Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why Trump Won


It was the unthinkable. His candidacy was the butt of many jokes. No one took him seriously at first except for a handful of people. And then his popularity soared to number one, and he began winning primary after primary, but they said he would never win the nomination. And then he won the Republican nomination. And then they said he would never win the presidency.

And now he has just won that.


The critics had been wrong over and over again this election. Including me of course, but I was just going by the projections, and they failed miserably. This is a year when the things that they said couldn't happen, happened. And so early next year we will have President Trump in the White House. It doesn't sound right. It is only now, a full day after he won, just starting to sink in.

So now what? First, how did this happen? In short, the Democratic establishment pushed a corporate friendly centrist who took large amounts of money from banks, who praised free trade like NAFTA and the TPP, and who chose another corporate friendly centrist who loved the TPP as her running mate. Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine were the epitomes of the establishment wing in the Democratic Party who lost touch with working class voters. And so in those critical rust belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Donald Trump's promises to renegotiate NAFTA, pull out of the TPP negotiations, close the border and bring manufacturing jobs back into the US appealed to voters in a way that Hillary Clinton couldn't. And so working class white voters — hundreds of thousands of them who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, took a gamble and voted for Trump this time. And that was enough for him to carry those states. That defeated Hillary.

That's the main reason why Hillary lost. The Democrats became too detached with working class voters, particularly white ones, while Trump appealed to them with his promises. This is why I think Bernie Sanders should have been the Democratic nominee. He appealed to white working class voters more than Clinton and he would have likely won those four critical battle ground states in the general election.

Second, I don't know what this means for secular liberal atheists like myself. Certainly it means we're going to have challenges that we wouldn't have had under Clinton. Mike Pence is a super religious conservative who seems hell bent to push through his conservative religious ideology into law. And with Republicans controlling the House and the Senate, and with Trump appointing at least one conservative Supreme Court Justice, things will be tough. I also fear the death of intellectualism in politics, where having a detailed understanding of policy gives way to cult of personality and simple minded catch phrases, and that this becomes the winning formula from now on. That scares me deeply.

We will have to see what happens. Get ready for the greatest reality show on earth.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Election 2016 - Who I'm Voting For & My Election Prediction


This Tuesday is election day and I find myself for the first time in a troubled situation. There is no one on the ballot that I really support. Unlike in 2008 and 2012 where I was a pretty strong Obama supporter, this year there isn't anyone I'm enthusiastic about.

Obviously this election is different than most years because of Donald Trump. It's the first time we have a major party candidate who has no political experience I think since George Washington. He's rambunctious, foul-mouthed, unconventional, and a little crazy — to say the least. Trump becoming president is terrifying on so many levels. He lies through his teeth so blatantly and with such utter disregard for truth that he's taken the concept of the "lying politician" to a new level. Indeed, his brain seems to be impervious to facts. He's proposing filling the Supreme Court with Scalia clones, which if another justice dies in the next four years will tip the court conservative enough to reverse Roe v Wage and Obergefell v. Hodges, effectively turning abortion and same-sex marriage back to the states. Trump has no serious knowledge of the way government works, or the world, and he as all but the most simplistic understanding of the political issues our next president is going to have to deal with. He's a wild card, unpredictable, capable of undermining our democracy and stability, and his VP pick Mike Pence is one of the most conservative members of the Religious Right in the nation.

If Trump is going to win he has a narrow margin in the electoral college. Here's a possible winning scenario for him. Trump would have to win Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan. If not Michigan, he'd have to win Pennsylvania. He also has to win Iowa. Or if he loses Iowa, he has to win New Hampshire and all the typically Republican states. Hillary Clinton just has to win just two of those states and Trump's done. The electoral college heavily favors democrats.


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Maajid Nawaz Makes The Case For A Secular Islam



Across the secular web there has been an uproar over the Southern Poverty Law Center's recent decision to add Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to their list of "Anti-Muslim Extremists." Now I've followed both of them for years and read their work, listened to their speeches and lectures, and I know for a fact that neither of them are anti-Muslim extremists. 

Maajid in particular is a true Muslim reformer who wants to modernize Islam for the 21st century. He's an ardent secularist who wants a brand of Islam that is compatible with secular democracy and modern liberal values like gender equality, freedom of speech, equal rights for gay people — all the things left-leaning organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center should be for, not against.

But because Maajid is occasionally critical of Islam, Islamic history, and what Muslims have done in the name of Islam (and in many cases still do today), he's been branded by some on the left as anti-Muslim, despite being a Muslim himself. And so they've written critical pieces against him in left-wing syndications that exaggerate or outright lie about his deeds and intentions, and the SPLC picked up on that and branded him an anti-Muslim extremist without clear justification.

Regressive leftists like CJ Werleman have called Maajid a "House Muslim" because he's willing to take the "extreme" position that there is a link between Islamic beliefs and terrorism and because he challenges Islamists and engages with atheists. Instead, "true Muslims" according to regressives must be the kind that deny theology can have any influence whatsoever on anyone's actions — unless they're good of course. And "true Muslims" must be the kind that blame Western foreign policy for all the problems in the Islamic world and who deny groups like ISIS have anything to do with Islam.

So watch the video above. Tell me this isn't the work of a true Muslim reformer who's trying to find the difficult path on getting Islam updated for the 21st century — which all liberals should realize is desperately needed. The SPLC made a bad decision, and there is a petition on change.org to get both Maajid and Ayaan removed. I urge all of you to sign it and share it on Facebook.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Why Brute Facts Are Unavoidable


If you're a naturalist like myself you have most likely come to the conclusion that the existence of the universe (or multiverse, if there's more than one universe) is a brute fact. A brute fact is a fact that has no explanation in principle. It's a fact that cannot have an explanation. There are many facts that do not have explanations, but can in principle. These are not technically brute facts, but are just unexplained facts. They can be explained, at least in principle, and many of them will be explained eventually. There is another category of unexplained facts that can be explained in principle, but not in practice. For example, a fact for which all the evidence proving it is destroyed might leave us no possible way to explain it, even though it would be in principle explainable if we just had access to the evidence. These are what you can call epistemic brute facts.

So we have three categories of facts here defined as such: (1) a brute fact: a fact that has no explanation in principle, (2) an epistemic brute fact: a fact that cannot be explained in practice but can in principle, and (3) an unexplained fact: a fact that can be explained both in principle and in practice but simply isn't. In addition to this there are three positions one can take on brute facts: (1) brute facts are impossible, (2) brute facts are possible but they don't exist, or (3) brute facts exist.

Now many theists argue that not only do brute facts not exist, they are in fact impossible. That is, they entail some sort of contradiction that prevents their existence. Many theists will also often try to argue that their worldview has no brute facts, and not only that, they can logically explain their worldview in terms of necessity. This is usually done by some sort of argument that attempts to conclude their god's necessary existence, along with the tacit assumption of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), which says that for every fact, there is a reason for its existence. Needless to say, the PSR and brute facts are not compatible.

What is an explanation is also important. An explanation is generally defined as a statement or account that makes something clear. It makes something understandable, intelligible. For example, the explanation of the existence of the human species is that we evolved over millions of years from another species of hominids. Explanations tell us the how and why a thing came to be, or exists at all. It is to me an open question whether or not all explanations are causal explanations. In other words, when we say X explains Y, are we always just saying X causes Y? Now I have written that causality exists differently from how it is commonly understood, but on my definition things are still explained in the traditional cause and effect notion. You just have to understand these relationships a bit different.

In this post I'm going to challenge several often heard claims about brute facts. One, that brute facts are logically impossible, and two, that believing in a god allows you avoid brute facts, by arguing that not only are brute facts possible, they are indeed unavoidable.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Are Cause And Effect Real? Minute Physics Video



Over on the Minute Physics YouTube channel they recently did a series of videos narrated by physicist Sean Carroll based on his latest book The Big Picture that covers such interesting topics as What is the Purpose of Life? (hint: it has nothing to do with a god) In one video they cover cause and effect and Carroll describes how it's an emergent phenomena when looking at the universe at macro scales. That means it isn't really fundamental, as I've covered here before. Go check out the video series and enjoy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What Can We Do About All The Misinformation Online?


Photo from @BlairReeves

A disturbing trend is developing. More and more people are getting misinformation on the internet by hyperpartisan news agencies that are shared on social media sites. Many of these sites peddle out baseless conspiracy theories mixed with half-truths or claims that are in some cases outright lies. They're basically click bait, geared towards appealing to emotion and confirmation biases rather than objective journalism based on facts and honest reporting.

And people gobble them right up. As BuzzFeed recently reported, "the least accurate pages generated some of the highest numbers of shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook — far more than the three large mainstream political news pages analyzed for comparison." I deal with Right wing conspiracy theories in debates online all the time and I can't tell you how annoying it is. The Left is not immune to this either. Far from making us smarter and more knowledgeable, the internet seems to be having the exact opposite effect: it's making us less informed, more biased, and more partisan. Facts don't matter anymore. Any piece of data that doesn't confirm your already existing beliefs or that doesn't make you comfortable is just tossed aside in favor of one that does. And because sites like Facebook use algorithms that feed you what you've already liked, you're less and less likely to even see anything that you might disagree with.

So what, if anything, can we do about this? Well, I actually don't know, but I can offer two possible answers.

First, we can help flood the internet with well researched, fact based information that can debunk the lies that are out there. This should ideally be done by a non-partisan organization dedicated to honest, fact-based research that's not associated with any high profile or partisan people, because if they are, they're more likely to be dismissed outright. In psychology, the framing effect is a cognitive bias whereby people tend to immediately dismiss something if it's associated with a person or thing they do not like. I once linked someone I was having an online debate with to an article about Donald Trump being put on an allowance after one of his well known bankruptcies and he dismissed it outright because it was from Mother Jones. We need to take that into account when we debunk lies on the internet. Some people will go so far as to not trust anything that comes out of any mainstream media source, and will trust the "alternative news" sites instead, even though most of the time they're garbage.

Second, we can pro-actively mingle with people who share different views from us. Have friends that disagree with you on politics, religion, economics, and social issues. Don't retreat into the echo chamber where everyone thinks just like you. It's only going to reinforce your own biases (and we all have them). There are many people for whom I'm their token liberal friend, or I'm their token atheist friend. Put me in a room with 5 people who disagree with me on politics and religion and I'm happy. Hopefully, by becoming exposed to other people's views our bubbles will burst, and we'll be more likely to consider other views, or at least understand opposing views better, and that could result in us better understanding the issues. When people found out that one of their friends or relatives was gay, it tended to make people more understanding of homosexuality. Having friends of other political views might have the same effect.

Now this all might be a pipe dream, but at least it's something. We have to find solutions to this problem.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 5 Decent of the Modernists - Part 2: Inventing the mind-body problem)


iconInventing the mind-body problem

In this section of chapter 5 Feser begins by targeting the philosopher who seems to be his public enemy number one: Rene Descartes. It was he who rejected the Aristotelian account in favor of the "mechanistic philosophy" that we still know of today that rejects formal and final causes. But doing this inevitably results in an apparent "disaster": the complete undermining of the possibility both of moral evaluation and of reason itself. (186) Before getting there, Feser here summarizes the mechanistic view of the world for the most part accurately and notes the differences between primary and secondary qualities.

Primary qualities include solidity, extension, figure, motion, number and the like, and in particular any quality that can be mathematically quantified and which does not vary in any way from observer to observer. Secondary qualities include colors, sounds, tastes, odors, and so forth, and an object's having them amounts to nothing more than a tendency to cause us to have certain sensations. (189)

I would add that things like solidity wouldn't technically be a primary quality since solidity is nowhere to be found fundamentally, but is an emergent property of matter at higher levels. But this is not really relevant here. What is relevant is whether the secondary qualities exist in the objective world or they exist only in the mind of observers. On the "mechanistic" view the answer is no, Feser explains, and so a soul must exist that is separate from the physical body that interacts with it like a "ghost in the machine." But without this, the materialist seems to have a problem. How does the materialist explain qualia, the conscious experiences that determines what it's like to have it? A few examples would be in the experience of seeing red versus seeing green, of tasting coffee versus tasting cheese, or of feeling warm versus feeling cold. They're all different sensations, and yet "one cluster of neurons firing seems qualitatively pretty much like any other, and certainly very different from these sensations [such that] it is hard to see how any sensation could be reduced to or explained in terms of nothing but the firing of neurons." (191)

Yes it is hard, but not impossible. Here we still have the genuine mystery of qualia. Since the human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe, it's going to take a bit longer to unravel its mysteries than many other things. One underlying assumption in Feser's above understanding is that the neurons in the brain fire the same way when you see the color red versus seeing the color green. But why should we think that's true? Different neurons fire when we see different wavelengths of light.

Cells in the retina called "opponent neurons" fire when stimulated by incoming red light, and this flurry of activity tells the brain we're looking at something red. Those same opponent neurons are inhibited by green light, and the absence of activity tells the brain we're seeing green. Similarly, yellow light excites another set of opponent neurons, but blue light damps them. While most colors induce a mixture of effects in both sets of neurons, which our brains can decode to identify the component parts, red light exactly cancels the effect of green light (and yellow exactly cancels blue), so we can never perceive those colors coming from the same place.

So different physical processes are at work when we see different colors. The experience of seeing red is just another way of talking about the physical brain undergoing the electrochemical signals travelling through it when the retina received the wavelength of red and certain neurons fire. It's similar to talking about an object as solid even though fundamentally it's just made up of empty space and quantum fields. We still don't know exactly how the physical brain gives rise to qualia but I have no reason to think there is anything non-physical involved that is causal.* I'm open to the mind possibly having a non-physical ontology that is epiphenomenal in nature, meaning, it's an emergent property of physical brains that's causally impotent. But any notion of an immaterial mind having a physical force on matter (like the kind Feser claims, see my review of chapter 4) is unambiguously ruled out by science. Not only do we fully understand all the laws of physics that govern the everyday realm which includes the brain (and therefore anything having to deal with consciousness) and which leaves no room for a mind force to causally effect atoms, but all of neuroscience has repeatedly shown unconscious brain activity precedes conscious awareness, exactly what we'd expect on materialism.**

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