Thursday: Hili photo

There won’t be a dialogue today as Hili’s announcment of the Dawkins Award will stay on Listy all day. But Andrzej has kindly sent me a spare photo of Her Highness with her note. Please enjoy it until the regular dialogues resume tomorrow.

Yes, Jerry, I do understand that a day without a new picture of me would be really terrible.
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The Boot Sale

Philomena’s back! This short clip, directed byJonathan van Tulleken, was an entry in the Virgin Media Shorts in 2010, but didn’t win. Nevertheless, it’s very good; or maybe I just like it because Diane Morgan’s in it—along with the rejected schmo, Joe Wilkinson.

You can read more about this short but touching movie here.

A philosopher asserts that there are “moral facts”, and we’re messing up our kids’ education by not telling them that

One thing that disturbs me about naturalism is the increasingly frequent contention that there are objective moral “facts” or “truths,” which can somehow be discerned scientifically. I don’t agree with that, since at bottom I think that what one sees as “right” or “wrong” ultimately rests on a set of subjective preferences that can’t be adjudicated scientifically. This is the one major disagreement I have with Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, though I agree with Sam that being “more moral” generally corresponds to “providing more well being.” Like Sam and Michael, I am a consequentialist: I judge actions as “right” or “wrong” based on their consequences to society. The problem is that even if you’re a consequentialist, how do you weigh conflicting consequences—when an action is good for some and bad for others, and in different ways? And others—deontologists—see morality as resting on following rules rather than a utilitarian toting up of consequences, and some philosophers argue for that view.

My view is that there is no objective morality, though reasonable people will generally agree on what is moral. (However, “reason” tends to be bent when the morality is inspired by faith, for religious “morality” is often quite divergent from what most of us would see as our own morality.)  But how do you convince a devout Christian that it’s wrong to prevent gays from marrying, or a devout Muslim that it’s wrong to prevent girls from going to school?

Justin P. McBrayer, however, disagrees in Monday’s “Opinionator” column in the New York Times. His piece, “Why our children don’t think there are moral facts,” argues strongly that there are moral facts, and they’ve been grossly misled by their teachers. He adds that we’d best tell our kids that moral facts are objective lest the world degenerate into immorality.

McBrayer is described as “an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., [who] works in ethics and philosophy of religion”, but I don’t know how much, if any, of his views about moral factitude come from faith. Regardless, I think he’s confused, and doesn’t make a good case for objective moral truths.

McBrayer first says that kids are taught that there’s a difference between facts and opinions, which of course is true, but then confuses people with the following dialogue between him and his son to show the supposed lack of distinction.

Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”

Him: “It’s a fact.”

Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”

Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”

Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”

Then McBrayer gives a list of things that, he says, most people consider opinions but that he clearly believes are “moral facts”:

Here’s a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?

— Copying homework assignments is wrong.

— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

— All men are created equal.

— It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

— It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

— Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.

— Drug dealers belong in prison.

The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

Well, I can see saying that if you have an opinion, which is your view on an issue, that opinion can also be a fact (i.e., “my opinion is that the speed of light is constant in a vaccuum”), but opinions may not be factual; they are, according to the Oxford English Dictionary

a. What or how one thinks about something; judgement or belief. Esp. in in my opinion: according to my thinking; as it seems to me. a matter of opinion : a matter about which each may have his or her own opinion; a disputable point.

In other words, an opinion is someone’s belief or judgement. Whether that opinion happens to be true (“a fact”) depends on two things: a). it concerns an assertion about reality that can be adjudicated by observation (instead of subjective judgments like “my opinion is that pie is better than cake”), and b). the adjudication shows that the factual belief is true. In none of the cases McBrayer gives above can I see a way to determine whether the “opinions” are “true” in any meaningful sense.  I agree with some of them (but not all), but how do you determine whether it’s a “moral truth” that “drug dealers belong in prison”?

The correct way to teach the difference between fact and opinion is, I think, the way I outlined in the paragraph above, and I don’t see that it should cause any difficulties. When kids are young they must be taught that things are “right” or “wrong”, but I don’t think they should ever be told that those issues are simply factual. That’s no way to have a discussion. If the kid asks, “Why?”, then there’s the opportunity for a fascinating discussion (which will either involve “Because I said so” for the youngest kids or, for older kids, a discussion of what you—or society—see as the basis for morality.

The reason McBrayer thinks that we should tell kids that there are moral facts is because it supposedly makes them behave better than if they just see moral judgments as opinions:

It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.

Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

What he’s doing, in my view, is distorting the meaning of “fact” simply so that it will have better results for society. But what happens when a kid asks, “what is the basis for judging your moral claims as ‘true’?” You can’t just say “Because I said so”—that’s no way to determine truth, or educate kids. You have to prove it, and you can’t do that without appealing to subjective judgments.  What happens when a kid asks a Christian parent, “Daddy, why is abortion wrong?”  I won’t go on; you can see the problem.

McBrayer winds up reiterating his unsupported assertions:

We can do better. Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation. Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.

That would be wrong.

I find it odd that McBrayer is a professor of philosophy, and nevertheless can come out with things like this.  Some value claims simply CANNOT be adjudicated by evidence. Abortion is one. Even if you’re a consequentialist like I am and on those grounds am pro-choice, what do you say to someone who feels otherwise, either because they have the religious notion that embryos have souls or the consequentialist notion that it’s worse for society to allow abortions than if it prohibited them? How can you decide? Even the notion “don’t kill innocent people,” won’t resonate with a Muslim extremist if those innocents are apostates.

Of course facts do come into play in some moral discussions. If you oppose abortion on grounds of fetal viability or fetal pain, those things can be empirically determined (or course the age of viability is going to get smaller in the future!). But at bottom all discussions of right or wrong come down to what result one prefers—what you think moralty is supposed to achieve. That’s not to denigrate it, for without rules we can’t have harmonious societies. But I simply don’t believe that one needs to tell kids that there are moral facts to get them to behave in a desirable way. But that, of course, is my subjective judgment.

Hili has a Big Announcement about Professor Ceiling Cat

Hili has something to tell you: here’s her dialogue with Andrzej:

Hili: Open the Wikipedia entry with Jerry Coyne…
A: It’s open now…
Hili: It must be updated: my Jerry just got the Richard Dawkins Award from The Atheist Alliance of America!
A: How do you know?!
Hili: I knew it for ages but it was a Great Secret.

Hili announcement
In Polish:
Hili: Otwórz Wikipedię z hasłem Jerry Coyne…
Ja: Otworzyłem..
Ja: Skąd wiesz!?
Hili: Od dawna o tym wiedziałam, ale to był Wielki Sekret.
Yes, ’tis true, though I can hardly believe it.  Given the list of previous winners, which include some people I admire very much, like the late Christopher Hitchens, I’m not only honored but deeply humbled. I’ll get the Big Prize at the AAA conference in Atlanta, which goes from Oct. 15-18 of this year. (Good Southern noms in that town!).  But I hope to God I don’t have to make a speech, for I’d never come close to the beautiful and heartbreaking talk that Hitchens gave when he got the award in 2011.
For those of you who were there, or who have watched the talk, do you remember this?
Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 12.14.11 PM_________
UPDATE:  Since my avid feline fans span the globe, I have received another cat dialogue from England, involving Theo the Coffee-Drinking Cat and his servant Laurie:
Laurie: Theo, I must tell you the great news about your friend, Jerry.
Theo: I already know, Mummy; now allow me to swoon!
And other, from Orson, sent by his servant Tubby:
Orson: Totes awesomeballs!
Gus and his staff Taskin weighed in, too:

Me: Hey Gus, have you heard the news about Jerry’s award?
Gus: Of course I have. Should we send him these flowers or shall I just eat them for him?


Bill Nye revises his anti-GMO views

Since I’ve criticized Bill Nye for his scientifically unjustified warnings about GMOs (genetically modified organisms; see here and here for my earlier posts), I thought it only fair to add that he now seems to have modified those views. According to Dan Arel, Nye’s walked back his unwarranted fears, which of course could have been influential given his status as The Science Guy. Nye was challenged to debate GMOs by at least one pro-GMO horticultural scientist, but hasn’t agreed to participate.

Here’s a clip provided by Arel, showing Nye discussing his new book about evolution, Undeniable, backstage after his appearance on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.”

The relevant part starts at 3:38, where Nye notes that he’s going to revise the GMO chapter of his book to reflect new information he got (after visiting Monsanto!).  I dearly hope that revision will dial back the fearfulness about GMOs. Arel implies that this will be the case, but all you can tell from Nye’s words is that a revision is in the works.

If Nye does reverse his views, and presents the scientific consensus that GMOs do not pose any dangers, then I applaud his willingness to change his mind. But of course the data were always there for him to see, so this just reflects his not doing his homework in the first place.

I consider Nye’s discussion of human “races,” beginning at 1:30, as grossly uniformed, for he confuses “race” (genetically differentiated populations of humans) with “species” (groups of populations that are reproductively isolated from each other, i.e., unable to produce viable and fertile offspring). The issue of whether there are human races is of course controversial (I think the concept is still useful), but it doesn’t do any good to misrepresent the controversy in the first place, as Nye does. Nye argues that races don’t exist because a Caucasian and a Chinese could mate and produce a human! Seriously? That’s the concept of species, not races! And then he drags in “tribes,” which simply muddies the waters. Maybe Nye should talk to some evolutionary geneticists before he starts spouting off on this kind of stuff. Again, homework is neglected (maybe the dog ate it).

Of course I applaud Nye’s desire to “change the world” (as he says) by educating people about science, but I don’t think that right now he’s exactly a primo science communicator—not if he continually gets stuff wrong or has to correct himself. And, on a personal note, I don’t find him inspiring—not in the way I regard Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carolyn Porco, or Richard Dawkins when they talk about science. In contrast, Nye gives me the creeps. You may say that I shouldn’t feel that way, but that’s my lived experience.

Guest post: A new anti-theist (but popular) song:

I wasn’t aware of this song at all, and it mystifies me why I wasn’t. Reader Carvaka brought it to my attention in an email, and rather than paraphrase what he/she said, I’ll just put up the email, along with my thanks for permission to reprint it:

by Carvaka

I’m writing to draw your attention to an unexpected oasis in the vapid desert landscape of contemporary popular music. I refer to the song “Take Me to Church” by the Irish singer/songwriter Hozier. The song is currently at No. 5 on the Billboard music charts, and has been on the charts for the past 28 weeks. It was performed at the recent Grammy awards, and nominated for Song of the Year. A popular ditty, in other words. Here it is on YouTube:

The surprising thing is that, besides being a rather nice tune, “Take Me to Church” is quite explicitly critical of religion. It focuses on religion’s condemnation of sexuality, but the chorus is more generally applicable:

Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

The song also features a play on Fulke Greville’s immortal dissection of Christianity’s central conceit — “Created sick, commanded to be well” — a characterization much loved (and oft repeated) by Christopher Hitchens:

I was born sick,
But I love it
Command me to be well

And it ends with this lovely affirmation of the pleasures of this life, in contrast to sterile promises of heaven:

In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am Human
Only then I am Clean

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I am very surprised at the humongous success achieved by this rather subversive song. A sign of changing American attitudes to criticism of religion? Or perhaps just a sign that young people don’t really pay attention to the lyrics of songs?

Tennessee representative proposes bill recognizing God’s absolute governance over his state

In any country other than the U.S.—save perhaps in the Middle East—this headline would be assumed to be a spoof. But here in the U.S. it’s business as usual, especially in the South.  The Johnson City Press in Tennessee reports that state representative James (Micah) van Huss, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Pensacola Christian College (a fundamentalist school), has proposed a state constitutional amendment, presumably derived from a revelation.

[The amendment is] an addition to the the Constitution of Tennessee that would recognize absolute governance by the Christian god rather than the government. And it’s to that very god that Van Huss beseeches passage of the resolution.

”I’m praying about it,“ Van Huss said.

The joint resolution would acknowledge a higher power giving rights and laws, rather than democratically elected officials.

“We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God, our Creator and Savior,” is the passage Van Huss has proposed be added to Article I in House Joint Resolution 71.

Not just God, but the Christian God! Now riddle me this, dear readers—what party do you think van Huss represents? Yep, you’re right.

This bill would never pass, I think, even in Tennessee, for it would immediately be struck down as a violation of the First Amendment, even by our conservative Supreme Court. So why does van Huss want it?

The reason Van Huss says he sees this as a positive course for action has everything to do with trends he sees across the country.

“As a nation, we are drifting from the morals of our founding, and I think it’s important to reaffirm that our liberties do not come from the King of England,” Van Huss said. “They do not come from Barack Obama. They come from God.”

. . . According to Pew Research’s Religion Map, Tennessee boasts an 84 percent rate of people who believe in the Christian god. Van Huss agreed his beliefs are on par with the vast majority of his fellow Tennesseans.

Why didn’t God give the same liberties to other countries, then? Did He vouchsafe our liberties uniquely to the United States?

The Johnson City paper gets some reactions from legal experts, including one at the Freedom from Religion Foundation who is concerned about the amendment. But van Huss doesn’t see it as illegal:

Van Huss admits he’s no legal expert, but he said he believes HJR71 would not be unconstitutional because it would give Tennesseans a choice brought forth through the democratic process.

“Again, we the people are a representative democracy and we vote on all kinds of things people don’t agree with,” Van Huss said. “That’s why this is a vote of the people of Tennessee who’ve been given an opportunity to make that statement.”

That’s why we have the Bill of Rights, for crying out loud—precisely so democratic voting can’t overturn what the Founders saw as Americans’ “inalienable rights”! If a legislator doesn’t understand that the Constitution places limits on democracy, not only in its Bill of Rights but in the power of the President to veto, and of the Supreme Court to declare democratically voted laws unconstitutional, then he has no business governing Tennessee, much less a d*g pound.

Here are two pictures of the man from his website, which is a blast—so long as you don’t think about the fact that he was actually elected:


Huss praying about the amendment with his Bible


Huss plays with his guns (what kind of gun is that thing, anyway?)

Oh, and if you think that revised law is nuts, check out this one, calling for the criminalization of sodomy—with the death penalty!

Readers’ wildlife photographs

We’re back, and I have a full tank. Today we have both color and black-and-white pictures from a new contributor, Danish Meman.  His/her notes:

I took these images during a very wet autumn day at Omega Park in Quebec. It’s essentially a Canadian Safari. I took all the pictures from the driver’s seat in the car (they don’t allow you to get out). I think my favorite is the Arctic Wolf sitting atop the cliff. As soon as I pulled my camera out, she walked up there, sat down and posed for the camera. Hope you enjoy them, and you can check out more of my work at
American Bison (Bison bison):

Omega Park - Bison bison (American Bison)

 Arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos):

Omega Park - Canis lupus arctos (Arctic Wolf)

 White wolf (this appears to be the same species as the arctic wolf, perhaps in winter coat—but why is the one above not white?):

Omega Park - Canis lupus arctos (White Wolf)

Elk (Cervus canadensis):

Omega Park - Cervus canadensis (Elk)

 White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus):

Omega Park - Odocoileus virginianus (white tailed deer)

 Black bear (Ursus americanus):

Omega Park - Ursus americanus (Black Bear2)

Trout Lake:

Omega Park - Trout Lake 2

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Karen Armstrong

Today’s Jesus and Mo, called “Ineffable,” takes a poke at those hypocritical Sophisticated Theologians™ who claim that we can’t say anything about God, for he’s a Great Apophatic Mystery, but then go ahead and tell us all kinds of things about who he is (loving, ubiquitous, etc.) and what he wants. (And yes, I’m talking about you, Karen Armstrong):


I’ve written posts on this topic, often long ones, but I’m always amazed (and humbled) when the Jesus and Mo artist manages to make the same points in only four brief panels.

As for those Sophisticate Theologians™, they’re even worse than fundamentalists—at least in terms of intellectual honesty.

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

So much to write about on this site: so little time. There are a gazillion things I’d like to post about today, but I have a day job and a Science Paper to write, and no idea how I’ll be able to fit all this in.  There’s John Gray’s misguided attack in the Guardian on atheist morality, Bill Nye’s recantation about GMOs, the New York Times Opinionator column on objective morality, Jeffrey Tayler’s new analysis of the Chapel Hill killing. . . .oy!

Whatever happens, though, we must have our Hili, who seems to have a strange idea of what “working” means. (My own caption for this would have been, Hili: “Does this position make me look fat?” Cyrus: “Yes!”.  But Grania says I should not be fat-shaming cats.)

Cyrus: Are you sleeping?
Hili: No, I’m working.
(Photo: Sarah Lawson)
in Polish:
Cyrus: Śpisz?
Hili: Nie, pracuję.
(Zdjęcie: Sarah Lawson)

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