Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Minute Meditations

I had a brief Twitter exchange with tweep @Playdoughpoem who mentioned that (as a recent deconvert) she missed praying. I suggested "minute meditations", which are something I've done on-and-off since the '70s.

It started in an attempt to calm myself and relieve stress in my twenties. I had been having panic attacks since my early teens (subsequently resolved with thyroid supplements). I tried yoga and "relaxation tapes" - somewhere between the two I developed a habit of calming meditation in the morning, which grew into applying it in little slices throughout the day. Being able to relax all of your body parts, becoming comfortable physically, then calming your mind and either banishing all thought, or focusing on one or several mantras, affirmations, reinforcements was soon something I could do at my desk, or while walking across the parking lot. Very helpful.

I was a non-believer by then, but I still recognized that prayer had been good for me when I was a believer. I adopted both minute meditations and longer, more serious meditating as replacements for prayer, and I've never looked back. In fact, I still say a few words of thanks to the "objects that be" occasionally before I fall asleep.

Critics of prayer slam it as nothing more than talking to yourself. I agree, and in this example, that's the whole point. Talking to yourself with a purpose can be beneficial, so why not take advantage of it?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Are there Objective Moral Values in the world?

I posed the following question to @SecularOutpost on Twitter a few weeks ago:

@SecularOutpost layman’s questions: If “objective” is defined roughly as “having reality independent of the mind”, doesn’t the discussion of Objective Moral Values require explanations for 1) where OMVs would independently reside, absent the existence of minds, and 2) what mechanism(s) exist that make OMVs available to minds once minds do exist? Is that (part of) what’s required to make a sensible argument for OMVs?

He was kind enough to reply:

.@skepticali I think your analysis is good. The only part I might reject or edit would be the part about the mechanism(s) that make OMVs available to minds once minds do exist, since that blurs ontology with epistemology. It's possible that OMVs exist and we can know that fact, without knowing which OMVs exist.

My followup question:

@SecularOutpost how do we access OMVs? It *seems* to be culturally. If it’s truly objective, wouldn’t they be physical, in some sense?

His response:

.@skepticali I don't see why. 2+2=4 but I wouldn't call that physical. The answer to your question about access will depend on one's position about moral ontology. I.e., an ethical naturalist will have a different answer than an ethical non-naturalist.

I thanked him and went off into the woods for seven years of reflection and meditation. Or less.

After returning to civilization, I confronted my unrequited concern about the possibility of there being “independent reality” for objective moral values. I'm probably too unfamiliar with moral philosophy (or philosophy in general) to understand @SecularOutpost’s point that

“It's possible that OMVs exist and we can know that fact, without knowing which OMVs exist.”

I’m still troubled at how we can arrive at the actual OMVs that we say exist, and how a separate observer - maybe at a different time, place and culture - can arrive at those same actual OMVs. That we might not know which OMVs exist calls into question how it is that we could know they exist. I’m not saying that knowing OMVs exist in principal requires that we know which specific OMVs exist, but the lack of actual OMVs that we can independently arrive at - and verify - makes the argument that “OMVs exist” appear much weaker to me.

His tweet

“The answer to your question about access will depend on one's position about moral ontology.”

indicates that accessing the OMV’s is relative (”...will depend on...”), thus is not objective in the sense of “having reality independent of the mind”. I can restate this as
a Divine Command Theorist, an Ethical Naturalist, and an Ethical Non-Naturalist may all agree that OMVs exist, yet all three differ as to what they are.
This does not demonstrate to me that OMVs exist. It demonstrates that the three parties think they exist, and implies that they can each derive them repeatably using their individual principles and practices, but there is no guarantee that they can arrive at the same conclusions. @SecularOutpost's tweet seems to confirm this. Arriving at three potentially differing sets of OMVs would imply that two and maybe all three are not truly objective facts in the way that we think of gravity as being an objective fact. So I remain puzzled: “If there are Objective Moral Values in the world, how do we assure ourselves that they have reality independent of the mind?”



Postscript: I'll eventually be asking @SecularOutpost to review this and comment on it - but I think I'll let it breathe for a day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How God Affects the World

Random thought of the morning: the claim that God exists is hard enough to justify. Imagine claiming that It creates Objective Moral Values; stores them somewhere; then makes them available to moral agents once those moral agents exist.

How does It do that?

Doesn't that seem awfully complicated and even harder to justify?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Meaningful, Productive Work

A thought popped into my head about how my career in software development had stopped being meaningful and productive. That's not to say that the software development business is not meaningful and productive, but that my experience of it, at a specific large corporation, had become much less meaningful than it had been.

So I'm jotting this down as a reminder, that I need to explore why this happened to me, why I let it happen to me, and compare some of the irritants such as a focus on metric gathering and reporting (AKA "industrial engineering") to the way that focus on IE practices in manufacturing grew and then receded decades ago in response to a need for both productivity and employee engagement.

To be continued...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Cool Kids are acting Less Cool

Sam Harris put his foot in his mouth, if you believe all of the #Estrogenvibe outrage that it stirred up. Greta Christina took exceptional offense to it: "Fuck you, you sexist, patronizing asshole.” Ophelia Benson contributes her hearty “No. And fuck you." Heina Dadabhoy also weighed in with a much more light-hearted take that includes sex toys.

I will get lost if I try to analyze all that’s been said in the past few days, but I can draw an analogy.

The Cool Kids Have a Fight


I’m in junior high school. Cool Kid #1 gives a stupid answer to a simple question posed by a member of the Journalism Club. Cool Kid #2 reads about it in the school newspaper and responds with cursing and anger. Cool Kid #3 chimes in with more cursing and anger. Cool Kid #4 responds with humor and sexual innuendo. The school hallways are abuzz. You can’t help but hear about it between classes.

The Cool Kids

Cool Kid #1 tries to clarify his remarks. Cool Kid #3 is having none of it. The Philosophy Club, the Science Club and other Journalism Club members chime in. Jocks, Nerds, other Cool Kids and even Nobodies like me are choosing up sides. The Cool Kids don’t look so cool any more.

What was accomplished?


Cool Kid #1 (Sam Harris, in case there was any doubt) said a Bad Thing that makes him look like he’s sexist. I’ll admit that I found what he said pretty mild - worthy of a stern rebuke, unquestionably, but making a generalization about the willingness of women to engage in his style of discourse is not the worst thing ever said. Greta, Ophelia, Heina (Cool Kids 2 through 4) and others appeared to take what he said to be a blanket denigration of women’s attitudes and/or aptitudes for engaging in critical thought and/or discourse across the board. If this is what he meant, then they are right. And they were right to call him out. And he should have responded, and they should have pressed him on anything that they were unclear and or unhappy about in his response.

What happened was a bit different. Both Greta and Ophelia cursed him. Greta had some good criticisms to offer, but had wrapped it in her “Fuck you...” packaging that made it difficult to get to her core criticism. I had to reread her post 3 times before I was able to pick out 3 or 4 paragraphs that were constructive. They were good paragraphs, but they were lost in the cursing and anger.

I believe that Greta, Ophelia and Heina, to name the involved bloggers that I read occasionally, deal with sexism, oppression and the threat of violence on a frequent, maybe even constant basis. And it’s clear that Ophelia dislikes Harris, even before last week’s episode. They don’t need approval from anyone to express outrage. But what is it that’s being achieved here? Harris gets exposed for expressing a (overt? covert?) sexist dismissal of women. Greta and Ophelia get to expose Harris. Have minds changed? Are results achieved?

If I were Harris, I’d spin on my heels and keep walking. Maybe, in some way, he’ll be more thoughtful with his words and actions. Maybe he’ll tune out his detractors. Who knows? His fans won’t desert him. He may not get new fans from the Greta/Ophelia camp. Is that important to him? I’m sure he’d like whatever increase in readership he can garner, but does that maximize his flourishing?

If I were Greta, I’d probably still be pissed. I don’t know if she was predisposed to dislike Harris, but, so far, this controversy won’t have warmed her up to him. I look forward to hearing her thoughts on Harris’ clarification, but I suspect that the best we can hope for is for her to recap her last few paragraphs of her original response:

... It has nothing to do with estrogen or ladybrains.

So Sam Harris, and anyone else who says this sexist, patronizing bullshit — knock it the hell off.

Heina’s take was actually pretty funny. If you could take the best of what Greta wrote and interleave it with Heina’s post, it would really speak to people like my white, middle-aged, privileged, American, male self.

Two passages posted by non-participants struck me.

Andrew Sullivan made a good point about these types of conflicts in general:

People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive.

...and Dan Finke provided this crystallization of Feminism:

Feminism is not just an emotionalistic kind of moral idealism, it’s a more rational position than its competitors. It’s one that looks at women’s potential and says, “Women actually and demonstrably have more abilities than just those required to be mothers and wives and, therefore, it’s only best for them, and for an overall culture, that women be maximally empowered according to their abilities.” Why shouldn’t people with aptitudes in a range of skills be encouraged to thrive according to all that potential? How does it benefit them not to? How does it benefit society to arbitrarily waste potential because it happens to reside in women, rather than men? There’s nothing rational about that. It’s only logical to say that a being’s good is in maximizing her potential in her abilities. It’s only logical for a society to take a vested interest in empowering its members to perform as many of their abilities as well as they can if they are going to maximally benefit from the abundant resource of human potential within a society. These are rational positions even before looking at the empirical situation.

Then, when looking empirically, it should be obvious that millennia worth of demonstrable subordination of women socially and mentally would have deep cultural impact. It’s obvious that denying a group of people equal access to education and political power and religious power for millennia is going to shape society and its biases in ways that implicitly perpetuate disadvantages to that group of people. All that cultural, linguistic, political, and mental anti-woman structure won’t just vanish into thin air just because we now mouth some new words about equality and change the formal law to be different. Only when there is a root to branch transformation of all our personal and institutional assumptions, habits, practices, etc. could all this social structuring of our reality get out of the way of women’s demonstrable, biological, natural potential.

Until that happens, there shouldn’t be an a priori assumption that men’s disproportionate successes in numerous areas are owed to “natural differences”. Such assumptions are not unvarnished, politically-incorrect truth-telling. They reflect an irrational bias towards the cultural status quo as natural fate. When we know that in principle there’s no reason women cannot be far more equally successful in outcomes than men are, when we see that they’re not coming out as successful our focus should be on how we can proactively change the culture.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Proving a Negative as an Apologetics Manuever

I ran into a pair of the worst apologetics arguments imaginable last week. So bad that it took me days to get my head around them. I discuss the first of these here.

The passage that incensed me was

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

There is enough wrongness packed into these two sentences that they could stop a charging bull elephant. Let me paraphrase them to dig out the core thought: “Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist”. I don’t know if it’s my business to try to unearth the reason why they think this is a persuasive argument that God exists - but I can comment on whether the argument is persuasive.

The obvious first question is “Is this a coherent claim?” Isn’t the claim “Disbelief in The Invisible Pink Unicorn is wrong because no one can prove that The Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn't exist“ just as coherent? Aren’t the two questions then equally persuasive in making their cases for their subjects? Shouldn’t we be able to assert the same about Allah, Zeus, Odin, Mithra, Ashur, Enlil, Chemosh, Baal, Vishnu, Marduk, Yaluk and others, and expect our interlocutors to respond? Won’t all of these claims tend to make their cases equally well?

The answer, of course, is “no”. No, you can’t expect your interlocutors to respond to claims like this because you’ve left out something essential. First, assuming you’ve chosen “God” as the object that you claim can’t be proved to not exist, you must acknowledge the implied claim you’re making that “God exists”. You’re asserting that the object referred to as “God” is an actual thing for which existence is an attribute.

Imagine the following conversation:
A: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
B: Are you claiming that God exists?
A: Yes
B: Which God are we talking about? What attributes does it have that I can test?
A: [responds with explanation]
B: [requests clarification on what level of certainty is required for proof]
A: [provides clarification]
B: [proceeds with testing prior to presenting results]
Then imagine this alternative conversation:
C: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
D: Are you claiming that God exists?
C: No
D: Then what are you talking about?
C: [no response]
D: [ends conversation]
The implied claim that “God exists” gives claimant A something ostensibly real to discuss. Respondent B can then request a list of the claimants best evidence and arguments that this object exists, and begin an examination of the positive claim “God exists”. If the level of certainty reaches what the participants agreed to, then they may assent to the claim. Other outcomes may result as well. A resolution is possible in principle.

The absence of the positive claim “God exists” - on the other hand - raises the question of what claimant C could possibly mean. Without clarification of what the subject of C’s claim is, the words “no one can prove that God doesn't exist“ has no meaning because, using C’s own refusal to acknowledge the implication that “God exists“, no real subject exists to discuss. D is under no obligation to continue.

What I’ve omitted is that the idea of “proof” is not one that is relevant outside mathematics, even though the word is used in lay conversations everywhere. The real challenge - if both parties are amenable - is to establish a level of certainty (think of a Bayesian probability between zero and one) that the parties agree will serve as confirmation in lieu of “proof”.

Then let the fun begin!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Folly of Atheism

I stumbled upon this blog post titled "The Folly of Atheism" via Twitter user @Cand_Apologetix. It only took a couple of paragraphs to pique my interest, particularly this passage:

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

Since no comments are allowed for this post, I couldn’t thoughtlessly blurt out the first snarky thing that popped into my head, which is probably a good thing.

Earlier this week, I had actually published two posts analyzing The Folly of Atheism - a much longer version of this post that dissected the opening paragraphs, and a follow-on that looked briefly at the more formal arguments that he laid out.

But then I thought better of it.

This is probably the first time I've ever deleted a blog post. I realized that it didn't serve anyone for me to criticize The Folly of Atheism in depth - it is so bad that 60 seconds skimming over it will convince you of that without requiring any verbose piling on from me. Sometimes, stuff is just so vacuously, vapidly inane that you!re better off to just keep moving, so that's what I've chosen to do.