Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Authoritarians

We often hear of gay men supporting the GOP plan to strip homosexuals of legal protections, of preachers and Republican congressmen cheating on their wives, of right-wing moralizers dropping tens of thousands a night at the casino, of fake White House reporters who double as gay escorts... the list goes on.

All this leads me to suspect that many of the authoritarians who are up in arms over homosexuality, porn, and gambling are deeply conflicted. I theorize that they want oppressive laws against these things either 1) to deprive themselves of the opportunity for indulging, or 2) to punish themselves for indulging.

You know what I mean. The guy says "it's not my fault that I cheated on you, Honey, it's the fault of the police for letting young girls wear low-cut jeans. Damn liberals!"

Or maybe he's thinking, "if I hadn't known that guy was gay, I would never have ended up in bed with him. Those gay guys are threatening my family life by turning me gay!"

Or maybe, "I tried to fight porn in the legislature, but, because of all those liberals, I couldn't stop myself ordering a copy of 'Asian Sexaholics'. We need stronger laws and longer prison terms to stop me from ordering this stuff!"

Last night's Daily Show featured a story about a NASCAR fan (see Gays of Thunder) who lamented the "gayification" (as Samantha Bee put it) of the sport. Apparently, one driver has Fructis hair care products as a sponsor. The troubled fan described NASCAR as standing for good, clean America, implying by his complaint that gays aren't good, clean or American. Viewers can see the irony coming a mile away. The NASCAR fan is totally gay. Actually, he says he's converted to heterosexuality. Yeah right.

The next time you meet a right-winger demanding Iran-style government action against harmless vices, calmly suggest he or she go for counseling.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Blink, and you'll miss it!

Scientists at University College London have found that parts of the brain are temporarily "switched off" when we blink.

This is one of an interesting set of facts about vision. Our eyes rapidly move around and focus on different parts of the scene in front of us. Yet, we perceive the scene as static and extremely high resolution. The brain is smoothing out the erratic input from our eyes into a continuous perception of the visible world. Even our blinks are filtered out.

If the brain can do all this for vision, it can certainly do the same for perception of thought processes. We perceive consciousness as smooth, continuous, and directed, yet our higher mental processes may not be as smooth and well-integrated as they appear.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Presuppositionalists

I'm still debating the Christian presuppositionalists over at Keith Devens' blog.

They're a rather strange lot. The central tenet of their ideology is that logic, intelligibility, and the meaning of evil presuppose the existence of their god. That is, that without their god, one cannot define these terms.

Wikipedia has an entry for presuppositionalism that says this:
The key discriminator of this school is that it maintains that the Christian apologist must assume the truth of the supernatural revelation contained in the Bible (that is, the Christian worldview) because there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian. In other words, presuppositionalists say that a Christian cannot consistently declare his belief in the necessary existence of the God of the Bible and simultaneously argue on the basis of a different set of assumptions (presumably those of the non-Christian) in which God may or may not exist.

By way of contrast, the other schools of Christian apologetics assume the world is intelligible apart from belief in the existence of God and argue exclusively on (purportedly) neutral grounds to support trusting the Christian Scriptures.

As far as I can tell, the presuppositionalists just want to build a wall around their beliefs that will isolate them from argumentation. Still, I have been having fun in the debate, despite my frustration with their inability to formulate an argument that makes any sense to me.

I enjoyed writing my last response so much that I've decided to post it here. Um, also, I haven't had time to write any real posts recently. :)



To a presuppositionalist:

Suppose we're playing Blackjack at Honest Joe's casino. No cheating has ever been recorded at Honest Joe's.

The dealer has 10 showing. Both of us have a 7 and a 2. Should you and I take another card?

We cannot prove that our next card will be sufficient to beat the dealer. That's fair, this is a game of chance, after all.

However, we also cannot prove that the deck is not stacked against us (e.g., a casino employee has manually selected our upcoming cards to be deuces and 3's). Though no cheating has ever been recorded in this casino, this fact does not constitute total proof that no cheating will ever occur.

Yet, we both know that if we don't take a card, we are guaranteed to lose.

I don't need absolute certainty that the dealer has not stacked the deck against me. No faith is required. Simply put, I have no chance of winning if I don't take a card, and at least some chance otherwise. Logically, I should take a card. I ask the dealer for another card.

In contrast, you demand absolute certainty that the game isn't rigged. No person at the table, including casino security, can tell you with total, unerring certainty that the game is fair (hey, it could be an inside job).

Since no measurable entity can guarantee fairness, you invent an unmeasurable one. You theorize that there is an invisible Inspector who guarantees the fairness of the game. Though the Inspector is totally invisible, you claim that he must exist if for no other reason than to guarantee fairness of the Blackjack table. Furthermore, you claim that it would be impossible to even play Blackjack without the existence of the Inspector.

Finally, with your self-assured certainty in the existence of the Inspector, you tell the dealer that you want another card.

We're both dealt 10's and we both beat the dealer.

This is a good analogy for our debate so far. As this analogy shows, there is no need whatsoever for the Inspector to exist at all.

You may argue that the risk of fraud is too high at the casino, but I would answer that it's the only game in town, so we have to live with it, fair or not.

When asked how we might otherwise know of the Inspector's existence, you answer by saying that he will reveal himself in rare, miraculous cases of... cheating! Indeed, some players have reported cheating in the past (e.g., they claimed to have seen the dealer's up card change during a hand), but whenever the casino security tapes are reviewed, no evidence of cheating can be found.

Of course, the premise about the Inspector guaranteeing fairness of the game is really just a smokescreen. The real reason that the Inspector was invented was to guarantee that players can win when they leave the casino. It is said that those who leave a tip for the Inspector are guaranteed a net payoff on their way out of the casino. Curiously, no one ever gets out of the casino alive, and the Inspector never collects his tips.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Choco-Cthulu

I found this classic on BoingBoing.net, but I kept forgetting to post the link.

Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese, Meet Choco-Cthulu

Sorry folks, this item is no longer available on eBay.

Why I am not an agnostic

This is an excerpt from a debate I've been having on Keith Devens' web log. The following was written in response to the claim that all atheists are actually agnostics.




Here are two of my core arguments. I will divide definitions of god into two kinds. The first is unverifiable and meaningless, and the second is naturalistic and unworthy of worship.

God Type I
How do we determine whether a proposition has any meaning? We can create propositions by stringing nouns, verbs and adjectives together, but following the grammatical rules of the English language is not sufficient. Pick some words at random, and you may get a proposition that is grammatically correct, but nonsensical, e.g., "humidity cogitates on libertarianism". Similarly, you cannot have a meaningful proposition created out of symbols that are undefined, e.g., "x = (5 p + 4 q) * 7".

So the question is, where does semantic meaning come from? I argue that when we learn language (even our native language), we are creating theories about what words and propositions mean. The first time you ever saw a guy say "what's shaking?" to his friend, and his friend reply "not much," you created a theory about the meaning of the expression "what's shaking?" Since you saw nothing physically shaking, you theorized that the expression meant "how are you feeling?" or "what is going on in your life?" You tested this theory by observing other people use the expression, or by testing it out yourself.

Our entire system of language is built out of many such theories, each one confirmed by empirical evidence.

So, we create theories about the meaning of every proposition, and these theories can only be confirmed or falsified by experience. If you deliberately construct a proposition whose theory of meaning can never be confirmed or falsified, then the proposition itself has no meaning.

If you claim X is true and that nothing we ever experience will ever confirm or refute X is true, then I can make the exact same claim for X is false. If you claim God is good and that nothing we ever observe can convince us otherwise, then I can equally well claim that God is evil and that nothing we ever observe will convince you otherwise. This is because you are saying that the meaning of God is good has nothing to do with anything we ever experience. If you believe such things, you have fallen into a trap where everything you see is interpreted as evidence for your proposition, and nothing can be seen as evidence against it. This is a fallacy. An observation, O, cannot be construed as evidence for a proposition, P, unless not observing O is evidence against P.

Now what I have said above applies to the traditional Christian God which is defined as being omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, perfectly good, etc. All these superlatives are stated to be unverifiable even in principle. So, all propositions about this god are nonsensical. We may intuitively think we know what they mean, but we are actually confused. Intuition alone is not an adequate guide to the meaning of language.

God Type II
The argument about semantic meaning does not apply when you are talking about a super-powerful alien being with technology so far above ours as to look like magic. For, in principle, we could attain technology comparable with the alien, and do experiments that expose his parlour tricks. However, neither you nor I would consider such an alien to be god, per se.

A second aspect of atheism is rejection of worship of pure power. Even if an alien created our universe, that would not justify our worshipping that alien. Might does not make right. Suppose that the devil was actually the one god/alien who created the universe. Would it be ethical to do evil because he says so? Would evil then become "right"? I don't think so. In other words, what an alien says is right isn't necessarily so. I don't think that it is right to hold slaves or to stone people to death like the Bible says we must. Even if I believed that the Bible wasn't just made up by humans, I still wouldn't agree with what it has to say. To follow a path arbitrarily specified by the almighty, I would have to sacrifice my conscience and become a collaborator.


In summary, I have made two points here. First, if your propositions about god are not falsifiable (not even in principle), then they are nonsensical. Second, if your propositions about god are falsifiable, then the god you're talking about is an alien subject to the laws of nature (even if those laws are different outside of our universe). In the latter case, you have to not only say why you think that alien exists (the burden of proof is yours not mine), but also why that alien is a god, i.e., why that alien deserves worship.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Harry Potter Excommunicated

The Pope doesn't like Harry Potter stories.

But why, oh pointy-hatted one? It's not like anyone believes that stories about magic are true, right?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Excuses, excuses

I haven't been posting much lately because I've been busy at work. I have, however, been participating at other blogs.

Over at the libertarian Volokh Conspiracy, I've been debating the issue of Harvard President Larry Summers'comments on gender differences.

I've also been commenting on Keith Devens blog on the issue of the inductive principle. I'll be heading back to today's post for round two.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Feldman's Church-State Separation

Noah Feldman has written a piece for the New York Times outlining his solution to the Church-State Separation debate. In the article, Feldman argues that evangelicals feel excluded from public life by the legal insistence on secularism in the public sector:
Keeping nondenominational prayer out of the public schools may protect religious minorities who might feel excluded; but it also sends a message of exclusion to those who believe such prayer would signal commitment to shared values. Increasingly, the symbolism of removing religion from the public sphere is experienced by values evangelicals as excluding them, no matter how much the legal secularists tell them that is not the intent.

Feldman notes that recent trends make public life more secular while increasing funding for faith-based charities. Feldman's solution is to do the exact opposite: strictly ban funding of religious institutions, but permit greater freedom of expression for religious groups in state-funded enterprise. According to Feldman, as long as religious expression is not funded by the state and is not coercive, it should be allowed. In short, no coercion and no money.

It's an interesting idea, though it would be difficult to implement. Each side in the debate would have to cede ground to the other.

There's no doubt that this country is very religious, at least in identity. It makes sense that we should seek solutions that will promote national harmony instead of dividing us. From a secularists perspective, Feldman's solution has its merits. Ramming religion down young people's throats is usually counterproductive. Atheistic Europe, with its state religions, has proven this point quite well.

However, I think that Feldman gives religious people too much credit for being rational:
Legal secularists may fear that when facing arguments with religious premises, they have the deck stacked against them. If values evangelicals begin by asserting that God has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, then, say the secularists, the conversation about same-sex marriage is over. But in fact, secularists can make arguments of their own, which may be convincing: if the state is going to regulate marriages, shouldn't they be subject to the same equality requirement as every other law? Some might even go further and ask the evangelicals how they can be so sure that they have correctly identified God's will on the question. They may discover that few evangelicals treat faith as a conversation stopper, and most consider it just the opposite.

Secularists may indeed discover that few evangelicals treat faith as a conversation stopper, but, probably, they won't. The religious worldview is not reasonable in the philosophical sense. Religious ideas are not bound together by a coherent and reasoned logical structure. The entire theological enterprise is held together by the authority of the church and its holy books, and nothing more. It is impermissible in religion to question the authority of the clergy or the veracity of ancient and self-contradictory books. Disciples spend hours each week chanting meaningless statements that are intended to strengthen their resolve and their commitment to take action without reasoning about the consequences of that action. They vigorously claim that, without religion, we would not know what actions were righteous, then, quixotically, claim that their religion is right because it leads to righteous outcomes. This is logically incompetent thinking. It is unreasonable.

According to the religious worldview, we must forgive sinners and we must not forgive them. Every life is precious and not every life is precious. How can this be? It's quite simple. The pious believe that their values come from their religion, but they are deluded because it is really the other way around. People stumble around in the philosophical darkness until they locate a religion that matches their moral inclinations - at which point, they are still in the philosophical darkness, but they stop searching for anything better. For the philosophically blind, the Bible is sufficiently self-contradictory and incoherent to permit almost any interpretation. Of course, once an interpretation has been selected by a particular cult, that interpretation becomes utterly inflexible.

Why is it that some Christians are pacifists who will never support the death penalty, while others demand the chair for killers and rapists? Why do some Christians work to serve the poor (believing that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to pass into the kingdom of heaven), while others believe that wealth is God's way of telling you that you're a good person? Why do some Christians pray quietly, while others make a public display of their piety? Why? Because you can find passages in the Bible that will support any position you want! For the most part, it's your gut feelings that determine your denomination.

Does the Bible lean more one way than the other? Yes. Jesus would never kill anyone, not even a murderer, not even in self-defense. There are, maybe, four references to homosexuality in the Bible, but hundreds of references to helping the poor. If the Bible says anything at all, it sides with the pacifists and social workers, not six-gun TV authoritarians holed up in their castles with billions in renaissance art in their basement.

In contrast to religion, secularism, with its reliance on science, provides a means to determine what is true and what is not (and what is nonsensical) without an appeal to an arbitrary authority. Without science and secularism, we would be reliant on those who deviously, foolishly, ignorantly, and arrogantly claim to speak for God. Every debate in a religious state (like Iran) ends with "because I said God says so, period."

However, in a democracy, there is still one authority that matters: the will of the people. Could I follow Feldman's prescription? It's not inconceivable, but I wouldn't go easily.