Posts Tagged ‘history’

How to distinguishing between Is and Ought when arguing with irrational people

August 1, 2010

One of the awesome philosophical concepts David Hume articulated was the Is-Ought Distinction (or the Is-Ought Problem). It’s very similar to the naturalistic fallacy and it tries to deal with how we can derive how individuals and societies ought to act from objective, verifiable facts. Can we proceed directly from what is to what ought to be? Hume didn’t think so.

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)

Now in this context, Hume is criticizing those who try to derive the ‘ought’ from what someone believes is the ‘is’ of God. So the position he’s taking down is something like this: “Since God is X, we ought to do things that comply with X-ness.” Let’s say that’s the position of moral philosopher A. Then moral philosopher B comes around and says that A is wrong about what God is. B has a different idea of God with different focuses on different aspects of a God. And the moral/ethical philosophical discussion is framed around the question of What God is.

So Hume sees this and sees a badly neglected gap. Even if A or B are right about what God is, neither of them have justified that that observation leads to anything morally good. Why should a quality of a deity be something we want to emulate? How do we even know if that is good or not? Nobody seemed to be discussing that. Put this way, it’s very similar to the Euthyphro Dilemma:

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
Euthyphro, Plato

Now you can extend the Is-Ought Problem beyond just the Is of God (which is kind of a waste of time for nonbelievers like me) when people try to derive policy from history or observations of nature. The problem becomes less of one in these instances because, unlike God, nature and history are about empirical facts which can be verified or falsified. You still have the gap between what Is and what Ought to be (a problem completely lost on some creationists), but at least the Is can be checked independently of subjective theistic assumptions about the supernatural.

Now you have someone like Glennifer Beck saying that because Congress printed official, government-approved Bibles in the early period of American history (that’s the Is part), we therefore ought to not worry so much about that silly old separation of church and state thing anymore.

A secularist who doesn’t know his history might be tempted to argue along similar lines as Hume above; i.e. that just because it was the case that the government approved official Bibles for use in schools, it does not follow that we ought to revive that practice. But someone who made that argument would be missing a much better point, which is that even the initial Is claim of Beck’s argument is just factually wrong.

That’s part of a video series by Chris Rodda, who’s a Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. She’s been going after the factual errors and misrepresentations made on the nature of secularism and America by people like David Barton and Beck. They’re very effective in how they just deal with the actual history without getting caught up in how to solve Hume’s Is-Ought Problem.

See, someone can say that we ought to have, say a public education system that hands out Bibles and whatnot, and then I can say why I think that’s a bad idea. But then we’re just arguing for subjective positions on an Ought issue. But when Beck claims that we ought to imitate history and then proceeds to misrepresent it, Rodda’s corrections of those misrepresentations cut the argument down to nothing. Here’s her unfortunately HuffPo-y RSS feed, and here’s some other of her great counterpoints to pseudohistory:

Our Constitution is not based on the book of Deuteronomy

And the newest one just out today about Barton’s claims of Founders who went to “seminaries.”

America is not a Christian nation

June 12, 2010

First I should probably clarify what I don’t mean by the title of this post. I’m not denying that the authors of the Constitution were mostly Christian. And I’m not denying that the majority of Americans are Christian and always have been.

What I’m attacking here is the idea that our laws and government are based on “Christian values” or “Judeo-Christian heritage” or any other vacuous phrase theocrats invent. And what’s more is that it’s very easy to determine that this was the clear intention of the people who founded the country.

Anyone can dig up diary entries and letters by individuals involved in the founding of America to sell whatever kind of historical interpretation they like. And there’s no shortage of people attempting to do that on this issue. But our country isn’t based on diary entries and letters. You kind of have to wonder why, if these people were so insistent that this be a “Christian nation,” they neglected to mention that fact anywhere at all in its founding charter.

There are, however, some mentions of religion itself in the Constition. Let’s go through all of them right now. It won’t take long.

Article VII, Section II

Done in convention by the unanimous consent of the states present the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven and of the independence of the United States of America the twelfth. In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names,

This is followed by the signatures of the delegates.

This one I can cover pretty quickly. The day I’m writing this is Saturday, which is named after the Roman god of agriculture. Does the fact that I call it Saturday mean that I’m a pagan? “In the year of our Lord” was, and in some ways still is, a dating convention of the time. Even “AD” is still used often when people are talking about ancient history.

The Establishment Clause

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What I like about this one in this context is that it’s so clearly against the first of the Ten Commandments. In one the order is to not have any other gods before one in particular, and the other says that you can have other gods if you want. Killing people that don’t worship one specific god is a pretty extreme version of prohibiting the free exercise of religion. I can’t even believe this needs to be pointed out.

Article VI, Section III

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Now there are religious tests for public office in a pretty informal way here in the US in that most voters will take a candidates’ religious views into consideration when voting. But whatever those views are won’t officially disqualify anyone from holding whatever public office they like. That’s what this refers to, and we know this because unfortunately Jefferson’s attempts to develop an 18th century functioning MRI which could monitor voters’ religious feelings while they cast their ballot were eventually de-funded.

Article VI, Section II and the Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11

These two tie together.

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

So the important thing to remember about this is that treaties signed by the US are equal to the Constitution in that they are both “supreme Law of the Land.” That’s half of this particular argument. Now even if you’re not convinced by the earlier mentions of religion in the Constitution, we’d have to ask whether or not there are anything more specific in a treaty made by the United States, since that would clarify the issue of whether or not America is a Christian nation.

The very first treaty signed under the authority of the United States was the Treaty of Tripoli.

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. It’s as if these guys are screaming from beyond their graves at Pat Robertson and similar douchenozzles that they’re wrong. But before you get all mad scientist-y and try to resurrect them for that purpose in a castle on a mountaintop during a thunderstorm, just remember that all we have to do to prove the “Christian nation” types wrong is to just go through our laws.

Kurt Vonnegut’s letter home after Dresden

January 12, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut really was a POW at Dresden during the firebombing. That part of Slaughterhouse-Five was true. And now we’re learning that we really can become ‘unstuck in time’ so that we can go back to WWII and read #12102964 Pfo Vonnegut’s letter home following that bombing campaign.

Richard Carrier at Skepticon 2

December 11, 2009

The St. Louis, MO skeptical community has started putting on an annual convention. This is pretty cool since now there seem to be developing regional meetings like this so that people who aren’t lazy like me can get to one within a reasonable driving distance. The last one was a few weeks ago, and someone who took video has started posting the talks on YouTube.

Richard Carrier was one of the more interesting speakers and I’ll post his talk here (although something went wrong in part 3 on my end here). He’s a PhD in ancient history and his talk is on the question of Jesus’ historicity. Carrier’s got this knack for not just the scholarship of history – and I’d have to leave that question to people who actually know something about it – but also for communicating the facts and his views on the facts of his subject in a way that’s very accessible to laypersons, without dumbing down the material.

And before you dismiss this as some kind of Zeitgeist-ish “OMG JESUS NEVER EXISTED” kind of stuff, it should be said that Carrier’s on the more rational end of the Jesus mythicists and is very critical in his other writings of some of the more outlandish claims of people like Acharya S, John Dominic Crossan, Timothy Freke, and Peter Gandy.

Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Re-writing history at Fox

November 25, 2009

This is even crazier than the 9/11 “truthers.” At least they acknowledge that 9/11 actually happened, unlike Perino here.

I also love how the very next sentence is her saying that she hopes that Obama’s administration is “not looking at this politically.” Yes, there’s nothing more apolitical than pretending that there were no terrorist attacks during Bush’s terms in office.


September 22, 2009

There’s a movie about Daniel Ellsburg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, exposing government lies about the war in Indochina at the time.

And Ricky Gervais is pretty funny.

Ray Comfort, still retarded

September 19, 2009

Bananaman Ray Comfort is distributing his own abridged version of copies of On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection to college campuses. I’m sure there are some interesting edits in chapter 6 (“Difficulties of Theory”) where Darwin tries to anticipate objections and deal with them. Guess which of those two will be included in Comfort’s version of Origin? He even wrote an introduction, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at the cover. His name is suspiciously absent, for some strange reason. But it’s 50 pages! And it’s online as a .pdf file, but I’m not going to bother looking it up and linking to it because fuck that guy.

Of course, he goes on about how evolution led to the Nazi Holocaust. That’s not just bad history and shameless opportunism, it’s actually Holocaust denial because Comfort is denying the actual truth of the history of the Holocaust. The standard creationist objection when they present an Argument ad Hitlerum is that Hitler accepted evolution, thought that it should be incorporated politically, and the next thing you know it’s Jews-In-The-Ovens time.

The first problem is that even if it were true, this doesn’t actually prove evolution wrong. It just means that people can misuse it via the naturalistic fallacy in order to reinforce their own political beliefs. In order to accept that though, you have to ignore the fact that we are unique among species (as far as we know) in that we can actually distinguish between What Is and What Ought To Be. Just because the natural world is a cruel and heartless place where selective pressures mold species in particular ways at particular times, it does not follow that we ought to institute such policies in our governments. If we did, we would also set up huge molten rock reservoirs and unexpectedly unleash them on populations at random, because hey, that’s what nature does, right?

The second problem, the major one, is that the premise isn’t even true. Hitler, like Ray Comfort, was an evolution denying creationist. Like everyone else, including all of his fellow creationists, Hitler knew that artificial selection (breeding) could create different breeds in a specific way, but he denied that this could be done in what Comfort and his fellow creationists would call “across kinds of animals.” “Kind” is a biblical term for some vague, undefined classification of organisms. Although I don’t think Hitler actually referred to “kinds” of animals, he clearly understood the concept.

“The fox remains always a fox, the goose remains a goose, and the tiger will retain the character of a tiger.”
Mein Kampf, vol. i, ch. xi

“For it was by the Will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties.”
Mein Kampf, vol. ii, ch. x

“From where do we get the right to believe, that from the very beginning Man was not what he is today? Looking at Nature tells us, that in the realm of plants and animals changes and developments happen. But nowhere inside a kind shows such a development as the breadth of the jump , as Man must supposedly have made, if he has developed from an ape-like state to what he is today.”
Tischgesprache im Fuhrerhauptquartier

Talk like that could appear on the walls of Ken Ham’s creationist “museum” and nobody would even blink. Besides, which position makes it easier to believe that you’re qualified to best know who lives and who dies – that there’s a purpose to life which is given to us by a deity that holds certain peoples in esteem and others in contempt, or that we’re the product of an imperfect and unguided process taking place over billions of years?

The suggestion I’ve been hearing lately has been to get kids in colleges to request this book from their university, remove the pseudoscientific proselytizing in the 50 page intro and give it to other students, or the local library. But that’s going to make it a little lopsided, so maybe pick up a copy of Michael Shermer’s book on Alfred Russell Wallace and stick it in there to balance it.  With all the hoopla over this being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin, Wallace could use some props, too.

Florida school officials face jail time for endorsing religion in a public school

September 18, 2009

The principal and athletic director of a Florida high school are facing contempt of court charges which could land them in prison for having led a prayer at a school event (CNN). Kanye West was not there to interrupt the prayer.

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, which is just fucking great because now conservative douchebags are going to try to make it look like the ACLU is throwing Christians into prison for praying when the truth is that they have nothing to do with the sentencing and are responding to school officials using state power to endorse religion, not a “simple prayer.” But that nuance will be missed by the jackoffs who take every opportunity to pounce on the ACLU for everything they do, even when it’s defending those very same jackoffs.

Anyway, there’s something called the Congressional Prayer Caucus. They wrote a letter in support of the defendants, which in part read:

“many of America’s Founding Fathers were resolute in their faiths, and the impact of such is evident in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and many of their writings.”

I’m not sure exactly what they mean by this being evident in the Constitution. The only possibility would be that they are referring to the dating method, where it said “In the Year of Our Lord.” But that’s kind of like saying that my calling  tomorrow Saturday is evident of my resolute faith in the Roman god of agriculture.

The DoI is a funny thing to pick out, since it’s clearly referring to a sort of deistic or pantheistic god, which is not something to which one would actually pray. And as far as “many of their writings,” so what? The country isn’t founded on letters and diary entries.If these guys meant for their private thoughts about religion to become national policy, I think they were smart enough to maybe mention that in one of the actual national policy documents.

Pat Buchanan’s Nazi apologetics

September 3, 2009

One thing I should just make clear right away: The title of this post is not a hyperbole. I never much liked the Bush=Hitler thing I saw over the past five or six years of the previous administration, and the comparisons that come up now from the extreme right wing and the Lyndon LaRouche cult are just plain absurd. So I’m not just carelessly tossing around a phrase like “Nazi apologetics” with only superficial support.

There’s no need to take my word for it though. Check out his column on which marks the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Jamison Foser at Media Matters provides some context from Buchanan’s history of sympathy for the Nazis, as has Zachary Roth at Talking Points Memo.

Buchanan: John Cleese started WWII

Buchanan: "John Cleese started WWII"

I’ll have to quote a bit at length to get into the context of where Buchanan’s argument falls apart:

On Sept. 1, 1939, 70 years ago, the German Army crossed the Polish frontier. On Sept. 3, Britain declared war.

Six years later, 50 million Christians and Jews had perished. Britain was broken and bankrupt, Germany a smoldering ruin. Europe had served as the site of the most murderous combat known to man, and civilians had suffered worse horrors than the soldiers.

By May 1945, Red Army hordes occupied all the great capitals of Central Europe: Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Berlin. A hundred million Christians were under the heel of the most barbarous tyranny in history: the Bolshevik regime of the greatest terrorist of them all, Joseph Stalin.

What cause could justify such sacrifices? The German-Polish war had come out of a quarrel over a town the size of Ocean City, Md., in summer. Danzig, 95 percent German, had been severed from Germany at Versailles in violation of Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination. Even British leaders thought Danzig should be returned.

It might be almost understandable for a columnist to take the German invasion of Poland as merely a result of “a quarrel over a town the size of Ocean City, Md. in summer” as the events were actually unfolding 70 years ago. But now we have the benefit of hindsight, as historians have for over half a century now. We have the Nazi internal records and transcripts of Hitler’s speeches and lots of other lines of evidence which converge on an explanation for the Nazi invasion of Poland being the first step of a psychopath’s strategy to conquer the world. I can’t believe something like that even needs to be pointed out anymore. Then Buchanan goes on to claim that the Holocaust was really all the Allies’ fault. What a douchebag.

Glenn Beck is an ignorant fool

September 1, 2009

Yeah, obvious, I know. But there’s a great facepalming moment in this video at 50 seconds in:

Then I got to wondering what the hell this “9/12 Project” is, so I googled it. And I found this website. And on that website, I found this picture:

And in that picture, you’ll notice two references to Thomas Paine.

If Glenn Beck has read Thomas Paine, he’s being intentionally dishonest. And if he hasn’t read Thomas Paine, then I’m not surprised. His hordes of moronic supporters have no excuse either, since anyone can check out his works in a public (Ooooooooooh! Scary!) library if they like.

The reason I feel confident in saying that is because only a few seconds before hilariously misspelling “oligarchy” and somehow not realizing that “oligarch” is, in fact, a word, he rants about internationalism. This is one of Beck’s boogeymen – the scary internationalist idea of tearing down arbitrary borders and uniting people in common interests. It apparently sells well for people who hate foreigners but are at least conscious enough to know that they shouldn’t just come out and say that. They need some pseudo-rational justification for their xenophobia, which is where fear of internationalism enters into the discourse (not all opposition to certain kinds of internationalism are based on that fear, but it would be foolish to deny that it exists, and that people like Beck capitalize on it).

Thomas Paine had some things to say about nationalism and internationalism. Let’s take a look:

“In stating these matters, I speak an open and disinterested language, dictated by no passion but that of humanity. To me, who have not only refused offers, because I thought them improper, but have declined rewards I might with reputation have accepted, it is no wonder that meanness and imposition appear disgustful. Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

Rights of Man, Chapter 5

In other words, Paine is saying that there is nothing special about his position as an American, and his independence includes independence from duties for a specific country and against another. For someone to have the world as their country is about as explicit of an endorsement of internationalism as one can get.

And not only that, but has Beck ever read The Age of Reason? Jesus. If his audience thinks that the “new atheists” are hostile to religion, they really should maybe bother to read this major work by someone they claim to admire. Here are some quotes from what Paine had to say about the Bible and religion in that book:

“In many things, however, the writings of the Jewish poets deserve a better fate than that of being bound up, as they now are, with the trash that accompanies them, under the abused name of the Word of God.”

“But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person alone. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.”

“[T]he theory or doctrine of redemption has for its basis an idea of pecuniary justice, and not that of moral justice. If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, … another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.”

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

I wonder how well that would sell to Beck’s audience. Maybe he should run some of that by the suits at FOX and see how that sticks. Forget FOX, I think even someone like Richard Dawkins would find these excerpts a bit too over-the-top in its hostility to the kinds of values which so many of Beck’s audience hold to so fanatically. After all, Dawkins seems to get along well with more liberal believers, but Paine went one step further in just flatly saying that he detested Christianity and the Bible as a whole.

Actually, you know what? Someone really should call up Glenn Beck’s radio show and read that last quote to him and see how he handles that situation.