Friday, February 29, 2008

E2.0: Sir Harold Kroto: Issues on Science vs. Religion

This is the 20th 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.

Sir Harold Kroto, Chairman of the Board of the Vega Science Trust, gave a presentation that was very similar to his presentation last year. It concerned a project of using the internet to pread a love of science and math that, ultimately, is the best way of defeating religious dogma. Noting that there is a positive correlation between academic achievement and believing that there is no God, Kroto draws the conclusion that educating people on how the universe really works (in math and science) is our best defense against religious dogma.


One of the claims that Kroto made in giving this presentation is that we should not wait until we have better science and math teachers. Instead, we should devote ourselves to improving the math and science teachers we already have. So, his project includes a task of creating collections of math and science teaching materials that teachers can find on the internet and download for free.

Of course, this has one obvious drawback – that it requires that there be teachers who are interested in learning how to teach math and science. Many high school math and science teachers – and particularly biology teachers – do not see their position as being one of teaching biology. They have entered into the profession specifically for the purpose of making sure that the students learn about creationism – and learn only as much (or as little) about evolution as is necessary to pass the tests. Even here, creationists are constantly struggling to change the standards so that they can teach creationism in science class – turning high school biology class into a bible study group.

These types of teachers are too common, and will almost certainly not look towards Kroto’s web site for information on how to teach biology to tenth graders. Instead, they are going to be looking to the Discovery Institute and similar organizations for ways of sneaking creationism into the science class.

The first line of attack is to make sure that the high school curriculum requires that students learn biology in biology class (and not religion in biology class), and to make sure that students appreciate their obligation to teach according to those standards. This, then, will provide teachers with an incentive to go out and find materials that will better allow them to do the job assigned, and to keep teachers who inclined to abuse their positions as science teachers from entering into that profession.

In addition to his own project’s work, Kroto advertised other things that are happening on the Internet that are useful in fighting religion. For example, he mentioned Pat Condell’s videos. Condell used to be a stand-up comedian who recently started to produce podcasts that serious blast religious beliefs. In his video casts, he shows no respect for those who hold dangerous religious ideas, and no respect for atheists who are against speaking disrespectfully towards those people and their dangerous ideas.

Blaming Religion

Kroto is like Condell. He has nothing good to say about religion. The first part of his presentation was substantially a rant about all of the bad things that can be associated with religion.

Listening to his presentation made me want to make clear a very subtle distinction that I have used in my writings that I think a lot of people miss. One of the views that many atheists take towards religion is to make an inference like, “9/11 was caused by people who were acting on religious belief; therefore, all religion is bad.” I argue against this implication precisely because it is invalid and it does not demonstrate the devotion to logical and critical analysis that many atheists say should be a part of our culture.

(Thos atheists are right, by the way People generally do have good reason to promote a love of reason and an aversion to sophistry and rhetoric. Sophistry and rhetoric keeps us away from the truths that could, in some cases, easily save our life, health, and well-being. Whereas superstitious and foolish thinking is likely to lead us into error – causing us to devote resources to activites that are not in our interests.)

I want to distinguish this inference to the conclusion that “X is a bad thing that comes from religion, period.” Saying that the first inference is invalid is not the same as saying that there are good religions. An individual could agree with the position that each religion should be evaluated on its own merits, yet also find that each and every religion has something it it that justifies significant demerits.

This is true in the same way that a person can hold that a group of 10 people should each be judged by their individual actions, yet discover that every one of those 10 people are guilty of a serious crime. The fact we have rejected the proposition, ‘P1 is a bad person, so all ten people are evil” does not imply that we must reject the conclusion, “all ten people are evil.”

Harold Kroto has a lot of bad things to say about many of the more common forms of religion. Though he does not provide enough evidence to show that all religion is evil, he does show that several subsets of religion are evil. This is comparable to showing that 7 out of 10 people in our groop are evil. It is substantially the same thing that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris had done in their books.

However, even in showing that 7 out of the 10 people in our group had committed a crime, we are not yet justified in condemning the remaining 3. Each person has a right to be judged on his or her own merits. Justice requires this type of individual assessment. Any time people speak of whole groups being guilty of some wrongdoing, merely because a subset are guilty, they are treating the others unjustly, and proving that they have their own moral flaws in the process.

The Templeton Foundation

An item of debate in this presentation was the work done by the Templeton Foundation. Kroto portrayed the organization as one that is using its vast stores of wealth to blur the line between religion and science and of confusing public thinking on matters of science. Ultimately, he called for a boycott of anything having to do with the Templeton Foundation, or at least praised those who would not accept their money.

He criticized a Templeton Foundation advertisement concerning the question of whether the universe had a purpose. The Foundation’s advertisement had comments by about a dozen scientists, of which about half believed in a definite purpose, and a few others argued for some purpose.

Kroto portrayed the advertisement as deceptive. If one takes the opinions of the members of the National Academies of Sc9ience, one would find that over 90% of these people (and over 95% of those thoat are biologists) do not believe in God. An advertisement that accurately represented the thinking of the scientific community would have been one where 11 out of 12 respondents answered “no” – not one in which a single respondent answered ‘no.’. to Kroto, this is an example of deceptive advertising – an attempt to manipulate people into adopting a view of science that is not true.

Michael Shermer challenged Kroto on the fact that the Templeton Foundation funded a study that showed the effects of prayer on medical care. The study showed that prayer had no effect unless the patient knew that he was being prayed for – in which case it made the patient’s condition worse than that of a control group. It is as if those who knew tht they were being prayed for suffered from some type of additional stress or anxiety which adversely affected their health.

The fact that the Templeton Foundation was willing to do this shows that they do objective research.

There is actually no dispute here. The fact of the matter is that the advertisement that Kroto talked about was poorly done, and showed an intent to convince others of a view that was false. In addition, the Templeton Foundation provided at least one example of an objective study.

There is nothing at all inconsistent in complaining that the Templeton Foundation’s behavior was deceptive and manipulative in the first case, and objective in the second. There is nothing inconsistent with saying, “Here, you did as you should; but, over there, your behavior was intellectually and morally worthy of contempt.” It’s just another example of the same policy of judging each case (as one judges each person) on its own merits.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Perspective on the Pledge: Notes - "In God We Trust"

I will be working on my story, “A Perspective on the Pledge” this weekend. For those who are not familiar with my previous posts on the subject, the story concerns a parallel universe in which students are ‘encouraged’ to pledge allegiance to “one white nation”, which I use to expose serious flaws in arguments used to defend having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

I have re-inserted the chapter on scouting, where my protagonist Shawn protests a group that is allowed to recruit on campus that holds that black people are morally inferior to whites and, thus, incapable of being good role models for children.

I have also decided that I wanted to incorporate some comments about the national motto, “In God We Trust”.

I could easily incorporate an equivalent slogan into the story. “In God We Trust” is an inherently segregationist slogan. It says that the most important principle within a particular country is the principle that the population is to be divided between a “we” who “trust in God” and “they” who do not. Furthermore, it holds that the “we” group is the favored group and, by implication, the group that “true” Amerycans would belong to.

In Ameryca, the hypothetical country in which my story takes place, all of these elements can be captured by giving Ameryca a national motto of “White Power”, because “In God We Trust” actually says, “Power to those who trust in God” – a slogan morally equivalent to “Power to those who are white.

An atheist, who walks into a city council meeting that begins with a pledge of allegiance to one nation ‘under Go, with the slogan “In God We Trust” on the wall, is in exactly the same (moral) position as a black person walking into a city council meeting that begins with a pledge of allegiance to ‘one white nation’, with the motto “White Power” sitting on the wall. It would not be surprising in such a nation that the black citizen would be addressing a council that consists entirely of white people, in the same way that atheists in this country face city councils that consist entirely of theists.

Imagine being a black high school student in a country where a substantially white majority insists on hanging the national motto, “White Power”, in all of the classrooms, Imagine seeing that slogan every day, and knowing full well what it is saying about you and your relationship to your white students.

Imagine what it would be like to be a white student in such a society. Imagine being a white eight-year-old, or ten-year-old, or twelve-year-old child who, for as long as he or she can remember, has been told that the official government policy is a policy of white power. Imagine being told from birth, in a government school, that to be a worthwhile person one has to be white – the way that the government tells its children that to be a worthwhile person one has to trust in God.

The argument used by those who insist on posting this motto in government buildings, classrooms, and keeping it on the money, is that it is a ‘patriotic exercise’. However, this merely means that a patriot is somebody who trusts in God, and no person who does not trust in God can be a patriot.

This claim, that pledging allegiance to one nation ‘under God’ and that posting ‘In God We Trust’ on classroom walls is a ‘patriotic exercise’ and not religious is an absurdity. If it is a patriotic exercise, then it is an exercise that says that patriotism requires being ‘under God’ or trusting in God. It is an exercise that says that those who fail to meet this criteria – those who deny that a God exists – are not patriots.

In late December, Michael Newdow was once again before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals defending his lawsuits against ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ in government buildings and on the money. One source that I read briefly mentioned a question that one of the judges asked almost in passing at the end of the questioning. The judge asked whether a person had to believe in God to be pa patriot. The lawyer arguing in favor of keeping ‘under God’ in the Pledge said no.

Yet, if the answer to the question is ‘no’, then this means that pledging allegiance to one nation under God is not a patriotic exercise. I hope that the judge who asked the question was aware of this implication, that this is why she asked the question, and this is what she will put into the opinion when it is released. “The state cannot defend the claim that pledging allegiance to a nation ‘under God’ is a patriotic exercise if it is possible for a person to be a patriot without being ‘under God’. And if it is not a patriotic exercise, then it must have some other purpose.”

Yet, even if it is a patriotic exercise, what sense does it make for a government prohibited by law from establishing a religion, to insist that patriotism consists in being ‘under God’, and those who are not ‘under God’ are not patriots? What reason is there for adopting a position?

In fact, there is no reason for adopting a position. And when one group of people brand others as ‘inferior’ without having reason to do so, that is the essence of prejudice. That is the essence of injustice. That, itself, is a moral crime that no person would find in a just system of law.

I am an atheist. A motto of “In God We Trust” says that in order for me to be counted among the “we” who make up this country, I must trust in God. Either I must take this motto to be among the most transparent examples of a lie that one can imagine (as clear as the claim ‘all swans are white’ when one is holding a black swan), or I must conclude that the government’s official position is that citizens who do not trust in God are not ‘we’.

The motto states nothing less than that trusting in God is a requirement for being a true American; a patriotic American, the type of American that the government finds acceptable enough to be counted among those it calls ‘we’.

What argument can the government give for excluding those who do not trust in God from the group ‘we’? What have those who do not trust in God done to be considered worthy of this form of ostracism and exclusion? Have they committed some crime? Is there evidence of disloyalty or treason? Is there any evidence at all that these are inherently inferior people who are unworthy of membership?

There is no more reason for believing that those who do not trust in God are inferior and do not merit being included in the group called ‘we’, than there is for saying that those of black skin are inferior and do not merit being included in the group called ‘we’. When a group is denigrated and excluded without reason, that is injustice. When people are condemned and labeled inferior when no evidence can be brought against them, then they are the victims of bigotry.

And in this case, not only is the government branding all those who do not trust in God to be inferior beings who do not merit being considered members of the group called ‘we’, it has made it the national motto. It has said that there is nothing more important to this government, no more worthy of respect and remembrance, than the idea that those who do not trust in God are unworthy of membership in the group called ‘we’. When it posts this sign in classrooms, they are telling the students themselves that those who do not trust in God are inferior, and unworthy of membership in the group called ‘we’. This, merely compounds the injustice, by several orders of magnitude.

Let us not pretend that the children are not learning this lesson. There is a reason why most Americans would never support an atheist as President. It is because, every time they look at their money, they see a sign that tells that that those who do not trust in God are inferior, and unworthy of membership in the group called ‘we’. It is because the government itself, our government, has taken it to be its prime mission in life to teach children that those who do not trust in God are inferior, and unworthy of membership in the group called ‘we’. Children cannot see that message day in and day out and not be affected by it.

But, then, affecting children with this attitude towards those who do not trust in God is the entire reason people insist on posting these signs in our schools.

What other reason could there possibly be?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Birth Rates and Competing Ideas

An article in “The Nation” magazine that I received last week discussed a “demographic” problem in Europe and America. The problem is that “the right people” are not having children, which means that other groups are out-producing us, and will soon take over the planet in virtue of their greater numbers. In order to prevent this disaster, “the right people” need to get busy producing as many children as possible, so that “we” can maintain control of the social and political institutions.

The Nation presented this strategy as being racist and tribalist fear-mongering for the sake of promoting a religious-right agenda on reproduction. The problem, the proponents of this view state, is that women are working rather than staying home and having children, which is the ‘proper’ role for women. Secular, liberal culture supports abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and a number of other policies that interfere with reproduction, each helping to ring about a state in which “the right people” are becoming extinct, to be replaced by the children of the barbarian hordes.

Atheists are particularly prone to this problem. Atheists have a far lower birth rate than theists – well below the level needed to maintain its population (in the absence of recruiting). So, atheists themselves are at risk of becoming extinct – allowing the world to fall into the hands of Muslims, who are busy having as many children as possible and moving them to Europe as a way of trying to take over their countries. Or so it goes.

Paradoxically, one of the assumptions that is built into the idea that birth rates are important is that the primary influence on a child’s beliefs about religion and the like is the family. There is an important correlation between what a parents believe and what their children believe. These “Muslim” children (for example) are simply trapped in a system where they adopt a false religion only because they were born into parents who brainwashed them into that position.

Yet, theists who make this type of claim ignore an obvious implication – that perhaps they also have adopted their religious beliefs, not because those beliefs are true, but as a matter of childhood indoctrination. Indeed, they are supporting the idea that their children will acquire their religion in virtue of a parent’s indoctrination. That is precisely why they need more children, so that they have more people to indoctrinate.

In fact, this is true. The religious beliefs that people acquire have nothing to do with an encounter with some sort of transcendental reality. If it did, then something has to explain why the people in one part of the world so reliably encounter one transcendental reality. Yet, people in the other part of the world encounter yet another transcendental reality. Nothing better explains the acquisition of religious belief than the theory that they are a set of fictions that have nothing to do with reality that the child learns from those closest to him or her while growing up.

Now, recognizing that religious belief is the product of one’s culture and not the product of an encounter with transcendental reality, it is true that birth rates will affect the numbers of people who accept one religion over another. It is true that the numbers of Muslims there are versus the numbers of Christians there are does not depend at all on which religion has the most accurate understanding of God. It depends on which one gets the ability to indoctrinate the most children in the least amount of time.

This part of the argument is true. The reasons that different religions are concerned about birth rates are accurate in that birth rates are, indeed, important to the numbers of people who adhere to a particular religion. Failing the birth-rate war does, indeed, carry the risk of falling into being a minority, and then being subject to all of the burdens that the majority religion might impose on minority views. Historically, these have included some extremely bloody burdens.

There are those who claim that atheism is just another religion. As such, it would be a part of the same birth-rate war as genuine religions are. However, atheism is not a set of beliefs acquired by culture with only a pretend relationship to a fictional transcendental reality. Atheism is nothing more than the claim that, in the absence of no evidence of a divine force, the chances that one exists are very, very small, that we could never know anything about its nature even if it did exist, and the question of its existence is of no practical importance.

In a sense, the claim can be made that I am a part of the problem, where secular birth rates are concerned. My wife and I have no children, and will not have any children. So, we will not be contributing to the numbers of atheists by indoctrinating our children.

But, then again, birth rates are not important when what one values is truth and a connection to reality.

This blog, in a sense, is my child. It will soon be 2.5 years old – still an infant, clearly incapable of taking care of itself. It has grown respectably well for the past 2.5 years and seems to be healthy – with no serious problems as far as I have been able to tell.

With luck, the blog – or at least the ideas contained within this blog – will survive my death. They will go on into the future. Even though they, too, will eventually fade away and die, they will, in part, be absorbed into future ideas, which will then be absorbed into other future ideas, leaving behind a long chain of children ideas, grandchildren ideas, and great grand children ideas, for years to come.

It is my hope that my child will make a positive contribution to society – that it will be known for providing society with things of value. Yet,, as many parents will tell you, the children do not always turn out as well as the parents will like. Time will tell how this one turns out.

The point is that this blog is concerned with identifying certain propositions in the fields of ethics, moral theory, and meta-ethics, are true or false. If a proposition is true, then it is true. It’s truth or falsity does not depend on demographics. So, even if the world should become overrun by ‘the wrong type of people’, the real question is whether those people have true beliefs or false belifs. If the proposition is true, and a religion that denies its truth comes to dominate, those people will suffer the consequences of their error. And, eventually, given enough time, they will tire of paying the cost of being wrong and discover that embracing the truth has its benefits.

The crace or gender or cultural identity of the child or the religion it is brought up in all have absolutely no affect on the truth. Either people will come to actually embrace that truth, or suffer the consequences of failure to match their beliefs to reality.

Let us not forget the possibility that I could be wrong. In fact, this is a good time to ring out one of my favorite slogans yet again. I know, as an absolute fact, that at least one of the propositions contained in my writings is false. I simply do not know which proposition(s) it (they) are. In these cases, it would still be the case that society is better off to find truth than to embrace a fiction.

So, I will in no way endorse a policy that as many children as possible must be indoctrinated into the system that I have described here. That would mean indoctrinating them into the at least one fiction that I know for certain exists. I will, instead, repeat my assertion that society is better off to the degree that it embraces truth and shuns fiction – including the at-least-one-false-statement that is contained within this blog.

People who have nothing to go on in defending their ideas but the ability to indoctrinate children and lock them into a particular way of thinking have reason to be concerned about the numbers of children they have unrestricted access to. Whereas people who value truth based on evidence have less of a need for these types of machinations. The evidence will always be there, and it will always point to the same truth, even if people are indoctrinated from childhood on to ignore the evidence or that truth.

Another way of identifying the same point is this:

Take a group of babies too young to know any of our culture and raise them on a distant planet where they will eventually invent their own languages. It is a virtual certainty that they would never invent Islam or Christianity. There is almost no chance that they will develop exactly the same myths that are found on Earth. However, as they grew and intelligence and in their understanding of the scientific world around them, there will eventually be atheists.

People who need to worry about how many children their membership is having that they can indoctrinate are simply admitting that they have nothing to base their beliefs on but the myths that they pass onto their children.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Beliefs and Desires in Moral Claims

It is time, once again, for another Atheist Ethicist episode of “Responding to Atheist Observer.”

In our previous episode, I had written a posting called “Considering Alternative Ideas” about reading only what one agreed with, or reading what one disagreed with under the mindset, “Obviously, this is wrong. I simply need to find the error.”

[Note: In case this introduction should sound derogatory, or in case its meaning may be ambiguous, then please note that I choose to respond to AO’s comments because I consider them worthy of responding to. Not because I am somehow being coerced into something that has no merit.]

Atheist Observer wrote in response:

I was wondering if you still took seriously any alternatives to what seems like almost a mantra for you, “The tools for changing desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.”

Well, there are some obvious additional ways to change desires, such as drugs (e.g., chemical castration for sex offenders) and surgery (e.g., physical castration). One thing about these methods, though, is that they tend to be considered non-moral. It may be the case that a person has a moral obligation to undergo treatment of one type or another (to alter desires through one of these systems). However, this ‘moral push’ to undergo treatment falls under the rubric, again, of using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment as incentives to get people to undergo treatment. The use of these incentives are an inherent part of morality. Desire-changing options that lie outside of this system are considered non-moral.

I would not argue that these are not tools for changing desires, although I would argue in many if not most circumstances they have limited effectiveness, and in fact they may often be counter productive, bringing about desires and behaviors that may be even more objectionable than those we were trying to change.

These types of points would be relevant to the question of how to use the tools. It does impact the question of whether morality is concerned with their use. To the degree that morality is concerned with their use, then, of course, it would be a part of morality to say, “The rational use of these tools involves using them where they are effective and productive. Do not use these tools in circumstances in which they would be ineffective and counter-productive.”

Prescription drugs are sometimes abused and used in circumstances that are ineffective or counter-productive. This is hardly an argument against the practice of using prescription drugs to treat illness and injury. It is only an argument against using those tools in ways that are ineffective or counter-productive.

But is seems to me that for whatever reasons you choose to give beliefs an unreasonably small role in the development of desires. . . . On the other hand, I have not seen any evidence in your discussions, or in my personal experience, that most desires are not in fact desires as means. These consist of some desire as ends and a set of beliefs about how to achieve those ends. To the extent the means depend upon beliefs, the subsequent desires are susceptible to change by changing the beliefs.

I sharply distinguish between beliefs and desires-as-ends. These are distinct entities. Beliefs, on the other hand, are an integral part of desires-as-means. It is essential that a desires-as-means consist of both a set of desires-as-ends (goals, purposes), and beliefs about the best way to realize desires-as-ends.

In a sense, it will always be the case that ‘most’ of our desires are desires-as-means. If beliefs are represented by blue marbles, and desires-as-ends are represented as red marbles, and desires-as-means are the different possible combinations of red marbles and blue marbles, then the set of desires-as-means must necessarily be significantly larger than the set of beliefs or the set of desires-as-ends.

However, because desires-as-means are always a collection of beliefs and desires-as-ends, we do not need to talk about them as separate entities. We can talk about desires-as-means while still talking exclusively about beliefs and desires-as-ends. A desire-as-means is still nothing more than a particular collection of red and blue marbles.

Furthermore, allow me to repeat, desires-as-means necessarily contain beliefs. One very effective way of changing desires-as-means is to change the person’s beliefs. Switch one blue marble out for another, and you no longer have the same set of red and blue marbles (the same ‘desire as means’) as you started with.

You have a desire to bring others to your view about what the tools are for changing desires. I desire to bring them to mine. We could attempt to condemn each other into changing our desires, but there is virtually no chance that will happen.

Well, I hope that my desire is not to ‘bring others to [my] view.” I propose a theory, but I hope that people would reject the theory if it happens not to be true. However, I believe that the things I write are true (or, at least, they make sense and have a reasonable chance of being true), so they are what I defend.

Now, I am not saying anything against altering people’s behavior by altering their desires-as-means, or by altering their desires-as-means by altering their beliefs. This is a perfectly legitimate activity – and one that we engage in all the time. I have no objections to that practice. In fact, as you point out, I engage in that practice all the time. A great many of my posts are devoted, not to changing desires, but to changing beliefs. A great many of my posts are devoted, for example, to defeating the belief that morality can be a genetic disposition, or that morality is ‘subjective’ in the sense where ‘I want people to do X and am willing to use violence against those who do not do X’ implies ‘people have a moral obligation to do X.’

However, I deny that when people are engaging in these practices that they are working within the tradition called ‘morality’. These types of discussions are not ‘ethics’ per say, they are discussions in the field of ‘meta-ethics’ (or ‘theories about ethics’) – which is an entirely descriptive (belief-centered) field of study. It is my meta-ethical theory that ethics is primarily concerned with the alteration of malleable reasons for action that exist (desires as ends) by the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

For example, let us assume that you are in the hospital and discover that the nurse is about to give you some blood – only, it’s the wrong blood type. Naturally, he believed that she was giving you the right blood type and you can change his behavior by pointing out his false beliefs. However, the next question we want to answer is whose moral fault is it that he was about to give you the wrong blood type.

Is this your nurse’s fault? To answer this question we have to look at how the nurse to give you the wrong blood type. Assume that this is what the doctor had requested. In this case, the nurse was not at fault. Fault (or moral blameworthiness) is not associated with false beliefs.

The doctor, it turns out, had your blood typed, was told your blood type, and ordered that you be given blood of that type. The doctor, in this case, is not at fault. The doctor’s false believes does not make her morally blameworthy.

Where is it that we find moral blame?

We do not find moral blame where we find false beliefs. We will, instead, find moral fault where we find somebody whose desires deviated from those that we have reason to want people to have. We will find moral fault in the careless lab technician, whose problem is not that he suffers from a false belief, but from an insufficiently strong desire to avoid deadly mistakes. Or we find in the patient who used an opportunity to alter your records because he is a competitor for a job that you are applying for.

Blameworthiness is not found where we find false beliefs. Blameworthiness is found where we find bad desires. The only time that a person even appears to be condemned for having a false belief, is when a more careful or concerned person (a person with good desires) would not have been tempted to adopt such a belief based on the available evidence.

However, through evidence, logic, and reason I could be convinced my position is in error, and thus I would no longer desire to get others to adapt that position. Given what you state in your post, I would assume you would do the same thing.

Of course I use this method – when I am dealing with what I think is an otherwise good person who has made a factual error (the nurse who is about to give somebody the wrong blood type). Whenever I find somebody whose actions can be improved upon merely by correcting his beliefs, then moral concepts do not apply. This is a situation outside of morality. Moral concepts do not come into play until the method for correcting a person’s behavior comes from correcting his desires-as-ends.

If it is true that desires are the only motivating forces, and that your tools are the only way to change them, we have virtually an Old Testament approach to morality, where all we can do is run around constantly rewarding and punishing people to get moral behavior. To me this is a narrow and generally inaccurate picture of moral behavior in real life.

First, it is important to distinguish between using punishment as a way of altering desires, and using punishment as a way of altering behavior directly (to name one example). The field of law, not of morality, is the field that uses ‘deterrence’ as a method for altering behavior directly. It tries to get people to do the right thing by threatening them with vile consequences if they should get caught doing something else.

Morality is the use of social forces to affect desires, not the use of social forces to affect behavior by threatening to thwart the desires an agent already has. The purpose of morality is to create a person who will not take money that belongs to others, even when the thief has no chance of being caught. This is not accomplished by threatening the individual with consequences of what would happen if he is caught. This is caused by giving the agent an aversion to theft that will inhibit him from taking what belongs to others even when he will not get caught.

“Old Testament” morality is more the morality of a law giver and threats of punishment to alter behavior and an omniscient policeman who sees all and whose punishment is certain. It is modeled after the concept of a law-giver and a law. It is not ‘morality’ in the sense of creating people who do not want to do evil.

This is a significant difference.

In my experience most people have generally benign basic desires, and we encourage moral behavior most effectively for most people by helping them see where they have belief errors that lead to desire-thwarting behaviors and creating societies and institutions that maximize the opportunities for learning beliefs and behaviors that lead to general desire fulfillment.

If a person does, in fact, have basic good desires, then we do, in fact, alter their behavior by changing their beliefs. If the desires are good, than false beliefs is where the error lies. However, the very assumption that a person has good desires takes the discussion outside of the realm of morality. It places ‘desire-thwarting behavior’ in the same category as that of the nurse who is about to innocently give a person a wrong blood type. If the desires are good, then the desire-thwarting behavior qualifies as innocent mistakes where moral praise or condemnation is simply not appropriate.

We will find that where moral blameworthiness, or moral credit, is appropriate it is where the defect is not traced to good desires and bad beliefs, but to bad desires (with or without false beliefs). Since we find moral concepts applied only where we find bad desires, and not where we find bad beliefs, then even though bad beliefs are a serious problem, it is still the case that this problem is not a moral problem.

In no way am I understating the role of beliefs in desires-as-means. Nor do I deny the power of getting a good person (a person with good desires) to do the right thing by altering his beliefs. My claim is that when we look for moral fault - when we seek to apply the concepts of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, we are not concerned with beliefs or desires-as-means. We look to the ends - that which is actually desired - by those we consider worthy of moral condemnation or praise. Other considerations definitely exist. They simply are not a part of that which we know as morality.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Making Babies

I have known a couple of people in my life who have dealt with a serious ethical concern.

Both of them have suffered severe health problems. Both of them have asked, “Should I have a child, when there is a possibility that this child will grow up with the same problems that I had, and that he or she will suffer as I have suffered? Does morality require that I forego having children of my own?”

I have given these people the same advice.

I ask, “Think back on your life, with the problems that you have had, and asked yourself if the life you have been given have been a blessing or a curse. Yes, you have had to deal with pain, and I am not minimizing that fact. However, you have also laughed, and loved, and experienced awe and wonder at great things that you have encountered in your life. So, you have to ask yourself, was it worth it? Would you have given up the love and laughter and wonder at the universe if that would have freed you from the pain?”

I then ask them to imagine that they are talking to their child, when the child is 30 years old or so and has gone past the trials and tribulations of adolescence. This is how morality would look at their situation:

“Look, kid, I would have given you the opportunity for love and laughter and wonder without the pain if I could have. It hurts me to see you in pain. That wasn’t one of my options. I could have saved you from the pain, but the only way I could have done that would have been to save deny you the opportunity for love and laughter and wonder. So, I had to ask myself whether or not you would have considered that to be too great of a cost. Would you take the love and laughter and wonder with the pain, or would you consider the pain so great that you would gladly give up the others?”

I invite the listener to imagine her mother asking her that question and to imagine what the answer would be. Quite often, the answer is that, “The pain was not so bad that I would have given up the love and laughter and wonder as payment to be rid of it. That would be too high of a price to pay.”

If that is the answer, I tell her that she would be doing a greater harm to her future child to by denying that child the opportunity for love, laughter, and wonder than by saving the child from pain. “You are talking about giving the child an option where, if the child was able to choose herself, she would have almost certainly said was the worse option.”

Of course, the answer could be that the price for experiencing love and laughter and wonder was too great, and the child, now an adult, may well decide that it was not worth paying. If this is the case – and only if this is the case does the parent do the child an actual disservice by bringing that child into the universe. In such a case, the parent gives the child that option that the child would not have selected for herself if given a chance.

So, I argue, “If you want a child, and you are willing and able to undergo the expense of caring for that child (because to have a child that one neglects is not a morally viable option) then one is morally free to go ahead and do so, provided that these conditions are met. And these conditions are met more often than people tend to think.

It is important to note that, even in this argument, where one provides a benefit to the child by bringing that child into the world, where the child has a reason to reflect on his life and say, “I am glad that I have lived,” it does not follow that the mother had an obligation to have that child. It does not follow that having children is a duty.

Instead, the fact of the matter is that giving the child a life that the child actually valued is a gift. It’s a present, for which the child (if the child had a life that the child truly valued) owes the mother a statement of gratitude. (Thank you, mother). It is not, in any sense, a duty or an obligation that I had a right to demand of her (or that anybody else had a right to demand of her in my name) regardless of the value that I would have placed in that gift.

Those who argue for the wrongness of abortion seem to understand this fact from time to time – that bring a child into this world is a gift, and not a duty. After all, they argue for abstinence rather than abortion – where abstinence would have been just as effective at denying me the gift of life as abortion would have been (or as using birth control would have been). How is the child who is not conceived as a result of abstinence in any way better off than he would have been being conceived and aborted?

The doctrine of abstinence recognizes that no child has a right to be born and that no parent has a duty to have a child. The doctrine of abstinence recognizes that life is a gift from the mother to the child, not a duty – and, as such, something the mother has a right to refuse, at least through abstinence, if not through abortion.

The idea that a person benefits if one is given a gift of life, where that person would prefer life with the pain of a defect over freedom of pain through the absence of life does not, in any way, generate an obligation to have a child

What it does say is that the parent who decides to abort a fetus with a birth defect, who claims that she is doing it ‘for the sake of a child’ – as an act of charity – is, in many times, quite simply wrong. Unless there is good reason to believe that the child would grow up into being somebody who would have given away all of his experiences of love, joy, and wonder for freedom of pain, the mother who aborts such a fetus is given that fetus the worst of the two available options, not the better. Claiming that the giving the fetus the worst of the two objections was done for sake of the child simply wrong.

Yet, it may be done for the sake of the parent. Because life is a gift that one has the right not to give, a parent may choose to abort a handicapped fetus because of the tremendous burden such a fetus might bring, to reserve the gift of life for a fetus that does not have the same defects, is a perfectly legitimate option. It is a pretense to say that the act is being done for the benefit of the fetus. It is no crime for the act to be done for the benefit of the mother.

Yet, at the same time, while we have good reason to allow a parent to allow the presence of a birth defect to determine whether she gives the gift of life to a child, we have good reason to condemn the person who bases this choice on the gender of the child. We have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. A desire for boys over girls that plays itself out in terms of a population that values the welfare of women less than of men, and one in which there is simply more men than women (and thus the grief of competition with a large number of clear losers) is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. So it is a desire that we have reason to condemn.

So, here lies a set of related concerns on the legitimacy of having a child. The fact that a child might have a defect does not support the argument that terminating the pregnancy is for the benefit of that child, unless the pain and suffering is so severe the child itself would have exchanged all opportunities for love, laughter, and wonder for the absence of pain. Life is a gift, and nothing that a mother has no obligation to give. The burden of a deformed fetus also gives the mother justification to withhold the gift of life from a defective fetus in order to give it to a non-defective fetus. Yet, people generally have good reason to condemn the desire to have boys over girls (or to value males over females).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

E2.0: Peter Atkins: On Pride and Chemistry

This is the 19th 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 next presentation from this series came from Peter Atkins, recently retired Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, Fellow of Lincoln College. Atkins continued the discussion of reductionism from the previous day. He also took up the position that reductionists in science do not have any reason to be concerned with the types of issues that other people raise.

For example, a very common example used against reductionism in science is that one can study all of the properties of a set of water molecules however one will never be able to explain the fact that water is wet. ‘Wetness’ is a property that, allegedly, cannot be reduced to physics.

Atkins asserts that chemists are not really concerned with the issue of the wetness of water. Chemists knows what it means for a substance to be coated with water molecules, and that is all one needs to know to understand wetness.

Another entity that some say cannot be reduced to physics is romantic love. However, scientists are well aware of how different proteins and molecules in men and women and an evolved desire to mate and to share each other’s company can be encoded in the brain as functional states. With this, one doesn’t really need to ‘understand’ anything more about romantic love.

The fact that there are people who want ‘something more’ in romantic love does not prove that there is something more to be had.

This brings up an important point about reductionism. Reductionism holds that an event at one level of description (e.g., World War II) can be ‘reduced to’ statements in a lower level of description (e.g., chemistry) – that the former is simply a simpler way of making claims that are just as true (though not so easily written) in the latter.

On the other side of the spectrum from reduction is elimination. ‘Ghosts’ cannot be reduced to statements in physics because ghosts do not exist. The fact that ghosts cannot be reduced to statements in the area of physics is not a problem for the reductionist project. It is a problem for those who believe that ghosts are real. One of the options that a reductionist can take is that, “Whatever we cannot reduce to statements in the area of physics, we can eliminate, because it plays no role in the real world.”

So, it is possible that a scientist can dismiss problems with the wetness of water and romantic love by saying that those elements that cannot be reduced to statements in the realm of physics are like ghosts. They have no role to play in the real world and we should not pretend that they exist.

One of the accusations made against <> and his defense of science concerns the issue of pride. Diedre McClosky said:

As a Christian, I am very alert to idolatry and to self-idolatry which is the master sin of pride. So, could you tell me, are you also concerned about pride in this evil and hazardous sense.

Atkins responded as follows:

I don't see why pride should be evil. I think that if we've got something that is fantastic, good, that we have developed that turns out to be a way of answering all of the deep questions that have ever been asked about the nature of the world. One that is capable of developing applications that enhances our lives, saves our lives, do everything that science does, then we have every reason not to feel humble.

I am not particularly well informed on the philosophy of reductionism and can do little more than report the claims that Atkins made, I do know something about value theory and the virtue, or the vice, of ‘pride’.

‘Pride” is a state that people generally have reason to keep bound between two extremes. A certain absence of pride (or self-respect) is unhealthy and destructive. A person who is two hard on himself or who cannot lift his head in public is at risk of hating himself and failing to muster the resources to accomplish his ends.

On the other end, there is the evil of arrogance. The arrogant person exaggerates his own worth. He thinks that he can do no wrong when, in fact, being human, he is prone to all sorts of error. He is somebody who is at risk of acting on false beliefs because he does not sufficiently appreciate his own infallibility.

Both vices – the vice of insufficient pride and the vice of excessive pride – can be linked to the value of truth. The insufficiently prideful person denies the truth of his own value. He is somebody who thinks of himself as inherently or intrinsically ‘worse’ than others. However, intrinsic ‘worthiness’ does not exist. As far as intrinsic worth goes, none of us have any. However, all of us have desires. There is no law of nature that demands that any of our desires be made subservient to those of others. We have a right to an equal political and social footing in society.

Of course, this means that if we have a desire that people generally have reason to inhibit, or are lacking desires that people generally have reason to promote, we are legitimately subject to condemnation. When we recognize these shortcomings in ourselves this would justify a certain amount of self-condemnation.

Yet, this is not the same as thinking of oneself as lacking ‘inherent’ worth. These types of problems can be reduced by simply going to work (sometimes with professional help) of inhibit those desires that people generally have reason to inhibit and to promote desires in oneself that people generally have reason to promote. These types of problems do not imply an inherent lack of worth. They imply a need to do some work.

The excessively prideful person – the arrogant person – overstates his own value or the value of his own contributions. He either claims that he has an intrinsic worth that is higher than others – a claim that is false since no intrinsic worth exists. Or he overestimates his ability to bring positive change for others – attributing to himself powers that he does not have. In either of these cases, he gets the facts wrong and, in acting on those false beliefs, he subjects others to risks.

A low sense of self-worth or self-respect is not something that people generally have much reason to condemn. We have more of a reason to pity those people (because of the harm they do to themselves) then to condemn them. However, the good person would find the person of low self-esteem to be a nuisance. The good person desires that the interests of others be considered, while the person of low self-esteem keeps insisting that his own interests are not worthy of being considered. So, the good person may be tempted to slap such a person across the face and shout, “Snap out of it!”

However, the arrogant person is extremely dangerous. He is quite likely to go forth on grand schemes without having any real (rational) idea of what he is doing, putting not only himself but others at grave risk. The invasion of Iraq, with millions of lives destroyed and hundreds of billions of dollars going to destroying things when that money could have gone to building things, is an example of innocent people – some of them not even born yet – suffering huge losses due to the arrogance of others. The suggestion was made that it was a symptom of ‘pride’ to think that, somehow, science would be able to answer all of the great questions (or, at least, had the potential to do so). This type of claim may be a symptom of pride – since the individual is making a claim that we have little reason to believe at this point. However, if it is pride, it is a weak form of arrogance. Few are being put at risk of harm by saying, “Someday, we will have an answer.”

A far greater form of arrogance is that which comes from religious belief. Many religious believers are so wrapped up in the certainty of their religion – which they have no right to given the huge numbers of people who disagree with them – that they are more than willing to pass laws affecting hundreds of millions of people, and sometimes to commit acts of brutally, all in the name of their God. There is no greater example of arrogance than a person who insists on passing legislation that will adversely affect others, and to do so on the basis of his claim to know what God wants.

There is real arrogance in putting, “In God We Trust” on the money, and putting “One Nation Under God” in the pledge, because these people are denying any possibility of error in spite of the fact that there is not only good reason for doubt, and in spite of the fact that their own religion tells them to be humble.

These people are not saying, “Someday, we will have an answer.” They are saying, “I have the answer today, I cannot possibly be mistaken, and I am so certain of my infallibility that I am willing to demand that others acknowledge the greatness of my truth.”

Science is belief with evidence, and even where it says “We will have an answer,” it still only accepts an answer when there is evidence. It is not pride to restrain one’s beliefs according to the evidence. It is pride to go beyond the evidence and claim to know things that the evidence does not support. We find that, not so much in science, as we do in religion.

Friday, February 22, 2008

E2.0: David Albert: The Power of Physics

This is the 18th 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 last speaker for the first day of the conference was David Albert, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the M.A. Program in The Philosophical Foundations of Physics at Columbia University.

I have a problem with Albert’s presentation in that he does not seem to present much of an argument for his position. It is difficult to find a set of premises leading to a conclusion. What we seem to have instead is a stream of conclusions with very little support actually being exposed in the presentation.

Albert, like Sean Carroll before him, wants to argue in favor of the Enlightenment idea that everything in the natural world can be reduced to physics – including morality, love, and universities. He wants to argue that the position that had been the received view for the past 70 years in science, that science has fundamental limits that restrict not only what we can know about the world, but in describing the world.

This idea of the limits of science is one which is commonly used by a wide variety of the critics of science. Religious fundamentalists believe that they can use the limits of science to make room for a God. New-age post-modernists try to argue that the limits of science make room for whatever the observer or agent wants to put there – that we (in a sense) create our own reality.

Albert’s view is that this problem does not exist.

There is, indeed, a problem concerning the limits of observation. Albert does argue that observation itself, particularly at the subatomic level, is “an absolutely unavoidably violent an disruptive process.” As such, we cannot oserve things as they would have been in the absence of observation. However, Albert wants to deny that this is a normal scientific problem – not some special problem that calls the whole scientific process into question. It is a limit in our ability to conduct experiments and to make observations that is, at root, no different than the problem with taking measurements and making observations that scientists have always labored under.

This is one of the areas where Albert tends to make assertions rather than arguments. He claims that this view came from Bohr and others who wanted to defend quantum mechanics from certain objections in the early part of the 20th century. To do so, they argued that what appeared to be problems with quantum mechanics was, in fact, problems with the limits of science. The fact that quantum mechanics could not explain certain types of outcomes was not reason enough to question quantum mechanics (as we would have questioned other theories). It was reason enough, so these theorists argued, to to hold that science itself will remain perpetually unable to answer these questions.

To counter this view, Albert asserts that there are now theories on the table that suggest that the original problem was not with the fundamental limits of science, but with quantum mechanics itself. The reason that quantum mechanics fails to answer particular questions is because quantum mechanics needs to be replaced by a better theory that can answer these questions.

For the most part, I have no way to assess his claim that there are these alternative theories exist and that they have the implications he attributes to them. The only way that I have to assess whether his claims have merit is whether the members of the audience (who know more than I do) will accept them or reject them. Even that is hard to determine.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


One of the areas in which theists like to attack atheist value theorists is on the absence of hope. The argument is that no atheist theory can provide people with hope, and that in the absence of religion a person’s life is filled with despair.

Bill Gray recently wrote an article, Faith the Assurance - Hope the Heartbeat lamenting the atheist’s lack of hope. In The Conservative Voice he wrote,

So, my Friend, when you say, "You have absolutely no shred of evidence for your belief. That is the difference between faith and science." I reply to you, "We have something much greater; we have hope. We have blessed assurance; for we have faith -- in the only eternal salvation offered to man, Jesus Christ."

“Hope” in this sense is the product of the snake-oil salesman. “If you by Dr. Smith’s special elixir, you will be buying the hope that your arthritis will go away, you will be able to see again or to walk again, that your cancer will go away. You will be buying hope in an eternal afterlife.”

Hope is all that the customer is buying in this case, because “Dr. Smith’s elixir” does not deliver any of these things.

One of the things that science has the ability to do is to put those who use Dr. Smith’s elixir in a study group, put a comparable group of people in a control group, and (at least for most of these claims) tell us whether Dr. Smith’s customers are buying anything more than ‘hope’. Is it the case that people in the study group suffer less from arthritis, blindness, paralysis, cancer, or the like?

The answer has always been, ‘no’.

There are studies that show that people in the study group are ‘happier’ than people in the control group. They may well be happier because they have the false belief that they are taking something that has the power to cure arthritis, blindness, paralysis, or cancer. Yet, this is the false happiness. This is the same ‘happiness’ that we might find in somebody permanently locked in good dream, where they are imagining themselves being wealthy and popular, while, in the real world, they are rotting away in a hospital bed with no chance of rejoining the real world.

Gray wrote:

My Friend, you may grow warm and fuzzy in the warmth of your religion, your belief system, science. You may even get a warm glow from your glass of wine or your drink of strong spirits; but, in the end the only thing they will give you is a muddled mind and an unpleasant after-effect.

Actually, I do grow warm and fuzzy in a blanket of science. Well, warm, at least. Science provides me with the energy that I use to heat my home. That energy is available because scientists who have studied geology have discovered stores of fuel that they have also learned how to transmit to my home where I can burn it. Science provides the insulation so that I do not need to burn a lot of fuel. Science provides the electricity that runs my stove, and it fills the store across the street with groceries from all over the world – year round.

People for thousands of years have prayed for good crops – for enough to eat, and for a mild winter that will not kill too many of their members off. None of this praying as ever provided an ounce of food or warmth. It has provided them only with Dr. Smith’s snake oil – a hope for warmth that had no bearing on reality.

Science has delivered on the promises that religion has never been able to keep. Give up on Dr. Smith’s useless elixir and go, instead, to see what the scientist is selling, and you will find a product that is clinically proven to produce the results that are promised. Indeed, it is the very nature of science to provide proven results. It is the nature of religion to sell false hope that produces no measurable real-world effect.

In fact, our only real hope rests with science – with understanding the world around us well enough to the harms it would otherwise inflict on us and to obtain those things we value. My wife could not live without science. A brain tumor when she was a child would have killed her at a very young age if the only thing available to her was a priest’s ‘hope’. She would be dead today without the pacemaker in her chest – another gift that science has delivered.

Science has given us hurricane tracking systems that give people hope that they can survive the next category 5 hurricane, not by praying that it will do no harm, but by knowing when it was coming so they can get out of the way. Science has given coastal residents the hope that they can survive the next tsunami because of a tsunami warning system that scientists have set up. Science provides hope that more of us will survive the next pandemic, that there will be food on the table next year and the year after that.

Science provides us with tons of hope.

And science, unlike religion, actually delivers on its promises.

Yet, even with this, the situation is worse than I have portrayed it. This is because Dr. Smith’s snake oil not only fails to provide any real solutions to the world’s problems, it actually makes many of those problems worse. Dr. Smith’s snake oil is not just an impotent elixir, it is a poison.

I do not mean by this that religion poisons everything as Christopher Hitchens claims. I mean by this the more modest claim that some religion does real harm. Mr. Smith’s snake oil comes in a number of different formulae. Some formulations are relatively harmless. Some formulations have been known to wipe out whole nations.

One of the poisonous effects of Dr. Smith’s elixir is that it prevents people from pursuing options that really do help. They buy Dr. Smith’s elixir and they buy the hope that their arthritis will be cured, and in doing so they avoid the treatment that the scientist could provide.

We have people who think that we can alter the course of hurricanes and prevent earthquakes by banning gay marriage and homosexuality and instituting prayer in school. When, in fact, the best way to save lives in the face of hurricanes and earthquakes is to study them scientifically, use what we have learned in our engineering and in emergency response planning, and teaching people the scientific facts behind these type of phenomena.

These people add to our misery in two ways. They sacrifice innocent people in order to try to control natural disasters in the same way that ancient tribal shaman would sacrifice virgins to try to appease the gods. They justify their actions by making unsubstantiated claims of the ‘good’ that would come from such a sacrifice. While they are engaging in these practices of human sacrifice, they are diverting attention and resources away from policies and procedures that might actually produce scientifically measurable benefits – benefits that come from an accurate understanding of the phenomenon in question.

So, here we have the tribal shaman ready to sacrifice a virgin to the volcano in order to save the village. He stands there with the knife in his hand bragging about how he, and he alone, delivers ‘hope’ to the villagers – the hope that their village will be saved. When, in fact, the only thing the shaman provides is a dead virgin.

The shaman says that he delivers hope – that this is the good that his sacrifices provide. This may be true. A gullible people might actually find ‘hope’ in the shaman’s superstitions.

However, while the shaman is busy providing the villagers with (false) hope, the scientist actually delivers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Considering Other Views

In today’s post, I would like to encourage you to take some steps to avoid a very common and very dangerous human disposition – the disposition to read or to watch only those things that conform to our world view, and to ignore anything that might conflict with it. In selecting what we read or view, we are not actually seeking to learn something new. We are seeking to find something that confirms the things we already (think we) know – to derive comfort from ‘evidence’ that our world view is intact.

Even when we do look at things we disagree with, we tend to do so with the attitude that, “This person is wrong. So, where is that mistake?” I had a philosophy professor who described the average experience of a philosophy faculty member when attending a presentation at a conference. He listens to the paper until the speaker says something the listener disagrees with. Then, the listener latches onto that ‘error’, forms a question that he will ask at the end of the presentation, and does not go any further.

If the reader or listener does not find something that is ‘obviously wrong’ with the other person’s presentation, then he will interpret an error into that presentation. He will study the material until he can find an interpretation that he can attack, and that is what he will attack.

These are tendencies, not natural laws. There are a great many exceptions. However, the number of people who claim, “I have given a fair hearing to views contrary to my own,” who are wrong is substantially greater than the number of people who claim, “I have not given a fair hearing to views contrary to my own,” who are wrong. There is an orders of magnitude difference.

In my own intellectual history, there are two cases where the effect of encountering ideas that contradicted my own thinking were extremely influential.

In the first case, since I was 16 years old, I called myself a libertarian. I remember thinking, “These ideas are so obvious that I cannot imagine how anybody would question them. How can any sane person say they are mistaken?” I said this to one of my libertarian friends, and followed it up with, “But, obviously, there are a lot of people who think that these ideas are wrong. Can you provide me with something that somebody has to say against this view? I want to find out why they object.”

He handed me an article. I do not remember the source, but I remember the content of that article. The author wrote that the libertarian philosophy violates the classic is/ought distinction. Libertarian philosophy begins with a series of ‘is’ statements like, ‘man qua man is a rational animal,’ and from this it draws the whole set of libertarian moral principles such as, “It is always wrong to engage in aggression against another person,” and, “Taxation is theft.” However, it fails to explain how one can go from ‘is’ premises to ‘ought’ conclusions – how prescriptive conclusions can be derived from purely descriptive premises. The arguments they give typically take the form, “See, it is clearly possible to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’, because that is what I do in this argument.

Regular readers know that I object to the is/ought distinction. It is not the case that I believe, as many do, that this gulf cannot be crossed – only that the libertarians fail to do so. Against the is/ought distinction, I argue that postulating two different types of ‘relationships’ is as problematic as postulating two different types of ‘entities’ – minds and brains, for example, or material and immaterial substance. Dualism in any form is an exceptional claim that requires exceptional proof – or at least some evidence that the second entity exists.

In the case of is/ought dualism, there is no evidence. Hume’s own argument for the distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ is an argument from ignorance. He asserts only that he imagine how it can be done – that ought can be derived from is. He forces us to choose between two options: (1) that Hume is suffering from a lack of imagination, and (2) that a we live in a universe with two types of relationships that are distinct and separate from each other yet somehow interact. Of the two, “failure of the imagination” is the more likely culprit. The claim that one cannot imagine how ought can be derived from is does as poor a job of proving two types of relationships as the inability to imagine how live could have evolved does at proving the existence of God.

So, one consequence of asking, “Why do people disagree with this view that I think is unquestionable?” is that I gave up libertarianism.

Another significant incident in which exposure to views that contradicted my own produced significant results happened while I was in graduate school. I went to graduate school to study value theory (specifically, moral philosophy). Yet, the Philosophy department graduate program required that I take 6 of my 12 classes in fields outside of moral philosophy. I was forced to take a class in the philosophy of science, and ultimately enrolled in a class in the philosophy of psychology.

Science has absolutely nothing to do with morality, or so I believed, so there was absolutely nothing that I could learn in a science class that would be relevant to my interests in value theory. This was the whole ‘is/ought’ problem again, back when I believed the received view that no ‘ought’ could be derived from an ‘is’.

My teacher in that class, Dr. Georges Rey, quickly got into a discussion of ‘folk psychology’ or the ‘theory’ theory of beliefs and desires. On this account, beliefs are propositional attitudes. A person who ‘believes that P’ (for some proposition P) has the attitude that P is true, and will behave as if P is true, to whatever degree he is able to do so. If he believes that a glass contains clean water, he will drink it if thirsty, even if (in truth) the contents are poison. Desires, on this model are also propositional attitudes. A ‘desire that P’ for some proposition P is a motivational attitude that a proposition P is to be made or kept true.

Desires are reason for action. And, insofar as beliefs and desires are scientifically significant entities (like black holes, things we cannot see but which we can know about through their effects), we can, in fact, link reasons for action (the foundation for all ‘ought’ statements) to the world of science.

In this case, I did not look for material that proved that an earlier view of mine was mistaken. I found one nonetheless when I was forced to confront material that I thought was entirely irrelevant to my interests.

We should resolve to confront material we do not agree with – and to confront it with the idea that the people who wrote that material are at least as smart as we are, and might well have something useful to say.

Now, there is a limit to this. If one has made a fair effort to confront an opposing view, and has already engaged it, there is less of a need to continue to confront that view. As a philosophy graduate student, I was forced to engage a number of arguments for the existence of God, and the flaws with those arguments. I have not read every new book that comes out arguing for God’s existence or against the ideas presented by people such as Dawkins and Harris. Then again, I am waiting for people who are experts in that field to announce that somebody has thought up something new.

I take a similar attitude to the idea that there is an ‘evolved’ sense of morality – that morality can be traced back to a series of evolved traits. As I see it, this view is as easily defeated as the Divine Command theory of ethics, using almost exactly the same argument.

When somebody claims that morality comes about through evolution, I ask him to answer a simple question; “Is X moral because it is loved by our genes, or is it loved by our genes because it is moral?” If they say that X is moral because it is loved by our genes, then, if our genes loved killing our stepchildren (as lion males do when they take over a pride) then this would be moral. Tribalism, racism, and rape might ultimately be moral, to the degree that evolution has selected these dispositions.

On the other hand, if the genetic moralist makes the opposite claim that X is loved by our genes because it is good, then the genetic moralist needs to (1) provide an account of what ‘goodness’ is that is independent of evolution, and (2) explain how it is that our genes came to select goodness when, at least hypothetically, evil might have had evolutionary advantages in some cases.

I feel no need to listen to an evolutionary moralist until I find one who is aware of this problem and has an answer to it. It is sufficient, in cases such as this, to wait for somebody to come along who can actually make a serious attempt to answer the question.

This is not the type of closed-mindedness that I spoke about above. This is an example of saying, “I want to hear your response to this problem with your views.” The type of behavior I am condemning above is not exhibited by people who ask questions of other views and demand an answer. It is exhibited by the person who does not ask, or who does not listen to the answers provided, or both.

This is not an easy task. I worry every day whether I am capable of giving objections to my own ideas a fair hearing. It would be arrogant, and wrong (as in mistaken) for me to claim that, even though I am human, I have risen above these human failings. I am as susceptible as others. Moral responsibility comes from recognizing short-comings such as this, and making an effort to prevent them from causing you (or me) from doing harms that a more open-minded person and intellectually honest person could have avoided.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Morally Culpable Stupidity

Unorothodox Atheism has a post, “I Want To Cry”, containing a video that tells of people explaining their reasons for supporting Huckabee and their objections to other candidates. A relevant fact about this video is that many of the claims expressed in the video are false.

Reed Brandon, the author of the blog post that exposes many of the false claims and assumptions that appear in the video. I want to add a moral dimension. Everybody makes mistakes – everybody gets the facts wrong from time to time. Usually, these are non-culpable mistakes. However, we all have an obligation to avoid mistakes. When people get too careless, their mistakes become morally culpable. They prove by their actions that they do not care about the types of things that morally concerned people care about.

The first mistake that Brandon mentions finding in the video is the claim that Barack Obama has asked to use the Koran for his swearing-in ceremony if he is elected as President. This is a widely spread internet rumor. It is also completely false.

I have made the point repeatedly that we can learn something about a person’s moral character by the mistakes that they make. When a person adopts a conclusion that is not, in fact, supported by the available evidence, we have reason to ask what caused them to embrace that particular conclusion. If it is not the evidence that brought the agent to a particular conclusion, then it must have been something else. One of the things that commonly affects our beliefs are our desires. When we know something of a person’s desires, we know something of his or her moral character.

Why did these people want to believe the lie that Obama has asked to use a Koran?

Actually, there are two issues that are relevant here. The first relevant question is, “What should it matter that a person wishes to be sworn in under the Koran as opposed to the Bible?” These speakers obviously believe that being a Muslim makes one unfit for leadership. They have an aversion to somebody who would take their oath on the Koran being President.

Would a good person have such an aversion?

Some atheists have the same aversion. To be fair, some have the same aversion to the idea of a person who will take an oath on the Christian Bible serving as President. However, this post is not about what ‘some people’ will do, it is about what a good person would do.

The concepts of ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ represent a wide variety of attitudes. So does the concept of ‘Atheist’. It is simply not the case that, if you know that one person is a Muslim and another is an Atheist, that you can automatically know which is best suited to be President. Among our moral responsibilities is a responsibility to make sure that we elect the best candidate. We have an obligation to make sure that we do not base our decisions on irrelevant or inaccurate criteria.

The morally responsible person recognizes these facts. The person who does not recognize and respect these facts are guilty of a moral failing.

This is just one example of a mistake that shows up in this video where the speakers ought to have known better (where a morally responsible person would have known better). Another internet rumor that found its way into the video was the claim that Obama refuses to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. The evidence for that comes from a clip in which Obama did not put his hand over his heart during the National Anthem. These speakers exhibited absolutely no curiosity or interest in discovering the fact of the matter. They have no love of truth. Indeed, they show that they are the type of person who will eagerly embrace a lie.

Now, I would like to introduce another fact into this analysis. There are people in the lives of those who created this video who have taken it upon themselves to be the ‘moral advisors’ to their flock. They say, “Come to me for moral advice.”

A person who accepts that type of authority also accepts a certain amount of additional moral responsibility. For example, a person who does not pretend to have any special training in medicine gives you advice on how to avoid a flu, this advice can be taken with a grain of salt. People know that the advice is ill informed. However, when a person claims to be a physician – a medical expert – this obligates him to provide better medical advice than one’s next-door neighbor (unless one’s next door neighbor is a physician).

This is an obligation that I recognize myself to be under when I write this blog. With each posting, I recognize that there is a particular danger that I may promote as good that which is in fact evil, or that I may be arguing for people to avoid as evil that which is in fact good. Whenever a person makes a moral mistake of this type, it follows as a matter of definition that innocent people will suffer, or guilty people will be rewarded. It is the very nature of a moral failing that it comes with these types of consequences. A responsible person recognizes and respects these facts.

Who are the people that these agents take to be ‘moral advisors’, and why are they not telling these people of the moral obligation to get their facts rights – to care about the truth and to take care that the claims they make about people are, in fact, true.

In this case, it turns out that one of the speakers herself is somebody who has taken on the mantle of ‘moral advisor’. One of the speakers identifies herself as Karen Sanders. Not only is she failing to provide moral guidance (advising the other speaker on the need to make sure that accusations are true before they are made), she is one of the agents exhibiting the morally objectionable behavior in the video.

This is a culture that completely fails to recognize the moral significance of important moral obligations such as an obligation to check one’s facts.

I want to stress that I am not speaking here about the religious claims that these people defend. I am talking about simple facts such as those concerning Obama – facts that can be easily verified or falsified. It is here that these people exhibit the moral failing of intellectual responsibility.

We can extrapolate from this to conclusions that they show the same immorality with respect to their religious beliefs. It may well be possible to make the case that their religion teaches moral irresponsibility in this regard. It teaches people to form reckless beliefs and to fail (or refuse) to live up to their moral responsibility to make sure that they claims they make are true. They teach people to be reckless in ways that cost people’s lives. All of these inferences are possible. However, I do not need to prove that they are true to make the moral case. Outside of the realm of religion – inside the realm where facts can be easily verified or falsified, even here they exhibit a morally culpable level of intellectual irresponsibility when it comes to what they believe and what they assert to be true.

We could say that this is a culture that does not recognize intellectual responsibilities – that suffers from simple ignorance of the fact that people should be held accountable for culpable mistakes of belief. However, this can easily be proved false. There is no doubt that these people would condemn the engineer or the doctor who made a mistake that proved costly to them. There is no doubt that they could condemn the gossipy neighbor where they were the victims of other peoples’ intellectual recklessness rather than those who are victimizing others. They are hypocrites who simply refuse to abide by a moral obligation that they know exists. They know, but they do not care.

Intellectually reckless people are a danger to others. They kill and maim far more people in the world than drunk drivers. Intellectually reckless people prevent us from taking timely action that could have saved hundreds of millions of lives and trillions of dollars worth of property. Intellectually reckless people order an attack on Iraq that does not turn out at all the way they (intellectually recklessly) think it will turn out.

We have a lot of good reason to invest some time and effort into using social forces such as condemnation to reduce the numbers of intellectually reckless people. Our lives will be healthier, safer, and longer if we do.

There are more people to condemn here - to morally condemn - than just those who spoke. Condemnation also belongs to those who helped to create and promote this video, and any who applaud it as if these characters are exhibiting some sort of moral virtue. This praise of stupidity will only help to ensure that more people suffer from more mistakes made by the intellectually reckless.

In fact, the intellectually reckless doctor, engineer, or other professional can go to jail, and should go to jail.

We should be no less judgmental when it comes to the actions of the intellectually reckless moralist.

Perspective on the Pledge - Part 8: The Hearing

Superintendant Brian Thomas called the administrative hearing into session.

There was no official location for these meetings; the administrators simply took over one of the classrooms for a couple of hours. Three administrators, presiding over the meeting, sat in three comfortable office chairs that had been rolled into the room and set behind a collapsible table. Principle Hadley set up his station at the teacher’s desk, while Shawn was invited to take one of the student’s seats. His mother sat quietly at the back of the room in one corner while Ms. Shelby Johnson stood in the back near the other corner.

The night before, Shawn had asked his mother not to interfere in the hearing. He said that he knew that the administrators were going to decide against him, and that there was nothing he could do about that – or, more precisely, nothing he was willing to do.

“I can continue studying even if I’m not going to school,” Shawn had told his mother. “However, there’s a rule that says that schools have to provide an atmosphere that is not hostile to students based on their race. Teachers cannot denigrate students based as their race. Yet, clearly, this is what the pledging allegiance to a white nation does – it tells the students that pledging allegiance to a white nation is as much a part of patriotism as pledging allegiance to liberty and justice for all. So, after the hearing, I can challenge the school for not living up to its obligations here. This hearing is not the final say on the matter.”

Shawn could see that his mother was trying to hold back tears. “You know, a lot of people leave high school every year saying that they can study at home and still get a degree. But, it almost never works out. Once they’re out of school, life gets in the way. Time just seems to slip by until they find themselves sitting in a cheap apartment with a wife and three kids on a winter night wondering how they’re going to pay to replace the heater.”

“It’ll be different with me, mom. I know how important it is to have an education.”

“Every one of those other students said that it would be different with them, too. It just never turns out to be much different. I want you to stay in school, Shawn. I don’t want to see you on the street.”

“Mom, I’ll get up at 6:30 like I always do. I’ll study just like I do in school every day. If I get a job, it will be in the evening or on weekends. But, I have to do this, mom. I can’t go back into that school and say that they’re doing nothing wrong when they say that dad wasn’t a patriot. I can’t go back into that school and say that there is nothing wrong with a so-called patriotic ritual that says that patriotism requires opposition to having black leaders. What they’re doing isn’t right, and I am past the point where I can say that it doesn’t matter.”

Shawn’s mother simply nodded her head in agreement. She could not speak. So, at the hearing, Shawn’s mom sat and fiddled with the strap to her purse while she listened to the hearing.

Superintendent Thomas announced the business of the hearing. “Shawn Adams, I assume that you have been given a copy of Principal Hadley’s argument as to why you should be removed from this school. According to Mr. Hadley, you insist on disrupting class by pledging allegiance to ‘one black nation’ after the rest of the students give proper pledge of allegiance of allegiance to a white nation. Of course, we cannot allow students to disrupt class. Is it true that you insist on this disruption?”

“No, sir,” Shawn answered.

Superintendant Thomas folded his hands on the desk. “Would you mind explaining that answer?”

“I have a question first, sir.” Shawn said.

“Go ahead.”

“When the rest of the class stands and pledges allegiance to a white nation, and I sit in my desk patiently waiting for them to finish, are they guilty of causing a disruption?”

“That’s not the same thing!” Hadley shouted, rising out of his chair.

Thomas waved Hadley back. “You’ll have your turn, Principal Hadley.”

“That’s my question, Mr. Thomas,” Shawn said. “Why is it different? If they can pledge allegiance to a white nation while I sit quietly and if that is not a disturbance, then why is it a disturbance to allow me the opportunity to pledge allegiance to a black nation while they sit quietly?”

“And are we to require that each student who has their own favorite version of the pledge be given time as well? I would ask you, Mr. Adams, when you expect to actually have time to hold class.”

“No, sir. I think it is absolutely true that a patriotic Amerycan will support liberty and justice for all. If somebody wants to pledge allegiance to tyranny and injustice, then they are simply wrong to do so. The school has no need to allow equal time to such an absurdity. It’s just as absurd to have a pledge allegiance where a student pledges himself to rebellion against the very government he is supposedly pledging allegiance to. So, there is no sense in allowing a student to pledge allegiance to one nation, divided. So, no, you do not need to allow equal time for those other options. But it is absurd, as a matter of fact, to claim that a patriot must support a white nation in the same way he must support union, liberty, and justice for all.”

“Mr. Adams, state law requires that students start each day with the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“That is exactly what I am doing, Mr. Thomas. I stand. I pledge allegiance to the flag. Mr. Hadley says that this is a disturbance, but I am doing the same thing that the other students have done.”

“Yet, you pledge allegiance to a black nation, Mr. Adams,” Thomas said.

“Only to counter your pledge of allegiance to a white nation. My point is that we should not be pledging allegiance to a nation that is white or black. We shouldn’t even mention race in our pledge of allegiance because a loyal Amerycan should not care what race our leaders are. However, since you are pledging allegiance to a white nation, I figure that a pledge of allegiance to a black nation strikes an appropriate balance.”

“None of that matters, Mr. Adams. Your outburst is clearly not a part of the formal ceremony. If you were in a chorus, Mr. Adams, and you start to sing a particular song after everybody else has finished singing it, then you would be accused of disrupting the concert and justifiably removed. If you wish to pledge allegiance to the flag, which I think any good Amerycan citizen would do, then you can do so at the same time as everybody else. If you do not wish to show your patriotism by pledging allegiance to a white nation, you may remain seated and remain silent. You may not disrupt the chorus by standing up and giving your solo performance because you don’t like the arrangement.”

“I have no problem pledging allegiance to the flag, Mr. Thomas. Some do. I will let them make their own case. I so not share that view. My father thought that this country was worth risking his life to defend, but not because it is a ‘white nation’. He fought to defend a country with liberty and justice for all . . . white or black. In fact, that is why he would have opposed pledging allegiance to a white nation, because we can either pledge allegiance to a white nation, or we can pledge allegiance to a nation with justice for all. We can do one or the other. We cannot do both. Any only a nation with justice for all is truly worth dying for.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your father, Mr. Adams, but his sacrifice, however noble, is not relevant to this case. This case concerns whether or not you insist on disrupting a class by stating an unapproved pledge out of turn with the rest of the class.”

“I don’t see that as the real question, Mr. Thomas. I think that the real question is whether a teacher has the right to stand in front of a class and denigrate her students because of their race as a matter of government policy,” Shawn said. He looked back at Ms. Johnson and mouthed the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ before he continued. “I think that the real question is whether a student should be expected to sit and do nothing while a teacher leads the class in a ritual that insults and denigrates his father. Would you sit and do nothing if somebody denigrated somebody you cared about and admired, Mr. Thomas? Pledging allegiance to a white nation means saying that my father is as unpatriotic as anybody who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice, Mr. Thomas. Why should I put up with that?”

“Your teacher is doing what the law requires, Mr. Adams. If you have a complaint, you should take it up with the government.”

“A government made up entirely of white people, Mr. Thomas – people who love power and who think that having children pledge allegiance to a white nation is a good way to hold on to that power. You have made a perfect trap for people like me. I can’t get the legislature to listen to me until it is possible for a legislator to question the morality of pledging allegiance to white power without being removed from office. So, I have to take my case to the people. But those people live under a government where, from the time they are six, they are taught to pledge allegiance to white power. It’s a perfect circle, Mr. Thomas. White politicians have students pledging allegiance to white power, who then make sure that only white people get elected into public office. Unfortunately, it is a circle that leaves justice locked on the outside.”

“Your difficulties in approaching the legislature do not argue for your right to disrupt class with your personal, private, political protest, Mr. Adams. We have no obligation to provide you with a soap box during class time and a captive audience. In fact, we have an obligation to prevent you from disrupting our mission to use class time for classroom instruction.”

“But the legislature can demand the use of class time to teach students that real Amerycan patriots support white power.”

Principal Hadley suddenly stood and shouted, “Yes! Yes, Shawn. The legislature has every right to make sure that students learn patriotism along with math, science, and grammar. Patriotism is an important lesson, and we will, in fact, teach our students to be patriotic Amerycans even if the legislature did not require it.”

Shawn answered, “The only way the Pledge can be patriotic is if we accept the assumption that patriots must support a white nation, and those who do not support a white nation cannot be patriots.”

“Yes, Shawn. Patriots support a white nation. People who do not support a white nation are not patriots. Is it even possible for anything to be more obvious? All of our founding fathers were white. Eighty-seven percent of Amerycans are white. Ameryca is a white nation. If you are not pledging allegiance to a white nation, then you are not pledging allegiance to Ameryca. It is as simple as that.”

“And white people cannot possibly accept a black leader,” Shawn said.

“We need people who are white to lead this country. True Amerycans want their leaders to be white. White people have a moral sense, whereas black people have no reason to be interested in anything but themselves. No true patriot is not going to willingly turn this country over to such a person. He’s going to insist that our leaders have a moral sense. He is going to insist that our leaders are white.”

“Enough,” said Thomas. “The purpose of this hearing is not to discuss the merits of the Pledge of Allegiance. We are not here to overrule the legislature, we are here to obey the legislature. The legislature requires a pledge of allegiance to a white nation, and that is what we do. The legislature requires that the rest of the class period be devoted to classroom instruction, and that is also what we will do. If the legislature sets aside a minute at the start of each class for student political speeches, then we will obey that law as well. But that is not the law we are living under today. The law we have today, Mr. Adams, says that you will either participate in the nationally recognized pledge of allegiance to a white nation or sit quietly while the rest of us do so, and then participate in standard classroom instruction. Are you prepared to follow those requirements?”

“The legislature has no right to have students pledging allegiance to white power,” Shawn repeated.

“That is irrelevant, Mr. Adams. If you have nothing new to add, we ask that you clear the room while we discuss our decision. We will summon you when we are ready. Don’t go very far, I don’t think that this will take long.”

Shawn rose, gathered his books, and walked to the back of the room. There, he took his mother’s arm and walked her out of the room. Professor Hadley was close behind. He moved a short distance down the hall and took out his cell phone to place a call. Ms. Johnson stood by herself as well, leaning against the wall, with her arms folded in front of her.

It took only a few minutes for the committee to summon them back into the room. Superintendent Thomas called Shawn before the table and said, “This wasn’t even worth our time to debate, Shawn. Clearly you intend to disrupt class. Clearly, we cannot allow that. If you cannot attend class without disruption, then you may not attend class. You may, if you wish, apply for readmission next semester. We will be happy to have you back. However, your readmission will be contingent on exactly the same conditions that I have set before you today. It requires your personal commitment not to disrupt class you’re your silly demonstrations. You are hereby expelled. You may clean out your locker.”

At the end of the speech, Thomas handed over a copy of the expulsion order, which the three judges had all signed and dated. They then stood and left the room. Principal Hadley left with them, chatting happily about how they had made the right decision.

Shawn turned and saw his mom still sitting, holding a tissue to her eyes. He also noticed Ms. Johnson, standing motionless. Shawn struggled to think of something to say, but he could not. He simply picked up his backpack and walked back his mom. He told the guard that he did not need to go back to his locker, since he had already packed the last of his belongings into his backpack. Together with his mom, they left the building.