Thursday, November 08, 2018

What are Democrats and Republicans Fighting About?

The U.S. political system is a two-party political system. Other countries with parliamentary systems have minority, specialized parties. The prime minister has the job of assembling a ruling coalition of several parties, and sometimes the small parties have disproportionate power in making a majority. The specialized small parties, like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, can assemble a group of interested people and apply that group directly to the legislative assembly.

In the U.S., minority parties are pretty powerless, because the winning majority party can control much of the legislative or executive branches of government. There are lots of special interest groups, but they have to go to the leadership of one of the parties and get the party to endorse their issue. So all the people who are passionately interested in women's issues or in climate change can't directly appeal to a legislator in a special party. They can join a nonprofit group, and that group sends many reminders to vote or to attend protests. But those passionate people may end up feeling like their votes don't count, unless something brings their issue to the top of the priority list of one of the two parties.

So Democrats and Republicans fight, one on one. But what they fight about changes from year to year, issue to issue, depending on what gets "traction" or attention and gets people to show up to vote. Democrats are generally called liberal and Republicans are conservative, but what does that mean?

Paul Rosenberg wrote an article, "Did Trump destroy the conservative movement? No--he cashed in on its darkest tendencies," in Salon.com, on Oct. 28, 2018.  A point of Rosenberg's article is that definitions of what is liberal and what is conservative keeps changing over time, and each party has a mix of both, to the extent that we can even tell which is which. Policies change for each election, and even the definitions of liberal and conservative vary. 

According to Rosenberg, a main difference between the parties is really psychological. Conservatives tend to be worried about dangers and fearful about the future. They expect that they will have to handle the danger by themselves. In some cases, those dangers may come from other people who can't be trusted or relied on. As a result, they want freedom to do what they need to without restrictions. If they feel threatened and want to buy lots of guns, they want to be able to. So they focus on certain rights.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be empathic and more aware about other people's problems. They also can see dangers, but think they will be threatened by problems that already affect other people. They are more inclined to cooperate with others to solve common problems. So if they see that lots of people are getting shot, their response is to control access to guns, not to get more guns for themselves to shoot the "bad guys."

These are general individual psychological methods that people tend to use. The methods are expanded to view the state of society. So people tend to join the party that represents their way of thinking. The approach can apply to many situations and aren't restricted to particular issues. So if people see a social problem that gets on the national party's agenda, the individuals gravitate to a solution that is agreeable to their way of thinking.

This can lead to policies that look contradictory on a rational, ideological basis. Republicans are in favor of gun rights so they can shoot people in self defense. They favor capital punishment to kill the worst criminals. But they are opposed to abortion rights, arguing that unborn fetuses are innocent and don't deserve to be killed. 

Democrats, on the other hand, empathize with adults, concluding that no adult deserves to die regardless of their threat or crime. So criminals shouldn't be shot or executed. Unborn fetuses may seem innocent, but they require years of support by willing parents, and the unwillingness of the adult mother can outweigh the right of an fetus that can't survive on its own.

As Rosenberg pointed out, it's easy to find examples of times when parties changed their priority issues. Republican were for civil rights and Democrats were opposed, until suddenly under President Johnson they reversed. Republican Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment, until Republicans Ronald Reagan and the Bushes opposed it and Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore supported it. Republican Eisenhower was fiscally conservative and promoted a balanced budget, opposing Democrat Franklin Roosevelt's deficit spending, until Republicans Reagan and G. W. Bush generated larger budget deficits than any of their predecessors because of tax cuts. Trump has carried on this tradition with a huge tax cut.


It is a common complaint among American voters that both parties are for rich people, and there isn't really much difference. Of course, when Republican get a president like Donald Trump, the character of the party can change based only on the whims of the leader, and ideology goes by the wayside.

Ideology based on reason or a liberal/conservative dichotomy is not necessarily the foundation of the parties, and it is pointless to expect consistency. The pragmatic problem of assembling an enthusiastic coalition of people and winning elections is the basic requirement. 

In a larger picture, politics is about assembling a coalition of people with related self-interest to form a cooperating voting majority. This was the purpose of political parties as they arose under Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. It is done when party leaders find particular biases, fears, and hopes that can be used by politicians to unite a majority of people into supporting them. This effort has to be done interactively, so that one year people care about deficit spending, and they next they are more interested in tax cuts.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

John Gray’s pessimistic, pro-religion, atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

The Vox website says that “Vox's journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters.” An interview by Vox’s agnostic journalist Sean Illing with atheist John Gray was recently published October 31 under the title “Why science can’t replace religion” with the subtitle “John Gray on the myths the “New Atheists” tell themselves.” Although I have not read John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism, here is some commentary on that interview.

Sean Illing begins with the comment that the question - does god exist - is probably unanswerable. He then says ‘That’s probably why I’ve always found the so-called “New Atheists” misguided in their critiques of religion.’ A question about how our universe operates is unanswerable when available empirical evidence cannot favor one answer over competing answers. Sean Illing could claim that religious supernaturalism versus non-religious naturalism is unanswerable because no amount of empirical evidence will provide decisive proof with absolutely zero chance of being mistaken. But that is an impractical standard that no one applies in any other similar context, and as such is a double standard that must be discarded in any balanced, reasonable, discussion.

When we discover something new about how the universe operates it is sometimes possible to evaluate whether that new discovery is more consistent with the constraints of naturalism or with the absence of such constraints. Therefore, the overall available empirical evidence is not silent or missing on this question. Therefore, this question is answerable by the only reliable method we have to adjudicate such a question: Best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Before we declare that this question is unanswerable, we need some explanation for why we should disregard the large amount of empirical evidence that we have that our universe operates within the constraints of naturalism and the corresponding lack of good evidence to the contrary.

Sean Illing says “New Atheism is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.” Sean Illing is exhibiting a bias here by miscategorizing atheism, an intellectual conclusion regarding how the universe operates, as a “literary movement” such as Misty Poets or New Formalism.

He then says atheists fail to recognize that “religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world”. Religion without claims about how the universe operates is akin to frying without heat. Yes, frying food is about more than placing items in hot oil. But at the end of day, regardless of the fact that frying food is about more than the mechanics of frying, without the mechanics of frying there is no fried food. People can, and no doubt there are people who do, go through the motions of being religious, by worshipping a deity they do not believe in, by praying to deity they do not believe listens, by observing holidays honoring events that they do not believe occurred. But then it a social activity cloaked in a religious veneer which could easily be replaced by strictly secular social activities, it is no longer a genuinely religious activity anymore. This is what is so misguided about the “it’s about so much more than a set of claims about the world.” Many claims about the world are about more than the claims in isolation because claims about the world can also have implications for us. Claims about how the world functions are foundational for our decision making. This is all the more reason to try to be careful to try to get it right when making claims about how the world operates.

The interview then focuses on John Gray’s criticisms of his fellow atheists. John Gray equates religious myths with “myths of human advancement, myths of what science can and cannot do, and all kinds of other myths” that he claims animate other atheists. He disagrees with Steven Pinker’s argument that the numbers demonstrate that the scientific revolution has brought with it large gains for the quality of human lives. Steven Pinker collected a lot of hard evidence on behalf of his argument. His dismissing Pinker's arguments as myths akin to the myth that Moses parted the Reed (or Red) Sea is unfair.

John Gray characterizes religions as “profound, as inexhaustibly rich” and claims other atheists are “mostly ignorant of religion”. Yet John Gray is himself an atheist. This implies that such additional insight and knowledge regarding religion still falls short in justifying religious beliefs. Yet he does not appear to be eager to share with his audience why he is an atheist. Instead, he points out that human minds evolved for survival, not for rationality, implying that religious beliefs are not rational. He considers it foolish to claim “we have no need for religion anymore”, implying that religious beliefs are needed for human survival. Looking around, we see different countries with different degrees of religiosity. The evidence we have not only does not support, it tends to oppose, the notion that the less religious countries are the weaker countries. The approach of pitting rationality against survival implies that there is a conflict between the two, but that is arguably an artificial conflict, there need not be a conflict.

I do not know the basis for John Gray’s claim that the stories in the book of Genesis “were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.” But let’s assume this is true for the sake of argument. Genesis obtains it special authority by claiming to reveal the actual actions of an actual god that people then worshipped and prayed to, thus giving us very good reason to think they believed this particular god existed. So insofar as thinkers or theologians did not interpret Genesis as revealing the actual actions of an actual god, insofar as they also failed to tell their fellow Jews that Genesis was a fictional parable, they were misleading their constituency.

Today there is an additional problem here that was less acute a thousand years ago. The story of Genesis contradicts modern knowledge. John Gray dismisses this problem on the grounds that the Torah (and presumably also the Bible, Quran, and the holy books of other religions) never was, and is not, about knowledge, but instead is about creating, and finding, meaning. Yet if Jewish thinkers and theologians were knowingly and deliberately misleading their constituency about the fictional nature of god and the Torah, they were presumably doing so because creating and finding meaning from the religion was, and presumably still is, rooted in believing that particular holy books are revealing factual knowledge about a real, existing God, or supernatural realm. If this is not the case then why was denying the existence of god considered to be a punishable criminal offense in John Gray’s United Kingdom for many centuries, and why is that still the case in some countries?

John Gray acknowledges that “ideas do have consequences.” He does not tackle the question of whether false ideas are more likely to flourish with bad consequences in those societies where ideas about how the universe operate are unanchored in empirical evidence and thus not well constrained. Instead, he points out that both non-religious and religious ideas can be bad ideas. True, but isn’t the truth versus falsity of beliefs also a factor here, and if it is a factor isn’t that reason to place value on that distinction? Ultimately, theism and atheism are conclusions about how universe operates. So if we want to avoid bad consequences then maybe a better focus is to take the distinction between poorly justified and well justified beliefs, as measured by the criteria of best fit with the available empirical evidence, seriously.

He claims that “we should regard religions as great works of imagination rather than pictures of the world intended to capture what is empirically true” and that “any atheism that fails to do this ... probably make the mistake of smuggling religious assumptions into their secular alternative to religion.״ Smuggling in the word “empirically” here is weaselly because religions exhibit a self-interested tendency to claim that empiricism is biased, too restrictive, or unreliable and that circular faith (they deny, or do not acknowledge, the circularity) is epistemologically more important, reliable, and valuable. John Gray identified Pascal as one of three “very clever” philosophers, so he should be aware that Pascal’s Wager is a good example of a non-empirical, or anti-empirical, and therefore weak, justification for believing religious claims about how the universe functions. John Gray is trying to convert a third person discussion about religious beliefs into a first person self-assertion of those religious belief by the atheist speaker. He appears to want to try to convince his audience that when an atheist claims that religious beliefs are distinct and different from non-religious beliefs then ipso-fact that atheist has somehow adopted those religious beliefs. This seems to be a deliberate strategy to try to discourage honest conversation by atheists about religious beliefs. That transparently false strategy will not work. We know that various beliefs, such as the belief that not worshipping, or not having faith, prompts god to initiate deadly weather events, or the belief that macro-evolution is a false conspiracy of dishonest scientists, mostly originate from, and are mostly promoted by, religions. We know that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. make different and distinct, sometimes incompatible, factual claims. John Gray’s description of religion as lacking any intention to assert what is true lacks integrity. He is falsely redefining religion as something akin to a set of fantasy novel books like Lord of the Rings.

He then generalizes that we all “live by our fictions.” If we “all” fail to live with no fictions then therefore it makes no difference if we live by fewer fictions? Does John Gray prefer cleverness over integrity? How does John Gray define sophistry? He does not like people who are conceited and claim to stand above others. Good advice. At the same time, publicly arguing for beliefs is a secular activity. Arguing that particular conclusions or ethics are better is not a religious activity. Atheists who publicly argue for atheism are not ipso-facto adopting religious beliefs or practices. Keeping silent about why we favor atheism is not an attribute of the genuine, or a better, atheism.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Caruso versus Dennett on free will

By Mathew Goldstein

Aeon “is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.” Gregg D Caruso is professor of philosophy at SUNY Corning in New York. Daniel Dennett is professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. This debate format article is 47 paragraphs. Professor Caruso, who argues for incompatibilism, makes the stronger/better argument in my opinion. You can decide for yourself by reading their arguments: https://aeon.co/essays/on-free-will-daniel-dennett-and-gregg-caruso-go-head-to-head

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Private school vouchers promote miseducation

By Mathew Goldstein

Governor Hogan reintroduced his “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today”, a.k.a. BOOST, private school vouchers as part of his budget this year. Most private schools are religious and secular private schools are more likely to be disqualified for exceeding the $14,000 per year tuition limit. Governor Hogan said he wanted to double last year’s allocation for BOOST, but his budget bill actually allocated $8.5 million. The General Assembly at first reduced that to $5 million, the same amount allocated last year, and then decided on $7 million. This year’s Democratic Party candidate for Governor, Ben Jealous, opposes private school vouchers.

All youth everywhere should be educated in modern knowledge without omissions or qualifications. Our collective knowledge is rooted in an international consensus of subject matter experts that is logically derived using a best fit with the available empirical evidence criteria. Finding empirical evidence and convincingly relating the evidence to conclusions requires effort and time. The history of the pursuit of knowledge demonstrates that this epistemology is uniquely successful, there is no other approach that reliably reaches accurate conclusions about how our universe functions. Beliefs about how the universe functions that are derived outside the aforementioned framework are not knowledge. Teaching such beliefs to children as if they are knowledge is miseducation.

There are few restrictions on what private schools can teach their students, and so they may mix academics, religion, and politics tightly together. Religious schools often have an institutional self-interest to try to convince children to accept the school’s definition of deity. They may actively teach children to distrust and fear competing perspectives, including secular academics. Some religious schools teach children blatant falsehoods that contradict modern scientific consensus, such as young earth creationism. Young children are impressionable, teenagers are responsive to peer pressure, and as a result they are vulnerable to indoctrination. They may be taught that faith is one of the most important virtues, that one faith is superior to all other faiths, that they will be severely punished for disbelieving and greatly rewarded for believing, that particular beliefs about how the universe functions are requisite for morality. The result is potentially harmful miseducation that undermines the targeted victim’s intellectual potential and can be difficult to undo.

BOOST private school vouchers will finance such miseducation from sectarian publishers. Private schools that qualified for BOOST vouchers in 2018 included:

Abeka textbooks: Calvary Christian Academy, Elvaton Christian Academy, Greater Grace Christian Academy, Kings Christian Academy and Mount Pleasant Christian School utilize textbooks from publisher A Beka Book (“Abeka”).  Abeka takes a biblical literalist and young Earth creationist position in its science curriculum and falsely portrays the Genesis creation narrative as fact.

BJU Press textbooks: Calvary Christian Academy, Elvaton Christian Academy, Greater Grace Christian Academy, and Kings Christian Academy utilize textbooks from Bob Jones University Press (“BJU Press”). BJU Press promotes biblical inerrancy.

ASCI: Broadfording Christian Academy, Calvary Christian Academy, Chesapeake Christian School, Countryside Christian School, First Baptist School of Laurel, Grace Academy, Highland Park Christian Academy, Kings Christian Academy, Mount Pleasant Christian School, National Christian Academy, and Trinity Lutheran School belong to the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI).  ASCI endorses intelligent design creationism.

ACE: Greater Youth Christian Academy is member of Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) which promotes young earth creationism, declares solar fusion to be a myth invented by evolutionary scientists, and teaches that homosexuality is a choice.

AACS: The King's Christian Academy is a member of the American Association of  Christian Schools (AACS) that rejects ecumenism and promotes creationism.

CSI: Highland Park Christian Academy and Washington Christian School belong to the Christian Schools International (CSI) which endorses creationism. The fossil record and geology are given only three pages each in CSI science textbooks, none of which explore biological evolution.  Here is an excerpt from their science textbook: ‘Humans are also considered primates because we have the physical characteristics that define this order. Of course, we are more than primates. God forms us, unlike animals, in his image, and we alone have souls. God sets us apart from the rest of creation and even commands us to care for the rest of creation . . . So even though physically you may be considered a primate, remember that you are a child of God."’’  No mention is made of the central role that DNA has in identifying which species are primates independently of physical characteristics.

Seventh Day Adventists: Baltimore Junior Academy, George E Peters SDA elementary school, and Olney Adventist Preparatory School. At a gathering of science teachers on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 the President of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Dr. Ted Wilson, told the international invitation-only gathering of about 350 Adventist high school and college science teachers, that they are obligated to teach young earth creationism: “We believe that the Biblical creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 was a literal event that took place in six literal, consecutive days recently as opposed to deep time. It was accomplished by God's authoritative voice and happened when He spoke the world into existence."  The Geoscience Research Institute, an organization sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, claims to gather data that supports a literal seven-day creation and subsequent worldwide flood as described in the Bible.

Even those religiously affiliated private schools that are the most ecumenical, that eschew holy book inerrancy, that seek to embrace modern knowledge, exhibit a tendency to add unsubstantiated religious content and avoid inconvenient scientific details when teaching children how the universe functions to promote their religious worldview, resulting in a subtly biased and compromised education. Schools that do not promote young or old earth creationism or intelligent design may instead promote theistic evolution. These schools may teach students that satan intervenes in our universe and associate satan with non-theism. They may teach about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jonah, virgin birth, resurrection, etc. as if they were historical facts. The web site for Washington Christian Academy says “Our High School theology curriculum focuses on the reality and historicity of the life, work, and resurrection of Jesus, not only for our salvation, but also for living the ChristIan life.” When opposing perspectives are presented to the students it is often for the purpose of refuting them. A commitment to know the facts regarding how the universe functions and to understand how to reliably distinguish between well-justified and poorly justified assertions are valuable civic virtues that government should be fostering, not undermining with private school vouchers.

An often stated objective of BOOST is to help low-income students leave underperforming public schools. Yet in its first year of operation, almost 80% of the students receiving a voucher were already enrolled in a private school. Vouchers to fund private school scholarships are unlikely to provide better educational outcomes for Maryland’s children overall. At a Congressional House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on February 3, 2016 titled “Expanding Educational Opportunity through School Choice,” Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education & Public Policy at Columbia University, stated that none of the independent studies of the nation’s “most lauded and long-standing voucher programs…found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.” However, Huerta said there is “evidence to support that[,] compared against students who participate in voucher programs, public school students fare better academically.”

Here are some recent voucher program analysis results:

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report on Milwaukee Program: “Students in Milwaukee’s school choice program performed worse than or about the same as students in Milwaukee Public Schools in math and reading on the latest statewide test, according to results released Tuesday that provided the first apples-to-apples achievement comparison between public and individual voucher schools.”

MIT Study of Louisiana Program: “Attendance at an LSP-eligible private school lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and increases the likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large. The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children.”

Chalkbeat Education News on Indiana Program: “A new long-term study out of Indianapolis, done by researchers at Notre Dame University, found that students who switched from traditional public schools to Catholic schools actually did worse.“

While each of the schools is required to give standardized tests in certain grades to BOOST recipients, there is no requirement that they report the results to the state or that the students meet certain achievement levels. If this law is really about improving the quality of education and not about government subsidizing promotion of religious beliefs then BOOST eligible schools should be required to evaluate their students with the same standardized tests that public schools are required to utilize. The test scores for local public schools could then be compared with the test scores of the private schools that qualify for the vouchers. Vouchers would then be granted to those students attending an eligible private schools only if their local public school ranks lower than the private school.

If lawmakers want to reduce the cost of private education then they can provide additional funding to public schools to allow otherwise privately educated children to attend public school classes part time and/or to participate in public school sponsored extracurricular activities. Each county can have their own law regarding the extent to which their state public school classes and facilities are available to children who are otherwise receiving a private education. Private schools, and homeschooled children, are currently eligible to be lent the same government purchased textbooks that are utilized by the secular public schools. These approaches to assisting privately educated children avoid most of the problems that result from direct or indirect government funding of unaccountable private schools with parochial ideological agendas.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Would the Russians change votes in U.S. elections?

Even after two years, there are serious questions about whether the Russian intelligence agencies interfered with American elections, and if so how much.  U.S. intelligence says that Russian hackers have targeted election systems in all U.S. states and penetrated some of them.  Did they change votes or remove names from voter registration lists?  Did they directly change the outcome of the 2016 election, or will they try to change the outcome of the 2018 elections?

Michael Harriot wrote an article in the website The Root about the Russian hacking.  The article gives details about known election system break-ins by the Russian hackers and refers to some experts. Harriot asks the question, if they could hack election systems, wouldn't they actually change votes? He points out that voting machines aren't connected to the internet while people are voting, but they are often connected before people vote to update software. Votes are also tabulated on internet-connected computers that can be hacked.  Here is another article on voting machine hacking.(Presumably the vote totals can be checked. But any external interference with the vote totals on the night of the election would shed doubt on the legitimacy of the results, even if it were corrected later.) 


Harriot's article was updated because of some errors, but Harriot 
seems to imply that the Americans in charge of administering
elections, who without exception insist that no votes were 
changed, are being short-sighted or even willfully ignorant.  
Harriot earns a extra amount of credibility, perhaps, by being 
a black man, writing for a black media outlet, and claiming
that white people are part of a conspiracy of silence. 

Steven Rosenfeld wrote a reply to Harriot.  He criticized 
Harriot for blaming the Russians for interfering with elections.  
Rosenfeld said that he has been examining the election 
results, and he agrees with government officials that no 
votes were changed.  The real problem, according to 
Rosenfeld, is that Republicans are trying hard in many states 
to cull out voters who won't be voting for Republicans.  He 
writes, "The GOP, in swing states, has created structural advantages this decade (gerrymanders segregating voters by district, stricter ID peeling off turnout, etc.) that add up to a 10-point lead before the votes in typical elections are counted." This should be the focus of attention, because Democrats will have to generate a large turnout in order to offset this disadvantage to win.  Suggesting that voting is rigged and pointless is not the way to do it.  
Meanwhile, Walter Einenkel reported in the Daily Kos that an 11-Year-Old at a Hacking Convention Demonstrated that he could hack Florida election machines and change votes in 10 minutes' time.
The private company, ByteGrid LLC, that owns the servers with Maryland voting registration and other election information is partly owned by a Russian oligarch. Coincidence?

On the other hand, it could be, as Jonathan Chait wrote, "It was 
all exactly what it appeared to be."  Trump had a public history
with Russian Oligarchs going so far back that it is impossible
to erase it.  According to Unger, Trump's first real estate 
purchase by a Russian (that he can find) was in 1984, when Trump 
was given $6 million dollars for 5 condos in Trump Tower.  According 
to Luke Harding, the Russians' interest in Trump went back
even further to 1977, when he married his first wife Ivana, 
a Czech citizen.  Her letters to her father were opened by 
the Czech intelligence agencies, who shared the information
with the Russian agencies.  In 1987, Trump and Ivana were
invited to Moscow for an all-expense-paid visit.  So Trump
was known and possibly considered an asset by the Russian 
intelligence since then.  As Chait said, why wouldn't Putin 
help Trump?  Trump is not a perfect asset by any standard, 
but he is President. 
 
That implies that if Putin and his hackers found a way to change
the voting results, he wouldn't hesitate.  We return to Harriot's
question:  If the Russians can get into election systems to 
change votes, wouldn't they do it?

Here is an article by William Saletan that summarizes 
Trump's public statements that clearly support Putin and 
Russia over the U.S. intelligence agencies.  These actions 
make a lot more sense if we consider that Trump has been 
friendly with the Russians for decades and owes them his 
fortune.




Sunday, July 22, 2018

Dr. Lightman on the existence of God

In a 2011 Salon article titled "Does God exist? The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine — and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins", Alan Lightman, a professor of humanities who was initially an astronomer and astrophysicist, first at Harvard and subsequently at MIT, argues as follows:
"As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science. The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it."
Seven years later, in his new book "Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine", he reiterates that this "Central Doctrine of science" is "an article of faith" because it "cannot be proved" and it "must simply be accepted".
Nineteenth century explorers had some evidence backing their belief that the North Pole was accessible. They knew that the surface of the ocean is frozen solid as a result of the cold temperatures and accumulated snow, and they were committed to confirming or disconfirming their belief by traveling there on sleds. People who believe that there is a complete set of laws for all properties and events in the physical universe also have evidence backing their belief, and they are also committed to confirming or disconfirming their belief. Beliefs are properly justified in proportion to the available supporting evidence, not with proof (outside of logic/mathematics is there is no such thing as "proof" in an absolute sense). The 19th century explorers had, and today's scientists have, some evidence for their respective beliefs. Therefore these beliefs are not "an article of faith". This should not be confused with the explorers faith that they would survive the difficult journey, which has no relevance to the question of whether they were properly justified in believing their journey was technically feasible or we today are properly justified in believing that our universe obeys laws.
One possible reason that scientists do not talk explicitly about the Central Doctrine is that, contrary to what Dr. Lightman asserts, they do not assume it must be true. It is more accurate to describe scientists as people who have committed themselves to try to determine what is true regardless of where that search for truth takes us. Despite the fact that Dr. Lightman is a (non-practicing) scientist, what he is doing here is endorsing and promoting a negative and unfair stereotyping of science. While it is plausible that many scientists are inclined to believe that a complete set of laws exists and, at least in principle, is discoverable, it does not follow that they also think this belief "must be accepted". On the contrary, if science demonstrated that the universe operates as described in a holy book that is authored by a deity then that is what scientists would believe. There is nothing intrinsic to science that a-priori precludes one conclusion over all others on any question, including the question about the role of laws in the operation of our universe. Furthermore, it can be reasonable to infer that the way the universe operates is the way it must operate. People who believe our universe obeys laws are being reasonable when they infer that this probably is a necessary characteristic of the universe.
Is the belief that all events and properties are governed by laws a properly justified belief ? We arguably will not have finally resolved this question absolutely until we have indisputable explanations for all events and properties, past, present, and future. That is impossible. There is no point in demanding we reach an impossible goal, nor is there any need to do that. Sensible people instead set for ourselves the achievable and useful goal of matching our conclusions to the available evidence. The impressive success of mathematical equation based models, including the Standard Cosmological Model and the Theory of Relativity, and the lack of evidence for lawlessness, support the conclusion that our universe is governed by laws. Does Lightman cite any empirical evidence for lawlessness in his new book? The conclusion that our universe is governed by laws appears to be a better fit overall with the available empirical evidence than the contrary conclusion.
Dr. Lightman cites his personal experience of feeling a transcendent connection with the universe (on an island in Maine), of human desires for permanence and absoluteness, and the like, to buttress his argument for the validity of religious knowledge claims. Those are very weak arguments. He is confusing human emotions and sentiments for evidence regarding how the universe operates. We have lots of empirical evidence from studies of human cognition that basing our conclusions about how the universe operates on our feelings and hopes is a recipe for failure. We know, from hundreds years of success and failure, that our universe is pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive and as a result beliefs originating mostly or entirely from within our own minds are fictions.

Dr. Lightman is contributing little, if anything, of substance to properly resolving the question of whether or not the universe operates according to discoverable laws. He is advocating against disciplined, critical thinking, as if humanity does not already suffer enough from a surfeit of irrationality. He is starting from an unbalanced and unjustified perspective that the proper goal is to reconcile science and religion as methods of attaining valid knowledge about how the universe operates. He ignores the pervasive failure of religion to demonstrate it has the capability to attain knowledge. His claim to have reconciled the scientific with the divine is unpersuasive.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Another theory about why evangelicals like Trump

This article is another theory on the improbable alliance 
between evangelical Christians and Donald Trump, the 
formerly secular, thrice married, "baby Christian" who had 
affairs with porn stars:

https://www.alternet.org/evangelical-historian-explains-how-christians-came-put-trump-ahead-jesus 

The article is by Paul Rosenberg, originally on Salon.com.  
It is a review of a book by a formerly evangelical historian 
names John Fea, called Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to 
Donald Trump

Fea argues that white evangelicals are concerned with power, 
nostalgia, and fear of the future.  He discusses the election of 
Trump on several timescales.  The most recent events leading
to the 2016 election caused the selection of Trump by 
evangelicals in spite of some much more likely candidates,
including Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and 
Ted Cruz.  Fea argues that these likely candidates understood
evangelicals too well.  They tried very hard to frighten the 
evangelicals about the consequences of the Obama 
Administration and their loss of political power.  The 
evangelicals were so alarmed that they decided a strongman 
was needed to restore their power, and Trump fit the bill 
better than Rubio, Huckabee, Carson, or Cruz.  Trump also 
had the background of his birtherist attacks on Obama as a 
racist introduction.
Fea also discusses Christianity as it's evolved from further 
into the past.  Rosenberg adds comments from Seth Dowland 
from his essay for Christian Century, “American 
evangelicalism and the politics of whiteness.”  American 
Christianity was deeply divided by the Civil War, and it 
remains divided.  The church became segregated and 
divided between northern white Christians, southern white 
Christians, and the black churches.  Each strain developed its 
own culture and concerns.  Black Christians were more 
interested in Christian hope.  Whites, especially southerners, 
gravitated toward fear.  They felt that they needed political 
and financial power, and they didn't seem to trust God to sort 
out human affairs.
Rosenberg points out that Fea's book seems to disregard that 
evangelical leaders have learned that politics and religion 
don't go well together.  This is something that the American 
Founders tried to guarantee with the First Amendment.  But 
white evangelicals still seem to be trying to hang on to 
political power, regardless. 
 
 

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Rob Boston on the Founders

Rob Boston is director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and he is a long-time member and friend of WASH.  He recently wrote an article on the religious beliefs of the Founders, including the first four presidents and Thomas Paine:


Here Are 5 Founding Fathers Whose Skepticism About Christianity Would Make Them Unelectable Todayhttps://www.alternet.org/here-are-5-founding-fathers-whose-skepticism-about-christianity-would-make-them-unelectable-today?src=newsletter1092844

 


He argues that the beliefs of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Paine would make them unelectable in today's political climate. 


He is probably right, but this issue points out that the political and religious climate of the Founders was radically different from the one today. For example, in the days of the Founders, they expected to make intellectual judgements about their beliefs as a matter of integrity an honesty. So they questioned the odd, supernatural dogma of Christianity, such as the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the resurrection. 


Today, many Christians seem to be unaware of the odd things that they claim to believe. (However, it is quite possible that the common people in the time of the Founders were also largely unaware of the odd aspects of Christianity or that they refused to ask troublesome questions.) The main attraction of Christianity comes from the nostalgia value of growing up with it, and the feeling of belonging to a congregation. These emotional connections are exploited by the Religious Right in their effort to influence the political decisions of voters, even at the expense of solving their own personal concerns.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Maryland didn't make the top 10

Greta Christina recently wrote an article, "Here are the Top Ten Scariest States to be an Atheist".  The good new is that Maryland and Virginia didn't make the top ten.  The bad news is that Maryland got a (dis)honorable mention.  According to Christina, in Maryland "yet another atheist high school student started a group, whose posters were torn down by other students -- and where actual parents of those students wrote letters to the editor supporting the vandalism, and calling the atheist posters 'an atrocity.'"  The state of Virginia didn't get mentioned.

Many of the people quote in her article are good friends of Washington Area Secular Humanists, and it's good to see them being quoted.  WASH is affiliated with several local Coalition of Reason organizations.  As WASH is in its 29th year, we will continue to work for the benefit and education of secular humanists, and against the discrimination against atheists and people without religion.  

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Why does Judas get resurrected in "Jesus Christ Superstar"

NBC-TV showed a live production of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Sunday, April 2, 2018, with John Legend as Jesus. I never saw the stage production before, but I heard the album when it came out in the 1970's.

When the Broadway production and the movie came out, there was some controversy about it. Christians thought it was blasphemous. Jews thought it was anti-Semitic. But after reviewing Google, there wasn't any mention of the part of the production that bothered me the most.

I noticed when listening to the album that Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus. But soon after, Judas reappeared to sing the big show-stopper song "Superstar." When I listened to the album, I assumed I must have just missed something. But on the NBC-TV live version, the same thing happened. Judas committed suicide, overcome with grief and guilt. Then a few minutes later, clad in a sparkly outfit and escorted by women in sparkly minidresses, Judas was back to sing and dance.

What happened?? There was no explanation for Judas's reappearance. It might have been that the writers wanted the final upbeat number to close the show, and the actor playing Judas was the only one who could sing it.

But as a matter of theology and even of plot, it makes no sense. The production doesn't show Jesus's resurrection, ending on his crucifixion. According to Christian dogma, Jesus was resurrected, and every Christian seeing it knows that, even if it isn't shown. (Actually, the original version of the Gospel of Mark doesn't describe the resurrection either; it ends with the empty tomb.)

But why is Judas back? Certainly, the reason for Jesus's death and resurrection is said to be to save everyone from death. But Judas is back before Jesus died in the play, and Jesus never forgives Judas or raises him from death like Lazarus. Judas is back before there is any theological explanation for it.  He doesn't get touched by Jesus or even have a chance to get an explanation for why he is a cog in Jesus's plan.

The Gospel of Matthew has a passage that describes what is sometimes called the "zombie resurrection." At the moment that Jesus dies, "The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people." (Matthew 27:50)  Maybe Judas was raised as a zombie in this event. He was very energetic for a zombie, though.

The song "Superstar" really should have been sung by someone else.  It could have been sung by Peter, the rock of the church and the first pope, who is known in the play only for denying Jesus three times.  They could have even introduced Paul as the one who not only sang the song but actually turned Jesus into the Superstar.  He had more to do with it than perhaps anyone else.

Although the reanimation of Judas bugs me, what bothers me more is that I haven't seen a comment about it from Christians. The current production hasn't gotten any controversy or criticism, even from hard-core right-wing conspiracy theorists.  Don't these Christians know their Gospels?


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is Star Wars a Religion?


CNN recently had an article about whether Star Wars was related to religious ideas:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/26/us/star-wars-religion/index.html

The article had a few good comments about the ideas in Star Wars that come from actual religious traditions.  There is no question that a lot of people think of the Jedi in the movie as a legitimate religion and take it very seriously.

But it is worth remembering that these are fictional movies.  In the movies, the supernatural "Force" is shown to be something that at least some individuals can manipulate.  In that way, the Force is not supernatural in the Star Wars universe, since it is part of that natural system.  Since people can actually make something happen because of it, there is objective evidence that it exists.  With human religions in the real world, there is no objective proof that religion actually works.  So believing in the Force in a universe in which there is evidence that it works is considerably different from believing in a religion without evidence.  Of course, there isn't any evidence that the Force works in the real world, since the movies are fictional.

As the article points out, the Star Wars philosophy owes a lot to Asian religions like Taoism.  It is much different from the European and Middle Eastern traditions in the major religions of Christianity and Islam.  The Force doesn't seem to have a personality or will, unlike God.  It also doesn't dictate a morality or ethical system, since there can be both good (Luke) and evil (Darth Vader) people who can use it.  Although certain people can  be trained to use it, there isn't an omnipotent, benevolent entity who looks out for everyone.  So people who want to follow the Jedi philosophy have a major break with traditional religions.

But the biggest question that was raised by the article was about the meeting of Star Wars believers.  That meeting was discussed by CNN even though only 40 people were there.  How do we get CNN to cover a WASH meeting when we have an attendance of 40 people?  Maybe we should all come with light sabers!
 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Consider counter-evidence to avoid bias

By Mathew Goldstein

Neurologists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of South Carolina (USC) Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science watched the brains of 40 self-declared liberal students in a functional MRI. USC neuroscientists compared whether, and how much, people change their minds on non-political and political issues when provided counter-evidence. During their brain imaging sessions, participants were presented with eight political statements that they had said they believe just as strongly as a set of eight non-political statements. They were then shown five counter claims that challenged each statement.

Participants rated the strength of their belief in the original statement on a scale of 1-7 after reading each counter claim. The scientists then studied their brain scans to determine which areas became most engaged during these challenges.  Participants did not change their beliefs much, if at all, when provided with evidence that countered political statements. But the strength of their beliefs weakened by one or two points when provided with evidence that countered non-political statements.

The study, which concluded last month, found that people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs had more activity in the amygdala (a pair of almond-shaped areas near the center of the brain) and the insular cortex, compared with people who were more willing to change their minds. “The amygdala in particular is known to be especially involved in perceiving threat and anxiety,” said USC Psychologist Kaplan, explaining that “the insular cortex processes feelings from the body, and it is important for detecting the emotional salience of stimuli. That is consistent with the idea that when we feel threatened, anxious or emotional, then we are less likely to change our minds.” He also noted that a system in the brain called the default mode network surged in activity when participants’ political beliefs were challenged. “These areas of the brain have been linked to thinking about who we are, and with the kind of rumination or deep thinking that takes us away from the here and now,” Kaplan said.

People will flexibly react to changes in their environment. If a sidewalk or road is blocked then we have no difficulty understanding that we need to consider finding a different route to our destination. But we are not consistently rationally flexible, particularly with regard to beliefs that we link to our self-identity. Instead of prioritizing best fit with the overall available evidence, we may negatively react to evidence that conflicts with our self-identity linked beliefs similar to the way we negatively react to a threat.

People tend to link their religious beliefs to their self-identity at least as much as they do their political beliefs and they also may link their religious and political beliefs together. This is one reason why we should be careful about how we go about justifying our beliefs. We need to be careful to open-mindedly allow the overall available empirical evidence dictate to us what our beliefs about how the universe functions should be. We are prone to reversing this sequence and telling the universe how it functions as if we are each master of the universe deities. The universe is not about us, so what we think should be true, or what we want to be true, or how we define our self-identity, are irrelevant.

To try to avoid this error, my advice to everyone, regardless of whether you are a metaphysical naturalist or supernaturalist, is to consider what would need to be different about our universe to convince you to change your conclusion. Too often, when I ask this question I get pushback directed against the question itself. Not all atheists are empiricists. People react negatively to the question, claiming that it is wrong to talk about an alternative universe, that it is wrong to consider other possibilities, because that is a place of falsehood. It is said that our universe is naturalistic because supernaturalism is impossible, and to even ask such a question is to accept that supernaturalism is possible and thus is a mistake. It is said that supernaturalism is a non-starter and to even entertain it as a possibility is an unwarranted concession.

My response is this: We cannot trust our intuition, or anything mostly rooted in intuition, like faith or hope, to answer the big questions about how the universe functions because the answers to the big questions are mostly non-intuitive and counter-intuitive. So it is a mistake to rule out anything a-priori or to rely only on logic not anchored in evidenced. It is often inconsistent for some assertion to be simultaneously true and false. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that given that X (naturalism) is true it is probably also the case that the opposite of X (supernaturalism) is impossible. But the impossibility of X being false when it is true is not a proper justification for concluding X is true, we still must justify our conclusion regarding X. To justify the conclusion that it is impossible for X to be false, we paradoxically should consider what is missing that would be required to properly justify a conclusion that X is false.

A-priori ruling out even identifying what qualifies as missing evidence favoring alternative conclusions is bad epistemology. Fairly considering what is needed to justify a conclusion entails also considering what would be needed to justify a contrary conclusion. Our justification for reaching a particular conclusion about how the universe functions is incomplete if we cannot identify missing justifications for concluding otherwise. When a conclusion is consistently supported by an abundance of highly diversified, interconnected, and direct empirical evidence it becomes unlikely that the available evidence will change so drastically as to favor the contrary conclusion, so we need not worry that our beliefs will be unstable if we allow the evidence to dictate. When a conclusion is inconsistently supported by rare, narrow, unconnected, and indirect non-empirical evidence then we should not have a strong commitment to that conclusion. Either way, there is no harm in identifying what evidence is missing that would change our conclusion if it was found.

Academic endeavors like science are publicly funded and some Senators and Representatives are prone to threaten to cut funding if they think scientific outputs interfere with their preferred political ideology. Elected school boards make decisions regarding educational curriculums, and elected governments decide if they fund private schools that set their own curriculums. Theism is a popular and often strongly held belief and educators and scientists fear popular antagonism if science is perceived as being anti-theistic. Theists falsely claim that science has a built in bias favoring naturalism, that science has a built-in self-dependency upon naturalism, and therefore science cannot fairly adjudicate the naturalism versus supernaturalism question. Some educators and scientists, many of whom are themselves theists, actively promote this false claim of bias at least in part because it is convenient as a means for avoiding provoking theists. Yes, modern knowledge favors naturalism. But our process of acquiring knowledge is not the source of this bias, the source of this bias is the nature of our universe.

People who imagine themselves living in a supernatural universe are not going to then respect a belittled empiricism that is deemed to lack the ability to challenge theism (note that most of the same theists would probably enthusiastically cite a scientific consensus that prayer works as a confirmation of God). With the false claim that empiricism has a built in bias for naturalism widely accepted it can be small additional steps to conclude that empiricism is similarly biased in multiple other contexts, that empiricism is not the best way to determine how the universe works, and that religion, wealthy business, popular entertainment, and political leaders are the most reliable sources of information about how the universe functions. Not all theists generalize away empiricism, expertise, and modern knowledge this way. But it appears that enough people generalize like this to cause mischief. Today we have wealthy businessman President Trump, maybe in 2020 it will be wealthy talk show host President Winfrey?

Martin Luther King's Why I Cannot be Silent speech

 Here is a link to Martin Luther King's "Why I Cannot Be Silent" speech, posted on alternet.org.  How is it possible that America has gone from a leader who speaks like this:


We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…" We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

...to one who speaks gibberish like Trump?? 

 

But seriously, it is worth reading this speech to see the way that King uses religion as a basis for his call to action.  Humanists need to find a way to do the same thing, but without the religion bit.