Friday, 16 August 2013

New Atheist Menace?

Well a facebook friend of mine (Christian but that is not relevant here) recently posted an article he revived that did little more than link to two recent articles in the British paper the Telegraph bashing the new atheist movement and Richard Dawkins in particular. His comment actually acknowledged that the articles are somewhat harsher than nessecary but in trying to write a concise response over there I ended up needing to vent all my problems with the article somewhere.

Seems it would be a good idea to address the first linked article first. The basic premise is that the majority of people who currently identify as atheists are smug, self centred, pompous, egotistical assholes who get off on running round and laughing at the mentally inferior religious folks. No doubt these people do exist, but even when I have engaged in overtly atheist/sceptical groups I never spoke to anyone who gave me this impression so I am pretty sure they are just a loud and annoying minority. One that certainly needs addressing but tarring all atheists with that brush would be like me complaining that all religious folks think 'school shootings are a good thing because God', they exist, and someone needs to call them on being obnoxious, but they tend to be a minority.

Cited as evidence of this are Dawkins recently tweeting "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though" and the ensuing backlash, more on this when it comes up in the second article. Then there is also a recent paper that claimed to show a strong inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity (translation; atheists are geniuses, believers are averageish and fundamentalists are retarded) interestingly enough the first I heard about this paper was an atheist tearing it apart for being shitty science. His arguments are in a nut shell, condensing intelligence down to a single number is questionable at best, there are more possible conclusions than the authors considered and any study that gives whole countries an average IQ of 70 got something wrong. So I agree with the author of the article that the study is crap, as do a significant number of atheists. Ironically some of the most insane apologetics I have ever seen require a fair bit of intelligence to stick together, the problem is then applying that intellect to critically analysing the evidence rather than assuming their current position as true.

Next we get to the sizeable number of internet memes that mock either religious ideas or the religious people themselves, as entertainment I see nothing wrong with these although it does mean bearing in mind that the religious people are more caricatures than real believers similar to how people you shoot in a FPS are just avatars. In either case it should be obvious that such mockery is rarely an effective way of interacting with believers, especially when mocking the believer rather than the belief. At this point we come back to the atheist gatherings being full of "people afflicted with repetitive strain injury from so furiously patting themselves on the back for being clever" which is very different from any crowd I have interacted with at these events.

I mostly agree with the next section where the author argues that basing your whole world view on what you do not believe is somewhat hollow, although I would not say inherently negative or hostile. But again I have never met these people, all the atheists I know also add on secular, humanist, freethinker and any number of other details of things they do believe in and which much more clearly express their world view that their opinion on a single question.

Right at the end the author tries to blur the line between non religious and nihilist, there is nothing about my atheist, sceptic, secular, humanist, freethinker, scientific world view that supports diving into nihilism and plenty of things about it that bring wonder and joy and all that cool stuff.

The second article is little more than a personal attack on Dawkins, sure he is human and as such makes mistakes but that tweet mentioned earlier is not necessarily one of them, although making the point in a space that allows for elaboration may have been a good idea. For a start the authors assumed subtext of "The lobotomising strictures of Koranic teaching and extremist dogma, goes the subtext, has atrophied the Muslim mind so completely over the centuries that these robotic drones have produced far fewer Nobel laureates than a single weeny college." seems unlikely to be anything but a straw approximation to Dawkins's actual point, such a competent biologist would certainly not expect such a short term environmental detail as Koranic teachings to have any atrophying effect on a population even if it can stunt each individuals development in terms of scientific progress and human rights, the effects are only imposed on descendants for as long as they are immersed in the culture.

The author points out that Muslim dominated regions are "dramatically less wealthy and academically well served than the West as a whole, and the Oxbridge candidate pool in particular.", this is certainly true however at least part (and probably not all) of this discrepancy comes from the strength of religious control seen in the regions so this does little to demonstrate that Islam is an irrelevant factor.

After a bit more jabbing at Dawkins the author goes on to describe himself as "one who became a devout atheist at the age of nine", while this is technically a legitimate use of the word devout the majority of meanings for the word and popular understanding tend to include some sort of religious or unchanging aspect to the context, which always sets me on edge whatever the individual is claiming to be devout about. The author then comments on how hearing Dawkins getting angry when dealing with believers makes him want to find the nearest place of worship and join in just seems ridiculous when these angry outbursts are typically triggered by the believer using their faith as justification for all manner of heinous acts (usually committed by 3rd parties half way round the world). For any decent human being, angry (or maybe bemused) is the ONLY reasonable response when faced with someone who says yes Abraham was justified in trying to kill his son because God said so. Yes Dawkins is a less than subtle figure who argues against religion and yes his direct style seems to offend a lot of people but at the end of the day he is arguing against scriptures which promote the death penalty for all manner of trivial offences, promote slavery and oppress the majority of the population, amongst other atrocities. Just because you are not familiar with the source material does not mean those who are should let it slide when others are promoting what are insultingly immoral books.

As for the claim that "Dawkins is more repressively dogmatic than the Ayatollahs.", first I find the hypothetical that if Dawkins was in a position of political power he would introduce comparably draconian laws laughable, and second, if he actually did then the religious objectors would be joining the queue to drag him out of office right behind a significant proportion, and I would guess large majority of, the atheist population. While I have no doubt Dawkins has his share of obsessive fanatics who will applaud his every action, every atheist I have ever discussed him with has varying amounts of mixed opinions and none of them have anyone they hold up as infallible or worthy of idolising. When leaving a faith for atheism one of the most significant pieces of baggage that tends to get jettisoned is the uncompromising idolisation of anyone or anything, nothing is held sacred or beyond question, anything can be challenged and anyone who does something stupid will be called out on it.  Growing up non religious, this lack of an absolute authority was something I picked up during my school days.

Near the end the author does joke that Dawkins is some religious under cover agent sent to make atheism look bad by becoming a well known and respected atheist, then being a moron. While I occasionally entertain similar ideas about religious individuals it always seems more plausible that they are genuine and Dawkins is far more level headed than any of those individuals, at least until he starts ordering the burning of places of worship while they are full of believers, somehow I doubt that day will ever get here. As for that closing line, I am curious as to how someone gets naming rights over their unofficial biography, but if it was Dawkins idea maybe his ego does need reigning in a little.

Monday, 25 February 2013

I have been seeing this a lot lately

Hmm it has been far too long since I updated this, between being busy and being lazy, but I have earned the right to stick 6 letters after my name, even if using them in most circumstances will make me sound like an ass. So here is something that doesn't need references everywhere to get back into things.

There is an argument for god (whichever variant the individual happens to believe in, this line of reasoning is rather flexible like that) which appears to be increasingly common. It goes something like this "But if you do not believe in a god and think we developed through unguided evolution how can you trust your senses, there is no reason for them to be accurate they will just provide whatever feedback is most evolutionary advantageous.", presumably most people either think this is entirely sensible or have a strong suspicion as to how I am going to tear it apart.

First, I am not going to bother with any brain in a jar, matrix or whatever style complication of the question. This world is the only one we have access to and as such, as long as our perceptions match how the actors around us behave/the simulation being fed in by a computer ect. that, for the sake of this argument, counts as perception matching reality. There is also always the possibility that whichever god did create us derives great humor or otherwise benefits from us being a bunch of delusional crazies, so belief in a god doesn't actually solve the problem. Maybe your conviction that it does is just part of the delusion. But the main thing is that the god-free evolutionary explanation does give us reason to think our perceptions are mostly accurate.

Imagine two people, one whos perception of the world is reliable, and the other whos perception is not reliable, each attempts to cross a busy road. The person who perceives reality approximately as it is will either cross fine or find an easier place to cross over. As for the other individual, anything could happen. Maybe they make it across safely, but then again, maybe they see the vehicles as toy cars that can be stepped over or with raised bodies that will pass safely over his head, maybe he sees no cars at all, or he sees a river and tries to swim across, or a solid wall he attempts to climb, clearly if his observation of reality regularly fails to match with reality there is a serious risk of death depending on what delusions are suffered at the time. But that is a little unfair of me, after all we did not evolve in a world with cars, buses and roads, we evolved in a world of hunting, foraging and keeping out of the stomachs of big cats, does the same reasoning hold in that environment.

The individual with an accurate perception of reality will when he finds a tree containing edible fruit, see a tree containing edible fruit, collect it and he has a decent meal to share with his tribe. The other individual, again we can let our minds run wild, maybe there is no tree, or all the fruit appears to be decaying and covered in flies, maybe the fruits appear to me venomous animals, maybe he sees the poison dart frog in a nearby thorn bush as a fig ripe for picking, gets many lacerations on his hand reaching for the frog, which would have a risk of becoming septic were it not for the next part where he eats the frog, flooding his body with enough poison to kill dozens of people. How about the predator side, when our first individual observes a predator he will know what it is and where it is, he is then able to respond accordingly, hide and sneak off, call for help, climb a tree, be very loud and make himself look big, he has a good chance of getting away. Now how might our poor delusional hunter gatherer respond... If he sees the lion bearing down on him as a tabby cat he may crouch down to greet it, if he sees rustling grass but no solid object he may assume it is the wind and ignore it, maybe he perceives a giant 10m tall lion barreling down on him and collapses in a gibbering wreck from the fright.

Admittedly there are some delusions which could theoretically exist that may confer an evolutionary advantage, maybe lions that are close to ambushing range are spontaneously perceived as bright green, standing out from the background and drawing conscious attention more readily, but I don't recall hearing about such a thing. Or maybe animals like wasps are actually a dull green or brown to blend in with foliage/bark but we perceive the bright colours as an evolutionarily developed mark to steer clear, but then close up photos where it is not immediately clear what it is would appear as these dull colours, which again I don't recall hearing anywhere.

Essentially most situations where our perception did not at least approximately match reality would hinder survival, meaning they would be evolutionarily selected against and regardless of if they were advantageous, harmful or neutral we would be able to test them and observe discrepancies by crating situations where incomplete information would prevent the delusion form being triggered and as such close up images or other similar approaches would cause a distinct difference in how the object is perceived that would suddenly switch to the delusion as a critical amount of information is added. When such an article is published in a peer reviewed journal and is then repeated and produces similar results I sill start paying serious attention to the our perceptions are wildly off base hypothesis.

Of course there are all manner of illusions, optical and auditory just for starters, which are capable of exploiting the many effort saving shortcuts our brains exploit when building up our model of the world where, by exposing the brain to novel situations perception is not entirely accurate. Combined with hallucinations and our easily mutable memory, perception should certainly not be trusted at all times. But it is for the most part, under ordinary circumstances, a reliable representation of the world around us. Otherwise each of us would have long ago gone swimming on a railway line and been run over by a dragonfly or met some other grizzly and entirely unnoticed demise.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Adding another to the list

I have just read an interesting news article which is practically begging for me to call out another religion, at least in part, for doing a really shitty job at the whole making the world a better place thing they all seem so keen on claiming. Todays violation comes from Buddhist temples in the United States, where it seems some monks have been, shall we say forcing themselves, on teenage and pre teen girls then supposedly vanishing back to Thailand for discipline only to reappear in another US temple shortly after.

The story reveals a systematic flaw in the running of the temples, positions where people are automatically given trust and excuses to be alone with vulnerable people tend to attract certain characters, those who genuinely want to help and those who see easy targets. This is why strict vetting procedures are needed, something which government agencies tend to do ok at but religious institutions, not so much. There is also the vow of celibacy that seems so important for many religious leaders, which has almost certainly got the better of many religious practitioners and lead to some rather unscrupulous behaviours. Due to human nature and every single human alive today being in a chain stretching back unbroken for hundreds of millions of years of individuals who had urges to engage in sexual behaviour, those that did not failed to reproduce and as such have no descendant, causing sexual desires to be so universal and powerful. Large scale attempts to suppress these urges have catagorically been spectacular failures and for these guys it is no different.

But that isn't the biggest issue with this story, the issue is the lack of an official hierarchy, it seems that in the US temples at least, noone claims responsibility. The monks are free to travel between temples as they see fit and noone outside of Asia has the authority to strip a monk of his title for misdeeds. As such the temples idea of handling things internally seems to be sweep it under the rug and if law enforcement turn up after the monk in question has moved to another area noone has any idea where he went, making tracking the guy down that much harder. People need to be held accountable so that stuff like this doesn't happen.

I am hoping every Catholic who reads this feels outrage at the behaviour before realising where they have heard this story before.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A Fools Gambit

It has been a long time since I posted anything, and I would like to blame a hectic workload or long term lack of an internet connection, but it is much simpler, I have been too lazy to write anything of substance so I didn't write anything at all.
Today I am going to lay into Pascals Wager, which was originally put forward by Blaise Pascal who is famous for his contributions to areas of maths, science and theology. He did a lot of work on fluids and pressure with the standard unit of pressure used today being named after him and amongst his contributions to maths was Pascals Triangle, which is a nice demonstration of a few properties of numbers, noticeably Binomial Expansions, there is even a programming language named after the guy. But like many great minds of times gone by he had a bit of a weakness for religion, specifically Christianity which lead he to propose a theological argument known today as Pascals Wager.

The wager looks at 4 different scenarios and considers their costs, it goes something like this:
1) If there is a God and you believe you get to go to heaven (infinite reward)
2) If there is a God and you do not believe you go to hell (infinite punishment)
3) If there is no God and you believe you lose nothing (null)
4) If there is no God and you don't believe you gain nothing (null)
From this it is clear that under Pascals system if there is no God your belief or not makes no difference where as if God does exist and you believe you win big but if you do not believe you lose everything, so the obvious choice is to believe just in case.

So how could I possibly hope to argue with such watertight logic proposed by such a smartarse, maybe I am not as intelligent as he was, maybe I am, that has no real bearing on the situation since in either case everyone makes mistakes. So lets see what I can throw at it.

First, which god? The way Pascal puts forward the argument makes it seem to be a choice of either his God or no god, that simply is not the case, even within Christianity there are roughly 30 000 denominations, many of which claim some/all of the others are going to hell. Then there are the gods of all other religions around the world and their denominations, again for the most part mutually exclusive. The same can be said for the gods of extinct religions or those that will be invented in the future. But even there the number of possible gods does not stop, there are an infinite variety of god concepts that will never even be considered, what if one of them gets it right. But tearing apart the numbers benefit isn't all we can do by considering other gods. For any version that can be put forward with the believe or suffer clause there is a god almost identical who is satisfied with being a good person regardless of belief, will reward everyone, punish everyone, not bother with the afterlife at all or only reward those who spent the 2nd Tuesday of each month locked in a purple room with green spots standing on one leg, or any other criteria imaginable. Basicly the wager is only viable when given a small selection of gods (ideally just one) who all follow the believe or suffer scheme and neither of those criteria is even remotely achieved.
But that's not all, assuming an all knowing god who only rewards belief then the belief must be genuine, merely professing a belief just to be safe (the whole point of the wager) just wont cut it, the frauds will spend an eternity in torment just like the other unbelievers. Given that, the wager is essentially pointless since belief is not a conscious choice, it is a result of analysing the evidence that has been presented. Case in point, I rather like the idea of some sort of continuing consciousness after death, at least until a time of my choosing, but with no evidence at all to support such an idea I can not honestly claim belief in an afterlife no matter how much I like the idea.
I can currently think of one more point of contention to Pascals wager, the claimed non zero cost of believing, depending on the specific denomination belief can have any number of costs including but by no means limited to 10% of your income going to the church, any number of psychological and mental hangups about parts of human nature your specific denomination objects to, with sex, masturbation, contraceptives and the gays being rather popular candidates here. But maybe your denomination is a little more hardcore and encourages you to sell everything and use the money to spread the word or explode yourself to strike against the infidels. Mutilation of yourself or children also seems to be popular, probably just to make sure god can tell the holy and unholy apart once they get to the judgement stage.

On a personal note a god such as Pascals who rewards blind faith over a good life is a needy, self obsessed, narcissistic prick who I have little interest in spending any length of time with, given a choice of an infinate amount of time in a lake of fire or as the mindless sycophant to such a character I am not sure which would be the worse torture.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A brief defence of secular worldviews

For the past month or so I have been having regular meetings with a Christian acquaintance, the unstated understanding is we are each trying to (de)convert each other but it is all very amicable, friendly and for the most part points are seriously considered rather than the all to familiar assert and run strategy. Since I am a science guy evidence and fact is a good way to win me over so we started off with that but neither of us were moved. Now we are moving onto a more philosophical approach and as such he has lent me a book called 'The Universe Next Door'(4th ed), so far I have only read the first chapter but the book analyses a selection of world views looking at their pros and cons in what I assume is an attempt at an unbiased manner. From the blurb "In an increasingly pluralistic academic environment, the ability to understand and evaluate various worldviews is vitally important." that sounds promising and I went in with high hopes, only to be disappointed 2 1/2 pages into the first chapter, after a very short and rather brutal secular poem by Stephen Crane.

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of Obligation."

Followed by Psalm 8 (almost a page long), the author then goes on to briefly contrast these two poems and the worldviews he believes them to be representative of while stating that people in both camps are able to relate even to the opposing poem. (all fair so far) However I have serious issues with how biassed this section is with phrases such as how the unbelievers "long for what they no longer can truly accept" or "wish something could fill the void". These views are admittedly common amongst religious people in the process of deconverting, but for those of us who have never believed and those who have long since become comfortable with a godless view of the world this is outright offensive. But this assault on secular world views continues in the next paragraph which finishes with the line ""Yes, that is just what those who do not have faith in the infinite-personal Lord of the Universe must feel - alienation, loneliness, even despair."

Just from this brief overview in the first chapter it is clear the author has no grasp at all of the mindset of those who do not believe in any deities. The major factor here is that believing everything that exists came about by natural causes in no way detracts from them. Understanding love as releases of neurotransmitters and electrical activity in the brain in no way lessens the feeling of being with the bag of metabolic chemical reactions those feelings are directed to, the touching no less intense for knowing that objects only appear solid due to repulsive forces between the electrons in atoms. Appreciation of the beauty of a flower(vid) is in no way diminished and is potentially enhanced by an understanding of where it came from, how it came about and what it actually is.
Looking up at the nights sky and understanding all those dots are giant balls of gas similar to our sun, many with planets, are only a tiny fraction of our galaxy which is itself a minute fraction of the whole universe is an almost overwhelming thought and is a scale of grandeur utterly unconceavable by those who think this Earth and a few dots of light hung in the sky by god are all of reality. I actually had what could best be described as a spiritual experience a month or so ago based on this very thought. Although my views are still entirely based on what can be proven and demonstrated. (warning my description really doesn't do the experience justice)

Driving home after a hike, everyone was worn out and quiet or sleeping, I was gazing out the window at the stars in a reflective mood, thinking it was possible that at that very moment on a planet orbiting one of those points of light was another sentient being whos existence was entirely independent of anything I have ever known, with an completely different biology and physiology but still looking up and wandering about other life out there amongst the stars. I realise that for it to be occurring around a point of light I could see(only a dozen or so) was far from certain, but for it to be somewhere in the galaxy that was in my cone of vision was rather more likely and expanding to the whole universe would almost guarantee countless individuals all entirely separate in every sense of the word but simultaneously sharing a thought. How is that for connection with the universe. For years I have known the numbers describing how huge the observable universe is but since that night I have a much greater understanding of how vast those values actually are.

Since I hope to have clearly established that my world view in no way lessens the joys available to many of us during our time it is time to briefly touch on another point. The aesthetics of one worldview over another in no way relate to how true either of them actually is and for me personally, knowing reality is more important than being able to appreciate the highs of life. Fortunately I do not need to make that choice.

One final thought. Sure it is rather bleak that death is final and absolute but that just gives us all the more reason to make the most of this finite life while we have it, and help those we care for to do the same.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Two pieces of news

There are a couple of news stories this week which boil down to people being massively retarded

First is this article about some English yobs vandalising a 'holy' tree. The headline claims the tree was 2000 years old and planted by Joseph of Arimathea(the bible says this guy donated his tomb to Jesus) but a little bit of reading shows it wasn't anywhere ear that old, the tree has been regrown from cuttings at various times throughout its history and there appears to be no evidence supporting the 2000 year claim although its predecessor has been fully grown since at least the 1600s when Oliver Cromwell and his goons hacked it down. While the tree is an oddity in that it blooms twice a year and supposedly none of its offspring grown from seed do calling it a 2000 year old holy tree is pushing it.
Anyway the point is as far as I am concerned it is just a tree but given its cultural significance the vandalism was almost certainly aimed at pissing of the local Christians, and damaging monuments is just a real dick move.

The other article that interests me is this, it seems that shoppers in wal-marts across America are going to be subject to the short video clip at the bottom of the linked article. This is part of the 'See something, say something' campaign which is getting progressively more retarded. In an attempt to fight terrorism the public are being encouraged to report any suspicious behaviours they see. Sounds sensible right? Wrong, very wrong. First no information is provided to discern a local eccentric from someone planning to vaporise a mall. Next time you are out on the streets, or shopping or whatever keep an eye out for anything suspicious and keep a tally of how many you see. Are those people all terrorists, no, are they all criminals, very unlikely. Now imagine the time it would take for you to report all these events to a police officer. Now imagine the amount of police time taken up if everyone reported every suspicious event they saw. Flooding the police force with false positives is probably the most ineffective way of fighting terrorism imaginable especially since government agencies are already swamped with people reporting possible suspects. Not only does it waste massive amounts of police time it keeps people afraid, then again a fearful population will make rash decisions when it comes to a security/privacy and freedom tradeoff.
"He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither" and will often lose both.
Benjamin Franklin

Sunday, 5 December 2010

10 Commandments Revisited

One of my earliest blog posts was an analysis of the commonly quoted version of the 10 commandments, this post will be my attempt at 10 rules to live by that would provide far better moral guidance.

1. Treat others how they wish to be treated, if you do not know turn to No.2.

2. Treat others as you would wish to be treated (unless you know that for some reason they would not appreciate it).

3. If there is still any ambiguity just don't be a dick.

4. Do not discriminate against others for any reason (unless they are applying for a position that it can be clearly demonstrated they are unable to adequately fill eg a blind bus driver)

5. Do not accept claims of any significance without sufficient evidence, but accept the claim if suitable evidence is provided.

6. Do not commit logical fallacies or other intellectual dishonesty when debating with others.

7. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, however insane, just as long as they do not lead to stupid actions but if you publicly voice your beliefs be prepared to defend them.

8. Do not sacrifice privacy for security, the level of control granted to the government will be too easy to abuse should a git ever attain power.

9. Develop science to cure disease, prevent poverty and just generally improve life for everyone.

Since I am struggling to find enough things to fill the list we will assume this list is intended as a direct replacement for the biblical version so
10. I am the lord your god, please follow the religious practices outlined elsewhere in this text(they would also need rewriting).

The first three cover a huge variety of restrictions such as don't murder, don't steal, don't lie, don't rape, probably shouldn't commit adultery either, slavery is bad, so is assault, and so on but also cover social things such as showing respect for others and just generally being nice. Most prohibitions also come with a clause of without just cause such as a homeless man stealing food to survive would be morally ok even though to avoid ambiguity it would need to remain legally wrong. But some such as slavery and rape are ALWAYS WRONG, also not all crimes are equal. eg murder needs a legal penalty adultery doesn't.
This is just something I have thrown together in 20 minutes so it could probably be improved on but I still think it is in a different league to the Biblical version.