Letter to my Senators
Here is a copy of what I sent to Senators Cornyn and Hutchison.
I am disappointed, but not surprised, by your support of the Blunt amendment. If one organization is to have the freedom to not provide full health coverage, then that would go for all organizations. A Christian Scientist employer could decide that any medical treatment that goes beyond faith healing would be “immoral” to them.
Once again you have shown that you have little desire to represent all the people of Texas, instead you bow to the more extreme wing of your party. I’m confident that you are a wise and decent person, who knows that your vote was wrong; but until you and others like you are willing to stand up to the extremes within your party I will remain convinced that the GOP is unfit for government.
(OK. I cleaned up a spelling error that unfortunately did get sent to each senator.)
If someone tells me that they believe that the Earth is flat, there are many ways that I can be expected to respond. One of the less likely ones would be for me to declare, “I respect your belief.” If, on the other hand, someone tells me that they believe in a virgin birth, then the only socially acceptable response from me is to say, “I respect your belief.”
In neither case do I actually respect the belief. Feigning respect for something that I see as a silly belief is no way to respect a person. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. It is patronizing.
As long as there is some expectation that we respect certain kinds of beliefs, then those beliefs are, to an extent, shielded from scrutiny. After all, those who would publicly criticize those beliefs will be dismissed as “disrespectful.”
So for those religious people reading this, please know that I respect you enough to tell you that I find your beliefs silly.
Hi. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Texan, but I don’t have to have been born here to cringe when our Governor opens his mouth; when his leadership with abstinence only education has given Texas one of the highest teen birth rates in the country; when our 8th grade students rank near the bottom nationally in their ability to read; when major campaign contributors routinely get appointed to government positions regulating their own industries.
As a Texan, I oppose Governor Perry’s war on reason. And I will fight conservative attacks against religious and personal liberties.
No, I am not ashamed to be a Texan, but I’m a Texan, and I disapprove of Rick Perry
Two states. 1967 borders. An open letter
To: The President of the United States, Barak Obama; Hilary Clinton, Secretary, US Department of State; The Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison, US Senator from Texas; The Honorable John Cornyn, US Senator from Texas.
Dear Mr President, Madam Secretary, and Senators,
I am writing to express my support for the position outlined by Secretary Clinton in 2009 and restated by President Obama earlier this year, that it is in the interest of the United States and of Israel for the US to actively seek a two state solution based around the 1967 borders for Israel and a future state of Palestine.
It seems to be in my blood to care deeply about the future of Israel. I wish to see Israel remain a Jewish democracy which I can be proud of. If I may use a Christian metaphor, Israel should by a city on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.
It seems clear to me that the only way for Israel play that role is to seek a two state solution, and the only viable two state solution is one that corresponds largely to the 1967 borders. For those among you who disagree, I would like to ask which of the following alternatives would be preferable to such a resolution?
- Israel as an apartheid state, in which a large portion of the population within her effective borders are denied full political rights (Israel no longer a Democracy)
- Israel as a democratic state with a non-Jewish majority (Israel no longer Jewish)
- Israel engages in mass expulsions or “ethnic cleansing” (Israel no longer a state anyone could be proud of)
Those three options seem to exhaust the alternatives to a proper two state solution. It is easy to list the substantial problems in the two state solution, but anyone who rejects it should be ready to say which alternative they prefer.
Country First: Letter to Congresscritters September 14, 2011
An open letter to various Republican Congresscriters:
I have come to believe that the GOP is not so much the party of “Country First” but is more the party of “Country first to be sacrificed for political gain.”
Please prove me wrong by supporting the President’s Jobs/Stimulus Proposal. It’s probably too small to do much good so late in the day, but it’s the best thing that he has the slightest chance of getting through.
The recipients of this useless missive are US Representative Sam Johnson, Texas 3rd district; US Senator Kay Hutchison, Texas; US Senator John Cornyn, Texas; Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell House Speaker: John Boehner.
On their various contact web forms, I noted that there is a select menu for picking a topic. Only John Boehner’s and Key Hutchison’s form listed “Jobs” as a possible topic.
Of course my contention that the Republican party has become the party of “country first to be sacrificed for political gain” has little to do with the current stimulus proposal; instead it has everything to do with how they have been acting over the past few years, coming to a head with the debt ceiling fiasco. As one friend described things, “voting Republican would be like King Solomon granting custody to the women who thought it was okay to cut the kid in half.”
If I get any interesting responses (unlikely) I’ll post the responses as well.
Rapture day publicity stunt (and Britney Spears’ underwear)
Next week everyone will be tuning in the hear his excuses and explanations. Camping and his followers will be on every talk show, explaining their purpose and mission. Although they have put money into advertising their prediction, they have not turned over their broadcasting licenses or wrapped up their operations.
To me, this similar to Donald Trump pretending to consider a run for the US Presidency and saying outrageous things to get attention. Whatever effect that may have had on Trump’s political reputation, the overall attention probably won him increased ratings for his television show.
Probably the best way to think of this publicity stunt is that the rapture event is like Britney Spears’ underwear. There will be a great deal of attention generated by the fact that there’s nothing there.
Questions for Jesus
I am perfectly willing to open my door to Jesus. In fact, I wish He would drop by some time. This coming Saturday afternoon should be fine. And I have a couple of questions prepared to ask Him.
Why is my soul worth less than Thomas’?
One of my questions will be why He hasn’t (yet) done for me what He did for Doubting Thomas. For those of you who aren’t up on your Bible, the particular story comes from John 20:24-31.
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (English Standard Version)
Thomas said that he needed some physical evidence to believe. Thomas even listed what kind of evidence would have persuaded him. Jesus was kind enough to provide the evidence to Thomas and the other disciples. My question, if Jesus will not do me the same courtesy, is why is Thomas’ soul worth more than mine?
Faith, not reason and evidence
One possible answer might be buried in the line, “have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That is everyone except the disciples is supposed to believe without evidence. This would certainly be a theologically sound answer, but any believer who takes this point of view must then acknowledge that we are expected to believe without evidence. Faith, then, is irrational. It certainly takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who tries to persuade me based on evidence. Evidence doesn’t come into it. It is an admission that faith is not based on evidence.
This view certainly merits further discussion. After all, if God is just, would He insist that my salvation depends on believing something so momentous without evidence? It would seem that such a god hates rational people. But this is a discussion for another time.
“You are immune to evidence”
When presenting this argument, I have often been told that I have my heart so set against Jesus that no evidence would persuade me. It is certainly true that I’ve watched enough magicians so that I wouldn’t be persuaded by parlor tricks like turning water into wine.
So what would convince me? For a long time my answer to that question is that I don’t know what kind of evidence would convince me that someone speaking to me had powers that no human or group of humans had. I simply responded with, “well, I don’t know off hand what would convince me, but I’m sure that an omnipotent deity could figure out what kind of evidence would persuade someone like me.”
Although I considered my answer sincere and sufficient, it still didn’t really address the charge that my heart and mind were so closed that nothing could persuade me. Fortunately I have found some questions which Jesus could answer that would persuade me that he had super-human powers.
There are a number of things that a good “test” of Jesus should have. (Remember, if you think that I can’t test Jesus, then you are saying that I, unlike Thomas, must believe without good evidence. That is, irrational faith is required of me to be saved. See earlier section for a bit more on this.)
No human or collection of human, even with the resources of the Internet and a good research library and human technology could achieve.
So this rules out just asking tough questions out of an encyclopedia. For example, I had considered forming my questions to Jesus in an extremely obscure language, but if it is something that I could figure out so could some other mortal.
This also rules out the kinds of things that magicians can do. I don’t know how magicians do their tricks, but we know that some people can perform through non-supernatural means things that appear supernatural.
This also rules out any task that I can perform. This makes me safe from somehow being tricked or coerced into performing the for Jesus. So this rules out things like “what are the serial numbers of all the bills in my wallet” or “what is my password to Facebook”.
The successful performance of the task must be verifiable by me.
This rules out questions like “what is the meaning of life?” Maybe no human can answer that (or maybe they can), but if given an answer like “42” I can’t actually verify that that is the correct answer.
The successful performance of the task can’t be denied by me.
This rules out things like,”I’m thinking of a number between one and a billion”. After all, if Jesus gives me the correct answer, I could lie and say that He got it wrong. So we need to make sure that any claim that I make about whether Jesus performed the task is verifiable by others.
I cannot write off my witnessing of the successful performance of the task as a hallucination.
This means that I can verify at any time afterwards that the task was completed successfully. I don’t have to rely on my memory of the event.
I have come up with a number of questions that meet all four criteria. Some I will keep private for the time being. But here is one:
What are the prime factors of the number that follows?
27219047959652654722414170131901754810882037173366387499643752583360 53674248472885748311121894086236015825177742540974215589410617055811 41056251871687611322203645648061852827702887407867981735879821807359 50224524930259181407685867849596786096790404160010876158425560398851 41008831976697149422479797818743514039235769485328395195614137252841 88464854991690851521459279495154864183891934329195018204208468538473 68871936474843479723548096187507192106674753171257734855506742032089 84432415517977675338784314535588802117418628093418022096614839091351 52559954997038551099013710643874352212670179579776988148618882559168 53533
That is a single 617 digit decimal number (2048 bits). It is the product of two large prime numbers. There was a brief moment when one of my computers knew what those prime numbers were when it it constructed this number. But that information was quickly and completely and securely wiped from that computer. I never saw those numbers and have absolutely no way to reconstruct them.
No technology currently on Earth can find those factors.1 But this should not be a problem for an omniscient being.
Once an answer is proposed, it is easy to verify. Multiplying the two factors can be performed on any modern computer in the wink of an eye. I, and anyone else, can check to see whether the answer is correct or not.
One trick available
There is one potential method within human power to appear to solve this problem. And that would be for someone to, say, hack into this account or my computer to actually change the number listed above to a different number. Just as I was able to create this number from two large primes (which I threw away) someone could create a different number by similar means but retain the factors.
I am taking some precautions against that trick if Jesus actually shows up at my door. I have some different numbers for Him to try in addition to the one posted, as well as other questions or tasks that satisfy the criteria.
If, as many people claim, belief in Jesus is based on the evidence, then Jesus should provide me with the kind of evidence that would persuade someone like me. There is evidence that an omniscient or even super-intelligent entity could use to persuade me.
My invitation to Jesus stands open. I should be available on Saturday. You know where I live. I’ll try to remember not to serve figs.
If it turns out that someone does secretly have this power, the chances that they would risk exposing such a secret merely to play a trick on me seems negligible. Such an ability give them the capacity to break the codes used in a the bulk of encrypted communication. ↩
False reasons: An example of Pascal’s Wager
I have once again been presented with Pascal’s Wager as an argument for why I should believe in God. In this essay, I will review the argument, and what I feel is wrong with it. That is very well covered ground, but I hope to provide some new insight along the way. Finally I will use the example of Pascal’s Wager to help me make the distinction between stated reasons and actual reasons.
I’ve suggested earlier that both the faithful and the atheist are often unaware of their real reasons for why they hold the positions that they hold. I’d like to speculate more on this topic and will be using Pascal’s Wager as a starting point.
The most common form of Pascal’s Wager correctly points out an important asymmetry between the believer and the non-believer. The non-believer, if wrong, has a great deal to lose. The believer, if wrong, has merely wasted some time, energy, money on an incorrect belief. I have been presented with Pascal’s Wager by both Christians and Muslims, but for discussion here I will talk about the Christian version of it. It can easily be adapted to most religions.
Christian’s, on the whole, believe in a deity that will reward you for believing in it and punish you if you deny its existence. Because the reward is so great and the punishment so horrendous, the argument goes, that even if such a god is unlikely, you are better off accepting it. If the punishment is a million times worse than the cost of believing in something that doesn’t exist, then even if the chances of its existence are 1 out of a million you are better off believing. That, in a nutshell, is the argument known as Pascal’s Wager.
There are three problems with with Pascal’s Wager.
- The biggest problem is that it assumes that the choice is only between the Christian god and no god.
- The second problem is that it assumes that a person can choose what to believe.
- The third problem is that is assumes that believing out of fear (or desire for reward) will be acceptable to this god.
Picking the right god
I have been presented with Pascal’s Wager by both Christians and Muslims. Suppose I had been persuaded by the Muslim and followed that version of God with the duties and behaviors required of Muslims. Now suppose, that I had bet on the wrong version of God. In trying to please the Muslim version of God, I accepted that while God may have prophets (including Jesus), He did not split Himself in Three and send His human form to redeem us. Claiming the divinity of Jesus would be blasphemy against God.
Now suppose that the Christians are actually correct and the Muslims wrong. I wouldn’t get my reward and would be punished because, although I accepted that there was God and tried to follow His laws, I picked the wrong set of laws.
This can also be presented the other way around: Suppose I accepted the Christian view and accepted Jesus as God. This, of course, would be a huge blasphemy against the Muslim version of God, who doesn’t do such things. If the Muslims are right, then I am denied my reward and will be punished in the after-life.
So now we have three options for belief (Christian, Muslim, Atheist). Betting the wrong way can lead to very bad things. But of course there are more than just three. There are thousands of different religious views that have been stated over the millennia. Most of them are incompatible with the others in terms of what you need to do to please God.
My kind of god
Although I am an Atheist, I certainly know what kinds of gods I personally find more attractive. I believe that two of the greatest things that humans have is our reason and our compassion. I could imagine a god that would reward people who have acted on those. Now suppose that this god weren’t as compassionate as I would like it to be. It might actually punish those who abandon reason to have faith in a god. Maybe this god hates being worshipped, and will punish those who worship it. This god may not be particular plausible (though to my view it is no less plausible than any of the others)
Let’s consider Pascal’s Wager if this god exists. Those who worship and believe in this god will be punished and atheists will be rewarded.
So to sum up this argument for why Pascal’s Wager presents no argument to accept God is that there are lots of alternative notions go God. There is no safe bet.
Picking your beliefs
Can you choose to believe something just because it would be good for you if you did believe it? In the final chapters of 1984 Winston Smith is being tortured until he believes that 2 + 2 = 5. He can’t merely lie to avoid the torture; they need him to actually believe it. In the end, he is tortured into a state of mind where he will genuinely believe what his torturers tell him to believe. But it wasn’t easy to get there.
We do know that people are inclined to believe things that suit their purpose. But when people do that, we tend to call them irrational for doing so. It is violating one portion of what Ken Binmore calls “Aesop’s Principle” for rationality in Rational Decisions:
Pandora’s preferences, her beliefs, and her assessments of what is feasible should all be independent of each other.
Lívia Markóczy (my wife), Larry Zahn and I have actually done a bit of research on some systematic violations of Aesop’s principle in human reasoning, but we fully acknowledge that these are irrational. The far more common violation is simply the habit of giving more credence to evidence that supports your views than to evidence which oppose it. Our beliefs are often, irrationally, self-serving.
It appears, then, that psychologically there is no large barrier in this assumption within Pascal’s Wager that you can pick your beliefs to suit your purposes. But Pascal’s Wager is often presented as a rational argument for belief in God. And so even if this part of Pascal’s Wager is psychologically plausible, it is not fully rational.
Good enough for God?
If one believes in God because of Pascal’s Wager, will that be good enough for God? Does God want more than people believing in Him out of fear or seeking a reward? The God of the New Testament seems to want love beyond mere obedience. So it seems unlikely that He would accept belief that were based solely on Pascal’s Wager.
I won’t try to answer this question. There are different notions of God for which the answer to this question will vary. What I can say is that a god for whom this is good enough is not a very attractive god in my view. Fear and greed just don’t seem like the kinds of things that a good God would want faith based upon.
Instead I leave this as a question to any reader who seriously proposes Pascal’s Wager as an argument for belief in God. If Pascal’s Wager motivates your faith, what does that say about your god and your faith?
Kinds of reasons
As I’ve mentioned, several smart people have presented me with Pascal’s Wager over the years. In most of the cases, I have been able to persuade them that Pascal’s Wager is deeply flawed. They abandoned Pascal’s Wager as a reason or justification for their belief in God. Unsurprisingly, their faith was not in the slightest bit shaken by the elimination of Pascal’s Wager.
What this tells me is that although Pascal’s Wager is frequently mentioned is a major argument for belief, it is not really part of anyone’s real reasons for their belief. Instead, Pascal’s Wager is an argument that gets trotted out because it appears rational and seems like the kind of thing that might appeal to an atheist. It is used in debate, but never in persuasion.
A turnabout example
Just to be fair, I will give an example of an argument often cited by Atheists that also plays no role in anyone’s atheism. It is a faulty argument (though the flaw is more subtle) and likewise, when Atheists learn that the argument is flawed, it has no impact on their beliefs.
This is the classic “Can God make an object so heavy that even He cannot move it?” This seemingly raises a paradox of omnipotence. One way or the other, God is not fully omnipotent. The flaw in this argument is more subtle and difficult to explain. I won’t go into it fully, but basically we need to understand that logic (in a logical argument) must always be maintained. Once God can do something that is logically impossible (as opposed to something physical impossible) then we have lost the ability to talk about this, or anything else, logically.
Few would consider it a real limit of omnipotence to point out that God can’t make six be a prime number, yet that is what the paradox comes down to. Can God create a logical impossibility. The answer must be “no” without this taking anything away from the notion of omnipotence.
As with Pascal’s Wager, when those who present this argument are confronted with its flaw, they simply (we hope) no longer include the argument in their repertoire. But the lose of this argument never shakes anyone’s belief.
What do people really believe?
I want to understand people’s real reasons that underly their beliefs. I expect that for both the believer and for the atheist these true reasons are rarely rational or would stand up to close scrutiny. But getting at them is essential for developing an understanding of ourselves and each other.
This question is more interesting to ask about the believer than it is about the atheist. Irrespective of our true reasons, we atheists do have evidence and reason on our side. We don’t have to invent bizarre and twisted rationalizations to defend our position. That doesn’t mean that we don’t come up with some bad arguments among our good ones. As I have speculated in an earlier post, some atheists may be motivated by a rejection of religious authority.
But it is far more interesting to try to understand why people believe something that is both ridiculous on the face of it and becomes more ridiculous upon closer examination. Pascal’s Wager can provide some brief, rational sounding cover until it is looked at. But that is all it is.
Some false leads
People believe because it gives them comfort.
Belief just doesn’t work that way. You don’t find poor people believing that they are rich to give them comfort. We don’t find hungry people believing that they are well fed to give them comfort.
Because people are brainwashed or indoctrinated.
If brainwashing were so easy you should find cultures in which people believe that the sky is red. Indoctrination may explain why people believe which religion and specific details of their beliefs, but it doesn’t explain why certain sorts of beliefs are susceptible and others aren’t. Stalin and Pol Pot ran enormously powerful attempts at indoctrination of certain beliefs, yet few actually fell for it once the extreme coercion was removed.
Religion is foisted upon the masses in an effort to keep them under control.
See the previous point about indoctrination.
Sexual repression drives people toward religion.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. As I have suggested in a previous post, people who are more sensitive to virtues of “purity” may also be drawn to religion. So while blaming things on sexual repression is silly, there may be some personality correlates to look at.
I briefly listed some things that I find as insufficient explanations. I do have my own outlines of an answer, but I will have to save that for some time in the future.
Arrogance of the Atheist
When reasonable people believe something that seems patently untrue, we have a puzzle. Exactly the sort of puzzle I like musing about. In this post, I will offer my speculation as to why so many religious people believe that atheists lack humility. Although such claims are preposterous on the face of it, there may well be some underlying core that, while still wrong, makes some sense.
Before continuing with way the assertion that atheists, relative to believers, lack humility, I’d like to very briefly review why we find that claim so laughable. There’s little new in this section, so I’ll try to be brief.
Arrogant Atheist: I am one of six billion of my species and one of trillions of living things on this planet.
Humble Believer: I am second.
Arrogant Atheist: I live on a small blue dot in the outskirts of one of billions of galaxies. Source Granger Meador
Humble Believer: I live on a world created just for me and my kind by the creator of the universe.
Arrogant Atheist: I am the product evolution through natural selection, the same mindless (though non-random) mechanical mechanism that is responsible for all of the complex design found in life.
Humble Believer: I am created in God’s image.
Arrogant Atheist: My species is part of the natural world as are all other living things.
Humble Believer: My species has been granted dominion over all living things.
Arrogant Atheist: The universe doesn’t know or care that I exist.
Humble Believer: The Creator of the universe cares deeply about my individual choices.
Arrogant Atheist: I can have only a small effect on the universe though my actions.
Humble Believer: The Creator of the universe listens to my prayers in which I (humbly) suggest improvements to His plan.
Arrogant Atheist: The universe has no purpose.
Humble Believer: The universe was created for me and my kind.
Arrogant Atheist: Although I may have a few educated guesses, I don’t know how life started out or how the universe came into existence.
Humble Believer: I know how life and the universe were created.
Arrogant Atheist: When I die, I will be dead except for in the memories of others.
Humble Believer: I will live forever by the side of God.
Is the atheist view depressing?
Some may find this view of our place in the universe depressing. It’s not depressing; it’s humbling. Humility may be hard for some people. And this view inspired awe and wonder in the universe as a whole.
Origins of absurdity
I hope that I have made clear above why atheists find to accusation of arrogance laughable, and laugh at it we do. What is more of a puzzle is why such an ridiculous claim resonates with people. I believe the answer lies in the perception that atheists are defying God and tradition. Remember, of course, that from an atheists point of view, “defying God” makes no sense. Or it makes as much sense as “defying unicorns”. As I’ve pointed out earlier in my note about blasphemy we are not insulting God when we blaspheme (at least if we are right).
Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues have outlined a notion of five (or six) innate and universal psychological foundations of moral sentiments. The crucial point is that while these five are universally accessible, some of them matter more to some people than to others.
Quoting liberally from the Moral Foundations website the five are
- Harm/care […] This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
- Fairness/reciprocity […] This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
- Ingroup/loyalty […] This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
- Authority/respect […] This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
- Purity/sanctity […] This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
It is easy to pose alternatives and additions to these five, but it should be noted that these foundations are support by fairly extensive and careful studies involving many cultures. So although these don’t correspond perfectly to my intuitions, Haidt has the data to support his classification.
Haidt and his colleagues have reported that in the US liberals tend to derive their moral values from the first two foundations while conservatives use all five more evenly. What I am going to discuss in considering the case of why many people feel that atheists are arrogant is foundation 4: Authority/respect
“Respect my authority!”
People get onto the path of atheism for many different reasons. For some it starts with a rejection of religion authorities. My mother told the story that she stopped going to services when she asked the rabbi why the women had to sit separately in a screened off section in the back of the synagogue. She was told that it was so that the women wouldn’t distract the men from the business of praying. She concluded from this that Judaism was a man’s religion invented by particularly stupid men. It’s not clear to me whether she became a complete atheist, or was more inclined to the the “spiritual but certainly not religious” view. But for plenty of atheists, what started them on that path was a rejection of religious authority.1
For some people, respect for authority and tradition is a big part of why they are religious. For some atheists, rejection of tradition and authority is a big part of their atheism. To someone who feels deep down that respect for authority and tradition are virtues, rejection of those traditions and authorities may well seem as arrogance.
I am not for a moment suggesting that atheists are arrogant. I hold to the view that I’ve outlined at the beginning of this past. Atheism is the opposite of arrogance. But it shouldn’t be a mystery why some people could genuinely hold such a ridiculous position.
Whether having a better understanding of what other people think enables better communication or whether it just helps satisfy my curiosity is a question I can’t even begin to speculate about.
Note that for me it was different. I was never exposed to strong religious authority, but I will leave a discussion of how I made the move from “spiritual but certainly not religious” to becoming an unambiguous atheist for another post. ↩
The Deal with Facebook and “Your” Data
Let me just start out by saying that I believe that Facebook is nasty and extremely deceptive with respect to the information we and our “friends” give it. But I will continue to use Facebook and leave my so-called privacy settings close to the default. This posting describes why.
The two sentence summary is that I am a willing grant Facebook the right to do various things with data about me in exchange for the services they provide for me. Facebook isn’t free, but the price in data for service is one that I chose to pay.
Who’s in business with whom
Bruce Schneier in a speech at the University of Indiana says it simply enough: We are not Facebook’s customers; we are their product. Their business is to package and sell information about us to their paying customers (marketers). What they offer to us in exchange for that data about us are the services they provide without monetary cost to us. We aren’t paying them money for their services, we are paying them with information which they can sell for actual money.
I am happy with this deal. I enter into it with my eyes open. However, my privacy concerns may be differ from yours. Although I am willing to participate in this deal with Facebook doesn’t mean that you should come to the same conclusion for yourself. I will talk a bit in the end about where I do think that Facebook is “evil”, but all of that has to do with how deceptive they are. I’m fine with what they are doing with data about me and my friends. But I am very unhappy with how they try to lie to me about what they are doing.
Whose data is it anyway?
[First an aside: Yes, I know that “data” is plural, but the section title “whose data are they anyway” just doesn’t work.]
When we say “Bob’s data” we need to distinguish whether we mean “data about Bob” or whether we mean “data that Bob has some ownership rights to.” As a far from perfect analogy consider that Alice has written a book. Bob has purchased a copy of that book. We can perfectly coherently say that Bob owns Alice’s book. We can ask to borrow or purchase that book from Bob by saying to him, “Hey Bob, can I borrow your book?” We could also ask for “Alice’s book” from Bob.
Some languages, unlike English, make a grammatical distinction between alienable and inalienable possession.
I don’t know how speakers of that languages talk about Facebook data. It would be interesting to study. But even those languages cannot automatically make all of the distinctions among the different ownership rights that the modern legal system does.
Many kinds of ownership
I will make the distinction I’m after by talking about “data about Bob” or “data Bob owns”. But even here we need to not get mislead by the ordinary language sense of what it means to own something.
Some rights are what are called “non-exclusive”. When I purchase a song from the iTunes music store, I do not have exclusive rights to that song. Apple and others can sell it to other people as well. So if Bob owns data about Alice, Alice may also continue to own that data as well. I’m pointing this out here so that when I say that Facebook legitimately owns data about you, you won’t freak out too much.
There are many ways to breakdown ownership rights in addition to exclusive versus non-exclusive. For example the right to use something may be unbundled from the right to sell that same thing. (A long term lease may be thought of such an unbundling.) When it comes to information, our everyday sense of ownership can be very misleading.
Accepting the deal
So here’s the deal. When we opt to join Facebook, we are granting them some non-exclusive ownership rights about us. Facebook then processes the data that it owns, and sells it for money to their customers (mostly advertisers). Often this is done through Facebook games and applications. We you play a Facebook game or run a Facebook application, information about you and your friends is transferred to the application developer. The application developers pay Facebook for that.
I am largely fine with that.
Why they are evil
I, with a proper understanding of what Facebook is doing with data about me, am a willing participant. But many people who use Facebook have no understanding of the deal that they are entering into. Some of those people have preferred to never join Facebook had they known what was happening. Others who are now panicked about what Facebook may or may not be doing with the data they’ve acquired may actually be happier with this understanding. But the exchange we’ve made of giving information for services was not a matter of informed consent for most people.
Possibly the most egregious deception is in what happens with data about you every time one of your friends takes a quiz or plays a game or gets a Facebook horoscope. Suppose that Alice is reluctant to release data about herself to all but her closest friends. She trusts her friends to keep, say, the pictures that she uploads private. One of her friends is Bob. Bob very much respects Alice’s concern and would never knowingly release some of those photos to a third party without Alice’s permission.
Bob, however, also likes taking the “which mollusk are you quiz”. When he takes that quiz or plays a game or uses pretty much any Facebook app, all the information that he can see (including the photos that his friend Alice has posted for her friends only) is available to the app. Bob may be happy to provide information about him to the app, but what he doesn’t know is that he is providing information about Alice to the app. Facebook is selling information about Alice to the sponsors of that app through Bob’s action. Bob has to read the fine print to know this, and Alice has no say in the matter.
I have made my choice about giving data about me to Facebook, but I know that many of my friends have not done so. Therefore, I never take quizzes or play games. I don’t want my actions to transfer information about my friends to various third parties without their consent.
In short, Facebook’s deceptiveness is evil, not their business model.