Dr. Eleonore Stump: A shining example of how speakers shouldn’t behave

“You’re just confused.”

“I recommend my book.”

“Counselors make a living” because people don’t know what’s good for them.

Meet Dr. Eleonore Stump.

Photo from slu.edu

A few weeks ago, this charming professor of philosophy presented her explanation of why a loving God could allow suffering. Her talk was actually titled “The Problem of Evil,” but she never satisfactorily equated evil with suffering, so I’ll call it like I see it.

Her lecture was a lesson for me in two ways: I learned the futility of trying to force an apologetic to answer a question they don’t want to answer, and I observed a fantastic example of what a speaker should not do. The former was useful as an overall life experience, but the latter gave me a lot to think about in terms of organizing a convention.

The basic concept Dr. Stump attempted to get across was that the best thing that can happen for a person is to become closer to God, and suffering is a means to that end. We’ll ignore her unfounded premise that closeness to God is, like, OMG, the best thing EVERRRR and focus on some other problems instead.

Is all suffering because of evil? If I go through a rough breakup, is my ex evil? There’s a lot of suffering out there that has nothing to do with malicious actions of other people. I think this talk should be called “The Problem of Suffering” or “Dr. Stump Needs a Dictionary.” A few members repeatedly asked her to explain where this definition came from, or at least admit that her talk was about suffering, but she brushed off those questions.

This God doesn’t seem all that powerful. Seriously, if hurting His children (or allowing them to be hurt) is the best way he has to persuade them to come into his bear hug, he’s rather weak. Zeus could get closer to his followers by becoming a cloud! And if any real parent did that- “Officer, I only starved little Jimmy so he would shower affection on me as a desperate last resource for happiness”- it would not be called love. It would be called abuse. Dr. Stump kindly reminded us that we can’t possibly understand God’s thought process (but she can).

“Yeah, sorry about your house. But I can make it all better again, just love meeeeeeee!” – God

He doesn’t seem smart either. How many people turn away from religion because they simply can’t fathom that a Father who loves them would allow them to be date-raped or mugged or lose a child? This strategy isn’t very effective, sky-bro. Dr. Stump cleverly explained this by pointing out that we can’t possibly know what happens in a dying person’s mind in their last milliseconds of life, so obviously they all have a chance to turn to God. Obviously.

Dr. Stump also tried to use science to prove her point, and that just made me ragegiggle. She talked about adversarial growth, the psychological phenomenon of becoming tougher after a trauma. Commonly known as “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” According to her, this is a God-given gift, so that sufferers can go on this roundabout hellish journey to heaven. What she fails to mention (or perhaps even understand) is that this is easily an evolutionary adaptation. Our ancestors who moped around probably didn’t get laid as much as the ones who bounced right back and kept hunting or building or whatever they did to get some booty.

Maybe this guy’s mom just died. But he still has to keep up with the migrating group.

She also suggested that people feeling closer to God means they actually are closer to God. Just like every time I feel like I’m going to win the lottery means I’m definitely ending up richer tomorrow. Irrefutable proof, right there. Go look at my imaginary million dollars right next to my debt and sadness.

Okay, she makes faulty arguments and won’t answer direct questions… so she’s a bad speaker. But Katie, what did you learn for your shamelessly plugged conference coming up in March?

Dear reader, I learned how a speaker shouldn’t treat their audience. More importantly, I discovered that what I thought are basic concepts of respect and academic discourse seem to baffle some professionals. I aim to do my best to prevent anything like this happening at SASHAcon.

“You’re just confused.”  She literally said this to one of SASHA’s members instead of answering his question. He was pointing out, like many of us did, that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God really ought to be able to come up with a better way to lead his flock than to let them die of cholera. Dr. Stump jumped on her circular logic train again, after insulting and belittling an audience member. This is not okay. Statements like this cannot be tolerated in a professional forum. “I think you may be confusing x and y and here’s why” would be fine, or even admitting “I don’t think I can explain this in a different way, so let’s move on” would be an acceptable alternative. Someone who has chosen to give your presentation the time of day should not be personally attacked in any way.

Your audience should not be looking at you like this. You’ve done something wrong.

“I recommend my book.” Oh, do you now? How coincidentally profitable for you to refuse to fully answer a question and send people to purchase your book to get the whole flawed explanation. Very ethical. Although, if you truly cared that we understand your side, and if you really wanted to give us a chance to see the light and go to God, you’d offer your priceless guide for free, right? Didn’t think so.

“Counselors make a living” because people don’t know what’s good for them. Yes, let’s insult an entire profession by insinuating that their only worth is in telling people to stop being stupid. Dr. Stump’s point here was to demonstrate that humans suffer because we choose things we think we want, but turn out to be wrong, and then God is there to give a hug when we inevitably get hurt. Apparently, counselors are like a mini-God or something, steering people away from bad life choices. As someone whose career goals include counseling the severely mentally ill, I find the implication that my job will consist of nothing more helpful than telling people not to cheat on their significant other rude and enormously incorrect. (And shouldn’t it also mean that therapists are evil because they steer people away from the suffering they need to go through in order to find God…?)

Dr. Stump, is this my life?

These are behaviors that I want to make sure our speakers avoid. Dr. Stump can get away with it because she’s part of the religious majority in this country and therefore already has a lot of people on her side. We, on the other hand, can’t afford to alienate anybody who comes to our conference to learn and meet people who represent the atheist community.

Dr. Stump, I find you incompetent and I really dislike you, but I must thank you for demonstrating how not to act as a professional and an academic.

Rationality Jack Donaghy Style

What if someone is actively trying to mislead you about their goals? What’s a rationalist to do? Nature may be tricky and weird, but none of us thinks that nature is actively trying to deceive us. We are social creatures whose goals often depend on what other people are doing, and people are not always forthcoming about these things. This requires an additional level of rationality, one that accounts for deceptive observations.

Suppose you are playing Poker with someone whose behavior seems like evidence that they have a strong hand. Should you accept that they have a strong hand, and act accordingly? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? They might know that you’ll take their behavior as evidence of a strong hand, and merely be pretending to have a strong hand. In that case, if you have a strong hand, you should bet. But then again, maybe they know you’ll reason that way, too, and anticipate your betting… maybe they are only pretending to pretend to have a strong hand, and they really do have a strong hand! What does Bayes’ Theorem tell us to do?

Bayes’ Theorem is the gold standard of rationality when one is dealing with empirical observations. You want to know if the player has a strong hand, given their behavior (written Pr. (Strong Hand | Behavior)). You calculate this with the following formula:

Pr. (Strong Hand | Behavior) = Pr. (Strong Hand) x Pr. (Behavior | Strong Hand) / Pr. (Behavior).

How do we even start to get a handle on this?

We need to stop trying to reason about their hand, and start reasoning about their brain. We need to start reasoning about the epistemic situation: who knows what about whom. We need to think about things like, “they know that I know that they’ve been caught bluffing in the past,” and “I know that they know that I know this.” We need to figure out how many times “I know that they know that…” repeats itself.

We need to think about these types of things because whoever has the information advantage is in a position to win. The information advantage is when you are one “knows that” step ahead of the other player. When you know something, and they don’t know that you know it, you can win. The trick is figuring out who has the information advantage.

New research in modal logic is addressing these very issues. In a mathematical model of a situation, if you stipulate who has the information advantage, you can prove that they’ll win. This is how we know that reasoning about other players’ knowledge is important. But when the game is actually being played, this type of information is very difficult to come by. Rarely are you certain that you have the information advantage.

But we know that it’s what you should be thinking about. Strategic reasoning is all about getting the information advantage and exploiting it.

Jack Donaghy is an expert strategist in these types of situations.

We see a great example of the information advantage at work in the recent episode of 30 Rock entitled “Game Over.” http://www.hulu.com/watch/444048#i0,p0,d0

Jack Donaghy and Devon Banks, usually steeped in rivalry, team up to defeat Kaylee. However, things are not as they seem, and deception is afoot. Watch the information advantage play out in all its glory.

 

To summarize, if you are in an adversarial epistemic environment, do the following:

  1. Assess the epistemic situation by figuring out what the other agents know, and what you know.

  2. Figure out who has the information advantage. If it’s you, figure out how to keep it. If it’s someone else, figure out how to get it.

  3. Win.

Faith-Based Programming

Hi all, Seth Kurtenbach here. A year ago, I made a dramatic shift in my academic pathway. As an undergrad I double majored in English and philosophy, and last summer I finished up my Master’s degree in philosophy. As a result of some scheming, finagling, kicking, screaming, and suave convincing, I transferred over to the computer science PhD programming. Never having taken a computer science course, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I decided to try a bold approach: Faith-based programming.

Software is a weird sort of thing. We often use it as an analogy for thinking about the mind/body problem in philosophy. The brain is thought of as the hardware, and the mind is like software. We might be tempted to think of software as something non-physical. The same program can exist on multiple machines at the same time, and this is really weird. It doesn’t really feel physical.

So I did an experiment. I figured, hey, all these Christian Scientists bet their kids’ lives on methodological naturalism being sort of not useful all the time. What could it hurt to see if prayer could work for this other domain?

My first assignment in computer science was to write a program in C. I had absolutely no knowledge of C. Rather than reading a book about C, I just prayed deeply about it. I even fasted. I prayed to as many gods I could think of and sincerely apologized for praying to what must be false gods (if one of my prayers hit home).

I got a 20% on the first assignment. Those fucking gods didn’t do shit. The 20% was the result of the TA generously imposing a minimum grade on the assignment, since I did in fact turn in what could charitably be considered an “attempt”.

Why didn’t faith-based programming work? The TA’s computer downloaded my assignment, and upon reading the file it put the computer’s physical memory into a certain state. The state was a bunch of 1’s and 0’s, ultimately representing high voltage or low voltage pulses coursing through a huge series of circuits. Those 1’s and 0’s encoded my assignment. Why couldn’t a divine being just sort of fiddle with them a little bit so that they were in the state encoding a correctly completed assignment?

Well, one could have, in the same sense that a divine being could just sort of change the state of a sick child’s cells: it could just sort of zap the viruses, or bacteria, or whatever, out of the cells. Methodological naturalism rules out this sort of procedure for manipulating nature, and it rules out these sorts of explanations for when a child’s cells do change. If we want to change the child’s cells, we try to do it with chemicals, or other naturalistic things that have some sort of mechanistic effect on the world.

Things are just the same for the software. If I wanted to put my TA’s computer in a state encoding a correct and complete assignment, I should have learned C, learned how the data structures work, and written a program that puts a computer in such a state by manipulating the circuits of its physical memory. Even though it seems non-physical, because we feel like we are casting spells or something when we write the program, there is a completely mechanistic process that occurs relating the text to the hardware, affecting the computer’s state.

Anyone who hears of my experiment will probably think, “Of course it didn’t work, you idiot! You didn’t do the assignment!” I’ll bet Christian Scientists and other rejecters of methodological naturalism would even respond this way. That’s because in most areas of our lives, people accept methodological naturalism as the way to go. For some reason, people sometimes relax methodological naturalism and go with supernaturalism in some domains, like matters pertaining to health, the mind, and various problems in their lives.

So while I am grateful that most religious people do not reject methodological naturalism when it comes to their children’s health, I think they engage in the same underlying thinking error, when they pray for God to affect changes in the world that will benefit them or their loved ones.

alaynagrowth

Alayna, whose parents tried to pray her growth away.

Praying for a supernatural being to change the state of the world in your favor is no different from my praying to a supernatural being to change the state of my TA’s computer in my favor. The only way to affect changes in the world is to devise and execute a mechanistic procedure to make those changes a reality. The things that make changes are ultimately physical, and ultimately adhere to the laws of nature.

If my faith-based programming experiment was silly, then so is your faith-based world-altering experiment.

Dave’s Mailbag: Atheism, defined

Yesterday, the Atheist Alliance tweeted:

What do you consider to be the exact definition of atheism?

There are many incorrect definitions of atheism floating around. It’s important for religious extremists, in their deliberate attempts to misinform (see my previous post about lying for Jesus), that atheism be depicted as nonsensical, demonic, or irrational. For example, this display:

atheism-defined

It says: “Atheism: This is the belief that there is no god. This is a very common belief of those who do not wish to be responsible for their actions, as if there is no god there is no judgment. This belief was started by Charles Darwin, but has very recently (within the last 30 years) become a popular religion.”

facepalm

I do a talk called “Atheism 101″ that covers the definition of atheism, among other things. In it, I discuss the difference between agnostic/gnostic and atheistic/theistic. The question should not be worded, “Are you an atheist or an agnostic?” but rather “Are you an atheist or a theist?” and independently, “Are you 100% certain that God does or does not exist (gnostic) or do you acknowledge a possibility that you are wrong (agnostic)?”

I tweeted back to the Atheist Alliance:

@atheistalliance Atheism can be defined precisely as “the lack of faith in the existence of a god or gods.”

I think this is the most precise and accurate definition I have come across. In my talk, I use this. For a thorough breakdown of the definition of atheism, with sources, I recommend this webpage.

Dictionary Series - Religion: atheism

This has been on my mind because I received the following message today:

Your professed “belief” in the religion of athiesm has everything to do with your selfish desire to continue in your favorite sins. You have a strong motive to hope that there isn’t a Holy God who will punish you for your sins. Those making a profession of faith in the religion of atheism hope that if they scream loud, long, and shrill enough, they will be able to convince themselves that God doesn’t exist. I don’t believe that your even an atheist Dave.

First off:

  1. Atheism is not a religion. The definition of a religion is arguable, but the one I use and agree with comes from anthropologists Drs. Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman in their excellent book, “Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion.” They define religion as “a communicated acceptance by individuals of another individual’s ‘supernatural’ claim, a claim whose accuracy is not verifiable by the senses.” They continue: “The distinctive property of such acceptance is that it communicates a willingness to accept the influence of the speaker nonskeptically. While supernatural claims are not demonstrably true, they are asserted to be true” (pg ix). Since atheism makes no supernatural claims—in fact many atheists are metaphysical naturalists—it definitively is not a religion.
    -
  2. My belief that atheism and science are the most likely contenders for an accurate description of the universe’s workings have nothing at all to do with sin. I don’t believe sin exists. I believe that some acts and behaviors are anti-social and, on ethical grounds, should not be committed. I believe that other acts and behaviors are pro-social and, on ethical grounds, should be encouraged. But I find the whole concept of sin—transgressions against divine law—to be ridiculous. I don’t believe there is any such thing as divine law, because I am an atheist.
    -
  3. This entire statement is just a bare assertion. In no way does the sender attempt to provide reasons for the claims he is making, or explain on what basis exactly he is claiming to know these things about me and other atheists.

I think the sender is unable to see atheism for what it really is because doing so would make him insecure in his faith. It’s necessary for him to misunderstand atheism because atheism, understood, is the more rational position. So he builds a straw-man and uses it as a human shield. It’s really quite pathetic, pitiable even.

straw-man

What’s really wrong with his message, though, is where he says “[atheists make] a profession of faith.” Atheists lack faith by definition. Faith comes from the Latin “fidere,” which means “to trust.” In the theological sense, this means trusting that God exists, or that God will provide, etc, even though the logical arguments and evidence are insufficient for belief in themselves.

I am proud to say that I do not have faith. I am a skeptic: I have an attitude of doubt, an inclination toward incredulity. I think faith is dangerous, irrational, archaic, and puerile. If you are a logical person, a good critical thinker, and you come across an argument that lacks evidentiary backing, contains fallacies, or is nonsensical, you do not [continue to] believe that argument. Faith is the admission that you are not being logical, that you are not a good critical thinker, continuing to believe something when the reasons you have to believe it aren’t good enough on their own. Saying you have faith is saying, “Here are the reasons I believe this. Here is the evidence supporting why I believe this. Oh, the reasons have logical problems? Oh, the evidence is not very strong? Well, I choose to believe it regardless.” Or even worse, sometimes people say, “I don’t need evidence. I don’t need logical arguments. I have faith.” Faith is the very model of a circular argument. As Mark Twain is credited with saying, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

I have never met a Christian who claims not to have faith. If you call yourself a Christian and do not have faith, I would really like to hear from you. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith, it is impossible to please God. Hebrews 11:1 says: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This is directly at odds with skepticism. It is my position that if you are a skeptic, and you also claim faith in a god or gods, you are doing one or the other incorrectly.

I think my favorite part of this, though, is where he says, “I don’t believe your [sic] even an atheist, Dave.”

This is my license plate:

license-plate2

(Atheos is Greek for atheist). If I’m not an atheist, I don’t know who is.

Thanks for reading. Until next time,

Dave


dave_bio_pic4
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com

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and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

When nature burps

The following is a guest post by Alex Papulis. It is a response to Dave Muscato’s previous article, “Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results.” Enjoy!

Dave claims that global skepticism, with one slight qualification, is the most defensible position, and I ask: with what does Dave think he can defend any position, be it global skepticism or any other position?

taxis
Let’s frame the issue with a little story. Imagine a universe where things have no purpose or design. Things just happen the way they do. Imagine, now, that in one corner of the universe, a bunch of particles happen to get together and form the letters of the sentence “Giraffes exist.” Imagine also that in some other corner of the universe, another bunch of particles happen to get together and form the letters of the sentence “Giraffes don’t exist.” I have two questions: 1) why should we think that one versus the other of these sentences that the universe has produced reflects something true about the universe, and 2) how does the universe in this story significantly differ from our universe? Does the production of the sentences differ significantly in character or circumstance from the production of our beliefs, and in either universe do we have a reason to think on any particular occasion reality has been correctly reflected?

The fact of the matter is, our beliefs are just as much a product of nature as hurricanes, dust, and cloud formations, and nature doesn’t aim at anything, it just is what it is. Dave’s beliefs (including the “I think therefore I exist” sort) are the product of something that doesn’t aim at truth, so unless he has some other belief-forming mechanism that he can invoke when he wants to defend global skepticism or any other position, I don’t see how we can actually speak of defense.

A deistic creator, i.e. one that winds the world up and lets it go and perhaps the sort that Dave writes that he is dangerously close to believing in, doesn’t make the situation any better. Put simply, if the creator isn’t concerned with whether or not human beliefs correctly reflect reality, then even if we did believe in such a creator, we still have no reason to think any of our beliefs our true.

Dave writes that what he’s concerned with is what works. If using evidence gets things right, then he’s satisfied. But that’s just not going to work. First, his beliefs about what works or gets it right are just as indefensible as any other belief; he has no reason to think they’re true. When nature burps, we believe, and that’s that. Aren’t his beliefs that such-and-such activity works and gets it right caused by unconcerned nature just as much as the theist’s? And furthermore, doesn’t his global skepticism apply to these beliefs about what works?

Second, and perhaps more importantly: is Dave saying that science doesn’t actually tell us about the world? If he does think it tells us about the world, then he needs to address, in addition to the bigger problem above, the issue of induction: why should we think the past/observed states are a reliable guide or evidence for the future/unobserved states of the world? If, on the other hand, he doesn’t think science tells us about the world, then we should be clear about that.

Have I made a mistake? Think I’m wrong? Let me know in the comments or feel free to send me an email/FB message.

Alex Papulis is a former Mizzou student, now in his first year of UW-Milwaukee’s philosophy MA program.

Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results

Hello all! Dave here.

This article is a response to Alex Papulis’s guest post called “The Problem of Induction – A Response,” which is itself a response to an earlier post of mine.

The title of today’s post refers to a disclaimer often found in investment literature—stock recommendations, investor prospectus documents, and so on.

I think this about sums up the problem of induction. I have previously claimed, paraphrasing Michael Shermer, that science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works. To be more precise, it’s the best tool for understanding how the world seems to have worked so far. There’s an important distinction: If Hume is correct, we really have no solid reason to believe that we can extrapolate what seems to have happened in the past into future predictions. Or even look at the past and have certainty about what happened then.

For example, Stephen Hawking has said with regard to the Big Bang, “We observe that distant galaxies are moving away from us. They must have been closer together in the past.”

The Big Bang (click to enlarge)

Oh really? While it’s tempting to say that this is true, really all we can say is that, unless nature is inconsistent, it makes sense that distant galaxies were once closer together.

But what basis do we really have for saying nature is consistent? It’s an assumption we have to make in order to do science, sure. And generally speaking—as far as we know—the fewer assumptions you have to make, the more likely you are to be right. So why assume that nature is consistent? Just because it usually seems to be… except when it doesn’t? Maybe that is what a miracle is: An inconsistency in nature. As good skeptics, we must admit the possibility. Although, if miracles can be, at least in theory, understood by natural science, then I think it’s just a semantic error to call them miracle. They’re more correctly things we can’t yet explain.

So what should we do? Abandon science and metaphysical naturalism in favor of global skepticism?

From a purely epistemological perspective, I think we have no other option. Global skepticism (with the single exception of self-existence a lá Descartes) seems to be the only bulletproof epistemic position. But here’s where Alex and I disagree: If the only defensible position is global skepticism, then it takes just as much faith to believe that evidence leads to truth as it does to believe in a deistic creator – or at least, both positions require faith (belief without real [non-circular] evidence). I think it takes more faith to believe in a deistic creator than it does to believe the that something came from nothing, merely because belief in a deistic creator begs the question, and the latter theory does not.

The only entity in a position to have 100% certainty of God’s existence is God. That actually goes for anyone. I am 100% certain that I exist: Not 95% confident, not 99% confident, not 99.9999% confident—I am certain. I know this because I could not be pondering such things if I didn’t exist.

That makes us all agnostics. (If you are certain a god exists, please let me know how you know this in the comments. Remember, to be certain about something, it means that it’s logically impossible that you’re wrong.) But what about belief? Which is more reasonable?

Occam’s Razor itself is an assumption, so it is circular to say “The belief with the fewest assumptions.” I would say that the default position, therefore, is to just say “I don’t believe.” There are an infinite number of things we could believe in but don’t, and the way that we have come to decide what’s believable and what’s not is based on what’s supported by evidence.

Is this wrong? Perhaps.

Does it work? Every day, in every field of scientific inquiry, throughout history, with the single exception of unsolved (I prefer to say not-yet-solved) miracle claims. It works in medicine, in agriculture, in cosmology, in every science you could care to name. And from where I stand, that’s really all I care about—what works. Considering the only entity I’m certain exists is me, what works in my favor seems to be something I’d be in favor of, right?

Epistemically, I think the jury is still out. I’m an agnostic atheist, but I’m dangerously close to believing in a deistic creator. I really don’t have any good reason for preferring not to believe other than that it seems to me to be more economical in its assumptions, and I prefer that. But is it true? I have no way of knowing. Do you?

Curious for your thoughts,

Until next time!

Dave

P.S. In a future post, I’ll tackle the ethical implications of such hardcore skepticism. Should be fun—stay tuned!

Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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A Funny Argument About Voter ID Laws

Hi, I’m Seth. I heard a funny argument the other day. I ride the bus to campus, and all of the bus drivers employed by this company are libertarians, so I always get to hear libertarian talk radio on the bus. That’s where the funny argument came from.

The argument was about voter registration laws. Specifically, it was trying to defend the requirement that voters have a state-issued ID. Here’s how it went:

  1. Voter fraud does happen, and it’s a crime.
  2. If we can prevent a crime by legislating a law, then we should.
  3. Requiring state-issued IDs for voters can prevent voter fraud.
  4. Therefore, we should require state-issued IDs for voters.

I know what you’re thinking. Wow! This, from a conservative? Let’s go through it slowly, and see why this is so funny.

The host put forth a lot of effort in establishing premise 1. He even had a liberal listener call in and argue with him so he could yell about this one. He said that the debate thus far has centered on the amount of voter fraud, which is irrelevant. Democrats have said that voter fraud does not happen as often as Republicans claim, so we don’t need an ID law. The host said this doesn’t matter, because voter fraud does happen, even if only in very, very, very, very small amounts. He kept asking his liberal caller if voter fraud happens, and the liberal caller said, “I don’t know,” or “Probably a little.” This made the host mad, and he said the caller didn’t have the testicular fortitude to admit that it does happen, at least a little bit. Therefore, premise 1 is true.

Another way he could have established the truth of premise 1 is by referring to an actual legal case documenting voter fraud. But he didn’t do this, so I’m not going to bother. I don’t want him to say I lack testicular fortitude, so I’ll agree with premise 1.

Premise 2 is really funny because it’s obviously false. One way to see how false it is is by thinking of a crime that could be prevented by a really outrageous law. For example, we could prevent speeding by outlawing automobiles. We could even prevent drunk-driving by outlawing automobiles. This is starting to sound pretty reasonable! According to premise 2, libertarians should be clambering to outlaw automobiles. But they aren’t.

They aren’t applying premise generally because they know it’s false, and they only want to pretend it’s true in this one particular case, because they need it for supporting the conclusion they want. Imagine if they used this premise when thinking about extreme gun control laws. Outlawing all guns could prevent gun-related homicides. Therefore, we should outlaw all guns. Libertarians don’t reason this way because they know premise 2 is false. More things need to be considered before enacting legislation. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis.

For the automobile case, it is clear that preventing speeding is not a big enough benefit, given the extreme disruption to society such a law would cause. It just wouldn’t be worth it. Most people think the prevention of drunk-driving is also outweighed by the cost of the law. That’s why we don’t outlaw automobiles.

For the gun case, it would be pretty good if we could prevent all gun-related crime, but libertarians object on the grounds that it would be infringing on our rights, so no benefit could be big enough to outweigh that.

That is interesting, because it mirrors the voting case. Lots of poor people without IDs have the right to vote. Many of them have never had an ID, because they’ve never owned cars. Preventing them from voting unless they go get an ID is infringing on their rights. This should make libertarians really mad. They should be against this law, based on their own political philosophy. Premise 2 is contrary to the facts, and to what they believe. That’s really funny.

Premise 3 is also really funny, because it is false for the same reasons that libertarians say gun control laws wouldn’t work. I can almost hear Glenn Beck responding to premise 3, “Oh, require IDs to prevent voter fraud? Please, tell me more about how criminals don’t know how to get fake IDs.” We are already talking about a very small number of people who intend to commit voter fraud, and if they really wanted to, they could easily get a fake ID. Lots of college kids do it all the time.

If you imagine that this law had been proposed by the Democrats, then you can probably predict exactly how conservatives would object to it. They would object to premise 2 because voter ID laws infringe the right to vote of those who don’t already have IDs. They would object to premise 3 because criminals don’t follow laws, so the only people being prevented from voting are law-abiding citizens who don’t have IDs. These are actually pretty good reasons to disagree with the law, and they are fully consistent with conservative political philosophy.  It makes you wonder why they even like this law.  Oh, because it will prevent lots of poor people from voting, and poor people are likely to vote for Obama.  Now I remember.

I think this argument is so funny because it shows us how willing we are to ignore what we believe in order to defend a position that we want to be true.  Political conservatives aren’t the only one’s who do this, but they are the funniest example of it.  I hear the radio host say things on Wednesday that directly contradict what he said on Tuesday, and he pretends he doesn’t realize it.  That’s really funny.

_________________________________________________________________________

Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy Master’s student and computer science PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers [EDIT:  The beard is currently shorn].  Feel free to contact Seth at seth.kurtenbach@gmail.com with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current, NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Zachary ErnstGreta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick, Rationally Speaking.

Dave’s Mailbag: “A question about your skepticism…”

B writes:

I just watched your 2 hour debate video and really enjoyed it! I thought you made some very rational arguments and definitely made your arguments more credible by giving sources and such. Overall a very thorough and superb debate on your part.

How far you take your skepticism? The part of the video when the kid said there is more evidence of  the resurrection of Jesus than there is of Julius Caesar. You disagreed and argued that there are books written by Julius Caesar, so his existence is more credible. Would you be skeptic that the books were forged? I mean there would be no apparent reason as to why someone would forge the books, and a document in religion to promote an agenda would be more likely forged, but would you still be skeptical? At what point is it logical to say that something is true? How much and of what kind of evidence is needed?

Thanks for your time.

My response:

Hi B! Thanks for your message. I appreciate your comments.

It’s certainly possible that Julius Caesar’s books are forgeries, but it’s highly unlikely. We have no reason to suspect that they were, unlike, for example, the many irreconciliable contradictions in the New Testament about the details of Jesus’s alleged resurrection. Caesar’s books are, for the most part, lost to history—all we have today is his journals from war, which don’t make any unlikely or outrageous claims. Contrast this to the fact that a resurrection as alleged would contradict everything we know about biology, medicine, etc. The whole thing is just dripping with obviousness as mythology.

So in a technical sense, I am open to the idea that Caesar’s books are forgeries. Being skeptical means being open to the idea that you’re wrong, and never claiming 100% certainty in your conclusions. I feel comfortable saying that I believe to a very high degree of confidence that Caesar’s books are genuine, although I wouldn’t claim that zero editing has taken place, nor that I claiming certainty about these things. Hand-written copies of ancient documents have a tendency to change bit by bit, but that’s okay: Nobody is claiming that there is divine truth in Caesar’s books.

As far as the point it’s logical at which to say something is true, I’m not sure we can ever really say that with total certainty. In discussions of epistemology, I tend to side with this position:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism

in basically saying that any knowledge about the universe at large, or indeed anything outside one’s own mind, is by definition an uncertainty. It’s all subject to the filter of our senses, and it’s clear that those aren’t perfect, or magic shows would be no fun at all!

The one thing I’m absolutely certain about is the fact of my own existence. Everything else, if we’re going to be precise, is technically a belief. I believe that evidence and the scientific method are the most accurate approach to knowledge on the basis that they are the most consistent and logical approach to knowledge. I believe that faith, because it is inconsistent and unfalsifiable and by nature not bothered by things like lack of evidence, is really a fundamentally useless approach to finding out what’s true about the world. To quote Carl Sagan, “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.”

Science is the best tool ever discovered for drawing up a consistent and clear picture of the world around us, but it’s still a picture, not the world itself. The problem of induction will always stand in our way of reaching 100% certainty.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_induction

So to answer your final question, within the system of empiricism, no amount of evidence is ever sufficient to say that something is true with 100% total certainty. That’s just not how evidence works, unfortunately. The more evidence you have that suggests a certain conclusion, and the better quality evidence you have, the more confident you can be in saying that it’s probably correct. But, there is always the possibility that you will discover additional evidence and find out that you were wrong all along. You can approach 100% confidence in statistics… 90%, 95%, 99.99999%, but under the banner of empiricism, 100% certainty is just not possible. That only works under the umbrella of rationalism (mathematical proofs), which are deductive, rather than inductive, and under the banner of faith, which—if you ask me—is just plain incorrect, because it incorrectly equates belief (a prerequisite for knowledge) with knowledge itself.

This article may also be helpful:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology#Belief

I hope that this helps!

- Dave

Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

Ask an Atheist: What’s the point of living if there is no god?

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The following is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Secular Student Alliance.

Hello all!

My group does an “Ask an Atheist” table pretty regularly, I’d say roughly once a week when the weather is suitable. This question is at least among the top 10 we get. I’m going to give you my answer.

Seth & James at the Ask an Atheist table last spring

In a word, it’s “transcendence.” In 1500 words:

Tuesday is a pretty special day for me. My favorite musician, Fiona Apple, is putting out her new album. It’s been 7 years since her last release.

I’m myself a musician, and I listen to all kinds of music— I like everything from radio pop to classical/art music to funk to mid-20th-century jazz to rock. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Hindu classical music. My all-time favorites besides Fiona Apple are Metallica, Ani DiFranco, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dave Matthews Band, Billy Joel, Wah (the Sanskrit/Hindu mantra group, not the rock band), Bramble, and Gooding. I’ve taken several classes at Berklee College of Music; I taught private lessons myself for years, and I made my living as a musician for several years, too. So when I say she’s my favorite, I’m just saying that I want you to know where I’m coming from.

In philosophy, there’s a subfield called “aesthetics.” It’s not something I’ve ever studied formally so I’m not going to try to get into that. I am going to say why I think music in particular draws so many atheists AND so many religious people, and how this ties back in to the point of living.

I was talking to my boss recently about something strange in our office: A very large proportion of the staff at the Secular Student Alliance has a background in music, my boss included (she has 2 degrees in it). Several of us are former professional musicians out of a staff of 12 + 2 interns. She also mentioned that campus music departments are surprisingly good places to put up atheism group posters, in addition to the old stand-bys of philosophy departments, computer science departments, and so on.

I hypothesized that this might be the case because musicians are accustomed to feeling transcendence in day-to-day life—getting “lost” in the beauty of music—and they understand that it’s because of thousands of hours of practice, effort, energy, and dedication, and not because of anything else.

Any really incredible musician, in my experience, has talent, but they also have skill. They are not synonymous.  You are born with talent, but you develop skill by practicing a lot. Not everyone has the neurology and dexterity necessary to be an excellent musician. Of those who do, the ones who actually develop expert levels of musicianship invariable practice constantly.

I’m currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow, which I highly recommend and will be reviewing at some point on this blog. He talks about two “systems” of thought, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the impulsive, intuitive, heuristic-guided system. System 2 is the critical-thinking, rational, slower system—the “upper” system.

There’s quite a bit more to it than that, but one example is driving a car. Most people can hold a conversation while driving. The exception is new drivers (who have not yet gotten the skill down to an automatic procedure), and drivers who are attempting something difficult, something that requires “System 2″ thinking (merging into heavy traffic, doing a U-turn, etc).

Musicians, after lots of practice, are able to go into a state of “flow” while playing their instruments—relocating the concentration required to play from “System 2″ to “System 1.” It certainly takes a level of brainpower to play an instrument, but a musician who has gotten to the point of not having to think about playing can simply let loose and allow emotion and passion to take over, since she doesn’t have to “think” (even though, of course, we are ALWAYS thinking on some level). It’s like driving down a highway with no cars around. You can sing if you feel like it, and you don’t have to worry about crashing your car, because driving is second nature.

Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the 
Fandango?! (I bet none of you are getting this reference.)

Musicians are accustomed to feeling transcendence. It is part of what we do. Because of this, we know that it’s available on tap. When you can do something at will, it takes some of the mystery out of it. That doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful to watch or experience, I think, but it does effect your thoughts on transcendence.

In my experience, there are basically two ways you can respond to this “transcendence-on-tap” thing, as a musician. One is to recognize that you are causing it through your effort and practice. The other is to throw up your hands and say, “I can’t explain this, therefore God.” I have seen a lot of musicians go that route, basically calling it a “God-given talent” or a “blessing” or a “gift” or even a “ministry.” We can explain perfectly well where these things come from – it’s a combination of genetics and hours put in – but some people just refuse to accept that, or just don’t know, or just don’t care.

I first heard Fiona Apple’s music when I was 12. It was the first time I remember feeling transcendence. The song that did it was “Never is a Promise,” which was track 7 on her debut album, “Tidal.” If you want to listen, here’s the video. That song is what made me realize I had to become a musician, rather than becoming a writer, which was what I had always wanted to do up until then. I listened to is at least hundreds of times when I first heard it. I taught myself to play it on my parents’ piano, and later I got out my dad’s dusty old guitar and arranged it for guitar, too. It was an unbelievable experience for me, having music move me like that for the first time.

Meeting my musical hero, Fiona Apple, for the first time – March 24, 2012

Over the years, many other things have caused me to feel transcendence. Art is a major one. I have a modest art collection, but I don’t tend to look at my art—most of it is actually wrapped up rather than hanging—because it can be overwhelming for me. I have a very clear memory of seeing an installation piece in the St Louis Art Museum when I was 16 and nearly passing out from it. I had to leave the room and find a place to sit down, and my heart still flutters a bit when I’m typing this now thinking about it. It was a huge roped-off display of broken glass pieces arranged all over the floor, taking up nearly the whole room, and also sticking out in gigantic pieces from the wall. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that was the first time I realized art could make me (involuntarily) feel the same transcendence I felt from music.

When people ask me, “What is the point of living if there is no God?” my reaction is generally one of puzzlement. What difference does is make if there is a god or not?! There is so much beauty in the world; what more do you want??

I think that when people ask this question, what they are usually really asking is, “What am I supposed to do with my life if not worship some god, if there is no afterlife?” These are pretty different questions. According to Islam, the purpose of life is to submit to God’s will. According to Christianity, the purpose of life is to give glory to God. (If you disagree, tell me why in the comments).

But if you’re neither of these, what’s the purpose of life? If you don’t believe in an afterlife, why not give up when all seems hopeless?

Because you never know what will happen next, and this is the only life you know you’ll have. And that makes it special, because it’s unique. I value my life more than any Christian or Muslim values his. I can say this because I know how incredibly, ineffably lucky I am that the atoms that make up my body have come together in such a way that I am able to experience my existence consciously. Most atoms don’t get to do that. It’s very unlikely that all the atoms in my body will get to do that again, or even most of them. There is an ancient Buddhist proverb made famous by Carl Sagan that says, “We are the universe experiencing itself.”

Say you had always loved the idea of Paris, and went to visit for a vacation, knowing it would be your only time there. Would you appreciate that trip more, or less, than if you knew you were going to retire there someday? I would appreciate it more. I wouldn’t sleep the whole time. I would enjoy every moment of it, every breath of it. I would meet as many people as I could and see as many sights as I could and buy as many little Eiffel Towers for my friends as I could. You’d have to physically force me to leave.

But if you believe you’re going back to live there in 20 years, what’s the hurry? What even bother soaking it in other than some cursory touristy stuff? Vacations are for having fun and catching up on sleep, right? So you spend 1/2 your time there in and around your hotel. You’re going to live there someday! What difference does it make?

It makes a huge difference.

What makes you feel transcendence? Is it kissing your boyfriend? Is it tucking your children into bed at night? Is it listening to music, or playing it? Is it making the perfect Julia Child strawberry tart, as I suspect it is for my mother?

My mother loves Julia Child and I really think that making these gives her one of the greatest joys in life. This picture is for you, Mom.

Is it praying? For some people, it truly is. It was for me when I used to believe in a god. I can still feel the same thing when I meditate, which I still do on occasion—it’s good for your blood pressure. But the thing is, you can get the same feeling of transcendence from meditation (inward “prayer”) that you can from “actual” prayer. The transcendence is in you, not “out there.”

Daniel Dennett said it very well in this video: “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.”

You just have to find makes you feel alive. There is something in your life worth living for. Gods are not needed. If what makes you feel alive is your belief that some agency is out there, watching over you, then let me say I’m glad have found what gives you transcendence. But I hope that you realize that I said “your belief,” not that there is actually someone watching over you.

I think that really, the major difference between theists and nontheists is that nontheists have found something better to live for, and realized that it doesn’t make sense to live for something that may not really exist. For me, the meaning of life is writing, it is art, it is music. For some people, it is family, or cooking, or photography. But whatever it is, find it, and live for it. No gods necessary!

Until next time,

- Dave

Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com – Iron Chariots Wiki – Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an – AtheismResource.com – TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward CurrentNonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

SASHA Guest Post: “Deliver Us From Virtue” by Rocket Kirchner

Welcome to the official MU SASHA daily blog!

First time here? Read this.

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Today’s article is a guest post by musician, activist, long-time friend of SASHA, and Christian evangelist Rocket Kirchner.

Lao Tzu  says that when a man praises virtue, he turns other men into criminals. WOW! Now, that is really  throwing the gauntlet down. I have always found it ludicrous how we humans actually think that we are moral, ethical, virtuous people, and that we actually waste our time seeking to exalt such nonsense. Seems like we need a good absurdist comedian and a busload of clowns to dance around us and burst our pompous  bubble. In the Middle Ages they had what was called “The Feast of Fools,” where one day out of the year, people would dress up as magistrates, popes, and cardinals, in a mock ceremony — Harvey Cox wrote a great book on the subject. The somewhat equivalent to this in the Far East is called “Nasty Night,” where monks walk around one night of the year and yell nasty things to anyone or anything.

When we seek to be good, we play with fire. This fire culminates in us externalizing evil (as if we are above it),  and establishes the fundamentalist mindset. It matters not what one believes, or what one does not believe, that makes one a fundamentalist. What makes one a Fundie is praising virtue as if it has any intrinsic quality of authentic goodness in and of itself. In reality, this activity has the makings of constructing a ladder of self exaltation over others.

The complete blindness of the man who thinks that his good is the good is the peak of attachment to an illusory self. The root of every bloody political revolution, be it religious or anti-religious, or just plain an ideology of thinking that it will make a difference and make the world a better place, has separated humans from each other. The minute we think we are good, we are doomed. The only crack that we have in an kind of real goodness is not to be conscious of it, not to seek it, but rather to simply love people in word and in deed including  loving those who hate us. We must seek to serve others and forget about all of this moralistic crap. Period. For only love and servanthood can deliver us from virtue, and being delivered from virtue is the same as being delivered from evil.

Rocket Kirchner is a long-time friend of SASHA. He is a professional musician, pacifism activist, Christian evangelist, and life-long student of philosophy.

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!