Atheist Contributions


James Osborne (1834-1881) was an early settler of Seattle, who opened the Gem Saloon (seen in the illustration to the left). His obituary said that “He maintained a reputable saloon patronized by the best citizens of the type that patronized saloons.”[1]

In addition, in his will, he left money to the city to build a civic building, provided that the city contributed matching funds. Unfortunately, he was so filthy rich (like much of the American west, Seattle was founded by a bunch of people trying to make a quick buck) that the city couldn’t afford to match the funds until 1927, when they built the Seattle Opera House (see also Speidel).

Speidel also tells us:

The will specified, for one thing, that his brother-in-law—who had thrown him out of the house once—was not to get “one thin dime.” It also stated flatly that he forbade anyone to take his body into—or even near—any church and there were to be no religious ceremonies conducted at the funeral.

Instead he asked that the funeral be held at Yesler’s Pavilion, that a competent brass band be employed to liven up the occasion, and that a good free-thinker like Judge I. R. W. Hall be paid one hundred dollars for the oration … and failing Judge Hall, that “either Thomas Burke or W. H. White will do.” The services were to end with burial in Lakeview Cemetery by the Ancient Order of United Workmen.

So that we can truthfully tell you that the “father” of our Opera House was an atheistic saloon keeper from the Skid Road.


[1]: William C. Speidel, Sons of the Profits, Nettle Creek Press, pp. 72-73.

Why Is Universalizability a Good Thing?

Back in 2010, Greta Christina wrote about liberal and conservative moral systems. At the core was a set of studies showing that while everyone shares the same core values — fairness, minimizing harm, authority, purity, loyalty, and a few others — that liberals and conservatives prioritize these values differently: liberals tend to put a higher value on fairness, for instance, while conservatives tend to put a higher value on authority.

She then argues that “liberal” core values like fairness and harm-reduction are better than “conservative” ones like purity and authority, because the liberal ones are universalizable: they aren’t parochial, and apply to every human being (and possibly animals and extraterrestrials) equally.

That explanation is okay, but I’m not quite satisfied with it. I kept asking why the fact that a value applies to everyone is a good core value. And that led me to the open marketplace of ideas.

And to do that, let me step back and look at the open marketplace of, well, markets.

Everyone in a capitalist society understands why, say, $3.79 is a fair price for a bag of chips: thousands of sellers pick prices at which to sell their goods, and millions of buyers make decisions as to whether to buy at that price or not. Of course I’d prefer to buy chips for a nickel, and of course the store would rather charge me twenty bucks. But I understand that that wouldn’t cover manufacturing costs, the store understands that if their price is too high, I won’t buy it, and out of many such interactions, of people either buying or not buying, a consensus emerges: $1.00 is too low, $10.00 is too high, and that something like $3.50 is a price that everyone can live with.

There are also times when prices can be tilted to favor or penalize some group of people or set of goods, such as “Buy American” campaigns or boycotts, or when a designer like Louis Vuitton convinces people to pay extra for goods that have a particular logo on them.

Over time, we will act as both buyer and seller, comparison shopper and haggler, and can appreciate at least the rudiments of everyone’s views.

Now, since morality is a way of regulating interactions between people (if it weren’t for the fact that we live together, we’d have no need for morality), I claim that a similar calculus takes place: that we are constantly negotiating The Rules in a corner of the marketplace of ideas.

Just as the store would love to charge me $20 for a bag of chips, I would like for everyone to call me “Your Highness” and let me skip ahead in line at the store. The problem is persuading people to treat me that way.

I also know that if someone else wanted to be treated that way, I’d resent and resist it. Nor can I come up with a convincing argument for why I should get special treatment, one that I would accept if the shoe were on the other foot. And so collectively we negotiate a compromise that we can all live with, in which nobody gets called “Your Highness” and we wait in line in first-come, first-served order.

And gosh, it sure looks as though this sort of free negotiation favors those rules and compromises that everyone can agree on. That is, universalizable values.

Now, unlike the economic marketplace, where I will by turns take the role of buyer or seller, in the marketplace of moral ideas, I will never be a woman, or Asian, or left-handed, or gay. But I do interact with people who are. Even if we ignore for a moment the effects of sympathy, and consider that everyone just wants the moral rules that most favor themselves, men will argue for rules that privilege men, and women will argue for rules that privilege women, and over time, they ought to compromise on something that isn’t what anyone wanted, but that everyone can live with, like equality.

In this analogy, asking why one group gets special privileges is like asking why one brand costs more than another. Sometimes there’s a good answer (“Brand L jeans are more durable than brand X”, “You should give up your subway seat to older people because they need it more”), and sometimes there isn’t (“Brand A costs more because we just redesigned the label”, “Men should be in positions of power because they have a Y chromosome”).

And yes, this process takes far longer than anyone would like, partly because (for the vast majority of people) it’s not a conscious process: we don’t set out to figure out what moral rules are best for us, for our loved ones, for the rest of society; we just sort of go along with what’s around us, and either complain when we don’t like something, or adapt when other people complain about our behavior. There are many other complicating factors as well.

But on the whole, this semi-conscious marketplace should favor those values that apply to everyone with a voice, or at least an advocate. That is, things like fairness and harm reduction.

Natural Selection in the Fossil Record

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For quite some time now, I’ve had a question:

We can see evolution in the present.
And we can see natural selection in the present.
And we can see lots of evolution in the fossil record.
But can we see natural selection in the fossil record?

Continue reading “Natural Selection in the Fossil Record”

“Avowed”

The New York Times ran a piece about the David Mabus affair (tl;dr version: he’s a mentally-ill troll who’d been sending death threats to people for years, and was finally arrested after enough people complained to the police).

It begins:

Over the years, someone writing as David Mabus made himself known to scientists and avowed atheists across North America in thousands of threatening e-mails and violently profane messages on Twitter.

The phrase “avowed atheists” annoyed me, because I see it a lot. I even twatted about it:

The phrase “avowed atheist” still annoys me, though. When’s the last time someone was an “avowed Baptist”?

Then I realized that with an entire browserful of Internet at my disposal, I could answer that question.
Continue reading ““Avowed””

Using snoop/tcpdump as a Filter

Okay, this is kinda cool. Yesterday, I ran snoop (Sun’s version of tcpdump) to help the network folks diagnose a problem we’ve been seeing. Unfortunately, I let it run a bit too long, and wound up with a 1.5Gb file. And the guy who’s going to be looking at this is at a conference, and would rather not download files that big.

Now, I’d known that snoop can dump packets to a file with -o filename and that that file can be read with -i filename; and of course that you can give an expression to say what kinds of packets you want to scan for. But until now, it never occurred to me to put the three of them together. And it turns out that not only does snoop support that, it Does The Right Thing to boot.

Now, one of the reasons I wound up with 1.5Gb worth of packets is that we didn’t know which port the process we were trying to debug would run on, until it ran. (That, and the fact that I started scanning early because I wasn’t sure when it would run. And ending late because the Internet dangled shiny things in front of me.)

At any rate, I was able to run

# snoop -i old-snoop-log -o new-snoop-log host thehost.dom.ain port 50175

and wind up with a packet capture file of manageable size.

And a bit of experimentation showed that tcpdump does the same thing (adjust arguments as appropriate). I’ll have to remember this.

Subjective/Objective

This was originally posted at Secular Perspectives.

Here’s something that occurred to me recently. It’s nearly-trivial, but I found it interesting.

The reason a subjective statement, like “Beethoven’s ninth is his best symphony” is subjective is that a) it refers mental state, and b) that mental state can vary from person to person.

But it can be turned into an objective statement by simply saying whose mind it refers to: “Smith thinks that Beethoven’s ninth symphony is his best”. This is an objective statement, and its truth or falsehood can be ascertained simply by asking Smith. In a few years, maybe we’ll even have scanners that can read the answer in Smith’s brain.

Or instead of specifying a particular subject to whom the statement applies, we can specify a class of people, e.g., “Most music critics think that Beethoven’s ninth is his best”, or “Nobody likes being humiliated” (vs. “humiliation is bad”).

One consequence of this is that it helps put morality on a reality-based footing: a question like “should the US intervene in the Ivory Coast?” seems hopelessly subjective, but we can at least ask questions like, “how many Americans think the US should intervene?” and “how many Ivorians want the US to intervene?”. These questions, and their answers, are called polls, and they’re used all the time. (I’m not saying that complex moral questions should be decided by polling. But polls can provide an objective underpinning to moral arguments. For instance, if 98% of Ivorians hated Americans and wanted the US to stay the hell away, that would undercut arguments like “we should move in: we’ll be greeted as liberators”.)

Secular morality is often attacked for being too subjective. I hope the above helps correct that perception. The whole point of having a system of morality is, presumably, to improve the universe in some way, and hopefully allow us to be happier and get along with each other in the process. What “better” means, above, is subjective, but at the very least we can see what people think, and what most of us can agree on.

Cheap Signaling

I talked about appropriating the biological concept of costly signaling for general skepticism, and it occurred to me to wonder whether there’s such a thing as cheap signaling.

Costly signaling is when the investment required to transmit a message, like “trust me” or “have sex with me” is so high that only the worthy applicant (a trustworthy source, or a good mate) can send it.

Indiana driver's license, 1940
Cheap signaling, in contrast, would then be when the cost of transmitting a message is low enough that unworthy senders can afford it. So for instance, if your state’s driver’s licenses have a simple design, then anyone with a printer and a laminator can fake one, which allows sixteen-year-olds get into bars.

Or, more generally, are there any cheap tricks that someone can use to sell you something you don’t want?

Hm. Put that way, I think it’s obvious that yes, . Even aside from outright lying, there are subtler tricks like acting friendly, offering you free stuff to instill a sense of obligation, and the like. Basically, just look up “sales tricks” (which is all I did).

(And just in passing, I notice that there’s a bit of an industry in sermon stories. I’m guessing that that’s because a story told in the first person is more convincing than one in the third person.)