Saturday, July 31, 2010

WHO Wants Power?

I quoted this a few days ago:

“[T]he majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.”

– Harold Pinter, Nobel Lecture (Literature), 2005

Mostly as a throwaway, because "we feed on tapestries" line just struck me as yet another one of those "Poignant, until you think about it. Then actually somewhat silly." moments.

But there's an additional problem I have with the quote now. Rather, something it implies.

The majority of politicians are interested in power and the maintenance of that power rather than truth? Sure, I can get behind that.

What I can't get behind is two things I see it as implying.

First is the idea that politicians have access to "the truth". I suppose they do in certain senses - there are coverups, there are backroom deals, and so on. To call that a problem is an understatement.

But suggesting that politicians and those in power are privy to "the truth", such that they consciously keep the public away from "the truth" at all times? I'm skeptical of that. I think there is this tendency to assume that those in power have direct and certain access to The Truth of matters in order to make their excesses seem that much more sinister and blameworthy. Why can't it be that those in power are just plain deluded? Perhaps even more deluded than normal in virtue of their commitments to power, among other things? Is a person who spreads ignorance or deception always doing so knowingly and willingly?

The second problem is the implied idea that "the people" don't value power and maintaining their power, even at the expense of truth. As if it's only billionaires and senators who are frantic about acquiring and keeping power. They just happen to have more of it. But many people frantically pursue even tiny scraps of power - or, put another way, absolutely any power they are capable of getting.

Power doesn't only come in the form of bought votes on a senate floor, or billion dollar bailouts or government contracts. It also comes in tiny, meager amounts: Unemployment checks, government subsidized health care visits, a bonus at work. Rewards and entitlements, public and private. Find a person who thinks they deserve and should get a given entitlement, and they really don't care who pays for it or even if it can be paid for, and you've found yourself someone pursuing power without concern for truth.

I suppose what I'm getting at here is that the quote, while stirring, is actually far more optimistic than I think is warranted in a way. Having a clear dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys, the ruling class and the oppressed, the corrupt and the honest. No, it doesn't seem so clear cut. The sicknesses that afflict us are everywhere. They are in all three branches of government, at all three levels of government, on TV channel after TV channel, website after website. It is a very cultural corruption.

And in spite of it all, I think there are ways - God willing, of course - to combat it, to soldier on, to improve. But part of that improvement is realizing the sheer scope of what we're dealing with, and what it means for change to start at the individual level.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Anne Rice No Longer Christian!

Well, she's still a Christian insofar as she still believes in and follows Christ, but apparently she wants out of Catholicism and out of... well, hard to say. "Christianity" altogether, it seems, insofar as Christianity is typically associated with specific teachings (On homosexuality, on abortion, and in Catholicism, on contraception) she rejects and has always rejected.

I have mixed reactions to the announcement. Honestly, I still admire her for making a major switch on a fundamental belief and remaining committed to that switch even if she clearly has some problems with the specific (and in my opinion, important) teachings of the Catholic church. I find her move of "I am not a Christian, but I still believe in God and Christ and I worship Christ" to be kind of needlessly dramatic and superficially confusing. But hey, some people are dramatic.

Of course, I'm against the particular things she came out as "for", so I have only limited sympathy on those fronts. I wonder if she was under the impression that it was just a (short, no less) matter of time until the Church started to approve of some abortion, or gay marriages, or... etc, etc. I've heard before that, for all the problems with the church, the liberal advocates within it haven't fared well at all. A couple of decades ago, I suppose a pressing question the "liberal" wing of the Church had was "When will Hans Kung's teachings become the teaching of the church?" Not if, but when. Now the most pressing question for that wing is "How come next to no one knows or cares who Hans Kung is?"

So, it's not really a "good riddance" moment for me. She seems sincere in her faith, and honestly torn about these questions - as opposed to seeming like a primarily political person who had little concern for God but wanted to work against an organization she didn't like from within. So what can I do but pray for her, hope for the best, and take it as a lesson that traditionalists need to approach these questions not only with sturdiness but a voice that can reach people who may have emotional disagreements.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Digital Cameras!

A break from the philosophy, theology, and politics.

I need to use a digital camera for my job. What bothers me is how there isn't a really straight line from the cheapest camera to the best. The features all mix and match. I picked up a Kodak Z981 Easyshare. Huge optical zoom! ~270 buck camera! Nice features all around. I was replacing a Samsung S1050 I got for 100 bucks a few years ago.

Well, the Samsung has a custom white balance option. The Kodak, even though from what I read that's purely software rather than hardware? No go. Presets only.

I'm guessing there's a corporate logic to this, but I wish I could figure it out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Debating Internet Atheists!

Just a side note about some exchanges I've been watching recently, between various internet apologists, blogging philosophers, and a certain wannabe internet atheist desperate for notoriety. Which is why I won't be saying his name, but man, anyone can likely guess who I'm talking about.

* I have rarely seen someone who is as blatantly seeking praise, money, and what passes for internet "stardom" as this guy. He practically oozes insincerity. So much so that I suspect, for all of his "I am a supreme champion atheist scholar!", this is actually far less about scholarship, or even atheism for him. He seems as interested in atheism as, say... Jim Bakker did in Christianity.

* His track record is atrocious. We're talking about a guy who was caught red handed starting up a fake blog to attack people on some theology/apologist website through while insincerely pointing at it as if he was some surprised third party, but didn't cover his tracks enough, and was exposed. If any other so-called "scholar" was caught doing that sort of thing, to say nothing of his other exploits, it would shred his credibility. But again, I'm sure Jim Bakker had some true believers even after his scandal.

* His arguments are inane. He keeps insisting that everyone should take his "test", but if you take his "test" and remain a Christian (or anything else, I have to say) he insists you didn't do it right or are deluding yourself. Also he never deludes himself! He knows this for certain! He's basically a self-parody.

* He rarely actually shows up to debate anywhere. Instead he shows up in comments sections and typically insists anyone talking about him has got him completely wrong, and that they'd realize such if they'd read his arguments. Which he insists he cannot argue for himself, as it requires buying his book. And conveniently he has no rights to his own books and can't offer up a copy of his own. And he'll call his lawyer if you quote too much of his book while you review it. Ultimately, his argument is "Buy my book and you'll be convinced!" Buy his book, read it, review it, point out all the flaws, and he'll insist that the reviewer got everything completely wrong, and readers will realize that for themselves... but they have to buy his book!

I could go on, because the guy in question just strikes me as ridiculously insincere. Again, I'm saying this guy doesn't even care about atheism or Christianity. Hell, I'd say he's the Jim Bakker of atheism, but that would imply vastly more success, suaveness, and skill than this guy has. At the end of the day, he's just yet another wannabe PZ Myers. Except one who is decidedly more slimy than normal.

I bring this up only because I'm waiting for the inevitable day he screws over his blogmates and "co-writers" and they start bitching about him in forums. Regardless, in the off-chance I talk about this guy again, I'll use the following designation for him: "Some asshole in a hat."

Nobel Prize for Literature!

“[T]he majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.”
– Harold Pinter, Nobel Lecture (Literature), 2005

While I can see this meshing well with my previous post, all I can think is "So... what, we're eating the tapestries? Is that where you're going with this?"

The Fact Handlers: Side Note!

While I still need to write up an entry about the bizarre gulf between the research and the reporting as mentioned in this entry, in the meantime I decided to have a look at the wikipedia entry for confirmation bias.

I could make comments all day about it, but this part stood out to me right away:

Oddly, the section devoted to confirmation bias in science is rather small:

A distinguishing feature of scientific thinking is the search for falsifying as well as confirming evidence.[96] However, many times in the history of science, scientists have resisted new discoveries by selectively interpreting or ignoring unfavorable data.[96] In the context of scientific research, confirmation biases can sustain theories or research programs in the face of inadequate or even contradictory evidence;[57][97] the field of parapsychology has been particularly affected.[98] An experimenter's confirmation bias can potentially affect which data are reported. Data that conflict with the experimenter's expectations may be more readily discarded as unreliable, producing the so-called file drawer effect. To combat this tendency, scientific training teaches ways to avoid bias.[99] Experimental designs involving randomization and double blind trials, along with the social process of peer review, mitigate the effect of individual scientists' bias.

Some notes.

* Searching for falsifying evidence is a "distinguishing feature" of "scientific thinking"? But confirmation bias is described as "is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses whether or not it is true." A person engaged in confirmation bias would certainly be seeking falsifying evidence. They'd just be seeking it for views other than what they privilege.

* It's noted that there has been a history of confirmation bias by some scientists. Fair enough - as Vox Day as pointed out, scientists are not "golems animated by the spirit of the scientific method". The field of parapsychology has been singled out, and while I'm skeptical of parapsychology, I'm also skeptical of the skeptics of it. Going back to the previous point, wouldn't determined skeptics of parapsychology be open to charges of confirmation bias? And they as a group would marvelously illustrate that someone engaged in confirmation bias could be dedicated to finding "falsifying evidence" - again, so long as what was being falsified was the view they were biased against.

* It's noted that steps are taken to mitigate against confirmation bias on the part of scientists. Of course, is there scientific evidence these steps do the job they're advertised as doing? How could there be? And couldn't peer review in particular end up exaggerating the problem of confirmation bias? Peers can be biased, both individually and in a group sense.

I'm not making or trying to make any great or deep point here, really. But it seems to me that the mere acknowledgment of confirmation bias as a widespread (call it "natural") phenomenon opens up a can of worms that isn't easily closed.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Absence of Mind and Other Notes!

A review of Absence of Mind by the ever-pleasant David Bentley Hart.

It sounds like a nice book, though it's almost depressing that such a book has to be written given the subject matter. Which is, apparently, a defense of such controversial ideas as self-consciousness. Yes, apparently there are places where that's controversial, now.

I don't say that as a surprise - I've read a fair amount about the Churchlands, Dennett, Blackmore, etc. To me it's something closer to black humor, like hearing there are still ardent communists, or people who believe the Y2K bug is still going to lead to catastrophe even now.

Ah well. Some other notes.

* According to the wikipedia, champion of evolutionary thought E.O. Wilson is a deist. Funny how I never heard this brought up in all the debates over evolution, though it only backs up my belief that many so-called atheists are, in fact, either closet deists or deeply sympathetic to a deist view. I've seen too many of them buckle on the point when pressed. I also note, curiously, that no one seems to bat an eye at a calling a deist a naturalist. Yet more reason for me to call myself a naturalist traditionalist Catholic.

* Also a deist? Infernus! ... Okay, he's apparently a serious satanist, but for some reason wiki lists him as a deist. Still, something to note in passing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Homosexuals, Christians, and Approach!

You know, I'm what most people would label as very "socially conservative". But I have to admit, my own views about how to approach so-called "homosexuals" as individuals, and organizations that generally advance a "gay agenda", tends to differ pretty deeply from what I tend to see when people discuss it.

For one thing, I don't like the label "homosexual". It seems like a modern invention in many ways, borne out of identity politics (accent on the politics), and I try to avoid it as a result. Put short, everyone else's "homosexual" is my "human being, with urges of type X". I reject any attempts, by either side, to define a person so thoroughly by one urge or another. As usual, I'm hypersensitive to language, only because I think it matters tremendously. Very Catholic of me, I suppose.

I also think it's important to differentiate a person with such urges from the larger cultural mentality or network of organizations. Organizations and ideas are in large part abstract things that can be fought and resisted, and I consider it important to do so. Individuals are people who, to a man, I think must be saved from those corrupt organizations and ideas. As ever, it's very easy to confuse the two. I'm sure I slip on this sometimes, on all manner of subjects (Especially with figureheads and leaders.) But it's important to keep it in mind, always.

But for the people in question, that strikes me as the important first step. If someone says "I'm queer!" or "I'm a homosexual!" or "I'm gay!", my response is "No, you're not a label. You're a person with certain desires, even certain views. It does not define you wholly. People are more complicated than that." And this is only a first step.

But it's a first step that sidesteps the whole mistaken path about "The Gays", this mistaken - and, from my socially conservative perspective, counterproductive - idea of people with certain desires as a kind of monolithic group, or individual embodiment of a warped idea. And it's a first step towards helping people understand that defining themselves as "Gay, lesbian, or bisexual" is never something wholly thrust upon them, regardless of their urges or the reasons for them. They really can reject those labels, because they do have and make choices.


I now and then wonder if Lysenkoism is a kind of elephant in the room for all parties engaged in the usual creationism (specifically YEC/OEC) versus evolution (specifically an utterly metaphysical, materialist, unguided darwinism) discussion. After all, it opens a whole can of worms for every side.

Creationists would be tempted to focus on Lysenkoism, because it beautifully illustrates not just the possibility, but the recent reality of "secular" forces pushing a viewpoint in the realm of evolution and biology for metaphysical, social, and political reasons. But the risk is too great: At the end of the day, Lysenkoism was specifically about skepticism of a particular kind of Darwinian evolution. Admittedly, with utterly different motivations compared to OECs/YECs, but it's too close for comfort. And so the history is quietly ignored.

Evolutionists, however, can't focus on Lysenkoism for the nearly opposite reason. The Lysenkoists were, among other things, part of an atheistic, "secular" movement - and received the endorsement of some mainstream evolutionary biologists (including Haldane, I think) who were committed to materialism. While showing how skepticism in science can go wrong, the skeptics in question are too dangerous to mention. Especially since it would highlight the nasty problems that pop up when science is politicized - modern evolutionists and scientists in general tend to want science to be interwoven with political and social policy to greater degrees. Again, the history is quietly ignored.

How about theistic evolutionists? Conceivably they'd be perfectly positioned to really speak to Lysenkoism. But insofar as theistic evolution - I say this as a TE of sorts - is treated not as an idea in its own right, but a kind of compromise position to ingratiate certain religious to academics and pseudo-"intellectuals", bringing up Lysenko would just provoke fury from the very people who many TEs want to befriend. Catholic TEs and TEistic thomists are less interested in this, but they usually have entirely different, usually deeply philosophical rather than more openly political/social interests, so they ignore this history as well.

And so we're left with this unfortunate situation, where a major modern secular government and socio-political movement co-opted science for said movement's ends, yet few of the people who could learn from it the most actually will. Down the memory hole it goes, in large part.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gay Priest Scandal!

There are active gay priests in the Catholic Church?

What a shock!

And by shock I mean, it's been well known and complained about for decades. Particularly by traditionalists, to my recollection. In fact, one of the first reactions to the sex abuse scandals has been - to the consternation of media and gay activists alike - to point out how A) Far and away most of the cases involved priests preying on boys, B) The boys in question were post-pubescents and C) therefore, it's worth wondering whether if the sex abuse problem has been, to some degree, related to the presence of active gay priests, a gay subculture in the church, etc.

Which inevitably invites the critical reply that it's hateful and shameful to suggest that men molesting 13-16 year old boys may have anything to do with homosexual or bisexual urges. It's like saying that 25 year old guys who want to have sex with 16 year old girls have urges that are utterly detached from their gender preferences. It's downright delusional.

To the Vatican's partial credit, their response was an immediate call to all priests "leading a double life" to leave the church. Of course, a gay activist in the first article claims that this would lead to serious operational problems. Which, I'm sure many faithful would respond to with, "So fucking what?" That's like being told that if you got rid of every foreign spy in the state department, it would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Mind you, I think there is a huge gulf of difference between, say... a priest who may have one urge or another, but does not act on it, and the sort of priests Panorama is highlighting.

On the flipside, it also emphasizes the need to encourage vocations among more men in the church. Not just priestly vocations, mind you, but across the board. Hopefully that's another area the church will move forward on, and I was gratified by B16's call for more internet evangelization in particular, along with evangelizing Europe. At least he seems aware of some areas the Church needs to focus on.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Behold the Power of Free Thought!

From the Jerry Coyne's blog, with some emphasis added:

I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness. As a materialist, I couldn’t see any way that our thoughts and behavior, which come from our neurons and muscles, which themselves result from the interaction between our genes and our environment, could truly be influenced by our “will.” Yes, there may be quantum uncertainties, but I don’t see how those can be influenced by our minds, or play any role in the notion that our decisions are freely taken. But if you don’t believe in free will, you might be tempted to stop thinking so hard about what you do, and start questioning the idea of moral responsibility. The end result is nihilism.

Although Pink gives a useful summary of the history of philosophical arguments about free will, he completely neglects science, eventually claiming that free will is a reality largely because we feel that we have it. Pink’s neglect of physics, chemistry, and biology—that is, the whole area of naturalism and determinism—is inexcusable.

And if you accept this definition, there’s no way to respond to the question of “Do we have free will?” except with a vigorous “No!” If you answer, “yes,” then you’re tacitly accepting a mind/body duality and a species of vitalism that has no part in science or naturalism. As I see it, you can no more be consistently scientific and believe in free will than you can be consistently scientific and believe in a theistic God.

What I find funny?

1) Coyne realizes that his metaphysical and philosophical commitments leave him in the position where all of his thoughts are predetermined. Predetermined, by the way, not by reason or any process that is deeply linked to reason, but by good ol' mechanistic operations that have zero innate correspondence with reason.

2) Coyne realizes that accepting this leads to moral nihilism, and undercuts reason itself. Coyne also realizes that the only way out of this is to alter his metaphysics - but the alteration would kick the door wide open to things he dislikes, and which he doesn't want as part of his worldview.

3) His solution? "Don't think about that stuff."

Behold! The power of atheistic, materialistic, scientific reason! Of free thought! Coyne has discovered the solution, the key to puzzles of thought and mind!

That solution? Cognitive dissonance!

The power of atheistic reason. Be still my freaking heart.

Edit: I should say "atheistic" reason. Coyne is on record as saying that deism is entirely compatible with science. Hence his curious qualification about a "theistic God". Sadly for Coyne, this amounts to the utter surrender of the principle claims of the now largely defunct New Atheist movement - grant that God, even a mere deistic God is compatible with science, and you've laid the foundation that just about every religious faith can build on. But, all this is talk for another time.

Thomas Jefferson!

I'm forced to agree with ol' Thomas Jefferson in this quote:

I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to atheism by their general dogma, that without a revelation there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a God...on the contrary (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the is impossible I say for the human mind not to believe...

I'll write more on this in the future, but for the moment that quote just stood out to me.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sparring with Nick Matzke and the NCSE!

I decided to wade into a discussion over at Tom Gilson's Thinking Christian blog. Nick Matzke shows up to angrily denounce "conservative" Christianity for not coming down decisively and universally on evolution and the age of the earth. I argue that Nick Matzke, the National Center for Science Education, and other "science defenders" routinely act as if young earth creationists and evolution deniers are the only ones 'abusing science' and being 'anti-intellectual', while they patently ignore outrageous abuses by many naturalists and "New Atheists".

So if you're interested in that sort of discussion, give it a read.

Monday, July 19, 2010

John Wright on Racism!

John C. Wright on Racism, Tea Parties, and the NAACP.

As usual, he says what I'd like to, more thoroughly and better. He should, like, be a writer or something.

I also predict that within 5-10 years, the NAACP will change its name due to growing sentiment that an organization dedicated to "The Advancement of Colored People" would, in fact, be racist. I base that prediction on little more than a hunch and the fact that I like to make predictions.

While I'm at it, the Giants will win the next Superbowl.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Facts and Fact-Handlers!

A study claims to show that contrary facts can actually reinforce the views of a person who disagrees with them!

Okay, there's the obvious angle of this story: Oh no! People aren't making rational decisions! They aren't basing their opinions on pure facts! Hell, they're reinterpreting facts that are fed to them!

First, the summary:

In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Alright, interesting claim. But ... something seems off about the article. Initially I liked the whole premise, and found it to be almost common sense: People warp facts to fit their preconceived notions. Oddly enough, when you think about it, who isn't going to like this conclusion? Liberals and conservatives and creationists and "evolutionists" and materialists and dualists will all in unison say, "Ha! See? I knew (those guys I disagree with) were doing that. I think they exaggerate about my side though." But when I went back to reread it, things started to seem less and less compelling.

Here's some reasons why.

* First, let's get the obvious out of the way: That innate and unintentional humor pops up. The reporter and research leader alleges that people in general tend to react poorly to "facts", misinterpreting and reinterpreting them so the data better fits with their beliefs. So why should we assume the people carrying out, as well as reporting, this study are immune? If you answered "Because they're scientists / professional journalists", I have some phlogistons to sell you.

* As a side-note, Brendan Nyhan advertises himself as a "Political Scientist". Because he got his PhD in political science, of course. This reminds me of the last post about "naturalism", where the word has social value such that you've got people applying it to themselves in very loose ways. Sociologists, psychologists, and other "soft sciences" already are in a somewhat controversial situation when it comes to the fields as truly and thoroughly scientific or not. Economists, even more delicate shape. But polisci majors? That's really pushing it. I say this, I am ashamed to say, as a political science major.

* Worse, the article uses some wording that just seems... strange.

Take this quote:

In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs.

Woah, hold on a moment. Which beliefs are we talking about here? Beliefs particularly about the "facts" in question, or beliefs which are merely relevant to the facts? If I'm against gun control and I mistakenly believe that areas with gun control have X% more/less gun-crime, that doesn't necessarily mean the new data should result in a change in my beliefs. I may be against gun control for reasons that have nothing to do with gun crime.

Also, "corrected facts in news stories"? Now we have another problem, even putting aside the already-mentioned difficulty of regarding something as a "fact" (to say nothing of who is and isn't "misinformed") in research that strongly implies people have trouble grasping "facts". This is apparently what's going on: researchers bring in a person who has preconceived notions about claim X. Then they give the person a news clip implying something relevant to claim X, and at the end add a "factual" correction that disputes said relevant portion. Then they see if the person's views about claim X have changed at all.

Let's try to put this in perspective: Over half of Americans say they distrust the press, and far more Republicans do than Democrats if that report is accurate. So Nyhan conducts research where subjects are given an article from the press (Alternately attributed to either the New York Times or Fox News) with misleading content, and then at the bottom a "factual" correction is offered. Subjects who, apparently, had previously had opinions about and heard facts related to the topic at hand. And the shocking, disappointing result is that the subjects didn't accept the "facts"?

I suppose reporting this research as "Studies show people are less likely to accept data from sources they think aren't trustworthy" wouldn't have been as thrilling.

The more I reread the article, the thicker the scent of bullshit starts to become. So, there's only one thing to do: Roll up my sleeves, read the pdf, and report back.

So, stay tuned for the next post.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Naturalism and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy!

Right from the start of the article. I add some emphasis.

The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy. Its current usage derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed ‘naturalists’ from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the ‘human spirit’ (Krikorian 1944, Kim 2003).

So understood, ‘naturalism’ is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject ‘supernatural’ entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the ‘human spirit’.

Even so, this entry will not aim to pin down any more informative definition of ‘naturalism’. It would be fruitless to try to adjudicate some official way of understanding the term. Different contemporary philosophers interpret ‘naturalism’ differently. This disagreement about usage is no accident. For better or worse, ‘naturalism’ is widely viewed as a positive term in philosophical circles—few active philosophers nowadays are happy to announce themselves as ‘non-naturalists’.[1] This inevitably leads to a divergence in understanding the requirements of ‘naturalism’. Those philosophers with relatively weak naturalist commitments are inclined to understand ‘naturalism’ in a unrestrictive way, in order not to disqualify themselves as ‘naturalists’, while those who uphold stronger naturalist doctrines are happy to set the bar for ‘naturalism’ higher.[2]

Let's take stock.

* "Naturalism", according to the SEP, doesn't even have a set definition. It apparently adds up to "rejecting the supernatural" and "liking science". Of course, what's supernatural if "natural" isn't really defined? One would think the "liking science" part would be easier, but then there's that damn Demarcation Problem. One would be tempted to say "Well, naturalism is physicalism!", but then you go to the SEP entry for physicalism and see nearly equivalent problems with defining "physical".

* But many philosophers (And, I suppose, scientists and wannabe philosophers/scientists) want to be called naturalists anyway. The SEP implies that this results in some self-declared naturalists believing in things that other ("Stronger"?) naturalists would call supernatural. But that's alright, because the SEP says it would be fruitless to try and find an "official way" of understanding naturalism.

* The innate humor of self-described naturalists insisting that science can explain all of creation, while they have tremendous difficulty *defining what naturalism even is*, is tremendous.

* It goes without saying that if a solid definition of naturalism is hard to come by, a solid definition of supernaturalism is just as or even more hard to come by. Again, there's some innate humor here.

* It's hard to ignore the whiff of social and political positioning indicated by this stated desire to be called a "naturalist", even while the term itself has a fairly elastic (vacuous? arbitrary?) meaning. That the SEP should admit that there is a strong urge to call something "naturalistic" because the general feel or attitude towards the term is positive, should raise up serious warning flags.

I get the impression that "naturalist" philosophers would make for interesting objects of study for sociologists and anthropologists. Even psychologists.

My response to all of this is to just say, to hell with it - I'm a naturalist. So's Thomas Aquinas. Orthodox and traditional catholicism are just a form of naturalism. Dualists are naturalists. Panpsychists are naturalists. Voodoo practitioners and cargo cultists have a flawed naturalistic belief, little different from believing in a phlogiston.

And the funny thing is, as near as I can tell, few philosophers are able to say I'm wrong about this. The best they can do is take a vote, or report to me what their feelings are. But they can't refer to any definition of naturalism I'm in violation of, because all indications are that the term is shockingly empty. It's little more than a flag to rally around, a symbol. And it's easy to co-opt a symbol.

So in the immortal words of Emperor Zombie: Mine now.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dan Dennett 2: Atheists Who Believe in God!

Some recent comment-talk under Defining Science! has reminded me that I still have more to talk about re: Dan Dennett - a celebrated philosopher, a self-declared "Bright", once upon a time one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Despite all this, I maintain he's kind of a rube.

I focused on the whole "Bright" fiasco last time. This time, I want to focus on how, in a debate between himself and Dinesh D'Souza, Dan Dennett replied to the charge that atheists and atheist governments in the 20th century racked up body counts that made past theistic disgraces look rosy in comparison.

If you aren't familiar with Dennett's move here, you may be expecting the usual dodges: Say that it's illicit to compare the body counts. Say that the atheism wasn't what motivated the regimes and movements but something else. But Dan went a different route, one that picks up the No True Scotsman fallacy and does something amazing with it.

"Stalin believed in a God whose will determined what right and wrong was," he said. "[That] God's name was Stalin."

That's Dennett. And yes, Dennett's masterstroke was to deny Stalin was an atheist. Stalin was, according to Dennett, a theist.

Absorb that for a moment. This is, again, a celebrated philosopher at Tufts - this isn't UpYoursJesus1976 in a Bad Company 2 match. We're talking about one of the original Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse. And he uses a move that, frankly, would have sounded - word for word, meaning for meaning - more appropriate coming out of William Lane Craig's mouth.

That's the contrast I'm marveling at here. Just as Dennett didn't see how the whole "We are BRIGHT!" thing could whirl around and kick him in the ass, apparently he didn't see how opening up a committed atheist to the charge of theism on any grounds, much less on moral grounds, could be a major rhetorical blunder.

You'll notice that, despite this move coming from a man Dawkins himself has praised repeatedly, you don't see this argument used often in debate. And "why" is obvious: It's Goddamn stupid. It opens up the original Four Horsemen, the entire atheist movement, and Dennett himself to the charge of being theistic, as well as - in spite of all their raging - religious. Now, they're open to that charge anyway, but making this argument is like saying "C'mon! Tear me to shreds and post this debate on every Christian blog around! The Pope paid me good money to come up here and sabotage this movement!"

This debate also led to another development that just highlights the curious blunders of what, if academic credentials were the measure, should be one of the most imposing debating and reasoning intellects around. I'll get to that another time.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


No, not that kind of stealing. But this is stolen from The TOF Spot - as in, he loved the quote, and I love it too, so I'll just flat out copy and paste it.

From a common argument: “Evolution shows that human life does not have a privileged value”.

Say it’s true that the process of evolution gives no value to human life. It would be odd to think it was supposed to. The process of baking doesn’t set the value or price of chocolate cake either.
-- James Chastek

Friday, July 9, 2010

Why Frank Jilted Mary!

Ed Feser talks about Mary's Room and why Frank Jackson abandoned it.

As I say in my comment there, I've found it odd that it was always "Frank Jackson's Mary's Room", but few people bother to mention Jackson later backed away from the argument, and Ed is the first one to explain why Jackson did so. I always was confused by that, because you'd think that someone taking the opposing view of a thought experiment they themselves came up with would be big news.

It turns out that Jackson's reversal is less than impressive. By Ed and Robinson's explanation, the reason seems to be "Because physicalism is important and popular!" More Arlen Specter than Socrates.

Anyway, Ed does a brilliant explanation of why the mind (including qualia) wrecks physicalism, and does so irrevocably. He also repeats Chomsky's observation that "the physical" lost its once-upon ironclad positive content a while ago. Agreed again and again.

My only differing suspicion here is that Ed seems certain that, while neutral-monism and panpsychism and even idealism are now seemingly areas that the exploded "physicalism" concept can now absorb, no one will ever start calling Aristotilean divisions "physicalist". Me, I'm not so sure. Really, the fact that - by Ed's own estimation - no less than the eliminative materialists try to "smuggle in" formal and final causal talk, should be sending up warning flags.

My impression is that just many so-called "materialists"/"physicalists" care less about whether something really 'is' materialist or physicalist than whether that particular label is slapped on something.. Rather like the "secular" schtick, where it doesn't matter whether advocating this or that particular value absolutely requires "formal" and "final" cause talk (Or what it's normally regarded as: religious concepts and vocabulary) to justify the secular values. All that matters is being able to call it "secular", rightly or wrongly.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

We're Being Picketed By Agnostics!

Hey, look. More evidence that the New Atheism is fizzling out like the wet broccoli fart in the intellectual community pool that it always has been.

I'll give you a moment to recover from the sheer awe of my literary skills.

Anyway, it's an interesting article. Oh, it makes the usual mistakes - unreflectively decries centuries of wrongs done by religion, mangles Aquinas with the 'Well if God created the world, who created God?' schtick, and he doesn't seem to understand just how much of the world his agnosticism slices out if his standard is a "logical justification of certainty".

But you know what? This is actually refreshing. Vox Day once said words to the effect that you could have a beer with an agnostic, while an atheist was bound to be an insufferable asshole. Well, here's more evidence for Vox's claim. Faults aside, skepticism aside, Rosenbaum is actually likable. He even refers approvingly to David Berlinski, another refreshing agnostic who was willing to throw in with the Discovery Institute for reasons I truly think added up to "Well, they balance out the other extreme".

The important difference, for me, between a true agnostic (and not a strong atheist who is camouflaging himself for debate tactics reasons) and an atheist is that you can not only have a beer with an agnostic, but a conversation. An actual conversation! You can lay out the evidences for God, you can lay out the arguments for design, and they may listen because they really are just undecided, and think that deciding with utter certainty is impossible. You can even be an agnostic theist (And really, isn't Pascal's Wager precisely addressing that possibility?)

Of course, at the end of the day I'm a theist. Admittedly a much broader theist than most (a post for another time), but I wanted to point out how refreshing it is to see this sort of agnostic pop up. It's actually close to what 'true' skepticism would look like. Naturally, the New Atheists catching wind of the article will be outraged.

But hey, that can be amusing too!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What's this "Nature" I've heard so much about?

Whenever I hear about how "nature" can do one thing or another, I start to get suspicious. When I hear that "science" shows "nature" can do one thing or another, blind and unguided, without purpose or foresight, I know I'm dealing with a bullshitter.

I get suspicious about the first claim because it inevitably involves smuggling in assumptions about what "nature" is, which is something that's been under debate for centuries, even millenia, and shows no signs of coming to a decisive end. Is "nature" Brahman, some pan(en?)theistic eternal and infinite intellect which ultimately comprises all of us, though at the moment we don't realize it? Is "nature" something from Berkeley's idealism, that direct communication of ideas to "us" from God? Is "nature" that aristotilean-thomist thing (of which I have the strongest sympathies for), that mix of causes directed towards a final cause?

To put aside answers to these questions is to put aside the question itself. We're no longer talking about what "nature" can do - we're talking about what particular models, drastically limited in their scope and representation, can be applied to experience or built up. Useful stuff, this. But it's connection to nature is more tenuous.

And all this makes the "science shows blind, unguided nature can do this" talk complete and utter bunk. And I mean bunk even in the smallest case, the 'pebble tumbling down a hill' case. Science can no more show a pebble tumbles down a hill due to ultimately blind, unguided causes than it can show the Empire State Building came about the same way. At best, science can provide predictive models based on abstractions that have tremendous utility, that are extremely reliable, but that say zero about the inner or ultimate causes or essences of anything. Did a pebble tumble because God had preordained this would occur from eternity? Did God intervene at some or any recent point to make that pebble tumble? Do pebbles tumble because of their essential natures? Are pebbles consciously following rules?

Ask questions like this and science can't say a thing. Philosophy, metaphysics, theology and the rest suddenly are required to get at these questions, and it does science no good for someone to complain that philosophy, metaphysics, and theology never solve anything decisively. It won't change science's limits, severe as they are.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Definitions As Opposed To...!

Lately, whenever I decide to look up the definition of a particularly popular word, I almost feel like I'm looking backstage at a magic show and finding out that what looked impressive and shocking actually relies on a pretty simple gimmick.

In this case, I decided to look up the wikipedia entry for superstition. I mean, I use this word a lot myself. I hear all kinds of people bitching about the problems of superstition. Superstition holds back science, are religions are superstition, atheists are more superstitious than theists, etc. So what's it mean?

If the wiki's right, superstition essentially boils down to this: "Believing something that is not true and for which there's no good reason to believe." Naturally, they try to associate it with 'religion' as much as possible, but then you're back to trying to figure out what religion is, ie, square one.

By those lights, everyone thinks everyone else is superstitious, most likely. Creationists, ID proponents and Darwin skeptics think "darwinists" are superstitious. Theists think atheists are superstitious. A fair chunk of 'science', defunct and current alike, can be argued as superstitious. And just about every philosophical claim in town can be argued as the same.

Superstition melts away from this certain and actual "thing", this historical problem, after reading what the word means. Instead it becomes a kind of rhetorical, context-sensitive belief that is tremendously sensitive to subjective beliefs and background assumptions. At least, so it seems when I read up on it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Defining Science!

One of the points Ed Feser made and made well in The Last Superstition was that there's a kind of shell game going on with the word "science". The short version is that when many people say "science shows...", what they really mean is something closer to "science + these metaphysical/philosophical commitments (which I, the speaker, may not even be aware of holding to) says..." Notice that the difference there isn't just between "science" and "science + these metaphysical/philosophical commitments", but between "shows" and "says".

Now, Ed argues that science takes certain metaphysical/philosophical claims for granted, simply to get off the ground. I agree. But I also wonder if this goes far enough.

The demarcation problem does not get talked about enough. But my own view, put shortly, is this: Once we sit down and strip away from "science talk" all the smuggled in metaphysics, the unwarranted assumptions, the appeals to authority and consensus opinion, we are left with a core set of knowledge and methods with these two defining traits:

1) Of tremendous practical use, particularly with regards to technological and strictly empirical problems.
2) Of basically zero use in determining the answers to, or even making much headway with, most of the "important" questions of philosophy, theology and metaphysics.

And this is to say that science is "compatible with" a shocking range of positions and views. From idealism to dualism, from panpsychism to hylozoism, from polytheism to deism. Science, as science, is even compatible with scientific anti-realism.

I'm being brief here, glossing over things. But why do I bring this up? Well, because scientism is commonly thought of as being a fanatical devotion to science, or attempting to apply science to problems or questions where it is supposedly inappropriate to do so. I not only reject that definition, I consider it downright deceptive.

My own view comes closer to this: Scientism is the habit of passing off various non-scientific, philosophical or metaphysical claims and conclusions as science. It is the express abuse and confusing of science.

People engaging in scientism don't hold science as science in exceptional esteem. They hold the imagined authority (intellectual or social) in high esteem. In reality, they are deeply dissatisfied with science as science, precisely because it does not or cannot do what they desperately wish that it could.

Fat Humans, Future Threats, and Pixar!

I wonder how long this video will last - these things get periodically removed. But, while I never saw Wall-E, I remember catching a glimpse of this scene, somewhere. It came to mind, so I went to have a look for it on youtube. Sure enough...

So sayeth the uploader: I'm uploading this video to make a point about the dangers for human kind, if we become addicted and cover all our needs, through the internet. This started from a discussion, about e-learning in my university class, and how education would lose it's very important role to socialize people, but it's also a lesson for human kind.

I'm not sure which to find more distasteful: The fictional future where some omnipresent corporation/government tends to humanity's every need (and, not coincidentally, effectively decides what those every needs are on behalf of humanity - how nice of them), or the apparently real present where "educators" so desperately wish to inform us what lessons all of humanity must learn. Such as how the role of education is to socialize people. You know, just one more of those lessons the blessed have to teach all of humanity.

I wonder if it crossed their mind that what they see in Wall-E may not be the failure for people to allow themselves to be socialized and educated by their betters, but - even possibly - the ultimate culmination of such well-meaning interventions. Look at the society in that clip. So high tech! So egalitarian! Everyone is wired! Their every need taken care of! Government at its best and most efficient! And, dare I say it... Properly Socialized!

Anyway, I doubt Wall-E intended such commentary in either direction. All in good fun.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Praying for Hitchens!

Two things about the idea of Praying for Christopher Hitchens.

First... What Christian could ever seriously consider refusing the opportunity to do so?

Now, I don't like him. Then again, I don't have to to pray for him. I won't go listing his flaws here (except for one, in a moment), but I've for a long time not had a problem praying for any atheist. I pray for their health, their well-being, and their conversion (this tied up with well-being, and quite possibly health as well). How could any christian find this controversial?

I suppose the thought may go, 'If I pray for his health and well-being, aren't I praying for him to stay healthy and happy, which would enable him to continue mounting his anti-theist campaign?' Well, no. When we're told to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, it certainly doesn't mean anything like that. But we are told to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and it makes tremendous sense, so... No hesitation.

Hard not to hesitate at times, I know. But I really think that's a personal failing, always. And it certainly afflicts me at times.

Second, though... Good God, First Things is really displaying that modern Christian inability to tell the difference between kindness and unwarranted ass-kissing/self-flagellation.

The Anchoress weighs in with a "great quote" about Hitchens: Reviewing the book in The Times, Dwight Garner wrote of Mr. Hitchens, “He has a mind like a Swiss Army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponent’s arguments with a flick of the wrist.”

Really? That's funny, because I could have sworn "god is not Great" was intellectually vapid, desperate, ranting, and angry. Admittedly, there were some witticisms in there, and... oh wait. Now I remember.

Most people are seemingly incapable of telling the difference between a flair for rhetoric and presentation, and powerful arguments and reason. Which is why Obama is hailed as a brilliant president despite his presidency basically being a long string of cock-ups, and his habit of melting down whenever he gives a speech without a working teleprompter. Which is why Dawkins is praised as a brilliant scientist, despite the fact that he hasn't done any peer-reviewed research in what... over three decades?, and - to be dead frank - his lack of showing much interest in science as opposed to anti-theism for a long time.

Hitchens is demonstrably not a "swiss army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponents' arguments with a flick of a wrist." He's a drunken, angry PJ O'Rourke (alright, I suppose drunken may be redundant there). He has a great way with words and little else, or at least little else that can be called a compliment. But apparently, little else is exactly what's needed to get most people to talk about what a brilliant mind you have.

Should I laugh at these people or cry for them?

Screw it. I'll just pray for them.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

American Atheism!

A diversion from science, for a moment.

I recently saw an exchange where an atheist made a claim: The Pledge of Allegiance is un-American.

Familiar claim, with familiar lines. It was changed in the 1950s, and because of anti-communist hysteria. It's offensive to atheists. It's an insult to America, which values the separation of Church and state. It's divisive.

And so on.

Now, nonsense innate to those claims aside, this is where many theists - I'm speaking broadly here, because this question is not one of Christianity, but of mere theism and deism in the broad sense - seem ready to capitulate. Yes, though they may believe atheism to be incorrect, atheists are by and large good and moral people. A belief in God is not essential to our secular country. We are founded on secular ideals, ones all men can agree to, and God or belief in God is simply not an issue.

Popular move, as I said. Years ago, I may have been tempted to make it myself. It sounds great, after all - no denying that, that appeal to equality in a very modern way. It sounds charitable and noble too, holding up certain ideals even to those one bitterly agrees with. It sounds nice, to say that a commitment to American ideals compels the devoutly religious to see atheists, at least on some level, as comrades who are committed to some core ideas. Common ground and all.

Here's the problem: It's a lie. America was founded by Christians and deists of a particularly Christian cultural, moral, and philosophical grounding. There is no way to remove God from the equation without divorcing oneself from the ideals the country both was founded on and relies on to make sense of its identity.

Stanley Fish's piece again becomes relevant in making this point, but I'll boil it down. America was founded on the idea of God-given rights, of mankind universally being endowed with a nature which not even kings (or, dare I say it, elected officials) were permitted, ultimately permitted, to violate. Remove God, assert a philosophical worldview such that there are no such things as innate and inviolable rights (and if God is denied, it becomes nigh impossible to avoid this), and you have abandoned the fundamental American commitments in every meaningful way. Remove God, and you make most of the acts and claims and visions of the founding fathers meaningless in the process.

Now, it can be objected that there are other ways to run a country (no doubt - The founders knew this firsthand), or that we should change those commitments. But that's to concede the point I'm making. A mormon, hindu, catholic, protestant, jew, muslim, deist and theists of wide variety are in principle able to meet these original and long-lasting commitments. The atheist, the person who denies God and with Him God-given rights, cannot. It is not enough to merely be in favor of those rights personally while thinking that ultimately they're just laws and rules society agrees upon (and then, only for now.)

I'm sure that (the fact that I'm a nobody aside) this will make someone furious. I'm past the point of caring, because this is a fact of history that nobody can change - though we can certainly ignore it or play make-believe. I just refuse to play that game anymore. The Founding Fathers had a view of rights, man, nature and nation which amounted to broad net. Again, in principle, very many men can be caught up in that net. But it doesn't catch everyone. It was never intended to.

Edit: I'll also point out it isn't as if every theist instantly qualifies either. A deist or theist can conceivably deny that man has certain inalienable rights, or has certain rights afforded to him by nature, and so on. And if so, well, they're in a similar boat. People seem to think being true to core American values (if they even accept such things exist) is absurdly easy. It's like getting into CostCo is more intellectually demanding.