Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sticking by your convictions

Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked asks, How do you guarantee that you’re going to stick by your convictions and principles? To me, this is seems like a nonsense question. If you don't stick by it, how do you call it a conviction? A conviction is something you're convinced of, n'est pas?

I'm sure it's just an artifact of my particular personality, but I've never in my life struggled to live up to my convictions and principles. I don't worry too much about what other people think of me, but by and large I think I conform to most middle-class virtues. I show up to work on time, every day, and even if I'm doing drudge work, I do my best. I've had some non-committed, open relationships, but I've never cheated on a committed relationship. My friends seem to count me as loyal, generous and kind. None of these supposed virtues have ever been difficult for me: they're how I want to be; why would I not do what I want?

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that I was never raised to be at all hung up about sex. Sex is a natural, positive activity that provides pleasure, comfort and intimacy. To me, sex is no more "intrinsically" morally charged than eating. I don't want to hurt other people in any way, so I don't want to hurt them in a sexual context, but other than its natural intensity, there's nothing particularly special about sex in that regard. So much moral discourse seems fundamentally wrapped up in placing arbitrary controls around sexuality: not the general controls against hurting people, but against "kinkiness", non-monogamy, and non-heterosexuality. I frankly don't understand all these sexual hang-ups: if it feels good, and you're not hurting anyone, enjoy!

There are, probably, people who hurt others, want to hurt others, and for whom hurting others causes no unhappiness. But such people would not, I think, look for any kind of support, internal or external, to not hurt others. Such people would, I think, consider all our moral philosophy to be ridiculous. Hence we rely not on philosophers with arguments to control such people but police with guns and prisons with bars. But such people are, I think, rare. Most people, I think, don't really want to hurt others, or want the benefits that come from not hurting others. When they do hurt others, they seem unhappy: by hurting others, they are hurting themselves. I tend to look on this type of behavior not in a moral context but a medical context: it looks a lot less like vice and a lot more like neurosis. The problem is not that they want to hurt others, but because they have some sort of hang-up or cognitive dissonance, they hurt others to temporarily and unsatisfactorily ease the tension of the dissonance.

There is one very big area where I find social, external "moral" support to be very useful: the establishment of trust. I don't want to hurt or exploit others, but there are very real benefits to persuading them that I will not hurt or exploit them. Similarly, there are benefits to trusting that others won't hurt or exploit me. One easy way to establish trust is to voluntarily subscribe to social coercion. The shopkeeper does not have to understand my character deeply: he knows if I write him a fraudulent check, I run a substantial risk of going to jail. Similarly, I don't have to understand his character deeply: he runs a substantial risk of jail or bankruptcy if he sells me shoddy goods. It's coercion because there really are police with guns and prisons with bars backing up our promises, but it's voluntary because we are both "submitting" to promises we both see as beneficial.

Similarly, I'm in a committed relationship with my girlfriend because I want to be in a committed relationship with her. I'm going to ride through the short term rough patches because I want the long-term benefits of a committed relationship. If I didn't want the long-term benefits, I wouldn't be in a committed relationship. If I wanted the long-term benefits, but did not act according to what I really wanted, then I would be crazy, no? I don't need the external support of society to keep me committed. Similarly, my second wife and I got divorced precisely because we decided that a committed relationship with each other was not in our long-term interests; that we were legally married did not affect our decision. And we were correct: now that we're divorced, we're good friends. Indeed, we got married not to support our own convictions, but to establish trust with the government. We wanted to convince the government truthfully that we were in a legitimate, committed relationship, that we were not just two strangers exploiting the immigration system.

I just don't understand people who can conceive of their own long-term, mutual benefit, but appear unable to act to obtain those benefits. Either their conception of the benefits is insincere — the benefits are not what they want, but what they have been somehow indoctrinated to say they want — or they are just crazy, somehow unable to do what they want to do. Both are to me not manifestations of moral vice, but symptoms of mental illness. Since I am neither insincere nor crazy, I just don't have these kinds of apparently "moral" conflicts.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why I'm an asshole

Godless Girl posts 14 Tips for a Less Douchey Life. Some of her tips are entirely unobjectionable, but others are more controversial. I see myself in many of these more controversial tips. I call people idiots, burningly stupid, and other epithets. I not infrequently resort to insults and abuse. But while I do see some of my... sharper... personality traits in her post, I must disagree that they are entirely negative. She encourages nothing bad — a person can follow her recommendations entirely and be completely good — but I don't think they're required.

Everyone adopts beliefs for primarily social rather than rational causes. I am a devotee of science, an atheist, a humanist not because I carefully, logically, and thoroughly considered all the pros and cons and made a reasoned decision, but primarily because that's how I was raised. Likewise too, people become supernaturalists, Christians/Muslims/Hindus etc., and moralists because that's how they were raised. We come from a civilization that reaches back five millennia in the written record and probably ten thousand years or more in the oral tradition. It includes millions of people who spent their entire lives thinking carefully, with greater or lesser success, about what it means to be a wise and good human being. I just don't have time to think everything out from first principles, even if I knew what those first principles were. So I, like everyone else, must rely on "secondary sources".

That everyone's beliefs, including my own, are primarily socially constructed does not entail that rationality is superfluous. A rational person is a person who, rather than constructing her beliefs rationally, will eliminate her beliefs when they fail rational scrutiny. I placed my beliefs about capitalism and republican "democracy" came under critical scrutiny; I became a communist when they failed the test of rationality. Rationality is an indispensable tool for shaping our beliefs, but by and large rationality shapes our beliefs not positively, by constructing true beliefs, but negatively, by eliminating false beliefs. "When you have eliminated the impossible," says Holmes, "whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

But for rational thought to have an effect, a person must be willing, at least potentially, to abandon any belief, however cherished, if it fails the test of rationality. More importantly, a person must be absolutely opposed to redefining what rationality is just to preserve some cherished belief. Without these twin commitments, which are themselves not rational but fundamentally moral, rationality is entirely ineffective. A person who is not morally committed to employing and preserving rationality will not only fail to be persuaded by a rational argument, but their compromise and corruption of rationality will spread into other domains, diminishing the effectiveness of rationality and critical scrutiny in general. The controversy, such as it is, is not just about what beliefs are more rational, but whether rationality itself, and its integrity, is morally necessary.

Moral discourse is fundamentally different from rational argument. There are no objective, purely logical reasons for any fundamental moral belief. Moral beliefs are not about how the world outside our minds actually is; moral beliefs are about how we want to build the worlds inside our minds. Moral beliefs are about who we want to become, as individuals and as societies. Rationality is not completely irrelevant — many people support or justify their moral beliefs with false statements about objective reality — but at the fundamental level, morality is not about truth but about choices. Because these choices are not about objective truth but about about subjective truth, truth about the inside of our minds, discourse about the objective world, the world outside our minds, is irrelevant.

Even to the extent that people use false statements about the world — black people or women are inferior, the poor are lazy, the rich are virtuous — cool rationality is often ineffectual. Rationality never gives us absolutes; it gives us only more or less possible or plausible. Set your threshold high enough, and any belief can survive rational scrutiny: extraordinary claims do indeed require extraordinary evidence. Furthermore, what precisely constitutes rationality is not given without controversy. How, for example, should we evaluate and understand probability and plausibility? Bayesian? Frequentist? Null-hypothetically? And finally, even where the canons of rationality are more-or-less generally agreed upon by scholars and scientists, the exercise of rationality is technically challenging. You must, as Feynman argues, not just decide not to fool yourself, but always bend over backward not to fool yourself. Rationality requires considerable study and unceasing discipline.

There are many ways to change how people think at a social level. If, like Godless Girl, you want to exclusively employ cool, calm rationality, more power to you. But some of us, myself included, want to use all the tools available. Mockery, derision, and insult really do work, and they can go where pure logical, evidentiary analysis cannot go. If a person is not deluded about the effects of cruelty or the objective nature of the objects of his cruelty — and, I think, many cruel people are not so deluded — I cannot persuade him that cruelty is in any sense "false". All I can do is tell him, in no uncertain terms, that I violently disapprove of his cruelty, that I, and others like me, will mock, belittle and ostracize him for his cruelty, and, if sufficiently provoked, react coercively. We do not, for example, have a philosophical conversation with a murderer, rationally convince him of the error of his ways, and then turn him loose; once we have rationally determined that it's objectively true that he committed murder, we punish him. (I do not advocate such extreme measures as coercive punishment in the discourse about religion, superstition, or politics. But I advocate lesser measures not because anything but pure rationality is immoral but because extreme measures are usually disproportionate.) In addition to objective, rational analysis, human beings use shame, guilt, derision, insult, and condemnation no less than praise, approbation, and admiration to affect the social acceptance and rejection of moral ideas. Most directly, derision and insult undermine privilege. Intellectual privilege can be taken to extremes of dogmatism and unquestionable authority, but the sine qua non of intellectual privilege is immunity from the raspberry, that the privileged can say anything, no matter how stupid, and his listeners are automatically compelled to take the idea "seriously" and discuss it "respectfully". Everyone has to earn this kind of respect; it is not automatically granted.

Of course, derision, mockery, and insult are not universally applicable. They are not at all effective in the short term and at the individual level. One cannot change a person's mind by insulting him directly. The effect, rather, is indirect: to undermine the socially constructed intellectual privilege of the speaker and to convince listeners that they too will be mocked, and possibly ostracized, if they express similar beliefs. Derision is ineffective when applied too broadly, because when applied broadly it is often inaccurate, and the rational person, even when using supra-rational tools, still demands accuracy. Finally, derision, mockery, and insult shut down rational discourse because they undermine the necessary presumption of good will; they are most effective when there is sufficient evidence that the target has already fatally compromised rationality and good will. Similarly, although mockery and insult can be applied directly against particularly odious moral opinions, they have additional power when directed not against an opposing opinion, but against the egregious misuse of rational, logical thought supporting that opinion. These tools are limited, but within these limitations, they seem very effective.

I cannot write an essay justifying the use of insult and then take offense that Godless Girl effectively calls me a "douchbag" for behavior that objectively applies to me. The shoe does fit, and I will wear it. It is noteworthy, however, that Godless Girl employs the very tactics she condemns: she identifies behavior that she strongly objects to, and makes it perfectly clear that she does not consider those who use that behavior to be "one of us."* She wants to change social behavior by using insults — e.g. "douchebag", "idiot", "asshole", — to express her disapproval of behavior that she disagrees with. Good for her. I know she and I are not entirely aligned; I am not "one of us" to her. I can live with that.

*Scare quotes, not an actual quotation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (the miracle of language edition)

the stupid! it burns! In his latest essay, Atheist, Heal Thyself: The Myths of Atheism (this guy is too stupid even for PuffHo), Moshe Averick really outdoes himself in the egregious stupidity department.
Scientists are stymied in their attempts to explain even such a common and basic human ability like verbal communication, in material terms. I will briefly elaborate. Imagine two men; one is an American who only speaks English, one is Chinese and only speaks Chinese. Both are thirsty and desire liquid refreshment. In other words, both are thinking essentially the same thought; namely, that they want to imbibe liquid into their bodies. Each turns to the other and in their respective language, asks for a drink of water. Of course, neither has any idea what the other is talking about. Why? It is because the thought, “I want a drink of water,” is completely separate and different than the words, “I want a drink of water.” The words themselves mean nothing at all. They are arbitrary sounds that represent thoughts, ideas, concepts, emotions, i.e., information. When I am thirsty and want to ask someone for a drink, I proceed to form a series of arbitrary and intrinsically senseless sounds with my mouth. These sounds travel through the air where they are heard by another person, who then decodes these sounds and brings me a glass of water. We take it for granted because we do it all the time, but what is transpiring is nothing short of miraculous. I am taking ideas in my head and sending them through the air to others. I am attaching ideas to sound waves. The words (i.e. the sounds), that I spoke were arbitrary and meaningless, but the information was very specific and very meaningful. Words and sounds do not equal information, words and sounds represent information. The information itself cannot be defined in material terms. [overused emphasis (the good rabbi loves him some italics) omitted]

Seriously, this is what passes for "sophisticated" thought among the religious.

As is often the case, the article is chock full of stupid, a lot more than I quote here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Meaninglessness and atheism

In his discourse on meaninglessness, excerpted from Huxley's 1937 book Ends and Means by Ed Babinski, Aldous Huxley (apparently unbeknownst to Robin Schumacher) arguing against a philosophy of meaninglessness. In the essay, Huxley acknowledges the successes of the scientific method and admits its value, but notes that the naive Positivistic, Humean project of reducing all of reality to what can be measured and counted ignores the purely qualitative aspects of reality. According to Huxley, scientists have largely transcended the limitations of Positivism, but the general public, and presumably non-scientific intellectuals, lag several decades behind; the general public had, at the time of Huxley's writing, just begun to see Positivism as the essence of the metaphysics underlying scientific thought, but — with some justice — did not like it. They sought to replace the meaning and value that Positivism ignores with "absurd" philosophies, such as "nationalism, fascism and revolutionary communism*."


Huxley naturally asks: is there really is meaning and value in the world? If so, what is the nature of that meaning and value? He notes that, at least in his own context, these questions appear to be entirely novel; he and his contemporaries, he asserts, simply "took it for granted" that there was no such thing as meaning and value, partly because he accepted Positivist metaphysics, but also because he had an ulterior motive for seeking and finding meaninglessness. These ulterior motives are not unique to those seeking meaninglessness; they are, rather, ubiquitous. "No philosophy," Huxley asserts, "is completely disinterested."
The philosopher who finds meaning in the world is concerned, not only to elucidate that meaning, but also to prove that is it most clearly expressed in some established religion, some accepted code of morals. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is not valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.
Huxley claims that his own and his contemporaries' denial of meaning was from similar ulterior motives, in reaction to the equally ulterior motives of "Christian special pleaders to justify iniquity by an appeal to the meaning of the world."

Here Babinski leaves off his quotation, but we can imagine that Huxley follows through on his warning that "one unscrupulous distortion of the truth tends to beget other and opposite distortions. Passions may be satisfied in the process; but the disinterested love of knowledge suffers eclipse," and explores his earlier allusion to "the world we actually live in, the world that is given by our senses, our intuitions of beauty and goodness, our emotions and impulses, our moods and sentiments" from which "the man of science abstracts a simplified private universe of things possessing only... elements which can be weighed, measured, numbered, or which lend themselves in any other way to mathematical treatment." Huxley presumably goes on to argue that it is true that the world has meaning or value, and we must always stand ready to sacrifice our preferences to the truth.

Huxley's passage contradicts Schumacher's thesis — that atheists reject otherwise persuasive evidence for the existence of God because they want to escape Christianity's moral strictures — in several ways. Most obviously, atheism is not synonymous with meaninglessness. Atheism entails only that if there were meaning and value in the world, that meaning and value does not rely on any supernatural being. (It should also be noted that theism is not necessarily synonymous with meaningfulness; a deity can do anything, even act entirely arbitrarily and capriciously.) Furthermore, Huxley clearly asserts the symmetry of both the rejection of and search for meaning; Schumacher's must establish an asymmetry, that atheists (or advocates of meaninglessness) employ ulterior motives in a way that theists do not. Most importantly, while Huxley is realistic about the role of ulterior motives in philosophy, he fundamentally argues the opposite of Schumacher's thesis: from from being a justification for any philosophy, it is incumbent on all philosophers to do their best to transcend their ulterior motives.

Indeed, we can turn Huxley's essay against Schumacher. I do not, of course, want Yahweh, the villainous character depicted in the Christian Bible, to exist. Neither do I want cancer, war, pestilence, famine, murder, rape, nor child abuse to exist. But if Huxley is correct, then Schumacher probably does want Yahweh to exist. Simply pointing out that some atheists do not want Yahweh to exist (and some nihilists do not want meaning and value to exist) is to point out the obvious. We can point out — with equal banality — that some Christians want Yahweh to exist, and employ the existence of Yahweh to support their own preferences and desires. Bias is ubiquitous. The question is not what we want or don't want; the question is not whether or not reality felicitously coincides with our desires; the question is: are we able to set aside what we want the truth to be, so we can determine what the truth really is?

Is Schumacher honestly seeking what the truth really is, instead of simply rationalizing his own biases? I do not intend to single out Schumacher for special investigation; this is a question which everyone must answer; everyone falls under suspicion. As Feynman observes, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Sadly, Schumacher gives every indication that he is simply rationalizing his own biases; he is projecting his own behavior onto atheists. The logical fallacies, post hoc and anecdotal, the use of quotations out of context, his use of unreliable secondary sources, and his failure to check primary sources, all argue that he is merely assembling a rationalization, not conducting an inquiry.

Most tellingly, though, he fails to directly support what ought to be the most important point: regardless of a priori bias, he does not include any direct support for any atheist, scientist, philosopher, or intellectual, ever admitting that they have ignored compelling evidence to the contrary to maintain their bias. We might forgive this omission: it is true, and perhaps important, that many atheists do indeed have an a priori bias against theism, and every honest atheist needs to carefully examine her own biases. But in the form of an anonymous quotation, Schumacher expressly asserts that not only do atheists have a bias, but they also ignore evidence to the contrary to maintain that bias. If Schumacher wants to argue this case, then it is incumbent on him to actually argue it, with direct, cited, and reliable evidence, not third-party hearsay and friend-of-a-friend urban legend. That he does not do so, that he considers his arguments compelling and persuasive on such ridiculous "evidence", decisively indicates that he is merely rationalizing his own biases; he is the pot calling not just the kettle but also the silver spoon black. Schumacher, like most Christian apologists in my experience, not only fails to honestly inquire into the truth, but appears willfully ignorant of what an honest inquiry actually entails.

Aldous Huxley on meaninglessness

Dagood points us to Ed Babinski's quotation from Aldous Huxley's 1937 book, Ends and Means, where Huxley discusses "the philosophy of meaninglessness." The passage is very long, so I'm going to just reproduce it here and analyze it in a separate post.

It appears that Babinski (or someone else) has typed the passage by hand, and the passage contains what appear to be typographical errors. I have corrected what seem to be the most obvious errors without annotation.

"From the world we actually live in, the world that is given by our senses, our intuitions of beauty and goodness, our emotions and impulses, our moods and sentiments, the man of science abstracts a simplified private universe of things possessing only... elements which can be weighed, measured, numbered, or which lend themselves in any other way to mathematical treatment. By using this technique of simplification and abstraction, the scientist has succeeded to an astonishing degree in understanding and dominating the physical environment. The success was intoxicating and, with an illogicality which, in the circumstances, was doubtless pardonable, many scientists and philosophers came to imagine that this useful abstraction from reality was reality itself. Reality as actually experienced contains intuitions of value and significance, contain love, beauty, mystical ecstasy, intimations of godhead. Science did not and still does not possess intellectual instruments with which to deal with these aspects of reality. Consequently it ignored them and concentrated its attention upon such aspects of the world as it could deal with by mean of arithmetic, geometry and the various branches of higher mathematics. Our conviction that the world is meaningless lend itself very effectively to furthering the ends of erotic or political passion; in part to a genuine intellectual error -- the error of identifying the world of science, a world from which all meaning and value has been deliberately excluded, with ultimate reality.

"[The philosopher, Hume's, erroneous attitude was typical] Hume wrote, 'If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstracts reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or evidence? No. Commit it then to the flame; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.' Hume mentions only divinity and school metaphysics; but his argument would apply just as cogently to poetry, music, painting, sculpture and all ethical and religious teaching. Hamlet contains no abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number and no experimental reason concerning evidence; nor does the Hammerklavier Sonata, nor Donatello's David, nor the Tao Te Ching [book of Chinese philosophy and wisdom], nor the Following of Christ. Commit them therefore to the flames: for they can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

"We are living now, not in the delicious intoxication induced by the early successes of science, but in a rather grisly morning-after... The contents of literature, art, music -- even in some measure of divinity and school metaphysics -- are not sophistry and illusion, but simply those elements of experience which scientists chose to leave out of account, for the good reason that they had no intellectual methods for dealing with them. In the arts, in philosophy, in religion, men are trying -- to describe and explain the non-measurable, purely qualitative aspects of reality...[p. 308-310]

"In recent years, many men of science have come to realize that the scientific picture of the world is a partial one -- the product of their special competence in mathematics and their special incompetence to deal systematically with aesthetic and moral values, religious experiences and intuitions of significance. Unhappily, novel ideas become acceptable to the less intelligent members of society only with a very considerable time-lag. Sixty or seventy years ago the majority of scientists believed -- and the belief caused them considerable distress -- that the product of their special incompetence was identical with reality as a whole. Today this belief has begun to give way, in scientific circles, to a different and obviously truer conception of the relation between science and total experience. The masses on the contrary, have just reached the point where the ancestors of today's scientists were standing two generations back. They are convinced that the scientific picture of an arbitrary abstraction from reality is a picture of reality as a whole and that therefore the world is without meaning or value. But nobody likes living in such a world. To satisfy their hunger for meaning and value, they turn to such doctrines as nationalism, fascism and revolutionary communism. Philosophically and scientifically, these doctrines are absurd; but for the masses in every community, they have this great merit: they attribute the meaning and value that have been taken away from the world as a whole to the particular part of the world in which the believers happen to be living.

"These last considerations raise an important question, which must now be considered in some detail. Does the world as a whole possess the value and meaning that we constantly attribute to certain parts of it (such as human beings and their works); and, if so, what is the nature of that value and meaning? This is a question which, a few years ago, I should not even have posed. For, like so many of my contemporaries, I took it for granted that there was no meaning. This was partly due to the fact that I shared the common belief that the scientific picture of an abstraction from reality was a true picture of reality as a whole; partly also to other, non-intellectual reasons. I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.

"Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don't know because we don't want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless." [p. 311-312]

"No philosophy is completely disinterested. The pure love of truth is always mingle to some extent with the need, consciously or unconsciously felt by even the noblest and the most intelligent philosophers, to justify a given form of personal or social behavior, to rationalize the traditional prejudices of a given class or community. The philosopher who finds meaning in the world is concerned, not only to elucidate that meaning, but also to prove that is it most clearly expressed in some established religion, some accepted code of morals. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is not valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. The voluntary, as opposed to the intellectual, reasons for holding the doctrines of materialism, for examples, may be predominantly erotic, as they were in the case of Lamettrie (see his lyrical account of the pleasures of the bed in La Volupte and at the end of L'Homme Machine ['The Human Machine,' a work of materialist philosophy]), or predominantly political, as they were in the case of Karl Marx. The desire to justify a particular form of political organization and, in some cases, of a personal will to power has played an equally large part in the formulation of philosophies postulating the existence of meaning in the world. Christian philosophers have found no difficulty in justifying imperialism, war, the capitalistic system, the use of torture, the censorship of the press, and ecclesiastical tyrannies of every sort from the tyranny of Rome to the tyrannies of [Calvin's] Geneva and [Puritan] New England. In all cases they have shown that the meaning of the world was such as to be compatible with, or actually most completely expressed by, the iniquities I have mentioned above -- iniquities which happened, of course, to serve the personal or sectarian interests of the philosophers concerned. In due course, these arose philosophers who denied not only the right of Christian special pleaders to justify iniquity by an appeal to the meaning of the world, but even their right to find any such meaning whatsoever. In the circumstances, the fact was not surprising. One unscrupulous distortion of the truth tends to beget other and opposite distortions. Passions may be satisfied in the process; but the disinterested love of knowledge suffers eclipse. [p. 314-316]

"For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was an admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever... The men of the new Enlightenment, which occurred in the middle years of the nineteenth century, once again used meaninglessness as a weapon against the [conservative] reactionaries. The Victorian passion for respectability was, however, so great that, during the period when they were formulated, neither Positivism nor Darwinism was used as a justification for sexual indulgence. [p. 316-317]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The anti-moral argument for atheism

Robin Schumacher's recent essay on the anti-moral argument for atheism is poorly constructed, asks (and fails to answer) the right question, but it is an interesting concept.

There is evidence that some intellectuals have some underlying moral motives in investigating the existence of God. In his recent comment, Schumacher quotes Aldous Huxley:
I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption....The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.
[In his comment, Schumacher attributes this quotation to Ends and Means, 1969, pp. 270, 273. I have not verified the citation.] Although I have not checked the original source, it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to interpret Huxley's meaningful/meaningless dichotomy as akin to theism/atheism.

Putting aside the absurdity of trying to support a generalization with anecodotes, we can dismiss Schumacher's interpretation of this quotation. Schumacher's original essay was about why atheism is more prevalent among contemporary scientists than the general populace. Huxley is not contemporary, and he was not a scientist. Schumacher has a larger thesis, though, that atheists in general believe that no God exists only because they wish to escape its (sexual) morality, and they persist in their disbelief in spite of what ought to be rationally persuasive evidence. Again, this quotation fails to support his thesis. Huxley specifically asserts that he "was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons" to support the assumption* of meaninglessness. Huxley asserts reasons that appear to be independent of his desire to escape sexual morality. Huxley says that he investigated the question of meaning because of his desire for "liberation", but he specifically contradicts the idea that the direct cause of his actual belief is this desire.

*Huxley appears to be using "assumption" here in the sense of "hypothesis".

Huxley's predisposition to finding meaninglessness seems to bias his investigation. But an a priori bias does not necessarily fatally compromise the search for objective truth. The actual reasons an investigator finds to support an hypothesis stand on their own, regardless of his bias. Our task as scientific investigators is not to eliminate bias, but to recognize it and try to overcome it. I haven't read Huxley's book, and I don't know what the specific reasons he found to support the idea of meaninglessness, so I don't know if his reasons really are good, if they stand on their own regardless of his bias. But I do not know that they are bad, either empirically or philosophically. All I know is what's been quoted: Huxley says he has found reasons to support his conclusion, which contradicts Schumacher's thesis that atheists consciously ignore good reasons that undermine their conclusion, that atheists disbelieve in the existence of God because — indeed just because — they wish to escape theistic sexual morality.

But how far does Huxley's predisposition really bias his investigation? All morality involves a tension between what we want and what is "right". So any moral investigation is biased by what we want; if what we want were exactly congruent to what is "right", it is the same thing to say we're doing it because we want to or we're doing it because it's right. And, at least me, the distinction between what we want and what is "right" is vacuous. I don't worry whether or not it's "right" to eat food and drink water every day, live in a house, read, see a movie from time to time, work, study, etc. I do these things because I want to. It's a reasonable position to say that if I want to do something, I will do it unless there's a compelling reason to the contrary. So when Huxley says he wants some sort of sexual freedom, he is doing nothing but moving this desire into the domain of moral discourse. If he didn't want it, he wouldn't worry about whether or not it was "right".

If a rational, sensible person wants something such as sexual freedom, and someone tells her that this sexual freedom is "wrong", then the first thing she is going to do is investigate the reasons for the prohibition. The first thing she will do is look for direct natural reasons. Does the exercise of sexual freedom, for example, conflict with her desire not to hurt anyone? Does it pose an unacceptable risk of disease or death, conflicting with her desire to live a long and healthy life? (In a related example, I would prefer, ceteris paribus, to smoke cigarettes inside my house. I know, however, that second-hand smoke is harmful, I do not want to harm the people I share a house with, and therefore I don't smoke inside.) If there are persuasive natural reasons not to do something, then, as a rational person, I am not going to do it. Simply denying natural reasons because one wants to do something is profoundly irrational.

Lacking a direct natural reason, she will then look at more indirect social and legal reasons. Will her neighbors dislike her if she exercises her sexual freedom? Is it illegal? Will a police officer arrest her and a judge sentence her to prison? Fundamentally, does her desire for sexual freedom conflict with her desire to participate in her social community and stay out of prison? Again, to simply deny one's demonstrable social and legal context just because one wants to do something is profoundly irrational.

Finally, she will look at "theological" reasons. Does God prohibit her from exercising her sexual freedom? But theological reasons are substantively different from the preceding natural, secular reasons. It is true of reality that some things we might want to do actually do hurt others. It is true of reality that some activities will earn the disapproval or ostracism of our neighbors. It is true of reality that the government uses real police and real prisons to suppress some activities. So when faced with only theological reasons, how can anyone object that she wants to determine if theological reasons are also true of reality. And if they are not, she is justified in dismissing them.

Schumacher is essentially engaging in "underpants" reasoning. Although atheists disbelieve the existence of God for many reasons, and sexual morality seems pretty low on the list (based on my own informal knowledge of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of atheists), some atheists such as Huxley perhaps are motivated by escaping Christian sexual morality. But what of it? It is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy to conclude that because Huxley desires to escape Christian sexual morality, and because Huxley is an atheist (or a believer in meaninglessness), he is an atheist just because of his desire to escape Christian sexual morality. And it is not a fallacy but an outright lie to claim without compelling, direct evidence that he has irrationally chosen atheism.

I suspect that many "fundamentalist" Christians (and perhaps Muslims) would decisively reject my central assumption, that wanting to do something, absent compelling reasons to the contrary, is sufficient justification for actually doing it. I suspect that for these "fundamentalists", wanting to do something actually raises a red flag, that wanting to do something compels deep moral scrutiny, that wanting to do something requires a positive, extrinsic justification. I also suspect that if a fundamentalist wants to do something he is extrinsically commanded to do, he will do it in a way he doesn't want to do it, just to avoid the appearance of "selfishness". If so, I would consider this attitude profoundly neurotic. I suspect that those such as Schumacher who make this kind of moral argument are simply demanding that the rest of the world share their neuroses.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Liquidation cycles

Brad DeLong tries to understand the reasoning of the pre-Great Depression "liquidationists"

“Liquidation” Cycles and the Great Depression

Schumacher responds (still stupid)

the stupid! it burns! Robin Schumacher, the author of the burningly stupid post that I recently criticized, responds to my criticism. Here's his comment in full:
Hello Larry –

Let me see what I can do to address your concerns.

First, no I did not provide sources for my quotations. Reference usage many times depends on the vehicle being used for communication. It is perfectly acceptable for various informal articles and news stories to contain quotes without references, and given this is a personal blog entry and not something like an academic journal article, I didn’t provide references.

However, since you would like them, let me see what I can for you. The story of the professor (Dr. Carlson) and biologist is referenced in Dr. Norman Geisler’s (the former head of my seminary) book, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”, page 163.

The Huxley quote appears on that same page in Dr. Geisler’s book and is footnoted in the Notes appendix. However, this may be insufficient for you. Perhaps a quote from his younger brother Aldous – who sports the same position for rejecting God – will suffice (From Ends and Means, 1969, pp. 270, 273): “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption....The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom”. Let me know if you would like me to swap the quotes.

The George Klein quote comes from his book “The Atheist and the Holy City: Encounters and Reflections”, page 203.

My Nagel quote is not out of context whatsoever. Of course the statement was made in regard to his fear of religion. That’s pretty much my point.

My primary argument in the blog post that you say fails to meet the high school test boils down to two positions: (1) Atheists reject God because of the rebellious will that we all (including myself) have and they look for any rationale to reject God’s moral commands - something that has strong Biblical support; (2) Scientism-driven atheists reject God because of their a priori commitment to philosophical naturalism, a point that the quotes in the article aptly demonstrate. I’m sorry it wasn’t framed more to your satisfaction.

Lastly, as to me being a fool… In the same way the Apostle Paul defines fool in the worldly sense, I can be called a fool (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21; 4:10). However, I am not a fool in the Christian sense: “The fool has said in his heart. ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). What kind of fool are you, Larry?

A suggestion: in the future, rather than resort to character assassination and ad hominem attacks, why not respectfully and calmly ask for references that are absent in an article or clarification of a position? I find it amusing you attack me for supposedly not living up to a particular standard while you violate a very basic one yourself.

I hope this helps and I appreciate your suggested corrections. God bless.



Your excuse that personal blog posts don't require sourcing references is without merit. We can excuse the lack of citation in a non-academic context only when there is no serious controversy over the accuracy of the quotation. I don't demand full MLA or APA references, but if you're going to use someone's words to make an argument, it is incumbent on you to at least point vaguely to the primary source.

Norman Geisler does not appear to be a reliable secondary source. He has on at least one occasion misrepresented a quotation. Additionally, I asked for the Huxley quote, and you apparently have a secondary source available (Geisler's I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist) which you assert points to the primary source, but you fail to provide it. Curious. Finally, I've requested Klein's book; I assure you I'll be checking whether you have taken this quotation out of context.

As to Nagel, you are using his words to establish the cause of his atheism. That he is afraid of religion does not establish, as you assert, that this fear is the cause of his atheism. You are not just "missing a step", you are misrepresenting the intended meaning of the quotation.

The Aldous Huxley quotation doesn't help your argument; Huxley is a writer, not a scientist, and even for a writer he's kind of weird. Remember, one of my criticisms of your post was that you did not cite contemporary scientists to support your thesis about the cause of contemporary scientists' disproportionate atheism. Neither Aldous nor Julian Huxley are contemporary scientists.

As to your essay overall, it is hardly surprising that you consider your arguments persuasive; if you did not, you would not have made them. And it is hardly surprising that I consider my criticism persuasive and you do not. These are issues each individual reader will have to determine for herself.

Finally, you apparently did not read my conclusion. I've been dealing with bullshit, lies, quote mining, and egregiously fallacious arguments for more than a decade. I've lost my patience for superficial politeness. Your suggestions are unnecessary.

The Stupid! It Burns! (making up quotes edition)

the stupid! it burns!

I usually don't comment on TSIB material, but in Why are so many scientists atheists?, Robin Schumacher commits so many sins against reason that they deserve some analysis.

First, Schumacher engages in quote mining (taking quotes out of context) and repeats what appear to be outright fabrications. Naturally none of his quotations, even the accurate ones, have a citation. Schumacher describes a conversation between an unnamed seminary professor and an unnamed biology professor. The biology professor admits that the evidence for the existence of God is persuasive, but remains an atheist "because I want to sleep with who I want and keep living how I’m living." So many Christian apologists have a seminary professor who's had this conversation that we must conclude the whole conversation is probably a fabrication. Schumacher quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel, who "want[s] atheism to be true" and who "[does not] want there to be a God." But Nagel doesn't say that he is an atheist because he wants it to be true. A larger quotation, attributed to Nagel's book, The Last Word and presented at Wikiquote, makes it clear that Nagel is "speaking of the fear of religion." And finally, Schumacher "quotes" Julian Huxley (a.k.a. "Darwin's Bulldog"*) and scientist George Klein (presumably the Hungarian biologist), but I'm unable to find any primary references for these quotations; they are almost certainly fabricated. Just fabricating quotations is enough reason to condemn Schumacher as a liar, but the stupidity continues.

*Thomas Henry Huxley was known as "Darwin's Bulldog"; Julian Huxley was Thomas's grandson.

Schumacher's attitude towards evolution is weirdly equivocal. On the one hand, he correctly notes that evolution doesn't disprove the existence of God. He quotes Richard Dawkins accurately (but of course does not cite The God Delusion), but completely misinterprets the quotation that he includes. Dawkins does not offer evolution as a reason to be an atheist; Schumacher quotes Dawkins as saying that even before evolution, and atheist could say, "God isn't a good explanation." But if evolution isn't directly probative (it just removes one more gap from the God of the Gaps fallacy), then why does Schumacher go to great lengths to equate evolution and atheism? Schumacher's atheist professor is a biologist, who, despite the evidence, will continue to "to teach evolution and remain an atheist." Schumacher's fabricated quotation from Huxley (an agnostic) just talks about why people believe evolution (supposedly "without proof"), not atheism. I can only speculate, but Schumacher apparently wants to have his cake and eat it too: he doesn't want to directly confront the mountains of evidence for evolution, but he knows his audience considers evolution to be synonymous with and equally insupportable as atheism.

Even ignoring these previous issues, Schumacher's post fails to meet the minimal standards for a causal essay in freshman English composition. Schumacher boasts of "Ph.D. in New Testament and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics;" if you are going to assert academic credentials, you should meet academic standards. Schumacher sets up his explanandum competently, showing that in a survey 31% of scientists (some fields, such as physics and biology, were surveyed at 41%) "disavowed belief in God," as compared with the much smaller percentage of atheists in the general population. He asks, "Why such a difference between this particular group of surveyed professors and the overall populous [sic]?" That's a good question, and he actually cites the study.

But the quality of Schumacher's argument quickly degenerates. His argument is entirely anecdotal, consisting of individual quotations (most of which are, of course, fabricated); you cannot even address, much less explain, a statistical truth with anecdotal evidence. And only two of the relevant quotations are (if they were real) from contemporary scientists; the others are from people long dead or from non-scientists. And he fails to address any alternative explanations; he offers one — Dawkins says that more scientists are atheists because, "well, we’re bright" — but doesn't address it head-on. Finally, he concludes that scientists are atheists "for the same reason everyone else turns away" from religion. But if scientists are atheists for the same reason as everyone else, then Schumacher has fundamentally failed to explain why there's a difference between the prevalence of atheism among scientists and the populace. His argument, even if he were given the facts he fabricates, is just one long fallacy.

Moreover, his argument is so fundamentally stupid that he has to resort to fabrication and fallacy. Schumacher might have an interesting point if he were to argue that people choose their unfalsifiable, unprovable metaphysical beliefs to rationalize their desires and preferences. Of course that argument cuts both ways: if nonbelievers choose atheism to rationalize their licentiousness, then believers choose theism to rationalize their repression, and of course history is littered with examples of people (such as Joseph Smith) using God to rationalize their licentiousness. But Schumacher attempts a much different argument. He asserts that nonbelievers choose atheism in the face of persuasive evidence to the contrary. For example, he places the admission in the mouth of his unnamed biologist:
I think you’re right. I do think the evidence you’ve presented is correct with respect to God. ... [but] I’m still going to teach evolution and remain an atheist ... because I want to sleep with who I want and keep living how I’m living.
If people would deny the evidence with regard to God, why wouldn't they do it with regard to, for example, the United States government? We have a lot of people who want to break laws and who actually do break laws. Some of them believe they won't get caught, and some of the more crazy believe the US government has no legal jurisdiction over them, but no one denies the persuasive evidence that the government exists to rationalize their criminal activity. Human stupidity (as Schumacher demonstrates) may well be infinite, but his thesis so contradicts ordinary logic and basic common sense that it requires far more than a transparently fallacious anecdotal argument.

More than a decade ago, I "entered the fray" to discuss religion. I sincerely believed that religion and superstition was due only to a lack of education and understandable and excusable ignorance and confusion. (We really do live in a subtle and complicated world, after all.) I hoped to do my bit to help alleviate this lack of education. What I discovered, however, is that Schumacher (a credentialed scholar) is not the exception but the rule: religious belief is supported by a level of mendacity that simply cannot be unintentional. I cannot reason with someone who intentionally lies or willfully remains ignorant; I can only fight, and call him a liar and a fool.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Keynes vs. Hayek Rap, Round Two

theObserver asks: are they being fair to Keynes (and Hayek)? Hard to say. Both videos together form a summary, brief to the point of oversimplification, of the views of two brilliant economists.

Nils Bohr said, "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." To a certain extent, both Keynes and Hayek are correct. I agree (to a certain extent) with Hayek: I don't think it makes sense to try to micromanage a macroeconomy. On the other hand, Keynes is also correct: there are things the government can and must do. I think Keynes is more correct, though, and the government boosting aggregate demand in a depression is hardly micromanaging the whole economy.

There are a lot of positive feedback loops (in the engineering sense) in an economy. Without positive feedback loops, we wouldn't have long-run economic growth. But positive feedback loops have the potential to be destructive as well as productive, as in the notorious "death spiral," where a business lays off salespeople to cut costs, reducing revenue, and requiring another round of cost-cutting. One role of the government is ameliorate positive feedback loops that are resistant to private, individual control.

Note that communism is not synonymous with absolute central planning. Communism is social ownership of the means of production. They're related concepts; the most obvious way to implement social ownership is by government central planning. But the most obvious way is not the only way, and in this case is not, I think, the correct way.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to fight the Occupation - St. Louis

Gods Help Us, St. Louis Did it Right #OWS
by The Infamous Brad
Nov. 16th, 2011 at 2:08 AM

Please click through to the original article so Brad will know you're reading him.

Reprinted under the terms of the author's copyright.

Multiple news sources are reporting that the multi-city raids on Occupy Wall Street and its regional imitators were coordinated by the National Council of Mayors, via conference call right before they began. A few minutes ago, I saw an article on a San Francisco news website alleging that, based on deep-background off-the-record anonymous law enforcement sources, the FBI was on that 18-city conference call as well, and that it was the FBI that advised cities on tactics: go in hard, with as many cops as you can, wearing black riot-squad gear to make sure you have the psychological upper hand; do it in the middle of the night and keep the reporters as far away as possible.

The St. Louis Beacon non-profit news site is reporting that St. Louis's mayor didn't bother listening to the conference call himself; he let his chief of staff take the call. And after seeing how other cities handled their raids, and comparing it to how St. Louis handled its raid, I'm left wondering: did Jeff Rainford laugh out loud at the FBI and the credulous mayors who were listening in? Or did he manage to hide it?

See, here's one thing I didn't have the heart to tell my friend who's peripherally involved in Occupy St. Louis: Occupy is not the first liberal group to think that they could win for their political issue by setting up a permanent encampment on a major thoroughfare in downtown St. Louis. They're not even the first in my lifetime. They're the third. The only difficulty that anti-war tax-evasion advocate Bill Ramsey and his encampment posed for the St. Louis police was keeping the feds off of their back long enough for them to deal with it peacefully; homeless services advocate the reverend Larry Rice had multiple churches, half the city's politicians, and significant manpower at his disposal and was never more than a minor annoyance to the powers that be or to their police. And, now that I understand their strategy, St. Louis's sadly under-staffed, horrifically mismanaged, and irredeemably corrupt metropolitan police department did at least demonstrate this: they have dealing with encampments like this down to a science; Occupy St. Louis never stood a chance.

The first thing they did was the one that baffled me the most, at first: they gave the protesters nearly 36 hours notice, as opposed to the 20 to 60 minutes' notice other cities gave. It has taken me almost a week, and the mistakes of several other cities, to see why that was a good idea, because here's how they did it. Early afternoon on Thursday, they gave the protesters 24 hours' notice: as of 3pm on Friday, the no structures in the plaza rule was going to be enforced, and as of 10pm, the curfew was going to be enforced. So, unsurprisingly, Occupy St. Louis put out a huge call for as many people as possible to come to the plaza by noon, to be trained in peaceful civil disobedience; local civil liberties lawyers showed up to brief them. Needless to say, the cops did not oblige them by showing up at 3pm. Heck, I knew they weren't going to show up at 3pm; no way were they going to snarl downtown traffic during rush hour; I told my friend not to expect them any earlier than 7pm at the very earliest.

So, when no cops showed up anywhere near 3pm, the protesters had their biggest rally to date (as I suspect the cops were thinking, "getting it out of their system"), and then started to drift away. Rally organizers advised people to be back before 10pm, to block the enforcement of curfew. Sure enough, by 10pm, they had 350 people down there. And scant minutes later, people were jazzed up and ready to go, because outlying scouts reported that the police were gathering, en masse, with multiple cars, multiple buses, an ambulance, and a firetruck, only a couple of blocks away!

And sometime around an hour, hour and a half later, the cops just disappeared, dispersed, without ever having gotten within two blocks of the plaza. So the confused protesters declared victory, let most of the troops go home, and fewer than a hundred of them bedded down for the night in their tents. An hour later, somewhere around 150 cops showed up. I'm sure people in those tents tweeted and text messaged and phoned for reinforcements. But between the late hour, and the fact that people were exhausted after having been out there all day, and that it was the third call-up of the day? Nobody showed.

Ah, but the cops did more than just show up after two head-fakes and with sufficient numbers ... they did right exactly what the Obama administration told everybody else to do wrong. They didn't show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn't show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people's legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk ... and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren't busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in. Downtown bicycle patrol cops had spent weeks coming to the Occupy St. Louis general assembly and working group meetings, paying respectful attention and engaging people in polite conversation, listening intently; who knew that they weren't surveilling protesters, as some of us paranoidly assumed, they were seeing what the protesters had to teach them about tactics! A few of the protesters stayed for a couple of hours, to maintain the stand-off; the police uncomplainingly and politely continued their occupation of the plaza, flawlessly turning Occupy St. Louis's tactics back against them.

By dawn, the protesters were licked. They weren't just licked Friday night, they're almost certainly licked permanently, too. When the park re-opened Saturday morning, a few protesters gathered, caught unprepared with no signs or other gear, quietly discussing what to do. One of them went right to the center of the plaza and set up a tent. A couple of officers came by, engaged him in quiet conversation, and once everybody was calm, they pointed out to him that nobody else was joining him. He took the tent down.

A couple of people on the Occupy St. Louis Facebook page are still promising defiance, but whether they know it or not, they're beaten. One thing that I've heard from everybody who's ever tried to organize St. Louisans to volunteer for anything as a group, from churches to political parties, from the VFW to anti-war groups, from the Bill Gothard Seminar to ACT-UP, is that it is almost completely impossible to get St. Louisans to show up for volunteer work. St. Louisans are available for work in the past tense. ("Oh, you did what? you should have called me, I would have helped!") St. Louisans are available for work in the future tense. ("The next time you do that, you should call me, I want to help out.") But they are never, ever available in the present. ("Sorry, I wish I could help.")* Occupy St. Louis benefited from the publicity of the national movement, and college students facing the prospect of graduating into an economy with high unemployment while carrying a quarter million in debt were highly motivated, but I think their momentum is broken now. On the off chance it's not, the city is dangling the carrot that maybe, if you patiently wait and don't violate the ordinances between now and then, maybe some day we'll repeal an ordinance or the court will rule in your favor, and you can have your camp back ... yeah, never going to happen, they just have to stall until the last of the momentum is gone. The city will get that polite obedience, too; St. Louis has near-Minneapolis levels of politeness about those kinds of things. And long before then, St. Louis' genuinely awful winter weather will have kicked in, the time of year when nobody leaves the house voluntarily.

In every town where the local cops thought that the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security knew what they were talking about, Occupy is roaring back bigger than ever; as Olbermann and others have pointed out, this is the historically inevitable automatic response of every American to police brutality and media censorship. Too bad for the 1% in other towns that their cops don't have St. Louis's long practice at appearing to ignore, and then effortlessly dissipating, liberal activist groups.

*Exceptions to the "St. Louisans don't do volunteer work" rule: the local Shriners are visibly no worse about showing up to volunteer than Shriners in other towns are, and St. Louis county's Jewish community organizations are legendary for the depth and breadth of their volunteer efforts.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Berlusconi and the ECB Riots

Berlusconi and the ECB Riots
Italy [is] teetering on the brink of anarchy. And Berlusconi, the man who cannot legally step down because he and his friends stole half of the money that Italy owes Deutche Bank (and Deutche Bank knew it at the time)... is suddenly stepping down? And, oh, how conveniently, handing the government over to a bureaucrat, with the explicitly stated job of enforcing ECB austerity. Everybody who knows anything knows what will happen: ECB riots, maybe even a civil war. And Berlusconi still owns all the cable networks, which will, as surely as the sun shines, report: "As soon as Berlusconi, the man who saved us from anarchy after the Clean Hands scandals, stepped down, the country fell back into anarchy. Only Berlusconi can save us!"

Y'all really should be reading everything The Infamous Brad writes.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Delegated democracy

We can identify, both theoretically and historically, some fundamental principles that underlie democratic communism. We have to add the qualifier "democratic" to distinguish democratic communism from "communism of the parties" (i.e. the specific instantiations of communism, especially in the Soviet Union and China) as well as Marxian communism (i.e. Karl Marx's specific conception of communism). Democratic communism is the union of the democratic political process to the communist economic system.

Modern political science tends to consider the contrast between democracy and republicanism as the contrast between direct democracy, where the citizenry is the legislature, and representative democracy, where the citizenry elects the legislature*. Since direct democracy seems at best unwieldy and at worst practically impossible, republicanism is held up as the only viable alternative. But there's another contrast possible, the contrast between the existing trustee model of representation and the delegate model.

*In a parliamentary system, the legislature (usually the majority party in the legislature) elects the executive; in most presidential and semi-presidential systems, the the citizens elect the president directly. The sine qua non of republicanism, therefore, is the election of the legislature.

In the existing trustee model, we elect individuals we trust to make the right decisions, even if those decisions are temporarily unpopular. Because we explicitly privilege representatives to make temporarily unpopular decisions, we must explicitly protect them from the consequences of unpopularity. Thus we elect representatives for fixed terms, and evaluate the totality of their performance at the end of their term. We also allow them to operate secretly or covertly. If we trust someone (and if we have no way of immediately overturning their decisions), it's more efficient to let them make decisions in secret, or make decisions we can discover only after substantial effort.

The trustee model is discussed at some length in the Federalist Papers. One justification for the trustee model was the protection of minorities: a trustee representative, because of his superior wisdom and the necessity of taking a somewhat longer view (at least to the next election) would, the Founders proposed, make "oppression" of the minority by the majority more difficult. Another consideration, perhaps more important, was that a trustee model would protect the position of the capitalist ruling class. (The code phrase, which appears both in the Federalist Papers as well as the Constitution), is a prohibition on the forgiveness of debts.) The trustee model was quickly abandoned as way of protecting against the "tyranny of the majority"; the inclusion of the Bill of Rights places this task firmly in the hands of the judiciary. In reality, the trustee model only protects the ruling class.

But using the trustee model brings up a more fundamental question: why involve the people (at least those people outside the ruling class) at all? If you're going to protect the ruling class, why not do so directly? A simple argument is just that the Founders believed that trustee representation would more efficiently legitimatize the new government. The colonies had, after all, been electing their legislatures for a century. But there's a deeper argument: the capitalist ruling class of the late 18th century did not trust the people, but they also did not trust each other. As much as they wanted to protect capitalism from the people, they wanted to protect capitalism from other capitalists. They did not want the (presently) richest capitalists to unconditionally acquire state power, and set themselves up as a politically, rather than economically, privileged elite. They did not want capitalism to degenerate into de facto monarchism. There was no internal way to avoid this degeneration, so they pushed the resolution of disputes within the capitalist ruling class to (some of) the people.

Lenin, whom I believe was at heart a democrat, favoring a democratic political process, made the fundamental error of not immediately making the legitimacy of members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, even as trustees, formally dependent on a democratic process. It is up to historians to determine whether or not his error was excusable or inevitable: he inherited a country compromised by imperialist exploitation, ruined by the First Imperialist War, he had to fight a savage civil war, and had nothing even approaching democratic popular traditions; it is entirely possible that a democratic process would have immediately doomed Russia. I don't think Mao Zedong was at heart a democrat, but the historical, material circumstances were perhaps even more dire in 1949 China than in 1917 Russia; if a democratic process really was untenable, we can fault Mao only for his lack of pious hypocrisy. But, regardless of the inevitability or exusablity of their errors, they did err, and we are not obliged to sanctify or repeat their errors.

It's not terribly difficult to correct the error without reproducing the class privilege inherent in the trustee model: the delegate model of representation.

In the delegate model, where possible, we handle matters of state power by direct democracy. Direct democracy works reasonably well for small groups of people, and we are "naturally" made up of small groups: e.g. neighborhoods, small businesses, interest groups. We can, for many matters, place some state power directly in the hands of the people themselves, and (with some limits) let the majority of the small group directly "rule" the group. This process has the twin advantages of being as "purely" democratic as possible; more importantly it habituates people to the techniques, skills, and special problems of exercising state power.

Where we cannot efficiently implement direct democracy, we resort to delegates. A delegate differs from a trustee in that a delegate's constituency does not trust a delegate to act in their interests. Instead, the constituency continuously evaluates their delegate, and ensures that she acts in accordance with their interests. Unlike a trustee, the delegate serves at the pleasure of her constituency, and therefore the constituency may recall and replace her at will. Second, a delegate must act absolutely transparently; the constituency must know, or be able to easily discover, exactly what she is doing at all times. Finally, the delegate must be absolutely free of conflicts of both personal and third-party interests: she must be beholden only to her constituency; her personal interests should be serving the will of her constituency.

The delegate model of democracy does not solve all political problems. Like any other democratic system, including republicanism, a theory of government that includes a delegate model must generally confront the philosophical and theoretical limitations of majoritarianism. The delegate model still leaves the issue of "tyranny of the majority" unsolved. But neither does the the existing republican model solve the problem; in almost all republics, maintaining the proper rights of the minority is a function of the judiciary. Because it does depend on the people, the delegate model shares the problems inherent to any democratic or semi-democratic system.

Perhaps more critically, the delegate model is by design not as stable as the republican model. We can count on a republican government having the same people in it for the shortest term of office (e.g. two years in the United States); in contrast a delegate government can change arbitrarily. As noted, the delegate model intentionally undermines legislative stability to prevent a minority class from monopolizing state power. An overall model of government that includes delegation must, however, directly address the issue of stability.

A governmental system is complex; it consists of many institutions. Indeed a government that consists of a single institution (such as communism of the parties, which had a single governing institution, the national Communist Party) has a single point of failure, which we engineers consider a Bad Thing. In a complex system, if one institution fails, the other institutions can mitigate the effects; they can also exert pressure to correct the failing institution. The delegate model of democracy specifies only one institution. I will be exploring other institutions of democratic communism in further posts.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Socialized medicine... in 1798

Congress Passes Socialized Medicine and Mandates Health Insurance - In 1798
In July of 1798, Congress passed – and President John Adams signed - “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” The law authorized the creation of a government operated marine hospital service and mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.

Keep in mind that the 5th Congress did not really need to struggle over the intentions of the drafters of the Constitutions in creating this Act as many of its members were the drafters of the Constitution.

The network of global capital control

The network of global capital control by Stefania Vitali, James B. Glattfelder, and Stefano Battiston.
The structure of the control network of transnational corporations affects global market competition and financial stability. So far, only small national samples were studied and there was no appropriate methodology to assess control globally. We present the first investigation of the architecture of the international ownership network, along with the computation of the control held by each global player. We find that transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic “super-entity” that raises new important issues both for researchers and policy makers.

(via Brenda Rosser)

Philosophical apologetics

The problem with philosophical "arguments" for the existence of God is that they're, well, philosophical. Philosophy, in my considered opinion, is part of the Humanities, our never-ending exploration into what it means to be human. Philosophical "arguments" do not and cannot ever prove anything; rather than see philosophy as the search for truth, it is better to see philosophy as an exploration of thought.

I recently had a religious apologist lay the Cosmological Argument on me:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
  4. And therefore, no bacon or gay sex, and women must cover their hair

The Cosmological Argument is a terrible way to try to "prove" the existence of God because every one of its premises is controversial. Precisely because of the controversial nature of its premises, it is way to start thinking about some deep questions. The Wikipedia article brings up several controversies with the argument: its circularity, its special pleading, its elevation of a posteriori scientific knowledge to a priori logical knowledge, etc. And there are even more controversies.

What, for example, does it mean to exist? Do I, Larry, the person, exist? I am, in a very deep sense, not an independent, indivisible object but rather an arrangement of atoms. All the mass that is me existed before I was born; all of it will continue to exist after I'm dead. What "exists" is just an arrangement of those atoms, and the arrangement persists even as the atoms are gradually replaced. Indeed, in a sense, all the things that we (at least those of us who are not particle physicists) talk about as "objects" are just arrangements of atoms. But "the universe" is not an arrangement of atoms. If we're using "existence" to denote particular arrangements, then the universe, which is always the universe no matter how its atoms are arranged, is not "existing" in that sense. Contrawise, if the universe exists, then we are using existence to denote something independent of arrangement, and, as far as we know, actual mass-energy does not ever "begin" to exist; all the mass-energy in the universe has always been there.

And what about abstract entities? Does the orbit of Mercury exist? Would it continue to exist if Mercury itself were to be blown apart? How about the orbit of "Vulcan," the imaginary planet exactly opposite the Sun from the Earth? Does the circle — not actual, physical things arranged in circles, but the idea of the circle — exist? How about the idea of the "gnort", a particularly interesting mathematical arrangement that human beings won't discover for another century? How about the idea of the "kerfibble", another interesting mathematical arrangement that human beings, sadly, will never discover before we and all our descendents are inevitably wiped out?

Its interesting and valuable to think about all these controversies. And that's the function of philosophy: not to discover answers but to pose interesting questions that lead us to examine our thought deeply and carefully.

One of the greatest sins of Christianity (and Islam, but curiously not really prevalent in early Judaism) is the expropriation of philosophy from the humanities to the "sciences", to use philosophy not to ask ever-deeper questions but to purport to "prove" the childish, exploitative, and fundamentally misanthropic (and especially misogynist) privilege of the Church.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility

Tyler Cowen writes about the difference between the liberal/progressive and conservative/libertarian emphases on initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility:
I would not quite say that progressives are [quoting Matt Yglesias] “against such an ethos,” but where does it stand in their pecking order? Look at fiction, such as famous left-wing or progressive novels, or for that matter famous left-wing and progressive movies. How many of them celebrate “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility”?

Being a conservative, almost synonymous these days with intellectual dishonesty, Cowen simply fails to engage with Yglesias' main point: the conservative focus on the work ethic is fundamentally dishonest. The rich are prosperous; virtuous hard work causes prosperity; the rich are therefore hard-working and thus the epitome of virtue. The fallacy should be obvious, at least to anyone but a conservative.

But Cowen's question does have some merit. I don't know about other progressives*, but while these virtues are important, I don't see them as at all problematic. People already have initiative, they work hard, and they take personal responsibility; we don't need to "sell" these virtues any more than we need to sell cleanliness or not fighting duels. The problem that we have today is not too little personal responsibility but too little social and mutual responsibility. We emphasize virtues not by their intrinsic importance, but by the difference between their importance and their actual implementation.

*OK, I'm not really a progressive. But I have a lot more in common with progressives than with conservatives.

With sufficient initiative, hard work and individual responsibility (or cunning, duplicity, and ruthlessness) one can fight one's way to the top 10% or 1%. We can say with at least some accuracy that those who are at the top have more of these virtues than those in the bottom 90%. I don't find it objectionable that these virtues should be rewarded; what I do find objectionable — aside from the obvious hypocrisy of extolling the virtues of of hard work by those who have achieved prosperity without it — is the notion that if you do not have the most initiative, if you do not work the hardest, if you are not in the top 10% or 1%, then you are by definition dependent and lazy; if you then complain, you are merely being irresponsible.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Oakland General Strike Follow-Up: Why Did the Violence Start?

Oakland General Strike Follow-Up: Why Did the Violence Start?
by The Infamous Brad
Nov. 5th, 2011 at 10:56 AM

There hasn't been a whole lot of detailed reporting since the end of the first day of the General Strike called by the Occupiers in Oakland, California. As far as I can tell from Twitter and Google searches at a distance, that seems to be because the strike itself is in abeyance while the Occupy Oakland General Council, and the city government, do their own separate after-action analysis, one in public, one in private, trying to understand how, after so much of it went well for so many hours, it all fell apart into violence by both sides -- and, more importantly, what to do about it?

I don't have the benefit of being on-site, but I do have the luxury to think about it while not up to my neck in the work both sides have had to go through to clean up the battlefield, and that one side has had to go through treating their wounded, while the other side is distracted by processing their captives. And I think a clue can be found in the timeline I wrote up the other day. But even with that clue, I'm left with a question that only the police can answer (if even they can). And I'd really like to know the answer to that question, because the answer would have important tactical implications for the broader movement.

Let me start by calling attention to something: on some level, everything about Occupy Oakland is illegal. Now, there's a giant asterisk over that, and that's that the Supreme Court, in a series of decisions from the 1940s through the 1970s, ruled that political speech and political assembly enjoy the highest possible level of protection in this country, and cannot be trumped by mere federal or state law or local ordinance unless there is a legitimate government interest that can only be served by enforcing those laws, and even then the enforcement has to be done in the least invasive way possible; if somebody suggests a way to attain the same goal that wouldn't infringe on political speech or assembly, police have to ignore the law as written and do that. So the Supreme Court used to say, anyway. I think that must be why the National Lawyer's Guild is all over the Occupy movement, writing their phone number in permanent ink on every protester's arm; they're itching for the easy money that they think would come from suing cities over this. I notice that the ACLU is being a bit more reticent; I suspect that they're less sanguine that the Roberts court would continue this tradition, and if so, I share their fear.

But this is all legalistic nitpicking compared to the main issue, because I doubt that either the Oakland city attorney or the Oakland police chief actually know all of the Supreme Court rulings around political expression and assembly, so Oakland police, like the police around every Occupy site, should be assumed to be operating as if they believed that every single aspect of the Occupy movement is illegal: curfew violations, camping illegally, petty private and public property damage, noise violations, traffic violations, sanitation violations, fire code violations, health code violations, conspiracy in restraint of trade, intimidation by threat of violence, public assembly for the purpose of creating disorder, intention to riot, god only knows how many drug and alcohol violations, and repeated failure to obey the order of a law enforcement officer.

So, as far as the cops are concerned, as far as discerning their mindset, it's worth remembering that, even though they are probably wrong to think this, to probably 95% of the cops anywhere near one of these sites, Occupy Wherever is something illegal that they are letting the protesters get away with. Why would they do that? Because they're not doing much harm. Because even the most legally ignorant cop has some vague idea that cracking down on a political protest looks bad. And, most importantly, because they really don't have the manpower to spare to ticket them for everything they're ticketable for, to write all the reports it would take, to testify in the cases that would go to court. If they don't have to do anything, all but the most right-wing among them would really prefer to look the other way as long as open anarchy doesn't break out.

I explain all that because you need to understand that the Oakland PD could have stepped in and swept up the whole mess the minute the OO General Assembly voted for a General Strike; under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, general strikes are illegal. (And I would expect at least one Oakland cop to know this; the 1946 Oakland General Strike is why there's a law against general strikes. It's local history, to them.) They could have swept in and mass-arrested them when they started their march on the banks first thing in the morning, without a parade permit, shutting down streets as they went, and in the opinion of some Oakland business owners and business managers the cops should have done so. Instead, not only did they not do so, they directed vehicle traffic around the march as if it had a perfectly good parade permit. There is no way in hell that it's legal to physically blockade a legal business, but the cops didn't sweep in and arrest enough people to clear a path to the doors at any of the branch banks that Occupy Oakland briefly shut down. The cops then went ahead and, frankly, illegally facilitated yet another permit-less road-clogging march all the way down to the Port of Oakland. They warned that if the protesters crossed the property line into the port they would have to arrest them, but then they blinked and ignored that. Truckers stuck at the port in what were, frankly, illegal citizens' arrests by the protesters who would not let them go until their trucks had been illegally inspected called the cops, and the cops did nothing, just told the truckers to submit.

But when a couple of dozen of the protesters broke off from the main march route to break into, start repairs and cleanup on, and re-open an empty building that had previously been a social services center for the homeless? The Oakland PD called in several hundred officers from at least 8 other agencies, marched on that building, broke in, beat the living shit out of everybody anywhere near that building, and arrested as many of them as they could cart off. And I don't think it's a coincidence that mass vandalism broke out, city wide, about an hour and a half later. Initial news reports say that it was people not involved in Occupy Oakland who did so after the Occupy Oakland General Assembly went to bed for the night; in the next day's General Assembly, several of the Occupiers themselves called bullshit on that, saying that the recognized at least two publicly recognized organizers among the vandals.

So here's the question that's bothering me: why was re-opening the Traveler's Aid Society building the line in the sand? After all of the other law-breaking that the Oakland PD had facilitated, and the even more crime that they'd openly tolerated, why did chiseling the lock off of a foreclosed building and starting cleanup on it trigger a multi-agency SWAT-style raid? Hell, the occupation of the Traveler's Aid Society building may actually be the least illegal thing that happened in the entire East Bay Area for 24 hours either way! Why was that action the flashpoint for violence?

The cops know that this question will keep being asked, because first thing in the morning, they lied about it. No, really; before anybody even asked, the Oakland PD put out a press release with the most transparently obviously stupid lie imaginable, explaining that they raided the Traveler's Aid Society because they were afraid the protesters would burn the building. I hope that none of you are dumb enough to believe them. Within minutes of entering the building, the people who occupied the Traveler's Aid Society building had handed police a statement that they had one and only one goal: reopening this exact building as what it was before the city budget cuts, a service center for the homeless. Even if some cop suspected them of lying to buy time, the cops had the building under observation for the hour and a half between then and the raid; they have to have seen, through the open and well-lit windows, that people were cleaning and repairing the place, not preparing to burn it down. No, whatever the reason was, fear of arson is not it.

I have two hypotheses. I could be wrong, and it could be neither of these, it could be something else altogether that I haven't thought of yet. I've been wrong before. But if it's one of these two things, that has important implications for the Occupy movement:

Was it Just about Numbers? Even with multi-agency support, had the Oakland PD tried to do anything about the main marching routes and main encampment of the General Strike, they would have been outnumbered by many dozens to one. The lowest estimate I've heard is that there were around 2,000 people at the smallest part of it. By the time the strikers crossed the cops' announced line in the sand, the border of the Port of Oakland, there were at least 7,000 of them and maybe as many as 15,000. And the most cops they could mobilize would probably have been fewer than 400. With enough tactical weaponry, 400 cops can clear the streets of 15,000 protesters ... but the process would be hideous, and the blowback would make the anger over Scott Olsen's head injury look trivial. It may be that the reason they attacked the Traveler's Aid Society was that it was re-occupied by fewer than 100 people; it was the only time, all day, the cops had numbers on their side. Observe how long it was between when the Traveler's Aid building was re-opened and when the cops moved; observe that the cops were in constant communication, all day, with appointed representatives of the General Assembly. Want to bet that the cops asked permission, first, or at least asked if, in the opinion of the people they were liaising with, the marchers at the port would move en masse to reinforce the Traveler's Aid Society building if the cops moved against it?

If numbers are the reason why the cops moved in, that bodes ill for all of the scattered Occupy sites; with the exception of Zucotti Park, and maybe one or two others, all of them are pathetically outnumbered by the cops. Heck, here in St. Louis, the estimate I'm hearing is that at night, Occupy St. Louis's encampment down in Keiner Plaza is as low as 6 people, and fewer than 100 during announced actions; if they got help from other jurisdictions, the City could outnumber that by 4 or 5 to 1 during the day, by dozens to 1 at night. If numbers are the reason, then everywhere outside of New York City (and now, because of the backlash and with the benefit of favorable climate, maybe Oakland), expect the Occupiers to be swept aside as soon as they inconvenience even one major employer. It won't be the end of Occupy New York, but the rest of the satellite protests are on borrowed time ... if, I say again, that's what it was. Or else, was it ...

Or Is Foreclosure Sacred? The very first thing that jumped out at me was that, for all the world, it looked to me like the Oakland PD was saying, by their actions: break any other law, and if you're white enough, we'll look the other way, but we will kill, and if need be die, to enforce the bank foreclosure process.

As crazy as this sounds, it is not too crazy to be true. Every local sheriff in every local jurisdiction in America has enforced a foreclosure at least once. Every local sheriff that has ever enforced a foreclosure knows how emotionally volatile that is, how easily the people being made homeless by the banks could tip over from despair into rage, which is why, in my experience, when they do have to physically evict or even just physically speed up someone who hasn't left the house by the exact minute they're supposed to, they bring a lot of manpower. Some of them may also know that there has been a history, during past recessions and depressions, of the black community banding together to physically block evictions, to harass the police until they leave and then to help the "evicted" family chisel the plywood and the locks off and help them move their stuff back in. Cops have some reason to fear that if people lose their fear of foreclosure, that if they stop semi-voluntarily complying with that law, it could go badly for them.

The tactical implication of that would be this. At every General Assembly north of the frost line, someone has brought up the idea, floating around the micro-blogging sites, that if the cops deny the Occupiers what they need to survive the winter, and/or if they evict them completely, the various Occupy sites should abandon the public space and Occupy Foreclosures -- move into prominent, empty, foreclosed-upon buildings and re-open them. Oakland Pd's intel may already be telling them that, too. Monday night's violence and anarchy, may well have been their way of saying to the Occupiers all over the country: don't you dare try it. It may well have been their way of saying that they were absolutely willing to put yet another war hero in the hospital, this time with injuries far worse than Scott Olsen's, to nip that idea in the bud before it catches on.

Reprinted according to the author's copyright.