Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Evolution of Christianity
Sunday, December 10, 2017
An assisted dying act that merits consideration
Maryland has so far been resistant to passing a voluntary assisted end of life law. The state of Victoria in Australia recently enacted a Voluntary Assisted Dying Act law which is more elaborate and detailed than similar state laws in the United States. These laws require that the patient be diagnosed as having a remaining life expectancy of no more than six months, although Victoria's law increases this to twelve months for neurodegenerative diseases. Also, unlike here, Victoria's law has a provision to allow someone other than the patient to sign the patient's written request and to assist with administering the drugs if the patient is unable.
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
The Big Questions of Philosophy by David K. Johnson
David K. Johnson is a professor of philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania who produced a Great Courses series of videos titled The Big Questions of Philosophy that sells for about $70 dollars (less for audio, more for DVD). Some county government library systems have contracted with a company that sponsors a web site, and also an app, called kanopy. Kanopy makes many videos available for free to people with library cards. At least some, if not most, of those videos do not appear to be very good. But among the many hundreds of free videos on kanopy is the entire set of 36 half hour lectures of the aforementioned course.
Saturday, October 21, 2017
Petition Boy Scouts to include nontheists
The Boy Scouts of America Charter and ByLaws says: "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." No child should ever feel that they are less good, less worthy, or less capable to lead or "grow into the best kind of citizen" because they do not subscribe to religion. We know that the best kind of citizens are those who respect all people, of all faiths and no faith. The religiously unaffiliated is now the largest "religious group" in the country and our numbers are strongest among young people. We will no longer stay quiet and let organizations like the Boy Scouts tell us and our children that we cannot be moral upstanding citizens without God. With your help and your voice, we will change hearts, minds, and policy. Please help us continue to raise awareness about this issue by signing and then sharing this petition http://p2a.co/UhRsQLF with your friends and family, especially parents who may be considering Boy Scouts of America for their children.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Federal judge declares higher power must be deity
The dispute dates to February 2015, when Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, invited one of his constituents, Dan Barker, to deliver the invocation as a Congressional guest. The office of Catholic House Chaplain Patrick Conroy informed Barker that all guest chaplains must be “ordained by a recognized body in the faith in which he/she practices” and must present a copy of their ordination certificate as proof. He also advised that the invocation must address a “higher power.”
Barker had retained his 1975 ordination as a means to officiate at weddings to bypass discriminatory laws that restrict marriage officiants to clergy. Barker submitted his ordination certificate to Conroy’s office. He said he believes there is no higher power than “we, the people of these United States.” Conroy did not respond for almost one year, until January 2016. He then informed Barker he was denying his request to give the invocation because he had publicly announced his atheism.
Mr. Barker, the co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, consulted a lawyer and sued the Chaplain, and Speaker Paul Ryan, in May 2016. He claimed his exercise of religion rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated. Judge Collyer concluded this argument fails: "Taking as true Mr. Barker’s allegations that atheism is his religion and assuming, but not finding, that RFRA applies to the House, the court finds Mr. Barker has failed adequately to allege a claim under RFRA because he fails to allege a substantial burden". She went on to explain that a substantial burden “exists when government action puts ‘substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.’”
Government authorities demand that Mr. Barker modify his belief based behavior as a condition for qualifying to participate in a government sponsored activity is a substantial demand. But the "pressure" was insubstantial in the sense that not participating in this activity is relatively easy, much easier than changing beliefs and related behaviors. This reflects the fact that the activity at issue, Congressional sponsored invocation, is itself unnecessary. Congress can perform all of its functions, and lawmakers can voluntarily pray before each session begins, without an opening prayer ritual or a paid chaplain.
Barker also cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which declared that governments cannot discriminate between different beliefs when selecting who gives government sponsored invocations, to support his legal challenge. Collyer, oddly, declared that the ruling didn’t apply to Barker because the justices did not cite atheists in that particular decision. “To decide that Mr. Barker was discriminated against and should be permitted to address the House would be to disregard the Supreme Court precedent that permits legislative prayer,” the judge said.
Judge Collyer is singling out atheists for the negative purpose of refusing to apply an otherwise generally applicable civil rights protection that the Supreme Court recently reasserted. She is inserting a 'discriminate against atheists' clause into the law. Atheists lack generally applicable civil rights protections unless the Supreme Court explicitly says otherwise, according to Collyer.
Insofar as it is true that government sponsored legislative invocation is, by default, for theists only, as Collyer dubiously claims, it follows that the practice of legislative invocation itself violates the constitution for favoring theism over atheism and discriminating against atheist citizens. But legislative invocation was initiated during the first congress and declaring it unconstitutional would be difficult. Therefore, judges who are committed to the constitution and its civic equality protections should be defining legislative invocation as open to people of all beliefs, include those who believe that there is no deity to speak to. This would be easy to do and, contrary to what Collyer says, would not conflict with Supreme Court rulings.
Congress is a place where people occasionally say something that others who are present and listening disagree with, so what is the problem? An opening Congressional invocation by Dan Barker that does not cite deity is not going to infringe on anyone else's rights. Barker, not surprisingly, said he is disappointed with the ruling, complaining that it allowed the House chaplain’s ”personal biases against the nonreligious” to block him from fully participating in our government. I agree.
Sunday, October 08, 2017
The redistricting method of the future
Friday, October 06, 2017
Religion sometimes threatens civil liberties and rule of law
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
The Soros Lectures at the Central European University, by George Soros
Reviewed by Bill Creasy
With most intellectuals, you can ask: If they are so smart, why aren't they rich? You can't say that about George Soros. He has made a fortune by trading currencies, most famously making $1 billion in a single day. This book begins with his short biography, and Soros is also a frustrated philosopher, having studied under Karl Popper. He went into finance when the philosophy job didn't work out. Recently, he has concentrated on philanthropy and has returned to philosophy.
He claims in this short book, made up of 5 university lectures, that his understanding of philosophy gave him an edge for successful trading. The first lecture discusses the basis of his two important ideas, and the other chapters apply them to current issues. The lectures were given in Oct. 2009, so a major theme is to discuss the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis. The audio and video of the lectures are available on his website, www.soros.org.
His two ideas are direct challenges to prevailing assumptions of economics and other social sciences. The ideas seem obvious in some ways, but are also important in trying to explain social events.
The first idea is called "fallibility" by Soros. It is based on the fact that human beings have imperfect knowledge and reasoning about reality. Classical economics assumes a state of equilibrium from participants who have enough knowledge about a situation to make rational decisions. Soros says that this assumption is false. Imperfect information affects not only decisions, but also gives rise to simplified and simplistic approximations, rules of thumb, political slogans, generalizations, and moral precepts. Peoples' use of these simple rules cause imperfect responses to uncertain situations. This doesn't justify the postmodern statement that there isn't any real objective information. Soros thinks there is valuable information, but there is usually not enough information to fully characterize economic events.
Soros discusses the idea of a "fertile fallacy." This is an idea that can be wrong or flawed but can still lead to productive actions in the correct direction. He says, “We are capable of acquiring knowledge, but we can never have enough knowledge to allow us to base all of our decisions on knowledge. It follows that if a piece of knowledge has proved useful, we are liable to overexploit it and extend it to areas where it no longer applies, so that it becomes a fallacy.” For example (my example, not his), "liberty and justice for all" is a fertile fallacy. Liberty and justice are always in tension, because one person's liberty can lead to someone else's injustice. But the slogan can still lead people towards an ideal of a freer society with a fairer legal system. He says, “Fertile fallacies are...the equivalent of bubbles in financial markets.”
Soros's other idea is called "reflexivity," and it is more complex. The purpose of social science is to observe patterns or develop hypotheses about social behavior in a passive way. But as soon as a pattern is observed, human beings immediately try to exploit the observation to their own benefit, in an active, manipulating way. The active manipulation can change or even completely destroy the pattern!
This effect can explain the 2008 financial crisis to some degree. (The following is my condensed version of an explanation, which Soros discusses in more abstract terms.) Prior to 2000, mortgage loans were considered to be extremely safe investments. The mortgages were based on real property, and people were generally conscientious about paying for their houses. However, large financial institutions saw this simple rule and exploited it. They tried to sell as many mortgages as they could and combine them into "risk-free" securities. Many new houses were built and sold to generate more mortgages. The result was that mortgages were given to people who couldn't afford to pay for them. The surplus of houses and foreclosures caused a glut of housing, making prices fall so the amounts of existing mortgages were larger than the value of the property. The actions by the financial institutions changed mortgages from a safe investment to a risky one that has cost them a lot of money.
It would be nice if the crisis was over. But the current European financial problem is from other "safe" loans: sovereign debt, or loans to governments to finance deficits. Again, this is a safe investment until it is taken to excess. Soros said in a Newsweek interview, "The situation is about as serious and difficult as I've experienced in my career." (Jan. 30, 2012, p. 53). The U.S. is also borrowing money to make an unprecedented national debt.
This effect shows the difference between social science and physical science. In physical science, discovery of a pattern or a natural law can be exploited and the law doesn't change. With social science, discovery of a pattern causes people to change the pattern. As a result, the pattern can cease to be true, except historically.
Soros pointed out this problem, but there is a certain irony in Soros's description of his ideas. He puts them in terms of physical science, using terms such as "equilibrium" and "feedback," and he even develops a "human uncertainty principle," in analogy to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle. This doesn't seem to be unusual in the social sciences. Soros writes, “Economists in particular suffer from what Sigmund Freud might call 'physics envy.'” But the human uncertainty principle, as he describes it, is quite different from the physical one, because humans intentionally act to completely change the observations. Putting this effect in terms used by physics is simply misleading, because physics doesn't have such a problem. Soros comments, “The alchemists made a mistake in trying to change the nature of base metals by incantation. Instead, they should have focused their attention on the financial markets, where they could have succeeded.”
Regardless, the ideas that Soros discusses are interesting and relevant to current problems. In the second chapter, he discusses financial bubbles and the reason that government regulation is necessary to establish rules in financial markets. In the other chapters, he discusses the difference between markets and politics and why they should have different systems of operation. If you are wondering why financial deregulation doesn't work and why free market rules don't apply to politics, this small book is worth reading.
This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.
Saturday, September 09, 2017
Unsafe Spaces Tour panel at American University this month
Spiked magazine is sponsoring a series of Unsafe Spaces Tour panels at different universities, including Rutgers and Harvard. They claim they are trying to promote "the humanist case for free speech". Tickets are free. On September 28, there’s a panel at American University (Washington, D.C.) on “Feminism, sex, and censorship on campus” featuring Nadine Strossen, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Ella Whelan, and Robert Shibley.
Saturday, August 19, 2017
A Darwin substitute for Lamarck?
Monday, August 14, 2017
Over there and over here, one difference
We collectively make our history. Human history has its ups and downs. Our legacy is not particularly good overall, there are many ugly events to relate. We should not be proud of our history, it is too often shameful. We need our history, for its pains and glories, and it's ambiguities too, as lessons. From history we can learn about what not to do, sometimes about what to do, to locate a better future. From the past we select what history we value when we name our airports, towns, and highways, and who we honor with memorial statues in our public places.
However, there is a difference. Here, but not there, the names of Confederate generals were part of the public infrastructure. Those Confederate generals endorsed, and fought to preserve, commercial kidnapping and enslaving of Africans, many of whom were killed as a result, and whose ancestors live among us today. The Civil War history was not a part of my life. My European Jewish ancestors came here during and after WW I, fleeing the anti-semitism that later morphed into the mass murder of Jews who remained in Europe. Yet this history, both on the Nazi and Confederate sides, kept announcing itself uninvited in odd places and contexts where it did not belong, strangely introduced and repeated by people with crayons, ink, knives, paint, flags, and words. But with the highway and place names for Confederate war heroes here only.
The people of Charlottesville, like all towns, decide for themselves what history they want to associate themselves with. They acted reasonably and responsibly when they decided to remove a statue of a Confederate general from their town park. Among the decisions our local governments face, whether or not that statue resides in a park is not a particularly pressing national concern. This is primarily a concern for the people living in those towns.
The people with torches and battle flags who thought the public display of this particular statue was so important that they traveled from all over the country to demonstrate for keeping the statue in that park have misdirected priorities. Adding or removing a statue does not establish, change, or erase the history. The overreaction against the removal of the statue is evidence that such statues and place names are not innocent and academic placeholders for history. They are deemed by caucasian, and some Christian, supremacists, such as David Duke and his followers, as representing a positive history that we should emulate, as endorsing traditional attitudes and policies that we should identify ourselves with today. Instead, more towns and states should follow the positive trend of removing the Confederate war hero statues and place names. Their essential place is in our history books. They need not be, and should not be, the statues in our parks or our place names.
Monday, July 31, 2017
A Word for the Lower Middle Class
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
CFI opposes efforts to penalize critics of Islam
“It’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” he added.
“If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.
“It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.
“They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, Isis and the Iranian regime.
“So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.”
Saturday, July 22, 2017
Evidence for string theory and atheism
String theory posits that the particles and forces that physicists detect using machines are vibrating, string shaped units of energy embedded in a universe that is multi-dimensional. Like most of science, this theory is non-intuitive and counter-intuitive to us. Not in a million years would any philosopher, or theologian, or science fiction author, have invented string theory by reasoning primarily from their intuition, instead of from following the empirical evidence. It can be difficult, even for the scientists themselves, but especially for non-scientists like me, to grasp the concept. The pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive quality of modern theories regarding how our universe functions is important. This tells us that we must rely on empirical evidence, and the consensus of experts when possible, not on our intuition, because our ignorant intuition is incompetent and more likely to be a counter-productive obstacle than a productive tool for understanding.