22 October 2011

A few more thoughts on humanist community

While the twitter furor over the possible structures for a humanist community have settled down, my brain is still churning - because I see this as a design problem.  So whether you want them or not, here are some more thoughts on the matter.

I read with interest PZ Myer's post of 19 October, What #HumanistCommunity, and that got me thinking even more about the perceived and real mismatches between the (apparently) three camps - no structure, some structure, chaplaincy structure.

Off the top let me say that I'm with PZ on two specific points: the notion of atheist chaplains is absurd, and, as attributed to PZ in a comment "No gods, no masters, no dogma, and no goddamned priests…not even atheist priests."

Let's start with some comments.

PZ identifies some of Epstein's complaints.

  1. Other organizations, like SSA, are "loose knit."  PZ rightly questions why that is necessarily a bad thing. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a loose knit organization, so long as it's functional.
  2. The SSA apparently has no official format for minutes of meetings.  Again, so what, so long as the organization gets things done?  The question here revolves around the purpose of keeping standardized minutes.  If that purpose serves the overall goals of the organization, then there should be a standardized format.  Otherwise, it's absolutely unnecessarily (and probably harmful).
  3. While some SSA events are noted as "service projects," Epstein identifies others as "atheist proms."  This implies that service projects are more important than other events.  The question is, again, why?
  4. The SSA apparently retains no institutional memory, because, according to Epstein, "their membership turns over every four years." I will agree here that maintaining an institutional memory is important.  As Santayana put it, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.  But the membership turning over every four years is a stretching the facts a bit too far.  It may be true that most students will only spend four years in SSA, every senior student that graduates and leaves the Alliance can be replaced by a new freshman.  With a little mentoring, a very significant continuity can be maintained.
PZ then argues that a "[m]aybe a 'carefully thought out infrastructure' would be exactly the thing to crush the spirit of the movement."  This could very well be.  But what if the infrastructure were malleable?  What if it were fluid, emergent, and constantly evolving?  Couldn't such an infrastructure allow the efficiencies that all organizations need without crushing the spirit of the movement?

There's many types of organizational structures.  Why is that?

The flippant answer is: because we've not yet found the best structure.  Ha ha.  The problem is in defining "best" here, because what's best in one context isn't necessarily what's best in another.  A richer answer is this: each organizational structure is based on certain assumptions regarding the context in which the structure is to be used.  Different contexts will be best treated by different organizational structures.

One common feature of most organizational structures is that they implement a hierarchy of responsibility and control.  The problem, as I see it, with these conventional structures is that power (i.e. responsibility and control) is attached to a position in the hierarchy rather than the people who occupy those positions.  This enables the appointment or election of complete putzes to positions of significant power (think: George W. Bush).

If the humanist community is looking to do something new and meaningful, its members should attribute power where it best belongs: to individuals, not positions, based on the capabilities and expertise of those people.

PZ can advocate as strongly as he likes for no "masters," but masters do exist.  Few would argue, for example, with Stephen Hawking's leadership role among cosmologists, or with Frank Gehry's leadership in architecture, or Jerry Coyne's leadership in evolutionary biology, Or Muhammad Yunus's leadership in social business, or....  You get the picture.  A hierarchy does exist in science, in technology, and in the humanities.  But this hierarchy is not fixed by articles of incorporation or statutes of law.  This hierarchy is based on the merits of the individuals, and it changes - it evolves - in a very natural way that for the most part is driven by the work that individuals do.

Let's also consider the biomimetic notion that a well-functioning humanist community could be rather like an ecosystem, constituted of individuals that exist in a complex, fluid, and responsive structure - a structure that changes based on the needs of the moment.

So, while I'm with PZ that the rigid structure for which Epstein seems to advocate is very probably the worst structure that the humanist community could adopt, I can't exclude some other type of structure.

You'll note an underlying theme here; that an organizational structure is good when it is well-balanced with the environment in which the organization exists.  Its constitution and how it manifests is secondary to the purposes it is intended to achieve for the organization's members.  And since the environment changes, the structure must be able to respond and change with it.

So I still think that if the humanist community is to have a beneficial structure to it, it must be designed to achieve goals and to be responsive to environmental changes.

The first step in this process would be to identify and reach consensus on what those goals are.  I don't know what they are.  I have an idea of what I would think would be good goals, but I'm not right.  I know I'm not right because I know that others will have different goals.  We need to reach consensus on those goals before any resolution to the matter of organizational structure can be achieved.

One word of warning: it will likely be impossible to find a non-trivial set of goals that can be agreed to universally.  I would therefore expect the generation of criteria by which good goals can be identified based on local needs.  The goals of humanists living in the southern US states would likely be quite, though not entirely, different from the goals of Canadian humanists, or European humanists, or Japanese humanists.  The structure should be able to accommodate that localization of goals; in so doing, it would not only accommodate geographic and cultural differences, but also differences over time.

I personally find this enterprise fascinating and exciting.  It's a design problem - so I'm definitely "there" - but it's also a matter that I think could very dramatically improve the state of the world when we finally achieve it.

21 October 2011

Harold Camping was wrong. Again.

So, it's just past 10 am, 21 October 2011 in Toronto.

Harold Camping's third (or fourth, depending on how you count his attempts) prediction of the end of the world called for an apocalyptic wave travelling time zone by time zone around the Earth.

Well, it's already 22 October in parts of Australia, Russia, etc.  They're still there.  All of 'em.  Everything is just fine.

Maybe Camping's god got stuck in traffic or something.

This apocalypse stuff is, quite frankly, getting stupid.  How much money was wasted on Camping's stupid, childish bullshit?  Not to mention the poor schmucks who blew their life savings supporting Camping's crap, like this guy?

I'm convinced that Harold Camping is a criminal.  Specifically, I think he's guilty of fraud, which can be defined as "an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual."  It's ridiculous to think that someone can calculate, based on an obviously inaccurate set of documents (the bible or whatever the fuck Camping used).  It's certainly obvious now, after the fact, that he was wrong.  It's ridiculous to think that his intent was pure and not deceitful, because if his intent was pure, then he's nuts and should be locked away.  If he's not locked up (and he isn't), then he's not nuts, and therefore must be deceitful.

Given the huge amount of money spent promoting Camping's insane prediction ($100 million by some estimates), this is not just some petty fraud.  This is massive.  Indeed, even a christian has enumerated some of the things that could have been done with that much money.

Undergraduate students at my University pay something on the order of $7,000 a year in tuition.  $100 million dollars would provide completely free education for over 3,500 students.  I find that the education of 3,500 young people is superseded by the brain fart of some pathetic, ignorant shit-disturber like Harold Camping borders on a crime against humanity.

Here's a project for the atheist community world-wide: let's start pressuring governments to make failed predictions of the apocalypse criminal offences.  Let's make sure that anyone stupid enough to try it gets to pay, in kind, for their abhorrent fear-mongering.

And let's all take a moment to tell Harold Camping to fuck off.

19 October 2011

Structuring the humanist community. Or not.

There was a bit of a fuss on twitter today (19 October) about the kind of organizational structure that the humanist community should have.  Unfortunately I was teaching and so missed it, but I did catch a few of the later tweets.  I'll pitch out a few thoughts of my own, coming from a design background.

The basic argument seemed to involve not so much what structure one should expect for a functional humanist community, but rather whether there should be a structure at all.  This part of the discussion is well summarized by Leah Libresco.  PZ Myers tweeted and blogged about it a lot.  He was rather vocal, if I read him correctly, that no structure based on a hierarchy of positions that provide its holders with power is acceptable.  This a-structural approach flies in the face, as PZ himself notes, of religious hierarchies, but also of pretty much every other social organization - government, business, NGOs,....

There's two thoughts that come to mind.

Thought #1.

This one is rather obvious.  The real conversation is about institutionalizing positions in a hierarchy, and not whether any one person should "lead" any particular activity for any length of time.  What I suggest is that PZ is right on this point - if the humanist community is to learn from the mistakes of the past, it should seek are structures that do not institutionalize power.

I think Leah may have one very good idea in her references to the scientific community, in that leadership in science is generally based on merit, which in turn is based on performance, and that the positions themselves are fluid, responding to the needs of the moment, rather than being fixed by fiat based on the intentions of some relatively arbitrary group of "founders."  The structure needed, in this view, is not a structure of positions and power, but rather one of process.  That is, what's needed here is a process structure that defines how issues are identified, how temporary/local leadership is allocated, how projects start and end to address those issues, and how to rank the merit of individuals based on their records.  Such a system could be entirely fluid, yet support sufficient structure for any specific purpose to keep things organized.

My second thought is that some of the friction that occurred in the twitter discussion exists because there is an underlying, tacit disagreement on why a structure is needed.

This is where I get design-y.  You don't design something if you don't know what it's for.  Clearly, from the discussion - even just the teeny bit of it that I saw on twitter - it is evident to me that not enough discussion has been had about the purpose(s) an organizational structure would serve.  Too many things have been designed without purpose (my favorite example is the Apple Lisa).  Considering how much is at stake in defining any kind of structure for humanist communities, it rather behooves us to try to get it right the first time.

So I'd suggest that some effort should be expended to define, as crisply as possible, why some kind of structure is needed for humanist communities.  There's ways to do this.  I happen to know about those ways.  And though I may regret doing this, I would be happy to help with such an exercise, if there's enough interest.

Final thought: I find this whole discussion very interesting in that it is, as far as I can tell, something new and suggestive of a positive change in the humanist/atheist community.  Yay team!

09 October 2011

Theists love ad hominem arguments

So someone going by the name tarheeltroll on twitter posted this on 9 October:
"Atheists are overconfident narcissistic intellectuals who refuse to believe that anyone can be more omnipotent than them." (source)
I'm sure that there are some atheists that fit the description tarheeltroll proposes here.  But that also describes a certain number of people in any category, anywhere.

What concerns me is that tarheeltroll is missing the whole point of the atheist stance generally.  (This is not an uncommon argument raised by theists, so everything here applies not only to tarheeltroll, but to all other theists who use this kind of reasoning.)  And that point is this: we defer to the evidence, which exists outside of us.  If we have confidence in anything, it is that an objective universe exists, the operation of which we can understand.  This is itself evident from what we see around us.

I suppose one could argue that nothing is real and that everything is just illusion.  But if that's so then one who believes that may as well just do whatever the fuck one wants.  This will likely land one quickly in an asylum, and that will be that.

No, the only reasonable thing to do is to assume that what we perceive is (roughly) how things are.  From that assumption we build science, which lengthens our lives, increases its quality, and allows us to - in some tiny way - control the universe for our benefit (or harm).  If we accept anything science has to say, then we have to accept all of it, based on the evidence provided, until such time as a better explanation presents itself.

The evidence points quite strongly to there being no god.  If there were good evidence that some god or other existed, I'm quite sure it would be accepted.  But the evidence is lacking, and so one must set aside theistic beliefs if one accepts at all the notion of an objective universe.

It is also quite sad to see people like tarheeltroll conflate the atheist stance with atheists.  This is a very serious error in thinking.  Just as too many people conflate science, the sciences, and scientists (something about which I've written elsewhen), so too is the conflation of atheism and atheists rife with fallacy.  One does not discount mathematics because a mathematician made an error.  Similarly, one does not discount scientific knowledge because a scientist made an error.  To do so is a case of an ad hominem argument, which is by definition fallacious.

Regarding tarheeltroll, it doesn't matter what atheists are - it matters whether the atheist stance is better than the theist stance.  I wish theists would at least come to understand that, if anything, about atheism.

Harold Camping's special kind of bullshit

I've already written one open letter to the ridiculous Harold Camping.  I repeat it here, because this guy is a particular kind of jack-ass that deserves the most vulgar and vile derision we can possibly heap upon him.

For those of you who don't know, Camping is the witless wonder who was surprised ("flabbergasted" was his word) when the world didn't start ending last May 21.  He's rejigged his "calculations" and now he gets October 21 as the universal expiration date.  Before his last deadline, I wrote the above-noted blog, offering Camping a deal, wherein basically I become his god's fuck-buddy if he's right, but if he's wrong he owes me everything he has in this world.

I'm not surprised he didn't reply.  He probably didn't even find out about it.

But my hope springs eternal.  And since we've got another few days, I can hope that this time someone brings my post to his attention and that he accepts my challenge.

However, I want to change the deal.  If he's right, I still promise to be his god's fuck-buddy for eternity.  This is a pretty strong deal for an atheist to make.  In return, however, Camping can keep his worldly possessions.  Instead, if I win the wager, Camping has to pucker up and kiss my bare atheist ass, on camera, which I will then post.

So, Camping, have you any balls at all?  Or are you just a stupid coward like all the other doomsday sayers throughout history?  I think you're a demented waste of life.  Prove me wrong.