Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My Mother's Stepladder

My mother has a stepladder that she keeps in the laundry room. It's roughly ten feet from the fridge.

My mother isn't particularly short. She's of about average height for a woman, at a guesstimate; roughly 5'4"ish.

She needs the stepladder because she can't reach the top shelf in the cupboards. Or the pantry. She can't reach the top of the fridge, let alone those tiny, impossible to reach cupboards above the fridge. She can't change the light bulbs in any of the ceiling fixtures. She can't reach the top of the closets. Although my mother spends far more time in my house than my father does, and although the people who designed the house almost certainly expected that this would be the case, the simple fact is that my mother is a stranger in her own home. The people who designed it simply didn't give a damn about her. The house is sized for a man, and my mother is allowed in as an afterthought.

That's male privilege in a nutshell. It begins with the fact that men tend to be larger and stronger than women. This is a fact of biology and averages. Male privilege is what happens when this happenstance is seized upon and turned into a systematic privilege where none need exist. Imagine a highway system where some people have four-wheel-drive SUVs, and some have Priuses; no one has a choice, that's just the way it is. But then we build the highways and they're all roughly tarred, they ignore the difficulties with rough terrain or steep hills. The highway could be smooth and detour around the worst terrain problems, but the SUV owners are the ones in charge and it usually doesn't occur to them to take Prius owners into account. Until the Prius owners speak up.

To make matters worse, though, the SUV owners are all terrible drivers; they ignore the rules of the road and are very aggressive... Also, they tend to pollute the environment more. Man, ain't it grand how far you can stretch an analogy?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Steven Moffat's Cottage

Steven Moffat lives in a cottage in a small, English, country village. There are bright gardens, and hedges with convenient gaps for children up to mischief, a harmless vicar and a pub with a genial barman and a quiz game.

His cottage is a happy place full of laughter. It is a place of family, friendship, and cheer.

His cellar is brightly lit. Its carpet is deep and cushioned, robin's egg blue. It goes on for miles. Shelf after shelf, cabinet after cabinet, it is filled with tiny glass vials. Each contains a spoonful of carefully gathered tears. Steven Moffat drinks despair. He collects it, bottles it. He never opens his vials. He lets them ... improve. He captures and labels your torment. Anyone can visit Steven's basement. Anyone can see his bottles. Anyone stumbling upon his legacy of despair can go home. You will leave a token behind you. Steven charges tuppence a tour, and he leaves the proceed to charity.

In his cellar , he keeps sorrow.

Steven's cottage has an attic. The attic is reached by a stairwell The stairwell can only be entered through a shed at the rear. The shed has only one door. The shed is filled with cobwebs and shadows. Only Steven can enter the shed. Only Steven can face its keeper. The keeper's grip is firm on the kindling strewn about the floor of the shed.

The stairs tremble and creak as he walks to the attic. The attic has a single door. Only Steven possesses the key. Behind the door is a second door. Only Steven has the key. The second door can only ever be opened when the first is shut and locked. The attic is filled with shelf after shelf, cabinet after cabinet; horrors stacked aside horrors. The attic is dark and dusty, its floor wooden and painful. No one can enter Steven's attic and leave. Only he has permission to sample its flavors.

In his attic, he keeps nightmares.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Evolution on Good and Evil

I've stated previously that I'm a moral relativist, a nihilist, et cetera. I believe that human morality stems not from some absolute command nor from god but from our biology.

Recall the Prisoner's Dilemma. At first glance it appears that there's no reason for the prisoner's not to inform on one another until you add the notion of history, memory. Once reputation appears as a reason not to squeal, the dilemma disappears and human behavior goes from inexplicably illogical to mathematically sound. This suggests that natural selection is a mathematician into game theory.

There have been competitions by computer programs playing the Prisoner's Dilemma over and over. Multiple times against each of multiple opponents. The winners have always been nice (don't start with betrayal), retaliatory (willing to pay evil unto evil), forgiving, and not envious (not trying to outscore the opponent). In other words, a moral being.

But then something else happened. People were allowed to enter multiple programs. They did so with multiple programs designed to take a dive and a designated winner; they recognized one another with a complex handshake. The result? The designated winner won. Not only is cooperation favored by game theory for one on one interactions, so are complex cartels. This result shouldn't be surprising, each and every human being is not merely an agent, but a complex cartel. We are each of us the result of billions of living individuals cooperating for mutual benefit. Each of us is, quite literally, a corporation*.

It's not just humans and other animals that cooperate. Even single-celled organisms cooperate. At least one species of unicellular heterotrophs come together in cooperation (using the same gene that allows the cells of multicellular organisms to recognize one another and cooperate) in a fashion that makes eating and locomotion easier.

Morality isn't just cooperation though, is it? It's about not killing people or robbery or rape, et cetera. The work of Dr. Jonathan Haidt has elucidated certain universal moral truths that all humans hold in common.

1. Fairness/Equity
2. Injury/Harm
3. In-Group Loyalty
4. Respect for Authority/Respect for Elders
5. Sanctity/Purity

The first two obviously function as aids to cooperation. Interpersonal interactions mediated by these two moral rules foster cooperation by requiring first that each partner receive, not equal, but commensurate gains from cooperation. Further, a prohibition against injury that prevents simple physical betrayal. Individuals living together will come into conflict and that prohibition means that, even when things go bad, they can continue to function as a group. In fact, the first two, with the addition of the third, comprise the basic set that define success for the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma.

But why is that necessary? Compare us to our closest cousins, our fellow apes. Our distant cousin, the orangutan, is non-tribal. Males live in non-overlapping territories and females live in non-overlapping territories, while the territory of a male overlaps with those of several females. A closer cousin, the gorilla, lives in troops, generally with only one adult male, but occasionally multiple.

Closer still, the chimpanzees, which live in tribes with multiple males and females, often quite cooperative. The common chimp is more aggressive (males from one tribe are hostile to strange males and even band together to hunt them down) whereas bonobos are more peaceful. Both groups are highly sexual, using sex to "make love, not war" even pansexual**. Generally, their behavior shows a cooperative nature similar to our own. They're fair, they avoid injury... and they're loyal to those of their own tribe, sometimes at the expense of those from others.

The upshot of this is first that our closest cousins have a social structure that mirrors our own, thus necessitating the same moral rules that we have; and not just the first three. The common chimp has a strict hierarchy with male A in charge, then male B, then C... Bonobos are less hierarchical, but are matriarchal and 'less' doesn't mean 'not at all'.

Further, the apes aren't the only animals with hierarchies. Horses are likewise hierarchical, following the lead of a head mare and head stallion. Even small birds have hierarchies. Chickadees take the risk of sitting high in a tree and looking for threats. Their name comes from their characteristic cry of "chick - a - dee dee dee" when they see a threat. The more "dee"s, the greater the threat. They vie for this position, with birds of higher social position acquiring, literally, higher positions as look-outs. Other small birds determine and acquire social status through aggressive altruism; giving gifts is a sign of, as it were, virility and a sign that the giver is so awesome he can afford to give away food.

This is another argument in favor of evolution loving altruism; not merely as a means of maintaining genetic code by helping a relative, but also as a means of reinforcing hierarchy.

I will continue my discussion of moral pillars 3, 4, and 5 in my next post.

* From Latin, for "physical make up".
** Get it? The genus Pan? I am so clever.

Explaining Good and Evil

In this video, atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens debates religious apologist Dinesh D'Souza. At one point, D'Souza claims that evolution cannot explain good nor evil, and that only the existence of god can.

First I want to say that the god hypothesis is impotent to explain the existence of evil as it is to explain the existence of the universe. If you posit the typical good, powerful, intervening deity, how can there be evil? A typical argument is that god didn't make evil, just free will. If you give a baby a hand grenade and it pulls the pin, who's going to blame the baby? If you give a man a gun and he shoots someone, are you culpable? No. Unless, that is, you know what he's going to do.

Another is that god uses evil to good ends, eventually. "Know why the devil's so angry? Because god keeps using his evil to do good." In other words, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. To make the analogy better, you have to kill a chicken if you want to eat it. But there's a difference between killing a chicken as painlessly as possible and cooking it alive. If what appears to be evil is in fact god using complex means to accomplish good ends, surely a god with the three omnis (benevolent, scient, and potent) could achieve its ends without using even apparent evil.

As an amusing note; can an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god create evil? That's a statement of the omni paradox that I'd never considered.

The other solution to the thorny problem of theodicy is to reduce one or more of god's omnis. The existence of evil becomes less thorny, though a god without the omnis is less omnisatisfying. Also, in the face of a non-creative deity, evil can have another source.

The other half of the problem is positing god as the source of good. First we run into Euthyphro's dilemma; is it good because god says it is (in which case good is arbitrary) or is it good absent god's will (in which case, there's some conflict with the omnis). Many scholars have considered it and, to that end, I direct you to the wikipedia page. Suffice it to say, I believe the dilemma, at both ends, renders null the notion that good stems from god. And this one can be resolved by reduction of the omnis. A nonomni'd god, can have an external standard against which it can judge.

The other thing I'd like to point out is that, even in the event of a nonomni'd god, most of what they command is not, in fact, good. A casual reading of most histories demonstrates that they're barbaric, racist, misogynistic, and pretty gosh darn vile all around. In other words, claiming that good stems from god is more or less like claiming that good stems from a 1930s Italian mafioso.

Next I'm going to posit an alternative hypothesis and rebut Mr. D'Souza on the claim that evolution can't explain good or evil.

Monday, October 03, 2011

On Nihilism

I mentioned before that I think Nihilism gets a bad rap. Now I'm going to talk about it.

Nihilism is generally associated with Friedrich Nietzsche and Heidegger. Oh, and Nazi Germany because of things like "The Will to Power" and _├╝bermensch_ (superman). However, they're a lot of other things on top of nihilism.

At it's core, nihilism is belief in nothing. Moral nihilism is the belief that there exists no objective moral truth, no moral authority, and no morality. One typical theist assertion regarding atheism is that being an atheist necessarily makes you a nihilist, and this brings along with it the above-mentioned associations. It is followed by the assertion that "Since without God you can't have morality, then without God you can't be good".

Does atheism lead inevitably to nihilism? No. For example, Sam Harris (one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism) argues that there is an absolute moral framework absent God based on decreasing suffering and increasing happiness, a form of utilitarianism.

However, many atheists are indeed nihilists, myself among them. I believe there is no absolute morality and no external moral authority. But that doesn't mean I'm either immoral or amoral. I do believe there is morality. The work of Jonathan Haidt indicates that human morality is universal and follows certain trends. Therefor, I posit that human morality arises from biology. More on that later. Nihilism and amorality aren't actually the same thing.

In other words, atheism doesn't lead to nihilism, and nihilism doesn't lead to villainy.

There's a reason the association of nihilism with Nietzsche is seen as a negative, particularly by Christians. Nietzsche was unabashed in his criticism of Christianity and his support of nihilism. Memorably he said "God is dead". Nietzsche also described two forms of nihilism. Passive nihilism, or the will to nothingness, as a sort of Western Buddhism; the abnegation of self. Active nihilism, which he advocated, seeks out and destroys structures such as Christianity. This wipes the slate clean and allows the construction of a new structure.

Finally, he described a typical response to discovering nihilism. On learning that a certain belief system is false, the newfound nihilist despairs and begins living his life in rejection of what he used to believe. For example, a follower of a faith that preaches abstinence from sex and drugs will begin boozing and screwing. Instead of preaching good, he may exult in villainy. And, as an added bonus, there's none so zealous as a convert. Many like to say that Nietzsche was advocating this sort of life, when in fact he thought that sort of person was weak.

Which brings us to my own personal take on different kinds of nihilists, weak vs. strong. Whereas for theists and atheists, the use of weak and strong weren't meant to imply a value judgment, this does. A weak nihilist is like the one described in the previous paragraph. He sees that there is nothing and lets it overwhelm him; the nothing overwhelms him. The strong nihilist is like Nietzsche's active nihilist, only instead of trying to destroy what came before, he's trying to build something new. He sees the nothing and seeks to fill it.

If you want another good example, see Angel's arc in the second season of his own show. First, he descends into darkness and eschews the company of his friends. He exults in violence and destruction. Yes, he kills evil, but he's not nice about it. This reaches its nadir when he learns that the villainous law firm doesn't take its orders from hell. "The world doesn't work in spite of us, but with us." Then he has an epiphany.

Angel: [It doesn't m]ean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win.
Kate: You seem kind of chipper about that.
Angel: Well ... I guess I kind of worked it out. If there's no great glorious end to all this, if ... nothing we do matters ... then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long for redemption, for a reward, finally, just to beat the other guy. But I never got it.
Kate: Now you do?
Angel: Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don't think people should suffer as they do, because if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Strong vs Weak Theism

My last post covered the agnostic and gnostic positions. It also covered the differences between the two atheist positions. However, there's also a distinction between two theistic positions. Just as there are strong and weak atheist positions, there are also strong and weak theist positions.

The strong theist position is "I believe god exists." It is so common that it is unjustly given the privilege of the default position. The default position should be either weak position, "I do not believe...".

Alternatively, we have the weak position "I do not believe that god does not exist." This seems to be so pathetically weak and negative that no one could ever hold it, but I suspect that many, perhaps even most, theists are in fact weak theists.

I offer into evidence the Biblical verse, "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief." In context, it's the desperate cry of a father that his son receive miraculous healing, because only believers could get that (*cough*blackmail*cough*). But more generally, many believers wrestle with a lack of faith. They pray for help with their faith and their doubts. The correspondence between Mother Theresa and the Vatican showed that she had her doubts, had wrestled long and hard, and faith had lost. If so venerated a figure (sainted, even) can have doubts, why not Joe the plumber or even Joe the pastor?

More tellingly, some people, when questioned about their faith, reply "I don't want it to not be true", "I don't want to believe their is not heaven." Theirs is not a positive affirmation of belief, but a desperate fear of the unknown. They maintain their faith because they cannot bear the consequences of its falsity.

Of course, when asked if they believe, theists will reply with the affirmative "I do believe that god exists", but how many of them are secretly weak theists? How many of them, plagued by doubt, in fact hold only the position that they don't want to believe in nothing? How many of them fear that the alternative to god is nothing, that without theism, all that is left is nihilism?

In truth, there are many godless alternatives. Creative humanity has built a great many houses of non-worship, ways to find truth and beauty and meaning even in the absence of a creator.

Unfortunately, nihilism gets a bad rap. There are two positions there, as well. More on that later.

Sing in me, Urania

The Scientist sifts drabbles of Fact and Demitruth from the dross of decomposed Reality. From bricks of Fact does he construct a Palace of Theory on scaffolding of Hypothesis. Above it all he seeks to place a Firmament, a Grand Union. His goal is Mystery, ever a rainbow to unweave.

The Eight Positions on God

I was inspired to ponder the eight positions as a result of watching this series of videos by Aron Ra. He talks about belief and knowledge about god, but I think his presentation was incomplete, and this was the cause of some confusion in the Q&A session at the end.

"Does god exist?" I won't be trying to answer that question here. Instead I'm going to talk about answers. Whether we can answer the question is not the focus, but there are two classes of statement that should be addressed. They are the four positions on knowledge, and the four positions on belief.


I know god exists.
I know god does not exist.
I do not know that god exists.
I do not know that god does not exist.

Whether or not something can be known is the province of epistemology. Stating that something is known is that gnostic position. Stating that something is unknown is the agnostic position. I agree, for the moment, with the agnostic position that nothing can be known about god.

First, what is knowledge? Knowledge is distinct from belief in that we can all agree that a thing can be believed without being true. Many people pay good money for homeopathic potions, content in the belief that they are purchasing genuine cures. They are incorrect; they've purchased expensive water. They will be somewhat better hydrated, but they won't be taking medicine. For all that their belief in the efficacity of their nostrum is sincere, and for all that they believe they have evidence to that end, they are incorrect. Their certain belief does not rise to the level of knowledge.

The position of the strict agnostics, that nothing can be known about the existence of god, should be the default position, only abandoned in the face of evidence, or very good argument, to the contrary. Most theists, when pressed, will admit to agnosticism. "There's a reason it's called faith." Even the most ardent atheists will usually also admit to being agnostics.

So on the question of knowledge, the four positions are divided into two categories: gnoticism and agnosticism. I know, one way or the other, or I do not know, one way or the other. Regardless of what they believe, most people will admit to being agnostic.


I believe god exists.
I do not believe god exists.
I believe god does not exist.
I do not believe that god does not exist.

These four positions are divided into two categories: theism and atheism. The split is not the same as that of the gnostic/agnostic divide.

The two atheist positions are "I do not believe god exists." and "I believe that god does not exist." These are called weak and strong atheism respectively. The terms are not intended to be pejorative by definition, though they are sometimes used that way. Rather, weak atheism is so called because the statement is fundamentally negative on the part of the user.

The statement "I do not believe that god exists" places the negative aspect in the belief of the atheist. It is a responsive position. The theists posits that god exists and the atheist responds "I don't believe that". It's not a positive statement about the existence of god one way or another. This is in contrast with the strong position.

"I believe that god does not exist" is a positive, descriptive statement. It's a positive position on the part of the declarer about the existence or non-existence of god. Just as the theist is declarative when he says that he believes that god does exist.

Aron Ra, in his video, stated that the correct position is the weak position. I agree that it should be the default position and absent further argument or evidence, it cannot be abandoned. However, I disagree with him that there is no further argument or evidence. The various gods posited by theistic beliefs are all interventionist, with an impact on the world. Anything that alters the world can be tested by the scientific method. Further, supernatural hypotheses all necessarily suppose either that the deity is deceptive, acting to mask their intervention, or that the deity's intervention can be detected due to the violation of otherwise natural causality. As no evidence exists of supernatural intervention, the deity is deceptive, non-interventive or non-existent.

As for intervention, scientific studies have been performed on the efficacy of prayer. Not only did the studies find no positive benefit, it was determined that, when the patient is aware of the prayer, it has a negative placebo effect; they do worse. In this light, a deity is either non-intervening or non-existent.

We now come to the position that the non-intervening deity is functionally equivalent to the deist's position: the creator who then does nothing. However, our study of the cosmos gives us an alternative hypothesis for the origin of everything. We know the universe is closed, open, or flat; regardless, each one gives us an explanation for the existence of everything (the "problem" of why anything exists rather than nothing is usually advanced as a strong argument for a deity). There is no theory of the cosmos that cannot explain existence. The god hypothesis is superfluous. Worse, it's not even an explanation! The god proposed is even more inexplicable than the thing it's being proposed to explain! It takes the thorny problem of existence up to eleven!

The confusion I mentioned above was over the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. Because Aron Ra hadn't clearly explicated the difference as the position of the negative. The querent queried, in essence, "Why do you believe their is no god?", mister Ra and, I believe, Matt Dillahunty, replied "I don't believe there is a god" The discussion went back and forth with the querent asking the same question and receiving, essentially, the same reply.

Next: Strong versus Weak Theists.