31 March 2012

Some questions are just irrelevant

I watched most of the debate in my previous post, and there was a common theme hammered home by the theistic side – that there are certain questions science cannot answer. These are questions like...
  • Where did the universe come from?
  • What happens to us when we die?
  • What is the meaning of our existence?
etc. etc.

I'm a little disappointed that Carroll and Shermer didn't hammer back on this one, because this is like shooting fish in a barrel.

All of those questions are based upon certain assumptions, like:
  • The universe had to have come from something else
  • Something happens to us when we die
  • There is a meaning to our existence
The problem, which is so obvious it shouldn't even need mentioning, is that these are baseless assumptions. Asking any theist to explain why they make such assumptions is a sure-fire way to watch an entertaining show of rationalizing wishful thinking. 

30 March 2012

Has science refuted religion?

Full video of the recent debate featuring Sean Carroll, Michael Shermer, Dinesh D'Souza and Ian Hutchinson.

p.s. – This debate reinforced my utter disdain for Dinesh D'Souza, mainly for the fact that he constantly speaks in a half-yell. He must hang out with William Lane Craig.

28 March 2012

Gallup poll shows Americans becoming less religious

Friendly Atheist has a terrific summary of the latest Gallup poll. I won't bother retyping all the details, but I do want to quote the whopper from the survey (emphasis Hemant's):
Gallup classifies 40% of Americans nationwide as very religious — based on their statement that religion is an important part of their daily life and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week. Another 32% of Americans are nonreligious, based on their statement that religion is not an important part of their daily life and that they seldom or never attend religious services. The remaining 28% of Americans are moderately religious, because they say religion is important but that they do not attend services regularly or because they say religion is not important but still attend services.
As Hemant points out, it's not to say that 32% of Americans are atheists. The term "nonreligious" leaves room for all kinds of "spiritual, but not religious" people. But the important takeaway is this: for about a third of Americans, religion is not a relevant issue in their daily lives. And that's not even counting the people who say it's not important, but go to church anyway.

That's what matters, isn't it? I don't particularly care whether everyone is an atheist. What matters is that religion's influence in the public sphere is increasingly impotent. And despite Rick Santorum's success in the primaries, that appears to be the case. 

Read Hemant's full summary here.

27 March 2012

Penn Jilette and Nate Phelps at the Reason Rally

Penn Jilette addressed the Reason Rally via video (I'd heard he attended the first day, but I may have been mistaken). There's not much substance to his address, but it's good for a cheer:

More substance is to be found in the speech of Nate Phelps – the estranged son of the notorious Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (who were a short ways away, protesting the Rally). He hasn't updated his blog since July of last year, but there's some good stuff on there as well.

I absolutely love this line from his speech, which echos Sam Harris' thesis in The End of Faith: "If you invoke faith as justification for your belief, you must accept the same from others. And every person who retreats to faith bears a responsibility for every act of hate and violence justified by it".

26 March 2012

Bart Ehrman on a historical Jesus

I'm normally a big fan of Bart Ehrman. His book Jesus, Interrupted is one of those books where, if you can read it and still call yourself a Christian, you're suffering from some serious denial.

Bart Ehrman is certain about one thing: Jesus really existed. He's confident that all the supernatural stuff that Christians believe is a bunch of hooey, and the comical state of the Biblical manuscripts he discusses in his aforementioned book goes a long way toward establishing that. Others are not so sure that Jesus is anything but a made-up figure. They're usually categorized, sometimes derisively, as "mythicists".

Bart Ehrman playing pretend basketball
So Ehrman penned an op ed for the Huffington Post entitled, "Did Jesus Exist?" in which he makes the case for a historical Jesus. Well, maybe not so much "makes the case" as "insists it's true without presenting any good evidence." I'm not going to bother addressing all his claims; Richard Carrier already published an op ed of his own ripping Ehrman's piece to shreds. Instead, I want to cut to the heart of the matter.

There are no secular accounts of Jesus. The only accounts we have – shoddy as they are – portray Jesus as something supernatural. It may be that there lived a Rabbi named Jesus (or something like it) who had some followers, stirred up some controversy, and died. That's a pretty unremarkable and perfectly plausible historical claim, even if there isn't any hard evidence that it's true.

But it's all beside the point. It doesn't freaking matter whether a "secular" Jesus existed. All that matters is whether Jesus existed as he is described in the Bible, which Bart Ehrman himself would be the first to tell you "no, he didn't."  Ehrman can argue for a "historical" Jesus until he's blue in the face, but even if he were right (which doesn't appear to be the case), he'd get a resounding golf clap.

25 March 2012

An overview of free will and determinism (or, I may or may not be choosing to write this)

Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris have been pretty busy on the subject of free will lately, and I've engaged in some discussions across the interwebs with various people who share their perspective. It's one of the oldest debates in philosophy, but interest in the topic doesn't seem to be going anywhere. What's new, though, is the idea that science can actually prove we don't have free will. I think that's wrong, but I'll save it for another time.

I'm what's known as a "compatibilist". If there are two common ideas of free will, they are:
  • Dualism and libertarian free will
  • Naturalism and determinism
There's a common, and in my opinion misguided, assumption that the only way we can talk about free will is if the mind is somehow disembodied from the brain, and able to circumvent those pesky laws of physics. That kind of argument has never made sense to me, even from a theistic standpoint – after all, why would God go about making this incomprehensibly complex universe governed by all these laws, and then decide that a perpetual miracle of sorts would be required for even the most basic human behavior (and perhaps that of some other higher animals)?

Compatibilism is basically this
  • Determinism and a certain kind of free will
I prefer to talk about free will and determinism in their simplest terms, to avoid all that "Well, what do you actually mean by free will?" crap. I take free will simply to mean the ability to choose, to have volition. There are some definitions of free will that have to be done away with; namely the aforementioned "libertarian" or "contra-causal" free will. We don't get a pass on the laws of physics. We don't get to make decisions free of a litany of internal and external influences. Our environment, our social interactions, and the very makeup of our brains all profoundly influence our behavior. The playing field is simply not level, and I don't think any reasonable person would dispute this fact.

Determinism can be an equally fuzzy concept, but I'm going to take traditional approach: it's the idea that if we understood all the positions of all the particles in the universe, and we could plug this information into some kind of mathematical formula, we could always predict human behavior. Determinism says choice is fundamentally an illusion. We're automatons, not really making choices but simply the products of inevitability. This is summed up poetically by what's called "Laplace's demon", from the philosopher Pierre-Simon Laplace:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Compatibilism throws a hook into the discussion; it says we can live in a deterministic universe and still have free will – at least in the ways that really matter. To that end, "determinism" as described above (the "we are automatons" idea) is really more accurately described as "hard determinism". That's the position that folks like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne take.

Hurdles of (hard) determinism

Determinism raises some rather big issues. If we're not really "free" to make any decisions, then moral responsibility is also illusory. The entire idea of "ought" is irrelevant. To quote Massimo Pigliucci in response to Jerry Coyne,
How is it possible to argue that we “should” do X in order to achieve Y if, as Jerry’s intellectual kin, Alex Rosenberg, would put it, “the physical facts fix all the facts”? It is hard for me to make sense of a position that denies that we have any choice in any matter, while at the same time advocating that we should or should not do certain things rather than others. How can we have a choice to contemplate (or not) what Jerry is proposing? How can we then decide to build a kinder world? And since morality itself is an illusion, why should we try to build a kinder world anyway?
I think Massimo hits the nail on the head. This reveals one of the biggest problems with hard determinism: it's philosophically masturbatory. Even if it turns out to be true, it is absolutely without application to our actual lives. We still have to live as though we have volition, and we still have to hold others accountable for their behavior. Even Sam Harris, in his new book, stumbles over this problem. From his old blog entry (which now redirects to his ebook on free will... titled, creatively, "Free Will"):
The great worry is that any honest discussion of the underlying causes of human behavior seems to erode the notion of moral responsibility. If we view people as neuronal weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about morality?
Sam further identifies "the intention to do harm" (emphasis his) as that for which we are justified in holding others responsible. But according to Sam's hard determinism, our intentions are not our own any more than our behavior; thus the hurdle of reconciling the idea of viewing humans as "neuronal weather patterns" with the idea that we have to be responsible for our choices hasn't been overcome. It just can't work in real life.

The problem with reductionism

I suppose I'm not persuaded by hard determinism because the entire position is based on a sort of extreme reductionism. Neurons are not free; our brains are composed of neurons, thus our brains are not free. But this is just a fallacy of composition – it's possible that brains exhibit emergent properties not present in its constituent parts. If we take the reductionist approach, we can just keep going down to quarks (or strings, perhaps) and ever more impossibly complex calculations. In the words of Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, "classical mechanics isn’t right; it’s just an approximation to quantum mechanics". So we can keep chopping away, and at some point we'll have quantum indeterminacy. That doesn't give us libertarian free will, but it dispenses with the idea that the universe is like an unwinding clock, and we're all subject to a singular inevitable fate no matter what we think we are choosing.

The dichotomy between quantum mechanics and classical physics in many ways parallels the dilemma of free will; to say that free will does not exist is to say that some fundamental description of reality is incompatible with the idea of free will; as Sam Harris says, it's a "non-starter, philosophically and scientifically". But equations that are useful for describing the behavior of particles are not very useful for describing the behavior of baseballs – just as the laws of chemistry, though at a fundamental level of all biology, are not very useful in explaining evolution. 

In his book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking posits what he calls "model-dependent realism". This is the idea that we don't have any ultimate, indisputable description of reality by which to measure the accuracy of various theoretical descriptions of it. Instead, what we say is "real" really comes down what model of reality best fits the data. From the book:
There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science.
We have to look at free will, and volition, a bit differently then. Sean Carroll has a fantastic analogy with the concept of "time":
The microscopic laws of physics (as far as we know) are perfectly reversible; evolution forward in time is no different from evolution backward in time. But the macroscopic world is manifestly characterized by irreversibility. That doesn’t mean that the two descriptions are incompatible, just that we have to be careful about how they fit together. In the case of irreversibility, we realize that we need an extra ingredient: the particular configuration of our universe, not just the laws of physics.
He continues,
If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? What we are trying to do is to construct an effective understanding of human beings, not of electrons and nuclei. Given our lack of complete microscopic information, the question we should be asking is, “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?” The reason why it might is precisely because we have different epistemic access to the past and the future. The low entropy of the past allows for the existence of “records” and “memories,” and consequently forces us to model the past as “settled.” We have no such restriction toward the future, which is why we model the future as something we can influence. From this perspective, free will is no more ruled out by the consequence argument than the Second Law of Thermodynamics is ruled out by microscopic reversibility.

What Sean Carroll is arguing – which is really the same sort of thing Dan Dennett is arguing in his many musings on free will, including his book Freedom Evolves – is that any useful model of human behavior requires us to view humans as rational agents capable of making choices, just as "time" is a necessary component of any useful model of reality, even if at some "fundamental" level it is not "real". 

This means that it's actually Sam Harris' own position that is the philosophical and scientific non-starter. It's wholly dependent on counterfactual claims (e.g., 'I could not have chosen differently') that are unfalsifiable, and it requires access to information that is impossible to attain. Just as we could argue that free will is an illusion, we could also argue that time is an illusion, that evolution is an illusion, that consciousness and self-awareness are illusions, that the laws of thermodynamics are illusions (since they're all ultimately reducible to quantum states). But none of these are useful models of reality. To again pull from Stephen Hawking,
According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation ... then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration
There are no grounds, then, to say that free will is any less "real" than time, the laws of thermodynamics, evolution, or consciousness. They are all emergent properties of the universe, and any model of our reality must include them. This is what compatibilism entails – it doesn't matter whether the universe is deterministic at some fundamental level. The emergent property we call free will – or, as I prefer to say, volition – is a necessary component of any useful model of human behavior.

22 March 2012


Lady Atheist posted this over on her blog yesterday, and it caught my attention because... well, because it sucks. Thunderf00t, who in my humble opinion hasn't been worth subscribing to for a while, made a video positing an argument that is supposed to expose William Lane Craig's fallacious reasoning and prove that God couldn't have free will. Except, it's a shitty argument. I usually address bad arguments made by believers, but non-believers make crap arguments too, and this is definitely one of them. Here's the vid:

Thunderf00t seems confused about what the law of identity actually is. It simply means that something is itself. The example of two identical universes fails simply because being identical does not mean they are the same thing, any more than having a sibling with identical genetic material means that you are actually your own twin. In other words, you have universe A and universe B. They both possess identical properties and are for all intents and purposes the same – but they're still two universes, A and B. They just happen to possess identical properties. Obviously, this has absolutely nothing to do with free will. People could, out of sheer coincidence, make identical decisions out of free will in two identical universes, and it wouldn't change the fact that one is universe A and the other is universe B.

As I posted on Lady Atheist's page: The biggest problem with natural theology is simply that the principles of logic are abstractions derived from our sensory experiences – i.e., from physical reality. There's no reason to assume that 'beyond' the universe, the laws of logic ought to apply – and that includes deities. That makes anything beyond the universe indeterminable and irrelevant to our existence. As I always say: the only thing worse than a God who doesn't exist is one who might as well not exist.

In my view, that's really the best argument against anything WLC's got. And should anyone think otherwise, I humbly point them to this outstanding video:

21 March 2012

Why the Mass Effect 3 ending kind of sucked

I finished Mass Effect 3 last night. Like a lot of people, I wasn't really happy with the ending. I'm gonna explain why, but I have to put this disclaimer here: full spoilers ahead! If you're going to play the game, do not read this!

I'm a huge fan of the Mass Effect games. In my view, they're the first science-fiction video games that are truly on the level of any other great sci-fi epic in any other medium – books, films, comics, etc. It's a rich and beautifully realize universe filled with choices that have meaningful consequences. Its characters are well-developed, and it's hard not to feel attached to them – I was genuinely sad when several characters from the first two games died in the third. And in the end, as my Shepard sacrificed herself, I was sad that she wouldn't have the white picket-fenced house she'd talked about with her partner, just before she'd said "I love you" and went on what was for all intents and purposes a suicide mission – yes, Mass Effect allows for well-developed homosexual and bi-sexual relationships between characters.

But the end of the trilogy left me a bit disappointed. Narratively, it's bold: the entire Mass Effect universe is gone. Humanity (and all the other races) have to start over in one way or another (depending on which ending you get). It'd be impossible to create a sequel to the series without retconning everything. Any future Mass Effect games will simply have to be other happenings elsewhere in the galaxy before or during the events of the original series, but it's hard to imagine anything could top the epic-ness of a sentient synthetic race trying to wipe out all advanced civilizations in the galaxy. And I give kudos to the writers at Bioware for staying away from a predictable happy ending.

Narrative balls aside though, there are a couple of issues with the ending. The first is that, almost exactly like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the player's choices are totally disconnected from the ending. There are three endings, with one (the supposedly ideal ending) only being available with a certain level of completion. But all that happens is that, after a lengthy exposition about what the Reapers actually, are, the player makes one of three choices. A, B, or C. That's it. What should have happened is that the ending should have been a culmination of all the choices the player made over the course of the trilogy. But in the end, most decisions are of no consequence. To see the other endings, all it takes is to replay the last level and try the other choices. Ho-hum.

The other problem is that it ends up exposing the narrative weakness of the Reapers. Conceptually, it's a great idea: every 50,000 years, this malevolent alien machine-race wipes out all the advanced civilizations in the galaxy. In the final minutes of the game, the exposition tells us why the Reapers do what they do, and... it doesn't really make much sense. Much like the series Lost, things were better when they were mysterious. The Reapers are supposedly preserving biological life from being destroyed by warfare with synthetic life. In other words: synthetic race kills organics so that organics will not be killed by synthetics. Each 50,000 year "cycle" sets organic life back until they become advanced enough to create synthetic life, and then the Reapers come again and kill everything. That's why the "best" ending is when organic and synthetic life are combined into the next evolution.

Given even the modern interest in transhumanism, and the fact that in Mass Effect most humans and aliens are partly synthetic anyway, it seems like the "best" ending would have been accomplished anyway without the whole galactic-genocide thing. The game doesn't really explain why synthetic and organic life couldn't co-exist peacefully anyway; the "war is inevitable" thing is especially incongruous when, prior to the final battle at Earth, the Quarians make peace with the synthetic Geth after centuries of war.

So, Mass Effect goes out in epic fashion, but leaves some pretty glaring narrative loopholes and disconnects the player from the game in the final moments. Overall, it's still an outstanding game, but personally, I feel like Mass Effect 2 is overall a bit better of a game; the plot, with the intrigue surrounding Cerberus, was a little more interesting to me. And maybe it's just me – and maybe it's because I have all the DLC for ME2 – but there didn't seem to be as much content in this game. I beat it in around 23 hours, and that was being pretty damn thorough – completing most side missions (bugs killed a couple) and exploring nearly all of the star systems (most of which is more busywork than narrative content). I checked my last ME2 save, after completing the DLC "Lair of the Shadow Broker", and I clocked in just above the 30 hour mark. It seems like there was more time put into CGI sequences than pure content for the series finale.

And then there's this....

20 March 2012

The supplement industry is a sham (plus, an argument against libertarianism)

Being a personal trainer, I'm often asked about dietary supplements – mainly, "do they work?" The answer is no, they are almost always snake oil. Steve Novella over at Neurologica has a great post up about a comprehensive review of research literature for weight loss supplements – a category that includes carb/fat blockers, metabolism boosters, thermogenics, and appetite suppressants. Turns out that the verdict is in – they don't work. I've been sayin' it for years, but it's nice to have some more research behind me.

I'm gonna take it a step farther though, and say that most likely, all supplements are a sham. We already know that glucosamine and shark cartilage don't actually do anything for joints; vitamin megadoses don't make you healthier and may have adverse side effects over the long term. Alternative medicine supplements like Echinacea don't work. In fact, in all the years I've been following supplements, there's only one that I've seen with good, strong evidence that it's safe and effective: creatine monohydrate. But of course, you rarely find pure creatine monohydrate anymore. Now, every manufacturer under the sun has some uber-creatine concoction they claim is better absorbed than 'regular' creatine. Oh, and fish oil may be worth taking (of course, you could also just eat more fish).

How can they get away with this? How can all these companies market products with no evidence that they actually work? Well, we can thank Orrin Hatch and his 1994 legislation the DHSEA. From Steve Novella:
It should also be pointed out that in the US, due to DSHEA (a 1994 act that essentially removed supplements from FDA oversight) supplement manufacturers can put any combination of herbs and nutrients into a pill and make whatever claims they wish about it (as long as they don’t name a specific disease), without any burden of evidence. Right now you could throw darts at a dartboard with various herbs, minerals, and vitamins on it to come up with a random formula, and then spin a wheel of indications (boosts the immune system, improves metabolism, supports cellular function – whatever) and then market your random ingredients for your random indication, all without a lick of evidence. You can even claim your product was “scientifically formulated.” Now all you need are some anecdotes, but they are easy to come by. If you’re ambitious you can find an MD or PhD to endorse your product in exchange for a piece of the company.  Don’t worry, as long as you don’t make a disease claim (directly – that’s what the anecdotes are for) and you put the quack disclaimer on your website, the FDA can’t touch you.
This another great example of why libertarianism is bullshit. A libertarian would say that the government has no business getting involved in regulation of the industry – companies that put out bogus or just plain ineffective supplements would eventually get weeded out of the market. And yet nearly 20 years after the passage of the DSHEA, there are more bogus products on the market than ever, despite the fact that there's hard proof many of them don't work and may in some cases be dangerous.

Problem is, there's this pesky thing called the placebo effect. People are notoriously awful at objectively assessing the efficacy of a supplement or medicine. That's why we have placebo-controlled research. And access to information is also a hurdle – the supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, which means they have a much easier time marketing bullshit than researchers do marketing facts. Not to mention that people tend to be guilty of wishful thinking – we want supplement claims to be true (because who wouldn't want an easier time losing weight and building muscle?), and we don't want to go around believing that people are liars for selling us that stuff.

Besides, as a commenter on Novella's blog pointed out, what is in the best interest of the consumer is not necessarily in the best interest of the business. Competition drives businesses to increase their market share by whatever means is most effective, and improving the actual product may be a ways down on the list – more persuasive and pervasive marketing is, as history has shown, the logical first step.

Safety is perhaps the most obvious reason, though. It can be very difficult to trace side effects to specific supplements, particularly since risk may involve long-term use; even the claims that ephedrine and certain prohormones were dangerous, which led them to be banned, were anecdotal. Only controlled clinical research can really reveal whether a supplement is safe. And if it's not, then what of all the people who took the supplements unaware of the risks – are they just collateral damage? 

What is needed here is clear: more government oversight. Hell, it'd be easy enough to pass legislation that categorized increase muscle size or strength, weight or fat loss, and improved athletic performance as medical claims. But really, the supplement industry needs to go. It needs to be crushed, destroyed, and utterly dismantled. It's a whole industry that exploits people's wishful thinking with false claims and ineffective, even dangerous products. The DSHEA is a failure, and it's time for change. The burden needs to be on the supplement industry to provide clinical proof of the safety and efficacy of their products before they hit the market.

18 March 2012

Alister McGrath is either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest

Bud over at Dead Logic brought to my attention this embarrassing video by Alister McGrath about the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. McGrath repeats some pretty standard-issue fallacies, but there's one thing in particular that is simply not up for argument that I want to hammer him on. Here's the vid:

The part that grinds my gears is when he parrots the supposedly shocking confession that Richard Dawkins isn't 100% certain there is no God, that he 'admits' he can't prove there is no God, and that he's an "agnostic atheist". Atheists, claims McGrath, were "appalled" by this revelation.

Here's the thing. McGrath wrote a book a while back called The Dawkins Delusion, which was (obviously) supposed to be a response to Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion. But it just so happens that The God Delusion has a whole freaking chapter in which Dawkins explains, in lucid detail, his agnostic atheism. He even charts it out in a handy list he calls "the spectrum of theistic probability". Dawkins points out that it's just intellectually honest to admit that we can't be absolutely certain about much of anything. That's the thing about an evidence-based worldview – it's amenable to evidence.

That stands in stark contrast to someone like William Lane Craig, who has stated unequivocally that no amount of evidence could convince him that his faith was false. That's called "gnostic theism" – he claims to know the truth with infallible certainty.

See, the term "agnostic", coined by Thomas Huxley, comes from the word "gnosis", meaning "knowledge". There's a distinction between knowledge and beliefs. You'd think someone who teaches at Oxford would know that. You can be a gnostic theist or a gnostic atheist. Gnostic atheism is more commonly known as "strong atheism". But most of us, out of intellectual honesty, are agnostic theists or agnostic atheists. We admit that we might be wrong. We admit that new evidence could change our minds. To be a gnostic anything, you have to be intellectually dishonest – like, y'know, William Lane Craig.

Which brings me to my point. We shouldn't have to point out to Alister McGrath what Richard Dawkins actually thinks about agnosticism, since he spelled it out quite plainly in The God Delusion. And btw, after that chapter, the next chapter is called "Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist"shouldn't the words "almost certainly" be a ludicrously obvious indication of Dawkins' position? And yet McGrath puts on this charade to insinuate that Dawkins has made some kind of devastating confession. What incredibly dishonest bullshit! McGrath should be ashamed of himself.

McGrath, having dedicated an entire book to criticizing The God Delusion, has either willfully ignored what's actually written in it, or he's aware of it and intentionally erecting a straw man. Willful ignoramus, or liar. Take your pick.

17 March 2012

This is me geeking out

The first full trailer for Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus has arrived. Make sure you watch it in full HD.

Oklahoma: honor culture and open-carry laws

I haven't read much of Steven Pinker's monstrous book The Better Angels of Our Nature lately, mainly because I randomly decided I wanted to read Bram Stoker's Dracula. But I got to thinking about Pinker's book in light of the Oklahoma House passing an open-carry law.

Despite living in the most red state in the country, most of my friends are pretty moderate or liberal. So naturally, some concern has been expressed about the open-carry law, which basically means that it would be fine if you wanted to carry around a holstered gun, Wild-West style. The restrictions are the same as the current concealed-carry law already in effect, in that you have to complete a certain amount of training before you can do it, so that has some people asking, "What's the big deal?"

Free Wranglers with purchase of gun.
In his book, Steven Pinker talks about the "honor culture" in the South, and describes an experiment to that effect [abstract here]. In the study, young men are selected to fill out a questionnaire and submit a blood test for some scientific-sounding reason. But the real experiment (not revealed to them, of course) is that to get to the room, they have to walk down a narrow hallway where someone is at a filing cabinet. The person at the filing cabinet bumps into them and mumbles and insult. Participants from the North simply laughed off the insult, while participants from the South were highly agitated by the incident.

On Facebook, my thoughts on the open-carry debate were as follows:
Here's my concern: personal protection is not about killing the shit out of the assailant; it's about subduing them long enough to escape. There are already legal, non-lethal means that are very effective: pepper spray and tasers, which are effective enough for police in the vast majority of circumstances. Carrying firearms, especially brandishing them openly, simply increases the likelihood that those kind of encounters will end with serious injury or death.

Most people have argued that concealed carry laws haven't increased the crime rate. And that's true: the crime rate remains pretty much unaffected. So, it's not a crime deterrent. It doesn't increase crime. So what's the f'in point? It just makes it so if someone accosts you, instead of stunning them, you're more likely to put them in the hospital or kill them.
A friend of mine responded:
I had a guy try to break into my house while I was home and I fired a 12 gauge buckshot round 2 feet from him in the dirt while he ran away. I could have killed him if I wanted to, but I didn't because he didn't directly attack me, but if he had I wouldn't taser his ass and try to get away. I'd shoot him in the fucking face and end him. I don't see why killing some piece of shit who's ASSAULTING you or trying to take YOUR shit is a bad thing. That's one less piece of shit on the street. I've killed people who were trying to kill me and I've never thought twice about it. Fuck em.
I think my friend's view is very much representative of the culture of honor, and I strain to say that it's wrong in any black and white sort of way. But in my view, the cycle of violence has to end at some point. We have to make a conscious decision not to let it escalate. The police in England don't even carry guns, and police in the U.S. very rarely have to actually fire a deadly weapon – the vast majority of their takedowns are with pepper spray and tasers. I see where my friend is coming from – if someone is trying to assault you, if your life is at risk, what's wrong with using lethal force? And I admit, it's a gray area. But personally, I think the more moral thing to do is to use non-lethal force and call the police. We can get criminals off the streets without killing them.

This got me thinking too about Sam Harris' excellent piece on self-defense. But I'll leave the discussion open for now.

"5 Questions Every Intelligent Atheist Must Answer".... answered

Note to readers: this is another post from my previous blog, The Apostasy, published in 2009. I'm continuing to clear out the archives before I delete the blog entirely. Unfortunately, this one is based on a video that's no longer up. But the questions are verbatim.

I've seen a million of these little lists, but this one was different... because it's a video, not just a list of questions. The author actually takes the time to explain why each question is valid, and despite demonstrating an elementary misunderstanding of some basic scientific and logical principles, he does a good job explaining why he's skeptical of an atheistic world view. So, without further ado, here is the video, followed by my answers:

Question #1: You accuse Christians of using "God of the Gaps" to explain things we don't know; but aren't atheists just using "chance" in the exact same way?

16 March 2012

Dinesh D'Souza on evidence for an afterlife

Note to readers: this was originally published in my previous blog, The Apostasy, in 2009. I've still got just a few posts I'm going to move here before I delete the blog for good.


I was thumbing through the latest issue of Newsweek when I came across a review of Dinesh D'Souza's new book, entitled Life After Death: The Evidence. D'Souza, like any good Christian apologist, has taken to using words like "evidence" and "reason", if not employing the actual concepts, to providing evidence that their faith is not arbitrary.

A few quick words before I continue. Firstly, evidence, where valid, renders faith moot. You don't have to have faith in the standard model of particle physics; it's proven to be extraordinarily accurate through decades of empirical research. We don't "believe" in it; we just accept it as the reality it is (or, perhaps more accurately, as the description of reality it is). If all these apologists really were able to prove their beliefs to be inscrutable scientific facts, they would be men of science, not men of faith.

Secondly, I have not read D'Souza's book. So, naturally, this is not a review of the book. I have no intention of wasting either my time or money on his book. I have agonized through garbage like "The Physics of Christianity", "The Faith of a Physicist", "The Big Argument: Does God Exist?", "The Language of God", and "The Reasons for God" among others, and all are rife with the same fallacies. I have too many interesting books I actually want to read — I'm currently about halfway through "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall — to read more of the same old apologist garbage.

However, D'Souza did post an article over at the uber-conservative National Review that is an adaptation from his book, and I'm going to take a few minutes to explain why it's stupid, and why I am not wasting my time reading his book and neither should you. Read the article full article here, if you don't mind feeling dumber for having read a three-page article.

Some choice excerpts, followed by my brief response:

Here is my presuppositional argument for life after death. Unlike material objects and all other living creatures, we humans inhabit two domains: the way things are, and the way things ought to be. In other words, we are moral animals who recognize that just as there are natural laws that govern every object in the universe, there are also moral laws that govern the behavior of one special set of objects in the universe, namely us. While the universe is externally moved by “facts,” we are internally moved also by “values.” Yet these values defy natural and scientific explanation, because the laws of nature, as discovered by science, concern only the way things are and not the way they ought to be.

Here he conflates a state of mind with a state of being. The moral "ought" is a human construct, born from millions of years of evolution by natural selection and sociocultural evolution. D'Souza prematurely assumes that our innate moral fiber defies scientific understanding, despite mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary — much of which I have detailed in this blog. However, even if morality eluded our current scientific understanding, D'Souza would still be resorting to nothing more than tired "God of the Gaps" reasoning — science can't explain it, therefore religion can. Sorry, it doesn't work like that. He continues, dumbly...

Moreover, the essence of morality is to curtail and contradict the powerful engine of human self-interest, giving morality an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust. So how do we explain the existence of moral values that stand athwart our animal nature? The presupposition of cosmic justice, achieved not in this life but in another life beyond the grave, is by far the best and in some respects the only explanation. This presupposition fully explains why humans continue to espouse goodness and justice even when the world is evil and unjust.

D'Souza's fallacy here is assuming that the "selfish genes" of evolution must be equated to selfish beings, and as Richard Dawkins (author of "The Selfish Gene") himself would be quick to point out, that is simply not the case. Given that we are, as primatologist Frans De Waal describes, obligatorily gregarious creatures, cooperative group living is for us a survival strategy, not a choice. There is absolutely nothing about evolution that presupposes that we will behave selfishly; quite the contrary, given that we are inexorably bonded and interdependent. And here we see D'Souza going for that emotional crutch that lures in undiscriminating listeners: that it will all work out in the end. God let Hilter slaughter the Jews because those Nazis are gonna really get their comeuppance in the afterlife, and the Jews are going to be in heaven with Jesus. Or something. But how the hell does positing such an idea explain anything at all, much less the complex nuances of altruistic human behavior? Newsflash: it doesn't.

D'Souza then denies the obvious: that he is resorting to "God of the Gaps" reasoning:

Gaps are the mother lode of scientific discovery. Most of the great scientific advances of the past began with gaps and ended with new presuppositions that put our whole comprehension of the world in a new light. The presuppositional argument, in other words, is not some funny way of postulating unseen entities to account for seen ones, but rather is precisely the way that science operates and that scientists make their greatest discoveries. Copernicus, for example, set out to address the gaps in Ptolemy’s cosmological theory. As historian Thomas Kuhn shows, these gaps were well recognized, but most scientists did not consider their existence to be a crisis. After all, experience seemed heavily on the side of Ptolemy: The earth seems to be stationary, and the sun looks as if it moves. Kuhn remarks that many scientists sought to fill in the gaps by “patching and stretching,” i.e., by adding more Ptolemaic epicycles.

Copernicus, however, saw the gaps as an opportunity to offer a startling new hypothesis. He suggested that instead of taking it for granted that the earth is at the center of the universe and the sun goes around the earth, let’s suppose instead that the sun is at the center, and the earth and the other planets all go around the sun. When Copernicus proposed this, he had no direct evidence that it was the case, and he recognized that his theory violated both intuition and experience. Even so, he said, the presupposition of heliocentrism gives a better explanation of the astronomical data and therefore should be accepted as correct.

From these examples, we learn that science regularly posits unseen entities, from space-time relativity to dark matter, whose existence is affirmed solely on the basis that they explain the things that we can see and measure. We also learn that gaps are a good thing, not a bad thing, and the genuinely scientific approach is to ask whether they are clues that lead to a broader and deeper comprehension of things. We also learn how presuppositional arguments work best, both in science and outside of science. The presupposition itself is a kind of hypothesis. It says, “This is the way things have to be in order to make sense of the world.” We then test the presupposition by saying, “How well does it explain the world?”


Here D'Souza is conflating scientific inquiry with metaphysical speculation. Copernicus, like many scientists, thought that his hypothesis was a more accurate description of reality than previous explanations, and had good mathematical reasons to believe so. Such is also true of Einstein and General Relativity, which he felt to be correct despite the fact that it was profoundly counter-intuitive and would completely re-shape our understanding of physics. However, D'Souza makes an elementary error when he suggests that presupposition alone was adequate to accept these hypotheses as correct. On the contrary, they were only accepted as correct after they could be empirically demonstrated to be correct. They don't give out the Nobel Prize in physics for having good hypotheses. Nobody is suggesting that we should accept that String Theory is correct just because lots of smart people think it is, or because, at least mathematically, it unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity and resolves many of the most important questions in physics. Until it's validated with empirical proofs, it's speculative, just one possible hypothesis that may or may not be correct. Presuppositional arguments might suggest a means by which to close a gap, but they do not in themselves close gaps.

With this kind of nonsense passing for "reason", is there any wonder I have no desire whatsoever to read D'Souza's book? Just making through those three pages was agonizing. According to the Newsweek review, in addition to the already discredited moral argument, D'Souza appeals to near-death experiences and the resurrection of Jesus as evidence of an afterlife. Sounds air-tight to me.

13 March 2012

Sometimes, good and evil depend on your point of view

Luke, you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. - Obi Wan Kenobi

I'm almost done reading Bram Stoker's Dracula. I love the Coppola film adaptation, so it hit me that I ought to read the original story. It's quite fantastic, and I see now why it's hailed as such a classic. Dracula is not some emo kid like the vampires of Twilight or The Vampire Diaries – he's the stuff of nightmares: truly evil, perverse and frighteningly powerful.

Vlad Dracula
The character of Dracula, as many know, is loosely based on the real Dracula, Vlad III of Romania – otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. What strikes me as interesting about Vlad III is that, to many of us in the West, he's viewed as one of the most horrible human beings who ever lived. His military campaigns against the Turks, who sought to subdue Wallachia into the Ottoman empire, were merciless – he slaughtered peasants, killed women and children, and promptly (and preemptively) killed anyone he thought was a threat to his power. Of course, he's most famous for his impalements. When he defeated armies of Turks, he would have survivors impaled – by the thousands, if the historical reports are accurate. For those under his rule, his justice was swift and cruel.

But here's the interesting part: if you speak with modern day Romanians, Vlad III is hailed as a national hero. He's seen as someone who brought order and economic stability to a crumbling state, and preserved the culture by fending off the invading Ottomans. Though barbaric by today's standards, it can be argued that in Wallachia, as was often the case in medieval states, the grip on order and stability was fragile and the threat of invading armies was imminent. Through his uncompromising cruelty to threats from without or within, Vlad III was both beloved and feared. And in those days, fear was perhaps the only truly effective weapon against conquest or disarray. 

I was thinking about this in light of the "Kony 2012" fad. I stand by my original statements on the matter, but there are some who say that we shouldn't take sides with the Ugandan government because they're guilty of many of the same atrocities as the LRA. But if my reading of Steven Pinker indicates anything, it's that Uganda is in desperate need of a more powerful, centralized state that empowers and protects its people. Right now, the biggest problem with the Ugandan army is its utter impotence in being able to quell threats such as the LRA. The cruelty to which many of these people resort is in many ways similar to the cruelty Vlad III used; they want to strike fear into their enemies that crushes them into submission, because it's simply not enough to win a battle here or there. It's not unlike the tribal "total war" – campaigns of fear – that Pinker discusses in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

To zero in exclusively on Kony is myopic and nearsighted; to help Uganda, we need a long-term plan that will bring order and stability to the country. While we can look at any side and call them evil based upon the cruelty they've done, we ought to consider the bigger picture – that sometimes, good and evil depend on your point of view.

12 March 2012

William Lane Craig misses the barn on the problem of evil

I hopped over to the comically titled website Reasonablefaith.org to see if by some remote chance WLC had responded to the question I sent in a while back. He hasn't, but the most recent "Q&A" on the problem of evil is a dandy. You can read the whole shebang here, but basically someone who identifies as a sort of agnostic theist challenges Craig on the problem of evil. Craig's reply is an extraordinarily long-winded version of "the lord works in mysterious ways". It's typical of his unimpressive level of critical thought, but he makes a few snafus I want to jump on.

Regarding what, exactly, the problem of evil is, he says this:
The problem of evil or suffering is an argument on behalf of atheism. It is offered as a defeater of the theistic claim that “God exists.” The atheist wants to prove that statement false on the basis of the evil in the world. So it’s up to him to present an argument that the evil in the world is in some way incompatible with the truth of “God exists.”
Philosophical atheists have understood this and so have traditionally offered arguments to the effect that the evil in the world makes it either logically impossible or improbable that God exists and that therefore God does not exist. As the person offering the argument, the atheist is under obligation to support the premisses of his argument.
Craig's fundamentally confused about what the argument from evil actually is. It's only an argument against "God exists" in Craig's myopic, insular Christian bubble. Specifically, the argument from evil is the argument that a good, theistic god does not exist. If the problem of evil is a valid argument, then God could exist, but be theistic and evil. Or he could exist and be a pantheistic consciousness or an indifferent deistic creator. The fact that Craig fails to acknowledge this vital distinction typifies why the a/theism debate can be so frustratingly counterproductive: the theist, who is claiming "God exists", has the burden of actually defining what he means by "God". Otherwise, they can just quietly shift between definitions of God whenever it suits their argument – a classic fallacy of equivocation.

The crux of the problem of evil is that there is a profound amount of cruelty and suffering in the world, and God as defined by Western monotheism has the power to stop it but does not. The general Christian response is that it's all part of God's Perfect Divine Plan™. To paraphrase an analogy from Rabbi Harold Kusher: it's like a giant tapestry being viewed from up close; we can't see the entire thing. But surely Bill Craig, being the eminent theologian that he is, has a more enlightened response. Or, y'know, not:
Perhaps God wants man to find cures for the diseases and infirmities that afflict us rather than constantly tinker with the world with miraculous interventions to cure people, just as He wants us to develop plumbers and electricians and computer scientists rather than magically solve our problems by constant miraculous interventions in the world, which would leave us like immature children rather than mature moral agents. More specifically, God could have some providential reason for your mother’s slow decline. Perhaps He knew that it would cause you to wrestle with your faith and to emerge from this crucible a strengthened and more mature Christian. You have no idea of what God might accomplish through your mother’s death. It would be presumptuous of you to think that it was in vain.
Craig's argument is an argument from ignorance. He's saying that because it cannot be logically proved that God doesn't have perfectly good reasons for allowing evil, we can't conclude that evil is incompatible with (the Western Monotheistic conceptualization of) God existing. And he's right: it can't be proved that God doesn't have his reasons for allowing the Holocaust, for allowing kids to suffer and die from cancer or starvation, etc. But here's why Craig, as usual, has missed the side of the barn. Recall earlier that he said,
Philosophical atheists have understood this and so have traditionally offered arguments to the effect that the evil in the world makes it either logically impossible or improbable that God exists and that therefore God does not exist. As the person offering the argument, the atheist is under obligation to support the premisses of his argument.
He's saying that if atheists are going to use the problem of evil as evidence that God doesn't exist, they have to support the claim – the burden of proof is on the atheist. Problem is, his definition of God is contingent upon the claim that God is good, which is a positive claim. So before he can dismiss the problem of evil, he has to prove that God is, in fact, good. If his best argument against this is really that we simply can't disprove God's goodness, then he's shot himself in the foot: we can just as easily argue that Craig cannot disprove God's evilness either.

The philosopher Stephen Law took just that approach when he debated Craig, using the "evil God" argument. Essentially this argument shows that the theodicies conjured up to rationalize God's goodness can just as easily be turned on their head to rationalize God's evilness. Of course, Christians don't believe in an evil god – but not for any logical or evidential reason.

Personally, the problem of evil – or as I preferred to call it, the problem of suffering, resonates with me simply because the appeal to ignorance does not impress me when the suffering in this world is very real. When I was a physical therapy tech, I witnessed a young girl, only eight years old, suffering from terminal brain cancer. Three thoughts came to mind:
  • First, that no Perfect Divine Plan™ could possibly be worth the suffering that exists. I would forfeit an eternity of heavenly bliss if it could spare that one child's suffering and give her the chance to live a normal, happy life.
  • Secondly, that an all-powerful good God would not need to design a "plan" that involved such massive suffering. This is what makes the argument from evil a defeater of a theistic God – because the notion that God is all powerful and good, yet has constructed a plan which involves great evil and suffering – is paradoxical. Did God have no choice in the matter? Then he's not all powerful. Did God willfully design a plan that involves kids dying of brain cancer? Then God is not good. All the stupid "God works in mysterious ways" arguments can be instantly dismissed with this simple observation. 
  • Thirdly, as I discussed in the Problem of Suffering post linked above, the world simply makes infinitely more sense if we stop trying to make excuses for God's behavior and view suffering as it actually is. As Richard Dawkins famously said, "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

08 March 2012

KONY 2012... a reality check

If you haven't caught it yet, there's a video that's gone viral on the interwebs called "KONY 2012". The rather lengthy video explains the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, and makes a case for how Kony can be brought to justice.

Now, there's no disputing that Joseph Kony is a horrible person. He has allegedly kidnapped 30,000 children in his military campaign, turning them into child soldiers and forcing them to kill their friends and families. Children in Uganda live in constant fear of being kidnapped or killed. It's easy to be moved by the video because we can all sympathize with the plight of those children.

But this kind of campaign smacks of naivete. The military conflicts in Uganda are decades-old and underpinned by complex cultural and political conflicts. It's the height of ignorance to think that capturing one person, no matter how nasty he may be, is really going to change anything. Kony is not in this alone; he's not single-handedly running a military campaign or kidnapping children all by himself. Once he's captured, what's to make anyone think that someone else won't step in to take his place?

Much like Osama Bin Laden, it's easy to zero in on Joseph Kony because he makes a great villain. He's a vile and evil person who will kill anyone and use anyone he has to in order to achieve his ambitions. But he's the product of a decades-old cultural and political conflict, not the sole instigator or mastermind. And just as Al Queda didn't fizzle out with Bin Laden's death, Kony's arrest is not going to magically bring an end to the LRA or to the conflicts and atrocities in Uganda.

The KONY 2012 campaign is also derelict in its benign treatment of the Ugandan government. Part of the problem in this complex conflict is that the UDPF (the Ugandan army) has itself been responsible for a litany of atrocities, including raping and murdering the people they were supposed to be protecting. From the Foreign Affairs:
During the past decade, U.S.-based activists concerned about the LRA have successfully, if quietly, pressured the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to take a side in the fight between the LRA and the Ugandan government. Among the most influential of advocacy groups focusing specifically on the LRA are the Enough project, the Resolve campaign, the Canadian-based group GuluWalk, and the media-oriented group Invisible Children. Older agencies, from Human Rights Watch to World Vision, have also been involved. In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony -- a brutal man, to be sure -- as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan's People's Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.
The KONY 2012 campaign is easy to get behind because it makes us feel like we're making a difference – we're trying to help children by bringing a monster to justice. Who wouldn't want to get behind something like that? But in reality, this is likely a waste of time and resources. The way to stop people like Joseph Kony is to resolve the cultural and political conflicts that give rise to people like him in the first place. But that's a vastly more complex and difficult goal, and not one that can be easily spread on social media.

03 March 2012

It just IS

Regardless of whether you're a theist or an atheist, we all agree that the regress of explanation has to terminate somewhere. At a certain point, you get to some fundamental facts for which there is nothing to explain them – they simply are.

The difference between a believer and a non-believer, then, is that non-believers don't see any reason, scientific or otherwise, why the universe itself cannot simply be. Theists, though, are not satisfied with that and want to push the problem back a step, where "God" is the explanation for all physical reality. But what's the explanation for God being the way he is? Why does God even exist at all? Well, so the theist would opine, God doesn't need an explanation. He just is.

02 March 2012

The 12-week trainer transformation

I have a confession to make: I'm out of shape.

As someone who earns his bread helping others to get into shape, this is, to put it bluntly, embarrassing. It wasn't always this way. But over the years, while I helped others achieve their own success, my passion and focus on bettering myself fell by the wayside. Instead of making time to exercise, I worked out when it was convenient – such as downtime at work. My workouts, though certainly intense, were short – around 30 to 40 minutes. Cardio? I've always hated cardio, and simply didn't do it. After all, it was enough 'work', so I rationalized, that I squeezed in that quick workout.

Now, there's not anything wrong with a relatively quick workout; at Fitness Together, our workouts are 45 minutes, and we push our clients very hard in that time frame. But we seldom train people like myself who have many years of workout experience and for me, squeezing in short workouts – particularly given that I've seldom been able to stick to a single program, making my workouts sort of haphazard – is just not good enough.

We've started a friendly competition among the staff: a twelve-week trainer transformation. It happens that I had already started a new program, and have been making good progress. But the competition is a nice kick in the pants should the temptation arise to slack off.

I've spent so many years helping others that I've lost sight of the fact that I need to make my own fitness a priority. I've let "gym burnout" get the better of me when I should have been pushing myself through it. I want to feel better about how I look, and achieve the physique I've always dreamed of having. And importantly, as a trainer it's not just about me – I have a responsibility to my clients to lead by example, and I've neglected that responsibility. No more. Over the next three months I'm going to be posting my transformation here, for all to see. I'm going to give an outline of my program to show you precisely what I'm doing, and why.

01 March 2012

Jerry Coyne tour de force

I'm a big fan of the biologist Jerry Coyne and his blog Why Evolution is True, and I think he's quite effective when he turns his critiques toward the folly of theistic epistemologies. Lately he's been on a bit of a streak with two excellent pieces each on the Christian apologists John Polkinghorn and Alvin Plantinga, who are generally regarded among Christians as more "sophisticated" theologians. I think Coyne nails the core issues so incisively that I really can't think of much, if anything to add. I just highly recommend you read them, so here they are:

The sophistry of Alvin Plantinga: does your religion become less credible if you adhere to the faith you were taught?

Sunday Sermon on Sophisticated Theology: Plantinga proves God

Polkinghorne’s empirical evidence for god: math and a comprehensible universe

More “sophisticated” theology: John Polkinghorne proves that the Resurrection happened




The mentally ill and unemployment

There's a provocative editorial in this month's Scientific American which discusses the prevalence of mental illness in the United States and how its effects tend to disproportionately affect the poor, who often do not have health insurance and/or cannot afford proper care.

Something that is often overlooked in the debates on welfare and health insurance is that many people are not out of work because they choose to be, but because mental disability prevents them from being able to work. And without work, they cannot afford access to treatment, leading to a vicious cycle: they can't find work because they can't get better, and they can't get better because they can't find work.

It's issues like this that make me a political liberal. All you have to do to be a liberal is to recognize that the playing field is not level, and that there are millions of people who are condemned to poverty through no fault of their own and who need our help. It could be argued that the government is not the most efficient means to accomplish this, but only through federal law could we guarantee every American access to the health care they need. But such ideas are criticized as "socialism" by conservative critics, and the poor deemed to be so simply because they lack the willpower to make their lives better.