Where I Cram My Ideas

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Saturday, January 19, 2008

John Loftus - Rejecting Christianity

"The Christian faith should be rejected by modern civilized scientifically literate people."

I'm not too familiar with John Loftus' writings. However, the above claim is one he advances at his blog, and I must disagree on several grounds.

If he wants to debate me on the matter, I don't think it would be a waste of time - although there may be more important matters for people to spend time debating.

How I interpret the statement

Loftus seems to be saying that all shades of Christian faith (where it differs from other beliefs) should be rejected. This is the problem. The Christian faith is very broad.

Some branches are quite modern.

Some branches are quite civilized.

Some branches are quite scientifically literate.

Loftus would make a better argument if he argued for rejecting the elements of the Christian faith that are different. He could argue for rejecting the aspects of Christianity that are ancient, uncivilized and incompatible with science.

The nature of "should"

My key disagreement with Loftus' statement regards his choice of the word "should." Since he has this phrase highlighted in red text in a permanent "challenge" section on his blog, I assume he did a lot of thinking when he chose his words. As I see it, there are two possible meanings.

First, there is a *practical* use of the word. If you want to win a game of chess, you *should* try to put your opponent's king in checkmate.

Second, there is a *moral* use of the word. If people want to be modern, civilized and scientifically literate (all "good" things), they should reject the Christian faith.

In a practical sense, Loftus would have to (and would inevitably fail, I believe) to establish that those aspiring to be modern, civilized and scientifically literate - in order to do so - must reject the Christian faith. This is evidently incorrect.

It should be noted - there are elements, some specific to the Christian faith, that should definitely be rejected by modern, civilized, scientifically literate people. Just not all.

We are left with the moral element. Loftus may be claiming that modern, civilized, scientifically literate people have a moral obligation to abandon Christianity. For simple reasons, I disagree. If people are modern, civilized and scientifically literate - and Christian - what moral reason is there for such people to reject their Christian faith? It clearly is not obstructing them. Such a claim would also imply that adherence to the Christian faith (and thus, all Christians) are either incapable of being modern, civilized and scientifically literate, or are severely lacking in those areas. This amounts to bigotry and is not to be tolerated.


Doubtless, Loftus wrote his challenge to instigate discussion with Christians. His view is probably shared by many people who have not considered the actual implications of that sort of claim. My post is simply to express my disagreement with his argument, pending clarification.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More about science/atheism

This is a response to Rhology's comments here.

After Rhology's most recent post, I realized there are some very big elephants in the room. They should be brought to the forefront of my attention on this blog. Our conversation meandered a lot, so I will try to separate piles of topics.

Science and God:

At the outset, Rhology and I agreed that science - being a study of physical laws and theories explaining physical phenomena - cannot really talk about "God." Then Rhology complained that science "oversteps its bounds" in assuming that naturalistic explanations can account for everything. The theory of evolution is described as ad hoc and "desperate."

If science just concerns itself with physical phenomena, then seeking any explanations other than naturalistic ones would be overstepping boundaries. If even the possibility of a naturalistic explanation exists for phenomena, science should be expected to seek it - even to assume it exists.

Consider an example of a murder investigation. A theist might approach a particularly puzzling case and trumpet the folly of "assuming" a naturalistic explanation exists. His supernatural alternative - whatever it may be - can be made to seem much more simple and probable. There is a problem here, and I'll deal with it later when I discuss Occam's Razor.


I made the claim that "In a broad range of possible early-earth conditions, amino acids have been observed to form in repeatable laboratory experiments."

As Rhology expected, I was referring to the original Miller-Urey experiments, and the subsequent research they spawned. He will find many answers to abiogenesis-related questions and criticisms that stem from the massive Creationism propaganda machines here.

His apparent skepticism toward the experiments may be answered (pardon the assumption) with this sort of response:

" Since his first experiment, Miller and others have experimented with other atmospheric compositions, too (Chang et al. 1983; Miller 1987; Schlesinger and Miller 1983; Stribling and Miller 1987). Complex organic molecules form under a wide range of prebiotic conditions."

There was a much more recent study that solved some previous problems. I wish I had bookmarked the abstract I read... if I come across it, I'll link it here.

I'll address another quip from Rhology's before I move on: "Whooptie do - intelligently-designed amino acids! This is an advertisement for ID, not for TOE."

The single biggest problem for "intelligent design," I would argue, is its vagueness. Pink elephants floating to our planet bearing the necessary building blocks for life would imply intelligent design as strongly any other story would. A hypothesis that is supported by every potential evidence does not help us narrow down what the real explanation might be.

Occam's Razor:

Here's a more technical readup. Rhology asserted in his comment that "One cause - God - is far simpler than the quadrillions of causes required for naturalistic abiogenesis."

I disagree. Consider two theories of planet movement: Rhology proposes that God moves the planets (after all, what possible force is strong enough to push such huge entities around?). I side with Isaac Newton. Technically, in regards to causes, Rhology has an advantage. What about all the little causes that put the planets in their orbits, determined their weight, shape, velocity, orbital plane, etc? One cause - God - is far simpler, right?

The problem with proposing the supernatural is that it is separate from the natural. In order to propose the existence of a being like God/gods, one must propose an entirely separate plane of reality - one which cannot be tested or observed. Alternatively, one could stick with a (complicated) theory that does not propose new planes of reality. Such a theory would, it turns out, be simpler. We are not faced with motives... "Why does God push the planets around?" A naturalistic theory (like gravity) eliminates all such questions.

I think I covered the important parts of Rhology's Occam's Razor points. He may feel free to ask follow-up questions as he feels inclined.

Trusting science:

There is a difference, I believe, between well-placed trust and blind faith. One has faith in a stranger's motives. I trust my mom and dad. I noted that, in the past, supernatural explanations have always given way to natural explanations. Rhology seems to think this is childlike faith. It strikes me as a solid foundation.

In the past, murder mysteries have had natural explanations. While it is not impossible that this case is supernatural, we are still obligated - if we follow a scientific profession - to exhaust our possible natural answers before we defer to the supernatural.

Furthermore, we must have good reason to believe that a natural explanation will never possibly be found. Otherwise we would be jumping the gun and making a hasty conclusion.

In Rhology's words, my belief that a natural explanation exists for abiogenesis - despite the theory's currently incomplete state - is similar to my "saying that, someday, alchemy will be shown to be valid."

Alchemy has been shown to be not-valid. We currently lack the information to allow us to confirm or dismiss naturalistic abiogenesis theories, though. So, the analogy fails there (too quickly to be a good analogy). Life arising from non-life is not a case of values turning "into their opposites," as Rhology claimed in his comment. Life varies in complexity and is, at times, difficult to define - as with viruses. A connect-the-dots puzzle begins to form if a link is hypothesized from amino acids to RNA to DNA etc. The mechanisms in question to make these transitions require further study.

Back to the nature of science:

Rhology tripped over himself later in his comment, I think. Near the beginning, he agreed with me that science concerns physical laws and theories explaining physical phenomena. Then, he argued that science is not justified in ruling out the supernatural. This apparent reversal might be a misunderstanding on my part, however...

When I say "I will seek a natural explanation for this murder," I have taken a metaphysical stance. I will rule out supernatural explanations. Science, definitively, seeks natural explanations. It is not equipped to study supernatural explanations.

If science DOES study the supernatural - well, Rhology had better alert the greater scientific community. I hope he alerts me first so I do not feel left out.

Rhology went on to write, "Lab science is also unqualified to make judgments on things that happened in the past, but that fact hasn't stopped it from doing so."

Direct your attention, please, to the Talk Origins response to this (apparently typical) claim.

Rhology complained that science "says" it can tackle questions of the supernatural - he seems to want science to cease making claims about the improbability of God. If he can produce any examples of papers or studies that made it past a respected peer review - any such paper or study that makes any attempt to tackle questions of the supernatural - then I will have an answer for him. If he cannot produce such a paper or study, then he already has my answer.

Evolution and mutation:

I wrote, "The emergence of new species is not microevolution, Rho. "

In his comment, Rhology responded with "Yes it is, sorry." I would like to bring to bear a trustworthy source here:

"Microevolution is defined as the change of allele frequencies (that is, genetic variation due to processes such as selection, mutation, genetic drift, or even migration) within a population. Macroevolution is defined as evolutionary change at the species level or higher, that is, the formation of new species, new genera, and so forth. Speciation has also been observed.

The bold emphasis is added. Rhology seeks evidence that "lizards turned into birds." He should note that (to the best of my knowledge) no actual scientist has ever proposed such a transition. A more commonly accepted theory is that dinosaur-like animals evolved into birds.

I pointed out that the process of microevolution is an accumulatory process. No mechanism exists to halt or reverse the changes that occur due to mutations from generation to generation. Until such a mechanism is proposed, we must believe the changes accumulate over time and result in new species. This has been observed.

Over time, a creature as distinct as a dinosaur could become less and less dinosaur-like and more and more bird-like.

Rhology DID propose a mechanism to halt that process of change. As he put it, the change from "lizard" to bird is impossible because of "the fact that they're LIZARDS." He went on to label the theory of microevolutionary processes extrapolated to a longer timeline as a "fairy tale" that anyone could "just dream up."

Oops, I forgot Rhology applied a little intelligent thought to the question of stopping/reversing microevolutionary changes. His primary suggestion was not bad: "That 'beneficial' mutations are highly rare; most mutations screw up organisms."

Not bad at all. However, harmful mutations do not act to halt OR reverse the mutations that do benefit the organism. Imagine, for example, a population of mice isolated in the arctic circle. Mutations occur each generation. Most mutations are neutral; some are harmful. The harmful mutations kill off those with the mutations.

So far we have a population that has not changed.

Finally, one beneficial mutation occurs. In that environment, this mutation is useful (thicker hair, say).

Thicker-haired mice soon become more common and 25 generations down the line, most of the mice have thicker hair. All the while harmful mutations are happening - and killing off the individuals with the harmful mutations - but then another beneficial mutation happens.

And so on. These beneficial mutations accumulate over time. There is no mechanism that has been proposed to stop or reverse these changes; so given enough time, we will start to see "mice" that only vaguely resemble the original population. When these arctic mice cannot naturally breed with their forebears, we have a new species. New species eventually become new families; "lizards" become birds.

Rhology then wrote to question a premise he thinks exists in evolutionary theory: "the premise that more information can be added out of nowhere."

I wish I knew what exactly he was referring to, because this is such a big issue. It is so big that Rhology cited it as one reason he is not an atheist anymore. I have a feeling that in this - as in so many other matters - he is misinformed. Please give me a more concrete example, Rho. Do you mean new genetic functions, new complexity (like amino acids being created from chemicals and lightning) or what?

Young Earth Creationism (briefly):

The thought of this topic makes me want a drink to wash away the bad taste that immediately comes to my mouth. But enough of that - I am not in the mood to argue against the bullshit of Creation "science." I will tell you this: the majority of educated Christians consider it hogwash more fervently than you think the same for the theory of evolution.

I refer to what I just wrote about intelligent design when I claim a hypothesis that accounts for anything (like YEC) is a very poor hypothesis. All evidences can be made to support it, and since none can be falsified, we come no closer to learning what the real explanation is.

Rhology disagrees that this is a weakness, apparently.

He also disagrees that an argument in this form is valid:

1. As we delve deeper into the fossil record, the fossils we find are less and less complex.
2. Therefore, as time progressed further, the animals represented by the fossils went from less to more complex. (Please note - This trend is generally true, although since less-complex and more-complex organisms have always existed at the same time, it is not an absolute truth that less complex fossils preceed more complex ones. Similarly, many species have led long lives. Thus, we find fossils of successful organisms extending deep back into the fossil record).

This is, as Rhology wrote, an unimpressive assumption.

Forensic science and lab science:

Forensic science involves gathering and documenting facts, testing evidences in laboratory settings, and formulating naturalistic theories about what happened in the past. For some elucidation, my post Forensics and Evolutionary Theory may equip you with a more thorough understanding of how these are related.

Theories about evolutionary ancestry and abiogenesis work exactly the same way. Without resorting to *mere* speculation, scientists can gather and document facts, test evidences in laboratory settings, and formulate naturalistic theories about what happened in the past. Forensic science, like evolutionary science and abiogenesis, is indeed repeatable, even if history is not.

Fossils have stories to tell, as I would have Rhology believe. His stance in the comment I'm responding to suggests he thinks of fossils as mere dusty bones. However, fossils have growth rings. We can know how old the individual was. We can know if a dinosaur got in a fight and broke or fractured a bone. We can learn how it healed - or didn't - we can learn how long a body was exposed before being buried (by the marks scavengers left behind), we can learn about its environment (based on how it was buried), we can learn about where it lived (based on whereabouts we find it). We can know how long its kind lived (based on which parts of the fossil record the bones occur in).

Whatever the weaknesses of cladistics may be - we can tell how closely a fossil is related to other ancient species (or living ones) based on similarities. These are the same similarities and differences we use to classify animals today. These things are screamingly obvious to anybody who was once a boy with paleontology aspirations - but apparently not to Rho. If there is anything unclear about why fossil bones are not blank and unresponsive; but rather filled with useful information, tell me.

Closing comment:

I must admit I am a little confused by Rhology's final words to me in his comment: He said he felt overwhelmed "Only by your faith. I'll say this - you make me a little embarrassed that I don't believe as fervently in my religion as you do in yours!"

Often, Rhology and I differ in our definitions. At references to my personal "faith" and/or "religion," my response leans toward a burst of laughter. Still, I should let him clarify. Religion is, to me (and to dictionary.com) "a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects... usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

I cling to no such thing. I look forward to Rhology's response.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Addressing some questions from last summer

It's time to clarify a few things. Last August, Rhology and Calvin had a few questions in response to my post "why be nice?"

Re: Rhology,

Rhology asked this: What reasons do we have to encourage a desire utilitarian outlook on morality?

My answer was "none." He asked why I even wrote the post, then. The thing is, someone does not need to believe desire utilitarianism describes morality, or have anything resembling a "desire utilitarian outlook" on things to be a good person (in desire utilitarian terms). Presumably most Christians look at things the same way - as long as you value brotherly love, kindness, charity etc, you're being a pretty decent person. Having different reasons for action don't give the actions themselves a different merit.

Rhology then wanted to know why we *should* encourage others to have desires that fulfill other desires. The answer is simple. We all have real-world reasons to do so. If I'm surrounded by people who have desire-fulfilling desires (these would include compassion, respect for human rights, love, some degree of patience etc), I am certainly living in an environment that is beneficial for me. I have many, many real-world reasons to bring about this sort of environment. It is better for me and for my family.

Rhology then had a big series of questions: "How do you define "bad" desires? How do you define the wellbeing of others? What does condemnation mean and what are the consequences? What *should* the consequences be? Why should they be so?"

These were in response to my discussion of an evil person (acting on a set of bad desires) who exhibits a strong disregard for the wellbeing of others.

Bad desires are those that tend to thwart the desires of others. Desires, like other objective entities, can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill other desires. When we see which desires tend to fulfill or thwart the desires of others, we begin to learn which desires are good for people generally. Wellbeing is part of a continuum of fulfilled vs thwarted desires. Someone with a marked disrespect for the wellbeing of others would not hesitate to harm them (act in ways that thwart others' desires).

Condemnation involves verbal or physical action toward others. Were we alive at the time, we could express our condemnation of Hitler's actions by our public outcry and by international action - whether restricting trade or whatever - in order to adjust his desires. Condemnation and praise are tools we can use to discourage or encourage desires.

Re: Calvin,

Calvin asked, "So you’re basically agreeing that DU doesn’t account for no-strings-attached altruism? That’s what I want to know most of all: does DU hold that somebody is objectively right or wrong to do or not do any given action, irrespective of the material effects to him personally?"

I'm not quite sure what the first question is asking. Desire utilitarianism does hold that somebody is objectively right or wrong to do or not do any given action, irrespective of the material effects to him or her personally.

HOWEVER - desire utilitarianism does not hold that certain actions are always right/wrong. Right action is that which a person with good desires would do in that situation. In extreme circumstances, this could include killing, lying, etc. The objective part is desires. Desires are universally good or bad; what action an agent takes is good or bad by merit of which desire/s drove the action.

Calvin said, "the question remains: 'Fine, then I’m evil. If it works for me, why not be evil?' (keep in mind my example accounts for his being able to avoid great hardships and his being comfortable w/ lesser inconvenience)."

We run into this problem all the time. Unfortunately, everybody knows what happens when you try to reason a person out of this stance. Whether you're saying "God doesn't like what you're doing" or "you're causing real harm to others," you begin to realize that rationalizing won't give somebody a reason not to be evil. However, social condemnation (see above) DOES give an evil person reasons to stop being evil. Threatening Hitler with armed resistance if he takes action can beging to curb his evil actions.

Calvin: "No, DU certainly does not stand in stark opposition to moral relativism. I’ve yet to see a single reason why, in a secular existence, DU shouldn’t be regarded as simply one of several competing views."

Moral relativism, typically, is the view that "it's good if it's good for me." Desire utilitarianism strongly differs from this, because the theory claims that good and evil exist independent of individual preference. People who accept DU do not need to get others to adopt that understanding, of course - they simply have the same reasons for action to encourage good desires and discourage evil desires that everybody else has. Often, people who think "it's good if it's good for me" can justify operating on desires that are bad for others. Where this happens, those who accept the premises of desire utilitarianism - along with everybody else - have reasons to condemn those actions.

As any scientifically structured theory, desire utilitarianism should be regarded as one of several competing views! However, that does not rob it of its truth value.

Calvin: "Absent an absolute moral authority independent of fallible humans, the only meaning “wrong” can have (pertaining to conduct) would be “in opposition to X,” and “falling short of X’s standards,” which are only persuasive to those who have already accepted X."

I disagree. Wrong behavior is that which a bad person would do - a bad person being someone who operates on bad desires.

Calvin: "You still have the fact that certain conduct will always be counterproductive or dangerous to one’s own desires, and the ability to persuade as many people as possible of that fact. If that’s enough for you, go for it. I hope it bears fruit. But just be aware that one’s senses of self-interest (persuading them to practice “benign manipulation,” if you will) is not the same as morality."

People can easily confuse "desires" with "self-interest." This is not necessarily the case. I may have a desire to sacrifice all of my personal belongings and wealth for the benefit of others. In that case, my desires have little to do with self-interest. Sometimes our "interest" is in the wellbeing of our family and friends.

Regardless, there are bad desires (disregard for human rights, desires to take what belongs to others by force, desires to harm others generally) that we all have reasons to discourage in society. This is true whether you want to call it morality or not. However, as most competent English speakers consider morality to be a code of right and wrong behavior, desire utilitarianism is what you come to if you're looking for such a code based on objective reasons for action.

Premises of Desire Utilitarianism

...and some conclusions.


This is a long-needed post. This is a list of propositions. These are all descriptive "is" statements describing an objective reality. Desire utilitarianism basically proposes that from these "is" statements, we as humans can reach prescriptive conclusions about what humans "ought" to do.

As I haven't spent much time thinking or planning this post, I will leave it open to my future edits, which I'll point out to readers.

Desire utilitarianism is a theory of ethics in a godless universe.

1. Desires are the only reasons for action in humans.
A desire describes a mental state as regards a state of affairs. The classic example is a desire that "I am eating chocolate cake" means that to the agent, the state of affairs where "I am eating chocolate cake" is to be made or kept true. Similarly, a desire that "I am not on fire" means that the state of affairs where "I am on fire" is to be made or kept false.

Desires are real-world, objective entities existing in the firings of neurons in the brain.

2. BDI theory is true regarding human motivation.
Beliefs + Desires = Intentional action. A belief, as used here, is an attitude about a proposition. An agent who believes that water will quench his thirst has the attitude that water will quench his thirst.

This theory of intentional action says an agent will always act motivated by its desires, given its beliefs. An agent that desires that "I am thirsty" is false, acts on the desire as its belief dictates. If the agent believes the glass of water on the counter will quench its thirst, it will drink (intentional action) the water. Unless, of course, there are other desires...

3. An agent will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of its desires.
Where a state of affairs that an agent desires to be true is made or kept true, that desire is fulfilled. Where that state of affairs is made or kept false, that desire is thwarted.

Often an agent will have a false belief. In the case of drinking the water, if the substance in the glass is, in fact, poison, the agent's desire will be thwarted by drinking.

4. Values lie in desires.
Agents place value on states of affairs. No other value exists.

5. Desires can be evaluated.
Objects can be evaluated on the criteria of their tendency to fulfill or to thwart relevant desires. An example is a knife - a good knife fulfills an agents' desire to cut something. The value of "good" is applied on the basis of its tendency to fulfill desires.

Desires being objective entities, they can also be evaluated. Desires can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill or to thwart other desires. A good example is the desire to seek truth. For an agent that possesses this desire, it has a tendency to fulfill other desires.

6. Desires can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill or to thwart the desires of other humans.
If I have, for example, a desire to obtain my neighbors' property by whatever means necessary, this desire has a tendency to thwart the desires of my neighbors.

We can call such a desire "bad," just like we can call a desire to support and help my neighbors "good." The desires are good/bad insofar as they have a tendency to fulfill or to thwart the desires of others.

When a desire is thwarted, it is called - to a greater or lesser degree - "harm."

7. When we ask the question "Which desires are good for humans generally?" we arrive at objective conclusions.
Desire utilitarianism does not claim to provide a list of the good desires humans can have. However, it can demonstrably be shown that such desires as honesty, kindness and compassion for others are desires that are good for my neighbors - for all people.

Desire utilitarianism promotes a scientific approach to studying ethics, a strong criticism of beliefs, and the admittance that at least some of its claims could be proven false.

8. There are real-world reasons for action to promote good desires and condemn bad or evil desires.
Given my desires and values, I have many good reasons to want a neighbor who respects my life, my liberty, my property. Similarly, my neighbors have many good reasons for me to have the same respect.

The more we work to create a society full of people who value the life, liberty and property of others, the more we create a society that is safe for our children, friends and family.

8.5 There is a difference between "I desire that the desires of others be fulfilled" and "I desire to fulfill the desires of others.
It is a simple mistake to think that desire utilitarianism demands that we try to fulfill the desires of other people to be good. This is not true. I can easily desire that shopping be done without desiring that I do the shopping.

9. Desires are malleable.
An agent will always act to fulfill the more and the stronger of its desires, given its beliefs (3). Human agents have the means of adjusting those desires. If, for example, I have a neighbor who wants to take my property regardless of how he accomplishes the goal - I can band together with my other neighbors and impose social sanctions on the fellow. If we sever trade with him, punish him fiscally, or temporarily imprison him, he will now have more desires to take into account. For example, his desire for personal freedom may now outweigh his desire to take his neighbors' property.

Criticism/social condemnation is another way to change desires in others.

Children have more malleable desires, so it's important that they be brought up in such a way that they have good desires - preferably that these desires are for end-goals rather than means to ends. For example, I want my neighbor to respect others' property out of a like for respecting others' property... not just as a way to stay out of jail.

10. Agents cannot be reasoned out of desires.
Jedi mind tricks aren't real. We can use reason to say "these aren't the droids you're looking for," but not to say "you don't want to find those droids you're looking for," for you Star Wars buffs.

That's why desires must be, in a sense, outweighed by other desires if we're to change what an agent desires.

11. There do exist cases of negligence.
Occasionally we may run into a case where someone should have been aware of a danger, or have taken more caution into account before acting. We can conclude, in many cases, that a person who doesn't take the time of day to secure a load on his pickup truck, for example, doesn't care enough about those he might endanger.

This sort of person deserves criticism because it is better for all of us if we live in a society full of people who take a great deal of caution where their actions could harm others.

12. A person with good desires and true beliefs performs good actions.
Given that value exists in desire fulfillment (4), the action that a good person (a person with good desires) performs is a good desire in that situation.

This is where desire utilitarianism becomes a situational, rather than a universal, theory. Honesty is a virtue (a good desire), but in a situation where you are sheltering a Jewish family from the Nazis and they ask if you're harboring fugitives, a good person would lie to protect the family.

Other moral questions become meaningless. The classic trolley car example helps demonstrate this. You are on a runaway trolley car and ahead of you the rail splits in two directions. If you maintain your course, you will kill a child on the track. If you switch tracks, you will run over 10 people. When asked what a good person would do in this situation, it becomes obvious that the "dilemma" is meaningless. A good person could choose either action. Neither effects how that person will be as my neighbor.

A note on meta-ethics

Morality is, necessarily, prescriptive. It describes what we should do - what we have reasons for action to do. Much religious morality involves reasons for action that do not exist. If we relate a moral "ought" to real-world reasons for action, we arrive (I am convinced) at desire utilitarianism.

Our reasons for action involve promoting or inhibiting (or permitting) desires - rather than actions - because it is demonstrably the case that desires cause actions and focusing attention on desires is more effective.

A common criticism is that desire utilitarianism is not about ethics. People say that ethics is about doing "God's will," for instance.

However, desire utilitarianism is about prescriptions for action (good and bad), in the hopes of realizing a better world. In this case, a "better world" for all of us is inhabited by people with good desires. Someone arguing against this is challenging many "is" statements listed above.

Please also note that there is no "is/ought" gap here. It is the case that we have these desires. It is the case that we have these reasons for action. What we ought to do is a part of what is true of our reality.

After all of that...

I hold these beliefs as my theory on value and the nature of good and evil. It is very legitimate to challenge the theory of desire utilitarianism (and for more check out www.atheistethicist.blogspot.com and read what Alonzo Fyfe blogs about).

It is also legitimate to challenge how my statements and arguments about morality are (or aren't) related to desire utilitarianism. Whatever you do, however, do not equate desire utilitarianism with atheism. Atheism is a belief about the existence of God, making no moral claims.

**Note: "Doesn't make moral claims" does NOT = "Is immoral," as some have surmised. The pen on my desk, for instance, is not moral. Nor is it immoral.

Friday, December 28, 2007


Last year I wrote a blog post on Christmas full of news headlines. The most prominent included suicide bombings, reports that violence has become even more widespread in certain areas...

This was to point out that on the holiest of Christian holidays, horrific atrocities occurred worldwide - just like any other day. Reading the newspaper headlines for this Christmas, though, made me too upset to even want to point out that the God Christians believe in is, presumably, watching it all with the satisfaction that everything is going to plan, and all the pain and suffering has some worthwhile goal in the end...

What that goal could be has never been answered to me.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some numbers regarding international aid

Rod over at Makarios really lost all shreds of my respect. Of course, most rationally minded people would probably call me silly for getting so upset at somebody clearly so stone-dumb closed-minded, but a recent post declared that international aid comes from traditionally Christian countries because "Christians on the other hand act out of compassion... We help because we recognise in others a specialness, a treasure, a gift to the world that should not be discarded or ignored."

My response follows:

This is just over the top, Rod.

Now look - I doubt anything will cure your bigotry. You clearly want to hate a group of people, and no rationalizing or presentation of statistics will alter that desire.

However, I should point out the following:

In 2006, the top 20 countries donating to international aid - by percentage of income - were these:

1. Sweden
2. Luxembourg
3. Norway
4. The Netherlands
5. Denmark
6. Ireland
7. England
8. Belgium
9. Austria
10. France
11. Switzerland
12. Finland
13. Germany
14. Spain
15. Canada
16. Australia
17. New Zealand
18. Japan
19. Portugal
20. Italy

I found this list at www.care2.com, but you can also check OECD, www.poverty.com [http://www.poverty.com/
internationalaid.html] where you'll find out that Sweden donates 103 cents/ every $100 earned, Canada donates 30 cents/ every $100 earned and the United States donates 17 cents/ every $100 earned.

This is in response to a United Nations call for governments to donate 0.7% of their income to international aid. The countries that have met that schedule are Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. The US and Canada are nowhere near the mark.

Neither is Japan (a predominantly atheistic country), but consider this UNICEF article:


"The government of Japan has allocated seventy million dollars to UNICEF to assist in the tsunami relief effort."

NEVERMIND that you're wrong in your premises. The United States is not a historically Christian nation (except that the majority of inhabitants have been Christian). I don't know about Canada, but either way they haven't contributed much to international aid.

AND helping strangers or even potential enemies seems to make worlds of sense to many people in traditionally non-theistic countries.

And when it comes to treasure... from UNICEF's mission statement:

"UNICEF was created with this purpose in mind – to work with others to overcome the obstacles that poverty, violence, disease and discrimination place in a child’s path. We believe that we can, together, advance the cause of humanity.

We advocate for measures to give children the best start in life, because proper care at the youngest age forms the strongest foundation for a person’s future.

We act so that all children are immunized against common childhood diseases, and are well nourished, because it is wrong for a child to suffer or die from a preventable illness.

From www.secularhumanism.org:

"As secular humanists we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation. Secular humanist ethics maintains that it is possible for human beings to lead meaningful and wholesome lives for themselves and in service to their fellow human beings without the need of religious commandments or the benefit of clergy."

Of course you'll rationalize your way out of this, Rod! I'm not expecting to change your mind. You're filled with bigotry against people who haven't come to the conclusions you've come to because hey - you've considered the other options and they're all wrong!

It may be an empty phrase, but maybe you'll catch my general sentiment toward you at this point: Go to hell, Rod.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Free Rice

Just to get the word out there - everybody should go to www.freerice.com to play a simple and remarkably addicting word game. For every word you correctly match with its meaning, 20 grains of rice are donated through the United Nations to help end world hunger, as the site puts it.

My stats so far (in case others want to compete):

Top level: 42

The total was 2560 grains of rice donated. If this isn't an awesome cause, I don't know what is.

FWD: Godless Short Stories

Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist suggested the idea of a short story writing contest in which prizes go to winners who write short stories "that boldly assert that there is no God."

I think this is a good idea. Furthermore, I have some resources at my disposal, including the ability to produce a professional layout/design for the final book. If this project gets on its feet, I'd be glad to support it in any way I can.

Mr. Fyfe's post:

Godless Short Stories

Yesterday’s posting has caused me to think of a project that might be worth while. And, if some organization were to take up this project, I would be pleased to make a cash contribution towards its success.

The project is a short-story contest, with prizes to the winner. The contest is for short stories that boldly assert that there is no God and that counters some of the lies and sophistry that denigrate atheists in pop culture. The stories are aimed for young children and, in fact, there should be several contests for several age groups. The winning stories will be bundled together and offered as a book – self-published if necessary.

Of course the religious right will protest about a “stealth campaign” to sell atheism to children. They would be wrong. I am talking about a campaign that is not the least bit stealthy. I am talking about a campaign that virtually shouts that it is just as permissible to create literature that presents atheism in a way that children can understand as it is to create a child’s bible or other religious literature that targets children.

Let them scream. Screaming will just mean more advertizing.

This should be taken up by an organization that is set up to receive donations, because one of the things that I will then do is write a few posts explaining the need for people to make contributions to this project. It will require cash contributions to be offered as prizes, and it will require a great deal of labor to read and judge the stories. Plus, some contributions should go to the organization itself for being an organization that would run a contest like this.

Like I said, I will be more than willing to volunteer time and money to such a project. Really, what I would like is a reputable organization set up to receive and disburse money to handle the bank account.

The T.O.E. and the Big Bang

Creationist misunderstanding of evolution

This is a transferral of my conversation with Anonymous over at www.atheistethicist.blogspot.com, since I've clogged up enough of Mr. Fyfe's comment thread space already.

Anon's last comment:

The theory of evolution includes the big bang it is not just from when life began. If it includes the big bang then it includes cosmic evolution. If your idea of the theory of evolution starts when life has appeared on the earth then why do you have a problem with creation.

Creationist rhetoricians, I think, like to group theories like evolution with others like abiogenesis and the big bang to make a "stronger" case of - "Oh look at how insurmountable the odds must have been for x, y and z!!!."

UC Berkeley has a helpful introductory site to the theory.

There, it defines evolution thus:

Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life. *
The theory of evolution does not demand or imply the Big Bang theory, nor does it demand or imply that abiogenesis occurred. Notably, among educated scientists, approximately 0.14% (an extremely small number) do not believe the theory of evolution describes reality.** Yet polls suggest - from what I've heard - that at least 50% of scientists call themselves Christian or theistic. I may be wrong here...

However it is certainly not the case that a belief in evolution is inconsistent with a belief in a God.

To answer the second part of your question:

I'm an atheist. Basically every reason I have for being such doubles as "a problem I have with creation."

* http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/evo_02