Thursday, January 30, 2014

Thoughts on language

Have you ever considered the way that language, and the use of certain words, can shape our behavior, and the way we view ourselves and the world? The words we choose to use are powerful tools, which can have unforeseen effects on the people who hear those words. Or perhaps, very foreseen.

Consider a couple examples, starting with "Pro-life" vs. "pro-choice." Whoever coined the term "pro-life" may have been a genius, because that is a brilliant piece of marketing. Most people don't have a problem with the idea of having choices, and the ability to make our own decisions, at least in general. But holy cow, frame it as life vs. choice!? Guess which one will get a visceral response that just says "winner!" Most people will emotionally tip the balance towards "life," (as well they probably should) and say that choice is great, but this time there isn't one. Now, if they look past that initial reaction, they might come to a different conclusion, but that visceral reaction is still powerful, still an obstacle to overcome for anyone wishing to argue for the pro-choice side of things.

Or, let me take one that affected me directly while growing up (although I didn't realize it until years later). I'm smart. I'm not a genius, and have met plenty of people smarter than me (that was humbling at first), but I'm still smarter than average in certain broad areas. Unfortunately, I've not done a great deal with the potential I have. This can be traced --in part, at least-- to what I was told as I was growing up: "You're smart, Nathan."

Well, I somehow got the idea that smart people don't study. New concepts and ideas are supposed to come easily to smart people, which means a smart person shouldn't need to take the time to read, re-read, and take notes, and everything else that people do when they study. A smart person shouldn't need to practice at intellectual skills. A smart person doesn't need to put forth effort.

That's all complete bullshit, of course, but's that the thought that I got into my head without realizing it. I only remember ever hearing how smart I was. I don't remember being praised or encouraged because of my effort in any scholastic endeavors, only in Track and Field type activities where you get those participation ribbons just for being there. As a result, I rarely studied. I rarely re-read texts for school, and rarely took notes that I wasn't required to as part of a grade. When I was forced to study, I always felt that I had somehow failed. I was supposed to be smart, yet I found myself needing to study to understand or remember something. And since I considered "smart" to be a part of my very identity, this meant that I had failed at being me.

How's that for a mindfuck? It was only in my adult years that I started realizing how wrong I was, and that even smart people need to put forth some effort. Ideally, when I was growing up the focus should have been on my efforts, and not just how "smart" I was.* Even today, even knowing that smart people need to put forth effort, I still get a twinge of those old feelings of failure when I study, or when I don't understand something right off the bat. My notetaking and study skills absolutely suck. Rationally, I know better. Subconsciously, I apparently haven't fully accepted that effort matters.

I figured out that problem on my own in early adulthood, and then sometime later discovered that actual research backed up my personal experience. 
According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.
Google "smart vs effort" for other articles.

All this is a long way of saying that language matters. The specific words we use to describe people and ideas can have effects that we may not recognize immediately, if ever. You can see this when politicians choose their words, and when advertisers choose their words. Or, study some poetry, especially the kind that requires limiting the number of words used. I suspect you'll find yourself paying close attention to the connotations of individual words, trying to get across as much information in as little space as possible.

For myself, if I should ever have the privilege of raising a child, I think I'll be using words like "hard worker" instead of  "smart" when I'm giving them praise.

*Lest anyone think I'm criticizing the people who influenced me as a child -family, teachers, etc- I'm not. I don't think there's any reason to believe that they would have known better, or could have anticipated the results.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

And I'm done

I left therapy today. After thinking about it, and discussing it further with my therapist today, I decided not to schedule another appointment. My therapist was in full agreement with my decision. I'm not reading the way I used to, but I'm cool with that. It's likely that my reading interests are simply changing a bit, and I just haven't figured out how. I don't need therapy to work on that. So now I just need to work with my psychiatrist on the med side of things, and decide how we're going to proceed there. At the moment, I'm thinking of continuing with the Lunesta for sleep assistance, as I still sometimes have problems with that, but we'll see.

Speaking of sleep, I'm looking forward to not getting up early to make my appointments. Hurray!

Monday, January 27, 2014


Yea, I know, I'm being introspective again. Deal with it.

The past few days I've been rather strongly feeling that I would like to go back to school. I used to be in college, but due to issues like not getting my schoolwork done, I never actually finished. My major was English: Writing, with a minor in Philosophy at Winona State University. I doubt I could use that as any sort of base to build on however, as I was on academic probation when I dropped out (or was it suspension? I honestly don't remember which).

Regardless, the past isn't really the issue here. The future and the present are. Financially, I wouldn't be able to afford it without financial aid. If I could do that, I'd already be signed up to take online philosophy courses with Dan Fincke, which is cheaper than actual college courses for college credit (check that link if you're interested in philosophy, and learning about it with an actual Ph.D. who's left the usual college scene behind; I highly suspect it's worth it). So, I'd be putting myself into further debt due to student loans. This is probably a bad thing, given that I'm still paying on the previous student loans, and Mrs S.T. and I are trying to expand our family.

There's also the job thing. I still want to study writing and philosophy, and that's just not a promising career path. That's the kind of path where you have to work at something else while hoping to get a break. On one hand, that's perfectly fine. I don't want to go back to school to get a different job, I want to go back because I enjoyed the schooling process, and would like to improve myself in my areas of interest. I would even look forward to some of the electives, as my interests are not confined to writing and philosophy (psychology, social sciences, etc). On the other hand, it doesn't seem like a wise decision to go into debt simply to satisfy that itch for learning. That's an expensive itch to scratch!

There's also the pride factor. Depression and laziness kept me from finishing my schooling the first time around. I'd really like to prove, to myself at least, that I can earn a degree. I'm not proud of how my time at WSU ended, though I do realize that it was the right decision at the time. I was not in the right head space to continue with the classes (even if the administration would have let me). To that extent, I suppose the past is part of the issue here.

So, to sum up, reasons to go back include: self-improvement, further learning, and pride. Reasons not to go back: debt. Oh, I guess that's only one reason not to. Too bad it's such a big one.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Positive case for helping the homeless

I want to see if I can make more of a positive case for helping out the homeless (<< -- see that link for background) with free housing, as opposed to things like criminalizing homelessness or sleeping in public. To do this, I'm going to see if I can draw on empowerment ethics to show that it's more rational (not to mention compassionate) to provide even no-strings-attached assistance. I'll also explore a couple of other ways to look at the issue.

Empowerment Ethics.
It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully flourish while living on the streets of a country like America. Mere survival becomes a struggle, as one's thoughts must be directed to finding food and shelter before even considering the possibility of being empowered to the best of one's abilities, and thus being a functioning and flourishing member of society. Those of us who can simply walk to the fridge to grab a snack, and who don't have to wonder where we will sleep tonight, have the privilege of being able to think beyond mere survival in a way that the homeless generally cannot. We can focus on empowering ourselves.

But to empower ourselves to maximal effectiveness is only possible if we empower others. When we empower others, their flourishing is an expression of our own power to the extent that our own power was used to empower them. If we're trying to concentrate only on ourselves, we will never reach the full power we are capable of attaining. Thus, it is not only more rational to help out others when we can, it is an ethical obligation.

Not everyone is in a position to directly help out the homeless, but if we support programs that do, even if all the support we are able to offer is voting for officials who support such programs, then to that extent our power is extended through the people that those programs help. Giving a free apartment to the homeless provides them with an excellent foundation to build on, allowing them to think beyond mere survival. When able to think, and more importantly act, beyond the mere needs of survival, people can begin to think and act in ways that lead them to genuine flourishing, and to the empowerment and flourishing of those around them, i.e., society in general. In other words, by helping the homeless to flourish, we help ourselves to flourish. It's therefore in our own interest to help, as well as being the compassionate thing to do, and the thing that respects the dignity of the less privileged (for how can it respect their dignity to leave them in such straits when we can help?). 

Golden Rule.
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I've always thought that the Golden Rule was a decent place to start thinking about ethics, even if it's not an end point. Well, let's consider it in connection with helping out the homeless. Obviously, many would be happy to have someone give them a free home (anyone care to pay off my mortgage?), but I do realize that there are plenty of others who would only want that home if they felt they had earned it.

And there's a sense of pride in me that can understand exactly where such a sentiment comes from. Gifts can be nice at holidays and birthdays, but at other times, it's more than nice to know that you were able to use your own skills, abilities, and effort to to procure food, money, medical help, shelter, and all the other nice things that people want and need. There's a sense of accomplishment that can go with this, perhaps of challenges conquered, and proof that "have what it takes."

So it makes sense when looking at "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" that some would say "ok, I want to earn the good things that come to me, and not rely on free stuff, so I will treat others the same, and not give them things --at least major, important things-- for free. Birthday gifts and such, sure, but not the major stuff."

For some, this rises to the level of a moral imperative, which would seem to rule out the option of giving the homeless free apartments that they get to keep, even if they fail to become self-sufficient. To which I would like to offer the phrase: "pay it forward."

"Earning it" seems to be something that people only think of in the sense of "first." That is, they feel they must earn the good things before they can have the good things. But in some situations, that becomes nearly impossible, if not actually impossible. Homelessnes, I contend, is sometimes one of these cases. And in such cases, I suggest that "earning it" can be done after the fact. Once an individual has a solid foundation to build on, i.e., shelter, one can begin the actual process of actually earning it ("pay it forward") by getting work (if that's an option for you), and giving back to society. Take your good fortune, and use your abilities and effort to help others (or even just spend your new money to help the economy keep moving --but don't forget to take care of yourself as well), and in this way, earn that good fortune. Karma isn't real, so sometimes we need to make our own "karma."

And this, I think, is part of the reasoning behind the Utah plan of providing a caseworker, along with the home, to assist the previously homeless person in becoming self-sufficient (or at least as self-sufficient as it's possible to be without being a hermit who lives completely off the land). It's giving a platform from which they can actually work toward earning that home. I doubt these homes are extravagant affairs, nor do I see any reason why they should be. A basic efficiency apartment would be enough to let someone stand up and cross the starting line of being a productive citizen.

Yes, some will fail in that endeavor. Life is full of risks, and that is one of them in a project that gives away housing. But if we're going to follow the Golden Rule in this matter, I thing that is a risk that needs to be taken.  

Utilitarian Happiness.
Some forms of utilitarianism state that the only intrinsic good is Happiness, and that the moral action is whatever action results in a net gain of Happiness in the world. I am likely missing some subtleties, but based on those two simple premises, it is not hard to see that assisting the homeless, including by providing free housing, is most likely to result in a net gain of happiness for the world. Not only is it apparently cheaper than alternatives which basically criminalize being homeless, but it is very likely to reduce the suffering of most (if not all) of those who benefit from such programs.

The most obvious reduction in suffering (which would lead to a net gain in happiness) is in keeping one protected from the elements, and eliminating the stress that can come from not knowing where you're going to sleep that night. Less obvious, perhaps, is the mental illness factor. Many of the homeless are mentally ill, with things like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. Being on the streets makes it more difficult to deal with such things. Having an apartment won't cure mental illness, of course, but it does provide an opportunity to reduce some of the stress that frequently contributes to the symptoms of mental illness, making it worse. With a reduction in the symptoms comes the opportunity to concentrate on other things that potentially can help in mitigating symptoms, such as therapy, meds, and possibly even getting a job and socializing (anecdotaley, having a reason to get up in the morning can be very helpful).

All in all, I really can't see much of a reason not to provide housing assistance if the goal is either a reduction of suffering, or an increase in happiness (two very similar things).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fun with religious Facebook memes

A couple of times today I saw the following meme on Facebook. I figured I would annotate some of my thoughts in red, just for fun.
Me: God, can I ask You a question?
God: Sure [Holy shit, God actually speaks??]
Me: Promise You won't get mad
God: I promise
Me: Why did You let so much stuff happen to me today? [what sort of bad shit we got going on?]
God: What do u mean?
Me: Well, I woke up late [annoying, sure; did the alarm not go off?]
God: Yes
Me: My car took forever to start
God: Okay
Me: at lunch they made my sandwich wrong & I had to wait [....]
God: Huummm
Me: On the way home, my phone went DEAD, just as I picked up a call
God: All right
Me: And on top of it all off, when I got home ~I just want to soak my feet in my new foot massager & relax. BUT it wouldn't work!!! Nothing went right today! Why did You do that? [I realize that all these things would annoy me too, but still, can I just say: first world problems?]
God: Let me see, the death angel was at your bed this morning & I had to send one of My Angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep through that [so, the death angel isn't in your employ, God? who knew?]
Me (humbled): OH
GOD: I didn't let your car start because there was a drunk driver on your route that would have hit you if you were on the road. [wait . . . why'd you let the drunk driver get in the car in the first place?]
Me: (ashamed)
God: The first person who made your sandwich today was sick & I didn't want you to catch what they have, I knew you couldn't afford to miss work. [So cure the sickness already. Why let that poor worker suffer?]
Me (embarrassed):Okay [you're embarrassed at these lame excuses, right?]
God: Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was going to give false witness about what you said on that call, I didn't even let you talk to them so you would be covered. [you know God, couldn't you have just told this "Me" person the score then, and let them make decide if they wanted to talk? and maybe chat with the would-be-liar about why they shouldn't lie?]
Me (softly): I see God
God: Oh and that foot massager, it had a shortage that was going to throw out all of the power in your house tonight. I didn't think you wanted to be in the dark. [soooo, how about fixing the foot massager instead? should be easy for you, right?]
Me: I'm Sorry God
God: Don't be sorry, just learn to Trust Me.... in All things , the Good & the bad. [you're not giving me a lot of confidence here]
Me: I will trust You. [sigh]
God: And don't doubt that My plan for your day is Always Better than your plan. [and again, but you're not filling me with a lot of confidence here]
Me: I won't God. And let me just tell you God, Thank You for Everything today. [double sigh]
God: You're welcome child. It was just another day being your God and I Love looking after My Children [but apparently not in the most efficient ways]

Ok, I admit. Low hanging fruit. But this isn't the first time I've seen a similar fictional conversation, and some people treat it like great wisdom. That bothers me.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Utah's doing what? Awesome!

It's not often I get excited about a news article, but today there's this:

How did Utah accomplish this? Simple. Utah solved homelessness by giving people homes. In 2005, Utah figured out that the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail says for homeless people was about $16,670 per person, compared to $11,000 to provide each homeless person with an apartment and a social worker. So, the state began giving away apartments, with no strings attached. Each participant in Utah’s Housing First program also gets a caseworker to help them become self-sufficient, but the keep the apartment even if they fail. The program has been so successful that other states are hoping to achieve similar results with programs modeled on Utah’s.

They've reduced homelessness by 78%, and are on track to eliminate it by next year. This is so awesome!

I could stop there, but I want to respond to one argument that I know (because I've already seen it) some will use to object to this idea (even though it makes fiscal sense). Namely, "so now the homeless will have no incentive to get a job." Bullshit.

Maybe you know this, but I've been homeless before. I've also had times where I had a home, but was barely scraping by. And let me tell you, there's always incentive to get a job, or a better job. Why? Because basic survival just isn't enough, at least for most people. There's things like wanting good food, instead of just Ramen for supper. There's wanting the resources to go out with friends, or the resources to go out and meet new friends. There's wanting nice clothes --not fancy designer clothes, just nice clothes. There's a variety of ways that people want to enrich their lives, and in this case, a free apartment is only step one. That gets you shelter, and that's it.

But that first step can help a lot. When people have basic needs met, and aren't spending all their time wondering where their next bite of food will come from, or where they're going to sleep, they can actually consider things like: what do I need to do to find a job, so I can improve my life? If mentally ill (as I was), it can make it easier (by a lot) to concentrate on whatever needs doing to get better, or at least manage your symptoms. And a large number of the homeless are mentally ill.

Getting off the street took a large worry of my mind. Without that in my head, I could devote more attention to getting better, which lead to having the motivation (as opposed to just incentive) to do job searching (when you're down far enough, motivation is in short supply, and it's easier to just take whatever the hell comes your way, and hope it doesn't kill you), which lead to getting a job, and more importantly, being able to hold that job.

Oh, and one more thing. Would I support this even if none of that were true (along with other things I haven't talked about)? Damn straight I would. No one should have to live on the street.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Thoughts on medication for depression

Once upon a time, in an age long ago (19, to be exact), I didn't want medication. I was living alone for the first time, depressed, suicidal, and in therapy, but I feared that by taking medications, which were meant to alter my brain chemistry, that I would be artificially changing who I was. I would be changing my personality (I thought), and I had no idea what that would mean.

In truth, when looking back I'm not certain that I even wanted to get better, at least on some level. On a rational level, I knew I wasn't healthy, and that I needed help. But on a more visceral level I think that I couldn't imagine not being depressed, and couldn't see such a state as a better version of me, but rather only as someone else entirely. In my mind at the time, I think that I believed that if the medication worked, I would no longer be me, but rather a different person. It took some serious scares in the suicide department for me to really consider taking the meds, and some major persuasive efforts on the part of my therapist, to make me willing to actually take them. She explained that the pills wouldn't change who I am, but would only fix the chemical imbalance in my brain so that the therapy could start to actually work. For some reason that I don't remember, it still wasn't until I was back living with my folks that I got medication for the first time.

Fast forward to my current bout of depression. Getting meds this time was not an issue for me. I've occasionally been reluctant since that first time to get medicated, but that's because I haven't always wanted to admit that I was depressed again. This time though, once I recognized it, I wasn't reluctant at all to admit it. Nor was I reluctant to get medicated, once the need for it was clear. I've come to appreciate medication.

I hadn't really thought about why until a few months back, when I was starting to improve again, an acquaintance asked me some probing questions about how I was doing, and my attitude towards the meds (she also asked some probing questions about polyamory, but I guess that's not really relevant). It was then I first articulated what had apparently been in the back of my mind.

I am not my depression, anymore than I am my bad back or bad eyesight. It's an illness, a broken brain, if you will. It is, however, an illness that can make it difficult --sometimes impossible-- to be the real me. Like a runner with a broken leg, I can't do what I do, be who I am, when the depression is in full force. Meds are the cast for a broken mind, allowing me to heal. They don't remove the real me, they let the real me shine through, acting as support where needed. Ideally, sure, I'll get to a point where I don't need them again (for a while, at least), but in the meantime, I'm here in part because of the medication that let's me be me.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Possibly the most disgusting thing I've read in a while

There are some things that have the power to evoke instant disgust in me, and force me to remind myself that at least some parts of the world are making progress in morality. Here's one of them:
Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has refused to ratify a bill that seeks to partially criminalize marital rape, calling it “un-Islamic.” 
The parliament voted 67-2 last month to limit a husband’s right to have non-consensual sex with his wife. The bill says a husband cannot force his wife to have sex if the couple have filed for divorce, dissolution or mutual separation, and if the intent is to transmit a sexual disease.
So much wrong here. 2 people voted against it, wrong (should've been zero). It's an extraordinarily narrow bill, wrong. And then the President of Maldive goes and vetoes it, and the vice-president has this to say:
“With the exception of forbidden forms of sexual intercourse, such as during menstrual periods and anal intercourse, it is not permissible under any circumstance for a woman to refrain from it when the husband is in need,” Latheef said.
Wow. Hey, Mrs. Salo Tumberg! Did you know that you're my property? On your knees! Oh, wait, you're actually a human being with you're own wants, needs, thoughts, emotions, and consciousness? Well, shit! Then what the hell is going on in Maldive??

Think it's isolated to some guy in power? Nope.
A 2007 government study found that more than 92 percent of Maldivian women believe a good wife obeys her husband even if she disagrees with him. Nearly 30 percent of respondents also said a husband can beat his wife if she refuses sex.
The Maldives drew global criticism last February after a juvenile court sentenced a 15-year old girl — who was raped by her stepfather — to 100 lashes on charges of fornication. The ruling was overturned by a higher court six months later.

Friday, January 17, 2014

When will I be done with therapy?

That's what my therapist asked me in my last session. When will I know that I'm done with therapy?

It should be as simple an answer as "when I'm no longer depressed." But how, exactly, do I know for sure that it's (at least for a while) over? When I first started therapy there were certain symptoms that I (with some help) identified that concerned me most:

  • Low motivation to write, as in, none. This despite the satisfaction I received from it, and the associated intellectual stretching. 
  • Lack of interest in socializing. 
  • Poor mood (of course; it practically goes without saying)
  • Lack of interest in reading.
Since starting therapy and getting on meds, I've improved greatly. Obviously (at least if you check my recent blog output compared to the past year), I'm writing more, and with it, thinking more. My interest in socializing has returned, and my mood has greatly increased (I still have those days, but who doesn't?).

However, my interest in reading hasn't properly returned yet. I've done a little bit of fiction reading lately, but it's just not grabbing me and sucking me in like it used to. And these are books that I looked forward to when I bought them, from authors and series that I enjoy! I've been a bibliophile ever since I first learned to read, and the last I counted, I had over 400 books before I gave up counting. If my wife saw me reading, she knew that she would have trouble getting my attention, because my mind was in another world. I'd sometimes (often) forget about little inconveniences like food, drink, and using the bathroom. In past depressive episodes, I retained my interest in reading, sometimes to my detriment as I would use it as an escape from real-life problems that needed dealing with.

So, am I bothered that my interest has not fully returned yet? Oh, yes. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm surprised it wasn't the first thing to return. In some ways, I don't quite know what to make of myself without reading being a regular feature of my life.

But, do I really need to have that fully back to what it was in the past, in order to say that I'm beyond this particular episode of depression, and can leave therapy? Can I just take what I've got, enjoy what I've got, and move on with my life, letting the reading return or not as it will?

I don't know.

I should note that mostly I'm thinking of fiction reading, usually fantasy or sci fi. I've been reading a bit more in terms of articles and blog posts. So maybe my interest is returning, just not in the manner that I expect.

Now there's an interesting thought to ponder.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

In which I try to understand Dan Fincke's empowerment ethics

In recent weeks I've been reading the work of Dr. Dan Fincke, who blogs at "Camels with Hammers," specifically some of his work regarding his views on what makes for an ethical life. I've been doing this because I respect Dan as a very nuanced, critical thinker, and I want to see if his specific meta-ethics are something I would agree with. I've frequently been flying by the seat of my pants when it comes to moral issues, trying to use basic empathy as a starting point when things seemed murky (and then a bunch of thinking), and it's occurred  to me that I don't necessarily have a solid meta-ethical system to work with.

I've long thought that some form of objective morality, that would be appropriate in all times and cultures, exists and is discoverable by reason. I am somewhat familiar with other attempts to do this, for example, utilitarianism, but the ones I'm aware of all seem to fall flat for one reason or another. I thought Sam Harris had something going for him by claiming that the moral good is whatever allows for the greatest well-being (in The Moral Landscape), but while there are some good things in that book, the basic premise I describe was never properly argued for, and criticisms seemed spot on.  I would still recommend reading the book.

I don't want to get bogged down in discussing the other ethical systems at this point, so let's just take it as given that the ones I know of have not been compellingly argued to me, and get right to looking at this empowerment ethics. I'm going to try and explain, as best I can right now, the premise and argument behind empowerment ethics, using my own words where possible, and then some applications of it that have occurred to me. How easy or difficult that is will give me some idea of how well I'm understanding Dan's work -- or perhaps just an idea of how carefully he chose his own words.

Warning: given how much he's written on this subject, this will only be a summary, at best. I very highly recommend reading the source material, multiple times if needed (I've reread more than one his posts more than once in this effort). You can start here, or if you just want to read one thing, read My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications to Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People


First off, everything (and everyone, obviously) that exists does so through, or rather as, it's various functions, or the things that it does. Water is water because it has water functions and properties. This is simply an objective fact. Fire is because it functions as fire, with sub-functions at the chemical level adding up to, well, fire. When you start getting various functions together, more complex functions will emerge, creating new things. So, water plus sufficient sunlight gets water vapor, which combines with the atmosphere to create clouds, which are clouds because they function as clouds. In a similar (though generally more complex manner), water can combine with other things to function as bacteria, insects, plants, dogs, and humans. We are human because we function in a human fashion, composed of numerous sub-functions. To function well as humans means to function effectively as humans.

When we speak of something being good, we're actually talking about it being effective. If a car is a good car, that means it's effective at being a car, and performing the various sub-functions that make up a car, such as providing power to the wheels, protecting passengers in crashes, efficient use of gas, etc (and you can break all those down into further sub-functions). If it gets good gas mileage, that means it's effective at using the gas it has efficiently. If it has good tires, that means it has effective tires that contribute to the overall effectiveness of the car (effective/good traction in various weather conditions, no leaking of air, etc). And so on. Obviously, something can be more or less effective at being what it is (good car vs bad car vs it's-ok car).

So, in other words, goodness = effectiveness. The more effective something is at being it's function (in other words, just being itself), the better it is. To be a good person then, would be to be an effective person. That seems a weird way to speak of it when we're referring to a morally good person. Translating though, that becomes "morally effective person," which doesn't seem so strange. In fact, it seems downright accurate. Someone who is effective in their morals would be the same as a "good person" in the moral or ethical sense. The more effective someone is at being moral, the better person we consider them to be.

"Empowerment ethics" then comes into play when you get a bunch of functions that combine and interact to become super-functions, or what Dr. Fincke refers to as "powers" (yes, I know, I thought of comic books, too). Human beings are beings with a whole variety of powers: intellectual powers, social powers, sexual powers, artistic powers, and so on. However, since everything --including us-- exists as its functions (as opposed to having functions), then that means that we don't have these powers, we are these powers. And if we are our functions/powers, and if goodness=effectiveness, then it follows that to be good is to maximize our powers, or functions, and be the best we can be. Morality is just one of the ways we do this.

Now, an instant objection is that seems very self-centered, and to an extent perhaps it is. But, intrinsically the only way we can fully empower ourselves and flourish to the max that our abilities allow is by helping to empower others, helping them be the best themselves they can be. When a teacher teaches, passing on their skills and knowledge, she is adding to the power of her students, which in turn increases her own power. Aiding others empowers ourselves, as well as those we aid.

I'm not going to rehash what Dan has written about how this relates to dictators, or the "disabled." I want to get to the applications that have come to mind as I've been going over his work. Those applications include health care, immigration, charity work, and even voting. However, I'll only briefly discuss a couple of them, as this post is already getting long.

Health Care.
People cannot flourish to their best if they are not healthy. This is obvious. As such, adequate or better health care may be one of the most important things people need in life, beyond basic survival items. Helping others to achieve better health raises our own power, our own effectiveness. As those others flourish, they will help others to flourish more, and some of that may even come back to ourself, enabling us to flourish or maximize our power/effectiveness even further. We don't all have to be doctors to do this, or any other kind of medical professional. There are plenty of things that we can do to either avoid harming other's health, or to help improve it. Get vaccinated if you're able, in order to avoid being a carrier of illness, and maximize herd immunity. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze ("vampire sneeze!"). Have health insurance if you're able, in order to incentivize yourself more to go to the doctor, and not worry about going broke because of it. Help others to have insurance by supporting political measures that aim to bring insurance and it's benefits to more people (The Affordable Care Act is not the best solution, but it sort of heads in the right direction).

People are people, no matter what part of the world they come from. Morality and ethics do not change merely because someone is from another country. Thus, if it's wrong to murder a fellow American, it's wrong to murder a Mexican, Ireland native, or someone from Japan. If empowering fellow Americans to help them flourish also empowers ourselves, then empowering someone from another country would do the same, regardless of how they got here. Ideally, they got here legally. However, as best I understand it, most people who come here illegally do so because they are looking for a better life. They already could not fully flourish in their home country, and so they are seeking someplace they can. What possible reason could we have for not helping to empower them? I suppose one could say they are draining resources from the law-abiding, but if we simply kick them to the curb, then their suffering and lack of flourishing is on us. On the other hand, if we provide certain basic assistance (at a minimum), then their future flourishing will help society as a whole flourish. 

I realize that I've simplified these issues, and there are plenty of connected issues to complicate the problems involved, but I think it's a good starting point.

I make no claim to properly and fully understanding empowerment ethics. That'll take more study. So far, I haven't found any obvious weaknesses to the argument. The more I understand it, the more it seems to be a rational way of looking at ethics. Of course, I have to be careful. Much of it seems to agree with my own ideas, which means it is likely to be more seductive to me. Thus, I need to be even more diligent in my studies, try to find and understand objections, and make sure I'm not accepting it just because I like it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Thoughts on death


It's not really an easy topic for me. My reaction to the idea of oblivion, of no longer existing, of there no longer being a me, has always been one of fear. No, not fear. Terror. I avoided thinking about it as a result. But in the last few years I've been trying off and on to work on coming to grips with the idea. With death.

I'm not so sure that I'm succeeding.

I'm going to spend some time going through some of the various philosophies concerning death that I've come across in the time I've spent looking at atheist blogs, and pointing to my objections, and see if anything comes out of that. Maybe organizing all these thoughts into a written form for myself will spark some thought that allows me to accept mortality.

One of the most common ideas I've encountered is an idea that is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain. You can also hear it in some versions of Monty Python's song "Always look on the bright side of life" (at about minute 2:40 in that link, if you just want to hear the line). "We come from nothing, and we go back to nothing. What have we lost? Nothing." or "I wasn't bothered by the several billion years before I was born when I didn't exist, I won't be bothered by the years after I cease existing."

For some reason, this idea not only doesn't bother some atheists, it actually seems to give them some peace. On the other hand, I think there is a great deal lost when someone dies. Consider this analogy: suppose you win a car in a drawing, a brand new, nice car of whatever kind you care to imagine. This car is free to you, with the exception of maintenance and insurance of course, so in a sense it's coming from nothing. But it's yours now! It's all yours, until a month later when a freak mechanical problem causes a semi-truck to lose control and plow into your new car, totaling it beyond repair (we'll stipulate the driver is fine, and the semi probably wasn't damaged much either). Have you lost anything?

Well, it's only been a month in this version, so maybe not. On the other hand, in that month you may have taken the car to a mechanic to get it checked out, and had some minor issue taken care of. You may have gone on a long road trip with a significant other. Perhaps you took it to a track, and had some fun going well over the legal speed limit. Maybe you lovingly hand washed it for the first time, with two coats of wax. Maybe you totally rocked out to tunes on the radio while waiting on a red light, not caring who saw you. There are any number of things that may have happened in that month.

But now, it's gone. You have the memories of course, but memories fade, details are forgotten, and things get fuzzy after a while. Not only that, but you've lost everything that could have been. All the drives, all the back seat sex, all the oil changes, everything. And this is just a car, a mechanical contraption where the only conscious being affected is you. Let's take this out of the mechanical analogy realm.

I'm married. And it's awesome. My life was good before I met the woman that became my wife, but it's been even better since meeting her, dating her, and marrying her. If I had never met her, I would never have experienced such awesomeness, but I wouldn't know what I was missing, so I wouldn't care that I hadn't met her and married her. Now of course, I would absolutely care if, for some reason, she decided to leave me (not died, just left), and cut me out of her life completely. Should I say "well, it didn't bother me not having her around before I met her, so it shouldn't bother me now"?  Should she? I don't think so.

Now, obviously that analogy doesn't work perfectly compared to death. In death, the dead have no consciousness with which to care, while in this case, she and I continue to live and feel. But the point here is that something is lost. And it's that loss that bothers me. It's that loss that I care about, both in the abstract (mortality in general), and in the specific (actual individuals dying, like my wife, or me, or you).

It bothers me that when someone dies, everything they are, were, or could be is lost -- forever. All that's left are fading memories of the living, and maybe some changes to the world that they were able to cause before dying. And while the effects we have on the world are not nothing, by any measure, that person is gone.


Now, Greta Christina has a post Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God in which she points out that death is a part of change, and everything changes. We can't experience life without change. And she's right. We can't get to Point B without leaving Point A. We can't reach 5pm in the afternoon without first saying "hello" to 4pm in the afternoon (or maybe not, because fuck 4pm, the bastard). This seems to me a trivial point however, as when we're dead we don't experience change anymore. We experience nothing. Not nothingness, but nothing.

When I wish that people didn't die, I'm not seeking stagnation. It's that entire experience of life, the universe, and everything that I want to see continue. It's that entire experience that an individual loses when they die. And I am not certain that death is a change that is necessary for us to experience life.

In that same post, she also says
Imagine, for a moment, stepping away from time, the way you’d step back from a physical place, to get a better perspective on it. Imagine being outside of time, looking at all of it as a whole — history, the present, the future — the way the astronauts stepped back from the Earth and saw it whole.
Keep that image in your mind. Like a timeline in a history class, but going infinitely forward and infinitely back. And now think of a life, a segment of that timeline, one that starts in, say, 1961, and ends in, say, 2037. Does that life go away when 2037 turns into 2038? Do the years 1961 through 2037 disappear from time simply because we move on from them and into a new time, any more than Chicago disappears when we leave it behind and go to California?
She says it doesn't, I say I don't know, and I'm not sure it matters. As she pointed out earlier, everything changes. We don't experience time in the fashion she describes. We experience time as change, as she pointed out already. Even if her view of time is true and accurate in any sort of real or "just" philosophical manner, the fact that our segment is so short, so limited, is just . . . depressing. I want to experience the rest of the timeline.

It's strange. In some ways, I'm content with how my life has turned out, such that if I died at this keyboard right now, it would be ok. I've made the lives of some people better, helped bring laughter and happiness to some people, and generally, on net, I think I've more good than bad. Hopefully. My wife has her boyfriend, friends, a strong family, and a great deal of inner strength that would help her deal with my death. I can't think of a single friend or family member that wouldn't be able to deal, somehow, with me dying.

And I think I could probably --though I'm less certain here-- deal with her death, or the death of other friends and family. But I would hate it. I would hate the absence, complete and entire, of a person that I cared about deeply. There would be my memories, the keepsakes, photos, and whatnot, but those things are not the person. Not even close.

(and when it comes down to it, my memory sucks; I don't even have clear memories of my wedding day, one of the best days of my life)

And content with my life or not, I still fear death. I've been wrapping it up in all these philosophical ramblings, but it's so damn visceral. I have found nothing about it that I can be comfortable with, nothing to make me think it's not so bad, or not terrifying. It's frustrating.

..... Fuck death. Just . . . fuck it. I don't know.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why I'm an atheist, redux

I want to lay out my specific reasons for being an atheist. There are a variety of issues that people bring up when objecting to atheism, and I'm going to lay out my objections to the objections. I doubt I'll hit on all the ideas out there, but I'll try to hit on most of the ones I've encountered. I'll also lay out my own specific reasoning. I won't bother going into the history of me becoming an atheist, as I've already done so on this site (it's not all that dramatic anyway).

Meaning of Life. 
I think this was the very first objection I ever got to atheism: "But if there's no god, then what's the meaning of life?" I have to say, I was honestly confused (I was young). My response was "Who says there has to be a meaning?" The question was, and is, a genuine one. We may want there to be a meaning to our life, one that some force greater than ourselves recognizes, but I see no reason to think that the universe is obliged to grant our desire. It genuinely puzzles me that anyone thinks that just because we want a particular thing, it therefore must exist.

Meaning, if it exists, is something that we provide to our lives. It's not something that is assigned to us from on high, but rather something that we must find or choose for ourselves. I suspect that the "meaning of life" will always be somewhat individual and subjective. One person may find meaning in being a father who raises ethical children, while another finds it in philanthropy, and so on, and so forth. But even if we cannot find something to give our lives meaning on our own, or with the help of other people, that does nothing to prove the existence of a god or gods, or any sort of afterlife.


There isn't much here that I can say that I didn't say under the "Meaning of Life" section. Whatever hope or comfort one believes is provided by a belief in god (or the afterlife) is no argument for the actual existence of a god (or an afterlife). I will note, however, that I do believe there are plenty of things for us to be hopeful about. As I said in another post
I have hope. I know there are many reasons that I have to be cynical, untrusting, and angry. But I also see people who work hard to make a world in which those reasons will be minimized, and that gives me hope. When I write about the things that I'm against, and that I don't believe, it is because of my hope that I do so, and not because of my anger. I have hope that those writings, and the actions and writings of others, will move us toward a brighter world. Science continues to advance our knowledge, and as such I have hope that the children of the world will have longer, healthier, and better lives than my generation, and the generations that have come before me. I do not know or believe that any of these things will happen, I have no faith in the future, but I most assuredly have hope.


The world isn't fair. Good things happen to the worst people, bad things happen to the best people, and innocents suffer while evil people prosper. And of course, sometimes the good people get all the best things, the evil get to suffer, and innocents are happy.

Many people want to believe that somehow there's a cosmic balance sheet, and the evil are punished and the good rewarded. It's an understandable desire, I suppose. I can sympathize. But I see no reason to actually believe it. I have yet to see anything in my life, in the news, in magazines, or anywhere, that suggests there are karmic forces at work. And before I can believe in any sort of afterlife, I'm going to need some evidence (other than the imaginings of oxygen starved brains, such as with near death experiences). That evidence has yet to make an appearance. Other than that, see what I said about hope and meaning. 

Pascal's Wager.

This is an argument put forth by a French philosopher named Blaise Pascal. To quote Wikipedia, 
It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or does not exist. Given the possibility that God actually does exist and assuming the infinite gain or loss associated with belief in God or with unbelief, a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.)
First off, this is an argument for belief, not for the actual existence of God. Second, which god? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of gods that have been worshiped throughout human history. Get it wrong, and you could be in as much trouble as an atheist. Thirdly, and most compellingly to me, if the god you choose makes certain demands that are contrary to good morals (like, sacrificing your kids, killing homosexuals, keeping slaves, etc), then by following that god you could end being responsible for a great deal of pointless suffering and immorality.

I would rather try to understand what morality is, why specific things are immoral, and act accordingly, even if I risk an eternal hell by doing so. Any god that would send me to hell for that (and for not believing in them) doesn't deserve my worship, but rather my condemnation.

Objective Morality.

While I do highly suspect that objective morality exists, it is not objective in the sense that the speed of light or the gravitational constant is. It is not a fundamental law of the universe. Rather, it is something that can be discovered through the exercise of reason, much like mathematics. Consider that if I take one electron, and put it by another electron, I now have two electrons. It doesn't matter what one and one you're adding, you'll always get two. This is simply the nature of 1+1. It is simply the nature of numbers. It would be the same in any universe, with or without a god. Human minds are capable of discovering, through the exercise of reason and rigorous testing, further facts about numbers, developing systems of algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and other things I have no names for. Morality is likely the same way: something that is determined/discovered through the exercise of reason, and would, at a fundamental level, be the same regardless of the universe we find ourselves in (for one attempt at such an exercise of reason, please see the excellent work of Dan Fincke, especially this piece -- I've been studying his work, and am so far finding it compelling).

As regards morality coming from God, or God somehow being the source of morals, this seems incoherent to me. Presumably, an omniscient god would understand morality, but that's not the same as morality coming from God. That's more like figuring out what morality is, in the manner I've described, and perhaps then passing on what he/she/it/other figured out to those with less awareness and wisdom. If, on the other hand, morality is simply something he decides in a manner that cannot be explained reasonably, such that we could then say "oh, yea, that makes sense, you're right," then God's rules would merely be arbitrary, with no reason for us to listen other than, well, he's bigger than us. 

However, even if I'm wrong about objective morality, and it doesn't exist in any form, even if it's purely subjective and arbitrary, that is neither an argument for, nor against, the existence of God. Whether God exists or not simply has nothing to do with the nature of morality, and the nature of morality has nothing to do with God's existence.

Fine-tuning argument.
This is the idea that the universe is ideal for the existence of life, specifically human life. The argument goes that since the universe and the earth are so ideally suited to the existence of human life (ideal distance from the sun, right amount of gravity, nuclear forces just right for the formation of the chemical building blocks life etc), it must therefore have been created specifically for humanity.

In my case, this reminds me of a quote from Douglas Adams, author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
In other words, we evolved to fit the universe (and the planet) that's here. Had it been different, we would be different. 

Many argue that even the basics of any kind of life couldn't exist without the natural laws being exactly as they are. This seems a potentially good argument, but even this may not be true. Scientific American has an article discussing some work that's been done that suggests that life of some kind (just not "as we know it") could exist if not one, but more than one natural law were altered in certain key ways. It's been too long since I read it for me to attempt a proper summation, and it's sadly behind a paywall, but follow the link if you care to give it a gander. 

But even if that work is wrong (and it can't be proven or disproven at this point, and perhaps never can be), fine-tuning still fails as an argument for a creator (and by the way, if one accepts the fine-tuning argument, it still only gets you as far as a creator of some sort, not as far as any particular religion). It fails because . . . we could've just gotten lucky. Plain and simple.

Lack of Evidence.

I've been talking about a bunch of philosophical arguments, but none of them are the primary reason that I'm an atheist. It's even fair to say that they have nothing to do with me being an atheist, when it comes right down to it. The primary reason that I'm an atheist is very simply a lack of evidence for any sort of god. 

The most common type of god that I hear about is the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving god. But here's the thing: this world would not be the way it is if there were truly a god of that description in existence. An omniscient, omnipotent god could readily remove the suffering in the world, i.e., natural disasters, cancer, missing limbs, dementia, mental illness, food poisoning, and any other ailments both minor and major. An all-loving god that was also omnipotent and omniscient would have already done so, with no need for prayer or requests. 

But what about free will? Putting aside the argument about whether free will exists, and assuming, for the sake of argument, that it does, what the hell do earthquakes have to do with free will? And even in cases where suffering is caused directly by human action, like, say murder or rape, are you saying that the murderer or rapist's free will is more important than the free will of their victim(s) (who most certainly did not will these things to happen to them)? I'm going with "No" on this one. If we don't object to a cop or such stopping a crime, I don't think we can object to God doing so.

Some claim that God does interfere in these things, by guiding the cop or whomever to be in the right place and right time to prevent these things, or that he guides the doctors who are working on cancer, etc. There's at least two problems with these scenarios. One, this looks exactly the way it would look if God wasn't interfering, so . . . why posit that God is involved at all? There's no reason to. And two, where is God in all the situations where cancer doesn't go into remission, or a crime like murder isn't prevented? Simplest explanation is that God doesn't exist. 

In other words, I treat the existence of a personal god of the sort commonly described as a hypothesis about the universe. And a good hypothesis is one that can be disproven (not proven, but disproven). So, if any sort of personal god of the sort commonly described existed, the world would not look the way it does. The world as we observe it seems to appear just as it would be expected to look if there were no omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving being interfering in it. Thus, I conclude that there is most likely no god.

Since I probably can't leave this subject without talking about evolution, I'll mention a few thoughts on the matter. When Darwin first proposed his idea of natural selection, it was not immediately accepted by the scientific community. It had to go through the same rigorous testing as Newton's hypotheses and Einstein's hypotheses. Evolution has been observed in the wild, in the lab, and has even included the observation of new species evolving. For an excellent treatment of just what the evidence for evolution consists of, I can recommend the book The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins. It's well written, and makes no assumptions about the reader's level of knowledge about biology. If you prefer video, there's a series on YouTube by thunderf00t called "Why do people laugh at creationists?" Yes, there's some snark, but the explanations are nonetheless well done. 

Just a point or two you might find in those resources. I, and many others, have back problems (lower back, in my case). Back problems in general can be traced back to the fact that humans only relatively recently evolved the ability to stand and walk upright. Our skeleton did not originally evolve for it, but rather for four-legged locomotion, and our pains are the legacy of it not being fully adapted to uprightness. Sadly, it will probably remain that way, since there doesn't seem to be any pressure causing those with back problems to procreate less successfully than others. You can find similar things in humans and other creatures: structures in the body that have adapted from a previous function to either include a second function or to an entirely different function. In some cases, structures no longer do a damn thing for the species as it currently is, and have become vestigial (occasionally causing problems--tonsillitis, anyone?). 

Basically, if God had designed us 6,000 years ago, we would not expect creatures to look like they developed via short term solutions that worked just well enough to manage for now, but without long term planning. But that is what we'd expect if evolution's a fact. And it is what we see. While that doesn't prove evolution, it does provide evidence against the God Hypothesis. 

Here's the thing. If someone comes to me, claiming to have evidence that a god exists, then I'll want to see this evidence examined under the same rigorous applications of critical thinking that epitomizes good science. I will treat the claim as a hypothesis, which means I will first look for evidence to disprove it. Positive claims are the ones that hold the burden of proof, not the negative claims (i.e., "Bigfoot exists" is a claim that requires supporting evidence, while "Bigfoot probably does not exist" is simply the default, simplest position to take -- and Bigfoot is more plausible by far than God is).