Sunday, June 18, 2017

Douglas Navarick's false equivelancy

By Mathew Goldstein

Douglas J. Navarick is a Professor of Psychology at California State University.  He is sometimes published in Skeptic magazine.  His perspective is that many atheists are not skeptical, but are instead dogmatic, and thus suffer from a similar, if not identical, pathology as the hyper-religious.  His opposition to dogmatic thinking is well-grounded, but his method of identifying dogmatic thinking is mistaken.   Navarick claims that the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism —Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, share "the off putting dogmatism of the hyper-religious".  I disagree and I am going to try to explain where I think Navarick is wrong.

Navarick argues that the evidence for ESP is greater than the evidence for abiogenesis.  He says the evidence for the former is at best weak, but the evidence for the latter is non-existent.  This is one of his mistakes.  Macroevolution is evidence for abiogenesis because they are logically related to each other probabilistically.  If macroevolution was disproved then life would be more likely to be a supernaturalistic phenomena and abiogenesis, because it is the naturalistic explanation for the start of life, would be less probable.  Similarly, if the one to one relationship between chemistry and biology was disproved then life would be more likely to be a supernaturalistic phenomena and abiogenesis would be less probable.

Navarick, like many other non-atheists, has this big blind spot.  He does not acknowledge the logical connection between macroevolution being a strictly naturalistic phenomena, life being a strictly naturalistic phenomena, and life having a strictly naturalistic origin.  All evidence for one is evidence for the latter, and vica versa, yet Navarick basis his argument on a refusal to acknowledge this.  Instead, he downplays the significance of the logical connection between physics, chemistry, and biology each being exclusively naturalistic to advance his argument that life itself is supernaturalistic.

He defines God thusly: "A willful, creative, force that transcends material reality and operates both through and independently of natural laws."  Any force that operates through natural laws would appear to us as natural laws.  To justifiably conclude otherwise we would need good evidence that natural laws by themselves are insufficient.  Contrary to what Navarick tries to argue, we have no good evidence that natural laws are by themselves insufficient.  What remains are God of the gaps arguments which are weak arguments.  If that is how God operates then God is hiding from us and therefore we should disbelieve in God.

Navarick claims that his God theory makes "a strong prediction" that efforts to create living cells will fail.  This is a good example of a weak, God of the gaps argument.  This is because we can expect efforts to create living cells to fail for other reasons that are consistent with abiogenesis being true.  In particular, abiogenesis may be a rare, and slow to occur, process.  We do not have a full understanding of the physical conditions at the time and place life began and we cannot go back in time to witness it.  There was a lot of time, water, molecules, heat, comets and meteorites, minerals, solar radiation, variations in local conditions, etc. for a rare abiogenesis process to occur once naturally, and the required combinations of events may be complex and very difficult to identify and reproduce.

He also cites the lack of evidence for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe as evidence for his God theory.  But it is not clear why his God failed to fill our universe with intelligent life, why his God relied on the cruelty intrinsic to evolution as the natural law to disguise her presence, why his God first placed us humans on this particular isolated planet and Galaxy so many billions years after the universe began, why his God would create such an expansive universe beyond what we need, the origin of his God, etc.  In contrast, there are naturalistic explanations for our not yet encountering other intelligent life.  Multi-cellular life may be much slower and less likely to evolve than single celled life, intelligent life may be too fragile to usually survive for long in our frequently harsh to life universe, the tremendous distances between galaxies and stars make it less likely we will encounter intelligent life, and our searches to date may not be looking at good signals or in the best locations.

Navarick proposes that life is an independent property that catalyzes biochemical reactions without actually participating in these reactions.  Life, he argues, thus precedes the reactions, it does not result from them.  He cites as evidence cryopreservation, where "all biochemical activity ceases ... but the cells remain alive".  Yet there is nothing about cryopreservation that is inconsistent with life consisting of biochemistry alone.  Life ceases when the biochemistry ceases due to insufficient temperature.  The biochemistry, and therefore life, resume when the minimum requisite temperature returns.  We encounter a similar phenomena of non-biological chemistry stopping, and then resuming, with changes in temperature without inferring a supernatural catalyzing force.

Navarick sounds desperate to retain supernaturalism against the odds.  As many hard skeptics do, he starts with a biased commitment to retaining the viability of supernaturalism against the evidence and then homes in on whatever excuses he can find.  From there he promotes his agnostic perspective as the most reasonable conclusion.  He acknowledges that theists and atheists can be agnostic and categorizes them as being reasonable, while claiming that gnostic theists and atheists are two equally dogmatic extremes, as if rational reasonableness is a synonym for the geometric middle ground between opposing positions.  

Navarick unfairly assumes any atheist who does not explicitly cite either evidence or uncertainty, without prompting, when explaining why they are an atheist, is dogmatic.  But empiricism is not a synonym for agnosticism, defined as being "without a claim of knowledge", as Navarick claims.  Empiricism can dictate a firm conclusion.  Navarick implicitly basis his argument for characterizing many atheists as being dogmatic on denying that evidence for naturalism is pervasive, diverse, and consistent, while evidence for supernaturalism is almost non-existent.  He does not explicitly concede that his argument rests on this assumption and that his argument is therefore biased against atheism.

It is no doubt true that some atheists adopt a somewhat circular, closed minded, dogmatic approach to justifying their atheism, like Navarick claims.  Not all atheists are epistemologically sophisticated.  However, Navarick's survey results, where he catagorizes atheists as nonbelievers, agnostic atheists, or gnostic atheists, and concludes that the category that by his measure was most popular, gnostic atheists, are dogmatic, is too flawed to provide an accurate measure of the prevalence of dogmatism among atheists.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Senators Sanders and Van Hollen v. Russell Vought

By Mathew Goldstein

Wheaton College, a Christian school, fired a political science professor for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Russell Vought, the new nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, had defended the school in an article published in January 2016 on a conservative websiteDuring the hearing, Senator Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage from that article which he found to be objectionable: "Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned."

John 3:18 depicts Jesus as saying: “Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  Senator Sanders characterized Vought's conclusion thusly: “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world..."  Obviously, insulting under a billion people would be better.  Let's get our priorities right, Mr. Vought should pay more attention to the demographics and less attention to the anonymous author of John 3:18.  Unfortunately, Mr. Vought prioritizes John 3:18 as if it was revealed to us by an all powerful god, and some of those aforementioned billion plus people anchor their beliefs similarly on their sacred holy books, rendering both groups prone to take great offense too easily while also being confidently and callously offensive against each other.

Russell Vought replied to Senator's Sanders' implied accusation that he is bigoted by citing the doctrine known as imago dei. “As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs.”  Senator Sanders responded with incredulity that Vought respected "other religions".  But Vought did not say he respected other religions, he said he believes in respecting individuals regardless of their religious beliefs.  The question here is whether Vought's grounding his support for firing the professor in Christian doctrine is inconsistent with his assertion that his Christianity respects individual dignity without regard to religious beliefs.

What was troubling about Russell Vought's responses was his repeated assertions of religious motivations and justifications.  How about a straightforward "I believe that all individuals are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs" without attaching that sentiment to his religious identity and beliefs?  But to be fair to Vought, Sanders was challenging Vought's prior religiously motivated argument, so Vought had some reason to want to defend his religious beliefs in response.

Senator Sanders' is being reasonable in not respecting Vought's reliance on John 3:18, and I share Senator Sanders' strong dislike for that religious belief.  But is Vought therefore unfit to serve as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget?  Senator Sanders repeatedly cited "Islamophobia" in his criticism of Vought.  Yet Senator Sanders himself was arguably exhibiting "Christianity-phobia" at the hearing.  People who keep railing one-sidedly against Islamophobia as the bigotry of the day that needs to be condemned tend to overlook an important detail: Insofar as the holy books of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism promote negative, harmful, and/or destructive, beliefs among some followers of those religions a corresponding amount of Islamophobia, Christianity-phobia, or Judaism-phobia directed against those religious beliefs is properly justified.

My own Senator, Chris Van Hollen, defended Senator Sanders, saying it’s “irrefutable” that comments like Vought’s suggest to many that he’s condemning all people who aren’t Christians. Well, yes, Vought is doing that, which reflects the negative influence of the Christian bible on his beliefs.  Senator Van Hollen then defended his Christian faith by asserting that Vought’s Christianity is mistaken: “I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian, in my view, is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God.” Van Hollen then said “No one is questioning your faith ... It’s your comments that suggest a violation of the public trust in what will be a very important position.”  But why must Vought share Van Hollen's view regarding what the bible directs Christians to believe to comply with "the public trust"?  Senator Van Hollen, like Senator Sanders, failed to make a good argument that Vought violates the public trust as a result of his interpretation of John 3:18.

Senators Sanders' and Van Hollen's insistence that the nominee expressed nothing other than respect for other religions in his prior publications as a criteria for being deemed worthy of serving in federal office is inappropriate.  No one fully respects the entirety of everyone else's religious beliefs.  Maybe religious beliefs are false?  Must we respect false beliefs?  Maybe different religious beliefs contradict each other?  What does it mean to respect beliefs that contradict our own beliefs?  The equating of a lack of respect for different religious beliefs with bigotry against individuals who profess those competing religious beliefs is unfair.  

Either Senator could have expressed concern that Vought's support for imposing religious belief mandates on a professor at a Christian college intoduces doubts about whether there would be equal treatment of the employees in the department under his leadership.  Requesting that Vought provide a yes or no response on whether it would be acceptable for the department to discriminate between prospective or current employees on the basis of particular beliefs, including atheism and Islam, or other personal characteristics that some Christians condemn, such as sex outside of marriage or same gender sex, would have provided us with a measure of the nominees commitment to the public trust.  They failed to do that.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Life, complexity, and negative entropy

By Mathew Goldstein

Our universe started in a very low entropy state and evolves toward a very high entropy state.   Any decrease of entropy on earth is more than offset by the increase in entropy on the sun.  Does life resist, or at least slow down, the universal increase in entropy?  Some people claim it does and they may then draw conclusions about human ethics from their belief that it does.  

I am skeptical that life slows down the rate of entropy increase.  I am also very skeptical that the answer to this question has any implications for human ethics.  I am wary of getting into discussions on technical topics like this.  I am not a scientist.  But for whatever it is worth, here is my explanation for my skepticism.

For each visible photon the earth absorbs from the sun the earth radiates back to space about 20 infrared photons (earth converts visible light energy absorbed from the sun to "heat" energy that it radiates back to space).  That is a net twenty fold increase in overall entropy.  The overall energy is unchanged (ignoring changes to atmospheric greenhouse gases, etc.) because the energy of one visible photon is twenty times greater than the energy of one infrared photon.  

The amount of solar radiation that is reflected back to space is referred to as the albedo.  Ocean surfaces and rain forests have low albedos, which means that they reflect only a small portion of the sun's energy. Deserts, ice, and clouds, however, have high albedos (desert sands get hot but they still reflect more sun light back into space than grasslands). Over the whole surface of the Earth, about 30 percent of incoming solar energy is reflected back to space.  Higher albedo reduces the rate that the Earth is contributing to entropy increase.  

Reflected light is a no change in entropy outcome relative to the no earth context and there is little increase in entropy overall because each photon mostly retains its preexisting concentrated energy status (although each photon becomes more separated from other photons).  A photon utilized photosynthetically by plants locally decreases entropy but it increases entropy overall because the photon itself is consumed, more than offsetting the decrease in entropy from the corresponding new plant tissue. In the short term my guess is that the entropy increases more in the latter scenario.

Entropy should not be confused with complexity.  Both low entropy and high entropy conditions are uniform and thus non-complex.  The highly lumpy, highly varied, far from equilibrium, conditions that characterize complexity reach their maximum when entropy is moderate.  Life, because it depends on complexity, is impossible in very low or high entropy conditions.  Moderate entropy is the current condition of our currently complex universe.  So life is consistent with current conditions.

How does low entropy life start given that entropy increases?   One way to try to tackle this question is to focus on metabolism.  The complex chemical pathway, catalyzed by metals such as iron, that converts carbon dioxide to methane, known as serpentinization, resembles the metabolic chemical pathways in some microbial life.  Some people speculate that life may have originated via such a pre-RNA "metabolism first" route.  

Adding hydrogen atoms to carbon is referred to as carbon hydrogenation.  Carbon dioxide molecules (one carbon and two oxygen atoms) have lower entropy than methane molecules (one carbon and four hydrogen atoms).  But all known paths from carbon dioxide to methane molecules have intermediary molecules that are lower entropy than carbon dioxide.   We can depict lower entropy as a higher elevation relative to higher entropy.  This analogy of higher entropy to lower elevation allows us to represent the pull toward higher entropy as being equivalent to the downward pull of gravity.  The overall path from carbon dioxide to methane is downhill.  But an initial uphill push that is offset by an increase in entropy overall is required to reach the peak and start the trip downhill.

No natural process, including metabolism, can occur unless it is accompanied by an increase in the overall entropy of the universe.  Life is not a substance or force.  Life is a process that is sustained by increasing entropy, it is an entropy generating machine. Life contributes to increasing entropy even though life itself is inconsistent with very high (and very low) entropy. A living organism is an open system, exchanging both matter and energy with its environment.

For example, an animal builds cells, tissues, ligaments, etc. This process increases order in the body and thus decreases entropy. This is the local "negative entropy" that characterizes all of life.  Animals also radiate heat into space, consume and break down energy-containing substances (i.e., food), and eliminate waste (e.g., carbon dioxide, water, etc.). When taking all these processes into account, the total entropy of the system (i.e., the animal together with the environment) increases. Although the details relevant to the calculations vary, this same result must also hold for photosynthetic plants and microorganisms.  

Life depends on, and affects, the overall increase in entropy.  Maybe the evolution of life favors a more efficient, and more entropy neutral, metabolism (for example, being sluggish and cold blooded) because that is more environmentally sustainable over the long term.  But I suspect that evolution also favors exploiting entropy increasing opportunities because that provides paths to competitive advantage (for example, active, intelligent, and warm blooded).  The more energy consumed by life the more entropy will increase because there is no possible path for life to utilize more energy without thereby also increasing overall entropy.   Increased efficiency maybe can reduce the entropy increase, but it does not alter the direction of this equation.

The decrease in albedo due to oceans, and the increase due to ice, suggests that physical features of planets, and their relationship with nearby stars, impacts the rate of entropy increase of planets independently of, and potentially more substantially than, any life that may reside on the planets.  It is not clear, at least not to me, that an overall decrease in the rate of entropy increase is an expected result, or a function, of life.  I think not. 

Honor and Group Evolution

By Bill Creasy

Honor is one of the greatest human virtues, and it is important for humanists. Everyone respects an honorable person, even if they disagree with the principle behind the honor. This is true even if the values of the person are not considered to be right, but the quality of honorableness is still respected. We might respect an honorable, patriotic Russian, if they have a reason for it, even if we disagree with the goal. A person who is dishonorable has only venal or petty motives, or perhaps motives that are inconsistent or poorly thought-out. What makes it so good to be honorable?

"Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group," according to the Wikipedia "Honour" entry. Honor is often important for military behavior when it is difficult to write exact rules in unexpected situations. The military often has codes of honor that are strongly implanted during basic training. Military people who are trained this way will give their lives in the name of honor. There are honor codes in schools and universities to prevent cheating, without trying to specify every particular kind of cheating. The honor code is to stop cheating and to turn in other students if they are caught cheating. 

Honor is different from a rule of law in that a violation of an honor code can cause a violent or angry retribution, for example a duel, rather than a reliance on an established criminal justice system. People take honor seriously and personally, and they are willing to make a personal sacrifice to uphold it.

But honor is difficult to describe. It seems to operate in an emotional level. What is it, and how is it related to morality? Is it rational? It doesn't make sense in terms of classical evolution if an individual sacrifices themselves for honor when they should be looking out for their own survival as the primary imperative goal.

We can return to the ideas of group evolution to see if there is an explanation in human social development. I've presented the general ideas of group evolution before. A recent book by E. O. Wilson, "The Social Conquest of Earth," discusses group evolution, and some of its history going back to Darwin. There is still controversy about it among biologists.

I discussed previously in an article that we can look at morality in general as arising from interacts with groups of people. It encourages and rewards prosocial behavior (also inaccurately called altruistic behavior). The rules of group evolution indicate that prosocial actions are needed to keep groups together. But these prosocial actions can be a competitive disadvantage when individuals within a group compete. Because of morality, those people who do prosocial actions are considered to be good, admirable people. Hence, they get an advantage of a good reputation to compensate for their effort, which should also help the group according to group evolution.

In that sense, morality doesn't exist without interactions with a group of people. It makes sense in a theoretical framework of group evolution. It is the evolution of the group that supports morality so that the individual members of the group are rewarded for prosocial actions. Without group evolution, competition between individuals makes it more rational not to be moral and not to help the group. But groups made of these kinds of individuals won't persist.

The idea of honor is another facet of morality that makes sense in terms of group evolution, but doesn't make much sense without it. My explanation of honor is as follows. Humans are unusual as animals in that a lot of our behavior is centered around groups. Humans can belong to several groups at once, and they can have divided loyalties between the different groups. They have to make decisions about priorities about which group is the most important. To do this, people can't simply be thoughtless followers of one leader or members of one group. As a result of these conflicts, individuals don't just need rules about how to act morally in one group. They also need rules about rules, or perhaps "metarules." These metarules give priorities for deciding which of the groups that a person is involved with is the most important.

I propose that a person with honor has a complex, complete, well-thought-out set of priorities about what group is important. This kind of person consistently follows their own priorities and is called an honorable person. A person with honor doesn't make rash actions that have bad consequences for important groups at the expense of groups that are less important. (For this argument, an individual is a group of one, so honorable people usually don't necessarily think of their own personal benefit first.) An honorable person considers consequences and weighs the interests of different groups, and makes a decision to act to benefit the most important group.

The most common examples come from the military. An honorable soldier must weigh his or her own survival, the welfare of a small group like a platoon, and the benefit of the entire army, and the entire country. The soldier's job is to put their life on the line to defend the country. But that job involves a lot of day-to-day decisions. A soldier will act to save their own life if it is directly threatened and nothing else is at stake. But if the platoon is fighting, a soldier that just runs away to save his life is dishonorable. An honorable soldier stays with the group to help it win, even in spite of a threat to life. But if the small group does something unacceptable, like massacre civilians, the honorable soldier may abandon the small group and report its bad actions up the chain of command to a larger group. This may hurt the smaller group but maintain the honor of the larger army or country. These decisions require that the soldier choose to benefit the appropriate group.

Examples of honor as a conflict between groups come from the last election. I talked about Pres. Trump's conflicts of interest and preferences for particular groups in the previous article. Evaluating Trump's honor may still take time. He seems to be trying to keep campaign promises to people who voted for him. But he is also angering a lot of people who disagree with him. Can he find a way to work for the good of the country and unify people? Can he consider the long-term best interests of the country, or is he only able to think about short-term goals?

Another question that is currently being investigated is Trump's relationship to Russia. There are indications that he was cooperating with Russian officials, who helped him win the election. His alleged cooperation with Russia appears dishonorable, because it was done for his personal benefit to win the election and against the benefit of the U.S., the larger and more important group for a president. It is also dishonorable for him not to allow a thorough investigation to clear up the issue, including releasing his tax forms. The honorable action, which is good for the country, is to do a full investigation even if it might reflect poorly on Trump and the Republican party. The honorable action would clear up the question so that the country can be sure about whether to trust (or not trust) his ability to lead.

Another basic question of honor is loyalty to the political parties vs. loyalty to the U.S. government. The success of Republicans in winning state and federal elections reflects a long-term effort to make the party successful, even if it is at the expense of the country. This reflects the group evolution principle that selfish subgroups will succeed when they compete against more prosocial subgroups. As an example, Republicans have gerrymandered congressional districts and restricted voter access in a way that benefits themselves by allowing them to get more Congressional districts with fewer votes. Democrats have done similar things, but they tend to argue that it is done to increase minority representation in Congress in a way that benefits the country or improves democracy. Republicans claim they are helping the country by reducing voter fraud, but they haven't produced any evidence that there is any fraud, and they haven't explained why it appears that they are benefiting to get more Congressional districts. Therefore, I would argue that Republicans are being dishonorable by putting party before any benefits to the country. But this is debatable.

An example of a person who appears to have put party loyalty above country is Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. He maintained total obstruction of the Obama Administration proposals in the Senate, including the Supreme Court nominee, in order to benefit his party, without giving an explanation of why the president's proposals were bad for the country. 

Citizens are dependent on the honor of the winning candidate to at least try to govern well by putting the country's interest above his/her personal and party interests. Time will tell whether honor will win out for this president and his party, or whether their behavior will be judged as dishonorable by the voters. But the point is that honor is not an abstract, meaningless quality. Honor is an important quality that leaders should have in order to lead well. It is important that voters demand that candidates for political positions demonstrate that they have honor, and explain what issues they feel a need to be honorable about. If we elect leaders who behave honorably, the country and the government will be better. 
This article was previously printed in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Group Evolution and Practical Moralilty

by Bill Creasy

Human beings seem to have an innate urge to form groups. It is safe to assume that there has been evolutionary selection to be a member of a group, since groups provide safety and security (when they work right). Most people seem to be willing to form groups for all sorts of purposes.

There has been a long history of humans in groups, much of it unrecorded and prehistoric. The rules of group evolution allow a reevaluation of the rules of morality that seem to have arisen from that history. D.S. Wilson and E. O. Wilson summarized group evolution rules: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." I will give some commentary with minimal references except my general impressions, which could be subject to revision. Morality takes constant reexamination for particular situations. But at times, it is worth taking some philosophical overview of what we should expect. I will try to raise some interesting question, even if there aren't simple answers.

The first big question is, Why do people form large groups? For most of human existence, people have primarily lived in small tribal groups of perhaps no more than 100 people. There is evidence that people are most comfortable with groups about this size. But with the rise of civilizations, cities of thousands to millions of people formed. People can feel loyal to a country with billions of people. Is there an upper limit on the size of a group that people can feel attached to?

There may not be a limit, because there was never a need for people to set one. Even when people lived in small groups, they may have found advantages in forming the largest possible temporary alliance to fight military confrontations with other groups. But the existence of large groups was limited by food, communication, and other resources. There might have been a way of thinking that "if big is good, bigger must be better." There may be some truth in that goal, but ultimately the problem was limited by how to feed the army (or other large group), and that problem automatically limited the size of the group regardless of what people wanted. The large groups probably broke up automatically under that pressure. The relatively recent formation of permanent large organizations was because technology has given a way to overcome the practical limits. That doesn't guarantee that large countries will last forever. In fact, history is full of large empires, countries, or governments that ended. It just doesn't occur to most people to wonder if the group is just too big.

If people tend to be comfortable in groups, they must have developed the best ways to behave in a group. We can classify the interactions between individuals and groups into these categories, again following the rules of group evolution: 

1. Prosocial actions: actions that keep the group going for the benefit of all the members. These actions benefit the actor in the sense that the actor benefits from group membership. But the actor may be at a disadvantage to someone else in the group who doesn't expend effort to do these kinds of actions. (Some researchers call these "altruistic" actions for that reason, but that word also has other connotations that can be misleading.) One way that these kinds of actions are encouraged is that the actions are regarded as virtuous. Anyone in a human society who gets a reputation for prosociality can benefit from the reputation of being virtuous. Other people often feel a need to reciprocate. But be careful! There's nothing that keeps you from being unfairly taken advantage of, if you are prosocial for the wrong people.

2. Individual actions that keep the individuals healthy and motivated. Any member of the group has to take care of self preservation, like eating, drinking, and sleeping. This is necessary for individuals and not specifically good or bad for the group, but of course the group will disperse if the members aren't able to get what they need to survive while they are in it.

3. Antisocial passivity: not doing a prosocial action, or stopping doing a prosocial action that had been done regularly. If too many people take this approach, the group will fall apart. It can happen for many reasons, from simple laziness, underestimating the value or importance of the action, or annoyance about unfairness because of other people who don't want to be bothered.

4. Antisocial action: actively trying to end or disperse a group, or doing actions that the group has forbidden. Morally, these actions are usually called immoral or illegal, or even evil. But the motives of the actor can be complex. (That's the reason that villains in stories are more interesting than heros.) For example, whistleblowers may think themselves as good employees or citizens, and just don't like a policy of the organization that they belong to, so they want to stop a policy without ending the group. Alternately, the actor may intentionally decide the group isn't good and act to end it. Or the actor may be trying to take advantage of prosocial people for personal benefit.

Why should anyone be prosocial and help a group? What is a group, and what is it for? A group is just a collection of people who may like each other, may work well together, or may depend on each other. But they won't be in the group forever, and they could decide to leave anytime. Some of the people may do better without the group, or in another group. 

But the reason groups exist is because they evolve and they get better. They are actual things or real creations. They have a real existence based on the people in them, but also based on the rules by which the people interact that are separate from particular individuals, that make up the "culture" of the group. The rules can be hard to grasp, because sometimes they are not verbal or they are unwritten habits or patterns. There are certain obligations and expectations that each person has for the way the others will act. These qualities make groups very fluid and hard to characterize. They are constantly changing. They are difficult to objectively quantify. But they are real.

Is opposition to a group really evil? There are times that lives depend on a group's existence and support. If so, then a threat to the group is a risk to life, and it is evil in the view of the members. But other groups can be trivial or only for entertainment. Criticizing a group of football fans should be treated as perhaps an insult, but not as an evil. So the use of the term "evil" with regard to groups depends on the function of the group and who relies on it. It depends on the group and who belongs to it.

As examples, we can consider the promises of Donald Trump during his campaign. He made several promises that serve as convenient examples, whether or not he meant them. (I won't use exact Trump quotes because the quotes would be too "fantastic" and "incredible," or "disastrous" and "SAD," so I'll only paraphrase.) 

One example is that he promised to decrease military support for traditional American allies like NATO unless they contribute more money. This action can be classified as passively antisocial. It ends an action by the U.S. that is prosocial for the groups of countries in the international alliances. The actions may put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage due to the expense of our defense spending. But it is good for the U.S. to be a member of the groups, and the actions give the U.S. the reputation of being virtuous. It is possible that the U.S. may have gotten its money's worth from increased trade and global security. Also, there is the question of whether Trump opposes NATO because he is doing what Russian president Putin wants him to.

Trump promised to control the border and deport illegal immigrants. The interpretation of this action depends on whether one considers the 10 million illegal immigrants as part of the U.S. Most of them work hard and pay taxes that they won't benefit from. But they are illegal. So eliminating them from the U.S. economy may improve it for citizens. It may or may not benefit the trade alliance under NAFTA. The immigrants won't like having to leave, and the effort to identify and deport 10 million people could create a police state. So, again, Trump made an argument that border control is a good thing, and it sounded good to some voters, but it is not clear that he is right.

Trump promised to cut taxes, mostly for wealthy people and corporations. This action has the appearance of helping Trump's social group of rich businessmen. He claims, as Republicans have claimed for decades with little evidence, that tax cuts will help the economy grow faster. 

Finally, Trump has financial conflicts of interest between his and his family's business interests and the country's interest. As a family man, Trump will be tempted to make deals to benefit his family group. Will he be able to put the country's interests above his own?

Trump's way of looking at groups is different from that of an experienced politician, as demonstrated by his campaign. He claims he will give the interests of the country first priority. But as a businessman, he has put his interest above anything else in the past. His life's work has been making money for himself. That doesn't automatically imply that he will try to dismantle larger cooperative organizations in favor of his family, his social class, or his ethnic group. But we should be very suspicious and skeptical that he might not change his old habits. 

So it will be the responsibility of the citizens of the country to make sure they aren't being excluded from Trump's preferred group. And if we happen to be included, we will have to stand up for those who are left out.

For additional articles about group evolution, see the Evolution Institute website:

This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Secretary John Kelly fails U.S. history

By Mathew Goldstein

Here is a recap of some late 18th United States history that is taught in middle schools: The constitution of the United States was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, with ratification by all 13 states completed in 1790.  The one sentence presidential oath of office recited by all presidents during their inauguration is specified in that constitution.  George Washington was unanimously elected to be the first president in January 1789 and he recited the aforementioned two year old oath during his inauguration in late April of that year.

On May 19 Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly gave a short speech during the U.S. Coast Guard Commencement ceremony with president Trump sitting nearby on the stage drinking water from a plastic bottle. He advocated for the leadership to defend the self-interests of the rank and file and for the rank and file to speak the truth with courage to the leadership.  Then he cited 18th century history to emphasize the uniqueness of our oath of office's focus on upholding our constitution.  Then he said the following:

"So where did the oath come from? As the story goes it’s generally accurate as I understand it. They were about to inaugurate our very first president, who’d never done that before, George Washington, in our first capital, New York City. They were just about to go out and do it, and someone said, don’t we need an oath? Because up until then they had been Englishmen and Englishmen and Englishwomen had always taken their oath to the sovereign. So they sat down and wrote up the oath that you generally are about to take and handed it to George Washington before he became President. The only thing he added to that oath was so help me God."

This is palm on face embarrassing ignorance.  Does anyone at the Office of Homeland Security vet their Secretary's speeches?  All it takes are a couple of one minute searches of the Internet to verify that the oath was written over a year before George Washington was elected president.  Shouldn't Secretary John Kelly be committed to telling his audience the truth when he is requesting that they tell their leadership the truth?  Shouldn't he be aware that the presidential oath is found in the constitution when he is emphasizing that the federal government oath of office is centered on respecting the contents of that same document?  Instead, he is conflating the same day provisioning of a bible, as required by 18th century NY state oath law, with the by then two year old constitutional provisioning of a presidential oath.  Or maybe he has in mind the first bill passed by the House of Representatives on April 27, three days before the inauguration, which defined the oath of office for government officials other than the president. Or maybe he does not care who or what he is refering to, which explains his repeated use of the vague "they" in a prepared, teleprompter, speech.

Surely someone remembers enough from U.S. history class in public school to recognize that the presidential oath is in the constitution which predates the first presidential by several years, contrary to John Kelly's assertions that the presidential oath was written on the day of the first inauguration, and that the presidential oath is the same as the oath of office taken by the Coast Guard, are "generally accurate" stories.  Furthermore, the eyewitness evidence we have regarding what was said indicates George Washington did not add so help me God to that oath.  Yet this very public assertion of very confused "history" by a federal government executive branch leader appears to have drawn little, if any, attention or criticism.  President Trump and his cabinet repeatedly and shamelessly promote falsehoods, with time remaining for many more.  This is my small contribution to trying to prevent this one, among the many, from slipping by unnoticed.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Jimmy Carter's Christianity

By Mathew Goldstein 

Our former President is a Sunday school for adults teacher and "born-again evangelical".  Shortly before Easter, on April 15, the New York Times published an edited email interview by opinion journalist Nicholas Kristof titled President Carter, Am I a Christian?  He was asked about his religious beliefs. President Carter's answers are quoted and followed by my atheist reaction.

President Carter began "Having a scientific background, I do not believe in a six-day creation of the world that occurred in 4004 B.C., stars falling on the earth, that kind of thing. I accept the overall message of the Bible as true, and also accept miracles described in the New Testament, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection."

The virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, and overall message of the Bible are not merely non-scientific, they are in direct conflict with science, no less so than a six day creation, a 6,000 year old universe, stars falling on earth, that kind of thing.  The distinction that President Carter is claiming between the former and the latter is mostly, if not entirely, bogus. 

"My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me."

Those beliefs contain factual historical assertions and as such we need more than an ideologically based commitment supported by nothing more than a dubious assertion of an irrelevant "great personal benefit" to properly justify such beliefs. Justifying convictions regarding historical facts on faith and "personal benefit" is a mistake.  That promiscuous method is incapable of distinguishing non-fiction from fiction, it is arbitrarily and indiscriminately available to justify any possible historical fact claim.

"I do not judge whether someone else is a Christian.... Those (mostly men) who practice superiority and exclusion contradict my interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus, which exemplified peace, love, compassion, humility, forgiveness and sacrificial love....  eventually I decide what I believe, as an integral part of my existence and a guide for my life. This is based on what I consider to be the perfect life and example of Jesus."

President Carter is being credulous and biased.  The life of Jesus is mostly unknown to us because the bible is silent about him until after he is a young adult and because the bible may not be accurately relating the actual story of a single person as it claims to be doing.  Overturning tables in the Temple was rowdy, self-promoting, behavior.  That was not particularly forgiving or humility exhibiting.  It does not require much effort to imagine a better life and example than that of Jesus as depicted in the bible.  Lives can be better or worse, but a perfect life is like a perfect year, there is no such thing.

Our beliefs regarding how the universe operates influence our decisions so we need to be careful about acquiring our beliefs responsibly. Our individual existence has a very small presence in the much larger universe and does not determine how the universe operates, so appealng to ourselves as a justification for our beliefs is not a good approach.  Instead, we need to look outside of ourselves, to the overall available empirical evidence and not restrict our search to a particular book or a particular life from a particular time and place.

"I look on the contradictions among the Gospel writers as a sign of authenticity, based on their different life experiences, contacts with Jesus and each other. If the earlier authors of the Bible had been creating an artificial document, they would have eliminated disparities. I try to absorb the essence and meaning of the teachings of Jesus Christ, primarily as explained in the letters written by Paul to the early churches. When there are apparent discrepancies, I make a decision on what to believe, respecting the equal status and rights of all people."

The letters written by the delusion prone Paul tell us about the anguished thoughts within Paul's head.  Taking his letters to have more significance than that, as if his letters convey the central cosmic truth of our universe, requires a loss of common sense perspective. This loss of perspective is amplified by the topsy-turvy decision to take textual contradictions and disparities as evidence of authenticity.  The anonymous authors of the bible, like Paul, were real and flawed people, and some early believers, including the originator of Christianity, Paul, may have been sincere. The assertion that the authors of the Gospels had contact with Jesus is unlikely because the first Gospel (Mark) appears to have been written too many decades after the events and because Paul depicts Jesus as a cartoon like figure retrieved from memories of dreams. Furthermore, the Gospels were written in Greek, which was a foreign language to Jesus and anyone who would have met him, and they are third person non-eyewitness accounts ("according to Mark...").  This does not suffice as evidence for the contents of the bible probably being historically true.

"It is usually impossible to convince skeptics. For me, prayer helps internally, as a private conversation with my creator, who knows everything and can do anything. If I were an amputee, my prayer would be to help me make the best of my condition, to be a good follower of the perfect example set by Jesus Christ and to be thankful for life, freedom and opportunities to be a blessing to others."

Contrary to what President Carter said, it is usually possible to convince skeptics by demonstrating a conclusion is best fit with the available empirical evidence.  President Carter fails to acknowldge the best fit conclusion for why a creator who knows everything and can do anything has never replaced an amputee's missing limb: There is no such creator.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Critical thinking instruction reduces belief in pseudoscience

By Mathew Goldstein

A recent study by North Carolina State University researchers, Explicitly Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a History Coursepublished in Science & Education, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s11191-017-9878-2found that teaching critical thinking skills in a humanities course significantly reduces student beliefs in "pseudoscience" that is unsupported by facts.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Oppose Maryland tax exemption for Boy Scouts

By Mathew Goldstein 

The Maryland Senate is probably going to vote soon on HB 796, Sales and Use Tax - Exemptions - Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.  The House voted unanimously for this bill.  The corresponding Senate bill, SB 748, has not been reported by the Senate committee.  Therefore, you can send two emails, one to the committee, and another to your Senator, opposing this bill.  The email addresses of the committee members are on  Below is a copy of the email that I sent to the Senate Committee which you can copy.

Budget and Taxation Committee
3 West Miller Senate Office Building
Annapolis, MD 21401

Chairwoman and Members of the Committee:

Generally, tax exempt non-profits must comply with the same laws which apply to for-profit businesses.  Churches and religious non-profits are a special case because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the government making a law "respecting an establishment of religion" and also forbids "prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  However, government cannot single out particular religious non-profits for a special tax exemption.

The policies of Boy Scouts restrict membership to applicants who "subscribe to the precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principles (duty to God), and abide by the Scout Oath and Scout Law." Boy Scouts of America, Membership Standards Implementation Frequently Asked Questions, 4, available at  The Declaration of Religious Principles states, in part, that "Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God and, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member," and that "[o]nly persons willing to subscribe to this Declaration of Religious Principle ... shall be entitled to certificates of membership." Boy Scouts of America, Manual for Chaplain Aides and Chaplains, The Scout Oath reads, in relevant part, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country", Membership Standards Implementation supra, 4.

Because the Boy Scouts of America Scouting program is closed to non-theists it should not be singled out for special tax exemptions.  Girl Scouts would be granted the same tax exemption but all other competing youth organizations, including Camp Fire, Navigator USA, and Baden Powell Service Association, will still be required to pay sales and use taxes.  Unlike the Boy Scouts of America Scouting program, these other youth programs do not mandate theism.

The uncollected sales and use tax problem has at least two appropriate remedies.  One is to enforce the state tax law and collect the sales and use taxes.  The other is to grant a sales and use tax exemption for all non-profit youth organizations equally.  Privileging BSA with a tax exemption is unfair and improper.  While pairing the tax exemption for Boy Scouts with the same exemption for Girl Scouts provides for gender balance, it fails to provide such balance for excluded non-theist boys and their families and for competing youth organizations.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Stephen Colbert and Ricky Garvis debate about atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

Does a recent article in the conservative online news and commentary website PJ Media titled What atheist Ricky Garvis got wrong debating God with Stephen Colbert succeed in demonstrating that Ricky Garvis is mistaken?  Few people will be surprised that an atheist such as myself concludes the aforementioned commentary for theism fails to defeat atheism.  Yet few people will understand how it fails.

The commentary for theism begins by characterizing teleology as "one of atheism's blind spots".  As shown in the video of the Colbert versus Garvis debate,  Colbert's first challenge for Garvis is the question "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Gervais dismisses the question, retorting that the better question is "How is there something?" Is Garvis wrong to scoff at the relevancy of the notion of "why"? 

The theistic notion adopted by this commentary - that there is a why question with an answer that is distinct from the how question answer - assumes more than is necessary and therefore assumes too much.  An explanation that answers the how question can suffice.  This is because the how answer satisfies the why question this way: Given that this is how that happened, that did happen.  Why did it happen?  Because of its happening being possible as demonstrated by the how it happened explanation.   In other words, in this context, an origin that can happen did happen because it could and that is the whole story.  There is literally no need to provide a separate answer addressing why it happened to have the complete explanation.

But even if a how answer does not suffice to provide a complete explanation, we then have no viable option of inventing a why answer and declaring that additional explanation to also be true to fill the gap.  This is because we know from human history that we lack the capability to correctly guess the true answer to such questions. Any true answer will be so counter-intuitive to humans that we have zero chance of guessing the correct answer merely by applying reason and logic that is not fully anchored and directed by empirical evidence. Without the empirical evidence we are ignorant.  Full stop.  Garvis emphasized our condition of being ignorant.  The author of this commentary fails to address, let alone counter, that argument.

There is another dubious assumption in Colbert's question, one that Garvis did not dispute.  The commentary puts it this way "The incontrovertible truth is that something exists and something cannot come from nothing."  This notion that absolute nothingness must be the initial starting point also assumes too much.  This is a common assumption behind theism and as such it is a weakness of theism.  We have no good reason to think absolute nothingness is anything other than a fiction originating from human intuition.  While we do not know what preceded the Big Bang, the empirical evidence that we do have favors the conclusion that absolute nothingness is not possible because nothingness appears to be an intrinsically unstable condition.  Absolutes are sometimes counter-evidenced by modern physics.  There is no absolute cold, absolute hot, absolute soft, absolute hard, absolute light, absolute dark, etc.  This may be true even when there are absolute boundaries that cannot be crossed.  For example, there is a boundary line for absolute coldness but it may not be reachable.  An object cannot travel faster than 186,282 miles per second which is far slower than one million miles per second which is a lot slower than absolute fastness (whatever that means).

The commentary then cites "the Five Ways of Aquinas" as being the basis for Colbert's next challenge to Garvis that there is a need for a prime mover.  Citing a 13th century thinker is a very weak approach to debating how the universe operates.  This is because our knowledge of how the universe operates is substantially better now than it was in the 13th century.  Aquinas did not know that objects in motion continue to move unless they are slowed down or stopped by friction or collisions because this explanation was discovered after he died.  In quantum mechanics there is no prime mover, there are events which spontaneously occur stochastically with a consistent probability frequency.   Aquinas could not imagine quantum mechanics because even after it was discovered centuries later it remains counter-intuitive.  There are forces that repel and attract which cause objects to move.  Aquinas could not imagine these forces because they are counter-intuitive and were discovered after he died.  

While it is true that naturalism imposes substantial constraints on what is possible, the constraints it imposes are not as debilitating as many theists assume.  Theists tend to rely too much on human intuition to anchor their arguments.  When we discipline ourselves with the additional constraint of depending on the available empirical evidence to direct and dictate our conclusions we discover how capable and productive naturalism is and how incapable and unproductive human intuition without the naturalism constraint is.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Constitution Center and presidential inaugural SHMG

By Mathew Goldstein 

On January 10 the Constitution Center published their 10 fascinating facts presidential inauguration.  The Constitution Center is a secular, non-partisan, federal government sponsored, organization that relies on an advisory panel of expert historians and scholars.  Therefore we have reason to take them seriously as a reliable source of information about American history.  They originally said this: 
We don’t really know who added “Under God” to the oath. Author Washington Irving claimed George Washington started the tradition of adding “So help me God” at the oath’s end. There is no direct evidence of that. Others believe Chester Alan Arthur used the words when he took the oath in private after James Garfield died.

President Arthur took his presidential oath of office twice, the first time in his apartment in New York.  A short but detailed account of that first, unplanned, oath recitation that names six participants was published the next day in the Omaha Daily Bee. That report quotes the oath and clearly states that there was no SHMG, see

After traveling to Washington D.C., Arthur was inaugurated again two days later by Chief Justice of the United States Morrison R. Waite in a larger ceremony held in the Vice President's office with invited guests. It was widely reported in newspapers, starting early the next day, that he added the phrase "so help me god" to his oath of office during that second oath of office recitation.  The published description of what happened included the who, when, where, and what details that require an eyewitness to reveal.  Participants in the second ceremony as described in the newspaper article, several dozen of whom were identified by name, included two associate justices of the Supreme Court, two former presidents, cabinet members, some Senators, and some Representatives.

I do not know who wrote the article or if subsequent accounts claiming Chester Arthur said SHMG rely on this initial report or independently confirm it. Nevertheless, the publish article is credible enough to be accepted absent any eyewitness subsequently contradicting it.  Sometimes the evidence favors a conclusion that so and so said such and such and it is misleading to suggest otherwise, even though technically it is true that we lack certainty.  

In contrast, Washington Irving's biography of George Washington fails to qualify as an eyewitness account of the inauguration.  Irving did not identify an eyewitness, he himself was too far away in the crowd from the president elect to be the eyewitness, he was six years old at the time and he published his biography over 6 decades after the fact, and his account of the inauguration was copied from an earlier account written by someone else who was an eyewitness without acknowledgement or permission [Memoir of Eliza S. M. Quincy, no SHMG in that eyewitness account].  Also, that SHMG story is counter-evidenced by a contemporaneous eyewitness account of the oath recitation written by someone who stood near the president elect on the balcony [letter of the French consul, Comte de Moustier, April 30, 1789].  If George Washington appended SHMG then not only did no one notice, but for the next ninety two years, starting with George Washington's second inauguration, no one else did that again, even though the other presidents repeated the first inauguration's public ceremony with hand on the bible followed by kissing the bible that was required by New York state law for the first inauguration held in NY.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Complain to your lawmakers about bad proposals

The misdirected tendency of Congress and the Trump administration to prioritize parochial ideology over universal evidence may be stronger than any government we have had in the past century.  We may not be able to stop them, but we can say we asked our own representatives to oppose that agenda. After reading their contents I think you will agree that the following seven emails to your Congressional lawmakers sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America are thoughtful and appropriate.