Friday, January 29, 2010

Quick thought on the Mother Theresa stamp

So there's controversy over a stamp depicting Mother Theresa issued by the US Postal Service. The often-excellent Freedom From Religion Foundation is formally protesting the stamp, and has said that USPS violated their own regulations.

Call me a faitheist if you must, but I think FFRF is both incorrect that the USPS is violating their regulations, and making a tactical blunder (with strategic ramifications) in their protesting of this.

As far as violating their regulations, Mother Theresa is, for better or worse, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and that alone provides a secular justification for issuing a stamp depicting her. I share FFRF's discomfort with the fact that a Roman Catholic honorific is part of the name of a stamp now, but I don't feel this violates church/state separation.

Worse, perhaps, is the tactical blunder the FFRF is making when they put the spotlight on church/state issues and Mother Theresa's religion. To many, this can only be perceived as those mean, nasty atheists refusing to recognize the humanitarian work of a world hero just because she happened to be religious. That's most definitely not the message we want to get out there. Of course, message control does not mean we shouldn't speak the truth, but I think there could have been a better angle.

Namely, there are very serious questions about the nature of Mother Theresa's charity work and whether she really was all that, well, saintly. FFRF has mentioned some of this, but it really ought to be their sole focus. Rather than objecting to the USPS honoring a religious figure -- or even overtly complaining that the only reason she is being honored is because of her religion -- instead object plainly to the problems with Mother Theresa's work, without speculating on the reasons why those problems are being glossed over. The message speaks for itself, without needing to intentionally antagonize.

If you can convince a theist to denounce Mother Theresa's focus on Christian conversion above and beyond the well-being of those she was ministering to, that is a major victory. That helps to tear down the special deference shown to religion, and expose the hypocrisy lying beneath the surface. I hate to sound accomodationist-esque here, but you're never going to do that if the focus of your criticism is about how honoring Mother Theresa isn't sufficiently secular.

(Note that this is not the same as accomodationism, because I am not saying anybody should lie. I think the FFRF should have merely left out the conclusion, and let the arguments speak for themselves.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thought experiment on direct democracy

I plan on writing a post on populism (the rallying cry of idiots) in the next day or two, but I'm making good progress at work and don't want to get too distracted. I did want to post a quick thought experiment about direct democracy that I came up with this morning, though, while thinking about the topic.

I have always taken it as a truism that direct democracy is inferior to representative democracy, but the only "evidence" I usually cite is, "Look at California!" It's also true that direct democracy facilitates the tyranny of the majority, but there is more to it than that. It turns out this was discussed quite a bit yesterday during the Prop 8 trial in California, where they had discussed the polarizing effect, but I have another thing to add. I have a thought experiment that shows that even if representatives blindly adhere to the will of the people, it is still superior to direct democracy. This is because a representative is a single conscious entity capable of planning and decision-making, while a population of voters is no such thing.

Consider a hypothetical government that has a budget of $10 million to spend on a certain type of program. There are three candidate programs, each of which cost $5 million. They are all pretty good programs, and as a result, 60% of the population would like to see program A enacted, 70% would like to see program B enacted, and a whopping 80% are in favor of program C. In an idealized representative government, the representatives realize they can maximize their votes by enacting programs B and C, while still maintaining a balanced budget. But in a direct democracy, all three programs have the support of the majority, all three are enacted, and the government is now $5 million in the red. (Hmmm, sound like California?)

Sure, you can argue that "someone" should decide that the ballot propositions should include "A and B", "B and C" and "A and C" as alternate choices, but who's deciding that? The people putting together the petitions? And you think those folks are going to be more successful than petitioners who just say, "Let's put C on the ballot!" (which, recall, enjoys the support of 80% of the population)?

Direct democracy is ass for so many reasons. The only reason it survives in the form of ballot initiatives and the like is because of idiot populism. Which I will rant about soon...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Shorty Awards Voting Fraud"

My representative to the Illuminati-Mason-Pharma-Vaccine (IMPV) Overlords, Orac, has ordered me to write a post with the title "Short Awards Voting Fraud", as you can read about here. I don't have much of a comment to make beyond linking to Orac's post, but I do want to highlight this from Mike Adams:

This contest also goes to show you that vaccine pushers will do almost anything to shut down the opposition and try to silence anyone who has the intelligence to question the so-called "science" behind vaccines. Since they can't win in an honest contest, they are forced to resort to cheating and lying in an attempt to rig the outcome. The Shorty Awards allowed them to do precisely that. You could accurately say, in essence, that the Shorty Awards has conspired with a group of liars and cheats to rig the outcome of their awards competition. That is a factual statement that will stand up in a court of law.

The reason I want to point this out is because I am trying to picture, if Mike Adams succeeded in winning the Shorty Award for Health, Orac threatening a lawsuit over it. I'm trying really really hard to picture it -- and it ain't happening. I could see Orac blasting the Shorty Awards, maybe even unfairly (Orac was one of the folks who, eh, maybe "overreacted" a bit over the admittedly dubious bestowing of the Richard Dawkins Award to anti-religion-but-also-anti-vaccine advocate Bill Maher...), but a lawsuit? The idea is just silly. Nobody on this side of the aisle would ever threaten a lawsuit because they lost a silly little Interwubz award. That's just... crazy?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nick Spencer accidentally makes an erudite observation

The Guardian's Comment Is Free section last week asked the question, "What is blasphemy today?" Of course, Ophelia Benson once again is the voice of reason, "stridently" arguing that religion is exactly the kind of institution that needs criticism, and that the very concept of blasphemy is merely a shield against that badly-needed critique. Jeremy Havardi concurs on the harmfulness of blasphemy laws, as any reasonably modern person ought.

Nick Spencer, who appears based on his credentials to be some kind of theologian, ends his piece with a predictably theologian-like load of bullshit:

The less we hold sacred, the less blasphemy will matter. Some may welcome that prospect but its flip side – the less we hold sacred, the less we hold together – isn't so appealing.

I'm not even going to address that, because trying to tie a lack of need for blasphemy laws to some kind of alleged social disintegration is just stupid. I don't even know how he can say this without being ashamed of himself. But in any case, on the way to this mind-numbingly stupid conclusion, he makes an observation that I think is rather insightful:

Historically, the idea of blasphemy was not some kind of humourless puritanical bolt-on to an otherwise functioning social order. The sacred was understood to be woven into the fabric of society. The temporal depended on the spiritual. The divine underpinned the cosmic and often the political order. It united people who might otherwise be at one another's throats. To blaspheme was to detune this order, to strike at the root of what made common life possible...If we recognise this, we may appreciate that there is less to separate us from our forbears than we imagine, as the public's willingness to sacrifice free speech for public order testifies.

This last sentence refers to numbers he had just quoted demonstrating that the British public, at least, has long ranked "maintaining order" as a much higher priority than "free speech" (and I imagine the results would be similar throughout the world).

My wife and I have been watching The Tudors, a historical drama about Henry VIII. It's a decent historical drama, nothing to write home about, except there's lots of sex so that's fun. Coincidentally, just last night, inspired by Henry's concern about legitimacy of his heir, we were discussing how tenuous a grasp a hereditary monarchy would have on power. The only justification for why this particular guy should be the unquestioned leader, and not somebody else, is divine mandate, i.e. made-up shit. Convincing people of this divine mandate/made-up shit is paramount to maintaining power.

So in that light, I think I see where Nick Spencer is coming from. If the sole mandate your government has to operate is a divine one, then criticism of divinity amounts to a very real attack on the present government. It's not that much of a stretch to assert that unbridled questioning of theological ideas in such a time and place would lead to an outright collapse of the social order.

Of course, one could debate whether that would have really been such a bad thing after all, given the historically exploitative practices of monarchies. My feeling is that an outright governmental collapse is worse than a bad government, at least in the short term (the French Revolution comes to mind) -- but perhaps in the long term it tends to be a net positive. Then again, is the long term goal of a more benevolent government feasible in the absence of Enlightenment-era ideals? Flipping it around again, were such ideals only being held back by this very same prohibition on blasphemy?

In any case, those are all complex historical questions I'm not qualified to even speculate on. Spencer's point, however, is valid: In a society ruled by a divinely-mandated monarchy, blasphemy is a direct threat to the existing social order, and as such it seems rather practical that such a government would want to -- no, would need to -- outlaw blasphemy.

If only Spencer hadn't then veered off into some sort of sentimental pining about a return to the sacred, he was about to make a great point: Whatever you think about the special deference shown to religion, the rationale used to justify anti-blasphemy laws in their heyday is no longer applicable. The practical rug has been pulled out from under it.

In other words, we don't even need to invoke heady ideals like free speech and free thought and an "open marketplace of ideas", etcetera, in opposing anti-blasphemy laws. We need to simply observe that the purpose they once served -- ignoring for the moment whether that purpose was ever justified -- no longer exists. Even the most ardent proponent of excessive religious deference and religious meddling in public life ought to recognize this.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Truth in Advertising

I just came across this awesome new herbal tea. I swear, I had a cold, and then I drank some of this tea, and then a couple of days later I didn't have a cold anymore! It was a miracle!

Clearly I am not an expert at Photoshop

In fairness, I don't have a huge problem with Traditional Medicinals. They do make pretty tasty herbal teas, and herbal teas are, well, tasty. Outrageous health claims luckily don't make the tea taste bad. I just wish Traditional Medicinals could be a little more like Celestial Seasonings... you know, CS talks about the flavor and rambles on about their "blendmaster" and stuff, and only occasional hints at pharmacological activity (and really, is it controversial that maté is a stimulant and valerian root is a mild depressant? I'm thinking the few claims Celestial Seasonings makes are probably reasonable). TM on the other hand is all about the woo.

They do make a pretty impressive ginger tea, though, you gotta give them that...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Quispiam quoque!

I would like today to coin a new logical fallacy. It is a variation on the Tu quoque! fallacy, but slightly dumber even. I call it Quispiam quoque!, which (if free online English-to-Latin translation software can be believed) means "Somebody also!"

What led me to recognize this fallacy was a comment on Skeptico that trots out the tired old defense for the Obama-is-Hitler crowd that, "Hey, some other assholes said that Bush was like Hitler! You stupid liberals!" Of course, this completely ignores the point that, uh, most of us thought those people were assholes too. In other words, it's not even Tu quoque!, because the people being fingered as having committed an analogous offense are not even the same people making the criticism. Literally, it is Quispiam quoque! "Yeah, well, somebody else once also did this horrible thing too! So there!"

The grandaddy of quispiam quoques, at least in recent memory, has to be the reply from some apologists to the Catholic sex abuse scandal(s), that other institutions, such as secular public schools, also have had instances of child molestation. Not only does this miss the point -- it wasn't so much that some priests were child molesters, it was that the Catholic hierarchy actively shielded the molesters from punishment and even became enablers in some instances -- but it's also about the lamest excuse for child molestation I've ever heard. "Hey, other people rape children too! What's the big deal?" Headdesk...

Monday, January 4, 2010

"Do you fear death?"

Very quick post here on the fear of death and the lack of an afterlife, etcetera, inspired by my watching the train wreck of a conversation between Thunderf00t and Ray Comfort, where the bananaman asks Thunderf00t the titular question of this post. Thunderf00t answered with a quick "no". If I had to answer yes or no, my answer would be the same, but I don't feel quite right with a solid "no". Not anymore at least.

I definitely think about what would happen to my family after my death, and that could be said to be a fear of sorts. Of course, I take some small comfort in the fact that it would most certainly not be my problem any more, but it is my problem now and it is something I am concerned about.

More than that though, I am a bit afraid of dying, i.e. the process, depending on how it happens. And in fact, this too has also intensified since starting a family. When I was single, if I found myself diagnosed with a painful terminal illness and it was more than I could psychologically bear, I figured I could just do a slow-motion suicide, e.g. substance abuse to death or whatever. Now, of course, I would feel a responsibility to do my best to survive, even if I found myself in a condition where I didn't really want to live. That's what I'm afraid of -- slowly dying, while fighting for my life to extend my time with my wife and son just a little longer.

Death itself? Like I say, once it's over, it ain't my problem anymore.

For a bonus, see below the fold for my favorite part of the Thunderf00t-Comfort debacle...

Bananaman: You can't make an absolute statement that there is no evidence. You'd have to have all knowledge to make a statement like that. You've got to say, "With the limited knowledge I have at present, I don't believe..."

Thunderf00t: Yes... Okay, but if you're going to go down this route, you've achieved nothing. You're into nihilism. You can know nothing. You don't even know that you are here having this conversation.

Bananaman: Oh, you can know the truth. It's all in scripture.

Facepalm! The whole discussion is like this. Thunderf00t patiently entertains Comfort's most inane questions, which sometimes leads to a fairly deep (if rather well-traveled) existential/epistemological discussion, and Comfort even seems to be going along for the ride in his own way... and then WHAM! Comfort trots out the shallow affirmations of a 5-year-old Sunday schooler.

It's almost like two parallel conversations...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A future technology that could produce a surprising role reversal for theists and nontheists

I was reading an article in Playboy1 about the alleged approaching technological singularity, particularly in regards to neuroscience and human cognition. It carried the usual wildly optimistic futurist predictions, with the usual suspects like Ray Kurzweil trouted out -- though to the author's credit, he at least pointed out a number of past predictions where Kurzweil was laughably wrong. I actually find Kurzweil thought-provoking, if a bit loony, and I like these sort of far future stories as a fun and interesting thought experiment, even if the constant "this is coming in only a couple of decades!!!!1111!!" nonsense inspires the occasional eye roll.

One topic that was discussed was whole brain emulation, the idea of a software model of a specific brain that, run on the appropriate hardware, would produce functionality essentially identical to the original brain. Despite the irrational optimism of some of the folks interviewed, this is fascinating stuff. I think it's plausible but not definitely possible2, but in any case it is cool to think about if only for the ethical and existential implications.

What caught my eye was the lack of any ethical discussion of the following proposition:

Randal Koene, a neuroscientist at the European technology firm Fatronik-Tecnalia...offered some reasons for why anyone would want to work so hard to make a whole brain emulation in the first place. Even if it behaved like a generic human brain rather than my or your brain in particular, scientists could still use it to run marvelous new experiments. They might test drugs for depression, Parkinson's and other disorders.

Woah, hold them horses just a minute. There's a potentially huge ethical problem with this proposition.

Depending on the accuracy of the simulation, it is quite conceivable that this "generic human brain" would experience suffering just as meaningfully as a real human brain. In fact, the more perfect the simulation, the less appropriate it is to compare the experience analogously, and the more appropriate it is to consider the experiences identical.

The best and most recent research indicates that consciousness is a product of the interaction of the various components of our brain. If each of those components were emulated to a high degree, and the emulations allowed to interact, there is no non-supernatural explanation for why the emulations would not also produce a "conscious being" on the same level as you or me. To then subject this conscious being to experimentation without consent or any regard for possible damage or suffering, just because it is "a generic human brain rather than my or your brain in particular," would be ethically on par with creating embryos with a "generic" human genome, letting them be born and develop to adolescence (!) and then performing medical experiments on them arguing that they are just a "a generic human rather than me or you in particular." In other words, an ethical and moral disaster.

A rather surprising irony arises from the word "non-supernatural" in the previous paragraph. All of these grave ethical concerns about experimenting on generic whole brain emulations get neatly swept under the rug if you accept the ludicrous concept of "ensoulment". These "generic human brains" don't actually have free will or experience suffering, because Jeebus never reached down and put a baby soul inside them, right? So experiment away, and be damned with the "suffering" of these mindless machines!

We could envision a future where, much like some theists today oppose stem cell research because their belief in ensoulment precludes them from rationally evaluating whether a clump of undifferentiated cells can be meaningfully referred to as "human", future nontheists might oppose "whole brain emulation research", while theists support it because, inversely, their belief in ensoulment precludes them from rationally evaluating whether a perfect emulation of consciousness can be meaningfully referred to as "human".

I find this to be a fascinating potential role reversal. Of course, there are similar issues today (e.g. you sometimes hear theistic justifications to ignore issues about treatment of animals, since beasts don't have a "soul") but the strong parallels to stem cell research -- with the roles simply reversed -- makes this an issue worth pondering.

1I know nobody is going to believe this, but the reason I get Playboy is that my wife secretly subscribed us to it so she could read the articles. Just like the old commercial, right! Except we soon discovered that Playboy's heyday of publishing edgy fiction and high-quality thought-provoking opinion pieces was long gone. It's just a mediocre-to-poor men's magazine now. Of course, we already paid for the subscription, and despite an irritating and slow-to-change misogynist undertone to the whole magazine, many of the articles are at least good enough to make for sufficient bathroom reading material... so that's how I came upon this.

2Why might whole brain emulation be impossible? Well, there could be some subtlety of brain functionality that we are missing, which makes the problem far more complex than we currently imagine (though current advances in neuroscience are making this seem less and less likely every day). On the technology side, Moore's Law will not necessarily hold forever. Actually, it won't hold forever -- "I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling fundamental laws of physics!" -- so the question is just whether or not it will hold for long enough. Even at present, it looks like we are nearing the practical speed limit for a single-threaded processor (Moore's Law continues to hold because of increasing parallelization, but who's to say that whole brain emulation wouldn't require some rip-roaring fast serial process?). Of course, logically an artificial brain must be possible, since there's nothing supernatural involved in "natural" brains, but it may turn out that doing it with computing technology as we presently understand it is a pipe dream. I'm guessing it will be possible after all, but this is anything but a slam dunk.