Monday, September 24, 2007

Sam Harris on The Sacrifice of Reason

Awhile back I said that I wanted to throw out some ideas about Sam Harris's op-ed "The Sacrifice of Reason." Well, here goes:

First, I'm not religious, as many of you well know. And I've been fairly anti-religion for most of my life, and strongly anti-religion for long stretches of it. I'm afraid I'm rather contrarian, though, so maybe it's the fact that atheism is suddenly a little bit chic that's giving me the urge to defend religion. But let's ignore the boring psychological stuff and go right for the logic of the matter: essays like Harris's--that is, essays in which stupid, evil, and vicious religious practices are cited as evidence--make me wonder what conclusion is being argued for.

Harris cites, for example, vakatoga, a Fijian sacrament that required that the victim's limbs be cut off and consumed in his presence. And he asserts that "It is essential to realize that such impossibly stupid misuses of human life have always been explicitly religious." I'm a little unclear on two things here: first, whether that assertion is true and, second, what is supposed to follow from it.

As for the first point: people have done countless stupid and brutal things for non-religious reasons. The Nazis and Japanese conducted "experiments" on innocent prisoners of war during WWII, the Khmer Rouge invented many ingenious types of mental and physical torture, and so forth. Some torture and murder has been given a religious spin, just as some has been given a scientific or political one. What's unclear is whether religious evil differs from other kinds merely in something like degree, but not in kind. My guess, for what it's worth, is that such evil is largely a product of an innate human capacity for or inclination toward brutality (innate, that is, in some people, though not in all). It finds a religious expression, but it's largely there already. I find it, for example, hard to believe that vakatoga or Aztec mass murders were the result of good people simply being misguided by crazy religious theories. That there was some of that is beyond doubt; but my guess is that the causal arrow often points strongly in the other direction. Religion is a handy outlet for brutality, and it can amplify it and generate some of its own--but it's unlikely to be solely responsible for all exotic forms of brutality, contra Harris. That is: I expect that people with torturous inclinations were eager to promote and engage in vakatoga, and I'm sure many less evil people went along with it because of its religions overtones...but I suspect that the evil inclinations would have largely come out in other ways if nobody had thought of vakatoga. Religion is as often an excuse for evil, not the sole creator of it.

I have another guess, too, for what it's worth, and that's that religion is also responsible for a lot of good in the world. As with the evil it precipitates, religion probably serves more to focus and direct the good that's already present in people than to create it ex nihilo. Some humans have an inclination to seek supernatural justifications for their good impulses just as they seek supernatural excuses for their evil ones.

And that brings us to the question: what conclusion is Harris arguing for? If it is, as I suspect, the conclusion that religion is an irredeemably bad thing, or a bad thing overall, I doubt that he can get there using the premises and arguments he provides. Even if it turns out to be true that there are some uniquely religious evils, it doesn't follow that religion can't be improved, nor that it's overall a bad thing. What follows is something more like: it needs to be abandoned or reformed. But I think most sensible parties to the debate recognize that.

So, anyway, though I'm basically on the side of the New Pop Atheists, I've got my differences with them too.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Some days--perhaps inevitably...perhaps evitably--you just feel like the worst teacher in the world.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why Does George W. Bush Hate America So Much?

As we know, only a traitorous liberal cur would even consider the possibility of decreasing troop levels in Iraq so long as the evil-doers who attacked us on 9/11 are

So what explains the fact that the decider himself, the very heart and soul of the GWoT, is now saying he'll pull troops out?

Well, as others have noted, he has no choice. We're out of troops, as it turns out.

Still, my faith in the decider's deciding kung fu has been sorely shaken...
Prediction: Warner Will Pick Up Warner's Seat In VA

John Warner is a Republican I respect (though I tend to disagree with him). Mark Warner is a Democrat I respect. It's unfortunate to lose a reasonable Republican, as they've become an endangered species. But given the way things are currently, I think it'll be easier to beat the Republicans than it will be to reform them. And, who knows? Maybe if the Republicans are pushed completely out of power for a few years they'll sober up and start acting at least a little bit like reasonable people. And it's a very good bet that Warner--Mark, that is--is going to win, thus advancing that project.
Stupid Monster Tricks

Thirty Years of Stupid Monsters: A D&D retrospective at Jared von Hindman's Head Injury Theater.

Yup, it's true. The D&D manuals contain some good monsters...and lots of unbelievably stupid ones. In fact, it's not even clear to me that he's got the very stupidest ones here. Just glance through the Monster Manual II (or as we used to call it, The Big Book of Little Men) sometime. It is more-or-less just evil-looking short humanoid after evil-looking short humanoid. All with really stupid names. Like, e.g., the Pestie. I really discussing this subject in public? I guess old nerds never die, they just get reincarnated into 4th-level college professors with +10 Tenure of Protection...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Gary Kamiya: The Real Lessons of 9/11

This, to which AbjectFunk directs me, is mightily worth a read.

I don't agree with everything in it--and, in fact, my eyes roll heavenward whenever somebody comes close to talking "gender studies" gobbledygook, as Kamiya comes close to doing at one point. But overall, I think he's hitting the nail pretty much on the head.

I appreciated--painful as it was--Kamiya's clear, poignant statement of the relevant facts: the Bush administration has shamelessly used 9/11 to appeal to our worst instincts as a nation, and used them to lead us into something very much like a disaster.

If your liberal instincts are like mine, you think that you can reason with anyone. Consequently, you can easily be led into discussions in which you will find yourself acting and speaking as if defenses of the administration's actions since 9/11 are sane and serious. But they are not. An insane, nightmarish, farcical error is still an insane, nightmarish, farcical error, even if a million bloggers spend a million years creating a million baroque arguments to the contrary and confidently asserting their conclusions. It's scary, in fact, how easy it is to find people who will passionately defend the indefensible, and scary how easily such people can skew the center of gravity of a discussion. Enough passionate defenders, and even the flat Earth theory gains a veneer of respectability.

Anyway, read Kamiya's piece to remind yourself that madness is, in fact, madness, and not another thing.
MoveOn.Org's Petraeus Ad: It's the Title I Object to

Look, I know there are bigger issues at stake here than civility, but I strenuously object to the Petraeus/Betray Us nonsense in the title of's Petraeus ad. I'm not following this aspect of the discussion closely enough to deserve an opinion about General Petraeus--I'm just registering my gut-level reaction to the ad. It'd have been very effective if the title didn't contain what amount to fighting words. We might have a long discussion about whether or not the characterization suggested by the title is apt...but my objection is merely of the lame "it was unnecessary and counterproductive" variety. The ad would have been a lot better without it. MoveOn has a knack for pissing even me off--and that ain't good for them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dean: Broken Government

Well, that about sums it up alright.

[HT: Socio-Beth]

Monday, September 10, 2007

Petraeus's Report 1


I suppose I should have seen this coming, but I didn't. I thought it would be "the surge is working, so we can't reduce troop strength." I suspected that it wouldn't be "the surge isn't working"...even if it wasn't. But "the surge is working so we're bugging the f*ck out" is not only unexpected (by me, anyway) but also pretty clever. It lets us out without losing any face for W.

Is it true? Oh, be serious.

That's probably not a consideration. To clarify: it's not a consideration for this administration...though it may be at least some kind of consideration for Petraeus. But the political pressure is so great that even a a basically honest man might very well nip it and tuck it and massage it and spin it until it looks like the Powers That Be want it to look.

Lots of people will be happy about this one way or another. Some righties will be happy because it will help them prop up their "Bush is God" and "we are winning" beliefs. Some liberals will be happy because it's a step toward our getting out. I'm still depressed because there's not much reason to think that the surge really is working, and this report really does seem like a step toward bugging out and leaving the disaster we've made to turn into a mega-disaster.

Of course, I'd also be depressed if we were staying.

The thing is, once you've made a disaster that you can't unmake, depression may be the only reasonable emotional response...

But here's hoping beyond hope that Petraeus is telling the truth, and that the surge is making things a little less terrible over there. It ain't much, but it'd be something.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Piss Off, Osama bin Shithead

That's right. I'm in no mood for subtlety.

With the emergence of the new tape, we can give up on the hope/fear that OBL, SOB is dead. On the one hand, I had hoped that he had already died a miserable death in a cave in Pakistan. On the other hand, a natural death is too good for him, and, as I've said before, I really want him to expire from a severe case of MOAB-itis. So, bad news: he's still alive; good news: we can still kill him.

Unfortunately, he's already won the propaganda war by surviving this long, and killing him now won't change that. In fact, we basically screwed this up as badly as we possibly could. We desperately needed to kill him immediately after 9/11 in order to make it clear that, if you launch an attack of that kind against the U.S., you die certainly and immediately. No matter what we do now, OBL has shown that that ain't so.

In fact, should we find him now, it'll probably just make things worse. He'll be shoved back to center stage, and we'll have to kill him which means martyring him.

This psychotic asshole--with the help of the radically incompetent Bush administration--has managed to do almost nothing but win against us. As I've said many times: strategically speaking, I'd still rather be us than him. But nobody could have predicted that, six years after 9/11, we would still not have decisively won a confrontation with a handful of third-world religious fanatics. And, with the help of American conservatives and the media, this little bad of nuts has been exaggerated into a Threat Against The Very Existence Of Liberal Democracy!!!!

Egad. Our only hope may be that our opponents are even stupider and less competent than we are.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"Strategic" "Thought"

Drum on Drezner on an excerpt from Robert Draper's Dead Certain. Read it and weep.

He's the decider, folks. He knows how to decide.

Back before the election of 2000 when people were floating this absurd line about Bush being the first "CEO president"...about how--though he didn't know anything himself--he would listen to the people who did know and make a decision on the basis of their input...I asked: so what exactly is Bush's role in all this? He doesn't know anything, and he's not smart. So he isn't providing the knowledge, and--lord help us--he better not be providing the reasoning. So wtf is it that he does?

Why, he decides...

My guess: he takes all the information, ignores it, and randomly generates a decision.

That's how you get:

(1) A group in Afghanistan attacked us
(2) We should attack Iraq

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Report: Disband Iraqi Police


This is very, very bad news. I've been thinking that the situation was about as bleak as it could get, while still laboring under the belief that the Iraqi police force was crappy but not hopeless.

This is pretty damn discouraging.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Godly Delusions

An op-ed in the Post by Sam Harris.

Meh. Is this cutting-edge stuff out in the real world? This more-or-less approximates the most common view among very many of the people I know. Christianity gets treated with kid gloves out among the mundanes, I guess, but not so around these parts.

I disagree with Harris on a few points, but have to, ya know, do my job right now.

Something on this later if I remember...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

John Humphreys: In God We Doubt

This isn't bad, according to me.

Humphreys has several points, but primarily he's concerned to gesture at an argument in defense of good religious folk against the "radical atheists." Though I'm an atheist myself, I've got little time for the Richard Dawkinses of the world. does seem a tad odd to me how much of this kind of thing is going around. Two thousand years of getting Christianity shoved down our throats...but a couple of popularized books rejecting religion and all of a sudden it's a crisis, and Christianity is besieged. Faith is, apparently, an extraordinarily fragile thing...

Thing for us non-radicals on either side to keep in mind is that dogmatists and kooks on one side generate more dogmatists and kooks on the other. Without the inquisition, Pat Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and the innumerable Church Ladies all across the country, you get fewer Richard Dawkinses.

Folks like me, for example, don't generally have contempt for sensible Christians. Hell, some of my best friends are Christians, and I even like talking about philosophy with them, and I even learn things from it. But it's the zealots and dogmatists that embody a stereotype of the ignorant theist, believing the craziest things for the craziest reasons. And this part of our public discussion, like so much of it, takes place largely in the shadow of such stereotypes. And I'm not only talking about ignorant Bible-thumpers, either. I've known plenty of intelligent, articulate, well-educated dogmatists, smugly uttering theistic nonsense as if it were the most obvious common sense.

Well, to say the least, it ain't.

But it is a heck of an interesting possibility, remote though it may be. But Christians who act as if their unlikely theory were true beyond any questioning are just as wrong and just as annoying as any other people who act as if an unlikely theory were so obvious that only a fool or a villain could doubt it. I don't mind someone who wants to discuss the possibility that UFOs are intelligent visitors from other planets; what I do mind is frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics who insist that I'm a puppet of The Man for being skeptical about it. Qua intriguing possibility, the Abrahamic conception of God has a lot to be said for it, I think. But only someone who doesn't understand it very well could insist that it's obviously obvious. In fact, it's obviously not obvious--though it could turn out to be true.

My guess is that what people really have unshakable faith in is goodness; and, perhaps, in the proposition that there's more to the universe than just atoms in the void. They anthropomorphize these things though, and mistakenly think that the only way for there to be goodness is for there to be a divine lawmaker, and the only way for there to be more is if it's a big, powerful, ghostly person. Mix this in with the fact that almost everyone believes whichever religion they were taught as a child, and, well, there you have it. If it's hard for a man to understand something if his paycheck depends on his not understanding it, so much the more so when it's his eternal life that's at stake.

Too bad more people don't read real philosophy--and too bad there isn't more good, accessible philosophy for them to read. I actually think that hope for and faith in goodness and meaning are among the most rational of things. And I think if more people could see that such things are separable from belief in, e.g., the divinity of Jesus, we could have a calmer and more reasoned public discussion of all this stuff.

[via Metafilter]

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mr. Rodgers Goes to Dartmouth: No Surprises Here

This, at the WSJ, tells the tale of one T. J. Rodgers, a businessman who decided to get himself elected to the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth. According to him, all he really cared about was improving undergrad education at the school. He started by getting their speech code repealed. That alone apparently--and predictably--earned the hatred of the PCs. Then he discovered that he couldn't get data on which departments needed more teachers, so he had to investigate this himself. He found out that Dartmouth--like many other schools--is spending less and less on their actual faculty. (And, if they're like my school, more and more on entertainment for the students, and on making the school emulate a shopping mall.) Then he pushed to hire more profs for the under-staffed departments so they could use fewer non-tenure-track faculty. And now, to hear him tell it, anyway, he's PNG and the school is looking for ways to cut guys like him out of the governing process.

Now, this is on the WSJ opinion page, and so we can't be sure about the facts. But I have to say, nothing in this story surprises me in the least. It's all par for the course so far as I can tell.

[HT: The Venerable Smyth]