Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pernicious Accommodationism

Isn't this enough?
Won't you shut up now?
What's your problem?
What more do you want?

Will you never be happy?

How often have we heard these kinds of questions directed at atheists from apologists, or their hand-puppets, accommodationists?

Well, here it is again.

Dvorsky Vilifies Atheists

The First Psychosis

I'm going to let you in on a not so carefully hidden secret: the Abrahamic "Binding of Isaac" story is about the primacy of God, all other priorities rescinded. Read that again: All other priorities rescinded. That includes the lives of one's own children. That the final murder was "prevented" is of no relevance. The essential betrayal of humanity, represented by Abraham's willingness to murder his own child, is the point of the story - not whether the child actually died. Of course, there are many children who do not fare so well in their parents' test of faith. Madeline Kara Neumann is one example.

Homicide by Prayer

Kara Neuman died of diabetic ketoacidosis. Juvenile diabetes. See the picture above? Kara Neumann was a human being, not a statistic, and not a chess-piece in some ideological game about parents' versus childrens' rights.

Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Uncontrolled blood sugar levels leads to acidity of the blood and vital organs shut down, resulting in death. It is very likely Kara was "ill for about 30 days, suffering symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness." These are the words of the Everest Metro Police Chief, reporting on the autopsy of the 11 year old girl.

The family believed in “divine healing” by trusting the Lord, Leilani Neumann, Kara's mother, said. “I just felt that, you know, my faith was being tested. I never went through an experience like that before in my life and I just thought, man, this is the ultimate test,” she said. “We just started praying and praying and praying over her.’

Kara's mother didn't think about seeking medical help for Kara. Leilani Neumann felt that her, Leilani's, faith was being tested. Kara was a means to an end, in Leilani's view. It was a test that Kara failed. Where was Kara during this struggle? Remember her, the 11 year old girl? She was busy dying of a treatable, controllable, and well understood medical condition.

A parent placing her own faith above the well-being of her child. Sound familiar? Kara Neuman's story is not an isolated case. Prayer healing is a well-known and pernicious affliction that claims children's lives on a seemingly regular basis. Want to know the harm of prayer? There it is. And behind it all is a psychosis that has its roots in the primacy of God - a deliberate distancing of oneself from humanity.

Humanistic Anti-Humanism? Seriously?

Why mention the "Binding of Isaac" story with respect to Dvorsky's article? Because one of the priorities rescinded is humanism. This story is precisely about relegating humanism and humanity to a distant back burner, behind God. It is precisely about overriding all mere human considerations in favour of something that is, by definition, extra-human.

The Abrahamic religions wear their anti-humanism on their sleeves, for all to see, but this does not mean this is unique to the Abahamic trinity of holy horrors. God, itself, is a symbol of a normative ideal, for which, they say, humanity is to strive to achieve, you know, from our intrinsically flawed and lowly state. In most cases, it is impossible to achieve this presumably exalted state. In one religion, God is not anthropomorphized, but the exalted state (Bodhi) is intrinsically unverifiable. In all cases, mere humanity is denigrated - in all cases we are taught to view humanity as metaphysically, and normatively, perhaps inexorable and necessarily flawed.

And people call that "humanism?" By what stretch of the imagination is anti-human ideology, wallowing in eternal hatred of humanity's lowly state, "humanism?" Remember, how in a previous post, I spoke of religion annexing human qualities into its perverted lexicon? There it is again, another example - a "humanism" that has nothing to do with humans, and instead focuses on the extra-human. Imagine that.

The Wrong Reasons

People point at the "good" done by "religious humanism." The charity. Meanwhile, churches are shutting down charity services rather than help those in need because some of those helped might be homosexuals - you know, humans. Why? Because homosexuality is against their religious bigotry. If your reason for helping humans is not humans, then you are doing it for the wrong reason.

And the reason matters. Otherwise, we get charity services being shut down on the basis of bigotry.

The Accommodationist Rot

So, how do I see Dvorsky and his article?

Dvorsky is just another bought and paid for, worthless accommodationist telling atheists, "Don't you think you've gone far enough now?" Meanwhile he is still using religious, absolutism-laced language, and is still perpetuating, indeed promoting, stigma against atheists.

Accommodationists are the rot from within, advancing anti-human apologist ideology and trying to paint atheists as the aggressors against poor, besieged religion. At least with apologists you know where they stand. Accommodationists are not even that honest. Skeptic and humanist groups and associations are infested with these pernicious liars.

They pretend to be the rational center against all extremes, but it is remarkable how one "extreme" gets all of the sympathy and the other all of the bile. That is not a reasonable middle ground - that is open advocacy of the extreme that seeks to keep us slaves of a hobbled mentality forever, while trying to silence those who would examine, critique and advocate against that slavery.

No, we atheists are not done yet because the job is unfinished. Religion still holds our human qualities in thrall, including our humaneness, as if religions own them, and religion is still fundamentally anti-humanist. We aren't even close to done yet. Until the primacy of God over mere humans is done away with, the job is not done. Not by a long shot.

Humanism must be about humans - of humans, by humans, and for humans. Nothing else will suffice.

I'm an atheist, but...

"I'm against religion, but...." Dvorsky, you are the problem, because you seek to enable anti-humanist mentalities and ideologies, by vilifying atheism. Can you say "perpetuating stigma?" Sure. I knew you could. Dvorsky is as bad, or worse, than the accommodationists that infest the "scientific skeptic" organizations, making sure that the worst, biggest, most dangerous "woo" of them all remains "beyond the scope" of skeptical inquiry. Well, not on this blog. I accept no limitations on the scope of inquiry and have no respect to the disingenuous liars who do. Nor do I respect accommodationists who say things like "I'm an atheist, but..." and then go on to vilify atheists. The religious right's hand is so firmly wedged up Dvorsky's ass that his speech is right-handed.

So-called "skeptics" who artificially limit the scope of inquiry are not the friends of open and honest inquiry. So-called "humanists" who advocate for subjugating human concerns under the primacy of God are not friends of humanity.

Atheism & Humanism

Let's be clear: Atheism does not, itself, have humanist content. Atheism means lack of belief in god(s). Nothing more. However god(s) often do have perceived content, chief among them the primacy of the god. This is why theists think that atheism has content - because atheism doesn't affirm the content of god(s). This also ties in with the theist's inability to comprehend that atheism is a lack of belief; not a belief. Fallacy of false alternatives.

By removing the pernicious anti/extra-human ideal, atheism provides opportunity for humanism, opportunity denied us by theologies that assume the primacy of God. By removing God, we are free to see humans as something more than mere chaff in a dogmatic meat grinder. We are free to see them as ends in themselves, not just as disposable means to an end. That is a significant step forward. It is not the end of the story, but it is a start, a start we cannot have as long as we think humans are subordinate to god(s).

It is not time for humanism to move away from atheism. It is time for humanism to embrace atheism as a shrugging off of the anti-human ideal, a shrugging off that gives us room for humanity in our considerations, room to learn and grow, room to be joyfully, unashamedly human. It is an interesting thing that many, if not most, atheists end up having humanistic dispositions, despite the dire prognostications of the theistic. There is a reason for that. The essential religious hatred of humanity, centered in the primacy of God, is dismissed by atheists. We atheists have moved beyond that. Isn't it about time humanism moved away from humanity-hatred as well...?

Not according to Dvorsky.

Yeah, I know. Suggesting that humans take back their humanity is radical, and extreme, and evil...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sam Harris: One Symptom...

From the Air

"I really feel, very strongly, that we shouldn't - you know, just shouldn't - use normative language."

I wrote that little quip during my early "Laurie Anderson" phase, all those years ago - so imagine it spoken through a vocoder. The point of it is to poke fun at the people who claim they know moral truth without actually having any reason for that claim. Well OK, I was also teasing an emotivist friend. ;)

I think perhaps the main thing that distinguishes me from most other people you are going to meet (virtually or otherwise) is that I have made it a real effort to separate prescription from description, not just in some academic field or scientific study, but in natural discourse as well - in my everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds. Our language is laced with the stuff, just like volition permeates just about all language. Nevertheless, I found normative language so interesting that I made it my mission to recognize it when I encountered it.

Profiling Sam Harris

My personal emphasis on normative and descriptive language is why, when I hear Sam Harris, and other fanatics, mixing the two up (usually disingenuously), it "inspires" me to guffaws of cynical hilarity. One cannot do moral philosophy without understanding the basics, like the difference between a statement and a command. Harris not only does not understand these essentially different language functions, but he effectively denies them. If he does understand them and still denies them, then he is playing a liar's game.

People wonder if Harris is a bigot over his profiling advocacy. He might be, but I cannot claim with certainty he is, although the effect may be the same as racism. I do think he is in error. I am convinced he is a victim of a much more insidious and pernicious issue - moral realism. One of the functions of moral realism is to pretend that prescriptions are descriptions - that's actually pretty much its definition. One of the other functions of moral realism is to create and perpetuate conflict. And yes, one of the uses of moral realism is to discriminate on the the basis of race, if one sees race as normatively negative and then confuses that prescriptive assessment with descriptive objective reality. Moral realism is also about orthodoxy of thought, expression, and behaviour. I wonder ... was there ever a time in human history when our societies were locked down in stultifying stagnation due to orthodoxy requirements? One might even refer to such a time as a "dark age..."

Harris confuses his normative evaluations with objective fact and the result is exactly what you would expect it to be - divisive, polarizing assumptions under the guise of "science." His are the noises of the eugenicist, the social Darwinist, and the technocratic totalitarianist. I recommend caution...

If we are to take Harris at his word, we must assume that he really does imagine that racial profiling is somehow "scientific." On first blush, it might even *seem* plausible, even practical, but there are profound underlying errors at work.

Symptoms or The Disease

Let's be blunt - Harris rilly, rilly hates islam. Well, so do I, but I hate islam because it is a "convert or die," dogmatic, anti-reality, ruthlessly control oriented, prescription machine pretending that monstrous acts are objective moral imperatives. For me it is not just the particular prescriptions themselves, although they are certainly significant, but the fact that it prescribes "moral truth" at all. Moral truth is a conflict engine. It divides and polarizes. The heart of the "evil" (if such a word can be said to mean anything in the real world) of religion, all religion, is prescriptivity and the justification of prescriptivity by means of moral realism.

Battle Not With Monsters...

In this specific regard, Sam Harris is identical to islam. Like islam, Harris labours under the delusion that he knows the moral truth and is prepared to set policies, however ugly, in place in order to impose his vision of moral "reality" on others. Harris seems to see only the superficial, overt "moral" doctrines. This is like a doctor seeing the symptoms but being deliberately oblivious to the disease causing them. Some diseases are worse than others, and deserve more immediate attention, but it is in the investigation of infection itself that we find real efficacy against disease. Harris wants to stop the terrorism, but is not interested in the underlying motivations for it. The result is that the motivations remain ignored and untreated. And the tragic irony is that the very same feature that props up the fanatic's zeal in their righteousness, faith, is also what props up Sam Harris's zeal in his own. Faith is why he cannot see that his moral prescriptions are not objective facts. It isn't empirical verification. Values are not empirical entities. Their consequences may be, but not the values themselves.

Plumbing the Derpths

Anyone can critique religions on the basis of their overt moral prescriptions. This is interesting, but is by no means the entire story. It is a little more difficult and subtle to critique the underpinnings upon which the overt moral prescriptions are based - the foundation for the web of nightmares. Certainly, one can look at the commandments to persecute or kill non-believers, to impose orthodoxy, and to shun common to many religions, especially islam, but there are functions beneath that, assumed and unquestioned that prop up such nastiness. The legitimacy of prescriptivity is one, and nothing seeks to establish legitimacy for prescriptivity like the claim that morality is, in some way, objective truth, be it via some divine moral authority or via some attempt to equate values with facts so that one can call it "science."

Too subtle and too difficult for some - like Sam Harris. And that's the generous reading.

Treatment or Cure - What's it going to be then, eh?

Without such more subtle and difficult inquiries all we end up with is disparate camps screaming past each other over whose particular moral prescriptions are more barbaric and immoral, based on the absolute rightness of "my side." This is just how the conflict engines that are religions like it. Remember the whole "mosque at ground zero" kerfluffle? Both the christians and the islamists loved that - they were suddenly a trending topic.

And it's just how Sam Harris likes it too, since he likes to scream just like the others. Harris loves the conflict. It sells books. Meanwhile, Harris deliberately introduces confusion into any examination of the disease itself. He is actually keeping us from doing the work necessary. Instead, he makes money off of lancing boils, and the disease spreads. Harris is, after all, a carrier...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

One Path Among Many

I was asked a question that actually hand-cuffed me.
"Do you have some reading suggestions about religion?"
Here's is my typically wordy response:


The One Text?

I have real trouble finding the "one text" that is a tell-us-everything example to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them, so to speak. I find it an interesting introspection trying to single out a pivotal moment. Perhaps for me it was more the accumulation of equivalently justified yet contradictory ideas that lead to my suspension of belief about any of them.

Symbolic Logic

What really cracked my comfort zone forever was chapter 6 of Irving M. Copi's Symbolic Logic (I think it was 3rd edition) in which he, seemingly out of the blue, talks about logical systems. But reaching that point relied on surveying many "systems" of thought and finding them all to be based on principles that were themselves subject to effectively unanswerable questions and in principle unprovable assumptions. So reading that chapter was the little, but decisive straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak.

This Math Crap

Now couple this with the answer to the question every despairing high school kid asks, 'Why do we have to learn this math crap anyway?" Well, one answer is that if you understand this math crap, you effectively understand the basics of pretty much everything ever done in any other area of human understanding - and that includes religious theology. Math has such incredible utility, that, as an academic enterprise, we have been attempting to turn everything into mathematics, even language. Logic goes by another name, and that name is propositional calculus. A mathematics of language. Change the operators from "+,-, =" to "and, or, not" and take the propositions as numbers and you have logic.

Analytic vs Synthetic

And then another realization comes to the fore: these are all language structures with no necessary connection to reality. Some seem to "map onto" reality better than others - offering something called predictive power. Others, including almost all faiths, not so much so. The point of faith is, after all, to justify belief when no or little connection with reality exists.

I tend to think of a logical system as being like a spider web hovering over reality. Some touch reality at times and others are completely divorced from reality altogether. Those that touch reality allow for reality to determine the content of the logical system. Those that don't, well they are entirely fabricated works of fantasy. However intricate, elaborate, attractive or beautiful they may or may not be, if they do not touch reality, then they are nothing more than flights of whimsy.


And then there was analytic ethics, and I don't even recall the text I studied so long ago - I suspect that any good introductory text will be useful in introducing what are thought to be the cornerstones (prescriptivity, universalizability, etc.) of ethical systems as well as introducing several such systems, from prescriptivism to emotivism and possibly including deontic logic (a symbolic logic of ethics such that ideas like "permitted," "obligatory," and "not permitted" are taken as truth-values). Analytic (meta) ethics trains one to look at the systems of ethics independent of the ethical content itself - and that's just a whole other kettle of fish.


Oddly enough, it was "Dianetics," the pre-scientology scientology book that really showed me the fallacy of religion. The concept of the "engram" qua "moment of pain that inhibits the perfect calculating machine" was a concept that is neither refutable nor verifiable, in principle, and it leaped out at me from the pages as the flaw it was. It was a God-concept that became my standard for comparing other elements in religious theories, and when I went looking, I found them. I see them everywhere now. This is, actually, part of the reason I do not see it as necessary to read "holy books." I've already seen the one-trick pony perform and I am not inclined to read thousands of pages just to see the idiotic trick routinely performed again.

What science does is it refuses to allow that one-trick, by calling for evidence, and because of that, it cuts through religion like a hot knife through butter. The one-trick is "in principle irrefutable/unverifiable ideas." It could be engrams, it could be god's will. It could be self-interest, it could be causation in hard-determinism. Either you are permanently impressed by the one-trick or it never impresses you again.

One Path Among Many

There are as many different paths in development as there are people to walk them. Few people, I think, will claim that they spent 3+ years striving to excise normative language from one's discourse, like I did. Yes, I tried to eradicate shoulds, oughts, good, evil, better, worse from my "natural discourse."

I no longer see the world in terms of truth, but rather in terms of stipulated definitions, axiomatically presented, and tied together with tentative rules of inference. If that seems fragile, it might be because it is. At the deepest levels, everything is wide open.

When it comes down to it, I think what lead me away from religion is not so much any one book or event, but an accumulation of experience, whether it be academic or normal life. Breadth of experience promotes distance between oneself and any one perspective - to the point that the breadth of experience itself becomes the perspective.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Garbage In = Garbage Out

Math & Logic

When it comes down to it, logic (AKA: propositional calculus) is an attempt to turn language into mathematics. We were so impressed, and properly so, with mathematics that we try to systematize most, if not all, human understanding in terms of mathematics, and language is no different. Ever hear that inevitable kid in math class moan, "Why should we learn math anyway?" Well, this is the answer. If you understand mathematics, you understand how we have tried to understand and depict just about every field of human study - which gives you a huge head start in learning any more specialized field.

Mathematics is also a logical/deductive system and works by means of well-established operators, inferences, and well-formed formulas. It's axiomatic structure has been detailed with meticulous rigour, so whether mathematics is in the domain of logic, or logic attempts to emulate mathematics is a kind of chicken/egg issue, but my purpose in linking the two together here is to discuss something aout logic that most, it seems, do not realize.

The Dumbing Down of Logic

When I was going to university an interesting transition was underway. Logic wasn't terribly popular, because it was difficult, but logic was still the big money-maker for what was otherwise a department in chaos. Many were saying it was important to make logic more accessible, in the form of what was called "critical thinking." Critical thinking focused less on the math and more on fallacies. I was one of the lucky ones; I managed to steal my logic education before the shift was enacted. I assume this kind of shift in orientation was not uncommon among philosophy departments because nowadays we see plenty of people who can recite fallacy names, but do not understand a very important thing...

What Logic Is ... and Isn't

Logic is not what most think it is; it is not a path to truth. Logic is a test of "internal consistency." Does the argument agree with itself? Despite that logic works with what are called "truth values," truth values do not necessarily map onto reality-truth. This is the difference between validity and soundness. Validity is a assessment of the argument form - the equation, as it were - whereas soundness refers to whether the content of the argument maps onto reality. A valid argument is one in which if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. A sound argument is one in which the argument is both valid and the premises are true. It is quite possible for an argument to be valid without being sound. Let me express this in a simple math example.

2+2=4. Now we know that this is true, courtesy of the definitions of 2, +, = and 4. We also know that if there are two groups of two oranges on the table in front of us, that we have 4 oranges total. Yes, this skeptic just said "know." What we do not know is whether we have 2 groups of two oranges on the table before us or not. The equation doesn't tell us that. To determine that, we actually have to look at the table and check. Thinking of a logical argument as an if-then conditional might be one of the best ways of understanding what logic is. If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. 2+2 may equal 4, but that is not particularly helpful if we are not referring to two actual groups of two. If there are two groups of three, then the 2 in 2+2 is garbage in, and the 4 is garbage out.

Now let me express this in the form of a categorical syllogism:

All humans are fish. (If A then B)
I am a human. (C is A)
Therefore, I am a fish (C is B)

This argument is valid, but unsound, for obvious reasons (all humans are not fish, indeed no humans are). Therefore the conclusion that I am a fish cannot be relied upon. "All humans are fish" is garbage in, and "I am a fish" is garbage out.

And this points at the issue with logic. The propositions actually have content. It may be mistaken content, but it is content nonetheless. We can plug any content into a valid argument form and crank the equation to get a conclusion, but if the conten t is mistaken, then there is a very good probability the conclusion will be as well. Of course, matters are a little more complicated than that, but it serves well enough for our purposes here.

Truth: Analytic vs Synthetic

Moving via wff (well-formed formula) through steps of an argument provide what is called analytic truth - the truth of which is entirely dependent upon the definitions of the terms and inferences involved, with no reference to reality whatsoever. When we reference reality, then we can move from analytic truth to what is called synthetic truth. Unfortunately these are easily confused, and have been confused quite a lot in the history of logic (the language of logic actually makes such confusion more likely). Perhaps it all started with the idiot who first called truth values "truth values." One for equivocation...

That reflects the hopes and dreams we had for logic throughout history. We dreamed of a systematic way of deriving "novel" (previously unknown) knowledge from already "known" premises. Sadly, the results are not living up to the hopes. We get knowledge, sure, but it is what was already contained in the premises - it is "trivial."

In computer programming a Boolean relationship can be expressed in two ways really. It can use the terms true and false or it could use something else, some other terms, say 0 and 1. To the computer, whether we use "true" and "false" or "0"and "1" is irrelevant. However, to we poor humans, the use of "true" and "false" has content beyond the calculation itself and this leads to error.

The Sordid Habits of Snufflegrorfts

So, let's look at another example of a categorical syllogism that is valid.

All snufflgrorfts flooft.
Rufus is a snufflegrorft.
Therefore Rufus floofts.

Now what do we know from this argument itself? Pretty much nothing, actually. We do not know if there is such a thing as a snufflegrorft much less that there is one named Rufus who/that floofts. Generally we do not speak of floofting in polite company, but we are dealing with an important point so we'll check our petty sensitivities at the door just this once. However, because the argument is valid (a wff), we do have an analytic truth: if there are snufflegrorfts, and if all snufflegrorfts flooft and if Rufus is a snufflegrorft, then Rufus floofts. See all those "ifs?" The wise person doesn't confuse the validity of the argument with it's claims about snufflegrorts, Rufus, or floofting - it's claims about reality.

The Ontological Argument

So why is this talk about analytic truth, synthetic truths, and snufflgrorfts personal habits interesting? Why have I gone to such pains to write all this? It has impact on some arguments involving the existence of God, especially the ontological argument. The ontological argument suggests that God is a perfect being, and that perfection entails existence as a matter of definition.

Perfection entails existence.
God is perfect.
Therefore, God exists.

The astute will have noticed that these are all matters of definition, and deductive rules of inference, with no reference whatsoever to reality except for the claim at the end. At no time do we reference reality with the claim that perfection entails existence. At no time do we have a synthetic reference for God being perfect, even if it is worded like there is one. Incidentally, we have no synthetic verification of God existing. The argument represents an attempt to shift from analytic truth to synthetic truth, but at no time is reality actually consulted. Garbage in = garbage out.

Unless it touches reality, the argument is merely an elaborate web of fabrications. The definitions involved may seem convincing, but they are still definitions only.

The Cosmological arguments suffer from the same fatal flaw. They seem plausible only because it seems reasonable to assume every effect has a cause, and the argument uses that "seeming" to (entertainingly enough) claim an uncaused cause (a cause that is not an effect), in order to avoid a infinite regress. Then assumptions are made about the nature of that uncaused cause - namely that it is God. No matter how you look at it, however, these arguments rely on unsubstantiated (read: analytical) claims to attempt to prove a synthetic claim. Again, without reference to reality, the move from analytic to synthetic is unwarranted and indefensible.

Garbage in = garbage out.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The In-Between Time

One Young Moral Nihilist

I want to take a moment, if I may, to yap about moral nihilism.

Despite the fact that, growing up, I was not "properly socialized,"  (read: indoctrinated) certain ideas did make their way into my understanding of things, just from the popular culture. One of these was the pernicious notion that morality stemmed from some absolute, objective, separate from humanity, authority. Generally, that authority bears the name "God." A consequent of this is that without that authority, there was no source for and hence no morality. Well, as I mentioned earlier, I am a "from the cradle" atheist - meaning that I was never indoctrinated into a faith. I think you can see an issue developing...

Perhaps I was victim of a Piagetan/Kohlbergian stage of moral development, but the issue came to a point early for me. Nevertheless, I remained, for the most part, a very lawful, by most accounts, moral individual. As I began studies in philosophy, I found that morals were obviously not empirical entities - were not things you could point to and say "there it is." Were not properties or qualities of objects, acts, or results. One could point at consequences and evaluate them, but not at the values/morals themselves. As I dismissed the idea of morals/value being objective/empirical things...

...I became a "moral nihilist." I used to go around saying things like, "There is no morality." "Morality is a lie." And the like.

Well, that was then; this is now. :)

You see, I was labouring under a misapprehension. Despite finding that morality was not in any sense objectively absolute, I was still defining morality in terms of objective absolutism. Add these together and you get nihilism. The reasoning is very simple:

All morality arises from absolute authority.
There is no absolute authority.
Therefore, there is no morality.

Seems bulletproof, doesn't it?

The Agenda of "Nihilism"

Now "nihilism" is a fun word, wrapped in negative connotations and derisive, vilifying inferences. Well, of course it is; it was a word used by moral absolutists (namely the religious) to describe, deliberately unflatteringly, those who rejected their vison of what morality is. It was, in effect, an ad hominem. Nihilists have no morality, and you are a nihilist, so therefore your arguments about morality are icky. (Sorry, there is just no way for me to depict this "argument" seriously).

This really had, it seems to me, one purpose. Ethical absolutists are not really bothered if you are moral or not, whether you accept or reject the particular morals of their particular view. Indeed, I would argue that absolutists want rejection of their morals in order to have an enemy to polarize around (remember the "mosque at ground zero" kerfluffle?), but that's a topic for another time. What they are really frightened of is the idea that you might define morality in other terms - human-centered terms. As long as you bought into the absolute-authority/truth definition of morality, a context in which you could be "legitimately" lauded or vilified could be maintained. Religions "despise" opposed religions, but what they all despise is someone who steps outside of their religious context. Religions love to hate each other, but it is the non-religious who are all religion's real enemy.

In this way, being a moral nihilist is really playing the absolutists' game. Liberation form the absolutists' "morality" comes not just from rejecting the divine authority, but also from revamping one's entire conception and perception of morality - it comes from redefining morality. Otherwise, you are still a thrall of, and subject to, the absolutists' context.

This consideration is what I mean when I speak of reclaiming our humanity from the religions. Morality is a human function, in a human context, but the religiouns have annexed it, redefined it in their hobbled, inhuman terms, and then imposed that redefinition on all of our discourse.

Do It Like You Mean It!

If you really want to dismiss absolutist morality, don't stop half way, don't stop in the in-between time. Don't just dismiss the absolute authority that is claimed to be the source of morality, but dismiss also the definition of morality that requires an absolute authority. Nihilism is a stepping stone away from absolutism. Take the next step. Think of morality in terms that really frighten the absolutist. Define morality in a different way.

In studies of analytic ethics, one encounters a number of moral theories with different perspectives. Some seek to find moral truth - sometimes empirically, sometimes psychologically, sometimes analytically (via definitions and inferences), and of course, sometimes metaphysically/mystically - some equate morality with emotive outbursts, some others ... let's just say that a great many clever minds have come up with a great many clever (and not so clever) ideas. Often these examinations involve breaking down morality into basic components, things like prescriptivity (the command force of moral language), universalizability (universal applicability of moral principles), and many others. This suggests something interesting about morality, actually.

What if it turned out there is no moral truth? What if it turned out morality were a negotiated social construct? What if morality was not true in some objective, extra-human manner, but was an emergent property/quality of social interaction? This would mean that morality is not something that exists in a single individual's mind, but that is held among minds - that, although not objective, morality is inter-subjective. This would place moral evaluations beyond just the mind of any one individual, although that individual might take part in negotiations about such evaluations. No one of us would be the judge of all the earth.

"Everything is Permitted!"

This would provide us an answer to the old fanatics' bugbear, "Without God, where do you get your morals from? Without God, everything is permitted!" It seems to me whenever I hear this claim by the religious, that the obvious question comes to mind, "Permitted by whom?" The obvious answer is, everyone else, and me (as a participant in the social order/context in which I live). Where do I get my morals? From the people around me and social context in which I live. The source of my morality is that social context. And, surprise, surprise, it doesn't permit everything.

This is one redefinition of morality, such that we can coherently speak of morality without making reference to some absolute authority and without making claims to any "fact status" about values/morals. It is one version of the next step away from absolutism, leaving it, and it's flipside nihilism, in the dust. It is also a conception of morality that allows for flexibility, adaptivity, and change as we negotiate.

I put it to you that this is a more coherent, even more moral, version of morality precisely because it places morality squarely within a human context - of humans, by humans, and for humans. For example, we won't have absolutist reasons to slaughter one another, or bind our children as sacrifices to God.

Beyond Absolutism

There are even more astonishing possibilities. What if we were able to conceive of morality, not as an imposition from on high, but as a constructive, participatory human endeavor? What if we could actually conceive of ourselves as something other than intrinsically evil monsters that need to be kept in check by internalized prohibitions. Could morality be something we could participate in, rather than as chains to keep the monster in check...?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Point of the Journey...

God, the Perimeter of ignorance

Since my last blog entry was critical of Neil deGrasse Tyson, I'd like to present a new blog that sings praises about him. For (at least three) years now, I have said that of all the popular public scientific and skeptical figures available to host a Cosmos redux, Tyson is my preferred pick, and I stand by that, The man is engaging, well-spoken, learned, likeable - in a word, charismatic, much like Dr. Sagan was. This perhaps is why I found Tyson's "Think Big" brain-fart so disappointing.

The one thing that really struck me, and what garnered most of my appreciation of him, was Dr. Tyson's talk on intelligent design, from a historical perspective and with respect to the Dover Trial.

Here is a link to the important point of the talk:
Perimeter of Ignorance (Short)

Here's a link to the longer version for the completists:
The Perimeter of Ignorance (Full)

Intrinsic Inexplicability

Tyson's depiction of God as a "perimeter of ignorance," seems to me to be a powerful point. Now, Tyson's emphasis seems to be more about intrinsic inexplicability (what is often the "mystery" gaps the "God of the Gaps" skulks about in until swept out by the latest discoveries) than anything else, but even on just that point, Tyson's talk is interesting. Intrinsic inexplicability, at least in naturalistic terms, is really the festering heart and corrupt soul of intelligent design, a positions specifically intended to halt further inquiry and set up faith (chasing its own tail) as the ultimate authority in science.

Of course what I refer to as a "festering heart and corrupt soul," theists refer to as "mystery" to be "revered" with "awe," the loss of which they mourn when science reveals more and more of the universe to be, in Tim Minchin's words, "not magic." Every inch of reality no longer shrouded in intrinsically inexplicable mystery is an inch of God's dominion being trespassed upon. This kind of thinking is the stuff of which religious opposition to science has been built upon since the early roots of scientific inquiry. It is a good part of the horror of the story "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. Horror is, I suspect, a concept doomed to the trash heap of history. Perhaps a topic for another time...

Faith-Based Evidence

In the United States of the Bush(-league) regime, we saw an even nastier effort to depict faith as scientific evidence (so called "Faith-based evidence"), which is an inevitable sidekick to the cdesignproponentist (Intelligent Design) efforts. The inclusion of faith-based evidence as scientific evidence would, of course, undermine science as an empirical study altogether, since faith is quite anti-empirical in its emphasis. This was, of course, the desire of the religious right at the time.

Perimeter of Ignorance Redux

Of course, I want to take it a step further - from my philosophical skeptical perspective. This is not really just about God, as an ad hoc explanatory device when we assume we cannot and/or will not ever be able to explain something - and by explain I mean in a way that provides predictive power - but rather what God is a symbol of in the context of human understanding.

God is a substitute for knowledge and truth and an excuse to stop exploring. It acts as an explanation, albeit an abysmally useless one, and leaves us "satisfied" that no further exploration is necessary or desireable. God is a poor substitute for explanations for reasons I've gone into in another blogpost ("A Need to Know Basis") about the nature of explanations and scientific theories and the differences in predictive power offered by each (or lack thereof, in the case of "God's Will"). Indeed, it is a recurrent theme for me so far.

God is a symbol for truth, and it appears that God is a perimeter of ignorance in part because of this. After all if one thinks one has the truth, there is no further cause for inquiry, is there? I put it to you that truth itself is the perimeter of ignorance, of which God is only a symbol. A faith-based understanding of reality confuses the conceit of knowledge with actual knowledge and hence removes opportunity to acquire a more thorough, and empirically accurate understanding of reality.

No Truth?

If certain knowledge is unattainable, then is not a skeptical perspective doomed to failure?

Science has at its core skepticism, an understanding that we do not have certain knowledge, in other words that we do not have the definitive truth. We have explanatory devices (theories) that are better supported by evidence than others, perhaps overwhelmingly so, but at no time do we say that there is nothing more to explore or that we are now certain. A theory can be overturned, modified, or replaced, if it fails to agree with experimental results and empirical observations, or if a better one (more in line with experimental results and empirical observations) arises. Hence, inquiry is always an ongoing process. So, in effect, it is assumed (posited) that there is a truth (realism), but that we never know it with certainty, Now, does this mean that the entire enterprise is meaningless? After all, what is the point of seeking truth is we assume, a priori as it were (justified or otherwise), that we cannot ever reach certain truth? Well, it turns out that, like the NASA space program for example, there are benefits to be gained along the way. Whatever the goal or goals, the explorations themselves reap rewards, rewards like tripled lifespans, world-spanning communications networks, life quality improvements, etc., etc., etc...

What's really interesting about this, and as odd as it sounds, is that seeking truth using a scientific, error-correction methodology while assuming we never have truth reaps results and rewards undreamed of (indeed deliberately undreamed of) by pre-science religious investigations into vague, mystical (almost invariably analytical only) metaphysics. Having this tension works, perhaps because whatever else is at work, at least we continue our interrogations of the universe, whereas with God and other truth symbols, inquiry halts. It's not just the method of science that makes it work. It's the ongoing inquiry itself - and that is where the skepticism comes into play.

The road goes ever on and on. Perhaps the point of the journey is not to arrive...