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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Proximate pratfall

Regarding Richard Mourdock's "rape babies are a gift from God" comment...

It's fun to see people all over the internet making fun of Mourdock saying that a pregnancy which results from rape should be considered a gift from God, because that life is something God intended to happen. They can see the obvious dishonesty of it, and are going to town drawing the logical conclusions of such a statement. Those logical conclusions are how we can know it was dishonest-- if it wasn't, then the most charitable thing that can be said is that Mourdock didn't exactly think it through.

You see, the position that God intended for a pregnancy to have resulted from a rape can be interpreted in one of two ways:

1. Ultimate: Of course God intended for it to happen, because God intends everything! God is the author of the universe, the primary force behind everything and everything. He is the ground of being, or at least the first cause who set everything in motion. Therefore if something happens, it is by his intention.

Why Mourdock's statement is ridiculous, if that's what he meant: Rape pregnancies, then, are intended by God in the same sense as cancer, earthquakes, and car accidents. The implication of Mourdock's statement is of course that a pregnancy resulting from rape is intended by God, therefore the woman should not have an abortion. But our response to disease, natural disasters, and human-caused mishaps is not to proceed about our day as if nothing happened, whether we regard those things as ultimately intended by God or not. When those things happen, we attempt to fix them-- to put things right. Oftentimes, to a woman whose pregnancy resulted from rape, getting an abortion is putting things right (well, as much as she can). God intending the pregnancy is not an argument against her doing so any more than it is an argument against chemotherapy for cancer patients.

2. Proximate: A rape victim's pregnancy is a result of special intervention on God's part. For reasons known only to God-- and apparently to Mourdock-- God looked down on that woman who had recently experienced the suffering of sexual violation and said "Hey, that raped lady needs a baby." And presto! He put one inside her.

Why Mourdock's statement is ridiculous, if that's what he meant: Because it makes God-- and Mourdock-- a sadist. Unfortunately Mourdock's use of the word "gift" makes it much more likely that this is the sense in which his statement was made, and that's why people are reacting so badly to it even though he still appears to have no clue of the enormity of what he said. That's what is making people mentally dry heave.

And by the way, you can give a gift back. It might be rude, but you can do it. Just saying.

This lead me, though, to think of an earlier rumination I had about conservatives conflating God's behavior in the proximate vs. ultimate sense, so I'm re-posting that here:

1. "Everything is caused by a higher power. I call that higher power God."

2. "Natural disasters are acts of God-- they are part of the structure of the world and we just have to deal with them as they come."

3. "Now that (insert natural disaster) has happened, are the people of (insert region of the world) going to wake up and see that God has a message for them?  Are they going to see that God is not happy, and change their ways?"

Three very different statements. The third person is claiming that a natural disaster is a specific act of God, performed in reaction to the behavior of people in the area affected by it. This person is either too uneducated to know the reality of why natural disasters happen in certain times and in certain places, or does not mind appearing to be. To put it less delicately, if you claim that natural disasters are actually divine punishment you are not only stunningly lacking in empathy but can also safely be thought less than bright. I don't expect people to stop doing that any time soon, but our collective willingness to call their statements ridiculous has increased.  Previously there would have been no need for Michele Bachmann's PR person to declare that she was simply joking [when she said that Hurricane Irene was God "getting Washington's attention"].

We still don't-- or at least, shouldn't-- want people who are willing to make statements like that running the country. We shouldn't want governors who think that you solve problems like property rights violations and drought by appealing to God to solve them. We shouldn't want a president who decided to run in the first place because he/she thinks God told him/her to run, or that God will tell him/her things like whether to go to war or not while in office.

Why? Because these put God in front of natural and human causes for things. They make him a proximate cause, rather than the ultimate one. God might indeed favor Herman Cain for president, but the rest of us should be primarily concerned with whether he's what the country needs, and whether he'll do a good job. God might be concerned about property rights, but since it's the job of politicians to make things right in that regard, they should be doing it. God might have an opinion about whether the country should go to war, but hopefully it's based on the same things a president should be concerned about-- whether the war is just, how much suffering it will cause, and so on. God might have very firm opinions about how Obama's handling the deficit, but if you consider Irene to be a sign of that you're a cretin and shouldn't be in an elected position of power.

Digital dualism enables internet idiocy; monism motivates meaning

First things first-- if you haven't already, go over to technosociology and read Zeynep Tufekci's excellent post Free Speech and Power: From Reddit Creeps to anti-Muslim Videos, It’s Not *Just* “Free Speech." You can probably glean the subject matter from that title, but the post is a very nuanced and careful (and even more careful after some edits) consideration of what free speech means on the many and varied private venues of conversation that compose the internet. I'm not really going to add to that-- just go read.

What I want to talk about here is actually something mentioned in a specific part of her post, on the significance of what happens on the internet as opposed to "real life":
Another variant of the argument has been that “it’s just the Internet.” Chill. This, of course, rests of on something I've long been railing against, the notion that the Internet is somehow not real, that it’s virtual or that it is “trivial.” (My friend Nathan Jurgenson coined the phrase “digital dualism” to refer to this tendency).
Mind/body dualism is the term for a belief that the mind and body are fundamentally separate, made of different stuff in some way. The most common version of this is belief in a soul, the locus of all of the "important" thinking-- aka, the mental stuff, the stuff that makes you, you-- which either wasn't ever part of your body or will cease to be part of your body upon your eventual demise. Digital dualism, then, is the casual belief that what happens in the internet is not part of real life-- that it is somehow fundamentally separate. The soul is separate and therefore more significant, but life on the internet is separate and therefore less so. It's not part of "real life," but a diversion from it, or at best, a tool to assist in maintaining it. Jurgenson writes regarding the genesis of this thinking:
The digital dualism versus augmented reality debate relates to another outmoded conceptualization that argues the Internet has the power to transcend and remove social locatedness. At its onset, the Internet seemed to promise the possible deconstruction of dominant and oppressive social categorizations such as gender, race, age and even species; as the cartoon goes, “online, no one knows you’re a dog”. We can trace this line of thought through the classic Hacker ethic that ‘all information should be free’ through the open-source movement behind Linux and in the philosophy of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. 
Essential to these projects was the idea that the Internet can be created as a sphere separate from (perhaps even better than) the offline world. Digitality promised a Wild-West frontier built without replicating the problems of our offline reality, fixing the its oppressive realities such as skin color, physical ability, resource scarcity as well as time and space constraints. The new digital frontier was a space where information could flow freely, national boundaries could be overcome, expertism and authority could be upended; those old structures would be wiped away in the name of a utopian and revolutionary cyber-libertarian path blazed by our heroic cyber-punk and hacker digital cowboys (indeed, those were boy’s clubs). 
This dream could only be maintained by holding the digital as conceptually distinct from the physical. Perhaps this is understandable given this new space was literally being invented. However, the novelty of the new digital reality betrayed the ultimate reality that none of this digitality really existed outside of long-standing social constructions, institutions and inequalities. (Emphasis in original)
This blog's name is due in part to digital dualism. I was trying to think of what sums up the significance and purpose of a blog most, and got stuck on the fact that a blog is a means of expressing something to the world  with little to no expenditure necessary on the part of the author, no requirement of means, let alone credentials. It requires time and effort, and that's it. That makes a blog nearly the cheapest signal possible, but that cheapness only refers to the ability of any yahoo with an internet connection to make and maintain one. The messages transmitted can also be cheap, or they can be incredibly valuable-- but that value depends on, is determined by, the messages themselves. If the messages are valuable and have an effect, that breaks from digital dualism and betrays at they are in fact part of the real world.

PZ Myers slaps away the notion that the ease of putting something out into the internet makes it less substantial or important:
The internet made publication trivial. It apparently diminished the substance of communication — no more crackling bits of paper that pile up on your desk. Media like twitter and facebook encourage you to blurt casually, with little attention to the words you write. It leads to the illusion that communication online is as insubstantial as the conversation you had with your cat. 
But it isn’t. In the vast howling noise of the internet, what you say has become more important — voices that babble and shriek don’t rise to prominence and become regular draws (they can be brief freak show sensations, though, and we do see a tendency for voices of minimal talent or intelligence striving to become louder through more extreme viciousness or stupidity). Because something is written in the intangible pattern of electrons doesn’t make it less substantial, but instead makes it easier to distribute, copy, and archive — you could burn an incriminating letter, but once it is on the internet, it is spread far and wide and, while not completely unerasable, is harder to remove…and actively trying to remove something tends to make it more noticeable and more widely disseminated. Meanwhile, I’m finding hardcopy to be less useful — I get dunned with so much junk mail, all those crackling bits of paper that offer me new credit cards at low low rates and advertisements for big screen TVs on sale and sweepstakes I must enter to win millions of dollars, that I increasingly devalue stuff that is written down. I used to photocopy journal articles every week and file them away in a cabinet — I’ve still got a huge pile of these things from 20-30 years ago — but now I rarely print anything, it’s far more useful to have a searchable, indexable, archived PDF that I can also instantly email to students and colleagues. 
Just because some old fogies don’t comprehend or appreciate the volume and content of all the communication that goes on by this medium doesn’t make it less real. The internet is not the place where a billion ghosts chatter over matters of no consequence — it’s the new reality, the tool that many of us use to make connections that matter. It’s the greatest agent of information and communication humanity has yet invented, and it deserves a little more respect than dismissal as something “unreal” where trolls can roam unchecked.
It's not just "old fogies" who are digital dualists, though-- it's those same trolls, and everyone who agrees with them that degrees of anonymity make everything matter less. The old fogies are ignorant of the reality of the internet, but the trolls are not-- they are living in denial in order to avoid accepting the responsibility of being trolls. The distance makes it easy to pretend that there are not actual other people on the end of every barbed forum post or abusive tweet. It's baffling to me to see people actually use their Facebook accounts to express every kind of bigotry and hate under the sun both on Facebook itself and on all sorts of news sites and other fora which use Facebook for commenting. Don't they know they're using their real identities for that? Of course they do, but they don't care-- the distance makes it seem like it doesn't matter.

My dissertation was, in part, about how belief in a soul can actually inhibit the ability to practice empathy by establishing the body and the physical/social environment as less important, as mundane and disposable, and then dehumanizing people to place them solidly within that realm as opposed to the company of the ensouled. Digital dualism is not an exact analog to this, but I can certainly see how empathy can be switched off by relegating others to the status of "internet people" and dismissing their concerns in a very similar way. Perhaps it's even the same move gone one step further-- if the soul is what binds us with eternity and makes us children of God in contrast to everything else in this worldly world of ours, then perhaps so-called "real life" likewise divorces us from the fake, transient, shallow world of the internet. Maybe we always need some kind of existence to subvert and make into a meaningless playground.

That certainly seems, anyway, to be the mentality on display whenever there's a discussion of poor behavior anywhere on the internet, but especially in gaming, where people can ramp "It's just the internet" up into "It's just a game." We don't need to worry about unfairness, bigotry, or general douchiness here-- it's just a game! Because I guess people who play games cease to be people. Or maybe just all other people aside the one steadfastly defending the right and appropriateness of his being a douche.

I've written on the subject of empathy inhibition on the internet before, here and here. But in the former of those two posts, I also wrote about how online interaction can foster empathy to the point of creating tremendous opportunities to help people who have been observed suffering-- observed via the internet. When people are well and truly convinced that what they do on the internet affects real people even if those people are strangers, some beautiful things can happen. That being the case, I can see no benefit in promoting the notion that the internet is not "real life." I can see only downsides. Not only is digital dualism false-- what we do online has tremendous effects, even if they are not immediately obvious or consistent-- but it's also harmful, because it encourages people to harm others without taking responsibility for it, because they do not acknowledge that those others are also people. And it impedes the opportunity for and practice of great acts of empathy.

So let's discard the dualism. This is real life. Let's act like it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Demonology

Art by Sandro Castelli
It's getting close to Halloween, so let's talk about demons.

I'm going to define a demon as a non-human agent who works in the world-- the existence we inhabit-- to create evil. Now, yes, I've said that I don't believe in evil, that evil is a problematic concept. I don't, and it is. But I don't believe in demons either. This definition is a description of what demons are to people who do believe in them, and people who believe in demons typically believe in evil.

There are all kinds of demons. There are other kinds of "real" demons in folklore across the world, and other kinds of intentionally fictional demons depicted all over movies, literature, gaming, and so on. The Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for example has a whole slew of them, each with their own characteristics, rank, and abilities. Demons as mythological characters are really fun, because they can look like virtually anything although they typically have horns and a tail at least, sometimes hooves. A tiefling is a humanoid with demonic ancestry, and they're not even necessarily evil.

But the kind some Christians believe in? They're evil. Their reason for existing is, in fact, evil. They exist to prevent humans from flourishing and achieving spiritual salvation. That is, demons serve Satan and work to prevent the souls of humans from being saved so that those humans will go to a heavenly afterlife. In the Bible, demons usually take the form of "unclean spirits" who possess people and can only be removed via exorcism. Jesus was, among many other things, an exorcist. Catholic clergy have performed exorcisms for centuries and do to this day, while specifying that the allegedly demon-possessed person must be examined by a doctor to ensure that it is not actually a case of mental illness. After all,
“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person. 
“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”
Indeed. A 2008 Pew Forum Landscape Survey found that 68% of Americans "believe that angels and demons are active in the world." According to a 2009 Barna Group study, in America,
A majority of Christians believe that a person can be under the influence of spiritual forces, such as demons or evil spirits. Two out of three Christians agreed that such influence is real (39% agreed strongly, 25% agreed somewhat), while just three out of ten rejected the influence of supernatural forces (18% disagreed strongly, 10% disagreed somewhat). The remaining 8% were undecided on this matter.
So these people believe that there are other agents in our world-- non-human but human-like agents-- which have an effect on the world for good or for evil. I'm focusing on evil for now, because I think it's more interesting in terms of moral responsibility. Namely, how demons function to add, take away, or otherwise mess with it. See, the notion of a non-human agent which can possess people and make them do evil works excellently for two purposes: 1) asserting that someone else is doing something wrong when you can't come up with any real evidence of the wrongness of the act, and 2) exculpating oneself of actual or at least allegedly actual harmful acts by taking the blame. You've heard someone speak of his or her demons? Some people actually mean that literally.

Whether they appear in someone's explanation for the reason for whatever they consider evil happening in the world, or in a movie designed to scare the hell out of us, there's one feature of demons that is particularly salient to me: they don't work voluntarily. And by that I don't mean demons are slaves. I mean that they can take control of things without any consent on the part of the person or people for whom they are ruining existence. Frequently when a demon shows up in a movie, it's because somebody summoned it by accident by performing some ritual (Ritual: A sequence of actions which produces a supernatural result as an emergent property, in addition to the expected physical consequence of those actions. Dunking someone in water gets them wet. Baptizing someone confirms them as a child of God.) which brings them into the world, completely involuntarily on behalf of the summoner. And when a demon is summoned on purpose, it's generally without the summoner having a complete understanding of what he/she is doing, which tends to turn out very badly indeed for him/her. Demons: not big fans of consent.

I watched Hellraiser recently for the Film Sack podcast. I'd never seen it before. I wasn't big on horror movies at all growing up because they'd seep into my dreams whether I recognized them as fake and ridiculous or not, so I just avoided them altogether. But over the past few years I've started watching both and old and new ones, good and bad, from The Omen to Poultrygeist, and the thing that sticks out to me the most is how they screw with moral responsibility. Sure, anybody who has so much as seen a horror movie or watched Scream knows this. But there's a lesson about morality that horror movies can tell you. I'm not saying it's a good or correct lesson, but it's a pretty darn consistent lesson:
Horrible things will happen, perhaps to you. They will be worse if you're a bad person. Whether it's "cheated on your significant other" bad or "serial killer" bad (or just "had sex" bad, if you're female) doesn't matter. Being a good person will not save you. You do have to be a good person to survive, but you also have to have access to and seize upon an opportunity presented for no real reason and based entirely on luck. If you do that, you might survive.  
In the case of Hellraiser there is plenty of Hell and demons, and fortuitous opportunity is a small wooden box. A box which apparently (the movie is not very clear) provides both the opportunity to inadvertently turn your soul over to the complete control of demons, or, under the right circumstances, to banish those demons. I won't spoil the movie for you, but I bet you can guess which sort of people get controlled and which get the banishing power. The important thing is how unintentional it was in all cases. In both movies and popular conceptions of demons, the matter of whether you end up being controlled by them or whether you are in a position of chase them away has very little to do with what you actually will to happen. In popular conception, here are some ways you can worship and/or summon demons completely inadvertently:
This last was the focus of a recent radio show rant by Linda Harvey of Mission: America, who said:
The core of Halloween is glittering artificiality, you can pretend to be someone you aren’t’ for a night, you can flirt with danger, you can divine a different destiny, but it is all void of the presence of or will of God. It’s a seduction that says, ‘don't be afraid, do whatever you want, there’s nothing to fear,’ it’s one of Satan’s oldest tricks. 
Costume parties are fun but these costumes may even disguise our very souls. Most Christians with a sincere faith acknowledge that there is a demonic realm and that Satan and his minions are at work in the world to deceive humans, so why wouldn't Halloween provide an extremely useful tool? Mixed in with the fun and games are frightening and disturbing experiences that may leave some children with nightmares. Then there is the flirtation with occult practices that are forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:10-12 and elsewhere, Christians aren't supposed to be consulting fortune tellers, Ouija boards or palm readers about our future but all are frequently a part of Halloween festivities. ‘But it’s just for fun,’ parents will say, ‘God understands my children are not serious.’ Really? Do your kids know how risky these practices are and that real contact with real demons is quite possible. Satan doesn't care about our intentions; he will take any willing participant.
Putting aside the fact that that "There's nothing to fear" was one of the profound messages of divine insight delivered in neurosurgeon Eben Alexander's trip to paradise, the most important thing here is that the only intentions which matter are those of Satan and his minions. Not even God's omniscient understanding of the content of the minds and hearts of men is apparently good enough to rescue what would otherwise be completely morally neutral acts of fun from actually being rituals to deliver souls into demonic control and presumably a very warm afterlife. Believing in Satan and demons means that there are evil agents in the world actively trying to pull your soul away from God's embrace, and they can do by means which coincidentally look just like the ways to have the most fun.

The arguments that practicing yoga is demonic center around the notion that you're actually practicing the rituals of another religion, and if you're doing that (knowingly or unknowingly) then you're obviously not conforming properly to your own religion. And since there are no other gods but God, you can't actually be worshipping the gods of other religions by mistake. What you are doing, then, is demonic. Since it is not God-focused, it must be Satan-focused, since Satan wants you to turn your attention from God. As if there isn't enough pain and suffering going on in the world occurring naturally, accidentally, and deliberately by the acts of the malicious, we have to worry about accidentally serving Satan by being influenced by demons to commit ungodly acts which don't appear ungodly because they harm nobody and actually seem fun, helpful, and/or educational.

The lesson of demon-believing Christianity seems uncannily like the lesson of horror movies, doesn't it? Evil is actively working in the world to cause you to suffer and die. You will likely suffer more if you're even slightly bad, but being good-- according to rather questionable rules we've made-- is not enough to save you. You must also be lucky enough to be given an unlikely and seemingly arbitrary opportunity, and you must seize on that opportunity in order to have any hope of surviving. If you ignore these rules and this opportunity in favor of enjoying yourself and doing what you think is right, you will unwittingly serve the interests of the evil agents and ultimately become theirs.

I submit that this portrayal of moral responsibility is absolutely incompatible with free will, which shouldn't be shocking at all (it may shock you that I believe in free will, but that's another commentary altogether. Sufficed to say I'm persuaded by Daniel Dennett's portrayal). I think that demon-belief is completely fatuous, which should also be unsurprisingly. But I also want to say that I consider it an immoral belief, because of this effect of completely distorting moral responsibility to make evil out of acts which are not just benign, but intended as benign and actually morally neutral or perhaps even positive. Demon belief is a cheap cop-out in terms of morality in a way that angel belief is not, which is why I didn't feel compelled to address angels here at all. I don't believe in angels, but consider the belief  mostly benign except when people credit angels for things like successful surgery rather than, you know, their surgeons.

I can't get people to stop believing in demons. But I think I have offered a sound argument for not taking people seriously when they attempt to invoke demons as moral justification for....well, anything. Linda Harvey's full rant included the suggestion that demons are responsibility for homosexuality and what she calls "gender confusion." We should not listen to people like Linda Harvey. They are literally making up supernatural support for their morality, and in the worst, most damaging possible way.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Procotting

I can't seem to find a word that denotes a deliberate decision to patronize a business in response to a boycott by others, so I'm going to say I'm procotting Home Depot. Here's why:
The American Family Association has announced yet another boycott, or perhaps a continuation of an already existing one, and the target this time is Home Depot because it set up a booth to promote itself at a gay pride event in Atlanta.
 The Anti-Fags American Family Association complained that
One of the main purposes of “gay” pride events is to push for the legalization of marriage between men who have unnatural sex acts with other men. Rather than remaining neutral on the issue, Home Depot has taken the side of grown men who parade in public places dressed as drag queens and “fairies.”…
AFA is promoting a boycott of Home Depot until it agrees to remain neutral in the homosexual culture war.
Because apparently, being neutral means treating gays like non-humans. I'm not sure if the AFA has noticed, but  homosexuals have home repair and improvement needs just like all other humans. Desiring romantic and intimate relationships with other people of the same gender does not, seemingly, absolve one of the need or compunction to paint the living room. Heck, it might actually further it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

$75k happy

This is a bit old, but I just came across it-- an article in Time reports on a study which says that money can buy you happiness, but it reaches diminishing returns past $75,000 or so. That is, people whose yearly salary is around $75,000 seem to have reached the point at which money can make them maximally happy.

I'd be happy for $75,000. Just for the record, if anyone's wondering? I would.

As you would expect, there are caveats to that. The happiness affected by having that amount of money was not your general day-to-day cheer, but your sense of fulfillment and well-being in life:
Before employers rush to hold — or raise — everyone's salary to $75,000, the study points out that there are actually two types of happiness. There's your changeable, day-to-day mood: whether you're stressed or blue or feeling emotionally sound. Then there's the deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going — the kind of thing Tony Robbins tries to teach you. While having an income above the magic $75,000 cutoff doesn't seem to have an impact on the former (emotional well-being), it definitely improves people's Robbins-like life satisfaction. In other words, the more people make above $75,000, the more they feel their life is working out on the whole. But it doesn't make them any more jovial in the mornings. . .
Researchers found that lower income did not cause sadness itself but made people feel more ground down by the problems they already had. The study found, for example, that among divorced people, about 51% who made less than $1,000 a month reported feeling sad or stressed the previous day, while only 24% of those earning more than $3,000 a month reported similar feelings. Among people with asthma, 41% of low earners reported feeling unhappy, compared with about 22% of the wealthier group. Having money clearly takes the sting out of adversities. 
At $75,000, that effect disappears. For people who earn that much or more, individual temperament and life circumstances have much more sway over their lightness of heart than money. The study doesn't say why $75,000 is the benchmark, but "it does seem to me a plausible number at which people would think money is not an issue," says Deaton.
And the article mentions what would seem like the biggest point of contention to me, which is that people often care more about their standing relative to others than they do about their sum worth. A person who is financially very comfortable but lives and works around people who make significantly more than he or she does may actually be less happy than someone who makes substantially less but is more on par with his or her friends and colleagues. This tells me that should I ever win the lottery, I should not move into a wealthy neighborhood and hang out with movie stars. Which I wouldn't want to do anyway.

It also seems, however, that regional differences would matter hugely in this consideration, something the article-- and the study it reports on-- don't appear to consider. $75,000 is not stinking rich, but it's a good bit of money to make in many parts of the U.S. But I sure wouldn't try to move to New York City or San Francisco on that salary. You'd think the happiness threshold of people who live in such places would be quite a bit higher than for the rest of us, but perhaps that was averaged out. This web site is useful for calculating cost of living for a different city relative to where you are now. It says, for example, that a person who makes $75,000 a year living in Dallas should make $170,571 in San Francisco. Housing is the biggest factor in that difference, being 715% more expensive! Wow.

What this study really says to me is that there is an identifiable point at which people become what you'd call "comfortable," and this matters in terms of their overall satisfaction in life. Their worries cease impinging on their pursuit of happiness, because poor health and inability to pay your bills are a huge source of worry. The spookiest thing about Mitt Romney is the fact that he not only doesn't have these worries, but he doesn't even know what it's like to have these worries. He can't properly empathize with Americans on...well, most things in life because he is completely unequipped to process the feeling of not being sure if you need to sell your car in order to hang onto your apartment and keep the lights on, let alone not being sure if you can afford to buy your sixth house (and put a car elevator in its garage). I'm talking about a form of privilege here-- inability to empathize because of never having been exposed to the same fear, concern, or worry as those who are suffering it-- but it's so far beyond that, that it hardly seems like the right word. Hyper-privilege, perhaps. Most if not all American presidents have been privileged, but Mitt Romney is hyper-privileged. And that's why the usual attempts by presidential candidates to appeal to the common American are extra laughable coming from him.

Should someone so far beyond the standard of living which makes the average American happy be in charge of our collective pursuit of happiness? I'm thinking "No." Perhaps this would be a difficult question if the person under consideration had made some kind of effort to demonstrate an ability to empathize with those who are in a situation he has never and will never have to endure, but Romney has done precisely the opposite-- he has sneered at and written off such people. Rather hilariously (and frighteningly) he has lumped people who are comfortable into that group and written them off as well. Like my parents, for example. How does anybody support someone who has said "Screw you" to half the country in that way, even if they aren't in that half?

Anyway, this wasn't intended to be a political commentary. If you're interested in the psychology of happiness generally, I would highly recommend Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis and Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. If you were unaware that there is a psychology of happiness-- guess what? There is. And no, it hasn't succeeded in making everyone happy yet, as I'm sure you are aware. But it's useful, because it helps us understand why we're not happy and why it's very often not our fault. That's an important counter to so-called power of positive thinking theories which claim that we can just decide to be happy. We can't. We can decide to do things which will contribute to our happiness, and they may succeed and they may not, but there is no Happiness Switch, and nothing which can flip it. Not even a bucketload of money, though that money can sure help in terms of erasing the worries that are caused by lack of money. So as with all aphorisms, there's a lot more to "Money can't buy happiness" than is expressed in the statement itself. It can. It can buy you the happiness of being able to pursue happiness unfettered. Or at least, less fettered than you were before.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sam Harris on a NDE as drug trip

I wrote this week about Eben Alexander's account of his must-be-true experience with the afterlife, which made the cover story in Newsweek. Now I see Sam Harris has weighed in on the topic, and he definitely has opinions. First, he incredulously asks how a neurosurgeon could deliver such an account:
Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science. Perhaps he has saved a more persuasive account for his book—though now that I’ve listened to an hour-long interview with him online, I very much doubt it. In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience. 
The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case. Obviously, the man’s cortex is functioning now—he has, after all, written a book—so whatever structural damage appeared on CT could not have been “global.” (Otherwise, he would be claiming that his entire cortex was destroyed and then grew back.) Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. Alexander’s unwarranted assumptions are proliferating rather quickly. Why doesn’t he know these things? He is, after all, a neurosurgeon who survived a coma and now claims to be upending the scientific worldview on the basis of the fact that his cortex was totally quiescent at the precise moment he was enjoying the best day of his life in the company of angels. Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?
Then he wonders, as I wondered, how Alexander didn't even consider the possibility that he was just experiencing a really intense high:
Alexander believes that his E. coli-addled brain could not have produced his visions because they were too “intense,” too “hyper-real,” too “beautiful,” too “interactive,” and too drenched in significance for even a healthy brain to conjure. He also appears to think that despite their timeless quality, his visions could not have arisen in the minutes or hours during which his cortex (which surely never went off) switched back on. He clearly knows nothing about what people with working brains experience under the influence of psychedelics. Nor does he know that visions of the sort that McKenna describes, although they may seem to last for ages, require only a brief span of biological time. Unlike LSD and other long-acting psychedelics, DMT alters consciousness for merely a few minutes. Alexander would have had more than enough time to experience a visionary ecstasy as he was coming out of his coma (whether his cortex was rebooting or not). 
Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension. As one of his correspondents has already informed him, similar experiences can be had with ketamine, which is a surgical anesthetic that is occasionally used to protect a traumatized brain. Did Alexander by any chance receive ketamine while in the hospital? Would he even think it relevant if he had? His assertion that psychedelics like DMT and ketamine “do not explain the kind of clarity, the rich interactivity, the layer upon layer of understanding” he experienced is perhaps the most amazing thing he has said since he returned from heaven. Such compounds are universally understood to do the job. And most scientists believe that the reliable effects of psychedelics indicate that the brain is at the very least involved in the production of visionary states of the sort Alexander is talking about. 
I hadn't realized that Alexander was writing, or has already written, a book on this experience. I imagine that books describing the author's trip to the celestial afterlife do much better than books describing the author's really amazing drug trip, but that's just a hunch.

Political dietary supplement

Joe Biden seen here impersonating the debate's audience.
Been watching the presidential and vice-presidential debates? Yes? What's wrong with you? Just kidding, so  have I. And there may be many things wrong with me, but I don't think being curious to see how the people aspiring to rule the country handle themselves when faced with direct and challenging questions is one of them. Unfortunately however, the answer for the most part has been "not well." I'm one of those people who think Biden absolutely trounced Paul Ryan the other night, but I still didn't appreciate what an ass he was being while doing it. And I'm kind of sorry that while discussing domestic issues the topic of the drug war didn't come up, because Biden has a lot to answer for there-- it's just that it's just another topic on which Ryan would contently hold the same position as the incumbents. Generally speaking, the topic of civil liberties has gotten almost no discussion at all, and it's hard to shake the impression that this is because the candidates on both sides are not big fans.

Which is why I won't be voting D or R in November. I'll be voting L again most likely, and am looking forward to seeing the debate for the other presidential candidates; the ones you haven't seen shouting at each other-- yet. The Free and Equal Elections Foundation is hosting a debate for third party candidates coming up:
Free and Equal Elections Foundation announced today that four candidates have confirmed their participation in the 2012 Presidential Debate at the University Club of Chicago on October 23: Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode, and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson. 
This debate is the only 2012 Presidential Debate featuring four candidates. The top six candidates were invited to participate. Democratic Party candidate and incumbent Barack Obama and Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney are welcome to participate in this historic debate. The moderator will be announced shortly. 
“The four candidates participating represent a nice balance of right and left leaning candidates,” stated Christina Tobin, chair of Free and Equal. “This debate will cover the real issues facing our country such as foreign policy, the economy, and civil rights, rather than topics that further divide us.” 
Free and Equal’s 2012 Presidential Debate sponsors span the political spectrum of grassroots organizations and media who are uniting to solve our nation’s problems. Current sponsors include The Josh Tolley ShowBallot Access NewsMuslims for LibertyNational Constitution PartyThe Justice PartyBlue RepublicansRestore the RepublicRe-Tea PartyFree the Vote NCWe the PeopleGrassroots for Liberty, and New Progressive Alliance
The debate will be broadcast online at www.freeandequal.org. Several additional live feeds will be announced shortly as Free & Equal finalizes its media sponsors.
I will always maintain that even people who fully support the Democratic or Republican candidate for president should want third party candidates to be included in the debates as well, because chances are there is something you think that your candidate just isn't good enough on, and one or more of the third party candidates are better. That or those candidates are in a position to challenge your man or woman to step up to the plate and do more-- make better promises, articulate better plans, do something to justify your continuing to support them rather than defecting to a candidate who better serves your interests. They're not going to get that kind of pressure from the single guy on the other side of the stage, because Mitt Romney sure as hell isn't going to compete with Obama on who can legalize marijuana (for example) faster.

Ideological competition: it does a country good. It makes us healthier to have options. If we can be bothered to pay attention, they're there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I would recommend....

...buying stand-up comedian Tig Notaro's set off fellow comedian Louis CK's web site.

But before you listen to it, I would really recommend listening to listening to the Professor Blastoff podcast. In general, but especially since episode 63. Here's the iTunes link.

Hat tip to Kara, who pointed me in the right direction after I discovered Notaro in this

Tripping a little more

A few more thoughts on Eben Alexander's near-death experience:

PZ Myers describes the story in a post called Newsweek panders to the deluded again, which isn't an inaccurate label (it is indeed a delusion to say that the experience of one questionably conscious neurosurgeon "proves" anything, much less the existence of an afterlife) but I think he misconstrues the experience a bit:
But here’s the real killer for me. People who go through these fantasies often tell of awe-inspiring insights that they receive and are quick to tell us how brilliant they were in Heaven. Alexander is no exception.
That would be the "noetic" part of mysticism, and if we could manage to induce Myers to have a mystical experience whether by drug trip, brain damage, or ESB (as Julia Sweeney put it "People who wore this helmet experienced a sense of transcendent understanding, an overwhelming peace and connectedness, and sometimes the presence of God. Or, of aliens"), he'd probably experience the same thing. He just hopefully wouldn't go on to present that knowledge as real evidence of anything, as Alexander has. If a person comes out of a mystical experience with, say, knowledge of how to build a perpetual motion machine, then there might be something to what they claim to have experienced. It wouldn't prove the rest of their story, but it would at least be interesting! But what generally happens is that the person feels strongly as though he or she has been confronted with the greatest underlying truths of the universe, and yet...couldn't tell you what they are. Or else gives you some rather banal messages like the ones Alexander mentioned:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
"There is nothing you can do wrong."
I recall in one of Dan Savage's books-- Skipping Towards Gomorrah-- he described how a friend of his kept a wicker basket of New Agey phrases printed on laminated slips of paper by the front door for visitors. These were intended to be self-esteem enhancers, pulled randomly from the basket whenever needed in order to create a feeling of empowerment:
When my friend saw me picking through her little wicker basket of affirmations, she folded her arms across her chest, cocked her hip, and said "Go ahead, Dan, make fun of me." She was asking for it. So I pulled out an affirmation, said "I'm Adolf Hitler," and then I read Hitler's affirmation. "I'm a good person, and I want good things." 
"That's awful!" my friend said. 
"I'm Pol Pot: 'I strive to spread love and understanding.'" 
"I'm Richard Speck: 'I am respected and admired, and people want to be near me.'" 
"I'm Trent Lott: 'My inner beauty is like a bright light.'" 
By now, my sensitive friend was, yes, crying. I know, I know, I'm a terrible person. Which is precisely my point. The problem with setting out a basket of affirmations is that you're assuming each and every person who comes into your home or spa is a good person  who wants good things. With all the respect due a basket of laminated affirmations, I beg to differ. 
It sure sounds to me like Dr. Alexander encountered that wicker basket in "Heaven." Hmm...does everybody who goes on a similar trip? Is there nobody who catches a glimpse of the afterlife and is told "You've been a very bad person and have plenty to fear; step it up!" Ebenezer Scrooge-style? Yes, there are such cases. But I'm pretty sure they are vastly outweighed by the other variety.

There's another important thing about the specific messages Eben (no, I'm not going to make a joke about that) Alexander says he received-- they are themselves passive. They are the kind of messages it would be appropriate to give a person who is seeing a movie, especially a scary movie, for the first time ever. Don't worry. There's nothing to be afraid of. You can't do anything wrong here. You can't do anything wrong because you can't do anything-- the story is going to play out as it does regardless. The only time it's possible to not be able to do anything wrong is when nothing you do matters, which is when you're experiencing something that's not real. In the real world, there is plenty to fear. There are all kinds of things you can do wrong. And...there's no guarantee that you will be loved, much less forever.

So I can see why a person would cling to such an experience, much like a security blanket. I can't see why someone would wave that blanket around claiming that others must cling to it as well, especially why a supposed news magazine would declare that they should. Alexander, and Newsweek, should know better than that.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I'm tripping over you, God

In a Newsweek article grandiosely (to put it lightly) titled Proof of Heaven: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife published yesterday, Dr. Eben Alexander recounts a story of what it was like to visit Heaven (apparently) and speak with God (apparently) which supposedly took place while he was in a coma due to bacterial meningitis. His sole basis for believing that this was an actual experience he had and not simply something his mind conjured up, like it might any dream (or drug trip), is the "fact" that it occurred during the coma, while his neocortex was shut down and conscious thought impossible.

What Alexander had was a mystical experience, no doubt. It fits William James' still-very-useful criteria for such experiences:

1) Noetic quality -- Alexander describes special knowledge as having been imparted to him, knowledge which he couldn't have comprehended otherwise:
Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn’t simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn’t thought like we experience on earth. It wasn’t vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate—hotter than fire and wetter than water—and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life. (Spoiler: Alexander never says what these concepts were, or tries to explain them himself)
2) Ineffability -- Alexander does his best to describe the experience, but he can't truly convey the majesty and meaning of it in words. Such a thing would be impossible. He wasn't even able to comprehend himself for a very long time:
It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but—more importantly—the things that happened during that time.
3) Transience -- Alexander doesn't say how long the experience took. But it was definitely temporary. He's not still floating around amongst the clouds and speaking to mysterious women in brightly-colored dresses:
“We will show you many things here,” the woman said, again, without actually using these words but by driving their conceptual essence directly into me. “But eventually, you will go back.”
4) Passivity -- Alexender describes all of these things happening to him, without any real volition occuring on his part. Entities appearing to him. Things being shown to him. He describes the experience as a journey, but this journey is not a series of choices he makes-- it's a sensory experience, entirely about what he sees and hears.

So yes, mystical experience. Fine. Well and good. Those have happened throughout history, all over the world, in various forms. But Alexander is insistent that his mystical experience is real:
I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
For all of the insistence that Alexander makes during his essay that he is a scientist, and his assurances that he approaches his understanding of the brain with skepticism and rigor, this is a bizarre thing to say. It overlooks several things that should be obvious to any person, let alone a neurosurgeon. Namely:
  • Alexander has no idea of the chronology of his experience. The only thing he knows is that it was over by the time he opened his eyes-- and let's note that his interpretation of his experience went on for months, while he was entirely conscious. He has absolutely no way of knowing whether his experience took place while his neocortex was "off." Our assessment of the duration of dreams during REM sleep is notoriously unreliable, but Alexander doesn't even seem to consider the length of time that it might have taken for his brain to switch from "off" to "on," and whether a malfunction just might have occurred during that time. That's possible, but not likely I think. Alexander's description of his experience is typical of mysterical experiences, but not of near-death experiences (NDEs). Those are generally described as the experience of heading down a tunnel and/or "into the light" that you hear about. Alexender describes something more like a dream or a drug trip.
  • On the topic of dreams and drug trips-- you don't have to consume drugs to go on a drug trip. Chemical reactions can happen in your brain which cause you to experience fantastic visions for other reasons including severe fatigue and asphyxiation. Gee, can you imagine one of these being a factor in a person recovering from a coma? Mystics in many different religions induce religious visions by starving themselves, staying out in the hot sun, and/or keeping themselves awake for extended periods which might very well cause their brains to go into a state similar to Alexander's when he was on his way back from coma-land.
  • So Alexander's body was "under minute medical observation" for a week while he was comatose. How is this supposed to substantiate his belief that his NDE was authentic? Were the attending physicians supposed to have noticed a sudden change in his brain which indicated that his spirit had gone on temporary vacation? So far as I know there is no way to test for such a thing via fMRI, CT, PET, or EEG. Tests of these kinds have been performed on people supposedly having religious experiences at the time, and their results are very interesting. But they're not performed for a week, and they say nothing about whether the state of the person's brain means that he has gone dimension-tripping while leaving his body behind, or whether he just thinks he has. Think about it-- how easy would it be to catch someone at the precise time they're having an out-of-body experience and get them into a scanner? Not very easy. And even if/when you can do it, the information you gather is neutral regarding whether they actually spoke with God or whatever it is they claim to have experienced. Even if it turned out they have a brain tumor, hey-- the brain tumor could've been put there by God as a means of communicating with them! A very morbid, tragic way of communicating, but still. "God made your brain that way/do that thing so that he could talk to you" is an untestable but still possible explanation.
Do I think that Alexander had a near-death experience? Sure, possibly. If the details of his explanation of the bacterial disease he contracted are correct-- and there's no reason to doubt that part-- are true, then I see no reason not to believe that he had a profoundly beautiful experience that might or might not have resulted from him actually becoming literally brain dead, temporarily. That doesn't mean that I have to accept his interpretation of it as happening anywhere outside of his own head, or signifying the truth of anything he claims to have gleaned from it. And what's more, having had time to think about this in the four years since he came out of this coma, I'd think the neurosurgeon himself would have some doubts as well. But no, he doesn't. Because he does not think of it like a scientist. He thinks of it like a die-hard believer who thinks he found confirmation:
I know full well how extraordinary, how frankly unbelievable, all this sounds. Had someone—even a doctor—told me a story like this in the old days, I would have been quite certain that they were under the spell of some delusion. But what happened to me was, far from being delusional, as real or more real than any event in my life. That includes my wedding day and the birth of my two sons.
What happened to me demands explanation.
Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.
Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also—I now know—defined by love. The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come to see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
I’ve spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country. I know that many of my peers hold—as I myself did—to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion, much less the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us. But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.
No scientist holds that the universe is devoid of any kind of emotion. No good scientist, anyway-- humans are part of the universe, and we're pretty darn emotional. And no good scientist starts with a firm belief derived from something out of his own head and then assumes that it can be proven empirically, and sets about to find evidence which will confirm this to his peers. One would hope that a neurosurgeon would have spent a good chunk of his life "investigating the true nature of consciousness" before being interrupted by a mystical experience, but perhaps not. If Dr. Alexander is really interested in this topic I can certainly recommend Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained or Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction-- heck, I'd recommend those to anybody-- but he won't find confirmation of his unconfirmable convictions in either of those. Quite to the contrary, he will find evidence that the brain really does generate consciousness. In order to find someone who is willing to claim otherwise, you have to drop the pretense of talking about science. You have to drop the aspiration of convincing your fellow scientists, that is if you intend to convince them as a scientist rather than as a true believer. And Alexander is not even willing to speak as a non-Christian or at least Christianity-neutral, even though according to his own account there is nothing Christian-specific about what he experienced. The fact that the only recognizable being he conversed with was a woman speaks against that, all by itself. 

You want to know which part makes me saddest, though? Here's what makes me saddest:
Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial. The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this: 
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” 
“You have nothing to fear.” 
“There is nothing you can do wrong.” 
Three platitudinous cookie fortunes are the only "truths" he derived from this experience.

These are the sum of the precious inviolate knowledge he received, the extent of the gnosis passed on unto him, the sole actual revelation in the entire bad science fiction/fantasy tale. Really, if there's one statement that, more than anything, sums up the ability to appreciate the grandeur, mystery, and ineffable beauty of a mystical experience, it's "You had to be there." And, by the way? A college student who has been on an acid trip could tell you that.


Hat tip to Pharyngula for mentioning the story, albeit with a rather different interpretation.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Internet antipathy

So much of what happens on the internet is petty squabbles between strangers. Arguments which flare up and then fade away, which will have no effects outside of making some people temporarily inflamed/enthused/bewildered. But if you dismissed every internet disagreement on that basis, you'd be highly naive. Reputations are built and ruined on the internet. Connections are made and broken, careers begun and ended, romances kindled and snuffed out. And oftentimes, it's hard to recognize when one of these things is taking place because all you, the subjective observer, can see...is people talking.

So it's hard to know sometimes which disagreements to pay attention to, what it means to be "internet famous" and whether anyone should actually want that any more than they'd want to be regular-famous, and how people can become so passionate about things you wouldn't imagine anyone would care about for more than five seconds. On the internet, attention is a free market. People will care about what they care about, and frequently that will be things like voting for Taylor Swift to give a free concert at a school for the deaf. Because on the internet, people think some really stupid things are just hilarious. 

I blogged a few months ago on the topic of how empathy works in that atmosphere, and how charity can arise from anarchy when enough people are paying attention. Unfortunately, so can wrath, jealousy, and casual sadism. People can find both reasons and opportunities to be incredibly altruistic, but also to punish perceived wrongdoers exponentially more than the wrong that was done, and to generally be enormous douches when the mood strikes or they just get bored enough. 

I don't, for example, know why you'd create necklaces similar to that of a person whose internet presence is shaped around the jewelry she makes which espouse a particular ideology, which mock both her and the ideology, and then wear them to a conference she's attending for the specific purpose of provoking her. I just don't. But I do know where the idea came up. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The only football player I care about

He's also nearly the only football player I could name, but only nearly. Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe writes again in response to another banal, thoughtless anti-gay marriage diatribe, and his essay is just superb. The diatribe in this case was written by his former team member Ravens center Matt Birk, who trots out the traditional but mysterious (because never fully elaborated or explained) argument that gay marriage is bad for children. Kluwe responded with a very thorough refutation which, as is so often the case with refutations, required considerably more time and thought than the original piece to which it responded. One can spew a load of nonsense in an incredibly brief time, but it takes a great deal more work to unpack why it's nonsense. And Kluwe did so. My favorite part:
The only impact same-sex marriage will have on your children is if one of them turns out to be gay and cannot get married. What will you do (and I ask this honestly) if one or more of your kids ends up being gay? Will you love them any less? What will your actions speak to them, 15 years from now, when they ask you why they can’t enjoy the same relationship that you and your wife have now? And if your response is “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”, well, for a lot of people that bridge is here right now. They’re trying to cross it, but the way is barred, and I will do my best to tear those barricades down any way I can because I believe that we are infringing on the free will of other human beings by denying them their basic right to live free of oppression. I love my daughters for their minds and their personalities, not for who they love as adults. That’s none of my damn business, and I will support them in life no matter who they want to marry.
Now you may ask, why exactly are we leaving the discussion of gay rights up to pro football players who write passionate editorials? And I will say, honestly-- I have no idea. It seems to be mainly celebrity worship, and they probably differ very little from the general populace in terms of opinions on gay marriage and degree of actual knowledge about gay marriage. But Kluwe, who is exceptional in more ways than his eloquence and intelligence (he's also a self-confessed nerd, and his twitter handle is Chriswarcraft), is certainly the one we should want to listen to first. Use that bully pulpit for all you've got!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A simple ethics of expectations

On the news this morning I listened to a report about a new virus discovered in Saudi Arabia. But after talking about how scary and disturbing that is, it was mentioned that it has infected a total of two people and is believed to be only transmissable from non-human animals to humans, so it probably won't be any significant threat to the tens of thousands of people expected to flood into the country for the Hajj, the pilgrimmage to Mecca.

And I thought.....man, I'm glad I don't believe in a god who wants me to do things.

Not just things like go on a pilgrimmage to a country where I might get infected with a virus, but anything. Because those things might be against my own interests, and because they're expectations of a god, they're not expectations I could advisably ignore.

Now, morality requires you to act against your own interests sometimes-- only psychopaths go around using other people with absolutely no regard for those peoples' welfare. But with morality, you're refraining from harming people for the sake of those people. With the expectations of a god, you're refraining from doing things because of the demands of a being that you don't even know exists. And whom you can't harm.

Frequently, and happily, the expectations of the gods people believe in just happen to be things they would do anyway, because they're also moral (e.g. giving to the poor). Infrequently, the expectations of the gods people believe in are very immoral indeed (e.g. punishing non-believers). And frequently those expectations are morally neutral or close to it (e.g. making a pilgrimmage). But even a morally neutral expectation can be an unnecessary pain in the ass at best for the believer because it still requires him or her to at least exert some energy, time, and/or money on something he/she wouldn't otherwise do. And in this case, could actually prove very harmful to him or her.

Good things are worth doing because they're good.

Good things may be good because of God, or they may not. But regardless, you don't need to believe in God to know what Good is, and to do good things.

If God is good, then God should only expect us to do good things. Not bad things, and not neutral things. Not because neutral is bad, but because it's subjective-- once you demand that someone do a neutral thing rather than them doing it for their own pleasure, you're imposing on them. And that's bad.

Conclusions:

Therefore, it would be reasonable for a believer in God to do only those things which God expects that are recognizable as good by the believer him/herself. Which would mean that "God says so" is never sufficient reason to consider something good.

Therefore, a believer who is moral should behave identically* to a non-believer who is moral.

Therefore, you can tell if the god someone believes in is good by whether that person's behavior reflects an expectation of doing only Good things, not bad things or neutral things.

Therefore, believing in God, if God is good, is a morally neutral thing to do. As is not believing in God. If God is bad or neutral, then believing in God is an imprudent (bad for you) or bad (immoral) thing to do.

*Edit: This is a problematic term. I don't mean "exactly the same as" but "indistinguishably from."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Thinking cautiously on political affiliation and identity

If you had to vote for one of two hypothetical candidates for president, and one was a liberal Christian and the other was a conservative atheist, and that's all you knew about them...who would you vote for?

This question, originally posed at Atheist Revolution, has been labeled a stupid question and an easy question by PZ Myers and Ed Brayton, respectively.

I don't think it's stupid. I do think it's easy, but only because of the limited amount of information on offer for each candidate-- religious affiliation (or lack thereof), and political leanings described in a single word. I find it discomfiting to be described as liberal or conservative, but the positions of people who are just fine with being labeled in one direction or the other are pretty simple to guess, and it's just as simple to decide which one you'd prefer in the White House. It doesn't mean you're behind them in every way, but most of us have a general idea of which choice would make us less likely to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night for having supported such a candidate.

Asking us how we feel about a person who is a member of our group (or not) being elected to the highest office in the land appeals to our desire to have that person empathize with us. That only works if we know literally nothing else about the person, other than whether or not he/she is a member of our group. A Christian, or an atheist? By all means, the atheist please. But when you add in other elements that not only are more likely to affect his or her policies, especially things that directly describe his or her policies…that changes the question entirely.

I want someone whose policies most closely align with mine, period. A person who shares other traits with me might be more likely to agree with me on policy, but not necessarily. So if you stipulate straight out that they don’t agree with me on policy, I could hardly care less how similar they are to me in other regards.

Generally speaking, a liberal candidate is far more likely to agree with me on policy than a conservative candidate. But there are individual liberal-leaning candidates who are further from me, ideologically, than certain individual conservative-leaning candidates. This is why limiting the information given by telling me only a candidate's religious affiliation (or lack thereof) makes the decision easier, but it's also made easier by expanding the information by telling me more about the particular ways in which a candidate leans liberal or conservative.

We speak critically of people who make their entire decision about who to vote for based on incidental traits of that person which were more or less unchosen, because that means weighing such traits over things that were chosen, and which have a much greater impact on that candidate's potential behavior during his or her time in office. Whether the candidate is an atheist or a Christian is one such judgment-- if it's all you have to go on, then by all means go ahead choose the candidate who is more like you. But it's never all we have to go on. Far from it.

That's why these "who do you agree with?" quizzes are somewhat useful-- they encourage you to think solely about what platform issues concern you most, to the exclusion of what party is endorsing them or how the candidate running on that platform is similar and/or familiar to you. They also can, for that very reason, show some manipulation in favor of showing that everybody is really a libertarian, so nobody should vote Democrat or Republican if they know what's good for them! That's a pitfall to avoid, but the general interest in discouraging partisanship and getting people to consider where they actually stand on issues, and who agrees with them, is a good one.