Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Purpose to Life: Choosing a Purpose

On the question having a purpose to or meaning for life, I have been criticizing the desire to have been created for a divine purpose.

Though I have denied that the idea of being created for a divine purpose implies a lack of freedom of will, I have argued that being created for a purpose does not make the purpose good. Also, the pursuit of a divine purpose in a universe where no such purpose exists means deifying one's own interests and desires – while kind or malevolent. Also, it makes a person an easy victim for anybody who claims that he knows what God wants. Such a person would not actually be directing you in the pursuit of God's interests. He will be making you the unwitting slave to his own interests which he has then assigned to God.

However, the common atheist response to the question of meaning and purpose in life is almost as absurd.

This is the idea that each of us gets to choose our own meaning or purpose in life, and whatever we choose has real value.

If we are talking about a person, and I have the ability to choose where that person was born, who its parents were, what it likes and dislikes, and what happened to him five years ago, this should be taken as a reliable sign that I am dealing with a fictional character. I do not have the liberty to make those types of decisions if we are talking about a real person. Instead, there is a fact of the matter.

The same is true of assigning a purpose or meaning to life. If a person has the liberty to simply 'choose' a purpose or a meaning, then this should be taken as proof that he is creating a fictitious entity. This 'purpose' or 'meaning' is no more real than the character she invented for som story or book.

To live one’s life as if this fictional purpose or meaning is real is to live a lie.

One might as well choose to serve a God. There is actually little difference between choosing to serve a (fictitious) God to which one has assigned one's own desires than there is in choosing a fictitious 'meaning' or 'purpose' which was also created from the desires of the creator.

I have been using as a foil for my series here an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Purpose of Life, in which the author states:

[W]ould you rather believe . . . . that you are a product of natural selection capable of choosing your own plan and purpose in life as an intelligent being in your own right?

If I am capable of choosing my own plan and purpose, then it is not real. It is a work of fiction – an act of make-believe that I then devote my life to pretending that it is real. If it is real, then I have no capacity to choose. I only have the capacity to discover.

Furthermore, one of the criticisms that I have given to the idea of a divine purpose is that, since there is no God, then people ultimately assign their own desires and interests to God and then assert that those interests have divine sanction. Vicious and vindictive people will create a vicious and vindictive God, and then will look upon it and say that it is good.

The same problem applies to atheists who invent a fictitious meaning or purpose and then pretends that it has real-world significance. They are going to invent a meaning and purpose that suits their own desires. A vicious and vindictive atheist is going to adopt a vicious and vindictive purpose, and he is going to look upon it and say that it is good.

The only difference between the atheist who invents a meaning and purpose, and the theist who assigns a meaning and purpose to God, is that the former, at some level, admits that he is living in a world of make-believe and ‘let’s pretend’, while the latter does not.

Yet, neither are suitable for the person who says, "Let's leave the world of make-believe and 'let's pretend' behind. Let us look instead to discover what the real world has to offer us. If there is meaning and purpose to life it is there to be discovered. And if there is no meaning or purpose to be discovered, let us not pretend that there is. Let us admit this fact and move on with our lives."

An important corollary to the idea that there is a meaning or purpose to be discovered is that we do not have a choice in the matter. The proposition that there is a particular meaning or purpose is to be discovered, and we cannot choose what it is we are going to discover.

And the popular atheist claim that it is wonderful to be an atheist because one then has the freedom to choose a purpose to life . . . that idea deserves to be tossed away. Choosing a purpose to life is as lame as choosing a religion. Such a person is simply choosing to play a game of "let's pretend", and refusing to live in the real world.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Purpose to Life: Divine Plans and Free Will

I am writing a serious on purpose and meaning in life, addressing the question:

Would you rather it were true that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of random chance?

In Post 1 I answered, "No." What matters is the quality of a purpose, not its origin.

In Post 2 I said that, since there is no God, what people take as a “divine purpose” is their own interests and desires. People create gods in their own image. So, while a kind and peace-loving person will create a kind and peace-loving God, a hateful and vindictive person will invent a hateful and vindictive God. Each will see “divine purpose” in what is, in fact, merely their own preferences.

In Post 3 I wrote that certain religious leaders find it useful to promote a desire to have been created with a divine purpose. They will then tell you what that divine purpose is, which is really their own purpose, which is typically that you give them (the religious leader) political power, money, and obedience.

I drew this question from an article in the Philadelphia Examiner in which Staks Rosch wrote:

If we were to really believe that we were all born with a divine plan and a divine purpose, than we would basically be slaves.

(See: Atheistm 101: The Purpose of Life)

However, this actually is not necessarily true.

I created an example in the first posting in this series in which a bored God created a planet, populated it with people that he designed, told different groups, “You are God’s chosen people and it is your right and duty in the name of me, God, to spread my word around the globe,” and sat back to be entertained by wars and conflicts that result.

This is an example of creating humans with a divine purpose – to split into tribes that war with each other for dominance in the name of God so that God can tune in each day to a never-ending display of interpersonal conflict and drama.

"Survivor Earth."

We would still have "free will" on this model. We get to choose how we contribute to this drama, and even have the option not to participate at all. Yet, according to the ‘divine purpose’ theory the only option that would be a valuable choice would be to contribute to whatever type of conflict and drama best serves this ‘divine purpose’. We have the option not to choose what has value.

We would have the option to choose peace and kindness. My decision to do so would not threaten the divine plan for others. They are still free to choose to entertain God by generating conflict and drama. It is simply not true that a divine plan requires the absence of free will.

It is only if one assumes that the plan has been worked out in every detail where it is the case that the presence of such a plan implies the absence of free will. However, only a percentage of religions that preach the value of a divine plan also preach a plan worked out in minute detail.

There are religions that suggest that a divine plan has been worked out in detail. However, they also tend to be religions that preach the absence of free will. So, the criticism would not apply to thm

So Rosch’s original criticism of a divine purpose is not valid. Yet, this does not imply that thre is no

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Purpose to Life: Whose Purpose Is It?

I am writing a series of posts on meaning and purpose in life, specifically addressing the question:

Would you rather it were true that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of random chance?

I the first post I answered “no” to this question on the grounds that it depends on what the purpose is. For example, I would prefer that it were not the case that I was created as a toy to crate conflict and drama for a God who was otherwise bored.

In the second post, I argued that this desire to have been created for a purpose by a God is a dangerous desire to have. People invent Gods. The purposes they like to think of themselves of having been created for are not God’s but their own. Hateful and vindictive people invent hateful and vindictive gods. They then pretend that thir own hateful and vindictive interests have divine approval, which maks them more dangerous.

Another problem with this question is an assumption that it carries with it. It is asking me whether I would prefer to have been created for a divine purpose. This is as if to say that if I prefer something, then not only fails to prove that it is true. It also fails to prove that the thing is something that a good person would prefer.

For example, you can ask people, “Would you prefer to be a dictator with a loyal army willing and eager to impose your will on others and to force them to fulfill whatever wish or desire that might strike you at a particular momnt?”

Some would answer, “Sure!”, and mean it.

However, this not only fails to prove that he is such a dictator in fact, it dos not prove that being such a dictator has merit.

It is a mistake to argue that, just because a person prefers something that it has moral value. We also have to look at the nature of that preference and determine whether it is a preference that there is reason to want people to have. Is there good reason to praise those who prefer to have been created to serve some purpose over those who have no such purpose?

There is a way to measure the quality of a desire to determine whether it is a desire that has merit. This is by determining whether people generally have reason to promote such a desire, or to inhibit it.

There is good reason for a subsection of the community to praise the desire to have a divine purpose. Thos people are the people who get to pretend to be God – the church leaders who pretend that they have a personal pipeline to God. If they can convince you that it is good to serve a divine purpose, and that they have the ability to determine what that divine purpose is, they have everything they need to turn you into a willing sacrifice for their own interests.

They have no capacity to determine what God’s purpose is because there is no God with a purpose for them to determine. They can, however, determine what their own purposes are. When they tell you that you are serving some divine purpose this is not true at all. You are serving the purpose of the church and its leaders.

However, this is a far cry from saying that people generally have reason to promote such a desire – a reason for action whereby they spend their lives being unwitting servants and sacrifices to the interests of others.

A desire is an interest in making or keeping a particular proposition true. A desire that one’s child is healthy and happy is an interest in making or keeping the proposition, “My child is healthy or happy” true. There is no way to make or keep the proposition, “I am serving a divine purpose” true, so this is a desire or an interest that can never be fulfilled.

What ends up being made or kept true is the proposition, “I am serving the purpose of another person who is falsely claiming that I am serving a divine purpose instead of his own.”

People, for example, have an unfounded hatred of homosexuals may have reason to try to convince us that joining them in pursuing this interest is serving a “divine purpose”. However, it is not. It is joining them in helping them to successfully act out on their own hatred and prejudice.

A person who would like to have a secure job as a church leader spending the followers’ money has reason to convince us that our donations serve a divine purpose. Yet, again, that money instead goes to serving the purposes of the people the money is given to, and not actually (truthfully) serving the interests of those who are doing the giving. Again, this is true because the proposition, “I am serving a divine interest” can never be made or kept true.

So, the desire to serve a divine purpose does those who acquire this desire little good. It causes them to sacrifice their own interests to the interests of those who falsely claim to know what this divine purpose is. The purposes they speak of are not those of a divine entity. They are the purposes of those who falsely claim to speak for that divine entity.

And many of those purposes do not have much merit.

So, while it may be the case that many people might actually prefer to have been created to serve a divine purpose, and would answer “yes” to this question, it is wrong to assume that this is a good thing. The person who is truly better off is the person who answers “no” to this question. Such a person is less likely to waste his life serving the interests of those who pretend to know what this divine interest is, and less likely to be fooled into serving human purposes (purposes of those falsely claiming to speak for God) that no good person would serve.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Purpose to Life: Wishing for a Divine Purpose

This is the second in a series of posts covering the meaning of life and the answer to the question,

Would you rather it were true that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of random chance?

In my previous post I answered that what matters is the quality of a purpose, not its source. Imagine a God that enjoys that creates people and sets them at war against each other because he is entertained by conflict and drama. Our divine purpose would be to fight each other for this God’s amusement. The criteria of having a divine purpose would have been met, but this is certainly not something a good person would prefer.

I cannot say that everybody, or even most people, will agree with that assessment.

In fact, we can see around us a great many people eager to adopt the purposes of a God that is mean, hateful, vindictive, jealous, egomaniacal, blood-thirsty, petty Gods. They are people who appear to care nothing about the quality of a purpose – only in its source. Where they think that it pleases God for them to torture and kill others, even their own children, they still hold that these acts have value.

If such a person were to discover that their divine purpose was to create conflict and drama for the entertainment of a divine being, they would resolve to become the best conflict-and-drama creator that they could possibly be. Nothing else, no personal preference or the well-being of any other person, could have value to him except insofar as they are useful tools in creating conflict and drama for God’s entertainment.

Of course, these Gods do not exist. Mean, hateful, vindictive, jealous, egomaniacal, blood-thirsty, petty Gods are the creations of mean, hateful, vindictive, jealous, egomaniacal, blood-thirsty, petty human beings that create God in their own image. They assign their worse traits to God and, in doing so, claim that those qualities are holy and that they, themselves, are necessarily good.

It is a convenient philosophy to say the least - at last for mean, hateful, and vindictive people.

This is not to say that everybody assigns hatred and jealousy to a God. Hateful and jealous people create hateful and jealous Gods (or stress interpretations of scripture that promote hatred and jealousy), while kind and compassionate people create kind and compassionate Gods (or stress interpretations of scripture that promote kindness and compassion).

But it is the hateful and jealous people making hateful and jealous Gods who are a source of a great deal of strive in the world, and who are those who impose great burdens and risks on the rest of us.

And, honestly, I hold that the Religious Right in America can be described precisely in these terms. It is a community of hateful, selfish, self-centered, petty individuals who have created a hateful, selfish, self-centered, petty God.

Of course, once a group of people have assigned their hatred, vindictiveness, and pettiness to some God they then have an incentive to promote the ida that there is something special in having a ‘divine purpose’. Which, in this case, it means saying that hateful, vindictive, and petty actions have some sort of divine favor. This "divine purpose", it is argued, trumps any and all personal preferences, thus giving an illusion of legitimacy to the acts of hatred and jealousy that the individual enjoys.

All things considered, the desire that it be the case that one has a divine purpose is not a worthy desire at all. It is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to discourage, and that no good person would adopt.

Wishing it to be the case that one had a divine purpose where no divine purpose exists is an invitation for mean, selfish, jealous, blood-thirsty, petty individuals to invent mean, selfish, jealous, blood-thirsty, petty gods. Then, in assigning these traits to God, they then assert that their own mean, selfish, jealous, blood-thirst, petty interests have a divine favor, giving them authority to make us suffer from their mean, selfish, jealous, blood-thirsty, petty actions.

The world would be a better place if people did not have such a desire.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Purpose to Life

I have been wanting to say some things about meaning and purpose for a while now. I just haven't had a good idea on how to present the information.
However, a recent article in the Philadelphia Examiner has given me the springboard I needed.
(See: Atheistm 101: The Purpose of Life)
The article begins with:

Christians ask this of atheists all the time, "What would you rather believe that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of a random chance?"

In discussing meaning and purpose, I would first like to point out that this is not a well formed question. We will need to get the question formed better before we start to look at the possible answers.
The most important fault with this question is that it is a question about what I "would rather believe".
Consider the question, "What would you rather believe? That you have $1.75 million in your retirement account, or that you have $1.75?"
What I would rather believe is irrelevant. I would rather it were true that I had $1.75 million in my retirement account than that I had $1.75. And if it were true I would want to know about it. However, I have no interest in believing it if it were not true.
So, let's ask the proper question.

Would you rather it were true that you were created with a divine purpose in life over it being true that you are just a product of random chance?

The answer to that question is an unqualified, "No, Absolutely not."
What matters is the quality of a purpose, not its source.
To understand this answer, consider the following possibility:
Perhaps I was created by a God who got bored and who was seeking some way to entertain himself. He came up with the idea of creating a planet and populating it with people who he gave them a strong disposition to accept religious teachings without question. He then went to different groups and said, “You are God’s chosen children. You have a right and a duty to rule over the world. All others are infidels who should be either converted or killed.”
When he was done, he sat back in his heavenly recliner with his heavenly beer and potato chips and watched the unfolding drama of Survivor Earth, and he saw that it was good. Or, at least, he was entertained.
Would I prefer to be a toy built to generate conflict and drama for the sake of entertaining some God?
No. Absolutely not.
It would be true, in such a case, that I was created for a divine purpose. However, what matters is the quality of the purpose, not its source. In this case, the being a prop used to set up conflict and suffering has a particularly low quality.
Not only would I prefer NOT to have such a purpose, I would go so far as to actively thwart God's purpose if that were the case, and would count my life as having meaning in thwarting God. Specifically, I would work to promote cooperation and well-being and reduce suffering and conflict. If this thwarted God's plan, so be it. These purposes have a quality all their own.
They are also purposes that I can carry out even if I were a product of random chance.
So, not only is it not the case that would prefer to have a divine purpose. Depending on what that purpose was, I may actively prefer not to have it. What matters is not the source of a particular purpose. What matters is the quality of a purpose.
I will have more to say on the quality of a purpose in the posts ahead.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo - Hoax

On of the topics of conversation on this, the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, is the allegation that Apollo was a hoax. I have had several friends report having seen shows these past few days that describe the Apollo program as a hoax and gives the ‘evidence’ for such a claim.

The broadcasting of such a show is a socially and morally despicable act. It is an exercise in lies and distortions, an invitation to engage in sloppy thinking, and an insult to brave people who did remarkable work to get people onto the moon by the end of the decade and return them safely to Earth.

I want to begin with the fact that giving time to this sloppy form of thinking is to endorse it. It is to say that this type of intellectual recklessness is morally permissible. Giving it a seal of approval means that we will have more of it. In some cases, morally reckless thinking such as this will get people killed. The conspiracy theorists are not the only people who have insufficient regard for the lives and well-being of the people in our community, so are those who give them a voice.

There is only one morally legitimate way to broadcast the claims of these conspiracy theorists. This is to present their half-baked ideas, explain the mistakes that these people are making, and to include in that message a proper level of condemnation of those who so utterly fail to check their work before they go public with their conclusions, and ignore the evidence against them.

This happens to be a free-speech issue. Certainly it is the case that conspiracy theorists have a right to express their stupidity in public, and broadcast companies have a right to broadcast as if to endorse this type of intellectual recklessness.

However, this simply means that conspiracy theorists have a right to immunity from violence for their expressions of stupidity, and that the broadcasters shall not be subject to criminal penalties. It is still permissible to give moral condemnation, and in this case moral condemnation is more than warranted. These people – both the conspiracy theorists themselves and the broadcasters who gave them a cloak of legitimacy – are evil people who lack the concern for evidence and truth that a good person would have had.

A good person would not have become a conspiracy theorist to start with. Instead, he would have demanded a better quality of evidence and intellectual responsibility from himself. That love of truth and sense of moral responsibility would have driven him to check his work, and that would have driven him to the evidence that these conspiracy claims were too absurd to be believed.

A good person would not have broadcast this intellectual recklessness when there are clear rebuttals to all of the claims that the conspiracy theorist offers as evidence. At the very worst, she would have used this as an opportunity to improve public education and decrease public gullibility to presenting the so-called ‘evidence’ then explaining the problems with it. And then asking the question, “What type of person would ignore these facts? What is the moral character of the person with such low regard for truth and evidence?”

The good person would have noted that intellectual laziness costs lives and promotes human suffering, and would have been driven by an interest not to contribute to the loss of life or human suffering and would have wanted not to become a part of or support those attitudes.

There has been more than enough written to debunk these hoax claims. What we are lacking is the moral condemnation that is appropriate for those who do not use these resources – who do not care enough about truth and reason and about the harms that come from intellectual recklessness and laziness.

Apollo - The Education Benefit

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the first time a human sat foot on a body other than Earth.

When we count up the costs and benefits of the Apollo project, people tend to overlook the biggest benefit to come out of the Apollo program.


The Apollo program inspired hundreds of thousands of people to attend college and to pursue degrees in math, science, and engineering. For a period of time, being intelligent and seeking an education was 'cool'.

Very few of those scientists and engineers went into the space program. In fact, after Apollo, the space program underwent a series of drastic cuts that resulted in more hiring than firing. However, those scientists and engineers then became available for other projects. We are still sewing the benefits provided by researchers and builders that Apollo inspired.

It does, at times, seem as if the world operates as if on a pendulum. The celebration of knowledge and intelligence that marked the Apollo program gave way to a celebration of ignorance and stupidity during the first part of the 21st century. Yet, hopefully, this particular pendulum swing taught some important lessons. Hopefully, it has taught us how expensive ignorance and stupidity really are.

Look at how much ignorance and stupidity has cost us. There is even a chance that America will not recover from the damage that ignorance and stupidity has done to this country – that the national debt combined with the accelerating costs of the harm done by global warming plus more than six years of fighting (and spending money on) a war that did us more harm than good will be too much for the American economy to bear.

All of this damage brought to us by the fact that a lot of Americans decided to embrace stupidity and ignorance for eight years rather than value knowledge and intelligence.

The Bush administration itself has the potential of becoming a historic example of the claim, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Education is important. And the Apollo Program provided a significant boost to education. It showed the world, at least for a time, that there are opportunities and wonders that are available only to those who are smart enough to reach them, which inspired countless people to make themselves smart enough.

This must be counted as one of the most significant benefits of Apollo.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Apollo - Religious Objects to Space Development

In this post I wish to look at two beliefs, very common among different religions, that I hold to be highly objectionable to the point that those who hold these beliefs deserve a great deal of contempt and scorn. I want to look at these beliefs by carefully applying some of the principles that I have defended in this blog.

The two beliefs that I object to are:

(1) The belief that we need not take any action to ward against the extinction of the human species because a benevolent God is watching out for us and will take care of any potential threats for us.

(2) The belief that we need not take any action to ward against the extinction of the human species because a God will soon execute some sort of end-of-days program and that there is no chance for long-range human survival, at least as a material biological species.

Both of these attitudes drain resources and attention from the valuable goal of warding off human extinction. As such, they increase the probability that the human species will become extinct sooner rather than later.

In short, people who hold these beliefs, and belief systems that promote these views, are a thrat to very survival of humanity, and ought to be treated as such.

"Religion" versus "A Religion"

One of the principles that I have frequently written about is the idea that it is an offense both to reason and to morality to make an unwarranted leap from objections to "a religion" to the condemnation of "religion".

I could easily write this post as a protest against religion, because religion itself promotes these two beliefs and, consequently, religion itself should be seen as a threat to the survival of the human species. Yet, the beliefs I object to are not true of "religion", they are true only of specific religions. To claim that a fault of some religions is a fault of "religion" is as logically and morally objectionable as it would be to claim that a fault of some black men is a fault of "black men". It is an expression of hate-mongering bigotry and is, thus, morally objectionable.

However, this does not change the fact that these two false beliefs are a fault of some religions. While they may not justify the condemnation of “religion” they do justify the condemnation of those religions that, in virtue of the fact that they promote these false views, increase the chance of human extinction.

Those specific religions still deserve our condemnation that those who accept those beliefs still deserve to be viewed as a threat to the survival of the human species because that is what they are.

Freedom of Speech and Religion

The right to freedom of speech and to freedom of religion is not a right to immunity from criticism. It is a right to immunity from violence. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, not violence.

So, the fact that these beliefs and the people who hold them are a threat to the survival of the human species allows us to criticize those people and hold them in contempt. It does not justify any form of violence against them. The only actions that may legitimately be taken are words of criticism and condemnation and private actions such as deciding where to make contributions, where to shop, and who to vote for.

The reason for this is that history has shown us repeated instances in which violence was used against those who held beliefs that happened to be true. And, as Jefferson famously said, to force an opinion on people by threat of force is to make “half the world hypocrites and the other half fools.” The best and most secure victory for one set of beliefs to have over its rivals is the victory secured in public debate where advocates of all relevant options have the opportunity to speak freely and none need to worry that their opinions will invite violence.

Even beliefs that put the survival of the human species at risk are to be met only with words and private actions that serve to defeat those ideas in the public forum. However, the realm of words and private action includes words of condemnation, criticism, and contempt. It is no violation of this principle to speak contemptuously of those who hold beliefs that threaten the survival of the human species. In fact, it would be a violation to prohibit those expressions of contempt.


So, are you a person who believes that no action needs to be taken to secure the survival of the human species because God will not allow anything bad to happen to us, or because God will end the human species himself in a few years anyway?

Then I hold you in deep contempt. You are a threat to the survival of the human species and to much of what is valuable and good. You are evil, because a good person would treat the survival of the human species seriously, and will have such concern not to become a threat to that survival that he would not lightly adopt such beliefs. But you, who holds these beliefs, are intellectually reckless in a way that puts human survival itself at risk – a degree of recklessness that far beyond that of drunk drivers and the like.

The survival of the human species requires that we take seriously the threats to that survival. One of those threats comes from the fact that we currently have all of our eggs in one planetary basket, in a universe that could turn that planetary basket into a lifeless hunk of rock without a second thought – or even a first thought for that matter. It is a threat best guarded against by creating a species capable of surviving the destruction of its home world and, eventually, the destruction of its home star, or even its stellar neighborhood.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Apollo - Space Property

One of the things we will have to do in order for space development to take place is to establish some system for the ownership of property in space.

One of the things I am referring to is the private ownership of land on the moon, Mars, Mercury, asteroids, and the moons of other planets. If I wanted to do so, I should be able to go somewhere where I could buy a couple of hectares of land on the moon, or buy myself a small asteroid. Once I own this piece of real-estate, I should be free to do what I want with it subject to the free enjoyment of others of thir own piece of the solar system.

t should be possible, if I wanted to do so, for m to purchase an acre of surface area or a several square meters by volume of material in space.

Ownership provides a degree of permanence that makes it possible to plan what it is that on owns.

There is little incentive to make any type of long-term plans involving some material in space if one does not own it, and others may take it away at will.

Let us take 100 square kilometers of surface area, divide it into one million plots of land, each 100 meters long by 100 meters wide, and put them up for auction on e-bay. The moon has enough surface area for 3,000 such auctions.

The money can be used to do good here on Earth. The option that I like best is that of an ultimate land-grant college run by the United Nations. Simply give this university the title to all of the moons, planets and asteroids in this solar system, including the Kupyer Belt and th Oort Cloud, and gift it to this university – ot to a set of universities.

The charter for this university then would be to us the revenue it acquires from this property to provide educational services to the people of Earth – focusing primarily on the children from violent and war-torn countries.

Iraq is going to be a continuing problem in part because Iraq is now full of 20 year old men who spent the last 6 years (since they were 14) learning nothing but violence from the society in which they have been raised. Their schools have been closed. In the name of future peace, it should have been possible to have removed some of the best and the brightest children to a university where they have a brighter future waiting for them.

This is just a suggestion. For the purposes of this posting it does not matter how the property gets into private hands. It is morally relevant to focus on those solutions that would fulfill the desires of a good person. I hold that the desires of a good person would embrace the education of the poor children in violent and strife-ridden parts of the planet. Though it is not the only option that a person with good desires would favor.

There is a legitimate discussion to be held elsewhere about who to benefit with the money that is to be raised by selling space property. For the purpose of this discussion, what is important is giving people title to chunks of property in spac. Once they own it, they are going to start asking themselves the question, "What can I do with it?" And they will begin to think of a number of ideas, and investing in ways to turn those ideas into reality.

Apollo - An Alternative Way to Promote Space Development

WHEREAS: The development of space is the best way to help to secure the long-term survival of the human species and its descendants.

WHEREAS: Value consists of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

WHEREAS: Moral value consists of relationships between malleable desires and other desires.

WHEREAS: A great many and strong human desires are tied up in the long-term survival of the human race, from those who simply have a desire that the human species survive, to those who see their own immortality in the survival of the human species, to those who care for the well-being of their children, grandchildren, and so on into the indefinite future.

WHEREAS: A desire to see to the long-term survival of the human race is clearly a desire that would tend to fulfill other desires, so is a desire that people generally have many and strong reason to promote (whether they know it or not).

WHEREAS: A desire to see to the development of space is a way of realizing a state that would fulfill this desire to help to secure the long-term survival of the human species.

WHEREAS: The development of space is a public good, where those who would finance it cannot prevent its enjoyment by those people who would not pay for it, since it cannot deny "survival of the human species" to those who will not pay, will tend to be under-funded to a great degree in the free market.

WHERAS: NASA, as it currently operates, is not so much an instrument for carrying out the development of space as it is an instrument for transferring money from the taxpayers as a whole into the pockets of companies and facilities that reside in the home districts of certain legislators.

WHEREAS: Owing to the fact that NASA is not really about space exploration, its space development projects are constantly and massively behind schedule and over budget.

WHEREAS: The same can be expected of any future space project such as the current plan to build a base on the moon.

WHEREAS: Promoting the long-term survival of the human species is better served by a system that does more with less money than by a system that does less with more money.

WHEREAS: NASA has no ability to exploit other potential sources of revenue such as the commercial value of space property or the commercial value of a space project itself as a form of entertainment for those who would be interested in such a project.

WHEREAS: This inability to exploit other potential sources of revenue means a drain on resources that would otherwise be available to the project of space development.

WHEREAS: NASA is operating under an aversion to the potential loss of human life by those participating in the development of space that is wholly at odds with the nature of this project as one that is inherently risky and one in which such losses need to be taken in stride.

WHEREAS: There is a sufficiently large number of qualified or qualifiable individuals whose desires are such that the quality of their own lives is enhanced, rather than diminished, by an opportunity to participate in a project such as this in spite of (and even because of) the risks that it provides no real-world benefit, and in fact poses a real-world cost, to have such a high concern for the potential loss of life.

WHEREAS: Contests are a proven way of getting a diverse set of teams working towards a particular objective (building the fastest car with the most skilled, flying around the world in a balloon) while it only pays money out to those who are the most successful and wastes no money on those who fail.

WHEREAS: NASA, in spending taxpayer money, should only give its money to those who are successful at accomplishing particular ends, and should not pay for failure, except when there is no way that the government can get private entities to suffer the risk of failure.

WHEREAS: There is a surplus of companies and potential teams willing to risk failure for a chance to participate in a space project, if only they could get financing for those projects.

WHEREAS: The promise of a potential NASA cash award for success would be an important consideration for private investors to contribute money to those teams whose projects show the greater likelihood of success at a lower cost.

WHEREAS: These private teams would have the liberty to acquire corporate sponsorships and tap into sources of revenue that NASA has no ability to tap into in order to better fund their projects without taxpayer expense.

WHEREAS: Competitions such as sporting events have historically proven to have the potential to attract outside revenue.

THEREFORE: For my second birthday wish, I wish to see NASA's project to return to the moon halted and the money offered up instead as a set of prizes for private companies successful at reaching certain space-development milestones. And may the better teams win.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Apollo: The Risk of human Life

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, I am writing a series of posts on space policy.

In my previous post I discussed the “human versus machine” debate governing the question of whether humans should go into space or whether exploration should be limited to machines.

One of the points in this debate is that exploring space is dangerous. People might die. Whereas, if we send machines, we do not need to risk the possibility of the loss of human life in space.

To speak bluntly, that is not a legitimate concern.

If we put too much effort into preventing the loss of human life, we will end up prohibiting people from living.

There are people who value adventure – particularly when adventure has a purpose or a point. When other people prohibit these individuals from risking their own lives, they are not doing these people any favors. In fact, they are forcing a different kind of death on these people – the death that they find in a safe, secure and tranquil existence.

One of the reasons that space exploration needs to be taken out of NASA’s hands is that NASA is too concerned with saving lives (or preventing death). Space exploration is not yet ready for those who are afraid to die. It is a dangerous frontier, fit only for a different sort of person who likes to live on the edge. These are people who, if thy die, at least have had the pleasure of having truly lived.

One of the reasons that NASA should not be involved in snding people back to the moon is because of the inflated costs of a NASA mission. They will go to great expense to keep the astronauts safe. However, if some astronauts should die, they will mothball the whole project for three years while they conduct an investigation on what went wrong.

NASA should simply state, “We’ll give $10 billion to any organization that sends a person to Moon, keeps him there for 6 months, and returns him safely to Earth. Then, NASA should stand back and wait for the job to get done. If some adventurer gets himself killed in the attempt, let the survivors decide how much effort they want to put in to discovering what happened. And let the race go to the bold.

NASA, in this way, does not pay for failures.

In saying this, the government still has a duty to keep other people safe. These adventure companies are not going to b given an immunity to cause harm to others. Governments have a legitimate duty to prevent them from launching a rocket that might crash into downtown Houston or fries the crowd that showed up to watch the launch. But let these people take whatever risks they are willing to take with their own lives.

Of course, the same is true even if the payload at the top of the rocket is a robot. In other words, this requirement is not a point in favor of machines over humans. It is a point that applies equally regardless of whether the payload is machine or human.

It is no virtue that the use of machines in space exploration reduces the risk of human life. Not so long as there are people willing to take the risk. People who buy into this argument are not providing potential astronauts with a potential benefit. They are imposing on potential astronauts a tremendous cost. They are potentially depriving potential astronauts of something so valuable that the potential astronaut would risk his or her very life to obtain – participation in a great adventure.

It is not a virtue to deprive people of something so valuable. It is a vice to force people to endure such a loss unless one has very good reason to do so.

In this light, Apollo is a poor instrument to use in the human exploration of space. It is far better to give the job to those who are (more) willing to take the types of risks that this type of project requires.

Apollo - Human vs Machine

In much the same way as atheists debate the merits of an accomodationist versus confrontational strategies on matters of religion and science, space enthusiasts debate the merits of sending humans into space or sending machines.

The machine enthusiasts argue that we can do a great deal more science with a machine than we can by sending a human – for the same amount of money. Each lunar probe costs between $50 million and $500 million. A lunar base is so far expected to cost over $100 billion. So, for the price of one lunar base, we can send, just to us round numbers, 400 unmanned missions to the moon.

The human enthusiasts argue that you can never program a machine to make judgment calls that will truly do the best science. That requires a human scientist on the field.

Against this, the machine enthusiasts counter that it is a false analogy to compare a human mission to a machine mission. We must compare a human mission to 400 machine missions, each built by humans who look at the data received from one mission in designing the next.

I think that the human enthusiasts are being fundamentally dishonest in arguing that humans can do better science than machines – and in suggesting that this is what motivates them to pursue human space flight. They are not only being dishonest with the machine enthusiasts and the public at large when they give these arguments, they are being dishonest with themselves.

The real reason to send humans has nothing to do with “doing good science”. It has to do with the romantic element of challenging oneself on the frontier. It is a sense of adventure, not a sense of scientific curiosity, that drives this interest.

The next time a machine enthusiast points out that a machines can do more and better science than a human, ask her about her last vacation. Where did she go? Hawaii? Greece? Yellowstone park?

“Now, why did you waste all of that money visiting that place yourself? If you wanted to learn about the place you could have done so by logging onto the internet, finding some videos and pictures and reading about the area. In fact, this is what you should do. However, in addition to the interest in learning the facts about a place there is a drive to go there and actually experience the place.

This is the actual, honest motivation behind human space flight. It is not to ‘do better science’ – that’s a senseless rationalization. The real interest is in being there, to see and feel and experience the place.

There is nothing wrong with this reason.

The only value that exists is value is in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Curiosity is a good desire and one that we have reason to promote through praise and condemnation. That is to say, people who are eager to learn deserve our praise, while those who turn up their nose at the idea of learning deserve our contempt.

The desire to explore is also something that we have reason to promote. Without this desire, humanity would still be huddled in some valley in Africa unwilling to look outside the boundaries of one’s own home. Ultimately, this drive to explore will save the human race, if acted on and encouraged, as more and more humans leave Earth and build homes for humanity elsewhere.

Assuming that nature gives us enough time, and we take advantage of the time we are given. The former element, of course, depends on pure chance. Whereas the latter element depends on our own success at recognizing the value of the desire to explore and properly nurturing it and helping it to grow.

It’s counter-productive to try to defend human space flight with phony rationalizations that are transparent to most people anyway. It is best to stay with the facts.

Why send humans into space instead of machines?

Because it is there.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Apollo - Spinoffs

In this, the week of th 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to put humans on the moon and return them safely to Earth, I am covering some of the common arguments offered with respect to space exploration and development.

One of my qualities that I dislike it when people agree and defend the same conclusion that I defend, but they use poor reasoning in its defense. One reason is because I worry that somebody would see the flaws in the other person's arguments and attribute those flaws to me. Another is because I think that sloppy reasoning is itself something to avoid, and I prefer to be associated with people who also prize sound reasoning.

A poor argument in defense of the space program has been the value of spin-offs. The American people acquired a lot of benefits from the technology that came from the Apollo project.

The reason that this is a poor argument is because spin-offs are going to be spin-offs any time the government puts a lot of money into a project.

An excellent example of this is war. Look at the spinoffs that came out of World War I and World War II. I am not talking about advances in military technology. I am talking about advances in technology that ended up providing benefits to the civilian population.

A prime example of this are the advances in aeronautics that came out of the two world wars. World War I took aviation out of its infancy. World War II gave us the jet engine. We got better radar which went into the tracking storms. Military research gave us the microwave oven, the global positioning systm, and the internet.

Even the space program itself is a spinoff of military research. Rockets were invented to deliver destruction behind enemy lines. This technology was then put to use putting a man on the moon.

If the government were to spend $100 billion digging a hole from Los Angles to New York, that would produce spin-off benefits. This is not a special property of the space program that it produces side effects. Therefore, it is not a reason to recommend space development over any other potential use for $100 billion.

Even $100 billion on a nonsense project such as digging a hole from Los Angeles to New York would produce spin-off effects.

So, while I like it that others are defending th space program, because I consider it well worth defending, I would prefer it if those defending the space program offered reasonable arguments in defense. The demand for better arguments shows a respect for reason over rhetoric.

It is also the case the people tend to do a much better job seeing through their opponents’ argument rather than flaws in their own. So, while the defenders of the space program uses the argument from spinoffs in its defense, the opponents of space development are nodding their heads thinking to themselves, "These people aren't thinking too clearly. I think all of that space as gone to their heads."

The question to ask is not whether it is possible to name some spinoffs from a particular multi-hundred-billion-dollar project. The question is whether or not the costs exceed the benefits. Are the spinoffs worth the $100 billion investment?

If we look around us we find ourselves surrounded by benefits from all sorts of private expenditure – from newer and better search engines to cleaner ways of burning coal to new drugs to help fight disease. These benefits did not require a multi-billion dollar government project. It required private companies wanting to make a little money.

So, the spin-off argument for the defense of space exploration is a bogus argument. It is one that a friend of reason will not use.

Apollo - Historical Perspective

This week is the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing – which I consider to have been a significant achievement.

I do think that it is important to recognize the actual historical role of the Apollo mission. It was a part of a proxy war between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

In an age of nuclear weapons, a real war would have been too costly. It might well have resulted in the extinction of the human race. So, there was a reason to avoid a real war and to fight a proxy war instead. Mostly, it would require an extensive commitment of national will and resources to accomplish a goal, where that goal at least approximates the types of abilities that would have been relevant in a war.’

One of the technologies was missile technologies.

There was a reason why the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 was such a shock to the nation. If the Russians can put something in space that went over the United States, then it could land something in the United States – such as a nuclear warhead. When Americans thought of Sputnik flying overhead, it was the same as thinking about a weapons platform where the Soviets could simply drop nuclear bombs on the United States.

This is what made the Apollo program an acceptable proxy for a war with the Soviet Union. At its core, it involved missile technology – the same technology used to deliver warheads to an enemy country.

Imagine two countries locked in conflict that get together and say, “Okay, wars are destructive. We are not going to settle this dispute with a war. Rather, we will decide this issue by a race. The bst country is the country that can win the race.

Now, none of this was conscious. Instead, the pieces just fell into place. The Soviets announced in dramatic fashion their ability to attack the United States. The United States (under President Kennedy) answered with a challenge to the Soviets to test the technological abilities of both countries with a race to the moon. The Soviets accepted the challenge, and the race was on.

This is why the Apollo program was worth so much money. Regardless of how much we spent on Apollo, it was cheaper than the war it was substituting for. In fact, the program had to cost a great deal of money in order to serve as a proxy for war. The nation had to mobilize its resources, demonstrate its commitment and resolve, and throw its will into winning the race, as it would have had to do in order to win a war.

It also explains why, after Apollo 11, interest in the space program waned so dramatically. The race was over. When the game ends, the fans go home. They may allow the winner the courtesy of staying through a victory lap (Apollo 12), but not much beyond that – unless something exciting happens (Apollo 13).

Apollo was never really about exploring space. It was about beating the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had been beaten. The game was over.

Then, as with any sports events, the players shake hands at the end and the losers congratulate the winners. As was done with the joint Apollo-Soyuz missions.

It was a grand idea to hold a race instead of fighting an actual war. We need to do this kind of thing most often. The Apollo program was not nearly as destructive as a war – it actually did some good.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Birthday Wish 1: Atheist Schools

I have another birthday coming up.

As I have done in the past, I want to spend the week talking about what I want for my birthday. If you would like to get me a present, please consider one of the things on my list.

The first thing that I would like to have on my list is a set of atheist private schools.

We have religious schools all over the place.

We also have public schools that are supposed to be secular. Yet, a student cannot attend such a school without being surrounded by signs that say, “You can’t be one of us unless you trust in God” or being pressured into pledging allegiance to “a nation under God”.

It appears to me that this type of psychological abuse – the constant reminder told to a young child that a person who does not believe in a God is inferior to one who does not – does lasting psychological damage. The reason why atheists are so politically impotent in spite of their numbers is due, to a large degree, to this psychological abuse which tends to make those who suffer from it passive and subservient.

A school without these abuses would be a good thing.

It would be a school where science is respected would be a good thing. This would be a school that actually teaches evolution – rather than hides from it because some parents might be offended. It is a school where a geology teacher does not have to suffer a moment of hesitation before talking about events millions or billions of years ago. A school where the teacher can say, “God did not do it,” without fear of a lawsuit.

It would be a school where the teachers could teach a logic class using real-world examples of both sound and unsound reasoning. In this school, the students would take transcripts current speeches made by current politicians and analyzes them for logical consistency. Where parents may disagree with what a child is being taught, the solution will not be to censor the teacher but to provide some option for people to express why they accept one position and reject the other. One of the problems with these types of schools is that they tend to isolate and segregate students. However, the public school system is not a healthy alternative. It allows students to mix with other types of students, but prohibits any type of education on different beliefs and belief systems. Have a high school social sciences teacher give a course on Islam and watch the parents go into convulsions. We demand silence on the part of public school teachers – but silence is the antithesis of getting an education.

So, the school that you can help to create as a part of my birthday present would not be silent on matters of religion. Nor would it present a one-sided mockery of religion. Rather, it would invite or even require students to be exposed to the major religions in an environment that is not hostile to those religions. It would invite or even require students to attend church services, to interview others about their beliefs, to read religious texts, and require that they show an understanding of the belief systems of the people they are going to have to share the world with as adults.

I want there to be a school like this in every major city across the United States.

Of course, it need not start off as some huge project if somebody does not have the means to build a full-fledge school. Though, clearly, if religious institutions having significantly fewer members are able to build multitudes of schools, atheists should be able to gather the financing for one or two to start with.

While religious schools might train their students to go out and be warriors for Jesus or Allah or whatnot, this school would not seek to create a group of atheist preachers. Its purpose would be to create a student body who can go out with an understanding of science and logic and save the world. They will be the people who can design better ways to predict hurricanes, cure diseases, improve crops, create more efficient generators of renewable energy, design a more effective drug abuse treatment program, understand the mentality of terrorists so as to better prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place and stopping them from being effective in the second place.

In short, they would be students who will make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

That’s the first thing on my list.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Palin's Resignation and the Obligation to Serve

On the topic of Sarah Palin's resignation as the governor of Alaska, I have encountered the claim that her election represents a contract with the people of Alaska to serve out her term, and her resignation is a violation of that promise. As such, it is morally illegitimate.

In this case, the argument against Palin itself is illegitimate.

The first duty of a governor is to serve the people of the state in which she was elected (within certain moral limits). In theory, a person running for public office believes that those interests are best served by having him or her in that office.

In practice, many people run for public office because they see an opportunity for personal gain. However, the fact that morally corrupt politicians exist does not damage my argument. We can at least grant that a moral political leader holds that the best interests of the people of a state are served by her remaining in office.

However, the instant that this becomes false, there is no “contract with the voters” holding a politician to that office. That politician not only has a right, she has a duty, to resign her office and hand those powers to somebody better qualified to serve those interests.

For example, let us imagine for a moment that President Bush had selected a politically astute, intelligent, and, most of all, virtuous vice-President; somebody like Colin Powell. Two and a half years into his administration, he realizes that he is in way over his head. He does not have the capacity to comprehend what is happening let alone the disposition or diplomatic talents to resolve the situation without bringing about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

In this case, it would be foolish to imagine that the President's contract with the voters is to complete his term. The President's contract with the voters is to promote the interests of the people of the United States within certain moral limit, such as those bound by the duty defend the Constitution of the United States.

With Cheney as his vice-president, Bush's duty to serve the interests of the people of the United States and to protect and defend the Constitution meant keeping Cheney out of the oval office. Cheney represents the closest America has come, perhaps in its history, to the establishment of a tyranny.

Cheney’s view that the President, when acting in the role of Commander in Chief, is absolutely no limits to his power would provide the foundation for such a tyranny, and only the willingness of the people to stand against the President and those forces that would have gone ahead and enforced his decrees would have stood against such a tyranny.

However, the obligation here is not one in which the office holder is under an implicit contract to serve out his term. The obligation here is that which every person has to resist the establishment of a tyranny in America. It is an obligation that Bush could have better exercised by not having picked Cheney for his Vice-President to start with, once that damage was done, it would have counted against the moral legitimacy of any resignation.

I am not at all suggesting that Palin actually resigned for such noble reasons. It is the case that Palin is intellectually unqualified to hold an executive office. Yet, unfortunately, one of the facts that the intellectually unqualified are habitually unaware of is the fact that they are intellectually unqualified.

Furthermore, I know nothing about her successor as governor, so I cannot judge whether or not she is leaving her office to a more qualified leader, or to a greater evil as Bush would have done.

Yet, the absence of noble motives on Palin's part does not disprove the thesis that political office holder has no obligation to remain in office to the end of her term. We should be more than happy to accept, even to applaud, the resignation of any politician who feels that the rest of the world would b better off with that power in the hands of a competent leader.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Young Earth Creationism and Qualifications for Legislature

In my last post I wrote that it is not necessarily an injustice for a group of people to be under-represented in the legislature. What matters is the reason why they are under-represented. Racial segregationists are legitimately denied proportional representation in the legislature. Atheists are not.

This should not be brought about by barring certain people from running for public office or barring people from voting for such a person. This should come about through the moral education of the electorate, so that they demonstrate their virtue by refusing to vote for such a person.

One group of people that should not have proportional representation in the legislature are those who believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old. The reason is because such a person must have such a poor grasp of basic chemistry, physics, geology, and science in general, that they cannot be trusted to make laws grounded in reality. It would be like asking a dental hygienist to approve the details for a new bridge.

A striking example of this is that of Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen (R).

A recent video getting heavy attention on atheist blogs has her voicing her support for uranium mining by stating . . . twice . . . that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

Several bloggers have noted the irony of a person commenting on uranium mining while displaying a mind-numbing ignorance of the physics of uranium. Scientific understanding tells us how we can get energy out of uranium, how to run the nuclear power plant safely, and how best to dispose with the spent radioactive fuel. This same scientific understanding gives us evidence that the uranium formed 4.5 billion years ago.

To put somebody who is so willfully ignorant of the scientific facts regarding uranium in charge of approving or disapproving mines, regulating nuclear power plants, and disposing of the fuel is monumentally foolish. Allen is simply not qualified to do that particular job.

While a civilian legislator need not be an expert in every field in which she is responsible for evaluating the merits of legislation, she does have an obligation to pay attention to the claims of those who are experts. In this case, she fails in that obligation.

I lead up to this post with a discussion of the merits (or, more precisely, demerits) of the argument that states that if Group A makes up X% of the population, then they should make up X% of the legislature. Specifically, I was concerned with the claim that people who say that no God exists make up about 8% of the population, so people who say that no God exists should make up 8% of the legislators.

I argued that there was no such right. If there were, then we would have to make sure that if we follow this line of reasoning we would have to clear room in the legislature for those who endorse segregation or the treatment of slaves (or women) as mere property. It is permissible to have a group of people under-represented in the halls of the legislature. What we need is a good reason to exclude them.

We have good reason to exclude people who believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Their understanding and appreciation for the facts of the real world – for what we know through the sciences of physics and chemistry – are so poor that they cannot make competent decisions regarding legislation that touches on these sciences.

They simply are not competent legislators.

This is not to say that they should be banned from holding public office. Their right to run for public office must be respected. The right of individuals to vote for these scientifically illiterate should also be protected. Rather, the effort should go into teaching the electorate the foolishness of making legislators out of people who cannot understand the subjects that they are making decisions on, and who arrogantly put their own ideas above the determined conclusions of educated scholars.

Proportional Representation

Those who claim that there is almost certainly no God make up about 8% of the population in the United States. Yet, they make up less than 0.2% of the legislature. By rights, with 535 people in the combined House of Representatives and the Senate, there should be about 43 atheists in the federal Congress – and several hundred atheists scattered around in the various state legislatures.

This is a very poor argument.

Consider the same line of reasoning combined to racial segregationists. If racial segregationists made up 8% of the population, this would not entitle them to 8% of the legislative seats. In fact, for racial segregationists to hold even 0.2% of the seats in Congress would be 0.2% too much.

Because of the moral bankruptcy of racial segregation, the mere fact that somebody is a segregationist would be a good reason to vote against him.

This reduction ad absurdum shows the logical invalidity of the argument in the first paragraph. This implies that a reason-loving culture (or subculture) would not use that argument.

Furthermore, they would condemn anybody who did use that argument because such a person certainly displays insufficient love of reason – where love of reason is a desire that people generally have reason to promote. Such a person would be worthy of our condemnation.

If we want to find anti-atheist bigotry, we cannot find it in the fact that atheists are under-represented in the legislature. We must find it in the reasons why atheists are under-represented in the legislature. Do those reasons stand up to scrutiny?

Here, the answer is that they clearly do not. The claim that atheists lack a moral foundation is a belief that no virtuous person would embrace. A virtuous person would begin by giving atheists the benefit of the doubt, and then look for proof beyond a reasonable doubt for rejecting that original assumption. No such evidence exists.

It is an article of faith that declares that atheists lack morals. To a virtuous person, this is as repugnant as holding it as a matter of faith that the accused is guilty of murder, or that women are to be treated as slaves, while blacks are to actually be slaves. Accusations of wrongdoing – accusations that an individual group is of a lower (second) class of moral order may not be grounded on faith.

Yet, the claim that atheists have second-class moral status that makes them unfit for public office is a faith-based conviction of guilt – the very thing that a virtuous person would never embrace.

This is further evidence of bigotry in that people do not get their morality from God or any divine source. There is no divine source for them to get their morality from. Instead, they assign their morality to God. So, if God turns out to be a hate-mongering bigot, it is because we are talking about a God who was created by hate-mongering bigots, who have assigned their bigotry to God.

And if God is kind and just, it is because kind and just people invented that God, and assigned their kindness and just dispositions to that God.

There are two conclusions that I want to draw from this.

One conclusion is that a culture that embraces reason would reject the type of argument depicted in the opening paragraph and condemn those who use such an argument as somebody who lacks a proper respect for reason.

The other conclusion is that some groups do not warrant proportional representation in the legislature. Though their right to run for public office shall not be infringed, nor should the right of people to vote for such a candidate be revoked, the people themselves should be intelligent enough and virtuous enough to keep such individuals out of public office.

The fact that these groups are under-represented in a freely elected legislature should be seen as a sign of the virtue of the overall population. Or, conversely, if representatives of these groups get elected, it should be taken as a sign of the electorate's lack of virtue.

That they freely vote to keep such people from public office is not a mark of injustice. That the reasons they give for keeping such people out of public office are the baseless prejudices of a hate-mongering bigotry (or the bigoted God they may have created), on the other hand, would be a mark of injustice that a virtuous person would condemn.

I will illustrate these points with a specific example in my next post.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Blasphemy in Ireland

The Irish Government is acting so as to undermine the fine work I am seeking to do with this blog.

They are working on passing a Blasphemy Law. This law, if passed, would make "blasphemy" a crime. Where, according to the Irish Times:

"Blasphemous matter" is defined as matter "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage."

(See: Irish Times: Crime of blasphemous libel proposed for Defamation Bill; The New Humanist Blog: Ireland moves closer to blasphemy law)

How does this undermine the work of this blog?

One of the topics that I have written the most about is the right to freedom of speech. I have argued for principles such as:

• The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions. Private actions are based on decisions that require no justification, such as where to shop, what to buy, what to eat, what to wear, and the like.

• A right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from criticism. It is a right to immunity from violence, including state violence, for what a person may say or write.

For a government to even consider a law such as this – other than to reject it outright, denies both of these principles. The law itself gives an illusion of legitimacy to those who would react to words with violence by adding state violence to private violence. Instead of condemning those who would react with violence, it condemns the speaker, and empowers the violent.

Furthermore, it is an invitation on the part of the government to religions to harvest outrage. It is a propaganda weapon that says, "C'mon, followers, if you can muster enough outrage – if you can display enough anger and rage at whomever says this, then we get the government on our side. Then the government will attack our enemies. But if you do nothing, then the government will not act."

These are not absolutes, so it is no criticism of these principles that one can imagine exceptions. To offer criticism one must only only imagine an objection, but apply it to the case at hand.

Which is clearly something that Ireland is sorely in need of – a government subsidy for religious rage.

Almost as abusrd as the law itself are the reactions to it. According to the New Humanist, one reaction comes from Michael Nugent, who chairs Atheist Ireland.

It is silly because it revives a medieval religious law in a modern pluralist republic, and it makes Ireland seem like a backward country. People need protection. Ideas do not. Ideas should always be open to criticism and ridicule. If the law is passed, we will be immediately testing it by publishing a blasphemous statement.

Silly? This means it is trivial, a waste of time. In which case one would have to ask why Atheist Ireland is wasting its time on something that they themselves declare to be trivial.

It is not trivial, in fact. It is quite important, for the sake of maintaining civil order, to promote an cultural aversion to the habit of responding to words with violence. The people of Ireland should have no trouble recognizing the value of that lesson.

I applaud the fact that Atheist Ireland plans on challenging the law as soon as it is passed, if it is passed. However, it would be better if they did not do so because the law was 'silly'. It would be better if they did so for good reason.

We stand here in defense of the right to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not the right to immunity from criticism. It is a right to immunity from violence, including state violence, for what one says or does. It is the right to speak or write without fear, and it is a duty on the part of every citizen not to use fear as a weapon to silence one's critics. It is most important that the government, in a civilized country, raises its voice in defense of those who would speak freely, rather than give its encouragement to those who would harvest rage as a way to silence its critics.

"Silly?" Since when is the right to immunity from violence for speaking or writing "silly?"

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Unhealth Care

This is an interesting convergence of news articles.

President Obama is pushing health care reform, talking about the catastrophic consequences of high-cost medical care. At the same time, a report come out that Americans are fatter than ever.

(See CNN: Mississippi tops U.S. obesity rankings; Obama takes health care push to the airwaves)

Here is a recipe for cutting trillions of dollars of health care costs every year.

Eat less, exercise more.

A great many of our health-care costs are due to lifestyle choices. Overeating, smoking, drinking, the use of drugs, and unhealthy sexual activities. If people would reduce their involvement in these activities, he medical community would be able to devote more of its resources to caring for those who really need the help – those whose illnesses and injuries are of a type that afflict people regardless of the choices they make.

This is a medical cost containment program that does not cost a dime in government money. In fact, it would increase government revenue, allowing the government to collect more money that it can then use on other programs that actually have real merit. This is because healthier Americans are more productive. They miss less work due to health-related issues, and they are simply able to do more when they do work.

Furthermore, this program will help to fight the effects of global warming, as people leave their vehicles in the drive way and walk more – whether they walk to the store for groceries, or walk to the bus stop and use public transportation.

Unfotunately, we are heading for a health-care system that is built on the principle of abdicating personal responsibility for one’s choices and forcing other people to pay the bill. The current health care reform proposals are, to a large degree, a license for everybody else in the country to make poor lifestyle choices, and then charge much of the costs of their poor choices on my credit card.

And if I should decide to take greater responsibility for my health – if I should decide to put in an hour of exercise every day, to maintain a healthy diet, to choose not to smoke or drink or engage in unhealthy sexual activities, I get none of the savings. My paycheck still gets drained by the rest of the population that takes less care of itself and then garnishes my paycheck to pay their medical bills.

One thing I expect is that the government is substantially underestimating the cost of this health care bill. To the degree that people can pass on even more of their health care costs to others, to that degree people will make choices that will increase their demand for health-care services.

Whatever the government decides to subsidize, it can expect people to demand more of. If the government were to offer universal free gasoline, SUVs and gas-burning vacations would become the rage while public transportation and evenings at home with the family would take a beating. As the government pays for more health care services, people will discover needs for medical care that they never even imagined before.

So, this health care reform is going to end up being a very useful government program for encouraging more obesity, more smoking, more irresponsible sexual activity, and more of the things that people would have a greater incentive to avoid if they were to suffer the total costs of their own irresponsibility.

By the way, this is not so much an argument against adopting the health-care reform package. It is a warning against some of the costs of that type of legislation. However, against the fact that some people have legitimate healthcare issues, these consequences may well be necessary evils.

However, it does provide an argument for taking those consequences seriously. This means that the choice of whether and how much to drink, smoke, and eat, as well as with whom and how one has sex, are no longer private choices. They are private so long as the individual is willing to pay the costs of his or her mistakes.

However, as soon as he demands the authority to garnish the wages of other people to pay for those effects, those others being forced to pay gain the right to have a say in the activities that a person engages in. These choices gain a moral taint . . . or, more precisely, an immoral taint . . . that they would not otherwise have.

So, do you want to be a better person? Give up smoking. Eat less, get some exercise, keep your car in the garage. Quit sleeping around – find a partner that you can be happy with and declare your fidelity to each other.

Most important, be willing to deal with these as moral issues. This means that the desires behind these behaviors become a legitimate target of praise and condemnation. In a public health care community, people who do not take care of their health are not just harming themselves. They are displaying a selfish willingness to do harm to others who do not deserve to be harmed and without their consent.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Talking About Atheism Part III: Moral Permissibility

I am spending a few posts going over Greta Christina's reasons as to why atheists must talk about atheism presented in an article on Alternet.

(See: Alternet, Why Do Atheists Have To Talk About Atheism)

The third reasons Christina offered is a reason that actually works. In this posting I want to look at that reason more closely to show more precisely in just what way it works.

Reason 3: Because Atheists might be right.

[R]eligion is, above all else, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. . . . . We see no reason to treat religion any differently from any other hypothesis about the world. We think it's valid to ask it to support its cae just like any other hypothesis . . . and just like any other hypothesis, we think it's valid to poke holes in it in public.

This is a perfectly legitimate reason.

Obligations, Permissions, and Prohibitions

To be honest, this does not support Christina's conclusion that atheists must (moral obligation) talk about atheism. It supports a softer conclusion – atheists may (non-obligatory permission) talk about atheism.

However, this is all that Christina needs to prove in order to make her point.

If somebody argues that X is morally impermissible – that people who do X deserve condemnation – then it is sufficient proof against this thesis to demonstrate that X is permissible. This proves that the original claim was false.

Christina’s argument establishes the permissibility of atheists talking about atheism. It is as legitimate to engage in open discussion about the existence and nature of a God as it is to debate and discuss whether human actions are contributing to global warming, the economic effects of deficit spending, or the merits of various candidates for public office. The claim that a person’s beliefs on any of these matters may not be openly challenged and questioned is false.

Malicious Error

More importantly, the objection to atheists talking about atheism is not an innocent error. It is a malicious falsehood that shows that the person making this error is a hate-mongering bigot.

The claim is that atheists who discuss atheism are intolerant and bigoted. The intent of people making such a claim is not to simply to make an assertion that happens to be false. Their intent is to denigrate and demean others – to cast them as people to be looked down upon. Yet, these denigrating and demeaning comments are made in the face of a clear argument that shows them to be absurd.

As Christina points out, the claim that a person who defends a proposition in public is 'intolerant' or 'closed minded' is simply false.

First, if it were true, then the person who asserts that a God exists in public is just as intolerant and closed-minded as the person who asserts that it is highly unlikely that a God exists. No justification exists for the hypocritical asymmetric condemnation of one side of this debate that would not apply equally to the other.

Second, if it were true, then the person who says that the Earth is round is also intolerant and closed-minded. The person who says that 3+3=6 is intolerant and closed-minded. In fact, if this condemnation of atheists for defending the proposition that it is highly unlikely that a God exists were valid, anybody who makes a fact-based claim of any type is displaying a closed-minded intolerance of other possible beliefs.

This is absurd. Furthermore, it is absurd on its face to the degree that it is remarkable to think that the person making such an accusation against atheists could have missed it.

Hate-Mongering Bigotry

When people make such a blatant error, we have reason to ask what drove them to it. Clearly, they could not have been driven by the power of reason. And where reason does not drive a person to a particular belief, we may speculate that desire is what drove them to that conclusion. It is the habit, and the love, of making denigrating and demeaning comments about atheists that drove some people to this error and blinded them to the amazingly simple objections.

These are people who have come to the market-place of ideas to fulfill a desire to sell the idea of blatantly unfounded hostility towards others. When I identify such a person as a hate-mongering bigot I mean precisely what I say. This is a person who sells the unjustified hatred of a group on the market-place of ideas.

The Scope of Criticism

In making this criticism, it is important to note that the scope of criticism is limited specifically to those who would identify a person who is exercising a morally permissible right to present and discuss ides openly as ‘intolerant’ and ‘closed-minded’.

If the atheist unjustifiably attempts to expand this category to include all of religion, then that atheist is as guilty of being a hate-mongering bigot as the people that I have criticized in this post. That atheist, also, is somebody who has come to the market place of ideas for the purpose of selling a blatantly unjustified hostility towards all members of a particular group.

If the atheist unjustifiably attempts to restrict this category to those who demand the special protection of religious ideas, then that atheist is a hypocrite, seeking to create and apply a double-standards whereby the religious are judged by one set of rules, while atheists are judged by a much less restrictive set of rules.

The Liberal/Atheist Argument for Protected Status

On this second point, we should note that the idea that it is wrong to criticize other world view has a strong foothold among secular liberal thinkers as it does among the religious. The liberal (even atheist) version springs from the idea that (there is no God and thus) there are no objective moral standards. As such, it is a mistake to judge the customs of another person or culture as if such an objective moral standard exists.

Some who started with these premises took the further step of claiming that is morally wrong for a person to condemn the members of another culture, and would morally condemn those who were caught doing so. This was in spite of the fact that this criticism puts the person making it in clear violation of his own principles.

If we are going to be fair in criticizing the position that religious or cultural norms warrant a special protected status and those who violate this protected status deserve condemnation, then we must also cast blame on liberal/atheist thinkers who defended the same set of ideas.

Atheists are not morally perfect people. They are prone to moral flaws. One of the ways those flaws can manifest themselves is in the hate-mongering bigotry found un unjustifiably expanding a particular criticism to include all of 'religion'. Another way it can manifest itself is in the hypocritical exclusion of atheists from condemnation for committing the same types of wrongs one attributes to (some) theists.

The trick is to remain focused on the specific moral offense that one is writing about and on the specific set of people who commit that offense, without regard to whether the offenders are theists ore atheists.

The offense in this case is that of leveling the charge of ‘intolerant’ or ‘closed-minded” against those who have come to the market place of ideas for the purpose of debating whether a particular proposition (e.g., a god exists) is true or false.


Atheists have no obligation to sit down and shut up. People who claim that an atheist expressing his belief that there is probably no God is intolerant and closed-minded are mistaken. However, this is no ordinary mistake. This is a mistake motivated by a love of denigrating and demeaning others, because a fair and just person would have clearly seen the error and not made placed such a demand. Yet, this is not a mistake that can be fairly attributed to all of religion. Nor is it a mistake that can be attributed only to those who are religious. It is a charge that the morally responsible person would make only against those who are guilty, without regard as to whether the guilty are atheists or theists.