Friday, June 27, 2008

Hallowed Point

Everyone needs to calm the fuck down about the Supreme Court's decision recognizing an individual right to gun ownership and striking down the D.C. handgun ban. To be clear, I am what most Americans would call a stark-raving liberal. I believe in a drastic reapportioning of wealth and a dramatic restructuring of society. But conversations with most people on the Left about gun control routinely exasperate me, for the following reasons:

(1) A failure to identify the relevant questions. A lot of liberals support gun control because, they say, guns are bad. But the question whether people should own guns is logically different from the question whether people should have a right to own them, and this question in turn needs to be separated from what the Constitution guarantees. Thus the relevant questions are: What does the Second Amendment say? What is the proper rule of the judiciary? Should gun ownership be an individual right? Should people own guns? Depending on your answers to the first two questions, you may come to believe that answers to the second two are IRRELEVANT considerations regarding what the Supreme Court should decide. It is not inconsistent to hold that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership that the judiciary is obligated to uphold, and also to hold that gun ownership should not be an individual right. Moreover, it is not even inconsistent to hold that gun ownership should be an individual right and yet believe that people should not own guns. (To wit, I believe that people have a right to use hate speech, and yet I do not think people should use hate speech.)

(2) An irrational reaction to guns. I have liberal friends who cannot even think of a gun without immediately thinking of innocent people being slaughtered. They literally look nauseous when the subject comes up, and this is usually followed by idiotic pronouncements about Southern people being stupid (a dubious conceptual link, if there ever was one). In short, their reaction is - what's the most delicate way to put this? - fucking stupid. Guns are tools, and can be used for good or ill. Moreover, not all guns are created equal. A .22 caliber shotgun is relatively wimpy compared to, say, an automatic assault rifle. A failure to make this distinction, or even to acknowledge the possibility of responsible gun ownership, is (to me anyway) an indication of culpable ignorance.

Note that I haven't stated my position on gun ownership! I actually believe in fairly restrictive gun control measures, but that the D.C. ban that the Supreme Court struck down was excessive. Of course, the real questions are whether the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to own guns (I think it does) and how this should weigh on the Court's deliberations and judgments.

Sorry if this is a little more "ranty" than usual.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Carlin on Death and Dying

George Carlin


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Killing Yourself to Live

First things first: sorry for not having posted in a while. I am glad to see Ragoth picking up the slack.

Now for some content. My main research interests lie in ethics and political philosophy, and my perspective on most issues could be called Kantian in a very general sense. I say "general" because (1) I find his philosophy rife with untenable dualisms (subject and object, theoretical and practical reason, etc.) and (2) because I disagree with him on certain substantive ethical and political claims. Nonetheless, I find the (very Kantian) project of grounding morality in the necessary and sufficient conditions of autonomy worth exploring.

Most of my "research" consists in armchair reasoning about the nature of reasoning. I ask, What constraints are there on rational action? There are quite obviously some constraints: an agent cannot intend to, say, eat an ice cream cone while simultaneously intending not to eat an ice cream cone. More controversially, there are still some people who think that an action is not fully rational unless it derives from a subjective principle of action that could serve in the giving of universal law. That is what it means to satisfy Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative.

For Kant, morality is inseparably bound up with autonomy. Moral action is free action, and we treat each other morally when we respect and honor each other's capacity for free rational choice. That is what it means to treat people as ends rather than as means. This is an idea that is still taken quite seriously. One prominent philosopher recently wrote an essay titled "Treating Criminals as Ends in Themselves."

Let us suppose that Kant is mostly right about these matters (as I do). When is it acceptable to treat people as unable (or at least severely limited in their ability) to make free choices? Obvious candidates are our dealings with small children and the insane. But what about severely depressed people? Or drug addicts? What would a Kantian doctrine on how society should deal with drug addicts look like? More generally, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions of morally permissible paternalism?

I don't have any hard answers. I am interested in what the audience thinks.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

And my day started off so well...

Guys, guys! Seriously! LHC pictures, now!

25 years to complete! 5 years to wind the solenoid coil of the CMS! 15 million gigabytes of data per year! 1900 tons of central detector goodness!

I feel like a gibbering mouther geek-in-heaven. Hat tip to the Bad Astronomer for this one.

So, my day started off great! LHC goodness, science progressing...hell, we've made plastics that are more stretchy by an order of magnitude - very cool - we've found a 380 million year old fish fossil with an unborn embryo inside, with a fossilized umbilical cord. This is the oldest known vertebrate mother, and the oldest known example of an animal giving birth to live young. Awesome! Hell, we've got a robot on Mars that's going to be doing some really awesome science, and, well, okay, the soil's kinda clumpy and that's messing with it getting through the screen, but we'll figure it out, honest. An interesting question is why the soil might be so clumpy. Any astronomers out there want to give us the low-down on Martian soil types?

Oh...wait...what's that you say, PZ? A video...a video of McCain...and he's saying what?


Damn it...c'mon Democrats and Independents, atheists and agnostics, and anyone else who cares about religious freedom. We have to get our act together. Man..this is a total bummer. Now my day's sort of ruined. can't be serious, interwebz. There cannot be someone who things they see Jesus in some french fries....


It's over guys. We might as well pack it all in.


Tornados in Chicago?

Go watch this video of a tornado in a Chicago suburb. That's not all too far from where I'm at.

Also note - typical Midwest politeness: "I'm sorry to wake you up like this honey."



Saturday, June 7, 2008


Okay, so, yes, this is not safe for work...but still...


I also recommend looking up Voltaire, who has an excellent and hilarious CD all about Star Trek. Good stuff! A great gift for all the Trekkies in your life! Seriously. I'd like one. *cough cough*


Monday, June 2, 2008

This is also, sadly, humanity.

So. We go from the optimism of the last post to this.

I can't even begin to express the anger and sadness that I feel over this. The original tragedy was terrible enough. No one should ever live in fear of being stoned to death by their relatives for talking to another human being. I can understand disappointment, or maybe even a heated argument, but not violence. Stoning a girl in the street is an act of murder. Gunning a woman down in the streets is likewise an act of murder. Honor killing is merely a euphemism to try to purge yourself of guilt or responsibility.

This is an act of barbarism, and I point my finger at the religion and culture built around the religion which sanctions and advocates this type of behavior. I likewise indite those strong cultural relativists who want us to say that "it's just their own moral system," or "it's just their way of doing things." It may very well be the case that the best we can hope for in ethics is a system which we create, but I will argue to my death bed that a system that includes basic human rights (the right to life, the right to freedom of thought/speech, the right to not live in constant fear and under oppression by a cultural or religious tyranny, etc) is objectively better than abandoning people to whatever their group happens to feel is right for them at the moment. Genital mutilation, honor killings, killing in the name of religion - or any system of thought, for that matter - and sanctioned violence against any member of a particular gender, ethnicity, or social class...none of these are okay in my book, and the politically correct relativists be damned. If they want to sanction this type of behavior, let them, but make them admit their implicit agreement to allow these types of behaviors to continue. (Was the Holocaust merely an expression of Nazi Germany's ideas? Their form of discourse to be read like some text and respected as their personal ideology? How does the cultural relativist argue against something like a genocide perpetuated by another culture? It's enough to make me throw up.)

A man who can kill his own daughter with such brutality, for the crime of talking to another human being - and having feelings of love - does not deserve the title of "human" in my book. That creature is the lowest of the low, and my gut feeling would be to wish all the violence they have committed back onto them, though I realize that they wouldn't understand it and wouldn't change. That's almost the worst part - they have no inkling that they have done anything reprehensible. Likewise, the society that not only condones this type of behavior, but praises it and recommends it (in fact, even demands it of their people), that is not a society that I can respect. In the (paraphrased) words of Hannah Arendt, discussing Eichmann, "You have shown through your actions that you do not wish to share the world with us, and that, if nothing else, is enough to condemn you and for us to say that we do not wish to share the world with you."

I'm tired of being told that as an atheist, I can't possibly have any morality or notion of "the good." Or that I must lack compassion or caring for people. This is just one of the examples of what a strong religious "morality" can do to people, and you want to tell me that this is somehow better? I reject your religious ideals and morals, because I, as a human being, cannot possibly begin to agree with them. I see no good in the vast majority of your ethics, and what good there is is not exclusive to your religion - it's merely a few bright spots in a mire of offal. If you want to talk about Enlightenment morality, or even American ethics and how it's supposedly Christian-based, I would argue that it's simply because reason has had a chance to creep in to religious morality and subvert it. Whatever morality we have today that we can recognize is good is because of basic human compassion and reason, not from religion. The one is not the cause of the other.

I hope someone forms a memorial for these two women and doesn't let their stories, or the stories of any other people hurt or killed by religious irrationality, chauvinism, and hatred be buried or lost. The least we can do is keep their memory alive and do our damnedest to not let things like this happen again, to anyone.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

This is Humanity

I've been gone for a while, mainly because of school work. But this is just too important to pass up and not comment on.

I want you to look at this picture:

H/T to the Bad Astronomer.

This is an image of the Phoenix Lander descending through the Martian atmosphere, taken by the Mars HiRISE camera. This is not a photo of the Martian surface taken by a rover - we have those, and they are wonderful and amazing. This is not a photo of the Martian surface taken by an orbiting satellite - we have those and they are likewise amazing. This is a photo of a robot descending to the surface, taken by a orbiting robot which has been going around Mars for years. This is an action shot. But it shows something incredibly important. We have gotten to the point where we can predict, from millions of kilometers away, where one of our probes will be coming through the atmosphere of another world and aim one of our cameras, which is orbiting that world, to take a snap shot at the predicted spot...and lo and behold, there the thing is, in high resolution.

This is astounding. It should take your breath away every time you see it. Just to think about it should floor you. But let's put this in perspective. Around a hundred years ago, this was the bleeding edge of technology:

Think about that. In a little over a hundred years, we have gone from a flight time of a few seconds to sending robotic probes to another planet. This, people, is the march of science. More than that, it is the march of human ingenuity. This is what we do. Humans are naturally curious and creative. We are natural inventors and creative in our use of objects. But here's the important point - with science, a rigorous method of testing and duplicating, we have gained the ability to take vast leaps in technology. And this isn't just about sending probes into the solar system. We have modern medicine, transportation, communications...literally everything that we take for granted every day, and it's thanks to natural human ingenuity focused by scientific rigor. How do we know that science proves anything at all? Well, the practical answer is simply: LOOK AROUND YOU! It works! For a more theoretical answer, check out this book, The Truth of Science by Roger Newton.

I just can't get over that photo. It represents a milestone in our history as human beings, much in the same way that the Voyager Golden Record. Go look at the things that are on that record and what it represents. This is what we, as humans, can do when we work together with reason and good will.

Of course, there are people who are absolutely opposed to science and this sort of creative enterprise. They want to return to a more primitive, irrational mode of being - ironically, most of them don't want to give up technological advances, just get rid of science and science education...or at least completely redefine science to include their notions of gods or the supernatural. I've spoken about this before, and I don't want to waste time on it now. I think this video is about all the rhetorical force you need to convince yourself of what side of the divide you should be standing on now: