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.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Original intent is ahistorical

By Mathew Goldstein

The Obergefell v. Hodges decision supporting marriage equality for same gender couples is one more precedent for the principle that the U.S. Constitution protects the civil rights of minorities against a sometimes recalcitrant majority. Decisions like these depend on interpreting the Constitution as containing broadly applicable assertions of general governing principles. This explains the vehemence of the dissents by four of the Supreme Court Justices. The four dissenting Justices exhibit a substantial discomfort with ordering new equal protection before the law protections nationwide for traditionally disfavored minorities. To avoid that outcome they advocate for interpreting the constitution as freezing in place the animus towards disfavored minorities found in the 18th century laws when the constitution was written.

The Obergefell v. Hodges dissenters, however, deny that 18th century laws exhibit any animus. Instead, they claim that laws limiting marriage to couples of opposite genders were, and still are, properly justified by a government interest that is narrowly confined to regulating procreation. This claim is incoherent and thus should be understood to be an effort to mask their own animus. If regulating procreation is the primary government interest here then why do marriages everywhere remain legally in force after the female completes menopause? Why are mixed gender couples that are known in advance to be incapable of joint procreation always permitted to marry? Why are the marriages of mixed gender couples that are subsequently found to be incapable of joint procreation not routinely annulled? The judges who cite procreation as the primary government interest served by marriage fail to address these questions. The reason for this failure is easy to fathom, it is because they cannot. Marriage is, and always has been, about more than procreation. It is also about jointly raising children (who may have been procreated by a different couple) and about regulating a variety of related financial and social interactions. Today there are approximately one thousand federal benefits and regulations associated with marriage. What are the reasons for denying same gender couples access to these benefits in the 21st century? No sensible answer is ever given.

The irony of the comatose, "it's the 18th century forever," approach to constitutional interpretation, which is often referred to as original intent, is that it is claimed to be rooted in following the historical intent of the founding fathers, yet history does not support it. The 18th century authors of the constitution were well read students of history and philosophy. They were aware that the governing customs and practices of their own time and place, let alone of the 16th century 200 years in their past, were not exemplary. They sometimes criticized popular traditions and mores of their day and believed that they could facilitate future changes for the better. They wrote out specific and detailed instructions when they wanted the law to be fixed and specific and they wrote more general instructions when they preferred that the law be more flexible and broad to support future progress. They understood that the constitution was being written for a future that would be different from the present in unanticipated ways. They wanted the new constitution to retain its relevance and be adaptable for future generations. 

Interpreting the constitution to support only those claims that uphold standards already fully realized in the 18th century is hidebound and cowardly. If there are hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods then the culprit will be indifferent physics, not an angry god. The authors of the constitution, and the broad, timeless, principles articulated in the constitution that they wrote, merit more respect. The Equal Protection clause was added to the Constitution by a 19th century action (14th amendment) as an additional broad principle that is consistent with the original intent as expressed in the Bill or Rights, and it clearly applies to all citizens of the United States. Maryland legalized same gender marriage in 2013 and it is also legal in D.C.

The four votes against equal protection is only one vote short of winning and four votes too many. 

"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12, 1816

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Recent Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion articles

"Anti-Atheist Bias in the United States: Testing Two Critical Assumptions" by Lawton Swan and Martin Heesacker (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.ac/) examines the  veracity of the following two assertions: a) that when people report negative attitudes toward atheists, they do so because they are reacting specifically to their lack of belief in God; and (b) that survey questions asking about attitudes toward atheists as a group yield reliable information about biases against individual atheist targets. They confirmed both assertions.  A recent Templeton Foundation funded study also supports this result by comparing the impact of Dr. Francis Collins arguments that religion and science are harmonious against the impact of Dr. Richard Dawkins arguments that science and religion are in conflict on people who first read a short biography of the authors of the competing arguments. Research shows that people are significantly more likely to listen and accept what a public figure is saying if they see themselves as similar to that figure. "Given that there are more people in the U.S. population (and hence in our data) who would identify as a Christian than atheist, Collins is likely to have more impact with that audience", see more at: http://news.rice.edu/2015/06/17/how-science-popularizers-influence-public-opinion-on-religion/#sthash.rWa20rZN.dpuf.

J. Tuomas Harviainen reviews a book, "Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not", by Robert N. McCauley (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.af/).  This review says that the crux of the argument in the book is that religion relies more on commonplace, unreflective explanations as differentiated from the more abstract, reflection-requiring explanations of science and religion has a less restricted view of the role of agent causality than science.  It is inherently easier ("more natural") for people to accept commonplace explanations and causality via agents.  Therefore people tend to favor "theologically incorrect" religions.

"Explaining Global Secularity: Existential Security or Education?" by Claude Braun (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.ae/) concludes that formal education alone explains loss of religious beliefs and that the positive correlation between secularism and material safety is not a causal relationship. Thus, religion’s primary function in the world today is being replaced, not so much by better living conditions, but by contemporary education – extensive knowledge of contemporary cultures, philosophy, modes of thought or processes of reasoning.

"Non-Theists Are No Less Moral Than Theists: Some Preliminary Results" by Justin Didyoung Eric Charles and Nicholas Rowland  (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.ai/) determined from a survey of 114 undergraduate students that, contrary to the commonly held stereotype that non-theists are less moral than theists, religious identity did not conclusively determine that an individual was more moral or more altruistic.

Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission: Stop sponsoringChristian cross

The American Humanist Association, et. al. v. Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission lawsuit has been in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland since February 2014.  The lawyers for the plaintiffs recently filed a motion with a supporting memorandum requesting a summary judgment from the court that the continuing Maryland state government sponsorship of a large crucification cross on state government property violates the Establishment Clause.  They are proposing as a remedy that either the two horizontal arms of the cross be removed or the entire cross be removed. Details about the lawsuit can be found on the web site of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Ask State Department to oppose all blasphemy laws

The House of Representatives recently introduced House Resolution 290 calling on President Obama and the State Department to demand the repeal of blasphemy laws worldwide. Will you take just one minute to write to your Representative and ask her or him to support this bill?
As you know, blasphemy laws greatly affect atheists in particular—their efforts to promote critical thinking and progressive values are often seen as “hatred” toward the majority religion. This results in dangerous consequences—from serving jail time to even capital punishment.  Contribute an email to this worthy American Humanist Association effort.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why is supernaturalism not found in science?

Science restricts itself to naturalistic conclusions and methods because those are the conclusions and methods that are successful. This result leaves us with a question to answer: Why are supernatural conclusions and methods unsuccessful in science? There are at least three commonly proposed answers, but only one of the answers is arguably correct.

One proposed answer is that imagined supernatural explanations automatically convert to natural explanations the moment they are determined to be true. In other words, everything that is true is ipso-facto natural. To demonstrate that this answer is wrong all we need to do is give an example of something that could be both true and supernatural. For example, if stars gave off light energy without consuming any energy then we would discover this fact. Having discovered that no physical, material, or mechanical process is involved in the production of star light we would be justified in concluding that star light is a supernatural phenomena.

Another proposed answer is that naturalism is intrinsic to science. Under this scenario, science presupposes naturalism and is incapable of obtaining knowledge via supernatural methods. To demonstrate that this answer is wrong all we need to do is give an example of obtaining knowledge via a supernatural method. For example, if the previously unknown answers to any question in mathematics were magically revealed to worshippers of Jupiter then we would be justified in concluding that Jupiter may be a supernatural God. 

The one good answer is that science restricts itself to natural methods and conclusions because our universe is strictly naturalistic. People ask atheists for evidence that there are no gods. Here is the evidence: The monopoly of naturalistic methods and conclusions in science is substantial positive evidence that we live in a strictly naturalistic universe.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

More socially advanced countries are less religious.

Dr. Alex McFarland, host of the national Stand Strong Tour, was quoted recently as saying the following: "From a societal standpoint, any time we reject a belief in God and, thereby, a belief in absolute morals based on the Word of God, we see the disintegration of a healthy society. From the breakdown of the family and the killing of the unborn to the rejection of the rule of law and of moral boundaries, the consequences are far reaching."  Given the large number of people with diverse religious affiliations who very confidently express similar unqualified sentiments, the question to ask here is what does the available evidence say about the relationship between a society being healthy and a society being religious?  To answer this question someone needs to identify measures of how healthy and religious a society is, take those measurements, and evaluate the results.

We have new data addressing both questions.  On April 13 the international polling organization WIN/Gallup released the results of a massive new survey into religion worldwide.  The latest update of the Social Progress Index was published the previous week.  This was also a mammoth undertaking, painstakingly assessing the nations of the world against a battery of benchmarks divided into three categories: “Basic Human Needs”, “Foundations of Wellbeing” (health and basic education), and “Opportunity” (personal rights, freedom, tolerance and advanced education).  Now we need someone to combine the data and see if the correlations support McFarland's assertion.

This is a task for Epiphenom. Epiphenom found that the Gallup poll allows us to rank 59 countries by the percentage of citizens who are non-religious.  The least religious countries scored highest on the Social Progress Index and the most religious countries scored worst. This trend is apparent across all three categories.

Back in 2009 Epiphenom showed the less religious countries were also more peaceful, and research since then has shown that they are more democratic, have less corruption, more telephones, do better at science, have less inequality and other problems, and are generally just less dysfunctional and have better quality of life.  Regardless of the underlying cause and effect direction, and regardless of how frequently many different people adamantly assert otherwise, there is only one properly justified conclusion here:  A non-religious society and a healthy society are mutually compatible.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Morality, consensus, commitment, and axioms

By Mathew Goldstein

The distinction between a definition in the abstract and a practical operational method for applying that definition is sometimes important, yet it tends to be under appreciated.  As Jason Rosenhouse argues in his recent blog article A Few More Words About Morality "One of the most overwrought questions in moral philosophy is the question of whether morality is objective or subjective."  Following the abstract definition "... something is objectively true if it is true independently of what anyone thinks about it."  However, to apply this abstract "objective versus subjective" distinction we need an operational method to render it concrete.

Jason Rosenhouse makes the following argument:  "The point is that appealing to the consensus is just the best we can do when trying to distinguish what is objectively true from what is a subjective belief.  I see no reason why we cannot apply the same standard to discussions of morality."  Thus, by comparing the laws of different democratic countries we can find consistencies regarding what is deemed criminal and cite this consensus to establish an objectively moral baseline.

Obviously consensus is a flawed method of determining what is true.  Consensus has historically been wrong in the context of morality.  Therefore being moral entails rejecting the consensus when it fails the “don’t hurt people unnecessarily” standard underlying morality.  Since consensus is a flawed method for concretely applying the abstract principle, this result does not mean that morality as a principle lacks objectivity.  Instead it means that humans are, for a variety of reasons, imperfect in distinguishing what is moral from what is immoral.  

Furthermore, in the context of reaching a consensus there is also a question of commitment.  Lack of commitment plays some role in historical failures of the consensus to uphold morality, particularly when people perceive a conflict with their own self-interest.  Jason Rosenhouse briefly addresses the lack of commitment issue by acknowledging that commitment is where morality becomes more subjective.  He says "Moral assertions have to be defended on some basis, and in any system of reasoning something has to be taken as axiomatic."  Mr. Rosenhouse is correct.  His article is short so, if you have not done so yet and are interested and in this topic, go ahead and take a few minutes to read it.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Rules for making a valid argument

The following five rules for making a valid argument are universally applicable.  I mention them here because they are too often not followed.*
  • We are restricted to following the evidence and going only where it takes us.  The only proper way to justify our conclusions about how the universe functions is overall best fit with all of the available evidence.  Empirical evidence comes first, conclusions follow.
  • We must accept our accumulated knowledge of the natural world. We are obligated to acknowledge the validity of scientific explanations because they are historically successful.  You don’t get to advance your hypothesis about how the universe works by throwing out accumulated human wisdom!
  • We must accept that we don’t know anything about the nature of entities outside this universe. Deities and afterlives and the like are sometimes defined as existing outside human experience.  The proper adjective for imagined entities that have no basis in human experience is 'fictional'.
  • To determine how the universe functions we need to look beyond what is going on inside someone's head by citing information that is universally accessible.  Human psychology is notoriously unreliable as a source of knowledge. When someone announces that they have knowledge of the mind of god, citing their personal interpretation of their personal experience, they are discussing their psychology.  
  • We are obligated to define our factual assertions about how the universe functions clearly and unambiguously.  Karen Armstrong-style platitudes are empty noise. Insofar as “God is Love” says nothing discernible about how the universe functions it is literally a meaningless, throw-away phrase.

PZ Myers criticized Greta Christina for her recent article proposing 6 unlikely developments that could convince her to believe in God.  PZ Myers complained that Ebonmuse and Greta Christina are 'conceding too much' by engaging in 'what if' arguments to demonstrate the application of the first criteria for valid argument from the above list. PZ claims that the latter four criteria (his four criteria were defined somewhat differently, see his article http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2015/04/04/it-is-not-close-minded-to-demand-reasonable-kinds-of-evidence/) are prerequisites that theists can’t meet and therefore discussion should end there. I disagree. While it is arguably true that theists always fail to meet all four criteria simultaneously, those four criteria are corollaries of the first criteria. The insistence on starting with, and being dependent upon, empirical evidence is not secondary to the other criteria. Providing examples of how to apply the first criteria concedes only the primacy of empirical evidence and is not rendered irrelevant or useless because theists fail to simultaneously meet all of the other four criteria.

* This list of debate rules was inspired by a recent public disagreement between bloggers Greta Christina and PZ Myers and borrows from what they wrote.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Appeal to lawmakers: Evaluate bills using strictly secular criteria

Some people argue against implementing any aid in dying law on the grounds that any such law will disrespect the ideal of facing difficulties resolutely. Struggle and tragedy are a part of life.  Being resolute in confronting adversity is the proper approach to living well.  However, living with struggles and difficulties is not therefore a public policy goal to be protected by government laws.  Laws by themselves cannot eliminate all adversity.  But insofar as there are opportunities to implement laws that mitigate or reduce struggles and difficulties we should be favorably inclined to do so.  By implementing laws aimed at reducing suffering we are not challenging or disputing our responsibilities to resolutely confront the ongoing or occasional difficulties that we experience.

People who unconditionally oppose aid in dying laws tend to rely on secular language to avoid limiting the appeal of their argument to religious people.  Their talk of adverse "cultural" impact resembles a veil covering the religious motivation behind their opposition.  There is a dissonance between holding to the conviction that a benevolent God created humans in "His" image and accepting the notion that it is proper to legally authorize terminally ill people to voluntarily hasten their own deaths.  It is this dissonance with the religious beliefs that some lawmakers esteem, not any actual adverse cultural impact, that appears to motivate their unconditional opposition to aid in dying laws.

We all agree that people who are unconditionally opposed to hastening their own death should not do so.  We who are not theists harbor no illusions that humans have a transcendent purpose different from all other animals or that voluntary human self-hastening of death contradicts the desire of a deity.  There is no God imposing suffering on people to build their character, punish them for misdeeds, or qualify them for heaven.  A revised aid in dying bill may be introduced again in the Maryland General Assembly next year.  We appeal to Maryland lawmakers to make an effort to put aside any metaphysical qualms they may have and evaluate all proposed laws, including this one, strictly on secular criteria.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

False stereotyping of science

In the past I have summarized Sean Carroll's argument for atheism. Another one of my favorite atheist philosophers is Victor Stenger. Following is my summary of Victor Stenger's argument for atheism copied from his University of Colorado presentation titled Can Science Study the Supernatural?

Scientists use only methodological naturalism primarily because it works. But it may not always be so. Scientists will go wherever the data leads. Furthermore, methodological naturalism can be utilized to investigate God.  Nothing prevents science from considering non-natural causes.

Take empirical data in the normal scientific way. If no natural explanation is even remotely plausible then we may entertain the possibility of a supernatural process. For example, suppose independent experiments showed conclusively that Catholic prayers heal the sick while Jewish, Protestant, Muslim prayers have no effect. While many published prayer experiments are poorly done and unconvincing, a few are double-blind and "good science": Mayo Clinic 2001, Duke University 2005, Harvard, Mayo, ... 2006. No significant effect found. The world looks just as it would be expected to look if there is no God who answers prayers in any significant way.

All observations have plausible natural explanations, but they need not have them. Observations could have determined that the laws of physics were violated in creating the universe. That the age of the earth was too short for evolution. That the universe and life really showed evidence of design. That the human mind was shown to have extraordinary powers. That revelations contain new information. That natural events followed moral law. That lightening just strikes the wicked. That jails are filled with atheists while believers live happy, prosperous lives surrounded by loving family and pets. Such observations would support the God hypothesis.

Intelligent design, like intercessory prayer, like astrology, etc. is testable, tentative, falsifiable. Scientific studies find that the world looks just as it would be expected to look if it contains living organisms that are not designed but the product of the jury-rigged processes of evolution. The overall universe is mostly random. 96% of matter is dark matter or dark energy which has little structure. Photons in the cosmic microwave background are random to 1/100,000 and outnumber atoms a billion to one.

The universe looks just like it would be expected to look if it is not designed with humans in mind.  Contrary to what some people claim, science can investigate the supernatural and the result is not neutral or silent vis-a-vis the God hypothesis.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Request Death With Dignity law in Maryland

State laws to allow terminally ill patients to obtain medication to hasten their deaths are opposed by the Anglican, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Christian Science, Disciples of Christ, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Jehovah Witness, Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, Mormon, Orthodox, and Russian Othodox churches, and by Islam and Orthodox Judaism.  The reasoning for this opposition varies, but it is usually rooted in a belief that humans have a special connection to a god and acting to hasten one's death is contrary to what this god wants.  Nevertheless, several states have passed such laws.  Oregon enacted a death with dignity law in 1997.  This year, a bill modeled after Oregon's law is being considered in Maryland.

Oregon's law has proven to be successful.  Few people avail themselves of this option in practice.  The most common primary motive cited by the people that opted to hasten their death is loss of autonomy.  The availability of this option provides peace of mind to people who never qualify to hasten their deaths under the law, or who qualify but do not opt to hasten their deaths.  It is more ethical to allow people to obtain an aid in dying prescription from a physician after they have been diagnosed to have a remaining life span of six months or less, with procedural safeguards, than to deny everyone this option.

Complete the HTML forms to send an email to your Senator and Delegate(s) requesting that this law be passed in Maryland:  http://secular.us6.list-manage.com/track/click?u=9241bef44976519ab9f9dff94&id=389b463027&e=9f6f3f2c59.  The Secular Coalition for Maryland is currently tracking 27 Senate and House bills.  In addition to the physician aid in dying bill, we are supporting several equal employment opportunity bills, opposing several bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, opposing several bond bills, and supporting some Sunday hunting and alcohol sales bills.  To send emails to (or telephone or mail) your lawmakers about these bills please visit the lobbying actions page.

Monday, February 16, 2015

In Griswold We Trust

David B. Parker is a professor of history at Kennesaw State University who specializes in Civil War history.  As any academic historian steeped in the Civil War knows, there are sometimes two conflicting histories, the history found in the historical record and a popular "history" that originates in someone's head the same way as fiction originates, but is nevertheless promoted as factual by individuals or groups with political, commercial, or other such non-academic agendas, and is subsequently repeated over and over again by growing numbers of other people, and as a result becomes accepted by public opinion as being factually true.  This happens in multiple different contexts.  If you think that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are likely fictional characters (unlike the historical warrior Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibnʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim (a.k.a. Muhammad) or the historical con-man Joseph Smith) you may want to keep this insight to yourself lest you be mischaracterized as a foolish atheist ideologue who disregards the generally accepted evidence that all sensible people, including non-religious people and people of other religions, allegedly know demonstrates that these were historical people.

And so it is also with the claims that George Washington appended "so help me god" to his first presidential oath of office and all subsequent presidents did the same.  For many years the Senate Historical Office, speaking as the experts on presidential oath history on behalf of the U.S. Senate, and therefore also on behalf of the United States government, endorsed the first claim as historical fact.  For multiple years, starting shortly after we began our correspondence with them, they also published a "so help me God" video on the Joint Congressional Committee for Inaugural Ceremonies' (JCCIC) website that endorsed the second claim as historical fact.  Years after several of us first corresponded with the Senate Historical Office to point out that neither claim is supported by the historical record, they continued to endorse both "facts" on the website. The Senate Historical Office justified their stance by pointing out that historian Douglas Southall Freeman, who won a (posthumous) Pulitzer Prize for his six-volume biography of Washington published in 1954, claimed GW appended that phrase.  We responded that the eyewitness document cited by Freeman in his biography did not assert that GW appended that phrase.  From then on we got no more responses from the Senate Historical Office to any correspondence we sent them. Even though they eventually conceded their second claim was not justified they continued to assert it on the website.  Frustrated by the years of no response from the Senate Historical Office, one day I visited the Senate Rules Committee office, which owns the JCCIC web site.  I was dismissed by the youthful staff there, somewhat rudely, as if I was a crank.

Yet people did pay attention and began reporting the history correctly, and the JCCIC website eventually also followed. Professor Parker subsequently took an interest in the origin of these two related myths about George Washington's first inauguration and about all presidential oaths.  His conclusions were recently published in Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, volume 15, no. 1 and are available for all to read under the appropriate title "In Griswold We Trust".

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unlike watches, easy to break beliefs have more value

A robust watch that "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is better than a fragile watch.  A belief is unlike a watch in this respect.  A belief should be defeasible to have merit and warrant our support.  The easier it is to defeat a belief the more justified we are to hold that belief by virtue of a failure to defeat it.  When a belief attempts to claim the allegedly unbreakable status of a Timex watch that indicates that the belief is likely to be ill-defined and to lack value.  People who proudly assert that they adopt their most important beliefs on faith and actively resist the doubting of this faith, or who deliberately select their beliefs to be as inscrutable and invulnerable to defeat as possible, are making a fundamental mistake.  They are self-defining themselves as unreasonable ideologues.

To be properly justified our beliefs need to be derived from an honest effort to obtain a best fit with the available evidence.  Accordingly, we should hold those beliefs that are most consistent with the conclusions reached by a current consensus of the experts who carefully examine the empirical evidence and who adopt only those defeasible conclusions that withstand skeptical scrutiny.  Using this standard we are not restricted to adopting only those conclusions that are published in science textbooks, but we are confined to adopting only those beliefs that are the closest match with the conclusions published in science textbooks.  

The evidence favors, as best fit beliefs, that biology is chemistry is physics, that humans are primates that evolved from evolved fish that evolved from single celled organisms that emerged from chemistry and physics, that our universe has total energy in the vicinity of zero and that a stable initial condition of absolute nothingness is a fictional concept, that human cognition is flawed and biased and the very different religious beliefs among different people reflect our cognitive biases, and that libertarian free will is a fiction.  It thus becomes difficult to simultaneously hold traditional religious beliefs.  We should not be seeking a religious belief or any pre-determined belief, we should be seeking beliefs that are the best fit with the available evidence.

The Great Silence paradox

SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, has detected nothing.  This result gives us "the Great Silence" paradox, which can be stated thusly:  The size and age of our universe incline us to believe that many technologically advanced civilizations exist. However, this belief is in conflict with our failure to find observational evidence to support it. 

Maybe intelligent life requires more than physics and chemistry and exists only on earth because a creator god of some sort put us here.  Maybe technologically advanced intelligent life is rarer than we assumed.  Maybe our current observations are misdirected or our search methodologies are flawed.  It turns out that the last two explanations for this failure are both likely true.

Earth is located 27,000 light years from the center of our galaxy.  SETI researchers look towards the center of our galaxy because that is the direction where the largest concentration of nearby stars are found.  New evidence implies that long gamma ray bursts are more common in places where stars are more dense and also where elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are less common.  

Long gamma ray bursts function like a reset buttons, they destroy multi-cellular life.  Intelligent life, which we can define here as life that achieves an understanding of how stars give off light, is possible on earth because of our location on the outer periphery of a large galaxy where there are fewer nearby stars and where there is a significant quantity of heavier elements. Earth appears to have experienced a partial biological reset from a gamma ray burst resulting in the Ordovician extinction, a global cataclysm about 450 million years ago that wiped out 80% of Earth's species.

During the first 5 billion years after the Big Bang there were arguably too many long gamma ray bursts to make plausible the emergence of intelligent life.  Furthermore, most galaxies are smaller than our Milky Way galaxy, with densely packed stars and/or with fewer heavy elements.  It is estimated that about 10% of the observable galaxies are sufficiently large and with enough heavy elements to have planets in their outer regions with conditions amenable to the evolution of intelligent life.  10% of 100 billion is still 10 billion galaxies, but the large distances between galaxies reduces the probability of our finding evidence for intelligent life in other galaxies even when it exists.  

Thus the initial SETI results appear to be not so paradoxical after all.  Our chaotic universe provides a mostly harsh environment that is ill-suited for the evolution of intelligent life.  The search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be more effective if it focused on the outer regions of our galaxy and nearby large galaxies, but this constraint also makes it less likely that we will ever find them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marylanders: Request repeal of antiquated laws

The Secular Coalition for America recently sent out emails to their members in Maryland inviting them to send an email to their Delegate and Senator requesting that Articles 36 & 37 of the Declaration of Rights be amended to comply with a 1961 Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, that Article 37 violates the first amendment.  Articles 36 & 37 allow a religious test for qualifying to be a juror and a witness and to hold public office.  The first two links below quote the laws, the next link describes the issue, and the last link displays the SCA form to send the email.



As of this week, the Secular a Coalition for Maryland has given a Model Secular Policy Guide to 19 Senators and 28 Delegates.  Our goal is to give a copy of the Guide to most of the Senators and Delegates prior to the start of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Justice Scalia's alternative facts

According to Justice Scalia, the supernatural devil is "a real person" and demonic possession is less common today then it was in the past because today there are more atheists who function as enablers for the devil.  Scalia's views on the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause principles are unbalanced and unjust because they are rooted in facts about how the universe works that are false.  If there really is a devil who possesses people as depicted in C.S. Lewis' apologetic novel The Screwtape Letters, and atheists are favoring "the devil's desires", as Scalia asserts is a fact, then Scalia's refusal to apply EC and EPC protections to atheism and atheists would be perfectly ethical.

Our model of how the universe works is the foundation that our ethics are built on.  This is why it is so important to utilize reliable methods for obtaining our facts about how the universe functions.  Antonin Scalia talks like a person who is not entirely committed to reliably anchoring his factual beliefs on the solid ground of empiricism.  Instead, he anchors at least some of his factual beliefs in today's ongoing reiteration of 4th century Catholic dogma.  The Vatican makes no distinction between its theology and the facts, and therefore neither does Justice Scalia, who is proudly committed to being a good Catholic.  

Through considerable collective effort, with important contributions of a few intelligent individuals, between the 4th century and 1789 we acquired some additional knowledge about how the world functions.  This trend of acquiring knowledge has continued, at an accelerated pace, between 1789 and 2015.   Justice William J. Brennan somehow managed to live in the real world and profess Catholicism at the same time.  But Scalia's world view pathetically, and tragically, remains partially frozen somewhere between the 4th century and 1789 because he elevates Catholic faith to a valid epistemology with equal status, or maybe superior status, to empiricism. His pathological condition is all the more troubling given that he is an intelligent and powerful man who appears to be injecting his Catholic bias into his evaluation of civil rights protections.

The United States government spends billions of dollars every year to further research that continues to advance modern knowledge.  This money does not go to the Catholic Church because Catholic Church theology contributes nothing to our modern knowledge and never has.  If Justice Scalia had more integrity then he would acknowledge this and refrain from basing EC and EPC jurisprudence on his Catholic faith.

My response to WASH banquet comment

At the Phillips Seafood restaurant banquet that was co-sponsored with the American Humanist Association some months ago, I shared a table with several couples. That restaurant is good, I regret I arrived too late to take full advantage of the buffet downstairs. The first conversation was initiated by one of the two other guys at our table who declared that calling oneself an atheist is like calling oneself an aleprechaunist. Nobody calls them self an aleprechaunist, and no one should call themselves an atheist, he said.

A problem with this analogy is that almost no one calls themselves a leprechaunist either, and even those few people who may so label themselves are joking, or at least do not worship leprechauns. If it were otherwise, if 80-90% of the population called themselves leprechaunists and many of these people worshipped leprechauns, then we would be properly justified in calling ourselves aleprechaunists. That is one of the proper, valid, functions of labels, to identify significant differences in commonly held individual perspectives. Some atheists are married to theists and they do fine together. Yet this is a difference that can contribute to weakening a relationship and sometimes it does.

In addition to the social context, another context where the atheist label can have real significance is with laws and government practices. It is for this reason that arguments to stop using this label are inherently political. Labels enable debate over relevant government laws and practices. Our government, in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments, actively promotes theism and sometimes discriminates against atheists. It is more difficult to challenge this if we dispense with the atheist label. This is one of the reasons I keep using the atheist label and reject arguments against using this label. For similar reasons I keep referring to atheism as a belief even though some people mistakenly insist that atheism is never a belief. For people who, like me, positively believe there are no gods, our positive atheism is a belief.

No one who calls himself atheist is thereby denying that theists and atheists can, and often do, have a lot in common. Also, no one who calls them self an atheist is only an atheist. As with any label, the atheist label is an incomplete way of characterizing oneself. We can also be humanists, secularists, freethinkers, metaphysical or philosophical naturalists, rationalists, skeptics, empiricists, non-theists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, etc.