False Legitimacy & Religion

When Marty McClain, an American pastor from Georgia, visited the Scandinavian countries and asked people about their god beliefs in interviews. The man's facial expressions were very interesting as most of the people replied with a stern no. It was a definite culture shock. What seems clear watching this kind of thing is that our beliefs are culturally reinforced by those around us. In Georgia, I'm sure the question is "which church do you go to?", not "do you believe in god?". It's somewhat easier to maintain a belief if everyone around you does. 

It's strange then that atheism seems to grow in places like the U.S.. Despite the strong religious culture, there are many people leaving religion there. But we still grant legitimacy to religious beliefs when we really shouldn't have to. Christianity in particular has a long history, spanning more than a thousand years, and many of the greatest minds of our culture have been Christians, and spoke positively about their religion. This lends a kind of legitimacy by authority that's easy to intuitively latch onto. 

Christianity is also very well funded. When I leave my house, whether I turn left or right, I am within five minutes of two large churches, and there are more if I keep going. There are Christian schools, and in the U.S. there are even Christian universities. The money that goes into religion keeps it on a pedestal of legitimacy. The number of religious scholars in the west who are Christians far outweighs the number of secular religious scholars. Often apologists tout consensus in their fields, simply because they vastly outnumber secular scholars in their field. 

Professional apologists have large organisations that are well funded. Just to compare two examples, Justin Schieber, a relatively well known secular philosopher of religion, has a small YouTube channel with meagre funding compared to the Reasonable Faith organisation headed by William Lane Craig. Christians have all the money and they have all the momentum from more than a thousand years of Christian domination. 

What this brings about, is the general feeling that there is some legitimacy to Christianity. Many atheists shy away from claiming there is no god. I believe this is because of the sheer bombardment of the Christian belief system in our culture. This pushes many atheists into deeper uncertainty about Christianity's truth than is really justified. If however you ask these atheists if they feel the same about Hindu gods, the answer is "of course they don't exist.". Once we take off our cultural goggles and see Christianity as other people from non western cultures consider it, we are forced to conclude that we lend too much legitimacy to Christianity. 

When you take a closer look at apologetics, you see the kind of reasoning that conspiracy theorists engage in. Somehow, it seems to them as though there is a man behind the curtain, controlling everything, and the same spurious reasoning is present that we see in moon landing conspiracy theorists. The arguments only really seem legitimate because we are used to granting Christians a free pass. Despite the small number of secular philosophers of religion, theologians have failed to give decisive arguments for the central problems of their faith, such as the problem of evil. We should expect not to see these arguments at all if a god is so apparently real. Some arguments appeal to complicated concepts in physics, but we don't need those things to justify things in our apparent reality. We don't need to appeal to quantum mechanics when we are trying to demonstrate the existence of our pets. A photograph will do. How is it that the omnipotent creator of the universe is less apparent than the existence of dogs, cats and parakeets?

We engage in discussions where we admit that it's not impossible for such a thing as a god to exist, but we scoff at people who claim that they have abducted by aliens, or claim that Lady Gaga is a member of the illuminati. Liberal, educated religious believers also scoff at claims of alien abduction, but on a regular basis they claim speak to someone who is quite apparently absent. All tests for such a being fail, and when asked the old conspiracy theory chestnut is pulled out that that is what it is made to seem like, in this case that god has reasons for not wanting to be tested. Some believers claim that when they look at the world around them, it's apparent that god exists. Illuminati conspiracy theorists that scour pop culture claim the same thing, but for the existence of another entity. Why should one carry automatic weight while the other is the butt of our jokes?

It's hard to overstress the point of this essay, because it took me a fair amount of time to realise the trap. I know what it's like. I think the time for giving legitimacy to the big man behind the curtain conspiracy is probably is past its sell by date. I think it's time to realise that if all the arguments for yahweh fail so terribly that its reasonable to conclude that they will continue down that path. All it would take to reverse the failure is god showing up on Oprah, but this god either does not exist or seems extremely uninterested in demonstrating its own existence, rather requiring his followers to learn the intricacies of cosmology, quantum physics and philosophy.

Freemarketeers vs. Freedom

The terminology used by freemarketeers seem squarely focused on individual freedom. But what if the adoption of their principles had a negative effect on freedom for the majority of persons instead of maximising it? This seems like an odd conclusion given their marketing material. After all, "the state" will not harass you in a freemarketeer Utopia, so how will your freedom be restricted?

Let's explore the concept of freedom. If I am free, I am free to move, think, speak and spend my time as I see fit. If I cannot move my arm, I am less free in a very real and very physical sense. If I am limited from moving onto some geographical area I am less free than if I could. If I have less choice about what to occupy my time with, I am less free. I am more free since I have quit smoking, since I am free from the burden of feeding my addiction. A conception of freedom as a maximisation of choice then makes sense. The ultimate freedom would be that of omnipotence, because I would be able to do anything, and omniscience, since I would be able to think anything.

But freedom must have some practical limits where other people are involved. My freedom should not be an imposition on the freedom of others, because if we wanted to maximise freedom, maximising my freedom alone would at some point negatively affect the freedom of others. My freedom to cut off someone else's arm imposes on their freedom to move it. If we maximise the freedom of one person in a group, it will not only impose on the freedom of one other person, but on the freedom of many others. If I was free to dictate what everyone must wear, it will impose on their freedom to express themselves with stupid hats (or skinny jeans). If freedom was the only currency, it would be a net loss to give me that much freedom, but restrict others in the same regard.

In a freemarketeer Utopia, you will not necessarily be more free, as their marketing suggests, unless you consider your newly found freedoms to exist in the absence of the ability to exercise them.  Your freedom to have exclusive access to property, education, free time, and expression will be limited by your material resources to access those freedoms. Examples abound.

Education is important as a giver of freedom, because education is the construction of mental space. If you are well educated, you move freely in a larger mental space. If you are uneducated, your freedom to think is limited by the scope of the knowledge you posses. In the case of nutrition you may be impaired in your physical freedom to think, since malnutrition is a well known cause of permanent cognitive handicaps.  Not maximising someone's mental space impairs their freedom to think.

Freedom of movement is also a concern. Public parks would not exist, and neither would public nature reserves. This would be a limitation of the movement of people, and therefore their freedom. If all property could be owned and controlled by private individuals, it is conceivable that some poor people who own no property or the means to occupy it, could illegally occupy every space they find themselves in. Why then wouldn't we want to create public spaces that enable freedom of movement for others.

The freedom to spend your time as you please is a freedom that is often neglected. In terms of value, time cannot be valued enough, because not even the richest person (as of now at least) can buy a whole lot more of it. Yet it is conceivable that if we abolish labour laws, such as minimum wage, paid leave, and weekends, that more people will spend more time working for the same amount of money. Since they are earning the same amount of money, they suffer no material loss. Their freedom is severely restricted however. You cannot move very far if you have to be back at work in a few hours, and you cannot move at all if you work more than one job or work hours that occupy the entirety of your day, perhaps minus your most basic human needs such as visiting the toilet, eating and sleeping. Labour laws, which freemarketeers reject, often give people a _right_ to free time. This extends back to intellectual freedom, because it gives people time to educate themselves through reading and travel, or express themselves through writing or engagement in public forums.  

If we want maximal freedom, we would accept certain limits on our freedoms (such as our freedom to enter into economic exchange without taxes) for the sake of maximising the freedom of those around us. I am saying that giving small concessions in freedom can give large gains for others, so if we feel the need to maximise freedom we are logically obligated to not fixate on our freedoms at the cost of others'. Freedom is not a zero sum game either. The limits others have on their freedoms impact us also. We may not be free to engage in unfettered exchange, but others are not free to help themselves to our stuff either.

A question remains, and that is how much of our own freedom should be limited for the gain of freedom for those around us. Although interesting, this is hardly relevant. Only once we accept that it is a valid path can we meaningfully approach this question. There is no point in asking how much flour we should buy if we haven't decided to bake a cake.

Freemarketeers vs. Wealth

Any wealth you receive has already been distributed at least once based on the decided structure and nature of wealth distribution in your society. So people who are wealthy are not wealthy because they create some sort of objective value in society, they are wealthy because society decides that they are the ones who morally deserve to be wealthy. The concept of wealth is intersubjective, and so is the decision about who gets to be.

Free markets are a method to distribute wealth. There can be other methods too. We can for instance have a feudal system, where wealth is distributed according to social strata. The feudal system existed because it was recognized as morally legitimate, and for no other reason. Free markets today exist for the same reason. Therefore, because there are underlying moral considerations, if a free market fails us in an ethical way, it is our moral duty to violate it as a society. This means that in a moral society, excess wealth may be allowed, but not at the expense of others suffering. Indeed this is one of the reasons feudalism fell. We could no longer morally justify the harm of placing wealth into the hands of the few. For all the good things the free market has about it, it promotes the distribution of wealth to those who can exploit its underlying subjective nature. An inferior product could very well make someone rich if they play the market the right way.  There is no natural or transcendent entitlement attached to that. If everyone ceased to recognize the value of someone's wealth, they would be destitute. We, as a society, are the masters of who gets what. We divide the cake together, whether we like it or not. We can even distribute wealth according to who is the tallest, who has the most hair or who can say "Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry" repeatedly the fastest without making a mistake. Sadly, in many cases, we have excluded people from wealth on arbitrary measures, like their skin colour.

It's vital to understand that wealth distribution is completely arbitrary and decided by us, and that no single person or even a group can claim that there is only one way, or even one right way. Among the best ways however, every single one of them must be justified by moral considerations. If we are not a moral society who hold each others' interests at heart, we are setting ourselves up for failure, just like the privileged strata did before their social system imploded.

What's happened with free markets though, is that the the concept has gained overzealous fundamentalist followers, who incorrectly conflate morality with free markets. In other words, if the free market fails and people suffer, that is ethically preferable to violating the tenets of free markets. They rely on a central premise, that a free market, and absolute claims to property, are morally above any other consideration. It's not that they think the free market is moral, it is that they think the free market is morality itself. This presupposition strongly guides every other thing they consider, because no matter how much pain and suffering there is, it may not violate their absolute entitlements, because that would be immoral given the presupposition.

When I point out to freemarketeers that they don't have absolute claims on wealth, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. They don't seem to grasp that society decided that they are entitled to the wealth they have, and they especially fail to grasp that when it comes to taxes. That deserves another post, but this one laid important groundwork to begin to explain this fundamental error in freemarketeer ideology.

Many people are uncomfortable with this reality I have explained here, and to some extent I am as well. There can be an arbitrary change in the way wealth is distributed that can negatively affect me, although that has been happening throughout history. The privileged classes who lost their wealth were at risk, probably without realising it. They probably thought, as the bunch I have my disagreements with, that claims to wealth are absolute and inherent in nature or transcendent somehow. They aren't. They are in the hands of humans. If you can convince enough people that you should be wealthy, you will be. On the other hand, if you can convince enough people that certain people, or classes of people, don't deserve their wealth, they will lose it. Wealth is simply grounded in human societies, and there is no way around that. Even if you believe firmly that free markets are the only right way to distribute wealth, if nobody else does, your claims to wealth will be invalid. If everyone believes that free markets are the only right way to distribute wealth, the decision to recognise it as such was still taken collectively, and it is still grounded in humanity.

Freemarketeers vs. Prostitution

In my previous post, I described how the agreement that freemarketeers seem to have with liberal or progressively minded people about drug policy is actually superficial and even wrong. The marketing message of the idea that there is agreement tells us that free market types are rational and that they oppose senseless government policy. However, government policy in many places has been left decades behind the times by society already. For heaven's sake, let someone smoke some pot if that's what they really want.

Prostitution is a more charged subject, and there is less general consensus about it. On the one hand we know that the sex trade can be very exploitative and can trap people (especially young women) for life. Bringing the hammer down has never been effective, because the high demand for sex is hard to stop by legal means. Freemarketeers claim that  if we legalised sex work "prostitutes can more easily work in settings where conditions are controlled, clients are screened and health safeguards are obligatory.". But there is a problem. Of course having laws for safe sex work would be regarded as another imposition by the "nanny state", and a libertarian government could never waste money funding a bureaucracy to ensure the safety of sex workers.  In the extreme case of anarcho-capitalism, there would be no government to speak of in the first place.

Essentially, what freemarketeers want, under the guise of reasonable ideas like deciding your profession, is a totally unregulated labour market, which includes an unregulated sex market. That means that many people will not only legally engage in sex work, they will still not have any legal recourse when it comes to their working environment. If there was a truly free market without any regulation, there would be no black market, but there wouldn't need to be one, because nobody would be able to step on the brakes when the wondrous free market chews up and spits out human beings as if they are worthless. 

What progressive thinkers want is not an unregulated sex market, but legalised prostitution that works to protect the rights of sex workers, ensure that they are treated fairly, and giving them a path away from sex work if that isn't truly what they want to do with their lives. Offering free education, child welfare and housing are things that could save someone from turning to the sex trade in desperation, and those promiscuous ones who just like to do sex work can still go about their business unhindered. The question that I can't answer is how many prostitutes will remain if we had a society that didn't force people to choose sex work. I suspect there won't be many, but to the delight of freemarketeers, the remaining ones can make use of the limited supply to push their prices as far up as they want to.

Perhaps this is how freemarketeers see sex work with no regulation:

Free Market Fundamentalism & The War on Drugs

What is free market fundamentalism? Free market fundamentalism is a term I encountered in the book Merchants of Doubt, and it refers to people that think that free markets can solve all our societal problems. 

Whenever there are societal problems that can be solved using legislation, you can count on these people to come out of the woodwork and decry the "nanny state", moan about slippery slopes and claim the moral high ground because to them liberty means that one dollar equals one vote. This world view is very favourable to the rich, who repackage it and sell it to ordinary people under the guise of ending government corruption and coercion.

It's been suggested that there are some points of agreement, like the agreement on the war on drugs for example.

For example, according to free market fundamentalists the war on drugs is immoral and should be ended. This is an example of agreement, but only very partially, and to a degree that is almost trivial. Even though progressives such as myself think we agree with them, we don't really in any meaningful sense. We agree the drug war should end. But we disagree on why. We don't disagree because we think that the state using force is always unjustified, as they do. We think the state using force in this instance is not justified. State force must be the last, and not the first way to deal with problems in society. 

We also disagree on the desired outcome. Progressives want legalized drugs, state issued to addicts to ensure quality and purity for health reasons, complimented by government funded treatment programs and informational campaigns to prevent people from trying drugs.

Free market fundamentalists want a free open market for drugs. That means  the possibility of animated billboards with stylish photos of models shooting up heroin, drug dealers hanging around schools and selling to children, and brands competing to make the purest, most potent, most addictive drugs as available to the public as possible. Would you like a few grams of cocaine with your happy meal?

These free market fundamentalists want whatever a free market has to give, no matter how bad it is, because the free market itself is more important than what its outcomes could be. The war on drugs is bad policy to us, but to free market fundamentalists it is evidence that governments are inherently bad. It doesn't even matter if governments reform, because the way these fundamentalists gather evidence is very flexible. It needn't be existing laws, leaders or politics. Any evidence can be cherry picked from anywhere or any time such that brutal Asian dictators from the former part of the twentieth century are proof that government is bad, but good leadership and governments are not counter evidence. The war on drugs is just another chapter in their book of apologetics, and there isn't much agreement there anyway, so I think it's probably best not to focus on the minor point of agreement that the war on drugs should be ended. 

Why Send People to Mars?

I had a conversation with someone the other day, where he shared with me that his nephew had just completed his studies in physics. He asked his nephew what the practical use was of "all this stuff". To him, being a business man, this made perfect sense. Two days later his nephew came back with an answer. "We can use this to find mineral deposits!". This was a satisfying answer to him. 

But why could it be useful to know the habits of a naked mole rat, or to send people to Mars? I could give a facetious answer like "because we can" or I could give an apologetic answer, pointing out how finding out how the atom worked helped us to develop things like atomic power and computers. Although, we could very well say that someone who wanted to invent better power generation or do massive calculations could discover all those things in service of those purposes. Why can't all scientists be Hank Rearden[1] like figures who invent near magical things that elevate them to capitalist hero status? Why is it that we send people and robots to other planets when people on earth are starving and dying of disease? Isn't there at least a moral case for making science serve humanitarian needs only, or a capitalistic case for science to serve business interests only?

I think that curiosity is the ultimate driver for science, and that we explore the universe because we don't know what we might find. When I move into a new area, I like to drive around and literally get lost there. It might sound strange and silly, but there is a lame sense of adventure I get from that, and I also learn things about the area I would have never known had I only stuck to the roads I knew. After getting lost somewhere and finding your way, you know a place better than you did before, even better than people that live there in some cases. A seemingly pointless exercise at the outset can become a journey of discovery, and when you return home, you return enriched.

The problem of pointing science at any particular problem is that we don't know what we don't know. We didn't know that we needed to understand the nature of light in order to see broken bones in living people. Many obscure discoveries might end up meeting with problems they never sought out to solve, and then, seemingly like magic, they step in and save the day. We don't know if naked mole rats can teach us something about our circadian rhythms, and then out of left field we can find a way to treat insomnia. I would hazard a guess that a lot of good science that has changed lives came from curious people looking in unlikely or even seemingly uninteresting places. 

Robert Sapolsky spent a considerable amount of time in the savannas of Africa taking blood samples from baboons[2] to measure their glucocorticoid levels, and what we ended up learning is that stress had physiological, and not just psychological symptoms. If we had to ask how we intend to help humanity or make money with each scientific endeavour, we would still end up going down some blind alleys, but we would never find the good things we weren't looking for in the first place. 

Perhaps there is another case to be made as well. Maybe curiosity is part of the human experience, and to rob ourselves of it will be a disservice to our own experience of the world. Maybe curiosity for its own sake is justified, and the profits or humanitarian advantages are just the additional unexpected reward for a process that is itself rewarding to engage in. Carl Sagan speaks quite poetically about this in the original Cosmos series, which I think is a good quote to end this post with too.
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” - Carl Sagan, Cosmos

1. For those who haven't had the displeasure of reading Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden is one of the protagonists in that novel that invents Rearden metal, an amazing metal that is basically perfect. Think adamantium, but better.
2. I highly recommend Sapolsky's book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers , which details his findings in a very accessible and often humorous way.

Nothing of the Gaps?

This post is a direct response to the post The Nothing of the Gaps at the Two Catholic Men and a Blog blog.

Sometimes I like to have a peek over the picket fence to see what is going on in the apologetics corner. I'm never disappointed by the results, and by never I mean always.

The post in question states the following:
“Any thinking Christian will, of course, acknowledge the many secondary causes that exist in all of reality, but God as the first cause of all things material and immaterial is a non-negotiable dogma. Likewise, a strict materialist or strong atheist will recognize secondary causes, but do they not essentially defer to “nothing” as the ultimate answer to certain gaps? So we end up with "the nothing of the gaps".”

Luckily, I have an answer handy about essentially deferring to the nothing of the gaps. Do atheists do it? No. What is the nothing of the gaps anyway? It seems to me that Ben thinks that not having an answer is an invalid position, that saying we don't know means we are wrong and someone who claims an answer is more right, whatever that may mean.

Ben goes on to give examples. Which I will address in turn:

The Gap from Meaning:

Since you've read the post, I won't quote the whole thing, but his essential objection to atheists being able to create their own meaning is that "meaning is received, not made. ". His argument for meaning being received, not made is unknown. There is no argument for that. We are forced to conclude that Ben just sees meaning this way based on his own subjective interpretation of meaning, or maybe based on what Ratzinger has said. Unfortunately, Ratzinger holds no authority on this blog. 

If you want to read more about atheism and meaning, I've written quite a bit about that

The Gap from Goodness:

Ben asks the imaginary atheist:
“Q: What is the ultimate source for the good, the beautiful and the true?”

He imagines atheists saying “nothing”, but I object to the question itself. Why are we to believe that there is an ultimate source for anything in the first place? If we had found that beauty is biological would that count as an ultimate source? I’m not sure what the requirements would be for an ultimate source, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben was setting up a question that could really only have one answer based on his understanding of the question, and that is “god”.

The Gap from Intelligence:

Ben asks where the intelligibility of the universe comes from, and answers on behalf of his imaginary atheist that the answer should be nothing. Once again I need to emphasize that each of these questions can be answered simply if we say that we don’t know. Is the universe truly intelligible, or do we see from our simple ape existence a mirage of intelligibility? What is apparent is intelligible, but underlying that things might become “queerer than we can suppose”. As far as real intelligibility is concerned, there are serious challenges to human reason in the form of philosophical problems and problems of perception that make the universe kind of weird. We still see the sun as “rising” even though we know it doesn’t. We still develop small superstitions even though we know they are rationally unfounded. Maybe there is a limit to intelligibility, and maybe when people like Ben approach that limit, they inject a 50cc dose of theology to obscure the reality that we are in a strange place we barely understand for reasons unknown based on things we may never be able to comprehend. 

Finally, Ben says “Today’s “progressive” thinking is that a highly ordered and intelligible universe must clearly come from mindlessness…clearly. One might call this having an irrational "faith" in chance.”

I don’t know where he has been looking, but the argument has never been that the universe clearly comes from mindlessness. The argument is that we don’t possess adequate information to draw the conclusion that it is a mind. In the absence of such information, saying it is a mind is not responsible. I just wonder what is so great about a mind, and I wonder if elephants believe the universe was made with a trunk? We just cannot draw these far reaching conclusions about the nature of literally everything without having a lot more information, and blaming people for finding such overreached conclusions unconvincing isn’t going to help either.