Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Re-evaluating the negativity argument

As explained in a recent post, the negativity argument is a cluster of arguments used against atheism.  The general idea is that because atheism is only about opposing religious beliefs, and doesn't advocate anything positive, it is a poor basis for a community or a social movement.

Given my growing dislike for certain segments of the atheist movement, particularly those which advocate close adherence to only the "negative" goals, it's worth re-evaluating my opinion of the negativity argument.

My first thought is that atheism is just one example of a social movement.  If sticking to "negative" goals is problematic for atheism, that may only be an incidental fact about the modern atheist movement, rather than a general truth about social movements.

Consider the anti-slavery movement, the veg*n movement, the anti-colonialist movement, the anti-racist movement, the anti-vaxxer movement, the skeptical movement.  Many of these groups have had "positive" goals, but are primarily defined by their "negative" goals.  You could argue that just a few positive goals are sufficient, but I would argue that the atheist movement is no different.  Even in the broadest definition of the atheist movement, it clearly isn't just a lack of belief in gods, end of story.  We don't include most of China and Japan, for instance.  The atheist movement generally believes in naturalism, the separation of church and state, and protecting the rights of the non-religious.

There's also a fundamental incoherence in the positive/negative distinction.  Are pro-lifers negative for opposing abortions, or are pro-choicers negative for opposing legal restrictions on abortions?  And even if we could answer that question, would it have any bearing whatsoever on which of the two movements is the winner?

In any case, we can avoid generalizations by discussing only the modern atheist movement.

Historically, the atheist movement simply hasn't taken a unified stance on things like feminism, social justice, and the whole liberal/libertarian spectrum.  It's okay for a movement to not have a unified stance on absolutely everything; I guess they just won't talk much about the stuff they disagree on.

But I think in this decade, the complete lack of agreement on social justice has proven maladaptive.  Feminism and social justice are highly relevant issues to how any community is run, even communities that nominally nothing to do with social issues.  The atheist community is a grass-roots social movement, so social justice is doubly relevant.  So these are issues that we want to and need to talk about, despite the lack of a unified stance. That's what divides the community.

On reflection, this has nothing to do with the positive/negative distinction at all.  The issue isn't that atheism doesn't have a "positive" stance.  The problem is that the movement doesn't have a unified stance on an important issue.

Take, for example, the "humanist" label.  In my experience over the last decade, "humanism" has generally been used as a positive spin on atheism.  But humanism is also maddeningly vague!  If someone tells me that they're a humanist, all I know is that they believe in supporting humans.  I have no idea whether they believe implicit sexism exists, or if they believe in anti-harassment policies at conferences.  In fact, it's kind of a trope for people to say that they're humanists rather than feminists.

We don't need positivity, we need specificity.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

My thoughts on trigger warnings

[Content note: rape is used briefly as an example]

Trigger warnings are basically an accommodations issue.  Some people with PTSD are triggered by certain topics, to the extent that it causes them panic attacks, dissociation, or some other form of reduced psychological functioning.  So we take reasonable steps to accommodate such people, such as warning them of topics to come.  Depending on the person with the trigger, they may react by avoiding the discussion, or simply by proceeding with greater mental preparation.

Trigger warnings are mainly discussed in two different contexts.  First, on the internet, such as in a blog post.  Second, in the classroom.  The latter context especially seems to attract a lot of media coverage, with people arguing over the censorship of literature.

Trigger warnings, though, are not at all like censorship.  Attaching a trigger warning to a book doesn't mean hiding it from view, it just means attaching a warning.  Sometimes people also call for the removal of a piece of literature from the curriculum because they find it triggering, but that's a different kind of accommodation entirely.  It's not always reasonable to change a course curriculum to accommodate a few students, but trigger warnings are almost always reasonable.

The only thing that might make trigger warnings unreasonable is that people are triggered by a very diverse set of things.  Supposedly, the most common trigger warnings are for things like sexual assault and rape, which makes sense since those are common sources of trauma.  But in general people can be triggered by rather ordinary topics, and you really can't anticipate everyone's triggers on the internet.  And if we could anticipate everyone's triggers, the number of trigger warnings required might be unwieldy.

We may just have to settle for the fact that whatever we talk about might cause some harm to some individual out there who is listening.  This is not very satisfactory to people who insist on social justice perfection, but it's the way it is.  It's not a tremendous moral failing if someone fails to add the correct trigger warnings, it's just a bad thing that happens sometimes.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is allow people to excuse themselves from a conversation at any time.  That is also the polite thing to do in general.


We also need to talk about how trigger warnings are used even by people who do not have triggers.  To give an example, I do not suffer from trauma, but I still appreciate trigger warnings for sexual assault when people care to add them.  Sometimes I encounter some media which implies sexual assault, taking me by surprise, and my reaction is "oof, heavy topic".  Warnings have very marginal value for me, but I appreciate them.  It's sort of like subtitles in movies, which I generally like even if I don't need them.

I generally prefer to call trigger warnings "content notes" or "content warnings", because I'm agnostic about whether people use them for triggers or for something else entirely.

It's fine and good for people without triggers to make use of trigger warnings, but there seem to be a few distortive side effects.

For example, trigger warnings on sexual assault and rape are often used for the political goal of keeping the issue of rape in the public consciousness.  That's a political goal I can get behind, but it also makes me unsure whether the most common trigger warnings accurately reflect the most common triggers.  I've heard, for instance, that people with trauma like specificity in their trigger warnings, but since you don't need much specificity to raise consciousness, this doesn't get talked about much.  I've also heard that discussion of dieting is a common trigger for people with eating disorders, but it's certainly not a common trigger warning.  There's a lot of ignorance of the most common triggers, and I include myself in that ignorance.

In other cases, trigger warnings are used to label things that are "bad".  In principle, whether something deserves a trigger warning has nothing to do with whether its content is "bad".  Even if I have the most enlightening discussion of what rape victims go through and how to support them, it could still be triggering to some people.  On the other hand maybe fewer people would find that triggering, I don't know.

Speaking more to my personal experience, there are a lot of discussions of rape and sexual assault that I don't like for their content.  I don't like victim blaming.  I don't like when people are so blasé about it, as if they forgot that it actually happens to people.  I particularly dislike stereotypes of rape as something perpetuated mostly by violent strangers who slip you GHB and Viagra.

But these are objections to the message.  Objecting to the lack of trigger warning is not an objection to the message, it's an objection to the medium.  It's a common for people to object to the medium as a sneaky way of taking down a message they don't like, but I do not think trigger warnings should be used this way.  After all, a proper use of a trigger warning doesn't involve taking down the message at all.


Lastly, I acknowledge that there is a large crowd on the internet who mocks trigger warnings as if they are inherently ridiculous.  I have an argument for why these people are harmful and wrong, but tragically it does not fit in the margins of this blog post.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The atheist aesthetics battleground

While I'm on the topic of aesthetics, I'd like to take a moment to observe that many arguments over atheism and religion are really arguments about aesthetics.

For example:
-Why would a god make this vast universe, just so humans can occupy a tiny part of it for an insignificant moment of time?
-Why would a vast and powerful being care so much about whether people believe him that he'll only perform the subtlest of miracles and then damn you forever when you don't take notice?
-Insert joke about zombie Jesus or Catholic cannibalism.

These are all arguments that religion (Christianity in this case) simply doesn't make "sense", that it's kind of an absurd or ugly way to view the world.  No evidence or reason is really being presented, it's just intuition and aesthetics.

And this is fine, since a lot of the arguments for religion are also aesthetic arguments.  One explicit example is in The Life of Pi, which argues that life is a story and a story is better with God in it.  Or consider the many Christians who say they believe simply because it's what they feel in their heart.  Or consider the portrayal of atheism as sad or rebellious or otherwise something you wouldn't want to be afflicted with for long periods of time.

We can shoehorn these kinds of arguments into rational form, and try to think about philosophical interpretations or concrete evidence.  Indeed, even most rational arguments have some aesthetic element to them, and I don't think there's a hard distinction to draw.  But with arguments that are mostly based on aesthetics, it's easiest to make counterarguments which are also based on aesthetics.  For instance, I might observe that stories with omnipotent deities are not better, and stories with wizards are better.

Personally I don't really like aesthetic arguments over religion, at least not the transparent ones.  I recognize the value of aesthetic arguments, and do not desire for everyone to avoid them, but I would rather avoid them myself.  I just have weird feelings about aesthetics that I'm not sure I can coherently express.  It's fine when atheists argue for the ugliness or small-mindedness of the religious worldview, because I agree with that.  But whenever atheists talk about how amazing the real world is, and how awesome science is, I hate it.  I just can't stomach that level of sincere cheesiness.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Realism and ugliness

I want to talk about something which is far far away from math, and far far away from science.  I want to talk about aesthetics, and my own sense of aesthetics in particular.  (Of course, I've already written my magnum opus on aesthetics, but perhaps the subject would benefit from a less facetious treatment.)

I've realized that what I like in art is a reflection of reality.  Not a realistic reflection of reality necessarily, but a reflection nonetheless.

For example, my favorite novel of the past year was The Unconsoled, which takes place in a sort of nightmarish dreamscape, with the story frequently wrapping around in a circle only to contradict itself.  That book had some deep things to say about social obligations, and the lies we tell ourselves to justify random happenstance.

The idea of reflecting reality, without being realistic, is also embodied in another aesthetic, that of "gritty realism".  I think of the ur-example of gritty realism to be The Dark Knight.  I think you'll agree that The Dark Knight is not realistic, but is perhaps meant to invoke uncomfortable truths about reality.  Like when Batman is forced to choose between his girlfriend or the mayor, that's keeping it real, or something.

One justification for the realism aesthetic:  "Yes it's ugly.  But the truth is ugly."

But that sounds wrong to me, or whatever the equivalent of "wrong" is when we discuss aesthetics.  For me, it's not that the truth is ugly.  It's that beauty is ugly.

What is beauty?  Beauty is a subjective judgment we make about real objects, even though the objects themselves have no intrinsic beauty about them.  Beauty is a lie.

It's more than that.  Beauty is a social lie.  When something is beautiful, we are all supposed to find it beautiful.  For instance, as a scientist, I am supposed to sing praise for the beauty of science.

The Pale Blue Dot, a famous image of Earth as viewed from space.

The above image is ugly.  Because beauty is ugly.  Beauty is social coercion.  I don't need to share Carl Sagan's aesthetics.  Fuck that.

Of course, I say this while simultaneously recognizing that Saturn's rings are actually very pretty.  And don't you know that even as I profess the ugliness of prettiness, I post a lot of pretty photos of origami every month.  No one said aesthetics need to be logically consistent.  It's not mathematics.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of value in subverting conventional aesthetics.  On the social level, popular aesthetics can be a great evil.  Like the idea that white men are, aesthetically speaking, the best hero protagonists, and the most relatable characters in general.  Or the cultural designation of a particular body type as attractive.  Or the fact that culture which is popular among lower classes or marginalized groups is systematically considered uncool (for example, see what happened to Disco).  The beauty we have here in society is ugly.

Aesthetics are an expression of inner emotions, a thing that cannot be fully justified, or countered, with rational argument.  Sometimes the best way to fight aesthetics is with aesthetics.

Friday, April 17, 2015

What happened to the negativity argument?

One of the comment arguments against atheism, or against the atheism as a social movement, is that it's too "negative".  There are a variety of arguments in this category, ranging from the respectable to the absurd.  It can mean, "If you destroy religion, what will you replace it with?" or "You can't base a whole movement around something you oppose," or "Stop being so critical!"  The general attitude is so pervasive that I tried to rebut it seven years ago, immediately after I started blogging. 

At the time, I was simply expressing the dominant opinion among atheists, which was that the negativity argument was entirely wrong.  Interestingly, it is no longer the dominant opinion!  In my view, the negativity argument was victim to the same social forces as the tone argument.  Since 2011, a lot of atheists finally realized they have some rather severe disagreements with each other over feminism.  This led to a crisis, since for many people, the negative definition of atheism simply wasn't working.

For example, in 2011, PZ Myers defined and criticized "dictionary atheism":
Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses.
A year later, Jen McCreight proposed the idea of "Atheism Plus":
We are...
  • Atheists plus we care about social justice,
  • Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
  • Atheists plus we protest racism,
  • Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
  • Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
Atheism Plus is essentially a response to dictionary atheism.  If you say, "Atheism means only a lack of belief in gods," then I can say, "True, which is why 'atheism' isn't sufficient to define my goals."

Even though Atheism Plus didn't really go anywhere, these ideas continue to be repeated today.  For instance, a more recent article on Pharyngula said:
Movement atheism, as currently formulated, has serious problems precisely because it refuses to incorporate any position on human values at all. It’s in the awkward state of trying to be all things to all people, a blank slate on which Libertarian atheists can scribble selfish manifestos, or Humanist atheists can state their altruistic values. I’ve been arguing not that atheism leads inevitably to liberalism, but that if we don’t make any commitment at all to any progressive ideas, we’re only going to descend into chaos and purposelessness.
Each of these three quotes offers a successively stronger variation on the negativity argument.  First, PZ points out that atheists as individuals do in fact have "positive" views and goals that we should acknowledge.  Then, Jen McCreight expresses a desire for a movement that includes some of these positive goals.  Finally, PZ says that without well-defined positive goals, the movement is chaotic and meaningless.

This is a simplification of the progression of ideas, but it's suitable enough to seed discussion.  The history of the negativity argument raises several questions:

1. Which forms of the negativity argument are correct or incorrect, and why?
2. Why was there a change in the way people view the negativity argument?
3. By what process was there a change?  Is this a matter of people changing their minds, or of people leaving and entering the relevant group?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Link: on label culture

On The Asexual Agenda, I've written something on ace label culture.  An excerpt:
It does not escape my notice that whenever people complain about excessive identity labels on Tumblr, a bunch of the examples given are clearly from ace and aro discourse. For example, Gawker lists demisexuality alongside otherkin and transethnicity. Someone on Urban Dictionary used "gender-fluid asexual heteroromantic two-spirit toast-kin" as an example. Thing of Things, while defending the trend, used "requiessexual bipoetisexual squidgender moongender aroflux lesbian" as an example.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The uselessness of ontological arguments

This is part of my series on debugging the ontological argument.

Previously, I rebutted the conceptual ontological argument (COA).  But I want to make one more point about its soundness and validity.

Soundness and Validity

In logical/deductive arguments, we have the concept of validity, and soundness.  An argument is valid if its conclusions follow from its premises.  An argument is sound if its conclusions follow from its premises, and the premises are true. Consider the following arguments:
Socrates is a man.
All men are mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal
(Valid and sound)

Socrates is a snake.
All snakes have eight legs.
Therefore, Socrates has eight legs.
(Valid but not sound, and conclusion is false)

Socrates is a flying submarine.
All flying submarines are mortal
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
(Valid but not sound, and conclusion is true)

Socrates is a talking plant.
All mortals are talking plants.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
(Neither sound nor valid, but the conclusion is true)
Note that if the argument is unsound, the conclusion can either be true or false. Soundness, however, always implies validity, and always implies that the conclusion is true.

Is the conceptual ontological argument sound?

So what about the COA?

The COA takes a single premise, that "God is conceivable".  From there it concludes that God exists in the real world.  The objection I raised before is that the proof works only if we take a particular definition of "God is conceivable."  Namely, if we conceive of an object, we can call it God only if the object exists in the real world.  This makes it rather difficult to verify that God is conceivable!

But I would say that the COA is valid, and it's only the soundness I question.

Now suppose for a moment that God really does exist.  We know that all things that exist are also conceivable.  So you'd have to conclude that the premise is true, and COA is sound.  If God exists, then the COA is sound.  Equivalently: if the COA is unsound, then God does not exist.

As an opponent of ontological arguments, people often think my role is to argue that ontological arguments are unsound.  However, if I did successfully argue that COA is unsound, I would not just refute the COA, I would be disproving God entirely!  While I am unapologetically atheist, such a conclusion remains outside the scope of this series.

I do not wish to argue that ontological arguments are unsound, instead I wish to argue that they are "useless".

Useful arguments

My concept of "usefulness" is my own idea, but it's inspired by something written by Chris Hallquist.  He says:
An argument can be sound and still not be any good. Imagine arguing with someone who believes that the Sun orbits the Earth rather than the other way around. Now imagine giving them the following argument: “Premise: the Earth orbits the Sun. Conclusion: the Earth orbits the Sun.” If the premise of this argument is true, the conclusion must be true, and the premise is true. Thus the argument is sound. 

Yet you couldn’t blame anyone for not being persuaded by that argument.
With that in mind, I say that an argument is useful if its conclusions are more difficult to demonstrate directly than its premises are.

Note that usefulness is not a logical concept.  Within the formal logic, there is no notion of "direct demonstration" and no notion of "difficult".  Usefulness is a pragmatic concept.  Consider the following sound but useless arguments:
The Earth orbits the sun.
Therefore, the Earth orbits the sun.

If Mars is a giant egg, then the moon is made of cheese.1
The moon is not made of cheese.
Therefore, Mars is not a giant egg.

All four cards in my hand are aces.
Therefore, at least one card in my hand is an ace.2
Since I do not believe in gods, I also believe that the COA is unsound.  However, even if you disagree on this point, you must agree that the COA is useless.

It is only possible to demonstrate that "God is conceivable" if you first demonstrate that God exists.  Since the conclusion of the argument is that God exists, that means that the premise is at least as hard to demonstrate as the conclusion.

This is an important point moving forward, because I will argue that all the remaining ontological arguments in this series fail by being useless.3


1. This premise is true if we're using the material conditional.  The material conditional will appear much later in this series, but for now I refer you to Google.

2. The idea here is that proving that all four cards in my hand are aces is at least as hard as proving that at least one is an ace.  Actually this argument isn't sound because I'm not actually holding any cards right now, but please grant the hypothetical.

3. There's an interesting philosophical question: Even if all known ontological arguments fail, how can we be sure that we won't find one which succeeds?  In my opinion, to address this question, we need a good way to define "success".  We already have ontological arguments which succeed, in the sense of being sound.  For example, I define my keyboard as a keyboard that exists.  I can conceive of this keyboard (I'm typing with it!), therefore it exists.  The premise is correct, the reasoning is correct, and the conclusion is correct.  However, the argument still fails in the sense of being useless.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In praise of the most important relationship

Where much of fiction is devoted to the most tumultous kinds of relationships--those of lovers, family, and enemies--let us never forget that there is another kind of relationship which is much more important, and in fact essential to everyone's daily functioning.  I speak, of course of the stranger.

I am infinitely grateful for all the strangers in my life, all seven billion of them.  I am enriched by the fact that they don't know who I am, and waste no time thinking of me.  The great number of conversations we don't have is a source of great joy.  And it's heartening to think about how much we care about each other, under a thick layer of distant abstraction.  It's a special kind of love, the kind that is tolerable in large quantities.

And yes it is true that I don't mind losing a few strangers, that losing a stranger can even be a happy occasion.  But that's just the kind of relationship that strangership is.  Another way of looking at it is that strangership is such an abundant gift that it's no problem to skim a little off the top to form more mundane relationships.

On the other hand, to lose even a few percent of my strangers, say a hundred million, that would just be unimaginably awful.  It is already difficult to imagine the lives of celebrities, who don't so much lose their strangerships as have them be unrequited.  But I suppose even one-sided strangerships can lead to great rewards.

Indeed, there seems to be a great deal of flexibility in strangers.  While the bread and butter stranger never interacts with you at all, there are many ways that strangers can interact briefly or incidentally.  There are all the people I walk by and don't look at.  There are the people who provide service at stores, restaurants, and banks.  And of course there are many strangers who interact with me online.  Of course, not all these interactions are positive, which is why I'm glad that this is not the default kind of stranger.  But the few strangers who do interact with me make me feel connected, and part of a larger society.

I very much look forward to a life which continues to be filled with so many strangers.  If you are a stranger, thank you!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Christians vs Consumerism

As a followup to my other post about consumerism and capitalism (summary: yay consumerism, ehh capitalism), I looked it up to see what other people on the internet are saying on the subject.  There seem to be a lot of conservative Christians who say the opposite of what I said: "boo consumerism, yay capitalism."

And yes, Christianity is relevant, because it seems to tie into Christian values.  For instance, take this quote:
Consumerism believes that this world is all there is. While most people would not say that they believe this, their consumeristic actions speak otherwise. This worldview believes that happiness and fulfillment are achieved with material possessions. People think, “If I could only afford that house, that phone, or that car then I would really be happy”. However, once they get that thing, they discover that it’s not nearly so fulfilling as it was advertised to be. But not to worry! There is always something better that will surely fulfill them next time.
In case you aren't sufficiently attuned to detect the Christian values oozing all over that quote, the author goes on to say that consumerism "finds its foundations in atheism."

Another post associates consumerism with "caring more about material possessions than our neighbor", gives "church shopping" as an example, and offers the 10th commandment as a solution.  Another one from a more anti-capitalist perspective, quotes the Pope as decrying "the daily vanity, the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having (things), that deludes young people with consumerism."

I hadn't realized how Christian the trope of anti-consumerism really was.  This provides a gold mine of ideas to deconstruct:

-They believe material goods will never satisfy people, implicitly because the only way to truly be satisfied is through God.  This is the standard Christian superiority complex.  It's like if I really liked math, and concluded that math was the only way to be truly satisfied, and everyone who believes they're getting satisfaction elsewhere is deluding themselves.

-They believe advertising deludes people into thinking they'll be satisfied by material goods when they won't.  I find myself wondering if these people are just dwelling on experiences of buyer's regret.  To me, this just seems like the inherent risk of trying anything new--there are hits and there are misses.

-They believe consumption of goods means caring less for other people.  But if you give to other people, aren't you just allowing them to consume more?  The very reason that generosity is a good thing is because consumption is a good thing, and we'd like more people to be able to consume.

And, oh my, I'm not even going to touch "church shopping".

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Umulius, by Thoki Yenn

Today I present a very small model called the Umulius.  It consists of three rings interlocked in a Borromean Ring topology.  That means that if any single ring is removed, then the other two are no longer linked.

The instructions for this model can be found online.  It's a bit unusual in its design though.  Typical modular origami uses mostly flat units, linking them together to create three dimensional shapes.  But in this model, each unit is inherently three-dimensional.

This was a favorite among my Facebook friends for some reason.  Someone pointed out that "Umulius" is Danish for "fool".  This makes sense since the creator is Danish.