Thursday, December 26, 2013

The New Two Cultures

The Two Cultures was originally a talk by C.P. Snow which became a book. Snow was pointing out the scientific illiteracy of those humanities-based academics who looked down their noses at scientists, those unwashed peons who couldn't recite Cicero or Virgil.

With the passage of time, Snow's point has become outdated as science and technology have increased in importance, while an education in the classics is seen as quaint and effete more often than as the essential mark of a gentleman. However, it seems to me that there is a new dichotomy to which attention needs to be drawn. I'm going to call the two sides "evidence-based" versus "agenda-based".

Science and mathematics are the primary examples of evidence-based academic disciplines. If you're going to put forward a hypothesis in these fields, you'd better have evidence to back it up. That evidence takes the form of theory and observation in science, and deductions from the axioms of formal systems in mathematics, computer science and some philosophy. Medicine is starting to embrace the evidence-based approach, and in law, there has always been an expectation that you will use "evidence" such as precedent, legislation and the constitution to make your case.

I'm sure it's possible to take an evidence-based analysis in the humanities also, for example by using textual analysis to support your interpretation of a poem, say. But the humanities seems to be the home of an alternative approach which I call agenda-driven. This is precisely the reverse approach; you start with a conclusion based on your agenda, and instead of looking for evidence to support it, you then interpret the world through the lens of your chosen agenda.

Whether it's radical feminism, critical race theory, cultural Marxism or whatever, the MO is the same. You start by assuming that the whole of society is misogynistic, racist etc., and you are required to see the world through the filter of this unquestionable assumption. Everything you see is taken as evidence to strengthen your initial assumption; nothing can possibly weaken it.

In this respect (and many others), agenda-driven studies have far more in common with religion than they do with science. What's more, there seems to be an increasing tendency to denounce the evidence-based approach as masculine, exclusive and oppressive, while agenda-driven approaches are declared to be more inclusive and social-justicey, and more aligned with the "feminine energy" - and other such gobbledygook.

If you doubt me, check out:
  •  Newton's Principia = Newton's Rape Manual
  •  "E=mc2 is a sexed equation because it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us."
  •  Scientists haven't solved the Navier-Stokes equations of fluid mechanics because fluids are icky and feminine. Nothing to do with the fact that NS is a nonlinear parabolic-hyperbolic set of equations that cannot be solved in closed form.
 As a scientifically trained person, I find it appalling that ideologues are trying to encroach on areas of study where an evidence-driven approach is essential. If they get their way, kiss goodbye to any prospect of making progress and accumulating knowledge in these fields. But hey, at least we'll be joining hands singing Kumbaya and nobody's fee-fees will be hurt except for those evil patriarchal privileged males.

In a subsequent post I plan to address the essential difference between science and religion. There is a reason why scientific knowledge has increased explosively in the last few centuries, while theologians are basically restating the assertions of Thomas Aquinas 800 years later, and still haven't decided whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and Son or the Father alone, the burning question which split Christianity into Eastern and Western factions long ago.

Feminists often bemoan the shortage of women in STEM fields, yet at the same time, the more extreme seek to emasculate science and turn it into a religion in the name of gender uniformity. How is that supposed to be empowering?

More later.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Is "agnostic" a useful concept?

I've fallen behind with my blogging, not that it matters since nobody reads this blog anyway. But here are some thoughts on a subject I've been thinking about lately.

In everyday language, an agnostic is someone who is "halfway" between being an atheist and a religious believer, or perhaps someone who sits on the fence and makes a virtue of refusing to take a stand one way or the other. Of course, popular usage is quite different from the sense originally intended by Thomas Huxley: the position that humanity can never know one way or the other whether a god or gods exist. Either way, I question the usefulness of the term.

Huxley's claim might strike one as being rather sweeping and dogmatic in itself. After all, at one stage scientists might have said with confidence that humans can never know whether there was a big bang, whether there are black holes, and so on. But since then, observational evidence has piled up steadily to the point where it is overwhelming.

On the other hand, Huxley's claim is vacuous in a sense. You can never know with 100% certainty that the chair you're sitting on right now exists, or the computer or device you're using to read these words. Your brain could be floating in a vat in an evil scientist's basement lab, connected to electrical cables which feed inputs generating the illusory universe you perceive.

Not to mention that a chair and a computer are more or less well-defined entities; most people can agree on whether something is a computer or not. God, however, has never (as far as I can see) even been defined well enough that a debate concerning his existence is worth having. God is an incoherent concept. The old-style image of a bearded man in the sky is simply wrong, but the vague, abstract god of "sophisticated theology", who vanishes behind a smoke screen of semantic masturbation, is what a scientist would call "not even wrong".

Anyway, Huxley's claim suffers from a serious problem. How would you test it, even assuming you had a satisfactory definition of the god-thingy to which it referred? How could you show it to be true or false? It seems to me you would need to know whether God's existence was the true state of affairs or not, thus violating the premise unless you are either God himself, or some sort of highly advanced alien.

A claim that can never be tested, even in principle, is not a useful claim in my opinion. Is the popular usage of the word "agnostic" any more useful? I'm not convinced it is.

In western society, when people call themselves agnostics, it's very likely that it's specifically the christian god they want to avoid taking a stand on. They feel as free as everyone else, christians and atheists alike, to dismiss out of hand the existence of Thor, Ra, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Quetzelcoatl, and so on. So in a sense, if you call yourself an agnostic, you are giving the christian god a free pass that other, equally imaginary and discredited gods don't get.

It seems to me that many self-described agnostics are simply atheists are lack the guts to come out of the closet. Of course this could be a wise decision if they live in the bible belt (which encompasses a great deal more of the US than the Deep South). Then there are the agnostics - thankfully less common - who lack intellectual curiosity and love to intone sophomirically, "A pox on both your houses." (Vince Bugliosi's wretched book "Divinity of Doubt" is an exemplar of this attitude.)

Of course, in this as in many other areas of life (including feminism), labels don't really matter - actions do. Don't judge people by how they choose to label themselves, but how they live their lives.

I would guess that many people who call themselves agnostics, and a surprising number of self-proclaimed christians, are functional atheists - they live their lives as if there is no god.They don't act like there is some cosmic tyrant looking down on them 24-7 and preparing to toss them into the Lake of Fire to scream forever in infinite agony after they die, if they fail to cross and dot all their T's and I's while on earth.

Of course you are free to label yourself as you please, but when you use that label in public, you have a responsibility to think about whether you are accurately presenting yourself to the world, and if not, why not? Are you using the term "agnostic" simply to avoid the perceived stigma of atheism? Or are you hedging your bets, genuinely unsure whether a god or exists or not? In the latter case, how does your belief affect your behavior? What is the point of a belief if it makes no difference to your behavior?

I strongly believe that the more atheists who come out of the closet, the better. The US has a severe case of atheist phobia and needs desensitization therapy. It needs to see as many ordinary, everyday people as possible coming out as atheists.

For me, being an atheist does not mean I claim absolute knowledge that no god exists. It simply means that in the total absence of evidence for the supernatural, I am entitled to live my life on the working assumption that it does not exist. If you're a functional atheist, I would encourage you to think about what your working assumption is. Are you in fact a closet atheist? Then come out of that closet!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Radfems for Rape

The mindless mantra of victim feminism, "Don't teach women how to avoid rape, teach men not to rape" is bad enough. But I am really sickened by a trend I've recently noticed: discouraging victims of sexual assault and domestic violence from going to the police.

Apparently, the police are just another weapon of Teh Patriarchy to rape and oppress women. Reporting rape to them never helps, and only makes things worse! Proof: some anecdotes the skepchix managed to come up with.

Anyway, a consistent message is emerging from the Fempire: don't report rape to the police, because Patriarchy. And in the very next breath, they rant and rave that the crime of rape is vastly underreported because Patriarchy!

Apparently the Social Justice Warriors have no problem sacrificing women's safety on the altar of their ideology. Sickening bunch of hypocrites.

Monday, October 7, 2013

God cannot be omniscient or omnipotent

In classical theology, God is held to be 3-O: omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. For centuries, critics of theism have argued against the coherence of this picture of God by invoking the Problem of Evil. In this context, evil should be understood as not only malicious acts by humans, but anything that causes suffering, including tsunamis, droughts and other types of "natural evil". The Problem of Evil can be stated as follows:
  1. If God is omniscient, he is aware when evil is about to take place.
  2. If God is omnipotent, he is able to prevent evil from taking place.
  3. If God is omnibenevolent, he would act to prevent evil from taking place.
  4. Evil takes place.
  5. Therefore, God cannot be all three of omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
Apologists respond to the Problem of Evil with theodicies - arguments that, for example, the evil that takes place in the world is part of a greater good, or it is necessary for character-building, and so on. None of these arguments strike me as convincing, or indeed as anything more than ad-hoc and somewhat desperate attempts to shore up the classical theological understanding of God.

Alvin Plantinga has put forward a rather technical free-will defense which purports to let God off the hook. The details aren't important here. While not everyone accepts the validity of Plantinga's argument, the focus seems to have shifted from the Logical Problem of Evil (why is there any evil at all) to the Evidential Problem (why is there so much evil in this world).

It should be pointed out that if you use any free will-based theodicy, you're backing away from the assumption that God is omnibenevolent. He is only benevolent up to a certain point. He looks for a trade-off between benevolence and humans having free will. So, as far as I'm concerned, a strictly 3-O god is still logically inconsistent.

However, in the present post, I want to leave omnibenevolence aside and saw off the other two legs of the stool - omniscience and omnipotence. I intend to do this by invoking the Butterfly Effect, which has entered the realm of pop culture (it's even the title of an Ashton Kutcher movie) but is actually a profound mathematical result regarding the limits of what can in principle be known about the world.

The effect is usually stated in terms of a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest, resulting in a tornado forming a few days later in Texas. It's important not to think of this in classical terms of a chain of cause and effect, with each link in the chain pointing unambiguously to the next and previous links. Chaotic systems - the kind we are talking about here - don't work like that.

Imagine two scenarios which are identical except that in one scenario the butterfly flaps its wings at a certain instant, and in the other, the butterfly doesn't flap its wings at that instant. The two scenarios evolve differently due to this tiny difference in initial conditions. The difference amplifies exponentially due to the nonlinear feedback in the system, with the result that in one scenario a tornado occurs, and in the other, there is no tornado. This is what scientists call sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and it is the hallmark of chaotic systems.

Now, the point is that at the instant the butterfly flaps its wings, there is no way to know that a tornado will result. In another scenario, the flap of the butterfly's wings might actually prevent a tornado that would otherwise have occurred. There's just no way to predict the behavior of the system with any accuracy more than a few days ahead of time, because the slightest rounding error will amplify exponentially until it overwhelms the predicted solution, making it radically different from the actual behavior.

"But," says the apologist, "God is infinitely more powerful than all the computers that humans have created."

It's not a question of throwing more computing power at the problem. If you used all the computers on earth to predict the weather, you might gain an extra day of accuracy. Double the number of computers, and you might gain an extra few hours. Double it again, and you might gain a few minutes. But there is a fundamental mathematical restriction on how far in advance you can predict the weather, and even God is subject to this restriction, because the atmosphere is a nonlinear chaotic system.

With me so far? Now, what about omnipotence?

Lack of omnipotence follows logically from lack of omniscience. Suppose God wanted to cause or avert a tornado a week from today. He wouldn't know how to do it, because he wouldn't know which butterfly might become a causal factor by flapping or not flapping its wings.

And the atmosphere is not the only nonlinear chaotic system. The solar system is also chaotic. During its early history, there may have been hundreds of Mars-sized planets which were constantly colliding. It would have been impossible to predict in advance that the earth would have a large moon which stabilizes its rotation and gives us seasons, that it would have oceans due to bombardment by icy comets, that the dinosaurs would be wiped out by an asteroid collision 65 million years ago, and so on. So if God was planning since before the Big Bang that the earth would eventually support human life, it's a fantastic coincidence that his plans actually came to fruition.

At this point, the sophisticated theologian would typically sniff haughtily and say something like: "Once again you show your narrow, limited understanding of God. Obviously he isn't bound by petty scientific restrictions. He exists beyond space and time, and sees the whole history of the universe at a glance."

I'm not sure such airy assertions are even meaningful, let alone true. How can a conscious being exist outside of time? Consciousness is by definition a temporal sequence of brain states. If there is no time, there is no change in brain states and therefore no consciousness. The only kind of thing I can imagine existing outside of time and space is an abstract concept such as a mathematical theorem, not a conscious being with which one can have a personal relationship.

Anyway, my main point is that there are limits to God's knowledge - he can't be omniscient, because it's not possible, even in principle, for anyone to be omniscient. The cost of gaining knowledge of even the gross future behavior (let alone the fine details) of a chaotic system increases exponentially, and you hit a wall long before you get anywhere near omniscience. And since perfect control requires perfect knowledge, omnipotence is not possible without omniscience.

In conclusion, not only is omnibenevolence on shaky ground but omnipotence and omniscience aren't looking too good either. 3-O God doesn't have a leg to stand on!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I forked oolon's repo and stored it on a dongle...

As a software professional, I was interested to learn that the source code for The Block Bot is open source and freely available for anyone to look at and copy. I downloaded it and looked over it, but I haven't had time to examine it in detail, nor can I say for sure that the code on Github is the same as the code running on oolon's server. However I would like to make a couple of points.

Firstly, my understanding is that there is a list of people with admin privileges including oolon, Aratine Cage and an unknown number of other people who can add twitter users to the list. One of the ways they can do this is by sending a tweet to the block bot, specifying the person to be blacklisted and the level the person is to be added to. In addition, if the hashtag "spam" is included in the tweet, the target is not only added to the block-list but is also reported to Twitter as a spammer.

So while it's not the case that anyone blocked is also automatically reported for spam (as has been erroneously stated on some web pages), that capability exists and is open to abuse. Personally I think Twitter screwed up by adding the "report spam" functionality to the API and allowing bots to use it. A captcha should be required to report spam, at a minimum, to reduce abuse of this feature.

Oolon claims that just getting blocked will not in itself lead to your account being suspended. Of course he can't state that as a definite fact unless he's privy to the internal workings of Twitter, but even if he's technically correct, I think he's being disingenuous. What you have to understand is that Twitter's procedure for suspending accounts is highly automated and based on heuristics which Twitter keeps tweaking. Meanwhile, other people are busy reverse-engineering the system and figuring out how to game it to get people they don't like suspended. Do a google search for "twitter gulag" and "reply trap", and you will get an idea of the type of games that go on.

One tactic I've seen very often is that someone is added to the block bot and then some atheism-plus person - quite often oolon himself, or his sidekick Aratina Cage - will then start bombarding the blockee with tweets, and encourage other block bot users to do the same. This happened recently with @tkmlac being dogpiled on out of the blue by A. Cage and cronies. This looks a lot like classic "reply trap" behavior - the point being to provoke the target into replying. If you have been blocked but send more than a certain number of tweets to the people who have blocked you, it triggers a Twitter heuristic and you get suspended.

While we can't prove the block bot is being used with malicious intent, based on the observed pattern of behavior this seems quite likely. The bot certainly lends itself to such underhanded activities and automates them to a degree. In a way it's ingenious what oolon has done - he's succeeded in getting hundreds of people to give him control over their twitter accounts, to do with as he pleases. He can not only block on other people's behalf, he can post or delete their tweets, or basically do anything he likes.

Here again oolon is exploiting a shortcoming of the Twitter API. Not to get too technical, but when you authorize an app to access your twitter account, you have to give it a certain level of privileges. Some apps can post tweets on your behalf, others can't, depending on how much privilege you authorize. The problem is that the set of possible privileges is way too coarse-grained - it's pretty much all or nothing. Ideally (if I were running the block bot and wanted to use it in good faith) there should be a privilege level that specifically allowed an app to block on your behalf but do nothing else, and the block bot would only need to request this level of access.

So to sum up, there are worrying indications that the bot is being used in ways other than advertised, and people who sign up for it are giving away much more control of their account than probably most of them realize. This is why I would never use it nor encourage anyone else to use it, quite apart from the problem of letting someone else (whose agenda may not be the same as yours) control what you can and can't see on Twitter.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Mild pedophilia" and major drama

I love Richard Dawkins' books. I think they are masterful examples of explaining science clearly and simply for a general audience. But when he speaks off the cuff, or tweets, he has been far less successful. His usual clarity seems to desert him, and he has to spend far more time explaining and doing damage control than he spent on the original remarks.

It's not always his fault. I've seen many tweets from him whose meaning seemed perfectly clear, and yet hordes of people were working themselves into a frenzy condemning him for saying the opposite of what he actually said. Some people just don't have adequate reading comprehension skills. And quite a few, I suspect, have it in for Dawkins to begin with, and they will see what they want to see. Or even understand perfectly well what he is saying, and still attack a strawman.

PZ Myers, never one to miss a chance for intellectual dishonesty, channels Oliver Cromwell. Many others are gleefully joining in the dogpiling. It's quite an astonishing display of victim-blaming by those who have the privilege of not having been victims. Perhaps some "STFU and listen" is called for here?

I've previously blogged about my own abusive childhood. I was groped on a couple of occasions, mostly by bullies at school, but the non-sexual physical, emotional and psychological abuse that I suffered was far more damaging.

It seems pretty clear to me what Dawkins is saying - the molesting that he personally experienced did not do significant lasting damage to him, though he acknowledges that there are degrees of sexual abuse and many victims had a more severe and harmful experience than him. Groping is bad, tearing someone's clothes off is worse, forcible penetration is worse still. This isn't rocket science, people!

When did the FTBullies become more morally absolutist than Bill Donohue? Why must they immediately jump to the most uncharitable possible interpretation of every word out of Dawkins' mouth? Okay, we know the answer to that one - they hate his guts, but lack the intellectual wherewithal to refute him.

So here's a final question: if Richard Dawkins can find it in his heart to forgive the man who groped him, rather than nursing a grudge for decades, who the hell are Myers & co. to condemn him for doing so?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

God commanded it, the Israelites did it, and that settles it.

There's still a great deal to talk about when it comes to morality, but the previous post was getting pretty long and I had to end it somewhere. But since I brought up William Lane Craig and the Divine Command theory of morality, I can't resist making the following point.

Craig, it will be remembered, raised eyebrows when he defended the slaughter of the Canaanites as recounted in the Book of Joshua. Craig had been importuning Richard Dawkins to debate him for some time, and Dawkins used Craig's defense as a convenient excuse to decline.

Now, I'm sure Craig is personally a reasonably moral guy, and doesn't approve of genocide as a general principle. However, he's hamstrung by his biblical literalism and his Divine Command Theory. If God commands genocide, then genocide must be A-OK.

At the same time, Craig realizes that the Book of Joshua, with its blood-soaked tale of the Israelites massacring their way across the Promised Land in search of lebensraum, is horrific to modern sensibilities. Its obvious evil has to be explained away. Craig twists himself into a pretzel trying to do so.

The irony is that by acknowledging that God's command to commit genocide has to be "spun" in order to be made palatable to the modern reader, Craig is undermining one of his own favorite arguments for God's existence, the one that goes: "Absolute morality cannot exist without God, absolute morality exists, therefore God exists."

If God were the one and only source of morality as Craig believes and argues, no spin would be necessary because no-one would feel any horror at the idea of Canaanites being wiped out. You could sum it up with a bumper sticker: "God commanded it, the Israelites did it, and that settles it."

By trying to spin the story, Craig is tacitly admitting that there is another source of morality - our own human judgment. We can recognize that genocide is evil, independently of what any ancient dusty scrolls have to say. If the bible god existed, the supremely moral act would be to say to him: "Fuck you, asshole, I don't care if you send me to hell, I still won't worship you." That's what I mean by Good despite God.

Anyway, Craig's argument backfires on him and strengthens my contention that we are inherent decision-makers on morality whether we recognize it our not. Continued human progress (and even survival) depends on realizing this fact, getting better at making decisions, and doing so on a basis of rationality and empathy for our fellow creatures.

Good despite God

In a previous post, I mentioned in passing: "I would argue that even if we knew for a fact that God existed, that would not automatically make him the one and only possible source of morality." I now want to explain what I meant by this.

In the hypothetical situation I'm considering, we know without question that God exists and is as described in the bible. We know he is watching every move we make, and preparing to send us to an eternity of bliss or torment when we die. In this case, it would be pretty expedient to know how he expects us to behave, and act accordingly. But would it be moral?

The problems with the concept of God as the source of morality are well known. Not the least of them is the Euthyphro Dilemma. Either "good" is defined by what God commands us to do (the Divine Command theory of morality, followed by such notables as William Lane Craig), in which case it's morally incumbent on us to obey when God commands rape, murder and genocide, as he frequently did in the Old Testament; or God commands us to do something because it is good, in which case there is a standard of goodness that is external to God, and we should follow that standard anyway and eliminate the middleman.

There's also the "Evil God" challenge raised by philosopher Stephen Law, but I'll leave that for another time. The point I want to make here is that not only can we be "good without God", coming up with moral guidelines on our own in the absence of a divine rulegiver; we can and should be "good despite God", deciding for ourselves what is moral and immoral, even if God were to force us with the threat of punishment to behave otherwise.

I don't know if this is widely recognized terminology, but I like to make a distinct between morality and ethics. Ever wonder why professionals often have a code of ethics rather than a code of morality? Why do we have, for example, bio-ethicists rather than biomoralists? To me, the word "morality" connotes a code of conduct imposed from above in a power relationship. Parents impose morality on their children because the children are too young to figure out ethical behavior on their own.

An ethical code, on the other hand, is a code of conduct you come up with in conjunction with your peers, and then commit to live by. This, to me, is an essential part of growing up. You do the right thing because it is what you've committed to live up to, not because of external compulsion and threats or bribes.

The idea of "objective morality" strikes me as faintly ridiculous, if you mean morality as some kind of Platonic absolute, existing independently of whether humans exist or not. Morality is obviously a human concern (and a concern for any other intelligent species that might be out there). Furthermore, morality is not fixed and immutable. The world's holy books have nothing to say on stem cell research or sex change surgery, because such issues just didn't exist when they were written.

Morality is a work in progress. We are figuring it out as we go along, trying to incorporate new problems into our framework, and hopefully making net progress as we extend our concern and sympathy beyond our immediate family and tribe, to other groups, to people who don't follow our norms of sexual identity and orientation, and eventually to all sentient creatures.

The thing as, we can't help making moral judgments and decisions, both individually and as societies. It's inherent to us - perhaps it's even how morality is defined, an innately human activity. God, if he existed, could force his ideas of morality on us, but the one thing he could never do - short of taking away our free will and turning us into automata - is to make his morality our morality.

We need to understand that we are the source of our morality. We must stop hiding behind holy books and take ownership of the process. We have both a right and an obligation to make moral decisions, individually and collectively. To abdicate that right, to shirk that responsibility, is to surrender an essential part of our humanity.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Attack of the Drones

Previously I mentioned that the use of drones by the US military was one of the moral issues I was interested in exploring. Many people have a visceral reaction to drones, and it's easy to understand why.

Drones seem to turn the act of killing into something cold, clinical, and impersonal. Of course the drones, for now at least, still have a human operator - Skynet hasn't taken over yet. But there is something creepy about the idea of a man in a comfortable air-conditioned office on an Air Force base in Nevada pressing a button and dealing out death and destruction to third world villagers thousands of miles away. It seems too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

Some people seem to be okay with drones killing alleged terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but are horrified by the idea of drones operating within the US, as was rumored to be happening during the hunt for Christopher Dorner. But we obviously can't make a moral distinction based on the religion or ethnicity of the victims. Nor can we make a decision on the morality of drone use purely on the basis of our emotional reaction.

Are military drones ever justified? I think they can be in certain circumstances. There may be cases where force has to be used anyway, and drones, with their surgical accuracy, can reduce harm and death to innocent bystanders.

Offhand I can't think of any other scenarios where the use of armed drones is defensible, and I can see a big downside. There is a sort of moral hazard in not having skin in the game. When the US military knows there is no risk to the drone operator, they are tempted to be more aggressive and cavalier. War becomes a video game, and the victims are pixels on a screen, not flesh and blood.

However, drones are here to stay. Technology will inevitably make them smaller and cheaper, and non-weaponised drones will be put to many new uses, such as aeriel mapping and photography, finding lost people in the outdoors, tracking livestock and wild animals, and of course snooping and surveillance.

Which makes it all the more important that society has an open, transparent, unemotional and productive conversation about the use of drones and their potential for both good and harm.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

First, Do No Harm

Thanks to Tippling Philosopher Jonathan Pearce for dealing gently with my first amateurish foray into philosophy blogging, and helping me to clarify my thoughts. As I suspected, there is already a name for the concept I was writing about - negative utilitarianism - and some prominent people such as Karl Popper have advocated it. Great minds think alike, eh! :-)

However, other philosophers have pointed out flaws with the idea (or at least with simplistic interpretations of it):
Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler's duty on NU grounds.[64]
 Negative utilitarianism would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick.[65]
Obviously, a naive algorithm for minimizing harm can be as problematic as one for maximizing good, as in my scenario of the innocent person who is killed so that 1,000,001 people can each get $1.

I guess what I'm getting at is that (a) we should try to reduce harm when it is actually present or reasonably foreseeable, as opposed to merely potential, and (b) reducing harm is not an end in itself, but part of the goal of ensuring that as many people as possible have maximum opportunity to live full, rich lives and exercise their autonomy as individuals.

If I decide to kill Alice (albeit instantly and painlessly) this morning to guard against the possibility that she might suffer a pinprick later today, I am making a decision that is not mine to make. I am infringing on Alice's autonomy in the biggest possible way, and taking away the possibility that she will experience good as well as harm. In short, I am inflicting harm on her.

The problem that positive utilitarianism has in common with negative utilitarianism is that if I go the other way and try to maximize Alice's happiness, I once again run the risk of overriding her autonomy. My idea of what would maximize her happiness may not correspond to hers, and the problems are compounded exponentially if I try to maximize the happiness of an entire society!

So if I were to restate my idea, I would give greater emphasis to the positive value of respecting people's autonomy. Co-operate with people, reduce harm to them when you reasonably can, but don't blindly follow some principle or you will probably do more harm than good!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Moving on and leaving Atheism Plus behind

I started this blog and took on the handle "Schrödinger's Therapist" in response to the rise of Atheism Plus, and in particular its pushing of the ugly and bigoted "Schrödinger's Rapist" meme.

I was disgusted by the fanaticism and hypocrisy of the A+ leaders - in particular their reckless witch-hunting and immature "gotcha" games against allies and leaders who have contributed far more to freethought and skepticism than they could ever dream of. Also their anti-intellectualism and toxic cult of personality, in particular, worshiping a talentless self-serving hack who dismisses whole scientific fields out of hand despite having no scientific credentials whatsoever (and precious few discernible educational attainments of any kind) and not even understanding basic statistics.

I could also mention a prominent plusser who makes threats of violence, and tries to destroy the careers of critics. And in general I'm dismayed that so many prominent atheist bloggers are spreading hysteria and divisiveness, whipping up a false narrative, and manufacturing controversy for the sake of blog hits and to monpolize the conference speaker circuit - at a time when theocrats are redoubling their efforts to shove their religion down our throats using our tax dollars, and roll back the rights of women, gay people and non-believers.

And yet, disturbing and disappointing as all of this has been, at the same time there's something morbidly fascinating about it. It's like watching a slow motion train wreck. At least that's how I've felt, though I suspect I'm not the only one.

But you can only listen to a broken record for so long. (Does anyone remember vinyl records? I'm really dating myself with that analogy - but then, no-one else would date me.) As time goes on, A+ gets increasingly irrelevant. Look at their solid record of achievement in the field of social justice - forcing Justin Vacula to resign from SCA, forcing Ron Lindsay to apologize for his welcoming remarks at WISCFI (though he stays on as CEO of CFI) - and... um... that's about it. And notice how they boycotted TAM, and everyone I know who went there remarked on how enjoyable and drama-free it was. Their fifteen minutes are well and truly over, and the final butt-hurt implosion of Myers, Benson, Watson and company can't be far away.

That is why from now on I am changing the focus of this blog. I don't guarantee that I'll never write about A+ again, but I want to write about topics that are of long-term interest to me, and hopefully other people.

I'm not a philosopher, but I happen to think philosophy is too important to be left to the philosophers! I want to steer clear of obfuscated technical discussions and instead focus on the big questions like: where does morality come from? Does it exist objectively? How do theories of morality apply to specific issues, e.g. the use of drones by the US? Does the existence or non-existence of a god make a difference to the previous questions? Is "god" even a coherent concept? What basis do we have for knowing what we know, or think we know?

I've changed this blog's masthead to reflect my ongoing focus, and I plan to write posts related to the above topics in the coming weeks. I hope you (if anyone is reading) enjoy them!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Feminism R.I.P.

[UPDATE: since writing the post below, I've encountered a number of women on Twitter who are proud, outspoken feminists but who reject the misandrist, all-women-are-helpless-victims feminism I wrote about in this post. I would mention in particular @KelsTheSecular and @AtheistMel among others. This is very encouraging.]

First of all, be sure to read Katie's take on feminism, which is long but well worth reading.

Up to a few years ago, if you asked me if I was a feminist, I would have answered without hesitation: "Of course. Isn't every decent person?" At that stage I bought into the idea that feminism was simply about equality for women, and nothing more. I would have been startled to learn that no man can ever be a feminist, and he should just shut up and listen to women instead of mansplaining. I had yet to be exposed to "Schrödinger's Rapist", Patriarchy theory, male privilege theory and what not.

For me, the red pill moment was when Elevatorgate hit the fan. Wading through the comments in PZ Myers' infamous "Always name names!" post on Pharyngula, I was simply stunned by the sheer mouth-foaming hatred against men - all men. And things went rapidly downhill from there.

Now, I'm aware that there are different schools of feminism. But by far the loudest (if not the largest) is a virulent, doctrinaire, dogmatic strain that has been festering away in the ivory towers of womyn's studies departments for years, nourished by Dworkinesque misandry and dedicated to the radical notion that all men are rapists and that maleness itself is "toxic".

Some extreme radical feminists even call for the elimination of all men, or at least for their numbers to be drastically reduced and the survivors to be made "manageable" somehow. I know such feminists are outliers, but the fact that they get away with openly calling for "gendercide" against men is extremely troubling. Obviously if the genders were reversed, they would be condemned as dangerous lunatics and dealt with.

I'm also seeing more and more women who are alienated by the ideology that all women are eternal helpless victims who are lacking in agency and should be relieved of all responsibility for their actions - "slut walks" being an obvious example. In a nutshell, radical feminism criminalizes men, infantilizes women, and harms and insults both.

When this is the public face of feminism today, it's no wonder that 70% of women decline to label themselves feminists. We can't use the "No True Feminist" gambit - there is no "true" feminism, just (as in any other social movement) different memes that evolve, interact, and grow and shrink in popularity. Right now I would have to say that feminism's brand has been irreparably damaged by the excesses of the radfems.

If you're male and you are sympathetic to equality for women, but you get screamed at that you're a rapist and a privileged oppressor simply because of your genitalia, it's hard to maintain your level of sympathy. And if you're female but you don't march in 100% lockstep with the party line, then of course you're a gender traitor. I regularly see women being dogpiled on by the radfems because they want to be homemakers or sex workers, or they enjoy PIV sex or straight sex in general, or they make some other personal choice that isn't ideologically approved. When did feminism become all about controlling and restricting other women's choices?

I remain firmly committed to equal rights, respect and responsibilities for women, and for all human beings, but I can no longer call myself a feminist. If feminism is just about gender equality, why does it have a gender-specific name? I understand the historical reasons for this, but I'm increasingly uneasy with the us-vs.-them, single issue, zero-sum implications of the name. This is why I'd rather call myself a humanist or an egalitarian than a feminist.

Also, I am even more adamant about treating people as individuals, and I reject the repellant collectivism and reductionism of the atheism-plus-style feminists who treat people as nothing more than categories - male, female, straight, gay, cis, whatever. The idea that a homeless man sleeping in the gutter is more privileged than the queen of England is simply laughable. It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of cases of "male privilege" are actually wealth privilege that hurts men as often as women.

Feminism has had its day. It did great things in its time and had some very impressive and courageous women among its ranks. But now it is being rendered toxic by the extremism of the radfems who refuse to acknowledge that any progress has been made at all, even as they make things more and more unfair for men in certain areas (child custody disputes, rape accusations at some colleges, and so on).

Rest in peace, feminism. Now let's see men and women of goodwill working together to protect everyone's rights. Forward to the future: Humanism!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Stink at Skeptic Ink

[UPDATE: Justin Vacula has posted that he was blindsided by the public announcement of his departure from Skeptic Ink Network (SIN). This is very troubling. I still say that Loftus as co-owner of SIN gets to decide who does or doesn't blog on his network, but his handling of the affair - and his unseemly gallop towards the atheism-plus side since then - definitely make me re-evaluate my opinion of him.]

The news that Justin Vacula is leaving Skeptic Ink Network has set off a Category F-5 shitstorm. Some of the most prominent Slymepitters are throwing around conspiracy theories and demanding the release of confidential communications on Skeptic Ink's "back channel", and of course that little twat @ool0n is gloating. It's all very predictable in a sad and yet amusing way.

I'm going to be the contrarian here. Yes, the situation could have been handled better. Instead of giving the impression that Justin was fired while somewhere over the Atlantic returning from the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference in Dublin, John Loftus and Ed Clint (it seems to me) should have given him the chance to put up a farewell post confirming that the split is amicable.

However, at the end of the day, the blog network belongs to Loftus and Clint, and they have the right to set the tone for it, invite who they like to join, and then invite them to leave if the individual's blog is not in keeping with the overall tone they want to set. Let me add though that I have the greatest respect for Justin's activism for church-state separation, and I will continue to follow him on his own site and on Twitter.

This is not another Thunderf00t situation as some are implying. PZ Myers, as the owner of "Freethought Blogs", had the right to terminate his association with Thunderf00t. Nobody has an absolute right to be on someone else's blog network. What was noteworthy about the Thunderf00t situation though was that Myers promised Thunderf00t complete freedom to write about anything he liked, and then quickly went back on that promise while also exposing the hollow lie that FTB is not a hive mind and is open to more than one point of view.

By contrast, Loftus has made it clear all along that he doesn't want to brand SIN as the anti-FTB. He sees Atheism-plus as a passing fad that is already in its death-throes, and he wants to look beyond the end of A+ and deal with wider issues. Indeed, I've always seen SIN as a sanctuary from the endless drama that is roiling the rest of the atheosphere, with more substantial, ideas-driven posts from the likes of Jonathan Pearce, Notung and many others including of course Loftus himself.

Anyway, I will continue to read SIN while those who think Vacula was the only reason to read it can follow him wherever else he goes. Hopefully the dust will settle soon, and while it's a pity to see the online atheist community fracturing further, I'm getting tired of the way the drama has to be injected into everything. Follow who you want to follow, and let others do the same!

Monday, July 1, 2013

It's okay when Skepchix do it...

One thing that really pisses me off about the plussers is their double standards. Even when you explicitly call them out on their hypocrisy, they are incapable of seeing it, cocooned as they are in smug self-righteousness.

Case in point: Rebecca Watson's fondness for dismissing her critics as "rich old white guys". Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Ron Lindsay, and others - any one of whom has done infinitely more for skepticism and freethought than Watson and all the plussers and FTBullies put together could ever dream of doing - all have been dismissed in this shallow and ignorant way. And somehow the true believers see nothing wrong with it.

Case in point, from the comments section of Greta Christina's blog:

It's my policy not to link directly to FTB - you can find more details on the exchange here.

I will pass over the conflation of "rich" with "white male" and point out the obvious. When Rebecca Watson says "Thanks, rich old white guy!" and the like, in her usual juvenile snarky manner, she is using "white male" in a pejorative way. I'm sure she would be the first to scream misogyny if the genders were reversed and someone used "female" in a similar context. In fact, remember when Sean Faircloth was Witch of the Week simply for using "female" in a neutral way?

Look, suppose I said, "It's okay to use the N-word against O.J. Simpson because I'm criticizing him for murdering two people, not for being black." Would anyone accept that argument? Nope.

When Watson dismisses Richard Dawkins (e.g.) out of hand because of his gender and skin color, that is prejudice, plain and simple! Oh, and don't bother lecturing me ad nauseum about power and privilege and oppression and marginalized victims and what not. If you have to spout reams of ideological gobbledygook to explain why something is right when common sense says that it's wrong... well, guess what, it's still wrong.

I'm aware that some slymepitters use pejorative terms against atheism-plus women, and I condemn this. I don't use terms like "manginas" or "baboons" because it's dehumanizing. We should be criticizing atheism-plus for its harmful ideology and its divisive and damaging actions, not making ad hominem attacks.

But the plussers are the ones who are supposed to be holding the moral high ground, the caring-and-sharing inclusive types who have evolved so far beyond petty tribalism and bigotry! And yet, that's exactly what all their rhetoric boils down to.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


This may seem off-topic for this blog, but maybe I'm just tired of responding to each new manufactroversy du jour and want to branch out a bit. Disclaimer: I'm not a professional philosopher, and it's very likely that I'm reinventing the wheel here, and there is a better name for the concept I want to discuss. But let's plunge in regardless!

Given that God doesn't exist, where does morality come from? Actually, I would argue that even if we knew for a fact that God existed, that would not automatically make him the one and only possible source of morality - but that's another story.

Anyway, philosophers have explored many possible answers to the above question. One well-known approach is utilitarianism: "The greatest good of the greatest number." Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, called it "the felicic calculus."

Utilitarianism is superficially appealing, but we soon see problems with it. First of all, how can we quantify good and harm in order to balance them against each other? Won't the trade-off be different for each individual, and even for the same person at different times?

And even supposing we could agree on a universal scale - a human life is worth a million dollars, say - we still have problems.

Scenario 1: We kill an innocent person, resulting in someone else getting $1,000,001.

Scenario 2: We kill an innocent person, resulting in a million and one people each getting $1.

The first scenario would probably strike most people as problematic, and the second one even more so. And yet both are equally okay according to strict utilitarianism, because they result in the same net increase in benefit to those affected.

I think these examples show that striving for the greatest good of the greatest number has to be balanced with treating each individual with respect and dignity. Scenarios like the ones described above would lead to devaluing human life. Perhaps you could in theory factor this back into a utilitarian calculation by arguing that such scenarios would ultimately reduce the benefits accruing to everyone, by cheapening each individual life. I want to argue in a different direction, however.

I propose the principle of anti-utilitarianism: "The least harm for the greatest number." You should avoid doing harm to anyone, and as far as practical, help them avoid harm. You should only cause harm if it is the only way to prevent a greater harm.

But isn't the least harm the same as the greatest good? Not necessarily. As I mentioned above, what causes happiness depends on the individual. For one person, it might mean having a lot of money; for another, a lot of sex, and so on. And the person who gets his or her wish for a lot of sex might find it repetitive after a while, and move on to other sources of pleasure.

On the other hand, the things that cause harm - hunger, physical pain, lack of shelter, disease - are pretty universal. And when you think about it, what we consider morally praiseworthy acts usually focus on mitigating harm rather than increasing the happiness of someone who is already doing okay. We have charities helping the homeless, the disabled and so on, rather than sending Joe Blow on a vacation to Tahiti.

Of course it's unlikely that any principle can give us an unambiguous answer on how to behave in every situation. How far must we go in saving others from harm, as opposed to simply refraining from causing harm? Many of us have encountered someone who seems determined to ruin his or her life by acting in destructive ways. There's only so much you can do to help such a person without taking away that person's autonomy.

However, the impulse to do good must be viewed with suspicion in the light of history. Think of the Puritans trying to create a utopia, and ending up executing women as witches. Try to mitigate harm instead - there is a better chance you'll actually do something useful, since your idea of what should make other people happy won't always correspond to their ideas!

"Anti-utilitarianism: the least harm for the greatest number" - what do you think?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Open Letter to CFI in Support of Ron Lindsay

Subject: Open Letter to CFI in Support of Ron Lindsay

To the CFI Board of Directors:

As you are no doubt aware, a certain faction of online atheists is conducting a campaign to pressure CFI into firing Ron Lindsay as its CEO. The ostensible pretext for this campaign is the opening remarks Dr. Lindsay made at the recent conference on Women in Secularism.

I was not present at this conference, but Dr. Lindsay has posted a transcript of his speech, and no-one to my knowledge has disputed the accuracy of the transcript, so I feel safe in commenting based on this transcript.

Originally, the criticism of this speech by several leading voices of the anti-Lindsay faction, most notably Rebecca Watson, was that it was made by an "old white guy." Needless to say, since the conference was sponsored by CFI and Dr. Lindsay is its CEO, it was perfectly appropriate for him to deliver the opening remarks. Furthermore, his speech was very supportive of women and cognizant of the second-class status to which religion has often relegated them. There was nothing in the speech that I find the least bit controversial or objectionable.

Later criticism centered on a particular portion of the speech in which Dr. Lindsay criticized the mantra "shut up and listen" which is currently very much in vogue with the faction which seeks to depose him. This shibboleth which Watson, PZ Myers and others are so fond of invoking is the slogan of an extremist ideology which holds that all "old white guys" are ipso facto oppressors, while all women, minorities etc. are persecuted victims, are the only ones whose opinions have any validity, and indeed are the only ones who should be heard under any circumstances.

I need hardly point out that such a crude, reductionist and bigoted worldview is at odds with everything CFI stands for, as is the anti-Lindsay faction's contempt for free speech (as shown by their other favorite mantra, "freeze peach.")

The amount of rage and hatred expressed against Dr. Lindsay for his reasonable and unexceptionable speech is baffling unless seen in context. The faction behind this campaign is actively engaged in trying to hijack atheism and redefine it so that rigid adherence to their ideology of radical feminism is mandatory if one wants to be seen as a "true atheist". To this end, they have spent the last two years willfully dividing the movement and alienating those who have contributed the most to it.

Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Harriet Hall and many others have been the targets of hate campaigns similar to the one currently being mounted against Ron Lindsay. All of their many accomplishments and contributions are dismissed out of hand while some offhand remark or some insignificant incident is eagerly seized on, distorted beyond recognition, and used as the pretext for what can only be described as a witch hunt.

Many have speculated that the motivation for the near-constant attempts at ideological purges within the freethought/skeptic community is to manufacture controversy in order to increase revenue at the blogs of the leaders of this faction, as well as to monopolize the conference speaker circuit. But whatever the reasons, you must agree that rigid doctrinaire dogma, suppression of diversity of opinion, hive-minded bullying and intimidation, and dehumanizing people by treating them merely as categories - male, female, gay, straight or whatever - is fundamentally at odds with the values for which CFI stands.

It would set a very dangerous precedent to give in to the demands of these dishonest bullies. They will not be appeased - they will only move on to their next victim. I hope I can rely on CFI to support Dr. Lindsay and continue to uphold free speech, free inquiry and respectful treatment of all people as individuals.

This open letter has been published on my blog, Schrödinger's Therapist


[Schrödinger's Therapist]

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

STFU and listen, you privileged silencing oppressor!

I'm a bad blogger - I haven't updated this blog in a long time. I thought I would take the opportunity to step back a bit rather than trying to catch up on all the latest witch-hunts and manufactroversies, and instead talk in general terms about my problems with the Atheism-plus/FTB/SJW movement.

Other the past several months I've been exposed willy-nilly to a great deal of the Critical Race/Gender Theory (CRGT) ideology that underpins the "plus" movement. It's become inescapably obvious that we're not just dealing with two models of communication. Instead, there is a whole different worldview associated with CRGT - one I personally find abhorrent. (Cue PZ Myers crowing "Schrödinger's Therapist finds the idea of treating women as human beings abhorrent" in 5-4-3-2-1...)

I believe strongly in (a) affording everyone equal rights, respect and responsibilities and (b) treating everyone first and foremost as an individual. This is not the same as being "colorblind" (or gender-blind or whatever). The law should be color/gender-blind and treat everyone equally (i.e. everyone should a priori have equal rights and responsibilities), but we as individuals shouldn't pretend that differences have no social impact.

Let me clarify. When you're talking with an individual from a different demographic group, it's quite possible that this individual has had different life experiences than you due to their group membership. You should be sensitive to this possibility and be willing and ready to learn what these differences are and how they inform the other person's point of view - while remembering that the background is only the background, not the whole person.

To give an example, have you every hesitated to turn to the police for help, for fear of how they might treat you? No? Well, some people have, based on how the police have previously treated them or their friends and family. This might be useful to keep in mind if the topic is, say, crime rates in black communities.

I think this is what the concept of "privilege" was originally about - it was supposed to be a consciousness-raising exercise. You would realize that you weren't getting the whole picture due to the difference between your background and the other person's, and you would voluntarily try to educate yourself and be more sensitive to where they were coming from.

It's the same with politically correct speech - originally it was a consciousness-raising exercise. Suppose hypothetically you were in the habit of using the N-word because that was the culture you grew up in. Someone comes along and tells you in a non-confrontational way, "Look, you might not mean any harm by using that word, but a lot of people are hurt by it." Instead of arguing that some of these same people use the word themselves, you take on board the fact that there are people who are genuinely hurt when you use it. From that point on, you stop and think before using it, and at some point you voluntarily drop it from your habitual usage. Your consciousness has been raised.

Of course this isn't the way privilege and PC speech codes work nowadays. Political correctness has become all about laying down the law and dictating to people, often in a ridiculously nit-picking and infantilizing way, which words are mandatory and which are forbidden. Likewise, accusations of "privilege" are thrown around in a heavy-handed fashion to dismiss people's feelings and opinions out of hand based on their membership of a "non-PC" group.

Which brings us to the heart of my objections to CRGT. In contrast to my worldview, the CRGT-mongers apparently just don't see people as individuals. Instead, they have a list of criteria to label people with: gender, skin color, sexual orientation, cis vs. trans, able-bodied vs. "differently abled", and what not. Your whole identity reduces to the set of labels that are applied to you. You are not an individual - you are interchangeable with anyone else who has been put in the same little box.

In SJW ideology, your individual life experiences and circumstances are of no significance. For example, if you are a man, then you're automatically privileged and an oppressor - even if your home is a cardboard box under a bridge. You're a member of a non-PC group, and therefore your thoughts are not only deterministic and predictable, but irrelevant. In fact you should not even be allowed to speak - you should simply Shut Up And Listen.

Conversely, if you're a woman, you're automatically an oppressed marginalized victim - even if you are flown out to a conference, put up in an expensive hotel, and paid to speak. No-one has the right to disagree with you. Anyone who does is by definition "harassing" and "silencing" you, even if you have a microphone and/or a widely-read blog and they don't.

Now, I recognize that genuine harassment and threats have emanated from both sides of the Great Atheist Schism, and I condemn them. But I am struck by the dishonesty of the SJW's in conflating all criticism and dissent with the worst actions of a small minority who may or not be on the "other side", while explicitly endorsing the "shove a dead porcupine up your ass and go die in a fire" culture that they encourage and engender on the "plus" side.

It's clear that the odious PZ Myers and his FTB clique have a pretty fucked up view of free speech, or "Freeze Peach" as they childishly sneer at it. My own view is that free speech is as close to sacred as anything can be for an atheist. Free speech is how all ideas get a hearing, and the best ones succeed in the ecosystem of ideas while others gradually go extinct.

But I'm convinced the SJW's simply do not recognize free speech as a universal right. Rather, it's "a tool of Teh Patriarchy to harass, oppress and silence marginalized victims." When a SAWCASM (straight abled-bodied etc. etc.) person speaks, he is, by the very act of speaking, exploiting his "privilege" and harassing and silencing the non-SAWCASM victims. Therefore, he should not be allowed to speak. He should be forced to Shut Up And Listen.

When OVATA (Oppressed Victims And Their Allies) speak, they are under no obligation to support their claims with reason and evidence. Reason and evidence, after all, are (you guessed it) tools of Teh Patriarchy to HO&S MV's. OVATA are allowed, in fact required, to spew out raw anger and invective because of their victim status. I believe this is the explanation for their blatant double standards.

In the SJW/FTB view, there simply is no ecosystem of ideas. Only the OVATA dogma is legitimate, and no dissent from it can be tolerated. The legitimacy of an idea is determined solely by how the speaker has been labeled, which little box he or she has been categorized in.

When you strip away the verbiage and examine the core assumptions of CRGT, it becomes clear that it is utterly incompatible with any notions of freethought, skepticism, or rationalism. This, plus the crude, reductionist, insulting and dehumanizing way it attempts to strip people of their individuality and treat them simply as labels, is what makes it repellant to me.

This is why I question whether it's possible, let alone desirable, to build bridges to the "plus" side. They are determined to wallow in their self-imposed victim status and close their ears to any viewpoint originating outside their echo chamber. They are becoming increasingly toxic to the online freethought/skeptical community as a whole, as well as hurting the very groups they claim to help, by instinctively crying "misogyny" first and thinking not at all.

My view is, to hell with them. Wall them off and don't let them do any more damage. Let them stew in their own juice, while always being ready to extend the hand of friendship to people like Ellen Beth Wachs who get kicked out for daring to think independently, or who leave in disgust at the intellectual shallowness and dishonesty.

Considering the speed and recklessness with which Myers has been burning bridges and alienating allies, it's only a question of time before he and his coterie of SJW's are at each other's throats, and A-plus collapses in a final implosion of butt-hurt. In the meantime, let's just move on and leave them behind!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How to Conduct yourself Considerately at Conferences without being a Condescending, Contentious Control-freak

It seems to me that common sense has been the first casualty of T-Shirt-Gate, Camera-on-a-Stick-Gate, and the various other manufactroversies ginned up to support the Atheism-plus/FTB narrative that there is an epidemic of rampant sexual harassment by men at atheist and skeptic conferences.

It's clear to any objective observer that the plussers are shooting themselves in the foot with their reckless scaremongering. But maybe they don't care that they are scaring women away, as long as they get to monopolize the speaker circuit and collect their speaker's fees.

However, it's a serious matter for conference organizers when they hastily impose harassment policies on the basis of a game of telephone that starts with cherry-picked anecdotes that quickly get blown up out of all proportion. Not only do they risk turning off ordinary law-abiding grown-ups with straitjacketing and infantilizing codes of conduct that take all the fun and spontaneity out of legal and consensual friendly interactions, and force everyone to walk on eggshells at all times. They also run the even more serious risk of exposing themselves to significant legal liability if they draft do-it-yourself policies without the necessary legal expertise. One "detrimental reliance" lawsuit could shut a conference down for good.

Rather than drawing up an exhaustive list of thou-shalt-nots, conference organizers would be better advised to put forward a policy that:
  • Explicitly disclaims being a legal document or creating a duty of care, and warns that it should not be relied on as a guarantee of anyone's well-being.
  • Sets expectations on how conference participants are expected to behave, e.g. "All participants are expected to help create a friendly and welcoming atmosphere for one another." It should be about general principles rather than micro-managing trivialities, such as what perfume or cologne people should wear.
  • Encourages participants to contact police or venue security if they fear for their safety.
  • Encourages participants to settle minor disputes directly with one another, without involving anyone else, whenever feasible.
  • Encourages participants to consult staff to resolve problems of intermediate severity.
  • Discourages participants from escalating disputes in an inappropriate way, e.g. by tweeting or blogging people's pictures or private information, or a speaker ambushing an audience member and abusing the power of the podium.
The policy should also make the point that along with the responsibility not to deliberately make other attendees uncomfortable, there is a corresponding responsibility: if you feel uncomfortable with someone else's behavior, speak up! It could be a simple misunderstanding that can be cleared up quickly if you just say something. "Please don't do that, I'm not comfortable with it" is all it takes. And if the other person's action was deliberate, they are now on notice that it is not appreciated.

Notice the phrasing: "I'm not comfortable with it" rather than "You're making me uncomfortable". Take ownership of your own feelings and don't assume that something that you're uncomfortable with is necessarily a case of malice aforethought. For example, some people are huggers while others need a lot more personal space. It's not a question of one person or the other behaving incorrectly. It depends on the individual and his or her cultural background.

Sorry to belabor the point, but on some other blogs I've seen proposals that there should be no physical contact unless you first request it verbally and the other person gives verbal assent. This sounds incredibly awkward and stilted - "May I shake your hand? May I tap you lightly on the shoulder to get your attention?" And yet some women complain that this kind of policy doesn't go far enough: "Many women will say yes anyway, for fear of being labeled a bitch."

Criminy! So now men are supposed to know by psychic power when yes means no? This sort of helpless-victim attitude bugs the living crap out of me. "Please don't do that, I'm not comfortable with it" - how hard is that? Sweetie, if you can't stand up for yourself in such a basic way, you are incapable of taking responsibility for yourself and should not be out alone in public.

In a nutshell: have fun, act like a grown-up, be friendly and considerate to other people. Speak up for yourself while respecting others. Take responsibility for your behavior and don't be either passive or aggressive. Be supportive of others and the group as a whole in maintaining a pleasant atmosphere.

Conference organizers, please don't imagine you can anticipate every possibility and create a ruling for it in advance. You will fail! And you'll only create loopholes and anomalies, incentivizing some people to game the system. Stick to broad principles and trust your attendees - the vast majority of them will be reasonable people who don't need everything spelled out for them.

There - you see how easy it is to establish a sensible policy? We don't need to run around like headless chickens screaming that the sky is falling. Nor do we need reams of legalese (apart from some sort of cover-your-ass disclaimer as discussed above), just some common sense and good will.

It's really all about attitude. If you go in with a belligerent or fearful attitude, expecting every man you meet to rape you and/or invite you for coffee, you are not going to enjoy yourself, no matter what policy is in place or how stringently it is enforced - and other people probably won't enjoy your company either.

Regarding the last bullet in the above list, it's striking that Myers and company are so blind to their own double standards. Myers would be the first to lose his shit if a speaker called out Rebecca Watson from the podium, or a man tweeted a picture of Adria Richards. If we're going to have codes of conduct, let them be binding on all, without special privileges for anyone! And I specifically condemn codes of conduct that are designed to be weapons to settle old scores in some tribal dispute, or to suppress legitimate criticism and put it on the same level as "grabbing someone's ass." I don't think I need to spell out the hypocrisy involved here.

It seems to me that the ideal conference policy would simply say, "Act like a grown-up and we'll treat you like one." Most disputes can be solved easily if people act maturely and charitably. If conference staff have to intervene, resolution should be calibrated to the cultural norms of the majority of attendees. We should not let the tail wag the dog by trying to cater exclusively to the most hypersensitive, especially when some individuals have shown a willingness to act in bad faith and try to game the system, for example by equating "fake jewelry" with harassment.

Again, it all comes down to common sense and good will - qualities that are sadly lacking in those who are proposing the most rigid and all-encompassing policies!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Women and Bullies

I've been planning to write this post for a long time, but had trouble coming up with a structure for it. I'm still not sure, so I'll just put it out there. (Thanks to Katie whose honest and courageous post about her own dysfunctional family gave me the impetus to finally get this off my chest - sorry I can't find the link now. UPDATE: it's here.)

I grew up in an outwardly normal family, but in reality I was in a very abusive situation. Not sexual abuse, but constant physical abuse and a ton of emotional and psychological abuse. My mother was the main abuser, but my father and siblings also played a large part.

I have no idea what started it all - maybe my mother had post-partum depression after I was born. In any case we never bonded, and she never developed any affection for me. For as long as I can remember, I was the whipping boy of the family. My mother had an explosive temper, and I was almost always the one she took it out on.

My mother could also sometimes lash out against the other family members, but she obviously felt guilty afterwards as she had genuine affection for them, and tried to make it up to them. But when it came to me, she had nothing but hatred and rage.

I could do nothing right - now matter how meek and subservient I was, without warning she would start bellowing about how "insolent" and "ungrateful" I was. Then out would come the wooden spoon, and she would keep on beating me until it broke. That woman got through wooden spoons the way ordinary people get through toilet paper.

Try for a moment to imagine how terrifying it is to be a small defenseless child, and have a mad roaring bull of a woman barreling down on you at top speed, her face contorted with rage. Then the pain that you think is never going to end. Over and over again, the sharp agonizing pain until her weapon breaks. Then maybe she gets in a kick or two to the belly before she finally leaves you alone, crying helplessly on the floor in a broken heap, all dignity gone.

I can still show you the physical scars from those years, but the psychological scars run much deeper. To this day, whenever I make a mistake, however minor, I instantly hear my mother's voice bellowing in my ears: "You stupid fool, you're so stupid, you can't do anything right."

Everyone else in the family, including my father, was afraid of my mother. They would join in the jeering and insults she constantly hurled at me. I see now that it was a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I have a hard time forgiving them for being complicit in the abuse.

A few years ago my mother died. I didn't go to the funeral, and I never shed a single tear. My only regret was that I never got a chance to tell her face to face how much she had hurt me. Not that it would have done any good, in all probability. She was not at all an introspective person but had a rock-solid faith that everything she did was right, "because I said so."

Obviously my childhood has had a major impact in how I relate to people. I've become a master of invisibility, adept at keeping my head down and not drawing attention to myself. Which is a useful skill if you're trying to avoid being beaten with a wooden spoon (or fists and feet) by your mother, but not so much in adult life, especially in my career. Not to boast, but I have a genius-level IQ and a math PhD from one of the top technical universities in the US if not the world - and yet I've struggled through life, eking out an existence on more or less menial computer programming jobs.

I've often wondered how I didn't end up as some kind of serial killer. I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but I've read a lot about the effects of emotional abuse and denial of affection in children. I can only guess that somehow I tapped into some deep well of inner strength that carried me through. There's also been the occasional act of kindness and caring, sometimes from relatives, sometimes from strangers, sometimes even anonymously over the internet.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: don't ever underestimate the value of a small act of kindness. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to put myself out of my misery, but an unexpected act of kindness or a concerned question made me put it off and live another day.

Anyway, my life is more or less stable now. I've been home to visit my father a couple of times since my mother's death, and I've come to realize that he is basically a decent man who was dominated by her, and very much under her thumb. I guess I forgive him in so far as I don't wish him harm. But if I could start my life over again in a different family, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

"So is this why you hate women?"

No, you stupid hypothetical commenter! It's what I hate bullies. And I don't for an instant fall for the line that all women are eternal helpless victims, and all men are violent, rapey and "toxic" in their masculinity. Plus I have contempt for anyone who plays the victim card over trivial slights, whether real or perceived.

There's no neat way to wrap this up, no happy ending - life's a struggle, and you just keep on grinding away until it's over. The best you can hope for is the occasional time when you get caught up in the present moment, focusing so intently on it that you forget the past, and forget yourself. And I'll leave it at that. Thanks for reading, if anyone made it this far!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Breasts or Burqa?

Many people are showing their support for the Tunisian activist Amina. That's great. But @furrygirl makes an interesting point, commenting on Muslim women who are speaking out against FEMEN:

This is one of those cases where Twitter is a poor platform for discussion. Yes, women can make their own choices. But are they really totally free to choose, if they've been covered up and inculcated with self-loathing since childhood?

I have to tell you, I get creeped out when I see pictures like this:

It's very hard for me to see the burqa as anything but a prison the woman is forced to carry around with her, which also destroys her identity and individuality. The guy could divorce and remarry, and he'd never have to change the photo!

Banning the burqa - as France did - is perhaps too extreme a response. But there are legitimate reasons to restrict it. I don't believe someone wearing a burqa should be allowed into a bank or courthouse, or any place where security or the need to verify people's identity is a concern.

Some years ago there was a case in Florida where a Saudi woman demanded the "right" to have her driver's license photo taken with her face completely veiled. Presumably the irony that if she returned to Saudi Arabia, she would not be allowed to drive, escaped her!

Some Muslim women insist that they cover themselves up of their own free will, and enjoying being "invisible" in public. Of course they are not invisible, not in the west anyway - they stand out like sore thumbs, and many others feel uncomfortable in their presence. And are they really exercising free will, or internalizing oppression?

I guess I have to come down on the side of treating all women as autonomous human beings, and letting them make their own decisions even if the decisions are ones I disagree with and I'm not totally sure those decisions are made freely. Anything else is patronizing.

But at the same time, there are situations as I've mentioned above where it's legitimate to impose restrictions. It's not a case of "Ban the Burqa" but rather, if you choose to obliterate your identity in public, that's your right, and here are the consequences of your choice that you'll have to live with.

To sum up, I believe that we should make every effort to ensure that women do in fact have a choice. We should be concerned about attitudes they may have learned at home that women are only worth half as much as men. We should try to counteract such attitudes in public schools, and we should take a hard look at Islamic schools that try to cocoon Muslim immigrants as much as possible to prevent them from being affected by secular and humanist attitudes in western countries.

Finally, we should recognize that it's not all-or-nothing. Some women will choose breasts, some the burqa, and most will fall in between. The goal should not be to force a particular outcome but to maximize every individual's choice and opportunity!