A month or so ago, I read Chana Messinger’s post about steelmanning other people’s arguments, which is a great article. And then I heard a phrase from a talk by Bryan Cantrill (a very good software engineer) where he called his co-presenter “The Public Defender” [of bad software]. His coworker/copresenter defended a piece of terrible software in the middle of his complaining about it, and Bryan exclaimed (something like) “You’re such a public defender. You’ll defend any bad code, won’t you?” This was even funnier later in the talk, when Bryan was talking about some missing functionality in one of his programs, and the coworker responded prompting Bryan to quip “Don’t tell me I need a Public Defender.” about his own work.

Being a Public Defender of Bad Ideas

It’s no secret that most people believe a lot of dumb things. I’m sure I’ve got some somewhere. So in order to put people at ease, it’s often a good idea to give good defenses of bad ideas and bad arguments. It raises the bar of discourse and results in people strengthening their skills. Part of this is obviously steelmanning your opponent’s ideas, but what you also do is humanize the in absentia opponent. Psychological factors affect all of our faculties, and in order to just simply get things done, we’re all subject to unquestioned assumptions, and it’s simply part of the economy of our scarce time on earth that we’ve got to pick which things to pick apart. Plus, when these arguments involve religion (and most do), I need to remind myself: I was once one of them. I believed. In a sense, I’m defending my past…something that formed part of who I am.

The Pathology of The Public Defender

There is a certain pathology from being a steelmanning Public Defender. Sometimes people get really angry and feel betrayed by defending these obviously-bad ideas. Sometimes these people need to grow up. Other times, these are just people venting their frustration. They’re spouting off a bunch of things they find repugnant about an idea off the top of their heads to just let off steam…something between l’esprit de l’escalier and being forced to shut up to maintain peace between them and themselves/family.

But there are also times that some people are simply traumatized by their past with these ideas and are just incapable of processing them the same way. They just simply lash out at the argument with a lot of emotion. And what I really want to say is that I have done this before. I’ve been insensitive to the psychological issues people have with their pasts, and making demands for better arguments puts them in a place where they aren’t going to be flourishing human beings. So there is a balance to strike here to avoid becoming a blanket Public Defender, and I think compassion is something I’ve developed to avoid it. Needless to say, the danger of knowing when to be the Public Defender is something you have to know, as at some extreme point it’s continuous with trolling and bullying.

Joyfully Resigned to Public Defender Status

There’s just a joy I get from steelmanning, and even defending religious ideas to atheists to see if they can get around all the roadblocks I put up. It’s fun to show people the “roadmap” of certain intellectual spaces, at least how I have learned them. There are even ways of making bad ideas interesting by linking them in to larger good ideas that have some potential merit. It’s fun to play with someone’s mind and their perceptions of other people, if only to make things look just strange enough to warrant a deeper look. Hopefully what I’m doing will help people in some way or another.

There’s now a new title on this blog: “Breaking Dawn”. It comes from a song/poem in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.

23. Interpretation

Interpreting myself, I always read

Myself into my books. I clearly need

Some help. But all who climb on their own way

Carry my image, too, into the breaking day.

Nietzsche here seems to be claiming his followers. They are not necessarily all of those who read him, but those who choose to do likewise by doing otherwise—all those who choose their own way. Even if one does not reject an old orthodoxy, she must be willing to leave any belief if it fails tough scrutiny.

One of my goals in my life is to enable others to make the best decisions they can…to live powerfully and effectively…to maximally flourish. That’s a value I can find meaning in.

New happenings: I will start blogging more. I will make room in my schedule to do it. The only way I will learn to be a more disciplined thinker right now is to write more, and it’s also a way of keeping myself accountable for the things I’ve thought in the past.

Dan Fincke’s Civility Pledge

I’m going to stand with Dan and take it. I had some misgivings at first, because sometimes I like to make fun of people who say stupid things, though not too severely. I’ve had my own mind changed when someone called what I said “silly”, and I imagine that’s what happens when I do it with some other people when they are being voluntarily obtuse (like I often can be), but I can’t ever be sure of my own talent and skill (or my own smugness). That said, I think there are ways I can avoid doing so, so I will avoid it.

Dan Savage called the Bible a “pro-slavery document”. I tend to agree. Through exegetical gymnastics, inerrant Biblicists either refuse to acknowledge or legitimize a historical reading of the Bible devoid of value-judgement or theology. Even so, I think that today’s understanding of the Bible from these inerrantists still damns the Bible for what they want it to be. For fundamentalists, the Bible is a straightforward guidebook on how to live one’s life. Without scriptural authority, they see life and morality as unmoored and adrift in a sea of relativism. Continue reading

I’m a pretty confrontational arguer. Frankly, I’m often an ass. But why do I have to be such an ass? Well, I honestly don’t mean to be, but sometimes I just don’t care enough to not be an ass. I try. Sometimes, anyway.

I argue about things because finding the truth is primarily a moral issue for me, and I think it should be for almost anyone else as well. If you respect the autonomy of the individual, and you respect that they have moral responsibilities with their decisions, then you are under moral obligation to argue with them about things that affect their decision if you disagree with them. If they don’t want the argument, I’ll back off. I just can’t make that decision FOR THEM in advance. It’s related to an old SCOTUS saying about free speech: it’s the right to hear other people you disagree with. And that also means that I’m required to listen to people that infuriate me (though mostly, I think it’s cute).

This is what a functioning public square is supposed to look like.

I have a few ministers on my Facebook that I interact with, and I find most of them interesting. Kevin Childs has written a post about publicly pious Christians, and I think I would like to do him the honor of criticizing and extending his post.

A Quick Criticism

The problems I had with the post are so minor as to border quibbling, but I did want to criticize part of a paragraph:

[...] An increasingly secular culture screams (and litigates) louder and louder for outspoken Christians to get more and more silent. And plenty of Christians seem to agree that religion is a personal, private thing that should not be voiced in polite company.

I think this is the conflation of two issues. Our culture may becoming slightly more secular than it was, but it is a predominantly Christian culture. How I would divide things is that at least 15% (probably closer to 20%) of people are unaffiliated with any specific religion and many of those (5-8% of the population, total) now explicitly identify as atheist, humanist, or agnostic (these are not mutually exclusive categories). About 25-30% of the US is religiously conservative and most of those are evangelical Christians of some stripe. Minority religions don’t make up much of the remaining percent, leaving most of the rest to be nominal Christians of some type. In short, these are your guys doing this to the culture, don’t blame us for that.

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Belief in God naturally leads to conversations that revolve around telos or “the ultimate purpose or aim” of something. When propositions such as evolution come up, telos takes a kind of sideways turn. A personal creator God (classically generic monotheism) not only creates things, but through his personal nature gives telos to everything in reality, and living creatures particularly. Most arguments for God that result in a personal God are those that revolve around lending this telos, but evolution destroys this. While evolution can account for the mechanistic account, it is not a plausible account of “Creation” to a believer because it does not contain telos.

How does evolution destroy telos and not replace it? Because evolution accounts completely naturally for life in a functional way, and in that the only telos available is self-purpose, which is tautological. But there is something like telos that’s available for reasoning about things that’s compatible with evolution, and works very analogously to telos: Nietzsche’s metaphysical power.

The power of a thing is its inclination or intention to be the best of itself. (Aside: I know, I know, this is anthropomorphic. Don’t care. I’m not doing science, guys.) Speciation events occur when there are 2 or more paths towards being a better thing that do no preclude the other option. Telos also fails here as well (not only as a tautology) because it would require at least 2 separate telos for speciation. For example, if evolution were true and bacteria were made to evolve into man, why are there still bacteria? Their means are met, and their continued existence flies in the face of teleological reasoning. (Note to apologists: so, you could say that bacteria have the telos to support man, but there are bacteria that have evolved so that they harmed man. Telos defeated yet again.)

Another way that telos get messed up with regards to evolution is that evolution thus becomes proscriptive. Evolution as being some kind of propositional/conditional truth becomes part of the natural theology that came before it. Society itself must operate under evolutionary rules to become the most efficient. This isn’t a bad idea with telos if you think that the environment itself is also driven by a purpose. If that’s the case, then there are no random events. But because telos is ultimate, teleological reasoning ignores alternatives and places no value on diversity. Whatever fits the environment for its telos is the telos of the thing, including humanity. Nietzsche’s power, by contrast, recognizes the great worth of diversity. Power has preservation against circumstance as part of its nature. When we’re talking about survival, the largest range of survivable circumstance is the best long term option.

This is why I find it so odd that so many creationists when faced with Nietzsche and evolution will bring up Hitler and the Nazis or eugenics. Any consistent understanding of either Nietzsche’s power dynamics or evolution shows the ludicrous nature of the kind of eugenics proposed during the first half of the last century as well as Hitler’s views on the concept of a master race. What Hitler and eugenics have in common is a teleological reasoning about ultimate purpose that is singularly-minded and is ill-adapted to reality. Both have in mind a singular purpose for humanity, while Nietzsche’s power creates the diversity required for the best chance of human existence and Nietzsche’s overman (not covered here) is about the pluralistic self-discovery of ways to be more than human.

Note: It’s late at night, but I’m publishing this anyway. I’m tired.

I see atheists mixing up 2 adjectives: biblical and Christian. The difference is actually rather simple. Christianity is a heterogenous set of beliefs and in its modern carnation is probably best described as being centered around belief in the atonement of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. As I’m about to go on to talk about, there are things in the canon (hence biblical) that are not part of Christian tradition, and thus calling them Christian is just confused.

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There’s an old adage in the newspaper industry: “If the headline asks a question, the answer is ‘no’.” But it’s an interesting turn of phrase. So what brought it about?

Lately, I’ve had ministers/pastors/priests add me on Facebook. Apparently, I’m good conversation. My arguments with them have been pretty fun, and I’ve even had fun making some theological arguments against some of their positions (most of them are politically hard-right). I’ve learned a lot about what kind of arguments and counter-arguments do hold actual sway.

Lately, I’ve also been somewhat disappointed in the average atheist I’ve seen argue. Sometimes even some of the internet-famous atheists have just seemed to not even try to understand what the theistic argument they’re being presented is even about. They just rebut the argument exactly as stated, but often not as what the believer usually meant. I even started to think that I might prefer talking to these active clergy more.

I was wrong. And now I’m “coming home to Jesus” in a sense. I still have these disagreements with some atheists, but most of them are worth arguing with. I’ll continue arguing with most of the ministers, but lately one of them has really gotten on my nerves. I try to make my counterarguments against the best construal of his argument, but I just don’t get reciprocation. He’s insinuated that I’m arrogant (which is probably true, but I’d prefer my argument addressed), and he retreats to pedantry or to metaphysics when he feels boxed in by arguments. Now, I’m afraid that he’s just one person not worth arguing with.*

Anyway, for the short time being I have to say it: The best reason to be an atheist is because it’s true.

* I still want to kick his ass for using Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism without realizing the potential heresy in it that I think I’ve found.

So, I think in order to blog seriously, I need a more serious blog than what I was doing at tumblr. But what does the blog’s name mean? Well, I might explain later, but I think I should introduce myself.

My name is Alex Songe. I code programs for a living, and I like to think I do philosophy for fun (among other things), though I always have a sneaking suspicion that I’m failing at doing philosophy (but never at fun). I grew up a fundamentalist charismatic Christian, believed it all, spoke in tongues, was slain in the spirit, and now I’m a pragmatic naturalist. Okay, I’m an atheist. I want this blog to show how I like to stumble around subjects I barely understand, and try my hardest to explain what about them I do understand.

So what’s with this blog’s name? Having grown up a Christian, there were certain values that were instilled in me that do happen to be things I still value, even if I don’t always practice or possess these qualities. One of these qualities was to know what is true. I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t value knowledge just for its own sake. To me, there is bliss in knowing something. Ironically, my grades dropped in school because I felt more justified in learning new things than in studying for a test. To study what one knows just to pass a test seemed crass to me. It ruined what knowledge was for. In the Christian sense in which I was brought up, the Bible was intended to be a mirror for humanity’s sinful nature. This was even taken in devotional readings of the Bible. The Bible would “beat you down” about some sin in your life, and the guilt, shame, and low self-esteem you felt from this was taken gladly. This was a form of “correction” from the Holy Spirit, and God only chastises those he loves. This was just God’s way of making you more perfect. To fall short of these high standards without reference to your fellow-man (who is just as depraved in comparison to the standard) is the “Hard Truth”. I say that “is” the Hard Truth because unattainable goals of morality and goodness still appeal to me, even after leaving the faith, though I have learned how to live within the practical potential I am able to achieve.

In another sense, the title of the blog is a lie, and I want that to stand out as well. I believe Truth to be direct and perfect propositional knowledge of some aspect of reality. When one undertakes this standard for Truth under some belief that no system is causally unlinked from the whole of physical reality, Truth seems unattainable. We can make modest claims to justified beliefs, or possibly even knowledge, but truth and Truth seem to be unattainable on their own. We can make educated guesses as to how close to the truth we are, and collectively people can approach it, but I just don’t see how one can justify possessing Truth itself. Truth is hard to obtain, and Hard Truth is impossible to possess. But it is worth seeking.