Friday, January 29, 2010

The Argument From Ignorance and Cutting Theists Some Slack

Theists often fall victim to the fallacy of the argument from ignorance, particularly when invoking a "god of the gaps" to explain abiogenesis. They not only deny any advances can be made in the future, they willfully ignore perfectly reasonable scientific explanations that already exist, and limit themselves to the smallness of their imaginations. Others, equally ignorant of science, properly admit that although they can't imagine other ways many phenomena could be explained, they are open to evidence in principle.

...and your electron microscope! has a flowchart describing what it means to be open minded. It errs when asking "is their evidence that could convince you otherwise." Even if a person cannot conceive of the type of evidence that would be required to refute his position, that's a deficit in his intelligence, not his honesty.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Great Moral Question of Our Time

"Problem #2 is a false dilemma because there is a 3rd option. You could throw yourself onto the tracks."

Is it moral to bind to a chair and slap with a fish people who obdurately misunderstand hypotheticals?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Republican Atheists

Staks asks how a well reasoned Atheist could be a Republican, and proffers reasons this might be impossible.

I can see two reasons for party membership. One is strictly a matter of practicality and unrelated to which party's platform one identifies most with. For example, many Republicans and independents are registered as Democrats in Washington DC, where the Democratic primary determines who wins the general election. It is sometimes easy to justify mere membership in the Republican Party under this principle, but I interpret Staks as asking why an atheist would identify more strongly with the Republican platform than the Democratic one. As an Republican-leaning atheist, I will respond to his points individually.

"While the only thing that all atheists have to have in common by virtue of being an atheist is a lack of belief in deities however most modern atheists tend to also be humanistic atheists who value reason over faith."

I identify as a rational human being more than I do as an atheist. Atheism is an appropriate label for the cause of reason in America because only religious beliefs are privileged as being immune to criticism. I really don't have much in common with an atheist who doesn't believe in any gods for bad reasons.

"The Republican Party has become the political party of faith over the last 30 or 40 years."

This is a meaningless statement. Both parties are officially secular and dominated by theists.

"It isn’t just that the vast majority of the current Republican Party are fundamentalist Christians."

The majority of both parties are irrational/religious. Irrationality is usually dangerous, each dogma in its own way. The moderate faith adhered to by most Republicans and most Democrats causes palpable harm.

"It isn’t even just that the Republican talking heads use religion as a wedge on just about every issue. It isn’t even just that the Republican Party focuses on issues like being against things like gay rights, abortion, and stem cell research. It is all of those things and more."

All three charges are are serious demerits. However, the Republican Party is against abortion, but there will be few political consequences from this as abortion has become a settled issue, and they can no longer overturn Roe. The gay rights and stem cell issues are also troublesome; Gay rights are unpopular (even in Maine!), and for all the Democrats' fulminating, there is little they ever do to advance them. Gay rights are inevitable with the replacement of older generations, but I don't think there is much gain from electing Democrats to advance gay rights faster, because they won't. Stem cell research ought not be discriminated against while competing against other technologies for federal funding, but it is still funded by states desirous to enhance their economies and by private firms who have every incentive to invest in the research that is most likely to produce marketable breakthroughs.

"The Republican Party has waged a war on non-believers."

Hyperbole and hopelessly vague.

"The fact is that during the 2008 Republican Primary, three prominent candidates raised their hands as rejecting the science of evolution. John McCain was not among them, but had to take a moment to clarify his acceptance of evolution with his religious belief that God created the sunrise or something or other."

Isn't McCain's response what Clinton, Biden, and Obama presumably believe? Don't Catholics like Biden profess to believe something equally crazy: that a cracker literally becomes the body of Christ?

"It is also significant that McCain was advised to pick an overly religious vice-presidential candidate to help him empower the extremely fundamentalist religious base of the Party."

It is also significant that it was poor advice. Even as such, it was given after a plurality of Republicans nominated a non-fundamentalist candidate.

"I can’t understand how any non-believer could possibly support a political party or a politician who believes that atheists are un-American and immoral simply because we lack a belief in a deity."

How many Democratic politicians believe this? How many Republicans do not? In both cases, I think the answer is a great many. The Republican Party is not a person and does not have beliefs, though unfortunately its platform is not clear on respecting non-belief outside of what the First Amendment requires. This is a tremendously important issue, but not a deal breaker by itself. Many liberal states' Republican parties back off considerably on this issue. Reform from within is possible. If you don't believe that, it's difficult to justify joining the Democratic Party as well.

"I’m not saying that all atheists have to be Democrats, but just don’t understand how an atheist could support a party that hates them."

In the South, how atheist friendly are the Democrats? In the North East, how anti-atheist are the Republicans?

"It is like being a black member of the KKK or a Jewish Nazi."

Hyperbolic nonsense.

"Those maybe extreme examples, but the point is that they illustrate that the Republican Party actively works against the rights and freedoms of atheists."

They illustrate that it is possible for someone to act against his own interests, a trivial point, and say nothing about the Republican Party.

Beyond the scope of this post are positive reasons to identify with the Republicans, reasons to disassociate from the Democrats, and reasons the Republican Party is the more useful one for an atheist to join in many cases.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Saturday, January 16, 2010


Karen Armstrong has inspired an insipid video that lies about history from its very first sentence and proceeds to advocate a climate of censorship. Excellent write up here.

Money quote:
If you're not on your knees after that, praying to your God for the cleansing hellfire to engulf all the simpering cretins in that advert, you're spiritually dead inside. One can only wonder at the mentality of people who think that showing this stuff to Ahmed the Infidel Smiter will cause him to re-evaluate his life choices. More likely he'd behead every actor in that clip, and in a fundamental sense I'd be cheering him on.
Remember to rate the video one star, but only a masochist would watch the whole thing.


New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks articulates part what I was saying in my previous post and adds some other ideas, and Chris Blattman disagrees. Blattman undermines his criticism by misaligning it with the arguments he is contesting; his post is entitled "David Brooks saves the world in 1000 words," but Brooks isn't claiming that his approach solves all problems, just some.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Like many westerners, I've been to the Dominican Republic but not Haiti. However, I did visit an illegal village of illegal Hatian immigrants near the border, and they didn't even have any trinkets to sell to tourists.

This article got me thinking about the situation, and the importance of having a stable society. Though we may be three meals away from anarchy, there can be no doubt that modern western cultures, when well fed, perform objectively better than Haitian culture under starvation in promoting human welfare. Humanity's knowledge will increase such that we will be able to better determine which systems are more useful under equivalent conditions, i.e. in a developed and developing country respectively. By trial and error, we've run through quite a few in the last century alone.

Will we have the wisdom to face the truth if and when we learn definitively that some cultures are superior to others?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Apparent Irony and Conservatism

If conservative ideas have merit, it is largely because of evolution by natural selection. If progressive ideas have merit, it is largely because of intelligent design.

Societies have conservative impulses, so even if ideas are introduced into them randomly the ideas' survival is evidence of their value.

Progressive ideas like Stalinism and Maoism are prone to more spectacular failure than reactionary ones, because they were created from whole cloth.

Of course, the origin of most conservative ideas was probably not random chance, but intelligent design, whether reactionary or progressive.

Insofar as the biological evolution debate is concerned, reactionaries believe in intelligent design because of at least two philosophical errors: false exclusionary disjunct and argument from incredulity. They falsely say that if evolution does not explain biological facts, it must be that an outsider created everything inexplicable, ignoring other possibilities. They further say that since they don't understand how evolution could work, it does not and could not. In contrast, progressives are not guilty of a logical fallacy, while evolution best explains biology, they are free to admit some ideas are intelligently designed. Because of this, the irony is only apparent, and the joke is on the Creationists.

My main point is to recognize that evolution can work on ideas in societies, and to be slightly conservative when judging ideas, i.e. value a record of success. The point that radically progressive ideas may have a worse worst case scenario than marginally progressive ones is important considering the diminishing marginal utility of societal benefit and increasing relative risk of radical change. This is separate from the related point that the cost of positive change may be greater than the benefit of that change.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Torture, Morality, and the Law

58% of Americans favor waterboarding the Christmas plane bomber. Presumably even more simply found it unproductive in this case since he was cooperative and not a ticking bomb after he was caught, but would favor it in other situations.

It's commonly argued that since some torture is morally justified, some torture should be legal.

The unstated premise in this argument is that all moral things should be legal, or at least this moral thing.

I disagree with the hidden premise.

The government will use torture in some circumstances whether it is legal or not, particularly in extreme scenarios like those proffered by torture's advocates.

In such cases, many agents would still torture out of self sacrifice despite legal repercussions to themselves. In addition, they would likely not be caught. Historically, the CIA has commonly acted illegally to defend perceived national interests, and agents relied on a sympathetic agency to cover up for them. The CIA's problem has generally not been timidity or respect for apparently immoral laws. Furthermore, Americans support torture. In this environment, it would be impossible to prosecute its practitioners if they had every reason to think it was necessary, even if caught. Even if they were convicted, there would be tremendous pressure to pardon them.

The main consequences of legalizing torture would be encouraging its use when it shouldn't be used, hurting America's prestige, and ameliorating the conditions of suspects who are currently sent to Jordan and elsewhere to be tortured because of America's total prohibition.

America's level of support for torture is not extrinsic to whether or not it should be legal. Ironically, the more support it has, the less it should be legal.