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 Rick 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.