Friday, October 02, 2015

A scientific theology for a god on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Petition the University of Warwick students union

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

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

This policy has the pope's blessing

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why Kim Davis will lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Serious people should not cite David Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crediting liberal religion for their secularism

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 29, 2015

More demanding diplomacy needed to preserve peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

An academic theology argument against contemporary atheism

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act

By Mathew Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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 ( 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:

J. Tuomas Harviainen reviews a book, "Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not", by Robert N. McCauley (  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 ( 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  ( 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.