Thursday, April 30, 2009

Look, Knock It Off Already

Dear Amanda -

Your broad-brush condemnation of libertarians isn't really justified; Andrew Sullivan and Peter Thiel are no more representative of all libertarians than Phyllis Schlafly is representative of all white women. I'm a libertarian and I happen to agree with your analysis that Thiel is largely an escapist wanker1. That said, your assertion that

he pretty openly states that he’d like to disenfranchise women and "welfare" recipients

is totally baseless. He may believe these two constituencies are "notoriously tough" for libertarians, and may even prefer that they were disenfranchised as a practical matter, but nowhere does he actually call for their disenfranchisement.

You, of all people, should appreciate the distinction between holding a belief and trying to force that opinion on others. Thiel is doing the former and not the latter, exactly as we would hope to see.

Yours Truly,


1 "Among the smartest conservatives, this pessimism often manifested in heroic drinking; the smartest libertarians, by contrast, had fewer hang-ups about positive law and escaped not only to alcohol but beyond it"... if you listen closely you can actually hear the sound of one hand fapping.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Atheism and Morality Redux... Again

I think I've put my finger on why I find most discussions of atheism and morality to be so annoying: they equate morality with the display of a certain set of predefined behaviors. The latest offender is this morning's post from Amanda Marcotte, whose argument essentially amounts to "look, atheists can be decent people too". Specifically:

No wonder they think you need religion for morality! But, as is usual in these culture war battles, liberals have science on our side. In a sense, beating authority into a kid is hard because you have to squash their nascent sense of morality that increasingly appears to be rooted in biology. Radio Lab did a fascinating episode tracking the research into where morality comes from, and it’s a combination of an innate human desire to latch onto cultural taboos and a sense of empathy, which is something they can even pinpoint developmentally. The notion that atheists wouldn’t have a sense of morality is completely ridiculous if you look at the research, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they found that atheists and liberal religious types actually have a stronger sense of morality, because they aren’t distracted by a bunch of religious teachings that put, for example, patriarchal authority over your empathy for gay couples wishing to marry or abused women wishing to escape bad marriages.

Argh... that's not morality, that's just reflex. There's no evidence that the people described above have stopped to reflect on the "why?" of their behavior. Absent such reflection how can they possibly know that they're behaving morally and not just behaving in an ultimately self-serving manner?

Amanda, who's usually such a sharp social critic, totally misses the boat on this one. She fails to see that the reason why she believes that the atheists mentioned above exhibit a sense of morality is because she, personally, values "a sense of empathy". Likely she equates the display of empathy towards others with a positive personal morality, even though it's far from self-evident that empathy is a universally positive moral trait.

Worse still, Amanda goes on to paraphrase the finds of a study on disgust and morality:

There’s also questions about stealing, lying, incest, and violating people’s boundaries. What they found was interesting----the stronger the fart stench, the more wrong the students found things like stealing or masturbating with kittens.

That really doesn't bolster her case; to the contrary, it shows that people's moral evaluations are highly suceptible to irrelevant outside influences. Look folks... it's for just such reasons that we should reject personal intuition as a sound basis for morality. We trust other people's ethical intuition as long as it agrees with our own, but what do we do when people's ethical intuition is wildy divergent? We need a coherent moral system which is less susceptible to personal biases, one that arises from the thoughtful application of pre-defined axions. And, as I've written about before, atheists have a problem formulating and defending their axioms.

This is a genuine problem, not just the epistemic equivalent of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?". For example, there are a number of sharp divisions within the great big lump that call itself the "progressive movement". On one side you have libertarians, who believe that rights are solely vested in individuals, and on the other you have people whom, in the minimum, seem to strongly imply that groups have rights as well. Atheists are totally fucked when it comes to arbitrating between these mutually-exclusive positions because each group has an equally strong truth claim.

What we do is muddle along and make compromises as necessary; in our defense this approach seems to work pretty well in practice most of the time. It's probably accurate to say that most of us are utilitarians or principled pragmatists, but that's not the same thing as "being moral" in the sense that we have a set of rules that we live by. The "Atheists are moral too!" crowd misses this distinction; we shouldn't be representing ourselves as something we're not.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

David Gibson Couldn't Find The Point If You Stapled It To His Forehead

I was busy wining this weekend, so I hadn't had the chance to peruse Friday's WSJ until this morning. Which means that I've only recently read David Gibson's latest apology for relgion, Is One Man's Faith Another's Superstition?. That sigh you just heard is me shaking my head and wondering why I still subscribe when they keep publishing shite?

Mr. Gibson wrote the article in response to Pope Benedict's recent statements regarding superstition and witchcraft. Until now he's struck me as a reasonable fellow, so I fully expected him to answer the title question in the affirmative. But that likely doesn't fly in the WSJ, so instead of saying "Duh, of course!" Gibson deploys an amazing barrage of obfuscatory verbiage like so much anti-radar chaff. Speaking of the Protestant view that transsubstantiation is so much "hocus pocus" he says the following:

And it's a good argument, given the superstitions that commingled with religion in the past and persist in the present, either in certain doctrines or in the ingrained rituals of certain followers. The distance between "prosperity theology" - the notion that following God's commands will make you rich - for example, and sacrificing animals to appease the gods is perhaps not as great as we'd like to think.

Ok, so far so good. He's making unwarranted distinctions between religion and superstition, given that he hasn't bothered to define either yet, but I'm willing to let that slide. His overall observation, that current practice bears much in common with what he terms "superstition", is reasonable and possibly borders on insightful. But watch, ladies and gentlemen, as he snatches defeat from the jaws of victory:

On the other hand, the history of religion could be viewed as the process, however halting and incomplete, of shedding magical thinking to reveal truth and meaning, which are the hallmarks of genuine belief as opposed to superstition.

David... no wait... watch where you're going... oh noes!:

The difference between susperstitions and religion is not only the difference between meaning and randomness, and between faith and anxiety, but also the difference between belief in a personal, benevolent God and fear of a pitiless Mother Nature, waiting to be appeased - or exploited - by mumbjo jumbo.

CRASH! Oh dear...

Can you possibly get more parochial? <rimshot> Gibson's "personal, benevolent God" is just one step removed from a household deity; the idea that its somehow more evolved, more refined, more... well... anything is totally unsupportable, even from a theological standpoint. First off, Gibson has set up a false dichotomy between his conception of god and "pitiless Mother Nature"; the idea that they represent two ends of a spectrum is just plain wrong. More importantly, the concept of a omniscient being that cares deeply about every living creature was inspected and rejected by some fairly clever folk a couple thousand years ago on the grounds that it just doesn't hold up to logical scrutiny.

And then there's the whole idea that somehow religion is substantively different from superstition. He 's insisting that if you take low-grade silliness, refine and distill it and surround it with institutional trappings, that what you get out on the other end is something other than silliness. To which I can only respond with "Ummm... no". Gibson's "religion" is no more verifiable that his "superstition"; both require a belief in invisible forces which exist apart from the observable universe. No matter how you slice it, it's still baloney.

I'd like David to offer some closing remarks, if he'd be so kind:

Superstition offers the illusion of control by manipulating nature or revealing her occult intent. If the spells are recited properly, all should be well. It's a big "if," however. Religion gives the promise, rather than the illusion, of hope. God does not always respond as we would like; loved ones die, livelihoods are lost. Mystery is deepened and hopefully, with faith, leads to peace rather than disillusionment. Accidental similarities between religion and magic should not lead anyone to confuse the difference in their content.

So remember, if you mumble to Mother Nature and nothing happens its because you're being susperstitious. But if you mumble to God and nothing happens that's OK because it's all part of his plan.

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