Friday, December 24, 2010

Real Americans are Grinches

This rant was prompted by this post on Greta Christina's excellent blog.

Christmas is fun for me… but I really can't stand this culture's "You Must Love Christmas" thing. (As exemplified by fiction's various Grinchy McScrooges: not celebrating Christmas = misanthrope.) You can shrug your shoulders on Valentine's Day, but naysay Yule and you might as well be praising Nazis.

It seems to be partly an outgrowth of plain ol' Christian exceptionalism, whereby You Must Love Jesus. And it's really reared its head in these past couple years, where not saying "Merry Christmas", or even saying "Happy Holidays", is seen as part of a massive underground effort to besiege Traditional Values and destroy Christians. The wildest irony is that the holiday itself was once seen as just that! In this country, the only ones to have actually "banned Christmas" are Christians themselves, namely Puritans. Christmas was thought to exemplify the sort of secular debauchery that fundamentalists fear today.

Nowadays, each of us is forced to "take sides" on an issue that can't even be articulated. It's just a vague notion of "Christmas is one worthy holiday among many, and its traditions come from all sorts of pagan and monotheistic practices" versus "Since when did all this non-Christian stuff and these non-Christian people even exist? Grrr! Get with the program."

Still, as much as or perhaps even more than folks like me, Christians are very much the victims of the You Must Love Christmas madness. With lucky exceptions, each American gets torn by rival factions — families, charities, and stores — to make this year's the most Wonderful Christmas Ever. And a lot of that isn't just from the pressure of the various institutions, but because so many of us really do have nice nostalgic memories of how wonderful our own Christmases used to be, back when we didn't have to worry about giving, only whether or not we would receive. Come the sacred morning, lo, we did receive, hooray! What did you get? Neat!

So we feel this tremendous guilt to give that childhood-sized emotional experience back to our parents, even if they're not alive anymore. There's this vague duty to pull off something flawless. And in the midst of all this, the failure to enjoy oneself is seen (as illustrated by Scrooge and others) to arise purely from some unwillingness to part with money, or from a displeasure that other people are having fun! (What other people? What fun? They're usually as freaked as we are!) Thanksgiving is stress-free by comparison. At least the meal can be delegated so everyone has something small to do, and much creativity isn't usually expected.

Did I mention that Christmas is fun for me? Yeah, in December I basically do my best to trim down any sense of holiday-specific obligation. Plus, even while I despair at the panic and neurotic stress of all the other celebrants, I deeply enjoy what it's really about, which is the axial tilt of the Earth with respect to the Sun, and the fun of lying to children.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Desperate Defense of DADT

According to some survey , the majority of that minority of troops who oppose the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (or, to be precise, who predict negative consequences from its repeal) are from combat arms units. As part of the grand tradition of lying with statistics, this datum was marshaled by Republicans in opposition to DADT .

Why is this dishonest? Several reasons. For one, of course some number of troops would oppose it, and of that number, a plurality will be part of some group that can easily be thought of as especially valorous — this is the military, after all! It's not like there's some part of it that Americans agree are a bunch of losers.

Relating to this, a politician saying "The majority of those who believe X are of group Y" is not a meaningful fact about the opinion of Y, because it remains quite possible that the majority of Y take the other side of the question. In fact, it's almost certain that that's so, because otherwise the politician would have used the more straightforward phrasing, "Most Y believe X".

An unspoken implication here is that the opinion of group Y — combat arms units — should be weighed more heavily than the rest of the military. Except, of course — guess what! — most combat arms units actually didn't care either.

Using this statistic is a blatant attempt to screw with the brain in the same way the affirming the consequent does. If P, then Q — so if Q, then P, right? Most X-believers are Y — so that must mean most Y are X-believers, right?

Another thing that really gets me is John McCain's repeated message along the lines of "You non-troops don't know what it's like". But in addition to his being just one person and not the Navy Incarnate, the man hasn't served in almost 30 years! Would he say that the 70% of current troops who are fine with serving alongside gays are naive elitists who have no idea what it's really like to be in the military?

In any case, if your military readiness is profoundly affected by the knowledge that one of your fellow soldiers is gay, then I, a man who would likely wet his pants in a combat zone, am quite happy to question your courage. I mean, seriously, huh?

It's as pathetic as it's insane. Hooray the bigots lost!

Friday, November 19, 2010

On fine-tuning

Inspired by a recent slew of posts at Common Sense Atheism, specifically this one.

The “fine-tuned Universe” is the one theistic assertion to which most atheist rebuttals sound like special pleading. In nearly all other domains of argument, it’s the religious who find themselves saying things like, “Well,
maybe it works like thus-and-such, how do you know?” For example, Alvin Plantinga has argued that a natural evolution of the human brain could lead to thoroughly erroneous conclusions about the world, and therefore if naturalism is true, we shouldn't trust our own minds. (He's actually used the example of a caveman who has evolved both the desire to be eaten by tigers and the belief that any given tiger will not eat him, thus leading to his survival. This is grade-A nonsensical pleading, here.) And there's always the standard-issue mystery-card played in discussions on the problem of evil. But when it comes to fine-tuning, it’s the atheist proposals (especially the many-worlds possibility) that sound like empty insistences.

Some of this may simply be a reward for the side that showed up first. It’s possible that had the many-worlds view somehow become predominant before the rise of monotheism, then the latter would resemble, in the public’s eye, a desperate attempt to avoid the former. (In other words, it would feel like people were making up this bodiless-male-human-who-creates-one-universe because they didn’t like multiple-worlds.) In any case, the many-worlds concept is a nice resolution to certain puzzles of quantum mechanics, an idea proposed well before the fine-tuning argument came about, so it’s kind of silly to tar it as something cobbled together to deny deism. (Come to think of it, this view of that argument is rather like a common creationist view of evolution, as something that Darwin invented in order to avoid the implications of having a Creator in charge.)

Still, when it comes to denying theism, many-world is not really “necessary” one way or the other, for this simple reason: The God hypothesis is no hypothesis at all, lacking any sort of mechanism and ridiculously violating Occam’s razor.

The only reason people don’t think it’s guilty of the latter charge is that we think of minds as somehow “simple” or basic, but science has shown that nope, minds are quite complex. Logic alone does that trick. Consider this: If God existed before “anything else” in the universe, but was capable of
imagining many worlds in full and perfect detail — how different is that from the actual existence of many worlds? And if it is different, how is it any simpler?

As for my charge that theism is mechanism-free, this one basically goes without saying. It almost seems that God is mechanism-free by definition — a God who fiddles with molecules and/or acts predictably won’t really “be” God anymore.

When I consider the nitty-gritty of how divine creation “works”, I can't help but lose distinctions between pantheism and “ordinary” monotheism. I've heard it said that the Universe is a fleeting idea in God’s mind, and I’ve come to feel that
if God exists, then logically, our situation can’t be anything other than that. The Universe can’t be anything other than God’s mind, which would in turn make it equal to God. This, of course, is an idea sufficiently vacuous as to justify atheism. It would come to make more sense to ask "How does the Universe work?" than "Does God exist?"

On top of everything else, the deism of fine-tuning renders the God argument content-free. What is God? God is a being with the desire and the ability to make life-supporting universes. Brilliant! If you add any other attributes (such as omnibenevolence), the various atheist arguments are more than enough to whittle that being away.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Depressing Thought for the Future

WARNING: This post was manufactured in a facility that processes links to TVTropes and Wikipedia.

It seems quite likely that humans will eventually contact sentient extraterrestrials, not just in messages, but in the flesh (or closest-equivalent-to-flesh).

I predict that in less than a year from that day, no matter what the aliens' chemistry, physiology, cultures, philosophies, intelligences or emotions happen to be, a large contingent of humans will dig into our various subconsciouses and come up with an excellent justification for classifying them as having less-than-human status, and thusly be willing to treat the ETs as a means to an end.

The key thing is that the relevant language will not at all sound like present or past racism. A whole new set of highly reasonable-sounding ideas and phrases will be marshaled to the cause of rationalization. And the rationalization will be cleverly specific to the nature of the aliens in question, making it seem like if it were any other galactic civilization in question, then of course they'd have rights, but these ones clearly fall short of our standards of intelligence, or emotional capacity, or hygiene. These ones are probably zombies, even. (All it takes is one good authority figure asserting such a thing to make it suddenly seem quite plausible.)

So I guess what I'm saying is: I can't wait for the day when humanity has encountered two extraterrestrial species.

(Post inspired by District 9, a film I actually don't have must use for, and the late William Tenn, who I have a lot of use for. Thank you for your needed cynicism, Phil.)

Addendum: Naturally, it's entirely possible that the aliens will consider us in the same way. Just goes to show… something.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Aaahh!! Real Supernaturalism

Note: This was written before I learned about the recent Insane Clown Posse song/video "Miracles", which I'm not going to bother linking to. Suffice to say… yep, scientists do have a fair (and honest!) idea what that darn magnetism is and how it works. That's related — but not identical — to the points I'm trying to make with this piece.

What if we were to discover that magnetism is actually supernatural?

Using this hypothetical, I come to the conclusion that "supernatural" is just not a meaningful word, at least in a scientific context. Magnetism might turn out to "really" be a manifestation of all sorts of fascinating phenomena, such as electricity or the weak nuclear force (both of which it is, in fact, closely related to). It could even be a manifestation of a natural phenomenon our current scientific understanding wouldn't lead us to expect — like biological life! But for it to be "really" supernatural seems incoherent.

The supernatural is usually defined in some sense whereby it is "outside science", but nonetheless has empirically detectable effects; for example, psychics generally claim to have "supernatural" powers which can, if present, be detected with Zener cards and such. But I would contend that there is nothing inherently supernatural about extra-sensory perception. Our world could be such that all or certain brains were capable of taking in "non-sensory" information from other brains; it just so happens that test after test suggests that that's not the sort of world we inhabit.

Likewise for life after death. We might all agree that "ghosts are supernatural", but what if, a hundred years from now, ghosts become a known, scientifically describable phenomenon? Would their supernaturalness… poof away?

When I was much younger, I decided that, contra a certain Nickelodeon show, "real" monsters couldn't exist. The way kids and adults talked about "monsters", they seemed to be, by definition, creatures whose existence was always in question. I came to see "Do you believe in monsters?" as a stupid question. Do sharks count as monsters? What about tyrannosaurs? Or does the word only apply to unseen, unknown bumps in the night?

I realized that either my closet did contain a "bogeyman" or it didn't, and the only thing that made the bogeyman "scary" was that fuzzy boundary between the two. If a professional monsterologist were to come to my room, bring out his monster-detector, and say, "Here's what a bogeyman looks like," it just wouldn't be scary anymore. It would be something we could all deal with. It wouldn't even be a monster anymore. (So dies the field of monsterology before it is born.)

Perhaps a similar principle applies with other supernatural ideas. If ghosts existed in a "scientifically obvious" way, they wouldn't be the stuff of horror films — and if angels were dependably "there", they would, paradoxically, be less comforting. No friend is as reassuring as an imaginary one.

Of course, certain known, partially described phenomena are in fact asserted by some to be "really" supernatural: namely, the mind, the weirdness of quantum events, and the fact that things even exist in the first place. I don't have counter-arguments to each available here, apart from what I've already spent this post talking about…

If dualism is "true", then that should be scientifically knowable, and if it's not knowable, there's little point talking about it. Lab physicists manage not to become mystics, despite spending their days dealing with phenomena that do all kinds of mysterious things. Quantum findings have certainly managed to fuel mysticism, but somehow, they're still not enough to make the scientists discovering the mysteries to throw up our hands and say, "It's magic! Magic is the explanation!" Science perserveres.

Isn't science amazing? It's almost, well… transcendent.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bible-victory by Bible-concession

Sometimes, when confronted with an especially un-God-like passage or pair of passages from what we all know to be the Most Amazing Book of all Time, Christians have a rather interesting response along the following lines:

Look, the Bible is the product of dozens of writers working over hundreds of years in the contexts of many different cultures. Furthermore, the actual canon was decided by councils of fallible human beings. Of course it's going to contain
errors, contradictions, nonsensical stories, and morally problematic bits!

My first reaction to this is, wait, what was the atheist's original question again? Because whatever it was, it seems to have been answered with agreement.

"How can you say the Bible is God-breathed when it contains X?"

"Because the Bible isn't God-breathed, that's how! At least, X certainly wasn't."

Believe me, I get that the sophisticated mainstream understanding of the Bible holds that such superficial notions as Mosaic authorship and the-real-Luke-writing-Luke have gone out the window. (Actually, that second one never had currency, which only makes me more confused about how Christians ever found the canonical gospels so authoritative.) I get that God influenced the creation of the Bible very subtly. Very, vvveerrry subtly, perhaps by means of butterflies. So subtly, in fact, that…

… that it doesn't distinguish itself from other holy texts on any grounds. And even if some part of the Bible did contain an irrefutable piece of prophecy or other wondrous knowledge, that would at most speak to a need to examine and appreciate the specific writing in question, be it Esther or Jonah or Revelation. And we still wouldn't have much to accept the book as truth apart from the independent evidence anyway.

Consider Darwin's Origin of the Species. It includes a few errors and fallacies, such as (in its early editions) the hypothesis that the landgoing ancestor of whales was bearlike (in fact, it was a carnivorous ungulate, awesomely enough). This suggests that just because Darwin got so much right isn't enough reason to accept any single thing he said; it's the independent evidence that justifies our doing so. Neither Darwin nor the Origin is "evidence for" evolution, merely a recorder and record of evidence.

Religion, conversely, doesn't work like science in that respect; at the end of the day, the texts are the big deal. Any evidence that Paul or Mohammad or Joseph Smith, and/or their texts, were less than divinely inspired (whether their mental or moral faculties are called into question) is evidence against the religion, because the religion doesn't allow itself to go by anything else. There isn't a non-Mormon archaeology of the Lamanites; either you're a Mormon and accept them or you're not and you don't. Religion is by definition faith-based. It's somewhat like how — warning, cliche up ahead — alternative medicine that's demonstrated to be effective is no longer alternative medicine.

Once you concede that your holy book is 100% human and 0% divine, you concede whatever religion builds itself around the book. You can still call yourself a Whateverite, but it's much more a cultural than religious designation, like being a secular Jew. (In my compassion and magnanimity, I allow for exceptions for those areas of religious practice which travel into the realms of philosophy and mental/physical exercise, such as Buddhist meditation, Scientological auditing, or Hindu yoga. Lots of atheists and agnostics practice those — well, maybe not the middle one, but for a few.)

On top of all that, "The Bible" is just an artificial human assemblage that is no more "a book" than my DVD collection is a movie. Which brings me full circle: That phrasing of the situation is just the sort of language that some use to defend its divinity.

It's like a homeopath defending homeopathy by saying "Of course it didn't outperform placebo — it's just water!"

Do I expect ill people doused with homeopathic water to be instantly healed? Do I expect the Bible to read as though every iota and keraia (Matt. 5:18) was dictated by the Lord of All? Nope. I just expect the respective viewpoints to at least distinguish themselves from other pseudosciences/religions. And when they fail to, I'm just not that impressed with "It's because they're all true."

Friday, March 12, 2010

This God Character

My atheist body includes a theistic ear. I'm not sure if it's my right or left one. Sometimes, I hear an atheist make an argument I more or less agree with, but my theistic ear tells me that, from the perspective of the religious, something is amiss, something that makes the whole thing fall apart. It's like hearing a record needle whine under a symphony.

One such argument is that which takes the following form: Belief in God is like belief in Zeus or Osiris: they are equally indefensible, and the atheist needs no particular argument to even support lack of belief. Do I agree with this? In a sense, yes — God (sometimes accompanied by his son-avatar) is indeed just our culture's current popular deity. But the problem is that, unsurprisingly, the religious don't view that to be the case.

Language is a major obstacle here. God's parents picked a very, very smart name for him, one that makes his existence seem that much more "generic" (think deism) and less "specific" (think Sistine Chapel ceiling). When atheists speak of all those ancient gods, then compare the modern monotheistic God to them, it sort of sounds to theists the way it would sound if someone wished to declare that the chemical periodic table is a fraud from hydrogen to copernicum, and used, by way of example, the Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Whether she's right about this or not (the answer is not), the theist thinks God, a divine Presence, and "gods", those squabbling super-beings, are simply two totally different creatures. God isn't a deity. He is the phenomenon of Deity itself.

Despite its seeming modernness, this is not a new line of thought on the subject. One of history's earliest outspoken monotheists (well, monolotrists) was the famous Akhenaten, predecessor to the even famouser Tutankhamen. Akhenaten wished to establish Atenism, a form of the Egyptian religion that focused solely on the sun figure Aten. For Akhenaten, the other gods were trifles, merely the stars to Aten's sun. (He had, of course, no idea that stars are suns themselves, many of them larger and brighter than ours.) He felt that it was a category error to even call Aten a god — gods were lesser beings.

I think the parallel I'm drawing there is clear. In fact, I'm not sure what my point is beyond that. I do think that by emphasizing those aspects of modern religions which are not exactly pantheistic helps a lot in the retreat of religion into Eagleton-Armstrong-land, where it has ceased to even recognizably be religion (though they'll keep insisting that that's where things always stood).

Okay, I have another point beyond that: the degree to which Akhenaten was hated and opposed by his people (it was their relief at his passing that lead to the popularity, and hence tomb-wealth, of his successor King Tut) strongly suggests that they took their deities seriously. In other words, an ancient Egyptian who heard the word Osiris would not think "childish fairy-tale belief" but "very real divine being". This is part of where the language barrier, how the connotations of words and names change over time, gets in the way. Because of this barrier, the argument seems to fail; "God isn't like those gods; they were fiction, while God is philosophy."

Perhaps the best examples to use in the "compare to other religions" family of arguments are modern religions that bear similarity to whichever religion is being discussed; in contrast to the ancients, it's much harder to think of your fellow present-day humans as being hopelessly deluded. Ask Catholics why they are not Mormons, and Mormons why Muhammad's revelation is less correct than Joseph Smith's. It gets the ball rolling.