28 December 2011

Where I part company with the Consequentialist•Atheists

Where I part company with people like Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is not so much with regard to their analysis of the logical fallacies of religious faith. I agree with them about that. They are right to cite Bertrand Russell’s famous reference to an orbiting teapot, and his having noted that even agnosticism with respect to the reality of an eternally orbiting China teapot is not really rational. And that the same applies to belief in the God of Abraham, the infallibility of the Bible or (closer to home for me) the miraculous powers of the Buddhas and the reality of rebirth and karma which somehow persists from lifetime to lifetime. These things are not rational, and belief in them cannot be sustained by rational argument nor proven empirically by scientific investigation.

And I am skeptical, myself, about almost all religious dogma, including that from the religion with which I have the most experience, which is the Middle Way Consequence School of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Madhyamika Prasangika). Where Buddhism teaches the methods of training the mind towards concentration, towards moral discipline, towards awareness, towards generation of love for all living beings-- I believe it is useful and good, in the sense that it helps to decrease the suffering of living beings and to increase their overall well being. But when it comes to whether one or another particular traditional story, or ritual practice, is in some literal sense true, or efficacious-- well, apart from the placebo effect of almost any kind of ritual practice, I’m not so sure.

But where I really part company with these modern day Consequentialist•Atheists, if I may call them that, borrowing the term from Harris (the terms used not together, but separately), is with regard to their assumptions about what is consciousness. Consciousness could be a sort of meta-state that arises from the computational functions of biological computers (brains), or of the entire organism. If so, in principle, if, as these thinkers do, you assume that there is nothing about living organisms, other than their origin through natural selection, that makes them different from artificial systems, it should be possible to model these functions and to create artificial consciousness, or even artificial systems which will serve as hosts for transferred biological consciousness (Presto! Immortality!)

But, and here, I cannot cite empirical evidence, but only intuitive belief, or, if you prefer, faith, I just do not believe this. I do not accept the idea that the inner experience of mind is merely the sum-over effect of computation of a biological computer. I cannot prove my thesis, but nonetheless believe it, probably as firmly as most Christians believe in God, or the resurrection: there is something non-mechanical, non-physical, even, about inner experience, about mind, that cannot be replicated. Whether it in some way, as Buddhists believe, is a continuum, that has always existed and can be neither created nor destroyed, I don’t know, but that it is not merely computation, I believe. No computer, no matter how well it may outwardly simulate the behavior of a mind, is a mind, or ever will be. No one’s conscious mind will ever be downloaded into a computer. No Artificial Intelligence will ever have the inner experience that even a cat or a baby has. Again, I can’t prove this, but I believe it. So, in this sense, I am not fully an atheist, and not fully a scientific rationalist.

So far, I have seen nothing to convince me otherwise, although I will admit that in this particular attitude I am not fully consistent, and am not strictly applying Occam’s Razor, because I suppose it could be argued that the hypothesis that mind is nothing more than a sort of sum-over of the electrochemical functions of brain and organism is simpler than my theory that it is… well, I don’t know. But I hold it nonetheless, and I believe that from it comes a whole host of consequences, some of which actually reinforce the Moral Landscape view of people like Sam Harris.

That this idea of inner experience is somehow connected with the fact that from apparent nothing, something, i.e., this universe and likely an infinity of others, arises, I also hold to be true, although, again, I cannot prove this or describe a rational argument for why it must be so. 

Eventually, everyone chooses what their world view will be. There are philosophical choices made in every system of thought, including scientific rationalism. For the most part, I share the worldview of the Atheists. I find the idea of a God who ransomed the supposed inherited sin of his creatures by torturing his only begotten son to death not only preposterous but offensive. I recognize the hideous harm that is committed in the name of belief in various religious doctrines. I am unclear that, in toto, religion creates more moral behavior, and less suffering, than would occur in its absence. Maybe it does, but there are a lot of counterexamples. But, irrespective or a sort of reckoning of whether holding certain irrational, or rather, not rationally justifiable, beliefs, is or is not beneficial, we all hold certain beliefs, and most of us believe at least some things that cannot be fully justified by rational philosophy or scientific outlook. And this view, that the inner experience of consciousness is in some way a product of the essential nature of reality itself, and cannot be replicated, created artificially, or even fully understood or described, is mine.  

Buddhism has a doctrine of emptiness, which is explicitly held to be beyond the ability of a rational mind to comprehend. The describable part of it seems almost ridiculous, and yet is literally true, from a physical point of view: the way that things appear to exist is not the way that they exist. No thing has fixed existence, inherent, or self-contained. The apparent existence of matter and energy is illusory. I am no doubt influenced by this concept, or phenomenon-system. Perhaps it's like Gödel's proof that no arithmetic system can be fully self-descriptive. Outside of rationality there is... something. And, to me, that something is the ground of existence, which is somehow implicit in, inextricable from, and intrinsic to, the inner experience of mind. 

Yet from rationality, I believe, can be derived a comprehensive, practical universal morality. And where religion fails to do this, fully, it is worse than useless. Religion, and even mysticism, the atheists argue, is unnecessary for morality, and in this they are right, I believe. But morality is absolutely necessary for the integrity of human experience, and for the full flowering of itself: we cannot be a truly moral race, until we recognize that it is irrational, and unacceptable, to cause suffering avoidably; to hold as ours what is needed for others to have well being; to take needlessly what others need. Of course, it isn't realistic for us to expect to fulfill these standards perfectly, but if we do not accept them, and strive for them; if we rationalize systematically ignoring them, we forego our claim to morality, regardless of any affiliation we may have for any religion or philosophy. 

Sam Harris on Youtube: Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?

This video by Atheist ethicist Sam Harris Who Says Science has Nothing to Say about Morality? is 1 h 17 min. long but well worth a view. You don't have to be an atheist to appreciate some of his points.

Morality and Science, some musings

After reading Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality, I ordered another book on cosmology by a guy who turns out to be a militant (but not nasty) atheist, name of Lawrence Krauss (physicist at ASU in Tempe). Haven't received it yet, it's forthcoming next month; title is A Universe from Nothing). Krauss rejects string theory, but not necessarily the multiverse; he also embraces the idea that from nothing can come nonzero canceling opposites, which are something (think of, for example, the net electric charge of the universe, which is zero; but there isn't no charge, there's just net zero charge).

Anyway, one thing leading to another, and via Youtube, I watched some Atheist discussions and what not and stumbled upon a book by Sam Harris, who wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, called The Moral Landscape. This is about the idea that human suffering can actually be measured through the miracles or modern neuroscience, and that, at least to a "Better than Nothing" approximation, it might be possible to scientifically evaluate morality, if you define what is moral as that which tends to minimize suffering (plural, not just in any one person; you could even include para-human intelligences such as chimps and dolphins, or even all sentient beings, at least in principle).

Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it is an answer to those who would claim that science is morally neutral: actually, it isn't. It is irrational to cause harm to the Earth, or to others, without some counterbalancing benefit, and if you accept the idea of society as having any value, as opposed to pure narcissism, the only rational goal is the old saw, the greatest good for the greatest number. That is a quantity, at least in principle, which can be determined, and used a measure of morality. Therefore, although the results scientific investigation can be used by immoral persons, their conduct is irrational, and not supported by scientific conclusions. In just the same way that mental techniques discovered by spiritual practitioners can be used by misguided persons to cause harm, but that does not mean that the spiritual practice is morally neutral, or worse, evil, just that it is capable of being subverted. The same for scientific knowledge and technique: if applied consistently, it is moral, but if subverted, it can be used by irrational persons to do harm.

After I get the book (ordered it used) and read it, I'll let you know what I think about all that.

It occurs to me that there may be value in this, irrespective of whether one chooses the reductionist viewpoint that is atheism.* A person can choose to hold beliefs, and still embrace the idea that science is not, or need not be, morally neutral, and that its methodologies can aid in determination of moral courses of action.

* I think this can be summed up thus: The evidence so far claimed for anything supernatural is unverifiable. The rational course in face of unverifiable evidence is to reject premises based on any assumption of the existence of the claimed phenomena (Occam's Razor). Therefore, the rational mind rejects the supernatural, which includes the existence of God, gods, fairies, ghosts, etc.
Whether this is too narrow a viewpoint, or there is a flaw in the logic, I leave for your own particular preferred interpretation. I think it's best not to argue religion with people, because religion and the questions it addresses are inherently emotional.

Obviously, there are some subtleties here. Why would one, for example, more or less categorically reject fairies and ghosts, but have a predisposition to accept extraterrestrial intelligence? I can think of several reasons, but I just throw that out there, except to say, the first category is not only unverifiable, but there is no reasonable chain of assumptions that lead to the conclusion that there is a plausible theoretical basis for the existence of these things, whereas, one actually would have to do a bit of special pleading to conclude that other intelligent beings do not exist somewhere other than Earth, notwithstanding the current state of evidence (i.e., none).

09 December 2011

Britain effectively pulled out of E.U.?

I claim no expertise in the intricacies of Euro politics, but it would seem from the refusal of Britain to join the rest of the E.U. in a treaty to impose uniform fiscal standards, that Britain has effectively removed itself from the E.U. for most practical purposes. Britain's justification, from what I understand, is essentially to preserve plutocracy: i.e., protect its banks and financial sector, the control of which is precisely why the treaty is needed in the first place, so, although not a member of the "Eurozone" anyway, it would appear that Britain has basically taken its toys and gone home.

I guess the question is whether or how long the E.U. as a Great Idea can survive without Britain as a real member.

08 December 2011

Brian Beutler: Dems gambling on being able to raise taxes on rich in Payroll Tax gambit

This piece is interesting. It seems to me that the Democrats are finally standing up for the Middle Class, and that if they do an even halfway decent job of framing and presenting their message, this will pay off and break the stranglehold of right wing economic doctrine on Congress after 2012... at long last. Let's hope and pray.

06 December 2011

Obama Speech: Cautiously Optimistic

Having now had a chance to read Obama's entire speech, I was impressed that he seems to be saying really a lot of the right things. This president has suffered from a lack of passion and energy, especially during the past two years, and I have been very critical of his having been too-ready and too-willing to cut deals with the Rightists, even before pushing hard for his own positions. But if this speech is an indicator of how he intends to campaign in 2012, I am, as Aung San Suu Kyi recently put it, "cautiously optimistic" about democracy in Burma..er, I mean, in America.

Obama's speech today: some right notes

I haven't had a chance to read or see the entire speech the president gave in Kansas today, but in referring to "make or break time for the middle class," noting that the gross inequality of income in America "distorts our democracy," and acknowledging that radical free market thinking just isn't going to work to bring broad prosperity back to our country, the president seems to be hitting the right notes.

05 December 2011

Obama DOJ, Supreme Court likely to shoot down 1st Amendment Rights yet again

The failure of the Obama Justice Department to stand up for the 1st Amendment in the Cheney Arrest Case (see this) is, unfortunately, all too typical of this Administration's terrible record on defending Constitutional rights and principles. I find this particularly disgraceful, in light of Obama's repeated promises to defend and protect the Constitution (as of course is one of his primary responsibilities as president). Of course, the reliable 5-4 majority for Rightist Authoritarian ideology over legal principle on the Court can pretty well be counted on to shoot down the exercise of free speech rights yet again.

It should be emblazoned on the front of the Justice Department, a new motto:

Where there is doubt, where the call may be close, we must err on the side of defending the rights of the people to redress grievances. 

The policy of the government, for a long time before this president, but unfortunately very much including this presidency, has been just the opposite. 

Occupy Electoral Politics: A historic opportunity (about to be missed?)

Having previously commented (here) on Republican hypocrisy in refusing to acknowledge that either allowing the payroll tax cut to lapse and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire are both tax increases, or neither is; you can't make any legitimate distinction, I wanted to comment on the wisdom of the payroll tax cut as a centerpiece of Democratic policy right now, and then comment much more broadly on the opportunity Democrats have to reshape the 2012 election. 

Look, I get it that there's very little that can be passed in this Congress, and that extending this reduction in regressive taxes, while making up the revenue with a tiny increase in taxes on the very richest is at least something, I find it meager and grotesquely inadequate that the best we are able to do as a society in the way of stimulating our moribund economy is a tax cut. Tax cuts are very weak stimulus, at best. As policy, this is pathetic.

George Lakoff has recently said that what the Democratic party needs to do is reach out to the Occupy Movement, not to co-opt it, but to (in essence) offer it the opportunity to shape and re-form the party in its image. I agree with this. The only way to counter the power of money in politics is to directly provide in kind what money buys: which is, in large measure, people, organization, and direct action. The "Tea Party" and its Fundamentalist Christianist allies managed to virtually take over the Republican party. Now it's time for "Occupy" to occupy electoral politics. If the Democratic party, led by the president, were to put forward a plan to actually put into effect the program of the occupiers: a financial transaction tax, prosecution of Wall Street criminals, strong re-regulation of the financial industry, reformation of trade policy to restore the production economy of America, major investment in infrastructure and renewable energy development, reform political rules including public financing of elections, end gerrymandering, investment in public works jobs to get us through the financial downturn years still ahead, etc. etc. .... AND were to reach out to the very people who've been occupying the streets and say, we want to get the things done that you have been asking for, so join us, give us not your money but your bodies, your energy, your direct action.... We could a) take the special interest corruption and double dealing out of the Democratic party; and b) sweep to victory on a tide of enthusiasm and commitment not seen since the 1960s.

Polyanna? I say no. It just takes a bit of epic leadership, of which, unfortunately, I see no sign. But no one can convince me that what I just outlined above isn't perfectly possible, even this late in the game. I fear there's little chance it will happen, but the Democratic leaders, and President Obama in particular, will have no one but themselves to blame if next year goes badly for Democrats, because the opportunity for truly historic change is there.

If it's a tax hike here, it's a tax hike there

It goes without saying that Republicans and their Ministry of Truth aka Fox News care nothing about intellectual integrity or consistency, but you gotta call 'em on this: they're now claiming that allowing the payroll tax cut to lapse "isn't a tax increase" but allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire is. Even the spineless Congressional Democrats and the president have gotta have enough gumption to say, Look, you just can't have it both ways.