Monday, August 2, 2010

Sunsara on morality and god(s)

I don't  know why I haven't bothered to mention this until now, but back in spring, I saw a discussion panel called "Morality and God(s): Can there be Ethics without Deities?"  I missed half of the panel, but I did at least see the introductory presentations by all the panelists.  Easily the loudest and most dominant panelist was Sunsara Taylor.  She's just that kind of speaker, she quickly becomes the focus of attention.

Sunsara said two things that stuck in my mind, even after several months.

The first was her answer to the question, "Is morality based on gods?"  The answer is no.  Because there are no gods.

Probably many people will first react by asking, "But what makes you think there are no gods?"  Sunsara went on to explain, in brief, why she thinks there are no gods.  In this explanation, morality is never mentioned.

I thought this was a simple and powerful statement, and I don't know if I can comment further without detracting from it.  The point is that, whatever morality we currently have cannot be based on gods, because there are none.  So every atheist knows it's silly to say morality requires gods.  And even if morality did require gods, that would have no bearing on whether gods exist.

The second thing Sunsara said, I disagreed with.  She was talking about a hypothetical person who believes there is an invisible heatless incorporeal dragon floating above us.  She said that we would question such a person's sanity and perhaps institutionalize them.  The implication was that we should have the same reaction to theists.

The invisible dragon is a classic skeptical example given by Carl Sagan.  So I saw Sunsara's comparison as one between a skeptical issue and an atheist issue.  I see these comparisons pretty often.  It goes in three steps:
  1. Religious claims aren't really all that different from pseudoscientific claims.
  2. Therefore, we should treat them in the same manner.
  3. Therefore, we should mock religious people the same way we mock pseudoscience.
I think all three of these steps are questionable.
  1. Religious claims tend to be more tangled up with philosophy than with science.  When countering religious claims, you have to delve much more into raw critical thinking rather than investigative skepticism.  There are exceptions, and varying degrees in between, but it's true in general.
  2. There are many powerful organizations supporting pseudoscience (eg alt med, intelligent design), but they don't compare to the sheer cultural and political power of religion.  This may call for different large-scale strategies against the two.  Even PZ Myers thinks that there should be division of labor between skeptics and atheists.
  3. The thing is, I don't mock pseudoscience quite as bad as Sunsara mocks religion.  That's not quite true, I probably do a lot of subtle mocking.  But I don't go so far as to say people who believe in pseudoscience should be institutionalized.  People usually don't believe weird things because they are crazy.  They believe weird things because they are mislead by normal thought processes.  So you see, if someone really believed that there was an invisible dragon floating above us, I would not think they were insane.  Just wrong.
This isn't the first time I've seen Sunsara speak.  Sunsara Taylor is a writer for Revolution newspaper, which is the "voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party".  Yes, that's a real political party, and yes, that makes Sunsara a communist.  I mention this at the end rather than the beginning, because some people I know groan at the very mention of communism.  I don't know, I may have some political disagreements, but they're not all that bad!  Maybe I can garner a little sympathy for Sunsara by showing this interview on The O'Reilly Factor.

27 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Sunsara frequently visits Revolution Books in Berkeley, across the street from your new school. She's definitely worth meeting in person.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Religious claims tend to be more tangled up with philosophy than with science.

I don't believe this is true in general. People such as you and I tend to focus on the philosophical aspects, but that's selection bias. In general, I think that people mostly have extremely pseudo-scientific beliefs about God.

She said that we would question such a person's sanity and perhaps institutionalize them. The implication was that we should have the same reaction to theists.

I haven't looked at the specific talk you're citing, but I've heard Sunsara speak on this topic. I think it's more charitable to interpret her comments as making a philosophical rather than a strategic analogy: theistic and pseudoscientific beliefs are just as delusional (and just as determinably delusional) as beliefs we actually and unobjectionably do institutionalize people for.

I don't think Sunsara — nor any atheist — is seriously advocating that we actually institutionalize people who hold either theistic or pseudoscientific beliefs.

miller said...

Yeah, it makes more sense to say she wasn't entirely serious about institutionalization. But I am pretty serious about rejecting the idea.

People such as you and I tend to focus on the philosophical aspects, but that's selection bias. In general, I think that people mostly have extremely pseudo-scientific beliefs about God.

Excellent point.

BTW, I dropped by Revolution Books the other day, and the book owner had no idea who you were!

miller said...

Correction: not the owner, but whoever it was that was working there at the time.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Ah well. I've been gone for a year and a half, and they have a lot of more or less transient volunteers from UC work the bookstore.

The Barefoot Bum said...

But I am pretty serious about rejecting the idea.

Which idea? Are you rejecting the idea that we should actually institutionalize people with theistic pseudoscientific beliefs? That's not in the least bit controversial and, with all due respect, not very interesting.

Are you rejecting the idea that theistic and pseudoscientific beliefs are — stripped of their social legitimacy — just as crazy as ordinary schizophrenic delusions? (It is, of course, most probably the case that these beliefs have a different etiology.) That would be a more interesting position.

Norwegian Shooter said...

Religious claims are incredibly tangled up in the conception of a person's identity. That is the main difference with pseudo-science. If a homeopath was convinced it doesn't work, nothing but her view of homeopathy would likely change. Whereas religious converts have to change their idea of who they are (and why they are here).

Practically, this makes arguing against religious ideas much much harder than pseudo-science ideas. While the atheist thinks they are sticking to ideas, the theist thinks they are being personally attacked. They just can't separate their religious beliefs from who they are.

miller said...

Barefoot Bum,

I am very serious about rejecting the language of "delusion" or "insanity" to describe either religious or anti-skeptical people. I think the etiology of those beliefs is very important. It's one of the great lessons in skepticism that people have weird beliefs for very ordinary reasons.

Joking that religious people should be institutionalized erases this important lesson, and replaces it with what exactly? I suppose I can see the utility of comparing religion to delusion, but the flaws in the analogy are too glaring for me.

It's sort of like the language of "atheist fundamentalists". The charitable interpretation is that this is just an analogy. But then we're left wondering how seriously people take this analogy; the more serious they are, the worse it is. And if they're not serious, why do they bring it up? It's certainly not a clever or original idea.

(I think I just made a meta-analogy... I apologize)

Norwegian Shooter,

I agree for the most part, though I think you are somewhat underestimating how much homeopaths invest in homeopathy.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I am very serious about rejecting the language of "delusion" or "insanity" to describe either religious or anti-skeptical people.

Fair enough. I disagree (mostly), but I can see where you're coming from. We'll pick up this point later.

Joking that religious people should be institutionalized...

Given that you don't think it's warranted to talk about these kinds of beliefs using "delusion" or "insanity", I can see how you would object to the comparison because it of course explicitly makes that comparison.

But you take your objection a step further and I think you make an uncharitable interpretation to support your own view.

I don't have the precise quotation, so I have to judge from your description: Sunsara "was talking about a hypothetical person who believes there is an invisible heatless incorporeal dragon floating above us. She said that we would question such a person's sanity and perhaps institutionalize them."

First of all, institutionalizing a mentally ill person is not (or shouldn't be) a punishment any more than is taking a physically ill person to a hospital. If there is an ethical dimension here, it's one of an obligation to help, not permission to punish.

More importantly, I think you're making too many leaps to get a specifically normative intention either way. From my own understanding of her position, she's just making the point that were it not for the social privilege of religious beliefs, we would consider them as obviously and egregiously crazy as believing that one is Napoleon or worrying about orbital mind-control lasers.

Analogy in general is so loose in natural language that once you start making two- or three-step inferences you can infer anything.

It might clarify the issue to post the exact quotation.

Rebecca said...

From my own understanding of her position, she's just making the point that were it not for the social privilege of religious beliefs, we would consider them as obviously and egregiously crazy as believing that one is Napoleon or worrying about orbital mind-control lasers.

Blatantly ridiculous, perhaps, but treating ridiculous beliefs as automatically akin to mental illness tends to be probably factually inaccurate, as well as unfair to people who are actually mentally ill, which is another reason why that comparison should probably be avoided.

miller said...

Getting an exact quotation would be impossible for me.

After some thought, I'm sure Sunsara doesn't actually think that religion has the same causes as delusion, nor is she trying to be normative about mental disorders. Communists are really some of the last people I expect to be ablist. But what she intended is one thing. The impression I got was another.

The impression I got is that Sunsara believes religious and anti-skeptical claims are similar enough that they should be given the same treatment of pity and ridicule. Maybe not institutionalization, that was just a distasteful exaggeration. And maybe she just means that they would be similar enough, if not for the social privilege of religion.

It still strikes me as a weird comparison, because it is absolutely not obvious that anti-skeptical beliefs should be pitied or ridiculed. Just like atheists, skeptics are always actively debating how "nice" we should be towards our adversaries. So you can't just point to the skeptical movement and say, "Look, they have it all settled! They mock pseudoscience mercilessly, and we should do the same!" It is not a settled issue in the skeptical community, don't pretend that it is.

The Barefoot Bum said...

The impression I got is that Sunsara believes religious and anti-skeptical claims are similar enough that they should be given the same treatment of pity and ridicule.

First, I think mental illness deserves neither pity nor ridicule. Although he's not delusional, my elder son has some significant mental illness, and was briefly institutionalized during his adolescence. Unless Sunsara herself actually said that legitimately mentally ill people deserve pity and ridicule, you yourself are supplying this component of the interpretation.

it is absolutely not obvious that anti-skeptical beliefs should be pitied or ridiculed.

You're correct: it's not obvious. If you yourself do not believe that religion and pseudo-scientific beliefs deserve pity and ridicule, I can respectfully disagree with your position and we'll argue the point as friends.

I personally (and I know this will come as a big shock) that religious (and pseudo-scientific) beliefs do indeed deserve pity and ridicule. They deserve ridicule where comparable mental illness does not deserve ridicule precisely because of their different etiology. Mental illness is a medical problem; being mistaken or ignorant of the facts is an intellectual problem; but religion is in my opinion a moral and ethical problem. Moral problems require the moral language of shame and guilt.

I will dryly note, as I have little personal experience in this area, that many people have undeservedly been on the receiving end of moral language. Issues such as sexuality are inappropriate targets of moral language not because moral language is unsuited to address moral problems, but because (consensual) sexuality is not a moral problem in the first place; indeed it is not a problem in any sense.

miller said...

Unless Sunsara herself actually said that legitimately mentally ill people deserve pity and ridicule, you yourself are supplying this component of the interpretation.

I can't remember because it was so long ago. But I'm pretty sure she compared religion to delusion, and also hinted that religion should be pitied or ridiculed. These two pieces of rhetoric have some bad synergy.

But maybe I am trying too hard to avoid taking blame here. Maybe I have been unduly uncharitable to Sunsara, and if so I apologize. I had a point that I wanted to make, but that's no excuse for putting words into people's mouths.

[Religious beliefs] deserve ridicule where comparable mental illness does not deserve ridicule precisely because of their different etiology. Mental illness is a medical problem; being mistaken or ignorant of the facts is an intellectual problem; but religion is in my opinion a moral and ethical problem. Moral problems require the moral language of shame and guilt.

Barefoot Bum, I am really impressed by how good a case you make. I'm laughing to myself because I really don't have a good response to that! I think I have to say you're right, to the extent that religion is a moral problem.

I previously noted that religion is unlike delusion, in that religious people should be held morally responsible. Clearly I am a broken record on the subject of religion vs delusion.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I've commented on the other thread. To sum up:

It's unproblematic to note that the definition of "delusion" differs between colloquial speech and psychiatry. Psychiatric delusion by itself does not establish legal insanity. And we seem to have perfectly good objective definitions of delusion and insanity in the colloquial, psychiatric and legal contexts; I can see no reason to adjust our definitions for achieving an outcome different from that provided by the existing definitions.

Anonymous said...

To change the subject, if Sunsara is a Communist, then as much as I despise Bill O'Reilly, then as he said, she IS a lunatic, just as much as a Holocaust denier is a lunatic. (I am using this as Bill O'Reilly did, with the pejorative normal conversational meaning, not a medical condition.) Whereas our nation splits up power between the President, a Congress, an independent court system, a free press, corporations, religious institutions, and anybody who speaks out, Communism takes all that power and puts it into the hands of a very few people or even one person. Those people or that person even has the power to choose their successor, and no one may object. As much as a Communist may say that corporations abuse their power, no Communist government has failed to abuse their power far more. As much as Communism may give those leaders a philosophy to govern in the best interests of the governed, since they give the governed no voice, the result is disaster. Communism has caused tens of millions of deaths in Maoist China and in Stalinist Soviet Union. It has caused millions more in Pol Pot's Cambodia, and in today's North Korea. This is not including deaths from wars, this is just peacetime deaths in their own countries caused by their own governments. China today has turned over much of the economic power to capitalism, and conditions have very dramatically improved for hundreds of millions of people. Many millions more in Eastern Europe have been released from Communism, and they haven't looked back. Communism has resulted in far, far more injustice than just these deaths, but I can't write about all of it here.
I would think that it would behoove atheists to distance themselves from Communism, because all the religious wars in history haven't caused as many deaths in as short a time as Communism, which is atheist. (Although it is atheist only because religion presents a different perspective on life and a challenge to their insistence on complete dominance of power.) If an atheist points to religious wars as an argument against religion, a religious person only has to point to Communism, so you don't want to associate yourselves with them.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Communism takes all that power and puts it into the hands of a very few people or even one person.

If you are going to criticize Sunsara Taylor you anonymous poltroon, I would strongly suggest you criticize her actual positions, rather than your ignorant caricatures.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest, Barefoot Bum, that a Communist has to face the history of Communism, just as a fascist Holocaust denier has to face the history of the Nazis. One is as ignorant as the other, and I bet you would stop listening to all of the pedantic opinions of a Holocaust denier, too.

Anonymous said...

If you put yourself into the same political category (and I don't mean I put you there, I mean you put yourself there) as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Vladimir Lenin, Kim Jong Il, and Pol Pot, then you are a lunatic. Now we both know that Bill O'Reilly was just playing a game by using a lunatic as representative of the opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Barefoot Bum said...

And capitalists have to face the history of capitalism, Americans have to face American history, Christians have to face Christian history, yada yada yada. Wake me up when you have a fucking clue.

I would suggest, anonymous poltroon, that you take your moronic "opinions" and shove them up your ass. Sideways.

The Barefoot Bum said...

If you put yourself into the same political category (and I don't mean I put you there, I mean you put yourself there) as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Vladimir Lenin, Kim Jong Il, and Pol Pot, then you are a lunatic.

The same political category? Now that's just completely fucking stupid. I am (and I presume you are; there aren't many people as nakedly stupid as Americans) in the same "political category" (i.e. an American) as the architects of American chattel slavery, the genocide of the American Indians, the wars of aggression against Mexico and the Phillipines, the use of torture, indefinite detention without trial, and a host of other atrocities.

I have published quite a bit: If you want to criticize any of my actual positions, they are easy enough to find. If, however, you want to criticize words you put in my mouth, I can only call you a liar.

And an exceptionally stupid liar at that.

Anonymous said...

Your comments, Barefoot Bum, make you look much worse than anything I could say, and I didn't say anything about you. As for criticizing me for being anonymous, I didn't know that Barefoot Bum was your real name. I didn't criticize Sansara's views on the war, because that wasn't my point. That is like arguing with a Nazi about whether Hitler's policies to make the trains run on time were good. You repeated what I said, that "Communism takes all that power and puts it into the hands of a very few people or even one person". Yes, it historically has done exactly that, by the political leaders who have defined what Communism is. You, as an individual, cannot re-define it. It worked out much the same as when Hitler and Mussolini took power. Millions upon millions of deaths of their own people, all in the service of the state. No rights for individuals.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Your comments, Barefoot Bum, make you look much worse than anything I could say

Then why are you speaking? Seriously, there are only three people reading this thread; I know I think you're an idiot, and I have a good guess what miller thinks.

If by labeling myself a communist I am thereby endorsing every idea ever espoused by any communist and paranoid fantasy you might have about communism, then by labeling yourself as anonymous you are therefore endorsing every idea espoused every idiot who has posted anonymously.

You're not worth arguing with, and I'm done insulting you. Go away, kid, you bother me.

Anonymous said...

Barefoot Bum, you are no threat to anybody. The world has passed Communism by, save for Cuba and North Korea, which didn't get the message yet. I didn't even know you were a Communist until you started ranting, taking my comments personally. Do you 1)deny everything Communism has done, 2)claim that it wouldn't do it anymore in the future, or as ridiculously as anything else, 3)claim that a majority of people under Communism liked it? There are few people more anti-Communist than people who have lived under it, and I have met people from many of those countries tell their horror stories. Anyway, I don't know which of the three categories above you belong to, perhaps only the second one. You are willfully ignorant in any case, like a Holocaust denier. (I hope you rave like an idiot again - your statements such as, "I would suggest, anonymous poltroon, that you take your moronic 'opinions' and shove them up your ass. Sideways." certainly highlights your idiocy.)

miller said...

"Seriously, there are only three people reading this thread; I know I think you're an idiot, and I have a good guess what miller thinks."

If you guessed "highly amused", you'd be correct. Like that other anonymous guy who kept on making food analogies and then started insulting me in rhyme.

Anonymous said...

Barefoot Bum, sorry I called you an idiot, but if you claim that people are better off under Communism, there are obviously hundreds of millions of people who have lived under Communism who disagree. Why do you think the U.S. still has an embargo against Cuba? Most Americans don't care about it. But Cuban-Americans are overwhelmingly dead set against lifting the embargo. One million Cuban-American voters make lifting the embargo political suicide. Unlike Communist countries, Americans are very much in control of their own government.
Communism fails not only human rights, but it fails as an economic system. East Germany was the wealthiest Communist country per capita in the world. But it was a very poor cousin to West Germany, with the same culture and the same economic starting point in 1945. When the iron curtain started to crack in Hungary, East Germany had to reform, because they were facing massive depopulation due to their people rapidly streaming to the west.
When the two Koreas were one, the north was the wealthy industrial half. Now millions have starved to death in the north, while the south is the eighth wealthiest country in the world. Again these are comparing two countries with the same original culture, with just one side Communist.
Until China dumped the Communist economic system of a planned economy, their per capita income was about US$500 per year, a tiny fraction of that of Taiwan or Hong Kong. Now they are capitalist, (although still with a one party system), and they have the fastest growing economy in the world. Vietnam is following in their footsteps, and starting to get the same results.
When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant spilled radiation, making the region uninhabitable even today, the reaction of the Communist government, which controlled the media, was to deny everything. That was the worst peacetime environmental disaster in history, and it helped bring down Communism. When the recent BP disaster hit, well, as you know, there is no such thing as hiding it in a democracy. Government regulators colluded with industry, but in Communism, the whole point is to collude with industry, and the media as well. You may call it simple-minded, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The Barefoot Bum said...

if you claim that people are better off under Communism

Where do I claim that people are better off under communism?

I've published a considerable amount of work. If you want to criticize what I actually have to say, go and read it. I'm not interested in discussing your speculations about what my positions might me, nor am I interested in discussing your paranoid delusions and projections.

miller said...

I, your host, have decided that I am no longer amused. Both of you, stop wasting your time. As a favor to you both, comments are hereby closed. If you wish to continue, find a different space, or e-mail me with a request to reopen. You know where to find my address, or if you don't then too bad.