Monday, March 31, 2008

I Have No Faith in Science

I have no faith in science.

This does not mean that I reject science – nothing can be further from the truth. What it means is that the decision to go with the scientifically best results is not a matter of faith. Accusations to the contrary – accusations that going with science is a matter of faith – are nothing more than political propaganda. It is a part of a system of lies, distortions, and misrepresentations that aim to portray the decision to go with science as something other than (worse than) what it is in fact.

Scientists have to prove their claims, and is characterized by this need for proof over faith.

For example, let’s say that your 11 year old daughter is sick. You have the option of taking her to a doctor, who will then make a diagnosis and try to treat her. You also have the option to pray in the hopes that prayer alone will cure her. This is not a conflict between two different kinds of faith. This is a conflict between faith and a completely different way of examining options – the way of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and theorizing.

Of course, this example comes from a recent case in which a Wisconsin couple spent 30 days watching their child die while they prayed for her recovery. An autopsy showed that she died from a treatable complication of diabetes.

Science works by taking similar sets of circumstances and actually studying them, and taking notes, in order to determine regularities in the events that occur within those circumstances. For example, a legitimate scientific experiment would take 300 11-year-old girls showing symptoms of a disease like diabetes, and randomly assigning them to two groups.

Group 1 will be our control group. We’re not going to do anything for them, other than normal care and feeding. We will see here what happens in the absence of care.

Group 2 children will be prayed for. We will go to a group of churches and ask them to get their members to pray as hard as they can to their God that the God will save these girls.

Group 3 children will be given medical treatment. This medical treatment will use blood tests, MRIs, descriptions of the symptoms, and other observations to make a diagnosis. From that diagnosis, they will prescribe a form of treatment that historically has the best track record at causing 11 year old girls with those symptoms to get better and live long and healthy lives. This ‘historically best track record’ has been determined by a long history of observations in which methods of treatment with higher chances of success routinely replaced methods with lower chances of success – methods like those use in Group 1 and Group 2.

We then look at which option has the better success rate. We then ask the question, “If I had an 11 year old daughter showing these symptoms, and I cared about her survival, which option gives her the best chance of survival?”

It is quite possible that some of the children in Group 1 might survive. Human bodies are complex entities, and illnesses are complex events. As such, we can expect to hear stories of people with a particular illness who seem to get better on their own, without any help. For the purposes of this story, let us say that 1% of the children show this type of spontaneous cure. Or, in this case, one child in our control group gets better without any treatment.

We can also expect that some children in the second group will get better as well. The same complex factors of human biology and the nature of different illnesses make it possible that a child who is being prayed for will get better. This is precisely why scientists use a control group. Just because a child that is being prayed for gets better, this does not prove that the child has gotten better because of the prayer. In order to determine that prayer helps, we need evidence that children who are prayed for have a higher percentage chance of survival over children not being prayed for. If we see a 1% success rate in Group 2 – if only one of the prayed-for children survive, then we have reason to chalk that one survival up to random chance.

This is one area where the advocates of Group 2 treatment fall into significant (and often fatal) error. One child survives. We can then expect – as certainly as water flows downhill – that the family of the one survivor will call this ‘a miracle’, and use this fluke accident to proclaim that their faith is superior to all other faiths, because their faith worked. They will instantly declare, without evidence or reason, that this child deserved to live and that God has decided to bless her, inferring that the 99 other children deserved to die, or that God did not care so much about them. When, in fact, we are dealing with the effects of random chance, with a child that would have gotten better even without prayer.

We can see the difference when we look at Group 3. We give Group 3 children to a group of doctors. Those doctors have learned that tests conducted on children with this particular group of symptoms show that their body produces less insulin than that of children who do not have these symptoms. They have also conducted experiments that involve measuring blood sugar on a regular basis, and giving insulin injections to children whose blood sugar gets too low.

At first (let us assume) children who were subject to this type of treatment had only a 30% chance of survival. However, through years of observation and experimentation, doctors have found similarities between those who survive and those who do not. This has caused them to alter their procedures. Now, the survival rate is 99%. For some reason, the treatment just does not work on some children, and they die in spite of the best efforts of the medical profession.

Now, a parent with a sick 11-year-old daughter has a choice. They can choose the same option as the children in Group 1, in which their daughter will have a 1% chance of survival. They can choose the same option as the children in Gorup 2, which also gives a 1% chance of survival. Or they can go with the option used in Group 3, where 99% of the children will survive.

This is not a matter of faith. This is a matter of brute fact. The people who choose Group 3 are not, in any way, expressing faith that this method will save their child. Indeed, they should enter Group 3 with the knowledge and expectation that they still have a 1% chance that their child will die. This is nothing less than the empirically verified result of using the Group 3 option. However, if they desire that their daughter live, then they have more and stronger reason to choose the Group 3 option for survival, than to choose either the Group 1 or Group 2 options.

However, here is the kicker. Let’s say that, in conducting this experiment, we get different results. Let’s say that of the Group 1 children, 1% will survive, just as before. However, we discover that of the Group 2 children, 90% of them survive. And, of the Group 3 option, only 30% of the children survive.

If this were the result, then science itself would dictate using the Group 2 option. Science itself would be saying – because the empirical facts demand that they say – that the rational option for any parents that value the survival of their children is the Group 2 option, if the results pointed in this direction. The reason that scientists in the real world pick the Group 3 option over the Group 2 option is not because they have ‘faith in science’. It is because the empirical evidence shows them that the Group 2 option does not work, and the Group 3 option does.

All parents who truly value the survival of their children should use the option that has been empirically shown to provide them with the best chance of survival. If it were the case that prayer actually improves a child’s chance of living, than scientists would be the first to shout, “Go with prayer!” However, if only 1% of those who go with prayer see their children survive, and 99% of those who go with medicine see their children survive, and if the survival of children is important, then the only sensible thing to do is to go with science.

The fact is, faith doesn’t work. The fact is, those who choose faith over science on the issue of keeping their children healthy, on the issue of keeping their nation fed, on the issue of protecting its citizens from natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, on the issue of defending the nation from outside aggression, end up failing far more often than those who go with science.

There is a simple reason for this. Science is built on comparing the results of different options and selecting the option that has the greatest effect.

This is not a matter of having faith in science. This is a matter of measuring the success of different options, and going with the option that has the highest success rate. Deciding whether or not to use medicine instead of prayer is not a matter of randomly choosing among options in complete ignorance of the possible outcomes. It is simply a matter of knowing that 99 > 1.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Imposing on the Majority

In writing the book, A Perspective on the Pledge, I tried to cover the bulk of the arguments used in favor of having ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. That is why it became a book – to cover arguments that I could not cover in the original story.

Some of those arguments made it into the book rather late in life, and never appeared in any blog site. One of those arguments concerned the objection that this is a democracy, and atheists (or, in the book, black people) are attempting to force their will on the majority by prohibiting the majority from pledging allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ (or, in the book, ‘one white nation’).

I gave the traditional answer to this that, in addition to majority rule there are certain minority rights where the minority does, in fact, have the right to force its will on the majority. For example, a majority that supports enslaving a minority can never make slavery legitimate. The minority who would be slaves have every right to protest and to ‘impose their will’ (that there be no slavery) on the majority.

Like I said, this is the traditional answer.

Yet, when I looked at the issue through the eyes of Shawn Henry, Shawn thought of a different answer. (I have, quite often, been surprised when, by putting an issue into the eyes of a fictional character, that the character comes up with a perspective that I never thought of.)

Ultimately, Shawn answered:

“Actually, no. I do not want to force my view on the majority. I want the majority to realize that only racist bigots would support such a proposal, and I want the majority to voluntarily decide not to be a bunch of racist bigots.”

Those of us who are identified as unpatriotic and inferior to true Americans in its Pledge and its national motto certainly are under no obligation to beg the majority to treat us as political equals. This is our right – something that we are perfectly within our rights to demand, just as slaves had the right to demand their freedom (regardless of whether they had the political strength to enforce that demand.

However, it is not actually an issue of forcing one’s will on the majority either. This characterization seems to hold the false assumption that the majority has a right to hold their particular opinion, and that there is nothing objectionable to being a part of the majority. To view the abolition of slavery as ‘the minority imposing its will on the majority’ is, in a sense, built on the false assumption that the majority have a right to hold the position that slavery is permissible. It gives the majority some sense of legitimacy as a majority, even if they may not legitimately act on their preference.

In reality, by raising a moral objection against slavery, a person is not saying that the minority has the right to impose its will on the majority. The person who is opposed to slavery is saying that the majority has every right to impose its view on the minority – and the legitimate view that the majority should be imposing on the minority is that slavery is wrong. If the majority instead holds that slavery is permissible, then that is a fault on the majority. They have no right to that position. There is absolutely no legitimacy in being a majority that accepts slavery.

Accordingly, in the case that I discuss in the book, which involves a pledge of allegiance to “one white nation”, I noticed that Shawn was not actually seeking to impose his will on the majority. Shawn was very much in favor of the idea of majority rule. Instead, what Shawn was after was for the majority to see that it was illegitimate to be imposing a pledge of allegiance to ‘one white nation’ on the country. The majority should be a group of people who see that this is wrong, and who are more than eager to impose the view that it is wrong on the minority, standing ready to condemn any person who does, in fact, pledge allegiance to ‘one white nation’.

It is not at all difficult to go from that case of pledging allegiance to ‘one white nation’ to the case of pledging allegiance to ‘one nation under God’. Both statements brand a subset of the community as inferior to their fellow citizens when the state has no legitimate authority to do so. The majority should see this and, after recognizing the injustice of pledging to view a segment of the population as inferior, be more than happy to impose their will on the minority. It’s just that their will should be that governments not have pledges or mottos that brand citizens that have every right to equal treatment before the law as inferiors.

Indeed, the classic way of viewing the objection that atheists are ‘imposing their will on the majority’ is through the assumption that the majority is always right. We can rest assured that if the Christian community know of Christians living within an atheist government, they would certainly be condemning any attempt to hold that Christians are the inferior citizens that need to be kept out of office. They would be demanding equal respect for their Christian brethren, and be ready to condemn any state that has its people pledging allegiance to ‘one nation, free of religious superstition’ or printing, ‘there is no god’ on its money.

In this, the religious majority demonstrates their hypocrisy. They recognize that, at a fundamental level, they know full well that no just and moral people would support such a pledge or a motto. They know that no fair and just people would support a motto that put them at a political disadvantage and they would see the right and the duty to protest any attempt to do so. They know that any talk about the right of the (atheist) majority to impose its will on the (theist) minority simply misses the point that the majority has such a right only insofar as its actions are fair and just. The majority has no right to impose its will on the minority when the majority has abandoned fairness and justice.

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision on ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’, we can expect to hear and read a great many people claiming about how this is a democracy and how the minority are trying to impose its will on the majority. We will be hearing a great many people saying that the minority, in virtue of the fact that they are the minority, should simply sit down and shut up and accept the dictates of the majority.

We can expect to hear a few people protest that majority rule needs to be weighed against minority rights. Yet, when this objection is raised against the Pledge, the defenders of ‘under God’ will portray the objection to the public in terms of atheists who are offended by the mere mention of God declaring that they have the right to prohibit others from mentioning their beliefs in public. We are trying to ‘drive God out of the public square.’

If we repeat of these tired, old arguments, like listening to an old and familiar song, we should be willing to expect the same tired, old results. The theocratic spin machine will raise a few hundred million dollars to feed a campaign to further portray atheists as un-American, just like the Pledge and the Motto say they are. They will use that money to persuade a substantial majority of the people will continue to see atheists as villains who want nothing other than to prevent Christians from mentioning god, ever, in public.

Empirically minded folks should be able to look at the results generated by the last time ‘under God’ became news, and extrapolate what will happen the next time, unless we decide to adjust a few of the input parameters.

So, writing about Shawn brought to mind a different tactic. Instead of answering the claim that we are trying to force our will on the majority, consider answering as Shawn answered.

I am not seeking to impose my will on the majority. I am seeking to get the majority to understand that a society that values fairness and justice would not have a majority that supports a pledge of allegiance that denigrates and demeans a segment of its population (blacks, in the story; those who do not believe in a god, in the real world). It would not make degrading a segment of its population on the basis of a belief about god a part of its national policy. I am not seeking to impose my will on the majority. I am trying to get the majority to impose a principle of equal respect under the law on itself.

When the defenders of ‘under God’ answer this argument, it will be easy to point out the simple fact, “‘Under God’ was not meant to promote religion in the same way that ‘with liberty and justice for all’ was not meant to promote liberty and justice for all.”

Or, “The Pledge equates Americans who are not under God with those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. What is that if not a case of the government deliberately demeaning and denigrating a segment of its population that is has no right to denigrate?”

Where, ultimately, the message is, "This is not an issue of a minority imposing its will on the majority. This is an issue of whether the majority is going to decide to do the right think and treat equal citizens with equal respect."

Saturday, March 29, 2008

E2.0: V.S. Ramachandran: Bridging Humanities and Science

This is the 28th 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.

V.S. Ramachandran came to the Beyond Belief 2 conference to support the idea that studying the brain can give us insights into aspects of culture by giving us a specific example. Specifically, he wants to argue against the idea that there are two fields of study – science and humanities, and that there is a fundamental difference between them. By studying the brain, he argues, we can link science and culture.

To illustrate this point, he intends to draw a line from a subject of brain study (synesthesia) to an aspect of culture (metaphor).

Synesthesia is a phenomena where (in the form that Ramachadran talks about) the agent sees numbers as being colored. Show him a number ‘5’ and he will see it as green, for example. The number ‘2’ will appear as red.

With something strange like this, Ramachandran takes it as his first challenge to show that this is real. He does this with a simple experiment. He takes a screen and covers it with the number ‘5’, except for a few instances of the number ‘2’. He then asks the subject of the experiment to tell him the shape that the ‘2’s’ form on the screen. Most people take a fair amount of time to identify the 2’s and to make out the shape that they form. Synesthedes, on the other hand, see the shape almost immediately – almost as easily as the rest of us would if the 2’s and 5’s were of sharply different color.

Okay, the phenomenon is real. Is it a visual phenomenon, or is it associated with the higher concept of a number? To show that it is visual, researchers show the subject a Roman numeral (e.g., a V for 5). The subjects report that there is no color. Or, they show the subject a large number 5’s made up of the number ‘3’ repeated over and over. Subjects who focus on the individual 3’s see one color, but see another color when they look at the overall image of the 5.

Ramachandran reports that they have come across higher-level synesthedes who do associate colors with number concepts such as the Roman numeral 5. That will become relevant later. For this initial account of the phenomenon, we are focusing on what is called grapheme -> color synesthesia.

There are some additional observations that Ramachandran introduces in order to improve our understanding of this quirk.

For example, synesthesia runs in families. This, of course, suggests that there is a genetic component. Somewhere, there is a gene, or a set of genes, that are responsible for some form of brain change that causes people to see colors when they see numbers.

Another piece of information relevant to our understanding is that the two relevant parts of the brain – the part that is used in the visual recognition of numbers, and the part that is used in the processing of colors, are right next to each other in the brain. As such, it is possible for a signal that gets sent to the part of the brain that recognizes the shape of numbers to leak over into the part that processes colors. The visual recognition of the shape of a ‘5’, in this case, could leak over and trigger a sensation in the part of the brain that processes colors of the color ‘green’.

A third relevant fact is that the brain of an infant contains far more connections than we have. During brain development, a number of connections get pruned away, which actually explains how we learn so rapidly in the first years of our life. It is not caused by forming new connections, but by getting rid of the noise in the brain that gets in the way of our ability to think.

So, we combine these three facts and then we ask a question. What would happen if there were some gene or combination of genes that affected this pruning process – preserving links between different parts of the brain that pruning would otherwise isolate from each other? Such a characteristic would preserve links between the section of the brain that processes number shapes and the section that processes colors, causing grapheme -> color synesthesia.

Now we have a theory that links several facts. From this theory we can draw additional implications, which then can be used to generate predictions, which can be used to verify or falsify the theory.

I mentioned above that there are other types of synethedes. There are forms that link sound to color, that link number-concepts to points in three-dimensional, that link days of the week to personality types.

So, let us suggest that this ‘lack of pruning’ that takes place is more general – affecting all parts of the brain. People who have this genetic characteristic, then, not only are in the habit of associating numbers with colors, but can potentially link any concept with any other concept.

Ramachandran wants to suggest that a synesthede would be particularly good at metaphor. He specifically uses Shakespeare’s example, What light through yonder window breaks It is the East and Juliet is the sun Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon. Who is already sick and pale with grief…

Another observation that Ramachandran has encountered in his research is that sunesthesia is about eight times more common in artistic types such as authors and poets as it is in the general population. The idea here is that, if this theory is correct and synesthesia is caused by diminished pruning of connections in the brain, itself allowing sections of the brain to be connected that would have otherwise been broken, then synesthedes would be better at metaphor than the general population. They simply think in terms of associations (like the association between numbers and color) that the rest of us do not have access to.

Ramachandran would be the first to acknowledge that additional work needs to be done. This is not yet a smooth and unbroken link from genetics to an aspect of culture (artistic ability). It is, however, a hint at the types of things that brain research may reveal. It does at least hint at the possibility that we can introduce some science into the humanities.

It is easy for Ramachandran to convince me that there can be a link between brain structure and the humanities because I already buy into the bedrock concepts on which such a claim is built. I have long argued for a link between biology and ethics – though I also hold that a great many evolutionary psychologists and moral psychologists are looking at the wrong parts of biology that significantly diminishes the quality and the importance of their work.

This is illustrated in an important question about synesthedes that Ramachandran simply avoided asking. Is this ‘quirk’, as he called it, a mental defect, or is it a special gift, or is it neutral (neither good nor bad). He mentioned how it is important that at least some of us in society not be too creative. For example, he claimed that we do not want a brain surgeon working on us to suddenly get creative. However, it may be useful to have some of us be creative, and that is why we have a genetic quality that affects only some of us.

This is a question of value. To determine whether a particular part of our mental functioning is an illness, or a gift, or neither, we must measure the value of that trait. The only way to measure value, I argue, is to measure the degree to which a trait will tend to fulfill or thwart desires – and, in particular, whether they will fulfill or thwart good desires. A mental quirk is not an illness or a defect merely because it is rare. In order to be a defect, it must thwart desires.

In this study, I could not see much of a reason to consider synesthesia to be desire-thwarting. In fact, it seemed effective at desire-fulfilling. It is something we have no reason to discourage, even if we do not have a particularly strong reason to promote.

This, then, is how we can at least start to link the humanities to science.

Friday, March 28, 2008

E2.0: John Allen Paulos: Probability and Error

This is the 27th 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 main purpose of education should be to turn children into adults who are capable of making intelligent decisions. We know, through a great deal of research, that there are certain types of errors that people too commonly make that derail their attempts to make plans or evaluate policy. So, we should have a mandatory class somewhere in our education system where children learn what these common mistakes are, why they are mistakes, and how to avoid them.

The next presenter on Enlightenment 2.0, John Allen Paulos, is a mathematician who went through a number of mistakes that people generally make concerning mathematics and probability. He focused specifically on mistakes that people make in arguments for the existence of God. Yet, these are general mistakes that generally interfere in an agent’s ability to make successful plans and evaluate policy.

The Odds of Tokens and Types

For example, there is the mistake of confusing the probability that some token event will occur versus the possibility that some type of event will occur. For example, a person is dealt 13 cards from a deck of cards. Whatever set of cards he gets, the odds of getting that particular combination of cards is extremely small. Yet, he was going to get some combination of cards – every one of which has the same minuscule chance of being the combination he actually receives.

Intelligent design proponents like to use the argument that the odds of a particular combination of events happening is so remote that there must be an intelligent designer at work to make it happen. Yet, this is like arguing that receiving a particular combination of cards is so remote that an intelligent dealer must have purposefully picked out those cards.

In another example of the same type of reasoning, I would like the reader to consider the odds that he or she would actually be here, in the universe, today given the amazing set of events that had to have happened in the past. Let’s just go back 2000 years. The chance meetings, births, deaths, pregnancies (planned and unplanned), the events that determined a person’s personality that determined with whom or whether they had sex with – the odds of my being here today are vanishingly small. I cannot even imagine how small those odds were. And this is just going back 2000 years. If we go back 200 million years, the odds become even smaller.

Yet, here I am.

If I were to follow the reasoning of the intelligent design theorists, the minuscule odds of my being here implies that there must have been an intelligence at work engineering everything that happened up to the point at which I was born, just to overcome those amazingly small odds. Everything else that happened in history – the wars, the plagues, the conquests, slavery, travel, everything – were merely side effects of this master plan to bring us into existence. Otherwise, the odds being what they were, we would not be here.

That’s absurd. Given the way things were 2000 years ago, it was certain that somebody would exist today, just as the bridge player was going to receive some combination of cards. The fact that I am one of those people – or that the hand in question was one of those hands – is not all that remarkable.

Conjunction Bias

Which option is more likely? Is it more likely that A will happen, or that A and B will happen? For example, if you were rolling a die, which is more likely? (1) that the first roll will be a ‘6’, or (B) that the first roll will be a ‘6’ and the second row will be a ‘6’? The first has to be more likely than the second. That much is obvious.

However, there is a set of experiments that show that if a story is told a particular way, a substantial portion of the people will say that ‘A and B’ is more likely than A alone. These experiments involve a story about a person (e.g., Linda). After hearing the story, the listener is asked, “Which is more common? (A) Linda became a college professor, or (B) Linda became a college professor and a political activist? Under certain telling of the story, people (mistakenly) choose B.

But option B is absurd. B can, at best, be equal to A.

Confirmation Bias

Paulos mentioned confirmation bias quickly, because it is a widely understood and recognized bias. However, in his brief mention he linked confirmation bias to the Gulf War – the bias that allowed an administration to see evidence it wanted to see and dismiss evidence suggesting conclusions it did not like.

This bias has cost the United States 4,000 lives, will ultimately cost over a trillion dollars, has killed hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and maimed countless more, did huge damage to the country in terms of a generation of children who will see no school or training to do any sophisticated work other than the manufacture of bombs.

All of this could have been avoided, perhaps, if our education system had decided to devote a few resources to classes that taught the American population about the traps that people get into and how to avoid them. The people would have had a better understanding of the types of pitfalls that might get us into an unnecessary expense of lives and money. The Bush Administration itself might have had a few more people who understood how to read evidence and to protect it from the chance that they were misreading it. Or (what is more likely) the Bush Administration would have continued to push its favorite interpretation on the American people who would have been better equipped at detecting their deception.

If the school system is supposed to be providing us with information that would help us make sound decisions, and information on the type of epistemic mistakes we are likely to make will help protect us from harm, then it follows that these premises that we should be giving our children knowledge about the types of mistakes we are likely to make.

So, there certainly must be room in the educational system for a class on cognitive errors. We can pay for it out of the future lives and monies saved by not going along with the next avoidable bloody war.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Being Mean and Cruel vs. Being Honest

Continuing a theme from the last couple of days, today I want to argue for the importance of using moral language.

A fun thing happened yesterday. NewsLi took the press release sent out by those promoting the movie “Expelled” about the PZ Myers incident and made a story out of it. By the time I found it, three other people familiar with the facts of the case had remarked on some of the errors in the story. One had provided links.

I added my two cents worth from the point of view of an ethicist, pointing out that the author had abdicated his professional responsibility and taken a piece of fiction that he found in his email and, without putting the least amount of effort into verifying the claims being made, reported the story as news. I pointed out how easy it would have been to have checked the basic facts of the story. I concluded that saying that this breech in professional ethics would not only require a correction, but a level of shame and embarrassment that would require an apology and a promise to do better in the future.

A short time after I had posted that comment, the link to the page with the original story came back “Not Found, Error 404”. A link to the story could still be found on Google News, but it went to a site that says, “The page you are looking for no longer exists.”

Note: It appears that the press release had absolutely no traction. So, according to Friendly Atheist, the people behind the movie are now organizing a teleconference press conference. I can only assume that it is for the same purpose - for trying promote their fiction - a way of talking to the press without people like us around to correct their 'mistakes'. I wonder if any informed reporters will show up to ask the embarrassing questions that should be asked.

Today, PZ Myers pointed to an AlterNet article in which the author advocated that Democrats need to get mean when they deal with Republicans. The article actually comes across as pro-violence, glorifying the killing that has been done (in the Revolutionary War and Civil War) in the defense of liberal principles. I am no advocate of violence – and wars, where they must occur, are a necessary evil, not a positive good.

I am also not so keen on the partisan element in the original article. I happen to think that some Democrats are as divorced from reality as some Republicans, and some Republican ideas have serious merit. In fact, I see both parties as consisting of a loose alliance between sane individuals struggling to attract just enough nut jobs to make a 51% majority.

Within these caveats, I hold that we do, indeed, need to promote the use of moral language – the language of praise and condemnation – in the defense of liberal causes. There is far too much of a tendency to speak only of the non-moral facts in criticizing the actions of others, ignoring the moral facts.

For example, in the press release that I mentioned above, the authors spoke of PZ Myers’ displeasure over having been expelled from the movie “Expelled.” This was a lie. This makes the authors of the press release (and any person or organization who endorses the press release) liars.

Liars are parasites. Liars are people who wish to hijack a person’s will – the time and energy that a person would spend fulfilling his or her own desires – and divert them into fulfilling the desires of the parasite/liar instead. He does so by filling the head of the agent with false beliefs. Those false beliefs divert the agent from doing what the agent would have been doing if he knew the facts, and cause him to do something he would consider unworthy of his time if not for the fictions he has been fed.

When applying the label ‘Liars for Jesus’ to some individual or group, I would suggest taking the time to point out the fact that this means that they are parasites who see nothing wrong with “using deception to get you to do things that you might well not have done if they had told you the truth . They are people who rob you of your right to make your own informed decisions.”

The people who are backing the move “Expelled” have proven themselves to be liars and manipulators from the start. From getting Myers, Richard Dawkins, and others to agree to interviews under false pretenses, to the lies written directly into the movie, to the lies put into the press release about the PZ Myers incident, the people behind this movie have proved that they have absolutely no qualms about using lies to manipulate others.

Somehow, these agents reached mature adulthood without the slightest moral qualm – the slightest emotional recognition – that lying, deception, and similar forms of manipulation are things that no good person would do – things that all good people have reason to condemn.

The appropriate response is not only to point out the logical and factual errors in their statements. The appropriate response should include a willingness to back those reports of the factual errors with the call for society to condemn people such as this.

“They are not making your life any better. In fact, to the degree that they are allowed to succeed in these activities, to that degree we are teaching people in society generally that it is permissible to manipulate others through lies and deception. To the degree that these people are allowed to succeed, to that degree we are telling our neighbors that they, too, should feel free to employ lies and deception in the pursuit of their ends.”

The best way to fight the prevalence of lies and deception in our society is by condemning those who are caught practicing them, and to make sure that they do not succeed.

To do this, moral condemnation should not just be limited to the guilty party. Moral condemnation should be extended to those who protect and defend the guilty party – those who contribute to the success of the guilty party.

Given that the people backing this movie have proved themselves to be eager to manipulate others through lies and deception, there is absolutely no reason for any good person to pay to see this movie. It is not as if one has any hope of learning something. The behavior of the people backing the movie have given intellectually responsible people reason enough to question the claims within the movie. Even to the degree that the movie might contain some truths, it will take an independent understanding of the issues to sort the truth from the fiction. In this case, the outside understanding of the issue should be good enough, and there would be no need to go to the movie.

There is one excellent reason for a person who cares about truth and honesty not to go to the movie – because buying a ticket contributes to the success of a pack of liars. It would be better to spend that money promoting truth by purchasing something produced by an individual with intellectual integrity. Let us contribute to the success of the people who care about the quality and the truth of the statements that they make, rather than contribute to the success of deceiving manipulators.

The society that we live in is the society that we build. Every dollar we spend sends a message to the community that, “I want the community I live in to have more of this.” When those dollars are spent in the support of those who seek to manipulate others through lies and deception, then one is sending a message through the community that says, “I vote in favor of a community that contains more of this practice of manipulating others through lies and deception.”

Is that really something that good people would think to be worthy of a contribution?

For these reasons, the language of moral condemnation applies not only to the people who made this movie, but to those who would contribute to the success of this movie. They are, in fact, even more morally responsible for the fact that we must live in a society where we are surrounded by manipulated deceivers. They are the ones who are feeding and caring for these pets. They are the ones who are nurturing this culture of manipulative deception.

These are moral claims. These are claims that go beyond statements of what the facts of the matter are, to statements about what good people should do when confronted with those facts. These are claims that go beyond merely telling the facts to the author of an article written from a piece of fiction in the form of a press release and condemns the author as somebody who did something that no morally responsible person would have done.

It is time to reclaim the use of moral language, and to get rid of this absurdity where the least moral among us are those who most eagerly identify themselves as ‘moral’.

The idea is not to be mean or cruel. The idea is to tell the truth. The truth that is to be told sometimes is the fact that the person one is talking about (or to) is a liar, hypocrite, hate-mongering bigot, manipulative, deceitful, intellectually reckless, abusive, ignorant, or just plain evil.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Implication vs. Association

Today, I want to stress a component of yesterday’s posting where I claimed that the movie “Expelled” should be evaluated, not as a documentary, but as propaganda.

The part I want to focus on is the distinction between ‘implication’ (the process of deriving conclusions from premises) and ‘association’ (the process of linking, not by implication or any type of inference, a concept with an emotion).

I want to apply this distinction to the relationship between evolution and Nazi Germany.

On the implication side of this relationship, we have people who claim (correctly) that problems associated with deriving an ‘ought’ statement from an ‘is’ statement prevents any reasonable thinker from deriving the ‘ought’ statements of Nazi-style racism from the ‘is’ statements of evolutionary theory.

This is not to say that people will not go ahead and make this mistake. People who have fallen in love with a particular view of how the world ‘ought’ to be have shown themselves quite adept at deriving those ‘ought’ statements from any number of nonsense conclusions. Some derive their favorite bigotries and prejudices from mistaken inferences out of Darwin. Others assign their favorite bigotries and prejudices to a God and say, ‘It is not me who wishes these people to be condemned as immoral, it is God. I am but a humble servant.’ Only, the ‘humble servant’ is the one who picked his or her god’s make-believe prejudices.

The fact that people engage in these types of sloppy inferences in defense of their favorite prejudices is not an argument against the truth of those premises, or even an argument against accepting those premises.

For all practical purposes, the argument is, “A does not imply B. B is a horrendous thing to have people believe, and there are people out there who want to believe B who think that they can derive it from A. They are mistaken, of course, However, in order to combat the prevalence of those who believe B, we must deny A, so as to block people from making this false inference from A to B.”

Specifically, evolutionary theory does not imply Nazi-style racism. However, Nazi-style racists are prone to make this inference anyway. Because Nazi-style racism is so horrendous, we must deny Nazi-style racists from the opportunity to rationalize their horrendous beliefs by appeal to evolution. We do this by denying that the claims of evolution are true.”

If the claim that the opposition is making is that Nazi-style racism actually can be derived from evolution, then they are simply mistaken. Actually, this is worse than simply being mistaken. This is the type of mistake that qualifies a person as a hate-mongering bigot. It is the type of mistake that a person embraces because they want to believe that the inference is valid. Their desire to believe is, itself, a desire to hate and a need to embrace something . . . anything . . . that gives their hate an illusion of validity.

Of course, the first obvious response is that this does not imply evolution is false. It’s like arguing, “If you tell Jim that the person who killed his daughter was black, it will reinforce his racism against blacks. We do not want to reinforce his racism against blacks, so do not tell him that his daughter’s murder was black.” This does not imply that the daughter’s murderer was not black. Trying to go from this type of argument to, “Therefore, the daughter’s murderer was not black,” is entirely invalid.

With all of the available evidence showing that the claims of evolution are true, this line of reasoning puts the denial of evolution (to the degree that it holds up) into the category of a “Noble Lie”. The proponents of this argument are claiming that we need to lie to the people – for their own good, of course – because the people cannot handle the truth.

There is a substantial stack of arguments that can be brought against any assertion that we must preach a ‘Noble Lie’. The first is that we need an accurate understanding of how the world works in order to explain and predict what happens in the real world. We need to be able to explain and predict real-world events in order to pursue good states of affairs and avoid harmful states of affairs. The person who is ignorant of the fact that a particular common mushroom is poisonous is more likely to eat it and suffer the ill effects.

Evolutionary theory is necessary to understanding and predicting events in medicine and health, the environment, and even human behavior. It allows us to prevent and cure disease, grow food, determine our nutritional needs, protect the environment that keeps us alive. We are far better off telling people the truth about evolution and to teach them that it is a mistake to try to derive Nazi-style racist ‘ought’ statements from the ‘is’ statements of evolution than to deny the truth of evolution.

We are talking about an invalid inference here, and invalid inferences can come from anywhere. As many American writings before the civil war tell us, and even many of the claims made in America in the 100 years after the civil war, people can derive their favorite prejudices from religion as well. In fact, since gods are fictional beings, and they get their morals from the people who invent them, it is far easier for a person to find his prejudices in the claims of a god he creates in his own image than in a scientific theory he does not invent.

Besides, Nazi-style racists are not the only people who derive their favorite ‘ought’ statement prejudices from ‘is’ statements. This is a very common mistake that Scottish philosopher David Hume called the root of all ‘vulgar’ systems of morality. So, if we want people to grow up to be able to engage in sound moral reasoning, we need to teach them the error of deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Which means that we should not be ignoring the problem by hiding the truth of evolution. We should be embracing the truth and focus instead on the mistake of deriving Nazi-style ‘ought’ conclusions from strong scientific ‘is’ premises.

All of this is sound criticism of those who want to condemn evolution on the basis that Nazi-style racists might use invalid inferences from it to give their hatred an illusion of legitimacy.

However, we need to distinguish this from another form of reasoning that has nothing to do with inference. It is the reasoning of association.

Using this method, the speaker talks about ‘intelligent design’ while showing the audience positive and reassuring images, then talks about ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ while showing images of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and other frightening images. The purpose here is not to get the audience to infer Nazi-style racism from evolution, but to associate the emotions tied to these images to mention of the concepts of ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’.

The idea here is that any audience member who is successfully infected with this association, when he hears a speaker talk about ‘atheists’ or ‘evolution’, will have an emotional reaction akin to the reaction that can be expected of somebody talking about ‘Nazi-style racism’ or ‘Soviet tyranny’. This emotional reaction immediately shuts down any hope for debate or reason. The listener will view any attempt to convince him that these views are correct as akin to convincing him to accept Nazi-style racism or Soviet tyranny. That reaction alone will close his mind to any type of reasoned argument.

What I wrote yesterday, and what I want to make more explicit today, is that it is a mistake to evaluate Ben Stein’s “Exposed” as a movie that attempts to defend the ‘inference’ from evolution to Nazi-style racism, or to argue that the possibility that Nazi-style racists might benefit from invalid inferences from Evolution. It is meant to generate an emotional reaction to the concepts of ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ that will cause viewers (students, voters, audience members) to react to these concepts as they would react to somebody defending Hitler or Stalin.

The association is not grounded on reason. Consequently, all of that stuff that I wrote above on ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and ‘valid inferences’ are all irrelevant. If you give those types of arguments to somebody conditioned to respond to the concept of ‘atheist’ and ‘evolution’ in the way described here, he will see your arguments as merely an attempt to seduce him into becoming the moral equivalent of a Nazi-style racist or Stalinist. If your arguments sound reasonable, then it is merely because the devil is a clever speaker who easily seduces the listener who listens with his brain and not with his heart.

These types of associations require a different type of response – not a response grounded on reason, but a response grounded on ethics. This is where the ethicist steps in, condemning attempts to manufacture this association as examples of promoting unreasoned hatred and bigotry, and leveling the charge of intellectual recklessness (at best) and malicious error (at worst) against the perpetrators of these moral crimes.

The rationalist at this point will only find himself frustrated at his inability to ‘get through to’ the listener with arguments that, to him, make perfectly good sense.

In order to deal with the problem of association, this film, and similar practices that are commonly employed against reason and science, need to be attacked on from a moral perspective. It is not sufficient to say that the reasoning sucks. It is necessary to add the fact that a morally responsible person would not make such a mistake, and how those types of arguments demonstrate an urge to promote hatred and injustice.

Please note that I am not declaring that this is an ‘either/or’ situation here. It is not the case that we ‘either’ attack the movie for its poor use of logic ‘or’ we condemn the movie as a display of hate-mongering. Rather, we must use the fact that the movie contains poor reasoning to infer, among other things, that it is really hate-mongering propaganda. Do not stop and feel content that you have succeeded when you have torn apart the arguments. From there, go on and condemn the people who made those arguments. Condemn them, not for their stupidity, but for an eagerness to promote hatred that blinded them to reason.

Where we are talking about the crime of invalid inference, we can apply reason to demonstrate the error. However, where we are talking about the crime of malicious association, the answer is not (just to) point out where reason has failed, but to point out how a morally responsible person would not have made such a mistake.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Atheists' Problem with Morality

Note: I will be at the First Freedom First Simulcast at the Denver Pavilions 15 in downtown Denver on Wednesday night, March 26.

I am beginning to see a number of articles floating about professing that atheists have a problem with morality. We have Dinesh D'Souza's book, What’s So Great About Christianity. The movie “Expelled” is also asserting that atheists have a problem with morality – associating atheists with Hitler and Stalin as if to say, “Stalin was an atheist; therefore, all atheists are evil.”

In the Collegiate Times, Allison Aldrich, wrote “Defending morality in an atheist's culture is challenging,” and in the Calgary Harold, Mark Milke recently wrote, “New breed of atheist treads too much on glib ground.”

The natural response to these types of assertions would be to demonstrate how I can make and defend moral claims without appeal to supernatural entities. However, I have already drummed that particular song. I have 900 posts on this blog, four books – two online (“Desire Utilitarianism” and “The Cult of Justice and Will”), and two for sale (“A Better Place” and “A Perspective on the Pledge”) which demonstrate my competence to make and defend moral claims, and a few other essays and articles floating around.

Today, I am not in a mood for repeating any of those arguments.

Today, I want to point out how the people who are making these arguments, while asserting their moral superiority, demonstrate how utterly blind they are to their own moral faults.

I want to start with the principle that no person should assume their moral superiority over others – or the moral inferiority of others. Equal respect for other people as people requires that one begin with the assumption that they are our moral equals. It is only after evidence is provided to the contrary – that we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt – that a person lacks certain moral qualities that we are then justified in condemning them.

For example, since I can show that these authors presume the moral inferiority of others, I have the evidence I need to morally condemn them for their arrogance and bigotry. I have no right to assume their arrogance and bigotry. I have an obligation to assume that they are my moral eequals. It is only because they provide evidence of their arrogance and bigotry that I have justification for making these accusations.

Not only do these authors presume the moral inferiority of others, they do so on the basis of faith. This must be one of the most convenient aspects of faith – what everybody who claims to have faith ultimately asserts to have faith in is their own infallibility. The person who defends his beliefs on the basis of faith say, for all practical purposes, “There is no way that I could possibly be wrong in what I believe. If there is any conflict in what I believe and what others claim, the fault must be theirs. Because of faith, I do not have to listen to any evidence or any objection to my own views. I can simply assert that they are true.”

‘Faith’ ultimately is another word for ‘arrogance’ wrapped up in a pretty white ribbon.

It is particularly convenient for a ‘person of faith’ to be able to proclaim his superiority over others in matters of ethics. What the four authors above are actually asserting is that, “In virtue of my religion – a matter in which I could not be in error – I have drawn certain moral principles – a matter of which I also could not be in error. Since my ‘faith’ gives me perfect moral knowledge and access to absolute moral truth, it follows by necessity that any who might disagree with me must be in error. It follows by necessity that I am morally superior to them, and they are morally inferior to me.”

This is the function ‘faith’ plays in these disputes.

For the person who has intellectual integrity and a decent respect for other persons, it is not enough to merely assume that others are his moral equals (unless he finds evidence to the contrary). He cannot be too eager to find that evidence. When a person grasps onto weak evidence of fault in others too quickly, he proves that he is motivated more by a desire to see others as inferior than by a true concern with justice. Justice holds the evidence at arm’s length until it becomes too powerful to be resisted. Bigotry embraces the first hint of an argument that others are morally inferior, because it has the benefit of giving one’s hatred a warm and comfortable home.

For 2500 years there has been a well known problem with any attempt to derive morality from religion. Plato wrote about it in Euthyphro, where he had his main character Socrates ask, “Is something good because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is good?”

If it is good because it is loved by the goods, then any atrocity can be made good, simply by having God love it. If God were to love the slow roasting of young children on an open fire, the proponent of this method would have to say that this is good.

If, instead, we say that God could never love the slow roasting of a child over an open fire, then we must say that goodness does not depend on what God loves. Goodness is something that is independent of God – something that even God must appeal to in order to determine if he should enjoy the roasting of a young child or not. Whatever external standard God appeals to, we can appeal to as well, without God.

There are, of course, a group of pathetic responses to this. One says, “God appeals to a standard of good, but that standard of good is his own nature.” Okay, fine, then if God’s nature were to love the slow roasting of children, then it would be good.

There is a long and colorful history of this debate. However, none of these four authors give serious consideration to these problems. They follow the pattern of grasping the first argument they can find that gives their hatred a warm and comfortable home – regardless of its flaws. In their eagerness to assert their moral superiority over others, they show themselves to be hate-mongering bigots too eager to condemn without sound evidence to actually deserve to be called ‘moral’.

Another area in which these people show their moral failings is in their use of hasty generalizations. Their argument follows the pattern, “Some atheists have done bad things; therefore, all atheists are evil.” This is the paradigm example of bigotry. It follows the same pattern as, “Some Muslims perform terrorist acts so all Muslims are terrorists,” or “Some black people were caught using drugs so all black people are drug addicts,” or “Suzie, who is blond, did something dumb, so all blonde people are dumb.”

It also follows the pattern of, “Some religious people brought down the World Trade Center in a terrorist attack, so all religious people are evil.” I never said that the four authors above, or theists in general, were the only people actually capable of bigotry. However, the fact that some atheists are guilty of the same crime does not prove that the theists mentioned above are innocent.

This is how bigotry is defined – by an eagerness to expand the group of people guilty of some wrongdoing far beyond the circle of those who are actually guilty. It is motivated by hatred for all members of the group and a desire to see them as inferior or deserving of harm that blinds the person to the fallacy of ‘hasty generalization.’

The morally responsible way to respond to an alternative point of view is to keep one’s accusations focused on those who are actually guilty. For example, it would be perfectly legitimate to argue against ‘new atheist’ writer Sam Harris that he is an act-utilitarian who believes that ‘utility’ is measured in terms of happiness and absence of suffering is the measure of all moral value. One can then argue that act-utilitarian theories fail (because they do not properly respect the fact that actions are caused by desires), and that where happiness and truth diverge, value follows truth.

However, from here, it is the essence of bigotry to assert that because Sam Harris’s moral arguments fail that all atheists have a problem with morality. From here, any attempt to make that leap of logic proves that the person making it is a bigot who cares more about selling hate than he does about justice. Because somewhere out there, per chance, there may well be an atheist who rejects act-utilitarian moral theories and happiness/suffering theories of value.

Similarly, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn the four authors mentioned above for demonstrating the qualities of hate-mongering bigots. However, it would be entirely unfair to then generalize from this to say that all theists are hate-mongering bigots. The accusation can only properly be applied to that subset of theists who think that it is perfectly acceptable to presume their moral superiority over others, to do so on the basis of faith, to grasp whatever arguments they can find however weak that appear gives this hate a warm home, and to over-generalize from the failings of some members of a group to the whole group.

Consequently, I – the atheist who apparently has a ‘problem with morality’ – will not be guilty of that particular wrong. My accusations apply specifically to D’Souza, the people backing the movie ‘Expelled’, Aldrich, and Milke, and any who should perform the same wrongs. Any theist who does not follow this particular path does not deserve to be subject to the same condemnation, merely because they share the trait with these guilty parties of having a belief in God. It is only those who share the traits of groundless arrogance, hate, and bigotry who deserve to share the same condemnation.

Yet, it is fair to say that the culture that these four belong to – insofar as the culture does not see fit to condemn them for their wrongdoing, but instead applauds them for their demonstrations of hate and bigotry – deserves to be condemned as well. This does not imply that everybody within the culture deserves condemnation. However, it does imply that those who do not deserve condemnation appear too few in numbers and too weak to have much of an effect on that society.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Seeing Ben Stein's "Expelled" as Propaganda

Note: I will be at the First Freedom First Simulcast at the Denver Pavilions 15 in downtown Denver on Wednesday night, March 26.

I, like several others, have been entertained by the fiasco whereby the people responsible for the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed had PZ Myers evicted from a ‘private screening’ of the movie while letting Richard Dawkins and others in to see it.

There are, however, some elements in these accounts that I would like to comment upon.

Documentary vs. Propaganda

The more I read about this movie the more it seems that the point of the movie is to sell hatred of atheists and evolutionists by associating the terms with images of concentration camps, gas chambers, Hitler, Stalin, and anything else threatening.

Richard Dawkins reviewed the movie as a documentary , and found it to be a very poor documentary. However, this is a lot like picking it up a saw, trying to use it as a hammer, and then writing a critique that the tool is a very poor hammer.

Of course it is a poor hammer – it is a saw. And of course “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” is a poor documentary. It is a propaganda film.

From what I have read of descriptions of the movie, its purpose is to create an association in the minds of viewers (or at least those who are susceptible, which explains the marketing strategy) between ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ on the one hand, and ‘Nazi’ and ‘Stalin’ images on the other. They are seeking to plant in society a tendency, whenever one hears or reads the concept ‘atheist’ or ‘evolution’, the listener or reader immediately calls to image gas chambers and concentration camps.

Imagine the effect that this will have on American politics and American culture to have a significant portion of the population react in this way to anybody seeking to present atheism or evolution in a positive light.

It does not matter that the audience member is bored while the movie is planting this association in his head. Indeed, it may well be easier to plant the idea into the brain of an otherwise bored audience member. Their resistance may well be lowered while their brain is disengaged. What matters is the effect that the presentation will have on those who leave the theater.

In addition to providing the viewer with this association of concepts and images, the presenters make sure that they provide their viewings to a receptive audience, so that the audience members can reinforce this association in their fellow members. The Q&A after the presentation performs the same function.

Here, Richard Dawkins in his posting “Lying for Jesus” does a spectacular job of missing the point.

Now, to the film itself. What a shoddy, second-rate piece of work. A favourite joke among the film-making community is the 'Lord Privy Seal'. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can't resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain's heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film directory who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, then a seal. Mathis' film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Khrushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like 'emotional outburst'). There is similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.

Claiming that the film is full of Lord Privy Seals misses the point. The images described are not Lord Privy Seals. They are deliberate attempts to associate ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ with ‘gas chambers’ and ‘concentration camps’ or anything else that looks dangerous and evil.

This practice of associating the terms 'evolution' and 'atheist' with images of gas chambers and concentration camps is not pointless. It’s the whole point. Its purpose is to create a society in which mentioning evolution or atheism in a political speech, television show, classroom, or casual conversation brings up images of gas chambers and concentration camps in a sufficiently large portion of the population that people substantially give up using these terms.

We already have an environment in this country where high school teachers do not teach evolution because they do not want to deal with the hostility. After April 18th (and beyond) they will have to deal with students brought to associate any talk of evolution with images and ideas of gas chambers and concentration camps.

I am not saying that this is all a part of some conscious plan or, God forbid, some intelligent design. It may well be that the promoters went with a plan that ‘felt right’ to them and that seemed to provide them with the feedback they wanted. Through experimentation and observation they hit on a program that turns the audience into the type of people they want the audience to become.

Intentional or not, this is the how the movie should be evaluated. It is a poor documentary in the same sense that a hammer is a poor saw or sandstone makes poor wires.

Public Relations

Another claim that I have seen made about this event is that it was a public relations nightmare for those who are promoting the film.

Where does that conclusion come from?

This is an empirical claim. The individual is making a claim about the world. Is this claim justified? On the basis of what evidence is this claim made?

I find it particularly interesting that people who claim to think that it is particularly important that people draw their conclusions from the available evidence. Where is the evidence that this is a public relations fiasco for the organizers of this movie?

Look around you on the bus, or in a restaurant, or at the movies, or any place where there is a crowd of rather ordinary people. Ask yourselves (or, better yet, take a poll) on the numbers who are familiar with the Dawkins/Myers version of the story. Then ask how many of them have heard the Discovery Institute version of the story. Finally, ask how many of them even know that the event took place.

But they will know about the movie soon enough. They will learn about the movie, and watch the movie, and tell their friends about the movie, all without ever hearing about this event.

Yes, the story was heavily covered in the atheist blogs. Combined, how many unique readers do you think we all have? Combined, how many people can fundamentalist and other theist organizations reach with their version of the story?

In evaluating the effect of these types of incidents, one has to pay attention to a numbers. Simply because a person runs around in a universe where blog-reading atheists are a majority does not mean that one can extrapolate findings within this group to the whole population. That is a fairly fundamental statistical error. We, of all people, should not be making it, and should not be encouraging others to make it.

Update: 11:18 MDT. The backers of 'Expelled' have just sent out a press release to help to ensure that, when the general public does hear of this event, it will be their version that the people hear of. Will this truly be a public relations debacle for the movie? These are professional spin-doctors. Do not expect them to just lie down on the job.


One of the things that I dislike about many religious claims is that false beliefs cause people to act in ways that are, to put it bluntly, irrational. They think that they are accomplishing something of value, but the value they have been told to believe in does not exist. In the mean time, real-world values that do exist are sacrificed to the imaginary values of religion.

However, I find the same problem with false beliefs generating irrational action in the claims made above. People who do not recognize the actual function of the movie, or come to irrational conclusions about the movie being hopelessly mishandled, are not likely to take the types of actions that an accurately informed person will take.

The purpose of the movie is not to fight for free speech. It is to create in the minds of as many people as possible a relationship between ‘evolution’ and ‘atheist’ on the one hand, and ‘gas chambers’ and ‘concentration camps’ on the other. And it will probably succeed. After the movie is aired, we will probably be dealing with a significant increase in public sentiment that says that anything that supports evolution or secularism or church/state separation supports the next wave of gas chambers and concentration camps.

We cannot start too soon to deal with that issue. The way to start is to inoculate as many minds as possible against the hate-mongering that is written into this movie by informing as many people as possible of the fact that the movie is designed to sell unreasoned, unfounded hatred.

It’s not (as far as I can tell) a documentary. It is a propaganda film built to sell hate.

Instead of complaining that the hammer is a very poor saw, we should try evaluating the hammer in terms of how well it functions as a hammer.

Addendum: Goons

The accounts I have read have mentioned the actions of some guards or police officers or some sort of uniformed security person. The accounts that I have read suggest that this individual did not do anything improper. He did his job and he did not do anything that he did not have a right to do.

However, when I read accounts of this event, I have been treated to descriptions of this person as a ‘goon’, ‘guerilla’, and similar statements that almost invite me as the reader to imagine a goose-stepping Nazi SS officer threatening the masses. I do not know anything about this person (or these people). For all I know they are off-duty police officers trying to make a little extra money to cover health insurance or buy a few extra things for the home. Or they may have been on-duty police officers. Or they could have been employees of the theater.

Whatever the fact of the matter is, if somebody wants to resort to name-calling and making other derogatory comments about these people, please provide me with some evidence that they actually did something wrong. Otherwise, this baseless name-calling is completely inappropriate.

On this matter, I would like to pause to in praise of several people who had placed comments in these reports, who have noticed the same issue that I am raising. In many cultures, name-calling is such an accepted practice that nobody within the community will concern themselves with defending the victims of this type of speech. At least among the atheist community there is generally (though not universally) accepted principle that accusations such as these should not be made without just cause.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Perspective on the Pledge: Book Available


Given that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals may release its opinion on “Under God” and “In God We Trust” at any time in the next 3 months, and given worries that I have on what the aftermath to that decision may be, I have decided to make this book available now.

A Perspective on the Pledge

I have a link to a blog posting that became an earlier version of Chapter 1

And I spent a lot of time on this making it ready.

I am expecting that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will again declare ‘under God’ unconstitutional – and perhaps the motto ‘In God We Trust’ as well. Without some effort on our part, the results will be the same – politicians falling all over themselves to protect and defend the Pledge from ‘secularists’.

The traditional argument simply have no weight. People who would defend the 9th Circuit’s opinion would likely appeal to Separation of Church and State, as if this is some fundamental principle on which everybody agrees. In fact, in discussing the Constitutional issue, that is what they have to do.

If people do not like the law, there is an easy way to change it. That is to ignore it. People can then complain all they want about how the law is being ignored. However, the people want to ignore a provision in the law, and they insist on only electing politicians who appoint judges that will ignore it, then that part of the law will be ignored. That is a fact.

In this case, the 9th Circuit opinion, if they declare 'under God' unconstitutional, will be one of those provisions in the Constitution that people can and will change - not through the Amendment process, but by electing politicians who will appoint judges who will give the law the interpretation they want.

The decision would be a fundraising boon for the Republican Party and in particular for the most theocratic branch of the Republican Party. They will put that money to work telling people in every venue open to them – from the pulpit, from their radio shows, from their ‘news’ stations, from their newsletters – that the Constitution is not meant to protect people from religion.

Anybody who has faith that the people will see through the obvious errors in their argument and adopt a position of truth and reason simply has not been paying attention. If the people had such a power to see through nonsense, then we would not be facing so many of the absurdities that we hear today. Remember, half of Americans still believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. This hardly sounds like a group that has much of a capacity to see through illogical arguments.

Given that we no longer live in a country that views the separation of church and state as a foundational principle, it should no longer be considered sufficient to argue from this principle to any conclusion. Rather, we must assume that the population is hostile to this principle, and to offer its defense. It is necessary to argue the proposition, “If a separation of church and state never existed, why would a fair, just, and wise population find it necessary to invent it?”

If the next debate is held on the same terms as the last debate, we can expect the same result. We can expect that the marketing and the money of the religious right will help to ensure in this election, and the next, and the election after that, that no candidate can be elected who not only professes a belief in God, but who professes the superiority of those who believe in God over those who do not.

However, the story is not just about ‘under God’.

The story is about a government that funds, supports, and bars institutions that get public money from excluding an organization that says that you are morally suspect – morally inferior to other citizens based on a characteristic that has nothing to do with morality. It is a story about a country in which people routinely fill the air waves and print media with statements about your moral inferiority without anybody challenging the pure bigotry of such a claim.

It is a story about living in a country where the government makes it its pledge and motto to treat those in your group of incapable of patriotism.

It is a story about a country where people can put up signs that say, “Why does your group hate this country,” when members of your group have fought and died for that country.

It’s about being faced with all of these different forms of bigotry all wrapped together.

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals announces its decision, I hope to hear a new set of arguments added to those that already exist.

I am hoping that the debate can go a little further with some new lines of reasoning becoming a part of the public discourse.

“You talk about it being wrong to keep God out of the public square, when ‘under God’ was added to the pledge and ‘In God We Trust’ was made the national motto for the purpose of keeping atheists out of public office. You cheer candidates who say that atheists are not fit to serve in public office.”

“’Under God’ was not meant to promote religion in the same way that ‘liberty and justice for all’ was not meant to promote liberty and justice for all.”

“’In God We Trust’ isn’t a way of telling Americans to trust in God in the same way that the Marine motto, Semper Fi is not a way of telling Marines to be faithful to their comrades in arms.”

“You have no right to declare that you are morally superior to others, and then to have the gall to say that the only evidence you have for this is your faith in your own moral superiority.”

It is my hope that the debate, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals announces its decision, will not be a repeat of the things that were said when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals announced their last decision. I hope to see the arguments made on a new level.

I hope that this book can make a contribution to that end.

Friday, March 21, 2008

E2.0: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Atheism from the Inside Out

This is the 26th 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.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein did not give a presentation to the Beyond Belief 2. She gave a reading from a work in progress called 33 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. The reading was from the first chapter of this work, a story about a professor in the psychology of religion who had just become world famous for a book that examines 33 arguments for the existence of god, and then refutes them.

It is, as I said, a work of fiction. In this story, our hero, Cass Seltzer is standing on at 4:00 am in Boston on a cold February day reflecting on his sudden fame – a fame that can be compared to that of Sam Harris or, perhaps, Daniel Dennett who obtained popular standing because of something written critical of religion that happened to become very popular.

The story provides a homage, of a sort, in favor of certain arguments in favor of the existence of God. Though it denies that they have any intellectual weight, they have a certain amount of emotional weight. Those arguments, at least in this reading, concern the marvelous fact of our own existence. I am here. I am participating in the world, writing my blog, interacting with others in a way that I hope will have some positive impact on current and future events. Within the story, Seltzer cannot help but feel an immense sense of gratitude for all that he has. All of this gives emotional weight to a set of rather loose and informal arguments that, somewhere out there, there is a God.

does not use this as an argument for the existence of God. She does not say that this immense sense of gratitude that manifests itself in a desire to thank something for the gift of life and to think that there must therefore be something capable of receiving his gratitude. She puts these emotions in their proper place. To the degree that they generate a sense that there is something out there to be grateful to then these are cognitive illusions. Like optical illusions, they look real, and they are even replicatable, but there is a fact of the matter and the fact is that what we see (or sense) is not real.

Yet, still, the illusion persists.

I certainly hold that there are some ideas that a person can communicate better in a work of fiction than in a scholarly treatise. I have written my own Perspective on the Pledge both in the form of a formal argument and in the form of a short story about a student who is grappling with a very similar prejudice in an alternative universe. In fact, the book that I am writing has both of these approaches. While it discusses the ‘under God’ issue in the form of a short story, it presents the ‘In God We Trust’ issue in the appendix on the form of objective argument.

The point is that when we make the transition from ‘outside and above’ the phenomena that we are studying to ‘inside’ that phenomena, there is information to be gained. Think of a house. Think of having all sorts of information that describes what the house looks like from ‘outside and above’ the house. We may even have pictures. Yet, there is a great deal of information that we do not have. We do not know what the inside of the house looks like. We do not know what it feels like to be inside of the house. We cannot know this until we add something to our ‘external’ description of the house and say something about what it is like to be inside that house.

This is what provides us in her presentation. We have had a number of presentations that look at atheism from the outside – objectively, rationally. We have had little that describes what atheism is like on the inside.

One of the biggest problems that a lot of people have with atheism has to do precisely with what it is like to be an atheist on the inside.

People imagine the atheist life, and they imagine a person in a cold, dark, and lonely place with no possibility of joy and no sense of purpose or meaning in his existence. Those of us who live this life know that it is not true. Well, it is not necessarily true. There are probably some atheists living cold, dark, and lonely lives just as there are probably many theists living similar lives. However, many of us, most of us, are not like this. Our lives are filled with warmth, light, social interaction, joy, and purpose.

Whenever somebody protests that our lives must be cold, lonely, dark, miserable, and empty, the common response is to deny it. Yet, this denial itself comes from the ‘above and outside’ perspective. We claim that our lives have value. However, can we describe that value from the inside? Can we communicate with others what it is like to live within an atheist house? Or within an atheist mind?

Of course, in addition to fiction - in addition to describing what something is like in the form of a story with a character who is living that life - there is the option of explaining the same thing through the living of an actual life.

I would have to say that the best account of atheism from the inside out that is available today in the non-fiction category is Possommama, a.k.a. Atheist in a Minivan. This blog is not dedicated to looking at the most recent follies of creationists or the crimes committed by priests or an examination of contradictions in the Bible or the different arguments for or against the existence of God. It is a look at an atheist life from the inside. There; are more than enough blogs that describe atheism from outside and above, looking down on the atheist life. We could, perhaps, use a bit more work done on the atheist life as seen from the inside looking out.

There is a need for more atheism from the inside out.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


I have another question from the studio audience today.

[F]rom a desire utilitarian perspective, what is justice? As a theory of value, it seems pretty clear that desire utilitarianism has an answer to that question. I'm just not sure how to approach the question of what, for example, a judge would do in order to make a just decision, or how policy-makers would begin to structure a just law. Are these questions that make sense from a desire utilitarian perspective?

The Value of Justice

The questioner has agreed that desire utilitarianism provides an adequate theory of value. If this is true, then this means that for justice to be good, it has to be something that fulfills good desires (something a person with good desires would promote). Furthermore, the fulfillment of desires is the only type of value that exists.

Furthermore, justice is something that fulfills good desires by definition, the way that ‘useful’ refers to something that fulfills at least some desires by definition. If a set of institutions fails to fulfill the relevant desires, this does not imply that justice is bad. It implies that a particular situation is not just.

Types of Justice

Another set of facts that I want to throw into this analysis is that there are two major families of ‘justice’; retributive justice, and distributive justice.

Retributive justice is concerned with determining and inflicting the appropriate levels of punishment for legitimate crimes. If an individual is punished for something that is not a legitimate crime, is punished too harshly or not harshly enough, or has had his guilt or innocence determined by illegitimate means, then he may rightfully claim to have been treated unjustly.

Distributive justice has to do with the distribution of wealth in a community. Distributive justice can either concern itself with the final distribution of goods and services (who has what)? Or it can concern itself with the rules for acquiring, holding, and transferring property (including labor) from one person to another without regard to the final outcome, as long as the rules are followed.

For one essay, I do not have time to speak to both types of justice, so I will speak to the type alluded to in the question from the studio audience – distributive justice.

History of Justice

In the case of justice, I think that it is useful to understand what justice is by going back to its roots. Besides, I must admit that I like this story because of what it says about putting religious symbols on government property.

Justitas was an ancient Roman goddess, typically depicted as a woman holding a set of scales in her left hand, a sword in her right, and blind folded. Not all ancient depictions take this form. This is actually an image of Justitas that has evolved over time. However, the way it has evolved and what it has evolved into tells us something of the institutions she represents.

The scales mean that we are going to consider all evidence – evidence for and evidence against a proposition. We are not going to make a decision by listening to only one side of the debate. Thus, we realize justice in a court of law where the prosecutor presents her evidence, but the defense has an opportunity to examine and respond to all of it.

President Bush’s military tribunals are inherently unjust because they allow prosecutors to present secret evidence. This is evidence that the defendant is not permitted to see or to respond to. As such, it is the equivalent to putting a weight on one side of the scale, without allowing even the opportunity of considering what weight might be put on the scales against it.

Another feature captured with the scales is the idea that the decision – on which side the greater weight rests – is not determined by the whim of the judge. It is determined by an outside source, something that does not care which side ends up having the greater weight. We capture this element in a system of justice by having the decision be made by an impartial judge and a jury of one’s peers. The judge, being an employee of the state, is not even considered sufficiently unbiased in many cases to make a just decision. The decision is handed over instead to a group of citizens.

The other symbolic representation that we find associated with the statue of Justitas is the blind fold. This represents recognition of the fact that there are certain things that will tend to sway our opinion, but we must work hard to establish institutions that help us to avoid that weakness. We need to make sure that justice is blind to irrelevant facts that might otherwise arouse the passions – facts about race, gender, personal characteristics that are not relevant to an individual’s guilt or innocence (e.g., homosexuality, where homosexuality is not relevant to whether an individual held up a convenience store or not).

It may seem unfair to have a trial where the jury is simply not permitted to see certain pieces of information. It would seem that all information is relevant to a case. However, we know that there are many types of information that may prejudice a jury, causing jurists to reach conclusions that are not justified by the evidence. Before bringing evidence into the court the judge has the power to rule on relevance. There is simply no need to waste time on data that is not relevant, or to risk that it might prejudice the opinion of a juror who mistakenly sees relevance where none exists.

These are some elements in what we find to be a standard system of retributive justice. How is it that these things come to have value? More specifically, how is it that they come to have moral value?

They come to have moral value in the way that all things have moral value; they are things that a person with good desires would love, where good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. A good person values a fair trial – a trial in which the defendant has the opportunity to tell his side of the story, where the verdict is rendered by an impartial jury, and with a procedure that makes sure to confine the case to relevant evidence. A good person would insist on a trial like this because such a trial is most likely to fulfill the more and the stronger of all desires.

Here, I want to bring into the discussion the difference between rule and desire utilitarianism. The rule utilitarian would have us take these principles of justice as a set of rules that, if followed, would tend to maximize utility. The rules have no value in their own right. They do not identify principles of intrinsic worth. They are rules that we adopt merely because they are useful

They are rules that we can throw out the instant they cease to be useful. The instant a political leader deems it useful to throw out the concepts of a fair trial, he may do so. The rules, after all, exist only to serve the public good, and can be tossed as soon as one believes that tossing them will serve the public good.

However, to the desire utilitarian, these are not just rules. When a principle of justice becomes the object of a desire – of a passion – then it is no longer merely a means to some end. The rules become ends in themselves. They become an object of passion such that, when we measure the utility of a mere rule, its utility is measured by its ability to bring about trials in which the accused is able to confront the evidence against him, the trial is heard by an impartial jury, the accused is presumed innocent, and the burden of proof is on those who would inflict harm rather than on those who would be harmed.

Correspondingly, when the principles of justice have become objects of desire, then the agent will view those things that threaten these principles as he would those things that would cause him personal pain or do harm to a person that he loves. In fact, there is an important similarity between the love that the agent may have for his child and the love he might have for one of these principles. In both cases, he protects the principle or the child not merely because the principle or child is useful, but because the principle or child is something he wants to protect and defend.

Desire utilitarians do not ask whether the principle itself is useful in this or that instance. The desire utilitarian asks about the usefulness of the love for the principle. ‘Justice’ itself are those principles, to be used in determining guilt or innocence and the appropriate levels of punishment, that people generally have reason to encourage their neighbors, not only to follow, but to love, and to protect, and to nurture.

These are the questions that make sense from a desire utilitarian perspective.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Retrospective: Iraq

On this, the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I am fortunate to be one of the people who does not have to apologize for the position that I took on the war 5 years ago. I hold the same position now that I held back then. That position was:

(1) The international community had not only a right, but a duty, to remove Saddam Hussein from power and deserved condemnation for its unwillingness to execute that duty.

My model for involvement in the affairs of individual countries by the international community is the same as that for involvement in the affairs of an individual family by a town. For the most part, we have an obligation to let other parents raise their children as they see fit. Even if we disagree with their methods, we ought not to interfere. However, there is a line – an admittedly fuzzy line, but a line nonetheless – beyond which the parent’s behavior becomes abusive. When that happens, the others in community not only have a right, they have a duty, to forcefully interfere with that family and to remove those parents from their position of power.

Saddam Hussein’s reign was obviously a tyranny. For the international community to stand back and do nothing is like the neighbor who shuts his window and turns up his television to drown out the bloody screams of a neighbor beating his children. It was a contemptible dereliction of duty.

(2) President George Bush was an incompetent leader who would almost certainly make things worse.

Before 9-11, when President Bush had unilaterally broken off any and all negotiations with North Korea, unilaterally stepped away from Kyoto, and unilaterally ended American involvement in the anti-ballistic missile treaty, I was saying that Bush’s foreign policy was immensely stupid. I wrote, before 9-11, that there may well come a time in which America will need the help and cooperation of the rest of the world in some enterprise, but Bush would have left us without friends – alone and isolated in a hostile world.

Even though I felt that the international community had a right and a duty to act to remove Saddam Hussein from power, we needed to wait for a more competent President before we could actually act. We needed a President like Bush’s father, Papa Bush, who lacked Bush’s arrogance and who actually listened to the advice of people who knew more than he did.

What is it about idiots (like baby Bush) in that they insist on compounding their idiocy by insisting that they know everything?

(3) The duty to remove Saddam Hussein from power does not necessarily include, nor does it exclude, the possibility of war.

Using the family model above, in order to remove an abusive parent from a position of power in a household, it is sometimes necessary to enter the house with guns drawn to arrest – or to kill, if the accused violently resists capture – the responsible parent. So, it is legitimate to enter a country and forcefully remove from power a politically abusive leader in a foreign country. Yet, that is not always the most useful way with dealing with a family in crisis. Sometimes, the situation calls for a less militant response. It requires intervention and coercion – perhaps with a threat of force just outside the door – or the children in that household.

So, in saying that the international community had an obligation to remove Saddam Hussein from power, I am not saying that they necessarily had an obligation to use violence to do so. My claim is that knowledgeable experts should have been put in charge of coming up with a plan. Unlike President Bush, I do not assume that I have the knowledge necessary to come up with a perfect plan myself, and I would insist on consulting experts. Since the possibility exists that those experts would decide against invasion, it would be wrong for me to prematurely assume that invasion is the best option. However, since the experts might also come up with a recommendation to invade,, then that option should not be assumed to be closed either.

(4) The Bush Administration had an obligation to present its evidence to an impartial third party before acting on it.

Obviously, the Bush Administration was not going to come to my home and show me every piece of evidence it had on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. I could not pretend to know enough to be able to determine whether he had enough evidence of an imminent threat to justify attacking. Bush thought he had the evidence, but for an idiot like Bush to claim to know that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is like an idiot like Bush claiming to have evidence that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

We invented the institution of a trial by jury precisely because we wanted to avoid the problem of unnecessary and disproportionate violence against individuals who happen to be innocent. We maintain peace within a community by promoting an aversion to doing harm to others. This is an overridable presumption. When we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody did something that we have reason to punish, we may harm that individual. However, we are to presume innocence and prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to an impartial jury, before we have any right to think that the harms we would inflict on an individual are justified.

For President Bush, it would have been sufficient for him to have presented evidence to NATO or some group of trusted allies to determine whether the evidence was sound. If they agreed that the evidence was good enough, then I would consider the invasion to be legitimate. However, when an impartial jury remains unconvinced, it is a violation of the basic principles of justice that keep the peace in a community. In this case, those principles should be put to use to preserve the peace in the international community. The risk of not applying those principles of justice that we might get involved in a costly and unnecessary war fully justifies the application of the principles of justice in international disputes.

(5) What would you do with a half billion dollars and 4,000 lives?

Of course, before the war started, a rational person would have looked at the opportunity costs of war. He would have said, “Assume that I had $X and $Y lives that I could spend to make the world a better place?” The invasion of Iraq should have been carried out only if there was not some better use for those same resources.

For example, what would have happened if we had invested the money we spent on the war to better develop alternative energy options in this country? What would we have had if we had invested $100 billion per year in developing wind, wave, solar, and geothermal power? With that money, we could have launched solar power satellites and collected energy that way. We could have lost 3,000 construction workers and laborers in this project, and still come out ahead.

One argument I have seen people use (and that I may have used myself in the past) is that, in purchasing foreign oil, we are funding the terrorists. However, there is another line of thought that says that countries that trade with each other are less likely to war with each other. What would the situation be if we made oil obsolete and drove the economies of the Middle East into a deep poverty? Would this make them less likely to attack the United State, or more likely? I do not know, and I do not have an education in the relevant areas to speculate.


The Bush Administration abandoned every principle of morality and justice in its route to war. In doing so, they have provided us with an important lesson as to why it is important to follow, rather than to discard, those principles of morality and justice. They exist because they prevent us from making some very costly mistakes. They exist as a barrier to unjustified and very costly acts of violence – protecting us both from being the victim of that type of violence, and to protect us from victimizing others.

With luck, we can elect a new batch of decent, moral leaders to replace those that we have had for the past seven years. And we can start to repair some of the damage that this Administration has done.