What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?

Sam Harris has a contest on. “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.” The best essay (as judged by Harris opponent and atheist philosopher Russell Blackford) will win $2,000 (and be published on Harris’s personal website). “You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.” If any such essay actually changes Sam Harris’s mind, they will win not just $2,000 but $20,000 (and Harris will publicly recant his view).

Ophelia Benson has been critical of this contest (see A Losing Lottery Ticket, Sam Has to Presume a Great Big Ought, and a guest post from a commenter Why the Is/Ought Problem Matters). His own contest page (The Moral Landscape Challenge) has an important FAQ (a must read for any contenders). I actually am behind Harris’s program (I think his core thesis is correct, and I think Benson is wrong to say it is not), but I am not very impressed with Harris’s ability to defend or articulate it.

I had even greater problems with Michael Shermer’s attempt to defend the same core thesis Harris does, and I have commented before on how he was simply destroyed by his opponent, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, even though I think Pigliucci is ultimately wrong and Shermer ultimately right (see Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science). I expect Harris will get similarly pwned. And that’s sad. Because it hurts their cause. They just aren’t the best defenders of this idea. And they should admit that and stop trying to be lone wolfs and look for and work with expert collaborators. There are several real, even renowned, philosophers who have been defending the same core thesis for years. Harris did not come up with anything fundamentally new here, and they have far more skill and experience dealing with the rigorous philosophical requirements of this debate.

Below I will explain what is wrong with Harris’s contest so far (and why it is not what Benson is concerned about); why what Benson has been saying is incorrect (and misses the point of Harris’ actual core thesis); and how (again) science can actually take over moral philosophy the same way it has done the theory of life (in the science of biology) and the universe (in the sciences of physics, astrophysics, and cosmology) and man and society (in the sciences of anthropology and sociology) and of mind (in psychology, neurophysiology, and cognitive science). [Read more…]

Michael Shermer: Rapist or Sleaze? (Unless Box Checked for Other)

Presumably you’re aware by now that accusations have been made that Michael Shermer did something bad (if not, you can catch up on current events here). There are some things atheists need to consider about this, philosophically and personally.  [Read more…]

Attack of the Lycanthropic Transsexuals!

Every once and awhile I find myself with enough time to clear the baffles, as it were, and address a silly argument that really needs answering but I’ve been too busy with pressing stuff to get to. This is one of those arguments. About six months ago, a Christian blogger on the Triablogue network (a Calvinist creationist inerrantist by the name of Steve) reacted in horror that I would think noted transsexual Lana Wachowski was “super cute” (see Lana Wachowski Is Awesome). In fact, of course, I said she was “funny, smart, eloquent, and super cute,” but when you’re a repressed sex-obsessed Christian the only thing I guess you would notice me saying about her is that she’s physically attractive (even though those other three attributes I also find sexually attractive in women, and supercuteness is a property of personality as well as appearance, but maybe all that’s a little too advanced for a creationist, way beyond first unit in sexuality 101).

Image from comedy comic How to Fight a WerewolfThis, plus another remark by noted atheist Jeff Lowder (a founder of the Internet Infidels and frequent blogger at the Secular Outpost), got Steve’s goat, prompting him to correct this perversion in the atheist community by claiming we were being illogical cowards in accepting transsexuals (and worse even, actually liking them!) in a post Steve titled Species Dysphoria (in mockery of the condition called Gender Dysphoria…which used to be called Gender Identity Disorder, so I don’t know if Steve meant this title as a double insult, since the condition had just been renamed in diagnostic manuals earlier that year, downgrading its status from a mental disorder in need of cure to a natural condition in need of acceptance, in parallel to homosexuality in that same diagnostic manual decades ago: see APA Revises Manual: Being Transgender Is No Longer a Mental Disorder).

Steve’s principal analogy is lycanthropy. No, seriously. But we have to build up to that.

Here’s Steve’s lead-in: [Read more…]

Ten Years to the Robot Apocalypse

Counting down. Soon we shall all be doomed.

Okay, I wrote this on the plane to Alabama about a month ago. It’s been languishing in my queue until now. So step back in time. I’m presently five miles above the earth hurtling through space in a giant metal bullet at hundreds of miles an hour. Earlier I was reading Science News (an old issue from last year; I’m behind) while waiting on the tarmac for takeoff. Got to the article on Eureqa, the “robot scientist” that can discover the laws of nature all on its own, just from looking at and experimenting with data. I was reminded of an earlier article a few years ago on the Lipson-Zykov experiment (mentioned in a sidebar). Then I caught another just recently, about Spaun (yeah, I’ve been reading Science News out of order). Spaun is a neural-net computer program that makes decisions like a person: it thinks, memorizes, solves problems, gambles, etc. All these developments, in the span of just a couple of years. Had some thoughts… [Read more…]

Atheism…Plus What?

Picture of Dr. Carrier at the podium discussing Atheism Plus at the 2013 American Atheists conventionVideo of my talk at the 2013 American Atheists Convention (their 50th anniversary!) is now online. It is getting downvotes from the haters (even at one point more downs than ups). Please go watch that video (Atheism…Plus What?) and see if you can find anything in it that honestly deserves a downvote. Seriously. And if you don’t, please upvote it. Show the haters they don’t own the movement.

Others reading the comments (I can’t stomach such a task myself) tell me that the downvotes appear to be coming from people who didn’t even watch the video (or didn’t watch it all through). It appears, in fact, that these downvotes are there in an attempt to discourage people from watching the video, rather than representing disagreement with its actual content or quality or value. [You can now read a transcript and view the slideshow.]

Note that the Women in Atheism panel at AACon 2013 is also a must-view adjunct to this, since in it the women on the panel brilliantly answer some of the common questions that arose from my talk. Unfortunately that video is not yet online (I’m not sure if they are putting everything up or only select things). I will link it in here as soon as I find out it’s available. But one of the examples of what they addressed is the hyperskeptical claim that all the harassment of atheism women in our movement is done by hundreds of Christians posing as atheists, which actually should outrage you all the more if you really believed that (rather than using it as an excuse to do nothing about it). Greta Christina gave an excellent discourse on why that doubt is irrational (in short: we see the same phenomenon in every other movement, e.g. the gaming and tech industries, so we should not expect to be a miraculous exception), and other members of the panel added to that (such as pointing out that we have plenty of evidence a lot of them are atheists).

I also did a podcast last month on Atheism+ that went up just recently, in which I have a reasonable conversation with someone who disapproves of it, UK political scientist and Huffington Post blogger Tony Sobrado (listen to his Interview with Richard Carrier on Atheism Plus). No hating or flaming, and no straw men or other fallacies. He had concerns based on misunderstandings and missing or incorrect information, asked about them calmly, and gave me the opportunity to answer them. All without any atmosphere of hostility. A model for how to do this. [A convenient transcript of that interview is now available.]

That podcast was inspired by Sobrado’s Huffington Post article against Atheism+ “What Is Atheism Plus and Do We Need It?” and from listening to the ensuing podcast or reading its transcript you can see how we addressed everything in his article on that show. So anyone who may have read that and wondered how we might respond (or was angered by it and wished someone would answer it), this is the podcast for you. But the AACon video is a good introductory piece to start with. The two together tell you pretty much all you need in order to understand what we’re really advocating in the Atheism+ movement and why.


[Update: I have since also published an essay on this subject in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 21.1 [2013], pp. 105-13, which is available online as Atheism…Plus What? Then see here for all my blogging on the topic of Atheism Plus, before and since.]

That Christian Nation Nonsense (Gods Bless Our Pagan Nation)

This is a transcript of my speech at this year’s convention for the National Atheist Party (minus spontaneous asides and ad-libs). Though this was an oratorical adaptation and rearrangement of my previous work online (Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy), it is also much improved and contains new material, and I received multiple requests from the audience to make a transcript of it available. This is my cue text, so it is not in every respect word-for-word what I spoke at the convention, but it is very near to it. I began with a quotation… [Read more…]

Harriet Hall Redeemed

Getting back to things I missed this past week and a half while I was away, I have good news to report on the infamous “big rifts” front. In my original post for Atheism+ I included what appeared to be the grossly callous behavior of leading skeptic Harriet Hall (although without naming her), which really shocked me and led me to conclude she must be rather heartless. I had then linked to a description of that and other actions against Surly Amy and the Skepchicks at the same event, and made these general remarks of outrage (though of the behavior of numerous people as a whole, not Hall specifically):

[A]s the Surly Amy story shows, there are clearly many of us who disregard the happiness of others just to hurt them, mocking or insulting (or even threatening) them merely to please one’s own vanity or self-righteousness, in complete disregard of the pointless misery it causes another human being. That is fucking cruel. And if you are complicit in that, or don’t even see what’s wrong with it, or worse, plan to engage in Christian-style apologetics for it, defending it with the same bullshit fallacies and tactics the Christians use to defend their own immorality or that of their fictional god, then I don’t want anything to do with you. You are despicable. You are an awful person. You disgust me. You are not my people.

Even the most rudimentary application of The Golden Rule would have caused any of the people who treated Amy as they did, or Rebecca Watson, or any of the many women and men who have been targeted by this shit, to stop themselves well beforehand. “Wait. Would I want people to treat me this way?” No, you fucking wouldn’t. So alas, you are a hypocrite.

Well, I am now glad to report I can (and will) add a retraction regarding Dr. Hall. I was quite wrong in her case. She has since apologized and explained that she didn’t realize the context of what she had done and how it had been misconstrued. She and Surly Amy have had an excellent correspondence over this, and Hall comes across as a great person and very concerned and on board with our goals and values (and not, as she had erroneously given the impression of, mocking and deriding them). Indeed her image is fully redeemed for me. She says she had no idea the harm she had caused, and would have behaved otherwise if she knew. That’s the behavior Atheism+ wants to promote and wants to see more of: recognition of moral responsibility, learning, and improving ourselves and our movement. And above all, listening and communicating in a reasonable fashion.

Surly Amy has written an excellent post on their reconciliation, with quotations of their correspondence, which is all very well worth reading: Chicks, Tough Old Hens and Roosters. Oh, and T-shirts at TAM. It explains a lot, and dispels a lot of myths, especially the notion that Hall has any sympathy for the people who were using her t-shirt protest as proof she was on their side. She quite clearly explains she was not then and is not now.




Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science

Ophelia Benson summarized Michael Shermer’s latest foot-in-mouth in his row with Massimo Pigliucci over whether and to what degree moral philosophy should become a moral science instead. Reading their exchange, I find Shermer is more inclined toward ideological biases and superficial worldview declarations than actual, sound, self-critical, well-thought analyses in this matter.

As a result, Shermer is doing a really awful job of defending what I actually agree with: that it’s high time moral philosophy began to be folded into the sciences (the same way philosophy of mind became psychology and cognitive science, for example). And that’s annoying. It’s like when awful Jesus myth theorists make it harder for me to argue that Jesus might not have existed after all, by their constantly using terrible arguments that then get falsely imputed to me. My case then gets judged by their failures. I now worry the same will happen here. So let me try to nip that in the bud.

The General Point

Pigliucci already exposes Shermer’s lack of understanding in this latest matter generally, so I won’t rehash all that. [Read more…]

Sexual Objectification: An Atheist Perspective

Picture of Caroline Heldman, Ph.D.A recently excellent TED talk by Caroline Heldman about sexual objectification is a must-view. It will just take you thirteen minutes of your time, and I guarantee every minute is informative–things you should know, if you don’t already (and don’t assume you do). She correctly defines and identifies a real problem, identifies from empirical and scientific findings why it’s bad, and lays out what you can do about it, and everything she suggests is doable without much expense (the only resources required: just your attention and concern, and what it motivates you to say and think and do) except one thing, which is producing better art, advertising and media yourself (which we need not all do: that’s a recommendation for artists, marketers, and media people).

To watch that video, and read yet another disgusting example of how the women in our own movement are being treated, see Rebecca Watson’s post on it (Reminder: I Am an Object). Her post is short but to the point and she gives the evidence of what she’s talking about (in her case, something far worse than what Heldman is talking about, but on the same arc). Why so many men in our movement (and even some women) are not taking this seriously as a problem to speak out against and fight I don’t know. Anyway, the Heldman video is embedded at the end of her post, so if you don’t care about the latest harassment of Rebecca Watson, you can just skip to the end and watch Heldman (or click on her picture here above). Indeed I dare you to.

In the meantime, I have more to say on this subject as an atheist, a humanist, a feminist, and a philosopher… [Read more…]

Being with or against Atheism+

What does it mean to support or oppose Atheism+? I took a stab at defining what Atheism+ is all about in The New Atheism+. And Dana Hunter has assembled a quick roundup of other articles on FtB about this movement up to then, but Greta Christina’s posts Why Atheism Plus Is Good for Atheism and Atheism Plus, and Some Thoughts on Divisiveness are both a must-read, while Jen McCreight has announced the launch of the new Atheism Plus Website which is still under construction but will certainly grow in content.

Here I will make it as simple as possible. I have added this new requirement on my booking page (and this is just my own personal speaking policy, I don’t expect anyone else to adopt it):

Note that I will not speak at events run by organizations that are unwilling to repudiate sexism, racism, and homophobia, or that do not endorse the values of reasonableness, compassion, and integrity. You do not have to make a public statement or policy on this. You don’t even have to specifically mention it. But I must feel comfortable that you are an organization that shares these values. And I will assume you are, unless I have reason not to. But if you consider my taking a stand on this to be divisive, don’t ask me to speak at your event (unless it is specifically to debate our moral differences in a reasonable manner). Otherwise I will work with any organization that approves of this value statement, even if it is not an atheist organization or is even an explicitly religious organization.

This goes for individuals as well as organizations, although that will simply be a matter of which company I would prefer to have wherever I happen to be, and not a condition of speaking anywhere (since it’s a free country and I fully expect assholes and douchebags will inevitably be anywhere). It will also be a condition of who I condemn or disown on my own time and in my own venues. In short, if you reject this value statement, you are simply my ideological enemy, and I will give you no quarter. I’ll respect your legal and human rights, because I believe in that. But don’t be shocked if I am not friendly.

This includes if you mock or make fun of Atheism+ or belittle it with stupid dumb-ass shit like calling it Stalinism. That makes you an asshole. Point blank. Plain and simple. We are simply not going to let the Atheism movement become like chat roulette (a point well made in How Not to Build Inclusive Communities).

The rest of this post deals with other, more specific confusions over just what Atheism+ is all about, and who we are chucking into the sewers and shaking the dust off our sandals at. [Read more…]