17 December 2011

I owe Chris Hitchens

Those of you who live under a rock may not have heard: Christopher Hitchens died two days ago (15 Dec).  My writing is far too weak to comment on his life and work as it should be.  I will leave that to others.  Instead I would like to share a few of the moments of my life that were enriched by "Hitch."

It was some years ago that I first heard of Chris Hitchens.  I was driving to work and someone on CBC was interviewing him.  I have no idea when that was, but I do remember the profound effect that his words had on me.  The snapshot memory I have is of him explaining why he thought of himself as anti-theist.

At the time, I was already atheist, but I generally kept this from others, not because of fear of discrimination or of embarrassment but rather because I just didn't see why it mattered to others.

Listening to Hitchens, though, was a lightning bolt to my brain.  His words distilled thoughts that had been jumbled up in my mind for years.  He was so pure, so clear, and so utterly rational in his speech that I was immediately and completely changed.  I knew at that moment that I too was anti-theist and that I would not be able to keep it to myself any longer.

This is not just some kind of intellectual crush, however; it is a deep, intellectual agreement with his arguments on religion and god, which I learned to appreciate more and more over the years as I read more and more of his work.  It matters not one whit to me that it was Hitchens that made those arguments; it is rather that the arguments themselves were made.

In this sense, I owe Hitchens.  His lucidity and intellectual power gave me the means to improve my own thinking substantively.  I hope I can live up to the standards I've set for myself as a result of my exposure to him.

He was honest - brutally so sometimes - and unequivocal.  He had a clarity of speech that made listening to him a joy.  Some people think he was arrogant.  Wouldn't you be too, if you had his education, his knowledge, his skill?  He can easily be forgiven for having human failings because his successes were so much more important.

And I'd also dispute the charge of arrogance.  If one listens to him speak, one will note a fairly common tendency to sound rather humble.  He referred to himself as a jobbing hack; he often professed a single-minded and absolute devotion to his children; his fierce and emotional defence of Stephen Fry (not that Fry is incapable of defending himself very well, thank you very much) at the Intelligence Squared debate - all these things are symptomatic not of arrogance but rather of incredible self-awareness, of having understood exactly what he was, what he wanted to do, and that it was, in the long run, the right thing.

Was Hitchens perfect?  Of course not!  So What?  Neither was Einstein.  Neither was Martin Luther King.  Neither was Orwell, or Steinbeck, or Hemingway.  This in no way diminishes the good that they all did during their lives.  And it's the good we need to remember, to incorporate into our own lives, because that's how we progress.

I'm trying to figure out how to end this entry in a way that Hitchens would approve.  Given everything I know about him, I think I can only say this:

Thanks Hitch.  Bye.

04 December 2011

A disappointing study, disappointingly reported

I'm upset about a recent study at UBC that suggests atheists are distrusted about as much as rapists.  I'm even more upset about the weak journalism that went into reporting it at CTV.

The study is upsetting because it is weak.  They surveyed 351 Americans between the ages of 18 and 82.

Americans?  It's a Canadian study, presumably funded by Canadian research dollars.  Considering how rampant both fundamental religion and ignorance are in the USA, asking an American about atheists would be like asking Anne Frank about Nazis.  There are wild extremes of "opinion" in the USA, ranging from Rick Perry on the irrational end of the spectrum to Sam Harris on the rational end.  A sample size of 351 is probably just large enough to demonstrate how under-sized your sample size really is.

Why Americans?  Was it because der F├╝hrer Stephen Harper - a born-again nut-job himself - has made it clear that this sort of research is unacceptable in Canada?

Also, the age range is troubling.  Polls are clear that they young people are not into religion anywhere near as much as the older generations. (Google can point you at various sources on this.)  So by conflating the age groups - and not being clear on how many in the sample were from specific age sub-groups - there seems to be a distinct possibility that trends found in the data are not representative of the general population.

The study's authors also polled over 400 UBC students.  Oh, so now Canadians are good enough?  Furthermore, what do you expect to find out from students, except the depths of their ignorance and naivety?  Doesn't anyone think that there might be differences between students at UBC and students at some other school?

As if these issues were not troubling, CTV gets its hands on the story and pronounces its headline as if it were a new law of thermodynamics: "Atheists roughly as distrusted as rapists, UBC study finds."  CTV is clearly trying to suggest that the whole world's behaviour can be intuited from 351 Americans and 400+ Canadian students from one university.  Nor does CTV raise any of the issues I have here, thus lending tacit support to the study.

Now, don't get me wrong - discrimination against atheists is sick and disgusting.  But this research, and how it's been reported by CTV, isn't helping at all.

Of course, I may have some or all of this wrong, so I invite corrections.

26 November 2011

Afghan justice is no justice at all

Gulnaz was raped by her cousin's husband when she was 19.  She was impregnated and gave birth.  She was also imprisoned for adultery.  Now her choice is remain in prison for 12 years, or marry her rapist.

You can read more of Gulnaz's story - if you can stomach it - here.

This really makes me sick.  That a judge could sit in court and pronounce a girl guilty of adultery for having been raped is pretty much the definition of "evil."  That such a "justice" system exists based on a pathetic fairy tale is an insult to humanity.  Everyone who has acted against this poor woman should be locked up, including all the politicians who think that this way of running a society is anything more than a sick joke.

And Afghan law, if it permits this kind of revolting travesty, is also a sick joke.  There is no argument, no foundation on which anyone, let alone religious apologists, can justify such acts.

Please remember this if you ever try to justify tolerance for religions: those religions that you think are doing good in the world are actually at the root of the most vile political and judicial practises we have.  We must never accept any legal, judicial, or political system that is rooted in such lies and evil as we see here in Afghanistan.

There are plenty of good people in Afghanistan.  This isn't about them.

This is about the power-mongering, tiny-dicked assholes who think that irrational lies found in an old book are a reasonable way to run a country.  These sub-humans have, I think, forfeited all due process for their crimes.  If they honestly think that the kind of things done to Gulnaz are how a whole society should be run, then there's no room for them on this planet.  If they really believe that women are property, then they have abdicated every possible right to which they would be otherwise be entitled.  They should be locked away forever, and humanity would be only the better for it.

14 November 2011

Coming soon: summary pages

It has occurred that some of the information I want to share in this blog may be as useful in the form of lists as links embedded here and there in various posts.  So I've started to keep track of links that support or augment my arguments, and I'll be adding them to pages as quickly as I can.

The pages will appear across the top of the blog.  Right now there's only one page, and it contains only one link.  Be patient; more will come soon.

Rabbi encourages ignorance

In a recent blog in PuffHo, Rabbi Adam Jacobs, the great yutz of New York, tried to argue "why really everyone believes."  Presumably, we're talking about god here, though the only thing I believe having read his ridiculous post is that Jacobs is an evil prick who promotes ignorance for the sake of peddling his fairy tales.

Jacobs's post has already been properly deconstructed by Jerry Coyne; I'd like to follow up on a couple of other points.

Jacobs prelude contains a vile insult, one that immediately relegates him, in my opinion, to the contemptible charlatans of religion.  He writes: "Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level?"

Here, he asserts that the only way one's life can have meaning is when rooted to belief in a fairy tale god.  This is bullshit of the first order.  I look at my wife and my children, and I know that I've made a difference.  I look at my students, and I know I've made a difference.  I look at the smile of the street musician when I drop some change into his guitar case, and I know I've made a difference.  I don't need some imaginary god to validate me. I detest that people can have such low self-esteem that they think the only way to achieve meaning is to believe in a myth, and I positively hate people people like Jacobs who project their own limp inadequacies onto everyone else.

Still, for the sake of completeness, here are my thoughts about the rest of Jacobs's prattle.

He proposes a simple three-point test to identify if you "believe."  Here's a quick summary.

1. "Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?"

Apparently, believers find something wrong with the notion of not treating a dead body with "respect."  I'm not sure why.  If there is an afterlife, then my parent's soul has gone there, rendering the body but an empty shell.  If there isn't an afterlife - hey, guess what?  Still an empty shell.  Everything that is left behind of my parents is in my mind and in the minds of the others who knew them.  So why shouldn't I sell their remains?

Jacobs writes: "Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it's just wrong to do it -- wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother's corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer." 

If it's subconscious, then it's probably just an instinct derived from evolution, or learned behaviour from your childhood - neither of which gets us near believership.  Notice too how Jacobs insidiously attempts to repulse you by choosing something distasteful: having one's mother's corpse turned into "pet grub."  How about donating her corpse to science?  There's lots of things that "desecrate" a body but which aren't that bad really.  And what's wrong with being turned into pet grub?  What do you think happens to a decomposing corpse in a buried coffin?
(Full disclosure: both my parents are dead.  I haven't sold their remains because no one wants to buy them, and because I gave them my word that I would respect their wishes.  Notice this has nothing to do with their wishes, and everything to do with the value I associate with my being honourable with respect to my own standards.)

2. "You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?"

False dichotomy.  Jacobs tries to make you think you only have two alternatives: make nice with your enemy, or beat his brains out.  There's lots of other options.  Given the circumstances, I personally would just go for a swim and let my mind wander till the tsunami hits.

Also, the question is not really different from asking you what you will do with your life.  Basically, the issue is that you have a short life followed by an inescapable death.  On the island is one hour long; in reality it's around 80 years, composed of about 508,800 one-hour units.  What you do with each of those one-hour units is treated by exactly the same question as Jacobs stupidly asks of his readers.

3. "Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?"

Here the question is really whether any of these things exist except in the mind.  Is any one of them, as Jacobs puts it, "one that transcends chemical reactions and meaningless groping towards cell mitosis?"

Appealing to one's innate sense of these things is not enough, because it has been clearly shown in the research on the human brain and mind that there are direct correlations between brain function and those innate senses.  Furthermore, Jacobs discounts entirely the notion of emergent properties - complex things that only exist as a result of the interactions between simple things.  This too is extremely well documented.

There's a certain theme running through all of Jacobs's arguments.  They're all based on appealing to the ignorance of the common folk.  There's no sense here that he's appealing to people based on scientific knowledge - in fact, he categorically ignores it.  Nor are his arguments well-constructed.  As both Dr. Coyne and I have shown, each in different ways, there are all kinds of holes in Jacobs's arguments, holes that comprehensively invalidate them.

This is, in my opinion, the evil bit.  Either Jacobs is willfully ignorant (if he hasn't bothered to educate himself about logical argumentation and science) or a liar (if he does know about those things and chooses to ignore them for the sake of making a point).  In either case, by appealing to - and even encouraging - ignorance and naive reasoning, he is endorsing exactly the sort of myopic and hateful thinking that has held back humanity for the last couple of millennia.

07 November 2011

Are those things really stars?

I have written before about the difference between science, the sciences, and scientists.  It's bad enough that members of the anti-science movement cannot seem to distinguish between those three concepts.  But even within a single concept, it seems that many ignorant and malevolent people seem to get utterly lost.

I recently came across a post on Google+, consisting of an exchange by such an anti-science idiot (identity unknown), and Tris Stock, someone who understands science very well.  The argument, it seemed, revolved on whether stars are real.  (I know - try not to laugh too hard.)

You can see the original conversation, and a series of comments by others, at https://plus.google.com/109717575157128771241/posts/869gP2699hr.  As far as I'm concerned, the person arguing against stars being as scientists describe them is just a troll.  Nonetheless, the argument is so similar to so many other anti-science arguments, that I really wanted to write about it.

First, let's get specific.  The argument isn't about science - i.e. the endeavour and process of acquiring scientific knowledge - but rather about the qualities and extent of scientific knowledge.  That is, the troll does nothing to argue against science, but rather suggests that science cannot be trusted because of the nature of scientific knowledge.  That's like saying that someone who's never seen an orange tree must assume that, unlike other trees, an orange tree must be orange in colour.

The troll's arguments hinge on a few key points.

The troll has never seen a star. That is, he has seen those points of light that normal people call stars; he just is unconvinced that they are as scientists claim they are.  This is puerile.  He's saying that the thousands of scientists who have devoted their lives (totalling millions of person-hours at least) to studying the nature of stars have been unable to convince him of their nature.  If the troll is aware of the evidence, then he is obviously suffering from either a massive superiority complex or paranoid delusions.  If he is not aware of the evidence, then is here exhibiting the very worst kind of arrogance: he's not only ignorant, but he's also too stupid to recognize his own ignorance - basically, a textbook study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as it applies to the unskilled and incompetent.  Either way, he's a troll.

"Theory" and "evidence from technology" do not guarantee validity. When Tris calls him on his first inane claim about stars, the troll retreats to a weaker position.  Here the troll argues that only his own eyes and mind are trusted sources of knowledge, and that external sources (theory and evidence from technology) are not so trusted.

The "theory" of which the troll presumably speaks are the bodies of knowledge known as astronomy and cosmology.  However, everything we think we know is also just a theory.  Since we can only perceive the objective universe via our senses, our entire mental content is basically just a big, rather vague, grossly incomplete, and error-ridden theory of the universe.  So when the troll complains about the suspect nature of theory, is he also complaining about the human mind?  Presumably not, because he seems to afford human beings a special privilege of understanding the universe.  This is called a contradiction.  It signifies that he is wrong.

The same error - logical contradiction - permeates his notion that evidence from technology is suspect.

We use optical telescopes to study stars.  If the technology of telescopes is suspect, so must be the field of optics (a theory), and therefore so are contact lenses, eyeglasses, and mirrors.  Yet I can only assume that the troll would accept that contact lenses, eyeglasses, and mirrors work.  Therefore, contradiction.

We also use spectroscopes to study stars; so, spectroscopy (a theory) must be suspect.  But you can demonstrate spectroscopic principles in any high school physics lab.  Therefore, contradiction.  He's also casting doubt on chemistry, so he's denying everything from internal combustion engines to batteries.  More contradiction.

We use radar, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, and infrared telescopes to study stars; so, our theory of electromagnetic radiation must be suspect.  But surely he would accept microwave ovens, radar-based aircraft navigation, medical imaging, radiation therapy, and TV remotes as real, functioning things.  Therefore, contradiction.

The point here is that the scientific body of knowledge is not a collection of disparate claims.  It is a single, massively interconnected collection of facts.  True, at its edges there are some hypotheses - things we're currently studying - but all those hypotheses are firmly rooted in scientific fact.  And as the scientific body of knowledge grows, it becomes more and more robust.  One cannot just pick and choose whatever bits of science are convenient, and ignore the rest.  It's an all or nothing deal.

In any case, our sensory organs are really nothing more than "technology" of a different kind that the stuff we make.  He trusts his eyes, but not a telescope.  Yet what is the eye but an organic camera?  (And it's a pretty piss-poor camera at that.  By some estimates, as much as 90% of the information received by the eye never gets to the brain.) If he doubts technology, then he must also logically doubt his eyes; yet he obviously places special privilege on his eyes' ability to see real things.  Again: contradiction.

There is no conclusive evidence that our sun is a star.  Near the end of the exchange, Tris attempts to explain things by reminding the troll that our sun is just a star.  The troll then writes "You can alter the example if you like."  This indicates that the troll does not believe that the sun is like the points of light we typically call stars.  And yet all the same tests and experiments one can perform on the stars, one can also perform on the sun - and get entirely consistent results.  The only truly substantive difference between the sun and other stars is that the former is billions of times closer to Earth than the latter.

Finally - and this is what really pushes me over the edge - the troll suggests that Tris (and others who think like him by extension) is intolerant and dogmatic because he is unwilling to accept other belief systems that "don't hurt others."  This claim is typically used to put the speaker on the moral high ground.  The attempt is cowardly because the troll should have just had the cojones to claim his own moral superiority.  Furthermore, the discussion is not about beliefs but about facts.  The troll clearly thinks of science as a series of beliefs that can be used or ignored as required.  One might argue that facts are a type of belief and thus as strong (or, more importantly, as weak as beliefs; but that would be like arguing that skyscrapers are as weak as termite hills because they're both "structures," or that serial murder is as mild as jaywalking because they're both crimes.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Scientific knowledge is a collection of facts, claims that have been demonstrated true in so many ways that the odds of any of them being false are infinitesimal.  Scientific knowledge is the best, most robust knowledge that humanity has at its disposal.  There is absolutely nothing that can compare.  If you need proof, look around you.  Everything humans have added to the Earth is based on it.  To dismiss scientific knowledge as just a "belief system" is an argument intended to lower science to the level of superstition and legend.  I really, really hate that kind of lie.

Now, of course, as is so often the case with anti-science cowards, they choose words that are ambivalent and might be subject to diverse interpretation.  For instance, the troll's remark about altering the example could be taken to suggest that the argument is not about questioning technology vis-a-vis the sun.  However, there are two problems with offering this kindness to the troll.  First, it behooves him - indeed, it behooves us all - to speak plainly and clearly.  It is evident that the troll has a reasonable grasp of english.  It is therefore not too much to expect him to be specific and precise.  Second, the entire discussion is so glaringly typical in style and form of anti-science jerks that can be found trolling on any social network that it is rather natural to infer that he is as he presents himself.  If he has any interest in science, he would know this because the evidence is so readily available.  So either he has no interest in science - in which case one must question why he even bothers to engage Tris (unless he is a troll) - or he's staggeringly ignorant - in which case he is a troll and an anti-science prats.

Now, to his credit, Tris mentions in a comment to his post that his investigation suggests the troll may have in fact just had a momentary brain fart (my words, not Tris's).

This may well be, but I stand by my assessment.  Whoever it was who argued with Tris assumed the posture, language, and style so very typical of anti-science gits.  His arguments are so fetid and ridiculous that he must either be an utter moron (with good language skills - therefore, unlikely), or a malevolent prick trying to undermine science.

22 October 2011

A few more thoughts on humanist community

While the twitter furor over the possible structures for a humanist community have settled down, my brain is still churning - because I see this as a design problem.  So whether you want them or not, here are some more thoughts on the matter.

I read with interest PZ Myer's post of 19 October, What #HumanistCommunity, and that got me thinking even more about the perceived and real mismatches between the (apparently) three camps - no structure, some structure, chaplaincy structure.

Off the top let me say that I'm with PZ on two specific points: the notion of atheist chaplains is absurd, and, as attributed to PZ in a comment "No gods, no masters, no dogma, and no goddamned priests…not even atheist priests."

Let's start with some comments.

PZ identifies some of Epstein's complaints.

  1. Other organizations, like SSA, are "loose knit."  PZ rightly questions why that is necessarily a bad thing. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a loose knit organization, so long as it's functional.
  2. The SSA apparently has no official format for minutes of meetings.  Again, so what, so long as the organization gets things done?  The question here revolves around the purpose of keeping standardized minutes.  If that purpose serves the overall goals of the organization, then there should be a standardized format.  Otherwise, it's absolutely unnecessarily (and probably harmful).
  3. While some SSA events are noted as "service projects," Epstein identifies others as "atheist proms."  This implies that service projects are more important than other events.  The question is, again, why?
  4. The SSA apparently retains no institutional memory, because, according to Epstein, "their membership turns over every four years." I will agree here that maintaining an institutional memory is important.  As Santayana put it, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.  But the membership turning over every four years is a stretching the facts a bit too far.  It may be true that most students will only spend four years in SSA, every senior student that graduates and leaves the Alliance can be replaced by a new freshman.  With a little mentoring, a very significant continuity can be maintained.
PZ then argues that a "[m]aybe a 'carefully thought out infrastructure' would be exactly the thing to crush the spirit of the movement."  This could very well be.  But what if the infrastructure were malleable?  What if it were fluid, emergent, and constantly evolving?  Couldn't such an infrastructure allow the efficiencies that all organizations need without crushing the spirit of the movement?

There's many types of organizational structures.  Why is that?

The flippant answer is: because we've not yet found the best structure.  Ha ha.  The problem is in defining "best" here, because what's best in one context isn't necessarily what's best in another.  A richer answer is this: each organizational structure is based on certain assumptions regarding the context in which the structure is to be used.  Different contexts will be best treated by different organizational structures.

One common feature of most organizational structures is that they implement a hierarchy of responsibility and control.  The problem, as I see it, with these conventional structures is that power (i.e. responsibility and control) is attached to a position in the hierarchy rather than the people who occupy those positions.  This enables the appointment or election of complete putzes to positions of significant power (think: George W. Bush).

If the humanist community is looking to do something new and meaningful, its members should attribute power where it best belongs: to individuals, not positions, based on the capabilities and expertise of those people.

PZ can advocate as strongly as he likes for no "masters," but masters do exist.  Few would argue, for example, with Stephen Hawking's leadership role among cosmologists, or with Frank Gehry's leadership in architecture, or Jerry Coyne's leadership in evolutionary biology, Or Muhammad Yunus's leadership in social business, or....  You get the picture.  A hierarchy does exist in science, in technology, and in the humanities.  But this hierarchy is not fixed by articles of incorporation or statutes of law.  This hierarchy is based on the merits of the individuals, and it changes - it evolves - in a very natural way that for the most part is driven by the work that individuals do.

Let's also consider the biomimetic notion that a well-functioning humanist community could be rather like an ecosystem, constituted of individuals that exist in a complex, fluid, and responsive structure - a structure that changes based on the needs of the moment.

So, while I'm with PZ that the rigid structure for which Epstein seems to advocate is very probably the worst structure that the humanist community could adopt, I can't exclude some other type of structure.

You'll note an underlying theme here; that an organizational structure is good when it is well-balanced with the environment in which the organization exists.  Its constitution and how it manifests is secondary to the purposes it is intended to achieve for the organization's members.  And since the environment changes, the structure must be able to respond and change with it.

So I still think that if the humanist community is to have a beneficial structure to it, it must be designed to achieve goals and to be responsive to environmental changes.

The first step in this process would be to identify and reach consensus on what those goals are.  I don't know what they are.  I have an idea of what I would think would be good goals, but I'm not right.  I know I'm not right because I know that others will have different goals.  We need to reach consensus on those goals before any resolution to the matter of organizational structure can be achieved.

One word of warning: it will likely be impossible to find a non-trivial set of goals that can be agreed to universally.  I would therefore expect the generation of criteria by which good goals can be identified based on local needs.  The goals of humanists living in the southern US states would likely be quite, though not entirely, different from the goals of Canadian humanists, or European humanists, or Japanese humanists.  The structure should be able to accommodate that localization of goals; in so doing, it would not only accommodate geographic and cultural differences, but also differences over time.

I personally find this enterprise fascinating and exciting.  It's a design problem - so I'm definitely "there" - but it's also a matter that I think could very dramatically improve the state of the world when we finally achieve it.

21 October 2011

Harold Camping was wrong. Again.

So, it's just past 10 am, 21 October 2011 in Toronto.

Harold Camping's third (or fourth, depending on how you count his attempts) prediction of the end of the world called for an apocalyptic wave travelling time zone by time zone around the Earth.

Well, it's already 22 October in parts of Australia, Russia, etc.  They're still there.  All of 'em.  Everything is just fine.

Maybe Camping's god got stuck in traffic or something.

This apocalypse stuff is, quite frankly, getting stupid.  How much money was wasted on Camping's stupid, childish bullshit?  Not to mention the poor schmucks who blew their life savings supporting Camping's crap, like this guy?

I'm convinced that Harold Camping is a criminal.  Specifically, I think he's guilty of fraud, which can be defined as "an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual."  It's ridiculous to think that someone can calculate, based on an obviously inaccurate set of documents (the bible or whatever the fuck Camping used).  It's certainly obvious now, after the fact, that he was wrong.  It's ridiculous to think that his intent was pure and not deceitful, because if his intent was pure, then he's nuts and should be locked away.  If he's not locked up (and he isn't), then he's not nuts, and therefore must be deceitful.

Given the huge amount of money spent promoting Camping's insane prediction ($100 million by some estimates), this is not just some petty fraud.  This is massive.  Indeed, even a christian has enumerated some of the things that could have been done with that much money.

Undergraduate students at my University pay something on the order of $7,000 a year in tuition.  $100 million dollars would provide completely free education for over 3,500 students.  I find that the education of 3,500 young people is superseded by the brain fart of some pathetic, ignorant shit-disturber like Harold Camping borders on a crime against humanity.

Here's a project for the atheist community world-wide: let's start pressuring governments to make failed predictions of the apocalypse criminal offences.  Let's make sure that anyone stupid enough to try it gets to pay, in kind, for their abhorrent fear-mongering.

And let's all take a moment to tell Harold Camping to fuck off.

19 October 2011

Structuring the humanist community. Or not.

There was a bit of a fuss on twitter today (19 October) about the kind of organizational structure that the humanist community should have.  Unfortunately I was teaching and so missed it, but I did catch a few of the later tweets.  I'll pitch out a few thoughts of my own, coming from a design background.

The basic argument seemed to involve not so much what structure one should expect for a functional humanist community, but rather whether there should be a structure at all.  This part of the discussion is well summarized by Leah Libresco.  PZ Myers tweeted and blogged about it a lot.  He was rather vocal, if I read him correctly, that no structure based on a hierarchy of positions that provide its holders with power is acceptable.  This a-structural approach flies in the face, as PZ himself notes, of religious hierarchies, but also of pretty much every other social organization - government, business, NGOs,....

There's two thoughts that come to mind.

Thought #1.

This one is rather obvious.  The real conversation is about institutionalizing positions in a hierarchy, and not whether any one person should "lead" any particular activity for any length of time.  What I suggest is that PZ is right on this point - if the humanist community is to learn from the mistakes of the past, it should seek are structures that do not institutionalize power.

I think Leah may have one very good idea in her references to the scientific community, in that leadership in science is generally based on merit, which in turn is based on performance, and that the positions themselves are fluid, responding to the needs of the moment, rather than being fixed by fiat based on the intentions of some relatively arbitrary group of "founders."  The structure needed, in this view, is not a structure of positions and power, but rather one of process.  That is, what's needed here is a process structure that defines how issues are identified, how temporary/local leadership is allocated, how projects start and end to address those issues, and how to rank the merit of individuals based on their records.  Such a system could be entirely fluid, yet support sufficient structure for any specific purpose to keep things organized.

My second thought is that some of the friction that occurred in the twitter discussion exists because there is an underlying, tacit disagreement on why a structure is needed.

This is where I get design-y.  You don't design something if you don't know what it's for.  Clearly, from the discussion - even just the teeny bit of it that I saw on twitter - it is evident to me that not enough discussion has been had about the purpose(s) an organizational structure would serve.  Too many things have been designed without purpose (my favorite example is the Apple Lisa).  Considering how much is at stake in defining any kind of structure for humanist communities, it rather behooves us to try to get it right the first time.

So I'd suggest that some effort should be expended to define, as crisply as possible, why some kind of structure is needed for humanist communities.  There's ways to do this.  I happen to know about those ways.  And though I may regret doing this, I would be happy to help with such an exercise, if there's enough interest.

Final thought: I find this whole discussion very interesting in that it is, as far as I can tell, something new and suggestive of a positive change in the humanist/atheist community.  Yay team!

09 October 2011

Theists love ad hominem arguments

So someone going by the name tarheeltroll on twitter posted this on 9 October:
"Atheists are overconfident narcissistic intellectuals who refuse to believe that anyone can be more omnipotent than them." (source)
I'm sure that there are some atheists that fit the description tarheeltroll proposes here.  But that also describes a certain number of people in any category, anywhere.

What concerns me is that tarheeltroll is missing the whole point of the atheist stance generally.  (This is not an uncommon argument raised by theists, so everything here applies not only to tarheeltroll, but to all other theists who use this kind of reasoning.)  And that point is this: we defer to the evidence, which exists outside of us.  If we have confidence in anything, it is that an objective universe exists, the operation of which we can understand.  This is itself evident from what we see around us.

I suppose one could argue that nothing is real and that everything is just illusion.  But if that's so then one who believes that may as well just do whatever the fuck one wants.  This will likely land one quickly in an asylum, and that will be that.

No, the only reasonable thing to do is to assume that what we perceive is (roughly) how things are.  From that assumption we build science, which lengthens our lives, increases its quality, and allows us to - in some tiny way - control the universe for our benefit (or harm).  If we accept anything science has to say, then we have to accept all of it, based on the evidence provided, until such time as a better explanation presents itself.

The evidence points quite strongly to there being no god.  If there were good evidence that some god or other existed, I'm quite sure it would be accepted.  But the evidence is lacking, and so one must set aside theistic beliefs if one accepts at all the notion of an objective universe.

It is also quite sad to see people like tarheeltroll conflate the atheist stance with atheists.  This is a very serious error in thinking.  Just as too many people conflate science, the sciences, and scientists (something about which I've written elsewhen), so too is the conflation of atheism and atheists rife with fallacy.  One does not discount mathematics because a mathematician made an error.  Similarly, one does not discount scientific knowledge because a scientist made an error.  To do so is a case of an ad hominem argument, which is by definition fallacious.

Regarding tarheeltroll, it doesn't matter what atheists are - it matters whether the atheist stance is better than the theist stance.  I wish theists would at least come to understand that, if anything, about atheism.

Harold Camping's special kind of bullshit

I've already written one open letter to the ridiculous Harold Camping.  I repeat it here, because this guy is a particular kind of jack-ass that deserves the most vulgar and vile derision we can possibly heap upon him.

For those of you who don't know, Camping is the witless wonder who was surprised ("flabbergasted" was his word) when the world didn't start ending last May 21.  He's rejigged his "calculations" and now he gets October 21 as the universal expiration date.  Before his last deadline, I wrote the above-noted blog, offering Camping a deal, wherein basically I become his god's fuck-buddy if he's right, but if he's wrong he owes me everything he has in this world.

I'm not surprised he didn't reply.  He probably didn't even find out about it.

But my hope springs eternal.  And since we've got another few days, I can hope that this time someone brings my post to his attention and that he accepts my challenge.

However, I want to change the deal.  If he's right, I still promise to be his god's fuck-buddy for eternity.  This is a pretty strong deal for an atheist to make.  In return, however, Camping can keep his worldly possessions.  Instead, if I win the wager, Camping has to pucker up and kiss my bare atheist ass, on camera, which I will then post.

So, Camping, have you any balls at all?  Or are you just a stupid coward like all the other doomsday sayers throughout history?  I think you're a demented waste of life.  Prove me wrong.

21 September 2011

Response to an apologist

I'm on LinkedIn, and occasionally participate in discussions that end up having to do with god and religion.  I recently got into one that included, on the theist side, an assortment of horribly misinformed and rather malevolent characters.  Of course there were also a number of very lucid posts - by atheists.  The entire discussion is accessible online at http://lnkd.in/gVimSE.

Just now, a theistic apologist in that discussion asked me: "Filippo you talk of what they spread does that make what you say any more superior then them. You talk about others why do you show so much hatred to those you do not know. Just because you believe in what others do does not give you the right to belittle them. Why dies religious stuff bother you so much?"

Please ignore the typos - posts to these discussion fora are often typed in great haste; these fora are often considered much like emails, and so some typos are to be expected, even from the best writers.

I ended up writing a bit of a rant in response, and I was sufficiently pleased with it that I thought it was worth posting here.  I'd've written more, but there's a limit on the size of posts.  It's probably just as well, or I'd've written a hundred pages....

So here's my response (I've fixed no typos, just tweaked the formatting for legibility):

Fair question(s).

After decades of careful study, I was confronted with the inescapable truth that science is reliable and religion is not. Religion explains little and what it does try to explain, it explains wrongly. Without religion to support the god concept, there is no reason to believe in god. Without the belief in god, the history of god, its writing (e.g. the bible), and its practises in the past and today, hold no special place amongst human philosophies. Without that privilege, it is clear that religion (god is irrelevant at this point, having been dispatched a few sentences ago) has caused immeasurable pain, suffering, and death throughout it's sad history. It has held back technological and scientific progress; it has wasted horrendous amounts of money (consider all the money being spent by dip-shits like Perry, Bachmann, etc. that could have been used to fund cancer research, or malaria nets for Africa, or cheaper HIV/AIDS medications, or better education for American children....) 

I cannot convince anyone that science is better than religion. It is something one must learn for oneself, by studying science. However, even though the means to study science exists in large supply (in the developed world, at least), there are those who are either unable (weak) or unwilling (malevolent) to correct their own errors by learning about science. 

It takes relatively little thought (though more than neanderthals like Rauchenberg or Chantal can muster) to notice the benefits of science to modern humanity. Some argue that science has caused harm. Well, sometimes there have been mistakes. And religion gave us the Taliban, the Inquisition, the Crusades.... Mistakes on both sides. But can god extend the healthy years you have on this planet? No; science can. Can god cure you cancer? No; but science may (and it's getting better all the time). Can god help you see your grandchildren better? No; but science gave us eyeglasses and lazik surgery. Can god stop pneumonia from killing you? No; but science can. Can god bring peace to the world? Obviously not; science can't either, but it has shown us that we are really all one species, one community, one race. And that's a damned sight better than the hatred that religion causes between cultures who believe in different fairy tale gods. 

Because there are such morons that use religion to segregate, discriminate, cause suffering and death - and this includes the catholic church, not just nutjobs like Rauchenberg and Chantal - I not only refuse to admit their lies and harm into my life, I refuse to admit them into the lives of others - insofar as I can do that without violating another's rights. 

The hate I feel is directed at people who would willfully and purposefully harm others because they think they're better than those others for no reason other than some fairy tales. That's a good use of hate. The hate I feel for them is because of the hate they feel to others. Chantal is a great example. Classless hypocrite that she is, will in one sentence say "God bless" to me, and on the other call me all kinds of demeaning names. Well, fuck her. Rauchenberg does the same thing - with slightly better language skills, but still remains utterly irrational. Fuck him too. 

Do I have the "right" to belittle them? Yes! Would you belittle Hitler? Well, Pius XII didn't lift a finger to help the Jews escape the holocaust. Just as so many others who are condemned as nazi sympathizers. Fuck Pius too. 

It's a simple case of every action having a consequence. Someone wants to spew filth? Fine. I respond. 

It is not a matter of "superior" versus "inferior." It is a matter of correct and incorrect, of truth versus falsehood. 

You wrote: "Why dies religious stuff bother you so much?" 

As my students would say: "Freud much?" (Terrible construction, but highly efficient.) 

I trust this addresses the question of why religion bothers me.

06 September 2011

Young earth creationism: reductio ad absurdum


I've come up with yet another reductio ad absurdum argument against young earth creationism.  At least, it's new as far as I know.  I welcome references to existent instances of this argument, as well as corrections and suggestions to improve it.

13 August 2011

Atheists need to change their approach


[Originally posted 23 May 2011]
Religious zealots target the weak, the ignorant, and stupid with their arguments.  Atheists don’t.  This is our mistake.  To combat the scourge of religion, we need to communicate in ways that even the weak, ignorant, and stupid will understand and believe.

Yet another attempt to undermine science with rotten logic



[Originally posted 23 May 2011]
I’ve written before about the difference between science, the sciences, and scientists. These kind of differences are essential to make if you want your arguments make sense.  Confusing science and scientists is like confusing biology and a medical doctor – it’s stupid. Making these kinds of mistakes ends up letting one prove things like 1 = 2 and that the moon is made of blue cheese and that murder is perfectly acceptable.

An Open Letter to Harold Camping


[Originally published 19 May 2011]
Dear Mr. Camping,
It has come to my attention that you and your fellow freaks of nature have been peddling the notion that the world will end this Saturday, May 21st.  Even though your attempts to justify your claim are laughable, I find that simply laughing at you and calling you obscene names – enjoyable though that is – just isn’t enough.
So, Harold Camping, I dare you to put your money where your mouth is.
If the world really does end according to your prediction, then I will:
  1. publicly endorse you as a messiah,
  2. accept the one true God as my personal God, and
  3. willingly commit my soul to Hell for all eternity, to make room for one more in Heaven.
For an anti-theist like me, I hope you’ll agree that that’s a major commitment.
If, on the other hand, the world just keeps on running, then you owe me everything you have.  Everything.  Every dollar, every car, every stick of furniture, every candy bar in your pantry, every bible you have will belong to me.
That’s the dare.  Are you sufficiently committed to your beliefs to take it?
Or are you just another coward, like all the other losers in your sad and pathetic cult?

Persons, Dolphins, and Margaret Somerville


[Originally published 7 March 2010]
Margaret Somerville, a bioethicist at McGill University, is still pushing her Christian-based views as if they were science.  Recently, she’s taken on the emerging controversy about the rights that dolphins may deserve. The short version is this: dolphins’ brains appear to be functionally more like our brains than are the brains of primates. So some experts are suggesting that we should grant dolphins the status of “non-human persons.”  Somerville disagrees because she thinks humans are “special” and that personhood should be reserved exclusively for us.

God By Practice: Swing and a Miss


[Originally published 5 December 2009]
Some, like religious historian Karen Armstrong (author of The Case for God), have argued that while you can’t prove God, you can come to understand the necessity of God “by practise.” I find this kind of argument quite specious.
One example I’ve heard to explain this God-by-practise thing, is dancing: you can’t learn to dance by reading a book. To learn to dance one must actually practise. Similarly, the argument goes, you can’t know God except by living an appropriate life to gain the right mindset and experience set to reach a certain kind enlightenment.
I disagree.