Friday, December 19, 2014

Ten Non-Commandments

Recently, there was a rather well-publicized contest (at least within the Atheist Community™) to come up with ten new "non-commandments" that secularists, atheists, and humanists--unhappily blurred into a single kind of entity--should aim to follow. The context was based upon a new book by Lex Bayer and John Figdor (commentary about publicity stunts suspended), Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century. Obviously, the book aims to list non-commandments for heathens to follow, or not-adhere to, or--never mind.

In the spirit of the enthusiasm, here are ten "non-commandments" I might suggest, as I've been pondering this silly exercise for a little while now because of the contest.
  1. Don't go in for commandments. (This one is the only one I would call a commandment, and so it applies autologically as well--sometimes rules are okay.)
  2. Try to take the risk of thinking for yourself--particularly, realize that your team is more likely to be wrong than you are.
  3. Aim never to be boring or boorish.
  4. Do what you can to be honest with yourself, especially do whatever you can to avoid pretending to know things you do not or cannot know.
  5. Try to live long and well, but know that you will die and let that inform your life.
  6. Seek to do whatever kindness you can.
  7. Strive to minimize the harms generated by your actions, particularly those performed in service of your own benefit.
  8. Do all you can to respect the dignity and autonomy of others.
  9. Try not to let it bother you that the promise of ten fell short at nine; that's life.
Cheers! Happy holidays and whatnot from me to all of you.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Mechanics of a Category Five Social Justice Shitstorm

Apparently, a dissection of the word "pride" in the context of "[social group, especially one that is systematically oppressed, e.g. gay] pride" is harder to talk about than I might have thought. I have tried to be careful already, and so I encourage people to read those thoughts here.

Here's a point worth elaborating upon, though. In my previous essay on the topic, I included this statement, which I think to be of incredible importance to understanding the impact of the term "pride" in the given context.
Still, to consider "gay pride" in the context of celebration is bizarre because it is insinuating that gay people should be celebrating being how they were born for the sake of having been born that way (with the added implication that others, or at least certain others, shouldn't--the term "straight pride" is rightfully considered rather abhorrent). (bold added)
This is actually pretty significant, possibly the most significant point in the entire long discussion. I'd like to invite a thought experiment, then, to see why.

Imagine if in the first place, attempting to make the same point, Peter Boghossian had tweeted instead that he, in exactly the same way as (Apple CEO) Tim Cook is about being gay, is proud to be straight, white, and male.

Let the thought sink in for a moment. Try to picture that it really happened (which may require some of you to stop pretending it did). The result would have been even more predictable than the rage that followed his actual tweet. People would have went completely bonkers. Bonkers like berserk. Bonkers like a hiccup in gravity that would have sent Jupiter into the Sun and blown up the whole damn solar system.

And that's what's offensive to so many people about so much of what gets called "Social Justice"--to be specifically disambiguated from "gay pride" here.

(Before crucifying what I just wrote, bear in mind that in my previous post, I discussed at length the reasons I believe that all people who have faced social oppression and unfair obstacles have a legitimate right to be proud of having done so, survived, and come out to be the wonderful people that they typically are. Bear also in mind that I don't think "gay pride" is actually offensive to anyone except gay-hating bigots, although what tends to get branded "Social Justice" far too often is.) Additionally, though too few will believe me, let me try to make it as plain as may be that I understand the facts of social oppression as deeply as who I am and the total capacity of my experiences, empathy, and abstract reasoning capabilities will allow.

That said, when a message of "pride" carries with it an implicit understanding of "I can be proud to be who I happen to be, but you can't," there's a serious problem at hand. That problem exists for the movement based upon the claim to pride more than for anyone else. That problem, in fact, is like spraying rocket fuel on the already burning opposition to pride movements.

Here's the problem spelled out: "I can have pride, but you're an asshole if you do" is a message that is utter poison. Once that aspect of the sentiment is realized by anyone decent, it is resisted vehemently, and rightfully so. It's a huge part of the reason so many women and genuinely women-allied men reject feminism now--not because they're "gender traitors" or closeted "misogynists," but because they refuse to sign up for that kind of patent inequity, particularly under a banner of undoing social inequity.

Sadly, this toxic sentiment almost typifies the "Social Justice" progressive ideology that straight, white, and male have had their day in the sun and now it's time for them to get out, as if space in the light and warmth of an empathetic, equal society is somehow zero sum.

Even more ridiculous is the fact (pretending Boghossian even thinks such a thing make sense) that had he tweeted about having pride in his race, gender, and sexual orientation--as they just so happened to be by the accidents of his birth--the "Social Justice" angle would be to argue that as a straight, white male, he's not entitled to that feeling.

The argument is as predictable as it is presumptuous, that--as who he happens to be--he can't ever have been on the receiving end of anything remotely like systematic social oppression (never mind that had he ever lived in certain other areas in the world, he most certainly could have experienced just that). That they would make this specious argument while proceeding to systematically oppress him for who he happens to be, by telling him his opinion isn't sufficiently informed to be valid, would get lost in all the glorious righteousness--presumptive, ideological righteousness that itself engenders both more resistance and a doubling-down upon its own stinking assumption of irreproachability.

And this is the mechanics by which the whole toxic spiral of a Social Justice Shitstorm turns, sucking rational discourse into the black hole at its center and centripetally flinging shit as far and wide as its considerable angular momentum will allow. 

So a reality check is in order, as a worthwhile aside. Boghossian is a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences--in the humanities half of that--at one of the most liberal universities in the country, Portland State. I would bet my last dollar that he has routinely faced a very oppressive atmosphere of the kind that stymies him from sharing his opinion, or one that tells him outright that because of who he happens to be, his opinions (and opportunity) are rightfully diminished. He is, after all, a member of what too many "Social Justice" crusaders refer to as the "oppressor class," which they seem to be able to identify solely by looking at a picture of him. Not only that, he's utterly surrounded by and in many respects subject to the people who think that kind of thing about him.

I know this is very likely to be true because for years now I've personally been terrified to say so much as a word about any social leftist line of thinking, however unfair, lest I get vilified for it--having experienced every single one of the things in the proceeding two paragraphs without ever having said anything so obviously callous as that I'm proud to be who I happen to be (I'm not, actually--partly because I don't think it's the right word and partly because I honestly think that aspect of my psychology has been beaten out of me by my social environment.) I bear this fear as a compassionate, caring, empathetic, allied, left-oriented individual, and my money is on that I'm not alone here. (Ample evidence exists to back this observation up, in fact.)

To the central point, that cringe-worthy hypocrisy doesn't matter, though, not really. This blog post isn't a defense of being straight, white, male, or anything else anyone happens to be born as. This isn't a "oh, we have it bad too, boo-hoo" post.

This is a plain statement of two things. (1) The Social Justice ideology doesn't get to hijack social discourse any more than any other ideology gets to. That's what fairness means. (2) Any ideological position or social movement that bases itself upon a concept that can be read as being patently unfair, like, "I deserve self-worth, but you don't, these being simple facts of the accidents of our birth," screws itself, however worthy and noble a social movement it may be. Taking upon itself such an attitude and its defense sets the movement up for the hindrances of vehement resistance, including outright rejection by man of its natural allies. (NB: Self-worth is a big part of the operative and legitimate meaning of the word "pride" in the context at hand, cf. my previous essay on the topic.)

So, think again of the possibility that Boghossian had tweeted his pride in who he happens to be, especially had he dared to add that his open acceptance of his own self-worth constitutes pride in defiance of social leftist oppression to which he is personally and professionally subject. The explosion that followed the tweet he actually did make--that he doesn't understand how anyone can be proud to have been born who they are--would have been as a firecracker to an atom bomb, as would have been the predictable backlash that followed it. The casualties are rational discourse and an important aspect of the fairness pride movements seek to establish.

Now realize that he didn't tweet that at all, and he wouldn't have dared to even if he believed that it was the right use of the word.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Not Pride and Not Prejudice: Is "Pride" Right for Uses like "Gay Pride"?

Yesterday, presumably following Apple CEO Tim Cook's announcement that he's "proud to be gay," philosopher Peter Boghossian raked some serious muck with social progressives by tweeting:
Knowing him, and having bothered to discuss it with him more thoroughly, Peter's point is that the term "pride" carries certain meanings (here: in reference to achievement, in particular) that may make it somewhat inappropriate to apply to a concept like "gay pride." As he has done in the past--controversially with groups wedded to certain other terms and ideas connected with them--he has asked for a disambiguation of the term "pride" in this context. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though for some legitimate reasons, there was a rather substantial blowback to his request to carefully consider the terminology being employed as dispassionately as possible.

So here, after having spent an interesting twenty-four hours thinking on-and-off about the topic and discussing it with a handful of different people, I feel like it's probably worth picking apart the meanings of the word pride to try to get at that dispassionate examination of the use of this term. Of course, this will require me to deploy a flotilla of should-be-superfluous caveats from the start.

Caveat: Nothing here seeks to diminish the dignity of any person whatsoever nor to hamper any attempts to promote equality, fairness, or the undoing of socially harmful mores and norms. Perhaps surprisingly, the goal of such a disambiguation is to effectively further attempts to secure equality and dignity for all people, particularly those who have been marginalized and oppressed by insensitive social circumstances.

Caveat: Nothing here seeks to diminish the experience, feelings, or sense of strength, community, or belongingness of any person.

Caveat: Nothing here diminishes the significant social struggle experienced and still experienced by any marginalized group, and it, indeed, honors and seeks to clarify the situation so that credit can be given everywhere it is due. 

Caveat: I don't really care what terms people use to help themselves feel legitimately good about themselves, particularly when there are copious reasons for them to rally around something that improves their sense of self-worth and authenticity while abolishing shame that has been unjustly laid upon them and simply doesn't belong to them.

Caveat: This is just a discussion about words and the ideas they represent, one that is intended to be a bit deeper than semantics, and it is unhelpful in all regards to shout down such explorations when engaged in by genuine, curious, well-intended folks (even if they end up being wrong, which is okay).

Those listed, let me add, in bold so it won't be so easily missed, there is a completely legitimate definition, and thus usage, of the word "pride" consistent with the meaning apparently intended by phrases like "[group in question] pride." Furthermore, there are legitimate reasons to be proud related to the social situations at hand, and those deserve to be recognized and honored.

Now, to necessary tedium--definitions.
One definition of pride matches Boghossian's question, as given by Google:
Pride: a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
On that definition, as being born how someone is born, phrases like "gay pride" are more political slogans than anything else, and it seems that the connotation of the word "pride" flowing from this definition of the word lies at the center of Boghossian's request to look at things more carefully.

Another definition, as mentioned above, fits perfectly, again given by Google:
Pride: the consciousness of one's own dignity.
On this definition, every person is entitled, even encouraged, to be proud of who they are. Boghossian's point seems to be that this meaning, while technically applicable to pride, is not congruous with the connotations usually applied to that word, some of which are unquestionably negative.

Now, while every person is entitled to consciousness of his or her own dignity, those who are subject to social circumstances opposing that basic human right constitute a special case. For them, owning this meaning of pride--which is synonymous with "unashamedness" and "unabashedness," close to "self-esteem" and "self-worth," and seems to be an expression of personal authenticity--is hard; it is therefore an accomplishment to overcome the social mores working against the oppressed to own one's own identity and claim consciousness of one's own dignity. Thus, for these people pride in the sense of satisfaction derived from one's achievements also applies.

I would like to argue that "unabashedness," for what it lacks in rhetorical punch, is probably a better word to use than "pride" in the context of phrases like "gay pride," although when it comes to social movements, rhetorical punch is of great value.

There is, though, of course, another definition of pride. Turning yet again to Google,
Pride: the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one's importance.
The connotation in this case is explicitly negative, and because of the nature of words and their connotations, this nasty sort of pride comes as part of the package for anyone wanting to assert pride in who they are, especially as a political slogan in a charged, reactionary, sensitive social arena. Those who want to have "gay pride" should realize that those who oppose them will hear this connotation of the word pride more clearly than all others when it comes up, and the result can be the kind of reactionary attitudes that make driving a worthy social agenda much more difficult than it needs to be.

To summarize quickly, there is, then a sense that the term "pride" doesn't fit--as being born who one is doesn't constitute an accomplishment or a quality which equality seeks to elevate to a status of admirability. There is also a sense in which "pride" fits perfectly: every human being is entitled to his or her dignity and to conscious awareness of it, this being a basic human right. The meaning here, then, is mostly in negation of "shame," imposed by an unjust social milieu, and so unashamedness is a more fitting term than "pride." Further, there is a sense in which the term "pride" can be turned back against a well-intended social movement, particularly by those who demonize "sin," among which they count both homosexuality and pride.

On those grounds, it seems pretty clear-cut that while the use is technically legitimate, Boghossian's call for disambiguation and, perhaps, application of better terms is not as far out of bounds as many people seem to believe.

For a bit more context, philosopher Russell Blackford expressed some disagreement with Boghossian's point about achievement being necessary, tweeting

He added, further, in direct reply to Boghossian, that he doesn't see a problem with being proud, as he has indicated, even if the person with pride did nothing to achieve the relevant qualities. 

Another meaning?

I drew a comparison on Twitter to nationalistic pride, hoping to poke a little at progressive hypocrisy, though as was noted, the analogy is imperfect.
This raised a somewhat tangential discussion that brought to fore another question about the meaning of the term "pride" and its application in this circumstance. A genuinely interesting conversation with Helen Pluckrose (@HPluckrose) followed, where she sought to connect the idea of pride to something I would describe as being akin to belongingness. She went on to ask Peter Tatchell (@PeterTatchell), of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, his thoughts about "pride" in "gay pride," and he specifically says that he "thinks and hopes" that pride there means all three of "achievement, self-esteem, and celebration." Here is Pluckrose's tweet and Tatchell's response:
This is seriously confusing to me. Because I think Pluckrose is genuine, and because Tatchell is apparently a voice of some significance in this discussion, one who embraces something that sincerely confuses me, I would like to elaborate. The necessary context was provided in the first half of this post.

Being gay simply is not an achievement. It is (in very high likelihood) intrinsic to the person in question. Now, being openly gay in a gay-hostile climate (and only in such a climate) is an achievement. It takes guts and work, real work, to embrace authenticity in a social climate that wants you not to. Embracing personal authenticity for anyone is an achievement, but it's particularly celebratory in the context of being authentic against pressure trying to force you to be inauthentic. All socially marginalized people, including gay people, who stand up and embrace who they are authentically should be proud of that fact, for the achievement that it represents and for the quality of character it exhibits. We might call that "pride in being openly gay," and it fits without a shred of doubt.

Still, it is significant to pull apart the ideas of "pride in being who I am" and "pride in having fully accepted who I am." The first seems inappropriate, at least at the connotative level, as was Boghossian's point. The second is clearly appropriate, but they aren't the same thing. Though it seems to have been widely missed, Boghossian explicitly stated that he understands this nuance:

Moving on, Pluckrose's use of the term "self-esteem" is the meaning of "pride" that is unashamedness or unabashedness. Again, it is the one legitimate use of the term pride in the context of being able to be proud of who one happens to be, though it suffers in that it doesn't do a great job of matching pride's usual connotations. Recognizing these two facts is critical to the disambiguation of the term that Boghossian is calling for (including that he should note that the definition does apply legitimately).

A majority of the connotations of the term pride, specifically, are largely negative, especially within contexts like Christianity, which lists pride as one of the seven most deadly of sins. Note, in fact, that despite behavior clearly consistent with the theme, we do not very often see overtly named "Christian pride" initiatives. This is important. Labelling oneself "proud" when one's primary social opposition comes from a powerful, well-populated, moralistically motivated organization that sees both your behavior and pride as sinful is going to drag down the efforts. If there is a better word than "pride," it should be adopted. Disambiguating the terms is needed to find out what term might work better.

Back to Pluckrose and Tatchell's three terms, "celebration" is the most confusing. Pride isn't celebration, not in any of its meanings. Here, I think Pluckrose is trying to articulate succinctly the fact that she has tied a sense of belongingness (necessarily to a framework-moral community) onto the term "pride," but it is also being conflated with the sense of achievement inherent in authentically owning one's person, even against a hostile social climate. To underscore this point, she tweeted the nearest thing she could write to the feeling she wishes to capture as being inherent in the term pride:
That's fine, but we must be careful with the idea that pride and belongingness are synonyms, even if a feeling of belongingness can evoke a sense of pride at being part of a broader (morally positively evaluated) group. This, in fact, is likely to be the seat of self-esteem in general, and as discussed, self-esteem is, loosely, the definition of the term "pride" that actually fits the context in question.

Still, to consider "gay pride" in the context of celebration is bizarre because it is insinuating that gay people should be celebrating being how they were born for the sake of having been born that way (with the added implication that others, or at least certain others, shouldn't--the term "straight pride" is rightfully considered rather abhorrent). Maybe this is connected to authenticity--celebrating the acceptance of themselves, which is legitimate--and maybe it has to do with belongingness to a community breaking the shackles of a shitty social climate, but it doesn't make sense for "gay pride" to hitch itself prima facie to a celebratory wagon. Indeed, with the gay pride events, this is exactly what causes the most polarizing recoil, the kind of stuff that may have shaken up society and helped to move things forward but also that mobilized the (well-funded, highly motivated) resistance the most effectively.

So we come back to the point about achievement, which is, perhaps, the main reason disambiguation is needed. To remind, Google's first definition of pride is "a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired." So, what is the achievement? Being gay is not the achievement, as already discussed. Embracing oneself authentically in the face of unjust adversity is, and there we find something worth celebrating. (And, if I might say so, what appears, in fact, to be what is being celebrated.)

Hopefully the case is strong that disambiguation is important here, and it's utterly fascinating that there's such staunch resistance to it, particularly with so many more positive terms available to us. It's as if the progressives and LGBT activists have defined themselves in terms of "gay pride" and their relationship to the set of ideas represented by that phrase and are unwilling to consider whether it has flaws, including some that can be trouble for the very agenda that they seek to push. Few words are more positive than "authentic," and the footholds for (Christian) opposition against it are far fewer.

These motivated groups also seem to fail to recognize that "gay pride" is necessarily asymptotic to zero in all applications except "unashamedness." (There's an analogy to the term "atheism" here, for those interested in that discussion.) As being gay becomes more and more perfectly socially accepted, all meanings nested within "gay pride" but "unashamedness in who one happens to be" fall apart. If being gay were suddenly 100% accepted right now, "gay pride" would become as peculiar an idea as "white pride" is, though not quite for the same reasons and patently less offensively for social and historical reasons.

But here's a problem: celebrating "gay pride" and defining oneself (as moral) in terms of the meaning of such a phrase is a kind of limit to its natural asymptotic nature. That is, it sets being gay apart in some, but not all, ways from being human. In reality, if being gay were suddenly 100% accepted right now, "gay pride" wouldn't go away because people have invested their senses of self into that idea. For gays who have spent their lives dealing with an unfair lack of acceptance, that's one thing. For progressives, that's another--they'd be fighting a battle that no longer needed to be fought on behalf of someone who would no longer needed it, and so it becomes a kind of bigotry of lowered (or at least different) expectations.

The word we're looking for, then, may be "authentic." I mused about it on Twitter earlier, wondering aloud how "Authentically Gay" would stand up as a slogan in comparison to "Gay Pride." One advantage that springs to mind is its immediate generalizability. "Authentically Me" sounds like something everyone should be able to get behind, whatever "me" happens to mean, and it works in a way that "Self Pride" simply wouldn't.

Edit: The original of this post incorrectly named philosopher Russell Blackford as Russell "Blackwell." I have corrected and regret the error (and have no idea how my fingers managed to mistype that--sorry Russell!).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

36 Things I Hope My Daughters Don't Learn from Social Justice Warriorism

I have daughters. Watching the ongoing dyspeptic outpouring from social justice activists warriors (these being social justice activists who seem to have run amok) makes me dread their upcoming decade. Here are 36 things I truly hope my daughters do not learn from social justice activism warriorism.
  1. That feminism actually means the odious mischaracterization of itself perpetrated upon it by ill-contented social justice activists warriors claiming to work in its name.
  2. That liberalism means any part of the same.
  3. That social-issues activism means any part of the same.
  4. That a sincerely holding a feeling or belief, even considering it of the utmost importance, somehow can be construed to count as a credential by which people are expected to take them seriously.
  5. That rumor-mongering is an acceptable way to present oneself as a professional or for them to gain recognition and importance in any field.
  6. That the misuse of someone's words to mischaracterize them and to slander their character is a way to get ahead, especially for them as young women.
  7. That hyperbolic and malicious misrepresentations of someone's words or deeds is an acceptable form of discourse, particularly when in service to a cherished cause.
  8. That anything like productive conversations can hope to follow from smashing flat the meaning of various words (like rape, abuse, sexism, misogyny, and so on), as though there does not exist an obvious and meaningful spectrum of severity to various phenomena.
  9. That if they're mad enough or offended enough, they are acting responsibly by saying whatever they want about whoever they want as unfairly as they want, including occasional libelous accusations, and then badmouth anyone who so much as raises an eyebrow to them.
  10. That facts only matter if those facts support their narratives.
  11. That opinions are only valid if those opinions support their narratives.
  12. That the experiences of others are only valid insofar as they line up with the experiences of those who share their narratives.
  13. That the proper way to interpret a scientific study is in the way that justifies or amplifies their beliefs or sense of perceived injustice in the world. 
  14. That shouting down discourse with unfair pejorative labels is a legitimate means to make their points.
  15. That smearing or tarnishing a reputation over perceived slights, injustices, or offense, including to people other than themselves, is a legitimate reason to ignore the thoughtful commentary and work of respected scholars and other people with whom they have taken issue.
  16. That being angry women who can't be bothered to get their facts straight is a good image for the promotion of feminism and anything it hopes to accomplish.
  17. That a remotely good way to overcome the stereotypes that legitimately sometimes hold women back is to present themselves as emotional and prone to gossip when fighting for their cause.
  18. That legitimate women's issues can be ignored in favor of narrow, sometimes petty, sometimes wildly exaggerated, sometimes disturbingly misrepresented ones that happen to make them mad and still be considered feminism.
  19. That attacking the character of high-profile soft targets, often by distortion, who are in every legitimate sense allies can be considered brave, noble, or worthwhile.
  20. That someone's words taken out of context are true representations of their characters.
  21. That giving Internet trolls more attention is an effective way to deal with them.
  22. That all men are de facto potential rapists, likely to be sexists, and possibly misogynists.
  23. That they live in a culture that intentionally promotes rape.
  24. That rape is so simple, particularly on the basis that mixed-signals misinterpreted are never in any way their fault, that they're free from any responsibility in how they act, particularly while drinking in mixed company.
  25. That there are two teams: "with us" and "against us."
  26. That an unpleasant comment related to gender is instantly indicative of actual sexism or outright misogyny, or "gender-treason," as the case may be.
  27. That having a loyal following of fans that supports their point of view means they are right.
  28. That they, themselves, are gender traitors for daring to think for themselves if it leads to disagreement with the arguments or tactics of social justice activists warriors.
  29. That being intolerant of dissent from their views is a road to progress, to productive discourse, to intellectual honesty, to moral superiority, or to finding truth.
  30. That nerfing the experience of everyone who has ever suffered oppression or violence and may suffer it again, often by casting taboos over certain kinds of speech, words, or ideas, legitimately helps those people.
  31. That it is acceptable to profit, even socially, from any victimhood they are unfortunate enough to experience.
  32. That anyone who disagrees with them most likely does so because of bigotry or a desire to shame them.
  33. That assuming the worst possible motivations in someone who disagrees with them or says something that they find offensive is a means to being heard.
  34. That using loaded language that implicitly or explicitly accuses someone of bad motivations or downright being a bad person is a productive form of communicating with them.
  35. That behaving in these ways actually challenges the status quo.
  36. That they should come to reject, to disparage, or even to hate feminism and feminists because of its unfortunate association with social justice activism warriors.
It's very unlikely that this list is anything like exhaustive. If you have daughters or can imagine having daughters, please feel encouraged to add any more that you can think of in the comments.

Edit: As can be seen below, a commenter suggested that I shouldn't conflate social justice activism and social justice "warriorism," that being what I am actually targeting in this post. My thanks for the correction, which I have made throughout. Let me add that I was not unaware of this distinction but made the word choice based upon the automatic pejorative association with "social justice warrior," which I was trying to avoid. In doing so, I went too far and, regretfully, tarred legitimate social justice activism in exactly the way I was hoping wouldn't be its fate. To make this matter more clear, instead of replacing the term "activism," I have left it in strikethrough and put "warriorism" immediately following. I consider this a message to social justice warriors that they are not engaging in legitimate social justice activism, however they see themselves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How infinity breaks a moral calculus

It has been a long time since I've blogged anything, and it's been a longer time since I've blogged anything about mathematics and its impact on theological thinking, but it has come time to change that.

The issue that started my thoughts along the present course relate to Islamic Jihad, but because I think it's a very complicated topic, I will reserve commentary on it until later. For my purposes, the odious Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) will serve as a useful point of reference, and so I will use that for the time being (largely because it's simpler than Jihadism).

The case I want to make is one I've been making ever since I saw two members of the Westboro Baptists interviewed by Russell Brand on his own show, perhaps a year ago or thereabouts, in which I finally connected with at least one of the reasons that members of the Westboro Baptist congregation are acting in love with their despicable demonstrations. You can see that interview here, if you'd like. The representatives of the church make it quite plain that their motivation is one based in love and how they arrive at that conclusion.

Before continuing, let me make a note that I am aware that it is possible, if cynical to assume, that the bottom-level motivations of the WBC may be largely financial gain, but that does not necessarily imply that the majority of the membership of the WBC believes something other than what they say. It is vastly more economical and honest simply to assume that the angry rubes believe what they say they believe.

But, But... Love?

Yes, love. I think the true-to-their-word members of the WBC are motivated to engage in all of their hatefulness out of love. No doubt this is controversial, and to unravel the apparent paradox, we have to take a diversion into the infinite.

Every number is smaller than most

One of the main themes I wanted to convey with my book Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly, published around this time last year, is that infinity is non-intuitive not just in "how it works" but also in how big it is. Even without getting to infinity, because the counting numbers, 1, 2, 3, and so on, including 0 if we like since it counts empty sets, we arrive at the mathematical fact that every number is smaller than most. Here's some of how I put it in the fifth chapter of Dot, Dot, Dot, that whole chapter being dedicated to this peculiar idea.
In English, we only have names for numbers that are conceivably useful, with some extensions using prefixes attached to -illion after a time. By the time we reach numbers with a few scores of digits, we also run out of names for them except in special cases, even if we can represent them numerically. We have a name for huge numbers like the googolplex (the number written with a one followed by the number of zeroes that is a one with one hundred zeroes after it), but what do we call, for instance, the number with one less zero than that? That idea—that we've only named numbers that are, to speak very vaguely, conceivably useful—provides the clue to finding salience in our concept of “large numbers.” We can call numbers “large” when they're relatively large given the context.

These numbers we're naming, or even the ones beyond names, though, are not large in an absolute sense as mathematical abstractions devoid of context. While one quadrillion (one thousand trillion, that is, one with fifteen zeroes following it) dollars constitutes a very large number of dollars, one quadrillion is nothing compared against the vast majority (almost all, as it turns out) of the natural numbers. If we take any “large” number, say one quadrillion, and multiply it by one hundred, the result obviously dwarfs our original “large” number by one hundred to one, casting a shadow over what it meant to be “large” in the first place. But there's no mathematical reason that we have to limit ourselves to multiplying by one hundred. We could multiply by a quadrillion, or multiply by a quadrillion a quadrillion times, by which time our original “large” number is lost in a sea of far, far larger values. When we realize that one quadrillion was chosen arbitrarily, meaning that any number, including a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times, could replace our initial choice with the same implications, we get an idea of what is meant by every number being very small.

These abstractions are hard to understand and very high-minded, bordering on the feel of nonsense. Sometimes it is useful to try to get our heads around these numbers, but this is very difficult to do. For instance, one quadrillion is roughly the number of grains of refined, white sugar that could be hauled in 134 full-sized (53-foot) tractor-trailers. That's (kind of) a lot of sugar, but bear in mind that this number is only 1,000,000,000,000,000 in our condensed notation.

To get an idea of the size of a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times, we'd have to have a one followed by fifteen quadrillion zeroes just to write the number in the same very condensed notation (incidentally, this number is still inconceivably smaller than the googolplex). In 12-point font on standard 8.5-inch by 11-inch paper (with one-inch margins), printed on both sides of the paper, just writing down a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times requires a stack of papers filled entirely with zeroes roughly 250,000 kilometers thick, that is, reaching 65% of the way to the moon! Again, that's just writing the number down in a standard, somewhat condensed notation.

Bear in mind again that writing down a quadrillion merely takes roughly two inches on one line of the page and yet represents the number of grains of sugar that could be carried by a small fleet of full-sized semi-trucks. Now remember that even a ridiculously, impossible-to-understand large number like a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times is a pittance that amounts to essentially nothing. Indeed, a number represented by a book of concatenated zeroes reaching from here to the sun or to the Andromeda Galaxy, which are hardly any distances at all, leave a quadrillion to the quadrillionth power minuscule beneath even potential notice (and are still themselves inconceivably smaller than the googolplex, which has more than a thousand quadrillion times more zeroes than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe).

The fact of the matter is that these numbers, when bereft of real-world context, are impossible to call “large.” Indeed, they are unimaginably small. Incredibly, this smallness is a property that applies to every single number there is. Even more incredibly, this implies, as we've discussed, that against the infinite, every number is equally small, which is to say infinitely small.
In simple terms, because we have infinitely many counting numbers, and any counting number we might think of is only so big, every number is smaller than most. Think about it for a second: the biggest number you can think of has only that many numbers coming before it but infinitely many to come after it, so the proportion of numbers no bigger than your number is, to cheat for simplicity, "your number divided by infinity," which is zero (or infinitesimal). NB: Of course I know you can't divide by infinity and how this has to be understood in terms of limits, which is why I said we're cheating for simplicity.

Measuring experience

Also controversial is the idea that we can measure experience, but I think this notion has enough real-world salience to be getting on with without having to elaborate endlessly into philosophical diversion about what it means to measure experience or how it might be done. I think we all have a sense that better is better, worse is worse, and that somehow over the span of our conscious experience, more better is better, more worse is worse, and that there's some vague notion of a calculus going on here that could, in principle, account for that idea.

If we agree to run with the idea that we can measure experience, however crudely, then we have the sense of what it means to put well-being and suffering into a metric that allows us to compare various possible outcomes of conscious experience. In other words, we get a sense that "the good life" actually means something measurable. And once we agree to be able to measure the quality of conscious experience, we are ready to start discussing how infinity, in the forms of Heaven and Hell, breaks a moral calculus.

Life is finite

It seems to be uncontroversial, despite various religious beliefs to the contrary, to say that life, at least as we usually conceive of it, is finite. Whether it starts at conception, some other prenatal stage, birth, or what-have-we, it starts at some point of time. Then it ends at death, and whatever religious beliefs we might hold insisting that we do not really die, it is utterly beyond dispute to recognize that our body, the life we are currently living, starts and ends at roughly identifiable moments in time (I know, this is complicated too, but... honestly).

If our lives are finite--and they are--then the total quantity of our living conscious experience is also finite. Although it's unlikely to be real, any extension of our conscious experience beyond our lives takes place in an afterlife, which takes place after life, and thus isn't a part of it. I've said all of this, of course, to carefully navigate tiresome bullshit around an obvious point: whatever our lives entail, the total good or bad that we experience in it only adds up to so much, to a finite value.

Afterlife is (conceivably) infinite

Though not every tradition accepts this idea, many embrace the idea that Paradise, and its attendant bliss, is eternal, as are the torments of Hell. These ideas are key selling points for religions because they tap into a very human desire to avoid suffering and find bliss, whatever that might mean, and to maintain that state as long as possible. In other words, for many traditions, the good-life score of Paradise is positive infinity, and the good-life score of Hell is negative infinity. These ideas resonate immediately with people, even if they do not make sense.

So let's summarize the big points we've established so far:
  1. Living conscious experience is finite;
  2. Afterlife conscious experience is alleged to be infinite, usually polarized to perfect goodness or absolute badness; and
  3. Every (finite) number is smaller than most.
Infinity breaks a moral calculus

Surely you already see it, then. If someone absolutely accepts and believes in the ideas of a literal Heaven or Hell, with its attendant infinite reward or limitless misery, then that person has introduced into his moral calculus an element that completely outweighs any and all living experience, no matter how good or bad it might be. Once we tack on various dogmas and other supertruths concerning what merits someone admittance into Paradise or condemns them to the Fire, we have on our hands a moral calculus that can only admit one path to ethical reasoning: that which maximizes the chances of someone going to Paradise and/or avoiding Hell maximizes good.

Let that sink in for a moment. For a member of the Westboro Baptist Church who truly believes that homosexuality is a sure condemnation to Hell, no amount of suffering by any number of homosexual, bisexual, or other decent people--no amount at all--compares with the suffering of even one of them going to Hell, or instead, repenting of their "sin" and reaching Paradise. If a Westboro Baptist congregant follows Jesus' instructions to love one another, even those they find loathsome, the only loving course is to do everything, no matter how heinous, to try to change even one of their minds. In other words, for all their hate, it is entirely possible that their real motivation is love, and the reason is that their moral calculus is completely perverted by pretenses on the infinite.

All life is finite

This isn't redundant. This is the state of affairs that motivates both the WBC and the Jihadis that I started out talking about. It isn't that this person, that homosexual, the other sinner, or whoever, lives a finite life. It's that we all live a finite life. Add finite to finite to finite to finite for as many as you want, so long as that amount is actually a "many," i.e. also finite, and what you end up with is still finite. That is, to be specific, the aggregate experience of all seven-point-some-odd billion of us and the billions more to come is finite, which is to say that it is smaller than most values.

Especially, it is smaller than infinity, obviously and by definition. So, if the torment for a single person in Hell is infinite, or the reward for a single of the Saved in Paradise is infinite, untold, unimaginable suffering in the lives of every single living human present and future literally doesn't matter in comparison. On a moral calculus that includes infinite reward or infinite punishment, literally any amount of suffering inflicted upon any number of people (and animals) is perfectly justified and can be said to be motivated by love if the goal of the behavior inflicting that suffering is to bring even one person into the proposed right way to believe to earn Paradise and avoid the Fire. Read that sentence again.

People believe this

The question, then, is whether or not anyone in the world actually believes such things, and I believe that question has an obvious and resounding affirmative answer. The Inquisition said it was motivated by that very belief, for instance, and on the Russell Brand show, the representatives of Westboro Baptist affirmed it. Along with a particular complication, it is likely that the "extreme" end of Jihadis all embrace this peculiar vision of the universe as well. That is, not only do I think people believe these ideas; I believe a lot of them do.

Take, for instance, this short piece, written a few days ago on the CEMB, Ex-Muslim, forum by "Toona," who describes his upbringing in a Jihadist environment. He describes exactly what I've been trying to tell people at least for the last year, what people like Sam Harris have been going on about for more than a decade: people really believe in moral calculi involving infinite reward and punishment and use the resulting warped motivations to be as nearly perfectly horrible as human beings can be.


I said from the outset that Jihadism is a little more complicated than the case of the WBC, and the reason is the specific character of the doctrines of martyrdom in Jihadist Islam (or really, in Islam generally, not that everyone believes all of them). Those characters provide the martyr with specific benefits, benefits that "Toona" rightly identifies as being selfish motivations. The martyr gets a more glorious road to Paradise; the martyr gets special rewards in Paradise; the martyr secures a direct path to Paradise for many of his chosen kin (this last point probably being the most alluring, even more than the alleged "72 virgins" thing, for a variety of well-established psychosocial reasons).

What that means is that Jihadism is slightly more complicated via a self-serving element than the twisted other-serving idea of love that the representatives of the WBC painted for Russell Brand (though I suspect there are self-serving reasons contained within the WBC's approach as well--like that God will punish those who don't take every opportunity to try to save others from hellfire by whatever means might be necessary). That doesn't remove the other-serving notions within Jihadism, though, as "Toona" makes clear for us:
Think about it like this: the eternal fate of just one person is a far more important matter than the temporary suffering of the thousands of people that are killed in these attacks. I would rather save one person from being tortured in the worst way possible for trillions and trillions of years than to prevent the premature death of the thousands of lives that are lost in these attacks. The idea of eternal hell was so terrible that everything else paled in comparison.
What to do about it

The first and most important thing to do when it comes to dealing with religious beliefs of infinite reward and punishment, and the right and wrong ways to find or avoid them, is to stop pretending people don't believe them or that they're not legitimately part of the religions that teach them, a favorite hobby-horse of the Left. People do, and once people believe them, their moral calculus is skewed by them in a way that follows perfectly logically from even a childlike understanding of the infinite. The results are predictable, and the ways we can deal with it when it arises (e.g. with ISIS) are limited.

Another thing to do is realize that these people aren't bad people at the level of their motivations. Their motivations are "good." It's the moral reasoning informing those motivations that is skewed, and it is skewed by unsupported beliefs. Those beliefs are always held on faith, and so one extremely important thing to do is to continue to help people realize that faith is not a reliable way to support a belief. (This, of course, will not be terribly effective on most extremists and will have to work from the outside inward, but acknowledging that fact doesn't negate the importance of this action as much as beg for a strategic way to employ it.)

If we realize where these people are coming from, we're more likely to be able to successfully help them out of their faith. So long as we persist in pretending that people's beliefs cannot be that erroneous, we're likely to be hopeless, left reacting to reactionaries we refuse to understand.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The moral angle of apologetics for the philosophy of religion

I, along with John Loftus and Peter Boghossian, with Jerry Coyne too, have been saying for a while now that the philosophy of religion isn't just on the rocks, it's a field that needs to lose academic respectability. It is, as I like to put it, theology in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

The primary reason I think we should see the philosophy of religion this way is summarized best by something that Keith Parsons, a philosopher deeply involved with it, said a few years ago, quoted here by Dan Fincke from January 2011. Parsons wrote,
One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion.
This, indeed, is a problem, and I think secular philosophers of religion, probably unwittingly, encourage it. That the philosophy of religion as a recognizable subdiscipline of philosophy only dates to post-WWII, as John Loftus has pointed out, quoting philosopher (of religion) Graham Oppy from his recent interview that really got this ball rolling, drives home this point further. Theology's alleged philosophical renaissance, which William Lane Craig is proud to note whenever he gets the chance, seems to have been part and parcel of the ascendance of the separate identification philosophy of religion. (We should note that all theology has is "philosophy," or pseudo-philosophy, as Richard Carrier puts it.)

At any rate, John's estimable and ambitious series is underway, having changed from a five-part series to a six-part, to keep it more digestible. Those parts can be found here:
These are worth taking a look at, and I think they will constitute a nontrivial part of the cultural shift away from giving religious views undeserved respect by breaking the spell that lets them pretend that they are properly academic topics. (Nota bene: Strictly speaking, they are academic, by definition, but they're not properly so as they do not hook properly to reality while pretending that they do. Investigating fiction, which is obviously somehow separate from reality, is properly academic, as is studying reality itself, but conflating the two endeavors isn't properly academic. It's solipsistic sophistry playing professor. I see theology, and by extension a very wide swath of the philosophy of religion, as being pseudo-academic, much like an elaborate philosophical inquiry into the nature of spells and magical artifacts in Dungeons and Dragons would be.)

The purpose of my present post is to mention something I made in a comment on Part Two of John's series and elaborate upon it a bit. In brief, I think that apologists for the philosophy of religion utilize a value, which is to say a moral case, to defend the field's sense of legitimacy, and I think this is likely to be a bad way to justify this direction of study. Thus, I want to present and question that value. I wrote,
I think they [apologists for the philosophy of religion] work very hard to create a moral position out of one idea in particular: We should always engage the best arguments for a philosophical position. They turn this concept, as I said, into a matter of moral reckoning, which is to say into a (false?) virtue, which is to say something to be valued "for its own sake" (scare quotes because I don't accept the validity of that line of moral reasoning, but others do). With a value like this, they are influential in effecting the goal [of providing a sense of legitimacy to the philosophy of religion], which is making people care about PoR when ... they shouldn't. (emphasis added)
I want to question that highlighed assumption. Should we always engage the best arguments for a philosophical position, at the risk of being bad or unfair to the field in question if we do not?

This, by the way, seems to be the main appeal made by secular philosopher of religion Paul Draper and his amateur acolytes, who have significant online presence and tend to beat people over the head with this assumption, insisting that anyone who fails to apply this maxim is a bad or disingenuous academic, even a partisan or an apologist (quelle ironic).

I, of course, think we should do this, as seems obvious, but only when it is appropriate. Thus, it isn't the academic value itself but the scope of its application that I am really questioning.

The relevant distinction is one that is outlined by the Courtier's Reply, which I feel apologists for the philosophy of religion are giving, despite their denial. They insist that the only way to understand whether questions about theism--a central concern of the philosophy of religion--are valid is to consider them on their own terms and giving them at least equal attention as arguments for naturalism (my thoughts about that here). The principle in question doesn't immediately seem to qualify as a Courtier's Reply, but I think it applies. Specifically, as the Rational Wiki puts it,
Denunciation of this particular fallacy [the Courtier's Reply], however, is quite easy to misuse. Whenever one is told to read more about a subject that he disagrees on, it is easy to accuse one's contradictors of giving a "Courtier's Reply". The element of the Courtier's Reply that is being forgotten here is that it asks the questioner to "read more" about a subject that begs the question. (emphasis original)
Thus, I need to convince anyone who will believe me that the maxim as applied to theism, that we should treat it seriously, begs the question. I don't think this is actually controversial anymore, though. Since, as Loftus puts it--and I agree--what underlies theism is bogus, even taking theism seriously in philosophical terms is begging the question (while insisting it isn't). Loftus writes,
[T]here are some uncontested facts about faith that secular philosophers should teach their students, such as, faith isn't a legitimate answer to these questions and that all arguments on behalf of religion are nothing more than special pleading. Basing something on faith or logical fallacies is simply not teaching students correctly. (bold added to a claim Loftus has defended numerous times on his blogs and in his books)
And he goes on,
The primary reason is that faith has no basis, and secondarily because there is no reason to invite faith into a state run secular university. We are proposing to teach the truth to students. 
And he quotes Peter Boghossian with his own annotation,
Educators have given faith-based claims preferential treatment. In the classrooms "It is taken for granted that faith-based claims are invulnerable to criticism and immune from further questioning" in the so-called "soft sciences" like sociology, philosophy, anthropology, etc. "This intellectual rigor mortis is not allowed to occur across all disciplines." In the hard sciences like mathematics, chemistry and biology "challenging claims and questioning reasoning processes are 'intrinsic to what it means to teach students to reason effectively'." So Boghossian says, "This needs to end" (p. 188). Educators in all disciplines of learning should grant faith based conclusions "no countenance. Do not take faith claims seriously. Let the utterer know that faith is not an acceptable basis from which to draw a conclusion that can be relied upon" (p. 189).
Really putting it plain, Loftus wrote in the first part of his series,
To teach it correctly the professor should tell the truth about the lack of epistemic status of faith. Faith has no intellectual merit. It is not a virtue. It has no method. It solves no problems. It is not worthy of thinking people.
On that basis, and others like it, it is very difficult to see the matter of theism as something to treat seriously as a philosophical object. We shouldn't. It is a theological object, and theology is only "pseudo-philosophical," as Carrier puts it, and pseudo-academic, as I outlined above. No one is required to take such a thing seriously or engage its "best" arguments, as if it has any, as if the real contenders haven't already been dealt with thoroughly and repeatedly, and as if any argument stands up to the simple and straightforward question that's been waiting for them all along: "Where's the evidence?"

But because the idea that we should engage any position's best case is generally true in philosophy proper, and all academic debate, it is an easy value to turn into a false virtue. The principle simply doesn't apply here because theology is pseudo-academic, though. Misapplying it as a false virtue, a moral value defining a particular kind of thinker, I think, is exactly what apologists for the philosophy of religion are doing, and I think it constitutes a confusing and unproductive avenue in the conversation that should not continue.

Friday, August 1, 2014

At the end of reason lies an invitation to pretend

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins,” Stanford anthropology professor T.M. Luhrmann wrote for the July 26 edition of the New York Times Sunday Review, in an apparent attempt to articulate where, or perhaps why, we should simply throw in the towel and give up the quest for knowledge. “FAITH,” introduced in all capital letters by Luhrmann, offers the invitation not just for us to extend ourselves beyond the limits of reason, where those exist, but also so that we can pretend facts don't matter when it comes to clarifying what “really matters to us,” and how it might be accessible by contemplating the “ridiculous,” like “bikinis on the out-of-shape.”

INFORMED SKEPTICISM, not faith, asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses (and biases of their thought processes) is wrong. It is faith, however that asks people to “believe that their minds are not always private; that persons are not always visible; that unseen presences should alter your emotions and direct your behavior; that reality is good and justice triumphant.” And informed skepticism should raise a red flag on every one of those things, not just because they are wildly improbable—and it doesn't matter that Luhrmann notes that people often recognize the unlikeliness of their patently dubious beliefs because it is common that they are accepted uncritically—but because every one of them is laced with the potential for consequential failure.

There's something more insidious than the usual kind of sinister in believing that the contents of our minds are not always private, something Orwell spoke to lucidly, even if his dystopian landscapes now lie mostly beyond our “boggle line.” Even without taking into account the potential for real and exploitable paranoia—that NSA story is still big, isn't it, and how many "false flags" do we have left to hear about this year?—even without that, there is nothing glamorous, eloquent, or comforting about the idea of inescapable surveillance that penetrates even into the most secret recesses of our mental lives. Much, indeed possibly all, of our mental activity lies outside of our conscious or moral control, and faith asks us to accept a tower of guilt for all of it, built brick by brick on a superficially comforting and politically useful lie. Indeed, since this invitation to imminent supervision is hinged upon judgment upon the contents of our minds, and of our own doom as a result, the invitation is menacing and thus despicable, the kind of trick a flailing parent at his wit's end or smarmy huckster would try to pass off in a desperate attempt to wheedle control over another.

For all in it that isn't yet more superintendence, there's nearly nothing worth commenting upon concerning the invitation faith sends to believe in invisible persons, though, for besides being silly, it isn't clear what anyone should do with it. Such invisible persons aren't only invisible, they are plainly powerless, indistinguishable from blind luck in their efficacy upon our fortuity. Asking someone to pretend such helpful, or in some cases harmful, invisible agents are there, presumably to sway the circumstances around them, is inviting them to pretend that there might be help when there is none.

It is enticing, admittedly, to consider the idea that unseen presences, perhaps persons and perhaps not, can alter our emotions and behavior, not least because it is partly true. The myriad unseen influences, both internal and external, that can, as J.K. Rowling put it in the mouth of Hogwart's potions master Severus Snape, “ensnare the mind and bewitch the senses” are complicated and often intractable. Faith asks us to believe things about them, though, that anyone who disparages deception should reject. If we are to live carefully and intelligently, spurning the spurious and seeking to get things right, we must be vigilant to skip the invitation to ascribe attributions that lie outside of what we can know to the phenomena we experience.

Included in that vein, of course, our want for goodness and justice is of profound worth and should be encouraged, but it is an unctuous invitation to shirk our moral accountability to each other to believe that these forces are built into the fabric of reality. They are not. They are up to us, both as human constructs and as constructs important to humanity. We cannot take the lure of the easy road, of setting them aside for the universe, or some imagined God, to sort out on its own, for those are the very seeds of moral evil and abject injustice, seeds that reliably bear the most rotten fruits on the most twisted vines.

If God, imaginary or not, is unknowable, then we are under an intellectual and moral obligation not to make believe otherwise. “Many struggle, at one point or another, particularly in a pluralistic, science-sophisticated society, with the despair that it all might be a sham,” Luhrmann insightfully notes about religious belief, somehow missing that, so far as we can honestly profess to know, it is all a sham. She muses, following Soren Kierkegaard, that “if faith is...a leap into the unknown, perhaps being clear about what is foolish makes people feel safer about where that leap might land them,” but fails to note that accepting claims of truth on faith is itself foolish, on the far side of the contemporary default for the boggle line.

What faith asks of us is to set aside and surrender our better judgment, our caution, and our reasonably informed skepticism of the mountains of bull and sinkholes of bias that surround us. The place where reason ends is not where faith begins. The place where reason ends is where questions and hard work reside, and faith asks us to skip those responsibilities to ourselves, each other, and our future generations, to put up our feet and pretend, pretend, pretend they don't matter.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The end of the philosophy of religion is coming

John W. Loftus, author of a such estimable books as Why I Became an Atheist and The Outsider Test for Faith has called on his blog for the end of the philosophy of religion and has begun to do so in a clear, concise, and organized fashion, starting with part 1 (of 5) here: On Ending the Philosophy of Religion Discipline. Give it a look. The guard is changing, and it's about time.

I will probably be adding thoughts to this as it develops, but for now, I'm just getting the ball rolling by linking to John's fabulous beginning.

For those who don't realize, John Loftus is a former preacher who was training to be a Christian apologist, and he holds three masters degrees in fields related to religious studies and philosophy (of religion). That is, he's an excellent candidate for rallying this charge.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Understanding Richard Dawkins's controverisal "mild" tweets in under one minute

Trigger warnings or something: sexual assault, including on children.

A short, poignant, Socratic thought experiment to clarify two of Richard Dawkins's recent controversial tweets by exposing important nuance in an issue that isn't exactly black and white. Play at your own risk. Abusive, inappropriate, and disruptive commentary, deemed by my sole and personal discretion, will not be tolerated on this post.

Imagine you've been captured by a sadistic maniac, and he insists you will be sexually assaulted. But to make it more fun for him, he demands you choose the manner of your own rape, provided only that whatever you choose is truly unwelcome to you, on threat of far worse if you abstain or try to cheat. What would you choose?
Congratulations, you now understand "mild rape."
Pause for a moment to decide if you are condoning rape by choosing any possible outcome that recognizes that there are, indeed, worse possibilities.
Congratulations, you now understand Richard Dawkins's "mild rape" tweet.

Now replace yourself in the above scenario with any child who is to be sexually assaulted in some way. This child need not necessarily be your own. For purposes of the thought experiment, the choice is yours, knowing it defaults to worse than the absolute worst thing you can imagine for the child if you abstain or try to cheat. What do you do?
Congratulations, you now understand "mild pedophilia."
Pause for a moment to decide if you are condoning the sexual assault of the child by choosing any possible outcome that recognizes that there are, indeed, worse possibilities.

Congratulations, you now understand Richard Dawkins's "mild pedophilia" tweet.

Post script: If you remain angry at the use of the word mild for something you feel is universally horrible, I hear you. Within the universe of [universally horrible thing], though, what word other than "mild" applies to the least severe end of the spectrum of its possible manifestations?

Nota bene: The point of this exercise was not to explain why Richard Dawkins chose the examples that he did, neither to defend nor excoriate those choices. That's a separate matter. I urge you to read Michael Nugent's recent, short, and levelheaded post on the entire matter, which touches upon those issues amongst other important, germane ones, including the very big point, "But yesterday has also shown yet again how some people can use online media to unfairly harm the reputation of a good person."

Edit: The wording of this post has been altered from its original very slightly to increase clarity by removing a superfluous parenthetical.

William Lane Craig talking bizarro

Yesterday morning, I woke up to find that someone had sent me William Lane Craig's most recent Q&A piece on his website, Reasonable Faith. It's question #380, Bizarro Ontological Arguments, and I encourage you to read it here on your own because I don't want to reproduce almost any of it here but do want you to know why I'm saying what I'm saying.

In very short, a question comes in from an "agnostic undergraduate philosophy student," a topic that in general could merit a couple of chapters in a book about the sinister relationship between philosophy and theology, and asks about "ontological" arguments for God's existence, which Richard Dawkins correctly identified in The God Delusion as being word games that don't consider a single datum from reality. Ontological arguments for God basically provide a definition of God and then an argument that the thing being called God must exist for some "metaphysically necessary" reason. This question is specifically about the modal ontological argument, which is probably a waste of time in every regard unless someone is studying modal logic and wants to understand why it doesn't matter when it comes to something like the existence of God (though this second part is often ignored).

Craig answers in his typical fashion, all pomp and no circumstance, starting off this way, which is most of what I'll need to share to make my brief comments at the end.
It’s admittedly very difficult for the theist to provide any proof of the key premiss [sic] in the ontological argument, to wit
1. It is possible that a maximally great being (aka God) exists.
For that reason, Plantinga thought initially, at least, that the argument, though sound, is not “a successful piece of natural theology.” Nevertheless, Plantinga rightly insisted that the argument does show that belief in God’s existence is perfectly rational. For the person who accepts (1) is being entirely reasonable in his modal judgments. I think that counts as success in justifying a “reasonable faith.” For that reason I usually simply leave it to my audience to answer the question, “Do you think that it’s possible that God exists?” The concept of maximal greatness or of a maximally great being (a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent in every possible world) seems perfectly coherent and therefore possible.
A few quick comments before moving on.
  1. One of the themes of Dot, Dot, Dot, my second book, was arguing that I don't think it is at all clear what "maximally great being" means or that such a thing is possible. In short, neither within the finite or the infinite do we find any mathematical reason to suggest that there is a point that is "maximally great." There is a way that seems to be able to be reconciled, but it's just weird and, like everything else Godly, ad hoc and smarmy.
  2. It looks like Craig relies upon an appeal to ignorance in arguing for God, something of the possible, therefore..., line, and that he isn't ashamed to admit it.
  3. I want to draw your attention to (as I will comment later), "I think that counts as success in justifying a 'reasonable faith.'"
I really can't bring myself to quote any more of Craig's claptrap here (including the part where he brings up Bizarro Superman, hence my title), so if you want to see what I'm talking about, please look for yourself. He goes on an on about metaphysical possibility and metaphysical necessity--the working objects of modal philosophy, after all--throughout the piece, bringing it up something like ten times in only a few hundred words. Granted, it's central to the topic at hand, but the point I want to make more broadly is that it isn't central to anything else. In fact, other than as a philosophical exercise, it's probably apropos of nothing.

I draw two things from this commentary on Craig's Q&A. Those, the clearest lessons I can think to draw from this, are
1. "Reason" is not enough
We must have good reasons to believe our ideas hook to reality, which doesn't fly for ideas just because we can think them and find them coherent, or even that they're metaphysically possible or necessary. Craig's qualifier for "reasonable faith" seems to be that faith can be come to by reason (so long as someone starts in the right place, which is, really, at faith). Reason, though, in this context is just what leads us from a set of premises to a set of conclusions, along with some speculating about the premises themselves. This isn't enough. To really get at reality, which is not necessarily the goal of thinking but is the goal of thinking about reality, one's premises must be far more solid than anything theology has to provide (Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit?! Sensus divinitatis?! Come on! Give me a break!).

2. We really shouldn't trust anyone who appeals to metaphysical importance. 
Those people are talking about ideas, and the importance means "important to this set of ideas following from certain presuppositions," or, in the case of Christians, "important to the way I make sense of the world, and necessary for these ideas to be coherent." They don't necessarily have anything to do with reality at all, and we shouldn't trust people who are confused on this point.

Honestly, I hope this young philosophy undergraduate, who identifies as "agnostic" and yet felt it appropriate to contact William Lane Craig, perhaps the world's most notorious Christian apologist, for philosophical answers, is not bamboozled by ideas alone and dodges the trap he seems to be trying to avoid.

Some concerns about "Atheist TV"

Immediate honesty: I've got a number of projects going on right now and have not had the time to properly investigate this "Atheist TV" thing, produced by American Atheists, that is supposed to start today. I will try to make my commentary general, then, and am asking not to be blasted in the comments for a lack of due diligence before saying something--I already know. I'm just voicing some concerns about the general concept.

More honesty: I don't enjoy watching television and haven't done so in any meaningful way in over a decade, so I will not be watching "Atheist TV" even as a "homework" assignment. I have no inclination to watch television, part of this being wrapped up in my concerns about Atheist TV. (And I know this puts me significantly out of touch with the TV-watching public.)

That said, let me point out that I have a few concerns about "Atheist TV," which starts broadcasting today, ostensibly with the goal of increasing visibility of atheists and their ideas while providing entertaining and informative programming for this growing demographic of people. Providing funding for American Atheists seems reasonable to guess is a goal of the channel as well, which if correct is a significant source of its own obvious concerns.

Religious TV

The first and most obvious one is about a worry that it will be done horribly, horribly wrong. I write this, to make an analogy, in full mind of my experiences growing up (late teens and early twenties) watching TBN/CBN (Trinity/Christian Broadcasting Network--the channel 700 Club (recognizable as Pat Robertson) comes on). I don't know how much that channel did to undermine my Christian beliefs, but it certainly made me realize how wingnut and awful Christian beliefs can be, and that right alongside the fact that it can be broadcast in a sense that constitutes a highly effective money-raking and propaganda machine. In short, I was horrified by that channel.

Given our ages, my brother and I would watch TBN, sometimes for hours at a stretch, in rather the same way that someone not indoctrinated to it might watch FOX News now. (I'd compare this to watching horror films, but that's not right because it is much more apparent that those films are fictional and don't usually make someone angry.) In fact, my brother and I would play "TBN Olympics," which involved watching TBN together until one of us lost it and started yelling at the television. Whoever yelled first lost and had to do some trivial favor for the other. The yelling, incidentally, almost always sprung up for us during the creationism shows that I think existed to fund the establishment of the Creation Museum Theme Park in Kentucky. The parallel to this will be discussed below and truly terrifies me.

At any rate, at its worst, Atheism TV could effectively be religious TV for the non-religious, with all the attendant problems. One of those is that instead of serving the goal of making atheists more visible and approachable to religious people, it could make us look like a cloistered bunch of something... (angry, science-promoting, religion-trashing, argumentative snobs, to lay out my biggest fear).

Echo Chamber

Another concern is that a television station dedicated purely to atheisty content--whatever that is--will set up an echo-chamber effect whereby what appears most is that which is self-congratulatory to ourselves. It also makes an open door to pushing the various ideologies--yes, ideologies--that are becoming more and more readily identifiable with brand "Atheism," which should not even be a brand.

This could be my ignorance, not really knowing the mission of the television station or how it will manifest, but I find it hard to imagine what would go on "Atheism TV" other than this kind of programming, which will mostly be interesting only to those who are already atheists (and considered like Heathen Broadcasting Network to those who aren't). The oft-repeated analogy that "atheism is a religion like 'off' is a television channel" springs to mind immediately and rather horrifyingly because Atheist TV is the opposite of off.

This raises the point about the audience, which is also a concern. Humans are very ideological beasts, and we're very keen on finding that which confirms what we already think. The natural audience for Atheist TV is exactly people looking for that kind of confirmation, something that careful and reflective people should be on guard for, not welcoming.

Guilt by Association

However well it is done, there are certain members of the community at large (meaning everyone, not the peculiar and misguided idea going by the horrible monicker "the atheist community") who absolutely see atheism as a religion and an ideology. This television channel will encourage that error, absolutely and undoubtedly, no matter how often or perfectly anyone, including the people on it, denies it. This, by the way, alone would distinguish Atheism TV from something aimed more broadly as secular and/or educational television in a way that I think can only be thought of as problematic.

Particularly, what this will lead to, almost completely reliably, is that whatever kind of programming ends up on Atheist TV will be seen as a part of the "atheist ideology," one that not only competes with, say, Christianity, but that is anathema to it. This runs a serious risk, particularly in the vein of science programming (which people seem to hope runs on Atheist TV), of widening and deepening the gorge between people of faith and their acceptance science. If they see science even more plainly as being associated with atheism, which they already associate with evil, that's not a win for Atheist TV or for humanity.

A plain and simple unintended consequence of promoting science under the banner of atheism is that it will make those who distrust atheists (both as people and as a "religion") distrust science even more than they already do. This is the parallel to my youthful rage at creationism television shows being on TBN. Imagine young Christians watching actual science programming on Atheist TV and raging at it, as a game even. I don't know if it will happen, but the potential is there for this to be part of the fallout of Atheist TV.

I don't know how this needle can be threaded, if it can be at all. This one is pretty substantial, and it extends beyond just science denialism among the conservative factions of evangelical Christianity (and the rest of it where it threatens belief directly). It extends into the political as well, particularly since we have many outspoken atheists (some of whom will be all-but-certain regular faces on the channel) who are overtly identifiable with liberalism (or worse, progressive leftism, which often gets mistaken for liberalism). This runs a serious risk of creating a greater political rift in the United States between the conservative religious and everyone else and will fuel--not harm--their fundraising campaigns while providing them with ample fodder for candidates to whip up a heady froth in their base.

(Of note, not all atheists are anything like enlightened in their political views, though they often think otherwise. As atheism utterly lacks any substance of its own--it is a position marked only be disbelief in one kind of thing--the gap is always, always filled with other actual things, science, "reason," politics, and whatever else. It's inextricable from pushing atheism as a thing because atheism is not a thing.)

Star power 

Star power is already a huge problem within "the atheism movement," one serious enough to make us all pause to reconsider if having an organized "atheism movement" is a good idea at all (I think it is not). It's also a problem that shouldn't exist, in the ideal, but must because we're still humans and still use reputation as a major source of social valuation. Star power translates directly into jockeying for fame and position, which is awesome for encouraging pettiness, among other more serious social problems.

I find it hard to talk about this without being potentially unfair and harsh to particular individuals, though, so I will not say more about it.

Television and Greed in General

I have a friend that works in television for one of the "educational" channels that frequently gets mocked now for being nothing like educational. Whatever the intentions of Atheist TV, it will be competing for attention with everything else out there. Since programming costs money, this competition can get both pretty fierce and, in the financial sense, necessary at some point or on some level, and that's where my friend's perspective really comes out to play.

My friend once explained to me the priorities in television programming decisions, among other things, while asking me questions for a show they were planning to make (and did make, as it turns out) because I happened to be quite knowledgeable about the particular topic that he was assigned to "do research" upon for the show (scare quotes to imply the usual plus a reason to be scared, truth be told). To summarize his point, "sexy" is the only word that matters, taking that to be construed broadly--beautiful locations, beautiful people, exotic, boundary-pushing, risky, and so on. Other things of seemingly relevant value like quality, accuracy, and truthfulness were, on his radar, almost immaterial when it came to what goes on television. They are, in the television business, he explained, selling images.

This leads us to see (combined also with what will constitute a swath of "star power"--beautiful, edgy, flippant, over-the-top, figureheaded, etc.) that if Atheist TV ends up (by greed or necessity) going the way of much of television, we can expect something not too far from a caricature of "atheism," as if it is a thing, though the caricature definitely will be, being publicly passed off and broadcast for what actually represents people who don't believe in any gods. This is another narrow ledge for Atheist TV to tread, and whatever they think, they don't have Gandalf pulling any strings for them in the quest.

Could Be Done

I don't say this all in gloom and doom. It could be done. It could work. It might be only of enough interest to attract people who are seeking exactly this kind of material on the Internet anyway, in which case it is hardly different from what's already going on except that it's put into a single stream with some program direction behind it. My mom tells me that one of my peculiar talents is in finding lots of possible ways things could go wrong and then over-thinking them, after all, so I may be speaking far too soon.

I'm saying, to be clear, though, that I have some pretty serious concerns with the concept of "Atheist TV" in general, and I personally cannot imagine any way for them to thread the needle and walk the tightrope in front of them without falling into the chasm of unintended consequences.

Monday, July 28, 2014

No, really, I don't care about Jesus

Richard Carrier noticed that I had tangentially commented upon his new book, On the Historicity of Jesus, and commented upon my comment. It seems that some people aren't quite clear on the fact that, no, really, I don't care about Jesus.

Now, Carrier seems to get it. If the contents of his blog post accurately reflect his views, he pretty much gets it in total. The fact is, I just don't care whether Jesus existed or not because the only reason I think the question is relevant in any way other than being somewhat interesting trivia (given the impact that character has had on the Western world and thus the whole world) is in the religious context that follows from it.

Particularly, had some Jesus 100% certainly existed at the right time and place, itinerant preacher of radical Jewish thought, or whatever, but the cult of Christianity hadn't taken off, Jesus would be a historical footnote of hardly any more interest except in niche corners of first-century Near East history than the question of whether or not there was some historical figure of Hercules/Heracles or Achilles. (Were they just legends, or are they based on real historical figures? Why doesn't any one really care? Chew on that for a minute, and you'll see exactly how I feel about Jesus.)

On the other hand, if 100% certainty applied that there was no Jesus or anything like a historical Jesus but some cult of Christianity, maybe starting with the Apostles and maybe starting with Paul (or maybe starting some other way entirely), did arise, and Christianity took off from there, we're pretty much in the same place we are now. The only difference to Christianity, which seems substantial but probably isn't if we think about how religious beliefs actually work, is that Jesus would be yet another metaphor for something divine.

There are, of course, people who would have their faith shaken by a discovery that switched us from a state of generally accepting that Jesus may have/probably did exist to (a hypothetical) one of Jesus not existing, but as Carrier notes correctly, to put it into other words, it's really a case of majoring in the minors. If religions were really concerned with accepting facts, they'd have died out at least a century ago.

There are also, of course, as Carrier astutely points out, ancillary benefits to the broader investigation of history to put so much attention on the question of Jesus' alleged existence, and given the role Christianity has had on shaping the world, there is bound to be worth in digging into some (maybe much) of that via the historical methods. On this, Carrier makes it very clear, we agree pretty much in total. Of course, I will note that digging deeply into any significant historical figure will bear similar fruit (with significance only mattering in the sense that it provides enough focus to do the thing, really), and I note this to point out yet again more of why I simply don't care about the case of Jesus in particular.

Just as an aside, one thing Carrier does get wrong about me is that I also do not care about counter-apologetics, effective or otherwise. I did, don't get me wrong, but I don't any longer. This, like my statement about historians and their activity pursuing questions like that of Jesus' existence, isn't to dissuade people from doing it if they enjoy it or think it serves some purpose. It's simply to say that I do not actually care about it, which is to say that for the purposes I am aiming, I don't find it particularly useful (these are not, as some suggested, ideas that have anything to do with mathematics or physics).

I've mostly written these posts about not caring for two purposes in fact: (1) to state that I, personally, do not care about the historicity of Jesus (along with why), and (2) to encourage other people to see the endeavor in the same context that I see it, "majoring in the minors," something like what John W. Loftus called "icing on the cake" in a blog post about the death of philosophy of religion just today. What I especially hope to convey with this line of thought is that I don't think that the matter of the historicity of Jesus (or counter-apologetics, for that matter) are big parts of the push toward becoming a post-religious society. They may fulfill important or even necessary roles, but I don't think they're big ones, and I don't think people should get caught up putting more stock in them than they're worth. I could be wrong, but I think Carrier agrees with me on this point.

So, this is to say, I really don't care about the historicity of Jesus, and I'm saying that speaking as someone deeply interested in pushing the cultural conversation toward becoming post-religious. The reason is that, for a number of reasons, I think it's pretty much irrelevant. So no, really, I don't care about Jesus, or rather whether or not a historical figure behind that character really existed, like really don't care.

(Note: And that, what a historical figure behind the Jesus character existing means, is something I'm still not satisfied about, even after Carrier's reply to that, though to be fair, I didn't read the chapter in his book where he explains what he means by a historical Jesus. As I tried to explain in my previous post on this topic, part of the problem is that when it comes to religious beliefs like we often deal with, it doesn't matter much what someone says they mean by ideas like "historical Jesus" or "theism" so long as someone can cobble together something else that they can mean by that and not feel too out-of-sorts about their beliefs. When it comes to these kinds of beliefs, either the beliefs or desire to believe comes first, probably from cultural context, and much of the rest is cobbled together after the fact to support it, I think.)