Sunday, July 13, 2014

Root Differences Between Theism and Naturalism

Some of you may be acquainted with Tom W. Clark and his excellent naturalism.org web site. In 2007 Mr. Clark published an article titled When Worldviews Collide: Root Differences Between Theism and Naturalism which discusses his impression of a debate between theist philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro and atheist philosopher Andrew Melnyk. I do not have strong opinions on many controversies, particularly regarding questions that focus on technical questions requiring expertise that we non-experts do not possess, but with this debate I am unequivocally in agreement with the atheist side. One of the reasons I am so comfortable taking sides here is that the only expertise that is needed to evaluate this controversy, despite the academic rigor of the discussion, is a decent general education. 

I very much agree with Tom Clark's analysis that at the bottom of the disagreement between the theists and atheists (a.k.a. naturalists) is a different approach to evidence, or in the words of Tom Clark "....disagreements about the explanatory potential of dualism, about the epistemic status of intuitions and data, and about what counts as good explanation." 

As Tom Clark argues, "A striking methodological difference between the two sides, one that helps explain their differing takes on reality (dualist vs. monist), has to do with the status of what T&G call first person data. They put great stock in the validity of what they believe are widespread and commonsensical intuitions about metaphysical matters, intuitions deriving from personal experience.... But from a philo-scientific perspective, the claim that some intuitions or experiences wear truth on their sleeve and can’t be second-guessed is to let the tail of data wag the dog of theory.... We shouldn’t trust intuitions, however widely they might be shared, as direct apprehensions of what’s real since they are notoriously unreliable: mass delusion is possible.  Instead, we must test intuitions against objective evidence."

Mr Clark continues: "Transparency and reliability come from having specified and verified the existence of all entities, mechanisms, and events that participate in the explanation, such that there’s nothing mysterious or ad hoc involved.... A transparent explanation, at least for naturalists, can’t have gaping holes, filled with unexplained, ad hoc explainers. If some things currently escape explanation, so be it; that simply makes life more interesting." In other words, theists have an unfortunate tendency to mistake weak arguments for strong arguments as a result of applying a too lax standard regarding what qualifies as reliable supporting evidence. Or, as Mr Clark says "Yet their departures from good philo-scientific practice can best be explained, I think, as a function of putting the desideratum of a purposive reality above the desiderata of explanatory transparency, evidential reliability and cognitive coherence."

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Money for unions, but not for corporations, is compelled speech!?

The Supreme Court recently announced its latest decisions.  We now know that a conservative majority is giving priority to the religious free exercise claims of commercial and non-profit institutions and their owners over the freedom and health of employees and general applicability of religiously impartial, secular laws to all citizens.  They are also giving priority to the self-interests of employers over employees.

The conservative majority concluded in Citizens v. United that corporations have a free expression right to use corporate profits in their general treasury for partisan political activism even when employees, or stock investors, disagree with content of the corporation's speech.  Investors and employees are thus compelled to finance partisan political speech that they disagree with.   After all, a significant portion of the money that corporations are spending on politics is financed by equity capital provided by pension funds — capital contributions employees finance with their paychecks without an option to select the individual companies.  This is currently considered to be constitutional.  Yet, if executives and shareholders could not use their corporation to advance political positions, nothing would prevent those people who are executives and shareholders from making any speech they want, or spending any of their own money to disseminate that speech.

When a majority of employees vote for union representation, the union is compelled to bargain on behalf of all the employees in the bargaining unit, including anti-union employees.  The employees can subsequently vote for different union leadership, to change unions, or to go without a union.  It logically follows that all bargaining unit employees can be compelled to pay a union a fee each year to cover the costs of this union representation.  Employees can voluntarily pay an additional union membership fee to qualify for optional union membership benefits or they can donate to a union affiliated PAC.  The union can then utilize this extra voluntary income to finance partisan political activity. But to compel employees to pay a union fee for collective bargaining still supports the functioning of the union, and unions, along with corporations, now have a right to engage in partisan political advocacy.  Accordingly, the conservative majority recently declared in Harris v. Quinn that compelled collective bargaining fees are unconstitutional compelled speech.  Unions must now depend on employees being self-sacrificing idealists for financing of their primary collective bargaining function.

So employees and investors are compelled to support the partisan political speech of corporations, unions are compelled to represent all of the bargaining unit employees, and employees cannot be compelled to pay the union for collective bargaining because unions can engage in partisan political speech.  Is this what the constitution says according to the conservative majority?  Do they really think this makes sense?  Can someone tell me that I am misunderstanding what the conservative majority is doing?  The way I see this, at a minimum, pension plans now need to ensure that employees are not compelled to indirectly finance corporate political speech by granting employees an opt out from investing their money in any companies that they disagree with.   Until they do, pension funds will be vulnerable to the challenge that they are violating the First Amendment. After they do, pension funds will incur additional expense to provide this opt-out.

If there are legitimate and principled reasons for heavily discounting the legitimacy of the political advocacy of organized labor while simultaneously exalting the legitimacy of the political advocacy of organized capital, then let's hear the conservative majority try to explain what they are. It would make much more sense to acknowledge that both corporations and unions have economic functions that need to be kept separate from their partisan political activities. Their secondary partisan political activity should be financed separately from their primary economic functions via a PAC. We should rely on a separate category of corporation for journalism companies that can engage in partisan advocacy but not engage in other types of commerce. The conservative majority is unnecessarily creating a big, complicated, mess by using a free speech rationale to combine the economic functions of corporations and unions with their partisan political activities.

Friday, July 04, 2014

2014 Maryland GA vote scorecard

This year the Maryland General Assembly unanimously approved state licensing of the mostly bogus "alternative medicine" practitioners who call themselves Naturopaths.  Fortunately, three bills that locally removed Sunday restrictions on particular commercial activities with titles "Dorchester County - Class B Beer and Light Wine Licenses - Sunday Sales", "Garrett County - Alcoholic Beverages - Sunday Sales for Off-Premises Consumption", and "Garrett County – Alcoholic Beverages – Sunday Sales for On–Premises" also passed unanimously.  With three exceptions, the other bills that addressed secularist concerns (as identified by the Secular Coalition for Maryland), including more bills that would have removed additional restrictions on local Sunday recreational and commercial activities, did not reach a floor vote.

Three bills addressing secularist concerns received a non-unanimous floor vote.  All three bills, which have been signed into law by the Governor, removed restrictions on Sunday activities.  They were HB0344 and SB0344 "Charles County - Sunday Car Sales Blue Law Exemption - Enabling Authority", HB0406 and SB0472 "Allegany County, Garrett County, and Washington County - Sunday Hunting", and HB0432 and SB0473 "Frederick County - Deer Hunting - Sundays". Twenty three Delegates voted at least once against at least one of these bills.  Four Senators also voted at least twice against at least two of these bills.

For those who plan to vote during the election later this year, below is a list of the naysaying lawmakers with the bill numbers they voted against.  If any of these incumbents are candidates in your election then you may want to try contact your lawmaker's office prior to the election to ask why he or she voted against these bills.  Washington Area Secular Humanists neither endorses nor opposes any candidates running for public office (regardless of how good or bad those candidates may or may not be). You can also view the complete spreadsheet SCMD General Assembly Votes 2014

Delegates:
Aumann, Susan L. M. Republican 42 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472
Barkley, Charles Democrat 39 Montgomery County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Bobo, Elizabeth Democrat 12B Howard County
SB0472 SB0473
Braveboy, Aisha N. Democrat 25 Prince George's County
SB0472 SB0473
Bromwell, Eric M. Democrat 8 Baltimore County
HB0344
Burns, Emmett C., Jr. Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0344 HB0432
Cardin, Jon S. Democrat 11 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Frush, Barbara Democrat 21 Prince George's and Anne Arundel
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Howard, Carolyn J. B. Democrat 24 Prince George's County
SB0473
Hubbard, James W. Democrat 23A Prince George's County
HB0432
Jones, Adrienne A. Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0473
Kach, Wade Republican 5B Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
McDonough, Pat Republican 7 Baltimore and Harford Counties
SB0473
Miller, Aruna Democrat 15 Montgomery County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Morhaim, Dan K. Democrat 11 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Murphy, Peter Democrat 28 Charles County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Nathan-Pulliam, Shirley Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0432 SB0473
Parrott, Neil Republican 2B Washington County
HB0344
Pena-Melnyk, Joseline A. Democrat 21 Prince George's and Anne Arundel
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Robinson, Shane Democrat 39 Montgomery County
HB0406 SB0472 SB0473
Smigiel, Michael D., Sr. Republican 36 Kent, Queen Anne's, Cecil, Caroline
HB0344
Stocksdale, Nancy R. Republican 5A Carroll County
HB0344
Summers, Michael G. Democrat 47 Prince George's County
HB0406

Senators:
Benson, Joanne C. Democrat 24 Prince George's County
HB0406 HB0432
Jones-Rodwell, Verna L. Democrat 44 Baltimore City
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Miller, Thomas V. Mike, Jr. Democrat 27 Prince George's and Calvert
HB0406 HB0432
Ramirez, Victor R. Democrat 47 Prince George's County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Is it unethical to criticize bad epistemology?

Let's say a person justifies adopting a set of factual beliefs on the grounds of wanting to participate in an ideological based social group.  Or on the grounds of self-committing to some ethical norms that are asserted to be related to that particular set of factual beliefs.  Or on the grounds that holding this set of factual beliefs is psychologically comforting because it provides purpose and meaning.  Or on the grounds that these factual beliefs are matters of personal preference or of faith and are thus self-justifying.  Professing this set of factual beliefs has thus become entangled with ongoing social and ethical commitments and activities and motivations.  Accordingly, this person claims a self-dependency on holding this set of factual beliefs.  

Given this context, is it now unethical for those us who disagree with that set of factual beliefs to publicly argue against them given that there is some risk that such a person could, partially or wholly as a result of exposure to those arguments, lose their beliefs?  Clearly, there is reason here to be cautious.  We do not want to harm anyone by isolating them socially, or by telling them they should give up on ethical commitments, or by telling them there is no meaning to their life or purpose for them to pursue. As secular humanists we are people focused, we oppose abandoning people.  We abandon transcendence, not ethics, nor meaning, nor purpose.

Some humanists argue that we should distinguish between people who respect everyone's civil rights and those who do not.  They say it is ethical to argue against the beliefs of those people who fall in the latter category only.  But is this distinction practical to implement?  Not if one of the goals is to challenge bad justifications for factual beliefs. The same faulty reasoning is common to both sets of people.  

Why focus on challenging bad justifications for factual beliefs?  Because, like it or not, it is not enough to have good ethical commitments.  Ethical commitments are important, but so is proper justification of factual beliefs. Arguably, the worst atrocities have historically been committed by ethical people with the best intentions.  What goes wrong?  Part of the answer is that these people tended to be undisciplined in how they justified their factual beliefs.  Religion in general is built upon, it depends on, and it encourages, promiscuous adoption of factual beliefs.  This is a problem with potential real world negative consequences, and it is not a problem confined to "bad" religion as opposed to "good" religion.

People who make themselves dependent, socially, psychologically, or otherwise, on a particular set of factual beliefs have thereby made a mistake.  This is a problem in and of itself as it interferes with good reasoning.  Furthermore, this is an unnecessary problem. This problem is a result of people turning themselves into ideologues and prioritizing ideology over reasoning.  Rather than perpetuating this problem by falsely declaring it ethically taboo to challenge dubious factual beliefs that are held without proper warrant, it is better in the long run to deal with adults as adults.  It is an elitist attitude to say that as non-religious non-believers we should unilaterally censure our speech to protect religious believers from themselves.  They can stand up for themselves also.  People who experienced a difficult transition from religious belief to non-belief often say that they are now glad that they made that transition. By speaking out publicly for non-belief, maybe we can contribute to making this transition less difficult for religious individuals.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The ultimate free lunch

By Mathew Goldstein

According to the theory of cosmic inflation, our universe started from almost nothing, borrowing the required positive energy from a growing, negative energy, gravitational field as a result of the large negative pressure of the tiny, initial, inflating substance.  In a fraction of a second (less than about 10^-35 seconds) our universe doubled in size about 260 times.  Then this period of "Big Bang" inflation ended.

One of the predictions of inflation is that the cosmic microwave background radiation will contain an imprint of gravitational waves.  This is because quantum fluctuations during inflation will generate gravitational waves. To celebrate the recent discovery of the predicted cosmic microwave background B-mode polarization (and to promote his new book), Max Tegmark has placed the inflation chapter of his new book,  Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, on the internet.  This is the up to date version of the first part of the first chapter of the obsolete book commonly referred to as the bible, with inflation now assuming the role formerly attributed to God, and it is free, so take a look.  It explains why the Big Bang only makes sense if inflation is true, that inflation makes multiple predictions which have been demonstrated to be true, and the implications of inflation for cosmology (inflation is eternal, therefore we live in a multiverse).

Adam Gopnick's errors on the nature of skepticism, rationalism, and humanism

The Barefoot Bum blog recently published a short article The nature of skepticism and humanism that accurately criticizes Adam Gopnick's "otherwise excellent piece, Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fade?, on the failings of many 'Sophisticated Theologians'" for its mistaken definition of rationalism and for its "insulting" depiction of humanism that is "without foundation." The Barefoot Bum's explanation for the role of intuition and how we all rely on intuition, but skeptical rationalists are more consistent in giving higher precedence to reason, and his characterization of humanists as people who dispense with transcendentalism, is very good. This is worth reading. 

 Jerry Coyne similarly criticizes Adam Gopnick for being "so eager to take the middle ground that he conflates the human emotions of atheists with the delusions of religious believers—and so sees a convergence of the twain" on his Why Evolution is True blog Adam Gopnik on atheism in the New Yorker. This strained "middle ground" journalism is common, particular when the topic is atheism versus theism. One common strategy is to argue that atheists are similar to religious fundamentalists and both are wrong for the same reasons. Adam Gopnick takes a more subtle approach to arguing that atheism is deficient, but his argument is no less rooted in false stereotype and conceptual confusion.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fake history from the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition

Reacting to the recent publication of an Air Force cadet handbook that omitted those words from the oath, the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition has sponsored a billboard near the entrance to the Air Force Academy that features the Mount Rushmore carvings of four presidents with this question and their response: "Are you free to say So help me God?  They did."  Chaplain (COL) Ron Crews, USAR Retired, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, one of the organizations in the coalition, is quoted as saying "The presidents Americans admire all solemnly uttered these words when they took their oaths of office. Our Air Force cadets should be encouraged to follow their example.”  There is a problem with this.  No one with personal integrity who is genuinely knowledgeable about presidential oath history can assert that all presidents added those words to their oaths of office.

Let's start with Theodore Roosevelt's second inauguration.  The Lowville, N.Y. Journal and Republican, March 9, 1905 (PDF), the Indiana Evening Gazette, March 4, 1905 , the Newark Advocate. March 4, 1905,Weekly Kentucky New Era, March 3, 1905 (March 4 revision), and others quote the oath recitation and details Roosevelt's immediate before and after actions with no mention of shmG.

First hand accounts of Theodore Roosevelt adding the phrase "And thus do I swear" during his first inauguration [September 14, 1901] can be found in The Illustrated Buffalo Express - Sunday, September 15, 1901, The Washington Post, September 15, 1901 (PDF), The Pittsburgh Press, September 15, 1901, The Last Days of President McKinley, by Walter Wellman published in The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Volume XXIV, New York, Review of Reviews, 1901, page 414-426, and Theodore Roosevelt, patriot and statesman the true story of an ideal American, by Robert Cornelius V Meyers, Philadelphia, Pa. and Chicago, Ill., P. W. Ziegler & co. [c1902], page 388. Roosevelt also did not use a bible during his first inauguration. Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-six president of the United States. A typical American, by Charles Eugene Banks and Leroy Armstrong; c1901, page 377 quotes the oath recitation without shmG as does American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward Stratemeyer, 1904, Lee and Shepard, Boston, Chapter XXV. The Executive Register of the United States, 1789-1902: A List of the Presidents ..., by Robert Brent Mosher, 1903, Friedenwald, Baltimore, MD, page 284, shows the certificate signed by the president with the words of oath as recited without shmG. The Authentic Life of William McKinley, by Alexander K McClure, New York : W.E. Scul, 1901, page 494 quotes the oath recitation without shmG. Executive Register of the United States: 1789-1902. Compiled by Robert Brent Mosher, Washington, DC. (Baltimore, MD: The Lord Baltimore Press (The Friedenwald Company); 1903), page 284 quotes the oath recitation as certified by "JOHN R. HAZEL, U. S. J."

Chapter XXXIV of A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay, 1904, The Century Co., New York quotes the oath recitation without "so help me God" for the first and second Lincoln inaugurations. Also quoting the oath for the second inauguration is Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, by T.B. Peterson, 1865, T.B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia, p. 192. Abraham Lincoln : the true story of a great life:, by William Osborn Stoddard, 1885, New York, Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, p. 448, says "The oath of office was administered by Chief-Justice Chase; the President looked out for a moment, silently, over the multitude, and then he addressed them ...." A similiar depiction is found in The every-day life of Abraham Lincoln; a biography from an entirely new standpoint,1886, by Francis F. (Francis Fisher) Browne, New York and St. Louis, N. D. Thompson Pub. Co., p. 680.

The Baltimore Sun, March 5, 1861, page 1 (PDF) shows Chief Justice Taney reciting the constitutional oath of office to Abraham Lincoln without shmG and then "Having administered the oath, Judge Taney congratulated Mr. Lincoln amidst the loud applause of the assembled spectators, and the stirring music of several bands." Similarly, the Weekly Standard, March 13, 1861 quotes the oath recited without shmG. Also, American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Inaugural Bible, 1861 quotes the recitation of just the constitutional oath. The Life of Abraham Lincoln; from His Birth to His Inauguration as President by Ward Hill Lamon, 1872, Boston, James R. Osgood and Company, page 536, quotes the 1861 oath recitation without shmG. Ward Lamon was one of Lincoln’s few close friends. An eyewiteness account of the oath recitation is provided by a lawyer, Wilder D. Wright, who campaigned for Lincoln. Immediately after the ceremony he wrote this in a letter to his father: "When the address closed, and the cheering subsided, Taney rose, and, almost as tall as Lincoln, he administered the oath, Lincoln repeating it ; and as the words, i preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution came ringing out, he bent and kissed the book." Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, By Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, page 33.

Christ the King, by Reverand James Mitchell Foster, 1894, James H. Earle, Boston, page 277 makes the following observation about Lincoln's inaugurations:
Every President, after George Washington and before RB Hayes, took the presidentail oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take tthe presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God's name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument.

The Gazette of the United States, March 10, 1801 (PDF) quotes Thomas Jefferson taking the oath without saying shmG as does the Connecticut Gazette, March 18, 1801, (PDF) and the Impartial Register, March 19, 1801, (PDF).

The Maryland Gazette, Thursday March 14, 1793, page 2 (PDF) provides a detailed account of the swearing in of George Washington during his second inauguration, including a quote of the oath recited without mention of shmG being spoken. An image of the same article from The Diary, March 7, 1793, page 3 (PDF) and the New York Daily Gazette, March 8, 1793, page 2 (PDF). The New Jersey Journal, March 13, 1793, (PDF), and The Vermont Gazette, March 15, 1793, (PDF), also quote the oath recitation.

William Ferraro, Assistant Professor and Assistant Editor of The Papers of George Washington, wrote (email January 25, 2008) "Like my much more experienced colleague at the Papers of George Washington, Senior Editor Phil Chase, I have come across no contemporary or eyewitness accounts of George Washington's first inauguration to support the tradition that he added the words "So help me God" to the presidential oath."

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation saw that the billboard was double sided and had a vacancy on the other side.  Their billboard asks "Are you free NOT to say So help me God? George Washington DIDN'T in his officer's oath."  The MRFF is an advocacy organization with integrity that knows American history.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Maryland state bonds would fund sectarian religious activity

Churches and masonic lodges are privately owned and operated religious facilities, they are not places of public accommodation. They have a first amendment right to close their door on anyone who tries to enter their facilities for any reason or for no reason.  A church or masonic lodge that opened their door to the public yesterday could abruptly change their policy and close their door tomorrow.

The state of Maryland nevertheless grants itself the power to provide loans to such religious facilities by issuing state bonds backed by taxpayer money.  The text of the bond bills declare that any facility being funded this way not be a place of sectarian worship or instruction.  Yet in practice that standard is interpreted very loosely by lawmakers as exemplified by two pairs of bond bills being considered by this year's General Assembly. House bill 1498 and Senate bill 498 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Baltimore City – SS Philip and James Church Hall Renovation and Repair.   House bill 1477 and Senate bill 965 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Prince Hall Grand Lodge.  

The church hall is utilized for "LEARNING FROM THE BIBLE: Biblical Talks" by Fr. Stephen Ryan that covers topics like “AS CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH: BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON MARRIAGE”.  It is the meeting place for KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS COUNCIL #14102 and for SSPJ PRO-LIFE.  The Prince Hall lodge states on its web page that "no atheist can be a Mason". There is no evidence that either facility is utilized by the general public or is intended to be utilized by the general public.

Furthermore, Senate bill 22 and House bill 1387 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Anne Arundel County – Calvary Food Bank. Pastors at the Calvary Food Bank give a religious sermon to the people who are waiting to receive food.  Despite the Calvary church blatantly mixing their religion with the charity, the state Department of Human Resources gives the food bank grants to buy food.

The non-sectarian standard, even if it were to be enforced, is too weak.  Government cannot discriminate or proselytize, and it is both improper and inconsistent for government to bypass these restrictions by funding private organizations that discriminate or proselytize.  The prohibitions on government sponsored discrimination and proselytizing are bypassed when government funds third parties to do indirectly what government cannot do directly.  Yet in Maryland it appears that even the current weak non-sectarian standard is not being fully respected.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Atheism linked to economic innovation, productivity

We can reasonably assert that philosophical naturalism has nothing to do with anything beyond the belief that the physical universe obeying natural laws is all that there is.  Nevertheless, beliefs about how our universe functions are unavoidably going to tend to influence individual day to day decisions that could, in turn, have larger implications for society.  The Journal of Institutional Economics recently published a study by two economists, Travis Wiseman of Mississippi State University and Andrew Young of West Virginia University titled Religion: productive or unproductive? that claims to have found evidence for negative correlations between religious belief commitments and some macro economic activity.

The researchers used religion data from a variety of sources: the Pew Form’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey; the Gallup Poll’s State of the States surveys from 2004 and 2008; and the Census Bureau’s Religious Congregation and Membership Study of 2000 and 2010.  Religiosity was determined by four factors: regular attendance at religious services, strong belief in God, regular prayer, and viewing one’s religion as “very important.”  “Productive entrepreneurship” was calculated using a combination of new businesses created, new businesses created with 500 or more employees, per-capita venture capital investments, patents per capita, and the growth rate of self-employment.

They found that the percent of individuals reporting as atheist/agnostic is positively associated with productive entrepreneurship.  Conversely, all of the religious variables they tracked “tend to correlate negatively and significantly” with a state’s productive entrepreneurship score. The percentage of a state’s residents who are self-described Christians in particular “robustly correlated” with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Atheism: The new Fundamentalism?

Someone describing herself as a "Spiritual Pundit, counselor, and coach", wrote an article recently published in Huffington Post titled Atheism: The new Fundamentalism? It begins with retelling a conversation with an atheist who keeps insisting he does not believe in any God.  The Spiritual Pundit defines god as "a placeholder for the ineffable" but the atheist rejects this as nonsense, saying he believes in science.  The Spiritual Pundit sees evolution "as the embodiment of a God immanent in and not separate from creation" so she concludes that the atheist must be insisting on an "outmoded version of God" when claiming theism is incompatible with science.  

Anyone who is opened minded "must have some version of what you don't believe in", says the Spiritual Pundit, figuring that as soon as an atheist defines what he does not believe in, his or her atheism is defeated by the simple expedient of redefining god to be something else.  But the atheist will only say he believes in science, and points to historical evils as refuting god.  The Spiritual Pundit does not see historical horrors as "proof of the non-existence of God", citing "new theologies and new understandings of God" that rejects "the puppet master God".  But the atheist persists in declaring science and theism to be mutually exclusive.  To the Spiritual Pundit this demonstrates that the atheist falsely insists on a "Santa sort of a God" and believes in a "disinterested universe made of mere matter ... with a kind of scientific literalism as dogmatic as Biblical literalism."  

Thus, the Spiritual Pundit concludes, an atheist is a closed minded fundamentalist who "disregards mystical experience" just like a biblical literalist who "disregards carbon dating".

But disregarding carbon dating and disregarding spiritual experiences are as dissimilar from each other as disregarding science textbooks and disregarding holy books.  It is here, in the insistence on anchoring our beliefs in empirical evidence, and not relying on flights of fancy, that the atheists are correct and the spiritual pundits of the world are mistaken.  Spiritual pundits start with "theologies and understandings" as the conclusion to be reached and then look for ways to make their preferred conclusion consistent with the available evidences.  Thus god becomes "ineffable" and synonymous with our universe by definition.  The atheist, in contrast, starts with the available evidences and tries to reach the best fit conclusion.  The atheist sees in quantum mechanics an example of how critical it is to take an evidence first approach when adopting beliefs about how the universe functions.  

Spiritual pundits see quantum mechanics as an example of how "the universe is more complex, mysterious, and multi-dimensional than anything our symbol systems, descriptions and analyses can apprehend".   Maybe.  But dealing with the counter-intuitive nature of our universe is the point.  Our intuitions are not up to the task of answering such questions.  A non evidenced, axiomatic, incomprehensible, God defined as "the embodiment" of evolution, or vice versa, is a 100% intuition derived belief that is completely superfluous from the perspective of what the empirical evidence communicates about how our universe functions.  We have no good excuse for abandoning an evidence first approach since that is the only approach that we have any reason to think reliably gets us to factual answers.  No one claims this method is perfect, but it does not need to be perfect to be the only game in town.

As long as the available empirical evidences overall favors the conclusion that the natural universe is fundamentally physical in nature and everything that exists is part of this natural universe, than atheism is a reasonable conclusion to hold (in my judgement, it is the singularly most reasonable conclusion, which is why I am an atheist).  If something is synonymous with our universe, or with mystery, than we already have those words to represent those concepts. Relabeling these concepts as God does not get us anywhere.  If standing firm on an insistence for grounding our beliefs about how the universe functions on empirical evidences defines atheists as "fundamentalists", and "scientific literalists", and "dogmatists", as some spiritual pundits claim, then those labels lose their negative connotations.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Corruption and religious beliefs within states

The question of what effectively prevents corruption, and what contributes to corruption, cannot be answered by only looking at the influence of religion.  China appears to have relatively high corruption and one of the highest proportion of self-declared atheists.  Nevertheless, given that religions so frequently claim an ethical advantage for believers over skeptics, it is good to know a little about what social science has to say about the correlations between religious beliefs and ethical standards.  Since data is often collected on a national level, such comparisons are often most practical to make between states.  The Epiphenom blog focuses on social science studies of religion and non-belief.  Recently, they reported on the results of a study using standard assessments of national corruption by Hamid Yeganeh & Daniel Sauers of Winona State University, USA.  They found that countries with the most religious people also have the highest levels of corruption.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Atheists need to assert ourselves! Here's how.

By Mathew Goldstein

Jeffrey Taylor is a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine.  Salon magazine recently published his short article 15 ways atheists can stand up for rationality. He recommends that we "arm ourselves with the courage of our rationalist convictions and go forth. We will all be better off for it." I agree.

Substituting metaphor for evidence

When a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used for one thing is applied to another the result is a metaphor.  Metaphors rely on utilizing one or more words whose actual definition renders the sentence nonsensical or false.  The sentence must be reinterpreted non-literally by substituting a context sensitive inferred meaning for the actual meaning of one or more of the words to extract it's intended meaning.  For example "all the world's a stage", "he drowned in a sea of grief", "she is fishing in troubled waters", etc.  Metaphors implicitly compare a situation to something else, but the situation is not actually that particular other thing and that other thing may itself be fictional.

A factual assertion that an entity of type X does not exist is not contradicted or challenged by citing the use of the noun for X as a metaphor.  It is silly to argue that a sea of grief exists because at some point in our lives many people experience the sentiment of being drowned in a sea of grief.  This is a variety  of category error.  Metaphors interpreted literally are false and therefore cannot be rationally cited as evidence to demonstrate that the thing referenced by the metaphor actually exists.

Yet so-called "sophisticated theology" relies on such misuse of metaphor to argue for the existence of a god.  An open reliance on metaphorical interpretations gives liberal theology in particular more flexibility than the more literalist conservative theology.  Liberal theology often puts this flexibility to good use in selectively shedding itself of the most blatantly untenable content of its holy books by dismissing it as metaphor. Good metaphors are meaningful, so by converting falsehoods into metaphors the falsehoods can be converted to potentially meaningful fiction.  But a reliance on converting falsehoods to meaningful fictions can only go so far.  Religion needs something more than meaningful fiction alone to justify the clerical salaries.  Religion needs factual content.  Both liberal and conservative theologians will cite metaphors as evidence for factual claims.  In particular, they rely on metaphors as substitutes for evidence of the existence of divinity.

The desire for a god to exist is so strong that many people consider it a serious character flaw to not believe in a god.  Famous people, particularly if they hold positions of responsibility, will often be challenged to publicly aver a belief in god.  If that famous person wants to avoid becoming a target of popular disdain and derision then that person is obliged to respond affirmatively.  So the best that they can often do under the circumstance is give a metaphorical response to try to have it both ways.  The problem here is that by doing that we play into the hands of sophisticated theologians who take that gift ball and run with it, claiming that the celebrity has publicly endorsed belief in their god.   I know from personal experience that many people cite such publicly stated metaphors from people such as Einstein and Hawking as support for their belief that theism is more reasonable than atheism.  This further isolates us atheists.

When someone says god is the "ultimate ground of being", we can respond by paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, who once said "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?  Four.  Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg".  How many gods exist if you call the ultimate grounds of being a god?  Zero.  Calling the ultimate grounds of being a god doesn't make it a god.  Richard Dawkins is correct when he asks "There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?”  Supernatural types of willful agents that reside outside the laws of physics are all in the same boat, there is insufficient reason to give gods more slack than any other such imaginary, supernatural entities.  Accommodating popular intolerance is not a good reason.

It is better to not hide behind the metaphors.  If you believe that there are no immaterial willful agents, no immaterial minds, no creator and chief managing administrator of the universe, then come out of the closet.  Say so publicly and unambiguously.  Call yourself an atheist.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Stephen Law on what is humanism

The Secular Outpost blog has a thoughtful, and somewhat lengthy, post by Stephen Law titled What is humanism? It addresses various questions, some of which overlap with the questions appearing in Don  Wharton's previous post.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Can we explain entanglement without supernaturalism?

Is quantum entanglement supernatural magic?  We do not have to be a New Age mystic, or a fan of Chopra Deepak, to think so.  We do not know the spin of a particle until we measure it, yet the instant we know it's spin we also know the spin of its entangled partner particle which could, in theory, be millions of miles distant.  Naturalism's dependency on physicalism sometimes appears to impose too much of a constraint for a feasible explanatory framework.  People turn to supernaturalism in part because they perceive naturalism as too restricted, and therefore too weak, a framework to explain our universe.  Are they mistaken to do this?  Can quantum entanglement be explained within the constraints imposed by naturalism? 

Some intelligent and thoughtful people, such as philosophers Thomas Nagel, Massimo Pigliucci, David Albert, and others, express doubts that a naturalistic framework is sufficient.  Some skepticism is indeed appropriate when dealing with the mysterious and the unknown, as is the case here.  Nevertheless, contra the philosopher skeptics, and popular opinion, the better answer is that naturalism is likely sufficient, and one way to illustrate this is to highlight one such possible explanation.

Physics has sometimes advanced with "what if" thought experiments imagining extreme conditions that would be difficult to replicate in a laboratory, such as Einstein's thought experiment of chasing a light beam, leading to Special Relativity.  Two physics heavyweights, Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, and Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, California, recently asked this question:  What would happen if two black holes are entangled?

First, they showed that space-time tunnels emerge from quantum theory when two black holes are entangled. It's as if the wormhole is the physical manifestation of entanglement.  When space-time curves we experience that curvature as gravity.  Anytime an N dimensional object curves, it enters an N+1 dimension.  Given that space + time = 3+1 = four dimensions, gravity evidences a fifth dimension.  Such warping of space-time can produce space-time tunnels, or wormholes.

The two physicists then extended this idea to a single black hole and its Hawking radiation, resulting in a new kind of wormhole. This wormhole links a black hole and its Hawking radiation.  Hawking radiation is the result of the black hole absorbing the anti-particle and emitting the particle of the virtual particle - anti-particle pairs that are otherwise constantly bubbling into and out of existence in the vacuum of space.

Julian Sonner of MIT, Kristan Jensen of the University of Victoria, and Andreas Karch of the University of Washington decided to try to determine what happens with pairs of entangled particles. To see what geometry may emerge in the fifth dimension from entangled quarks in the fourth, these scientists employed holographic duality, a concept in string theory. They found that what emerged was a wormhole connecting the two quarks, implying that the creation of entangled quarks simultaneously creates a wormhole.

So while entangled particles are far apart in four dimensional space-time, they could be joined together, fragilely, in the fifth dimension.  Spooky action at a distance may not be what seems, it could be an illusion from our inability to directly observe the curvature of space-time.  We witness the curvature of space-time indirectly by its products of gravity, black holes, and quantum entanglement (physicists usually consider quantum mechanics to be more fundamental than gravity, so they may say that the curvature of space-time is a product of quantum entanglement).  

We cannot properly have confidence that this quantum entanglement with wormhole scenario is true without more favorable empirical evidence.  But even if this hypothesis proves to be false, the fact remains that a strictly naturalistic framework is rich with possibilities for explaining our universe.  The intuition that a naturalistic framework lacks the power to explain how our universe works repeatedly turns out to be mistaken.  We do not need to turn to supernaturalism to explain how our universe works.  With effort, time, observation, and ingenuity we continue to make progress naturally.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Freethought Equality Fund endorses six candidates

The new Political Action Committee for non-believers endorsed six candidates for Congress in 2014.  The Freethought Equality Fund was launched by the American Humanist Association's Center for Humanist Activism in September.  Two of the candidates, Carolyn Tomei of Oregan and Juan Mendez of Arizona, are secular humanists.  The other four are Jared Polis of Colorado, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Bobby Scott of Virginia, and Lee Rogers of California.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Harris poll says more US residents "not at all religious", agnostic, or atheist

A press release summarizing the latest Harris poll results on the religious beliefs of United States residents; shows a continuing move away from superstitions and supernaturalism and towards skepticism and atheism. The biggest increase since 2009 was among the "not at all religious", which increased from 15% to 23%.  Those who are "absolutely or somewhat certain there is no God" increased from 13% to 16%. The percentage who either do not believe in God (16%) or are unsure (also 16%) increased from 26% to 32%. The disbelievers and non-believers are younger, better educated, more male, less racially black, and less Republican, on average than the population as a whole.  A small counter-trend towards supernatural belief is evidenced by a greater likelihood for younger people to believe in witches, ghosts, and reincarnation than older people.  Presumably, older people are more inclined to reject witches, ghosts, and reincarnation because those beliefs conflict with the traditional Abrahamic religious beliefs that they are more inclined to take seriously.  The steady trend away from religion and supernaturalism in the United States is showing no signs of slowing down, but almost three fourths self identify as theists  (down from over four fifths at the start of this century).

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Protestant Universalists as activism allies


I recently listened to Deacon Perry King of Universalist National Memorial Church in D.C. explain and defend his religious beliefs during a mostly cordial public talk featuring him and Don Wharton of WASH.  My understanding of his perspective is as follows:  He described his denomination as representing a liberal Protestant Christianity that embraces the pluralistic Universalist notion that people from all religions qualify to go to heaven.  He cites Paul Tillich's definition of god as the grounds of being, and he equates god with concepts like goodness and love.  He considers it possible to be both an atheist and a Christian, and points out that some other people call him an atheist, although clearly he does not self-identify as an atheist.  He appears to embrace faith as a valid alternative way of knowing, but then he claims his religious identity is not rooted in concrete beliefs, emphasizing instead that his religious identity is rooted in symbols, abstractions, and meanings.  He asserts that the bible is an important source of wisdom and that Jesus has a special role, but he rejects trinitarianism  He says he has read Sam Harris.  He says he embraces a post-modernist outlook and rejects logical positivism.  Social activism also has a central role, and he identifies the social activism as being motivated by Christianity and as being Christian in character.


For us secular humanists, deciding to join a public policy, or social activism,  or humanitarian intervention, alliance with any other group centers around answering two questions:  What public policy is needed and who else is advocating for that needed public policy?  The evidence regarding global warming related public policy is different from the evidence regarding civic equality for LGTB citizens is different from the evidence regarding atheism versus theism.  The religious belief identities of the other groups in the coalition is irrelevant, and it is counter-productive to exclude anyone from a public public advocacy coalition because of disagreements over unrelated questions, including religious beliefs.  We would never tell Unitarian Universalists that as a pre-condition for working together on a particular issue of common concern it will be necessary for Unitarian Universalists to "show respect for us" by refraining from publicly advocating for Unitarian Universalist belief, or refraining from arguing against atheism, or refraining from advocating against any other conflicting and competing belief, or attending WASH meetings.  We are entitled to insist on the same from them.  Mutual respect is based on equality, and equality entails that everyone publicly advocates for their beliefs and associates only with who they choose without restrictions.

I am confident that I will never call myself a Christian or a post-modernist, never put faith front and center as a preferred method for justifying conclusions about how the universe works, and never put so much credence in an ancient text with so little substance.  The UU Deacon's apparent denial that his religious identity is based on factual assertions (he was somewhat ambiguous here, he only denied he held "beliefs" and then gave examples of beliefs he did not hold that were all factual assertions) is inconsistent with his reliance on faith, since faith is only applicable in a context of reaching true/false conclusions about factual claims. Faith has no applicability to personal preferences or ethical commitments.  Also, a denial that his religious identity is rooted in factual assertions is inconsistent with various factual assertions he made about the nature, or character, of god and the bible. 

Apparently, from a post-modernist perspective, this distinction between factual true/false beliefs, ontological existence assertions as a distinct subcategory of factual assertions (to which logical positivism applies), personal preferences, and ethical commitments, is all blurred.  Blurring these distinctions is convenient for those who want to avoid the constraints imposed by following the evidence. The distinctions between factual true/false beliefs, personal preferences, and ethical commitments are valid and important.  Post-modernism is mistaken.  Furthermore, insofar as his religious beliefs really do refrain from making any factual assertions it loses it's Christian character, contrary to his assertion that his church and it's beliefs are Christian.

Advocacy for atheism is easily accessible to everyone who uses the internet.  The Huffington Post, as do other publications, has a religion section that features writers ably representing many different perspectives, including atheism. There are books promoting atheism published every month, and every year a few of these books sell well.  No church can stop this from happening.   We should never even consider agreeing to unilaterally curtailing public advocacy for atheism as a condition for joining public policy coalitions with anyone else.  We are not pushovers, it would be wrong to capitulate to such double standards and intolerance.  Yes to public policy, social activism, or humanitarian intervention coalitions with any group that shares any such goal with us.  No to curtailing public advocacy for atheism or against religious beliefs.  There is no contradiction here and we should never accept attempts by our competitors to impose one on us.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sean Carroll's argument for atheism

The video of Sean Carroll's Oxford-Cambridge lecture titled "God is not a good theory" is almost one hour long.  I recommend taking the time to watch the entire video.  However, for the benefit of people without an hour to spare I will summarize his argument for you.  

He starts with a definition of theory as an idea about the universe that may be true or false.  For almost all believers, god qualifies as a theory.  However, god is not a precisely specified theory, and this is one of the substantial problems with the theory of god.

Concepts of god can be placed into at least three categories:  Passive, Active, and Emergent.  A passive god, as conceived by arm chair philosophers, is justified as fulfilling some requirement for making logical sense of our universe, such as the first cause, the unmoved mover, and a necessary being.  This a passive conception because this god is not intervening to change any physical laws.  An active conception of god is that of a creator and ruler who cares about human life, communicates to humans about proper human conduct, performs miracles, grounds morality, organizes an after life.  The active god has an empirically observable presence and is justified accordingly.  An emergent conception defines god as synonymous with love, the universe, the laws of nature, feelings of awe/transcendence.  An emergent god is justified as serving a rhetorical function.  

Sean Carroll dismisses the emergent conception of god as unworthy of further discussion because we can have the same conversations about the same topics without making any references to a rhetorical god. An emergent god therefore is superfluous.

The passive conception of god has a huge problem. It is based on a-priori metaphysics.  It is rooted in rationalism rather than empiricism, it fails to give priority to observation.  Such arm chair reasoning has never taught us anything factually true about the world.  What it reveals, at its best, are consequences of axioms, and this can be useful, particularly in mathematics and logic.  But it doesn't tell us which axioms are possibly true.  Such a-priori reasoning cannot get us to the facts about what is actually true in our particular universe.

Sean Carroll then proceeds to argue that even if we take the arguments for a passive god more seriously than is merited by this major flaw in the underlying epistemology, they still do not succeed.  God as a necessary being, first cause, and similar concepts are refuted by the fact that we can easily conceive of many possible, self-consistent, self-contained, coherent, eternal universes in the forms of various mathematical constructs with no god, no first cause, etc.  Furthermore, at least one of these possible universes is plausibly our universe as it appears to represent a framework that correctly models our universe.

A counter-argument is that while it is possible to conceive of universes without god, those universe are infeasible because they lack a sufficient cause or explanation, they provide no answer to the "why" question.  A legitimate universe explanation must answer the question why there is a universe and why it is this particular universe, therefore a god is required.  Sean Carroll disagrees.  You may prefer that there be an explanation for why this universe exists instead of another, or for why this universe exists instead of no universe, but our universe could just be.  We associate causes with events because we experience our universe that way.  Cause identification is linked to the overall context, so examining the same event from different perspectives will very often result in our reaching different conclusions about the cause.  The context in which the universe appears is different from the context of our daily experiences.  So analogizing from the contexts of our experiences within the universe to the context of the universe as a whole here is a weak analogy.

Sean Carroll states that he does not think that everything within the universe can be associated with a reason or a cause.  Here is a short discussion of "Purpose and the Universe" with a video of Sean Carroll discussing the topic in more depth at an American Humanists Association meeting.  He says "The universe itself doesn’t have a purpose, nor is there one inherent in the fundamental laws of physics. But teleology (movement toward a goal) can plausibly be a useful concept when we invent the best description of higher-level phenomena, and at the human level there are purposes we can create for ourselves."

The primary point here is that all such a-priori metaphysical arguments claims ultimately boil down to contingent empirical claims.  Why must there be a sufficient reason for the universe?  We are obligated to adopt a skeptical stance to such "must be", "necessary", types of assertions.  It can then be argued that sufficient reason is needed because everything else has sufficient reason. But that is an empirical claim. Therefore, we must examine the god hypothesis like we examine all other hypothesis and look for the simplest coherent theory that explains the largest amount of data.

So does god give us a good theory on conventional scientific grounds?  For a variety of reasons, the answer is no.  Conservation of energy means there is no need for a first mover, chemistry means there is no need for a giver of life, natural selection means there is no need for a designer of the many different species of life.  Neuroscience suggests that there is no need for a provider of consciousness and cosmology suggests there is no need for a creator.  While these latter questions remain unsolved problems, there are multiple viable hypothesis and these questions appear to be resolvable using the same types of empirical methods that have successfully resolved the other questions without a god being needed.

Sean Carroll then identifies the Fine Tuning argument as the best empirical argument for God.  He identifies several weaknesses to this argument.  One is that we do not know what other possible universes would support life because we do not know enough about what different forms of life are possible and under what other conditions those different possible forms of life would be viable.  Life may be possible in many other forms and as a result the phenomena of life may be much more generic and common to many different universes than the Fine Tuning argument assumes.  What is needed for life is a very hard question to answer and we are not even close to knowing what percentage of possible universes would support some form of life.  Another weakness of the Fine Tuning argument is that modern physics predicts a multiverse, and in a multiverse where the parameters vary we would expect to find ourselves in a region of the multiverse where the parameters appear to be finely tuned to support our existence.  

Lastly, the question of the probability that god exists given the data is addressed.  If we did not know anything about the actual universe, but we have this theory that there is a god who created the universe and who cares about us human beings, what would we expect the universe to be like?  We know what the universe looks like so it can be tempting to say that god would make the universe exactly as we see it.  But that is a biased approach.  To tackle this question properly, we must try to start with a blank slate.  And here we encounter a problem with the very low entropy of our universe during the Big Bang.  It was about 10 to the -10 to the 120 smaller than its current value.  Such extremely low entropy is incompatible with the existence of life, so if god created the universe to support life then we would predict our universe would have started with much higher entropy.  This would have resulted in a universe with one galaxy instead of our universe with billions of galaxies that are unnecessary for life on earth.

There are other similar empirical arguments against the god hypothesis.  The problem of evil, the problem of random suffering, and the problem of lack of clear divine instructions.  No god ever told us that matter is made of atoms, the universe is billions of years old, people of different races, genders, etc. should be treated equally, and the like.  Trying to salvage god by assigning to god the traits of elusiveness and vagueness is counter-productive since those are traits that evidence a weakness in the god hypothesis.  We cannot have it both ways and say that god is evidenced by fine tuning but no other evidence can count against god.  That is a double standard.  God is much more ontologically problematic than a multiverse.  God is an entirely different metaphysical category from everything else, ill-defined, unnecessary, whimsical, and frustratingly reclusive.  We do better explaining the universe without the god hypothesis.