Saturday, November 23, 2013

Against Sin

Why are we obsessed with food?    
   Because our survival depends on it.
Why are we obsessed with violence?
   Because our survival can depend on it.
Why are we obsessed with sex?        
   Because the survival of our species depends on it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Self Calibration

When I was a kid I had a strange temper. I would flare up in a rage quickly only to return back to normal shortly after. It would happen in the face of frustration, or when I was hungry. But the thoughts of anger would be clear, well articulated in my mind. And those angry thoughts would seem totally unbelievable in the clear light of post meal blood sugar. This can only go on so long before you start to take your own thoughts with a gain of salt. I learned early that my anger could not be trusted, which lead to an internal critical eye.

Ever since I've watched out for trends and common mistakes. I kept track of when my instincts would lead me astray and when they proved to be insights even when I had little or no support for their conclusions. I have a short list of things that I'm usually wrong about and usually right about. (all of these are subject to confirmation bias just like everything else, but there is only so much you can do)

There is an assumption in folk psychology that introspection is infallible. This isn't talked about or believed in any formal way, its just that people tend to think that when they think something about themselves they are right. While this is more or less an OK way to live out your day to day existence, it is important to remember that this is not true. You can be wrong about yourself and your feelings. If you've ever tried to quit something you know this to be true.

When I quit smoking what finally made quitting possible was when I realized that the voice in my head saying I wanted another cigarette wasn't, properly speaking, me. It was the part of me that was hooked on nicotine and needed to be refuted, ignored, and ultimately forced to shut up.

What I recommend is that you look back at your life and check for patterns of errors in judgement and keep track. If you have a list of mistakes you are likely to make that you have at hand, you are less likely to make them. A thermometer that reads 10 degrees too hot in the sun isn't useless, you just need to remember to subtract 10 when its in the sun.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What is religion and is there any part of it we still need?

When I think about the role of religion in our lives I think about three things. Our evolved cognitive abilities that are effectively static; what I will call our "intuition". Our cognitive abilities that are malleable, upgradeable and learned; or our "rationality". And lastly our environment, past and present.

When belief, argument, logic and storytelling were invented by nature they were there to support and augment instinct, emotion, and reflex. Lets call these two categories of mental tools I just mentioned "rationality" and "intuition". Our intuition was built to guide us in our original environment, not the one we has since created.

When we started to alter our environment radically, as we did with agriculture, our environment and our intuition started to fall out of synch. What we want to do at our basest level, is what would be good for us in the environment that evolved in(1). But as we got further and further away from the stimuli and behavioral choices and outcomes that we grew up with, we needed more and more cultural support to keep our behavior in line with our environment.

Eventually some of our base instincts came to be seen as evil impulses that needed to be controlled. But these instincts were just the instincts that no longer had good outcomes. Our inborn attitudes toward the four F's (food, fighting, fleeing and mating) are the most critical, the most resistant to change. But because we moved into villages, towns and finally cities, our base instincts became increasingly problematic as our environment was increasingly altered.

I don't know what exactly our unalterable instincts are, what our original evolutionary context was, but all I need to point out here is that our intuition (our original guide to successful behavior) is too slow to alter and couldn't keep up with the changes that we made to our surroundings. And so we put to use our rational capacities to figure out how to make sense of a world in which what we wanted led to disaster and what we loathed lead to success.

What we needed then was a set of cultural technologies (2) that would get us to behave in successful ways for the situation we were in. But in the same way that brains aren't truth machines, religions are not cosmology describers. Religions were a sort of instinct prosthesis, a guide to behavior that could be altered faster than the speed of evolution.

And it was the best technological solution to the problem that we had that was available. It kept our behavior adaptive in a world that had changed radically. But in this role religion must remain somehow empirical to stay useful. And for a long time what kept this more or less true was multidimensional. 1) the culture and technological innovation wasn't all that fast 2) the church used its power to actively dissuade change 3) the church used changes in interpretation to change what the religion meant to keep up with what changes did happen.

What has really damaged religion in the last ~200 years is that it wasn't agile enough to cope with the explosion of technological and cultural changes that have happened in that time. Religion really has failed us in the last couple of hundred years, but one of the roles that it was supposed to serve, that of instinctual prosthesis is still necessary. We are still apes with shoes, assault rifles and the instincts that nature imbued us with before we invented the ax.

Since religion has lost its adaptive edge (either the enlightenment or the modernist period, I'm honesty not sure which) the fight has been against the institution of religion. And not for no reason, the church has many problems and a lot of cultural power to cause those problems. But what that fight has ignored more often than not is that there is both baby and bathwater.

But the question is now posed, what can we use to help ourselves out? We are out of our element from and evopsych perspective and the tool that we built (religion) isn't up to the task anymore. God is dead, now what?

Basically what I am saying is that we needed religion to survive the agricultural revolution and we need something better to survive the industrial.

(1) I am being deliberately nondeterministic here, I don't feel like we know for sure what that environment was.
(2) technology includes techniques as well as objects

Sunday, October 6, 2013

European versus American faith

It is well documented that the USA is much more religious than europe and there has been a lot of discussion about why that is. The best theory I've heard to date is that because european countries are homogeneous with state sponsored churches, there is no competition and therefore no advertising or effort to keep people interested. The churches don't need fanatic supporters, they have state backing and no competition.

But I have always thought of religions as serving as the format of the relationship between the believer and the universe he finds himself in. And perhaps the reason that the USA is more religious is because our government doesn't take as good care of us as the european countries. In scandinavia you don't need to worry about as much because there is a real social safety net supplied by the government. But here in the states if you don't have money or family with money, you are out on the street. There is real anxiety and insecurity that needs to be both emotionally and fiscally compensated for.

Maybe europe is less religious because they have less public anxiety.

Consumerism is the new religion

For most of religion's history one of its primary uses was to keep the exploited masses from rising up against their oppressors. By and large this was done by telling a story about how if you are a good little boy or girl in your oppression then you will get your reward "later". Another tact was that you had already done something that put you in the miserable exploited position you were born into.

So what's the story these days? The story is that if you aren't happy then you need more stuff, and if you can't afford more stuff then it's your fault for being lazy. People will look back at this era with the same distain that we have for the caste system. Its not as totalitarian, and it has more outs, but consumer driven capitalism has many of the same oppressive mechanisms that religion has always had.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Don't believe everything you think.

Seriously, your brain can't be trusted like that.

The brain is not an organ for discovering the truth; it is a control mechanism that should contribute to the evolutionary success of the creature of which it is a part. And what's worse is that it was designed for a very different environment. Our brain still reacts to food as if it was limited and danger as if it was deadly and close at hand.

Be careful out there, everything is super complicated.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Myth of Freewill

One of the problems with how we imagine free will is that we see as a pure representation of our best selves. We see it as the free will that angels would have. But our sorry lot is not angels, but apes. And apes are not pure.

I don't mean this to be a moral judgment (although it might be). I mean that we are not blank slates even as newborns. And we certainly are not blank as adults.

The ultimate freedom would be omnipotence, the ability to do literally anything. And I think that if you gave that to every person on earth one at a time 90% of the first acquisitions would have to do with food, sleep, freedom from pain, or sex (my guess is in that order).

The reason that I mention this is that there is a quote, that as of printing I could not source, "freedom is not just freedom from." And this is my blank slate comment, given the change to do anything, anything at all, how many people would start with world peace and how many would start with a good meal and a nap?

We are apes, and not at our best when we can do whatever we want whenever we want. Our self restraint has real limits and our desires, well less so. Imagine what would happen if you had a magic power where you could create a limitless supply of your favorite snack when ever you wanted. Just BAMF! Double Stuf! Any time of day or night. You would be free not to eat them, not to summon them, but seriously who on earth could avoid gaining a couple of pounds?

If more power and more choice leads to a certain outcome in all people then freedom doesn't always lead to free choice. And if that's true then we need to internalize this limitation into our self understanding. Cut your neighbors and friends (and yourselves) some slack.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Step One in the grand plan to unmarginalize Atheism

Stop be dicks about everything.

Seriously, even if we were as right as some of us act being magnanimous about it would get us farther than winning the argument. And let's not fight the battles we can't win. Nobody is changing the pledge anytime soon. And the treasury isn't taking God off the money, so let drop it for now. We have important issues at hand, like climate change, sex ed., and drug policy.

Friday, April 19, 2013

What does godless mean anyway?

A candidate for a Massachusetts Senate seat recently added “godless” to the adjectives “horrific” and “cowardly” to describe the bombings of the Boston Marathon. I find it unbelievable that he used this adjective deliberately to say anything about nontheistic Americans. People don’t think like that. But I think it is important to understand why godless might seem like an appropriate word to use. Word usage and implicit meaning develop over time for reasons that are frankly very difficult to track down, but here is the history I find relevant to this word used in this way.

We as a nation added “under god” and similar phrases as an anti-Soviet propaganda move some 60 years ago. It was a toxic bit of international tribalism that was supposed to help U.S. citizens know who was on whose side. An unfortunate aspect of this kind of propaganda is that it creates a dehumanizing us-vs-them dynamic. That is bad enough in war times against the enemy, but this little Cold War gem doesn't divide so clearly.

Many of the things that the soviets were known for remain the hallmark of evil in our politics. The traumatic effects of the Cold War have left our national psyche with a handful of "triggers" that have long since disconnected from their references.

No one seems to remember why socialism is bad or, if we're honest, what it is. But it has been coded as the bad opposite of capitalism for so long that within our public discourse capitalism is in the same category as apple pie, mom, baseball and Christianity; while socialism is lumped in with dictatorship, gulags, and Atheism.

Ever since the Cold War “godlessness” has been just another word for Un-American. And because the faithless (atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc.) are not widely known or acknowledged, using this old bit of cold war tribalism still makes sense in some people’s heads. David Niose has made the point that we need to use similar identity politics to those used by the Gay Rights Movement to make the rest of the country realize that being something other than a Christian is something that a lot of good, non-cowardly non-horrific already are. And I agree with him.

Come out of the closet, mention your beliefs once in a while. Let this country know that good people like yourselves are not theists. Let them see that it is possible and indeed common that good people think differently about the world. It will do them and us a world of good.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On why we couldn't have been invited to the Boston Marathon interfaith service

This week a secular event in a very secular city was visited by a terrible human tragedy. And in response to this nationally significant event a service was coordinated; a service where the representatives of many different belief systems would be given the chance to speak to their own people and on behalf of their perspective. At this service the non-theistic perspective was not given voice. And I think it is our responsibility to fix what made this outcome inevitable.

It should be noted that the representatives of the secular perspective did every bit of outreach they could have to get us a seat at the table. I know personally several of the people who worked on this and there is no additional amount of leg work that could have made a difference. What we (as non-theists) needed was to have had different relationship with the country at large. And there are two things that I think we need in place for next time.

First we need to have a creed that outsiders can understand. I mean creed here like mission statement, not an object of faith. We need a few sentences that sound nice that can be “what we are about”. These few sentences would be public relations and not gospel. It would be important to get them right, to have them be something that we feel comfortable supporting, but not something that needed to be perfect. It would serve as the greeting card from atheism to the country; something to help us introducing ourselves to people who still just think that we are satanic communists.

Secondly we need representatives. We need people that our community has endorsed, who speak for us and to us in times of tragedy and celebration.  Again we can’t wait for the perfect person who everyone got along with about everything, but someone to say what many of us are thinking, so that we can feel that we are heard. These representatives would not be telling the world what we as individuals think, we the represented would not be obliged to agree with, believe, or follow what is said. But like having a politician you voted for speak, they would be our stand in for the public conversation.

Having such a public persona and publicly understood mission statement would have made our representation at the upcoming interfaith service possible.  Without establishing our public presence in a “day in day out” way, any time we want to be included is going to look like a shocking introduction that will make our inclusion about us “suddenly” being included. We need to be talked about as just another identity of Americans in an ongoing basis so that people get used to us being out and proud. And having a recognizable secular persona who isn’t known for confrontation would make that person’s inclusion in an interfaith service make sense. Someone needs to be out there talking about our community’s perspective in a way that gives us voice without making us look like bomb throwers. Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are great and have done great things for the Atheist position, but I’m not sure they have done much good for the atheist community. We have enough debaters; I think we need a communicator.

So what I am suggesting here is that we start to put ourselves forward in a positive way. I am not saying that we forcibly retire Dawkins, or cease to criticize where criticism is necessary. Just that we also start to engage with the majority of our country, which is religious. Religions and religious people are here to stay, but so are we. And when tragedy strikes, it would help if we were already seen as the important part of the American fabric that we already are.

Josiah van Vliet
President Boston Atheists

Friday, April 12, 2013

April 12th: Yuri's Night!

On April 12th 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first human to enter space aboard the Vostok I. We've been making round trips to space for Fifty Two Years! We may not have flying cars but we do, in fact, live in the future. And someone remind me to set up a party for next year.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 11th: Kurt Vonnegut Day

Kurt Vonnegut died today in 2007. I remember seeing this picture (drawn by Kurt) online that day at work and crying. He is one of the best, most affecting, and important writers of the last century. And in the pantheon that I am proposing, Kurt Vonnegut is the Paragon of looking at, and past, horror. 

His unique place in the world is to see what is truly terrible, to sit with it and draw its portrait and then make you laugh about it. He never drifts too far from what is bad or what is senseless. Or from what is beautiful and good. 

He is a particularly obvious secular saint, as former honorary president of the American Humanist Association.  And the story of his memorial speech for Isaac Asimov cannot be repeated often enough. 

“I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored.” - Kurt Vonnegut
He was, as all satirists are, a critic. And much of his power as a critic was his capacity to see the world as it was, no matter how painful, or beautiful, or ridiculous. 

"I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. I can't help thinking that. And this engineer knows exactly what he or she is doing and why, and where evolution is headed. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap." - Kurt Vonnegut on The Daily Show (13 September 2005)
He wrote about bravery in the face of reality. Of what we can't do, must do and can do. 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers — joined in the serious business of keeping our food, shelter, clothing and loved ones from combining with oxygen. -Kurt Vonnegut God Bless You Mister Rosewater
But he is most important, and useful, to my mind as a source of great wisdom about how to cope with sadness. He was a very pessimistic man who had attempted suicide and spoke angrily about how cigarettes had failed to kill him. But he worked throughout his long life, much to our benefit, and left us with pieces of wisdom like this: 

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." " - "Knowing What's Nice", an essay from In These Times (2003)

On this day in 2007 Kurt Vonnegut died of traumatic brain injury. 

So it goes. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

April 10th: Lagrange

Today Joseph-Louis Lagrange died in 1813, he was born on the 25th of January 1736. A famous French and Italian mathematician who is best known for his work on the three body problem that led to understanding of Lagrange points

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

April 9th: Battles

On this day, for three years running, three separate named battles had meaningful events in WWI. The battle of Verrdun, and Arras, and the Lys in 1916, 1917, and 1918 respectively. All told there were over 1 million causualties.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

April 8th: Superconductivity!

A new series of posts starts here. I'll be posting events important to atheists everyday hopefully with an attendant story or parable. Something interesting and thought provoking. Or at least a link to an interesting Wikipedia page.

Anyway, on April 8th, 1911 Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered that a Mercury wire submerged in liquid helium lost all resistance to electricity, which he called superconductivity. He went on to win the Nobel prize in 1913. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Why are we so interested in violence?

They are obsessed with "our base interests" because no animal could have survived without an obsessive interest in the four F's:

1) Feeding
2) Fighting
3) Fleeing
4) Mating

There is nothing wrong with you for finding these for subjects interesting. Any animal that doesn't find these 4 things of paramount interest is doomed. "The kids these days" are just interested in the four basics of special survival.

Enough with the moralizing, enough with the associative magic. We are interested in things that we like and things we don't like in large part due to what we should have been interested in as animals struggling for survival. Which ones of these interest should and should not be pursued is a different question but I'm sick to death of people openly wondering why children are so obsessed with violence.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sex, a secular perspective, preamble

At a Humanist discussion I recently attended I heard someone ask why there is no Humanist stance on sexuality, which I found really compelling. Why isn't there a secular perspective on human sexuality? 

I think most of the problem is that in the U.S., sexuality is so demonized and marginalized that a serious, rigorous look at human sexuality that is pro-sex seems oxymoronic. I have not heard any attempt at building a new paradigm about human sexuality. And as a big philosophy of science fan, I like me a good paradigm. 

Historically, as I understand it, the anglo-american tradition of sexual attitudes basically boils down to sex is bad, but we'll tolerate it within the bounds of marriage for the purposes of procreation. And as we have become an increasingly liberal culture what we have done is keep the idea that sex is bad, but expand the list of sanctioned acts. So sex remains prohibited unless you are doing it in an allowed way. 

Well fuck all that. 

Sex is: fun, necessary for the survival of the species, good for your health, builds relationships, cheap, creates mutual trust, a stress reliever, among many many other things. 

I would like to think about sex in the same way that we think about almost all other areas of human behavior, using the standard tools of evaluation that we use for those activities. Sex is not a special case of human behavior, and to say otherwise is implicitly take on board the theological importance that it has been given. So let’s see what happens when you start with that as a premise and reason logically for a while. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Is there anything that church goers have that you wish you did?

I've begun to think about the difference between "the churched" and "the unchurched" instead of the difference between believers and non-believers. But I'm wondering if that's a real distinction and if people know of specific things that church goers have access to that atheists should figure out how to get.

Why we don't need religion to be good.

 When my mother became pregnant with me, the family cat started bringing home his kills for her. 

This is one of my favorite stories about my family, and we have a lot of good stories. But that cat (Bart was his name) was really into taking care of me and my mom. And I'm not telling this story just for kicks or for the joke; there is a point here. If you can get altruism of a creature that doesn't even have language, then you can definitely be good without god. 

One of my basic rebuttals against theists is that we do not need stories to want to be good. Empathy, altruism, generosity, care-taking etc. are all baked in. And not just baked into our biology, but into the biology of the "lower" animals; the ones that demonstrably do not have language.

I think it is important for us to consider that our animalness isn't all bad. Our evolutionary history makes us what we are. And while we are complex animal, with a wide and troubling range of behavior, there are noble qualities that are our heritage, and not a gift from on high.

The religions have demonized our "animal nature" for a long time and I think it is a kind of self hate. The line in the sand is not between emotional and rational. It is not between the spiritual and the flesh. The saved and the fallen. 

The line in the sand is between what harms and what helps. And there are helpful things that are of the flesh, that are of the fallen and of the emotional. And I think we would do well to reconsider how we divide what we are proud of and what we are ashamed of. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Not a crutch against death

The common dismissal of religion is that is a crutch for the weak against the fear of death. And while that may be true to some extent, I think that the major role of religion and religious institutions has been to provide guidance about to how to live. And that the real problem is that there is no overt mechanism to update the guidance being given.

So religions, with their intellectually devastated rationale, are forced to cling onto their Iron Age inspired, medievally edited message about Sin and an Angry God. And they are stuck with both no reason for their authority and giving bad advice.

But the impact of religion, especially to the avowed atheist, is so small that it isn't really the moral influence we need to worry about. We are surrounded by advertising and the random mythology of reality tv, public radio, video games and paper backs. And all throughout our lives we are indoctrinated into norms of dress, diet, self-presentation and hygiene; most of which we internalize and no longer realize were at some point decided for us. These sources of motivation are the ones that now need to be countered.

We all benefit from being reminded what we ought to do, and for those of us without a deliberate community the only thing we are reminded to do, is spend. Nowhere in our lives as atheists is there room, time, or context for our own values to be reinforced. There is a quote that "The only alternative to tradition is bad tradition." 

What this means is that atheism has given up fantasy and corrupt institutional authority for a faux rugged individualism. All atheism has now is the claim that the individual who doesn’t go to church is their own person, guided by only their own intellect and judgment; which is wrong on two counts.

None of us are smart or wise enough to figure out all the answers to our lives on our own. And secondly we are constantly encouraged to behave in ways that are totally orthogonal to our own values. And so I take it as unavoidable that we would be better off with an institution build to help us figure out our role in the world, and to at least fight off the values put forward by mass media, if not in fact to promote those values we endorse.

We are guided by outside messages whether we like it or not, especially those that we do not notice. And that the trouble with churches is the content of the messages they give, not with us for being effected by them. So I think it makes sense that we should form institutions that remind us of the values that we care about.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The cognition of a single ant

The solitary human being may be the wrong unit of analysis. Cooperation is so fundamental to our survival strategies that as a species under analysis, the individual may not be the sensible subject of study. We evolved to succeed together, and our strengths and weaknesses may be incomprehensible when looked at one person at a time.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Right but Foolish, Wrong but Wise?

Or why I stopped thinking of shared beliefs as the most important thing.

I started being involved with secular culture about 6 years ago after reading Dan Dennett & Sam Harris. It had never occurred to me that there was a cohesive worldview that was separate from religion. I was raised an atheist and figured that "we" just didn't have a place to go on holidays; that we just got the day off from school or work and spent time with our friends and families. But I found the idea of secular community very exciting.

While I was meeting and learning about other nontheists I was also listening avidly to On Being (which at the time was called Speaking of Faith). On Being is a fantastically generous and thoughtful interview program about "the big questions at the center of human life." Krista Tippet interviews pretty much anyone with something to say on the subject of big questions. Anyone from Bishops, to Mathematicians, Buddhist Monks to science fiction authors.

And so I was going out for drinks with a collection of self-avowed atheists on Saturdays and listening to engaging interviews with theists on Sundays. And I found things I wasn't expecting.¹

What I found so surprising was that there were atheists, people with whom I agreed on almost all metaphysical claims, who's judgement was all-but completely untrustworthy. And there were people who had life long careers working for Team Zombie Jesus who were profoundly wise people.

I was not expecting to meet people I agreed with about the nature of the universe who I wouldn't let walk my dog; while listening to interviews of people who's beliefs I find literally laughable who I might let raise my children.

That isn't to say that there are not atheists who are great people (I agree with Dan Dennett about basically everything I've ever heard him talk about) or that there aren't theists and theologies that I find downright malignant (the Catholic Church for example). But it is Possible that you could agree with me and be daft, or disagree with me and be wise; even by my own standards.

And this led to some soul searching for me. I realized that if I can disagree on the conclusions but agree on methodology then something very strange is going on. Part of the conclusion is the title of this blog, in order to capture the qualities I find important about other people, I must talk about meta-beliefs.

How do people use their beliefs, how do they come to conclusions? These are more interesting questions to me than what do you believe about the afterlife or what do you think started the universe. If someone believes in the resurrection of Christ but uses that belief to serve their own capacity for human kindness, then that person is kind first and a Christian second. If someone uses some iron age law book as an excuse to attack innocent people on the street, then that person is a violent felon first and a Fundamentalist Christian second. And if a person uses their education in formal logic to call other people stupid then he is a Jerk first and Correct second.

We have been exhorted to look at the content of peoples character before more superficial qualities. And while I think the original exhortation was more straightforwardly the right thing, I do think that it is in our interest to pay attention to how good we are as people and not how skilled we are as Metaphysicians.

¹Let me take a moment here to contextualize what I am about to say. I am about to describe some people based on their labels, I am going to talk about atheists and theists and their qualities. I will be talking about individuals and not whole groups. The point of what I am about to write is to point out that what I observed is possible not that it is universal, or even probable.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My alternative to de Botton's commandments

Edit: Here is what I'm responding to

Edit #2: de Botton never said commandment or atheist. He called them virtues.

I really didn't care for the set up that de Botton used here. He is an immense thoughtful writer and is a massive influence on my thinking in these areas, but 10 commandments? I didn't like it. So I wanted to point out the direction I would have gone with this idea.

I think that there is room for a return of virtue ethics in our world. I see a way to use evopsych, neuroscience, and philosophy to build a secular ethic that would help guide people who run the risk of making mistakes of judgement or execution in their lives.

But this kind of sign posting, which is one way to look at this kind of blanket advice, always happens in a context. And if you are going to give someone advice without knowing them or their situation then you should allow for the possibility that your advice might be, not only unhelpful, but make you look stupid.

And one of the things about virtues that has always bothered me is that all too often I see them in toxic abundance in my friends in loved ones. The girl who prides herself on being self-sacrificing who takes on so much care taking that everyone around her ends up helping her. The man who boastfully can put up with anything, and then does, much to his own disfavor.

So I have written a couple of pairings, that talk about virtue continuums. These are things you don't want to be too far on either side of, instead of things that you Must do, or Cant do.

Tolerance and Intolerance. 

You should be able to withstand what you need to overcome in order to accomplish what you value. But you should not be so inured to discomfort that you are able to ignore serious problems.

The runner must run through pain, discomfort, early mornings, bad weather, sickness and stress. But if he runs through the pain of tendinitis then he is going to be injured. Giving up isn't the only mistake you can make.

Selflessness and Selfishness.

It is important to give of ones self at times. For your kith, your kind, or your brothers in arms. Sometimes diving on the grenade¹ is the only right thing to do.

But you must know when to look after yourself first. With airplane oxogen masks it is pretty strait forward, you wont stay conscious long enough to put the mask on your child if you don't put yours on first. But in day to day life it is more complicated. Sometimes you must put yourself first for the sake of those you care about. A dead man feeds no children.

Forgiveness and Anger

It is important to see the other persons point of view, and to understand why they have done what they have done. It is important to be able forgive and let go when you are insulted, or harmed. The effects of carrying a grudge can cause more problems than the original insults ever did.

But anger is an important motivator, and a valid emotion. Segregation was a moral outrage, and could not have been addressed without anger. And what sense does it make to forgive an ongoing assault on your freedom and dignity?

¹Important point of note, contemporary grenades are so powerful that this doesn't really help the way it used to.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"I don't want to be called an atheist"

A friend of mine recently told me that they do not want to be called an atheist because most of the self identified atheists she new were too preachy about it. She wanted another word for someone who doesn't believe in God but was less confrontational about it.

I find there is an absence here, that there is a collection of beliefs that I share with other atheists but that there is no label that talks about what we agree about. And there is great distrust in atheists about having a collective set of beliefs at all.

I wonder what you all think?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Agenticity in language

Many times people speak about the world as if the objects within it have agency. "Be careful around that lamp, it wants to fall over." "My car is very fussy, she doesn't like the rain." This kind of talk is part of the ubiquity of metaphor in speech. Neither of my examples posit some kind of animism, or point at my own softheadedness; they both explain something about an object.

The first sentence uses agent like language to warn my house guest that the lamp is unstable. And the second sentence is something I could say of my car even if I knew what the electrical problem was and could describe it. The fact that "agent talk" and narrative description make easy sense to our very social brain does not mean that when we use this kind of talk that we have totally lost our wits.

It can be dangerous thinking, one can fall in for some kind of animism because "the car really does seem fussy". But it bothers me when I hear critiques of peoples thinking when all that is being critiqued is a manner of description.

And let’s not miss the advantage of agent like description. My lamp might look sturdy but fall over easily, so describing it as an agent that desires to fall over tells the listener how to interact with the lamp in a way that "that lamp's center of gravity is too high for size of its base" wouldn't obviously convey. And telling someone about the wires in my car doesn't tell you what to look out for. Bad wiring can do almost anything in a car, so the "fanciful" description of my car as a stuck up little princess who won’t start in the rain is, for the person interacting with my car as a driver, more informative than the formal diagnosis.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Wareham, MA

We live in the richest, most powerful nation in the history of our species and yet we fail to provide the basest basics for the most challenged among us. 

It makes me very sad. 

I just spoke to a man while waiting for the bus. He asked me if I had any rolling papers. Then he asked me if I could spare some change, I gave him $0.50. Then he started to explain to me this theory about the planets, the mbta buses, Martha's Vinyard and which judge the MBTA police take you to. He was interrupted by the arival of the bus. 

He had very few teeth, and they looked like the kind that cause you more problems then do you any good. I think the bus driver made him pay. As he passed me to his seat he said thank you with real gratitude in his voice. When some other people got off the bus he said "God bless you" in a very sad and serious voice. 

This man is demonized when people rail against welfare. This poor lost soul is a "taker" and not a "maker". He is outside, right now, and he is not sure what planet 
he is on; but he does know the judge the MBTA police take you to is in Wareham. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

What does being an atheist mean to you?

I was raised in the absence of religion. I was taught to question, to be able to change my mind, and to not be ashamed of not knowing. Because of this being an atheist isn't something I've had to think about much, it is just a part of who I am and how I am in the world.

But I would like to hear about what it is like for other people. People who had to struggle, convert, remake sense of the world. I am the community organizer for atheists and I feel like there is part of their story I don't know well enough.

Also there is a conversation happening over at

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Breakfast recap 01/26/13

Not withstanding a goof-up with the date of the breakfast, I had a really good time with the about 10 people who showed up. And in an effort of both advertising our events and inclusion I thought I would write up some of the conversations I had.

I started the breakfast with a quick little talk about altruism as it is found in the vampire bat. A talk I boosted almost entirely from Radiolab. Radiolab is one of the best things available via podcast or radio. It does science journalism is a way that is accessible honest, and emotionally engaging. But back to vampires. Vampire bats share their "food" with one another based not just on kin relationships but also on friendship bonds that they build while grooming one another, an activity they spend as much as 30% of their time doing while roosting. Which is a very striking example of "good without god".

I brought up my broken record references a couple of times. Gary Taubes "Why We Get Fat" is probably the best thing I've ever read on what to eat, what not to eat, and why. There is no short version of his argument  but there are several versions of an hour long lecture that I found enormously persuasive. And you should know that I am not easily persuaded on these fronts. I point out his work because it not just tells you about food, but is also a huge step in the right direction in terms of having a real understanding of why everything else you've ever read is stupid.

My other bring it up every time I talk for more than 10 minutes is "Sex At Dawn". This book has deep implications, not just for how you understand your own sexuality, but also how you understand the evolutionary psychology of our species generally. This is easily one the five most important books I've read when it comes to understanding the contentious issues in my life and the culture around us.

Georgina and I also discussed the role of objectification in sexism. Which tangented to a discussion of pornography. I have a contentious view of the role of objectification that I may explain in more detail elsewhere, but my view is in large part informed by a paper I read by the amazing Nancy Bauer: "Pornutopia". That is a rather adult document, but it is a work of feminist philosophy.

A number of other interesting issues came up, and I would welcome comments from attendees mentioning what they thought was interesting, but those were the three that I wanted to distribute links about.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The irrationality of rationality

If, as I believe, there is no rational defense of rationality; then we must responsibly attend to the (ir/a)-rational basis on which rationality depend.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Atheism

My atheism is the result of a methodological choice. It is a consequence of my epistemology. Given what I think counts as good practices what counts as good evidence and good argument  atheism is the only way I can imagine things to be.

It isn't a stand alone belief, it doesn't do any work. I don't believe other things because I'm an atheist. If somehow you made me believe in the divine, none of my other beliefs would have to change.

Monday, January 21, 2013

One offs

Being alive isn't the product of a choice, it is the product of not radically interfering with your animal self.

A question, and a couple of answers

"Without positing an afterlife or condoning suicide, is it possible to reframe Death as a positive? As something not only defanged and not-to-be-feared, but truly celebratory?"

I think that the end of A life, with rare exceptions, is always a loss.¹ It is a loss of a necessary condition for a lot of what we think of as good. Furthermore the loss of a loved one is always a sadness, even when it is temporary. I don't see a way around being bummed out that someone is gone if having them around was good. But that isn't the full story. 

Death in general is an unavoidable, inexorable part of the world around us. So much so that to hate death, or malign it at all would be like hating on gravity, or entropy. 
Making virtue out of necessity frequently looks like a cop-out but what else can you do. Death makes life what it is. And if something is cherished then all parts of it must be embraced, because to change one part is to change the whole. So if you celebrate life, you celebrate a thing that ends. That doesn't mean that the end is as good as the other parts. But only that to honestly enjoy life, and call it a good, you must acknowledge that it is a temporary affair. 

That being said I think that a death can be an occasion for celebration. If this life is all we get, and it's value is linked to its limited supply, then death can be seen not as the loss of something good, but as the limitation that makes life valuable. 

I think part of what makes death so tragic in our culture is that by and large death isn't understood as part of life. Even the simple language of life and death has a denial of death in it. "He saved my life!" has buried in it the assumption that now that I am not going to die in that fire I won't die at all. Of course no one really thinks that but wouldn't it more honest to say "He extended my life!' Incorporating death into how we understand our lives would be a step toward reframing death. 

¹An answer I don't think you are looking for: In cases of unmitigated suffering death is a good. This is, however, not an interesting point, nor what I think you are looking for. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sex is not immoral.

Just because I don't think this gets said enough: Sex is not immoral. Sex between two men, two women, 17 drunken counter culture 20-somethings, kinky sex, anonymous sex, none of it is inherently immoral. 

“Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other "sins" are invented nonsense.”

― Robert A. Heinlein

Sex's relationship to ethics is the same as any other human activity. Nobody has car ethics, or knife morals, but these are areas of human activity where care needs to be taken to avoid hurting people. If there is exploitation, or problems with consent, Then we have ethical problems. But just the basic act of sex, by definition is not sinful, hurtful, shameful, immoral, or unethical. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The basis of ethics is biology

We, as a species, evolved to cooperate. Empathy, sharing, getting along, and playing fair are biological basics for us in the same way that being an omnivore is basic. Or the way that "being able to learn how to fly" is basic for a bird. The bon mot version of this insight is this: "If you take a basically healthy person and put them in a basically healthy environment, they will behave basically ethically."

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A message as Interim President

As I assume most of you who read this blog know, I recently took over from Zac Bos as president of the Boston Atheists. There has been and continues to be problems for feminists in the secular movement, and from my experience women clearly do not feel especially welcome at our events. As a reaction to that I wanted to say something about inclusiveness and the marginalized and was promoted by a BA member's blog post about feminism & secularism and conflict resolution. 

Here I am speaking to the members of the Boston Atheists specifically. 

If you feel mistreated, uncomfortable, or unwelcome at an event that we are hosting please come to me and let me know. Particularly if I'm the problem. This goes for everyone but doubly so for the marginalized. 

Furthermore I want to say that I am blind to my privileges like everyone else; especially as a white, straight, cisgendered man. 

If others treat you poorly out of blindness, I will try and shine a light. But if you see that I am acting blindly, please show me the way.

I don't know what this means, but it sounds important.

"Life as an end is qualitatively different from life as a means." pg 17

One-Dimensional Man
Herbert Marcuse

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Religions are secular too.

There is something that most atheist critiques of religion have failed to internalize. If there is no god, and there never has been, then religious practice is also a secular practice. Dan Dennett wrote a whole book about how religion is a natural phenomena but he didn't capture an insight that I found in Alain de Botton's book about religion for atheists.

Everything that every religion has done, they have done for natural reasons and with natural outcomes. Not all of those reasons and outcomes are bad, far from it. And I think being an atheist would be a little less difficult and a little less limiting if we realized that religious practice is human practice. Imagine if you will what a church would be like if you knew for sure that no one believed.

Religious people will tell you that what they do they do because of God, or because of scripture, or faith, or whatever supernatural reasons they believe in. But remember that this is not true, their god isn't there pulling the strings. When they give to charity it is because they are charitable. When they discriminate it is because they are bigoted. When they do violence it is because they are violent. And their religious practice plays a role.

But their god does not.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Experimental Breakfast

People often ask what atheists believe, or what the point of the Boston Atheists is. In response I have generated a couple of answers. One answer is that we should take empirical research more seriously and personally. We take scientific research to be knowledge about the world and ourselves. And I think we can do a better job of interpreting it and using it to inform the way we live and make decisions. I mean to take the best that science has to offer us and help to put it to use improving ourselves, each other and our environment.

That is the point of the Experimental Breakfast. In the TED talk I've linked to you will see Barry Schwartz explain his research into what he called "the paradox of choice". His conclusion is that too much choice is bad for us and leads to a reduction in satisfaction and happiness. And ordinarily linking the video would be all I would do, but now that I am president I have the leeway to do more.

And more is the Experimental Breakfast where you will receive, in keeping with the best research available, a limited menu. And we will see if fewer options leads to more enjoyment of what you pick.

Lets use science to improve our lives! Lets do it together! Over waffles!

(Or french toast. To be honest the menu isn't settled yet.)

Meetup Event
Facebook Event

Friday, January 4, 2013

What makes for a life that flourishes.

Rick Roderick, who I have mentioned before and is my current obsession, gave the following quote during a lecture on Nietzsche. He was talking about what issues create a flourishing human life: "Topics ignored by theorists, academics, philosophers, literary critics, and others. Topics we ought to discuss: how good is our food, how warm is our house, how much fun do we have having sex." These topics are emblematic what I find myself concerned with, in no small part because they do go undiscussed.

One of the things that drove me to distraction while studying philosophy was the impossibility that what we were discussing could possibly affect the lives of living human beings. At the same time, most of religious practice strikes me as similarly inconsequential. So much of what religions get criticized for, impossible beliefs, fraudulent founders, metaphysical claims that just don't even make any sense, don't touch the world. In that, the realm of philosophy and the realm of theology is irrelevant to my project; unless and until it touches the concerns of living human beings.

This means that all of the debates about epistemology and ontology, logical necessity and impossibility strike me not just as fruitless, but as a dangerous distraction to the issues that matter.

So let's talk about issues that do touch the world. How warm Is your house? How good is your food? How much fun is your sex life? How is your health? How comfortable are you in your own skin?

People ask what an atheist group could be about and I now have an answer: the welfare of atheists.