30 August 2011

NonStampCollector on objective morality

Here's more serious video from NonStampCollector in which he assails the idea of connecting objective moral law with Christianity. He brings up some of the same conundrums that I brought up recently, but puts his unmistakable flair to the argument.

29 August 2011


You may have noticed that things have been a little slow 'round these here parts (as we say in Oklahoma). Or, as is more likely, you may have been too busy doing interesting things to care. In any case, I've been doing some deep thinking about this blog – specifically, about the direction I want it to go such that the limited time I can devote to it feels worthwhile.

This blog originally started out as The Apostasy, which was basically just a way for me to sort out the thought process of my deconversion. Originally, I didn't even identify as an atheist – I actually spent time talking about my "theistic agnosticism". By chance, some others started reading my blog. I received praise and criticism alike, and in time grew a small but respectable readership.

After a while, the topic of religion seemed too confining. I'm interested in skeptical thinking about lots of things, not just religion. So I axed The Apostasy, ported over some of my favorite content, and used The A-Unicornist to expand my palette a bit, even if I still tend to talk about religion most of the time.

But I have to confess that I'm at a bit of an impasse. Over the last couple of years I've covered pretty much every theistic argument in as much detail as I care to. I've learned from debating with believers that when people simply refuse to educate themselves, and when they care more about reassuring themselves they are right then seeking out potentially discomforting truths, there's not much you can do to persuade them. See, for example, Steve Novella's attempts to reason with creationist cretin Michael Egnor, or William Lane Craig presuming to lecture Stephen Hawking – y'know, the guy who held the most prestigious chair of mathematics at Cambridge for 30 years – on how to do physics. What's the point of bothering with such willful stupidity – people who will flagrantly misrepresent the opinions of others and who, by their own admission, are not amenable to reason?

At this point, I've really lost interest in rehashing a lot of the same old discussions. I'm not going to blog anymore about the transparent sophistry of Christian apologists or why I think all those old C.S. Lewis arguments (incessantly rehashed by guys like Francis Collins) are poorly reasoned. It's been done, by myself and many others much smarter than I.

The morality stuff I've been doing recently (which is inspired much by some current reading material), or my discussions on free will, is probably more illustrative of the direction I want the blog to go. I'm interested in science and its implications, in applying rational inquiry to a broad array of subjects, and in discussing the sociocultural hurdles in moving toward a rational, secular society. So if, by chance, you stumbled upon this blog because of some polemic I wrote about religion, there just isn't going to be much of that anymore, if any. It's old hat and it's worn thin for me.

Speaking personally, the writings of the famous "new atheists" had very little influence (if any) on my deconversion. The book that persuaded me to reject "theistic agnosticism" was A Brief History of Time, and much of my knowledge of major issues have come from books like Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, an anthropological study of religion; Richard Dawkins' and Jerry Coyne's writings on evolution; Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking and Lisa Randall's books on physics; and Frans De Waal's writings on primatology and human behavior. In other words, nothing has shaped my thought process more than science, and I think the somewhat scattered time I have to devote to this blog would be better spent addressing those more substantive and (to me) fascinating topics. I can only hope, dear readers, that you'll be on board.

26 August 2011

A nice video on the Adam & Eve controversy

A while back, I mentioned that the conclusive evidence that Adam & Eve are fictitious creates some real problems for modern Christians [more]. In this video, Youtube user "ProfMTH", who's done a number of very good articles on the problems in Christian theology, gives a thorough overview of the issue and why it's such a conundrum for the faithful.

25 August 2011

Republicans want to raise the payroll tax

Jon Stewart's rant (see previous post) attacking the political right's contempt for the poor seems to have been truer than even he realized. Republicans absolutely decried the suggestion that we ought to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire on the top 2% of earners. And they fought tooth and nail against any sort of tax increase that might accompany the spending cuts in the deficit-cutting deal. But it seems like some conservatives are okay with tax cuts after all – as long as they're raised on those lazy poor people, and not those hardworking rich folks. While Obama wants to extend the payroll cut, some Republicans are demanding that the cut be allowed to expire

19 August 2011

Jon Stewart on class warfare and conservative hypocrisy

In yet another brilliant segment, Jon Stewart incisively exposes the hypocrisy behind conservatives' "class warfare" rhetoric. The look on his face at the end of the segment says it all.

The numerous ways Rick Perry is an unintentional comic

The forthcoming field of Republican Presidential hopefuls has some pretty entertaining loons. The old front runner, Mitt Romney, only faces problems among the base because of the influence of conservative evangelicals who do not consider Mormonism to be a legit Christian religion. He also ran for President last time, and failed to secure the nomination against a 70 year old man, which doesn't speak well for his charisma. Michelle Bachmann has plenty of appeal in that, like her partner in stupid Sarah Palin, she's folksy, dumb, and blindly religious. But most conservatives seem to realize she's not Presidential material.

Enter Rick Perry. It's my prediction that Rick Perry will be the Republican nominee for the 2012 elections, as polls seem to be indicating. He's a charismatic, Christian white male from the South who's got all the makings of a great conservative candidate: he was a terrible student in college [1], he loves to yammer about his upbringing in a small town [2] (because we all know "real" Americans don't live in cities), he's a climate change denialist [3] and a creationist [4].

One of his most unintentionally funny stunts was to make an official proclamation for the state of Texas to "pray for rain" [5]. Of course, it did rain... four months later. And when it did, conservative darling Fox News actually acted like it had something to do with Perry's call to prayer [6].

But recently, Rick Perry did something that, even for him, is pretty stupid: he falsely claimed that both creationism and evolution are taught side-by-side in Texas [7]. This shouldn't be a surprise since he's appointed creationists to the Texas school board four times [8], but since the Supreme Court has declared that teaching creationism is unconstitutional and since "intelligent design" has also been found in court to be a form of creationism rather than science, you'd hope that someone hoping to be the leader of the free world would be clued in on that kind of stuff. 

Now look. Some people might argue that these issues are incidental, and that what really matters is Perry's views on economics, social issues, foreign policy, etc. etc. To which I say, bollywags! When I vote for someone to be President of the United States, I do so under the assumption that the person I'm voting for is better qualified for the job than I am – or, for that matter, better qualified than the average small-town used car salesman. Perry's stances on climate change, religion's place in politics, and the sciences reflects such an egregious and inexcusable lapse in critical judgment that it's an international embarrassment that he's even being taken seriously. 

Oh, and then there's this:

17 August 2011

Dennis Markuze aka Dave Mabus aka DM arrested by Montreal police

I used to get spam from Dennis Markuze all the time. Countless attempts to thwart the spam were only solved when I moved to Disqus, which allows me to block IP addresses, and even that hasn't stopped him completely. This is one obsessive hombre. He moves from one internet cafe to the next, creates dozens of email addresses every week, and sends incoherent threats and harassment to a litany of non-believers, scientists, and journalists.

Well, people got fed the hell up. Kyle Vanderbeek in San Fransisco started a petition that ended up inundating Montreal police with emails about the threats. And today, Dennis Markuze was finally arrested.

Here's hoping he gets the help he needs, and that police can keep him off the web in the meantime. 

Full story here.

Tea Party: less popular than atheists

According to an op ed in the New York Times, recent polling data is showing that the Tea Party is one of the most disliked groups in the country. More disliked than Muslims and atheists. And apparently, the "Christian Right" isn't real popular either. The article states what anyone with half a brain knew from the start – the Tea Party, contrary to their early declarations that they were not about any particular political party, are overwhelmingly Republican Christian conservatives. They've never really had a uniform, coherent ideological stance, but if they all favor anything, it's Jesus:
Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.
This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.
Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics.
Personally, I've always thought that the Tea Party was more or less a platform for people who know fuck-all about politics, history, science, culture and law to pretend like they have anything important to say.

Maybe someday, we'll evolve past this in-group/out-group, us-vs.-them stuff and have a global community working for the betterment of all. Maybe. 

H/T Jen McCreight

15 August 2011

Sam Harris and determinism

H/T to Tristan: I recently watched a video on Sam Harris' blog in which he answered a series of questions submitted by readers. Now, I am most definitely a fan of Sam Harris, and I agree with much of what he says. But I do disagree with him occasionally, such as when he rambles about "transcendence". And to add to this short list, I have to take exception to his arguments about free will. Sam is a "hard determinist" who more or less believes that we are, for lack of a better term, automatons. He maintains that conscious decision making is nothing more than an elaborate illusion pulled over us by the complex circuitry of our brains. He further attempts to argue – unsuccessfully, in my opinion – that this should not demean our sense of responsibility and justice, for reasons I'll touch on momentary.

Sam is certainly not the first to raise the issue of free will, consciousness and determinism – it's one of the oldest debates in philosophy and science. And if he's to be believed, neuroscience is giving us insights into our behaviors which show the harsh truth that, as he puts it, "You do not choose what you choose". Now, I'm not going to take a hard-line stance here. Ultimately, that free will is an illusion may be a harsh reality that science forces us to accept. But it's my position that a great deal about consciousness remains to be understood, and that Sam's arguments both overlook some important issues and fail to tell the whole story of what is happening in neuroscience.


Determinism, as it's commonly understood, assumes the following: all laws of physics follow a precise chain of cause and effect. The difference between, say, a twitch of the elbow and higher cognitive function is simply one of complexity. If we could understand all the causal interactions between all the trillions of neurons in our brains then we should be able to predict human behavior as accurately as we predict any phenomenon. This means that what we perceive as choices are no more than the precise outcomes of a bafflingly complex neural network. We have no more influence over these causal chains of events than we do anything else in the laws of physics, thus what we perceive as being "choice" is purely illusory.

This would seem to undermine the notion that we ought to be held responsible for our behavior. Sam argues that we can still account for people's intentions, even if their behavior is beyond their control. But Sam stumbles here; for if his previous arguments are valid, then we are not responsible for our intentions either. How can we be? As he puts it, this is a "non-starter". We cannot be abdicated from the responsibility of our choices and then be held accountable for the motivations of those choices if they are both the product of the same deterministic processes.

But the biggest issue Sam's viewpoint raises is why we have consciousness at all. If we are deterministic automatons, we could carry out all our behaviors just as well regardless of whether we were aware of them. And yet, we have this phenomenon of subjective experience which says, "I experienced that." We are self-aware and are cognizant of our decisions. The best Sam's explanation can offer is that consciousness is a happy byproduct of these mechanistic processes. From an evolutionary standpoint, this seems wanting; why would consciousness evolve if it offered us no advantages whatsoever?

The false dilemma

This is usually the point where the religiously inclined attempt to argue that our consciousness can only be explained as a supernatural gift, and we enter a futile debate over dualism. It's my position that both extremes are using an argument from ignorance. I call myself a "determinist" strictly in the sense that I believe we do not need a "ghost in the machine" to understand what consciousness is and how it works. We do not need to violate the laws of physics to have conscious thought. Besides, that argument always puzzled me: why would God go through the trouble of making such elaborate laws of physics governing our minds, and then require a suspension of those laws for us to be conscious? It's tantamount to arguing that the universe is designed... just not that designed.

Science on consciousness

Sam, like most hard determinists, argues that there's simply no place in the causal chain of events for free will to emerge; that, I believe, is a failure of imagination more than science or philosophy. It is possible – and indeed research seems to be suggesting as much – that consciousness does influence our behavior. How can this fit into a philosophical view of causality? Well, I'll leave that to the philosophers – we have to take the evidence as it is.

Sam's often presented research supposedly showing that our decisions occur in our subconscious before we're aware of making them. But on closer examination, these studies are far from the death knell to free will that Sam portrays them to be.

In a study published in Nature Neuroscience [1], two researchers attempted to expand on the research of Benjamin Libet and subsequent research showing that subconscious activity preceded conscious choices. In the study, researchers attempted to use brain activity to predict the outcome of a simple decision: to push a button with the right or left hand. The study found a much bigger gap – up to 7 seconds – than had previously been found between subconscious thought and conscious awareness of the decision.

Unfortunately, this study is not as impressive as it first sounds. The accuracy of the researchers' predictions was approximately 60% – not much better than a flip of a coin. Perhaps if the number of variables was much higher, the number would be a little more impressive – but this was literally only two variables: the right or left hand. Further, the researchers were unable to demonstrate that they hadn't simply observed the physiological mechanisms involved in button-pressing.

A much more comprehensive review of literature reveals the opposite: that conscious thought does influence our behavior. In a review of literature published in the Annual Review of Psychology, researchers from Florida State concluded:
The evidence for conscious causation of behavior is profound, extensive, adaptive, multifaceted, and empirically strong. However, conscious causation is often indirect and delayed, and it depends on interplay with unconscious processes. Consciousness seems especially useful for enabling behavior to be shaped by nonpresent factors and by social and cultural information, as well as for dealing with multiple competing options or impulses. It is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing.
Much work needs to be done to understand this interplay, and I'll spare the fuss over precisely what "free will" is supposed to mean. But if our conscious thought can indeed influence our actions, then the hard determinism espoused by Sam Harris is an emperor with no clothes. There is something to our consciousness and self-awareness that is functional, which evolved for specific reasons – not simply a pleasant illusion played by the subconscious brain.

The essence of moral reasoning, part 1: why "evil" fails

In my previous post about morality, I argued that all moral reasoning requires a subjective value judgment – that is, rather than adhering to some objective standard which tells us whether an action is unequivocally right or wrong, we examine each situation contextually and, based on the available information, decide whether an act is right, wrong, or somewhere in between. I also argued that our reasons for behaving morally are rational and non-arbitrary. Over the next three posts, I'll talk about how we make those moral decisions and how we reason about them.

The evidence from biology is unambiguous: certain behavioral tendencies are hard-wired through our evolution. We are, more often than not, cooperative, empathetic and reciprocally altruistic. Save for sociopaths, we tend to feel empathy and sympathy for others who are suffering. Of course, people also behave badly. We can be selfish, ambivalent, or cruel. We can be conditioned to erode our natural empathetic connection to others, to the point of barbarism.

The conventional answer to this dilemma is more or less the following: people behave that way because they're evil. Perhaps we're simply inclined to do evil because, well, that's what we are. But as an explanation, this is a non-starter. It fails to account for the fact that most of the time, we are empathetic, altruistic and cooperative. While stories of people behaving cruelly make for captivating news, they do so precisely because such behavior is not the norm. There is something unusual, something perversely remarkable about those whose sense of empathy has been eroded – and that is precisely why we react with shock and horror at the abject cruelty of things like Nazi medical experiments, US military officers torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or Islamic fundamentalists throwing acid on the faces of women. Were "evil" simply the norm of human behavior, we'd be much more surprised to see an act of goodwill.

But what I'll dub the argument from evil fails in a more important way: it doesn't accurately account for how we actually make moral decisions. Broadly speaking, there have been two competing theories in the behavioral sciences to explain morality. The first is veneer theory. This suggests that evolution has left us as cruel, selfish, and inclined to mistreat one another. It is only through our higher capacity of moral reasoning – perhaps our ability to understand a religious or legal "moral code" – that we have been able to overcome our innate destructive tendencies.

Veneer theory leaves many important questions unanswered. If it is only through moral reasoning that we have been able to overcome this innate evil, how did our species – and our evolutionary ancestors – survive long enough to develop such a moral code? Certain social norms, such as prohibitions against assault, theft, murder and perjury, are integral to the fundamental cohesion of any human society. Had those in primitive human (or proto-human) societies simply given in to every cruel or selfish whim, they never would have been able to coexist. Reciprocal altruism has always been required for us to find food, to protect ourselves from predators and the elements, and to raise children.

In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans De Waal expounds:
Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also our closest relatives, the primates. In a study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof. What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. [p.6]
Veneer theory further fails to account for the fact that even young children have been shown to display empathy. In a study of children ages 7 to 12, researchers at the University of Chicago found that the empathetic response was present even though the children had limited understanding of moral reasoning:
"This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else," said Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago.
The programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing.[2]
Finally, veneer theory fails to account for a very important fact – one which I will expand on in part 2: many of our moral decisions are made involuntarily. If we spot a small child wandering in the middle of a busy street, we impulsively rush to protect her. We do not pause to contemplate the cost/benefit to ourselves or society as a whole – it is only after the event that we conjure up rationalizations for our behavior (this phenomenon is illustrated in the Trolley Problem, which I've discussed here). Were cruelty our first inclination, as veneer theory suggests, we would not act with compulsive compassion.  

The facts are unambiguous: we must acknowledge that empathy and altruism are hard-wired and integral to the very survival of our species. We can think of this as the second theory of moral behavior: what I'll dub the grounded theory of morality, to reflect its bottom-up development. But clearly, hard-wired feelings of empathy or an inclination toward reciprocal altruism cannot fully explain our moral behavior. Somehow, these inclinations can be eroded to the point that we are capable of great acts of cruelty. We can, as a society, make rules that reflect a desire for equality and peace, or we can impose militaristic rule and enact barbaric punishments for petty crimes. In the next post, I'll discuss how evolutionary hard-wiring interplays with our environment, and how we reason about moral values.

13 August 2011

Could porn be reducing rapes?

Folk wisdom suggests that pornography has a great many ill effects on society. It denigrates women, it creates unrealistic expectations about sexual relationships, and it may indirectly contribute toward a rise in sexual assaults. A report in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind calls this convention wisdom into question:
With access to pornography easier than ever before, politicians and scientists alike have renewed their interest in deciphering its psychological effects. Certainly pornography addiction or overconsumption seems to cause relationship problems [see “Sex in Bits and Bytes,” by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2010]. But what about the more casual exposure typical of most porn users? Contrary to what many people believe, recent research shows that moderate pornography consumption does not make users more aggressive, promote sexism or harm relationships. If anything, some researchers suggest, exposure to pornography might make some people less likely to commit sexual crimes.
This is based on the data: sexual assault is at its lowest level in decades not just in the US, but in many countries in which access to pornography has become more prevalent:

“Rates of rapes and sexual assault in the U.S. are at their lowest levels since the 1960s,” says Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University. The same goes for other countries: as access to pornography grew in once restrictive Japan, China and Denmark in the past 40 years, rape statistics plummeted. Within the U.S., the states with the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and therefore the least access to Internet pornography—experienced a 53 percent increase in rape incidence, whereas the states with the most access experienced a 27 percent drop in the number of reported rapes, according to a paper published in 2006 by Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University.

The article goes on to stress that these numbers are correlative; we don't know if access to porn is causing the assault rates to decline. The last bit of the article suggests something that the Catholic church seems to be learning the hard way – suppressing sexual desires can make things worse:
It turns out that among porn viewers, the amount of porn each subject consumed had nothing to do with his or her mental state. What mattered most, Twohig found, was whether the subjects tried to control their sexual thoughts and desires. The more they tried to clamp down on their urge for sex or porn, the more likely they were to consider their own pornography use a problem. The findings suggest that suppressing the desire to view pornography, for example, for moral or religious reasons, might actually strengthen the urge for it and exacerbate sexual problems.

Read the full article here.

20 Christian academics speaking about God

One of the best ways to experience firsthand the almost comical absurdity of religious thought is just to listen to various modern theologians muse about God. That sophisticated theology we atheists are, like, totally not getting? Here it is, straight from the horse's mouth.

Theology: the art of making stuff up

Hat tip to Jerry Coyne over at WEIT for this one:

NPR recently did a program featuring various religious thinkers discussing the implications of the entire story of Eden being scientifically discredited. There were a few fundies, and several accommodationists including some writers for Francis Collins' organization BioLogos.

Dr. Coyne has a fine summary on his blog, but I wanted to add my own thoughts. Basically the issue is this: there is simply no possible way that Adam and Eve existed as described in the Bible. All genetic evidence we have shows that we modern humans are descended from a population of at least 10,000 – not two.

This creates some serious problems for Christians. Paul, for example, in both the book of Romans and 1 Corinthians, explains that the whole point of Christ's death and resurrection is to undo the Fall. But if Adam and Eve did not exist, then the Fall – at least as it is described in the Bible – did not happen. It's a major dilemma for Christians, because if there was no Fall, then there's no need for redemption, and no point to Christ.

So, Christians are left with two options. The first is the path of the fundamentalists: deny reality. Protest that somehow, the science has it all wrong. It's the modern-day equivalent of putting Galileo under house arrest or the Scopes trial, and the fundies basically just look stupid. In the battle between science and religious fundamentalism, science always wins.

The second option is to do what various BioLogos writers have tried to do: re-interpret the story of Eden. Perhaps Adam and Eve did exist, but they were just two of many, and somehow their sin infected all other people. Perhaps sin had some other way of gradually infecting humanity. You can hope over to BioLogos and spend a good weekend reading all the material they have on this topic.

But here's the one big problem with the accommodationist approach – the elephant in the room, if you will: It is entirely conjectural. Not a single one of these theologians has the slightest factual basis for affirming or, in most cases, even testing their theories. They are simply speculating about how it might have happened, and there is absolutely no way whatsoever they could ever confirm their hypotheses. In other words, they are literally just making stuff up.

Such conjectural masturbation may ease their cognitive dissonance, but this is not "sophisticated" or "progressive" theology – it's religion, as usual, being dragged kicking and screaming into an era of secular modernity driven by scientific knowledge. These otherwise intelligent individuals are so desperate to hang on to these primitive myths that they will literally just pull unfalsifiable conjecture out of their asses in the vain hope that it may sooth their consciousness enough that they can continue clinging to beliefs that are being ever more marginalized by the inexorable march of scientific progress.

12 August 2011

Morality is subjective

In the previous post I argued against the notion of "objective morality". Now, I want to turn to the subjectivity of moral judgments. All moral judgments are, by necessity, subjective. But that doesn't mean our concept of right and wrong is arbitrary, nor does it mean that our judgments themselves are arbitrary. To illustrate this, I'm going to revisit an example I used in the previous post.

First, I want to suggest that there are three broad "tiers" of moral judgment; an act can be:

  1. Forbidden
  2. Permissible 
  3. Obligatory

Is lying an objectively immoral act? The Biblical God explicitly forbids it in the 10 Commandments, and most of us believe, in general, that lying is wrong. But it doesn't take much effort to imagine a circumstance in which lying is either permissible or even morally obligatory –unambiguously the right course of action.

In Nazi-occupied Poland, families sympathetic to the plight of Jews would hide Jewish families in the attics, walls, or basements of their houses. When Nazi officers came around inquiring as to the whereabouts of these Jews, the families lied to protect them.

Most reasonable people would agree that in this circumstance, it was not merely permissible to lie – lying was the morally obligatory course of action. If this is true, it means that the act of lying cannot be intrinsically, objectively wrong; rather, we make subjective value judgments as to the "rightness" of the action depending on the circumstance. If lying were objectively wrong, it would always be wrong.

It's easy to imagine this with virtually any other act. Is it moral to indiscriminately kill civilians en masse in a time of war? We've evolved our weapons of warfare to minimize civilian casualties – we use laser-guided bombs and missiles, precise rifles fired by trained marksmen, etc. If we had no care of killing the innocent, we could simply drop as many nukes as it took to wipe our enemies off the face of the earth.

But in World War II, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. In those two explosions, hundreds of thousands of people died – most of them civilians. And the ones that were evaporated were the lucky ones – many more suffered slow, excruciatingly painful deaths from radiation poisoning. But in this case, the US military had made a subjective value judgment – that the show of force of the atomic bombs would force Japan to surrender, ending a war that, if protracted, would likely escalated to a full-scale invasion of Japan and cost millions more lives.

Regardless of whether one agrees that this action was either wrong, permissible, or obligatory, the fact remains that it was an act of genocide that was circumstantially justified through subjective value judgments. As horrible as we generally think genocide is, even genocide is not objectively wrong. If it were as simple as saying something like "lying is objectively wrong", then we would quickly run into an impasse as various objective moral tenets conflicted with each other. The Nazi example is a fine one; is it not also wrong to passively allow the abuse and murder of other humans when it is within our power to prevent it?  While surrendering our power to help others is an act of omission, and lying is an act of commission, I think most reasonable people would agree that in this case, the act of surrender would be the greater moral crime, and lying was the right thing to do.

All moral actions require subjective judgments which take into account external factors that influence whether an act is forbidden, permissible, or obligatory. No act exists in a vacuum where it can be considered absolutely and objectively right or wrong. Only one issue remains: how do we determine, then, what constitutes right and wrong? As I've already suggested, though our judgments are necessarily subjective, our reasoning is not arbitrary. I'll be doing a third post on morality soon (hopefully this weekend), and the nature of moral reasoning will be its subject.

11 August 2011

Objective morality does not exist (and nobody believes in it anyway)

It's been parroted by just about every Christian theologian I've ever encountered (even the armchair kind): Without God, anything is permissible. God is the only source of objective moral law. If there is no God, then there is no objective morality, and no one can say with any authority or rational certainty that any given act is patently immoral.

So, why believe a "moral law" exists in the first place? For some reason, we want to be treated fairly. We want our autonomy respected. Even when we treat others unfairly, we usually still want to be treated fairly ourselves. There's some intuitive sense in us that constitutes what is right and wrong. If we're asked why it's wrong to indiscriminately kill and eat infants, our answer tends toward, It just is.  This intuitive understanding of moral behavior indicates that there exists an objective moral law to which we are subject. If such an objective moral law exists, it must come from a moral law giver whose authority is absolute and infallible – God.

I submit that what Christians really believe is actually just another form of subjective morality. Nobody really believes in ultimate moral absolutes.

Righteous killings

William Lane Craig has recently defended, again, the Slaughter of the Canaanites[1]. In this charming Bible story, almighty God orders his holy army to mercilessly slaughter everyone in Canaan. God explicitly tells them to leave no one alive:
However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.  Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. [Deut 20:16-17]
It should be noted that is one of many times God commands his righteous army to kill the shit out of everyone. In the judgement of Israel in the book of Ezekiel, God's instructions are even more explicit (emphasis mine):
Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the old men who were in front of the temple.[Ezekiel 9:3-6]
Clearly, Yahweh does not mess around. But wait! Doesn't the idea of deliberately slaughtering children offend our moral sensibilities? Isn't this barbaric and... well, evil? Craig has a different explanation. First, he recounts his previous defense, which I have addressed on this blog [2]:
My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so.

Then he adds this juicy tidbit:
There is one important aspect of my answer that I would change, however. I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land.
It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it.

Well, I have two objections. The first is that it's not, y'know, true. The scripture explicitly tells them to destroy "anything that breathes". If that's not a command for genocide, well, I don't know what is. But the second problem is that it's sort of like saying that if a murderer entered your house and killed your family, it was your fault for not getting them out of there fast enough. It's blaming the victim.

I am, frankly, much more interested in what Craig said in his first response: that God was morally justified in ordering the genocide. Something tells me that if this weren't creating a little cognitive dissonance for Craig, he wouldn't have conjured up his charitable re-interpretation. It's hard to really, honestly think that killing innocent people en masse is a good thing.

This raises a bigger issue: are horrible things okay if God commands them? The answer, according to Craig at least, is a resounding yes. However horrible we might find the indiscriminate slaughter of children, God had sufficient moral reason for doing so.

What makes something immoral?

But this creates a great conundrum for Christians: if any atrocity can be morally justified by God's command, then no act is absolutely wrong. What Craig is arguing is not that genocide is okay all the time, but that there was a mitigating circumstance in which it was the right thing to do. In other words, there is nothing about the act of murdering children that, in itself, is intrinsically wrong. Because if it were absolutely wrong, then even God would not be able to command it. Remember when William Lane Craig said this (emphasis mine):
God's moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God's commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature. [3]
If that second sentence is true, then God cannot command us to do something that is morally wrong; thus, the mass child killing must have been right, since that is what God commanded. But that erodes the entire concept of what "objective morality" is supposed to be. Presumably, there is a moral law which we all intuitively understand and to which we are all bound. Let's go back a moment, and listen to how C.S. Lewis describes moral law in Mere Christianity:
It seems,  then,  we are forced to  believe in a real Right  and Wrong.
People may  be sometimes mistaken about them,  just as people sometimes  get
their sums wrong;  but they are not  a matter of mere taste and  opinion any
more than the multiplication table.
But if even killing children can, in certain circumstances, be considered an act of good, then what basis is there to assert "it is wrong to kill children" as an objective moral tenet?

Here's a more obvious example. Lying is forbidden in the Ten Commandments. But few of us would object to those who, in Nazi-occupied Poland, lied to authorities to protect the lives of Jewish people. In some circumstances, lying is the most compassionate thing to do. This means that lying cannot be objectively, absolutely wrong. There are circumstances in which we recognize it as not only permissible, but even morally obligatory. Lying is not absolutely wrong. Neither is taking someone's life. We can probably imagine any atrocity, no matter how disgusting and awful, and then imagine another circumstance in which it was the lesser of evils. That is precisely what Christians do when they are defending genocide commanded by God: they're arguing that, while not pretty, it was the best and most moral course of action.

This simply means that morality is subject to God's whims. The Christian is merely positing another form of subjective morality, in which no act is absolutely, fundamentally wrong; instead, the "rightness" of an act is contingent on whether God commands or condemns it. And, of course, God can change his tune; he can say, "thou shalt not kill", or he can say, "kill, without showing pity or compassion". Is killing objectively wrong? Is this an absolute moral law? If so, then God is evil to command it; if the act can be circumstantially good because God commanded it, it cannot intrinsically be objectively and absolutely wrong.

Subjective does not mean arbitrary

Christians who argue against a non-theistic ground for moral behavior, going all the way back to C.S. Lewis, are making a fundamental folly: they are conflating subjective with arbitrary. Morality is not objective. Even Christians, in practice, do not believe such a thing. We all experience moral impulses and moral reasoning subjectively. However, we have non-arbitrary reasons for adhering to norms of moral behavior. There are rational reasons for treating others fairly, for doing acts of goodwill, and even for sacrificing ourselves for the good of others. I won't tread on the subject here, as this post is already quite lengthy, but a fine primer can be found here.

The very notion of grounding morality in God's commands necessarily makes morality arbitrary. If even the indiscriminate killing of children as a part of a hostile military conquest can be viewed as circumstantially moral, then what act can't be circumstantially moral? Truly, with God, everything is permitted.

09 August 2011

Discovery Curiosity: Did God Create the Universe? (Hint: No)

A quickie here, between shed time with the 7-string. I just watched the Discovery special with Stephen Hawking, asking if God created the universe. Hawking's answer? "No." If, like yours truly, you've read A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design, there's nothing particularly new here. But it stays away from complex discussions of physics and explains everything in very simple terms.

I like Hawking's almost childlike curiosity. Like me, he's not interested in whether we can prove or disprove the existence of God. He's a scientist, and he wants to know if the only way we can hope to understand the universe is by positing a Creator. It's certainly what a lot of wishful thinkers desire to be the case. But, as he explains, the laws of nature reveal something very different.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

07 August 2011

Week off


I've published two lengthy posts this weekend. That should do. I'm going to take the week off from blogging. Not only is it time-consuming to research and compose all this stuff, but it's also very time-consuming to get caught in the back and forth in the comments section. Talk amongst yourselves, enjoy the posts, yadda yadda. I have a brand-spankin' new Ibanez 7-string and some ambitious musical projects, and I don't want to get sidetracked with blogging which, in terms of sneaky time-draining, is almost as bad as Civilization V. Almost.

See you in a week!

Good reasoning, bad information

There seems to be a general consensus among modern atheists, including myself, that religious belief is irrational. It would seem to follow, then, that attempts to defend religious beliefs are fine examples of bad reasoning. And sometimes, they are.

But recently, when I was watching QualiaSoup's outstanding videos on morality, I took notice when he raised a provocative point in the first video that I think has broader implications for rational inquiry.
"Sound reasoning won't lead to valid assessments if we're operating with flawed information; nor will sound information if our reasoning is flawed."
I think that if we take a close look at apologetics, we can see precisely that: good reasoning based on flawed information. I've mentioned in the past that one of the catalysts for my rejection of Christianity was C.S. Lewis' book The Case for Christianity [link]. To his credit, Lewis attempts to substantiate Christianity without making the initial assumption that God exists. He initially refrains from any arguments from ignorance, such as suggesting that God is required to explain the origin or structure of the universe, though unfortunately he stumbles into those blunders later in the book.

Instead, Lewis begins with the moral argument. We're selfish, greedy, impulsive, etc., yet we also seem to have some intuitive notion of what behaviors are right and wrong, and an understanding that we have often fallen short of the behavior we desire and expect from others. Lewis summarizes:

The ex-non-believer

The other day, when doing some research for a forthcoming post, I came across a lengthy interview with renown geneticist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins. In the interview, he discussed his tenure as a somewhat obnoxious non-believer:
I concluded that all of this stuff about religion and faith was a carryover from an earlier, irrational time, and now that science had begun to figure out how things really work, we didn't need it any more. I think you wouldn't have enjoyed having lunch with me when I was in that phase. My mission then was to ferret out this squishy thinking on the part of people around me and try to point out to them that they really ought to get over all of that emotional stuff and face up to the fact that there really wasn't anything except what you could measure. 
He goes on to discuss some conversations he had with a minister, who subsequently loaned him a copy of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Then, this happened:
I was on a trip to the northwest, and on a beautiful afternoon hiking in the Cascade Mountains, where the remarkable beauty of the creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, "I cannot resist this another moment. This is something I have really longed for all my life without realizing it, and now I've got the chance to say yes."
He leaves out a bit of detail that he's discussed in the past: the three waterfalls. In a 2006 interview with Salon, he describes the most pivotal moment of that nature hike:

05 August 2011

Some syllogismy-things

Here's a quick thought:
  • God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing)
  • People who reject God will ultimately go to Hell
  • God, being omniscient and transcending space and time, knows all people's decisions before they happen
  • Ergo, God created people knowing they would reject him and go to Hell forever
And this one:
  • God gave us free will
  • God is omniscient
  • God knows our choices before we make them 
  • Unless it is possible for God to be wrong, all our future actions are decided
  • Ergo, free will is an illusion

03 August 2011

It's hot

I've lived in Oklahoma since '85, and I've never seen or experienced a heat wave like we're having now. Today, the high is 114°. It's been over 100° for a solid month, if not longer. I'm dreading getting my electric bill.

Is this evidence for global warming? Well, not really, no. Localized, short-term weather isn't an accurate measure of global warming trends, which is why it's stupid when conservatives say that snow is evidence against global warming [1]. Evidence for global warming – particularly that we're playing a big role – comes from a litany of long-term, global evidence [2].

Let me tell you, I love the heat. I'm originally from Milwaukee, and I hate the weather there. I loathe even the brief Winters we have here. But 114°... well, it's not much fun. With any luck, we'll have a long Fall.