25 December 2013

PZ and me and Pope Frankie

This doesn't happen all the time, but I actually agree with PZ Myers opinion of Pope Frankie's latest and rather limp attempt to reconcile with non-Catholics.  I'd even go one step beyond PZ's assessment.

14 October 2013

A.C. Grayling's wonderful new book on humanism

I recently had the pleasure of reading A.C. Grayling's latest book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.  Grayling is a wonderful writer, creating prose that is rich with content while also being very easy to read.

24 September 2013

Faulty reasoning, faith, and belief

I've written a short note about faith, belief, knowledge, and trust on Google+ that describes how I take these four terms.  I think it's important to consider these four terms together to make sure that they are defined consistently with respect to one another.  Focusing exclusively only on any one of them opens one up to, I think, significant opportunity for reasoning errors.

02 September 2013

A great site about the Bible

I've often thought that what's really needed is some kind of collaborative platform specifically targeted at gathering the best possible arguments against theism of all sorts.  Yes, there's rationalwiki, but it deals with theism as a broader form of anti-science.  The point is to gather, in one place, all the best information there is.  I've found one such place that is surprisingly good - albeit still not complete: God Is Imaginary.

It's basically a reference guide to all kinds of arguments against the bible.  Naturally, this limits it to only certain kinds of theism, but it does cover a lot of ground.  It's a great reference source for humanists and atheists, but it's also sufficiently respectful that it might well be something we humanists should point to more often when we argue with theists.

I highly recommend God Is Imaginary.

17 August 2013

Swearing, cultural relativism, and religion

I blogged elsewhere about a book I must read: Melissa Mohr. 2013. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (available both on Google Play and Amazon).  Among other points made there is that culture influences substantially which words are regarded as taboo (and hence swear words) - and that these words change over time - even though we feel very visceral, innate revulsion to them.

Here, I wanted to make a specific comment about religion in light of that book:

According to certain theists, humanity is as their gods commanded.  So our limbic system (where swearing comes from) is their gods' work, and so is our capacity to swear, and also our capacity to be influenced by culture insofar (in this case) as what we learn as taboo.  But their gods also laid down strict laws (during various periods of history, but certainly during the Medieval period in Western history) essentially prohibiting us from being and acting as those very same gods made us.

I think those are some pretty fucked up gods.

16 June 2013

Are atheist immigrants unwelcome in the USA?

Chris Johnson's 64-year old stepmother applied for her US citizenship after 30 years of residency, but refused to "take up arms in defense of the United States" on moral grounds.  It turns out she's an atheist, so she could not object conscientiously on religious grounds.  Yet those are the only grounds that the pencil-pushers in the US government would allow.  (Details here.)  The FFRF has weighed in on the matter, and makes a compelling case for allowing her application.

I think some comments are in order.

First, of all - Bravo! to the woman who stood up for what is right.  The US would clearly be better off with more citizens like her, than with people like Rick Perry, Charles Manson, and Paris Hilton (i.e., useless wastes of life).

Next, there are some perfectly reasonable people about who have argued that she should have just checked the box, no matter what she believed.  I can respect that perspective, but I also worry about it.  I cannot speak to the woman's actual motivation for refusing to "check the box," but personally, I find it troubling.  If one really respects the nation one tries to join and the institutions of that nation - which are in many ways its most direct manifestations - then one really needs to answer truthfully. Getting citizenship is A Big Dealtm and being less than honest can place one on a slippery slope.  If one finds it possible to essentially lie on one's citizenship application, then how much easier will one find it to lie on other matters?  Multiply this effect across all immigrants to a nation, and one could see, over time, how that nation's citizenry could become polluted with liars.

Others have suggested that the real problem is the anachronistic phrasing of the requirements. Must one really "take up arms" in the sense of using weapons, or is it a matter of defending one's nation, adopted or otherwise, to the best of one's abilities?  I would like to think that the former is the more enlightened interpretation.  However, so long as statements require interpretation, there is the chance of misinterpretation, which would likely create more problems than it could possibly solve.  So perhaps it's time that Americans stopped dwelling on the actual words used and focused more on the ideas behind them.  Of course, that would require a kind of reflective intelligence and rationality that seems sorely lacking in some quarters (...cough - GOP - cough...).

Finally, it seems to me that there's a question of context.  What do Americans really aspire to these days?  Surely, the principles remain, but their implementation in practice and in law must adapt to modern times.  It strikes me that one of the reasons that so much manufacturing has moved to Asia that used to be done in the US is partly a function of the expectations of Americans.  Cannot they see that some of the problems they now face are obviously a result of actions that they themselves took, regardless of intention?  Cannot they learn from their mistakes?

In closing, I would suggest to Mr. Johnson's stepmother that, if things don't work out in the US, she should consider Canada.  We're much more flexible here. :-)

19 May 2013

A short note on gendercide, belief systems, and culture

This is a short note on the boundary layer between "gendercide" and diversity of belief systems, with particular reference to recent events in Canada.

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in Ottawa lately as another batch of simpleton "pro-lifers" try to raise the abortion question.  Again.  (For a summary, see this CBC article.)  Even accounting for the strategic change in language of anti-choicers - away from morality and towards human rights - it's the same tired old stuff.

What piqued my interest, though, is an aspect of the argument about gendercide - the aborting of female embryos and fetuses only because they're female - which it seems many, many people are strongly against.

Don't get me wrong - abortion only for the sake of eliminating a female child is certainly a despicable act because it implies that females are somehow undesirable.  But I don't think too many people have worked out some of the implications of making such a claim.  There's one implication in particular that I want to write about briefly here.

While some - perhaps many - women who abort embryos and fetuses based only on their gender, will be forced to do so by their spouses or families, there will also be some women who choose this course.  I don't know how many, but it stands to reason that there must be some.

The question is this: when a woman of (legally) sane mind chooses to abort a pregnancy because of gender alone (i.e. the woman is expecting a girl), which right trumps the other - gender equality or right-to-choose?  Clearly, it is gendercide by any reasonable definition.  And if, for the sake of argument, there are no external forces acting to coerce the woman, then it must be her choice.  So if she chooses to abort her pregnancy, then she's committing gendercide, but if she is prevented by law from committing gendercide, then she loses her right to choose.

Now, because we slavishly worship "privacy" unmediated by any sense of evidence-based decision-making, we really cannot ask the women to explain herself.  We would not know that she seeks to commit gendercide; we would simply have to take her word that she has legitimate (whatever that may mean) reasons to abort the preganacy.  This raises its own questions about how laws against gendercide could possibly be enforced, which in turn provides an out for anyone wishing to commit gendercide - simply claim that it's a private matter.  Let's set that aside as it regards the role of privacy in a successful society - which isn't the point of this post.

Let's say that, for some reason, the woman's rationale to commit gendercide is common knowledge - this puts us on the horns of the dilemma I've sketched above.  Let's also say that other options - e.g. (temporarily) moving to a country without gendercide laws - are excluded for various imaginable practical or ethical reasons.  If there is a law against gendercide, and if the rationale of the woman is known to be gendericidal, then she can either break the law or abdicate her right to choose, neither of which is a "good" outcome.

Some may think that I am artificially tightening the boundaries of the problem to ensure the outcome I desire.  While it is true that I'm artificially tightening the boundaries, it is not true that I'm trying to force a particular outcome.

My interest is to examine - and to promote discussion and thought about - the boundary layer between beliefs and actions in this case.  I know what I think on the matter (so far), but I'm not yet convinced that I'm correct, because I have not considered (nor am I especially sure I can consider) all the aspects that deserve study before setting some kind of norm on the matter.

I think the dilemma stems from not having taken into account the different cultural and other forces that cause the woman to believe that gendercide is acceptable.

The principal reason that certain groups in Canada are advocating for anti-gendercide laws is that gendercide appears to be quite common in cultures the members of which constitute a significant portion of immigrants into Canada these days.

So it may well be that the woman who chooses gendercide willingly and who would violate some future Canadian law by seeking it out, will face the dilemma because of the differences between her culture of origin and the culture here in Canada.

"Culture" is a messy word; it is often used to stand for vague and self-contradictory notions and claims.  While everyone claims to know it when they see it, very few can offer specifics in how to tell them apart or what are the triggers that cause "cultural changes."

A culture, as far as I can tell, is a systems concept, in that cultures can be nested hierarchically within one another based on shared attributes (hence, "subcultures").  I think a culture is really a collection of individuals who share a set of beliefs, behaviours, preferences, aesthetics, etc.  Since most cultural attributes can be described in terms of beliefs or behaviours (e.g. a preference that is not genetic or biological will, as far as I can tell, be based on some underlying belief), I tend to think of only belief and behaviour as the fundamental attributes that characterize cultures and distinguish one culture from another.  Sometimes, the beliefs upon which preferences (or aesthetics) are based may be lost in history; the belief has been forgotten because the preference is a more direct manifestation, which yields acceptable (or unacceptable) behaviours in the group.  In some cultures, for instance, men have a preference for women who seem "plump" by modern Western standards.  Exactly what belief underlies this is not clear - obviously those with that preference no longer know; only the preference remains.  Some have suggested that a preference for plumpness in prospective mates arises from a perception that such women will produce more healthy offspring.  If this is true, the need to produce offspring is obviously genetic, but the specific manifestation (plumpness in this case) is not.

So we have a confrontation between two cultures.  In one, gendercide is a norm; in the other it is not.  The gendercide/choice dilemma arises from overlapping the two.  But culture is based on belief - especially with respect to phenomena like gendercide - so the dilemma is really a conflict between two systems of belief.  Modern western sensibility dictates that men and women must be afforded identical rights.  However, cultures that tolerate gendercide are composed of individuals whose beliefs place women as secondary citizens (if as citizens at all).

Therefore, if we pass anti-gendercide laws, we are essentially telling immigrants that they must change their belief systems.  This is the point that I think not many people realize (yet) about the gendercide issue.  I also think that when they do reach this realization, it will give them pause.

Some may argue that in a truly free society, people should be able to believe whatever they want.  They tie this to a right of freedom.  But beliefs enable action.  Eventually, every belief will impact an action in some way.  The argument for approving of every belief runs counter to anti-gendercide laws, as I described above.   Those people are therefore left with the quandary: do they make gendercide illegal, or do they support completely open belief systems?

Fortunately, I think this is really a false dichotomy, and in particular, I do not think that anyone really wants their society to support a belief system that is completely open.  If it were completely open, then any belief at all would be as valuable and as meritorious as any other.

I think this is the case because it is already true.  There are some beliefs that are already known to be unacceptable for excellent reasons.  We already classify beliefs by whether they are reasonable or not - usually with respect to the behaviours that they enable or encourage.  The question is not whether we limit the range of acceptable beliefs, but rather where we draw the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable beliefs.

These boundaries must be placed justifiably - we must be able to explain why we've found the "right" demarcation of acceptability (recognizing, of course, that new evidence may invalidate those explanations and require the demarcations to be moved).  Thus, the boundaries of acceptable beliefs must be driven by evidence and reasoning.  Careful study will reveal, in most cases, what beliefs can drive/enable what behaviours.  We can evaluate the suitability of the behaviours - at least with respect to one another.  We can then determine which beliefs promote/enable/drive suitable behaviours.

Similarly, we can consider any given belief, reason out what behaviours it enables/drives, and use that analysis to determine the suitability of the belief.

I do not know for sure, but I suspect that no competent, reasonably well-educated person in a modern Western society would find acceptable the belief that female children are not "worth" as much as male children and can therefore be arbitrarily killed off before birth.  I certainly hold no such belief (indeed, as things stand today I cannot see gender playing any role whatsoever in establishing a person's "worth" - no matter how "worth" is defined).

So, here's what I think: gendercide is highly unethical and should be criminalized here in Canada (if it isn't already*).  And that implies that anyone intending to immigrate to Canada needs to understand that living here in our culture means abandoning the beliefs that gendercide is acceptable and that women are inferior to men.  I understand that such a change of mindset can be difficult, but it is necessary.  It's necessary because, as a society, we need to have as consistent a set of beliefs as possible.  Inconsistent belief sets lead to logical paradoxes that can, in turn, be used to justify pretty much anything.  And that would undermine the whole point.

* Some might argue that there are existing laws that cover gendercide; I leave such discussions aside because they all follow from accepting the claim that gendercide is unethical, which is the point here.

17 May 2013

God and insanity

In a recent study, researchers have found that belief in an "angry god" correlates strongly with mental illness.  Of various types of gods that were studied, "[b]elief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms."  Indeed, belief in a benevolent god was negatively associated with those four symptoms.

This just reinforces my notion that it's not a question of theist versus atheist, but of nutjob versus rational person.  And that tells me that humanists need to work more with the so-called moderates. It's the nutjobs that are really causing all the trouble - theist and atheist alike.  It's up to us rational types to sort this out - clearly they cannot and likely would not.

Rational argumentation and civilized discussion will never work with the nutjobs, by definition.  We need to convince the moderates that the world will be a better place for everyone if we can properly marginalize - and hopefully institutionalize - the nutjobs.

03 May 2013

Why Murder is "Bad"

I'm going to propose a rationale for why we believe murder is bad.  I am convinced that one can define the "badness" of murder by appealing only to what we know about how humans evolved and how humans interact.  I don't think anyone has demonstrated this claim scientifically yet, and I am not the one qualified to conduct those studies.  I know there's a body of work on evolutionary theories of morality, but I've had little chance to read much of it.  Still, the hypothesis is, I think, reasonable, and until it is falsified seems quite sufficient (to me, at least) to form an ethical foundation.  The underlying goal here is to suggest that all morality is really driven by socialized, evolved instinct.  I'm starting here with a fairly plain example just to try to keep things simple.

Let's define murder, for the sake of this discussion, as the intentional killing of a human being.  One may quibble about some of the boundary conditions - such as what exactly is a human being, or what constitutes intent - but these will not affect the core definition.

In a population where murder is common, individuals will feel highly stressed.  This stress lowers the overall energy an individual can devote to reproduction.  Entities that do not fear the risks associated with common and deadly circumstances will not avoid such circumstances, and will fall prey to them more often than those who avoid them.  Over time, those individuals whose genes confer on them a fear of deadly circumstances will overwhelm those whose genes do not confer such fear.  There's nothing magical here; it's just evolution.

Organisms also evolved to be empathic - that is, to feel for other organisms as if the experiences of others were their own.  It is often most vividly experienced between parents and off-spring, but also exists to lesser degrees in humans towards virtually any other life-form that exhibits anything remotely likely "human" behaviour.  Empathy again can be viewed as providing evolutionary advantage, especially in herd/social animals like humans, in two ways.  First, empathy drives us to care for the social group, which increases the odds of survival and reproduction of all members.  Second, the safety of the group helps lower the stress of the individual.  By lowering stress, all the group members increase the odds of survival and reproduction.

These stresses are innate and deeply visceral, extending back probably hundreds of millions of years; there's precious little an individual can do against them.  But one can act to remove the triggers that cause those stresses - like working towards situations where murder is not common.

So organisms started to act so as to lower those stresses.  Over the aeons, various actions that lowered the causes of those stressors gave subtle advantages to those organisms that took those actions and let them slowly overwhelm other organisms.  These actions started to form sets of behaviours that distinguished one group from another.

Of course, there's substantial variability in those norms among individuals in a group.  There will always be variability.  With respect to the example of murder, different people will have slightly different norms about how "bad" it is.  What effects that variability has on matters is something best left to future posts.

Humans, and a few other species, also learned to reason - that is, there evolved in them abilities to think temporally and abstractly, to plan, to induct and deduct consequences of actions without necessarily actually executing them, and to generalize from specific cases.  Most importantly, they evolved the ability to reflect - to think about those mental models that include their selves.  Humans seem particularly good at reasoning compared to most other species.  This ability to reason led to the development of abstract concepts, like "murder," "good," and "evil," and so on, which then opened the possibility of developing principles of behaviour that encapsulated all the unconscious, instinctive, and evolved abilities that came from our more primitive predecessors.  Different belief systems of these abstract concepts will introduce further variability in the behavioural norms, but it seems to always be variation on a theme.

Here enters "socialization."  As norms within a social group are developed, new generations of individuals are indoctrinated into those norms.  They spend their formative years surrounded by them, informed by them, rewarded and punished in accordance with them.  As they mature, those norms become internalized, and provide a context for assessing what is "good" and "bad."  By adopting and internalizing the norms of one's social group, one helps ensure one's "security," which lowers one's stress, which forms a positive feedback loop with the underlying evolved instincts at work.  These norms reinforce and often tweak the innate and evolved instincts that we all have.  Nowhere is the impact of socialization more obvious than in the clashes that occur between different cultures (where a "culture" could well be defined as a group with a uniform set of social norms.)  Socialization will add yet more variability to the behavioural norms.

Still, some norms are so basic, so rooted in our evolved instincts, that they are universally adopted.

Thus, "murder is bad" remains a justified and reasonable generalization that accounts for most cases of "murder," in most cultures.  If there are exceptions (I don't know of any), then they must be explained for this theory of mine to make sense.  But that too goes beyond the draft I want to present here.

This view also impacts on the notion of "moral absolutism."  The absolutist position is that some actions are always right or wrong, regardless of circumstance.  The question that arises, though, is what exactly is meant by absolutism.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the view that I describe above is correct.  In that case, one might limit "absolutism" to the extent that it's domain is bounded by the limits of our evolution and socialization.  So insofar as we all share a common evolution, we can safely say that, at least as far as "life on earth" is concerned, there is such a thing as moral absolutism, and that it is grounded in the mechanisms of evolution and the specific instincts that we have.

But that's not really absolutism, is it?

Indeed, I think there's no such thing as true absolutism.  I cannot think of a single thing, phenomenon, or entity in the known universe that, on sufficiently close study, is absolute.  One might suggest concepts like absolute zero, but even that is bounded by the nature of our universe.  And as it's not clear that our universe is the only one there is, then we cannot really say (yet) whether absolute zero is anything more than a measure of a characteristic relative to our universe.

Whether absolutism, in morality or anything else, really exists, however, is rather beside the point here.  More important is why we bother with morality to begin with.  Why all the fuss about it?  Why do so many people get so upset when "immoral acts" are committed?  Why have there been so many books written about it?  Why have so many individuals suffered as a result of acting in an "immoral" way?

Again, it comes back to safety and stress.  The only reason I can see why anyone cares about morality at all is that a moral group is a group that is safer for its members, which lowers stress and increases the odds of continued existence.  Morality is the means by which we put into thought and into words the instincts that have evolved in us, and that we cannot possibly avoid.

And it doesn't just apply to murder.  As far as I can tell, there is no act carried out by a human that doesn't conform in some way to an instinctive drive mediated/tweaked/altered by socialization.