The Intruder in the Closet

There's a monster in my closetIt’s 10 pm. You’re watching TV. You’re alone in the house.

At a commercial break, you push the mute button on the remote. Then you hear it. A rhythmic sound is coming from the closet door behind you.

“Thump, thump. Thump, thump.”

Your throat tightens. Your heart skips a beat. You recognize the sound. Someone is inside the closet, rapping their hand on the closet door.

“Thump, thump.”

A hundred different scenes from late-night slasher films flash through your mind. Is it Jason hiding my closet? (No. That’s silly.) Is it a Ted Bundy wannabe?

“Thump, thump.”

With fear deep in your throat, you decide to confront the intruder. You throw open the closet door. And you see a small, wooden bar stool. It’s red, illuminated by a pale, red indicator light that sits atop the small seat. As your eyes adjust, you realize that the glowing, red dot is attached to the front of a  tape recorder. Now you can see the exact source of the sound.

“Thump, thump,” rings out from the tape recorder’s speaker. You click the off switch, shudder and close the door.

Up to this very moment – right before you flung open the closet door – you had a very different belief about the reality about to unfold. Your belief was that there was a person inside the closet. Was that a rational belief? Absolutely.

And at this very moment in time, this is a scene that millions of people are stuck in. People who believe in a god.

If you’re not convinced of the analogy, let’s take a closer look at the evidence theists cite:

  • Their religion has been embraced for thousands of years
  • Their parents, whom they love and trust, assures them of the truth
  • The physical universe, to their naked eye, seems as if it were created especially for them and other humans

The conclusion derived from these support points – there must be a god – is a completely rational position. Just like your belief in the intruder in the closet.

But what if you never opened that door? What if you ran out of the house as fast as you could? What if the initial evidence you experienced was so compelling that it felt like it would be irrational to ignore it?

This is the condition of the modern-day, Western-world theist. They are not, as atheists so often accuse, being irrational. Theists arrived at their conclusions using demonstrably strong support points. Their religion’s antiquity, ubiquity and authenticity, as shared by trusted friends and family members, are perfectly credible sources of evidence.

Was there better evidence that no one was hiding in the closet? Are there demonstrable, testable genetic and neurological dispositions that make humans susceptible to believing in detached consciousnesses?

Certainly. But those who understand that evidence must have dared to look inside to consider it.

The person who runs from the house, and the theists of the 21st century, are one in the same. They are not irrational.

They are scared.

Why Roberts is Right

It is tempting for libertarians to join the echo chamber of conservatives by deriding the majority opinion in the recent Obamacare case. It would be emotionally satisfying, I suspect, to focus one’s outrage at Justice Roberts, and brand him a traitor to liberty; the one responsible for dropping his rifle and running in the face of liberty’s enemies. He capitulated to the statists and sold us all out. Feels good, doesn’t it? We do love our boogie men.

But if you think that, you do the cause of liberty a great disservice. To be sure, my first reaction was probably quite similar to that. The supreme court of the land had just sided with the people’s representatives in saying that, in what is marketed as the land of liberty– the beacon of freedom in the world–I, as a free man, can be compelled to buy things. Not just things, mind you. But things pleasing to the ruling party. I felt as if someone had just kicked me in the stomach.

So the first reaction is to blame Kagan. Any fair-minded person concludes she should have recused herself. Had she done the right thing…

Then, we blame Roberts. He’s no conservative. He sold us out. Etc.

And let’s not forget how we got here. The legislative shenanigans and outright fraud that stuck a thumb in the eye of legitimacy and walked over the Constitution to produce a 2400 (!!) page document so opaque and convoluted that it cannot be called a law. It’s similarity to law stops at the fact that my failure to comply with it ends me up in jail.

It should never have happened. Our system is designed to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening. Through checks, balances, federalism and elections (hello, Scott Brown?) somewhere along the circuitous path and Constitutional minefield that ultimately allows our system to produce a state powerful enough to compel me to surrender my life’s choices to a commissar, someone will do the right thing, won’t they? The truth is, we shouldn’t even be here. But here we are.

So, surely the Court will save us. If no one else will do the right thing, surely the Court will. The final backstop of liberty and Constitutionalism will make it right. But it didn’t. The system had failed.

And then I read the majority opinion. As I read, slowly, sadly I came to the unhappy–no, the infuriating–conclusion that Chief Justice Roberts is correct. And we should be ashamed.

Hopefully, you too have read the case, but if you have not, understand first that the so-called individual mandate was indeed struck down. The majority of the court held the obvious opinion that the commerce clause cannot be used to compel commercial activity. Roberts joined the majority in one very narrow thing– that, although the commerce clause cannot be used to compel activity, the Congress has a taxing authority which allows it to tax anything, and thereby arrive at pretty much the same place as a mandate. He reasoned that although Congress does not have the power to compel you to buy health insurance, it can tax you if you don’t. So, the government can’t make you eat your vegetables, but it can tax you if you don’t. It’s outrageous, that’s true. But Judge Roberts is not inventing a power. He is not making us serfs. He is merely explaining to us that we already are.

Consider. In the last century, we developed an enduring comfort with using the tax code to effect behavior. We do it all the time. We tax cigarettes because they are bad–so-called sin taxes. And no one bats an eye. We give mortgage deductions to people who buy homes, but not to renters. And we accept that. We give tax deductions to people with kids. We have a “gas guzzler tax” a “luxury tax” a progressive income tax, inheritance tax, Capitol gains tax…. In all these cases, we impose taxes to effect behavior, reward the groups and activities we like and penalize the ones we don’t. We have a volumunous tax code that employs a lucrative industry that has, as its stated purpose, the goal of shaping behavior to make it pleasing to the authorities. Oh, right…and we also use taxes to raise money to run the government. But that has become almost secondary.

We have allowed this to happen because at each step of the process both major political parties agree with the fundamental idea that the government is an appropriate vehicle for supplanting personal choice. The left and right only disagree over how to use it, not whether it should be used that way. To the conservative reader drawing breath to proclaim your love for freedom–you accepted the premise that the tax code is a good vehicle for social engineering when you accepted the child tax credit, the progressive income tax, the sin taxes (I could go on). Please spare us your lame protestations now. The right will never overcome the left’s march toward collectivism as long as it accepts the fundamental premise upon which it rests. And to the leftist reader–(if you are even still reading) you have long ago abandoned any pretense to the idea of personal liberty, so I won’t bore the reader with recounting your transgressions against the concepts of liberty and limited government. The Founding Fathers understood that the power of the state is the single most dangerous threat to the liberty of the individual. And yet both major political powers are willing to cede more and more power to the state to achieve their narrow political ends, all the while oblivious to the larger danger ahead. This case exposes the myth of the right/left dichotomy.

There is some evidence that Judge Roberts was in a slim majority that was ready to strike down the entire law. Whether or not that’s true, Roberts’ was presented the question “am I a serf” and he replied, “yes, and don’t look to me to remedy it, for this was your political choice.” Tough love. Hating him for that is akin to a child hating a parent who won’t pay his credit card bill. This is not Roberts’ doing. At the end of it all, this is not even Obama’s doing. This is our doing. We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have allowed the political discussion in this country to slip so far that explaining the concept of limited government and personal freedom to fellow citizens is like explaining it to someone from the 12th century. Even now the response from those professing to love freedom ignores firsts principles and frames the whole affair as a political struggle against “the left”. “Obama lied and the economy died” might feel good and will undoubted raise money for the political classes, but such cliches are vacuous…and largely beside the point.

And while Romney might help for a while, he won’t change that. He’s fighting a political brush fire; this is an epochal, planetary war.

The truth is, a country as great as the United States should never have found itself here. We have accepted the premise of collectivism and allowed our legal and political systems to view the individual as a means to the ends of the politically powerful. We have given dictatorial powers to our government through the tax code, and made the IRS the President’s internal army. The only thing Judge Roberts did is make us own up to it. The question is not “how could Roberts have defected to the left and allowed the government to have such power ?”. The question is “how could we have allowed the government to have such power?”.

Justice Roberts may well go down in history as the dad who refused to be our enabler and allow us to escape the consequences of our bad decisions. He forced us to confront the enemy. And the enemy is us.

We have a lot of work to do.

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And no religion, too?

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I really want to be patient with people. I know how hard it is to let go of a beautiful fantasy, be it about country, child or religion. But, as James Randi observed, no amount of acceptance can turn a belief into a fact.

Why are we even having this conversation in 2012? I totally get it if we were living in the tall grasses of the savanna. Lacking better information, I’d say the notion of forces that transcend the natural world might be downright logical. But come on. How can people in a society riddled with proof of the richness in scientific thought continue to cover their collective eyes and ears?

The common response by most is that the world would be a cold place without a divine purpose. That may or may not be the case, but the utility value of a belief doesn’t support its authenticity.

When I was a kid, my teachers would ask, “if everybody was leaping off a bridge, would you?” That question always made me uncomfortable. Not because the obvious answer was “no.” But because I couldn’t see the distinction between which actions I was supposed to embrace blindly and which ones I was supposed to apply critical thought.

I’m not tempted to leap much these days, off of bridges or into faith.

Why Twitter may create bird brains

We all tend to grab on to some beliefs and not let go.

Ignorance of past events has never proven to be a large obstacle to people having certainty about past events. The Martin/Zimmerman case is merely the latest example.

Only one living human being knows exactly what happened in those tragic few minutes. But a lot of people are certain as to what happened. One only has to look at the hash tags on Twitter to see the oceans of certainty.

What’s of particular interest here is the confluence of three factors:

  • One, our tendency to “lock in” to certain beliefs.
  • Two, our recent tendency to express our beliefs faster (via social networks).
  • Three, the impact of these social networks on the decision-making process itself.

Our tendency to hold on to certain beliefs is an old observation. There are many things we accept as true that we simultaneously seem to keep outside of the area of careful examination. Once we get one of these ideas in our heads, we hold on to them like a pit bull with the golden ticket.

These beliefs are varied and far reaching. These might include religious beliefs (talking snakes), political positions (liberal war mongers) or even preferences in musicians (Britany Spears’ auto-tuned voice is genuine).

Outlandish as some of these notions seem, it seems that people have a very difficult time considering any evidence to the contrary. Sure, we know that confirmation bias exists. But what is the evolutionary value of it?

If reason is really our sharpest claw, why are we anything but sharp about certain beliefs?

Consider the tweet below that hit Twitter nanoseconds before mine:

Notwithstanding the obvious rebuttal of, “Don’t you think it may have been better if God just jammed the gun?” the earlier tweet is merely one that exemplifies thousands of a newly established faith – a faith in a version of past events (that only one living human actually saw).

One explanation for this nearly immediate consensus on events is discussed in the theory of bounded reality. In short, the theory discusses how humans might skip a more rational approach to decision making when they are rushed into reaching a conclusion.

Viewed in this context, the evolutionary value of confirmation bias may be tied into the utility of reaching conclusions quickly, like when we’re under the threat of a predator  (I am biased against lions). But what threat are we under today that would evoke a similar jump to conclusions?

Maybe the threat isn’t to life or limb. Maybe it’s a threat to our friend count.

If social media is a large part of our life, we’re often compelled to express a position on a complex event the moment we learn of it. The allure of our Google+ circles, Facebook friends and Twitter followers call out to us, demanding offerings of loyalty. And as we continue to learn of things faster, the compulsion may be getting worse.

Surely, the answer to such a question is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s the question that’s equally compelling. “What is the effect of social media on an individual’s ability to apply critical thinking?”

If our “friends” continue to demand our points of view at an increasingly faster pace, will our rational mind be able to keep up? Or will Twitter make bird brains of us all?

Why no charms mean no chains

family guy religion

Look! Look! I'm defining myself!

I have about 25 charms in a small keepsake box. Crosses, Celtic crosses, anks, oms, a Seminole arrow head, a Sicilian horn, sun symbols – all piled atop one another, each representing brief periods in my life that I’ve attempted to say, “This best represents my beliefs.”

I could never find the one, over-arching belief system that allowed for my view of the world.  I know…that sounds rather presumptuous. Who am I to determine what’s right and wrong? I should just pick a medalion and then shut up and do as I’m told.

But who really does this?

With the exception of the most fundamentally religious people, like say, the Amish or Kirk Cameron, how many of us actually believe everything that little charm around our neck implies?

A.J. Jacobs took a crack at it. In his book, Living Bibalically, he spent an entire year trying to do everything the little cross on his neck told him to do. I encourage you to check out his webpage. Let’s suffice to say that, at the end of the year, Jacobs walked away with a new insight on what parts of his faith made sense, and which did not.

The bigger point here is that 99% of us don’t really represent the icon that sits on our chest. We may have family and cultural affiliations. We may participate in rituals. But “something else” guides us when we act in a manner that goes against our religion’s teachings.

What is it?

Plato had a good way of explaining it. He asked, “Are things good because god does them, or does god do them because they are good?” If you believe in the first part of the question, then anything god does (or instructs) is right, and you’re all sinners when you stray from his word in any detail.

However, evidence would suggest that most people believe the second part, which begs the question, why do we need to listen to god at all (to know what is right for us)?

Today, I wear no charm – or chain – around my neck. I realized that no one else will ever develop an ethos that perfectly matches my beliefs because no one has ever lived my life. And since the relativism/libertarian paradox supports the idea of a free society, that works out fine for me.

Besides, I never really had the chest hair to pull off a gold chain, anyway.

Why moral relativism might be OK after all

"Surfin' bird" serves the good, obviously.

UPDATE: In this syllogism here, I suggested a paradox, but this may be false. Humanism may take the position that there is no objective morality possible, but this condition may not cause a paradox because the net effect of this would impact politics, not morality. 

 

One of my (many) concerns with Humanism is my bias against its general assertion that no rigid, objective morality exists. In other words, there is no objective “good.”

“Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” (“Humanist Manifesto III”)

As described, this begs the question of what human need is and who gets to determine it and who gets to determine who gets to determine it. Every sweat-slicked, red-faced windbag who’s donned a military beret has claimed to understand human need, and thus justify every sleazy thing they do to achieve it.

This is a very real aspect of human nature, so it’s important that any secular morality addresses it. But what if those of us who are seeking an objective good don’t really have to?

Follow this line of thinking with me:

If objective good exists, it can be quantified.

And if it can be quantified, it follows that more good is better than some good.

But what if we say that no objective good exists?

Because if no objective good exists, then good is subjective.

And if good is subjective, then it is up to the individual to determine their own good.

And if it is up to the individual to determine their own good, it follows that the condition in which people would be most free to determine their subjective good would be the best system.

Thus a rationale for liberty follows, even in a universe with no objective good.

By embracing moral relativism, the chain of logic suggests an objective moral position for government. Neat paradox, eh?

 

Why Rick Santorum had a broken-clock moment

They say he puts the "ick" in "Rick."

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to ethics lately. It’s tough not to when certain presidential candidates are constantly telling me what I ought to do with my life, and how I ought to do it. This has made me think about the classical is-ought problem (otherwise known as Hume’s Guillotine). Basically this problem involves the lack of evidence that would allow someone to jump from observation or logic (what is) to moral prescriptions (what ought to be).

Upon further reading, most post-Hume philosophers solve this problem by introducing a goal into the mix. For example, if my goal is to lose 50 more pounds, I ought to avoid beer and Funyons. (A, ahem, purely hypothetical example to be sure.) But when the goal rests upon answering questions like, “What are we, why are we here, what is our purpose in life?” a problem emerges because the answers to these questions are usually faith-based or open ended.

The religions serve many purposes – among them, is to provide an answer to the “ought” question. (For more on this, check out this article by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks in Standpoint.) Religious texts, albeit clumsily at times, provide a series of answers about our origin, purpose and destiny. Where they fail miserably is in areas addressing observation. When we observed that the earth didn’t revolve around the sun, all hell broke loose. Religion is a weak “is” but a strong “ought.”

Science, on the other hand – and specifically the scientific method of observation, peer review and openness to change – is currently our best “is.”However, whenever I read prescriptive ideas from the non-religious, they sound an awful lot like the religious. (This is where, like a broken clock that is right twice a day, I must begrudingly give Santorum some credit for making this observation about the liberal statists currently in power.)

The church of pure reason has its faith-based positions, too. But they are often in conflict. On one hand, there is a very strong polarity towards altruism. The Left takes the observation: humans tend to be cooperative (an “is”) and then leap to: humans ought to put the needs of the many before the needs of the few, or one (the “ought” in Star Trekparlance).

To be fair to Spock, he used altruism to guide his own behavior, not others. He didn't throw someone else into the warp core.

However, the church of the Left, wary of the crimes against individuals wreaked by totalitarian regimes, does its best to infuse another belief – the belief in (some) individual rights. They say, we ought to provide medical care to women, and women ought to have the right to any procedure they want. At the same time, this creates a dissonance with their categorical truths. If individual rights are an “ought,” then why is it that we ought to forcibly take away the wealth of one individual and give it to another individual (a moral position) simply because the needy individual is in need (an observation)?

How did we get from “person A is in need of a doctor” to “we ought to seize the wealth from person B to pay for it?”

To do so, it seems we have to introduce a new series of “oughts” to justify our behavior – “oughts” that seem to be as based on beliefs. As to whether this “new theology” is any more supported by evidence than the old theology seems to be an appropriate area for debate.

But if we discover that we can only replace one “ought” with another, is our belief system on any steadier ground than anyone else’s?