pervasive social and political constructions (and, until very recently, many formal government and legal measures) that operate for the interests of men and against the interests of women. Collectively, these measures deserve the label of the "patriarchy". Resistance to and destruction of these measures commonly goes by the label feminism. While the overall goal of feminism is for the most part to establish equality between the sexes, labeling this movement as something like the "sexual equality" movement fails to rhetorically capture the primary intent to actively destroy the patriarchy, to extirpate male privilege. In an attenuated metaphorical sense, this is the cake-splitting problem: the patriarchy demands the whole cake; to demand only half the cake encourages a compromise where men get three-quarters. Demand (perhaps apparently "unreasonably") the whole cake, and the compromise of equality becomes more tenable. Obviously the analogy is not exact: men cannot be absorbed into women in the same sense that the capitalist class can be absorbed into the working class. Still, the analogy illustrates the important concept that the dictatorship of the proletariat is not just about establishing democracy, it is also about actively extirpating the power and privilege of the capitalist class so we can have an effective democracy. (Again, I'm talking about extirpating ideas and social constructions, not killing people, in the same sense that we can extirpate the idea of male privilege without having to actually kill every man.) As an exercise, think about the analogy between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the idea of affirmative action to correct historical racial discrimination.

Dictatorship is a harsh word, and invites the equivocation between the dictatorship of the proletariat and an actual dictatorship for (or supposedly for) the proletariat. Sadly, even actual communist regimes have justified actual dictatorships supposedly for the proletariat, which have unsurprisingly degenerated into dictatorships for the dictators and the governmental class. This objection has a lot of persuasive power, and argues for alternative constructions such as the "proletarian state" (a term with some currency in communist theory). On the other hand, we have an obligation to be honest and upfront. Because the capitalist class justly sees their maintenance as the ruling class to be in their interests, they justly see their removal as the ruling class to be against their interests and constitutes oppression. The only honest communist answer is, "Yes, you're absolutely correct. We aim to actually oppress you. We can live with that." If we really do aim to oppress a class of people, we should come right out and say so, and adopt a label that makes that oppression obvious. There's no doubt that the dictatorship of the proletariat does make that position clear.