Monday, April 30, 2007

Relative Harm

On the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, I had a particular reaction. However, I decided that I should wait a couple of weeks before posting that reaction. I was concerned that people would react to it emotionally, and not actually think about what I was saying.

The thought that came into my head within minutes of hearing about the shooting was, “How would you like to live in a community where something like this happened on average three times per day?”

I had Iraq in mind at the time, where the casualty count last year was approximately equal to 3 Virginia Techs per day, seven days a week.

One of the responses that I thought would come to such a question would be, “How dare you trivialize the deaths of our loved ones like that!”

That misinterprets my question. I am not saying that we should hold our attitudes towards the deaths in Iraq constant and reduce our response to the deaths at Virginia Tech proportionally. Rather, I was suggesting holding our response to the deaths at Virginia Tech constant, and adjust our concern with the fatalities in Iraq accordingly.

The next response that I imagined was, “But these are our own children – young lives ended in their prime.”

Yet. The same can be said of the 3,200 young Americans who have died so far in Iraq. One hundred died this month alone – three times the number killed in Virginia. If the level of grief that we showed for Virginia Tech was appropriate, then we should be showing a comparable level of grief every ten days for the young Americans who are killed and wounded in Iraq. Their families, also, are our neighbors.

A Digression into Theory

If I can wander off into moral theory for a moment, desire utilitarianism, unlike standard forms of utilitarianism, allows for people to give special attention to those who are closer to home. Standard utilitarianism says that all well-being is equal, and that the well-being of somebody half-way around the world should not be treated as less important than the well-being of one’s own children.

Desire utilitarianism says that this is true on one level, but false on another. We evaluate desires on their tendency to fulfill other desires. If “preference for the well-being of one’s own children” is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, then “preference for the well-being of one’s own children” is a virtue under this model.

And, indeed, special affection for those who are near to a person is something that tends to fulfill other desires.

One way to start to see this is to imagine a business, whose job is to increase overall profits. To do so, it takes its business and divides it into regions. There is a New England region, Mid Atlantic, Midwest, South, Southwest, Plains, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Coast region. To each region, it assigns a regional vice-President. The business does not tell each regional vice-President, “I want you to consider the profits of all regions equally in all of your decisions.” It says, “You job is to maximize profits in your region. In doing so, there are certain ways in which you may not interfere with other vice-Presidents doing business in their region. However, you do not have to consider their profitability. That’s not your concern.”

Similarly, we can see how a society can benefit if we tell people, “We need all of our children taken care of. To do this, we are going to assign certain children to each of you. Your job is to take care of those children assigned to you. Do not think of taking care of all children equally. Instead, each of you is to focus specifically on the children under your care. You will, however, be limited to what you may do to others in caring for your children.”

There is another element of desire utilitarianism that needs to be considered here. Desire utilitarianism deals with malleable desires only. Parental and spousal affection (love) are not sufficiently malleable. “Love all people equally” fits in the same moral category as “do not permit any child to get sick”. It is not possible – and, drawing on the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ – it is not an obligation.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) my 20th wedding anniversary. Last year, she almost died. It would not even make sense to say that my grief for her should be equal to my grief for a stranger half way around the world. That which we have shared and experienced together makes it impossible that her life would not be of special significance to me. I assume that the same is true for others – for their friends and families. No sane moral theory can prohibit the acquisition of friends and the special bonds to one’s family and neighbors.

So, I can understand giving some special significance to the deaths at Virginia Tech. I have a harder time treating the deaths of 3,200 American soldiers in Iraq as less important than the deaths at Virginia Tech. And even though I recognize that it is permissible to feel a stronger sense of loss at the deaths of Americans, I cannot forget that second moral level – the level at which desires are judged good or bad – where they are not different.

(Note: Those who are familiar with the writings of moral philosopher R.M. Hare will notice similarities between what I have written above about two levels of moral evaluation, and the distinction between the ‘archangel’ and the ‘prole’ that Hare uses in his rule utilitarianism. Only, I apply it to the evaluation of desires, rather than rules.)

Other Harms

At that second level of moral reasoning, we must weigh the deaths of 32 Americans at Virginia Tech with the deaths of 32,000 Iraqis just last year, the equivalent (like I said) of three Virginia Techs per day.

I also thought about Darfur. At Virginia Tech, a lone gunman went up and down the hall shooting students sitting in a classroom. In Darfur, armed bands would walk in and do the same to an entire village. The casualty rate there is estimated to be in the millions, with the additional cost of people being driven from their homes.

I also thought about the people – particularly the children – who will die from malaria and other preventable childhood diseases. Where morality permits a special affection for one’s own children, this means an unbearable grief for those parents who will lose a child in this way.

I thought about the expected casualties caused by global warming – with estimates in the hundreds of millions. Now, it is true that these fatalities will occur over the course of several years. If we were to draw a comparis2on, we must look at all of the school shootings that may occur over that same time period. Yet, it does seem to be somewhat inconsistent to be willing to put so much effort into preventing the next killing of 32 students at some future date in some future school, yet care so little about saving the hundreds of millions of lives put at risk as a result of global warming.

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” This phrase (often attributed to Stalin though there is no source to confirm this) seems to be an accurate description of how people think. While a nation grieves over the death of 32 students, they let 320 million people die without a moment’s diversion from their day’s entertainment.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Selling the Iraq War: A Moral Perspective

I have been spending the weekend listening to the online version of Bill Moyers’ “Buying the War” about how the Bush Administration sold the American Public on the idea of invading Iraq and how the Press, either intentionally or foolishly, assisted in this campaign of deception.

Mental Gymnastics

First, I want to say that I do not yet know of any evidence that the members of the Bush Administration ‘lied’ in the most sinister definition of the term. When I see the evidence, I will vote to convict them. In the mean time, I suspect that they viewed the case to go to war the same way they viewed the evidence that the Earth is only 10,000 years old or that there is a God. They believe it. It must be true. From this assumption, one can look at the evidence. Evidence consistent with this unquestioned truth is good evidence, and evidence inconsistent with this unquestioned truth is bad evidence.

The reason they continued to insist that aluminum tubes meant that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons is because of this method of using evidence. The story was consistent with their conclusion, so it must be right. It does not matter if them ‘scientists’ and ‘analysts’ and ‘experts’ held a different opinion. This was no different than those ‘scientists’ who held a different opinion on the age of the earth or the evolution of humans. ‘Scientists’ and ‘experts’ are inherently corrupt, claiming whatever absurdities come into their mind that would help to push their atheistic, liberal agenda. The only real evidence was the evidence that said that God created the earth 6,000 years ago, or that said that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States.

Here is a level of consistency that I think many people gloss over. We are dealing with people who can look at the tremendous amount of evidence that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old and sincerely believe that the world is 6,000 years old. These are people who can look at the tremendous amount of evidence for evolution, yet sincerely believe that evolution is ‘just a theory’. These people can look at the tremendous evidence for human contributions to global warming and sincerely believe, at the same time, that (1) there is no warming and (2) it is all natural.

Anybody who has debated these people on any of these issues knows how easily they swallow whatever evidence they can find that seems to support their position and sincerely believe that this is good evidence.

Nobody should be surprised to discover that these same people can dismiss the scientific facts about what it takes to build nuclear weapons and that Saddam Hussein could not possibly be manufacturing nuclear weapons using any process short of magic or divine intervention, and yet sincerely believe that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons.

People look at what has now become known as the absurdity of the Administration claims – that there is no conceivable real-world way that Iraq could have had the infrastructure for building nuclear weapons and keep it a secret – and they conclude, “The Administration must have known that their position was insane; yet, they still defended it.” These are people who think that the scientific evidence actually supports a 6,000 year old Earth, proves evolution is a fraud, and that humans cannot possibly contribute to global warming. Believing that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons in spite of the lack of evidence is child’s play compared to these other examples of mental gymnastics.

The Culpability of the Press and the Public

The bulk of the show asked the question, “Why did the Press not call the President on these absurdities? Why did they not educate the American people on what it would take for Iraq to build a nuclear weapon and ask, “How could any country ever hide that type of infrastructure?”

The question that I have, however, is not why the Press did not raise the questions that should have been raised. Actually, it appears to me that the answer is quite clear. The job of the media industry is to draw eyeballs to advertisements. The reason the Press did not question the President and his policies is because it would have been bad for business.

The real campaign was simple. “If you watch those other news programs – those programs that question the President and his policies in this time of war, then you are watching traitors out to sabotage our this country. They are trying to destroy America. We are trying to protect it. Nobody who cares about America would dare to question the President at this time of crisis.”

It was not the Press that decided that America was a country that would go to war without seriously asking itself whether it had a good reason to go to war. It was not the Press that decided that America would support a war on false pretenses. It was not even the President or his administration that made this decision. They would not have made this decision unless they knew that the social climate was one in which they stood a reasonable chance of getting away with it.

It was the American people themselves – or a sufficiently large majority of them – who made the decision that America was going to be a nation willing and eager to go to war with no questions asked. Indeed, it was the American people themselves – or a sufficiently large majority of them – that decided that asking questions about the justice of killing other people before killing them was going to be made un-American, and that branding those who would ask questions as traitors would be our model of moral virtue.

Things could have been different. Things would have been different if the American people themselves – or a sufficiently large majority of them – held to a different moral standard. It would have been a standard that said, “When we consider punishing a criminal, we hold that punishment is so terrible that we must presume the person we punish is innocent, and we must require proof as to his guilt. Going to war is even more terrible. Justice demands that the same standards apply, that we hold to a presumption of peace unless evidence beyond a reasonable doubt compels us to the alternative.”

What we had in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was the psychology of a lynch mob on a national scale. A lynch mob will, sometimes, have a trial of sorts before they lynch the accused. However, the lynch mob makes it clear that anybody who actually dares use this opportunity to defend the accused, and who speaks ill of the mob, will suffer for it. The lynch mob bullies the opposition into silence.

I am not saying that Saddam Hussein was an innocent man. I have argued (e.g., “Richard Perle: Morally Assessing Iraq”) that I thought that there was just cause to remove Hussein from power, by force if necessary. My opposition to Bush’s invasion sprang entirely from the fact that Bush was incompetent and would probably do more harm than good – like a cop who would toss a hand grenade into a crowded subway car to apprehend a purse snatcher.

Part of what is involved in giving a case a fair hearing is not only figuring out whether the accused is innocent or guilty, but the appropriate way to deal with the problem so that a lot of innocent people do not end up getting killed. The Bush Administration pushed for immediate action, arguing that there was no time for a debate on the subject. We had to act immediately “before the smoking gun came in the form of a mushroom cloud”. As such, our options were poorly considered, poorly planned, and poorly executed – exhibiting exactly the incompetence I had expected from this administration.

It is easy, it is even natural, for people to find scapegoats for their wrongdoing. Nobody likes to admit that they were wrong. Yet, there is a certain necessity for calling those who scapegoat on what they are doing. Getting people to admin their own responsibility is an important step to preventing some terrible wrong from repeating itself in the future.

Yes, the Bush Administration was evil, casting aside principles of justice and morality like so much waste as they pursued their objectives. Yes, those members of the Press who became popular by declaring anybody who questioned them to be anti-American traitors in league with the terrorists are guilty of wrongdoing as well. Yet, another group that is just that guilty are the people who decided to use their market power to tell the media, “Yes, I will enthusiastically support the doctrine of unquestioned obedience and unjust war by attaching my eyeballs to the advertisements of those who deliver this message.”

It is probably the most important role. Because, if the American public – or a sufficiently large majority of them at least – would have been enthusiastic about justice and the presumption of peace, then the Press and the President would not have gone on a drumbeat towards war.

Think of how much better off we would have been if a majority of Americans would have had sufficient moral character to have done the right thing.

Immorality does have a price tag.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sam Harris: Morality and Religion

Old Business: Atheists in Foxholes

On April 15th, in a posting called “Standing Up to Bigotry”, I wrote that I wanted to see the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” to be treated like the bigoted slam that it is – and I gave the moral argument for that position.

Austin Cline has information on another use of this denigrating and demeaning phrase. I wanted to bring the incident to your attention today, in the hopes that you will write to The News and Observer and express your disapproval of this bigotry. Austin Cline has the contact information in his posting.

New Business: Sam Harris: Morality and Religion

The first speaker on the third and last day of Beyond Belief 2006 was Sam Harris, who was introduced on the first day of the conference.

Side note: For those who wish to view the Beyond Belief 2006, all sessions have two options; a ‘view’ option and a ‘download’ option. For this, the 9th out of 10 session, the ‘view’ option has 1 hour and 27 minutes of additional content.

Anyway, today, Harris wishes to talk about the relationship between religion and morality. He starts off by claiming that the way some theists defend their specific religion is to say that, even if religious beliefs are false, they are still useful. We get both morality itself (a set of ideas on what is right and what is wrong) and our motivation to do the right thing (to serve God, to enter heaven, to avoid hell) from religion. If we get rid of religion, we have no motivation to do the right thing. Plus, even if some of us were still motivated to do the right thing, atheism gives us no ‘right thing’ for us to do.

This fear of a society without morality then motivates people not only to promote religion, but to view religious people as the only ‘safe’ neighbors to have (or the only ‘safe’ legislators to elect), and promotes an overall fear and hatred of atheists as dangerous and immoral. People are afraid of a society without God and religion.

Harris makes so many mistakes in this presentation that I simply cringe in frustration just to hear him speak. It is the same when I hear Richard Dawkins discuss morality, as I wrote about in “Morality and the Selfish Gene

Useful Does Not Imply True

We can throw out the second half of Harris’ presentation. There, he argued that the fact that a belief is useful does not imply that it is true. This is certainly true. However, it does not address the issue of defending religion because it is useful. Yes, it is true that the usefulness of a belief does not imply that it is true. However, a useful but false belief is still useful.

Happiness and Suffering

In the first half of his talk, Harris attempted to argue that there are reasons for being moral that have nothing to do with religion. He specified two reasons for being moral; happiness and the avoidance of suffering.

I argued last Wednesday in the post, “Evaluating Moral Theories”, a moral theory, like all theories, needs to be able to account for a range of observations relevant to that subject. Happiness and suffering theories fail this test.

Would you prefer life in an experience machine (or in “The Matrix”) over life in the real world? Many people say that they would not. In fact, some people are strongly repulsed by the idea. However, the “happiness and suffering” theory cannot account for these facts.

Take a person who wishes to provide medical care to sick and dying people in Africa. Tell this person, “I have a save-the-sick-and-dying program that I can put into my computer and feed into your brain as a completely realistic set of experiences. While you are attached to the Matrix, my program will feed you all of the impressions that will make you think that you are a great humanitarian saving sick and dying people in Africa. You will believe that everything you see and hear is real, and your memories about life before you entered the machine will be replaced by false memories relevant to your life in the Matrix. Now, do you want to enter the machine?”

Many (most, almost all) of those who want to save the sick and dying people in Africa would refuse. They would see no reason to enter the machine. For ‘happiness and suffering’ theory this is a problem, because the person who enters the machine will experience just as much if not more happiness, and be better able to avoid suffering, than a person in the real world. If ‘happiness and suffering’ are the only reasons for action that exist, or that are worth considering, an agent would have no reason to refuse the machine.

Yet, they do refuse.

The machine simply cannot give these people what they want. What they want is not the happiness that comes from saving people. They want to actually save people. This is something that they simply cannot do from inside the Matrix.

I often hear people respond to this by suggesting that the happiness that one would get from the experience machine is not ‘true happiness’. What is “true happiness”? It turns out to be a vague, ill-defined term that allows the person who uses it to engage in circular reasoning. They tell us that we only pursue ‘true happiness’. When asked to define this term, they say that ‘true happiness’ is defined as the only thing that we pursue.

We need a theory of (reasons for) action that explains how people can have a reason to refuse to enter the experience machine even though they will be happy inside the machine.

Desire-based theory has no problem with this. It says that all people seek to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires. A desire is a propositional attitude that can be expressed in the form of “desires that P”, where P is a proposition. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs S where P is true in S.

If somebody has a “desire that I am saving the sick and the dying in Africa”, then this person is motivated to bring about states where “I am saving the sick and dying in Africa” is true. He is not motivated to enter the experience machine, because the experience machine cannot make that proposition true.

You can probably find some people who would enter the machine. These people have a desire for personal happiness and avoidance of pain. The experience machine can give them this. The experience machine can make the propositions, “I am experiencing happiness” and “I am not suffering” true.

The next objection raised to this model is that it treats all desires as equal. What should we do, for example, with people who desire to rape and torture young children? These, for them, are ‘reasons for action’.

This is false. If we can evaluate entering an experience chamber versus helping the sick and dying in Africa on whether they will actually fulfill desires, we can evaluate desires themselves according to how well they fulfill (other) desires. When we do this, we see that there are desires that tend to fulfill other desires (the desire to help the sick and dying in Africa), and desires that tend to thwart other desires (the desire to rape and torture young children). Consequently, we can even evaluate ‘reasons for action’ as ‘reasons for action that we have reason to promote and encourage’ and ‘reasons for action that we have reason to inhibit or discourage’.

We have criteria for categorizing people as ‘virtuous’ (as having those reasons for action that we have reasons to promote), and ‘vicious’ (as having those reasons for action that we have reasons to inhibit).

We have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting virtue and for combating viciousness.

The next challenge that comes along is typically to complain that evaluating desires by their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires is circular. It is circular, in the same way that coherentist epistemology is circular, in the same way that linguistics is circular, and in the same way as the process of “reflective equilibrium” is circular. A sufficiently large and complex system is considered virtuously circular, compared to the tight and direct circles of viciously circular arguments. The evaluation of desires relative to other desires is sufficiently broad and complex to be considered virtuously circular. Now, let’s apply desire fulfillment theory to the question Harris was trying to answer. Are there ‘reasons for action’ for being moral that do not depend on God? The answer is clearly ‘yes’. These desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others are a moral system that requires no reference to God.

So, I have answered the same challenge that Harris sought to answer. However, I did it with a better theory of value than the archaic 19th-century theory that Harris appealed to.

The Value of Truth

Now, I wish to return to the second part of Harris’s presentation, the part I originally tossed out because it was irrelevant. There was something important in that part of the presentation. However, Harris could not see it clearly because of his (defective) lens of happiness and suffering theory. Through the lens of desire fulfillment theory, it becomes more clearly visible.

Harris argued that, just because religious beliefs are useful, this does not make them true. This is fine, but it does not prove that they are not useful.

He uses an example of somebody who claims to be the fastest runner on the planet, even though he never runs, never competes, and is clearly in worse shape than professional Olympic athletes. When asked to defend this claim, he defends it on the basis that being the fastest runner on the planet gives his life meaning and purpose. Harris correctly points out that the desire for purpose does not make the belief true. However, he only hints at the real problem. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you are NOT the fastest person on the planet. You may believe that you are the fastest person on the planet. From this, you may believe that your life has meaning and purpose. However, since the claim that you are the fastest person on the planet is false, your claim that your life has meaning and purpose is false as well.”

People may claim that serving God gives their lives meaning and purpose. However, in fact, nobody has ever served God. Nobody will ever serve God. Nobody has ever acquired a life of meaning and purpose by serving God. The only way for a life to have real meaning and purpose is if the things they accomplish, themselves, are real, and God is not real.

On the other hand, the person whose finds meaning and purpose in saving the sick and dying in Africa can actually find meaning and purpose, because this is something that can actually happen.

All of this ties neatly into the theory that we are beings who seek to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, and our desire that ‘P’ is fulfilled in a state of affairs where ‘P’ is true. There is no state of affairs in which the desire to serve God can be fulfilled. However, there are states of affairs in which the desire to save the sick and dying people in Africa can be fulfilled.

Plus, we have an account where some desires (those that tend to fulfill other desires) are themselves better than others.

The Religious Argument

Now, I want to go back and discuss the argument that Harris started off addressing: “Even if there is no God, we should believe in God because, if we do not, we will have no reason to be moral.”

This argument commits the moral crime of fear-peddling. The speaker is trying to sell fear, and doing so on the basis of reasons that a good and moral person would know to be flawed.

The argument invites the audience to imagine a society without morality – a society of wonton violence – a society much like Baghdad, Iraq is today. It adds the claim that religion is the only way to avoid this state. In this way, it uses fear of entering a Baghdad-like state to sell hatred and fear of atheists.

This argument requires the assumption that people we have reason to avoid living in a society without morality. It says, (1) because people have reason to want to live in a moral society, and (2) because there can be no moral society without God, that (3) people have reason to promote belief in God and to fear and condemn (as a threat to society) those who do not believe.

However, premise (2) in this argument says that, without belief in God, a person has no reason to promote a moral society. For all practical purposes, it states can be completely indifferent to the immorality going on around him. For this claim to be true, we would have to say that an atheist can live in Baghdad, can go about his shopping while bombs scatter body parts around him, have his daughters taken from him, tortured, and killed in front of his eyes, all with complete indifference to what was happening.

There are few purer examples of bigotry in the world today than this argument that atheists have no reason to be moral.

If we reject this – if we allow that atheists can be concerned about the fact that they and those they care about are safe – then atheists have reasons to form a moral society even though they do not believe in God.


My suggestion is that this model does a better job of answering the challenge that Harris sat out to answer than the model that Harris actually uses. The “happiness and suffering” model cannot explain human choices nearly as well as the “desire fulfillment” model. The “desire fulfillment” model can answer the challenge of the experience machine (or The Matrix), where the “happiness and suffering” model stumbles. It also accounts for the value of truth – of why a person who values helping the sick and dying in Africa would not enter an experience machine to gain the experience of helping the sick and dying in Africa. It even answers the challenge of how desires themselves can have different values (depending on whether the desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires).

I have also criticized the argument claiming that religion is useful for promoting morality on the grounds that it contains conflicting premises. It assumes that we all have reason to promote a moral society. It also claims that religion is the only way to form a moral society. However, this second premise requires the assumption that, without belief in God, we have no reason to promote a moral society – that an atheist would be indifferent towards the prospect of living in a society such as Baghdad. These types of claims are not only absurdly false, they are contemporary examples of fear-peddling bigotry.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ann Druyan: Popular Science

Another weekend is upon us, so I return to the presentations at Beyond Belief 2006. Our next speaker is Ann Druyan, the CEO and co-founder of Cosmos Studios.

Druyan worked on some of the best efforts at explaining science that have been done in the past 20 years, much of it with one of the most effective science teachers – in terms of teaching science to a mass audience of television viewers – of the television era, Carl Sagan.

I grew up in a family that viewed Carl Sagan as one of the greatest people who had ever lived. My father pointed to him constantly as a role-model for his children, and he was worthy of that position. I even suspect that, for a while, he had hopes that I could grow up to be just like Carl Sagan. I had a love of science in general and astronomy in particular, and nobody doubted that I could become an astronomer.

I was immensely curious about how stars came into being and what happened when they died, how life evolved, what things were made of and how they fit together, how continents moved over time and how everything from thunderstorms to volcanoes actually worked. However, it turned out that the one thing I wanted to know more than anything else was how value worked.

The question on the table here concerns the value of science. Perhaps there is something useful that I can contribute to this conversation.

I will start with the proposition that people act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, and people seek to act so as to fulfill their desires. This suggests several ways in which we can get people to pay more attention to science. The most important of these is an option that people tend to overlook, though it comes directly out of these fundamental propositions.

The Direct Value of Science

If people seek to act so as to fulfill their desires, then one way to promote science is to point out to people that science can directly fulfill some of their desires. Science is fun. Science is interesting. Science is wonderful (in the sense that it has the power to fill a person with wonder).

For many of us who follow science, even if we are not scientists, science has value for its own sake. I check the Astronomy Picture of the Day daily, read the caption, and, if I can fit it without distortion, select the day’s picture as the wall paper on my computer. While other people turn to sports news every morning to find out how their favorite team is doing, I turn to science news to determine how my favorite teams are doing. My teams, however, are teams who are trying to discover cures for disease, better ways to detect extra-solar plants, predict the future climate and prevent the worse of those effects, understand volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural forces that threaten life.

Technically, direct value is formulated as a state of affairs in which an agent has a desire that P, there is a state of affairs S, and P is true in S. This is simply a desire to know. One wants to know how volcanoes work. One wants to know about the planets that orbit far distant stars. One wants to know about the interactions of plants and animals in some part of the world or another. One want to know what human life was like 10,000 years ago. When asked why, the real answer is nothing more than, “Because I want to. Why do you eat chocolate? Do you have to have a reason other than the fact that you like to eat chocolate?”

This form of value does not help us much in our quest to promote science. This method of value suggests that the people who will be attracted to a television show or a museum exhibit are those people who are already interested in the subject. The provider gives people something that they already like.

Indirect (Instrumental) Value

Another way that science (or anything in the universe for that matter) can have value is to have indirect or instrumental value. Science, in this sense, would be a useful tool.

Science is, in fact, a very useful tool. Science provides us with the formulae that do the best job of explaining and predicting events in the real world. Being able to predict events in the real world give a person a way to manipulate the world to fulfill the agent’s desires.

Without science, my wife would have died twice – the first time when she was a young teenager with a brain tumor, and the second time last year when she became ill.

In addition, we simply do not know how often science has prevented her death, or mine. We are both immunized from a wide range of ugly diseases from small pox to polio. We drink pasteurized milk, there is iodine in our salt, and our breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and iron. We have enough food to eat. We have warnings from storms and know how to protect ourselves from their effects.

Science also gives us options that fulfill our desires that would not have otherwise existed. All my life I have said that what I would really like to have a newspaper column where I could comment on the events of the day and apply my understanding of moral philosophy to those events. Here I am, writing a blog that gets transmitted around the world every day. Well, almost every day. Pretty darn close to every day.

Science is good because science is useful. Science provides us with the most successful formulae around for explaining and predicting real-world events. Those who ignore science are more likely to suffer consequences they do not anticipate, and they are likely to be consequences they do not want.

So, a second way to get people more interested in science is to show them how useful it is. Such a person has no reason to pursue science beyond its usefulness, but has a reason to follow science at least that far – once they are shown its usefulness.

Changing Values

The way of looking at value that I describe in this blog provides us with a third way of promoting interest in science, which is to actually change people’s desires. When we do this, we are not trying to convince them that science contains something that they already like. Nor are we trying to convince them that science is useful in bringing about something they already like. We are trying to cause them to have different likes – to acquire likes that science can then fulfill.

Many people who talk about making science popular assumes that everybody else is like them. Once others are exposed to science, it is like being exposed to cocaine. The person having the experience of science will be hooked, unable to get enough science, and unwilling to go back to the type of person they once were. All we need are shows like Cosmos and Connections to show people how wonderful science can be.

Only, people are not alike. Most people – all people – will have desires that science can fulfill directly only if others go through the effort of changing an individual’s desires.

As I have also argued in this blog, we do not change desires through reason and argument. Reason will tell a person whether a state will fulfill the desires he has, or whether it can be used to create a state that fulfills those desires. To change desires themselves – to make people love science for its own sake – we have to use other tools.

When it comes to actually promoting tools, one of the most effective tools of the past century has been the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. This took a whole generation of individuals who had a passive interest in science, and converted many of them into people with a huge interest in science, mathematics, and engineering overnight. It is not that Sputnik suddenly made people love science. Rather, it gave science a whole new usefulness – one that would protect them and their liberties from the aggression of the Soviet Union. Whether this value was genuine or merely perceived, the belief that science had this new value motivated many people to take a look at science.

It is often the case that the things we pursue because they are useful become things that we value for their own sake. A child may behave because he wishes to avoid being yelled at by his parents. Yet, the behavior that begins as a useful tool for avoiding punishment becomes something that child likes to do for its own sake – something the child will continue to do even when the parental threat goes away. This is how parents – at least, good parents – raise children to become morally upstanding adults.

That is to say, parents influence the values of their children through praise and condemnation. People influence each other’s values using these same tools.

If you wish to promote a love of science where it does not exist, and to inhibit a love of superstition where it does exist, the best tools to use are to praise those who love science, and to condemn those who love superstition.

In the debate over whether atheists should pursue kindness as a political strategy, my position is to argue against that tactic. If we praise and coddle the love of superstition, we promote the love of superstition. Those who condemn those who love reason and use them as scapegoats for all the world’s ills promote an aversion to reason.

This is the reason why I so strongly detest the motto “In God We Trust” and the pledge to “One Nation Under God.” These can only be understood as giving national praise to those who trust in or who are under God, and they condemn and brand as inferior those who do not. This, then, has an effect on our nation’s values. It gives people a special affection for those who trust in and who are under God, while promoting hatred and contempt for those who are not. We then see these effects in national surveys of attitudes towards atheists.

There can be no progress in promoting a love of reason over superstition as long as it is our national policy, our national motto, and our national pledge, to praise superstition and condemn reason.

Action Items

So, the task is not to find ways of providing people with science that they already value. The task is to promote a love of science and a love of reason. Reason has nothing to say about or ends – our desires. Reason only has something to say about the means to the ends we already have. Influencing desires themselves requires the judicious use of the institutions of praise and condemnation.

Yet, there is a way in which the instrumental value of science can help in this regard. When those who promote superstition ignore reality, the effect will be death, suffering, and other harms. Any time these harms exist, there is an opportunity to point out how these harms could be avoided through science and reason, and are protected by those who ignore science and reason. This, in turn, justifies praise for those who accept science and reason, and justifies condemnation for those who condemn it. It justifies these results in terms of the harms prevented and the harms permitted.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Keith Olbermann: Fear Peddling

MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann had another “special comment” last night in which he condemned Rudi Giuliani for a speech that Olbermann translated into “vote Democrat and die.” Giuliani asserted in a speech before (group) that the Democrats plan to change our stance in the war on terror from offense to defense, and that this defensive strategy would lead to another terrorist attack on this country.

Olbermann’s criticisms were like a shotgun blast against Giuliani in that he made a number of points, but did not offer much in the way of a coherent criticism. One of his complaints is that, given the Republican track record for the past five years, there is reason to doubt that the Republicans actually do have the ability to protect us. There are strategies (such as continuing to pursue Al Queida in Afghanistan and Pakistan) that would have been more effective than an invasion of Iraq, would not have cost as many lives, and would not have supported America’s enemies by eroding the respect that people around the world once had for this country.

Yet, elsewhere Olbermann seemed to suggest that this is not his argument, and that it would be contemptible for anybody to run for office on a campaign of “vote for me or die.” Of course, Giuliani did not say this. What he said was that if a Republican were elected President, the chance of dying in a terrorist attack is greater than if a Democrat is elected President. This is what Olbermann translated into “vote for me or die”.

As a general campaign policy, I see nothing wrong with running on a ‘vote for me or die’ platform, if it is true. If I were running for office, and I were running against an arch-Conservative, I would probably run that type of campaign.

“My opponent wishes to ban all embryonic stem-cell research and prohibit all further developments along this path. Doing so will do irreparable harm to the progress of our medical knowledge, which will hinder our capacity to save lives. Vote for me, and I will support the research that may very well save your life or the life of somebody you know.”

Or, “My opponent is bought and paid for by some of the biggest carbon dioxide emitters in the world. The scientific consensus is that this will put over a hundred million lives at risk. Some of those casualties will be in the United States from new diseases, more violent storms, and heat. Vote for me, and I will support legislation to deal with global warming so that more people can live.”

Or, “President Bush’s foreign policy has turned huge segments of the world who used to respect for the United States, weakened our ability to draw upon the help of those who would have otherwise been our allies, and strengthened our enemies. Those who wish real progress to be made in the war on Terror needs to vote for somebody who rejects those failed missions.”

All of these arguments fit into the mold of running on a “vote for me or die” as Olbermann applies the phrase. Thus, if his claim that running on such a platform alone is worthy of condemnation, then I would be guilty. So will any real candidate worthy of the job. A President is supposed to be protecting us from those things that would otherwise kill us.

In fact, many of my posts would all into that category. A couple of days ago, in “Hate Peddling,” I accused hate peddler of making the situation worse by obscuring the true scientific explanations for events such as the Virginia Tech shootings. In other words, I said that their intellectual recklessness and attempts to shift the public focus from scientifically verifiable cause to their favorite hate group would interfere not only with the research but with the public understanding of their findings. This, in turn, will interfere with the possibility of predicting and preventing some future event. In other words, “Vote for me or die.”

I simply see nothing wrong with these types of claims.

What is a person supposed to do if he is confronted with somebody with a plan that puts the lives of innocent people at risk, what would Olbermann have us do? Ignore the fact? Refuse to talk about it?

I wonder what Olbermann would say about my own writing – about my own ‘side with me or die’ arguments?

Actually, my guess is that he would not criticize them. Yet, I fear that this is because he would consider me a political ally. A more important question is how he would respond to somebody who criticized my writing – some Republican candidate who had blasted me for my “support my side or die moral arguments. I suspect (and this is only a suspicion) that he would condemn that person, saying, “How dare you, sir, assert that anybody who says your policies may be wrong is an ally of Bin Laden.”

I suspect this for three reasons. First, because Olbermann has condemned Republicans before when those Republicans accused attackers of being comparable to the forces of evil. Second, because Olbermann seems to have a tendency of assuming that Republicans can do no good and Democrats can do no evil. Finally, because he does not seem to be able to explain exactly what was wrong in Giuliani’s statement.

So, what specifically was wrong with Giuliani statement?

As I argued above, the fault was not that he said, “Vote for me or die,” or – what is, in fact, more accurate – “my plans and the plans of other Republicans will make you safer than the plans that the Democrats are pursuing.”

The fault is not that Guiliani was wrong. A person can be wrong about a potential threat without being evil. If I think that a wire is still live and tell you not to touch it, I have committed no crime in warning you not to touch the wire, even if the wire happens to be dead.

The fault here is the same as the fault identified in my earlier post, “Dinesh D’Souza: Hate Peddling.” There, I argued that D’Souza’s fault was that he wanted to promote hatred of atheists so badly that he was willing to sacrifice a serious look into the factors responsible for the events at Virginia Tech that would allow us to prevent future attacks.

In order for Olbermann to make good on his condemnation of Giuliani, Olbermann needs to show that Giuliani said, “vote for me or die,” or even that he was wrong, but that his attitude showed a stronger desire to make the public fearful of Democrats than in saving lives.

Olbermann made this. He identified a number of pieces of evidence that suggested that the Republicans were doing a particularly poor job over the last five years of making the world safe for Americans.

Which party held the presidency on September 11th, 2001, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party held the mayoralty of New York on that date, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party assured New Yorkers that the air was safe, and the remains of the dead, recovered - and not being used to fill pot-holes, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party wanted what the terrorists wanted - the postponement elections - and to whose personal advantage would that have redounded, Mr. Giuliani?

Which mayor of New York was elected eight months after the first attack on the World Trade Center, yet did not emphasize counter-terror in the same city for the next eight years, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party had proposed to turn over the Department of Homeland Security to Bernard Kerik, Mr. Giuliani?

Who wanted to ignore and hide Kerik's Organized Crime allegations, Mr. Giuliani?

Who personally argued to the White House that Kerik need not be vetted, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party rode roughshod over Americans' rights while braying that it was actually protecting them, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party took this country into the most utterly backwards, utterly counter-productive, utterly ruinous war in our history, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party has been in office as more Americans were killed in the pointless fields of Iraq, than were killed in the consuming nightmare of 9/11, Mr. Giuliani?

However, for Olbermann this was an afterthought.

. . . even if we have become so profane in our thinking that it is part of our political vocabulary to view counter-terror as one party's property and the other's liability… on what imaginary track record does Mr. Giuliani base his boast?

“Even if . . . .”

What was actually the necessary core piece of evidence that Olbermann needed to make his moral case, was presented as, “Oh, yes, and by the way, one more thing.”

I argue in this blog that the judicious use of condemnation is an important tool for making the world a better place. However, the judicious use of condemnation requires an understanding of what needs to be condemned. Saying, "My policy will save more lives than your policy" is not necessarily wrong. A lot depends on whether or not the claim is true. Even more depends on whether the person making the claim has shown a proper level of concern for the possibility that it might be false. It is this latter measure that deserves condemnation. The bulk of Olbermann's condemnation simply misses the mark.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Affirmative Action Bake Sale

I have a question from the studio audience.

The College Republicans held an "Affirmative Action Bake Sale" where the price of the cookies depended on your gender and race. Women and African-Americans pay less for the same cookies as whites (and, strangely, Asians). Question: Should I be offended? Or is their point valid and logical?

The next time that somebody sets up a booth such as this, do me a favor.

Grab a table and set up a booth next to theirs.

Let us assume that the offending booth is selling cookies for 50 cents to whites and 25 cents for African-Americans and women (and, strangely, Asians). When you set up your booth, put up a help wanted sign.


DAY LABORERS: 5 cents per minute

MANAGERS: (psst, white males only): 10 center per minute.

When you set up this booth, remember that you cannot explicitly state that only whites are permitted to be managers. You have to come up with some other reason for rejecting non-white candidates. They ‘do not fit into the corporate culture’ or ‘their performance is not up to the standards that we expect from our employees’ or ‘they do not get along well with others – will not fit in as a member of the team’.

I am writing about a hypothetical booth here. If you have a chance to set up an actual booth, I could recommend something like having a list of legitimate-sounding reasons handy, for refusing to hire any minority candidate into a manager’s position, and rolling randomly for a reason on the list for each minority candidate who applies.

After all, discrimination does not work by causing an employer to say, “I am not going to hire you for this position because you are black.” Discrimination causes a person to say, “As much as I would like to, I really cannot see giving the job to the black candidate. It’s not that I’m prejudiced. It’s just that this particular candidate does not seem as creative or as energetic as I would like. He seems less intelligent, I question his honesty, or I sense he will lack loyalty to the company.” In short, bigots convince even themselves that they have legitimate reasons for their decision. It is only when we look at their decision from the outside that we can see that these reasons are simply excuses that have no bearing in fact.

There are several ways to test for these. Researchers look for help-wanted advertisements, create two candidates, and give them identical resumes. Then, when they get the interview, the researchers send a black candidate and a white candidate (or some other mix). The research controls for all variables – education, experience, where they went to school, hobbies, everything. If the assignment of jobs is based on objective criteria, then we should expect the job assignments to be random. Instead, we the research shows that employers have a strong preference for white males in upper-paying jobs, and minority gates are turned down for some legitimate sounding reason.

Would you like to find out how bigoted you are? Consider taking one of the sample test at Project Implicit. These are online test that measures the ease with which a person associates certain individuals with stereotypes.

This is a very useful test. You can’t cheat, so it can be self-administered. This would be a good test to conduct on the Republicans who are manning the booth in question. You can’t cheat, so the test can even be self-administered. It measures the reaction time – the speed at which a person associates a trait (good or bad) with a face (black or white).

You can find an example of a different version of the test, measuring sexism, in the presentation given by Mahzarin Banaji at the Beyond Belief conference, where it was applied to a significantly liberal audience which contained both men and women.

These are the forces that keep blacks and women in the jobs that pay the lower rates, and that allow white males to earn more money. I wonder, often, what my life would have been like if I had to compete with blacks and women on an equal basis – if I did not obtain the benefits accorded to my race and gender.

Given that even the most radical liberals show these hidden biases, it is reasonable to look for ways to remove them, if we want to be fair. For example, we may discover that employers tend to give black candidates an automatic 20 point deduction for being black. Remember, the employer will actually convince himself that he has some other, legitimate reason for ranking the candidate as he does. He will base it on a feeling – that the guy just seemed lazy, or unreliable, or like somebody who would not fit in. If, however, people are giving an automatic discount due to race, then it is quite appropriate to demand that they start by giving minority candidates an automatic credit.

Or, alternatively, one can simply say, “If you were being fair, then X% of your employees will be minority candidates. If X% of your employees are not minority candidates, this demonstrates that you are using bigotry to discount the qualifications of those candidates. To help to ensure that this does not happen, we will require that X% of your candidates be minority candidates.”

The complaint here would then be, “Because of the quota, I had to bypass a superior white applicant and accept an inferior minority candidate.”

Answer: “Are you sure? Your hiring practices suggest that you only think that the minority candidates are inferior, and you think that because of your bigotry against such candidates. If you choose to hire an obviously inferior minority candidate, this is your bigotry telling you that you that you cannot find something better – that all minority candidates are intrinsically flawed in some way.”

It is also interesting note that one of the leading predictors of fairness has to do with the subject’s experience of people in various roles. The best predictor against bigotry is whether the agent has experience with these individuals that break the stereotype. Youngsters who have experience living in a world with women and black teachers, then they are more likely to grow up to be people who do not show a bias when they take these types of tests. Therefore, putting minority candidates in these positions is an effective tool for ending discrimination in the future.

Again, if you have an opportunity to actually have a booth next to the College Republicans, you can have a computer set up to take this test. With this, you can either goad the Republicans for refusing to take the test or, if they take it, report whatever bias appears in their results.

This type of program does require extensive empirical research. It needs to determine how much of a handicap that minority candidates face, and respond accordingly – just so much as to create an even playing field and to help to establish a future environment where these prejudices do not limit the opportunities for minority candidates.

So, if you are offended by invalid and illogical points, this would qualify. The College Republicans you talked about took a specific statement out of context in order to criticize it. Statements that lose their context change their meaning. These College Republicans are complaining about a position that nobody holds. They are, in fact, builders of straw men.

In doing so, they are being intellectually negligent. A person exercising normal care to make sure that what he claims is true would have noticed the mistake. Your College Republicans did not notice the mistake. Thus, they are people who do not apply reasonable care to beliefs that may result to harm to others. They are negligent.

There is still a question of how much affirmative action there should be. This question actually has to come from the scientific research. One needs to measure the economic cost of the bigotry that currently exists to the victims of bigotry, and apply sufficient affirmative action to compensate.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Evaluating Moral Theories

Makarios asked a series of questions yesterday which, though I clearly could not answer in a comment, and cannot even answer completely in a post, I would like to give a partial answer to. For all practical purposes, Makarios asked, “How do you, Alonzo, know that your moral principles are correct?”

It is an important question for me. Every once in a while I discover a case of people actually applying the position that I defend. When I do, I get this sudden burst of anxiety and think, “Oh no! What if I am wrong?” I feel obligated to run through the arguments again to look for holes. Mostly, I go through the objections that others have raised and see if I have answers.

I do have reasons for thinking that I am not wrong, and it never hurts me to review them.

Another reason for this posting is that it is an important addendum to an earlier post where I criticized Richard Dawkins’ claims about morality. In “Richard Dawkins: Morality and the Selfish Gene” I complained that Dawkins may have made a case for genetic altruism, but he never did get around to talking about morality. In making this objection, I asked a set of questions that Dawkins’ theories do not even touch.

Can I answer those questions?

Success or failure here determines if one is working on a viable moral theory.

The Phenomena of Morality

A moral theory, like all theories, is to be judged according to its ability to account for the various elements of that which the theory is about. A theory of star formation best explains the phenomena of star formation and the types of starts that result. So, a theory of morality best accounts for the components of morality.

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’. It makes no sense to say that a person ‘ought’ to do something that is impossible. For example, it is not the case that a person ‘ought’ to teleport a child out of a burning building unless it is within his powers to do so. Many theories hold that this requires a force of ‘free will’ with which humans have the power to suspend the laws of physics. This solution is highly suspect. What is this ‘free will’? How does it work? Desire utilitarianism, on the other hand, suggests that this implication captures the fact that morality is concerned with molding malleable desires – those that social forces can influence. It says that it makes no sense to apply these social forces where they can have no effect.

‘Facts’ and ‘values’. Philosophers have generally held that there is a distinction between facts and values. Scientists deal with facts, and values are . . . what? Accounting for values as entities that affect the real world but are not facts is problematic. A better distinction is to say that ‘values’ are claims about relationships between states of affairs and desires, while ‘facts’ are about everything else. The reason we cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ is because we cannot derive a conclusion about how a state of affairs relates to a set of desires – unless our premises contain facts about those desires. Once we add desires to our premises, we can derive oughts.

‘Prohibition’, ‘Permission’, ‘Obligation’. There are three categories of morality as applied to action. All forms of act-utilitarianism say that there are only two; ‘obligation’ (that which maximizes utility), and ‘prohibition’ (everything else). All act-utilitarian theories fail here. Desire utilitarianism accounts for these three categories because they represent three different types of desires. There are ‘good’ desires that we have reason to promote everywhere. There are ‘bad’ desires that we have reason to inhibit everywhere. And there are ‘neutral’ desires that we have reason to promote for some people but not everybody. These ‘neutral’ desires – the desire to paint, to teach, to study astronomy, to design a building, to play football – is the source of our moral permissions.

‘Negligence’. Moral theories that base moral judgments on the intentions of agents cannot account for negligence. The negligent person does not intend to harm others. Yet, because of his inattention, he does so anyway. Desire utilitarianism defeats intention-based moral theories because it can account for negligence. The negligent person’s fault is that he lacks a good desire, or that good desire is not sufficiently strong. That good desire would have motivated him to take precautions to avoid causing harm to others.

The Bad Samaritan. The Bad Samaritan is the term used to represent the moral problem of the person who does the right action, but does it for a bad reason. He saves a drowning child because he wants to be seen as a hero (so he can win the next election). He turns in a notorious criminal for the sake of the reward. His actions are not wrong, but his desires do not allow us to classify him as a good person. Desire utilitarianism says that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. It does not care about the agent’s actual reasons. It is quite possible for an agent to do what a person with good desires would do, only do so for bad reasons.

Weighing Rights. Rights are not absolute. They have weight. The right to freedom of the press ends where the state has a legitimate interest in protecting national security. The right to freedom of the press ends does not extend to libel or slander. Desire utilitarianism classifies a ‘right to X’ to mean ‘people should have a strong aversion to depriving people of X’. , and in some instances one person’s rights are outweighed by duties to others. We must weigh the right to freedom of the press with the government’s obligation to provide for national security. The right to freedom from religion is not a right to force others to attend one’s church. Desires also have weight (or strength). Rights, understood as things for which people generally should have a particularly strong aversion, is compatible with the idea that rights have weight.

‘Mens rea’. In order to prove moral culpability, one must prove ‘mens rea’ (or ‘guilty mind’). Mens rea comes in four flavors; intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. Desire utilitarianism holds that moral judgment rests in determining whether agents have good desires or bad desires. Bad desires and the absence of good desires is the ‘guilty mind’ that culpability is looking for. All four of these moral categories can be understood in terms of evidence for the presence of bad desires or the absence of good desires.

‘Excuse’. When a person does something that, at first, appears to be wrong, he can sometimes save himself if he can offer a legitimate excuse for his actions. A driver runs over a pedestrian, but defends herself by showing that the car had an unforeseeable mechanical failure, or she ran over a terrorist who was about to detonate an explosive vest. There are several different types of excuse. What all of them have in common is that they break the implication from a prima-facie bad action to the agent’s desires. They prevent people from inferring that a person with good desires would not have done the same thing.

Moral Subjectivity and Objectivity. Values seem to be subjective. Desire utilitarianism can handle that. Values are relationships between states of affairs and desires. They cease to exist where desires cease to exist. Yet, at the same time, moral values seem to be objective. They do not depend on the agent wants. Here, desire utilitarianism holds that the value of a desire depends on its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. It concerns whether people generally have reasons to promote a particular desire universally (a virtue) or to inhibit it universally (a vice). Moral virtue and vice depends on desires, but is substantially independent of the desires of the agent.

These are only some of the elements of morality that desire utilitarianism can account for. There are others that I have not mentioned. Other challenges for a moral theory include accounting for: (1) moral dilemmas (a rare state in which very strong desires one should have demand conflicting actions), (2) the moral education of children, (3) accounts for all value terms such as illness, injury, beautiful, useful, crisis, healthy, beneficial, fortunate, and the like (explaining not only what all terms have in common that make them value terms but also what makes each term different from another), (4) supererogatory actions (above and beyond the call of duty), and (5) the relationship between value and reasons for action.

All of this is superficial. The book listed up there on the right side of this blog, “A better place,” examines each of these issues in far more detail. For my purposes here, consistent with the space allowed, I can offer only a brief outline

External Connections

Another way to evaluate theories is through the strength of its connections to other fields of study. A zoological claim has merit not only because it explains and predicts the behavior of the animal, but because the claim is consistent with what we know about chemistry, physics, climatology, geology, mathematics, logic, history, and the like.

Some of the reasons why I believe that the theory I use in these posts has merit is the strength of its connections to other fields of study.

Metaphysics. The theory only makes use of regular every-day phenomena. It talks about desires as propositional attitudes – a desire that ‘P’ is a line of brain code that motivates an agent to make or keep the proposition ‘P’ true. It talks about states of affairs. And it talks about the relationships between them: A desire that P is fulfilled in S if and only if P is true in S. There is no ‘free will’ that allows us to suspend the laws of physics, no intrinsic value, no God, no ‘categorical imperatives’, no meeting behind a veil of ignorance, no ideal observer, no social contract, no ‘man qua man’. There are desires, states of affairs, and relationships between them.

Action Theory: This theory employs the most widely used theory of intentional action. It is a theory that explains intentional action as the product of beliefs (a belief that ‘P’ is the attitude that the proposition ‘P’ is true), and desires (a desire that P is a mental attitude that the proposition ‘P’ is to be made or kept true). This produces intention, which (in the absence of a physical defect or restraint) produces intentional action.

Evolution. Evolution has certainly influenced our desires so that we tend to want those things that, in turn, tend to cause the replication of one’s genes. We tend to desire sex, to care for our children, the types of food that kept our biological ancestors alive, a particular climate, and an aversion to pain where pain tends to be caused by that which threatens our reproduction. However, evolution also gave us a brain that is molded by interaction with our environment. We learn, and through learning we acquire beliefs and desires that do not come from our genes. Clearly, there is no gene for believing that today is Thursday or that Saturn has rings. There are also no genes determining some of my desires. Morality is concerned with those malleable desires. Not only is morality about malleable desires, but it is concerned with how those desires can be molded – particularly through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. These facts also fit into evolutionary theory.

Economics. Value in terms of relationships between states of affairs and desires are easily translated into economic concepts of goods (ends – states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of one’s desires are true) and price (types of effort that go into creating those states of affairs).


So, why do I think that desire utilitarianism is a good theory? Because no other theory accomplishes so much (in terms of accounting for the elements of morality as well as connecting to the other branches of knowledge) with so little (uses only desires, states of affairs, and relationships between them).

If there is another theory that does as well, then we should use it.

Either way, the test is: Which theory provides the most efficient account of that which we know as morality?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Dinesh D’Souza: Hate Peddling

It was my intention not to write on Dinesh D’Souza’s recent postings (which PZ Myers covers here), mostly because there are more important things in the world to write about. D’Souza is a hate-peddler. Sometime back in his life he discovered that he can acquire fame and fortune by manufacturing hate and selling it in the press. Or maybe he just discovered that he enjoyed hate-peddling. The virtues of truth and fairness are far beyond his grasp.

Yet, unfortunately, we live in a culture that cherishes the products of the hate-peddler, so D’Souza has indeed found a route to at least some measure of notoriety and wealth.

It is because our society pays hate-peddlers so well, in terms of cash, honor, and respect, that we have so many of them. If one were to think that a society would be better off without hate-peddlers – if one were to think that their contribution to society has more in common with that of the thief or arsonist than that of the honest laborer or scholar – then one would treat the hate-peddler the same way that we treat members of these other groups.

D’Souza would probably claim that I complain about his writings and call him names because I am angry at God for some offense.

No, Mr. D’Souza. I complain about your writings because I believe that hate-peddlers are like thieves and arsonists. You make this world a worse place to live, for everybody.

There are those who might think that D’Souza only makes the world a worse place for atheists (and the other target of his hatred). However, he does not. In being a hate-peddler, he promotes hate-peddling itself. This inspires other people to go into the business, and they will not all choose the same target. In fact, once people like D’Souza capture the market for hate against one group, the wise competitor has reason to pick a different target. They spread the hate around, so everybody can have some.

It is ironic that D’Souza argues that an atheist suffers from an inability to make moral judgments, when D’Souza himself is unable to perceive the immorality of his own actions. He does not understand that goodness and evil is found by making universal the principles of one’s actions – the idea that one should ‘do unto others what one would have others do unto you’.

I am certain that D’Souza would condemn anybody who make unfounded denigrating generalizations about any number of groups and call it wrong. I am certain that D’Souza would condemn the hate-mongers who pick any of a long list of targets. Yet, he does unto others exactly what he would condemn others for doing. He knows that this type of behavior is immoral, but he engages in it anyway.


The careful reader will notice that I am only writing about D’Souza himself. I do not generalize my remarks to make broad-brush claims about ‘Christians’ or ‘Theists’. D’Souza’s fault is not that he is a Christian or a theist. His fault that he is a hate-peddler. He happens to be a Christian hate-peddler. However, it is the quality of being a hate-peddler that makes him evil, not his quality of being a theist.

(I do know of some atheists who need to pay a bit closer attention to this type of distinction.)

The hate-peddler, in a sense, lets immoral people off of the hook, as it were, by transferring the guilty person’s guilt to some group – to whomever he is in the market of peddling hate against.

So, we hear that the murders at Virginia Tech are not really Cho’s moral responsibility. Cho was the unwitting victim of liberals who took prayer out of the schools. Or who argue that the real killers were liberals who refuse to allow college campuses to be modern versions of the old west, where everybody walks around with a gun on his or her hip ready to draw down on the first transgressor. Or is it the video-game manufacturers who are at fault? Or the movie industry? Or parents who spank their children?

Or was it perhaps Cho himself who murdered those students?

A look at the empirical evidence might actually uncover some statistical relationship between these other items and the disposition to murder. They might be able to uncover a relationship that says, “If we do X, then we can decrease each individual’s risk of being murdered – or of having somebody they care about from being murdered – by Y percent.” Then we can make informed decisions about which policy to pursue.

However, the hate-peddler is notoriously unconcerned about these types of relationships. The hate-peddler is only concerned about channeling the public’s pain, suffering, anguish, and desire for revenge against its target hate-group; motivated, not by a genuine interest in saving lives, but by an interest in profiting from the manufacture and sale of hate.


D’Souza’s accusation is that the atheist has no words of comfort to offer to those who suffered the loss of a loved one at Virginia Tech. When it comes to comforting those who are in grief, the atheist must remain silent.

Of course, D’Souza’s comfort comes in the form of a lie.

“Don’t grieve, Ms. Smith. Your daughter is not really dead. No, she hopped onto a plane with 31 of her friends and flew off to Tahiti. Sure, she’s having the time of her life – all expenses paid. Yes, she’s safe. She is well chaperoned and nothing bad can happen to her there. No, I’m afraid that you can’t contact her. Tahiti does not have phone service. No, I’m afraid it doesn’t have internet service either. Yes, you’ll see her again. We’re making arrangements to send you to Tahiti as well – all expenses paid.”

Yes, when reality proves to be particularly harsh, a lie can be comforting. It is fitting that those with no love for the truth would be the ones who are in the best position to lie.

However, one of the problems with this comforting lie is it downplays the magnitude of what happened in Virginia. These students are not enjoying an all-expense paid life under a perfectly benevolent chaperone in Tahiti. They are dead. Dead and gone. When they died, everything they were, and everything they wanted to become, died as well.

Is this too harsh? Is this difficult to accept?

This type of killing should be difficult to accept, because it clearly is unacceptable. The less people accept it, the more they are inclined to do something about it. Something useful. One of them, perhaps, might be motivated to grab D’Souza by the lapel and shout into his face loud enough to penetrate his thick skull, “YOU . . . ARE . . . NOT . . . HELPING!”

He is not helping. Ironically, D’Souza peddles hate for the very people whose capacity for empirical research and theory formation are in the best position to discover how to explain events. That which can be explained can be predicted. That which can be predicted can be avoided. Anybody who has an interest in explaining, predicting, and avoiding events such as this has an interest in rejecting and even condemning the hate that D’Souza loves to sell. Anybody who is in the market for D’Souza’s hate can’t be all that concerned with being able to explain, predict, and avoid events such as Virginia Tech.

It was my intention not to write about D’Souza’s postings because there are more important things to write about. Then I noticed, through D’Souza’s postings, that our abilities to explain, predict, and avoid events such as those in Virginia Tech are being threatened. I noticed how D’Souza trivializes the death of these people with a make-belief story in which they are all healthy and happy in a far-away land still enjoying themselves.

I noticed that there is something important to talk about here – the saving of innocent lives, and those who would rather peddle hate than save lives.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pharyngula: Rudeness and Conflict

P Z Myers of Pharyngula had a posting called, "We aim to misbehave" that criticized the "be nice" approach to advancing atheism. There is a core truth to what he wrote. However, he wrote it in what appears to be the complete absence of any type of moral backdrop.

The core truth is actually an argument that I have repeated often in this blog, including Thursday's posting "Framing" and Friday's posting "Disagreement". It points to the absurdity of blaming anti-atheist bigotry on the atheists because they are not being nice. Bigotry does not respond to "being nice". It makes no sense to blame the subjugation of women, for example, on the idea that women were - at least until the early 1900s - rude and obnoxious individuals and that only by 'being nice' were they able to obtain political equality. Myers provides some clear examples of how not being nice was the cause of their political liberation.

One of the better objections ever written against those who demand that one 'play nice' came from Martin Luther King in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" - an argument that I covered in the posting, "Culpability of the Moderates".

However, exactly how 'not nice' are atheists allowed to be?

Are there limits to political action?

There Is a Line

Let me put the question bluntly. "If you could end religion 500 years earlier by detonating a nuclear bomb in the Vatican and Mecca, would you do it?"

At this point, I expect somebody to assert, “Hold it, Alonzo! Nobody, least of all PZ Myers, is talking about nuking religious centers.”

This is true, they are not. However, there is a point of order here. The first point is to establish that there is a line that can be crossed. The second point is to ask where the line is.

Now, in answering the original question about detonating the bombs, some might say, "No I would not. Ultimately, I don't think it would be useful. It would turn people against atheists and have other unfortunate consequences."

However, the person who gives this answer is still telling us, "Well, if I had a way of avoiding these consequences, then I would do it." He seems to be suggesting that if he could make sure that the Muslims are blamed for blowing up the Vatican, and the Christians are blamed for blowing up Mecca, this might generate an anti-religion attitude that could be useful. Under these circumstances, he could set off the bomb.

Unless, of course, there are moral limits to what one might do in obtaining a political goal.

In Myers' article, he quoted an article in which the authors said that the Women's Social and Political union engaged in the breaking of windows and arson to obtain their ends.

Does Myers advocate destruction of property and arson as a legitimate form of protest?

He also writes,

Successful revolutionaries ignore the admonitions about which fork to use for their salad because they care only to grab the steak knife as they launch themselves over the table.

Does Myers advocate murder?

I would say that he does not. However, his words to - in this passage. The defense that 'any sane person would realize that I wasn't talking about actually killing somebody' begs asking the question, "Really? Do you know that as an empirical fact? Whose life are you willing to bet on that?"

I hold to a certain amount of moral responsibility in my writing. The responsibility exists because it is all too easy for somebody to get carried away. There is always . . . always . . . a bottom or most extreme one percent who are at risk of carrying any political activism too far.

Myers does not mention limits. He quotes, without qualification, statements that accept vandalism, arson, and attacking others with a stake knife – all without suggesting that there might be moral limits to what is acceptable.

So, what is he advocating? If he does not mention limits, then what is his message to the bottom one percent?

I argue that there are limits, and that it is important to keep them in focus at all times. Whenever I speak in defense of protests – and I am very much a defender of protest – I take care to mention the limits of morally legitimate protest. Words and private action (including protest, and even including non-violent civil disobedience) are the only legitimate responses to words, and a political campaign is the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society. Nothing more is justified.

I do not advocate or even condone ‘being nice’ – not to those who are unjust or whose recklessness threatens the life, health, well-being of others. Imagine catching a guy beating a child and ‘being nice’ to him. Imagine catching an organization withholding food from a whole village of children. Imagine catching a church banning the medical research that will free countless children of disease because they think God prefers a state where the children to be sick and dying. It is very difficult to defend the idea of ‘being nice’ to such people.

However, there is a difference between being nice and being fair – between condemning those who deserve to be condemned and condemning those who have done no wrong simply because they share some trait with those who are justifiably condemned.

Some of the claims that atheist activists make are dishonest, intellectually reckless, and unjust. Those claims lie outside the moral limits of political activism.

Ignoring Morality

One could say, “Damn the morality, full speed ahead. We have a cause to fight for here, and morality will only slow us down.”

Yet, it is somewhat problematic to toss morality aside for the sake of a political end while condemning others for tossing morality aside for the sake of political ends. One could say that this type of attitude is somewhat ‘hypocritical’. That’s the first (and not the most serious) of its faults. The person who tosses morality aside tells others that they may do so as well.

As an ethicist, one of my complaints about President Bush is that, in tossing morality aside and setting up secret prisons, endorsing torture, engaging in rendition, holding prisoners without trial or charges, bypassing the legislature through signing statements, simply refusing to deal with the courts, and the like, that he is setting a moral standard for countries around the world to follow. These are not the types of actions that we have any reason to see become international standards.

These are the fruits of tossing morality aside.

So, I ask again, where does PZ Myers speak of the moral limits of political activism?


In another post the next day, PZ Myers tells us, “Conflict sells. Use it.”

Conflict does sell. Conflict is profitable. However, is that what Myers is after? Profits?

Shout television is profitable. Shout television is what the cable news networks engage in when they get two attack dogs to go after each other in front of the cameras. It involves a lot of shouting and rhetoric – a great deal of heat, and little light.

Research shows that shout television is very popular, however it is not at all informative. People who watch shout television end up much more firmly set in their own views, and less capable of understanding the opposing position. In short, shout television weakens the middle and promotes the extreme on any issue they cover.

But, it brings eyeballs to advertisements, and that is what matters.

If we create a situation, with a more strongly polarized population, with a week and ineffective middle, and with no moral limits to what may be done in the name of political activism, then the only option left is civil war. No doubt, people on both sides will assert that they are only defending themselves against the aggression from the other side. Both sides will make-believe that they are the aggrieved and wronged party reluctantly entering into the fight. The ‘lovers of conflict’ will be there at the lead demonizing the ‘others’ while convincing ‘us’ that the cause is noble and just.

Yes, conflict sells.

But, answer the question, “WHAT, exactly, does conflict sell? And is this something we have any interest in selling?”


Yesterday, while writing about ‘scientism’, I mentioned that I agreed with Harper. When scientists begin talking in the realm of value, they tend to abandon the principles of intellectual rigor that they insist on in their own field.

This is an example.

Once again, I am not disputing the claim that there can be no progress by being nice. Myers’ best and most accurate line in the first article was, “They won't stop (calling atheists rude) until we're completely silent.” This is true. The accusation of “rudeness’ is simply a rhetorical trick to get the opposition to shut up. There is no way to avoid the accusation without simply accepting second-class status. So, either ignore the accusation and stand up against it, or accept your position in the only place where you will not be called ‘rude’ – as a silent and impotent part of society.

However, no discussion of the importance of fighting back should be without some mention of the moral limits of fighting back. For the sake of all potential victims, this is a line that we are ill advised to ignore.

I am not going to be a fan of any discussion of activism that includes mention of arson, vandalism, and attacking people with knives that does not offer some sort of disclaimer recognizing the moral limits of protest.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Charles Harper: Scientism

In Sir Harold Kroto’s presentation at Beyond Belief 2006, which I covered yesterday, he made some critical remarks of The Templeton Foundation – claiming that the foundation was involved in promoting religion. Charles Harper, Senior Vice President of the John Templeton Foundation, was at the conference and given an opportunity to present a rebuttal.

Though Harper’s presentation seemed to be a last-minute invitation, he gave a prepared speech with slides explaining the work of the Templeton Foundation. Before doing this, Harper established his credentials as a scientist, having worked at Harvard and at NASA, where he invented techniques used in the dating of features on the moon and Mars.

When confronted with a speaker like Charles Harper, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that he must be wrong – the same conclusion it was easy to jump to in discussing Richard Perle’s defense of the Iraq War a couple of days ago. In these cases, it is particularly important to listen to what the person has to say and to admit to the truths that are contained in their beliefs. People who are this smart cannot be wrong about everything

Three Facts

Harper presented three facts that I hold to be particularly important.

(1) It is notoriously difficult to communicate scientific facts to the public. I said as much yesterday, when I said that broadcasting the proceedings of a science symposium on some scientific version of C-SPAN would be like broadcasting C-SPAN itself in a language that only 10,000 on the planet could understand. Your average every-day secretary or truck driver is not going to know anything about carbon dating, other than it has something to do with carbon and it is used to determine how old something is. Those few secretaries and truck drivers who could give more than this explanation are not ‘average’.

Any policy or program that expects non-scientists to communicate scientific facts at the same level as a scientist – or even at the same level as a college student with an undergraduate degree in science – is absurd and irrational. This is not a policy or a program geared for success in the real world.

(2) I will warn in advance that, in the conference, this claim seemed to get peoples’ blood-pressure up. It was the claim that conflict sells and that the reason there were so many attack books on the market today was because of the profitability of conflict, particularly religious conflict.

Some members of the audience seemed to interpret this as saying, “The only reason that people are writing these attack books (and, by this, we may assume that we are talking about Dawkins and Harris) is to make money. They do not really care about the issues they are writing about at all. Profit is the motive behind these publications, not edification.”

Harper did not say this at all. I think it is obvious that Dawkins and Harris wrote their books because they wanted to make the world a better place and that they were attacking something they believed to do significant harm to the present and future quality of life. However, the reason that a book was written and the reason that a book becomes popular do not have to be the same. These books became popular because of their harsh and uncompromising position.

What Harper did say, and what I think is true, is that conflict sells. I have also written in several posts that if Dawkins and Harris had softened their tone – if they had written in the compromising tone that many say they should have used - only a few of us would ever have heard of these books. They would have been popular among a small circle of diplomatic atheists and unheard of everywhere else.

“Shout television,” where two (or more) attack dogs on a news show shout at each other for 5 minutes, is the staple of the cable network news shows because people are entertained by these verbal gladiatorial matches. Nobody walks away from these better informed. However, the networks walk away from them a little wealthier because they have succeeded in their quest to draw eyeballs to their sponsors’ advertisements.

Anybody who thinks that it is important to live in the real world rather than in a world of fantasy and make-believe has reason to recognize that this is a part of the real world.

(3) When scientists talk about policy matters outside of their field of expertise (e.g., except when climate scientists talk about global warming or pediatricians talk about childhood obesity), they tend to drop the standards for proof and reason that they apply to their own field. In other words, they tend to speak from sentiment and prejudice rather than from an empirical understanding of the data.

I believe that the recent debate on framing in science illustrates this well enough. The scientific disposition towards precise definitions, empirical verification of claims, and skepticism went straight out the window in most of that debate.

It is not necessarily the case that scientists discuss policy matters with the same lack of intellectual rigor as ‘the man on the street.’ It is a tendency, but a tendency that each individual scientist can choose to buck whenever he or she writes or speaks on policy issues.

Harper’s False Implication

From these three facts, and from one false but misleading assumption, Harper comes out with two absurd question-begging rhetorical questions.

Question-I: Is it a good method of representation of science to the non-scientific public to seem to suggest that the core agenda of science is to attack extra-scientific aspects of culture that are for many people the carriers of their deepest and most cherished values?

Question-II: Do ideological assaults against religion well represent science to a broadly religious public that over the past century in the United States has supported a massive expansion of scientific research totally unprecedented in human history and that has generated a situation where about 90% of the world’s top scientific research institutions are based there?

Thank you, Mr. Harper, for providing an excellent example in defense of the point that when scientists talk about matters of policy, intellectual rigor tends to go out the window.

Turning first to Question-II – this is an example of “Argumentum ad Baculum” – or an appeal to the stick. Effectively, this is blackmail. “Dear scientists – quit telling us things that we do not want to hear or we will take away your funding. We do not care about quality of evidence or reasons for belief. All we care about is getting our most cherished beliefs verified. If you can’t do that, shut up, or suffer the consequences.”

If a criminal drags you into an alley, menacingly waves a bat around, and demands your money, you might have a good reason to give it to him. This ‘appeal to the stick’ certainly gives a person ‘reasons for action’. However, this appeal to the stick is a very poor ‘reason to believe’ that a particular proposition is true or false. In fact, just as the robbery victim is fully justified in feeling anger and contempt for the thief who appeals to the stick to get him to part with his money, the scientist rightfully feels the same anger and contempt for the threat to use funding to manipulate science.

So, this leaves us with Question-I.

As an atheist who, since I was 16 years old, been most interested in the question of value (what is 'better'?), I deny that there are “aspects of culture that are for many people the carriers of their deepest and most cherished values” that are, at the same time “extra-scientific”. I deny this in the same way that I deny that there are explanations for real-world events that are super-natural.

Extra-scientific holders of value do not exist. Any argument or essay that employs these entities when discussing real-world events, including policy questions, is making a false claim. Any time somebody brings up one of these mythical extra-scientific entities as a reason for pursuing policy option A over policy option B, given that people also have a real-world stake in which option we choose, that person is sacrificing real-world interests for the sake of imaginary goods.

It’s true that people can invest a great deal of their “deepest and most cherished values” in mythical entities. However, if the entity is not real, then the realization of their “deepest and most cherished values” is not real either.

A person can take it as his mission in life – as the only thing that can possibly give his life meaning and purpose – to protect the dryads that live in each and every tree. He can be successful in saving a whole forest of trees from being harvested. Yet, in doing so, and in spite of all of his efforts, he never has and never will protect a single dryad from harm. All of his pride and satisfaction comes to nothing. As a matter of real-world fact, he has accomplished nothing.

If, through his actions, he deprives people of food, heat, and shelter, then he has caused real-world suffering for nothing. As far as the real-world effects of his actions are, he has made the world a worse place. That pride he feels for the dryads he has saved is a mistake.

Values exist in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral values exist in the form of relationships between malleable desires and other desires. Values as relationships between states of affairs and desires are as real as the relationships that exist between planets and stars, or between different atoms. The study of value is no more extra-scientific than the study of any of these other types of relationships.

Any person who proposes a ‘reason for action’ for or against a policy, where that ‘reason for action’ does not relate to a desire, is bringing up a ‘reason for action’ much like ‘for the sake of protecting the dryads’. They are inflicting real-world costs on real-world people for the sake of accomplishing something that cannot be accomplished. It can’t be accomplished because ‘reasons for action’ that do not refer to desires are not real.

At this point, I need to add something that I think is important, but is missing from much of the debate. Atheism is not a virtue, and promoting atheism is not the same as promoting virtue. Atheists deny the existence of a God, and deny the existence of any ‘reasons for action’ that come from God. However, many atheists can and do believe in 'reasons for action' that are as fictitious as those that come from religion (e.g., Ayn Rand Objectivists, Marxists). Many atheists also deny the existence of ‘reasons for action’ that are just as real as relationships between planets and stars (post modernists, common subjectivists). If the problem - the threat to society - is the belief in false values and lack of belief in real values, religion is not the only place to find fault.


The points that I have raised so far can be used to evaluate Harper’s comments (or condemnation, really) of what he calls ‘scientism’. He defines scientism as:

The ideology which projects itself into the cultural (and actual) politics as being representative of science, but which does not utilize the scientific method, and which is not constrained by the usual institutional rigor of scientific research publishing, and which is not delimited to scientific matters, and is meta-scientific/ideological in nature.


In one of his specific criticisms, Harper says,

When scientific communities go beyond their domain of intrinsic expertise, and become ideologically engaged, it is typical that what results is naïve in the sense of its being disconnected from the best relevant scholarship.

This is true. When scientists enter the realm of value they tend to do so with a layman’s understanding of value. They tend to make crude mistakes that experts in value theory easily see as flawed, such as equating altruism with morality, deriving 'ought' from 'is' premises that contain no reasons for action, or failing to see the distinction between what an agent will do given a particular brain makeup and what an agent should do.

However, this problem does not prove that Harper is right. All that we need to correct this problem is to introduce scientific facts about desires, states of affairs, and the relationships between them. When scientists start adding informed opinion about relationships between states of affairs and desires to their conclusions, then they can speak scientifically about value.


Science itself . . . almost never obtains ideological/philosophical conclusions. “God does not exist” or “Atheism is true.’ These are not scientific statements following from scientific research.

In an important way, these are scientific conclusions that follow from scientific research. “God does not exist” is simply a shorthand way of saying, “God is not a variable in any scientific equation, and plays no role in explaining and predicting real-world events.”

One can respond that the scientist does not know everything, and there may be some future formula that requires a God variable in it somewhere, or a “Divine Uncertainty Principle” where results are best explained by inserting a decision by a supernatural agent.

However, we can invent an infinite number of entities that might play a role in some future equation. It certainly does not follow from the fact that a force or entity might have a role to play in some future equation that we have reason to act as if that force is real today. It is not even possible to do this, since the set of things that might be having an influence that we do not yet know about are contradictory. A “good God” is just as likely to have a role in this future equation as an “evil God” or an “indifferent God” or a “bipolar God”, or any of an infinite list of God types, as well as an infinite list of non-God explanations.

So, if ‘existence’ means ‘having a role to play in predicting and explaining real-world phenomena,’ then it is quite telling that no God variable appears in peer-reviewed scientific journals. For the sake of real-world decision making, this is all we need to know.

On the other hand, desires do exist. Relationships between states of affairs and desires do exist. Relationships between malleable desires and other desires do exist. All of these entities are a part of explaining and predicting real-world phenomena. What is true of these relationships is objectively true and subject to scientific study. If this were not the case, then we should categorize these entities the same as we categorize God and the dryads in the forest.


Ultimately, Harper built his presentation on the assumption that there is a distinction between fact and value, that science is concerned with the realm of fact, and to study value we must turn to something outside of science – something ‘extra-scientific’.

Many of the things that Harper says about scientists when they write in the realm of value is true. Those scientists have a naïve understanding of value, and typically do as poor a job discussing values as ‘the man on the street’ does discussing their particular branch of science.

Yet, this does not imply that there is something ‘extra-scientific’ about value. Astrophysicists cannot say much about the behavior of bees, and on average can be expected to know as little about bees as ‘the man on the street’. Yet, this does not justify calling the study of bees ‘extra-scientific’. It is only ‘extra-astrophysics’.

Even if one does not share the specific views about value that I assumed in writing this post and have argued for elsewhere, these examples at least show that there is a huge gap between Harper’s premises, however true they may be, and the conclusions he sought to draw from them. Those conclusions require additional premises which are, at best, highly questionable.