Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Post 500

Five hundred posts, 508 days of blogging.

Okay, some days (eight, so far), I get lazy and don't write anything. I hope I can be forgiven.

I want to thank all of you for visiting me. There are more of you than I thought there would be. My posts are long, and take some commitment in terms of time and effort to read. The spelling and editing errors do not help. I can't help it. I am a chronic rewriter and 'editing' always turns into a complete rewrite of a post from top to bottom, introducing as many new mistakes as I correct.

Anyway, I am seriously flattered at those who find this place worthy of your time and attention.

Now that I have done all of this writing, I am thinking of taking some of my favorite posts, and those that readers tell me they like best, and putting them together into a book.

This will not be a book on moral theory. I have already put a set of essays explaining the theory that sits as the foundation of this blog into a book, "A Better Place: Selected Essays in Desire Utilitarianism"

Of course, my habit of chronic rewriting will compel me to rewrite those posts into a form that will be more appropriate in a book format - giving them context and, of course, getting somebody to edit them.

Of the things that I have written, I have my own favorites. However, I invite you to tell me which of these you think I should not include, and which of those I have not included that I should include.

My Favorite

My personal favorite posting talked about my dad. Atheists in Foxholes

The Story Posts

Another group of personal favorites are my story posts. Every once in a while, I think of getting my mind into a different way of thinking and making this more of a standard way of expressing my ideas. But, they're actually very hard to write.

A Perspective on the Pledge

A Perspective on Scouting

The Meaning of Life

Though these following two stories do not appear as blog entries, I still like them.

Dialogue: Conversation at the Gate

Dialogue: HumanRace, Inc.

Of course, anybody who is so interested can read a much longer story post - my online philosophical/fantasy novel, The Cult of Justice and Will

The Popular Posts

It is inevitable that some posts will be more popular than others. Here are the ten posts that still collect the greatest number of readers even though they have sunk into the dark depths of the archives.

"All Men are Created Equal"

Militant Atheists

Science vs. Religion

The Culpability of Moderates

Speaking vs. Acting

"You're Wrong"

The Ethics of Ridicule

Faith Hospital

Dennis Miller, Global Warming, and Epistemic Negligence

Source of Hatred

The Standard Topics

I have, of course, taken the opportunity of this blog to write some essays on issues of long-term importance (though some of these, I hope, will become as uncontroversial as the issue of slavery - once heavily debated - has become today)

Abortion (and Infanticide): Part I

Abortion (and Infanticide): Part II

Abortion: Parental Consent and Parental Notification

Physician Assisted Suicide

Capital Punishment: The Cost of Celebrating Killing

Buying and Selling Organs


Animal Rights: The Predator Problem

Law and Morality

In the 500 days that I have been writing we have seen an absolutely shocking degradation in this country's concern for liberty and individual rights.

The Ten Amendments

Civil Disobedience


Gerrymandering (aka Partisan Apartheid)

Politics and Values

Legislating Morality

Cartoons and Violence

Money and Values

I also hold that there is a strong relationship between economics and morality. Not only are there right and wrong ways of making money, but economic institutions themselves may be either moral or immoral.

Public Goods

Global Warming: Who Pays?

The Tragedy of the Global Climate Commons

Energy Prices and the Folly of Price Controls

John Stossel on Price Gouging

National Debt

A National Language

Survival vs. Property

Survival vs. Property Part Deux

The Future

Finally, I have an overall concern with leaving the world better than it would have been if I had not existed. This requires looking ahead to the future and at the those institutions that show the greater ability to improve the quality of life. We live in a universe that is indifferent to our survival - as a species, and as individuals. So, our survival depends on our ability to understand the world – the real world, not the world of fantasy and superstition – so that we can anticipate the ways in which that universe might destroy us and protect ourselves from it.

This first one is personal: The Atheist Materialist Scientist

Fact-Based vs. Fiction-Based Policies

A National Day (or More) of Science

The Price of Evil

The Bus of State

Religion, Science, and Bigotry

NASA's Space Budget

Property In Space


I cannot see myself giving this up. My reason for living has been to leave the world better than it would have otherwise been, and this has been the best method I have found for fulfilling that desire. I am considering some changes in focus, but the project remains the same.

I'll be here again tomorrow. I would be pleased if you would join me.

Alonzo Fyfe

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Post 499: A Call to Action

With post 500 just around the corner, I wanted to write a post to encourage my readers to not just read these posts and then go about life as usual, but to take action to make the world a better place for those who live on it.

The Barbarians at the Gate

Austin Cline at About: Agnositicism/Atheism in a post titled, “Atheists are Coming for Your Children, Your Liberty” discussed an article in “Answers to Genesis” that raised the alarm that atheists are after their children and that militant atheists are out to destroy Christianity.

In reading the AiG article, I noticed that it was a fundraising piece. The author begins by shouting the alarm that the barbarians (that’s us, in case you didn’t recognize us) are at the gates, and if we capture their stronghold then we will kill all the men, rape their women, and boil and eat their children. Then he rallies the troops to defend all that is good and holy by enlisting in the AiG army or contributing money so that AiG can hire mercenaries to defend the barricades, keeping the barbarian atheists away.

Of course, we are wise barbarians. We recognize the value of hitting our enemy at their most vulnerable spot – their children. If we can capture the children, then time alone will take care of the rest. We are such clever creatures, for all of our barbarianism.


This blog is not a Christian vs. Atheist blog, and I have no interest in these conflicts per se. I do not write about the existence of God or the contradictions in any religious text. I do hold that the proposition “God exists” is almost certainly false. There are an infinite number of things that one can believe without evidence, and the odds of any one of them being true are 1/infinity. This number is never zero, but it gets pretty darn close to zero. Close enough, in fact, that it is rational to say, “For all practical purposes – for all of the effect that it has on the real world – it’s zero.”

However, the world is far too complex and time is far too short for all of us to give every belief close rational scrutiny. We form our beliefs on the run, as we move from one concern to the next. We have to forego perfect rationality in favor of ‘rules of thumb’ that sometimes yields wrong answers. In spite of the higher possibility of error, we get our answers faster. In the real world, a faster possibly wrong answer is often more useful than a guaranteed true answer that comes too late. Evolution itself would favor such mental shortcuts.

The rule I argue for in determining when a person has an obligation to take the time to hold their beliefs up to the clear light of reason is when there is a threat of harm to others. The greater the potential harm, the greater the moral obligation to use reason to determine if a belief is true or false.

If by “Christian” one means a person dedicated to curing the sick and injured, feeding the hungry, and helping people find fulfillment compatible with their nature and the well-being of others, I am happy to have such people among my neighbors. I can see no reason to object to Christianity in this form – what I will call a Christian of the First Order. In fact, a Christian could be a desire utilitarian. There is no inherent conflict in the idea that God created the world in which morality exists, and that desire utilitarianism describes the moral fabric that God created. I think that one could interpret Jesus as a person who said, “Do that act that a person with good desires would do.” Indeed, this would be a reasonable interpretation of the question, “What would Jesus do?”

However, there is a second type of “Christian” – a Christian of the Second Order. This type of Christian stands in defense of death and sickness by blocking the medical research that could find a cure for these ailments. Their “beliefs without evidence” condemn hundreds of millions of people to suffering and death because they have decided to claim that a 150-cell blastocyst has a soul. They use this same superstition to claim the right to empower the state to take control of the bodies of women and treat them as government property. The teach hatred of science and reason when science and reason provide the necessary tools for curing the sick and injured, feeding the hungry, and helping people to live more fulfilling lives.

These Second Order Christians subject young homosexuals to emotional abuse severe enough to drive many of them to suicide – which these Christians have no reason to be concerned about since their Bible says that homosexuals should be put to death anyway. It is, at least, legal to drive them to suicide.

These Second Order Christians promote conflict in various parts of the world in order to fulfill biblical prophecy, and neglect the long-term well-being of Earth and humanity because they believe we have no long-term interests. The Rapture will happen any day now.

When Christianity turns into a tool for doing harm to others, then any caring person has no obligation but to take stand up for those who would be harmed.

Of course, there is no sharp dividing line between these two groups. There is a continuum, with some Christians drifting closer to the First Order conception and others closer to the Second Order account.

Preventing Harm

If a person has a genuine concern to protect innocent people from harm, then that person will have a reason for action to prevent others from becoming people who do harm. There is a genuine moral obligation to oppose Second Order Christians – precisely because they are a threat to others. They bring death, disease, hate, and ignorance, and they stand in the way of making wise decisions about the long-term future of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Atheists have children of their own. If they do not have biological children, they have nieces and nephews, and friends with children. They have reason to be concerned that as the child grows the child not suffer the pains and loss of diseases that could have otherwise been cured, groundless hate, violence in the name of God, and that the world be a place capable of sustaining them rather than having been driven into the sewers by their selfish and short-sighted ancestors.

To do that, atheists of today have reason to take steps to ensure that their children’s neighbors are people who will help rather than harm. And harm done in the name of God is still harm.

As I noted earlier, Austin Cline’s remarks were made in response to a fund raising letter. It was a call to collect money to promote the author’s own cause of hatred and ignorance. Every person who answered that call and contributed money, paid to make the world worse than it would have otherwise been. They paid to promote hate and ignorance, and to raise yet another generation of children to be a threat to their neighbors and to do harm in the name of God.

No doubt, they will go to bed feeling proud of their accomplishments. There is no doubt that the witch-burners, inquisitors, and crusaders of the past felt the same pride.


This posting, too, is a fundraising letter – a call to readers to commit to taking action to defending reason and enlightenment, to defending your own children and the children of those you care about, against those who would do them harm.

I am not accepting any contributions – you will find no “donate” button on this blog. I have nothing against donations, and this might change in the future, but at this point I consider it to be too much of a hassle.

However, the forces of ignorance and hate – the Second Order Christians – are very well funded, and can only be met by organizations that have comparable resources to draw upon. This means volunteer labor and cash contributions – even to the point of sacrificing other things that you might want.

I am not a fan of promoting atheism per se. Atheism does not imply any moral code, and it is possible for an atheist to be no less a threat to others than a theist. I argue that the effort should go specifically to attacking those attitudes that can be directly linked to harm to others. In doing so, those who defend that which is right and good have had a habit of biting their tongue when they encounter those who use religious argument. That tongue-biting must come to an end. When religion is used in defense of policies that are harmful to others, then that religion (or that sect of that religion) needs to be truthfully labeled as a belief system that makes its followers a threat to others.

To the degree that fewer people have attitudes that are harmful to others, to that degree we will have fewer people being harmed by others.


So, I actually do encourage my readers to find activities that will reach children and teach them the fundamentals of reason and science, and to turn them away from the doctrines of ignorance and hate that surround them. This does not mean being anti-Christian. It means being anti-hate and anti-ignorance, and a willingness to chase down these evils even when it hides behind a curtain of faith.

It is not wrong to want our children to enjoy their adulthood in a society that is not drowning in ignorance and hate.

In all of this, it is far better to peacefully persuade a person to give up ignorance and hate than to force them to do so. For the sake of the kids, it is worth the effort.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Submission to Authority

Austin Cline at “About: Agnosticism/Atheism” had a pair of postings over the weekend whose proximity made them particularly interesting.

Post #1: Christians Shouldn’t Submit to Secular, Civil, Political Authority. This post concerned the attitude some Christians take on submission to government authority. The attitude is that if their brand of Christian were not allowed to dictate the rules governing society, they were not obligated to be members of that society.

Post #2: Caring for Others’ Feelings is Not an Atheist Trait, Austin discusses a comment a teacher made to a student (pseudonym, Possum #1) who told the teacher, “I think I am an atheist.” Possum #1 responded that the teacher told her that she could not be an atheist because atheists do not care about the feelings of others.

In a post that largely focused on anti-atheist bigotry, Cline included a section discussing a comment that the Possum #1’s parent should be ashamed to have a child who talks back to authority in this way. The commenter wrote:

If I had a daughter, she wouldn’t dare speak to an adult in the ways that Possums daughter speaks to adults. I do not tolerate insolense in my home. I would be ashamed of that essay.

These posts invite the question: What, is the proper level of respect that a person should give to authority?

A Demand for Discipline

I am going to start by giving this issue a little more context by saying that the teacher mentioned in Post #2 should be subject to official discipline. The act of demanding a formal apology on this matter will communicate the message that this is as bigoted a statement as a teacher can make – like telling a black student who has done a kind deed, “That is awfully white of you.” As such, it will communicate to others within earshot of this case that these types of attitudes are those of a person of low moral character – a person worthy of condemnation. Many of those who hear this message will be students, whose attitudes of right and wrong (whose desires and aversions) are still more malleable.

It is an important message to communicate and, as I have been arguing throughout this blog, an important way to communicate moral messages.

We must consider the way that bigotry works. People ‘interpret’ events consistent with their prejudices. A teacher who thinks that an atheist cannot consider the feelings of others is going to interpret the actions of any atheist student as one inconsistent with the idea of concern for others. An atheist and a Christian student performing identical acts will be treated differently when the teacher is incapable of interpreting an atheist’s actions as being motivated by concern for others. She will then communicate those attitudes to other students.

We have good reason to be concerned for the next student in this teacher’s class who writes or says, “I am an atheist,” rather than Possum #1’s comment that, “I think I am an atheist.”

Those who are unwilling to challenge these attitudes leave them in place to do their harm to the next generation of young minds, and the generation after that, perpetuating a culture in which atheists are the most hated group in America, incapable (for example) of holding public office and banished from holding positions as judges or other public officials.

Submission to Authority

On the question of submitting to authority, I would like to ask a hypothetical question of the woman who was “ashamed” of the essay.

What is the obligation of the student to respect an authority figure when that authority figure misbehaves? If a teacher touches the student inappropriately, where is there an obligation to submit to authority? If a teacher calls a student a nigger, what may we say about how the student may speak to such a teacher? If that student sees a teacher touch some other student inappropriately, or overhears the teacher telling somebody about the ‘niggers’ in her class, is it an act of insolence to protest?

The good student speaks stands up to those who are guilty of moral transgressions, even when those who transgress are members of an authority class. Indeed, particularly when those who transgress are members of an authority class – because those authority figures are teaching (by example) those same standards to others.

In fact, one of the most important lessons that a school can teach a student is the obligation to stand up to those who abuse their authority. The time that one is a student is the time in which responsible adults guide students in their moral development by praising those who do well in this regard and condemning those who do poorly. Doing poorly, in this context, means remaining passive in the face of injustice.

We can compare this commenter’s lesson to the lesson many people expect students to carry out of their American History class, regarding the revolutionary war. The dominant lesson of that period of history is that there are lines beyond which authority figures (the King of England) may not cross.

The first recourse of the moral individual when faced with an abuse of authority is to petition the institution of authority for a change in policy to correct for the injustice. Thus, the founding fathers first petitioned the King of England for a change in policy. The founding fathers also wrote into the Constitution that people have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This is precisely what Possum #1 did. Her essay was such a petition. Her response was a bigoted, hateful slam that atheists (which, by the way, includes Possum’s own mother) inherently fail to consider the interests of others.

If injustice continues, the next step in an open society is to campaign for change. In a country that has procedures established for open debate and peaceful change, there is no call for violence. Thus, my paragraph above calling for an official reprimand (no teacher shall tell a student that their parents are inherently unkind in virtue of their religion) is in order.

This latter point reveals a distinction between the obligation to obey and the obligation to accept. In an open society, one may have an obligation to obey an unjust law until one can get it changed. However, the obligation to obey such a law is never to be confused with an obligation to accept it – an obligation never to question its justice, and to refrain from seeking changes and improvements in existing law.

Withdrawing from the School System

On the question of Christians withdrawing from the school system, these principles would suggest that they are within their rights to do so. They have a right to petition the government for grievances and to campaign for change and to engage in whatever peaceful, private actions are consistent with their views.

Cline correctly identifies a reason for concern. “The absence of exposure to children of other faiths, cultures, and beliefs would also have a detrimental impact on their development. Strict sectarian separation in the schools appears to have been a major contributor to violence in Ireland, for example.”

Actually, I would need a reference for the “appears to have been a major contributor to violence in Ireland” claim. However, more importantly, Cline did not address the type of response that these concerns warrant. Do they justify compelling these fundamentalists to send their children to public schools, or do they only justify efforts to persuade parents to do so – and condemning and criticizing those who do not?

I would argue for the latter. History tells us that we have difficulty knowing exactly which views should be taught. It is quite likely, for example, that Christian fundamentalists may feel the need to compel religious education on the basis that those who do not believe in God are a danger to others – because they lack any type of moral foundation. The view is bigoted, hate-mongering nonsense, but it is nonetheless popular nonsense.

A wise position to take is to allow individuals to choose their own paths, for themselves and their children, and to limit the allowable forms of persuasion to private words and deeds, rather than government compulsion.

Yes, there are limits to what we may compel parents to teach their children. Those who hold that the mental health of a child requires ritual beatings or rapes may be prohibited from doing so, and no claim that ‘we have the right to follow our religious practices” can save them. There is a presumption in favor of the parents. However, it is the same type of presumption used against criminals – a presumption of innocence unless proven guilty. We have more than enough evidence to prove guilty, and to prohibit, the types of child rearing that involve daily beatings and rapes. We do not have strong reason to prohibit the teaching of ideas we do not like.

However, the moral argument for freedom and against prohibition does not imply that it is wrong we must ‘tolerate’ in the sense of refusing to criticize those who teach their children superstitious nonsense. Private words and deeds of condemnation are perfectly legitimate. Children who are taught nonsense are being harmed, even if it is not a level of harm that demands state intervention.

Related Posts:

"The Ethics of Ridicule"

"Speaking vs. Acting"

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dear Reader: Some Comments on Context

Dear Reader:

I am in one of those moods where I am simply not interested in another cold, dry discussion of some issue of moral relevance – whether on the level of theory or of practice.

From time to time, it is important to remember that the subject of ethics is about people.

I am getting very near to 500 posts. Given the average size of one of my posts, that amounts to something just shy of 1,000,000 words. It amounts to somewhere around 2,000 hours of labor.

Yet, most of those postings are pretty dry. I’m not one to put a lot of emotion into what I write.

It is very easy for a posting to read like a mathematical formula, where the only thing one looks at is how neatly and logically the concepts fit together (or not, as the case may be). Ultimately, the writing seems to be only of academic importance.

From time to time, I think it is important to stress that the ‘conclusions’ one reaches in a moral argument is that somebody is either going to be writing in pain in a jail cell or a hospital bed, or sitting down to dinner with his or her family. The conclusion is a consciousness growing dim and going out forever, or experiencing the joy of playing with his children.

These are not insignificant, abstract conclusions.

I would like to confess that, when I read about people demanding that the American soldiers get out of Iraq, when I read about the resolution saying that this “surge” is not in the national interests, I get angry.

It is purely an emotional anger. My stand on the war is that I will wait for expert opinion and hold that the rational view is to adopt that same position. Recently, with reports from the Iraq Study Group and the Joint Chiefs of Staff being against the “surge”, I know that I must intellectually be for it.

Yet, it is not what I want. I want the “surge” to work.

There are people dying . . . a whole lot of people, not just Americans . . . and that bothers me. I want it to stop.

Those who talk about withdraw too often talk only about American lives. I do not hear them talking about Iraqi lives. It is as if an Iraqi life does not matter. It is as if the 10-year-old Iraqi child, her flesh ripped apart by the nails that were wrapped around a bomb set off in the market – does not matter. It is not an American child, so it is not important.

I would very much like to hear the advocates of withdraw spend at least a little time explaining how they are going to help the children.

Bush recently made the comment that failure in Iraq was an Iraqi failure. For this, he was chastised – blaming somebody else for what was clearly his failure. Now, Bush did fail. Bush is an idiot, who fell for an idiot’s plan that he executed with near perfect incompetence.

However, that does not imply that this was not an Iraqi failure. The Iraqi people did, indeed, fail. American soldiers did not compel them to take up the task of blowing up each other’s children. This is something they volunteered to do themselves. What type of person does that?

More importantly, how is it possible to get people to stop doing that?

It’s not just the suicide bomber either. I have written about how the opponent of embryonic stem-cell research is going to have far more children laying in hospitals or in the morgue than the bombers of Baghdad – more, by orders of magnitude. For every child laying in a Baghdad hospital with a missing limb, there will be thousands of children with diseases and injuries that may otherwise be cured, laying maimed or dying.

Whose children?

Yours? Your grandchildren? Your friends’ children? The children you have not even had yet?

Pick up a young child you know and look into his or her eyes for a moment. Think that, in 10 years, this child could have an injury (i.e., spinal cord) or a disease that stem cell research could cure or treat, but instead this child will be permanently disabled or dead.

That child may grow up to be a homosexual. A disproportionate number of teenage suicides are homosexual children. Those with sick minds say that this supports the idea that homosexuality is an illness. Instead, it points to the fact that those who condemn homosexuality are a threat to the psychological well-being of children, leaving psychological scars that are not unlike those caused by other forms of child abuse.

In any high school of any size in the country, there is a child thinking about taking his or her own life and ending the pain of social rejection. That pain is a tragedy in its own right, regardless of what the child ends up doing as a result of that pain.

These are the things that I have written about in these 500 postings. It does not always show through, but that is the conclusion.

A recent story tells of parents who want a religious exemption for a blood test conducted on newborns, for the purpose of testing for several diseases. One of the tests, according to the news story, “Many of the diseases covered in the bill are deficiencies, and one, phenylketonuria, can result in severe mental retardation without diet restrictions starting at birth."

One of the couples wants to avoid the test because they follow an offshoot of scientology that lead the parents to believe that, "…newborns are in pain for at least 3 1/2 days, and don't want blood drawn _ which they believe would cause more pain _ for at least that long."

Another couple who is opposing the requirement holds that "…the Bible instructs against deliberately drawing blood. According to the book of Leviticus, 'the life of the flesh is in the blood,' and ignoring that directive may shorten a person's life, they said."

Is there any evidence for this shortening of a person's life? I suggest that not drawing blood may shorten the person's life or drastically reduce the quality of life, and this comes scientific research to back it up - actual peer-reviewed research comparing control groups to study groups showing which group has the shorter or lower-quality lives.

Both couples argue that the law, "…is an infringement on their religious beliefs and their right to decide what's best for their four children."

Fine. Here’s a belief for you. Couple C believes that their child should be roasted in an oven for 3.5 hours at 350 degrees after birth, and then eaten. Couple D believes that their child should experience sexual stimulation daily after birth – that this will improve their child’s psychological well-being. Couple E holds that children should be whipped until bleeding for any transgression. Couple F holds that unruly children should be killed.

There are limits to the degree that the state must stand by and watch parents put the lives and well-being of innocent children at risk, for the sake of a belief or an interpretation that are as random and foolish as drawing names out of a hat.

There are scientific studies behind the claims that these blood tests find important diseases and knowing about these diseases gives the chance a better shot at a better life. Those who refuse these tests for religious reasons are no better than those who plant the bombs full of nails in a shopping area, except these parents set of their bombs in their own nurseries. Contrary to what some my think, this does not make their actions nobler. It makes their actions even more depraved.

We all know that these things happen.

What are we going to do about them? Watch the Super Bowl and rate the commercials? Is that it?

I’ll be working on my next post, starting tomorrow morning, right when I get out of bed.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lawrence Krauss: Selling Science

This is a second of a series of commentary on presentations given at Beyond Belief 2006. It concerns the second presentation given at that conference.

That presentation was given by Lawrence Krauss, Director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University. On the conflict between religion and science, Krauss argued that there were some things that science cannot show – that science cannot prove that God does not exist. When it comes to teaching science, scientists should recognize that people have no natural interest in their product. Scientists need to sell science, and a good salesman does not insult and denigrate his customers.

The biggest mistake any teacher makes is assuming that their students are interested in what they have to say.

Krauss tells us that anybody who wants to teach has to learn salesmanship. He said:

You have to sell. Teaching is selling. And science is selling. In fact, it’s seduction. If you want to educate people, you have to go to where they are and reach out to where they are coming from. And if you want to educate people, attacking them is not going to educate them at all. And I think most of us here . . . what we want to do is educate. We want to explain to people the wonders of nature. If we want to make them receptive to it we have to understand where they are coming from.

As far as selling goes, this makes sense. If you want to sell somebody a car, then what you need to do is to find out where they are coming from in order to explain to them how buying a car (from you) is a good choice for them to make. A car salesperson is not advised to attack potential customers. Given any two salesperson – an attack salesperson and a welcoming salesperson, it is the latter that will more likely make salesperson of the month. If we are interested in selling science, these are things that we should keep in mind.

However, let us look at a different model. Instead of comparing the selling of science to the selling of cars, let us compare it to the selling of abolitionism (of slavery) instead.

Let us imagine Dr. Krauss attending an abolitionist convention, telling the participants that if they want to “educate” people on the wrongness of slavery, that “you have to go to where they are and reach out to where they are coming from. If you want to make them receptive to it we have to understand where they are coming from.”

Unfortunately, one of the problems with slavery rests entirely on where the slave owner is coming from. He is “coming from” a place that no person has the right to be. To reach out to where such a person is coming from is to give that place some measure of legitimacy. It says, “There is no fault at you being at that particular location. What we are going to try to do is to sell the abolition of slavery to you, even while we insist that there is nothing about being a slave owner that deserves being attacked.”

Krauss’s argument is fine if the selling of science is like selling a car, but it fails if the selling of science is like selling the abolition of slavery. The car salesperson makes no assumptions about the value of where his customer is coming from. Recognizing the difficulty in changing a customer’s desires, he tries instead to package the car as a product that will fulfill those desires (often, it seems, even if he has to lie to do so). On the other hand, it is written into the very nature of a moral good such as the abolition of slavery that those who do not purchase this product are immoral. It is very much the case that there is something wrong with where the slave owner is coming from.

This, then, invites us to ask whether the selling of science is like the selling of cars, or the selling of abolitionism.

We can answer this question by asking, “What happens when people refuse to buy the product? Specifically, is there reason to believe that the type of person who would refuse to purchase this product becomes a threat to others?”

The person who refuses to buy a used car is no threat to others. Or, at least, there is nothing about refusing to buy a car that is seriously linked to the conclusion that he is a threat to others. On the other hand, the person who refuses to buy abolition is a threat to others. He will stand in the defense of actions in which others are harmed. In other words, the car shopper has a moral permission not to purchase the product that the seller is trying to sell. The abolition shopper has no moral permission to refuse this product; those who refuse to buy are, by definition, evil and worthy of contempt.

One of the points that Krauss made, that Dr. Steven Weinberg (who had made the earlier presentation) agreed to, is that science cannot prove that God does not exist. Krauss asserted that his study of cosmology shows no evidence of design, but that he cannot go from this to conclude that there is no design. Quoting Carl Sagan, he asserted the maxim, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Weingerg’s response was that science cannot disprove the existence of fairies in the garden, but that does not give us reason to take seriously those who say that such fairies exist.

As it turns out, there are an infinite number of things that science cannot disprove. As such, if somebody picks one of these and says, “This is true,” that person has picked one out of an infinite set. His chance of being right, then, are 1/infinity.

Some approach this with the attitude that if there are only two options, then there is a 50/50 chance of each being right. Either God exists, or God does not exist. Neither can be disproved, so there is a 50% chance that God exists.

The logic is flawed, however. If somebody were to roll a die 10,000 times and sum the results, we could say that the total is either 60,000 or it is not 60,000. However, it does not follow that “60,000” is as likely as “Not 60,000”. In fact, “Not 60,000” is extremely likely. The odds that a God whose existence cannot be disproved, but for which there is no evidence is extremely unlikely.

Krauss attempted to argue that science and religion need not be thought of as “in conflict”. He attempted to suggest that science can be viewed as informing and refining faith. Science cannot tell us what is right, he said. However, science can tell us what is wrong. Science can, for example, tell us that those whose religion requires that the Earth is 6,000 years old need to rethink their religion.

He also suggested that science can have something to say about the idea that homosexuality is an abomination. He said that science can show that homosexuality exists in nature, so it is not an abomination in nature. Furthermore, science can require consistency. Consistency, in turn, requires that those who hold that homosexuality is an abomination on the basis of scripture also, “…have to accept the fact that you are allowed to kill your children if they disobey you”.

I want to quickly add that one cannot morally defend an action by showing that it occurs in nature. Male lions kill their stepchildren. Cannibalism is common. In fact, nature invented the roles of ‘predator’, ‘prey’, ‘parasite’ and ‘host’. From these, we should be able to conclude that murder of stepchildren, cannibalism, and predatory and parasitic behavior are not abominations either. If we accept Krauss’s second command that it is all or nothing, then somebody who gets their morality according to what happens in nature has as much of a problem as somebody who gets their morality from scripture.

However, this does not refute the more general claim that the scientist can command consistency – only that this demand gives us as much reason to reject “what happens in nature” as it does to reject “what happens in scripture” as moral standards. In fact, what I wrote in the previous paragraph uses the more general rule of demanding consistency against the ‘what happens in nature is not wrong” theorist. It does not reject the use of that principle.

Yet, this same type of argument – a demand to make logical sense – points to the conclusion that somebody who adopts a belief merely on the basis that “nobody can disprove it” has a 1/infinity chance of being right. This is one of the ways that science can inform faith. I am uncertain whether Krauss would be comfortable with science informing faith in this way.

In the past, I have written against the idea of condemning all religion. Instead, I have argued for focusing on religious beliefs that are directly linked to behavior that is harmful to others – terrorist attacks, the condemnation of stem-cell research, the condemnation of homosexuality, coerced participation in religious events by making them a part of civil ceremonies, the demand to feed false information to children in public schools, prohibitions on providing women with any education at all. Where we have harm, we have reason to condemn those who cause harm. If there is no harm, then we can treat the refutation of those beliefs as a casual academic exercise.

Still, it is not morally appropriate to approach those whose beliefs lead them to act in ways harmful to others by “reaching out” and “understanding where they are coming from”. They are coming from a position that makes them a threat to others. As such, “where they are coming from” is a position that we have many and strong 'reasons for action' to condemn. There is no heaven or hell. The very real harm that these people do to very real people cannot be “made up for” in the afterlife. The destruction they cause is permanent. For the sake of those being harmed, it is quite reasonable to condemn those who cause harm for no good reason at all.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Faith: A Defect of Desire

Today, I wish to argue that faith is not so much a defect in belief, but a defect in desire.

My topic has a context. My most recent education project involves listening to all of the sessions from the recent conference, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. They have been a joy to listen to. They brought back memories from graduate school, when I had an opportunity to listen to groups of extremely well educated people debate an issue. It is marvelous to behold – as wonderful as any scene of natural beauty – to watch great minds at work.

Over the course of the next indeterminate number of weekends, I would like to report on some of the speeches that were given and to make comments on some of the speakers’ key points.

Weinberg's Presentation on the Conflict between Religion and Science

This first essay in this series considers the first speech given at the conference. In it, Dr. Steven Weinberg, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed the conflict between religion and science. He argued that the conflict went deeper than simply a dispute over the literal truth of the Bible. Specifically, he suggested that there were four major areas of conflict.

(1) Religion places humans at the center of the universe – physically and in terms of cosmic importance. Science, on the other hand, has consistently questioned the cosmic significance of the human race. Instead of being actors in this cosmic struggle between good and evil at the very center of creation, humans occupy an little blue dot that orbits an average star in a galaxy of 400 billion stars that is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in, possibly, one of countless universes in a multiverse.

(2) Science has removed the need for religious explanations. It was once popular to see God in the mysteries of the universe. However, science has come in and given us alternative explanations that do not need God. Science is even getting a grip on explaining the finer qualities of humans – our capacity to love, for charity, and for kindness – all without a God.

(3) Science chains the hands of God. When we explain things in terms of natural law, we leave less room for God to act on the universe.

(4) Science conflicts with religion in terms of “ways of knowing”. Religion uses prophets and scripture – sources of allegedly unerring truth that we can go back to again and again. Science has heroes, but no prophets.

For my part, I want to focus on the first of these four areas of conflict and see if I can add something to it.

The Desire that God Exists

Statement 1 suggests that a state of affairs in which humans are the center of cosmic attention is important to a great many people. It is so important that they have an adverse reaction to any theory that suggests that we are not the center of cosmic attention. We are, instead, a group of animals who are trying to survive in a universe that is substantially indifferent as to our survival – that would not miss us at all if we were to disappear.

As a desire-utilitarian, I want to take a look at the nature of this desire to be the center of cosmic attention.

Desire utilitarianism is built on the idea that desires are propositional attitudes. A person with a desire that 'P' (for some proposition P - such as, "Humans are at center of cosmic attention") has a motivating interest in making or keeping 'P' true. He 'values' states of affairs in which 'P' is true and finds no value in states of affairs in which 'P' is false, and these values provide him with reasons for action.

Note: A person can find value in states of affairs where 'P' is false, but where 'Q' is true and the agent has a desire that 'Q'. However, for purposes of explaining the relationship of states of affairs and desires, we can ignore these unnecessary complications.

Anyway, in considering this desire to be the center of cosmic attention, the desire utilitarian comes up with a number of questions.

(1) What, exactly, are the propositions ‘P’ that are the objects of this desire to be at the center of cosmic attention? What do these people want, really? It seems that they want to see themselves as important to somebody else. However, they are not seeking to be special to just anybody – not to their spouses, parents, children, friends, neighbors, and countrymen. They want to be special in the eyes of some super being called God. If this God does not like them, then life is not worth living.

(2) Are the desires identified in (1) biologically fixed, or are they malleable (learned)? Did nature, through a process of natural selection, select for a “want to be seen as important to a super being gene”? Or is this desire to be seen as important to some super being something that people learn – because adults tell them as children “you are worthless unless the super being loves you”?

Malleable or Fixed?

On the question of whether this desire to be loved by a super being – or a desire to be the center of cosmic attention – I think it is reasonable to hold that this is not an innate desire, but one that is learned. There are simply too many people who do not have it – and whose not having it seems to be tied more strongly to social and environmental factors than to genetic factors – to suggest that it is a matter of biological necessity.

The following is a particularly weak form of argument, and I want it to be known that I recognize it as such. However, I will offer it for the feeble merit it does have. I, for one, have no trouble with the idea that humanity is not at the center of cosmic attention, or that I am not special in the eyes of some super-being. I have no trouble accepting the fact that we humans live on a speck of dust orbiting an average star that is one of trillions of average stars in the galaxy. Humanity does not have to be special to some super ghost to be special to me. It is sufficient that they are my neighbors, that they are people that I share my life with. That alone makes them special to me.

However, beyond personal testimony, one can browse the internet to read hundreds of stories of people who became or are atheists. Many come from highly religious parents, and they explain their conversion by referring to things that they noticed in the world around them. Though these explanations may be some sort of confabulation, it is not an unreasonable first guess to think that these environmental factors actually had the power that the speakers attribute to them – the power to cause people to become comfortable with the scientific facts of human existence.

All of this suggests that the person who has come to desire that he be loved by a super-ghost learned that desire.

The 'Ought' of Desire

Desire utilitarianism states that if a particular desire is malleable – if the strength or even existence of a desire can be molded through social custom – we then have reason to ask if we should promote or inhibit that desire. Desires themselves are the only reasons for action that exist – so they are the only ‘reasons for action’ that are relevant in answering this question. Does a desire to be the centers of cosmic attention or the desire to be loved by a super-ghost constitute a good desire that we have many and strong reasons to promote, or a bad desire that we have many and strong reasons to inhibit?

One major problem with promoting such a desire is that it is a desire that can never be fulfilled. A “desire that ‘P’” is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which ‘P’ is true. A desire to be loved by a super-ghost can only be fulfilled in a state where the proposition, “I am loved by a super-ghost” is true. Whether a proposition is or can be true does not depend on how badly people may want it to be true. In this case, the proposition, “I am loved by a super-ghost” can never be true, because no such super-ghost exists.

Okay, it is true that I cannot prove that this super-ghost exists. However, I can prove that a super-ghost who hates an individual is just as likely as a super-ghost who likes an individual. And a super-ghost who loves an individual who is particularly cruel and clever is just as likely as a super-ghost with a fondness for people who are kind and charitable. There are an infinite number of super-ghost possibilities, which means that the odds of any person being right about the nature of any super-ghost is (1/infinity) – or (for all practical purposes), zero.

Since the desire to be loved by a super-ghost can never be fulfilled, the only thing that an agent can hope for is that the desire will be satisfied.

I have not talked about satisfaction much in the context of desire utilitarianism, but it does have an important role to play. Recall that a “desire that ‘P’” is fulfilled in any state of affairs where P is made or kept true. On the other hand, a person experiences satisfaction in any state of affairs where he or she believes that P is true. Satisfaction is a psychological state – like pleasure or happiness – that is felt.

A person with a “desire that ‘P’” where P can never be true cannot have his desire fulfilled. However, he can still obtain satisfaction – obtain a jolt of pleasure – from believing that P is true, as long as he can be convinced. However, satisfaction in these cases requires a false belief. They require that the agent live a lie – live in a fantasy – where he thinks that something is true when it is not true in fact.

Living a lie means suppressing any love of discovery or love of truth. Any love of discovery or of truth will reveal the lie and destroy the satisfaction that results.

However, this love of discovery and love of truth have important values themselves. We aim to fulfill our desires, and seek satisfaction instead of fulfillment only when (we believe) that fulfillment is not possible. To fulfill our desires we need true beliefs – and the more true beliefs we have, the more desires we can fulfill. We have reason to want to be surrounded by truth. One way to get this is to promote a love of truth and intellectual responsibility in oneself and others. A love of truth, however, will threaten the satisfaction we achieve by believing we are loved by a super-ghost.

Side Effects

As it turns out, the set of beliefs that are associated with the claim, "Humans are the center of cosmic attention," come with a number of other false beliefs and desires that are harmful to others. Those who deceive themselves into believing that they are the center of cosmic attention also deceive themselves into thinking that they may act in ways harmful to homosexuals, those who can benefit from stem-cell research, and those who do not deceive themselves.

These relationships between the belief, “I am loved by a super-ghost” and these other beliefs are contingent. Nothing in nature requires that they be connected. As such, it is possible (however unlikely) that a person can have a desire to be loved by a super ghost and a willingness to help the homeless, to tell the truth, and to seek new discoveries. It just happens to be the case that those who desire that they be loved by God do not value these things. Instead, they value things that make them a threat to the well-being of others.

Contingent facts are still facts. Unnecessary and unjustified harms are still harms.

The Evolution Example

I would like to illustrate some of my points with a discussion of religion.

People are upset over the idea that humans are ‘mere animals’. They have a “desire that ‘P’” for some proposition P that humans be something more than pure animals who came about without conscious intent or design. This is clearly one of their desires, but it is a desire that cannot be fulfilled. As a matter of fact, humans are a product of evolution, and a desire that this not be the case does not prevent it from being true. At best, those who have this desire can obtain the psychological jolt of satisfaction that comes from believing we did not evolve, if they can deceive themselves or allow others to deceive them into believing such a thing.

We have good reason to believe that this desire that humans are manufactured entities is learned – because a lot of us do not have this desire. There are a lot of us who have no aversion to a state of affairs in which humans are the products of evolution – which means that many of us can have no aversion to a state where humans are the product of evolution. There is no better evidence that something can be the case than to discover that it is the case.

So this aversion to being products of evolution is not innate, it is learned. Those who have this aversion were taught to have this aversion. It is not natural. It is not innate.

One of the effects of teaching a child to have an aversion to being an evolved being is to create a child that cannot obtain satisfaction in the real world. It creates a child who can only obtain satisfaction in a fictional world – in a state where she had been made to believe a fiction.

A worse effect is that those who are taught to believe this fiction tend to follow it with other fictions – fictions that make the individual a threat to the lives and well-being of others. These are fictions that make them a threat to homosexuals seeking to live a fulfilling life, and to those who can benefit from stem-cell research, just to name two common examples. Those who are harmed by these people have good reason to protest those who raise their children to be a threat to the well-being of others.

Additional Implications

If somebody acquires a bad belief, all else being equal, they can typically be reasoned out of it. The most serious exception to this comes when the agent is also given a particular affection for that belief, or a desire for states of affairs in which that belief is true. Once that desire is attached to a belief, then agents have an annoying tendency to hold onto such belief in the absence of all evidence to the contrary. Giving up the belief is just too painful, once it has a sufficiently strong desire attached to it.

All of the reason in the world will not cause a desire to go away.

You can take a smoker and explain to him how bad smoking is. He can even agree that smoking will put at risk many of the things he desires, and from these he may acquire sufficient reasons for action to quit smoking. But the desire to smoke is still there, tearing at him, driving him to another cigarette.

You can take a person with an aversion to being an evolved creature and give them all sorts of reasons to believe that we are an evolved creature. He may even be able to see the reasons and accept them as sound. However, no amount of reason can touch his aversion at being an evolved creature. The pain and frustration of recognizing that one is in a state that one has been taught to hate being in is real. It is a powerful force driving the person to give up those beliefs, and to at least obtain the satisfaction that comes from believing a lie.

This is why reason seems to have so little effect on such people. Theirs is not a defect of belief, which is subject to the power of reason. Theirs is a defect of desire, which reason cannot touch. It is a defect of desire that was given to them. Allegedly, the culprits in this case were people who thought they were doing the right thing. In fact, the child was victimized by somebody who made him into a person who cannot be happy in the real world – whose happiness will depend on believing a lie. Worse, it requires believing a lie that comes with other beliefs that make the child a threat to others.

This is not a situation that people with good desires – desires consistent with the real world and with the fulfillment of other desires – have any reason to perpetuate and protect.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Unhealthy Lifestyles and Universal Health Care

I must confess that I am torn on the issue of a universal health care, or access to cheap medical care.

The main question that I have rests on the fact that many health problems are caused by lifestyle choices. Alcohol, tobacco, drug use, over eating, lack of exercise, unsafe sex, dangerous hobbies or professions (such as football player), are some of the lifestyle choices that put people in need of medical care.

My question is, why should I have to pay for somebody else’s choices?

I do not want to outlaw these options. I am very much in favor of allowing people to live the types of lives in which they find the most value . . . as long as they do not harm other people. The problem with universal health care is that they turn private lifestyle choices into choices that harm other people – by forcing others to cough up the money to cover the medical bills.

Who Pays?

With universal health care, the claim that “I am not hurting anybody else” becomes a lie whenever that person does something that puts his health at risk. If you plan on sending me the bill to pay for the consequences of those actions, then your actions affect me. They harm me – in the same way an embezzler who breaks into my bank account and siphons money harms me. I will almost certainly have other things that I will want to do with that money.

The situation is much like the one I described in an earlier post on China’s anti-satellite test. That was another instance where a right to do what one pleases crossed a moral line by violating the principle, “As long as you do not harm others.”

I compared that situation to one in which a person walks into a restaurant and orders a meal. When it comes time to pay, he uses a debit card that takes the money from somebody else’s account. We can assume that the card is random – that it just takes the money out of some random account somewhere.

Because he is not buying his own meal, it is reasonable to expect that he will eat out more often, in more expensive places, and order far more than he needs, simply because he does not suffer the cost of his overindulgences. If, instead, he were forced to pay for his meals out of his own pocket, he would spend the money more wisely.

By comparison, those with unhealthy or dangerous lifestyles are also making choices that they might not have made if they were forced to suffer all of the costs of their actions, and were not permitted to charge those costs off of somebody else’s (anybody else’s) account.

By creating this subsidy for unhealthy and dangerous choices, this policy would make the world worse than it would have otherwise been. The man who can buy whatever food he wants and charge it to some random account is quite often not going to get as much fulfillment from the meal as the person would have gotten from the money taken to pay for the meal. The victim is made worse off to a greater degree than the culprit is made better off.

One might want to argue that, in the case of universal health care, the cost of the care is irrelevant. The poor health effects alone would be enough of a disincentive to keep people from performing these types of actions to the degree that it was possible to dissuade them. If somebody does not care about their health, then they are certainly not going to care about the costs.

I deny that this is true. People always act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. Having each person pay their own medical expenses adds additional desire-thwarting potential to these lifestyle choices. As a result, there will be some measure of reduced demand for these options. The amount of reduction is open to question, but the fact of reduction seems quite likely.

More importantly, the fact that the agent does not care about the financial cost of his choices still does not give him the right to send me the bill. A person who wants an indoor swimming pool who is willing to pay any cost does not gain from his keen desire the right to send me the bill for its construction.

If I am going to be given the bill to pay for these types of choices, then I reserve the right to have a voice in what they choose - a right to veto the most expensive (to me) options. If the costs come out of their own bank account, then its their money and I have no say in the matter. If the costs come out of my bank account, then I have a right to a say in the matter.

A Possible Solution – Supplemental Insurance

One option for dealing with these types of cases is to require that people purchase (if they can afford it) separate insurance to handle the expenses of lifestyle choices. There will still be people who will not be able to afford this insurance. However, the choice for them is to not engage in lifestyle choices that they cannot afford. These people should not drink, smoke, overeat, or engage in risky past-times unless they can afford to cover the potential medical expenses that may come from these options.

This is not an ideal solution. It would be difficult to determine which illnesses are caused by lifestyle choices. Furthermore, we would have to suspect that many doctors would be guilty of corruption and fraud if, by classifying an illness as non-lifestyle, they can get medical care for patients who would otherwise not be able to afford it. Furthermore, we will still have to deal with those who make poor lifestyle choices without the means to pay for them. What do we do with these? Let them die in the street?

This is not a knock-down argument. If we only permitted ideal solutions then we would never permit anything. Even with these problems, it is possible that the potential benefit is greater than any other alternative (which has even greater problems). We can do nothing but go with the best option available.

A Possible Solution – Tax Risky Options

Another possible solution is to put a tax on those goods and services that tend to result in increased health risks. This includes alcohol, tobacco, candy, junk food, fast food, gasoline (because people drive too much), businesses that involve increased customer risk such as skiing, and businesses that have risky jobs (as an incentive to find safer options).

It is hard to find something to tax that is related to all forms of risky activity. For example, I cannot think of a tax that could be levied to provide a disincentive to engage in unsafe sex. Yet, the fact that it is difficult to provide an examples in all cases does not argue against using the health care tax where contributors to higher health care needs can be identified.

That tax would have two effects. One is that it will raise revenue to help pay the costs of universal health care. The other is that it will lower the demand for these lifestyle choices, resulting in a healthier population, which will lower the demand for health care services.

Nothing in this prevents somebody from buying an occasional hamburger or pizza. However, the more one buys into a risky lifestyle, the more money they pay. This is only fair. The more one buys into a risky lifestyle, the more likely it will become that the agent would have need for those medical services he has already paid for.

Of course, the rich will be able to afford more options than the poor. However, this is nothing new. Everywhere, rich people can afford to live in a way that those who are not so rich cannot afford.


If there were ever a national debate on such a policy, I would expect those who engage in these lifestyles to complain that they are being punished for their lifestyle choices – and nobody has the right to condemn and punish the private choices of another.

These people would be missing the point. This argument would be like saying that, after you stole my credit card, that my act of calling the credit card company and canceling the card would be an act of ‘punishment’ that I had no right to inflict on you.

In this case, I hasten to remind you, you are using my credit card and drawing money on my account. I am not punishing you by denying you access to my bank account. It’s my money, and you have no right to it.

Similarly, these taxes are not punishment. They are simply ways of collecting money to pay for the medical care that one’s lifestyle choices will likely create. It is more fair than forcing others, who have kept themselves healthy, to pay for the health care costs of those who have not taken care of themselves.


I do not expect that these points will actually make it into practice. Those who market fast food, candy, tobacco, alcohol, and other goods and services that increase health risks will lobby against such a provision - and they have more money than I do.

Yet, their arguments will be morally bankrupt, regardless of whether they are politically successful. For decades, the political power of the Southern states were sufficient to protect the institution of slavery. After the civil war, they were able to establish and maintain a set of Jim Crowe laws and a standard of “separate but equal” that was certainly separate and nowhere near to equal. However, political power does not translate into moral virtue.

For all practical purposes, the subsidies that universal health care will provide to capitalists involved in promoting unhealthy choices is one that allows wealthy businessmen to line their pockets with hundreds of millions of dollars by doing hundreds of billions of dollars of damage to others. They destroy far more than they create, and even far more than they take. They make the world worse off and, in the process, redistribute wealth and (more importantly) well-being away from those who can least afford it and to those who least need it.

Political success does not prevent this description from being accurate.

Perhaps there is a chance, however small, that the leaders of some of these companies can grow enough conscience to say, “I would not like having other people charging meals off of my bank account without my consent; I should not be taken money out of other people’s account – particularly to subsidize an industry of making people fat and sickly.”

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Evidence-Based Thinking about Earth's Future

I suppose it makes sense that, if a group of people throw out evidence-based thinking as the Devil’s work, then they are not going to have much need for evidence – or much need for spend time and effort collecting data – on which to base one’s beliefs.

In an article titled “Report Urges Reinvestment in Earth Observation Missions”, Brian Berger discusses a National Academy of Sciences report on the status of earth-monitoring satellite missions.

In that report, the National Academy of Sciences states that a number of Earth-monitoring satellites are already working beyond their design specifications, are due to fail in the next few years, with very few missions under development to replace them. The result will be serious gaps in our ability to monitor the Earth unless steps are taken to reverse this trend.

The Moral Bankruptcy of Current Policy

The situation over the past six years has been as if the Bush Administration believes that collecting data on the Earth is a waste of time.

We can speculate on the possible reasons for this.

(1) President Bush thinks that he already knows and understand that the Earth is far too big for us humans to be having any effect on it, so this data is for entertainment purposes only - and he is not entertained.

(2) This data has no short-term value because there is nothing we can do with it in the short run, and it is of no long-term value because Jesus is on his way and will drastically alter our situation on Earth in ways that will make the data irrelevant.

(3) God will take care of us, so we do not have to worry about these things.

(4) For all practical purposes, President Bush wishes to fulfill the interests of political supporters who do not want us to have this data. Those interests need to cover up one of the most morally horrendous crimes in human history – one in which these interests seek to gain tens of billions of dollars in profit by actions that do tens of trillions of dollars with of harm to others.

We can guess as to Bush’s actual motivation for the decisions he has made. That guess would have to square with the fact that Bush is eager to spend $104 billion as a first step to building a lunar outpost and to bring the rest of the solar system into Earth’s (America’s) economic sphere.

Whatever happens to be the case for Bush himself, each of these four reasons still holds sway over different parts of the population. Each of these reasons has contributed its measure of political force to promote ignorance on issues of earth science, and to suppress data that would be useful to wise decision making. Each of these reasons identifies a group of people who, through foolish intellectual recklessness or personal greed, has decided to act in ways that threaten the lives and well-being of countless other people, and could perhaps put the future of the human race at risk.

Each of these reasons represents a group of people that we have reason to target with moral outrage proportional to that which we would give any person who foolishly or selfishly creates such great risk for others.

Considerations Favoring the National Academy Recommendations

Regardless of the motivation, the fact remains. There are currently 29 Earth-monitoring satellite missions as a part of a buildup supported by the previous (Clinton/Gore) administration. Unless the Administration reverses its course on these types of activities, there will be 7 earth-monitoring missions by 2017.

To counter this, the National Academy of Sciences is urging the development of 17 new missions.

Why should we do this?

Risk and Benefit

I would like to start with some basic risk analysis. What is it worth to do this research?

The standard formula for determining the payoff of an investment – or how much one should contribute to a particular course of action, is:

Value = (Risk * Payoff)

So, if a particular gamble has a 10% chance of paying $100,000, then this gamble is worth $10,000. That is how much a rational person should pay.

We now have good evidence that earth-monitoring satellites have the potential to save us trillions of dollars and hundreds of millions of lives. These are the potential costs of human activity on the environment. If there is a one percent chance that this investment could help us to avoid $10 trillion in costs, then the investment is worth $100 billion.

The National Academy recommendations call for $3 billion per year for 10 years – or $30 billion - an increase of $5 billion over the current budget. (Note: I am excluding complexities such as ‘net present value’ because they cloud the main issue – much like a physicist will assume massless strings and frictionless surfaces in order to focus on the fundamental forces he is trying to explain.)

There is every reason to expect that this data will help us to direct global environmental policy in ways that will avoid tens of trillions of dollars in costs. Thus, it is worth the investment.

There is also a direct payoff to this type of research. We have reason to promote a love of knowledge for its own sake – to cause people to love to learn things simply for the joy of learning. We can compare the person who finds pleasure attending a lecture at a planetarium discussing the findings of a probe, compared to his identical twin brother spending the day watching football. Of the two, we have reason to encourage our neighbors to be more like the first person and less like the second. We have reason to wish to be surrounded by people who love learning for the sake of learning.

The Hubble Telescope, for example, has not provided us with much in the way of economic benefit. Yet, there is reason to believe that it has provided us with a great deal of value with what it has shown us of the universe. By comparison, the movie industry does not provide us with products that are very useful, but they do provide us with products that fulfill desires directly, and in this they have value.

Earth-monitoring research can also fulfill desires directly, independent of the economic value that the knowledge provides. Furthermore, those desires can themselves be considered better than the desires fulfilled by most movies.

The Free Rider

Government programs are notoriously wasteful, because there is no incentive to keep the program within parameters that are ‘profitable’ (that generate more benefits than costs). For this reason, there is an argument for doing things in the private sector rather than the public, unless there is reason to believe that the private sector will also be inefficient.

One causes of private sector inefficiency is the Free Rider Problem. This is a problem that prevents the person or company that provides a good from collecting revenue, because others can freely take those goods and use them. The creator has no power to exclude those who do not pay.

For example, there is no market for national defense because there is no way for a private organization to offer this type of defense only to those who pay. So, this becomes a good for the government to provide.

As a quick aside, I would like to take a paragraph to suggest that the government has a number of options in determining ways to provide for these public goods. I would like to repeat an earlier call that NASA get out of the business of running missions, and get into the business of offering to pay any company that can provide it with the data it seeks. This type of activity will result in a “space race” of organizations trying to find ways to give NASA the data it was willing to buy at the lowest price.

The Political Situation

President Bush will be submitting his recommendations to Congress for future NASA spending in February. It is worth hoping, but almost certainly too much to expect, that the Bush Administration will discover the value of evidence-based decision making and fund earth-monitoring research that will allow us to make evidence-based decisions affecting our planet. Because of Bush's failure, it will take an act of Congress, capable of getting past a Presidential veto (or overridden if such a veto I cast) to get the necessary funding.

It means beating back the intellectually reckless or viciously selfish groups who would argue against such spending. However, this is a cloud with a silver lining. This effort could serve to remind people that intellectually reckless pursuits are deadly – that they will cost your sons and your daughters to suffer needlessly in a world made worse off by those who built real-world policy on fantasies and fairy tails.

Of course, no lesson can be taught if people are too timid to teach it. This is a topic for the water-cooler at work, the email to friends, the casual discussion around the dinner table. It is an opportunity to teach others to accept the self-evident doctrine that smart real-world decisions require smart real-world evidence.

Those who shun evidence-based thinking and the collection of data on which intelligent decisions can be made are fools who do far more harm than good.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Christian Culture of Deception and Intellectual Recklessness

Why does it appear to be the case that those who most closely identify themselves with the religious right – the people who say that morality requires God and we cannot trust the atheist to do the right thing – so strongly embraces a culture of dishonesty and intellectual recklessness?

Recent news contained two stories that illustrate the thesis that the religious right give their trust and friendship to those who practice deliberate deception and intellectual recklessness. They seem to have little idea what intellectual honestly looks like, at least when dealing with their own members.

The Obama/Clinton Story

Crooks and Liars carried a posting on the claim that Democratic candidate Barack Obama attended a Muslim Madrassa (a school that specializes in the teaching of Muslim hate and violence to young children) when his family lived in Indonesia. The story originated in Insight Magazine (owned by the same company that owns the Washington Times) and was then picked up and retransmitted by several branches of the News Corp media empire including Fox News and the New York Post. It further alleged that the Hillary Clinton campaign was behind the story, having uncovered a fact that Obama was trying to keep hidden.

They also posted CNN’s investigation of this story, finding it to be entirely unsupported. They visited the school that Barack visited, finding it to be little different from a conventional American school. Class pictures taken from the time Obama attended there showed teachers in casual western-style wear and no signs of any intense focus on the Muslim religion at all – let alone the most violent and hate-filled parts of that religion. Even though most of the students who attended were Muslim, the school gave Christian students an opportunity to spend some time studying their own religion while the Muslim children attended separate classes. Obama, at that time, studied with the Christian students.

The Stem Cell Report

The site, “Lord J-Bar For Democracy, Not Theocracy” carried a posting called “More Lies from the White House” on the Stem Cell debate.

Here, the White House Domestic Policy Council released a report arguing that embryonic stem cell research was unnecessary because everything that scientists expect to gain from embryonic stem cells can be gained using other techniques that do not destroy embryos. However, its claims are built on unrepeated scientific research that scarcely supports the broad claims the Domestic Policy Council claims and whose conclusions are largely rejected by the scientific community.

More to the point, the same White House that so easily and unashamedly accepts the weakest possible scientific claims suggesting that embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary also rejects research on global warming that has massive empirical support and the acceptance of the vast majority of the scientific community. It is difficult to find any pattern to the type of research that the White House uses in evaluating scientific claims other than, “Science that yields conclusions we like is good science and will be considered brilliant even if on the weakest empirical claims and reasoning; science that yields conclusions we do not like is bad science that will be rejected regardless of the degree of corroboration and confirmation available.”

Absent a Love of Truth or Intellectual Responsibility

Even the Christian religion has a commandment against bearing false witness against others. Yet, it seems that those who are the most vocal in asserting their Christian identity, and the most vocal in condemning non-Christians for their lack of a moral base, are also the most willing to bear false witness and engage in intellectual recklessness that threatens to contribute to the maiming and killing of hundreds of millions of people.

Christians defend this prohibition against bearing false witness as a commandment. I defend it on the grounds that we have several strong reasons to promote an aversion to bearing false witness. Promoting such an aversion among the population as a whole would help in the fulfillment of other desires. These many strong reasons to promote an aversion to bearing false witness do not depend in any way on the existence of a God. Those reasons give us reason to praise and to reward those who tell the truth even when it otherwise harms their interests; and to condemn and punish those who use deception and who ‘bear false witness’ against others as a way of promoting their interests.

So, we have this group of people who claim that their religion makes them more virtuous than others, who claim to have a true devotion to that which is right and a true contempt with that which is wrong, who ally themselves with ‘bearing false witness’ and intellectual recklessness threatening hundreds of millions of lives without the slightest hint of guilt or shame. It is as if they believe that God’s commandments do not apply to those who believe in God. Only the heathen and infidel is prohibited from bearing false witness and threatening the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Believers can do whatever they please.

Two months before the 2004 Presidential election, CBS News ran a story where they claimed to have uncovered memos critical of President Bush’s service as a member of the National Guard. Later, it was discovered that the papers were forgeries, and that CBS News had not authenticated the papers before reporting on their contents. This was a huge embarrassment for CBS, which issued an apology, fired four members of its staff who were responsible for the error getting on the news, and renewed their efforts to make sure that their reports were accurate.

We cannot expect the same thing to happen at Fox News or the New York Post regarding the Obama story, or the White House Office of Domestic Policy in the case of the stem cell papers.

It is not unreasonable to expect that the reason for this difference is because CBS serves a culture that finds “bearing false witness” and irresponsible and reckless reporting to demand some level of moral outrage, who assigns responsibility for wrongful acts and punishes the wrongdoers accordingly.

Fox News, the New York Post, and the White House, on the other hand, belong to a culture of deception and intellectual recklessness that views intellectual responsibility itself as a moral crime and are more likely to punish the honest and careful researcher while rewarding the dishonest propagandist.

The Perpetrators and Their Assistants

So far, I have focused attention on the perpetrators themselves – the intellectually reckless and the bearers of false witness. Yet, blame needs to be cast far wider than this.

We live in a culture soaked in lies and deception for the same reason that the people in Baghdad live in a sea of bombs and other forms of murder. This happens because the people as a whole, and the culture they adopt, have decided to embrace and reward those who practice these arts of deception and intellectual recklessness in this country, of bombing and murder in Iraq, whenever the perpetrators claim to be one of ‘us’ who are inflicting these wrongs on ‘them’.

We are constantly being told that America is a Christian nation. There is one sense in which this is correct. Most people in this country are Christian, and the values that this country follows are those that Christians find easy to accept.

We are a Christian nation, in that the Christian culture is a culture that embraces lies, bearing false witness, and intellectual recklessness as cultural icons, advancing and promoting these art forms at every opportunity, particularly when they are useful in gaining political and economic control over others.

The proof is easy to see. If it were not the fact that this was a Christian nation, and those Christians endorsed deception, bearing false witness, and intellectual recklessness as cultural ideals to be promoted and defended, people in the Bush Administration and on Fox News and other Conservative outlets would be out of a job today, or in the near future. These are the things that people do when they hold to a moral standard, and decide to hold people personally responsible for violating that standard. These are the things that the religious right – at least that arm of it that embraces the White House and Fox News, will not do.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Space Debris and the Chinese Anti-Satellite Test

You’re walking with your family down a street early on a Sunday morning. It’s not very crowded. There are a few other early risers about. Then, this guy steps out from an alley, throws a ball into the air, takes his shot gun, and shoots at it.

He’s using the tennis ball for target practice, and is not taking any care as to what might be on the other side of the ball. He is a lot like Dick Cheney hunting birds – not overly concerned with what might be standing in the direction of where he might be shooting. Only, the two cases would be similar if Dick Cheney had said in advance to his hunting companions, “You had better watch out. If I get a shot I’m taking it, and if you’re in the line of fire, so much the worse for you.”

The incident that I am referring to is a Chinese test to destroy a satellite in orbit.

Moral Responsibility for Creating Risk

I condemned Cheney for the moral irresponsibility of his hunting accident. A hunter has an obligation to know where his shells will land after he fires his gun. If he does not know, he is in the wrong.

This destruction of a space satellite is orders of magnitude worse than Cheney’s hunting accident.

Cheney’s shotgun fired a small hand full of pellets at a velocity of about 1300 feet per second. If they had not hit his friend (or the bird) they would have been rendered harmless in just a few seconds.


China’s test created two debris clouds (one associated with the attack craft, and one associated with the satellite that was hit) with mass equal to that of both satellites, traveling at a velocity of about 25,000 feet per second. As reported in the Center for Defense Information fact sheet on space debris

Even tiny pieces of debris can damage or destroy satellites, the Space Shuttle, the ISS, or penetrate astronaut suits. Debris in LEO travel at 10 times the speed of a rifle bullet; a marble-sized bit of junk would slam into a satellite with the energy equal to a 1-ton safe hitting the ground if dropped from a five-story building. Indeed, a tiny paint fleck put a pit in the window of the Challenger Space Shuttle during Sally Ride’s historic first mission.

This same report also states:

NASA data shows a current risk of a “catastrophic” debris strike to the Shuttle of 1 in 200. By comparison, the lifetime risk of a U.S. citizen dying in a car accident is about 1 in 100; the risk of dying in an attack with a firearm, about 1 in 325; the risk of dying in a fire, about 1 in 1,116.

These figures are just for the Shuttle. Add the Intentional Space Station, and any private plans to put people into space for research, tourism, or the use of space resources to try to take some of the strain and risk off of Earth’s ecosystems, and it becomes apparent that these people are creating a serious hazard.

Of course, China is not the only culprit in this crime. The former Soviet Union put satellites and spent boosters into orbit that tended to blow up as they decayed. The United States has conducted its own anti-satellite weapons test that left their own debris fields circling the earth.

It seems that moral irresponsibility in these matters is an international standard.

Knowingly Causing Harm

Scholars recognize four levels of culpability when it comes to moral wrongdoing. A person intentionally kills another if he grabs a gun and aims it and kills another. He knowingly kills another if he shoots a gun in order to kill a bird, knowing that it will kill the person on whose nose the bird id perched. He is reckless if he knows that his actions increase the chance that others will die, and negligently kills others if a reasonable person would have known that such an action could cause death.

Cheney’s hunting accident was a case of recklessness wrongdoing. I am assuming that he was aware of the fact that somebody who pulls the trigger of a gun when it is pointing at somebody else would do harm. His act was not negligent because he would not have likely been surprised to discover that his sport was dangerous.

China’s moral crime is one of knowingly doing wrong – of creating a risk to others under circumstances where there is no doubt but that they knew of the risk, and did not care.

One of these days, we are going to have an astronaut on a space walk suddenly experience the effects of a marble-sized one-ton safe hitting him. When that happens, there will be somebody far more careless and irresponsible than Cheney responsible for that death.

Externalities and Compensation

Ultimately, this type of activity counts as a new form of pollution. People who engage in these types of activities are creating “negative externalities” for others.

It’s a bit like walking into a restaurant, ordering a fine meal, and paying for it on a stolen credit card. China (following an example set by other space faring countries) bought its satellite demonstration using a credit card that will some day send a bill – in the form of a screw or shard of metal – flying through somebody’s body at over 17,000 miles per hour.

Whenever somebody is allowed to take some good for free, they inevitably take far more of it than they need. They end up making the world a worse place than it would otherwise be, because what they take from others is worth far more to them than the it is to the person who takes it. If the thief has to actually pay for what he takes, he would soon discover that he values the object less than what he would have to pay to purchase it honestly.

Similarly, if people were forced somehow to pay for the orbital pollution they create – pay enough to compensate others who they put at risk of harm – they would likely discover that the risks they create really are not worth the benefits they receive. They will almost certainly discover ways to reduce the risk, in order to reduce their bill. This, in turn, will put a barrier against the incentives that are causing them to make the world worse than it would otherwise be.

Accepting Responsibility

From here, it seems natural to go on to talk about a need for a treaty or some sort of international contract that says that countries will pay some fee or fine when they create a debris field. The money would somehow go into some fund that would then be used to offset the costs of these debris fields – the extra money that must be spent on hardening spacecraft against collision and the eventual, inevitable death of an astronaut.

However, a person (or a country) does not need to have a law to act in a morally responsible manner. A morally responsible slave owner did not need to wait for the Emancipation Proclamation to free his slaves – he could have done the right thing the instant he recognized what it was. The person who hits a parked car at night, where there are no witnesses, may be able to drive off and never get caught. Or he could accept responsibility for his actions and take steps to compensate those who he has harmed.

A nation can do the same thing.

A nation that tries to get away with doing harm to others just because it can has the moral character of a hit man, killing for profit. It is a simple matter for a government to admit, “Our actions create costs for others. We accept responsibility for the potential harm our acts may cause, and take the following actions as acknowledgement of that responsibility.” An appropriate response would be to quite voluntarily establish a fund to compensate any future person or organization that suffers physical damage or costs as a result of this space debris.


There may be more at stake here than just the loss of a few astronauts or catastrophic damage to some orbiting habitats and satellites. As I have written in the past, we live in a universe that is indifferent to our survival. Whether (and for how long) we survive as a species depends on the choices we make.

One option that would significantly increase our odds of survival as a species is to of those choices is to put an end to this state where we keep all of our eggs in one planetary basket. As a solar-system wide species, we can survive any calamity that may befall Earth.

Instead, we are creating a situation where we may be confined to the Earth because we surrounded ourselves with a debris field that is too risky to live in. These are human actions – human foolishness at work.