Thursday, August 31, 2006

Militant Theocracy

When I wrote about Bush's use of the term "Islamic Fascists" a couple of weeks ago, it was a curious phrase – one that had errors worth discussing.

Now, it appears, it is more than a slogan. It is a political strategy. The Bush Administration seems to have decided to convince the people that “Republican” means “anti-Fascists”, while “Democrat” means “appeaser.” If they can get the American people to see the issue in these terms, there is no doubt that the people will choose “anti-Fascists” over “Appeasers”, and the Republicans keep their political monopoly for another two years.

Are they right?

The True Enemy

I do not write about political strategy. I write about what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil.

In that earlier post on “Islamic Fascism” I argued that the Bush Administration does not know who are true enemy is. As a result, it cannot effectively fight that enemy.

The true enemy is not “Islamic fascists.” The true enemy is "militant theocracy" –the doctrine that it is morally permissible to do harm to others based solely on finding an interpretation of scripture that justifies this harm. After all, what is scripture but a list of that which it is morally permissible to do?

In an interview with MSNBC, Bush called the current conflict “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st Century.” He may well be right. We can pick up the paper every day and see another set of stories – at home and abroad – telling of the harms that those who accept the ideology of militant theocracy have inflicted on their neighbors. Until the doctrine of militant theocracy is defeated, we will continue to read about people being killed, maimed, and otherwise harmed in the name of God.

The Most Destructive Weapon of Mass Destruction

Yet, we are being foolish if we think that the most destructive weapons these militant theocrats have available – the most destructive weapons they seek to control – are biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

There is another weapon out there more powerful than all of these, and this is the weapon that militant theocrats ultimately want to get their hands on.

This most powerful weapon is known as the law.

Once the militant theocrat has gained control of the law, then he can add the police, the courts, and the prisons to his “Army of God.” With these tools at his disposal, he can inflict harms on a scale that would require several nuclear weapons to replicate.

Let us look at one example; that of prohibiting women from getting an education. We can easily see how cutting off a hand or blinding a person does that person harm. Denying a person an education is far more harmful than either of these.

It is axiomatic that a person cannot make a fully informed decision unless she has access to information. An individual who is denied access to information must depend on others to make her decisions for her – others who do have access to that information. Countries that deny women an education are countries where women are being made fully dependent on men to decide things for them. They are virtual slaves – a type of slavery that does not require whips. The only thing it requires is a bunch of militant theocrats controlling the flow of information.

Those who have the power to control the flow of information, to decide what is printed and what is not, have the power to manipulate the people through their decisions on what the people are going to be allowed to know and, where the leaders care nothing about truth, by controlling what the people are allowed to believe.

This is just one example where militant theocrats can do far more damage by statute than they can do with any type of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon.

In fact, if we look at the term “Islamic fascists,” we see some hidden recognition of the fact that militant theocracy is the real enemy – that the real ideology we need to fight is the ideology that one can justify harm to others by appeal to scripture.

These ‘Islamic fascists’ are using their improvised explosive devices only as a means to an end. The ultimate end – the end we need most to prevent – is to get into a position where they can put away these improvised explosives and use the tools of the state instead – to use the police, the courts, and the prisons to enforce their will. The ultimate end, then, is militant theocracy -- the power to use statutes rather than bombs on those who will not willingly follow their interpretation of scripture.

The Philosophical Foundation

So, if this is indeed “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” what, pray tell, is the Bush Administration doing to oppose the doctrine of militant theocracy?

Well, actually, Bush supports the doctrine of militant theocracy. His entire Administration is a record of defending actions harmful to others based on nothing more substantial than, “The Bible tells me to.”

The enemy can find all of the philosophical support they need to justify their actions simply by looking at Bush and using him as a role model. President Bush said on June 28, 2002, “We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench." When he said this he was defending the fundamental principle that most Islamic militant theocrats advocate -- the idea that all true law comes from Allah and the only judges that should be allowed are those that enforce Sharia law. This is all that militant theocrats want -- for judges to enforce their interpretation of scripture.

Bush cannot fight this enemy because Bush shares their underlying philosophy – the doctrine of militant theocracy – the idea that ‘law’ and ‘scripture’ are two words for the same thing (at least, in the ideal state).

Also, militant theocrats are the first to scream, "religious persecution!" when they encounter opposition. When people protested the Afghanistan Government’s quest to execute Abdul Rahman who converted to Christianity, the Afghans were immediately shouting that any attempt to prevent them from executing this person counts as religious bigotry. “You are guilty of religious persecution because you are not willing to permit us to freely exercise our religious practice of executing those who convert to Christianity.”

We see the backwards thinking of these people, where executing somebody who converts to Christianity is not religious persecution, while preventing the execution does count as persecution.

It is like arguing that somebody is a religious bigot if they dared to protest the Nazi attempt to rid their lands of Jews. If we were to think of this idea that the Arians are the “master race” as a religion, militant theocrats in this religion would argue that interfering with the Holocaust is religious persecution, because one is prohibiting the Nazis from following their religious practice of exterminating all non-Arians.


As is the case with all things, one person’s right to practice his religion ends where another person’s nose begins. People are free to decide for themselves when to pray, how to pray, what foods to eat, when to work, when to rest, when to scatter stones, when to gather stones together, and whatnot. However, no person shall use scripture to justify doing harm to others. The freedom of religion ends where the life, limb, liberty, and livelihood of other citizens begins.

The Bush Administration’s strategy for the next two months is to get people to see a world divided up into three camps: the “Islamic fascists,” the “anti-Fascists” who love Bush and wish that he and his associates could rule the country forever, and the “appeasers” who are morally and intellectually ‘confused’ to the point that it would be foolish to trust them with anything resembling political power.

If they succeed, then clearly people are going to support “anti-Fascists” over “appeasers.”

An alternative proposal is to get people to understand that the enemy is much more accuratly identified using the term “militant theocracy.” The advocates of militant theocracy are people who, by definition, think that God gave them the authority to force their interpretation of scripture on everybody else, by whatever means their God allows. The advocates of militant theocracy argue, “Our religion commands that we are the masters and you are the servants. Freedom of religion means that you would be violating our rights if you do not agree to let us be masters, as our religion commands, and if you do not agree to be our servants.”

The question is: Will the public come to describe the enemy as "Islamic fascists?" or can they be made to understand that the real threat to freedom is "militant theocracy?" The answer will determine whether we have any hope of making real progress against that enemy.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Moral and Intellectual Confusion

According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, I am suffering from either “moral or intellectual confusion” or both. In a speech to the American Legion National Convention, this conclusion is grounded on the fact that I do not agree with the Bush Administration's activities regarding the invasion of Iraq.

I would like to make it clear that I was not, in principle, opposed to the invasion of Iraq. In fact, I do think that the nations of the world should be as reluctant to remove a despotic leader from power as a community should be in arresting and imprisoning an abusive parent. That is to say, parents should be given the benefit of the doubt, but clear signs of abuse deserve a determined response. At the same time, I disapproved of Bush’s invasion of Iraq precisely because I saw Bush as an incompetent leader who will do far more harm than good, and I wanted the country to find a competent leader to do the job.

As I see it, the Bush Administration has wasted $300 billion and the lives of 2,500 American soldiers – money and lives that a competent leader could have used to much greater effect.

Here, however, I would like to look specifically at whether Rumsfeld’s accusations have any merit.

In the area of intellectual clarity, please recall that this is the same Administration that proclaimed "Mission Accomplished" over three years, nearly $300 billion dollars, and over 2,500 American lives ago. This is not a promising indicator of intellectual clarity. This is only one of a long list of instances in which the Bush Administration displayed significant intellectual shortcomings – evidence that included its false claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that the conflict would last only 6 months, and that the war would pay for itself (basically because of our plan to loot Iraq of its oil revenue).

More importantly, however, is the intellectual bankruptcy of comparing our current situation with World War II and the fight against Nazi Germany, that I have wrote about in a post titled "Islamic Fascism" -- and that this gives the Bush Administration to shove aside any claim that there are moral and Constitutional limits on what the President may do.

I found it interesting that, in Rumsfeld's speech, he mentioned an email from a soldier that said, "I ask that you never take advantage of the liberties guaranteed by the shedding of free blood, never take for granted the freedoms granted by our Constitution."

He quotes this letter after he has spoken in defense of the Administration practices of warrantless searches and seizures, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, the denial of life, liberty, and property without due process, and cruel and unusual 'punishment' (though these acts fail to qualify as 'punishment' because the accused have not been convicted of a crime or even put on trial).

In fact, the very people that Rumsfeld targets with his wrath are those who refuse to take our liberties for granted -- those who demand that they be defended and protected against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The defenders of these rights are the very people that Rumsfeld calls "morally and intellectually confused."

The irony would not have been any deeper if Rumsfeld had teleported himself back in time to 1788. There, he could speak to James Madison and the other members Congress themselves, and speak to them personally. He could then tell them directly how morally and intellectually confused they are for seriously considering that there is something as foolish as "rights" to be written into the Constitution. He could then tell them directly how idiotic it is to tell the President that his job is to protect and defend those rights. He could then brag to them about his own intellectual and moral superiority because he (unlike James Madison and his allies) recognized the folly of having a government devoted to protecting and defending rights.

In his speech, Rumsfeld asked four questions that he says we must face honestly.

With the growing lethality and increasing availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?

Rumsfeld's break with reality is so severe that he thinks there are people out there talking about appeasing vicious extremists.

That's not the complaint at all. At least, that is not my complaint.

My complaint is that if you give somebody the use of $300 billion plus 160,000 troops to use for 3.5 years where 2,500 of them die and over 20,000 are wounded, that one had better make some progress. Nothing that the Bush Administration has done in Iraq with this money has made America any safer. In fact, it may well be that the Bush Administration has created more terrorists, and filled them with a much firmer resolve, than he has killed or captured.

Can folks really continue to think that free countries can negotiate a separate peace with terrorists.

Who is he talking about? Is this, perhaps, a reference to Iraq negotiating a peace between its Shiite and Sunni populations? If this is what he is referring to, then it had better be possible for them to do this. The alternative is to argue that either the Shiite or the Sunni be exterminated. Those are the two options when cultural groups enter into civil war – peaceful coexistence or genocide. Rumsfeld seems to be arguing in favor of genocide.

Can we afford the luxury of pretending that the threats today are simply law enforcement problems, like robbing a bank or stealing a car; rather than threats of a fundamentally different nature requiring fundamentally different approaches?

Well, actually, I would view them as law enforcement problems such as the assassination of McKinley and Kennedy, the Wall Street bombing of 1920, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Ku Klux Klan, the Columbine Massacre, any event in which somebody steps into a former place of employment and starts shooting, any instance where a child is napped off of the streed, and organized crime in its various forms. These are horrendous acts. If terrorism deserves a 'fundamentally different approach' that requires abolishing the Constitution, then all of these crimes do.

Of course nobody is comparing terrorism to stealing a car. Rumsfeld is attempting to score rhetorical points, to manipulate people through deceptive use of language, rather than deal with the issues and those who present them honestly.

But, ultimately, here again we have two options. Terrorism is a permanent part of our lives – it always has been, and it always will be. As a result, we can either (1) treat it as a criminal problem and deal with it in a way consistent with preserving and protecting freedoms, or (2) declare a permanent police state and destroy those freedoms ourselves rather than wait for the terrorists to do it for us.

And can we really afford to return to the destructive view that America, not the enemy, but America, is the source of the world’s troubles.

No, Mr. Rumsfeld, it is not America that is the source of the world’s troubles. It is you and President Bush that are the source of those troubles – and almost entirely due to the fact that you fail to understand and apply the principles that once uniquely defined and distinguished America as a great country.

It is not uncommon for megalomaniacal leaders to equate themselves with the countries they lead. King Louis the XIV of France famously uttered, “I am the state.” In Rumsfeld’s case it represents an inability to distinguish between criticism of Rumsfeld as a person, and criticism of America. It is an attempt to deflect blame by saying, “Anybody who hates me, hates America.”

No, Mr. Rumsfeld, that is not true. In fact, it is quite possible for the opposite to be true – for somebody to hate you because the love America and they hate those who would abuse her.

There is nothing of moral or intellectual merit in what Rumsfeld said. It is true that if we want to keep our freedom, we need to protect it from all of those who would seek to destroy it.

One reliable indicator that we are dealing with somebody who wants to destroy our freedom rather than preserve it comes when we hear somebody say that we face permanent “threats of a different nature” that we can only fight by giving up that which is the only thing worth fighting to protect; freedom. One reliable indicator that we are not dealing with a government intent on defending that freedom comes from their repeated claims that we give up that freedom.

In fact, if you listen to the speeches that come from the members of the Bush Administration, they all seem to be carrying the same message. “I am here to declare that all of those who insist on being free and fighting those who would destroy that freedom are traitors, and that all true patriots will gladly surrender their freedom to me at the soonest possible instant.”

It’s not a message that I ever expected to hear in this country. I expected even less that the numbers of Americans who value their freedom so little that they would surrender it as eagerly as they do.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Making Babies

I have seen a lot of discussion in the past several months bemoaning the fact that “they” are having more children than “we” are for various groups of “they” and “we”.

For example, I have recently seen a number of discussions of “The Fertility Gap” in which Arthur C. Brooks argues that Republicans are having more children than Democrats – and Republican children tend to grow up to vote Republican.

In May of this year, Charles Gibson delivered a commentary in which he told his audience that “we need more babies.” Otherwise, the majority of the population in the United States will be Hispanic in 25 years. Ghast! We can’t let that happen!

Matt Kennedy also argued that Christians have, “…not only failed to properly instruct our children in the Christian faith, but that we have failed to have children.”

Population considerations alone tell us that the last thing we need to do is to get in a race to make as many babies as possible. The environmental consequences of that policy would be disasterous. But, this is only one concern.

Concern 1: A Matter of Prejudice

This claim that our "race" must out-breed all of the other "races" is pure racism. Those who claim that "we" must outbreed "them" are saying that there is something morally significant in having more "us" babies than "them" babies. They are saying that race matters, and that our race must defeat their race in this population contest.

There is no sense to be made of such beliefs. At best, these issues only look at superficial differences. Many of our genetic difference have no obvious visual indicator. As a result, those who look like us might actually have more genetic differences than those who do not. It's just that those differences do not show themselves.

Somebody who considers all humans to be fundamentally, morally equivalent will discover that he cannot be "out bred" by any other segment of the population. He will discover that one branch of his family may be larger than another branch, just as people discover this about their real-world families. They will also discover that these differences have no great moral significance.

I can understand why some people like Charles Gibbons might be concerned about who is in the majority. I can imagine a group of children on a playground -- white and non-white. The white children are playing with a ball -- a ball that represents economic and political power, and they are playing a game of 'keep-away' from the non-white children. They toss this ball of economic power back and forth among each other, while the non-white children struggle to intercept it.

This game is scored by the number of times a particular person touches the ball. This represents his political and economic power. However, the ball must be kept moving. Naturally, people throw the ball to those who would be willing to throw it back to them.

A few non-white kids gain the trust of the white leaders. They convince the white kids, "If you throw me the ball I will throw it back to you." They do better than the rest.

It is 'the rest' that the white kids are worried about. If they should get hold of the ball, they just might reverse the pattern of play. They will start playing a game of "keep away" from the white kids who ignored them. Those white kids, accustomed to handling the ball a lot without sharing, might discover that they have taught the others a valuable moral lesson -- the lesson of handling the ball the ball a lot without sharing.

Ultimately, those who make the argument, "We need more babies," are proving that their interest is primarily in perpetuating this game of "keep away" from the other races. Why else have more babies, if not as a way of growing political and economic power in a way that allows "us" to keep control of the ball of economic and political power and to "keep it away" from those others -- the enemy -- "them."

The game itself is unjust. Given the amount of violence and harms inflicted by this game of promoting one race over another, we are better off promoting an aversion to these types of distinctions. We are better off using the tool of condemnation against those who make such assertion that it is important that "we" outbreed "them" because if "them" breed to the point that they gain political power, terrible things will happen. We must recognize that all of "us" (meaning, those of "us" who are not "them" -- as opposed to all of humanity) have a duty to avoid these terrible things.

Concern 2: Truth and Values

Only one of the quotes above – Charles Gibson’s – specifically concerns race. The other two argue for “making babies” as a way of winning a cultural dispute.

In order to justify these types of conclusions, there must be something significant at stake. What we are breeding for has to be something more important than, for example, a simple matter of taste.

The issue of taste would say, for example, that potato eaters must outbreed rice eaters, otherwise the eating of rice will come to dominate the eating of potatoes. The problem with this is that matters of taste are far too insignificant to justify calls for such a wide-spread breeding program. If rice eating becomes more popular than potato eating, then nothing of significance comes from this – except to the potato farmers and rice farmers (who should learn to adapt their farms to changing markets).

The question of “making babies” is brought up substantially over matters of culture, religion, and morality.

However, if “making babies” is how we settle these differences, then it seems that these differences are also trivial. Because, if they were not trivial, then we should be looking at some other way of engaging each other.

I am certain that almost all of my readers has encountered at least one piece of tripe fiction in which our heroes find themselves in a primitive village. In the closing minutes of the show, the tribal leader announces, “Are you nuts? We don’t resolve our differences by having people present their evidence to a group of citizens well known for their intelligence and wisdom. We resolve our differences by having a champion for each side meet in the arena. We have this set of really weird rules that somebody thought of a long time ago, and we believe that whoever can kill the other person without violating any of these bizarre rules must have be wiser and smarter than the other person, and we will then all agree with him.”

It’s like a court case, where the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney draw a circle on the floor in front of the judge, and whoever can throw the other out of the circle gets to determine if the accused is guilty or innocent.

Only, in this case, the contest is not over who can throw the other out of a circle, or who can win a fight to the death under a bunch of arbitrary rules, but which side can pop out the most babies in the least amount of time. What Somehow, this is supposed to be able to tell us who has the better grasp of truth and virtue.

Some of us still like the “reasoned conclusion based on a careful consideration of the available evidence” approach.” I have no interest in breeding my ideas into acceptance.

Primarily, I hold this view because my ideas are a mixture of truth and error. I think that they contain more truth than error, but I could be wrong. Somebody has to be wrong and, though I hope it is everybody who disagrees with me, I cannot guarantee it. So, I want my ideas subject to a careful consideration of the available evidence so that, where they contain error, those errors can be discovered and removed before somebody gets hurt.

There is a huge bundle of arrogance in the “breed my ideas into widespread acceptance” plan. People who advocate this plan are substantially admitting that their own ideas have more to do with what they were indoctrinated into as a child than with an open-minded consideration of alternatives. When they insist on breeding their own ideas into widespread acceptance they are claiming an arrogant and unjustified authority to ideas that they are, at the same time, asserting that they came by substantially by chance.

Of course, evidence does suggest that children are significantly likely to adopt the views of their parents – no matter how foolish their parents’ ideas happen to be.

The “make more babies” crowd sees this as an opportunity for them to win the social debate without having to deal with the idea that their ideas are foolish – those ideas will not appear foolish to captive children unable to tell the difference.

The “careful consideration of available evidence” crowd draws a different conclusion. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity, they see this as a warning, that even our own ideas may not be the “careful consideration of available evidence” that we want them to be. Therefore, we have to work that much harder to check and double-check our beliefs against the available evidence – to constantly doubt ourselves and wonder, “Have I fallen into this trap?”

Of course, the arrogant “breed our ideas into widespread acceptance without regard to truth or evidence crowd,” there is no such thing as traps.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Katrina: 1 Year Later

I am approaching the 1-year anniversary of the start of this blog, and at the 1-year anniversary of the event that brought this blog into being – the day that Hurricane Katrina struck land.

After Hurricane Katrina, day after day, I wanted to grab the nation by its figurative collar and shout at it, “Are you nuts! Do something constructive, will you!” It took a few days, but the pressure finally built to the point that I got up the nerve to set up a blog and started writing.

I was, at the time, too polite to shout, so I spoke calmly and rationally. Sometimes, I wonder if that is the right approach.

There were other factors pushing me in the direction of writing a blog. There were people commenting that I have yet to take my ideas on moral theory and apply them to anything in the real world. Hurricane Katrina exposed a real-world situation that cried for the reasoned application of moral principles.

Katrina and the War on Terror

Hurricane Katrina struck four years after the attacks of 9-11. This means that the government had 4 years to put together a plan on how to respond if any of our cities should ever suffer a devastating attack. If they had done their jobs the way they were supposed to, then they could handle Hurricane Katrina. After all, a terrorist attack would likely go off without a warning. Katrina gave us three days to prepare. Katrina, actually, gave us four years to prepare. Certainly, we were now ready.

Yeah, right.

Hurricane Katrina had made it clear that, in four years, the Bush Administration had done nothing to prepare a national response to a city in crisis.


We needed a national response. We got national excuses.

He wasted four years that he should have spent preparing for things that were far worse than what Hurricane Katrina delivered. Katrina gave his administration a slow pitch – one that he should have easily hit out of the ball park.

“It’s a swing and a miss, ladies and gentilemen. Strike . . .”


New Orleans could have been hit by a terrorist bomb. If a terrorist can rip a hole in the side of a military Destroyer, it can rip a hole in the side of a levy. Then, water would have poured into New Orleans without any warning at all. Nobody would have evacuated. Then, what would have happened?

“Don’t worry. George Bush and the Department of Homeland Security has been working on just this type of problem for four years now. We’re ready. We’re past ready.”

Um . . . I’m waiting.

People are still waiting.

I have an imagine of my mind of George Bush at the wheel of a pickup with the rear end up on jacks and the tires removed, pushing the gas pedal down as hard as he can, spinning his wheels, telling us that we have to “stay the course.”

You’re not going anywhere, George.

Can we please have a government willing to set up a system that is capable of responding to a major crisis in any major American city – regardless of whether it has a natural or a human cause?

Two Plans for Disaster Prevention

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we heard two responses to the event, and two sets of plans on how we could have prevented this destruction and prevent further destruction.

Plan A: One set of reactions told us that the destruction of Hurricane Katrina was punishment for our sins – a form of divine retribution for our wicked ways. What we should have done (and what would have prevented the loss of life if not the loss of property) was to outlaw abortion, outlaw gay marriage, force all gays back into the closet, demand prayer in school, and institute the Christian equivalent of Sharia Law throughout the land. Then, God will smile down on us and things such as Hurricane Katrina would not happen. (Or, if they happened anyway, it would be because we are incapable of understanding God’s divine plan.)

That’s Plan A. Now for Plan B.

Plan B: The other set of reactions told us that the destruction of Hurricane Katrina was punishment for our sins – a form of natural retribution for our wicked ways. What we should have done (and what would have prevented the loss of life if not the loss of property) was to build stronger levees around New Orleans. This reaction says that we should have put more effort into studying the science of hurricanes in specific and the climate in general, and then fed that information into computer models to predict what a hurricane would do. It says that we should have been inspecting the levees to make sure that they had not deteriorated and were still up to specifications, and prepared and tested an emergency response in the unlikely event that the levees should break, including well-equipped 2nd-floor shelters throughout the city that would have emergency teams assigned to them and that people could get to quickly in case of a breech. If we had done this, then the people of New Orleans, if not the property, would have survived.

All of those in favor of Plan B raise your hand.

There are not enough hands being raised. It is shocking and depressing that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina I heard a lot of people shouting that we needed to ban abortion and homosexuality and twist every school child’s arm to get him to pray to God.

Um . . . no, I don’t think that’s going to work.

One year ago today, science saved tens of thousands of American lives. It would have saved more, if the people would have forced their politicians to listen to the scientists and engineers.

Science gave us a satellite in space that captured photons bouncing off of the earth and turned them into an electromagnetic signal that was sent back to earth, where it was picked up by an antenna that fed those pulses into a computer that created an image of a hurricane heading towards Louisiana. That data was fed into another computer that held a computer model that predicted course and speed. That gave a million people who would not have otherwise known that a hurricane was coming time to leave, and a government time to set up emergency aid for those who could not leave.

The scientists did their job.

If Katrina had been a surprise, like the storm that struck Galveston Island, Texas in 1900, a lot of people alive today would have been dead.

Yet, these people went on to thank God for delivering them from this danger. President Bush called for a national day of prayer – while he continued his administration’s war on science.

“Hey, if God had anything to do with this at all (which He did not), He was the one that created the hurricane to start with. God was the one that almost got you killed. The scientist is the one who saved your life.”


Plan A will only have the effect of adding a lot of human-caused suffering to a lot of preventable nature-caused suffering. Plan A is like the tribal village sacrificing a virgin to the Volcano God in the hope that he will spare their village. The fate of the village is already sealed. The best hope for the villagers rested in studying volcanoes while they could, assessing the danger, and planning ways to respond to the forces of nature that were beyond their ability to change. If they have thrown away that opportunity, then they have already lost the battle. Throwing virgins at the problem is not going to help – it will only add a stack of dead virgins to the problems nature is already going to create.

I don't mind people of faith practicing their religion, except when they use the government to turn others into involuntary human sacrifices to their God, with is exactly what these people are doing.

We live in a village called America under a President who thinks that the best option he has is to collect the names of those who are to be sacrificed to his God to protect us from the forces of nature. His God does not demand virgins. Instead, He demands that the country sacrifice potential flag-burners, homosexuals, stem-cell researchers, and anybody who thinks that we can do more to protect the village called America with good science than we can through prayer. Bush thinks that his job is to line these people up for sacrifice, to keep his God happy. That’s his idea of protection.

These are the ideas that I felt compelled to start writing about a year ago, and they are ideas that too few people still grasp today. As a result, we face far greater risks than we need to – far greater risks than we should be facing.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Humans In Space: More Bad Arguments

It looks as if the Space Shuttle launch is being postponed for a couple of days.

Yesterday I discussed some bad arguments used for sending people into space. Today, I want to discuss some bad arguments used against sending people into space.

One such argument ties in nicely with one of the arguments that I gave yesterday.

Bad Argument: We can do more science with robots than we can by sending people.

Yesterday, I agreed with this. Byte per byte, robot science is cheaper than human science.


Science is not the only reason to do things.

Have you ever taken a vacation? Have you considered going to Hawaii, Athens, Egypt, or someplace similar? If somebody would have told you that you could save a lot of time and money if you just stayed home and looked at the pictures sent back by some robot, would you not have marveled at the degree to which some people can simply miss the point of an activity? If we pooled the money of all of the people who wanted to visit Hawaii this year, and sent a robot instead, we could probably save a lot of money. However, the robot simply cannot give us any of the things that makes a trip to Hawaii worthwhile.

If you were to take a survey of all of the people going to Hawaii, or to Athens, or to the Bahamas, or on a cruise this year – spending all of that money – I am confident that you would discover that “doing science” is not even on the list of reasons. This suggests that we can do things (and spend money doing things) without having to justify it in terms of how much science we can do. The fact that something is not the best way to “do science” does not imply that it is not worth doing.

The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, is one of the greatest investments that NASA has made. These pictures (as well as the data collected from the other instruments on the Hubble space telescope) are certainly valuable to scientists. However, this is only a small part of the value that this telescope has provided. Nobody even pretends that Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa only has value because of the science that we can get out of it. Nobody even pretends that Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon has value to those who visit it because it expands their scientific understanding of scientific knowledge of the effects of water. Consequently, it is absurd to claim that the value in images such the Eagle Nebula, V838Mon, or the Cat’s Eye, only have value because of what scientists can learn from them. These two have value above and beyond their scientific value.

In fact, my own interest in space has little to do with “doing science.” I do not have the skills to make any meaningful contribution to space science. Yet, one of the first things that I do each day is visit the site for the Astronomy Picture of the Day. If I like what I see, it becomes the background for my computer for the day. When I evaluate the picture of the day, I devote very little consideration to the quality of its science. I care about the science, but it is only one source of value.

If it can be worthwhile to actually visit Athens and actually see for oneself the Acropolis, or to visit Egypt and actually see for oneself the Pyramids, then clearly it can have value to travel into space and see for oneself the whole Earth from orbit, or to simply experience space itself. Indeed, if we can marvel at the construction of the Acropolis in Athens or the Pyramids of Egypt, we can marvel at the construction of a space station.

I will agree that to be worth public money, sending people into space has to produce some sort of public good. It would be hard to argue for a national program to spend billions of dollars per year to send people on Caribbean cruises or vacations to Hawaii, Egypt, or Athens. There are, however, public goods to be recognized in sending people into space. There is the public good of saving the earth; we will be doing the earth a huge favor if we can learn to harvest the resources we need from dead worlds rather than carving even deeper scars into the only living world we know. The is also the public good of saving the human race; developing space is the best insurance we can buy against the possibility of human extinction by getting all of our human eggs out of one planetary basket.

Neither of these can be accomplished by sending robots alone. We must learn to live in places other than Earth to accomplish these things. The sooner we do, the more secure our future as a species will become.

Bad Argument: Because people might get killed!

Another reason not to send people into space that I often hear is that people might die. In fact, people will die. This fact is as certain as sunrises and sunsets.

Wikipedia reports that, out of 442 people who have reached space, of which 18 people have died in the attempt.

According to MountEverest.Net, before 1990, 284 people ascended Mount Everest, and 106 died in the attempt. I doubt if any of them attempted to climb Mount Everest strictly because of the science. Yet, nobody argued for closing down the mountain for three years after each fatality while we tried to find a way for people to climb the mountain without dying.

Since 1990, another 73 people have died out of 1640 attempts. It is getting safer, but it is still not safe. Yet, the mountain remains open. “Because people might get killed!” is not considered a viable reason to stop people from climbing mountains. It is not a good enough reason to prevent them from going into space.

Climbing Mount Everest, driving race cars, skydiving, crab fishing, all get people killed. However, we do not hear the argument, “People might get killed!” as a reason not to do these things. None of these produce such a unique value that we cannot get by without it. Space development produces the unique value of helping to preserve the Earth and the human race. Of all of the things to prohibit “because people might die,” space development should be far down the list.

This does not imply that we should care nothing about the fatalities. It is absurd to argue that a fatality should either be shrugged off as insignificant or bring an activity to a complete halt. Protecting the lives of participants is important. However, it is not the only thing that is important. If the only thing people cared about was protecting life, then nobody would ever climb a mountain, race a car, or parachute out of an airplane. To some people, there is a lot more to life than mere survival.


There are a lot of things we can accomplish by sending robots into space. If our only goal was to do science then, in fact, perhaps we should only send robots. However, science is not the only thing worth doing. In fact, if we look at most of the things people do and the reasons they do it, “doing science” is far down the list. In general, I would argue for more science. Yet, even I will not argue that activities be evaluated solely on the criteria of how much science we can do. There are a lot of other things that are worth doing. For some people, some of them even justify taking some risks from time to time. Cleaerly, saving the Earth and helping to preserve the human race might be worth some risk.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Humans In Space: Bad Arguments

With Space Shuttle Atlantis sitting on the launch pad, I go to the space science sites. I look for news, but I also encounter worn questions about space development. Such as, “Why go to all of the risk and expense of sending people into space? We should just send robots. They’re cheaper, and nobody dies.”

I would like to say that I like it when people agree with me. It makes me feel like I am not the only idiot on the planet – and that comforts me. However, that comfort is tempered when they give reasons for agreeing with me that do not make any sense. When I read the arguments that people sometimes use, I read a lot of arguments in favor of sending humans to space that make no sense.

Humans Do Better Science

On the space science discussion boards, the standard response that I see to this question is, “Because humans can do better science than science can.” They bring up all of the shortcomings with robots – particularly, their inability to determine what is ‘interesting’ and what is not. Robots will roll right past something that a human would have recognized is important. And, if a discovery leads the investigation down a new path, the machine is stuck with its original design specifications. It cannot improvise. Humans can. So, we should send humans. Right?

How many machines can we send for the price of sending one pack of humans? Let us accept that we will not get the same data. We will, on the other hand, get lots more of it. Lots . . . lots . . . lots more. For a trip to Mars, we are not talking about one robot versus one human. If we were, then, by all means, send the human. We are talking about 100 different robots versus 1 human. Even though that human can out-perform any one of those robots, can it outperform all of them combined? The human may see some things that the robots would miss. However, the human with his finite limits, is going to miss a lot of stuff that 100 different robots would have been able to find.

The Spinoffs Argument

Another argument that does not work is the “spinoffs” argument. This is the argument that says that space development is worth the money because of all of the neat things that the Apollo program, to use the most often cited example, has given us. Things like Velcro and microwave ovens – things that we otherwise would not have had.

It is ironic how people who like to use the spinoff argument cite Velcro and microwave ovens, when neither of them came from space technology. Velcro was invented by a mountain climber who noticed how plant burrs stuck to his clothes. Microwave ovens was discovered in the course of studying radar technology – they noticed how microwave radiation would heat food carried across the beam.

There are, of course, legitimate spinoffs from space science. Some of them are pretty expensive. However, those who use the spinoffs argument tend to ignore two major assumptions that are required for the argument to work.

(1) Those spinoffs would not have come about without the space program. The only benefit that can properly be credited to NASA for any spinoff is the benefit accrused between the time NASA provided the spinoff benefit, and the time that somebody else would have provided that benefit independent of NASA. NASA does not get to put in its credit book the value of the spin off until the end of time.

(2) We would not have acquired more and/or better spinoffs if we had spent the money someplace else. Let’s say that you have $1,000 to invest. You have two investment options; A and B. You choose Investment A. At the end of the year, Investment A made $100. However, Investment B would have made $200. Now, you can brag about how Investment A made you $100. However, this does not change the fact that Investment A did not make you as well off as you would have been if you had put the money in Investment B instead.

Just about any huge and expensive program will generate spinoffs. A program to build a bridge from Los Angeles to Hawaii, or an underground bullet train from LA to New York (or Tokyo) would produce spinoffs. But, is it worth the expense?

In fact, there is one type of project that has been responsible for a huge number of technological spinoffs – wars. War is what actually gave us the microwave oven. However, the spinoffs argument would be very poor justification for starting a war.

The best way to produce spinoffs is to create a huge and expensive program that, itself, aims to accomplish something that would be a positive contribution even if it did not produce spinoffs – a project like eliminating malaria, converting some substantial portion of the American economy to some American based renewable energy source, or a project that aims at teaching a large number of children how to tell the difference between a valid and an invalid logical argument.

Robots in space produce a number of direct effects independent of their spinoffs. They monitor the Earth’s climate, weather, land-use, and oceans. They provide us with communication around the globe and a global positioning system. They monitor the sun to help us avoid the adverse effects of solar storms. They collect data from the moon, planets, and distant bodies in space – but this is not nearly as valuable as saving the lives and livelihood of people on earth.

The spinoffs from this are “icing on the cake” as it were. This is as it should be. However, these spinoffs are not spinoffs that can be used to justify sending humans into space. These are the spinoffs that come from sending robots into space. They provide no argument for sending humans.

Earth-Based Jobs

Another argument that I often here my co-defenders of space development make says, “Don’t worry about the money. Every dime of NASA money is spent right here on earth. Even the astronauts buy cars (and their gasoline) here on earth. None of this money is disappearing in space. So, you should not be concerned about how much the space program costs.”

So, I have a plan. I am going to introduce a bill into the government that will pay everybody in the United States $10.00 per hour to clap their hands as fast as they can for 40 hours per week. We should not worry about how much this costs, because every dime I pay them is money that they will spend right here on earth.

But, costs does matter. It’s not enough that these people are working. They have to be working on something productive – something that is worth paying for. Otherwise, like paying people to stand around and clap their hands all day, the money is wasted.

Where does this money come from, anyway?

It comes from you and me. Every dollar that NASA spends on a Space Shuttle launch is a dollar less that you or I can spend on iPods, plasma televisions, scented candles, or an online course in computer programming. This means fewer jobs in the iPon or plasma screen manufacturing business, or the retail scented candles business, and the education business. We gain jobs in the industries that governments pay for producing things that the government does not really want or need, but we lose a comparable number of jobs in private industry producing things that people are actually, voluntarily willing to pay for.

So, yes, the money is being spent here on Earth. Yet, that does not answer the question of whether the money is being spent as well as it could be spent.


Remember, I am a major proponent of sending people into space. I simply do not think that some of my fellow proponents have given any serious thought to their arguments. They have some romantic idea of space development and, to justify it, they clutch on to whatever argument floats by, without considering the merit of the argument. The merit of an argument does not seem to matter,if it supports one’s romantic dream.

It does matter. Even if the romantic dreamer cannot see the flaws in his own arguments, others can, and they see this as reason to dismiss the romantic dreamer. “Okay, buddy, you have this dream that has blinded you to reality. I wish you the best of luck, but not on my dime. I have asked you what gives you the right to take money from me to support this project, and instead of a rational response, you give me this.”

If we are going to send people into space, we should end them for the right reasons. If we do have good reasons to send people into space, then we do not need the excuses of “humans do better science,” “spinoff”, and “jobs.”

Friday, August 25, 2006

Is Homosexuality an 'Illness'?

Announcement I am pleased to announce that my article, "The Meaning of Atheist" appears in the most recent Carnival of the Godless # 47 with a number of other articles that may be of interest to readers.

Feature Article

I have been writing a bit about definitions recently (Is Pluto a 'planet'? Is astronomy 'subjective'? Was the Holcaust 'Wrong'?). I thought that I would fill in some gaps by talking about another in this set of questions: Is homosexuality an 'illness'? This brings up the question, “How do we define ‘illness’?”

Illness as a Value-Laden Term

Illness is a value-laden term. Illness are bad. This is not an accidental relationship. Scientists did not conduct a survey and discover, surprisingly (Gasp! Eureka! Holy Plague, Batman!) that by chance or pure luck illnesses turn out to be bad. Illnesses are bad in the same way that circles are round and in the same way that bachelors are not married. If something is not bad (round, unmarried), then it cannot be an illness (circle, bachelor). Not all bad things are illnesses (round things are circles, unmarried things are bachelors), but all illnesses are bad (circles are round, bachelors are unmarried).

To say that something is bad is to say that there is reason to avoid it. Again, it makes no sense to call something bad where nobody, anywhere, can come up with a reason not to bring it about. In calling AIDS or malaria an 'illness', I am saying that, in general, all else being equal, there exist reasons to avoid having AIDS and malaria. If there were, in general, no reasons to avoid being in a state of having AIDS or malaria, then it would not make any sense to classify these things as 'illnesses.'

'Reason to avoidedness' is such an integral part of the meaning of 'illness' that separating the two would be a significant change in our language. Technically, we could separate them. Language is, after all, an invention that we can change as we please. We can redefine our words so that the word ‘illness’ means ‘green with red spots’ with absolutely no hint at all that green things with red spots are to be avoided. However, in the narrow sense of realistic practicalities it makes no sense to divorce the concept of ‘illness’ from the concept of ‘there are reasons to avoid.’

This is the same issue that I wrote about yesterday with respect to the meaning of ‘wrong.’ severing the connection between 'wrong' and 'reasons to avoid doing.' The two concepts are so tightly connected that even those who assert that we can define wrong as we wish (which we can) do not even think to consider the difficulty in severing the concept of 'wrong' from 'that which there are reasons not to do.' If we do this, winning the lottery may become 'wrong', but this would no longer imply that there are reasons not to do it.

This means that we cannot have a theory of 'illness' without a theory of ‘badness’ – or, more accurately, a theory of value.

This also means that anybody who thought that medicine is a science and hence objective, while a theory of value must necessarily be subjective is stuck in a contradiction, since medicine is concerned primarily with the value of different physical and mental functions.

Other Features of an ‘Illness’ (or ‘Injury’ or ‘Defect’)

There are other limits on what gets classified as an illness. In a strict sense, the term applies to changes in physical or mental functioning (depending on whether we are talking about physical or mental illness). So, an illness is a change in mental or physical functioning that there are reasons to avoid. Homosexuality would be an illness if and only if there are reasons to avoid being in a state of being a homosexual.

As an aside, this method gives us an easy way to distinguish between ‘illness’ and ‘injury.’ These terms were invented back when there were greater limits to what one could identify as the cause of a change in mental or physical functioning. Basically, if the cause of a change in functioning (a bacteria or virus, cancer, aging, muscular degeneration) cannot be seen without the aid of technology, then the change is called an 'illness.' However, if we can readily see the cause of a change in physical functioning (getting trampled by a horse, stabbed with a sword, falling off of a tall building onto a pile of rocks), then the change is called an 'injury.' Still, illnesses and injuries are changes in functioning that people have reason to avoid.

A ‘defect’ differs from an ‘illness’ or ‘injury’ in that it does not represent a change in how the body or mind functions. It is, instead, present from conception. Yet, it is still unusual or abnormal, and it to is something that there are reasons to avoid, if possible.

In all three cases, to determine if something counts as an illness, injury, or defect, we have to look for whether reasons exist to avoid such a state.

Desire Fulfillment and Reasons for Action

Here I am taken back to one proposition that is central to all of my writing. The only “reasons for action” that exist are desires.


Desires are propositional attitudes; that is to say, they can be expressed in the form of an attitude towards a proposition. Specifically, desires can be expressed in the form 'agent desires that P', where P is a proposition and the desire is an attitude that the proposition is to be made or kept true. A state of affairs S fulfills a desire that P if and only if P is true in S. A state of affairs S thwarts a desire that P if and only if P is false in S. People "have a reason" to bring about those states that fulfill their desires and "have a reason" to avoid states that thwart their desires.

On this account, an illness is a change in mental or physical functioning that there are reasons to avoid. The only reasons that exist can be found in the thwarting of desires. So, a state of mental or physical functioning is a state that there is reason to avoid (is an 'illness') if and only if it is a state that tends to thwart (other) desires.

Anybody who calls homosexuality an ‘illness’ who makes reference to some other type of ‘reason not to be a homosexual’ is making a false claim. They are asserting that a ‘reason for action’ exists that is not tied to desire, and no such reason for action exists.

Moral Evil and Reasons for Action

There is one more important point that I need to bring into this discussion. This concerns the importance of moral evaluations in determining whether certain reasons not to have a particular state are relevant to calling that state an illness.

If we stopped with what we had said so far, then 'being a woman,' for example, could be counted as being in a defective state. 'Reasons to avoid' being a woman arise from the fact that women are far more likely to be raped, and there are reasons to avoid being raped. If an illness or injury (or defect) is a state that there is reason to avoid, then this would imply that being a woman is a defect.

In Nazi Germany, there were reasons to avoid being a Jew in that there were reasons to avoid being sent to the concentration camps. Here, too, if we say that an illness or defect is a state that there exist reasons to avoid, then being a Jew in Nazi Germany would be a defect.

These are absurd results that expose an error in this theory of ‘illness’ that I have described so far. That error can be corrected by adding a moral component to the criteria for ‘illness.’

That criteria says that reason to avoid being in a particular state (being a woman, a Jew, or a homosexual) does not qualify that state as being a ‘defect’ if that reason is to avoid the consequences of other peoples’ bigotry.

Allow me to add a moral component to the account of ‘reasons for action’ that I gave above. I have said that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. In this next paragraph I describe the difference between a good and a bad desire.

Desires can be molded through social conditioning such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Among our 'reasons for action' there are reasons to promote some desires and reasons to demote others. Namely, there are reasons to promote desires that fulfill other desires (e.g., charity, kindness, honesty). The desires being fulfilled give us the reasons for this promotion. Accordingly, there are reasons to demote desires that tend to thwart other desires (e.g., rape, cruelty, dishonesty). The desires that there are thwarted give us reason for these demotions.

Now, we have an account of good and bad desires. These are desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires.

The remaining criterion, then, is that the reasons to avoid being in a particular physical or mental state do not count as an illness or defect if those reasons are to avoid the harms inflicted by people with bad desires – with desires that society generally has reason to demote. In these causes, those with bad desires are held responsible for the consequences, not those whose traits make them the victims of people with bad desires.

The reasons that exist to avoid being the victim of a rapist does not make being a woman a defect to be cured. They are reasons that exist for delivering even greater condemnation against those who would be rapists.

The reasons that exist to avoid being the victim of a Nazi does not make being a Jew a defect to be cured. They are reasons that exist for delivering even greater condemnation against those who would be Nazis.

The reasons that exist to avoid being the victim of an anti-homosexual bigot does not make being a homosexual a defect to be cured. They are reasons that exist for delivering even greater condemnation against those who would be anti-homosexual bigots.

If we could cure people of these defects – the rapist, the Nazi, the anti-homosexual bigot – then the world would be a better place.


In a sense, the International Astronomical Union faced limits in defining “planet” just as anybody working on a theory of value or a theory of ‘illness’ faces limits on their options. Whatever definition the IAU came up with; Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune had to end up being planets.

Similarly, whatever definition we come up with for ‘wrong’, it has to have something to do with what there is reason not to do; and whatever definition we come up with for ‘illness’ or ‘injury’ or ‘defect’ has to refer to physical and mental states that there are reasons to avoid having.

Language is an invention and, in some sense, we can completely redefine words. However, in a realistic sense, it is of little practical use to invent a whole new language. For all practical purposes, there are limits to what we can select in our definitions.

In value theory, our terms are limited to ‘reasons for action that exist’. Homosexuality is an illness if any only if there are reasons that exist to avoid being a homosexual – reasons other than avoiding the harms that anti-homosexual bigots would inflict. There is nothing inherently desire-thwarting in homosexuality (unlike, for example, drug addiction or schizophrenia). There is no reason to avoid being a homosexual, other than to avoid the harms inflicted by anti-homosexual bigots. Therefore, it is not an illness.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

I Was Wrong: There Are 8 Planets

Last week, I posted an article titled, "There Are 12 Planets," I was almost certain that the International Astronomical Union would accept a proposed definition of ‘planet’ that would give the solar system twelve planets. The proposal came from a committee that had studied the issue for two years. I figured that whatever they came up with, the IAU would accept.

I was wrong. A group of rebel astronomers got together and drew up an alternative proposal – one that would leave us with only eight planets. They submitted this proposal in competition to the 12-planet proposal. The rebel definition said that a planet must have Nearly) cleaned out its section of space – something that could not be said to be true of Ceres, Pluto-Charon, or the new discovery 2003UB313.

Consequently, this definition gave us eight planets.

The debate over which definition to adopt was highly political. One of the arguments in favor of the definition that allowed Pluto to be a planet was an attempt to yield to the political pressure of a pro-Pluto faction. The idea that Pluto might be removed from the list of planets brought protests from grade-school children that included an extensive letter-writing campaign to “save Pluto”. Committee members weighed the possibility that demoting Pluto would mean that astronomy itself would become less popular among school children who would be made to suffer the pangs of disappointment.

These are not the types of reasons that scientists usually weigh when they consider competing options. This was not a question that astronomers could answer by designing some sort of experiment and testing its results. The definition of 'planet' was going to be whatever the IAU said it was. The IAU could not make a mistake. When the votes were counted, whatever definition passed the approval process would become the new definition of a planet – unless and until the IAU changed its mind.

When people see these features in ethics, they say that this proves that morality is subjective and that there are no “right answers” at all in the realm of morality. Everything in morality is merely a matter of opinion.

Yet, these same traits, when they are found in astronomy, do not support that same conclusion.

This, by the way, is a reductio ad absurdum to the argument that these features prove the subjectivity of morality. If they fail to prove the subjectivity of astronomy, then how can they prove that morality is subjective?

Why I Bring This Up Again

I think that this issue is extremely important. I think that one of the reasons that theists are successful at painting atheists as morally backwards is because, in this area, atheists tend to adopt moral positions that make as little sense as those that theists adopt.

I am not going to repeat the same arguments from last week. I want to add another argument to them.

Critics of Atheism

Critics of atheism say that atheism requires a totally subjective morality – one in which the Holocaust can be made 'right' by the mere fact that a group of people get together and define 'right' in a way that includes the Holocaust.

A substantial number of atheists listen to this objection and answer, “Yeah. So? What’s wrong with that? Morality is subjective. We can make the Holocaust 'right' simply by adopting a definition of 'right' that includes the Holocaust. At the same time, we can make the Holocaust wrong by adopting a definition of ‘wrong’ that includes the Holocaust. Most of us prefer to define the term ‘wrong’ in ways that include the Holocaust, just like you do. So, it is a mistake to say that we approve of the Holocaust. We do not. We have defined it as being wrong. But, we did so in a way consistent with the idea that morality is subjective."

Against this, the "moral objectivist" argues that there has to be something more to calling the Holocaust wrong than merely defining 'wrong' to include holocausts. There has to be something really wrong with it.

The Pluto Express

Now, let’s go to Pluto.

Imagine this argument:

Astronomy is subjective. We can make Pluto a planet simply by adopting a definition of 'planet' that includes Pluto. At the same time, we can make it the case that Pluto is not a planet by adopting a definition of ‘planet’ that excludes Pluto. Whether Pluto is a planet or not does not depend on any ‘objective’ fact. It depends entirely on our subjective opinion. Therefore, astronomy is subjective.”

There is clearly something wrong with this argument. Even though everything that I say about Pluto being a planet being dependent on a rather arbitrary definition of ‘planet,’ the question of whether Astronomy is subjective or objective is independent of these considerations.

Blending Objectivity and Subjectivity

Both the moral subjectivists and their critics are making the same mistake. I can demonstrate this mistake by showing what it would be like if astronomers made the same mistake.

Assume that astronomers were in disagreement over the meaning of the word ‘planet’. However, at the same time, astronomers assumed (subconsciously, without thinking) that a ‘planet’ was any large body with a 24-hour day. They can choose whatever definition they want for ‘planet.’ In their debates, whatever definition they come up with, that is the definition that ‘planet’ will have. Yet, at the same time, they will also assert that anything that ends up being called a ‘planet’ under any definition must also have a 24-hour day.

This 24-hour-day requirement just sits there in the background. Nobody ever talks about it. Nobody ever acknowledges it. Yet, whenever you hear astronomers talk, this assumption sits in the background. While they debate whether to adopt an 8-planet definition or a 12-planet definition, it is simply assumed, quietly and without discussion, that everything that becomes a planet will have a 24-hour day.

Now, the whole issue of defining a ‘planet’ will encounter all sorts of problems. Whatever definition they come up with, somebody is going to point out that the definition includes something without a 24-hour day. Somebody is going to point out that you can’t simply cause something to have a 24-hour day just by calling it a planet. Yet, the astro-subjectivists will still be correct in asserting that whether something is a planet depends entirely on what definition of ‘planet’ we adopt, and that decision is fully subjective.

Astronomy, under this set of assumptions, becomes a mess. It becomes exactly the same type of mess we discover in discussions of morality.

Here is what those who debate ethics are doing. They are correctly asserting that whether something such as the Holocaust is bad (whether Pluto is a planet) depends on our definition of bad (planet). We are free to adopt one definition where the Holocaust is bad (Pluto is a planet), but we are just as free to adopt another definition where the Holocaust is not bad (Pluto is not a planet).

Hidden in the background at a level that everybody assumes and nobody really talks about there is this requirement that whatever ends up being called ‘wrong’ must be something that there is reason for us not to do (whatever ends up being called ‘planet’ is something that has a 24-hour day).

Now, the whole issue of defining ‘wrong’ (‘planet’) encounters all sorts of problems. Whatever definition we come up with, somebody is going to point out that the definition will call some things ‘wrong’ (a ‘planet’) that we do not have any reason not to do (that does not have a 24-hour day). Somebody is going to point out that you can’t simply cause something to be a thing we have reason not to do (to be a thing with a 24-hour day) just by calling it ‘wrong’ (just by calling it ‘a planet’). Yet, the moral subjectivists (astro-subjectivists) will still be correct in asserting that whether something ‘wrong’ (is a planet) depends entirely on what definition of ‘wrong’ (‘planet’) we adopt, and that decision is fully subjective.

The way that astronomers avoid these complications, and the way that those who discuss ethics should be avoiding these problems, is that astronomers do not allow any riders in their definitions. For example, they simply do not allow any riders that would require ‘planets’ to have 24-hour days unless this is a part of their definition of ‘planet’ The definition they choose for ‘planet’ is subjective. However, the only thing that necessarily follows from the definition they choose is that which actually, literally, follows from their selected definition – and nothing more.

Answering the Subjective/Objective Debate

What those who discuss morality should be doing is, if they are going to subjectively choose definitions for ‘wrong’, they should not allow any riders. Nothing follows from a particular act being called ‘wrong’ that does not literally follow from whatever definition they choose. In particular, it does not follow that what is ‘wrong’ is something that there is a reason not to do unless this is a part of our definition of ‘wrong’ – that it is ‘those things that we have reason not to do.’

If the moralist accepts this condition – if the moralist actually limits the definition of ‘wrong’ to those things that there is reason not to do, then moralists cannot, at the same time, assert that the definition of ‘wrong’ can be whatever they want. The definition of ‘wrong’ cannot be anything that is incompatible with ‘that which there is reason not to do.’

The moralist has to pick one of these two options. He either has to limit ‘wrong’ to ‘things that there is reason not to do’ and deny that there is any freedom to arbitrarily select or change definitions. Or he can assert a freedom to arbitrarily select or change definitions, but allow that what is ‘wrong’ might be totally irrelevant to questions of what we have reason not to do.

Which ever option he picks, morality comes a little closer to astronomy – a perfectly objective field of study, using perfectly subjective definitions. And you can go from nine planets to twelve planets and end up with eight planets within the course of a week, using fully subjective decision procedures, without even slightly questioning the objectivity of the field of study that is having this debate.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Strong Arguments and Offensive Conclusions

In an anonymous comment to yesterday’s post on "Dim-Witted, Hypocritical, Hate-Mongering Bigots," a reader wrote, “I reserve the right to criticize religion.”

Actually, nothing that I wrote implies that there is no right to criticize religion. What I wrote was a criticism of using unsound arguments in any form of criticism, and that the argument, “Some members of a group have done evil; therefore, all members of that group are evil.” It is an argument that can be used to say, “Some Darwinists have done evil; therefore evolutionary theory itself is evil,” or “Some Christians have done evil, so Christianity itself is evil.”

If you have a deductively sound argument with demonstrably true premises, or an inductively strong argument with well supported premises, then (except in very rare and circumstances) you have a right to present that argument. The fact that somebody else does not like the conclusion of a sound argument is (or should be taken to be) the problem of those who do not like the conclusion, not of those who have a sound argument to present. The problem rests with those who want to bury the truth, not with those who seek to present and defend it.

In this blog, I have delivered my own attacks on religion. In the posting, "Fact-Based vs. Fiction-Based Policies." I expressed the importance of knowing the difference between fact and fiction – of drawing conclusions based on evidence. I wrote of how fiction-based policies are more likely to get people killed, maimed, or otherwise harmed.

In another post titled "Talk to the Kids" h I wrote about the importance of tutoring children in how to tell truth from fiction in order to prevent themselves from becoming a threat to themselves and others.

In neither case did I use the invalid inference, “Some Christians have done evil; therefore, all Christians are evil.” It’s a bad argument, and I promise never to use it for that reason.

The Structure of Reasoned Criticism

In yesterday’s posting, I attempted to follow what I consider to be the morally appropriate model for legitimate criticism. Each time, my criticism of those responsible for producing and distributing the video “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy” took two steps in deliberate order.

Step 1: Demonstrate that the argument is flawed.

Step 2: Explain the moral flaw in the character of a person inclined to make the mistake identified in Step 1.

Example 1: The inference from "Some Darwinists derive unfounded moral principles" to "All Darwinists are evil" is an invalid inference. It is just as invalid as the inference, "Some Christians have used the Bible to defend slavery; therefore, all Christians are evil." Yet, there are Christians who condemn slavery. It is hardly just to condemn all Christians as defenders of slavery when there are clearly some Christians who condemn slavery. Accordingly, it is just as unjust to condemn all those who believe in evolution as responsible for the Holocaust and eugenics because some used Darwin’s theory to defend the Holocaust and eugenics.

After I demonstrated that the inference being used is invalid, then I went on to ask the question, “What is the moral character of the person inclined to make this type of mistake?” I suggested that the type of person likely to use these flawed types of arguments are dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots.

Example 2: I criticized any who would actually try to draw conclusions in defense of the Holocaust or eugenics from Darwin's theory of evolution. Any attempt at this line of reasoning makes an invalid logical leap from ‘is’ premises to ‘ought’ conclusions. Again, once we have identified that the form of reasoning is flawed, we can conclude that those who did not see this flaw were those who did not want to see it. Those who did not want to see the flaw would be those who found value in the conclusions they were trying to defend. In other words, those who did not want to see the flaw are dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots looking for any excuse they can find to give their hate an air of legitimacy.

In both of these examples, the demonstration of a logical error came before the moral accusation against those who are guilty of that error. In neither case did I argue from a premise that stated that, "Before we even look at the quality of the arguments being used, we must begin with the principle that it is wrong to derive these types of conclusions.”

In other words, having a sound deductive argument or a strong inductive argument – an argument immune to criticism – would have been sufficient to defend against the type of criticism I used in my post. If you have a sound criticism to make against religion, my objections do not work. They only work against those who use invalid arguments or unfounded premises.

Sound Reasoning and Offensive Conclusions

This discussion leads to another principle that I have been wanting to discuss for quite a while now. It is the principle that offense is not a legitimate rebuttal to a logically strong argument.

In short, if a (likely) truth is offensive, then the fault lies with those who are offended by and who refuse to accept the truth. It does not rest with those who wish to present or defend that truth.

Here is an example of the type of argument that I have in mind in expressing this principle:

(1) The physical bodies of men and women are structurally different in part because of genetic differences – because men have Y chromosomes where women have X chromosomes.

(2) These physical differences result in differences in physical aptitude. Recognizing that the concepts of “male” and “female” each represent a range of aptitudes, and that those ranges overlap, it is still the case that there are gender-related differences in the range of physical aptitudes that can be linked to genetic factors.

(3) The brain in a physical entity. When we are talking about structural differences in male and female bodies due to genetic differences, we must include in this differences in the physical structure of male and female brains. At the very least, we must account for the fact that women are disposed to desire sex with men and men are disposed to desire sex with women.

(4) Just as differences in the physical bodies of men and women imply different ranges of physical aptitudes, it is reasonable to expect that differences in the physical brains of men and woman will imply different ranges in mental aptitudes.

I suspect that there are people who would react rather violently to item (4) on this list. They wish to assert that no morally concerned individual would ever even bring up this item – that moral people will bury it and never refuse to consider it as true.

They do have a legitimate reason for concern. There are people (dim-witted bigots) who will take (4) and draw bigoted conclusions from it. They may conclude, for example, that a woman’s place is in the home and women are not fit to run a business or a government. The idea of different aptitudes will cause some to make unjustified assertions as to one gender being ‘better’ than the other.

I am not making any assertions as to what these differences are. I have not even said that their are any. I have simply said that the fact that genetic differences affect the physical structure of the body, including the brain, that it is not unreasonable to find differences. I would leave that up to scientists to reveal what those differences are, if they exist.

However, for others, avoiding the situation of people in power - or whole cultural segments - drawing unjustified and bigoted conclusions from such premises, we are supposed to suppress the premises. We are told that the moral person would even consider possibly being true, regardless of any argument that can be brought to its defense.

However, please note that this is the same form of argument that those involved in the production “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy” are using in their film. They wish to argue that Darwinism, even if true, is something that Hitler-like people will think (incorrectly, as it turns out) that they can use to defend the holocaust. In order to prevent people from making these invalid inferences, they argue that we must bury the premises (even if they are true) that would be used in these attempts.

This policy is actually a policy that says that we, as a society, are not going to take a stand against the bigot’s disposition to draw invalid (bigoted) conclusions from true premises. Instead, we are going to accept their practice without question and without contest. Instead, we are going to bury propositions that they might misuse and not even consider whether they are true or false.

This means that we are going to tolerate the bigot’s form of reasoning from true premises to unjustified hate, and condemn any truth that they might find useful.

I suggest, instead, that we promote a love of truth, and a hatred for the bigot's disposition to argue from true premises to unjustified hate.

My proposal is this:

Offense is not a legitimate objection to a strong argument. The person who is offended by truth is the one with a problem, not the person who can defend his conclusions through strong argument.

However, the use of a weak argument gives us an opportunity to ask, "Why, of all of the mistakes that this person could have made, did they make this mistake?" If it is a mistake that a dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigot would make, this gives us reason to ask if the perpetrator is a dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigot. We do have right to be offended at the mistakes that people make, when they are mistakes that reveal an affection for hate. However, there must first be a mistake.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dim-Witted, Hypocritical, Hate-Mongering Bigots

God is for Suckers carried a posting today on a video called “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy” this weekend that draws the conclusion that Darwin personally and evolutionary theory in general were responsible for the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust.

The article has caused me to wonder whether a video should be produced drawing a link between Christianity and the dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots that would produce and distribute a video such as this, and those who may find it convincing.

I do not advocate name-calling. However, it is not name-calling for a prosecuting attorney to stand up and say to the court, "I intend to prove that the accused is a murderer." A morally-charged proposition can, in fact, be made the conclusion of a logical argument – it can be proved – in the same way that one may be proved to be a murderer or a rapist.

That is my intention in this post.

Opening Statement

Ladies and gentilemen of the jury, in order to prove that those who produced, distribute, and stand to be convinced by the arguments that will be presented in this video are dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots, I wish to start with a reductio ad absurdum of the validity of the argument that lies at the core of the inference that the accused seeks to draw between Darwin and Hitler. This reduction will show that not only is the inference invalid, but that it would have been seen as such by morally responsible people. From this we can infer that those who failed to see the obvious inference are not morally responsible. More importantly, we can ask, "What sort of person would overlook or ignore such an obvious point?" The answer will be those most likely to commit this error are dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots. Thus, my accusation would have been proved.

Step 1: The Reductio

A reductio ad absurdum argument begins with premises that the individual one is arguing against cannot easily accept, and draws from them an absurd conclusion, using an argument that has exactly the same form as the argument being criticized.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Clearly, the words in the Bible, and even the words of Jesus Christ, have been used by people from time to time to commit great evil. Christian Europe endorsed and expanded the institution of chattel slavery , culminating in the slave trade in the 1800s that lead to America’s Civil War. the institutions and For example, it was a substantially Christian culture laid the foundation for the institution practice of chattel slavery. Darwin's theory of evolution had not been invented yet and cannot be blamed for this institution. In fact, Darwin's theory of evolution is co-incidental with the abolition of chattel slavery, not with its creation.

The defense of chattel slavery largely came from biblical sources. The Bible did not condemn slavery. In fact, it contained many passages concerning the proper treatment of slaves -- none of them being a commandment to end the practice of slavery. Many Biblical stories has God commanding one group of people or another to take slaves. To cap it all off, there is the oft-quoted passage, particularly relevant to the defense of chattel slavery, whereby God decided to punish Ham by giving him dark skin and declaring that he and all of his descendents are to serve as slaves to whites.

Considering these facts, we can ask whether those who produced, distribute, and stand to be convinced by this video would be convinced by the argument that, because of this history, Christianity itself is responsible for slavery. We can ask if they would accept the conclusion that Christians today share in the guilt of chattel slavery and that Christianity itself (and all those who would call themselves Christian) is to be condemned on the streets, in the schools, and in the public square.

It clearly does not follow from the fact that, in the past, some Christians have found a defense of slavery in the Bible that all Christians are to be condemned. It is particularly absurd to blame those Christians who found reason to condemn slavery that they, too, are to be blamed for its defense.

More importantly, those same Christians who produced, distributed, and stand to be convinced by this video would be among the first to condemn any who tried to saddle all Christians with the guilt of slavery, simply because some Christians used the bible to defend slavery.

This argument reduces to absurdity the argument that because some evil people couch their evil in terms of a particular belief, that the belief itself (and all of those who hold to that belief) are to be condemned. The argument is as absurd when the belief in question is Darwinism as it is when the belief in question is Christianity. In neither case does this argument make it legitimate to condemn those who hold that belief on the streets, in the schools, and in the public square.

Of course, there are atheists who have used the inference I spoke of above to condemn all Christians. They have argued, "Because some people have used religion as a basis for doing evil, all religion must be condemned." Because this argument commits the same fallacy, my argument here justifies saying that those atheists are also dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots.

Step 2: The Obviousness

The readiness with which we can expect the bulk of those who produce, distribute, and stand to be convinced by the video Darwin’s Deadly Legacy to leap to denying the implication from the biblical defense of slavery to the condemnation of Christianity and all Christians suggests that the point that I am making is not some obscure and deeply buried argument. It is on the surface of the consciousness of all of those who can call it up on a moment’s notice to defend Christianity. They intimately understand and accept the idea that a good and decent person will not infer the hatred of all of those who adopt a particular belief from the fact that some who adopt that belief do great evil.

Step 3: Moral Character

The last step then is to ask, "What type of people are these who find it so easy to ignore such basic principles of common sense and fundamental justice?”

In all cases, a person's intentional actions aim to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. Every intentional action gives us evidence that we can use to deduce an individual's beliefs, along with his more and stronger desires.

In fact, this is how proof of intent works in a court of law. The prosecution provides evidence that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that only a particular intent best explains and predicts the behavior of the accused.

I have shown that the bulk of those who produced, distribute, and stand to be convinced by this argument accept the common-sense principle that all of the holders of a belief cannot be condemned because some of them have used it to defend evil institutions. They cannot claim to be unfamiliar with this principle because, if they were, they would not use it so easily in their own defense.

I have also shown that the bulk of those who produced, distribute, and stand to be convinced by this video accept the common-sense principle of justice that it is wrong to condemn a person for acts that he personally never participated in or endorsed. So, we cannot blame the fact that those who produced, distribute, and stand to be convinced by this video that they lack the ability to understand the wrongness of their actions.

The most obvious intent of Darwin’s Deadly Legacy is to impugn the character of any person who believes in evolution.

Technically, we can deduce that an agent has a desire that ‘P’ if the best way to explain and predict his behavior is by saying that his choices attempt to make or keep the proposition ‘P’ true. For those who produced, distribute, and are inclined to be convinced by the video Darwin’s Deadly Legacy, the best way to explain and predict their behavior is that they seek to create a situation in which there is general and widespread hatred of those who believe in evolution. One may want to suggest that their interest is in preventing another holocaust, but we must recall that we need a theory that explains their acceptance of failed logic for thinking that evolutionists are responsible for the holocaust. Why did they make this mistaken inference? The best explanation for the mistake is that they wish to see evolutionists as objects of hatred.

In other words, those who produced, distribute, and are inclined to be convinced by this video are those who like the idea that evolutionists are “like Hitler” so much that they are willing to grasp and hold on to any excuse that suggests that they can see evolutionists as “like Hitler.” They are attempting to get people to reject evolution, not because the evidence suggests that evolution is a poor theory, but because the reader must either reject evolution or risk being accused of being "like Hitler".

Step 4: Hypocrisy

From Step 3, the charge of hypocrisy can easily be proved applicable.

We are speaking about people who would condemn anybody who dared to argue from the premise, "Some Christians do evil" to the conclusion "Christians (and Christianity) are evil."

At the same time, these people find it perfectly acceptable to argue from the premise, "Some Darwinists do evil" to the conclusion "Evolutionists are evil."

A hypocrite is defined as somebody who demands that others live by a set of moral principles (and condemns those who fail to do so), while at the same time refusing to live by those same moral principles.

Clearly, those responsible for producing and distributing, and who are inclined to be convinced by this video are hypocrites, in that they insist that others follow a moral principle that they, themselves, willingly violate.

Step 5: Dim Witted

In order to make a case for Darwin’s Deadly Legacy, an individual needs to provide evidence that these evils are somehow entailed by Darwinian theory. If, instead, people get from Darwinism to eugenics or a holocaust by means of a logical or factual mistake, then the fault does not rest with Darwinism. It rests with those guilty of making this logical or factual mistake.

Any who did infer some type of social Darwinism, eugenics, or genocide on the basis of Darwinian evolution would, in fact, be guilty of a logical mistake. There is nothing in Darwinian theory that entails or implies any moral principle – any more than Newtonian theories of motion or Einsteinian theories of relativity entails or implies any set of moral principles. Any who claim to see such an inference is seeing something that does not exist.

Scholars have known for nearly 300 years that any inference from a set of 'is' statements (which is what scientific theories are) to 'ought' conclusions is logically invalid (or, at best, requires an explanation). If somebody actually asserts that such an inference exists, they are making a mistake. The problem rests with their inability to understand basic logic, not with Darwinian theory.

Whenever anybody makes this kind of mistake, we have reason to ask (and to seek to explain) why they made that mistake of all of the various mistakes they could have made. If a person makes a logical mistake supporting a particular conclusion, it is not unreasonable to believe that they made the mistake because they want the desire to be true, and they are just looking for excuses (or rationalizations) for what they want to believe.

If the Nazis drew any type of moral implications from Hitler then this was a case of rationalization. They wanted a way to rationalize their hatred, and they made invalid inferences to do so. If they could not draw their invalid inferences from Darwinism, they would have drawn them from someplace else. After all, they are looking for (irrational) inferences used to support an attitude of hate. They are not looking for inferences that actually make sense. If Darwinism had not been available, they would have found their excuse someplace else (e.g., in the Bible – like those who murdered Jews had been doing for over a thousand years).

In short, if Hitler and his kind drew inferences from Darwinism to support the holocaust, it is not because those inferences are valid (they are not). It is because Hitler and his kind were dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots. Using invalid inferences to support their hate is what dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots do.


When we look at the people responsible for producing and distributing Darwin’s Deadly Legacy we see a group of people seeking to promote hate (a.k.a., 'hate-mongering'), eager to accept invalid arguments purely because those invalid arguments are useful in supporting and feeding their hatred.

These producers and distributors depend on a violation of a fundamental principle of justice -- that no person shall be accused of wrongdoing by accidentally sharing a trait with those who are guilty of some evil. Thus, those who are responsible for producing and distributing this video are guilty of being bigots.

The people who produced and distribute this video not only violate a basic principle of justice in doing so; they violate a principle of justice that they insist that others uphold. They would instantly object if somebody were to come to them and say, “Some Christians do evil; therefore, all of Christianity is evil” (e.g., some Christians defended slavery; therefore, Christianity should be abolished). Yet, they freely violate principles that they insist that others live by. Because of this, they are guilty of the moral crime of hypocrisy.

Finally, they make their argument in clear contradiction of the basic principles of logic that any intellectually responsible clear-thinking person can easily recognize, allowing us to charge them with being dim-witted.

By the way, I am not using the term ‘dim-witted’ in a purely descriptive sense. I am using it in a morally derogatory sense to refer to somebody who refuses to live by basic standards of intellectual responsibility – those who are ‘dim-witted’ not by chance, but by choice.

Ladies and gentlemen, on the basis of this evidence, I conclude that you have no choice but to conclude that the accused – those who produced and distribute and who stand to be convinced by the video Darwin’s Deadly Legacy are dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots, and ought to be regarded like any other dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots.

They are not the only ones. Some atheists (those who hold "some religious people do evil deeds; therefore, all of religion must be abolished) are also dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots. Of course, the Nazis were dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots. No dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigot can defend his actions by saying, “But I am not the only one.”

One conclusion that I want to put some emphasis on is that we are doing no good by promoting hatred against others on the basis of their being theist or atheist. We should be directing moral contempt on those who are dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots regardless of their religious stripes. The fewer dim-witted, hypocritical, hate-mongering bigots we have, the better the world will become.