Monday, January 28, 2013

Why is the USA so religious? A suggestion

Why is the US such a religious place?

This is really a hard--and important--question, and it's one that I think about frequently. I don't suggest to have the answer to this question, nor the answer as to what to do about it, but I would like to suggest a piece of the puzzle that I don't think I've read elsewhere so far. As a disclaimer, this is an armchair analysis.

For my purposes, the primary question I ask is actually a comparison: why is the US so much more religious than Europe?

European culture and American culture are not identical, of course, and so there could be fundamental cultural differences at the bottom of the matter, but of course, the correlation could be the other way. Indeed, a recent post I put on this blog has gotten me thinking about this problem in a new way, and I believe I'm prepared to offer a suggestion that may account for a significant part of the answer.

For the too-long;-didn't-read crowd, I think a huge part of the answer is that Europe has been exposed to a lot more religious diversity than the United States has--something I haven't always thought is so significant. Musings upon my recent post will help illustrate why I think this.

A quick aside about the Problem of Evil

First, I've thought for a while that the answer might have a lot to do with World War II--and I still do. Europe pretty well got devastated by it, along with its predecessor, and at some point, the illusion of a watchful, loving God is pretty hard to sustain against the Problem of Evil, which is pretty up-close and personal when your town and your nation, along with all of the neighboring ones, are getting blown up and your family, along with many of the neighboring ones, are losing fathers, sons, and sometimes others to getting blown up so terribly regularly.

In the end, I still think the up-close and personal faceoff with the Problem of Evil presented to Europeans in the 20th century plays a significant role in explaining why Europe is so much less religious than the United States.

My newer reasoning

That mentioned, the other aspect that I've thought probably plays a considerable role is that Europe is more multicultural than the United States. This is very largely a product of geography, as the US is bordered to north and south by huge Christian-based cultures and to the east and west by thousands of miles of ocean. The reasoning I did for my recent post about the question "which is more likely, that your religion is true or that all of them are false?" has strengthened my suspicion that this is the main mover, not the great wars, in the rapid secularization of Europe through the 20th century.

In that post, I gave a cursory answer to that question by combining a bit of Bayesian style reasoning with the central premise of John Loftus's powerful Outsider Test for Faith. Admittedly, the analysis I did there is very cursory, and I openly indicate that.

Well, because the answer I gave comes from such a cursory analysis, I literally lost a lot of sleep the night I posted it because I was thinking about strengthening it. I've already jotted down most of what I was thinking of in a comment on that post (Link), and to very briefly summarize, it comes down to the fact that in that oversimplified construction, if we face the situation where there is only one extant religion, it appears (but is not) reasonable to conclude that the prior probability for the validity of that religion is 100% (or very near it). It bears remembering that a 100% prior probability is unassailable by evidence in a Bayesian analysis.

As I've considered this situation more, it occurred to me that that is nearly exactly what the situation has been in the United States that is so starkly different from the situation in Europe, particularly through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries when so much of the secularization of European society has taken place. Americans have been able to effectively ignore the existence of other religions until quite recently.

So, to summarize a bit, If John Loftus is right in suggesting that the diversity of religious faiths is the proper grounds to require an Outsider Test for Faith, and Richard Carrier is more or less right that even though we're bad at it in some cases, humans essentially reason using Bayesian reasoning even if we don't know it, then I think my thinking here is quite suggestive at a cause for this mystery--Europeans have been more face-to-face with other religions than Americans have and have thus been pulled into this kind of Outsider-Test-style Bayesian-flavored reasoning that undermines specific religious faith.

Whatever contention people have with Loftus and Carrier, I don't think these two hypotheses are particularly controversial. My claim is essentially that being generally ignorant of the world far outside of their everyday experiences, and being generally superficial in their analyses, many American people will have faced the situation where, for all intents and purposes, there was really only one religious faith that amounted to anything in the world, a situation which has carried enough momentum on American culture and thinking to have maintained anomalously high (by rich democracy standards) religious adherence.

Thus, for the same reason that the United States was hit vastly differently by the great wars of the 20th century, it also was culturally an island. The presentation of an over-simplified Outsider Test was given in such a way

The pieces seem to fit even better

The easiest objection to this line of thought is that no American could possibly have been raised thinking there is only one religion, particularly because of the wide diversity of Christian denominations that sit rather at the center of the establishment of the American experiment. That, though, in a cursory analysis is very easy to rationalize away since all of these denominations, however crazy they are viewed from different churches and however hell-bound the heretical followers of others might be, are still all Christianity. By removing only one phylomemetic level, this problem can be and has been rationalized for American culture. The other denominations are different and wrong but simply not wrong enough to warrant the kind of challenge that a fully outsider religion like Hinduism or Islam presents.

The next easiest objection is "what about the Jews?" Yes, what about them? Observe what language provides for us in this regard: Judeo-Christian is something that not only do we recognize as a concept, it's something most religious Americans identify themselves with. They accept and adhere to "Judeo-Christian" values. On the other hand, we never hear Judeo-Christian-Islamic values in the United States, and I don't think anyone identifies by this term. Further, the term that we do have for that idea, Abrahamic, is still one that is not readily adhered to. Here, our language provides a clue that the American culture (perhaps not uniquely) has usurped the existence of Judaism into the same phylomemetic structure as Christianity. This isn't terribly surprising since the Bible talks copiously about "the Jews" and identifies Jesus as one.

Then there's the next big piece. The "rise of the Nones," particularly meaning the rapid secularization of the American culture, especially among young Americans. It's tempting to award science the medal here, but it seems suggestive that a particular piece of technology is the winner: the Internet.

The rise of the "Nones" follows pretty closely with the rise of the Internet. The Internet, better than almost anything else it does for people, effectively removes many of the natural barriers to the exchange of ideas. The Outsider Test, informally, was handed to Americans, particularly young Americans, on a silver platter, and the effect has been dramatic. Though it's worth noting that it greatly helped matters (in this regard) that a faction of the Islamic religion decided to announce the reality of its existence to a still-sleepy (again, in this regard) American public an unambiguous and undeniably obvious way in September of 2001--something the Internet did not miss.

Summing up

To sum up, then, I suggest that the primary part of the answer to the hard question of "why is the US so religious?" is essentially because it has been culturally monotone enough and isolated enough to have perpetuated the Christian meme. It's worthwhile to note that the memes that are religions have as kryptonite other similar memes that cannot co-occupy the same mind and whose very existence suggests fundamental flaws in each other.

This lends credence to the power of Loftus's Outsider Test as a means to break through the barriers that maintain religion so effectively, at least for many people (though certainly not all--religious belief is a bit like cancer in that it is many, many diseases referred to by a common name). For some time, I've thought the great power in the OTF lies in being able to re-evaluate the evidence without the cognitive bias that is faith, but the real strength is exactly what Loftus notes when he first introduces the idea: there are a lot of religions, none with better evidence than any other.

It also suggests a very hopeful situation: that the Internet really is a tool incompatible with the existence of religions as we have come to know them (though it could be the tool upon which new religions are devised as well).


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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Better than Jesus; Worse than Hitler: A microscopic view of a horrible bit of Christian theology

Imagine, if you will, that a new terrible dictator were to come to power, one that puts Adolf Hitler to shame in his propensity for genocidal murder. Indeed, imagine that this terrible leader were to decree that every child born to Christian parents is to be seized at birth, baptized according to the right Christian faith, and then murdered on the spot, the moment the prayers are finished. Imagine this situation as if it were real.

What would Christians say? How would they react?

The answer, thankfully, is obvious. The outrage, the pain, the feeling of persecution, the likelihood of outright rebellion, the calls to help from outside powers to stop this monster would be deafening.

And here's the problem with that: it's the wrong reaction, if they believe their own theology.

Certainly, many of those children of Christian parents would have grown to be fine Christian men and women themselves, said the right prayers, confessed the right confessions, done the right good deeds, and lived generally upright enough lives to feel reasonably confident in their admission to heaven, per their theology--no comment on how they would be broken into tens of thousands of disagreeing sects on how to get there and how they'd never be able to feel quite sure that they made it.

On the other hand, all of those children, according to the theology, are born sinners. Baptism washes them clean, as it is generally considered utterly abhorrent to say that an innocent pre-logical child is condemned to burn for eternity simply for failing to live long enough to choose Jesus. Some of those children would have spent their lives "sinning": some would have been drug dealers or murderers; some would have been sexually promiscuous; some would have been homosexual; some would have grown up to apostatize from Christianity and become atheists. These children, if allowed to live their lives according to their choices, provided via the presumption of free will, would have been destined for hell--eternal, agonizing torment--according to the theology.

This monster of a dictator, then, is needlessly taking the brief, immaterial life--according to the Christian theology--from the would-be Godly children, but he's saving the rest from hell. According to the theology, this is a finite cost to save an infinite amount if it so much as saves a single soul and thus is not only justified but is the only justifiably moral thing to do in the context of the theology.

Now, what if this horrible dictator is himself a devout Christian, fully steeped in the theology and understanding the ramifications he faces?

This monster of a dictator, in fact, is condemning himself to hell to do it, according to the theology, sacrificing his own eternity to save the eternities of all Christian children. Jesus allegedly sacrificed his life and then went to hell for three days, depending on the theology, whereas this monster will burn forever. This horrible monster, according to Christian theology, is providing a greater sacrifice than Jesus, then, in personal cost while providing the guarantee of salvation for every Christian child, instead of merely offering an ill-defined opportunity for it.

Would Christians see this monster this way--as the realization of the salvation of all Christian children?

Would they exalt him, sing his praises, and try to get him to provide the same benefits for children of other parents?

Why not?



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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith highlights this frequently asked question about probabilities

I've written a little bit about John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith before a few times (indeed, these are the most popular posts on my blog by a considerable margin), using one interpretation of Bayesian reasoning to illustrate how it works. (If you're not reading his writing by now, let me remind you that you should read John Loftus's writing.) I've been reading up about Bayesian reasoning more since those posts and have some things to say about it--I'm not sure anymore that that is the best way to use Bayes's theorem--but that's not for here. Soon, I promise....

Anyway, I stumbled across something on Twitter earlier, where another nonbeliever was attempting to strike home a point that rests at the center of Loftus's construction of the Outsider Test of Faith. His comment amounts to the frequently asked (or commented upon) question: "Given the wide variety of religions in existence, which is more probable, that your particular religion is the one right one, or that none of them are?" This, for those who have read Loftus, is the question that sits at the center of the first step of the Outsider Test for Faith, and it has been remarked upon by a large number of very considered folks.

As a mathematician, I'm tempted to play with it because of the word problem that it is. Of course, as a mathematician, I am going to vastly oversimplify the problem, but to justify that decision, I will also qualify that I'm doing it and carefully construct why it's not such an unreasonable thing to do in the right context.

My oversimplification of the question simply will suppose the outsider's position in the Outsider Test for Faith: "I don't believe any of the world religions at present. Therefore, without more information, I will evaluate them as separate explanatory hypotheses about the world, each independent and approximately equally likely to be true (before considering any evidence)." This is the starting point in the OTF investigation, using one of the most damaging (and probably violence-inspiring) facts about the various religions: there are a lot of them that appear to make roughly analogous claims about the world.

To get a bit more into this, I will presume that there is some number N of world religions and consider an uninformed background in the attempt to answer the question: Which is more likely, that your particular religion is the one right one, or that none of them are?

Given N equally likely to be true, independent hypotheses, the probability that any particular one of them is true while all the rest are false is a bit lower than we might normally expect. It seems like the probability would simply be 1/N, but because of the requirement that all of the other religions are false as well, it's a bit worse than that naive approximation. Indeed, the formula that provides this probability is:

(1/N)[1-(1/N)]^(N-1)

The second of those two factors, meaning the complicated one, is the probability that all the other hypotheses are simultaneously wrong, and the naive approximation makes the first factor (the probability that without any additional information, one of the N is the true one--which actually presumes that there is a true one, a problem this more complex expression does not have).

On the other hand, the likelihood that none of them is true is given by the expression:

[1-(1/N)]^N

With these tools, we can actually address the question under these oversimplifying assumptions. In general, what we immediately can see from a straightforward application of algebra is the answer to the question at hand: the probability that none of the hypotheses are true is (N-1) times the probability that some specific hypothesis, but no others, is true.

For different values of N, this is fairly interesting to see in numbers:
  • For N=2 (Christianity versus Islam, say), we get that the probability that one particularly is true while the other is false is 1/4 (25%), which is the same as the probability that neither is true.
  • For N=3 (throw in Judaism, e.g.), we get that the probability that one particularly is true while the others are false is 4/27 (14.8%), while the probability that all three are false is twice that, 8/27 (29.6%).
  • For N=20 (the number of major religions on earth), we get that the probability that one particularly is true while the others are false is 1.89%, while the probability that all twenty are false is 35.8% (nineteen times as likely).
  • For N=40000 (the approximate number of Christian denominations at present*--something an outsider has to choose in coming to Christianity), we get that the probability that one particularly is true while the others are false is a mere 0.000919% (about one in 109,000), while the probability that all of them are false is 36.8%.
  • If we consider all of the religions that ever were, it gets worse. If we consider all the religions that ever will be, worse still. If we consider all of the religions that possibly could be, even worse still, at least in terms of what this is measuring (see below).
The trend is very important and clear. While we see (if we look closer) that the probability that none of them is true approaches a particular value near 37% (the actual value as N gets arbitrarily large gets arbitrarily close to 1-(1/e), for those that know what the transcendental constant e is), the probability that some particular one is true while the rest are false plummets like roughly 1/(3N) (really, it's the same factor: nearer 0.37(1/N)). Admittedly, this is only a good approximation when N is relatively large, but a fair amount of argumentation (given religious diversity, past and present) is required to justify that N isn't a lot bigger than most of us would toss out at first guess.

This reads like a lot of gobbledegook, to be real about it, but what it means is that as the number of competing religions goes up, from the outside, the likelihood that any particular one of them is the One True Faith plummets like a stone while the likelihood that none of them are true rocks it steady at a little better than a third.

* Given the enormous disparity between the Christianities of today and the Christianities of yesteryear, it being hard to even imagine Inquisition-period Christians not burning most modern Christians alive for their heresies--this number of present denominations is rather a low-ball estimate of the proper number of Christianities that should be considered for this kind of analysis to be fair. Furthermore, if we throw in the total number of divergent sects of all of the varying religions, even if we limit our attention to the present, this number is easily justifiably significantly larger. Adding in all present and historical religions (say within the last few thousand years) makes it very difficult to make any argument that the real number that should be used here is any less than 100,000 total faiths, without even taking into account future or never-to-be-thought-of faiths.


In terms of Loftus's OTF, what this tells us is that we're perfectly justified in assigning an even lower prior probability, from the outsider's perspective, to any given religious faith than we might naively expect. Just in terms of what religions there are, we can see that an outsider is perfectly justified assigning a prior that is 1/3 of what he might ordinarily choose, supposing at least that such an outsider is open to the reality that there are a lot of religions out there.

(Just for fun, in essence, if we consider all of the billions and billions of religions that ever were, are, will be, or could possibly be even if the won't necessarily be, we can be justified in assuming a prior probability of validity of any particular one that is astonishingly small while being quite comfortable that, as as the prior to a competing hypothesis, there is pretty close to a 36.8% chance that "none" is the reality.)

This is not insubstantial. In a more cautious Bayesian analysis than I wrote about before, even doing the religious a great service by saying that their religious claims are as they say--highly likely to predict the world as we see it--while sticking to our guns that a non-religious (naturalistic) interpretation is equally good, the odds that "no religion is valid" is true as compared to "this particular religion is true" from an outsider's perspective look like
  • About 19 to 1 in favor of "no religion is valid" assuming only 20 major world religions as equal contenders, and
  • About 40,000 to 1 in favor of "no religion is valid" in the ~40,000 denominations situation. 
These odds aren't nail-in-the-coffin long, but given that they concede an enormous amount of the argument, in terms of apologetic concession, this is a pretty stout statement in terms of how unlikely any religion is to be true given how many of them there are in the world (particularly since distributions appear mostly to be geographic accidents of birth than anything else).

Indeed, even if we concede more to the apologists and say that their nay-saying about science might be right, say that the naturalism approach is only half as good as the religious argument at explaining our evidence (even though we have lots of good reasons to believe it is the other way around), just the existence of 20 major religions puts the odds at 10 to 1 against any particular one being true, and the 40,000 denominations argument gives us odds near 20,000 to 1 against any particular one of them being the right one. Realize for a moment how much this gives up to the apologist and look at those odds again! Even if we give them a huge part of their argument, the sheer existence of so many other faiths making analogous claims still puts their odds sharply out of their favor. Another way to say this is that even if we give apologists for some religion a great deal of their argument, an enormous amount of their work in establishing their case is still ahead of them!

Truly, there is a lot of weight in expecting to get this question wrong by picking any particular faith.

Not so fast!

To be totally fair, as I mentioned, this is oversimplified. Indeed, religions are a bit more complex than this. First of all, this construction ignores the fact that the religions themselves already (sometimes) posit mutual exclusion. For example, it is not possible for any pair of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to be true. Indeed, it is not true for any of the One True Faiths, as I call those three, to be true while any other faith is true. On the other hand, faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism are much more inclusive. This complicates things if we want real numbers on this question, but from the perspective of the Outsider Test for Faith, particularly in assigning a prior probability for a bit of Bayesian reasoning on it, it doesn't matter much. The particulars can be swept up by considering the evidence.

For example, the first numerical example I give above suggests "Christianity versus Islam, say" and identifies a 1/4 chance that either particularly is true and a 1/4 chance that neither is true (therefore with a 1/4 chance that both are true). Both cannot be true, though, and so this analysis is not accurate to the reality of mutually exclusive religious claims--although as I noted, this could be weighed as evidence instead of as part of the prior background knowledge about the faiths, in which case the existence of the other in the world actually speaks against the validity of either!

Furthermore, as I noted above, long odds against don't really matter against really good evidence. The (incredibly tiresome) arguments around the burden of proof and the war on confirmation bias must continue then. If the evidence were extremely good for the validity of some branch of Christianity, for example, long prior odds wouldn't matter against the weight of that evidence (above, this situation would translate to the evidence being vastly better predicted by that particular theistic hypothesis as opposed to others). So, still, this isn't a nail-in-the-coffin kind of argument against believing in some religion--even if it is a god damned strong one that says, "but if you do, you're very probably wrong about which one."

Edit (26 Jan 2013): To see  more about how significantly this is an oversimplification, please see my comment on the matter below. Link.

Now, a really savvy reader here will notice that the construction I give, with lots and lots of religions, essentially gives a ~37% chance that no religion is true and therefore a ~63% chance that some religion is true. A dishonest one will attempt to read this as an argument that there is a ~63% chance that God exists, but that's bogus. Why? A couple of reasons.

First, not all religions have to posit that a God exists (indeed, some extant one don't!). In fact, it may be possible to imagine a godless version of each religion that exists, at least for many religions, akin to Jewish Atheism. Second, this analysis doesn't examine evidence except the number of religions, which is only one piece of data regarding that question.

A truly dishonest reader will conclude at this point that surely it suggests then that there's a ~63% chance that some religion is true. It doesn't. Again, this is merely an examination before considering the evidence. Do bear in mind, though, that even if it did create this argument (again, it doesn't), absolutely nothing guarantees that the hypothetical true religion even exists in the world yet (or ever will). Therefore, to take this ~37% thing as an argument for any religion in general lives at the height of academic dishonesty only succeeded by taking the next dishonest step and jumping from some religion to this religion--which is exactly what this argument destroys our confidence in doing.

What good is it, then?

The real value here is in terms of highlighting the power of the Outsider Test for Faith without even having to consider how an outsider is likely to evaluate evidence as compared to an insider (afflicted as insiders are with the cognitive bias we call "faith").

In particular, it takes a big, bold, and bright highlighter to the fact that the distribution of world religions is an enormously heavy and hard argument against the validity of any particular one of them, especially given the sheer number of them that exist--a number that seems to grow, not shrink, with time (which is even more evidence against them).


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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

John W. Loftus reviews God Doesn't; We Do

John Loftus, author of many excellent books I heartily encourage (not least Why I Became an Atheist, which I put on my list of four must-read books for everyone who really wants to understand Christianity and why we should reject its claims as untrue), has done me a great kindness in taking the time to read my own book, God Doesn't; We Do, and has put a review on his blog Debunking Christianity, review: "Lindsay's Book Delivers the Goods with Both Knowledge and Passion".

John writes:
If I were to write a blurb for Dr. James A. Lindsay’s God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges it would be,
This book offers a passionate and erudite set of important challenges to people of faith, complete with a nice touch of humor and a sense of urgency that we don’t see often in similar books by intellectuals. In it most readers will find some fresh arguments that provoke thought and deserve our attention. Unlike the four "New Atheists" Lindsay, who holds degrees in physics and a Ph.D. in mathematics, understands Christian theology much better than they do. In the end, Lindsay is correct; God doesn’t do anything because he doesn’t exist. Only we can solve our problems.
Personally, I'm not only honored to read what John (who is in some ways one of my heroes for his incredible commitment and thorough, clear writing) has to say about my work in such glowing terms, I'm also tickled to find out what his (and other people's) favorite parts of the book are. John notes this as well:
I especially liked his chapter 7, "The Problem of a Silent God." That this is a huge problem for people of faith cannot be overstated, and Lindsay is an expert guide through it.
That means that so far, of the four people who have told me which chapter they like best, I have four different answers: Chapter 4: "Defining God," Chapter 7: "The Problem of a Silent God," Chapter 10: "Spirituality without God," and Chapter 11: "What is Wrong with Moderate Faith?" Different strokes for different folks, they say, and I'm glad to have written something that appeals to such diverse interests (I actually wrote more originally but cut out chapters on history and science because the book is already quite long enough).

Now, I'm excited enough about this kind review to want to quote the entire thing, but I won't do that--go to Debunking Christianity and read it for yourself. John includes a number of quotations from the book in the review to make his points, so if you have been interested in seeing more of a preview of it than I've put out here so far, now's a great chance to see what someone else thinks is worth remarking upon.

I will, however, close with John's closing commentary, which is quite kind. He writes:
He writes well. He argues well. And he has a passion born out of an urgency to debunk religion like few other intellectuals. This is a book that every atheist should get and read. It will arm them and hopefully motivate them to help change the religious landscape like we aim to do.
Perhaps of all I read there, it's nicest to have felt understood.

For those interested, do consider John's new book, which is to be released quite soon: The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. The Outsider Test for Faith, which appears in brief in Why I Became an Atheist, is a true tour de force for analyzing the validity of religious claims (hint: not valid). The Test, if it gets the credit and recognition it deserves, should work essentially as a bulldozer to clear away any claims that religions are believed because they are "true," which should force us all to look at religious claims in a new way--one that is heavily colored by compassion as I consider it more and more.


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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Monday, January 21, 2013

On reality and logic

Cogito ergo sum, right?

A chief goal of religious apologists, and indeed, any philosopher that plays in ontology, is to demonstrate logical necessity that something must exist. The problem with this is that it puts the cart before a really big horse. The following commentary on this phenomenon appears largely as is in a comment on John Loftus's Debunking Christianity blog, on a post about the use of mockery and ridicule.

Generally speaking, I find this to be an enormously common fallacy, more common the more of a philosopher one considers him/herself to be. Again, this error is not limited to theists, though exceptionally common amongst them since ontological arguments are often central to their efforts.

Indeed, as weird as it is, a philosopher could prove "logical necessity" for the existence of some entity, say a deity, and yet no such entity must actually exist. If the logic used doesn't really match reality, we can prove all sorts of things are logically necessary and yet physically meaningless.

Indeed, it is actually easy to think of examples of this if one is properly prepared for and then spends any serious time studying mathematics, particularly transfinite math. Take, for instance, numbers that are so large as to be essentially meaningless, and I'm not talking about cute little big numbers like googolplex or Skewes's number. Sure, those are fantastically big, but they're smaller than most. There's an entire branch of mathematical philosophy known as "ultrafinitism" that says that at some point, those numbers really don't mean anything. Certainly, just because we can produce some sort of notation that indicates what they are, and because the axioms underlying number theory guarantee that they "exist," it is not incumbent upon the universe to produce or house any sort of structure that can be enumerated by those numbers. Indeed, it is easy to come up with numbers that dwarf any number that can represent the size of anything that a finite universe can create (as the countable infinite cardinal represents a strong limit cardinal, if you want to know why).

Other examples are copious: what do fractions of super-large numbers really mean in reality? How about irrational real numbers like π (which is also transcendental)? One could argue that π must exist in the universe because of how useful it is, but that's not correct if very, very good approximations of it (say to millions or billions of decimal places) are actually what's really going on (i.e. there is no requirement on the universe for a perfect circle to exist). What about the infinitely many infinities? At some point, even if the universe is infinite, logic dictates that there exist concepts with sizes that are literally beyond comprehension. Must these exist because logic says so? Or is it more reasonable to see logic as what it is: a construction that allows us to create an abstract representation of reality, rather like a map, and even extend it beyond reality's true boundaries?

To emphasize: "This must necessarily exist" only ensures the abstraction, which exists in a logico-axiomatic framework, we're talking must necessarily "exist" in the abstract sense and confers no responsibility on reality whatsoever.

Reality is not dictated, nor is it influenced, by our logical constructions. Indeed, it is the other way around, as is so often the case with really good illusions (like the illusion of intelligent design in the natural world). Our entire conception of logic has been built around the idea of how we see the universe, not the other way around. The universe appears to follow logical rules because while formulating what has become logic, if what we were saying didn't really match up with how the universe works, we called it "illogical." Sure, we've extended that now into the purely abstract, but all of our basic axioms (from which logical systems get their utility) ultimately have to be grounded in our best guesses about reality itself. Furthermore, the responsibility rests on our shoulders to realize that our abstract representations, though very, very useful (and thus justified), are abstract representations of reality, not statements about reality itself.

All along, it's been our system of attempting to understand the world (which is all logic is) getting nudged into a neater and neater fit, so far as we can tell, by the brute force of a non-agent universe (I'd say "an indifferent universe," but some fairly annoying Christian apologists have already proved to me that they try to exploit that term as if I'm implying agency by saying "indifferent"--sickeningly trite).

Now is an exciting time of sorts. We face a problem in that our highly successful map to reality (logic, and its fruits) has run into one of these places where, ultimately, we may have to reexamine the foundations of our intellectual cartography. Quantum mechanics presents evidence from reality that can be described with the tools we have, but it appears not to be able to be properly understood. It's possible that nature doesn't really present the basis the kind of logic we've been pretending it does all along. This means it's a good time to impress the lesson again: the universe, reality, is not subject to our logic. Our logic is an abstract construct via which we attempt to understand what actually is.


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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Atheism still isn't a thing, even if Atheism+ is

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece (which is still one of my favorites) called "Atheism is not a thing: the stupidity of atheist infighting and the 'atheism movement'." I really figured it would be more controversial than it turned out to be, but then again, I'm still pretty invisible. Also, then again, the intensity of the atheism infighting stuff had temporarily simmered down when I had written it, I assume because everyone was too fussed with the 2012 presidential election to give much heed to who is the better atheist.

I received a comment on that post today, though, that I feel I should respond to. Normally, I would respond directly on the comment thread, but I quickly realized that what I have to say is a bit too long for the comment thread. Thus, it gets its own blog post. Here is the comment I received:
Thing is a very broad word, with a large dictionary entry. and if the one on my mac is to be trusted, ideas and abstract concepts/entities count as things.

"3 an action, activity, event, thought, or utterance : she said the first thing that came into her head | the only thing I could do well was cook.
• ( things) circumstances, conditions, or matters that are unspecified : things haven't gone entirely according to plan | how are things with you?
• an abstract entity or concept : mourning and depression are not the same thing.
• a quality or attribute : they had one thing in common—they were men of action.
• a specimen or type of something : the game is the latest thing in family fun.
• ( one's thing) informal one's special interest or concern : reading isn't my thing.
• [with adj. ] ( a thing) informal a situation or activity of a specified type or quality : your being here is just a friendship thing, OK?"

so i guess atheism is a thing, like lgbt equality is a thing. You seem to be wanting to say atheism is not a position on anything other then the existence of god. at least i hope you are. it's hard to tell ,
also what movement ever has had completely unified goals and no infighting. infighting works for science why not here? as to the two things that bind atheists together, why do you only mentions things that both religious and non-religious could agree on. being a secularist doesn't make you an atheist. A jew might want to make sure he is not harassed or excluded from his community. You forgot the key defining part of the atheist movement, the wish for the end of the nonsense that is religion. You know ,the atheism. which is a thing, like feminism.
You ask"what happens when we start trying to define a movement, then, like with Atheism+?" By design, you get a much needed schism between people who are atheists and racist/sexist and the remaining people. Why you worry about this hurting our mutual cohesion, when your two stated goals can already bridge the atheist/theist gap, is beyond me. Would letting sexism and racism go uncommented be a better public relations move.
i also would like to point out that theist misunderstanding of atheism has little to do with how atheists present themselves. rather it is based from years of what others say about atheists.
And here, I reply:

The only one of those definitions that meets what atheism "is" happens to be the second-to-last one: "informal: one's special interest or concern." Even that's not right, though, because if someone is an atheist, they are technically by definition not concerned with theism. Indeed, they may not be concerned with religion or anti-religion at all. The term for those concerned with it, the way people usually assume when they hear "atheist," is actually "anti-theist." (Due to Christopher Hitchens, if I'm not mistaken.)

My primary point in the original post, though I didn't get exhaustive with it, is that every "thing" you can find going on within atheism that is a positive cause has another name. Granted, I only focused on two big ones, but there are a lot of them as I've realized since writing that piece.
  • Morals for atheists are often, though not always, determined via humanism.
  • Epistemology for atheists is often loosely banded to science, although some philosophers among nonbelievers take things a bit further. Generally, though, considered nonbelievers are typically philosophically skeptics and empiricists, even if they don't know those words. There's no reason to assume that everyone that's an atheist subscribes to this, though. Some might be purely secular "mystics" that subscribe to a more subjective way of knowing.
  • The political effort to separate church and state fully is called secularism and is not limited to atheists.
  • The political sub-effort to get social bias removed from nonbelievers is called the "freedom from religion movement." This also includes the effort to free other people (current believers) from religion and its damages. Aspects of this could be labelled the "freethought movement," while others are better suited for the term "freedom from religion." Much of this is fueled by secularism and humanism.
  • The effort to educate people about the religions is a form of education. 
  • The "key defining part of the atheist movement, the wish for the end of the nonsense that is religion," is anti-theism, which is an extension of freedom from religion. Atheism, which has to do with lack of beliefs, and anti-theism, which has to do with being against religion, are not the same thing. There are many, many atheists who are content to let people believe. So you have mistaken the anti-theism movement for some imaginary atheist one.
  • Disclaimer: I do not intend this list to be exhaustive.
What part of any of that, exactly, is "atheism"?

You say something about binding atheists together... what does that though? The only thing that I've observed that binds atheists together is a form of social pressure put on us from people who believe, if we want to talk generally. Often there is some commitment to one or more of those actual movements, but this is hardly required to be an "atheist," lest we get all No True Atheistman, i.e. lest we decide that there is some identifying feature to people who don't accept theism.

As a self-described "atheist," I spend a lot of time trying to sort out what that term actually means since I use it to describe myself (admittedly: I do this reluctantly and because it has a certain social necessity at present). After much consideration, I don't think it means anything, particularly. It certainly doesn't tell you anything meaningful about me, like "rational skeptic" or "secular humanist" would. I'm not alone in this exploration: several articles have been hitting the media lately in which people talk about how "humanism good; atheism bad," meaning particularly a linguistic choice, not the value of believing or not believing in God(s).

Atheism is a null position. It offers no real information about a person or his/her motivations or goals whatsoever. I have "atheist" friends with whom I'm stunningly alike on many issues. On the other hand, I know some "atheists" who are so fundamentally different from me that our experiments to be friends have failed--and meanwhile I have theist friends with whom I have so much in common that the religion question is completely immaterial. What can I conclude here? "Atheism" is not actually enough to bring people together under common values because it doesn't have anything of that kind to offer. Why? It's not a thing. I've even written another blog post here extolling the virtue of that fact that "What does atheism have to offer? Nothing--which is everything."

The big problem is that a lot of people, apparently including you, haven't thought about this enough to realize that atheism really isn't a thing. Religious people, in particular, are typically only able to conceive of positions of this sort in terms of being things (notably, positions that are not null). Atheists also apparently fall for this perceived need to rally around a banner, hence Atheism+ and Atheism 2.0. Indeed, theists and some atheists both make this error by pointing out that a "fundamental problem with atheism is that it has nothing to offer." Now would be a great time to go read that post about why offering nothing is itself a real benefit.

Perceptions matter, and so while we need to remember that atheism isn't really a thing, people see it as a thing and make judgments based upon how that "thing" is behaving. Theists are highly primed to want to find reasons to disparage "atheism," but doing so really requires them to see it as a thing or to reject the freedom of having no required dogmas.

"Atheist infighting" then is stupid because it makes a non-thing look more like a thing on the one hand, and it makes that thing look like it has major internal problems on the other. Those "major internal problems" feed the negative association that religious believers already want to have about "atheists." They also feed other common misconceptions about "atheists," particularly since most of these squabbles are over issues perceived to be tied with strong liberalism--something that conservatives (which many, many religious people are) like to pick fault with. They also feed the idea within the "atheist community" that atheism is a thing, which accelerates this feedback loop of erroneous thinking.

To really drive home this point of the stupidity of "atheist infighting," though, realize what's really going on. Atheism isn't a thing--really, it's not. That means these people are not fighting about "atheism." They're fighting about other things that happen to be espoused by some atheists. So we're seeing bad results over something that isn't even accurately labelled.

This is really a key point. Atheism isn't a thing, but mistakenly turning it into a thing really means turning it into an ideology of sorts, which is exactly the problem most atheists tend to try to strike out against. This is where I have my problem with Atheism+, not its expressed or apparent goals, necessarily, and not even its execution, but with the concept of creating a thing out of a non-thing in the first place.

Frankly, I don't care what initiatives they are rallying around, be that sexism, racism, feminism, or whatever else. I get it--there have been real incidences of these problems at skeptic and "atheist" conventions (and in the community at large). I also get it--there have been non-incidences of these problems that have been blown out of proportion. Hence the arguing: a gray area exists in which the boundaries are too complex to define with universal agreement, and skirmishes about where the lines are to be drawn are inevitable.

Don't get me wrong: I understand that sexism, e.g., is a still a common problem in our culture, and I support efforts to end that problem. I understand that women are not yet treated equally in professional or social terms, and I support efforts to correct that problem as well. I get that this happens at "atheist" and skeptic conventions where we like to pretend we're all so much more evolved than the apes that we are--while ironically remarking repeatedly that we're apes and that most people don't seem to get that, ha ha--because we're the smart, ethically superior crowd.

What I don't support is the idea that this has the first thing in the world to do with "atheism." Atheism+ uses the word "atheism" and then adds on some positive-position agendas. I'm glad people want to rally around a banner that seeks to remove the problems associated with religion, and I'm glad people want to stand up for being non-religious and for social equality, but it doesn't have anything to do with atheism. Therefore, the emphasized bit of "atheism-plus" has to be "atheism-plus." The plus, not the atheism, is where the battle is. All of this squabbling, though, is picked up by the media and rest of the community as being "something to do with atheism," and what it has to do with when those reports come out is that "atheists can't get their religion straight and are fighting over it, just like religious people." I'm going to separate the last sentence of this paragraph to make it stand out:

It does not matter that those people are wrong about accenting the "atheism" instead of the "plus" because misinformation is harder to unspread than butter, and that's when dealing with reasonable people with integrity who aren't out to misconstrue things to their advantage.

When you say that "infighting works for science, why not for atheism?" can you not see what you're missing? What, pray tell, needs to be discovered within "atheism"? What effort is there within "atheism"? What within "atheism" are we carefully working at getting right? Every single time you say something, someone else who considers it for a few moments will be able to identify a real positive-position effort that is a more accurate answer to those questions--usually in this context, "anti-theism." Why? Atheism is not a thing.

The last part of your comment all reflects this error that arises from pretending that atheism is a thing. Once you start defining ethics for it, it really starts to become a thing--and look how you have come to its defense! The going definition that I've read for Atheism+ is "atheism + skepticism + humanism." That's not what I think most people looking on from the outside would say it's about (identifying feminism as the primary emotive force almost immediately), but that raises three huge questions if atheism is supposed to be about being against religion.
  1. Why does it have to be exclusive to atheists in the first place? Couldn't we just call it Secular Humanism Plus, where the plus refers to skepticism, then? Maybe SSH--Skeptical Secular Humanism? It seems pretty weird that theists who rally around humanism, secularism, and skepticism, as well as they can, wouldn't have a home in this movement.
  2. As an extension of the previous question, though one that is itself meaningful, what does "atheism" add here in terms of describing what's going on? Shouldn't it really be "antitheism + skepticism + humanism"? This difference is not trivial. Not all atheists are anti-theist, and some are completely opposed to that effort.
  3. Why is it that the primary thing anyone sees from the outside of a skeptical + "atheist" + humanist movement is squabbling about or fighting for feminism if that's not what it's really about? I can tell you for certain that as motivated as I am for the goals of gender equality, as much of an anti-theist (and atheist), humanist, and skeptic as I am, I have no interest at all in dealing with this "Atheism+" thing because of how this is all playing out.
I'm all about gender equality and fairness, but if the movement is primarily concerned with feminism, or gender equality at a certain kind of convention or within a particular community, why not just call themselves something like that, do the same thing, but not make the mistake of trying to create a unifying banner for atheists to rally around while doing so? (Which community, though, are "atheists"? Are they conservative (yes) or liberal (yes), or perhaps more middle of the road (yes)? Are they scientists (yes) or "intuitives" (yes)? Are they anti-theists (yes) or coexistists (yes)? Are they activists (yes) or content to live as well as they can for themselves (yes)?)

Should there be these kinds of fights? Yes. Should they be so identifiable with "atheism"? No. They're certainly not limited to atheism or atheist-type events.

More broadly

I've often thought that what needs to be done in order to help people get away from theism is to organize the social and psychological contexts that religion is good at meeting for people and revamping them in a purely non-religious way. I feel like I have some pretty strong insights, in fact, into what those things are. I don't act upon them, though, because I can see what happens.

Once these things become organized, once a standard is raised for people to rally around, people will rally around it (supposing it matches their needs and aspirations). Once they do, especially once it is named, it takes on a life of its own. Since we seem to be pretty bad for becoming ideologues, for good reasons as it turns out, what seems to usually happen is that these endeavors become ideologies and thus become the very things that we are seeking to minimize the impacts of in our culture. An entire interesting post (or book(s)!) could be written about these topics, so I will not do them justice in a few paragraphs, but it really strikes to the heart of what's going on with Atheism+ to recognize that this is exactly what has happened. The problem with it, though, is that ideas have become conflated where they probably ought not be conflated. Atheism is not a thing, even if Atheism+ is one--even if what it is happens to be noble and right and wonderful and the right way to go about things.

I haven't been able to decide yet if this kind of consequence is necessary or desirable. It seems that it is inevitable, though I'm not sure. People define a great deal about themselves in terms of how well they fit into social norms and values structures that they define across communities. Moral normativists suggest that this is unavoidable and even desirable, but the problem there is that moral norms will not match across communities and will create friction when those communities interact. Moral relativism, for that reason additionally to others, has a core problem--part of the reason moral norms work is because they are essentially universal within the social group, and those norms define right and wrong, and that structure gets threatened severely by the very existence of other such structures with different value systems. Indeed, this is exactly the problem we see with all of the religious fighting, hate, and war. It's that their values structures (which protect core fears as well) mutually threaten one another's validity.

The fundamental problem is that we all, save a very few relativists (who have to deny certain aspects of social reality to succeed in their view), believe that there is some "right morality," or some small set of equivalent ones. This may be the case, and such a thing may be able to be determined or at least informed by scientific investigation--this being the main theme of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape, a point most of its critics seem to have missed. Even if there is such a thing (or number of things that can be agreed are equally salient and successful), we don't know what it is or even what its parameters really should be. Thus, we're trapped in a realm of having to subscribe at least to some moral normativism until we can know more about which approaches are saliently right and wrong and for what reasons.

Because I'd rather not see any of my own "enlightened" attempts to create a movement turn into an ideology every bit as warped and damaging as Christianity has become, with over 40,000 distinct ways of doing it right (or wrong, depending on your perspective), I'm not so bold as to try to create a banner for people to rally around until I'm more sure of what I'm getting into.

To bring this back to the specific allegation about Atheism+, by which at this point I mean feminism and an equality movement within a restricted community of nonbelievers, it rapidly becomes very easy to start to tear apart the foundations for these movements when we take the time to examine them closely. It's easy, for instance, to say that I favor gender equality. It's very difficult to know what that means. We can say it means that we pretend someone's gender doesn't matter, but that flatly ignores biology, so context has to be added. When can that be achieved? When can't it? If we were to achieve a perfectly null state of consideration with respect to gender, what would we see given the real differences in biology that exist? I don't think, for instance, that it is in any way likely that we'll see a neutered, sterile environment in the world at large or in most specific subsectors of it, including the professional world. In fact, I don't think such a state would be desirable.

These questions are enormously harder and more complex than any ideology can possibly handle. Indeed, ideology could be defined as the sub-critical acceptance of various propositions for the purpose of simplifying very difficult questions. With regard to your comment, then, I suggest that as atheism is the rejection of a consequential and broad swath of ideological positions, attempting to identify positively defined social movements by that name is a fundamental error that does not suit the actual goals of the movement it claims to be.


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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Guns

I don't want to write this. I have never wanted to write this. Still, I am going to write this. I'm going to say a piece about guns.

My blog is about God, religion, and faith, so let me get this out of the way first: God doesn't answer our gun questions for us. God doesn't grant us the right to own weapons or even to defend ourselves from armed or unarmed others. God doesn't protect us from weapons. God doesn't take home our fallen when they are killed with weapons. There's no reason to think that God does anything or even that God exists. God is therefore irrelevant to this discussion, and all insertions of God to it are beneath reasonable commentary. God is a useless hypothesis. The title of my book is God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. This is about humans solving a real human challenge.

This is a hard question; we need to stop pretending it isn't

The first thing to say about guns is that what is most wrong with the entire discussion about guns is that everyone, particularly those who are very unfamiliar and those who are very familiar with them, seems to think they know what they're talking about on an immensely complex problem, with most of the proposed assessments being embarrassingly simple. I therefore think nearly everyone is wrong about the matter, including possibly even the inimitable Sam Harris, with whom I seem to agree on almost every point in the world. Harris's “Riddle of the Gun” (and attendant FAQ on Violence) is a must-read, drawing widespread support and intense criticism, including from friendly organizations like Richard Dawkins's Foundation for Reason and Science. Harris's thinking is very clear and level, admitting the complexity of the issue, though, and he is appealing to the one thing that actually matters here: looking at the data--which does not include the passionate anecdotes that attempt, nearly universally, to pass for it. To be fair, so are the majority of his detractors and many of his supporters. So far as my potential disagreement with him goes, I'm not as fully convinced as he is that a gun is the best available way to handle some of the violent or dangerous situations that we may find ourselves in, though his argument is very convincing and well-reasoned.

About that data: There are a lot of data out there, and they aren't terribly useful for answering the kinds of questions we want to answer about guns and gun violence. The main reason for this problem is that we aren't even sure what questions we want to answer. Do we want to diminish gun massacres, gun homicides, gun violence, gun suicides, gun accidents, gun thefts, gun-enabled theft, massacres in general, homicides in general, crime of passion, violence in general, specific classes of violent crimes, suicides in general, accidental deaths in general, rates of theft, all of the above, some of the above, most of these things only when theoretically “preventable,” or what? There are a lot of parameters here, many of which we do not understand the underlying causes for, and they're very complexly interrelated. To pretend that we know what works and what doesn't, even given all of the data, is highly presumptuous. This isn't the same as saying we must throw our hands in the air and pretend to know nothing, but it does make it hard to use data to answer these questions.

The data about gun violence, etc., is also unfortunately patchwork. Much of this issue stems from the fact that there are an enormous number of confounding factors, and so some of the would-be relevant studies have not been done or have been done but have inconclusive results. In other cases, there are good reasons to believe the kinds of studies done (and not done, as it happens to be) have been deliberately tampered with to leave the data obfuscating on the issue. This makes it quite hard to draw clarity out of very muddy water.

Still, data, of as limited use as it is, is immeasurably better a way to look at this question than is any ideology, and there is an obscene amount of that dictating the debate on literally every side. It is, in fact, nearly impossible to have a sane, level-headed discussion about guns without someone appealing to some deeply baseless argument about them. Ideology, which pretends questions are easier than they are, is not going to solve any of these so-called riddles, but detecting the signal of reason within the deafening cacophony of nonsense is becoming increasingly difficult as the pot boils nearer and nearer to the top. Worse, ideology has made this topic a political hot potato that prevents even the reasonable voices from moving any pens in the Capitol.

It's about the guns, but really it's not just about the guns

There is no question that there is a great deal more work to be done regarding all of these problems than can be done by straightforward legislation about firearms, weapons, or violence. Indeed, the underlying problems are primarily cultural—it's neither guns nor gun legislation that are the main problems but rather an underlying gun culture that is out of control and getting worse. Further, it seems likely that the most relevant legislation may not relate directly to firearms in the first place. Instead, a great deal needs to be done to remove the socioeconomic—yes, economic—forces that contribute to the patterns of violence that we see running as swift currents in our society.

Whether or not violence is diminishing as a whole (as it almost unequivocally is, which apparently has an enormous amount to do with environmental legislation regarding lead in gasoline instead of some other kind), many of the underlying causes of violence in our cultures are a direct result of processes that have their roots in a disaffecting and depressing socioeconomic situation, a trend that maintains itself. Gangs, for example, which represent a significant proportion of the gun crime in the United States, are fundamentally a self-sustaining local values system (that does not match with the prevailing societal moral system) based upon violence and rooted in socioeconomic disadvantage. In other situations, shooting sprees like we saw in Newtown, CT, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, appear to have a strong underlying trend of personal disaffection with society, to the point of wanting to seek revenge upon it, which can very easily result from the sustained perception of a society that will not sustain the people who embody it.

When it comes to gun legislation itself, perhaps the most outrageously annoying argument to have to bear is when anyone pretends that they have more special insight into what the Founding Fathers of the United States intended when they wrote the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Frankly, what they wrote is ambiguous, and it can and has been read in a huge multitude of ways throughout the decades. (Speaking of those decades, far from being timeless, there are very salient arguments to be made that the Framers' opinions about weaponry are outdated and possibly even obsolete.) The Constitutional argument, then, holds very little convincing weight in any direction, for as the most extreme gun-supporters have reminded us, rocks are a form of armament, and the only thing the Constitution technically provides us the right to bear are “arms,” the kinds of which go entirely unspecified even though nearly everyone thinks a reasonable limit to what constitutes a legal “arm” exists somewhere between crossbows and nuclear weapons.

I say all of this particularly to avoid having to get into any of the insane arguments that usually come up about this supposed “natural” right to own things like AR-15s or 9mm handguns that hold 18+1 rounds or anything semi- or fully-automatic. These rights are not only not-natural, they are not explicitly endorsed by the Constitution itself and are supported instead by Constitutional interpretation by the courts which is technically subject to change anytime a sufficiently high court changes its mind about the interpretation, however difficult that may be in practice. That they aren't natural or explicit in the Constitution, though, doesn't mean that they cannot or should not be legally secured by our legal structure. That remains to be decided and is certainly not decided by some appeal to magical “natural rights” that not only do not apply automatically to firearms of any class, but also that we have no reason to believe are a meaningful concept in the first place. (No, God doesn't secure rights, laws do.)

Now, about gun legislation itself.

On the one hand, those who operate outside the law will, indeed, always be operating extralegally and therefore are likely to have guns, large magazines, and anything else banned by law. On the other hand, harder to get quite literally is harder to get, so in terms of probabilities, there will be a lower likelihood of encountering a gun-wielding criminal if there are fewer guns available for the criminal to potentially get a hold of. Indeed, simply by introducing barriers to obtaining weapons, the probability that an “average criminal” will take the effort to overcome those barriers goes down. That means that sufficiently prohibitive gun legislation, if universal enough (rendering contravening and possibly specious data about Chicago essentially moot—because Gary, Indiana, isn't that far away), will lower the probability that gun crimes will be committed and thus, on average, lower the number of gun crimes. As Sam Harris rightly notes, though, this requires some protocol, which would probably have to entail a very expensive buyback program, to remove the three hundred million or so guns from citizenry of the United States first. Please note that a voluntary buyback program is not equivalent to President Obama sending men in black suits to anyone's house to pry the guns out of any cold, dead hands, though the fact that people literally value their ability to possess firearms over their lives, or at least claim to, expresses something deeply troubling about the psychology of gun ownership in our country at present.

Then again, because of our cultural heritage, in light of the last bit of the previous paragraph, it is very unlikely that the American people would go willingly into highly prohibitive gun legislation. We the people want to be secure, but for a variety of reasons, we the people want to own firearms (including because we want to feel secure). Furthermore, as is rightly being pointed out all over the Internet, to be properly effective to the problems people most want to solve, restrictive legislation would have to extend to handguns, which Sam Harris notes is very unlikely to happen in America.

I agree that criminalizing handgun ownership is probably politically impossible, and given a look at the highly equivocal data, it may not even be desirable—though it possibly may. This last statement is controversial, but it is true that other forms of violent crime are potentially likely to rise with a full-on handgun ban, but that leaves us back at those big, hard questions about what problems we're most wanting to solve in the complex web of violence and crime. Let's not deceive ourselves though, firearms are designed particularly for the goal of making people (and animals) dead with a high probability upon their use, but on the other hand some kinds of violent crime induce horrendous suffering, potentially worse than death. In this kind of a discussion, we may well have to face deeply unpalatable and perhaps unanswerable questions like “How many brutal rapes is a prevented murder worth?”

The reason we would have to extend such a ban to handguns is because the vast majority of gun crime is done with handguns. AR-15-style rifles or not, handguns are responsible for the vast majority of the gun-related carnage that we have seen over the last several decades, including the bit that really gets us all scared: shooting sprees on innocent individuals. Incidentally, the reason shooting sprees elicit a response so disproportionate to their scope, given the tiny fraction of deaths in the U.S. that occur in these shooting sprees, is an analysis of certain probabilities and the perception of an element of control. Most of us feel either relatively secure or all-too-aware that our circumstances will not or will be likely to make us the victim of gun-related violence, respectively. The sense of being out of control of the probabilities in these random, “senseless” massacres of innocents is precisely what triggers the enormous amount of attention and response to them. Sadly, if we want gun legislation that is likely to impact the number of these that occur, banning handguns is almost certainly necessary. As noted, it may not be worth doing it, and it is very unlikely to get serious political traction here anyway (not to say it's not possible or worth pursuing if the data, and the resulting cost-benefit analysis, indicates that it matches the goals we decide are best—like very few random public massacres and potentially higher rates of rape and home invasion).

All of that said, if we want to control guns sensibly, bans probably aren't the way to go and, because of the current political climate may be foolishly dangerous to pursue—we certainly don't need 1776, or really 1861, to occur again anytime soon. Indeed, the most sensible legislation is probably regulation, and not so much of the weapons themselves but rather of the people who own them. Indeed, as I will argue at the end of this piece, attempting to regulate the tools themselves may be a complete waste of effort.

Now, as many have noted, including Sam Harris, the reason we call the police when someone opens fire on a crowd of people is because we want someone with a gun to show up and stop it. Furthermore, for the purpose of self-protection and home defense, a firearm literally can be the element that makes all the difference—not that they're nearly the perfect self-defense tool gun-advocates would have us believe they are as their scope of usefulness is surprisingly limited. Still, banning firearms outright would let the criminals remain meaningfully better armed than others, and given the number of guns available, very extensive and very successful buyback programs would have to take place before such a prohibition would bear a semblance of effectiveness.

A couple of big things get swept under the rug here, though, and require mention. First of all, guns are a powerful tool. When a “good guy” shows up with guns and pulls the trigger, there is a high probability that if he his successful with his shot, someone will die. This is simultaneously why guns are and aren't a great deterrent: a criminal can still kill before there is any realization for a need for defense. A gun is absolutely no defense against someone who shot you with the element of surprise, and the majority of gun crimes are single-person homicides. In other words, having more guns doesn't necessarily prevent gun homicide or attempted homicide. All someone needs is surprise and good aim to win that interaction.

What really gets swept under the rug here, though, is that it isn't “someone with a gun” or even just a “good guy with a gun” that we want to have show up when we call the police, ostensibly to bring their guns. When we call for the police, we want a highly trained someone with a gun to show up—someone highly trained in firearm use in chaotic, stressful situations. We no more want someone who has gone shooting once or twice in their lives to show up than we want a chef with a paring knife to arrive at the scene of a medical emergency that requires emergency surgery. After all, when someone has a medical condition that requires emergency surgery, something rather important is lost if we say that what we do is “call someone with a knife and expect them to use their knife,” right?

We should demand responsibility out of gun owners and carriers

The absolute last thing any reasonable person wants to have happen, when it comes to guns being used in public, is to have more insufficiently trained people adding more bullets, many wayward, to the mix. In reality, no one wants everyday citizens to risk additional lives by playing out their Bruce Willis movie fantasies—in most cases people with only the typical concealed-carry permit level of training are not able to stop active shooters and become targets themselves, and even highly skilled, well-trained individuals using a minimal application of fire sometimes hit innocent bystanders instead of the targets, who are increasingly frequently armored as well as armed. Hence, the bulk of the truth to “more guns deter problems or could solve them when they arise” lies in the assumption that those firearms are in the hands of sufficiently qualified individuals to do something with them in chaotic scenarios. This requires extensive, specific, and regular training.

Of note, though, it is true that sometimes merely the possession of a firearm is a deterrent that saves the day, and sometimes it is the force-equalizer that prevents other kinds of violent crimes. But it is also true that sometimes merely the possession of a firearm is the psychological cause of the application of deadly force in situations that otherwise wouldn't rise to it and that don't or wouldn't warrant it.

It seems very difficult to get around the idea, though, that having stringent carry-permit qualifications is likely to be a good idea, since more guns is arguably an effective strategy that outweighs the costs when the weapons are in the hands of sufficiently qualified people. It is difficult to make a salient point other than that effective criminal background checks, some level of training, and perhaps even a degree of mental health screening are desirable carry-permit regulations on enabling “law-abiding citizens” to obtain and carry firearms in person. Canada implements a vastly more stringent plan than the U.S. in this regard, without any infamous gun-show loopholes making them easy to get around if desired (making it relatively easy for people previously convinced of violent felonies to get guns without resorting to a black market), so it is certainly a possibility. What I personally think is appropriate goes pretty far beyond what I hear most people advocate.

In brief, I personally think that the permit to carry a gun in public carries with it an enormous responsibility, and therefore the level of training and quality of screenings should be quite stringent. Regular training, at least bimonthly (since data from police officers often report that training less often than monthly is insufficient to maintain the psychological edge required in such situations)--involving gun safety, gun use, targeting, defensive shooting, situational awareness, and minimum application, i.e. essentially para-police training—is a worthy requirement, given the responsibility on the weapon carrier. Furthermore, regular and thorough mental health screenings, particularly for various classes of stresses and depression, are probably reasonable requirements. Various situations that arise that threaten the mental stability of a permit holder should serve to temporarily or permanently disqualify a permit carrier, for example, just as they do with security clearances already. Furthermore, thorough background checks and stringent responsibility requirements should be required, and any illegal behavior indicating irresponsibility or violence should serve to temporarily or permanently disqualify a permit carrier.

This is all costly, though, as Sam Harris notes. Thus, if such strict requirements are to be implemented, it is not unreasonable to have these costs borne at least in part by the state that benefits from the protection that these well-trained, responsible, mentally fit people provide. Indeed, as time and risk are additional costs in this situation, I think it would be appropriate to pay these people some quantity for their service out of the public coffer. If it's in the public interest to have these people, then the public should be willing to pay for it—and here we see a major problem with the guns-rights advocacy we see nowadays. Many of these calls for more armed citizens are actually calls for unpaid-for policing, and frankly, we get what we pay for. Again, as I will explain at the end of this piece, having far more qualified gun-carrying people than the police forces alone can provide is likely to be a reasonable need.

Ownership of a firearm that isn't to be carried publicly is another matter that needs to be taken more seriously. It is probably correct that we should have the right to arm ourselves with firearms in our homes for the purposes of self-defense, though it is unequivocal that a certain public health risk is incurred by allowing this. Thus, there should be relatively stringent requirements for this behavior as well, given the large number of incidents of gun violence (especially domestic), gun thefts, and accidental gun deaths (and suicides). Though less stringent and frequent than for carry permits, home ownership permits should also come with background checks, regular mental health checkups, and training, particularly on proper gun storage and safety. Situational red flags—like a particularly ugly divorce—and criminal behavior could lead to temporary or permanent revocation of these permits as well. With gun security, even with training, inspections could be done on any private home that wishes to keep guns. However ridiculous this seems, many states already require it for owning a swimming pool—a danger Sam Harris notes without realizing that home inspections are now required in many places in order to have one. This too could see public subsidy, particularly if the data indicates that it is in the public interest to have people armed in their homes. Accidental gun injury or death or gun theft as a result of negligence in gun storage and security perhaps should carry civil or criminal liability as well to strengthen the resolve for safe storage and management of firearms for home or office protection.

There are additional technological possibilities to improve gun safety that could be considered. Of some use would possibly include modern safeties and trigger-locks that might only allow a registered owner to fire his or her own weapon, via fingerprint reading. This could prevent many accidental injuries and deaths and prevent a firearm from being taken in a tight situation and used against its owner. On the other hand, it could cause problems in some cases like when a person threatened by a criminal with a gun is able to wrest it away and turn it on her assailant. This kind of technology may cut down on the impetus to steal firearms, though hacks and workarounds would be relatively easily employed in most cases.

It is noteworthy that none of these self-defense situations strongly justifies a need for high-capacity magazines, which I've avoided talking about so far, though there exists a good argument that a person defending his or her home and family shouldn't incur extra threat to themselves because of relatively bad aim in the situation leading to a need to reload before neutralizing the threat. This point, then, comes down to an argument about which legislation makes people feel more secure against a few low-probability occurrences—would we feel safer as a society with more bullets per gun to defend ourselves and our homes or with criminals being more likely to have to briefly pause to reload more often. Relevant data and cost-benefit analyses are therefore the way to answer these questions, not “good arguments.”

There is some benefit to controlling the weaponry available, however, making calls for high-capacity magazines and certain classes of firearms, including “assault-type” rifles potentially worthwhile. First, for instance, harder to get it still harder to get, as noted before, so this will reduce some of the potential for criminals to overcome the barriers to obtain these kinds of weapons, allowing possibly for more reloading breaks during which someone can stop the shooter more successfully than in an active fire-fight, even if that break lasts only a second or two. More importantly, such laws have a band-aid effect of providing security to people, a certain peace of mind. If this isn't to be considered valid because of the increased risk of being taken advantage of, which already has a low probability of occurring, the argument that people need to be armed in order to feel secure against an event that has a low probability of occurring also stands on shaky ground. It may not be a vacuous point that people are less likely to use firearms as their line of defense in cultures that don't give them the feeling that they should have to.

Remember when I said this is hard? It's harder than that.

There's a lot of reasonable desire to control guns, then, and the easiest way to do that is by controlling what can be purchased legally. Controlling the point of sale on firearms and gun accessories like this is easiest, but there's a major technological fly in this soup: a great big, hard, awful on the other hand.

Technology has possibly rendered controlling the point of sale moot. Three-dimensional printing is a technological reality, and it works on a variety of materials. Printing a functional AR-15 rifle and a .22 caliber pistol has already been done—for a pittance in raw materials. Though these guns were not production grade and failed after a number of rounds (200), they will improve rapidly with technology and designs. Notably, for several thousand dollars, a price that will drop precipitously in the coming years while its resolution improves, a printer that prints in cold, hard steel is a tool that already exists. Within a few years, printing commercial-grade (or military-grade) weaponry will be a functional reality, at home, cheaply.

It is worth noting that a printed firearm cannot be controlled at the point of sale and need not bear any serial number. While controlling a black market for firearms under the old situation is imminently more tractable than one for drugs—given that weapons and intoxicants hardly fall into the same class—controlling the sharing of the computer files that diagram for a printer how to print essentially any of these weapons—and thus a black market under the new situation—is not in any way tractable.

Banned or otherwise, with three-dimensional printing of them a reality, guns will be impossible to control by conventional means, rendering ammunition, or its components (notably, gunpowder), more relevant to point-of-sale control and regulation. Thus, by the time the ink were to dry on any gun legislation that controls rifles or handguns at the point of sale, even if nearly every gun in America could be bought back in the meantime, it would probably be on the verge of being entirely obsolete. Incidentally, such technology would rapidly bankrupt buyback programs as well, creating another layer of problem (though it will also undercut the entire gun-manufacturing industry and as a result severely diminish their lobbying power in Washington). This technology will usher in an entirely new paradigm in the gun-legislation debate. This change cannot be avoided by any means I can think of.

Note that if this is the real scenario that we face, my call for very highly trained, and compensated for it, civilians that can carry guns in public may be an important component in the actual reality of handling gun-related violence in the relatively near future—at least until some equally effective nonlethal technology is developed for the purpose. The argument that the bad guys will always have guns actually turns out to be extremely plausible given that they would be able to manufacture them for themselves at low cost once a three-dimensional printer was obtained. This quite literally changes everything about the debate, almost.

One way this changes everything is by changing nothing

As important as the component of “good guys with guns” would be, though, other factors would be, and thus are, immensely more important. This new era of technology presses upon us the reality that the underlying causes of violent crimes, particularly the kind that are catastrophic to people's lives, have to be identified and dealt with in more meaningful ways than by focusing on the weapons themselves, whatever band-aid effects such legislation would provide. Some progress has been made in identifying that lead contamination from leaded gasoline was a significant contributor to violent crime, but it clearly isn't the whole story.

Some answers in this deeper puzzle are easier to see than others. For example, nearly every mass-murderer in the last several decades has depression and disaffection from society in common. Mental healthcare in the United States, along with healthcare in general, is in an abysmal state. Our economy, not least because of the looming healthcare crisis, is pressing more and more people more and more firmly, squeezing disaffection out of the fringes like juice from a grape press. Some of these people seek revenge on society, and apparently some of them do it in truly horrendous ways. Many of these problems can be addressed—in fact, they have solutions in which many of the components are already known. My political stance leans to the left in these cases. I will not hesitate to say that the conservative anti-government movement, which has been opportunistically purchased by the plutocratic one, is the major contributor to this problem. A return to a more socially responsible economic structure that rebuilds the bottom eighty percent of society is almost a clear necessity when it comes to this problem.

Fundamentally, not only by changing the underlying economic fabric of our society, I think the primary thing that has to change is our gun culture, not our gun legislation. I say this without inane references to pop culture but rather with the way we feel about guns, violence, and the way those avenues can be used to solve problems. Even if they install some bad habits of mind or sensitization to violence, nearly every mature, sane person sees video games, television, and films as portrayals of fantasy, a problem that does not extend into real life. By contrast, the underlying whisper of our culture, passed from individual to individual in real life, is that “fighting solves everything,” this being a real slogan on a real t-shirt that is popular in certain significant circles of American culture. This culture of using violence, particularly the ability to render someone dead with the flick of a finger if desired, to solve our problems absolutely has to change to answer the riddle of the gun.

Grimly, another fact has to be accepted here: there will not be a perfect solution. To throw out otherwise reasonable attempts to correct these issues because the answer isn't perfect is cannot be acceptable. 

 

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