Notes on life and mortality

To preface this, I’d like to reassure anyone reading this that my health is good and I have no expectation of dying soon. However, going by years, my life is more than half over. Barring a breakthrough in life extension, I probably don’t have more than three decades left. That means I think about death occasionally. Getting my thoughts into a public essay helps to clarify them.
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What we can learn from Phil Robertson

Let’s make a few things clear at the start. I don’t want Phil Robertson censored. I don’t want him to lose his job. If someone acts on his claims and kills people, it’s the murderer’s fault, not Robertson. In fact, I think we can learn something from his words, in a perverse way. Here’s what he said:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say ‘something about this just ain’t right.’

Phil Robertson (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)Well, yes, something about that would not be right. The same thing would not be right if fanatics broke into Robertson’s home, claimed that Christians say there’s no right or wrong, and raped and murdered his family. But the clear implication is that the atheist would be wrong, that in fact there is no right or wrong if the target of violence doesn’t believe a deity exists.

I wanted to make sure I was understanding Robertson correctly, knowing how distorted media accounts can get. It was conceivable his next words were, “Of course something about this ain’t right. People don’t stop being human just because they don’t belong to your religion.” However, I haven’t found any claims that his words were ripped out of context. I did find a defense of Robertson by someone named John Nolte. This piece calls the denunciations of Robertson “ignorant” and “bigoted.” Nolte says Robertson was making “a perfectly valid point about a Godless world in which there is no Ten Commandments and by extension no basis to judge right from wrong.” This clarifies an important point: the scenario applies not just to atheists but to anyone who doesn’t have a belief system that includes Moses. He could equally well have talked about raping and killing a “little Hindu wife” or “little Buddhist daughters.”

I don’t think he’d act on that principle and murder unbelievers, but there are people who do just that, for the reasons he gave. They kidnap, torture, and kill on the principle that anyone who doesn’t recognize their form of religious authority falls outside all moral consideration. Robertson points to the Bible as his revealed moral authority, and Islamic State and Boko Haram point to the Quran, but there’s no way to decide which is the “true” one.

Robertson and IS believe that humans are incapable of moral knowledge on their own and that anyone who doesn’t follow divine authority doesn’t count as a human being. For Muslim fanatics, this applies even to people who don’t hold their exact interpretation of the Quran; they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims. There’s no need to feel moral doubt while committing mass murder, since apart from God’s orders there is no right or wrong.

It’s an escape from personal responsibility. The people who accept this view don’t have to bear the burden of deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. By accepting that they’re incapable of independent moral judgment and have to follow divine orders, they escape the need to think and the risk of doubt. The ones who take up violence literally would rather die than think.

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NH Liberty Forum 2015

New Hampshire has a lot of liberty-related events, and the one I attend most often is the Liberty Forum. This year it was in Manchester and had its usual excellent lineup of speakers. I ran into some people I hadn’t seen in years, as well as seeing writers whom I frequently read, and generally enjoyed it.Vendors at NH Liberty Forum 2015

There’s quite a range of people at these events, but the atmosphere was friendly and casual, not too different from a science fiction convention. Some people were rabid supporters of single causes; others took a broader, more philosophical or lifestyle-related approach. The events I attended focused more on the latter. David Kelley gave a talk on the importance of philosophy, William Thomas presented the case for limited government, and the Atlas Society had a table. I found out that it’s holding its 2015 summit in Nashua, almost within walking distance of my home. I mentioned this on Twitter with a sigh (which was corrected to a shrug).

Nick Gillespie at NH Liberty Forum The talk which gave me the most new information was Charlie Arlinghaus’s on New Hampshire history. Knowing how recently New Hampshire had laws on the books requiring the maintenance of Protestant ministers (though they weren’t enforced) gives some perspective.

Most of the people there didn’t have the level of technical savvy I often take for granted, and the tech items I attended weren’t very impressive. The presentation on “Cryptography in one lesson” was good but didn’t tell me anything new, being aimed at a general audience. A presentation on “How activists solve problems in the digital age” sounded like a sales pitch for Google, and when the speaker used the words “It’s not as good as Outlook” for something other than eating camel dung, I gave up and left. But I had fun hanging around the Think Penguin booth. These people sell interesting stuff, including a router with completely open-source firmware. I may get back to them at some point.

There were a couple of closing items today (Sunday), but I didn’t go back for them. It was an enjoyable conference and I’m looking forward to the next one.

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Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden died on December 3, at the age of 84. Whatever the mistakes he made in his life, he has to be credited with bringing Objectivism to a larger audience. At the same time, his Nathaniel Branden Institute promoted the ideological conformity, the idea that almost any disagreement, even in tastes, is a sin, which has tainted the Objectivist movement ever since. Reason and unquestioning agreement are totally incompatible, as he later came to realize.

Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem presented an idea which was later widely adopted, if only in name. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, he wrote:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.

The “self-esteem movement” picked up part of the basic idea but turned it into something to be achieved with sheer positive thinking, rather than something that’s built up through decisions and actions. Conservatives, for their part, have often regarded self-esteem as the sin of pride.

I’ve found it valuable to remember that self-esteem builds on itself. If you’re confident in your ability, you’re motivated to take the actions that will lead to success and to keep going when it gets hard. Being successful gives you more confidence. However, we all experience strings of failures in our lives, and we need a more enduring kind of self-esteem to get through those, a sense of personal integrity and worth and a philosophical view that regards success as a possible and worthy goal. Branden wrote: “What people think, what they believe, what they tell themselves, incluences what they feel and what they do. In turn, they experience what they feel and do as having meaning for who they are.”

We’re so often told we should be “selfless,” that “there’s no I in ‘team,'” etc. People are pushed into self-doubt and self-disparagement in order to make them easy to manipulate. Branden helped to push back against this idea, to tell people that their personal worth is theirs to lay claim to and develop.

My mind is not a junkyard

Once I ran across a song called “My Mind Is Not a Junkyard.” I had high hopes for the title, but it turned out to be just a complaint about Internet porn. What I hoped for was something about treating one’s own mind with respect. Maybe I’ll write that song myself.

What reminded me of that this week was a comment in an article by Andy Ihnatko. It’s nominally about whether religious people can believe in evolution (of course they can), but the part I want to focus on here is:

The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

He’s saying proof is only for persuading others, and even then it’s vulgar. Most people don’t say so outright, but it’s common for people to think of proof as something for public discourse, not for themselves. This amounts to making second-class citizens of their own minds. They’re granting a higher level of respect to other people’s minds than to their own.

It takes courage and practice to follow one’s own judgment. For most people, it’s easier to take something they’ve heard from someone else and toss it onto the debris pile of their minds. They don’t think about how well-supported it is till someone challenges it, and even then they’re more likely to care about winning an argument than checking their own premises. Or they may not even care that much about proof, taking the bumper-sticker attitude of “God [or some other authority] said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” They’re the mental equivalent of hoarders, hanging on desperately to whatever is inside their heads.

Finding libertarian hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

In an exchange of correspondence with a friend, I said that there’s no short-term libertarian hope for America, since not just the government but the population is corrupt. He replied characterizing people as depraved. This wasn’t something I could agree with; it’s the Salvation Army that thinks everybody but them is “totally depraved.” It got me to thinking about the difference, and ultimately to recognizing that there is hope, even the way things are.

When I say Americans are corrupt, I don’t mean they’re horrible people; I mean they’ve they accept horrible things because they’ve been bought off. It’s more important to them to get stuff at other people’s expense or to get dubious protection against tiny risks than to keep their freedom. They’re the people who Ben Franklin said deserve neither liberty nor safety.

In other ways, though, these are mostly good people. They’re privately honest while accepting public dishonesty. They respect the rights of others in person while raping them through the ballot. They wouldn’t rob anyone with threats of force, but they ask their representatives in Washington to.

It’s a matter of what they’ve learned to consider acceptable. Rather then being considered horrible for endorsing robbery by proxy, they’re applauded for their “civic spirit.” In other cultures and times, people have accepted and applauded much worse things — slavery, tyranny, and religious persecution — while taking pride in their personal honor.

We can’t expect libertarian ideas to turn a culture around in a short time. We can hope, though, to make things better than they would have been otherwise. Then perhaps they can get better still, and perhaps at some point opportunities for major change will arise. If not, we may at least help to hold off disaster. Some people think it’s better to let the system collapse, but I wouldn’t want to live in the world that would follow the last chapter of Atlas Shrugged.

Some things have lately changed for the better. There are more legal options for domestic relationships in many places. Some serious restrictions on free speech that were called “campaign reform” have been struck down (and it’s fun to hear progressives howl in outrage). A number of restrictions designed to sustain business cartels have been struck down. Attempts to criminalize recording police activity have been resoundingly defeated. Many things have gotten worse, but the point is that libertarian efforts have helped make things better than they would have been otherwise.

Sure, we’d much rather see government carved down to its proper functions, such as putting Bush and Obama in jail, but we can only deal with the world we have. We have to look for the victories we can get, rebut fallacies, and promote better ideas. It’s not much, but the alternative is giving up.

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A sequence of gods

How plausible do I find it that God exists? Well, “God” is a poorly defined term, corresponding to many different ideas. Let me recast the question in terms of some specific hypotheses. (There’s a peculiar idea floating around that to qualify as an atheist, you have to have decided beyond all possibility of further argument or evidence that there can’t be a deity. The people who offer this definition are projecting their own faith-based mode of thinking onto others. Atheism is non-acceptance of the existence of a deity, not non-consideration of arguments for one.)

Could an intelligent being have created the universe? A cheap way out is to answer that the universe is everything that exists, so no creator can lie outside it. But let’s take “universe” to mean the space-time bubble we know about, the limits of the remnants of the Big Bang and of what the best instruments can detect. There’s no telling what lies outside it, if anything. I find the hypothesis that an intelligence created it less implausible than the one that it just popped out of a fluctuation in the vacuum state, which isn’t saying much. But it’s all a matter of idle speculation; there’s no convincing evidence for or against it.

Could this intelligence be one that knows about every detail of the universe and can intervene at will? This is much more of a stretch, but I can’t rule it out a priori.

Does this all-knowing, all-powerful intelligence care about the inhabitants of our planet, and does it purposefully allow so much suffering that can’t be attributed to anyone’s choices? That just doesn’t make sense.

Does it care about what people think of it, and does it reward and punish people eternally for their beliefs and religious practices or lack of them? That’s insane.

Did this being create everything from the planet through the human species in six days, plant consistent evidence to the contrary, drown almost the entire world’s population, kill tens of thousands of Egyptian kids on account of their Pharaoh’s policies, enact death penalties galore, and order the massacres of Jericho and Ai? There are limits even to insanity.

Projecting a free society

Is there a point to thinking about what a really free society could be like when freedom seems to be going down the drain? There is, as a matter of keeping a sane outlook. When we’re in a state of “war” with no prospect of an end, when governments are spending their way into bankruptcy and looking for more things to spend our money on, when we need to prove we’re allowed to work for a living, when traveling by air means submitting to the whims of goons, and when progressives and conservatives say that all this proves that we must have more government control as a remedy, it’s impossible to answer it all a piece at a time. It’s necessary to have an alternative vision rather than just fighting a futile defensive action. Even if there’s nothing left but to go down fighting, it’s better to fight for a vision worth having than just for the freedom to unlock a phone or to travel without having your luggage vandalized.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for what a fully free society would be like. There are serious issues to be resolved in finding non-coercive solutions to some situations. But the lack of an immediate solution is only a reason to look harder. To the extent that people coerce others in order to get what they want, there’s a moral problem. The big goal of libertarianism isn’t to reduce government spending or to increase its efficiency, but to get rid of coercion as a social tool.

There are several common objections to the possibility of non-coercive solutions to societal problems, and a thorough response requires addressing them. Here are some:

(1) The problem of poverty. “Without coercive redistribution of wealth, some people would starve.” This is one of the weakest arguments. Governments do more to create poverty than to alleviate it. Through history, poverty has been largely the result of unequal application of the law. Rulers and politicians need the poor in order to give the impression of helping them. Eliminate cronyism, barriers to entry in business, and burdens on hiring, and the level of poverty would be much lower. Private help would be more than capable of helping those genuinely incapable of earning a living.

(2) The free-rider problem. “There’s no way for private business to produce X and get paid by those who benefit from it, because people can get the benefits for free.” This is essentially the argument behind the DMCA and other draconian copyright legislation. This issue needs to be addressed in detail, but in many cases legislative attempts to make free riders pay just perpetuate ineffective business models. Letting some people have free rides may be the lesser evil in many cases.

(3) The natural monopoly problem. With some goods and services, economies of scale and distribution make sustainable competition difficult. Roads and water supplies are examples. This issue does need serious work, and some free market economists have addressed it. One part of the solution is recognizing that property rights don’t apply in the same way in all contexts. We already recognize that unauthorized parking in a parking lot can’t be treated quite the same way as unauthorized parking on your front lawn, and owners of private roads don’t have the right to charge a million dollars for crossing the street.

It isn’t necessary to solve all these problems completely for every possible case to regard the minimization (if not elimination) of coercive transactions as a moral ideal to pursue. If, in the ideal world, people still are compelled to pay for police patrols, it’s still a world worth aiming for.

For most of human history, people couldn’t imagine a world without slavery. Essential services wouldn’t be performed! The ex-slaves would starve! The economy would collapse! Yet slavery has been pushed to the corners of civilization, even if it’s never been eliminated. The vast majority, if not all, of the coercive means of getting one’s way can likewise be outlawed, made something to hunt down and eliminate rather than something to get elected to do. It’s a long road that could take centuries to follow, but I can hope that people will someday be much further along it, rather than backing into authoritarianism.

The Salvation Army’s mask slips

The Salvation Army puts on the appearance of a charity whose purpose is to help people in need, but it is a church, and it uses charity to promote its doctrines. I don’t give money to it, but it has a store and collection box near my home where I’ve often dropped off stuff I no longer need. After a mailing I got, I’m having second thoughts even about that.
Salvation Army mail
“He who believes in me will live.” The implication, supported by the SA’s doctrines, is that he who disagrees will die. The doctrine says that “all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.” Got that? The Salvation Army thinks you’re a totally depraved person.

Christians are “regenerated” from their previous depravity and get a ticket to heaven for believing in Jesus: “We believe that repentance toward God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit are necessary to salvation.” Being a good person is neither necessary nor sufficient. If you’re a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist, your fate is the “endless punishment of the wicked.”

Don’t put too much blame on the bell ringers, most of whom aren’t church members and probably don’t know anything about its doctrines. The Salvation Army is very good at looking like a conventional charity rather than a narrow-minded church. Even public schools and municipal institutions, whose administrators are well aware they can’t support churches, are sometimes duped into supporting it. Only occasionally, as with this mailing, does the mask slip and reveal the monstrous face of a deity saying “Believe or die!”

Typical evangelical religions use the bribe of Heaven and the threat of Hell to get people to believe. The Salvation Army adds a bribe which isn’t funny money, which could be to their credit if they were honest about their aims. But every cent or shirt which you give them goes toward promoting a doctrine that considers humans evil by the mere fact that we exist and threatens everyone who doesn’t agree. In its implications, it’s a doctrine of hatred for all non-Christians. It’s important to choose charities intelligently, and I’m not going to support one that tells people I’m “totally depraved.”

Update: I’ve done some looking into the doctrine of regeneration by the Holy Spirit to see if they really mean that they’re the only ones who aren’t depraved. Yes, that is what they mean. Numerous web pages that I’ve checked confirm that the people who believe in this doctrine hold that regeneration puts an end to their depravity. Here’s one example:

To put the matter of regeneration in another way; regeneration is the impartation of a new nature, God’s own nature to the one who is born again (2 Peter 1:4). Every human being is born into this world with a perverted nature; his whole intellectual, affectional and volitional nature perverted by sin. … It is the Holy Spirit who creates in us this new nature, or imparts this new nature to us. No amount of preaching, no matter how orthodox it may be, no amount of mere study of the Word will regenerate unless the Holy Spirit works. It is He and He alone who makes a man a new creature.

“Regenerated” people claim to be a “new creature” with a “new nature,” and thus can damn the rest of us without damning themselves. This isn’t a Christian view that I was previously familiar with; my understanding is that standard Christianity says that everyone is a sinner, even Christians, and I haven’t run into many Christians who claim to have an essentially different nature from the rest of us. I’ve come upon a number of Christian pages that reject the Salvation Army’s doctrine of innate and universal depravity. (“Sin” and “depravity” are different at least in degree.)

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Atlas University

David Kelley and William R Thomas have put up a new set of online video lectures in Objectivism, called Atlas University. I’ve just watched the first one by David Kelley, on the subject of reason. For me it covers familiar ground, but it’s quite good. Kelley’s style is direct and simple, without the belligerent air that makes some other speakers for Objectivism turn people off. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s heard about Rand’s philosophy only by rumor and wants to learn more about it. Naturally, I can’t say yet how any of the lectures beyond the first are, but I’m optimistic.

Obligatory nitpick: Kelley mentions in passing that reason can also produce bad results, such as weapons of war and fascism. I understand him to mean that fascism is a set of conceptual ideas, not that it’s a rational philosophy, and that the most bizarre religion is a product of reason in this sense, but I wish he hadn’t chosen that example. The idea that fascism is the outcome of rational thought isn’t as popular as it used to be, but we still hear it. It’s actually the outcome of the idea that people should subordinate their individual thoughts to the mass and the leader.

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