Sunday, July 28, 2019

Yes to a plaque, no to Rob Boston’s argument for it


By Mathew Goldstein

Rob Boston, Senior Adviser/Editor Church & State for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently published an article entitled If The Bladensburg Cross Is Historic, Then Let’s Hear Its History. He argues that “The addition of plaques that detail the history of the cross and explain that it was originally put up by a private group on private land would go a long way toward mitigating the appearance that the state of Maryland and Prince George’s County have endorsed the Christian faith.”

After reading his article I concluded we should send a letter advocating for such a plaque to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). Rob Boston’s article omitted providing text for the plaque, as did the first draft of the letter to the M-NCPOC. We can do better, we will propose text for the plaque in our letter. 

Little pieces of the history appeared in newspaper articles. The Supreme Court of the United States decision contained a longer and more detailed exposition of the history. The American Humanist Association published an article The Mythology of a Cross: A Dozen Bladensburg Claims Debunked (https://thehumanist.com/commentary/the-mythology-of-a-cross-a-dozen-bladensburg-claims-debunked) which also contained information about the history. The history as provided by SCOTUS and AHA were mutually consistent.  Yet they both often conflicted with the history as presented in the newspapers.

What was happening is this: The newspapers, with some exceptions, were covering up, or whitewashing, sometimes with falsehoods or with unsupported assertions of secular motivations, but mostly with a misleading combination of selective focus and omissions, the extent to which the town, county, and state have been favoring Christianity. The American Humanist Association article directly addressed and refuted the misinformation that was being published in the newspapers. A plaque summarizing that history actually reinforces the appearance of government favoritism for Christianity because the Bladensburg Cross memorial was a Bible inspired collaboration between the Town of Bladensburg and the American Legion, almost from day one, that subsequently obtained active support from both the county and state. Below is an accurate summary of that history for a plaque.


A group of Prince George’s County citizens, including parents of some of the soldiers, started raising money in 1918 to construct a giant cross where a plaque had been previously placed to honor 49 soldiers from the county who lost their lives in World War I. The Town of Bladensburg approved the erection of a “mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the Bible” on the town property in 1919. The monument stood unfinished in cruciform when the Town deeded the cross and land to American Legion Post 3 in 1922. This “Peace Cross” monument was dedicated in 1925. The Maryland state legislature authorized and directed the State Roads Commission to acquire the land "by purchase or condemnation” to prevent the “desecration” of this monument by the “proposed erection of a service station on the property” in 1935. A Circuit Court ruled that the State of Maryland was the rightful owner of the property in 1956. The Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission—a bi-county agency funded by Prince George’s and Montgomery counties—acquired this monument from the State Roads Commission for the purposes of “the future repair and maintenance of the monument” in 1960. The American Legion Post also transferred their title to this monument and the land to the M-NCPPC in 1961. The M-NCPPC rededicated this monument as a memorial to honor all US veterans of all wars in 1985. The Supreme Court of the United States rejected an Establishment Clause complaint against government sponsorship of this monument in 2019.

Rob Boston was mistaken, the monument was not “originally put up by a private group on private land”. That was misinformation which was commonly promoted in articles, including articles written by professional journalists. Many of the articles, when they discussed history, focused on the symbolic transfer of the title from the American Legion Post to the M-NCPPC, as if that is when government first took ownership, even though the American Legion no longer had ownership of the monument or land, while disregarded the more relevant events, including the original government ownership of the property and the actual transfers of ownership. An honest and accurate plaque would expose the town, county, and state as endorsers of Christianity instead of mitigating the appearance that they endorsed Christianity. Yet we should still advocate for a plaque. Why? Because the tendency of journalists and others to widely publish information that avoids and misrepresents the relevant history not only undermines enforcement of Establishment Clause in this instance, it more generally undermines the role of citizens in a democracy. Displaying the real history with warts is better than ignorance and consuming biased misrepresentations.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Presidential candidates on establishment of theism

By Mathew Goldstein


Should the government support a separation of church and state by removing references to God on money, federal buildings, and national monuments?

These answers are based mostly on a non-scientific poll of the opinions of self-declared supporters of each candidate. See https://www.isidewith.com/.

Yes: 

Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren.

Yes, but no spending to remove existing references:

Jay Inslee, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Jill Stein.

No: 

Joe Biden, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney, all Republican and Libertarian candidates.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Billions for sea walls in the next 20 years

By Mathew Goldstein

Virginia is No. 4 and Maryland is No. 5 when it comes to states facing massive expenditures to prepare for sea level rise, behind only Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Virginia will need to spend about 31 billion to build 4,928 miles of sea walls between now and 2040 to protect coastal communities from sea level rise. Of that total, 15 billion is for the 1st congressional district and 11 billion for the 2nd congressional district. Virginia Beach is 1.7 billion. The county numbers include 4.9 billion for Accomack, 2.3 billion for Northumberland, 2.2 billion for Mathews, 2.1 billion for Gloucester, 1.7 billion for Northampton, 1.3 billion for Middlesex, and 1.2 billion for Westmoreland. This analysis is based on modest sea-level rise projections that assume some reductions in carbon emissions according to the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development’s Center for Climate Integrity (“High Tide Tax: The Price to Protect Coastal Communities from Rising Seas”).

Maryland, whose state budget is $45.2 billion, will need to spend about $27.4 billion to build 2,996 miles of sea walls. Dorchester County will need $6.5 billion for sea walls. Also, Somerset County ($3.1 billion); Worcester County ($2.7 billion); St. Mary’s County ($2.6 billion); Talbot County ($2.4 billion); Anne Arundel County ($1.9 billion); Queen Anne’s County ($1.8 billion); Kent County ($1.5 billion); Wicomico County ($1.3 billion); and Charles County ($1.2 billion). Maryland’s 1st congressional district has the second highest projected need of any congressional district in the country – more than $20.4 billion. For some sparsely populated localities in Maryland the per capita cost of the sea wall is over 1 billion which implies that those towns may be abandoned. See https://www.marylandmatters.org/2019/07/01/report-md-needs-27-4b-to-fight-rising-seas for more information.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Discrete yet continuous, superposition is natural

By Mathew Goldstein

Energy levels are discrete, not continuous. For example, electrons orbit neutron and protons with discrete values of energy. Yet it has been understood for a some time that the transition from one electron orbital energy level to another is not instantaneous (Bohr and Heisenberg thought it was instantaneous, Schrödinger and Einstein disagreed, that dispute was resolved decades ago in favor of the latter). How is it possible to have discontinuous energy levels and simultaneously have a continuous transition between different energy levels? 

There is a one word answer: Superposition. We do not witness superposition as a phenomena in our daily lives, yet superposition is essential and ubiquitous. An electron can have a particular energy level, then be in a continuously changing superposition of two different energy levels until it completes its transition to the other energy level. Superposition enables a continuous transition between states whose values are restricted to jumps between discrete values.

It has recently been demonstrated experimentally that it is possible to detect when a transition between different energy levels is about to occur in advance and then to intervene quickly enough to prevent the transition from completing (see https://quantuminstitute.yale.edu/publications/quantum-theory-peels-away-mystery-measurement). The jump between energy levels is at least partly deterministic, with enough information it can be predicted in advance and reversed. But the information needed to predict the jump is available only for a short time in advance. Over a longer time frame the jump between energy levels remains unpredictable and can only be modeled stochastically (this is arguably because of a lack of information availability, not necessarily because of an underlying indeterminism).

With superposition our universe is a hybrid mix of discrete and continuous phenomena. Is our universe also a mix of supernatural and natural phenomena? Many people have thought so and most people continue to think so. But on closer examination naturalism alone appears to suffice. Our imaginations did not discover superposition, we discovered superposition from empirical evidence. We have no similar evidence that there is any unmet need for anything beyond the natural despite the many opportunities for supernaturalism to have been properly evidenced.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Quincy Institute

What do liberal billionaire George Soros and libertarian billionaire Charles Koch agree on?  They found agreement to fund a new institute called the Quincy Institute.  Its mission is to to make the case against foreign wars.  Their website begins with this quote, and it is named after John Quincy Adams: 

America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” — John Quincy Adams

Their website says,

The Quincy Institute is an action-oriented think tank that will lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. The current moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing. Our country’s current circumstances demand it.
Humanists have a lot of sympathy for George Soros and his Open Institute, and for David Koch's (Charles's brother) support for the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Institute.  We also agree that excessive foreign wars are a waste of life and resources.

The U.S. needs more diplomacy, and a better way to keep peace in the world.  The approach of sending troops and drones to kill bad guys is not a solution.  

What this institute should encourage is a better understanding of how human cultures and political organizations evolve.  Rather than expecting fast and easy solution to every problem in the world, we should work on methods to make gradual changes that will lead to better, but not perfect, solutions.  

Americans tend to be too impatient.  They hear a problem in another country, and they want a fast, simple solution.  In some cases, a dictator with democratic sympathy and a reasonable human rights record may be preferable to overthrow of a government to create chaos, after which the chaos has to be organized from nothing.

The important thing is to understand how to make slow but constant improvements.  The U.S. needs to learn how to use its influence and its diplomatic corps to modify unacceptable behavior by other countries.  

That doesn't mean isolationism or refusal to get involved.  It also doesn't involve invasions of foreign countries.  It does involve patience.
   



Sunday, June 09, 2019

Vaccinations should not be optional

By Mathew Goldstein


Education Article §7–403 and Health - General Article §18–403 declare that parents can refuse to immunize their children by claiming a conflict with their religious beliefs. Such exemptions place innocent children who are denied vaccinations at risk of suffering serious, long term, health impairments. Health - General Article §18–403 also allows adults to refuse vaccinations by citing religious beliefs. Anne Arundel Maryland has been ranked 37 among the counties most likely to experience measles outbreaks in 2019 [Measles resurgence in the USA: how international travel compounds vaccine resistance. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(19)30231-2].


Among high-income countries, the United States tops the list of those with the largest numbers of kids who have not received the measles vaccine. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, reports more than 2.5 million U.S. children went unvaccinated against the virus from 2010 to 2017. The high U.S. numbers are explained mostly by parental resistance to vaccines. In the U.S., children with personal belief exemptions are 35 times more likely to contract measles than properly vaccinated children. The more people who are unvaccinated the higher the risk that communicable disease outbreaks will occur and spread, with an additional risk for the disease morphing into a new strain that renders the existing vaccines or treatments less effective. For the most contagious diseases, vaccinating 92-95% of group members confers some protection on unvaccinated members. However, people often move from one “herd” to another. Unimmunized children are not always randomly distributed throughout a state nor are they always surrounded by vaccinated persons.


Infants typically receive their first measles vaccination after age one because antibodies from their mothers inhibit their response to the vaccine before then. When people do not get vaccinated they put at risk infants who are too young to begin getting their shots and those who, for medical reasons, are not vaccinated. They then also pose a risk to properly vaccinated persons whose immunity is compromised without their awareness of it. An analysis of numerous studies and reports finds that unvaccinated or undervaccinated individuals comprised substantial proportions of cases in measles and pertussis outbreaks, and vaccine refusal was associated with an elevated risk for measles and pertussis, including among fully vaccinated individuals, according to a study appearing in the March 15 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Measles silently wipes clean the immune system’s memory of past infections. The resulting “immune amnesia” leaves people vulnerable to other viruses and bacteria that cause pneumonia, ear infections and diarrhea for 2-3 years thereby facilitating the spread of other infectious diseases. The measles virus can linger on surfaces or remain in the air for up to two hours, and is more contagious than smallpox or the flu. An infected person can begin spreading the virus four days before getting the rash. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for states to discontinue nonmedical exemptions to immunizations.


Vaccines prevent two million to three million deaths globally each year. The Red Cross estimates that 315 children die each day from measles, one of the most infectious diseases known. A study by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) examined all 37,365 measles cases reported to the ECDC from 1 January 2013 through 31 December 2017. The researchers found 81% of all reported cases were patients who were not vaccinated. 9% were one year old and 10% younger than one year. Six in 1,000 measles patients who were one year old died and seven in 1000 of those under one year old died. A March 10, 2015 poll of the Initiative for Global Markets Economic Experts Panel reveals 95% agreement that “the social benefit of mandating measles vaccines for all Americans (except those with compelling medical reasons) would exceed the social cost” and unanimous agreement that “declining to be vaccinated against contagious diseases such as measles imposes costs on other people, which is a negative externality”.


According to the CDC, almost twice as many children are exempted from vaccination in Maryland for religious beliefs than for medical reasons. States have no legal obligation to grant vaccination exemptions because vaccination is a public safety issue. California, Maine, Mississippi, and West Virginia do not allow non-medical vaccination exemptions. Virginia allows non-medical exemptions only for HPV vaccines.


The Supreme Court’s long standing jurisprudence on the duty of the State to the children under its protection can sometimes place the interests of children over the free exercise of their parents. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. The Court's decision articulated the view that the freedom of the individual must sometimes be subordinated to the common welfare and is subject to the police power of the state. In Adams v. Milwaukee, 228 U.S. 572, 581-82 (1913), the Supreme Court reaffirmed Jacobson’s holding that states may delegate the power to order vaccinations to local municipalities for the enforcement of public health regulations. In Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174, 176 (1922), the Supreme Court held that vaccination laws do not discriminate against schoolchildren to the exclusion of others similarly situated, i.e., children not enrolled in school. In Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), the Supreme Court concluded that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death”. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that religious exemptions to mandatory vaccination violate equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because the exemptions “require the great body of school children to be vaccinated and at the same time expose them to the hazard of associating in school with children exempted under the religious exemption who had not been immunized as required by the statute.” Brown v. Stone, 378 So.2d 218, 223 (Miss. 1979).


Mandatory immunization qualifies as a "compelling state interest" that is "narrowly tailored" and uses the "least restrictive means" to achieve this purpose. McCarthy v. Boozman, 212 F. Supp. 2d 945, 948 (W.D. Ark. 2002) “The constitutional right to freely practice one’s religion does not provide an exemption for parents seeking to avoid compulsory immunization for their school-aged children.” Sherr v. Northport-East Northport Union Free Sch. Dist., 672 F. Supp. 81, 88 (E.D.N.Y. 1987) “[I]t has been settled law for many years that claims of religious freedom must give way in the face of the compelling interest of society in fighting the spread of contagious diseases through mandatory inoculation programs.” Davis v. State, 294 Md. 370, 379 n.8, 451 A.2d 107, 112 n.8 (Md. 1982) “Maryland’s compulsory immunization program clearly furthers the important governmental objective of eliminating and preventing certain communicable diseases.”


In 2014 there were many areas in California with very low vaccination rates. 70% of children were in counties with less than 95% vaccinated, 36% in counties with less than 90% vaccinated. Some schools had vaccination rates in the low teens. Students without vaccinations were admitted ”conditionally”, most frequently in poorer districts, or given a formal “personal belief exemption”. California eliminated the personal belief exemption and tightened the rules for conditionally admitting students in 2016. In 2016, 97% of children were in kindergartens with at least 95% of students vaccinated, 99.5% were in kindergartens with over 90% vaccinated. There was no overall change in school enrollment even in those schools that experienced the biggest increase in vaccinations. Vaccine rates increased from 92.8 percent in 2015 to 95.1 percent in 2017 following the bill’s passage, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. After a similar outbreak in Michigan, health officials there began requiring individuals to formally consult with their local health departments before opting out of otherwise-mandatory shots and as a result the vaccination rate went up. Although critics call these policies harsh, the outcome from a willful failure to vaccinate is harsher. The risk of brain damage by measles is 10,000 times greater than by vaccination.


One study [Filippo Trentini, Piero Poletti, Alessia Melegaro, Stefano Merler. The introduction of ‘No jab, No school’ policy and the refinement of measles immunisation strategies in high-income countries. BMC Medicine, 2019; 17 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12916-019-1318-5] concluded that the UK, Ireland and the US would strongly benefit from the introduction of compulsory vaccination at school entry in addition to current immunisation programmes. According to computer simulations, this strategy would allow to reach stable herd immunity levels in the next decades to avoid future outbreaks.


Nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residential treatment centers in Maryland must respect a patient's wishes to refuse influenza or pneumococcal vaccination. These illnesses can be fatal to the elderly. Accordingly, such institutions should be granted legal authority to administer these vaccinations without first obtaining the consent of the patient.


If we are going to continue to allow non-medical vaccination exemptions then the laws and regulations in Maryland should at least make it more difficult to obtain an exemption. Four other states have passed laws requiring parents to listen to or watch medically accurate information about vaccines before being granted a belief exemption from immunizations for their children. A study by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus titled “Impact of Non-Medical Vaccine Exemption Policies on the Health and Economic Burden of Measles” published in Academic Pediatrics, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.acap.2017.03.001, concluded that states with weaker non-medical exemption policies for vaccinations can reduce the likelihood of a measles outbreak 140 to 190 percent by strengthening them.


Currently, Maryland requires that a parent provide a health history of their child and sign a statement indicating that to the best of the parent's knowledge and belief, their child is in satisfactory health and free from any communicable disease. Maryland could also require a notarized letter elaborating on the reason behind the exemption request, require a signature on a document explaining the public safety risks that can only be obtained from the state health department (not from the Internet), mandate in-person counseling and viewing of a film, require that parents acknowledge their responsibility for keeping their children away from school during outbreaks, require annual renewals of all vaccination exemptions, and impose meaningful penalties on anyone who violates these requirements.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Understanding unbelief study comments

By Mathew Goldstein

Based at Kent University, this research survey across six national settings, Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, UK and the USA, started in 2017 and officially ends this year. It is funded with 3 million dollars from the Templeton Foundation. They recently presented their newly published initial report at a Vatican sponsored conference at Rome’s Gregorian University

The Templeton Foundation and Vatican are active advocates for belief. It is reasonable to assume that at least one of their interests in funding and endorsing research of unbelief is to try to learn how they can more effectively counter unbelief. The term unbelief itself hints at the notion that it is the contrary, rather than merely the negation, of belief as in unbend, undo, unfold, etc. It is for this reason that people who start with belief as the normative position prefer the word unbelief over non-belief. So there are a number of reasons to be suspicious that there is an underlying agenda at work that is biased against the perspectives that they are studying. 

With those caveats, the initial 24 page report titled Atheists and agnostics around the world: Interim findings from 2019 research in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States is groundbreaking and you may find it interesting. Their eight “key findings” are described on page 3. These survey results can be useful for dispelling common negative stereotyping. In the U.S., a substantial minority of agnostics and atheists preferred to label themselves as such, non-religious was the favorite alternative, few choose Humanist as their preferred label (this was a choose one among many vote which is too restrictive, allowing participants to vote for all self-labeling that they approve would have been better), 35% of atheists and 10% of agnostics also qualified as philosophical naturalists. I tend to associate atheism with philosophical naturalism, but my view is atypical. 70% of agnostics/atheists versus 33% of people overall recognize that the scientific method is the only reliable method to knowledge. There were a few substantial differences between people from different countries. Many Chinese who qualified as agnostics nevertheless labeled themselves atheists and philosophical naturalism was rare (<10%) among Chinese atheists. This may partially reflect the influence of supernatural religious beliefs without powerful deities. The survey tried to account for this by defining god as “Buddha, Allah, God, or Spiritual phenomena.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The straw man named “scientism”



By Mathew Goldstein

Aaron Neil is employed by Cardus, a self-described “faith-based” think tank. He is the author of an article in Quillette Against Scientism—A Rejoinder to Bo and Ben Winegard. Mr. Neil starts off by defining “scientism” negatively as “the application of scientific methods to non-scientific subjects” in contrast to the Winegards’ definition of scientism as “the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry”. Mr. Neil then proceeds to do what almost all critics of what they label to be “scientism” do: Changing the topic without engaging or disputing the arguments made by the Winegards.

The Winegards’ argued in their article In Defense of Scientism that we should make an honest effort to rely on empirical evidence, as best we can, for decision making regarding how the universe works and for identifying the best and most effective social policies. Mr. Neil begins his counter-argument by replacing the Winegard’s phrase “all modes of empirical inquiry” with “scientific pursuits”. Mr. Neil then rejects his own false misrepresentation of the Winegards’ definition of scientism on the grounds that it is self-evidently true and thus meaningless. Mr. Neil thus avoids addressing the Winegards’ actual argument by substantially revising it.

Empirical inquiry, unlike professional scientific pursuits, is a pervasive activity. Everyone performs empirical inquiry hundreds, if not many thousands, of times a day without engaging in any professional scientific pursuits. By denying the usefulness of empirical evidence outside of professional scientific pursuits Mr. Neil frees us from the constraint of allowing evidence to dictate our conclusions, which is a bad place to begin what should be a rational argument. Mr. Neil accomplishes all of this by unilaterally and falsely restricting the applicable of empirical methods to professional scientific activities without providing a justification, beginning his argument by declaring the conclusion he claims to be defending. This is a substantial mistake that taints and undermines much of the rest of his argument from the start.

Another mistake that Mr. Neil makes, which is a pervasive mistake among critics of so-called “scientism”, is not acknowledging that the Winegards’ argument regarding trying to find truth is limited to “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” contexts. Instead,  Mr. Neil devotes the many hundreds of words in his article attacking the application of empirical methods to contexts where the Winegards’, and the other people he names as being advocates of scientism, do not advocate applying them while simultaneously trying to deny the applicability of empirical methods in contexts where it is needed by relabeling those contexts “metaphysics”.  

Mr. Neil is blowing smoke that obscures and confuses the topic by changing the context to an ambiguous “metaphysical” realm. If the metaphysical realm never determines “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” then it is irrelevant since the Winegards’ stated that this is the context where their argument applies. On the other hand, if the metaphysical realm does have some (hidden?) role in determining “how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are” then Mr. Neil still needs to show how we can better make such physical world decisions without relying on the empirical methods that connect our decisions to the physical universe. He shows nothing of the sort. Should we make our decisions based on falsehoods, the dictates of an authoritarian ruler, the alignment of the planets with the constellations in the sky, tossing dice, a metaphysical Zeus? He does not say. His argument fails because it does not even start to succeed. The entire article strikes out by not meaningfully addressing the argument it claims to be refuting.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Why panpsychism is likely false

By Mathew Goldstein

Philosophers David Chalmers, Galen Strawson, and Philip Goff, among others, have defended versions of panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is a basic property of our universe, like forces and matter (bosons and fermions). Some scientists, including Adam Frank, a Professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, and Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, have aligned themselves with these philosophers. They are the sophisticated authors of this recent article in Aeon magazine The Blind Spot who, along with the third author philosopher Evan Thompson, work at The Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth which is an “Aeon partner” that “receives generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation.” The John Templeton Foundation gives out millions of dollars each year and one of their priorities is funding, and thereby promoting, arguments for theism by professors within otherwise secular academic institutions. Panpsychism is not theism, but it can be construed as being consistent with theism in the sense of god being the conscious foundational precursor and basis for everything else.

We can logically derive mechanical action, such as walking and talking, and memory storage and retrieval, from the activity of neurons based on energy and matter alone. Panpsychism deems energy and matter alone to be insufficient to explain the self-perceptions of color, of sound, etc., the feelings of hunger, pain, etc., and the ability to be consciously self-aware. We not only have no explanation for our ability to experience our own perceptions, feelings, and self identity, we also currently have no clear ideas how it could be possible to have experiences like these. Therefore, advocates for panpsychism conclude consciousness needs to be added to the lowest level description of our universe as another of its most basic components.

But is it really true that consciousness is impossible within the constraints imposed by the existing core theories of physics? There are many examples where emergence has more tricks up its sleeves than our simple and limited imaginations allow for. There are multiple theories/languages/vocabularies/ontologies that we appropriately use to describe the world at different levels of coarse-graining and precision. We now have explanations for phenomena that not only were previously unexplained, but that we also previously lacked even an ability to attempt to explain within the constraints of the information we previously had to work with.

For example thermodynamics (fluids, energy, pressure, entropy) resides at a higher level relative to the lower level kinetic theory (collections of atoms and molecules with individual positions and momenta). There are two ways of communicating how our universe functions here, each entirely valid within a domain of applicability, with the domain of one theory (thermodynamics) living strictly inside the domain of the other (kinetic theory). Crucially, the emergent higher-level theory exhibits features that are absent from the lower-level theory. Thermodynamics has an arrow of time defined by the Second Law (entropy increases in isolated systems), whereas the microscopic rules of the lower-level theory are completely time-symmetric. Directional time appears as an emergent macro level property of our universe that (to the best of our current knowledge) has no presence at the lower micro level. There is no doubt that our future understandings of how the universe functions will continue to transcend our past imaginations of what is possible.

Meanwhile, while our limited imagination fails us, while there is still no path to explaining what we observe from our current state of knowledge, it can be tempting to assign a property from a higher level description of our universe to the lowest level, basic building blocks description of our universe. This approach intuitively appears to provide us a sensible and reasonable path to explain the sudden appearance of an otherwise unexplained emergent macro level property. But human history does not support this intuitive approach for determining how the universe operates to be useful. We should not take such shortcuts to try to bypass the need for anchoring our conclusions in empirical evidence. 

We have no empirical evidence for the presence of consciousness anywhere outside the context of biology, let alone at the lowest level description of how our universe functions. Higher level phenomena often exhibit new features not found at the lower level from which they emerge and sometimes these new features are unexpected and difficult for us to account for. Accordingly, the best fit with the available empirical evidence is that consciousness and related phenomena are still mysterious macro levels emergent properties from within biological contexts. Therefore this conclusion is more likely to be true than Templeton Foundation promoted speculations like panpsychism.

We may continue to encounter formidable obstacles to solving this particular mystery. We do not know when we will obtain an answer. There are no guarantees that we can solve all such mysteries, including this one. An expectation that we can, and will, fully understand all phenomena of our universe, even given much more time, is itself not well justified. We lack full access to all information. Humanity is arguably like a blind person trying to describe an elephant by examining only its front side. Nevertheless, we have been remarkable successful and the slow, arduous, imperfect, and error prone effort required to obtain and follow the empirical evidence is by far more productive than idle speculations that bypass this process The Templeton Foundation money is not being well spent.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The unanswered mystery for why there is something

By Mathew Goldstein

The article Bad Theology, Bad Atheism is a recent effort by Nicholas Frankovich, the deputy managing editor of National Review to defend theism. For him, God is the answer to “the mystery that there is anything at all rather than nothing.” From this starting point he argues for Apophatic theology “which is the idea that the best we can do is specify what is not true of God.“

He acknowledges that the case against “the God of faith” is usually clear. He then dismisses that focus as reflecting “the decline of sound popular theology.” But when in the past was popular theology more sound than it is today? Knowledge about how the universe operates has increased. Popular theology may be slow to keep pace. But Mr. Frankovich offers no evidence that it has recently declined. The persistently poor quality of popular theology is a problem for advocates of theism that they tend to downplay and avoid confronting.

He complains that atheists are missing the point because, unlike theologians, they are not grappling with “the God of the philosophers”. Yet Mr. Frankovich tells us of “the inescapable truth that God and evil are simultaneously real.” So who is guilty of leaping to conclusions here? Theology is often poor quality philosophy because it tends to avoid anchoring its conclusions about how the universe operates in a best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Theists who compare street theology with academic theology as if the latter is so much more compelling are mistaken, the latter is pervasively substantially flawed and anything but compelling.

The notion of absolute nothing is a generalization from our experience of less versus more. We should be careful about reaching conclusions regarding how the universe operates intuitively by generalizing that way. We experience slow versus fast, small versus large, but there is no such thing as absolute fastness, absolute smallness, or absolute largeness. Absolute nothingness is not a concept that has been demonstrated to be real by physics and therefore it is a concept that merits skepticism, like absolute somethingness.

In the world of our everyday experience there is an arrow of time which enables us to safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” However, the arrow of time reflects a property of our universe originating with the Big Bang. The universe considered as all of reality (including the possibility of a multiverse) may not operate by the rule of cause and effect. When discussing the universe as a whole, the question “Why did this happen?” is at best premature. If there is an answer then we will have to wait for it, we are incapable of guessing the correct answer. The more meaningful question is “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” The answer to that question in the context of the universe existing is yes. The demand for something more right now — a reason why the universe exists at all — is misdirected.

Some theists like to assert that God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. However, nothing a-priori exists necessarily and a god in particular plausibly does not exist. There is no known need for a god to explain how the universe operates. There is only one approach for reliably determining what exists that has a track record of success: Best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Positing more than is empirically evidenced to exist is much more likely to get us to fiction than non-fiction. Philosophy alone cannot identify what exists. With or without a god, there are features of reality that have no explanation beyond “that’s just the way it is.” That is, after all, what Apophetic theology itself resorts to asserting.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Catholic university teaches humanist ethics

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Innes Mitchell has taught at Saint Edward’s University in Texas for twenty years. The university describes itself this way: “St. Edward’s expresses its Catholic identity by communicating the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God.” The Catholic Church is not what I would call a font of intellectualism. It promotes and endorses beliefs that are not grounded in best fit with the available evidence, such as the claim that everyone is descended from a single “Adam and Eve” pair. The story of Jesus is rooted in that first couple tainting humanity with a sin, so that claim is difficult for Christianity (in general, across denominations) to discard. Quoting Pius XII’s “Humani Generis” 1950 encyclical: “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that … Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which … the documents of the teaching authority of the church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam.”

It is most likely that the evolution of humanity was complicated and messy, it was a many generation, many century, many locations, gradual process. Trying to fit that into an Adam and Eve scenario sounds more like sophistry than reason. Some Catholics in particular cite Thomas Aquinas for his philosophical, sometimes non—literalist approach, but they conveniently overlook that he believed in a literal seven day = 168 hours creation, a literal Adam, and a literal Eve. Christianity is big and diverse, and at St. Edward University we find a positive example of a deeper commitment to the students and society from within a Catholic institution.

Professor Mitchell teaches a course Perspectives of Atheism. This is not a course where students are introduced to arguments for why we should be atheists. Instead, A.C. Greyling’s book “Meditations from the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age” is assigned to the students. Given the tendency for too many religions to negatively promote fear of atheism (for example, the Vatican equates atheism with Hell) instead of positively promoting understanding, it is noteworthy that every now and then some institutions with religious affiliations are better than that. We should not underestimate how significant and positive it is that we sometimes have a willingness like this to reach across differences of belief. To be flexible this way can also be good for religiously affiliated institutions that want to attract and retain religion skeptical and non-believing current and future customers.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The historical monument defense

By Mathew Goldstein

It appears that Justice Breyer may want to avoid a decision that the Bladensburg Cross violates the EC. Maybe he thinks that voters will retaliate and vote Republican in future elections. At the same time it appears that he does not want government favoring Christianity over other religions. This could explain why he argued as follows: “What about saying past is past ... but no more?” On the one hand “we’re not going to have people trying to tear down historical monuments,” but on the hand “we are a different country now” that is more pluralistic. The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act established the World War I Centennial Commission, which was given the authority to build a memorial in Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., so it’s not as if absent this particular memorial there would be no WWI memorial in this area. Nor would the expense of maintaining this old memorial likely be much different from the expense of replacing it given it’s decrepit condition.

Justice Sotomayer, to her credit, pointed out that there are few government sponsored large crosses across the nation. “We don’t have a long tradition of that. It’s sectarian.” she said. But the current Supreme Court majority was nominated by Republican presidents. And the Republican party has been ambivalent at best, antagonistic at worst, towards non-establishment of religion for as long as anyone alive today has lived. Non-establishment of religion entails refraining from citing Jesus or a God in the laws and government documents. For people who live and breath Jesus, or a God, non-establishment of their religion can easily be misperceived as being threatening or destructive.


Existing precedent favors a ruling against the Bladensburg Cross. Although the Supreme Court has allowed unequivocally sectarian Ten Commandment displays, with some assistance from Justice Breyer’s search for excuses to allow sectarian displays while denying that the concessions further weaken the already diminished EC, it has been less accommodating of crosses. This distinction between the Ten Commandments and crosses makes little sense, they are both sectarian. Allowing government sponsored Ten Commandment displays is a mistake. Mistake by mistake, the unpopular EC is being eroded by the Supreme Court.


At the same time it is necessary to consider the overall context of the displays as Justice Breyer advocates. So, for example, the frieze on the Supreme Court building that depicts multiple “historical” figures from different times, places, and religions, is about the history of the development of laws and therefore the depictions of Hammurabi, Moses, Muhammad, etc. is not an establishment of religion. There is no Babylonian or Jewish or Islamic religious iconography or any depictions of past law makers from different times and places accompanying the Bladensburg Cross. There was no proper reason for the Supreme Court to take this case.


Maybe we will get a positive ruling in this case. I hope so. The introduction of the EC was one of the big advances in human government. China has an establishment of atheism which is consistent with its authoritarianism. Non-establishment of religion is a democratic limitation on government power. It is tragic to witness the EC being attacked and weakened in its country of origin. This is a symptom of the reality that the future of democratic government has not been secured.


Yet there has been some recent progress in reducing establishments of religion in some European countries. It is encouraging to witness people pursuing this lawsuit and advocating for the EC. Our world can be a better place and the EC has a role in making it so.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Bladensburg Cross case by the American Humanist Association

The American Humanist Association argued a case in front of the Supreme Court on Feb. 26 about the Bladensburg Cross.  
A demonstration was  held in front of the Supreme Court building. Watch the video of the speakers here, and WASH president Samantha McGuire speaks at 24:00.  The case was based on the idea that the war memorial that is a cross doesn't represent non-Christian soldiers.  The cross is large and imposing, it is located on land owned by the State of Maryland, and it doesn't have any obvious or easily seen reference to a war, but rather it just looks like a big cross.

I'd like to add another argument that is actually a defense of Christians.  The cross is a symbol of the Christian religion, recognized by both Christians and non-Christians.  The argument that a cross can be a secular or historical monument, rather than a symbol of a religion, is a ridiculous, absurd statement.  I don't understand why Christians will sit by silently and allow this argument to be made into legal precedents.  It is an outrageous insult to Christianity to claim that their symbol is nothing more than a secular marker.

Naturally, non-Christians like Jews, Muslims, and Humanists have more to object to in this memorial than Christians do.  It simply doesn't represent non-Christian veterans as a war memorial.  Memorials to veterans who sacrificed to fight a war for the country are close to the most honored public art, as a tribute to their patriotism and personal sacrifice for the good of the country.  But the United States is based on the idea of cooperation between people of all national backgrounds and faiths, and memorials shouldn't be based on a symbol of only one religion.

The principal is greater than just one memorial.  The principal is whether the use of a religious symbol can be justified as a secular or historical marker that is independent of the religion.  Why are Christians silently sitting by when the symbol of their religion is being stolen from them and debased?  Sometimes politicians want use religion to indicate their personal piety, while at the same time they argue that legally the religious symbol is not really religious.  It is hypocritical by politicians who are not doing their job of defending the Constitution, and it is an outrageous way of coopting the religious symbol.  For example, Justice Scalia said in Supreme Court oral arguments, 
“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead,” he said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.” 
I would respond that his is the outrageous conclusion.  Justice Sotomayor said in the oral arguments to the Bladensburg Cross case
"There is a brief here that says that, to deeply religious Christians, secularizing the cross is blasphemy. Christ died on the cross. He was resurrected from his grave. So those people don't view secularizing the cross as something -- it's not just Jewish people or Hindu people who might be offended.  It could be Christians as well."
The Christian cross is simply not a secular symbol that can be separated from its religious significance.  Any politician or Supreme Court justice who argues that it is should be ashamed of themselves.  If atheists must be the ones to stand up and make this defense of the Christian cross for the benefit of Christians, then bring it on! 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

End of Life Options Act is better this year

By Mathew Goldstein

This year’s End of Life Options Act bill is a significant improvement over the bill offered two years ago. The procedure for the patient and the doctors are mostly the same as before. The difference is that various omissions in the original bill have been corrected so that we now have a comprehensive law that covers most of the forseeable issues and complications, such as dispensing with unused medication, recording and reporting the implementation of the law, the insurance impact, and health care facility opt-out details. It is apparent when reading the bill that considerable effort was made to protect the interests of all involved. The End of Life Options Act provides a procedure for people who have been diagnosed to probably die within six months from a fatal illness to hasten their deaths by overdosing on barbiturates. If you agree then visit the Secular Coalition for Maryland lobby page to send an email to the committees considering this bill, and the Death with Dignity Maryland action page to send emails to your state lawmakers, requesting that they approve it.

There are a few weaknesses with the current bill. One flaw is that the provision for dispensing with unused medicine is somewhat vague, I think it can be strengthened. However, the problem of properly dispensing with unused medicine transcends this particular bill and may need a separate bill to address fully.

There is an imbalance in how this bill protects institutional level freedom of conscience. This imbalance is not unique to this bill, it is also found elsewhere in existing Maryland law. There is a right of conscience at the individual level that is overridden by the institutional right of conscience provision. Freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to institutions opposed to a legal medical procedure. Accordingly, when non-public institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate employee refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it follows that non-public institutions that support those same medical procedures should likewise be permitted to mandate employee agreement to provide them. The latter provision is missing from this bill. An institutional level right of non-refusal is also missing from HEALTH-GEN. § 20-214. That law grants health care providers in Maryland a conscience right of refusal to provide all of their customers with "artificial insemination, sterilization, or termination of pregnancy".

Although Maryland has few publicly controlled health care provider institutions, it would be better if refusal conscience law that apply to employment policies of entire institutions explicitly excludes publicly controlled institutions. There should be a legal requirement that all institutional wide right of refusal and right of non-refusal policies be publicized so that patients can easily identify which health providers have such policies. The public has a need to know what health care services will or will not be provided by particular health care providers whenever the law renders the provision of those services optional.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Some thoughts on Modern Philanthropy & Humanist Values in a Winners Take All World


by Gary Berg-Cross (WASH Board Member)
The super wealthy are meeting in Davos again and as one context Oxfam notes that the wealth gap widening. This is not a new topic for Oxfam but this year they observe that around the world wealth inequality is what they call "out of control." They observe that it is doing particular harm to women and provide a report with these stats:
billionaire fortunes increased by 12 percent last year—the equivalent of $2.5 billion a day—while the 3.8 billion people who make up the world's poorest half saw their wealth decline by 11 percent. “
So while we live in what seems a productive time all around us there is also failure (like students learning less), along with but expensive new things like American medicine and its drugs that more people are being shut out from. Sure there has been a tremendous amount of innovation over the last 40 years but still there are stats that show that half of Americans, the bottom half of Americans, 117 million Americans, literally have no more money in their weekly paycheck after this 40 years of innovation. Why?
It doesn seem to be an innovation shortage. Heard about the latest AI renovation? What we have may be a progress shortage. Meaning that in this wealthy era the wealth is not trickling down in a progressive fashion to help the common need.
As Oxfam's report suggests the poorest half of the global population is actually seeing its net worth dwindle so it is also a gap era like the 1920s & the Gilded Age. It's an argument that economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, makes and explains why is simple terms. It's about the growing inherited wealth via return on investment.

The ratio of wealth to income is rising in all developed countries and absent extraordinary interventions, we should expect that trend to continue. But if it continues, the future will look like the 19th century, where economic elites have predominantly inherited their wealth rather than working for it. Since this wealth does not rely on work, or work's values it may not even care about the quality of life of those who do the work. And that is a problem.
This point is also made by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Both warn of the socio-economic impacts of a widening gap. Among those problems are changes in the lives of working-class Americans, rooted in policy choices and shifts in technology as well as the world situation. Shifts include outsourcing to poor parts of the world without union protection, stagnant wages, erratic hours, defanged unions, deindustrialization, ballooning debt, nonexistent sick leave, dismal schools, predatory lending, and dynamic scheduling. All problems.

But wait. There is mitigating charity and philanthropy. Can the super-rich and their companies may save us through enlightened charity? Take Microsoft for example. Microsoft has unveiled plans to commit $500 million to advance affordable housing solutions across the city of SeattleWashington. The money, to be distributed as loans and grants, will kick-start new solutions to the city’s housing crisis, where income increases have lagged behind rising housing costs for professions like teachers. Good.
But is it good enough and the right stuff?
Some think not. Philanthropy of the super-rich may not be an inadequate substitute for a fairer world – it may actually be intentionally and unintentionally part of the system that perpetuates the gross unfairness of mass inequality. That is the argument made in Anand Giridharadas “Winners take all.” He argues that you can inspire the rich to do more good but never tell them to do less harm (such as moderating the wealth gap by imposing inheritance taxes). And he goes to argue that you can inspire the super-rich to give back in a personal charity say, but not to take less by such things as providing a living wage or keeping jobs in the US.
And you can inspire them to join a benign, light solution, but never accuse them of being part of the problem (how come you let foreign sources run free on your web site?)
As Stiglitz insists we need to ask more of the wealthy and have them understand the larger non-economic picture. A humanist picture if you will.
It starts with us all understanding that inequality is not just the result of bottom line economic forces. It is soceo-political and always has been. With current Citizens United type rulings and policies that give wealth political influence we are stuck with the problem. It isn’t inevitable that return on large capital will also be greater than overall economic growth. It is targeted political policies, processes and laws themselves currently make this so. And these policies are affected by the historical level and nature of built in status, political and economic inequality. Greater inequality entrenches greater power in the wealthy, who will reflexively use that greater power to double-down on policies (low capital-gains rates, low inheritance taxes, low barriers to campaign finance itself) that ensure greater inequality, and so on, in a vicious cycle.

So sure, economic charity may patch things up here and there, but in a wider view only an enlightened politics can correct for the depredations that the super-rich's gobbling wealth growth promises.

As a Humanist these problems trouble me. And these things are part of a rationally compassionate future that we envision (as discussed in a September – Is this a Humanist Century). They are important for all Free Thinkers to consider. Humanists need to concentrate on improving the things of this world rather than simply combating the illusions of supernaturalism. As secular humanists we may applaud some charitable efforts, but question them from a deeper look at a deeper constellation or system based on humanist values and principles. These including promoting fairness, truth and justice.
Who can we partner with us and how can be shape philanthropy to take on some of these issues we value like the separation of church and state? This would include the continued problem of the massing of wealth and power by religious and ethically religious groups.
We can also ask, “Does a notable amount of philanthropy support value free inquiry & truth, as a norm?” or
Does a notable amount of philanthropy support ethics based on critical intelligence and critical thinking to establish truth?”
And what about supporting a moral education, that the value of a person is not entirely based on their group identify?
These and other issues such as how hard a sell is it to promote action that will mitigate likely problems and advance the common good will be discussed at the January 26th meeting of the WASH Maryland-DC chapter at the Maryland Chevy Chase library (1:30 -3:30).
All are welcome.