Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: doing good (page 2 of 2)

Plant rights

Wesley J. Smith at the Weekly Standard has written an article lambasting the Swiss for their supposed stand on “plant rights”.

Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, that gang of lying clowns who are attempting to take advantage of the uncertainty of science so they can wedge Intelligent Design into schools. I hope you’ll forgive me for spoiling that surprise, but it’ll make the author’s point of view so much clearer if you know that at first, instead of having to wait until the end of the article like I did, when they unveil the author’s identity and you realise you could have put the whole thing in the bin to start. Then again, it is the Weekly Standard.

As a vegetarian, I suppose I feel the same about plants’ rights as meat-eaters do about animal rights. I eat plants because I have to eat something, and I have no problem with doing so because they don’t have feelings, despite what you’ve heard about their psychic powers. Having feelings requires having a brain, and there’s nothing in a plant that corresponds to that kind of structure. On the other hand, I try not to waste plants or treat them mean because I used to read “The Lorax” like every other kid, and someone’s gotta speak for the trees, man. Plus I like to eat plants, and I want to make sure there’s enough of them around for later.

Smith’s discussion of the legally binding nature of ‘plant rights’ is (surprise) misleading. I’ve read the committee report that he mocks as ludicrous. It’s kind of interesting, less of a policy statement than a report on a group discussion. The committee differed widely on what constitutes a good reason to destroy or use plants, and the report explains this up front. It discusses the various views of panel members, but about the only solid conclusion they came to was that plants shouldn’t be arbitrarily destroyed for no rational reason. Which, you know, seems kind of hard to disagree with unless you’re an unreconstructed Dominionist, like Smith seems to be.

Here’s Smith’s take:

What is clear, however, is that Switzerland’s enshrining of “plant dignity” is a symptom of a cultural disease that has infected Western civilization, causing us to lose the ability to think critically and distinguish serious from frivolous ethical concerns. It also reflects the triumph of a radical anthropomorphism that views elements of the natural world as morally equivalent to people.

Isn’t it weird that it’s okay to anthropomorphise nature into a god-being that cares for us, but it’s not okay to anthropomorphise a plant? And if you’ve never seen them anthropomorphise a fetus, well, you’re missing out.

Why is this happening? Our accelerating rejection of the Judeo-Christian world view, which upholds the unique dignity and moral worth of human beings, is driving us crazy. Once we knocked our species off its pedestal, it was only logical that we would come to see fauna and flora as entitled to rights.

You knew it was going to be teh Athiests, didn’t you? Well, that’s pretty interesting. Let’s take a look at that Christianity and how it ‘upholds the unique dignity and moral worth of human beings’ (courtesy of the Brick Testament):

Slavery: okley-dokley.

Women: keep ’em quiet.

Humans: debased sinners.

Well, I feel special now.

What Smith is saying is what all conservatives from Archie Bunker onward have been saying: everyone used to know their place. People were at the top of the ladder, we ate animals and cut down all the trees we wanted, everyone was happy, and no problems ever came up. Until the ’60s, when hippies created all those environmental problems out of sheer faith, because believing things makes them come true and ignoring things makes them disappear, by the grace of dog. And so Smith tries to contrast New Age woo against good ol’ Abrahamic religion, not realising that both are different manifestations of the same problem: the human tendency to embrace unreason. 

One rational perspective would be this: Even though plants do not show evidence of consciousness, it would still be morally (the report does not say legally) wrong to destroy them arbitrarily. Humans are one species among many, and we have a great capacity for help or harm. Plants have a certain right to exist, as do humans. The way we manage plants (indeed, how we manage everything) needs to be considered wisely and rationally, and with a view to minimising our impact on nature.

All of which is implied by the Swiss report, but you wouldn’t know it by the way Smith pulls the most controversial minority opinions out of the text. A creationist quote-mining? Now there’s a real surprise.

Deconversion stories: The last Sunday School lesson

I was a Sunday School teacher when I hit what turned out to be the initial months of my deconversion. I’d promised myself years earlier that I wouldn’t testify that anything was true unless I believed it to be true. As belief ground down, that eventually meant that I couldn’t say very much at all. So I began to notice that I hadn’t been teaching church doctrine as ‘true’, but rather as merely ‘helpful’ (although that claim could have used some scrutiny). My Sunday School lessons tended to focus not on the truthfulness of the gospel, but on self-improvement, learning to be happy in life, and other humanist values. Pretty watered-down stuff, but it was best I could do if I wanted to hang on to religion and reason.

I remember the last lesson I ever gave in Sunday School. I hated it. I realised that I was talking around the subject material, probably because I was coming to the uncomfortable realisation that I didn’t believe it. I guess I was having a conflict between what I had always thought and believed was true, and a whole body of opposite information that seemed to be demonstrably true. How I hated that conflict.

Toward the end of that lesson, I said “I’m grateful for the scriptures. They’ve taught me a regard for truth, and while insisting on truth isn’t always comfortable, I’ve found that it can be a help when…”

The class waited.

“…when your belief system changes very rapidly, as mine has.”

It was the closest I ever came to making a public confession of doubt in church.

Of course, I closed the lesson “in the name of Jesus Christ” as was customary, but it felt like my mouth was full of sand. How could anyone presume to do anything in his name? What were we all doing here?

Compared to some, I got off easy. It’s difficult to go through a deconversion, but how hard must it be when your religion is also your job? Jeffrey has forwarded me this article about priests and pastors who deconvert.

McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. “You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror,” he says of his sermons. “But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I’m a fraud.”

I hear that.

McAllister is not just scared for himself. “I know that my parishioners look to me for comfort,” he says. “They’re coming to the end of their life and they want some assurance that it’s all going to be OK. I have sat at the deathbed of people in my congregation and told them what I regard as lies—or fantasies, at least—just to give them comfort. I’m willing to do that up to a point, but not for the rest of my working life.”

Then there’s the practical dimension. McAllister owes the church $18,000 for his schooling, at the same time as he’s trying to put his last son through college. “I’m 56, which isn’t a real good age to be pounding the pavement, and I’ve got a master’s of divinity, not the most marketable degree in the world.”

Ouch. I guess the Mormon tradition of having a lay ministry saved me some pain.

But have a look at an idea being floated by the RDF:

Richard Dawkins is convinced that McAllister’s situation is common; in fact, he hopes one day to address it through “clergyman-retraining scholarships,” set up through his charitable foundation, to “bridge the gap between living a lie and getting a new life,” as he puts it.

Damn, that is forward thinking. I’m going to have to give a serious look at adding the Richard Dawkins Foundation to my charity list.

This is an amazing article. I felt like every one of the stories from the ex-clergy contained something from my own experience. See if you don’t agree.

More questions from the search logs

People posed questions to Google, searching for wisdom, and instead found themselves here, looking at posts that were only tangentially related. Well, now I’m answering their questions. Too bad they left in disgust before they could read these responses, but you’re in luck.

is there ever a good reason for children to work

Why, yes, there is. My boys and I have just finished cleaning up Australia. (It took a while, but now it’s done for another year.) We spent a couple of hours picking up rubbish at a public park nearby with other volunteers. The boys got to do some public service, and they now have little patience with people who litter. I also learned that every volunteer thinks they’re going to find a body in the leaves, like at the beginning of a CSI episode.

But I think the question refers to child labor. Employers would love to get their hands on children because they’re cheap, compliant, and don’t unionise. Thank goodness progressives in the last century worked to pass laws to stop the exploitation of child workers. But you’d expect the current generation of conservative vipers to wish for a return to the Gilded Age, and argue for rollbacks. And so they do.

Meet Connor. He’s a constitutional conservative, a Mormon, and is currently in training to become a member of the next generation of apologists for unreconstructed small-government conservatism. He sharpens his rhetorical chops on his blog, where you’ll sometimes find me disrupting the social fabric. And the most jaw-dropping post so far has been this one where he argues that government has no business dictating the terms of child labour, and that it should be left up to financially desperate parents and their children. Can’t see any problems coming there!

This is why I say that movement conservatism is a pathology. Allowing employers to exploit children like in the old days would cause untold problems. And what problems would it solve? The problem of not enough conservatism? It’s madness. And since no one’s going to implement their program in totality, there’s no way to show them it’s madness. They’ll always claim that their program hasn’t been followed in an ideologically pure fashion.

Have a look at the post and prepare to shake your head in amazement. This is the logical conclusion of small-government libertarianism. They really are amoral cretins.

fatherly quotes

My father had a lot of quotes, mostly because he liked to say the same things over and over. As an educator, he called it ‘reinforcement’, but as a kid I called it ‘boring’. But at least I still remember a few things he said, so maybe he was onto something.

When, as a kid, I would get my shoelaces in a knot, Dad would untie them for me, and as he did, he’d say:

If a string is in a knot,
Patience will untie it.
Patience can do anything.
Have you ever tried it?

And now I say it to my boys, and the cycle continues. Cycle of what, I won’t say.

And my favourite:

When in danger,
When in doubt,
Run in circles.
Scream and shout.

I have followed this advice many times.

does milk cause mucus
do dairy products cause mucus
does dairy cause mucous
does dairy cause mucus
milk causing mucus

How many ways can we ask this question? Can we spell ‘mucus’ any differently? What if we include the various spellings of ‘yoghourte’?

But however you ask it, the answer is still: nope, milk does not cause mucus or mucous. Here’s a recent (2005) study entitled Milk Consumption Does Not Lead to Mucus Production or Occurrence of Asthma. From the abstract:

There is a belief among some members of the public that the consumption of milk and dairy products increases the production of mucus in the respiratory system. Therefore, some who believe in this effect renounce drinking milk. According to Australian studies, subjects perceived some parameters of mucus production to change after consumption of milk and soy-based beverages, but these effects were not specific to cows’ milk because the soy-based milk drink with similar sensory characteristics produced the same changes. In individuals inoculated with the common cold virus, milk intake was not associated with increased nasal secretions, symptoms of cough, nose symptoms or congestion. Nevertheless, individuals who believe in the mucus and milk theory report more respiratory symptoms after drinking milk.

So if you believe dairy causes mucus, and if you think you’ve just drunk some, you’ll report more mucus. Even if you haven’t had any.

40 and still in grad school

Hey, that’s a bit harsh. Go somewhere else if you’re going to be like that.

Australia finally ready to say ‘sorry’

The Howard government steadfastly refused to apologise to Australian Aboriginals for policies that saw children taken from their homes. Now with a new Prime Minister, the hardest word — ‘sorry’ — will finally be said.

Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, will deliver the apology to the “stolen generations” on the floor of Parliament on February 13. It will be the Labor Government’s first item of business.

“It’s building a bridge of respect which I think has been in some state of disrepair in recent decades,” Mr Rudd said. “But having crossed that bridge, the other part of it is all about practical business.”

The apology will come more than a decade after a government inquiry established that at least 100,000 children were removed from their parents between about 1869 and 1969. They were placed in orphanages run by churches or charities, or fostered out to socialise them with European culture. Some were brutalised or abused.

Americans, can you imagine what it must feel like for this Australian to see a return to sanity? For years, our respective governments have approached every problem with a stubborn belligerence, doing whatever they wanted, legal or not, moral or not, and they dared us to hold them accountable. Now in Australia at least, reasonable grownups hold the reins. Somehow it makes you feel exhilerated, and want to cry at the same time. I hope you get to experience this soon.

I remember the first Sorry Day in 1998, when people decided to go over Howard’s head, and apologise one on one. I happened to meet an Aboriginal man working at a community market. The place was mostly empty. I chatted with him for a while, and then said, “I just wanted to say sorry.”

He said, “It’s cool.”

But of course it was not cool. Not for him and not for the Native Americans of my own country. Nor for any of the displaced tribes whose history has been forgotten in nation after nation.

So I hope that in addition to a verbal apology, the Rudd government will back it up with money for social programs (in preference to the individuals themselves) to help stop the problems that still plague these communities.

It’s not all kumbaya over here, though. See this page for some truly nasty letters to the editor, including this one.

If being civilised and having modern technology is so hard for this tiny minority of aborigines who want to whinge (wasting tax payers money and destroying the reputation of most aborigines who are very decent hardworking smart people), then why don’t we fence off the National park, they can move there and live without our technology – see how long they last when they don’t even have the wheel.
Posted by: Anthony Henry of 5:40pm January 28, 2008

You stay classy, Telegraph readers.

Meme tag: Life and how to live it

I’ve been tagged by snowqueen to answer these questions.

1. How did the world and all that is in it come into being?

My son says that it was barfed up by Burunfa, the Great Sky Dog. Dinosaur fossils are just stuff that Burunfa had eaten. He also says that if you do what Burunfa says, you get to go Barunfa-land, which is a really great place. Also, he says that he is the sole emissary of Burunfa, and you have to do what he says, including giving him money and chocolate. He could be wrong, but with so much at stake, can I afford to take the chance? Or perhaps he’s just a clever scam artist, like everyone who runs a religion.

You should probably ask someone who knows about physics.

2. What is reality in terms of knowledge and truth?

Reality is that which an idealised scientific community agrees is true, over the very long term.

3. How does/should the world function?

I don’t have an answer for this. I don’t have any special understanding of how the world works, or else I’d be better at navigating around its systems.

4. What is the nature of a human being?

Human beings are bundles of desires, preferences, and memories. They have generally good intentions and brains that make reasonably good decisions when conditions are not too complex. Otherwise, they fall victim to short-term gratification, perceptual bias, and paralysing fear. The antidote to these less-than-helpful behaviours is to behave ethically, use the scientific method, and calm the fuck down.

5. What is one’s personal purpose of existence?

I used to think there was a purpose that was the same for everyone, and if only we could find that purpose in life, then we could all just do it and be happy.

Now I think it’s more individuated. My purpose in life is to raise my children, do well in my work, and have loving relationships.

Rather than ask, “What’s the purpose of existence?”, I’d like to ask, “What purpose are you bringing to your existence?” It may not be out there to be found. You may have to make it.

6. How should one live?

One should survive, and seek ethical pleasure, in that order.

7. Is there any personal hope for the future?

If by ‘personal hope’ you mean ‘continual existence as an individual after your death’, then no, there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. Hope is in humanity and in the monuments you create and leave behind.

8. What happens to a person at and after death?

As an LDS missionary, I used to teach that we had a spirit inside us that went to the spirit world. I even used the metaphor of a hand in a glove — the glove dies, but the hand lives on (wiggle fingers). But that’s just a metaphor, not evidence, and I was wrong to teach it.

I might just as well have said that we’re like a lightbulb. A light bulb is a machine for making light, but once the filament goes, the machine doesn’t work anymore. But we don’t treat the light like some kind of entity that persists after the bulb burns out. Our bodies are like machines for living, and our brain is the filament.

Now maybe that’s wrong too, but it’s just as good a metaphor as the spirit idea, and I think it’s backed up by evidence better.

9. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

Your question presumes that we can. In fact, it is very difficult to say that we know something.

In the church I used to go to, they would perform a kind of communal reinforcement ritual every month. People would tell each other, “I know the gospel is true.” After 35 years, it really grated on my ears every time I heard it. They did not know it was true, they were merely certain, which is different.

To say that a claim is true, we need to have factual evidence for that claim. Even then, we may need to adjust the claim if new and better evidence comes in. So the things that we ‘know’ are true will all probably be disproven or updated beyond recognition in 200 years’ time. What we should be saying is not ‘I know X is true’ but ‘At this point, the best evidence we have suggests that we can be pretty certain that X is the case.’

That doesn’t give much room for certainty, does it? Welcome to the universe.

10. How does one know what is right and what is wrong?

Let’s say you have two tribes of humans. In one tribe, they never help each other. In the other, they sometimes do. The second tribe will do better at surviving, since two people together can do things that one person can’t.

We’re like the second tribe. We’ve survived long enough that human evolution has given us some traits, like compassion and altruism, that help us to live together in a somewhat orderly and helpful fashion. When we feel that something is right or wrong, we may be drawing upon our evolutionary heritage.

11. What is the meaning of human history?

Human history is an enormous bunch of cases where things happened. We use them to figure out what’s going to happen in the future, and how to stop it.

12. What does the future hold?

My future holds love, some sadness, time with people I love, good food, and a lifetime of striving for the good. I hope your future is good to you.

Three more things you should buy for Christmas

This born-again Atheist would like to wish everyone in the world a happy and secular Christmas. I did everything I wanted to this year. I put up the tree, sang Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah, had a huge Christmas luncheon, and got a hug from a boy who got a Nintendo DS for his Big Present. It was great.

But there are a few things I’m going to buy, and I think you should too.

1) A Flying Spaghetti Monster ornament for the tree. Yes, I know it’s a car decoration. Adapt it — tie some string on it or something!

2) A mosquito net. People are dying from malaria, and 10 lousy bucks could buy a net and save a life.

Hat tip to Connor.

3) I can’t think of a third thing. Help me out, people. What’s worth spending money on?

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