Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dictionary atheists

I've been watching some atheists getting their knickers in a knot about PZ Myers deprecation of Dictionary Atheists. It's amusing (and kind of depressing) how many atheists seem unable to read simple declarative sentences in the English language. If you go back and read the original, you will — if you can indeed read English — discover that Myers is not criticizing people who define atheism as "lack of belief in god." Let me quote the relevant part of the post:
You've got a discussion going, talking about why you're an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that "Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term."
In other words, a "dictionary atheist" is not a person who defines atheism in a particular way. A Dictionary Atheist is someone who intrusively and dogmatically insists on his particular definition, someone who limits and restricts the definition of atheism.

There's a time and a place for a narrow dictionary definition of atheism, usually when theists are making broad, unsupported generalizations about all atheists. We are a diverse group, and the only thing you can say about all of us is that we all — for a variety of reasons and with a variety of intellectual consequences — do not hold the belief that any god exists. But this definition serves only one purpose: to say what we all at minimum have in common. After that, the dictionary definition is useless.

Essentially, Myers is arguing against a narrow, blinkered view of atheism among atheists. More importantly, he's arguing against the dogmatic assertion of that narrow, blinkered view:
My main point is that one general flaw in many atheists is a lack of appreciation for why they find themselves comfortable with that label, and it always lies in a set of sometimes unexamined working metrics for how the world works.
If you want to argue that atheism really is nothing more than the lack of belief in God, that there cannot be anything more to atheism, there cannot be anything more interesting to say about each and every atheist than that he or she simply lacks some belief, then fine: argue the point. Otherwise, you are simply not addressing Myers position; you are simply sensing that you might somehow disagree with him and reacting unfavorably. You're supposed to be smarter and more honest than the average bear. Please make an effort to live up to expectations.

Rabbi Moshe Averick and the argument from morality

Rabbi Moshe Averick (via the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society) trots out the tired old argument from morality. I think the Gnu Atheists are so often accused of having nothing really new to offer simply because theists themselves have nothing new. Averick is definitely eloquent, but he shows us that eloquence can be employed just as easily to obscure fallacious reasoning as it can be to make correct reasoning come to life.

In the first chapter of Nonsense of a High Order, Averick seizes on Christopher Hitchens' argument that human beings' "relationship with ground worms and other creatures ... make[s] short work of racism." Averick concludes that this statement is empty and destroys rather than creates value: With a bit of snark, Averick says that "Hitchens – blinded by the brilliance of his third grade epiphany – has failed to realize the ultimate emptiness of such a statement."

Averick asserts that atheism contains the "implicit notion that human beings merely represent another evolutionary branch of the animal kingdom" (emphasis added). He goes on to say that "if the atheist/Darwinian view is accurate, we are all brothers in the sense that we are equally related to ground worms. ... if we accept the premise that our existence on the earth is only possible via the magic of Darwinian evolution ... our response would be to join hands and triumphantly break into a chorus of We Shall Overcome." He makes this argument explicit:
Through the eyes of the atheist, being related to ground worms does not make all of mankind brothers in the sense that we are all equally valuable. It makes us brothers in the sense that we are equally void of allsignificance [sic]. A ground worm is insignificant. There nothing ennobling or inspiring in one’s being related or equated to a ground worm. Thus, the species Homo sapiens is also insignificant.
His clear implication is that atheists construct our conception of human value directly and exclusively from our physical, evolutionary nature.

Averick tries to support that interpretation by quoting several scientists asserting human beings' physicality and contingency. Paleontologist Stephen J. Gould says, "We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs," Rice University physicist Dr. Peter Walker says that human beings "are carbon based bags of mostly water on a speck of iron-silicate dust revolving around a boring dwarf star in a minor galaxy in an underpopulated local group of galaxies in an unfashionable suburb of a supercluster." According to astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, "We are bits of stellar matter that got cold by accident, bits of a star gone wrong." Averick believes that Carl Sagan "leaves little to the imagination" when Sagan says, "The very scale of the universe…speaks to us of the inconsequentiality of human events in the cosmic context." Averick draws the conclusion: "In the world of the atheist, all life on earth drowns in an ocean of insignificance in relation to the countless billions of galaxies in our universe."

Averick clearly seems hostile and contemptuous of not just atheist moral philosophy, but of science itself. All the statements Averick quotes are substantively true in their entirety. Evolution really is, as Gould mentions, contingent and unpredictable. We really are "carbon based bags of mostly water." The atoms (of everything but hydrogen and helium) in our body really were forged in stars. All of human history really does inhabit a fraction of space-time so small that accurately calculating just the number of zeroes would be an exercise in tedium. We are indeed inconsequential in a cosmic sense. Averick as well refers to the "the magic of Darwinian evolution," restating it as "the atheist/Darwinist view." But evolution is not magic; it's science.

Earlier in the chapter, Averick mentions that the title of his book, Nonsense of a High Order, comes from Sir Fred Hoyle's assertion that the idea that "the operating program of a living cell could be arrived at by chance in a primordial organic soup here on the Earth is evidently nonsense of a high order." But of course Hoyle has been proven wrong; we have not solved the problem, but modern research on the origins of life has shown that a natural origin of life is not only not "nonsense", but quite plausible.

Moreover, Averick fails to quote anyone other than Hitchens as saying that any moral value follows from the scientific truths presented. And Hitchens is not making a broad, positive point; he's making a narrow, negative point: The truth of evolution and the relatedness of terrestrial life undermines one particularly "stupid" belief: the belief that one race of human beings is somehow ineluctably superior to another. With the key characterization of evolution as "magic", we must conclude that Averick believes that the cited scientific truths lead logically to the conclusion that human life is morally "insignificant". Since human beings are not insignificant, these statements must therefore not be true.

Averick must therefore believe not only that "For the believer... the intrinsic value of a human being derives from his relationship to God," he must also hold that the intrinsic value of a human being can derive only from his relationship to God. Furthermore, this relationship must be a physical relationship: If we really are related to ground worms, if our particular characteristics really are a contingency of evolution, if we really are carbon-based sacks of water, if we really do occupy only a nearly infinitesimal corner of the cosmos, if these scientific findings are really true, then we cannot have any intrinsic value from our relationship to God.

But atheists simply do not predicate value on cosmic consequentiality; we do not predicate value on any physical or even mystical "specialness" of human beings. The connection with racism is clear: If human beings in general are not special at all, it's nonsensical to believe that one race is more special than any other. But that we do not predicate value on some sort of physical relationship with what mathematician Paul Erdős called the "supreme fascist" does not mean that we must necessarily abandon the notion of value. The key phrase in the Declaration of Independence is not "endowed by our Creator", but "we hold these truths to be self-evident." We can abandon the notion of the Creator and still believe it is self-evident that all human beings are equal in an important political and moral sense. We can believe that it is self-evident that human beings really do have inalienable rights, among them "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" regardless of their origin: We can agree it is self-evident that we have them without agreeing on how we came to have them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Micro, macro, money and politics

Microeconims "The study of economics one firm at a time," according to my economics instructor — forms the basis of most people's economic intuitions. In microeconomics, money is itself an intrinsically limited resource, a resource the allocation of which always directly entails an opportunity cost. I have only so many dollar bills in my wallet, only so much money in the bank; To spend money on one thing always entails not spending it on something else.

In macroeconomics, the study of an economy as a whole, money is no longer itself a limited resource. It is possible to have "too little money" in the economy as a whole, causing a liquidity crisis [read with caution], but "running out of money" is completely different from running out something real, such as labor, arable land, food, iron, coal or the like. Having too little money is not the same as running out of money; if we have too little money it's easy enough to print more. Theoretically, it's just as easy to make money disappear; it's a lot more difficult, though, to make it disappear fairly. Hence most economic regulators (governments, central banks, etc.) prefer to inflate money, which has a similar macroeconomic effect as destroying dollar bills while keeping prices stable.

It's illogical, therefore, to object to macroeconomic decisions on the basis of money itself. It would be obviously illogical to say that we can't build a skyscraper because it will use up too many inches. It's just as illogical to say that we can't have universal health care, or social security, or teachers, police, firemen, good roads, etc. because we don't have enough money. There are good reasons to set limits on these things, but a shortage of actual money is not one of them. In macro, the question is not the micro question of how to spend our limited amount of money. The question is: How do we want to use our real resources (labor, land, food, etc.)? Money becomes a tool — perhaps the best cognitive tool ever invented since the spoken word; much more important than literacy — to make these choices.

The macroeconomic question is how we allocate our real resources, and all resources fundamentally come down to human labor. If there isn't enough arable land, we can spend labor on irrigation, fertilization and cleanup to to make more. If there's not enough oil we can spend labor to drill for more or process the sources we already have. If there's not enough land in San Francisco, we can hire a bunch of construction workers to build taller buildings. If we feel we have a shortage of four-leaf clovers, we could send a million people into fields to hunt for them. We do have a limited supply of labor: There are only so many people and so many hours in the day. But the only macroeconomic opportunity cost worth talking about is the opportunity cost of using labor for one purpose or another.

Right now, the opportunity cost of using more labor is zero. We have tens of millions of people literally sitting around doing nothing. These people are not comatose, hooked up to life-support. They can work, and they want to work. Saying we can't afford Social Security, or Obamacare, or better education, or better roads, or more policemen simply makes no sense. Labor is wasted if not used; you might as well say you can't afford to eat dinner even though you have a refrigerator full of food that will spoil tomorrow. Not only can we afford any of those things, we can afford all of those things. The labor force participation rate is 64.2%: We could afford half again as much as we currently have.

Why would anyone ever tell us we can't afford anything right now? It's not even that we don't have enough money. There's a trillion dollars sitting around in bank reserves that no one is using. There are prominent people (cough Rand Paul cough) who are telling us we can't afford things just because they're stupid, and they're telling a population with a woefully inadequate economic education what the people think they want to hear. But there are a lot of economists, businessmen and politicians who ought to know better, who at some level almost certainly do know better.

There can be only one reason they are telling us we can't "afford" things: because they do not believe the people deserve things. We do not deserve old-age pensions. We do not deserve basic health care. We do not deserve teachers, police officers, firefighters, safe and well-constructed roads. We do not even deserve jobs, the fundamental means of sustenance in a capitalist economy. Millions of people are, to take this estimation to its logical conclusion, fit for nothing better than Soylent Green.

If you have privilege, i.e. power over other people, you will inevitably have contempt for them. You must convince yourself you have power over them because they are intrinsically inferior. The only counter to this contempt is noblesse oblige (literally the obligation of the nobility), but any study of history shows that noblesse oblige is unstable and quickly degenerates into unqualified, total contempt. When the people have some control over their own lives, they will inevitably want more. When they have some prosperity, some dignity, they will want more; sooner rather than later the ruling class du jour can no longer justify their rule. The vigorous ruling class will and must do anything to maintain its rule. No lie is too monstrous, no violence too extreme, no oppression or exploitation too egregious. A ruling class falls only when when it loses its stomach for atrocity, through weakness, excess or sentimentality.

The capitalist ruling class has been systematically eliminating its sentimentality, the sentimentality that caused them to retreat in favor of the professional-managerial class who ruled successfully for three decades (whose own sentimentality has already fatally weakened their rule). They have been convincing themselves that Ayn Rand's utter, absolute and ineluctable contempt for the common people is ethical and just. We will have Soylent Green thrust upon us, not from poverty but from wealth.

Common ground

Adam Jacob's recent essay really makes me think there's no common ground. Attack away if that pleases you, but framing an attack (and a poor one at that) in the language of conciliation reveals nothing but intellectual and moral bankruptcy.

But maybe there is some common ground we can reach with theists.

First, your private religious beliefs are no one's business but your own (and those you freely choose to share them with). The emphasis here is on private. No atheist is, as far as I know, interested in invading your church, your home, your bookshelf or your mind to root out beliefs we disagree with. (And if any atheists do advocate such measures, directly or indirectly, I will add my unqualified condemnation.) Private doesn't mean "shut up", it just means outside the government and mechanisms of social compulsion. It's not enough to just say that "there is no compulsion in religion," you have to actually live it. If most religious people did live that motto (and took the lead marginalizing religious compulsion and privilege), I would be completely satisfied, as would, I suspect, most other atheists, militant and Gnu.

Second, it is manifestly true that religion is not all bad. Religion does not turn people into monsters. Religious people over the years have come up with a lot of good ideas, and sometimes their religion has motivated and supported those ideas. And of course modern Western culture has substantial roots in religion, especially (but not exclusively) Christianity. Similarly, atheism does not turn people into monsters; a lot of atheists and those indifferent to religion have come up with a lot of good ideas (some motivated by atheism itself), and modern Western culture has substantial roots in secular, scientific thought. We can live together in a truly pluralistic culture.

Third, there's nothing wrong per se with making your private beliefs public. Privacy entails that it's your choice what to make public. Restriction on expression is just as inappropriate as compulsion. Of course bringing your private beliefs into public expression means you're now in a context with more subtle and complex rules, but these rules are pretty well-defined. We all talk freely about our opinions, and only the quality of the opinions are legitimate topics for criticism. It's out of bounds to condemn someone directly for the temerity of actually expressing an opinion without regard for its content. There are subtle, unavoidable forms of restriction and compulsion in public discourse (no one wants to be thought a fool or a knave), but those subtleties apply to any topic. We all have to just deal with it.

As best I can tell, the common theme of the Gnu Atheists is to remove all compulsion and privilege from religion. We want, I think, to make religion a truly private matter, just as private as people's taste in music. We don't, in theory, mind churches any more than we mind record shops, so long as both pay their taxes and obey the zoning regulations. Privacy and pluralism is our common ground.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What would Feynman do?

Eric Lippert asks, What would Feynman do?. If you're a software engineer (or anyone else) irritated by stupid "lateral thinking" puzzles, you'll enjoy this send-up.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is atheism?

This essay about atheism (via Geoff Arnold) is pretty good. Let me say it again in my own style.

Atheism is, I think, the decisive rejection of the idea that the supernatural is a good way to explain the world. Might there be some sort of supernatural being? I dunno. More importantly, what does the phrase "supernatural being" even mean? If we look at the ideas we've traditionally ascribed to the word "god", we consistently see ideas of one or more personal, teleological beings whose will and desire are explanations for observed phenomena. The pagan gods made the lightning strike and made winter occur; the Christian god performs wonders and miracles. The ideas of god historically underlie political legitimacy: The king and the priesthood rule by direct dispensation from the local deity. The ideas of god historically provide psychological comfort: In the gods, one can rely on a responsible parent, who will at least provide sustenance and justice. All of these ideas are wrong.

To reject these ideas is more than just to eliminate the statement, "I believe some God exists" from one's mind. Yes, that's the dictionary definition of atheism, and it has some use against various theistic straw men, but anything more than the most trivial, nominal atheism requires rejection of the supernatural. To the atheist, science becomes the way to explain the world (or, more precisely, the way to construct explanations). Only our own moral intuitions — as subjective, limited and labile as they might be — underlie political legitimacy. The atheist relies on himself or herself for psychological comfort. We are, in short, free beings in a natural world, free to shape that world how we will, subject only to the constraints imposed by the impersonal and uncaring laws of physics. We are as well free to fail; there is no parent who will swoop in and rescue us from our mistakes or catastrophes. To me — because I am a mature adult — such freedom is an unqualified good.

If you're religious, I'm going to ask you two questions: What fear are you unable to face? Whom do you want to oppress? If I don't get an answer to either question, I'm going to press you on how you consider yourself religious in the first place. Vague mystical bullshit doesn't count: A difference that makes no difference is no difference, and there's no difference between a stone-cold atheist like myself and a theist who relies exclusively on mystical mumbo-jumbo. (If you want to pretend you're religious to get along in society, that's your own business. But do us all a favor and don't be a hypocritical jackass; refrain from attacking your fellow atheists to get on the good side of the religious. It doesn't work anyway; they'll hate you more for lying.) But 99 times out of 100, underneath the mystical mumbo-jumbo, I'll find an answer to one of those questions.

Eight times out of a ten it'll be the last question, and the answer will be niggers, fags, sluts and/or the lazy, slovenly, dirty poor*. There will always be some elaborate rationalization, of course — few people can stomach being openly racist, homophobic, sexist, or classist — but I'm completely uninterested in how you rationalize being an asshole. Yes, 80% of religious people are just garden-variety bigots. (Most of rest are usually terrified of disappointing their (real) mommy and daddy. I don't buy the whole "fear of death" bullshit; anyone who gets in a car or crosses the street is not really afraid of death. The few remaining are just there for the show, which I will admit can be quite entertaining, if that's your cup of tea.)

The "philosophy" of theism is tiresome. The whole edifice of philosophical bullshit around theism exists only rationalize and obfuscate assholery and cowardice. I'm at the point where if you call yourself a Christian or a Muslim I'm just going to silently conclude you're a bigot and/or a coward. I might be polite to your face (unless you say something openly bigoted or ridiculous), but I'll always have a reserve of contempt for your character, intelligence and maturity.

*I can usually do it in four questions: Do you oppose affirmative action? Do you oppose gay marriage? Do you oppose abortion on demand? Are you a Republican? If you answer any of these questions in the affirmative, please remember that I'm not in the least bit interested in how you rationalize being an asshole.

It's true, of course, that one can find other reasons to a bigot or a coward; bigotry and cowardice might be the only reasons to be religious, but religion is hardly the only way to rationalize bigotry and cowardice. I'm no more approve of non-religious justifications for assholery (e.g. Libertarianism or Randianism) than I approve of theism, but I'm only one guy, and I have only so much time and energy.

Fundamentally, that's what atheism really is: science, personal moral responsibility (if you're going to be an asshole, at least be one on your own account, not a god's), and adult psychological maturity.

The blind watchmaker

Here's an interesting video about evolution.

(via Daniel Fincke)

To me, it's more interesting in what it says about evolution than as a rebuttal to Paley's argument against evolution. What I really get from this video is that major changes appear to be abrupt, not gradual. We see the "pendulum era" for hundreds of generations, and then in only a few generations we get the "single-handed clock era"; the pendulums almost completely die out. It's an important illustration of one mechanism of punctuated equilibrium. There are, of course, other mechanisms in the much more complicated and varied world of both biological and social evolution, but the model is interesting nonetheless.

While punctuated equilibrium in biological evolution seems strongly (but not exclusively) associated with allopatric speciation, the idea of some internal more-or-less "abrupt" transitions (in "geological" time) seems more pronounced in social evolution, and the mechanism from the video (the accumulation of neutral variation) also seems to have special application to social evolution.

Basically, there's a lot of neutral variation in our ideas. People think up new ideas (or variations on old ideas), and they more-or-less float around the population with no positive or negative selective effect. There are a lot of people, so sooner or later some fortuitous combination of neutral variations comes together into an "ideology" that really takes off; its prevalence now indirectly exerts a negative selective effect on the old dominant ideology.

Which is why, I think, I don't worry too much about numbers, both of atheists or communists. I don't know that either atheism or communism (or, more precisely, some ideology that includes atheism and/or communism) will actually dominate human society, but if it does, it will probably do so very abruptly. Thus I'm not too worried about my recent commenter's boast that atheism is on the decline, and not just because any statistics coming from the religious are probably outright lies. There isn't really anything at all we can infer from day-to-day or even year-to-year numbers; social evolution happens on a generational time scale.

Furthermore, evolution happens only when there's real negative selection pressure against some ideology. In the clock model, the selection pressure is a constant and fairly simple part of the experiment; in social evolution, selection pressure is considerably more complex and non-obvious. Therefore, one of the prerequisites for the growth of both atheism and communism is the removal of direct negative selection pressure for these ideas. Atheist activists have been especially successful — as have racial, gay and women's rights activists — at eliminating this selection pressure. More work in all these areas still remains, of course, but reducing and eliminating simple selection pressure (it is much less intrinsically shameful today than a generation ago to be an atheist, woman, gay, or a racial minority) is an essential first step.

Sunsara Taylor on revolution

Sunsara Taylor points out that the revolution in Egypt is not over. Indeed it has only barely just begun, and may well never achieve its ends. The Egyptian people have deposed Mubarak, and good for them, but the underlying power structures remain, for which Mubarak was just a figurehead. Without a revolutionary leadership, it might well be, as The Who sings, "Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss."

It used to be that if you caught the eye of the US, with "democracy" you got to be part of the exploiting countries, instead of the exploited. If you didn't, you had "democracy" only so long as you paid your tribute to the Empire. If you even hinted at independence, you'd have a CIA agent on your doorstep dropping ominous hints. "Nice democracy you got there. Shame if anything happened to it." Now, even the US as a country barely gets to be one of the exploiters; I don't think Egypt has much hope of rising to the top.

It remains to be seen whether the people of Egypt really want to change the objective conditions of their country, or if they just want exploitation and oppression in a more congenial wrapper.

Ah well. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and a world without Mubarak is better than one with him, no matter how you slice it. On the other hand, one step does not a journey make. The people of Egypt have won a great victory in only a single battle. The war for real freedom, real independence, real liberation remains to be fought.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Why do I bother blogging?

... when my commenters can do it better:

Shorter Adam Jacobs: Dear atheists, I have collected a litany of the most insipid, over-used theist apologetics to show you. Can't we all just get along? By which I mean, shut up and get out of our way.

(Nice work, Dan!)

No common ground

There's no common ground between atheists and theists. That's not precisely true: There is a common ground, reality and evidence. It's just that atheists and rationalists stay exclusively on that common ground; religious people stray outside of that common ground. The conflict between theists and atheists is ineluctable and irreconcilable: we are not going to give you permission to stray out of the bounds and call your infantile fantasies reality.

I don't think very many atheists really care what theists do in the privacy of their own homes and their own minds. I know I don't really care. I do, however, care about the social privilege of theism. Hang a "rabbi" or "priest" or "reverend" after your name, claim some special privilege to speak for God, and voila!, you're an authority on ethics, politics and sometimes even economics. Take the "reverend" off your name, speak for yourself and not for God, and maybe I'll take you a little more seriously. You have the "right" (such as it is) to be as foolish as you want on your own time; bring your foolishness out in public and I'll slap it down.

The conflict is especially important about ethics. If you're saying the exact same thing as a secular, rational, caring humanist, then who cares that you call yourself "religious"? You are, like Einstein, just using "god" as a metaphor for the natural world. If that were all, or even mostly, what "religious" people did, there wouldn't be an atheist movement.

The only time religion actually matters is when you want to call something "good" or "bad" that a sane, rational, normally-socialized secular atheist could not rationally assent to. You just cannot justify the oppression of gays, the subordination and slavery of women and their bodies, and the social and economic parasitism of millions of priests, rabbis, imams, mullahs, ministers, and Scientology auditors on any kind of rational, humanistic ground. You have to bring God or some other persistent delusion to make your case.

Atheism does not just hang there all by itself; it usually comes from rationality, skepticism, a scientific mindset, a humanist emotional makeup and ordinary civilized socialization. Atheists are on the whole just skeptics who have applied their skepticism to claims about the supernatural. (There are, of course, atheists who are not skeptics, but you have to dig hard to find them, and skeptical atheists such as myself have as much disdain for non-theistic delusions as we do for the theistic variety.) We are against delusion; we call ourselves atheists because we focus on the specific set of delusions that constitute what is usually labeled as religion.

If you attack me, and if you attack me for being an atheist, then you are attacking my vision that ethics ought to be informed by the facts, not just about the world outside our minds, but the content of our minds as well, our minds that are just as much a part of the real, physical world as rocks and trees. Attack all you want, I may be wrong and if I am, I want to know about it. But when you attack me for "intolerance", you are attacking me for what I consider to be my strongest and most important ethical belief: I am indeed absolutely intolerant, and damn proud of my intolerance, of lies and bullshit, of delusion and fantasy used to justify oppression, exploitation and parasitism. If you yourself are similarly intolerant, we have no dispute. If you are not, too bad for you.

If you want to define your religion into triviality, vacuity, irrelevance, myth, metaphor, i.e. into exact substantive agreement with atheism, then be my guest; you will have stopped talking about the kind of religion I'm against. The Gnu Atheist movement is not in the business of literary criticism; it's a political, ethical and social movement.

You might say, "Hey, I just use 'God' to contextualize the wonder and mystery of the natural world, our biologically and socially evolved empathy and fellow-feeling, and our civilized standards of behavior and governance. We agree on every substantive point."

I would then reply, "Fine. I think it's a stupid metaphor, but I have better things to do than criticize your taste in literature. Let's join forces and attack the bastards and their billion followers who justify oppression, domination, inhumanity and suffering by appealing to a supernatural deity that is manifestly delusional."

The Stupid! It Burns! (fine tuning edition)

the stupid! it burns!
As a strong agnostic, [PZ Myers argument that "Either way, you’re an atheist — and that goes for the over-philosophized fussbudgets who insist that they’re agnostics, not atheists, because they aren’t 100% positive there aren’t any gods, only 99 44/100ths positive."] is my biggest frustration with atheists. Even in admitting their lack of conclusive evidence, they seem to have an obsession with quantifying the probability of God’s existence. I am unwilling to do this. Examining the best available evidence for the existence of God, an honest inquiry must find the question inconclusive. Beyond the fact that you cannot prove a negative, there is also the fine-tuning argument which is actually quite difficult for an atheist to disarm.
Ugh. The Fine Tuning argument is fallacious on its face; it depends for its force our intuitive difficulty in grasping probability. The rebuttal is rather obvious: If naturalism were true and the physical laws of the universe were not conducive to life, then we wouldn't be here to observe the universe.

Sadly the author does not add "competent" to "honest inquiry".

The Stupid! It Burns! (I'm doing this for your own good edition)

the stupid! it burns! An Open Letter to the Atheist Community
I'd like to offer a few general observations [about atheism and the atheist community] that I've culled from my experience over the years - not to convince you to change your mind (which, I've discovered, is close to impossible) and not to judge your choices, but rather so that we can understand each other better and possibly "walk back" some of the clamorous dialogue.
All right so far, but then...
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists. It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe - seen and unseen - and I don't think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.
You may want to counter that you have many well-regarded and brilliant personalities who have provided more than sufficient evidence to knock theism back to the Bronze Age where it belongs. ... But even if the arguments were more persuasive and comprehensive, surely you are aware that believers are ready to parry with many philosophers and scientists of our own, people like Anthony [sic] Flew ...
It's Antony Flew, and he became the most vague kind of deist at the end of his life, when his mental capacity may well have been substantially diminished by old age. I mean no disrespect to Flew; old age gets us all if nothing else gets there first.
theoretical physicist Dr. Andrew Goldfinger, and the mathematical physicist and cosmologist Frank Tipler. You will quote your expert and I will quote mine.
Again, <facepalm> At least he doesn't mention Alister McGrath.
Wouldn't it make much more sense to just chuckle knowingly to yourselves and shake your heads at our folly in the way you might with children who believe they have magic powers?
I have to concede this point. I should just chuckle knowingly to myself and shake my head at the folly of undermining science education, the oppression and marginalization of gay people in the West and their execution in the Islamic world, the dominance of women by rape and murder in the Islamic world, the continuous attempt to enslave of women's bodies in the US.
We will point out that equally severe evils have been perpetrated by secularists such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.
You deride us as anti-science, to which we respond that we're really not, but, rather, see scientific proof and inquiry as subject to certain inherent limits.
Those limits being whatever the believer really wants to believe, especially about women and those dirty fags. And evolution.
Have a look at this quote from British historian Paul Johnson:
To them (the Jews) we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.
First, we don't owe these ideas to the Jews. The ideas predate the Jews in the West, have occurred in other cultures, and the Jews seemed to have honored many of these principles more in the breach than the observance. Second, that people who happen to be religious and who also live in the real world have come up with good ideas, ideas that need no conception of any god to appreciate, is no argument that religion itself has any value.

As an empiricist, you are only prepared to believe in that which can be seen or measured.
<facepalm> That hasn't been an accurate definition of empiricism since the beginning of the last century.

Charles Darwin added three interesting quotes to later editions of the Origin of Species. Of these, the third, from Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning, is especially revealing:
To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity and philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficiency in both.
If Darwin himself could find room for belief in a God and stay faithful to his discoveries...
According to Wikipedia, "Darwin added an epigraph from Joseph Butler affirming that God could work through scientific laws as much as through miracles, in a nod to the religious concerns of his oldest friends." Darwin was himself not a believer, although his primary work was as a scientist, not a philosopher or activist. He found room not for God, but for friendship.

This article is why I have as little patience — perhaps less — for religious "moderates" as I do for "extremists" or "fundamentalists". Jacobs "frames" his essay as a search for common ground, but talks almost exclusively about issues with which the religious and atheists disagree. He's framing criticism and outright attack as conciliation and compromise. Now, I'm all for criticism and attack — We atheists can dish it out, and we can take it without injury to our tender feelings — it's the hypocrisy and disingenuity that grates here. If you're going to attack, go ahead and attack.

Jacobs does try to attack, but he wields only a popgun. I mean really: certainty? Dueling experts? Logical Positivism? Antony Flew? Charles freakin' Darwin? HITLER HITLER HITLER!!!11!!eleventy-one!!1!!? Give me a break.

It's clear that Jacobs is not writing to atheists; he's writing to believers. "I'm really trying," he seems to say, "but they're all pig-headed doofuses. Really. Don't pay any mind to them, keep paying me, because I have a direct line to God. I'm a rabbi dontcha know."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Right and wrong in political philosophy

Sage comments "I can imagine a true or pure democracy, like Rousseau suggested wherein, if we find ourselves on the minority end of a vote, it simply means we're in the wrong." I have no idea whether or not Sage represents Rousseau fairly here, but I myself have a deep philosophical objection to the premises that underlie this comment. I think that questions of right and wrong are by and large irrelevant to political philosophy. If I find myself on the minority end of a vote, it means only that my position will not be enacted into public policy. It does not ever, no matter how you slice it, imply that I'm in the wrong. It implies only that I've lost that battle on that day. I might actually be wrong, but just that I've lost a vote doesn't therefore imply that I'm wrong. Right and wrong are, philosophically speaking, independent of popularity.

The point of political philosophy is not, in my not in the least bit humble opinion, to ensure that the right decisions get made. It cannot be, because I can't think of any independent standard of right and wrong; if there were an independent standard then we should actually use that standard, instead of relying on the messiness and complexity of politics. The point of political philosophy is, I firmly believe, to figure out how make the right sort of wrong decisions, to "err on the pro side of the hole."

I advocate democracy not because I believe the people as a whole are any wiser or more intelligent than any elite. I advocate democracy because if we are going to make errors, I would prefer that the people themselves err, that they make popular errors.

Of course it's also true that after about five millennia of government and organized society (at least organized in writing) we have learned a lot of deep truths about forms of organization that work and don't work. It seems desirable to have for example freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, privacy, and a great deal of individual liberty insulated from not only the privilege and power of the elite but also from majority opinion. There are certain mistakes that have been made in the past that could be made again, even by the people; it is no compromise of democracy, I think, to formally exclude actions that have already been identified as errors from the domain of legitimate democratic action.

Fine distinctions

When I'm talking about political institutions, I want to make two sets of distinctions. I see, both from commenters and other conversations, substantial confusion between these two distinctions, so I want to be more explicit about what I'm talking about.

The first distinction, which I'll arbitrarily label "republicanism" vs. "democracy", distinguishes who has day-to-day control over high level public policy decisions. In a republic, the people as a whole choose (or exercise some kind of selective control) those who have institutional authority to make binding public policy decisions on a day-to-day basis. In a democracy, the people themselves, by some sort of institutional means, make day-to-day public policy decisions. (In an authoritarian government, the people exercise no institutional control on the government whatsoever.)

The second distinction is between "pure" and "constitutional" government. In a pure government, the government — i.e. those who make day-to-day public policy decisions — may make any sort of decisions it pleases, and those decisions will be binding. In a constitutional government, there is some sort of well-defined and stable limitation on the kinds of public policy decisions that the government can make and will be binding.

By these distinctions, the present US Government is a constitutional republic. The people as a whole make very few public policy decisions; when they do directly make these decisions, as through ballot initiatives, the process is slow, cumbersome, and infrequent. In contrast, I propose a constitutional democracy: The people themselves take day-to-day responsibility for public policy decisions; and even at the regional and national level, authority is never delegated to individuals. (I'll get into how that works when I describe the People's Government in more detail.) However, I still propose a constitutional democracy: the people will still have limits and constraints on the kinds of decisions they can make binding. My proposal of three more-or-less equal branches of government to provide checks and balances hints, I hope, at the constitutionality of my proposal, but I should of course be explicit.

By placing the implementation of policy in the Civil Service, I implicitly place a constitutional limit on the People's Government: The people may make binding public policy decisions, but it's much more difficult for them to make implementation decisions. The "city government" for example, could not actually issue a building permit: they would have to somehow direct the Civil Service to do so. At the very least, simply making the division into policy and implementation creates a little of a roadblock; I'll talk about additional details that raise additional constitutional roadblocks when I talk about the People's Government and Civil Service in more detail.

By talking about a Judicial branch that closely resembles the US judiciary, I also implicitly bring in a lot of constitutional control. The US judiciary exercises judicial review; the judiciary can directly hold an act of legislation to be unconstitutional and invalid, and refuse to enforce it. For judicial review to be meaningful, there must be explicit constitutional limits on the actions of the People's Government. Second, a judiciary implies a rule of law. Again, I'll talk in more detail later, but the existence of a judiciary, especially a Judiciary of equal standing with the People's Government, entails that the People's Government acts primarily by making general laws rather than arbitrarily deciding cases. (This limitation will apply more to standards of conduct imposed on individuals; the People's Government will have executive authority over the Civil Service and the public ownership and control of capital.)

My fundamental point is not to eliminate constitutional controls on government; I think constitutional government and the independent judiciary are far and away the best innovations of bourgeois capitalism. My fundamental point is to put the people in much more direct control over the institutions of government and the formation of public policy.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (smooth musical lyric edition)

the stupid! it burns! Are Atheists Capable of Love?: No. Happy Valentine’s Day!
The short answer to this question is no, Atheists are not capable of love because in fact and practice love requires thinking outside of their own interests and experience as well as expressing an emotional maturity beyond their ability. They just can’t help it. ...

Enduring these slurs on Christian character means one must turn the meaning of the word slur from “insult” to “smooth musical lyric” or perhaps modify further to “melodramatic wailing for attention” before responding. ...

All this [atheistic] reasoning points to a soiled logic and defective mindset incapable of recognizing within others God’s anointing grace of creation just as they fail to recognize it in themselves. Only God can create; human beings are left to innovate.

A good portion of Atheists’ hate comes from the fact many suffer from undiagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Update: D'oh! Poe'd again! It's just so hard to tell sometimes.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Governments and wisdom

Sage asks a good question:
what if slightly more than half of the population wants something stupid? What if they all vote to ban same-sex marriage, for instance. Do we follow the will of the people, or do the people have to trust the intelligence of the government.

I think the question of how to have the wisest or most intelligent government is unanswerable. Answers that yesterday seemed "stupid" might seem smart today, and vice-versa. Someone might well ask, "What if they all vote to allow same-sex marriage, for instance?" I don't know what's "really" wise and what's "really" foolish. I know what I personally happen to think is wise and foolish, but I don't think that I personally have a privileged position to determine how all of society operates.

There are three things I think we can get from the institutions of government. Wisdom and intelligence are not really among them, especially at the highest level of public policy.

First, we can get a degree of stability and continuity across time and space: things today will be much like they were yesterday or next door, and will be much the same tomorrow. This prevents issues that are "close" from changing public policy back and forth every day.

Second, we can get what I call "elevation to the meta-level." When there are persistently controversial questions the institutions of government can encourage us to think not just about the issue at hand, but about higher-level issues, precisely because they are charged with stability and continuity. For example, we can think about the larger, higher-level issue of the right to marry in general instead of the lower-level question of whether specifically gay people should marry; that's how we resolved the last controversial question about marriage, i.e. interracial marriage.

Finally, the most important point is that our institutions of government can be set up not to provide wisdom, but to make the right kind of mistakes and foolish decisions. If a decision is going to turn out to be foolish, I'd rather it be the foolishness of the people than the foolishness of some privileged elite. We can't get a wise government, but we can, I think, get a government where foolish mistakes are not protected by a privileged elite.

There's an underlying philosophical issue here. I am a strong proponent of real democracy, real rule of the people, as opposed to republicanism, where the people choose their rulers. I am not, however, a proponent of the idea that the majority determines what is "right"; the majority just determines (by and large) what happens. To the extent that right and wrong are meaningful, they can still do what's wrong. Too bad, so sad, shit happens. I'm not aiming for perfection, I'm aiming for the right kind of imperfection.

It is tough, I think, for someone in the middle class to contemplate a true democracy. (I don't want to attribute this attitude towards Sage personally; I don't know her at all. But I suspect the attitude is common in any middle class.) Middle-class people often fancy themselves in the "penumbra" of ruling-class privilege. There are two problems with this attitude.

First, no ruling class has very much special wisdom, especially about high levels of public policy. They usually have better education (and thus may have some expertise as to pragmatic problems), but their approach to public policy has always been first and foremost to maintain their own privilege and status as the ruling class. To the extent that there is such a thing as the "public good", it emerges at best as an unintended consequence of the ruling class's maintenance of their own power, and the happenstance of actual personalities among its members. We went straight from Marcus Aurelius, for example, to Commodus, who arguably began the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Second, to the extent that the middle class really is at any given time in the penumbra of ruling class privilege, that status is accidental, and the ruling class never feels any principled loyalty to the middle class. The clever ruling class cultivates a stable middle class, but the middle class receives privilege only to the extent that they prop up the power of the ruling class. Start arguing effectively for the "public good" (or your own) to the detriment of the ruling class, and your middle class privilege will quickly vanish. (Witness, for example, the attempts of the feudal ruling class to enlist the people in its struggle against the capitalist/mercantile middle class at the beginning of the bourgeois revolutions.)

I think that the middle class is much better off throwing their lot in with the people and real democracy. Clever members of the middle class with special merit will, if that merit really serves the people, will find a comfortable life for themselves. Only those members of the middle class who know their talents and abilities lie only in supporting the ruling class have anything to fear from democracy.

My Constitution: checks and balances

I want to take a break — perhaps permanently — from writing legalese. Instead, I want to write about my ideas for a communist constitution in ordinary English, at a more abstract level.

At the very highest level, my view of communism is simply thus: the government owns the capital; the people own the government. And I mean really own, especially regarding the latter; not own in theory, not in some abstract philosophical or moral sense, but own in the same "hands on" sense that I own my car or my house, that the (majority) stockholders own a company. The tension, though, comes in keeping a society of some 300,000,000 people functioning efficiently, at the high level (by historical standards) of social cooperation and material prosperity enjoyed by many people (but shamefully, not nearly enough). I don't want to trade cheap air travel or the Internet for freedom: I'm greedy; I want it all.

Keeping a large economy and a large and diverse society functioning relatively smoothly and efficiently seems to require both highly centralized decision-making and specialized expertise, presently provided by our financial institutions (occasionally waving a spoonful of government oversight in their general vicinity). The question in my mind is not whether we need centralized, specialized decision-making, but how to structure the institutions that provide these services. (My anarchist readers may well disagree, but please save your arguments for another post; the question of anarchism will come around again on the guitar in the fullness of time.)

Because I'm American, and because I've studied American government academically and informally for many years, I'm very much enamored with the concept of checks and balances. But simply having any old checks and balances is not enough; we want the right kind of checks and balances. Checks and balances between the legislative (policy setting), executive (policy execution) and judicial (principled independent oversight of policy) seems good in theory, but poorly implemented in actual practice. (The authors of the US Constitution cannot, I think, be blamed; they could not have anticipated modern conditions two centuries in the future.) The problem with the US Constitution is that the Presidency and Congress arguably have been since Jefferson's presidency both become policy setting institutions. Policy execution is (as it has been since every society in recorded history) the domain of the civil service. One enormous problem with the US Constitution is that the role and operation of the civil service is opaque, even at the most local level. So the interaction between the legislative and "executive" have become not a dialectic between policy and execution, but between two policy-setting institutions.

In every corporate and business setting I've studied or participated in both the board of directors as well as the chief "executive" officer create and set policy; it is the vice presidents to actually carry out policy. The interesting dialectic thus occurs not between the CEO and the Board, but between the CEO and the vice presidents. I think there is value in explicitly and directly institutionalizing this dialectic.

So instead of a division between the Congress and the Presidency, I propose an alternative division between the "People's Government" and the Civil Service. The People's Government would assume the role of both the "board of directors" as well as the "chief executive officer", responsible for setting not just fixed, explicit policy but also resolving day-to-day (or month-to-month) situations according to their implicit notions of policy. The Civil Service would then take the role of the "vice presidents" and their various effective departments, responsible for carrying out policy, referring questions that pertain to high level policy to the People's Government on a day-to-day basis.

As to the third leg, I think there's little room to improve on the deep structure of the US judicial system. Yes, the US judiciary provides notable support to the capitalist system, but unlike the Presidency and Congress, this support seems to come properly to the judiciary's "natural" role of independent oversight, rather than being constructed to support capitalism. I find the argument compelling that only the US judiciary (and Western European legal systems in general) has prevented Western capitalism from quickly degenerating into outright slavery and the most crude tyranny. The judiciary ought to be ideologically neutral in structure; just that judges do in fact support capitalism in a capitalist society is therefore not by itself a valid argument against the structure of the judiciary. (Arguments that specific features of the judiciary do indeed privilege capitalism of course remain live.)

I'll talk about the specific structures of these three legs in future posts.