By any other name

I've spent quite a bit of time lately arguing that some atheists have lost their way or that they are calling themselves by the wrong name. One particular atheist went as far as to say that "atheism" has nothing to do with faith. That's absolutely untrue, and I doubt that it will ever be true, even with the current rate of language evolution. It seems that most atheist bloggers and blog-commenters, however, don't deny atheism's roots in faith and put forth some version of the statement, "gods almost certainly don't exist".

If this is one of the main positions of atheists as a group, then that puts atheism much closer to a faith or belief than to a scientifically empirical position, due to the fact that there is no formal framework for cetainty or probability that allows such statement without any evidence at all. And, no, lack of evidence of existence is not evidence for nonexistence. A conclusion based on no evidence is one of two things: (1) a belief, or (2) wrong.

So, given these facts:
  • Most atheists agree that the scientific method is the only justifiable way to gain knowledge.
  • Self-proclaimed "atheists" cannot seem to agree on their position with respect to belief in gods (despite the definition of the word "atheist"), and the most popular position (above) is a statement of faith, not science.
  • There is no widely popular politcal movement whose main motivation is the scientific method and reason and whose roots or main positions do not lie squarely in beliefs or faith.
  • I don't want to talk any more about the existence of gods.
I propose that all proponents of the scientific method and reason join together under a different name, one that holds no position with regards to faith and deities, but takes a position only in the case of real, measurable evidence in its favor. I know it's not a perfect name--though surely better than "atheism"--but I think "rational empiricism" represents the cause well. "Empricism" because we draw conclusions if and only if there is evidence, and "rational" because we use formal logic and reason to draw any number of conclusions from a collection of evidence.

Yes, we might also be skeptics, agnostics, atheists, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, and Communists, but the one thing all rational empiricists have in common is a set of arguments (politically, socially, interculturally) based only on empirical evidence and logic.

The term "rational empiricism" has a well-developed philosophical background, and the difference between this philosophy and what I propose here is mainly political activism. The philosophy does not have a goal, but I do. My goal is:

All laws and regulations enacted by the power of any government should
  1. guarantee personal freedoms insofar as they do not harm others, or,
  2. given (1), guarantee fairness and equal opportunity for all participants in economic, social, and political exchanges, or,
  3. given (1) and (2), promote the general welfare.

We can adapt rational empiricism to a political ideal by using the principles of the established philosophy to achieve these goals.

Many of these ideas are not at all new, but it seems obvious to me that politics are driven by opinions and beliefs, which is something I'd like to see changed. The solution is of course reason and the scientific method, neither of which has their own political voice, as they are constantly bent and mingled with other less desirable ideologies.

In case anyone was wondering, no, I am not planning on putting my name on any ballots in the near future, but I do plan to spend more time here in the background, analyzing and commenting, preparing myself for a future where things might change.

Notes and references:

Atheism is a religion, my first post focusing on this topic
Atheism is not science, a second attempt at clarity
One more time, on atheism, a stab at the politics of atheism

A very good Blag Hag post, under which I put forth and defend some of my positions using the name "Brian".

Rational empiricism, a good description of the philosophy
Ignosticism, a word I learned today that describes some of my personal views very well


Why are people smart but groups stupid?

This is a magnificent review of a book that appears to be amazingly wonderful. I want to read it.

The book apparently explains why Americans, as a whole, listen to and believe so much nonsense from politicians and other powerful people, and includes references to Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and Sarah Palin, so it's not short on pseudo-controversial topics.

I had been wondering if collective stupidity was a new phenomenon, or if it had become apparent to me only after I became old enough to understand it. The book states that it is indeed relatively new, and the causes are many. Either way, the polarizing and sometimes ridiculous elections I have experienced in the past few years have driven me towards the None of the Above campaign (though I prefer Richard Pryor's approach). I hope that there's hope, and that we can get better. Here's one suggestion to fight extreme polarity, anyway.


One more time, on atheism

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but each day I think of a more precise--or at least different--way to make my main point about atheism. Today's version:

Let's assume that one of atheists' goals is political power. I don't think this is far from the truth; if they didn't want political power, we can just forget this entire discussion and let them preach ungodliness. Let's also assume that atheists want to use this political power to change society so that important decisions align closely with the scientific method. That is, they want laws and rules based on actual evidence and logical, provable conclusions.

If these assumptions are true, then atheists have done their cause an incredible disservice by excluding from their ranks the huge number of rational, logical, considerate, and tolerant god-fearing individuals among the voting public. Even a loosely affiliated church-going scientist would not label himself an "atheist" nor align himself closely with an atheist organization. There are many like him, and atheists have not only made him feel unwelcome, but have on occasion insulted his beliefs. In fact, it leads to polarization just like in the purely political world, where the moderates don't know which way to turn. Atheists could claim the voices and votes of passive theists, but instead some of them are alienating even agnostics and passive/weak atheists by speaking so loudly against belief and its institutions.

It's fine to debunk religion, but when it comes time to actually get something done, those people who politically promote science--and science alone--need to leave "theism" out of the main discussion and out of their name.

Side note: There is more evidence that some atheists still say that gods "almost certainly" don't exist and evidence that they have forgotten where the word "atheist" comes from at this Blag Hag post. The author's post itself is secondary evidence, but in the comments I posted after "Craig's" somewhat misled statements. I posted under the name "Brian". It seems like defending these opinions of mine is becoming my new pet project. Don't feed it after midnight.


Atheism is not science

Since I've been on an atheism/religion kick lately, I'd like to draw attention to an interview with Seth MacFarlane in the September 2009 issue of Esquire. The interviewer, Stacey Grenrock Woods, makes the main point of my previous post about the battle between atheists and religion by asking two simple questions:

ESQ: Speaking of which, I see you've recently become rather vocal about your atheism. Isn't it antithetical to make public proclamations about secularism?

SM: We have to. Because of all the mysticism and stuff that's gotten so popular.

ESQ: But when you wave banners, how does it differ from religion?

SM: It's like the civil-rights movement. There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.

ESQ: Right, but I think I'll still try
The Secret. Oprah raves about it.

I got excited reading this because I was starting to think that there was no one out there who agreed with me. It seems that Woods at least partially agrees with me anyway, so now I feel better.

MacFarlane, though, no matter how amazing his television shows are, runs the risk of polluting his "atheist" cause by positioning it as the antithesis to religion. I said the same thing a while ago about the humanist movement. I stand behind any organization whose main purpose is to promote the use of knowledge and scientific reason to make political decisions, and I fully oppose those people who impose their belief and faith on others, but the two ideas are not opposites.

Surely they are very different, but the lack of one does not imply the other. Therefore I will say again that the self-proclaimed atheists, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics--and all others who claim to base their decisions on only science--should not list religion per se as an enemy in their manifestos.

The enemy is not lack of scientific basis, but instead opposition of scientific basis.

A simple belief in a god does not preclude rational behavior, even if religious activities sometimes do. Therefore do not tell someone that they should not believe in a god, but remind them (as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg almost-heroically did) to keep their beliefs out of political decisions.

I have this funny feeling that decades from now atheists and theists will still be arguing about whether or not God exists and science will have slipped out the back door.

If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.
--Don Draper, Mad Men


Game theory of life

In my lifetime, I've wanted to be a lot of things. I wanted to finish college and be a mathematician, and I wanted to be a runner. I wanted to be a traveler in Italy and conference participant in Australia. I wanted to be a homeowner and a valued employee. I wanted these things, but I never would have called them my "goals".

Goals are hard to attain and risky to pursue. A goal has to be--let's say, conservatively--less than 80% certain to happen, and it must require sacrifice. Winning a race was my goal, just like becoming extraordinarily successful in my career, publishing an article in Science, or seeing my short story in The New Yorker.

There are two main ways to achieve a goal, two directions in which to focus my efforts. One is the narcissistic path: drop everything else and focus on the goal. The other is the holistic approach: build myself and my capabilities until the goal becomes a simple matter of reaching out and taking it. If the goal were, for example, to help poor and starving people, we might contrast a lifelong member of the Peace Corps with Bill Gates. The former gives bread to the hungry with his own hands while the latter becomes a notorious billionaire before founding one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the world. It's not easy to say which way is better. By age 50, who has fed more people?

Warren Buffett said that his time should be spent where his talents lie: earning high returns on capital. He'll let the people who are good at feeding the poor feed the poor. Buffett's talents cannot be disputed, but perhaps his motivation can be. What else is someone whose lifelong goal is to earn money, if not greedy? Or, is he simply preparing himself to do the most good he can possibly do in this world? Buffett has been astoundingly thrifty, considering his former status as richest man in the world. Another former richest man, Gates, spends a bit more freely on himself, but apparently intends that his life's work be--ultimately, like Buffett--to give aid to millions of underpriveleged and impoverished people.

I don't know if Bill Gates has ever handed a piece of bread to a starving person. There are certainly many people who have, people I've never heard of and who are very good at what they do. The world needs both kinds of individuals, but which kind am I?

Do I drop everything now and try to take what I want, or do I try to take over the world first and then bend it to my bidding? Buffett says it depends on where my talents lie, which way is easier for me. It's hard to decide. Goals take time, and the thought of dropping everything feels like a sprint and a flying leap as the floor falls out from under me; I don't know if I'll make it across. If I never jump, though, I'll never know, and preparation is never a goal unto itself.

I've always followed my talents, and I've been pleased wwith where they've taken me. I'm extremely lucky in that way. But I've found that sometimes my talents cannot take me to the places where my talents do the most good, or the place I want to be, and I have to find another way around. It becomes a question of strategy; how long will I have to fight my way through unpleasant territory before I get to where I'm going? I can always turn and head to the goal straight on, albeit weaker, less prepared, and more likely to fail. It's a flying leap, but I just might make it.