Friday, March 23, 2012

Contingent Propositions

Math: Sometimes the truth is contingent.
I have been a bad blogger lately--if not posting is bad. I have been monumentally busy at work, leading sometimes five, sometimes two different proposal teams. I also have the introduction to literature class I teach, and that demands time and focus. Unfortunately, the class is not going as well as I would have liked. More than previous classes, the current group seems especially apathetic toward poetry. I'm having a hell of a time helping them connect. I remain optimistic, though, because poetry has a way of sticking with a person. My dissertation progresses, albeit slowly.

In the interest of keeping up, I want to post a small update for consideration. I have been conversing with Kairosfocus on worldviews and first principles. One of the paths we took recently involved distinguishing contingent and necessary beings. To illustrate a necessary being, Kairosfocus offered this:
Any entity that is dependent for its ability to function on the particular co-ordinated physical arrangement of parts is contingent, as if the parts are moved around or separated such a composite entity will cease to be or will break down.

Auto parts shops have a surprisingly deep philosophical significance, never mind that chilling, long low whistle from under your car when the mechanic is looking at it.

By way of contrast, the truth asserted in the structured set of symbols: 2 + 3 = 5 always was, will always be, cannot be denied on pain of absurdity, etc. It cannot break down and does not need to be repaired.

It is a necessary being.

(We need not trouble ourselves for the moment on the 2400 year old debate on whether such may only be instantiated in physical entities. Suffice to say that such mathematical or more broadly propositional truths capture assertions about reality that may or may not be true, but if true can have very powerful implications. Thence, the “unreasonable” effectiveness of mathematics in science: If X then Y, holds, once X is found.)
I have been turning over this bit in my mind. Something about Kairosfocus's statements about 2 + 3 = 5 has seemed problematic to me.

The problem, as I have tried to work it out, is that the truth of 2 + 3 = 5 is contingent. Let me explain:
For the truth of 2 + 3 = 5 to begin or continue, we need (1) a material universe; (2) principles of rationality, such as the law of identity; and (3) a computer, that is, a being to arbitrate between the universe and rationality so as to determine the truth of expressions. There may be additional needs, but these three factors seem essential at the least.

We note also that the falsity of 2 + 3 = 4 depends on (1) to (3).

The truth or falsity of these expressions is an effect of the three factors of universe.
In my estimation, then, it is incorrect to say “the truth asserted in the structured set of symbols: 2 + 3 = 5 always was, will always be, cannot be denied on pain of absurdity, etc. It cannot break down and does not need to be repaired.” Specifically, the incorrect parts are “always was” and “will always be.” The expression 2 + 3 = 5 is true only as long as we have a material universe where things are identical only to themselves and interact with one another in regular ways. As long as we have, in other words, all three factors in play: materiality, regular constraints, and a translating/computing intelligence.

I should point out that my comments do not deny or reject necessary beings, per se. I am only saying that the specific truth of 2 + 3 = 5 is actually contingent and not necessary. I have not yet thought far and deeply enough to say what this conclusion means for the principle of cause and effect and the principle of sufficient reason.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Contingency and Necessary Beings

Beatrice leads Dante.

Kairosfocus continues to patiently lead me through the principles of right reason. Last time, I asked:
What are the tests we can use to determine whether a thing does not have a beginning or may not cease from being?
In other words, I want to know how to determine whether a thing is not contingent.

Kairosficus answers that it helps to understand contingency, first of all. He uses a terrific example:
The fire tetrahedron (an extension of the classic fire triangle) is a helpful case to study briefly:

For a fire to begin or to continue, we need (1) fuel, (2) heat, (3) an oxidiser [usually oxygen] and (4) an un-interfered-with heat-generating chain reaction mechanism. (For, Halon fire extinguishers work by breaking up the chain reaction.) Each of the four factors is necessary for, and the set of four are jointly sufficient to begin and sustain a fire. We thus see four contributory factors, each of which is necessary [knock it out and you block or kill the fire], and together they are sufficient for the fire.
From this example, we see that "the secret to understanding cause is to understand the issue of a necessary causal factor, the 'switch' that must be on for something to begin or continue to be." The necessary causal factor leads to the direct response to my question:
Once we see the significance of the necessary causal factor, we can now identify things that are not contingent: they have no necessary causal factors. So, we can go look for “switches” or for switch-prompted behaviour, i.e. the beginning/ending, or the possibility of ending, or of course obvious dependence on a feeding factor.
Kairosfocus continues on this line of looking for switches:
Any entity that is dependent for its ability to function on the particular co-ordinated physical arrangement of parts is contingent, as if the parts are moved around or separated such a composite entity will cease to be or will break down.

Auto parts shops have a surprisingly deep philosophical significance, never mind that chilling, long low whistle from under your car when the mechanic is looking at it.

By way of contrast, the truth asserted in the structured set of symbols: 2 + 3 = 5 always was, will always be, cannot be denied on pain of absurdity, etc. It cannot break down and does not need to be repaired.

It is a necessary being.

(We need not trouble ourselves for the moment on the 2400 year old debate on whether such may only be instantiated in physical entities. Suffice to say that such mathematical or more broadly propositional truths capture assertions about reality that may or may not be true, but if true can have very powerful implications. Thence, the “unreasonable” effectiveness of mathematics in science: If X then Y, holds, once X is found.)
Here is, I think, the answer to my question. The truth of something like a mathematical proposition--such as "two plus three equals five"--is not contingent. It is necessary. It seems here that if something is necessary it is not contingent; that is, something cannot be both necessary and contingent.

Interestingly, Kairosfocus calls the truth (as in, the truth of the equation above) a necessary being. I imagine, then, that a necessary being is more like a condition than like a life-form.

So, if I have this correct, then I think my world is a little bit rocked. But let me check facts, first. I therefore ask if Kairosfocus will help me confirm:
  1. To test whether something is not contingent, look for the absence of "switches," which are necessary causal factors.
  2. The truth of a statement such as "two plus three equals five" is necessary but is not itself contingent.
  3. A necessary being is a necessary condition and not like a type of life-form.
Do I have this correct?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Question to Kairosfocus

I am starting to come around to the way of thinking espoused by Kairosfocus, who has argued that we must build our worldviews from first principles and compare how different worldviews address various difficulties. The comparative aspect is important. If we have proper grasp of a fact--as in, for instance, an apple falling to earth--we should be able to reconcile the fact and the worldview.

A worldview in which apples do not fall to earth (yes, I understand that "fall" is a relative term) is less compatible with the facts than other views in which falling makes sense. The cumulative effect of comparing different worldviews against many--maybe dozens--of difficulties is to give one confidence in the smallest possible set of views. Some views may be very warranted. Maybe only one view is most warranted.

I want to build a worldview, then. Let's begin with first principles, which I take from Kairosfocus:
[a] A thing, A, is what it is (the law of identity);
[b] A thing, A, cannot at once be and not-be (the law of non-contradiction);
[c] A thing, A, is or it is not, but not both or neither (the law of the excluded middle).
I wholeheartedly and unreservedly accept all three principles. Kairosfocus and I stand in 100-percent agreement. I should also mention that I accept Kairosfocus is here asking us to operate on the macro, everyday level. We are not at a point where it makes sense to engage whatever difficulties emerge from considering reality at the quantum level.

With some common ground established, I hope Kairosfocus will clear up my confusion with the fourth principle he brings in:
We thus see the principle of cause and effect. That is,
[d] if something has a beginning or may cease from being -- i.e. it is contingent -- it has a cause.
Common-sense rationality, decision-making and science alike are founded on this principle of right reason: if an event happens, why -- and, how? If something begins or ceases to exist, why and how? If something is sustained in existence, what factors contribute to, promote or constrain that effect or process, how? The answers to these questions are causes.

Without the reality behind the concept of cause the very idea of laws of nature would make no sense: events would happen anywhere, anytime, with no intelligible reason or constraint.
Before I ask Kairosfocus a question about principle [d], the principle of cause and effect, I want to observe that [d] bears no direct relationship to principles [a] through [c]. One cannot get from the first three to the fourth, in other words. Principle [c], for instance, contains nothing in it (as formulated) to imply that thing A has a history. Although principles [a] - [c] define a relationship between thing A and the rest of the universe, these principles mainly address the relationship of thing A with itself.

I also observe that the phrasing of [d] is different than [a] -[c], and this is where my question comes in:
  • The "if" is a conditional; it introduces a test condition.
  • The test concerns whether something has a beginning or not, and whether something may cease from being or not.
  • A workable test condition needs to be able to verify all results of the test:
    • Thing A has a beginning.
    • Thing A may cease from being.
    • Thing A does not have a beginning.
    • Thing A may not cease from being.
  • If we cannot verify some results--that is, if we have no way to confirm results--then our test is flawed and needs improvement.
My question to Kairosfocus, then is simply this: What tests determine whether a thing does not have a beginning or may not cease from being?

I hope that Kairosfocus sees this as the serious, on-point question it is. It's directly relevant because principle [d] could be phrased more parsimoniously, like so:
[d-1] A thing, A, has a beginning or may cease from being. A thing, A, therefore, has a cause.
I am willing to accept [d-1]; it seems as self-evident and stable as principles [a] - [c]. It locates thing A in time without making an issue of location.

I suspect, however, that Kairosfocus believes temporality ought to be a test condition. That is, I think he wants to stand by [d] as formulated. But if he wants to keep [d], then I wish to have clarification so that I can also accept it. That clarification is to understand what the test is we are using to distinguish one class of things--those which have a beginning or may cease from being--from a second class of things--those which do not have a beginning or may not cease from being.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alpha Course: Week 12, The End

A Merry Alpha Christmas to you, heh-heh-heh.
This is the twelfth official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

We have arrived at the end of the Alpha course. Tonight is the Christmas party, and not so much a class. As you'll see, tonight's session very much resembles Week 1. The main difference between then and now is that our guests are the focus of attention. Alpha leaders are looking for participants in the next course. Those of us who have recently finished the course are now part of the flock.

My notes:
  • We are in the rotunda, as we were for Week 1.
    • A big tree, decorated with ornaments and lights, sits in the middle.
    • Dinner is potluck. We go up first for appetizers, then the main meal, then dessert. 
    • I take some pita bread and hummus, then stuffed chicken and lasagna, then some tiramisu and trifle.
  • On our table is a card advertising Alpha as a way to explore the meaning of life. 
    • The big question is “Is there more to life?” 
    • The card is for new people. 
    • We were supposed to bring new people and see if they might be interested in doing Alpha next spring.
    • My wife and I asked some folks, but we have no takers for tonight.
  • The church Alpha leader calls up two people to talk about the course. 
    • First is a woman who says she learned a lot. 
    • Next is a man from my group who says that he’d come out of his shell and now has more of a sense of peace. 
    • Then, a third person comes up. The woman volunteers to tell how she feels that Alpha helped her find joy in her life again, after losing her husband over a year before.
  • The DVD is an older lecture on the topic of Christmas. As usual, Gumbel delivers the talk.
    • Predictably, it starts on the materialism and indulgence of modern Christmas. 
    • But the true meaning of Christmas is Jesus.
    • The thesis of the talk is that Jesus really came, was born, and died for you and me. He gave us the best gift ever, the gift of being in a relationship with the creator of the universe.
    • The talk is structured around the three gifts of the magi. 
      • Gold for Jesus being lord.
      • Incense for the great stuff he did for us. 
      • Myrrh for his dying.
    • Within this structure, Gumbel argues that Jesus is real. 
    • Gumbel says he was an evidence-driven person.
      • Many other evidence-driven people have looked and concluded that Christianity is true. Take that, skeptics!
    • This talk mirrors the one from Week 1, except it’s shorter.
  • There is time for more mingling, but my wife is not feeling well, so we skedaddle. 
    • Not a great night. 
    • We really have not bonded tonight with our group.
    • We have not said good-bye in a properly.

To date, we have not been in touch with anyone from our Alpha group.

* * *

I have little to add to everything that I've observed, shared, and thought concerning Alpha. If I have any regrets, it's that I did not share what I think is one of my main theses:
It is possible for one to understand the religion--its beliefs, texts, doctrines, rapturous experiences, community, practices, and symbology--and still reject it.
Although I am a Jew by heritage and former practice, I know very well what it's like to be a Christian believer. What's more, the experience of Christianity is hardly the mystery its clerics and apologists say. One can comprehend all and everything about Christianity while also understanding that it's not true.

People needed to hear this argument to reinforce the idea that atheists know what they know. We who don't believe are not missing crucial facts. We are not deprived of the kinds of experiences that have brought them to belief. We are not emotionally blocked or angry at either God or "the Church." We know what they know--and yet that knowledge, we say, does not lead to Jesus. It doesn't lead there at all, and it never had to.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

New Series: The Art of Strategy

Textuality's next series is another book walkthrough. This time, I will share thoughts and opinions on The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life. Written by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff, the book discusses many subjects meeting my natural interests: rational thinking, personal finance, professional success, and ethics.

Looking at the book's chapters, we can see how substantial this series promises to be:
Introduction: How Should People Behave in Society?

Part I
1. Ten Tales of Strategy
2. Games Solvable by Backward Reasoning
3. Prisoners' Dilemmas and How to Resolve Them
4. A Beautiful Equilibrium
Epilogue to Part I

Part II
5. Choice and Chance
6. Strategic Moves
7. Making Strategies Credible
Epilogue to Part II: A Nobel History

Part III
8. Interpreting and Manipulating Information
9. Cooperation and Coordination
10. Auctions, Bidding, and Contests
11. Bargaining
12. Voting
13. Incentives
14. Case Studies
Every series demands different responses from me as reader and blogger, so I don't yet know what structure my posts will take. I don't know how many posts or what the balance will be between chapter summary, commentary, and attempts to apply knowledge.

In other words, I will make it up as we go along, which probably seems strange for a book about strategy. Nevertheless, I have confidence this series will prove highly engaging and useful.

Friday, March 09, 2012

You Can Ban/Moderate Me, Uncommon Descent, But You Cannot Silence Me: A Reply to Kairosfocus

Welcome to Uncommon Descent. Feel free to comment.
I shouldn't post comments I make on other sites, but I want to save the following thoughts from a comment that Uncommon Descent decided not to release. They must have resented my uncharitable review of the recent purge of ID questioners.

Still, Kairosfocus had made a "challenge" to me, so it would have been nice if my post was accepted--even if the offending part was snipped. I hate to leave a challenge unanswered.

Dialoguing with Kairosfocus is difficult, and his foggy prose doesn't help. Now, I make no boasts of my own style; I mean only to point out that Kairosfocus has an information-rich and opinionated style that an interlocutor must work through. Kairosfocus gives long, ranging comments laced with snide remarks. For example, he begins his comment to me with this bit:
You of course must know about the recent exchanges here at UD (and in the penumbra of objector sites) that showed that there is a basic clash whereby evolutionary materialist atheists strongly tend to deny the reality of self-evident first principles of right reason; leading them to absurdities such as asserting that quantum physics provides empirical warrant — by contradiction to prior expectations! [oooopsie . . . ] — to dismiss the key laws of thought such as the law of non-contradiction.

See the reductio ad absurdum on denial that is a hall-mark of trying to dismiss self evident first principles?
In only two sentences, Kairosfocus raises many topics:
(1) The recent purge of ID critics from UD.
(2) A "basic clash" between atheists and theists.
(3) Atheists deny "principles of right reason."
(4) Atheists say absurd things.
(5) Atheists say that quantum physics allows "key laws of thought" to be dismissed.
(6) Atheists are forced into reductiones ad absurdum when they do #3 and #5
From the two sentences above, we understand that Kairosfocus writes in emotionally charged terms of attack (exchanges, clash) and irrationality (deny, self-evident, right, absurdities). For this reason, his long posts are akin to the Gish Gallop, a barrage of charges and dismissals that make dialogue difficult, if not impossible.

The charges are totally false, if I must dignify them by pointing this out. Atheists do not deny "principles of right reason." For most atheists that I read and observe, reasoning rightly and well is a primary concern--as well as a factor in why they are atheists. Part of good reasoning includes examining one's assumptions: everything is available for questioning and nothing is sacrosanct. That Kairosfocus and his friends want to surround their parochial version of "right reason" with high, barbed-wire fences--on pain of bannination from UD (the horror!)--tells us that intellectually there are places they refuse to go. Such refusal again makes real dialogue extremely difficult.

Nevertheless, I have aimed to give dialogue the old college try. Here's what I wrote, and you'll notice I gave a long-ish reply to match what was given to me. Your comments are invited.

I do indeed know about the recent exchanges at UD. The purge of ID critics was duly noted. In fact, it became a source of amusement for many folks, myself included, who think UD and its leadership are more bluster and bullying than substance. The “evolutionary materialist atheists” that I read were not denying first principles at all. They were demanding that first principles be considered with proper nuance and not simplistically.

I am an atheist, but I am not an “evolutionary materialist atheist.” I tend to be satisfied that modern biology provides the best available explanation for the diversity of life on earth. I also lean to materialism as being sufficient to account for everything we see and experience in the universe. But I am not an “evolutionary materialist atheist” because I am neither a biologist nor a physicist. I simply do the best I can understanding the information before me and concluding as seems correct. My atheism, if I may be personal, starts with understanding the history of the Bible, the history in it, and the history of the religions that take the Bible as Bible: the point is that evolution and materialism were not and are not the prevailing factors in my reasoning about theism. But I digress….

My questions were directed to jstanley01. The expression “rational foundations of reason” didn’t make sense to me. It would have been like saying “the happy foundations of happiness.” Seems a bit circular, doesn’t it?

I hear your argument that an atheist and a theist equally rely on faith. You say this here:

the vaunted “bright” atheist is just as much relying on faith as the Christian whom he mocks as ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked and/or blindly credulous.
I'll quibble with you on the kinds of faith employed by an atheist as opposed to those of a theist, but I get your larger point: we’re all working as best we can with what we got.

As for my “patent and irresponsible, unfair strawman caricature”: what I said,
Folks here refuse to grant atheism intellectual permissibility.
is either generally true at UD or it is not. We can establish the truth of the statement with a poll:

(1) Is atheism a “reasonable faith”?

(2) Is it possible for atheism to be a “reasonable faith”?

I also hear your objections about atheists. You say we are pretentious and do not face the challenges of building our worldview from the ground up, which I assume is what you feel theists do. Personally, I try to develop and refine my worldview from the ground-up. I think I've done an OK job, and I see many atheists who have done the same. If you disagree, please show me specifically where I or others need to shore up our worldview.

You then say,
If evolutionary materialist atheism cannot stand on its own feet and ground itself as a reasonable faith on matters of accuracy to reality, coherence and in particular accuracy to the reality of ought, then it is not worth holding.
I totally agree. If atheism is not true, then one is better off adjusting her or his thinking. However, I happen to think it’s probably true. You clearly think it is not; what’s more, you think it is incoherent and inaccurate “to the reality of ought” (a difficult phrase to parse). That’s fine. In my opinion, Christianity (speaking generally and for example) is untrue, incoherent, and less than ideal in many of its official moral strictures.

We need to disagree, then.

Your points on Hawking and Lewontin are noted, but don’t carry much weight with me. Generally, you criticize these folks for what you wish they would have said and not what they actually say. You may now wish to retort that I am being unfair, obstinate, twisting words, lacing in red herrings and the like. I get it. But you now know my opinion, and I think that opinion is highly defensible, if you care to press me on it.

Thanks for the playbook on right reason. Yes, I think atheism works well for [1] through [6]. Atheism also does a better job than theism on [5] and [6]. Your footnote tries to answer, but does not, the questions that I know you know are coming:
Are gods something “that are”? If so, can it be found why they are? If so, how can it be found (what methods) why deities exist?

Do gods have a beginning or may cease from being? If so, can it be found why they begin or cease from being? If not, can it be found why they do not begin or cease from being?
So, we arrive where we started: atheism seems quite reasonable to me, and not to you. And theism seems quite reasonable to you, and not to me.

But I never asked for atheism to get a free pass from you. Don’t ask that theism get a free pass from me.

Finally, you may be aware that UD moderators typically hold my posts for several hours (when they allow posts to pass). This is frustrating. I will therefore not engage further on this conversation, not because I don’t want to but because it’s too irritating to be moderated all the time. Thanks for understanding.

Friday Tunes

Boston is sunny and mild today. I'm in the mood for new stuff.

You all must know that I enjoy improvised music, including what folks usually mean by "Jazz." Artists such as Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding have been getting lots of attention. They deserve it, but several acts appeal to me more.

Here, for instance, is Basquiat Strings:

They have a nice sound, right? Here's one of my new favorite songs, "Found," by The October Trio:

The Marcin Wasilewski Trio is an exceptional act. Have a listen.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Alpha Course: Week 11, Church and a Dog

Sit, Ubu, sit: How great is this dog?
This is the eleventh official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

The course is nearly finished. Next week, we have a special session for Christmas. My notes below are, as always, fresh from the session, but I write now months afterward. My recollection is that everything was low-key that night. People generally were pretty positive on Alpha. They surely felt that they learned about Christianity and got "deeper into it" than before. I was glad I attended, and I did learn about Christianity, but I felt it wasn't a particularly deep class.

Of course, I am an academic by inclination. I get excited by problems and inconsistencies. I look for them, ponder over them, and treasure them. Heck, I may even create them sometimes. Nevertheless, this is probably why I am rarely seduced by appeals to community: scholars tend to be comfortable as loners. This last session is about community and continuity--that is, "stay here in this church and be with your neighbors." It's the church organism trying to feed and sustain itself.

Everyone in my group knew for many weeks that I had already said "Thanks, but no thanks."

Tonight's notes:
  • This is the last official session. 
    • There is a session next week that’s supposed to be a Christmas party. We’re encouraged to bring someone. 
    • The recruiting part of this grates on me.
    • I'll bring no one.
  • At the table is an evaluation sheet.
    • We are supposed to provide comments about the course and our changes as Christians. 
    • The comment form asks about my relationship to Christianity at the beginning of the course. I write that I thought Christianity was irrational. 
    • The form asks how I felt about Christianity at the end, and I say that I now really think Christianity is irrational. 
    • I add a smiley face at the end of this because I don't want to be a total asshole.
  • Dinner was awesome! Meat loaf, gravy, steak fries, carrots and broccoli, and cupcakes brownies. Best meal of the course.
  • Two songs, "Spirit of the Living God" and "How Great Is our God."
    • I always hear the second song as "How Great Is Our Dog," which I like better.
  • DVD lecture on “What About the Church?” 
    • Basically, Gumbel thinks people should go to church and be active in it. 
    • He says the church is not a place but people, Christians are the church, and Jesus loves the church. 
    • He stresses the importance of baptism. 
    • He acknowledges the disunity of the church but says that the differences are ultimately inconsequential because all Christians agree on the essential bits.
      • But why stop there, I say? Why not say “Well, Jews and Muslims believe in the same God as we Christians, isn’t that similarity more important than our differences?” Why not then say, “Pagans and Deists acknowledge a higher power, isn’t that essential similarity with us more important than our differences?” Why not say, “Atheists believe, like we Christians, that people can accomplish great things by working together. Shouldn’t this essential similarity override our differences?” 
      • Of course, Gumbel’s approach is that the only way to God is through Jesus and that’s in the Bible.
    • There’s all this stuff about the church as the bride of Christ. 
      • Judaism has something like this with the Sabbath. 
      • Ultimately, it’s just poetry: say majestic things about yourself while simultaneously asserting humility.
    • In the end, Gumbel’s just standing around saying he loves the church.
  • Small group was negligible. 
    • We talked a little about the DVD. 
    • People thought parts were pretty good and uplifting. 
    • Otherwise we talked about the Christmas party and the possibility of continuing to study as a group.

Friday, March 02, 2012

My Favorite Things: Music for a Friday

Medieval Batman: A combination of two favorite things.

Rough week.

After-Birth Abortion and the Solomon Problem

After-birth abortions? Really?

The Coming Brouhaha
Two medical ethics philosophers have recently published a paper favoring "after-birth abortion." Allow the sense of that first sentence to kick in, and then have a read of the paper's abstract:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
This paper will generate lots of controversy, and I've never read anything like it. It has already attracted attention to the Journal of Medical Ethics, which has started to post defenses and reactions online.

Predictably, anti-abortion advocates see the article as proof that legitimizing pre-fetal or fetal abortion opens a society to rampant, sanctioned killings and euthanasia. Thus, our general value for human life is being diminished and we all are becoming very sad.

Atheists Will Be Blamed
While I have objections to the paper, described below, I also sense it will be used to vilify atheists.

Some people will look at atheism, materialism, secularism, and science as the sources from which such a paper could spring. Without the Christian God, they'll say, people will be killing one other and having sex with animals--and it will all be legal!

I predict this paper will henceforth come up in roughly 1 of 5 atheist conversations with believers. Over and again, we will be asked to explain why people shouldn't just kill newborns. If you don't believe in God/Jesus/Ramen, you have no basis for objecting to infanticide, they'll tell us.

If You Can Dodge a Wrench, You Can After-Abort a Newborn
So what does the paper actually say, is there any merit to it, and what's the proper response?

Briefly, the paper says the reasons one might abort a fetus hold as well for newborns up to at least a few weeks: If you can abort a fetus, you can after-abort a newborn.

The merit of the paper is in raising some important issues: personhood, rights, burden, prevailing concerns, and so on. These issues deserve to be discussed, especially in an age where high technology, long life-spans, uncertain economics have all converged. It's not an easy or straightforward matter to know what defines a person and when sociopolitical rights attach.

That said, I cannot accept the argument put forth by the authors. I think the best actions to take are to read the article and to discuss it soberly. Therefore, having read the article I want to examine the argument in the paper I object to most: that "both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons." I will focus on this case in the rest of my comments, and I'll be concerned only in the matter of newborns.

Why Kill Babies? Because They Ain't People (Says the Paper)
No reason to live?
First, the authors make some careful terminological distinctions. They separate newborns from "children," who have high enough moral status to prohibit their being killed. The authors also define "after-birth abortion" apart from "euthanasia" because the best interest of the one who dies is not a factor in the case of after-birth abortion.

The authors' opening argument on the moral status of a newborn hinges on the concept of personhood:
Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many nonhuman animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal. (Emphasis added)
After reading this, I had to check the journal website because I thought (I almost hoped) it was a tasteless joke. Personhood amounts to awareness that one is alive. If and until a being has the capability for such awareness, one can find sufficient cause to kill that being in clear conscience.

The "if and until" part is important, so the authors deal with it head-on:
Our point here is that, although it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’, a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X. There are many ways in which an individual can be harmed, and not all of them require that she values or is even aware of what she is deprived of. A person might be ‘harmed’ when someone steals from her the winning lottery ticket even if she will never find out that her ticket was the winning one. Or a person might be ‘harmed’ if something were done to her at the stage of fetus which affects for the worse her quality of life as a person (eg, her mother took drugs during pregnancy), even if she is not aware of it. However, in such cases we are talking about a person who is at least in the condition to value the different situation she would have found herself in if she had not been harmed. And such a condition depends on the level of her mental development, which in turn determines whether or not she is a ‘person’. (Emphasis added)
In other words, a newborn doesn't have the requisite mental capacity to know whether he or she would be not want to be killed. The authors develop this argument further:
Those who are only capable of experiencing pain and pleasure (like perhaps fetuses and certainly newborns) have a right not to be inflicted pain. If, in addition to experiencing pain and pleasure, an individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons), she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth. On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.
I suppose we can take some solace that the authors limit permissible killing time to only a few weeks after birth! Sigh. Let's get to the conclusion of the personhood argument, where burden of the newborn on actual people (i.e., not the newborn) overrides consideration for the baby's life:
It is true that a particular moral status can be attached to a non-person by virtue of the value an actual person (eg, the mother) attributes to it. However, this ‘subjective’ account of the moral status of a newborn does not debunk our previous argument. Let us imagine that a woman is pregnant with two identical twins who are affected by genetic disorders. In order to cure one of the embryos the woman is given the option to use the other twin to develop a therapy. If she agrees, she attributes to the first embryo the status of ‘future child’ and to the other one the status of a mere means to cure the ‘future child’. However, the different moral status does not spring from the fact that the first one is a ‘person’ and the other is not, which would be nonsense, given that they are identical. Rather, the different moral statuses only depends on the particular value the woman projects on them. However, such a projection is exactly what does not occur when a newborn becomes a burden to its family. (Emphasis added)
The bolded part avove identifies the place from which a strong and sensible rebuttal can be made of the entire paper. What the bolded part reminds us is that moral value depends completely on projection. But this presents a problem to the authors' argument because the nuclear family need not have the prevailing say over the newborn's value.

The Solomon Problem
Once we ask whether a biological parent's or someone else's valuation of a newborn matters more, the baby's welfare becomes decisive.

Forgive me for bringing in the Bible here, but we have the old judgment of Solomon problem: the real mother attributes value to the baby and wants it to live. The real mother attributes moral status on the baby. The real mother, therefore, does not have to be the biological mother. Indeed, moral status can conceivably be conferred by almost anyone--a grandparent, a distant relative, a doctor, or a stranger. Many, not just the baby's family, can project value on a newborn.

If a mother or father forfeit the initial valuation of a newborn, then there would be actual people (to use the authors' expression) who could be consulted. And if the interests of actual people should prevail--as the authors argue--then certainly there are people beyond the newborn's nuclear family who have reasonable standing to advocate for the baby's moral status.

This argument overcomes the weak objection the authors make to adoption causing more psychological trauma to the mother than would after-birth abortion.

Dealing with It
I can see this paper changing the landscape of the abortion debate in the US. Many people will be rightfully repulsed with the paper's argument. Unfortunately, many will also politicize the paper and blur the distinctions it makes from abortion and euthanasia. Opponents may stifle productive and profound debate by failing to employ proper nuance toward the real and limited scope of this paper. I can see a future in which to support any form of abortion is be to be tarred as an advocate of newborn-killing.

I don't think the authors are bad people for writing this paper. In fact, I think they are brave, for I personally would fear for my safety if I were them. But ultimately their argument fails to make its case, and it will fail to make after-birth abortion more palatable. 

A free society needs to be able to deal with awful topics, and this is one of them. I hope many people read the article, understand its argument, reject that argument, and use that reasoning in productive ways for the future of the personhood debate.