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Archive for February, 2010

What the Public Option’s Failure Reveals

February 28th, 2010 No comments

I’m as sick of writing about health care as you probably are of reading and hearing about it, but with the recent near-resurrection and subsequent re-death of the public option I can’t resist pointing out what most of the media seems to have glossed over—that the Democratic party has now been completely exposed for the pathetic bought-and-paid-for subsidiary of Corporate America that it is.

Poll after poll conducted in state after state shows that the public health insurance option which would provide people with an alternative to for-profit insurance remains extremely popular. When asked if they support the current health care bill, only about 30% answer yes. But when asked if they support a government-run public health care option, about 60% say yes. So the American people are clearly in favor of a public option and would rather have a bill with it than without it.

How about the president? Well, he obviously wanted to bargain it away from the very beginning, but he has consistently supported the idea in his statements. So at least in theory, he supports it.

How about Congress? Well, the House of Representatives actually passed a health care bill with a public option, so that’s one chamber. What about the Senate? If you’ll recall, it was Joe Lieberman and one or two other senators who demanded the public option be removed or else they’d filibuster with the republicans and deny the Democrats the 60 votes necessary to overcome the filibuster. So presumably you have about 57 Democrats who would support the public option, but only couldn’t get it because they were aiming for 60 votes. But with Scott Brown’s election 60 votes became impossible so now they’re going to do this through reconciliation, in which case you only need 51 votes.

Okay then. The American people, the president of the United States, and majorities in both houses of Congress want the public option.

SO WHY THE FUCK AREN’T WE GETTING A PUBLIC OPTION?????????????

Seriously, this is such unbelievable bullshit, such plain and naked balls-out duplicity, I can’t believe progressives aren’t up in arms! I guess they exhausted all their energy last year defending themselves against the Tea Parties and their Death Panel bullshit.

But is it not completely obvious what’s happened here? Supposedly a majority of senators would have voted for the public option, but they needed a supermajority. Now we just need a majority, and somehow we don’t even have that?

Joe Lieberman was obviously doing a lot of his fellow senators a big favor by being the one to take the political heat for killing the public option. The public option was Enemy #1 for the private health insurance industry, and the private health insurance industry not only owns every single Republican but also most Democrats as well. Democrats, unlike Republicans, have to pay a lot more lip service to progressive causes and policies that might benefit the working-class at the expense of the big corporations, but at the end of the day their loyalty is to the corporations. They want to be able to say they support the public option, but they won’t let it pass because their insurance industry financiers can’t abide that. So they let Lieberman, Nelson, and the Blue Dogs take the fall. They can have their public option cake and eat it too. Their constituents are happy that they “tried”. Their corporate financiers are happy that they “failed”.

People, the need for a sweeping revolution has never been clearer. Two years ago we stood up and got behind the presidential candidate who seemed to be our best hope for delivering the change we need so badly—a change whereby the balance of power would be shifted back from the wealthy elite to the average citizen. That president has proven to be at worst a total sell-out, and at best an ineffectual lame duck. Unless he suddenly changes course and decides to follow through on the change he promised, it’s up to the people to do this ourselves.

It’s time for average people to start running for office. I’d fucking do it myself if I had any people skills and if I weren’t so loose with my tongue (not to mention a half a dozen other things in my closet that would destroy me). But we really need people from outside the system to get in there and replace the shills who now dominate both parties.

If an extremely popular policy that supposedly has the support of the president and majorities in congress can’t pass because the health insurance industry won’t let it, we’ve already lost our country. The system isn’t just broken—it’s infected with a deadly disease, gasping for its last breaths. The only way to rid ourselves of this disease of corporate influence is to tear everything down and start again or purge the system of the infection by replacing every bought-and-paid for representative with a political outsider vowing to take no money from corporate interests whatsoever.

It has to be time to change the old paradigm where money buys votes. Don’t believe a single thing you see in a campaign commercial. This is all corporate-funded propaganda. Ignore it, and ignore all candidates who take that blood money. The current level of anger in this country might just be enough to overcome the typical electoral status quo whereby the candidate with the most money wins. Pay attention to where the candidate gets his money, and vote according to that.

You’ll know much more about a candidate by how he funds his campaign than anything he actually says. By refusing to pass the public option even though they could if they wanted to, Barack Obama and at least half the senate democrats have proven that.

Slavery is Freedom

February 27th, 2010 No comments

I’d like to return to the topic of Nature, Nurture, and Free Will that I wrote about two weeks ago to say a few more things about Free Will and personal responsibility.

In trying to determine the extent to which we can no longer blame our genes or our upbringing on the kind of people we turn out to be, I argued that a large part of our identity is due to the choices we make as free agents. You may have had a rough childhood or been cursed with genes that predispose you towards aggression, I wrote, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility for making the choices you’ve made in life. You may be predisposed to act violently, but because you have the power to resist your inclinations, you are ultimately responsible for any violent acts you commit.

There are two possible objections to this reasoning, both of which say something interesting about the nature of responsibility. The first objection is metaphysical determinism. One could argue that everything that happens in the universe has been predetermined from the very beginning, either in God’s master plan or due to the inviolability of the laws of nature. If everything operates according to physical laws, then every combination of atoms and molecules, every formation of every star system, every genetic mutation in living organisms, and every firing of every neuron within a human brain happens exactly the way it has to happen and had to happen in a universe with these laws and properties.

If this is the case, then no one is responsible for anything. A rapist could not have possibly prevented himself from committing this crime because it was foredoomed from the beginning of time. That he would be born couldn’t have been avoided. That he would develop violent inclinations and the desire to act on them could not have been avoided either. And finally, even though he made what appears to be a conscious decision to commit rape, this was the result of neurons firing just as they had to have fired due to every previous firing of every neuron since his brain’s formation.

There is no fool-proof metaphysical argument against this kind of absolute determinism, but practically speaking, there need not be. Whether or not our actions have been predetermined since the beginning of time, it’s quite clear that the only way a society can function is to condemn and punish bad behavior. Whether or not the rapist had any control over his actions on the deepest metaphysical level, he must be punished if only to prevent him from having the chance again, and to serve as an example to others who might be inclined to commit rape—to cause their neurons to perhaps fire differently than they otherwise would have. In any case, rape ought to be condemned because of the suffering it causes, and the rapist condemned for his decision to rape, whether or not the decision was predetermined.

The second objection is far more relevant politically speaking—that Free Will is relative, and therefore so is personal responsibility. For instance, a mentally handicapped person is far less responsible for his actions than a person in full control of one’s mental faculties, just as a child is far less responsible for her choices than a fully grown adult with years of experience upon which to base her decisions.

Free Will is never absolute in any case. It is always limited by one’s physical or mental limitations, and beyond that it is limited by the laws of nature. Just because I have Free Will doesn’t mean I can choose to fly. We may be free to make a great deal of decisions but there are always an infinite number of decisions we are not free to make, such as teleporting across the universe or living forever.

But far more important than the physical limitations to Free Will are the political limitations, as these limitations are actually subject to change. One can not legitimately deny that the President of the United States has far more lee-way in which to exercise his Free Will than a woman in Afghanistan. Both are capable of making positive changes in that country—the president by providing money for education and infrastructure, the woman by rising up against the forces of oppression within her patriarchal society. But the woman has about a million obstacles in her way, and is likely to be harmed or killed for even trying. The president has only a few procedural obstacles to overcome in order to provide funding which would change the lives of millions. Clearly, the president has far more responsibility over what happens in Afghanistan than any average Afghan citizen, especially women.

The same goes for rich and poor within our own country. A person born to wealthy parents has far more room to exercise Free Will than a person born to low-income parents. The wealthy are free to go anywhere in the world, to meet nearly anyone they want, to pay for a platform with which to express their ideas and opinions to a wide audience, and to really make a major impact on the world they live in. The poor can’t travel the world because they have to stay in one place and work for a living, they can’t meet anyone they want because they are too ordinary to matter to anyone of importance, and the best they can do to express their ideas and opinions is start a blog and hope people will read it. The potential impact they can have on the world is very small. Their Free Will can only be exercised during the few small portions of the week in which they are not working, eating, sleeping, or doing any of the hundreds of trivial things they have to do just to survive.

At the heart of conservative ideology lies the principle of personal responsibility, which I obviously believe is extremely important. Where my opinion diverges from that of most conservatives is my insistence that personal responsibility is directly proportional to Free Will, and that the wealthy are far more responsible for the state of affairs in the world than the poor.

Conservatives can rightly argue that this kind of political Free Will is available to everybody who chooses to pursue it. The poor may not start off with much Free Will but they are capable of figuring out a way to turn their lives around, earn lots of money and all the power and Free Will that comes along with it.

Contrary to the typical conservative, I believe that one of the responsibilities of the currently powerful is to make it easier for the powerless to become powerful. You can’t justify your stranglehold on political power by saying others can have political power too if you are doing everything you can to prevent others from having any. The master can’t just say, “Well if my slaves want to be free they can just free themselves” while at the same time making it impossible for them to do so.

The current forces of power in the world are constantly funneling the wealth from the lower and middle classes to the already wealthy, usurping and consolidating all of the power that comes with that wealth. Soon enough, the gap between wealthy and poor, powerful and powerless, will become so great that it will be virtually impossible for one born to powerlessness to rise to power. The political freedom of most of humanity will be completely wiped away, and our world will be one of masters and slaves. For the slaves, Free Will will mean little more than the ability to decide what food to eat, which clothes to wear, and other trivial choices of daily life. The political power-structure of the world and the fate of humanity will be completely out of their hands.

But what threatens us most is not the desire of the already powerful to solidify their hold on power, but the lack of resistance on the part of powerless as they do so. This lack of resistance is a result of many factors, but underlying all of them I believe is a subconscious desire for slavery. Without Free Will, there is no personal responsibility. If one can not change the world no matter how hard one tries, then one no longer has the burden of trying to change the world.

So perhaps one day very soon we can all feel justified in doing nothing to stand up against the powerful because that fight will be hopeless and doomed to failure. If we find ourselves in some kind of dystopia resembling that of 1984 or Brave New World, a system of control so perfect that it cannot be destroyed, we can all rest easy and resign ourselves to our fate. Chant with the others as we extol the virtues of the Big Brother who oppresses us. Take comfort in the fact that we no longer have a reason to think about anything, so let the television do our thinking for us. And if we ever do find ourselves depressed about the predetermined nature of our lives, just pop a soma pill and vegetate for awhile, appreciating the peaceful bliss of ignorance and acquiescence to forces beyond our control.

But we’re not quite there yet. As long as we are still capable of standing up to the powers-that-be, we are responsible for not doing so. Future generations may not have any Free Will or personal responsibility, but we do, and we’re wasting it. I’m certainly wasting mine by blogging about this instead of actually doing something about it. My only excuse is that my Free Will is limited by my lack of talent, and it requires many talents to be able to gain and use political power. My only talent is a moderate ability to write clearly, so that’s what I do. As for finding real solutions for the real problems the world is facing today, I leave that to those with more practical minds and better social skills. I accept my share of the responsibility for what this world becomes, but my only defense is that there are people far more capable of making big changes, and that those people are therefore far more responsible than I am.

Still Nothing Noteworthy

February 25th, 2010 No comments

It’s been awhile since I wrote a personal entry, mostly because there’s nothing going on, but because of a cancelled class today I have a couple of hours to kill so I might as well just write about what little has happened over the last couple of weeks.

The most personally significant thing remains my lessons with Tabea, which I recounted in two private entries last week [e-mail me if you’d like access to private entries] and which is still on my mind to some degree. On Sunday, when I went to Planeo to print out my stuff, Penni was there with the same idea. Apparently she goes in on Sundays to print things out as well, but usually later in the day so I don’t see her. I had to wait while she finished using the printer, which added about an extra hour and a half to the task, but when she was finished she struck up a conversation with me about this and that—classes, students, taxes, etc.—and she also mentioned that she’d left some materials in my mailbox last week when I had to substitute one of her classes. She saw I hadn’t used them, and also informed me that Tabea had left a present for me. I wouldn’t have even checked my mailbox otherwise, so I decided it was lucky for me she’d been there. Tabea had left a little packet of chocolates with a paper American flag tied to it and a little note in adorably poor English thanking me for letting her visit my lessons. Naturally, this made me all warm and fuzzy and now I’ve got this packet of chocolates from dear sweet Tabea sitting in my apartment to remind me of her whenever I look at it. I don’t think I’ll ever actually eat the damn things. I suppose I’ll just keep it around until I can no longer look at it without feeling ridiculous that I still have it around. Hopefully that’ll be soon. But all in all, I’m still glad I had that encounter as it really helped me clear things up as to where I stand on that front, even though the conclusions I came to were significantly depressing and I remain depressed by them.

Anyway, that aside, I’ve just been slacking all winter and barely having any social interaction at all outside of internet communication. I did go to Celle last Tuesday to visit Oliver, and that was nice. We cooked some dinner and watched some entertainment I brought with my laptop. Nothing remarkable, but quite pleasant. And this week I called Amanda to ask if she wanted to hang out sometime this week, and it looks like we’ll probably be going out for a couple of drinks tonight, possibly with Tom or another friend of hers that she might want to invite.

As for the two ongoing situations in my life—online dating and Japan—nothing has been happening with either thing yet, though I’m beginning to get serious about Japan and will hopefully really get to work on it this weekend. Corey and Loren are both out in Santa Barbara right now, and I suggested they help me pick a city to live in and when I go out there I can help them move there too, as they would both love to live in Japan as well. It would be great to have some friends there, as I know absolutely no one in Japan except for a girl Yuki I worked with at the Doubletree but who hasn’t returned either of my Facebook messages and I don’t think I can count on her help at all as much as I’d love to see her again. But right now the future is wide open. I will almost definitely move to Japan this year, and it’s a real possibility that Corey and Loren will come too and join me in the next chapter of my life. But that all depends on them.

Finally, the online dating this is a huge waste of money. It’s been well over a month now and absolutely nothing has come of it. I knew German girls were supposed to be difficult, but even the ones desperate enough to go online to look for a relationship don’t seem to be interested in me. All their profiles say they speak English, but apparently none of them want to. That’s always been a major problem with regard to German girls. Yes, they all learn English in school but very few of them get any good at it, and even those who do aren’t confident enough to want an English-speaking boyfriend…at least not one as unattractive as me. So I’ve pretty much given up, although I paid for three months of membership so I’ll still occasionally take a look at a profile but I haven’t sent anyone a message in over a week. Now that I’ve all but given up, I’ve raised my standards quite significantly and I’m no longer even bothering with the semi-decent-looking girls. They all ignore me anyway, so what’s the point?

That’s pretty much everything. As you can see, none of it was worth writing about.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Theism vs. Christian Theism

February 24th, 2010 No comments

I watched another God debate the other night, this one between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. As with the Hitchens/Craig debate, both sides made a strong case, but reason was clearly on the side of the atheist. The theist has the much harder time in any rational debate, but Lennox held up extremely well, particularly when dealing with abstracts such as the origin of the universe. His arguments were enough to reaffirm my belief that something might exist which we could justifiably call “God”. However, he also made the standard historical arguments for the truth of Christianity, and this is where I believe most theists go wrong.

Dawkins said it well in his closing remarks:

All that stuff about science and physics and the complications of physics and things…what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There’s a fundamental incompatibility between the sort of sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a kind of deistic God perhaps, some God like the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe—that’s all very grand and wonderful. And then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earthbound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.

I’d like to expand on this criticism because I believe it goes to the heart of the divide today between those who believe in God and those who call themselves atheists. Most atheists are only atheists in respect to specific gods. As Dawkins points out, we’re all atheists with respect to Zeus or Ra or any of the ancient gods. All Christians are atheists with respect to the Hindu gods, just as all Hindus, Buddhists and so forth are atheists with respect to Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. But one can reject every single one of humanity’s religions and still be a theist.

People often cite scientists such as Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking who spoke of understanding the universe in terms of ‘seeing the mind of God’ to make the false claim that they are religious men. In fact, neither of them were religious at all, and if they did believe in God it was in a vastly different sense than a typical Christian, Jew, or Muslim believes. Their God is either a deistic God—a God who created the universe from the outside and then let it exist without further interference—or a pantheistic God, who is not just the creator of the universe but is the universe itself. Pantheism is the belief that God is everything, that God is basically synonymous with nature. Just as deism is a far more rational belief than religious theism, pantheism is more rational than deism, and is currently the most logically defensible kind of theism one can subscribe to.

The essential argument that Dawkins makes in The God Delusion, the focus of this particular debate, is that God may not be impossible but its existence is highly improbable. All complex things, says Dawkins, arise from less complex forms. Any being capable of creating a universe and knowing exactly which constants would be necessary to lead to intelligent life—the supposed purpose of the universe—would have to be more complex than the universe itself. But how could such a complex being arise out of nothing? Wouldn’t it have had to arise from less complex forms?

Lennox blasts this central thesis of Dawkins as the old schoolyard argument: “If God created the universe, then who created God?” The answer is as simple as it is profound: “Nobody created God. God always existed.”

Dawkins dismisses this as a cheap cop-out. Of course you can just say that something always existed, just as you can say something is true because it’s true. It’s a tautology, a truism—it doesn’t really say anything at all. But is this fair?

Certainly when dealing with your average phenomenon it’s ridiculous to insist that it exists because it exists or that it has to exist because it couldn’t not exist. For instance, one could try to make the argument that electrons exist because their existence is necessary and their non-existence is impossible, but that would be false. Of course there can be a universe in which electrons don’t exist. We still have the scientific challenge of determining why electrons exist in this universe. This applies to everything with one important exception: the universe itself. And for the pantheist, that means God.

I’ve long since learned not to trust a priori judgments as a sufficient basis for fundamental metaphysical beliefs, so I’m no longer as sure as I was when I first wrote this many years ago, but the existence of the universe (or rather, a universe) seems to be a logical necessity. Something must exist because non-existence can not exist. The very essence of non-existence is to not exist. There must be something rather than nothing because there can not be nothing.

So I don’t dismiss Lennox’s claim that God always existed, as I find it completely reasonable to assume that there must be something which always existed, which had no beginning and will have no end, and from which our universe arose. I do not, however, believe that this universe is the only one and that it must have been designed by this necessarily-existing being with a specific purpose—the arising of intelligent life—in mind. As I wrote in my last entry on God, there could be an infinite number of universes each with different cosmological constants, and at least one—ours—in which the conditions for the formation of stars, planets, and life just happened to be met perfectly.

There is no contradiction between the multiverse hypothesis and pantheism. When you bring the multiverse idea into it, you simply go from saying “God is the universe” to “God is all universes”.

So here we are with a perfectly rational, defensible argument for a kind of theism—a way of believing in God without any scientific or logical contradictions. The only problem is that for most theists, the pantheistic God is simply not enough. God can’t just be everything. They want God to be a specific thing. A person. A person who cares about you and everything you think, say, and do. A person who brings justice to the world by rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. A person who loves you enough to give you the opportunity to ‘live forever’—to maintain your current human ego for all eternity.

And so we go from the lofty, awesome heights of the fundamental nature of Existence and the origins of the universe, fast forward about twelve billion years and zero in on one tiny speck of dust and one little patch of sand on that speck where supposedly, just two thousand years ago, the eternally existing being from which this and all universes sprang somehow confined itself within one biological organism called Jesus, walked around for a few years performing cheap miracles such as turning water into wine and casting out demons, then had himself crucified so that he could rise from the dead and promise every other biological organism on the planet (with intelligence) that this gave them an opportunity to exist eternally as well.

Sorry, but I’m having a hard time making that leap, Dr. Lennox. You and every other Christian theist commit the same indefensible logical leap from the existence of God to the truth of Scripture. The Bible was written over hundreds of years by hundreds of different people with different ideas about the nature of the world and about morality. It’s as flawed a historical document as you can find, wrought with contradiction after contradiction and littered with stories of the most base and immoral activities one can imagine, sometimes condemned by God but often endorsed or even ordered by Him. I need not waste any time pointing out what a bloodthirsty maniacal tyrant of a character Yahweh is, nor how outrageous and outlandish some of the claims made by Jesus are. Both of these figures are mere characters in a work of fiction. Perhaps Jesus is based on a real person, but his words in the Bible are no more his own words than the words Socrates speaks in Plato’s dialogs. The Bible is a book with human authors, and nothing more.

I’ll hear you out if you want to argue for the existence of a necessary being from which the universe sprang. But to then go and say that this being wrote a book and wants us all to live by what that book teaches is utterly preposterous. It’s beyond ludicrous. The creative force behind this incomprehensibly old, incomprehensively vast cosmos and possibly infinitely more cosmos beyond this one actually concerned itself with writing a book for the benefit of a few biological organisms on one speck of dust within its creation. Not only that, but that it chose to represent itself in this book through the characters of Yahweh and Jesus, two characters who could not be farther away from one another in terms of disposition and moral teaching. Why did the creator of the universe choose to write such stories in which He orders people to slaughter women and children, to stone each other to death for working during a particular portion of a seven-day cycle, to hate homosexuals and all those different from His one Chosen group? Why did he then write a story about how He walked the earth for a few years performing magic tricks and teaching the opposite of what He taught in the first half of the book?

I suppose these are just the ‘Great Mysteries’ that theologians are always working on. Well, I’ve got a message for you theologians: stop. You’re wasting your time and your precious intellectual abilities which could be put to much better use. Stop trying to make sense of what is inherently nonsensical. If the premise that the creator of the universe wrote this book is the source of so much logical difficulty, then drop the premise. God may very well exist, but it didn’t write a book, and certainly not a book as ridiculous as the Bible.

If you want to believe in God, that’s great. Go right ahead. You have every rational reason to do so. But you have no rational reason to believe in the truth of Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, Shintoism or any other ism there is. The fact that there are so many different religions with so many incompatible beliefs should be enough for any rational person to doubt the truth of any particular one, especially the one that they happened to be brought up with by accident of birth. How could you really think you’re that lucky that out of every religion your parents could have possibly had, that theirs is the the right one? That their book is the one God actually wrote?

God might exist, and you can certainly believe it does. But you’ll learn far more about God through silent meditation and far more about the universe through scientific inquiry than you’ll learn about such things from Holy Scripture. It’s belief in the truth of Scripture that leads to all the evils associated with religion in the first place. Belief in an unknowable God is harmless.

Reason and Theism are not mutually exclusive, but Reason and Scripture are. Either you accept Reason or you accept Scripture, but you can’t claim loyalty to both. You can still believe in God either way, so forget Scripture. You’ll be much better off if you do, and we will all be much better off if we all do.

Philip Uster Must Die

February 20th, 2010 No comments

It is a common misconception that the U.S. Senate consists of 100 members, with the Vice President as its president and tie-breaking vote. Actually, there is a 101st senator that not many people know about, a senator who actually has the power of nineteen senators, who never has to worry about re-election, who has been around for over two hundred years but who only recently has begun to exercise his true power. That senator’s name is Philip Uster, and it’s time we got rid of him.

For the majority of his two centuries of public service, Senator Philip Uster has laid pretty low (with the exception of a key role in Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). He would rarely ever show up to Senate debates, called in only when the minority needed his help to defeat a piece of legislation they felt strongly about. He would do this by getting up and speaking continuously against a bill until he could either speak no more or the senators in the majority party would give up on trying to bring the bill to a vote. To get him to stop speaking so that they could vote, two-thirds of all senators would have to vote to make him stop. That meant a minority as small as 34 could call upon him to block legislation that as many as 66 senators supported. Philip Uster, for all practical purposes, had the power of 33 senators, enough to make up the difference between the minority and the majority. That catch, however, was that his power lasted only as long as his vocal chords, stomach, and bladder would allow.

During the Civil Rights movement, Senator Philip Uster was called upon frequently by Republicans to help them prevent black Americans from being granted equal rights. While ultimately unsuccessful, Uster managed to make things so difficult that the Democrats used their huge majority in 1975 to reduce the number of senators needed to stop Mr. Uster from 67 to 60, thus reducing his influence from 33 senators down to 19. The new number a minority would need in order to call upon Philip Uster’s services was 41. Adding Uster’s 19 votes to the 41-vote minority would give them effectively 60 votes, one more than the majority’s 59.

Weakened but not defeated, Philip Uster’s power continued to grow as the country became more and more polarized and the political parties more and more partisan. As long as the gap between the minority and the majority remained within 20 votes, and it almost always did, Uster could be called upon to block any legislation the minority opposed. As the parties increasingly looked out for their own well-being and decreasingly for the well-being of the country as a whole, Mr. Uster was called upon more and more to provide his obstruction services, his power increasing every time his name was invoked. Eventually, his power became so great that he no longer even needed to show up on Capitol Hill. Nowadays, a senator need only threaten to call him and the majority will simply throw up it hands in defeat.

There is always talk among the few who know about Philip Uster as to whether he should be retired. Occasionally, a majority frustrated by Uster’s ability to obstruct their agenda will threaten to reduce his power even further, or to kill him completely. Republicans threatened to kill him in 2005 when the Democratic minority was holding up Bush’s judicial nominees. Today, Republicans are using him to block dozens upon dozens of Obama’s nominees, but there is very little talk among Democrats about going after Philip Uster now. They know that one day (perhaps very soon) they will be in the minority again and they will need his help. This is why he has managed to remain in the Senate for so long—sooner or later somebody is going to want to have him around.

But the current state of affairs is more dire than ever before. The Republican strategy during the Obama administration is extremely simple: obstruct everything. If Obama supports it, oppose it. If Obama opposes it, support it. Even if you once supported it before, even if you proposed it in the first place, you must stop Obama from passing it at all costs. That means you call Senator Philip Uster all the time. And indeed, for nearly every single nomination or piece of proposed legislation since Obama took office, that call has been made. Even during the brief interlude in which Democrats technically held 60 seats, theoretically enough to overcome Uster’s influence, the Republican minority could find one or two of them to join the minority (Lieberman, Nelson, etc.) and thus hold the necessary 41-vote minimum to block legislation. With Scott Brown’s recent election, they no longer need to pull any votes from across the aisle, and can use the power of the 101st senator to block anything and everything the president and the majority party want to do to improve the country. The United States government is effectively being held hostage by Philip Uster and the Republican minority.

If Democrats actually want to get anything done, they have two options. One is to call Philip Uster’s arch-nemises: Rick Unciliation. Mr. Unciliation has the power of ten senators, enough to boost their 59-seat majority to 69, well above the 60 votes the minority has when using Philip Uster. The only problem is that Rick Unciliation is only allowed to participate in budgetary matters, and can only use his ten-vote power if the deficit will be reduced as a result. The other option open to Democrats is to kill Philip Uster, just as the Republicans threatened to do in 2005, through a process known as the ‘nuclear option’ which need not be described in detail here. It’s enough to know that if they wanted to kill him, they have the silver bullet needed to bring him down.

But the real problem, of course, is not Philip Uster himself or the Republican party’s insistence on using him to completely neutralize the ability of the American government to govern America—it is those things, but it’s also something much more insidious: the unwillingness of Democrats to do anything about it, lest they actually accomplish something positive for the American people. Like Republicans, many (if not most) Democrats are owned by the powers-that-be, special interests and giant corporations with armies of lobbyists all over Washington doing everything they can to make sure that the rich continue to get richer at the poor’s expense, that the energy industry continue to burn coal and drill for oil at the planet’s expense, that private companies maintain a monopoly over the health insurance industry at the average citizens’ expense, that the military industrial complex continue to build weapons and fight wars at the world’s expense and the expense of the soldiers, their families, and the countless civilians they kill—neither Republicans nor Democrats actually want to stop any of these things. Democrats have to tell their constituents that they want to change the status quo, but it’s this very status quo that keeps them in their jobs, that gives them an easier time raising money for re-election, and that in many cases guarantees them a lucrative position in one of these industries once they leave Congress.

Democrats can say, “We’re trying to make the changes we promised. We’re trying to bring about real health care reform, to regulate the financial industry, to fight global warming, and to strengthen the middle-class. It’s just that Philip Uster won’t let us!” If something terrible were to happen to Mr. Uster—say, he got into a bad car accident on the way to the Capitol—they would no longer have that excuse. They would either have to vote for a bill that would hurt the industries that fund their campaigns, or expose themselves as the corporate shills they really are.

It’s awkward enough for them to have to feign this absurd interest in bipartisanship. With such a large majority their inability to get anything done makes them look ridiculous. It was even worse when they had 60 votes to 40, rendering even Philip Uster’s 19 votes inconsequential. The only remedy to this problem was to profess a strong desire for bipartisanship, to work with the other party even though they didn’t need any of their votes. Obama and the Senate Democrats worked very hard to undermine their own progressive legislation, particularly with regard to health care and financial reform, to produce bills that were industry-friendly in spite of overwhelming public opposition to those industries. And even after all that unnecessary compromise, Philip Uster is still being called in to prevent even the most modest reforms from going through.

The Senate will never let Philip Uster go. He’s way too valuable to the powers-that-be, and they will protect him with everything they’ve got. The only chance the American people have is to learn his name and speak out against him vigorously and repeatedly. No one senator should have the power of nineteen senators. In a democracy, the will of the majority should prevail, and that majority should be accountable to the people for what it can and cannot do. Philip Uster is too convenient an excuse for the majority to remain weak and ineffectual, and too easy a tool for the corporate-controlled minority to undermine the principle of majority rule that constitutes the very foundation of democracy.

Tell the Tea Parties to step aside for a moment as we march on Washington holding signs of our own: “Philip Uster Must Die”

[Disclaimer: While the characters Philip Uster and Rick Unciliation are based on actual Senate rules, they are entirely fictitious and any similarity to any actual persons living or dead is unintentional. The author of this piece does not advocate violence of any kind directed at anyone with the unfortunate name of Philip Uster.]

End Times

February 14th, 2010 No comments

Imagine a world divided into two groups of people with diametrically opposed worldviews. The first group believes that the world has existed for billions of years and will continue to exist for billions of years, while the second group believes it has only existed for a few thousand years and will not continue to exist indefinitely but end at a certain point in time, a time which will come very soon.

Even with just that one fundamental difference, it’s obvious that each worldview leads to a completely different way of life. Group 1 will care about the environment. They’ll care about working together to build a better world for future generations. They’ll recognize that extinction is a possibility but not an inevitability and therefore we must take it upon ourselves to try and avoid it. Group 2 won’t give a shit about the environment because it will all be obliterated soon enough anyway. They won’t want to waste any time improving the lot of others, because whatever they build will be destroyed anyway. To them, extinction is an inevitability so there’s no use trying to avoid it.

Obviously, we have these two groups in the real world, but in addition to believing that the end of the world is coming, Group 2 holds many additional metaphysical and ethical beliefs as well. For one, they believe that this end will be brought about by a Divine Dictator, a man who created the world and the people in it, imposed rules that would be impossible for the people to obey (e.g. “don’t touch yourself” or “never feel jealousy”), and threatened all who don’t follow these rules with eternal punishment.

The people who believe in this Divine Dictator and have followed these rules absolutely HATE those who don’t believe and follow them, possibly because they resent having to hold themselves to such impossibly high standards while these other people have no such difficulties. They deal with this by believing that they will be rewarded for worshipping the Dictator once He finally destroys the world, while all those people in the other group are filthy sinners who will suffer greatly at that time while they will be peacefully taken away and given a nice view up in Heaven from which to delight in the suffering of the damned.

This prospect is so attractive to some of these people that they are actively working to try and bring it about. Scientists are actually trying to clone the kind of animals described in Revelations to hasten the end. Several Christian denominations in the United States advocate for Israel simply because they want the temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem so that Christ can return, rapture them away, and get busy smiting the wicked. Many of these people want war with Iran. If a nuclear bomb went off in the Middle East they would be happy, because it would look like a sign that the End was nigh.

And they see themselves as the good guys. The people who are trying to work towards a better future for humanity are the evil sinners, while the people trying to bring about the destruction of the world at the hands of an All-Powerful Dictator are the heroes. They can see nothing wrong with this picture.

One thing is for certain—the less people from Group 2 that are in positions of power in the world, the better off we are. They may not succeed in bringing about Armageddon (that would require all those prophecies to be true, and if they are I will laugh hysterically as the fires of Hell engulf me) but they will certainly not do anything to make the world a better place. To them, there’s no reason to make the world a better place. The world is about to end, so they might as well just look after themselves.

Anyone running for public office should be asked if they believe in End Times prophecies. We have a right to know how many of the people in charge expect to be raptured away, because those people sure as hell are not working towards our best interests.

Nature vs. Nurture vs. Free Will

February 13th, 2010 No comments

Why am I so fucked up? Is it because of my genes? My parents? Or is it all my fault? How much of my current personality is the result of my own decisions? How much is a result of the way I was brought up and of my cultural surroundings? How much was simply there right from birth, a handicap that I’ve never had any hope of overcoming?

One thing just about everyone agrees on when it comes to the Nature vs. Nurture debate is that it’s a combination of the two. Scientists working in the fields of psychology and neuroscience are really only arguing over which is the stronger influence. Personally, I think that Nature vs. Nurture is a false dichotomy, and when considering the explanations for any given person’s personality we have to take his or her own decisions into account as well. The actual dichotomy, in my mind, is between Nature/Nurture and Free Will. The balance between how much of your personality is due to genes and how much is due to upbringing is, I feel, less important the balance between how much of who you are is a result of circumstances beyond your control and how much is your personal responsibility.

My background in psychology is limited to two survey courses, one in high school and one in college, so I don’t claim to have any special insight. These are just my thoughts on what kinds of things ought to be attributed to which category, and you’re free to agree or disagree or add whatever you want.

Nature

Before experimental psychology, people could justifiably believe that a human mind is a blank slate at birth. That physical characteristics are the only things attributable to genes and personalities are entirely a result of upbringing. We now know, thanks largely to case studies involving twins separated at birth, that genes have a far greater effect on personality than we once thought. Twins who share the same genes and yet grew up in radically different social and cultural situations have nevertheless shown uncanny similarities in personality.

So in addition to physical characteristics, I’d say that Nature also determines certain predilections. An optimistic or pessimistic disposition, a higher susceptibility to addiction, aggressive or passive tendencies and the like, I believe, are all mostly determined by the genetic soup you came from.

Intelligence too, I believe, is mostly a matter of genetic luck, though not of the same sort. Brilliant people have moronic children all the time, and geniuses are often born of idiots. But in almost every case, the ease at which the brain can absorb, store, and apply information depends almost entirely on the hardware itself and not on how it’s used.

Also, I strongly believe that sexual orientation is present from birth, and that it can never be changed no matter what kind of upbringing you have or what decisions you make. A homosexual person can be brought up to despise gays and choose to get married and live a straight lifestyle, but deep down I believe that person will always be homosexual.

Nurture

A person’s upbringing and cultural surroundings will either augment or stifle the natural predilections instilled by genes. A naturally aggressive person might be made more passive by peaceful parents, while a naturally passive person might be forced to turn aggressive due to harsh circumstances. A person naturally inclined towards optimism can be easily converted to a pessimist if the circumstances of his or her childhood were difficult. Although a natural optimist may actually have a better chance of getting through a difficult childhood in the first place.

Intelligence can also be nurtured or stifled according to childhood circumstances. A brilliant child who was never encouraged could easily wind up holding many extremely stupid and idiotic beliefs. Just look at theologists—clearly some very intelligent people can nevertheless believe in some crazy and ridiculous things because of how they were brought up. Conversely, I think it’s a lot harder—perhaps virtually impossible—for someone not blessed (or cursed) with natural intelligence to be nurtured into becoming brilliant. A genius can become an idiot, but an idiot will never be a genius.

Finally, looking at the major differences in cultures throughout the world shows what an enormous influence early surroundings have on a person. A child born in the West with Asian parents who were born in Asia will more often than not take on the culture predominant in the country they live rather than that of their parents. Just think of all the poor girls killed by their fundamentalist Islamic fathers because they were becoming “too Western”. Clearly, cultural surroundings are a major determinative factor when it comes to personality.

Nature vs. Nurture

So where does the balance between Nature and Nurture lie? I don’t feel qualified to say. While I’m inclined to believe that upbringing and cultural surroundings have a greater impact than genetics, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that much of who we are is completely foredoomed from birth. Homosexuality is the best example, as no matter where you are raised, almost everything about your personality will be determined by that fact and how others react to it.

In fact it’s difficult to draw a line for precisely that reason. Your upbringing may have a huge effect on who you are, but who you are will also have a major effect on your upbringing. Parents of rebellious children have to adjust their parenting style accordingly, just as parents of extremely stupid or extremely smart children have to adjust to their child’s intelligence. Nurture may have a greater determinative effect on your personality, but you can’t forget the determinative effect that Nature has on Nurture.

Free Will

As someone heavily influenced by existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, I have a strong conviction that everything boils down to personal responsibility. Even your personality, I would say, is to a large degree a result of decisions you make.

The catch, of course, is that during the most crucial formative years of your personality, you have very little to go on with which to make good decisions that will lead to better outcomes. A child chooses to spend all his time alone because it’s easier that way, not really considering that as he grows older this is going to lead to a very reclusive lifestyle. As an adult, he has his own decisions to blame for turning out the way he did, but looking back he understands exactly why he was inclined to make those decisions in the first place: his genes and his upbringing.

The list of examples goes on. An intelligent child chooses not to study much and work too hard, and as a result never becomes as smart as she could have been. A homosexual child chooses to deny his orientation and as a result suffers incredible feelings of shame and self-loathing as an adult. A naturally aggressive child may have an inherent predilection but he chooses to beat people up, and as a result remains a bully all his life.

The point is that in each case, the child could have chosen otherwise and turned out a lot differently. You can’t completely absolve anyone of responsibility for who they are.

Nature and Nurture vs. Free Will

The most important question with regards to this whole issue is therefore to what extent we are responsible for our own personalities. A person who was abused as a child and then goes and abuses other children may use their painful upbringing as an excuse, but we still punish them for their actions and rightly so. Yet a person who grew up with alcoholic parents and becomes an alcoholic is often treated like an innocent victim who just couldn’t help it.

Obviously, I’m more inclined towards blaming the individual than excusing it based on the circumstances of their past. One may not be able to help one’s inclinations, but one always has the choice of whether or not to act on them. Of course, most people will never have to struggle to resist the temptation to molest a child because that temptation simply isn’t there, but even though the person who is tempted is not responsible for having the temptation, he is responsible if he ever acts on it.

So that’s one part of the answer: people are far more responsible for their actions than for their predilections. They may have had the option of either ignoring or indulging in these predilections, but I don’t think we can justifiably condemn them (or praise them if the qualities are positive) for having them in the first place.

Which leads to the final question: at what point do we draw the line? How young does a child have to be before we completely absolve him or her of all responsibility for who they are? That’s an extremely difficult determination to make, and I think it actually varies from individual to individual depending on how self-aware they naturally are. A stupid child who can’t easily examine the repercussions of his own actions is far less responsible for himself than a brilliant child who is predisposed to reflection and self-examination.

But this is no good if we’re looking for a broad generalization as to when we should start holding kids completely responsible for themselves. I’d say that the best candidate for a universal dividing line is puberty. Before puberty, children tend to live in a fantasy world and their decisions are based on their distorted worldview, be it a religion (which a child is far less inclined to question) or merely an invention of his or her own fancy. But once puberty is reached, the sex-drive is discovered, and the mind becomes capable of understanding how the real world works, we can start holding them responsible.

A religious child, upon reaching puberty, can either question her religion or stick to it. This is her decision and she is responsible for whichever she chooses. A stupid child, upon reaching puberty, can either resign himself to stupidity or choose to work hard and make up through ambition what he lacks in intelligence. Again, he is completely responsible for making this decision. Upon reaching puberty, a homosexual can either embrace or deny his orientation, and this decision is entirely his to make. A child raised as a republican, upon hitting puberty, can begin to take an objective look at the world and reconsider her opinions if she chooses. Puberty seems to be the age at which almost (not all) children start to become capable of understanding the world, and whether or not they make an effort to understand it is up to them no matter what their genes or upbringing.

In conclusion, the reason I’m so fucked up is probably mostly a result of my genes and the circumstances of my childhood. But I still have to blame myself for not trying hard enough to un-fuck myself up when I became capable of trying.

The moments that make up a dull day

February 9th, 2010 No comments

Life is still dull but enjoyable, and has been more of both over the last several days. I had Monday off due to a strike by Üstra, the city’s public transport company, and today both of my classes were cancelled. Were it not for one substitution I’m doing tomorrow, it would have been a five-day weekend. Right now it’s the fourth, and I’m already anxious to have a day of work just to feel like I’m doing something. Writing for the blog and going for a walk each day is nice, but it loses its touch if done too many days in a row.

I had nothing to write about today, but I wanted to do something productive, I just couldn’t think of anything. I don’t want to apply to a school in Japan yet, so nothing to do there. As for online dating, I haven’t gotten any kind of message from anyone in almost a week. This has turned out to be a huge waste of what little money I spent on it.

The only productive thing to do was go to Planeo and ask one of the secretaries to help me understand what the most recent letter I got from the German government was about. Apparently I have to fill in a form so they can charge me a fee for German TV and radio broadcasting, or I can check a box that says I don’t have German TV or radio, which I don’t. So apparently at some random time some random bureaucrat from the German government is going to come into my apartment to check if I really don’t have TV or radio. So that’s wunderbar.

There was a cute little intern there at the time, and I got to smile at her and crack a few jokes with the secretaries that she laughed at. I asked her her name and said hi to her, which felt nice. Just pleasant, nothing more. I said goodbye to all of them and went on my way.

I have to get out of the house for at least an hour each day, but I’ve been walking along the river for the last three days and I needed to do something different today. So for the first time since Krissi was with me, I went to the city forest. This was only the second time I’d gone in winter, and it was even nicer than I pictured. The weather was perfect, with mostly overcast skies but a little room for the sun to bleed through the clouds, and snow falling ever so gently from the sky. Just beautiful.

The only problem is that the ground is just a complete ice-sheet, so walking is rather tricky. Once you get the hang of it, it’s no problem and you may come very close to falling a hundred times but I haven’t fallen yet. But it serves to keep most people away so the forest was more deserted this time than ever before.

That was a nice pleasant walk, and I found my way out easily enough and took the tram back home. On the way, as the train stopped at the most crowded station in the line, my eyes were drawn to a beautiful girl going down the escalator. As the train pulled away, I suddenly realized it was The Girl from the club all those weeks ago, the one I’d been staring at all night and Oliver had introduced me to but I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had just enough time to confirm this before the train pulled me out of sight, but it was definitely her. Strange how of all the people in a crowded room, my eyes have been drawn directly to her on two separate occasions.

Other than that, absolutely nothing noteworthy is going on with me. And when all is said and done, I suppose I like it that way.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

God Doesn’t Exist (and we don’t need Him)

February 8th, 2010 No comments

Last night I watched an extremely enjoyable debate between Christian scholar William Lane Craig and renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens, which took place in April 2009 at Biola University, a Christian college. Both sides made a strong case, but they seemed to be operating on different playing fields. While Craig put forward his arguments in classical philosophical fashion—laying out his premises and following them to a conclusion—Hitchens avoided strict philosophical analysis altogether and merely cast doubt over the entire Christian worldview by pointing out the many absurdities it leads to. Whereas Craig was talking in terms of “If A and B therefore C”, Hitchens didn’t challenge A and B but merely said, “Well then you have to accept D and E and F as well”.

If Hitchens’ intention was to spark doubt in the heavily Christian audience, his tactic may have been more practically effective than the approach I would have taken, but when all was said and done I was left feeling unsatisfied that Craig’s arguments were left standing, their flaws never having been directly and specifically exposed by Hitchens. Many in the audience who think the way I used to think (I was once adamantly religious and fervently searching for philosophical arguments to justify my faith) could have picked any of Craig’s arguments and held fast to them, merely brushing aside the problems Hitchens highlighted as mere divine mystery, a result of man’s inability to understand God’s ways.

As such, I’ll take it upon myself to look at all five of Craig’s arguments and address them head-on. This is mostly for my own edification (this is my favorite topic and I love writing about it) but it’s also to provide atheists with a little more ammunition for their theological debates and hopefully to show theists (though I doubt any theists are reading this) that their faith is not grounded in logic and if they choose to believe in God, they must accept the groundlessness of that belief.

Just to be clear, I think everyone has a right to believe in God if they choose. I just take Kierkegaard’s position that this belief is a leap of faith, that it can’t be rationally justified, and God’s existence can never be proven. Belief in God itself is not evil—it is the supposed certainty of that belief which leads to the justification of all kinds of moral evils—and so it is that I attempt to generate as much uncertainty as possible.

So without further ado, let’s get to it. I have to start by first addressing the two major contentions that Craig says he will be defending:

Craig’s Contentions: 1- There is no good argument that atheism is true. 2- There are good arguments that theism is true.

Right off the bat, Craig tosses the burden of proof to the wrong side of the aisle, something I used to do all the time in my religious days. “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” I used to say to my atheist challengers, and be satisfied because they of course couldn’t refute this.

But the atheist has nothing to prove, as Hitchens points out later on. That’s like saying, “You can’t prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist” or “You can’t prove the non-existence of Santa Claus”. Of course you can’t. In fact, it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything. Prove that unicorns don’t exist—go ahead. You can take me to every square meter of the planet and if we don’t find a unicorn, you still haven’t proved that they don’t exist. We just didn’t find one, but they could have just been hiding, or on another planet, or in another dimension. Proof of non-existence is logically impossible.

It’s up to the prosecutor to prove that the defendant committed the murder—it’s not up to the defendant to prove he didn’t commit the murder. In the same respect, it’s not up to the atheist to prove that God doesn’t exist. It’s up to the theist to offer a convincing reason as to why we should believe that God does exist. Craig believes he has five convincing reasons, and I will show that he has none.

1- The cosmological argument: Why is there something rather than nothing?

As I wrote several years ago in my philosophy journal, I think the cosmological argument is the strongest of all rational attempts to prove the existence of God. In the end, it rests on an assumption, but it is a very strong assumption: that nothing can exist without a cause.

Craig points out that if there was no First Cause that started the universe, then the chain of causes would have to stretch back in time to infinity. I’ll grant him this, but I won’t go so far as to say that an infinite regress of causes is, as he contends, impossible. He quotes a few mathematicians on the concept of infinity, saying how it leads to self-contradictions (e.g. what is infinity minus infinity?) and does not exist in reality but is merely an abstract idea.

But I don’t accept the claim that because something leads to logical difficulties it is therefore impossible. It is extremely arrogant on the part of human beings with limited mental capacity to make such definitive pronouncements on concepts as incomprehensible as infinity or a First Cause. Who are we to decide, based purely on thought experiments, that the universe must be finite, that there can be no infinite regress of causes, and that nothing can exist without a cause? We are dealing with things so far removed from human experience that to simply pronounce that something can’t be true because our brains can’t conceive of it is pure hubris.

Craig cites the Big Bang Theory as evidence of the truth of the cosmological argument, which I find amusing. Christianity never used science to back up its claims in the old days, but as soon as the Big Bang Theory was introduced they pounced all over it as empirical evidence that their beliefs were correct all along. Craig correctly characterizes the theory as asserting that all of space and time began at a particular instant. But he then says incorrectly that the atheist now has the difficulty of explaining how something came from nothing.

Never mind that the theist has the exact same difficulty when it comes to the Big Bang. Okay, so the theist can say that God caused the Big Bang. Then what caused God? Whatever you decide is the First Cause, you then have to ask what caused that Cause, and what caused that, and so on to infinity. Craig completely ignores the option open to the atheist, the one I believe is true, that our universe is one of many universes, and the Big Bang that started this one was caused by a natural event that occurred in another universe, which was caused by something that happened in another universe, and so on.

Craig simply asserts that whatever caused the Big Bang must be beyond space and time (the fact that the human mind can’t conceive of this doesn’t seem to bother him now) and that it can therefore be only one of two things: an abstract object or a personal mind. Abstract objects such as numbers can’t cause anything, so the only option left is a personal, intelligent mind. Quite the huge logical leap, as a moment’s thought will reveal. For one thing, he hasn’t shown why these are the only two candidates for First Cause. Couldn’t it have been something besides these two things, such as a naturally occurring event in a meta-universe? Second of all, he hasn’t offered the first shred of an argument as to why the mind is beyond space and time. The debate as to the nature of mind rages on in philosophy and shows no signs of coming to a resolution. If Craig wants to back up this argument, he has to show that mind is non-physical, something no philosopher has ever been able to conclusively do. His defense of the cosmological argument, and his assertion that the Big Bang Theory proves the existence of a personal creator God, therefore fall flat.

2- The teleological argument: The laws of nature are fine-tuned for intelligent life, so they must have been designed.

This is an interesting argument because it leads to some mind-blowingly fascinating conclusions. Basically, it says that when you consider all the fundamental constants in nature such as the strength of gravity and the nuclear forces, the speed of light, the rate of entropy and so on, you find that if you alter any of these constants even slightly, you’d get a universe in which life was impossible. For instance, if the weak nuclear force was just a little bit weaker, there would be no stars or galaxies and therefore no planets or heavy elements or life either.

According to Craig there are only three possible explanations open to the atheist for why the universe is so fine-tuned. The first is necessity: it simply couldn’t have been any other way. This is clearly not true—there’s no physical reason the speed of light couldn’t be a bit faster or slower than it is, that gravity couldn’t be a bit weaker or stronger than it is, and so on. The second possibility is chance: the universe just happened to have all the right constants. This is clearly absurd as well, as the odds are infinitesimally small that any random universe created would have the properties necessary to sustain life. It would be like rolling a billion dice and hoping they all land on 6.

But the third possibility is conceivable, and I’d say downright likely. Let’s say you roll a billion dice an infinite number of times. Eventually, you’re going to get an outcome in which all of them do land on 6. It may take 10 x 10^Googol attempts, but eventually you’ll get there. In the same respect, if you posit an infinite amount of universes all with different cosmological constants, you’re going to get a few universes in which stars and galaxies and planets and life are possible. We just happen to be in one of those universes, so it looks amazing to us that everything seems so fine-tuned. I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ puddle of water, marveling at what a fantastic coincidence it is that it fits so perfectly into the groove in the ground where it sits.

Craig dismisses this idea as though it were ridiculous, saying how there’s absolutely no evidence that such a multi-verse exists. Okay, fair enough. The claim that our universe is just one of many is [currently] scientifically un-verifiable and un-falsifiable. But the only alternative explanation, the God hypothesis, is also un-verifiable and un-falsifiable. The question is which is more likely to be the case? Which assumption are we more justified in making? In his rebuttal, Hitchens gives us many reasons to doubt the idea of an intelligent designer: if the universe was really designed with intelligent life in mind, why all the empty wasted space? Why all the wasted time? Billions of galaxies, billions of years, all kinds of major cataclysms and mass extinctions before humans arrive—it hardly seems intelligently designed at all. It’s far more likely, in my opinion, that this universe is just one of an infinite number (to me it seems impossible that Existence is finite at all, and I therefore believe that logically there must be an infinite number of universes) and one of only a small percentage which generate inhabitants capable of marveling at how accommodating the laws of physics are to itself.

The multi-verse hypothesis, Craig says, is subject to a “devastating objection” which is as follows: If our universe were just a random member of a multi-verse, it would be overwhelmingly more probable that we would be witnessing a much different universe than the one we observe. He cites Roger Penrose in saying that it is infinitely more probable that our solar system should come together through a random collision of particles than that a finely tuned universe should exist. Craig says that if our universe were just a part of a multi-verse, we should be observing an orderly region no larger than our solar system. Because we don’t observe this, we can dismiss the multi-verse hypothesis.

Um…okay? Maybe he didn’t really understand the multi-verse hypothesis. I certainly don’t know how you come to the conclusion that if it were true, our universe would be the size of the solar system, but I insist again that given an infinite number of universes, it is not overwhelmingly improbable but actually a complete certainty that a finely-tuned universe will exist. Again, roll a billion dice from now until the end of time and eventually they will all land on 6. Craig has completely failed to refute that.

At this point, I’ll skip his third argument and deal with that at the end because I believe it to be the most important. His fourth and fifth arguments are the least compelling.

3- The resurrection of Jesus: The best historical explanation is that Christ’s claims of divinity were true.

Turning from metaphysical to historical argument, and turning from the attempt to prove Theism in general to Christian Theism in particular, Craig puts forward three historical facts that he believes are best explained by Christ’s divinity: 1- On the Sunday after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by his women followers. 2- On separate occasions different groups experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death. These appearances were witnessed not just by believers, but unbelievers and skeptics as well. 3- The disciples of Jesus came to believe in the resurrection despite every predisposition to the contrary. The Jews had no belief of a dying or rising Messiah, but the disciples came to believe in the resurrection so strongly that they were willing to die for that belief. Because, Craig insists, there is no plausible naturalistic explanation for these facts, Christians are justified in believing that Christ rose from the dead and was what he claimed to be.

The first two facts are based on nothing more than Biblical Scripture, and can therefore be dismissed out of hand. The New Testament wasn’t written by witnesses to these events but by men who, at least fifty years later, wrote their accounts of the story based on hearsay and rumor from those who had supposedly been there at the time. Craig cites a few Russian scholars who say that it can be taken as historical certainty that these things happened, but on what authority can they make this claim? It’s a historical certainty that Jesus rose from the dead? Really? Because there are no other written accounts to the contrary? Really? By that reasoning we should also believe in the literal truth of The Iliad because there are no contrary accounts to suggest that Achilles was not in fact dipped in immortality juice by the gods who quite absent-mindedly forgot about the heel.

As for the fact that the disciples of Jesus were willing to believe in the resurrection to the point of death, Hitchens successfully tore apart that claim by pointing out that the strength of a belief has absolutely no bearing on its veracity. Islamic suicide-bombers believe in the divinity of their Messiah with just as much zeal as the early Christians who were fed to lions believed in theirs.

Sorry, but the best historical explanation for the resurrection story is that it was made up, just like every other miracle-story in every other religion.

4- The immediate experience of God: You can know that God exists wholly apart from argument, simply by immediately experiencing Him.

This is the theist’s trump card: you can’t convince me that God doesn’t exist because I know He does. I simply feel that it’s true. When I’m alone, I feel His presence. When I pray, I feel Him listening. When I’m in pain, I feel Him comforting me. That’s all the proof I need.

Craig says that belief in God, to those who experience Him, is a “properly basic” belief, on par with the belief in an external world, the belief in the existence of the past, and of the existence of other minds. These beliefs are not based on argument but are the foundations of belief, and while none of them can be proved to be true, they are nevertheless grounded in experience, they arise naturally from seeing and feeling things, from having memory, from communicating with others, and are therefore justified and “properly” basic. Just as communicating with others gives rise to the properly basic belief in other minds, Craig argues, communicating with God gives rise to the properly basic belief in God’s existence.

Because this is not an argument, per se, it can’t be refuted with pure logic. However, I can point out that while there is definitely some phenomenon that believers experience when in a state of prayer or meditation, there is no reason to believe that this is God, let alone the specific God of their own religion.

As I said, I used to be very religious. When I prayed, I felt something. I felt differently in a Church than I did at home. Reading certain Bible passages gave me chills or a tingling sensation. Doing things condemned by my religion made me feel guilty. Doing good things made me feel good. All these kinds of feelings are natural to human beings, whatever their faith may be. The belief in such inner emotional states or in a ‘spiritual’ frame-of-mind may be properly basic, but there’s nothing proper or basic about the inference to an intelligent designer of the universe who is responsible for these feelings and states of mind.

To be clear, even after abandoning Christianity I’ve had some rather profound experiences in which it feels all of a sudden like I’m floating on another plane entirely, that all of Existence seems to be in perfect Harmony and I feel at complete peace with the world and every living thing in it. And I would say that this does constitute evidence that there is in fact something more to the universe than forces, particles, and random chance. Neuroscientists may have their own materialistic explanations for such phenomena, but I’m willing to grant that when you are in that state of mind, you just know that it’s more than brain chemistry.

But to know that there is something deeper to the universe is not, by any means, the same as to know that there is a singular personal creator God, that humans were created in His image, that he sent his only son to Earth on a suicide mission to save the souls of those he created, and the rest of it. This transcendent feeling may justify the belief in something, but not the Christian God or the truth of any particular religion.

5- The moral argument: If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

While this is Craig’s third argument I saved it for last because I believe it’s the most important. The most important, but also the weakest in terms of a logical proof of God’s existence. It goes like this:

1- Without God, there are no objective moral values.
2- There are objective moral values.
3- Therefore God exists.

I’ll grant that Premise 1 is true. As Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. Indeed, philosophers have been struggling to erect a firm foundation for ethical claims without relying on divine authority for a long time. My entire college thesis is devoted to the attempts of Albert Camus to do just this, and while he offers what I believe to be some very valuable perspectives on morality, he never offers a basic, objective foundation for ethics. If moral rules are not built by God into the fabric of the universe, the atheist must accept that morals are purely subjective, not dictated from above but chosen by us.

Hitchens admits that this is not a desirable conclusion. We all want to believe that certain things are absolutely right and others absolutely wrong. If we want to condemn an action, it’s so much easier to appeal to a Divine Dictator who says quite clearly that This Is Wrong, rather than get into all this messy business of weighing the suffering it causes versus the suffering it prevents, determining whether it would work as a categorical imperative, debating whether the intention deserves more weight than the consequences, and on and on and on. Without divine rules to call upon, ethics is tricky business. But if we don’t believe in God, we must accept the consequences no matter how undesirable.

But Craig’s argument isn’t that a Divine Moral Code is preferable, but that it simply exists. We just know that rape is wrong. We know that murder is wrong. It’s not just a result of social evolution, the product of our ancestors having to live together. It’s just wrong, and we know it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it.

And for the people who believe in Moral Absolutes, you just can’t convince them otherwise. It’s like the argument from immediate experience—moral outrage is so immediate and undeniable that to suggest it’s not built into the fabric of the universe but something purely psychological will be dismissed out of hand. “Are you telling me that there’s nothing wrong with raping a child?” they’ll challenge you. “That it’s a mere social convention that we are perfectly free to choose not to follow?

To which I would reply: yes and no. Yes, it’s something we’ve chosen, but no, that doesn’t make it any less valid than if it were dictated by God. (Incidentally, God said nothing about rape or child abuse in his 10 commandments, but that’s beside the point). To put it another way, what difference would it make if you decided not to rape a child because you personally chose not to, or because God told you not to? Do we really need God to tell us that raping children is wrong? Can’t we just decide not to do that without it being an order from above?

Craig and other religious apologists insist that because we know there are objective moral values, we can know that there is a God who created them. We can’t know that there are objective moral values, so this argument is a dud. But it leads to a very important point, the point I’d like to conclude on:

We do not need God.

If humanity wants to survive and thrive as a species, we need to divorce our morality from God. We can’t keep justifying our actions based on whether or not God approves or disapproves. There are too many different sects of too many different religions with too many different ideas about what God wants and what God hates. And if you’re only doing good because you want God to reward you, and only avoiding evil because you’re afraid of God punishing you, then you’re not really behaving morally at all—you’re only behaving selfishly.

Moral values do not have to be built into the fabric of the universe. Moral values can be just as real and legitimate if they are chosen by people rather than chosen by God. And while we may not be able to agree on everything, once you toss God out of the equation you’ll be surprised at how much we can agree on. No more pointless disputes over how best to worship Him, over which foods are acceptable or not, over whether masturbation is evil, over countless little details of doctrine such as whether you should be able to receive communion if you haven’t gone to confession first, and all of this meaningless garbage that has caused so much pointless conflict and suffering and death over the centuries.

If we don’t have God to give us values, then we have to make them ourselves. Nietzsche wrote that we must create our own morality. Sartre wrote that we have to take responsibility for what we do. Camus wrote that a value is created every time a rebel stands up and fights for it. All of them, and countless others, have shown us that values are created by us, not imposed on us. And I personally think this makes them even more valuable. I’d rather refrain from rape and murder because I choose not to cause that kind of suffering than to refrain from such activities out of fear of eternal punishment.

Treat others as you’d like to be treated. That’s a start. We don’t need God to tell us that. And I think we’re better off without Him.

The Last Gasps of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell

February 7th, 2010 No comments

I’m not sure I’ve ever made an optimistic prediction in my blog, so this may be the first. In spite of the contemptible inability on the part of Democratic lawmakers to ever accomplish anything, I believe that this year they will be able to repeal the military’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy.

When Admiral Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke against the policy this week at a congressional hearing, they removed the last shred of a defensible argument that proponents of DADT had left. Anti-gay lawmakers (a.k.a. Republicans) have been defending the policy for the last two decades on the basis that the military leadership was in favor of it. “I have nothing against gay people,” they could say, “but if the military leadership thinks it’s a bad idea for them to serve openly, I’ll defer to their judgment.” But now the military leadership is calling for an end to the policy, and anti-gay Republicans no longer have any solid ground to stand on.

Since the “military leadership supports the policy” argument is gone, what do the Republicans have left? Let’s look at their only arguments.

1- Openly gay soldiers are a threat to unit cohesion.

To be fair, this argument may have had some force behind it in the past, but no longer. Attitudes towards homosexuals have changed drastically over the last few decades, as now the vast majority of Americans under 30 have absolutely no problem with gays and couldn’t care less about anyone’s sexual preference. Furthermore, with our all-volunteer army I think the Republicans ought to give our soldiers a little more credit. If a soldier can’t do his job properly because he knows the guy serving beside him is gay, then he’s not much of a soldier. These guys wake up every morning knowing that today might be the day their balls get blown off by an I.E.D. and you want us to believe that they can’t handle a gay person in their midst? Come on.

The fact is, Americans under 30 have been exposed to depictions of gays and the gay lifestyle since we were little kids, and for most of us it’s just not an issue. Sure, we may be grossed out by the idea of gay sex, but we don’t see homosexuals as any kind of threat. We’re perfectly aware that not all gay people are sexual predators just waiting for a chance to rape the first person they can get their hands on. Just as The Cosby Show taught our parents that black people weren’t so different from white people after all, so have shows like Ellen, Friends, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, Entourage, The L Word, Six Feet Under, The Office…come to think of it nearly every fucking show on television in the last twenty years…have taught us that gay people are just people like everyone else.

That said, there are still plenty of ignorant, uneducated, in-bred hicks with an irrational hatred of gays, and many of them are soldiers. These are the only people who benefit from DADT, which brings me to the next argument.

2- The policy works.

This is what John McCain and Jeff Sessions insisted at the hearing, after Mullen and Gates spoke out against the policy. McCain was almost dumbfounded, insisting that he’d heard from many military leaders who say that the policy is working.

Well, what does that mean exactly? How is the policy working? Well, it’s working to keep gay soldiers in the closet. That is, after all, what the policy is designed to do. Were it not for the policy, there would definitely be a lot more gay soldiers being honest with their fellow soldiers about who they are instead of being forced to lie. So hooray for the policy!

But hello. Just because a stupid policy works doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get rid of it. A few illustrations of this point:

“I’m the boss of a company and I want to be smartest person here, so it’s my policy only to hire people that I know for a fact are dumber than me. The policy works—I’m the smartest person here! Our company may be doing very poorly, but why should I change the policy if it works?”

“I run a night-club and I only want good-looking people to come in and dance, so it’s my policy to turn away anyone I’m not personally attracted to. Because people come in groups they often all go away if one is turned away, so we usually only get 4 or 5 people a night and we’re losing shitloads of potential revenue, but those 4 or 5 people are simply gorgeous! The policy works!”

“As a Democrat, it’s my policy to pretend to fight for an issue like health care reform or financial regulation when I’m really just working at the behest of the lobbyists who fund my campaigns. The policy definitely works for me personally—thanks to the Republicans always filibustering everything I have a convenient excuse to tell my constituents about why we aren’t able to get real reform. My constituents keep supporting me and the lobbyists keep giving me cash. The policy may be incredibly damaging to the American public I’m supposed to be serving, but it does what it was meant to do: it keeps me in office. So why change it?”

And finally: “I’m an American military commander who is uncomfortable with gay people, who threaten my own sexuality. I can’t just kick gay people out because apparently that’s discrimination, but luckily I’ve got this Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy that forces the gay men I work with to pretend they’re straight. I don’t have to deal with the reality that gay people exist, so the policy works. Sure, I lose a few brave and talented men each month, but it’s a small price to pay for avoiding the feeling of awkwardness I’d have to endure if I knew I was in the presence of a homosexual. Please don’t change the policy.”

Ah, the poor homophobic military commander. The one who insists that the policy shouldn’t change because it works. Never mind who it works for, and in what respect it’s working—the fact is DADT has been on the books for nearly two decades and so far the military hasn’t fallen completely apart. There are still soldiers to command, guns to fire, bombs to drop, enemies to kill…something must be working. For all we know, it’s the fact that the gays are closeted, and if they served openly everything would crumble to the ground and terrorists would overrun America. Which brings me to the last remaining argument the proponents of the policy have left:

3- In the middle of two wars, it would be too risky to change the policy now.

So we’re supposed to wait for a time when we’re not at war? When will that be? The way things are going I guess we’ll have to wait until at least 2110, maybe even 3010. God forbid we stop firing gay soldiers when we actually need soldiers to fight.

Seriously, this is the silliest piece of crap argument I’ve ever heard. The fact that we’ve got two wars going on is exactly why the policy needs to be changed now more than ever. Every month we’re losing hundreds of soldiers to this ridiculous policy, many of them Arabic translators and other professionals who are in short supply and badly needed to accomplish our objectives.

“Well, we’ve caught one of the terrorists, but he refuses to speak English for some reason. Where’s Sergeant Homo?”

“Sorry, Colonel, but Sergeant Homo was discharged last Tuesday. Apparently his boyfriend came by the base, and…”

“Sergeant Homo was gay!? I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you! And outraged. I can’t believe we actually let him translate during our interrogations! Shit. For all we know he could have been flirting with the terrorists instead of translating our questions! That’s sick. I am disgusted. In fact I think I need to throw up, hang on a minute…”

“Um…colonel, what should we do with the terrorist prisoner?”

“Just send him to Bagram. He may have important information but we don’t have anyone left who could understand him. Maybe his English will improve after some sleep-deprivation.”

It’s insane. It’s ridiculous. It needs to stop. Firing gay soldiers, especially translators, hurts national security. If Republicans were consistent in their beliefs, they might insist that the safety of Americans is a little bit more important than the sexual preferences of those who keep them safe.

But they’ll stand up and fight against the repeal, even while the military leadership—at least the non-homophobic segment of it—insists that the policy must go. After all, it’s their homophobic wingnutty constituents who they need to pander to, not the military leadership. Support the troops, yes. But only the straight ones.

The Republicans will stand up and fight this, but I think this time they’ll lose. The political atmosphere regarding gay issues has changed drastically over the last two decades. Even in the deep south, lawmakers don’t want to risk sounding bigoted or prejudiced. And bigotry and prejudice are the only arguments against the repeal. All the lawmakers can do is insist that they are not personally prejudiced. We just need to cater to the prejudice of a few soldiers who don’t want to acknowledge the existence of the gay.

Such an argument lacks any force and I would venture that it is doomed to failure (though when it comes to progressive issues in politics, you never know how the Democrats might manage to screw it up).

Finally, I’m just curious about the implementation of the repeal if the Democrats succeed in passing it. They say it’ll take a year to fully implement, which hurts my brain to try and understand. Really? It will take you an entire year to stop firing gay people? Can’t you just…I don’t know…stop firing them? Seems you could do it tomorrow without doing any paperwork at all! Seriously, what does it mean that the transition will take a year? Are you only going to fire 500 gay people in March, 400 in April, 300 in May and so on? I mean how long does it take to stop doing something? Seriously…

So that’s my two cents on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. I know you didn’t ask for it, but I told you anyway.