Thursday, May 31, 2012

FactCheck.Org as an Asset to Patriotism and Free Thought

The most universal and surefire answer to the question "How do I make a good choice" is "Inform yourself." Since who and what you vote for is a choice, making a good decision in that direction means you have to find the relevant and true facts about the people/issues in question. But there's a big problem: Political discussions and even news reports are all-too-often factually incorrect or say things that leave people with a false understanding of what a candidate said/did/is proposing, such as the one I covered in my previous post "Bill O'Reilly is Full of Bullshit."

That's why I recommend FactCheck.Org. Fact Check seems to me to be a very thorough, honest, fact-focused resource that exposes the falsehoods told about the candidates from both political parties. This is a resource that all of us need to turn to when we are trying to investigate whether our TV commercials or radio show hosts are telling us the truth.

Finding out what the real facts are, though, is only half the battle. The other half of the battle is finding out what the facts mean. This is harder than most people think. Case in point: A paramedic once told me about how he was called to testify in court and an attorney attempted to cast doubt on his credibility by pointing out that he had misspelled a couple of words on a piece of documentation. It's totally possible to be a good paramedic and a mediocre speller at the same time. Hence, the attorney's observations were irrelevant. Why would a smart, college-educated person say something like this? It's part of what goes on in court systems. Lawyers are skilled at rhetoric, and know all-too-well that perception is reality. Real facts, if reported in the right tone of voice, if suggestively presented together, if brought to light in a certain context, plant seeds in the mind of the listener that quickly grow into tall trees of falsehood in the manure of cognitive errors and biases that human brains are prone to make. Politicians, who are often themselves trained in law (and in any case are experts at controlling public perception), use the same cheap tricks that lawyers do. The only thing to do is to learn how to fight this type of nonsense. FlackCheck, a sister site of FactCheck, provides a great headstart. The site hosts:

Patterns of Deception - A lucid series of short videos pointing out the factual errors and logical fallacies going around in current campaign ads.

Could Lincoln Be Elected Today? A Set of Mock Political Ads against the election of Abraham Lincoln that use the same political tactics used today.

I've always had the feeling that CNN was the most moderate and fair news network, and that's why I tend to watch it more than other news networks. Well, confirmation bias time: Flack Check found that CNN devotes equal time to exposing extreme and false statements of both democrats and repubs. I was right. Watch CNN.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bill O'Reilly is Full of Bullshit

Did anyone catch Tonight's installment of The O'Reilly Factor? Bill O'Reilly said that Obama had voted in favor of late-term and partial-birth abortions, which sounded to me like alarmist baloney, so I researched it. It didn't take me long to find an article by Michael Dobbs explaining Obama's true voting record on these issues, which links to some excellent first-hand sources: actual government voting records. As it turns out, Obama isn't the radical he's made out to be, becaue he didn't vote "yes" on any of those things. Who would have thought?

Up until now I have watched O'Reilly from time to time, and my first impressions were that he was a moderate (not extremist) Republican, worth listening to broaden my perspective, even if he was wrong on a number of issues and tended to be cranky and unfair to his guests from time to time. Now my perspective has shifted full circle: O'Reilly is an unreliable, lie-spewing propagandist who shouldn't be listened to at all.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Here's something I posted on facebook:

I've recently heard people accuse President Barack Obama of leading the nation to become a new Sodom and Gomorrah because of his stance on gay marriage. This tends to come from the same types of people who are virulently opposed to rich people paying more taxes and to the poor having access to state-sponsored medical care. Shows how much they know about the bible. Do you know what the sin of Sodom was? It wasn't that they had gay sex. It was that they did not care for the poor. Ezekiel 16:49: “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." If anyone is leading our nation towards Sodom, it isn't people who are pro-gay marriage. It's the extremist republicans who want to deny socialist benefits to the poor and keep helping the rich grow even more obscenely wealthy than they are now.

A gentleman from my local freethought group commented and said that he respectfully disagreed with socialism, although he also said that he was in favor of "safety net" capitalism. If you don't know already, "safety net" capitalism basically means that we have free enterprise but that we also fund government programs to provide those without with food stamps, basic living quarters, and so on. This got me thinking that I ought to write a post clarifying socialism and capitalism and what my position on that issue is.

First, definitions. I've posted Wikipedia's definition of Capitalism and Socialism, and also my own summary of what communism is, which, contra popular confusion, is not the same as socialism:

"Capitalism is generally considered to be an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit or income by individuals or corporations."

"Socialism is an economic system characterised by social ownership and/or control of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy, and a political philosophy advocating such a system."

Under communist regimes, no one is supposed to really own anything, or if they do they are supposed to have the same amount that everyone else has. Karl Marx summarized his idea of communism as "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In other words, you do what you're able to to contribute to society and you take whatever you need or want. Your giving more or doing more doesn't get you more stuff and likewise doing less doesn't mean you lose anything.

In short, capitalism is a system in which goods are distributed based on what you sell (note that when I say "sell" this includes working a job, because when you work you are naught but selling your time to your employer and also that when I say "distribution of goods" this includes monetary payment because money is just the means to buy goods) whereas communism is a system in which goods are distributed based on your needs. Put this way, it's clear that the two aren't mutually exclusive: you can have an economy in which goods are mainly distributed based on the value of what you sell (which includes higher values for the college-educated when they sell their time to a company and work in their speciality) but which also has some built-in sensitivity that distributes goods based on needs (i.e. foodstamp programs).

Today "Socialism" has become something of a curse word amongst most people, witness Barack Obama being renounced as a "socialist" by his political opponents. I think this likely just a hangover from anti-Soviet campaigns that went a little too far back in the day. It's time to wash all of that away and startover with a more rational conversation in which we can discuss ideas without being afraid or overly dismissive of them. I've got news for you: if you're an American citizen then you have lived in a country with socialist programs and policies since you were born, and have used them yourself many times. Even if you've never been on welfare, foodstamps, or anything like that. Have you driven on a public highways? That's a socialist system. Socialism means the state or society owns the means of production. The state owns the means (the roads) not private companies or corporations. Would anyone really want to get rid of those?

On the other side of the coin, however, the profit motive (i.e. people's desire to make more money) and the direction that regulated capitalism tends to channel this motive (the only way they can get it is by providing and goods and services that other people want, hence making them an asset to the community, and by competing with others driving all entrepreneurs to create better and better stuff for us to purchase) has clearly improved all of our lives dramatically. Over the course of his career, TV reported John Stossel's primary thesis has been that free market and competition are great things, and that those have resulted in dramatic success, efficiency, and progress compared to government-run organizations trying to do the same thing. He's shown a spotlight on many examples to support that thesis, and I agree with it, at least in general.

The free market works on principles similar to that of Darwinian evolution: lots of variations in the product are tested and tried out by companies, they compete against one another, and the only ones that stick around are the ones that can make a buck because those are the only ones that people want. Free Market eneterprise naturally selects for products that we like. And just like evolution, it drives progress up a hill such that companies are forced into constantly producing goods better adapted to the desires of the people, because they have to compete with one another and are always looking for a way to make just a little bit more money. There is a catch: just as evolution produced a ton of great things (dogs, fruit, humans, dairy cows) it also produced a lot of predators and parasites too (Tigers, Sharks, HIV). Likewise, a free market can produce predators and parasites if we don't have laws to stamp them out, or at least minimize their negative effects.

Here is the reason I wrote all of the above: since socialism and capitalism are not truly mutually exclusive, and since I think the vast majority of us would agree that it wouldn't really be a good idea to get rid of all of our socialist (or capitalist) policies and programs, where the discussion and debate needs to take place is: when is it a good idea to have socialist programs? When you should we privatize an existent government-run entity? Do we want to keep our capitalist health care system? At the moment I doubt it, I think we would probably be better off with a socialist health care system like Canada's or at least a government-regulated one like the Korean health care system that Chris Hallquist wrote about.

That's my story.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Arguments for Atheism: A List

Here is a list of webpages and resources that you can access for FREE about the arguments against the existence of God! Here you go:

20+ Questions for Theists. Jeffrey Jay Lowder's list of questions for believers which reveal a number of arguments for atheism and expose a number of flaws in theistic arguments. It's a brief but highly recommended blog.
Ebon Musings: The Necessity of Atheism. This is a very good page with excellent summaries of the evidential arguments for atheism. That is, the author shows how various things about the universe make more sense if God does not exist than if he does.

Closer to Truth: "God." A series of interviews with philosophers and scientists who explain, in common-sense terms, what they think about the arguments for and against the existence of God.

Internet Infidels: Evidential Arguments for Atheism. Internet Infidels has essays written by a broad variety of critical thinkers arguing that atheism is better justified by various pieces of evidence, including Darwin's theory of evolution.

Internet Infidels: Logical Arguments for Atheism.

Theodore Drange: "Ten Atheistic Arguments" and "A Survey of Incompatible Properties Arguments." A veteran philosopher goes over some of the arguments for God's nonexistence, the first simply being all kinds of arguments for God's existence and the second being a review of arguments for incompatible properties (incompatible properties arguments try to show that the very definition of God is like a square circle; God is defined as having two different properties which could not possibly exist in the same entity).

Evil Bible: God is Impossible. It's a tad simplistic and mainly focuses on the God of the Bible, and I would recommend checking the scripture references in context, but other than that it is good food for thought.

Richard Carrier Blogs: The God Impossible. Richard Carrier goes over his thoughts on why God is impossible. Very interesting and often unheard arguments are brought out.

My Arguments for Atheism.

1. Bodiless Minds Probably Cannot Exist. What if someone told you about a chair that wasn't made out of anything. That is, not simply a chair that was made of a different sort of matter and energy than you are familiar with, but a chair that wasn't made out of anything at all. Do you think that such a hypothetical chair is even possible or at all sensible? I don't, and I suspect most people agree. However, most people seem to think that it is sensible to talk about spirits, souls, and gods, all of which are minds that are not made out of anything at all. However, philosophers and neuroscientists have long been thinking of our human minds as being completely physical in nature. Human minds are like snowflakes: just as snowflakes are made of many water-molecules arranged in a certain pattern to create the snowflake, so too are human minds/brains just a collection of brain cells arranged in a certain way to function as the people we are. When we describe who someone is, we describe them in terms of what they do and how they react in certain situations, and these are all fundamentally just "higher-level" descriptions of how a collection of matter and energy behaves. At the microscopic scale you see the water molecules (that is a "low level" description) but if you zoom out to the macroscopic scale you see the snowflake (a "higher-level" description). This is how people are: at the microscopic level you have cells and how they behave, and at the higher-level scale you have people and how they behave. Seen this way, it makes no sense at all to speak of a person who isn't made out of anything or about any mind without a body. Perhaps this is only a hunch and does not, in and of itself, prove with very much certainty that bodiless minds cannot exist. But it does lend support to the idea and provides a good ground for formulating the hypothesis that minds cannot exist without bodies. So let's see how that hypothesis fits the evidence.

The fact is that we have no rock-solid evidence of any sort of mental activity or signs of conscious awareness that occur without the activity of a physical brain. We could have had such evidence. We could have had evidence of a poltergeist, a genuine demonic possession, psychics who can truly communicate with the dead rather than relying on cheap parlor tricks, Near-Death Experiences could have proven to be genuine experiences of the mind outside of the body (see Keith Augustine's article as well as Victor Stenger's excellent chapter on the subject in The End of Christianity), we could all have memories of experiences from before our physical body came into existence (past lives, or God briefing us on our mission before he sent our souls into earth-bound bodies). We have extensive evidence that the human mind is the brain, as I've discussed on page 97 of my book Atheism and Naturalism and as Steven Conifer has discussed here. Of course, the absence of evidence for bodiless minds combined with the abundant evidence that minds require bodies provides astonishing and rock-solid support for the philosophical hunch that I discussed above. I'd go so far as to say that it is very likely that bodiless minds cannot exist. If it is very likely that bodiless minds cannot exist, and God is defined as a bodiless mind, then it follows that it is very likely that God does not exist. This argument wipes the floor clean of all possible gods, even a deist god who doesn't care about us and never does anything. Though such do-nothing gods cannot be disproven by evil or by a lack of evidence, because they are part of a category (bodiless minds) which probably do not and can not exist, so too do they not exist.

2. Evil and Evolution. As I once put it: Atheism makes the distinct predictions that the only way complicated living things will exist is if evolution occured (because on atheism there's no person to create them, they can only be products of nature) and that the world will contain injustice and evil, simply because atheism means that there's no perfect being running the universe, and without such a person, it is overwhelmingly likely that bad things will happen from time to time. And that's exactly the universe we live in.

For those who doubt evolution, see The 29 Evidences for it, or Why Evolution is True or The Greatest Show on Earth or chapter 10 of my book, Atheism and Naturalism.

For those who doubt the argument from evil, let's take on the most popular objection: free will. I read an article by local pastor on the problem of evil and here are some excerpts from it that I think are revealing:

"One night, a 16-year-old teen awakened to find a stranger in her bedroom. He held a knife to her throat. He told her to be quiet or he would kill her and her parents down the hall. Then he took her outside and raped her. All the while she was praying, telling him he did not have to do this and that God would forgive him. He didn’t stop. When he was done, he let her go back to her home. But she could never get back to her unspoiled life."

"Why does God allow things like this to happen? ...Theology talks about God's perfect will, which is that all live in happiness and fulfillment. Theology also talks about God's permissive will, which allows human beings the freedom to fail. To have a real victory, there has to be the possibility of failure. In order for us to follow God voluntarily, the possibility also has to exist to reject God's will."

If you had been there the night that this 16-year-old girl was raped, wouldn't you have tried to stop it? Or would you debate with yourself over whether allowing the girl to be raped was better than allowing the rapist his free will? I would have fought for the girl without a second thought, and I'd even go as far as to say that anyone of any moral fortitude would do the same. So if you believe that the protection of the girl is more valuable than allowing the rapist a freedom of choice, then you cannot believe in God. Because God is supposed to be a being with enough power to stop these things from happening, and also completely good, which means that if he existed he would have done the right thing and prevented the rape, even at the cost of destroying the rapist's free will. Events such as this leave us with no choice at all but to reject the sorry, soft, illogical pat answers of the preachers and theologians and look at reality for what it is: without a god.

3. Absence of Evidence. There's no good evidence for God, and if there was a God that isn't what we would expect. A good God would make sure people knew the truth because it is good to know the truth.

4. Postulating a god violates Ockham's Razor. Postulating that only the universe exists is simpler than postulating a universe plus a god. Since simpler theories are to be preferred (everything else being equal), then we should not believe in a god.

5. The Argument From Design for the Nonexistence of God. Believers often point out that if the orbit of the Earth were ever so slightly closer to or further from the sun, life couldn't exist. They pile up a number of very specific conditions which must coexist in order for life to exist, and ask why our planet is this way rather than any one of the millions of other ways that it could be which would not allow for life to exist. They're wrong that this points to God, as there are so many trillions of planets that it is no miracle that at least one (if not millions of others) should have life. Back to the point I was making: Believers ought to ask why God is exactly the way he is rather than some other. If there is an uncaused immaterial mind that exists (and only one of them, not many, which would commit us to polytheism) what are the odds that that mind would be absolutely perfect instead of one gazillions of ways it could be imperfect? Think about it: If my mind were altered just a bit by slicing out a piece of it or altering its structure with drugs, injuries, etc. I would probably be insane and/or mentally retarded. It does no good to object that my brain is physical while God's mind isn't, after all, we could imagine (if such things are possible, and I'm not sure they are, see argument 1) an immaterial version of every insane/idiotic/demented mind that could possibly be. Why a perfect mind rather than one of those? There is no good reason to see one as more likely than the other, and so using the believer's logic which they were only too happy to use about our life-friendly planet, it must be no more likely. Stop and think about how many possible minds there are: there are at least 7 billion human minds, billions more animal minds, plus the minds of imaginary characters, and so on and so forth. By a conservative estimate, the prior probability that an uncaused mind would be a perfect one is one out of a hundred billion, probably much more.

6. The Big Bang Argument for the Nonexistence of God. My last argument is closely related to the previous one. If we were to postulate something that was not caused, what would it be like? Out of all the possible arrangements of matter and energy that there are, most of them would have to be very “random-looking.” If no one created the universe then no one chose what the first arrangement of matter and energy would be, it would be very random and chaotic. And this is exactly what modern cosmology tells us the early universe was like, just read about the Big Bang theory.