Thursday, November 23, 2006

Scientism, Naturalism, and Ismism.

So the proprietor of Secondhand Smoke has discovered the Center for Inquiry and accused it of the sin of scientism. This refers to the practice of science exceeding its proper bounds of rational empirical inquiry and straying into the areas of metaphysics and ethics.

My reaction to this was, why not embrace the term? There needs to be some name for all this activity that is not itself science but is based on science -- the active promotion of reason, secularism, crusading against nonsense, trying to figure out how science changes ethics and morality, scientists writing popular books on the meaning of it all, bioethics questions like what constitutes a person...scientism didn't sound too bad as a term. The Center for Inquiry was new to me but it seems linked to (and similar in style to) the output of other earnestly secular groups. Which is to say, they are keeping a flame of reason burning but organized religion doesn't really have too much to worry about in terms of charismatic competition.

The next day I discovered a bracing new term -- naturalism. This movement, which is based in Boston, seems to be an attempt to construct a materialist philosophy with a postive slant (as opposed to atheism, which is defined by what it is against). They have some very interesting positions on what a strongly materialist view implies. For instance, compassion -- if every human behavior has material causes then you can't judge anybody very harshly:
The causal view: From a naturalistic perspective, there are no causally privileged agents, nothing that causes without being caused in turn. Human beings act the way they do because of the various influences that shape them, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental....

Responsibility and morality: From a naturalistic perspective, behavior arises out of the interaction between individuals and their environment, not from a freely willing self that produces behavior independently of causal connections (see above). Therefore individuals don’t bear ultimate originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause....

The source of value: Because naturalism doubts the existence of ultimate purposes either inherent in nature or imposed by a creator, values derive from human desires and preferences, not supernatural absolutes. To the extent that there is a shared human nature, values are common across cultures and thus objective, but to the extent cultures differ, so might values. Although values do not have a supernatural foundation, we cannot escape having them, since they constitute us as motivated creatures.
And this page on death looks pretty interesting as well.

All well and good. I was particularly excited to learn from a review on their site that Gary Drescher, a very smart guy who I know from back in the day at MIT, has published a new book, Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics, which looks like a thorough investigation of metaphysical naturalism from a physicalist and computationalist perspective. I'll have to read this, BUT -- my intuition is that none of these secular belief systems are going to do much to displace religion.

Why? Religion and naturalism are competing for roughly the same ecological niche in the human meme system -- that is, a foundational explanation for existence. But they emphasize very different areas. Religion provides answers in areas (morality, the soul, the afterlife, ultimate purpose) that are evolved to match the needs of the human psyche. Naturalism tries to address these but requires a good deal of intellectual effort and as such is only going to appeal to a small minority of people. Religion is natural, science is not.

My own tactic may be labelled anti-ismism: give up on the quest/desire for a single foundation system of understanding. Accept religion as an alternative way of knowing and find ways to interpret it that don't conflict with science. Seems right to me, but then I miss out on all the bitter fights between theists and atheists, and now even more bitter ones between hardcore and softcore atheists. Isn't anyone going to stand up for fanatical anti-fanaticism?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Let's hope the space chickens aren't watching

In the SF-of-my-youth-is-coming-to-pass category, this seems straight out of Heinlein or Frederick Pohl:
From space, extraterrestrials and astronauts can look back to earth and see The Great Wall of China -- and KFC's Colonel Sanders.

The KFC Corp. on Tuesday launched a rebranding campaign with an 87,500 square-foot image of Colonel Sanders in the Nevada desert which the company says makes Kentucky Fried Chicken the world's first brand visible from space.

"If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice," KFC President Gregg Dedrick said in a statement.
Or maybe it's out of Douglas Adams.

Personhood theory

I inserted myself in the middle of another fruitless debate, arguing against both sides. This one was primarily between Wesley J. Smith, a conservative bioethicist at the Discovery Institute (!), John Derbyshire, and Josh Rosenau over "human exceptionalism". My comments are here and here. A lot of hear and not much light, as usual. But it introduced to me a useful term, personhood theory. This is used by some bioethicists to describe the process of deciding who is or isn't a "person" under law and ethics. It makes sense to me that there should be such theories, although they may vary widely. For instance, I (and most sensible people) don't consider a 16-cell blastocyte to be a person, but many of the religious do.

But to Wesley Smith the very idea of "personhood theory" is anathema. He doesn't merely offer a competing definition of person, he regards the entire topic as an occasion for bluster and obfuscation. I can't quite understand why generally anti-science conservatives are wedded to the idea that it's 46 chromosomes that define a person.

The two main theories in play seem to be either genetic (the right-to-life conservative view) or based on some kind of cognitive quality such as self-awareness or language use). Smith's entire output seems devoted to warning that the latter criterion is perilous, leading us down a variety of slippery slopes to euthanasia, infanticide, and all manner of horrors. He's got a point, this stuff is very problematic. But throwing up hands and refusing to think about it does not strike me as a useful or interesting approach.

Marvin Minsky once proposed (jokingly, I think) that you aren't fully human until you can speak in sentences with subordinate clauses, which would allow infanticide up to age 3 or so.

It is obvious (to me at least) that "person" is a social construct. Some societies permit infanticide, others don't. The default for tribal societies seems to be to consider everyone outside of the tribe as somewhat less of a person than those within. The desire of conservatives for some kind of moral absolutism based on biology is doomed to failure, as is obvious from the glaring inconsistencies in their position. Given that, personhood theory should be a subject of intense interest.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Voices from the whirlwind

This is a neat hack, in an artsy sort of way:

CYCLONE.SOC brings together two contemporary phenomena:

  • severe weather, the project uses weather data that charts the emergence and progress of hurricanes.
  • the polarized nature of debate that occurs in certain online newsgroup forums.

The project maps textual conversation taken from the political and religious newsgroups to the isobars of a dynamic, interactive weather visualization of hurricanes - whose complex structures are used to visualize the conversational churn and eddies of the newsgroup conversations.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Wow. Distributed self-correcting systems can work. Too bad the feedback cycle takes so long though. Glenn Greenwald:

The basic mechanics of American democracy, imperfect and defective though they may be, still function. Chronic defeatists and conspiracy theorists — well-intentioned though they may be — need to re-evaluate their defeatism and conspiracy theories in light of this rather compelling evidence which undermines them (a refusal to re-evaluate one's beliefs in light of conflicting evidence is a defining attribute of the Bush movement that shouldn't be replicated).

Karl Rove isn't all-powerful; he is a rejected loser. Republicans don't possess the power to dictate the outcome of elections with secret Diebold software. They can't magically produce Osama bin Laden the day before the election. They don't have the power to snap their fingers and hypnotize zombified Americans by exploiting a New Jersey court ruling on civil unions, or a John Kerry comment, or moronic buzzphrases and slogans designed to hide the truth (Americans heard all about how Democrats would bring their "San Francisco values" and their love of The Terrorists to Washington, and that moved nobody). It simply isn't the case that we are doomed and destined to lose at the hands of all-powerful, evil forces.

On the other hand, Pelosi is wimping out from the get-go by declaring impeachment to be "off the table". That is another element of the constitutional feedback system, and an important one. Politically, even the conservatives are ready to turn on Bush, so putting his feet to the fire is the right thing to do.

Monday, November 06, 2006

First in the hearts of his countrymen

Clever researchers reveal that the ordering of names on a ballot gives the first candidate a significant advantage of between 2 and 9%, nicely quantizing the degree to which the democratic process is influenced by complete cretins. I don't quite understand how (or why) these people manage to figure out where the voting booth is.

(via Billmon)

Friday, November 03, 2006

More pussyfooting

I don't know why I am so obsessed with trying to stake out a militantly moderate position in the atheism wars. It seems both easier and more fun to just skewer the godly (shooting Jesus fish in a barrel). I guess I like a challenge.
Here's a excellent comment by john c. halasz in yet another huge Dawkins thread. The first part just makes the fairly commonplace points:

1) Dawkins' tendentious style mirrors in some ways the chauvinism and narrow-mindedness of his opponents. Militant atheism has some of the same flaws as militant religion.

2) Science, which is about the natural world, should leave itself out of metaphysics.

But this is worth quoting (emphasis added):

Contemporary right-wing Christian fundamentalism is not just some sudden and inexplicable outburst of irrationality and ignorance, whatever its historical antecedents, but rather a deliberately crafted and manipulated phalangist movement. Attacking religious belief per se, rather than the distortions and instrumentalizations of its normative contents, which are less about the cognitive understanding of the natural world than the social ordering of ethical relations with respect to collective fate, not only badly misses the point interpretively, but serves to re-enforce what it ostensibly opposes, precisely by blocking off any communicative understanding and deliberation, any search for, broadly speaking, rational common ground.

Yeah. It's not that Dawkins is wrong but that he's fighting the wrong war. Reducing all religion to fundamentalism and attacking its belief system misidentifies the enemy. The enemy should not be religious beliefs, which are too deep rooted to eliminate and not really addressable by rational argument anyway. The enemy is the (mis)use of religion in service of a right-wing political agenda.

Even religious conservatives (see David Kuo's recent book) are starting to feel uncomfortable with their alliance with the Bushite authoritarians. So why not try to persuade then and others in the muddled middle to support the hallowed wall of separation?

We militant moderates need a name. hopefully better than "brights". I propose "NOMAds" after Stephen Jay Gould's acronym for Non-overlapping Magisteria. OK, that won't win any marketing awards either.

Thoughts from Kansas makes similar points, here and here.