05 October, 2012

The Democratic/Republican System

The leaves have started changing colors and falling to the ground, there is a crisp edginess to the air, and I had to scrape frost off of my windshield this morning. In other words, October is here, and so is the second part of my series on democracy/repblicanism today. As expected, politics have moved even more into the forefront of daily conversation since the presidential two party question and answer session/press conference debate a few days ago, and the casual citizen can hardly go through his or her day without being bombarded by the typical quasi-intellectual politically analytical fare.
The media at large that this typical citizen is likely to consume focuses its concern on what could be considered superficial issues- I recall specifically that on the morning after the aforementioned debates I saw articles on such pressing matters as which candidate's smile was better, which candidate's demeanor was more relaxing, and something about how Big Bird(!) has become a hot-button topic. This sort of coverage gives the appearance of being relevant and important, but it lacks any real substance. Unasked are the questions that I hope to explore briefly in this post- questions about the system itself, the issues themselves, and whether or not this republican system in which we live is really as great as everybody seems to claim that it is.

Our System, Defined
Before I go into my objections with the system in any detail, I think that it is necessary to describe just what sort of political system we have here in The United States. I know that this might seem a bit redundant (and perhaps ham-handed), but if you walk down the street and ask people what sort of government we have, they'll almost invariably say that we live in a democracy, which is both a) technically wrong, and b) insidious, since most of these people have been reminded several times that we have a republic, not a democracy, and they either don't care enough to remember or are positively deluded that the former were actually the case.
So, to rehash what I'm sure most of you knew already: the United States is a republic. Barring the occasional referendum or ballot initiative, Joe Civics Class has essentially 0 impact on the creation or approval of legislation. Laws in this country are written by special interest groups and/or lobbyists, then voted on by elected representatives who are influenced by (in descending order) campaign contributions, the special interests and lobbyists who wrote the bill, future career considerations and personal profit, election returns, and the merit of the bill itself. The voting records of some politicians seems to indicate that "just for the sheer hell of it" seems to be a consideration as well, but I won't let my cynicism extend to that level.
Even the referendum or the ballot initiative, which on their face seem to be stringently democratic in nature, are not. These pieces of legislation are created by professional rabble-rousers of various sorts, and then handed off to the public (many of whom couldn't be bothered to real the full text of the bills, even if they could understand it to begin with) for a usually sycophantic approval. A ballot initiative or a referendum's outcome is not likely to be significantly different than an identically worded piece of legislation; the split on party lines is as distinct and as identifiable.
The above paragraphs are not intended to be indictments of this particular system. They are merely descriptions of the way things are done in our nation-state. The indictment comes below.

Saying Our System Is Flawed Is Like Saying Paris Hilton Has Slept With A Few Men
The problems with our system are myriad, and mostly obvious. All of us have grievances with it. When our pet policies are defeated, we bemoan how our will is not felt in the legislature. When our policies are passed, we complain that the legislative process is too slow and plodding. When the policies we hate are passed, however, we object on the grounds that other people's voices are heard too much, and that the legislative process is too rapid and lacks real consideration.
And so on, and so forth.
The flaws I'd like to draw attention to are ones that are probably less obvious (and are certainly less talked about)... problems not with implementation, but problems in conception and problems in design.
Probably the largest problem with our government today is that it culls to the public will far too easily. 
Yes, I said it. Our government listens to what people (say that they) want far too much, and acts based on public desire far too often. An astute reader might here register the rejoinder that politicians are, in fact, more influenced by special interests, lobbies, and money (tailor to your own level of cynicism) than they are the public, and that is true. But those influences are denounced commonly and are almost universally regarded as negative in practical impact, whether or not they are regarded as negative in theory, so I'm passing them by and focusing on (as I said above) the less-well-known problems.
There are several problems with a government 'by the people,' so to speak, and these problems mainly come as a direct extension of the nature of the 'democratic voter,' as described in my previous post. The democratic voter, and by extension the public at large, is mostly uninformed. The public is largely uninformed, influenced more by emotions than rational thought, et al. Not to beat a dead horse, but think of your average voter. Think about how ill-informed, biased, emotional, and irrational they are. Now realize that, because of the law of averages, half of all voters are worse than that! This perforce means that any government which automatically and totally reflects the will of its constituents is to that extent ill-informed, biased, emotional, irrational, et al. If your goal for government is to be a stabilizing and enabling force (in the vein of Hobbes' state that protects us or Locke's state that grants us the framework to exercise our freedoms in), then clearly these tendencies run counter to it.
But lets give the public the benefit of the doubt and assume that they can, collectively, be right from time to time. Even in this case, slavish adherence to the popular will is not advisable, since the public's will seems to twist and shift in the wind more than a tumbleweed in a tornado. The public opinion seems to be all too readily controlled by advertising and rhetoric to be judged as a guidepost to truth and reality. Any government which reflected popular will would be one that is internally inconsistent and changes radically on a seemingly endless basis. Clearly, this sort of government would be one that is chaotic and destructive, but this is the ideal to which our present system aspires!
Daily, it seems, we hear calls for greater public control of the state, as if the people of this nation are a vast yet relatively untapped spring of knowledge and insight, and if we were only to identify and follow the guidance of this supposed collective wisdom, the capsizing ship of state would be instantly righted and would sail true forevermore. What stumps economists is easily remedied by an Idaho potato farmer. What is still undecided by sociologists is resolved with the opinions of a rural yokel in the Midwest. What keeps statesmen and ambassadors up at night with concern is put to rest by a garbageman in New York City. What gives pause to a general is seen through clearly by a high school student from Pensacola, FL who plays Call of Duty every night.
And so it goes.
What utter nonsense. Our system's chief flaw is that it was designed initially to give limited voice to the people (which is probably inadvisable, but is at least excusable on the philosophical grounds of the day) and has been retrofitted haphazardly since to take more and more authority and power from statesmen, experts, and meritocratically advanced people and to transfer this power to those most ill-equipped to exercise it thoughtfully and appropriately.
This flaw is compounded by weak-willed politicians who would rather do what is popular than what is right. Government in an ideal world would be one composed of principled and gentleman/gentlewomanly individuals. In our system, it is composed of demagogues and charlatans who will abandon any principle however sound or adopt any principle however unsound to gain votes. Their chief concern is not the welfare of the state that is their charge, but is instead the preservation of their office (and their occupation thereof). No person may be elected to popular office in this system without compromising his or her beliefs and pride, and no person upon attaining that office may retain any shred of dignity. Our system positively degrades the unfortunate few given public office to the status of boot-licking sycophants with no will of their own. To wit, no person capable of winning an election to hold a public office is fit to hold that very office!
It has been the experience of any honest person (and the experience of all dishonest people, though they will deny it) that all politicians lie. That much has become a cliche in our society. But nobody seems to care. Sure, they care when they are opposing a particular politician, but they never extrapolate their accusation of bold-faced lying to the rest of the political world. The tragedy of our political system is not that, in the course of an election, both sides seek to prove to its constituents that the opposition is fraudulent, unfit to govern, and immoral, but that they are both correct in so doing.

Democracy Is To Government As Masturbation Is To Sex
Despite all of this, our system is hotly defended by men and women across the entire political spectrum, across the entire socioeconomic range, and across all levels of education. My supposition is that this is largely because our system has morphed over time into one which feels good, even though it is vaguely pathetic and accomplishes little of what is reasonably expected of an effective government.
It has changed in this way because it must (increasingly) reflect the public will, and the public will is (increasingly) that they wish to feel good: they wish to be secure against any threat real or imagined, that they wish to be coddled from cradle to grave with entitlements of myriad scope, that they wish to live their lives in utter opulence disconnected from the real and mundane day-to-day process of living. The government in our system is only too happy to oblige, given that by so doing it both a) panders to the public will, ensuring it continued electoral success, and b) gives it more power, which all governments naturally seek by definition.
Because of its genuflection to populism, our government has become little more than an entangling web of programs, laws, regulations, and procedures designed to insulate people from any sense of responsibility to the maximum extent possible and an apparatus designed to seek out and respond to the every whim of any electorally significant margin of the public at large. And because the government created by our system must spend so much time on these two functions, it becomes unpracticed and inept at things that it ought to be doing. All of this is true because it reflects to a large (though not total) extent the will of the people, and the people are essentially idiotic.

There are, however, a few things that can be said in commendation of our system. For all its shortcomings, it has not totally imploded, and there are a number of reasons that this is not so.
First, in spite of itself, it does provide a basic national security and manages to scrape by from day to day and year to year. Though this is far more a testament to the stubbornness and resiliency of the people (and their will to survive and prosper under any circumstance) than it is to the credit of the government under which they labor, it is still a good sign that our system is not totally bad, or totally irredeemable.
Further, it seems to (generally) make people happy, which is and end that most people see as desirable. If you are of the opinion that the proper function of government is to satiate its constituents, then ours mostly succeeds.
Most of all, though, our system of government provides a wonderfully entertaining and dramatic spectacle every few years that is somewhere between performance art, schadenfreude, old Tex Avery cartoons and slapstick humor, and daytime drama. The rites and rituals of our system, which have already begun this fall and will continue for another month and a half or so, accompanied by their associated incantations, chants, and somber liturgy, are enrapturing and fascinating (though the latter might for the same reason we often can't look away from a terrible car wreck about to happen).
More on that next time.

24 September, 2012

The Democratic Voter


October is just around the corner, and that means that elections at all levels are a scant two months away. The blogosphere is alive with pundits-in-their-own-minds discussing the latest revelations of the political media (what faux-pas did candidate X make while he was speaking off the cuff? more at 10), and I'm not particularly interested in the specifics of any given election in any case, so I'm going to restrain my comments to more general and abstract themes.
Instead of hearing me talk about which candidate I support, or why one specific policy is better than another, I'm going to focus myself on what I see as the deeper, and more significant issues; to wit, I'm going to write about the democratic/republican system we have, its theories, and its flaws and shortcomings. I will also write about how the different social and cultural circumstances of this modern age render some of the foundational precepts of a liberal republic no longer strictly relevant.
But in this first post, I am going to touch on the throbbing heart of these issues, the reality which must confront any defender of democracy and/or republicanism. That is to say, I am going to describe the democratic voter in his/her natural habitat.

The Ideal Voter

Before I go any further, I think that it is necessary for me to describe a myth which is often alluded to in the press and in common discourse today- the ideal voter. This voter, though he or she is not called such in practical conversation, is the archetype against which all others are measured, either implicitly or explicitly (as will be the case here). 
This voter is educated on all the relevant issues. It is not enough simply to know what the issues are and to have an opinion on them- the ideal voter must have access to and knowledge of all of the relevant factual matters involved. This is obviously easier said than done, but it is nevertheless possible, given enough time and intelligence, for somebody to become well-enough acquainted with the pertinent details to be considered 'educated' for these purposes.
This voter must also be a rational voter. To put it another way, this ideal voter must be capable of analyzing all of these facts he/she has acquired in the process of education and synthesizing them logically and cogently in to a cohesive opinion on a given issue. He/she must be able to form objective opinions on the issues free from emotional baggage, faulty reasoning, ignorance of precedents, etc.
Finally, this voter must be an active voter; he or she must actually have a vote, have that vote count, and use that vote. In practicality, one or more of those conditions will be missing either de jure as in the United States or de facto as in a pure democracy, but for the sake of establishing this ideal, we assume that these three criteria are met.
The Reality 

Having thus defined this mythical beast, let us now dispense with the Platonic discussion of ideal forms and return to the concrete world as we can actually observe it. Nowhere and at no time has this ideal voter been seen to exist in anything other than the collective imaginations of the talking heads and pundits.
The sad reality is that voters in a democratic state are not educated. Even if they have a deep and extensive knowledge into one particular issue (e.g. an obstetrician in respect to abortion), they are usually to that extent ignorant of other issues at large (e.g., the same obstetrician may have very little knowledge of macroeconomic policy). Well-meaning as the voters may be, they have either theoretical limits (what is the upper bound of the human brain's capacity to retain information?) or, more commonly, practical limits (time, effort, and money spent on educating oneself may be otherwise spent) on their knowledge of relevant issues, and so degrade most commonly into one of two distinct types of uneducated voters:
1) The single issue voter, who casts his or her vote for the candidate who appears to best match his or her opinion on the one topic for which they are adequately informed, or
2) The emotional voter, who simply allows themselves to be completely influence by the emotional appeals of one candidate's advertising over the others' advertising.
They are aided and abetted in this descent by their lack of rationality. As discussed above, the ideal voter is also a rational voter. How do our voters in realty stack up? Well, as it turns out, some voters do indeed attempt to vote rationally. They are hobbled, however, by their ipso facto lack of knowledge, and so they reason from false or non-existent premises. Rational though they attempt to be, they are incapable of truly rational behavior because of these limits. As my old logic professor used to say, "garbage in, garbage out," no matter how good the system.
Other voters are incapable of rational voting by another defect: they are unable to reason at all. This sort of phenomenon is rather well established- across the bible-belt, for instance, we see many peoole who display a positive suspension of rational faculties on a daily basis as a part of their foundational philosophy (if it may be called such at that point), though the lack of rationality in voting is by no means confined to the recesses of the American South. Plenty of voters in the North and West of the U.S. (for example) do not wish to undergo the burdens of logical thought, and so suspend their reason in favor of the easier way of deciding questions; to wit, thinking with the gut and the heart rather than the brain. These voters abandon the rational process altogether.
In the absence of reason, these voters must nevertheless decide which candidate to support. Lacking the rational, logical processes of the rational voter, they instead resort to voting my emotion. The candidates are all to eager to supply them with emotional issues- every day during election season, one is bombarded with advertisements which seek to associate one's own candidate with positive emotions or one's enemy with negative ones. Seldom are many figures or facts used (beyond vague statistical data provided with no interpretation or background, but I digress); instead, the focus is firmly on canonizing one politician and demonizing the other. Even the musical accompaniment and color schemes are consciously chosen to further this emotional impact. Since emotional thinking does not have the checks and critical 'razors' of rational thinking, emotional appeals often go unchallenged into the voter's very beliefs.
All of this is moot, of course, if the voter in question simply doesn't vote (or, in the case of our system here in the United States, if their vote simply doesn't count, an issue I'll discuss to greater length in later posts). Even if a voter were educated (which they can't be), and even if that voter could vote rationally (and they can't), it is all for naught if they are unable, or unwilling, to go to the ballot box. Which leads me right into my next point, namely, are people democratic by nature?

Are People Democratic In Nature?

The short answer is 'no,' but I feel that I need to qualify this answer with some argument since I speculate that the majority of my readers will disagree with this (rather misanthropic and negativistic) sentiment.
I hearken back to (and paraphrase) Hobbes when I say that in absence of society, a human life is solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. I add my own qualifiers when I say that, in their very nature, the vast majority of humans are incapable of a real liberal understanding of democracy. To most people, democracy is not the sovereignty of each individual, but the sovereignty of a single entity chosen by the individuals subjugated under it.
Our evolutionary heritage seems to support the idea that our brains are, somehow, 'wired' for despotism. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, organize their societies around a patriarchal hegemony, where the alpha male retains all the leadership and all the other members of that troupe are subjugated to what might be called his rule. I suspect that if chimpanzees had just a little more symbolic intelligence, they might put a crown on the alpha male's head and bow the knee to it.
Humans by their very nature are not democratic animals. A few (rather more intelligent) humans have been able to conceive of democratic ideals and to organize the societies in which they live into democracies, but it has always been largely without popular consent and it has never been particularly permanent. The longest-lasting so-called democratic government, the United States, has only narrowly missed implosion because its founders were wise enough to know that democracies run against human nature and so tried to isolate some of the fragile democratic processes from the public at large through a system of Constitutional checks against popular sovereignty and through a tiered republic rather than a direct democracy.
Humans are not democratic animals.

Democracy and the Democratic Voter

 At no point and at no time have the supposed participants in  and benefactors of democracy, the voters, lived up to their hypothetical ideal. Through a combination of innate human limitations and outright purposeful knavery (the positive will for stupidity seems to be a near-universal phenomenon here in Idaho), they are completely unable to even approach this pie-in-the-sky.
This is damning enough for those who seek to retain any romantic notions about human potential, particularly for self-government, but it is particularly damning, as I will discuss next time, for those who seek to posit a democracy as the ideal form of government. Democracies are directly dependent upon their constituent voters; as the voters go, so goes the democracy. When you have uneducated, irrational voters, you get uneducated and irrational government.
More next time.


12 March, 2012

Thoughts on America's Foreign Failures


We live in a turbulent and effervescent time. This turbulence and effervescence is not limited to the borders of the United States, however; as recent events such as the Arab Spring and the South Sudanese secession have shown, it is a worldwide phenomenon that has, if anything, become more relevant over the past two decades. The United States operates in an increasingly globalized and increasingly interconnected web of international affairs, so it follows logically that we ignore these changes to our peril.
Equally perilous to any nation exercising statecraft in today's sociologically and economically influenced world of global politics is an ignorance of history, especially recent history. A nation which acts in a manner that is historically ill-informed will necessarily be unable to understand the cause-and-effect of its own actions. It will blunder about in the manner of a man trying to kill a butterfly with a hatchet, and will soon come to heel when the international community begins to recoil from such heavy-handed buffoonery.
It is my contention that The United States is just such a hatchet-man. Our foreign and diplomatic policies are bringing us closer and closer to international humiliation, and when combined with our military polices, are making us less secure and less free. Further, if our over-arching diplomatic goal is to serve as a model and example for the rest of the world- small developing nations in particular- and to spread democracy, then those goals are ill-served by our present stature and system of policy.

Concept: Blowback

Perhaps the chief lesson that our policy-makers must learn, vis-a-vis correcting the above noted ignorance, is the lesson we are taught by the (surprisingly intuitive) phenomenon which the CIA was the first to label. The name that 'The Agency' gave this phenomenon is both crudely descriptive and memorable, so it is the name that I shall use for the purview of this post: 'blowback.'
Indulge me, if you will, in a thought experiment. The United States, lets say, has just elected a new president in an open and fair election, and that president has broad support from a clear majority of American citizens.
This president is not, however, to the liking of the Canadian government. This new president-elect has promised to engage in policies which the Canadians find to be against their own principles. So the Canadians, acting unilaterally, send covert operatives to Washington to assassinate this potential threat.
Once they have done so, the Canadian government seizes upon the turmoil that follows in the wake of the assassination to install a puppet president of their choosing. They then begin to fund this puppet regime to support a vast military presence (perhaps even supplemented with Canadian troops) which would be used to police the nation, to the detriment of freedoms and rights of citizens all across the United States.
Imagine how you, as an American citizen, would feel. Imagine the resentment toward Canada that would well up inside you. Think of how such an intrusion would tend to foster rebellious and insurgent tendencies. Even if the puppet regime operated in such a manner that it benefited you; providing education, jobs, et cetera; imagine how you would naturally feel affronted and frustrated with the interference in your sovereign affairs by an alien, foreign power.
One could easily understand the motivations of, and perhaps even sympathize with the methods of, an American underground resistance movement in such a circumstance. A resistance which targeted Canadian presence and Canadian influence by actively disrupting military and government operations would be a logical consequent of the above described Canadian interference. The group may even go so far as to strike at the Canadian homeland in order to make a political statement about the solidarity of the American people.
Have you imagined this scenario thoroughly? If you haven't please do so before reading on. It is imperative that you understand that sensation of being occupied; the realization that your nation is no longer sovereign, but is instead a de-facto subject.
What does this have to do with blowback? Well, put simply, blowback means this: people the world over resent having their internal affairs muddled with, and when a powerful nation interferes with a weaker nation, that weaker nation's population will almost inevitably think of that interference as a belligerent and unwelcome presence, and will react accordingly. When a powerful nation attempts to manipulate smaller or weaker states, those states will tend to see those attempts as hostile, and will often react with hostility in kind.
It follows that any nation engaged in such activity must expect some sort of deleterious reaction from the indigenous peoples involved. Speaking in terms of concrete example, America cannot engage in the activity of managing foreign nations, especially by using force or coercion, without stirring up anti-American sentiment and, on occasion, anti-American actions.
There is an important counterpoint to be made here: the concept of blowback and the idea espoused above (that nations should be aware of the consequences of their actions in this regard) is most emphatically not to say that smaller nations (or groups therein) are justified in using whatever tactics they choose to cast off the imperialistic influence of or interference from larger nations. Again, to cite a specific example, regardless of the actions of the United States in the Middle-East throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were not justified or vindicated in doing so.
That having been said, it should have been immediately clear to all Americans why they did what they did; and no, it wasn't because they hated our decadence and freedom or for any religious ideals (though I'll not deny that those were contributing factors). Primarily, and foremost, it was because of their political motivations in response to the perceived arrogance and belligerence of the United States in particular; the Western world in general. And we, in the United States, should be wary of undertaking the same sorts of actions which provoked (though, I repeat, do not not excuse) those attacks.

The Rise of Terrorism,  Through The Lens of Blowback

The last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st has become, to any but the most disinterested of observers, the age of the terrorist in the same way that the gilded age was the era of the tycoon and the 1950s post-war period belonged to the Communists. Terrorism has become the great evil that defines our time; the scourge against which what seems like our entire national effort is directed. International terrorism has become the bogeyman hiding in our collective closet- and closet is an apt metaphor here, for we as a nation insist on looking away from the problem as if shutting it out of our minds or responding to it with crude force is enough to make it go away.
Yet perhaps Frankenstein's monster is a better metaphor to use when talking about terrorists. And the metaphor holds further, for just as when young Victor tried to create a beautiful new life he instead breathed existence into a hideous monster hell-bent on tormenting its naive and misguided creator, today's terrorists are the perverted and misshapen result of our best efforts at breathing new life into nation-states around the world. Just as Victor was insufficient as a man to play the role of God, so are we as a nation insufficient for playing the role of arbiter of the world's geopolitical landscape.
If we look at what are today the hotspots of terrorism around the world, we inevitably find that in the recent past, those were areas of intense Western (in particular, American) intervention.
In the 1950s, when Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the oppressive (and pro-Western) Shah and installed their own popularly elected leader, we went in and covertly removed him and re-installed a repressive regime, only to have that regime once again overthrown in 1979. This was, of course, followed by the now infamous capture of the US Embassy's staff who were then subsequently held hostage. While we feigned surprise at this action, the Iranian students who carried it out knew precisely why they did it, and they were happy to tell anyone who asked: they did it because of our constant interference in their affairs, and the very real grievance that we had propped up a murderously repressive government in their land.
Subsequently, we funded the war effort of a bellicose young dictator named Saddam Hussein in his bloody war against Iran all throughout the 1980s, providing both money and materiel to keep his sustained offensive going. This war cost many Iranian lives, a fact that certainly no Iranian is going to forget. Yet we seem to be genuinely nonplussed when confronted today with an Iran who is vehemently and avowedly anti-American.
Since the 1940s, we have supported a government in Israel which has been nothing if not antagonistic toward the entire Middle-Eastern region, Iran being a part thereof. We seemed to waver between outright support of at best, and mere indifference to at worst, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a nation (Israel) who has subsequently threatened to use them against Iran (among other nations) should the need arise, while at the same time our opposition to Iran's own nuclear program is unreserved and unyielding, even going so far as to consider strikes against Iran to prevent them from furthering it. Yet we wonder why it is Iran is so willing to harbor and fund known terrorists with such a violent anti-Western and anti-American streak.
Now, I'll not go so far as to say that Iran is justified in doing anything that it has done (or that it will be justified in doing whatever it plans to do). I'll not say that Iran's actions (and the actions of those harbored by Iran) against the West and America are morally correct. In fact, if anything, Iran displays a moral culpability by housing murderous terrorists, etc. However, for us to view Iran's actions as unprovoked is quite simply wrong.
Whether what Iran does is moral or not, though, is neither important to the point that I am making nor to the application of realpolitik in today's international climate. What is important, however, is that we understand that our actions today influence the reactions of tomorrow; that our belligerence and heavy-handedness today inspire the revolutionaries and reactionaries of tomorrow. We cannot continue to cross our fingers and hope for the best- not all revolutionaries are liberal and not all reactionaries are benign.
As if this were not evidence enough, I now quote the infamous Osama bin Laden in his 1998 fatwa entitled Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (Crusaders being a radical-Islamist term for Westerners) on his reasons for wishing to attack the United States:
"First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.
If some people have in the past argued about the fact of the occupation, all the people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it. The best proof of this is the Americans' continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, but they are helpless."
No more needs to be said. In his own words, the man who masterminded the World Trade Center attacks clearly states his primary reason for doing so: American intervention in his homeland, the Arabian Peninsula. We have been hoist upon our own petard. We have empowered those who already wished to destroy us with the reasons they could then give others to inspire those people to help them do so.

Nation Parenting, National Security, and Failure

Clearly there seems to be an incentive for the West to engage in the manipulation of the internal affairs of other states. Interestingly enough, America in particular has been rather lucid in detailing its motivations.
First, according to America, they seek to spread liberal democracy 'round the world, providing all peoples with the liberties of self-determination and 'human rights.' When asked to justify America's global interventionism, those who defend her policies often cite this goal as chief among many. In this view, America is a generous entity, taking on the role almost that of a parent, chastising the adolescent spasms of nations around the world and correcting their behavior with the end-state of betterment as the desired outcome. 
Second, and today almost as commonly cited as the first, is the maxim that America must retain an overseas influence in order to remain secure against threat in her homeland. America must, so the story goes, actively counter and thwart any (potential) threat against her before it materializes into an actual strike. To advocates of this strategy (if it can be called that), the best defense is a good offense.
Though there are many other rationales, I will focus on these two alone because, together with being the ones most commonly referred to, they are the two with the most important rebuttal in terms of adjusting our current national policy, since they are the two which inform it the most. Both of these claims would be valid justifications for America's present national foreign policy where they true, yet unfortunately for the supporters of global interventionism, they are palpably false.
The first is an example of a logical conundrum. When America interferes with a foreign state to influence it's government, it is always to the end of fashioning that foreign government into a facsimile of our own. The local people are only give a modicum of real choice and latitude in determining their own fate; one need look no further than the regimes propped up in Iraq and Afghanistan to see that. Just as Henry Ford once (supposedly) said, "you can have the Model T in any color so long as it's black," American intervention seems to tell struggling states around the world, "you can have any form of self-determination you want, so long as that self-determination looks just like ours." Further, the newly forged micro-Americas are expected to be not only reliant upon America's foreign aid (the better to retain control over them!), but also to genuflect before American national goals and policies. They are not, then, truly sovereign, but closer to puppet-states or colonies, in all but name. If that sounds like self-determination and the spread of true democracy to you, then you are profoundly deluded.
The second is morally abhorrent. It implicitly seeks to sustain a policy of perpetual prophylactic war. Let us not delude ourselves; war is death. War is misery. War is always a terrible, impoverishing, wasting, destructive, and murderous affair. Sometimes, there are worse things than war; it is then, and only then, that war is justified. We do not execute citizens who might become murderers; we ought not wage war against those who might one day attack us. We certainly should not use war as a tool for forwarding our national agenda in the way that we currently do - it is morally reprehensible that we send our troops around the globe and engage in preemptive strikes. But all of this begs the question. If we've engaged in a policy of prophylactic war aimed at keeping us safer here at home, and we have, then has is been successful?

Are We Safer Now?

With troops stationed in nations around the globe, with the Pentagon's yearly outlays increasing with no end in sight, with new and more terrible weapons constantly under development, and with the wars of the past two decades, each billed at least in part as a step toward a more secure world for America, are we safer now having done all of it?
The short answer is, to little surprise, no.
Look at what has happened where we have exerted the greatest national effort, in money and in lives, over the last 10 years and you'll see my point:
In the time that we have been in Iraq, we have caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, combatants, non-combatants, and 'other' alike. The government cobbled together is corrupt and ineffective, broken by sectarian strife and civil grievances alike. For the duration of our combat presence there, what would otherwise have been marginal groups have found the popular support they needed to carry out civil terrorism all throughout Iraq.
In the decade (and more) that we have been in Afghanistan, we have done far more damage. Al Qaeda continues to draw popular support in Afghanistan and in neighboring nations (such as Pakistan) because of our military presence there. As is the case with Iraq, the government we inflicted on the Afghan people is totally incompetent at providing basic services (which still must be provided by the "coalition" military forces), and reeks with corruption from the provincial level on down.
Because of these blunders and missteps, those who seek to portray America as an evil power bent on taking over the world have had to do little work in convincing their neighbors. Anti-American sentiment has not decreased since our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, they have increased. More Americans have died in the mountains of Afghanistan and the sands in Iraq than have ever died from terrorist attacks on American soil, and a great many more have had their lives forever altered by misshaping, mutilating injuries and the terrible demons of PTSD. Point blank: the cost in lives, money, and materiel that we have given ourselves far outstrip anything that terrorists have ever done to us. 
Further, our continued presence in the Middle East is assuredly empowering the leaders of groups like Al Qaeda and others who can now point at current events as an 'I-Told-You-So' in their polemic anti-American rants. Even as you read this article, the next generation of terrorists are training to attack America, and plans are most certainly in the works to carry those attacks out. Our blowback is coming.
Just as our ham-handedness in Iran led inextricably to the situation we now face with them, our crude and blunt military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are informing and arming the terrorists and rogue-states of the 2020s. We are today laying the foundations that the demons of tomorrow will use to prop up their scaffolding of backwards ideologies, radical Islam, jihad, and hate.
We are more vulnerable, more at risk, today than we ever have been because we insist on prodding the hornet's nest again and again. The terrorists thwarted our best efforts to curtail them in 2001; they will do so again whenever they have been provoked enough.

Changes In America's Global Position

All of the mistakes I have detailed above, combined with our explicitly stated national intention not to change radically the foreign policies that induced them, have led to a standing in the world that has diminished greatly from just a century ago. In some ways America retains a hegemony; our economy is still (for the time being) the world's strongest and our military still ostensibly the world's most effective. Yet in the 'hearts and minds' (to shamelessly borrow the phrase with tongue planted firmly in cheek) of leaders and citizens around the world, we are a tarnished nation on the descent.
In the past century, our nation has gone from being a creditor to being a debtor, in hock to China, among others, to an degree that would embarrass any other sensible nation. It has gone from a position of moral eminence and from an ethical high-ground to being a perpetrator of nearly endless war and death, raining our bombs on brown people the world over for the slightest offense. It has gone from being a place of refuge for the disaffected and oppressed masses the world over to being an imperialistic world-cop supporting brutal regimes whenever it serves convenience or expediency.
We have castigated ourselves on the global stage and our conduct in the past 50 years ought to be a cheek-reddening humiliation to anyone who loves this nation, as I most certainly do.
As a nation, what is imperative now is that we begin to curb our offenses as immediately as we possibly can, that we might work toward regaining some of our once immense credibility. Our list of allies and supporters is growing thinner by the year, and that is naught but our own fault. We must cease our morally terrible and strategically damning policy of global interventionism now, lest we stand alone as a hated and reviled has-been shell of a nation, an outcome most certainly not too far over the present horizon.


As we have seen, our current policies are neither strategically desirable nor ethical. They do not serve our national interests and, in fact, by turning away our allies and creating resentful new enemies, they precisely counter what is good for us as a nation both in the short term and in the long run.
Our fling with interventionist world policing has failed utterly and terribly. We are now beginning to reap the harvest we have sown: our total national debt is now greater than our yearly Gross Domestic Product, thousands of Americans have been put into body-bags and as many family have been destroyed as a direct result of our actions, money and resources that could have been used to fix our ailing Midwestern region, hit so hard by the recession, have instead been invested in the failed attempt to fix the Middle East. We cannot sustain our present course for much longer.
I leave you, dear reader, with this thought:
"[In war,] the best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed...
...The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school building in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. 
This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road we have been taking.  
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
The man who spoke those words was no peace-loving leftist liberal campaigning against the invasion of Iraq, nor was it a counterculture hippie from a protest against the Vietnam War, though it serves the purposes of both. It was Dwight D. Eisenhower. 
We must change. Now.

01 March, 2012

Whence Cometh Rights?

I Have A Right...
Every day, it seems that we hear something about rights. We hear discourse on what constitutes a right and what doesn't, who deserves what rights, which rights are more or less important, whose rights are more or less relevant, and so forth.
What seems to cause many of these issues is a difference in opinion regarding just what a 'right' is. For instance, a fiscal conservative will tell you that it is a person's right to operate a business with little interference from a central government, whereas a liberal might argue that consumers have rights to openness from said business, and so forth. Clearly, there are a myriad of opinions on what constitutes rights, and who has them.
However, it is difficult to say just where the line ought to be drawn for the same reason. Do we have the right to be housed? Fed? Do we have a right to a successful career? A right to love? To happiness?
It seems to me that what is lacking from many of these discussions is an underlying theory of rights, if you will. If we were to agree on a source of rights; a process by which they come into existence, perhaps, or an inferential construct that shows where rights come from, then we might be more inclined to agree on what these rights are in the first place.

What is a 'Right?'
Before we get too deep into this topic, I think it would first be prudent to define just what we mean when we say the word 'right,' as distinct from, say, privileges or something similar.
I think that the easiest way to define a 'right' is to define what it is not: a privilege. A privilege is something which cannot be abridged; it is given by the governing body voluntarily, and can be taken away without moral consequence.
For instance, being permitted to practice medicine.  Nobody in their right mind would argue that each and every person should have a 'right' to perform surgery. However, we all seem to agree that certain members of our society who demonstrate the requisite skill ought to have the privilege of doing so, for all of our benefit.
Now, to the contrary, rights are something a bit more untarnished. A right is more than a privilege; it is something that a government must permit, lest that government be rightly viewed as immoral and unjust.
The right to freedom of expression comes to mind as a handy example. There is something about expression which intrinsically yearns to be free. We rightly judge governments who clamp down on expression in its myriad forms to be totalitarian and oppressive in nature. There is something within this freedom which seems to indicate that it ought to be free, independent of other factors.
Yet again, we're left with the inadequacy of our understanding. We must be able to distinguish where rights come from before we can judge which principles are rights and which are not. Again, some sort of explanatory construct is needed.

Common Explanations for Rights
Something like such a construct is often postulated by those who typically fall on the 'right' of the 'left/right' political spectrum: that rights are inalienable because they are 'god-given.' That is to say, that people are 'created' as 'endowed with certain liberties,' which they then proceed to define in various ways.
This would satisfy our requirements, to be sure. Clearly if this hypothesis were held to be true, it would follow that whichever 'rights' this 'creator' 'endowed' would clearly be the only valid rights; all others would be privileges or the like. 
However, what about those of us who don't accept the claim that such a creator exists (atheists, agnostics, etc)? Or that such a creator would bother to delineate rights (deists, wiccans, etc)?
Clearly, since both scientific evidence and reason point us away from the idea of a creator god, a better explanation for rights must be found.
Another explanation for the origin of rights, at least here in the United States, is that they are bestowed by the Constitution. Such a claim can be relatively easily countered by simply asking two questions:
Do non-Americans have rights?
Would your rights go away if the Constitution went away?
Clearly, the answer to the former is 'yes,' and the latter is, 'no.' But these answers drill a hole in the middle of the 'rights come from the Constitution' argument, and for obvious reasons. So, again, this is an inadequate explanation.
Call it arrogant, but I think that I've hit upon an explanation of where natural rights could come from without invoking a supreme being or claiming that they're bestowed by a mutable document.

Imagine A Person Alone
To begin, I'd like you to image a single person alone in the word. For sake of argument, let's imagine that it is today's world; indistinguishable from how the world is right at this moment save for the fact that it is inhabited by one person only.
What may this person decide to do?
Clearly, he or she may decide to write whatever they wish on whatever subject they wish. They may speak whatever words they wish. They may create whatever art they wish, and display it. And so forth.
They may go wherever they wish of their own volition. They may eat whatever foods they choose; those that are available, anyhow. They may wear whatever clothes they choose, whatever ornaments they choose.
Now, let us imagine that this person's world is suddenly populated with many other people but, as yet, there are no governments. What may he or she do now?
Clearly, he or she may enter into mutually-agreed-upon arrangements with other people, including transfers of property or social arrangements such as marital union or sexual congress.
Without going into too much redundant detail, I think that you get the idea.

But What Does This Have To Do With Rights?
If you haven't guessed it already, here it is:
I'm arguing that a 'right' is essentially 'that which a person in isolation or in a society free of government has the liberty to do.'
Now, there are important limitation on what this defines as a 'right' that are worth discussing rather early on.
The first is that this definition doesn't include things which our person has not the ability to do. Our person hasn't the right to suspend the law of gravity and float in the air, because he or she lacks that ability, even in isolation.
The next is that there are certain other things which are not, in this model, 'rights.' For instance, being provided food and shelter are not rights, because a person in isolation must provide these things for him/herself, and in our anarchist model, our person may either provide them for him/herself, or enter into an mutually agreed-upon arrangement to acquire these things. In either case, he has the 'right' to undertake the action which leads to being fed, or sheltered. Yet being fed and sheltered are not themselves rights, among others.

If we assume that this postulate is a valid explanation for where 'rights' come from, then it is rather easy to define, as we have above, what is a right and what isn't.
This comes into sharper focus when we synthesize this idea with the theories of Social Contract as described by, among others, Hobbes, Locke, and Montesqieu.
In a rather brief summary (I encourage you to read the works of the above noted authors if you haven't already for a more detailed, eloquent, and textual exploration of this idea), 'social contract' simply means that governments come about when citizens voluntarily band together for mutual protection and benefit.
An important aspect of this theory is that the people, when doing so, necessarily lose some of their natural rights. They voluntarily give them up in order to acquire things like stability, safety, protection, etc.Viewed this way, we can see that any government is intrinsically a body which abridges some or all natural rights, no matter how virtuous that government may be.
It follows, then, that the best sort of government (when viewed through the lens of liberty) is that which strikes the most economical balance between delivery of these social goods (safety, et al) and the preservation of as many natural rights (i.e. the abridgement of as few natural rights) as possible. In the context of the ideas I outlined above, this means that that government is best which restricts our hypothetical person in isolation the least, all else held equal.

Rights Can Neither Be Created Nor Destroyed
Despite the best efforts of folks on both sides of many debate to claim or assert the contrary, I don't think that natural rights, as described above, may be created or destroyed.
Let's look first at the creation of rights. Can this be done? Well, no. We cannot go back and give our idealized person in isolation any abilities that he or she doesn't already possess and, therefore, we may not give ourselves any new natural rights in the process.
We can, however, acquire new privileges. Privileges may be granted at will, and are limitless in their potential scope and breadth. A government may, if it wishes, provide all of its citizens with the privilege of being given a new car upon graduation from University. However, the granting of this privilege doesn't implicitly or explicitly grant the citizens of this rather generous nation a new 'right.' The distinction is important.
Contrariwise, rights cannot be destroyed either. They may be abridged, true enough. They may be denied. But just as we cannot go into our idealized world of thought experiment and specially endow our person in isolation, we cannot cripple and hobble him, either.
We can, and should, view any attempt to deny people of their natural rights as defined above as immoral, undue, and deride it as such. However, we must remember that we, as humans, still retain those natural rights regardless of whether they are recognized or not and they are, in that sense, inalienable.

You Don't Have The Right...
Clearly, when viewed through this paradigm, there are many 'rights' claimed by all sorts of groups or citizens which are not natural rights in the strictest sense. Now, this is not to say that these principles are not worth protecting as a privilege, just that there is nothing intrinsic about them which dictate a special consideration as immutable or inherent in any way.
An obvious example of this is health care. Many groups around the country have claimed, in my view erroneously, that it is (or ought to be) a right for each citizen to be provided health care throughout his or her life, yet in my view, this is not a right at all (for reasons that, I'm quite certain, are by now clear to you).
It is, however, a privilege which may be a desirable one to bestow on our citizens; at least, upon those who haven't the ability at present to provide it for themselves. That debate is one that can be had, and the fruitful result will hopefully be a policy which is at once economically feasible and compassionate.
Most emphatically, however, this does not bestow any rights! This does not imply that to receive health care is a right! Just that it is a privilege; a privilege which may or may not be granted.
This may sound quotidian or, perhaps, semantic in nature, but I think that it is vastly important to point out which ideals are natural rights and which ones are not.

I hope that, more than anything else, I have inspired you to take a second look at your notions of what constitutes a right and what doesn't, and where those rights really come from.
In the end, I think that liberty and freedom are things worth preserving, and they are ideals which are both increasingly important in our modernizing society and increasingly under attack by those who would seek to profit or gain power at our expense.
I urge you, reader, to identify your rights, and strive however you can to defend and protect them. For they cannot be taken away; they are yours forever; but they can be taken away.
And functionally, that's the same thing.

*Cue the Beastie Boys music*

16 February, 2012

In Defense of Attacking 'Faith'

Those of you who don't already follow Grizwald Grim's blog (the link is in my blogroll) really should. His posts are well-thought-out and very well written. In fact, one of his most recent posts, entitled "Atheism in 2012 - The Faithful Deniers of Faith," is the subject of my own blog post here today.

In his post, Griz delineates a subset of atheists who become abraded when they hear things like the accusation that they have as much faith as any religious group, or that atheism is itself some sort of religion (however interpreted) He goes on to compare this group, which he describes as a disproportionately vocal minority of a minority (as it were), with the various 'Occupy' movements, inasmuch as he claims that they both sense a problem but that they also both lack a coherent answer for how to solve it.

I won't go into great detail here summarizing his excellent article,  but I recommend that you read it immediately after finishing this post in order to retain an understanding of context.

Just What IS Faith?

As Griz, and many other commentators on the subject, have quite accurately noted is that the word 'faith' is, like many words in the English language, one with multiple meanings. If quoted from Dictionary.com (like so many people are wont to do), the definition of faith is:

1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2. belief that is not based on proof
3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion

Key to the discussion here are the slight differences between the various definitions provided. But before we go any further, I would like to interject with what I think is a rather more complete definition of the word, this one taken from the Oxford English Dictionary online. The OED defines faith briefly as, "belief, trust, confidence," and then goes on to say,

[faith is] confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine). In early use, only with reference to religious objects; this is still the prevalent application, and often colors the wider use,"
“[faith is] b
elief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.”

This definition, which also provides some of the context of etiology, is more instructive in the correct meaning of ‘faith’, however it may be used colloquially today.

The point that I wish to make here, in my own rather obtuse way, is that precisely what a word means is in constant flux, and any word’s precise meaning at any one time is highly dependent upon the context in which it is used.
The Functional Definition is the Important One

That having been said, I think that the definition that is most germane to most discussions about the relative merits of faith is the last one, provided by the OED. Discussing the merits and demerits of ‘having confidence and trust in a person or thing’ would be daft, and a waste of almost everyone’s time and effort.
It is also a rather sneaky red-herring, or perhaps a poor attempt at a straw-man, to try to draw the discussion away from the (presumably) generally understood meaning of faith (that is to say, from faith as a ‘confidence… in the truth of a doctrine… [often] with reference to religious objects’ or ‘a belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority’) to a rather unrelated definition of faith as some benign confidence or trust in another. Clearly, the readers understand which meaning of faith is intended, and germane, and to draw the discussion away from this definition by proffering another that is technically correct but contextually incorrect is fallacious at best, malicious at worst.

For the purposes of this discussion, as well as any other that I participate in on faith, I think that it is no great leap to assume that you, dear reader, will know quite well which definition of faith that I am referring to, and which I am not.

The Fallacies of Defending Faith

Since it flows rather conveniently from my above point, I would like to take a moment to outline some of the more egregious fallacies that I have found often come up during a discussion of faith, address them each in turn, and then proceed to dismissing them altogether.

Usually, the first objection proffered when I criticize faith is a decidedly droll comment along the lines of, “You criticize it, but you yourself have faith. You have faith that you won’t fall through the chair when you sit down in it [et cetera, et al, ad infinitum…].” Whilst this objection may or may not be true (for a further discussion on the issue, please refer to my blog entry entitled ‘Do We Need Faith?’), it nevertheless commits the fallacy of tu quoque, itself a subtype of the ad hominem fallacy. Essentially, this fallacy is committed when, instead of addressing my argument, the respondent addresses my person; in this case, specifically when they cry ‘yeah, well, you do it too!’ For those not fluent, ‘tu quoque’ transliterates into ‘you too.’

I mentioned it above, but I think that the red herring fallacy deserves a bit more attention, since it is at once subtle and prevalent. Briefly defined, a red herring occurs when the respondent attempts to ever so slightly divert the argument (and discussion) away from the issue at hand and onto a related, but distinct, issue in an attempt to divert the argument away from the point they wish to defend. It gets its name, illustratively, from the practice of dragging a reeking herring fish across a scent path to throw off a bloodhound.

This fallacy occurs all the time, but in the scope of this post, it tends to crop up when I attempt to pin down precisely what faith is, and is not. In order to really criticize something; in order to really attack it; one must first immobilize it. One can far more easily direct the artillery of argument at a stationary target than a fluid and moving one. The defenders of faith seem to know this, consciously or instinctually, and so they consistently resist my attempts at defining faith in general, or their faiths in particular. This is a red herring, and nothing more, and should rightly be dismissed as such.
The final fallacy which I will address specifically here, but by no means the only other fallacy committed in the course of discussions about faith, is the fallacy of the straw man. Time and time again, my arguments are intentionally misrepresented in a rather grotesque and exaggerated manner in order to present a better target for response. 

Claiming that I advocate the repression of religious freedoms, that I intend to abolish religion, or that I find faithful people to be evil (as has been done) is just a rather obvious attempt at redefining my argument as something which it is not. At no point have I made any of the above (rather absurd) arguments; I have only claimed that faith itself is a detrimental mental process, and one which ought to be avoided.

Critique of 'Atheism As Faith' 

Related to each of these fallacies is the counterclaim often posited by the fine folks whom I am often at-odds-with over the issue of faith. This counterclaim comes in two distinct subsets, each of which I will deal with in turn.
The first is that it requires more ‘faith’ to ‘believe’ in atheism than it does to believe in (insert your pet religious dogma here). This is patently incorrect for two independent, yet mutually damning, reasons.

The first reason is rather quotidian, so I need not enter into a long elaboration. The definition of atheism, when one breaks down the word syllabically, is ‘without a belief in god.’ It most emphatically does not mean a belief in the lack of a god, or any other perturbation of those words. It means, quite literally, to be without a belief in god. Therefore, an atheist is one who lacks a belief in god.

I understand that I am repeating myself a bit here, but that is only because the point is so important. Atheism is not a positive statement of belief, it is rather a lack thereof. Consequently, one cannot have faith in atheism, since atheism is not a belief in which faith could be placed.
The second reason that claiming that atheism requires more faith than religion is so absurd is that observational, experimental, and logical evidence all lines up in favor of one and in denial of the other. The simple fact is that faith, the confidence in an idea based upon testimony or authority, is simply not necessary to deny religion, yet is absolutely necessary to accept it. It is religion, not atheism, which requires the buttressing of faith.

Which brings us right along to the second counterclaim; that is, that one must have faith in atheism, as one must have faith in any idea that one holds to be true.

The error this statement commits should now be obvious to you. This is a blatant attempt to use the wrong definition of faith. Clearly, yes, one must have confidence in the efficacy and truth of one’s ideas as a matter of course in holding them to be true. This much is a tautology. But the definition of faith that one would commonly understand to be the one in use when discussing religious issues is the confidence due to authority or testimony and a belief that is not based on truth

To use any other definition of faith, explicitly or implicitly, is to not only miss the point, but is also to derail the discussion from productivity to mere point-and-counterpoint semantic quibbling.

Moving Toward a Better Understanding of Faith as a Whole

Obviously, the issue of faith; the question of whether or not it is a good thing; is one which is not to be resolved definitively anytime soon. There is a lot at stake on either side, and each side has a vociferous and committed advocacy.
I think that in order for us to genuinely move forward constructively on the issue, both sides must be willing to approach the discussion with a modicum of decorum and maturity. Part of that decorum must include a mutual willingness to avoid ad hominem attacks of all kinds, and part of that maturity must include a mutual willingness to understand which meaning of a word like faith, which has so many different meanings, is being used.

Clearly, the word ‘faith’ has a different meaning to different people. It also has a different meaning depending on the context in which it is used. Approaching each discussion with the time-honored dictum of seeking first to understand and then to be understood will go a long way toward healing some of the misunderstanding that has regrettably taken place on all sides. 

Uniting Under a Common Banner 

Within the atheist circle, there is a related split; one which Grizwald so clearly delineates in his own blog posts of late. Summarily, there is a widening gulf between atheists of a more benign tack who simply disbelieve in god, and those of us with an admittedly more caustic approach to religion- not simply disbelieving it, but refusing to draw parallels between it and ourselves.

Each has its own validity, and refereeing between them is a role which I don’t intend to take with this post. However, I think that whilst there are very key differences between all atheists (just as there are among all theists), I likewise think that our similarities outweigh these differences.

If we come together as a confederation of reason, and agree that whilst our specific ideas regarding the role of faith in belief, and the goodness or badness of faith itself, may differ widely, our common commitment to reason and skepticism as a means toward understanding the universe will surely serve to bridge those (largely semantic) chasms. 

Why I’m Still Going To Attack Faith

All of that ecumenical rhetoric aside, I would like to make it clear that I intend to continue to decry faith as an outmoded, unnecessary, hugely inaccurate, and potentially very dangerous method of attaining truth. I see faith as a detriment to our modern society, and as I would any other detrimental poison, I intend to criticize it and publically denounce it.

Faith, in the religious sense, is an evil, and the sooner that we recognize it as such and begin the long, uphill battle toward replacing it with reason, the better off that we will be.


This blog, while not specifically intended as a criticism of faith, has certainly laid the groundwork for such an assault. I encourage you, reader, to begin thinking critically about every idea that you hold to be true, and ask yourself a few questions:

1. Why do I hold this idea to be true?
2. Do I hold this idea to be potentially falsifiable?
3. What would it take for me to abandon or modify this idea?
4. What process led me to this idea- reason? Intuition? Faith? Some other process?

In doing so, I think you will find that there are ideas that each of us hold true that we shouldn’t; ideas which we hold true that need more support of some kind or another.

It is only through this sort of introspection that we can begin to systematically and categorically eliminate the bias of faith from our beliefs and begin to reach a reasoned, rational understanding of the universe.

03 January, 2012

Do We Need Faith?

The topic that I wish to discuss here is, obviously, faith. I wrote this in response to an argument that I often hear that is phrased in a few different ways. The core of this argument is either that we all have faith in something or another, or that statement's corollary, that we need faith/cannot live life without some sort of faith.

This line of thinking is deeply troublesome to me, for several reasons. But before we launch into my critique of the argument, let us first examine an example of how it is usually brought up in discussion, typically with some form of religious adherent or another (all of these statements have actually been observed):
There's just one question that you have to ask
yourself. Is that car going to stay in it's lane, or
not? Well? Do you feel faithful, punk?
Well, do ya?

'Everybody has faith in something or another. I have faith in God. You have faith that there is no God. You have faith that the oncoming drivers will stay in their lane and not swerve over into yours. You have faith that when you sit down in a chair that it will support your weight. We cannot avoid having faith, therefore, we all have faith. And since we all have faith, faith is (and here is where it can differ) a good thing (or) an intrinsic part of being human that cannot be avoided.'

At first glance, this seems like a legitimate counter to (my) claims that faith is something which is to be avoided, and something which is not desirable as a part of the cognitive processes in the quest toward truth. If, in fact, we all have some sort of faith, then clearly faith cannot be avoided. And (and this is the unspoken part which is perhaps the most incisive of all) since we must use faith in our everyday life to navigate our environment (think: the chair, the drivers), faith can be a valid path toward truth.

First, we must unfortunately play the semantics game. I find myself constantly having to pin down the definition of what the word 'faith' means in the context of these discussions. So, here it is, once more:
Faith is a noun. It means a belief that was formed in the absence of evidence and/or experience, or that is held despite evidence and/or experience to the contrary, regardless of whether that evidence and/or experience was available at the time the belief was formed.
Important to note here is that at no point does that definition include mention of superstition, religion, deities, et al., and so therefore I do not consider a belief in such to automatically be faiths (though they often are).

So, on to the refutation. Do we all have faith?

1. Must we have faith?

I wonder if this boy is aware of the philosophical
ramifications of his chair-sitting
To specifically address the example with the chair (again, because the chair example seem to be the one which is trotted out time and again, but I digress...), I submit the following:

I do not have faith that the chair holds me up. More precisely, even if I choose to have faith that the chair will do so, I don't need to have that faith, and I can operate just fine without that faith. But how?

I see the chair in front of me. I have learned, through the course of my life (trillions of repetitions) that I can generally trust my eyesight's reliability (especially when it comes to recognizing chairs and other solid objects). Ergo, I can rationalize my decision to rely on the information my eyes are giving me; in this case, that there is a chair in front of me.

As I sit down on this chair, placing my weight upon it, I do so because through years and years of repeated experience I have learned that the solid objects in the world around me tend to be impermeable to my body. I also know why this is so (it has to do with the Pauli exclusion principle), but that is not necessary. It is enough that I have repeated (at least) tens of thousand of what might be called experiments, and in each, my body has failed to pass through a solid object (though it has, in some cases, broken them).

Now, you might ask, what about the first time that one comes upon a chair? With no prior knowledge, isn't that first experiment; the first time that one sits in a chair; a leap of faith? Even if we discount every instance when we encounter a solid object from birth to that moment, we can still rationalize that sitting in a chair is safe. We see other people do it all the time, with no deleterious effect. We can reason that such an object was created for a purpose, and that that purpose appears to be for sitting. There are literally dozens of ways that one could figure out that a chair is most likely safe for seating without having to recourse to faith.

I feel like I'm exhausting the point, but I want to be absolutely clear that no faith is required for that particular example.

We can then proceed with argument by analogy that faith is not necessary in any circumstance. An open challenge that a few acquaintances and I have formed seeks to find some instance when faith is incontrovertibly necessary. No challenges have succeeded. Faith just isn't necessary.

That is not to say, however, that faith is impossible or that faith is necessarily undesirable. Clearly, one could simply have faith that the chair will bear his or her weight. But, and this is a crucial 'but,' they don't have to. They could, should they choose, use reason. And since we can always use reason instead of faith, faith is not necessary.

This is really only possible because we have a fortunate consistency in physical laws and the observations thereof. No matter where we look in the universe, and no matter how many times we repeat an experiment, we always see the same laws of nature. It is this consistency, and our experience therewith, that allows us collectively and individually to accumulate knowledge and make accurate predictions about the future.

Including that the damned chair will hold up my weight No faith need be involved.

2. Is faith good?

Now that we have established that faith is not necessary, an important question comes up: is faith desirable? Since we have a choice between faith and reason (and guessing, for that matter), what is the best choice for a route toward truth?

Clearly, both faith and reason seek to discover (or establish) precisely what is true and what isn't. However, the two processes, faith and reason, are drastically different in their approach.

Faith, as we defined earlier, is a belief (about what is/isn't true) formed without evidence or held in spite of evidence. In other words, one simply makes an assumption about what is true, and stops there. Often, this assumption is guided by one's desires to see something be true. Other times, it is based upon what one is told is true. Rarely, it is based upon previous experiences. In each case, the core process is the same: an assertion is made and that is where the process stops.

Reason, on the other hand, begins with an assumption [in this case called a hypothesis] but then move on to testing and modification. The hypothesis is tested with logic and/or experiment and modified according to the results of that test. To put it another way, one begins with an assumption. Then, that assumption is checked for logical soundness and validity. Next, that assumption is tested in some sort of experiment in which it's truth can be directly tested. Finally, the results of those checks and experiments are used to modify the original assumption into a new one.

But the process is not over. The new assumption, the result of modification based upon testing and checking, and now called a 'theory,' is now fed back in to the beginning of the entire chain and the cycle starts anew. Through this process, an idea is constantly refined and modified in relentless pursuit of truth.

At any point along the continuum, the resulting theory is better than the assumption/hypothesis that we begin with. Whether a theory has been fed through the cycle once or one thousand times, it is necessarily closer to the truth than it was to begin with. This is why reason is superior to faith.

Faith has the potential to get the right answer, but contains no mechanism for self-correction or even of verification. When one uses faith, one has no real way of knowing whether or not that faith is true, nor of correcting if it is not. Essentially, the best that faith can do is an educated guess; a shot in the dark.

Without delving into morals (which would provide another plank in the case against faith), we can demonstrate that it [faith] is inferior to reason as a path to truth. So, in the end, no. Faith is not preferable to reason in any case. Faith is not good.