Saturday, October 31, 2009

Accomodationists care more about Darwin than the rights of the oppressed

Okay, the title of this post is needlessly inflammatory, but given how nasty the whole accomodationism debate has gotten, I figure I need to be inflammatory to get anybody's attention, right?

The latest volley from the accomodationist side has been Chris Mooney's contention that Dawkins' atheism advocacy is diluting his pro-evolution message -- specifically, that The God Delusion effectively undermined the mission of The Greatest Show on Earth.

There have been various responses to that argument, mostly focusing on Mooney's very premise, which I agree is weak on evidence. However, I want to pose a completely different response to Mooney's argument:

Yeah, so?

Let's assume for a second that Mooney is completely right: The success and visibility of The God Delusion has had a net negative contribution to the mission of The Greatest Show in Earth to bring people over to the pro-evolution side. However, getting people to come around on evolution is not the only goal in the whole wide world... is it?

Jason Rosenhouse points out:

To this point I have been focused specifically on the evolution issue. Obviously, though, I think religion lies at the heart of a great many other societal ills. It is the primary factor in issues like bigotry towards homosexuals, repressive attitudes toward women, assaults on public education, and a political system in which people must profess the strength of their religious faith to have any hope of a future. Those are just a few examples.

Indeed, and in fact I have to criticize Jason just a little bit for failing to follow up on this point as much as he might. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that bigotry and repression of women and homosexuals are more important issues than evolution education. Not that the latter isn't critically important, and I believe there is synergy between these various goals -- but if I were offered a choice between ending Creationism and ending bigotry, I wouldn't even have to think about that one.

So, as I said, let's say Mooney is right. So what? Is he saying that The God Delusion was completely worthless in all respects, then? That it has not had any positive effect on the public conversation about the false respect accorded to religion and religious prejudice? Well, maybe Mooney is saying that, but I think that's ridiculous.

Rosenhouse says something very similar, that the long-term goal is moving towards a more godless society, but he puts it firmly within the context of the Creationism problem, i.e. he argues that as the American and UK mainstream stop giving so much undue deference to religious belief, ideas like "Teach the controversy" will fade into crackpot obscurity, where they belong.

I think Rosenhouse is exactly right, that there is synergy here. But I'm going to go one step further and say that the goal of tearing down religion's wall of protection is the more important aim even if it had no effect, or even a negative effect, on the fight against creationism. As atheists and other nontheists are further emboldened to speak out, it helps in so many other struggles as well: In countering those who would use religiously-motivated scare-mongering to fight against marriage equality, in deflating the silly faux-liberal belief that equates criticism of misogyny with ethnocentric intolerance, and in combating dangerous nigh-genocidal prohibitions issued by a certain "rat" of a pontiff. All of these things are important -- at least as important as whether evolution gets taught properly in schools, don't you think?

When making grand pronouncements on the wisdom of writing The God Delusion, one cannot take into account only the costs and benefits in regards to evolution education and future books on evolution -- one must look at all the costs and benefits. And I say, even if The God Delusion did have some small deleterious effect on evolution education (an unproven allegation to begin with), it still would be a net positive, because it helped to bring atheism and frank religious criticism into the mainstream. It seems to me that to argue otherwise is rather short-sighted and narrow-minded.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Five years of school and ten years of industry experience: Just jiggle the connector

A couple of weeks ago, my oven stopped working. It's one of those gas range/electric oven dealies, with a smaller second oven where the broiler drawer usually is (the main oven is used for broiling). The control panel stopped working, but the gas burners would still light (not just spew gas, they would light without a match, which takes electricity) and the lower oven -- which is controlled by a dial rather than the digital control panel -- worked fine.

A little bit of googling told me it was most likely what I already suspected: The electronics in the control panel were shot. It is supposedly not too difficult of a DIY job to replace it, but based on comparable parts I found online, it looked like the part itself would cost about $150.

I opened up the stove and googled for what I thought was the part number, but to no avail. So we called GE. They wanted to send somebody out, but of course it's $80 just to even have them look at it. We got an 800 number from GE where we could most likely order the part, but it was already past 5:00 so we had to wait until the next day. In abject discouragement, I put the panel back together, screwed it back in, plugged in the stove, and turned the breaker back on.

But wait, rewind -- I am a computer engineer by education, and while I am more of a software engineer by trade, I still do a lot of low-level work, sometimes on custom hardware. When I had the thing open, you better believe there's one thing I was certainly going to do: Check for loose or bent wires, look for obvious defects on the circuit board, and, most importantly, jiggle all of the connectors. I can't tell you how many $10,000 systems I have seen rendered unusable because of nothing but a loose cable.

Lo and behold, when I turned everything back on, it works fine. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Mormon guide to lighter skin

I just became aware of a talk given in 1960 by Spencer W. Kimball, future prophet of the LD$ church, in which he actually claims to have seen native Americans turning whiter ("becoming white and delightsome") as a result of activity within the Mormon church:

I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today.... The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.

At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl--sixteen--sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents--on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather....These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.

Holy fucking shit, I mean, I knew these guys were despicable and retarded, but wow. Putting it in the cultural context of 1960 partially explains the racism, but the idea that taking children away from their parents and indoctrinating them with Mormon teachings could change their skin color... the mind boggles.

Via Jesus' General. And there's more where that came from. Sick...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Raw hatred, tax-exempt style

The Maine anti-gay marriage campaign Yes On 1 released their most recent finance report, covering donations since October 1st. Does the $1.4 million they managed to raise reflect massive grassroots opposition to gay marriage? No, no it does not. It reflects the political and economic clout of two well-funded tax-exempt brainwashing hate groups: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Catholic church.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland contributed $167,750, with various other churches contributing another $10,000 or so. This doesn't seem like a large amount until one considers that it is more than all of the legitimate private donors combined.

Wait, that math doesn't work out! How is $167k more than half of $1.4 million?

Well, that's because the National Organization of Marriage, which some (including myself) believe to be a Mormon front organization, contributed a whopping $1.1 million dollars, in three separate donations.

Worse yet, these Liars for Jesus have absolutely no reservations about telling flat-out lies in order to further their bigoted agenda. The falsehoods in the famous Gathering Storm commercial are well-documented. In the Yes On 1 campaign, they are claiming that priests who do not believe in gay marriage will not be allowed to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple, and could face a lawsuit or fines -- even though the bill explicitly states that such is not the case1. I mean, you know you've gone negative when there is an investigation by the Attorney General into whether you are telling dirty lies, and she comes back and confirms that you are.

But wait, the opposition (the Good Guys) have raised even more money. Surely, the majority of that money must have come from some sort of powerful special interest group on par with NOM?

Nope. Largest donor to No on 1: The Human Rights Campaign (a pro-LGBT lobbying group) with a total contribution of $155,000. Most of the money is coming from individual donors.

That the Catholic and Mormon churches extort tithe extort2 and then use this money -- concealing the fact to boot, in the case of LD$, Inc. -- to promote hatred, tax-free... the mind reels.

1From the bill:
Sec. 5. 19-A MRSA §655, sub-§3 is enacted to read:

3. Affirmation of religious freedom. This Part does not authorize any court or other state or local governmental body, entity, agency or commission to compel, prevent or interfere in any way with any religious institution's religious doctrine, policy, teaching or solemnization of marriage within that particular religious faith's tradition as guaranteed by the Maine Constitution, Article 1, Section 3 or the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. A person authorized to join persons in marriage and who fails or refuses to join persons in marriage is not subject to any fine or other penalty for such failure or refusal.

That's right, bigots, nobody is going to force you to stop treating other people like dirt. You still have your God-given First Amendment right as a righteous white Christian to shit all over the Fourteenth Amendment rights of everyone else. You just don't get to force other people to shit on those rights too.

But when has the truth ever gotten in the way of some good righteous religious hate speech?

2Yes, "extort" really is the right word. You cannot enter a Mormon temple unless you have a temple recommend, which requires that you are fully up-to-date on your tithing. Mormons aspire to get married in the temple. You might think they'd give an exemption to the temple recommend requirement for family attending a wedding, but then, you'd think that because, unlike the church elders, you have human feelings. So, if your son or daughter is getting married in the temple, if you want to actually be at their wedding, you must have paid the church ten percent of your gross income (Not net! They are very explicit about this...) for at least the past year, or else.

Yep. That's extortion.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cool new blog

ScienceBlogs just added a couple of new blogs, and one of them -- Tomorrow's Table -- is about organic and sustainable farming from a scientist's perspective.

What a breath of fresh air! Time and again I have been frustrated by the unholy connections between the organic/sustainable farming community and all matter of paranoid insanity, like anti-GMO, homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, anti-vaccine, and government conspiracies of all types. I'm very interested to hear what Dr. Ronald has to say.

A parameterized approach to self-identification

Bruce Hood (whose book I still haven't read, unfortunately) comes up with a novel solution to the problem of nontheist / atheist / agnostic terminology: parameterize his self-identification based on the other party's definitions.

an AAA (apathetic atheist/agnostic-depending on how you define your god that you want me to reject)

Hah! Love it.

Kale chips

It occurs to me I haven't had a post about cooking in a really long time -- I haven't had a chance to do anything fancy, so it's just been run-of-the-mill everyday feed-your-family cooking. I'm sure nobody needs to hear me blog about boiling pasta and pouring store-bought sauce over it, or a stir-fry composed of whatever vegetables are leftover in my fridge.

So I thought I'd link to this article in our local newspaper, which was pointed out to me by my mother of all people. (I'd say thanks mom!, but I'm pretty sure if she stumbled on this blog she'd already have had a heart attack before she got a chance to read this, so...) Sounds like a neat idea, and I am pretty sure we'll probably get more kale from our CSA in the coming weeks, so I will most likely try it.

Hopefully after next week I will have an exciting new Halloween recipe to share, but I don't want to blog about it until after I try it, in case it winds up being a disaster.

The most unfulfilling aspect of atheism

I think a lot of believers think that us atheists have unfulfilled lives because we lack meaning or purpose, or a higher moral compass, or whatever. Of course we know that is all hogwash. If you can't find meaning in your life without a fairy tale to dress it up, that's kinda sad; and if you can't find it in yourself to be moral without a Holy Prison Warden looking over your shoulder, well, that's just scary.

Similarly, the lack of a paradisaical afterlife doesn't trouble me too much, because the fantasy is rather infantile. It saddens me about as much as the idea that there's no Santa Claus. I guess in theory it would be nice if something resembling the virtual construct I consider my "mind" got to continue existing even after the breakdown of the physical equipment that enables that emergent phenomenon, just as in theory it would be nice if some nice guy with a red suit and a white beard would pay for and deliver all of my family's Christmas presents. But I have trouble working up much disappointment about either one.

But there is one thing about atheism that I do find deeply unfulfilling in comparison to theistic worldviews: The lack of guaranteed vindication.

Let's say a theist and I deeply disagree, and we each are frustrated by the other's obstinance. If the theist believes in the literal heaven-as-a-reward/hellfire-as-punishment mode of afterlife, then she "knows" that she will be proven right when I die -- that there will be a moment just before I start to burn for all eternity where I will be forced to admit some pretty serious egg on my face. I, on the other hand, can bet that she will almost certainly persist in her beliefs until death, and there will never, ever come a moment where she realizes that I was right all along.

Okay, I realize that this is a rather adolescent way of looking at things (right after I criticized the afterlife fantasy as infantile, even!) but I can't help it. I find it particularly frustrating in regards to those who pitch Pascal's Wager, like we haven't heard it before and already dismissed it. I am sorry, but that line of argumentation is just so vapid, so asinine, so utterly devoid of critical thinking, that I can't hear someone recite it earnestly without getting agitated. I suppose it is a weakness of character on my part, but there it is. (In fact, it was a YouTube commenter spouting Pascal's Wager that inspired me to write this post)

I would really like to believe in a universe where every person who accepts Pascal's Wager is guaranteed at some point to have the shocking stupidity of that argument revealed to them in a dramatic and inescapable fashion, something akin to the literal theistic belief that I'll be forced to realize the error of my ways by the most bombastic method of eternal torture. But is there a dogma that will allow me to embrace that comforting delusion?

Not yet, so it's high time I create one. I propose the Church of the Fallacy of Pascal's Wager -- the "Fallacians" for short. Our central belief is that after a person dies, a copy of their body will be reconstructed in some other part of the universe, where there stands a gigantic entryway composed of calcium carbonate, with Voltaire standing guard. Voltaire will then ask the recently deceased to point out at least one fallacy in Pascal's Wager, and if they are successful then they are allowed through the gates and get to spend eternity (or however long they want) in a paradise of their choosing -- perhaps a place where hens lay soft-boiled eggs; an exclusive country club consisting of only 144,400 people; hell, even 72 white raisins if that's what floats your boat.

Those who fail will not be forced to burn in eternal hellfire, of course. I'm not that sadistic. They will also be allowed to live in the paradise of their choosing, except that everywhere they go, an angel will follow them around pointing and laughing. Well, maybe we can be merciful and the angel can ease off after 500 years or so. I just want a good few centuries to make sure the problem's with Pascal's dumb-ass Wager have fully sunk in.

Anybody want to join my church? The only requirement for membership is that you have to deposit $10 in my PayPal account. I know, I know, what evidence is there that depositing money in my PayPal account will lead to eternal salvation? Well, just look at it this way. If I am wrong, we both still die and you are only out ten measly bucks. But if I am right, you get to spend eternity in paradise!

So pay up, sucker.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

I've had an interesting story to share for some time about just how easy it is to fall into the post hoc fallacy, but I haven't posted it yet because it's also very sad and it helped to have some distance.

Back in July, my favorite cat and my first real pet as an adult suddenly got sick and died under very mysterious circumstances. It seems most likely she ate some kind of poison, but we never identified what it was -- she was an indoor/outdoor cat, so who knows what she could have gotten into? That morning, she appeared totally healthy. I clearly remember refilling the food dish that morning and seeing her chowing away, i.e. completely normal appetite. And then, that evening, her kidneys completely shut down, and even before we got to the vet I knew from her symptoms she was going to die.

She was eight years old, a little past midway point for a cat. I'm mostly over it now, but the one thing that still gets me is when I think to myself, "She could have had another eight years... all those wonderful times with Stash, multiplied by two." I tend to get kind of angry when I think that, so I try not to...

Anyway! Enough with the sad part of the story. So, it turns out that shortly before that we had decided we should put our cats on flea medication. We ordered it online, and it arrived a few days before her death. But despite my wife's helpful reminders, I kept forgetting to give it to the cats. I finally treated our remaining cat a couple weeks after Stash died.

Imagine if I had remembered to apply the medication when it first arrived..! I would be 100% convinced it was the flea medication: I put a chemical on my cat that she's never been exposed to before, and then 48 hours later she drops dead from apparent poisoning. I would have been devastated. I never would have forgiven myself.

And yet, it would all have been an illusion. Pure post hoc. Stash died for some completely different reason. I shudder when I think of the kind of unnecessary guilt and anguish I would have felt, if the chips had fallen just a tiny bit differently...

Pros and cons of H1N1 vaccine

Man, this is a tough call.

(Shamelessly stolen from The Daily Show.

The cost of your bigotry

Well, this is the most depressing story I've heard in a long time. One member of a gay couple vacationing in Florida suffers a brain aneurysm and is rushed to the hospital, where she sadly will not recover. Despite having all the legal documents in place, the hospital refused to admit the grieving partner or give her full information about what was going on.

So, when Mormons cry about how they are being hated on for interfering with the vote for Prop 8... Yeah. Don't get me started.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In defense of speciesism

I finally got around to reading The Selfish Gene. One of the themes of that book is a purely gene-centric view of natural selection. Dawkins has even spoken in later writing of the idea of "speciesism", that it is irrational to discriminate purely on the basis of species, since a species often has no sharp boundary, and in the end is nothing but a pool of genes that tends to (but doesn't always) congregate together. The analogy is, of course, to racism, which is irrational for multiple reasons -- both because the whole concept of races has been demonstrated to be on shaky biological footing, and because it would be wrong anyway even if there had turned out to be a clear delineation between races and a significant difference in their talents.

I think this analogy between speciesism and racism is completely inapt, and I respectfully disagree that it is irrational to discriminate on the basis of species alone. It is partially other insights from The Selfish Gene that leads me to this conclusion.

I am not going to make an attempt to justify omnivorousness, though I do eat meat. I try to get it only from smaller farms, better yet if I can get a look at how they keep the animals, since factory farming practices multiply the ethical and environmental issues of meat consumption a hundredfold. I simply intend to make a case that it is quite rational to apply radically different standards to an individual of a different species, extending even to putting a significantly lower value on that individual's life, irrespective of any other concerns.

The boring obvious part
The obvious problem with the idea of "speciesism" being a bad thing is that there are massive differences between species, and these do matter.

One recent debate that has continued to fascinate me is the controversy over whether lobsters feel pain -- and therefore, is it cruel to dip them headfirst into boiling water. I think the whole conversation is absurd, or at least barking up the wrong tree, because we have failed to clearly articulate what we mean by "feel pain." If we define "pain" as "the response of a nervous system to negative stimuli, causing the organism to try and avoid said stimuli", then of course lobsters feel pain. Anything with a nervous system feels pain by that definition.

But any attempt to base ethical decisions around this definition will quickly veer into the ridiculous. I could write a computer program that puts a dot on the screen, and whenever the mouse cursor comes within a certain distance of the dot, the computer says "Ouch!" and tries to move the dot away from the mouse cursor. Is this not a "negative stimulus" of sorts? After all, it provokes a reaction from the computer to try to avoid repetition of that stimulus. Does the computer feel pain?

Ah, you say, but a computer's CPU, memory, etc., are not a "nervous system" per se. Exactly right. So, it is not just that a certain thing tries to avoid a certain class of stimuli. The structure of the mechanism engaging in the avoidance response is critical in whether we would consider it to be pain.

So how close does a nervous system have to be in structure before we call it "pain" and actually give a shit? Clearly a computer loses. It seems to me that a lobster loses as well -- it clearly is experiencing something we might call "pain", but it's specific biological embodiment is not much more similar to the phenomenon we experience as "pain" than my hypothetical mouse-avoiding computer program is.

This does not apply only to pain, but in terms of any evaluation of a different organism. I do not mean to revert to the language of the past where animals were by definition viewed as mere automatons -- but in regards to very simple nervous systems, it is hard to reach any other conclusion. Without ridiculous concepts like a "soul" or "life essence", it becomes very difficult to justify the idea that a lobster's nervous system has any special properties that differentiate it from a robot's control system.

I think so far, Dawkins would agree with me. I think the idea of speciesism is meant primarily in regards to bird and mammals, particularly higher primates, where their nervous systems are so similar to ours that it is indeed meaningful to think of their experiences as being analogous to ours.

The interesting part
While I think that absolutely a more complex nervous system entitles an animal to greater protections, I will now argue that it is both rational and ethically defensible to discriminate against an organism solely because they are a member of a different species. This means that if we encountered another sapient species with nervous systems identical to ours, while we would be obliged to treat that species with the same dignity and respect with which we would expect them to treat us, it would be quite acceptable to value a human life over the lives of the organisms belonging to the other species.

In arguing this, I am going to dig into what we mean when we say that apparent "altruism" is the result of selfish genes. As Dawkins expounds on at length, any evolutionarily successful action taken by a gene must be "selfish" from the gene's point of view. But what about from the point of view of the organism? Is it always selfish from the organism's point of view, or can the action be truly "altruistic" in the sense that the organism itself gains no benefit?

At one point in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins postulates that it may be inappropriate to differentiate between symbiotic relationships among different species vs. cooperative relationships within the same species. I could not disagree more, and the reason is because the answer to the question at the end of the preceding paragraph is markedly different depending on whether the participants in the symbiotic/cooperative relationship are drawn from a compatible gene pool.

When considering interactions between two different species, any behavior that is "selfish" for the gene must also be "selfish" for the organism. (This of course excludes misfiring of "selfish" instincts, where by a parasitic species like a cuckoo capitalizes on the "selfish" impulses of another species) There is simply no way that an interaction between two organisms of different species can be, for one of the parties, good for the gene yet bad for the individual. (And thus the previous parenthetical remark is addressed -- subversion of "selfish" impulses by a parasitic species is both bad for the gene and bad for the individual) The highest form of interspecies altruism that can evolve is delayed reciprocal altruism.

Within the same species, the story is entirely different, as a result of kin selection. This is explained at length in Dawkins' book, but for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, in brief: I know that (statistically speaking) my first cousin shares 1/4 of my DNA. If I can take an action that will harm myself, but will benefit my first cousin more than four times as much as it harms me, then on average that will do more to spread my DNA than if I had failed to take that action. So natural selection will select for genes which inspire me to take such an action, even at a net loss to the individual organism in question. In other words, from the point of view of the individual, apparently "genuine" altruism.

This is fundamentally different from what takes place between species. While two individuals of two different species might share quite a large number of genes, the fact that the two species represent separate gene pools makes the evolution of "genuine" altruism impossible. The key point is that kin selection doesn't actually work because your first cousin shares 1/4 of your DNA -- it works because, if you have the "help your first cousin" mutation, then there is a 25% chance your cousin has the mutation as well. The other shared DNA that is being propagated does not affect the selective pressure on the gene one whit.

It might be conceivable to artifically create a stable situation where several species shared the same gene for inter-species altruism only among the species who have that gene in their gene pool (I'm not even sure that could be made stable) but you could never have that in the first place because there's no way such a gene could evolve. If a mutation for it developed in one species, there would be no way for it to jump to the other species. No, "genuine" altruism -- in the sense that the individual never reaps any benefit for her altruism -- can only exist within a species.

Now, some might argue cases of "genuine" intra-species altruism are no different from the case of a parasitic species (like the cuckoo) using trickery to exploit intra-species altruism for its own benefit -- only in this case, the parasite is the gene, and the rube is the altruistic individual.


Dawkins closes The Selfish Gene with a call to escape the "tyranny of our genes". I have written in the past about how I find this to be a rather paradoxical exhortation. This to me seems no more meaningful than to say that if I were to install an after-market stereo system in the family's minivan, I would be emancipating it from the "tyranny of Toyota".

Certainly humans are in a unique position to rise above the short-sightedness of our genes. Furthermore, we can say that humans are in a position to empower the individual with respect to the gene pool -- but it would be silly to say that we could empower the individual with respect to genes in general, because what is the individual but the manifestation of a specific permutation of genes, combined with environment?

Our far-sightedness in comparison to natural selection allows us to make decisions that go against the "purposes" our genetic program in startling ways, contraception being a convenient example. But even in the case of contraception, we are not overthrowing the "tyranny of our genes" -- quite the opposite, it seems to me that we should be rather glad that our genes are configured in such a way as to afford so much pleasure.

Only if one gets sloppy with the metaphor (as Dawkins repeatedly promises he won't do, but occasionally does anyway) would one argue that we have subverted the "motives" of our genes by doing so -- genes after all do not have any motives to speak of. They just are. That their ultimate cause was different is somewhat irrelevant today.

Thus I assert: If we are to say that apparent altruism which harms the individual but benefits the genes is parasitic rather than "genuinely" altruistic, then it follows also that sex doesn't "genuinely" feel good. And I for one am not willing to say such a thing.

To restate: We must discard this silly idea of escaping the "tyranny of our genes", and realize that what Dawkins is really exhorting us to do in the final chapter of his book is to 1) rise above the short-sightedness of our genes, and 2) to empower specific permutations of genes with respect to the gene pool at large. But in terms of what is "genuinely" good, the genes -- that is, the specific permutations of genes -- are still very much running the show.

At this point I'm sure some people would say I am engaging in the naturalistic fallacy. But I believe this argument is subtly different. I am not saying that "Our genes make us want to do X, therefore doing X must be good." Rather, I am saying that if our genes make us want to do X, and X is not in conflict -- either short-term or long-term, directly or indirectly -- with anything else that our genes make us want to do, then doing X must "genuinely" be a good thing to do.

I say this because I don't see any other objective way to define what is good. As I blogged about in the post I linked to before, even the Golden Rule, the apparent foundation of higher ethical behavior, is rooted in our affinity for reciprocal altruism -- an affinity we only have because of our genes.1 (It occurs to me at this moment that if one were to really truly escape the "tyranny of our genes" then one would also have to reject reciprocal altruism, and therefore the Golden Rule as well!)

So what does all this have to do with "speciesism"? Well, as I said, "genuine" altruism, i.e. non-reciprocal altruism, can only evolve within a species. Therefore, it is not surprising that we have a strong impulse towards speciesism. In the same way that we find sex quite pleasurable, independent of the gene-selfish ultimate cause, we can also say that we find human life to be worth some apparently irrational sacrifice. We also sometimes find non-human life to be worth apparently irrational sacrifices (my rather large outstanding vet bill being a vivid demonstration of this), most likely because of a "misfiring" (from the gene pool's point of view) of our impulse to make irrational sacrifices for other humans. But it seems fairly clear to me that the impulse to sacrifice for other members of the species is far more powerful than the impulse to sacrifice for other species.

The remaining question is, does this natural impulse have any unforeseen conflict with any other imperatives we have inherited from our genes? If not, I cannot see any basis on which to pronounce this impulse "wrong". In the absence of some unforeseen conflict I am missing, it seems to me that the statement "It is fine to discriminate heavily against members of different species" is as true as the statement "It is fine to have sex for pleasure."

It's worth reiterating in closing what I am not saying: I don't mean this as a defense of eating meat. Factory farming causes so much suffering -- and to species some of whose nervous systems are strikingly similar to ours -- that it is quite rightly seen as an affront to both our impulse towards reciprocal altruism, as well as even our limited impulses towards inter-species non-reciprocal altruism. Even if not, the environmental disaster of modern factory farming is clearly in long-term conflict with a number of our other impulses, e.g. the impulse to NOT FREAKING DIE.

More humane forms of animal farming are much murkier. Our sense of reciprocal altruism may rightly see it as a raw deal for the animal -- "we feed you for a couple years, but then it's choppy-choppy time" -- but I believe this is weighted against a lot of other factors that I would prefer not to get into at this time, since this post is already way too long.

1Of course, as I also said in the previous post I linked to, it is my opinion (and I think game theory backs me up on this) that any organism we might refer to as "sapient" in the slightest must have evolved some form of reciprocal altruism. In this sense I postulate that a limited form of reciprocity may represent a gene-transcendent ethic. However, I do not think this impacts my argument here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

This guy should be a hero to the anti-gay marriage bunch

Justice Keith Bardwell of Louisiana is an American hero and a patriot. At least, that's what the majority of Republicans and other gay marriage opponents ought to think if they want to be logically consistent.

This brave Christian refuses to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples because it goes against his conscience. Bravo to him! Because if there's anything we applaud in America, it's shitting on the rights of other people just because one's backwards and bigoted sensibilities are vaguely offended by what those other people are doing.

So you go, Justice Bardwell! Don't make these lefties force you to sacrifice your conscience and go against your religious beliefs. You have a clear First Amendment right to directly impede other peoples' Fourteenth Amendment rights! At least, that's what I heard...

(Oh yeah, the funniest part about the Judge Bardwell story is that he pulls out the "I have lots of black friends!" card. Helpful advice to those who are tempted to play this card: Anybody who feels the need to say they have lots of <insert ethnicity> friends is going to come across like a racist douche.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why won't Obama upload a video of his birth to YouTube?

It suddenly occurred to me today how Obama could end this entire "birther" controversy in one fell swoop: All he needs to do is obtain a video of himself being born, with sufficient background shots to establish the location as the Kapi'olani Medical Center in Honolulu, and then upload it to YouTube.

Some of you skeptics out there may argue that no such video exists, but since it's also true that Hawaii does not issue long form birth certificates, I don't see how this request is substantially different from the outcries of "SHOW US THE LONG FORM, OBAMA!"

So there it is. What have you got to hide, B. Hussein Soetoro? If you really are who you say you are, how come I can't Google for a picture of your head emerging from your mother's vagina, hmmm? SHOW US THE VAGINA, OBAMA!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Critique of No on 1's new ad

No on 1 has a new ad out:

I'm only being a little bit snarky when I say that exhorting the kinds of people who would be likely to vote yes on Prop 1 to actually read something is a big waste of time.

Seriously, though, from a tactical perspective I'm not sure this is such a good idea. The big fear card that the bad guys are playing is that our children will have to learn that families can include loving gay parents. That's it. It is not the fear that their children will catch teh gay jurmms as a result of this, it's just the fact that their children will learn it exists at all.

See, we on the other side don't get that, because we don't see how that could possibly be objectionable; we assume that more is being implied, and it seems the new No on 1 ad is trying to convince that this is a positive message. It is, of course, but if they want to get this hateful proposition voted down in November's election, that positive message needs to be deferred for another four weeks. Instead, the message needs to be: "Don't worry, your kids will still know absolutely nothing."

They also need to focus way more on this "outsiders" attacking Maine thing. Play up the angle that Maine is being bossed around by states two thousand miles away.

I thought their first ad (the one I have in the sidebar until November) was pitch perfect as an opening volley. It gave people an image of gay marriage that was completely desexualized -- notice the son is always seated between his moms, never the moms next to each other -- and emphasized the negative effect Prop 1 would have on (straight) children, rather than on gay spouses. This was a great reframing of the issue.

When the Yes On 1 assholes started spreading lies about indoctrination in schools and priests being forced to marry gay couples against their will under threat of imprisonment, though, I feel like the good guys needed to go way more on the attack than they have.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We must be ever-vigilant about the moralistic fallacy

As a review, the moralistic fallacy is the mental error which causes one to think that because a certain proposition is "good" or "right" or "moral", it must also be true/natural. (This is opposed to the naturalistic fallacy, which conversely states that what is natural must inherently be good) It has been stated most succinctly as: What ought to be, is.

Of course, we think of the moralistic fallacy primarily in two contexts: One is the fallacious justification of a belief in God because "religion makes people happy" -- a premise whose truth or falsity I am not yet convinced of either way, but in any case, the conclusion does not follow from it anyway. The other context where you often hear the moralistic fallacy is in regards to human nature, where, for example, it is insisted for political reasons that there is no biological differences in the brains of men and women, a claim which is demonstrably false.

As a side note, a danger of the moralistic fallacy in the latter context is that we can lose track of the real reason why what ought to be ought to be. In the example I gave above, men and women should still be evaluated on equal terms1 because a) individual variations are broad enough that judging by generalization rather than case-by-case is woefully inefficient, and b) in any case most of us (including me) would perceive it as grossly unfair to judge an individual based on generalizations. Hinging our justification for equal treatment of women on the false idea that there are no biological gender differences is dangerous to say the least.

But that's not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the possibility of nontheists and skeptics employing the moralistic fallacy, something we don't usually think about. The reason I want to talk about this is because two events in the past twenty-four hours reminded me that we can be just as guilty of this fallacy as anyone.

The first was a post at Bruce Hood's blog where he discusses a new paper in PLoS by Sam Harris, et al., that happens to mention Bruce's SuperSense theory. (I still have not read the book, and now I'm bogged down in Guns, Germs, and Steel!) I'll quote Bruce here:

However, Harris and colleagues’s discussion of my hypothesis (never a theory till proven) in the current paper that beliefs are a combination of intuitive reasoning embedded in culture is somewhat misrepresented...I was pleased that Harris and colleagues acknowledge the supersense hypothesis but a bit dismayed when they dismissed it with the straw man statement, “Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of religion, it seems unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the why the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in the God of Abraham while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do.”

Well dah. Come on Sam, I am not like the others. You didn’t read the book-did you? I made it perfectly clear that just as any child is innately endowed to acquire a language, there is no genetic basis for French. What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture.

Now this may not quite be the moralistic fallacy in action -- it is possible that Harris et al grossly misinterpreted Bruce's work out of sloppiness or something. But given some of the nasty responses regarding SuperSense, I suspect that there is a tendency on the part of nontheists and antireligionists -- yes, even luminaries like Harris -- to think, "Well, religion is bad, therefore it cannot be natural!" Surely Harris did not articulate it to himself as such, but I wonder if some similar impulse drove him to dismiss the SuperSense hypothesis without due consideration.

I admit that I myself engage in a more guarded version of this, not so much in regards to the question of whether religion is "natural", but in regards to whether people "need" comforting illusions. I take the position that, until I see convincing proof that people need these illusions, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that adults are capable of living with reality. I may turn out to be wrong, but this is my default position in the absence of highly convincing proof.

The second event that got me to think was a guy over in some of the comment threads at Orac's blog -- whom I later suspected to be a troll, but he got me thinking anyway -- who was going on this huge attack about how "new atheists" are irrational, despite proclaiming to be an "old-school" atheist himself. His central point was rather bizarre: he spent at least half a day arguing that memes are bullshit, that everyone knows memes are bullshit, that even Dawkins knows memes are bullshit but that he employs them in anti-theistic arguments anyway, and that therefore any atheist who admired Dawkins for anything other than his strict biological work is just as irrational as any theist.

It's probably true that people of all stripes -- skeptics and atheists included -- are indeed rather irrational a shocking amount of the time... and judging by the reaction of folks who have read SuperSense, I suspect when I finally get around to reading it, I may be rather disturbed at just how much. Or maybe I already have an idea... In any case, I don't dispute that point. But I think the troll's argument is still a bit whack, and in any case, it is my feeling that the "new atheists" at least put a high value on rationality, and that even if we don't always succeed, that has to count for something.

I also mentioned to the troll that I thought another important difference was that atheists don't typically go around executing homosexuals, lopping off girls' clitorises, and crashing planes into buildings. His response had me really scratching my head:

scientific studies have shown that religion has been shown to be a NEGATIVE predictor of violence and terrorism

He didn't bother to back this up with any links or citations, and I have a really, really, really hard time believing that religious belief is a negative predictor of terrorism (the only secular terrorist I can think of off the top of my head is McVeigh.. and I suppose maybe Che Guevera and his ilk). I do know some studies have shown religion to be a negative predictor of violence, but my impression has been that the data is mixed on this point (and in any case, as we all know, correlation does not prove causality, and I have heard it speculated that many of the apparent statistical benefits of religious belief only apply if your beliefs are the same as the norm in the society in which you inhabit, i.e. suggesting that the causality is more associated with the benefits of "going with the flow" than they are with religion per se).

But the troll's comment got me thinking anyway. I like to believe that atheism can be a positive and liberating philosophy. I look around at all the religiously-motivated violence, all of the spiritually-motivated quackery, etc., and I feel like I am right. But am I engaging in the moralistic fallacy here? I admit that I have a rather strong distaste not only for religious delusions, but for the trappings of religion themselves. Am I letting this distaste cloud my judgment? Is there a part of me saying to myself, "Atheism ought to be a better way to live one's life than theism, therefore it is?"

I'm not at all sure. And I think this is something we all ought to reflect on. The falsity of religious belief is not in doubt. But when we talk about the costs and benefits of religious belief, we should be careful not to let ourselves fall victim to the moralistic fallacy.

1The one defensible exception is in regards to competitive sports, where biological differences give men such an innate advantage in sports relying on muscle strength, body size, etc., that a gender-neutral league would preclude many talented women from participating. Even in that case, I generally favor a gender-neutral league running parallel to a women-only league, as opposed to there ever being a men-only league, thus still allowing women on the extremes of the bell curve to be judged as individuals and participate in the gender-neutral league. In addition, it allows sports with a lot of variation in the physical requirements of each position to invite more women into the gender-neutral league, e.g. while I think even in a society perfectly unbiased about gender we would still rarely if ever see a female offensive guard in the NFL (the men who play this position are already on the very extreme ends of the bell curve for their gender in regards to body mass), I would not be surprised to see a female kicker in the NFL within the next couple of decades, and someday probably even female wide receivers, quarterbacks, defensive backs, maybe even situational tight ends and running backs. Anyway, this is all a huge digression and not what I wanted to talk about!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Archdiocese of Washington and Pat Condell

Earlier today I watched the newest Pat Condell rant by following the link at Then later, I happened to stumble on this blog post at the Archdiocese of Washington, written by a chap with the amusing name of Monsignor Pope. It's funny, because Msgr. Pope's post is pretty much engaging in exactly the kind of power play that Condell is lambasting.

If you don't want to watch it (even though you should) Condell's rant is about clergy, and one of his major points is that religions promise all of their rewards in the future, while in the present they ask for piety and subservience. This is obviously a transparent ploy to exercise power over people, while deferring delivery on your promises to a time when nobody will be able to complain. And boy howdy, I guess the Archdiocese of Washington was listening and decided Condell had a really good idea.

Msgr. Pope seems to have discovered a new vocabulary word: "Anthropocentric." Now, when I think of the relationship between religion and anthropocentrism, I always think of the incredible vanity of believing that an entire universe was created with the sole purpose of executing some ham-handed morality play centered around a blood sacrifice. But I guess that shows how much I know about theology, eh?

What the esteemed Monsignor thinks of when he hears "anthropocentrism", though, is not the childish assumption that the universe was created exclusively for us, but that we spend too much time thinking about our own lives and not on fellating Jesus glorifying God. Msgr. Pope also seems to view this as a bad thing...

The Monsignor's post is rather long, so I have severely condensed his three major talking points:

1. I often hear people say they don’t go to Church because they don’t “get anything out of it.” Perhaps they are looking for improved preaching, better choirs, or more fellowship....How about agreeing that the we go to Mass because God is worthy not simply because we get something out of it. An old Gospel hymn says, “Just forget about yourself and concentrate on Him (God) and worship him!”...

Uh huh... so the next time someone says, "But religion offers people comfort!", remember what Msgr. Pope has said here: If you aren't getting comfort and fulfillment from our Mass, well tough fucking luck, because it's not about you. It's about kissing God's ass. Or else.

2. Weddings are often another time where God seems quite forgotten...We can surely be joyful for the happy couple but how about a few accolades for God who pulled the whole thing off?

Yep, yet again, Invisible Sky Daddy gets all the credit. Have I mentioned before that I find that kind of thing highly offensive and deeply insulting to the people who actually did all the work? Oh, yes I have.

3. Funerals too can become too anthropocentric.

Oh, Monsignor, don't got there. Please, for the love of all that is good and decent, please do not go there.

I mean, he can't possibly be readying himself to say that the big problem with funerals is that they spend too much time honoring the deceased? Can he?!?


Here too many funeral Masses and funeral tributes focus too much on what a great guy Joe was and how he loved the Redskins and loved to tell jokes etc. Some remarks about Joe’s faith and how God worked in his life may be appropriate but the fundamental purpose of the funeral Mass is to worship God and beseech his mercy...We ought to worship God and thank him for his mercy and grace at every funeral and recommit ourselves to Jesus.

Oh. My. Dog.

Listen, God-Pushers, if you're going to prey on the weak and insist that they spend all their time doing your bidding in exchange for some mythical reward that never comes, that's despicable enough. Please, have the basic common decency to let people grieve in peace, without having to exploit that too.

How ghoulish. I just don't even know what to say. Of course, I guess Msgr. Pope has already said everything that needs to be said, hasn't he?

Well, hopefully I’ve made my point.

Yes you have, Monsignor, yes you have...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Single payer sounds like a good idea all of a sudden...

I used to have some philosophical objections to a single payer health plan... even though I absolutely supported a universal health care initiative, single payer seemed like it created some situations that I would theoretically consider human rights issues, even though from a practical perspective I recognize that single payer delivers high quality results.

I was starting to change my mind over the past couple months as I started to notice a few perverse incentives in health care that seemingly could only be mitigated by single payer. I still wasn't sure, though...

Anyway, all of the above is a nuanced discussion that I may elaborate on tomorrow if I am in the mood for it. What has suddenly convinced me that single payer is a really good idea is much more present and visceral.

Now, I work at a major multinational corporation, I am a salaried employee, and I pay for the most comprehensive health plan my employer offers. While it is true that my employer got rid of all the HMOs a few years ago and now only offer PPOs (which are sweet because you can pick your own doctor with virtually no limitations, but which suck because you typically have to cover 20% of anything that is non-routine), I still think I have what would be considered pretty good health insurance. You better damn well believe I pay for it.

Total out-of-pocket costs for the birth of my first child: FOUR THOUSAND MOTHERFUCKING DOLLARS.

It was supposed to be $1700. Things didn't quite go according to plan, but then again, it wasn't like it was a cesarean or required a visit to the NICU or anything. Pitocin induction, epidural, vaginal birth. We even left the hospital early.

The problem is, there isn't a single unified entity I can complain to. There are at least FOUR parties involved in this fuck-overage: The OB my wife was seeing initially, the midwife, the hospital where she gave birth, and the insurance thieves company.

If it was single payer, even if they decided to fuck me in the ass to the tune of 235% of the initial quote (and by the way, WHY THE FUCK is it legal for insurance companies and providers to conceal net prices from their customers???!?!?!??) at least then I could call somebody up and argue. As it is, basically all I can do is roll over and spread it.

So uh... if I put ads on this blog, will anybody click-through?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Notice any similarities?

I have included tags so that both will start at about the equivalent point in the rant. Hit play on both at the same time, and prepare to be amazed. (You may have to up the volume on the Beck video in order to balance the two... sorry, the YouTube Embedded Player doesn't have any parameters to pre-set the volume!)

Via Hemant Mehta.