Monday, February 17, 2014

So you're not a New Atheist

Thomas Wells Is not a [New] Atheist. So what? I go to all the meetings, and I don't recall that we asked him to join. Wells lists a number of complaints against the New Atheists, most of which are specious or have little or nothing to do with our project. Protip: If you're going to criticize a group for holding incorrect views, it is helpful to actually cite the actual expression of those incorrect views. Just looking at the article, a reader has no idea whether Wells is accurately representing our views or simply pulling straw men out of his ass. And I don't know what to make of someone who publicly expresses his view that publicly expressing our views is somehow disreputable. If religion is not "worthy of rational dissent," and if New Atheists are, as he says, religious, why does he (try to) rationally dissent from our views?

Rather than fisk this terrible post, which verges on libel, let me offer the perspective of a self-identified New Atheist, one who has been a part of the atheist and New Atheist movements since the beginning of the millenium.

First, atheism is not an organization. There are many atheist, humanist, non- and anti-theist organizations, but there is no overarching organization that in any way controls the message or the membership. The only conclusion you can draw about someone who calls him- or herself an atheist is that he or she:
  1. Probably does not believe that any god(s) really exist
  2. Chooses to call him- or herself an atheist
That's really it. Other than that all atheists will probably reject as invalid any statement of the form "God exists, therefore ...," there are no other valid generalizations one can actually make about people who call themselves atheists. And if you don't want to call yourself an atheist, don't. That doesn't offend us in the least.

The New Atheists are only slightly more restrictive. To be a New Atheist, you must:
  1. Call yourself an atheist as above
  2. Publicly criticize religion or endorse the public criticism of religion
  3. Choose to call yourself a New Atheist
Again, no organization, no formal membership, no party line. You do not have to even like the "four horsemen" — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens — nor the host of other prominent writers, e.g. Stengler, Myers, Coyne, Cline, Marcott, Namazie, to be a New Atheist. (Indeed, a lot of us find Harris shallow, Hitchens glib and sexist, and their views objectionably justifying or endorsing neocolonialism.) So again, the only conclusions that one can draw about all New Atheists is that we are willing to criticize the social, cultural, and legal role — outrageous privilege, really — of organizations, institutions, and ideologies that are uncontroversially religious, such as the Catholic church.

And again, if you do not want to publicly criticize religion, nor actively endorse the public criticism of religion, then don't. We will yet again take no offense; we do not insist that everyone join us. We ask only that if you agree with our project, stand out of our way.

As far as I know, no New Atheist supports "scientism," in any reasonable sense, including Pigliucci's*:
a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding. (144)
What we do is fundamentally different: we see that many religious people make claims about the real world, and we apply a tool, scientific thinking, broadly conceived, to criticize those claims. We do not say that scientific thinking is the only tool to criticize religion (Only two of the "four horsemen," Harris and Dawkins are scientists; Dennett is a professional philosopher and Hitchens was a journalist.) We do not say that say that scientific thinking is the only way to criticize religion. We do, however, say that scientific thinking is one very effective way to criticize religion. The proof is in the pudding: I personally know many formerly religious people who became irreligious precisely because they saw a irreconcilable conflict between religion and scientific thinking.

*Pigliucci's definition of scientism seems eminently reasonable; it is his charge that New Atheists actually embrace this definition of scientism that is unreasonable.

The philosophical idea that science is the only possible form of knowledge depends on the definition of "knowledge." If knowledge is defined as anything we can come to common agreement about, then science is obviously not the only form of knowledge; we do not need to make a single observation to all agree that according to Peano Arithmetic or Set Theory, two plus two equals four. If we define knowledge as true statements about the real world, scientific thinking, broadly defined, seems the only way at present to gain knowledge. But that's a practical observation, not a philosophical position. Science works to understand the real world, and we use it; if you find something else that actually works, by all means, send me the link.

Although I reject scientism, I must yes, we New Atheists talk about God a lot, and we have negative beliefs about God. That's part and parcel of criticizing religion. In much the same sense, Democrats talk a lot about Republicans (and vice-versa), and communists talk a lot about capitalism (and vice-versa), and every good persuasive college essay addresses opposing views.

But yes, like almost every non-trivial statement, the New Atheists seek to persuade. If persuasion is itself objectionable, why pick on us? and why seek to persuade us to shut up? Persuasion is a completely normal human activity, and is not intrinsically religious.

We have a project: to erase the social, cultural, ethical, and legal privileges of individuals, organizations, institutions, and ideologies claim because they claim private knowledge about what God wants. If you do not believe that such institutions etc. actually exist, you are a fool. If you are uninterested in whether or not they should have privilege, then you're free to ignore both religion and New Atheism, just as I am free to ignore, and choose to ignore, literary criticism of Medieval French poetry. If you oppose religious institutions but think some New Atheists are doing it "wrong," then go out and do it "right" as you see fit (and please don't have the naked hypocrisy of accusing us of dogmatism for failing to follow your party line). If you think some specific criticism of religion is mistaken, then by all means cite, quote, and summarize the original work, and send me the link: if you're right, I'll change my views; if you're wrong, you should welcome the correction, n'est-ce pas?

But if you want to criticize the New Atheists for positions we manifestly do not hold, you are lying or negligently repeating a lie. And if you want to criticize the New Atheist — and only the New Atheists — for speaking publicly with the intention of persuasion, without criticizing literally everyone else on the planet who has, you know, an actual opinion, then you are trying to defend religion. And you are defending religion dishonestly: if you want to defend religion, then defend it directly.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Introduction to Macroeconomics: Feudalism and capitalism

Before capitalism, the dominant relation of production was the feudal system.

In a feudal system, households [shown above as circles with H] are largely self-sufficient. They grow and eat their own food, manufacture and wear their own clothing, build, maintain and occupy their own houses and barns, etc. There's some specialization — carpenters, blacksmiths, tinkers, doctors, priests, etc. — some inter-household trade, and some international trade, but by and large small groups of people, households and villages, are economically self-sufficient, and households produce surpluses of food.

Any time you have surpluses (wealth), you have mean people with weapons trying to take that surplus by force. The feudal nobility existed (or so they claimed) to protect households from bad guys who wanted to come and steal their stuff. To protect households, you need men with heavy armor and weapons, and big strong horses. Knights owned land, and collected part of the surplus — rent — to feed people who would create and maintain the armor, and feed the horses. You also need someone to coordinate all these knights and command them in battle. So you have feudal lords (barons, dukes, etc.) and all their advisors, teachers, servants, etc., all of whom need to be fed, so the feudal lords also collected part of the surplus.

The most important (from an economist's perspective) is that absent international trade, a feudal economy doesn't need money. During the feudal period, landowners who collected rent in money did poorly; those who collected rent in kind — specific amounts of grain, meat, wool, etc. — did much better. But just looking at the diagram, everything flows one way; there are no complex interactions to manage. You just send a wagon to each household, demand a load of grain and some sheep and cows, and drive the wagons to the knight's house. Easy.

Self sufficiency is nice, but it's economically limiting. We can produce more (than an agricultural economy) if people specialize. More importantly, the invention of steam engine technology in the late 18th century (James Watt invents the first practical steam engine in 1781) made specialization and mass production economically possible. By the middle of the 19th century, we had a new relation of production: market capitalism.

(The transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism takes about 200 years, with the intermediate stage of mercantilism. Sadly, I don't have the time to delve into the interesting, complicated details.)

Instead of self-sufficient households, we have specialized firms (businesses). Firms obtain land (L), labor (N), and capital (K), from households, each firm produces a specialized good or service, and all these goods and services are distributed to households.

This arrangement produces a problem: the problem of distribution. How do we know how much land, labor, and capital to distribute to each firm? How do we know how many goods and services to distribute to each household? And remember, no one is really "planning" how to change the relations of production; all of this stuff is evolving from individuals making individual decisions. What emerges from all of these individuals is the market system, which uses money to allocate land, labor, and capital to firms, and goods and services to households.

In this model, some households supply labor (N) to the market and receive money wages (\$w), other households supply capital (K), i.e. machinery, tools, buildings, etc. to the market and receive rent (\$r), and other households (not shown) supply land (L) and receive rent (\$t). Households then obtain goods and services (G&S) from the market, and pay a price (\$P) times the quantity of goods and services they obtain (Q). Firms obtain land, labor, and capital (L, N, K) from the market and pay wages and rent (\$w & r). They use those resources to create goods and services, which they supply to the market at a specific price and quantity. In this model, the real economy and the monetary economy flow in opposite directions. You have to have money, because the market is a feedback system, and a feedback system requires something that is fed back. When we add money to our earlier diagram, we get the basic circular flow diagram:

To sum up: Feudalism is a (mostly) one-way system: households grow food, eat some, and send the surplus up the hierarchy, where it is eventually eaten. Capitalism is a circulating system: land, labor, and capital circulate to firms, and goods and services circulate to households; in the opposite direction, money circulates to households in the form of wages and rent, and then circulates to firms in the form of purchases. Understanding this circular flow is the essence of macroeconomics.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Alvin Plantinga on atheism

In Is Atheism Irrational (mentioned by 3quarksdaily who appear to have a real beef against atheism), Gary Gutting interviews Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga on the philosophical status of atheism. Plantinga's arguments for the irrationality of atheism, which he defines as "the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions." Plantinga's critiques of atheism, however, are at best weak and sometimes fallacious.

Plantinga first asserts that most philosophers, even believers, reject the traditional theistic arguments for the existence of God as unsound. Plantinga, however, claims that merely the failure of these arguments does not provide sufficient grounds for atheism. Gutting mentions Plantinga's argument that the question of theism is similar to the question as to whether there are an even or odd number of stars in the universe. Plantinga believes this similarity is better than Russell's Teapot because we have "a great deal of evidence against teapotism," albeit indirect, whereas we have no evidence for or against the evenness of the number of stars. Hence, the proper response is agnosticism rather than atheism. However, Plantinga fails on a number of counts here.

First, he misrepresents Russell's argument. Russell adds to his argument, "But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved [by direct observation], it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense." Russell is not talking about an abstract question of epistemology, but addressing the assertion of social and cultural privilege on the basis of unfalsifiable propositions.

Second, the even-number-of-stars (ENS) analogy fails to capture the scope and character of religious belief. ENS is a very simple, prosaic, even trivial proposition that has no implications at all on the character of the universe; there is no indirect evidence we could use to adduce any probability other than 50%. Religion is not so simple nor prosaic. Does Plantinga really want to claim that religion is as simple, prosaic, and trivial as ENS, without any conceivable indirect consequences?

Finally, the strict distinction Plantinga makes between agnosticism and atheism is a straw man. As Russell elaborates, "I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla." Russell, like many other atheists, consider atheism not a philosophical position but a practical position. Atheism need only be philosophical agnosticism applied to positive claims made without evidence.

Plantinga goes on to say,
I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.
Let's try to take this statement apart. Plantinga sharply distinguishes arguments on the one hand, and experience or sensation on the other hand. According to Plantinga, belief in God rests on the same foundation as "belief in other minds, or belief in the past," none of which require argument to believe.

Plantinga seems to be using "argument" in more restricted sense than the common definition as "a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition." We can easily create arguments based on experience; science is nothing but arguments from experience. Plantinga seems also to distinguish direct sensory experience ("sensus divinitatis") from "experience," which is presumably indirect. But drawing an indirect conclusion from experience requires argument. Belief in other minds and belief in the past both require argument, based on experience, to rationally establish. Even establishing the existence of a sensus divinitatis (direct sensory apprehension of God) requires an argument to establish that it is indeed a sense rather than a purely internal mind (brain) phenomenon. Plantinga is just speaking nonsense here, presumably to insulate his position against any kind of argument.

Although Plantinga denies that arguments are unnecessary for belief in God, he offers a few anyway. (Why? I don't need to argue that we can all see the tree in my back yard; if you are in doubt, come and look.) He starts with the Fine Tuning argument: "[T]he universe seems to be fine-tuned, not just for life, but for intelligent life. This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism." Plantinga does not seem to understand that at best, the Fine Tuning argument is controversial, and probably proves the opposite: given fine tuning, atheism (naturalism) is vastly more probable than theism, because a God could create intelligent life given any physics, whereas life can exist naturally only in a fine-tuned universe.

Gutting simply accepts the strength of the Fine Tuning argument, but implies that a fine-tuning God "fall[s] far short of . . . an all-perfect God." In response, Plantinga defends Christianity with an obvious fallacy of the excluded middle: "[Y]our qauestion makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin and suffering." The grammatical error aside ("best" is a superlative; there can be only one best possible world), the argument against an all-perfect God requires us only to say that this exact real world is not the best; while it's possible arguendo that the best possible world contains some sin and suffering, it could contain less sin and suffering than this one. An all-perfect God would, at best, create only the best possible world, even if He would create any imperfect world at all. If this is not the best possible world, an all-perfect God is either does not exist or the concept is vacuous.

Plantinga has an odd notion of what a good world is:
he first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better.
Really. If this is the best possible world, I don't understand anything at all about good.

It's hard to see Plantinga as saying anything but that a world with the Holocaust, millennia of war, human-induced famine, genocide, rape, murder, torture is not only good but best; if those horrors had not happened, the world would have been worse, because God would not have suffered. At least Plantinga is clear: this is the sort of world that Christianity offers. I want none of it.

Gutting notes that atheists justify their disbelief by the assertion that God does not have explanatory power. Plantinga deflects this challenge by noting that lack of explanatory power does not justify disbelief. Plantinga argues that we are not justified in disbelieving in the existence of the Moon, for example, merely because it is no longer considered a good explanation for lunacy. But Plantinga seems to ignore that the existence of the Moon still retains considerable power to explain why we see a big round object in the sky that seems to correlate with the tides.

Plantinga then goes argues two ways in which God does have explanatory power. The first is religious experience. This argument would have considerably more force if religious believers all believed in the same God, rather than gods that always resemble their own cultures and justify their idiosyncratic social norms and political power structures.

Plantinga repeats Thomas Nagel's ad hominem speculation that atheists disbelieve in God because we don't want there to be a God. Plantinga asserts that theism poses a "serious limitation of autonomy." Plantinga is completely contradicting himself here; above, he argues that this is the best of all possible worlds because we have the maximum amount of autonomy, sufficient autonomy to inflict the worst sort of harm, suffering and pain on other human beings. Precisely what limitations on autonomy does theism impose? It is true, however, that atheists object to the limitations on our autonomy imposed by human beings who claim to be speaking for God, but I cannot imagine objecting to any limitations on my autonomy that a truly just and loving God would impose, any more than I object to the (rational and justifiable) limitations on my autonomy imposed by the state.

Gutting asserts (without mentioning, much less citing, any source) that materialism is a "primary motive" for atheism. I have no idea where he gets this from; having read a considerable amount of atheist philosophy, I have never seen this argument; it cannot possibly be "primary." I don't even know what Gutting means by "materialism"; in the 19th 19th century idea that nothing exists but atoms in motion, materialism has been long since debunked by science. Gutting here offers Plantinga an opportunity to expound on one of his favorite theories, that evolution is incompatible with materialism. Plantinga declares that he cannot give a full account of his argument in the article (or anywhere else; the full account is only in his book, which I might look at later) but his summary is so full of holes I can't imagine even the full treatment can fill.

Briefly, Plantinga argues that the content of a belief is distinct from its neurological properties, and that content has no causal effect. Two different neurological beliefs could have identical causal effects but different content. Because content has no causal effect, evolution cannot select for content. Therefore, the content of our belief in evolution was not selected for, therefore we have no reason to believe the content of our belief in evolution is true.

This argument, however, has a number of flaws, not only that no one is really a "materialist." What, precisely, does Plantinga mean by the content of a belief? If the content of a belief has no causal effect, then a naturalist would claim then that by definition we cannot determine what the content of a belief is, much less determine whether it is true. Indeed, the naturalist would say that "existence" cannot properly be applied to anything with no causal effect: the existence of a thing with no causal effect is indistinguishable from its nonexistence.

But perhaps "content" is epiphenomenal or emergent, in the same sense that the roundness of an inflated basketball is emergent or epiphenomenal: it is not the roundness per se that causes a basketball to bounce regularly, it is the atoms in the basketball that causes it to bounce regularly. However, the roundness of a basketball is fully determined by the arrangement of the basketball's atoms; change their arrangement to something not round, like an (American) football, and the ball will no longer bounce regularly. Thus, if the neurological properties of a belief determine the content of a belief (e.g. we cannot say that two identical neurological beliefs have different content), and evolution can select on the causal properties of a belief, then evolution does affect the content of belief, albeit indirectly. So Plantinga's argument simply fails.

I've been following Plantinga's evolutionary argument for many years, and he has not, to my knowledge, substantively altered his summary to address any criticism; the summary he offers to Gutting is substantively identical to summaries I read years ago. This is the best sophisticated philosophy that the theists have, and it's nothing but a mass of sloppy reasoning that an economist can demolish in post.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The limits of science

In New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci raises (but fails to dispose of, or even really argue) an interesting question: How far can we stretch the semantic boundaries of the word "science" without doing violence to the plain meaning of the word or rendering the word so broad as to be effectively meaningless? Pigliucci defines "scientism" as
a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding. (144)
The first part of the definition, "totalizing attitude," seems vacuous and disconnected from reality (and Pigliucci spends zero efforts, but the second part, expanding the definition "all aspects of human knowledge and understanding," is a bit more interesting. Pigliucci's makes his strongest argument when he cites Sam Harris's book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. According to Pigliucci, Harris wants to apply the word "science" to any rational, empirical inquiry into facts. Pigliucci cites Harris's own words, which are actually somewhat milder: Harris does not want to draw a "hard distinction between 'science' and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss "facts.'" Pigliucci argues that "facts" are too varied to even, as Harris does, place science on a continuum with other inquiries into facts (149). According to Pigliucci, the best definition of science is what professional scientists do: a collection of activities having common threads, including systematic observations and experiments, hypothesis testing, general theories about the world, peer review, and public and private funding (151). Pigliucci argues that if we "expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals with 'facts,' loosely conceived . . . the concept of science loses meaning" (151). Pigliucci argues throughout that using science to address philosophical inquiry — e.g. inquiry into religion and moral inquiry — is wholly inappropriate; philosophical inquiry is itself a rational inquiry into the facts, but it is so dissimilar to science that they are completely distinct categories. To conflate the two categories harms both philosophy and science. Notwithstanding Pigliucci's failure to cite anyone actually using his extreme broadening of "science" to mean anything having to do with facts (making this assertion a trivial straw man), his argument fails because he equivocates the word "fact," he has a too-narrow definition of science, and he commits the fallacy of the excluded middle. Repairing these errors allows a legitimate broadening of the word science, one which can address the issues that Pigliucci believes are beyond the boundaries of science, even broadly conceived.

(I do not address the thesis that Pigliacci actually argues in his paper, which seems to catalog a series of philosophical and scientific errors made by prominent New Atheists. I am instead trying to address a thesis that Pigliucci argues tangentially and perhaps only implicitly.

Although Pigliucci takes a proper philosophical attitude towards the word "science," in that he argues for a definite connotation regardless of usage, he takes a lexicographer's attitude toward the word "fact." Pigliucci argues that the word "fact" connotes "too heterogeneous a category" for science to encompass. Pigliucci asserts a broad definition of "facts," which includes all statements that one cannot successfully deny; Pigliucci asserts, for example, that one cannot, for example, deny that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle (on a plane) add up to 180° (150). But this argument can be read as simply the tendency of speakers of natural languages to apply the same word to different categories. Pigliucci's example is telling: Euclidean geometry is not a fact even in the loosest empirical sense of a fact as a true statement about the world. Instead, Euclidean geometry is a mathematical formalism; to determine whether or not Euclidean geometry accurately describes the real world, we need to actually observe and measure angles. And we find that often, Euclidean geometry does not accurate describe the world, as when we draw triangles on a sphere or the Reimann surfaces near a large mass. We can take the amorphous mass of meanings that constitute the lexicographical content of "fact" and easily divide them into distinct* categories: common observation, deductive certainty, settled scientific theories, social totems, and confident assertions. There is no need to hold that broadening the definition of "science" requires that the broader definition include every lexicographical denotation of "fact."

*more-or-less distinct, letting ordinary people use the settled cases and letting philosophers investigate the edge cases.

Unlike "fact," Pigliucci tries to construct a philosophical definition of science, but his definition which he introduces without argument) is simultaneously too broad and too narrow. It is too broad in the sense that by noting primarily the sociological and institutional character of science, Pigliucci fails to distinguish between institutional science and pseudoscience. Whether or not he was successful, Karl Popper tackles this distinction in The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations. Popper tries to differentiate endeavors that look legitimately scientific, e.g. physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology, from endeavors that that look pseudoscientific, e.g. psychoanalysis, astrology, Marxist history, even though all of these endeavors share (or could easily share) not only all of the institutional characteristics that Pigliucci lists, but also reliance on observation and experiment. In Popper's view, one indispensable distinction is that real science is falsifiable, pseudoscience is not; this distinction is not institutional but philosophical, not a matter of somehow testing hypotheses, but a specific method of testing hypotheses.

Pigliucci's definition is too narrow in that we can easily conceive of science being done without many of the institutional characteristics he lists. How general must a theory be to be "scientific"? Is, for example, forensic science really a science? Forensic science seeks to discover what actually happened at a particular point in time, almost the exact opposite of the construction of a general theory about the world. If forensic science is not a science, what is it? Do we need systematic peer review — in something other than the trivial, over-broad sense that all communication is received and modified by listeners — for an endeavor to be scientific? Must we have public or private funding, again in other than the trivial sense that everything is in some sense economic? For decades, science was self-financed, pursued by people with their own income from other sources. Pigliucci's definition of "science" is as absurd as defining "dining" as something being done in a restaurant using food, which would include eating at McDonalds and exclude my friend, who is an excellent amateur cook, preparing dinner at home.

Finally, Pigliucci's entire objection to scientism is an exercise in the fallacy of the excluded middle. In Pigliucci's view, the only alternative to his rigid, narrow (and absurd) definition of "science" is an anything-goes descent into linguistic anarchy. It is astonishing, and should be incomprehensible, that a professional philosopher would commit such an elementary fallacy. When it suits him, Pigliucci perfectly comfortable with words having broad, heterogeneous meanings; he does not, for example, see his broad definition of "fact" to render the word meaningless. Even the over-broad, uncited definition of "science" he objects to — anything having to do with "facts" — is still meaningful, so long as "facts" is meaningful. We can have words with broad meanings that are still meaningful; Pigliucci, however, sees no middle ground — at least regarding "science" if not "facts" — where there manifestly can be, and probably is.

Pigliucci's article does point us towards a more useful definition of "science," rejecting the idea that there is an "objectively" correct definition of science about which everyone in the world might be mistaken; there are only more or less useful definitions. To do so, we reject the institutional components of Pigliucci's definition as accidental, required for performing only certain kinds of scientific investigations in a particular social and cultural context. Instead, we retain the philosophical components. First, we can talk scientifically only about the real world*. Second, we construct theories**, collections of logically connected statements, about the real world. Third, these theories must be falsifiable: it must be logically possible that there are determinable facts that would disprove a theory. Fourth, we accept common observation as the factual basis for attempting to falsify a theory; for a theory to be falsifiable by observation, the theory must logically entail that some observation is impossible. Finally, we invoke parsimony: we discard any part of a theory that does not change the entailed observations as unnecessary. Like any other definition in natural language, this definition still leaves edge cases (is history a science?) but it seems to carve out a core of unambiguously scientific discourse and unambiguously unscientific and pseudo-scientific discourse. The question is: is it useful?

*thus eliminating talk about Middle Earth or Erehwon as scientific. We can, of course, talk scientifically about the texts and authors of The Lord of the Rings and Erehwon, which are real.

**both general and specific theories, which allows us to talk scientifically both about the law of gravity, a general theory, as well as specific theories such as whether O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and why Supernova 1987A has a visible ring.

This definition seems to exclude a lot of religious thought as either unscientific or scientifically false. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins proposes the "God Hypothesis." Dawkins asks: what happens when we try to construct religious thought as science, broadly conceived?

We can apply these criteria to God. First, we hypothesize that God is real, with real properties. Second, we create a theory about what a real God and His properties means. A God doesn’t just sit there; what does He do? Third, we make this theory testable: we must be able to determine whether it is true or false. Fourth, we must test the theory by observation or experiment. Finally, we ensure the theory is parsimonious: that is, if we took out God, the theory wouldn’t explain as much. Once we have followed all these steps, we have a scientific theory that includes God, which we can test against what we actually observe.

But constructing this kind of theory of God puts believers on the horns of a dilemma. Centuries of scientific investigation show that the best scientific theories, testable by observation, include nothing like a personal God. We find only a universe of blind, mechanical laws, including natural selection, with no foresight or ultimate purpose.

Alternatively, a believer could reject one or more of the criteria for a God theory, but doing that has profound implications. If she admits that God is not real, she’s already an atheist. If she says God doesn’t do anything, who cares? If her theory cannot be tested at all, then there's no way of telling if it's true or false. If her theory can be tested only by private revelation, not by observations available to everyone, she unjustifiably claims private knowledge. And if her theory is observationally identical to a theory that does not include God, then she’s again an atheist, for a God who makes no difference is no God at all.

The only remaining question is whether some people would find this analysis useful, and I know many people who, applying this analysis, have abandoned their religion.

We also have any number of authors, notably Josh McDowell, author of Evidence that Demands a Verdict, who at least attempt to make a scientific case, in the broad sense noted here, for the existence of God.

Does this definition include or exclude anything obviously objectionable? We seem to admit lawyering, but lawyers are not obviously unscientific. This definition excludes pure mathematics (even if a lot of mathematicians are Platonists), but I suspect most mathematicians would not object to being placed outside the boundaries of science. This definition definitely excludes philosophy; I do not know, however, whether Pigliucci would be encouraged or enraged by such exclusion.

Finally, the question remains: does this definition of science "encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding"? It certainly does not encompass all aspects of human understanding (even if the definition of "understanding" is so broad as to render the term meaningless). As noted above, it does not include mathematics, literature, or even philosophy, which are uncontroversially parts of human understanding. Perhaps, however, it does encompass all knowledge; it is perhaps the case that anything that legitimately deserves the name "knowledge" really must be scientific, in the sense described above. But I need not answer this question to dispose of Pigliucci's case; it is enough to find that this broad definition of science is useful and largely unproblematic.

[edited 8/22/14: with the assistance of Jerry Coyne, I have rewritten the passage beginning, "We can apply these criteria to God," to make it clearer and less technical. I also fixed the formatting of the footnotes.]

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The politics of New Atheism

New Atheism is a political movement. It is about changing our ethical norms, cultural values, and, to the extent of strongly defending the separation of church and state, the behavior of governments. We have some ancillary goals, but primarily, we want to create a society where it is completely ridiculous for anyone to put his (or occasionally her) collar on backwards and tell us what an invisible man in the sky wants us to do with our money and our reproductive apparatus. We are unashamedly attacking a collection of institutions that do precisely that: institutions that assert there really is a God, and He really does want only one penis to only go in one vagina (and don't you dare do it just for fun), He wants us to kill people who have a slightly incorrect opinion about Him, He wants a woman's uterus to be the property of the State, He wants his special guys to get away with the physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse of children, and He needs money. The New Atheists see these institutions, and we want them gone; our argument is that it is ridiculous to suggest that God wants us to do anything, because there is no God to want anything.

The usual straw men and obviously fallacious arguments aside, there are three broad criticisms of New Atheism. The most obvious is that there are religious people who are not racist, sexist, homophobic, nor prudish, who do not suborn child abuse, who do not want to murder anyone, and who do not want to fleece the rubes. No one has ever argued that religion automatically turns everyone into the worst sort of bigot and criminal. Furthermore, there are no small few atheists who really are bigots, criminals, or just plain mean and selfish. Again granted. No one has ever argued that atheism automatically turns everyone into the best sort of generous, kind, and virtuous citizen. The New Atheist argument is much simpler. There is no way at all, despite millennia of trying, to consistently discover what God wants (which is a big part of why we don't believe any such being exists). Once anyone says that he (or occasionally she) knows what God wants, even if what he says sounds good, he has no basis at all to argue against someone who says God wants something different. There is no way of telling. Furthermore, if God wants exactly what we want, then there's no reason to invoke Him: we can do things we want just because we ourselves want to do them. Indeed, Bob Avakian makes this point forcefully in Away with All Gods: scratch a "liberal" (American) Christian, especially their leadership, and you will often discover God-justified sexism or homophobia. We're pleased that not every Christian is Fred Phelps, but we say that the liberal Christians are using the same arguments that Phelps uses, and we cannot tell who is correct about God. Arguing that God wants us to do good stuff reinforces arguments that God wants us to do bad stuff because it assumes that it is important for us to find out what God wants. The New Atheists go straight to the root: there is no God, there is no way of discovering what God wants us to do, so all the arguments, even the ones that assert that God wants us to do good stuff, fail. Want what you want, but do it on your own nickel, not God's.

The second argument is that we ignore "sophisticated" theology and philosophy. But New/Gnu/Undergraduate Atheism is not a philosophical movement; we are not out to solve the philosophical problem of God. Millennia of theological and philosophical speculation have failed to move even an inch forward on saying anything consistent about God; it's time to move on. Even "sophisticated" theologians and accommodationist philosophers admit that the idea of a personal God — the king of personal God that billions of people believe — is untenable. But the kind of "god" the "sophisticated" theologians describe is at best the weakest of tea, at worst vacuous nonsense. The ground of all being? Seriously? More importantly, nobody but sophisticated theologians care about sophisticated theology: the actual content of sophisticated theology has no political, cultural, or social relevance whatsoever. As far as we New Atheists are concerned, the philosophical issue is solved: there are no gods worth talking about. We've seen the arguments for sophisticated theology, and, frankly, we think they're as silly and irrelevant as arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some people might want to work out their existential angst through metaphysical or theological speculation, but most New Atheists don't want to waste our time. We are busy attacking the real foundations of real institutions that do real harm.

I have to ask, however: If the billions of believers in a personal God — the kind of God the New Atheists attack — really have God so completely wrong, why criticize prominent New Atheists, especially their favorite target, Richard Dawkins? Do we not have a common enemy, people who have got God so completely wrong? Dawkins and most New Atheists have explicitly declared that we're not particularly interested in "sophisticated" theology; why not go after FEMA, or NASA, or Greenpeace, who are equally uninterested? There can be only three reasons. First, the assertion that there is no personal God somehow undermines the faith of those who believe in some kind of "sophisticated" metaphysical, ground-of-all-being, cosmic-purpose God that nobody but they themselves care about. Maybe so, but it seems the most fragile faith that is undermined by simply being ignored. The second is that they themselves want to assert religious moral authority. If so, they are spectacularly ineffective. The third is that this metaphysical god actually supports the moral authority of the religious institutions the New Atheists struggle against. By failing to challenge metaphysical theology, the moral authority of religious institutions — with whom "sophisticated" theologians supposedly profoundly disagree — remains strong. These complaints seem either childish or mendacious.

The third argument is that religion, however false, is an indispensable social construct. The argument cannot be that people and institutions that call themselves religious sometimes do good. Every human social construct that lasts more than a generation or so does some good; no one would argue, for example, that we should have perpetuated antebellum slavery because otherwise all the black people in the South would have been out of work and starved. The argument has to be that we must tolerate the falsity of religion, its misogyny, racism, murderous intolerance of dissent, parasitism to obtain the benefits it offers. This is, I think, a very tough case to make. The argument that surgically removing religion from society, changing nothing else, would leave some unmet needs seems obviously specious. We cannot surgically remove religion, and there is plenty of time to meet or even eliminate the needs, such as comfort for the poorest, that religion presently provides. We don't say that religion is all bad; we say that we can do the good that religion does, and do it much better.

The New Atheists are struggling against institutions that we believe are bad, in any sane, civilized, and reasonable sense of bad. We are struggling against institutions that support and defend murder, misogyny, sexism, racism, absurd sexual prudishness, parasitism, oppression, and exploitation. If people disagree with us, if they think these institutions are doing good, that we ought to murder people who disagree with us, that we ought to subordinate women, that we ought to subordinate people of different races, that we ought to restrict our sexuality to a very narrow band, that we ought to do nothing for those most abused and oppressed by society but give them a comforting delusion, and that we ought to pay real money for a bunch of men to tell us that that is what God wants, then by all means oppose us, and stand between us and the churches. If, however, people agree with us, that these institutions are a blight on our society, then at the very least, stand out of our way, or, better yet, join the fray on the right side.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Sexual assault

Commenter HH disagrees with my condemnation of Nancy McDermott's essay, The Triumph of the Maternalists:
I would have to disagree with your evaluation of that article. Some of it is a bit of a strech but the general charge seem reasonably solid.

The way in which sexual assault is handled now on some US campuses is just ridiuclous. It seems a trading of the rights of the accused because more convictions are desired.

HH is, I think, mistaken in three ways.

First, granting arguendo that some US campuses handle sexual assault in a ridiculous manner, such a premise does not prove the author's thesis that we are somehow destroying autonomy, rationality, or Enlightenment values. People and institutions do stupid shit all the time without destroying civilization as we know it.

Second, I don't know that any US campus actually does handle sexual assault in a ridiculous manner. I'm not saying I know they don't, but I've never seen a news report of anyone unjustly accused or convicted of sexual assault on a college campus. (Note that unjustly convicted is different from wrongly convicted.) I have, however, seen a fair number of news reports where rather obvious sexual assault was un- or under-prosecuted, and the victims harassed and bullied for reporting the assault. I could be swayed by evidence here, but I haven't yet seen it.

The most important mistake, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what colleges and universities are. I touched on this point in my previous commentary, and I want to expand it now.

A university is not a commons; it is a professional environment. Every professional environment has norms and standards that go beyond universal legal norms. McDermott highlights one such norm: Maternalistic authoritarianism
has so imbued the culture of American college campuses that students accused of sexual misconduct are routinely deprived of their rights, considered guilty until proven innocent, deprived of representation and not permitted to give evidence on their own behalf. The Office of Civil Rights, the US government’s oversight body governing Title IX (the provision that banned discrimination on the basis of sex), recently praised the University of Montana’s definition of sexual harassment, which was so broad it included verbal conduct regardless of the intention of the speaker or whether anyone was offended. The Office of Civil Rights called this a ‘blueprint’ for other policies around the country.
As I said before, I've seen no evidence that students are ever, much less, routinely deprived of their rights. (What makes McDermott's article atrocious is that she presents a controversial position as established fact.)

McDermott juxtaposes her charge of deprivation of rights with a mention of the University of Montana's definition of sexual harassment and the Office of Civil Rights' approval. But the university's definition has nothing to do with any procedural rights mentioned in the preceding sentence. More importantly, the university's definition is completely appropriate for a professional environment. People in a professional environment assume obligations to the other members that go far beyond the negative legal limitations and procedural requirements applied to autonomous citizens in the commons. When people join a professional organization, they must necessarily surrender part of their individual autonomy: they must work toward not their own personal goals, but toward the goal of the organization or institution.

I can write the most vile and hateful opinions on this blog, and the United States and my own state will not lift a finger to punish me. If someone brings a criminal charge against me, they must satisfy procedural and substantive requirements before the court will punish me; even if I did the deed, if it cannot be legally proven, I will not be punished. If, however, I were to write vile and hateful things about my coworkers, my employer would be perfectly justified in firing me not for committing a crime, but for violating the basic standards of professionalism. And if one of my coworkers and I have a conflict, my employer must resolve the conflict; they cannot just say (as the court can say), "Not proven: work it out yourselves." Finally, my employer has to maintain a professional environment, even if a specific act does not actually harm anyone. Even if nobody really cares, I cannot walk into work in raggedy cutoffs and a dirty tank tee-shirt. (Yes, it is true that in a capitalist society, employers and other organizations routinely leverage their legitimate right to maintain a professional environment to oppress their workers, but the necessity of a professional environment still stands.)

When you enter any professional environment, you have a positive obligation to learn what it means to be a professional in that environment, and you have a positive obligation to act professionally. Ignorance is no excuse, and lack of specific harm is no excuse.

We have dismantled the legal structures barring women from fully participating in civil society. Women may not be legally barred from any occupation or any social role. However, although we have dismantled the legal barriers, there are still profound social barriers that push women out of many areas of civil society. The most egregious of those social barriers is sexual harassment. Because it tends to discourage women from full civic participation, it is intolerable. If you do not know that sexual harassment is a real problem, you are not merely ignorant, you are willfully ignorant. If I have offended you, good.

It doesn't matter if you did not intend to harass your coworker when you said to her, "Nice ass!" It doesn't matter that that particular women did not take offense at your comment. The comment itself is still unprofessional. If you worked for me, and I heard you say that, even if I didn't fire you on the spot, you would have to eat a ton of shit to keep your job. If you think I'm an asshole for that stance, good. I like being an asshole to sexist douchebags.

(McDermott also condemns California for restricting certain legal procedures, "the right [of victims] to refuse interview, deposition or discovery requests" from defendants charged with rape. But our legal procedure was not handed down by God. Equality under the law does not depend on every crime having the exact same set of procedural guarantees, especially when there is overwhelming evidence that procedures such as interviews, depositions, and discovery have been used not to seek justice but to harass, intimidate, and discourage women from prosecuting accusations of rape.

Here's a tip for you guys: if you think it's consensual, but the situation might be misconstrued as assault, DON'T HAVE SEX WITH HER. If you don't trust her not to fabricate a charge of rape, DON'T HAVE SEX WITH HER. If you think these standards will prevent you from ever having sex again, hold a seashell to your ear: you will hear the voices of 3.5 billion women breathing a sigh of relief and gratitude.)

We men, with our privilege, have the positive obligation to bend over backwards to include women in civil society. If you do not accept this obligation, then fuck you. The only "right" you're losing is the right to treat women as less than human beings.

Today's links

How Inequality Hollows Out the Soul
Squeezing the rich is good: even when it raises no money (cached copy)
Why Inequality Matters

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The triumph of the maternalists

The Triumph of the Maternalists

Jumpin' Jebus on a Pogo Stick! This article is so bad, I don't know where to begin. Sadly, I have no time for deep analysis. Some quick thoughts:

The author (sensibly) notes that "feminine" and "masculine" values have nothing to do with vaginas and penises, but then keeps the gendered labeling throughout the article.

Just because one labels a value as an "Enlightenment value" doesn't make it one. The Enlightenment value of freedom of speech, for example, is subtle and nuanced. It does not mean that anyone can say anything anywhere.

Even if a value really is an "Enlightenment value" doesn't mean it's a value we must necessarily keep. The Enlightenment thinkers made a lot of good arguments, but they are not prophets, and early 21st century society is very different from late 18th.

The author makes many definitive statements about controversial positions, without even attempting an argument. For example:
Few people have the stomach to defend Western cultural and political ideals, even in the face of violent, nihilistic outbursts like the 9/11 attacks. Instead, key sections of the elite have embraced emotionalism, difference, authenticity and sustainability.
What the fuck?! What does this even mean?
Has the author even heard of the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, Guantanamo Bay, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, etc. ad nauseam?

Universities are not newspapers or common carriers. Most are government institutions, and they do not exist to provide a platform for the airing of every possible point of view. Academia exists primarily as a privilege granting institution, providing an entree into the professional-managerial middle class. They are secondarily an institution for evidence- and argument-based expression. I really don't see it as horrible oppression that I have an obligation to bend over backwards to act as a professional on my campus. If you want to say whatever you like, with the minimum of constraint, you are free to say it outside academia, just as you are free to say it without spray painting it on my house.

Too busy to find the TSIB graphic, but this post still gets the tag.