Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stipulating Stipulations

Daring to Talk About Something Else...

So, let's take a short break from the ideological campaign seeking to sweep through atheism/skepticism and talk about something else, related, but not specific to that onerous topic.

Given that my primary means of promoting my blog is Facebook, it is likely that many of my readers, are themselves Facebook participants and internet debaters just like yours truly. How many of you have experienced the joy of the theist who tries to tell us what atheism is, using definitions that hobble inquiry and do not align with atheists' understanding of atheism?

Hell, even within atheism we have people trying to impose a definition of atheism that includes ideological content ... Sorry. That slipped out. ;)

Atheism Qua Denial

One common ploy is to claim that atheism necessarily represents a knowledge claim (which they will then, apparently unaware of the excruciating irony, say is unsubstantiated), a denial - which leads to all kinds of stuff about proving a negative, etc., etc.. From there, theists will often claim that atheism is a dogma and a faith. Now, let's be honest. There are dogmatic atheists out there, who claim that they know there is is/are no god(s). Personally, I see these folks as making the same epistemological error as the theists, and, sadly, these dogmatic atheists do offer ammunition for theists' complaints. However, that there are dogmatic atheists does not entail that all atheists make that error. Actually, in most case I have encountered, most seemingly dogmatic atheists are really expressing their view forcefully because that is what is expected in what people call argument.

And this is, in part, why my preferred definition of atheism is "lack of belief in god(s)." It has many benefits:
(1) It is ideology-free.
(2) It is inclusive.
(3) It is focused on a precise subject matter.
(4) It avoids epistemological issues surrounding most certainty claims.

This ploy of conflating atheism with knowledge claims is why we often see apologists unable to distinguish coherently between atheism and agnosticism. No, agnosticism is not just a weaker version of atheism. They are about different subject matters. For the record, yours truly is an agnostic atheist. The definition of God does not admit of verification/refutation, so knowledge of God's existence is impossible. I make no knowledge claims. At the same time, I lack belief in god(s). Despite the mewlings of apologists, this is not a contradiction.

Axiomatic Truths

Some people treat definitions like they are written in stone, absolute, inflexible, inviolable, immutable truths. In fact we create and revise definitions based on utility. As someone who has studied philosophy, I can tell you that often philosophers create new terms to express new ideas or refine existing ones. When one is working with abstract or very precise concepts, it is often necessary to make sub-distinctions and/or new definitions in order to more precisely describe or advance the subject matter.

The matter becomes even more ... interesting ... when we are speaking of definitions about social constructs or conventions (especially normative ones) which do not have any firm empirical basis.

However, even if we are talking about a field with hard empirical reference, our understanding of the empirical data may change over time, and new terms are created to reflect that. There was a time when earth, wind, fire and water were considered the "elements." Modern chemistry and physics now uses "elements" to refer to over a hundred precise atomic entities. What is it, 118 as of last count? Further, energies and forces and a host of other words have been added to the repertoire in order to deal with yet another feature of reality. As our understanding expands, our lexicon grows and becomes more precise.

Now, one can easily see how absurd it is to have the Funk & Wagnalls (a common dictionary) dictate the discourse in a very specialized subject matter. Your average theoretical physicist is not going to constrain their work to the dictates of the Funk & Wagnalls. The Funk & Wagnalls was a *general* reference, not one precise to a specific subject matter with very precise terminology. The same is true of any specialized field of study, including philosophy (epistemology). For these there are specialized texts including much more precise language. This is why course materials include textbooks, and not just the Funk & Wagnalls. So, if you want to talk about philosophical definitions, it might be wise to refer to something a little more specialized than the Funk & Wagnalls. How about for starters. Even then, we must keep in mind that there is developing work, not yet represented in the encyclopedia. As atheism develops, it might be wise to consult the negotiations among atheists about what it means - and there are very, shall we say, vigorous negotiations underway...

Funk & Wagnalls is no longer, but its name is fun to say, so... ;)
Insert your favourite general dictionary name as desired.

It's Chaos, I tells ya! Pure CHAOS!

The language is not static. However, there are folks who don't like new ideas and latch onto previous definitions with a fanatical tenacity - usually from an agenda-driven perspective. Dictionaries change over time as natural usages of words evolve. It is not the case that language adheres (with fanatical devotion) to the dictionary; the dictionary evolves as the language does. Dictionaries, by necessity, lag behind the current state of the language. The internet perhaps reduces this lag (yes, gamers, bitterly laugh away), but doesn't eliminate it altogether.

While it is true that common definitions are, to some degree, necessary for conversations to occur (there's a reason why your average Joe is not a theoretical physicist and rarely converses coherently about technical matters with theoretical physicists), this does not mean that the language is forever fixed. To fix our stipulations in place would be to deny ourselves opportunity to advance any subject matter. Of course, that's what some people want...

I discuss we atheists defining ourselves now in another of my earlier blogposts:
By Atheists, of Atheists, and for Atheists

Dicktionary Theists

Now, religious apologists often choose to use definitions that service their desires, but all that's going to do is leave them bereft of understanding. If you want to find out what atheism means, consult atheists, not theists who contrive their understandings specifically to counter atheism. If you consult atheists, you might learn something about what we think and how we think (as opposed to what you think we think and how you think we think).

It seems to me that what we have here is a case of talking past each other (put more charitably perhaps, a negotiation of what the word "atheist" means). So, what does "atheism" mean? The word is even under negotiation among atheists, with "lack of belief" being the rising star (it avoids certain epistemological traps theists are prone to and try to set for us). Otherwise, enjoy choking on the dust of the rest of us leaving you behind. I'll wave to you in the rear view mirror as a passing courtesy. :)

Friday, August 24, 2012

AtheismFree (TM)

Stop the Experiments!

Imagine if someone walked into a laboratory and told the scientists to revise their test results because it didn't fit with cherished notions of the day. Imagine if that someone said that no experiments that might reach that unfavorable result could be conducted, or even talked about being conducted. Imagine if ideology-based "facts" were introduced as lab results. Imagine if orthodoxy requirements replaced error-correction.

What do you think would become of science?

Atheism, and even skepticism, are in crisis right now, looking at restipulations based on ideological demagoguery rather than on any honest effort to get at the facts of the inquiry. Atheism+ is really atheism minus even the attempt at talking about descriptive reality.

Are we now going to say that any scientific result that doesn't agree with some feminist assertion must be revised so that it does? When Bush tried to introduce "faith-based" evidence into science, the effort was resisted, because it would undermine the error-correction methodology of the scientific enterprise. When Shermer tried to equate skepticism with his radical political and economic ideology, libertarianism, he was left, quite properly, licking his wounds.

Think I am overstating the case? Now we see FtB seeking to impose ideological orthodoxy requirements on its bloggers. This undermines the unlimited scope necessary for open inquiry. Whatever else the FtB may be, it is not about free thought. If we are going to revert back into only inquiring about what we are permitted to inquire about, then we might as well go back to the Church-led dark ages.

I have met atheists who are not epistemologically rigorous - the ones who think they "know with certainty" that god(s) do not exist. I have met atheists who have radically different opinions on social policy than I do. I have met atheists who do not share my skeptical perspective on conspiracy theories and woo. I have met atheists who believe in UFOs and/or ESP. They are still atheists. Agreeing or not with me on these matters does not make them not atheists.

So, when are freethinkers going to get around to defending free thought? When are skeptics going to get around to defending skepticism? When are atheists going to get around to defending atheism? When are the rational going to get around to defending reason?

When are inquirers going to get around to defending free inquiry?

This Humanist

I am a philosophical skeptic, an atheist and a humanist - in that order. I do not claim that humanism is true; I am a skeptic after all. Nor do I claims that humanism is essential to atheism. In my view, atheism is skepticism with regard to a particular claim. I understand that however much I love humanism, it is not a necessary component of atheism - a separate subject matter. *That* recognition is what not letting ideologies dictate your inquires is. Just because I like it doesn't mean it is objective fact. Realizing that is intellectual integrity. Well, just because you like it (whatever "it" is) doesn't mean it is objective fact either. Normative values are not empirical facts. That I, or you, like it or dislike it does not make it any less or any more of a fact. It's easy to see how the other person's ideological stances are not a consequence of atheism. It is not so easy to do so with one's own. That blindered thinking is what we are seeing in so called Atheism+.

People may feel it is a matter of opinion whether there are god(s) or not, but whether there are god(s) or not is not a matter of opinion. Understanding the difference between these is critical to empirical study, indeed any study that strives to be objective (like skepticism, which is not just about empirical matters). It is a clear and precise understanding of the descriptive/prescriptive distinction that I champion - that and the unlimited scope of inquiry necessary for progressing any subject matter. Somebody has to, or we will slip back into the darkness of dogmatic orthodoxy again.

The Pernicious

So what can be more disgraceful than a scientist, a skeptic, an atheist who cannot comprehend the difference between description and prescription?

When Myers squeaks derisively of the "textbook definition" of atheism, I wonder what he is talking about. I mean, what exactly is the non-textbook definition of atheism that allows ideologies to annex atheism in their name? If only you believe what I believe? That would be very Church-orthodoxy of one, would it not? Which "atheism" with which ideological content is the right one and how are we supposed to tell? Science works, in part, because it is very precise in its terms, its jargon, its concepts. Precision in language offers precision in thought. How often do you see scientists say, "We have decided to abandon our jargon, the language that leads to clarity and precise inquiry, careful calculation and rigorous discussion. Now we are going to refer to all sciencey content as 'stuff.'"

Because, you see, that is what Atheism+ is in the vision of the ideological demagogues. Atheism is now "stuff" that includes all their stuff while excommunicating anyone who dares critique the cherished stuff. And guess who gets to decide what is the proper stuff?

Once upon a time, atheism was about whether there are or are not god(s). More recently, in response to theistic epistemological traps, atheism started talking about belief states with respect to the existence of god(s). Now it is about being nice? Well, theists have been saying forever that atheism is not nice but we persevered, focused on the real subject matter - not about how palatable the ideological sheep thought the subject matter was. Atheism+ is another variant of the "militant atheist" meme. "If you don't agree with my ideology, STFU!" I don't think so.

In the meantime, the theists are laughing their heads off at us for getting bogged down in the quagmire of ideological stuff, all reinforcing their mistaken claim that atheism is just another ideology. A claim we have, until recently, at least tried to mitigate with some attempts at objectivity, back when we thought is such terms. Once upon a time we went to great lengths to talk about the facts, or lack thereof. Now ideological elements within atheism are fueling theistic claims, not just by following their own ideology, but by tring to impose it on everyone else - on pain of being excommunicated from the conversation. This is a rot from within. This is apologism for a non-God ideology.

You know, sooner or later some clever feminist is going to hit upon the idea that feminist orthodoxy could be more easily imposed on others if it were painted as God's will. What do think atheism will become then?

If "Atheism+" takes hold, we will have to begin our struggle for objectivity all over again. Atheism permits inquiries that God-content formerly prohibited. Atheism does not require ideological orthodoxy. We do not do honest inquiry any favours by replacing one ideological orthodoxy with another.

AtheismFree (TM)*

*TM = Trade Mark.

I think I shall stick to my "AtheismFree." Atheism free of orthodoxy requirements and ideological demagoguery. Atheism that can focus on the actual subject matter, free of fallacies of relevance. Atheism for anyone and everyone. Or in other words, atheism.

I think I shall also stick with a definition of free thought that actually leaves people free to think. Imagine that!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Here's a nice, short one, barely a comment...

I often say, "Doubt is not denial." It's almost a mantra for me, because people confuse the two so astonishingly often, usually deliberately.

The Japanese have a term for the game Go. It is "sente." The closest English translation is "initiative." Your opponent is said to have sente when you are spending your game actions responding to your opponent's moves. Those who play chess will be familiar with this sorry state, helplessly having your moves dictated to you by your opponent. A game of chess, and Go, is about controlling the game, dictating the course of game events.

Theists make a claim about the existence of God. This claim is presented as an affirmation, the baseline for the discussion. If you question this affirmation, you are said to be denying it, and your question is said to be a negative act of denial. This is called controlling the discourse. The theist causes the skeptic to respond to the affirmation. Sente. The skeptic is depicted as denying. Doubt and denial are falsely conflated with each other, and skeptical doubt gets painted as denialism.

Do you let the theist seize sente? Do you think skepticism is denial?

And this, in part, is why we are seeing a rise in a definition of atheism as a "lack of belief in god(s)." It changes the discourse baseline and denies the disingenuous theist sente.

And this perhaps, helps clarify my snippet:
The logical contradiction of "believing A" is not "believing not-A."
The logical contradiction of "believing A" is "not believing A."

First 30 seconds of an intro logic course; the definition of "not."

This difference is critical, because there is more than one way of "not believing A," one of which is skeptical doubt, which is not denial.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Be the Test Subject

Hard-hat warning. Rampant exploration ahead...

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

This was a snippet I crafted while in a Laurie Anderson mood. Yes, I was being flippant at the time, but it does suggest something interesting, does it not? It uses normative language to prescribe not using normative language.

When I was a young man, taking my first course in analytic ethics, I encountered this idea of a moral prescription and wondered what it was - how it worked. The textbook told me that it was intimately connected with words like "should," "ought," (and their contradictories), "good," "evil," and others, so I thought I'd try a little experiment. I decided to surgically remove these words from my natural discourse, my everyday speech. It quickly became apparent to me how prevalent these words and words like it are, and how subtly they are interwoven into our language.

Now, of course, we use "should/ought" in a couple of very different ways. In one sense, these words represent an expectation. Striking a nail firmly enough with a hammer "should" drive it into the board. This use of "should" is a prediction, not necessarily based on any normative considerations. This is not the meaning of "should" I was seeking to find, but it does end up becoming part of the context, in that many of our expectations are moral ones. Indeed one could argue that morality is a realm of reasonable expectations...

It is the other sense that really caught my attention as a student of analytic ethics. It is the use in which we pretend that something is to be the case based on a desire or a command (it's even hard to depict this without using those words). It is interesting to note that "should" serves a command function in our everyday language use. This is subtly disguised by a lack of direct reference to the commander.

"Do X" is a command referencing the speaker as the commander, X as the thing to be done, and the person spoken to as the one commanded. "You should do X" again gives us the X (the thing to be done), refers to the person spoken to as the commanded, but leaves the commander much less well-defined. This has the effect of making it hard to point at the commander and argue with it. Now, theists will say that the commander is God, and it is intrinsically ridiculous to argue with God, since God is, by definition, always Right in His commands. Without god(s), as moral commanders, suddenly the commander becomes obviously the speaker again and that leaves room for debate whereas before, no such room existed.

Trying to avoid prescribing normatively, I restated "oughts" and "shoulds" as if-then "must" or "expect" conditionals. If you value X, then you must Y. This kept me from asserting or "affirming" X. This had the interesting effect of distancing myself from my own normative evaluations. I started to define myself, not so much in terms of the values I held, but in my ability to recognize my own values for what they were - normative constructs, and what they weren't - facts/truths. In this way, I was able to look past my own biases and was able to start taking responsibility for not just my actions, but also my attitudes. And that's something theists never do; take responsibility for their attitudes. They don't see attitudes/values as something they have. They see them as something they are, and this is no small difference.

One of the greatest catastrophes of the Ancient Greek philosophical traditions is this idea of "living a philosophy." Of defining yourself in terms of this or that philosophical stance. We see it at work today, with phrases like, "stick to your guns," and "don't ever let them change who you are." This sentiment I find nonsensical. When did "don't change your mind" become a positive thing? When did refusing to learn and grow become a value?

This experiment is one I recommend to everyone, even if done only casually (I dedicated three years and then much of the rest of my life to it) if you wish to understand how these words work and what they mean in natural use. But more, if you wish to understand how normative-evaluative language controls your discourse and your thinking. It's not easy at first, but gets easier as time goes on - as you develop the skill. It's like being a skeptic, holding that possibility that one might be mistaken, firmly in one's mind. I often hear people say things like "well, no one can be skeptical of everything." Seriously? You can't hold the possibility that you might be in error at all times? Sure you can. It's easy, with practice.

What this experiment really did was help to illustrate with remarkable clarity the difference between a description and a prescription. A statement of fact and a command/desire. This is a skill I think we desperately need today. And this is also how I came to science philosophically - by recognizing my own biases at work, seeking to correct for them, not just when applied to the facts, but also in recognizing *how* I was making errors and how the language encourages me to make these errors - to impose my will on others with subtle command structures. With prescriptivity.

Prescriptivity (and normative language) is a self-referential web of command functions designed to influence you and to allow you to exert influence over others. This about control and use of them is about controlling others. And that, is the business of religion. But, what does it say about us that we think everyone else needs to be controlled?

This is why my working definition of religion is "a prescriptive philosophy."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dglas "Inquest"

Some folks seem to like personal posts, and I was asked to describe my "worldview."

Who the hell is Dglas anyway?

Some of this is already in the snippets and soundbites you can find along the periphery of the Inquest, but perhaps a more structured approach is in order. Now, please understand that this is a particularly difficult exercise for me. It's like trying to nail down that which I deliberately keeps nails away from. It's like saying "This I believe" without using the word "believe."

Nevertheless, here goes...

I am fallible. We are fallible. This is not a thing that is easily internalized. Philosophies are tools, not truths. The instant we think we have the truth, we stop. Never stop. Inquiry is a journey, not an end. I see dogma and ideology as self-imposed hobblings of our minds and inquiry. This is why I combat religion - not just a particular religion - but all of them, and on the same basis.

My views are forward-looking, human-centered, life-affirming, freedom-loving, and reality-based. I sing the song of reason, free inquiry, and science, and of inclusive mindsets and cooperative mentalities. I am a philosophical skeptic, promoting unlimited scope of inquiry. No subject matter was ever advanced by bobbleheading.

I am a humanist, but I realize that is a choice, not a truth. My humanism is human centered - it is of humans, by humans and for humans, not a consequence of something else. I value humans for their own sake, not as mere cogs in a dogmatic meat grinder, not because some fantasy figure commands me to, but of my own choice. I don't advocate honour killings or savage retributivistic mentalities.

I do not "believe in" - that is a mindset I do not engage in. I "believe that" and those beliefs are contingent on reality. Based on, corrected by, and about reality. Subject to change if reality requires it. Really, I posit, rather than believe.

Every new thing gets an "Oh. Cool!" from me. I critique the philosophies that are exclusion machines and conflict engines. I inquire. I explore. And I revel in that. I have come to posit that explorers are what we are, from our first breath. My greatest fear is hardening of the grey matter and ideological stances that cause grey matter to harden.

No one is going to save us. It's us, only us, we may rely upon. Even if I am wrong about that, it is still a practical starting point.

I advocate for honest negotiation of our social constructs, morality being one of them, with continuing negotiation being key - again, a journey, not an end. Dogmas and ideologies are dishonest negotiation. I recognize the difference between words and violence, and I see the difference between fantasy and reality. I understand the difference between the purely analytic and the synthetic. We can't find out about reality by building massive webworks of purely analytical structures, divorced from reality.

I am a philosophical skeptic, with a practical streak. This is not a contradiction. Doubt is not denial.

Of course, I am a work in progress, just like this description is, subject to revision... because that's really the defining characteristic of who I am, and that includes not just my empirical positings, but my non-empirical ones as well.