Wednesday, March 30, 2005

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Kern Judge Sherry Muttler
Are there rational grounds for religious belief? (various skeptical musings)

If you assume a religious perspective is justifiable by dogma--the mere presence of Scripture--there's really no point in arguing; yet if you think the dogma can be justified rationally (as the jesuits used to assert) you have to overcome all those Phil. 101 chestnuts: the problem of evil, immateriality, status of other faiths, and the basic epistemological issue of why anyone should accept any religion as a true account of reality, rather than say a commnon-sense physico-logico account.

That may be unsubtle, and not very appealing to those who work for Christendom Inc., but theists continually assume that those Phil. 101 issues have been settled in their favor, when of course they haven't been

As you probably know, Kant himself rejected all the classical arguments for a deity, and there are I think far more philosophers and scientists arranged on the skeptic side (e..g, that there are no convincing, rational grounds for religious truth, or for an omniscient and just God) then there are rational theists. There does not seem to be a shortage of irrational theists however.

* * *

Is the existence of miracles used to confirm the truth of Scripture? If it is, then obviously other religons and cults claim miraculous events (though I assert wrongly), so the mere presence of claims that a miracle occurred doesn't really prove anything: that water was instantly converted to wine is about like saying the Buddha levitated. One can believe that, I guess, just as people believe in astrology. But most theists believe that there's more to the plausibility of scripture than the presence of miracles; if not, it would be a situation of which cult features the best miracles (and all the creepy pagans and occultists in LA would say their's does).

In fact the catholic church routinely confirms miracles, yet as Chris Hitchens recently pointed out in a great essay on Mother Theresa's death, the confirmaton is in no way scientific or objective: it's usually based on flimsy, anecdotal evidence (and an incredibly sentimental process as well). It may be thought such claims of miracles are amusing or charming, but as Hitchens points out, the belief in miracles acutally does great damdge to rationality as a whole.

I shall let Mr. Hitchens speak for himself (and for rationality), since he does it much better than I:

"Those of us who are against miraculous claims for the more obvious reasons--that the laws of nature do not respond to petitions and that what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof--have a tendency to forget that this vulgarity and hysteria also increases the sum of misery on Earth, without at all diminishing it in the false promise of the afterlife."

* * *

Quote (from Christian blogger):

"in order to do that without actually investigating each miracle- or religious experience-claim, you'd need to give arguments for why we shouldn't believe in miracles or see religious experience as evidentially weighty"

In other words, prove to you that pigs don't fly. I have never seen a flying pig in person or photos. I don't know anyone that has, and never read any history indicating that pigs do fly. I did see a drawing of one with wings on a website. But it was not flying.

You are right, though to some degree: all the laws and rules of physical science could be overturned tomorrow and pigs might fly, just as Hume said tomorrow his billard table might obey different physical laws--I would agree there is no logically necessary reason why physical laws could not be overturned. But I'd wager the probability of the pig flying ( or billard balls flying backwards after the break of the table) is about the same as Jesus out strolling on the waves or the Virgin of Guadalupe making her annual appearance in the reflection of some campesino's windshield or whatever. I think Bayes theorem shows this too: each day a miracle has not been confirmed increases the unlikeliness of the original anomaly having occurred.

Mystical experiences are another thing. I don't doubt many people have those experiences, but they in no way demonstrate or confirm theological concepts. Recently some experiments have shown that the mental state produced by monks and nuns meditating or praying can be electrically stimulated in various brain lobes. So what was thought to be a calm "oneness with god" or satori was in fact some biochemical process in the corpus callosum.

* * *

Does that imply that if there are no rational grounds for accepting the all-powerful, spiritual Being then there are no grounds for His morality either? If there are no rational grounds for either Christianity or pagan feminism (and I don't think there are) then any laws or policies based on those irrational ideologies would not seem to be permissable. I.e if you allow one cult's morality it would seem you would have to allow all major cults be represented. (Should laws be allowed which are based on Astrology? And Christianity is in many ways akin to astrology)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Re: The Schiavo ordeal

If there were no specific, written instructions indicating that a patient preferred to die rather than be left in a vegetative state, I think the doctors and courts should presume she would desire to live (and thus feed her, keep her on machine, etc.). I don't see that as a necessarily conservative perspective, but as a humanist and ethical one. A ruling that said the state could terminate the life in absence of those written instructions could certainly lead to some scary scenarios: doctors "pulling the plug" on anyone who was in a coma who had not signed some release or consent or whatever: a bad precedent.

Moreover, there are no logical reasons why a cure or new surgical technique could not be discovered; her recovery might be highly unlikely, but it's not impossible. And how does the hospital know that her husband and/or relatives are reporting the truth about her wishes? And yes we should be very alarmed that the appelate court did seem to decide against the patient's rights here.

There should be a federal law that presumes that, unless there is clear and reliable written evidence to the contrary, the patient desires to live and thus should be fed, kept on machines, etc.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Big Tony Scalia, Supreme Court Seditionist

Not that many notice or seem to mind, but Antonio Scalia, Supreme Court Justice-for-life, routinely contradicts the principles of the Constitution with nearly each court opinion he hands down. Commenting on a case involving the legitimacy of having the Ten Commandments displayed outside a Texas courthouse, Scalia recently asserted that political authority does not derive from the people, claiming that the displaying of the Ten Commandments “is a symbol of the fact that government comes — derives its authority from God.”

Justice Scalia must have missed out on his Constitutional Law course, for a cursory reading of the opening Preamble reveals that it begins with “We the people.” References to “God” or Judeo-Christian scripture are nowhere to be found. Indeed, Founding Fathers of both the right (such as Hamilton) and left (Jefferson), influenced by Locke's concepts of individual rights, rejected theological authority as well as monarchical authority. It is not unfair to claim that a great deal of the intellectual justification of the American Revolution thus was in essence opposed to the theocratic assumptions regularly espoused by Scalia and the fundamentalists.

Those people who do value a secular society—e.g., one based on reason and democratic politics instead of religious dogma--might ask themselves whether Justice Scalia should be held accountable for such un-American comments and behavior.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Progressive Taxation is Good

The question of taxation relates, at least in part, to meritocracy: should a just or democratic society allow individuals of equal talents and abilities--say a smart high school math teacher and a Bill Gates--to have hugely disproportionate incomes? Let's assume the small-town math teacher and Gates (or whatever IT baron you care to instantiate) earn similar scores on an objective, quantitative skills test. Should the math teacher thus have the same income as Gates? (Or in other words, shouldn't wealth have something to do with measurable worth)? I think not--it's Gates whose income and wealth should be limited, i.e., readjusted and/or seized.

Pure capitalism leads to a society of speculators and gamblers, where the individual's fate depends on the whims of the market and of other wealthy (or their henchmen, ie, management). Progressive taxation thus is justified not only to protect public services but to keep the playing field from tilting towards plutocracy. Raising capital gains taxes and allowing taxes on luxury items, second homes, SUVs, etc, is more than justified to correct the imbalances of power ( i.e wealth) that the free market leads too. Even small increases in taxation on the very wealthy bracket could substantially reduce deficits, budget crisis, create better schools, etc. etc. Indeed the argument should be at what point does the govt. step in and seize the assets and funds of the uber wealthy such as a Gates, Ellison, Allen.

Some "classical" economists (i.e. Ricardo and Keynes) argued for high taxation on estates and those who inherited large pieces of property. A high tax would keep the inheritors from becoming the types of aristocratic or feudal "rentiers" who earn large sums of money for simply inheriting or obtaining large pieces of property. The same argument applies to speculation--while you and I are grading scantrons or papers or administering networks or even slamming nails into drywall or digging ditches, the speculator or rentier derives far more capital simply for doing nothing but for being fortunate enough to have inherited an estate or win big on the stock market (or for that matter having succeeded in organized crime). Marx obviously had a solution to that, but barring Marx it seems quite prudent to implement a tax system that would prevent the resurgence of a landed aristocracy.

And let's be honest: the average academic economist, like the average successful conservative, is pretty much of the Hamiltonian-aristo-protestant variety; he views the poor and probably even the middle class, especially minorities, as deserving of their fate. Higher taxes mean punishing the successful, the noble and the Good, and giving their hard -earned cash (even if from stocks or rents) to the rabble. The protestant sort of economist thus also is a Social Darwinist to some extent. To be poor or unsuccessful in neo-puritan America entails that you are somehow not fit, morally or intellectually, not that the market and corporate America or the bureaucratic state (including its universities) might have exploited you for years.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Should American patriotic holidays be permitted?

Recently I read some comments from a neo-conservative blogger arguing that Americans need to return to a sort of "civic republicanism"; my own perspective is that this flag-waving "civic republicanism"' is, if not identical to nationalism (in a sense an irrational patriotism), quite close to it. It's quite a basic argument, though I guess the premises could be debated:

--If America's political leaders have been, since the inception of the Republic, guilty of committing political and military atrocities, then celebrations of American patriotism are not justifiable.

--America's political leaders are guilty of committing political and military atrocities over the last 229 years or so. (for instance, Founding Fathers were found to be racist, supporters of slavery, or dedicated to eradicating Native Americans, and the military injustly violated treaties, committed military blunders or outright brutalities which cost the lives of thousands in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, etc.)

--Thus celebrations of American patriotism (including parades, miltary celebrations, even President's, Memorial, Veteran's day) are not justifiable.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Bill Moyers on X-tian Doomsday

"There are millions of Christians who believe the Bible is literally true, word for word. Some of them—we'll come back to the question of how many— subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the nineteenth century by two immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them with their own hallucinations into a narrative foretelling the return of Jesus and the end of the world. Google the "Rapture Index" and you will see just how the notion has seized the imagination of many a good and sincere believer (you will also see just where we stand right now in the ticking of the clock toward the culmination of history in the apocalypse). It is the inspiration for the best-selling books in America today—the twelve novels in the Left Behind series by Christian fundamentalist and religious- right warrior Tim LaHaye, a co- founder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority.

The plot of the Rapture—the word never appears in the Bible although some fantasists insist it is the hidden code to the Book of Revelation—is rather simple, if bizarre. (The British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for refreshing my own insights.) Once Israel has occupied the rest of its "biblical lands," legions of the Antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned the Messiah will return for the Rapture. True believers will be transported to heaven where, seated at the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents writhe in the misery of plagues—boils, sores, locusts, and frogs—during the several years of tribulation that follow.


For them the invasion of Iraq was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation, where four angels "bound in the great river Euphrates" will be released "to slay the third part of man." A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed—an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the Rapture Index stood at 144—approaching the critical threshold when the prophesy is fulfilled, the whole thing blows, the Son of God returns, and the righteous enter paradise while sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire."


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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

McCarthyite Language Tactics

Joseph McCarthy was an American senator who made a career in the 50's by accusing various humans of being communists or having some association with communist or left-wing organizations. His tactics, such as guilt by association, defamation of character, insinuations about a person's political and sexual life, are still used by many morally corrupt persons, especially those involved with communication: bureaucrats, politicians, journalists, academics. Although usually and correctly identified with various propagandists of the right-wing, McCarthyite tactics are used by liberals as well, especially by those types of putative liberals who are dedicated to "identity politics."

McCarthyite tactics are of course logical fallacies--simply because someone attended a leftist rally against death squads in El Salvador while in college does not imply that the person is a marxist or socialist. Many former college students who diligently read Marx and supported the Sandinistas are now respectable suburban professionals making regular house and car payments--hopefully they haven't come full circle and voted for the GOP, right?

McCarthyism is really about power and control: instead of logic or debate or evidence, slander and libel are employed to destroy perceived enemies, thus valuable ideas and debates are kept from becoming discussed, and intellectual reputations are ruined by means of insinuation. Labels and terms are essential to the McCarthyite: "red" was the favorite, now it's become just "knee-jerk or bleeding-heart liberal" or even democrat as an insult.

Accusing or speculating about someone's sex habits is another tactic of McCarthyites of both right and left: by conveniently placing a "gay" label, on someone's ideas or character that accused person's logic and argument or evidence is thereby discredited. For instance, a typical Republican idiot most likely makes the following assumptions: X is opposed to say the recall of Davis. Thus X is not supporting the GOP, he is therefore a democrat and advocates socialist policies and is probably gay. X of course may not be a democrat or socialist or "gay", but GOP idiot will assume that X is in reality all of those things and will make his assumptions known to his cronies as well.

Mockery of a person's appearance is another McCarthyite tactic. Davis is attacked in cartoons and in print as a small and therefore weak person--caricature is a favorite and useful tactic of propagandists. Schwarzneggers are approved and Davis and Ralph Nader types are not: consumer masses are drawn to heroes, to macho men that represent physical strength, and nerds such as Nader and Davis's are viewed with suspicion by the generally anti-intellectual and violent mob.

An organization may use these tactics as well. A student finds a professor to be injust and biased and has some confrontations. Said professor then punishes student by giving him a B when he earned an A. And Professor spreads the word in the Department that student is a radical, a troublemaker, a rabble rouser, or straight (being straight is viewed as a flaw in many modern college departments) or gay or from a rich family or from wrong side of the tracks or Westside or Eastside or he' s a caucasian or a mexican or black or WHATEVER. In fact this sort of herd mindset might be discovered at most UCs and CSUs---where many professors, especially those who teach "qualitative courses," care little about real merit or accomplishments but attempt to determine a person's "character" and then assign grades. There are plenty of McCarthyite-minded professor dolts, and, surprisingly, many of them are putative "liberals" or feminists.
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