Saturday, December 17, 2022

We have free choice and no free will

 By Mathew Goldstein

Free will can be a confusing and complicated topic and some people are intellectually or emotionally invested in the notion that we have free will. For these reasons I have hesitated to write about it. Yet there is a wrong perspective regarding free will that merits being debunked, all the more so because it is commonly held. That wrong perspective is that we all have a supernatural, contra-causal, libertarian, free will. Will and choice are not synonyms and conflating the two is a primary cause of confusion.

Choice occurs whenever there are alternative courses of action and we select one, inclusive of selecting taking no action when that is an available option. We can characterize our choices as “free” when there is no disproportionate coercion intentionally directed against any of the choices, notwithstanding that our available choices are always limited and/or constrained and often entail tradeoffs. So lack of coercion is all we need to establish that we have meaningfully significant, albeit incomplete/limited/compromised, free choice. We sometimes have more than enough choices, even too many choices. We all have freedom of choice. Free will is different.

Free will is a claim that the choices we make when we are free to choose are not inevitable. Defined thusly, free will, if it existed, would be a strictly libertarian phenomena that, unlike all other known phenomena, evinces an other-worldly absence of a causal constraint (it is contra-causal). Some people may think this distinction between free choice and free will is a meaningless distinction. While this is far from the most important issue that humanity confronts, it is still a meaningful distinction. Compatibalists do a very good job of arguing, correctly in my view, that free choice is all we need and all we really want if we consider the question more carefully. They defend free will anyway by redefining it as free choice (which is why they are called Compatibalists). I am not going to do that.

Some compatibalists argue that, even though in principle our future behaviors can be predicted in advance, in practice that will not happen, or will happen only to a limited extent, because of the immensity of the practical obstacles and maybe also the uncertainty principle in physics ruling out our having complete knowledge altogether even in principle. They then link this unpredictability to free will. However, insofar as free will is defined as being dependent on our being unable to predict the future it becomes a product of our unavoidable ignorance and as such is otherwise not a phenomena meaningfully distinct from free choice. Fermions do not have free will because of the uncertainty principle, neither do we. Nor do we obtain an additional degree of freedom from ignorance. Poetic language is sometimes our best option for communicating effectively. We exercise free will poetically. Yet there is also value in precision and clarity that is lost when we communicate poetically. Accordingly, this discussion retains the traditional definition of free will as libertarian in the strong sense that renders it different from free choice.

If we lack free will than the story of a deity punishing serpents and humanity for the first reproducing human pair choosing to eat apples at the behest of the former makes no sense. Not that a talking serpent, a first human couple, eating an apple generating an ability to discern bad versus good behaviors, etc., makes sense even if we did have free will. But that story doubly makes no sense given that the choices people make are inevitable. This is because there is no logical justification for such perpetual retribution against humanity because two people made a bad free choice given that no human could do other than what they freely choose to do.

The notion that we freely make choices and at the same time the decisions we make are inevitable is somewhat contradictory, which contributes to an unwillingness to accept that we lack free will. What does it mean to have choices when the choices we make are inevitable? It means that we are choice deciding and selecting biological/metabolic machines. The choices we make go a long way towards defining who we are as individuals. Humans are one living animal among many animals, plants, and single cells, confronted with, and freely selecting among, alternative possible actions. Humans uniquely have the capacity to be aware of this, but our additional self awareness and reasoning capabilities are not evidence that we are otherwise distinct and operate very differently from the rest of the universe. The universe may operate stochastically, it may operate deterministically, it may operate both ways, but as far as we have been able to determine, everything operates mechanically (which is one of the defining characteristics of naturalism).

We no more will our choices/decisions/behaviors than we will the weather. Both are inevitable and outside of our control. The difference is that we are each the agents/actors behind our choices/decisions/behaviors and we are thusly self-responsible for our choices/decisions/behaviors while we have no such self-responsibility for the weather.

Another source of confusion is the notion that justice requires free will. That notion is rooted in an unrealistically idealistic notion of justice. We have a practical need to discourage misbehaviors. It follows that we have a need to punish bad behavior for the purpose of discouraging bad behavior. Against some bad behaviors there is a need to protect ourselves by removing the bad actor from the rest of the community. A lack of free will does not equate to a lack of need to protect ourselves from bad actors. We organize to protect ourselves from bad actors by acting against the transgressors who harm others. We are ourselves one person who is similar to other people and this is a reason we are justified in prioritizing human life over other life. Humanity depends on other life and our planet’s ecosystems more generally, so we also cannot safely disregard the rest of life. We do this because it makes for a better life for ourselves and for the rest of humanity. Justice is as much, if not more so, pragmatic, as it is idealistic. 

Justice, to be meaningfully realized, has to be rooted in the facts. Facts come first, there is an always present need to be careful to distinguish what is true from what is false to accurately achieve our goals. Free will (defined as contra-causal and libertarian) is inconsistent with a current science based understanding of how the universe works. Accordingly, vengeful retribution is unjustified and incompatible with justice.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Free Inquiry article by Robyn Blumner

 By Mathew Goldstein

I recommend this article Robyn Blumner, the CEO of CI, published recently in their Free Inquiry magazine  The Truth Matters and Secular Humanists Should Defend It.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Catholic Church Abuse in Maryland

Brian Frosh, the Maryland Attorney General, has developed a 463 page document on his investigation of the Catholic Church in Maryland. Given that some of the details were developed in Grand Jury testimony he cannot release this document without court approval. The Religion News Service has published some of the details of the AG court request for asking for this release. This includes:

  • 158 Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Baltimore who have been accused of sexually and physically abusing more than 600 victims over the past 80 years

  • While the court filing noted that more than 600 victims were identified, it also said “there are almost certainly hundreds more, as the Department of Justice’s Annual Crime Victimization Report has demonstrated that most incidents of sexual assault go unreported.”

  • “One congregation was assigned eleven sexually abusive priests over 40 years.”

Read the entire Religion News Service article here:

Sunday, November 20, 2022

American Theocracy after November 2022 Elections

 Democracy in our nation dodged a bullet in the recent election. Kay Ivey was the only election denier elected as the Governor of a state. It is not as if the Democratic Party is likely to win Alabama in the near future. To my knowledge there were no state level candidates who denied Biden’s proper election and achieved state level control over future elections. However, there were over 100 Big Lie lunatics elected, mostly to the House of Representatives. The American Taliban remains alive and well.

The primary success of American theocracy remains the systematic dismantling of women’s rights to reproductive choice in at least half the states. Gov. Youngkin very much wants to include Virginia in that group of states. There is a systematic attack on the school systems with claims of critical race theory being used to denigrate white people, libraries peddling LGBT porn, grooming of young children to adopt other sexual identities, book banning, etc. The radical support for the gun nut crowd has resulted in a nation nearly choking on a flood of lethal firepower. This has created a reign of terror with nearly daily mass shootings. We have five dead and 18 injured late yesterday, at a Colorado Springs gay night club. The gays have in many ways won the culture war. They are accepted almost everywhere. Theocrats do not like that. Their hate speech is the foundational reason for this and other varieties of mass shootings. Welcome to the culture war where people actually die.

AG Garland appointed a special counsel to prosecute Trump. It is highly likely that this will result in his conviction and removal as a candidate for 2024. That is my expectation. Ron DeSantis released a preposterous hyper-religious ad declaring that God created a fighter, specifically him. I am sure the Christian nationalists of his base will love this “fighter” for their cause. DeSantis won a resounding reelection in Florida and most people are now saying that Florida is now a firmly red state. I doubt that, but he does have Trump-like charisma and ability to inspire the right wing theocratic base. It is excessively likely that an election between Biden and DeSantis would lock down the White House into Ron’s variety of hate spewing theocracy. DeSantis loves to say, “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Woke is any semblance of compassion or respect for those outside his preposterous world view. Secular liberalism has no one who can own a stage as much as this God inspired travesty of political mayhem.

I have been asserting that our culture, and the wider world, is teetering on the brink authoritarianism analogous the 1930s. Many tens of millions died in the resulting WWII. I am now asserting that our present spin on authoritarian madness can be projected to cause an order of magnitude more deaths. This is implicit in the ecosystem collapse from the climate change crisis mandated by right-wing denialism. I see no possibility for the long term dead to not approach at least a billion if we do not act more forcefully than permitted by these theocrats. We currently have many countries that are on a glide path to becoming failed states ruled by competing drug gangs and private armies. This is not a good thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Blaise Pascal’s argument for truth from faith

 By Mathew Goldstein

Vance Morgan is the author of “Freelance Christianity” on the Progressive Christianity channel of Patheos.  Patheos describes itself as “… the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality, and to explore and experience the world's beliefs.” His most recent post is “The Heart Has Its Reasons . . .: My Evidence Against Atheism”.  He defends Christianity as a “ first principle”, quoting Blaise Pascal.

“We know the truth, not only through reason, but also through the heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it.”

He says “the problem is the atheist’s refusal to accept that there are more kinds of evidence than rational and more sources of belief than reason.”, again quoting Blaise Pascal.

“Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways. And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of its first principles before accepting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before receiving them.”

Of course, we disagree. My take is that Blaise Pascal was mistaken. This is not all that surprising given that Pascal was writing in the 17th century. In the 17th century it was arguably easier to be both a top tier intellectual and be a theist, and maybe even be a self-described Christian, without obvious self-contradictions. This is because our knowledge of how the universe works has advanced since the 17th century, and what we have learned over the last three centuries favors ontological naturalism.

Mr. Pascal decided that salvation was by grace, not by human merit, and he defended overcoming uncertainty by relying on faith. Yet there is no testable evidence favoring any theological concept of salvation. So there are no reliable grounds, none!, for concluding in favor of the theological concept of grace as a path to salvation, all the more so given that grace also lacks supporting testable evidence. Once we go fishing for conclusions about how the universe works without anchoring our boat in testable evidence, the remaining constraints on which conclusions we reach are far too arbitrary and feeble to give us even a reasonable chance of landing on non-fiction. Insofar as atheists recognize this, and theists do not, it is the theists who are mistaken, not the atheists.

Mr. Vance claims that Christianity “provides the best cognitive framework for understanding myself and the world around me than I have ever encountered”. No religion comes close to qualifying as a good framework for understanding the world, let alone the ‘best framework’. This is why scientists are not hired based on their religious credentials, beliefs, or practices. They are hired based on their secular (non-religious) academic training and track record of productive output. The Bible in particular offers a mistaken, pre-scientific, perspective reflecting the ignorance of the people who wrote it. In Genesis we learn why people die (retaliation for Eve and Adam eating an apple, a.k.a. original sin), why there are rainbows (rainbows are a sign of God’s covenant), where rain comes from (the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens), why snakes slither on the ground (retaliation for a serpent persuading Eve and Adam to eat an apple), why there is pain during childbirth (retaliation for Eve eating an apple), why there are thorns (retaliation for Adam eating an apple), why there are thousands of different languages (retaliation for people disobeying God). We also learn that stars are hung in the firmament above the mountains. 

Mr. Vance ends his defense of Christian theism thusly:  “Most importantly, the best evidence in support of faith (or whatever you choose to call it) is a changed life. That’s my own story.” There are many factors that go into “a changed life”. When people who were theists become atheists they sometimes say the conversion changed their life for the better. Is whether or not our life changed a valid measure, let alone “the best” measure”, of the accuracy of our ontological beliefs? Throughout history there are examples of many happy people being wrong, people who arguably could have been happy without being mistaken. It needs to be said that being mistaken, even when well-intentioned, is a potential source of misdirected, and harmful, behavior. 

Principles and ethics are applied to the factual context. Thusly “the heart”, in the sense of principles and ethics, remains intact and an active participant within a facts chronologically first approach. The sequence is first, determine the relevant facts to the best of our abilities, second, apply ethical concerns to our decisions to the best of our abilities. They are not incompatible with each other. On the contrary, we need the facts to get our ethics right, which is why getting the facts right places first chronologically. This linkage with facts is always needed for everything that needs a non-fictional basis.

This does not mean there are no conflicts or complications. Ethical considerations range from clear cut and easy to ambiguous and difficult. There can be uncertainties about the facts, uncertainties about the past, present, and future, uncertainties about the ethics, multiple competing considerations that favor different conclusions, time constraints along with a slew of other constraints, etc. My guess is that there are almost enough non-fictional books documenting human weaknesses and flaws to fill a library. Add the fictional literature and the typical library will probably be short of shelf space. 

Furthermore, facts regarding how the universe works are not in and of themselves ethical. They are two different to categories. There can be a need to actively intervene to pushback against the negative implications of the facts when it is feasible to do so to realize better outcomes. For example, global warming, malaria, plastic pollution, carcinogens, poverty, crime, etcetera are examples of facts we should be pushing back against. Blaise Pascal’s argument relies on a category error and special pleading. He is selectively transferring particular fact category claims over to ethical category claims to exempt those particular fact claims from scrutiny. When we start with a commitment to believing that an all knowing and all good god created the universe we have set the stage for conflating factual claims with ethical claims.

Any ideology, most definitely including secular ideologies, that disregard, that override, that contradict, that denigrate, the best fit with the available evidence conclusions are potential additional sources of misdirected behaviors. Selectively overlooking, or denigrating, both the available evidence and competent epistemology more generally, are distinguishing traits of ideology. Religion has no monopoly on ideology, secular ideologies are equally remiss and culpable. The difference is that all religions are ideologies. Secular humanists should not be exempting secular ideologies from critical scrutiny. Ideologies tend to do more harm than good.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Good News for People who Eat

The American diet, high in animal meat and fat, isn’t good for people's health or for the environment. It generates a lot of greenhouse gases from energy consumption and animal waste, and it requires fertilizers and pesticides.  It consumes natural resources and soil, so it can’t be sustained indefinitely, especially if everyone else in the world wants to eat the same menu. But there is a solution that may be coming soon.

Several companies are making a plant-based products that are an imitation of meat. The best-known ones are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have products on the market. These products may be more healthful than animal products, although they are highly processed to give the appearance of meat.  

Artificial milk products are replacing a large fraction of the demand for cow's milk with nut or soy milk.  These vegetable "milk" products are also highly processed to make them seem like animal milk.  Some people have the impression that "natural" products are better than processed ones.  Actually, they are made from the same chemicals.  In some ways, processed food is better, because the quality control and uniformity is better and it is possible to control spoilage and shelf-life.

Another kind of food that is under development is cultured-cell meat, which is grown from stem cells of animals in growth medium to make meat products without animals. There are several start-up companies working on this effort.

These efforts make products that can replace the demand for meat. But they require a significant amount of manufacturing and processing to seem real. They use fewer resources than large herds of animals, but they still require significant amounts of energy and resources.  One well-publicized issue is that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond.

There is an entirely different approach to a new food source that could save a sigificant amount of energy and land. This effort could provide a new kind of staple food that replaces both agricultural animals and plants. It could provide a much more secure food source that is less vulnerable to bad weather or changing climate.

There are two primary companies involved. A Finnish company called Solar Foods ( has produced prototype food they call solien. According to their website, “Solein is 65-70 % protein, 5-8 % fat (primarily unsaturated fats), 10-15 % dietary fibres and 3-5 % mineral nutrients.”

An American company called Air Protein ( has received $32 million in investment. They seem to have a similar approach, but there is less information on their website.

The goal of the companies is to grow edible microorganisms. The species of microorganisms produce energy from metabolism of hydrogen gas, and grow from carbon dioxide and water, as well as some nutrients. The product is high in protein and vitamins.

This approach has multiple advantages. It provides a food source as the base of the food pyramid, even more basic than plants. It doesn’t require using large areas of agricultural land to grow plants, and then even more area to feed animals and dispose of animal waste. Each stage has costs in efficiency of producing food calories, so food from simpler organisms has significant advantages.

The new method also separates light collection from food production. Light can be collected by solar panels or wind generation to produce electricity, which can be used to generate hydrogen. The hydrogen is transported to the bioreactors, which use minimal land area. It isn’t necessary to grow plants in sunlight as light collectors to make chemical energy in plant tissue. This is another improvement in efficiency.

Adoption of this food source on a large scale would alleviate a number of pressing environmental problems. The overuse of agricultural land and water could be reduced and potentially eliminated. The use of fertilizer and pesticides could end, getting rid of environmental run-off with collateral damage to wild creatures and ecosystems. The large land areas devoted to wheat, corn, and rice monocultures could be reduced, returning land to wilderness for use by other species.

It is unlikely that all agriculture would end, because people will still want variety and some selection of plants and animals. Natural products will be used for variety and flavor. But reactors have the advantage of quality control and protection from weather disasters. The food supply will be more secure. Production in bioreactors reduces the vulnerability of the food supply to bad weather. No matter how inhospitable the weather becomes in agricultural areas due to extreme events or changing climate, there shouldn’t be mass food shortages. Energy for hydrogen production can be collected in deserts or over water, without a need for arable land.  This could at last eliminate hunger and starvation.  It could reduce the impact of climate change.

Further in the future, this kind of food source can be transplanted to space colonies or colonies on other planets. It would remove a restriction that keeps people on the Earth.


Sunday, August 14, 2022

Chautauqua Institution failed to properly protect Rushdie

 By Mathew Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Theism provides no how the universe functions answers

 By Mathew Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Biological sex and gender disparities

 By Mathew Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Petition Senators for gun sale background checks

By Mathew Goldstein

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

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

Sunday, May 08, 2022

A failed polytheism bridge with atheism

 By Mathew Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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