Sunday, November 13, 2011

They shouldn't have used a Quick-Quotes Quill

Having recently watched the DVD of the final Harry Potter film, I just noticed some rather awful writing on the back of the penultimate DVD's box. Its summary begins: "Harry, Ron and Hermione set out on their perilous mission to track down and destroy the secret to Voldemort's immortality and destruction — the Horcruxes." It's bad enough if you understand what Horcruxes are, but this sentence makes things especially confusing for those who don't. Why's that?

Well, it's true that Horcruxes are "the secret to Voldemort's immortality" and also that they are "the secret to his destruction", but in completely different senses of being "the secret to" the thing in question. The former sense is one of providing an explanation for why something is the way it is. The second is about assisting someone in bringing about a certain end (and it's a less common use of the word).

As it is, one is forced to interpret these qualities (immortality and destruction) as sharing this "secret" in the same way, which results in nonsense. Is the summary saying that Horcruxes are the secret to how Voldemort "acquired immortality", and also how he (later on?) "acquired destruction"? Great, that means the bad guy is out of the way! Or, wait, is it supposed to mean that Horcruxes are the secret means by which the heroes hope to bring about Voldemort's destruction, and also the means by which they hope to bring about his immortality? Make up your minds, silly wizards!

Anyway, there's a simple fix someone could have applied if they'd noticed this — just add a word like "key" which means the same thing as "secret" in this instance. Also, for the heck of it, I'd remove the repetition of "destroy" and "destruction". Here's my new, improved first sentence:

Harry, Ron and Hermione set out on their perilous mission to find and destroy the secrets of Voldemort's immortality and the keys to defeating him— his Horcruxes.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another sadness courtesy of prayer

I've heard Christian after Christian worry about their praying; whether they do it often and sincerely enough. They may describe prayer as their weakest suit in their Christianity. This depresses me. It's a inevitable result of there being an activity which is praised from all corners, yet whose process is rarely specified, whose techniques are disputed from one practitioner to another, whose results are predicted to very different degrees of confidence, then inevitably rationalized. Not to mention the discrepancies in different prayers’ experience — some people simply lack the “talking inner voice” or “inner other person” which others have. When you reify that voice into something more, into an actual deity or Spirit, it’s as if the same person loves talking to all those people but for some reason ignores you. It’s like feeling bad about yourself for not having flying dreams. Why can’t I fly? Am I not trying hard enough? And the worst of it is that some of the people who do experience the voice insist that indeed, you’re not trying hard enough.

There exist Christians who lambaste one another for praying incorrectly, and there are those who tolerate pretty much the entire gamut of praying-related attitudes — except, perhaps, the smiling affirmation of not praying at all. One finds contempt especially for the notion that prayer is no different than what it would be if God didn't exist, ie, prayer is not any kind of connection to God nor anything that God remotely cares about, it's just a kind of talking to oneself or (when spoken publicly) to other human beings. (This notion, interestingly, is almost synonymous with atheism, rather like how the disbelief in an omnimax god can be synonymous with atheism. In both cases, God can be defined in other ways, but usually is not.)

Come to think of it, it's rather like conventional attitudes about food. People get into tense debates over what they and others should and shouldn't eat (on grounds of taste, nutrition, and culture), while still other people accept the existence of every imaginable diet — but there's a definite consensus that everyone ought to eat something, if they want to be a healthy, complete person. And people can feel stressed that they’re not eating right, but I don’t think it’s as frequent. A key difference is that our understanding of food largely reflects the evidence (especially the conclusion that it is necessary for survival). And unlike with prayer, one can adjust one’s diet in accordance with the experts without finding nearly as much disagreement among them. (Well, maybe the same amount of disagreement, but perhaps that’s owing to the sheer diversity of food.)

I don't really think there's any solution to the problem except to advocate the attidute I described earlier: Prayer simply doesn't matter. Isn't that wonderful? (And supposing God does exist, wouldn't that make so much more sense, as other atheists have pointed out?)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Incuriosity made double

Early in 2011, Bill O'Reilly told his atheist guest that science could not explain tides, ergo God.

The thing that most interests and depresses me about that is not O'Reilly's obvious ignorance, or his god-of-the-gaps argument. It's the lack of curiosity betrayed by that statement. And not just curiosity about the cause of tides, but curiosity about what scientists think causes tides. I'm talking about Bill O'Reilly's mental model of the scientists' mental model of tides. Did he have one? I doubt it. He wasn't remotely interested in contemplating the scientists as full human beings.

A real human being whose work deals with tides might naturally become curious about their cause. Yet not O'Reilly's model of a geophysicist, who is instead interested in nothing but furthering The Atheist Agenda. When an O'Reilly-geophysicist sees a mystery, she sees nothing more than a gap to keep God out of. Or, perhaps, she worriedly sees a gap God could fill, and does her best to ignore it altogether, denying the elephant in the ocean.

Yes, I'm accusing God-of-the-Gaps O'Reilly of a kind of inverse projection. I think there's an extent to which he sees people whose gut answer is not God as having a gut answer (and a sole answer) of "Not God!" (Heck, I may myself be projecting, given that I'm stereotyping O'Reilly's stereotype, but I won't let that stop me.)

Now I'll use myself as the Gallant to Bill's Goofus. Many times in my life, I've encountered (or re-considered) a seemingly strange idea in Christianity — the Trinity, the eucharist, prayer. In each case, I've experienced an impulse of curiosity about just how Christians conceptualize these things. What is it like to be a Christian looking at yet another double-blind study that prayer failed to pass? What's it like to be a young Catholic receiving first Communion — are you worried you'll taste flesh and blood and spit it out? And though I may instinctively consider the trinity nonsense, I don't assume that Christians fail to think about it at all. In fact, I know that they debate its nature almost as vociferously today as did the attendees of the first Council of Nicaea.

Of course, in some cases, I may be projecting my own curiosity. So far as I can tell, there's a wide range of attitudes, while some theists wrestle with this stuff, others don't really bother pondering their faith's tenets or examining its puzzles, so much as associating positive feelings with them ("All I know is that the trinity is a blessed mystery."). However, for every organized religion, there is a tradition of theology, because that's the sort of thing people like to do; we just didn't use that impulse of ours to full effect until developing science.

To phrase all this in a straight-up moral, it's this: Don't assume that because an idea is (seemingly) baloney, it's an actual black box in the mind of its adherents. Your model of the raw details of some idea, like evolution or communism or libertarianism, is likely rather different from that of its adherents (or opponents). Just as it can be good to assume good faith despite that not being a human universal, so too should we assume curiosity if the person's name isn't Bill O'Reilly.

Anyway, when he was told via Internet that the main cause of tides is the moon, he asked "How'd the moon get there? What put it there?" A pretty straightforward admission that his initial question was purely rhetorical (not that it wasn't already obvious); he doesn't give a damn about the ocean or the moon, the poor soul.

This is another hazard of incuriosity — sometimes your "rhetorical" questions turn out to have answers which you didn't bother to look up because you assumed they didn't exist. (Like if I were to assume that Christians have no answer to the Problem of Evil. Turns out they do, just not good ones.) What he really meant was to pose the First Cause argument; he just screwed up on his placement of the Inexplicability Boundary, about as much as if he'd asked if scientists can possibly explain the origin of Fox News. Every time he said scientists "couldn't explain" the origins of the sun or stars, it was another knife in my gut. He doesn't care! He doesn't care about the truth of anything! Was he ever even a child?

Now, O'Reilly's ignorance may be an extreme example, because just about everyone knows the moon causes tides (though people often confuse tides with waves, but that's another story). It makes my point for precisely that reason, though — so that just about everyone can understand.

A much more common instance of what I'm talking about would be many a creationist's take on evolution. The question "Why are there still monkeys?" is asked by people who actually want to know the answer even less often than is the question "How are you?" Again, the assumption on their part is that scientists flinch from the hard stuff instead of wrestling it to the ground. By extension, most of evolutionary science must be about inventing plausible- (or implausible-) sounding stories for the primary purpose of keeping God out of the picture.

But if I were a creationist, then in addition to yelling "Contradiction! Contradiction!", I would wonder how in the world scientists resolved the contradictions in their own minds. Such as it is, I can't help but wonder if the creationists project an inversion of their own way of thinking onto scientists, so that Origin of Species = Holy Bible, etc. (Except they know that scientists know of all the things that have since modified our view from Darwin's but they figure that not getting it all right the first time is a flaw in the system.)

The most common assumption here, and one that bugs the heck out of me, is that the only possible alternative to a given Holy Book is a complete postmodern free-for-all. I've seen theists and postmodernists argue the same thing! "Oh, you're just another religion, because you believe that X is definitely true. So there." Or: "Without going by the Bible, you must be using human reason, which means just making it up as you go along." Give me a break.

I must echo my favorite atheist blogger, Greta Christina: Why does no one tell a version of the blind-men-and-elephant-story whereby the men compare notes to learn what a real elephant actually is?

It seems there's something counter-intuitive about the idea of assembling a worldview derived from direct (or indirect) observation of reality, instead of the acceptance of authority or acceptance of your own whims. Is learning really that scary? I hope not.

Oh, and since I posted the video, I feel obligated to comment on the atheist guy. I thought he did a decent job, but what he should have said to recover ground from O'Reilly's attacks is that even the world's most intelligent person can be taken by the scam of religion (so calling religion a scam is therefore not an insult to anyone's intelligence, not that that makes the argument false, of course). Plus, of course, he could have emphasized the fact that the threat of Hell is outright bullying, never mind insulting, although he did only have a few minutes. Is there a phrase for l'esprit d'escalier felt for someone else?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A common canard causes me to cry for curiosity

"Sure, religion doesn't have all the answers. But scientists don't know what caused the Big Bang!"

When was the last time you heard of a theologian or a New Ager researching the possible origins of God/Spirit?

When was the last time you heard of a cosmologist researching the possible origins of the universe?

What about such questions as: "Where did life come from?" and "How does the mind work?"

See the difference?

For the record, the theological answers to the questions posed on this page are:
1. God is without cause by definition
2. The universe was created by God, who used a process of creation (basically, he can will things into existence) to create it
3. Life was created by God, who used a process of creation to create it
4. Minds work by being minds, you know, with free will and such

Conversely, when it comes to those last three questions, a TLDR version of the relevant scientists' answers would be "We don't yet know for certain, but have have some very good guesses (hypotheses A, Q, X, etc) and we're in the process of testing them." (Or, "That's a very big and vague question, and you'll need to specify exactly what you mean.")

One possible rebuttal (to my insinuation of the superiority of the scientific approach to accessing truth) is that when it comes to resolving certain profound mysteries, scientists are wasting their time. The lack of curiosity betrayed by this view only further illustrates my point. (And it's depressing, too.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Science versus nonsensisms

I originally began this piece with just religion in mind but some months afterward, I wrapped it up with other varieties of “woo” in mind.

When theists take part in “science-vs-religion” arguments, they tend to try one of two things:

1. Show religion to be useful in the way science is useful.

2. Show science to be useless in the way religion is useless.

The second one sounds silly, but it’s actually a much more popular line of argument these days.

Examples of the first one would be: “Albert prayed for rain and it rained”, or “Sarah used the Bible Code to predict the stock market with breathtaking accuracy.” This contingent of arguments is pursued by a large minority, but tends to make more “sophisticated” believers cringe, because they are all too aware of what religion’s track record in those areas really looks like when an actual empiricism is applied. Hence, sophisticated theists prefer variations of the second line of argument.

The second line of argument involves many phrases which have become canards. “Scientists have faith too.” “Scientists still don’t know (the origin of the universe)/(the basis of mathematics)/(how to cure the common cold).” (And non-scientists do?) “Science is really another religion, with its own close-minded hierarchy of orthodoxy-defending priests.” “Science doesn’t answer the questions that matter.”

It’s been pointed out that the “Science (and/or atheism) is another faith” argument is generally delivered in an oddly sneering tone, rather than the welcoming tone with which theists usually praise such things as faith and religion. However, this is not entirely an inconsistency on the theists’ part. Rather, the argument as a whole is that something-like-faith is inescapable — all assertions about reality are “faith-based” in some non-trivial way. Hence, science has no better claim to “truth” than anyone else, at least empirically and in certain bodies of knowledge (especially those which directly concern us humans, like how our minds work). Then, within the realm of this thing called “faith”, one finds not only science but a plethora of religions. Now, since all these worldviews are really faith-based, one must use faith-based means to tease them apart and rank their efficacy. The “faith” criterion first makes the Bible is as good as a science textbook, after which some other faith-based criteria (which are almost never specified) render it superior.

In the course of that last paragraph, we drifted away from “sophisiticated” theists to the thinking of the hard-core literalists, but this is partly in keeping with the actual continuum of mindsets, ranging from a genial NOMA (Non-Overlapping MAgisteria), to a mild distaste for but resignation to science, to an outright declaration that one’s religious method serves as superior to the current scientific method. (I say “current” because different literalists will differ on the subject of whether science itself is at fault, or whether current institutions, a different beast from “real” science, are simply doing science incorrectly.)

When one pursues the arguments long enough, the fuzzy, “deep” wording must either vanish or give way to more concrete assertions, because a true discussion cannot be had with fuzz. If the only response recieved is “Whatever works for you, man”, then there is little that can follow such a rejection of truth in favor of an inconsistent politeness. For example, is my skepticism as valid as your credulity, or is it only the world’s relgions, spiritualities, and psuedosciences that earn this gracious acceptance? Often, it seems the answer is that everyone except atheist rationalists are okay (despite apparent contradictions among all the other groups) because “you have to believe in something.” Specifically, in something whose actual existence can only be believed in and never shown — solely believing in the apparently real stuff makes you boring and/or intolerant.

It’s like insisting that everyone root for a sports team, and it doesn’t matter which team or what sport, so long as the players and equipment are invisible, inaudible, and otherwise beyond the realm of empirical detectability. Cold materialists, why do you hate the Fighting Unicorns so?