Saturday, November 24, 2007

English, Official Language

There's a good post over at Brain Mash about why there is no point in making English the official language. I certainly agree, there are no reasons outside of racist reasons to make English the official language. Moreover, it would likely be unconstitutional. The first amendment protects freedom of speech, which certainly must include what language speech is in or it is a useless amendment.

On a similar note, I have recently found out that one of my favorite stories about official languages and the United States is an urban legend. I hate that, especially for such a great story.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

More God Delusion

One of the things that Dawkins gets flat wrong in The God Delusion is when he talks about ethnic cleansing and religion.

"Iraq, as a consequence of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, degenerated into sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Clearly a religious conflict - yet in the Independent of 20 May 2006 the front page headline and first leading article both describe it as 'ethnic cleansing'. 'Ethnic' in this context is yet another euphemism. What we are seeing in Iraq is religious cleansing."

This would be all fine and well, if religion were somehow separate from ethnicity, which it is most certainly not. Ask a Jew if you are unclear on this. The Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq are not different only in religion, and the fact that they have different religions is but one facet of their individual cultures. In Iraq prior to the invasion there was not as much enmity between the two groups, but Saddam still promoted Sunnis over Shia. Not because of their religion, Iraq was secular prior to the invasion, but because they were culturally closer to Saddam than the Shia.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Richard Dawkins

Well, I'm in the process of reading The God Delusion. I have a number of problems with it, a lot of the arguments are a bit sloppy. Dawkins did however manage to woo me with complements.

"I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won't take common sense for an answer."

So true.

Monday, November 12, 2007

“The student of politics, then, must study the soul, and must study it with these objects in view, and do so just to the extent which is sufficient for the questions we are discussing; for further precision is perhaps something more laborious than our purposes require.“ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics[I,13]

I don't believe in the soul, but I can definitely get behind Aristotle on this one. Politics is about what people are and what they can be. Sure, when you take classes in political science, something I've done quite a bit of, you learn a lot of things seemingly unrelated to this, but really, you learn about people. How people organize themselves. How people interact. What people think is acceptable. The human soul, in non-spiritual way.

Unfortunately, many programs lose track of this. I know the program at San Francisco State doesn't emphasize it enough. The program doesn't emphasize that all the theory and history that we learn is meant to be applied to people; and not to some theoretical inhabitant of the state of nature. No, to real life people who live and breath and love and hate and fight wars and die. But political science seems to have forgotten that we talk about the real.

Strangely I've found that the philosophy department does do this. I think that this is the reason I feel more comfortable in the philosophy department, because it understands that it is dealing with real stuff, stuff that matters. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. That the philosophy department would be more in touch with the real world was a great surprise, to say the least. But, so it goes.

Atheists and Islam

There is a recent post here about how religions fight among each other because they believe different things. While true, it is really blown out of proportion. The blogger in question make the mistake of saying "They attacked us on 9/11, and if we're to believe what they say and write, they attacked because we don't subscribe to the writings in another book." which is just wrong, wrong, wrong. None of the groups which attack the U.S. and U.S. interests say that it is because of what we believe, they never have.

Yes, they often think that we have degenerate beliefs and morals, but they certainly don't think that's reason enough to kill people in the U.S. No, the reason they say they attack us is because we support the oppression of Muslims around the world. We give the most support to Israel. More support than we give any other country in the world. Of course, some people claim that the arabs are just jealous of Israel and so get all bent out of shape when their own governments do little to help the Palestinians. But this belies the fact that it was Israel* that created the problem in the first place. And it also ignores the fact that Israel is so successful to a large extent because of the massive amount of money that comes in from the U.S.

Most of all, it simply makes no sense that someone would travel across the world to kill themself and others simply because they had different religious beliefs. I mean, people don't do that, they never have. Sure there are cases like the crusades, but the crusades served a purpose far larger than just religious. There is nearly always an issue other than religion that brings about these confrontations.

*Well, perhaps we can spread the blame around, Britain is far from innocent in all of this as usual, but Israel certainly perpetuates the problem.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

On the Supposed Neutrality of Technology

There is a common refrain among scientists, engineers and pro-technology folks: that technology is morally neutral and it is people that put said technology to uses which are wither moral or immoral. I think this is a bunch of nonsense spread by people who want it to be true so they have an excuse to do what they wish and to develop all the fun new toys they wish.

It is certainly true that a technology in and of itself cannot be immoral, meaning the mere idea of that technology. But it is certainly the case that the actual existence or creation of the technology can be immoral. Take nuclear weapons, for example. We can say that nuclear weapons are morally neutral, but that really is not the case. The mere fact of their existence reinforces the status quo, which is unjust, and thus nuclear weapons are an immoral technology. Part of the problem here is that the context in which we exist is important to whether or not something is moral.

We live in a patriarchal society, one that denigrates and oppresses women. In this context my staring at a woman's breasts, because I'm male, contributes to that oppression. If, however, we lived in a matriarchy, the same actions would not be contributing to women's oppression and would thus not be immoral. This is analogous to technology in our world. Genetic engineering of humans before birth to become stronger or to become more in line with the dominant value structure is immoral in our current, and any near future, society because it will not only reinforce the status quo, it will also increase the power of those currently at the top.

A similar issue is the selective abortion of fetuses based on the probable sex of the baby. In China this is a problem to a fair extent, in fact there is now about a 1.06:1 ration of men to women being born now. The problem here is that this will reinforce the patriarchal nature of the system and will thus cause more oppression of women in China. In this context the technology which can be used to determine the sex of a fetus and abort it are the technologies which are not neutral.

To use a different analogy we can look at evolution and mutation. Mutations are never in and of themselves good, bad or neutral, it is always within the environmental context which they receive value. Likewise with technology.

So, what is the point? Well, first and foremost the point is that we need to be very careful about which technologies we develop and encourage. Things like genetic alteration of humans have the potential to be incredibly bad, not just in a practical sense but in a moral sense. This means we need to look long and hard at what we are doing now in terms of research and technology and rethink it from the ground up, as a society.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


There is an interesting piece about Anthony Flew and eugenics. For those who don't know, Anthony Flew was rather famous as an atheist and is now rather famous as an ex-atheist. He is known for writing The Presumption of Atheism, an essay on why atheism is more a negative descriptor than a positive descriptor, that is to say that when I say that I am an atheist I mean only that I don't believe in God, not that I'm sure there is no God. He is, as noted before, no longer an atheist but a Deist.

The story of his "conversion" has struck me as somewhat sad, not because he decided to be a deist, but because of the way that a number of Christian authors jumped at the occasion of an older man finding Deism as an excuse to put words into his mouth. If you check out interviews with him it is clear that he gets confused easily and isn't at the top of his game mentally. So, of course, you have an unscrupulous Christian who uses this as a chance to push non-deist views.


On to my point though.

I was thinking about it and it seems that if someone thinks that humans are the result of intelligent design then doesn't it naturally follow that eugenics is okay? I say this because intelligent design essentially is eugenics. You know, some smart person/species guiding the genetic development of other species certainly sounds like eugenics to me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Related, not the same.

LHL has a good post, as usual, over on her blog about how most of the public discourse around Islam deals with it as if the Christian paradigm were the real religious form and you just have to change a few names and then you have Islam. Like LHL I try to share what I know about the religion so that people don't have these weird-ass ideas about Islam. And let me tell you how much some people don't get it.

First, the Sunni-Shi'a split. No people, it isn't Protestants and Catholics. It would be better to consider it closer to the Catholic-Orthodox split, though that is, of course, not exactly the same. Then there are things like the Ismailis, which don't have any Christian equivalent at all. The Ismailis are my favorite from a theological viewpoint. But I find them interesting not only because of their theology, but because of the history behind them. This is the group that the term assassin came from. Not all of them, but a smaller sect from around 1000-1100 or so.

This is another one of those stories that you hear told wrong all the time. The general myth in the west, especially here in the bay area with all our pot heads, is that the name assassin came from the fact that they would eat hash and thus in Arabic would be called hashshashim, roughly translated to "druggies." That's a bunch of nonsense. There is no doubt that back around a millennium ago these folks were highly feared and did indeed assassinate people. But, the drug stuff is a bunch of propaganda made up by their enemies. It's not too unreasonable to understand why the accusations of drugs might have stuck given that often times those from this sect who carried out killings essentially knew they would die; a kind of tenth century suicide bomber, but with a knife instead of a bomb. And what happened is that they were so fearless that people believed that they were on drugs.

Well, that was a pointless but fun ramble.

More Animals and Naturalizing Ethics

Am I frustrated or what. I've been having a back and forth over at Pharyngula about animal testing and the ethics thereof. What is frustrating is that these are people who are clearly intelligent and yet they refuse to even recognize the inconsistency in their positions. You can't simply say that empathy is the basis for morality, because it isn't. Empathy may be why we act in accordance with moral rules, why we generally don't kill people, but it isn't a reason in and of itself for something to be wrong or right. Trying to do this is what philosophers call naturalizing ethics or morality. I have a paper somewhere that makes a valiant attempt at this, but fails.

What it boils down to is what Hume called confusing the is-ought distinction, AKA the fact-value distinction. Just because something is doesn't mean it is right.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Problem with Capitalism

Well, really there are a number of problems with capitalism but the one that frustrates me the most is the insistence on growth as a positive. I am reading Making Globalization Work by Joseph E. Stiglitz right now and he continues on this path. He seems to believe that if we tweak international trade treaties in just the right way then the world will become the happy-go-lucky place the capitalist theorists always seem to predict. Of course, we do not have enough resources for everyone to live like us. I haven't even really seen a decent study done on what level of subsistence the world can reasonably support in a sustainable way.

None of this is the fault of capitalism per se, but it has certainly been embedded into capitalism from its biblical roots. Yes, this like so many other pathologies in the west comes from religious beginnings. Genesis 1:26-30, in which God gives the earth to man and tells him to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." Yes, we love more. We love to own and possess and subdue. Capitalism just gives us new reasons and excuses.