Saturday, December 6, 2014

A trio of Sentences to Ponder

All three encountered this week in articles that are well worth reading in full. (HT for No. 3 to Mike the Mad Biologist.)

From "Sorry New York Times, the state of American marriage is not good": "A married upper class and an unmarried peasantry is exactly what you see when you look at the British Isles in the early 20th century."

● From "Is Uber's rider database a sitting duck for hackers?": “Most people,” Lewis said, “have really bad operational security.”

● From "What schizophrenia can teach us about ourselves" (HT, Mike the Mad Biologist): "In Europe, people are generally more comfortable with the ambiguity between psychosis and religion ..."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A negative argument in favor of human rights

Thomas Jefferson: Smart dude. 
I had a discussion with a colleague this week that touched on the question of human rights. My colleague said that in in his view, the concept necessarily has a religious underpinning: You can't have human rights without presupposing a God who grants them. It's right there in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness ...
Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Thomas Jefferson, indisputably one of the greatest intellects of his age, or any age. But we have learned a few things since 1776. We know that the human species wasn't created; it evolved. And while many people believe that at some point, God turned up and inserted souls in us ... I can't see it. We're primates, natural and mortal, down here all by ourselves. Sad but true. Deal with it.

How then can I justify my belief in universal human rights? I do so negatively, by noting how bad the arguments against them are. Here's how it goes:

When I look inside myself, I find I have certain desires and goals, as well as certain aversions. I'd like to keep living, I'd like to have some scope of action to achieve my desires and goals, and I'd like to, you know, actually achieve them. I'd prefer not to suffer pain, despair and death. Let's call this a general preference for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Looking at other people, I can rationally conclude they have similar desires, goals and aversions, broadly speaking. I know this because (a) they act that way; (b) biology and psychology tell me they're built basically the same way I am.

Now, it turns out, human life being what it is, that those other people and I will have a better chance of achieving our goals if we cooperate. No man is an island, and all that. We have to form teams. OK, what kind of team should I be willing to join?

Consider the simplest case of a team: a dyad. Two people, A and B, can relate in one of three ways: A outranks B, A and B are equal, or B outranks A.

If I'm A, it's pretty clear which of these arrangements I prefer. Suppose I propose to B the setup "A outranks B." I get to order him around, and dispose of the goodies our team obtains as I see fit. B objects, naturally enough.

What answer can I offer? I basically have two choices. I can either say (a) "This arrangement will work out better for you than the alternatives," or else (b) "My wellbeing counts for more than yours."

The success of (a) depends, ultimately, on whether it's true. Maybe it is! B may survey his desires and goals and decide it's in his interest to use his powers of free action to follow my lead. I believe we call this "the just consent of the governed."

(Communism and fascism, by the way, were failed (and coercive) arguments of type (a). "Follow us and we'll make your life better." Didn't work.)

How about my argument (b)? To put it plainly, it sucks. B has no reason whatsoever to prefer me achieving my goals and desires to him achieving his; quite the opposite. He's he and I'm me. I sure wouldn't accept that argument if he made it! And we're basically the same kind of entity, so if I wouldn't buy it, I can't argue that he should.

But what if he's not the same kind of entity? That, historically, has been the justification for granting human rights to some people but not others. "We're fully human, you aren't." To me, one of the great achievements of naturalism is to show how terrible those arguments are. To a first approximation, everybody's human, so everybody deserves human rights. It's not metaphysics, it's straight-up empiricism.

Pushing that thought a little further, I don't think it's coincidence that the "my wellbeing counts for more than yours" argument tends to come wrapped in a thick layer of self-interested theology. "My God says we are his Chosen People." "This is my Promised Land." "I rule by Divine Right." And so on. I think it's a great step in grounding human rights to realize what terrible justifications those are. "I made up an imaginary friend, and he tells me my narcissism is A-OK." R-i-i-i-g-h-t.

So there's my argument: Human rights exist because I want to have them, and from my naturalistic standpoint, I don't have any coherent justification for awarding them to myself without awarding them to everyone else, too. QED.

One final point. I do think it's the case that the concept of human rights arose out of the Christian tradition. But how could it not? All social thinking in early modern Europe was saturated with Christianity. It was used to justify everything, from the Brotherhood of Man down to slavery, torture and murder. And for a good reason: There wasn't anything else to work with.

Now there is, and we should use it. Contingent history doesn't imply conceptual necessity. We don't have to ground our social systems in medieval theology any more than we have to build planes with canvas wings, just because that's how the Wright brothers got into the air.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ramen and cholesterol: I am a world authority!

Mind the palm oil.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled "Ramen, my cholesterol and the history of the world," explaining how I'd been blithely treating instant ramen noodles as a health food, when in fact they're chock-full of palm oil, which is basically the stuff you put in your veins when your goal is to help your local cardiac surgeons pay off their student loans early. 

The post got a fair number of hits, which is always nice. Then, a couple of months ago, I noticed something weird: It had become the No. 1 result for the Google search on the words "ramen" and "cholesterol." Try it! As of this writing, it was still the case. 

That should tell you something about the reliability of the Internet. I'm not a nutritionist, and make no pretense of being one. Nor have I delved deeply into the ramen-cholesterol link: I read one NPR article, photographed the back of a package, and wrote a single post. But as far as Google's search algorithm is concerned, I'm your go-to guy.

So, on Tuesday, I get this:
I hope all is well with you.  Healthline just published an infographic detailing the effects of high cholesterol on the body.  This is an interactive chart allowing the reader to pick the side effect they want to learn more about. You can see the overview of the report here
Our users have found our guide very useful and I thought it would be a great resource for your page: "Ramen, my cholesterol levels and the history of the world."
I would appreciate it if you could review our request and consider adding this visual representation of the effects of high cholesterol to your site or sharing it on your social media feeds.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
All the best,
Maggie Danhakl • Assistant Marketing Manager

Become a scare-quote "expert," and you get solicitations from real ones! I went and checked out Healthline's site. Their cholesterol graphic is indeed attractive (click it to visit the original):

On their site, when you point to the various organs, you get a popup with more information. Also, their information, unlike mine, has been medically reviewed by an actual doctor, George Krucik, MD, MBA.

So by all means, check out Healthline. Happy to oblige, Maggie! Also, go easy on the instant ramen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Notes on cooking

Four plantains yielded nine
mofongo patties. Here's one of 'em.
I've been cooking for myself for a couple of decades now. I'm no one's idea of a great chef, but I get by. With few exceptions, I stay comfortably inside my area of expertise (basically, Asian food, plus various kinds of vegetarian stew and goulash) and all is well.

One nice thing about sticking to what you know is that you learn how the recipes work, so you can improvise if need be. To wit, on Monday night, I finally got around to using the plantains in my refrigerator. I'd bought them to make mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish. It's straightforward: You boil them, mash them up with some garlic, salt and pepper, form them into balls and fry them. Very tasty. (And yes, I realize they're neither Asian nor goulash.) 

Unfortunately, I added too much stock during the mashing stage, so the plantains were too goopy to fry properly. What to do? Well, if you want to wring moisture out of something, baking works nicely. And if I pan-fried the goop beforehand and let it absorb some oil, I figured it would taste about the same in the end. 

So it did. Fried the goop, spooned it into some muffin pans I happened to have, baked for 10 minutes at 425 degrees, and voilà. I actually like this approach better, because deep-frying uses so much oil. It's messy, and the plantains suck it up like crazy. I think this will be the new SOP.

The plantains were four for $1, and it looks like I'll get three meals out of them. That's about as cheap as it gets. Which brings me to Good and Cheap, the free downloadable cookbook aimed at people in SNAP, aka food stamps. You should try it! Apparently it's reaching its target audience (NPR says it's been downloaded more than 200,000 times), and it should. It's a fine cookbook, and very practical.

I've liked the GandC recipes I've made, and I was delighted to find I'd already stumbled on my own onto many of author Leanne Brown's helpful hints for shopping and eating. (Though I have to say, I don't feel anywhere as nearly as strongly as she does about freshly ground pepper.) Fundamentally I agree with her basic attitude: If you do it right, you can eat within fairly tight time and money budgets and still eat very well. 

Don't know that I'd give my own cooking the honor of that "very," but I'm getting there. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bad compatibilism

(Note: Written in February, but I never hit "publish.")

Phil Plait, the author of the Bad Astronomy blog at, is distressed that America has such a major hangup when it comes to evolution: 
Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country. 
“Provably wrong.” A bracing phrase, and an accurate one. But if that’s the case, then why do millions of Americans embrace said belief, why do conservative politicians constantly scheme to have it taught in classrooms? The problem for us rationalists, says Plait, is the messaging: 
The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs. But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. 
Pope John Paul II acknowledged evolution’s reality, Plait notes, so surely religion and evolution can be harmonized. Sadly, many Americans associate evolution with atheism, which they revile. So break that link! More religious people should speak up for evolution, Plait says, and show it’s not a threat:
[I]f we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.
Plait then attempts to show just that ... and falls flat on his face: 
Whether you think life originated out of ever-more complex chemical reactions occurring on an ancient Earth, or was breathed into existence by God, evolution would take over after that moment. It’s a bit like the Big Bang; we don’t know how the Universe came into existence at that moment, but starting a tiny fraction of a second after that event our science does a pretty fair job of explanation. 
That's what's known in the trade as the “god of the gaps” argument, and it automatically earns you an "F." Tucking God into a couple of early moments in the universe that we can't quite explain might look like an innocuous way of keeping the supposed Omniscient Author of the Universe in business. But consider: What happens if and when we find explanations for those moments, too? Does Plait really think the God's-breath theory of life's origins has a chance of beating out the complex-chemical-reaction theory? 

More to the point, Plait is basically conceding that we don't need God as an explanatory factor for roughly 99 percent of the history of the universe. That's quite a lot, and rather more than a believer is likely to be happy with.

Listen, for example, to the believers cited in this post about the HBO documentary "Questioning Darwin" (my italics in what follows):  
I think a lot of rationalists tend to fall into thinking creationists are just dumbasses. What I really liked about the documentary was that it didn’t hesitate to show how creationists can be articulate and actually quite persuasive, if you accept their premises. Indeed, a lot of them talked at length about how their belief in a loving god who specifically created the universe for them is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory (and other scientific theories based in astronomy, physics, and geology that demonstrate that the universe and our planet are very, very old—Ken Ham at one point tries to argue down the idea that light from stars is millions of years old when it gets to us), and you know what? I found that argument persuasive. Certainly more persuasive than the typical attempt to reconcile the obvious fact that evolution is true with the desire to believe in a loving god, which is usually some variation of, “Well, God created the universe through evolution.”
To believe that, the creationists point out, you have to believe their god is a complete and utter moron, that he spent billions of years spinning out galaxies and stars and let the Earth lay dormant for billions of years before sparking a single-celled life into being and then spending the next billion years carefully guiding evolution until finally he got what he wanted: A human civilization that is literally only a few thousand years old. If you’ve ever been to a museum where they put a piece of paper on top of a rock formation to show how insignificant we are in terms of time—or if you’ve ever pondered how tiny our planet is in the great expanse of space—then this is beyond idiotic. It’s like taking multiple generations of people tending an oven to make a cupcake.
Ex-ACT-ly. Nine times out of 10, if people say they've reconciled science and religion, it's either because they don't understand the former or they've rendered the latter into vague, formless mush. To take Christianity as an example, surely St. Peter, St. Paul and the rest of the church fathers thought their doctrine amounted to more than "be nice to each other and feel a sense of wonder about the world." But allow pretty much any substantive metaphysics into your Christianity — the personal God, the divinity of Jesus, the immortal soul, miracles, the resurrection of the dead — and you bump up against major contradictions with the scientific worldview. Conversely, if you pay attention to what the scientific method tells us about coherence, falsifiability, standards of evidence and so on, theology becomes very hard to take at all seriously. Just wishing these two intellectual disciplines could play nicely with each other, won't make it so.