Friday Fun-ness

September 28, 2012

As a school board chair I am familiar with how hard it is for teachers to really be rewarded for their innovations and hard work. This a great story about one teacher who, with the benefit of an entrepreneurial, was able to make her ideas pay off.


September 26, 2012

“But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex… it is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.”

– Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals

Fairness and the Monkey Mind

September 24, 2012

One ongoing contention by atheists is that God is unnecessary to ground morality because humans are naturally social and interdependent creatures who have inherited these characteristics from their evolutionary forebears. As evidence for this contention they often point to examples of certain social behaviors in apes and monkeys, our presumed nearest non-human cousins. We’ll ignore certain nasty behaviors by such animals (and why such behaviors aren’t equally ‘moral’ by this estimation) for now and examine instead a concept that is generally seen as moral in the Christian West – fairness.

In an August post called Where does morality come from? A demonstration with monkeys atheist and evolutionist cheerleader Jerry Coyne (who seems to be a big fan of these sort of studies) attributes the reactions of a capuchin to not receiving a grape in exchange for a rock during the course of an experiment to the monkey’s sense of ‘fairness’, a characteristic he considers to be a basis for morality:

This video is about as powerful a refutation I’ve seen of the notion that our morality is given by God rather than either evolved or a product of our culture. This is taken from a wonderful TED talk by Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several popular books. His talk is called “Moral behavior in animals”, and is witty and full of insights (you can also watch it here if you don’t have the right Flash player).

Do watch the whole talk, as you’ll learn a lot about “morality” in our mammalian relatives, and there are several nice videos. In the one I show below, two naive capuchin monkeys display what looks for all the world like a reaction to “unfairness” (the video appears about 3/4 of the way through de Waal’s talk). As de Waal notes, cucumbers are okay food for the monkeys, but they really like grapes (de Waal claims that monkeys like food in proportion to its price at the supermarket). A pair of capuchins can see each other getting cucumbers and grapes (they have to give the experimenter a rock before they get a piece of food).

See what happens when one of them is given a grape for his rock, and the other a cucumber. Remember, this is the first time these monkeys have been subject to this procedure:

So in the estimation of Jerry Coyne the capuchin’s reaction is an offense to the monkey’s sense of fairness. How does he know this? Because the monkey appears to be reacting in a manner a human might act when they are frustrated by being treated unfairly. And from this appearance he comes to the conclusion that this sense of fairness humans concern themselves with can be understood to derive from our animal ancestors and we can dismiss with God.

Now its possible monkeys have some idea of fairness. It’s possible other animals do. I have a Golden Retriever that gets petulant when I don’t take her with me when I run an errand. The response is similar to that of a three year old that declares it’s “Just not fair” that they didn’t get to go to the park. There is no reason why I as a Christian would deny the existence of such sensations in animals – but is such frustration really the basis for our moral notion of fairness? This is where I think comparisons start to break down.

Fairness in humans of course is a much more idealistic concept than mere frustration at unexpected treatment. We have entire social and political system designed specifically to ensure fairness. We even have symbols of fairness like Lady Justice, a symbol which goes back to the Ancient Egyptians. It is the notion that there is an underlying moral order against which actions should be evaluated without regard for the individual conducting the actions. So the human notion of fairness or the closely related concept of justice is not merely an innate reaction, but a sense that there is way the world ought to be and certain circumstances contradicted this ideal. There is no evidence capuchins are motivated by such ideals.

Of course, Jerry Coyne is inclined to see the rudiments of these ideals in the grasping of a monkey for a grape because he has a belief system which is supported by interpreting monkey responses this way. Though he would call such observations scientific, the reality is such experiments are far from empirical since we have no idea what is happening in the minds of these animals as they react. Both Coyne’s ideas about what fairness is and how he interprets such reactions are highly subjective. Indeed these sorts of experiments have soiled the scientific reputations of other researchers like Marc Hauser who bet his career on interpreting the motivations of monkeys and ended up resigning his position at Harvard due in part to the inherently interpretive nature of such studies.

Atheist tend to cherry pick such studies. Because they have an a priori commitment to naturalism, they are forced to believe that human morality must have been the product of evolutionary development from ape-like ancestors. So any animal behavior that slightly resembles a human action motivated by a moral precept is interpreted as evidence for this notion. Of course, atheists tend to ignore studies that that indicate our presumed ape relatives actually have little interest in fairness, like the one recently published in Biology Letters aptly titled, Theft in an ultimatum game: chimpanzees and bonobos are insensitive to unfairness. In the study researchers set up a scenario where the apes could choose to leave a portion of grapes for the group mates. This is what Professor Keith Jensen, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences observed:

“In each scenario one ape had to choose whether to steal the grapes or leave a portion of grapes for the other. We found that consistently they would steal the food without taking into account whether their action would have an effect on their partner. Neither the chimpanzees nor bonobos seemed to care whether food was stolen or not, or whether the outcomes were fair or not, as long as they got something. Our findings support other studies of chimpanzees but also extend these to bonobos. Both apes have no concern for fairness or the effects that their choices may have on others; in stark contrast to the way humans behave. We can therefore conclude that our results indicate that our sense of fairness is a derived trait and may be unique to the human race.”

Presumed similarities between the behavior humans and apes always lead atheists to conclude they are related, but the opposite is never true – when their behaviors so obviously diverge, atheists never take from that fact that humans have instilled in them something unique that was not merely the result of naturalism.

But then again atheism is never a product of evidence.

Atheists Eat Their Own

September 24, 2012

New Atheism, the movement that holds that religious belief should be strongly criticized and countered because it is dumb, delusional and dangerous burst on the scene early in the 2000’s with a flurry of best-selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Motivated in part by the perceived religious motivations of the 9/11 attacks and George Bush’s overt religiosity and fueled by the easy communication of blogs and discussion boards, New Atheism quickly grew into something of a movement. Foundations, conferences and rallies have since provided a sense of community and identity to the nascent cause. And yet, while there has been much fanfare about the growth of New Atheism, at nearly a decade out the movement appears to be employing the same attacks against itself that it once leveled against the religious and with greater effect.

Overt acts of sexism and harassment by men in the movement against participating women have recently splintered the movement. New Atheism has also dividing over what it means to be an atheist; whether the movement is merely skeptical of religion or obligated to advance certain social and political concerns like feminism, gay rights and social and economic justice. In short, some want to offer a progressive agenda, or what has been dubbed ‘Atheism+’. Atheist journalist Nelson Jones gives a good overview at the NewStatesman:

A number of incidents have served to crystallise the sense that all is not right in the world of unbelief. Most notoriously, there was “Elevatorgate”, an late-night incident in a lift during an atheist conference in Dublin during which the blogger Rebecca Watson was propositioned. Her subsequent public complaint about the man’s behaviour and sexual harassment within the Skeptic movement drew criticism from Richard Dawkins himself and fuelled an ugly flame war. She received, and continues to receive, rape and death threats…

…The first item on the Atheism+ agenda, then, is a cleansing one. [Jen] McCreight [A founder of the movement at PZ Myers Freethought blogs] herself says: “We need to recognize that there’s still room for self-improvement and to address the root of why we’ve been having these problems in atheism and skepticism.” Greta Christina has gone so far as to devise a checklist of goals to which atheist organisations should aspire, including anti-harassment policies and ensuring diversity among both members and invited speakers. “To remember that not all atheists look like Richard Dawkins.”

Not long after this article was published skeptic Jen McCreight ceased blogging at FreeThoughtBlogs over the harassment she received from her criticism of her fellow atheists. Beyond the blog wars, major players in the atheist movement like Dawkins and PZ Myers and Sam Harris are vociferously at odds over all sorts of issues. While the blog comment sections and discussion boards of atheists have always been offensive and irrational places for believers, they are now verbal torture chambers for fellow atheists.

As a Christian I would normally avoid commenting on the internecine battles of groups that don’t include me. It is no skin off my nose that atheists are attacking each other. But I think the current state of affairs is instructive when it comes to understanding the modern atheist movement and human nature.

The first thing to understand is that ‘New Atheism’ is primarily the domain of young white males. And not ordinary young white males, but the sort whose lives consist largely of the consumption of video games, pornography and internet trolling. Psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo described this group recently in his book The Demise of Guys. While many of the leaders of New Atheism appear to be respectable enough folks, New Atheist leaders like PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have been idolized by troops of young men because they justify their chosen lifestyles. Whereas it was once expected that a man in his twenties would do something productive and profitable like advancing a career or starting a family, now we have millions of young men who feel completely content to squander their lives engaging in artificial combat to conquer digital worlds while satisfying themselves with virtual relationships. They are ripe for the picking by folks like PZ Myers who created a legion of trolls by whipping fan boys into a frenzy against imagined evil religious hordes. There is little wonder then that the fun was spoiled when real women started showing up at the party, with all their expectations of social maturity and common decency. Their presence, and the insistence by certain atheist leaders that the some of their followers need to grow up was like Peter Pan telling the lost boys to leave Neverland and get a life.

While this was true for the minions, for leaders of New Atheism it has never been about mere skepticism. New Atheism is closely allied with progressivism because they share a common enemy. Progressives see atheism as useful to diminish the power of conservative faiths that are the primary bulwark against leftist agendas. Of course the fan boys in the atheist movement aren’t nearly so high-minded – they see religion as bulwark against their chosen lifestyles. As much as this mindless passion causes young men to rail against religion, they are useful to leaders on the left. That is why the movements in the sixties could encompass both the high-minded feminist notions of ‘equality’ alongside the ‘free love movement’ which consisted mainly of mainstreaming sexual promiscuousness. To advance, both required diminishing traditional and religious beliefs about family even though they shared little in common with regard to actual goals. They were literally strange bedfellows.

The reason conflicts have arisen in the atheist movement is the reason conflict inevitably arises in all human movements – the selfishness and hubris that is inherent to human nature. This comports with first and foremost truth advanced by Christians that all men are sinners – that is by nature we are selfish, proud and corruptible creatures. This is why the very atheist hordes PZ Myers used to command against the religious now clog his inbox with messages of contempt. It is the reason the very folks Richard Dawkins inspired to be rationalists now label him a misogynist. And it is why Sam Harris, whose books partly inspired the New Atheist movement, is now labeled among the ‘5 Most Awful Atheists‘ by some of his peers. Atheists imagined that religious belief itself exacerbates conflict and once it was done away with reason would reign – now they prove that a devotion to reason is no remedy for the inherent human tendency to advance one’s ambitions over the interests of others.

Atheists often cast aspersions on the Church because there are multiple Christian denominations. ‘How can there be one truth with so many different variations?’ goes the reasoning – all the while ignoring the basic creeds that Christians overwhelmingly adhere to and the fact that the Church experienced no significant splits for over a thousand years of its existence. They tout their movement as one motivated by reason and thus immune to the vagaries that plague many religions; yet they can’t deal with basic matters amongst themselves with common civility.

If we can test the truth of a proposition by the consistent agreement about its basic tenants among its proponents, then New Atheism, a small movement that is splintering almost as soon as it has begun, is almost certainly false.

Friday Fun-ness

September 21, 2012

Despite having a number of ideas on the back burner, I have been neglecting my blog lately in part due to the demands of my service as a schoolboard chair on top the normal husband/father duties and the day job. When I do have time for posting and discussion, I tend to gravitate toward Facebook discussions which are more immediate and interactive. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist posting this given the increasing similarity between the current state of our country and the malaise of the ’70s under Jimmy Carter.

Friday Fun-ness

September 7, 2012

If you were confused at all about the exact policy prescriptions the President was offering last night in his acceptance speech, Andrew Klavan breaks it down for you:


September 3, 2012

There is much ado about the Democrats response to the question, “Are we better off than we were four years ago?” It’s a dilemma for the Dems because if they say we are better off, then they seem oblivious to economic realities. If they admit we are not then they run the risk of being held responsible, which of course they should be.

Personally I expect them to do what they have been doing for the last four years, which is to just ignore the economy and try to distract voters with other issues like contraception and Mitt’s taxes. We’ll see how far this gets them this time.