Sunday, August 14, 2022

Chautauqua Institution failed to properly protect Rushdie

 By Mathew Goldstein

Salman Rushdie is the author of 14 novels, four works of nonfiction and a collection of short stories, and is a co-editor of two anthologies. He and his books have received many awards and prizes. One of his books, Midnight’s Children, is the only book to have been awarded the Best of the Booker designation, which it was given twice. Mr. Rushdie is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. A former president of PEN American Center, Rushdie has been a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature since 1983.

As widely reported, he is now recovering in a hospital from a recent attempt to murder him with knife stabs that was witnessed by an audience attending a live interview of the author at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. He was seriously and permanently injured and remains in critical condition. The Chautauqua Lecture Series event was ironically exploring the Week Seven theme of “More than Shelter”. 

Rushdie served as founding president in 1994 of the International Parliament of Writers, which became the International Network of Cities of Asylum, also known as the Cities of Asylum Network, an international organization formed by International Parliament of Writers in 1993 to support persecuted writers. The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) is a successor organization formed in 2005. Rushdie was to be interviewed by Henry Reese, co-founder of the Pittsburgh City of Asylum — one of the largest residency program in the world for writers living in exile under threat of persecution - founded in 2004. There are additional ICORN non-profit organizations in Ithaca, Detroit, and Seattle. One way to support Rushdie is to donate to these ICORN non-profits, see

It is inexcusable and appalling that the Chautauqua Institution did not require the 2,500 attendees of the Rushdie interview to pass through a metal detector. The February 14, 1989 religious fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then Supreme Leader of Iran, ordering that Salman Rushdie, and all publishers of his book “Satanic Versus”, be murdered remains in effect. There is a bounty placed on his head that has repeatedly been increased, it is currently set at $4 million. It was only six years ago, on Feb 22, 2016, that Iranian state-run media outlets added $600,000 to the bounty for killing Salman Rushdie. In 2019, theocratic Iran's current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told his followers that the ruling against Rushdie was "solid and irrevocable," in a tweet that led to the suspending of his account, which was then quickly replaced with a new account. Four months ago an Iranian news outlet, Iran Online, published an article praising the fatwa. Yet all recommendations from a Chautauqua Institution security committee in recent years—about adding metal detectors, banning bags, increasing the number of security guards, and holding risk training—were reportedly rejected by the leadership. While all such security measures may be unnecessary for most of the lecture series, that simply cannot plausibly be claimed to be the case when someone like Salman Rushdie is brought to the stage.

“Why can’t we debate Islam?” Rushdie said in a 2015 interview. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical about their ideas, even criticizing them ferociously.” How we answer that question is ultimately what this is all about. We either allow such debate or forbid it. To allow the debate entails acknowledging the fact that enabling such debate sometimes requires proactively protecting the lives of critics of Islam, particularly when state backed fatwas and bounties are issued to incite religious believers to murder such critics. Iranian media, including the state run Fars News, hailed the attack. Fars News published a warning that the attack signals “all those like him … that they will not survive their hideous act and death shall follow them wherever they are”. Fars News Agency also published an interview with a theology professor at Tehran's Shahed University claiming that the killing of Salman Rushdie would not be terrorism but a completely legal execution of an apostate. Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, he never lived in Iran. His book Satanic Verses was translated into many languages, including Farsi. The verses of his book’s title praise three pagan Meccan goddesses: al-Lāt, al-'Uzzá, and Manāt and can be found in early prophetic biographies of Muhammad by al-Wāqidī, Ibn Sa'd and the tafsir of al-Tabarī.

To be clear, that some left-wing intellectuals discredit essentially any substantive criticism of Islam, including its sometimes oppressive tendencies, as "Islamophobic" is disturbing. The unbalanced notion that criticism of that religion is to be considered bigoted by default is intrinsically anti-intellectual, right wing, and regressive.That is what happened when some 200 PEN authors distanced themselves from a human rights prize awarded to Paris' satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo." Big names were among the opponents of that award, including Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole. When authors respond like that, says Rushdie, they betray those who are fighting for their freedom, who are suffering, or - in the case of "Charlie Hebdo" - being murdered. If the award followed a murderous attack by Christians responding to that magazine’s satire targeting Christianity would those same people have criticized that award? I genuinely do not think so. That same magazine had lampooned the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Trinity (depicting group sex among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), targeted the Catholic Church, etc., and no one attacked employees with violence in response. Instead they reacted against the magazine civilly with lawsuits. That magazine is cruder and harsher than the more erudite Rushdie, but for religious fanatics that difference is of little consequence.

Religions make how-the-world-functions fact claims. Such claims require a best fit with the available evidence justification to properly warrant the matching beliefs, including the belief that the world functions outside of the material, mechanical, physical constraints of the competing ontological naturalism belief. There are no proper grounds for a wholesale exempting of such beliefs from critical and skeptical questioning because they are deemed to be religious. Such demands for such an exemption for any religion are special pleading. Beliefs are not humans. Humans can be insulted, beliefs about how the universe functions cannot be insulted. Disagreement regarding whether there is, or ever was, a supernatural soul and origin of life, a trinity, an angel Gabriel, a tabernacle where a god resides, etc., are not offensive. Salman Rushdie is an atheist. So am I. He considers the origin story behind Islam as a divinely inspired religion to be fictional. So do I. He considers himself entitled to write a novel incorporating that perspective. He is so entitled. I cannot be true to myself and say otherwise.

Let’s at least have the courage to openly side with the peaceful victims of unilateral criminal violence instead of blaming the non-violent victims for merely being provocative with words or drawings regarding public affairs. For The New York Review in 1989 Salman Rushdie said: “One may not discuss Muhammad as if he were human, with human virtues and weaknesses. One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time. These are the taboos against which The Satanic Verses has transgressed.” Insofar as religions impact public affairs, and clearly they do, religions are legitimate and necessary targets of criticism. This certainly includes Islam given that many governments self-claim to base their laws on the Quran and many Muslims claim that their religious beliefs are relevant for public policy, including public policy regarding public expressions of competing beliefs. The United Nations, to its credit, passed a reasonable anti-blasphemy provision in 2011 stating that “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].” 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Theism provides no how the universe functions answers

 By Mathew Goldstein

The following argument directed against atheism (“they” refers to atheists) appears in commentary recently published by the Daily News of Galveston Texas titled Atheists Can’t Answer Deepest Question With Science: “The problem they have is the following. Even perfected scientific reasoning fails to deliver a complete understanding of the most important features in our lives. Love, for instance. “ This is a common argument and I think it merits a response.

There is a tendency of religious believers to mis-sequence the steps for how we go about determining what is true about how the universe works The correct starting point is to evaluate logically what the universe itself empirically tells us about how it works. This method entails several constraints. It places limits not only on what we know, but also on what we can know. It is a method that tells us that since evidence is not always immediately and freely available therefore neither is knowledge. Instead it can be time consuming and costly to obtain. It tells us that knowledge is provisional, not absolute and permanently fixed. Our current state of knowledge sometimes can change based on new evidence or new logic derived understandings of what the available evidence implies. Over time our collective accumulation of knowledge increases.

As exemplified by the aforementioned commentary, religious believers sometime defend religious belief by arguing against the limits placed on knowledge due to the aforementioned practical epistemological constraints. They prefer to start instead with conclusions about how the universe should work to justify morality and on that basis conclude that the universe actually works that way. Or they start with whatever questions they prefer to answer and conclude the universe actually works the way that religious traditions, old books, and current day religious clerics claim provides the answers to those questions.

By that standard science appears to fall short. Science supposedly “says nothing about love, one of the most important features of our lives”. Science supposedly “doesn’t tell us the source of reasoning”. We do not yet know in detail exactly how life originated. Yet when we take empirical evidence seriously and try to stay informed about modern, empirically derived, knowledge, we find that it actually can, and does, tell us something about our experience of love, about our reasoning, about the origin of life, etc., in the form of biochemical correlates. Empirical evidence tells us that one of the underlying sources of biological structures, activities, and outcomes, including love and reasoning, is evolution by natural selection acting within biochemistry. The origin of life is also to be found in chemistry. Chemistry in turn operates within physics (it is not necessarily the case that there is always a single, monolithic, source). Whether this explanation qualifies as a “full understanding” in some ultimate sense is a philosophical question and is not as essential as some religious believers appear to claim. We are not all present and all knowing, no one is, so instant and absolute knowledge is impractical. It is unnecessary, unreasonable, and counter-productive to elevate the immediate current possession of absolute and complete knowledge, an impossibility, into something close to a requirement.

The problem here for religious beliefs is that on closer inspection religious beliefs actually provide us with *nothing* that qualifies as reliable knowledge about how the universe functions. This is true even with the more limited religious beliefs that attempt to confine themselves to filling in the gaps in our knowledge and on that basis self-claim to be compatible and consistent with science. For atheists who conclude that modern knowledge favors ontological naturalism over ontological supernaturalism, relying on the latter to fill in the knowledge gaps is already a counter-evidenced mistake, but even non-atheists can recognize the lack of evidence needed to properly justify doing that. Religion provides believers with an illusory feeling of providing instant, complete, absolute, total, comprehensive, and final answers in place of the substance of providing answers.

Religious believers who argue against the restrictions and limitations of adopting a disciplined epistemology do not recognize that their less disciplined method of determining what is true about how the universe works is so unconstrained and arbitrary that it could be utilized to simultaneously reach many different and mutually exclusive conclusions about how the universe works. Their undisciplined epistemology is too promiscuous to reliably get us to conclusions that are not fictions. This is a substantial problem, a bigger problem than some religious believers appear to be willing to acknowledge. It is a bigger problem than the problem of facing up to the reality, however uncomfortable this reality may be, that our knowledge about how the universe functions is, and probably always will be, provisional, non-absolute and incomplete, and is sometimes unavoidable slow, time consuming, and costly to obtain.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Biological sex and gender disparities

 By Mathew Goldstein

My understanding is as follows: A female, a.k.a. a biological women, produces the larger and less mobile gamates. A male, a.k.a. a biological man, produces the smaller and more mobile gametes. Biological sex can usually be determined genetically. An analysis of chromosomes predicts which type of gamate a person produces close to, yet maybe slightly less than, 100% of the time.

People who are trans women are often, but not always, producers of male gamates, and vice versa for trans men. This renders them distinct from women who produce female gamates and men who produce male gamates. The production of gamates varies over time, but such chronological, age based, variations do not change the fact that most (but not all) trans people produce (or have produced, or will produce, or have the biological machinery to produce) the gamate type that defines their biological sex to be, at least partially, different from their self-identified gender. 

People, including trans people, usually experience puberty with either a male or a female hormone profile. Those two profiles are usually identifiably distinct. These two different puberty hormone profiles usually result in two identifiably distinct sets of physical changes which tend to be long lasting absent medical or surgical intervention.

There are relevant questions that appear to currently be difficult to properly answer without more information. To what extent, and how quickly or slowly, do the physical changes of puberty dissipate or reverse when trans people are subsequently given hormone treatments to match their preferred gender when their gender identity conflicts with their puberty? Do trans people given hormone treatments before or during puberty fare better or worse overall than those given hormone treatments after puberty? Are minors sufficiently knowledgeable and independent to opt to medically or surgically alter themselves without a substantial risk they will subsequently regret their decision? To what extent is the participation of trans women in various athletic activities that are restricted to women (because men have a substantial performance advantage) undermining the opportunity for non trans biological women to win those athletic competitions?

We can then proceed with identifying the negative facts that are antithetical to human flourishing, and what we can and should do to promote human welfare by countering those negative facts. So, for example, if the available evidence favors the conclusion that people who identify as trans gender benefit from being socially accepted with the gender they identify themselves as, then we should do that. If the available evidence favors the conclusion that various medical or surgical interventions to facilitate better matching of physical traits with gender identification are beneficial for trans gender people then we should do that. If the available evidence favors the conclusion that trans women who experienced male puberty retain similar advantages to biological men in some athletic competitions then we should favor such trans women competing with biological men in those athletic competitions. Etc.

Meanwhile, let’s not prioritize fixed conclusions over the evidence, or prematurely commit to conclusions lacking sufficient supporting evidence. It takes time and effort to collect and evaluate the evidence covering a variety of different possible better-versus-worse practice alternatives that only recently became widely available technically as a result of new medical and surgical capabilities. We should defer to the consensus of disinterested experts (people whose material well being is not changed from the results and who seek out and evaluate the relevant evidence). The evidence, even after it was obtained and evaluated, may sometimes fail to provide us with clear policy guidance. There can be trade offs without a single alternative or particular set of alternatives representing best practice. We should be willing to recognize and accept that outcome also.

Sabine Hossenfelder has commentary on her Backreaction blog Trans women in sports: Is this fair? Her article is good, but we sometimes disagree. Her conclusion is that fairness in sports competitions is illusive (in an absoluteness sense) and therefore the entertainment function has priority. I think the less fair a competition is the less entertaining it becomes insofar as the entertainment value is not sadistic, which is one of the reasons why an asterisk is placed next to the athletic achievement history of top athletes who are subsequently revealed to have taken performance enhancing drugs. She says that there is no problem when the hormone treatments began before puberty. While there may be no significant problem with that in the sports competition context, for a child who transitioned early there potentially can be life long negative side effects (such as an inability to produce offspring). She acknowledges the distinction between transgender changes associated with empirically identifiable medical conditions related to biological sex and those that are not related to such a condition, but she does not view this distinction as having good practice relevance. In contrast I think this distinction could be relevant for determining when transitioning qualifies as good practice, particularly with regard to children. She says males do not have a substantial endurance advantage. Females are better able to utilize fat stores for energy and conserve glycogen which provides them the advantage in 100 mile (and more) jogs. However, she omits mentioning that males have a larger aerobic capacity (VO2 in eighties versus low seventies for females) which gives them the advantage in marathon distance runs.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Petition Senators for gun sale background checks

By Mathew Goldstein

H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 11 with overwhelming support. If signed into law, nearly every gun sale occurring in the U.S. would be subject to a background check, including so-called “private sales” at gun shows and over the internet. TELL THE SENATE: TAKE ACTION ON BACKGROUND CHECKS. 

This is one of a number of modest steps which collectively would likely reduce gun shooting murders, see for the complete set of policy changes that they lobby for. Banning the sale of military style semi-automatic weapons to the public would not impede hunting or target shooting. Our government laws can and should be implementing sensible precautionary policies that protect our valuable health and lives from unnecessary risks at relatively low cost.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

A failed polytheism bridge with atheism

 By Mathew Goldstein

An internet publication called LA Progressive recently published a moderately long article “Polytheism Versus Monotheism: Building Bridges Between Polytheism and Atheism” written by Bruce Lerro, an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. The article defends polytheism and criticizes monotheism and atheism. Mr. Lerro repeatedly cites, and appears to heavily borrow from, John Michael Greer and his book A World Full of Gods which likewise advocates for polytheism (I have not read that book). 

Unsurprisingly, I did not find his arguments for polytheism convincing. After all, this is an ontological question and such questions need to be addressed on a best overall fit with the available empirical evidence basis. Yet, as is often (but not always) the case on the theistic side, there was no meaningful engagement with what the overall available empirical evidence tells us about existence of deities.

He instead starts by observing that atheists often target monotheism, yet they fail to criticize the assumption underlying monotheism that “there must be some single reality”. He asserts that there is instead a “diversity of divine reality”. But where is the empirical evidence for a  “divine reality” of any type? Scientific progress is built on naturalistic methods and conclusions because those are the methods and conclusions that are successful. Supernatural methods and conclusions get us nowhere. Ipso facto, the empirical evidence that we have overwhelmingly favors ontological naturalism. And without supernaturalism, what remains to justify elevating divinity to a non-fictional status? It makes no difference if deity is single or plural, without supernaturalism there is no divinity and no deity.

Bruce Lerro then argues that polytheism is self-consistent because, unlike atheism and monotheism, it applies the same critical criteria to itself as it applies to atheism and monotheism. He basis this on what he calls “the reality of diversity” in contrast to a “there is one single truth” fallacy underlying both atheism and monotheism. This is post-modernist gobbledegook. The earth is oblate, the equatorial diameter is about 0.3% longer than the arctic pole diameter due in large part to the earth’s rotation around the arctic axis. A count of the number of ignorant or deluded people who, through history to the present day, mistakenly believed the earth has any other shape does not qualify as legitimate evidence that earth actually has a corresponding plurality of shapes. There is a single truth regarding the close to spherical shape of the earth. 

And there is likewise no reason to think that there is a diversity of truths regarding whether our universe operates within the material, mechanical, physical constraints of naturalism or without such constraints. Indeed, one of the essential differences between factual ontological truths and personal subjective truths is precisely that the former are singular while the latter are personal and therefore plural. This is a relevant distinction that the arguments for polytheism in this article conveniently implicitly denies. Theisms are ontological claims and therefore the former type of truth, not the latter type of truth. An example of the latter kind of truth is a preference for some styles of clothing or flavors of ice cream over others. Our universe may potentially operate with a combination of natural and supernatural components. But the mere possibility of such a mixed status, combined with many limited deities and other super-human or spiritual beings, does not elevate the possibility to the status of a fact.

Bruce Lerro then claims that liberal monotheists argue that the sacred experiences of people vary due to cultural differences that obscure the underlying common monotheistic core behind those experiences. He asserts that polytheists, in contrast, claim that different groups of people have different sacred experiences because “they have contacted different spiritual beings”. He fails to address the secular perspective that different groups of people have different “sacred” experiences because their sacred experiences are products of their religious beliefs. The experiences are different because the underlying beliefs are different with the beliefs preceding and shaping the experiences and the experiences then reinforcing the beliefs in a closed, self-referencing, circle.

A persistent and fatal flaw in these arguments for polytheism is that they jump from people’s beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs to ontological facts as if the mere fact that people have ontological beliefs establishes those beliefs to be non-fictional facts. That flaw is, in turn, a result of eschewing empirical evidence. Without anchoring the argument in empirical evidence, what remains to anchor the argument other than people’s beliefs? Never mind that humanity has a history of mistaking fictional entities for non-fictional entities. Never mind that deriving facts from people’s beliefs is an unreliable epistemology. We are supposed to ignore those highly relevant facts because they inconveniently undermine the arguments for theism. A primary goal of the article is to justify polytheism, but constraining ourselves to relying on empirical evidence does not get us to polytheism. Since good epistemology is an obstacle to realizing that goal its absence is no surprise. Arguments for theism are often formulated on a conclusion first basis. After reaching a conclusion the arguments to defend that conclusion are subsequently devised.

Bruce Lerro asserts that there are “a variety of sacred presences who actually exist.“ There are “gods of nature who provide sustenance” and “gods of community who provide peace and atmosphere for civilized life”. The boundary separating “gods from ancestors and spirits” can be difficult to determine. Under polytheism “gods are powerful but not omnipotent, smart but not omniscient.” There are also “lesser sacred presences” that “require attention, offerings, and persuasion, not worship.” 

This all sounds somewhat unhinged. Is Santa Claus one of these “lesser sacred presences”? Why should such sacred presences correspond only to those experienced by adults? From this polytheistic perspective, are children’s experiences equally valid?  If not then why are adults, unlike children, uniquely immune from at least sometimes also being impressionable, gullible, and mistaken with their beliefs? How can anyone reliably untangle fictional characters from those “who actually exist” with this circular and super-promiscuous, belief-influenced-personal-experiences-reveal-the-facts-about-how-the-universe-operates epistemology?

Bruce Lerro then claims that what gods ask of us is reverence and respect, not abject submission. He argues that polytheism is less tribalistic and more tolerant of a diversity of beliefs than monotheism. He claims the relationship between gods and humans is more reciprocal under polytheism than the “one way relationship” of monotheism. It is plausible that polytheisms may, to some extent, in some respects, have some advantages over monotheisms in terms of how they influence human behavior. The topic of influences on human behavior is details and contexts sensitive. There will very likely be tradeoffs, particularly given all of the pluralities of monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs. While people’s behaviors are obviously important, that is a different topic. We need to walk before we can dance. The available empirical evidence needs to favor polytheism first to justify walking as polytheists. Humanity would arguably be better off if our behavior was not dependent on made up ideologies rooted in an unstable and unreliable reliance on elevating fictional entities into actual facts, using highly dubious epistemology that on closer inspection lacks integrity.

Bruce Lerro’s sacred experience based arguments for polytheism appears to conflict with his rejection of monotheism. How does an accounting of the diversity of sacred experiences as a central justification for polytheism fit comfortably with simultaneously ignoring the significance of all of the monotheistic based sacred experiences? Isn’t the failure to recognize the factual, “actually exists”, “truth” derived from the sacred experiences of monotheists a double standard? He claims polytheism is self-consistent, but insofar as it devalues, to the point of rejecting, assigning an equal epistemological weight and merit to the experienced presence of monotheistic deities, it is epistemologically inconsistent.

Bruce Lerro says that the polytheistic gods “are not supernatural, but exist within a natural order, both shaping its manifestations and bound by some of its laws.” This sounds like a fly in the sky and swim in the lake at the same time type of assertion. There are such things as mutually exclusive dichotomies. A fly is ipso facto not a kangaroo. And an entity that is not fully bound by the laws of nature is therefore either partially supernatural or operating within laws of nature that are currently unknown to us. Which alternative is more likely depends on the technical details regarding the degree of incompatible with the current known laws of nature and the constraints imposed by naturalism for the phenomena at issue. The kind of double talk gymnastics we encounter here is all too common among advocates of theism, both the mono and poly varieties. If you value self-consistency (as we should) then it is atheism, not polytheism, that is the winner. Atheism relies on the same method for determining what is true and false about how the universe operates that everyone relies on every day when we wake up and go from the bedroom to the kitchen to make and eat breakfast: Best overall fit with the available empirical evidence.

Bruce Lerro then argues that “superstrings, bubble universes, folded dimensions – transcend ordinary matter and energy far more drastically than the average pagan god.” That is an apples and potatoes comparison. Much of science takes us to non-intuitive and counter-intuitive places, but it consistently remains within the constraints of naturalism. Defending supernaturalism requires more than confusing and undermining the distinction between supernaturalism and naturalism together with citing how counter-intuitive modern knowledge has become.

Bruce Lerro argues there are substantial differences between monotheism and polytheism. He claims there are no holy texts undergirding polytheism. He says that the polytheistic pantheon of superhuman, yet still limited, spiritual beings are literary creations, not theological creations. Polytheistic beliefs are the “result of extended processes of interaction between gods, rather than through a revealed religion.” He then claims that as a result of all of the substantial differences between polytheism and monotheism, the atheist arguments that are effective against monotheism, such as the argument from evil, are inapplicable to polytheism. 

For example, in a section titled “Epistemology: Strong vs weak miracles” Bruce Lerro delineates miracles that “violate the familiar patterns of nature” as “strong miracles”Whereas miracles that “follow natural pattens like a successful rain dance” are “weak miracles”. He claims that polytheists don’t believe in strong miracles and therefore escape atheist criticism against miracles because the atheist criticism focuses on strong miracles. However, atheists actually argue against both strong and weak miracles. Weak miracles are, by definition, inconsistent with the known laws of nature that have been empirically evidenced to be persistently universal. If it were otherwise then by definition the alleged events at issue would not qualify as miracles, and for that reason alone substantial skepticism is the proper response against all attempts to elevate the status of alleged miracles to facts absent hefty and firmly grounded supporting empirical evidence for the miracles.

There is far from sufficient evidence to justify belief in the real presence of actual deities, spirits, ancestors, or super-humans that are partially exempt from the laws of nature. If anything, the polytheist perspective that these deities, spirits, ancestors, etc. reside and interact with us here on earth renders even more damning the lack of supporting empirical evidence. The evidence we have instead favors the opposite conclusion. The conclusion favored on the available evidence is that all fully or partially supernatural entities, regardless of what they are named or how they are defined, are human created fantasies. We are prone to fantasies. From our weakly constrained imaginations humans have, over the millennia, invented thousands of spiritual beings and super-humans with a wide variety of supernatural powers, limited and unlimited, weak and strong. They are all no more than that, our fantasies. Endorsing all of them as factual except for the monotheistic variety is not progress.

Bruce Lerro, again citing Greer as usual, argues that progress is “a myth to be overcome.” Does he visit a dentist? Does he visit a doctor? Does he live in heated and air conditioned house with a refrigerator, plumbing and a toilet? Does he buy food from a grocery store? Does he travel multiple miles quickly in a vehicle driving on a road or tracks? Does he read and write? If there is no such thing as progress, why does he, and all other polytheists, not abandon all of those modern things?

In his conclusion, Bruce Lerro distinguishes “hard polytheists who believe in the ontological existence of goddesses and gods” from “soft polytheists who believe the deities are socio-historical structures which are the product of human societies.” He acknowledges the former are in direct conflict with atheists. Under his second definition most atheists are soft polytheists, yet most atheists reject applying the polytheist label to themselves, and most theists also reject applying the polytheist label to atheists. That is clearly not a standard definition of polytheist. It is a counter-productively confusing, overly broad, misuse of the polytheistic label that lacks integrity because it includes non theists.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Group Selection and Humanism: Does it Matter?

 by Bill Creasy

I self-published a book called “Making a Happy Society.” The book based on essays in WASHline and WASH blog, and there is an acknowledgement to WASH. Here is the link to on Amazon:

I recently gave a talk to the WASH-MDC chapter about some points that are in the book. Some points may look familiar to long time members. I spent a lot of time editing as my COVID project. I tried to give the book a unified message.

The book is about a kind of evolution called group selection. I think that a study of group selection gives a very different perspective on a lot of issues that are interesting to humanists. It is also gives a different perspective for solving problems. I already think it matters, but I’d like to hear whether you think it matters.

I tried to write it as if it is a view of society from earth orbit, to give a big picture perspective without a lot of detail. There are a lot of topics in the book that are covered fairly superficially.

One topic that received a lot of interest at the talk was a consideration of Richard Dawkins's view of group selection, first discussed in his book The Selfish Gene in Chapter 1. I didn't include a thorough discussion of Dawkins's points at the talk, so I'll write about it in more detail.

My book is about ideas from group selection. Group selection has had a controversial development and is still controversial in some circles. If you are like a lot of secular people, you found out about group selection from Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins has a lot of respectability as one of the New Atheists and as a scientist and science popularizer.

The first chapter of his book is about why he thinks group selection is wrong, and why that was his motivation for writing the book. It’s an odd way to introduce a topic in a popular science book. Feel free to look at it for yourself if you don’t believe me.

I’m not going to argue with Dawkins about genetic evolution. But I have to disagree with some of his conclusions on group selection. Group selection does have a checkered background. Back in the 1960’s, there was a trend in biology to say that species evolved. Dawkins argued that species don’t evolve as a group but they are competing as individuals. Here is his description of group selection from Chapter 1:

A group, such as a species of a population within a species, whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals.

But then he makes a categorical generalization that because species don’t evolve as groups, no groups can evolve, and as a result he concluded that only genes evolve. His refutation of group selection is as follows:

Even in the group of altruists, there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuses to make any sacrifice. If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will tend to inherit his selfish traits....[I]t is very difficult to see what is to stop selfish individuals migrating in from neighbouring selfish groups.

With regard to group selection of species or in general, he wrote:

Does natural selection choose between species? If so, we might expect individual organisms to behave altruistically 'for the good of the species.' They might limit their birth rates to avoid overpopulation, or restrain their hunting behaviour to conserve the species' future stocks of prey. It was such widely disseminated misunderstandings of Darwinism that originally provoked me to write the book [The Selfish Gene].

From this point, he made a categorical rejection of all group selection. He continued:

The critical question is: Which level in the hierarchy of life will turn out to be the inevitably 'selfish' level, at which natural selection acts? The Selfish Species? The Selfish Group? The Selfish Organism? The Selfish Ecosystem? Most of these could be argued, and most have been uncritically assumed by one or another author, but all of them are wrong.

The strangest and funniest part of Dawkins's argument is his use of a fudge factor or a hedge, a common idea in science that is a often thrown into an argument when no one quite understands what is going on. It is used when someone wants to leave themselves an escape for when it is better understood. Dawkins's fudge factor is what he calls the “muddle”:

The muddle in human ethics over the level at which altruism is desirable—family, nation, race, species, or all living things—is mirrored by a parallel muddle in the biology over the level at which altruism is to be expected according to the theory of evolution.

In other words, he used the word “muddle” because he understood that behavior is complicated, and someone may analyze it in better detail to find that some altruism may be selected by evolution.

Meanwhile, since then, the idea of cultural evolution, a kind of group selection, is in common usage in social sciences. The Wikipedia entry on cultural evolution says,

Today, cultural evolution has become the basis for a growing field of scientific research in the social sciences, including anthropology, economics, psychology, and organizational studies.... In recent years, there has been a convergence of the cluster of related theories toward seeing cultural evolution as a unified discipline in its own right.

The word “evolve” has gotten very common usage to talk about changing ideas or cultures. It’s used for developing computer programs.

Evolutionary biologists study genetic evolution but seem to have lost out on other studies of evolutionary theory. Evolution seems to have split into two branches of biological and social, in spite of the advantages of having a unified picture. Some of the controversy is giving in the Wikipedia page on group selection that tends to favor Dawkins's point of view. Another spirited discussion of group selection was led by Steven Pinker on called “The False Allure of Group Selection.”

Dawkins’s work on genetic evolution is worthwhile from Chapter 2 on, so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m criticizing his work on biology. But his rejection of group selection is a problem, because he has a position of authority on the subject. Forty plus years after the first edition, he hasn’t changed the first chapter and he is still arguing against group selection. This is a particular problem because of his influence among secular people. It is also a problem because groups are such a central part of human social life, and we really need to pay attention to them.

Other biologists are working on group selection. David Sloan Wilson, professor at the University of Binghamton, NY, and (the late) E. O. Wilson, at Harvard, wrote popular books about group selection. David Sloan Wilson has been associated with the Templeton Foundation, which has a reputation for promoting religion. That hasn’t helped his credibility among atheists. But he has a website devoted to group evolution. So it is still a complicated situation.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve been reading about group selection. I started off taking Dawkins’s word for it. After a while, I changed my mind. I think that it can explain a lot of otherwise puzzling aspects of human nature and human social problems. These include political problems like the current culture wars. It gives an explanation about the question of how progress happens. I think it matters, but I’ll be interested in what people decide for themselves to answer the question in the title, “Does it Matter?”

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Arriving at ethics from opposing directions

By Mathew Goldstein

There is a non-theistic and a theistic approach to ethics. While the different approaches will sometimes reach the same destinations, they will sometimes arrive at opposing conclusions. We have different and opposing starting points for defining ethics. The different conclusions are an inevitable result of the opposite direction paths we take to reach our conclusions. I am not impartial here, I very much endorse the non-theistic perspective. 

Both the theistic and non-theistic approaches recognize that ethics needs to be anchored in our factual conclusions about how the universe functions. The sequencing of how we go about achieving this match are reversed. Theists start by prioritizing a fixed set of pre-specified ethical goals. Non-theists start by prioritizing the facts regarding how the universe functions.


The non-theistic approach to ethics takes epistemology seriously. Over the past several centuries humanity has built up, and continues to further build up, an increasingly comprehensive and detailed understanding of the how the universe functions. It is here, with our empirical and reason based conclusions about how the universe works, that we can have the most confidence in the validity, and therefore the objectivity, of our conclusions. Empiricism provides us with a practical success versus failure measure to filter out the falsehoods that far outnumber the facts. On this basis we reach the conclusion that our universe is entirely indifferent to our fate, that it functions within material, mechanical, physical constraints. Ethics is needed in our own collective self-interest to push back against this factual indifference so that the overall outcomes for humanity are better than they otherwise would be. Therefore ethics selectively operates against those facts that run against humanities enlightened self-interest at the same time it is grounded in the facts. Modern technology gives us increasing capabilities to act in ways that impacts our lives for better or worse. Therefore ethics continually becomes more important for the fate of humanity.

From a theistic perspective (as perceived from my non-theist perspective), we start with the ethics that are revealed to us by a deity. Therefore we must believe in the deity as a fact. To convince ourselves that the deity is a fact we rely on faith. Possessing faith in the fact of the deity is therefore itself a virtue. The deity monitors our compliance with our ethical obligations and ensures that the final outcomes for everyone are ultimately ethical. A conclusion that our universe is ultimately ethical with the help of a supernatural realm (despite superficial, here and now, appearances otherwise) is the foundation upon which ethics rests.

Theists are dismayed, or alarmed, by people who lack or reject the “faith fact” of deity because they assume that non-theism will result in our behavior being unreliable and untrustworthy. They claim that theistic ethics is uniquely objective because it is derived from divine command. Non-theists are dismayed, or alarmed, by the fictional grounded “ethics” of theists who are actually being unethical when their actions are evaluated against the empirically derived facts about how the universe functions. For us, objectivity and subjectivity are a continuum, in practice they are not one or the other absolutes because we ourselves are not all knowing and all present deities. Humanity is dependent on competent epistemology to obtain objectivity. Good epistemology is an initial ethical obligation since a non-fictional ethic more generally is dependent on getting the facts right and a fictional ethic is unreliable and untrustworthy. It is theistic ethics that suffers from being too subjective because it is more likely to attach itself to bad epistemology.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

What happens when families can choose ethics instead of religious education?

By Mathew Goldstein

In Germany all public schools were required to provide religious education. Families of children who were not baptized could opt out their children from the religious education classes with a free time alternative. There were two categories of classes, a Catholic class and a Protestant class. The content of this “education” (in quotes because there is a mutually exclusive conflict with the goal of a genuine education) was dogmatic, with teachers selected by the church for the purpose of teaching that church’s doctrine. High school students spent about 1000 hours in religious education class. Opt-outs were rare, but then became more common in urban areas. 

Starting in the 1970’s, eight of the eleven West German states transitioned to providing a secular ethics education alternative. The question is what demographic outcomes changed that arguably can be attributed to the partial replacement of religious education with secular ethics education? A recent study from the international platform of Ludwigs-Maximilians University’s Center for Economic Studies and the ifo Institute in Munich addresses this question. See “Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education”. Their answer is yes, there were demographic changes that they claim correlate with the change in education policy. 

I do not doubt that the demographic changes they cite occurred around the same time, but I suspect the reduction in religious belief was a pre-existing trend that may have occurred anyway given that it was the increasing number of opt-outs that triggered this education policy change. This study, however, provides another of a growing collection of evidence based conclusions that ethical behavior is not dependent on religious belief as advocates for religious belief too often claim without providing adequately correlated supporting evidence. The number of people, the frequency of their commentary, the names and backgrounds of the people, who assert a conclusion, such as the assertion that religious belief is needed for ethics, does not replace or substitute for evidence when determining if the conclusion is true. And in any case the religious beliefs that are claimed to be needed for ethics are false so they are a rickety basis for grounding ethics.