Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Atheist Blogroll

As you can see, I've signed Disambiguation up for the Atheist Blogroll, which seems like a useful resource. The list of sites on the dashboard of the blog here will be a rotating sample of the more than 200 other blogs on the list. I'll be certain to check them out, and I hope my massive and adoring audience will do the same.

Case studies in disingenuousness: "micromanaging" the war?

According to the White House Language Abuse Secretary, Tony Snow, Congressional attempts to change US military policy in Iraq constitute "micromanagement" of the war.

It's objectionable enough that this sort of business buzzword-speak gets so much play in Washington, but what's far worse is the absurd inapplicability of the accusation itself. The Wikipedia entry for the term "micromanagement" defines it thusly:
In business management, micromanagement is a management style where a manager closely observes or controls the work of their employees, generally used as a pejorative term. In contrast to giving general instructions on smaller tasks while supervising larger concerns, the micromanager monitors and assesses every step.
Does anyone in the White House really expect us to believe that even they think that the current Congressional debate on Iraq constitutes this sort of close monitoring of "every step" of the war?

Take, for example, Carl Levin's proposal, as discussed in the CNN article:
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said senators are working on a draft of a binding resolution that would replace the 2002 authorization. It would set a March 2008 goal for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops and limit the mission of remaining units to training and supporting Iraqi troops and hunting al Qaeda terrorists.
This hypothetical bill would fundamentally alter the US military's strategy in Iraq. It would alter not only the nature of the military deployment but our understanding of its purpose. (As of now, of course, understanding its purpose is impossible, since its purpose seems to be defined no more concretely than "victory!!!") The Iraq deployment would be transformed from a full-scale anti-insurgency operation bogged down in a sectarian civil war to a far more modest operation.

There may be plenty of reasons to oppose Levin's plan, of course--I'm not certain how I feel about it myself--but objecting to it on the grounds that it constitutes "micromanagement" is absurd. Management is supposed to be about guiding the general strategic vision, which is exactly what this hypothetical bill would do. It wouldn't contain any tactical specifics about how to put the plan into action.

Calling this sort of Congressional action "micromanagement" is so absurd that I don't think even the White House really thinks the term applies. They object not to Congressional micromanagement specifically so much as they object to any Congressional management of the war, as is apparent from the following line from Snow's diatribe:
Snow said that kind of proposal would put constraints on troops in the field, not the president. "The people whose hands end up being tied are the folks who are in the theater of battle themselves," he said.
It's interesting to imagine what might happen if this same logic were applied to business management situations. Would it fly if I were to object to having to, say, follow the very strict confidentiality rules at the treatment center I work at, on the basis that they tie my hands and the managers who insist on them aren't in the "field of battle" on the res floor themselves? Surely not. Does Snow really expect us to weep for the soldiers whose hands are "tied" by having to follow the orders of their civilian leadership?

Snow seems to be saying that any civilian control of the military amounts to objectionable micromanagement, which is itself a pretty fascistic idea. But I don't think even this is really the Administration's position, because they aren't actually worried about the military's autonomy but about maintaining their own control over all military decisions. This idea that we need to leave decisions up to the military commanders in the field is a pretty obvious smokescreen for the idea that we ought to leave all decisions up to the White House. (Especially obvious from the fact that the military commanders in the field make their decisions on the basis of orders from the President anyway, since he is their Commander in Chief and all.)

The real position of the White House is that Congress has no power of management over the military at all, not that they are misusing that power. But they can't just come out and say that, because of the pesky old Constitution, so they disingenuously claim that they object only to "micromanagement". Surely this is so transparently absurd that few people will buy into it, but it is in another sense a very clever rhetorical ploy--everyone hates being micromanaged, after all--and we ought to do everything we can to fight it. And, more generally, to fight this Administration's abuse of words to serve its own disingenuousness, which does more harm to the English language than any of Bush's ungrammatic gaffes.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging...

...will return next week. Hectic weekend. No time for church or state, let alone both at once.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

On the practical application of tautologies

Wunderkind dove-come-lately blogger Matthew Yglesias makes an amusing point about the discourse surrounding just war theory and pacifism:
"Contrary to popular belief, international relations scholars are not doves," according to a new survey of IR scholars (Foreign Policy article here; full results here; hat-tip Daniel Drezner), "most believe that military force is warranted under the right conditions."

What do the others believe? That it's warranted under the wrong conditions? Unwarranted even when the conditions are right?
Much though this might seem like nothing more than a silly choice of words on the part of the survey authors, I've actually run across this particular pattern of reasoning many times.

The pattern seems to go something like this: First, assume that opposition to the current war, or to most wars, amounts to opposition to all war as such. (The presumption of pacifism; an unfortunately common error.) Then, and this is the step that Matt points out, assume that what it means to oppose war as such is to oppose war even when the war is in fact warranted and just.

Saying that war is warranted under the right conditions is a tautology; it amounts to exactly the same thing, for example, as saying that war is warranted whenever war is warranted. It tells you literally nothing about when and whether those conditions ever apply, or what it means for war to be warranted. Yet somehow this tautology seems meaningful enough to people that it manages to sneak into prestigious political science journals.

This sort of misreading of the logic of opposition to war is problematic because it turns an argument about the morality of a particular war into an argument about pacifism and just war theory in the abstract, but also because it distorts the playing field of the abstract argument. It makes the pacifist position seem far stronger than it needs to be, by making it seem as though the pacifist must believe that war is never warranted by definition: that "the right conditions" is somehow a nonsensical concept.

To the extent that I am a pacifist--which depends a lot on the strictness of one's definition of the term--I am what's called a "pragmatic pacifist": I don't disagree that war is warranted under the right conditions, or think that those conditions are without content, I simply believe that those conditions never occur, or occur so rarely that they might as well never occur. I'm not opposed to war in all imaginable situations, in the sense that I wouldn't oppose waging war on the armies of Sauron if we lived in Middle Earth, but I'm opposed to war in pretty much every circumstance that has any realistic chance of coming up in the real world.

(For me, the distinction between war and military action short of war--"police" action of various kinds--is crucial. I don't oppose all military action. I just oppose military action aimed at the conquering and subjugating of entire nations.)

I don't intend to defend this position right now, but only to point out that the line of reasoning displayed in the Foreign Policy article doesn't allow any space for it. If I were given the tautological survey question, I'd be tempted to answer "No", simply due to annoyance at being asked to confirm a tautology as if it were something meaningful, but this would be a distortion of what I actually think. I suspect that a goodly portion of the survey's actual respondents had similar reactions, and thus that we can learn absolutely nothing from it.


More generally, I'm always amused when people frame questions in tautological terms.

An acquaintance of mine once asked me if I'd marry and settle down if I found "the right" girl. Well, what is the right girl? Isn't it the girl with whom it would be right to get married and settle down?

Surely the point of the question was to ask if I was ready, at this point in my life, to seriously consider doing this--which, by the way, I'm certainly not--but this isn't even remotely the right way to go about asking that question. I may not be psychologically disposed to get married right now, but what it would mean for me to find the right girl would be for me to find a girl with whom it would be right regardless of my doubts.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: religion, science and the limits of democracy

One of my favorite theists, Fred Clark at slacktivist, has pointed out a disturbing example of lunatic religious extremism infecting our political process.

The story so far: lunatic Christian anti-intellectual writes books (and sets up a website) arguing that the Copernican Revolution was all based on lies, and that the Earth is the unmoving center of the universe, as he apparently believes that the Bible says. I'm not sure why even the most literal reading of the Bible would require this but not require a Flat Earth (given the references to its "corners"), but apparently this is his view. He also believes, variously, that the world is run by a dark conspiracy of secular Jewish financiers and that modern biology is a hoax propagated by this conspiracy to lure the True Believers into the waiting arms of Satan.

All this so far is garden-variety psychosis, and hardly worth mentioning. The story gets more interesting, though, when one of the lunatic's arguments--that Darwinian biology is really a religious movement, and hence that its establishment in public school curricula violates the establishment clause of the Constitution--starts to get real play among Republican politicians. Fred Clark examines how this has happened and explains why we should find it troubling, and I agree with his take entirely.

I am less interested in this case for its specifics than I am in the general principles involved. Only a few actual politicians--and none higher than a State Representative--actually signed off on any of this, and I doubt it will go much further, since its inherent absurdity is so obvious. The whole thing set me to wonder, though: what would happen, and what ought we to do, if it were to go much further?

In our political system, the structure and content of public school education--as well as a sizable portion of funding for basic scientific research--is dependent on a political process. Since this process is (at least nominally) democratic, this means that people who know absolutely nothing about science have exactly as much of a say in what gets taught in science classes as actual scientists and professional educators. In principle, it's entirely possible that a mass movement of "fixed earthers" could force a catastrophic change in our educational system through mounting campaigns to get real scientists thrown out of their jobs, to defund basic research that goes against their "Biblical" principles, to install True Believers in administrative positions, etc.

To a certain extent, we've experienced this phenomenon already, even on a national scale, with the Bush Administration's manipulation of science for political ends. (Read Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science. Now!) But thus far, our scientific and educational institutions have proven to be very resilient and resistant to right-wing pressure. The pressure the Administration has put on climatologists has adversely affected national climate change policy, but, thankfully, it hasn't actually silenced the climatologists. The pressure put on reproductive health science has adversely affected the way sex ed is taught in public schools, and the FDA's policies on abortificant drugs, the HPV vaccine, etc., but hasn't actually silenced the scientists and doctors. But since our educational system is utterly dependent on democratic political processes, nothing prevents such a silencing from taking place.

My question: Is this a structural problem? Would a proper solution involve changing our political system to make science and education entirely separate (or as separate as possible) from politics? Or is this a battle that will always have to be fought in the political realm?

I am of two minds about this.

I do not think that anyone has the right to foist their psychotic and demonstrably false ideas upon the rest of us, even if those ideas are held by a majority of the population. The basic human right to a voice in politics does not encompass a right to obscure the truth through ignorance, malice or twisted ideology. We have the right to live in ignorance and darkness ourselves if we so choose, of course, but not the right to cut other people off from the light.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it cuts both ways. "Fixed earthers" would say, in almost the exact same words, that the dastardly Jewish Darwinists don't have the right to cut other people off from the light of (their bizarre version of) Biblical Truth. The fixed-earthers are wrong: their ideas are stupid and insane. But that is neither here nor there; whether they or the reality-based win out depends upon persuasion, not truth.

Our political system is, in this sense, truth-neutral. Whether an idea is true, as an independent variable, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens politically. The truth of an idea only contributes to its persuasiveness to the extent that people are rational. Now, I can't help but consider this a problem. Whether something is true ought to matter, and demonstrable falsehoods should never be able to beat out truths. Our political system should not be truth-neutral.

The problem with abandoning truth-neutrality is that it's unclear how it could be done without establishing some kind of tyranny, by, say, enshrining (some) scientists as infallible, which would surely be undesirable, and probably detrimental to the progress of science itself. Tyrannies of this form tend--like the semi-tyranny of Scholastic philosophers in late medieval times--to ossify intellectual practice into a set of irrational dogmas.

There is no obvious way of establishing truth as a political value and a principle of government without thereby establishing some particular person or group as the recognized Voice of Truth, which is always and everywhere dangerous. Having something recognized as true because it is spoken by the Voice of Truth is no better than having it recognized as truth because it is (merely) persuasive. We want people to recognize things as true because they're true, not for some reason external to their truth. But how can this be accomplished?

The only solution I can see is to work to make people and society more rational. (Through improving education, etc.) For now at least, unfortunately, this has to be a political fight as much as an intellectual one.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Some thoughts on the embodiment of the mind...

Everyone ought to check out this fascinating post by Tristero at Hullabaloo, a response to Deepak Chopra's latest burst of irrationalism.

Chopra says:
Now let's say that a man loses his job, becomes depressed, and wants a prescription for Prozac. What made him depressed isn't the imbalance of serotonin in his brain but the loss of his job. Yet science continues to offer this kind of wrong explanation all the time. It mistakes agency for cause. The brain is serving as the agent of the mind, it isn't causing mind.
Tristero rightly points out that this is dualistic nonsense, since it's unclear what kind of non-brain mental causation (or "agency") he might be talking about other than some kind of spooky causation by supernatural entities. (God or souls/ghosts.)

I would add to Tristero's complaint that it's particularly ridiculous to describe the brain as the "agent" of the mind. Agency, which means to me the ability to perform purposeful actions, is something that people possess, not something that their individual body parts possess. Just as it's a bit odd to say that my hand is my agent, since my hand has no will of its own, it's odd to say that the brain is any kind of agent. I assume Chopra is operating on some other sense of the word "agency", but I really can't tell what this might be. He seems to be saying that the mind is (or can be) a cause of events but the brain is just an agent; on my reading, this is at best the opposite of the truth and at worst totally incoherent. People really need to be careful about their definitions when they talk about these things.

Apart from my objections, however, I'd like to point out that there isn't literally nothing to what Chopra is saying.

It's true that physical, chemical causes play a very important role in many forms of depression, and that pharmaceutical interventions can be entirely appropriate and are sometimes absolutely necessary. What is not true, however, is that depression ought to be defined as a particular kind of chemical imbalance or other simple, "merely" physical state.

A state of mind or way of living counts as a form of depression only if it conforms to a certain set of societal expectations. If someone functions perfectly well, self-reports a reasonable degree of happiness and displays none of the commonly accepted signs of depression in her interactions with people, she will not and should not be considered depressed, regardless of her brain chemistry. As far as what counts as depression goes, your head might as well be full of straw; what matters is how you live your life.

Now, of course, it's true that the correlation between chemical imbalance and serious psychiatric depression is quite strong. Some serotonin/dopamine imbalances are (at least) almost always present when depressive behavior and self-reporting are present. Depressing life events can trigger these imbalances, just as they trigger depression itself, and if such imbalances were artificially induced--as they can be by frequent use of drugs like ecstasy--they (at least) almost always lead to major depression.

This very strong form of correlation is not enough to identify depression itself with a particular kind of brain state. Correlation, even 100% correlation, is not the same as identification. In this case, the identification doesn't work because it doesn't actually make sense. It makes no sense to say (except, perhaps, as a sort of metaphor) that your brain is depressed, any more than it would make sense to say that a rock is depressed. People get depressed, not brains, because people can do things, can feel emotions and perform actions that reveal their emotions. People have life histories, relationships with others, careers, etc. Brains do not. (It is nonsense, for instance, to say that my brain teaches philosophy at a community college, even though it is obviously necessary for me to have a brain to do so--I am the one doing the teaching, not my brain.)

In short: a brain is a part of someone, if an absolutely critical part; it is not what defines them as a person. What defines us as people has as much to do with things outside our body--our society, our historical era, our personal history--as it has to do with whatever the current chemical state of our brain may be. (Note that none of these factors are spooky and supernatural: "society" is a bunch of human bodies moving around, making noises and altering the surrounding environment in various ways--a very, very complicated physical process, but a physical process nonetheless.)

None of this excuses Chopra, of course. He is still wrong to say that the brain doesn't cause depression--it can and does. But this doesn't mean that these brain states literally are the same thing as depression. And this is, I would hope, a good starting point for a more legitimate critique of psychiatric practice: to an unfortunate extent, psychiatrists have come to identify brain states and depression, and thus (I think) to value pharmaceutical treatments more than counselling. We don't have to be dualists to find this problematic.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: fake controversies and "respecting" religion

In light of the ridiculous Amanda Marcotte/Shakespeare's Sister "controversy", I've been doing some thinking about the warped nature of our national discourse about religion.

The story so far, for those who have been lost in the woods for the past week: Amanda and Shakes get hired by the Edwards campaign. Right-wing bloggers go crazy and scour their blogs for "offensive" content, find a few jabs at Catholics (as well as some other allegedly-offensive stuff I won't bother with here), and try to get them fired. Edwards keeps them on but claims to be personally offended by their comments. (For more on the fake controversy, see just about every other political blog. There's way too much there for me to try to link to all of it.)

As a big fan of both targeted bloggers, and as a blogger (that no-one reads, maybe, but a blogger nonetheless!) who criticizes religion with some frequency, I consider myself to have something of a personal stake in this. The treatment these bloggers have received from the right-wing blogosphere troubles me for lots of reasons, but I'm far more troubled by the response from liberals and Democrats--and from Edwards himself: taking offense, but considering the offense insufficient to disqualify them for the job.

"Offensive" political rhetoric is not only tolerated but entirely expected in political blogs. That Amanda frequently drops the dreaded F-bomb and calls Republicans idiots, fascists, etc. is considered so par-for-the-course that even those calling for her head wouldn't use that as an argument against hiring her. But for some reason, criticizing a religion in the same terms is utterly beyond the pale, even when criticizing it on political/ideological grounds.

Religious tolerance is a progressive value, and one that is necessary for a healthy liberal society. Respecting diversity of ideas is just as important as respecting any other form of diversity. No-one should be imprisoned or silenced by the state or shut out of public office or passed over for a job due to their private religious convictions. But religious tolerance does not require that religions and religious ideas shouldn't be criticized, or even that they should only be criticized respectfully, with kid gloves.

Religious ideas are, obviously, ideas. They are not equivalent to the color of one's skin--they are susceptible to conscious choice and critical thought. To refrain from criticizing religious ideas out of a desire to "respect" religion may be the nice thing to do (at least in some contexts), but it also amounts to a refusal to take those ideas seriously. Taking an idea seriously requires examining its strengths and defects, its degree of justification and its coherence. Refusing to criticize religious ideas is in fact a far more real slight against religion than criticizing them in an "offensive" way.

One of my biggest problems with American political discourse is that it revolves around religious ideas that aren't taken seriously. As a secularist, of course, I would take issue with having a primarily religious political discourse in any event. But since it's what we have, couldn't we at least have real debates about religion, instead of treating it as something beyond debate? As liberals/leftists, I think we ought to do what we can to open up this sort of debate: keeping religious ideas outside of the realm of what is susceptible to criticism and discussion can only help the religious right, since it leaves what they claim as the source of their whole ideology outside the realm of legitimate discourse. To refuse to debate religious ideas because of misguided ideas about tolerance and the fear of being labelled a "bigot" would be a serious mistake.

To call even the harshest criticism of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church "bigotry" is simply absurd. To be bigoted against Catholics as a class is very different from thinking (and saying) that the official ideology of the Church is stupid and wrong. (The idea that it would be is particularly absurd in the case of a religion as internally complicated and diverse as Catholicism.) Bigotry against Catholics would entail a general prejudice against people who self-identify as Catholic that extends beyond one's opinion of their religious ideas to their worth as human beings more generally. But clearly neither of the targeted bloggers has expressed any prejudice of this kind.

(I would note that I don't think it counts as bigotry to think that the followers of some particular religion are dumb, either--as long as it is clear that you think they are dumb only to the extent that they believe some particular religious idea that is dumb. What a person believes reflects their judgment more generally, and religious ideas are no exception to this; but surely there are extremely intelligent people who believe in religious ideas I consider dumb. It would constitute bigotry to assume otherwise.)

In light of all these considerations, I find it very troubling that so many liberals feel the need to condemn these bloggers' comments. It would be one thing if the condemnation simply took the form of disagreement with the content of the comments--the troubling thing is that many people seem to think that the comments were deeply inappropriate, not just incorrect. I understand that Edwards himself, as a national political figure, can't really afford to be seen to endorse such strident criticism of religious ideas. But for the rest of the liberal critics: what's the big deal? Where's the impropriety? The comments were made on private blogs, and were criticisms of religious ideologies, not of classes of citizens. There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about that.

In response to the whole mess, Amanda issued an apology of sorts (see link above) in which she says she did not intend to insult anyone's religion as such, but merely to make points about the intersection of religion and politics. I think this is conceding too much. There is nothing inappropriate or intolerant about "insulting" someone's religion. It may not be the nicest thing to do, it may offend some people, but seriously: this is the fucking blogosphere. You can't expect people to be nice, and no-one should feel that they must bow to anyone who has this expectation.

In closing, as a pre-emptive strike of sorts, I'd like to make something clear:

When I attack religious ideas, I do intend to insult the religion in question. If a religion incorporates dumb and harmful ideas, it deserves to be insulted. No ideas should be immune to criticism simply because people believe them really fervently, or because they happen to be ideas about the supernatural. If I think some religious idea is dumb, I will say so. If I think that it is dumb to believe some religious doctrine, I mean exactly that, and I do in fact mean to say that it reflects on the intelligence of the person who believes it. (Believing something dumb is not the same thing as being a dumb person, but it reflects on your intelligence nonetheless.)

This may disqualify me from working for a presidential campaign, but I think I can live with that.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Thoughts on the misuse of literalism

According to this article, an American-style "debate" about evolution and creationism has been raging in Kenya, touched off by the National Museum's decision to display its collection of fossils, including Turkana Boy, the most complete proto-human fossil ever discovered. Apparently, the leader of Kenya's large evangelical movement, Bishop Boniface Adoyo, has been leading a crusade of sorts against the museum and against expressions of evolutionary theory in the public square more generally.

I won't bother pointing out what ought to be obvious: that it's alarming that this particular form of religious anti-intellectualism may be spreading, and it's upsetting that the museum authorities have to worry about the security of their exhibits and their visitors due to it.

I did want to point out one thing about the way this story was covered, however, which bothers me quite a bit. It might seem like a quibble, but it's actually a crucial aspect of the evolution controversy that doesn't get enough attention. The article describes Bishop Adoyo's views on evolution thusly:
Followers of creationism believe in the literal truth of the Genesis account in the Bible that God created the world in six days. Bishop Adoyo believes the world was created 12,000 years ago, with man appearing 6,000 years later. He says each biblical day was equivalent to 1,000 Earth years.
So the story seems to be that Adoyo is a literalist, and hence believes the Genesis account of the creation of human beings ex nihilo, hence refuses to believe any account of the origin of human beings that traces their lineage back to a non-human ancestor. Hence, literalism contradicts evolutionism.

This is fine as far as it goes. Surely it's true that the literal meaning of the sentences of Genesis is incompatible with evolutionary theory (and astronomy, geology, etc.). But Bishop Adoyo also believes that the "biblical day" was equivalent to 1,000 Earth years. No matter your interpretation of the ultimate significance of Genesis, and regardless of your general theory of biblical interpretation, this is not a literal interpretation. The literal meaning of the word "day" is 24 hours, not 1,000 years, and there's no appendix to Genesis wherein the author explains that the word "day" should be taken to have a non-standard meaning. The good Bishop therefore isn't even a literalist, really. He allows for the stretching of definitions when it suits him, but not when it suits his secular rivals.

(This is not to say that there's no case to be made for Adoyo's interpretation here, which many theologians accept. I've always found this interpretation a bit odd, though. Is the addition of a few extra thousand years really supposed to make creation seem more plausible? It's surely no more astounding that a god could create the universe in six days than in six thousand years, or at best only more astounding in the "Wow! Superman can fly faster than the speed of sound!" sort of way. When ill-defined supernatural powers are involved, nothing should be astonishing.)

If Adoyo isn't a literalist, why do the folks at CNN insist on calling him one, and on labeling his movement this way? I assume it's because this is how they describe themselves. And this is my complaint: why can't media organizations ever question these self-descriptions? The claim to represent simple and absolute biblical truth is the only thing the anti-evolution forces have going for them. They have no science, they have no sound philosophical arguments, they just have the text of the Bible. So why don't we ever talk about how they actually use the Bible, and whether they really achieve literal interpretations? If they don't, they have nothing going for them whatsoever. If you give up the literal interpretation of something as simple to interpret literally as the word "day", why can't you give up on literally interpreting some of the other aspects of Genesis so that your theology doesn't contradict evolution? I think the answer is simple: they can't give it up because they realize that the scientific worldview constitutes a threat to their authority as long as there is a viable materialistic account of the origin of the universe, life, and our species.

I wish that news organizations would take "literalists" seriously enough to consider whether their claims to Biblical authority are genuine. I think that they can never be, and that "Biblical literalism" is more or less a contradiction in terms--surely no-one thinks that Jesus meant to say that the Kingdom of God is literally a mustard seed--but regardless of my own opinion, I wish we could have an actual debate about these issues.

As long as the culture war between reality-based science and (some wacky versions of) Christianity continues to be seen and presented as a war between science and religion as such, or between science and the Bible as such, it may seem to be a dispute between two equally coherent but contradictory worldviews. But this is simply not the case. "Biblical literalism" is incoherent, and should be called out as such.