Friday, August 31, 2007

Doubt, faith, certainty and conviction

I'll mention only briefly the contradictions, logical fallacies and outrageous hypocrisy—not to mention Godwin's Law for the loss—of John Cornwell's slanderous anti-Dawkins diatribe masquerading as an "essay", which The Guardian inexplicably saw fit to publish. We've seen this sort of bullshit a thousand times before, and we know how to spot the errors. We know too that fisking every ludicrous assertion and offense against reason, logic and sensibility will not penetrate a picometer into the faith-addled goo that passes for Cornwell's brain.

I'd rather discuss what Cornwell's title promises (although the essay does not deliver): "The importance of doubt."

Like most words "doubt" has multiple meanings. An equivocation between two of these meanings—lack of conviction and lack of certainty—is the central fallacy underlying much of the judge-nothing (but judgment), criticize-nothing (but criticism), tolerate-everything (but intolerance) bullshit postmodernist anti-atheist backlash. While certainty entails conviction, conviction does not entail certainty.

Cornwell clearly ascribes certainty to Dawkins. He does not in any way rebut or even mention Dawkins' actual reasoning: That Dawkins does not "doubt" (that he's convinced) that theism, superstition and irrationality are bad is by itself not only evidence of absolutist certainty but also of Stalinism and Nazism. (One must wonder why Cornwell's vaunted tolerance and pluralism, apparently higher ethical principles than mere truth, do not extend to Stalin and Hitler.)

To the skeptic doubt is not an attitude of non-conviction. It is rather a tool: It is the process itself of subjecting our beliefs to both logical and sensible scrutiny, and the commitment to accept only those beliefs which pass that scrutiny. We are convinced because we doubt, because we ourselves have subjected the belief to the scrutiny of reason. Doubt in this sense is the expression of uncertainty: One can be certain of a belief only to the extent that evidence—or even logic—is irrelevant to that belief.

The supposed coexistence of faith and doubt—in either sense of the word—is a transparent sham. To have faith in something is, of course, to be convinced of it. But can we, even with all the charity in the world, conclude that some believers do in fact "doubt" in the sense that are not certain of their faith?

I say no.

To be uncertain about a belief entails that you're going to subject that belief to some sort of externalized scrutiny. Naturalists use logic, reason and the evidence of their senses, and all but the most die-hard solipsist accepts that the senses are externalized. But religious believers do not do so. At best, the only "scrutiny" they perform is purely internal: "Do I still believe? Yes!" Absent this externalized scrutiny, even the "uncertain" sense of doubt is not justified.

So what do these doubting theists actually mean by "doubt"? They relegate beliefs about God to the status of mere opinion. In this sense, it's very easy to see the basis of their criticism of Dawkins, et al.: It is ludicrous to assert the truth of any opinion. It's just as ridiculous to assert that it's objectively true that Brussels sprouts are disgusting as that they're tasty.

But relegation to opinion does not employ the meaning of "doubt" in either sense: I'm certain, and thereby convinced, what my opinions actually are. I'm certain that, at least right now, that Brussels sprouts disgust me. I don't doubt the proposition in any sense. (Of course my opinion might change, and I will take the odd bite now and again to find out, but I know with certainty what my opinion is right now.)

And this relegation to opinion is bullshit anyway. Beliefs about God are beliefs about objective truth, about all of reality. To label one's beliefs about God as opinions is to say the beliefs are about nothing other than one's own self. But if that were actually the case, why take umbrage at Dawkins or any other atheist? Among the thousands of atheists I've met or talked with—some of them quite stupid—not a single one has ever asserted that the word "God" has magical evil mojo. Dawkins himself goes out of his way to mention that no atheist objects to "Einstein's God" and the like. (Einstein's word choice, trivially unobjectionable on its own merits, might have increased confusion among the faith-heads. But since the faith-heads seem thoroughly confused already, it's hard to measure any sort of actual increase.)

"God" is a matter of truth, and private "opinions" about the truth never stay private. The relegation of beliefs about the truth to opinion is a dishonest, disingenuous rhetorical tactic to both shield one's own beliefs from critical scrutiny as well as to denounce others' beliefs also without critical scrutiny. It is not only the antithesis of doubt, it is an offense against reason itself.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A critique of New Atheism

Poster mac_philo at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board weighs in with a critique of the 'New Atheism' of Dawkins et al. I have to concede one point: There isn't anything "new"—at least at the argumentative or philosophical level—in these books; theism as a rational topic was decisively destroyed by Hume, and the Enlightenment philosophers hammered the final nails in the coffin.

The poster makes one excellent point:
If they are anything like the anti-pluralist, anti-tolerance, and absolute certainty evinced by posts all over this forum, then they deserve liberal criticism of this sort, just as much as anti-pluralist religious claims deserve that criticism. ...

But when you get into the territory of finding those you disagree with inferior, worthy of no toleration or civility, and are convinced that your side is inherently smarter and that the world would be better off if everyone agreed with you, then you are as deserving of liberal criticism as any theist who shares that general approach to life.

Except for the "absolute certainty" bit, I have to pretty much plead guilty as charged. At the level of discourse, I'm definitely anti-pluralist and anti-tolerance. I do think that atheism is a more intelligent, more rational position than theism, and theists are typically less intelligent than atheists, at least when they're discussing religion, and often in general. To paraphrase J. S. Mill, not all theists are stupid, but most stupid people are theists. I do think the world would be better off (although of course not perfect) if everyone did in fact agree with me: If you don't think so, why bother believing anything?

(Of course, at the level of law, I'm quite tolerant, pluralistic and civil. I don't support making theism illegal nor do I advocate any sort of violence or economic coercion against theism, unlike some theists regarding atheists.)

The thing is, atheism is true and theism is false. Theism is all lies and bullshit. Why should I tolerate lies and bullshit? Why should I not consider lies and bullshit to be inferior in every way, intellectually and morally, to truth and honesty? Why should I tolerate con-men and parasites dressed in robes and collars selling "God's love" any more than I should tolerate con-men dressed in sharp suits selling the Brooklyn Bridge?

It's very amusing (once you get past the tooth-grinding hypocrisy) to see theists—usually the most judgmental of people—espouse this sort of judgment-free ethical relativism when it is their own ox that is gored. They can't defend their position on its merits, so they have to descend into the worst sort of postmodernism in responding to their critics.

What liberal media?

Thanks to Bradford Plumer of The New Republic's The Plank (subscription req'd), we get this wonderful clip (via Wonkette) of right-wing boyface wonder Tucker Carlson admitting that he's a gay-bashing, homophobic piece of crap while claiming the title of "least anti-gay right-winger out there." At least, so long as you don't hit on him. Otherwise he'll smash your homo face in while his friends from MSNBC point and laugh.

For the 24-watchers out there, getting hit on in a bathroom is not a risible offence, even if you don't like teh ghey sexx0rz (or, in true Republican Senator fashion, deny it for some 25 or more years). Under the law practically everywhere (except I think Florida and maybe Texas), self-defense implies a proportional response. Going to fetch one of your pals and then bouncing the offending individual's skull off a bathroom stall isn't self-defense: it's assault.

This bit also points to a complete news media abrogation of its classic responsibilities. In the past (and, interestingly, in Britain today), opinion journalism was just that: journalism that gave a shit, that had an opinion and reported on the facts from that perspective openly and with a commitment to intellectual honesty. In today's American media culture, opinion journalism means you can say whatever you want and be considered a pillar of political punditry and claim that you're the most gay-friendly conservative on the block. I mean, after all, it's not like Carlson tied that fag to a truck's bumper and took a long drive on a dirt road. And Scarborough thought it was funny, so it's okay.

Update: Via Brad Plumer again, here's how Tucker Carlson says the incident in question went down. This is most definitely not how it was portrayed on-air (he did not say that he and a friend "seized" the man, for one thing - watch it yourself). However, if Mr. Carlson is telling the truth, then he deserves an apology from me, and I so tender it.

"Let me be clear about an incident I referred to on MSNBC last night: In the mid-1980s, while I was a high school student, a man physically grabbed me in a men's room in Washington, DC. I yelled, pulled away from him and ran out of the room. Twenty-five minutes later, a friend of mine and I returned to the men's room. The man was still there, presumably waiting to do to someone else what he had done to me. My friend and I seized the man and held him until a security guard arrived.

"Several bloggers have characterized this is a sort of gay bashing. That's absurd, and an insult to anybody who has fought back against an unsolicited sexual attack. I wasn't angry with the man because he was gay. I was angry because he assaulted me."

[link to video fixed -- ed.]

The principle of luxury

The Sacred Slut writes on prostitution in Iraq. She has a good point: Why should prostitution specifically be more degrading than any form of labor coerced by necessity?
I don't think anyone should be forced to do anything they don't care to do, but life circumstances generally do require that we perform some form of labor to support ourselves and our families. Is it any more intrinsically evil or degrading to collect garbage, or do others' laundry or housekeeping, or to spend 50-60 hours per week in a grey cubicle doing mindless, repetitive mental work than it is to fuck a stranger?
While I agree in the very broadest of principles, I think her analysis is a little too shallow in this case.

I agree with the Sacred Slut: I object just as much to the coercion of physical necessity as I do to violent coercion (and I even have a plan for fixing it). But even in a relatively wealthy economy such as our own, the coercion of necessity is the reality, with considerable inertia. While I don't endorse cultural relativism as a universal principle, there are times when we have to make ethical decisions in the here and now, in a context that is manifestly suboptimal and non-ideal.

Prostitution is not universally (and therefore intrinsically) degrading or evil, but it is generally degrading, in the sense that most people do in fact consider it degrading. Similarly, we can might also intuitively consider serving coffee as not degrading, but having to do so in a bikini would be degrading.

We can reduce these intuitions to a consistent, fairly straightforward principle, The Principle of Luxury: If you would not do something in a pure luxury economy, where your physical necessities were given, it is degrading to do so from physical necessity. If you would do something in a luxury economy, it is still non-ideal to have to do so from necessity, but not degrading. Since a sufficient amount of luxury might persuade almost everyone to do almost anything, we might further refine this principle by comparing the amount of luxury one would require to do something vs. the actual compensation in a necessity economy: The difference is the degree of degradation and exploitation.

For example: I work as a computer programmer, manager and executive. Even if I didn't have to pay for rent and food, I would happily do the same work just for luxuries. Furthermore, I would do the same work for about the same amount of luxury I'm able to afford now, even after paying for rent and food. In this sense, I personally am not being degraded or exploited at all.

On the other hand, you'd have to pay me a hell of a lot of money—millions, really—to be a homosexual prostitute. If I had no other way to acquire necessities than to be a homosexual prostitute I would consider myself considerably degraded and exploited.

I don't think the above attitude toward being a homosexual prostitute stems from any sort of sex-negativity. I approve of people having all the responsible, consensual sex they want, with whomever they want, under whatever circumstances they want. One partner or many, men and/or women, missionary position or elaborate acrobatics, for money or for free; as far as I'm concerned it's none of my business.

But I personally don't enjoy homosexual sex. I'd rather work for a year as a computer programmer than have homosexual sex for an hour. Up the price to ten years, however, and I'd consider it. Therefore, if I had to have homosexual sex just to live, I'd consider myself at least ten years pay worth of exploited and degraded.

This principle seems both widely applicable and generally approvable (to anyone, I suppose, other than a die-hard chattel-slavery-approving Libertarian). It applies to both Iraqi prostitution as well as the somewhat less egregious attempted exploitation of coffee shop workers. It even applies in the opposite sense to truly consensual sex workers such as Renegade Evolution.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Republican civility

Dave's analysis at Orcinus is a must-read.

Of course, Nugent is just a fringe nutjob, right? All the responsible Republicans are tripping over themselves to denounce his lunatic violent rhetoric, right?

Let's take a look:

Michelle Malkin? Silence
Daniel W. Reilly at The Politico? "He didn't pull any punches." Ouch.
Sean Hannity? "I like Ted Nugent. He's a friend of mine."

They really do want to kill us all, you know.

Abortion and meta-ethical subjective relativism

How does one approach a contentious, emotional issue such as abortion from the perspective of meta-ethical subjective relativism?

Some people are ethically offended by abortion to the same degree as I'm ethically offended by the murder of any born person. Some people, such as myself, are not at all ethically offended by abortion itself. I really don't care one way or the other: Have as many or as few abortions as you please. What offends me ethically is interfering with the mother's autonomy.

The fundamental principle of meta-ethical subjective relativism states that there is no matter of objective truth to either position. If abortion offends you more than interfering with the mother's autonomy—or vice-versa—that's just a fact about your consciousness. In just the same way, if murdering random people on the street offends you more than interfering with the autonomy of the murderer—or vice-versa—that's just a fact of your consciousness. Science can undermine specious rationalizations (no, a six-week-old embryo does not experience any sort of pain or pleasure) but it can't settle the fundamental question objectively, by appealing to real properties of real objects.

Now, it's determinably true that murdering people on the street offends almost everyone, hence it's unsurprising that laws against doing so are uncontroversially accepted. However, it's determinably true that abortion does not offend almost everyone; worse yet, any law permitting or prohibiting abortion will deeply offend half the population. We can't just take a vote and go with the majority; the issue is too emotional, too important for such a simple measure. It's not a matter of raising the sales tax half a cent to pay for a new baseball stadium.

We could, of course, pick up guns and start shooting. At some point, most everyone left alive will have the same attitude (and the rest will pretend pretty hard), and we can go back to the preponderance of opinion. This is not a particularly efficient method of resolving controversy, but we do sometimes have to resort to it. That's how, for instance, we answered the controversial questions: Should Germany rule Europe and Japan rule Asia? But we'd like to find a way to resolve these questions without killing a lot of people.

One method we can address these sorts of questions is by "raising" the level of abstraction until we can find a principle that most people agree to and that most people agree to apply to the direct issue. This is the method that we use to address controversial questions such as what religion to profess, what opinions to write and publish, whether or not to allow the police into a private residence, etc. I may have to grit my teeth at Ann Coulter, but my desire to put her in jail for her horrible, offensive opinions is outweighed by my desire for the abstract notion of freedom of speech.

So what abstract principles can we consider to control the issue of abortion? The pro-choice side has several good principles: principally medical privacy and the higher value of the mother's sapience vs. the embryo's non-sentience. These are all good principles; moreover, they're principles I think should be universal (applying in all cases); I agree with these principle regarding abortion as well as all cases other than abortion. To prohibit abortion would violate these principles, which I don't want.

But, of course, I really don't care much about embryos anyway, so my position is biased. What about the principles the pro-life side promulgates?

The stated principle is, of course, that an embryo is unequivocally human, and we should protect all human life: To kill an embryo is then the ethical equivalent of killing any human being. This is not an entirely bad principle, but does it hold up as a universal principle?

One argument is that it's simply more consistent and "simple" to protect all human life, the so-called "seamless garment of life." But this position, when examined closely, is not particularly consistent or simple, being filled with arbitrary boundaries: It's more of a ragged, patchwork garment. I tend to value human life, but not absolutely: I have no problem with self-defense nor with voluntary euthanasia, and, while I'm opposed to the death penalty, I just can't get too worked up about executing a guy such as Timothy McVeigh. (Note that it's a fallacy to argue that if you permit the killing of some human beings, you must therefore permit the killing of any human being, as if all our moral beliefs must be reducible to a single principle.)

I also have to ask: Is this "human life" principle actually sincere, or is it disingenuous? For some, of course, it's completely sincere, but is it sincere for everyone, or even most everyone? One strong counterargument comes from the popularity of rape and incest exceptions. It would be a fallacy of reduction to argue that permitting the killing a rape-generated fetus entails permitting the killing of a rape-generated born child, but even so, the notion that some particular kinds of sexual relations would render the resulting entity non-human (or render a human being outside the protection of law) seems bizarrely counterintuitive.

Another strong counterargument is that most (but again, not all; I'm dealing in generalizations here, not universals) pro-life proponents are either strongly against—or only tepidly for—easily accessible birth control. You do not typically see anti-abortion protesters handing out condoms outside the clinic.

Applying the scientific method in a sociological sense, the simplest explanation that accounts for all of these phenomena is that the pro-life position is (in general) strongly influenced by the principle that consensual non-procreative sex is wrong, and that women should suffer the natural consequences of their wrong acts by bearing the baby to term. I simply cannot support this principle: I wholeheartedly approve of people having all the consensual, non-procreative sex they want.

I'm convinced that if you removed this misogynist and anti-sex plank, the pro-life movement would collapse. You can't even pass an anti-abortion law in South Dakota without a rape and incest exception. I'm equally convinced the pro-life movement would collapse if this plank were made explicit and taken to its logical conclusion: legal prohibition not only of abortion but also homosexual, premarital and extra-marital sex, even perhaps prohibition of birth control and non-procreative martial sex.

The whole controversy is being sustained on lies and bullshit. Just add the values of honesty and sincerity, and it's easy to find a level of abstraction that we can all agree on.

Unbridled immorality

Debating atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer, an Anglican Bishop exclaimed that if Ayer didn't believe in God, "then I cannot see why you do not live a life of unbridled immorality."

Well, I'm an atheist, and I do live a life of unbridled immorality. I eat pork and shellfish, ham and cheese. I wear cloth of mixed fibers. I work on the Sabbath, all of them. I've had premarital sex, and I liked it. I divorced my first wife, to our mutual benefit. I'm not gay, so I don't have sex with men, but if I were I would and feel no qualms whatsoever (and if you're gay, it's none of my business). I drink beer and coffee. Back in the day I used to smoke a ton of marijuana; I quit only because (dammit!) it now makes me sick. When and if I'm terminally ill, in great pain without hope of recovery, I'll have no problem at all committing suicide, and I expect—no, I demand—that my physician assist me.

In general, I live my life to please myself, not God. The theists are right: Without a God, the sort of arbitrary, purposeless strictures that constitute most of their "morality" make no sense. Since I'm an atheist, I reject those purposeless strictures.

So why do I follow those strictures that do make sense, that are purposeful? Well, stated that way, the question is self-answering: I follow them—and I expect others to follow them—because they actually do make sense. Rocket science, eh?

I don't kill people because I don't want to kill people—I'm sentimental and squeamish. I don't steal things because I don't want to, I don't rape, drive drunk, commit mopery on the high seas, etc. because I don't want to. It doesn't matter how it came to pass that I don't want these things—evolution, socialization, rational deliberation or the accidental wiring of my brain—it is an actual fact that I don't want to do most things that normal people disapprove of, because I'm a normal person. Furthermore, I don't want anyone to kill me, I don't want anyone to steal my stuff, it makes sense for me to pay for police and prisons, and it makes sense for me to submit to strictures that are in line with what I already want. I gain much and sacrifice nothing (or nothing much) by preventing myself from killing people.

My neighbors approve of most of my behavior: I have the same sort of brain with the same evolutionary history, the same sort of schooling, the same sort of upbringing and social conditioning, have read the same sort of history, literature, movies and television as 95% of my neighbors, and surprise, surprise, surprise, I have the same sort of preferences about my own and others' behavior. How could science explain that!?

There are a few other activities about which the U.S. government and the state of California and I do not see eye to eye, 'nuff said, but I'm mostly law-abiding. I'm a statistically normal person in a democracy. By definition, democratic laws tend to reflect the attitudes of normal people. My attitudes establish the law; the law doesn't establish my attitudes.

[Update: I accidentally cut the following paragraph; it helps make sense of the subsequent paragraph]

When I was on my way to Pakistan for the first time, I made the mistake of mentioning to my seat-mate that I was not religious. I was treated to a forty-five minute diatribe which can be condensed down to the argument: You have to believe in God so that—and I shit you not, he used this exact example—you'll know it's wrong to have sex with your sister.

This theistic argument is—like all the other theistic arguments—mind-numbingly stupid (the only sophistication you'll see in theistic arguments is in hiding the stupid parts). If the only reason I don't have sex with my sister is just because is says so in the Koran, then why don't I not want to drink alcohol just because it says so in the Koran? On what basis am I choosing? Contrawise, if there's an alternative cause for my not wanting to have sex with my sister, I don't need to read it in the Koran.

I know, Quantum Mechanics seems simple in comparison.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Political dimensions

Himself reports a conversation with a "fellow leftist" who apparently has only a single brain cell more than a retarded sea-slug. Yesterday I wrote a post in reaction to a blogger (who shall remain nameless) denouncing Iraqi defeatists as "lickspittle liberals".

The old left/right, liberal/conservative dimension is simply too simplistic to capture modern political debate. The whole debate, even among supposedly smart people, is degenerating into the fallacy of mediocrity: Two people have some feature in common, therefore they are identical in every respect.

I am passionately, vitriolically, totally opposed to the war in Iraq: It is immoral, illegal and is causing tremendous human suffering and death. Well, the Islamic jihadists are also against the war in Iraq. I am not, however, an Islamic jihadist. Just because I'm against the war in Iraq does not mean I'm for the Islamist agenda. Contrawise, I loathe Islam. The religion is absurd, the culture hateful, violent, stupid, oppressive and misogynist. But just because I loathe Islam does not mean I support the war in Iraq.

I'm a fairly tolerant person. I really don't care if you're gay, Catholic, collect Hummel figurines, enjoy bowling or golf, or eat escargot. It's no skin off my nose, you're not hurting me or anyone else. I neither approve nor disapprove; it's none of my damn business, really. But just because I happen to tolerate a lot of things does not mean I have any common cause with those morons who fetishize tolerance itself, who feel it wrong to judge or criticize any behavior—except, of course judgment or criticism.

Just because I consider the Republican party a blight on even the low standards of American politics does not mean I must therefore endorse the spinelessness and flaccidity of the Democratic party. Just because I resist ridiculous government intrusion on my private life does not mean I'm an Ayn Rand-deifying Libertarian; and just because I think we have positive ethical obligations to our fellow citizens and fellow human beings does not mean I'm a Karl Marx-worshiping Communist.

As Lincoln said, "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present." All of these dogmas—conservatism and liberalism—are not only inadequate but bankrupt. We are constantly trying to put square pegs in round holes, and, in the words of the anonymous wag, we end up only with the stupid and the very strong.

Many people, I suppose, don't want to think about anything particularly complex, at least outside their own area of expertise. I don't expect anyone, for instance, to think much about the complexity of the computer programs that I write: Does it work or not? Is it easy or is it hard? Does it deliver or does it drop the ball? We can't expect the ordinary person, working a job, raising a family and going to the odd ball game to consider every political question in the billions of individual nuanced dimensions. But neither can we any more afford the simple binary distinctions of left/right, liberal/conservative, Democratic/Republican, pro/con.

Worse yet, the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy does not represent a fundamental, or even a real, distinction. The distinction represents a degree of change; and not even a real degree of change, but the illusion of change. Liberalism represents the illusion of change; conservatism represents the illusion of stasis. But change or stasis by itself isn't fundamental. What do we want to change? What do we want to keep? Why? And, more importantly, how?

Human societies are ecological and, in a sense, evolved. They aren't designed, at least not in the largest sense, and everything is interrelated. Just on general principles one should be "conservative" in the sense that you can't make large changes to any ecosystem, biological or political; if you do, you'll be swamped with unintended consequences. On the other hand, ecosystems are always changing; they are in dynamic equilibrium; it is as much a mistake to try to keep everything exactly the same as it is to make large changes. Furthermore, it is a naturalistic fallacy to conclude that just because something exists in an ecosystem it is therefore "objectively" good. Everyone—everyone rational—"should" be a little bit conservative and a little bit liberal, at least as far as change is concerned. The authority of the past is purely instrumental and tentative; the authority of the future is speculative and uncertain; there's ample justification against accepting the authority of either as a foundational moral principle.

The old dogmas of liberalism and conservatism—insofar as they reflect an attitude about change itself—are bankrupt: Both should be replaced by a rational attitude towards change as an instrument to achieving other purposes. There are simply objectively correct, rationally determinable right ways and wrong ways to change a society. We must look deeper and start to discuss what we want to change our society into.

I have discerned two deep threads in political and ethical conversation: ethical authoritarianism and ethical universalism. I call myself an "anarcho-humanist" because I'm against authoritarianism (anarcho) and for ethical universalism (humanism). What is good is not established by any authority, political, philosophical or religious, but rather by individual conscience. But what is good I hold is good for everyone; when faced with an ethical dilemma, I raise the level of abstraction until I can find a principle I can endorse universally. If you like vanilla and I like chocolate, a dilemma, I'll abstract the problem to "eat what you please": I think everyone should (pretty much) eat what they please.

Even authoritarianism—ceding the definition of good* to an authority—is in a nontrivial sense a matter of individual conscience: You have to choose to believe that the Bible, or the Catholic Church, or Western Civilization, can define the good. But even so, we can still draw a meaningful distinction between those who do cede authority over the good, and those who do not.

*As opposed to the instrumental cession to an authority to define what is lawful.

Both authoritarianism and univeralism—pro and con—are choices: All four positions in any paired combination are logically and physically possible; there is no scientific or logical reason to consider any objectively true. Therefore, the choice is existential, and a matter of politics, not objective science; the only science involved are the subjectivist sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I can't argue for anarchism and humanism, I can only promote them.

So, counting rationality/irrationality**, there are three important axes of political discourse. Three axes is still complicated, and causes much confusion.

**If you object to the pejorative implication of "irrationality", you can substitute science-based and faith-based reasoning.

For instance, the war in Iraq is a struggle between two concepts of authoritarianism; an ethical anarchist such as myself has no sympathy for either side. Furthermore, it is a conflict between the more universalist authoritarianism of Islam and the exceptionalism of Western imperialism and colonialism (as well as domestic class exceptionalism). It is also, because it is a dramatic change to a political "ecosystem" (and the political ecosystem of the Middle East is particularly fragile) irrational a priori: We're guaranteed to cause unintended consequences to the detriment of everyone; it is being pursued incompetently as well. (Incompetently, at least, with regard to the publicly stated goals of its proponents; as a mechanism to simply loot the treasury and taxpayers it seems to be clicking along quite competently.)

The trouble is that if you criticize the war along one axis, you risk by your silence on the other axes to be held in agreement. If you criticize the war as irrational, it sounds like you would approve of its aims if only they were being pursued competently. If you criticize the U.S. conduct of the war on moral grounds, you sound like you therefore approve of the morality of the opponents. If you criticize Islam, you sound like you're in favor of the war. (I myself was accused of being pro-torture because I virulently criticize Islam.) If you try to criticize the war on all three axes, 90% of your audience will simply mutter TLDNR*** and move on to something simpler.

***Too Long, Did Not Read

There are two recommendations I would make, one structural and one intellectual.

The structural recommendation is to simply eliminate the Electoral College and pick the President by majority or plurality of the popular vote (perhaps with some sort of instant run-off voting). The Electoral College isn't even an anachronism, it was a bad idea from the start. Its effects are subtle but pervasive; I'm convinced the American winner-take-all two-party system, which forces every question into the utterly fictional Democratic/Republican dichotomy, is a direct result of the Electoral College. With a direct popular vote—especially with instant run-off voting—additional political parties representing varying points on all the important axes have a chance to gain traction.

It's not a big change, nothing nearly as radical and dramatic as, for instance, switching our whole political apparatus to a Parliamentary system, and there should be plenty of time for the rest of our political system to adapt naturally.

The intellectual recommendation is to my fellow bloggers and mid-level political analysts: Try to see not only your own positions but also the positions of those with whom you disagree along all three axes: authoritarianism, universalism, and rationality. Don't simply try to force every position into your preferred axis, and especially don't assume that if two people agree or disagree on one axis, they therefore must agree or disagree on both the other axes.

I'm tired of being called a "lickspittle liberal" or an Islamic apologist because I oppose the war in Iraq. I'm tired of being called a Soviet-style Communist because I think we do have some positive obligations to our fellow human beings. I'm tired of being called an apologist for torture because I loathe Islam. I'm tired of being called intolerant, racist and sexist because I criticize authoritarianism, exceptionalism and irrationality in anyone, male or female, left or right, black or white, gay or straight, Western or Middle-eastern, religious or atheist.

Einstein made simple

Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less
(h/t to geek links)

Update: Godel's Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable.
(h/t to Tom Freeman; link modified to point to free content)

Sunday, August 26, 2007


According to Forbes Magazine, whistleblowers who report fraud in the rebuilding of Iraq are facing increasingly harsh penalties.
For daring to report illegal arms sales, Navy veteran Donald Vance says he was imprisoned by the American military in a security compound outside Baghdad and subjected to harsh interrogation methods.

There were times, huddled on the floor in solitary confinement with that head-banging music blaring dawn to dusk and interrogators yelling the same questions over and over, that Vance began to wish he had just kept his mouth shut.

To hell with these traitors. They're probably all just Koran-loving lickspittle liberals trying to undermine the Glorious War for World Peace, Liberty and American Hegemony. </ sarcasm>

(h/t to Only in America)

Illegal Aliens

If you're not a Christian conservative, you're an "illegal alien".

And you know what happens to illegal aliens, of course:

Quotation of the day

Most of the clergy are, or seem to be, utterly incapable of discussing anything in a fair and catholic spirit. They appeal, not to reason, but to prejudice; not to facts, but to passages of Scripture. They can conceive of no goodness, of no spiritual exaltation beyond the horizon of their creed. Whoever differs with them upon what they are pleased to call "fundamental truths," is, in their opinion, a base and infamous man. To re-enact the tragedies of the sixteenth century, they lack only the power. Bigotry in all ages has been the same. Christianity simply transferred the brutality of the Colosseum to the Inquisition. For the murderous combat of the gladiators, the saints substituted the auto de fe. What has been called religion is, after all, but the organization of the wild beast in man. The perfumed blossom of arrogance is heaven. Hell is the consummation of revenge.

The chief business of the clergy has always been to destroy the joy of life, and multiply and magnify the terrors and tortures of death and perdition. They have polluted the heart and paralyzed the brain; and upon the ignorant altars of the Past and the Dead, they have endeavored to sacrifice the Present and the Living.

—Robert G. Ingersoll, Preface to the Complete Works

We don't belong here

Guess Who's "Illegal" Now?

Rev. Joe Fuiten, pastor of the Cedar Park Church, "carefully explains that Christian-based social conservatism is the way it's always been in America. And anyone who disagrees with that assertion or thinks it should be otherwise, is, he says — flat out — an 'illegal alien here.'"

Opus Censored!

The first censored Opus comic is available on Salon. It's sooooooo offensive (rolls eyes).

Read it. Watch the damn ad if you have to; it's worth it.

According to Editor & Publisher, "At least 25 of the 200 or so "Opus" client newspapers might not run the Sunday-only comic's next two episodes, which feature Islamic references and a sex joke." Is your newspaper one of them? If so, contact them and complain.

Defeat in Iraq

If we withdraw from Iraq, we're going to have to withdraw in defeat. There is only one way to end a war (short of mutual annihilation): with one side in defeat and the other in victory. That's kinda how the whole concept of "war" works, and before we start any war, we must ask ourselves: How far are we willing to go to assure victory? And what do we mean by "victory" anyway?

If we define victory as the removal of Saddam Hussein, or the neutralization of his threat of weapons of mass destruction, we "won" this war years ago: Why are we still there?

If we define victory as the creation of a stable, democratic government friendly to the West (i.e. that will preserve the West's access to Iraqi oil) we might as well wait for pigs to fly. A stable government in Iraq must be Islamic, will probably be Shi'ite, and will never be democratic: Democracy is not a concept which fits well with Islam, at least not as the vast majority of Muslims construe either democracy or Islam.

The only sense in which this war can be won is as conquest and colonialism. The only way to win the war in the long term is to occupy Iraq with Western civilians until the current Muslim population becomes an oppressed minority. We could win the war in the shorter term in the same sense that the Soviets won their conquest of Eastern and Central Europe by simply imposing a tyrannical foreign occupation using draconian oppression of the native population. But without genocide and occupation, such a victory would last only a couple of generations.

We might win this war. It's still a very close thing. If we elect a Republican president and Congress in 2008 they might just have the will to do what it takes to actually win in Iraq. It'll require more torture, more Abu Ghraibs. It'll require civilian reprisals: Hang ten random Iraqis every time an American is killed there and watch these fuckers roll over. If hanging men doesn't work, we can hang women and children. We are just as capable of doing what it takes to win as anyone else; and we have bigger and better guns and more people.

I hope we do not win this war. I hope very explicitly for defeat. Not because I have a shred of sympathy or shared cause with the Muslim world—I don't—but because I hope for a vision of the West, a vision forged in the Enlightenment and at least given lip service in my formative years. Defeat in Iraq would be a win for Islamic ideology and a loss for Enlightenment values, but victory would represent the annihilation of Enlightenment values. A defeat would be a setback, but "victory" would represent unconditional surrender in the larger sense.

The West that I love, and especially the America that I love is not a place, it's not a flag, it's not a uniform, it's not a collection of people, it's not a name; it's a set of ideas, of moral principles. And victory in Iraq would be a defeat for those principles.

Some see these moral principles as a luxury in time of conflict. Perhaps they are; perhaps a moral nation or culture cannot survive against the onslaught of those who hate liberty, hate freedom, hate pleasure, hate joy, and glorify in suffering and death. If so, so be it. I will no more support tyranny wrapped in the Stars and Stripes and reading a Bible than I'll support tyranny wrapped in the Crescent and Star and reading a Koran. If the cause of liberty is doomed, then I am doomed too, and I care not whether I'm doomed in Arabic or English.

The Greatest Bullshit Story Ever Told

Friday, August 24, 2007

Opus censored!

According to his official website Berkeley Breathed's next two Opus comics will be censored from a large number of newspapers nationwide, presumably because they are "offensive" to Muslims.

While newspapers do, of course, have a right to choose what they print, I don't have to approve of their choices, and in this case I don't approve. I haven't yet seen the strips, but what harm can can a damn penguin do?

The strips will appear on on August 26th and September 2nd; I'll be posting direct links on these dates. I urge all my readers to help embarrass these lame-ass cowardly newspapers: denounce their censorship (especially if your own newspaper censors them), publicize the issue, and read the strips.

(h/t to

Weekend videos

Since my stats drop off dramatically on weekends (perhaps because of church attendance?) I've decided to start a new feature posting cool videos on weekends. Some will be about atheism or philosophy, but others will just be (at least to me) interesting. I've got one doozy in the queue, so check the blog this weekend.

Ebert on religion

From Roger Ebert's review of September Dawn (zero stars):
In my opinion, when anybody believes their religion gives them the right to kill other people, they are fanatics. Aren't there enough secular reasons for war? But there is no shortage of such religions, or such people. The innocent, open-faced Christians on the wagon train were able to consider settling California, after all, because their some of their co-religionists participated in or benefitted from the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans.

Were there fanatics among those who ran the Salem Witch Trials or the Inquisition or the Crusades? Or the Holocaust? No shortage of them. Organized religion has been used to justify most of the organized killing in our human history. It's an inescapable fact, especially if you consider the Nazis and communists as cults led by secular gods. When your god inspires you to murder someone who worships god in a different way or under another name, you're barking up the wrong god.

The vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don't want to kill anybody. They want to love and care for their families, find decent work that sustains life and comfort, live in peace and get along with their neighbors. It is a deviant streak in some humans, I suspect, that drives them toward self-righteous violence, and uses religion as a convenient alibi.

That is true, wouldn't you agree, about Mormons, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and so on? No, not all of you would agree, because every time I let slip the opinion that most Muslims are peaceful and nonviolent, for example, I receive the most extraordinary hate mail from those assuring me they are not. And in a Muslim land, let a newspaper express the opinion that most Christians and Jews are peaceful and nonviolent, and that newspaper office is likely to be burned down. The worst among us speak for the best.
I might quibble with Ebert's wording ("secular gods" requires a metaphorical interpretation; "non-theistic religion" might be more literally accurate but rhetorically clumsy) but I agree with his sentiments.

One key idea from this passage is that "The vast majority of the members of all religions... don't want to kill anybody." I agree. But... and it's a big but: The vast majority, those who don't want to kill, tolerate and support the extremists who do want to kill. The critical idea here is ethical authoritarianism.

There are (at least) three separate concepts that get conflated under the catch-all of "religion": faith, theism, and ethical authoritarianism. Faith is the belief in the truth of unfalsifiable (and therefore not truth-apt) propositions. Theism is, of course, belief in the actual existence of a personal God. Ethical authoritarianism is the ceding of ethical judgments to some human authority. These concepts are intertwined: both theism and ethical authoritarianism require faith, and those who assert ethical authority often (but not always) do so on the basis that they are speaking for God.

One interesting case study of faith and at least weak theism is the Religious Society of Friends, popularly known as Quakers. I was fortunate to be associated with the Quakers for many years, from my childhood to my early twenties, a critical period in the formation of my ethical beliefs.

The Quakers absolutely reject religious authoritarianism: God speaks, in their view, exclusively to each individual's conscience. It's right in their doctrine:
With a book and a steeple, with a bell and a key,
You would bind it forever, but you can't, said he,
For the book it will perish, and the steeple will fall,
But the light will be shining at the end of it all

-- The Ballad of George Fox
The only real article of actual faith the Quakers have is that certain elements of conscience really are universal: Everyone "deep down" really does have love for all his fellow humans; some people are simply confused or damaged. They make up for this faith, though, in completely rejecting coercion:
If we give you a pistol will you fight for the Lord,
No, you can't kill the devil with a gun or a sword
They may judge you, they may shame you, but the Quakers will not coerce you.

Their theism is very weak, and exists really to explain the universality of conscience. However, they're pretty flexible on this point: So long as you have the expected elements of conscience, they're not going to get hung up on your theological interpretation.

I'm not a Quaker any more because I don't share their faith in the universality of conscience and the concomitant complete rejection of coercion, but, as an atheist anarchist and humanist, I'm still pretty darn close. And the Quakers are one of the very few religious groups I'm unreservedly happy to have in the world.

Contrawise, we can see faith and ethical authoritarianism without theism: The "secular gods" of Nazism and Soviet Communism, who ceded ethical authority to the Führer and the Party. It was not that the Führer or the Party had some sort of "expertise" to determine good; something was, rather, good by virtue of being asserted by the Führer or the Party. (The Communists tried to two-step around this authoritarianism, but the vacuity of their denialism is as transparent as that of the Catholic Church.)

I do think that Ebert makes a mistake—or at least doesn't go far enough—in excusing the vast majority of the religious. His own mistake is excusable: He's a movie critic (and, in my not-so-humble opinion, a darn good one), not a philosopher. I think he's right in concluding that the religious majority doesn't want to kill, but because they have ceded their personal ethical authority, tolerate the fanatics who justify their actions by that same authority. Furthermore the majority have absorbed some abhorrent cultural practices—notably the Islamic subjugation and oppression of women—by virtue of that authority. Undermine the authority and, as we've seen in the West, the implacability of that subjugation eases enough that it can be effectively resisted. It is wrong to demonize the religious majority, but it is equally wrong to hold them blameless.

It is only the religious extremists on the other end, those such as the Quakers whose faith completely undermines authoritarianism, that can be held blameless.

Anyone who asserts some authority to determine good, however acceptable we find the details of their ethics, is missing the point. What is good ought to be good by virtue of real people believing it to be good, not because the good is privileged by some God, prophet or scripture, be it Jesus or Ayn Rand, the Bible or Das Kapital. Authoritarianism, however benign the details, make two fundamental mistakes.

What is good today will be bad tomorrow. There are interesting arguments that Christianity, Islam, Communism—even Libertarianism—were reactions to the evils of their day, and better in comparison. But times change, and all reforms cause their own problems which must be corrected. By trying to establish good by authority, though, the reforms of today become the oppressive dogmas of tomorrow. Stripped of his mysticism, Hegel had a good point: The cycle of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is a fair description how our politics work. The mistake is to think we can somehow escape this cycle, that this cycle somehow leads to perfection in finite time. The mistake is to think that there is some grand synthesis, which does not itself become a thesis generating an antithesis.

Authority, however benign its rule, is itself dangerous because of Diderot's trap:
The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.

Michael Shermer argues that we should temper our criticism of religion presumably to avoid offending the religious majority which Ebert accurately describes as not themselves wanting fanaticism. I disagree, but not because I have a different opinion about what the majority wants, but because I think our criticism of religion must be harsh so long as the religious majority cedes their ethical authority to their scripture and clergy. To soft-pedal our criticism is to cede the battle over authority before it is even engaged.

If the religious majority does not wish to be associated with the fanatics, they must denounce not only the fanatics, but also the authority of scripture and clergy by which they justify their fanaticism.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Chamberlain of Atheism

In an open letter to Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens Michael Shermer speaks out against "militancy" in the endorsement of atheism (and presumably rationality, sensibility and metaphysical naturalism). Shermer is pretty smart, and I usually like him, but here he's pretty much completely full of shit. Brian Sapient of the Rational Response Squad does a good job of deconstructing Shermer's bullshit, but I think I have a few points to add.

Shermer has fallen hook, line and sinker for the technique of caging and framing, which philosopher Steve Gimbel eloquently describes. Theists want to allow only the manner of the presentation to be discussed; the actual substantive points are caged and left undiscussed. Then that one point is framed in terms of atheists' supposed hostility; the lie of militancy (of course no atheist actually supports opposing theism by military force) has been shouted so often by the theists that even a supposed skeptic such as Shermer swallows it, along with its negative connotations.

That Shermer has swallowed the theists' big lie of "militant" atheism is made obvious by his inclusion of Dawkins and, inexplicably, Dennett on the list. If there were ever two people who exemplified the complete opposite of hostility and even the most broad metaphorical interpretation of "militancy", they are Richard Dawkins and especially Daniel Dennett.

Shermer asks us to "raise our consciousness". He gives us "reasons" to do so, but he doesn't tell us anything at all about what he actually means by this term; Shermer seems to be channeling Deepak Chopra or Sylvia Brown. Shermer then regurgitates the Christian Right's talking points about atheism.

"Anti-something movements by themselves will fail." Well duh. But "atheism" is not, and never has been just anti-religious. The movement is pro-science, pro-reason, pro-logic, pro-common sense, pro-humanist. It is theism, especially Christianity and Islam, which are the "anti-something movements"; the only thing they're for is continuation of their own parasitic authoritarianism.

He continues with this theme: "Positive assertions are necessary." Again, duh. Has Shermer even read the authors to whom he's addressing his letter? All of these books talk positively about the value of reason, rationality, science and humanistic sensibilities. Shermer quotes Charles Darwin, "It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science." That's worked out really well: For his reticence Darwin is one of the most respected figures even among the most extremist Christianity... well, perhaps not.

"Rational is as rational does. ...It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind." Good grief. The blatant, manifest stupidity of this statement boggles my mind. Does Shermer actually think that the hostile and condescending tone of religion towards science and rationality is some sort of reaction to the atheists starting a pissing contest? I simply cannot imagine that an educated person in the 21st century would say such inane blather. From Tertullian's, "I believe because it is absurd," to the arrest of Galileo to Martin Luther's, "Reason is a whore," the bitter enmity of religion to rationality and sensibility long precedes even the Enlightenment, much less modern atheism.

Shermer seems to think that the entire 1960s black civil rights movement sprang Athena-like from Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. Now this is a terrific speech, and Dr. King was a terrific guy, but there were a lot of other people involved in the civil rights movement, from the Black Panthers to Malcolm X.
The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest consciousness raiser of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his epic "I Have a Dream" speech: "In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.
King here is exhorting his listeners to not engage in vengeance, retaliation, terrorism, the kind of terrorism and murder that had been used against them. It is not only misguided but utterly despicable to implicitly accuse the atheist community of even contemplating such measures. Perhaps Hitchens, with his support of the Iraq war (and this support is not widely shared in the atheist community), deserves such a warning, but only in the most oblique sense.

Prejudgment is foolish, but theism has had tens of thousands of years to declare itself; it is judgment itself that Shermer seems to denounce. Again, one wonders if Shermer has even read or listened to King's speech:
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"
That sure sounds like a judgment—and quite a harsh one—to me.

"Promote freedom of belief and disbelief." Shermer seems to feel that atheists, especially those he names, oppose the First Amendment and freedom of thought. There's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any of the mentioned writers even slightly support such a position; perhaps Shermer has had a divine revelation. It is Shermer himself who betrays this principle: he is asking us to remain silent, not because of the falsity of our criticism but because criticism is disrespectful and intolerant. The massive hypocrisy and contradiction of that stance is obvious: Shermer is clearly himself disrespectful and intolerant of criticism of theism.

Shermer would support the value of freedom only by denouncing our own, to condemn our own "militancy" while quoting King's praise of the "marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community," to chasten us for our presumed negativity in an entirely negative article, and to speak in favor of skepticism by uncritically regurgitating theistic propaganda.

Shermer is more than just mistaken. He is an appeaser, the Chamberlain of the atheist movement. He would have us be Albigensians, and we all know how well that turned out.

Lies and bullshit

A new Christian commenter, Rhology*, has recently given us a perfect example of theistic shuck and jive, lies and bullshit, tales told by idiots, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."**

*It's all good publicity if they get your name right, eh?
**The quotation is, of course, out of context.

In a discussion on my ethics, Rhology hinges his counterargument on the proof that the Bible is the word of God. (I've condensed the discussion; you can read the entire text in the linked comments.)

I asked, "Why should I assume there's any correlation whatsoever between what you say and what God wants?"

His whole argument hinges on this point; he mentions earlier, "But if God has self-revealed in the Bible, then it's not arrogant at all [to believe there's a correlation].

"Not asking you to assume it," Rhology responded, "I'll be happy to provide biblical documentation at any time, just ask."

I'm not about to pass up so generous an offer! I ask, "Submit an essay in your own words... proving the divine provenance of the Bible and... I'll publish it on the front page of the blog."

And here comes the inevitable shuck and jive.

Suddenly he's not quite so happy. Asked if he can scientifically prove a divine provenance for The Bible, he answers unequivocally, "On historical terms, yes." But will he supply the proof? Apparently not: "Hmm, I guess I could. Or better yet I could just link to 10 of them. But it wouldn't do any good. Why? B/c you presuppose its untruth and so would refuse any evidence I gave you." Apparently, I "would use reason and logical arguments to try to prove its untruth." How mean of me!

So he can provide the proof! (Or, so much better, links to proofs, because we all know that if ten sites on the Internet say it, it must be true.) But I would ignore it because I both presuppose its falsity and I'll prove its falsity with reason and logic.

But of course, when pressed for the actual proof, it's not a matter of proof, it's really a matter of metaphysics: "How could one "scientifically" test metaphysical claims? It's a clumsy question." Well, yes, it's a clumsy question, but it's one that he was supposedly happy to answer, one that he practically begged me to ask.

He descends into that murky quagmire of philosophical bullshit quaintly known as Presuppositional Metaphysics: "In [using reason and logical arguments], you'd be assuming that reason and logic are workable, are objective. Yet as an atheist, you'd have no basis to think that, so you're borrowing from the Christian worldview to poke holes in the Christian worldview. This is the sad predicament of the atheist."

Of course, Rhology is stating a canard and a blatant falsehood when he says that I "presuppose its untruth and so would refuse any evidence." My metaphysical position is a matter of record, albeit cleverly hidden under the metaphysics label on the sidebar. I presuppose nothing, true or false, about God or the Bible, and I explicitly state the absolute metaphysical primacy of evidence.

I accused Rhology of being a liar for the above statement, but I feel I must, in all honesty, retract the charge. To lie, one must know the truth; even to bullshit, one must have disdain for the truth, but the more charitable interpretation would be to conclude that Rhology is so deeply deluded, so utterly brainwashed, that he's simply unable to comprehend even the notion of truth.

And that's the fundamental evil of religion. This happens every time: Not just Rhology but even the most liberal, ordinarily sensible religious people will sooner or later come up against some truth incompatible with their fantasy world, and it's like their brains just seize up. It's not that they're actually lying or even bullshitting, it's just that the whole part of the brain concerned with ordinary notions of truth shuts down and the most amazing blather comes out of their mouths.

I don't think there's anything we can do about people such as Rhology. The best we can hope for is to simply expose their insanity as often and as directly as possible, so that ordinary, sensible people, puzzled by this weirdness, will not simply accept it as normal and think they are the ones insane.

I Am the Very Model of a Modern Libertarian

I Am the Very Model of a Modern Libertarian
by Kim Plofker
I am the very model of a modern Libertarian:
I teem with glowing notions for proposals millenarian,
I've nothing but contempt for ideologies collectivist
(My own ideas of social good tend more toward the Objectivist).
You see, I've just discovered, by my intellectual bravery,
That civic obligations are all tantamount to slavery;
And thus that ancient pastime, viz., complaining of taxation,
Assumes the glorious aspect of a war for liberation!

You really must admit it's a delightful revelation:
To bitch about your taxes is to fight for liberation!

The rest is just as good, or better.

(h/t to Cynical Chick at Rants 'n Raves)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Thinking Blogger Award, redux

Yet again, I'm forced by my conscience to remove the award. Oh well.

Freedom from economic tyranny

In my previous essay I ranted about our incoherent attitudes towards work. Furthermore, DBB exhorts me to describe what I would do as "dictator". Here's my answer.

(Full disclosure: I learned of the basic concepts of this article from the work of science fiction author Mack Reynolds. I get a lot of my ideas from science fiction, so sue me.)

Create a government-chartered corporation. Acquire, by dilution, 50% of the common stock of all the public corporations doing business in the United States. End corporate taxation and this action will be revenue neutral. Create twice the adult population of common shares of this corporation. Give each adult one share, and he or she is entitled to the derivative dividends. Split the stock as necessary to keep the value stable and to translate greater capital wealth to greater dividend income. (This plan has the added benefit that we can base the dollar on something tangible, instead of the creditworthiness of the government.) The government will keep a quarter for its own income, and sell a quarter on the open market to establish a value. Create legal and financial incentives to minimize large private corporations.

Put industries that produce necessary goods (food, shelter, electricity, transportation) under partial or complete government control; electoral control is sufficient to guarantee performance, and these industries operate so close to margin anyway that private control doesn't offer much benefit to efficiency.

Tax income for consumption on a sliding scale. Do not tax income at all that is reinvested into productivity, but tax all consumed income equally regardless of its source.

As our productivity increases, people will receive more and more of a dividend until an equilibrium is reached between the desire for leisure and the desire to work for luxury.

It really is as easy as that.

On work

What if you, gentle reader, an ordinary productive middle-class citizen could unconditionally guarantee that no one, would ever go hungry, homeless, untreated, uneducated, and could even afford a few basic luxuries? Not just for the disabled, not even for just the stupid and unfortunate, but also the artistic, the eccentric, and the downright lazy? We're not talking about making sure these folk have Ferraris and face lifts, just good food, safe housing, competent medical care, decent education, etc.

What if you could offer such a guarantee for a mere 1%, one one-hundredth, of your productive labor? All the rest you could spend on luxuries for yourself.

I think anyone but the most die-hard euthanize-the-disabled radical Libertarian would admit that even if the choice entailed allowing some of the lazy to leech off the system in return for guaranteeing that no one would starve, a mere 1% of one's productive labor is small enough that our natural humanistic impulses would actively compel such a trivial sacrifice for such a large humanistic gain.

Perhaps 1% is too low. How about 10%? 50%? 90%? "What do you think I am, some kind of socialist?" Well, if you agree to the 1%, (to paraphrase the old joke) we already know what you are, we're just haggling over the price.

There used to be several valid counterarguments to this line of reasoning. First, even if we employed 100% productive labor, we still couldn't guarantee that everyone was fed. Second, if the percentage were too high, then so many people would opt out of being productive for lack of luxury that we couldn't grow our economy to make more luxury to provide more incentive. Third, if we're not maximally productive, someone else will be more productive, buy more guns, kill us all and steal our stuff—or just buy us out for $24 worth of beads.

These counterarguments, though, depended on certain physical facts: That our surplus production was so low that it that we had to allow physical reality to coerce people into being as productive as possible. This was indeed the case under Soviet Communism and mid-twentieth-century Chinese Communism: The surplus was so low that instead of allowing physical reality to force people to work, those governments had to coerce people to work by force of arms. And you can't force someone to be productive: productivity requires willing cooperation.

But the physical facts have changed. We are now in an absurdly paradoxical double-bind: Our productivity is so great and increasing so quickly that the price (in terms of human time) of goods, necessities and luxuries, has fallen so low that people could, in theory, acquire most of what they want with only minimal productivity. But the whole point of the economy as it's currently constructed is to encourage people to be maximally productive. But maximal productivity grows the economy and make necessities almost free and luxuries cheap, which makes people less productive. Really, the only way out is to dump our surplus production into something that doesn't grow the economy (cough Iraq War to the tune of $450,000,000,000).

What use are Bill Gates' $37 billion? There's no possible way he and Melinda can actually personally consume such wealth, even with the most profligate and immoral wastefulness. But if he can't use that money to force people to work (and force it is: Try getting a subsistence level job after you've lost, for whatever reason, a middle-class career; good luck with that) what good is it? And just having $37 billion isn't enough: He's got to have enough money to not only force people to work, but he also has to have more than Larry Ellison so he can also force the exceptionally productive to work for him.

No one is going to come in with guns and steal our stuff. Even the Muslims (much less the Chinese or the Russians) realize that military conquest would render the West useless. Islam is a seriously fucked-up ideology, but perhaps if we stopped overthrowing their governments, propping up dictators, stealing (or allowing those selfsame dictators to steal) their oil, invading their countries, and oppressing their citizens they might have a chance to develop a more rational outlook. I'm just sayin', ya know?

The point of all our efforts is to free ourselves from all tyranny. Not just religious, social and political tyranny, but also the tyranny of reality, of physical necessity. For a long time, we could free only a few from the tyranny of reality, and it made sense to carefully restrict who could be free: those who could most efficiently increase total productivity. The rest remained enslaved to hunger. Because reality is not itself a moral agent, we can tolerate the tyranny of necessity. But reality, if not today then tomorrow, no longer need tyrannize us.

It is the habit and tradition of human beings in societies to translate consequential ethics into deontic ethics: Because some action has a beneficial effect (consequence), we assign a moral value to the action itself (duty*). We have, with good reason, translated the consequential benefit of work to value of work itself. So long as the consequences remain in force, the translation is not only equivalent, but more efficient: It is much easier to evaluate classes of actions rather than try to foresee the specific effects of every individual action.

*"Duty" is the root of "deontic".

But when the consequences change, the duty becomes incoherent. This translation and evolution is the root of much of religious stupidity:
  1. Lifelong marriage has the beneficial effect of economic stability
  2. Lifelong marriage is therefore a duty
  3. All duties come from God
  4. Lifelong marriage is thus an obligation imposed by God regardless of the consequences
It's much easier to fix a duty using God, but it's not necessary to do so, and even secularists and atheists hold on to the duty when the underlying consequences have changed. And we are doing so with regard to work.

Monday, August 20, 2007

On Welfare

In the comments thread to Larry’s post “On Wealth,” valued commenter DBB describes welfare as “When I talk about dependency, I mean dependency on getting money for basically doing nothing but sitting on your ass. That's welfare. He goes on to state that “If you really insist on giving money to everyone via taxing and redistributing it, at least make the recipients earn it... why not make welfare require you to do a job - and train you to do it if you don't know how - then from there, you can take that experience and get a better job, or stay on "welfare" ...

One of the biggest problems in talking about welfare, entitlements, and a welfare state, is the general ignorance among both conservatives and liberals about what actually constitutes public welfare. As some readers may be aware, I am a social worker; in previous years, our graduate focus was described as a master’s of social welfare (the research track post-graduate degree is still referred to thusly). Both educationally and professionally, I have had to learn a great deal about how welfare works in this country. (Full disclosure: the agency I work for is provided as an entitlement to California’s developmentally disabled population and is funded solely by public funds.)

The best way to describe welfare is “public expenditures for public good.” Tax moneys are collected and redistributed. For example, the state of Texas, via water-redistribution contracts with neighboring states (New Mexico, for example, sends far more water than it can afford to its neighbor), reserves far, far more public welfare than one might view at first glance. Roads, public parks, public safety departments, these are all welfare. We are, every last one of us, a welfare queen.

When DBB refers to “taxing” and “redistributing,” he is referring to so-called income transfer welfare, which conjures the erroneous picture of lazy black women sitting on front stoops squatting out children in order to stay on the dole. His colorful description of anti-poverty programs bears very little resemblance to reality. Most people opposed to social welfare hold that opinion on one of two grounds: either “redistribution” is unfair or that it creates dependency on federal and state handouts.

Nothing could be further from the truth in either respect. Throughout the history of anti-poverty measures put in place by the federal government (Johnson’s War on Poverty, for example), the average duration of a stay on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was about five to seven years, with only some five percent of recipients cyclically returning. Before Johnson’s War on Poverty, federal anti-poverty measures were targeted at war widows with children.

In 1975, the Earned Income Tax Credit came into being; Ronald Reagan would later refer to it during his administration as "the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress." During the Clinton Administration, the Republican Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which Clinton signed into law. As part of that law, AFDC became Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, setting a cap of five years over one’s lifetime that they may receive TANF; in addition, one could claim no more than three children for benefits while on TANF. TANF additionally requires that one be actively attending work-education classes and be seeking a job or working at one. The Republicans shortened the time limits Clinton wanted, as well as eliminating childcare subsidies. They would later relent and increase the asset-possession limit to allow for recipients to own a cheap car in order to get to work (which was nice, since they didn’t include transportation benefits to go along with the work requirement). TANF works exactly as DBB wants welfare to work.

Most liberals (and conservatives) are not aware that the nation’s largest welfare program is not TANF, but the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was expanded during the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. EITC is a refundable tax credit based on a percentage of one’s income, which has the effect of making low-paying jobs pay more, and therefore be more attractive to people “on the dole,” moving them out of poverty (and into “near-poverty,” which is a whole ‘nother post). And, indeed, the last thirty-two years have shown that the EITC increases employment, decreases welfare receipts, and lowers poverty.

The only welfare programs that allow for “sitting on one’s ass” are disability-related. Worker’s compensation and short-term disability (SSDI) are typically due to injuries received on the job. SSI is for long-term disability, either through traumatic injury, debilitative disease, or developmental disability (autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, etc…). Both programs require continual (typically annually, sometimes earlier) verifications of eligibility.

America largely has three broad classes: the poor, who receive TANF or the EITC, the middle class, who pay the payroll tax and are not eligible for most tax-credits, and the affluent, who pay payroll and income tax but receive all the tax-credits (and also typically receive huge breaks on investment income). If one wishes to discuss “fairness,” it should be to ask how 60% of working Americans are not eligible for tax credits, including mortgage deductions and the child tax credit – because they pay no income tax (no income tax liability, no credit). This is why payroll taxes now make up 40% of federal revenues.

My favorite definition of “fairness” comes from an instructional video on teaching learning-disabled children called “The F.A.T. Method.” In it, the instructor states that “fairness isn’t about an equal share; it’s about everyone getting what they need.” Fairness relates directly back to Larry’s earlier question about whether or not it is immoral to enjoy luxury while others languish in poverty. I answered “no” because inherent inequality isn’t necessarily a bad thing: what is immoral is having the ability to provide for everyone’s basic needs – adequate shelter, nutrition, health care, and education – when such can be done without appreciable cost to anyone’s current standard of living.

We all receive welfare in one form or another: We drive on public roads and freeways which also serve as vital service delivery and economic arteries; we take our children, dogs, and spouses to the park; we use water to keep our lawns green, eat the food it grows, and to stay healthy; we call the police when we feel unsafe, are taken to the hospital by ambulances when we injure ourselves, and call upon fire departments in emergencies; public health and vector control departments protect us from outbreaks of diseases. Every last one of us receives public welfare. We live in a welfare state for a very, very good reason: if we did not, we would find our lives grinding to a halt as we struggled to meet necessities we take for granted.

Multiculturalism and Islam

This excellent video by Pat Condell brings up a lot of interesting points about multiculturalism and Islam.

I think liberals are missing a trick with this whole multiculturalism thing. The right seems to want to throw out the baby of general cultural and racial tolerance with the bathwater of Islamic barbarity, but the many on the left seem intent on protecting the bathwater.

I'm in favor of neither course. I think multiculturalism—in some sense—is critically, fundamentally important to a democracy: There is no set of arbitrary cultural values that is objectively privileged. On the other hand, we in the West have spent the better part of the last five centuries developing not only a culture, but also a set of legal and ethical traditions. It is those legal and ethical traditions which deserve our protection, not our "culture".

Where each person comes from—language, history, traditions, manners of dress, holidays—are both nontrivial and important. We are richer for celebrating them. I'm glad we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, I would be equally glad to see a celebration of Eid. I'm one of the few (I think) atheists who likes Christmas, at least in an abstract sense (after raising two children, I'm kind of burnt out on the holiday). I have no objection to seeing saris, and I object to the hijab only because it is a mark of misogyny and the oppression of women.

Cultural and racial diversity is not only unobjectionable, it's necessary. But along with cultural and racial diversity, in one nation we have to have one law and one system of public ethics. All of this cultural diversity has standing to contribute to this one law, but one law we must have. And the existing members of a nation have an interest in protecting their law and public ethics and acculturating newcomers and immigrants. The whole world does not get to actually vote on American, French or British law, or even Iranian or Saudi law.

Criticism becomes racism and bigotry only when it criticizes that which does not affect ethics and law. It doesn't matter to the law if you wear a sari; it doesn't matter to public ethics if you're brown, it doesn't even matter directly to law and ethics if you stick your ass up in the air five times a day and proclaim your submission to Allah; it matters no more than sitting in a church on Sunday. It does matter, at least here in the West, when you beat your wife, murder your daughters, mis-educate your children, and in general fail to integrate yourself into the social, legal, political and ethical system of the country in which you live.

More Random Facts

I've been tagged by jean kazaz; I've been tagged before, so I'll have to come up with 8 more facts.

  1. I mentioned in my previous post that I dropped out of high school and college. Technically, I finished high school early, taking the California High School Proficiency exam, and I was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley; since I didn't fulfill my high school's criteria, however, I didn't actually graduate. I dropped out of UC Berkeley less than a year later.
  2. I'm a pretty good poker player; I can hold my own in a casino, and I always win against my friends. I play with friends always for stakes less than the beer contribution.
  3. I'm a strong amateur Go player, but I won't get any better until I can take professional lessons.
  4. I taught myself to play a few pieces on the piano, including Bach's Two-Part Invention #14.
  5. I learned computer programming when I was 14, auditing classes at Kansas University where my mother was a graduate student
  6. I learned everything I know (academically) about English grammar in a six week intensive class in 6th grade
  7. I learned philosophy arguing with Christians on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board
  8. I learned carpentry, plumbing and electrical work when I owned and maintained my home in Colorado
Autodidact as I am, my wife is still irritated with me that I won't read the classics of English literature.

Since I've already tagged 8 people I'll just tag my readers. If you want to play and you have a blog of your own you can post there, or you can post 8 random facts about yourself in the comments. If you haven't been tagged before, please tag 8 other people explicitly.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Imprecatory Prayer

Recently the subject of Imprecatory Prayer has come up, as called for by Southern Baptist Minister Wiley Drake. My cohort James F. Elliott is doing a stellar job debating Rhology on this topic in the Religious Idiots and Fringe and Mainstream threads; I'm busy and James obviously needs no help from me anyway.

But I wanted to write briefly about Imprecatory Prayer itself. An imprecatory prayer is essentially a curse, a prayer for suffering, calamity and death to befall the victim of the prayer.

Even someone indifferent to Christian theology as myself knows Christians don't believe they can command Jehovah to curse someone, but there is ample evidence in their scripture to "justify" the belief that he can be persuaded. At least in terms of intent and state of mind, an imprecatory prayer is a threat. The only reason it isn't considered criminal assault under secular law is the recognition that such prayer is ineffective, at least supernaturally.

Furthermore, it shows a general indifference to human life and well-being in general. The implication seems to be that the believer does not directly value the life of others; he values it only because God has happened to not have commanded him—at least not yet—to take it. This does not seem a good way to establish mutual trust: "Good night, Wesley, I'll most likely kill you in the morning."

Imprecatory prayer offends my humanist sensibilities. At the very least, it indicates that the believer desires and would be pleased by the suffering and death of another human being. I find such an attitude very offensive. Even worse, it indicates an intent (however ineffectual) to actually cause (by persuasion) the suffering and death of another. It is, in legal terms, a declaration of mens rea, i.e. criminal intent; again, only the preposterous ineffectuality of the means shields the believer from prosecution.

There is, however, an even more sinister implication to the call for imprecatory prayer: A coded incitement to perform an actual criminal act. Again, even the most cursory examination of Christian scripture shows that Jehovah often delegates his dirty work to mortals through an intermediary religious authority, sometimes contrary to civil, secular law. Jesus himself was executed by the legitimate governmental authorities for sedition and subversion.

It is not too much of a stretch to believe that some believer might feel himself commanded by God to perform this act, and not consider it murder or mayhem (note that assault and battery is not condemned in either version of the Ten Commandments). Since any action has—to the believer's mind—been both commanded by God and sanctioned by a religious authority, he might well rationalize the act as ethically permissible.

This is not idle or paranoid suspicion. One has only to look at Paul Jennings Hill, Timothy McVeigh, Christian militias and hate groups, as well as the growing Dominionist movement.

My ethics

For those of you new to the blog, let me briefly sum up my meta-ethical and ethical positions.

I hold meta-ethical subjective relativism: ethical properties (i.e. good and bad, right and wrong) are not objective properties, i.e. properties of objects or other actions, conditions, or states of affairs outside the mind. They are purely subjective properties, properties of minds, and are properties describing the relationship between minds and these states of affairs.

Things are not good or bad; There is only that which we approve of or disapprove of, i.e. that which we value.

My personal set of values can be summed up accurately enough as libertarian humanism: I value human life, liberty and happiness highly, especially my own, and I disapprove of human suffering and death. I therefore also approve of people who have more or less the same values as me, and disapprove of those who hold contrary values.

I do not "hate" anyone, in the sense of wishing them death or suffering. There are people I hold in contempt, even disgust, but I do not hate them. If my contempt or disgust causes you suffering, then you have merely (!) to change your values to regain my good graces. If you don't care about my contempt, then it causes you no suffering, and I feel no guilt.

There are subtleties to this position, especially when one person's happiness depends on another's suffering, but most of the time one can apply simple libertarian humanism to correctly predict my values.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


I've been actually (gasp!) working for the last couple of days, and I'll continue to do so for next few days (including the weekend), without even the opportunity to respond to comments on breaks. I'll try to post and comment early morning and in the evening as best I can. With all good luck, I'll be back to my usual schedule sometime in the middle of next week.