Saturday, February 17, 2007

Locked in the Trunk of a Car: A Political Solution to Shopping

Now that my wife has started taking political science courses, things are getting really confusing at my house. Just this morning there was a knock at our front door. Opening it, I saw an enormous man, who asked for my wife.

“Actually, I think she’s just heading out to go shopping,” I said, my eyes narrowing just a little.

“Yeah,” he drawled, a toothpick working back and forth across his lips like a little oar. “I know. That’s what I’m here for.”

I stared at him, then shrugged. A personal shopper? Professional bag-toter? Foot-masseuse? Who knew?

I heard my wife coming downstairs. “Ah!” she exclaimed. “Excellent, I’m just ready!”

“All right,” growled the man. He pulled out a large burlap sack from under his coat. “Lean forward,” he said to my wife, lifting the sack over her head.

I made a motion to grab his arm, then decided to use words instead. “What are you doing?” I demanded – not weakly, I hoped.

My wife held up her hand, smiling at the man. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m afraid my husband is a libertarian.”

The big man rolled his eyes, then sighed and crossed his arms, leaning up against the door frame.

“You see, honey,” my wife smiled, “I really want to go shopping…”

“So this… man gets to put you in a sack?”

“Of course! That’s how it works. I didn’t really understand it until I started taking political science, but it’s so radiantly clear now!”

“What is?”

“Well, before, when I wanted to go shopping, I wasn’t very efficient. I just grabbed my purse and my car keys, went to the mall, and just – shopped. I mean, how crazy was that? Now, I finally understand how it’s supposed to be done. So when I want to shop, I call this fine gentleman, who takes my credit card, puts me in a sack, puts the sack in the trunk of my car, then drives me to the mall and does my shopping for me – and buys quite a bit for himself as well! Now isn’t that so much better?” Her eyes shone.

“Seriously, honey – I have no idea how that even makes sense, let alone could be ‘better’!”

“Honey,” she said soothingly, “this is how it is supposed to be done. If I want to do something, I call a man up who forces me to do it! What could be better? It’s perfect!”

“Do you get to keep your car?”

My wife looked inquiringly at the large man, sunning himself in our doorway. He shrugged. “Dunno. I guess I could use it for a day or two. I’ll give you a call when I’m done with it, and you can come and pick it up. Okay?”

“No, it’s not okay!” I fume. “If my wife wants to go shopping, she doesn’t need you to force her to go shopping, and buy things for yourself besides!”

“Sweetie,” my wife said soothingly. “It’s exactly how things are supposed to work.” She tapped her fingernails against her front teeth. “It’s exactly how we help the poor with welfare programs, right?”


“Well, we as voters want to help the poor, right? So we vote politicians in who force us to help the poor. They take our money, spend it on the poor as they see fit, and buy a lot of things for themselves as well! And if that way of doing things is good enough for something as important as helping the poor, surely it is good enough for something as inconsequential as my shopping expeditions! Am I right, or am I right?”

“But – if we want to help the poor so badly that we vote politicians in who force us to help the poor, then what do we need the politicians for in the first place? Why don’t we just help the poor ourselves?”

“Ah,” she said with a triumphant grin, “that’s because we are too selfish to help the poor ourselves!”

“But if we’re too selfish to help the poor ourselves, then surely we would never vote politicians in who would force us to help the poor! And if we don’t want to help the poor, then the government will never do it for us, because we’d never vote in a politician who promised that! So if the majority of people want to help the poor, then they don’t need to vote politicians in to force them to help the poor, right?”

For a moment, she seemed confused. “Well…”

“I mean, look what’s happening here! In the past, if you wanted to go shopping, you just went to the mall and bought whatever you wanted! Now, look at all this extra overhead and complication – this guy has to come and put you in a sack, and drive you to the mall in the trunk of your car, and then shop for what he thinks you might want, and buy stuff for himself as well. How is that more efficient – or in any way better – than what happened before?”

She frowned. “No, that’s…”

“If we get all these politicians to force us to give them money to help the poor, what happens if they spend money in ways that don’t help the poor? What if they decide to spend more money on themselves than on the poor? Can we get our money back? You see, if we want to help the poor – or the sick, or the old, or whoever – then we’ll just do it, and we don’t need the government to force us to do it. If the government reflects the will of the people, then it doesn’t need to force those people to do things. If the government does not reflect the will of the people, then it is mere tyranny. Do you see what I mean?”

“Yes, but…” My wife scowled, trying to reason her way out of the fog of statism.

“I mean, who told you all this stuff?”

The big man leaned forward. “I did,” he growled.

“Yes,” said my wife distractedly. “Sorry I didn’t introduce you. This is my professor of political science.”

He stretched out his enormous hand. I stared at it.

“Hey,” said the professor, dropping his hand suddenly. “I haven’t got all day. What say we put this to a vote? I mean,” he added, leaning over my wife, “I assume I can count on you to do the right thing, and show me that you understand the course material.”

She nodded slowly, staring up at him. I guess she really wants to pass his course.

The professor raised his hand – the one with the sack. “Then I vote: let’s go shopping!” he grinned. “I need some stuff!”

My wife tightened her lips. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said, raising her hand and averting her eyes.

In a blink she disappeared into the sack. I was about to cry out in opposition to this violation of sense, property, morality and rationality, but of course I am in the minority, so what’s the point?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Strong Atheism: The Case for Evacuating the Middle Ground

In the world of philosophy, those who make the active claim that God does not exist are often viewed as extremists. Taking a positive stand about the nonexistence of God is considered akin to claiming that all forms of matter, energy and consciousness have already been discovered, and that there is nothing new to be learned from the universe. The simple fact that scientific truths are constantly being overturned is considered reasonable justification for a form of scientific agnosticism, which is generally expanded to include the vague possibility of the existence of a supernatural being such as gods. Since we do not know everything about the universe, agnostics claim, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that gods might exist. Thus “strong atheism” – the positive declaration of the nonexistence of gods – is generally viewed as an irrational position, ironically on par with the theist’s assertion that gods do exist.

Thus, like most positions in the post-Hegelian world, the truth is considered to lie somewhere in the midpoint between two extremes. Wildly asserting that gods exists is as irrational as blindly asserting that they do not. The most sensible position is to withhold judgment.

Those with any decent knowledge of philosophy know that the burden of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of those who assert that gods exist, and that no action is required from atheists to disprove the existence of gods. However, the inevitable failures of all attempts to prove the existence of gods never seems to move the theist position into the “not true” category – merely into the “not proven but possible” category. In this essay, I will endeavor to give it just a little push over the line.

Like most problems in philosophy, the conflict stems from imprecisions in definition. “God” is a notoriously fluid concept, able to slosh fashionably into almost any mental container. God can be defined as a “higher power,” or “love,” or “energy,” or “nature,” or “an old man on a cloud,” or “the energy that binds the universe together” or “the first cause” or “hope” etc. etc. etc. Naturally, no philosophical discussions can retain any coherence in the face of such wildly amorphous – and often contradictory – definitions.

Similarly, the definition of “existence” is often confused. Does “existence” mean “any form of matter, energy or consciousness that could conceivably exist in this or any other universe,” or does it mean “a Christian deity whose son came back from the dead”? Does it mean “that which is composed of matter or energy,” or “that which I believe with all my heart to exist”?

Of course, if “gods” and “existence” is defined in a tautological manner, no advance in knowledge is achieved. If “gods” are defined as spiritual beings discoverable through faith, and “existence” is defined to include that which is discoverable through faith, nothing is gained. “Existence” must be an objective state, and “knowledge” must be an objective methodology.

Now, for science, “existence” is a relatively simple concept – it is defined as that which consists of either matter or energy. This is quite different from “accuracy,” which is the correlation between concepts and the behavior of matter and energy in the real world. A concept has accuracy – or validity – if it precisely predicts or describes the behavior of matter and energy in the real world. This, of course, is the basis of the scientific method, which is that all human concepts must bow to the empiricism of physical evidence. Or, to put it another way, in any conflict between consciousness and matter, consciousness must give way, since consciousness can contain errors, but matter cannot.

With this (admittedly brief) introduction in place, we are a good deal closer to understanding the conflict between strong and weak atheists. The central question about the existence of gods – no matter how defined – is this: are gods subject to physical laws?

If gods are subject to physical laws, then the first law that gods are subject to is this: since existence is defined as that which is composed of either matter or energy, if gods exist, they must be composed of either matter or energy.

The opposite corollary must also be true. If gods are not composed of matter or energy, then gods by definition do not exist. Since “existence” is defined as that which is composed of matter or energy, “non-existence” must be that which possesses neither matter nor energy. Thus to argue that gods exist despite a total absence of matter or energy is to argue that existence equals non-existence, which is a complete contradiction. If I define an “orange” as a round citrus fruit that is orange in color, I cannot include in that definition an invisible orange that is the opposite of round, the opposite of citrus, the opposite of fruit, and the opposite of orange. (I mean, I suppose could, but who would believe that I was serious – or even sane?)

If gods are subject to physical laws, then physical evidence is really the only methodology by which we can ascertain that gods exist. Of course, this does not require direct physical evidence – we cannot perceive black holes directly, but we know that they exist due to the effects of their gravity wells on surrounding matter, as well as the flashes of energy that are released as captured matter crosses the event horizon. But since “existence” is defined as that which is composed of matter or energy, the scientific proof of existence must be some evidence of that matter or energy. “Evidence” is basically defined as that which impacts our physical senses in some manner – either directly, or through some translating device such as a spectrograph or an oscilloscope. Since our physical senses are organs designed to transmit the effects of matter and energy, it is essentially through the evidence of the senses that we can determine the existence or nonexistence of things. If I argue that something exists, but that there is no way to detect it, my argument contradicts itself. Let’s say I tell a deaf man that I hear a deep loud sound coming from a speaker. If he lays his hand on it and feels no vibrations, he has every right to be skeptical. If I say that this loud sound does not have vibrations, he may then pull out his trusty microphone or other sound wave detector. If this instrument detects no sound in the vicinity, can I still tell him that this loud sound is occurring? At some point, if my definition of “loud sound” basically boils down to “that which is the opposite of any evidence that a loud sound is occurring” then clearly my approach to truth needs a little work!

This approach helps clarify the truth-value of the proposition that gods do not exist. If gods are subject to physical laws, then sensual evidence of some sort is required to determine the existence of gods. If gods are not subject to physical laws, then gods do not exist by definition, since that which is not subject to physical laws – i.e. is not composed of matter or energy – does not exist.

If gods are subject to physical laws, important ramifications follow. Since gods must be bound by physical laws, miracles are impossible, since miracles are by definition violations of physical laws. Similarly, gods cannot be omniscient and all-powerful, since both attributes would violate the basic tenets of physical laws. Omniscience would require instantaneous knowledge of all matter, past, present and future, which is clearly impossible, while omnipotence would require the ability to break the bounds of physical laws, which brings us back to the realm of nonexistence.

If gods are subject to physical laws, then religion makes no sense whatsoever, and praying to gods makes about as much sense as worshiping a black hole, begging the Sun to grant you favors, or circumcising your son to appease the speed of light. If gods are not subject to physical laws, then the concept of “gods” is synonymous with the concept of non-existence, which makes religion even more deranged. Then, rather than praying to the moon, you would be in fact praying to the empty space between the Earth and the moon.

Why is there such opposition to the proposition that gods do not exist? Many people I have talked to with regards to strong atheism feel extremely uncomfortable asserting that gods do not exist. Or, to be more precise, they feel extremely uncomfortable telling Christians, say, that the Christian god does not exist. Rather than confront faithful believers with the hollow falsehood of their imaginary worship, they redefine “God” within their own minds as “a potential form of matter or energy that has not been discovered yet,” or “that which could exist in an alternate universe,” or something to that effect. This allows them to continue breaking bread – or least avoiding open conflict – with those addicted to superstitious nonsense. However, it could be argued that this is a fairly cowardly position. Either a criterion for determining truth exists, or it does not. If such a criterion exists, then it must be objective, and based on the evidence of the senses and reason, which precludes the existence of any form of religious deities. If no such criterion exists, then both everything and nothing is true, and agnosticism, atheism, superstition, religion and the steadfast belief that shoes can fly and sing songs are all equally valid.

If an objective criterion for truth exists, then it cannot logically be applied according to whim, the expediency of the moment, or only in situations that feel emotionally comfortable. If you wish to take a stand for rationality and truth, then I for one completely applaud you – and sympathize with the attendant social difficulties that often result. If, however, you take a stand for rationality and truth, but then sit back down whenever anybody gets upset, there’s very little point getting up to begin with.