Sunday, November 15, 2015

A response to an argument that atheism is unreasonable

A recent opinion article in the University of Louisiana student newspaper titled Atheism is Unreasonable defends the Catholic "knowledge of God by revelation" as enabling "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on."   It is a brief article, citing Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas as the philosophers to follow, and speaks mostly in generalities.  Yet the content expresses perspectives that are common among theists and makes a good basis for a discussion to explain the atheist perspective, which the author of that article does not appear to understand well.  So here follows a criticism of that theist perspective from an atheist perspective.
The author of the article says that contemporary philosophy has gone astray because by rejecting God it fails to answer the why questions.  She says "This is unreasonable because as rational creatures, we desire to know why."  Since "we see cause and effect in our world all the time. Why wouldn’t there be cause and effect for our existence or regarding morality and virtues? And isn’t it reasonable that God would reveal Himself to us and help us understand these things and our purpose?"  Atheists, she says, dispute "fundamentalist arguments" but Catholicism (unlike most other Christian denominations) "isn't fundamentalistic."
Because we desire to know why, it does not follow that why questions have an answer that is distinct from the answer to the corresponding how questions.  It is improper to start with an a-priori assumption that the universe is about us when trying to understand how the universe functions.  Addressing our desires on the one hand, and understanding how the universe functions on the other hand, are different goals.  We do not get to create the universe according to our desires, we are merely born into the universe such as is it.  Atheists recognize this distinction, theists too often do not.
The centrality of cause and effect is evidence that our universe is mechanical, physical, and material. A hypothetical God could transcend the mechanical, physical, and material. There is no good evidence for such divine intervention, which is a major problem for theism. All of the explanations that we uncover remain within the constraints imposed by naturalism.  Biological evolution, abiogenesis, chemistry, and physics, appear to be sufficient to explain our existence and to explain both our commitments to, and lack of commitments to, morality and virtues.  As for the "why not nothing?" question, we have no definitive answer.  But we can speculate that nothingness may be a fictional condition because a nothingness condition in the universe is unstable according to quantum mechanics.
The non-evidenced, a-priori assumption by many theists that absolute nothingness is the initial cosmic condition illustrates the disagreement between theists and atheists.  For atheists, following the empirical evidence and modeling the universe on a best fit with empirical evidence is the best we can do in our effort to understand how the universe functions.  There is nothing beyond the empirical evidence that gets us to non-fiction.  Not faith, not logic, not reason, not intuition, not desire, not first principle, not metaphysics, not Aristotle nor St Thomas Aquinas, not the Christian bible nor the Catholic Church, not best fit with cosmic meaningfulness nor purposefulness, nothing.  When we use logic and reason, as we all must, we must apply it to, and anchor it in, the empirical evidence.  When it really matters, as when our own physical welfare is at stake, for example when driving a car, or walking near cliffs, or walking near walls, everyone respects the empirical evidence.  There is no good reason to abandon that uniquely successfully strategy when the stakes are lower, such as when evaluating the veracity of holy books.
Since we are not all knowing or all present it is unsurprising that there are questions we are unable to answer.  Full stop.  We do not pretend to find answers by looking "beyond the physical" or by accepting the answers provided by any metaphysical philosophers who died before the germ theory of disease became general knowledge. We do not do that because we know, from the history of humanity, that methods of determining how the universe functions that are not rooted in best fit with the empirical evidence produce fiction.  Given that the available empirical evidence indicates that nothingness is an unstable condition, unless one day additional evidence is uncovered that says something more, that is literally the best answer we have to the question why there is something instead of nothing.
Arguments that Catholicism, or any other religion, or any metaphysical philosopher from the past, are the best sources for ultimate knowledge regarding how the universe functions, including "knowledge of God by revelation" that enables "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on" are unimpressive.  Metaphysical naturalism, a.k.a. atheism, is more reasonable because it fits better overall with the available empirical evidence.

Monday, October 05, 2015

This is the place to find god

The equations of physics, because they are comprehensive (although incomplete) and accurate in modeling our universe, are strong evidence that we live in a material, physical, mechanical universe.  From this result we conclude, without needing to know the functions shown below or how to calculate with them, that our purpose is found in our individual lives and not in the overall functioning of the universe.

A common criticism of the above argument is that it is a "fallacy" called "scientism".  Actually, the above argument is a good example of an empirical argument and empirical arguments are the strongest possible type of argument.  The universe communicates to us how it functions via empirical evidence and it is from empirical evidence that the above equation is derived. Philosophical arguments which rely on assertions of first principles and appeals to intuition are among the weakest type of arguments.  Those kind of arguments, which are very common in theology and religion, and are also found in philosophy and outside of any religious context, consist of people talking to themselves about themselves while mistakenly claiming that they are talking about an objective reality outside of themselves.  Talk about the transcendent cosmic purpose that is not firmly anchored in our best current understanding of how the universe functions as derived from from physics and biology is more likely than not to be disconnected from reality. Arguments from first principles and intuition can be highly intellectual, but conclusions are not true merely because they are supported by intellectual arguments.  Philosophy can be, and is, very valuable provided that it relies upon factual statements about how the universe works that the overall available empirical evidence properly supports.

To ignore a result declare it to be a presupposition

Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College. He is associated with Princeton University's Witherspoon Institute.  He promotes the views of Thomas Aquinas and expresses views similar to those backed by the Vatican on his blog and in his books.  He has a loyal following among like minded theists.  Let's examine some of what he says in his recent article Scientists Should Tell Lawrence Krauss to Shut Up Already.

He starts by pointing out that the lack of mention of God in the game of checkers does not suggest that God does not exist and then he argues that likewise "the fact that scientists need make no reference to God when doing physics, biology, or any other science doesn’t prove—or even suggest—that the existence of God is doubtful."  This is a good illustration of a bad analogy.  Checkers has nothing to say about what is true or false about how the world works while science addresses that very question.  So in this context they are opposites, not equivalents.  What checkers says is indeed irrelevant to this question while what science says is very relevant.

He writes ".... science cannot answer the question why there is any world at all, or any laws at all. To answer those questions, or even to understand them properly, you must take an intellectual vantage point from outside the world and its laws, and thus outside of science. You need to look to philosophical argument, which goes deeper than anything mere physics can uncover.... Krauss is looking in the wrong place when he confines himself to science to find some reason to affirm a divine uncaused cause."  While it is true that we need more than a "mere" foundation to build a house, it is nevertheless also true that we should build houses anchored securely in a solid foundation.  Although it is not immediately apparent, professor Feser starts with this reasonable observation that physics, like a foundation for a house, is incomplete, and then quietly segues into the untenable position that physics is irrelevant.  He articulates the reasonable first position but then he adopts the unreasonable second position.  And all along the way professor Feser falsely stereotypes Lawrence Krauss as someone who fails to acknowledge that there is more to life than physics.

He says "The reason is that physics confines itself to describing the mathematical structure of the world, since only what can be so captured is susceptible of strict prediction and control. The inner nature of the reality that has that structure necessarily falls through physics’ methodological net."  There are emergent features of our universe not captured by the equations of physics.  This is one reason that we also have chemistry and biology.  We similarly have social sciences like economics and law and philosophy.  And we have food, music, art, recreation, etc.  All are important.   Not even atheist physicists like Lawrence Krauss claim otherwise.  But when it comes to the ultimate questions about how our universe works at the foundational level, a.k.a. "the inner nature of reality", we have no better alternative than physics.

He then says "It is thus comically inept for Krauss to assert in his recent article that 'the more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems.'"  Krauss is correct.  Any answer to the second question of whether the universe has some human centered purpose is dependent on first determining the workings of the universe.  Philosophers like Feser who insist on disconnecting their answer to the first question from the answer to the second question are the ones who are being comically inept.

He says: "The reason is that purpose—what philosophers call teleology or final causality—is an irreducibly qualitative notion. Hence it cannot be captured in quantitative concepts."  Contrary to what Feser keeps saying, physics is not a-priori confined to finding equations or to quantitative concepts.  If the universe is mechanical then it can be described quantitatively by equations, otherwise it cannot be so described.  As it turns out, through no fault of the innocent physicists, our universe is mechanical and therefore it can be described by equations.  In other words, the pervasiveness of equations in physics is a result of a qualitative property of the universe.  This is a lucky result from the point of view of professional scientists but it did not a-priori have to be this way. If the universe were not mechanical, not material, not physical, then there would not be equations describing its function and physicists, along with the rest of humanity, would have to manage the best we could with that result.

Physics is about more than quantitative concepts.  The equations of physics describe the mechanical functioning of our universe.  Understanding that our universe functions mechanically is a necessary starting point for evaluating its purpose.  The irony here is that theism is built upon a recognition of the centrality of understanding the function of the universe to determining its purpose.  This is a primary reason theists keep insisting there is a god.  Theism reasons backwards, starting with a demand for cosmic purpose and then inserting an imaginary god into the functioning of the universe to provide the cosmic purpose.  So when theists like Feser complain that physics tells us only about the functioning of the universe and therefore tells us nothing about the purpose of the universe they are employing an inconsistent double standard.

He then says: "If you confine yourself to quantitative concepts—as physics does—then you are guaranteed not to find purpose even if it is there."  This is false.  If the functioning of the universe exhibits cosmic purpose then physicists, and scientists more generally, are capable of discovering this fact.  If, for example, the weather is better where more people spend more time worshipping in a Catholic church then this pattern can be detected and once detected will be reported.  When we quantify the weather with high, low, and average temperature, humidity, etc., we are enabling, not obstructing, a qualitative understanding of the weather.  The equations of physics are a result of our universe being mechanical, material, and physical.  The resulting equations are powerful evidence that our universe is self-confined to being mechanical and material.  But professor Feser will not admit this because his theism takes priority over the facts, so he declares this result to be a presupposition.

Friday, October 02, 2015

A scientific theology for a god on

A recent article from Skeptic magazine 20.3 (2015) titled 'THE “GOD” CONSTRUCT: A Testable Hypothesis for Unifying Science and Theology', written by California State University, Fullerton Psychology Professor Douglas J. Navarick, argues that the empirical evidence is best fit with the conclusion that life is a supernatural phenomena.  He claims that the available evidence favors vitalism, which is the conclusion that a supernatural force animates the machinery of all living cells.  He posits that this supernatural force acts both through, and independently of, natural laws and is consistent with theism.

He cites the fact of biogenesis as evidence for vitalism.  He contrasts this with the evidence for abiogenesis which he claims is of the same poor quantity and quality as the evidence for extra-sensory perception.  In both cases, he claims, there is no established mechanism through which the phenomena could occur.  He also claims that the available evidence favors the conclusion that life started once in one place and this is a better fit with biogenesis via supernatural vitalism than with abiogenesis via naturalism.

The available evidence that suggests life may have started only once in one place is limited and inconclusive.  It is possible that life started more than once, but then went extinct before leaving evidence of its multiple origin events.  Or that multiple origins of life resulted in similar biochemistry with subsequent exchanges of genetic material further blurring the distinct origins over time.  Or that life started different times on different planets but this alien life, because it is physically distant, remains undetected.  We do not know how often and in how many places life originated.

His claim that abiogenesis and extra-sensory perception are both equally lacking a plausible mechanism is so exaggerated that it warrants being considered false.  Life functions within the constraints of known natural laws, while extra-sensory perception would function outside of the constraints of known natural laws.  The laws of nature are an archetype of established mechanisms.  When we examine life closely we always find organic chemistry abiding by all known laws of nature, thus evidencing that biology is itself a product of the laws of nature.  

The remaining question for abiogenesis is filling in the details regarding a viable pathway for the organic chemistry to become sufficiently complex to draw in the energy needed to be self-sustaining and to become self-replicating.  There are multiple proposed origin of life scenarios that are taken seriously by biochemists because there is supporting empirical evidence for those scenarios.  Professor Navarick, by dismissing all such scenarios out of hand because they are conjectures, is ignoring the empirical evidence that supports those conjectures.  He is also mistaken when he claims these scientists are adopting a lopsided top down approach while reasoning about naturalism, they are equally following the evidence bottom up.  The fact that a virus exhibits at least some of the capabilities we associate with life and a functional infectious virus has been manually built by physically placing RNA in "cell-free juice" is significant evidence that life is a strictly material phenomena.

His claim that the ubiquity of biogenesis is evidence for supernaturalism is a weak argument.  Biogenesis prevails because of reproduction.  Reproduction, like metabolism, is a natural process.  There is a strong correlation between death and material deterioration or destruction from aging or injury. This is exactly the correlation we expect when the mechanisms underlying life are physical and material.  Vitalism, in contrast, requires that the supernatural force be acquired by every newly living cell and removed from every cell that dies.  The only mechanism for these transfers suggested by Professor Navarick is undetectable magic by a hidden god.

Why would a god hide a massive ongoing divine intervention on earth that animates all living cells, including all deadly human disease bacteria and all fungus and insects that killed crops and livestock that caused human starvation, by so intervening only within the constraints of natural laws?  And why would this god do this only on one lonely planet in one randomly selected galaxy in the vast universe?  If such a capricious god exists than that god is an amoral god who is effectively hiding from us.  Professor Navarick's claim that his vitalism hypothesis is rationally consistent with theism is dubious. People who are rational obtain their beliefs by following the available empirical evidence because that is the one method that has a solid track record of success.  Therefore rational people should not believe in a hidden god undetectably intervening only on earth even if this imagined god exists.

Biogenesis always starts with a complete set of the physical machinery needed for life to function within the laws of nature.  What explains the existence of the initial cell containing all of the requisite machinery for it to be supernaturally animated while otherwise operating within the constraints of natural law?  The moment Professor Navarick concedes that the first living cell was built supernaturally he contradicts his premise that the supernatural force acts only through the laws of nature.  The moment he concedes that the first living cell assembled itself naturally before it could be supernaturally animated we will be left wondering - what is the value added of biogenesis over abiogenesis as an origin of life hypothesis and where is the evidence that this final divine animation step was also needed?  He argues that abiogenesis is implausible because the machinery of life is too complex to start naturally yet he completely ignores that his vitalism hypothesis for the origin of life, because it functions through natural law to animate already existing cells, fails to resolve this same problem.
Our lack of knowledge of the details of abiogenesis is not surprising and therefore does not qualify as evidence for the absence of abiogenesis.  We have multiple plausible explanations for this lack of evidence.  Conditions on early earth when life first appeared were substantially different from conditions that prevailed later.  Life may have started billions of years ago as a result of those temporarily existing past conditions.  After life populated the oceans the presence of life could interfere with the origin of life process or with the survival of newly started life. The evidence of the abiogenesis event or events is lost in history.  The inability to create life appears to reflect the needle in a haystack complexity of finding a viable path to life given the much larger set of non-viable paths.

The lack of radio signals from other planets is indeed puzzling if we assume that the universe should be teeming with intelligent life.  But this is far from sufficient to justify supernaturalism over naturalism.  After all, if supernatural vitalism is true then why wouldn't there be many other habital planets all featuring intelligent life, both in our galaxy and in many other galaxies?  If naturalism is true then there are plausible explanations for why we have so far not found indications of intelligent life elsewhere.

The conditions that prevail in our universe overall are inhospitable to intelligent life.  Radiation bursts from nova, supernova, and black holes, and collisions with meteors, comets, and asteroids promote repeated extinction events.  Earth has had a magnetic field that shields it from the sun's radiation since its infancy, our solar system has large middle orbit planets that reduces the number of earth collisions with large meteors, we are located out in one arm of the Milky Way distant from other exploding stars in the more crowded Galaxy interior, we have plate tectonics and oceans, there are heavier elements needed to support life from prior supernova.  Yet it took billions of years to go from single celled life to multiple celled life to intelligent life on earth.  Multi-celled life could be much rarer than single celled life.  Furthermore, intelligent life can destroy itself by war or by environmental destabilization, and it could rely on technology that does not produce radio waves.  Intelligent life may opt to try to hide its presence to avoid risking conflict with other intelligent life that may travel within or between galaxies.

We do not know much about the origin of life or how frequently life is residing elsewhere in our universe.  We know that life on our single planet appears to have a common ancestor and intelligent life with technology may be rare.  Professor Navarick claims there is sufficient evidence here for concluding there is a supernatural, life giving force.  His unbalanced argument is rooted in underestimating what is possible within the constraints of naturalism.  He is also understating the large distance between the existence of such an animistic supernatural force and the existence of a god that humans are properly justified to believe exists, let alone that humans should worship.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Petition the University of Warwick students union

Update: The Warwick SU now says they made a mistake and they apologized to Ms. Namazie who apparently had consulted with lawyers to discuss the feasibility of taking legal action against the student union or the university.

The Warwick Students Union made a pusillanimous decision to bar Maryam Namazie from giving a talk on campus to Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists, apparently because her apostasy offends some Muslims.  For those unfamiliar with Maryam, she is a secularist, a human-rights campaigner, a voice for reason, and leader of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.  There have been a string of such ugly double standard decisions over the past year by various university organizations in multiple different countries to refuse speakers who abandoned Islam.  People who abandoned Judaism, Christianity, or any other religion are never rejected as speakers by these same university organizations.  Tell the student union that they should not be coddling people who hold their religion to be sacred by forbidding speakers who reject religions as false and harmful.

This policy has the pope's blessing

Advocacy emails, blogs, articles, web sites, petitions, by the hundreds are citing statements by the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God.  He is often referred to as the Holy Father by other Catholics,  but we non-Catholics more often refer to him simply as the Pope (a colloquial substitute for the Latin word for father). He tells us that we should welcome refugees, protect the environment, abolish the death penalty, equalize income, stop manufacturing and selling weapons, etc.  Congress recently listened to him speak at the invitation of the Catholic Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Good policy needs champions and bad policy needs opponents.  Yet a policy is not good because someone supports it nor bad because someone opposes it.  Pope Francis must make the argument for why any policy he favors would be good in competition with the people who argue that the policy would be bad, like every other advocate must do.  The Catholic Church has millions of members in he United States, and many millions more throughout the world, yet all popes speak merely as human representatives of a human institution with no special insights or authorities.

Too often religious leaders are deferred to.  They are perceived by too many people as speaking with more authority and wisdom than others.  Taught from childhood that faith in the truth of religious doctrines is a highest virtue, some people are all too happy to follow too uncritically their holy guru wearing white robes.  Religious leaders too often self-claim to have sacred insights into the will of an alleged deity who is the ultimate supernatural authority for all of humanity.  Pope Francis, not withstanding his efforts to convey an image of humbleness, unavoidably carries some of this haughty attitude, inextricably weaved into his position as religious head of the Catholic Church, with him.

Policy advocates should keep this in mind when they opportunistically cite this pope as favoring a policy that they also favor.  True liberals, whether they are religious or not, are freethinkers.  Policy can be defined as good or bad only on the secular criteria of merit and therefore must be identified from thinking and deliberation that is anchored as much as possible in what the available empirical evidence says regarding what best promotes human welfare. There are no shortcuts, there is no perfection, there are often trade-offs.  All religions are fictions, all gods are imaginary.  Advocacy groups that enthusiastically single out and cite this pope, as if his judgements should be understood to carry more weight than everyone else's, are not serving the public interest.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why Kim Davis will lose

There is a legal distinction between policy making duties and ministerial duties.  The latter applies to contexts where the act or function is prescribed and involves following instructions to try to achieve uniformity and consistency of outcome and minimize discretion.  The function of issuing marriage licenses is ministerial.  

A court clerk must verify that a couple applying for a marriage license meets the requisite legal qualifications.  If the legal qualifications to be married are met then the court clerk has no discretion to deny the marriage license.  Conversely, if the legal qualifications to be married are not met then the court clerk has no discretion to issue the marriage license.  Whether the government bureaucrat is an elected official or not makes no difference, a ministerial duty is not discretionary.  Under Kentucky law, it is a class A misdemeanor for a government employee to refuse to carry out their ministerial duty.

Kim Davis has three honorable choices, and they are all bad.  She can carry out her ministerial duty against her will, resign, or spend the remainder of her days as the elected court clerk on an extended leave from her job under court order (possibly confined to her residence or jail).  While she is absent from work, one of her deputies will issue the marriage licenses, possibly without the court clerk's signature. The county attorney, the governor, and the state attorney general have publicly asserted that the marriage licenses issued without her signature are valid.  Kim Davis is litigating on behalf of her claim that she has discretion to refuse to authorize the issuance of licenses to legally qualified couples and licenses issued without her authorization are invalid.  This is a sweeping claim with negative implications for the rule of law and thus will be difficult for judges to accept.

Her attempts to have the licenses declared invalid could result in a court decision requiring her signature to appear on the licenses.  Maybe that is her real goal because with her signature on the licenses she can then try to make a freedom of expression violation claim.  But a free expression claim would still be weak because her signature technically communicates only her judgement that the couple qualifies for the license under the law, it does not communicate that she personally endorses the marriages.  Her claim that by authorizing the licenses while serving as court clerk she would be personally condoning same gender marriage, regardless of whether her signature appears on the license, is a dubious claim.  Unfortunately, some legal precedents are excessively accommodating of such religious belief burden claims, thus encouraging them.  But there is no room for judges to agree with Kim Davis without contradicting the Supreme Court decision mandating same gender marriage, so even the bad precedents will not help her case.

In my opinion, it would be better for the SCOTUS to impose an enforcement delay when they file controversial decisions like this that extend civic equality to disliked minorities.  The length of the enforcement delay can be set to the length of time it typically takes an employed person to find alternative employment.  Most government employees tasked with implementing the revised law will comply immediately.  Those that refuse would have time to look for other employment before being confronted with the bad choices confronting Kim Davis.  Misguided bigots, such as Kim Davis, are often otherwise law abiding citizens who need employment to pay their expenses.  Without the bad influence of bad religions maybe there would be fewer such reprehensible bigots.  Government employees who continue to refuse to carry out their ministerial duties or resign after the enforcement delay expires would then find themselves coerced by the state into absenting themselves from their government employment.  This strikes a balance between the short term protection of a civil right to employment opportunity for those government employees tasked with implementing the revised law on the one hand and the need to promptly revise the law to extend civic equality to those who have been unjustly denied civic equality for far too long on the other hand.

Such an enforcement delay could have postponed the day of reckoning until after the next Kentucky legislature session resumed.  The Kentucky legislature could revise the law to allow a court clerk deputy to authorize licenses and place their own signature on the license.  Kim Davis has indicated that she would not stand in the way of granting licenses if they were authorized and signed by someone else.

People must be qualified for their employment, just like people must be qualified to obtain a marriage license.  Whenever someone's beliefs disqualifies them from their current employment they become responsible for finding alternative employment.  Freedom of expression and belief is not synonymous with freedom from being burdened by any negative consequences that result from following our beliefs.  Nevertheless, government arguably does have some responsibility to give government employees an opportunity to find alternative employment before forcing them out when they become disqualified from their current employment due to a conflict with their beliefs as a result of a change in the law that they are tasked with implementing.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Serious people should not cite David Barton

Bloomberg View published a new article by Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard University, titled "What 'So Help Me God' Meant to George Washington", that tries to defend the claim that George Washington ended his initial presidential oath of office with the words "So help me God".  Mr. Feldman overlooks the fact that George Washington avoided using the word "God" in his speeches or in his public and private writing.  He also fails to notice that the oaths that frequently concluded with SHMG were usually administered as religious loyalty test oaths. The Constitution, with GW’s signature at the top, made a radical break from earlier American history by proscribing religious test oaths. An example of GW’s attitude against religious test oaths is his May 7, 1778 General Orders that left the trailing SHMG outside of the quotation marks so that the printed oath certificates did not include SHMG.

Mr. Feldman cites David Barton's argument that GW said SHMG.  Mr. Barton identifies various federal government authorities who asserted in the past that president George Washington appended "So help me God" to his first oath of office.  That is exactly the problem.  To make a positive factual historical claim requires supporting evidence.  David Barton conveniently ignores that the federal authorities he listed have withdrawn this illegitimate factual assertion after it was pointed out that there is no such evidence.  

The books that first claimed that the first president uttered that phrase, which were published over 60 years later, after the adult eyewitnesses were dead, fail to identify an eyewitness.  Although the author of one of those books, Washington Irving, attended the ceremony in 1789 as a six year old child, he did not claim that he heard those words himself and from where he was standing at the time he would have been too far away to reliably hear anything that was spoken on the balcony.  Instead, Mr. Irving copied into his book a not yet published eyewitness account of the oath ceremony written by someone else (Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, ed. E S Quincy, Boston [Printed by J. Wilson] 1861,) without acknowledging the original author.  He then added the SHMG to that original account.

A detailed first hand account of the first presidential oath ceremony from the French ambassador, who was on the balcony with GW, quotes the words of the oath as he heard it (written in French).  We also have a statement from Mr. Samuel Otis saying he lifted the bible towards the new president's head.  Mr. Otis presumably did that because he knew they were following NY state law and kissing the bible was part of the usual mode of administering an oath in NY at that time.  Appending the divine codicil was not part of the NY state oath procedure, unlike in NJ and several other states which, conversely, did not instruct the oath taker to kiss a bible.

There is no evidence for either a bible or a divine codicil during the second inauguration oath ceremony, which was the first presidential inauguration under federal law.  Furthermore, contemporaneous eyewitness accounts consistently support the conclusion that no president appended this divine codicil until, at the earliest, maybe Lincoln during his second inauguration, although the evidence for this is thin and contradicted.  It appears more likely that the first president to say SHMG was Chester Arthur in 1881, based on the newspaper reports.  However, Chester Arthur did not recite the oath, he merely replied affirmatively to the Chief Justice's questioning if he agreed to the oath as recited by the Chief Justice.  FDR was the first president that we know recited the oath with the divine codicil appended.  No Chief Justice misrepresented the presidential oath by prompting for SHMG until the 20th century.  Contrary to what Mr. Feldman claims, there is every reason to think that eyewitnesses who reported on the presence and use of a bible would have also reported on a divine codicil.  That placing a hand on a bible and kissing a bible was standard practice did not discourage eyewitnesses from noting its use.

Mr. Feldman cites Mr. Barton as providing a counterargument to Professor Henriques who argues that we should stop declaring GW appended SHMG.  Mr. Henriques is a professor emeritus of history with impeccable academic credentials and integrity (he wrote 'Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington').  Mr. Barton is a many times over discredited professional propagandist with a long and ignoble track record of consistently promoting a biased, distorted, and misleading historical revisionism for the obvious purpose of advancing the political agenda of the religious right.  A little common sense is all that is needed to recognize whose argument merits be taking seriously and whose argument merits a large dose of skepticism.  People like Mr. Feldman who fail to make this distinction are unworthy of being published in any newspaper or magazine that is worthy of being taken seriously.  And the counterarguments appearing in the book by Mr. Church, who was not a historian and was also cited by Mr. Feldman, are mistaken.  See

Mr. Feldman does not ask what should be an obvious question:  Why would Washington add a personal statement to the Constitutional oath written at the Convention that he presided over?  Congress had already decided to remove the SHMG phrase from the proposed executive and legislative branch oaths bill prior to the presidential oath ceremony.  That the Chief Justice of the U.S. now makes SHMG part of the presidential oath when administered is an unconstitutional act because it takes it beyond being a personal statement on the part of the person being sworn in and makes it seem like it's part of the oath, which it is not.

Theism turns itself into a dependency and there are theists who think that good and pragmatic people everywhere recognize that dependency as being positive and want to nurture it in everyone.  Noah Feldman appears to be arguing from that perspective.  This perspective too often becomes a justification for the exclusion of non-theists from positions of authority or responsibility.  Mr. Feldman argues that secular oaths were about accommodating Quakers.  We agree that such accommodation played a significant role. However, there is evidence that civic equality for deists and atheists was on some people's minds even in the late 18th century.  Thomas Jefferson said atheism harms no one and merited consideration.   

As we learn more about how the universe functions we have a concomitant responsibility to apply that knowledge wherever it is relevant.  Relying on history to justify freezing in place old prejudices built on old ignorance via the law is a misuse of history.  Unfortunately, for people who are themselves still trapped in a prejudiced perspective, this can be difficult to understand.  So we need to point this out.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crediting liberal religion for their secularism

Many religious people evaluate public policy on the merits and reach the same public policy conclusions as non-religious people.  We non-religious folk are thankful that so many religious people have a secularist orientation.  We lobby together for our shared public policy goals.  So why would anyone publicly argue against religious belief?  Isn't religious belief the wrong target?

The ongoing Republican Party effort to defund Planned Parenthood illustrates why publicly arguing against religion is what we should be doing.  Almost 100% of the slander campaign against Planned Parenthood originates with religious institutions.  Some of the people who actively join this campaign against Planned Parenthood are not themselves religious.  These people are often career Republican party loyalists who probably could not care less if Planned Parenthood was funded or not and will advocate for whatever is popular among rank and file Republicans.  If we experience another government shutdown over defunding of Planned Parenthood, as Republicans are currently threatening, then everyone who voted for the majority Republican Congress will share responsibility for the negative consequences.

As for the religious institutions and believers who have a secularist outlook, they have a secularist outlook despite their religious belief, not because of it.  They may self-claim that their secularist outlook is rooted in their religious belief, but then they are mistaken.  If they abandoned their religious belief they would still have a secularist outlook.  To the extent abandoning religion has a political impact, the impact will be to move public opinion further towards secularism.

However, it is not any political calculus that justifies criticism of religious belief.  Religious belief and the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood both merit criticism because they are both built on false assertions and false premises.  To criticize religious belief only when it is anti-secularist is to politicize criticism of religious belief.  It is wrong to politicize everything this way.  There are such things as true and false, better and worse, good and bad.  Politics is important, but merit is even more important. After all, good politics is built on merit.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

More demanding diplomacy needed to preserve peace

The P5+1 countries, in negotiating the recent agreement with Iran, made multiple concessions that are inconsistent with the goals that they publicly declared they would pursue in the negotiations. During the final debate with Republican presidential candidate Romney in 2012, Bob Scieffer asked Obama what sort of Iran deal he would accept. Obama replied: "The deal we'll accept is that they end their nuclear program." The negotiations were meant to deal with Iranian violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT provisions last forever. But the NPT is notoriously weak and signatories that want to cheat have many opportunities to do so. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement was supposed to add strict verification measures that would last forever to protect the integrity of the NPT.

The underground Fordow uranium enrichment site was discovered by United States, French, and British government spy agencies. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed El-Baradei asserted that "Iran should have informed the IAEA the day they had decided to construct the facility," based on the provisions of the Subsidiary Arrangements to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. In 2003, Iran had agreed to modify its Subsidiary Arrangements with the IAEA, with the modified arrangement requiring Iran to report planned nuclear facilities when a decision on construction is made, rather than 180 days before the facility is scheduled to receive nuclear material. Iran countered that it had ceased implementation of the arrangement in protest of UN sanctions in March 2007, and justified its unilateral abrogation of the arrangement by claiming that its parliament, the Majlis, never ratified It. However, modification of subsidiary arrangements is done by states without parliamentary ratification, which effectively negates Iran’s argument. The IAEA also disputes Iran's right to unilaterally withdraw from its Subsidiary Arrangements, and has never accepted Iran's 2007 decision to do so. Regardless of the validity of Iran's claim, satellite imagery and intelligence sources indicate that construction began no later than 2005, at least two years before Iran's attempted withdrawal.

In 1991, Iran secretly imported from China one metric ton of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which it was obligated under its IAEA safeguards agreement to report to the Agency, but did not. In 1999 and 2002, Iran conducted tests on test centrifuges installed at Kalaye Electric Company, its secret centrifuge R&D facility, using the Chinese-supplied UF6. These tests constituted violations of Iran’s safeguards agreements, and thus violate Iran’s verification requirements under the NPT.

Iran failed to declare the following activities to the IAEA: The importation of natural uranium, and its subsequent transfer for further processing. The processing and use of the imported natural uranium, including the production and loss of nuclear material, and the production and transfer of resulting waste. The use of imported natural uranium hexafluoride for the testing of centrifuges, as well as the subsequent production of enriched and depleted uranium. The importation of natural uranium metal and its subsequent transfer for use in laser enrichment experiments, including the production of enriched uranium, the loss of nuclear material during these operations, and the production and transfer of resulting waste. The production of a variety of nuclear compounds from several different imported nuclear materials, and the production and transfer of resulting wastes. The production of uranium targets and their irradiation in the Tehran Research Reactor, the subsequent processing of those targets (including the separation of plutonium), the production and transfer of resulting waste, and the storage of unprocessed irradiated targets.

Additionally, Iran failed to declare the facilities where nuclear material (including the waste) was received, stored and processed; provide in a timely manner updated design information for a research reactor located in Tehran; as well provide in a timely manner information on two waste storage sites.

Iran failed to report uranium conversion experiments to the IAEA. Iran also failed to provide the agency with design information for a variety of nuclear-related facilities. These included the following: A centrifuge testing facility. Two laser laboratories and locations where resulting wastes were processed. Facilities involved in the production of a variety of nuclear compounds. The Tehran Research Reactor (with respect to the irradiation of uranium targets), the hot cell facility where the plutonium separation took place, as well as the relevant waste handling facility. Iran failed on many occasions to co-operate to facilitate the implementation of safeguards, through concealment of its nuclear activities.

Iran is a determined proliferator that is trying to hold onto its option of becoming a nuclear weapons state, in violation of the NPT, and the international negotiators are tasked with stopping it, and returning it to the fold of the NPT. An Iranian interest in negotiating emerged only in 2013 after harsh and biting sanctions were put in place. Iran’s interest in coming back to the table was only to lift sanctions – nothing changed as far as its nuclear interest. So these negotiations are a classical zero-sum game where one side comes out the winner and the other side the loser. The results have recently been made public and the outcome is unfortunate: The P5+1 have failed.

Iran lies about lying. It's narrative is that it has done no wrong. So the P5+1 countries are trying to stop Iran from doing something that it does not admit to trying to do. Given this context, there is no logic in agreeing to sunset clauses. Yet under the JCPOA, after the ten-to-fifteen-year restrictions have ended, Iran may expand its enrichment activities without restrictions on technology, enrichment level, and locations. This will allow Iran to shrink its break out time to almost zero which would render any remaining efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons essentially meaningless.  Because this agreement blocks Iran from nuclear weapons for no more than a measly fifteen years (even if Iran strictly abides by the agreement) it is little more than a capitulation to Iran.

After being accused of violating the NPT, Libya, South Africa, and Sweden agreed to anytime, anywhere inspections. Ukraine destroyed all of its nuclear infrastructure.  Instead of "any time any place” inspections, the JCPOA substitutes a concept called “managed access to military facilities." This is exactly the kind of ambiguous concept that the Iranians wanted. Furthermore, instead of inspections carried out within 24 hours of a request, it is set to 24 days. More than three weeks is sufficient time to hide from the inspectors high explosive testing related to nuclear weapons, a small centrifuge manufacturing plant, or the use of advanced centrifuges.

The JCPOA sets a fifteen year 300 kilogram cap on Iranian stockpiles of low enriched uranium but then allows for exceptions, thus providing Iran with an opportunity to decrease it's break out time. There is no provision to ensure the IAEA can verify how many centrifuges Iran has manufactured. A 30 day window to veto imports of sensitive dual use goods to Iran is too short to make reliable judgements.

Providing clarity regarding the different penalties for different degrees of lawbreaking is a basic element of our legal system. Yet there are no collective penalties of differing severity specified in response to infractions of different scale in the JCPOA. The only specified penalty is a reimposition of all sanctions which results in an immediate and complete cancelation of the agreement. This is a drastic step that the P5+1 is likely to seriously consider only for very large scale infractions, thus leaving Iran with plenty of opportunity to get away with repeated small and moderate sized infractions.

The committee to rule on potential violations will include Iran as a member. So the player that is a known violator, cheater, deceiver, and liar, for years, is on the violation judging committee. Why? For the purpose of upholding Iran's narrative that it is not a bad player. At the Munich Security Conference last February, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was interviewed and gave his fairy tale – that Iran never did anything wrong, that there is no evidence against it, that it is wrongly accused, that all the sanctions were baseless. No one challenged him.

The IAEA has 12 outstanding questions on past Iranian military nuclear production work. This is a file based on the intelligence input submitted by 10 different countries, all documenting Iranian activities linked to suspicions of nuclear weaponization. It includes research into building a nuclear warhead, evidence of plans for an implosion device, detonators – all the stuff that has no civilian explanation but obviously is purely military in nature. The Vienna nuclear deal stipulates that Iran must provide answers to these questions by October. The IAEA issues a report in mid-December. If this procedure fails to get satisfactory answers from Iran, and the P5+1 accepts the Iranian intransigence by nevertheless proceeding with the lifting of sanctions, then this will set a precedent for rewarding such intransigence that will undermine the future prospects of not only this agreement, but other such agreements.

Since 2012 the IAEA has tried to get into Parchin, a site that is a prime suspect for Iran's military related nuclear work, and Iran stonewalled these efforts. Iran has not been sitting on its hands in Parchin. There is satellite imagery of its cleanup operations there. So much time has gone by. When it finally allows one inspection, there is very little chance inspectors will find anything. Iran can then present the inspection results as a vindication.

A reason that the P5+1 surrendered so much to Iran in the negotiations is that they failed to dispute Iran's ongoing narrative that it did no wrong. Because Iran lost the trust of the international community by cheating on its commitments, and deceiving the international community for decades, its nuclear infrastructure, which lacks a non-military justification, should in the main be dismantled. However, that did not happen since Iran's narrative that it did no wrong was not challenged and the negotiations were instead conducted on a give and take basis between two equals seeking to reach a middle ground compromise. The notion that Iran must work to regain the trust of the international community, and therefore there is no equivalence between Iran and the P5+1 with regard to this negotiation, was absent. The U.S. government claims that it did everything it could to get the best possible deal, yet this is belied by the P5+1 negotiating with Iran from the mistaken premise that confronting Iran with its history of cheating would be counter-productive. The result is that under the JCPOA Iran will retain an enrichment program on a scale that heretofore has not been justified by the country’s practical needs. 

We don’t want to be in the situation where the Iranian government, whose leadership is prone to fanatical and hateful rhetoric (it's leadership refers to Israel as a cancerous tumor that must be, and will be, annihilated) and funds and arms those who endorse similar fanaticism, can break out to nuclear weapons whenever it wants, and the international community cannot stop it. Yet under the JCPOA it is now foreseeable that in as little as 10 years Iran will posses a vast nuclear project, working on a breakout capability in whatever aspect they can. The P5+1, by producing the JCPOA, are guilty of undermining the integrity of the NPT.  The negative implication for the world will likely be harsh.

It is not too late for the P5+1, with a nudge from the U.S. Congress, to insist on a no nonsense agreement.  The U.S. Senate placed conditions on its approval of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America which were eventually incorporated into the final multilateral agreement. The Senate also amended the treaty with the World Health Organization and WHO accepted the revision. There are over 200 instances where the Senate insisted on treaty modifications and in many cases the treaty was successfully renegotiated and then passed by the Senate. Congress has a role in influencing international agreements, including executive agreements such as the JCPOA.

The existing JCPOA needs to be strengthened and the P5+1 therefore may need to resort to arm twisting. If Congress rejects the current deal then the countries of the world will have a choice to either do business with the 17.4 trillion dollar United States economy or with 400 billion dollar Iranian economy. It will be in the self-interest of most countries not to do business with Iran, compelling Iran again to the negotiating table. A good deal would be permanent with no sunset clauses, with anytime, anywhere, inspections within 24 hours, with an upfront and satisfactory account of Iran's past nuclear weapons development related activity, with multiple penalties of differing severity proportional to infractions of differing degrees, with a physical dismantling of Iran's superfluous nuclear infrastructure, and without the various other ambiguities and weaknesses.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

An academic theology argument against contemporary atheism

Atheism stands or falls on the merits.  To determine if atheism is properly justified we must consider the best available arguments that atheism is unjustified. Accordingly, atheists should know how today's theistic academic theologians argue that atheism is mistaken. Eric E. Hall is the assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Carroll College, a coeducational Catholic liberal arts school in Montana that prepares its students, 60% of who are Catholic, for various careers, including priesthood, law, medicine, engineering, and teaching.  I thank Professor Hall for providing us with an article Gimme that old-time atheism [Helena Independent Record, August 15, 2015] that begins confidently with this assertion: "Most contemporary atheists get it wrong."

Professor Hall argues that "today’s atheism tends to stand on an absolutely self-contradictory claim: only that which can be seen can be known. (It’s a pseudo-scientific claim.)". Generalizations are, by definition, not confined to asserting only that which has already been directly observed.  Professor Hall points out that atheism is itself a generalization (it is not something that is seen).  So by rejecting generalization atheism is self-contradictory.  Is Professor Hall right? Is this a fatal flaw with a central premise of atheism?

Atheism is rooted in dismissing as probably false those factual conclusions that lack a logical connection to something that has been observed, particularly when our observations are instead logically connected to a contradictory factual conclusion.  There is a subtle but critical difference here with Professor Hall's straw-man mischaracterization of atheism's underlying premise.  Atheism affirms that we can indirectly infer from logical connection with observations while Professor Hall is mistakenly claiming that atheism denies this possibility.  Atheism is a best fit logical inference from our observations regarding how the universe functions (this is one of the reasons that I refer to my atheism as a belief).  Thus there is nothing here that is "self-contradictory" or "pseudo-scientific".  Scientific theories are similarly logical best fit with observation models and as such are also generalizations rooted in observations.  

Metaphysical naturalism is a very broad generalization and there is no correspondingly broad consensus that metaphysical naturalism is true, therefore atheism is not a science textbook conclusion.  Yet atheists are employing an iterative inductive/deductive, empirical based, approach to try to distinguish fiction from fact. This is the same approach utilized by good plumbers, engineers, medical professionals, historians, philosophers, etc. This is the approach taken by infants when they opt to avoid walking over transparent floors that are suspended high above the ground as they develop an awareness of the risk of falling from experience (it takes more time to learn that the transparent floors are nevertheless safe).  We know that science is successful only when it employs naturalistic methods and reaches naturalistic conclusions. Therefore it is metaphysical supernaturalism, not metaphysical naturalism, that is the more self-contradictory and psuedo-scientific (and also presumptuous) belief.

It is no surprise that theistic academic theologians working at religious institutions, such as Professor Hall, prefer an "old time atheism" that focuses on existential angst because then they can promote theism as a form of therapy. Theists often elevate psychological and purely intellectual considerations over empirical considerations (and agnostics often prioritize what we do not know over acknowledging what the available empirical evidence communicates).  If this is the best that academic theologians can do in arguing that atheism is unjustified, and I believe that this is close to the best they can do, then they have little prospect of winning this argument.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act

By Mathew Goldstein

Our Congressional representatives want to hear our opinion on two new bills.  The Secular Coalition of America has Action Alerts making it easy to send emails.

The Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2015, S 991, was voted favorably out of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.  Tell your Senator to stand up for evidence-based policymaking.  The act would establish the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking in the executive branch. The 15-member committee, made up of academic researchers and data experts would use data to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs and tax expenditures.

Using evidence to inform policy will help ensure that policies will be effective and applicable not only on paper, but in the real world. Taxpayer money shouldn't be wasted on policies that are unproven, untested, and unscientific.  It is incredibly important to support bills that advocate for evidence and research-based policy. Too often bills are introduced and even passed despite the overwhelming evidence of the inefficacy of the policy. S 991 is a step in the right direction towards effective and evidence-based policymaking.

The First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), H.R. 2802 and S. 1598, proposes to legalize religious discrimination against same gender couples. Urge your Member of Congress to Block Legalized Discrimination.  The stated purpose of FADA is to protect the tax-exempt status, government contract, or any other Federal benefit of those who do not comply with the Court’s same-sex marriage ruling. This act’s true impact would allow for sweeping, taxpayer-funded discrimination against same-sex couples and their children under the guise of religious liberty.  FADA would completely eviscerate the historic nondiscrimination Executive Order that President Obama signed last summer that prohibits federal contractors from engaging in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The first amendment protects freedom of religion and freedom from religion, not the special privileges of the religiously affiliated at the expense of the fundamental rights of other Americans.