Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (billboards and bumper stickers edition)

the stupid! it burns! A double dose of stupid today.

Atheists Rail About "Vitriol, Threats and Hate Speech" On A Hateful Billboard Directed At Christians Yes, Ms Cellaneous is talking about the billboard above. The author quotes Fox News: "Amanda Knief, managing director of American Atheists, said a report from Fox News on Wednesday about the billboards led to a national outpouring of 'vitriol, threats and hate speech against our staff, volunteers and Adams Outdoor Advertising.'"

The author then comments on the issue:
vitriol, threats and hate speech against…” …. and what does she consider that Billboard to be? A love hug?

Stupid is, as stupid does. Not that all atheists are “stupid”, but their lack of true knowledge is as immense as is their lack of consideration for those who have faith in God. People who believe in a Creator God far out number [sic] those who do not.

These atheists have made a decision to close their minds, their spirits and any rationale toward God. But how anyone can look at the beauty of nature or a living creature, and not see God’s design, seems rather remarkable. The intricacy’s of the human body can’t be created in a laboratory, nor have all monkeys ‘evolved’ into humans. . . .
[T]hose who believe in God don’t try to force non- believers into participating in their beliefs (radical Islam excluded).

Michael Frissore opens "Atheists Are So Much Smarter Than Christians." - an atheist, with his dislike of the above Darwin Fish.
You're that much of a smug prick you put a bumper sticker on your car mocking the Jesus fish. Whatever. Go with...whoever the hell you go with. . . .

When an atheist argues with a Christian, they're playing with house money. They can't lose, particularly in their own mind, because the final argument is always, "Show me proof." They want you to prove to them that God exists. The punchline, of course, is that no human being can prove a higher being exists. If a god, any god, were to show up here, we'd probably all go blind or die from the mere sight.

As usual, lots more self-parodying stupid in the originals.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Separation of church and state

In his essay, Don't tear down that wall!, Roger Ebert argues against legislating religious morality on First Amendment grounds. Ebert draws an analogy between "the eagerness of states to permit the teaching of Creationism . . . in public schools" and "the attempt to legislate birth control, abortion and other matters pertaining to birth." Because issues of birth, pregnancy, and sexuality are dictated by religious belief, attempting to legislate these matters is tantamount to imposing religious belief by law. Instead of passing laws, Ebert argues that to increase social adherence to their moral beliefs, sincere religious believers should try to convert others to their religion. Although I agree with Ebert's politics, and I'm a strong supporter of the Separation of Church and State, his analysis is flawed because he implicitly leaves no mechanism for deciding moral values in a democracy.

It would be convenient if we could use objective, secular scientific reasoning to determine the correct moral values. However, the world does not appear to work that way. As I explore in more depth in my series on Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism, science cannot establish moral laws in the same way it establishes physical laws. A physical law is, by definition, a statement that despite careful and focused and careful effort, we cannot observe any exception. If we do observe an exception to what we thought was a physical law, we do not conclude that a "miracle" happened; we must readjust our construction of physical law to permit the observation. However, the only interesting moral "laws" are those we do observe contraventions of; a moral law prohibiting killing (under specified circumstances) is useful only to the extent that people do actually kill. Since we cannot (or it is not useful to) "falsify" a moral law by observing an exception, we simply cannot apply the scientific method to determine moral law.

There have been other philosophical approaches to determining moral law, but, lacking scientific foundation, all of them suffer from the Universal Philosophical Refutation. Science can "privilege" hypotheses only because the universe itself appears to refuse to contradict the hypothesis, but when the universe does not speak to the conclusions, any premise can, with a little ingenuity, be abandoned or replaced by its opposite without contradiction. There is no objective way you can say, that it is morally wrong to kill a person (under specific circumstances). There is no objective way you can say, we ought to (somehow) maximize the "well-being" of society. There is no objective way you can say that we should do only what everyone always ought to do. I can simply deny it's wrong to kill a person, maximize utility, or be compelled by the categorical imperative, and although we might not like or respect each other, neither of us can find a contradiction in the other's reasoning.

A democracy fundamentally rejects the idea of objective moral law. Instead of "searching for the truth," about morality, we search for ways we can all live together. Some of those ways involve prohibiting or compelling behavior. Democracy is not a simple matter of always doing what the majority says; because we are not completely stupid, we can look at issues at varying levels of abstraction and generality. A majority of us can, for example, strongly disapprove of specific, concrete speech, such as racist or sexist speech, but still strongly approve generally and abstractly of freedom of speech, and we can decide to implement the general and abstract into law. Furthermore, we have learned to institutionalize certain democratic principles, such as the First Amendment, and making the process of changing those principles complicated and difficult. But at the end of the day everything in a democracy is up to the arbitrary preferences, specific and concrete or general and abstract, of the people. The people are sovereign; because the universe constrains only how we can act, not how we ought to act, there is no higher authority on how we ought to act than the preferences of the people.

Because democracy is based on implementing arbitrary preferences, there is no good way to distinguish arbitrary preferences from arbitrary religious preferences. This is precisely the distinction Ebert tries to draw. Religions have not become popular because they completely ignore our natural preferences. Religions forbid murder and theft not because wow! who'd'a thunk it until God said so, but because a religion that excused or required wanton murder and theft would not gain many adherents. Even so, people usually attach all their moral beliefs to God; just as they believe homosexuality is wrong because God says so, they also believe that murder is wrong because God says so. They are mistaken, of course, no God exists to say anything, but they are mistaken about the justification, not the preference. A secularist is simply more direct. As a secularist, I am tolerant of homosexuality simply because I don't have any preference about what people do with their genitals*; I am intolerant of murder because I strongly prefer that people don't go around killing each other (and I don't give a tinker's damn that I'm infringing on the liberty of people who do want to kill others). The difference is not in the kind of preference, only the justification (or lack thereof); because all preferences are arbitrary, it is incoherent to talk about correct or mistaken preferences; preferences are just brute facts. Thus, it does not make sense to distinguish between different kinds of preferences; all preferences have equal standing.

Rather than placing limitations on motives, since motives are essential preferential, the First Amendment places limitations on the purposes and effects of laws. Rather than making the government either supportive or hostile to religion, the establishment and free exercise clauses, the First Amendment makes the government indifferent to religion. Thus, any law that has a primary or exclusive purpose or effect of establishing or suppressing religion is illegitimate. Although it's not consistently applied, the Lemon Test expresses this doctrine. Even if some law might have a "religious" motivation, it is legitimate so long as its primary purpose and effect are secular. Thus, even if the prohibition of murder were religiously motivated, it has a secular purpose and effect of suppressing the killing of human beings. It is sufficient to limit the purpose and effect of laws without addressing their motivations.

I myself am, of course, a strong proponent of absolute reproductive rights of women. However, I think the "religious motivation" argument against laws that would infringe on women's reproductive rights is fundamentally flawed. Laws limiting reproductive rights have a clear secular purpose: laws restricting abortion and contraception aim to and would have the effect of promoting the creation of and protecting human zygotes and blastocysts. Whether these are good secular purposes is a matter of preference (or many preferences, at different levels of generality and abstraction), but they are clearly secular: they address physical, concrete things about which we can have scientific knowledge. The secular/religious distinction does not by itself address reproductive rights.

Ebert does, however, imply a useful moral distinction. Rather than the distinction between religious and secular morality, we can draw a distinction between social and individual morality. Social morality concerns behavior that has a direct effect on others: killing people, hitting them on the head, taking their stuff, polluting their air and water, denying them employment, housing, or economic activity, etc. Even though people might have preferences as strong as they have concerning social morality, individual morality concerns behavior that does not have a direct effect on others: consensual sexual activity*, masturbation, diet, health care choices, assisted suicide/euthanasia of the terminally ill**, and similar activities. Religion, one's preferences about what to believe about God, is perhaps the most obvious form of private morality; as Jefferson says, religion (or lack thereof) "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." By itself, religion has a purely individual effect.I t it tempting, therefore, to locate what are essentially privacy rights in the First Amendment. But that approach ignores most of Supreme Court jurisprudence. Privacy is a right, and therefore any act that affects no one but those who consent is usually considered private. But privacy rights have been located by the Supreme Court, not in the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, but in the concept of substantive due process, a consequence of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

*that does not have a direct, substantial impact on the transmission of infectious disease.
**with appropriate protection for the poor and mentally ill.

The issue over contraception and abortion rights is important, but the argument from the establishment clause is a bad argument. It is impossible in principle and actively contrary to democracy to try to distinguish between certain kinds of arbitrary preferences. Because they involve tangible, material entities and activities, not immaterial, invisible entities such as gods and souls, contraception and abortion are, whether we like it or not, secular matters. The best constitutional arguments, indeed the ones actually made by the Supreme Court in Griswald, Roe and others, are found in substantive due process. We must, in a democracy, let people argue (and vote) for any legitimate law, regardless of their individual motivation. If we do not, then we subvert democracy by making some process sovereign over the will of the people, and, more dangerously, unacceptably privilege those individuals who implement that process.

The finances of the Catholic church

I'm sure it will come as a great shock, but The Economics reports that the Catholic church is not handling its money well.
[T]he finances of the Catholic church in America are an unholy mess. The sins involved in its book-keeping are not as vivid or grotesque as those on display in the various sexual-abuse cases that have cost the American church more than $3 billion so far; but the financial mismanagement and questionable business practices would have seen widespread resignations at the top of any other public institution.
According to Buce, who claims to be a former bankruptcy judge,
[O]ver and over again, the bishops engage in--and get away with-- stuff that would send them to the stony lonesome if they did them in the private sector, or at the very least, strip them of their employment or at least of their bankruptcy discharge. Commingling assets, shell-game moving of assets, misuse of trust fund taxes--this is stuff that causes real trouble to real people even in the highly forgiving realm of private-sector corporate America but not, it seems, for those who are so securely wrapped in the cloth of sanctity.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (help! help! I'm being oppressed edition)

the stupid! it burns!

Atheists Threaten District Over Religious Chorus Songs
It is being reported over on the CBN News website that the FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation) is threatening to sue a New York school district over songs taught in music class that include the words "God" and "Lord." [all emphasis and links original]

Why is this important? Easy, because it's a group of non-believers who are trying to silence Christians and this is where "soft" Christian persecution can eventually lead to more "hard" Christian persecution, which is what we cover most of the time.

The role of evidence in science

In Another Question For Atheists, John Barron asks
For the sake of argument let’s grant that the quantity and quality of evidence, according to your standard, brought the probability of whether God exists to 50%. In other words, it was as equally probable that God exists as doesn’t according to your own criteria. Presuming agnosticism is not an option, ould you choose theism or atheism?, and equally as important, why?

Barron does not understand the role of evidence in the scientific method. The scientific method does not consist of using the evidence to assign probabilities to all the competing hypotheses, and then "believing" the most likely.

The second component, "believing" the most likely hypothesis, is easier to address. A probabilistic statement cannot be reduced to a statement of truth or falsity: it is always a fallacy to say, "the probability that X is true is p; therefore, X is true," for any value of p, even 99.999999999%. The best you can ever say is, "The probability that X is true is p." Even this statement is oversimplified; generally even the simplest probabilistic statement has at least two dimensions: "The probability that X is between a and b is p." The fallacy of equivocation between probability and truth is at the heart of the lottery "paradox".

The first component is a little harder to address. In science, we do not just create any old hypotheses and try to assign probabilities to them. Rather, we create two very special kind of hypotheses. The first is the null hypothesis, which hypothesizes that two variables are "related" only by chance; they are independent of each other. The second is the alternative hypothesis, that the two variables are correlated in reality; they are not "related" only by chance.

If, for example, we want to investigate the relationship between the amount of food eaten and the amount of weight gained, we formulate two hypotheses:

  • H0: The amount of food eaten and the amount of weight gained are related only by chance.
  • Ha: The amount of food eaten and the amount of weight gained are correlated in reality.

We do an experiment, measuring the amount of food eaten and the amount of weight gained, and we do magic statistics to calculate a p-value. It is extremely important to understand what the p-value means. The p-value does not represent the probability that either the null or alternate hypothesis are true. Instead, The p-value means if the null hypotheses were true, what is the probability that we would observe the measured values by chance.. And the farther the p-value is from 0.50, the greater the likelihood of rejecting the null hypothesis; both very low (near 0) and very high (near 1) p-values represent the unlikely "tails" of the underlying distribution. If the null hypothesis is true, we should almost always get p-values near 0.5.

There are a lot of different ways you have to set up the analysis of any experiment or observation to get meaningful p-values, and of course the above analysis applies only to hypotheses that can be expressed quantitatively. The underlying philosophy, however, can be applied to qualitative hypotheses. First, the statement must be reducible to a null hypothesis and a mutually exclusive and exhaustive alternative hypothesis. Second, there must be some potential observation that is in some sense "unlikely" were the null hypothesis true. If we actually observe the unlikely potential observation, we have grounds for rejecting the null hypothesis in favor of the alternative hypothesis. If you cannot even qualitatively or abstractly represent an idea in this manner, it is not, in this view, a meaningful statement about the world.

Thus, saying "the probability that God exists is 50%" is not the sort of probability that's meaningful to deciding the question of whether God exists. Instead, I would want to see probabilities like "If God did not exist, the probability of observing X is less than 0.5%; Since we do observe X, we have grounds for rejecting the null hypothesis and accept that God exists."

Keep in mind, however, that testing the null hypothesis like this is only half of the criteria. The null-hypothesis methodology underdetermines the mechanisms of correlation, even when applied piecemeal to the intermediate steps between two variables. Therefore, we also apply Occam's Razor: the alternate hypothesis must also be the simplest way of negating the null hypothesis.

The Fine-Tuning Argument for the existence of God is a good example of a hypothesis that is well-formed by the null/alternate hypothesis criteria, but fails Occam's Razor.

  • H0: The physical constants of the universe are a product of chance.
  • Ha: The physical constants of the universe were "fine-tuned" to allow life to exist.

There is no controversy that as best we presently understand physics, the p-value for the observation that the physical constants of the universe allow life to exist is very low. Precisely how low is a matter of controversy, but there is no controversy but we can assume for the sake of argument [see below] that it is "statistically significant" to at least the 99.9% confidence level, which would be accepted as sufficient evidence to reject the null hypothesis in even the most rigorous study.

However, the alternate hypothesis is not exhaustive (alternate hypotheses are never exhaustive). For example, a low probability, no matter how low, does not entail the impossibility of that event. The "alternate" hypothesis that we just "got lucky" is simpler than another alternate that requires equal or greater luck. And indeed the probability that by chance we got a god who wanted this particular universe is actually lower than the probability that by chance we got this particular universe, because the population of all possible gods exceeds the population of all possible universes governed by physical law.

There are other reasons to reject the Fine Tuning argument, but it is at least meaningfully formed according to the null/alternate hypothesis method.

ETA: Thinking about the issue more carefully, it's actually difficult to draw any solid statistical inferences about physical constants, even if we assume they are in some sense, perhaps metaphysical, randomly distributed. The problem is that we have a sample of size one. The least restrictive assumptions are that each physical constant is randomly distributed, and the physical constants are all mutually independent. Even on those assumptions, the best estimate of the mean, median, and mode of each constant is the value we actually observe. Furthermore, we have no way of estimating what kind of random distribution the (possibly metaphysical) population of each constant follows: the normal distribution is only one kind of random distribution. And even if we assume a normal distribution, a sample size of one gives us no way at all of estimating the variance of the population: the estimate of the variance from one sample divides by zero. So talking about the probability of this particular universe in the population of all possible universes requires assumptions that can be neither theoretically nor empirically justified.

The best we can say is that given there are 20 independent, normally distributed physical constants, the probability is 0.9520 = 0.358 that all the constants we observe in this actual universe are within about two (unknown) standard deviations of the population mean, which is insufficient evidence at even the loosest confidence level to reject the null hypothesis that this universe is unusual. (There would have to be 77 normally distributed physical constants for more than 80% of all possible universes to have even one constant outside of about two standard deviations of the mean.)

However, under all possible assumptions where the same assumptions govern the population of all (perhaps metaphysical) universes and all (perhaps metaphysical) gods, the probability that this particular universe occurred by chance is always higher than the probability that a god who created this possible universe occurred by chance.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I wish my mother had aborted me

I wish my mother had aborted me, by Lynn Beisner.

[N]o one should have to make such a Herculean struggle [as the author's] for simple normalcy. Even given the happiness and success I now enjoy, if I could go back in time and make the choice for my mother, it would be abortion. . . .

It is not easy to say, "I wish my mother had aborted me." The right would have us see abortion as women acting out of cowardice, selfishness, or convenience. But for many women, like my mother, abortion would be an inconvenient act of courage and selflessness. I am sad for both of us that she could not find the courage and selflessness.

Let me add that the idea that the world would have been worse had I or any other individual never been born seems incredibly narcissistic. At least an order of magnitude more potential human beings have never been born than have actually existed, and abortion counts only for a fraction of those never-existing potential people. We have enough trouble maintaining the people we actually have; there's simply no way to manage the rights for all the people we might have had.

(via HumanistLife)

Physics, politics, and religion

In his thoughtful and interesting post, An apology to Atheists, John C. Wright frames the conflict between atheism and theism in a novel way. Wright makes a distinction between "policy" and "political" conflicts. In policy conflicts, where there is some common ground, either in the ends sought or in some process to reconcile conflicting ends, the parties can use the common ground to come to peaceful agreement. In political conflicts, "the two parties differ on the ultimate ends sought," and presumably in contrast to policy conflicts, there is no common agreement "about how to work out a compromise." To the extent that atheists see the conflict between atheism and theism a policy conflict, in a similar sense to how scientists see conflicts over scientific truth as essentially a policy conflict, atheists can avoid Wright's previous charge of the "irresistible temptation to pride and vainglory." Although I commend Wright for his sincere charity, I don't think he has quite grasped how many atheists, especially the New Atheists, actually see the conflict between atheism and theism.

Wright first over-generalizes aspects of some atheists to all atheists. Atheists are people who, for whatever reason or cause, good or bad, do not believe that any God exists. There really isn't any consistent way to generalize much of anything else to all atheists; a lack of one single belief does not entail much else, because it's extremely difficult, probably impossible, to prove that any derived belief can derive from only one particular premise. It's not a big point, because Wright addresses one important variety of atheism, scientific naturalism, but over-generalization can lead to some severe errors.

Although he calls it "atheism," Wright attempts to describe what looks like scientific naturalism.
Atheism is a theological stance. It is a theory of theology, or, rather, of metaphysics which holds first, the that universe is explicable without recourse to any theory of god or gods; and holds, second, that human knowledge proffers no clear evidence of the nature of divine things, whether god is one or many, whether life ends in oblivion, reincarnation, or last judgment; and holds, third, the human conscience and human prudence is sufficient, without recourse to divine spokesmen, to instruct the conscience and human decency sufficient to motivate the will to follow the conscience; and holds, fourth, that no account is logically coherent of an omnipotent god powerless to remove evil from the world nor a benevolent god unwilling to do so; and atheism concludes from this and other reasons that there is no god, and that even if there were, we would owe him no love nor loyalty nor obedience.
I say that Wright describes scientific naturalism because all of the theological or metaphysical premises he ascribes to atheism are conclusions of scientific naturalism. But it is important to note that these are conclusions, not metaphysical premises.

The actual premises of scientific naturalism are simply that we can obtain reliable knowledge about the world using logic and the evidence of our senses according to a specific method, the Scientific Method. Another way of stating this definition is that scientific naturalism metaphysically privileges the Scientific Method and calls its outcome "knowledge." The ontology of scientific naturalism is, therefore, the simplest description of how the world could be to explain and account for the evidence of our senses. Under scientific naturalism, the question of how the world actually is independent of our knowledge of the world is not a meaningful question. Underlying this view are two other metaphysical principles:* that specify the job that any candidate system of knowledge must perform. First a candidate epistemic system must be preference-independent; there must be a rigorous method to resolve any differences of opinion about what we know. Second, it must produce, as far as possible, a specific ontology, a description of the world compatible with only the actual evidence of our senses, not one compatible with a range of evidence. Because the Scientific Method does these jobs, it is a successful epistemic method.

*There are other metaphysical principles about what a candidate system of knowledge ought to do, but they are not immediately relevant.

It is important to understand the meaning of "supernatural" in the context of scientific naturalism. A "supernatural" proposition is not a proposition that specifies an entity or property "outside" the physical world. Instead, A supernatural proposition is a superficially truth-apt statement whose truth or falsity cannot be known. It's not even a proposition that cannot be known by the Scientific Method; it's a proposition that cannot be known by any system of knowledge that meets the meta-epistemic conditions specified by scientific naturalism. Scientific naturalism a priori excludes the "supernatural" only to the extent that we deny that we can have knowledge of a proposition that by definition cannot be known, which seems harmlessly tautological. Scientific naturalism does not automatically exclude any and all theories of knowledge alternative to the Scientific Method. It does exclude a priori those methods which fail to do the meta-epistemic job.

To the extent that the existence of a god can be known, that existence is, in Wright's terminology, a "policy" matter. Scientific naturalism is neutral on the actual existence on such a god: either we know that it exists or we know it does not exist; either way, we must adjust our ontology to fit our knowledge. But of course, according to the Scientific Method, no god exists. (Technically, there is insufficient evidence to reject the null hypothesis that no god exists.) To the extent that theists attempt to privilege alternative epistemic systems, none do the job specified by the meta-epistemology of scientific naturalism. To the extent that theists specify a god that cannot be known, it is incoherent to assert the existence or non-existence of "god"; the proposition "an unknowable god exists" is not even wrong; it's incoherent. How it fails depends on the particular definition, but as yet scientific naturalism fails to justify — and failure to justify is grounds for denial* — the existence of any non-trivial definition of god. All the premises Wright assigns to atheism, as is atheism itself, are conclusions of scientific naturalism.

*Keep in mind that under scientific naturalism, acceptance or rejection of any epistemic or ontological proposition is always provisional. We may reject a proposition one day, and, on additional evidence or more comprehensive theory, accept it the next day.

To the extent that theists frame the existence of a god in purely metaphysical terms, the issue can approach a "political" conflict. Much depends on how much common ground theistic metaphysics retains with the metaphysics of scientific naturalism. Most importantly, is there meta-epistemic common ground? If we disagree not just on a particular epistemic method, but on the job a method must do to be a legitimate epistemic method, then we cannot agree on what we know. It's a much more difficult job to budge scientific naturalism on meta-epistemology than on some particular epistemic method; denying the meta-epistemic criteria will place the denier in what seems to be an irreconcilable conflict with scientific naturalism. We're not, however, going to feel any shame or guilt that other people have irreconcilable conflicts with our metaphysical system.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mises on Rand

You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.

Ludwig von Mises, praising Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

(via Corey Robin)

Libertarianism and democracy

In Equality vs. Freedom, Allen Small paraphrases a speech by Prof. Jan Narveson, Chairman of the Institute for Liberal Studies*. In his paraphrase, Small points to a tension between democracy and morality. Small has some gaps in his paraphrase; I'll do my best to fill in the blanks as charitably as I can. Imagine if it were "decided in a democratic vote (51 to 49) that you should be boiled in oil." You would, Small seems to imply, object to such a vote as immoral. Democracy can therefore, at least in theory, lead to immoral results. Even putting aside the obvious oversimplification (no one has ever proposed any kind of democracy where citizens vote at this level of detail, unmediated by institutions), this argument has a severe logical flaw.

*I didn't hear the speech, and I didn't look for a transcript, so I don't know if Small's paraphrase is accurate. The point, however, is to examine a specific argument, not to try to discredit any individual for making it. I just want to show that I'm not making up the argument out of thin air.

The argument is actually form of a common religious argument: without God, you have no reason to be "moral", therefore you should believe in God so you have a reason to be moral. The argument fails because if you are not already "moral", you need no reason to be so, and the argument is unpersuasive; if you are already moral but don't believe God exists, then, if you are rational, you already have a reason to be moral, and the premise is trivially false. (If you're irrational, rational argument will be unpersuasive.)

The implied argument against democracy above similarly fails. If the majority of the people believe it is acceptable in general to vote on whether individuals should be boiled in oil, then the argument that democracy might lead to individuals being boiled in oil is entirely unpersuasive. On the other hand, if the majority of the people believe it is unacceptable in general to vote on boiling individuals in oil, then they know they would never vote to actually do son, and the premise is false.

This argument is in a critical family of democracy; the argument is that democracy does not find the objective truth. But this criticism makes two controversial presuppositions. The first is that democracy purports to be a method of finding the truth; the second, is that there actually is objective fundamental ethical truth to be found. Longtime readers know that I deny the second presupposition: I argue there is no such thing as objective fundamental ethical truth. On this view, democracy is a process for reconciling competing interests. There is no objective truth about what interests an individual ought to have or not have; there is only the fact of individuals' sometimes competing and sometimes harmonious interests. Democracy is simply one process among many that work to make social decisions based on these diverse interests.

It's also important to note that no one, myself included, advocates democracy divorced from any cultural or institutional framework. Democracy does not entail that every possible decision is simply put to a vote. Rather, we apply democracy at various levels of abstraction, and decisions at higher levels of abstraction are usually implemented through institutions. So, for example, although a majority of people might well vote to suppress some individual with particularly odious views, we can make a democratic decision at a higher level of abstraction to generally preserve freedom of speech, and implement that decision through the institutional framework of constitutions and courts. That we do not decide individual cases by a simple vote is not undemocratic, so long as we have democratically decided on an abstract procedure to decide individual cases.

Finally, some people do need to be "boiled in oil." Not literally, of course, but some people do need to be coerced. I've never seen any anarchist or libertarian say that all coercion needs to be unconditionally eliminated. We need to have some method of determining who gets coerced, under what circumstances, and how far they're pushed. In the end, our only choices are to make these determinations by a majority or a minority. I think I have a better chance with the majority.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

What good is Mars?

Honji is skeptical about the Mars Curiosity mission. It probably won't bring us any information or science we plebes can use in our daily lives. Even if it did, we would probably put that information to reprehensible uses. And the money spent could be put to better uses. But Honji's analysis is too narrow, and his economic reasoning misses the point.

The space program in general is pretty easy to justify. First, the space program has more than paid for itself; it's brought us so much value — from communications satellites to GPS to Tang — that if NASA were a private company they would have earned enough money to spend a few billion dollars painting the NASA logo on the Moon. And, if you'll excuse the terrible pun, curiosity is its own reward; the day we stop being curious about the world around us, over and above what we need to find our next meal, our next safe place to sleep, and our next fuck, is the day we lose an important part of what makes us human. But a thousand other skeptics and science geeks could address the proximate value of Curiosity better than I could. Instead of extolling the virtues of Curiosity, I want to look at the project as an economist.

Honji complains that Curiosity will cost "two and half billion dollars" (which I can't help but hear in Dr. Evil's voice)*. That sounds like a lot, but for an economy the size of the United States, it's chump change. Our GDP is about $14 trillion dollars, that's $14 thousand billion dollars. Assuming all Curiosity, therefore, cost 2.6/14000, i.e. a little less than 0.02% of our national economy. In comparison, 0.02% of the 2010 median household income of $45800 is $9.7, about the cost of a movie ticket. It's also almost exactly what I earn in an hour. If Honji is concerned about the cost, I'll be happy to contribute an extra hour's pay to cover his cost, and I'll generously let him use GPS without calling him a hypocrite. Indeed, I'll contribute ten hours' pay to cover me and nine other chintzy bastards.

*According to Thom Patterson at, the cost is $2.6 billion.

More importantly, Honji claims the money could be better spent elsewhere, such as universal healthcare and housing the homeless. In this sense, Honji is thinking about the economy exactly as the capitalist ruling class would like him to think. The truth is that, never mind the triviality of NASA's entire $17+ billion budget, not even the outright waste of substantial labor and natural resources (e.g. the Iraq war, almost two hundred military bases around the world, and all the other costs of maintaining our Imperial prestige) prevents us from having universal health care and decent housing. The reason we do not have universal health care is not that it "too expensive" in any meaningful economic sense. The reason we do not have universal health care is that we as a society have decided that poor people do not deserve health care. We have homeless people because we as a society have decided that extremely poor people, including many people with severe mental illness, do not deserve to have a place to live. We have more than 8% unemployment because we as a society have decided that millions of people do not deserve to contribute their labor to society, and it is only squeamishness that prevents us from just turning them into Soylent Green. Our social ills are not in any sense economic; they are entirely moral and political. We have the society we choose, not the society that the natural world forces on us.

We cannot be limited by money itself. Money itself is a pure abstraction, a pure social construction. Money is not itself physical; at best, money represents something physical. It represents the constraints on our economic activity: we can't do everything, so we use money in a complex system to decide what we want to do. In theory, we are limited by only three things: the amount of various kinds of physical stuff (iron, germanium, carbon, water, etc.) that has been stored by nature in the Earth and in the Solar System; the amount of physical energy available to us; and the amount of human labor available. In practice, however, none of those things actually limit us. Excluding oil, we have enough stuff stored in just the Earth to last us centuries, and there are orders of magnitude more stuff waiting for us in the Solar System. We don't need oil for energy; we have again orders of magnitude more free energy falling on the Earth every year as sunlight than all the oil, coal, and natural gas in the ground. And we have not come anywhere near to harnessing the labor available from the people who currently inhabit the Earth.

In practice, the only limitations that money represents are the limits imposed by our will and imagination. We can have globally universal health care, globally universal decent housing, globally universal food security, globally universal education, and, if we were to choose to do so, we could have them in less than a decade, the time it would take to sort out the details. We do not do so not because we cannot, but because we choose not.

Fundamentally, Honji shows the attitude of the capitalist ruling class. The capitalist ruling class would like us to believe that scraps are all there is, and the best the mass of humanity can do is fight over them. This is a lie. Like Honji, the capitalist ruling class believes that the mass of humanity does not deserve greatness; indeed we do not deserve even dignity or security, and it would be a crime against justice to provide it to us.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (challenging edition)

the stupid! it burns!

A big honkin' pile of stupid today.

Challenging the New Atheists:
The new atheists allege that faith in God is the result of irrational thinking and that a rational person would not believe in God. . . .

However, Christianity is not founded on “blind faith” but faith built upon evidence, and there are good reasons that make belief in God a reasonable conclusion. One significant individual who has come to believe in the existence of God is Antony Flew. Flew was this generation’s greatest atheist philosopher. However, Flew, through philosophical reasoning, came to believe in God.
See Antony Flew Considers God...Sort Of, Antony Flew's Bogus Book, etc. It's a fallacy of argument from authority, using a poor authority, and Flew never even became a Christian.
Flew states that he wrestled with three key, major scientific questions. First, how did the laws of nature come to be? Second, how did life come from non-life? Third, how did the universe come into existence? The naturalists’ answers, which are heavily dependent on Darwin’s theory, were unsatisfactory.
Darwin's theory!? <facepalm>

The new atheists allege that science and faith are at war. Therefore real scientists must be atheists, for science clearly proves God does not exist. . . .

Richard Dawkins believes Darwin’s theory answers the design argument. However, recent discoveries reveal the shortcomings of Darwin’s theory. Darwin’s theory fails to explain the cause of the universe. It also fails to present evidence that that life came from non-life. There is also the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, and there is no mechanism for macro-evolutionary change.
<facep...> ah... Let's just push on.

The new atheist movement asserts that religion is dangerous, for it is the source of much of the conflict in the world today. Many assert that religions, especially Christianity, teach intolerance and discrimination. To build their case, however, the new atheists unfortunately attack misrepresentations of religions, especially Christianity.

For example, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins states, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” What Dawkins displays is his superficial understanding of the Bible. Certainly no Christian believes in a God as described by Dawkins.

Zukeran achieves fractal stupidity!

Another error is the misuse of labels. New atheists apply the term “fundamentalist” to Evangelical Christians as well as fundamentalist Muslims, creating the illusion the two are equivalent in their teachings. . . .

A careful reading of the New Testament quickly reveals that violence goes against the nature of Christ’s teachings who taught His disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Mt. 5:38-48). Application of the true teachings of Christ would lead to a peaceful society.
Then why do so many Christians, including most religious institutions, seem incapable of this "careful reading"?

A significant point that the new atheists do not mention is the destructive consequences of atheist philosophies. Nietzsche predicted that the death of God would lead to a moral relativism which would result in blood in the streets. Communism has lead to the death of millions in the twentieth century. Millions were put to death under the regimes of Marx, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung.
Marx's regime? Howls of derisive laughter, Bruce!

According to Zukeran, in his 19th century book, The Golden Bough, James Fraser
taught that religion developed through a natural evolutionary process which began first with animism, a belief in spirits in nature. The worship of nature spirits eventually lead to polytheism. Eventually, amongst all the gods, one was viewed as the most dominant. Eventually this dominant god alone was worshipped and monotheism developed. This was known as the evolutionary theory of religion. New atheists believe eventually man’s need for God will end and atheism will be the end of this evolutionary development. Unfortunately, the new atheists once again are not presenting a new theory but reiterating an old theory which has been shown to be flawed. . . .

[But] Dr. Wilhelm Schmidt in his four-thousand-page treatise, The Origin and Growth of Religion. . . . revealed that monotheism is the oldest of religions. The development of religion was discovered to have gone in the opposite direction of the evolutionary theory. All cultures began with a belief in a heavenly father, and this monotheistic faith eventually degenerates to polytheism and then animism.
According to Wikipedia, however,
By the 1950s, the hypothesis of primitive ethical monotheism was rejected by the academic establishment, so its proponents of Schmidt's "Vienna school" rephrased it to the effect that while ancient cultures may not have known "true monotheism", they at least show evidence for "original theism" (Ur-Theismus, as opposed to non-theistic animism), with a concept of Hochgott ("High God", as opposed to Eingott "Single God"). Christian apologetics in the light of this have moved away from postulating a "memory of revelation" in pre-Christian religions, replacing it with an "inkling of redemption" or virtuous paganism unconsciously anticipating monotheism " (Urmonotheismus).

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (Neville Chamberlain edition)

the stupid! it burns! Why I Think The New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster (via R. Joseph Hoffmann)

Richard Dawkins, in his best selling The God Delusion, likens me to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser of Hitler at Munich. Jerry Coyne reviewed one of my books (Can a Darwinian be a Christian?) using the Orwellian quote that only an intellectual could believe the nonsense I believe in. And non-stop blogger P. Z. Myers has referred to be as a “clueless gobshite.” This invective is all because, although I am not a believer, I do not think that all believers are evil or stupid, and because I do not think that science and religion have to clash. [emphasis added]
Um, no. The invective is all because you spinelessly appease the religious, write nonsense, and actually are a clueless gobshite. Either address the substance of the criticism or reproduce it and show that it is without substance.

Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing.
Dawkins would also make a lousy Catholic priest. So what? It doesn't matter whether or not Dawkins would fail an intro to philosophy course. He's not doing philosophy. He makes arguments, and philosophers have no monopoly on argument; in my experience, philosophers are especially good only at making especially bad arguments.

Now we get to the real stupidity.

Secondly, I think* that the new atheists are doing terrible political damage to the cause of Creationism fighting.
What damage? Point to the actual damage being done.

*I work as a writing tutor. When I see the phrase "I think" (or its cognates) in a paper, I get the heebie-jeebies. We know the whole paper is what you think; your name's at the top. Do you just think it, or do you think it's true? If the latter, take out the weasel words.

We are not fighting Creationism. We are fighting religion. We are fighting superstition. We are fighting lies and bullshit. We are fighting for the truth, and we are unwilling to sacrifice one truth for another. Indeed, the charge that we must sacrifice one truth for another is precisely why we believe accommodationists like Ruse are indeed spineless appeasers; indeed to compare them to Chamberlain is an insult to Chamberlain.

Americans are religious people.
We know. We want that to change.

Survey after survey shows that most American Christians (and Jews and others) fall in the middle on social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as on science.
We don't want them to fall in the middle. We want them to fall on the correct side.

They want to be science-friendly.
I don't think they do. I think they want science to be religion-friendly. It's not.

We have got to show [religious people] that Darwinism is their friend not their enemy.
But it's not. We would have to lie to them to show it's friendly.

And criticizing good men like Francis Collins, accusing them of fanaticism, is just not going to do the job.
First, who accuses Collins of fanaticism? I've seen accusations that he has many anti-scientific beliefs. More importantly, the only way it should be wrong to accuse Collins of fanaticism would be if he were not actually a fanatic, i.e. if it were not actually true. Saying that we should not accuse Collins of fanaticism because that would hurt some cause or another betrays a casual attitude towards the truth that New Atheists find profoundly objectionable.

And now Ruse breaks a stupid meter.

If teaching “God exists” is teaching religion – and it is – then why is teaching “God does not exist” not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment.

Ruse accuses Dawkins of failing Intro to Philosophy, but Ruse here (despite the numerous times his error has been noted) badly fails Intro to Constitutional Law. Even if it were absolutely true that science implied God did not exist, it would not be a violation of the First Amendment to teach science in the school. It would be a violation only to make the implication explicit. Although recent Supreme Court decisions have strayed a bit, the Lemon Test is still the best guide to compliance with the First Amendment. Teaching science and evolution has a clear secular purpose, it does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion (by definition, an implication is a secondary effect), and it does not result in an "excessive government entanglement" in religion. If Ruse wants to show us actual evidence, I'd like to see it, but absent such evidence, Ruse's utterly inept attempt at legal reasoning notwithstanding, there's no reason to believe the teaching of evolution faces any serious First Amendment challenge.

Furthermore, it's far too broad to assert that "science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist," even as a conditional. Neither "God exists" nor "God does not exist" are meaningful propositions, because "God" is too equivocal to stand alone as a meaningful concept. And because "God" is a religious term, it is arbitrarily definable; other than blatantly self-contradictory definitions, there is no such thing as an illegitimate or invalid definition of "God". All that science generally and evolution specifically can do is imply that certain definitions of "God" — e.g. "God is the sort of being who created human beings out of dust and ribs about 6000 years ago" — contradict scientific knowledge. That's all that the New Atheists or anyone else have ever argued. We argue, of course, that science generally and evolution specifically contradict more "sophisticated" conceptions of God (e.g. Collins' and Ken Miller's belief that God is the sort of being who directs evolution), and the New Atheists argue that of all the various religious beliefs, atheism is the one most compatible with scientific knowledge. The general principle, that science shows that some religious beliefs contradict scientific knowledge, is uncontroversial (Ruse himself believes, one hopes, that Creationism contradicts science); the only controversy is which religious beliefs are or are not in contradiction. The idea that some religious contradictions of science are privileged, and we should ignore the science or just not talk about the contradiction to preserve science from a First Amendment challenge is nonsense.

Most importantly, it is reprehensible that Ruse should demand that we should not argue that science contradicts religion just because it is hurting his or any other cause. The only legitimate grounds against a position is that it is not true. If it were true that science absolutely and definitely proved that God does not exist, then so much the worse for God. If the First Amendment would then prohibit the teaching of science, so much worse for the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not holy writ, it is a tool created by human beings to solve specific human political problems that existed in 1789. It seems to have held up well in the subsequent 240-odd years, but it it turns out today or tomorrow to be harmful, then we will have to reconsider it. Fortunately it usually does not — the men who wrote the Constitution were pretty clever — but the New Atheists will not let even the Constitution interfere with the search for truth.

If Ruse wants to argue that the New Atheists are mistaken, let him argue that. It's going to take more than one argument — we New Atheists obstinately insist on looking at issues deeply and from all sides — but that kind of an argument, if made competently, should not earn the advocate any opprobrium. Indeed, Ruse and those like him earn our indignation not because he disagrees with us, but for two more important reasons. First, Ruse's arguments are, as seen in this article, hopelessly incompetent. More importantly, the argument that the New Atheists should not hurt his cause clearly implies that the truth of our arguments is irrelevant. To be indifferent to the truth entails more than just accommodationism, to the extent that he considers himself an ally of science, it implies treason.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

More problems with Catholicism

In his comments theObserver has some interesting points to make on Longenecker and Heschmeyer's ideas about philosophy and Catholic theology. I have slightly edited the comments for style and formatting.

The Roman Catholic church asserts atheists do not understand Catholicism; that "liberal" theology is responsibly for a breakdown in the indoctrination - sorry - the catechizing of children; that once we fully understand the true teaching of the Church, we will all fall on our knees before the Pope.

The whole debate centres on the primacy of epistemology vs ontology. The thought the church pillaged from the classical philosophers was primary ontology in nature: what things exist and what is their nature. Epistemology was always secondary and usually boiled down to "because we said so" or "it's a mystery." Thomas Aquinas and his Five Ways are largely ontological and drawn from Aristotle.

But the entire foundations of the Greek-Christian worldview collapsed during the scientific revolution when the sheer scale of the mistakes in the Aristotelian-derived understanding of the natural universe became apparent. The switch from ontology to epistemology then is best understood as an attempt to fix the mistakes of the past, and we are therefore justified in dismissing the ontology-based arguments of Thomas Aquinas (who continues to have a greater influence on the Roman Church that biblical Jesus) as invalid. Heschmeyer claims that "no atheist has satisfactorily rebutted [Aquinas' five ways] arguments," but what is there to rebut? Aquainas claimed knowledge about the nature of the universe that he simply could not have. Heschmeyer offers no argument why we should even take the time to read the Five Ways, let alone treat it seriously. Even if we accept logical proof for the existence of God(s), we end up with polytheism which, let's be honest, no one really cares about because the conflict is, as noted in Larry's earlier post, primarily political.

Catholics and other Christian sects have no method of epistemology whatsoever and therefore must resort to medieval ontology, which we are then expected to take seriously. Catholics can only settle disputes by appealing to the authority of the Pope and through coercing dissenting voices into silence, a process currently underway in traditional strongholds of Catholic power. The entire history of the Christian church is of debates settled by force, political expediency, or blind chance.

But of course, it's easier for the priests and bullshit artists to whine about Logical Positivism than to deal with their lack of sound epistemology; that a large part of their scholastic traditional is by post-enlightenment (even post-romantic standards) nearly completely worthless, deserving only a footnote in a history of science textbook. Priests can sneer, but the burden is on the church to explain why their ontology-based scholastic traditional is worth engaging with, not least because if accepted, it leads to a huge shift in how we treat gender equality, reproduction, homosexuals, other species, free speech, artistic freedom and so on.

Most atheists are willing to accept that science is not the only form of knowledge, that film, art, literature, etc. have lessons to teach too. But these forms of art are highly subjective - it's the meeting point of an individual mind and an external text. That is to say, I might relate to a piece of fiction and learn from the thoughts and actions of a character while the same passage may be meaningless to another.

Interestingly, most atheists are happy to accept this subjectivity, but most of the religious people I have spoken with are not. Religious people seem to like their rules and their regulations, and they have a general problem accepting subjectivity and pluralism of thought and experience in matters other than claiming religious experiences. It was Aquinas after all who produced entire volumes detailing hierarchies of thought crimes and "unnatural" acts along with their appropriate punishment. Yet Catholics frequently accuse atheists of crude reductionism.

In Europe we are heading into a "year of faith," a year long, European-wide saturated marketing campaign paid for by the Roman church and aimed at revitalizing its brand and increasing its political power. And that largely sums up the Roman church - a glorified political party asserting knowledge it simply cannot have while whoring itself through the same manipulation techniques used to sell soft drinks and cars.

The problems with Catholicism

In Problems with the New Atheists, Catholic priest Fr. Dwight Longenecker argues that the New Atheists do not understand Catholicism. Longenecker argues that opposition to Catholicism is substantially influenced both by a history of Protestant prejudice against Catholics, as well as criticism against "shallow Protestantism" that does not apply to Catholicism. Longenecker then asserts that atheists do not follow the correct "methodology of discussion about God," referencing Joe Heschmeyer's "four questions": the meaning of God, Biblical literalism, scientism, and religious violence. Finally, Longenecker places the burden of proof squarely on the New Atheists: "Should we expect an atheist to do all this work and take all this risk? I think so. After all, the atheists who are on the attack are coming into 'our' territory." Therefore, the New Atheist criticism of Catholicism is at least misguided, and perhaps somewhat irrational. Of course, Longenecker goes wrong on every point.

(skip to the short version)

Longenecker's complaint of bias is a red herring. It's probably overstated; the atheists I know or read (and I know and read a lot of them) don't seem to have any special bias or prejudice against Catholics. I myself was baptized a Catholic, and I didn't have any particular antipathy towards religious people until I started talking to them about religion about 12 or 13 years ago. But even if he were absolutely correct, so what? The rational person does not eliminate bias before rationally examining a position, she eliminates bias by rationally examining a position. Indeed, a rational person holds the view that her intuitions are suspect, and she looks carefully to disprove them. Rational argument stands up on its own; finding prior bias does not affect the intrinsic merit of the arguments at all. Longenecker's assertion of bias is therefore irrelevant; let him examine the arguments.

In Misunderstanding God: Where Atheists Go Wrong in Opposing Christianity Joe Heschmeyer explores only two of his "four questions" in any depth: scientism and the definition of God. Indeed, the idea that atheists believe that "religion is invariably violent" is nonsensical on its face, and the focus on biblical literalism is, as I'll discuss below, primarily political. But even on these two points, Heschmeyer, whom Longnecker relies on, fails to make a substantive case against atheists.

The philosophical debate about "scientism" is not only complicated, it is obfuscated to a degree that emerges from philosophers arguing with theologians, two professions that seem to consider obfuscation to be their primary product, can sum up. So let me sum up. In its most broad sense, "science" just means "knowing," so "science is the only way of knowing" is a tautology. In a more restricted sense, "science" means a particular methodology, the Scientific Method, broadly conceived. Broadly conceived (i.e. the simplest theoretical system to explain observed phenomena), "science" encompasses experimental science, historical investigation, the legal process, as well as our prosaic, day-to-day knowledge about the world. The philosophical charge against scientism usually rests on an equivocation fallacy between the broad sense of relation to observation and the narrow sense of one particular set of techniques to relate statements to experiments (usually double-blind clinical experiments), a fallacy that Heschmeyer indulges at length.

According to Heschmeyer, "Since the claim that all truth must be scientifically provable is not itself scientifically provable, it’s self-refuting (by the claim’s own standard, it renders itself false)." But Heschmeyer is rehashing Logical Positivism, a philosophical position abandoned almost a century ago. The modern epistemology of science starts not with Logical Positivism but with Popper's falsificationism. According to Popper, a statement that is not disprovable by observation is not a statement about the world. Accordingly, because the statement, "The Scientific Method (broadly conceived) provides knowledge," is not disprovable by observation, it is not a statement about the world. It is a metaphysical statement. Popper, and most modern philosophers, do not condemn metaphysics; we want to clearly separate metaphysics, statements about how we investigate the world, from statements about the world itself. Much philosophical work has been done since Popper, of course; for example, philosophers generally consider the theory instead of the statement to be the testable unit, and we have completely rewritten Popper's deficient ideas about probabilism. We have more sophisticated problems today, but the obvious philosophical problems that Heschmeyer discusses were solved long ago.

Perhaps unintentionally, Heschmeyer is perpetrating a Kansas City Shuffle: he wants to distract us with the claim that atheists reject history as "unscientific" to draw attention away from his claim that there is good historical evidence for the existence of God. But regardless of the scientific status of historical investigation, Heschmeyer's naive confidence in the historical evidence is misguided. Whether the historical evidence supports the actuality of an event that even appeared to be a resurrection is in considerable doubt. The scholarly record is extensive, from both atheist and theist historians, and opinion, both of atheists and theists, is divided.

*As opposed to anthropological/sociological sense of history as the construction of narratives to establish the traditional legitimacy of cultural elements.

Indeed, Heschmeyer double-fakes us, because in the sense of history as the determination of what really happened in the past*, history cannot even address, much less "prove," the existence of God. After going on at length about the support provided by the historical evidence, Heschmeyer waffles on whether evidence is even applicable:
One of the best indicators of this confusion is the repeated demand for “evidence” of God’s existence, by which my interlocutors typically mean some kind of scientifically verifiable trace of this elusive and most likely mythological being. My attempts to tell them that the Creator of the entire universe cannot be, by definition, an object within the universe are met, usually, with complete incomprehension.
But it's not just a matter of finding "traces"; Heschmeyer's conception of God is not falsifiable: the existence of God is a purely metaphysical issue, not a matter of scientific knowledge.

Evaluating metaphysics is much trickier than evaluating scientific concepts: what standards do we use? The establishment of standards is itself a metaphysical concept. Heschmeyer tells us that religious people "understand religion to be objectively true, as true as '3 x 3 = 9'"; it is not like "having a favorite color: that is, a subjective claim, and a matter of mere personal preference." But what does Heschmeyer mean by "objectively true"? Is having an opinion about what is objectively true substantively different from just having an opinion? These are complicated metaphysical questions that (perhaps fortunately) neither Heschmeyer nor Longnecker explore.

Neither Heschmeyer nor Longnecker answer two crucial questions. How do they know "[their] religion to be objectively true, as true as '3 x 3 = 9'"? And what might they mean by knowing itself? They reject falsificationism, fair enough. But what do they offer in its place? They construct an idea that cannot be proven wrong by any conceivable observation, and then they demand belief because it cannot be proven wrong. All the while rejecting the infinity of alternative unfalsifiable beliefs because... well, just because.

But the philosophical "struggle" is completely beside the point. First, philosophy (with few exceptions) and theology (without exception) are completely useless endeavors. It need not be so, but professional academic philosophers have turned the field into nothing more than an academic circle-jerk, and the money we spend on philosophical academia can be justified only in that it keeps philosophers and theologians from getting in the way of grown-ups who have work to do. More importantly, the philosophical battle for theism was lost more than two thousand years ago with Epicurus and Socrates. The entire philosophical and theological struggle since then has been to hide this utter philosophical defeat. (Which may be one reason philosophy has constructed itself into irrelevance.)

tl;dr Version

The fundamental struggle is not philosophical, it's political. Religions assert political power, authority and privilege. They claim a private, superior position to tell us what is good and bad. They claim an historically enormous and presently substantial portion of our wealth and labor. In extremis, they claim the right to ignore democratic law and the authority of the state to protect members of religious institutions who break those laws. No atheist cares that people such as Heschmeyer and Longnecker want to engage in philosophical twiddle-twaddle in the privacy of their own homes and churches. We do, however, care that they want to rule us. I don't believe that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church wants to rape our children, but they do want — indeed they must have, if they are truly to be rulers — the right to rape our children; it is incoherent that the rulers should ever, under any circumstances, be answerable to the ruled.

We reject that rule. Utterly. Completely. As long as they seek to rule, we will oppose them. We will oppose them with philosophy. We will oppose them with argument. We will oppose them with mockery and ridicule. And, when necessary, we will oppose them with the legitimate authority of the civil, democratic state.

Friday, August 03, 2012

It's all about "insurance"

Trade-offs between inequality, productivity, and employment
I think there is a tradeoff between inequality and full employment that becomes exacerbated as technological productivity improves. This is driven by the fact that the marginal benefit humans gain from current consumption declines much more rapidly than the benefit we get from retaining claims against an uncertain future.

Wealth is about insurance much more than it is about consumption. As consumers, our requirements are limited. But the curve balls the universe might throw at us are infinite. If you are very wealthy, there is real value in purchasing yet another apartment in yet another country through yet another hopefully-but-not-certainly-trustworthy native intermediary. There is value in squirreling funds away in yet another undocumented account, and not just from avoiding taxes. Revolutions, expropriations, pogroms, these things do happen. These are real risks. Even putting aside such dramatic events, the greater the level of consumption to which you have grown accustomed, the greater the threat of reversion to the mean, unless you plan and squirrel very carefully. Extreme levels of consumption are either the tip of an iceberg or a transient condition. Most of what it means to be wealthy is having insured yourself well. ...

Distribution is the core of the problem we face. I’m tired of arguments about tools. Both monetary and fiscal policy can be used in ways that magnify or diminish existing dispersions of wealth. On the fiscal side, income tax rate reductions tend to magnify wealth and income dispersion while transfers or broadly targeted expenditures diminish it. On the monetary side, inflationary monetary policy diminishes dispersion by transferring wealth from creditors to debtors, while disinflationary policy has the opposite effect. Interventions that diminish wealth and income dispersion are the ones that contribute most directly to employment and total output. But they impose risks on current winners in the race for insurance.

(via Buce)

Economics in a nutshell

A Desert Island Recession