Playing it Both Ways

DarkSyde, from Unscrewing the Inscrutable, has posted a really interesting post today. It starts with the famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”- I have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why is this interesting? Well, it’s interesting because DarkSyde is an atheist. I know this because it’s practically all he ever talks about. I know that he likes Pink Floyd, because of his net handle, but otherwise, I know he’s an atheist. Here’s a fun quote to support my characterization:

I too, have a dream, a vision of mankind’s destiny. I dream that one day we will throw off the last vestigial illusions of supernatural beings meddling with humanity, and that we will take full responsibility for our own future. No longer will we helplessly huddle in the cave from the lightning Gods and the spirits of wind and rain. No more will we rely on the peculiarities of imagined invisible deities for direction, nor look desperately to miraculous salvation which will never come. We are embedded, for better or for worse, in a physical universe unimpressed and unaffected with the ancient rites of a bronze aged near east mythology. This supernatural artifice of our cultural childhood must be discarded, if we are to attain true liberty and cultivate a desirous future.

He didn’t post the MLK quote in order to fisk it. No, he posted it in order to praise it, and use it as a jumping off point for his own statements.

DarkSyde thinks racism is bad. I do too. But I think it’s bad for precisely the same reasons that MLK thought it was bad- because it was a self-evident truth that all men are created equal.

That “created” part is kind of an important part of the statement. MLK’s belief in God was kind of an important part of his belief system. Without his belief in God, MLK’s beliefs in equality cannot be understood. It is precisely his “imagined invisible deities” and “supernatural artifice” that provide the foundation for MLK’s dream. Therefore, the quote is a little bit problematic for a jumping off point for an anti-religious rant.

Some people think that “self-evident” means “obvious”, which it doesn’t. “Self-evident” means that the idea is self-attesting, or carries its truth within itself, without the need for external proof. But to an atheist, nothing can be self-evident. Everything must be tested, proved, disproved, doubted, suspected, and only very carefully and tentatively accepted. This is because there is no authoritative revelation. The atheist can trust only his own senses and reasoning, and these are notoriously unreliable. If something is “self-evident”, it is a matter of faith. So nothing can be self-evident to the atheist.

In particular, how could it be “self-evident” to the atheist that all men are created equal, when the atheist does not believe that all men are created at all? He does not believe in God, so how could man be said to be created? The best DS could agree with is the statement, “We believe these truths to most likely be correct, that all men are equal.”

But then what is the basis for believing that truth, that equality is something that can be predicated of all men? Our equality is not based on genetics, is it? If so, if someone could prove to DarkSyde that, say, Polish people were genetically inferior to Chinese, would DarkSyde then accept that all people were in fact not equal?

All men are not obviously equal. Some are poor, some are rich. Some are strong or smart or beautiful, and some are weak and stupid and ugly. Some people are born with terrible deficiencies that make rational thought practically impossible for such a person and likely curtails their lifespan quite a bit. Some people have tremendous political power, so that they can command the deaths of thousands at a whim. Some, on the other hand, will be one of those thousands.

Intelligence? Not equal. Power? Not equal. Strength? Beauty? Goodness? Independence, either in a political or biological sense? Not equal.

There is simply no criteria that science can establish by which people can be regarded as equal. If DarkSyde then claims to agree with MLK’s statement, which of course is from our Declaration of Independence, on what basis does he judge that claim? On what basis does he believe that men are in fact equal? What characteristic of man, which must override all other characteristics, is equal in its degree in every single instance of the species “human”? (and by the way, at what point in the womb of their mother does such an instance attain that magic predication of equality, DS?)

Within an evolutionary context, there seems to be no basis at all for the absolute adherence to the creed that racism is bad. If different segments of human beings were largely separated from each other for a period of time, why is it difficult to believe that some races developed more quickly than others? The worst you could say is that racism is a flawed scientific concept, but why should it be castigated as evil?

In MLK’s cosmology, and in mine, all men are equal because all men have souls created in the image of God. That is our source of equality. Take away the soul, and the equality is gone.

So I will ask you, DarkSyde- on what basis do you believe men to be equal? And what scientific evidence could I provide you with to prove to you that different races of people might in fact be unequal?

If there is no scientific evidence that I could provide you with to make that case, then that sounds a lot like religion to me.

17 thoughts on “Playing it Both Ways

  1. Matt,

    Right on, man. You rock. The secularists have kidnapped the child of Christianity, liberty, and it is about time we rescued her. The atheist vaunts that he has the intellectual highground, when in fact he stands upon a foundation of sand, a shifting dune of irrationality. Just as they cannot find a valid ultimate premise, they are completely unable to deal with the logical and moral consequences of their assertions.

    Andrew McIntyre

  2. So I will ask you, DarkSyde- on what basis do you believe men to be equal?

    TY for the link. Humans are extraordinarily homogeneous from the standpoint of genetics. Homo sapiens apparently speciated recently, the original population was perhaps in the 5,000 to 10,000 range about 200 KYA. When a small population expands rapidly over a short period of time, you get a great deal of similarity. It’s not clear how much of that expansion was simple replacement of existing hominid popualtions and how much it resulted from fixing genes across cultural boundaries via flow. But the end result is that often times an eskimoe, and an Australian Aborigine are more closely related to one another genetically, than two chimps in the same tribe are related to one another. So yes, as near as we can tell, extant human subpopulations are unusually homogeneous, with the small variations of skin tone and ethnic features represetning a very tiny and mostly cosmetic differential of little consequence.

    And what scientific evidence could I provide you with to prove to you that different races of people might in fact be unequal?Obvioulsy individual ability varies greatly among humans. However I assume you mean across wide swaths of sub-populations. Among humans, cultural factors simply swamp out potential phenotypical proclivities. Human brains are highly flexible in the sense that they can acquire, .i.e. self wire themselves, in a developmental process that is still poorly understood at the neurophysiological level. So while ethnocentric differentials can and do produce individuals with varying sets of what appear to be innate skills in adulthood, to assign such potentials at birth based merely on phenotypical racial traits would be a pretty tall order. One would have to somehow eliminate cultural factors, and humans are tremendously affected by those factors, so it’s unclear if such a study would carry any useful meaning.

  3. So genetics is your basis for judging equality and you believe that while it’s problematic to say that whole subgroups are unequal, it’s not scientifically impossible. Further, it’s likely that various adults are quite unequal.

    Translation: Dr. King’s dream really was just that- a dream, not reality. People are not equal, according to you. By any standard by which they can be judged, people are not equal and never have been.

  4. So genetics is your basis for judging equality and you believe that while it’s problematic to say that whole subgroups are unequal, it’s not scientifically impossible. Further, it’s likely that various adults are quite unequal.I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘equal’ Matt. Forensically, using only skeletol remains, we can distinguish among Cacausions, Negros, and Asians, with an ~80% accuracy rate, and if Asian e can furter subdivided between Oriental and American Indian to a (roughly) 60-70 % accuracy rate.
    In terms of abilities and skills, children are obvioulsy not equal to adults. Illiterate folks are obviously not equal to the educated in specific areas, and so forth. If you mean legally, then again we do have a legal difference between adults and children/minors. We do treat repeat offenders differently that first timers, etc. But in terms of broad equality of the kind I ,think you’re implying, humans are pretty homogeneous.
    Developmentally,It’s simply a fact of human physiology that our brains undergo a great deal of modification/developmental changes after birth, contingent on stimulus. If you compare the anatomy and phyioslogy of two brains after this period, one from an individual who was taught to read and write, acquired language, was nurtured, i.e., the norm of modern human interaction, with an individual who was raised in relative isolation, a horribly “neglected child” or feral-child type of environment, even if they’re identical twins, the difference between the two in easily observed clinical vectors of size, relative difference in key processing areas, and activity using active MRI’s, would be enormous. Without even sophisticated imaging, you can visually distinguish which is which with a superficial glance. That difference is so enormous, it overlaps variation between hominid species. With that kind of plasticity, it becomes problematic to say the least to isolate broad, inherent, differences even among the sexes, let alone between subpopulations. And even then, what value would be gained by treating individuals with a genetic differential in the 0.1 % range when the aforementioned developmental differences exceed 20 % in mass alone?
    Morally and legally, in our culture anyway, we grant all people the same basic constitutional rights. This morality is acquired much the same way we acquire language. That is children tend to pick it up with out putting in any concious effort, and then refine it throughout their lives conciously. This sense of morality one acquires is quirky, messy, often at times some moral memes conflict with others; such is the nature of our species. But it serves the purpose.

  5. DarkSyde,
    I already told you what I mean by equal- all possessing a soul made in the image of God.

    What do YOU mean by equal?
    You said,
    “Morally and legally, in our culture anyway, we grant all people the same basic constitutional rights.”

    Is this your only basis? Could we then rescind those rights, and that would make people not equal? MLK didn’t believe that people were made equal by legal fiat- they are equal because they are created equal.

    Maybe I need to make this clearer- Do you believe people actually are equal? And if so, please define in what way they are equal. You’ve mostly told me how you think people are not equal, with a vague statement to the effect that we just decided to call them equal despite their obvious inequality. Is that what you believe?

  6. Is this your only basis?I grew up in America circa 1970’s, and thus acquired the same ethical outlook on racism as most of my generation. To whit, People should not be discriminated against legally based on their occupations, wealth, race, creed, etc. It also makes sense scientifically as I’ve breifly discussed.
    So I guess my answer is no, that’s not the only basis, the quirky ethnocentrized sense or morality we all acquire in that sociome is largely universal on that issue. Only a few crackpots and racists publicly advocate otherwise. Had I grown up in a different time and a different culture, where racism was the norm, it’s highly likely I would have acquired that as my personal view.

    Could we then rescind those rights, and that would make people not equal?It can be done, yes, and some of the more extreme right wingers are suggesting their cultural and religious prejudices be ratified into the Constitution in such a way, affecting a wide variety of demographics. It requires modifying the Consitution via a known process, fairly drawn out. I am opposed to it BTW.

    MLK didn’t believe that people were made equal by legal fiat- they are equal because they are created equal.That is his opinion, and yours. Again in the case of the religious right they may claim to believe this, but in practice they do not follow it. Many wish to legally restrict the rights of gay citizens, some even wish to legally restrict the rights of Muslims, and in some extreme cases, of Jews or even atheists. There are those among the religious right who wish to be able to legally discriminate against anyone outside of their personal interp of Christian mythology. In addition they routinely treat foreigners in places such as Iraq as not deserving the same rights as citizens in the US, but to the best of my limited knowledge the deity you worship does not make significant distinctions between Iraqi’s and Americans, gays and heteros, etc. So this inconsistency between professed belief and actual political support is puzzling.

    In the broader sense, while King may have indeed believed that humans are endowed with a mysterious essense courtesy of a sky pixie, he pretty much spent his entire adult life campaigning for laws preventing discrimination of black Americans, and for those laws to be enforced. So if you’re implying he had no interest in using legal means to enforce his personal view, that implication is not going to fly for a second.

    Lastly, if King thought folks should be teated equally under the law because, in part, they were imbued with a magical spirit/essence, that does not mean I can’t champion that folks be treated the same under the law for less supernatural reasons, including an acquired sense morality with no real basis outside of my ethno-enculteration. It would be like claiming “Muslims are against murder because of the ten C’s, so you cannot be against murder unless you are a Muslim”. This is non sequitur, as it would be for any religous tradition substituted for Muslim.

  7. Thanks, DarkSyde. You’ve just admitted that you used MLK’s speech as a bit of gross manipulation, since you don’t believe a word of it. You don’t believe that people are “self-evidently” equal since you need to cite evidence to prove that they likely are equal. You don’t believe that they were created, given your well-documented aversion to deities. (BTW, when you meet my God, you won’t be calling him a “sky-pixie” anymore.) And you don’t even really believe that they’re equal at all, but that we have decided to call them equal by legal fiat.

    MLK didn’t use the legal system to declare people equal. He used the legal system to enforce the truth that they are equal. People are equal whatever the law says. I suppose if you’d grown up in certain parts of this country in the early 1800’s, you’d accept “ethical outlook of most of your generation”, that blacks were just sophisticated monkeys that were best off enslaved.

    Next you’ll use quotes from Copernicus to prove that the sun revolves around the earth.

  8. One more thing- precisely what made MLK so extraordinary was that he fought so hard against the views of his times. That’s what made him a hero. Having views simply because you’re the product of your culture makes you just a sheep.

  9. I suppose if you’d grown up in certain parts of this country in the early 1800’s, you’d accept “ethical outlook of most of your generation”, that blacks were just sophisticated monkeys that were best off enslaved.I have no idea for sure what you or I would think. But given that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many other critical members of our nations history were both slave owners and members of high standing in their community, it’s likely that in the right circumstances, you and I both would have acquired a much different moral perspective on slavery and racial equality.

    Thanks, DarkSyde. You’ve just admitted that you used MLK’s speech as a bit of gross manipulation, since you don’t believe a word of it.If that’s your opinion, that’s your prerogative. I plainly stated my thesis in my opening paragraphs Matt, there was no subterfuge. I did state that to me, DR King’s “Dream” inspired me beyond the context of civil rights. I then shared my own dream, one far removed from the context of civil rights, and invited readers to do the same. I dedicated it to DR King because it was, afterall, his day, I had it off, and was able to do so because of that. And I did write my peice on an atheist Blog, with a following of atheist readers, many of whom are also science buffs, so I tailored my piece to those readers and did so for their enjoyment and my own. Here, on your field, I have further answered you questions in good spirit, politely, and at length, without asking anything much from you. Yet your replies to me continue to convey a hostile and incriminating tone.

    In terms of ‘manipulation’ do a simple google search. You will find others, from newspapaers to Blogs to TV shows, not just bringing up King as a jumping off point as I did, but looking and attempting all kinds of segues. Some literally twisting his direct words to support their own personal politics. The latter is especially prevalent among the right wing blogs, as King’s words don’t handily support neoconservative political aspirations without considerable creative editorializing. Why did they do this? Likely for some of the same reasons I did: It was MLK Day.

    And in point of fact, you yourself are using the issue to subtlety accuse me off not being ‘fit’ to agree broadly with his views regarding the application of Constitutional Rights; worse, you seem to be coveting for yourself-in self-proclaimed sole propriety-the sensation of human inspiration, simply because I don’t buy into the underlying mythology both you and DR King share. I enjoy such shows at Touched by an Angel. without believing in the underlying premise, just as I enjoy shows portraying Santa Claus as well, or movies like The Ten Commandments. I grew up in this culture, I’m a product of it, and you’re well out of line in even suggesting I don’t ‘deserve’ to experience the sensations of my cutlural legacy.

    Perhaps you should be careful what you accuse others of, or what you pretentiously claim as your sole dominion. Simply because you share the same religion, doesn’t give you any more claim to DR King’s inspiring words than the next guy. And in point of fact Matt: I think I’m safe in guessing that DR King would agree more with my political viewpoint on a whole wide array of issues, as opposed to your own.

    In terms of being a ‘sheep’; Matt I’m an atheist, that puts me in the decided minority anyway you slice it. We are not a hot demographic. Politicians flee from even being associated with us, lest they be contaminited. Being an atheist is about as far as you get religiously and culturally from being part of the sheeple herd as you can possibly be.

  10. You spend all your time calling my religion “sky wizards” and other perjoratives, and insulting my intelligence for believing in them, and then get your nose bent out of shape at a sharp discussion? I have no hostility to you, though your views I find quite repugnant.

    All I’m saying is, it’s kind of ridiculous to use a quote to support a piece you’re writing, when you disagree with most everything in the quote. You don’t believe in creation, or that anything can be taken on faith (“Self-evident”), and yet you use that quote. It’s silly. And that’s what I’m pointing out.

    I never said you were a sheep, DS. I said that if you simply take your ethical views from your cultural background and upbringing, then you’re just a sheep. You obviously don’t do that, which belies your own statement about where your views come from. I think you’re a pretty ethical guy with some strong views, some of which contradict each other. And that’s what I keep trying, without success, to point out to you.

    And I never claimed to be any fan of all of MLK’s politics. But I sure agree with that quote. You don’t, which is why it’s so strange that you use it.

  11. If it will make matters easy for you, my views are at times irrational. It’s the result of being human. Humans are rational at times, but it comes only with discipline and training. Our much more primitive and powerful evolutionary neurological precursors generally take the ball and run, before our intellects are even aware the play has begun. We spend a great deal of conciouos effort justifying those urges, or working to control them and/or not act on them.

    I’m quite capable of dealing with a sharp discusson; surely this is dawning on you by now if it wasn’t originally clear. But it’s out of character for you to be hostile or rude on anyway, which is why I’m puzzled.

    I’m sorry you feel offended at my opinion of your religious views. But that is how I feel, and to pretend otherwise, or even to sugar coat it, would be less than fully honest. I spend considerable time doing battle with atheists and the forces of religious intolerance all over, than you likely know. For what little comfort it may lend, I’m not singling out Christianity, I feel the same about all rival theistic or supernatural claims.

    As a Christian you enjoy complete, unopposed, representation in virtually every venue and level of government, you enjoy wide cultural support, you reside in the most powerful country on earth. I cannot so much as make change for a twenty without handing out reliiogus slogans, I can’t drive more than two miles without seeing a temple, church, or other such shrine. Christianity is blasted at me 24 hours a day, seven days a week, pretty much from the national media down to the local street corner. People knock on my door and hand me biblical tracts, information on various demoninations. Yet I don’t disparage their right to do so, and in fact I’d be mighty uncomfortable living in a society in which they were legally prevented from doing so. But given your wide base of fellow Christians, the complete domination Christians have over many aspects of the lives of every American right down to the some of first sensations infants experience with their eyes and ears, it’s a bit odd for you to be berating anyone outside of that caucus, even to a tiny degree, as a ‘sheeple’.
    And in this spedicif context, would you feel I was better person if I rejected the notion that killing is wrong, you know, just to assert my independance from the sheep? Would it make me a more admirable independant in your eyes to advocate child abuse, because that would differentiate me from cultural norms? Where exactly does the criticism, that by admitting I’m imperfect, and pointing out that I generally hold the same morals, more or less, as my peer group, stem from, and what would be in your mind my options for redress to solve that shortcoming?

  12. DS,
    Your belief in moral absolutes- not cultural norms, but moral
    absolutes- requires you to believe in a God who decrees those
    absolutes. Your belief in the fundamental equality of man requires
    you to believe in a creator who so created them. This is one way for
    you to become consistent.

    The only other way to become consistent in your views is to reject all
    moral principles and do exactly as you please to whomever you please
    all the time. This is the logical conclusion of the worldview you
    hold now. It would not make you a more admirable person in my mind.
    It would make you a monster. But you’d be a consistent monster. And
    frankly, you’ll end up at one or the other of these roads eventually
    anyway. Either submit yourself to your heavenly father, who taught
    you the difference between right and wrong, or reject all truth and
    all morality along with the God who is their source.

    Those, as I see it, are your, and every atheist’s, only two options.
    In fact, they are everyone’s only two options.

  13. I’ve said repeatedly here and elsewhere that morals are culturally acquired, much like language. That they’re quirky, sometimes mutually conflicting, precepts. I don’t know how to say it any plainer. If there is an external agent who posesses an arbitrary set of ethics we’d call absolute, as you suggest, then that agent will have to be aviable for interview in the event two or more interpretations of what it ‘wants’ or ‘meant’ are advocated, and they’re mutually exclusive. Otherwise morality will depend on who you believe and who you do not. And that of course reduces to relative morality.
    Some morals or ethics certianly feel absolute. Many are universally shared in some variant across pretty much every human culture ever studied. But even a fairly solid moral, say for example ‘innocent children should not be purposely targeted’ can find exceptions. If a plane full of innocent children was thought to be hijacked and heading for a large juicy urban area, we might well purposely target it for destruction. That would be a hell of a horrible call to have to make, but I don’t think I’d be too quick to second guess it.
    In short while there may be an external agent of aboslute morality, the reality in the face of that beings’ continued inaction when consertnation arises over differing and exclusive intepretations forces us back into relative morality anyway. So the value of such a hypothetical extant absolute code is highly questionable.
    I on the other hand make no grandiose claims about absolute morality. I make no claim any kind of precise metric exists for morality, and I can show to a reasonable degree where my morals were acquired from, along with everyone elses, using an easily testable theory of enculturation/acquisition. So parsimony simple utility negates the value of a hypothetical absolute morality, even if it does in fact exist; unless that agent is willing to provide direct and constant feedback, as well as be able to demonstrate it is what it claims to be (We don’t after all want just any old slug from vegas 6 sowing up using technology and taking credit for everything now do we?).

  14. A minor point Matt. You said of DS:

    “I think you’re a pretty ethical guy”

    Clearly you don’t think this at all. DS may exhibit behavior which is externally consistent with being ethical, but lacking the moral foundation of ethics he cannot *be* ethical.

    I, on the other hand, think he is, in that he exhibits behavior that depends on certain principals that at times override his personal interests.

    One other thing – DS has referred to using MLK’s speech as a ‘jumping-off point’, which is very different to using it as the foundation of an argument. Anyone can use any statement as a jumping-off point, even if it was antithetical to everything they held dear.

  15. I’m glad we agree Matt – for you, ethics is following the word of your god, and whether someone (including you, presumably) does so or not is a minor point.

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