Monday, January 23, 2012

It's Not Religion

I've repeatedly said the issue is not the religion per se - it is the underlying beliefs fomented, with or without religion:

Prejudice: 'our god is the real god, yours is false' - is extremely prejudicial and, however much a few religious people might fight it, this is an overwhelming product of religion. Which is also NOT to say that religion has exclusive access to creating prejudice.

Ideology: Ideology IS prejudice, human behavior is too complex to be fully captured by a set of rules. Any set of rules about human behavior is going to be harmful when the RULES themselves are placed above all else.

Tribalism/Us-versus-Them/Nationalism/Patriotism: These are more forms of prejudice - this is where religious and political ideologies both similarly exploit base human nature.

There is nothing wrong with a proportioned sense of pride about ones nation but no nation, government, or persons should be placed above open criticism. The point is that this "Us" mentality is highly exploitable and must be guarded against.

Credulity: that belief without evidence is greater than empirical facts and reasoned conclusions. 'God hates homosexuals, look here, he commands that you put them to death - we don't do that anymore but it is still an abomination - so no marriage for you'. No evidence of the harm this does to others can ever exceed the internally ridged inculcated mind holding that ignorance is greater than knowledge. See Also: Truthiness

Miracles/Supernatural: I don't have to take my child to the doctor, I'll just pray like it says in the Bible because I KNOW that miracles are real. There are many other harmful products of this belief as well (exploited by faith healers, psychics, and revivalists, .... just to name a few).

False Morals: the promulgation of poorly considered ethical foundations such as the Golden/Silver Rule (which only works if everyone agrees on the desired/undesired behaviors). Don't suffer a witch to live, stoning people to death, death for apostasy, genital mutilations, and so forth [varies]

The counters to these are skepticism, conservatism of action (in the sense of a proper sense of self-doubt as our condition is one primarily of ignorance), liberalism of thought (in the sense of throwing off prejudices, valuing education, freedom, and reform, openness to change in the face of new knowledge, guarding of civil liberties), and a scientific approach to knowledge that demands claims be supported by appropriate evidence and recognizes the propensity of the human mind for cognitive biases, illogic, and factual error.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Value Of Atheism

The following tweet was put out by Adam Baldwin the other day (note: he frequently deletes his tweets so the reference is no longer valid):

Adam Baldwin
What have ever accomplished with their that would make their opinions worthy of respect?

Adam Baldwin put out the challenge above asking essentially, what did atheism ever do for humanity. Of course, he worded it in a very negative and sophistic way.

My response is as follows:

The value of atheism is that it is a rejection of the FALSE religious claims of just cause for genocide, genital mutilation, stoning to death, torture, and hate (etc). Atheism itself (the rejection of theism) provides ABSOLUTELY NO BASIS for such obviously abhorrent actions.

So, you might ask, how does a secular person justify 'morality'. The answer is: EXACTLY THE SAME WAY EVERY OTHER SINGLE PERSON HAS EVER DONE SO.

You learned your fundamental moral behaviors LONG before you knew anything about the details of the bible (and, in fact, a lucky few among us do not have any poisonous religious claims polluting their mind yet they are moral beings as well). You ALREADY knew it was wrong to hurt others because you FELT it. And the few people who don't feel this way are the psychopaths and sociopaths in the world. It has NEVER been demonstrated that a non-belief in god is correlated with a lack of empathy in any way. On the other hand, religious up-bringings HAVE been shown to have PTSD-like effects on children.

We humans have 'mirror' neurons which enable us to virtually experience what others actually experience. When you see someone else harmed you (tend to) imagine that you feel what they are feeling (unless you are mentally damaged). This is the underlying basis of our empathic drive and forms the fundamental basis for our sense of morality. Neuroscience is making incredible progress in this area of research.

Secondly, humans have the ability to share our ideas as a collective group. Through various agreements (implicit and explicit) we have established rules for social order that result in mutual support and protection of groups that we identify with (and to our great collective misfortune, also leads to conflicts with groups that we do NOT identify with).

Finally, because we are able to observe, reason, and make determinations for our individual and collective well-being (e.g., I'm hungry, I need to eat -- or my family is hungry, I need to hunt) we are also able to make similar determinations about our behaviors and their consequences in other areas of life.

Go back 10,000 years and imagine that you are a stranger entering a village and you start acting erratically (yelling, jumping around, acting unusual, foaming at the mouth, etc). The villagers might well kill you in self-defense.

It's not immoral to act strangely and yet people would have KNOWN not to do it. They don't need a 'god' to tell them how others are going to react to things.

You don't have to actually DO a thing to make a fairly good assessment of this result and adjust your behavior accordingly, if you are familiar with the customs and culture.

The problem you immediately run into when you try to use the Bible to justify some kind of absolute moral foundation is that #1 the 'laws' for people clearly changed over time (don't eat pig, ok to eat pig -- cut off foreskin, don't cut off foreskin -- god commanded slavery in the OT, slavery tolerated in the NT, and now is slavery moral or immoral?) and #2 the rules for 'God' are obviously different than those for men, if moral law was ABSOLUTE it would, by definition, apply equally. Yet, it is said to be immoral to commit murder but it's ok to commit murder if God orders it as he did of Abraham, as he did at Jericho, as he did to the many tribes, as he did of the first born of Egypt, and as he did of nearly the entirety of creation in the Flood.

Some final thoughts...

Do you think it's morally ok to CUT OFF a womans entire clitoris? Some religions[Islam] claim that you must, how do you propose to prove them wrong? Does the Bible say you can't do that? It ORDERS the followers of Judaism to cut off part of the male penis so obviously god doesn't think too poorly of such practices and he utterly fails to mention any prohibition on doing this to women.

And Slavery existed in Jesus' time but he never spoke out clearly and condemned it. And the Bible was used for thousands of years to Justify slavery and the poor treatment of jewish people. Only very recently (historically speaking) did religious leaders FINALLY grow a fucking conscious and help to speak out against slavery.

These issues just show the complete ridiculousness of religious claims. Unless you can overcome all those objections then you have no basis to claim the superiority of religious claims.

I don't think it's moral/ethical to cut ANYTHING off any infant (unless there is a clear and established medical need). That goes for foreskins, clitorises, extra fingers or toes (unless they present a medical danger), penis on a hermaphrodite, or ANYTHING else [see also Circumcision]

Addendum: I would like to add here, that by rejecting rigidly, closed-minded claims of religion immense progress has been made in the sciences while the Catholic Church was busying burning scientists like Giordano Bruno at the stake and imprisoning Galileo Galilei. The Church had an odd love/hate relationship with scientists, they were sometimes supporters of those who would stay within their strict bounds. But it is that very factor of an a priori boundary of inquiry that is at the heart of the problem and when you compound that with a bloodthirsty penchant for the most extreme forms of torture you can imagine for those who dared think for themselves then yes, I do find fault. How many Popes in a row ordered murder and torture be done in Christ's name? And is even ONE acceptable? Imagine if an atheist organization existed today that had tortured people for 1000 years? Would ANY organization get away with that other than a religious one?

So I say those who have rejected these false religious beliefs have indeed done many wonderful things for mankind as a product of that rejection, or to use Baldwin's phrase "with their atheism". AND they didn't do it out of fear or bribery.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How might we discern Objective Moral facts?

If objective moral facts exist then they would be facts of the matter regarding an action, behavior, or thought (I will just use 'behavior') to being 'right' or 'wrong'. Morality does not apply to all behaviors, this is an important and key observation.

There is no proof that objective moral facts actually exist. It could be that right and wrong is entirely an opinion held by a being capable of holding such thoughts. But I would like to present my viewpoint on why objective moral facts MIGHT exist, and a brief consideration of what they might look like. PLEASE note that this is NOT a proof of objective morals, it's merely an exploration of how they MIGHT exist on the nature of the concept of Morality itself (as being distinct from other concepts).

First, what I do mean by "distinct from other concepts". If I said Morality was the distance between planets you would instantly recognize that I was NOT actually talking about Morality. So this concept of distance between planets is not part of the distinct concept of Morality. So what IS the distinct concept of Morality? This is the real question we're trying to address. And our problem is that even WE don't really know what we MEAN when we talk about Morality. All we know is that it's something our brains DO, but the details are fuzzy. But we can identify at least some things that are not part of the concept, and I'll show that we can identify some that are. The question then becomes, on the properties necessary for Morality to be a distinct concept - can we then deduce any Evaluative moral statements that must apply (if you removed them then Morality would no longer be a distinct concept).

Any human endeavor that proposes to ask a question about something requires an Evaluative statement upon which to base any measurements (formal or informal). We often only have a very fuzzy idea of what we mean when we ask such questions. We do this about thousands of things and don't really think anything about it. Is it an objective fact that pressing the right buttons on a telephone will let you speak to your friend in New York? Of course it is? What is your yardstick for measuring this? Well, you push the buttons and you hear your friends voice and later on your talk to your friend in person and they confirm, yes that was me on the phone. Something physical happened in the universe that we could measure - but the thing we're measuring is completely arbitrarily defined by us posing the question in the first place. So what you observe & measure is determined by the very Yardstick that you define. What is a second? Is there an objective fact of a second? No there isn't! We measure a second against an atomic process, when it happens 9,192,631,770 times we call that a second, that fluctuation is the objective fact of reality, 1 second is a quantity of that measurement. We used to measure seconds against rotations of the Earth but we found that wasn't actually just measuring time, it was measuring all kinds of other things that made it (very slightly) unreliable! We had a poor yardstick, we found a better one.

So whenever we want to actually measure something, we must must have an evaluative statement that provides the CORRECT yardstick by which to measure it. We can make due with poor yardsticks, but they will give fuzzier answers.

Is it 'hot' out today? Is an evaluative statement but there are a lot of hidden assumptions. 'hot' relative to what? Most often the person asking would be asking relative to the temperature range in which humans are comfortable. And it isn't JUST temperature, humidity would play an implicit role as well, wind speed, and many other factors would all come into play.

Now imagine that I ask "is it wrong to initiate force against another human being"? This is a question that demands an evaluative statement about Morality by which to measure it. Let's look more closely at Morality in detail, and see if we can deduce any facts independent of our mere intuitions about it.

Built-into the very concept of Morality is the necessity that the agent either be capable of performing the action (a deontological/duty moral) or of not performing the action (or avoiding it). Morality simply doesn't apply to falling rocks, the rocks are never considered immoral. If we removed culpability from the concept of Morality it would not be meaningful.

So we CAN identify at least some of the necessary concepts that are part of Morality. Two other important concepts are intentionality and awareness of the consequences.

Someone who has suffered major brain damage may no longer be able to control their actions, if they harmed someone in such a state we wouldn't hold them morally culpable. They would lack the necessary properties that are inherent in the notion of Morality. They would be acting irrationally.

Neurological studies comparing parts of the brain believed to be responsible for empathy show marked differences between dysfunctioning psychopathic brains and normal brains. So I think that empathy is very likely a necessary property to possess to be considered Morally culpable. I'll grant this one is on weaker ground than the others but I think it is not difficult to imagine how this plays a critical role.

What about the ability to learn? We do not consider infants to be morally culpable, they do not demonstrate the necessary levels of cognition and understanding. They don't seem to be able to help what they do. As they grow more capable it seems rather self-evident that they must learn. A being that could not learn, I do not believe, could become morally culpable, any more than the brain damaged.

What about a brain that can learn, but cannot apply that learning to future behaviors? They must be able to apply what they learn to future behaviors.

So there are a number of things that seem to be inherent and necessary to the concept of Morality:

(1) culpability
(2) intentionality
(3) aware of consequences
(4) rationality
(5) empathy (and other intact emotions)
(6) ability to learn
(7) ability to apply knowledge to future behaviors

It certainly seems to me that if any of things are missing then the very question of morality would be irrelevant for that object (or being).

So now, let reconsider our question - on these necessary properties of Morality, "is it wrong to initiate force against another human being?"

If we do, a morally sufficient agent would be culpable, they would have intended to cause harm, they would be aware of the consequences (they would know how others are likely to feel and how they themselves would feel if the situation were reversed; as well as what others might do to them if they are caught), they would have had an opportunity to have learned and apply this knowledge to their action. Would a rational being then act in such a harmful way?

The question is, can you remove the Evaluative statement "It IS wrong to initiate force against another human being" from the concept of Morality and leave the concept intact, or is that statement necessary on the facts of Morality itself?

Perhaps you can, perhaps not, but these are the types of statements that would need to necessarily hold given the inherent properties of a distinct concept of Morality.

Now imagine the set of ALL POSSIBLE Evaluative statements that could possibly relate to Morality, if you can remove every single one of them and leave Morality intact then there are no objective morals. If any of them are necessary on the facts of Morality, as a distinct concept, then those would be objective moral facts.

I do NOT think the properties I've listed here are, by themselves, sufficient to sustain any objective moral facts. I've only tried to point how I think that such a thing could exist and what they might look like and how we might eventually discern them. Before we can do any proving, I think that we would need to understand what mechanisms in our brain processes Morality and understand what the necessary properties of those structures are.

I do think that modern neurological studies are showing extremely strongly that there is a (common) neurological basis for human morality, so even if there are no objective moral facts there is almost certainly a phenomenological basis for morality. I'll try to expand on that in the future (or dig up some good resources).