Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Spaceballs

George W. Bush goes on record as claiming space for the American empire.

This president is diplomatically retarded. Such a message plays well only to right-wing nut jobs. To everyone else in the world it looks arrogant and disrespectful. Why? Because the president doesn't need to broadcast this message. The U.S. just needs to be aware of national security threats, and take competent, subtle, persuasive or interdiction actions to defend against them. Do China and India make pronouncements like this? Of course they don't. Do we expect them to act as we would in their place? Sure we do. It's expected that every nation will take the steps it considers vital to its security interests. Blabbering about it on the world stage is counter-productive.

Teddy Roosevelt said America should speak softly and carry a big stick. Bush speaks loudly, and, if W has a stick, it's looking more and more impotent every day. Is Bush going to stop others from accessing space the same way he stops Iran and North Korea from getting nukes? That's what the world is thinking right now. America is an idiocracy.

The real national security threat is Bush himself. He doesn't promote competent people to positions of responsibility, he promotes sycophants to key government positions. He promotes people who will show loyalty to him, regardless of their competence for the job.

Speaking of incompetence, you may have heard that Rumsfeld has taken responsibility for the Iraq debacle. That's a little presumptuous, in my opinion. He's only responsible for about 80% of it. However, as a Republican, he's sure as Hell not going to be held accountable for what he's responsible for. Rumsfeld won't resign or change course. (What's that saying about doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results?) Osama bin Laden couldn't have asked for a better Secretary of Defense. Heckuva job, Rummy!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What Is Fundamentalism?

According to my definition, a fundamentalist is someone who prefers to take knowledge from authority rather than from experience.

Creationists are the textbook case of fundamentalism. They'll spare no effort to discredit the science that falsifies literal biblical claims, but spend no effort justifying their belief in the authority of the Bible. If they were as skeptical of the Bible as they were of radiological dating, they would quickly denounce the Bible as a work of fiction.

Fundamentalism is not just another form of irrationality. It's irrationality with conviction. Fundamentalism has no corrective mechanism. How does the fundamentalist know that his authority is, well, authoritative? Apparently, not by experience. Without correction, we cannot claim commitment to the truth because we reject a priori any possibility that we could be wrong.

The Christian fundamentalist cannot complain that Osama bin Laden is using the wrong epistemology. bin Laden is using the very same epistemology as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Reason and experience are equally unimportant to all three of these clowns because each will carefully fold his experience to fit into his holy box.

The problem with every fundamentalism is that it results in unnecessary conflict. Instead of reaching consensus based on shared experience, the fundamentalist regards shared experience as either threatening or subservient to his unchangeable prior beliefs.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

An Objective Morality

I define a an objective claim as one whose truth does not depend on what persons think its truth ought to be. Previously, I wondered whether this definition precluded the possibility of an objective morality, but I've just realized that this isn't the case.

In physics, we correlate initial states with final states. Based on observations of the initial state, we predict attributes of the final state. Physics is objective because we can test physical laws independently of how we feel about those laws. We can even control our experiments by limiting the knowledge of the experimentalists performing the work. We can look at the radioactive decay rates of different isotopes, and it doesn't matter whether I think Carbon 14 ought to decay faster than Plutonium 238, it simply doesn't.

So, what would be the equivalent for moral objectivity?

Two different moral histories can result in the same physical intermediate state. If morality were objective, then observers could see the intermediate physical state evolve into different physical final states with different moral values.

For example, suppose we obtain two apparently identical tanks of heating oil. The tanks will be used to heat the ACME Corp warehouse. One tank is paid for by monies secretly stolen from the local orphanage. The other tank is paid for from the ACME coffers. If morality is objective, then we might expect that the two tanks of heating oil will have different caloric outputs. Maybe, the tank funded by ill-gotten money will generate less energy than the tank paid for out of the ACME bank account.

One can argue that the experiment won't work because we arranged to have the money stolen from the orphanage as part of the experiment. However, we can design other experiments that will bypass this problem.

Maybe stolen appliances will be more vulnerable to malfunction and failure than appliances purchased at a fair price. Or, what if guns and ammunition used by terrorists will be less effective, less accurate than weapons used by security forces? Does fair trade coffee always taste better than unfair trade coffee? Would medical knowledge obtained through cruel experimentation on humans work less effectively than the same knowledge obtained through ethical practices?

A priori, the world might have demonstrated such objective morality. In reality, this is simply not the case. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Physics turns out to be independent of the moral history of the initial state. There is no universal justice as far as we can determine, and so morality is a property of our personal feelings, not a property of actions or things in and of themselves.

Christians will claim that everything gets balanced out in the hereafter, but this is just irrational. Claiming that universal justice exists is like claiming that cucumber sandwiches are conserved and that eating a cucumber sandwich on Earth results in the appearance of an identical sandwich on the other side of the galaxy. If we are to believe in objective morality, we ought also to believe in sandwich conservation laws, too.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Get Back To Me When You Have Some Answers

Last night, I watched The God Who Wasn't There, and it had a greater effect on me than I anticipated.

I have long doubted that Jesus actually existed, so the claim that he didn't exist wasn't a big shock for me. News to me was the fact that Paul's letters, the only writings that bridge the 40-year gap between Jesus' supposed ascension and the appearance of the first Gospels, make no mention of any events of Jesus' life save for the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This fact just makes the New Testament that much more implausible. However, the thing that really got to me was the patent absurdity of the theistic position. Why am I spending so much time "lobbying for reality," as Ellen Johnson would say?

As I've written before, philosophical debate is a matter of validating consistency and comparing foundational assumptions. It's important to explore both one's own assumptions and reasoning, and those of one's opponent. One may find that both philosophies are consistent, but each side disagrees about their respective axioms. The problem that I am finding is that theists refuse to honestly assess their own axioms. What assumptions does the theist truly make in order to reach his conclusion? They themselves do not appear to know.

Instead of facing their assumptions head-on, the theists accuse me of begging the question, that is, of lining up my definitions and starting points so that my conclusion is inevitable. In retrospect, this is really quite flattering. If my assumptions lead inevitably to my conclusion, then they are merely verifying my logic. If they disagree, it is their duty as philosophers to challenge the assumptions and provide alternatives. This, unfortunately, is where they fail.

Why is this important? Because rational debate requires intersubjective claims. If you want to claim that the Moon is made of cheese, you're free to do that, but don't pretend you have rational reasons why I should believe you. Dispense with reason if you must, but I shall enjoy tar and feathering you when you do.

In the following, I shall present several definitions and axioms that I have used in argumentation. Theists will find each of them, at face value, eminently reasonable. At least, that is, until they realize that it annihilates supernatural belief. Being wedded to such beliefs, the theist must declare the definition or assumption invalid. That's fine. But get back to me when you have an alternative definition that you can live with.

Objectivity and Moral Destinations
I've been debating Christians and theists solidly for the last two years, and I've learned a lot about my position and theirs.

Overall, theistic arguments appear driven by a need to reach a particular moral position. Specifically, theists demand that we have free will and can be held accountable against an objective morality reality. From my perspective, theistic positions are derived from deep fears about the consequences of moral relativism. Not that it's bad to fear consequences of ideology. After all, I feel the same way about their position. The difference between us is that I fear a particular moral epistemology, and they fear humanity. I'll try to explain.

I have yet to see any moral phenomenon that cannot be explained by a morally relativistic system. Under moral relativism, we expect to see the same police and legal institutions that we see today. This isn't obvious, and I think it is the fear that moral relativism will somehow discount law and order that prevents the theist from looking at the question dispassionately. Theists prefer that there be an absolute, black-and-white definition of good and evil. They are compelled to seek out objective moral systems because they don't trust humans to act benevolently without them.

Of course, if morality is objective, then there can be legitimate moral authorities in the same way that there can be legitimate scientific authorities. For example, when the scientific community demonstrates that power transmission lines are radiation-safe, I have good cause to believe them. At any time, I can investigate the scientific process that led to this conclusion, and verify its integrity. The science could be wrong, but I can exercise due diligence in certifying its conclusions as the best available answer.

Not so for morality. Religious morality is some combination of the moral feelings of authoritarian humans combined with the "revealed" moral feelings of a supernatural authoritarian figure. There's no transparency, and epistemic due-diligence is actively discouraged by religious moral authorities. Now, a religious system of morality might turn out to be liked by many people. It might even be humanistic from time to time. However, if it's right, then it's not right because the methodology was right. If the authoritarian methodology is right, then why fault Osama bin Laden et al for their murderous morality? They have as much claim to authoritarian moral truth as anybody else.

How are men persuaded to accept authoritarian moralities? (I mean in discourse, as opposed to at the point of a gun or by familial brainwashing.) "Vote for Jesus because then there won't be murders!" To call this circularity hare-brained would be an insult to leporids. If murder being subjectively bad is justification for a position, then one is acknowledging the value of subjective sentiment in setting policy. There's no need to import a lot of other childish and irrelevant baggage with common sentiment. Sexual freedom isn't intrinsically bad, women aren't intrinsically unclean or inferior, and undetectable beings don't exist.

Again, in argumentation, the only justification for moral positions come from subjective moral feelings. So how can theists assert that morality is objective? By rejecting the common definition of the word objective:
A proposition is objective when its truth is independent of what I, the observer, think it ought to be.
Question-begging? If you like, Mr. Theist, but what's your alternative definition of objective, and what follows from your alternative?

Meaning and Precision
The old canard about logical positivism is that its verifiability theory of meaning failed to meet its own criterion. I have dealt with this subject numerous times before, so I'll just write up a short outline.
The meaning of a proposition, p, are those experiences that are implied and those experiences that are denied by p's truth. Further, any proposition that fails to imply both compatibilities and incompatibilities has no truth value at all.
It's really quite simple. The meaning of "2 + 2 = 4" relates to the experiences we will have that are consistent or inconsistent with the claim. Specifically, if we add two and two and get five, that experience is inconsistent with the claim. If you assert that a jaguar is in my garage, I had better find a Jaguar brand vehicle, an Anglo-French ground attack fighter, or a big old panther (or perhaps a representation of one of these) sitting in my garage. If I fail to find one of these, I ought to regard your proposition as false.

However, if you provide me with a proposition for which no experience can alter my confidence in its truth, then you haven't given me a meaningful proposition at all. It's literally about nothing. It's nonsense. Even you don't really know what it means.

Well, this all sounds pretty straightforward, so what is the metaphysician's objection? His objection is that this claim about meaning is not itself verifiable. There is no experience that ought to convince us that this is the one, true definition of meaning. Well, duh! It's a definition, and there are no true definitions, only conventional ones. The issue is whether the definition is meaningful by its own standards, and it most certainly is. When I declare that some roses are red is a meaningful proposition, I know what experiences are compatible with the claim. To wit, that I will experience a partial enumeration of experiences that are compatible (and a partial enumeration of experiences incompatible) with the claim that some roses are red. Likewise, when I claim that God is good is meaningless, I mean that the speaker denies that there should be any experience that is ever inconsistent with the claim.

Once these ideas are presented to the theist, what response do I get? Usually my opponent is called away at this stage. Pressing affairs of state or somesuch. Sometimes, I might get a complaint that this definition begs the question against the metaphysical. Again, I'm honored that my arguments have been found to be logically sound. The ball is in the theist's court. Will I hear a refutation in the form of a meaningful proposition for which no consequence is implied? Nope. Do I hear an alternative definition of meaning that admits metaphysical claims? Nope. I think I hear crickets.

I Demand an Explanation!
Anyone who has visited my blog with any regularity (thanks to the both of you, BTW!) understands where I'm coming from.
An explanation is a set of facts and rules that preferentially predicts the observation that's being explained (the explicandum). That is, every explanation relies on some predictive law under which the prior conditions must (or preferentially) lead to what is actually observed.
Who named me the king of definitions, you might ask? Well, it's not just my definition, actually. Essentially, this is the definition of Hempel & Oppenheim.

"Begging the question!" shout the theists. "Of course God isn't explanatory by that definition of an explanation. No, there must be another definition that allows God to be explanatory!"

Yeah, well put up or end this pretense that theism is a rational enterprise. Under what definition of explanation is God explanatory? And, no, it cannot simply be an intuition. Intuition is not rational, not intersubjective and often wrong.

Conclusion
I'm not demanding that my opponents accept my definitions and my assumptions. Axioms cannot be proven. However, I like to think that my axioms do not extend beyond the bare minimum necessary for rational thought. These include logical consistency, that there exist discoverable laws, and that memory of experience is somewhat trustworthy.

[To clarify: I don't claim that every theory about our experiences should be trustworthy, only that we did actually have most of the experiences we think we did. A person's theory that Bigfoot trampled their peyote patch may not be true, but their vision of Bigfoot doing the mambo in their garden was actually experienced by them.]

What do I ask? I ask that my opponents make their definitions explicit. I ask that they honestly consider whether or not they can rationally live with their assumptions. If they accept such axioms, do they not open the door to beliefs that they find absurd or contradictory? If morality is objective, what isn't objective? If meaning has no fixed definition, is it impossible to mistake nonsense for meaningful content? How much pride should we feel in asserting an explanation that doesn't predict what's being explained? Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Reliability of Rationality Argument

For some reason, philosopher/theologian Alvin Plantinga is famous for his defenses of theism.

One argument that I've encountered once or twice is Plantinga's argument against naturalism. It argues that we should expect a low probability that evolution gave us reliable faculties for rational thought. The technical details of his argument have been well-refuted.

The first problem is that, frankly, human rationality isn't particularly reliable (as Plantinga himself demonstrates). However, any evolutionary process that creates thinking creatures is bound to create them with at least some rational capability. Without such capability, knowledge would be impossible, and the thinking process would have no advantage. In other words, it is all but certain that evolution would provide us with at least partial rationality.

Humans are capable of intuiting a distinction between the rational and irrational, and this provides a base from which they can amplify their rationality. This is much in the same way that humans find it difficult (non-intuitive) to do advanced mathematics, but they can succeed in this process through writing, symbolic manipulation and repetition. Thus, even having some rationality provides the necessary basis for high-reliability rationality.

The second problem is that Plantinga is claiming that we are more likely to be rational if theism is correct. This is rubbish. Introducing God removes any causal link between us and the deity that created us. Simply put, God isn't explanatory of our rationality because theism doesn't predict our rationality. As usual, theists can tune their theology so that we see what we see (e.g., humans are rational and fish aren't), but they never ever get any actual predictions, and their fine-tuned God accounts for exactly what we know to date, and never one thing more.

Responsibility Without Accountability

Hastert is playing the standard Republican game. Once found guilty of gross (even criminal) negligence, a Republican politician will make a public announcement accepting responsibility for his or her misdeed. However, the GOP pol will be very careful to avoid being held accountable for his actions. Responsibility without accountability. It's the new Republican motto.