Where I Cram My Ideas

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A simple argument against the "one true religion" idea

It is relevant to my "disagreement and religious belief" topic. Certainly this argument has been expressed by others, but here is what I see:

The premises:

1. There exists a just God (explanation of "just" to be discussed later)
2. All humans are created equal.
3. There is "one true religion" leading to salvation.

I argue that these three statements cannot all be true at the same time, in light of the fact that there is no equal proportion of followers to non-followers of any religion in the world. Evidence strongly supports the idea that members of any given culture have a strong likelihood of following the religion of their dominant culture.

The first premise:

Justice here refers to the principle that similar cases are to be dealt with similarly. A just judge would not look at two similar cases and give one preferential treatment over another - he would deliver a similar verdict in both cases.

If that is the case, then given a population of humans (all things being equal), each member of that population would be given similar treatment in a trial on the same charge/s.

The second premise:

"All humans are created equal" is an essential premise to the idea of a just God. If there is a way to argue that a just God could create two people and have one "better" or "more valuable" than another, I have yet to hear the argument.

The third premise:

Many - if not most - religious people expressly believe that there is just one "correct" religion, and that those who do not follow it are not favored by God.


Assume (1) and (2) are true. If there exists a just God and a population of humans created equal, then we would expect to see a similar ratio of "saved" people worldwide. Since we do not see such a ratio in any religion, we must conclude that there is no "one true religion." (3) is false.

Assume (1) and (3) are true. If there is a just God and there is one true religion, we would expect to see a similar ration of "saved" people to unsaved people worldwide. Since we do not see such a ratio in any religion, we must conclude that some people are privileged over others (either in knowledge or in internal qualities). (2) is therefore false.

Assume (2) and (3) are true. Well, that assumption cannot be made. If all humans are created equal and have an equal chance at salvation, and there is one true religion leading to salvation then we will observe a similar followers to non-followers of that religion worldwide. We do not observe this.

There is no possible situation, given the reality of what we observe, where premises (1), (2) and (3) are all true. Note that this does not suggest ~(1). It is possible for a just God to exist in this argument; that is not compatible with (3), the existence of "one true religion." The argument also does not suggest ~(3), but that if (3) and (2), then ~(1).

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Disagreement and Religious Belief, part 1

Two philosophy candidates visited my university during the last few weeks, and I'd like to write posts to cover their lectures. I'll start with the one I liked least, King's lecture on competing views on "the truth and rationality of religious beliefs."

Religious Diversity and its Challenges to Religious Belief

King began with definitions, which need to be noted.

Exclusivism: One's own religion is privileged over other religions in its truth claims or its capacity to bring people to salvation, or both.
Pluralism: All religions are on par with respect to their truth claims or their capacity to bring people to salvation, or both.
Inclusivism: A middle ground between exclusivism and pluralism.
Skepticism: In cases where people become fully aware of religious diversity, their beliefs cease to be rational. In many cases, rationality requires that religous persons give up their beliefs about the supernatural - withholding belief is the only rational response to religious diversity. *
Naturalism: There exist no supernatural beings.

Salvation vs Doctrine

It should be further noted that King distinguishes between these "isms" and their soteriological doctrinal significance.

A primarily soteriological view suggests knowing the truth about religious doctrines is valuable as a means to salvation.

A primarily doctrinal view suggests that one's view about salvation is influenced by one's view about the status of doctrine (for example, one may not believe that Jesus is the way to salvation unless one believes that Christian doctrine is true).

Competing Views

"I will defend doctrinal exclusivism against its rivals, doctrinal pluralism and skepticism"

King's criticism of religious pluralism was based on an understanding of John Hick, but since I have neither read Hick nor care about either argument, I'll move on.

I must now discuss the * I inserted above. King's definition of skepticism is what I would refer to as "agnosticism." In King's sense of the word, however, a skeptic's view - that the reality of religious disagreement allows us to throw up our hands and say "who knows?" - is justified when a Christian and a follower of another religious tradition butt heads with a "God exists vs God doesn't exist" disagreement.

King's final response to such skepticism is to say that Christians can demonstrate that their belief in God is rational in the face of disagreement simply by holding onto their belief in the face of disagreement.

My Perspective

First things first, it is not a rational argument to say - independent of further explanation - that "no God exists." Especially in the deistic sense, any argument in favor of a universal negative is unsound. So, the Christian and the other religious person are arguing "God exists vs It is unlikely that God exists/no God exists who interacts with the world."

At any rate, an agnostic response is not the best. When faced with two truth-claims from two religions, it is safe to place the burden of proof upon them to demonstrate whose truth-claims are more rational and evidenced by reality. This is, in a sense, a skeptic's view... but more importantly, it is atheism. The atheist view toward various mythologies is the same as his view toward various mythical animals - why believe things like dragons or unicorns exist until sufficient evidence is provided?

It is not rational to say "We may disagree, but since I'm still convinced I'm right about God, my belief is justified," which is what King advocates for the Christian in his lecture. Stay tuned for something just a little bit better and more interesting.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sapient on locking Christians away

"What do you think..."

Rhology asked for my take on a Brian Sapient statement. I don't know the original context, but here is the question as Rhology put it in a comment.
What do you think of the Rational Response Squad's Brian Sapient's statement that Christians are mentally ill and should be locked up in mental institutions?
This is a question that requires a multi-part response.

Christians and mental illness:

While there is a clear social factor involved, it has not to my knowledge been demonstrated that Christian beliefs amount to an "impairment of an individual's normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning"

It may be the case that some Christians have a sort of mental illness. However, Sapient's statement seems to be far too sweeping to have any weight to it, particularly since many Christians are as different from one another as night from day.

This part of the question, then, is a matter of fact. Is it in fact the case that those following the Christian faith (in all of its many forms) are mentally impaired from normal functioning?

No. Human beings do not by default behave rationally, nor to they typically have rational reasons for adopting any given belief.

Should they be incarcerated:

I'll start by stating that we as humans should be given the strong presumption of freedom. It is when human action causes or threatens immanent harm on others that we consider punishment or "locking away."

So the real question is whether we have reasons to keep Christians separated from the rest of society.


The answer depends on how "harm" is understood. In a desire utilitarian sense - as expressed in the first post on this blog - "harm" occurs when real-world human desires are thwarted. Because desires are the only reasons for action that exist, humans have reasons to promote good desires in others... good desires being those that tend to fulfill the desires of others.

One example of a good desire is "that the desires of others be fulfilled." *Not necessarily that "I fulfill the desires of others,"* so recognize the difference.

Are Christians more evil?:

We have no good reasons to believe that Christians (especially "all Christians") cause harm to other people, any more than any other group. Not all Christians cause a "mental illness" in others. There is no case that can be fairly made to say that Christians deserve to be jailed any more than any other group, and to make that claim amounts to bigotry.

The strong presumption of liberty we follow (since the removal of liberty is among the most desire-thwarting actions possible) stands until Sapient or others can provide reasons to believe Christians (especially "all Christians") cause or threaten more harm than other groups.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

CNN Messes Up

I think it was intentional
I found a link to a CNN article called Religious Scholars Mull Flying Spaghetti Monster

While I read through the article with some interest, and intend to watch the Nova program it provided a link to, I was a little disturbed by the last paragraph.
He recognized the point when his neighbor, a militant atheist who sports a pro-Darwin bumper sticker on her car, tried recently to start her car on a dying battery.
Alright, CNN's editors, if not the writer, should have caught this. Look up "militant" in a dictionary. The word refers to people who are "vigorously active and aggressive; engaged in warfare; fighting."

Sporting a pro-Darwin bumper sticker does not make someone militant.

Ultimate words
Militant is a "devil word" in our culture. If you haven't read my previous posts about rhetoric, a devil word is a type of "ultimate word," according to rhetorical theorist Richard Weaver. Ultimate words hold a specific meaning in the mind of the audience.

"God words" are words like liberty, justice, bravery etc., while devil words involve ideas like terrorism, threat, violent, cowardly etc. When readers perceive the word "militant" in a description of an atheist, their first subconscious idea is one of fear and threat with regards to the subject.

This is not a simple type error - this is an unethical choice of words.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


There are a lot of misconceptions about the idea of being "advanced."

For one thing, "advanced" is a word. It describes a phenomenon or an idea - in this case, the idea of progression. In our eyes, we as humans in this day and age are "advanced." Our advanced technology, our advanced cruise missiles and stealth fighters; our advanced economy and philanthropy etc...

Truth is, using a term like "advanced" implies a goal. Advanced cancer is cancer that has progressed toward the goal of death. An advanced society is progressing toward... what?

The theory of evolution does not propose any goal for human beings or any other creatures. Only those that fit the environment best will survive. When we use the term "advanced," we honestly don't know what genetic traits will advance the species. We shouldn't care, either, because trying to control how the species advances is eugenics. Bad idea.

This post is to discuss the idea of the concept "advanced." I think it's completely subjective and changes with time. The internal combustion engine was a great advance, and it led to the creation of the most advanced vehicles in the most advanced time period ever. Nowadays it is not "advanced."

All of this to say - don't use the term lightly. An "advancement" of technology or society may not be a real advancement. It might just be portrayed that way by the people trying to sell their ideas.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Anthony Flew - It doesn't really matter


Appeals to authority are valid arguments only insofar as the authority is an actual authority, and if the truth matches what the authority says.

-On any given philosophical issue, citing Richard Dawkins as an authority is a fallacy. He may, by coincidence, be correct about the issue, but that is not by merit of his "authority" stance - because he is not an authority on philosophy.

-Citing Sam Harris as an authority on a philosophical issue is a much better idea, as he is trained in philosophy. However, he may be incorrect or dishonest in what he says.

In both these cases, what the person says may be taken as a valid argumentative position - only insofar as the position that authority takes is correct.

Anthony Flew

For a few years now, this former atheist-turned-deist has been paraded by religious folks and degraded by freethinkers. This New York Times article has generated conversation all over the bloggosphere. I'm here to say it doesn't matter.

Flew's conversion from disbelief to belief in a higher power is interesting only if he demonstrates that the arguments which swayed him are valid and should logically sway rational thinkers. As he has simply churned out age-old arguments made invalid since Occam's Razor was formalized (at least), Flew's conversion holds no significance whatsoever.


There has always been an unfair bias among religious people and atheists on this sort of issue. Anthony Flew was undeniably an atheist, and he is now undoubtedly a theist. When a Christian becomes a "poor example" of Christianity (ie. gets involved in scandalizing male prostitution ordeals), he/she is easily shrugged off as "never even was a Christian."

This is how religious people can avoid criticism. Of course, they're quick to jump back to "of course we all fail - but if [someone other than me] fail on a grand scale, it shows she was never a Christian to begin with." This is the "no true scotsman" fallacy. I bring it up in part because, ironically enough, Anthony Flew is credited with having coined the name for that particular logical fallacy.

The point is this: Just as the actions of a theist in no way discredit the argument that "at least one god exists," the decision of an atheist to become a theist in no way weakens atheist arguments. If the motivations for Flew's decision are valid, we have a different story - similarly, if the motives of the misbehaving theist derive from his religious views, we may call into question any cultural acceptance of the particular religious teaching he was following.

Quit focusing on Flew; continue to discuss the arguments that led to his conversion.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


As a journalist, I occasionally cover stories about Christian events. In fact, every week I cover a worship service for the university paper. Today, I sat in attendance beside a faculty member from the school.

This particular service was about grief - the general theme being "there are different seasons in life; sometimes we are joyful, sometimes we are sad." I enjoyed singing the songs, but when we were asked to join in prayer with the person next to us, I felt a little uncomfortable. She asked me if I had anything I'd like to pray about. I told her "I'm not really the praying type," but encouraged her to pray.

She asked for God to help me with my senior year and the years beyond that, before asking for a stronger community where the people who feel alienated (in this case, non-white/non-Christian people) did not feel so excluded.

I could agree with all of that, but then again I felt a little bit excluded as well. I was not praying, I was just nodding in agreement. What sort of reaction would have fit? Should I have prayed? Whether or not one is religious, praying is just talking to the air/oneself/those within earshot. To pray, I would have felt like someone indulging a person who has an imaginary friend in the room. Try doing that and not feeling like you're being condescending. It was awkward, but at least I was respectful and honest.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Look What Reared Its Ugly Head

Just a cursory glance at Makarios' blog site shows that, despite the break he swore to take after a bit of a thrashing he took over the summer, he has been running wild with some irresponsible, bigoted and downright strange claims. I plan to post a few responses to some of the smellier posts on his own site, but this one needs a little special attention.

Richard Dawkins = the next Joseph Stalin

"A quote from a speech by Joseph Stalin when he came to power is 'Religion must be out of Russia within five years.' Gee, where have I heard a sentiment like that before? Oh ya. It’s from the latest atheist saviour Richard Dawkins. Substitute 'North America' for Russia and that is exactly the dream of hate-monger Richard Dawkins and his band of rage-filled, intolerant followers."

"Ultimate Words"

One of my early posts on this blog concerns the use of "ultimate" words in rhetoric. "God" words invoke a good reaction, while "Devil" words invoke a reaction of fear and hate in the audience. Makarios' post contains these terms in describing a group:

Hate-monger, rage-filled, intolerant, mass murder, totalitarian, eliminate, oppression and persecution.

Makarios described "the atheist dream of the mass murder of Christians."

It's disgustingly bigoted, evil rhetoric.

The art of persuasion

I really enjoy the study of rhetoric, and there is such a thing as good and evil rhetoric. This is, quite simply, the evangelistic method used by a self-described (if mockingly) "fundamentalist asshole."

On other blogs, people have wondered if Makarios is just an internet troll trying to get attention. Regardless - others should see that his sort of hateful and unfair speech is not to be tolerated.

If he is right - if Richard Dawkins is assembling an army of atheists to rid the country of the religious - then he and his followers will be deserving of even stronger criticism. However, in the lack of evidence for such claims, Makarios is very much in the wrong for inciting hostilities toward atheists as a whole. Not only do his claims regard non-existent threats; he is criticizing an entire group for what one person (or subset of a group) allegedly said.

Bad form.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Everybody has an opinion.

I was criticized recently for some writing I did. First, as a reporter for the university newspaper, I covered a lecture and wrote an objective story. Second, I expressed my opinion on that lecture topic in an unaffiliated public forum.

I was criticized for doing so.

Apparently, it drags my objective image through the dust. I wonder what the time limit is - can I write about the topic next week? Can I ever discuss the idea for the rest of my life? Does an audience really think a news writer cannot write an objective story if he has an opinion on the topic?

Time will tell, I suppose.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Hiatus

My job has been very constraining on my time lately and I have been (to everybody's great disappointment, to be sure) unable to write here.

Hopefully I can get back on it soon; there is plenty to respond to.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Why Be Nice?

Rhology and Calvin have unwittingly prompted me to write a little bit on this topic. Why should a person be good and why, in particular, should one be 'good' in a desire utilitarian sense?

Rhology listed a few reasons here as to why he acts nice, beside the threat of Hell:
1) I love Jesus b/c He saved me.
2) Jesus lived a morally pure life and commanded me to do the same for a variety of reasons.
3) So I try to.
That's the distillation. Others:
4) Living like Jesus is what God created me to do. I don't want to live against my operational specifications. Don't want to use a hard drive as a baseball bat.
5) It makes the Good News of Jesus that I tell to others more credible.

Rhology wants to act like a Christian (according to Rhology's understanding of how a Christian should act). Others can make a nearly identical list of reasons and use them to explain a set of behavior starkly in contrast with Rhology's own.


Reasons for Action
First of all, it doesn't really make sense to ask whether or not we should encourage people to see morality through the lens of desire utilitarianism. What makes sense, according to Alonzo Fyfe, is to ask whether reasons for action exist for promoting certain desires, and whether they are more and stronger than the reasons against promoting those desires.

But why prescribe the actions and desires that desire utilitarianism suggests we prescribe? Mr. Fyfe has explained that desire utilitarianism is a description of how prescription works.
"As such, desire utilitarianism is to be adopted or rejected on the same types of criteria that any other descriptive theory is to be accepted or rejected. Are the claims that desire utilitarianism make about prescription true or false?

For example:

All prescriptions are recommendations to bring about or avoid a particular state of affairs.

A prescription brings to bear the ‘reasons for action that exist’ that recommend bringing about or avoiding a state of affairs.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist."

Another proposition I'd like to add is this:
An agent will act to fulfill the more and stronger of its desires, given its beliefs.

That being the case, all we can do to prescribe a particular action is try to convince the person that acting in a particular way will, in fact, fulfill his or her desires. We cannot argue someone out of their desires. Nothing I can say will convince a person who enjoys lying not to enjoy lying. This should be pretty apparent.

What we can do, however, is several things.

Adjusting Malleable Desires
First, we can apply social rewards and sanctions/praise and condemnation to make it the case that certain desires are given precedence. For instance, if somebody desires to be dishonest and manipulative, if we apply enough condemnation and sanction, at some point it will benefit the liar to behave honestly, and he will thus desire to do so.

Perhaps more importantly, though, we can apply these tools to our children from a young age. We can raise them with an aversion to dishonesty. Then, when they approach a circumstance in which it may be personally beneficial to behave dishonestly, their aversion to dishonesty may make it the case that they desire to be honest anyway.

Do reasons for action exist to promote honesty and to cultivate an aversion to dishonesty in others, and do those reasons for action outweigh those that recommend promoting dishonesty and discouraging honesty? Yes they exist, and they certainly outweigh the opposing reasons.
"If it is true that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then the desires that we have the most reason to promote are those that best fulfill the more and stronger of our desires.

Some desires (the aversion to lying) tend to fulfill other desires, while some desires (the desire to rape young children) tend to thwart other desires."
What reasons do we have to encourage a desire utilitarian outlook on morality? Well, none; it's not an important question.

What reasons do we have to encourage or discourage different desires based on their general tendencies to fulfill or to thwart other desires?

All the reasons in the world. The only reasons for action are desires. Promoting desire-fulfilling desires in others is something which every single person has all the reason in the world to do.

Now, at this point everybody has a particular set of desires. Some are good and some are bad - this goes for me and everybody else. It's next to impossible to adjust those desires now - neither we nor anybody else can reason us out of our desires. However, they can be outweighed by other reasons for action. This is what we provide when we condemn bad actions and praise good behavior.

Calvin posted some thoughts here which I'd like to try to (briefly) address. Of course, he wrote a lot, so I'll probably have to follow up on this.

"I can’t find any reason why I should board in the first place."
_I hope I at least began to address this. Nobody can change your desires - only give you other reasons for action that outweigh them.

"I don’t see why I should value the fulfillment of another’s desires"
_No specific desires are intrinsically 'supposed' to be fulfilled. That's not the point. The point is that acting on good desires - not those that fulfill specific desires, but those that tend to fulfill the desires of others - is what we should encourage.

"But is reaping pragmatic future rewards the extent of society's interest in morality? Or is there another component?"
_I'm not sure what the other component would be. All people act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires - it is in our interest to encourage others to act on particular desires (those that tend to fulfill the desires of others). Pragmatic future rewards are a particular type of 'reasons for action' that exist for us. There's no way to cause people to act in opposition to their desires. We can simply shape those desires.

"Let's say you have someone who just doesn't care about the fulfillment of others' desires... What does morality say to/about such a man?"
_He's evil. He acts on a set of bad desires, and exhibits disregard for the wellbeing of others. He's worthy of condemnation.

"I need to know whether or not human desires matter, and why they matter, to decide whether or not I have any obligations towards them."
_They matter because they're all that matters. All that is important or means anything to mankind is tied up in desires. To respect, empathize, or mean well toward another human being, you must acknowledge and, in most cases, respect his/her desires.

"That truth, that underlying meaning I’m searching for can either be the soul, or it can be firing neurons."
_How to put this... If there is a soul which provides empathy and other good feelings, then we can assume it also provides the more negative entities of hate, bigotry, callousness.

You can argue that those exhibiting the latter set of traits are simply not in their original state. However, it could just as easily be the case that the former set of traits (such things as empathy) are the real aberrations, and the intrinsic state of the soul is hateful and bigoted.

In fact, we find that people's tendencies toward empathy or callousness are profoundly influenced by upbringing. We're born essentially tabula rasa.

"It’s preposterous to think I should care in the slightest about firing neurons that don’t affect me.
_For one thing, you don't have to. Desire utilitarianism never says that you *should* care about others. It simply says that some desires are to be encouraged and others discouraged; this for objective reasons we all have. One of these good desires, it can be argued, is the aversion to thwarting the desires of others (firing neurons) unless there is good reason to do so.

For another, you're using loaded language here. It may be the case that 'firing neurons' is the extent of what our thoughts and feelings are. Calling it a 'soul' does nothing to increase the worth of that phenomenon; calling it firing neurons does nothing to increase that worth.

"DU may not be moral relativism, but it offers no challenge to it."
_On the contrary, it stands in stark opposition to moral relativism.

"If your pure reasoning, truly free of ideology & emotion (and free of the poisonous influence of fanatics like Hitchens & Harris), honestly leads you away from God, so be it."
_Thank you for being so respectful. I have yet to read anything by Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris, so I can't comment on the poisonousness of their influence. Yes, my reasoning leads me to the conclusion that, while I cannot disprove the existence of God, and no evidence points toward or against such a being, it is rather unlikely that it exists.

Yet the conclusion a particular line of reasoning takes me to is that there is, in fact, reason for morality in a godless world.

A Little Further Reading:
Alonzo Fyfe has some essays which may help address the topic:
Why Worry About Morality?
So, you want to be a desire utilitarian
Promoting Desire Utilitarianism
Evaluating Moral Theories
The 1000 Sadists Problem

Thursday, August 2, 2007


Recently I've been hearing the same line of thinking from a couple of sources - one from Sye, who has been patiently indulging in a little comment war here on my blog, and one from Rhology, who has been patiently indulging in little comment wars on his own blog.

This line of thinking has appeared to me to be circular and invalid, but Sye in particular has brought the point right to me: How do I know I can trust my reasoning and logic?

One answer
These gentlemen have postulated that unless there is a God, we cannot know that our reasoning and logic is trustworthy, because we have no foundation for them. Before I philosophize further, I want to examine that claim. It's a premise:

1. Unless there is a God, we cannot trust our reasoning and logic.

Essentially, it then goes like this:

2. We can trust our reasoning and logic

3. Therefore, God exists.

Yes, it begs the question. If we accept Premise 1, when we are approached with Premise 2 we are free to say 'Uh uh uh, can we? You haven't yet proved that God exists. Until you've reasoned that God exists, I apparently can't trust your ability to reason that God exists...'

The real question at hand
is Premise 2. Can we trust our reasoning and logic? If Premise 1 is true, then we cannot know if Premise 1 is true, and we thus cannot use Premise 1 to lead into Premise 2.

The only way we can know whether or not Premise 1 is true is if Premise 1 is, in fact, false.

That's because it takes reasoning to come to the conclusion of Premise 1. Only if you can trust your reasoning without there being a God can you come to the conclusion that only if a God exists can you trust your reasoning. It's a mess.

The issue here, as the title of the post indicates, is justifying beliefs. Doing this, one often runs into the problem of an infinite regress: I know it's Thursday because yesterday was Wednesday, which I know because the day before was Tuesday, ad infinitum.

Typically, there are three options for attempting to justify beliefs. The first is that there is an infinite regress, as described above, which is incapable of actually justifying anything. The second is foundationalism. Foundationalists believe that this infinite regress is halted when it settles upon a belief that is justified without being justified by other beliefs. The third option is that beliefs are simply justified by other beliefs which are, in turn, justified by others in a circular fashion - and circular reasoning is, of course, incapable of justifying a belief (as I hope Sye and Rhology realize at some point).

Coherentism is usually represented metaphorically as a web of beliefs, which is made strong and self-supporting by the relationship each belief has with the other beliefs, all of which are tied together.

I have to thank Sye for bringing up the issue. My core beliefs are brought into question practically every day, and I am quite often made to doubt them - or, at least, to strongly reconsider them - and I have to read up on or think about them with a great deal of concern.

I hadn't previously thought about how I justified my trust in human reasoning and logic. My first reaction was 'well, it corresponds to reality.' Truth is, it's a little something more. If I must use logic and reasoning to justify logic and reasoning, have I not engaged in circular reasoning? If I must start with the reasoned premise that God must exist for reasoning to exist, have I not begged the very question?

I trust my perception of reality. I trust it because it forms a very coherent web. No one belief has to lean on another in a linear fashion - they work together holistically. I am an empiricist through and through, so I believe that what we perceive as real is what is really real. I also trust what reliable people have observed under reliable circumstances. These observations begin to form a web, part of which is that logic and reasoning conform to reality, and that illogic and unreasoning does not. These beliefs and observations are tied to the observations others have made. Overall, it makes a web coherent enough that I am willing to let it support my weight.

When a little fly catapults into my web and destroys a strand or two, I'll just have to rush over and try to repair or replace the strands. I think that's all we can do.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


One advantage a person has in being a religious person and then becoming an atheist is that I have a very important set of memories. I understand what it feels like to be religious. For a while after rejecting my religious beliefs I was rather defensive and prickly about the matter. I was impatient with people who didn't see things the way I did. I was the one, after all, whose eyes had been opened.

Then I realized that any criticisms I leveled about the basic intelligence of the religious was a criticism I had to apply to myself. That's how I know you religious people are smart and all very handsome and well-mannered :)

It has been nearly a year, at the time that I'm writing this, since I have called myself a Christian. My memories of my faith-based life, thus, are still vivid. I was cleaning out a few possessions and came across an old page-binder in which were some folded-up pieces of paper with poems I had written.

I don't know the limits of copyright law on the internet and such, so if these poems reflected what I considered to be excellent pieces of work, I'd be more anxious in ensuring that I maintain the rights than I am. However, I have no qualms with using them to illustrate my thoughts.
"The winter came sudden, like the Norsemen of old,
With unstoppable force and unbearable cold.
It brought layers of snow that topped off the charts,
And it froze 'til the cars would not even start.

Is it true that the winter is dead?
Is it through?
Will the sun reascend?
Winter's fled, at its end?

The winter then stopped, it was brought to a halt,
But the snow was still thick and the roads needed salt.
The clouds of the storm swept out of the skies
So the comforting sun, unchallenged, could rise.

It is true that the winter is dead!
It has fled!
It is through!
Winter's fair end lets the sun reascend!

The sun reaches its zenith, not a cloud stands to fight,
And the warm, shining rays cast a life-giving light.
See the temperature rise as, to no one's surprise,
The snow starts to melt as the long winter dies.

Yet is it true that the winter's quite through?
Is it thoroughly dead?
In defeat has it fled?
Has it come to an end or will the sun now descend?

For the winter still lurks, it is not far away,
And the gathering clouds dissipate the sun's ray.
Until shadow and cold once again mist our breath
And the sun choked by clouds and by winter's cold death.

But the sun will have victory, though it seems he's not here
The winter months are waning and the spring's drawing near.
What had once been frozen, hopeless and bleak
Can be saved by the sun in less than a week.

Now winter and death have come to an end
And freeing the world, the Sun will ascend
The winter will flee and we'll all become free
The coldness is through, now at last that is true."
I wrote that when I was fifteen or sixteen years old - in my defense, I had only just started writing poetry. Yet the allegorical nature of this poem is blatant even without replacing the word 'sun' with 'Son.' This sort of imagery allowed me to place strong emotional contexts to my faith. I have never liked the winter (except for the opportunities it affords me to go snowboarding... wrapped up warmly). It may not be something that happens to all of the faithful, but I had personal emotional attachments to my religious beliefs, some of which were quite subconscious. Other people may equate their faith with the faith of a loved one, even someone who has died. To criticize that person's faith, then, is subconsciously like criticizing the faith of the loved one.

I think the second poem helps demonstrate the emotional aspects which controlled my outlook on my faith:
"Isn't it great to read a tale of epic struggle against the bad?
When good is threatened; about to fail, but summons strength few knew it had?
When the battle's lost and all have fled and evil's finally won,
A spark of good stands up to fight when all the rest have run.
Good faces evil, a David and Giant, small but grim and still defiant,
And evil sways in fear and doubt of this strange combat that's just begun,
And locked in battle this underdog knows that he can overcome.

It seems it's just in stories that these happy tales occur,
But far beyond our consciousness a spirit battle stirs.
For we have an evil tyrant, and we have a fallen race,
We have a hero who rose again from dying in our place.

The battle still is raging - we'll be drawn to it 'ere long,
So let's just put our armor on so God will make us strong.
And when the battle's lost and all have fled, and evil seems to win,
Our Lord will come, absolve our sins, and save our worthless skin."

There's nothing more honest than my attitude about that story was when I wrote it. With all sincerity, that's how I viewed my faith - in a nutshell. An epic struggle against the bad. A hero who died and rose again. A noble God who takes our side, even when we don't deserve it.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of emotion in our mental persuasions. I urge everybody who reads this to consider how your outlook on life looks to someone who does not share your emotional attachment to it. Does it still look the same?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Proving God

If there's anything more impossible than living around the turn of the millennium and not having heard of Morgan Freeman, it's proving the existence of God.

Which God?

Atheism can have a few meanings, but in general that meaning depends on to what it's referring. "A" means "without," and "theos" is, of course, "God." Theos is seen so differently around the world, though. Sometimes god is known by a different name, and other times by different characteristics. Many Christians feel that their God is different from Allah because of certain traits - a triune nature, omni-benevolence, the trait of 'heavenly Father-ness.' So when asked if they believe in a god of Allah's characteristics, the proper response is to say 'No, there is no such god. The universe is without (A) such a being (theos).'

Nearly every Christian in America, likewise, does not believe that the God of the Westboro Baptist Church exists. Such a God exhibits the characteristic of hating people - most people, in fact. When asked about their belief in such a god's existence, most Christians' proper response is 'No, there is no such god. I am an atheist in that regard.'

More commonly, atheists describe themselves as people who simply do not believe in any gods because no compelling evidence can be provided in support of such a claim. This is probably best described as a materialist or secularist outlook. The premise that 'all is matter' is sufficient until proof is provided by those on whom the burden rests - those claiming that a 'super-natural' aspect to the universe is real. Along with the burden of proof, such people also strive against the principle of Occam's Razor, which suggests that when given two alternative explanations to a phenomenon or phenomena, the simpler is to be preferred. Clearly, when a natural explanation for the universe is plausible and well-evidenced, it makes no sense to propose the infinitely complicating factor of the supernatural.

All of this to lead to the idea that proving 'God' is very difficult. Einstein's idea of God was something akin to the mystery of the unknown in the universe. Hell, I believe in that God. Disproving that concept of God is impossible. Yet the more specific we get in terms of describing the traits/characteristics of this divine entity, the more realistic it becomes to disprove it.

I believe the universe is just matter. I see no reason to infer the supernatural - except to explain things which we don't have answers for yet. However, an argument from ignorance has never been my idea of a strong stance. When it comes to the Christian God of the Bible, though, I believe such a being can be disproven because of its characteristics: all-powerful, all-knowing; all-good.


I was directed to this website a few months ago, and I quickly came to the conclusion that it was ridiculous. I had forgotten about it until I had the good fortune of coming across an excellent blog called The Set of All Things Not Identical to Themselves.

I found a blog entry describing the author's experience at the website, and his critique of it. The author of the site then responded. Now I feel compelled to offer my own criticism of the website, as I feel it is misleading.

False Dilemmas

A false dilemma usually takes the form of an 'either-or' statement. "Either you believe in God, or all morality is subjective opinion." Well, that's not true. The typical way of dealing with this sort of argument is to 'go between the horns' and point out counterexamples where it doesn't have to be one or the other.*

Of course, in the case of contradictions, a dilemma is valid. You can't go between the horns of 'Either I am holding a pen or I am not holding a pen.' Logically, either one or the other must be true. It becomes a fallacy when there is an excluded middle... 'Either there are elephants on Mars, or it is raining in Seattle today' happens to be my current favorite example.

Back to the Website

When you enter the site, your first choice is to select whether you believe in absolute truth, don't believe it, don't know, or don't care. The author is not careful at first to point out what he means, but he seems to mean 'X is either true or false for all people at all times,' and that X is the sort of statement that exists in the real world. So far, so good. "It is cold out" is not an absolute sort of truth, but "I am cold" is. So I click that I agree.
"The Bible teaches that the existence of God is so obvious that we are without excuse for denying it."
Alright, let's see just how easy this is.

1. Laws of Logic Exist: True. Regardless of what we call them, our system of describing why 2+2=4 refers to actual phenomena.

2. Laws of Mathematics Exist: True... if redundant.

3. Laws of Science Exist: True. Here, however, it becomes important to consider what 'exist' means. Many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore exists about unicorns. From that, we cannot infer that unicorns exist. A law of science does not mandate how the universe operates. A law of science is a human idea that makes predictions and seeks to explain what we can observe about the universe. A law's existence does not necessitate the existence of its subject. For instance, I can reference a law that peasants are to be afforded no mercy when they steal from the royalty - but that doesn't mean that peasants and royalty exist (at this time). It is a valid point, however, to say that the phenomena described by laws of logic, mathematics and science exist, though. In this case, I will go for it.
PS, remember that this same consideration should be taken into account in the previous questions - what people have codified is irrelevant; its congruence with reality is what matters.

4. Absolute Moral Laws Exist: This question has issues on so many levels.

First, there is some equivocation on the word 'law.' Equivocation means the word or phrase can mean two different things as it is used in the argument.** A law of science is an invariable and universal fact about the physical universe. If matter behaves in a way that contradicts such a law, it disproves the law. Likewise, if numbers behave in a way that contradicts or violates mathematical or logical law, then we are wrong about the laws.

Are moral laws the same? Would the author state that a set of principles of right behavior exist in the universe, and all interactions of matter must conform to those laws - and that if matter violates those laws, we must reject and/or rewrite the laws? Well, no. There is no universally agreed-upon set of laws for right and wrong behavior (although we see globally, cross-culturally exhibited aversions to some types of behavior in, perhaps, a majority of cultures).

So the author is using the word 'law' differently in this question. In fact, he seems to be using it more in the sense of government. A law, in this sense, governs how an individual or group is to behave in a community, and is established by some authority. Presumably, given the premise of the website, the author is referring to a law established by the authority of God to rule over the community of humankind.

Second, we're back to the idea of 'existence.' Can we observe this sort of moral law? That is, a code of right and wrong established in communities by forms of authority? Sure! But they're not absolute. The 'moral foundation' of the law for adults not to sexually trifle with 14 year olds in our nation is not something people in other places and cultures are expected to abide by.

On the surface, such a question doesn't usually demand much thought. That's why the questions about laws of logic, math and science were asked first - the reader becomes settled in the rut of thinking that somehow a moral law is the same as these other, more obvious, laws.

So what if you select the right answer? What if you click 'No?'

You're presented with a dilemma:
"Either molesting children for fun is absolutely morally wrong, or it could be right."

The problem here is introducing a motive. Motive plays a huge role in discerning moral culpability. If there's a difference between killing and murder, it lies in the motive of the person taking the life of the other. Essentially what this site is doing, though, is presenting you with a false dilemma. "Either molesting children for fun is potentially good behavior, or there's an absolute moral law." That is not a necessary conclusion to come to. It could be the case that molesting children for fun is terrible behavior to all people, at all times, AND that there is no absolute moral law. In fact, that is the conclusion that I hold at this website (if you read my second post, you may understand why).

So imagine I pose this question to the author:

"Either killing is ALWAYS a morally disgusting thing to do, or NO absolute moral laws exist."

I imagine he'd protest. He'd say, "No, sometimes killing is necessary - even God does it. That doesn't mean that no absolute moral laws exist."

Exactly. Motive is necessary to determine whether an action is right or wrong behavior. Had the question excluded the phrase 'for fun,' the answer would obviously be yes: it could be right to molest a child. If an alien race invades and says 'either you molest this child, or we molest everybody,' then the right thing to do is undoubtedly to molest the child. At the same time, the desire to molest children for fun is evil. These concepts are not contradictory, and thus, though cleverly concealed, the question poses a false dilemma.

Finally, this part of the website is very obviously, and self-admittedly, an appeal to emotion. While an important aspect of persuasion in many cases, and not necessarily a logical fallacy, there are still responsible and irresponsible ways to appeal to emotion.
"I feel that the best test to determine whether or not you really believe that absolute moral laws exist, is not whether you feel that atrocities like rape and child molestation could be right somewhere in the universe, but whether they could ever be right if perpetrated against you or someone you love."
I find this sort of thinking strange coming from someone who feels that morality is not dependent on individual feeling - yet he feels inclined to appeal to individual feeling to make his point. If what he is arguing is true, then an appeal to emotion and subjective feeling would be pointless - unless he were to make a further argument, such as that these absolute laws are ingrained in members of the human community just as societal laws become ingrained in members of a society. Yet, we find that this phenomena is not the case. It's a prediction of the Bible that all people have 'the law' written on their hearts, but this prediction is not substantiated in tests. Testing seems to confirm, as a matter of fact, that value judgments and emotional responses to situations depends largely on factors in people's upbringing.

I'm tempted at this point to simply exit the site. However, I will tell an untruth just to keep moving.

5. Laws of Logic, Mathematics, Science and Absolute Morality are Immaterial: True. In the sense that the website author presents the case, something material is able to be touched, seen, smelled, heard and/or tasted. I should add that most of the spectrum of light does not fall into this category. Atoms, likewise, are not seen so much as the effects they make are observed. Gravity, likewise, is 'immaterial.'

Apparently, it is a futile attempt to "find an abstract entity in nature." Since I can't find the physical number 3, it is immaterial. Ok, I can agree to this (but I thought I should elaborate before continuing).

6. Laws of Logic, Mathematics, Science and Absolute Morality are Universal: True. As far as we know (and this seems to be a safe belief), our understanding of logic, mathematics, and science are universal. Likewise, standards of right and wrong behavior that are universal can be argued (as I maintain in this blog).

7. Laws of Logic, Mathematics, Science and Absolute Morality are Unchanging: True. Our understanding of them (the actual laws, which are a codification) changes, but the phenomena we seek to describe using them does not.

Ooh, the quick jab from the right, the hard hit from the left!
"Universal, immaterial, unchanging laws cannot be accounted for if the universe was random or only material in nature."
This is downright wrong. For one thing, nobody claims that the universe is random. For another thing, nobody claims that the universe is material in the way the author used the term material. This is yet another instance of equivocation. As the website puts it, material = corporeal. However, materialists don't (obviously) disbelieve in things like light, atoms and gravity just because they do not take a physical form. Of course, I'm probably straying far too close to the realm of quantum reality than I'm qualified to tread here, but these very real aspects of reality in no way rule out the claim that all that exists is the natural.
"Only in a universe governed by God can universal, immaterial, unchanging laws exist."
Big question coming up: Why? Nah, let's be like the website author - let's leave that unexplained. We'll just state it and then not support it.

8. The Proof that God Exists: Without Him, you couldn't prove anything.

Yep, it's just stated like that. The bulk of the questions simply reaffirm that there is a uniformity to the universe. Great. What I'd be interested in hearing is how exactly this isn't circular reasoning.

Begging the question, for those unfamiliar with the concept, involves assuming your premise to prove your conclusion. In this case, check it out:

1. If there's no God, nothing can be proved.
2. We just proved something
3. Therefore, God exists.

Funny thing... mustn't the conclusion necessarily be true in order for (2) to be true? The answer is yes. If we assume premise 1, then we cannot state premise 2 until we've established conclusion 3. We're free to believe premise 2 is false until we're convinced of conclusion 3, so we can't use premise 2 to argue that conclusion, because the logic is circular and begs the question in point.


The sort of thinking behind this website is saddening. If the author makes an appearance here to respond, that would certainly be interesting, as I'd like to understand just how far he grasps the 'laws of logic' he referred to, ever so ironically, early in the website experience.

I found that the author has a blog website. I think I'll write him and leave this blog with the prominent quote on proofthatgodexists.org: "Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid." Let's see how the truth of this statement bears out.


Friday, July 20, 2007

A Delicate Issue

Criticizing the Religious
We live in a time in which people very similar to me criticize organized religion for the evils it causes. I ran into an article that challenged that claim. The rejoinder it provides, though, is not to dispel the claim, but to instead point the finger at secularist regimes.

I've been known to say that some secularist ideologies provide excuses to justify murder, while religion provides actual motivation. For instance, this essay pointed out that
"The fact is that more than 100 million human beings were killed by secularist regimes and ideologies in the last century."
This is accurate. At the same time, does such a secularist ideologist say 'Oh my goodness, there is no God! That makes me want to kill innocents!' Not exactly. Does a religious fanatic say 'Oh my goodness, I get dozens of virgins of my own if I destroy evil westerners! That makes me want to kill evil westerners!' Actually, yes.

However, it is not the religion or even the fact that this person is religious that deserves condemnation. The individual who wants to kill others in the name of his religion is simply operating on evil desires. He was not raised responsibly - he was told that killing others for the greater good of God was a good thing to do. When a religion teaches such things, we can criticize such a teaching, and the religion for teaching such a thing.

Bigotry is morally impermissible. Classifying all religious people in one bunch and calling them nutcases is inadvisable and, more importantly, false. Blaming them for all atrocities in the past (the strawman that the essayist raised in his introduction) is very inaccurate as well.

Just One More Motivating Factor
There are enough motivating factors for evil. Religious and secular people alike experience drives for power, money, fame... these things are not just excuses that 'allow' people to justify their evil actions - these are reasons for action. Religious beliefs can provide similar reasons for action.

Remember, though, that desires are what drive people to action. Beliefs shape what people do to accomplish those desires.

My parents are both religious people, but their convictions do not cause them to do evil. In fact, they're both basically saints. The reason for that is that their desires drive them to do good things: to provide for their children, to help others, to promote cooperation in the community, to responsibly educate, to exhibit honesty and integrity. Their beliefs influence how they go about this. My mom told me the other day that she originally wanted to enter the ministry because she 'wanted to help people.' She didn't - she's an educator - but this goes to show that she was raised with the desire to help people, and the belief that religion was necessary to fulfill that desire.

That right there is another reason to criticize religious teaching - the indoctrination that only religion provides a path to helping others and/or behaving ethically. Some teachings are good, admittedly - the poor and the helpless are to be helped, peace is an ideal, self-control and honesty... so criticize the teaching, rather than the religion or the religious.

To the author of the essay: The title of your essay was 'Religion is not to Blame,' yet you did nothing to demonstrate this. You simply pointed a finger and said 'Well, secularist ideologies killed more people!' If this was your point, then yes, religion is still to blame. Just because something else killed more does not make the other more blameworthy. Cancer and AIDS have killed more; does that excuse the actions of religious and secular persecutors?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Value-Laden Terms in Everyday Language

I don't usually listen to Nickelback where I can avoid it, but the lyrics of the song "Animals" caught my attention. The song is about sneaking out with a sexy girl and gettin' down without the parents being any the wiser. Chorus goes
No, we're never gonna quit
Ain't nothing wrong with it
Just acting like we're animals
Nobody reads this blog yet, but for those who might, you'll have noticed that I'm very concerned with how language is used. Consider the use of "it's just______." We hear that sort of phrase all of the time.

Concerning abortion, we hear "It's just a bunch of cells."
I hear Christians say "well, if evolution is true, then your mind is just a bunch of neurons firing."
In this song, the phrase is "Ain't nuthin' wrong with it, we're just a couple animals."

These phrases are all the sort that describes a phenomenon with the intention of devaluing it. I don't care if the result of sperm+egg is 'just a bunch of cells.' Every living thing is 'just a bunch of cells.' However, the way our minds work, using this sort of phrase devalues the object of the conversation in the mind of the listener.

So what if the mind is 'just a bunch of neurons firing?' It's a fact, whether or not you believe in God, and that fact in no way diminishes the trustworthiness of our minds. When put in those terms, though, the speaker is trying to devalue the object.

Similarly, in the Nickelback song, the singer is trying to justify his actions by saying 'we're just a couple animals.' That's fine - in fact, it's completely true. We're all animals, though, and that fact has no bearing on right and wrong. However, the assumption in many human minds is that animals are of a lesser moral quality than humans, so if we're animals, then any action that an animal would perform is permissible. However, that is not the case. While it's true that many animals are much more civil towards members of their own species than humans are to our own, some animals eat their mates after copulating. Hopefully this is not a permissible thing for human beings to do.

It's false to say 'X is just ____, according to you, therefore your perspective is false.' That's obvious. Using that sort of unspoken line of reasoning, though, has a strong impact on the average listener, who may be of the sort of mindset where if a statement is unappealing, it is disregarded. It's best saved for another post, but people have to deal with reality - it is possible, if not common, for people to think 'I want there to be an afterlife. I didn't get a fair life, so there must be one,' and they'll believe it as if their belief makes any difference to reality. I may revisit this thought later.

A Further Example
One other example bears mentioning. On a Facebook discussion board this morning, I responded to an interesting claim. A young man made the perfectly valid claim that scientific claims can't exactly be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. He then provided Webster's definition of faith (firm belief in something for which there is no proof). Since there is no proof for scientific claims, he said "There is evidence for evolution. There is no proof however. Thus, evolution (among some other things), like religion, must be taken on faith."

This is a pretty simple syllogism:
1. There is no proof for scientific theories
2. A belief without proof is faith.
3. Therefore, science, like religion, is based on faith.

Unfortunately, there is a little bit of a problem here. He presented 'proof' as certainty beyond a shadow of doubt. He pointed out that experiments exist that could disprove the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for instance. What he may not have realized is that experiments exist that could disprove nearly everything. For instance, nobody can prove 'beyond a shadow of doubt' that reality has existed for more than 5 minutes. In the sort of capacity he uses 'proof,' every single belief a person has is faith.

But that's not how faith is normally used, and it's not the impression that his words conveyed. Had he used the dictionary to understand the word, he would have found that 'proof' is defined thus: "evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true." For example, in our justice system, people are 'proven' guilty or innocent - beyond a reasonable doubt (scientific conclusions, likewise, are beyond a reasonable doubt).

So, is there a word to distinguish between the 'faith' that plants photosynthesize, and the 'faith' that there is an afterlife? Well, I'd like to think so. In fact, I'll call a propositional attitude regarding a statement a "belief," such an attitude based on solid evidence "sound belief" and such an attitude based on no such evidence (or in spite of evidence to the contrary) faith.

Using the word faith as this fellow did is a bad idea. I'm not sure he recognizes it yet, but when 'faith' is used to describe scientific theories, the automatic assumption is not the correct one - that 'faith' has been expanded to mean every single belief a human being has - the assumption is that scientific theories are not built on solid evidential foundations. This leads to similar devaluation by the average listener.

Many people think of 'rhetoric' to mean 'saying something without saying anything.' That's exactly what this person did - whether or not he recognized that, I'm not sure though, so I won't jump to that conclusion and condemn his actions.

The point to take away from all of this is that often a phenomenon is described in a way that casts it negatively, just to try to devalue a certain perspective. Don't fall for it. Question the motives of the speaker. If he is trying to deceive or confuse, he is worthy of moral condemnation.

PS I should mention that I'll use 'he' in most of my examples. Our language is regrettably lacking in the sort of terminology that would allow me to be gender-neutral in that sort of case (without being ponderous, anyway). I may switch and use 'she' every now and then just to throw the reader off :)