Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Nature of Proof

One of my frustrations is that people very often will say that, “You cannot prove that God does not exist.” This is said without an examination of the conceptions of God being considered or the nature of what is reasonable proof. This problem derives in many cases from the distinction between logical proofs and physical proofs.

Logical proofs properly used are very powerful. We can start with the axioms and postulates of geometry and prove propositions based on those starting principles. A vast variety of useful understandings can be logically derived from the solid foundations upon which geometry is based.

Physical proofs are different. Scientists can disprove the existence of a supposed God who created the universe less than 10,000 years ago. A scientist can do this in a great many ways, by demonstrating that light from a distant galaxy is billions of years old or that the Grand Canyon is over five million years old or that a dinosaur fossil is 65 million years old. There are literally thousands of threads of evidence in cosmology, geology, biology and archeology which disconfirms the God of young earth creationism. We have physical proof that our universe is over 14 billion years old and the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The problem occurs when Christians insist on using logical proof as the criterion. To illustrate, Christians who believe in the young earth creation notion dismiss the physical evidence by saying that God put that evidence there to test our faith. They have a hypothesis that is then logically consistent with the evidence.

For some reason people do not understand how preposterous this is. If someone is free to spin any hypothetical that they might wish then it is not possible to prove to proven anything about the world whatsoever Are you logically certain that you exist? Are you certain that you were born and had years of life?

Perhaps everything that we know and experience is just an emulation run on a super computer run by a very intelligent alien race. Perhaps that race is amused at how certain their emulated humans are that they are actually alive. They can in fact stop the emulation at any point. The emulated humans will have the memories of different experiences in their past and the paused emulation will still contain the feeling that time is flowing when it really is not. The emulation has been paused.

There is nothing in this hypothetical assumption that is inconsistent with your current life and experience. Given the fact that you cannot logically disprove this hypothesis you cannot be logically certain that you exist or that time is actually flowing as you imagine. Logical proofs about the real world are so profoundly weak that nobody can ever use them to prove anything about the real world.

Beyond that if God were an infinitely powerful being who provided us with messages in the Bible and other messages in the physical evidence we are then left in a quandary. What is the criterion by which we decide which message is right? Christian's just assume that the Bible is correct. We should be asking them how they know that the messages left by God in the physical evidence is not the one that God wishes us to accept as true.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Scandal at the Vatican – Mafia, Sex, Money, Kidnapping, Murder

Vatican Museum

Many have been shocked and fascinated by the recent revelations of sexual abuse of minors by some members of the Catholic clergy. This was made worse by the Vatican's slow pace in acknowledging these abuses, disciplining the offenders, providing comfort to the injured, and finally being forced to give large monetary awards to them. This story has been followed closely by those who already had their doubts about organized religion.

Now, we at Secular Perspectives have been alerted to another scandal of shocking proportions involving the Vatican. Elements of this story involve Mafia money laundering, murder, suicide, kidnapping, the assassination attempt against the Pope, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and numerous other momentous events and activities.

If people think that the financial and sexual excesses that motivated Martin Luther's revolt so long ago are ancient history, it seems we are sadly mistaken. The Vatican is a powerful hierarchical organization and the Pope is said to be infallible. Alas, it appears that as Lord Acton so vividly noted, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Nothing could more vividly illustrate this axiom than a strange, convoluted story brought to us by Hos, a member of Beltway Atheists. It is a Spanish article which states (translated), “The ex prostitute Sabrina Minardi, mistress of deceased Mafia leader Enrico de Pedis, breaks her silence and details dark secrets of Italy in the 70s and 80s—Sex, Mafia and Vatican.” This long complex article by Miguel Mora can be read in Spanish at:

Hos wishes to post this long, lightly edited English translation in several parts.

Posted for Leah Williams

Gangster's Lover, Bishop's Mistress

(translated from Part I

Mid-seventies, early eighties, Italy was a powder keg. The laboratory of the modern world. The cultural and political vanguard. Cold War, the years of gunfire. Palestinians and Israelis, the CIA and the KGB, the Red Brigades, and the black terror. The Communists making deals with Christian Democrats. The Sicilian Mafia pumping heroin and cocaine into the streets. Pasolini murdered in Ostia. Pope John Paul II, with Opus Dei, preparing the imminent collapse of the Soviet bloc. Aldo Moro kidnapped and killed. The massacre at the Bologna station. Andreotti, “El Divo”, supposedly kissing Toto Reiina, the bloodthirsty Mafia boss. Sordi and Gassman, Mastroianni, Fellini and Antonioni. Celentano and Archbishop Paul Marcinkus bringing financial joy to the Holy See. The collapse of Banco Ambrosiano. The murder of Roberto Calvi (Blackfriars Bridge, London). And that of Michele Sindona, banker to the Cosa Nostra, a little poison in the coffee.

Thirty years later and almost all those dark mysteries remain just that: mysteries. Or rather, secrets that were not revealed. Crimes, often very serious, for which the culprits have never paid, and never will. “A country without truth,” said Leonardo Sciascia. A black hole we would say today.

Four years ago, out of that hole, and in a most unexpected way, on an Italian TV show “Who knows Where”, returned a woman who knew those crazy and bloody years inside and out. Her name is Sabrina Minardi. Today she is 50. She was from a poor family, born in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood. She was attractive but not outstanding, not beautiful enough to become an actress. But she did become a prostitute. Pretty enough to become a high class escort.

Through her activities she came to know closely, sometimes too closely, many of the outstanding figures of those bloody years. She committed crimes; she witnessed them; she kept quiet; she used drugs; made tons of money, and squandered it; buried her friends, and then disappeared.

Her life, like many Italian youths of that period, started with promise and ended up hellishly. At 19, on June 26, 1979, she married the soccer star Bruno Giordano. Off the playing field, many of the players identified with the fascist thugs, and some carried guns and knives. Drunkenness was common, as were brawls. On the field they acted the same, bringing down anything standing before them.

Her relationship with her nasty husband of 23, who was worshiped by half of Rome did not last long. After two years their daughter Velentina was born, who is now 28. Soon she got sick of seeing him appearing in the press with actresses. They separated, but Minardi could not longer live without danger, luxury and champagne. Soon she met the man who would be her most ardent lover, Enrico de Pedis, better known as Renatino. He was one of the three bosses of the Magliana family, the gang that dominated Rome for almost a decade.

Now, after 25 years in hiding as a fugitive from justice (arrested for helping Renatino escape), she is back and talking. But she won't tell all, according to journalist Rafaella Notariale, the co-author of Minardi's memoir, “Criminal Secret, the True History of the Magliana Gang.” Notariale is the one who brought Minardi fame with a TV interview in 2006. She says she received an unexpected call from Minardi in October 2009, saying she wished to continue talking.

Through her legendary sheets had passed soccer stars, ministers, bishops, cardinals, mobsters, millionaires, police, spies, terrorists. Minardi, like De Pedis, showed up in all kinds of places, not least St. Peter's Square. Calvi, president of the Banco Ambrosiano, was crazy about her. Archbishop Marcinkus was not far behind. On page 114 of the book, Minardi claims to have slept with “God's Banker” several times. “You have no idea how many girls were brought to the Archbishop.”

Some Italian news media say Minardi has broken her silence because she needs money, and is cooperating with authorities to help her own legal problems. Notariale says she has never asked for money, that she is ill, that one of her arms is dysfunctional from a car accident, she has a history of drug abuse with a judicial sentence reduced to 6 months of mandatory treatment, and is trying to come to peace with herself and her past.

Minardi has been working actively with the authorities for some months and has become a star witness for Rome's prosecutor. Her cooperation seems to be crucial for clarifying one of those unsolved mysteries, perhaps the darkest of them all: the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, a Vatican citizen, and daughter of a church official, who disappeared on June 22, 1983, when she was 15.

(tune in for the next disturbing installment)

Posted for Hos

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Francis Collins and the Language of God

(This article is published in the April issue of WASHline, and it is reprinted with a few additional links.)

Dr. Francis Collins is Director of NIH and was in charge of the Human Genome Project to sequence the human DNA. He wrote a book, Language of God (Free Press, 2006), about his belief in Christianity. The book jacket calls him "one of the world's leading scientists." The cover says, "A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief."

I'll spoil the book's ending by saying that no evidence is presented. Collins argues that science is not inconsistent with his belief in God. But his argument assumes, as all such argument have, that God is hiding from us and doesn't want to show any objective evidence of his supernatural activity. He does that because it's part of his Plan. Any questions? No? Good.

After reading the book, I can only be astonished at the amount of cognitive dissonance that Collins must have. One would expect that a good scientist would take efforts to examine his beliefs, especially before writing a book about them. Collins doesn't seem to notice the remarkable contradictions in his book.

His reputation is as a scientist requires that his ideas shouldn't stand unchallenged. I will address three particular problems in his book:

1) "Evolutionary Culling" and CF patients: On p. 131, Dr. Collins gives a sincere defense of evolution, saying that harmful mutations are "rapidly culled out of the population because they reduce reproductive fitness." That is a reasonable but cold-blooded description. But only a few pages earlier on pp. 112-116, he talks about his work on cystic fibrosis. This disease causes a painful death to children before they reach the age of 10 unless they have treatment. Dr. Collins and his students and collaborators found that CF is caused by an error of a single amino acid in one protein.

These children with CF are being "culled" by evolution for a genetic defect. The question is, then, why would a benevolent god fail to prevent a painful death for young children? Could the god not know that the disease could be prevented by fixing one amino acid? Couldn't the god actually fix it? Or didn't the god care enough to bother?

Dr. Collins should be complemented for his work to understand CF. He is not at fault for not knowing how to solve the inconsistency between evolution and a benevolent god. The problem is that Dr. Collins as a scientist doesn't point out this obvious, important, and problematic inconsistency. His discussion of his approach for reconciling this problem could have been one of the valuable contributions of the book, but it isn't mentioned.

2) Praying over whether to be head of the Human Genome Project: On p. 119, Collins discusses his meditation on whether to become director of the Human Genome Project. He writes, "I spent a long afternoon praying in a little chapel, seeking guidance about this decision. I did not 'hear' God speak--in fact, I have never had that experience. But during those hours, ending in an evensong service that I had not expected, a peace settled over me. A few days later, I accepted the offer."

Does anything about this experience indicate supernatural guidance? It looks like he just made a decision based on his understanding of the importance of the project, the high visibility, and his confidence in his ability to accomplish it. It was a decision that required serious thought, but why did he think God was involved?

3) The Moral Sense and the eye: Collins repeatedly says that "The Moral Sense," the human understanding of right and wrong, is evidence of divine intervention in human development or the difference between humans and chimps. But he observes that it doesn't depend on having the right kind of religious belief. It is also imperfect in many people.

On p. 190-191, he says that the development of the human eye is not evidence of Intelligent Design, since the eye is imperfect and could develop in a stepwise process. So can't the Moral Sense be compared to the human eye? The human moral behavior could have developed in a stepwise process from our primate ancestors, following the same process that produced the eye. Imperfect human morality isn't a corruption of a divinely perfect system, but rather a product of a process that gradually improves it.

Dr. Collins is a good scientist and administrator in his specialty. But only someone who is already a believer would find his book convincing. I hope he continues his job at NIH. As far as his theology goes, god bless him, and good luck with that. But I hope that he keeps a watch on his reputation as a scientist, since some people may use his endorsement of religion in ways that he doesn't anticipate or endorse.

A longer rebuttal of the book is given in a book by George Cunningham, Decoding the Languarge of God. Here's the Amazon link on Cunningham's book, with lots of favorable comments and a few remarks from offended Christians:

If you think that Francis Collins's attitudes don't matter, here is a link to a talk that was recently given at the AAAS. The speaker, Elaine Ecklund, gave Collins as an example of a Christian believer who was a scientist.

The AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion has occasional public lectures, and the videos can be viewed online. The lecture in Dec. 2010 was called "What do Scientists Believe? Religion Among Scientists and Implications for Public Perceptions". Speakers were Elaine Howard Ecklund, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Director, Religion and Public Life Program, Rice University, and Author, Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Oxford University Press, 2010; and Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR Religion Correspondent, and Author, Fingerprints of God: In Search of the Science of Spirituality, Riverhead Hardcover, 2009.

Bill Creasy is secretary of WASH and coordinator of the Baltimore chapter.

Pascal's Wager

In my last discussion group I had someone come up to me at the end and announce that he was not an atheist. He then asked me if I had heard of Pascal's Wager.

My reply was that I had heard of the concept. I then went on to say that, “It is a finding of modern science that cognition is a function of the brain. When the brain dies cognition ends. There is no afterlife.”

This is my summary judgment of the scientific evidence to date. It does not logically prove anything beyond any possible doubt but the evidence does give me reason to say that the absence of an afterlife is scientifically proven. Perhaps we need a blog post on the nature of proof to expand on this distinction. For some reason those who wish to believe in the supernatural get away with asserting that logical certainty is the proof criterion to be used when analyzing the supernatural. For every other item of concern in our lives the proof criterion that we use is the balance of empirical evidence.

For those who have not heard of the term, Pascal's wager, let me give a thumbnail overview of what it means. The mathematician Blaise Pascal presumed that it was not possible to use reason to determine whether God existed or not. In the absence of such knowledge the presumption of the probabilities are assumed to be a fifty-fifty coin flip. He further assumed that belief in God had zero cost and that if God existed then a belief in him would result in an infinite life in Heaven and that the value of that afterlife would be infinite. The penalty for an erroneous disbelief in God is an eternity of misery in Hell, an infinite negative value. Obviously with such presumptions any rational person would bet on the existence of God by believing in him since there is no cost with a losing bet and an infinite reward with a winning bet. This is not a perfect recounting of what Pascal said but it does serve to frame the issues.

My exchange with this person brought a number of other thoughts to my mind. The first was what would God think, if he existed, about someone who had such a belief? He might think, “This person only believes in me because he looks a life as a series of gambles. He doesn't believe in me because my revelations produce anything that is good. His belief in me does not include any commitment to positive principles. The belief is solely made with expectation that eternal life will come from it.” My guess is that a jealous God would not be very impressed with this belief.

In actuallity belief in God entails an enormous cost. People spend time praying and going to church. They typically commit a fraction of their income to “God's work” and that amount can exceed the ten percent tithing mandated by the Bible. The surrender of critical thinking to assume something on “faith” is a cost that is for many of us simply beyond consideration.

Theodore M. Drange in an essay on lists other costs defined in the Bible for salvation. “One also needs to believe in God's son (Mark 16:16; John 3:18,36, 8:21-25, 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; I John 5:12), repent (Luke 13:3,5), be born again (John 3:3), be born of the water and of the Spirit (John 3:5), believe everything in the gospel (Mark 16:16), eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood (John 6:53), be like a child (Mark 10:15), and do good deeds, esp. for needy people (Matt. 25:41-46; Rom. 2:5-10; John 5:28-29; James 2:14-26).”

It is fair to say that many if not most Christians do not believe that a simple belief in God is adequate for salvation. There are other Christians such as the Universalists who think that everyone will go to Heaven regardless of belief.

I have asserted on many occasions that the symbol God has literally no explicit meaning. It is like the symbol X in an equation. One cannot know the value of X unless the rest of the equations is used to solve for a value of X. Likewise we can know nothing about the meaning of God unless we inquire concerning what is meant by the person using the term. There are literally thousands of different Christian denominations with different assumptions about the nature and properties of God. If God were real why would he/she be impressed by a belief that had no understanding of him/her. Beyond that there is an Islamic version of Pascal's wager. There is no reason to limit conceptions of God to ones that are Christian.

Even with the vanishing low probability of a supernatural personal God, there is also the possibility that such a God would look more favorably on critical thinking and use of reason to find beliefs and moral principles which make the world better for ourselves and others. Thus even if God were to exist the rewards and punishments might be reversed from those imagined by Blaise Pascal.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hold Yer Horses, Pardner!

Don has written a great essay regarding the "end" of religion. He is rightly skeptical of the methodology of the report he is remarking about. When scientists trained in one area get involved in another they are not trained in - without expert consultants in the area they are not trained in - one should definitely see red flags all over the place.

But hold your horses, pardner! That study isn't the only place this idea is coming from. This has been around for at least ten years.

An actual religious site,, has a remarkable series of web pages, organized like powerpoint slides, that illustrate their alarm regarding a long term decline in church attendance. The url for that series is:

It is entitled "Twelve Surprising Facts About the American Church". Here are the titles of those slides:

1. The percentage of people that attend a Christian church each weekend is far below what pollsters report.
2. The percentage of people attending a Christian church each weekend decreased significantly from 1990-2000.
3. Christian church attendance is between 1 ½ and 2 times higher in the South and the Midwest than it is in the West and the Northeast.
4. Only one state [Hawaii] saw an increase in the percentage attending church from 1990-2000. [California, Connecticut, Georgia, and Washington were close to keeping up with population growth.]
5. The percentage that attends church on any given weekend is declining in over two thirds of the counties in the United States. [Among the states with the highest percentages of declining counties were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Carolina.]
6. Evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics are strongest in very different regions of the country.
7. Churches with 50–299 people in attendance are shrinking, while the smallest churches and larger churches are growing.
8. Established churches, from 40–180 years old, on average decline in attendance.
9. The increase in the number of churches is about one eighth of what is needed to keep up with population growth.
10. The church-planting rate has been declining throughout the history of our country.
11. Existing churches are plateauing and new church growth provides less than half of the growth necessary to keep up with population growth.
12. If the present trends continue, the percentage of the population that attends church in 2050 will be almost half of what it is today.

In addition, another web site,, which is a wonderful site with tons and tons of fascinating information about all different religions. Their "About Us" page says the following:

"We are a multi-faith group. As of 2010-DEC, we consist of one Atheist, Agnostic, Christian, Wiccan and Zen Buddhist. Thus, the OCRT staff lack agreement on almost all theological matters, such as belief in a supreme being, the nature of God, interpretation of the Bible and other holy texts, whether life after death exists, what form the afterlife may take, etc."

They go on to state their beliefs in list form, a remarkable statement by itself.

My point here is to show that their purpose is informational, with no religious agenda. Under the heading of "Religious information and Practices", they have a page entitled, "How many North Americans attend religious
services (and how many lie about going)?" The url is:

Their page reports an interesting phenomenon, that the "reported" numbers of religious folks attending services is vastly over-reported, by as much as 100%. The page is definitely worth a look and taking some time to understand their points, which are several. As a matter of fact, I recommend the entire site for information regarding just about any religion, as their reporting has no overt agenda of either support or attack, and seems fairly, well, fair.

The upshot of this is to say that while Don and others are certainly right to be skeptical over the conclusions of a study of questionable methodology, that doesn't mean that their conclusions are wrong, but just may simply be wrong from the standpoint of the length of time until the end, or at lest the end of a major religious influence on society, culture and politics. (which, of course, may be different in different countries and areas of the world.)

Robert W. Ahrens

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The End of Religion?

A recent BBC article claims that “Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says.” (1) It references a study which actually suggests that religion might be going away in 85 regions for which they have data. (2) Obviously, this is a profoundly important finding if it is valid. The study is somewhat mathematically dense. Most of our readers will not want to wade through that complexity.

There was only one explicit prediction made in the study, that “nearly 70% of the Netherlands will be non-affiliated by mid century.” The study starts with a very simple model that assumes that everyone is either affiliated with religion or not and that a single number reflects the average experience of everyone in terms of the average religious affiliation that he or she has with friends and neighbors. The formula includes a single number which represents the expected relative utility of being not affiliated with religion.

That utility number is provided for four regions. the autonomous Aland islands region of Finland (0.63), Schwyz Canton in Switzerland (0.70), Vienna Province in Austria (0.58), the Netherlands (0.56). The utility of being affiliated with religion is one minus these numbers. The religious affiliation utility for the Netherlands would 1-0.56 or 0.44. The average utility number for religious non-affiliation seems to be 0.65. The study includes a chart with all of the data sets plotted around a line assuming 0.65. The obvious implication is that religion has a relative utility of close to half that, only 0.35.

Many of our readers will agree that going to church and having a moral idiot tell you how to live your life has a significant downside. Moreover the church would want you to contribute a substantial proportion of your income to support “God's work.” There seems to be an increase in the number of people who know that prayer does not work to change outcomes. Elisabeth Edwards before she died told people that she did not believe in a God who intervened in daily life. Francis Collins asserts that the purpose of prayer is not to get things from God but to align our thinking with God. In both cases a major assumed reward of religion in the past is not there.

There are several levels of more sophisticated modeling included in the study. They develop a more complex model with many differences in religious affiliation and social connections with others. There was another numerical simulation that look at what would happen if the affiliated and the non-affiliated populations had low levels of interaction. In both cases the simulations resulted in the same results, a dramatic decline in religious affiliation. The fact is that the assumption of a massively greater utility in not being affiliated with religion will overwhelm any assumed model of local conditions and social interactions. The only difference that the study reports is a difference in how long it takes for the massive turnover toward non-affiliation with religion to take hold.

Obviously there are areas where there is great utility in religious affiliation. There are places in America where an admission that you are an atheist will result in no one being willing to talk with you. If you are renting you can expect to be told in a very short period of time that you have to move out. In Pakistan anyone who had been affiliated with Islam can expect that nearly everyone in his or her community will want a convert to humanism to be put to death. A recent poll found that 30 percent of Muslims in England felt the same way. In all these cases the utility of religious affiliation will be substantially higher than 0.35 assumed for the 85 regions in this study. In Pakistan the utility value of religion would have to be greater than 0.99. Death is a massive disincentive to move toward religious non-affiliation.

This study does present a promising picture of a move away from organized religion. However, the failure to model the more complex utility functions which obviously exist in support of religion means this study cannot be trusted. The primitivism of religion will remain alive and well in all areas where severe sanctions can be imposed on non-believers.

The study's authors are in two cases members of the Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics of Northwestern University. The other author is associated with the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and Department of Physics, University of Arizona. These are mathematically sophisticated scientists who are not trained in social sciences. They are working outside their fields. My guess is that they are excessively enamored with their equations and failed to see that the obvious problems with their study.

The bottom line rests on the machinery of government. If free speech is allowed and secularists can associate with others without severe sanctions religion will die out. However, the other side is fighting hard to get legal privilege for religion. The fight has not been won and we should not let this study convince us that we don't have to do anything to have religion go away. The do not make that case.


1 Religion may become extinct in nine nations...

2 A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Holy Terror

Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab a Pakistan state, was assassinated on January 4, 2011 by one of his bodyguards. He was opposed to the Pakistan's blasphemy law. There was a Christian woman in his jails who was condemned to death for blasphemy. He expressed his support for her and he was contemptuous of those who disagreed with his position. He publicly deemed them to be illiterate. He called the blasphemy laws black laws. He was an immensely courageous man who paid for his courage with his life. In Pakistan there are 500 “religious scholars” who are asserting that the government is at fault for not acting sooner against the governor. There were mobs in the streets demanding that the assassin, who was one of the Governor's bodyguards, should be released. There were rose petals strewn in the path of the assassin as he entered a courtroom.

Pakistan's only Christian governmental minister was killed on March 2 by gunmen. Shahbaz Bhatti was the Minister for Minorities. It was generally seen as a governmental role with very little power or influence. However, he did argue against the blasphemy law. He was also the head of a committee to review the country's blasphemy laws. This was a combination that could not be tolerated by the Islamic extremists.

We might look at the de facto abolition of free speech by vigilante action in Pakistan with a certain degree of horror. However, we fail to realize that the same terror is alive and well in our country. Molly Norris is the creative cartoonist who inspired “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day.” She drew a whimsical cartoon that had a teacup and a domino and other objects each claiming to be the true image of Mohammed. She immediately voiced her desire to minimize or disown the resulting viral response to her cartoon. She had a wonderful sense of humor and became very unhappy when she was informed of the anger from the Islamic community.

A fatwa against her was declared by the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The 2010 Winter edition of Al Qaeda 's Inspire magazine quoted him saying, "This snowball rolled out from between
her evil fingers. She should be taken as a prime target of assassination along with others who participated in her campaign. This campaign is not a practice of freedom of speech, but is a nationwide mass movement of Americans joining their European counterparts in going out of their way to offend Muslims worldwide."

Molly Norris has moved and changed her name. The FBI said that she could not be protected and they recommended that she “go ghost.” She obviously could no longer make a living as a cartoonist resulting in a huge disruption in her life.

They have instilled terror within our country. Everyone who drew a cartoon is now on the hit list. In Pakistan no one now wants to even talk about the blasphemy law because they have to live there.

What would be the most rational way to end this madness? It is an extremely complex phenomenon but I think there is a path which is more likely to succeed than others.

Let me start by suggesting that Osama bin Laden was brilliant in his move to precipitate our ill-informed “war on terror.” It instantly elevated his stature and the respect within Islam of the Al Qaeda group. It explicitly said that it was worthy of “war” from the greatest military power on our planet. If instead we used the term “criminal” and had a much more limited notion of how to pursue those criminals we would be much more likely to succeed.

The use of “war” is more appealing to religious thinkers who worship a fierce, judgmental father figure. These people are contemptuous of those who approach complex phenomenon with a stance of critical inquiry and a desire to more fully understand the underlying dynamics. We are seen as weak and ineffectual by those who have saturated their minds with the fierce ideology of fundamentalist Christianity. The absurd and disgusting iconography of the crucifixion is indicative of the insanity that is the starting point of this type of religiously inspired thinking. They actually think that a supremely sadistic event can create positive outcomes for humanity and they worship a “God” who supposedly is telling us that we are saved because of this sadistic nonsense.

A rational foreign policy must start from data on the ground concerning the psychology of those with whom we are relating. In Pakistan we are told that we have a ally in the “war on terror.” However, roughly sixty percent of Pakistanis view America as an enemy. They feel that the war is a war on the religion of Islam. I don't have such data on the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan but it is highly likely that the views are similar or worse. Similar views are common in virtually every Islamic country and it is certainly true for all of the Islamicists who have committed terror attacks in America and Europe.

I think the supporters of the “war on terror” would be hard pressed to show that we have derived value from that effort that is worth the trillion dollars plus that is already invested. That does not count what is likely to be another trillion dollars in the future care and support of soldiers and their families and the costs to repair our military preparedness that should be included in the actual cost of this ill conceived “war.” If the government is to spend tax money for some purpose shouldn't the central question be have we derived value that is equal to the money invested?

The war in Iraq was a massive mistake. Sadam Hussein wanted nothing to do with Al Qaeda for a number of reasons, including the fact that his regime was deemed to be secular by the Islamic militants.

The occupation of Afghanistan is also a massive mistake. Perhaps there was good reason to bring our military forces into the country because the Taliban had a strong alliance with Osama bin Laden. We managed to kick the Taliban out of Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. This display of military might sent a strong message to the Taliban concerning what we could do in support of justice. If thereafter we just provided training and weaponry to the groups with whom we could have a positive relationship then a central message that criminals need to be brought to justice would eventually be understood throughout Afghanistan and our costs would have been lower by an order of magnitude. The Taliban historically is not monolithic. It is almost certain that we could have created communication and positive relationships with some Taliban related groups.

We need to understand that for the people that we are fighting we are the terrorists. We are committing a Crusade against their religion and they see their religious duty to be one of fighting the Satanic evil that we represent. We create the “holy terror” that we despise because of the ham handed ignorance of our foreign policy.

I am certainly not arguing against the use of military force. I am saying that we need to be more thoughtful and selective in how and where we use that force. I am also saying that the most important part of any action we take against terrorists is the psychological understanding of the other actors with whom we are interacting. If we can sell the notion that we are after a few criminals and nothing more then we can create the alliances required to get those few criminals.

I am also saying that the mind numbing stupidity of our foreign policy in regard to terrorism is tightly linked to the fierce emotional aspects of fundamentalist Christianity. The critical issue is whether those with power in government can process empirical data and calculate whether or not given actions will work. The secular perspective is required if we are ever going to ever get away from the preposterous stupidity of our current policy. Until we get rid of the mindless stupidity (holy terror) on our side if we are never going to get rid of the mindless stupidity (holy terror) from the other side.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

It was the worst of times, it was the most challenging of times

I think of myself as an optimistic sort. But it's hard to be upbeat and optimistic just now, while laying claim to realism. The post-earthquake tsunami off the coast of Japan smashed lives, towns and much more. It is remarkably inspiring to see how focused the Japanese people and institutions have been in response with orderly queues and patience. But it also suggests how vulnerable we are and how insecurely we live in a natural world that is not specifically designed for perpetual human flourishing. We have to adapt and respond responsibly to the world and its dangers as we come to know them. Some dangers we have a hand in manufacturing for ourselves. We like to live on the coast, and so developers have made it attractive to do so. But in some places it is dangerous. With little long-term perspective we gamble big time with lives and investment. Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason for this - it has been adaptive in the past.

Evolution has given us an adaptability to many environmental dynamics. But not on the scale of geologic events and not of the scale that we may now be able to precipitate ourselves. In crises like earthquakes and tsunamis we are faced with difficult immediate choices – Do we flee the building, do we run to a car and head for higher ground by a main road, which may be jammed, or do we walk there immediately? On foot, we can't travel very far, but what if a tsunami hits before we made it to our vehicle? We might get far enough by foot while the extra time to get to a car may be critical. We just don't know what is reality in the face of some crises. It is easy to feel helpless.

So human decision making is not always up to the challenges of immediate crises, but there is another type of crises to consider. We may not be up to the challenge of slowly developing crises that we ourselves are causing. We seem to have lots of gambles going now as much goes wrong in the natural, political,financial and international spheres. Lurking in the back of consciousness is the idea that we have these long-term gambles going along with a mega gamble on climate change.

Tsunamis arrive within minutes and but climate change could put us in hot water that is just as deadly and much longer lasting. I heard a vivid image of such a hot world described by Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's magazine's environmental correspondent. The ideas were from his new book "Hot: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth" by (see for a review). Using a variety of experts Hertsgaard envisions how day-to-day life might change, for what he calls Generation Hot, in the next 5, 10, and 50 years. For Generation Hot, the brutal summer of 2010 was part of the new normal for their future.

In Hot he describes a Chicago with the climate like Houston's. There is crop damage to prairie and California due to drought and snow pack melt off. Such things as extraordinary heat, rains, drought and flooding that occurred in the summer of 2010 are projections from the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization and they fit the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections of “more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.” We face a series of crises and the tsunami floods we see today in Japan may be emulated by stronger tropical storms of the next 50 years.

But listening to Hertsgaard the situation is not yet like the helplessness caused by the tsunami. His "pictures" of what to expect, includes creative precautions and that's what we need in the face of a challenging reality. We may be able to understand the situation enough to meet what he calls the“double imperative” of the climate fight. “We have to live through global warming,” he writes, “even as we halt and reverse it.” One part are initial priorities that experts call “mitigations” like deep emissions cuts . The other is to do everything we can to prepare for the inevitable effects of the climate change currently "baked in". Hertsgaard leverages the thinking of people like King County executive Ron Sims (who now is the deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). Sims has worked on the redesign needed to adapt to climate change in urban areas like Seattle, Washington. In the light of recent catastrophes there are cautions to consider. In Hertsgaard we hear a motivating message mixing concern with cautious hope. Something to consider as we face the immediate crises.

As a youth I read quite a bit of science fiction which is often upbeat about human possibilities. But one hard SF writer Larry Niven added notes of caution for our future. Taking an alien perspective (Trinocs) of human psychology, Niven's fictional character comments that "humans are insufficiently suspicious" of possible threats. From an alien perspective we seem much to anxious and ready to gamble with our survival in situations where we have no idea of the odds. The Trinoc wonders how we "have survived up till now(from A Hole in Space). Maybe by luck, but now we have to be doubly wise.

See also for his critique of climate deniers).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Costly Signaling for Lay Skeptics

Let's say you're an average person, of average intelligence, average education, with an average job, and you've run across several news articles.

One says that an asteroid has just been detected that will hit the earth in 2015. Another says that taking vitamin B3 daily can improve your cholesterol levels. A third says that increasing defense spending will help balance the budget. Another says that evidence of extraterrestrial life has been found in an Antarctic meteorite. A fifth one says that the Gospel of Mark has been dated as having been written between 40 and 50 CE. And finally, a story that people who prayed to a statue of Krishna have been cured of cancer and blindness.

How do you, as a lay person with a full-time day job, determine which ones to believe, and which ones to disregard?

I don't have a good answer, by the way. I'm hoping you can suggest something in the comments.

All such articles are trying to "sell" you an idea, in a broad, general sense. Sometimes the selling is literal, as when a company tries to convince you that you're a pathetic malodorous loser who'll never be accepted by the in-crowd or find true love unless you buy their product. Other times, it's metaphorical: "I want you to know this, because..." well, that's the question, isn't it? "Because we'll all benefit if people who will implement these ideas get elected." "Because I'll make a ton of money if you help elect people who'll implement these ideas." "Because I care about you and your health." "Because this will help save your soul from eternal damnation." "Because this idea, while bland, is true, and I think it's better if we know the truth."

It would be great if there were a single source to which one could turn to to get the truth, or if news articles came with a little checkmark, the way Twitter shows that "neilhimself" is the famous Neil Gaiman, while "NeilGaiman" is someone else. Unfortunately, that's not the case. The problem is that true ideas and false ideas can look an awful lot like each other.

But it occurs to me that nature has come up with a solution to this problem. In sexual species, males often try to communicate that "you should mate with me; I'll provide our offspring with plenty of food, and they'll be resistant to parasites and predation." In such cases, it's often advantageous to lie: a male who convinces a female he's in it for the long haul can impregnate her, then ditch her to impregnate someone else. Preferably while some other male sucker gets stuck caring for the liar's offspring.

So what's a female to do? How does she figure out who's serious about helping to feed the kids, and who's just trying to get inside her cloaca? One solution is known as costly signaling. "Signaling" refers to the "I've got great genes" message, above. The "costly" part means that the signal should be sent in a way that's difficult or expensive (in time, effort, ability, etc.) to fake. The usual example is that of the peacock, who demonstrates his worth by the fact that he's managed to survive despite having a huge, flashy tail that prevents him from flying, and hinders escape from predators. If he's managed to overcome such a handicap, he must have superior genes indeed.

The idea of costly signaling is more general than that: it basically means that the signaler has to invest enough effort or resources into the communication to be taken seriously, that cheating isn't worth it.

(As an aside, I can think of a few possible instances in human society: an engagement ring sends the message that "I'm willing to spend a pile of money on a small rock; so I'm in this for the long haul, not just for a quick fling". Taking a prospective client to dinner or to a ball game says "We don't do this for just anyone; but we're willing to do what it takes to get your business." And an Italian sports car and designer clothes say "I have so much money that I can afford to waste it on an expensive logo. Of course I'll be able to feed our family and send our kids to college.")

So getting back to my original point, it might be possible to identify costly signals to distinguish trustworth news sources from untrustworthy ones.

For instance, was the article published by a major news outlet, or by some local paper you've never heard of? In principle, the greater the reputation of the publication, the more editors and fact-checkers it has had to pass through to get published. Unfortunately, given the state of American journalism, this may not be as safe an assumption as one might hope.

A related criterion might be: do they have a fancy web site, or does it look like it was slapped together by someone's kid in the 1990s? Unfortunately, this doesn't work at all, since organizations like Americans for Prosperity, BP, and Answers in Genesis can easily afford good web designers.

Do the authors have letters after their name? An article on medicine written by an MD, or an article on science written by a Ph.D. is probably more trustworthy than one written by a beat reporter. The time and effort required to go through grad school or med school to obtain those letters should weed out the fakers.

Of course, the competence has to be in a relevant field: I tend to trust what Paul Krugman writes about the economy, because he has a degree and a Nobel prize in economics, but not if he writes about, say, medicine or geology.

And, of course, it's very easy to just say that one has a Ph.D., or to buy a degree from a diploma mill, without putting in the effort to learn a subject well enough to speak authoritatively about it. To combat this, there accreditation institutes that investigate schools and give their stamp of approval to the ones that require students to learn something before graduating. Of course, now that a lot of people have learned to ask "is your degree from an accredited school?", there are accreditation mills, which will accredit any diploma mill for a fee.

Has the author published any peer-reviewed research? Peer review is intended as a filter to make sure that research journals don't publish any old garbage. This criterion is probably pretty good, though not flawless. For one thing, it usually requires effort on the reader's part to seek out the author's publication record. For another, various creationist organizations publish cargo-cult "peer-reviewed" journals where articles are reviewed by a panel of fellow creationist before publication.

Trusted endorsements: this might be called the poor man's peer review. When Phil Plait, an astromer, writes a blog post that links to a post on astronomy, that's a good sign. It means that the article on the other end of the link hasn't raised Phil's baloney-meter. That tends to make me trust the article more, because Phil would notice errors that I wouldn't.

Does the site link to contrary views? In its heyday in the 1990s, one notable difference between the pro-evolution site and anti-evolution sites was that usually linked to the creationist sources they were discussing, and to creationist rebuttals of their articles. To me, this said "we're going to make it easy for you to read the other side's rebuttal, because we're confident that the facts are on our side, and even if you read both sides, you'll agree with us."

Any others? Ideally, the sort of costly signal should be something hard for the writer to produce, and easy for the reader to verify, without requiring too much effort (because we want to dismiss bogus claims quickly) and without requiring special knowledge. And if the criterion fits on a bumper sticker, so much the better.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Sometimes the Wolf is Real

On the Rachael Maddow show last night, she had Naomi Klein as a guest. Ms. Klein wrote a book, "The Shock Doctrine", which outlines a deliberate policy on the part of American Corporations to use disasters and crises as opportunities to put in place public policies and law to favor corporations and disadvantage or destroy unions and democratic institutions.

Sounds kinda similar to Hillary Clinton's "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy", doesn't it? You remember, the one everybody laughed about till she shut up in embarrassment?

Well, laugh no more. That very conspiratorial scenario is being played out, right now, in living color - in Michigan, in Wisconsin, Ohio and almost thirteen other States! Madam Secretary, I apologize for my skepticism - please take a bow!

The Michigan Senate is considering legislation that would allow the state to declare towns or school districts in a state of fiscal emergency, appoint an emergency financial manager, and give that manager very, very free rein. This at the same time that they are considering budget measures that would eviscerate State payments and revenue sharing with local municipalities, which threatens to cause widespread fiscal panic and crisis in the State. "Those powers include the ability to nullify collective bargained agreements, imposition of new agreements for those bargaining units which will have effect for as much as five years after the EMF leaves office and the ability for the manager to dissolve local governing bodies of schools and cities," reports the Michigan Messenger. "The EMF would also have the power to eliminate any local ordinance or law he or she decides to eliminate."

Emphasis mine.

This is sounding less like a simple attack on collective bargaining or even the Democratic Party, and much more like a naked attack on the very basic foundation of this country's values - democracy itself. It is solid proof that there IS a right wing conspiracy that is plotting (and has been for forty years) to overturn this country's democracy in favor of a kleptocracy.

It is a small group that has used religion, economic class warfare, culture warfare, economic and natural disasters and now, human manufactured economic crises (multiple ones in multiple States) to further their nefarious ends by dividing the middle class of this country, thus reducing opposition.

At the risk of sounding like a shrill crier of "wolf", I think it is important for all of us, not just on the left, to pay attention, close attention, to what the Republicans are doing.

Is it just my imagination, or are Republicans voting in large homogeneous blocks more than ever before, across the country? Has this kind of Party discipline EVER been seen in American politics? Maybe it has, but for it to manifest itself at this particular time, in the way it has, seems certainly suspicious, and not a little alarming. Look at Wisconsin for a minute. Over two thirds of the Wisconsin public has sent a clear, unambiguous message to that State's government that they are opposed to the Governor's attempts to force his way, and oppose his measures to kill collective bargaining. Yet, almost to a man, they have resisted this clear message, using unfair, nasty and underhanded tactics to force their will on a public that is opposed to and unwilling to support their position.

This same scenario is being played out in several other States, to similar public resistance.

I ask, is this really democracy in action? Or is there something else at work here?

I’ve seen any number of economic experts testify on TV that the recent recession was caused by the big American banks and Wall Street’s investment companies. Is it a coincidence that those are the very corporations that got bailed out using your taxes? Aren’t those the corporations whose top executives are getting huge bonuses in spite of their companies almost going out of business? Bonuses that are made possible largely by your taxes?

And what happened after that? The Democrats got one of their signature goals, health care reform, passed, and the Republicans spent almost the whole period before the election using that to smack the Democrats over the head, accusing them of failing to create jobs. Jobs that American corporations themselves failed to create, much to the puzzlement of numerous economists. (...and in spite of many corporations reporting record profits, too!)

So what do the Republicans immediately start doing once they win the election? Forget the jobs, the real problem, we are told, are things like abortion, gay marriage, and the deficit! Things that, coincidently, are perfect to excite their supporters and continue to divide the huge American middle class.

Yeah, perfect to excite the deluded masses of Americans that will fail to examine how their religious values are being exploited to bring an end to American democracy, all while they are being told by the Tea Party that the Party is devoted to its preservation against those evil big government big spenders, the Democrats.

Once again, religion is being used to bring the masses back under control.

Perfect, huh?

Studying the Development of Morality

Doug and Don have laid out their positions on whether morality is objective or subjective. There are a lot of these dichotomous views of things. Is knowledge innate or learned is one of these and perhaps a bit related to what Doug and Don where debating. Sometimes it is useful to take a different stance and see what makes sense. I wanted to add a few words on the morality issue coming from a different direction which sort of comes down in the middle of this. The perspective is ask where does (human) morality come from? Or put another way - how does it develop in us”. We might ask if we can objectively study its development. This understanding might tell us a bit about how we want to describe it based on the ingredients that make it possible.
There are some recent studies on both human infants and non-human animals that lead people to describe "morality" as predisposed and constrained (if not exactly innate). Paul Bloom (Yale) for example has studied the "Moral Life" of young (1 year old) babies who haven't had much time to be instructed in the cultures ideas so this gets at the origin of human ideas of right and wrong. In a NY Times article last year he described how researchers "watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands" ( - see the 5 minute video on how infants are studied). The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head. "

There were lots more studies with lots more babies but the key point of the article was to summarize the growing body of evidence which suggests that:

"humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be."

So I would make a suggestion that we can objectify some understanding of where human morality comes from, but I want to add that it develops and is influenced by personal experience and culture. In this view there is a degree of morality that is constrained by the species evolution.

I also want to add that this comparative topic of where ours and other species "morality" comes from is also under study. Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviorist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, has a good book on the evolutionary basis of morality and there are several others. De Waal summarizes his belief on the origin of human morality this way:

"Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality."

Here is an example about ownership, which it seems, has old primate roots. In decades of observations at the Yerkes colony, de Waal has noted that if the chimpanzees are given shareable food (like a big watermelon) they will race to get their hands on it. This, he believes, is because whichever chimpanzee gets the watermelon first, even the lowliest cur, will be respected as the owner of that morsel by the most dominant chimpanzee. De Waal concludes this seeing that even if mates beg and whine for some of it, no one will take the food away.

You can read more in his recent book "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society" or see:

Below is a bit of the argument. I want to stress that this is an organized argument with hypotheses and some data, which researchers are working on. So this isn’t established but an empirical form of some version of this may become a well supported “theory”.

The basic idea is that some substrate for morals tendencies are "inherited” in mammal brains through evolution. These were selected to provide a "social glue" that allowed some mammals (often aggressive and competitive animals, E.g. wolves) to live together in groups. Group life provided advantages so the social glue factors gets selected. During play, dominant wolves for example, will "handicap" themselves by engaging in roll reversal with lower ranking wolves, showing submission and allowing them to bite, provided it is not too hard.

One formulation is that what we might loosely call "moral codes" are species specific, (wolves social cohesion may have been selected in different ways than chimps for example) making them difficult to compare with each other or with humans. In this view there are moral nuances of particular cultures or group swill that make them different from another.

Various ethologists have compiled evidence from around the world that shows how different species of animals appear to develop a sense of thing we generally label as “ fairness”. Behaviorally they display empathy and help other animals that are in distress. One example people may have seen in film are displays of elephants concern for an injured elephant. But experience and culture plays a part in how intelligent species express their concerns. They are organized in different ways that we human describe as moral codes...a cultural phenomena.

So you can see some of the resulting perspective on morality expressed by Frans de Waal,:

"I don't believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species."

Does view this make morality objective or subjective? Well to me the answer is not exactly either, but the question of how morality develops in individuals and its phylogenetic origins is a question we can study objectively.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Exclusivity and ethnocentricity

This morning, a blog I follow for professional reasons included a truly astonishing quote from the Chabad organization. For those unfamiliar with the various strains of Judaism, Chabad-Lubovitch is a messianic branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism -- yes, the guys with the sidelocks and black hats you see occasionally on the subway.

In a rather tendentious argument about inside-baseball Jewish stuff, comes the following:

"When a Jew gives tzedakah, he's basically a Divine being accepting human obligations; he is basically humbling himself, lowering himself into the worldly human condition. When a non-Jew gives charity, he is basically a human being trying to elevate himself to something more Divine. So are the Jew and the non-Jew doing the same thing? Not at all. They're doing opposite things. The same act, but coming from opposite directions and accomplishing opposite results." (The full context can be found at

Now, this is an extremist point of view from an extremist strain of Judaism. Most members of liberal Jewish organizations would find this horrifying. My own liberal Hebrew Day School taught me many years ago that the concept of the "Chosen People" means that Jews are chosen for special responsibilities, not some version of quasi-divinity. And these same liberal Jews are quick to cite the obligation to Tikkun Olam -- fixing the world -- as the real responsibility of the Jewish people.

And yet. Even the liberal version of Jewish chosenness is fraught with problems. The concept of the special covenant between God and Abraham, inherited by every Jew, is central to Judaism. Many have argued that the concept of an exclusive contract with the divine is one reason the Jewish people survived centuries of exile and persecution. Only the divine dictat of an in-group could prevent assimilation into the surrounding culture, goes the argument. Perhaps so.

But as anyone who works on Middle Eastern issues realizes, this same concept complicates the concept of a Jewish state for a Jewish people. It infects arguments over land and history and sovereignity with an ethnocentricity that is understandable but often pernicious in practice. And, of course, a victimized people in a theocratic state, where ultra-religious rabbis regularly provide racist rulings to justify discrimination and occupation, is not usually going to be conscious of how the concept of chosenness has been used and perverted for political ends.

The Jews of Israel confront a people, the Palestinians, who are largely Muslim and have their own narrative of oppression and victimization -- a narrative also complicated by the religious dictats of Islam. Islam also insists on revealed truth available to its own adherents. What major religion does not?

Musing over Jewish history in the context of Israel is inescapable for anyone involved in the issues there, professionally or personally. Understanding that even liberal "Jewish values" involve self-imposed separation from the rest of the world, a paler and more acceptable version of the outrageous Chabad concepts, is not a popular notion among well-meaning social-justice Jews.

But it's the world I live in, and I'm stuck with it.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Possibility of an Objective Morality

My friend, Doug Drake, in his competing post titled Of Morality, Objective and Subjective quotes many authorities to demonstrate his thesis that humans are emotional animals. Given the persuasive nature of his arguments I now live in despair. I now know that all of objective truths of physics and chemistry are but illusions constructed by the silly scientists who fail to acknowledge the subjective quality of their explorations. I now know that we can know nothing of the nature and distances of the stars we see in the sky. My passionate fondness for the postulates and axioms of geometry mean that it is impossible for me to break free of my subjective prison and objectively prove any postulates of geometry. Alas, all claims to an objective understanding of anything has been demolished by Doug's impressive analytical onslaught.

Obviously, Doug in his essay did not say that his analysis proved that the domains of physics, chemistry, astronomy and geometry held no objective truths. However, The above paragraph is making a serious point. His failure was that he made no attempt whatsoever to look at truths which are universally acknowledged to be objective and ask if similar techniques could also be applied to moral reasoning.

I do not want the reader to take my argument as a flip dismissal of the point that Doug legitimately makes. I would assert that all valid dismissals of false claims of are in fact made within the context of our emotional nature as animals. We have learned about critical thinking and the scientific method. Actions and thinking that conform to what works by those criterion become associated with a positive emotional valance. As we learn about how to identify logical errors and unscientific thinking those become associated with some degree of negative emotional feeling. Thus we become rational beings while still being emotional animals.

I not only accept my emotional side, I celebrate it. We should feel free to bring the same joy of battle over the big questions of life as the marauding Vikings of centuries past. We should be free to use our tools of critical inquiry to wage war on any weak and unsound ideas that invade our social spaces. If a given understanding about our world survives the onslaught of our various tools of inquiry, it is much more likely that we can have confidence in it.

I would go even farther and suggest that much of the failure of secular humanists, atheists, agnostics and other secularists to have a political impact is due to the unfashionable style of discourse assumed by scientists as they make presentations or carefully hone the wording of their published papers. Our respect for the scientific method seems to convey an equal respect for the passive, third person, voice that is typically used in their communications. If we constrain ourselves to this type of stylistic “objectivity” then we will not resonate with the wider public. That said we obviously need to use the techniques of science to insure that our passions do not define or distort the findings of an objective inquiry.

Doug differs with Sam Harris when Harris asserts, “…most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.”

Unfortunately Sam Harris is correct and Doug is wrong on this point. This is most certainly the received opinion in science and philosophy. Doug did not include in his list of references to support his case G. E. Moore and his 1903 book Principia Ethica. In it Moore coined the phrase 'naturalistic fallacy' to describe any attempts to equate the term good with any natural property. As with all the other opinions cited by Doug G. E. Moore never proved any general principle. All he did was show that specific historical attempts to equate good with a naturalistic property such as pleasure did not work. He conceded in his book that it was entirely possible for someone to find a valid equivalence between good and some naturalistic property at some point in the future.

Doug did correctly include David Hume in his list of philosophers supporting his position. However, he left out the major argument made by Hume. Hume was famous for his conceptualization of the is-ought problem as a category error. Hume asserts that an ought or an ought not were entirely different from statements about what is. According to Wikipedia this complete severing of "is" from "ought" has been given the graphic designation of Hume's Guillotine.

This principle was communicated in a single, somewhat off the cuff paragraph, by Hume in his A Treatise of Human Nature. This was quite extraordinary because to me there is a simple and obvious mechanism to link the is and the ought. From a prior essay of mine, “Presume that we know that if we perform action A then we will have a consequence B. If we wish to achieve B then we can say that we "ought" to perform action A. The ought derives from the goal.” If there is to be some reason to select a given description of facts as an "ought" there must be something such as the seeking of a goal to provide the reason for that selection. I note that Wikipedia now has something very similar in its entry on the Is-Ought Problem.

All life has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. We have the goal to live and prosper in our ecosystem. The Darwinian principles of this process has honed every aspect of our existence including the goal seeking behavior implicit in all subjective understandings of moral value. Note that there is a substantial difference between the goals of an individual and the moral principles that are agreed to by a society of people working together. Any such wider agreement within groups of people on principle is still honed by the millions of years of evolutionary history. It is not arrived at by a purely subjective process even if subjectivity appears to be a central element of all of our moral responses.

Doug decries Sam Harris's use of emotion in his presentations when that is irrelevant to the central question that must be addressed. We know that many fields of science and mathematics have well defined definitions for objects of inquiry and the methods to determine the truth or falsehood of given propositions concerning those objects. The question then becomes whether or not Sam Harris and others who wish to develop a scientific analysis of the moral landscape can present the formal structure and tools so that others can replicate their findings. If findings can be replicated in a way that is analogous to fields we accept as objective then we have a new domain of objective inquiry.

I consider Sam Harris to be a bit of an amateur at the game of moral reasoning. He has done a remarkable job in publicizing the possibility of an objective morality. I commend him for that. However, Doug was able to read him without getting the salient principle that morality is an attempt to codify the goal seeking behavior implicit in human life itself. Doug cannot suggest that goal seeking is not objectively real. Doug suggests that Harris is saying “Anyone who doesn’t agree with him is consigned to outer darkness, without appeal, certainly a good way to deflect criticism if rather dubious as a means of approaching the truth.” However, Doug is the one that is doing this. He assumes without any justification that if he can point to any subjective experience in the cognition of those who claim moral principles that then he has demonstrated that absence of an objective reality. He does not realize that physics and chemistry are not real sciences by this criterion. All findings of objective fact rests on underlying emotions which value the tools which make those findings.

Yes human life does have goals. “Human flourishing” is a decent first attempt at a general term to capture that general goal. And yes those who somehow reject that goal seeking behavior as an objective fact worthy of systematization in a science of morality fully deserve the outer darkness they earn by that rejection. Such people are denying both the physical reality of the built in goal seeking behavior or the possibility to understand and systematize it into a system of morality. There is a very real link between the is and the ought.

Let's take the next step and demonstrate the required nature of any investigation of morality based on “human flourishing.” I think a needed first step is to recognize the limits of our cognitive tools to understand complex systems. I have gratitude to Gary for his excellent post titled Towards Understanding Rationality and its Limits Regarding Complex Issues. He presents cogent reasons why we need to limit the scale of the questions we ask to those where empirical evidence is either available or possible. That does not mean that we cannot ask complex questions but to be objective we need to reconstruct and document the extremely complex networks of causation that are needed to fully understand complex social systems.

Is it moral to use vaccinations against influenza viruses? We have empirical data to answer this as a moral question using the human flourishing criterion. Humans are not flourishing when they are sick and they certainly are not flourishing when they die. We have the objective evidence to demonstrate that vaccinations reduce instances of both sickness and death.

Doug had the legitimate concern that “(Secular delusions) in their most pathological manifestations, they can spawn secular religions such as “scientific” Communism, whose adherents believed just as fondly as Sam Harris that it would lead to a future of unprecedented 'human flourishing.'” We can dismiss this as a possibility if we respect the limits of our tools to assess objective facts as suggested in Gary's essay.

That does not mean that we cannot or should not push back when right-wing or left-wing ideologues propound positions that are not supported by the facts. It does mean we should do it with a bit of humility and the knowledge that we will not be able to unambiguously prove the morality of complex actions that should be taken.

I have a more robust treatment of a formal approach to ethics in my essay A Theory of Ethical Value published on-line here:

I do want to express my gratitude to Doug Drake for his very literate and informed essay starting this discussion.  My hope is that our discussion of the issues will bring a deeper understanding to our community.

Of Morality, Objective and Subjective

by Doug Drake

A funny thing happened at the DC Atheists Meetup the other night. One of the two proposed topics of discussion was “the values we have used to reach our atheism.” I found this rather intriguing. I am not aware that I used any values to reach my atheism. I merely concluded that supernatural beings do not exist. To sound my fellow infidels on the subject, I tossed out the observation that, in my opinion, there can be no such thing as objective morality. The ensuing discussion became sufficiently vociferous to raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded unbelievers in the crowd, and I fear that some of the newbies present may have swallowed their gum. It happened, you see, that a couple of my secular colleagues were decidedly of the opposite opinion. They went so far as to claim that objective morality not only exists, but that it does not rely on any emotional basis, and can be demonstrated scientifically.

Now all this would seem counterintuitive to a superficial observer of the modern scene. After all, Darwin himself had no qualms about recognizing the emotional basis of morality. As he put it (The Descent of Man, chapter 3),

“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”


“A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.”

Similar examples of his thought on this subject may be found in his “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Given the flood of books on the subject that have appeared in the last decade, it would seem that Darwin’s conclusions regarding the emotional fundament of morality are being abundantly confirmed in our own day. See, for example, Hardwired Behavior by Tancredi, The Ethical Brain by Gazzaniga, The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley, and, regarding Darwin’s observations of a moral sense in animals, Wild Justice by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce. As students of philosophy are aware, Hume came to the same conclusion without sitting on Darwin’s shoulders. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted in his paper “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,”(pdf available online),

David Hume in Particular proposed that moral judgments are similar in form to aesthetic judgments: They are derived from sentiment, not reason, and we attain moral knowledge by an “immediate feeling and finer internal sense,” not by a “chain of argument and induction.”

Even the brilliant John Stuart Mill, that great architect of the moral system of Utilitarianism, balked at accepting such an animal as objective morality. As he put it in Utilitarianism,

The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our own minds, I see nothing embarrassing to those whose standard is utility, in the question, what is the sanction of that particular standard? We may answer, the same as of all other moral standards – the conscientious feelings of mankind. Undoubtedly this sanction has no binding efficacy on those who do not possess the feelings it appeals to;

and, giving further point to his belief that morality is subjective, not objective in nature,

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of ‘Things in themselves’, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

I point out in passing that Mill was anything but a “Blank Slater,” meaning someone who, after the fashion of the orthodoxy prevailing in the social sciences for much of the 20th century, denies any significant role of human nature as an influence on human behavior. Steven Pinker, who I somehow suspect hasn’t actually read some of the authors he cites, makes that claim in his book, “The Blank Slate.”In fact, while Mill was of the opinion that fully developed moral codes are not innate, he stated quite explicitly that the sentiments that give rise to them are, as can be immediately seen by anyone who takes the trouble to glance through “Utilitarianism,” and he by no means denied the significance of human nature.

Those whose tastes run to more ancient thinkers can look at Plato’s wonderful dialogue, Euthyphro. There we find Socrates conversing in his famous dialectic style with one of the “ethics experts” of his day about the definition of piety. The man was so sure that he knew the “objective good” that he was prosecuting his own father for manslaughter. As Socrates demonstrated, the thing Euthyphro thought he had such a firm hold on was very slippery indeed.

In a word, there is a strong philosophical case, and increasingly compelling evidence based on scientific research, that morality is subjective, not an objective thing that is legitimate in itself, independent of any emotions, sentiments or predispositions in the mind that might seem to give rise to it. Were my fellow atheists at the meeting, then, merely outliers and anomalies? Hardly!

In fact there is a very strong, and perhaps dominant, current among the secular public intellectuals who interest themselves in the subject of morality today according to which the Good exists as an objective “thing in itself,” as Mill put it. This Good is supposed, not only to transcend the subjective minds of individuals, but its existence and legitimacy are deemed scientifically verifiable. It is often identified or associated with “human flourishing,” or something akin thereto. “New atheist” Sam Harris is an outstanding example of this trend. He has a fervent belief in a “moral truth” that he suggests is discoverable using the latest scientific technique. According to Sam, we must “think about moral truth in the context of science,” in order to “maximize human well-being.” He deems it “obvious” that “we need some universal conception of right and wrong.” However, as he sees it, there is an “impediment” in the way of our search for “moral truth.” As he put it in remarks he delivered at a recent conference organized by the Edge Foundation on “The New Science of Morality,”

“…most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.”

It’s hard for me to understand the basis for such a claim. I honestly wonder what people Harris is referring to here. He claims to have received thousands of e-mails from them, and perhaps they are out there, but I have run into very few of them. Certainly the other two among the “big three” atheist intellectuals, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are both passionately devoted to their own versions of good and evil. Read the blogs of the left or the right with some claim to intellectual heft, and one gets the impression that their authors are much more likely to suffer from pathological piety than any ambivalence about what they consider right and wrong. Be that as it may, Harris assures us that he is prepared to defend claims to “moral truth in the context of science.” And how are we to recognize “scientific moral truth?” According to Harris,it is that which “maximizes human well-being,” and “human flourishing,” presumably as those terms are understood by secular intellectuals in the early 21st century.

And what kind of scientific proof does Harris have in mind to establish the verity of his moral truths.
Read his book, The Moral Landscape, or, if your time is limited, his blog or theonline remarks referred to above, and you will find that it amounts to evoking morally linked emotions in a group of ideologically similar individuals and daring any of them to step outside the ideological box they live in by denying they feel those emotions or that they are not elicited by the kinds of evils Harris evokes. Some examples of his scientific technique:

“In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.”

“Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.”

“I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery.”

And so on. In other words, Harris’ “proof” of the legitimacy of “moral truth” amounts to demonstrating that he can elicit moral emotions similar to his own in a group of like-minded individuals. This is less than compelling evidence of what he proposes to prove. Harris also plays games with the word “values.” For example,

“The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to cut the heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.”

Here, Harris evokes emotion as before, in this case in response to the beheading of adulterers, and then conflates two different definitions of the word “value.” In one case, it is the utilitarian value of doing good science to accomplish some desired end. For example, the technique used to create the atomic bomb was “valuable” in that sense, because the goal was achieved; the bomb went off. Emotion had nothing to do with that fact. It would have gone off whether its creators had strong emotional feelings about the utilitarian “values” they used to create it or not.

In the second case, the “values” referred to are moral values, and while “good science” can be demonstrated with repeatable experiments, good morality cannot. It may be that on occasion the outcomes of moral actions can also be demonstrated with repeatable experiments, but at that point one must answer the question as to whether those outcomes are “really good.” Such questions cannot be answered unless, at some point, one makes a subjective value judgment. What Harris is doing here is simply assuming that what he defines as “human flourishing” is “really good.” Anyone who doesn’t agree with him is consigned to outer darkness, without appeal, certainly a good way to deflect criticism if rather dubious as a means of approaching the truth. “Science” only comes in after the fact, as a means of discovering how best to achieve “human flourishing,” which is accepted a priori as “really good”based on a purely subjective value judgment. Listen to any “scientific proof” of the “objective good,” and such a subjective judgment will inevitably creep in at some point. It’s equivalent to the “miracle happens” step in a “scientific proof” that appears in one of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons.

Does all this really matter? Most definitely so. The fact that there may be unpleasant consequences to belief in the objective existence of things that really have no such existence should be obvious to those familiar with the history of religious wars, the holy inquisition, the murder of hundreds of thousands of women in Europe as “witches,” and the countless massacres of Jews that have occurred over the centuries, not to mention anyone who experienced the events of 911. The same can be said of secular delusions. In their most pathological manifestations, they can spawn secular religions such as “scientific” Communism, whose adherents believed just as fondly as Sam Harris that it would lead to a future of unprecedented “human flourishing.” The mayhem and misery it really led to is documented in the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many others.

And what if I am right and morality is really subjective, having no existence other than as the expression of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains? Will it lead to an amoral society and “moral relativism?” I think not. Our brains are not wired for “moral relativism” for the very good reason that it would not have enhanced our chances of surviving as social animals. The expression of human morality will continue along familiar tracks regardless of the “objective” reasons contrived to justify it after the fact. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in the paper referred to above, “moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.” In my own case, I can testify that I am the least of “moral relativists.” I tend to experience the moral rules I subscribe to as absolutes, and am subject to occasional episodes of virtuous indignation, pious outrage, and the distinct impression that I am morally superior to other human beings. I have merely come to realize that there is no objective basis for such pious buffoonery and self-righteous posing. It strikes me that the world would be a more pleasant place if the strident zealots of the left and right who currently set the tone of debate touching on matters political and philosophical would come to the same conclusion.

Posted for Doug Drake