Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Nation Ruled By Science Wouldn't Be A Terrible Idea, If Done Right

Recently there were several articles criticizing a tweet by famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about an idea for a virtual country called Rationalia with a single line constitution that all policy should be based on the weight of evidence:

For an evidentialist like me who thinks the justification of a conclusion depends solely on the evidence for it, this seems like a good idea. Who wouldn't want to live in a society where policy is based on evidence? Well, lot's of people apparently. Now mind you, Twitter has a 140 character limitation, and offers little room for nuance. So the details of Tyson's idea aren't able to be hashed out on such a platform. But for someone who just wrong a lengthy blog post about how we should infer ontology and who actively supports applying scientific thinking to society's problems, I can offer some insights and a critique on how such a country could in theory work, and in the process shut down many of the strawmen arguments made about such a view.

Over at New Scientist Jeffrey Guhin makes several mistakes in his critique of Tyson in an article called, A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea. First he immediately calls Tyson's idea "scientism." 

“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is – you guessed it – science. People sometimes use the phrase “rational thinking”, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.

Now it is true that Tyson has been accused of scientism in the past, so I cannot defend Tyson on this, as I myself reject it in its strong form. But, there are two different kinds of scientism, strong and weak. Here are the differences:

Strong scientism: the view that science alone can render truth about the world and reality
Weak scientism: the view that science is the most reliable method to render truth about the world and reality, but one among many methods that can render truth.

There are various definitions of strong and weak scientism, and no necessary agreement on them among philosophers and scientists, but that's how I define them. Given weak scientism, no one is forced to think science is the sole way to solve the world's problems or the only thing that can count as "evidence." And with that, this critique disappears.

Next Guhin moves onto flaws in science itself. Scientists have irrational biases he says, and this could lead them to mislead us. Sure, we all have cognitive biases, and scientists are not in any way immune to this defect. But the scientific method takes into consideration these inherent cognitive biases and employs methods like double blind peer review to correct for them. In a society like Rationalia which emphasizes scientific thinking, presumably any problems that exist in science, like a lack of funding, or issues with the peer review process, will have special dedications reserved for fixing them. Why would we assume that the problems that exist in science today in societies that do not privilege scientific research and its findings to determine policy would persist in a society that does? In Rationalia scientific funding would take precedent over many other forms of funding, like the insane corporate welfare and military industrial complexes we have in the modern US.

The Big Picture Talk

I'm about two-thirds of the way done reading Sean Carroll's latest book The Big Picture. It's a fascinating read that I recommend every atheist, naturalist, skeptic, and humanist get their hands on. Heck, every theist and pantheist should get their hands on it, since it would undoubtedly challenge many of their views and answer some of their questions about naturalism. This is a talk Carroll did at Google not long ago that was very similar to the talk he gave in New York last May that I attended where he summarizes many of the points of his book. I haven't gotten to the last past of the book yet where Carroll goes into morality and I think I'm going to disagree with what he says, mainly because he rejects any notion of objective morality, which I support. Anyway, here's his talk if you haven't seen it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Thoughts On Circumcision

I got into a debate on circumcision recently and I thought I'd offer my thoughts on this touchy subject. I'm against forced circumcision of any kind, on both males and females, unless there is a clear medical necessity. I think it's child abuse and it should be illegal to circumcise anyone under the age of 16. I would support a law that enforced this and that made no religious or cultural exceptions. Here are some of the reasons why I'm against forced circumcision which I personally think should be a moral no-brainer.

I'm against forced circumcision because babies and young children do not have the capacity to consent to having a part of their genitalia cut off. They are the most vulnerable members of society and to force circumcision on them is to violate their right to bodily integrity.

I'm against forced circumcision because it removes sensitive nerve endings that are there for sexual sensation, and it dulls sexual pleasure. This can cause sexual dysfunction in men and make it harder to achieve an erection or have an orgasm. In women, female circumcision seeks to remove the ability to have an orgasm entirely, denying them nearly all sexual pleasure for the rest of their lives.

I'm against forced circumcision because it is often done in unhygienic conditions and where there is no anesthesia given to the baby or child. This has lead to many deaths and medical complications that have impaired the sexual abilities of those who've had it done sometimes for the rest of their lives.

I'm against forced circumcision because the claims that it prevents AIDs and other STDs have been overblown or outright lied about. As reported in Psychology Today, the studies claiming circumcision reduced risk of HIV infection "had many flaws, including that they were stopped before all the results came in. There have also been several studies that show that circumcision does not prevent HIV (Connolly 2008)." Additionally, "In the USA, during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, about 85% of adult men were circumcised (much higher rates of circumcision than in Africa), and yet HIV still spread."

I'm against forced circumcision because of the psychological damage it can have on those who it's been done to. As reported in Psychology Today, the pain experienced during circumcision can alter the brain, making people "more sensitive to pain later in life (Taddio et al., 1997)."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Quote Of The Day: Homosexuality In Nature

Today's quote comes from a blog by Larry Arnhart called Darwinian Conservatism that I found through Secular Outpost. He makes a natural law case for homosexuality and gay marriage, and in it lists some facts regarding homosexuality found in nature. It is quite surprising how much we've documented. This is a great resource for anyone who denies there is evidence of this.

Scientists have observed homosexual behavior in 471 animal species--167 species of mammals, 132 species of birds, 32 species of reptiles and amphibians, 15 species of fishes, and 125 species of insects and other invertebrates (Bagemihl 1999, 673). Scientists have also observed that same-sex pairs have successfully reared young in at least 20 species. In some cases, one or both partners are the biological parent(s) of the young they raise together. In other cases, the partners adopt and care for young without being the biological parents (Bagemihl 1999, 23-26). Moreover, in some cases, the same-sex couples seem to be more successful in their parenting than opposite-sex parents.
We also now know that homosexuality is biologically natural in that it arises through the interaction of many biological factors in the early development of fetuses and children--genes and sex hormones shape the body and the brain in early life so that people are naturally predisposed to become heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. Monozygotic (identical) twins are more concordant in their sexual orientation than dizygotic (fraternal) twins, which clearly shows a genetic contribution to homosexuality That the concordance between monozygotic twins is about 50% suggests that while there is a genetic influence, there are also other biological factors involved. And while there is no single "gay gene," there are probably many different genes interacting with one another in various ways that influence sexual orientation (Poiani 2010, 55-96). Explaining the biology of animal homosexuality requires a complex multicausal model (Poiani 2010, 401-425).


Moral Argument Thought Experiment To A Divine Command Theorist

Suppose I had 5 different theists each claiming their god grounds moral values, but each of these gods have a different nature. How can I objectively determine which is the god that actually grounds moral values without an intelligible way to recognize why moral values are good or bad? Claiming god grounds them is a non-starter: I've god 5 different gods to choose from.

So how would a divine command theorist answer this?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Quote Of The Day: Dawkins On Why Essentialism Must Die

Today's quote comes from a book called This Idea Must Die by John Brockman. In it is a section from famed biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins for why he thinks the philosophical idea of essentialism must die. I don't unfortunately have a page reference because I'm getting this second hand from an article on

For Plato, a circle, or a right triangle, were ideal forms, definable mathematically but never realized in practice. A circle drawn in the sand was an imperfect approximation to the ideal Platonic circle hanging in some abstract space. That works for geometric shapes like circles, but essentialism has been applied to living things, and Ernst Mayr blamed this for humanity’s late discovery of evolution — as late as the 19th century. If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won’t occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant. If you think, following the dictionary definition of essentialism, that the essence of rabbitness is “prior to” the existence of rabbits (whatever “prior to” might mean, and that’s a nonsense in itself), evolution is not an idea that will spring readily to your mind, and you may resist when somebody else suggests it.

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

How Does One Infer Ontology?

Debating the existence of god with theists almost always comes with one apparent caveat: The criteria that each of you use in inferring ontology is often different. Many theists and atheists simply use different methodologies when trying to make a case for the existence or non-existence of any particular deity, and they often disagree on what they consider "good evidence." This is why evidentialist apologists like William Lane Craig tend to be so popular. Evidentialism doesn't really assume any epistemological theories dramatically out of line with what most atheists already adhere to. In this sense, evidentialist apologists are trying to compete with the atheists on their own terms by not appealing to faith, revelation, or scriptural authority to make their arguments for god.[1] Almost all atheists are evidentialists in one way or another, whether or not they're familiar with the term. And while evidentialism may be defined as "a theory of justification according to which the justification of a conclusion depends solely on the evidence for it," what counts as evidence and how to properly infer it is still left open to debate. It is reasonable then, for both the atheist and the theist to explain their methodology for how they infer the ontology of their worldview.

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with existence. In its most simple definition, ontology is concerned with what there is, what exists, what is real, and what is actual, as opposed to what is merely conceptual or imaginary.[2] But what does it mean to exist? Don't I exist, and aren't I justified in believing that I do? If I didn't exist, then who or what would be having the thoughts that I'm having and the experience of writing this blog post right now? Conscious experience can't be an illusion, because the illusion of consciousness is consciousness. And my experience of the external world that I observe is justified by the fact that I experience it, as my experience itself cannot be an illusion.[3] But when dealing with the external world, one should be less confident of the certainty of its existence considering that we have evidence that the experiences derived from the senses are sourced from a feed of electro-chemical data going from our sense organs to our brain, and it is quite possible that this data can be compromised either in transit or when it's interpreted by the brain. We must always keep open the possibility, however remote, that the external world around us is not real, no matter how uncomfortable this notion may be. Most of us grant as our presuppositions that the external world we experience is for the most part real and that our senses are at least capable of discerning it. This is what philosophers call basic beliefs. These are the foundational assumptions that virtually all worldviews have to start with to even have a conversation about what exists apart from ourselves. Otherwise, one would have to adopt solipsism or radical skepticism, and both of these philosophies are non-starters for discerning what exists apart from ourselves. So without these presuppositions, it is very difficult to make any argument about what exists in the world based on evidence, as any attempt to do so will utterly depend on the presuppositions.

In terms of basic beliefs, I adhere to what I call epistemological economy. It is similar to the idea of ontological economy which the philosopher of religion Gregory W. Dawes describes is the view that "we should not posit new kinds of entities without sufficient reason," or more specifically, "we should not posit a hitherto unknown type of cause without sufficient reason."[4] In epistemological economy, we should strive for the fewest foundational assumptions possible and we should not posit new kinds of basic beliefs without sufficient reason. The reason why is because the more basic beliefs you assume, the closer you become to assuming your worldview as a presupposition. If, for example, you assume something like a special "sense" that can detect the existence of one particular god as a basic belief, like a sensus divinitatis, this will necessarily lead you to one particular god being true, and you could claim to be able to justify the ontology of this god on this basic belief alone. You will be on the path to assuming your conclusion from the start in a manner that either is, or comes dangerously close, to being unfalsifiable. This is little different from presuppostionalism. Assuming the fewest amount of basic beliefs prevents this.

With that out of the way, the question of how one infers ontology still remains. There is an array of possible tools we can use for how we decide we are going to best infer the existence of something. The possibilities include (but are not limited to) observation, empiricism, scientific theory and hypothesis, logic, subjective experience, testimony, and faith. How one infers ontology usually depends on the level of importance one places on the epistemologies above, and whether one omits some of them entirely.


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