Love should be something we can hold onto all of our lives

I’ve been married for 30 years, and there’s no end in sight, fortunately. But just imagine that, in my imminent old age, I were to seriously injure myself and be hospitalized for a long period…and my wife wasn’t allowed to see me. And then it was decided that we were both so feeble and in need of care that we were put in nursing homes, for our own good…and they were separate facilities, and we were not allowed to see each other. Then, since we were obviously incompetent, our home and belongings were sold by the state to cover our costs. And finally, one of us dies…and we aren’t allowed to see each other in those final days.

That would be a nightmare. I’m pretty sure it won’t happen — oh, the dying part will, someday, but not the right to find comfort with each other. But that’s because my wife and I are acceptably heterosexual. If we were gay, it would be a completely different story.

I’m sure someone somewhere is gloating that a couple of old perverts were locked out of their sinful ways, but all I see is a tragedy of love stymied by hate.

A priest, a scientist, and a Communist discuss morality

We had a fun evening on Friday—a crowd of a few hundred people sat down to consider the problem of a morality at the University of Chicago. At the front of the room we had Bob Bossie (a very liberal Catholic), Sunsara Taylor (a very articulate Communist) and me to make a few opening remarks and open the floodgates of questions from the audience. It was interesting and thoughtful, and nothing at all like this incredible session on Fox News.

Let me emphasize that Bob was not that crazy priest in the video, declaring that godlessness meant the death of hope and the decline of your money making ability, that socialism and secularism were a failure, and capitalism was the only economic philosophy that could possibly lead to morality. That is, Bob was not freaking insane. He does believe in God, but his God seems to be a superfluous entity bobbing on top of a core of very humanist values, and when he talked about what he really cared about, it was communities of people.

Taylor’s position was very similar in a lot of ways — that we need to change the world through liberation of the oppressed, and the way to do that was through revolutionary Communism. In her case, though, the philosophical justification wasn’t at all superfluous — Communism was the best strategy for bringing about change. We had a little set of questions we’d worked out before the event, and she had the advantage of us all in providing the most coherent answers to them…I just don’t think she’s entirely right. I don’t like the idea of a revolution led by a vanguard, I’m more of an evolution driven by the education and inspiration of the masses kind of guy.

Here are the answers to our guiding questions that I gave (sort of) in my opening remarks.

1. Can science provide a morality to change the world?


Science merely describes what is, not what should be, and it also takes a rather universal view: science as science takes no sides on matters relevant to a particular species, and would not say that an ape is more important than a mouse is more important than a rock. Don’t ask science to tell you what to do when making some fine-grained moral decision, because that is not what science is good at.

What science is, is a policeman of the truth. What it’s very good at is telling you when a moral decision is being made badly, in opposition to the facts. If you try to claim that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, science can provide you a long list of animals that practice homosexuality freely, naturally, and with no ill consequences. If you try to claim that abortion is bad because it has horrible physiological consequences to pregnant women, science will provide you with the evidence that it does no such thing, and also that childbirth is far more physiologically debilitating.

If you want to claim that homosexuals should be stoned to death because the Bible says so, science will tell you yep, that’s what it says, and further, we’ll point out that the Abrahamic religions seem to be part of a culturally successful and relatively stable matrix. “Science”, if we’re imagining it as some institutional entity in the world, really doesn’t care — there is no grand objective morality, no goal or purpose to life other than survival over multiple generations, and it could dispassionately conclude that many cultures with moral rules that we might personally consider abhorrent can be viable.

However, I would suggest that science would also concede that we as a species ought to support a particular moral philosophy, not because it is objectively superior, but because it is subjectively the proper emphasis of humanity…and that philosophy is humanism. In the same way, of course, we’d also suggest that cephalopods would ideally follow the precepts of cephalopodism.

So don’t look to science for a moral philosophy: look to humanism. Humanism says that we should strive to maximize the long-term welfare and happiness of humans; that we should look to ourselves, not to imaginary beings in the sky or to the imperatives written down in old books, to aspire to something better, something more coherent and successful at promoting our existence on the planet.

Science wouldn’t disagree. But it would be a kind of passive agreement that says, sure, nothing in that idea is in violation of reality, go for it. It would also be egging the cephalopods on, though.

2. Are science, religion, and communism complementary, conflictual or mutually exclusive of one another?

Science and religion are definitely in conflict. Again, science is only acting as a policeman, though: it’s firing up the sirens and flashing lights to pull over the priests and tell them that claiming authority on the basis of an imaginary man in the sky is fallacious and discredits your entire paradigm. Rethink the basis of your beliefs, and maybe we can get along.

I think science and communism are also in conflict, but perhaps less dramatically so. There, we have to point out an empirical problem, that communist societies haven’t fared so well. The concession I would have to make is that communism is a young philosophy, unlike religion, so it can be excused to some degree for being at the start of the learning curve. I find it a little hard to excuse some of the human costs of communism, but then science also has had human costs.

But science isn’t a moral philosophy. I’ve proposed humanism as our tool; are communism and religion in conflict with that? And that’s where the answer gets murkier, because more progressive versions of those philosophies all seem to converge on humanism, anyway. The quest for social justice is a humanist ideal, and it’s also front and center in communism and liberal religion; you can be either of those and also be a humanist. I wouldn’t exactly call them complementary, but I would call them compatible.

3. How will we motivate people, and with what moral paradigm to change the world?

As I’ve said repeatedly, science doesn’t provide a morality. What it does provide, and what I optimistically and subjectively think will motivate people, is that it provides rigor and a path to the truth of the world. I know, I could be cynical and suggest that what people really want is delusions, distractions, and reassurances to help them hide away from reality — but what I’ve noticed is that people who accept reality seem to be better able to deal with it, and are often happier and more content. And further, they are better prepared to change the actual world, rather than burying themselves deeper in their fantasies.

All three of us disagreed on many things…but trust me, this wasn’t Fox News. It wasn’t a coterie of flaming idiots, for one thing.

A moral conundrum, resolved with scripture

I’d never realized what a useful tool the Bible is in infallibly resolving difficult moral problems until I read this detailed dissection of a difficult situation on Answers in Genesis.

Here’s the hypothetical situation: you know the whereabouts of a family of Jews hiding from the Nazis. A Nazi patrol comes up to you and asks where they are; you, a good God-fearing Christian, can either lie and say you don’t know (which would be bad, because, like, lying is a sin), or you could tell the truth, and the Nazis would zip off and search for and presumably execute the family. What do you do?

As a non-Bible believing amoral godless atheist, my first thought was that this is trivial: you lie your pants off. The ‘crime’ of telling a lie pales into insignificance against the crime of enabling the death of fellow human beings.

According to Bodie Hodge of AiG, though, I’m wrong. The good Christian should reject lies, Satan’s tools, in all circumstances, and should immediately ‘fess up the location of the Jews. He backs it up with Bible quotes, too.

If we love God, we should obey Him (John 14:15). To love God first means to obey Him first–before looking at our neighbor. So, is the greater good trusting God when He says not to lie or trusting in our fallible, sinful minds about the uncertain future?

Consider this carefully. In the situation of a Nazi beating on the door, we have assumed a lie would save a life, but really we don’t know. So, one would be opting to lie and disobey God without the certainty of saving a life–keeping in mind that all are ultimately condemned to die physically. Besides, whether one lied or not may not have stopped the Nazi solders from searching the house anyway.

As Christians, we need to keep in mind that Jesus Christ reigns. All authority has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18), and He sits on the throne of God at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33; Hebrews 8:1). Nothing can happen without His say. Even Satan could not touch Peter without Christ’s approval (Luke 22:31). Regardless, if one were to lie or not, Jesus Christ is in control of timing every person’s life and able to discern our motives. It is not for us to worry over what might become, but rather to place our faith and obedience in Christ and to let Him do the reigning. For we do not know the future, whereas God has been telling the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).

Gosh. I never thought of it that way. So…all those Christians who sheltered Jews during WWII are actually burning in hell right now for their sinful wickedness? That is so counterintuitive, it must be true!

Don’t die gay in R.I.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe how callous these conservative politicians can be. The governor of Rhode Island has just vetoed a bill that would have allowed a same-sex partner to make funeral arrangements for a dead partner. So imagine this: someone wracked with grief at the loss of someone to whom they had committed a substantial part of their life now gets to also be told that they are locked out of the responsibility of taking care of anything to do with the funeral ceremony. How degrading and insensitive; how vile and intrusive.

Shame on Governor Carcieri. It takes a real man to kick the heart-broken and bereaved at the moment of their deepest hurt, and Carcieri has arranged to do it over and over again for years to come.

The cameraman speaks

We’re learning a bit more about the fellow who was maced and arrested in Chicago, thanks to the efforts of the Chicago Ethical Humanist Society; members of that group are busily writing to me to let me know the Whole Truth of the incident, and why they were justified in siccing the police on Sunsara Taylor’s cameraman. It’s weird, though: they keep telling me how bad and awful and wicked this fellow is — his name is Gregory Koger, by the way — but they won’t say what he did that justified the police assault on him. And that is dismaying. The ethical society doesn’t seem to care much about ethics and logic and justice.

So I got this email:

PZ, this is the man – in his own words – whom Taylor recruited to be her cameraman.

What do you think she thought his reaction would be when told by the police to stop/leave?! She knew he would snap, fight, and would get pulverized in the process.

Are you still full of admiration for her?

I followed the link, and the answer to the question is more complicated than a yes or no.

Koger is an admitted jailbird. He committed some very serious crimes and served some very serious jail time. He probably is a little bit scary; maybe a bit frustrated, and definitely angry with the system.

Yet when you go to that link, what you also discover is that he’s ambitious and is trying to improve himself through education. He thinks, he writes, he studies. He’s active in the Communist Party, which, while I don’t care much for the revolutionary agenda, is definitely motivated by a strong sense of social justice, and I can understand why someone who is being judged by the comfortable bourgeoisie as a thug who deserves to be beat up by the police would find it appealing.

What I can’t understand is how someone who identifies themselves as an ethical humanist would decide this fellow human being was nothing but a mad dog brought to the event to provoke a violent incident. What they don’t understand is that I’m not speaking out because I idolize Bob Avakian (I don’t) or think Maoism is the answer (I don’t) or that I think Sunsara Taylor should not be criticized (not at all) — it’s because the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago is betraying what ought to be the basic principles of such a society: tolerance, engagement, argument, discussion.

One of the things I do admire about the Communists is that they do reach out to the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, and they try to address the injustices our society commits. It’s a shame that ethical humanists can’t do the same, but instead treat a former criminal as a pariah who has to be put down.

The members of the EHSC should really stop writing me. Every time they do, I’m a little more appalled at their attitude.

CFI is having an essay contest

It’s for college students only, and first prize is $2000. Come on, students, you’re used to churning out term papers, and that prize is substantial.

The topic of the essay is free expression.

The Campaign for Free Expression is a CFI initiative to focus efforts and attention on one of the most crucial components of freethought: the right of individuals to express their viewpoints, opinions, and beliefs about all subjects—especially religion.  To encourage free expression and to emphasize the importance of this fundamental right, CFI and its sister organization, The Council for Secular Humanism, are sponsoring this contest.

Given recent events in Chicago, that topic is ironic and rich in potential for discussion.

Deep Rift in Chicago

The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago has done an incredibly stupid thing. They invited Sunsara Taylor to give a talk on “Morality Without God”…and then disinvited her. The reasons weren’t clear, other than that some people in the society disliked her politics — she’s a communist — and the group caved and cancelled her speaking engagement a short two weeks before it was to happen.

Basically, the ethical society was unethical. You just don’t do that. But then they made it worse.

They’ve been stonewalling. No explanations, no apologies, nothing — they might as well admit that they’re feeling a bit guilty. This is inexcusable: one thing humanists ought to be committed to is the resolution of disputes by dialog and discussion.

Next step: they seem to be spiraling into self-destruction here. Sunsara Taylor showed up at the venue for the meeting and gave a speech to ask that the organization stand up for their principles and give her planned talk; if they didn’t, she’d be giving it at the home of another, sympathetic member of the ethical society. It’s all very civil.

Except for this: near the end of the speech, the president of the “ethical” society dispatched police officers to handcuff and arrest the videographer. WTF?


This is insane. Again, the society is silent. All we know is what we see, and it doesn’t look good.

Is this some kind of return to the McCarthy era? Taylor is openly communist, but there is nothing illegal about that, and it certainly isn’t a reason to discriminate against her. If the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago is going to start throwing people out and arresting them for their ideological affiliation, I’m more concerned about a few other criminal organizations, like the Republican party and the Catholic church, and think there are better grounds for slamming the door shut on members of those groups than the American communists. But I’d rather see free discussion of ideas by all of those people, and think that a humanist organization ought to be particularly sensitive to the virtues of free speech.

Shame on the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago.

Marc Hauser— where do morals come from? NOT religion.

Whoa. This was a data-rich talk, and my ability to transcribe it was over-whelmed by all the stuff Hauser was tossing out. Unfortunately, I think the talk also suffered from excess and a lack of a good overview of the material. But it was thought-provoking anyway.

One of the themes was how people resolve moral dilemmas. He began with a real world example, the story of an overweight woman in South Africa who insisted on joining a tour exploring a cave, and got stuck in the exit tunnel, trapping 22 people behind her. Do you sacrifice one to save many? One of the trapped people was a diabetic who needed to get out—should they have blown up the woman so the others could escape? This was presented as a kind of philosophical trolley problem, and the audience was asked what was best to do…but I don’t think it works, because unlike those philosophical dilemmas, in the real world we pursue different strategies, and it’s rarely a black and white situation where one has to choose between precisely two possibilities — as in this case, which was resolved by greasing her up with paraffin and pulling her out.

Hauser gave an overview of the philosophical explanations for making moral decisions.

  • Hume: morality intuitive, unconscious, emotional

  • Kant: rational, conscious, justified principles

  • Theist: divine inspiration, explicit within scripture

  • Rawls: intuitive, unconscious, grammar of action: not emotional, built on principles

He’s going to side with Rawls. The key difference between a Rawlsian morality and the others is that a moral decision is made unconsciously, and THEN emotional and rational justifications are made for it. This is testable if you have a way to remove the emotional component of decision; a Rawlsian moral agent will still make the same moral judgments. Studies of brain damaged patients with loss of emotional affect support the idea so far.

He analogized this to linguistics, in which we make abstract, content-free computations to determine, for instance, whether a particular sentence is grammatical. This computation is obligatory and impenetrable; we can’t explain the process of making the decision as we’re doing it, although we can construct rules after the fact.

For instance, he summarized three principles that seem to be general rules in moral judgments.

  • Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect.

  • Harm caused by action is morally worse than harm caused by omission.

  • Harm caused by contact is morally worse than equivalent harm caused by non-contact

We don’t judge morality purely on the basis of reasonable outcomes, but also on intent. He suggested that judging only on the basis of whether an outcome is bad or good is a primitive and simplistic strategy, that as people mature they add nuance by considering intentionality — someone who poisons a person accidentally is less morally culpable than someone who does it intentionally.

One example he gave that I found a bit dubious is the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to shut down regions of brain, in particular the right temporal/parietal junction (which seems to be a locus of intent judgment). In subjects that have that region zapped (a temporary effect!) all that matters is outcome. These studies bother me a bit; I don’t know if I really trust the methodology of TMS, since it may be affecting much more in complex and undefined ways.

Does knowledge ofthe law affect moral judgments? Holland no longer makes a legal distinction betwwen active and passive euthanasia, and many Dutch people are able to articulate a belief that passive euthanasia is less human than active euthanasia. Do the Dutch no longer percieve the action/omission distinction in Hauser’s 3 rules? In a dilemma test, they still make the same distinctions on active and passive stories as others do — actively killing someone to save others is morally worse than simply allowing someone to die by inaction to have the same effect — which again suggests that the underlying mechanisms of making moral decisions are unchanged.

In these same dilemma tests, they’ve correlated outcomes with demographic data. The effects of religion, sex, etc. are negligible on how people make moral decisions.

He makes an important distinction: These are effects on judgment, not behavior. How does behavior connect with judgment?

Hauser describe Mischel’s longitudinal studies of kids given a simple test: they were given a cookie, and told they’d get more if they could hold off on eating it for some unspecified length of time. Kids varied; some had to have that cookie right away, others held off for longer periods of time. The interesting thing about this experiment is that the investigator looked at these same kids as adults 40 years later, and found that restraint in a 3 year old was correlated with greater marital stability, for instance, later in life. The idea is that these kinds of personal/moral capacities are fixed fairly early in people and don’t seem to be affected much by experience or education.

There were some interesting ideas here, and I would have liked to have seen more depth of discussion of individual points. The end of the talk, in particular, was a flurry of data and completely different experiments that weren’t tied in well with the thesis of the talk, and there weren’t opportunities for questions in these evening talks, so it was a bit difficult to sort everything out.

Dogs can be good without god

This clip is from a traffic camera in Chile — it shows a dog hit by a car, and then another dog risking the heavy traffic to pull the injured animal to the side, out of danger.

I wonder what church the heroic dog attends?

Keep this in mind when you encounter people — yeah, I’m looking at you, Francis Collins — try to argue that morality and altruism and empathy are unique markers of a divine hand in our origin.