Monday, December 31, 2007

Conspiracies, Ghosts, and Videotape

Bhutto Conspiracy Theories

Some aspects of the human race completely frustrate me. Now that Bhutto has been assassinated, one of humanities more frustrating and obnoxious habits will exhibit itself, the habit of drawing up conspiracies about her death.

This morning, I woke up to read that a new video had been discovered that cast doubts on the official story of what caused Bhutto’s death. The official story is that the gunman did no harm – that she was killed when the concussion from the blast wave bashed her head against a part of the car she was riding in. However, as the video shows, he hair flew up when she was being shot at.

So, this casts doubt on the official story of how she died. According to the news broadcast, the video is fueling claims that there was a cover-up, and that the Pakistani government is being deliberately deceptive as to the cause of death.

I don’t understand the argument.

One question that can be raised is whether the video does, in fact, show that Bhutto was shot rather than killed as a result of the explosion. However, that is not the question that concerns me. The question that concerns me is: Why does it matter?

It may matter to the family and to historians. However, as far as proving some sort of conspiracy to hide the facts, I do not see any facts in this dispute worthy of being hidden.

If the government concocted a lie about something that (1) did not matter, and (2) could easily be shown to be false as video of the assassination emerged (and it is stupid to think that there would be no video), then they re not clever conspirators. They are insane.

All of this is in addition to the fact that the frames relating to the assassination do not show anything clearly. The fuzzy images are an invitation for people to invent whatever stories they like.

Skilled liars know to tell the truth as much as possible (because the truth is easier to defend and is more likely to be verified than falsified), and to lie only when necessary.

My point is that it is stupid to have debates over what individuals see in a blurry piece of video. The bad (is in, obnoxious) thing about these videos is that people can find whatever they want to find in the blurry elements at the edge of resolution.

It’s like the video of the blue ghost seen through the security camera at a gas station. People are in the habit of ignoring what is obvious and dreaming up outlandish interpretations, and saying, “See, it is right there! Right before your eyes.”

Sorry, no. You are forcing an interpretation on what you see, ignoring the obvious things that do not fit with what you want to believe about what you are seeing, and making things up about what you do see.

The moral element is the fact that the culture panders to this form of sophistry. The story of the blue ghost should never have been broadcast. Or, if it was broadcast, the broadcasters should have given an honest account of the story. “At a gas station in downtown wherever, the obviously bored ignoramuses at the place are entertaining themselves by ‘interpreting’ the blurry image of a bug on their surveillance camera lens is actually a ghost. In other news, the local television station has decided to pander to this nonsense by suggesting that there might even be a ghost.”

These types of stories encourage other people to go out and engage in the same obnoxious behavior – in the hopes that they, too, can get their fifteen minutes of fame.

What happened to the responsible news director who says, “It’s a bug on the lens. It’s not a story. Go cover something important. Or, if you want to cover this, then make it a story about a group of bored people seeking excitement by deluding themselves about an image that shows up on their video tape.

It’s just harmless fun, right? Why are you so much against people having harmless fun?

It is because the same habits feed into these conspiracy theories. They create a culture in which people not only see what they want to see in surveillance video at a local convenience store, but video of the 9/11 attacks, the Kennedy assassination, and the Bhutto assassination. They are used to misdirect people’s attention away from the people who are actually guilty of an atrocity (allowing them to escape some of the wrath that is actually due them), and onto the innocent that the conspiracy theorists want to see harmed but have no real evidence against.

They allow the less savory forces with access to the media to deceive and manipulate the masses to better fulfill their own political agenda.

Some conspiracy theory seems to be symptoms of mental illness – paranoid delusions experienced by people prone to paranoid delusions. We are wise to recognize that these types of people exist. It is unfortunate, and we should help the scientific community to find ways of curing and treating these types of breaks from reality. We should not be setting them up as model citizens whose way of living (and ways of thinking) provide a model for the rest of us.

Seriously, the morally responsible version of the ghost at the gas station story – if it was to be covered at all – should have been, “Here are some people who are entertaining themselves by saying that this is a ghost, and here is what probably happened.” The morally responsible version of the Bhutto video story should be, “Here is some video of the story and, as is usual, conspiracy theorists will pour over it, reading into the video what they want to see rather than paying attention to what the video actually shows.”

One possible response to this would be, “Where is the fun in this? You people who only look at reason and what makes sense miss out on so much wonderful stuff, and you are ruining things for the rest of us who like the idea of a ghost at the gas station.”

I suppose there are others who like the idea of a 9/11 or Bhutto assassination conspiracy as well. But what reason is there for saying that understanding the real world is an inferior substitute to living a life where one’s thinking is muddied and muddled by deception and sophistry?

The people who “take the fun out of things” by discovering the truth are not people who find enjoyment in ruining other people’s fun. There are people who actually think that it is fun to know the truth of things. People like this give up nothing when they discover the truth of some state of some state of affairs. They find their value in truth. When they embrace some conclusion, they are not embracing some fiction or myth that has no relation to the real world. They are embracing something that’s real.

The people who claim that realists ‘take the fun out of things’ are people who have been taught to have fun in deception and myth. To some extent, this is not a bad thing. I enjoy my share of fiction – in television shows and movies and online computer games. However, a key element for this type of entertainment comes from recognizing the difference between fact and fiction. It is essential that those who are entertained by works of fiction not get confused and let these fictions impede on the decisions they have to make in the real world.

People who find their entertainment in malicious deception and self-delusion are people who ignore this distinction between fantasy and reality. As such, the enjoyment that they find in fantasy ends up having an effect on the real world – an effect that we can generally trust to be harmful. Even if a particular instance of self-delusion proves to have no great bad consequences, it still contributes to a culture of malicious deception and self-delusion where these traits are embraced even when lives are at stake.

That, in turn, leaves the world worse than it would otherwise be.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Defending Real World Harms for Imaginary Reasons

The “The Friendly Atheist,” contains a post today that presents the atheist writers of Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hutchins as militant and ignorant opponents of Christianity.

The video follows the pattern of refusing to even consider the substance of the objections that these authors have raised, and instead condemns them on the basis of their tone. The charge of ignorance is supported, not by identifying errors that these four writers may have made, but by using the example of an airplane passenger who has not read certain Christian apologetics.

In all of this, the main point is entirely ignored. That point is:

They are killing people you ignorant self-absorbed little creeps. They are destroying lives. Take a look at that fact before you come to me with your condescending tripe.

Oh, but that does not matter. That is not worth talking about. When we compare the moral crime of speaking in an irreverent tone to religious authority, to the crime of killing people and destroying lives, well, clearly the first is the greater moral crime, according to these defenders of religion.

I have spoken repeatedly against hasty generalization, and that it is wrong to say that any part of the religious community is guilty of a moral crime that they have not actually committed. So, my point above is not directed against all of religion. It is directed against those theists who, in the name of God, are engaged in promoting policies and institutions that lower the quality of life for a great many people and end the life of others, for make-believe reasons.

We are talking about justification for acts of violence committed against others – for lies and sophistry in defense of policies whose ultimate effect is to collect power into the hands of the ignorant and dishonest while making others worse off.

Again, the greatest weapon of mass destruction is neither nuclear, nor biological, nor chemical. It is legislative. And this is a violent weapon – a weapon that is designed to force people into a situation where they must choose an option that they would not otherwise choose or suffer real, physical, violence. These members of the religious community wield the legislative weapon of mass destruction in this country with increasingly less restraint as they have taken control of legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

Yet, these people insist that when it comes to doing real-world harm to real-world people, that those who are made to suffer these harms have no right or reason to get upset or to raise their voice or to be angry at those who do them harm – or those who do harm to others in their family, or their neighbors.

Let’s imagine a father who is being restrained while somebody slowly sticks a knife into his daughter. We can imagine this father losing his temper and leveling a string of verbal assaults on this assailant that would make a sailor blush. And, yet, the people who produced this video ignore all of that and condemn the father for being intemperate in his remarks to the assailant. They do not even examine the question of the person sticking the knife into the man’s daughter . . . that question is not important. Whatever the truth or falsity of that claim is, the father is not permitted to engage in intemperate speech against the assailant. That, absolutely, must not be allowed.

In the video, Ravi Zacharias is shown saying,

This comes on the heals of tolerance – how we need to learn to live and let live. And now the animosity of Hitchins and Dennett and Dawkins and Harris is unbelievable.

Tell the father, in the case above, that his intolerance of those who are taking action to harm his daughter is ‘unbelievable’ – that he needs to ‘live and let live’.

The doctrine of tolerance can never consistently be extended to the intolerant. Yet, in this case, the paradigm of intolerance is demanding tolerance from others. Of course, those who participated in this video deny the father’s assumption that the assailant is doing anything wrong in stabbing the daughter. However, this is exactly what makes their behavior so morally outrageous. The authors that this video is attempting to answer are people who have laid out their case for believing, “Those religious elements are doing real-world harm to real-world people.” That is what the four books were all about. Yet, the video, and much of what has been written in response to those books, completely ignore this charge.

Listening to this video is like listening to a rape trail. The prosecutor has laid out the evidence against the accused. Then, the defense attorney gets up and whines, “Listen to all of the mean things that those people have said about my client. It is wrong to say mean things about other people. They should be ashamed. When you cast your verdict on whether my client is guilty or not, do not look at the evidence that the prosecutors presented against my client. Look only at the fact that what they are implying is mean, and from that alone decide that my client is not guilty.”

It is an absurd argument.

The worst part of the video is the response that takes the form of a “straw man by proxy.” In order to defeat Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hutchins, the video showed John Turner, the President of Faith 2.0 ministries telling a story of encountering an atheist first-year philosophy professor on an airplane. Over the course of the conversation, it was discovered that there was a certain amount of asymmetry between the educations of the two speakers. Turner, apparently, had read some of the atheist writings. However, this fellow passenger had not read any of the Christian apologetics. Later, as Turner tells the story, the atheist expressed shame over not being familiar with these Christian writings and yet dismissing Christianity.

This story provides us with yet another example of how these people run on the twin vices of sophistry and hypocrisy. Would it not be possible for Turner to ask, “Let’s assume that I was listening to Dawkins tell a similar story, of meeting a theist on a plane – a theology who had read some of the theist literature but had read nothing from people who argue against the existence of God. Imagine this being a story where the theology graduate expressed shame over not reading criticisms of the view he held. What would my reaction be?”

My guess is that his reaction would be that Dawkins was using sophistry to make a point that his evidence does not support. And while Turner would be able to recognize and willing to criticize this failing when he sees it in the hands of his critics, he allows himself to engage in exactly the same sort of behavior, apparently without the least bit of moral hesitation. Apparently, he did not even care to live up to the moral responsibility of asking this question. He uses the argument anyway, not even caring about the fact that it is pure manipulative sophistry.

To make matters worse, it is sophistry offered up in defense of actions that kill people and destroy lives.

Of all the times when people should take care not to use sophistry in defense of a position, it is when the question under discussion concerns the taking and destroying of lives.

But wait. There’s more. This video introduces this argument with the text,

Not only is the new atheism intolerant and militant, but many say it hasn’t even bothered to do its homework.

It does this while the camera pans a shelf containing the writings of the four main atheist authors.

In this way, it seeks to use this story of the airplane passenger to manipulate the audience into thinking that the four authors in question have not done their homework. This is blatantly, intellectually dishonest. This is a moral failing on the part of those who produced this video that they cannot even honestly represent the case in question.

In engaging in this manipulative deception, these people are helping to promote a culture of manipulative deception. Whenever these “models of Christian virtue” tell the world that deception is a legitimate form of persuasion, they help to institute deception as a form of persuasion in the community. This, from a group of people who claim to hold that ‘bearing false witness’ is a sin – people who bear false witness as casually as they get dressed in the morning.

Finally, the fallacy behind Turner’s appeal to these theist writers has already been mentioned. Is it the case that a person needs to read every piece of work ever written in defense of slavery to condemn slavery? Must an individual have an intimate understanding of the details of arguments used to defend Sharia law to condemn Sharia law? Let’s turn to the other passengers on the airplane and ask them for a show of hands. “How many of you are totally familiar with the economic literature detailing the defense of the divine right of kings.”

One argument that you will never read here unless I grow completely senile is to tell somebody who raises an objection to my claim, "Have you read everything ever written on the subject of utilitarianism? If you have not, then your objections are meaningless, and utilitarianism still stands." Doing so is intellectually irresponsible - and intellectual irresponsibility is a moral failure. The only legitimate response to any objection to the theories I defend is to answer the objection

It is quite reasonable to say, “This author presented an argument that does as follows,” present the argument, and then ask the other individual how he responds to that argument. Yet, Turner does not do this. He mentions these authors and claims that they have these sophisticated rational arguments in defense of Christianity. However, he never tells us what even one of those arguments are.

If there is an author with a sophisticated, rational defense of Christianity, what is the argument? If you can’t present the argument, then forgive me for thinking that the argument is as fictitious as the God you worship.

This is pure sophistry and manipulation in defense of the use of a weapon of mass destruction (legislation) to destroy human lives. Yet, those who produced this propaganda, in all likelihood, and in spite of their claim that their religion gives them special access to moral virtue, are almost certainly acting without the least bit of moral shame.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

E2.0: Donald Rutherford: Other Worldly Happiness

This is the fifth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Donald Rutherford from the Philosophy Department at the University of California San Diego, was the fourth speaker at the Beyond Belief 2 conference. His speech had two major concerns.

His primary concern was to distinguish between this-worlders and other-worlders when it comes to happiness. According to Rutherford, all humans seek their own happiness. However, people can be divided up into two groups. One group holds that this world is all there is and we must find our happiness in this world. The other group finds their happiness in another world – a life after death and in values that come from an other-worldly source.

The question that concerns me here is our understanding of the end and value of human life, especially the human life that is mine on the basis of what do I find or fail to find my life to be a thing of value that I am motivated to pursue with energy and commitment. Where, in other words, do I locate my happiness?

I am immediately going to have objections with Rutherford’s use of ‘happiness’ – and especially the happiness that a person might find in “the human life that is mine” as being the ultimate holder of value. I have raised those objections in a number of places, such as the post, “Happiness vs. Desire Fulfillment.”

In that post I say that we judge a theory according to how well it explains and predicts real-world events, and happiness theory fails to explain and predict the answers that people give to questions regarding, “The experience machine.” That thought explains that we value things other than our own happiness.

The experience machine case describes a situation in which people claim that they would readily sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of another person. Happiness theory fails to account for this phenomenon. Desire fulfillment theory explains these cases quite well – the agent is acting so as to make or keep true a proposition that is the object of a desire other than the desire “that I be happy.”

In a separate post, “The Incommensurability of Value,” I argued that the phenomena of value – particularly the phenomena of regret for options we cannot choose – points to the conclusion that we have multiple ends. If we pursued only one end (e.g., happiness), then we would have no reason to regret giving up less of that single end for more of the same. However, when we are forced to give up some ends to focus on gaining others, we do, in fact, regret that which we must give up. This suggests that what we pursue in their stead is not ‘more of the same’. We can then explain regret as the psychological effect of having a desire that A be thwarted by an agent’s attempts to fulfill a desire that B.

In short, happiness fails to explain and predict the components of the phenomena of value as well as desire fulfillment theory. Which means that desire fulfillment theory is the better theory.

Now, we can take desire fulfillment theory and plug it back into Rutherford’s original concern.

The question that concerns me here is our understanding of the end and value of human life, especially the human life that is mine on the basis of what do I find or fail to find my life to be a thing of value that I am motivated to pursue with energy and commitment. Where, in other words, do I locate that which I desire?

Here, the divide between people who find value for their life in this world and people who find value for their life in other worlds is a difference between the propositions that are the objects of their desires. This-worldly people are people who desire that P where P is capable of being made true in this world. Other-worldly people are people who desire that P where P requires a world other than this world in order to be true.

It is a difference, for example, between a “desire that I discover facts that turn out to be crucial to discovering a cure for AIDS,” and “a desire that I talk one last time to Aunt Emma who died last June.”

Where do other-worldly desires come from? Where do we get a “desire that P” where P is a proposition that necessarily links to an outside world?

It would be strange to argue that this evolved. Evolved desires – like our preference for high-calorie food, aversion to pain, desire for sex – are all “this-world” desires. How can an “other-world” desire serve any kind of evolutionary purpose – when it is a desire that cannot be fulfilled in the real world?

A “desire that P” where P is some other-worldly state of affairs can actually motivate action when it comes with a false “belief that P” (or belief that A can bring about P). A desire to speak to Aunt Emma can motivate action if an agent can also be made to believe that a series of actions will bring about a state in which the agent is talking to Aunt Emma. However, compare this “desire to speak to the dead” and “beliefs that certain actions will lead to a state in which one is speaking to the dead” to a standard evolved desire like hunger, thirst, and a desire for sex.

It seems less likely that these desires for other-worldly states of affairs and false beliefs that those other-worldly states of affairs can be realized would have evolved, where a desire for a real-world state of affairs can motivate the same action much more easily. We do not need a set of false beliefs and misdirected desires to have sex, for example.

Still, Rutherford brings up an interesting statistic. In ancient times, the Epicureans had a philosophy that doubted the existence of gods (or, if the gods existed, then they would have no interest in petty human affairs), and asserted that everything was made up of atoms moving through space. At the time, they doubted that they would ever be able to convince more than a small fraction of their countrymen to adopt this theory. Instead, the people would cling stubbornly to their gods.

Over 2000 years later, these arguments have still not persuaded more than a small segment of the population. The advocates of an enlightened way of thinking seem to be making no progress over time when it comes to convincing people to give up myth and superstition.

If the vast majority of the people must believe in myth and superstition, then there is still an argument for leading them into adopting the least harmful myth and superstition available. I would recommend getting people to believe in a God that created a universe in which the propositions that make up desire utilitarianism are true.

Yet it seems strange to argue that we must believe in a religion. Many of us do not believe in any set of religious beliefs. In some parts of the world, the percentage of the population that has given up on mythical mystical entities is quite small, suggesting that among some populations do not have the addiction to false beliefs that this theory responds to.

More importantly, there is nothing unique or special about religious beliefs that could explain why the brain acquired a disposition to lock onto those false beliefs as opposed to true beliefs.

The thesis that we have a compulsion to adopt false (Other-worldly) events needs some work to be done to show that this phenomenon actually exists in the real world.

Friday, December 28, 2007

E2.0: Discussion 1: Necessary False Beliefs

This is the forth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

After Edward Slingerland's presentation, which I wrote about last week, , the host of the Beyond Belief 2 conference, Roger Bingham, opened the session up to comments from the audience.

Those comments basically contained two responses to Slingerland's thesis.

Slingerland: Doing Harm for Make-Believe Reasons

Slingerland had argued that all philosophies, including Enightenment, must postulate entities (sacred values) that do not exist, but which we must pretend to believe in.

These 'sacred values' are the reasons we give for doing harm to others. When we do violence to others we are compelled, somehow, to seek justification. We find this justification in metaphysical entities such as human rights. These entities are not real, but we are irresistibly drawn to drawing on these fictions to justify the harms we do to others.

To take on the Enlightenment 2.0 stance requires a kind of dual consciousness. It requires a recognition that the values and the cherished entities that populate our world are not real. . . . We also have to recognize though . . . that we can't help continuing to feel that they are real.

These values and cherished entities - these reasons for killing and doing harm to others - are not real. Yet, we cannot help but believe that they are real, and we cannot help but to kill and otherwise harm others based on that feeling.

To Slingerland, this is all okay. This is a sign of psychological health. To Slingerland, the person who is not killing and otherwise harming others on the basis of entities that we are disposed to make up is psychologically unhealthy.

In the comments that followed, members of the audience offered two types of responses to Slingerland's thesis.

Lee Silver: Doing Harm for Genetic Reasons

One of the two sets of responses to Slingerland’s thesis is one of my favorite dead horses – the claim that moral sentiments have a genetic explanation. Unfortunately, even though I keep beating this dead horse, a lot of people talk as if it is still very much alive.

Lee Silver commented in response to Slingerland:

Human rights in my mind, part of it is natural human instincts. We, as a species, have instincts that are expressed to a greater or lesser degree by different people and evolved attitudes that lead to human rights at some level . . . There is probably this instinctual basis for these feelings that we have so we don’t have to go all transcendental. You can inside, into our genes, . . .

The last time I beat this dead horse I described the activity in my post, “The Genetic Morality Delusion.”

Briefly, evolution can explain such things as our desire for sex, high-calorie food, our aversion to pain, thirst, hunger, preferences for certain atmospheric temperature, and the like. These are our likes and dislikes, or what Slingerland called our Type 1 evaluations.

However, there are a lot of problems with trying to explain moral evaluations this way. As Slingerland said, these values are inherently intolerant – they are values that we seek to impose on others, by force if necessary. We appeal to them to justify doing real harm to real people.

What does it mean to say that A deserves to suffer? If there is a genetic morality, this merely means, “I am genetically disposed to wish to cause you to suffer and claim that I am justified in doing so.” If this proposition is true then, according to the hypothesis of a genetic morality, you deserve to suffer.

For example, what does it mean to say that homosexuals should be killed? Under the hypothesis of a genetic morality, this means that if people are genetically disposed to view homosexuality as immoral and to feel justified in killing homosexuals, then homosexuals deserve to die. These genetic factors do not merely explain the deaths of homosexuals among such creatures. It further claims that the homosexuals deserved their fate – that they deserve all of the condemnation and disgust that the rest of the community is genetically disposed to inflict on them.

This is, at best, a bizarre conclusion. It is even more bizarre in light of the fact that this type of genetic disposition seems completely pointless. A simple desire to engage in a particular activity is sufficient. It serves the evolutionary purpose without all of the excess baggage.

To see this point, consider the evolution of lions. Lions can either evolve a disposition to kill and eat antelope. Or it could evolve a disposition to view antelopes as entities that deserve to be killed and eaten. The first requires simply the evolution of a desire. The second requires a complex set of mental states involving moral judgments and moral emotions. What reason would nature have to go to all the work of generating all of the complexity of the second set of operations, when the far simpler first set works just as well.

We can look at the same issue from the antelope’s point of view. Evolution can either give the antelope an aversion to lions – a desire to run away from anything that suggests the presence of lions. Or evolution can give the antelope an aversion to being killed and eaten and the capacity to recognize that lions have a tendency to kill and eat antelope. It is far simpler for evolution to simply teach the antelope to run from lions. It does not need to develop all of this extra baggage.

Ultimately, Slingerland can take Silver’s evolution claims and plug them directly into his thesis. Slingerland merely argues that we have a these desires to do harm to others, to feel a need that they are to be justified by appeal to some sort of metaphysical entity, and to make up the metaphysical entities that we use to justify the harm. Slingerland’s thesis is perfectly compatible with the idea that we evolved the disposition to view the world in this way. We evolved a disposition to harm certain people, a need to see our harmful behavior as justified, and a tendency to make up those justifications.

So, Silver does not offer a solution that solves the question of morality or one that provides any objection to Slingerland’s proposal.

Finally, Silver did include that culture plays a role. Culture plays a role in what we believe; however, what role does culture play in what we should believe (or what is true) about morality. Inquisitors, slave owners, conquistadors, crusaders, jihadists, and concentration camp guards were all the products, in part, of their culture. So, it is difficult to make the case that even though culture shapes our moral beliefs, that the moral beliefs that one acquires as a result of their culture are immune from criticism.

Patricia and Paul Churchland: Doing Harm for Practical Reasons

Patricia and Paul Chuchland offered an alternative answer to Sliverland’s make-believe reasons for doing harm. They claimed that these reasons are not make-believe at all. They are practical reasons. Patricia said:

I think that human rights, to the degree that that can be given a concrete description, is something that works pretty well in a sheerly pragmatic way. . . . Human rights matter to me because by and large if you have a system that works according to those principles you do better than if you have a tyrant.

Paul added:

If you think of human history . . . over 10,000 years, you are looking at a series of experiments on how best to organize human affairs . . . and over that period we have had a fair amount of wisdom emerge about how things are best organized. If one wants to take an objectivist view of the ground of morality, it is better to look at human history and what it teaches us over long periods of time than to made-up metaphysical things.

Slingerland can respond to these practical considerations in two ways.

First, Slingerland is free to argue that these appeals to make-believe reasons for doing harm are practical. In order to have the best society where humans can thrive, we need humans who are disposed to look for these metaphysical reasons to justify doing harm to others. Without them, society would fall apart.

Second, if morality has value as a means to some end, then Slingerland is still free to ask about the value of those ends. A hammer has value because it is useful for building a house – but where does the house get its value? Following Aristotle, every chain of value has an end – something that gives its value to all of the means that are useful for bringing it about. Patricia and Paul’s ‘practical morality’ says nothing about how these ends get their value. He is free to assert that the value of ends is this make-believe value that he was talking about.

Either way, the practical morality hypothesis does not give us any reason to abandon Slingerland’s thesis. He is still free to say that we are creatures that assign make-believe value to ends and who appeal to these make-believe entities to justify the harms that we find ourselves wanting to do to others.

Daniel Dennett: Doing Harm for A Combination of Reasons

Daniel Dennett offered a modification to Silver’s proposal that combines these two responses. Dennett agreed that we have some genetic dispositions, but added that we have the capacity to learn about them and correct them – that they can be mistaken.

He used the example of myopia to explain his claim.

Myopia is a . . . we’re stuck with it. No we’re not, we can wear eyeglasses. One of the things we have with human culture . . . is to recognize the shortcomings and defects in our evolved nature and then find corrections.

I have already agreed that we have desires, that those desires have undergone a fair amount of evolutionary pressure, and that desires reflect what Slingerland called Type 1 values.

However, our Type 1 values – our desires – are not fixed. They are malleable. This means that there is room for us to ask as to which changes we should make in our evolved nature. Our Type 1 values (desires) give us reason to make modifications in our other Type 1 values (desires). We do not have to go into strange metaphysics. We can evaluate our Type 1 values according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires (Type 1 values).

Using this method, we can determine how best to correct our Type 1 desires. Using this method, we can decide on the best prescription for what Dennett called the “eyeglasses of the soul” that correct our evolved natures for the better.


All things considered, we can keep Slingerland’s distinction between two different types of value. Type 1 evaluations ask about relationships between objects of evaluation and the desires that we have. Those desires, in turn, have been influenced through years of evolution so that they tend to pick out states of affairs that bring about our own genetic replication.

However, the desires that make up our Type 1 evaluations are malleable. This gives us an opportunity to make Type 2 evaluations. How do our Type 1 evaluations stand in relation to each other? To what degree do we have reason to promote or strengthen some desires and to inhibit others? From this, we can ask questions about how objects of evaluation stand in relation to desires we should have - the desires we have reason to promote and to discourage.

On this model, we do not need strange metaphysical entities. We do all of the work postulating only Type 1 evaluations – desires – some of which are malleable – and some of which we have reason to promote and inhibit in virtue of their relationships to other type 1 values.

Justifying the harm we do to others by appeal to things that we simply make up may well be common. However, that does not make it right. We can only provide real justification for our actions – particularly our decision to act in ways that are harmful to others – by appealing to reasons for action that are real. Of these, we need to appeal to not to the reasons for action that we have, but the reasons for action that we should have. We can make perfectly good sense of ‘reasons for action that we should have’ without entering Slingerland’s realm of make-believe.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Does Religion Make One a Better Ruler?

I missed an opportunity to take part in a BBC broadcast yesterday regarding the question, “. . . whether religion helps make better politicians.”

My answer to that question would have been generally no, it does not.

Put quite simply, religions are collections of false beliefs, and false beliefs generally provide a poor foundation for policy. We see this in the mundane cases of false beliefs about who performed a particular crime, false beliefs about the safety of certain medications, and false beliefs about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

These problems are even more severe when we are talking about two different religions having false beliefs about who God gave a particular strip of land to, beliefs that we can control the course of hurricanes and thwart terrorist attacks by sacrificing the interests of homosexuals, and beliefs that the end of the world is near so we do not need to worry about the long-term consequences of our actions.

Having said this, it is also the case that religions are not the only false beliefs that exist. Consequently, the fact that a person is not religious does not imply that he will automatically be a better leader. That depends (in part) on the quality of his non-religious false beliefs.

In other words, religion makes an individual a worse leader – but non-religious faults can make an individual an even worse leader, leaving the religious individual as the least of all possible evils.

There is also the question of religion on a person’s moral character. Even where religion gives a person false beliefs, is it the case (for example) that fear of punishment in an afterlife will make it more likely that the leader will be moral?

There are several problems with this option.

The first is that, if you are going to threaten a person into doing the right thing, then you need to make sure that what you are threatening him into doing is indeed the right thing. Biblical scriptures were written centuries ago by primitive tribesmen whose access to moral truth was no better than their access to scientific truth. Many of their moral beliefs were simply mistaken. When moral mistakes are then attributed to God, and people are told that they must obey God or face eternal damnation, then those people are being given an incentive to do evil, not good.

A moral commandment to kill anybody who works on the Sabbath, or anybody who denies the existence of God, or anybody who has sex with somebody of the same gender, is a commandment to do evil to another human being. In these cases, using the fear of eternal damnation in order to motivate individuals to enforce God’s law is not a way of motivating them to do good that atheists are inclined to ignore. It is a way of motivating them to do evil that atheists are inclined to ignore. In these cases, the belief that there is no divine punishment is a good thing.

The second problem with this method is its disregard for truth. Philosophers call this type of system a ‘noble lie’ – a falsehood that is made a part of the popular culture in the hopes that those who believe the myth will be better people as a result.

There is an intrinsic conflict between telling people that they need to adopt a belief, not because it is true, but because it is convenient, and creating a culture in which people prize and seek truth. A culture that lives a ‘noble lie’ cannot value truth. A culture that values truth cannot stomach a ‘noble lie’.

Above, I described all of the problems with false beliefs. Because false beliefs cause so many problems, we have good reason to promote in people a love of true belief. This includes a love of learning and of knowledge, a love of intellectual responsibility, and an aversion to deceit. None of these virtues are easily practiced in a society that embraces a ‘noble lie’. The noble lie is quite incompatible with learning and knowledge because it tells people that there is an area of learning that they must not investigate. It uses intellectually irresponsible forms of reasoning to persuade people of the lie and encourages them to embrace this suspect behavior. It teaches that truth has value only when it is useful – and when a fiction is useful, then it is better than truth.

Of course, religious people will deny that their beliefs are false. They would assert that my objections above all beg the question – beg the question of the truth of religious claims. However, the question that I was asked was whether religion makes a person a better leader. Of course it is true that people who have different opinions about the truth of religious claims will give different answers to that question. However, my answer to that question comes from the perspective of somebody who holds that religious beliefs are false. In this case, religion makes an individual a worse ruler, but not necessarily worse than an atheist ruler who has different (and worse) false beliefs.

The idea that not all beliefs are equally bad is important here. I may believe, for example, that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a predator, when it was in fact a scavenger. However, my false belief has almost no relevance to the real world. It is not likely to be the case that any living person will be made to suffer as a result of my false belief about the nature of T-Rex.

On the other hand, a false belief that a particular button in a nuclear power plant is safe to push could do a great deal of damage. It is a far worse belief. It is so bad, in fact, that I may well be obligated to assume that no button in a nuclear power plant is safe to push unless I have been informed otherwise by a trained expert.

Where religion gives a group of people a false belief that they will be rewarded in the afterlife if they spend this life tending to the starving, sick, injured, and homeless, this false belief is not all that bad. We still have to deal with the fact that the agent needs more reliable tools for distinguishing true beliefs from false. However, that is a minor problem made up for with the good deeds that he has done.

On the other hand, where religion gives people a belief that they may or must act in ways that are destructive of the life of millions of other people, this belief is much worse.

We can tolerate the first belief in the grounds that, given that we do not have the resources to challenge every mistake, we must focus our attention on the worst beliefs. On this metric, beliefs that are relatively harmless are set aside while we focus on fighting beliefs that prompt people to act in ways harmful to others.

There are some religions that are worse than others. There are some religions that we need to take steps to exterminate because their religion tells their members to engage in behavior harmful to others – to kill others, to block the access that others need to life-saving medical care, to pose limits on the freedoms of others that deprive others of a quality life. These religions add to misery and suffering on a grand scale. No leader who is a member of any of these religions is made a better leader as a result. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

The best we can hope for is a religion that does a minimal amount of harm.

Yet, as I said at the beginning, and I want to repeat here, religion is not the only source of error and can, on occasion, consist of a set of false beliefs that do far less harm that the available non-religious alternatives.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Religion, Atheism, and the Reason for Good Deeds

A couple of days ago I asked about the appropriateness of religious symbols in public buildings.

I used the example of the ancient Roman goddess Justitia. She is represented in public buildings and on public documents as a blindfolded woman holding scales and asword. Her image stands without protest because her image has come to symbolize a value – justice – that is worthy of a position in public buildings.

If Jesus were to occupy such a role, then what value would Jesus symbolize?

I suggested kindness and charity to those who lack food, clothing, shelter, or medical care as a potential value. However, I also protested that the followers of Jesus seem more interested in using this symbol to promote willful ignorance in the face of all evidence, bigotries and hatreds having no better foundation than that bigots alive thousands of years ago attributed their own bigotry to God, or malicious deception for the sake of political power.

When people use the image of Jesus, we seem to see these latter three ‘values’ more often than not. And when we protest these ‘values’ – when we claim that they are not fit values for any individual let alone any government, we hear the protest, “But look at all of the good religion has done!”

Consider this:

Consider a person who runs into a burning house and pulls a family out through the flames, saving them from an ugly death. He then goes back to his business where he sells “miracle cure” snake oil to the ill, promotes willful ignorance of its harmful effects, and uses malicious distortions and lies against anybody who questions the value of his product. When others complain about what he is doing, he protests, “But I saved that family from the burning building!”

In fact, our snake-oil salesmen not only sells snake oil on the side. He immediately takes out advertisements claiming that his snake oil gave him the courage and moral character necessary to run into a building and save the family. In other words, he then uses his heroics as a marketing gimmick to sell more snake oil.

Though our snake-oil salesman credits his snake oil with giving him the ability to rescue the family, we may actually ask the degree to which he was motivated by the profit potential of using the publicity generated by a heroic act to sell snake oil. As he ran into the building, was the thought going through his mind, “I must do what I can to save this family?” Or was it, “Imagine what the publicity this will generate do to sales of snake oil!”

We may be grateful for the good that this man has done, but this in no way gives him license to lie and deceive others into taking actions that are harmful to them. If given an choice, we have much more reason to prefer the hero who would rescue the family without selling snake oil on the side over one who rescues the family and also sells snake oil on the side.

We also may be grateful for the person who rescues the family because he cares that others not suffer, rather than because he cares to profit from his actions.

Look at the religious institutions who put their company logo on their good deeds, who use them to advertize rather than out of a simple concern for the well-being of those who are suffering.

We are often asked the question, “Why don’t atheists build hospitals?”

In fact, atheists do build hospitals. They contribute huge quantities of money to medical research, and they lobby for more money to be contributed. They lament the resources that are diverted from curing disease and feeding the hungry that, instead, go to advertizing the snake oil being sold by those who claim to be concerned with curing disease and feeding the hungry.

The reason that there are so few atheist hospitals and atheist charities is because atheists have not used their good deeds to advertize atheism, the way religious institutions use their good deeds to advertize their religion. The atheist who runs into the burning building to save the family is almost certainly not thinking, “Imagine what the publicity from this is going to do to the market share of atheism.” We know this because atheists do not put an atheist flag on their good deeds.

That is changing to some extent. Malicious deceivers have used the fact that atheists do not put an atheist flag on their good deeds – that they do not tend to exploit the suffering as opportunities to market atheism – to claim that atheists do not do good deeds. Apparently, they do not think it is even possible for a person to do a good deed out of kindness or concern, so that a deed that does not come with an advertisement for snake oil on it is a good deed that simply did not happen.

To some extent, many atheists today have decided that it is necessary to an atheist brand on atheist good deeds, simply to let people know that atheist good deeds exist. To some extent, there is reason to worry whether an atheist, like many theists, is performing his good deeds out of a concern for others, or out of a desire to advertise his beliefs.

This blog fits into that category. I do not argue for or against the existence of a God because it is substantially irrelevant. If a particular type of action is immoral, then it is something that no moral person may do. But, it is also something that no moral God may do. The study of morality is as much a study of what gods may or may not do (if any were to exist) as it is a study of what people may or may not do.

The only reason that I mentioned atheism in the title of this blog is to counter the propaganda of hate-mongers who say that because atheists do not put an atheist logo on their good deeds that they do no good deeds.

Perhaps the practice of putting philosophical brand names on good deeds is not a bad thing. If the results in people doing more good deeds, so that they can have more actions that carry their church’s brand name, then the poor, at least, are better off. I am certain that the beneficiary of needed food, clothing, shelter, or medical care does not care too much that their benefits come with brand religious brand names attached.

Yet, the original question was what sort of values might Jesus come to symbolize in a few thousand years, in the same sense that the Roman goddess Justitia came to symbolize justice. And, in this respect, the problem of doing good deeds for the sake of advertizing one’s religion, and the malicious deception of claiming that those who do not advertize their beliefs with their good deeds do no good deeds, suggest that the image will be one of exploitation and malicious deception, rather than genuine kindness and concern.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Political Considerations for Religious Belief

What role should religion play in the election of a politician?

Atheists have virtually no chance in the United States of getting elected into government. Is this a matter of religious discrimination? Is it the case, at Mitt Romney argued in his Faith in America speech, that American voters should not consider a person’s religious views (or views on religion) when deciding who to vote for?

I argue that the voters not only have a right, but a duty, to consider the religious views of their candidates and to refuse to vote for any candidate whose religious views threaten the well-being of the country.

For example, let us assume that a candidate is running for public office who holds that it is his God-given duty to bring about Armageddon by launching all of the nation’s nuclear weapons at whoever God tells him to attack.

Imagine this candidate going to Texas to give a speech before a group of evangelical Christians saying, “Yes, you might find my religion to be strange. However, I promise that no church official will dictate policy while I am in the White House. Instead, I will keep my own council with God, and dedicate to executing His will as I understand it. Now, in this country, we have freedom of religion. This means that nobody may legitimately condemn me for the religious beliefs I happen to hold. When you vote for me, you have to ignore the fact that my religion commands me to start Armageddon because you have to ignore my religious beliefs when deciding who to vote for.”

Sorry, but . . . no. Your religious views give me every reason to vote against you and to make sure that you never, ever, under any circumstances, get near anywhere near this country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons – or any country’s stockpile for that matter.

Or, consider, the candidate who holds that blood transfusions are immoral . . . who, the instant he gets into the White House, will go to work ending as much financial and government support for blood transfusions that it is within his control as President to stop. He, too, argued that we, the voters, have no right to hold his religious views against him.

Wanna bet?

We can add the candidate who believes that medical care (other than broken bones) results from failure to properly worship God and to transfer money away from the hospitals (to the degree that he has the power to do so) and to funnel it into faith healing instead. He, too, says that we may not hold his religious views against him when we cast our vote.

The fact is, we have every right to hold somebody’s religious views against them when we vote.

We do not have the right to ban any of the three people that I mentioned from running for office. If any of these candidates wishes to run for public office, they may do so. If they then win, then they can execute their plans within the limits prescribed by law (and campaign to alter those limits). However, in all of this, we have every right to look at their religious views and say, “Absolutely not!”

In the sense that I described above, the atheist is as free to run for public office in this country as the person who will seek to bring about Armageddon by launching the nation’s nuclear weapons at the first opportunity. The people have just as much right to refuse to vote for the atheist for religious reasons as they do to vote against the person who would ban all blood transfusions in the country to the degree that he would do so.

No complaint can or should be delivered on these grounds. Instead, the complaint should be leveled against any who claim that a candidate’s bizarre views does not, in fact, provide a voter with good reason to vote against him.

The problem is not that people have no right to consider an atheist’s views about God in deciding who to vote for. The problem is that people have beliefs about atheists that are substantially false – acquired in a fog of hateful bigotry by people who use whatever money and power they have to spread this hatred of atheists.

If an atheist candidate were to declare that no God exists and that all life is meaningless and pointless, and that he will consider it his job as President to end this pointless existence for as many people as possible, he should not be allowed to argue that voters may not hold his atheism against him. The same is true of the atheist candidate who declares that religion is the root of all evil and, as such, he will set the machinery of government to the task of hunting down religion wherever it may try to hide and exterminate it. He may declare that this is his religion, but in doing so he cannot declare that the voters may not consider these facts in deciding who to vote for.

The problem with respect to atheism is not that it is inherently wrong to consider a person’s atheism as a reason to vote against him. The problem is that those who hold that atheism automatically disqualifies a candidate from holding public office are mistaken. While specific atheists clearly are unfit for the position, other atheists might be in a particularly good position to discover real-world solutions to real-world problems – to use science to explain and predict the results of different policies, and to use his innate concern for self and others to guide the country clear of the dangers in the waters ahead.

Many of the false beliefs that people hold about atheists are themselves a result of well-funded hate-mongers – theists who want to hold onto as much political and economic power as possible and do not care about the lies they have to tell to do so. Furthermore, they have manipulated the government into teaching one generation after another that those are not “under God” are as un-American as those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all. That “we” all “trust God,” and, by implication, none who do not “trust God” can be thought of as “we”.

We have the bigoted prejudices of people like Mitt Romney asserting that freedom requires religion, and of others who hold that no person can be moral (no person can be trusted to rule justly) who does not believe that our rights come from God.

These beliefs, all of which keep atheists from public office, and which the government itself is involved in teaching and reinforcing whenever possible, are prejudices that keep atheists out of office. If they were true, then they would be perfectly legitimate reasons to vote against any atheist candidate. The trouble is not only that they are false, but that they are so far from being true that only hate-filled bigots could think that they had any merit.

Hate-filled bigots, in this case, are not people who consider an atheist’s morality when deciding who to vote for. Hate-filled bigots are those who think that no atheist can be moral. Hate-filled bigots, in this case, are not people who would vote against a candidate who was a threat to liberty. Hate-filled bigots are those people who hold that the mere fact that one is an atheist implies that one has no concern to preserve liberty – as if atheists have no particular objection to people living the one and only life they will ever have as a slave.

It’s not just hate-filled bigotry that keeps atheists out of office. It is also the love of deception for the sake of political and economic power that dominates the leadership of religious institutions in this country. If, per chance, those religious leaders had an interest in an honest presentation and evaluation of the relevant issues, the people generally will see that there is no reason to keep a person out of political office merely because he is an atheist. However, this would weaken these religious leaders.

However, seeing that the economic and political power they covet can be more easily grasp through a campaign of deception and of unfounded hate, they pursue these options instead. Since they hold that their religion gives them a special understanding of ‘morality’, and ‘morality’ to them obviously includes malicious deception to promote hate for the sake of economic and political power, it is little wonder that they have trouble seeing their atheist rivals as being moral.

Yes, the voters can and should consider a candidate’s religious views in deciding who to vote for. The constitutional prohibition on a religious test says that the government will not impose such a test, not that the people may not do so. However, the people have a moral obligation to make an honest and just evaluation of the religious beliefs of those candidates, and the implications of those beliefs for the country. It is the voter who cannot do this honestly who is the bigot, not the voter who does this honestly and still judges a candidate unworthy of public office by reason of religion.

The candidate who believes that Israel must be restored to its biblical borders in order to trigger Armageddon is a threat to the safety and well-being of people in the real world.

The candidate who would block stem cell research for religious reasons is no better than the candidate who would block blood transfusions.

The candidate who believes that the Earth is only 10,000 years old is not smart enough or not connected to reality solidly enough to run the country.

These are perfectly legitimate factors to weigh in deciding who to vote for.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Religious Symbols on Government Property

I thought that today would be a good day to lend a hand in this “war on Christmas” campaign.

I suspect that the vast majority of my readers recognize that the War on Christmas has more to do with disreputable news organizations trying to boost ratings by promoting hate in the form of “News”. I suspect that the vast majority of atheists were quite content to celebrate Christmas, to wish others, “Merry Christmas,” to put up Christmas trees, and sing Christmas carols to their heart’s content.

That was my life until I learned from Fox News (indirectly, through people who actually watch that garbage) that a “War on Christmas” exists. And, quite clearly, it exists precisely because the people of Fox News wanted more money and thought that inventing a “War on Christmas” would be a good way to rally viewers and fill them with enough hate that they would keep coming back for progress reports – just like they eagerly tuned into reports on the War in Iraq (for the first two years or so).

They also do not seem to have much respect for the facts. The Guardian has a nice story of all of the battles being wages against Christmas in England – about the town of Luton, for example, banning Christmas and replacing it with a holiday called Luminos, while Birmingham replaced Christmas with ‘Winterval’. The Guardian then said that these protests against a War on Christmas . . .

. . . might be reasonable, were it not for a few awkward facts. Luton does not have a festival called Luminos. It does not use any alternative name for Christmas. When it did, once, five years ago, hold something called Luminos one weekend in late November, the event didn’t even replace the council’s own Christmas celebrations, let alone forbid anyone else from doing anything. Similarly,, Christmas is not called Winterval in Birmingham. The Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Childrenn never banned a Christmas CD for mentioning Jesus. And Chester council’s “un-Christian” Christmas card says – as cards have done for decades – “Season’s Greetings.”

These are lies. The so-called “War on Christmas” campaign is a campaign of lies that are used to promote unjustified hatred of others around the holiday season – to promote ill will for the sake of promoting the economic and political power of those who are promoting ill will.

Of course, there have been individuals who have argued for alternatives to Christmas. I have never actually seen any research to show who was behind these campaigns. My guess is that they were teachers and employees organizing parties who wanted a party that every student or fellow employee could enjoy. These poor, misguided individuals thought that kindness and consideration were Christian virtues. They failed to realize, of course, that true Christian virtue (particularly during the holiday season) is found in maliciously distorting facts in order to generate hatred of others. This, apparently, is what the Christmas season is all about to . . . to some Christians at least.

Yet, this debate does raise some question about the legitimacy of religious displays on government property and the like. How far should we go to remove religious symbols from the public square?

You know that statue of “Justice” that you so often see associated with court houses? I’m talking about a commonly used statue or image of a lady, usually wearing a blindfold, with scales in one hand (to weigh the evidence for and against the accused), and a sword in the other (to deliver punishment if the accused should be found guilty).

That’s a religious symbol.

Or at least it was a religious symbol. That statue is a statue of the ancient Roman goddess Justitia – the goddess of justice. (An interesting fact to offer to those who claim that our concept of justice came from Christianity.)

Yet, nobody proposes that we remove this religious symbol from public buildings. Nobody objects to this religious symbol appearing on the money, in classrooms, and particularly not in courtrooms.

That is mostly because it is not a religious symbol any more. Most people do not even think of the statue as representing a goddess. They think of this image of justice like the statue of liberty – as a representation of an ideal in the form of a person. In thinking about symbols this way, I can easily imagine that, 2000 years from now, images of Jesus are displayed in public buildings the same way that images of Justitia are displayed today. A person who sees a statue of Justitia thinks that this is a place where the people are dedicated to an impartial hearing of a dispute, weighing the evidence on both sides without prejudice, and rendering a . . . well . . . a just verdict.

Some day, perhaps, they will see the symbol of Jesus in a public building and think that this is a place where the people are dedicated to finding food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to those who need it.

Or, perhaps, this symbol will come to mean something else over time. If current trends continue, like those mentioned above, people who see this symbol will come to think that this is a place where the people worship the power of maliciously distorting facts whenever it is judged politically or economically expedient to do so.

Or, perhaps, it will come to be a symbol of willful ignorance. This sign on a wall will indicate that the people within are like children who hold their fingers in their ears and shout, “I cannot hear you!” whenever they encounter a fact that they do not like – as the Catholic Board in Canada recently did to the Pullman trilogy on which The Golden Compass was based. The way several religious organizations have treated the evolution, global warming, and scientific research on the best ways to protect children from unwanted pregnancy and disease.

Or they could see it as a symbol of unreasoned motivation to work tirelessly to interfere with the happiness of others – making their lives on Earth less than they would otherwise be merely because some primitive tribesmen wrote their own hatred of these people into books later taken to be “scripture”.

If, indeed, images of Jesus are as common in government buildings 2000 years from now as images of Justitia today, we would hope that the image – like the image of Justitia – would symbolize positive values. In fact, only one of the four values mentioned above would be worthy of a statue in public buildings 2000 years from now comparable to the honored position that images of Justitia has today. That would be the Jesus who represents people devoted to charity and kindness.

Yet, what we see in this “War on Christmas” campaign is the Jesus of deception for reasons of political and economic gain – a Jesus not fit to be found anywhere near a government building.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Imagine: No Religion

My recent criticisms of the sign, "Imagine: No Religion" has raised the question of whether or not I think humanity would be better off without religion.

If you are going to ask me if I think we would be better off if there was no religion, I will ask in return, "Compared to what?"

I can easily imagine a world without religion. It is a world in which no people exist.

Is this a better world?

I would say not.

I can imagine a lot of other possible worlds in which there is no religion - no beliefs about Gods, or no belief that a God exists - that I would not count as good as the existing world.

So, my answer to the question, "Would be be better off without religion" is "It depends. What's the alternative?"

So, does that mean that we are better off with religion? Am I somebody who holds that religion is a good thing - that we need a little religion in our lives?


Religion is a set of false beliefs. People seek to fulfill their desires, and act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. False beliefs lead people astray - preventing them from realizing those states that actually fulfill their desires.

I have compared a religious life to a life inside an experience machine. The person is living a lie, and many of his imagined accomplishments are fake. Think of a person in an asylum who is convinced that he has personally cured cancer. He may be quite happy - quite pleased with what he had done. However, he had not cured cancer, so his happiness counts for little.

He is living a lie - just like the people who think that they have spent their lives serving God or promoting what some primitive tribesmen falsely called 'good' 2000 years of more ago. The "good" that they pursue does not exist - these are false goods mistakenly said to be important by primitive cultures that did not know any better.

So, am I in favor of "no religion" or against it?

One of the arguments that I have made is that, on a social level, it is better to try to unite the best 80% of humanity against the worst 20%. Doing this in the other direction will guarantee that the best 20% will lose, and the worst 80% gets to control the course of the human race.

If we were to institute such a project, this would mean (1) that a substantial majority of the best 80% will believe in God, and (2) some of the worst 20% will not. One cannot simply take a person, discover that the person does or does not believe that a God exists, and know whether to categorize him as an ally or an enemy. We need to know more about the person than that.

This does not imply that it is wrong to criticize religion. The best 80% are well aware of the fact that they may be mistaken, and being challenged in one's beliefs is a useful way to helping to make sure that one is not pursuing a course that is better off not pursued. On the other hand, the worst 20% will be disposed to be upset about having their beliefs challenged - who will want to censor or otherwise silence their critics.

If we keep fighting the worst 20%, and if we keep winning, I suspect that, in the long run, we will eliminate religion. This, however, is a prediction, not a project.

Every religious person on the planet holds beliefs that I take to be false. At the same time, so does every atheist. I can honestly say, of every person on the planet, that he holds at least one proposition to be true that I hold to be false, or holds one proposition to be false that I hold to be true. If the fact that somebody holds a false belief is enough for me to condemn him and to refuse to form an alliance with him to better humanity, then I must condemn everybody.

Including myself . . . because I will guarantee that I hold at least one proposition to be false that is in fact true, and at least one proposition to be true that is in fact false.

And I hold that false belief because I unquestioningly picked it up from my parents and my culture.

I just don’t know which of my beliefs this is.

You, reader . . . yes, I’m talking to you . . . you hold at least one proposition to be true that I hold to be false. We do not agree on everything. Does this fact, and this fact alone, imply that we must be enemies? Can’t we put those differences aside for a while and work together – join forces on a project to eliminate what we both agree to be some of the worst problems that face humanity?

That point of difference might be that you believe that T-Rex was a predator while I think that T-Rex was a scavenger. That point of disagreement might be that you think that happiness is the sole end of all human action, while I hold that human brains hold a number of desires like it holds a number of beliefs and each desire identifies a separate end to human action. That difference might be that you hold that you hold that at least one God exists and I hold that it is not the case that at least one God exists.

People who cannot allow and accept that there are and will always be points of disagreement between them and those they call friends and with whom they make alliances are going to live lives without friends and allies.

Another question that I was asked by a member of the studio audience is this one:

If the population of the United States was 90% atheist and/or anti religious and only 10% Christian, do you think the chances of a Christian being elected President would be very good?

Well, this is a trick question. I think that atheists carry no special immunity against bigotry. Because of this bigotry it may well be the case that a Christian could never be elected in such a society. However, I would object to such a standard.

I will say this with absolute certainty – that every candidate that runs for public office holds at least one proposition to be true that I hold to be false. The atheist and the theist candidate running for office will both have beliefs that I do not share. I obviously hold that the theist’s beliefs about the existence of a god are not true. The atheist will also have beliefs that I will hold to be not true.

Only the most irrational bigot would conclude that the mere fact that one is a theist is enough of a reason to vote against him – regardless of what the other differences might be.

However, there are a lot of different types of Christians. A Christian who believes that we must trigger the Rapture by declaring war on the infidels, who stands before the podium and argues that the Bible demands an immediate attack on the forces of Islam with all of the weapons at our disposal, will not get my vote.

I am not one who holds that a minority view has a right to be represented – that we should ignore the religious beliefs of candidates and focus only on the non-religious matters. Where religious beliefs support policies that bring death and destruction, we should very much consider those beliefs in deciding who to vote for. I will insist on taking a person’s religious views into consideration when deciding who to vote for.

Yet, I consider it absurd to suggest that the only thing worth looking at – or even the first and most important thing to look at – is whether a candidate, friend, or ally believes that there is a god.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

E2.0: Edward Slingerland: The Religion that Denies it is a Religion.

This is the third in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

The weird thing about Enlightenment 2.0 is that it is a religion that denies that it is a religion.

The third presenter at the Beyond Belief 2 conference, Edward Slingerland, will continue to develop the history of Enlightenment 1.0. However, in doing so he will give us substantive to chew on. He is going to argue that we cannot give up on supernatural (what he calls ‘metaphysical’) entities when it comes to morality.

I, of course, completely reject that conclusion.

However, before we debate the conclusion, we need to see how Slingerland gets there.

Slingerland is Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia. His contribution at the conference to understanding Enlightenment 1.0 was to draw on a connection that existed at the time between a problem that the French philosopher Voltaire tried to solve and ancient Chinese philosophy.

One of the criticisms of Enlightenment 1.0 was the claim that it was impossible to get people to be moral without the threat of eternal damnation. In order to answer this objection, Voltaire (according to Slingerland, pointed toward ancient Chinese philosophy and, in particular, the philosophy of Confucius. The Chinese, Voltaire argued, had a morality that did not involve the threat of eternal damnation – a morality that was free of religious baggage – yet they seemed to get along quite well.

However, in China, this ‘metaphysically minimalist’ morality faced the same objections that Enlightenment 1.0 was facing in Europe.

There was a very popular criticism that the supernatural minimalism was leading to social chaos. And this was a period of social chaos and you had a lot of people saying that it was a period of social chaos because nobody believed in ghosts and spirits anymore.

Also, even the ‘supernatural minimalists’ in China argued that there was a need to preserve and continue religious institutions because it provided the people with comfort. A Confucian philosopher, Xinzi, said of the rain ceremony:

You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason. It is just as though you had not prayed and it rained anyway.

Yet, even Xinzi argued that people should continue to do the rain ceremony because it made people feel good and it brought people together.

So, both ancient Chinese philosophy and Enlightenment 1.0 had the same ‘bug’. Its thinkers, even though they were metaphysical minimalists, were not totally able to get rid of metaphysical entities entirely. Even Voltaire was a deist.

According to Slingerland, there are two directions we can go with this in Enlightenment 2.0. We could (1) go the rest of the way and cut out the remaining metaphysical entities, or (2) admit that some metaphysical entities will be necessary even in Enlightenment 2.0.

Slingerland will defend the second option. I, of course, argue for the first.

To describe Slingerland’s position more precisely, he holds that something about human cognition – about the way humans are put together (how we evolved), that we are fundamentally incapable of doing away with the last of these supernatural entities. Ultimately, he asserts, Enlightenment 2.0 will be “grounded in values that adhere to the non-factual."

To prove this point, Slingerland points to the classic fact-value distinction. Values are not facts. Values are not ‘supernatural minimalist’. Either we must accept these supernatural values as the grounding for our morality, or we must give up value (morality) all together. Those are our only two options.

Slingerland draws on the works of Charles Taylor (the most recent recipient of the Templeton Prize), and in particular the book Sources of the Self, in drawing a distinction between two types of value.

Value Type 1: Weak Evaluations. These are mere personal preferences – e.g., “I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate” (or, in my case, it would be the other way around). In Slingerland’s words, “It is recognizably subjective and arbitrary.”

Value Type 2: Strong Evaluations. Strong evaluation, like “trafficking in child slaves is wrong,” has “normative force”. People who traffic in child slaves are bad in a way that is not the case for people who like chocolate ice cream. Also, strong evaluations are intolerant. We impose them on others. In fact, strong judgments are a call to use force or violence against others. We arrest people, imprison them, maim them, and kill them, on the basis of our strong evaluations. They are justifications for doing harm.

It is interesting what Slingerland says about these justifications for doing harm. Because of a strong evaluation, we wish to do harm to certain types of people. However, we also have this impulse to try to ‘justify’ doing harm. It is not enough that we want to do harm to these people, but we want to base the harm that we do on the right sorts of reasons.

In order to get these right sorts of reasons, we are biologically compelled to make something up.

The way that I usually justify [the harm done to others based on a strong evaluation] is by referring to some sort of what Taylor calls an ontological claim. These are basically empirically unverifiable metaphysical entities that I invoke to justify the strength of my strong evaluation. In the case of child slavery we tend to appeal to something like human rights or the dignity of the individual. In the case of children . . . there is something special in innocence about children.

These entities do not exist. We cannot point to anything in the real world and say, “There is a human right” or “That thing over there is human dignity.”

Since even secularists draw upon these unverifiable ontological entities, even secularists have a ‘religion’ in this sense. It is a religion without gods and angels, but it is still a religion with unprovable, supernatural ‘values’ used to justify our strong evaluations.

The weird thing about Enlightenment 2.0 is that it is a religion that denies that it is a religion. . . The metaphysical entities are not explicitly recognized. They are always there in the background but they are not talked about too much

When discussing where these “liberal values” come from, Slingerland asserts that they come from Chrsitianity.

Historically it is actually coming out of Christianity. It’s through Kant, getting watered down in Enlightenment 1.0, until with us it is based on a kind of a vague sense about something being special, dignified about people.

One of the things that Enlightenment 2.0 will borrow from Christianity and all religion is this disposition to use violence to force its values on others without anything to back up this use of violence than some imaginary metaphysical entities. They are not tied to a god, but they are still empirically unverifiable supernatural entities.

By the way, even moral subjectivists fall victim to this type of analysis. A moral subjectivists holds that moral entities are not real. They do not exist in the real world. However, we must believe in them, so we get to make up whatever moral entities we want. The important thing is that we make up some set of moral entities, entities that we know are not real, but entities that guide our actions nonetheless.

This part does not seem to bother Slingerland. We make up these ontological entities specifically to provide a make-believe ‘excuse’ to kill, maim, imprison, or otherwise do harm to others. Slingerland seems to have no trouble postulating imaginary entities for the purpose of justifying harm.

We have these moral intuitions. We want to impose them on other people. We need a justification. So we make one up. And it often involves some invocation of a moral law or some rational justification. But it is really about the feeling. We just don’t like it.

I actually agree with Slingerland that people do this all the time. They made up God and made up commandments that they assigned to God in order to say, “Because this comes from God and not out of my own personal desire to see you suffer, my actions are justified, and you deserve to suffer.” However, the fact that people are always making things up in order to justify doing harm to others does not justify the practice of making up reasons to justify doing harm to others.

Slingerland says that we can’t do anything else.

We can’t get away from metaphysical beliefs at some level. . . . I don’t think that it is because we haven’t tried hard enough. I think that it is because thoroughgoing nonbelief is actually impossible for creatures like us for psychologically healthy human beings.

In other words, to be a psychologically healthy human being you have to be caught in a trap of making up imaginary entities to justify doing harm to others that, ultimately, are not justified by anything other than the fact that you really want to harm those people.

Actually, I would not describe such a being as ‘psychologically healthy’.

I hold that when Slingerland starts talking about value, he starts off substantially wrong and gets more wrong as he goes along.

When it comes to Value Type 1, I hold that calling this a ‘judgment’ that is ‘subjective and arbitrary’ gets us off on the wrong foot. A statement like, “I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla” is a fact statement. There are a lot of true things that I can say about myself. I am 6’ tall. I am male. I live in Colorado. My blood pressure is around 140 over 80. I have a scar on my right thumb. I have a preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla. These are perfectly ordinary, objectively true statements.

My preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla is no more ‘subjective and arbitrary’ than the scar on my right thumb. It is true that not everybody has a scar on their right thumb like mine (or a scar on their right thumb at all). It is true that there is no reason to hold that they should have a scar on their right thumb like mine. Yet, my scar exists, and its existence is neither subjective nor arbitrary. It is a part of the real world in which we live – as is my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

When it comes to Type 1 values, these values are real-world entities that have real-world effects. Also, like the scar on my thumb, they are not necessary in the sense that outside forces (human behavior) determines whether those entities exist or the form that they take.

These Type 1 values provide us with reasons for action. They not only give us reason to fulfill the desires directly, but they give us reason to build in others (and give others reason to build in us) Type 1 values that aid in the fulfillment of other Type 1 values. My preference for chocolate ice cream not only gives me a reason to go to the store and buy some chocolate ice cream. It also gives me reason to build in others an aversion to preventing me from going to the store and getting some chocolate ice cream.

What Slinglerland (and Taylor) call Type 2 evaluations are simply evaluations of Type 1 evaluations – taking Type 1 evaluations and classifying them as good (tend to fulfill other Type 1 evaluations), bad (tend to thwart Type 1 evaluations), and neutral (have little or no effect on Type 1 evaluations). Then, to use the social tools at our disposal to promote Type 1 values that tend to fulfill other values, inhibit Type 1 values that tend to thwart other values, and simply not worry about Type 1 values that would neither fulfill nor thwart other Type 1 values if they were universally promoted or inhibited.

Again, I agree that a lot of people on the secular side of the debate do make up metaphysical entities to justify the harms that they wish to inflict on others. Part of my reason for arguing that I am not against religion per se, but I am against wrongdoing, is because I recognize that a person does not need to believe in God to invent metaphysical entities that they can then draw upon to justify doing harm to others.

Yet, the fact that scientists can provide countless examples of people doing these sorts of things, and study them in MRIs and through other scientific techniques, does not and never will justify the practice of making up reasons (and ontological commitments) to ‘justify’ doing harm to others.

Friday, December 21, 2007

E2.0: Margaret Jacob: Enlightenment 1.0 as a Populist Movement

This is the second in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Margaret Jacob, a professor of History at UCLA, was the second person to speak at the Enlightenment 2.0 conference. She was charged with providing some additional background information on Enlightenment 1.0.

Jacob pointed out that Enlightenment 1.0 is usually portrayed as a philosophical movement, and that we tend to study that era by studying the writings of 20 to 25 philosophs. Howver, Jacob wanted to argue that the enlightenment was substantially a populist movement – that it came from the people themselves.

Specifically, she traces the beginning of Enlightenment 1.0 to French religious intolerance. The French had required its citizens to profess Catholicism. This required that French protestants either (1) convert, (2) go to prison, or (3) leave the country. Many of them decided to leave the country. Where they went was to The Netherlands. The Netherlands had strict censorship laws, but those laws applied only to things written in Dutch. They did not care what people wrote in other languages – such as French or English. So, these French ex-patriots were permitted to print substantially anything they wanted about the French government and the Catholic Church.

They created a massive market for criticisms of these two institutions – religious and government institutions. One publisher at the time went so far as to publish and distribute a text, “. . . Three Imposters”. Those imposters were Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. That book was immediately banned, even though it was written in French – it had gone too far even for the Dutch authorities to allow. However, it is significant that the people at the time were able to consider launching this type of challenge.

This populist culture, then, gave the philosophs of the enlightenment their platform. This was not a case in which philosophs writing treatises lead the people in rebellion. It was a case in which people in (cultural) rebellion naturally gave the proverbial microphone to those writers who best expressed their sentiments. Indeed, this is a characteristic that distinguishes 19th century philosophs from philosophers.

Of course, this is actually a feedback loop. The philosophs did not just report what the people believed. They distilled and clarified that thinking. Readers, then, took the modifications and justifications that the philosophs proposed back to the people, altering Enlightenment 1.0 accordingly.

I want to contrast this story with the story that we have in America today – particularly in the light of recent events. We live in a culture in which the vast majority of publications do not come from enlightenment thinkers, but from religious thinkers.

What is the Catholic Church after when it bans the books on which The Golden Compass movie was based, and organizes a boycott against the movie? At the same time, a different move – one that condemns science and asserts that human salvation depends on faith and belief in God, breaks box-office records.

The hope is prevent a situation like that which existed in Europe in Enlightenment 1.0. By controlling the marketplace of ideas – by economically and, in some places, politically banning Enlightenment 2.0, the forces of unreason wish to create a culture in which people – particularly children – never have an opportunity to encounter things that question Church dogma.

There are two ways to argue against a movie, or a novel, or some other presentation that expresses ideas that one does not agree with. One way is to say, “These are the ideas that are expressed in that presentation, and these are my reasons for disagreeing with them.” These types of debates bring reason and discourse to the forefront, allow people the opportunity to weigh the arguments on different sides, and to draw a conclusion based on the reasons provided.

The second way to react to something one does not like is to demand that it not be said – or, if it is said, to demand that it be silenced as much as possible. This way people never get to hear the other side. This way the forces of unreason need not worry about defending their own side.

Of course, it is not at all difficult to imagine why the forces of unreason would be particularly concerned with what would happen if their ideas – and challenges to their ideas – were subject to open debate and a discussion of the actual principles.

Even the New Atheists – once they appeared on the stage – were effectively silenced within a few months, not by challenging the claims that these authors made in their books, but by condemning the authors as being ‘intolerant’ and ‘militant’. They used their economic power to shout as loudly as possible that the people can safely ignore what the “new atheists” had to say, not because they can be shown to have made mistakes, but because of the tone in which the “new atheists” spoke.

Again, the idea was not to engage the critics, but to silence them or, at least, to render them impotent and irrelevant.

The New Atheism caught the forces of unreason by surprise – they were not expecting it. Like any surprise attack, it took them a while to rally their forces and establish a solid line of defense. However, they seem to have done so, and now the attack is faltering. One scarcely hears about the “new atheists” these days except to hear denigrating and derogatory remarks by the defenders of unreason. Once again, the forces of unreason have taken control of the popular media.

Actually, the “new atheists” have let them. The “new atheists”, while they claim to be tired of being pushed around by the forces of unreason, actually seem quite comfortable with being pushed around by the forces of unreason. At least (other than complaining to each other in venues such as this blog where the forces of unreason seldom enter), or a few private conversations that scarcely make a ripple on the public scene, they seem content to do nothing.

Reversing this trend is going to take hard work and it is going to take sacrifice. It’s going to take a willingness to contribute money and labor to making sure that the forces of reason are heard – not only by those who already accept the primacy of reason, but by those who have not actually made up their mind. In particular, it will take effort to present the doctrine of reason to children in light of a solid wall of defense that demands that children learn only about faith, and discover reason only when faith has taken too firm a hold to be dislodged.

So, one of the things that I would like to recommend to my readers is that you go through some effort and spare some expense to promote the communication of ideas that the forces of unreason do not want communicated. Specifically, I would recommend:

(1) Widespread and loud denunciation of the forces of unreason decision to ban and bury ideas that they do not like rather than confront and discuss those ideas.

(2) Contributing to the production and distribution of materials that the forces of unreason wish not to see produced and distributed.

(3) Be vocal, particularly around children, in saying that there is no God, that the forces of unreason seem quite clearly interested in controlling the way people think by banishing ideas they do not like.

In short, make sure that these people do not succeed in creating a culture where a child might not ever confront the idea that there is no god until the mind has been too badly polluted for such an idea to take root.

It may be fun to pretend that we live in the universe where the quality of an argument is the only factor relevant to how persuasive it is. However, people cannot be persuaded by an argument they do not hear. Furthermore, people simply do not have time to evaluate every argument, so they are prone to take that which fits best into their pre-conceived notions, and not pay attention to what makes sense. They are prone to base their judgments on what the people they want to trust are saying. These are facts about the real world – facts that will not go away simply because somebody wishes it were otherwise.