Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Ethics of False Attributions: A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

What follows is the continuation of a discussion with Massimo Pigliucci and I over at Rationally Speaking. You can view the original discussion here.

I may have addressed this matter in too much detail, but I want to make this point clear: it is wrong to attribute an idea to someone which they do not adhere to. But what's very wrong is to, when you are informed of this, provide a paltry and dismissive defense of your error and then proceed with it, anyway. If the figures involved were two anonymous persons in a debate forum, then perhaps it would be silly to blow up about it. But we're talking here about two important public intellectuals, both of whom are ostensibly dedicated to promoting truth and reason. It is these figures, most of all, who have an obligation to publish accurate words and who should invite scrutiny of the kind and detail I offer here.


It is fairly clear that you have misattributed the phrase “root of all evil” to Dawkins, when you said the following:

“We both agree that religion has absolutely nothing to do with morality, though I don't think of it as "the root of all evil" either, to use Richard Dawkins' phrase, which Harris seems to endorse with glee throughout this (and his previous) book.”

This isn't Richard Dawkins' phrase. He has repeatedly, publicly repudiated this phrase as being “ridiculous” and “indefensible". He has stated as much in several venues. Here is one example.

The right thing to do would have been, from the start, to say “whoops”, and remove it. Nobody could fault you for a minor mistake. I am now in the position of feeling obliged argue that there is something unethical about publicly misattributing ideas to others when you have been given good reason to believe they are, in fact, misattributions. Thus, I will now argue that you have, first, inaccurately attributed this idea to Dawkins, second, that you have compounded this error by presenting such unconvincing arguments that it's not even clear to me that you care very much if what you said was true, and, third, that it is unethical for you to continue in this way. It is my hope that in light of the arguments I present, you will present a compelling rebuttal, or, if you believe you are unable to do so, accede to the arguments.

My first point has been established in previous posts, and I don't want to rehash what I've already said in entirety, and will only do so where I feel necessary. Instead, I will address some of the specific replies you have made, and move directly into my second argument.

Your first defense was that Dawkins is “big enough” that had he wanted the title changed, it would have been. The evidence supports this claim for a very peculiar reason: the title WAS changed in subsequent broadcasts to the same name of his book (The God Delusion), yet you blew over this point entirely. Furthermore, Dawkins has made a point of noting in multiple interviews that he was unable to convince the filmmakers to change the title, but was able to insist on them at least a “?” to the end of the title. So, to reiterate, it would seem your position requires that Dawkins be repeatedly, publicly lying, something you have yet to acknowledge. The evidence in this case does not support your attributing the quote to Dawkins – all the evidence suggests he never liked it, forced a minor concession, and that it was later changed entirely, likely in part due to his misgivings about the title. Your first argument requires us to consider your reasoning alone sufficient to override all the evidence and reasons to the contrary. I don't find this compelling, and I don't think anyone should.

Your second point was that if he really objected to the title so much, he could have withdrawn from the project. While this is technically true, we, firstly, don't know all the details of the project. It could be that he couldn't withdraw without there being more problems and complications than there would be with allowing the title to go through. But, more to the point, even if he could do this, from our position as observers, I find this suggestion entirely unconvincing, and have already stated why: just because you object to the title doesn't mean you necessarily object to it so much that you think the best solution is to cancel or withdraw from the project. All things considered, it might be best to allow for an unfortunate title and a widely broadcast release critical of religion, than to disallow both.

Your second argument is such a weak point on your part it shocks me that you made it. It's like suggesting the United States must endorse North Korea attending specific meetings simply because the U.S. chose to go to meetings North Korea attended. There's absolutely nothing inconsistent or ridiculous about allowing a minor misgiving to go on because it is inextricably linked to what you perceive as a higher priority. Given Dawkins’ projects of late, it seems pretty obvious that criticizing religion is such a high priority it appears ludicrous to suggest he cancel the documentary over the title.

You went on to make the irrelevant point that religion being the root of all evil is in line with Dawkins’ views on religious education being child abuse. I explained why this was irrelevant. It is irrelevant because someone can maintain the view that religious education is child abuse even if they do not endorse the view that religion is “the root of all evil”, so the fact that Dawkins endorses that view says next to nothing about whether or not he believes religion is “the root of all evil”, or anything close to it. In fact, even a very religious person could consistently maintain that religious education of children is wrong because they are incapable of consenting to such instruction and it therefore denies them their autonomy.

You then went on, in your next reply, to say this:

“I don't wish to dismiss your points, but I think you are making too much out of this.”

This seems like a pretty impressive rhetorical strategy – to openly state you don't want to dismiss someone's points, while doing exactly that! You DID dismiss my points, and you substituted this sort of apology and downplaying strategy in the place of a rebuttal.

You then say this:

“First, I have experience in publishing and productions, and I can assure you that if someone the caliber of Dawkins "vigorously fought" against a title, there is an excellent change the title would be changed.”

To reiterate what I've already argued, briefly, the title WAS changed to include a “?”, and then changed entirely, so what you're suggesting here seems to entail that you're completely ignoring actual facts about the naming of the film.

If anything, your comments only show that Dawkins wasn't entirely effective in changing the title of a release from the beginning. But perhaps the strongest point made against your attribution is the fact that even if he never disputed the title, it wouldn't follow that therefore he endorsed it or believed that the answer to the question posed by the title was “yes”. There is absolutely nothing about a person's failure to change a title that indicates that they endorse the ideas behind that title, so using the fact of a title as a basis for attributing an idea to someone is quite ridiculous without evidence corroborating that attribution. In this case, virtually all of the outside evidence suggests that Dawkins explicitly objected to the title.

You proceed to say:

“Second, I don't take the phrase literally, even if Dawkins believes that religion is the root of most evil, my original point stands.”

Maybe you don't, but that's unclear to your readers, and it's rather misleading to attribute an idiom like “the root of all evil” to someone else, which many of your readers are likely to take literally, and are therefore likely to draw incorrect conclusions about Dawkins. Many of your readers are at risk of taking the phrase literally, and insofar as it is taken literally, it is a caricature. So, even if you don't maintain a caricatured view of Dawkins beliefs, your review could promote them, and to promote misconceptions of that kind is a bad thing. To do it knowingly is downright unethical. I'll note that his seems to me another attempt at downplaying my criticisms rather than seriously addressing them.

In your last reply to me, you said the following:

“I simply think that his tone is too often too harsh, and I've said that many times on this blog, including some detailed posts where I quote specific passages in The God Delusion. If you disagree, fine, we have different perceptions of Dawkins.”

The caricature I am referring to is slipping in the suggestion in your review of Harris's book that the phrase “root of all evil” is “Dawkins'” phrase, something he claims intellectual adherence to. What you're saying here is irrelevant and serves to throw us off track.

Indeed, this appears to me to be an attempt at changing the subject. We are not talking about tone or our perceptions of Dawkins. I am talking about a particular and clear case of you attributing a very specific notion to Dawkins – that religion being the “root of all evil” is a notion Dawkins ascribes to. I don't give a hoot about your criticisms of Dawkins elsewhere or your misgivings with his tone. You're a professional philosopher; you should know better than to use ploys like this. I feel like I'm in quite the ridiculous position when I have to scold a professional philosopher for blatant prevarications.

Lastly, I'd like to address the ethical side of this matter. You say this to Gray Wizard:

“If you really want to use it, perhaps you should apply it to Dawkins' obligation to withdraw from a project the official title of which he allegedly so strongly objected to, no?”

Well, perhaps, or perhaps not. This looks like a tu quoque, to me, though. Perhaps Gray Wizard does think Dawkins should have withdrawn from the project; but that's irrelevant. You whitewash his point, which is that honest people have a moral obligation to present the views of others accurately whenever possible, and that, insofar as you have failed to do so, and have put thousands of readers at risk of coming to believe falsehoods, you have in fact done something unethical or at least unknowingly harmful.

My argument is very straightforward. I am claiming that you have misattributed an idea to Dawkins. I have provided reasons for this being the case. Unless you can counter those reasons – and you have not – you do, I agree with the Wizard, have a moral obligation to retract those attributions. You should know better than any of us, being a professional philosopher, the importance of accurate attributions of ideas to others, and I suspect you do indeed regard it as unethical to knowingly misattribute, publicly, ideas to other people.

That you have instead taken the route of defending those misattributions causes me to question your willingness to concede error. In light of this, it is my sincere hope that you either provide a reasonable justification for your attribution, or you concede that you're in the wrong here. What I won't take as your honest position is that a potentially widely publicized misattribution to Dawkins is not a big deal. It is, and I expect this matter to be addressed. I look forward to your reply.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Banana Guy Has Been Caught In A Lie!

On September 18th, Ray Comfort actually promised to "revise" his introduction to Origin of Species, by creating a more fair and truthful evaluation of Darwin and his theory.

Comfort stated: "The new introduction will address how [Darwin] was truly a gentle-man who was admantly against slavery...Besides, the moral character of Charles Darwin is irrelevant to the Theory of Evolution, just as the Theory of Relativity should stand on its own merits, and not on the morality of Albert Einstein...I will also make it clear that Hitler abused his theory, and is also irrelevant to whether or not it's true."

Pretty unbelievable, right?

CLICK HERE to read the rest of Comfort's promise.

HOWEVER, on September 21st, Ray Comfort continued to promote the old version of his intro, with no mention of the revisions he promised to implement!  Essentially, he seems to be ignoring his promise!  AKA LYING! 

Comfort stated: "We now have leaders for 55 colleges to help us give away this special version of Origin of Species.

(The link under "Origin of Species" takes you to Comfort's original "unrevised" intro., with no mention of his promised revisions.)

CLICK HERE to see Comfort blatantly ignore his promise.

We feel that Ray Comfort intentionally deceived us into thinking he was going to change his vile introduction to Origin of Species, in an attempt to get us off his case.  And it worked, to a large degree.  Yet, now that his lie has been exposed, we should redouble our efforts to expose him for the fraud that he is.  

To help the effort, please join our Facebook group: Kirk Cameron has gone too far! But we can stop him.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Kirk Cameron has gone too far! But we can stop him.

On Thursday November 19, 2009, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort (the banana guy) will be distributing 50,000 copies of Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species' at universities across America to students for free.


Each copy will have a 50 page intro about how evolution has never been proven and how Darwin helped inspire the Holocaust. (*According to Ray Comforts blog, these plans have been changed.  But what he's doing is still disgraceful.)

Learn how you can help stop Kirk Cameron by joining this facebook group!  

You can watch this video for more information:

Or read the 50 page intro they plan on desecrating Darwin's book with here:

This is a shameful thing that Kirk Cameron and the Banana Guy are doing by altering another person's book in order to push their agenda. If this outrages you, then you're not alone. Many of us have grown tired of Kirk and Ray's constant attempts at trickery and feel that this time they've gone too far.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New Blog!

Hi everyone, I've started a new blog:
Please come check it out and let me know what you think, much appreciated.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

...And the Rest is History

The man walked into the tavern and scanned the room until he noticed a long table with 11 men sitting at it. He walked over and said, a bit hesitantly, "Hello, is this the A. J. meeting?"

The man at the head of the table said, "Yes it is, Atheists of Jerusalem! Welcome! So glad you found out about us! We can use all the members we can get. My name is John."

The newcomer told his name, and said, "So glad to meet you too! I heard rumors about this group, but up until now I've felt like the only atheist on earth. You don't know what it feels like to suddenly meet a whole bunch of them at once!"

John said, "On the contrary, all of us here know very well how it feels. We've spent our lives feeling like the crazy ones because we don't have all sorts of fantastical beliefs as almost everyone else does, when in fact we are the few sane ones. That's why we started this group, to be a haven from the rest of the world, where we can feel sane for the first time. And where we might even think of ways to talk other people into sanity."

The newcomer then introduced himself to each of the other members of the group, and said, "I can never get over the fact that, here it is, the year 50 A.D. already, in this great scientific and technological age, when great thinkers even hundreds of years ago already proved that matter must be made of atoms, proved that the earth is spherical and measured its size, measured the distance to the moon and its size, speculated that the earth goes around the sun, that the stars are other suns immensely far away, and that current forms of life must have evolved from previous common ancestors. Our greatest philosophers have proven that the existence of a god makes no sense. We've built monumental buildings, and great aqueducts and roads that have improved people's lives substantially. --And yet most people still believe that people can predict the future by reading the entrails of goats, and can change events for the better by offering animal sacrifices as gifts to the gods! If anything, there seems to be a resurgence in such beliefs lately, just when you'd think they'd be withering away."

John said, "Yes, all of us have noticed such a resurgence, unfortunately. Most of us think it is a backlash against that scientific and technological progress. We fear that such irrationality will take over again, and halt that progress. The Roman Empire may seem invincible, the world's only superpower, but if this keeps up, we're on the way out, I tell you! As for your amazement at the stupidity of most people, I'm afraid you're just preaching to the choir here! But one of the pleasures of being in this group is being among like-minded people, and some of the most intelligent people you are ever likely to meet, who are as up-to-date as can be on the latest scientific and technological advances. For instance, just last week we were talking about a new invention that Peter here heard of, called a 'steam engine'. It uses the expanding force of boiling water to move things. It's just a toy, but perhaps larger versions could be used to replace animal and human muscle power, and relieve people of ceaseless physical toil, even create more power than ever available before. Perhaps it could move chariots at tremendous speeds, faster than any horses could, and people could travel great distances in short amounts of time."

The newcomer said, "That is absolutely fascinating! I'd love to hear more about it."

Peter said, "Alas, that's all I know so far. I'll certainly tell all about it if find out more."

John then said, "So, let's resume where we left off last week, shall we? As I recall, Peter had just begun telling his idea of combatting religion with a silly parody religion he came up with."

Peter said, "That's right. We've tried reasoning with people, but that never seems to work. What better way to show people how silly their religions are than by parodying them with an equally silly religion, which they can easily see is silly, and then perhaps realize that their own religion is equally silly. I call the religion 'The Church of the Flying Bread Monster'. I picture an invisible being made out of a piece of bread, with olives for eyes, that flies around. Followers would bless each other by saying, "May his crusty appendage touch you."

John said, "That's very cute. I like it!"

The newcomer said, "It might be even more humorous if you call it 'The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster'. How about it having meat balls for eyes instead of olives?"

John whispered, "Remember, spaghetti won't be invented till more than a millennium from now, after Marco Polo visits China and gets the idea from their noodles. It's bad enough that you called this year '50 A.D.', when people won't start numbering years that way until centuries from now!"

The newcomer whispered back, "Oh, sorry, I forgot! Then bread it is!"

Peter then continued, "So as I was saying, I would like to follow priests around whereever they go, preaching this parody religion right next to them preaching their crazy religions, making the priests out to be complete laughing stocks."

John said, "I think that's an excellent idea. Why don't we meet next Saturday, at the main temple, and do just what you say. In the mean time, we ought to come up with all sorts of silly embellishments for that religion. We could all wear some sort of silly costume, for instance, and say it's part of the religion for some reason.

Someone else, named James, said, "Just be sure to make it ridiculous enough that no one will believe it! Remember, there are an awful lot of amazingly stupid people out there. You may think you're combatting religion, only to find that this plan has backfired and you've inadvertently started a new religion, even more ridiculous than the ones already in existence!

John said, laughing a bit, "A very good point. Yes, we'll have to be very careful."

The newcomer said, "I hesitate to bring this up, because you'll all think I'm just trying to claim your originality for my own ... but I actually came up with an idea somewhat along the same lines several months ago."

John said, "I've found atheists to be among the most honest people I've ever met. Or as Peter always says, 'If you can't trust an atheist, who can you trust?' We can't just undo past wrongs we've committed with some religious ritual absolving our guilt, as religious people can, so must live with our consciences. So don't worry, I don't think you're stealing someone else's idea. So ... what's your idea?"

The newcomer said, "Well, my idea wasn't overtly comical and silly, the way this bread monster idea is. It was just philosophically ridiculous. The idea was as follows:

The god of the Hebrew holy book is a nasty sonofabitch, from what I've heard, despite always claiming to be a loving god. He's a total psychopathic tyrant. But, this being the idea for a new religion, of course it wouldn't just say to forget the whole idea and not believe in that god. That's not the way religions work! Instead, it would add a new layer of idiocy on top of the previous idiocy, to try to explain away the previous idiocy. It would say that this god realized he wasn't being loving, and changed his mind! That is of course a ludicrous idea, because an omniscient god would never be wrong in the first place, and so would be incapable of changing (which I guess would make him not omnipotent, come to think of it, since he wouldn't have the power to change! But then again, if he's omnipotent, he wouldn't have the power to be not omnipotent, which would also make him not omnipotent! But I digress...) That holy book has their god blaming all of Adam and Eve's descendents for Eve eating that forbidden fruit, which of course is ridiculous, because their god is supposed to be perfectly just, and blaming people for what their ancestors did is the height of injustice. So their god just realizes one day that he was being unjust, and starts being nice forever after. There ought to be some crazy reason why, but I never went further with the idea."

John said, "Hmmmm.... That would be a great idea, except for one thing. There's a religion that already beat you to it, and it's the religion of most of the people in this region! And it hasn't made a difference; people still believe in the religion anyway! In the Hebrew holy book, it tells the story of their god creating a world-wide flood to kill everyone off but a single couple, to punish all of humanity for all of its bad deeds, and says that their god changed his mind afterwards and felt regret for killing everyone off, and said he'd never do it again. And yet despite that ludicrous idea, people still believe in that religion."

The newcomer said, astonished, "Really?? I of course heard about that flood story -- who hasn't? -- but not the part about their god changing his mind. I guess I should read that book, but I've never wanted to waste a single second of my life on religion."

John said, "Ironically, you'll likely never find a bunch of people who know that book as well as atheists do. A number of us here have read it cover to cover, including me, and can practically recite it by heart. It's the religious people who rarely know much about it -- otherwise they very likely would see how heinous and self-contradictory it is, and become atheists! All they know is the few good parts. As the sign says that I have on the back of my chariot, "Read the holy book -- become an atheist." You'll probably learn a lot about it as part of this group. Ironically, the fact that it is so badly written keeps people from reading it, so keeps up its credibility, for it is quite a challenge to slog through. One would think that a Supreme Being could have been a better writer."

Peter said, "Still, your idea has possibilities. How about this idea for why he suddenly decides to stop blaming everyone: because all of humanity offers him one giant human sacrifice as a gift, the human sacrifice to end all human sacrifices, that changes their god to nice for the rest of all time. Create some sort of mythical heroic figure who's the greatest most important person who's ever lived. Animal sacrifice may be barbaric enough -- our campaign for people to stop it has gotten nowhere, since this is too tiny a group to change things -- but at least peoples' attitudes have been shifting on human sacrifice lately. They're starting to think of it as barbaric, so they'd think of your religion idea as barbaric."

The newcomer said, "Might as well add cannibalism in there too! Have the followers symbolically eat the person after he's been sacrificed. But it would sure have to be some special person who's sacrificed, for that god to change his mind in such a big way! All of the human sacrifices so far sure haven't done it."

Peter said, "How about him being some mythical god born of a virgin? What religion doesn't have gods being born of virgins, after all? Either that or sacrificing virgins. Whatever it is, it's gotta have virgins in there somewhere. Sex sells. Have their god have sex with a virgin and have her give birth to a god, which would of course then be the son of their god."

John said, "That's good, although so many people wouldn't think of that as adding to the ridiculousness, because they already believe nonsense like that. It definitely needs some special twist to make it far more ridiculous, but I'm not sure what."

The newcomer said, "How about claiming that this sacrifice of the most monumental historical importance happened very recently, within the memory of many people still alive today, and then just ignore how no one remembers it, no chronicler of the times wrote about it? Claim that it happened around 20 years ago, let's say."

John said, "Another nice touch."

Peter said, "Also, keep emphasizing how he's that god's only son, to add to the pathos of him being sacrificed -- as if that god couldn't have as many sons as he wants! After all, he's supposed to be omnipotent! And as if that son, who's also a god, couldn't stop himself from being sacrificed in a long, painful, horrible way if he felt like it!"

The newcomer said, "And how about this: After claiming that the religion is all about morality (despite worshipping that heinous god), then completely contradict that by claiming that only people who believe in that religion go to heaven, regardless of whether they've been moral or not, while all people who don't believe in it go to hell, also regardless of whether they've been moral or not. Tell them that their god will only stop blaming them for Eve eating the forbidden fruit if they believe in the religion. Then, have the priests in that religion claim to forgo earthly wealth, yet live in the most opulent buildings that we are capable of building, paid for by the ordinary worshippers. Tell the worshippers that they not only have to believe in the religion, but they have to attend religious services in those opulent buildings. Tell them they can't just stop their god from blaming them for what Eve did by being moral, but that only the priests can, by chanting magic words at them, and they can't just do it once and be done with it, but the worshippers have to keep coming back every week for another "treatment". --Oh, and by the way, they have to keep giving the priests at least 10% of their earnings. Have the priests spend most of their time exhorting their followers to give them money -- despite that they claim that their god is all-powerful and grants their wishes that they say in prayers, so that they should be able to just pray for more money! That would make it obvious to even the most naive fool that the religion was just made up as a scam to trap people into it in order to give those priests money."

John said, "That's great! This idea definitely shows promise. But still, it needs something else. This still isn't a religion much more ridiculous than lots of religions people already believe."

The newcomer was deep in thought for much of the rest of the meeting. Then toward the end of the meeting, he suddenly said, startling everyone, "I've got it! John, you said my religion idea needed some special twist to make it extra ridiculous, and I just thought of one. Don't have all the HUMANS offer the son of that god as a sacrifice to that god. Have THAT GOD offer his own son as a sacrifice!"

For a second, John just stared at him, openmouthed. Then he stammered, "S-s-so let me get this straight. The idea of a sacrifice is to give a gift to a god so he will treat you better in exchange. So you're saying that that god has a son in order to offer him as a sacrifice TO HIMSELF, and he has to give that gift TO HIMSELF in order to have an excuse to be in a better mood and treat everyone nicely from then on???? How could someone give themself a gift? And he can't just DECIDE to be in a better mood, and then do it, but has to go through that crazy, bloody rigamarole????"

"Yes!", said the newcomer, with a broad smile.

John said, "That's the stupidest, most insane idea I've ever heard in my life! You'd have to have feces for brains to believe that! Perfect! Not only is that a great parody religion, but obviously there's no danger that anyone will ever mistake that for a serious religion, and start believing in it. I mean, there may be a lot of stupid people around, but surely no one is THAT stupid! Never mind the Flying Bread Monster, let the 12 of us go out to the religious places and start preaching that religion. It should make great comic theater.

The newcomer said, "Yes, let's do that! Only one thing. I'm afraid of being persecuted as an atheist, in this society, as I bet many of the rest of you are. I could lose my livelihood, be attacked, who knows what. So I'd rather not use my real name, while I'm participating in this group, in case anyone overhears it and finds out who I am.

John said, "Okay, fair enough. So what should we call you, Saul?

"Ummmm ... how about Paul, instead."


...And the rest, unfortunately, is history.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"But they're MY kids!" Why parents should not have the right to educate their kids however they want

“I myself don’t believe in evolution…so, if it were taught in school, I would definitely want the right to pull my child out of the classroom.”

To many people, a comment like this sounds reasonable. After all, it’s their child, right? And a parent should have the right to determine what their child can or cannot be taught?

I beg to differ. A child does not belong to anyone; a child is not the property of God, the property of the state, or the property of another person – not even their parents. Parents do not own their children, and we ought to vehemently oppose any notion that parents should be able to dictate, regardless of the consequences, how their child will be raised.

In the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins points out, rightly so, that young children are not capable of being adequately informed about a religion such that it is reasonable to ascribe to that child any particular religious label. It is nonsense, he asserts, to refer to a small child as a “Muslim child” or a “Christian child”. Rather, these children are the children of Muslim parents, or the children of Christian parents. The children themselves are too young to have decided for themselves what to believe.

Both of these religions regard freely coming to god as being of the utmost importance. How strange it is, then, that both find it absolutely necessary to thrust religion upon their children from day one. It seems to me that such people are overlooking a crucial point – children are inescapably gullible; while I give children the credit to recognize fact from fiction in many instances, religions have the unique advantage of being believed by wide numbers of people. A child growing up in Iran is surrounded by Muslims, and if all of them believe it, then the child, by the very nature of the human brain, is inclined to believe it, regardless of its actual merits. If you are a Christian, the fact that Muslims are doing this to their children - that is, exposing and thrusting beliefs upon folks who are essentially in the prime condition for being brainwashed – should concern you a great deal, as it means that, by allowing people of other religions to teach their children what to believe in, you are permitting them to be psychologically primed, against their better judgment, to reject your religion regardless of its merits.

On top of this, children growing up under the pall of a particular religious and ethnic identity come to see it as being a part of themselves, as an inescapable of aspect of their identity and a link to their family and friends. This makes it especially difficult to renounce a doctrine, even if, in better circumstances, one could readily admit it if it were false. Again, if another belief system is bad – and most people believe theirs to be superior at least to some extent, then by standing idly by while parents pack ideas into the heads of children is really a form of negligence, as you are allowing those children to be programmed in a way antithetical to that which you believe is best, and these children are nothing but helpless, innocent, and vulnerable individuals who cannot be reasonably expected to escape from their situations.

Thus, the very nature of raising children to be religious has a tendency to set that child’s beliefs in stone, forever coloring their view of the world. While people can and do change, most people fail to appreciate just how difficult such change is. They oversimplify the supposed role of choice in belief. Beliefs are not a matter of choice, and, even if they are, there are so many factors tugging and compelling us for emotional – and not rational – reasons, that for a God to expect a person to grow up and make the right choice regarding which doctrine is truly his is a remarkably na├»ve way of approaching belief and approaching human psychology. It’s an unrealistic and absurd expectation, and this is one of the many reasons that Islam and Christianity, both of which demand that one either accept their doctrine or be damned, make no sense: what one believes is not a simple matter of choice. One cannot wake up and opt to believe that they are, in fact, a carrot, or that the moon is made of jelly beans. They can no more do that than they can choose to believe god exists.

The whole notion of childhood indoctrination goes against every impulse we have of a genuine right to self-determination. Oddly, in a strange sort of backwards way of thinking, people are inclined to think that a parent has the freedom to raise their child as they wish – but what about the child’s freedom, their right, to be raised in a way that leaves all doors open, rather than, by having the particular biases and prejudices of their parents bestowed upon them as the absolute and unquestioning truth, have their beliefs molded to invariably reflect those of their parents? No, on the contrary, we should all recognize that a child’s mind is not like an adult’s. A child should be raised not to believe this or that belief system, but to be exposed to all belief systems, to be taught about their merits, and to be taught how to examine and critically analyze these views. Only when children are raised this way, can the actual truth shine forth; as long as we permit people to be taught Truth at an early age, rather than implanting in them a passion for its pursuit, we are forever crippling their ability to rationally distinguish fact from fiction.

And what could you do worse to a child than to forever blind them to reality? No form of pain or abuse can come close to forever locking a child within the tangled maze of a muddled mind from which they can never emerge to enjoy the breathtaking nature of reality.

Every time a person tells you that it’s their child, and they’ll raise them the way they want, I am asking you, begging you, on behalf of that child and children everywhere, to challenge that person, and say to them, “what do you mean, YOUR child? That child isn’t yours. That child is a person of their own, and you have a responsibility to equip them with a rational and open mind so that they can, when they are old enough, determine their beliefs for themselves." A child is a parent’s only with respect to the parents responsibility – a responsibility the rest of us have a right to revoke should the parent shirk in their duties – to raise that child as best as can be done. Some parents fail to do this, and the right of the child to as good an upbringing as possible, in every circumstance, trumps the parent’s supposed right to raise their child. This is a call for us to raise consciousness about this matter. When a person says a child is theirs, do not let them hide behind a wall of equivocation about what type of possession they have over that child – if they respond that they don’t literally mean they own the child, all the better; the more we force people to either admit that, and look like monsters for declaring another person property, or deny it, the more we will free children from the shackles of mental oppression.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The word "spirit" means absolutely nothing

Just what exactly is a spirit? Nobody knows. One way of critiquing the views of theists and supernaturalists is to take a non-cognitivistic stance. Often, people find this stance to be counterintuitive or to lie beyond the purview of the standard set of arguments leveled against nonsense, but nonetheless it is a substantial one and one worth the effort of people who wish hone their reason and equip themselves with arguments against the stupidity and ignorance so ubiquitous to the human race. If you're unfamiliar with non-cognitivism, I highly recommend looking it up and finding out for yourself what it is all about.

In a nutshell, non-cognitivism refers to the position that a particular sentence, or a particular language used in a certain discipline or field of thought, does not express propositions, that is, statements that may be evaluated as true or false. To translate this into everyday terms, what this means is that if you are a non-cognitivist about something, you believe that truth and falsity do not apply to it. Consider taste preferences. Would it make any sense at all to insist that certain foods, as a matter of absolute and overarching truth, genuinely taste better than another? Can strawberry ice cream be proven to taste better than chocolate ice cream? Perhaps anchovies are the epitome of tastiness? No, obviously, this is nonsense. Food preferences are subjective; that is, they are dependent upon the individual tasting the food. Thus, a statement like, "John thinks chocolate ice cream tastes best" would be a proposition. Why? Well, this statement could be evaluated as true or false. Maybe John really likes vanilla ice cream, or maybe it really is the case that he likes chocolate. Whatever the case may be, even if we couldn't find out, it is, in principle, possible to evaluate this statement as either true or false. But consider if we simply had the statement, "Chocolate ice cream tastes best". The whole concept of "tastes best" requires that it tastes best *to some subject*; and, since it is logically possible, and in this instance actually the case, that it does taste best to some but not to others, it is quite obvious to see here that whether or not a particular food tastes best is contingent upon the preference of a particular subject.

But consider mathematical truth. Could 2+2=4 be true to one person, but not to another? No; that is absurd. Likewise, a tree is exactly as tall as it is regardless of individual beliefs, preferences, or views governing it, and the same goes for any legitimate, cognitive statement about the world, such as "France is a nation in Europe" or "Jesus was born from a virgin". It may be that two individuals differ in the information available to them or the perceptions that they have about something. From far away, a tree may look to be a certain height, and it would be true to say, "That tree looks to be 5 meters tall", while up close it could be true to say, "This tree looks to me to be 10 meters tall". Nonetheless, how tall it actually is may be some other measurement entirely - but we can be reasonably confident that trees do in fact have a particular height, independent of individual perspectives. Reality is not subjective.

So how does this apply to spirits? Do which category do statements about spirits fall into? Well, consider how it is we come to present a statement as a proposition: it is related to how we come to know things and how we justify that knowledge. There is really only one process for justifying a position - reason. That's not to say we must come to know all things in the same way. Some knowledge can be ascertained deductively - mathematics, definitional truths, and so on. Such knowledge is derived from, in a sense, pure reason - we do not need to appeal to evidence to prove that 2+2=4, but to definitions of these terms from which their truth or falsity follows necessarily. The second method is by induction. This knowledge does not have the ring of necessity to it. Inductive knowledge is knowledge that depends upon our acquisition of information from the outside world. When we draw an inductive conclusion, it must bear some relationship to those proposed facts, which are intended to support it. The way we come to know how to treat cancer, or that gasoline is flammable, or generally any scientifically evaluable knowledge about the world, is derived through induction.

It is rather obvious that the existence, or the nature, of spirits cannot be demonstrated by an appeal to pure logic. One cannot conjure into existence beings on the basis of argument independent of an appeal to the outside world. If they can, I certainly haven't seen any compelling arguments, and, if you think there are some, I'd be interested in knowing about them. Leaving the rather dubious possibilities of presenting a logical argument for the existence or nature of spirits aside, that leaves only with inductive arguments for spirits - arguments that would incline us to think spirits probably exist or that we can have knowledge about them that depends upon our knowledge of the world around us. This could come in the form of hard physical evidence, like the remains of spirits; in the form of accounts or witness reports of spirits, it might even come in the form of indirect evidence - signs left that indicate the presence of spirits, or something to that effect. Essentially, if we are to believe that spirits exist and that there is something we can know about them, we must present REASONS to believe this. In the absence of reasons to support a belief, a belief is, by its very nature, unreasonable, which is just another way of saying it's irrational or absurd to believe whatever it is that's believed.

So what evidence, what knowledge do we possess about the nature of or the existence of spirits? I assert, unequivocally, that there is none. We know nothing about what a spirit is, and we have no credible evidence whatsoever that such things exist. Even if someone shows us a grainy video of some moving light in the darkness, why should we presume spirits give off light? Do they or don't they? Often, we are told, a spirit is an immaterial thing. But does this tell us anything about the nature of a spirit? No, it does not. Telling us something isn't material doesn't tell us what it is, it tells us what it isn't. If I told you I had an object, and that it was not round, does this inform you of what shape it actually is? No. That's not to say such information is meaningless, but there's a problem with my assertion that it is not round. In order to know what something isn't, one must know something about what it is. How can I know my object is not round unless I know something else, something positive, about its properties? The simple answer is that you can't. Thus, when we purport to offer knowledge of what spirits are not, we aren't even justified in that. Just how is it we know spirits aren't material? And if they're not, what are they? Nobody knows.

I assert that it's not simply the case that there isn't any evidence that spirits exist or not, but that people who speak of spirits, ghosts, and the like, literally have no idea what they are talking about. They are uttering incoherent gibberish. Without some coherent, definable characteristics which lend some content to the term "spirit", the meaning of the word is as ethereal as spirits are purported to be. The next time someone claims that a ghost or a spirit exists, before demanding evidence of their claim, demand that they explain what a spirit or ghost is, and how they know this. I, for one, doubt they would provide a satisfactory answer, and I won't hold my breath waiting for one.