Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Molly Ivins dies

Columnist Molly Ivins dies
Molly Ivins, whose biting columns mixed liberal populism with an irreverent Texas wit, died at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at her home in Austin after an up-and-down battle with breast cancer she had waged for seven years. She was 62.

Damn. I could always count on Molly to inspire me no matter how bad things looked. Her writing was a big part of why I got interested and stayed interested in liberal politics. She made me laugh at the absurdity of the world even as she got me riled up about its injustice; and there's no anodyne better than humor to keep indignation from spoiling into self-righteousness. I'll miss her.

My hat is off, so I can't tip it, but thanks to The Mahablog for the info.

The Scientific Method, part 2

In my previous post, we found we had a method (perception) of generating statements which so many people "mysteriously" (in the sense that the statements were not logical necessities) agreed upon that we are forced to consider these statements to be "true".

We also found a method (logical deduction) that relates true statements together. Again, so many people "mysteriously" (in the sense that one cannot directly perceive these relationships) agreed that deductive relationships were valid that we're forced to consider this way of relating statements to be "true".

Two great tastes. Maybe they'd taste great together [1]?

The biggest problem with logical deduction is where to start: How do we justify our premises? If intuition is sufficient justification, then why use deduction at all--especially when (as notoriously with probability theory) our deductive conclusions are in conflict with our intuition? If intuition is reliable enough for our premises, why isn't it reliable enough to reject counterintuitive conclusions?

How about statements of perception? We have this great process--deduction--but we're running into trouble justifying our premises. And here we have this great process--perception--that seems to satisfactorily justify statements without deduction. The blindingly obvious course is to use perception to justify our premises and then use deduction to acquire more knowledge from those premises.

It's so blindingly obvious that philosophers have at least spoken about the relationship between perception and deduction since the time of Socrates (if not before), even if, as Plato did in his early days, to simply dismiss perception as unreliable. Still, a contingent of philosophers, "Empiricists", labored for millennia to get statements of perception to work well with deduction.

As blindingly obvious as is the seemingly "right" way to merge perception and deduction--that is to use perception to justify premises from which we can deduce knowledge--this task turned out to be frustratingly difficult, for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that our statements of perception, while usually uncontroversial, in some cases yield what appear to be puzzling contradictions. Place a pencil, a usually rigid object, halfway into a bowl of water and it appears to be bent; take it out again, and it appears to be straight. Eat certain foods (like grain contaminated by ergot, or psilocybin) and suddenly one has all of these perceptual experiences that just don't cohere with anything. Most people can differentiate objects on the basis of color, but certain people--who appear normal in every other respect--simply cannot do so. Statements of perception, while "mysteriously" reliable, do not appear to give us the certainty we need to construct a purely deductive edifice of knowledge.

The second reason, as Hume noted, was that it seems impossibly difficult, even uncritically accepting statements of perception, to deduce something as basic and seemingly obvious as causality.

The next reason (which I alluded to in part 1), as Quine noted, is that it's not so easy to understand at a fundamental level what statements of perception actually mean. Yes, everyone assents to, "The cat is on the mat" (when they're looking at the cat, which is, of course, on the mat), but what precisely are they assenting to? Quine and the other "linguistic wholists" make a powerful case that one's entire linguistic apparatus (or at least a non-trivially large portion of it) contributes to establishing the meaning of statements of perception. The meaning of statements of perception is very complicated. Worse yet, since each person's overall linguistic apparatus is different, it becomes almost ridiculous to assert that two people who assent to the same statement are assenting to the exact same meaning.

Yet another reason, which Quine also noted, is that statements of perception are not really statements of perception. The "fanciful fanciless medium of unvarnished news" [2] is a myth. When we assent to "The cat is on the mat," we are assenting to an ontological statement, a statement about how the world is--or how we conceive it to be--not strictly about what we see. We need only a little introspection to realize that what we are consciously aware of is not the "raw footage" of our senses, but rather a stream of conclusions about how the world is, heavily processed and interpreted by our subconscious and preconscious minds. We can support this conclusion further by noting that even animals--devoid of linguistic capability--appear to have some sort of model of the world in their brains. It's implausible to suggest that an ontological attitude--a model of how the world is--can be formed only by the sort of language-dependent rational deduction which is philosophers' stock in trade.

(I'm going to only briefly mention a couple of red herrings which have diverted the project of unifying perception and deduction: The analytic/synthetic dichotomy, which Quine also spoke on, and that the core project of most philosophers has been to justify ethics, which is not (as I'll write on in the future) susceptible to even scientific investigation, much less the sort of axiomatic foundationalism which Empiricism has foundered on.)

How frustrating! We have all these great statements of perception, but they're just useless as an axiomatic foundation for any process of deduction. And we have this great tool--deduction--but we just can't find any sort of axiomatic foundation for it.

There is a way out. But to open this door, we have to abandon some philosophical baggage. Specifically, we're going to have to discard the notion that we can ever be certain about anything we have to say about the world, and similarly, we have to discard the notion that anything we can say with certainty is directly about the world. As Einstein put it, "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." Although some philosophers are not willing to give up on the notion of establishing real truth about the world with absolute deductive certainty (and more power to them), I think that after two thousand years of banging our heads against the brick wall of deductivism sheer desperation compels us to consider alternatives.

If we look at mathematical axioms and theorems, such as ordinary arithmetic, we notice two things: One is that the axioms are both simple, in the sense of not being composed of very many parts, and precise, in the sense of saying exactly one thing. For example, the axioms of Peano's Arithmetic [3] are:
  1. 1 is a natural number.

  2. Every natural number is equal to itself.

  3. For all natural numbers a and b, a=b if and only if b=a.

  4. For all natural numbers a, b, and c, if a=b and b=c then a=c.

  5. If a = b and b is a natural number then a is a natural number.

  6. If a is a natural number then Sa is a natural number. Here Sa denotes the successor of a, otherwise known as a+1.

  7. If a and b are natural numbers then a=b if and only if Sa=Sb.

  8. If a is a natural number then Sa is not equal to 1.

  9. For every set K, if 1 is in K and for every natural number x in K, Sx is also in K, then every natural number is in K.

The other thing that we notice is that the derived theorems, i.e. conclusions, of arithmetic are complex (composed of many parts) and rest on an enormous chain of reasoning. For instance, the basis for establishing the "occasionally useful" proposition that 1+1=2 does not occur until page three hundred seventy nine of volume I of Principia Mathematica, and isn't actually completed until well into volume II!

"Well, hmm..." says the philosopher, stroking his beard [4]. "These mathematical conclusions look suspiciously similar to our statements of perception." And indeed they do, at least in terms of their complexity and depth. "What if we go in the other direction?" What if we treat statements of perception as a more-or-less arbitrary collection of true theorems, and see if we can figure out the premises which would allow us to derive these statements of perception? And thus was born the hypothetico-deductive model of science, the third and penultimate piece of the puzzle.

We're going to throw out the need to directly justify our premises. Instead, we'll take the philosophically outrageous step of just making premises up. Since we're just making up premises, we can make them as simple, precise, unequivocal and definite as we please. But, since we're explicitly and intentionally making them up, instead of just taking them on faith (unlike others *cough* theologians *cough*), we're going to be a little more skeptical about them, and call them "hypotheses".

Since our hypotheses are simple and precise, we can deduce conclusions from them. More importantly, we can draw conclusions that correspond to statements about perception in natural language--without having to make very many assumptions about the intrinsic neurological or psychological meaning of these statements. Quine's objections no longer become fundamentally important; we don't need to know precisely what "the cat is on the mat" means. Rather, we're going to construct some hypotheses and deduce from them whether or not people will in fact assent to "the cat is on the mat," whatever that might mean.

We're not quite out of the woods yet; there's still one more piece of the puzzle.

We're going to make our arbitrary hypotheses, deduce statements of perception from them (thus forming an empirical theory), and see how well our deductions match our perceptions. But what precisely do we mean by "match"? It seems obvious that a theory should be "good" if it matches a lot of statements of perception, if it is verifiable.

But again we have a problem with an apparently "obvious" criterion: We can construct theories which match any and all statements of perception! Your friendly neighborhood psychic, for instance, predicts that you will take a long journey. Well, sooner or later, you probably will take a long journey. And even if you don't actually get on a plane and fly to Pago Pago, you can interpret this prediction metaphorically; perhaps the "long journey" refers to the difficult time you're having cutting through the bullshit understanding philosophy. In short, no matter what happens, the psychic's predictions will be "verified".

Professor Altemeyer gives us another excellent example of a Freudian explanation for authoritarian aggression.
Supposedly the future authoritarian follower was severely punished as a child by his cold, distant parents for any signs of independence or rebellion. So such urges were repressed. Instead through a reaction-formation the child became obedient, loyal, even adoring of his parents. But deep down inside he hated them. However the Freudian “deep down inside” doesn’t have a shredder or burn-basket, so ultimately the repressed hostility has to come out some way. Thus the authoritarian follower projected his hostility onto safe targets, such as groups whom the parents disliked or people who couldn’t fight back, and decided they were out to get him. That projection provided the rationalization for attacking them and, voila, you have authoritarian aggression--thanks to just about all the ego defense mechanisms in Freud’s book.[5]
The problem is that this "theory" doesn't predict how a patient will act. Anything you see is consistent with this theory:
Suppose you did a study of dreams and concluded that authoritarians greatly love their parents. “Ah ha,”the theory would say with goose bumps breaking out, “there’s that reaction-formation I told you about.” Suppose you found, on the other hand, that authoritarians seemed to hate their parents. “Ah ha,” the Freudians would remark, “Just as we said; their unconscious mind is so filled with dislike for dad and mom, it can’t be held back any more.” Suppose you found that authoritarians dream both good things and bad things about their parents. “Ah ha,” goes the explanation. “You see both repression and the true feelings are at work.”


Basically, Freud's hypothesis says, "If a person has repressed hostility towards his parents, his dreams about his parents will be positive (reaction-formation), negative (repression failure), or mixed." But this sort of statement is just a trivial restatement of the operation of logical implication. We could easily say that "If the moon were made of green cheese then either Superman exists or Superman does not exist." We can even rob the individual predicates of any referent whatsoever and say, "If toves are slithy then borogroves are mimsy or borogroves are not mimsy." That's a valid mathematical theorem of logic, but it doesn't tell us anything about the world.

The whole reason we're looking to science is that we actually do want to predict things in just the same way that Freud's theory doesn't predict what sort of dreams a person with repressed hostility will have.

Karl Popper rides to the rescue to put the last piece of the puzzle in place: falsifiability. In order for a hypothesis to be relevant, there must be some logically possible statement of perception such that the truth or falsity of that statement would render the hypothesis false through modus tollens (proof by contradiction). In other words, if your hypothetico-deductive construct says that, "If this hypothesis is true, then that statement of perception will be assented to," then it follows logically that if that statement of perception is dissented from, then either the conditional or the antecedent is somehow false.[7] If a construct does not meet this test, if it says instead that, "If this hypothesis is true then that statement will either be assented to or dissented from," then "this hypothesis" is not falsifiable; it's not logically connected to "that statement".

We'll throw in Occam's Razor (more in part 3) and put all the pieces together to give a concise definition of the scientific method:

The Scientific Method is the construction of a parsimonious falsifiable explanation from hypothetical premises which logically implies some set of verifiable facts.

In part 3, I'll talk about some of the philosophical objections, alternatives and refinements to the scientific method as presented here, including parsimony (Occam's Razor), coherentism, Pirsig's infinite-hypotheses objection and Metaphysics of Quality, some of Popper's relatively minor "mistakes", and perhaps about the difference between universal and historical/forensic sciences.

I'm pretty busy today, so I don't have time to go over this essay with a fine-tooth comb. I apologize in advance for any mistakes in grammar, spelling, and composition.

[1] With apologies to The Hershey Company.

[2] Word and Object, W. V. O. Quine, The MIT Press, 1960, p. 2

[3] I'll spare you (and myself!) the intricacies of set theory, which are not necessary to make my point about the simplicity of mathematical premises.

[4] Everyone knows that all philosophers are male, have beards, smoke pipes and wear threadbare corduroy jackets with leather elbow-patches. I still don't know how such luminaries as Elizabeth Anscombe or Iris Murdoch pulled this look off.

[5] The Authoritarians, Bob Altemeyer[6], University of Manitoba, 2006-2007, http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/, accessed 1/31/07, Chapter 2, p. 53

[6] Whom, despite never having seen a picture of him, and despite the fact that he's a psychologist, not a philosopher, I cannot help but imagine as having a beard, a pipe and a threadbare corduroy jacket with leather elbow-patches.

[7] It doesn't matter which, something is wrong.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Glenn Greenwald on The Conservative Soul

Glenn Greenwald discusses The Conservative Soul. Greenwald is always good, and this post is no exception.

Updated: fixed the link

Quote for the Day

"We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your mouldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a this year's fact. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity. Your miracles are too ancient. The witnesses have been dead for nearly two thousand years."

-- Robert Green Ingersoll, "The Gods" (1872)

Harper's on Fundamentalism

Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history
We don’t like to consider the possibility that [fundamentalists] are not newcomers to power but returnees, that the revivals that have been sweeping America with generational regularity since its inception are not flare-ups but the natural temperature of the nation. We can’t conceive of the possibility that the dupes, the saps, the fools—the believers—have been with us from the very beginning, that their story about what America once was and should be seems to some great portion of the population more compelling, more just, and more beautiful than the perfunctory processes of secular democracy. Thus we are at a loss to account for this recurring American mood.


Updated: Chapter Three of The Authoritarians is out. (Yesterday. I'm slow. Sue me.)

Update 2: My other reader[1] James F. Elliot suggests the following articles:

Let There Be Markets: The Evangelical Roots of Economics by Gordon Bigelow

Soldiers of Christ:
Feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters by Chris Hedges

Inside America's most powerful megachurch with Pastor Ted Haggard by Jeff Sharlet


[1] Other than my wife

Monday, January 29, 2007

Coming Attractions

My personal life has stabilized, but work calls and today is my third wedding anniversary. Here's what's coming up.

I'm working on part 2 of The Scientific Method.

After that, I'm going to be posting my thoughts on the preface and first chapter of Andrew Sullivan's book, The Conservative Soul.

I recently learned about Atheists, a survey of atheists by Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer (of The Authoritarians fame), prompting me to consider the deep and subtle theme of "dogmatism". I'll be writing about that soon (soon in philosopher-time, not journalist-time).

My challenge to theists remains open.

I read Andrew Sullivan every day. If he pisses me off provides food for thought again, you may be subjected treated to an extemporaneous polemic.

Now it's time for me to STFU and GBTW.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sorry about the delay...

I know I promised you updates on Sunday, but I'm dealing with a serious personal issue. I'll be back blogging as soon as possible.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Counsels of Defeat

Andrew Sullivan today quotes Leszek Kolakowski on the counsels of defeat:
Religion is man's way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith... One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if... ne accepts the order of the sacred."

I categorically reject such counsels of defeat and despair. I reject a retreat into delusion and lies in the face of death. I pity those without the imagination to contemplate victory. And I'm filled with disgust at those traitors to the human spirit who would undermine our chance of victory to justify their cowardice.

The hundred millennia and more of all of human existence is a merely a blink of the eye in the age of the universe. In that short time, the blind uncaring forces of evolution have shaped us, and we have shaped the tools--language, art, technology and science--to make ourselves as great as we can imagine ourselves to be. We can surpass any limitation, overcome any obstacle, and achieve any victory--even over death itself--but only if imagination does not fail us.

There have been billions of human casualties in our struggle against death. Perhaps, in the past, our religions have served some purpose in maintaining our morale in the long millennia of this struggle. Victory seemed unachievable, but still we fought. But not so today. It is not hubris, it is not vanity, to believe we can find victory in our struggle against death. Those who label such victory as hubris or vanity are traitors to humanity who would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I myself may fall in this great struggle, but I will fall still fighting; I will fall never for a moment accepting the counsels of fear, the seductive whispers urging the comfort of delusion against the inevitability of defeat.

And when--not if, but when--we win the struggle against death, we can have more, much more, than mere vanity or satiation with the centuries, the millennia, perhaps even the eternity available to our minds. There is an infinity of knowledge awaiting us, a vast and glorious universe to explore, and worlds in every grain of sand.

The contempt for the real is the counsel of cowardice and the failure of the imagination. It is the creed of the slave, willing to accept any suffering, any degradation, any delusion to save himself from the terrible burden of freedom and choice.

Perhaps I may die. Perhaps you may die too. You have a choice, though, the choice that not even the slave can escape: You can die in the service of comforting lies and flattering delusions, or you can die in the service of the truth and the greatness of humanity.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Pelosi in '07

Pelosi in '07

The Dawkins Delusion

There is only one man, one hero, one saint who can satisfactorily respond to Alister McGrath's hackneyed apologetics.

Not Dawkins, not Harris, not Adams. Only Carlin (PBUH), the greatest atheist saint since Robert G. Ingersoll.
In the Bullshit Department, a businessman can't hold a candle to a clergyman. 'Cause I gotta tell you the truth, folks. When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims: religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told.

Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man -- living in the sky -- who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

But He loves you.

He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can't handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!

George Carlin
Politically Incorrect, May 29, 1997
Everything else that we atheists do and say are mere footnotes to the Great One.

Rational Discourse

Andrew Sullivan's latest post in the Sullivan/Harris debate, Truth and Consequences, is out. And Sullivan simply falls flat on his face.

We have two kinds of beliefs: Beliefs that ought to be the same for everyone, and beliefs that do not need to be the same for everyone. We have perfectly good words which denote these categories: truths and facts in the first sense, and opinions, attitudes, and feelings in the second. It is precisely because we have a moral duty to believe the truth that religions have placed their claims firmly in that category.

Every church, every religion--including the Catholic Church--has for millennia insisted that their claims have the moral status of truth: that you ought to believe them.

The insistence that religious beliefs are truth is always toxic. Either we take seriously (and this, I think, is the sense that Harris originally meant) the notion that our beliefs are true, that everyone ought to believe them, or we vacate our notion that there are any beliefs at all that everyone ought to believe, that there is no moral duty to believe the truth.

That religion might somehow be true but "incomprehensible" or unknowable doesn't help. The rational response to an unknown or incomprehensible truth is agnosticism and skepticism, not arbitrary belief. I don't know whether there's non-terrestrial life. Arbitrarily deciding to believe or disbelieve the claim would be equally irrational, so I remain skeptical and agnostic.

Even that religion might not be known with "certainty" doesn't help. We don't know anything with certainty. (Although, according to Sullivan, the beliefs we know with the highest confidence, mathematics, "may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve.") If certainty is the standard, then nothing is true, and we're back at epistemic nihilism.

In one sense, no, nobody ever has to justify any idea at all to anyone else's satisfaction ever, at least not in the United States. You can believe the Holocaust never happened, that Kennedy was assassinated by the Bavarian Illuminati, that the moon landings were a hoax. You can believe in ESP, tinfoil hats, timecubes, shape-changing lizard beings, a 6,000 year-old universe and even the causal efficacy of prayer. You can believe--and even publicly discuss--just about anything at all and you can rest assured that neither I, nor Sam Harris, nor Andrew Sullivan will punch you in the nose because of your belief. More importantly, you can rest assured that neither the FBI, the ATF, the Secret Service nor your local police department will come and arrest you and put you in jail. No matter how weird, misguided, insane or just plain stupid I think your ideas are, you have a political right to believe them and a political right to freely discuss them.

But if you're petitioning the community of rational human beings to accept the legitimacy of your beliefs, if you think you have something to say about the truth, then yes, you do have an obligation to justify your beliefs. If that's "intolerance", so be it: I'm not going to "tolerate" Gene Ray, Paul Rassinier, Uri Geller, Kent Hovind or Sylvia Browne as members in good standing of the community of rational human beings. Not because I happen to disagree with their conclusions, but because they do not use anything even remotely resembling reason in coming to their conclusions. I don't want them arrested or assaulted--I'll tolerate them to that extent--but I'm not going to tolerate giving them the slightest bit of standing, legitimacy or seriousness in the forum of rational discourse.

Sure, we'd love to have strong scientific, empirical justification of religious truth claims (I'm not holding my breath). But hey, we rational people are open minded, we'll settle for something else, so long as it's at least within spittin' distance of scientific or even historical[1] rigor. We want something more than just Making Stuff Up.

But Sullivan gives us nothing. His entire argument is nothing but an elaborate version of the "deconstructionist" theme of, "Science doesn't explain everything, therefore anything I say is just as truthful and rational as science."
My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode.
This is a pure non sequitur. The incompleteness of empirical proof, even accepted arguendo, does nothing to establish or even "allow" the validity of religious faith.[2]

Sullivan actually admits that religious faith is irrational; quoting Hobbes, "For the nature of God is incomprehensible;" and quoting himself, "God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding." It is entirely absurd to believe one can speak the truth about what one doesn't understand. By that standard, I'm an expert on medieval French poetry.

Sullivan gives us another laundry list, "We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine," but yet again he fails to explain how any of these items do anything at all to establish truth in any sort of rational manner. He might as well list dance, song, sitting in a circle and holding hands, chanting 'om mani padme om', speaking in tongues or handling snakes. Even the UFO nuts and crop circle faithful have a more explicit and detailed (although still entirely irrational) methodology.

If Sullivan's admirable secularism and pluralism do not allow him to "force or even rig laws to encourage others to share my [truthful] faith", if the truth of his faith deals "with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus," then one has to ask: If not on truth, on what basis should we create our laws? Maybe there are two kinds of truth, truthful truths and non-truthful or less-truthful truths? It's absurd.

The epistemic relativism, subjectivism and deconstructionism of this latest epistle (including the irritating "spaces" trope) might earn him a graduate degree in "leftist academia". But without any sort of explanation of his supposed methodology, a rational person is entirely justified in considering religion to be inadmissible in (rational) public debate, ludicrous, irrational, and--while the charge of "lying" is unjustified--most definitely deluded.

After all, this is precisely the sort of rational "intolerance" that Sullivan applies to liberalism.



I want to separate out this section because the points here peripheral to the main point above.

Sullivan appears to consider some controversial philosophical points as being settled and obvious[3].

The historical sciences, including the study of recorded human history, archeology, paleontology, criminal forensics and physical cosmology, are fully scientific and emprical. Both rely on the same fundamental methodology: to construct the most parsimonious falsifiable logical explanation for a given set of empirically verifiable facts. In the case of the the terrestrial historical sciences, the facts are most often written texts and artifacts; cosmology relies on the facts of astronomical observation.

Historical and forensic sciences seek to establish a different kind of truth than "universal" sciences, such many physical sciences. Universal sciences are concerned with finding universal relationships, relationships which are true independent of any particular state of the universe. (Controlled experiments are a particularly effective technique of finding these sorts of truths, but they're not a metaphysical necessity.) Historical and forensic sciences, on the other hand, are concerned with finding a particular past state of the world, usually assuming arguendo our current best understanding of scientific universals.

The goals are different, there are a few techniques peculiar to one class of sciences or the other, but the fundamental methodology is the same.

There's an enormous philosophical controversy about idea that mathematics are or are not truth-apt (capable of being true or false), beyond the trivial observation that it is true that some theorem is derivable from some set of axioms.[4]

Materialism is not a necessary metaphysical presupposition for any empirical science. Most scientists take one or another kind of materialism for granted, but only on the massive weight of evidence of the efficacy of materialistic explanations.

Sullivan also throws in an outright howler. He quotes Harris:
I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.
and concludes that Harris has conceded a big point:
So you allow for a space where the logic of science and of materialism does not lead us toward truth, but may even mislead us about it, and lead us away from it.

It boggles the mind that Sullivan draws this irrational conclusion from Harris's remark. Harris himself does not draw any conclusion at all in his comment; he expresses only skepticism. Even if one reads in some implied conclusion, Harris does not at all state that he has come to that conclusion by any method other than scientific, empirical investigation. Even Sullivan's confusion about the relationship of empiricism to materialism fails to excuse this failure of rational analysis.

Moreover, why would Sullivan consider Harris's comment to represent such a big concession? Very few people--even religious people--consider religion to be specifically scientifically and empirically justified. The whole point of the debate is to challenge Sullivan to offer an alternative justification for religious truth (with empiricism serving as a template); just by participating Harris evidences open-mindedness about at least the possibility of such an alternative. But the burden is still on Sullivan to explain and justify his alternative. It is precisely because Sullivan considers this comment such a big concession that I'm rationally justified in interpreting Sullivan's argument in the logically invalid sense.


[1] The historical method is entirely scientific and empirical. See the section after the break.

[2] Sullivan uses weaselly phrasing here: He might be taken literally as uncontroversially allowing only the possibility that religion might be true; this sense, however, would be more clearly phrased as, "... allowed for the possibility..." I think the rest of the essay easily substantiates my stronger interpretation.

[3] To be fair, I don't think that any philosophical controversy at all has ever been resolved. Philosophers are still arguing over ideas that Socrates introduced almost three thousand years ago.

[4] See The Scientific Method (part 1) for more information.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Personal Responsibility and Rule of Law

As I've noted a couple of times, Andrew Sullivan asserts that, "[R]ational thought... is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law."[1]

There can be no better test of whether these principles are both rational and fundamental than the case of Genarlow Wilson, a seventeen year-old young man sentenced to ten years in prison without the possibility of parole for engaging in consensual oral sex with his fifteen year-old girlfriend. [2] (h/t to Lawyers, Guns and Money)

No one in this case, judge, jury, or prosecution, believes at any moral level that Wilson's behavior deserves this level of punishment. Even the state legislature has amended the statute under which Wilson was convicted to make his actions a misdemeanor. (Curiously, they explicitly did not make the change retroactive. [3])

If one truly believes that the notions of personal responsibility and rule of law are fundamental and rational, one cannot come to any conclusion other than that Wilson's sentence is unquestionably deserved, that it would be a gross violation of these fundamental principles to pardon Wilson. One cannot come to any conclusion other than that we should not only not wring our hands and "regret" the "moral" injury Wilson faces, but we must rather declare that any other "moral" notion is irrelevant and actively rejoice that these fundamental principles are being unequivocally upheld, and we should rejoice in exactly the same way, for instance, as we rejoiced that these selfsame principles were upheld by the arrest, conviction, and execution of Timothy McVeigh and life imprisonment of Terry Nichols.[4]

There's no logical wiggle room. There is no doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that Wilson did indeed perform the acts for which he was convicted. The statute under which he was convicted is explicit and unequivocal in its penalty. There is absolutely no possibility of substantiating any error anywhere--investigation, prosecution, trial, or sentencing--which might justify a pardon under the principles of personal responsibility and rule of law. [5]

Wilson broke the law, the law prescribes an exact penalty, and this seventeen year-old young man will have to take personal responsibility and serve every day of the those ten years in prison. Period. No one who calls himself a conservative in the Sullivan mold could say otherwise without making a complete mockery of his fundamental beliefs.

Of course, to any sane and caring person, it's obvious that these principles, while important tools, are not "fundamental" to anything. The fundamental principle of liberalism is human well-being: sensibility and sometimes mercy above deterministic punishment, moral justice above legal justice. Personal responsibility and the rule of law[6] are useful and important tools, to be used where appropriate to achieve human well-being and moral justice, but the tools themselves are not objects of idolatrous worship.

Perhaps Andrew Sullivan will wake up one day and realize he's the liberal I believe he truly is[7], rather than stubbornly trying one failed justification and idiosyncratic definition after the next to support and defend conservatism, which in real life has never been about anything more principled than more-or-less covert authoritarianism in the service of fuck-you-I've-got-mine-Jack material self-interest. [8]


[1] Vive La Resistance, 15 Jan 2007

[2] Wilson is black and the "victim" is white. But race doesn't have anything to do with this case. Not in Georgia of all places.

[3] See [2]

[4] One might even argue that under these fundamental principles we should condemn McVeigh and Nichols not for killing 168 people, including several small children, but rather for breaking the law.

[5] The idea that it falls within the "rule of law" for a governor to pardon anyone for anything is a trivially specious and absurd argument that obviously makes the principle of "rule of law" entirely vacuous.

[6] Especially in the completely uncontroversial sense that the people in a society under a government are best served by expressing their cooperative interests through the agency of objectively defined laws rather than arbitrary personal authority.

[7] I give Sullivan a hard time precisely because I think that deep down he's really a liberal, and is thus worth "saving". And despite the fact that he infuriates me almost every time I read him, I just can't help but somehow like the guy.

[8] I'm no Utopian socialist; at a certain level I think society is enriched by the tension between liberalism and conservatism (and I usually prefer pulling on the left end of the rope). I just think that someone like Donald Trump is a far more intellectually honest spokesman for conservatism than Andrew Sullivan.

About Me

When I first started this blog, lo, these many moons ago, I had the idea that--for a lot of reasons--I would write completely anonymously. That idea didn't pan out: I found that I wanted to criticize other people's (*cough* Andrew Sullivan *cough*) work, and it seemed unfair and unseemly to do so anonymously.

I'm Larry Hamelin. I was born in the 1960s (as of this writing putting me in my 40s), I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my wife and our cat. I work as a computer programmer and sometimes Chief Technology Officer for a startup software company. I raised two children as a (more or less) single parent; they're now grown and making their own way in the world.

I'm liberal/progressive politically and an atheist. These terms are very broad, so don't infer too much. I have an amateur interest in mathematics and science, especially statistics and quantum mechanics. I read a lot of science fiction. I play Go and poker at a strong amateur level. I don't have a television; Netflix hates me because I watch four or more movies a week. I don't read the newspaper; I get all my news from various blogs and Fark.

I'm pretty much self-taught at everything. I'm of the opinion that all true education is self-education; a formal setting just gives the student a (more-or-less) organized menu.

I had a terrific primary education at Brooklyn Friends School. I had a pretty good secondary education as well. After my junior year of high school, I took the California High School Proficiency test, and enrolled in UC Berkeley. I got bored after a couple of quarters and dropped flunked out to work as a computer programmer. Other than auditing some programming classes at Kansas University when I was in junior high, that's all there is of my "formal" education. At my more hyperbolic, I occasionally describe myself as a "high school dropout".

I became interested in philosophy in 1999/2000 when I stumbled upon the Straight Dope Message Board and then, more significantly, the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. (If you were around the Straight Dope in 1999, or Infidels in 2000 or 2005, email me and we can reminisce.) Although I learned a lot at both places, I ultimately found the discussion board medium too limiting. It's easy to build an audience on a discussion board, but difficult to present sophisticated material, especially controversial material. A blog has the opposite characteristics. I'd rather offer better content and build my audience more slowly. In any event, I'm mostly writing to my wife.

I think that my background in computer programming (and to a lesser extent my lifelong amateur interest in science) brings an interesting perspective to philosophy. You simply cannot bullshit a computer in any way, shape or form. The computer neither knows nor cares what you want or what you mean; it cares only what you say.

While I flatter myself as having skill and talent at thinking logically and rationally, I'm a very poor scholar. I have a great memory for ideas and concepts, but I rarely remember sources. I tend to read anything--computer programming, philosophy, politics, science--less to thoroughly understand what the other person has to say in any deep way, but to mine material for ideas and concepts I can use in my own life and work. So if you're looking any sort of comprehensive or authoritative explanation of what Kant or Hume (or Knuth or Booch) really meant, you'll have to look elsewhere.

One reason I enjoy philosophy is that, much like a computer program, any philosophical work (unlike scholarly "philosophology"[1]) has to stand on its own. Either the logic works, or it doesn't. A good argument is a good argument (and a bad argument is a bad argument) regardless of its provenance.

Another characteristic I bring from my background in programming is a ruthless pragmatism[2]. I'm interested in Getting Things Done, rather than finding some ideal of perfection or certainty. While I think truth is important and valuable, I'm not so much interested in Truth-with-a-capital-T. I'm more interested in thinking logically and precisely about some concept to help myself understand and make use of it; I'm less interested in exploring whether some particular way of thinking is Exactly The Right Way.[3] I think I have some real talent at finding the baby in even the dirtiest bathwater.

So... that's me. I hope you like what I have to say. If you don't, so it goes; my wife still likes my work.


[1] "Philosophology" is a term coined by Robert M. Pirsig in Lila, an Inquiry into Values to distinguish writing philosophy from writing about philosophy. I think the distinction between philosophy and philosophology is substantive and useful. Unlike Pirsig, I have no contempt or dissatisfaction at all with philosophology or even academic philosophy. I'm swayed to some extent by Matthew P. Kundert's 2004 essay, Philosophologology: An Inquiry into the Study of the Love of Wisdom, but unlike Kundert, I think that the distinction between philosophy and philosophology is still useful even though the categories overlap to some extent, and even though I disagree with the value judgment Pirsig originally attaches to the distinction. Maybe I'll write more on this topic.

[2] Every writer must, at some level, be in love with his or her own voice; I'm definitely no exception. As hard as I try to resist, sometimes I do bloviate; it's an occupational hazard.

[3] Just as I don't want to disparage philosophology, I don't want to disparage those who approach philosophy in a different way than I do; I could hardly assert that my way of thinking about philosophy is Exactly The Right Way.

About the Blog

I'm writing here because I have something to say, and an irresistible urge to say it. From what I've read, this is the only legitimate excuse for having the temerity to put words to "paper".

I don't have ads, I don't take donations, no one pays me for writing. I see nothing wrong with doing so, it's just not me. I can afford to write because I have a job I'm very good at and an employer who gives me considerable flexibility. (It doesn't hurt that I'm a part owner of the company.)

I have a lot to say; I think I could manage two substantive posts a day for the foreseeable future. But while I have flexibility, I don't have unlimited license. In short, I need to get back to work.

So I'm going to go on a disciplined schedule for the blog. Barring the unforeseen, I'll make substantive posts every Wednesday and Sunday morning (California time). Between substantive posts, I'll try and publish a quickie or two every day, at least a summary of the interesting things I've read that morning.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Challenge to Albert Mohler

Albert Mohler mentions that Richard Dawkins "never really takes on a serious theological argument, Orr rightly observes."

Theological "arguments" are, in my experience, of such uniformly low quality that I'm entirely unsurprised that Dawkins simply ignores them.

I am not Dawkins, however, and I'm more than willing to stoop to address theological arguments. What can I say, it's a hobby.

So bring it on. Give it your best shot. Construct your best argument for the existence of God. Email me a link or the whole argument, and I'll publish it along with my analysis of why it fails.

Update: I'll extend this challenge to anyone, subject to my editorial discretion.

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Back At Him

Sam Harris comes out swinging. He's not going to win on finesse, but he has the brute force of reason and facts on his side.

Andrew Sullivan, interestingly enough, reproduces only Harris's rebuttals to Sullivan's own points. I don't think Sullivan has accurately reproduced the "flavor" of Harris's comments, but he does honestly reproduce a substantive rebuttal.

The actual truth of Sullivan's religious beliefs is, of course, indefensible. Nor has Sullivan (to compliment him) even begun to master the sort of philosophical doubletalk[1] under which theistic philosophers--especially Christian theistic philosophers--bury their underlying irrationality.

It's still kind of irritating reading Harris's work, though. Harris is good at compling lists of religious stupidity, irrationality, hatefulness and violence. But he seems to have a hard time focusing on what I see is the fundamental point: That the (relatively) mild irrationality of moderate religion[2] just feeds and supports the virulent, severe irrationality of fundamentalist religion.

Moderate religion relies on the exact same epistemic basis (scripture and tradition) as fundamentalism; on that basis, fundamentalism has a stronger case. The only bases a moderate could possibly distinguish himself from a fundamentalist are conscience and skepticism, which lead inexorably to epistemic relativism or nihilism.[3]



[1] I.e. bullshit.

[2] In just the same way as the mild irrationality of moderate conservatism just feeds and supports the virulent irrationality of neo-conservatism, and sometimes as moderate leftism feeds fundamentalist leftism.

[3] I personally hold ethical epistemic nihilism and meta-ethical relativism: We can't know that any moral belief is true just because moral beliefs are not truth-apt. Lacking any epistemic basis, we have no choice but to rely on the relativistic meta-ethical techniques of propaganda and negotiation. Then again, I'm an liberal atheist, not a conservative moderate Catholic.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Barack Obama

Just so y'all know: The man's name is Barack Obamba. He's a Christian.

Yes, his middle name is "Hussein". Whoop-de-do. My middle name is "Ralph", which obviously means I'm a leading Christian conservative, a notable black scholar and author and a former CEO of American Express. [1]

Come on people. What are we, in Junior High?


[1] Y'all don't really need a footnote here, do you?

Andrew Sullivan Scores

Sam Harris lets down his guard, and Andrew Sullivan lands some substantial blows. I don't think it's a knockout, but Sullivan will win on points if Harris can't find some opening to wrest the focus of the debate back to the truth without appearing churlish or dismissive. And Sullivan is a pro; he doesn't often lead with his chin as Harris has done.

One simply cannot give a pro like Sullivan the kinds of openings Harris provides. Of course Sullivan understands religious fundamentalism, of course he takes his scripture "seriously"; saying that he doesn't just gives him the opportunity to change the subject away from the truth of his beliefs towards the importance and seriousness he attaches to them.

And it's simply an inexcusable blunder in a debate to accuse anyone, anywhere of deliberately lying. There's such a high burden of proof that even perjury is rarely prosecuted.[1] It's trivial to avoid this blunder: "delusion" has the same sense of astonishing incorrectness without the pejorative and difficult-to-substantiate sense of intent to deceive.

Sullivan uses these openings to duck and weave and avoid the question of the truth of his beliefs. Happily, though, he does more: He reinforces an important and serious issue in the debate.

Religious belief, according to Sullivan, really is important. And I have to agree. Religious narratives have not persisted in every human society for millennia just because people are stupid or evil. Nor can one simply abandon the idea that these narratives are somehow true in a way that mere opinion is not; without such truth, religious narratives dissolve into insubstantial Unitarianism.

It's not enough to get me to just give up my car to tell me that it's helping to destroy the planet. It's not enough to completely and thoroughly convince me that it's true that my car is helping to destroy the planet. I still need to get to work and buy groceries; I'm not going to sit and starve just for the sake of the planet. You have to give me an alternative; not necessarily even as good an alternative, but you have to give me something.

I still think Harris is right that the truth claims of the religious moderates rest on ground no more rigorous and substantial than intuitive "truthiness". I still think Harris is right that these insubstantial grounds help intolerant and violent fundamentalists more than they help humanity at large.

But Sullivan is right too: If you're going to do away with religious truth, what's the alternative?

Not since Robert Ingersoll has the atheistic community had any sort of powerful spokesman delivering a compelling narrative that pointedly excluded God. Secular liberalism has lost its thread. But even Sullivan's sort of ecumenical conservatism is in serious trouble, having ceded considerable control over the conservative narrative to religious fundamentalists and neoconservatives. Atheists are becoming aware of the issue, but there is still no coherent narrative.

But give us time. It's still been only about 150 years since Darwin put the final piece of the puzzle in place to render atheism more than weakly-justified optimism; Christianity required almost 300 years to get real traction.


[1] In his own response, Sullivan--unlike the anonymous reader I criticized Sullivan for publishing--uses a legitimate basis to change the subject; he walks through a door which Harris himself opened. And my charge of hypocrisy applies to Sullivan's own accusation rather than to his complaint about Harris's missive.)

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Scientific Method

I've held up the scientific method of acquiring knowledge as a standard to which I hold religious claims of truth. It behooves me then to describe what the scientific method actually is, and take the opportunity to explain why scientists use that method instead of another.

The scientific method does the jobs we expect a knowledge-creating system to do: It creates agreement between people, and it generates accurate predictions of future experience. I'm firm about the creating agreement criterion, but I'm open-minded about the "predicting the future" part. If you have a method of generating agreement, I really want some pragmatic reason why I should buy in to that method. Religion has a poor track record on both these criteria.

The scientific method starts off by admitting as evidence only facts, those statements that everyone can verify by direct observation. You can see what the clock, the ruler, the voltmeter, the gas chromatograph reads. Although as Quine notes, the meaning of statements about evidence rests on the whole edifice of language, but one's assent or dissent to such statements is a result only of observation. You might have to know the whole English language to understand the statement, "The cat is on the mat," but you have to actually look at the cat to agree or disagree with it.

As it happens, amazingly enough, huge numbers of people just all agree (or all disagree) with a mind-bogglingly enormous number of these sorts of statements. There's no complicated rational analysis involved, people don't have to think it through, they just look and see. I point to the tree and say, "Hey, that's a tree," and everyone around me (who speaks English) says, "Yup, that is, indeed, a tree." (Out of personal vanity, I'll refrain from reproducing their further comments on the subtly and perspicacity of such observations.)

Simply because everyone agrees (save a few benighted souls whom we simply arbitrarily exclude from the conversation), we label these statements "true" (or "false" if everyone disagrees). "True" is just a word; if we define "true" to mean (among other things) the same for everyone, then any statement to which everyone does in fact offer the same assent is therefore "true".

I'm not making any grandiose metaphysical claims here. I'm just creating an arbitrary label which I can apply to a category of my own experience. The only metaphysical claim I'm making now is that I'm interested in what I see people agree on.

This is only the first piece of the puzzle; all we've done so far is create a list of facts.

The second piece of the puzzle is the ancient Greeks' invention (discovery?) of deductive logic. They found that there was a pattern in our intuitive understanding of the facts we observe. If we use deductive logic from true premises, we always end up with true conclusions. And if we end up with a false conclusion, we can always trace that falsity back to the premises and never to deductive logic itself.

The Greeks were so enamored with deductive logic that they more-or-less discarded perceptual facts as hopelessly unreliable and admitted only deductive logic itself as a way to knowledge. This reliance was apparently gloriously vindicated by Euclid's geometry, which seemed to yield real knowledge about the world using only pure deductive logic.

But there was a fly in the ointment. To use deductive logic, you have to start with some premises, premises which themselves are not deduced from anything. At first, nobody cared all that much: All of Euclid's premises seemed blindingly obvious and beyond the range of serious doubt. All of them, that is, except one: the parallel postulate. This postulate just didn't seem quite as intuitively "truthy" as the rest. All attempts to deduce the proposition as a theorem simply failed, some more spectacularly than the rest. Nor could one just do away with it: Almost all of the theorems of Euclidian geometry which actually seem to talk about real world rely on this postulate.

Then Lobachevsky, Bolyai and Riemann blew the doors off the whole idea with their invention (discovery?) of Non-Euclidean Geometry. Suddenly there was mass epistemic confusion: Was it really true that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle was exactly 180 degrees? Euclid says yes, Lobachevsky and Riemann say either less or more. All of them appear to be equally rigorous in their deductions; the only difference is in that pesky non-truthy parallel postulate.

Deductive logic also faced difficulty on another front. Even the ancient Greeks noted that you could create apparently well-formed, intuitively meaningful statements in ordinary natural language that were self-contradictory from the standpoint of deductive logic. Epimenides the Cretan said, "All Cretans are liars." Is this statement true? If so, Epimenides is lying and the statement is false. Is it false? If so, Epimenides is telling the truth, which contradicts the assertion that he's a liar.

Again, logicians and mathematicians tried to mightily to wriggle out of these sorts of paradoxes. The most heroic effort was Whitehead and Russell's seminal work Principia Mathematica, which built an "elaborate system of types" to avoid paradoxes like Epimenides'. Heroic as it was, Gödel upset the applecart by proving that any logical method as powerful as Principia (powerful enough, that is, to describe ordinary arithmetic) was necessarily incomplete.

Deductive logic, while obviously a powerful tool, cannot stand on its own. On the one hand, it proves "too much": The angles of a triangle add up to exactly 180 degrees, they add up to less than 180 degrees, they add up to more than 180 degrees. On the other hand, it proves too little: You can't use any set of postulates to prove that those same postulates are consistent and complete. (You can prove the consistency and completeness of some set of postulates by using different postulates, but the same problem remains for the new postulates).

That's enough for today. In my next post, I'll talk about the failure of the Logical Positivists' Empiricism and the triumph of Popper's Falsificationism.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Yet another potshot

Andrew Sullivan's latest reply in his debate with Sam Harris is out. One statement jumps right out at me:

What you are doing here by the use of the word "lying" is imputing to the believer an insincerity you cannot know for sure.

Sullivan would never accuse someone of lying when he didn't "know for sure."

Oh wait... "[Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales is a liar..." Presumably Sullivan has developed psychic powers and is absolutely certain that Gonzales is being insincere.

Why Doubt is Important

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan agree that the biggest issue that we face today is "fundamentalism". Fundamentalism of any stripe, Islamist, Christianist and neo-conservative, threaten sensible, intelligent people of any ordinary political persuasion, liberals and conservatives (at least conservatives like Sullivan).

There will always be a core of people who are going to embrace some sort of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists can be effective, however, only if they can persuade a fairly large number of people who are not "naturally" fundamentalist to support their programs. Just as the core of truly fundamentalist Islamists have persuaded millions of otherwise peaceable and tolerant moderate Muslims to support or at least tolerate their activities, the core of truly fundamentalist neo-conservatives and Christianists have persuaded millions of otherwise peaceable and tolerant moderate conservatives and moderate Christians to support or at least tolerate their own programs--at least through the first six years of George W. Bush's presidency.

It is precisely the sort of epistemic vagueness, confusion and indecisiveness we see in religious moderates which renders them susceptible to persuasion by fundamentalists.[1] When fundamentalists claim to know the truth, moderates are left without a principled response because they don't have a clear, rigorous, principled method for evaluating the truth of religious or moral statements--for knowing religious and moral truth.

Of course religion is not the only source of epistemic confusion. But there are two reasons why I think religion, especially moderate religion, deserves special attention in this kind of debate. First, although religion doesn't have a monopoly on the kind of bullshit which preys on epistemic confusion, historically it's far and away the biggest and most prominent supplier.

More importantly, religions, especially the Abrahamic religions, rest on scriptures that were created during extremely authoritarian, oppressive and violent eras of human history. These scriptures were created in eras when activities considered today to be obvious moral evils--wars of aggression and conquest, slavery, oppression of women, absolute monarchical authority--were commonplace and unquestioned. There can be no doubt that a literal reading of these scriptures, even the Christian New Testament, support these moral evils. Moderates will thus always be at an enormous disadvantage trying to employ scriptural authority: Fundamentalists need only point to the text; moderates have to invent all sorts of fanciful hermeneutics to extract a modern morality from these scriptures.[2] One cannot help but think it is fundamentalists who are at least being more intellectually honest: They at least assert (usually) that the Bible means exactly what it says; moderates seems all too often to claim the Bible means the opposite of what it says.

By lending scripture any authority, religious moderates fail to undercut the fundamentalists' moral basis. And, since fundamentalists can use scriptural authority better than moderates, lending even a little bit of authority to scripture can only support fundamentalism. Rhetorically, as well the moderates' wishy-washy responses fall flat next to the fundamentalists' confident certainty.

Religious moderates cannot just eliminate scripture entirely. Without scripture (or at least some sort of authority), one's beliefs about God cannot be anything more than pure individual conscience. Moderates appear to be even more uncomfortable with such relativism and subjectivism than they are with fundamentalism.

Talking about "doubt" is just another way of talking about what it means to know something. Because scientific doubt is both clear and testable, scientists are clear about what they mean both when they claim to doubt a statement and when they claim to know it. If one scientist says he knows something, we can rationally evaluate whether he really does know it, independently of whether we like or dislike the content of what he claims to know.

Lacking a clear notion of doubt, though, the religious moderate can answer the fundamentalist's assertion of certainty only with, "Well, you can't really know anything at all," (i.e. nihilism) or with, "Well, I personally disagree," (i.e. relativism). If ethics really is a matter of truth, not opinion, and if ethical truth really does have a religious foundation, then the half-hearted nihilistic "doubt" of religious moderation does nothing except to strengthen fundamentalism.



[1] To be fair, there is no lack of this sort of epistemic confusion on the left, which renders liberal moderates just as susceptible to persuasion by leftist fundamentalists. It's interesting, though, to note that "leftist" fundamentalist totalitarianism has prospered best in Russia and China. One can reasonably conclude that Russian and Chinese totalitarianism is due as much or more to their their well-documented history of authoritarianism in general--and the concomitant lack of resistance to argument from "scripture"--as to any inherent fault in leftist ideals.

[2] Of course, even soi disant fundamentalists engage in their own fanciful hermeneutics. It's risible to imagine Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson taking Matthew 19:21 literally.

The Second Holocaust

Shorter Benny Morris: Let's do it to them before they do it to us.

Doubt and Faith

It occurs to me that the whole Harris/Sullivan debate is going to hinge on what Sullivan means by the word "doubt".

Doubt has a very rigorous, precise and unequivocal meaning to the rational scientific mind. It's more than a just vague admission that one might be wrong. Because scientific truth is established by evidence, there's always in principle the possibility that some future evidence might falsify what we believe to be true. More importantly, because evidence is central to scientific doubt, it has physical, perceptual meaning.

It is the clarity and physicality of scientific doubt which allows us to have a rational basis for belief in scientific statements. We can test any particular doubt, and by examining the evidence, decisively dispel it. General relativity predicts that a clock on the ground will run more slowly--by a definite amount--than a clock in orbit. If we doubt General Relativity in this way, we need merely to put a clock in orbit and compare it to a clock on a ground. We can do so, we have done so, the clocks are different, this doubt is rationally dispelled, and we have yet another rational justification to have confidence in General Relativity.

We can collect only a finite amount of evidence, but one can imagine an infinity of doubt. We can doubt even the rock-solid scientific principle that the laws of physics are the same at all times, a principle that has been scientifically tested a quintillion times: Every time anyone turns on a light switch, expecting the room to become illuminated today just the same as it was yesterday, and confirms that the room has indeed become illuminated, they are testing and overcoming a doubt. But tomorrow, eh? Tomorrow the light might not come on, the kettle might not get hot, not because the bulb will have burned out or the gas will have been turned off, but just because the laws of physics might be different tomorrow than they were today, and yesterday. It's logically possible.

So yes, we can always doubt in principle any scientific belief. On the other hand, precisely because scientific doubt is both unequivocal and physically meaningful, every time we do overcome a doubt, we gain rational confidence in the statement we are doubting. After we've tested a principle a quintillion times, we achieve a level of confidence that indistinguishable in practice (although not in principle) from certainty.

The whole point of scientific doubt is to establish a rational basis for decisiveness even given the lack of absolute certainty. Scientific doubt is all about evidence that we can, by definition, look at. It is precisely to because doubt has rigorous physical meaning that scientists can insist that any statement must have doubtable implications to have scientific meaning. And it is precisely because doubt has rigorous physical meaning that overcoming doubt can establish rational confidence any decision based on science.

What does "doubt" mean, though, to the religious moderate? It's not possible to doubt religious statements in the same sense as a scientist doubts scientific truth. Religious statements aren't established by evidence, so it's not possible that the actual evidence we see with our eyes might not match what the religious statements entail.

How does a religious moderate construct "doubt", not just to achieve a superficial feeling of humility, but to establish a rational basis for making decisions?

I think it's completely uncontroversial to say that Andrew Sullivan--as well as most self-described religious moderates--would reject the label of "moral relativism": Moral truth, in their view, really is truth, not merely opinion. And religious belief is the foundation of that moral truth.

Even absent perfect certainty, how specifically does their construction of "doubt" provide a rational basis for confidence and decisiveness in any way at all? "Truthiness" just doesn't cut the mustard: It is not a rational basis to believe a moral proposition actually is true just because it somehow "feels" true--even if one admits with faux humility that one might be "wrong" in some vague, unspecified manner.

The "room" for doubt in any scientific statement is in its epistemic basis: the connection between the scientific statement and the evidence it entails. Without this connection, there is nothing to doubt in the scientific sense. Where's the room to doubt for religious statements? You can't doubt the epistemic basis of a definition ("God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe" [emphasis added]) per se; a definition (by definition) doesn't have an epistemic basis.

Finding room to doubt religious statements, on some basis more rational and principled than arbitrary truthiness, is the challenge that Andrew Sullivan will have to rise to. To be honest, I don't think he will, because I don't think he can.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Potshots, part 2

In Just Books?, Sullivan passes along a reader's response to Sam Harris's latest response in their debate about religious moderates.

The reader blatantly misrepresents Harris's point, quoting Harris as saying:

So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves?

This is the entire quotation that appears in Sullivan's reproduction of the reader's post. What's missing is Harris's very next statement:

They were not, as your friend the pope would have it, "written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost."

It is plain that Harris is not calling religious scripture ordinary or quotidian; his further comparison to the works of Isaac Newton makes it plain that Harris is not engaging in literary criticism.

And it's clear that the reader responds to Harris's point in a literary sense. According to the reader,

It is absurd to claim that whoever - one or many - who wrote, among others, the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or the Tao te Ching were just regular guys writing regular books. [emphasis added]

In fact, the reader appears to agree with Harris's actual point:

But to say that the New Testament expresses the Holy Spirit is not to be understood either to mean that some kind of vapor descended from on high and penetrated the fingertips of Luke or St Paul.

It's pointless and futile to try to judge the intellectual integrity of an anonymous poster. But Sullivan chose to reproduce this particular comment, and he reproduces it, moreover, with only the editorial comment that he is "in sympathy with much of this." He fails to mention that the reader has misunderstood the argument, and that the out-of-context quotation misrepresents Harris's point. This isn't the biggest issue in the world (or even in Harris's response), but it's intellectual honesty 101 to get the sense of a quotation right, whether you're writing yourself or using your name to reproduce the works of another.

This is a perfect example of Sullivan's vapidity and truthiness I alluded to in my earlier post. The reader expresses a point which Sullivan presumably finds amenable and so an basic standard of intellectual honesty and integrity simply falls by the wayside.

The Conservative Soul, part 1

I really don't understand the political views that people describe as "conservative"; I describe my political views as liberal and progressive.

I want to understand conservatives. To that end, I'm reading two books: The Conservative Soul[1], by Andrew Sullivan and The Conscience of a Conservative, by Barry Goldwater.

I'm starting with Sullivan's book. I've just begun; I'm halfway through the second chapter. But I've already found so much to say that I'm just going to jump in and write down my notes as I read the book. With all good luck, I'll be able to pull it all together in a coherent review when I finish the book.

Before I begin, I should note that I have a lot of preexisting opinions about Andrew Sullivan, mostly on the basis of his website and published articles.

As a self-described liberal and progressive, I have an immediate bias against anyone who calls himself a conservative: I consider conservatives to be both evil and often stupid[2], whereas I consider self-described liberals to be sometimes good and usually at least considerably less evil, although almost as--if not equally--stupid. In any case, it's an open question whether the road to hell is most efficiently paved with good or bad intentions, so I try to keep an open mind.

No one can deny that Sullivan is a skilled and talented writer. Furthermore, although I dislike much of what he has to say, Sullivan is definitely not a wingnut in the mold of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. I admire his (hardly surprising) advocacy of gay rights and gay marriage, and his courageous stand against torture[3]. I appreciate that he supports abortion rights even though he personally finds abortion immoral.

On the other hand, Sullivan all too often makes statements--especially on his blog--which I find transparently vapid, delusional or just plain contradictory: It's simply beyond me, for instance, how anyone who approved of Clinton would support a reptilian buffoon like George W. Bush over Al "Bill Clinton without the Blowjobs"[4] Gore.

My overall impression of Sullivan is a guy who, if he gets a good idea in his head, can write eloquently and persuasively in support of it. On the other hand, if he gets a dumb idea in his head, he can support it just as eloquently and persuasively. On the gripping hand, it's my impression he doesn't appear to depend much on rational analysis to choose which ideas get stuck in his head; he seems to rely almost exclusively on "truthiness" in this regard.

These are just my impressions: I'm disclosing my own biases. The above isn't any kind of substantive criticism. As I read his book, I need to be consciously aware of my own biases and prejudices so I can at least have a chance of evaluating his work honestly. And my readers[5] deserve to know my biases in judging my review.

In my next post, I'll talk about the preface.


[1] Sullivan, Andrew. 2006. The Conservative soul : how we lost it, how to get it back. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[2] More precisely, as J. S. Mill put it, "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it."

[3] It's astonishing to me that in the 21st century a stand against torture justly deserves the praise of being courageous, even by a self-described conservative. Even John McCain, who's actually been tortured, is nowhere nearly as outspoken nor insistent as Sullivan.

[4] And without the charisma, of course. But a) one expects an intellectual such as Sullivan to see beyond superficialities, and b) Bush doesn't have all that much charisma himself.

[5] Well, I hope someone besides my wife will read this.

The Ethics of Workplace Romance

I kind of painted myself in a corner in The Scientific Ethicist, part I. But thanks to the magic of blogging, I can just ignore the questions I left hanging there and look at the question from a different angle.

Please bear with me and allow me some theoretical bloviation; or, if you like, you can just cut to the chase.

We saw that neither Aristotelian virtue-based ethics nor Kantian rule-based ethics give us an intuitively satisfying analysis of the issues of workplace ethics, and neither offers sufficient justification for acceptance contrary to our intuition. We need to abandon the whole idea that ethics in general is a matter of objective truth, and look at the issue in terms of subjective things like preferences, values and interests.

The first thing that jumps out is that there are actually four parties to these sorts of workplace romances: the supervisor, the subordinate, the company and the government.[1] Each party brings a set of subjective interests to the issue, both generally and in specific cases.

The supervisor and the subordinate are both individual people. As such, they generally have some competing interests in this context: On the one hand, pretty much everyone likes sex. Many people would like to find a "soul mate", a sincere, deep and fulfilling personal relationship. On the other hand, people want to perform and keep their jobs. They want to choose their sexual and romantic partners; the subordinate especially would prefer for his supervisor not to use the power of her position to coerce an unwanted sexual relationship.

These subjective interests come into conflict because on the one hand, we're at work to work, not date. On the other hand, we spend half our waking life at work, and the workplace is in fact a pretty good context for evaluating potential sexual and romantic partners; many people have begun satisfying sexual and romantic relationships from their work.

The government has interests which are far too complicated to even summarize; it's sufficient to note that the United States government has passed laws assigning civil liability to companies which tolerate supervisor-subordinate sexual harassment.

The company, on the other hand, cares not a whit for its employees sexual or romantic issues; and a company (not being a real person) doesn't have sexual or romantic interests at all; a company doesn't even have a basis for empathy in this context. Companies do, however, have a strong interest in complying with the government's laws. But again, the company has a conflicting interest in keeping its employees happy.

In a subjective analysis, none of these conflicts are contradictions. Contradictions arise only when you assign mutually exclusive properties to the same thing; it's not a contradiction to observe that there are different things with different properties (i.e. a person can have two different subjective interests).

The contradiction problem crops up all over the place in objective theories of ethics: virtues are both objectively good and objectively bad; rules are rules and non-rules; good rules promote bad virtues and vice-versa. Subjectivism is incomplete by itself, but any subjective analysis at least gets off to a good start by simply assigning these conflicting properties to different subjective interests, rather than to the same "objective" virtue or rule.

The whole exercise, then, of analyzing the ethics of workplace romances becomes a relatively straightforward exercise of game theory[2]. All the players have interests they seek to fulfill, and different moves which affect the fulfillment of those interests: enact this policy or that policy; approach or do not approach a supervisor romantically; accept or discourage a subordinate's approach, etc.

A side issue regarding the ethical nature of rules seem fairly apparent.

There are two kinds of rules: Rules which prohibit outcomes which people disapprove of directly, and rules which in effect prohibit outcomes which people don't disapprove of. Most everyone disapproves of stealing; the rule against stealing is just an extension of this disapproval. On the other hand, hardly anyone disapproves of supervisor-subordinate relationships per se.

The no supervisor-subordinate relationship rule really exists to prohibit sexual harassment, a side-effect of such relationships. In a sense it "over-legislates": Taken literally it prohibits both outcomes that people approve of as well as those people disapprove of. I think there are some good reasons for such over-legislation, but they're too complicated to get into right now.

In a subjectivist analysis, rules aren't "true" in any ethical sense. Rules are moves by both real people and abstract organizations to attempt to fulfill their own interests. In other words, we don't not steal because there's a rule against it; we create a rule against stealing to explicitly express our disapproval of stealing, usually through organizations like governments or companies. In this sense, the question, allowing exceptions--even arbitrary exceptions--isn't a contradiction (although it might be a poor strategy). A rule is just a move, which has counter-move of disobeying, which has its own counter-move of a punitive or tolerant response.

The Chase

In all the theoretical bloviation analysis above, I've very carefully not answered the practical question posed in the original thread: If a subordinate makes a romantic advance to his or her superior, should the superior accept it or reject it? In the infuriating philosophical sense, the answer is, "it depends." But I'm going to tell you precisely what it depends on.

It depends on how much you value the possible outcomes (positively or negatively), and your estimate of the probability of each outcome occurring. If you think there's a high probability of getting something you value positively, such as "true love", and a low probability of getting something you value negatively, such as getting fired, then it's in your best interest to go for it. On the other hand, if the best outcome you expect is something you don't value very highly (perhaps one episode of mediocre sex) and the worst outcome is highly probable (he's going to complain when I dump him), then it's in your best interests to refrain.

But what about the rule? The rule doesn't have any ethical value per se. The company did not enact the rule because it's "ethically right"; it enacted the rule to protect its own interests, primarily its interests in making money and not being sued. The company's intent was not to protect the superior's interests, nor even the subordinate's interests; the intent was to protect its own interests.

(One can, however, apply the same sort of analysis to what sort of rules a company should create, and how it should enforce them: What are the values of the different outcomes? What is the probability they would occur? "Spending time and money creating and enforcing rules," is one of these outcomes; considerations of efficiency come into play.)

The rule is thus an indication of how the company will act and under what circumstances. You have to look at your own company's rules and policies to try and anticipate how they'll act under different circumstances. Some companies will invoke the rule only if there's a formal complaint; other companies will invoke the rule if there's even the slightest evidence of a relationship. The rule (and other rules and characteristic behavior) affects the analysis not by establishing (or even recognizing) any kind of ethical truth, but by determining the probability of different outcomes.

The advantage of the paradigm (meta-ethical subjective relativism) is that it captures quite a lot with game theory about how we actually behave in ways we tend to categorize as "ethical". Furthermore, it makes falsifiable predictions. Subjective relativist systems of government, such as democracy--which just allows people to negotiate how values are fulfilled, without making many a priori judgments about values per se--should prove more stable than either authoritarianism or some sort of process modeled on scientific institutions. Furthermore, we should be able to infer people's and organizations' interests from a game theoretical analysis of their behavior, and those values should match the values we infer from talking to them; if the values don't match, we should be able to directly attribute that mismatch to a substantial strategic value of lying.

Of course, the huge question that meta-ethical subjective relativism doesn't answer--at least not directly--is why we persist in what can be called under this paradigm the delusions of ethical objectivism. The jury is still out, but this question may well be answered by scientific psychology.

Aside from ignoring a whole class of meta-ethical intuitions, meta-ethical subjective relativism is on pretty solid philosophical ground. It depends only on the premises that people have subjective interests, they act to fulfill them, and that the fulfillment of different interests (between different interests within one person's mind, and between different people) can come into conflict; all of these premises have good scientific justification. The paradigm has good explanatory power, and the theories and hypotheses which comprise it are falsifiable. It matches many of our intuitions about specific ethical situations, and gives us good reasons for abandoning those intuitions which conflict.



[1] The reification of abstract, conceptual entities such as companies and governments and the fictional attribution of subjective values to these entities is benign in this case. We can reduce an abstract company or government to a collection of real people with real values. And since real people create these abstractions precisely for the purpose of explicitly privileging some set of values in a particular context, we have an authoritative reference for what values we ascribe to the abstractions. So we can discuss abstractions like companies and governments using the same sort of language we use to discuss real concrete people with real subjective values.

[2] Technically, probabilistic game theory; the outcome of many of the moves can't be definitely known in advance. One cannot know in advance if accepting a subordinate's approach would result in "true love", but people can and do estimate the probability of such an outcome.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Potshots from the Peanut Gallery

Sam Harris is debating Andrew Sullivan on religious moderation. Unsurprisingly Sullivan wriggles on a logical skewer which only his impressive rhetorical talent makes even a little bit non-obvious.

First, let me briefly note Sullivan's argument from Pascal's authority: One can disagree with Pascal without denying his brilliance; his false dichotomy: Harris's argument does not depend on finding no solid distinctions within faith, just on finding a substantive similarity; and Sullivan's confusion about science: It is not because faith is "true" that science cannot disprove it; it's because faith doesn't actually say anything; there is nothing there to disprove.

That being said, let's move on to the "money quote:"

The reason I find fundamentalism so troubling - whether it is Christian, Jewish or Muslim - is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation). It is its inability to integrate doubt into faith, its resistance to human reason, its tendency to pride and exclusion, and its inability to accept mystery as the core reality of any religious life.

First, intellectual writers try to keep contradictory points, if not in separate paragraphs, at least in separate sentences. It's simply beyond me how Sullivan can condemn fundamentalism for its "resistance to human reason" on the one hand and its "inability to accept mystery" on the other.

More importantly, precisely how does one "integrate doubt into faith"? How do you "doubt"--in any kind of meaningful, intellectual, reasonable way--a "mystery" which "may be beyond our human understanding" (and, presumably actually is beyond our present understanding), a mystery for which Sullivan is willing to abandon reason for the sake of his faith?

These are rhetorical questions, of course. You can't integrate doubt with faith. Faith is belief without knowledge[1]; there's nothing there to doubt; you either have faith or you don't.

How can Sullivan possibly know, in any kind of reasonable sense that "both [reason and faith] are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding"? Sullivan can, I suppose, have faith that reason and faith are reconciled, but he certainly doesn't have any reasonable justification for doing so.

It is precisely because Sullivan is not as nutty as the fundamentalists (or, politically, the wingnut conservatives) that I find his position perhaps even more reprehensible. At least we can tell just by looking that the nutjobs are indeed insane; Sullivan distracts us with his calm, reasonable tone while he dispenses bullshit with a front-end loader, a mountain of bullshit that fundamentalists use as a platform to spew their lunatic hatred and violence on the world at large.


[1] technically, truth-belief without sufficient epistemic justification