Category Archives: Philosophy

There’s No Such Thing as Presuppositional Naturalism

I was watching one of Matt Dillahunty’s recent debates, Is Belief in the Christian God Rational?, versus Cliffe Knechtle today and one of the many, MANY things that I took issue with that Cliffe said was a bit about Naturalism.

The gist of it was that, if you have a naturalistic worldview, then he agreed with Matt that you could discount the Bible as being true because it contains miracles which are, naturalistically, impossible. But! he continued, this line of reasoning requires that you presuppose naturalism. The implication was that you can’t prove naturalism any more than you can prove Christian presuppositionalism, and thus both positions rely on faith, which makes Matt’s position (that faith is irrational) inconsistent.

If you’re not familiar with the terminology, I’ll take a quick aside for that. A presupposition is something you accept in order to create an argument. It is different from an assumption (or a supposition) in that it is usually an unexamined and not directly a part of the argument. Often they can be hidden and much harder to identify. It’s a bit easier to explain with examples. If you’re trying to form a logical argument, using premises and deductions to arrive logically at a conclusion, then one of the things you’re presupposing is the validity of the logical system you’re using. When apologists try to prove the truth of Christianity by pointing to the Bible and telling you what it says, they are presupposing that the Bible is 100% inerrant (this, incidentally, is called presuppositional apologetics).

Naturalism is the philosophical position that all which exists is the natural world: people, trees, rocks, starts, protons, quarks, really awesome cars, etc… But not things like ghosts, demons, souls or anything else that would typically be called “supernatural”. Generally speaking, “natural” means anything which can be observed to exist.

You might be able to see the problem here: If all the stuff that is observable is part of the natural world, then what exactly is left? Keep in mind that in scientific terms, “observable” doesn’t just mean “can be seen” there are many other ways of observing stuff either directly (using other senses, or even apparatuses we’ve built such as telescopes to detect distant stellar objects) or indirectly (observing the effects of gravity to deduce the existence of dark matter). So if something  interacts in any way with the world, it is by definition “natural”.

This is why the term “supernatural” is so frustrating. At the end of the day, “natural” basically just means “anything that exists”. So when people start talking about the existence of supernatural ghosts or souls or gods, they are talking about things which, by definition, don’t exist. If they did, then they would be part of the natural world.

So to say that you have a naturalistic presupposition is to say that you are presupposing that all things which exist… y’know… exist. It’s a purely a priori, analytical tautology.

So to claim that miracles are impossible only under a presuppositionally naturalistic worldview is to agree that miracles are impossible. Leastways, it’s to say that the things we consider miracles are explainable, just we don’t currently have the explanation available to us. Either that or they never actually happened.

Stalemate

A friend on my Facebook posted this image:

Spock says:
“Neither of you can prove or disprove God”
“Checkmate Christians & atheists”

I replied as follows (and wanted to repost it here):

Ignoring that science is not actually in the business of “proving” things, but rather gathering evidence through investigation.

Ignoring that if you’re going to use a standard of knowledge that requires “proof” or “absolute certainty” then you actually can’t prove or know anything. And I mean *literally* anything. You can’t prove that the sky is blue because for all you know we’re in the Matrix right now and the actual sky is violet.

Ignoring that Christians can’t even agree among themselves as to the characteristics of the god they believe in; let alone the hundreds of other religions in the world.

Ignoring that, actually, if your claims about gods require preconditions that contradict things that we know about reality, then yeah… you can eliminate the possibility of that god existing. Further, if your the preconditions of that god are logically impossible then you’ve again precluded the possibility of his existence.

Ignoring that absence of evidence is, in fact, the only *possible* evidence of absence, and that you don’t believe in leprechauns, unicorns, fairies or mermaids for the exact same reason that atheists don’t believe in gods (ie: complete and utter lack of evidence for their existence).

Ignoring all that and supposing for the sake of argument that we have absolutely no idea whether or not any gods exist:

Without being able to prove that religion is correct, you don’t get to impose it on other people. There’s no reason to deny loving same-sex couples the right to marry. There’s no reason to institute mandatory prayer in schools. There’s no reason to splash acid in the faces of women for wanting to go to school or drive a car. There’s no reason to refuse to help the poor because they’ll just get some really good shit in their next life. There’s no reason to deny women their rights to bodily autonomy. There’s no reason to deprive children of necessary lifesaving medical technology like vaccinations or blood transfusions.

In the argument between atheists and religious folks guess who’s fully on the side opposing all those things?

That’s right, the atheists.

We don’t do it for ourselves, we do it for everyone. So that nobody has to be oppressed by the religious segments of society.

And you know what? If nobody on the planet were harmed in any way by religion, then I’d still argue with religious people, but it would be in the same way I argue with people who think that Star Wars is better than Star Trek: at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because neither of us are going to go home and starve our children because of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where all the things I listed above happen. A lot.

And before you throw up the “not all religious people are like that” argument, let me just tell you: I don’t care. I don’t give one half of the tiniest shit about that. The fact that it happens AT ALL is the problem.

That’s why the atheists fight.

And if you’re a religious person who lives their full life without harming anyone in the slightest, whether inadvertently or not, because of your religious beliefs? Good for you. Captain Kirk could still kick the shit out of Han Solo.

On a related note, the bit about going home and starving one’s children over religious belief is a reference this story. I worry that it seems like I’m just picking a recent bit of news that proves my point, but the sad thing is whenever I go to write about the horrific things that people have done in the name of religion, I don’t need to dig back very far in recent news to find something. Like, ever. There’s a constant source of terrible, depressing things done by religious people, in the name of religion, easily available for reference in the news stories of the past week or so.

Remind me again how you can’t have morality without God?

Science vs Philosophy – A Reply to Brian Lynchehaun

Hello to everyone visiting from Brian Lynchehaun’s article over on Crommunist Manifesto responding to an earlier post of mine about philosophy and science.

I would like to start by clarifying that I’m not entirely unfamiliar with philosophy, as it was the subject in which I did my minor. I will mention, for the sake of full disclosure, that about 60% of my requirements were spent on classes specifically focused on logic, so I would never claim to speak authoritatively on any other area of philosophy such as metaphysics or epistemology.

I also want to say that I do have a higher opinion of philosophy than I think Brian gives me credit for. When I wrote my post, The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth, part of the reason the title was so long is because every word in there was being used to narrow down what my specific objection was. I don’t say that philosophy is “totally useless”, but rather relatively so; and even then only in the specific domain of determining truth. And while this wasn’t specified, by truth I mean any objective factual claim about the nature of reality: what things exist, how they work, etc…

Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that Brian and I really disagree, but I can’t really blame him as I’m also not convinced that I was particularly clear in my previous post.

First off, I don’t actually consider philosophy and science to be any sort of dichotomy. On the contrary, if philosophers and scientists are doing their job properly they each ought to be doing at least a little bit of science and philosophy, respectively. Personally I like to think of it as an Ouroboros: a cycle with neither beginning nor end. Philosophy takes observations about the world and then speculate on the implications of those observations. This is how we arrive at a hypothesis, which science can then test. Science produces results to determine whether the hypothesis should be rejected or not and then we can proceed to make more observations on the results of these experiments. And so we arrive back at philosophy.

The difference, in my experience, is that philosophers focus more on the speculative aspects, and scientists focus more on the experimental ones. But philosophers still sometimes have to gather data (for example, by doing surveys regarding people’s ethical intuitions on complicated moral problems) and scientists still sometimes have to use reason and logic in order to come to conclusions. In these cases you have philosophers doing science and scientists doing philosophy. Far from being a dichotomy, I believe the two things are intrinsically linked.

With that said, I’d like to address the assumptions that Brian suggests that I am making.

Assumption 1: Philosophy is nothing more than people speculating from their intuitions.

I think I cover this fairly well above, but of course it is. My point is that typically when philosophers come up with an interesting idea, they usually need to do some science on top of it: philosophy alone isn’t enough to get you to truth and people who say that it is (presuppositional apologists, for example) are not going to arrive at anything true, except perhaps by accident. You need science to take the next step.

Assumption 2: “Actual scientific discoveries” trump axioms.

I stand by this. When you cling to “from nothing, nothing comes” in the face of the evidence discussed in Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, then you are being absurd. When you cling to “we must have a soul, otherwise we could not have a mind” in the face of the evidence that everything in “the mind” seems to be a neurochemical reaction in the brain, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by refusing to update your model of reality.

Of course, everyone does have axioms, including scientists. The difference is that scientific axioms are not generally clung to in the face of evidence. We don’t have scientists who refuse to accept special relativity because it violates Newton’s axioms: you just don’t see that. Even more fundamental are axioms like regularity, where we assume that the universe behaves fundamentally the same in one place/time as in another: this is the basis for most (all?) of our physical laws. But if evidence were to overturn this view, you can be that scientists (once it had been properly verified) would abandon regularity, or at least come to treat it as an approximation.

Even Brian’s example of empiricism (“[the] idea that we can get new, accurate information from examing the world, and plugging that information into our existing beliefs to help figure out which of them (if any) is true.”) could potentially be falsified if it turned out we couldn’t get accurate information from examining the world, or if having accurate information did not help us figure anything out. So far, however, this appears not to be the case.

Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.

I’ll stand by this one too, with one minor alteration: One doesn’t understand things merely by thinking about them really hard. Of course it takes thought and reason to properly come to conclusions, but the idea is that this isn’t enough. I reject the notion of a priori knowledge. You also need to have some facts, evidence or data on your side. I do think I was unclear in my original post, but this was the main point I was trying to get at. In order to figure out facts about the reality, you need to have facts about the reality: you can’t just brute force your way through using the power of pure reason.

On a side note, this is why apologists like William Lane Craig drive me up the wall when they debate: They spend 15 minutes setting up how classical logic works before claiming that their god is a necessary precondition for the universe; ignoring the fact that the classical model of logic is not universal and there are many contexts in which it doesn’t apply (as a simple example, classical logic doesn’t have any way of handling propositions whose truth values may change over time). You can’t get to truth by the brute application of logic and reason: you also need observations and facts.

Which I suppose brings us to a valid question: what is more important, reasoning or observation? Obviously both are extremely important, but when it comes to describing the way the universe is, I honestly believe that we could get by on facts alone. It wouldn’t be pretty, but imagine a hypothetical machine intended to simulate the universe. If you were to simply plug in every fact about reality into the machine, such as physical laws or properties of objects in the (simulated) universe, devoid of any interpretation; you could get a pretty close approximation of the actual universe. Philosophy and science both have their uses, but when it comes to determining truth, in my opinion, science is the more valuable (and trustworthy) choice.

Assumption 4: Ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… don’t actually tell you about the world.

It depends what you mean by “don’t actually tell you about the world”. Specifically, what I mean is that branches of philosophy such as the ones mentioned above don’t tell you what sorts of things physically exist or how they physically work, ie: none of these branches help you arrive at facts about physical reality. I’m going to take ethics as an example. Ethics is great at figuring out if you should kill someone, when that’s okay (or not), and why. But an ethic isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we should behave, but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our society (or how we ought to).

Metaphysics, on the other hand does try to make claims about the universe. For example, when I took my metaphysics course, we learned about nominalism, which as I understand it (or as it was explained to me) makes various claims about, say, what it means to be red. Perhaps there is some ephemeral class of objects, and to be red is to be a member of that class; or that there is some inherent redness that is possessed only by red objects and this redness is shared between all red objects.

Ask a scientist what red is and they’re much more likely to give you an answer akin to “‘red’ is a linguistic marker we use to denote objects which reflect a certain segment of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, with a wavelength of roughly ~620-740nm”. Done.

To me, branches of philosophy such as metaphysics or theology which try to stake a claim on the nature of reality (which, again, is to say what things exists or how they work) without doing any sort of science-y stuff, are branches of philosophy that I just can’t bring myself to take seriously.

Assumption 5:  Data has nothing to do with Philosophy.

I reject this, as much as I imagine Brian does. Data is the starting point for philosophy. It’s where we jump off from before we can go looking for more truth, and it’s ultimately where we come back to, with a whole bunch of science in between.

At the end of the day, philosophers and scientists are in the same boat: we’re all just looking for truth. There are philosophers (such as William Lane Craig) who are doing it wrong, but philosophy properly done really is the underpinning of science, which is what feeds back into philosophy.

So why, then, do I say that philosophy is relatively useless compared to science when it comes to determining truth, considering that the two are nigh-impossible to separate? Well, okay, I’ll admit that I may have been a little bit hyperbolic in attacking all of philosophy when really I was just trying to go after a couple of positions I keep hearing over and over again (“you can’t get something from nothing!”). But (and I say this knowing full well the bias that I carry with me as being primarily a scientist), I do believe that science is doing most of the leg work when it comes to the “figuring out what’s true” part of the cycle. Maybe that’s petty, seeing as how crucially philosophy underpins science. I’ll think some more about it.

Batman: Capital Punishment & Self Defense

This is an essay I wrote on Facebook about the morality of Batman, on November 6th, 2009. As I recall, it was prompted by a particular playthrough of the most excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum and the scene where Joker gives Batman a free shot to take him out “once and for all” (around 1:45 in the clip).

I’ve recently been contemplating the ethics of Batman. Specifically, his refusal to kill. For the sake of argument, I’m going to use the Joker as the primary case.

The question at hand: Should Batman kill the Joker?

Three sets of circumstances come to mind: capital punishment, self defense and defense of others.

I maintain the position that capital punishment is wrong in all circumstances. If the Joker is already in Arkham, whether for treatment or simply for containment; the state has no right to kill him as he is no immediate danger to anyone. It may be argued that, in the case of the Joker, treatment is not an option: he’s just that crazy. But even if he is a hopeless case, we can still hold him in custody so that he isn’t a danger to others. Of course, this is the Joker: Batman’s greatest nemesis. Sooner or later he will escape from Arkham. Why not execute him now and be done with it?

The problem with that line of thought is, from a legal perspective, once you apply that reasoning to the Joker, you can apply it to any criminal. The possibility that that criminal will someday escape or be released, at which point they could be a danger to others is present regardless of the criminal. Why not execute them all? Well the general arguments against capital punishment (which I will omit here) still apply to those criminals. It’s a legal mistake to make an exception for a single one.

The second case, self defense, I choose to ignore due to circumstance. After all, we are talking about Batman, and physically the Joker is no match for him. The threat of the Joker comes from the threat he poses to others, the games he plays of which it is Batman’s job to stop. From a legal standpoint, it would likely be justifiable for Batman to kill the Joker if he truly had no other choice in order to survive. However, if given the option to take down the Joker with either lethal or non-lethal methods, I believe it’s fair to allow his personal ethics of not killing to inform his judgments.

The final case, defense of others, is, I believe, the relevant one: if the Joker is an immediate threat to another person. The term “immediate” is important and meant to distinguish between, for example, holding a gun to the person’s head and having planted a bomb. The difference being that the Joker’s death would resolve the first situation, but not the second. So, if the Joker is an immediate threat to the life of another person (whom we’ll refer to as a hostage), should Batman kill him?

One of the first considerations that comes to mind is how a regular law-enforcement officer (police, soldiers, etc…) would be entitled to handle the situation. Well that officer would be permitted to take lethal action. Shouldn’t Batman be able to take the same action?

There’s a crucial difference between a law-enforcement officer and Batman, however. Law-enforcement officers are governed by the state. They have strict restrictions on when they can or cannot kill. Batman has no such standing (unless we look at the “deputized agents of the law” of the 1960’s Batman and Robin, but they aren’t the typical representations of the characters). If Batman is permitted, by whatever ethics, to kill the Joker, there’s no real oversight to it.

That being said, this is Batman we’re talking about. We know (at least “we” the audience and not necessarily “we” the people of Gotham) that, even if he allowed himself to kill, Batman would never abuse this. His moral compass is sufficiently strong to never kill when it wouldn’t be allowed for a law-enforcement officer to do so.

But what about any other vigilantes? In a number of interpretations of Batman (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight) there are groups who take up Batman’s mission, only with less discriminating moral codes. If Batman, a man with no oversight, is permitted to kill, such men might do the same, only under circumstances not typically permitted. People without proper training and oversight being given implicit permission to kill does not seem like a morally justifiable course of action.

Every way I look at it, the rational conclusion I come to is that Batman shouldn’t be morally permitted to kill the Joker. And yet, intuitively, I feel that he would be completely justified in doing so. I’m not quite certain how to resolve this incongruity. Perhaps it points to the idea that emotion shouldn’t dictate law, but rather rational thought and logic. There are a number of such laws which seem motivated more by emotion than insight, including the above-mentioned capital punishment, prostitution, drug use, bans on gay marriage and bans on polygamy.

Perhaps, rather than turning to intuition to decide laws, it would be best to consider them reasonably. Nothing ought to be sacred and everything ought to be questioned. If emotion leads to the same conclusion as rational thought, then all the better. On the other hand, if they don’t, then perhaps there ought to be some introspection to figure out why.

That quickly turned away from the topic at hand: should Batman be allowed to kill? But as I said, reason seems to disagree with intuition on that one. In the end, I suppose, I’ll have to give it some more thought to figure out why.

The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth

"Atheism: The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense."

What atheists believe. Apparently.

This image showed up on a co-worker’s Facebook page. I want to take a quick moment to dismantle it before I get to my main point.

Atheism

The belief

Oh man, we’re already off on the wrong foot. Atheism: not a belief. You might be thinking of strong atheism, or antitheism which are beliefs that there are no gods (although that has nothing to do with what you’re about to start blithering on about) but atheism is a lack of belief.

To spell it out in logic speak “I don’t believe in god” (atheism) is \neg B G and “I believe there is no God” (strong atheism/antitheism) is B\neg G (where B is a modal belief operator and G is the proposition “God exists”). The placement of the “not” symbol is extremely important. The first one expresses no belief and the second one expresses a belief that something is not. Additionally, the first does not imply the second, but if your beliefs are consistent, the second implies the first.

that there was nothing

Again, this is not a belief of atheists, but depending on your definition of “nothing” this is the general consensus of cosmologists, whose opinions should bear much more weight than that of a collection of people who just happen to not believe in the same thing. For more on this, I highly reccomend Dr. Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing.

and nothing happened to nothing

Most boring story ever. Except for the part where something happens, which comes up right… about…

and then nothing magically

Y’know, the science-y kind of magic with particles and antiparticles and stuff. Unlike the magic-y kind of magic with talking snakes and Jewish zombies and Harry Potter.

exploded for no reason,

Except for physics.

creating everything and then a bunch of everything

So far so good.

magically

NO!

rearranged itself for no reason what so ever

Arguably correct, but the stochasticity of the system ensures that very unlikely things will happen. In the words of Tim Minchin, to assume that things with a one-in-a-million odds of happening by chance never happen is to vastly underestimate the number of things that happen.

into self-replicating bits

I know, right! Isn’t that fucking awesome! Oh, and if you don’t believe that it’s possible, guess what: we’ve done it in a lab. Stuff that’s not alive can turn into stuff that is alive. That is so cool.

which then turned into dinosaurs.

First off, dinosaurs are awesome. Secondly, it depends on your definition of “turned into” if you mean changed like a fucking Transformer, then, no. Not what scientists believe. If you mean, gradually and incrementally evolved over several billion years of random mutation and natural selection which built upon beneficial traits to increase survivability and the number of offspring who could in turn pass those traits along to their own offspring, ultimately arriving at FUCKING BADASS DINOSAURS, then yeah. That’s about it.

Pictured to the left: Science.
Pictured to the right: Not so much.

Makes perfect sense.

Glad you think so. Scientists agree.

So anyways, the point I want to get to, which brings us to the title of this post and why philosophy doesn’t really help to answer questions is this:

Our brains seem to have very specific intuitions about the world. Unfortunately sometimes those intuitions don’t match up with the actual world. “Something can’t come from nothing” seems like a pretty valid axiom if you inducing it from our common day-to-day experiences: people come from their parents, trees from acorns, planets from the remains of exploded stars. But at the end of the day, our intuitions are not a valid way of knowing something. As I mentioned, Dr. Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing explains how, in fact, something can come from nothing, and in fact we’ve observed it.

There are some really hard-to-grasp concepts out there. Relativity: time doesn’t move at the same rate for all observers. Quantum mechanics: photons may be polarized in two different directions at once. Evolution: tiny changes in individual specimens result in large changes in a population over time.

These concepts are not intuitive: nobody is going to figure them out by sitting there and thinking about them really hard. It takes observation and concrete data. But once we have the data and observations to demonstrate a hypothesis, it’s ridiculous to cling to some point like “something can’t come from nothing” just because the observations are counterintuitive. This is why philosophy is not a method to truth, and fails especially spectacularly when you compare it to something like science. There’s no better way to figure out how the world works than going out and checking it for yourself.

That’s not to say that philosophy doesn’t have it’s uses: it’s great for ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… But when it comes to working out how the world actually is by using metaphysics, ontology, theology, etc… philosophy can’t really hold a candle to science. And when you cling to axioms that you came to from an armchair in the face of  actual scientific discovery, then you’re an idiot.

Abortion

This is an e-mail I sent to a friend whose official position on abortion I would hesitate to characterize, but leans towards the pro-life side. The actual conversation we had was via text messaging, so I don’t have a record of her questions but I basically wanted to hit all the points of what it is that I think actually makes killing wrong, why society needs to enforce that, why I don’t consider abortion murder, why I think that abortion is okay, and why it shouldn’t matter (from a legal point of view) if the mother wants an abortion and the father does not.

To put it in some context, she and I had already had a previous discussion where I had explained that I think killing is wrong because it severs the attachments that people have to the world around them, and vice-versa. Her hypothetical example that I mention in my opening is whether that makes it okay to kill a reclusive person who has no such ties. I’ve edited it to remove some personal stuff that I had in a preamble and ending.

If someone is a recluse then killing them is morally wrong. While true that nobody will care about the result (in the hypothetical), we don’t live in a vacuum. What we’re talking about is two different types of morality: legal and metaphysical. If truly nobody cares about the death of our hypothetical person (note that this must include himself), then you’re correct: there is no metaphysical moral issue with killing him. However the legal morality of this is problematic. We create our own society and then we all have to live in it. If we allow people to kill other recluses, then we are also subject to the lawlessness of being killed ourselves. Thus, from a legal moral perspective, it is wrong to kill the recluse.

However, in a very slightly less constrained hypothetical where nobody cares about the man, but the man still has attachments to the world around him (art, music, hobbies, whatever), the metaphysical moral issue reappears. In my opinion, it is once again subject to the premise that the reason killing is wrong is the severing of these attachments. Granted that the man won’t care after the fact, but there’s a difference between caring and being affected. While he won’t realize it, the loss of these attachments is an effect, and I do believe that when making a decision about morality, the opinions that matter are specifically the opinions of those affected (in this case, the man). You could argue that his opinion is voided by his death, but that’s not quite right because we are talking about the moral *decision*. A decision which, by necessity, precedes the action, thus his opinion at the time of the decision is what we base our moral choice on.

Furthermore, while I do believe that it’s severing these attachments that make killing wrong, not all killings are equally wrong. In the same way that snow and dry ice are both cold, one is certainly colder than the other. With this in mind, it is more wrong to kill a person with a lifetime of these attachments than it is to kill an infant whose only attachments may be the love of its parents. This runs counter to the intuition that evolution has programmed us with, but I think the reasoning is enough (for me at least) to trump the gut instinct of biology. Note again, that killing the infant is still wrong, but simply less so than the adult.

This brings us back to abortion. Everything I just said about killing being metaphysically morally wrong because it severs attachments then fails to apply (if one assumes the desire for an abortion on the part of the parents). The fetus has no such attachments. At the point where it is legally allowed to be aborted, it hasn’t developed sufficiently to even have these attachments. As such, even if abortion counts as killing, it is not a form of killing I find morally quarrelsome.

A quick aside: I will not be using the term “murder” because it confuses the issue. Murder is a legal distinction, and has nothing to do with morality. Furthermore, murder is illegal, and is distinct from merely “killing”. This is why killing someone in self defence or by accident is not called murder by our justice system, and since we live in a society where abortion is legal, it too cannot honestly be called “murder”.

Anyways, this whole argument deals with the premise that aborting a fetus is “killing”. I actually deny this premise as I don’t consider the fetus to be anything more than a cluster of cells that will develop into something to which the term “killing” can be applied. Unfertilized eggs and sperm share this description, but we don’t think of menstruation or male masturbation as “killing” any more than we ought to think the term applies to a fetus. There’s nothing magical about the moment of conception, it’s just one step along the way to creating a person. The line between fetus and person isn’t a clear cut one. It reminds me of the question “how many grains of sand does it take to have a pile”. There isn’t a concrete answer. At some point it just stops being a few grains and becomes a pile. While answers will differ in the intermediate stages, we can look at a couple of grains and come to a consensus that they don’t form a pile. We ought to be able to do the same with the early stages of fetal development.

As for father’s rights, I consider that an entirely separate issue. If the father wants to keep the child but the mother does not, it is a tragic situation but the final say should (and currently does) belong to the mother. This goes back to legal morality above. Should we create a society where one person can be forced to carry an unwanted child? Considering all of the risks and efforts involved on the side of the mother (with none being involved for the father) it is unfair for a man to be able to force this upon a woman against her will. Imagine a society where a rapist could force his victim to carry his child. I hope you’d agree that this is not a society we would want to live in. Perhaps you’d suggest building in an exception for rape, but now all of a sudden all a woman has to do to get out of a forced pregnancy is accuse a man of rape, which I think causes more problems than it solves. Even at the end of the day, if abortion services are made unavailable to these women, it won’t stop them from obtaining one; it will simply stop them from obtaining one safely.

I’m prepared to change my opinion on this if it ever becomes possible to bring a baby to term without having to incubate it inside of the mother (artificial wombs or surrogacy transplants, for example) depending on what’s involved with the process. But for the time being, situations such as these are tragic but must fall to the decision of the woman.

Godless Bitches – Transgender Episode

This is a reponse to episode 1.13 of the Godless Bitches podcast, whom I absolutely love listening to because it’s all about issues that I don’t normally think about and I love being challenged with new things that I haven’t heard before. Really can’t say enough great things about them.

So first off I want to admit that I know very little about transgender issues (“transgender” or “transgendered”?) but I’m trying to learn, so if you disagree with anything I’m about to say, please let me know because I’m here to learn.

This is primarily a response to a part in the podcast where Beth asks how useful the labels of “female” and “male” or “man” and “woman” are, given the diversity that can exist among the spectrum (around the 29 minute mark). Jen identified them as useful rules of thumb and that we shouldn’t consider them as terms that are necessarily prescriptive of behaviors or even physical characteristics. Natalie agreed, but then went a bit into the point that I thought of when I heard Beth’s question: that “male” and “female” can be useful terms for people to apply to themselves. That’s basically what I want to talk about.

“Man” and “woman” may not have rigid definitions, but I hardly think this disqualifies a word from being useful. I want to draw an analogy. Consider the word “dog”. What does that mean? Look at this picture:

What do those two animals have in common? Very little: they’re different colours, sizes, shapes… But we’re still able to recognize them both as falling under the label “dog” even though we might not have a strict definition of what that term actually means. Yes, I’m sure there’s some strict biological definition of what constitutes a dog, but my point is that even people who lack this education in biology can identify both as dogs. Similarly we can often look at people and recognize them as male or female, even without strict definitions of what these things mean.

Tangent: Does being male mean having a penis? I don’t believe so. Does having a penis make you male? I don’t believe that either. And yet, I consider myself male because I do have a penis. So the attributes we associate with a particular gender are neither necessary nor necessarily sufficient to belong to that gender, but can they be sufficient in certain cases such as my own? For the logic nerds (or possibly just for my own masturbatory needs): \diamond(\text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male}) holds, but \Box(\text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male}) does not. Thus, \text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male} may hold sometimes, but not always. Does that make sense to anyone else?

Now of course these terms aren’t exclusive and one of the things I’ve learned from reading about transgenderism (is that the right word? spell check says no…) is that gender identity can fall on a spectrum. As I see it, there are two possibilities: multiple people can fall into the same spot on the spectrum, or they can’t. If they can’t then that means that no two people have the same gender identity. This, to me, is absurd and means we can’t actually use labels for gender identities at all, which seems pretty inconvenient to me. Thus, I currently accept the other option, that many people can occupy the same spot on the spectrum. Thus, we can have many people with the gender identity of “male”, many with “female” and many in-betweens. I believe this is where the problem seems to crop up with labels: what words do you use to identify these people? Part of the issue is one of linguistic usefulness. How many people have to have a particular gender identity before we need to come up with a word for it. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that “male” and “female” would be the largest categories. But what then? Do you name a spot on the spectrum that only holds one person? How big does a group need to be before we give it a name? I don’t have the answers, but I hope it at least makes sense as to why I think we need to keep the labels we already have.

This brings me to a point I would like to make on how I feel about gender roles. I’m going to take what I think might be an unpopular stance: Gender roles in society are important. Adhering to them, however, is not. So that we all have our definitions straight (or in case I don’t) when I say “gender roles” I mean any behaviour that is typically associated with either men or women but not both (for example, wearing a suit is more masculine and wearing a dress is more feminine). I think what’s useful about these is that when you want to identify as a particular gender (whether it’s your birth sex or not) these give you patterns you can fall into that will allow other people to more easily identify you as your gender expression (again, am I using that term correctly?). It’s convenient. If I want to be identified as a man, I can grow a beard. If I want to be identified as a woman, I can wear makeup. These gender roles can be extremely useful, for so many reasons! How much of Monty Python’s humour was based on men wearing dresses? What would drag queens wear if there were no such thing as gender-specific clothing?

Where the problem comes in is the expectation that everyone ought to adhere to their gender roles. They may be important, but not important enough to be forced upon people. Girls can like sports, and boys can like dolls and why should it matter to anyone else? It’s not the roles themselves, but rather forcing them upon people unwillingly that becomes harmful. I have a saying I like to use which is that “Girls can be boys too” (or vice-versa, depending on context), which is to say that girls can do things that other people might associate with boys (or the other way around) but that it really shouldn’t matter at all if they do.

There was one other point I wanted to raise, and it’s in reference to a quote I remember from the podcast that I can’t find the time code for, so if I’m misremembering it, I apologize. But someone (I want to say Beth) mentioned not understanding why people have difficulty grasping that biological sex is different from gender identity. I just want to put forward my hypothesis for why I think this is. For thousands of years, people have been treating gender as a binary, biological thing: having a penis makes you a man and having a vagina makes you a woman. Hell, this is even how I learned it as a kid. I think it can be difficult to get past thousands of years worth of linguistic programming to accept that your junk doesn’t determine your gender. Even I still have some problems with this. When I hear the term “transgender male” I think “person who was born with a penis” and I have to stop and thing “wait, no… that’s a person who was born female and now identifies as male”. It’s a problem that I’m slowly getting better at avoiding, but the point is it hasn’t yet become a natural thought process for me. So I’d just like to put out there that maybe some people who have trouble grasping this concept should be cut a little bit of slack. Unless they’re being dicks. Then feel free to verbally lambaste them all across the interwebs.

That’s all I really have to say on the issue. Once again, please feel free to tell me where I’m wrong (or even where I’m right) because this is just how I see it at the moment, and all of it is open to revision as I learn more and more.

“That’s Just Your Opinion”

This was a story I first heard about from The Non-Prophets, but I didn’t see the video until it was linked to from Pharyngula this morning.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists was invited onto Fox News to talk about what atheists do in preparation for Hurricane Irene if not pray. His basic answer was (perhaps obviously) that we do everything theists would normally do to prepare for such a crisis, except for praying.

Now, as he points out in that video: they asked him what his opinions were. And when he tells them that atheists aren’t going to pray because it doesn’t do anything, he’s accosted with cries of “Well, that’s just your opinion!”

But of course it’s his opinion! That’s why you asked him on the show: to give his opinion. And afterwards you start screaming about how prayer does have a positive effect. Guess what: that’s your opinion. As Silverman points out, the facts about the world are on the side of his opinion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an opinion.

This raises a bigger issue that irks me in real life whenever I start criticizing religion or homeopathy or government conspiracies. I hear about how my views on these things are merely my opinion and that I just think I’m right all the time.

Here’s the thing: I know I’m not right all the time. I get proved wrong on occasion, and when I do my opinion changes. But any opinion I currently hold hasn’t gone through this. It basically boils down the the following, which is my usual response:

Of course I think I’m right. If I thought I was wrong, I would think something else!

Look, we all have our opinions but contrary to what we were taught in kindergarten not all opinions are correct, or equally valid. If two people disagree about a matter of fact, then by necessity at least one of them is wrong. I can say God doesn’t exist as loudly as you can say he does but at the end of the day only one of us can be right. And atheists just happen to be the ones with evidence and reason on our side.

The point I like to make, though, is that we don’t need to go around prefacing our every statement with “I believe…” or “In my opinion…” Have some pride in what you think and go out there and say it. It’s okay to be wrong sometimes, so long as you change your mind when you are. But it’s also okay to be right sometimes too.

And if you ask someone their opinion, actually take the time to listen what they have to say and if you disagree say why. Because the only real response to “That’s just your opinion,” is “Well… duh!”