Friday, August 31, 2007


I will be going away on vacation for 10 days. The next time you will hear from me should be the night of September 9th.

The traffic reports for this blog tell me that many readers are college students. I would like to welcome those students back to the blog.

While I am away, if you are looking for something interesting to read, I had an interesting discussion with a few members of the studio audience over the relationship between beliefs, desires, and value. That exchange started on August 8th with Potential versus Actual Desires and ended on August 21st.

The comments in this case are particularly worth reading.

Also, last year, I was writing a series of posts on the weekends covering the Beyond Belief 2006 conference. This conference was attended by a number of excellent thinkers such as Paul and Patricia Churchland, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I wrote a posting about every presentation given at the conference.

The June 6th post, Beyond Belief 2006: Summary contains a link to each of the posts tied to that series.

In the mean time, please feel free to help yourself to some chocolate and Diet Dr. Pepper. You're free to talk among yourselves in the comments section. I have over 700 posts for you to browse through, or you can use the search feature to find subjects that interest you.

I will see you when I get back.

Alonzo Fyfe

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Morality and the Possibility of Harm

As I understand it, the driver who rear-ended the bus my wife was involved in, got out of his vehicle, stepped onto the bus, and asked, “Is anybody hurt?” He then said, “I’m going to go move my vehicle.”

He then got into his vehicle and drove off.

I am not going to say that this story is accurate. For the purposes of this essay, it does not matter whether it is accurate. The mere possibility is enough to illustrate the points that I want to write about today.

When I was in high school, I became distracted by some fire engines and police cars at a nearby house. When I turned my attention back to the road, I found that I had drifted, and was near to rear-ending a parked car. I hit the breaks, and stopped before doing any damage.

I can well imagine the driver of that truck suffering the same lapse in judgment. And because of that momentary lapse, he hit a bus during rush hour.

According to what my wife told me, he then got out of his truck and came up to the back door of the bus. He asked, “Is anybody hurt?” He then said, “I’m going to move my truck. I’ll be right back.” Only he took off.

Again, I can well imagine an individual in that situation, seeing how much harm was done, suffering an overwhelming panic. I can imagine myself in that situation – with all of the things that I wanted to do in my life, and all of the things that I have tried to do – undone, with a short lapse in judgment.

“It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this.”

Of course, neither did the people on the bus – and the only thing they did was seek a ride home on public transportation. This is hardly an act worthy of being tossed around inside of a bus.

The real universe is indifferent to our survival, or to the quality of our lives. It simply does not care if a momentary lapse of judgment causes so much harm. It does not care if its laws create tsunamis and plagues that wipe out hundreds of thousands to millions of people who have done nothing wrong. The universe does not care, so it is up to us to care.

As much as I can understand what this imaginary driver (I do not know if any of these statements are true of the real incident), it is still important to assign moral responsibility for these momentary lapses in judgment.

There is an important difference between that imaginary driver and me. When I suffered through these near accidents while I was a teenager, I learned a lesson. Driving was a dangerous activity. I asked myself whether driving was so important that it was worth not only the price of a car and the gasoline that fueled it, but the potential for hitting a bus full of passengers. I can easily imagine driving down a street, seeing a kid on a bike as he rides out in front of my car, the crunch, and the mangled body laying on the pavement.

Those types of thoughts convinced me that I did not want to drive. When my first driver’s license expired, I did not renew it.

My wife does not drive either, by the way – because medical problems prohibit her from driving. So, our household does not have a vehicle of any type (unless you count bicycles),. We make our way on public transportation.

I saw another story that is similar to the case of the hapless driver. This story was about an individual who picked up a rock and tossed it over the edge of a cliff, then leaned over, just in time to see the rock strike a comber coming up the hill. The climber was killed instantly.

Luke Rodolph, who threw the rock, did not run. He did not try to claim that this was an accident. He confessed.

Again, I could imagine the horror of somebody who was basically a responsible person, suddenly discovering that he had done something horribly wrong. I can well imagine it because, as a young teenager, I once threw a rock over a cliff into a fog bank below. The fog cleared after that, and I saw that there was a road below me. There was nobody on the road at the time. I learned a valuable lesson. However, people could have died, and I would have been responsible.

The universe does not care about the size of the price tag that it attaches to the lessons it teaches.

It take the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people caught in the middle of an ill-planned war, or vacationing and living on the shores of the Indian Ocean, or a whole planet full of people wiped out by a celestial impact that some foresight and planning could have prevented.

It is sometimes argued that if a particular type of mistake is common – if anybody can do it – that it is wrong to hold people morally responsible for those mistakes. However, if a type of mistake puts a lot of people at risk of great harm, then we need stronger barriers – internal and external – against making those types of mistakes, not weaker. We have reason to make those mistakes less common by putting up stronger psychological barriers to committing those mistakes, not more common by telling people “It’s alright. It doesn’t matter.”

I argue that this is a significant problem for much of what passes for moral philosophy these days. Philosophers test their moral intuitions against highly contrived and almost-never-going-to-happen-in-the-real-world situations. Morality is not a discovery of properties inherent in nature and nothing for a special faculty of ‘moral intuition’ to pick out. It is an institution that aims to manipulate the desires of individuals to prevent them from creating real-world harms to real-world people in real-world possible circumstances.

I suspect that there is a far greater chance that my life, health, and well-being will is more at risk from some driver’s momentary lapse in judgment than from some doctor needing to take five organs to save five patients. As a result, I have far stronger reason to inhibit others from suffering these momentary lapses in judgment, than from refraining to kill me to harvest my organs, or to need to kill somebody else to save me from death. (The ‘need to kill’ part is important here. If doctors have sufficient organs coming in from voluntary sources this diminishes the magnitude of the significant. Furthermore, I will have the ability to reduce the risk further by promoting the voluntary contribution of one’s organs.

We have reason to be paying far more moral attention to those who are guilty of momentary lapses of judgment in every-day circumstances that could get people killed, then those whose sentiments might cause them to behave in appropriately under circumstances that will almost certainly never arise.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Physics vs. Prayer

I have always been quite surprised at how kind and considerate emergency response personnel (police, fire fighters, paramedics) can be. I do not think I have ever met one who struck me as an individual who was just doing his job and collecting a paycheck. They have always provided a level of kindness and concern that could never be motivated by “just collecting a paycheck.”

Yesterday evening, the bus that my wife was riding home stopped at the stop before hers, when a fairly large vehicle hit the back of the bus at full force. This was at the stop before that which my wife Lesley typically gets off at. She called me from the bus (cell phones are a wonderful invention) and I walked over to meet her. Seven or eight people were going to the hospital. Lesley’s injuries were minor. We spent about 4 hours in the hospital, then walked home.

The driver of the other vehicle left the scene, but was arrested a short while later. Or, at least, a person was arrested who was alleged to have been the same person who left the scene of the accident.

The laws of physics being what they are, the impact imparted energy into the bus, causing the bus to suddenly accelerate forward. However, the impact did not impart the same energy onto the passengers of the bus (inertial dampeners not yet being standard equipment for RTD busses). So, the passengers, being at rest, tended to stay at rest until acted upon by another force. That force was typically some other part of the bus.

The laws of physics being what they are . . .

This is one of the nice things about having people understand the laws of physics. The laws of physics being what they are, it is possible to make reasonable predictions about what would happen to the bodies on a bus, when the bus is struck from behind by a fairly massive vehicle going appreciably faster than the bus (relatively speaking).

Knowing these things, it becomes possible to determine explain and predict what will likely happen to a bus under such circumstances, and to make design changes to reduce the amount of damage that people are likely to suffer.

Using these tools, it is possible to preserve and protect human life.

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that a better understanding of physics and an application of those principles to events such as rear-ending a bus will do far more to prevent injury and death to humans than ‘praying for a safe trip’ ever will. Even if society’s investment in ‘praying for a safe trip’ (in terms of the hours that people spend and the institutions established that cater to the practice of praying for a safe trip) were a million times that invested in understanding the laws of physics and applying that understanding to the design of busses, the physics option will still save more lives and prevent more injury than the prayer option.

In fact, I hold that the prayer option does not save any lives or prevent any injury – that the only practical tool we have for this end is the application of physics to the problem of bodies in a bus when rear-ended by trucks.

Another aspect of the case that I mentioned above is that the driver of the vehicle that hit the bus left the scene of the accident. The police apprehended a person whom they believe was driving the vehicle that hit the bus. I understand that they have strong reason for believing this – that they caught the person in the vehicle as he was leaving the scene.

The laws of physics being what they are, it seems most reasonable to believe that the person who was apprehended was the same person who was driving the vehicle that struck the bus and who left the scene of the accident.

The point that I want to stress here is that the decision that the person arrested and the person who fled the scene of the accident are the same person is a conclusion that we tend to insist be based on evidence. If we were to discover that the person was arrested because some detective, used an Ouija Board that spelled out the name of the accused, this would not be considered good enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

What if the detective, instead of using an Ouija Board, reported that he prayed and asked God to identify the culprit? If there is a God, then He should know who the person is, right? So, it seems, we would have to consider this to be a very reliable source. If God said that the accused is guilty, then the accused is guilty. He might as well confess.

Of course, we do not accept this type of evidence in a court of law either. In fact, we consider it highly suspect. Though, I am curious as to why those people who will not accept religious testimonial in a court of law where the fate of a single person is at stake, have no problems hearing that President Bush used the same type of evidence to determine matters of national policy – that he prays for guidance, and does whatever he thinks God tells him to do. We will not send an accused criminal to jail on the basis of this type of evidence, but we will condemn millions of people to war (as soldiers, or as potential ‘collateral damage’) based on this type of evidence.

I am not saying that legislation requires the same standards of proof that is required in criminal courts – proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

[Okay, sometimes I argue that legislation requires this type of evidence. A right means that there is a presumption in favor of a particular view, and that this presumption must be outweighed by the evidence against it. A right to freedom of speech means that freedom of speech is the default position. However, freedom of speech is not an absolute right – people cannot say whatever they want to say whenever they want to say it. The proverbial case of (falsely) yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater is an example. However, the right to freedom of speech means that the judges should start with a presumption in favor of the speaker, and side with those who would silence him only upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, this does not apply to all legislation, only to legislation that is stood up against a right.]

What I am saying is that the same types of evidence permissible in a trial are the only types of evidence that are legitimate to deciding how to vote on legislation.

Along these lines, there is another question that I would like to make a standard part of the political process. I will add this to the list of questions that I want to see become a standard part of the political process. “Candidate A, this question is for you. In deciding on how to vote for a policy, will you base your decision only on the types of evidence that would be acceptable in a court of law? Or will you go outside that list to include evidence considered sufficiently unreliable to justify sending even one person to jail – evidence such as divine revelation, astrological calculations, or favors for those who contribute to your campaign?”

We are accustomed to hearing of the big ticket items where religion has been a source of harm. Yet, we can find our examples even in something more mundane, like a traffic accident. Here is an excellent opportunity to take the time to ask which option would save the most lives and prevent the most injury; prayer, or physics? If we add up all of the small gains that we could make in human well-being with a population that devoted a fraction of the time they now spend studying scripture to studying science, it may reduce the big-ticket items to insignificance.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bush Administration View of American Principles

The actions of the Bush Administration since 9/11 seem to suggest that the Administration itself thought that the American experiment was a failure, and could not survive this type of attack.

Honestly, look at the reasons that the Administration continues to offer for its decisions to:

• repeal the 4th Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches

• arrest people without charges and to hold them indefinitely while subjecting them to ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment

• repeal habeas corpus

• repeal the rights of a defendant to a fair trial and to hear the evidence offered against him so that he can respond to it and offer evidence to refute it

• eliminate as much as possible the system of checks and balances by (1) cutting off the authority of the legislative branch (through signing statements) and (2) cutting off the judicial branch (through executive orders making the President and the Justice and Defense departments the judge of their own actions)

• hide everything under a cloak of secrecy while shouting ‘traitor’ at all who question their judgments.

This argument has always been, “Because the American system does not work. It is fatally flawed, and it needs to be replaced by a system having the characteristics described above in order to keep us safe. All things considered, these characteristics, that we have until now classified as the mark of tyrannies, are all legitimate government actions.”

In other words, “We were wrong to have condemned these policies in the past. America, and Americans, made a mistake to raise objections to them. We now recognize the error of our ways and adopt these policies as our own.”

I wonder if the Bush Administration plans on offering a formal apology other countries that it once condemned for engaging in these practices? After all, if I tell my neighbor that he is doing something wrong and condemn him for it, only to later discover the error of my ways, I should say something like, “I’m sorry I condemned you for setting fire to your cat. I have come to realize that this is a perfectly legitimate activity, and I plan on doing it myself from now on.”

Yet, there has to be a reason why the Bush Administration has opted for warrantless searches and seizures over warrants, unification of powers under one branch rather than separation of powers, and the effective abolition of the idea of a right to a fair trial. It is clearly not the case that they would have thrown away these practices if they had any faith or reason to believe that these policies would work for the benefit of the country.

There are only two possible explanations for these types of decisions.

(1) They did not believe that these policies would work. That is to say, they considered America to be a failed experiment and that it was time to admit to those mistakes and to adopt the practices we once condemned.

(2) They still believed that these practices would work for America, but they were not interested in America’s future, only their own. Towards that end they replaced institutions that were meant to secure the blessings of liberty for all Americans with a different set of institutions that preserved and promoted the wealth and power of a few.

Or some combination thereof.

There were a group of people involved, and they likely had different motives. Of these, I think that the first option deserves more attention than it has received. The Bush Administration thought that the principles of individual liberty written into the American system of government were a mistake.

This possibility has some interesting implications. For example, as odd as it may sound, the people who share Bush’s assumptions that the American system is fatally flawed are those who tend to wrap themselves most tightly in the American flag. If a poll were taken, I would predict it to show that those who consider themselves the most patriotic are significantly more eager to help Bush dismantle the American system of government.

In other words, those who are most eager to defend the flag are least eager to defend what it stands for, and those who are eager to defend what the flag stands for are least eager to defend the flag.

I want to point out that just because Bush disagrees and does not support the ideals under which this country has operated for over 200 years does not prove that he is wrong. The founding fathers were not divine persons who were merely transcribing the wises of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly beneficent God. It is as much of a fallacy to say that something is unquestionably true and good because it was said by Washington as it is to say that something was unquestionably true and good because it was said by Jesus. After all, the founding fathers defended slavery (most of them) and never thought that women should be given a right to vote.

In fact, the founders substantially admitted their own fallibility when they wrote the Constitution. They wrote procedures into the Constitution for people to follow if future generations should ever believe that the founders had been mistaken.

(If only the authors of scripture had the same humility. Then they, too, would have included provisions for altering the text over time to at least remove the most significant errors. However, they had the arrogance of asserting their own infallibility, which gives is legions of people asserting that their texts cannot be altered as a matter of principle.)

So, as with the issue of slavery and women’s rights, perhaps we need to consider the Bush Administration’s suggestion that the principles of separation of powers, warrantless searches and seizures, and the right to trial by jury were bad ideas that need to be repealed. We can do so using the tools that the founders provided – by entertaining amendments to the Constitution to correct these mistakes.

If only the Bush Administration were honest enough to pursue that option.

I suspect that the reason they do not do so is because they know how the decision would go, if they only decided to present their position honestly and accurately.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Place at the Table

Tom Krattenmaker’s article, “Secularists, What Happened to the Open Mind” contained the following passage:

The worst tendencies of atheists (who, by definition, believe God does not exist) and secularists (who are best described as "unreligious") were framed for me during a recent e-mail exchange I had with a staff member of a humanist organization.

Discussing the relationship between science and religion, I had expressed my view that religion should leave scientific research to the scientists and devote itself, along with the fields of ethics and philosophy, to the mighty issues of the human condition: good and evil, the meaning of life, the nature of love and so forth. To which my correspondent replied: Why would something as inherently foolish as religion deserve a place at the table for discussions of that magnitude?

I would like to quickly point out that Krattenmaker got the definition of ‘Secularist’ wrong. A secularist is somebody who believes in the separation of church and state – that the government should not be used by any religion to impose its beliefs on those who do not voluntarily join with that church. Many secularists are extremely religious.

Often, they come from a religious history that has suffered some rather barbaric persecution, and so are (justifiably) afraid of what happens when the State gets involved in matters of faith. Or they simply know enough about history to know what happened when political monarchs asserted and believed that they were God’s chosen leaders. The 18th century reaction to that was simply to deny the state a role in enforcing religious doctrine.

However, the more important question is, in matters such as the meaning of life and the difference between good and evil, “Why would something as inherently foolish as religion deserve a place at the table for discussions of that magnitude?”

I have shared one of Krattenmaker’s criticisms of the Dawkins, Harris, and Hutchins, that they unfairly and unjustly go from, “Some theists are X” to “All theists are X” However, having said this, there is a case to be made that religious ethics, insofar as it is religious, does not deserve a place at the table for discussions of ethics and meaning of life.

Okay, actually, I do not fully understand the metaphor, “a place at the table”. If “the table” is the public forum, then everybody deserves a place at the table, because nobody should be prohibited from speaking peacefully in public, no matter how stupid their ideas happen to be. However, I think that the phrase typically refers to something narrower than this.

However, this is not the sense of ‘at the table’ that I think the claim refers to. The claim refers to a special table, where people get down to business on the matter at hand. It is a sense that says, “These people can make an important contribution to the subject we are talking about, so excluding them would be a mistake.”

Imagine sitting at the chemistry table, where the participants are talking about atoms and molecules when somebody shows up, sets down a stack of old, dusty books, and starts proclaiming, “It says here that there are five elements – four material elements (water, air, earth, and fire), and one immaterial element (spirit). I want to contribute this to the discussion.”

Chemists can be forgiven for refusing this person a place at the table. In fact, his contributions are effort. The ideas that he wants to bring up have either been considered long ago and rejected, or are already built into current theories. (Note: It was the ancient Greeks who discovered the atom; modern scientists only refined the knowledge as to its structure.) His “contribution” is, at best, a waste of time.

At the astronomy table, astronomers want to compare the results of their research and form reasoned, scientific theories about the history and structure of the universe. They talk about things happening 13 billion light years away, which means 13 billion years ago, whose information-carrying light has just reached us. Here, the theist wants to come to the table and say that the universe is only 10,000 years old, created by God, where the Earth, even if it is not the physical center, is certainly the central focus of this all powerful divine force.

At the biology table, the religious want to propose their theory of intelligent design. They want to introduce a theory where God plays an important role, even though they cannot come up with a simple experiment whereby, under conditions C, this god theory makes predications that are more accurate than theories that do not have a god variable.

In both places, religion does not have a voice, unless and until religion can come up with a theory T, with a god variable, that better explains and predicts astronomical observations than the current theories, none of which has a God variable. Some of the recent criticisms of religion coming from the biology table is precisely because religions want to bring things to the table that are senseless wastes of the biologist’s time. The theist cannot produce any experiments that support their theory, and time spent on these worthless claims is time not being spent making real scientific progress.

The same is true in ethics and the meaning of life.

Unfortunately, theism has held the chair at the ethics and meaning of life table, even as their influence at the chemistry astronomy, and biology tables has (rightfully) waned. It is their claim that atheists have no place at the table, because, without a god, there can be no ethics and no meaning to life. People take their chairmanship of the ethics and meaning of life table almost for granted.

That’s a mistake. Religion is doing the same thing to ethics that it is trying to do to astronomy and biology. It fills the discussion with ideas that come from primitive tribes of people who knew as little about their moral universe as they did about their physical universe. It fills the discussion with fiction and myths that actually get in the way of making real moral progress. In fact, the very reason that moral progress has fallen behind our scientific and technical progress is because ethics and meaning of life issues are carrying so much religious dead weight.

This is not to say that religious people cannot be moral. However, honestly, most moral progress that we have seen in the past 400 years has come from secular moral thinkers. Remember, ‘secular’ does not mean ‘non-religious’ – it simply refers to somebody who does not use religious assumptions as a part of their argument.

John Locke, for example, was clearly a religious person. However, his argument for human rights did not come from postulating the existence of a God. It came from postulating humans living in a state of nature, without government. This, in fact, is the secular view of human life, not the typical religious view.

In fact, religion . . . most religion . . . is in direct conflict with moral progress. Most religions state that we hit our moral peak long ago in our barbaric and primitive past, and that every deviation from their concepts of right and wrong is evil. When a religious view holds that scripture cannot be wrong, this means that those who created scripture were morally perfect. Any deviation from their opinions is evil and must be avoided. Where modern thinkers disagree with these primitive tribesmen, we must believe that the primitive tribesmen had the truth of the matter, and the most we can hope for is to think as they did.

For the most part, religions have responded to four centuries of secular moral progress by taking secular morality and using it to rewrite (reinterpret) their religious texts. Where populations have been most willing to rewrite scripture to conform to secular morality, these are the areas where we have seen the most moral progress. Where people are so strongly tied to their religious doctrine that they cannot stand the idea of reinterpretation, that is where we see the least moral progress. In fact, there, we often find barbaric cruelty.

Most Christians, for example, have rewritten their scripture to insert the secular prohibition on slavery, equality of women, permission to charge interest, permission to work on the Sabbath, prohibition on killing witches, prohibition on killing blasphemers, and permission to inoculate against disease (condemned by the church as ‘playing God’).

In all of these cases, moral progress flowed from the secular to the religious. The ideas came from arguments that ignored scripture and relied on reason. Of course, those Christians who wrote these secular ideas into their interpretation of scripture would often go on and pursue those ideas with religious passion. However, this again is due substantially to the fact that religious leaders have claimed a monopoly on moral truth. Few people look deep enough to note that their moral truth does not come from scripture, but is taken from secular thinkers.

I expect that some critics of this view might think that they can bolster their side by bringing up what I have previously called “The Hitler and Stalin Cliché.” These regimes show how flawed secular ethics are compared to religious ethics.

There are a number of problems with this objection, which I discuss in the post linked to above. However, one objection is that Christianity, Islam, and every form of religious ethics are, like the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, moral systems made by humans without any divine input. God did not have a hand in any of these systems. All of them show some measure of human failing. Some fail more than others, but they all fail.

The question of the day is whether those who preach a religious ethics deserve a place at the table in the discussion of morality and the meaning of life. In fact, their ideas are just as flawed as the flat earth, the geocentric universe, and the 6000 year old earth. They get their moral ideas from the same place as others get these ideas about the structure of the solar system. And their source was just as ingorant of the moral univese in which they lived as they were of the physical universe.

Honestly, they just do not have much of value to contribute. And that which they contribute which is of value, is that which they have taken from secular philosophers for the past four centuries anyway.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Insulting Religious People

I am intrigued by this question, which Jacques Berlinerblau asked in an article on Newsweek Online called, "Secularism: Boring (Part I)"

Query: Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious people as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the common good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists, pedophiles, bearers of false consciousness, authoritarian despots, and so forth? Is that possible?

Berlinerblau's question brought to mind a closely related question: Is there anything inherently contradictory in a group of rational people debating the truth of the proposition, "All X's are imbeciles" and concluding, as a result of reasoned debate, that the proposition is true?

Now, I have repeatedly raised objections against the claim that "All theists are X". A theist is simply a person who holds that the proposition, "At least one god exists" is probably or certainly true. Nothing of consequence follows from this. In order to get to any substantive conclusion, one has to make further claims about the nature of this God. Since no two people share the same beliefs about God, it is difficult, if not impossible, to defend any statement that says, 'All theists are X' for any X other than X = 'people who believe that one or more gods probably or certainly exist'.

However, what of the proposition, "Some theists are imbecels?" or, more directly, "Any theist who believes X on the basis of Y is an imbecel?"

Is it not possible to hold a rational and reasoned debate and come to the conclusion that, at least in some cases, this is true?

One of the terms that Berlinerblau used was "pedophile." I believe that it is beyond dispute that the claim, "some theists are pedophiles" is almost certainly true, and that it is sometimes true that "those theists over there are pedophiles." A person who makes and defends a claim of this type does not automatically demonstrate that he has given up his devotion to truth and reason.

Or, let us consider a criminal court case. In this case, the proposition being debated is, "Is the defendant a murderer?" In the court, the defense and prosecuting attorneys engaged in a reasoned debate, each bringing their evidence before the jury, where the prosecuting attorney is charged with proving that the proposition, "The defendant is a murderer," is true, and the defense attorney trying to prove that the proposition is false.

It would be insane to suggest that there is something flawed in a court case that can be illustrated using the rhetorical question, "Can a prosecuting attorney discuss any aspect of an active case without referring to defendants as murderers, arsonists, drunk drivers, child abusers, embezzlers, thieves, robbers, con-men, liars, and so forth?"

Given the nature of the subject, the answer is no. However, given the nature of the subject, this is not necessarily a problem for prosecuting attorneys.

Indeed, it is the role of these "atheist and agnostic commentators" to play the role of social prosecutors. At least, I will assert that I take this as my role. I look at the actions performed by different agents and present reasons for holding that the agent can be properly, reasonably, and rationally labeled a bigot, sophist, liar, or perpetrator of some other moral wrong. It would be difficult to have an ethics blogs that did not make ethical judgments about people who perform certain actions.

It would be absurd to suggest that a person attempting to reason whether a person has committed a moral crime is necessarily closed-minded by that fact alone. It is not close-mindedness to listen to the evidence yet to draw the conclusion that the original assertion of moral wrongdoing was correct.

The same applies to every term that Berlinerblau has used in his question. Is it the case that "Some theists are extremists?" Well, given a sufficiently precise definition of "extremism" (one that is consistent with the proposition that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit extermism), this proposition is sometimes true, and a proof that it is true need not show that the speaker has abandoned principles of truth and reason.

So, let us take the word 'imbecile'. This term refers to people whose mental capabilities are similar to those of a young child.

Now, the reasoning capabilities of a young child, however poorly developed, are able to see through the problems behind the Santa Claus myth. The impossibility of delivering all of those toys to all of those people in such a short time, in particular, gives the child reason to believe that the Santa Claus story is not true.

Many religious myths are as unreasonable as the Santa Claus myth. This means that they would only be found reasonable by those people whose capability of reasoning about such things are on a par with those children who still 'believe in' Santa Claus. That is to say, beliefs in these specific myths are imbicilic or child-like beliefs.

The difference between the Santa Claus myth and the Abrahamic myths, for example, is that, at the age when the child obtains the ability to question these myths, they are praised and encouraged for their ability to see through the Santa Claus myth, but condemned if they should question the Abrahamic myth. The message that the eight-year-old receives for questioning Santa Claus is one of positive reinforcement; but questioning the Abrahamic myth results in condemnation and, in many cases, punishment.

Face it, the advocates of the Abrahamic myths cannot use reason to convince the child that these myths are true; even a child can see the holes. The only tool they have left is the tool that, "Those who question these truths are bad people. The deserve to be punished, as we will punish you, if you question these myths." This message is built into every Abrahamic religion.

I am not saying that this is some back-room conspirasy against children by adults who know better. Children raised in an environment, "God doubters are bad people," will simply pass these attitudes on to their own children in a chain of abuse that is self-perpetuating. That is, at least, until enough people stand up and question the "God doubters are bad people" myth.

The decision to put "In God We Trust" on the money and "under God" in the pledge owe themselves to these same social forces - a despirate need to force society to think in terms of God-beleivers as "we" or "fellow Americans" - giving them a sense of belonging, while associating God-doubting with alienation and rejection.

The decision to allow God-doubters to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance actually reinforces this message. While the God-doubters remain seated everybody gets the message that those who believe in God are included, and those who doubt God (deserve to be) excluded. The movement to put "In God We Trust" on public buildings is also a blatant attempt to communicate the message - particularly to children - that God doubters are bad people. At least, if you want acceptance, if you want to be a part of "we" rather than "them", you must trust in God.

This also suggests that it is particularly important to block any attempt to communicate to young people - particularly in public schools - the message that "God doubters are bad people." Since this message is written into the Pledge of Allegiance, this is why it is particularly important that schools not be permitted to engage in a ritual whose primary purpose is to help parents communicate the message, "Those who believe in God are good people, and those who doubt

Those children carry this message into adulthood, which is why, even as adults, they continue to hold the attitude that God doubters are bad people.

These social forces explain why it is that so many adults adopt such imbicilic beliefs. However, they do not show that the beliefs themselves are not imbicilic. It does not disprove the claim that those who believe such things, insofar as they believe them, believe things that a rational young child would be able to see are false, if socially permitted to do so.

Saying so does not automatically mean that the person who says it has abandoned reason and evidence. Indeed, asserting that such a person has abandoned reason and evidence is to beg the question – it is to assume that one’s own position on what is under debate is the correct position. Without this assumption, it is perfectly reasonable for reasonable and rational agents to argue in defense of the thesis, “Religious beliefs R are beliefs that children would normally be able to see as flawed at about the same age as they doubt the existence of Santa Claus, if they were socially permitted to do so.” Or, in other words, “Religious beliefs R are imbicilic.”

The same applies to every other term that Berlinblau used. And I sincerely like to see those who question religion to begin putting these arguments in this type of structure.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Bush Don't know much about history

President Bush is launching a new offensive to convince the people of the necessity of staying in Iraq. His new propaganda offensive tries to draw a lesson from history that argues in favor of this policy.

Specifically, Bush’s argument goes as follows:

We stayed in South Korea, and South Korea became a model democracy, producing a thriving society that became the envy of Asia. We withdrew from Vietnam, and Vietnam (at least for a while) became a nation of boat people, re-education camps, and killing fields. Therefore, staying in Iraq means that it will become a thriving democracy that is the envy of the Arab world, while withdrawing will mean slaughter.

Here is what is wrong with this type of reasoning.

Two evenings ago, I did not exercise before going to bed, and two nights ago there was no rain. Last evening, I did exercise before going to bed. Last night we had a rather spectacular thunderstorm. Therefore, not exercising this evening means that there will be no rain, whereas if I exercise we will have a spectacular thunderstorm.

Another possible explanation for these same events can go as follows:

The South Koreans had a culture that was amenable to establishing a peaceful state; therefore, there was more reason to stay than to leave. The Vietnamese had a culture that was not amenable to establishing a peaceful state, so it was better to leave than to stay.

The mark of a good theory is that you can apply it to a large number of cases and get similar results. If we apply this model to World War II, we see that Germany and Japan were internally coherent societies. As a result, they were capable of forming peaceful states, and remaining was a reasonable option. China, on the other hand, was not capable of creating a peaceful state, at least until one side won and drove the losers onto the island of Taiwan, and sufficiently drove out, re-educated, or slaughtered the dissenters that remained.

In deciding what to do in Iraq, perhaps we should look at the possibility that the Iraqis are capable of producing a peaceful state. Intranational peace would be a good sign that staying would be fruitful, while intranational conflict means that staying would simply prolong the agony.

In Vietnam, once one side won the war, and was able to sufficiently drive out, re-educate, or slaughter the losers, they were able to establish a peaceful state, and we have the country we see now.

In Iraq, it may well be the case that if one side was allowed to win, and to drive out, re-educate, or slaughter the losers, that Iraq could establish a peaceful state. Indeed, this seems to be the way that the nation is going, with millions of people having already fleeing the country

In South Korea, we did not pacify the whole country. Instead, the country was divided, with those who supported one faction moving to one side of the border, and those who supported a different faction moving to the other side. The resulting successes or failures did not depend on how much social harmony the nation had, but on the rationality of their institutions. I suspect that both sides thought, “We will have X years of peace, during which our wisdom will shine through to make us wealthier and more powerful than you can imagine, at which time we will finish this job and unify the country.”

On this measure, it appears that the South Koreans were more right than the North Koreans – though this social harmony that brings prosperity does seem to require a reluctance to go to war. Wars, after all, are quite wasteful of the wealth that one has built.

One of the implications that we can draw from this is that if we are able to identify an internally coherent and peaceful section of Iraq, separate it from the rest, call it its own country, and keep insurgents out (with the cooperation of the otherwise peaceful citizens of that region), there may be some hope of success. For example, creating a Kurdish state and defending it, while remaining Iraqis maim and kill each other, might result in an economically prosperous section of Iraq that would become the envy of the Arab world.


Nobody should read the above section and come to the conclusion that I have, with any certainty, identified the truth of these historic trends. I have, at best, offered a hypothesis. It is not my intent to suggest that I know the natural laws of history and can predict the future of Iraq from them. It is only my intention to show that there are reasonable options that belie Bush’s claim. Once again, he is proving that he has not done his homework..

Which is, actually, no less than we should expect from somebody who is as arrogant, ntellectually lazy, deceptive, and manipulative personality as Bush is.

Also, please recall that I am not a member of the ‘bring the troops home now at all costs and with total disregard to the consequences’ fan club. Nor am I a fan of ‘stay and fight’.

I am a fan of the ‘ask the experts who have spent their lives studying the middle east and can afford to focus their attention on these issues from sunup to sundown, and who respect the power of reason over faith,’ plan. Of which, I am not an expert.

Nor am I a fan of, ‘Whoever gives me an argument that supports a conclusion that I like shall be judged reasonable, and whoever gives an argument that conflicts with a conclusion that I like shall be judged unreasonable,” way of thinking. That way of thinking gets people killed. Indeed, we ended up in this mess in Iraq precisely because our President was so foolish that he embraced the doctrine of, “Evidence that can be interpreted as supporting my desire to go to war shall be judged sound, and evidence that conflicts with my desire to go to war shall be judged the product of traitors or incompetents.”

I condemn Bush and the members of his administration for their intellectual recklessness. I see this ‘argument from history’ to be yet another example where the Administration seems not to have thought out the implications of their own claims. This is only one set of a huge galaxy of moral failings that characterize this administration.

However, it is not a rare failing. Many of those who criticize Bush are hypocrites, who exhibit exactly the same characteristics they condemn. So, I am concerned that they would apply those characteristics here, and I do not want to contribute to the results. Thus, the long list of disclaimers.

Still, one thing that I do not disclaim, is that Bush is an arrogant idiot who is even too stupid to realize just how stupid he is. He continues to put weight in weak arguments whenever those arguments support the conclusions that he wants to believe in. He continues to exercise his religious training of accepting conclusions on faith, and judging the merits of arguments on their ability to support what he beliefs for no good reason.

When somebody in his position engages in this type of intellectual recklessness, good people die. That is what we have seen in Iraq, and what I suspect we will continue to see under this Administration.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ben Stein's 'Expelled'

Dear Ben Stein:

I have heard that you have a movie coming out – a documentary, "Expelled – about how creation scientists (a.k.a., intelligent design theorists) are suffering from violations of their free speech rights in academia.

Naturally, I have not seen the documentary yet. Consequently, I am not going to raise any objections against the movie itself. However, I have read reports about its content and if true these reports indicate that the documentary will try to portray the claim that intelligent design is not science as a violation of freedom of speech.

I also suspect that you will hear a lot of objections based on the fact that you failed to properly understand what a scientific theory is, and I have no interest in repeating what they would say.

However, the film (or at least descriptions of it) bring up the issue of freedom of speech, which is a moral issue, and that is the sphere that I write in.


I want to begin by pointing that your legacy, as a result of your work on this particular project, will be the suffering and early death of countless people who otherwise could have been saved or benefited from advances in science.

I am going to have to say something about the nature of science to demonstrate this point. Science is involved in explaining and predicting real-world events. This includes real-world events that cause real-world death and suffering. The better we are at understanding the real world, the better we will be at avoiding the death and suffering that nature would otherwise inflict on us.

Science does this by comparing theories. Theory A predicts that under conditions C, that R will result. Theory B predicts that under conditions C, S will result. Scientists then set up or observe conditions C, and see if they detect R or S. If they detect R, they go with theory A. If they detect S, they go with Theory B.

Over time, they continually revise their theories. Theory A1 predicts that under conditions C1, R1 will result. Theory A2 predicts that under conditions C1, R2 will result. (The conditions have to be the same, or there is no way to rule out theories). They then try to detect R1 or R2, and refine their theories accordingly.

It is not the case that everything that scientists like to study has an effect on human death and suffering. However, the methods that they use to study nature in general are the same methods that they apply to those things that result in death and suffering. They are continually involved in refining their theories about things that cause human death and suffering. As a result of their work, we have become extremely good at avoiding human death and suffering – at least in those cultures that are wise enough to put these scientific advances to practical use.

Now, please, try for me to put the concept of intelligent design into the description that I wrote above about how to compare scientific theories. Come up with a condition C, and a result R1 or R2, that will tell us whether or not to accept Theory A or Theory B, where Theory B is intelligent design.

You will fail.

No scientist has yet been able to present a “Theory B” that includes a God variable that produces more accurate results under Conditions C than any comparable theory that lacks a God variable.

Intelligent design tells us nothing that we can use to better understand and cure cancer or Parkinson's disease. There is nothing it can tell us that can lead to the discovery of a way of preventing malaria that would have otherwise gone undiscovered. It will not provide us with food sources that can survive droughts to that people in arid parts of the world can feed themselves. It says nothing at all useful in determining the effects of different chemicals that we are putting in our air, our water, and our food to tell us whether they are poisonous or beneficial. It tells us none of the things that science tells us - things that protects our lives, health, and well-being.

So, what these people want to do instead of providing us with the fruits of their research is to force scientist to use another criterion – other than the criterion of coming up with a theory that better predicts results under given conditions. That criterion is the criterion of force - perhaps not the force of a gun to the head, but the force of legislation and social sanctions.

I want to repeat this in case a reader might skip the point of this post. Intelligent design has no 'condition C' with an R1 and an R2 where evolution produces one prediction, intelligent design produces another, and observation confirms intelligent design. If it did, it could count as science. In the absence of scientific evidence favoring intelligent design, its proponents want to introduce something other than evidence into the scientific process - political bullying. Under this system, a theory is viable to the degree that its proponents can use lies and distortions to manipulate the public into including it in the scientific discussion. That's what the movie 'Expelled' is - an propaganda instrument for the sake of rallying people into bullying science educators into including an idea that has absolutely no merit as science.

What is going to make a scientific theory “worth considering” on this standard is not whether its defenders can provide experimental evidence, but whether its defenders can get the government and the mob to threaten scientists who reject their views.

On this system, force replaces truth as a standard of truth.

Causing Harm

Part of the problem with introducing force as a standard of truth is that you will end up promoting systems that will do more harm than good. Intelligent design itself finds its home in a context that does a particularly poor job of predicting and explaining the causes of human death and suffering, and of helping people avoid death and suffering.

A scientist says that hurricanes are too large for us to be able to control where they go. However, by taking measurements of air speed, ocean temperature, pressure, the principles of evaporation and condensation of water, and the like, we can make increasingly accurate predictions of where hurricanes will strike and how best to avoid the worst consequences. The consequences suffered in New Orleans show the price to be paid by those who ignore science.

Theocrats want to argue that we can control the severity – even the existence of hurricanes by passing laws against homosexuality, putting prayer in school, and closing down abortion clinics. They have got the fanatical belief that these variables somehow influence the nature of hurricanes.

Now, we can test these types of claims. We can come up with theories that determine relationships between the frequency and course of hurricanes based on number of abortion clinics, presence of laws against homosexual acts, and the numbers of state-sponsored school prayers. Yet, in 400 years of science, these types of relationships do not hold up. The people who advocate these types of solutions will add to the total amount of human suffering (the suffering imposed on people as a result of these laws) without doing any good whatsoever.

We see from this that the type of thinking that surrounds intelligent design will cause death and suffering in two ways. First, there is the death and suffering surrounding the laws that those who think this way would impose on others – the diseases not prevented, the poverty promoted, the prohibitions that deny people the opportunity to realize important values in the brief lives they have.

Second, this way of thinking will result in more death and suffering than there would otherwise be because it will take attention from reason-based policies that show a scientifically provable effect of reducing death and suffering. People devoted to preventing harms from natural disasters through community prayers and repressive social laws are not devoting their energy to scientific research and understanding. People who are demanding that science yield to a ‘political force as proof of scientific validity’ way of thinking are not allowing scientists to discover those methods that truly do the best job of predicting and explaining real-world events.

Both of these pathways lead to death and suffering, and both pathways will be opened up by the false and irresponsible claims that, at least judging from the press reports, will sit at the heart of your documentary.

Fear Mongering

A standard political move these days would be to take an argument like the one that I gave above and use it to accuse the person who made it of ‘fear mongering’ – of trying to manipulate people through fear. President Bush suggests that staying in Iraq will harm our national interests, and he is immediately condemned for fear-mongering by those who do not want the public to even consider (and debate) the possibility.

So, let us take a look at fear mongering, and see whether the term would apply in this case.

Imagine a room with a table in the center, and a pitcher in the middle of the room that you know contains poison. A woman enters the room and fills a glass from the pitcher. If I were to warn her that the pitcher contains poison, it would not be wrong to think that I was attempting to manipulate her behavior – attempting to warn her against drinking from the pitcher. However, it would be wrong to accuse me of fear mongering.

In order to be guilty of fear mongering, it would have to be the case that I did not believe that the pitcher contained poison or that I adopted the belief irresponsibly based more on convenience than on evidence. Furthermore, I would need some motive to prevent the woman from drinking the liquid – a motive that the woman would probably not find persuasive. So, I make false or irresponsible claims about the harmfulness of the liquid in order to prevent her from doing something I have other reasons to prevent her from doing. This would be a case of fear-mongering.

The arguments that I gave above deflect any charges of fear mongering. Science is, as a matter of fact, involved in a practice of comparing theories by determining what the theory says will happen under conditions C, making observations about those happenings, and determining which theory most accurately predicted the results. This method is particularly important when the results provide information useful in avoiding human death and suffering. The type of thinking that surrounds and permeates intelligent design is a type of thinking that rejects this method. So, the type of thinking that permeates intelligent design is a type that will interfere with our abilities to prevent death and suffering.

That particular drink is poison, and a morally responsible person would warn others not to drink it.

Freedom of Speech

As a matter of fact, people who advocate intelligent design pretty much prove that they are incompetent in matters of science, in the same way that an engineer who advocates making a bridge out of common clay proves that he is an incompetent engineer.

The fact that the common clay bridge builder is able to rally his friends to beat up on (legislatively or socially) the steel-bridge builders if they do not give their friend an engineering license is no proof that the friend’s engineering is sound. People can be forced to deny reality, but reality does not yield to individual stupidity. Give the common-clay bridge builder a license, and a lot of people are going to start suffering death and injuries in the collapsing bridges that result.

His ‘opinion’ that clay bridges are as sound as steel bridges is not enough to prevent clay bridges from collapsing.

However, let us assume that this engineer does not want to build clay bridges. He wants to teach at an engineering college where he will inform countless students that clay bridges are structurally sound. And when the engineering department denies him a position, he goes to court, claiming that they are violating his rights to free speech. Clearly, he has a right to stand before a bunch of students and tell them that common clay bridges are structurally sound.

By your standards, such a teacher must be permitted to teach that common clay is as good as steel, because refusing to do so would be a morally impermissible violation of that individual's right to freedom of speech. In fact, if we were to make your principle a universal law, as the moral philosopher Immanual Kant contends, any attempt to regulate the quality of teaching is a violation of free speech. No individual shall be denied a position in a university based on the quality of his research - but all individuals shall be permitted to teach whatever they want to whomever they want.

As I said, the policies and principles that appear in your documentary, at least as reported in the press, are clearly policies and principles that will lead to death and suffering.


I have no illusions that this letter will change the course of events. The documentary will play. People who would have otherwise studied and applied the principles of science to discover or at least understand how certain policies can reduce death and suffering, will instead pursue policies that promote death and suffering. The institution that best seeks to explain and predict the forces of nature that kill and maim individuals will be weakened, and death and suffering that could have been prevented, will not be prevented.

Of course, you will deny any responsibility for this. Unfortunately, reality does not care about what we believe. A person's unwillingness to accept reality does not change reality; a person's unwillingness to accept responsiblity for the harm he has done to others does not prevent them from being harmed.

These effects are real. You have made the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been, and some will pay with their lives. Hopefully, they (or those who survive them) will at least have the wisdom to know who is responsible for their situation.

Note: The National Center for Science Education also exposes a number of inaccuracies in its site, Expelled Exposed.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Focus on Harm

I have said that this is a blog about ethics, not about tactics. One of the reasons for this is that what is practical and what is moral are not always the same thing. Karl Rove has provided a number of examples in which that which was practical (for special interests getting favors from Washington) deviated from what was moral.

Yet, today, I want to speak about an area where the two may well overlap.

Now, since I devote much more time and energy to issues of morality than issues of marketing, I am more likely to make a mistake about the ‘practical’ aspects of what follows. However, I think I can give at least a few reasons to believe the practical conclusion.

The topic for today is one of atheist strategy. Now that the public voice of atheists has been raised, there is a question of what to do from here. There is considerable talk about getting atheists to come out of the closet and be heard. However, this begs the question, “What are they going to say?”

My suggestion is not to focus on the question of whether God exists, but to focus on the harms being done where some sort of religious belief lies behind it.

In talking about harms done, I do not recommend talking about past wrongs. Those wrongs are, of course, in the past, and it is easy for anybody living in the present to deny responsibility for them. I am talking about current harms done. I am talking about taking contemporary news reports about impending suffering, a set of religious beliefs, and demonstrating the connections that exist (where they exist) between those religious beliefs and the suffering.

This is really the argument that came out of 9/11 attacks. Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith is a look at harms done – current and real harms done – and a look at the religious beliefs behind those harms done. I have raised objections against accusing those who were not responsible for the harm. However, as long as accusations are limited to those who are actually guilty, it is quite legitimate to say, “Here are people doing harm to others, and they do harm to others due to their religious beliefs.”

There are countless examples to choose from. There is the spread of disease and the growth of poverty in regions where religious reasons are given for opposing birth control. There is the suffering of people who have been denied access to abortion providers, particularly in the cases of rape and incest. There are cases of people dying or suffering from diseases and injuries that might have been treated through stem-cell research. There is the blatant irrationality of faith-based foreign policy (as opposed to evidence-based foreign policy) which characterizes the decision to attack Iraq.

There is the fact that, contrary to claims that connect religion with morality, we find that religious people in America are still the most vocal defenders of an administration that not only advocates but practices torture and other forms of abuse, wars of aggression, unchecked and unbalanced executive power, and other practices that have, in the past, been the criteria by which we judge governments to be immoral.

Who are these people who call themselves ‘Christians’ who cheer injustice, brutality, and murder (in the name of God)? The problem with these is not that they are ‘un-Christian’ – we need not question their interpretation of scripture. We can, instead, well question that being Christian is such a good thing if being Christian means being a supporter of injustice, brutality, and murder.

Let the Christians fight among themselves about how best to interpret scripture – whether to interpreted it as a defense of injustice, brutality, and murder or a call to action against these moral crimes. This is not relevant. All that is relevant is the simple focus of, “Here there are agents of injustice, brutality, and murder, who justify their moral crimes by appeal to scripture.”

We have already seen one religious reaction to these types of arguments. It is to say, “Your attacks only apply to some religious people – but not to us. We are not causing harm.”

The standard reaction to these types of claims has been to accuse those who make it of being just as guilty as those who commit the crimes.

A better response would be, “Does your religion tell you to stand back with passive indifference while others commit injustice, brutality, and murder? Or does your scripture tell you to help put and end to it. By your behavior, it seems your scripture demands that you do nothing. But passive indifference to injustice, brutality, and murder is still a moral crime. So, you still have a scripture that induces you to commit moral crimes – even if they are not the same moral crimes.”

And if they take action against injustice, brutality, and murder, then there is little reason to complain.

This does not mean that the less harm inducing factions are not doing anything wrong. If you had a choice between stopping the detonation of a nuclear bomb in New York or the rape of a child in Los Angeles, the fact that you focused your attention on stopping the nuclear bomb in New York does not imply that you think that the child rapist is a good person. It simply acknowledges the fact that in a world of limited resources we have to make choices. The best choice is the reduction of harms done.

Here, I want to repeat something that I have written a number of times. I think it is extremely important, but others do not seem to be hearing it. So, I will say it again, this time with a pointer that says, “Look here! This is important!”

The most potent weapon of mass destruction is not nuclear, biological, or chemical, but legislative. Our attention is drawn to the religious person who uses a bomb or poison gas to do harm to others, but their victims number only into the hundreds individually. Those who use legislation as their weapon of mass destruction have hundreds of millions of victims. If it is important to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of those who would use them to harm others, then legislation should be considered one of those weapons.

Bomb explosions with scattered body parts make nice images on the television and, as such, are a natural ratings booster. However, the fact that these are the most entertaining harms does not imply that they are the greatest. Unfortunately, the harms inflicted through the use of legislation get far less attention, even though they do more damage, simply because they have less flash and bang.

This significantly greater amount of damage that religious factions create when they employ legislation to do harm to others implies a greater legitimate concern in making sure that these weapons do not fall into their hands.

I also want to clarify that when I speak about harms done, where those responsible to harm appeal to religious text to justify it, I am not talking about the actions of the common criminal. Imagine that a child rapist or embezzler having been discovered working in an atheist organization, and even imagine that the organization tried to cover up the crime to protect their reputation. It would be unfair to suggest that this is a reflection of the moral character of all atheists. It is just as unfair to hold that religious criminals are a reflection of religion in general.

The types of harms that count are harms caused by behavior that includes a widespread belief in the truth of some part of scripture. When people object to embryonic stem-cell research for religious reasons, the people whom they kill may be properly charged to their religious beliefs. Not to all religious beliefs, but the beliefs of those who actually make such claims. If an agent’s actions can be explained by the fact that he believed that X, and those actions are actions that bring about the death of others, then his belief that X has made him into somebody that brings about the death of others. It is, then, perfectly honest and legitimate to blame those who have belief X for those deaths – as long as the connection can be justified.

“You’re killing people, and otherwise ruining your lives – sacrificing them to a creature that does not exist and, if he did exist, would need to be condemned for demanding that his followers inflict these harms on others. Here are real people, suffering real harm, because of those who think that their God commands them to inflict these harms. Do you want to know what type of people they are, simply look at the harms that they do, and that they seek to justify by claiming ‘In harming others, I serve my God.”

There are both tactical and moral reasons to repeat these claims as loudly and as often as possible, whenever they are true.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Last Post on Desires and Reasons

Okay, I promise, this is the last theory post for a while. I need to get back to real-world policy decisions.

(1) Drives aren't reasons. Consider the reluctant drug addict, compelled (against his will) to get his next fix. How is this any different from a mad scientist controlling him via remote control? We may be coerced from within, just as from without. Merely coming from a drive in your head does not suffice to make an action 'yours'.

If drives are not reasons, then no reasons exist.

I consider the reluctant drug addict. He is a person with a desire to get high and either an aversion to having a desire to get high or beliefs that the desire to get high is a desire that stands in conflict with other desires he might have such as a desire to live a long life, to pursue a career, and to avoid jail.

This is quite different from the scientist who is controlling him via remote control in that the desires we are speaking about are his – they are encoded into his brain. They are ot some external entity. The addiction is a desire he does not wish to have (that thwarts his other desires), but it is still his.

We can define a desire as ‘yours’ according to whether or not you endorse it. Using this definition (that the addiction is a desire that the agent wishes to be without) might be enough for a person to successfully disown it.

However, the claim that there is some other type of entity involved is a rather extreme hypothesis. Ultimately, my defense against these types of arguments is simply that I have no need for such entities. I see no compelling reason to adopt them.

Ultimately, my main reason for rejecting these other entities is that, when it comes to analyzing them, they turn out to be totally mysterious.

Any minimally adequate action theory must account for the difference between intentional ("free" - though of course not contracausal) action and mere behaviour. This requires differentiating value-desires (goals) from mere drives, and giving pride of place to the former.

The difference between intentional action and behavior is that intentional action is caused by intentional states – beliefs and desires. Behavior does not. An amoeba has behavior, but it does not have intentional states (beliefs and desires).

That’s it.

Our goals are defined by our desires. If an agent has a desire that P, then he has a goal to bring about a state of affairs in which P is true. If the desire that P is the further object of a desire that desire that P, or the agent has desires that Q, R, and S, that the desire that P fulfills, then the agent has reasons to endorse or embrace the desire that P.

The real question is: What evidence is there that compels us to introduce other entities into this theory? It is not sufficient to argue that ‘it seems to be the case’ that another entity is at work. There must be some set of phenomena that the current theory cannot explain. The new entity must be something that fills the gaps. The argument for the new entities have to rely on something stronger than ‘it seems to be the case’.

Some people argue for the existence of God by claiming that they can quite simply and directly ‘see’ God in a sunset or hear God in a child’s laughter. It is quite easy to dismiss these types of arguments. The agent is interpreting an event that has an explanation that does not involve God. There is no God in a sunset, only in the agent’s interpretation of a sunset. There is no ‘motivational belief’ in the badness of an addiction, only the agent’s interpretation of that addiction.

The greatest problem for these new entities is in explaining what they are, how we know about them, and how they fit into our scientific understanding of life, specifically, our evolutionary history. Without answers to these types of questions, ‘motivational beliefs’ or any other type of entity cannot actually explain anything. It does not have enough substance to serve as much of an explanation.

Let me explain the problem in another way.

Let us assume that if a person has a motivational belief that P is worthwhile that he is motivated to bring about P. Now, a belief that P is true if and only if P is true. So, a belief that snow is white is true if and only if snow is white. A belief that P is worthwhile is true if and only if P is worthwhile. So, do we have an analysis of what ‘P is worthwhile’ means? How is it that the proposition ‘P is worthwhile’ can be true? How can we know ‘P is worthwhile’ is true?

Is ‘P is worthwhile’ true if and only if I believe P is worthwhile? Assume that I have no belief that P is worthwhile – and I have no interest in making P true. You want to convince me that P is worthwhile. While I am standing here denying that P is worthwhile and having no reason to bring about P, how is it that you are going to convince me that ‘P is worthwhile’ is true? What premises support the conclusion ‘P is worthwhile’?

If the truth of ‘P is worthwhile’ depends on my believing it, we have stranger problems. Here, you are trying to convince me that P is worthwhile when, in fact, ‘P is worthwhile’ is false (because I do not believe it). However, let us assume that you succeed. Now I believe ‘P is worthwhile’? Suddenly, as soon as I accept the proposition, it becomes true.

How does that work?

This strangeness suggests argues against ‘motivational beliefs’. There are standard beliefs, and standard desires, nothing more.

(2) Weighting Desires. What dimension of 'strength' are you referring to? Felt strength? Behavioural impact (motivational force)? Degree of reflective endorsement? These are all logically distinct, though you seem to be conflating them.

The second option: behavior impact (motivational force).

Insofar as you treat desires as being revealed by behaviour, you seem to be assuming the second option. But this seems to be the least normatively relevant. (Why should a mere 'cause of behaviour' be thought to reveal what's worth doing?)

Because that is how this particular ‘cause of behavior’ works. A ‘desire that P’ in the brain takes any state of affairs in which P is true and motivates the agent to bring about P. ‘P is worth doing” is simply a piece of language that we have adopted to refer to this phenomena of an agent preferring one end over another.

Yes, we go one step further and we identify the drives towards particular ends as good, neutral, or bad. But we do not need to invent a special property of “worth doingness” to explain this phenomena. We simply need to recognize that certain drives tend to fulfill or thwart other drives, which gives us reason to promote or inhibit those drives. The language of “worth doing” is used to refer to the objects of drives we have reason to promote.

Some people are not going to like this answer. This is substantially because so many people have been raised to value a type of “worth doing” that is independent of all desire. They have a desire for desire-free value. However, in the real world, that desire will never be fulfilled. There is no desire-free value for them to fulfill. However, the fact that many people have been raised not to like this situation does not give them any reason to doubt that it is true. People who have a desire to serve God may be unhappy that no God exists, but this is not proof that God does exist.

Besides, isn’t it the case that ‘motivational beliefs’ if they exist would also just be a mere ‘cause of behavior’ that reveals what is worth doing? Or does ‘worth doingness’ have an existence independent of these beliefs? If so, what is it?

I care about the goals I endorse, not necessary just whatever moves my body. (Fortunately for me, these usually coincide! But again, there's no reason in principle why this must be so.)

I care about the goals that I endorse also. But this only means that I have second-order desires for the first-order desires that I endorse, and/or I have beliefs that the goals that I endorse are such as to fulfill my other desires (which happen to include desires that tend to fulfill the desires of other people, which other people have had reason to instill in me through certain cultural and social tools). There is no reason to believe that ‘caring about goals’ is in some fundamental way a different type of caring.

(3) Begging the question on motivation - you write: "The thesis that ‘normative reasons must always motivate us to act’ turns out, in the real world, to mean that ‘the only normative reasons that exist, when it comes to my actions, are my own desires’."

This is simply to assume what is in question, namely: whether desires/motivation can follow from evaluative beliefs (judgments about what we have normative reason to do), or if desires are only ever an input to practical reasoning, and never an output.

Actually, in an argument such as this, there is no choice but to beg the question. The question concerns how the theory I am proposing would handle certain issues, so the answer must take the form of taking the theory as an assumption and applying it to the issue. If it is true that desires are the only motivating reasons that exist, and the only motivating reasons that I have are the desires that I have, and ‘normative reasons’ must motivate, then those ‘normative reasons’ say that I should fulfill the more and stronger of my own desires.

Some might want to take this as a reduction as absurdum of my position. Yet, the challenge remains for any alternative to this theory to come up with an account of these alternative motivating reasons. A full account must show that there are some observable phenomena that this theory cannot handle that some other theory can handle better. Those observable phenomena cannot legitimately take a form like, “I see the hand of God in a sunset.” Observations like this (e.g., “I see motivational desires behind these actions.”)

(4) Whose reasons? I recall we argued about this last year some time, but "I have no reason to phi" just means "there is no reason for me to phi", which in turn entails that "it is not the case that I ought to phi." So if you have no normative reason to promote truth, then it is (by definition) false that you ought to. Similarly for morality itself.

We need a distinction between ‘reason-for-me to phi’ as opposed to ‘reason for me to phi’. The first interpretation speaks about the desires that I have to phi. The second option speaks to reasons that exist for me to phi – which may not be reasons that I currently have, but are reasons that others have reason to cause me to have.

‘There is no reason-for-me to phi” does not imply ‘There is no reason that others have reason to give me to phi’.

For other people to have reason to manipulate you into phi-ing, is not in any coherent sense the same thing as you having normative reason to phi.

Define ‘normative reasons’ as you please.

If you define ‘normative reasons narrowly’, in the ‘reasons-for-me’ sense, then the set of normative reasons is limited to the set of desires that I have, and is captured under the concept of ‘practical ought’. If you define normative reasons broadly, they include the reasons that others generally have reason to cause me to have, which means that there can be normative reasons that do not motivate me – because others were not successful in creating those reasons.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Reasons as a Related Topic

Miguel Picanco made the comment recently,

Thanks for clearing all that up.. I can't wait for you to move on to a new, unrelated topic!

I have been feeling increasingly anxious about the need to switch to a new topic. After all, I created this blog in part because one of my frequent critics at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board challenged me by saying something like, “That’s all fine in theory, but how does it work in practice?” So, I created the blog to apply theory to practice, while still showing enough theory to give regular readers an idea of the foundation on which my arguments are built.

This has been an excellent opportunity to look at some of the features of that foundation in detail.

Yet, in moving one, I would not be moving on to an “unrelated topic”. Anything I wrote on would be very much related to what I have written in the last few days.

In fact, one of the common views that I am very much opposed to is the idea that moral theory is unrelated to moral practice – that when people start talking about the nature of value they cease to say anything of practical importance.

Perhaps the most important practical implication to draw from this is that, when evaluating arguments for or against a particular policy, arguments that relate the anticipated states of affairs to good desires are the only arguments that are sound.

If you look at an argument, and you see premises that speak about divine reasons, those premises are false, and cannot legitimately support any conclusion about policy. Any premise suggesting that we should support the policy because it will bring about a state that has intrinsic value can also be dismissed. If somebody argues, “There are reasons to support X not based on any desire, but on motivating beliefs that X is worthwhile,” I would argue for rejecting those claims as well, since they are also false.

On the other side, we may hear people argue, “Everything is just a mappter of personal preference, and there is no basis on which we can judge some preferences or desires to be good and others bad.”

This is also false. Yes, it is true that all real value relates states of affairs to desires, but this still allows us to evaluate desires according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. Using the same standard that we use to determine if everything else is good or bad, we can determine whether desires themselves are good or bad. Once we know the quality of different desires, we can make truthful statements about what a person with good desires (desires that people generally have reason to promote) would do.

While the advocates of divine and intrinsic value and motivational beliefs are throwing fictions into the decision-making process, the ‘all desires have equal value’ crowd is ignoring an important part of the real world – the reasons that people have for promoting or inhibiting certain desires.

So, this theory has a great many practical applications when it comes to evaluating policy – particularly in terms of telling us which premises to accept and which to throw away for being false.

Internal vs External Moral Evidence

One widespread practice that I want to argue against is the practice of turning one’s attention inward in order to make a moral evaluation – invitations like, “Let your conscious be your guide,” or “You must do what you feel is right.”

When a person turns his attention inward, this does not give him access to any special sort of moral truth. He is actually turning his attention on his own desires, and basing his moral conclusion entirely on what will fulfill his desires. If he gives any concern at all to the desires of others, it is only because he wants to.

Morality requires turning one’s attention outward, and may result in conclusions that ‘feel’ wrong to the agent because the agent was raised to have a warped sense of value. There is no doubt that interracial marriage ‘feels’ wrong to a racist. When he ‘lets his conscious be his guide’ he will discover conscience telling him to do what he can to put an end to these types of relationships, spreading the word as far and as wide as he can while setting up an environment to discourage these types of relationships. I am confident that Hitler and Stalin both let their conscience be their guide, as do most people who engage in criminal and violent behavior.

God does not exist, so where do the commandments come from that have been attributed to God? Mostly, they came from people who said, “I cannot get people to stop doing something I don’t like just by saying that I don’t like it. They will ask why my desires matter so much. Ah, but if I were to say that God doesn’t like it, and describe what God will do to those who disobey, that should work, if I can get them to believe it.”

The other systems that I criticize here also serve the same function. They are used to give the agent’s desires additional weight – additional (and imaginary) reasons to condemn others or, at least, to protect oneself from condemnation. “These are not my desires, they are God’s desires (as determined by me by cherry-picking an incoherent piece of scripture)” serves this purpose.

“These are not my desires; these are states of affairs having intrinsic power – a special worth-doingness that is built right into their nature,” also functions the same way So does, “These are not my desires that motivate me; they are special motivational beliefs in the worthiness of an object. And, finally, “These are my desires; but I have my desires and you have yours and there is no basis on which my desires can be evaluated as good or bad.”

In fact, none of these people have ever been motivated to act by anything other than their own desires, and nothing about desires makes them immune to evaluation relative to other desires. Desires that people generally have reasons to promote or inhibit are real. But we can’t know what they are by turning our attention inward. We can only learn what they are by turning our attention outword – at what people generally have reason to promote is not something we have any special capacity to learn by looking inside ourselves.

These facts, about which premises that we see in evaluating policies are true and relevant, and which are false or irrelevant, are not an ‘unrelated topic’. They are very much related to every argument about any specific policy. Yet, it is also not productive to spend all of one’s time discussing the foundation, without spending any effort trying to build something on it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

According to Krattenmaker

We have another person, Tom Krattenmaker saying that what I do in this blog is something that atheists have no business doing. In an editorial entitled "Secularists, What Happened to the Open Mind?" in Sunday's USA Today, Krattenmaker wrote of an email exchange with a humanist in which he expressed his view,

. . . expressed my view that religion should leave scientific research to the scientists and devote itself, along with the fields of ethics and philosophy, to the mighty issues of the human condition: good and evil, the meaning of life, the nature of love and so forth.
So, I suppose that Krattenmaker thinks that I should simply close off this blog and go home because, in his view, questions of ethics, good and evil, and the meaning of life are questions that cannot be answered without religion. I, who am without religion, should stick to test tubes and microscopes. The fact is, these religious texts are almost entirely wrong, and they have done just as poor a job getting the moral facts right as they did getting the scientific facts right. Giving the realm of ethics and the meaning of life over to religion is like saying in the realm of science we will live in the 21st century, but in the realm of morality we should go back, even past the dark ages, to the moral system and system of values that created the dark ages. Krattenmaker suggests that a statement like that which I wrote in the above paragraph is somehow contrary to the principles of critical thinking. He endorses the claims of Jacques Berlinerblau:
Berlinerblau suggests that Hitchens and other in-your-face atheist authors are becoming the "soccer hooligans of reasoned public discourse.
There is nothing in critical thinking that, by its very definition, prohibits a person from following the evidence to the conclusion that religious morality and "meaning of life" are the inventions of a group of substantially ignorant, even illiterate tribesmen who knew as little about morality and "the meaning of life" as they did about the structure of the atom or the nature of disease. This is the reasoned conclusion. And while Krattenmaker and Berlinerblau claim to be defending "reasoned public discourse" from "in-your-face atheist authors", they seek to do so by branding those who hold such a few as being like "soccer hooligans." Might I suggest that this is not a "reasoned public" rebuttal to the claim that religious morality and "meaning of life" are built on primative superstitions that have no grounding in the real world. Indeed, we get very little rebuttal of that thesis from those who criticize the "in-your-face atheists." They almost exclusively focus on the tone that their critics take, while ignoring the content. While I have read many editorials like Krattenmaker's on tone, where is the reasoned defense of the proposition that religious morality and "meaning of life" claims are not the primative ideas of the Karl Roves of bronze-age politics? This proposition, that the 'morality' and 'meaning of life' claims found in scripture were the claims of primative tribesmen who knew as little about morality and the meaning of life as they did about substance and disease, is a valid proposition that we could be the focus of reasoned discussion. So, where is the 'reasoned defense' of the view that this claim is false? Where are the arguments that focus on the substance of this proposition, rather than the ad-hominem attacks on those who propose it? Ironically, Krattenmaker states, "It is unfair and just plain wrong to equate secularism with immorality . . ." Yet, he did just that. He said nothing less than that, when it comes to ethics and meaning of life, the atheists should ask a priest how best to answer these questions. Readers of this blog know that I have one significant problem with Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others. They commit the logical fallacy of hasty generalization. They start with evidence that shows "Some X are Y," then make sweeping statements about all Y's based on this evidence. That is something that I do not approve of - either in the realm of reason, or in the realm of morality. I hold that after establishing that "Some X are Y," a person truly devoted to reason and ethics would focus their further comments on "those X that are Y," rather than "all Y". But, you know, this is an ethical judgment coming from an atheist - from somebody who holds that no priest can give him sound moral advice because the priest will ground his moral judgment on an outdated book written by tribesmen who have been dead for between 1200 and 5000 years (when the oral traditions that made it into scripture began). So, what can I possibly know about what demands morality places on people? According to Krattenmaker

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Normative Reasons and Motivation

Today, I want to address ADHR's comments:

It's not incoherent to insist that some x is intrinsically valuable (people should want to pursue or promote x) and yet people may not want to pursue or promote x. The simplest case of this is when people fail to recognize that x is intrinsically valuable; more complex cases may involve some sort of akrasia (weakness of the will).

I think this line of argument would have more punch if you turned it squarely against the internalism, arguing that there's something strange about the idea that normative reasons must motivate us to act.

Taking the first item first.

There is a distinction between two different families of claims that is important here.

There is the question of whether it is coherent to say that X is intrinsically valuable, but A is not motivated to bring about or preserve X. ADHR says that it is coherent, as when X is intrinsically valuable but A is not aware of this value.

I agree with this.

ADHR brings up another example of 'akrasia' or 'weakness of will'. This is when a person realizes that something has intrinsic merit, but is not sufficiently motivated by this intrinsic value to overcome basic desires. For example, an alcoholic may realize the virtue of sobriety but not sufficiently to give up the habit of drinking.

In light of this, ADHR thinks that I should argue that there is something strange about the idea that normative reasons must motivate us to act.

As if I agree with him on this statement.

Which, I do.

Agree with him, that is.

Sort of.

Okay, let's look at the details.

All 'ought' or 'should' statements make some type of reference to reasons for action. To say that something 'ought' or 'should' be done, while asserting that there is no reason for doing it, is more than strange, it is incoherent.

I hold that the only reasons for action that exist are desires.

In recent discussion we have distinguished between drive-desires and value-desires. On this distinction, the only reasons that exist are drive-desires. What passes for 'value desires' is simply the recognition that some drive-desires are more useful than others, when it comes to fulfilling other drive-desires. Thus, our drive-desires give us reason to promote some drive-desires over others, and even reason to inhibit drive-desires that thwart other desires.

So, desires are the only reasons-for-action that exist. People still believe in other types of reasons for action; intrinsic value, divine essence, whatever. People can make sensible 'ought' or 'should' statements by referring to these reasons for action. However, because these reasons for action do not exist, any argument built on these types of reasons for action is built on false premises. Their conclusion might still be true, but it is only accidentally or coincidentally true.

So, if every true normative claim talks about reasons for action, then does it not follow that normative reasons must motivate us to act? What sense does it make to say that I have a reason for action that I can sensibly ignore and refuse to act on – or refuse to consider, even if my considerations are outweighed by even stronger reasons not to act.

Because . . .

Okay, desires are the only reasons for action that exist. However, the only desires that motivate my actions are my desires. If you want to motivate me to act, then you need to show me how a state of affairs relates to my desires. Telling me how a state of affairs relates to desires that are not mine – to my neighbor’s desires, for example – will motivate me to act only insofar that I am motivated to see my neighbor’s desires fulfilled. That is to say, I must have a desire that my neighbor’s desires are fulfilled, or at least a desire that is fulfilled by a state in which my neighbor’s desires are fulfilled. If this is not the case, then I have no reason to act.

If, as it turns out, I hate my neighbor, then your news that X will fulfill my neighbor’s desires might motivate me to act so as to make X impossible. This way, I can thwart my neighbor’s desires (which I may well have motivation to do based on my own desires).

The thesis that ‘normative reasons must always motivate us to act’ turns out, in the real world, to mean that ‘the only normative reasons that exist, when it comes to my actions, are my own desires’.

I have argued earlier that my actions are only truly mine if they come from my desires. If Tim over there, with his remote control, is able to move my body, rather than me, then the fact that the actions are proximately connected to his desires and not mine means that the actions being performed are his actions and not mine. If he should direct this body to kill his ex-girlfriend, he would be the one guilty of murder, but not me. He might be able to engineer that I be convicted of that murder, but I (meaning this bundle of desires that I have) am not morally responsible for that murder. He is – because his desires were proximately at the helm of those actions.

So, if normative reasons must motivate us to act, then the only normative reasons that exist for or against my actions are my desires – in precisely the strength that I desire them. Other people’s desires are relevant only insofar as other people serve as a means to the fulfillment of my own desires.

Objectively, relationships between states of affairs and desires that are not mine are just as real as relationships between states of affairs and desires that are mine. Not only are they real, but they are important. We have a lot of very good reasons to talk about and to think about relationships between states of affairs and desires that are not our own.

These desires that exist that are not my desires are still reasons for action, even if they are not reasons for my action. They still motivate people to act in different ways, even though they do not motivate me to act in those ways. They are reasons that people can talk about that are not their own and may not motivate them, but reasons that are real and that a rational person would be unwise to ignore.

As it turns out, other people’s desires are reasons for action for me in a sense in that it is reasons for action for them to do things that affect me. So, if people generally have a reason for action to promote X, then they have a reason for action to change my desires, or to create an environment where I can best fulfill my desires by also promoting X. It means that they have reason to thwart my desires if my desires would get in the way of promoting X. All of these relationships connect the reasons for actions of others with my reasons for action. However, none of them, by their mere existence, necessarily motivate me in any way.

Why would we have invented a language where people were only allowed to talk about relationships between states of affairs and their own desires, but not allowed to talk about relationships between states of affairs and desires not their own? If we are permitted to talk about relationships between states of affairs and desires not our own, what language would we use to do this?

Normative language discusses all reasons for action; mine, yours, ours, theirs, even reasons for action that do not exist. Or, if it isn’t, then we are in desperate need to make some significant adjustments to our language.

Specifically, I argue that moral claims have to do with what reasons for action people generally have reasons to act so as to promote and inhibit. If you were to tell me that ‘people generally have reason to act so as to promote a love of truth,’ this does not imply that I have a reason to act so as to promote love of truth (though, as a part of ‘people generally’, it is more likely that I also have reason to promote a love of truth than that I do not).