01 September 2012

Science & philosophy: similar in their difference

This is a small contribution to the on-going discussions about the "merits" of philosophy viz-a-viz science.  It seems that there's one camp, including Jerry Coyne, Larry Moran, and many others (including me) who have come to believe that philosophy's contribution to understanding reality is largely over and done.  Then there's another camp - including (not surprisingly) a whole bunch of philosophers - who think philosophy is as important today as it ever has been.

I've already written a tiny bit about it.  Basically, I see religion as Understanding Reality 1.0, philosophy as Understanding Reality 2.0, and science as the current 3.0 version.  There's no question that that philosophy has had a tremendous impact and is foundational to the establishment of science.  But it's not really done much for science lately.

Given science's status as philosophy's progeny, it should not surprise to find certain rather deep similarities as well as differences.  Here's a similarity that I've really only noticed in the last few months: in all the discussions I've read about science versus philosophy, there's a particular fundamental adherence by both camps to a certain stance.  I find that the differences between their respective stances are fundamental to the friction between them.

First, though, a disclaimer.  I do not mean to paint all philosophers and all scientists with the same two brushes here.  I know there are many philosophers, and many scientists, who do not fall into the two categories I'll describe.  However, it seems that the argument of science versus philosophy is largely between those philosophers and scientists who do fall into these two categories.  To try to avoid over-generalizing, I will write about two stances rather than two groups of individuals.

Also, I do not mean to imply that these two stances are the only two possible stances.  These are just the two stances that seem to me to be pertinent to the whole philosophy versus science thing.

The philosophical stance is one in which the proper formation of an argument is the only thing that matters, and that the validity of the premises are entirely irrelevant.  That is, when this stance is invoked, the entire argument is placed within a conditional: if the premises are true, then....  This means that holders of this stance are perfectly happy to accept arguments that have ludicrous premises so long as the arguments themselves are properly formed.

Example #1. I recently attempted to suggest to Richard Carrier, a well-known expert in History, that some of his arguments may be driving a greater wedge between scientists and philosophers, when we should be working together more closely.  Based on what I've read of his work, I can't see my point being especially controversial to him.  However, I suppose the form of my argument wasn't good enough, for he tore me a new one.  (The post in question is here.)

I mean, considering how fucked up the world is today, and considering the potential for good that exists both in philosophy and science, doesn't it make sense that we should waste our time arguing amongst ourselves?  Mightn't one at least acknowledge the desirability of the goal while at the time suggesting how to argue the point better?  Wouldn't that be better than just denying the entire thing because of some (possible) flaws in form?  If the goal is worthy, isn't it better to work together to address the flaws than to just denounce the entire discussion?

Example #2.  In a recent post in his excellent blog, Larry Moran writes:
It was a real eye-opener to hear Elliot Sober defend creationism by arguing that supernatural beings could have guided evolution by making undetectable changes in DNA [The Problem with Philosophy: Elliot Sober]. Sober is a highly respected philosopher. He doesn't believe in supernatural beings but his argument in defense of guided evolution was the subject of a lecture at the University of Chicago. Listen to the questions and discussion on the video and you'll see that a group of prominent philosophers actually take this sort of thing seriously.
Again we have a philosopher who doesn't believe in the supernatural, extolling arguments that can be applied to the supernatural. He's trying to make an excellent argument without worrying at all about the validity of the premises.  The suspect nature of the premises is apparent from Larry Moran's Evil Aliens analogy.  Indeed, the analogy underscores that the focus of the philosophical stance that Sober assumes is on the argument and not at all on the premises.

The philosophical stance, then, is that what matters and, by corollary, the premises are essentially irrelevant.

The scientific stance is similar to the philosophical stance in that there's a tenet that characterizes the stance that some scientists don't recognize as a premise.  The tenet is this: follow the evidence.  Theory is subordinate to the evidence, in that a theory is only as good as the evidence that supports it.  If there was compelling evidence that the moon is made of blue cheese, then the scientist who adopts this stance would be compelled to accept that the moon is made of blue cheese.  I think that this stance amounts to saying that the premises of an argument are at least as important as the form of the argument, and that an argument with questionable premises is as meaningless as one of questionable form.

This is often exemplified in arguments for evolution and even against religion and god.  That is: many scientists have stated that they accept evolution because it best explains the evidence and provides powerful predictive ability.  Similarly, many scientists have said that they would accept the existence of (some) god if the evidence in its favour were compelling.

In the scientific stance, one does not believe in the premises or the conclusions of scientific arguments.  Rather, the beliefs of the scientific stance are on the method of science.  The evidence is accepted if it meets standards that are believed (with good reason) to be robust, and the conclusions are accepted if they are believed (with good reason) to be robust.

Of course, the evidence for which one would search depends on existent science - thus the scaffolding of scientific knowledge extending through the centuries.  Of course, if we discovered a flaw in some old yet still accepted theory of science - say, Classical Mechanics - then a great deal of what constitutes the scientific body of knowledge would also be suspect.  That is just a risk that we face with science.  And yet, the success of science in predicting so much suggests that while our models are certainly imperfect, they are rather close to the mark.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I would summarize the difference between the two stances as one focuses on the form of arguments, whereas the other focuses on the premises.  The fact that each stance has a specific focus is, to me, the similarity between them.

Of course, this is exactly where the philosophical stance and the scientific stance conflict.  The philosophical stance seems to have a very hard time accepting the imperfect nature of establishing the validity of the premises, because, in the end, premises are based on perception, observation, and information that we gather imperfectly from outside ourselves.  On the other hand, once one has the premises, the entire body of the argument can be run essentially internally to the mind and without any recourse to external inputs.  The philosophical stance seems to prefer the "perfection" of the purely abstract reasoning of argumentation to the imperfect - impure - nature of evidence.

Now, I have to side with the scientists here.  This is because science really does subsume a very significant portion of philosophy, and in addition applies certain standards of quality to the premises.  It not only covers what is logically possible, but also what is most plausible from the evidence.  And science has been incredibly successful, even with its inherent imperfections.

In closing, I return to my notion of religion, philosophy, and science forming an evolutionary path, one that might be represented as:

  1. Religion started as an attempt to explain stuff in an entirely ad-hoc way, based on evolved instinct (e.g. self-preservation, social instincts, etc), and common experience. As such it was (and still is) in constant need of revision and re-interpretation.
  2. Philosophy is an improvement on religion in that it established certain methods of reasoning that allowed a consistency of results that religion simply cannot offer.
  3. Science builds on philosophy by adding requirements for robustness not only of the methods of reasoning, but also of the premises used.

25 August 2012

A thought on the evolution of religion, philosophy, and science

I'm keeping this one short in an attempt to stop certain philosophers changing this into an examination of the form of my argument rather than its point.  All the documentation supporting the statements I make about the histories of science, philosophy, and religion are easily available with a few Google searches.

There is evidence of religion going back hundreds of thousands of years, in the form of burial rituals.  Organized religion, of the general form we know today, emerged around 12,000 years ago.  It provided answers (albeit ridiculous ones by modern standards) to why things were as they are, which alleviated stress in the community by lessening what is unknown.  Unknown = danger = stress.  It also provided a power structure around which to organize the community.

Philosophy began within the last 3,000 years, depending on which culture you're considering.  However you define "philosophy," it started long after religion.  Philosophy sought answers to more or less the same questions as religion - it only phrased them more precisely.  ("What does it mean to be?" versus "What is my purpose?")  Still, philosophy was fundamentally about explaining and predicting reality.  The power structure of philosophy came from ability to reason - those who could reason had an advantage over those who could not.  Knowledge is power, as they say.

Science is a bit harder to nail down.  Some people argue that the formalization of mathematics represents the establishment of science.  I disagree, because mathematics is a broad tool that can be applied to things other than science; that is, it isn't a marker of science only.  It's also important to distinguish between natural philosophy and science as we understand it today.  The real distinguishing feature of science is the establishment of the scientific method, which is only about 300 years old.  Science serves exactly the same societal purpose as religion and philosophy: understanding provides safety and power.

So religion came first; then came philosophy; then came science.  If we think of it as an evolutionary tree, it starts with religion, then philosophy splits off from it, and then finally science splits off from philosophy, by way of the "transitional form" of natural philosophy.  Note that, unlike natural evolution, all three major disciplines still exist.

The evolution of these three fields was spurred by the ever-growing body of knowledge that they themselves generated.  It's a positive feedback loop: the more we learn, the better we understand, the more we can refine and improve our means of learning.  There is little doubt that science is the best we've got.  It improves in every possible way on its ancestors.

So the question is: why do the progenitor disciplines continue to exist un-evolved*, like coelacanths and sharks?  I will offer this suggestion of an explanation.

Biological species evolve in response to changes in their environment that alter the rate of survival of a genetically diverse population.  Coelacanths, sharks, and similar animals have remained essentially unchanged because the changes to their environment were insufficient to alter their rate of survival.

I think the reason why religion and philosophy survive and haven't been completely been replaced by science because there are environmental "pockets" where they remain viable.  These pockets aren't defined by geography or other physical characteristics, but rather by the personalities and socio-cultural norms of societies and communities.  As old people die and are replaced by young people, the young can be indoctrinated (brainwashed) in ways that ensure an unchanging environment.

Perhaps at some point in the future, some new way of learning will be developed that will make science look as ridiculous to some future human as religion does to a scientist of today.  The difference will be (I believe and hope) that science will recognize the superiority of that better way of learning about the universe and will willingly accept it.  More than philosophy and definitely more than religion, science ought to be expected to welcome that improvement.  Which is just another way that science beats its progenitors.

* Some may argue that philosophy has greatly evolved in the last few millennia, and they would be, in my opinion, partly right.  There continues to be a great deal that philosophy can contribute to humanity's advancement.  But there are also fields within philosophy that are stuck in modes of thinking that are, quite frankly, useless.  And because they are useless, they distract others from, and waste resources that would be better applied to, more important questions.

06 August 2012

Sometime, deriding the messenger is necessary

This is Alexander Lucie-Smith, and he is hateful, incompetent, and deceitful.

He recently offered us a whole wheelbarrow of tripe in The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism.  Jerry Coyne has already torn apart his goofball sophistry, as has Eric MacDonald.  I, instead, want to write about another aspect of the behaviour of nutjobs like Lucie-Smith: that not only their vile ideas but they themselves deserve our derision and ridicule for the lies they tell and the harm they promote.

There are many atheists and humanists who advocate ridiculing only certain ideas and not those who hold such ideas.  The premise is that anyone can be wrong.  The indoctrination of the young to religulous dogma, for example, is quite powerful and if it is just a quirk of circumstance that one has been brainwashed by [insert any religion here], then we cannot truly blame one for espousing stupid, hateful ideas.

Fair enough.  But that does not describe every religulous fundiot.  Some of them clearly have the brains, the education, and the resources to learn from their mistakes.  Instead, these people exhibit either incredible sloth, or incompetence, or malevolence, or some combination of the three.  And they do so repeatedly.  When one keeps repeating the same mistakes, using the same wretched arguments, despite having been shown (sometimes in dozens of different ways) the specific errors one committed and even how those errors might be corrected - well, we must then revisit our strategies.

What do one do when, no matter how often one leads a horse to water, the horse patently refuses to drink - to even acknowledge the water is there?  This is exactly what these religulous fundiots do. Even worse, not only do the religulous deny the water of scientific truth that we offer to them; they even seek to deny these truths to others, and to confound the undecided with lies and vacuous arguments.

What do we do?  This is more than just some brainwashed Mormon peddling their paper mache god on a street-corner.  This is intentional, wilful, repeated subversion of truth and well-being for the sake of their stupid, hateful fairy tales.  What to do with people who wilfully seek to spread lies, over and over again, fully knowing - or at least having the capacity to know - that their lies promote hate and harm?

Is it enough to simply argue against their ideas?

Why do repeat criminals end up in prison for longer and longer periods of time?  Because it becomes apparent that society cannot fix them, so exile becomes the only feasible way to maintain the safety and peace of the society.

When will we finally realize that there is no difference between criminal recidivism and the religulous who repeatedly lie and spread harm through their religion?

It cannot possibly be enough to just ridicule religulous ideas.  This is because there will always be more wilfully ignorant, hate-mongering assholes to argue against you.  You can't destroy a bad idea if there is a steady supply of morons ready to take it up.  Indeed, the idea is pointless without the dumb-fuck, witless, hateful agent to promulgate it.  They are religious recidivists.

Clearly, such people are mentally ill.  Anyone who prefers lies to truth and harm to well-being is nuts, by definition.  But society - even so-called "developed" Western society - is quaintly parochial in naming this delusion where religion is concerned.

Did you know that the DSM has a special exemption for religious beliefs under the diagnosis of delusion?  This is because without it virtually everyone who holds religious beliefs above scientific knowledge would be labelled mentally ill.  (Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, quotes page 765 of the DSM-IV to this effect.)

So we can't just round up the religulous fundiots and lock them up - exile them - even though that is certainly the most rational course of action given what we know.

What else can we do but deride and ridicule the messenger?  Medical science, as it is currently practised, takes delusion as a mental illness - unless the delusion is religious.  God disguises himself as a lunatic.  Or maybe he's just a lunatic disguised as a god.  (Which is more likely?)  Still, the current social norm is that the religulous are sane.  If they are sane, and we have established they are both educated and intelligent, then they must be malevolent.  There is no other option.

The malevolent must be dealt with.  They must be stopped.  They must be shown to be the useless bags of skin they really are.  Since we cannot provide them with the psychiatric help they so obviously and desperately need, we can only convince them to shut up.  They must be prevented from influencing others by any legal and ethical means possible, because every time they open their mouths, they harm others.  So we really should not hesitate to yell and drown them out; to make fun of them, belittle them, ridicule them.  Their ideas are nothing without vessels, and we cannot stop people from thinking stupid things.  But by damn we can stop them from acting on those ideas.

So, to Alexander Lucie-Smith, beady-eyed whack-job that he is, I say this: your puerile ideas have been utterly demolished by others.  But that's not enough.

With reference to the putrefaction in your article, Lucie-Smith:

  • You are so stupid that you are unable to use an internet search engine to find that quote of Richard Dawkins.
  • You are so unethical, that you didn't even try - you could have asked someone else to do it for you, in the spirit of journalistic integrity.  But why should you care about that, when Christianity is just one big fucking lie?
  • You are incompetent as a writer and communicator, constructing the kinds of arguments I would have been ashamed to present when I was a freshman, let alone a doctor of moral theology.
  • Your flaccid arguments are an insult to academe, and show a complete disregard for the conduct of research and argumentation.  Whatever institution bestowed your doctorate clearly caters to idiots and assholes.
  • Your arguments appeal entirely to the visceral, irrational, animalistic ignorance of theists.  In so doing, you foment hatred of rationality.
  • This in turn belies utter contempt for your readers and humanity in general.

You, Alexander Lucie-Smith, are a repugnant slug who hates humanity.  Perhaps if you'd not been skull-fucked by your church quite so severely, you might understand that.  But you have willingly let your brains be liquified by the horror of the Catholic church because you are deficient, you are malevolent, you are sadistically narcissistic.  You are not fit to wipe the shit from my ass and I will never, ever, think of you as anything but the fucktard you really are.



(Sidebar: if the Catholic Church really gave a shit at all about anyone, they would have arranged for the brainless Lucie-Smith to be severely and publicly castigated for his contemptible and dismissive article.  Instead, Ratzy the Nazi remains silent.  Silence gives consent.  So the entire Catholic church is just as guilty, just as hateful, and just as fucked up, as the nutless wonder Lucie-Smith.)

03 August 2012

Hope is nothing special

Here's the most recent tripe at our local Baptist church.  I unfortunately drive by the place quite often, and this one just kept getting under my skin....  I had to write about it.

First off, it's a bit of a non-sequitur, because the antecedent ("endless hope") says nothing about the condition of the consequent (an "end").  That is, having endless hope does nothing to necessarily prevent an end, hopeless or otherwise.  So this gets a solid F for composition.

Next, there is the insulting nature of the message: non-Christians are doomed to terminal despair simply because of their choice to worship a non-Christian god or no gods at all.  They may as well have just announced that non-Christians will burn in hell.  The sanctimonious arrogance of these people, who think that they have a fast track to a delusional ever-lasting life, shows such contempt for human life that it turns my stomach.  So in the category of empathy and respect for others, this gets another F.

Next: the use of the word "Christian."  Baptists aren't Protestants because they disagree with Protestant doctrine.  By definition, Baptists think that their way is the only right way, or they wouldn't have felt the need to form a new religion.  This necessarily means a good and proper Baptist must believe that non-Baptists are heathen, regardless of whether they're Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Pastafarian, or Jedi.  (Of course, the exact same argument can be levelled at every other sect of Christianity and, indeed, all religions.)  So why are they clumping all Christians together in their signage?  Personally, I think it's because they would rather put up with a Catholic than a Muslim or - horror of horrors - an atheist.  I think that many believers of the more insignificant religions, like Baptists, figure that there's strength in numbers, and so are willing to band together with other Christians to combat their perceived common enemies.  Religiously, they're Baptists; but politically, they're Christians.

Whatever the reason, the point remains: to comment on Christians as a whole runs entirely counter to their very existence.  (Not to mention it speaks on the behalf of those from whom consent was not granted.)  So, the scope of their argument is entirely wrong, and deserves an F.

Here's another problem with this statement: it's factually wrong.  Of course, facts have never been known to influence the religulous, so I am not surprised that these Baptists are simply cherry-picking the evidence to support their trite delusions.  There are, in fact, all kinds of people who live wonderful, fulfilling, happy, meaningful lives without religion and without god.  They die in peace and without regret.  That such people exist entirely undermines the claim the Baptists make.  So, for fact-checking: F.

Now let's consider hope itself.  Hope is "the emotional state which promotes the belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one's life." (source)  If you don't like Wikipedia, then use this more academic definition: "Hope is...the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways." (source)

Furthermore, in religious parlance, hope is almost always about entering heaven.  Let's run with that for a moment.

Once you die, in typical Christian belief systems, there's nothing more you can do to affect the odds of your getting into heaven or hell.  Depending on the sect to which you belong, you may or may not have to wait till Armageddon/Judgement-Day/Rapture/whatever to actually get anywhere, but as of your mortal death, you're ticket is stamped, your fate sealed, your gig utterly and completely up.  Given either of the definitions of hope that I provided, you simply don't need any hope when you die.  Hope is about events and goals in one's life.  Death is the final event, and once you're dead, you're also completely out of agency to achieve goals.  Your god's decision regarding your ultimate fate doesn't depend on anything after your death.  The decision is in essence made when you die.

Hope, in the religious sense, is pointless at one's death, and irrelevant thereafter.  Therefore, it makes sense that everyone, even the religulous, should meet a hopeless end!  Clearly, these Baptists were more concerned with creating a good sound bite - something, dare I say, tweetable - than with offering an accurate statement.  So, in the category of depth of analysis, they get a resounding F.

Now let's look at hope more broadly.  Clearly, hope is just belief and not knowledge.  Whether it's about "positive outcomes" or about reaching "desired goals," hope is really about desire.  Hope is about wanting things to turn out.  We don't hope that things go badly.  We don't hope that terrible things happen to others (unless of course such terrible things result in "good" feelings in us, like vengeance, in which case we're really just hoping to feel good).

Unless one is mentally ill, the things one wants, the things one hopes for, are "good" things.  We hope for health, wealth, happiness, security, safety, etc.  And this is, as I see it, the key to understanding hope.  We have evolved to seek situations with the least stress.  A stressed organism will not produce as many offspring, and what offspring are produced will tend to be weaker and sicklier than those of organisms that are not stressed.  Stresses come from sources that organisms cannot control - their environments.  Stress serves the purpose of warning the organism of impending danger, so it is useful, but only to a point.  Organisms that learned how to adapt to stress produced more, healthier offspring, and so eventually overwhelmed organisms unable to adapt to stress.  Since the environment is always changing, there are always new kinds of stress, so those organisms that can adapt the best, the most often, and the most quickly, will eventually out-reproduce other organisms. And so, eventually, all organisms will have an innate drive to seek out low-stress situations (or, alternatively, to avoid situations of high stress).

For a very long time, organisms were insufficiently complex to reflect, to have self-image, to reason about time, and to build mental models of their world with themselves in the models.  Humans are one of the few organisms that can do these things.  Once you can reason about your own mental models, you can start to imagine possible future worlds.  You will naturally prefer those possible worlds in which you believe you will have less stress than you do in the actual, current world.  Those are precisely the worlds that we hope for.

We call it hope, rather than just rational preference, because it isn't rational; it isn't the result of careful and conscious thought processes.  It is the hardwired instinct to avoid stress that hands us our preferred worlds.  It is cognition, but not conscious cognition.  It's stuff the brain does without bothering to tell us.  Instead, the results of that cognition alone are shown to our conscious minds.  The result is that we perceive these preferences appearing as if from nowhere, popping fully formed into consciousness.  It's not rational thought, but it is something that presses on us, exerts its influence on us directly and powerfully.

Hope is something humans have been doing for a very long time - far longer than we have been thinking rationally.  It stands to reason that this feeling would have been captured and packaged into a concept ingrained in every human culture.  It also stands to reason that its universal applicability to direct us toward outcomes that make us literally "feel better" will have made it a magic incantation of any organization seeking to give relief or to control others.

And what hope could possibly be more powerful than that of a kind of existence that is utterly stress-free?  That's what heaven is: the ultimate stress-free environment.

But that doesn't make hope anything special.  It's an tool in our evolutionary tool-belt, a neat trick that our brains have learned to do over the eons.  It helped us make choices more likely to result in our survival and the propagation of our genetic material when we were too primitive to make decisions rationally.  We know better know.

Don't get me wrong: hope is still useful, exactly because it lowers stress and therefore improves our overall health.  And it feels good.  But it has no superior force, it is no guiding light, it represents no true way to fulfilment.

And hope does carry costs.

Since hope works at the instinctual, visceral level, there's no way to know if hope's object is reasonable.  What if the positive outcome or desired goal of a hope is ludicrous or impossible?

There is such a thing as "false hope" - hope in the impossible or even just highly unlikely.  Such hope is false because hope itself is not enough to make the positive outcome occur or reach the desired goal.  This is important: hope is not enough.  When our hopes are not realized, because they were false, we often suffer emotionally and mentally if not physically.  The greater the false hope, the potentially greater the catastrophe that follows its destruction.  For instance, I cannot imagine the psychological pain suffered by parents who deny their child medical treatment on religious grounds, only to have the child die; it must be excruciating.

Not only that, but false hope leads one to action, like laws permitting parents to make choices regarding their children's medical care that substantively increases the odds of suffering and death.  False hope can permeate a society like a drug addiction, giving one temporary solace or even joy, but doing irreparable harm in the long term.

And all this derives because some people refuse to acknowledge that their hope is just instinctive and not necessarily correct.

So, here's what I say: hope may be fine as a default, when no other, better, rational information is available; but aside from that, hope is useless.

Suggested Reading:

19 July 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe visits Jersey

Courtesy PuffHo.
A few days ago, there were varied reports of a defect on a tree in West New York (which is apparently in New Jersey) that looked like the virgin Mary - and the famous Our Lady of Guadalupe in particular.  The religulous went predictably nuts over it.

The local archdiocese called it only a "phenomenon," but that wasn't enough to stop the faithful from acting like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.  (There's videos of the foolishness at PuffHo.)

Here's my favorite explanation: it's a coincidence.  That is to say, if I could examine every tree in the world, I'll bet I can find all manner of shapes.  I'll bet you I can find... Jimmy Durante!  Would that mean Jimmy is still with us?  That Jimmy is god?  Of course not.  In our fantastically diverse universe, all kinds of things look like all kinds of other things.

Courtesy Astrobioblog.
Wait.  That's no moon!

See what I mean?

So why does a worn bit of tree truck make some people freak out so much?  Because they're biased.  They're predisposed to take certain coincidences as significant only because they've been primed by years of brainwashing to do so.  But if the image had been of anything that fell even slightly outside the usual religious memes - well, then it would have just been a mark on a tree.

...hang on; I'll be right back.

Just to show you how easy it is to see things that aren't there: I just went outside and looked around my front yard.  Within two minutes, I'd found something amazing - The All-seeing Eye!

Yes, this is in my front yard.
These are all cases of something called pareidolia and it's a very well-documented phenomenon.  One of the key abilities of living organisms is to pattern match.  Being able to pattern match a tiger hiding in the shrubbery went a long way to helping our progenitors survive.  It's something the brain can do without conscious thought, so it just happens whether we want it to or not.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that we see things - even when we see puppies in the shapes of clouds - that aren't really there.

And under pretty much every other circumstance but the religious one, any reasonably mature human will recognize the oddity as just coincidence.

But when it comes to religion, all bets are off.

I think this really underscores the insidious nature of religious belief: it puts one in a frame of mind that blocks our rational brain from drawing correct conclusions; it obscures our rationality; it deprives us of one of the few characteristics that make humans distinctive among all the forms of life on Earth.

Really now.  Can't we do better than this?

(For the record, when I look at that tree in West New York, I see a dildo.  Just sayin'.)

12 July 2012

Ideals matter

I posted about the importance of ideology and ideals at my other blog.  I thought it made more sense to put it there since it regards issues broader than just atheist/humanist ones.

Still, it would be interesting to try to enumerate some of the ideals that are common to both atheists and theists.  I suspect, if the theists are moderate, it would be a long list.  It bothers me that the commonalities are rarely discussed.

09 July 2012

The twisted logic of American catholics

Adam Lee recently posted a great article at Big Think, The Chasm of the Middle Ground, that considers the bigotry that seems to be the current fad in American religious fundamentalism.  I just want to comment on one passage from Adam's post (I've emphasized key parts).
We saw this in the fights over the American health-care bill, where Roman Catholic bishops asserted that any employer - not just a church employer, but any employer, even the manager of a Taco Bell - should be able to deny his employees insurance coverage for any medical procedure to which he objects on religious grounds. Since most major medical procedures are ruinously expensive if not covered by insurance, this is equivalent to saying that employers should be able to dictate their workers' access to medical care. In the same vein, when there was a rash of teenagers committing suicide after vicious homophobic bullying, evangelicals in the Anoka-Hennepin School District vehemently objected to a proposed anti-bullying policy, claiming that it was an unconstitutional restriction on their religious freedom. Evangelical spokespeople have also explicitly endorsed this logic, that "if gays are not the ones being discriminated against, then Christians will be".
The first instance alone may warrant several long essays to explain fully the utterly twisted logic being employed by the religulous.  Here's just an abbreviated list of some of the problems:

  • That an employer has a moral obligation to police the morality of his/her employees in their personal lives as well as their work.  This is clearly just a case of the catholic church seeking to subvert labour relations into being its weapon, by promising the employer afterlife brownie points.
  • That the employer is morally responsible for decisions made by the employee regarding the employee's own health just because the employer is paying for the health services rendered. This is playing the "guilt card" - something at which catholics are experts - to coerce employers fearful for their immortal souls into removing from others a fundamental freedom of choice.
  • That religion has any role to play at all in labour relations.  Morality, whether set by religious dogma (bad) or rational and philosophical considerations (good), stands apart from labour relations.  Morality is codified in documents that identify the principles for which a nation stands, documents which inform the legal system, which in turn sets bounds on labour relations to (presumably) ensure the well-being of the citizenry.  Morality is so far removed from labour relations, it's rather like saying your doctor will prescribe medicine based on quantum mechanics.
  • That insurance coverage can be predicated on religious grounds. This is just pathetic, and a sure sign one's nation is heading down a similar road taken by islamic theocracies.  And look what it got them!
The second instance is a classic case of both category error and false dichotomy.

The category error involves lumping all christians into the group of sanctimonious pricks who think its discriminatory to stop them from discriminating against LBGT folk.  There are many christians who have no problem with LBGT rights.  That mainstream christians aren't far more vocal against the fundiots in their midst bothers me tremendously, but their silence (though harmful in itself) is at least no where near the vile hatefulness of the truly religulous.  Beyond the fetid stink of the rants of the fundiots, moderate christians should be properly incensed by the fundiots speaking on their behalf.

The false dichotomy (that either gays are discriminated against, or christians are) ignores at least one possible alternative: that neither gays nor christians will be discriminated against.  There is no reason to exclude this alternative a-priori... unless, of course, one grants the (factually incorrect) categorization that all christians are anti-gay.

It's all childishness.  Stupid, hateful, school-yard homophobia borne of a church that was never interested in well-being but really only in power and control.  I really don't care if the religulous want to persist in their ignorant irrationality.  But that their crude philistinism is granted equal standing to rational, evidence-based positions that promote true equality and well-being sickens me as little else can.

22 June 2012

Who says evolution can't be fun?

DarwinTunes, a fascinating experiment in evolution, is a great way to appreciate the absolutely unintentional forces that drive a thing to evolve into something...pleasant.

The idea, which has been written up now in the scientific literature, is that a piece of music can be made to evolve by letting people choose which bits of it are pleasant and which aren't.  The people involved don't know each other and don't exchange information except to like or dislike "loops" of music.  No one is directing the evolution; no one provides oversight.  The most pleasant bits - as voted upon independently by many users - are the bits that "survive."

And the really neat part of it is that not only can you listen to the music as it has evolved, you can even participate yourself and become another force pushing the music to evolve.

Who says evolution can't be fun?

New page on religiosity

I've started a new page on religiosity.  (Follow the link just under the blog's title.)  The goal of that page is to gather some of the research on religion as a human phenomenon - the science of religion, as it were.

At the moment, there's only a couple of entries, but I've plenty more links which I'll be adding as time permits.

20 May 2012

Krauss, Albert, Carroll...And Me!

This post is a rewrite of a quickie I tossed up on Google+, about Lawrence Krauss's book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing and the bit of fuss that followed Krauss's remarks about the general merits of philosophy.

The background of the matter is this.  The philosopher David Albert had some not so nice things to say about Krauss's book. Krauss then dissed philosophy in general as having some kind of science-envy.  Then a whole bunch of other people piled on, some on Krauss's side, others on Albert's.  Recently, Sean Carroll weighed in, looking to try to smooth ruffled feathers.

There's nothing like a controversy to make one want to read a book.  I'd bought Krauss's some time ago, so rather than making it wait it's turn on my iBooks shelf, I cracked its virtual spine, moved it to the top shelf, and dove in.  I just finished it, and I've got a few things to say about the book, and about the kerfuffle that ensued.

I found the book very enjoyable and gripping.  Granted, I'm a science geek, but I thought it was one of the best science books I've ever read.  Krauss's prose is more complex than that of other authors on similar subjects, but the logic and presentation of material was compelling and lucid.  I especially liked how Krauss built up from a simple view of the universe to a more complex, nuanced, and (I think) accurate one by weaving in some of the history of how modern cosmology came to be.  I was especially impressed with the systematic way that he dealt with the multiple interpretations of the title of the book.

And when I got to the end, I realized that Albert and Carroll may not have actually read the book on which they saw fit to comment.  Or, at least, that's the only explanation I can think of to explain the mismatch between what I took from the book, and how these other gentlemen wrote about it.

Let me be clear: I have tremendous respect for Krauss and Carroll.  Albert's work I do not know, so I cannot really comment.  But given his position in the community, I have no reason doubt his intellect, training, or sincerity.  What I write below is not to be taken as a comment on the character or abilities of these men, but rather only my observations of their writings.

Starting at the beginning: Krauss's book is, as I've already suggested, quite fine.  In the latter chapters, he writes about philosophy from a scientific point of view.
But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.  For surely "nothing" is every bit as physical as "something," especially if it is to be defined as the "absence of something." It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities.  And without science, any definition is just words.
And:
This is why philosophy and theology are ultimately incapable of addressing by themselves the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence.
Please note the words "by themselves" in the second passage.  It is plain here that Krauss is talking about a shortcoming of philosophy as a distinct entity disconnected from other disciplines.  In the service of other disciplines, such as science, Krauss seems to have no difficulties with philosophy.
We may supplement this understanding [science] with reflection and call that philosophy.
I see nothing especially controversial here.  Where did philosophy come from?  How did it arise?  Surely it was borne of primitive humans desire to know the unknown.  We fear the unknown.  Fear causes us stress.  Stress and fear have evolved in us to signal danger.  To know lessens that fear and stress, and quite literally makes us healthier.  Philosophy was driven by our experiences of patterns in reality and by our evolved instincts.  At its core, philosophy is an attempt to understand reality via reflection.  In this sense, philosophy and science are similar, because they both have the same ultimate goals: understanding and lessening the natural fear of the unknown.

The problem is that philosophy alone is entirely insufficient, largely because the brain is so easily fooled.  Reflection is not a good way to go about it.  Science, which has all kinds of checks and balances to address the short-comings of our brains and minds, is far more robust.  Science is, in many ways, Philosophy 2.0, using all the good bits and tossing the stuff that turns out to be useless.

(Some may accuse me here of being quaintly utilitarian.  Whatever.  I'm genetically hardwired that way.  Useless things have always repelled me.  Someday I'll deal with this point specifically, but you'll have to wait for it.)

Okay, that's a (hopefully) accurate summary of Krauss's view of philosophy as presented in his book.

David Albert's critique of the book (linked at the beginning of this post) is reasonable from a philosopher's point of view.  However, Albert seems discontent to play with the rules of the dialogue as set by Krauss's book.  That is, Albert erred in not being able to distinguish between Krauss's scientific argument, and the broader (and some might say less useful) philosophical/metaphysical arguments about somethingness and nothingness.  I think this is a case of an informal logical fallacy called moving the goalposts.

Here are some excerpts from Krauss's book:
Here is the triumph of physics over metaphysics, reason and enquiry over obfuscation and myth.... (from the front-matter; a comment about the book by A. C. Grayling - a distinguished philosopher)
So the notion of a certain frission between physics and metaphysics is not just a question of scientists versus philosophers, but a question of philosophy qua philosophy.
Moreover, even if the Big Bang had happened (which all evidence now overwhelmingly supports), one could choose to interpret it in different ways depending upon one's religious or metaphysical predilections.
And a little later in the book:
But such a metaphysical speculation is independent of the physical validity of the Big Bang itself and is irrelevant to our understanding of it. 
Here we see Krauss simply putting the metaphysical question aside, and letting each reader decide for himself.  Clearly, his interest is not in metaphysics.  It seems that Albert, on the other hand, is determined to keep metaphysics at the heart of things - hence the moving of the goalposts.

The only place in the book where I could find Krauss write something that could be taken as a criticism of metaphysics is:
The metaphysical "rule," which is held as an ironclad conviction by those with whom I have debated the issue of creation, namely that "out of nothing nothing comes," has no foundation in science.  In other words, Krauss is claiming that a rule of metaphysics - or at least of some kinds of metaphysics - is not grounded in science.  Science is grounded in evidence; therefore that which contradicts science isn't grounded in evidence.  Maybe this is an insult to some philosophers, but it shouldn't be.  Krauss is simply drawing a box around the topic of his book, and saying that metaphysics isn't needed in that domain.
So I really do not understand why Albert found it necessary to be so critical of the book on metaphysical grounds.  It's as if Albert didn't read the book, or at least refused to accept the position of the "goalposts" that Krauss set in his own book.  That's like criticizing a biology text for not addressing the production of electricity for industrial use.

Furthermore, Krauss doesn't pick some arbitrary - and possibly contrived - notion of nothingness.  For most of the book, he focuses on one specific type of nothingness - perfect vacuum.  He does this because this kind of nothingness is (a) extremely well understood scientifically and (b) intimately tied to current cosmology and particle physics.  But near the end of the book, Krauss also considers a variety of ever more difficult versions of nothingness.  Each successive version lives further and further out on the bleeding edge of science - and so there is less and less that can be said about each one scientifically.  There is also a logical progression, moving from something that is relatively easy to conceive - a vacuum - and moving on to harder and harder concepts.

Krauss doesn't make anything up to satisfy the philosophers - perhaps that's why Albert is so critical of him.  But again, Krauss states at the outset that his interest is in what science has to say about the universe.  And from this self-imposed mandate, he does not stray.  This is not something to criticize, it is something to praise.

So again I find Albert's criticism to be off the mark.  Albert seems to insist that no discussion about nothingness can be complete without metaphysics, and that Krauss's notion(s) of nothingness are limited.  How this is a problem, I do not see. Krauss is interested in what science - not philosophy - can tell us.  Krauss shows us what the evidence says, yet Albert seems to demand the results of reflection rather than evidence.  Sorry - I'll take the evidence any day.

The next step involved Krauss seemingly "dissing" philosophy (also linked above).  The problem I see here is that, while every other salvo in the argument was in writing, this particular element took the form of an interview.  That is to say, while in every other case, each participant had a chance to carefully consider his words, and to revise and edit to capture both the facts and the spirit in which those facts were being presented, Krauss, in this case, did not have that opportunity.  In the rush of the moment, is it possible for a human being to express himself poorly, no matter how well spoken and educated he may be?  Of course!  We all make mistakes.

I really see this as a tempest in a teapot.

Finally, in comes Carroll trying to calm things down - an admirable intention in any situation.  One of his points is that Krauss was perhaps disingenuous in using "why" in the subtitle of his book rather than "how," because "why" implies an explanation of purpose, whereas "how" implies only causality or function.

Unfortunately, I find Carroll's remark disingenuous, because it is evident to anyone reasonably well versed in english that "how" and "why" can be often used - especially in lay language - interchangeably.

But we don't have to make any excuses for Krauss on this matter.  Krauss deals specifically with this issue in Chapter 9:
...in science we have to be particularly cautious about "why" questions.  When we ask, "Why?" we usually mean "How?" .... "Why" implicitly suggests purpose, and when we try to understand the solar system in scientific terms....  So I am going to assume what this question really means to ask is, "How is there something rather than nothing?"
Again, it's as if Carroll didn't read Chapter 9, because the complaint he makes of Krauss's book is already handled within it.

So.  After it's all said and done, I find myself siding with Krauss.  While errors were made by all parties here, I think in the end, Krauss's impressive book remains standing against the rather odd complaints raised against it - odd because they appear to miss the point or ignore the statements made in the book itself.

Fortunately, in the end, all this discussion doesn't really matter.  The objective universe, over the facts of which these three fine gentlemen have argued, will continue whether we study it or not.  Eventually, I hope, we will all recognize this, and we'll all be better off for it.

10 March 2012

Humanist's Card, version 2

In response to comments, here's version 2 of my "humanist's card" in response to the rather sad "faith card" that made the rounds recently.
Version 1 elicited some comments, which I sincerely appreciated.  I don't want people getting the idea I just ignored their comments, so here's some notes:

It was brought to my attention that the card seemed more consistent with humanist principles than secularist principles.  That made sense; I've changed the heading to "humanist" from "secularist."

It was suggested that the "Gnu A" would be a better symbol.  Two reasons I didn't change the symbol.  First, given the change from "secularist" to "humanist," using the humanist symbol made more sense.  I did, however, find a Wikipedia Commons image by Andres Rojas that I think looks nicer than what I had originally.

Finally, it was suggested that denouncing incompetence shouldn't be listed.  The argument invoked the  Dunning-Kruger effect.  I'm a big fan of the DKE, but there's three reasons I decided to keep this item on the card: (a) not every comment was against the inclusion of this line (so more discussion is probably warranted), (b) the DKE has been noted predominantly in American culture (so its explanatory power globally may be rather limited), and (c) I consider incompetence something of which one ought to be self-aware.

...maybe some extra words are warranted about incompetence.  In the professions, incompetence is something that one must guard against in one's own behaviour.  This requires reflection and collaboration with others, both of which are themselves generally desirable characteristics.  There are any number of practises that are easy to implement to avoid incompetence.  Making a mistake is not a demonstration of incompetence; we're only human after all.  (Pun intended.)  But if one's practises repeatedly ignore correcting for errors in spite of being aware of those errors - well, that's just not on, in my books.

In any case, this card is just a quirky idea of mine and certainly isn't intended to represent the entire humanist community.

More thoughtful comments and discussion are most welcome.

25 February 2012

Quantum mechanics gets a bit less spooky

Quantum mechanics is a very robust theory of the small-scale phenomena in the universe.  It has been repeatedly verified in the lab, and has been become a fundamental tool to explore the rest of the universe.  But it does imply some rather bizarre things, that certain types of theists have used to attempt to (a) discredit science and simultaneously (b) prove the existence of their fairy tale gods.  New work now suggests multiple ways of reconciling quantum weirdness with the regularity of the human-scale universe - without requiring god.

First of all, if you don't "believe" in quantum mechanics, then you need to understand that the computer you're using this second runs because of quantum effects.  So turn it off, and go check yourself in to the nearest asylum, because that's where you belong.

For those of you who are left, you may know of some of the weird quantum effects that I'm talking about.  Einstein called one of them "spooky action at a distance."  Perhaps the most famous (and irritating) artifact of quantum science is Schrodinger's Cat, which was both alive and dead in a box with a randomly released poison till it was observed.  This led to all manner of new-age nuttiness.  Also, diverse theists immediately tried to interpret quantum weirdness as a sign from or of god.

Eventually, a new concept, decoherence, was developed to reconcile micro-scale quantum effects with meso-scale "reality" as we observe it.  But it was often seen as a bit of a kludge, a spit-and-baling-wire approach to patch together two different and far more elegant systems.

Recently, an alternative to decoherence has been developed by Dagomir Kaszlikowski and colleagues, which is far more elegant than decoherence and yet shows quite neatly how quantum effects combine at the meso-scale to create the kind of reality we observe every day.  It's still early days for Kaszlikowski's theory, so it's too soon to declare it the winner.

But that's not really the point I want to make.

Instead, consider the "society" in which this work has gone on - the scientific community.

In that society, the evidence for quantum mechanics - coming as it does from hundreds of diverse areas of research and consisting of thousands of replications of carefully designed experiments - is overwhelming.  QM both allows the explanation of existent phenomena and the prediction of other phenomena.  A sure sign of a good theory is when it successfully predicts things that couldn't otherwise be predicted.

QM isn't dogma, it's only the best model that fits the facts.  Even Einstein, who couldn't really accept QM, did not deny that it was the best model available for very real physical phenomena.  He might not have liked it, but he knew that the evidence rules.

Some thought the search for connectivity between QM and the Newtonian mechanics of the human-scale universe was a desperate attempt by scientists to justify their "spooky" quantum weirdness.  In fact, however, it was a test: if no connection could be found, then there had to be something substantive wrong with QM.

First, decoherence was developed.  Then, because scientists were not willing to settle for only the decoherence explanation, we also have Kaszlikoski's alternative treatment.

Both developments were driven entirely and only by the evidence, and the cumulative body of scientific knowledge.  Throughout this work, the scientists largely got along, listening attentively to each other, arguing respectfully, pointing out errors in reasoning rather than flaws of character (the latter of which are entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand), never hesitated to cooperate quite selflessly in the interest of discovering an objective truth about the universe.  And they did all this without god.

Now, of course, I'm sure there were disagreements and occasional arguments, rudeness, etc.  After all, scientists are just human beings.  But if one stands back far enough to look at the overall development of QM, one sees a very collaborative and surprisingly orderly movement from a state of relative ignorance to a state of relative knowledge.

Now compare this to the childish bickering, not to mention the suffering and death caused by religion.  From the Taliban to Rick Santorum and every religious nutjob in between, we see every textbook form of irrationality, delusion, and outright malevolence of which human beings are capable on display under the umbrella of god.

That's the point I want to make here.

The name of this blog is "replacing god."  Here's one piece of that puzzle: science and scientific thinking.  Modulo the foibles of human nature, the way in which scientists think and work is far more sensible than any other approach ever devised.  I can say this will full confidence because when compared to every other form of collaborative knowledge development, science is the most robust, most reliable, and least likely to cause harm.  It is, in every measurable way, better than the alternatives.  It's light-years better than anything religion has to offer.

So let's dispose of homily, and of proselytizing, and of witnessing, and conclaves, and of all those other foolish religious trappings of the search for understanding.  Let's use a scientific approach instead.  It'll work.

24 February 2012

What if science were run like a religion?

Religion and science are fundamentally and philosophically at odds with one another.  Please note that I'm not talking about scientists versus religious people here.  I'm not talking about people at all.  I'm talking about the world views, the conceptual frameworks that science and that religion propose.  These frameworks are utterly exclusive of one another, and will never, never be compatible.  Science is based on evidence; religion is not.  In science, one pleads ignorance where evidence is lacking; in religion, one claims some kind of reflective, ineffable, "inner experience" (which I reckon is just unconscious cognitive processing).  In science, facts external to those discussing them are the primary concern; in religion, sentiment, opinion, and personal prestige (aka power) rule.  In science, the only thing that matters is understanding real phenomena; in religion, everything is based on a non-falsifiable assumption for which no evidence exists and against which significant evidence exists.  Science in itself doesn't, hasn't ever, and will never move people to harm others; religion does that all the time.

Ask yourself what would happen if science were run by religion.

Think of something specific, to keep things grounded.  Like, say, the question of faster-than-light neutrinos.

(Quick backgrounder; skip this paragraph if you already know the story. In 2011, some scientists found some experimental evidence that some elementary particles called neutrinos had exceeded the speed of light, which Einstein and many after him argue is not possible, and which has never been observed in nature.  This caused real excitement in the science community.  Most were of the opinion that there was probably an error somewhere.  This was largely because the experiment had been done only once, and scientific consensus only emerges on the basis of many repeated instances of an experiment done exactly to eliminate sources of error and bias.  In the press, the evidence was seen as everything from a catastrophic failure of science to the dawn of a golden age for humanity. By early 2012, however, it had been pretty much worked out that it was only equipment error that resulted in the FTL data.  This means that Relativity, and pretty much all of modern physics, was once again safe.)

Nuns are excommunicated for trying to save lives, holy men stood silent in the face of genocidesoldiers are killed for burning the Quranholy men remain silent in the face of genocide, and even just making fun of a deity is enough to invoke violence.  It seems reasonable to think that if the FTL barrier were dogma as important to religion as it is a principle central to modern physics, then the scientists who recorded the original data would have been excommunicated at least, if not ritually murdered.  It is also likely that any further investigations into the matter would be treated as heresy.  All scientists would be told that such research was forbidden.  Research grants would be denied or withdrawn from researchers who even appeared to be heading in the same general direction as the original heretics.

And, if absolutely necessary, the truth of the FTL claim would be settled not by experiment but by a bunch of old farts who probably wouldn't have done any real science in decades, and who sit around pontificating on whether FTL violations contravene the physics of Ptolemy.

None of this happened, of course.  Sure, some of the scientists got a little… excited at the prospect of FTL particles, but there was no violence, not even harsh language.  And I'm pretty sure that, now, they're all having a pint together and having a good laugh at the scare they gave themselves.  This is because they understand that even if they disagree on specifics, they know they are all working toward the common goal of understanding the universe.

18 February 2012

Why a mandatory religion course in Quebec is a good thing

It was reported today that the Supreme Court has ruled that Quebec students must take a mandatory religion/ethics course.

Why is this a good thing for atheists & humanists?

Here's where it gets interesting.  The case was brought before the Supreme Court by a family wanting their children to be exempt from the course.

I know what you're thinking: the kids' parents are non-religious and don't want their kids to be brainwashed with religious fairy tales.  Right?

Wrong.

You see, the religion/ethics course in question teaches about a number of different religions found among Quebecers, even including aboriginal religion.  One of its main themes is to convince people of different faiths to tolerate each others beliefs through understanding.

And the parents in question don't want their children to know about other religions.  From the CBC article linked above: "They claimed their children would suffer serious harm from contact with a series of beliefs that were mostly incompatible with those of the family."

Sorry - give me a minute; I think I wet myself laughing....

I think this decision by the Supreme Court is an excellent step in the right direction.  One of the biggest causes of the fractious relations between people of different (or no) faiths is bad information about the "other side."  If kids grew up knowing more about multiple religions, they'd be less likely to think along the lines of religious tribalism and moral brinksmanship.  Heck, it might even nudge a few more students towards secularism.

So, I guess the inbred, dumb-fuck parents who brought the case forward have a point.  They want to keep their children ignorant for the sake of keeping them in the fold of their own religion.  They should fear a course like this.  Education can be a terrible thing if you're deeply religious.

15 February 2012

Draft "secularist card"

Catholics are being handed "faith cards."

I find that so surreal that I decided to try my hand at a "secularist card."

I believe the image is publicly usable.  If it isn't, please let me know and I'll change/delete it at once.

The text is all mine, save the "dress rehearsal" line which is courtesy Clive Adams.

Thoughts?

13 February 2012

A message to theists


Dear theists,

Do you believe
  • that every single person, regardless of gender, skin colour, race, culture, sexual orientation, income, position, or any other superficial characteristic, should be treated equally under the law?
  • that truth must be based on evidence and not superstition or power or money?
  • that wealth should be measured by the good you do and not by the goods you have?
  • that you should earn in measure to what you actually do and the merits of that work towards the well-being of others as well as yourself?
  • that value means more than cost or price?
  • that no one should go hungry?
  • that health care should be equally available to everyone who needs it?
  • that diversity should be universally celebrated but also tempered by the lessons of the past?
  • that war should be universally recognized as an unacceptable solution under all circumstances?
  • that education should be always free?
  • that our actions should be based on understanding that the earth and humanity are not two different things?
Well, good!  Most atheists believe in exactly the same things!

Of course, not all of you theists will agree.  Some theists are also psychopaths or sociopaths (e.g. Anders Breivik).  Other theists are terrorists (e.g. the Taliban).  Still others are just frickin' nuts (e.g. Santorum, Bachmann, Perry,…).  Still others are malevolent, deluded bigots (e.g. Westboro Baptist Church).  And others are spineless cowards who refuse to stand up for what they themselves believe is right (e.g. the Vatican's silence while Catholics in Africa cause tremendous suffering and death by preventing birth control, allowing people to be burned alive as witches,…).

These malevolent and sickening theists are, however, relatively rare.  They're loud and sometimes very powerful, true; but in numbers they are thankfully few.  Most theists are good, kind, and honourable people.

Similarly, there are some atheists that are useless bags of skin.  They're not really known as such, and they're generally harder to find, but they're out there.  Here's one list of a few evil atheists.  I'm sure there are others.

Thankfully, as with theists, most atheists are good, kind, and honourable people.

It strikes me, considering all this, that the conflict between theist and atheist isn't really one of religion or of god.  It's one of well-being versus suffering.  Among both theist and atheist populations, there are those who would live at the expense of others, who use their belief systems as drivers for intolerable acts of cruelty, pain, and death.  But also among both theist and atheist populations, there are those who care, who work to make the world a better place for everyone, and who understand the tremendous benefits that we all gain from working toward general well-being.

I think the real battle - no matter what the politicians, pundits, and media sensationalists would have you believe - is not between theist and atheist, but between those who wish for a good life for everyone, and those who don't.

If you prefer, it's between good and evil.

So here's my advice: for now, let's understand that any theist can be good or bad - and that any atheist can be good or bad.  We good people need to get together, to set aside differences of faith and religion, and stand together against those that will cause suffering on this earth.  Let's make this earth as good a place as we can, full of people who are, for the most part, happy, healthy, and as fulfilled as we can let them be.

And when we have that world at hand, we can all sit and have a nice cup of tea, and discuss in calm, inoffensive, and rational tones, whether god exists.


Postscript: Those of you who fear I may be losing my anti-theist edge can relax.  I'm still completely convinced the whole notion of god is obsolete.  But I also think that arguing about god isn't going to get us anywhere till we overcome the common areas of concern among both theists and atheists, which all have to do with well-being in this life.

31 January 2012

Journalism gone wild (and not in a good way)

The rag known as the Mail published a piece in favour of Alain de Botton's atheist religion and taking a swipe at Richard Dawkins.  It's cheap and ridiculous.  I've already written about de Botton, but this tripe in the Mail deserves special comment.

Starting with a statement by David Attenborough in which he accepts the possibility of a "supreme being," the witless Rev. George Pitcher (obviously deep in a conflict of interest) builds a house of cards favouring some kind of accommodationism.

Pitcher writes, "There does seem to be a growing tolerance of faith among the faithless."  Really?  Where? In the UK?  Nonsense!  The government there is kowtowing to religious groups, but that doesn't mean atheists are becoming tolerant.  They may be gaining a tolerance of different cultures - not that they have much choice, since cultural tolerance is the only path to a truly unified human race, but that implies a tolerance of neither the abuse of human rights nor religious zealotry.

"Those of us of religious faith need to concede that atheists might be right, however much we believe that they are not," the noodle-headed Pitcher writes. "And, by the same token, unbelievers, such as Attenborough and de Botton, need to affirm that we might be right - and they variously and increasingly are, by their words and deeds."

In other words, the last 2,000 years aren't enough for the religious.  They want to control the next 2,000 years too.  And let's not forget that de Botton's so-called Atheism 2.0 excludes supreme beings.

And then there's the surreal accusations that Dawkins is shrill.

Shrill?  I've rarely heard a man less shrill than Richard Dawkins.

And the photo of Dawkins, sporting a rather dour expression, was clearly selected to emphasize this personal attack, especially when juxtaposed with the gently smiling de Botton right beside it.

This is so typical of the religious.  Unable to produce anything remotely resembling a proper counterargument to those of atheist scholars like Dawkins, they get right down into the gutter and launch pathetic ad hominem assaults.  Yet another example of the laughably inept strategy of fundiots everywhere: atheists must be lying because they're "bad people."

That Pitcher would stoop to this level of misinformation is typical of religions.  That the Mail would print it is a pathetic commentary on the state of journalism.

30 January 2012

Co-opting the rituals of religion... Really?

Alain de Botton has come up with a rather ridiculous notion he calls "Atheism 2.0."  (As if slapping a "2.0" after something immediately makes it better.)  He argues that there are some aspects of religious behaviour that are of benefit to society, and so should form the foundation of a new brand of atheism.  Jerry Coyne rightly calls it an atheist religion.

It seems to me that all de Botton is trying to do is co-opt the trappings of religion for secular purposes.  In this sense, I don't mind this turnabout; rather like turning religion against itself, which I find in some ways quite poetic.

But in the final analysis, I find the notion of "Atheism 2.0" to be quite perverse, because the goals that de Botton seems to think can be achieved through religious rituals can be achieved by a variety of existent and secular means already.

First of all, let's set aside those who require intense religious ritual just to get by in life.  Those people may well be suffering from a mental condition like OCD (try this google search for more on that).

Once we eliminate those, we're left with people who, in essence, find certain routines and habits helpful.  We don't need all the woo of religious ceremony and ritual for that.

Want to build community?  There's lots of community activities in which one can participate.  Why do people go to church events anyways?  Salvation, or showing off.  If you really just want to participate in community, you can do that anywhere - at the coffee shop, at the skating rink, at town council, at cultural celebrations, class reunions, family get-togethers....

If you need the aspects of advice-giving that come from religious behaviours, go to a therapist, or a "life coach."

Need guidance on how to live?  Again, see a counsellor.  Or read some books on the subject.  Talk to friends and family that you trust.  Get an education.

Want to get connected to the rest of humanity and nature?  Go to art galleries and museums and planetariums.  Travel.  More education.

Learning "oratory" (de Botton's term; "public speaking" for the rest of us) is easy to learn if it's done in a friendly environment.  And it can be done in school if we could just stop pandering to idiots when it comes to curriculum design.

De Botton also claims that art should be didactic.  Let's set aside the prescriptive arrogance of this suggestion.  What can be said of art can also be said of science, and of watching grass grow.  We do need to communicate with one another more, and about important things, and fully expressing well-thought-out arguments.  That requires education, not art.  And that requires forums in which can converse freely.  I've already named some such forums.

It's all already there.  What more does de Botton want?

And his latest pile of tripe is the notion of building a monument to atheism at a cost of one million GBP.  This is absolutely surreal.  How much good could any one of us do with a million pounds sterling?  A lot more than erecting a frickin' monument!  Is that where atheists would go to beat their chests about religion-based genital mutilation, rather than invest the money to actually address that crime?  Ditto for educating the poor, birth control, gay rights, and a whole litany of global problems.

Anyways, most atheists already recognize the ultimate "monument" is already in existence and is all around us: the universe with us in it.  Anything else pales by comparison, as does de Botton's silly notions.

26 January 2012

Some thoughts on free speech

Because it didn't have to do directly with atheism, I posted this on my other blog.  It's some observations from a non-American about the problems of unfettered free speech.

08 January 2012

I've joined the Atheist Blogroll!

I'm very pleased to report that replacing god has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.