Fish in Space

A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Cat and the Cave: Plato's Cave versus Schroedinger's Cat.

The Cave of...Link?

Plato's Cave is a famous philosophical construct wherein hypothetical prisoners are tied down facing one wall of a cave so they can't move their heads and look around. Behind them is a fire providing light for the cave, and between the fire and the prisoners are puppeteers moving back and forth holding various objects that cast shadows on the wall for the prisoners to observe. It's a hideously contrived scenario, but Plato used it to demonstrate the difficulty of expressing concepts through language when we don't have a concrete experience with those concepts. A prisoner might say "I see a book" based on a projection, but there's no book on the wall only shadow. It's only when they're released and can look around that they can see the real objects casting shadows. True understanding, Plato argues, isn't possible until then.

What I find curious is how many Christians love to inject Jesus into Plato's Cave. Plato wrote passionately about mistaking an image for the real thing, then Christians try to tie their invisible, intangible god as the fire lighting the wall. The mind boggles.

There are lots of ways to examine this religious hubris, but I found my thoughts moving in the direction of Schrödinger's cat. Like Plato's Cave it's a thought experiment, not meant to be taken literally. He made it to argue against the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum superposition, but like the Christian version of Plato's Cave I would like to borrow it to make a point.

You wanna do WHAT?Schrödinger supposed that if you took a solid metal box, a cat, poison, a geiger counter, a hammer and a tiny amount of radioactive material you could construct a situation where the geiger counter is set to possibly detect the radioactive material, but it's not reliable because there's so little radioactivity. If it does, the geiger goes off which releases the hammer to smash the vial of poison. The poison kills the cat, whose only crime was to be imprisoned in the stupid box by silly humans. Does the geiger counter go off and doom the cat, or does the geiger counter miss the radiation and let the cat live? Under the Copenhagen Interpretation, Schrödinger argued, the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened and the quantum superposition is observed.

Where am I going with this? Both Plato's Cave and Schrödinger's Cat address knowledge. We can't know things until we observe them, we can only speculate. Speculation is not knowledge. The best guess in the world is still just a guess until the answer is revealed. It's important to remember not to declare victory until we actually achieve victory conditions.

Remember Jesus in Plato's Cave? Nothing to see here.The Christians who borrow this allegory are doing violence to Plato's philosophy. In their cave all shadows are imperfect reflections of their god, which is why everybody has a different idea of what they're looking at. Plato himself asked why the prisoners wouldn't discuss the images between themselves and work out agreement on what they were supposed to be looking at, which is something we've been doing about gods for thousands of years. Of course, we're no closer to an answer today than we were ten thousand years ago. Christians agree that we're all prisoners in the cave, but they're the ones who actually know what those shadows represent! How? Because they feel it. Because they fake it until they believe. Because the Bible says so. Because...they just know, okay? Because shut up, that's why!

I'm constantly confronted with claims of knowledge in my daily life. Living in the age of information makes it a challenge to parse all those claims to separate the ones that are true from the ones that are false. Until I do, each one remains in a quantum superposition of being both true and false until it can be unpacked and examined. The shadows on the wall don't represent knowledge, they represent what we think is knowledge until our assumptions can be tested against the real thing. Always remains skeptical of people who are confident of the truth without being able to demonstrate how they know it. In the end, if you know you're right but can't explain it you should reconsider the possibility that you're actually wrong.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Argument By Moderation

There's a curious trend in social media that simultaneously amuses and disgusts me. I call it "argument by moderation." Moderation in this case doesn't refer to a moderate or nuanced position, but rather the people responsible for performing administration on a forum. They don't have an easy job, and once the forum gets big enough they don't even try. They'll ban or lock you if anyone complains about you whether or not it's warranted.

Last week I posted this comment, making a general observation as I occasionally do and not addressing anyone in particular.

Behold My Comment!
After a few days this sparked a conversation with another user trying to peddle his "spiritualist" business and everyone who knows me knows how gladly I suffer fools. The conversation ended fairly quickly once I made it clear to him that I'm not easily swayed by bullshit. It's not the first time I've had discussions like that on Twitter although it had been a while, and I feel that I was fairly restrained compared to other evangelicals I've interacted with. I thought the matter settled until today.
How do you define 'unusual activity?'

Like, WHATEVEROkay, time to go to the mail account I registered for this, a one-shot I created expressly for stuff I don't care about. It turns out that Yahoo! really wants more information about me because they decided that while they recognize my password they won't let me continue without further validation. The validation account I used for that address is bogus because frankly, they don't need to know and I'd never needed it before. Today, it seems, I needed it. So I have a cascading failure of confirmation emails to accounts I can't access which is preventing me from verifying that I am who I say I am.

So, round one to the "spiritual" snake oil salesman for engaging in argument by moderation after he came to me with claims that I had the temerity to question and deride once he couldn't support them. But should the Twitter admins follow up on my support request they'll be able to see this short timeline of events and hopefully draw the conclusion that there was no unusual activity on my account, just someone tattling on me for failing to show them the respect they didn't earn.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why Should This Offend You?

You need to eat bananas with creamy peanut butter.

the holiest of snacksLet's assume for a moment that people take this seriously. Imagine we live in a society where bananas and peanut butter have become part of our daily nutrition, specifically where they're eaten together. You cannot eat a banana without peanut butter, although you can eat peanut butter without a banana. No, it doesn't make much sense to make this a moral imperative, but bear with me a moment. In this thought experiment, the consumption of bananas with peanut butter is a cultural more and there's no quicker way to offend someone than to deviate from this behavior.

If you don't eat bananas with creamy peanut butter you deserve to be imprisoned and punished.

You can't not eat a banana every day. You can't not eat a banana without peanut butter.yuck! Neither can you eat a banana with anything but peanut butter, and if it's the chunky style you're in trouble. Imagine that you're told if you don't comply with this behavior you deserve to be locked away and punished. How does this make you feel? Annoyed? Perhaps even offended yourself? I happen to like a ripe banana and creamy peanut butter, but who am I to impose this preference on you? What gives me the right to pass judgment on you like this?

Now consider this argument:

It's not that I'm judging you for not eating bananas with creamy peanut butter, it's just the law that you have to. I'm simply letting you know what's going to happen to you.

nobody knows the troubles I seenThat makes it all better, right? I mean, it's just about who is or isn't following the rules, right? Just because the rule is arbitrary and unreasonable doesn't make it my fault. Of course, I could reject the idea that the rule is justifiable or should be enforced given its very arbitrary and subjective nature. I could turn a blind eye to a bad law and avoid calling attention to the fact that you're not following it.

If you think this is a bad argument for imposing arbitrary morality on you, then don't try to pull it on me with your religion. I reject the assertion that I "send myself to Hell" or "deserve Hell" based on what you believe. I certainly don't appreciate you trying to convince me that I'm sick (read: sinful) so you can sell me the cure (of salvation).

religious freedom in actionDon't tell me I shouldn't be offended from being told I'm destined for Hell. You may think you're doing me a favor by warning me of my impending doom but I appreciate it about as much as you might appreciate being told you're headed to prison for failing to eat bananas with creamy peanut butter. My behavior suggests I endorse the law requiring you to be imprisoned for deviating from it, and that I have no interest in changing the status quo. Likewise, you're expressing your endorsement of Hell and everything it implies (like infinite punishment for finite crimes) by trying to sell me your beliefs.

I don't believe in Hell, and I don't appreciate the implication that I deserve punishment for the immorality you imagine of me. If that's really what you think, do us all a favor and keep it to yourself.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Famous Last Words

Death is one of those things that few people like to think about but is inevitable for all of us. We like to think it's a significant event, that it's just a transition to another existence, that if we're lucky we'll be able to share some profound last words. I don't know about the first two, but I've decided what I'd like my last words to be if I get the chance.

"I see a light! I'm in a long tunnel and there's a bright light at the end! There's a man there beckoning toward me. Shit, is he ever hung! Is it Jesus? I think it's Jesus! He's waving! Hi, Jesus!

"Wait. That's not Jesus. That's Ganesh. No wonder he looked so hung."

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Enemy of Good

I've noted previously that I'm skeptical of Hillary Clinton as a progressive. In the six months since I wrote that, four other people threw their hats into the ring as candidates for the Democratic Party nomination including Bernie Sanders. Presently, Bernie is my preferred candidate as he best represents me on the issues I care about. Everywhere I look he continues to lead the pack as a progressive, liberal or whatever label you choose to apply.

Clinton's campaign is a juggernaut, with campaign money that dwarfs all competition and political endorsements from all over. Although a lot can happen between now and July, safe money continues to be on Hillary Clinton as the heir apparent. This is now her race to lose, which prompts another look at her as a politician and as a candidate for President of the United States. In the last six months I've discovered a few things about her, some of which surprised me and others that don't.

What I care about the most is not who slept with whom, what scandals may surround a politician or what dirt can be dug up on someone. No one is perfect, so I have to make allowances for the fact that my candidates won't be as well. If their misbehavior is relevant to the issues they claim to value then certainly I'm willing to cluck my tongue over the Family Values candidate caught having multiple affairs. On the other hand, if you spent years trying to dig up dirt on someone but investigations keep finding no wrongdoing then it's clear that what you're doing is engaging in a witch hunt. The email scandal is settled. All that remains is where Clinton stands on the issues.

Hillary Clinton on the issues is where I'm both surprised and not surprised. In both her voting record and her campaign platforms Hillary comes across very solidly as a liberal. In fact, when you compare her to Bernie she's closer to his position than any other Democratic candidate including Martin O'Malley and Jim Webb. I'm not going to bother with former Republican governor Lincoln Chaffee because he's not even on the radar. The only place where Hillary doesn't shine as a liberal is on military and foreign policy where she's one of the most hawkish candidates around.

There are, of course, still problems. First and foremost there's a strong movement for Anybody But Hillary which is popular among both Republicans and Democrats. Yes, Democrats. Do you think the Clintons could suffer through two decades of scandals and not have that taint stick in people's minds? She's untrusted because of her corporate connections, her history with Wall Street, her war-mongering, allegations of corruption and criminal behavior and so on and so forth. Clinton opponents have thrown everything at her in the hopes that something would stick, and for some people that's enough to bias their thinking. As I observed previously some of it is deserved, such as her relationship with special interests, but in this campaign she's come out with some credible proposals to combat those interests (author's note: this link is best viewed in privacy/incognito mode). People are still skeptical of her apparent change of heart on issues like Wall Street regulation and trade deals, and they should be. But the problem runs so deep that there are committed progressives who would normally vote for a Democratic nominee have pledged to vote third party rather than for Hillary Clinton.

The phrase for this is the Nirvana fallacy or "making best the enemy of good." So while I would rather see Bernie Sanders take the Democratic nomination and become the next President of the United States, I won't reject Hillary Clinton as the candidate who next best represents my interests. She promises to be more of a liberal and less of a centrist than Barack Obama has been, and that's still progress to me.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Failure of Faith

The incomparable Matt Dillahunty recently posted the video of his lecture at Baylor University regarding what he calls "the problem of Divine Hiddenness." It's an excellent talk and I highly recommend it.

At timestamp 13:59 he brings up the question "why create a world where you put thinking beings, give them a brain...where critical examination of what you see in the world is consistently the best way to find an accurate model of the world?...and then to say that the most important piece of information is one that doesn't fit that paradigm?" I've examined this before in my comparison of the conflict between faith and knowledge, but since Matt doesn't take much time to address the typical excuse of "faith" here I want to revisit the topic.

While he correctly points out that "faith" isn't an answer because it can be used to justify any claim, he's set up a question that invites more scrutiny. Whatever god allegedly created this universe has therefore put us in an environment where our survival as individuals and as a species relies on our ability to gather knowledge to form conclusions. hunter in the bush Sometimes our conclusions aren't justified, like assuming that the vague shape we perceive in the bush is a predator which prompts us to run away. Such assumptions were helpful when predators were a constant threat, but better knowledge is more helpful. Waiting to confirm whether or not that shape is what we suspect it might be could result in an easy meal for a predator, but it could also reveal that it was just our imagination playing tricks and enable us to get at the berries in the bush. Our survival is better served when our conclusions are informed by knowledge. Running away on faith (or conversely pursuing the berries on faith) doesn't serve us nearly as well, it's hit-or-miss.

I frequently hear that faith is superior to knowledge, but our world doesn't reward faith as consistently as it rewards knowledge. When was the last time you saw a mountain moved exclusively by faith? If you consistently visit a casino because you have faith that eventually your luck is going to favor you and grant you a massive jackpot, you're likely to lose everything. If you close your eyes while crossing a busy street using faith to guide your steps you're likely to create an accident. People who reject medical care for serious illness like cancer tend to die quickly and painfully compared to those who follow a doctor's advice. And yet people continue to uphold faith as the gold standard of behavior, trying to muster sufficient faith to move mountains on nothing better than religious authority. This is what prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to observe that "a casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."

But what about love? I'm asked. You can't prove love is real, you have to take it on faith, right? I don't know where this silly trope came from but it's patently ridiculous. It's complicated. Unrequited love frequently depends on faith, but genuine love requires nothing of the sort. When someone loves me I can see it in their behavior toward me. When I love someone I don't expect them to rely on faith to know it, I assume the responsibility of demonstrating my love for them through word and deed.

So to return to Matt's point, you can't have a relationship with someone based on faith. Any relationship requires action that goes both ways; if all the effort is one-sided then someone is lying to you and you should consider the possibility that it's you.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Magic Tricks

I don't often talk about my personal life here for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, recent life events brought an issue to the forefront that I feel deserve a few words. Namely, marriage and relationships. For some background I was married before while I was living in Australia but that didn't work out. I left my wife and two children behind to find work back in my native United States, and she decided not to follow. She sent me divorce papers and forced me to move on with my life so I did. Shortly after, I accepted a friend's invitation to join his game and there met the woman who would ultimately become my second wife. We've been together nearly ten years and look forward to the next ten years with great eagerness. She is in all matters my partner and my best friend, an achievement that I hoped for in my first marriage but never accomplished.

How did we do it? How did we succeed this time when I failed before? That's the rub.

At our wedding my best man (and one of my oldest and best friends) performed a magic trick. Yeah, it was that kind of wedding. We presented him with a problem, that we didn't have any rings to give to each other. He performed his trick and came up with a solution for us. And when I was watching the video of our ceremony it occurred to me that this made a useful metaphor for how people seem to treat relationships: magic.

For my next trick... It seems that almost everyone I know is having trouble with their relationships. My best man's marriage is on the rocks, and he's almost given up hope in finding a solution. My brother got divorced from his wife. My mother-in-law was talking about divorcing her husband. Another friend's wife has been cheating on him and has no intention of stopping. Everyone expresses how much they admire the relationship between my wife and I and how much in love we still are after so long together. It seems like magic to them, and unfortunately that's the problem.

It seems like it shouldn't need to be said, but good relationships don't simply happen. There's no magic trick that decides whether your relationship will succeed or fail. The balancing act There are elements involved in any good relationship that require you to put effort into them. These elements include communication, honesty, respect and an open mind. You have to be able to give as well as take, leaving the burden on neither party to always give or always take. Sometimes you have to compromise. Sometimes you have to pay attention more than you're used to. Always, always you need to be talking with each other and not assume things. You have to be willing to accept and forgive. You can't assume that the other person is capable of reading your mind even if sometimes it seems like they can. You have to be willing to concede your mistakes, even on some occasions when you don't think you made any.

It all sounds easier than it is. It's hard to swallow your pride and let someone else win sometimes, even when you love them. I don't always manage it even when I know I should. Sometimes I get caught up in emotion and feel like I'm the one who has been giving all the time and dammit, it ought to be my turn to win one. It's natural to feel like that, but it isn't very healthy for the relationship. Sometimes when you win, you lose.

Trust is hard to win, and even harder to recover. One of my friends can't trust his wife after she cheated on him and she's not interested in earning back his trust. I have trouble trusting people who have hurt me badly enough. I recognize that when I hurt people I don't necessarily deserve to be trusted again. But trust is so incredibly important to relationships it can't be overstated. You have to be able to trust your partner. You have to be able to understand that sometimes we hurt each other because we don't understand the impact our actions are having. My wife can hurt me more than anyone else possibly could, and I trust her with that power over me. I trust she would never intentionally use it against me as others have. So far that trust has been vindicated and I don't imagine I'll ever regret it.

Bonsai Tree I don't love my wife and friends for who I expect them to be. I love them for who they are, even when I sometimes disagree with them or I don't share all their interests. I don't expect them to be me, I expect them to be themselves. At the same time I expect them to accept me for who I am, because I'm not going to conform to their expectations. I will communicate and compromise but in the end I can never be anyone but who I am. I'm not interested in anyone who wants to transform themselves into my ideal, I want someone who thinks for themselves and has their own preferences. I want someone who will challenge me and expose me to new ideas, someone with whom I can grow. If all you ever do is try to mirror me then you'll never show me who you really are. How can I love someone like that?

Magic tricks ultimately aren't real magic, they're illusion. If you rely on sleight of hand to make a relationship work you're going to draw more skepticism than admiration. There are no shortcuts to a good relationship, only dedication and communication. Eventually you'll find someone who is willing to invest as much into your relationship together as you do. It's worth it.