Saturday, November 26, 2011

Are atheists more charitable? Maybe, maybe not

I was kind of sorry to see Skeptic's Dictionary author/editor Bob Carroll to post a link to a site that made that claim on less-than-rigorous evidence.
Atheists, non-believers, secular humanists, skeptics—the whole gamut of the godless have emerged in recent years as inarguably the most generous benefactors on the globe. 
Inarguable, eh? It would be one thing, and possibly bad enough, to say that was an arguable claim. But, to say it's inarguable is even worse. The site goes on.
The current most charitable individuals in the United States, based on “Estimated Lifetime Giving,” are:
1) Warren Buffett (atheist, donated $40.785 billion to “health, education, humanitarian causes”) 2) Bill & Melinda Gates (atheists, donated $27.602 billion to “global health and development, education”) 3) George Soros (atheist, donated $6.936 billion to “open and democratic societies”)
A century ago, one of the USA’s leading philanthropists was Andrew Carnegie, atheist.
Sorry, but, this sounds like cherry-picking. Picking out the top couple of individuals, and noting their religious belief, is different than general research polling. Gates and Buffett are the two richest people in America, as well as being atheists. (If they are. Many "famous atheist" websites either don't have them or list them as agnostic.) Beyond that, and also per the post, there are relatively few "secular" aid charities, so a place like Kiva will likely attract a higher concentration of secularists. It's no big deal for secularists to outraise Christians there. Similar might be true at a place like The Heifer Project.


Arthur Brooks, at Hoover, claims the religious are more charitable even to non-religious charities. However, Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy shoots down his methodology.

Some people like Brooks claim that the religious invest more time in charities, too. Well, religious, or non-religious but moral-based charities (like pro-life groups) expect that. Certainly, explicitly religious groups do.

This all said, the little I can find on this question to "settle" it one way or the other.

Of course, that gets back to the link Bob Carroll posted. Since there is little evidence one way or the other, it's an unsupported claim.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The chimera: More refutation of the existence of a soul

Humans, though less often and less mixedly than marmosets, have "chimeric" offspring. A bit of a twin's body material, from embryonic stage, may be in your body. That's especially true since uterine research show that many human "singleton" births, probably around one-quarter, started as twin conceptions, and one embryo was partially absorbed by the other.

So, if, as many conservative Christians claim, a soul begins at conception, what happens to it at the time of a chimeric absorption? While I'm not a Gnu Atheist or a village idiot atheist, issues like this must be raised, not just of fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians, but of all Christians, all Jews, all Muslims, and all metaphysical dualists in general.

Period.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Atheism: What I lost

A while back, on Facebook, or some blog, or something, there was a discussion thread, for those of us who weren't "born atheist," about what we lost.

Well, news from my sister underscored that today. My brother-in-law is going to a new congregation, as interim pastor with likely move to permanent. She said his total compensation package will be around $100K. I assume that includes salary, denominational pension, health care, parsonage or housing allowance, car allowance and probably a few other things. With allowances for all of that, it's still got to be a base salary of more than $50K in a "flyover" part of Texas, a large town/small city place. (And, this is a mainline Protestant denomination, not a stand-alone church.)

As a divinity school grad myself who just couldn't do it, that's what I lost, compared to my lower-paying, lower-perking by far newspaper reporter/editor's salary.

Envious? Yes, a bit. But more angry at other things.

I'm angry at the dad who pushed all of his kids to some degree toward church-work careers. I'm angry at the mom who said that's why she was divorcing him, but didn't fight for primary physical custody of me. I'm angry at the career interest neglect by both parents, Ward/June Cleaver stereotypes aside. I'm angry at parts ignorant of, or ignoring of, sexual abuse under their roof. I'm angry at the emotional and physical abuse of a dad and the emotional neglect and sexual manipulation of a mom. I'm angry at how "passive" this all left me as an adolescent and young adult.

That's why, as I've blogged before, I reject "no regrets about life" claims as bordering on pop psychology.  But, I made my decision, as I blogged about in a series of posts, starting here. (To me, regrets are like old scars. I try not to pick at them, but I know that if they're deep enough, while they fade, they will never disappear. And, they have value for reminding me of the physical wounds that caused them, perhaps, just as it is with regrets.)

That said, there are many hypocrites in pulpits, whether atheist or otherwise. Even if they're not making $100K a year as a total package, they're still making decent money. Even if they're from a Baptist sort of hire-and-hire denomination or tradition, they still have pretty good job security. If, for whatever reasons, whether philosophical/metaphysical, more narrowly doctrinal or other reasons, if they're clinging to a job for job's sake when it's supposed to be more than a job, they're hypocrites.

They not only lose some self-respect, as they hang on to their jobs for money, they lose some of their self-image. If you're a hypocritical minister in a more conservative denomination, how do you counsel someone coming out of the closet? What do you say when someone asks you about gay issues? It was that, not just my changing belief/philosophy system, that led me to reject a guaranteed job (the Lutheran structure is similar to Catholics, not Baptists, in terms of job security) and more.

That said, philosophical/metaphysical issues can be hypocrisy producers. What do you say to the would-be mother who miscarried a three-month-old fetus if you don't believe in traditional ideas of "souls"? Ditto, as to what do you say to the son or daughter of a late-stage Alzheimer's parent? How do you tackle assisted suicide in general?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Religious obituary lines to shake your head over

Working at a newspaper, I finally decided the only way this secularist could deal with it was to do a running blog post on the most ... to do a word mash-up ... insipidly tragic ones.

From an obit for a 1-year-old: "Returned to Jesus' arms." Why did Jesus let him escape for a year in the first place?

Similar, for an elderly person: "Lifted into the Lord's hands." Who lifted her out?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Free will - a "god of the gaps" parallel?

Is "free will," at least as "compatibilists" generally strive to define (and save) it, a philosophical equivalent of "a god of the gaps"? I say the answer is an arguable yes.

Philosophy professor Eddy Nahmias is the latest to try to defend some neo-traditionalist, if you will, version of free will.

Of course, when you start with a straw man howler like this, it's easy for you to get called "a free willer of the gaps":
When (neuroscientist Patrick) Haggard concludes that we do not have free will “in the sense we think,” he reveals how this conclusion depends on a particular definition of free will.  Scientists’ arguments that free will is an illusion typically begin by assuming that free will, by definition, requires an immaterial soul or non-physical mind, and they take neuroscience to provide evidence that our minds are physical. 
First, not all neuroscientists make that assumption. And, philosophers like the Daniel Wegner whom you linked at the start of the column definitely don't link free will, or its absence, to dualism, or its lack.

Then, there's this:
Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.  We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities.
Well, if you're not going to wrestle with what consciousness is, let alone what standing free will at the level of consciousness has in the absence of a Cartesian theater, you may have a problem. Nahmias does eventually get around to tacking Benjamin Libet and the famous 200-millisecond gap, but only to wave it away:
First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it.  It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions.  If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates “ramping up” to the moment of consciousness. 
Ahh, this is a petard hoister. It's all in how you define "decisions" as well as "free will," isn't it? Under the Dan Dennett multiple drafts model, this is rather the subconscious impulse that "wins out" to the level of consciousness.

Finally, to riff on Samuel Johnson, Nahmias enters into the last refuge of a free-will philosophy scoundrel: He makes the "fatal" is-ought error.
We need conscious deliberation to make a difference when it matters — when we have important decisions and plans to make.
Need? As in "ought to have"? Ooops.

Some other thoughts from Wikipedia on free will, including reference to Haggard, here.

That said, I think it IS possible to talk about free will in some way, but only in a way that includes subselves and subconscious processes.

UPDATE, Nov. 26: Massimo Pigliucci actually defends Nahmias, claiming he "provides a nuanced and intelligent brief discussion of the topic." Massimo is often thought-provoking and never dumb, but he's just off base on this one. (In the same post, he says that way too much is read into Libet. I'll split the difference and say that somewhat too much may be read into him, and that what Libet's experiments study are somewhat imprecise. But, to claim he's pretty much irrelevant to discussions of free will is a stretch, at the least.)

UPDATE, Nov. 27: Add this excellent essay to your reading. From a neuroscience perspective, it argues that brain systems that evolved to detect actual (or apparent) "intentionality" are a focal point for the rise of an illusion of "self." And, here's the journal essay that influenced that blog essay.

This ties in with Dan Dennett's "heterophenomenology." We assume "selves" in others because of this 'intentionality set" that appears to be built into our brains. But, Dennett doesn't quite note this is a two-way street. Per modern social psychologists, the "self," or what we call a "self" for ourselves, is in part a construct based on our interaction with others. That includes them seeing, and noting, seeming "intentionality" in ourselves.


So, even if there isn't a unitary self, not only do we act "as if" there is, we find it hard not to do so because of this outside conditioning as well as our own brain's mindset.


Now, a Buddhist meditation adept, or a devotee of deep self-hypnosis, might be able to transcend that to some degree. But (and this is why I only half-jokingly say "the only good Buddhist is a dead Buddhist") the person who recognizes, and more than just intellectually understands, that "self" is to some degree an illusion is generally unable to hold on to that idea. The Zen monk rejoins the rest of the monastery; the hypnosis adept walks out the door and into the larger world. And "conventional" ideas of self get reinforced again.