Coming to a Conclusion

Apparently systematic, logical thought makes too great a demand on people.

From what I have seen, most people leave study behind when they leave school–except for what might be required to keep a job. They prefer passive entertainment.

That’s one clue. Another clue is this: people do not like to think of themselves as ignorant (or stupid), and so will fill in the gaps with something, and that something must be easy to understand or to accept without understanding. Remaining gaps in knowledge often are deemed “unimportant”.

Another fact is that people prefer comfort to truth, and one’s comfortable thoughts and beliefs tend to be those that one already has (perhaps even from childhood), or those that flatter oneself; these thoughts and beliefs are then simply assumed to be true.

And some people gravitate to what they consider “special knowledge”, such as various conspiracy theories, or “alternative” beliefs.

Research also shows that people tend to believe what their in-group believes, even against evidence to the contrary.

We cannot ignore the fact that there are actually delusional people, genuinely stupid people, and dishonest people. Apparently there are also genetic tendencies toward being conservative versus liberal and toward various other character traits.

Nor can we ignore the nonsense promulgated by the mass media.

In sum, I believe people generally don’t want to think hard about much of anything, believe they know enough, and believe they know the truth.

So, if someone agrees with you about something, you have to wonder how he or she arrived at that conclusion. And how did you get there?!

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What If?

The United States is a representative plutocracy–government of the people by the politicians, for the wealthy–on its way to a corporatist state. What if it were a democracy, or trending toward democracy? What would it be like? Is it possible?

If the United States were a democracy, steeply progressive taxes (foreign and domestic incomes, capital gains, property, luxury, etc.) would be imposed on the wealthy to prevent them from hoarding the nation’s wealth. The proceeds would pay for social and infrastructure programs that benefit the entire nation.

Campaign funding would be restricted to individual constituents of a candidate–that is, individuals who can actually vote for the candidate–and monetary contributions would be limited to what anyone can pay.

There would be universal health insurance, on the model of Medicare, or there would be universal health care, on the French model or on the model of our military.

Tuition at public schools would be free, from preschool through PhD, with admittance to colleges and universities based upon merit.

No public money would go to private schools.

Businesses would be expected to provide job-specific training for current or future employees.

Unionization would be promoted, and unions would be strong.

Free childcare for the children of working parents would be universally available, staffed by trained professionals.

The minimum wage would be a living wage.

The “social safety net”–the network of social programs–would provide support at the level of the minimum wage, with incentives and opportunities to earn a better wage through employment.

There would be rent controls, housing standards, and regular inspections, and there would be stiff penalties for landlord abuses, as well as for abuses by tenants.

Public money (tax revenues) would be spent only on public services and programs. If this includes payments to private organizations, their books would be open for inspection at any time.

All necessary monopolies (electricity, water, sewage, prisons, etc.) would either be publicly owned and operated, or would be closely-regulated non-profits.

Concentrated media would be broken up, and the resulting localized media would be allowed (or even required) to become more responsive to local needs and issues.

There would be penalties for media outlets that persistently promulgate factual errors.

The government would provide adequate economic stimulus to preserve jobs in rough economic times.

The government would sooner provide penalties (such as tariffs or trade restrictions) for companies that move employment abroad, than incentives to move them.

Penalties for victimless crimes would be eliminated or drastically reduced, while penalties for white-collar crimes would be increased.

The separation of church and state would be rigorously enforced.

In other words, if the United States were to become a democracy, it would have to become egalitarian; there can be no democracy without egalitarianism. The United States certainly produces enough wealth to support all of the criteria that I have listed; that wealth just needs to be distributed properly.

Posted in Politics | Tagged ,

Failed Freedom Fighters

We hear two common refrains from gun enthusiasts: that citizens need to own guns in case the government tries to “take over”, and that gun-control legislation is (therefore) an attempt to disarm the public so that we cannot defend our freedoms. Given the fact that there are already hundreds of millions of weapons in the hands of American citizens, and given the realities of ¬†governance in America, it is apparent that the only freedom that gun enthusiasts have successfully defended is their self-centered freedom to own weapons.

Meanwhile, our government has been taken over by wealthy individuals and corporations. Working people have not had a fair share of their own rising productivity for forty years. The tax burden has been shifted from those who get the most out of American citizenship to those who get the least. Much of our social safety net is in jeopardy or already in tatters. Public education is under attack by corporate interests and anti-intellectualism. And blatant corporate malfeasance goes unchecked and unpunished.

At the same time, our government can fight expensive discretionary wars, putting the burden of payment on middle- and lower-class citizens, while undermining support for the veterans of those wars. The government can wire-tap anyone, can arrest and incarcerate anyone, and can target anyone for assassination.

Ironically, the conservatives who have undermined and distorted our government have always counted the larger proportion of gun enthusiasts among their ideological allies simply by catering to their monomania.

If the Second Amendment is intended to save us from a government takeover, it is of no use; it has not worked. So, what good is it? It is a rallying point for the financial interests of weapon makers. It is the wedge that keeps the door open to profit. For thousands of years weapon makers have known two obvious principles: first, that profits are greater when they sell to both sides of any conflict, and second, that profits are greater when conflicts escalate. Acting upon the first principle, weapon makers fight any legislation that would exclude sales to anyone, and acting upon the second principle, they fight any legislation intended to limit available firepower. Their broad interpretation of the Second Amendment blurs distinctions between competent and incompetent individuals, and between legitimate and black market sales.

The upshot is that the freedom to have and carry (and sell) guns has been preserved by Second Amendment activism, a government “takeover” has not been averted, and we live in an environment of rampant and widespread gun-augmented violence.

Posted in Politics | Tagged ,

Job Destroyers

We are told that the big corporations and investors are the “job creators”. We are told that they must be pandered to so that they will create more jobs. But if they are the job creators, they must also be the job destroyers; it was they who laid off millions of employees.

Business leaders will claim that it was the poor business climate that forced them to lay off workers, but it was business people themselves who created that very climate. They want to be praised and credited when they are doing well, but reject criticism and responsibility when they are doing poorly.

And how did business people create the climate that resulted in the latest recession and job destruction? Directly, through dubious business and financial practices, and indirectly, through manipulation of laws and politics. In general, they operated with too little oversight, too little regulation, and more control of politicians than self-control.

So the next time you hear business people brag about being job creators, remember that it is likely that they were also among the job destroyers.

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A Kinder, Gentler Atheism

My new eBook, A Kinder, Gentler Atheism, is now available on Amazon.com.

The book consists of brief essays on various topics, a collection of shorter notes, and reading lists. Essays include “Questions for the Religious”, “The Joy of Atheism”, the title essay, “A Kinder, Gentler Atheism”, and many more. The shorter notes touch on a wide range of religious beliefs.

The Amazon listing includes the table of contents and sample essays.

Posted in Religion | Tagged ,

Superstition and Supernaturalism

Why are superstition and supernaturalism so widespread in America, a Western society, centuries after the Enlightenment, with the results of that intellectual revolution all around us?

Superstition, broadly speaking, is belief without recourse to evidence, especially belief in non-existent cause and effect relationships. For example, a belief in atoms is not superstition even though the believer relies on others to provide the actual evidence, while a belief in creationism is superstition, since there is no evidence for it. This of course makes much superstition unwitting.

Homeopathy is superstition because it posits natural causes and effects that do not exist. Much of so-called “alternative medicine” is superstition based upon anecdotes rather than systematic research.

Supernaturalism is belief in entities and actions outside of nature, or denying natural explanations. Beliefs in gods, angels, and devils are instances of supernaturalism. So are god-based explanations of natural events. Creationism is therefore supernaturalism as well as superstition.

Because all supernaturalism lacks evidence, all supernaturalism is also superstition, while not all superstition is supernaturalism. Sometimes the supernaturalism is hidden, as in “energy medicine”, where the so-called “energy” is posited to be undetectable by ordinary (natural) means.

Why do superstition and supernaturalism permeate every aspect of our society? Most children are brought up in a religion, and retain or even expand their superstitions as adults. Religion is a gateway to other superstitions; if a person can believe the tenets of a typical religion, he or she might believe anything. Religions offer easy “answers” to many difficult questions.

Another explanation is that we encounter supernaturalism as often by going to the movies as by going to church. And television shows–including many news, history, and even science programs–often have elements of supernaturalism. Many novels feature supernaturalism. Insidiously, self-help and “healthy lifestyle” books often promote superstition and even supernaturalism, especially books that delve into “spiritualism” and “new age” beliefs. Perhaps all of these sources have been “primed” by the general acceptance of religion.

The mainstream media seem never to counter stories that report or promote superstition and supernaturalism, as if reluctant to offend believers, or perhaps reluctant to undermine a “good story”.

The information needed to counter superstition and supernaturalism is available, but requires a reliance on authorities and an effort to understand. Because of general anti-intellectualism and specifically anti-science attitudes, much of the ignorance resulting in superstition is self-inflicted. It is far easier to accept astrology, for example, than to learn why it is silly.

Posted in Religion | Tagged ,

Ontology

In their book Reasonable Atheism authors Aikin and Talisse claim that any serious book about Atheism must tackle the Ontological Argument for the existence of a god. Let’s see what the argument is, and what we can say about it.

The form given in Reasonable Atheism consists of these statements (which I have numbered here):

  1. God, by definition, is supremely perfect.
  2. As a consequence of his supreme perfection, God is perfect in every way and lacks nothing that could make him better.
  3. If God lacked existence, he would not be perfect, because an existing god is better than one that does not exist.
  4. [Therefore] God must exist because he, by definition, is supremely perfect.

Note that “supremely perfect” here seems to mean “as perfect as possible”.

Comparing statements 1 and 4, the argument looks circular. But there are other objections that one could make.

Statement 1 takes as given the result that the argument is supposed to prove! For example, it implies that the specifically-named “God”–not “a god”–exists. Also, the use of the word “is” in this context implies that this particular god exists. Finally, the trait of being “supremely perfect” must be assigned to something rather than nothing. So in three ways statement 1 assumes the existence of “God”.

But there is more to statements 1 and 2: How do we know that “God” is supremely perfect? Who is it who can tell “the mind of God” and thus knows that both inwardly and outwardly this “God” is perfect? Who has seen all the ways and acts of this “God”, and thus knows that all are perfect? The statement is a guess.

Why are we to accept statement 3, that existence is better or more perfect than nonexistence? As an Atheist, I think that the nonexistence of gods is better than their existence. This is the same way I feel about cancer and the Black Plague. Statement 3 is arbitrary, and has nothing to back it up.

That is all I wish to say about the Ontological Argument itself, but let’s look at something related. Religious people who promote this particular argument cannot also claim that this “God” creature is inscrutable or mysterious, for the reason given above, and in addition should never pray. Why not pray? Because this perfect god must know perfectly well not only what the praying person wants, but also what he or she needs and deserves. Only an imperfect god needs to be reminded or needs to be begged for it. Praying is pointless, perhaps even insulting.

How do I know this? The same way anyone “knows” that “God, by definition, is supremely perfect” and “must exist”. I made it up!

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