Saturday, May 31, 2008

A friend of...?

Various groups use the phrase "a friend of so-and-so" as a discreet reference to or query about membership. "A friend of Bill (W.)" is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, "a friend of Dorothy" is a gay guy, "a friend of Tom" is a Scientologist, etc.

I think atheists should have our own "friend". So... should an atheist be a friend of Charles? [Darwin] Richard? [Dawkins] David? [Hume] Paul? [Myers; "PZ" lacks euphony]

Sam and Chris don't make the short list because they're doofuses.

My preference is for "A friend of Richard."

Update: The Turkish Prawn adds the excellent suggestion: "A friend of Doug." [Adams] I have to say that's as appealing to me as "A friend of Richard."

Friday, May 30, 2008


[h/t to G. (via email), even though I didn't get it from him]

Material bottlenecks

Part I: The definition of the village
Part II: Value and cost
Part III: The plow
Part IV: Material bottlenecks

Suppose that it takes a certain amount of wood to make a plow. And suppose further that wood is somewhat scarce in our village. The wood supply, then, is a material bottleneck to the manufacture of plows. In addition to the 90 hours it takes to make a plow, additional time is required to gather the wood. To get enough wood for one plow, someone has to walk for a day (~10 hours) to the forest, spend a day collecting wood, and then walk back to the village. Thus we must add the time it takes to collect the wood to the cost of a plow, making the cost of a plow ~120 hours (90 + 30).

Before the invention of the plow, locally available wood was sufficient for life-support needs (heating and cooking); the time spent collecting wood was trivial, so wood per se had little cost. Now, however, wood has value — almost as much value as a plow — so wood itself becomes a commodity. We see again that a material bottleneck just translates to a labor bottleneck: the labor necessary to procure (and possibly prepare) the required material.

Since the value of the plow is 900 pounds of food, it is still economically efficient to take 120 hours to make a plow: Since it is now economically efficient to gather wood in addition to making plows, the plow makes gathering wood a valuable activity, indeed just as valuable (up to the point where the villagers have enough wood to make plows) as making plows or growing food.

Any material bottleneck will show this behavior: Any material bottleneck makes supplying sufficient material just as valuable as making the plow.

Math: The upper limit on the labor equivalent is 1.1 pounds of food per hour — because food can be produced only by actually using a plow, not just by making one) — and the lower limit is 1.0 pounds per hour.

If it requires fewer than 818 (900 / 1.1) hours to make a plow, then the net efficiency [difference in productivity / (cost in hours * labor equivalent)] is greater than 1 for a labor equivalent of 1.1. If the cost is between 818 and 900, then the net efficiency is greater than 1 only if the labor equivalent is 1.0. Alternatively, if a plow costs between 818 and 900 hours, then the labor equivalent is equal to the value that will make the net efficiency of producing and using a plow to be exactly one.

In other words, if the cost of a plow is less than 818 hours, then the labor equivalent is 1.1 pounds of food per hour and price of the plow is the number of hours * 1.1 pounds of food. If the cost of the plow is between 818 and 900 hours, the price of the plow is 900 pounds, and the labor equivalent is 900 / cost. If the cost of a plow is greater than 900 hours, it doesn't make sense to make plows.

[The above is a first-order approximation; it doesn't fully take into account the cost of making a plow. With second-order effects, the price of a plow will approach 900 pounds of food up to 900 hours of labor, with a bend in the price curve near the 818 hour cost point. The difference is negligible at relatively low costs; the first-order approximation simplifies the algebra and gives us a close enough picture to examine the philosophical basis of economics.]

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The plow

Part I: The definition of the village
Part II: Value and cost
Part III: The plow

In our village, some genius invents the plow. The plow has the following characteristics:
  • It takes 90 hours to make a plow
  • If a family uses a plow, they can produce 1.1 pounds of food in 1 hour
  • A plow will last for 9,000 hours of use (900-1,000 days or about 3 years)
It's fairly easy to calculate that the value of a plow is equivalent to the equilibrium value of 900 pounds of food (9,000 * (1.1 - 1.0)); the excess value of a plow is 810 pounds of food (900 - 90). A plow is thus a commodity, an object that has a cost, a value and, because it must be traded, a price.

Assuming that it's less efficient for each family to make its own plow (for reasons I'll describe later), both the Nash equilibrium and the Pareto optimum is for one family, Alice's family, to make plows and sell them to families for 99 pounds of food each. It's irrational for Alice to sell plows for less than 99 pounds; she could just make her own plow and then produce 99* pounds in the same time as it takes to make a second plow. If she tries to sell plows for more than 99 pounds, then Bob or Carol will realize its more rewarding to make plows than to grow food, and they'll undercut her price.

*The cost of making the first plow, amortized over its lifetime, is negligible.

In a free market — i.e. a market lacking both physical "gun-to-the-head" coercion as well as economic "work-for-me-or-starve" coercion — the price falls to the opportunity-adjusted cost, and the excess value is spread out pretty much equally across the community. In this case, the opportunity-adjusted cost (the value of that which Alice herself does not make) is a little different than I described earlier (the value of the thing that nobody makes) because in our village labor itself is not (yet) a commodity.

In the next post, I'll describe how bottlenecks affect the price of plows.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Unreasoning hatred of Bill Clinton

In addition to the pervasive misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton, further documented in New Stateman (h/t to my lovely wife) there's an additional irrational and self-destructive idea going around in liberal and progressive circles that Bill Clinton is some sort of demon.

Now, Bill Clinton is not a progressive and barely a liberal (wars in Somalia and Serbia, welfare "reform", the Communications Decency Act). There are a lot of substantive reasons to criticize his work. But in comparison, to say that he stands head and shoulders above his Republican contemporaries is to damn him with faint praise.

Bill got a blowjob and lied about it. Whoop de fucking do. His lie — which is primarily what those on the left criticize him for — is excusable because his sex life is nobody's business but his own; the question should not have been asked. A relentless conservative/Republican campaign, predicated itself on gross mendacity, intentionally forced him into a situation where he would have to lie. Everyone knew before he was elected the first time that Bill Clinton was not the poster boy for marital fidelity, and we elected him anyway.

The latest example of this sort of idiocy from the ordinarily intelligent vjack:
In my humble opinion, Bill Clinton's apology for getting a blowjob and then lying about it was a low point from which we have still not recovered.
He's talking about insincere apologies, but for Christ's sake, let it fucking go already. As low points go, Clinton's bullshit about lying about a question he never should have been asked isn't even in the same fucking galaxy as... oh... let me dig deep here... torturing people, detaining American citizens without trial, looting the treasury, domestic spying or starting an actual war and killing thousands of Americans and a million Iraqis. Even if we're just talking about lies and insincere apologies, how about the lies about Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction? And that's just Bush; Reagan and Nixon aren't pulling the average up much.

If Democrats, liberals and progressives were actually concerned with Bill Clinton's actual and real conservatism, the two serious candidates would not be Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom are just as conservative — if not more — than Bill Clinton. We'd be talking about Bill Clinton's welfare "reform", not his blowjob.

Why are still talking about Clinton's goddamn blowjob? At all?

Because liberals are fucking stupid.

As Tim Kreider notes, we can't really fault the Republicans. They are who they are, utterly amoral sharks who can't help but act according to their nature. We can't really fault the 30% of the country so mired in fundamentalist Christianity that they've completely lost the ability to reason. "Against stupidity, the very Gods themselves contend in vain*."

*Friedrich Schiller

But we can blame the liberals, both the intelligentsia and the rank and file. The Republicans have been shoving this bullshit propaganda down our throats for forty fucking years. And liberals, who ought to know better by now, fall for the propaganda time and again. Dumber than a box of hammers, they are.

Pay attention, people, it's very simple: The hatred of Bill Clinton is the result of conservative propaganda. The misogyny against Hillary Clinton is the result of conservative propaganda. The racism and other lies that will be directed against Barack Obama in the general election — obscuring the fact that he's precisely the sort of sane conservative president that a lot of Americans (myself excluded) seem to want — will be started by Republican propaganda... and large numbers of so-called liberals and progressives will swallow it whole.

Not only are we too stupid to nominate someone actually liberal (such as Edwards) or even actually progressive (such as Kucinich), we're too stupid to avoid tearing our sane conservatives to shreds on the basis of Republican propaganda.

They know it worked on Hillary Clinton, and they know, therefore, it will work on Barack Obama. Obama will will be swiftboated and brownsuited, and he will lose to McCain. Even if he wins, he will be lewinskied and rendered completely ineffectual, paving the way for someone who will make George W. Bush and Dick Cheney look like geniuses and saints.

And liberals have no one to blame but themselves.

Value and cost

Part II: Value and cost
Part I: The definition of the village

Why does each family labor 10 hours per day, and why do they consume 10 pounds of food per day? They could work only 9 hours a day and still survive, or they could work 11 hours per day and have 11 pounds of food. Why 10?

The answer requires an understanding of marginal value and marginal equilibrium. These concepts will appear frequently in the study of economics, so it's worthwhile to take some time to understand them.

The more food a family produces, the less subjective value the additional food has. Obviously a family must produce 9 pounds of food to survive, but the 10th pound of food has value if for no other reason than making a small reduction in food supply non-life-threatening. Even though one can survive on the edge of starvation, people still value some additional food. The additional value, though, tends to decrease. We want to be well fed, but (for most of us) there's little additional value to eating when we're not hungry. And there are finite physical limits: a person can only eat so much, use so many rooms, wear so many clothes. There's a point at which additional life support doesn't add any additional value and production of that life support is pure waste.

Likewise, the more a person works, the more tired they become, each hour worked adds more fatigue than the previous hour worked. Thus the subjective cost of producing each pound of food increases over time.

Since the value of food is always falling, and the cost of work is always rising, they will intersect at some point. At this point, the subjective value of the food produced is equal to the subjective cost of the work required to produce the food. This is the point at which a family will stop working and start relaxing.

Most importantly, we can come to this conclusion without knowing much at all about subjective value and subjective cost besides that the value always falls and the the cost always rises. We don't need to be able to actually calculate or determine the actual subjective value of food or subjective cost of labor. We can instead infer the characteristics of these phenomena from the observation that the families neither work as little as necessary for survival nor as much as they possibly could work without immediately dropping dead.

The marginal value is the difference between the value of some and the value of more. This concept allows us to discuss the value of food in excess of that necessary to survive without complicating our analysis with the extremal value of food necessary to survive.

We can observe that the marginal value of food always decreases as the total amount of food increases. The value of having 10 units of food vs. 9 units of food is still rather large, the difference between being on the edge of starvation and eating well. The value of having 11 units of food vs. 10 units of food is smaller, the difference between eating well and overeating. At some point, one cannot usefully consume even more food — it will simply go to waste — so the marginal value drops to zero at some finite point.

We can define labor as any activity that has negative intrinsic subjective value (i.e. the activity as an end in itself has negative value) and positive consequential or instrumental value. In other words, you would avoid plowing the fields if it didn't result in food you could eat. (A positive consequential value of an activity that has positive intrinsic value is just a bonus, and an activity that has negative intrinsic value and zero or negative consequential value is just a waste of time and effort.)

It's important to understand that this analysis is empirical: We infer that the marginal value of food is always decreasing and the marginal cost of labor is always increasing by observing that the villagers work 10 hours per day when it is physically possible that they might work more or less. That this analysis fits with our intuitive notions of value and cost is additional support.

There are other observations that support this empirical analysis.

First, we can observe how people behave when the direct physical relationship between work and food temporarily changes, such as during a drought or especially favorable weather.

Second, we can use marginal equilibrium to explain complicated value/cost trade-offs. We can for instance look at life-support in detail. We assume that the time spent specifically growing food, building and maintaining shelter, making clothing, etc. is Pareto efficient. We then find that the functions we have to supply to make the Pareto efficiency work out closely match our intuitive understanding of the relatively costs and values, and none of the presumed functions are strongly counterintuitive.

Third, we can examine exceptions, in the sense that exceptions do indeed prove the rule. If we find some situation with extremal behavior, e.g. the family either works the minimum or maximum possible amount, there should be some independently determinable feature of that situation that doesn't apply to equilibrium situations.

(I need help with the math. The marginal value feels like a derivative: the marginal value of one unit of something over and above n units is V(n+1)-V(n); if we take the limit of V(n+x)-V(n)/x as x goes to zero, we should get an instantaneous marginal value that looks a lot like the first derivative of the value function. It also feels like the first derivatives of the food and work value functions should have some special relationship at the point of equilibrium, or the derivative of the net value function Vf(x)+Vw(x) should have some special character at equilibrium, perhaps being zero. My calculus, sadly, just isn't good enough to to define that relationship more rigorously.)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #92

Carnival of the Godless #92 is up at Jyunri Kankei.

Catholicism in a nutshell

David Allen gives us Catholicism in a nutshell:

(h/t to IsThatLatin)

Village Economics

Part I: The definition of The Village

To better explore the fundamentals of economics and politics, I want to ground my discussion in a example that is, while not perfectly realistic, at least physically plausible.

Let us consider a village. The village consists of 100 families. A family consists of some number of fully productive adults, plus non-productive or semi-productive children and elders. I will assume that the production and consumption of any family is linearly proportional to its size, and that each family has internally consistent interests, desires and political opinions. Thus I will cast all discussion in terms of an irreducible average family, i.e. the term "family" will, unless explicitly excepted, will refer to this average family.

I will initially assume that — trivial exceptions aside — each family is economically self-sufficient, there is no trade between families, and families cannot accumulate wealth, and that families and individuals coexist peacefully.

Economically, each family exercises 10 units of physical labor per day; I'll refer to these units as labor hours or just hours. Each labor hour produces one unit of "life support", which includes producing, processing and preparing food, manufacturing clothing, constructing and maintaining shelter, establishing basic sanitation; in general providing for the necessities of life, without which the family will die. For simplicity I'll refer to units of life support as pounds of food.

Each family consumes (on average) ten pounds of food per day. If a family consumes (on average) fewer than nine pounds of food per day, it will starve and die. I'll discuss why they produce and consume more than nine pounds of food per day in a future essay. A family cannot initially accumulate non-trivial wealth: all production is assumed to be immediately consumed, either utilized or wasted.

The individual families and their members are initially presumed to be voluntarily peaceful and honest: as a general rule, they do not kill or physically harm each other, steal from each other, lie to each other or make insincere promises. I'll discuss in future essays how these basic norms can be initially established, and how various physical and social changes can effect economic and political activity.

To summarize:
  1. The village consists of 100 families
  2. One labor hour produces one pound of food
  3. Each family exercises 10 labor hours per day
  4. Each family consumes 10 pounds of food per day
  5. Families:
    1. are self-sufficient
    2. do not trade
    3. cannot accumulate wealth
    4. coexist peacefully

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pragmatism and the whole story

In attempting to criticize a pragmatic approach to ethics, Tea offers the following arguments:
Suppose O.J. Simpson didn't really kill his wife, but it would be really effective to tell the public that he did and then imprison him? Would that be acceptable?
This counterargument is hardly original; Tea should not bear all the blame for its stupidity.

The argument fails. It's a narrow view of pragmatism: If an action has some particular desirable effect, then the action is itself desirable. But an action can have other undesirable effects in addition to the desirable effect. In just the same sense some action might lack some particular desirable effect, but it might have other effects that are indeed desirable. That we cannot judge any action or decision on the basis of a single effect is not a valid argument that we cannot judge an action on the totality of its effects.

When we consider anything on pragmatic, efficacious grounds, we want to consider all the effects. It is "effective", for example, to hammer a nail into a board using my computer: The nail will indeed be hammered in. On the other hand, if I hammer too many nails in with my computer, I'll eventually find it very difficult to blog (some readers might find this result an added benefit). On the other hand, if the zombies were attacking my house and I didn't have a hammer, the value of getting the nails in might well justify losing the ordinary use of my computer.

In Tea's first instance (ignoring the witless irony of employing O.J. Simpson as an example of someone unjustly punished for an act he himself did not commit), she ignores the fact that there are a number of competing pragmatic demands we place on our justice system. We want to reactively keep actual perpetrators of undesirable activities from repeating those activities and we want to proactively discourage others from doing similar actions. We also want to prevent the government from using its coercive powers in undesirable ways. Individuals want to have assurance that if they act lawfully, they will not be punished. And it is the case that some perpetrators of undesirable actions themselves — many of those who commit "crimes of passion" — require severe penance to expiate their own guilt (which is why many people who commit crimes actually confess).

To evaluate Tea's argument carefully we have to ask: in precisely what sense would it be "effective" to tell the public that O.J. did indeed kill his wife and her friend? If the government is in the habit of just telling people in general that people did or did not commit crimes without justifying that conclusion, they would create great distrust in their judgment. Even supposedly absolute monarchs have found it desirable to create in the population some degree of rational trust in their judgment. Contrawise, if the government were in the habit of making an evidentiary case, failing to do so in a specific instance would immediately engender distrust.

In case our incredulity over using O.J. as an example of unjust punishment clouds our judgment, Tea presents an alternative case:
Rulers have known for a long time that by publicly cutting off a poor [and presumably innocent] farmer's hand as a punishment for stealing was going to affect other poor farmers and make it less likely that they would steal in the future.
It would be nice to know precisely which rulers Tea is referring to, but again, the argument fails. In this case, both the punished farmer and the actual thief know that the farmer has been arbitrarily punished. Surely the thief himself has not been deterred from stealing; he knows that someone else will suffer for his actions. And the farmers as a whole, knowing punishment lacks specific justification, are deterred from stealing only by fear, not by the apprehension that punishing actual theft accrues to their mutual benefit. Clearly the basis in mutual benefit is superior, and arbitrary punishment is mutually exclusive with punishment with a basis in fact. So, while arbitrary punishment might be locally effective, it is ineffective in a larger sense.

Furthermore, we can with relative ease make the case for permitting at least some punishment of the innocent. If we are going to reactively punish people for performing certain actions (and we do), and even if we are committed to punishing people only after a sincere and honest evidentiary justification to the best of our abilities (and we are, more or less), we know that because we are finite, imperfect human beings, and we will devote only finite time to making our evidentiary justification, it is certain* that we will make mistakes (and we do), and we cannot always err on the side of caution.

*Well, almost certain; it's possible but extremely unlikely that by pure chance we might avoid punishing any innocent person.

If it were truly inherently unacceptable that any innocent person be punished, then our present day justice system would itself be inherently unacceptable. But it is not. We have decided that there is an acceptable level of risk, that the positive value of reactively punishing people outweighs at least some number of innocent people punished.

Tea offers an additional case that simply reverses the question:
On the other hand, what if imprisoning Josef Fritzl wouldn't have any significant effect on people, because (say) no one else wants to lock their daughter in the cellar and rape her for 24 years. Should we let him go unpunished?
First, Tea's hypothetical seems to miss the point entirely. We do not punish some behavior to deter others from performing the exact same behavior under exactly the same circumstance. We punish people (in part) to deter others from performing similar actions, and the essential features of what constitutes "similarity" are publicly described and consistently determinable.

Regardless of the novelty of Fritzl's crime, it is still the case that he has shown profound indifference to or enjoyment of the suffering of others. We cannot allow people with characteristic to operate autonomously unless they choose intellectually to fake or mimic concern for the well-being of others to avoid punishment, which Fritzl has obviously failed to do. Whether we "punish" him, we certainly cannot simply let him go free. If he is rational — i.e. he knew and apprehended at least to some degree the risks of capture and punishment — then by performing the actions he consented to the punishment if caught. If he is irrational, if he was utterly unable to apprehend the risks of capture and punishment, then he is insane, probably incurably, and we must therefore confine him.

Whether we are talking about engineering, law, ethics or meta-ethics, it is unacceptably eliminative to consider only a single possible consequence or effect of any action, decision, or behavior to construct its justification. We must always consider the totality of effects, at least those effects we can — to the best of our abilities — reasonably foresee.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A good sermon

A good sermon tells us what to condemn in our neighbors and what to keep secret about ourselves.

-- me

(inspired by DagoodS) [link fixed]

Clinton and Obama

Please pay close attention, readers, because I'm fucking sick and tired of repeating myself.

First: I do not support Hillary Clinton. I like her as a person, I think she's a strong, powerful woman, and I admire her for that strength, but I'm pretty much opposed to her politically on almost every point. I voted for her in the primaries for very superficial reasons (mostly because she has something actually resembling a health-care plan, whereas Obama's plan is complete hot air and bullshit) but I have never strongly supported her candidacy.

I do not maintain that vote for Obama is itself misogynist. There are many good reasons to prefer Obama over Clinton. That he has a penis, however, is not among them.

I am opposed and disgusted by the misogyny Hillary Clinton has faced in this race. Even if she were a Margaret Thatcher-style conservative extremist, I would still be disgusted by the misogyny. Attack her for her policies all you like, I'll join in the chorus.

I like Barack Obama. He seems like an intelligent, sincere, hard-working and mostly honest politician, as politicians go. But I don't support him politically any more than I do Clinton. Let me make this perfectly clear:

Barack Obama is not going to end the war in Iraq. Obama is not going to fix the economy. (And neither would Clinton.)

If you think he is, you're as deluded as any Christian fundamentalist. We're in this mess because of the Republicans and conservatives, and Obama has made a point of declaring that he wants to work with the Republican party.

Ethics and free will

It is often argued that the notion of ethics fails without "free will". This view is nonsense. It is true, however, that our notion of ethics has to change substantially without free will, but change it must. If we abandon the notion of "free will" then we must change our ethical thinking to be about causal efficacy rather than an incoherent and irrational notion of deserts.

"Free will" is a fundamentally vacuous, unfalsifiable notion. In all of my philosophical investigations, I've never seen a definition of free will that would permit me to determine if I myself — much less anyone else — actually had free will. Just like "God", free will seems to mean something, but when we investigate the notion carefully, it evaporates into vacuous platitudes.

Any specific behavior is the result of some causal process, physical or non-physical, or it is not the result of some causal process. If it is the result of a causal process, our traditional notion of free will is facially contradicted. But what does it mean that a behavior is not the result of a causal process? The opposite of a causal process is a random event, an event that cannot be correlated to anything previous in time. If we cannot hold someone accountable for a caused behavior, by what virtue do we hold someone accountable for a random behavior? The view that the antinomy between causality and randomness makes free will fundamentally ineffable or mysterious just digs the philosophical hole deeper: By what virtue do we hold someone accountable based on a phenomenon we not only do not understand but cannot understand?

The notion of consciousness as a non-physical phenomenon fails to rescue free will per se. Non-physical consciousness would just establish non-physical causality. It is the causality per se that contradicts free will, not the physical causality.

(There's an additional confusion about causality that's peripherally relevant: determinism and predictability: A deterministic system is often held to be ipso facto a mechanistic system, i.e. a system whose behavior is completely stereotyped, rigid and predictable. This notion is nonsense. First, there's good evidence from Quantum Mechanics that all systems are in some sense mixed, the result of an interaction between random quantum events and deterministic physical laws. Secondly, chaos theory has conclusively shown that even systems with very simple, rigidly deterministic behavior are radically, perhaps even fundamentally unpredictable. The notion that determinism leads to "sphexish" behavior is definitely contradicted by both facts and logic.)

So we have to adjust our notion of ethics: We must hold people accountable, at least in some sense, even though their behavior is causal or a mixture of causality and randomness. How can we do so?

We can see an amusing example of the issue in the scene from Fawlty Towers (I'm firmly convinced that comedians are, in general, better philosophers than most philosophers) where Basil beats his car with a stick because it won't start. Basil's action is obviously absurd and funny. But it's funny not because the car doesn't have free will and is therefore not responsible for its failure, it's funny because hitting a car with a stick is a spectacularly ineffective way of making it start.

When my car fails, I do indeed hold the car itself "accountable". If it doesn't perform as I require, then I fix the car. I don't merely conclude that since it doesn't have free will, there's nothing I can do about it. Human beings are, of course, vastly more complicated than cars, but the principle applies.

The way to think about ethics in the absence of free will is just in this causal sense. Use scientific reasoning to figure out the causal mechanisms that underlie human behavior, and then use that understanding to intervene and bring about the results we desire. In just the same sense we use science to determine the laws of physics, and then engineers manipulate the laws of physics to build desirable technology.

Taking this causal view, it becomes incoherent to imprison or punish murderers because in some mystical, ineffable and unfalsifiable sense they "deserve" punishment. We should imprison or punish murderers because that's an effective way of persuading people not to engage in the undesirable activity of killing their fellow human beings. And if imprisonment and punishment were not effective, or some other mutually exclusive activity were more effective, then it would positively irrational to continue imprison and punish murderers. Not because we condone murder; precisely the opposite. If we really do condemn murder, then the rational choice is do that which is most effective at reducing it.

Misogyny and the democratic party

For a long time, I've been at times proud to be a member of the Democratic party, at times embarrassed, and sometimes quite frustrated. But in the last couple of years I've actually become ashamed. The feelings of shame started with Reid and Pelosi's supine passivity with a narrow congressional majority, but the hostility against Hillary Clinton — an expression of pure misogyny and Republican-style groupthink — has sealed the deal.

The overt, outrageous and inexcusable misogyny against Clinton has been amply documented, especially in the feminist blogosphere, at least that part that still considers feminism to be about the rights and status of women, and not a vehicle for excusing patriarchal religions and demands that women support every cause except women's rights.

I have no doubt in my mind that were misogyny as socially unacceptable as racism, Clinton would have won handily. And it's not just the Republican party or the conservative-dominated media. Any number of liberal bloggers, pundits and cartoonists have jumped on the misogynist bandwagon, including, to my astonishment and disgust, Barbara Ehrenreich.

Hillary Clinton is not "dividing" the Democratic party. The Democratic party was and has been divided, long before Clinton sought the nomination. As Will Rogers noted, "I'm not a member of an organized political party: I'm a Democrat." Deep divisions already exist — progressives vs. centrists, Republican appeasers vs. confrontationalists, socialists vs. classical liberals — and none of these divisions have anything whatsoever to do with the differences between Obama and Clinton. The only "difference" that Clinton is "exacerbating" is between those who believe a popular and viable candidate should take her candidacy to the convention, and those who think that the woman should shut the fuck up and get back in the kitchen — or at least take a back seat to some man.

To say that Clinton is dividing the party is to tell millions of her supporters not only are they outvoted, but that merely preferring a different candidate is positively evil. Fuck that. We Democrats aren't Republicans, i.e. sheep. At least we didn't used to be sheep.

Pundits, bloggers and the general public all seem to be under a major misapprehension about the Democratic presidential nomination process. The Democratic nominee for president is not decided by popular vote. It is decided by the party leadership at the convention. The rank and file party membership has a considerable voice in this process, as well they should, but their voice is the final voice only in the general election. Any candidate with even a single plausible delegate's vote is entitled to go to the convention. This decision is up to the candidate, not the press, the blogosphere, the punditry or even the voters. The convention itself is the process that the party employs to resolve differences within the party, as represented by the various candidates for the nomination.

If it's your opinion that Clinton should drop out of the race, of course you should voice that opinion. If you have an argument, of course you should make it. But to portray Clinton as a monster for not doing so is beyond the pale. This bullshit shows that even after almost 40 years of experience, the left still falls for conservative propaganda.

I've always been a member of the Democratic party first and foremost because they have supported the rights of women. Not perfectly, but they were feminists even when the going was tough, even when coldly calculated short-term interests would have argued that ending support for women's reproductive and economic rights might have won them an election or two. But no more. The Democratic party no longer stands for anything positive I believe in.

So congratulations, pundits: You will have your unified Democratic party. A party purged of progressives and feminists; a party united under the banner of Republican appeasement, conservative government; a party tolerant of sexism, imperialism, economic elitism and corporatism. In other words, Republicans without the batshit craziness... but still making sure that the batshit crazies are included.

No thank you. I'll take my business elsewhere, and if you're the only game in town, I'm not going to play at all.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Quotation of the day

Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything — anything — be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in.

— Sam Harris

(h/t to A.Word.A.Day)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Enemies of science

"Philosopher" Mark Rowlands asks who the "real" (i.e. most dangerous) enemies of science are. His answer: scientists. Bullshit. Rowlands' sloppy work does nothing but obscure a real problem, a problem not with science per se, but rather a problem with how science fits into our economic and political system.

Scientists have to earn money just like anyone else. So, if someone comes up with a study suggesting, for example, that eating tomatoes is the best thing anyone can ever do - then, we suspect, their research has been paid for by someone who finds themselves with a lot or tomatoes to move.
I suspect Rowlands was asleep in freshman logic the day they covered the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

He reasons thus:
Scientists are paid to get results by people for whom those results are beneficial.
He apparently also slept through the fallacy of hasty generalization. Some scientists are so paid. Many scientists are not. It would be a No True Scotsman fallacy to simply assert that an ethical duty to open inquiry and the truth is part of the analytic definition of "scientist" and anyone so paid is ipso facto not a scientist. It's still the case that attention to the ethical duties of scientists in addition to their methodological strictures is not exactly new.

Through my work, I know personally no small few scientists in private industry. They are with few exceptions just as committed to open inquiry and truth as any tenured academic scientist. The big difference is that privately employed scientists work on very narrow questions: Does this particular drug really cure cancer? Does this additive really improve tire life? Does this process really improve factory efficiency? The truth is just as important to these scientists — and those who pay them — as to any academic. Even private companies have to operate in the real world. Reality bites back and bullshit will take you only so far... at least outside academia.

Rowlands example is both trivial and inaccurate.
Swiss scientists - that is, scientists from the world's biggest producer of quality chocolate - recently discovered that eating chocolate can significantly women's risk of pre-eclampsia.
Rowlands was also asleep during the discussion of citations, constructing HTML links, using Google, and most importantly getting the facts correct. The study was published in the May 2008 issue of Epidemiology and covered by Scientific American. The principal investigator appears to be Dr. Elizabeth W. Triche of Yale University, and the rest of the scientists credited are at Yale or UCSF. To be fair, New Haven, Connecticut is right next door to Switzerland, so Rowlands' confusion is perhaps excusable.

It is perhaps the case that the study was funded by a chocolate company. I don't know; I don't have a subscription to Epidemiology. But what if it were? The whole point of delegating this kind of research to tenured academic scientists who publish their data is to avoid conflicts of interest. Dr. Trask Triche presumably spent the better part of a decade obtaining her Ph.D; should we conclude she would compromise her professional standing — not to mention her personal ethics — for a measly $50,000 grant?

There is, of course, a real problem with conflicts of interest in science. Rowlands' is late to the game with his trivial chocolate example; he misses the real scientific fuck-ups of nuclear power and tobacco.

Any nontrivial ethical system — a system with enforcement — presumes that there are those who would try to violate it. We create laws precisely because there are those who would break those laws. The same is true of scientific ethics, and the punishment for violating them is severe.

In comments, Rowlands exhorts us to "Trust no one." Again, Rowlands reveals his sloppy thinking. Of course we should not have faith in scientists — even the most eminent scientist must publish her data and submit her conclusions to skeptical scrutiny — and we should not trust scientists blindly, but neither should we cavalierly dismiss their work because of potential problems. But trust itself is a rational process; we can have good reasons to trust individuals, organizations and professions... and that trust can be compromised for good reasons as well.

No, scientists are not the real enemies of science. There are many enemies of science. Some perhaps even more dangerous than "the religious zealot who insists on blocking some or other scientific arena on the grounds that it offends his silly religious sensibilities." Maybe we should add to the list bullshit postmodernist philosophers and incompetent hacks such as Rowlands, who appears to have obtained his philosophy degree out of a cereal box.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The atheist critique of theology

Atheists tend not to be that interested in theology — we're typically more interested in apologetics — but we do have something to say about theology itself.

The most common atheist critique of theology is that the literal meaning of the Abrahamic scriptures (Torah/Old Testament, New Testament and Koran) is rather disgusting from a modern ethical viewpoint (not to mention completely nonsensical from a modern scientific viewpoint). The Old Testament is a dead loss, exhorting the death penalty for just about everything, approving murder, incest, genocide, aggressive wars of conquest, human sacrifice, slavery and rape. The New Testament is a little nicer, but still explicitly condones slavery, establishes the inferiority of women and condemns homosexuality. It's also strongly sex-negative in general, and sexuality is an important and integral part of the human experience. The Koran is explicitly theocratic, anti-democratic, misogynist, and explicitly relegates infidels to second-class status. And of course the New Testament and the Koran establish the idea of eternal torture in hell, by definition the most immoral — by humanist standards — idea it is possible to promulgate.

Of course, the conclusions above follow from a fairly literal reading of the scriptures. Some theologians, however, hold that the literal reading is unjustified; that modern theology takes a more nuanced and subtle approach, and escapes such criticism. This defense, however, fails miserably.

There are, of course, tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people who do indeed read their scriptures literally. It is ridiculous to assert that some criticism is specious just because the writer himself is not in the category being criticized. I might as well argue that criticism of Nazism is specious because I myself am not a Nazi. Indeed if I made such an argument, one might justifiably be suspicious that I had an ulterior motive for shielding Nazis from criticism.

But "liberal" non-literal theology also deserves criticism on its own merits.

First, liberal theology is very hard to read; it's mostly ambiguous and vague, awash in bullshit. It's a struggle just to find a simple, unambiguous declarative sentence... much less a whole paragraph that makes sense. An example trotted out by the liberal theologians is Tillich's notion of God as not a being but "Being itself" or the ground of all being. This idea is simply nonsense, a profound-sounding hook on which to hang a bunch of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Liberal theology is just another instance of mystical Deepak Chopra-style woo-woo. But it's woo-woo with a bite.

A fundamental problem with liberal theology is its methodology. It's all well and good to argue that the literal interpretation of a text might not be the best interpretation. I doubt anyone would argue that, "My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag," should mean that the lover has four legs and fur. On the other hand, the literal interpretation is always the facially simplest explanation; it requires a positive argument to establish an alternative.

The liberal theological methodology, however, seems to be that if the conclusion drawn from the literal meaning is objectionable, then the text is "metaphorical". If you can't find a plausible metaphor to rescue the text, then the text is "mysterious". The text always means what the interpreter wants it to mean, and if it can't mean that, then it means nothing. The truth or the correct moral opinion is formed externally, and then used as an interpretive schema.

There's no problem with determining the truth or ascertaining acceptable moral belief outside some scripture. The problem is trying to mangle a modern conception of scientific and ethical belief into the procrustean bed of iron age mythology created by barbarians who were, by modern standards, quite nasty people. Not their fault, they didn't know any better, and they deserve our pity more than our scorn, but they were what they were: nasty, superstitious, slave-owning, violent, murderous, xenophobic, war-mongering, woman-hating savages.

Why go to all the trouble of trying to interpret savages' mythology in light of modern science and ethics? Why not just say what you think is true and good and abandon the attempt to reinterpret ancient superstitions?

Nobody writes or speaks only because he loves the sound of his own voice. If that were the only motivation, he'd just sing in the shower. Everyone writes because he wants to be believed, to be taken seriously, to communicate — to communicate at least that he is an especially clever and profound fellow who deserves a six-figure tenured sinecure at a major university.

One of the easiest ways to be believed, to be taken seriously, is to piggy-back on some authority. It's not enough to say that Being itself or the ground of all being is an important philosophical concept; Tillich says that the Christian God is the ground of all being, and thus the concept is philosophically important. But to piggy-back on an authority is to lend credence to that authority and, more importantly, to lend credence to the general idea of ideological authoritarianism. So, by seeking to reinterpret scripture in light of modern science and ethics, the liberal theologians are reinforcing the authority of scripture.

The liberal theological methodology works both ways: If you're an authoritarian submissive, if you're neurotic and hung-up about sex, if women scare the shit out of you and fags creep you out, if you think black and brown people are dirty and stupid — and if the text means what you want it to mean — then your interpretation is just as valid as any liberal theologian's. And these ideas are generally well-supported by a literal interpretation of most scriptures; the scriptures unsurprisingly tend to reflect the atavistic prejudices present at the time of their writing.

Furthermore, because there is often no reason other than the objection to the conclusion to force a reinterpretation of the text, those who argue for a literal interpretation have a stronger case. Indeed if the notion of scriptural authority is to have any meaning, then by definition objecting to the literal conclusion is not a valid rebuttal. Just that I don't like the law is not an argument that the law does not in fact prohibit, for example, the possession of marijuana. Dislike might be an argument to change the law, but it's not a good argument to reinterpret the law away.

And that's the "bite" of liberal theology, and why liberal theologians must protect their literal, fundamentalist, extremist brethren at any cost in honesty, integrity and common sense.

The atheist critique of religion in general does not seek to undermine the literary value of scripture, its historical or sociological importance nor even its "spiritual" value. The atheist critique of religion seeks to undermine the authority of scripture, and an attack on the authority underlying the extremists' and fundamentalists' views is just as much an attack on the authority underlying the liberals' views.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The metaphorical interpretation of religion

Carl Sachs, caught on the horns of a dilemma, tries to throw sand in the bull's eyes and change the framing of the atheist critique of religion.
The so-called "new atheists" (a term that I frankly loathe) take an assertion-centered view of language. If it's not an assertion about how things are, then it's mere subjective fantasy, unworthy of serious consideration, and so on.

And if that's right, then one way to advance the conversation is to open up this view of language, somehow -- perhaps by emphasizing, as James does here, the importance of metaphors and symbols.

As a "new atheist", I would object to this interpretation. If some statements sound like assertions, if they use assertion-like grammar, if millions of people seem to act as if they they believed these statements as assertions, if they hold these assertions as directly competing with scientific assertions, if they seem to construct their moral and ethical beliefs on the basis of the statements as assertions and seem eager to impose the moral and ethical beliefs on the rest of their society, then maybe, just maybe, we might be interested in discussing whether these assertions are actually true.

If McGrath wants to define religion as just a state of mind, then his religion is definitely of interest to anyone — myself included — interested in psychology, spirituality, phenomenalism, and everything else to do with the endlessly fascinating human mind.

There are hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — of people, however, who really do take statements about God, or Allah, or Shiva, or Odin or Zeus as assertions of truth in precisely the same sense that assertions about the mass of the Earth or the law of gravity are assertions of truth. Their religion is not metaphorical, it is not literary, it is not symbolic, it is taken as literally and factually true.

When we're talking about this kind of pernicious, deluded, misguided belief, then no, we're not really interested in religious people who define their religion in purely subjective, phenomenological terms.

Atheists are just as interested (and some just as uninterested) in poetry and literature as the next person. And most of us — myself included — would be well pleased and consider our efforts entirely successful if religion were commonly taken to be of the same ilk as poetry and literature.

So I get a little suspicious when someone tries to undermine the atheist critique as a whole by saying his particular brand of religion is not susceptible to the critique. Perhaps it's not; if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it. But why try to undermine the critique as a whole when it's patently obvious that it actually applies directly to hundreds of millions of people? This is why I suspect that those who put forth a metaphorical or literary interpretation of religion are not being entirely sincere, that somewhere under the metaphor is some assertion of truth which the believer is intent on protecting.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Philosophy and the LSAT

My wife is currently studying for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). It looks to me like a fairly easy test (she's finding it fairly easy as well); it emphasizes verbal logical reasoning, i.e. reasoning in natural language (as opposed to logical reasoning in mathematical language).

It occurs to me that the LSAT has tremendous direct applicability to philosophy, for obvious reasons. It also occurs to me that most of the lawyers I know, even the ones I tend to have political disagreements with, are pretty sharp people with good reasoning skills; the ones that turn their attention to philosophy are pretty good philosophers and don't often make egregious errors of logic. And I see egregious errors of logic all over the place in philosophy.

I'm curious: How many academic philosophers take the LSAT? How high do they actually score? Do the ones who score high get sucked into law school, leaving the low and medium-scoring to take philosophy? What are the standards to get into graduate school in philosophy?

Explaining color to the blind

One of the stupider defenses of religion is drawing the analogy of explaining the mystical experience of God to the perception of sight, color or sound to the blind and deaf. James McGrath tries just this move*:
Would if be going too far to say that those who have had mystical experiences are in very much the position of sighted people trying to explain color to the blind, or music lovers trying to explain why a piece moves them so much to someone who is tone deaf?
Note the shifting of the frame: McGrath talks about trying to explain the subjective experience of color or music, but atheists are asking a much simpler question: do these experiences regardless of their subjective character compel belief in some underlying reality?

*(h/t to Larry Moran)

A sighted person can convince a blind person of the existence of color without having to somehow communicate what it's "like" to see colors. It's not only possible to convince a blind person that color exists, it's trivially easy. Scientists have been discerning the difference between subjective experiences that compel belief in various real phenomena and those that do not. We can tell the difference between X-rays and N-rays, thermodynamics and phlogiston, biochemistry and vitalism — none of which, true or false, we have any sort of direct experience about.

The rational blind person will become interested in the subjective experience of color only after the sighted person demonstrates that color really does exist. Since it's trivially easy to demonstrate the real existence of color, we tend to take such a demonstration for granted. But just taking some proposition for granted does not elevate it to an arbitrarily held metaphysical principle.

In just the same sense we skeptical atheists will become interested in a specifically theistic subjective phenomenology of religion only after it has been adequately demonstrated that the evidence compels a belief in the real existence of theism. Make the apologetic case and then we'll consider the theology.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Interview with Ophelia Benson

Not much of a believer - a world exclusive interview with Ophelia Benson
I kept finding more and more material about cultural relativism and especially about the tension between cultural relativism and women’s rights, and that subject is inseparable from religion. What cultural relativism turns out to mean, nearly all the time, is being protective of religion at the expense of women’s rights. The more I bumped up against irritating sentimental blather about ‘faith communities’ when the faith communities in question seemed to consist entirely of men, the more worthwhile it seemed to point out that the truth claims that underpin ‘faith communities’ are not based on much of anything. [emphasis added]

Stuff God Hates

Stuff God Hates. Looks très drôle.

(h/t to Teen Atheist)

Gay Marriage

California Supreme Court overturns gay marriage ban:
The California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage Thursday in a broadly worded decision that would invalidate virtually any law that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. ...

Although critics of the ruling, including the dissenters, argued the court should have waited for the voters to decide the question of same-sex marriage, "the majority is not always supposed to have its way" in constitutional democracies, said University of Pennsylvania constitutional law professor Kermit Roosevelt, one of many legal scholars who weighed in on the case Thursday.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Movement politics

I believe our society is heading for catastrophic failure, and the existing Democratic party is not going to save us, barring a science-fiction brain swap between Clinton or Obama and an actual progressive. It behooves me, then, to talk about ways of fixing our society.

There are several plausible scenarios for catastrophic failure. In the best possible case there won't be any kind of rebellion, coup, or general suspension of the Constitution; we will experience a severe economic depression and the short- and medium-term domination of our government by the Republican party, but our fundamental systems will remain at least nominally in place. If this scenario occurs, there are substantive and effective steps we can take to make our society a better place.

The right has used the movement/party model to take over our government. This model is very effective, and many fundamental features can be replicated by the left.

The movement/party model consists of a disciplined, unified, extra-political organization, the conservative movement, to construct and propagate a political philosophy. The members of this movement then use their discipline and unity to control the specifically political Republican party. Since the movement supplies a consistent philosophy, a voter base and, most importantly money, the actual politicians further the movement's agenda in official government.

There is every reason to believe the left can replicate the movement/party model with similar success. Create a liberal-progressive movement, take over the Democratic party and further a liberal-progressive agenda in government.

Moreover, the left can replicate the model excluding many of the features of the right's implementation that many on the left find odious: authoritarianism, dogmatism, and almost complete disconnection from reality and factual truth. Some of the right's features are very powerful tools for unifying a movement and ensuring discipline. The religious have honed authoritarianism and dogmatism to near perfection over at least two or three millennia. There are, however, tools that authoritarianism and dogmatism render almost useless, and which can be employed to good advantage by the left: truth and transparency.

To be effective, a movement has to be disciplined and unified. The members of a movement have to deliver a consistent and stable philosophical message, they have to vote as a bloc, and they have to concentrate money. These requirements force some degree of top-down approach to decision-making. An internally consistent and stable philosophical basis; majoritarian, consensus or near-consensus decision-making; and a rigorously bottom-up electoral structure can, however, prevent the top-down decision making from devolving into elitism, authoritarianism and dogmatism.

A bottom-up electoral process* in one in which those groups at the "direct" or lowest level elect one of their members to represent the group at the next highest level; the group of people thus elected then elect one of their own to represent them at the further level, until a small enough group has been concentrated to make decisions for the movement as a whole.

*I'm sure there's a name for this organizational method. I thought it was syndicalism, but that refers to a specific kind of labor politics.

I intentionally use the word "philosophy" in place of "ideology". Ideology has come to be too strongly associated with authoritarianism and dogmatism. However we label it though, any movement must have a set of core principles that are internally consistent and stable over time. Stability doesn't mean incapable of change; it means only resistance to capricious change, change only when there's a very good reason to change. Since a liberal-progressive movement can't rely on any kind of philosophical or religious authority, those principles will have to be fairly broad, and adherence need not be absolute; it should be necessary only that a lot of people can endorse most of the core principles directly, and find none of them abhorrent.

(I should also note in passing that "pragmatism" is not a core philosophical value. It just means "effective for some stated purpose"; without a specific stated purpose, it's vacuous. It should be noted that the Cheney Bush administration has been very pragmatically effective at enriching the top 0.01% of the country.)

With a disciplined, unified movement committed to using politics to implement its agenda, and by trading authoritarianism and dogmatism for universalism, truth and transparency, I believe those of us with liberal and progressive views can have a profound impact on the political social and cultural life of the country.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

We should not embrace moderate religion

On de-conversion writerdd exhorts us to embrace, or at least befriend moderate Christianity. I think she's incorrect.

She first asks the question, "Is fundamentalism the authentic religious voice?" Her answer is no.

The problem is that the frame of the question is wrong. There is no such thing as the authentic religious voice. All voices of people who sincerely profess a religion — left, right and moderate — are "authentic". And atheists and the non-religious — precisely because we are not religious — do not have standing to contribute to the religious voice.

(And I think the more accurate and less presumptuous word is "extremist", not "fundamentalist". Religious moderates might well object that their interpretation of religion is just as or even more compliant to the fundamental nature of their scriptures and theology as the extremists. I might disagree, but I'm an atheist; I have no standing to interpret theology.)

writerdd would like it if the moderates were the "authentic" voice of religion.
I don’t know about you, but I, for one, would rather encourage a moderate, liberal kind of faith where people are free to cherry pick what they want to believe while they conform to modern, secular values and use skepticism to make decisions in daily life.
I'd like that too, but it's not up to me or any other atheist. I'd like to see that portion of any community that conforms to my personal views become the "authentic" voice of that community, but the whole point of defining a community is that they get to define their own authentic voice; outsiders are entitled only to criticize that voice, not define it.

People outside of any community, physical or self-identified, do not have the standing to contribute to or restrict the voice of that community. The religious do not have standing to contribute to the atheist voice, white people to the black voice, men to the feminist voice, straight people to the LGBT voice. We might have an obligation to listen to these voices, but we cannot directly contribute. Standing is what defines the community; standing is an essential property of the entire notion of a community.

In just the same sense, the conservatives would like to see the stay-at-home moms become the authentic voice of feminism; they'd like to see the hard-working black people condemning affirmative action as the authentic voice of the black community; the self-hating celibates become the voice of the gay community. You simply don't get to do that though, and any attempt is fundamentally patronizing, condescending, and intrusive. The community defines itself.

As skeptics first and foremost, atheists do have an obligation to the truth. And the plain truth is that there are religious moderates and they are not extremists. It would be patently false to state or imply that all religious people actually are extremists. But I'm obligated to speak the truth even about enemies who were actively trying to kill me; speaking the truth does not seem to constitute embracing or befriending.

writerdd asserts that moderate believers are being "left out" of the conversation:
The media features fundamentalists or extreme conservative believers every time a topic regarding morality comes up, as if these are the only people who can speak for believers, as if they have authority to speak for all people of faith on these issues. Not only are atheists and agnostics left out of the conversation, but moderate and liberal believers often are as well. They are not taken as seriously as those who are literalist or extremist in their views, and are often considered “soft” or “lax,” as if they were not “true” followers of the faith. When journalists act this way, they are echoing the fundamentalist point of view.
This idea is just nonsense. It's very difficult to determine in the first place what constitutes being "left out of the conversation" or not taken seriously. Even if we could make that determination, what power do atheists have to change the situation? And why is the marginalization and exclusion of the religious moderates our problem as atheists? writerdd just points out a pseudo-problem that atheists couldn't change even if it were a real problem.

Reading further, though, we perhaps get a sense of where writerdd is going:
The new atheists seem to agree. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris wrote that fundamentalists, who take their scriptures literally, are in a very real sense the best practitioners of their faith because they follow their scriptures most closely. Richard Dawkins also belittles those of moderate faiths when he insists that religion never changes because it is tied to the ancient writings of scripture, an entirely fundamentalist viewpoint (and entirely wrong, but that is another issue all together).
It's important to understand that Harris and Dawkins here (assuming writerdd accurately represents their views) are stating matters of truth or falsity. They are either correct or incorrect.

The closing parenthetical comment tells the story: the truth or falsity of Dawkins' statement is beside the point. This is an outrageous statement for any soi disant skeptic to utter. The whole point of skepticism is that the truth is paramount. If Dawkins is wrong, that he's wrong is the issue. writerdd seems to demand that we should not investigate the truth or falsity of some claims because simply raising the question "belittles those of moderate faith." This position is bullshit postmodernism at its worst.

One is a skeptic only if the truth always matters, only if the truth always comes first. Subordinate the truth to any consideration, and one is a skeptic no more.

Sam Harris may be a woo-woo loving airhead, but his fundamental point is either true or false, and deserves to be decided on the merits: Are extremists really "better" because they are truer to the literal meaning of their scripture? Are moderates really giving cover to extremists by endorsing the notion that sincere belief in an invisible sky fairy gives one a privileged position to talk about morality? These are serious questions, questions that seem to have a definite yes or no answer. If embracing or befriending the religious moderates means that the truth or falsity of these questions doesn't matter, that merely raising them is insulting or wrong, then I want no part of this "friendship".

Monday, May 12, 2008

Modal logic

Just as standard logic is a system for dealing rigorously with the ideas of "true" and "false", modal logic is a system for dealing rigorously with the ideas of "sometimes true" and "always (or never) true".

Modal logic is fine, as far as it goes. You can use it for a lot of different things, so long as your definition of "sometimes" and "always" is consistent. I'm sometimes in my house, but not always; I'm always male. Scientific laws are universals; facts are accidents. It's required that you pay your taxes; giving $3 of those taxes to presidential campaign funding is optional.

But (at least some) philosophers seem to like modal logic because it's easy to create equivocations which are difficult to detect. Plantinga's modal ontological argument is a perfect example of an equivocation fallacy.
  1. It is proposed that a being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
  2. It is proposed that a being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
  3. Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified. That is, it is possible that there be a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, possibly it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists
  5. Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists. (By S5)
  6. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

As Graham Oppy observes, "Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Plantinga himself agrees: the "victorious" modal ontological argument is not a proof of the existence of a being which possesses maximal greatness." When a philosopher denies the conclusion of his own argument, you must suspect he's bullshitting you.

A careful examination of premise 3 — Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified. That is, it is possible that there be a being that has maximal greatness. — shows the problem. But first some background.

One of the uses of modal logic is to examine the concept of logically possible worlds, i.e. those worlds where true statements about that world are logically consistent, but some statements that are true about that world are not true of our world. This is just a rigorous way of talking about subjunctive and counterfactual reasoning, which people routinely employ: e.g. "If I hadn't gone back for my wallet, I would have caught the train," or, "If Ralph Nader hadn't run, then Al Gore would have been inaugurated President in 2001."

This semantic way of employing modal logic, though, assumes that each set of consistent non-modal truths defines a possible world. A non-modal statement (e.g. "Al Gore was inaugurated as US President in 2001") is different from a modal statement (e.g. "There exists a possible world in which Al Gore was inaugurated President in 2001"). The non-modal statement is (sadly) false in this particular world, but it could easily have been true (along with other statements) without any fundamental logical contradiction.

The modal statement, however, is true in all logically possible worlds. Even if Al Gore was or was not inaugurated President in this or any particular possible world, it is true in all possible worlds that some such possible world exists, perhaps elsewhere. A modal statement in possible world semantics does not divide possible worlds into those worlds where it is true and those worlds where it is not. It's either true everywhere or true nowhere.

So on one horn of the dilemma, Plantinga's premise #3 is simply not well-formed, it is not a statement of modal logic.

But perhaps Plantinga does not intend logically possible world semantics. Perhaps, as his comment leads us to believe, he means epistemic possibility: we don't know whether or not God exists; its epistemically possible that God exists. But if so, he seems to use modal logic in a weird way, weird even for a philosopher.

Consider this similar argument:
  1. All true arithmetic statements are true in all possible worlds. (Definition)
  2. If Goldbach's conjecture is true in any possible world, it is true in all possible worlds. (By 1)
  3. It's possible that Goldbach's conjecture is true. (Premise)
  4. Therefore Goldbach's conjecture is true in at least one possible world.
  5. Therefore Goldbach's conjecture is true in all possible worlds. (By 1)
  6. Therefore Goldbach's conjecture is true.
Of course premise 3 is the problem; I was trying to bullshit you; it's the only statement where I don't fully qualify "possible". A more rigorous way of stating premise 3 would be: "It is definitely true in all possible worlds that there exists a possible world in which Goldbach's conjecture is true." Stated so plainly, it should be obvious that I'm simply begging the question.

Plantinga goes on to say, "Take any valid argument: once you see how it works, you may think that asserting or believing the premise is tantamount to asserting or believing the conclusion." His argument can be construed to mean that "either the existence of God is logically impossible or it is logically necessary." I'm sure that those paying Dr. Plantinga's salary are quite pleased that he has gone to elaborate lengths to prove that logical arguments are indeed logical, and modal logic is indeed modal.

At least I'm not racist

At least I'm not racist.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #91

Carnival of the Godless #91 is up at State of Protest.

Why the conservatives are winning

Art, commenting on Mike the Mad Biologist explains why the conservatives are winning the strategic war.
The right spent its time in the wilderness cultivating an entire self-supporting alternative media ecosystem from the ground up.
Read the whole comment.

I've been much put off by the "elect Obama/Clinton no matter how dumb they are, because McCain is batshit crazy!" idea that's floating around lately. It's true, as far as it goes, but aside from my conscientious objections, this idea reveals a lack of strategic thinking.

No good general predicates the success of his or her strategy on winning every battle. But that's precisely what the Democratic party has been doing: they have to win every election no matter what or the country is screwed. If they have to shift to the right to win this or that election, they do so, because if they lose on principle, they still lose.

The one time I showed up at a Drinking Liberally event, I was appalled. The dominant theme of the discussion was about how to win elections. When I tried to talk about substantive policies and progressive ideology, I was mocked as an unrealistic idealist.

The Republican strategy is very simple, and very powerful: When they win an election, move the government to the right. When they lose an election, prevent the government from moving to the left. Sure, they'd like to win every election, but they know they won't, and they have a plan in place for when they lose, and thus they can afford to lose on principle.

The Democratic "strategy" is precisely the opposite. When they win an election, they try (with diminishing success) to prevent the government from moving to the right. When they lose an election, they themselves move to the right to win the next one.

Closely allied with strategy is logistics. In a battle of values, ideology and people to propagandize that ideology are the resources a general must marshal to the front. Art describes the conservatives' logistical system. The left's ideological logistics used to be the academic humanities, but too many idiots have become so mired in bullshit postmodernist nihilism that they've become an ideological laughingstock.

The fundamental problem is that the left doesn't like ideology per se, and the left doesn't like private money. For good reasons: The last time we had a leftist ideology, we ended up with Communist totalitarianism. Private money, especially when concentrated, is a poor driver for social and economic equality. People with a lot of money tend to want to keep it, and they invent endless rationalizations why they should keep it.

But ideology and money are too effective to simply abandon. Ideology unites the True Believers, who are the driving force in any social change. Furthermore, most people have jobs to do, children to raise, lawns to mow — they're busy keeping Western Civilization afloat, thank you very much — and they simply do not have the time and energy to carefully and intellectually evaluate each position on its subtle and nuanced merits. "Just fucking tell me what you stand for!" they yell. The conservatives actually stand for something, and even though it's most people really think it's kind of odious, at least it's something. The progressives? Not so much. What little progressive ideology exists is all over the map, and 90% of it is useful only as a drug-free method of general anesthesia.

The failure of the Democratic party is so deep, so profound, that we must see its function as effectively part of the conservative movement. The Democratic party maintains the illusion that we have an adversarial political system, and they serve as whipping boys and scapegoats to take the blame for conservative practical failures.

Of course, that the conservatives are better at politics than progressives is not the worst problem. If it were, then we might end up with a harsher, more unforgiving country than I would like, but nu, life is tough. The worst problem is, of course, that the conservatives have lost all connection with objective reality, especially economic reality. Our actual economy is in tatters: We don't actually make anything any more. Even our intellectual and technological economy is in tatters: We are no longer actually teaching science, math and engineering to actual Americans. Our entire economy is based on suing each other and selling our homes to the Chinese for electric can openers. And that's it. When that runs out, we'll have nothing left. Our supposedly mighty army will be impotent: What good is an army when your opponents make the bullets? (Or grow the food and own the homes of those who make the bullets.)

It's far too late to change anything. All the institutions necessary to preserve an actual democracy — academia, the media, the opposition political parties, the economy, campaign finance, the judiciary, the rule of law — have already been corrupted and owned by the conservative movement. Electing Clinton or Obama to sit in the Oval Office and take the blame for the conservatives is not going to change anything. It's just as plausible that it'll make things worse as it is to stave off collapse. The Christianist military and militia, for example, might be more likely to actively rebel against a Democratic party government than a Republican party government.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Catastrophe and revolution

The political and economic system of the United States is doomed. Elect whom you like in November, Clinton, Obama, McCain, the large-scale structural elements forcing a collapse will stay in place. A catastrophic collapse of our society seems inevitable.

The United States is no longer a democracy. I mean this not in the quibbling "It's a republic" sense; I mean that the government is no longer responsive to the will of the people. If the United States were a democracy we would not have invaded Iraq in the first place. Even if we'd invaded in a moment of temporary insanity, we would have been been out by 2006, if not sooner. If the United States were a democracy, George W. Bush — the worst and more importantly the most unpopular President in the history of the nation — would have at the very least been forced to resign (as was Nixon) and at best impeached or even prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

To be even more pessimistic, there's no possible way in an actual democracy Bush would be president in the first place, having actually lost two "elections" that would have shamed Ferdinand Marcos.

Even with the massive propaganda campaign, even with the so-called "liberal" New York Times leading the charge, even with Colin Powell lying his ass off to the United Nations, the invasion of Iraq was still so massively unpopular, and whatever support existed was so thin, that any sensible politician in an actual democracy would have realized that the war would be political suicide. That Blair supported the war, and is now reviled in the UK, just emphasizes my point.

The United States no longer has a free-market economy. While Capitalist economies have usually employed markets with more distributed economic decision-making than communist governments, there is nothing inherent in Capitalism that entails a free market. The definition of Capitalism is that the owners of capital are privileged to restrict the market as they see fit; a truly free market would not privilege anyone but the people as a whole to restrict the markets.

The United States is no longer a civil libertarian society. The Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, FICA, the War on (some) Drugs (used by some people), the ridiculous joke that's been made of the Fourth and Ninth Amendments, the astronomical rate of imprisonment. Need I say more?

The United States no longer employs the rule of law. Bush has explicitly and clearly declared himself and his minions above the law, and the Congress, the Supreme Court and the "opposition" political party have utterly failed to punish him.

The United States no longer has freedom of the press. The press, specifically the commercial media, has become completely dominated by a tiny elite of billionaires. It has become an organ of partisan Republican propaganda differentiable from Pravda only by its sophistication and professionalism (and sometimes not even that).

The above are not just bad in themselves, they are fundamental error-correcting mechanisms. When you lose error-correcting mechanisms, errors accumulate until the only ineluctable error-correcting mechanism — reality — causes a catastrophic failure of the system. Even if we were to elect Obama or Clinton, even if they were completely well-intentioned, even if they had the power to kill with their minds, they could not reverse our path to catastrophic failure. Things will have to get much worse before we can even think about any major structural changes.

Catastrophic failure is bad, but humanity will survive it. We've survived catastrophic failure time and again: World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the Panic of 1873, etc. ad nauseam.

What's more worrisome than the collapse itself is the aftermath. There's only one group ideally positioned to take power after a collapse: Christianist extremists. They've openly infiltrated the US military. Their civilian militias are well-organized, well-disciplined and extremely well-armed, and they enjoy the active tolerance of the Justice Department. They have a definite, elaborate and fanatical political agenda. They have a good 20-30% of the population firmly on their side, which was enough for Hitler after the collapse of the Weimar Republic.

If we're lucky, very lucky, "find a winning lottery ticket in the trash" lucky, some rich bastard like FDR will pull our nuts out of the fire at the 11th hour out of desperate self-preservation. But if FDR had faced a Communist party with the organization and armament of today's Christianists, we might well have ended up with Joe Steele instead.

Perhaps there is, however, some reason for hope.

As well-armed and organized as are the Christianists, their ideology is extremely loopy and insane; by comparison Nazism and Stalinist Communism are models of rational clarity. They're already extremely sectarian; they'll spend as much time and energy fighting each other as they will the rest of us. I don't think there's any alternative but to fight them, but they can be beaten.

[Update: I'm with Tim Kreider: I plan to be drunk off my ass when the shit hits the fan.]

Friday, May 09, 2008

A Critique of Communism

At Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse gives a cogent and mostly accurate critique of Communism.

To be pedantic, Ebonmuse criticizes "Communism" in the sense of the practices and policies of self-described Communist governments, such as the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Albania, etc. ("practical Communism"). This is a completely legitimate target of criticism, and a completely legitimate way to use the unqualified word "Communism", but there are other more theoretical constructions that do differ substantively from the practical sense.

Furthermore, there are two distinct senses of theoretical Communism: economic and political. Political Communism is, even in theory, usually totalitarian or crypto-totalitarian, but political Communism is separable from economic Communism. Care should be taken, I think, to understand that a legitimate and (mostly) accurate critique of practical Communism cannot be applied willy-nilly to its theoretical cousins, especially its economic-theoretical cousin.

Communism lacks a good mechanism to allocate resources to where they are most needed, resulting in waste, shortages and inefficiency.

To be more precise, it is the part of Communism that specifies a state-planned economy that results in inefficient distribution of commodities. The problem is practical (or information-theoretical); it's not per se a problem in Communism's fundamental economic assumptions. In theory, a planned economy should be more efficient than a distributed free-market economy, but in practice information-theoretical laws of diminishing returns and exponential complexity of large formal systems doom the notion of central commodity distribution planning.

The information-theoretical analysis does not, however, entail that a state-planned capital allocation system would necessarily be worse that the Capitalist alternative; capital allocation is centralized under Capitalism in the capital-owning elite. Furthermore, a mixed system, where capital was partly state-owned and partly worker-owned, might have the advantages of both central and distributed planning, and would not violate the spirit of economic Communism.

Communism discourages productive effort and innovation.

This criticism is accurate, but it applies only to certain phases of practical Communism, and the identification of the specific cause as the lack of (immediate) "material rewards for invention, innovation, or greater productivity" is controvertible.

The two largest Communist governments, the Soviet Union and China, experienced massive economic growth and industrialization in the early phases of communist rule. (Admittedly, a large percentage increase from a tiny base is not at all impressive to anyone with a basic understanding of statistics.) There clearly there was some operating motivation other than immediate material reward. Additionally, there are any number of examples in Capitalist economies (notably the open-source software movement) of productive endeavor without immediate reward.

Furthermore, most productivity is rewarded by nothing more than brute survival in a static or contracting Capitalist economy (and quite a lot even in an expanding economy). While simply removing the work-or-starve ethic seems insufficient (and its replacement by a work-or-get-shot ethic seems worse), its replacement with a less brutal ethic would seem desirable from a humanitarian standpoint.

I suspect it's far more likely to lay the blame for late-stage practical Communism's lack of innovation on the failings of specifically political Communism. We see precisely the same lack of innovation in non-Communist totalitarian societies as well as in many large-scale Capitalist corporations (with an internal political culture of monarchical feudalism).

Communism necessarily denies the freedom of the individual.

There's no doubt that Communism as practiced has massively and inexcusably denied individual liberty and freedom, but it is again the specifically totalitarian component of political Communism, which politically privileges a specific party, that entails the denial of individual freedom.

But economic Communism does not necessarily entail the denial of freedom. Indeed, under ideal circumstances, everyone is free of economic coercion; they are entirely free to apply their productivity to suit their personal preferences. Even under non-ideal circumstances, people would be expected to have at least greater choice in allocating their personal productivity as desired.

Since economic communism does not permit exploitation or economic coercion, it has to be expected that some people will choose to be unproductive or less productive than they would have been under Capitalist work-or-starve economies. Since we have never seen economic communism in practice, it is an open question whether a great many people would choose to be negatively productive, and whether those who do choose negative productivity are those who would be very productive if coerced.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Christian Logic?

I'm checking out Christian Logic. Their list of fallacies is sound and thorough enough. I'll have to check out the rest of the site.

I am not a Democrat

Since I was 18 years old, the top criteria I've used to decide my vote has been abortion rights and by extension feminism, and racial civil rights. If a candidate or party does not unequivocally support both they do not get my vote. Period. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've voted for the Democratic party candidate in every general election. I added sexual orientation civil rights to this deal-breaker list in the 90's. (Yeah, I was late to the game on this one. Sue me.)

I don't know that I can vote Democratic any more.

As I've said before, I'm no fan of Clinton. I don't know how I would have voted if the Democratic primaries had been run just on the issues: I really can't tell the difference between Obama's political bullshit and Clinton's. I think both of them would have made fine Republican candidates in 1964. [a grudging tip of the hat to fatuous idiot Andrew Sullivan].

Some of my important values have never been shared by any candidate, Democratic or Republican: socialism (which is just the idea that we have an active obligation to see to the basic health and well-being of all our citizens, not just the ones we like), civil-rights libertarianism, anti-imperialism and anti-exceptionalism. The Democratic candidates have typically been less bad (I'm happy I didn't have to choose between Johnson and Goldwater), but less bad is still, you know, bad.

But today in 2008, the overt, explicit and egregious misogyny [h/t to The Apostate] in the Democratic primary campaign and commentary burns my fucking shorts. It's not just one or two retards; most of the media, and a nontrivial part of the so-called liberal and progressive blogosphere has participated this misogyny. And Obama himself and his campaign are complicit, in just the same sense that he has been complicit in the Iraq war by not doing everything in his personal and official power to end it.

Normally, I would say that if I had supported either Clinton or Obama in the primaries, I would vote for whomever secured the nomination. (And I understand that party nomination is not exclusively a matter of popular vote.) But if I'd seen overt racism in the campaign, and seen Clinton's complicity by silence, I would not vote for her in the general election. Racism is a deal-breaker. Likewise, misogyny is a deal-breaker. So is support for the Iraq war. So is homophobia.

I've compromised on almost everything. The Democratic party has actively supported a devil-take-the-hindmost corporatist plutocracy. The Democratic party has actively supported the war in Iraq. The Democratic party has actively supported the erosion of our civil liberties. I've compromised so much so often that sometimes I feel like I'm just "rooting for the shirts."

And I can't even root for the shirts any more. The whole point of opposing political parties is for each party to exploit and punish the other's mistakes, excesses and incompetence. And the Democratic party has failed to do even that. If the Democratic party wins the presidency and/or a congressional majority, they will have done so in spite of failing to punish the Republican party for the egregious and monstrous excesses of the Bush administration, literally the worst presidential administration in the history of this country, and they will leave the batshit-crazy fucktards in the Republican party strong and well-placed to undermine and harass the Democratic party government. And I'm not sure the Democratic party will even win, with or without my support.

The only possible reason I can think of to vote for either Clinton or Obama would be that both are less crazy (or less in thrall to the nutjobs) than McCain. That's the best I can say about either of the Democratic candidates' politics.

But a deal-breaker is a deal-breaker. Clinton's support for the Iraq war is a deal-breaker. Obama's failure to actively oppose the Iraq war comes pretty damn close, but the misogyny he's exploited definitely does the job, as does his homophobia.

(I find the whole Wright controversy completely retarded. Wright's political opinions — his religion and the his opinion on origin of AIDS excepted, but I understand where he's coming from — are closer to my own than any of the candidates'. If I believed in God, then yes, "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human." Condemning a public figure as "narcissistic" for speaking his own mind and his own opinions when he has an opportunity and invitation to do so is moronically hypocritical. And that's from the liberals. Everyone gets to speak; we then talk about the content, not the privilege to speak. Read your fucking J. S. Mill, people.)

If I (and others like me) don't actually vote for the Democratic nominee, McCain has a greater chance of winning. I understand that completely; magic fairies are not going to guarantee a good government. But there comes a time when you just can't patch the system any more, when you can't put out fires faster than they're starting. There comes a time when the best you can do is cowboy/cowgirl up, let the disaster run its course, and rebuild once the dust settles. I won't make my final decision until I step into the voting booth in November, but right now I think that's the best we can hope for.

I don't see that electing either Clinton or Obama will have any effect more than delaying the catastrophe by at best two to four years. If that were the only consideration, I might still vote for them: maybe we really can teach the horse how to fly.

But I don't know they can do even that.

Supreme Court nominations? Faced with a strong Republican minority, a Democratic president will deliver justices who will at best merely slow the increase in abortion restrictions. At best. We'll still get parental notification, mandatory waiting periods, spousal consent, remote providers, restrictive licensing and liability... all the features that make abortion a privilege of the rich and not the fundamental human right to control one's own body.

Civil liberties? Economic equality? Anti-imperialism? Energy independence? Global warming? Anti-corporatism? Give me a break. Neither Clinton nor Obama are going to do jack shit but give us platitudes and bullshit, if they do even that.

Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, I admire you both for overcoming the contemptible and egregious sexism and racism prevalent in American society to get to where you are today. That's taken intelligence, skill, dedication and hard work. But that's all I admire you for; I admire Margaret Thatcher equally for the same qualities. I don't like your politics or your policies. I'm not going to vote for genitalia or melanin. I'm not even going to vote for intelligence (although I will vote against stupidity). I'm going to vote for political, social and moral character, and on every substantive issue, I think you're both not just wrong but rotten to the core.

I have my conscience to consider, too; there are some things up with which I will not put. Racism. Misogyny. Homophobia. Warfare. I won't compromise on these principles, and damn the consequences.