Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Does epistemology matter?

A number of articles recently assert that the epistemology of religion doesn't matter; what matters are the practices. (The latest of course, being Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management, with my response.) And it is asserted that epistemology doesn't matter in a deep way: even if we know that the underlying structure of a set of practices is false, even in the "worst" sense of falsity, that doesn't matter. I find this position deeply problematic.

As a scientific thinker, epistemology and truth are important to me. So when someone says knowledge and truth doesn't matter, then a red flag goes up in my mind. But I am open-minded, so I will speculate about what such people could possibly mean by such a thing.

First, thinkers such as Reed and Taleb say that what matters about religion is faith, trust, and commitment to a way of life. But on what basis can a person figure out which way of life to have faith in, to commit to? Everyone is committed to a particular way of life. If religion just means that people should do as they themselves choose, taking into consideration the physical and social consequences of their choices, then these thinkers have defined religion into vacuity. That cannot be their intent: if everyone everywhere is already religious, then it would be astonishing for Reed and Taleb, for example, to exhort economists to incorporate religious thought. Clearly these authors intend to say "religion" means something more. But what?

A crucial feature of religion, according to Reed and Taleb, is its division between the sacred and the profane, with the sacred immune to "rationalization" in the weaker sense that we don't need to understand why something or another is sacred and profane. But again, sacralization without an examination of at least why human beings make and accept the division is just prosaic conservative historicism: we should X because we've done X for a long time, and it hasn't killed us yet. Not a bad general principle, but conservative historicism is hardly religious (conservative historicism explains why I continue to use English despite not being a linguist, United States currency despite not (yet) being an economist, or drive my car without being an engineer.)

(And the historicist argument can be abused, as Reed and Taleb abuse it in their paper:
Just as nature is ‘wiser’ than us (in a statistical, risk-management sense) with regard to a vast swathe of threats, illnesses, etc., just as our knowledge only surpasses nature’s in unusual and rare circumstances, so religious man is wiser than irreligious and non-religious man with regard to a vast swathe of threats, moral and spiritual illnesses and problems, etc. The knowledge of irreligious and non-religious man surpasses that of religious man only in rare and unusual circumstances. Until we have had a lot longer to develop non-religious heuristics that work, we should not throw the precautionary, religion-as-risk-management baby out with the superstitious, theological-claptrap bathwater. (224)(
This is a good argument against repealing the First Amendment and making religion illegal — a position held by only a tiny few completely marginalized idiot atheists — but it is not an argument at all that as the authors claim, examining the epistemic basis of religion is naive or unwarranted. And, of course, people have been examining the truth and knowledge claims of religion for all of recorded (Western) history; such inquiry has as much historical sanction as religion itself.)

It's one thing to say it's valuable to divide the world into the "sacred" and the "profane", but what should go where? Just the division does not seem satisfying by itself. The Nazis definitely divided the world into the sacred (the Aryan race) and the profane (everyone else); the fundamentalists' sacred is the heterosexual monogamous marriage and the life of the fetus; their profane is the homosexual and the individual woman. And, of course, many persistent social institutions, such as the United States constitutional regime, divide the sacred (free speech, property rights, federalism) and the profane (what the federal government may freely regulate). Even academic economics sacralizes (wrongly, in my opinion) the autonomous rational utility-maximizing agent. Again, if everyone does sacralizes something, and if thinkers do not tell us how to distinguish good sacralization from bad, the definition descends into a useless vacuity.

Reed and Taleb exhort us to sacralize behaviors that minimize risk and avoid rare (but inevitable) catastrophe. Good advice, to be sure, but Taleb has spent considerable effort, largely persuasive, on establishing an epistemic basis not only that we should minimize risk, but also on specific ways we can minimize risk. Clearly, this is not the epistemic basis Reed and Taleb intend to shield from epistemic scrutiny. We are clearly entitled to ask how Taleb knows that certain behaviors minimize or fail to minimize risk (and how he knows that the risks truly exist), and clearly Taleb has a responsibility to answer such questions, which he has.

We get closer to Reed and Taleb's meaning when we look very closely at their assertions. We need a good epistemic basis to decide what to sacralize, and we need religion to transmit and propagate what is sacred and profane. Furthermore, even if the underlying ideology of one or another religion doesn't have even minimal epistemic validity, we should judge it not on that basis, but on the basis of its ability to cement epistemically valid sacred norms across time. They say that "religion supplies potent tricks to mitigate people’s natural epistemic arrogance and overconfidence about the future" because "[p]eople can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics" (222). I cannot interpret this passage except as endorsing Plato's concept of the noble lie. There's a lot of things to like about Plato, but his absolute contempt, however paternalist and benign, for the common person is not among them.

If this is truly the view of Reed and Taleb, then we must see their assertion that the epistemic truth of religion is irrelevant and its study naive to be at best disingenuous. If the deficiencies of religious epistemology were necessary to transmit good risk management behavior, then a critical examination of their epistemology would be not naive but positively dangerous. If so, I think they should say so; even if they believe the common person can't handle the truth, they are speaking in their paper to the intellectual "elite," such as it is. And if we can't handle that truth, who knows what truths we can handle? Who decides? Reed and Taleb? They seem like nice people, but I don't trust anyone to tell me what I can and cannot know.

I do think that religious epistemology and truth claims are essential to transmitting its message, including any risk-management behavior it might include, but I do not think it is particularly dangerous to undermine it. And I most emphatically do not believe that "religious man is wiser than irreligious and non-religious man with regard to a vast swathe of threats, moral and spiritual illnesses and problems, etc." (224). I reject this statement not only because I have no idea what Reed and Taleb mean by "religious," "irreligious," and "non-religious", nor what they mean by "moral and spiritual illnesses and problems," but also because I think — with good evidence — that the evils of religion, caused by the very same epistemic defects and profound conservatism that (might) preserve risk-management, far outweigh the benefits.

I am certainly willing to debate and critically engage in this examination, but it is insulting to have such inquiry dismissed as naive.

Religion as risk management

Reader Justin Singh directs my attention to a new paper in economics: Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management. In this paper, philosopher Rupert Reed and The Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb assert that religion is a unique, valuable, and perhaps indispensable method for avoiding unusual or "silent" risks (220), the "black swans" that Taleb has studied extensively. The authors explicitly focus on religion as practice; indeed, they consider the supernatural aspect of religion as "epiphenomenal," and assert that a traditional epistemic evaluation of religion is "extremely naive" (223). Instead, the authors insist that religion be viewed as "as closer to a form of trusting, as a form of action, or a willingness to take action, and, most crucially of all, as a set of interdicts upon action" (223), as well as establishing a rigid dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, a dichotomy taken on faith and immune to rationalization.

The authors claim that modern scientists and economists have far more confidence in their tools than is warranted. The models are fragile, sensitively dependent on initial assumptions. Crucially, modern scientists necessarily ignore unusual risk, i.e. rare but catastrophic events that have never occurred in the past, and thus do not form a (Bayesian) evidentiary basis for present action. The authors argue that religion, with its categorical interdicts immune to rationalization, is a unique mode that can protect us from modern scientific overconfidence.

I have read Taleb's book, The Black Swan, and he has convinced me of the value of his risk model, which focuses on rare but catastrophic events that typical scientific and economic models cannot describe. Catastrophic "black swan" events do happen, they are hard to positively predict, and people tend to ignore them in their planning. Indeed, Minsky's financial instability hypothesis seems to operate on much the same lines. (I would like to see Taleb comment on Minsky; perhaps he already has.) Taleb has also convinced me that modern scientific and especially economic practices are woefully inadequate to the task of describing, analyzing, and managing black swan events. Thus, I will not focus here on the topic of risk.

I concur that there is a problem, but I am not convinced that religion is a solution. First, the authors do not make an adequate case that religion really does effectively protect us from black swan events. More importantly, the authors fail to establish an effective definition of religion.

The authors give us only one case where religion might have protected us from a rare catastrophe. They juxtapose the 2008 global financial crisis with many religions' prohibitions or strict regulations against debt. However, this case is not particularly apt. First, it should be noted that religion is still ubiquitous, but failed to prevent the crisis. Indeed most modern organized religions, with the notable exception of Islam, permit nearly unregulated debt. Furthermore, the authors fail to look at the costs of using religion to prevent catastrophes. Credit and debt in general are crucial components of the modern capitalist global economy; eliminate them and the system would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Not that I think rebuilding the capitalist system is itself a bad idea, but it would be enormously costly, not just in stuff but in human suffering. The authors fail to consider these costs. (And if this case is strained and artificial, it was the authors who chose it.)

Even taking the benefits of religion as granted, the authors do not provide an adequate definition of what religion actually is, and without such a definition, we cannot understand what it is about religion that affords the claimed benefits. The authors do have a definition. First, the authors claim sympathy to "true religion; to what we call faith as practice; to a genuinely spiritual orientation toward life" (219). This sentence, however, does not help; they authors nowhere define "spirituality," nor tell us how to distinguish genuine spirituality for its bogus or insincere alternative. The authors go on to assert that the important aspect of religion is its practice, not the epistemic basis of the practice. (Just this condition is controversial; many people who call themselves truly religious and genuinely spiritual would reject this definition.) Furthermore the authors assert that a religion makes some absolute, inviolable distinction between the sacred and the profane. The authors consider the inviolability crucial: "The sacred is not open to ‘rationalization’—what we don’t understand is not necessarily irrational, and it might have reasons that can be probed only across generations of experience and experimentation" (223). Finally, to establish these crucial interdictions, some reference to God is necessary: "People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics" (222, quoting Taleb from The Black Swan, p. 21).

Except for the mention of God, the definition of religion is probably necessary — a religion with no practice is at best trivial and probably no religion at all — but hardly sufficient. Again, except for the mention of God, it fails to distinguish between what is ordinarily considered religious and non-religious. For example, the United States constitution meets the definition: it establishes practices (the federal government, voting, citizenship, and a general democratic/republican political psychology and sociology). The constitution enforces a distinction between the "sacred" (free speech, property rights, due process) and the profane (what the government may regulate by law), and the United States has maintained these interdictions for almost twenty-five generations. The epistemic basis of the constitution is certainly not scientific, and it is immune to the weaker sort of "rationalization" the authors mention. Just because we don't (fully) understand the basis of one or another provision is not sufficient grounds to change it; we need strong positive legal or political reasons to textually or interpretively change provisions of the constitution.

Indeed, the purpose of almost every social institution is to preserve norms across generations without continual epistemic inquiry. We obey the law, we go to our jobs, we pay for our meals not because we have performed a full double-blind, peer-reviewed scientific inquiry each and every time we act to determine the best course of action, but simply because we have faith, trust, and the social commitment to act in that particular way, because that's just the way things are done. Thus, the only way to differentiate religion from any other social institution has something to do with God. But what? The authors are silent on this crucial point. They cannot mean just slapping the word "God" on things willy nilly; as the joke goes, "calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one." And they talk about true religion, genuine spirituality, which entails they must believe there is such a thing as false religion, i.e. illegitimate uses of the "God" label, but what distinguishes them? The authors explicitly disclaim an epistemic distinction: "it is an extremely naive interpretation to think that religious ‘beliefs’ map to the ‘justified true belief’ standards of modern epistemology . . .; it is naive to examine the supernatural aspect of religion as anything but epiphenomenal." But they do not offer any meaningful analytic distinction.

The authors argue for a pragmatic distinction, survivability. But relying on this distinction contains a fundamental contradiction. The whole point of Taleb's larger argument is that black swan events are rare, which means any social institution, religious or secular, can survive a long time without a black swan event. Indeed, Reed and Taleb explicitly condemn historicism: "[R]isk is not really in the visible past but rather in the future: the past is just a proxy. . . . Further, these silent risks [black swan events], when they hit, are produced most likely by some largely unknown class of distributions."* Moreover, their position depends on an epistemic critique of modern science and economics (i.e. in many ways, science and especially economics are making determinable epistemic errors), and depends on the correctness and power of that critique. (and not just in this paper but in Taleb's work in general, the critique is indeed correct and powerful). Because the authors admit to some true religion, we can conclude that both true and false religion have both survived; we need an analytical way to distinguish the two. And, of course, we need a way to evaluate change, which by definition has not survived at all.

*The elided sentence refers to the "recent past", but the visible past is broader, and not just the recent but also the distant past are distinct from where the authors assert risk lies: in the future.

The authors bury an interesting analytical definition in a footnote:
These heuristics belong to the class called “convex heuristics,” mathematically defined in Taleb (2014) [Silent Risk: Lectures on Fat Tails, (Anti)Fragility, Precaution, and Asymmetric Exposures]. Their aim is not to be ‘right’ and avoid errors, but to ensure that errors remain small. A convex heuristic has the following properties: (1) Compactness: It is easy to remember, implement, use, and transmit. (2) Consequences, not truth: It is about what it helps you do, not whether it is true or false. It should be judged not in ‘truth space’ but in ‘consequence space.’ (3) Antifragility: It is required to have a benefit when it is helpful larger than the loss when it is harmful. Thus it will eventually deliver gains from disorder. (4) Robustness: It satisfies the fragility-based precautionary principle. (5) Opacity: You do not need to understand how it works. (6) Survivability of populations: Such a heuristic should not be judged solely on its intelligibility (how understandable it is), but on its survivability, or on a combination of intelligibility and survivability. Thus a long-surviving heuristic is less fragile than a newly emerging one. But ultimately it should never be assessed in its survival against other ideas, rather on the survival advantage it gave the populations who used it.
These criteria are perhaps useful, but curious. If some heuristic is opaque (5) or unintelligible, how do we know it ensures errors remain small or has a desirable cost-benefit ratio? Especially if, as the authors assert, risk lies in the future and is produced by unknown distributions.

The authors, especially Taleb, have correctly identified a problem: a degree of epistemic arrogance in perhaps the sciences, definitely in economics, and blatantly in Western political economy. However, they fail to demonstrate the value of their proposed solution, religion, they fail to mention how religion might solve this problem, and they even fail to adequately define what their solution is. The authors' insistence that the epistemic and truth status of ideas underlying social institutions such a religion seems deeply anti-rational. We don't have a perfect epistemic basis for anything; we cannot know if anything is true with absolute certainty, but to argue that we can simply dispense with (analytic) knowledge and truth is just the fallacy of perfectionism. Indeed, such a position contradicts Taleb's larger work, which is explicitly epistemic: we know, or we want to know, how to improve our epistemology to prevent rare, catastrophic errors. It is important to examine the epistemology and truth underlying any social institution, religious or secular. They may not be perfect tools, but they're the best we have.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The ground of moral philosophy (and some bonus Robbins bashing)

Oy vey, Robbins is terrifyingly inept. Responding to critics [link fixed], he states:
The point is simply that a morality predicated on Enlightenment rationalism retains its Christian foundations, at the expense of coherence. Therefore the moral codes we retain after the death of God are grounded in nothing, a point the Neo-Darwinians underscore every time they trumpet that article of faith, the “morality gene.” It is not enough to argue that we can simply ground our morals in ourselves, in our conceptions of the good (for one thing, it is self-evident that we don’t agree about what these conceptions should consist in).

That religious people of the past were often quite as murderous and duplicitous as we is beside the point, properly understood. We are talking about the loss of a coherent worldview, about grounds, not about practices. Anyone interested in the history of the shaping power of mental conceptions should understand why such a loss is a problem.
This is bullshit on several counts.

First, it is just calumny to claim that "Neo-Darwinians . . . trumpet that article of faith, the 'morality gene.'" This statement is a pure straw man. There's no "morality gene," and the genetic basis for morality is hardly an article of faith. Morality has a genetic basis in the same sense that everything has some sort of genetic basis: morality happens in our brains, which obviously have a genetic basis. We have, for example, mirror neurons, which seem like a possible cognitive basis for empathy; these neurons have a genetic basis (which is almost certainly not a single gene). Simply dismissing opposing ideas as ridiculous is egregious intellectual dishonesty.

Second, the idea that "Enlightenment rationalism retains its Christian foundations" is at best controversial. It is, of course, true that Enlightenment rationalism (as well as modern welfare ethics) has an historical/genetic* relation to Christianity, just as Christianity has a historical/genetic relation to Roman paganism, which has a historical/genetic relationship to Greek paganism (and rationalism), and so on, probably back before the invention of language; chimpanzees seem to have a kind of morality without even a proper (Turing-complete) language.

*Not in the biological but the philosophical sense.

While a lot of the early Enlightenment thinkers retained belief in God, the whole point of the enterprise was to decouple morality, law, politics, economics, etc. from Church authority. But without Church authority, God lacks an authoritative voice. Once you undermine Church authority, you undermine any divine foundation for anything. For one thing, it is self-evident that we don't agree about what our conceptions of God should consist in. Indeed, the foundation of religious morality is not God, but the Church.

It is moronic to claim, "It is not enough to argue that we can simply ground our morals in ourselves, in our conceptions of the good (for one thing, it is self-evident that we don’t agree about what these conceptions should consist in)." Yes, we disagree, but has Robbins not noticed that human beings are clever and creative about developing methods of coming to agreement: e.g. argument, negotiation, persuasion, diplomacy, and sometimes force?

I suspect Robbins holds the all-to-common fallacy: morality is that which (among other things) is grounded in the transcendent; if something is not grounded in the transcendent, whatever it might be, it is therefore not morality. But of course there is no need to add the transcendent as an analytical component of morality. But of course we need not ground morality in the transcendent: we can in fact ground morality in human preference, utilitarianism, welfare, empathy and sympathy, pragmatism, natural intuition, categorical imperatives, or in any number of reasonable, natural bases.

Third, there is considerable controversy about what constitutes a ground of anything, whether we really need a ground, and whether a ground is even possible. Anti-foundationalism, for example, claims that grounds are impossible. The ground of logical deduction, for example, consists of premises, but what is the ground of the premises? It can't be deduction, but if it's something else, why not go directly to that, instead of using premises. Taking a different tack, dialectical materialism renounces the concept of ground: everything changes everything else; there is no philosophical starting place.

And finally, just because an intellectually dishonest doofus thinks that we have just abandoned grounding, or even that grounding is intellectually important, doesn't make it so. And grounding not really that important. "That's just the way things are" is a perfectly good, and perfectly trivial, ground.

ETA: Robbins argument fails on a more basic level. I don't think he's correct, but let's suppose arguendo he is correct: lacking "theistic belief" (whatever that is), our present ideas about morality become in some sense "incoherent." the incoherence of present ideas about morality would not by itself justify theistic belief: it could be the case that our ideas about morality are just hopelessly confused. If so, it would be rational to provisionally adopt historical morality out of pure expediency while we worked on a more coherent account. Even if theistic belief really could make our present ideas about morality coherent (which it cannot), theistic belief would still need an independent justification.

Robbins goes on to write, "New Atheists . . . wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest." First, we're not challenging "theistic belief as such," because that term is too broad and ambiguous to have any useful meaning. We're challenging certain kinds of theistic belief. Second, we have a responsibility to address the cases for God that are actually used. ETA:Furthermore, we have a responsibility to address the kinds of theistic belief that are most problematic; Robbins' beliefs, besides motivating an insufferable smugness, are not as socially or politically problematic as "fundamentalism"; besides, every competent economist and businessperson will tell you to go after the low-hanging fruit first.

Finally, the arguments that are actually used, mostly the Aquinian arguments, really are the best; the rest are inferior, and many just vacuous bafflegab. (I'm amused that Robbins considers Aquinas to be a dullard.) Robbins offers what he presumably considers a good, non-dull argument for God (without God, we have no grounding for morality), which I just challenged (and disposed of) a few paragraphs above. I am not the first.

How to live: reflections on Michael Robbins

Jerry Coyne collects the sharp critiques (Maggie Clark's is especially perspicacious) of Michael Robbins' latest excrescence on the atheist/religious debate. (Coyne also makes a good case that Robbins is a whiny little crybaby who will neither stand behind his opinions nor shut up about them).

Robbins is at least obliquely correct: the project of every human being, individually and collectively, is to figure out how to live. But, contra Robbins, this is not a specifically religious project; it is a universal project, undertaken by everyone, religious and non-religious alike. Religion is just one specific approach among many to this problem. I am always irritated when religious people implicitly or explicitly claim that figuring out how to live (or any other common human endeavor) "obviously" and automatically requires reference to the divine or the transcendent. On this account, anyone who rejects the divine or the transcendent is therefore not trying to figure out how to live. But this claim is nonsense.

Every atheist, just like everyone else, is trying to figure out "a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live." And, of course, we do not object to religious people figuring out their own practices and conceptions per se. No atheist (that I know of) ever says that we should not try to figure out how to live. (If you can find an example, point me to it, so I can give the jerk a piece of my mind.)

I might (or might not) be nice if everyone could figure out their own ways of life with absolute autonomy. Regardless of what might be desirable, human beings cannot have absolute autonomy. We live in a highly interdependent society. Figuring out how to live is as much a social project as an individual project. All religions are social in this regard: religious people want to persuade others that their specific way of life, their practices, their "conception of how one should live," is better. For long periods of time, religious people considered their ways of life so much better, and the alternatives so much worse, that violence was necessary to force people to live their way. Although it might be the "last resort of the incompetent," there's nothing wrong with violence per se; assuming that violence was necessary, for example, to end slavery in the United States, I find such violence justified. And of course we routinely legitimize the use of violence to prevent (proactively or retroactively) murder, rape, assault, etc.

But it's important to actually get it right, to really know what better and worse ways of living actually are. And fundamentally, atheists are part of the social process of figuring out these better and worse ways of living. We think we have a

Atheists tend to focus on religion-as-truth rather than religion-as-a-way-of-life because the notion of the truth of religion is central to the religious project of figuring out how to live. It must be true that God exists, and it must be true that God wants people to live a certain way. Without these claims, the project of how to live collapses as a specifically religious project; at best, it becomes the "Church of God Who Makes No Difference."* And it is precisely these claims that "evangelical" atheists seek to undermine: it is not true that any God exists; there is no divine plan for how we should live. We have to figure it out for ourselves. And in fact we all, religious people included, are figuring it out for ourselves; religious people just use what we atheists see as a weird, delusional, and deeply flawed method of doing so.

*Egan, Greg, Permutation City, and if you want to claim that God makes no difference, you're just as much an atheist as I am.

I think it's really not fundamentally important, for example, that everyone understand and believe evolution. Sure, it's not that hard to grasp the basics (much easier than quantum mechanics), and it should be a part of everyone's basic education, but, frankly, society would not collapse if evolution wasn't part of general knowledge. Of course, atheists do criticize all aspects of religion, but many atheists specialize in creation/evolution. Some specialize because they think evolution by itself really is fundamentally important. Many, myself included, also oppose creationism because it is authoritarianism at its worst: the authority to decree objective truth. I think, however, that the truth of evolution is important precisely because it undermines the truth claims of many religious people. Without creation or theistic "evolution", human beings are no longer exceptional, no longer metaphysically special. We are just another mammalian species with relatively big brains and opposable thumbs. And, whether we like it or not, it's true that we're just another kind of animal. This truth undermines many (perhaps not all) people's religious beliefs: how they live depends on human beings being not only metaphysically but physically special. There's no other reason so many religious people fight evolution and not quantum mechanics, especially when the latter is far more subversive to our intuition.

I want to make a few side points.

First, Nick Spencer (whom Robbins quotes in his review) is mostly correct: "[M]odern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy." The point that Spencer misses is that politics, science, and philosophy are not separable; they are all in dialectical relationships with each other. It is precisely claims about science and philosophy that not only legitimize theological authority, but also encourage its abuse; to undermine that authority requires that we undermine the scientific and philosophical claims that legitimize theological authority.

Second, I want to talk briefly again about the existential angst atheists are supposed to feel. Robbins quotes Nietzsche, but his quotations are unhelpful, and I'm not a scholar of Nietzsche to have a firm enough grasp on just what he says, much less what he means. Perhaps he's just noting the immense social consequences of atheism in his own religion-drenched world. But I would more-or-less admit that, as Robbins quotes Nietzsche, we are left "with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become." I honestly don't understand why Nietzsche's idea is such an emotionally big deal. It's either true or false that the universe has meaning; the evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that the universe is meaningless, and I don't see anything to be gained by pretending that it is meaningful, however desperately I might prefer meaning. But I just don't care that the universe is meaningless. I'm still alive, I still enjoy life, and that I myself have to choose how to live, without any divine guidance, doesn't bother me in the least. It is perhaps noteworthy that I was raised to respect only justice, never authority, so I'm unconcerned by the lack of a divine authority to guide my choices. I've never heard any good reason that I should care, that an infinity of meaninglessness should scare me. It seems like the most egregious narcissism and infantilism to pretend the universe exists for oneself, and dread the loss of meaning like children dread separation from their parents.

Links July 27, 2014

Political Economy

I was poor, but a GOP die-hard: How I finally left the politics of shame (via to Mike the Mad Biologist)
Hillary Clinton, conservative Christian: Hillary's Prayer: Hillary Clinton's Religion and Politics (Mother Jones) and The Abandoned Orphanage: Hillary Clinton's Mother Teresa Moment (via PZ Myers)
The free market is an impossible utopia
The Lies We Tell About Lenin: Lenin and the debates that shaped the Russian Revolution have been misunderstood by friends and foes alike.
The Syriza of Spain: Podemos, Spain’s new leftist party, is challenging austerity and winning public support.


Almost everyone involved in developing Tor was (or is) funded by the US government
Powerful and Coldhearted

Friday, July 04, 2014

Paying for birth control

The argument that employers such as Hobby Lobby have a right to refuse to pay for birth control seems nonsensical on its face.

My employer pays for everything* I buy. They pay my rent, my food, my car, my beer, my movie tickets. All of this money comes from my paycheck. Traditionally, we hold that although my employer pays for everything I buy, they have no standing whatsoever to tell me how to spend it. We could, of course, make a different social decision about that, but if a principle of law is to keep things consistent, then the obvious answer is that the employer is paying employees in money, and employers cannot dictate what employees do with that money, whether the money is paid directly to the employees or passed through directly as premiums to an insurance company.

*Or would if I still worked a straight job.

Just that companies are mandated to buy insurance does not change anything. Companies have a lot of coercive mandates regarding my paycheck. They have to pay me the minimum wage, they have to pay me for all my time, they have to pay me on time, they have to pay social security taxes (mine and theirs) and unemployment insurance premiums, etc.

The whole point of paying employees in money instead of in kind is precisely to place the decision about what to consume in the hands of the employees. If we are consistent on the principle of payment in money, then we either say that employers have no say on how employees spend their pay, or employers have say over everything employees buy with their pay.

Of course, the consistency the Supreme Court is actually employing is that conservative employers have say over how female employees manage their sexuality. Women (especially women workers) are, of course, inferior, and women's sexuality is evil (unless they're having sex to pop out Republican babies and no orgasms please). It is of the highest social necessity that someone regulate women's sexuality; if we let government do it, we might end up with something (ugh!) democratic. It's much better to place this regulation in the hands of corporations; the owners of land and capital have been explicitly and intentionally insulated from democracy since the founding of the republic.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


"Fundamentalism" and its derivatives are perhaps the least useful words when discussing religion. Atheists do not object to fundamentalist Christianity or fundamentalist Islam primarily because they're fundamentalist; we object primarily to Christianity and Islam. Fundamentalism in this context usually just means more Christian or more Muslim, i.e. more bad; similarly, moderate Christianity or moderate Islam usually just means less bad, which better than more bad, but still bad. The problem in the world we New Atheists struggle against is not "fundamentalism"; we struggle against religion.

(More precisely, New Atheists struggle against a specific kind of religion. Human language is somewhat fluid, and people attach words to concepts willy-nilly, without philosophical precision; the word, "religion," is no exception. We are, on the whole, pretty clear about what kind of religion we object to: the idea that God exists, imposes moral duties, obligations and prohibitions, on human behavior. Given that a metric assload of people actually use "religion" to mean just this idea, our use of "religion" to denote the exact same idea does not seem at all confusing or ambiguous.)

I don't even know what "fundamentalism" really means. It has an ostensive definition: when attached to Christianity, "fundamentalism" just means all the things that that Christians use to distinguish self-described "fundamentalists" from "non-fundamentalists." (Similarly, mutatis mutandis, for Islam.) As a New Atheist, I am not particularly interested in theological disputes. Analytically, though, fundamentalism is used in three main ways, to denote the idea that someone believes:
  1. X is true and worthy of promulgation
  2. Some text should be taken literally
  3. X is inerrant

I am a fundamentalist in all three senses. I believe that communism, atheism, evolution, anthropogenic climate change, are all true and worthy of promulgation. I might change my mind that one or another were true, but today I think they're true, and worthy of promulgation. Everyone does this. I do not object because Christians believe something is true; I object because they believe Christianity is true. I believe that my textbooks should be taken literally, not metaphorically. When my economics textbook describes a relationship between the quantity of hats demanded and produced and the price of a hat, I believe they are talking literally about actual hats, actual dollar bills (or euros, etc.), actual factories, and actual people buying and wearing hats. Again, I don't object to Biblical literalist taking something literally, I object that they are taking the Bible literally.

The third meaning is a little more subtle. I believe the data are inerrant, but I want to be very careful about what I mean here by "inerrant." Inerrant does not mean veridical. Inerrant means that if the data appear contradictory, I must repair the contradiction by altering my belief about something other than the data. For example, if I am weighing bricks, and I my scale reports the weight of a brick as 1012 kg, then I have a contradiction between my experience of putting the brick on the scale and the scale. I cannot resolve this contradiction by denying the data: I cannot deny that I lifted the brick, and I cannot deny that the scale reported 1012 kg. I must resolve the contradiction by changing my beliefs not about the data but about the world. Perhaps I performed the measurement incorrectly. Perhaps the scale has changed so that it is no longer measuring weight or reporting the measurement in the same way it was a moment ago. There are, of course, a lot of elaborate ways scientists use to resolve contradictions in the data, but the one way that is absolutely forbidden is to say that because the data contradicts my ideas about the world, the data does not exist or should not be taken literally. (I cannot, for example, say that the scale is measuring the brick's happiness.)

In a deep sense, I mean exactly by the inerrancy of the data what Biblical literalists mean by the inerrancy of the Bible. They do not mean that if there is an apparent contradiction in the Bible, that the proposition is both true and false. Instead, they believe that they must add an interpretation that resolves the contradiction. Similarly, when the data from the double slit experiment contradicted data from our ordinary experience of of rigid objects, we had to add quantum theory to our interpreation of the world to save the data. No matter what our a priori ideas about the world happen to be, if the data contradict those ideas, it is the ideas that must change, not the data.

The change in focus of anti-atheist polemic* from religion to "fundamentalism" — when it is not just outrageous lies and (thanks, Dr. Coyne!), and Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning is a flat-out liar) — seems at best confused and at worst intentionally misleading. We object to "fundamentalism" only to the extent that "fundamentalist" something-bad is usually worse than "moderate" something-bad. That something bad is, in the sense noted above, religion.

*I do not object to polemic per se. Obviously, I believe that specifically anti-atheist polemic is incorrect.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Political economy, the Chicken Game, and hard work

The Chicken Game (a.k.a. hawk/dove or snowdrift) is a particular game theoretic payoff matrix:

Cooperate Defect
Cooperate (4,4) (5,2)
Defect(2,5) (1,1)

If player 1 chooses to cooperate, player 2 should defect, and vice versa. However, if player 1 chooses to defect, player 2 should cooperate, and vice versa. So there's no dominant strategy.

In the dialectic between capitalists and workers, for capitalists, "Cooperate" means paying high wages; "Defect" means paying low wages; similarly, for workers, "Cooperate" means working hard, "Defect" means slacking off. If both defect, if capitalists pay low wages and workers slack off, then the workers will starve (because they don't have enough money to buy food), and civilization will collapse. Contrawise, if both cooperate, there is a higher overall payoff (4+4=8) than if one cooperates and the other defects (5+2=7). However, because the individual payoff is better, there is an incentive for one player to defect if the other cooperates. In essence, whoever gets to defect "first" (or most credibly) will win; there's no incentive (as there is in the Prisoner's Dilemma) for one player to defect if the other has already defected.

Thus we can create the political economy payoff matrix:
LaborHigh Wages Low Wages
Work Hard Erehwon Capitalism
Slack OffSocialism Disaster

Let me be blunt: workers are no more altruistic than capitalists. If high wages are more or less guaranteed, workers will consume more leisure — leisure is a normal good, n'est pas? Economically, the effect of laissez faire capitalism is to make sure the workers consume as little leisure as possible. And, economically, the effect of socialism (the first stage of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as distinct from welfare-state capitalism) is that workers will consume more leisure: they will, as compared to capitalism, slack off.

(It may be more socially efficient under capitalism to have workers work harder than is strictly economically efficient; we don't want the workers to get the idea that they deserve leisure. And it is arguable that many of the problems of Communism of the Parties (USSR/PRC) was caused by their attempt (probably necessary to resist the capitalist West's unapologetic desire to annihilate communism and commit genocide against the USSR and PRC) to "square the circle" and try to get both hard work and high wages.)

The project of socialists and communists, therefore, should not be to argue that socialism and communism will get us to some sort of utopia where and the workers get paid well and everyone works as hard as they do under capitalism. That's an economic contradiction. Instead, we should valorize leisure.

One theme of capitalism is to valorize hard work. Most of our common phrases for hard work — initiative, can-do spirit, commitment — are positive. Most of our common phrases for leisure — slacking, laziness, goofing off — are negative. They may be vices we indulge ourselves in, but they are vices nonetheless. But why should this be so? Why should hard work be good for its own sake? Some goals require hard work instrumentally (I work harder as a student than I ever did as a middle-class professional, for a third the pay) but why should goals that require hard work be considered better just because they require hard work? Why is the Dude a bum just because he works only enough to live and indulge his relatively inexpensive passion for bowling? (The Big Lebowski works only because it subverts the preexisting trope of hard work and wealth good/laziness and poverty bad; the film would make no sense under communism. In contrast, Downton Abbey is sterile and boring because it fails to subvert the trope.)

Valorization of anything is only partly a project to convince people to value it. Valorization is more importantly a social construct to justify the punishment and coercion of those who do not valorize it. If hard work is a value, then those who do not work hard are "vicious"* and deserve to suffer. (Similarly, sobriety is a virtue; those who are not sober deserve to suffer just because they are not sober.) Hence the major argument and justification for capitalism's tendency to keep wages low is that low wages promote the virtue of hard work. If the working class received higher wages, they would not work as hard (at least not for long), and would therefore descend into the vice and decadence of lazy, unproductive activity. The capitalists are just virtuously trying to save the working class from their own vice! How can we not give such a project our most enthusiastic applause? And how can we not condemn (true) socialism as inherently and ineluctably vicious?

*virtue : virtuous :: vice : vicious

I say fuck hard work.

Not only should hard work not be a virtue, it should be something of a vice. If you want to indulge yourself in the vice of hard work, well, you're an adult and can do as you please, but don't act like you're any more proud of your hard work than you are of any of your other vices. We want a society where it's good that people have a lot of leisure.