Friday, June 8, 2012

From redefining the nature of physics to a janky watch: The disappointment inherent in resolving anomolous data.

So, finally, according to this article from Scientific American, the explanation for the potentially world shaking apparent observation of neutrinos traveling through space faster than light, is of the mundane variety which we all felt was certainly most  probable. Namely, a faulty element in the experiment's fiber-optic timing system.
However, even though the data turned out to be a dud, good can come out of this and situations like this. Between the period that the anomaly was reported and the explanation confirmed all of us who are fascinated by the possibilities began to think "What if?" And that simple question, that basic thought experiment is a potential motivator of advancement and innovation with more potential energy than any single super collision might utilize.
It is the core of science to see something that intrigues you and try to explain it asking yourself what if this? what if that? and through empirical research we gather data to help us to determine which what if is. Even in its failures science succeeds, even in its disappointments science inspires.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Yeah, That's the Ticket...

I just read this article from Colorado's Daily Sentinel.
Since when do homicide detectives buy the "I thought her head was a bird." excuse for shooting people in the head. Does anybody else get the feeling that the authorities' estimation of the worth and character of the victim went farther than their drive for impartial justice in this case? Five years probation? The victim would have got a harsher sentence for possession of the meth bag they found.
Lady Justice's blindfold must've been out at the dry-cleaner's that day.

Friday, December 16, 2011

RIP Christopher Hitchens





Christopher Hitchens has passed away and the world is a bit the worse, a bit less sane, a bit less witty, for his absence. I just hope no windbag religious zealots take advantage of this tragedy to bloviate on about God's justice for the blasphemers... or that any viral emails start popping up talking about a deathbed conversion... Although I certainly did not agree with several of his views, his legacy deserves a more respectful treatment.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Was I Going To Write About?

There's an interesting little article about a study having to do with "room amnesia" in the new Scientific American. It's always great when I can shift the blame for some brain SNAFU from myself onto something external like those damned doorways...
Check it out...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reason 101

I just found this video by Brian Dunning, the producer of the Skeptoid podcast and website:
If you are someone who thinks that scientific evidence-based reasoning is just one of several valid methods of finding truth please take the 40 minutes to watch this basic intro to critical thinking. When you start to realize how irrational and fallible your belief-generating methods are and start to feel uncomfortable with that idea, check out the Skeptoid podcast where he covers topics with a little more depth.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Still Faster Than A Speeding Photon?


According to a New York Times article I just read describing a paper on the results of a second experiment done by the OPERA project at CERN to verify the potentially universe-shaking results of an earlier experiment which observed neutrinos seemingly moving faster than the speed of light, they have been able to repeat the outcome after adjusting the experiment slightly to remove some potential causes of error.
Of course it hasn't been positively verified, yet, but neither has it been easily explained by some obvious and easily corrected mistake in the experiment's protocols, which I think most people probably expected to happen. Unexpected, theoretically impossible results like this send the mind reeling and it appears as though they will keep reeling for a while longer at least until the speed of the neutrinos can be positively verified.

Then again... maybe not. Just as I was about to post this I noticed this new article from Reuters.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chicken Pox Lolipops


This anti-vaccine bullshit is getting out of control. I just heard a report about anti-vaccine parents swapping chicken pox infected lollipops through the mail so they could purposely infect their children with a potentially lethal virus. Considering the fact that there is a safe and effective vaccine in existence which protects against chicken-pox, it's my considered opinion that these parents should be prosecuted for criminal negligence and/or assault/child abuse. This kind of anti-science attitude seems to me to be almost a type of delusional thinking or mental illness in that it is a denial of reality which interferes with ones ability to make rational choices. The science denier, it seems to me, is just as big, if not bigger, a threat to the safety of their child than a paranoid schizophrenic or bipolar manic.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reformed Epistemology

I just listened to episode 13 of the Fundamentally Flawed podcast which contains a debate between two of the atheist hosts debating two Christian presuppositional apologists including Sye TenBruggencate, the creator of the proofthatgodexists.org website. Mr. TenBruggencate is an adherent of the school of apologetics known as presuppositionalism or reformed epistemology. Basically, the argument goes that the fact that we are capable of knowing anything for certain can only be explained by the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being who has revealed knowledge to us. Without God as the foundation for all rationality, logic, morality, etc. we have nothing to justify our belief in these things. So long as we admit that we do not know everything, there remains the possibility that what we do not know contradicts what we think we do know. Therefore, the presuppositionalist claims, the only way we can know anything is either if we know everything or if something is revealed to us by a being who does know everything. To any atheist who claims that their knowledge is based on the evidence of their senses, their reason and their memory the apologist will point out that you must appeal to these very things to justify their validity, a circular argument.
Although I've heard a couple debates between atheists and presuppositional apologists, I've yet to hear one where the atheist answers the argument satisfactorily. But it seems clear how to refute the argument. This argument is based on the foundation for absolute knowledge; the presuppositionalist claims that if God did not exist we could not know anything with absolute certainty. He argues that this is an argument in favor of God's existence because in our day-to-day life we all talk and act as if we know at least some things for certain. But I think it is actually a powerful argument against the existence of God because I think it is fairly obvious that nothing can be known with absolute certainty. At this point the apologist would say to me "Are you absolutely certain we can't know anything with absolute certainty?" To which I would respond "No, I am convinced to within a reasonable margin of error to base my behavior on the belief." Such is the nature of all knowledge, absolute certainty is not required nor is it obtained. Yet the apologist would take my admission as his victory, since he has shown that my beliefs are not certainties, while his, he believes, are, he takes this as evidence that his beliefs are truer than mine, but this does not follow. Those who are most certain about the truth of their beliefs are often the mad and fanatical, they are also most likely to be wrong. Certainty of belief is not positively correlated with likelihood of truth. Yet this fact is lost on the presuppositionalist. And his strange insistence on the necessity for certainty in order to claim knowledge is, I think, common among the typical religious believer. There is no end to the arguments the religious throw at the atheist but chief among their objections you will often find a deep-seated emotional aversion to uncertainty. This attitude is also common among the anti-scientific. Science, they complain, keeps changing. Theories are constantly being updated to better account for new data. How, they wonder, can anyone live with a world-view based on such a shifting foundation? It's much more sturdy to stand on a perfect book that has barely changed for 3000 years and is chock-full of certainties and absolutes.
The presuppositional apologists should realize that fervor does not indicate fact, and a little uncertainty can be good for you.

A Funny God Joke By Stephen Colbert

Tonight on The Colbert Report Stephen had Father Jim Martin on talking about humor's place in religion, he told this joke: A man kills himself and goes to Heaven, He meets God and he says "Wow, I never expected this, first of all I didn't believe in God, and second, I thought killing yourself damned you to hell." God says "No, it's a complex issue. At some point everybody thinks about ending it all, to tell you the truth, even I have thought about it." Surprised, the guy says "Really? Can I ask you why you ended up not doing it?" And God says to him "What if this is all there is?"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I, Robot: The Evidence For Determinism Is Mounting


The scientific evidence coming from the fields of neuropsychology and the other cognitive sciences continues to support the deterministic model of cognition and decision making behaviors. The latest is a study by Anita Eerland, a psychologist at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and colleagues Tulio Guadalupe and Rolf Zwaan, which shows that how you are physically positioned can have effects on your cognition, specifically your estimates of quantities like sizes, numbers or percentages.
This study joins the already overwhelming, yet constantly growing, number of studies into phenomena such as psychological priming, which seem to indicate fairly conclusively that what we innately consider to be a rational and internally transparent process by which we make decisions based on known evidence and self-evident motivations is actually a much more irrational, emotional, complex, opaque and ultimately deterministic process.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Not Just Unintelligible Nonsense, But Indignant Unintelligible Nonsense

I think that the anti-intellectual movement in the republican party has turned into stupidity worship. Case in point: check out this clip of Herman Cain becoming indignant when interviewer John Stossel can't decipher his nonsensical self-contradictory babble.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Income Disparity Versus Class Warfare


Yesterday I heard an interview on my local public radio station with congresspeople giving their opinions on the occupy wall street protests. There was one Democratic Congressman who expressed sympathy for the complaints of those involved in the protests and went on to list a few things that he saw as problems which justified the anger of the protesters. Among these so-called problems he quoted a statistic from a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office indicating that in the last thirty years the income level of the top one percent of earners in the U.S, has increased by 275 percent. That's it. The problem I have is that that statistic on its own is not a "problem" or indeed a negative in any way, unless you are engaged in the "class warfare" that has been decried by republicans. The fact that the super-wealthy are doing better  is only a problem if you are opposed to the super-wealthy on principle.
The real problem raised by the statistics revealed in the C.B.O. report isn't that the income of the super wealthy has increased so drastically, it's that the income of the other 99 percent hasn't kept pace with the top one percent. The Congressman should have given the statistics of the relatively minuscule increase in income among the low earning population and claimed the problem was an income disparity in the U.S. that is comparable to countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Ecuador and Cameroon.
The problem is not that the rich are doing so well, the problem is that everyone else is doing so poorly.

Monday, October 17, 2011

String Theory And Dark Matter?

I should start this post by saying I am not an astrophysicist. I have a basic level of understanding compatible with my status as an interested lay person, so I could be talking out of my ass here. But I have been struck many times while studying the principles of string theory or M theory that it could have a built in explanation for the problem of the universe's missing mass or dark matter. The first time this idea came to me was when I noticed a corollary between the ratio of normal matter to dark matter and the ratio of the dimensions that we experience and the theoretical unexperienced dimensions integral to string theory. So I wondered if the missing mass we call dark matter is actually the gravitational signature of matter contained within these dimensions that we do not have experiential access to, but which string theory posits. This idea re-occurred to me today when I was listening to an interview with Brian Greene on Michio Kaku's podcast Exploration from 9/27. In this interview Brian Greene explains that in string theory the only one of the four essential forces which is transmitted through the extra dimensions is gravity.
I don't know, does anyone know if this has been considered or if it is even possible? Anyone have any info along these lines?

Naturalism, Supernaturalism and God

I actually originally wrote the following post as a comment on this post at PZ Myers' blog pharyngula, but I decided to repost it here too:
I think there is one issue relating to the non-destructive elements of religion that is all but ignored by the new atheists, namely the belief in a non-supernatural (read natural) God of the sort espoused by Einstein, Spinoza and many many other scientists, empiricists and science-minded lay people. These believers think that the conception of God adds something to their understanding of the universe, even if, at its core, the concept is mainly metaphorical or poetic. There are several different concepts of God which are perfectly compatible with the naturalistic world view.
It seems to me that the real "enemy" is supernaturalism or even faulty/poorly maintained/poorly constructed belief generating mechanisms. You're not gonna find any non-realists on God or pantheists flying planes into buildings, trying to teach your children fairy tales as science, or insisting on the divine authority of scripture. Yet even Einstein, one of the best minds man has ever produced found his understanding of the universe incomplete without some concept of God.
So long as there are believers in the supernatural the naturalism/supernaturalism debate may take precedence over the debate over whether room should be made within the naturalistic world-view for the explanatory frame-work of a natural conception of God, but this will have to be addressed. And it is my belief that without the need to defend against God's supernatural implications many self-styled atheists may find that the addition of a natural God does add something valuable to their world view, even if that value is mainly in God's symbolism, metaphor or poetry.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Disturbing Implications Of Answered Prayer



Intricately related to the philosophical problems presented by Just World Theory, which I discussed in the previous post, are those involved in belief in answered prayer.
For those who believe in a supernatural, personal God who is able to act in the universe in ways which contravene the laws of nature and who can be petitioned for favors and guidance, the issue of His apparent unwillingness to concede to the majority of prayer requests must be addressed. Many believers in petitionary prayer rationalize this failure by evoking God's mysterious and incomprehensible nature. All prayers are answered, they claim, it's just that sometimes the answer is no.
The problem arises when the random chance outcomes of situations are attributed to God's will or likewise, when God's will is seen as discernible in the petitionary prayers which appear to be granted.
How often do we see celebrities attributing their successes to the will of God, thanking Him for an Oscar or a Super Bowl win? Or in more serious matters, how often do we see the survivors of tragedies attributing their miraculous survival to God or answered prayer? The problem with this kind of thinking is that by claiming divine sanction of your success you are also claiming divine sanction of others' failures. If God really did want your football team to win the Super Bowl, He wanted the other team to lose, and couldn't He have used his omnipotence in a more productive manner than assuring the outcome of a sporting event? If God really was answering the prayers of the single survivor of a plane crash, why did He refuse the prayers of those who perished?
In short, it paints a picture of an extremely arbitrary and ultimately unfair God to claim that He answers prayers sporadically. If He were just and kind and concerned with our well-being, shouldn't He grant all prayers which are asked with good will and a humble heart?
Before we are willing to attribute the odd unexpected beneficial outcome to God's will or answered prayer, we should stop to think what that claim says about negative outcomes as well as about the character of an omnipotent being which would allow them.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Insidious Effects Of Just World Belief


There is some good evidence that the processes and states of being that we label as mind, and which appear to be tied to the evolutionary adaptation of our brains, have a natural tendency to produce transcendental experiences that we commonly label as "spiritual" or "religious". These often include a sense of the universal interconnectedness of all things and all life in particular, a sense of some greater enigma which we cannot convincingly describe let alone try to un-puzzle. Often these feelings act in concert with the other natural tendencies of our minds toward pattern-recognition (the ability to see meaning in seemingly random or disparate input), agency attribution (the tendency to see events as the result of the action of a "person" or actor), and obedience to authority. In this way they produce, or lend weight to, a world-view dominated by (a) benevolent God/god(s).
One of the deepest philosophical conundrums that man has faced since he has tried to use the powers of his mind to understand the universe in which he found himself, is the need to reconcile the deeply felt belief in the benevolence of God, with the empirically undeniable proliferation of suffering among sentient beings. How we bring these beliefs into harmony can have dramatic effects on how we see and behave toward the world and its inhabitants.
Just World Belief is the idea (whether conscious or latent) that, despite appearances to the contrary, the universe is actually, ultimately, perfectly just. The belief is formulated in a wide variety of ways. The New Age belief in karma formulates Just World Belief in a straightforward manner by asserting that all negative actions will eventually have proportionately negative consequences on the actor; likewise, all positive actions produce positive rewards. Usually a belief in reincarnation is necessary to harmonize a belief in karma with the overwhelming countervailing evidence; although we see cases of evil men profiting by their evil actions and dying old, fat, happy and unpunished, and cases of the innocent and good living and dying unjustly in agony, it is said they will get their reward or punishment in the next life. The traditional formulation of heaven and hell afterlives follows a similar line of thought but with the proportion of reward and punishment noticeably absent.
An interesting and instructive misfit example is the formulation found in the Hebrew Scriptures of the so-called Old Testament. With no substantive mentions of a coherent afterlife, let alone reincarnation, found in the Jewish Bible, we are left with the continuously arising problem of how to explain the profound injustices experienced in life in light of an all-powerful and all-good God. In response to this problem, the Bible develops and reinforces a robust Just World Belief. Those who please God are rewarded by God, those who displease Him are punished, both in this life. If a person is sick or disabled it is evidence that they have displeased God. Likewise, if a person is wealthy, healthy and successful it is evidence that they have pleased God. God is in charge of all things, He numbers even the hairs on our heads, nothing happens in the universe without His sanction, since God is all good, the world must be just. The result of the uniform application of this kind of Just World Theory is the noticeably harsh character attributed to God in the Old Testament. After all, only a harsh character would enforce such unreasonable punishments for arbitrary infractions while offering equally disproportionate rewards for equally arbitrary pleasing actions. Why was the most pious man in the village struck with agonizing bloody diarrhea death? He must have given the wrong sacrifice, or maybe he was secretly proud-hearted. Why has the town lush and adulterer just inherited a fortune? Maybe he was repentant, or had a humble heart or something. One thing, however, was necessarily true: they both deserved it.
And this gets us to the heart of the insidiousness of Just World Belief. Whether it is explicit or latent, the belief promotes the idea that we need not fight against suffering because it is deserved. In fact helping the suffering may even be controverting God's justice. In the same way, this belief leads to an unhealthy idolization of the worldly successful since their worldly success is seen as just rewards of some elusive God-pleasing characteristic.
We ought to examine our beliefs to see if we are influenced by this bias and, if so, examine the justification for such a belief. With the proliferation of world-views and philosophies which include Just World Belief as an underlying foundation, such as libertarianism and other forms of political conservatism, the New Age visualization techniques around the over-hyped book The Gift, as well as the traditional formulations in the world's great religions, we have reason to stand up for reality based world-views as the necessary bare minimum foundation for the truest formulations of ethics and philosophy

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More On The Amazing Wrasse

It turns out that the coral reef fish genus known as the wrasse is even more interesting than I realized when I wrote this post about their amazing ability to change sexes when the male leader of a harem dies. I read in this article, that a paper was published this week in the journal Coral Reefs by Giacomo Bernardi, UCSC professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, which included this video of tool use by a wrasse to crush clam shells.


Well, either that or he's just enjoying a solitary game of clam racquetball.
The animal kingdom never ceases to amaze and delight.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Spirit Molecule


The mystery of the evolutionary purpose of endogenous DMT and the implications of its presence in most organisms is an intriguing dilemma. I first learned about it a decade ago by reading a book by Rick Strassman called DMT: The Spirit Molecule.
Well now they've made a movie about it. Check it out here. Very interesting. No doubt there is some kind of neurophysiological basis to mystical experience. Is this it?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

And Then My Brain Exploded...


This blew my mind. As described in this paper, scientists at U.C. Berkley were able to construct the video on the right from the signals generated from the brains of subjects in fMRIs that were shown the original video on the left. I don't know what to say about this.
(If you can't see the video above try clicking on this link.)

Faster Than A Speeding Photon?


According to our best theories of physics, nothing can travel through space faster than the speed of light, this is integral to Einstein's theory of relativity. That's why the news from the OPERA collaboration at CERN that an experiment has observed neutrinos apparently traveling faster than the speed of light is so mind-blowing. Of course, as often happens in science, when experimental results tend to defy well-evidenced and generally-accepted scientific theories, this is much more likely the result of an error in the experiment or its interpretation. It is unlikely that the neutrinos in question actually did travel faster than light speed, but one of the things that science does really well is to find its own mistakes. And considering the earth shattering implications of this finding should it be confirmed, there are no doubt multitudes of particle physicists dissecting the data and trying to confirm or disprove the results.
Nonetheless, it is an awe-inspiring prospect to consider the implications of faster than light neutrinos. Not being a physicist myself I don't have the best grasp on all of the details, but even from a lay perspective the implications make my mind reel. Going against relativity, faster than light travel destroys the idea of causality, that an effect can not precede a cause. Causality is the basis for all science. Faster than light travel opens the door to time travel. As Einstein described, the faster we move relative to something else the slower our time moves in relation to that time. At the speed of light, it is thought that time "stops", it does not move forward. Presumably then, moving faster than light would cause time to go backward.
These results, if accurate, would shake the physical sciences to their core. However, applying the very scientific principle of Ockham's razor, which is the simpler explanation: that a century of scientific evidence and theory are mistaken, or that an experiment got screwed up? Regardless of whether the results turn out to actually turn physics on its head, it is mind-expanding to consider the possibilities. Call it a thought experiment.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Executions, One Protest

On Wednesday night there were two men executed by the apparatus of State in America, Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Russell Brewer in Texas, but we only paid attention to one of them. The point is made clearly and saliently in this post over at the religionatthemargins.com blog. One person murdered in my name for any reason is one too many people murdered in my name.

Everyone Is Biased But Me. But Me?

Okay, so the overwhelming preponderance of evidence from the neuropsychological sciences seems to tell us that human cognition is susceptible to a variety of biases, defects and logical fallacies which make our beliefs not the product of dispassionate rational analysis of the available objective evidence, but rather the pre-decided prejudices of the sum of our biases and a myriad of other subtle deterministic influences. We've all learned from everyday experience how irrational people can be, how biased people are and how those biases corrupt their ability to evaluate data and reach the right conclusions. And what are the right conclusions? Why they are my conclusions of course, because I am the only one who is not susceptible to bias and irrationality. I have access to my cognitive processes, so I would know if I was biased.
I find evidence of my belief in the superior purity of my own cognition every time I hear a study of priming or other non-rational psychological influences. Maybe studies of priming do show that people's judgements about the character of people in pictures shown to them could be influenced by the temperature of a cup they held for a few seconds before making the judgement, but if I was in the study I wouldn't have done the same thing.
I'm not biased like everyone else. And, yeah, I know everyone else thinks the same thing, but in my case it's really true. This is the background assumption that I and many others carry, but obviously it's ridiculous. And a few days ago I finally caught myself in the act and discovered a concrete example of biased thinking. I was listening to an editorial on NPR about the role of government in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in green energy technology. The speaker was arguing that the government could and should not act as venture capitalist in investing in new green technologies. He argued that government had a role in funding research, in passing regulations etc. but it would be a mistake to invest in start up companies because the purpose of the venture capital investor was to get a return on their investment, but the purpose of the government in the investment of venture capital would be manifold, including promoting energy independence, creating jobs, stimulating the economy as well as receiving a return on its investment. I didn't know who it was who was speaking but what he was saying seemed to make sense to me and I had a generally favorable impression of his arguments. Then the segment ended and I learned that he had been an economic advisor to George Bush. Immediately my assessment of the value of his ideas dropped. I turned a harshly skeptical eye to the argument and decided that more research was needed before I could agree with or dismiss the idea. It was amazing how dramatic and immediate the change in attitude was and this shift was based purely on bias divorced entirely from reason.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that these situations where I actually consciously notice the action of bias in my thought processes are so rare and I am pretty sure that this is not an indication of the rarity of bias but rather the rarity of its discovery. Until I can increase my ability to recognize bias when it corrupts my reasoning, the fight to exile bias from my belief generating mechanisms will be futile. To strive for rationality one must not only examine the evidence and the arguments, one must also examine the processes that are at work within us while we are examining and assessing the evidence. After all, every one is biased, especially me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Death Penalty Research Paper

Considering the travesty of justice which occurred tonight in Georgia, I thought I'd post a research paper I wrote about the Death Penalty for an English course I took a few years ago. The statistics may be a few years out of date, but I think the sentiment is as timely as ever.


Patriotic Shame


After a delay from the scheduled time of 7:00pm, during which the Supreme Court declined to issue a last-minute stay so that an appeal could be considered, at 11:08pm local time in Georgia behind several thick, high walls and razor-wire of the Georgia Correctional Facility as well as a single-file line of body-armored riot-control police, my country's government executed a man for a crime, of which he could not be convicted today given the state of the evidence against him. Seven of nine witnesses who testified against Troy Davis have since recanted their testimony and claimed that they were pressured to testify falsely by police, and one of the remaining two was accused by the defense of truly committing the crime. Ballistic evidence has also been called into question. Five of the jurors who convicted him said they wouldn't have, given the new evidence. Personally, I believe the drastic consequences of mistakes in capital cases make capital punishment morally impermissible under all circumstances. The practice of law is undertaken by human beings who are prone to making mistakes. Mistakes are unavoidable. Since the consequences of possible mistakes in a system which applies the death penalty include the execution of potentially innocent defendants, it is morally equivalent to murder to proceed with such a system.
Today I am ashamed of my country.

The Wall


The state of Georgia is now waiting to execute wrongfully convicted Troy Davis until it hears about the status of the last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States submitted by the defense. The 7:00pm eastern time at which the execution was to take place has come and gone. Troy Davis refused the privilege of a specially ordered last meal and ate the regular prison meal in preparation for his death.
The psychological torture being inflicted by this process is beyond my power to imagine. I recall Sartre's story "The Wall" told from the perspective of a condemned prisoner, or the story about Dostoyevsky's experience in prison when he was told he was going to be executed, marched out to a shooting squad, who were ordered to take aim, then at the last minute, the sentence having been commuted, he was sent back to his cell.
If Troy Davis does manage to avoid the death chamber, he will no doubt be struggling with the psychological scars of this torture for the rest of his life.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Problem With The Trolley Problem



The so-called "Trolley Problem" in experimental philosophy, which I discussed in this post, is considered a problem because it seems to demonstrate that our moral judgements tend to be irrational.
Since there is no material difference between the results of acting in both situations (in both instances one person is sacrificed to save five), we would expect no difference in the moral judgement. The problem is that is not what we see. Nearly ninety-five percent of people will claim that throwing the switch to redirect the trolley from the track with five people to the track with one person is morally obligatory, it would be abominable not to. Yet the same percentage of people claim that throwing the one fat man in front of the trolley to save the five people is morally unjustified, it would be abominable to do so.
The traditional explanation that philosophers give in response to the trolley problem is evolutionary. They claim that moral judgements tend to take the form of internal power struggles between different evolutionary drives. In the first situation we are governed by the rational, computational part of the brain. It deals with the numbers, compares one death to five and answers accordingly. In the second hypothetical it is claimed that this part of our brain is challenged and overcome by the more primitive emotional part of the brain which deals with feeling and yells at us "Don't push human beings to their deaths!".
Another, less popular, explanation forgoes the evolutionary and schizoid narratives and simply claims that there is a difference in the two hypotheticals in the depth of emotional salience. There is an immediacy to the action of pushing someone to their death that makes it difficult to mitigate the moral consequences to the conscience.
I'm not entirely sure that the differences between the two explanations go too much further than semantics, although I think the second explanation better frames the issue. The same kind of tension can be seen in many moral judgements, and I think the more examples we examine the better the issue comes into focus.
What does the omnivore say when asked about the morality of animal sacrifice? I believe there is an analogous tension between peoples moral judgement on whether it's right to eat meat, which most people have no moral qualms with, and moral judgement of animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice is just a way of ritualizing the slaughter of food animals, and one could argue that by examining the significance of the act, those who slaughter their food animals ceremonially are acting with a deeper moral consideration than those who let industrialized slaughter serve up unidentifiable animal parts to them via McDonald's. Even if one removes the dichotomy and simply asks the carnivore to slaughter the animals they eat, we notice a broad tension between rationally identical moral actions which differ primarily in the depth of emotional salience.
It is for this reason that I believe the appropriate ethical system will be based on a rational analysis of the consequences of our acts. The best system will also include safe guards to protect our moral judgements from the irrational influence of our emotions.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Free Will Argument To The Problem Of Evil


The so-called problem of evil has dogged theistic philosophy since its inception. Essentially it posits that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God is incompatible with the existence of evil in the world. Prominent among the theistic arguments against this incompatibility is the free will argument advanced by philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga. They basically argue that free will is such a valuable good that in order to secure it for humanity, an all-good God would allow the possibility of its misuse and the resultant evil. Therefore they claim that evil is compatible with an omnibenevolent God.
I happen to think that this argument is totally unconvincing. First it does nothing to address the problem of natural evil, or suffering that is not caused by the agency of a person like that in natural disasters or congenital birth defects, etc. Also, an omniscient God supposedly would know exactly how each person will exercise their free will and whether they will misuse it or not, so God is not trading on possibilities but facts, he knows that if he gives certain people free will they will rape infants, yet we are to think that that person's free will is such an intrinsic good that it is worth the price of that evil? Most defenders of theism believe in a God that is capable of acting in contradiction to the laws of nature when it suits his purposes, the Old Testament is full of these cases. So, why wouldn't God reach down and turn off the free will of everyone he knows is about to commit a horrific and senseless evil?
I could go on and on but my purpose here wasn't to argue against the free will argument but to follow its logical implications and see what they say about how proponents of this argument ought to act.
The free will argument says that the most horrific and senseless instances of evil are justified on the basis of the absolute goodness of human freedom. It says that whatever the cost that the world pays in senseless suffering and anguish, it's not too much for the gift of freedom. Since this is supposedly the logic of God himself and God is considered not only all-knowing and wise, but also the paragon of morality, it follows that we ought to follow his logic in such matters on earth, too. What does this mean practically? Well, if we are to consider freedom the ultimate good and consider no cost paid for it (i.e. in suffering, evil, etc.) as too high, it necessarily follows that we cannot justify the existence of jails, prisons, mental institutions or even rule of law. It is more important that we are able to exercise our free will, than that we be protected from the consequences of its exercise. If God himself does not see fit to restrain a person whom he knows will commit an evil, than what justification can we have for restraining a person just because they might commit an evil, or have in the past?
It seems to me that Anarchy is the only justifiable system to the promoter of the free will defense to the problem of evil, otherwise one is claiming one knows better than God.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moral Objectivity In Naturalism

It may seem like I spend an inordinate amount of time on this subject, but it came up when I was listening to a debate between noted atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling and the preeminent Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the podcast Unbelievable?, discussing whether belief in the Christian God was reasonable given the fact of natural disasters like tsunamis and other so-called "natural evil" (i.e. suffering which is not attributable to the moral agency of a human being). The debate covered the standard arguments, but I think Craig's talent as a debater and rhetorician overcame Grayling's talent as a philosopher and no solid answer was given to Craig's assertion that the naturalistic world-view can not offer a foundation for the existence of objective universal morality, the way that a supernatural, theistic world-view can offer such a foundation in the existence of a universal moral law giver, namely God. He illustrates this by creating a straw man naturalist who explains the existence of moral values as emergent characteristics of the evolution of the human species. This explanation clearly does not allow for objective universal morals because morals are culturally and evolutionarily determined and thus one cultures moral values cannot be said to be any better than another's. To illustrate the dramatic consequence of this view on morality the favorite example is that we cannot say that the holocaust was wrong, because one society's culturally and evolutionarily determined values are as good as another's. Nothing exists outside of culture and evolution which can say these moral rules are the ones which everyone should follow, so in a way acting immorally is equivalent to acting unfashionably. Furthermore, if we could rewind the evolution of the human species and play it forward under different circumstances, we could have developed very different moral values: rape might be okay, it might be considered abominable not to kill your children if they are born with blonde hair, et cetera whatever. In the several debates that I've heard where William Lane Craig raises this issue I have yet to hear any one give him a satisfactory rebuttal, but it seems to me that there is a very clear answer to this argument.
Reason is the foundation for objective universal morality in the naturalistic world view. Once you have defined morality as a system of guidelines in place to promote the well-being of sentient creatures, and to prevent their suffering, then reason does the rest of the work in telling you how to get there. No doubt Dr. Craig would object that I have snuck in an assumption to my definition by saying that morality has to do with the well-being of sentient creatures, and ask for the foundation of this definition. But I think that is an absurd demand, we all know that morality is dependant on the well-being of sentient creatures, as intuitively as we know that the field of medicine is about  the physical (and/or psychological) well-being of sentient creatures. We don't ask doctors the philosophical foundations of their assumption that we want to be physically well before they treat us, we assume that they know as well as we do that engaging in the practice of medicine assumes a benefit to physical well being is desired by its participants. In the same way acting as moral agents we know that engaging in the practice of morality assumes that the desired outcome is well-being among sentient beings.
Notice that morality, in this iteration, is not founded in culture or evolution and is even wholly independent of culture and/or evolution. If I were able to construct a purely rational artificial intelligence, meticulously absent any emotion, cultural or evolutionary characteristics, and program it with this definition for morality, it would be able to act morally.
The only questions left are about which ethical system best accomplishes the goal of morality.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Yahoo Answers, Social Media And The Ubiquity of Postmodernism

The other day I was playing around on the internet and I discovered Yahoo Answers which is a site where you can ask questions and have people who may know the answers tell you what they think and where you can try to answer the questions that you know. It didn't take much time reading through the kind of answers on offer in the philosophy and religion & spirituality section for me to come to the realization that postmodernism has conquered the thought processes of the common man. Everywhere you see people claiming that one person's version of truth is just as good as another's, that every opinion is equally valid, as though truth were not an objective proposition.
When did this happen? Is this the result of political correctness and tolerance run amok? Can we really no longer say that truth is absolute and it doesn't matter if you believe in it or not, you are not entitled to your own facts! This is why we are having people arguing that Creationism needs to be taught in Science classes. We cannot allow people to have their own versions of reality. Facts are non-negotiable.
Maybe the problem is that people can't tell the difference between opinions, to which, I agree, everyone is entitled, and facts of which there is only one set which does not change based on whether you choose to accept it or not.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The "New Atheists" And Controversial Political Views


As I have been listening to many debates, lectures and podcasts on issues of atheism vs. theism and the philosophical grounding of moral systems I've become well acquainted with the views and arguments of the bigger names in the so-called "New Atheist" movement. For the most part atheists, skeptics, free-thinkers tend to be politically liberal, but there are a few glaring exceptions.
In the February 5 episode of the Unbelievable? podcast which features weekly discussions between Christians and non-Christians, noted Christian thinker Alister McGrath mentions noted "New Atheist" Sam Harris's controversial support for torture in certain circumstances. This isn't the first time I've heard this claim, and considering how reasonable, lucid and appealing I find the majority of Sam Harris's arguments, I was concerned how Harris could possibly truly believe that torture was ethically justified.
Instead of taking the word of second hand sources I decided to research it and find what he actually said on the issue. I found an article on his website where he responds to the criticism of a few controversial passages in his writing. I'll let him speak for himself: "there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like 'water-boarding' may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary." Now the original passage in Harris's book brings the subject up as a comparison to the ethics of so-called "collateral damage" in war which he argues is eminently more objectionable. That one point I can agree with, but he then rationalizes his support for torture by framing the classic fantastical favorite hypothetical of torture supporters: what if there was a hidden dirty bomb somewhere in an American city and you had the guy who hid it but he wouldn't tell you where... I'm sure we all know it well. This is a sorry excuse for an ethical argument and I share Mr. McGrath's disgust in Harris's support for torture. The simple fact is that when tactics like water-boarding are used it is never in so cut-and-dry of a situation and even if it were, there is strong scientific and historical evidence that torture is a far less effective means of interrogation than the standard methods used in the criminal justice system. I am disappointed in Sam Harris and I think that in this case his Islamophobia has compromised his ability to objectively examine the issue.
The same type of Islamophobia may be at the heart of another right winged aberration among the New Atheists, namely Christopher Hitchens' support of the Iraq war. I can't think of any other reason that a seemingly intelligent man would lend his support to such a poorly thought-out foreign policy blunder, and judging by the stale talking points he would offer when questioned on the point, it seems he can't think of any good reasons for his position either.
Although for the most part they are rational thinkers with well-considered views, it seems to me that there is a streak of emotionally reflexive demagoguery among the more strident members of the New Atheist movement. Considering this, along with the point that right-wing political positions are often based on the same kind of reflexive emotionality which is relied upon to conquer the rational defeaters of the position, it perhaps should not be surprising to find the occasional neo-con argument in the New Atheist movement.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Is Rick Perry A Murderer?


Considering that Michelle Bachman won the Iowa straw poll, it seems clear that the GOP has set the bar pretty low for its crop of potential presidential candidates. But with the recent announcement by Texas Governor Rick Perry that he's throwing his hat in the ring, the group of contenders' collective level of legitimacy has taken a nose dive.
I am refering to an incident in 2004 when Governor Perry refused to grant a stay of execution for Death Row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham on the basis of new scientific evidence which proved beyond a reasonable doubt to any objective observer that the fire, in which his three young daughters had perished and which he had been convicted of starting due largely to the perjured testimony of an incompetent expert witness for the prosecution, was in fact an accidental fire. Now I understand that to keep a seat in Texas government a politician has to appear "tough on crime", but in my considered opinion signing off on the execution of an innocent man for political considerations makes Rick Perry a murderer and a hypocrite. I'm pretty sure that Rick Perry realizes his crime too, because when this incident came to light and the Innocence Project brought the case to a special committee that the Texas Legislature had created to investigate abuses in the Texas criminal justice system, Rick Perry ended up removing three members of the Texas Forensics Science Commission right before they were going to release a statement about the case. You don't cover up what you are not ashamed of.
I fear for a country that seriously considers electing people like Steve Perry and Michelle Bachman to the highest seat of power. These diabolical politicians make their name pounding on the dais over God Guns and Gays with their right hand while covertly robbing the poor to fatten their corporate masters with their left. The bumper sticker slogan seems apt: "God save us from your followers."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Specious Moral Teachings In The World's Religions

One of the opinions common to the fundamentalist adherents of the world's religions and to most atheists is the idea that a religion's tenets need to be taken all-or-none. They say if you are to be a Catholic you must believe everything in the catechism and take every papal edict as true on faith, if you are to be a Muslim you must follow every teaching in the Koran and follow the fatwas of your Imam unquestioningly. Fundamentalists, I believe, do this out of laziness, because it is easier to swallow a pre-made world-view whole than to diligently construct one from the ground up based on your response to the data points you are exposed to in your daily life. In effect they surrender their rationality and let their religion think for them. The atheist motivation for this all-or-none thinking is also laziness, but in a different guise. It is a lot easier to argue against fundamentalist forms of religion, most of them contain self-contradictions and archaic and tribal teachings incompatible with the modern understanding of the world.
The thing is, almost nobody engages in this kind of all-or-none approach to religion. The average believer cherry picks those tenets of their religion which resonate with their inner understanding of the world. Many people engage in a systematic study of many world religions picking and choosing those aspects of each which suit them. They then assimilate these into their own unique, coherent world-view.
The atheist joins the fundamentalist in decrying this practice as somehow dishonest and irrational in one case or heretical and impure in the other, in either case fundamentally invalid. The atheist has no convincing arguments as to why he views the practice as invalid, other than that it makes it harder for him to denounce religion. Besides that they can only offer irrational arguments similar to those used by the fundamentalists: it's wrong because the scriptures say it is. But that's assuming the point you're supposed to be proving.
It is my opinion that even among the fundamentalists there is nearly nobody who swallows a religion's dogma whole, it would be necessary to turn off one's brain to do that. Considering that, it is required that we examine each teaching of the world's religions on its own merits. When we do that, along with the valid teachings and pearls of wisdom, we discover several moral teachings which may appear worthy at first glance, but when we consider their implications we discover that they are at least questionable if not downright immoral.
First, let's look at one teaching common to the three great monotheistic religions: that we should not worry about planning for our future or attending to our bodily needs because God, as our heavenly Father, will provide. As Jesus says, starting in Luke 12:22: "Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.... And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink...."
Or as Muhammad says in Surah At-Talaaq in the Quran "And whosoever fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him, He will make a way for him to get out (from every difficulty).And He will provide him from (sources) he never could imagine. And whosoever puts his trust in Allah, then He will suffice him."
As for the Old Testament, it is full of promises that God will provide, just look at the twenty-third Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
On the surface this sounds like a holy precept, but one need not follow the implications of this belief too far to see where it is flawed. First of all, it encourages one to believe on faith without evidence in matters that are profoundly important. Second of all, it states something that isn't true; good and faithful people die of starvation and other forms of deprivation every minute. Third of all, if one really believes this what is to stop a poor person from having twenty kids and relying on God to feed and rear them? This point is on disastrous display in many poverty-stricken parts of the world. For example, in Pakistan, which is governed by an interpretation of sharia law, it is not only considered immoral but also illegal to consider one's poverty or other earthly matters in deciding when to have children. The only justification that Islamic law provides for delaying reproduction is if it will interfere with nursing the previous child for a full two years. The Quran considers it wrong to otherwise interrupt constant childbearing. The result of this is that most poor uneducated families have upwards of eight kids that they are unable to provide for. The solution to the problem generally seems to be the education of women. A clear inverse correlation can be shown between a woman's level of education and the number of children she has. For example, the fertility rate in Pakistan is around 3.9, the literacy rate around 54%, in Sri Lanka, where the literacy rate is 91% the fertility rate is 2.3.
It seems clear as women are educated they trade in their complete acceptance of Islam for the more rational approach of taking teachings based on their merits, and the change is reflected in their behavior.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Quantum World


I just read an interesting article from the June 2011 issue of Scientific American entitled Living In A Quantum World written by Vlatko Vedral which explains that the popular misconception that Quantum Mechanics applies only to microscopic systems is quite wrong. As an illustration of the implications of quantum mechanics on the micro world he describes an experiment in which the properties (i.e. location)of an atom's electron are entangled with the left or right motion of the atom so that, since the electron is in a superposition (more than one place at once), the atom is moving left and right at the same time. Then expanding the implications to the macro world he says: "Other experiments scale up this basic idea, so that huge numbers of atoms become entangled and enter states that classic physics would deem impossible. And if solids can be entangled even when they are large and warm, it takes only a small leap of imagination to ask whether the same might be true of a very special kind of large warm system: life"
Perhaps I was too hasty in dismissing the possibility of a role for quantum mechanics in the realization of a non-deterministic aspect to human consciousness.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Abortion Rethought

After having a short conversation about the issues addressed in my last post, I've come to the opinion that the question may need to be re-framed as a discussion over whether the fetus is entitled to fundamental rights, to what extent and why? Or, put more broadly: at what point in a human being's development does it acquire fundamental rights? If a fetus has these rights, it is immoral to kill it even to save the life of the mother (unless one can support the argument that the mother's rights override the rights of the fetus).
Following this line of thought I tend to believe that the only legitimate dividing line that one can propose, on the basis of science and reason, is the point at which the fetus becomes viable, i.e. is able to live independent of its mother. Once a developing human has the technical/biological ability to survive as an independent entity it deserves the fundamental rights inherent to every human. Therefore, it naturally follows that, just as infanticide is illegal, it should be illegal to abort a fetus that is sufficiently developed as to be capable of surviving outside the womb. Once we have decided that an entity has human rights we cannot circumstantially violate these rights. Therefore, considerations of harm to the mother, incest or rape, cannot come into the issue.
As to the issue of early-pregnancy abortion, I believe my formerly expressed opinion is sound: it is morally questionable, I would not engage in it or advise others to do so, but I believe it should be legal since more harm would result from its being outlawed. Or, to express it in the present context, I do not believe the pre-viable embryo possesses full human rights, but I can see that I may be wrong or it may possess some rights. Therefore, on this issue I reaffirm my former conclusion: early-pregnancy abortion should be discouraged but remain legal.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Ethics of Abortion


Abortion is one of the most controversial issues in contemporary society. But, in actuality it is a collection of several issues. The largest of these issues is the one in which the dividing line between sides is the brightest, namely whether an embryo or a fetus is a human life. If the answer is yes, then it is presumably entitled to all of the protections due to a human being and abortion is just a euphemism for murder. Many take this view, most often on religious grounds. If the embryo is not a human life the issue is more subtle. We must then ask what is it? From a biological standpoint it is clearly of the species Homo sapiens yet in the first two trimesters of its development it lacks the brain structure to make human consciousness or even the ability to feel pain a possibility. Therefore the only argument that would endow such an entity with the moral rights recognized in people, would be one that appeals to the fetus's potential to become a human being worthy of moral consideration. However, extending this argument, we would be forced to grant human rights to sperm cells and ova as well, an absurd proposition.
As a teenager, when I first grappled with this issue I had an instinctive reaction to the proposition: abortion is wrong, it is the taking of a life that is at least potentially human. I think this reaction is understandable when you take the pro-choice position to its logical conclusion. If there is no moral issue in the abortion of a third trimester pregnancy, what significant change occurs at birth to make infanticide immoral? Most third trimester fetuses are capable of surviving outside the womb, indeed preemies grow to adulthood all the time. What then makes natural birth the bright line between when it is okay to terminate the fetus and when it is monstrous to murder the child? Nothing rational.
Having considered these issues carefully I have decided that I am not sure, and may never be sure about the morality of abortion; I find it morally questionable and therefore, if I had to face the decision (which my biology saves me from), I would not engage in it.
That being said, I believe the question of government's role in regulating abortion is a separate issue. First I think the decision in Roe v. Wade was legally absurd (the constitution does not guarantee the right to abortion), but pragmatically correct. Abortion should remain legal because greater evil will result from its criminalization. However, I do believe, since abortion is morally questionable and therefore may, in theory, be damaging to humanity, the government has a legitimate reason to try to lessen, through non-coercive means, the number of abortions performed through education and social programs. I understand that some may say this is opening an ugly can of worms that seems to entangle government in morality, yet I would argue that that is precisely the function that government takes on when it seeks to limit its citizens' behavior through criminal laws. In this case however, unlike cases of rape or premeditated murder, where the moral question is clear, rational well-intentioned people can disagree and therefore, although criminalization is not justified, attempts to curtail the behavior can be said to be in the best interest of the society.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ayn Rand


I found this video about Ayn Rand. Watch it.

How is this philosophy consistent with the self-styled "Christian" right?

I'm tempted to say that her philosophy is just plain evil and that she is a bad person, but I am persuaded by Ralph Nader's assertion that she was simply overreacting to the horror of applied communism in her native land. Unfortunately there are many in the upper echelons of our government who seek to apply her extreme philosophies.

Here are some interesting Ayn Rand Quotes:

The Universe vs The Observable Universe

I just listened to this debate between atheist, ethicist Peter Singer and Christian apologist Dinesh D'Sousa.
First I'd like to say how thoroughly distasteful and un-Christian I have found Dinesh D'Sousa in every one of the debates I've seen of him. He is guilty of the totality of fallacies expounded in any Logic 101 class, his personal favorite obviously being the ad hominem. And his manner is drenched in the arrogance of the epistemological bigot whose faith in their own rightness is unshakable by even the strongest of evidence. Despite my personal dislike of him, I would like to address the misconception that he advances numerous times in this debate, in his attempts to protect his iteration of the so-called "cosmological argument" for the existence of God, about the nature of the current science on cosmology.
The cosmological argument goes something like this:
Premise One: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
Premise Two: The universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore the universe had a cause. Further, since the universe contains all matter, space and time, the cause of the universe must be non-physical and transcendent, i.e. outside space and time. This non-physical transcendent creator of the universe is a personal God.

Now, there are a number of valid arguments against this. One can say: you cannot assume a characteristic about a set by the fact that all members of the set have that characteristic. Since the universe is a set of things and not a single thing itself you cannot assume one of its characteristics by the characteristics of those things which it contains. As analogy: Every floor in that building is ten feet high, therefore that building is ten feet high.
Another way you can refute the cosmological argument is by denying premise two, that the universe began to exist. This was the most popular argument among atheists for a long time. They would say that the universe has simply existed forever, therefore it cannot have a creator because it was not created. This argument was dealt a blow with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation which clearly showed that the observable universe did indeed have a beginning in the "big bang" some thirteen to fourteen billion years ago. However, I do not believe, as many do, that this blow was fatal. This is because the big bang only describes the beginning of the observable universe. Inflationary cosmology has nothing to say about what occurred at or "before" (if you can use the word before considering that the time of our observable universe itself came into being with matter and space at the big bang) time point 0. The modern cosmological model has nothing to say about whether anything existed antecedent the big bang, it could have been an event of information destruction rather than of creation. It could be that a universe has existed eternally in an alternating pattern of expansion and contraction away from and back into a time point zero singularity which acts as a sort of dividing point between observable universes through which no information can pass.
Or one can posit the existence of a multiverse which eternally spawns offspring bubble universes of which our observable universe is one. There are varying amounts and qualities of evidence for each of these positions, but in my opinion all of them, as naturalistic hypotheses tend to be vastly more probable than any supernaturalistic hypothesis.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The "R Word", The "N Word" And Other Shit We're Not Supposed To Say

I was listening to this Chariots of Iron podcast where they were responding to listener mail about their use of the word "retarded" to describe someone who does something stupid. Apparently some people wrote in saying that they were offended by the word, saying that they had family members who were "mentally disabled" and that the word had been used in hatred against them, comparing the "R word" to the "N word" and claiming that neither should have any place in civilized discourse.
Of course this controversy is hardly new, it was over a year ago that Sarah Palin defended Rush Limbaugh's use of the term as "satire" while at the same time calling for Rahm Emanuel to be tarred and feathered for using it in a nearly identical context.
This, I think, is the problem. We are so used to our politicians and leaders using selective outrage as a political tool or a rhetorical device that we become eager to take offense at anything.
This is not to say that there are not legitimate reasons to feel offended, but it is my contention that taking offense is only a proper response to an action, never to something so contextually dependant as a word (of course words in context can make a verbal action). The way that language works words are mostly devoid of meaning until we put them in context. This is even more true in regard to that short list of words we have culturally decided to label taboo.
To me, it makes very little sense to create conflict and outrage in response to a misunderstanding. Therefore it seems prudent, before one becomes deeply offended at someone's comment, to ask them to clarify their meaning. If, after the necessary clarifications are presented, the comment still seems to be one that is meant to offend, or displays a characteristic toward which offense is an appropriate response, such as ignorance, prejudice, etc., then go ahead and be offended. But in almost all cases when someone calls, say, George Bush "retarded" they are not setting out to belittle the community of the mentally disabled, they are simply saying that George Bush is acting like he lacks the basic intelligence needed to, say, wipe his own ass. Context, and following from that, speaker's intent, is everything in this situation.
It is ludicrous to have a set of words, or even a single word to which one becomes offended automatically, regardless of context.
I can see only a few types of situation where it is appropriate to take offense to a comment:
1) The comment is meant to be offensive. Ex: "You are a fucking idiot" The proper response to an insult is to take offense.
2) The comment displays prejudice dividing humanity into a superior group to which the speaker belongs and their inferiors. In this case the speaker doesn't need to intend to offend or insult because the insult is built into the logical results of the statement. Ex: "I don't have anything against homosexuals, so long as they keep it behind closed doors, but I am against changing the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman." Here the logical progression of this philosophy divides humanity into the right: heterosexuals who do possess the natural right to marriage, and the wrong: homosexuals who do not possess that right and are therefore less-than. The insult is built into the philosophy expressed.
It doesn't make sense to get offended if one of these conditions do not apply. For example,  when Dr. Laura Schlessinger (with whom I disagree on just about everything) said "Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger." talking about other peoples use of the word, it is completely irrational to be offended. She obviously wasn't calling anybody a nigger, nor does she even support the use of the word. She is in fact quoting someone else, and there is about as much reason to get pissed at her as there is to lock up a court stenographer who reads back a murderer's confession. We all tend to think that our emotional outrage response is completely valid and justified and that, what's more, it is an unforgivable crime to have tripped it. This is not the case so, if one had taken offense at Dr. Laura's comment, it would be prudent to ask her to clarify and find out if our outrage was justified, i.e. was she actually calling the caller a "nigger" or did she subscribe to the world-view of racism and intolerance that undergirds the use of that word in hatred, otherwise we have no reason to object to the comment. But Dr. Laura made it clear that she wasn't using the word in hatred nor did she believe that philosophy of hatred that was attached to the word. However, that wasn't good enough and Dr. Laura Schlessinger actually got fired for that quote (which is ridiculous, but has nothing to do with her first amendment rights as she later went on to claim).
In summary, we all need to chill the fuck out, not worry so much about words, and stop being so eager to get offended at every little thing.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Human Exclusivity


I am constantly amazed how every time we think we've found something that is exclusive to the human animal and absent from the rest of the kingdom we find an example of a non-human animal doing it in nature. Opposable thumb, tool construction and use, theory of mind, third level planning, altruism, war, city building, symbolic communication, culture, aesthetic sense, we have gone up the list, finding non-human examples of each of these, until now we are left with positing things like the ability to do calculus and other such complex abstractions as our hypotheses for domains of human exclusivity. The problem is, if we use these, do we then have to define people who can't do calculus as sub-human. There seems to be no bright dividing line between man and the other animals, a criteria which applies to all humans and no other animals. The implications of this realization are far-reaching, it compels us to reexamine our traditional relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. These implications have been discussed at length and in depth with tremendous insight by Peter Singer.
The examples of behaviors we consider "human" that have been observed in other animals are myriad:
-Aesthetics. Surely humans are the only species that can appreciate beauty. Only we create art, investing energy in something that has no inherent survival value. But this is not the case. There are bird species (like Australia's Satin Bowerbird which is pictured above) in which the male will spend days arranging gathered material according to color and other aesthetic criteria into a unique expression of what can only be called art, the amount of energy invested in the activity is incredible. They aren't the only animal artists either, a simple google search will bring up examples of paintings created by animals from elephants to chimpanzees, and there is evidence that the animals use aesthetic criteria in the creation of these pieces of art.
-City Building. Some of our cities have nothing on the vast complex metropolae of certain species of insects like ants and termites.
-Culture. Some say that humans are unique because we have the capability of passing down information to subsequent generations extra-genetically through culture. We have libraries and the internet and what one of us learns can be built upon by those who come after us. But even this has been observed among non-human animals. Killer whale pods pass on their hunting methods inter-generationally. There are certain seal-hunting cultures and other fish-eating cultures, and among the seal hunters there are certain cultures that have discovered how to beach themselves in pursuit of amphibious seals and they pass this successful technique on to their children. Culture can also be found among the great apes. There are certain orangutan populations that have fishing cultures, in addition to their mostly vegetarian diet they have learned to catch and eat fish and have passed the culture on to their offspring. The same thing has happened among chimpanzee populations in regard to termite fishing technologies.
-Planning. Some of the most surprising discoveries relate to the cognitive abilities of certain species of the crow family. So far crows are the only non human animals who have demonstrated the ability to mentally construct third level plans. In the test that revealed this ability a piece of food was placed in a box with an access point too small for the crow to reach in. Another box was placed in another location with a long stick inside but again the access point was to small to let the crow reach the long stick. The third box contained a short stick that was long enough to allow the crow to reach the long stick, but not long enough to allow it to reach the food. So the crow had to realize that in order to get the food it would have to first retrieve the small stick and use it to retrieve the large stick which it in turn would use to retrieve the food, and this is exactly what it did.
-Altruism. Even behaviors that we have associated with human morality such as altruism have been found in the other animals. But surprisingly altruism can even be observed in simple lower levels of life. For example, the bee that sacrifices its own life by stinging a threat to the hive. Even a certain species of forest amoeba which usually lives a solitary life on the forest floor, but in times of water scarcity, individual amoebae will gather together to form a kind of slime that will go out into the sun and the individual amoebae will form a slime appendage reaching toward the heavens out of their bodies. Those amoebae that form the tower will then dry up and die allowing the remaining amoebae to climb to the top and float off on the breeze to another area where they might find a more suitable environment. In effect, the 30% or so of amoebae who form the tower have sacrificed their lives so that the other 70% could survive.

Every time we think we have definitively drawn the dividing line we end up having to inch it back. I guess we'd better brush up on our calculus.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Moral Obligation

I've been thinking a lot about morality lately and how it fits into naturalistic versus supernaturalistic world-views. I've listened to a lot of debates and many different perspectives and I think I've come to some pretty solid conclusions. But there is still one area where I don't have a good answer. That is: how can the idea of moral obligation fit into a naturalistic (and therefore deterministic) world-view?
It seems to me that naturalists can make a good case that human morality is objective and that it is based on the concept of well-being versus suffering of sentient creatures. Therefore, using a well thought out and well tested ethical system like "rule-utilitarianism" that takes well-being and suffering into account to decide on the right action in any given situation, the naturalist can justifiably discern the moral from the immoral. Where the naturalist's system of morality breaks down is trying to justify the existence of objective moral obligations.
I have come to believe that in order to argue that moral obligations exist there must be an inherent purpose to human life, a purpose that cannot be supplied by the naturalistic world view (as argued very ably by this panel of atheist and Christian all-stars [this debate is certainly worth watching if you've got the time, I think I agree most strongly with Michio Kaku, but he doesn't get to talk until the end]). Now I'm not saying that naturalists lives are purposeless, but they create those purposes for themselves in order to live fulfilling lives. There can be no inherent objective purpose to life in naturalism as there is in the theistic world view.
From the theistic perspective it is simple. Every person is created by God with the inherent purpose of coming to know God and engage in a loving relationship with Him. God is the perfection of morality, so those characteristics which he possesses are moral, anything opposing the moral is immoral. And since the inherent purpose of our life is to have a relationship with God, we therefore have an obligation to act morally.
But since the only purposes we can have in the naturalistic universe are those subjective purposes that we create for ourselves, there can be no true obligation to act morally.
The only arguments I can foresee against this conclusion are:
1) The argument from evolution: we have a natural obligation to propagate our genes & since morality is an adaptive strategy we have an obligation to engage in it.
-But it seems to me that same line of reasoning could be used to argue we have an obligation to engage in social Darwinism and/or eugenics.
2) When a rational mind realizes that there are moral truths, reason obligates him to act morally.

Really the big problem I see with any conceivable argument for the existence of moral obligation in the naturalistic world view is this: Someone once said "Ethics is what we do when nobody is looking." And within the naturalistic universe I can't think of anything that obligates a person to act morally even when nobody is looking or when nobody will ever know whether you acted morally or not.

Friday, July 22, 2011

All In The Family

I was just watching an episode of All In The Family where Mike and Gloria go on vacation and Archie and Edith start fighting with one another. Archie calls Edith a bunch of names ("Edith the Good", "perfect", "not human"), Edith starts hysterically wailing and demanding that Archie apologize, saying things will never be the same between them until he takes it back. Then Edith basically gives Archie the silent treatment, hoping to coerce him into apologizing and Archie tries to get Edith to warm back up to him without apologizing. Eventually Archie kinda apologizes in his own way, and they all live happily ever after.
It got me thinking about how big an influence television is in the life of the modern American, and how scary that is considering the nature of sitcoms like this one. In order for a show to be funny and interesting it has to have plenty of conflict. This conflict is usually created out of the personality defects of the characters; sitcom characters are the most neurotic collection of maladapted, passive aggressive, obsessive-compulsives that you'll ever find. What's more, the better the show, the more conflict, the more neurotic the characters. So the most watched shows have the most screwed up people.
Now if you have a country full of people who grow up with these neurotic messes as their role models, how healthy is that country going to be? Deception, manipulation, emotional blackmail, procrastination and passive aggression will be as common in society as they are in the sitcoms.
And what's to be done? Nobody is going to tune in to a show where the clear-thinking main characters sit down and discuss their problem rationally before it gets out of control... that's not funny.

Coral Fish And Other Exceptions To Nature's Rules.

I was watching Animal Planet the other day, a program about species that go through dramatic transformations at some stage of their development and the one that caught my attention was about a species of coral reef fish known as a wrasse. These fish live in groups (harems) of several small females dominated by one large-bodied male. But the interesting thing is what happens when the male dies: one of the female fish will change sexes, their body will completely transform and they will take over the dead male's place. Apparently their genome contains instructions for both genders but the instructions for "male" are only used when the environment dictates it is appropriate.
So I went to see if I could find more information about this and I found an article that says this ability is actually the norm among coral reef fish species.
This kind of stuff always amazes me; the way life will expand to fill every crevice and niche and develop the most incredible specialized adaptions. There's a Radiolab episode about a graduate student who led a scientific expedition to the arctic to explore the sea bottom for new forms of life. Apparently everyone wanted to discover a three-eyed tubeworm, but what they found was field upon subaquatic field of "yellow fluff" a strange new form of microbial life just kickin' it down beneath the arctic ice. Granted it's no three-eyed tubeworm, but it is Life.
Life's incredible adaptations seem to have no bounds. It was just last year that scientists discovered a form of microbial life that was not dependant on the same five elements basic to all known life. It used Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen, but apparently didn't need Phosphorous like every other living thing (Although, there has been some controversy over the study that reached this conclusion).
Given the amazing stubbornness and perseverance of life, and the incredible length of time since our universe exploded into existence, it seems to me that life might be a lot more inevitable and common than we tend to believe.