Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (I dare you edition)

the stupid! it burns! Dear Atheist, I don't understand you
The Atheists’ beliefs:

Man evolved from a single-celled organism. We have no idea where this organism came from, or why the Big Bang happened, but for sure God didn’t cause the Big Bang, because there is no God. Anyway, back to the organism. We are descendants of a primordial protoplasm that washed up on some beach billions of years ago for whatever reason. We are merely products of time, chance, natural forces and natural selection. Our existence here is arbitrary. We exist on a planet in a solar system inside of a rapidly expanding but meaningless universe. We are purely biological, and different in degree but not in kid from a microbe, virus, or amoeba. Your capacity to love, to think, to reason unlike any other being on earth--this is all explained by science. The fact that no two people on earth have the same fingerprints, the complexity and intricacy of the human cell and the human brain, the millions of species of plants, animals, and fish; the way the world works--all of this happened purely by chance. Darwinian theory has a lot of holes in it--but who cares? It makes more sense than any idea of “God.” Science proves that God doesn’t exist!! You have no soul or spirit; no essence beyond your flesh. When you die, you will cease to exist. You have no purpose. In short, you came from nothing and you are headed nowhere. ...

Still in doubt? Watch the series ‘Life’ on the Discovery Channel (ignoring the fact that Oprah’s voice lessens the enjoyment) and then come back and tell me that there is no God. I dare you.

Very afraid

Maxine Udall sounds the alarm:
I'm afraid I'm in agreement with Paul Krugman that if Republicans gain control of the House we should be "very afraid." [I'm already very afraid, and I'll still be very afraid even if the Democrats hang on.] I'm sorry to say this, but unless you expect to inherit immense wealth or you are already in the top 1-2% of the income distribution I think you would be nuts to vote Republican. I base my opinion on the stark economic results of their nearly invariant beliefs and their performance over the last 30 years.
But what is to be done? Maxine says,
Some of you will point out that elected US lawmakers of both parties appear to be wholly owned by corporations and finance. Even if you believe this, it hardly argues for shrinking government, thereby giving corporate and other interests even more unfettered power. It argues for a political philosophy that believes government serves an essential purpose in an advanced, complex capitalist society: that of countervailing force against those interests when they are harmful to the rest of us and helpful to those interests when they are beneficial to us.
This is, of course, the crux of the biscuit. We do indeed need to change our philosophy, but can we do so by changing only our political philosophy? We know the government can indeed act as a countervailing force against capitalist interests -- the government actually did so from the mid 1930s until this role began to decay in the 1970s. But we also know that this sort of government is unstable, precisely because it began to decay in the 1970s, and the decay has continued to this day; it was not merely a fluke, it is a structural feature of our social, political and economic landscape. I cannot see how trying to roll back the regulatory clock to the 1950s or 60s is a feasible plan: even if it could be done, why would we expect it to not decay again?

Economic power is the foundation of every society; the rulers are those who hold economic power. The concept of formally separating the traditional instruments of government (i.e. "state power") from the exercise of economic power affords only the ability of factions within the economic ruling class to more efficiently jockey for state power... and that only sometimes. Such a formal separation does not and cannot offer true political power to any class that does not actually have economic power. At best, those without economic power can be courted and used by one or another faction of the economic ruling class. The only time there's any sort of real change in the political landscape is when the physical means of production change substantially enough so that the habits and characteristics of the old economic ruling class become radically unsuited to the new conditions.

There's nothing "wrong" with the idea that the class that holds economic power is the ruling class. It's a fact of our present social, psychological, political and economic development. It's not necessarily an ineluctable fact, but it's true of human beings as we are today. So the key is, if we do not want a small group of people to have disproportionate political power, some large group of people must seize economic power. But no class can simply "seize" economic power; an economy is extremely difficult to run, and it takes generations of education, experience and the development of social and institutional legitimacy to run an economy as relatively unsophisticated (compared to ours) as the Roman Empire.

One way to seize economic power is to develop economic power under the noses of the existing ruling class, as the capitalist class did under feudalism, and as the communists almost did in the 19th century under the capitalists. Note that the victory over the European communists required the capitalists to initiate the First Imperialist War. (Defeating communism was not, of course, the only reason for this war, perhaps not even the primary reason, but it was, all things considered, probably the least trivial reason.)

The only alternative is to develop economic power rebuilding after a catastrophic collapse of the previous society, as the Russians and Chinese did after the catastrophic collapse of feudalism. (Ironically, the First Imperialist War, which dramatically weakened communism, paved the way for the collapse of Russian feudalism and the rise of communism there. Likewise the Second Imperialist War paved the way for the collapse of Chinese feudalism and its own rise to communism.) I see no signs of the first method; I see no new economic power rising under the noses of the capitalists. So the only "hope" for progress is a worldwide catastrophic collapse of capitalism. I most definitely do not advocate intentionally creating a catastrophic collapse. I don't believe it's actually possible: if the ruling class is at all vigorous and competent, it will successfully prevent a collapse. Contrawise, if the ruling class has become indifferent, incompetent or irrational, it will bring about a collapse on its own.

The capitalist ruling class appears bent on creating a world-wide collapse of society, a collapse that replicating the New Deal can neither halt nor recover from, as it did the last world-wide catastrophe.

By all means vote Democratic in the next election. I don't think it will hurt anything, and I don't see how not voting will help anything. It's entirely possible that a (miraculous) Democratic victory in the mid-terms might slow the inevitable collapse somewhat, which is not the worst thing that could happen. But don't think for a moment that any form of purely political action will do anything at all to reverse our course towards economic and social catastrophe, and don't think that we can build a new and better capitalist society on the ashes of the old. The capitalism of the last 70-80 years is the absolute best we can get. I think we can do better.

The shit is going to hit the fan. Things are going to become very very bad over the next 5-10 years. What are you personally going to do in the face of famine, plague, death and war? When the people are not just demanding justice but fighting for survival, which side of the battle lines will you be on? And when the fight is done and we begin to rebuild, what will you contribute... should you survive?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law

A reader sends me this provocative link: Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law

Ebert on Hefner

Hugh Hefner has been good for us
Hefner and Playboy have been around so long that not everyone remembers what America used to be like. It was sexually repressed and socially restrictive. College students were expelled for having sex out of wedlock. Homosexuality and miscegenation were illegal. Freedom of choice was denied. McCarthyism still cast a pall over the freedom of speech. Many people joined in the fight against that unhealthy society. Hefner was one of them, and a case can can be made that Playboy had a greater influence on our society in its first half-century than any other magazine.

No doubt Playboy objectified women and all the rest of it. But it also celebrated them, and freed their bodies from the stigma of shame. It calmly explained that women were sexual beings, and experienced orgasms, and that photographs of their bodies were not by definition "dirty pictures." Not many of today's feminists (of either gender) would be able to endure America's attitudes about women in the 1950s.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (deport the scumbags edition)

the stupid! it burns! I usually don't catalog the Christian stupidity in these kind of off-topic posts in a single issue forum, but this one was too stupid to pass up.

Is It Time To Start Arresting And Deporting Atheists Who Preach Against The Bible?
First I would like to share a quote from a brilliant mind with you:
“I believe that the existence of the Bible is the greatest benefit to the human race. Any attempt to belittle it, I believe, is a crime against humanity.” -Immanuel Kant, German idealist philosopher, 1724-1804
Next I would like to link you to my last question. Observe how the scumbag Atheist bigots show up to the question spitting their typical scorn and hatred.
This economy is in shambles. Every nation with a rising Atheist population is seeing their economy crumble as well. Charity is at an all-time low. At some point, this nation will either fade into oblivion with a bunch of Atheist parasites in our midst, or we will start kicking them out and sending them to prison where they belong.
Until Atheism dies in this nation, the economy WILL NOT improve. Hatred will increase.
(A list of the most broke nations on earth. Find your favorite Atheist country. Sweden is 7th. Britain is 2nd. Australia is 19th.)
So my question is a simple: Is it time to protect liberty and start rounding up hate mongers? Or should we just allow our nation to fall into the void?
And just to answer any fool who might scream “freedom of speech”. Freedom of speech does not include telling someone a bottle is filled with good water when it is really filled with poison. That is chaos. Telling people to not read their Bible is a crime. It is not free speech. It is equal to yelling fire in a crowded theater.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (1% edition)

the stupid! it burns! After something of a drought, the stupid valve is back on full open!

No Respect for Atheists: Revised Version:
[A]n atheist believes in no absolutes except the absolute belief that there is no superior being. He cannot see a God; therefore there is no God.

I cannot see Rome but somehow I still think it is there! I cannot see electricity and many have faced calamity for that very reason! I cannot see air but that won’t stop me from breathing it! ...

Why is the atheistic position untenable?

I ask you, the reader, atheist or not, "What per cent of the world's knowledge do you have?"

Do you have less than 10%? Less than 5%? Less than 1%? I am sure you would agree that anyone who says they have more than 1% of the world's knowledge has already declared oneself as a supreme being and therefore it is not possible to have discussion with that one! He has already declared himself to BE God!
All emphasis, including inconsistent emphasis, is original. It just goes downhill from there.

Earth Shattering Update: Charles Pedley strikes back with a biting rejoinder:
Right now the god of atheism is in the form of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. ...

So the Supreme Beings right now, are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. There may be others but those are the Supremes.

So atheists believe Richard and Christopher, while I and many other Christians and Jews believe God as our supreme being.
Huh. I thought I was the Supreme Being. Go figure. And yes, all emphasis is original. It's more true if it's highlighted in yellow, dontcha know. I'm surprised he didn't use ALL CAPS!

Social construction and critical thought

I will boldly assert: every belief held by every person is in one way or another socially constructed: either the belief is directly held causally because it was told to the believer by one or more other people, or it was indirectly socially constructed, formed by observation and experience substantially resting on directly socially constructed beliefs.

Commenter Ben Finney remarks: "I think we have to work hard, and persistently, not only to learn critical thinking (and teach others to do so) but to reinforce habits of critical thinking, precisely because they're counter to our nature." Ben's point isn't bad, but I don't think it hits the bulls eye. I suspect that Ben is confusing the social construction of beliefs with critical thought. If my bold assertion is correct, then critical thinking itself is either socially constructed or — if social construction and critical thought are antithetical — critical thinking is impossible, at least with our present cognitive equipment.

Assuming my bold assertion is correct, and assuming that critical thinking is compatible with (and established by) social construction, what kind of story can we tell about social construction, critical thinking and early childhood cognitive development?

Ben notes plausibly that "Young children demonstrate a massive tendency to believe whatever claims are spoken to them." (Young Children Hear It to Believe It) But does that mean that critical thinking is therefore counter to our nature? One alternative hypothesis is that our "advanced" cognitive tools are intrinsically neither part of nor excluded by our "nature". Our (biological) nature, rather is that we are learners, therefore what we actually learn is itself critically important. We not only learn facts and specific assertions, we learn — indeed we have to learn — how to actually think about and integrate facts and assertions.

In other words, our nature is neither critical nor uncritical; we are only naturally predisposed to acquire the most basic foundation of learning, i.e. acquiring language; how we proceed from there depends sensitively on what we are subsequently taught.

It is hard to understand how, if critical thinking were contrary to our intrinsic, biological nature, how we would ever have developed it at all. Contrawise, if critical thinking were intrinsically part of our nature it is hard to understand why we didn't develop it much sooner. The explanation that the process of critical thinking have to be learned (and therefore had to be initially constructed in an evolutionary manner) nicely explains both how it could be developed, as well as why it developed slowly.

If critical thinking is compatible with social construction, what precisely is critical thinking?

First, critical thinking could not be that one believes only that which she constructs for herself; she remains radically agnostic about everything that anyone else tells her. Such a construction would require that a critical thinker be radically agnostic about every belief she retrospectively discovered to be directly socially constructed; she would have to recapitulate the intellectual development of at least 10,000 years, if not the hundreds of thousands of years the human species has been extant. Such a task seems at least daunting and probably impossible in practice.

It follows then that critical thought cannot be a belief formation mechanism. If it were a belief formation mechanism, it would have to be an exclusive mechanism; otherwise alternative mechanisms and the beliefs so formed would simply be outside the domain of critical thought, a conclusion contrary to the claims of most advocates of critical thought, myself included, that critical thought should be universal, it should apply at least in theory to all beliefs. No belief ought to be a priori exempt from critical thought. But while critical thought might be compatible with social construction, they are clearly different: we can easily observe that non- or anti-critical thought can be socially constructed. If it is true that all beliefs — including the establishment of critical thought — rest substantively on some socially constructed beliefs, then critical thought either cannot be exclusive or cannot be universal.

Critical thought therefore must be a belief rejection method. This construction eliminates the paradox of exclusivity (subtly embedded in the insufficiency of Logical Positivism). At the most superficial level, constructing critical thought as a rejection method entails only that it is self-consistent: someone who adopts the idea of rejecting beliefs on the basis of critical thought will not therefore reject the idea of using critical thought to reject ideas. And, suitably constructed, critical thought is at least self-consistent.

However, self-consistency is not enough. If we also accept the premise that our socially constructed ideas evolve, we must create a plausible evolutionary story for why critical thought became pervasive when it did, and not before. There are, of course, many different kinds of plausible evolutionary stories in general; the most trivial story is the idea of critical thought just happened to arise by variation at some particular time; once it arose, non-critical thought was therefore rendered less fit and began to be selected against. Another plausible story is that material conditions (including the material conditions of our existing social constructions) were such that for some time critical thought was selected against, and then material conditions changed, which either removed the old selection pressure, allowing the variation to at least spread, or created new selection pressures that selected against non- or anti-critical thought.

Which of these stories (or some other alternative; evolution has more than two mechanisms) is correct is a matter of rigorous scientific investigation. However, I'm a philosopher, so I'm allowed to speculate.

Authoritarianism seems antithetical to critical thought. Authoritarian government entails the strong claim that the interests of a minority (the ruling class) should dominate the interests of the majority (the ruled class)*: when the interests of the ruling class ineluctably conflict with the interests of the ruled, the interests of the ruling class are always fulfilled, sacrificing without compensation at any level the interests of the ruled. Sophisticated democratic protections of minorities fundamentally rests on higher-level protections on the interests of the majority. We protect the right of free speech for unpopular minorities, for example, because the higher-level idea of free speech for everyone protects the interests of the majority. This is a different idea than that the interests of a minority should be preferred over the majority however constructed, just because that minority is somehow privileged. However, critical thought necessarily rejects this abstract social construction of authoritarianism: there is no reason to prefer the interests of any minority to those of the majority. Therefore, authoritarianism should exert (by violence) a selection pressure against critical thought. So long as this negative selection pressure exists, and no alternative selection pressure against non- or anti-critical thought exists, any emergent variation of critical thought will be removed from the pool of socially constructed ideas.

*A weaker claim — e.g. the "physician effect" — is that some minority has special expertise to fulfill the interests of the majority.

We should therefore see some material conditions change to explain the relatively modern rise of critical thought.

We have an obvious candidate: technology. The first important technological advance was the invention of the printing press. This invention is too useful to itself be selected against by authoritarians (because it is an extremely valuable tool in intra-ruling-class conflict), but it makes the suppression of ideas — including the suppression of critical thought — qualitatively more difficult: one cannot intimidate the text of a book, and the printing press makes book-burning an ineffective method of censorship.

The development of modern technology of production, i.e. the industrial revolution, provides the second, crucial impetus to the expansion of critical thought. Once we have stumbled upon a method of drastically improving economic productivity, failing to exploit this method will have obvious selective disadvantage: if one party can produce orders of magnitude more and better guns, and more, better and better-fed soldiers, another party that fails to also improve his production will lose head-to-head conflicts.

The development and improvement of technology requires critical thought. If you do not think critically — if you do not try out a lot of ideas, reject those that fail to conform to observation, and keep the rest — you cannot improve your technology. Authoritarianism is, therefore, in a fatal bind: critical thought is essentially anti-authoritarian, but critical thought itself cannot be completely eliminated without compromising the science and technology necessary to prevail against competing authoritarians. The best they can do is isolate, marginalize and "other" scientists and engineers... which is exactly what we observe in modern society. But this is a poor strategy: if you have any group with a large enough niche, you dramatically increase the variation within that niche, and one way or another variations can tunnel out of the niche. And again, we observe exactly this effect today, with many scientists and philosophers of science leading the charge against the central pillar of authoritarianism: divine sanction.

I am not, of course, a scientist, and I cannot prove this speculation with any sort of rigor. Still, as a speculation, it seems at least superficially plausible:
  1. Critical thought is a belief rejection method
  2. Critical thought is, like other beliefs, itself socially constructed
  3. Socially constructed beliefs evolve according to abstract mechanisms of the evolutionary paradigm (i.e. heritable variation and selection)
  4. Changes in technology (subject to different selection pressures) changed the material conditions and began to favor critical thought
  5. We are still within that evolutionary process

Game theoretic paradoxes

Arrow's Impossibility Theorem
Liberal Paradox

Intuitively, I don't find these two paradoxes especially surprising: we know from the Prisoner's Dilemma that local game-theoretic decision procedures don't necessarily lead to global Pareto optimality. Which is to say, I suspect, any social system must employ higher-level, abstract elements such as constitutions, contracts, and "altruism" or friendliness (where individuals' preferences substantially and directly positively value other individuals' well-being). Furthermore, since there are no deterministic solutions at any level, these abstract elements must evolve rather than being imposed analytically.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (fanatically dogmatic edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists and Believers are Two Sides of the Same Coin
There is no real difference between atheism and religious belief. Both are fanatical dogmas without an iota of proof, or any interest in proof.

Atheists and religious believers have been at loggerheads with each other since times immemorial. Both are diametrically opposite extremes and both are equally passionate about their ideology. Both essentially think they are Mr. Know-Alls, where as the truth is that they both know nothing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (gay edition)

the stupid! it burns! Back to back stupidity! The FriendlyAtheist: Liberal Atheists Focus on Gays
Why do [atheists] focus so much energy on gays? Because these individuals don't accept atheism on intellectual grounds; instead, they use it as a convoluted strategy to undermine traditionalism. And gays, being a central aspect of the extant culture war, are a potent means of doing so. Further, as gays represent a minority, they can apply the majority vs. minority, oppressor vs. victim narrative.

The Stupid! It Burns! (cut & paste edition)

the stupid! it burns! A (Sort of) Interview With Atheists [link fixed]

The author cuts & pastes some comments from an The Happy Atheist Forums chitchatting about The Godless Delusion and calls it a (sort of) interview, apparently to (sort of) argue that atheists are intellectually vacuous and incapable of reasoned argument.


As some of you may have noticed, I'm going to college after lo! these many years. The last week or so I've been frantically preparing for midterms. (Now that I know the sorts of things I have to do, I'll be able to manage my time better in the future.) Two are done, one more to go on Monday, and then I should have a little more free time to write.

In the meantime, I'll still be posting various links to, just to piss people off. Mwahahahahaha!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why philosophy is important

I've criticized and condemned professional philosophers here rather stridently. But why should I do so? Religion is one thing — religion is egregiously harmful — but why would I criticize a class of people for wasting their own time? Nobody has to read philosophy, and philosophy doesn't have anything like the social and political privilege of religion. I don't spend any time criticizing postmodernist literary criticism, even though I'm convinced (by Frederick Crews, whose meta-criticism I highly recommend) that it's just as much a bullshit waste of time as philosophy. To some degree, it's just personal: I invested a lot of my own time and energy into studying philosophy, and I'm peeved that this investment didn't pan out.

But there's a deeper reason.

I really do think philosophy is important, and I think professional philosophers are not only letting us down, but actively making it more difficult for honest practitioners to fill in the gap.

Nobody's wrong all the time, and I completely agree with Ayn Rand when she says,
A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation -- or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.

— Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It
Of course, I don't agree with the philosophy she constructed — to a large extent I suspect it rests on, rather than replaces, her subconscious prejudices — but she undeniably displays the virtue of giving explicit voice to those prejudices; she brings them out where we can see them and discuss them directly.

I stumbled on this article on scientific ignorance, which brought the topic to mind. The problem is not, in my opinion, that people are ignorant of particular scientific (or economic) facts. There's too much to know in this world. Not even the most subtle, inquiring and flexible mind can learn even the basics of every scientific and intellectual discipline, even those significantly affected by her own actions and choices. Everyone needs is a general framework for dealing with the massive amount of information available in the modern world. And a general framework is nothing more or less than a philosophy. Now, more than ever, we need to develop philosophical tools to operate in complicated modern society.

Similarly, I recently had a conversation with my economics professor instructor. He dislikes Krugman because my professor believes Krugman spends too much time criticizing Bush fils. And not so much because he necessarily thinks Krugman is mistaken (like most college-level faculty, he's sensibly reticent about his own politics) but rather because he thinks Krugman as an economist ought to take a more neutral tone. People pick someone to intellectually follow, he asserts, therefore intellectual leaders have a duty of objectivity and neutrality. My response is that it's a Bad Idea for anyone to follow anyone else; there are people we generally agree with, but we should read everything critically. His rejoinder, which of course I had to admit, was that people actually do more-or-less uncritically follow intellectual leaders.

Still, I think my point is valuable at a higher level. Although people do in fact follow others, they shouldn't do so. More importantly, I strongly suspect that the reason people follow others is not that they cannot think critically, but they have been socially habituated to thinking uncritically.

Critical thinking does not seem that difficult; it doesn't seem to require exception intellectual power. I hold myself up as an anecdotal example: I have only average (or slightly below-average) "raw" intellectual power, both memory and processing speed. I pride myself, however, on my ability to have an intelligent conversation with an expert in almost any intellectual discipline, from quantum mechanics to postmodernist literary criticism. The "secret" is to focus on the methodology and let the expert supply the facts and background. There really is only one good methodology: the scientific method. Understand this one method, and you can follow the reasoning of any expert in any discipline... at least any scientific discipline.

It's really easy: ask an expert to tell you a story; when she gets to something that doesn't seem to make sense, ask her: how do you know? If you're dealing with a real scientist, her eyes will light up and she'll really get interested, and she'll tell you how she knows, and you'll understand her explanation. It'll always be in exactly this form: we looked at something; if the intuitive explanation were correct we would have seen that, but instead we saw this.

More importantly, the focus on method allows anyone to detect egregious bullshit in any discipline. You don't actually need the facts and the background: look at the method: if a practitioner is not using that method to come to his conclusion, then he's bullshitting you. (Which is of course not to say that the conclusion is definitely false.) And if practitioners of some discipline generally fail to use the scientific method, then the entire discipline is bullshit. Ask the practitioner: how do you know? He'll become uninterested or even hostile. He'll tell you, "it's complicated," or he'll start spouting some incomprehensible mumbo jumbo.

It's not trivial to understand the scientific method; you have to do your own intellectual work there. If you don't thoroughly understand the method, a skillful bullshit artist can slide his bullshit into the gaps in your understanding. (More precisely, different bullshit artists hide their bullshit in various gaps; if those gaps match your own, you'll see fail to see that particular artist's bullshit.) But it's not that hard; the primary difficulty seems to be cognitive dissonance caused by applying the scientific method to one's subconscious prejudices.

And that, I think, is what philosophy ought to do. An entire class of academics — the scientific academy — have eliminated bullshit with good success from their individual disciplines. I don't see any compelling political or intellectual reason why the philosophers cannot do the same in general. I think I have outlined good reasons why they should do so: the scientific method is enormously useful, members of a complex society require a general method of separating sense from bullshit, and the concept of a general way of thinking is dead-center in the domain of philosophy. We might relegate exploring alternative methodologies to a subset of philosophy, but we need someone — and who better than philosophers — to confer substantial academic privilege on the scientific method in general, and to exercise that privilege to the general elimination of bullshit.

Academic philosophers do not, on the whole, seem to do so, and even those I think are clued in seem to passively accept the really absurd level of egregious bullshit in their profession (on the ground, I think, that we cannot be absolutely certain the scientific method is really universally applicable). Professional philosophers are, of course, free to do as they please, but until they give us something better than the irrelevant and mind-numbing bullshit they presently supply, they will not have my respect or admiration, and I hope you will withhold your own.

Monday, October 18, 2010

5 Reasons The Future Will Be Ruled By Bullshit

5 Reasons The Future Will Be Ruled By Bullshit

Once more, in English

The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

An important Gnu Atheist position is that religion is bad at least in some sense. Personally, I think religion is bad like most of McDonald's food is unhealthy.

If you eat at McDonald's often, it's going to be bad for your health. On the one hand, I think I have some obligation to tell you that Big Macs are harming your health: you're a fellow human being and I care about your well-being. On the other hand, it's your body, and it's inappropriate for me to force you not to eat Big Macs. Furthermore, I know many people really enjoy McDonald's (I've been known to indulge myself), but I'm not going to go to the mat to keep McDonald's in business.

However, I have a different attitude towards people who say that McDonald's isn't bad for you, or worse actually good for you, or even worse necessary to survival. Such people are not just harming themselves, they're harming others. True, they're harming others in a way that the people being harmed should be able to protect themselves from, but still, they are indeed harming others. And I get a little more militant when I think people are harming others.

There are free speech issues, and I won't say that people publicly advocating the health benefits of McDonald's food should actually go to jail or be subject to other direct coercion. On the other hand, they're liars and assholes — in a sense that individuals who choose themselves to eat at McDonald's aren't assholes — and I don't mind saying so.

And then there are people who feed their children a lot of McDonald's food. Children cannot protect themselves, and such parents are in fact abusing their children. I have a social obligation to protect everyone's children, not just my own: that's why I gladly pay for police and prisons to arrest and imprison all child molesters. I don't know if jail would be the correct solution in this specific case, but I have no problem in principle with direct coercive measures.

(Let me also say that independently of how I feel about some particular act, the imposition of coercion is subject to a social and political process. As flawed and dominated by the capitalist ruling class as our current process is, almost any social process is better than none. There are only very rare circumstances where I would take the law in my own hands, bypassing the social process for legitimatizing coercion. Actually imposing coercion is very different from advocating coercion within the process.)

Substitute "religion" for "McDonald's" and you have a pretty good sense of my feelings. I think religion is unhealthy, but if you yourself want to be religious, I'm not going to stop you. I wouldn't be at all unhappy if religion were to disappear completely, but I'm not holding my breath. And I think people who tell others that religion is good or necessary are lying assholes and I'm happy to say so, at considerable length. And I think people who impose religion on their children are actually harming those children. (That there is presently no social consensus for protecting children from religion doesn't stop me from saying there should be such protection.)

Of course, I might be mistaken: religion might not be bad. I'm always open to hearing arguments that I'm mistaken. I've heard a lot of them, and so far I'm entirely unimpressed, but who knows?

But there are certain positions that really piss me off. The most notable is that even though religion is indeed bad we shouldn't actually say so, because there are "bigger" problems, which we need the cooperation of the religious to solve. But the issue, at least as I see it, is that these "bigger" problems (i.e. fundamentalism) are problems precisely because fundamentalism is a religious belief. Take out the prop of God and the problems of fundamentalism are relegated to the pitiful lunatic fringe.

To switch back to the fast food analogy, suppose that Taco Bell was way more unhealthy than McDonald's (which is probably literally untrue). Obviously, our first goal is to shut down Taco Bell (in a socially appropriate way, of course). But on what basis should we confront Taco Bell? The most obvious approach is to argue that fast food with a lot of fat, salt and preservatives is bad for you. The problem is that some argue we need the cooperation of McDonald's customers to shut down Taco Bell. So we can't actually say that shitty fast food is bad for you, because McDonald's customers are not completely stupid; they're going to realize that an argument against shitty fast food applies just as much to their own preferred food as to Taco Bell.

But on what basis can we "cooperate" with McDonald's customers to shut down the ex hypothesi more egregiously unhealthy Taco Bell? Do we talk only about how unhealthy Chalupas are, and just not mention how unhealthy Big Macs are? Do we pick some peripheral point: do we say we want to shut down Taco Bell because they exploit their workers more egregiously than McDonald's? Because they use too many wrappers and boxes and create more pollution? Do we descend into pure bullshit and argue Taco Bell is bad they're "Mexican" themed instead of American themed? How far out of our way do we go to avoid the inconvenient truth that if we're against Taco Bell because they serve unhealthy food, we have to be against McDonald's because they too serve unhealthy food?

The problem is even more direct when it comes to religion. The underlying problem with fundamentalism is not that they come to the "wrong" conclusions, but that they use the wrong method to come to conclusions. The moderate religious also use the wrong method — indeed the exact same wrong method — but they come to (more or less) the "right" conclusions.

The problem with wrong methods is not that they always lead to the wrong conclusions. If they did, a "wrong" method would be trivially convertible to the "right" method: just invert the findings of the method. The problem with wrong methods is that they lead to some wrong and some right conclusions.

I can only imagine the frustration of a moderate talking to a fundamentalist about, say, homosexuality:
Moderate: There's nothing wrong with homosexuality!

Fundamentalist: What are you talking about?! Homosexuality is a sin, just like adultery or theft.

M: No, no! Homosexuality is just ordinary human love; homosexuals should be sexually active inside marriage just like anyone else!

F: That's crazy! You might as well say that adultery is ordinary human love and we should encourage it!

M: No! Homosexuality is nothing at all like adultery!

F: How do you know?

M: Because God tells me that homosexuality is acceptable.

F: What the fuck? God tells me — very plainly, thank you very much — that homosexuality is a grievous sin.
The problem, of course, is making your moral judgments on what God tells you. "God" apparently tells each person what they want (at some level) to hear.

Take God out of the picture and the conversation is a lot different:
Atheist: There's nothing wrong with homosexuality.

Fundamentalist: What are you talking about?! Homosexuality is a sin, just like adultery or theft.

A: What do you mean? Why should homosexuality be a sin?

F: Because God tells me so.

A: Who cares what God tells you?

F: Well, I care.

A: Good for you. Taking your God out of the picture, what's wrong with homosexuality?

F: Well, I just don't like homosexuality.

A: OK, you don't like it. Good for you. Is you personally not liking something a good reason by itself to deny ordinary civil rights to homosexuals?

F: What if it is?

A: Well, if I personally don't like religion, would that be a good reason by itself to deny civil rights to religious people?

F: No way!

A: I agree. We need a better reason than just your personal dislike by itself. Do you have a better reason? Does, for example, homosexuality hurt other people? Does it "pick my pocket or break my leg?"

F: Well, I guess not.

A: Anything else?

F: No, not really.

A: No one is asking you to be homosexual. Maybe this is a case where you should just mind your own business.

That's really the position that moderates have: It's OK to believe that what God tells you is good really is good, but only if God tells you only that things that really are good are good; if God is telling that something that's really bad is good, then God isn't telling you that. Stripped of the obfuscation and bullshit of "sophisticated theology", the circularity is obvious. The atheist position is that it's stupid to bring God into it in the first place, because there is no God. Ethical and political debates are complicated enough; "God" just serves to block one's ears from rational discourse and fellow-feeling, to justify and preserve one's prejudices in the face of rational argument and others' suffering.

If you're an "accommodationist" or "moderate" and you want to argue that I'm mistaken, that there really is nothing wrong (or enough right) with religion, that God actually does exist, I'll listen respectfully. (Son long as you don't bring in all the egregiously bad arguments I've heard a thousand times.)

But if you're saying that religion really is bad, but you're telling me to shut up and not say that it's bad, you're just going to get the digitus impudicus.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Friends and foes

Julian Baggini says that atheists and believers can get along:
Dividing the world up into believers and non-believers, while accurate in many ways, doesn’t draw the distinction between friends and foes. I see my allies as being the community of the reasonable, and my enemies as the community of blind faith and dogmatism. Any religion that is not unreasonable and not dogmatic should likewise recognise that it has a kinship with atheists who hold those same values. And it should realise that it has more to fear from other people of faith who deny those values than it does from reasonable atheists like myself.
Sounds reasonable, n'est pas? But let's unpack it a little bit.

First, what might Baggini mean by "friends" and "foes"? Why are "reasonable" atheists the friends of the religious who are "not unreasonable" and "not dogmatic"? Observe especially the distinction between reasonable and not unreasonable: is this just a rhetorical device to avoid repetition — i.e. is reasonable the same as not unreasonable — or is there a subtle difference between the two? If there is a difference, then we should examine more closely whether the difference really does allow us to be friends. It is not always the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

To examine the consequences of this difference, let's look at our (more or less) agreed upon common enemy, "the community of blind faith and dogmatism." Why is this particular community an enemy? Note that Baggini does not (as I do not) predicate enmity on the content of the dogma, but on dogmatism itself. But even here we must ask: why do we consider someone who dogmatically holds to the exact same values that I as a humanist rationally (or so I think) hold? Why should I consider how we hold the values to be more important than the the values themselves? Why not consider someone who rationally and flexibly holds contrary values to be more of an enemy than someone who dogmatically holds compatible values?

There are two possible answers. The first might be that rational, flexible people can hold only one sort of values just by virtue of being rational and flexible. In just the same sense, rational, flexible people can hold only one notion of science. (There may be some disagreement in the details, but we've found that rational, flexible people have always converged on one notion of scientific truth, regardless of their initial biases.*) Alternatively, rationality and flexibility are themselves core values; irrationality and dogmatism are inherently contrary, in just the same sense that indifference to or approval of the suffering of others is inherently contrary to concern for and disapproval of the suffering of others.

This statement is definitely controversial; many postmodernists have in fact strenuously and fundamentally disagreed. But that's a debate for another day.

I think I'm entitled to use a philosophically stricter reading of "not unreasonable": Baggini is a professional philosopher, he is speaking in public and on the record. Regardless of of Baggini's specific intentions, however, the characterization of the "moderate" religious as "not unreasonable" in a different sense than "reasonable" is the core of the Gnu Atheist critique of the "moderate" religious. I think the distinction is substantive and accurate: there really is a difference between "not unreasonable" and "reasonable", and one essential difference between atheism and the moderate religion really is that the former is reasonable and the latter not unreasonable.

Ethical philosophy often tends to three-valued logic: required, prohibited, and optional; or in psychological terms: approval, disapproval and indifference. Furthermore, our basic beliefs (beliefs about actions or outcomes) do not always match our ethical meta-beliefs (beliefs about others' beliefs). For example, one might positively approve of eating healthy food, but one might be indifferent to others' beliefs about eating healthy food. On the other hand, one might disapprove of others' suffering and disapprove of another's belief that he approves of or is even indifferent to others' suffering. So a rigorous ethical analysis of Baggini's position will be complicated.

One can be rational, irrational or not irrational*. Therefore there must be three corresponding classes of ideas: ideas that are rationally compelled (in the descriptive sense), ideas that are rationally prohibited, and ideas that are neither rationally compelled nor prohibited. We can define a rational person, therefore, as someone who believes (holds as true) every rational idea**, disbelieves (holds as false) every irrational idea, and most importantly has no belief about ideas that are neither rational nor irrational***. The "rational" person thus considers ideas that are neither rationally compelled nor prohibited to be noncognitive. An irrational person believes some rationally prohibited ideas and/or disbelieves some rationally compelled ideas. The "not irrational" person, therefore, believes all compelled ideas, disbelieves all prohibited ideas; he however believes as true (or disbelieves as false) some ideas neither rationally compelled nor prohibited.

*"Rational" is more easily adapted grammatically than "reasonable" to different word forms.
**More precisely: those ideas that she knows about and knows are rational.
***She is also
agnostic about those ideas — and only
those ideas — that appear susceptible to rational analysis but for which insufficient information is presently available to perform the analysis.

These "middle ground" ideas, these "not irrational" ideas, still have propositional character: they contradict other "not irrational" ideas. One cannot, for example, believe (hold as true) that God loves us and wants us to be happy and simultaneously believe that God hates us and wants us to be miserable. So one cannot simply believe or disbelieve all "not irrational" ideas*. Therefore, the "not irrational" person must have some methodology for choosing between not irrational ideas, and that methodology ex hypothesi cannot be rationality.

*We can also see by this analysis that rationality consists of more than just logical consistency. A person can be logically consistent and "not irrational"; it might even be possible to be both logically consistent and irrational.

I'll arbitrarily label this alternative methodology "not-irrational epistemic methodology" or NIREM. It is either the case that NIREM by definition cannot apply to or by definition can apply to ideas susceptible to rational analysis. If it can apply to rational ideas, either it always gives the same answer to those rationally-analytical ideas that NIREM also applies to, or it gives different answers to some of them. If it gives different answers, then the answers that conflict with rational analysis must be "specially" excluded.

To make a long story short (too late!), an important Gnu Atheist "confrontationalist" position is that all known forms of NIREM do apply to some rationally-analytical ideas, and they all give different answers to some of those ideas. The difference between the moderate "not unreasonable" religious and the unreasonable "dogmatic" religious is that the former specially exclude rationally-analytical ideas from consideration by their alternative methodology. Indeed it is our position that the "not unreasonable" religious are sometimes actually unreasonable (especially about women, homosexuals and sexuality in general); they're just not as outrageously or egregiously unreasonable as fundamentalists.

It would of course be an adequate rebuttal of this position to construct some NIREM that by definition could not apply to rational-analytical ideas, a NIREM without a "special" exception for the domain of rationality. In my investigations, however, I have not yet seen any such construction.

The most obvious problem is that everyone agrees (or at least Baggini appears to and I definitely take for granted that we all agree*) on what rationality is, and therefore on what ideas ideas are true and false according to rationality. But there is no agreement on what constitutes the "correct" NIREM, and many millennia of history have shown no progress whatsoever on developing a consistent NIREM. Furthermore, if it is the case that every NIREM applies to and gives different answers to rationally-analytical statements, there cannot be a feature within any NIREM that justifies the exclusion of those statements; the exclusion has to be external and special. Thus the insistence of the moderate religious that the fundamentalists should adopt this special exclusion has no influence. Similarly without influence is the Islamic insistence that I should adopt Islam because without it, I would have no reason to not eat pork. The rational atheist position has at least some influence: the fundamentalists' NIREM should be abandoned because it conflicts with rationality.

*Suitably constructed, even the fundamentalists agree on what constitutes rationality. They just think rationality so constructed is irrelevant or wrong.

Another problem is that almost any idea can be moved to the domain of "not irrational" by adding a qualifier. The idea that God created the entire physical universe ~6,000 years ago is definitely irrational: we know rationally that the physical universe is ~14 billion years old and the Earth ~4+ billion years old. The idea, however, can be "moved" to the domain of "not irrational" by qualifying it, for example, with the omphalos hypothesis.

Let me hammer the point home. It is rational to believe, "The universe is ~14 billion years old." It is irrational to believe, "The universe is ~6,000 years old." It is not irrational to believe, "The universe is ~6,000 years old and it was created to appear ~14 billion years old." Rational analysis is not capable of distinguishing one way or the other between a universe that actually is old, and a young universe created to appear old.

If it really is the case that all (or even many) rational ideas can be qualified into the "not irrational" category, then those who admit some NIREM have a severe epistemic problem: how do you determine when a rational idea should or should be qualified to move it into the domain of NIREM? More importantly, how do we differentiate between competing methodologies for qualifying these ideas? Different NIREMs thus introduce confusion not just in how to evaluate individual ideas that outside the domain of rationality, but collections of ideas with components that fall inside the domain of rationality. In short, just admitting any sort of NIREM potentially introduces confusion about all ideas, not just those outside the domain of rationality.

In conclusion, the Gnu Atheist position against moderate religion is that even though the moderate religious are the enemy of our enemy (the fundamentalists), they are still not our friends. Rational atheists criticize both the moderates and the fundamentalists for being religious, for adopting a NIREM in the first place; we are not particularly impressed that the moderates (sometimes) specially exclude rational ideas from consideration. The moderates criticize the fundamentalists for doing religion wrong, but there's no consistent account — and I fail to see how there can be any consistent account — of how we determine the "right" and "wrong" way to do religion. Better to just dismiss the middle ground as being noncognitive: either meaningless or (suitably constructed) a matter of pure preference.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (absolute stupidity edition)

the stupid! it burns! The Problem of Evil
The Atheist are in a real quandary when he tries to argue for the problem of evil, he has to first make a moral judgment that is objectively correct. Objective moral judgments can only be grounded in the transcendent God of Christianity. ... [I]f atheists are going to say that is absolutely evil then you must have an absolute standard of good. Only God can provide that. ...

The Bible reveals to us that God is all good and all powerful and tells us that evil exists in the world. The Bible, because its true is consistent, and therefore those three things are consistent.

The Atheist will claim that it is not consistent and THAT is the nub of the problem here.

Atheists think its inconsistent and God thinks its consistent, who are you going to believe?

Ultimately this is a question of authority. The authority of the Atheist's logical powers verses God' logical powers. Atheists are using their logical powers to show there is no God, logically speaking. What does God tell us?

Bahnsen explains it this way. God tells us that sin has obscured our understanding. That is to say that if Adam chose to sin, Adam would enter a realm of darkness that even he would not understand. It would obscure his thinking, it would make his thinking foolish, it would thwart his ability to understand things properly.

Interesting. I was under the impression that Adam sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Whoda thunk that knowledge would cloud one's understanding. God is mysterious indeed.

Linking different views of ethics

Humanism is a fundamentally pragmatic (i.e. consequentialist) ethical system: "suffering"* is inherently bad, and "happiness" is inherently good. Suffering and happiness are states of affairs, not choices. Therefore the ethical application of humanism to choices is pragmatic: when a humanist has a choice, the correct choice is the one that leads to the least suffering and/or the most happiness (by some calculus, and it's non-trivial to determine the correct calculus); i.e. the choice that has the best consequences. Since all choices are evaluated by their outcome, humanism is fundamentally pragmatic.

*While pain, discomfort and inconvenience are related to suffering in a substantive way (and pleasure, comfort and convenience related to happiness), the concepts are distinct. A full treatment of what precisely constitutes suffering is outside the scope of this post.

In the ideal case, we might determine that some choice — such telling the truth when we have the choice between telling the truth and telling a lie — always leads to the best outcome. Since we are determining the value of the outcome independently of the nature of the choice, if we were to make this sort of determination, we would be synthetically determining the "intrinsic" value of telling the truth. Pragmatism might be in the ideal case synthetically deontic.

(Contrast this view with the "analytical" pragmatism: in a fundamentally deontic ethical view, the best outcome is defined to be what follows from the "inherently" correct choice.)

Because pragmatism at least might be synthetically deontic, the observation that we have deontic psychological attitudes does not immediately falsify pragmatism. There might still be particular deontic attitudes that would falsify pragmatism, but just observing any old deontic attitude without considering its content does not falsify pragmatism.

In a more realistic case, we have to consider imperfect information. In the ideal case, we assume we know all the available choices, we know all the consequences of each choice for the entire lifetime of the universe, and we know the "correct" calculus for determining the overall value of these consequences. We obviously do not have all of this information available to us; indeed we have very little information about the consequences of an action. So instead we make time- and space-limited generalizations — more limited than universals, and we can empirically determine generalities with confidence — about the likely consequences of an action. So when a pragmatist says telling the truth is good, she means that telling the truth will generally have the best consequences in the foreseeable future. The generalization stands as long as cases are limited where the particular outcomes of particular choices fall outside the scope of the generalization, e.g. lying to the Nazis about the Jews hiding in your basement. Indeed, it is arguable that the exceptions disappear in the ideal case: there won't be any Nazis to lie to in an ideal world where everyone has good faith, perfect information and perfect rationality.

Not only do we have to little information, we also paradoxically have too much information. Our ethical beliefs are informed by all the choices that all human beings have made since we invented the concept of ethical evaluation, sometime in our prehistory. These choices have influenced our ideas, our individual and social psychology in an evolutionary manner*: we have heritable variation of our ideas and some ideas are selected against** by nature and are thus removed from the "meme" pool. Nature cannot select directly against intentions; nature directly selects against only outcomes. Our actual cognitive structures are thus informed by at least a summary of our actual choices from the past.

*I'm talking about the direct evolution of psychological attitudes; the academic discipline of evolutionary psychology deals primarily with cognitive selection on genetic evolution. There may well be genetic factors at work in our ethical beliefs, but identifying these factors is far beyond my scientific competence.

**Selection against psychological attitudes is usually directly against the attitudes and their verbal transmission, not against the life or biological reproductive success of the individuals holding those attitudes.

So we have evolved collections of ethical ideas we actually use to evaluate our actions. But a collection of ethical ideas is just another name for a virtue. If it is empirically true that telling the truth generally leads to the best outcome (and, more importantly if it is empirically true that lying leads to bad enough outcomes that the propensity to lie has been selected against), we would expect people to retain the ethical ideas that lead us to generally tell the truth: we would expect them to evolve the virtue of honesty, even if they were not at all consciously aware that telling the truth generally led to the best outcome.

Thus we can see that pragmatic and humanistic ethics relate to the supposed "alternatives" of deontic and virtue ethics by virtue of imperfect information and the evolution of human beings' individual and social psychology.

We have an overwhelming epistemic problem trying to explain ethical behavior in fundamentally deontic or virtue-ethical way. A fundamental deontic ethical system must offer us a way of knowing which choices are intrinsically good without any appeal to an independent evaluation of the outcomes. We must say, at least in an ideal theory, that a good choice might always lead to an inferior outcome by any independent method of evaluating those outcomes. But how would we know, independently of the outcome, that such a choice really is good? The same is true of virtue ethics: how do we know some virtue is good independently of the outcome of exercising that virtue? In all my reading of philosophy (which while extensive is not, of course, exhaustive) I've not found even a hint of such an epistemic method that does not in some way covertly import an independent evaluation of the outcome. Pragmatic humanism, on the other hand, has an empirically determinable foundation: we can observe suffering and happiness: it rests on the same general epistemic foundation as all of modern science.

Not only is pragmatic humanism related to deontic and virtue ethics, the specific character of the relation succinctly explains not only our ordinary moral behavior, but also all the weird anomalies.

The canonical exception to deontic ethics is precisely the "lying to Nazis" scenario. If telling the truth is inherently good, regardless of the outcome, we should not feel any discomfort imagining that if the Nazis asked straight out if there were Jews hiding in the basement. But of course we do (or at least I do) feel an intense discomfort in such a scenario. Alternatively, if telling the truth is not inherently good, why do we feel any discomfort ever about lying, regardless of the circumstances? Clever philosopher have, of course, addressed these issues, but the efforts look more and more like epicycles; the fixes have a decidedly unreal flavor. Imperfect information and psychological evolution, however, seem immediately and concretely real.

Even supposed anomalies in pragmatism, such as the Trolley Problem, seem adequately addressed by including imperfect information and psychological evolution.

Almost all investigations into pragmatic ethical intuitions include the assumption of perfect knowledge of the outcomes. We know that pulling the lever will definitely lead to one person being struck and killed by the trolley instead of five. We know that pushing someone in front of the trolley will definitely stop the trolley, and we know that failing to do so will definitely kill five. Additionally, these problems typically assume that pragmatism entails that in actual practice we routinely make our choices by consciously considering the alternatives and making the choice that we consciously evaluate to have the best outcome. One might just as well assume that we consciously set up and solve a quadratic equation every time we catch a ball. But of course we have ethical intuitions in the first place precisely because we have imperfect information. The more removed the consequences, the more they are uncertain: the deaths caused by just switching a lever is more removed and thus more uncertain than the death caused by pushing someone on the track, but the lives saved are just as remote. It is unsurprising then that we would have different intuitions about the different cases.

(Also note that ideal deontic and virtue ethics also predicts identical choices in the different scenarios; no ideal case absent imperfect information and psychological evolution predicts different behavior. Only pragmatism, however, easily encompasses these qualifiers.)

We thus see that pragmatic, deontic and virtue ethics are really the same thing, they just operate at different levels of abstraction. "Deontic" ethics just talk about those actions that generally have the best outcome, and prescribe that we follow the generally best choice when the outcome is really unknown. Virtue ethics just talk about the psychological attitudes that we actually use to evaluate circumstances against our understanding of the generally best choice. And all rest on a fundamental foundation of pragmatism.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I need some help. I really enjoyed this conversation between Justice Breyer and Justice Scalia on how to judge, their philosophies on how to interpret statutes and the Constitution. Naturally, as I'm of a more liberal bent, as well as being on the flexible and pragmatic side, I find Justice Breyer's philosophy more compelling. But Justice Scalia has some interesting things to say as well.

In fact, I enjoyed this debate so much I want to write a paper on it for my political science class. To do so, however, I'd like to have a complete transcript of the conversation. So far, I've completed the first three substantive chapters — I've skipped the Introductions chapter, and completed transcribing Holmes or Hand, Conflicting Ethics and Constraining Personal Views — and I'm working on chapter 5, Purpose.

It would be of tremendous value to me if anyone would help me transcribe the program. Please note who is speaking, and throw in some time tags, so readers can easily find the actual conversation in the video.

I'll offer the completed transcription first to the Federalist Society for inclusion on the website; if they permit it, I'll publish it here for strictly noncommercial use. I'll also email the complete transcript to each person who helps.

If you'd like to help, reserve a chapter in the comments here, transcribe it and mail your transcription to me at lrhamelin (at) gmail (dot) com or post it here in the comments. If you'd like individual credit, please let me know in the email whether and how you'd like credit. I'll also generically credit my readers.

Update 11/1/10: Some progress!

Chapter Status

01: Introduction: skipped/available
02: Holmes or Hand: complete
03: Conflicting Ethics: complete
04: Constraining Personal Views: complete
05: Purpose: complete
06: A Living Constitution: in progress: Larry
07: Conflicting Text of the Constitution
08: History
09: Active Liberty
10: School Voucher Case
11: Q
12: Q1 - Intent of Founders
13: Q2 - Pragmatism: in progress
14: Q3 - Activist Judges: complete
15: Q4 - Supreme Court Criticism: complete
16: Q5 - More Unanimous Decisions: complete
17: Q6 - Boldness: complete
18: Q7 - Morrison v. Olsen: complete
19: Q8 - A New Justice Makes a New Court: complete

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mankiw bullshits us on taxes

Brad DeLong and Mark Thoma [link fixed] have already weighed in on Greg Mankiw's whine about taxes [link fixed], but I thought I'd throw in my two cents.

What first struck me was this passage:
Suppose that some editor offered me \$1,000 to write an article. If there were no taxes of any kind, this \$1,000 of income would translate into \$1,000 in extra saving. If I invested it in the stock of a company that earned, say, 8 percent a year on its capital, then 30 years from now, when I pass on, my children would inherit about \$10,000. That is simply the miracle of compounding.

Now let’s put taxes into the calculus. First, assuming that the Bush tax cuts expire, I would pay 39.6 percent in federal income taxes on that extra income. Beyond that, the phaseout of deductions adds 1.2 percentage points to my effective marginal tax rate. I also pay Medicare tax, which the recent health care bill is raising to 3.8 percent, starting in 2013. And in Massachusetts, I pay 5.3 percent in state income taxes, part of which I get back as a federal deduction. Putting all those taxes together, that \$1,000 of pretax income becomes only \$523 of saving.

And that saving no longer earns 8 percent. First, the corporation in which I have invested pays a 35 percent corporate tax on its earnings. So I get only 5.2 percent in dividends and capital gains. Then, on that income, I pay taxes at the federal and state level. As a result, I earn about 4 percent after taxes, and the \$523 in saving grows to \$1,700 after 30 years.

Then, when my children inherit the money, the estate tax will kick in. The marginal estate tax rate is scheduled to go as high as 55 percent next year, but Congress may reduce it a bit. Most likely, when that \$1,700 enters my estate, my kids will get, at most, \$1,000 of it.

HERE’S the bottom line: Without any taxes, accepting that editor’s assignment would have yielded my children an extra \$10,000. With taxes, it yields only \$1,000. In effect, once the entire tax system is taken into account, my family’s marginal tax rate is about 90 percent. [emphasis added]
First of all, why is Mankiw spending about a fourth of his precious column space on this elaborate calculation? The reason is because if he just talked about the actual marginal tax rate on income in excess of \$250,000 per year, he would be whining that instead of taking \$350 out of that \$1,000 — to pay for stuff like roads, police, etc. that Mankiw presumably wants and benefits from — the mean ol' Obama administration would take out a whopping \$396. I mean, gosh! that \$46 bucks (and a buck or two more for higher Medicare costs) is what makes it worthwhile for poor Mr. Mankiw, who teaches at Harvard dontcha know, to get out of bed in the morning. Right? I don't think so. To make his objection plausible, he has to magnify the issue.

Now, there's a case to be made that taxation in general acts as a disincentive. And there's a case to be made that under certain specialized circumstances a system of taxation can have a profound effect on the overall opportunity costs of complicated series of transactions. But to characterize these effects as an effective marginal tax rate is just irresponsible. Macroeconomics 101 (which I'm actually taking now) tells us that money flows in an endless circle, and the government takes its cut (sometimes more than one) on each transaction around that circle. Follow a dollar around the circle long enough and you can make the "effective" tax rate any value you want. Mankiw is talking about at least six separate transactions:
  1. The pay from the editor to him (and the income taxes he pays)
  2. The decision to invest the money instead of consuming it immediately
  3. The sales from consumers to the corporation he invests in
  4. The distribution of dividends and capital gains
  5. The reinvestment of those dividends
  6. The transfer of this wealth to his children
And then he's compounding some of these transactions over 30 years.

I make about \$10,000 per year in income. If I paid one fewer dollar in taxes, I could invest it at 8% for 30 years and, absent any taxes at all, I could pass on \$10 to my kids. Indeed I could say that the tax system — just by taking \$1 from me this year — is "in effect" taxing my great-great-great-great grandchildren a million dollars. What an injustice!

Also... where does this 8% come from? Investment is foregoing consumption in order to grow the economy. The economy (real GDP) grows at between 2% and 4% per year. Where does the expectation of 8% come from? What investment (without precognition or insider trading) consistently and predictably returns 8% per year for 30 years? If there were such an investment, perhaps we should put the Social Security surplus in that instead of Treasury Bills. Not only does Mankiw expect to invest to grow the economy, he wants to take double that growth as a premium.

I want to make it clear: taxation does indeed exert an enormous effect on compound interest over long periods of time. But Mankiw is blatantly bullshitting us with bogus statistics to characterize it as an effective marginal tax rate. The marginal federal income tax rate for income over \$250,000 per year is 35% and may be raised to 39.6%. That's an extra \$46 per \$1,000 earned over \$250,000. Period.

Mankiw then poses a rhetorical question:
Now you might not care if I supply less of my services to the marketplace — although, because you are reading this article, you are one of my customers. But I bet there are some high-income taxpayers whose services you enjoy.

Maybe you are looking forward to a particular actor’s next movie or a particular novelist’s next book. Perhaps you wish that your favorite singer would have a concert near where you live. Or, someday, you may need treatment from a highly trained surgeon, or your child may need braces from the local orthodontist. Like me, these individuals respond to incentives... As they face higher tax rates, their services will be in shorter supply.
Well, yes, but let's turn to page 4 of Mankiw's textbook on economics: the first principle of economics is that people face trade-offs. What are we giving up to have high-income taxpayers provide more services? What's the opportunity cost? Unless I know what I have to give up to squeeze an extra book, concert or New York Times column out of some high-income taxpayer, I don't know if it's actually worth it.

And there's not just one trade-off, but two. First, should we let these high-income taxpayers keep \$46 more per \$1,000 they earn over \$250,000? (Presumably, they have no problem working — and spending — up to \$250,000.) And second, should we allow them to compound this money by saving and investing? And it's the second trade-off that Mankiw is asking us to make.

First, Mankiw implies that saving for his children has lower marginal utility than supporting his family's upper-middle-class lifestyle. If it were not, he would sacrifice part of that lifestyle to increase his savings. So he's asking us to give up something (who knows what?) to support the least of his priorities.

Second, we are — according to many economists — in a global savings glut; we have excess productive capacity. If Mankiw were to tell us that he would buy fewer hamburgers or Armani suits because of the tax increase, there would be a much better case for letting him keep the money. But it is precisely because Mankiw intends to save and invest what we would otherwise tax him that we want to take the money away from him. We don't need savings and investment right now; we have too much savings and investment. We need spending. (Well, we really need a revolution to change the fundamental character of our economic system, but I have my "capitalist" hat on for this post.) So when Mankiw asks to be allowed to keep this money to invest it is akin to asking that he be allowed to keep his gun so he can hunt bald eagles.

Sorry Greg. I wouldn't buy this bullshit for a quarter. Let me call the waaaaaaaaaaahmbulance.

Friday, October 08, 2010

My view of communism

I call myself a communist — I believe I must call myself a communist — because I believe that we should socialize all capital, i.e. we should socialize all the means of production, financial and physical. We cannot afford the individual ownership of capital any more than we can afford the individual ownership of coercive governmental power of non-democratic governments.

But just because I call myself a communist does not mean I therefore agree with everything anyone — or even just the famous anyones — ever said about communism, even the parts that contradict the other parts.

I do not believe, for example, that we should implement a fully planned, pure command economy. We must have some social planning (and even now we have some social planning in capitalist economies, both by the government and the capitalist ruling class as a whole) but there is a very important role for markets. Properly designed, markets are proven to do the complicated and difficult tasks that Marx himself saw in the Labor Theory of Value: measuring and making concrete the "socially necessary" and "abstract" components of socially necessary abstract labor time. I do not, of course, hold the view that just because you call something a market means you're calling it good; neither, however, do I believe that just because you call something a market you're calling it bad. A market is not an end; it is a tool, a means.

I do not believe, for example, that a communist party or some analog should exercise absolute or near-absolute political power "on behalf" of the workers. One important lesson of dialectical materialism is that no ideal — no level of ideological rigor and completeness — can allow a group to "escape" the material dialectic of opposing classes, interest groups and individuals. No group can ever rule on the basis of its ideology, at least not ultimately to the benefit of anyone outside its membership or those who control its membership. I believe the lesson of history is that it would be better to have "bad" communism with democracy — real democracy, not the half-assed bullshit republicanism of the United States — than "good" communism with autocracy.

I do not believe, for example, that the good of society should outweigh the individual good. I don't believe this construction is false; it is, rather, incoherent. There is no such thing as the "good of society" independent of individual good: the good of society is some statistical, abstract property of everyone's individual good. In every society we ask or demand that some individuals — criminals, soldiers, construction workers, taxi drivers* — sacrifice their own good for the good of other individuals, but the whole point of civilization itself is working out ways of structuring these sacrifices in socially legitimate ways. Communism is no different in this respect from any other system of political economy that actually is a political economy.

*IIRC, construction workers and taxi drivers have a higher per capita job-related mortality rate than soldiers, policemen and firefighters.

I do not believe, for example, that to implement communism we must create a better species of human being. I like human beings just the way we are. Of course, we learn, grow and change as individuals, as cultures and as a species, but growth is a collaborative process: it cannot (never mind should not) be imposed from above by the sword, the pen, or the Skinner Box. I think human beings just the way they are are capable of implementing a communist society that has no more (probably considerably less) coercion than modern republican capitalism. (Sadly just because we are capable of something doesn't mean we will actually choose to do it.)

I do not believe, for example, that to implement communism we must do everything that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro or anyone else actually did. The United States is not Russia, China or Cuba; the 21st century is not the 20th. The material conditions — social, political, economic, technological, scientific — of the modern world are very different from the material conditions of the world just a decade ago, much less a century or fifteen decades ago. We have much to learn from history and we must learn it; only those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

I believe what I "choose" to believe, what I do my best to rationally determine according to the evidence I've seen what would be in my own best interest and the best interest of humanity. I may be wrong or mistaken — I don't know everything — and one need only point out arguments or evidence I've not yet considered for me to honestly reconsider any of my positions. But if you think I believe what I manifestly and explicitly do not believe, then fuck you. If you think I'm not a "true" communist because I don't believe what you think I ought to believe, then fuck you.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

5 Scientific Reasons Powerful People Will Always Suck

5 Scientific Reasons Powerful People Will Always Suck:
  1. Feelings of Power Trigger a Lack of Compassion
  2. Power Gives You a False Belief in Your Abilities
  3. Experiments Show Power and Hypocrisy Are Linked in the Brain
  4. Feeling Powerful Makes It Easier to Lie
  5. Power and Self-Absorption Go Hand in Hand

The Stupid! It Burns! (autistic edition)

the stupid! it burns! Poking Fun at Militant Atheists
Ridiculing the less intellectually endowed is rather small-minded and cruel, not to mention a sign of insecurity. Skewering those who routinely dismiss those with whom they disagree as stupid is fair game.

[The remainder of the post consists of quotations from commenters on this thread; I've omitted the attributions.]

[Richard Dawkins is] "the intellectual equivalent of the college freshman who ended up getting a C in his philosophy class because he kept being a smart ass." ...

"I find atheism to be a perfectly acceptable religion for the average adolescent male. No responsibility, no inconvenient connection between one’s observations of reality and metaphysics, no attempt at a large connection between ethics and origins. But, unless one has an arrested intellectual, emotional, or spiritual development, one must eventually grow up." ...

"Folks who have illogical hate for religion latch on to any moron that has the gumption to 'take on' organized religion... Since most folks have decided not to bother to learn how to think, some ignoramus who can use big words and pseudo-science becomes their idol."

"Whoever wants to know what the serious objections to Christianity are should ask us. The unbeliever makes only stupid objections."

The best description of these so called New Atheists has been to call them 'social autisitics.' They simply have no clue that what they are saying is laughable, has been said much better a thousand times before, and that it is all demonstrably false."
Yet another irony meter bites the dust.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Money: a weird idea

In Promise Merchants, Noni Mausa writes:
Let me remind you what a very weird idea money is.

The IOU is a simple idea. Money is like an IOU, but carried beyond the boundary of reason into an entirely different and peculiar territory.

If I write an IOU, it has my name on it, your name, perhaps a date, and some indication of the future services which are owed between us. It's a minimalist contract, easy for anyone to understand.

But money is an IOU, a promise, with no names. The future benefit is merely an abstract number whose value is not defined. A dollar does not equal a loaf of bread, or an hour of babysitting, but is determined by the usage of all the people who accept it.

This is almost theological in its weirdness.
Almost theological, but not quite. Money is basically a debt against everyone, a promise made by the whole society to each other as individuals, i.e. as they individually hold money. That individuals actually do physically own commodities, and can physically provide them on demand. Money doesn't have intrinsic or objective value, but we do have sophisticated social institutions (governments, banks, the Fed etc.) to ensure that we can have reasonable and consistent expectations about how many loaves of bread or hours of babysitting a dollar will buy, now and in the future.

Mausa notes that "An economy built on promises -- a capitalist economy -- only functions when these promises are enforced, and enforced multilaterally on all participants." I have no objection if she's using capitalism here as an example of an economy built on promises, but I would definitely object if she were defining capitalism as an economy built on promises. Every economy is built on promises, even a pure direct barter economy: there has to be some promise that I can physically enter the marketplace without my goods being forcibly expropriated.

Her fundamental point is still sound: however the promises are structured, they have to be enforced and they have to be enforced on everyone. I would add that there are as well constraints on the structure of promises, i.e. what kinds of promises are enforceable and under what circumstances. A structure of promises can be enforced, and — in theory — multilaterally enforced, and still be just as exploitative and oppressive as a society where promises are differentially enforced. As Anatole France famously quipped, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." The notion of universal enforcement is a perfect example of a partial "bourgeois right", a right that is necessary but not sufficient to create an equitable society.

This point is the crux of Lenin's observation in The State and Revolution that no government can stand "outside" society to enforce promises on everyone or structure the promises to be equitable. Government is part of society; one more arena in which individuals and classes struggle for advantage. The notion that a government can do the right thing just because it is in some abstract sense the "right" thing to do is just as inept as the notion that a corporation, responsible to its stockholders, can do so. Every government acts according to its own interests: the interests of its members and the interests of those who control its membership. I would add too that it is equally impossible for the press to stand "outside" society: Like any other group the members of the press act in their own interests and the interests of those who control its membership.

Liberal economists complain: why isn't the government doing what we know they "ought" to be doing? Why is the press generally failing — egregiously — to accurately and truthfully report our true economic and political situation? Their questions were answered 150 years ago by Marx and amplified a century ago by Lenin: The government and the press are part of the material dialectic of history; they cannot in any sense stand "outside" it and act without regard to their own material interests. It is of course equally true that a Communist Party cannot stand outside society; a Communist Party is just as much as any government guided by its own interests. Nobody gets to stand outside society; nobody gets to escape dialectical materialism; nobody will ever do the right thing just because it's the right thing to do.

What is to be done then? No one cannot stand outside society, so we always have to work within society. Hence the original communist ideal that the workers act as a class within society for their own interests against the interests of the capitalist class. A communist party, a communist intelligentsia, cannot therefore not substitute for the working class, or try to act directly in the interests of the working class. A communist intelligentsia must subordinate itself to the working class, in much the same sense that the present-day academic intelligentsia subordinates itself to the capitalist ruling class (or the upper levels of the professional-managerial class, which periodically struggles — sometimes successfully — directly with the capitalist class).

The problem — as yet unsolved, and perhaps unsolvable — is how to get the working class and the masses of humanity to want to take power.