Category Archives: Atheism

Whether gods are dead isn’t a relevant question

Skeptics’ burden

Over on Skepticblog in “Never Say Anything That Isn’t Correct,” Daniel Loxton examines the ethical responsibilities of those of us who doubt some of the beliefs common in human thinking. People who publicly express reservations about things ranging from overgeneralization to god, Mr. Loxton recommends, should exercise great care in avoiding the very errors in evidence and reason to which they are pointing and—sometimes politely, sometimes shrilly—calling “BS.”

That is to say: skeptics bear a heavy due diligence burden. The more we present skepticism as “the scientific perspective,” the heavier that burden becomes. People turn to us for reliable information and science-based analysis. That is exactly what they should get.

Nor is it only skeptical magazines who bear this burden. All public skeptics — TV celebrities, podcasters, and bloggers included — have an unrelenting ethical responsibility to do their homework, stay close to their expertise, and get the facts right.

To deal with that burden, here’s the simple rule I propose: No skeptic should ever say anything that isn’t correct.

Mr. Loxton’s rule presents a demanding standard—and, to be sure, it is a bit of an overstatement in itself. However, as he argues, the direction it takes skeptics is a good one. Read “Never Say Anything That Isn’t Correct.” Having read it, I’ll work on watching my words a bit more carefully.


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In case you missed it

There is a blog at least loosely associated with Mr. Deity: Mr. Deity Fan.

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Satan writes to Rev. Robertson

You know, Christie, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so the devil said, “O.K. it’s a deal.” The Haitians revolted, got themselves free, but ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another, desparatetly poor.
(See video of Rev. Robertson’s comments.)

In a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Lily Coyle assumed satan as a persona and responded to the remarks of the Reverend Pat Robinson about the people of Haiti having made a pact with the devil, thereby causing all their grief. My transcription of Rev. Robertson’s remarks are in the box at the right. Following is the beginning of Ms. Coyle’s letter to Rev. Robertson

Dear Pat Robertson, I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I’m all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating.

This is well worth a read. Letter of the day: Haiti suffers, and Robertson sees the hand of Satan. For a variation on the theme, see Gavin An open letter to Pat Roberston from Satan.


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Mr Deity returns

As one or two of the two or three regular readers know, I’m impressed by the Mr. Deity shorts. Well, after a delay following the second season, the third season is available. I recommend it.

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Robots running amok?

In “Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man,” John Markoff reports on concerns about whether machines might overrun their human creators. It’s the stuff of science fiction, no? Reminds me of the endgame in Sim Earth.

A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge itself. Computer viruses that no one can stop. Predator drones, which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to a machine that can kill autonomously.

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

Although I pretty much dismiss this concern out of hand (who would build a machine that’s out of control?), I did have a what-if moment.

  • If machines ran the world, would they wage wars?
  • If machines ran the world, would they immediately take steps to resolve global heating?
  • If machines ran the world, would there be capital punishment?
  • If machines ran the world, would they behave differently toward each other based on the color of their paint?
  • If machines ran the world, would they prevent each other from saying or writing things?
  • If machines ran the world, would they worship humans?

Link to Mr. Markoff’s article from the New York Times.


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HB, H. D. Thoreau

H. D. Thoreau from Wikicommons
Henry David Thoreau
(public domain image)

On this day in 1817, Henry David Thoreau drew his first breath in Concord (MA, US). Among his many accomplishments, one that I especially admire was his essay entitled “Resistance to Civil Government,” which was published in 1849 as “Civil Disobedience” in Aesthetic Papers. In his venerated discussion of government and individual responsibility, Mr. Thoreau set an important standard for generations that followed his.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

Visit the Thoreau Society. Link to the Thoreau Reader (courtesy of Iowa State University) where one can read “Civil Disobedience.”

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Anthropomorphism explained

That guilty look that the pet gives you? It’s a reaction to you, not an expression felt by the dog. Just another example of human’s theory of mind run amuck.

Condition Owner told dog obeyed Owner told dog disobeyed
Dog was given treat Should be guilty;
human behavior conveys “not guilty”
Should be guilty;
human behavior conveys “guilty”
Dog does not eat treat Dog’s not guilty;
human behavior conveys “not guilty”
Dog’s not guilty;
human behavior conveys “guilty”

Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York (US) studied the cause of the “guilty look” in dogs and reported about it in “Disambiguating the ‘guilty look’: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour” in the academic journal Behavioral Processes. She set up situations in which a dog’s master or mistress was told that it had obeyed or not obeyed the owner’s command to not eat a treat, either accurately or inaccurately (see table for conditions). The owner (1) placed a treat near the dog and told the dog not to eat it; (2) left the room briefly; (3) could not see whether the experimenter did or did not fed the dog the treat; (4) returned to the room and was told to greet the dog (it hadn’t eaten the treat) or to scold the dog (it had eaten the treat).

The 14 dogs in the study did not show more guilty look behaviors (e.g., avoiding eye contact, lying down, moving away from the owner, etc.) when they ate the forbidden treat than when they didn’t eat it. They did show more such behaviors depending on whether their owners scolded them or greeted the. That is, their guilty behaviors were responses to the humans’ behavior, not to their own behavior.

Anthropomorphisms are regularly used by owners in describing their dogs. Of interest is whether attributions of understanding and emotions to dogs are sound, or are unwarranted applications of human psychological terms to non-humans. One attribution commonly made to dogs is that the “guilty look” shows that dogs feel guilt at doing a disallowed action. In the current study, this anthropomorphism is empirically tested. The behaviours of 14 domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were videotaped over a series of trials and analyzed for elements that correspond to an owner-identified “guilty look.” Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner’s command not to eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room, and varied the owners’ knowledge of what their dogs did in their absence. The results revealed no difference in behaviours associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviours were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs. The effect of scolding was more pronounced when the dogs were obedient, not disobedient. These results indicate that a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed.

Read others’ takes: Elsevier’s Science Blog. Sean Couglin of the BBC in “Can dogs really look ‘guilty?’.” Henry Fountain of the New York Times in “It’s an Owner’s Scolding That Makes a ‘Guilty’ Dog.” Rob Stein of the Washington Post in “Is the Hangdog Look for Real?.”

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