Fish in Space

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


What is left to say that hasn't already been said?

Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Meaning of Things

Twice today I've been confronted by people who assert that "meaning" is some sort of property that can be found in objects or events. One asserted that beauty is proof of his god and another asserted that religion gives people meaning to their lives. So now I feel compelled to write about meaning and how we confuse what we want with what really is.

The first individual asserted " is the meanings which are encapsulated within it which make it beautiful, which make it something enlightening." Naturally I pointed out that this implies that meaning is an objective property that we can glean from something, but an objective property doesn't change based on the perspective of who is looking at it. An apple doesn't change into an orange when viewed from the proper angle. Meaning shouldn't change at all if it's an inherent property.

To further make his point this individual presented to me three actions that he believes have inherent meaning: a handshake, a hug to a crying child and a thumbs up gesture.

First the handshake. Apparently he wasn't aware of the history of greetings, from the Greek wristclasp demonstrating neither of you were armed (although this is disputed) but today having nothing to do with weaponry. When did it change from "I'm not armed" to "I'm pleased to meet you?" This is not established, but it serves to refute the idea that a handshake has inherent meaning, only the meaning we assign to it.

Then the hug to the crying child. Obvious this invokes some biological imperatives recognizing that as social creatures humans crave physical contact. The crying child is looking for reassurance but the person offering the hug may be more concerned with silencing the noise than with the emotional distress of the child. The meaning behind the hug may not be what you assume.

Finally the thumb up. It turns out there are six different meanings to this gesture which completely blows away any inherent meaning to it. But the most common meaning, the one meaning "okay" or some form of approval meant something very different to the Romans from whom we inherited it. During gladiatorial games when two opponents fought and one fell the crowd would extend their thumbs if they wanted to see the defeated fighter die. If they felt the fighter's combat was valiant and honorable they would hide their thumbs. So again, the meaning of the gesture has changed over time.

Objective properties don't change. If you can demonstrate that the meaning of something has changed then meaning is not an inherent property.

Related to this is the idea that we derive meaning from things. A painting or a sunset may inspire us, but what does that imply except that we have the capacity to be inspired? Did the inspiration come from whatever inspired us or do we project our own creativity onto what we see? For example, people have been inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock aka "Jack the Dripper" for decades, but I don't see why. When I look at it I see paint drippings on a canvas, not a key to the mysteries of the universe. But show me a nude by Rembrandt and I'll show you a love of the human form, particularly the soft curves of a woman. Someone else might see lechery and perversion, while yet another might see a blatant rejection of puritanical values.

I commonly hear that religion gives people comfort and offers meaning to their lives but I don't buy it. Like these paintings, religion doesn't have any intrinsic meaning or there wouldn't be so much dispute over what various religions mean. Instead what we have are examples of people projecting meaning onto religion, finding whatever they expect to see. How else could we have over forty-thousand different interpretations of the same religion? Religion is a blank canvas on which we paint, some by the numbers and others with free form. Put another way, religion is a blank page on which we write all our opinions and bias and call it sacred. Whatever religion offers that doesn't fit our expectations gets ignored or denied, often dismissed as metaphor or allegory for something else.

So what's the point? If meaning isn't inherent to anything, does that imply we should abandon all meaning? Of course not. When we find meaning in something that doesn't mean whatever we found was always there. It means we found it inside ourselves. We learned something new about ourselves and we're free to explore its implications. We can share this meaning with others and see if it resonates with their values as well. Perhaps the meaning we find will help others discover something new about themselves. We're just not justified in imposing that meaning on anyone else. Just because it has meaning for us doesn't imply that it must have meaning for everyone.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A little post bailout rage

Thank you, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show writers. I apparently needed this hot rage injection.

What Is The Great Existential Threat To Civilization?

Thanks, Bill Maher.

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about ISIS/ISIL, Islamophobia and whether or not Muslims are a threat to civilization (or at least Western civilization). It came to a head when Ben Affleck argued with Bill Maher and Sam Harris, accusing them of bigotry against all Muslims for their criticism of Islam. Some people agree with Affleck that Harris and Maher take it too far, others side with Maher and Harris that Islam is a genuine threat. Also, Christianity has been reformed which is why we don't see these problems in Christian countries. I want to come back to this in a bit.

They're all correct and they're all wrong. Islam is a threat, no doubt about it. Any religion that isn't constrained by secular law is a threat both to its own members and non-members alike. But Islam is not an existential threat to civilization. They're not going to take over the West and establish a European or North American Caliphate. Yes, liberals in Europe have taken the idea of cultural and religious tolerance too far (as I've previously observed it's self-defeating to be tolerant of intolerance). But as hard as those immigrants try to avoid assimilation they can't succeed. Living in a non-Islamic country under non-Islamic rules means that you can't stop your children from encountering non-Islamic ideas and eventually they're going to pay attention. Yes, Muslim families are probably going to outbreed us but future generations born in France and the Britain are going to be French and British. The world will continue to turn.

There are steps we need to take to protect ourselves from the threat of religious invasion and domination, and we already know what those steps entail: secularization. Most sane Western nations have already implemented it to great success. It's the reason why those countries aren't under any threat of living under a theocracy, because their laws aren't dominated by religious preference. Christians can be Christian, Muslims can be Muslim and atheists can be atheist. Everyone is protected and no one gets special privilege for their beliefs.

This is how we defeat the Islamic threat: not with bombs and military action but with secularism. When people behave badly we don't bomb a village and hope we got some terrorists in the process, we do police work to identify the perpetrators and arrest them. We show the Islamic world that secularism doesn't just protect our innocent, it protects theirs as well. Islam rejected secularism a thousand years ago when their clerics took back control, but that doesn't mean it can't work again.

Secularism is the reason why people have the mistaken impression that Christianity has been reformed and isn't a threat to us the way Islam has become. No, Christianity has not been reformed, it's been leashed. Before we started instituting secular law religious authorities were brutal about purging anything they considered heresy before it could spread among the population. Men and women were murdered on the strength of nothing more than the accusation of a neighbor hoping to curry favor with the authorities or to exact revenge. Ideological purity was enforced by the priests who recognized no authority but their own, and they interacted as peers with the nobility in a mutually beneficial relationship. Is it any wonder that French Reign of Terror and the Communist uprising in Russia targeted the priesthood as enemies of the people?

Christianity has been restrained by secularism. Its priests and authority figures don't have the right to punish heresy, giving way for people to construct their own liberal interpretations of the old religion. That mighty bastion of the old guard, the Vatican, is currently playing catch-up to modern morality without ever publicly conceding that liberal interpretation is valid. How ironic is it that the current pope, bad as he is, is probably more liberal in his religious beliefs than was Martin Luther the German reformer?

What do you think would happen if we let Christianity off the leash? Do you think the liberal churches would survive very long? How long would it take before a new Inquisition or three are resurrected to root out the heresy within Christendom? Not very long. Fundamentalist Christianity is no better than Fundamentalist Islam, it just doesn't have as much slack.

So let's stop pretending that Islam is the great threat of the Twenty-First Century and buying into the culture of fear that's allowing Christian extremists to undermine secularism in the West. If they succeed it's not Islam that will take over.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why I Am An Atheist

I don't know if Tim Minchin had this post in mind when he wrote this song but it's possible. He's a fiendishly clever fellow. I'll just give him credit for helping to inspire this little essay while listening to this song.

There are lots of reasons for me to be an atheist; the lack of evidence for gods, the mountain of debunked religious claims, the a priori arguments and assorted fallacies and so forth. Many trees have given their lives to record the multitude of reasons people have for not believing in any gods. Skepticism on the topic goes back as far as ancient Greece and the early philosophers who urged us to question everything, even the gods. There isn't much new to say on the topic since apologists are still trying to catch up with the fury of "New Atheism," but all these high-minded arguments from philosophy and science tend to go above the heads of the average believers and non-believers like myself. There are some simple very reasons why I don't believe, and Tim Minchin helped me realize one: existence isn't perfect.

It's so obvious that it's a tautology, of course. Nobody really thinks reality is absolutely perfect; if it were we wouldn't have suffering and death, constant conflict and struggles to survive in a universe where 99.9% of everything will kill us instantly. Even when we limit our focus to our immediate surroundings human nature is deeply flawed and that's one of the big reasons why people invented religion. Religion is intended to give us comfort, guide us around those flaws and give us hope. But it does so by claiming perfection. Perfect gods deliver perfect answers even if our understanding is imperfect. It's a lovely idea but it doesn't work. There are no perfect answers, and it causes problems when we insist that the answers we embrace are beyond criticism.

The other day I was arguing with a self-professed Jewish scholar who is very taken with his scholarship. He brought up sexual fidelity as an example of why I should deem his god worthy of praise and worship; the argument goes that it's a contract that I'm obligated to follow just as I'm obligated to sexual fidelity with my spouse. To his shock and horror I pointed out that no, sexual fidelity isn't a given, it's negotiable like any good contract. If neither my spouse nor I are threatened by sexual experimentation, why shouldn't we explore an open relationship? It's been working well for most of a decade and we're closer than ever. He immediately passed judgment on me and my relationship with my spouse in spite of the fact that he knows nothing about either of us. He already an answer handed down through his religion that he considers perfect and he won't hear of anything to the contrary. At one point he had this to say:
I didn't say what it is FOR YOU, I said what it is. If I get in a business relationship, that means we're in a contractual bind with certain agreements which means I can't use his competitor and he can't use mine. That's what a relationship is.
Pause with me for a moment to savor the audacity here in which the person claims the moral probity to declare what can or cannot be part of a relationship. He has it all tied up in a neat little bow, perfect and pristine and not to be sullied by anything so petty as human nature. Nevermind that my Lady and I are very happy together, and we don't need to pretend that no one else can catch our eye. Nevermind large communities of people who are happy with the staggering variety of arrangements with their significant other(s); he's decided that no matter what reality shows him we're all unstable and emotionally sick people whose relationships are doomed.

This is the problem with perfection. It sets an impossible standard that creates havoc when we try to live up to it, let alone when we attempt to hold others to it. Why does this man claim this perfect standard? Because of his perfect god. He's found his answer and his search is over. The discussion is done.

Gods offer perfect answers, but perfection is a lie. There are no perfect answers. There are good answers and answers that fit the data but they're never complete; the discussion is never done. No matter how much we learn about things like physics, chemistry, morality and so forth the more there is to learn. We progress by challenging what we think we know and seeing what works. Even if all we're doing is refining our understanding we're not standing still. We're not satisfied with incomplete answers and we never should be.

So for now my answer is atheism. It's not perfect, but it's mine.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Jealous God

A common dogma tells us that the Abrahamic god is a jealous god, meaning there are things he demands that we must give him and he'll punish us if he doesn't get them. Why do I mention this? Because he's also supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent and allegedly the source of all wisdom and morality. So let's consider that for a moment. How do we look at a person who throws a tantrum when they don't get what they want? Childish? Juvenile? Certainly not someone who is wise, moral or benevolent. But he's the creator, we're told. We owe him things like worship and praise because he has that right. Let's look at someone who builds an ant farm. What do the ants owe the person who maintains their farm? Do they deserve to be flooded, baked or starved if they don't behave according to the rigid demands of their owner? History tells the story of hundreds of kings and queens with total dominion over their kingdoms. As a general rule we look poorly on the ones who treated their station as a right to be exploited and we look favorably on the ones who treated it as a responsibility. Jealous kings and queens aren't deemed wise or benevolent but tyrants. Benevolent kings and queens were the ones who ruled fairly, forgiving human frailty while guiding their kingdoms through crisis and prosperity alike. The god of Abraham has more in common with a child than a benevolent ruler. Children are jealous of what they consider their rightful due and we try to teach them to abandon such attitudes as they mature.

Like I Care?

After linking Greta Christina's Skepticon 4 speech to yet another tone troll I thought I'd watch it again. It's been a little while since I loaded it up and I thought I'd refresh myself on it. I'm glad I did because one section in particular stood out for me.

"Oh, that's not what the religion really teaches! If you look at what the original text says this is being misinterpreted!" Like I care?

The reality is that the Islamic religion as it is widely believed and practiced -- and not just the Islamic religion but other religions as well, this teaching is not restricted to Islam alone -- that religions as they are practiced in the real world teach that little girls' clitorises have to get cut off.
This is by no means restricted to Islam or female genital mutilation. It's a common apologetic even among some atheists, to claim that a common belief is really just a mistranslation of sacred texts like the word "homosexual" in the Bible.

As Greta says, like I care?

I advocate that we not let this excuse slide. It doesn't matter what the original text said or how it's mistranslated if the mistranslation has become the official dogma. I don't care if Paul original wrote against sacred prostitutes or some other variation of homosexual practice if that's not how people are practicing religion today. People repeatedly use the Paul's words as they appear in modern Bibles to help justify their bigotry against homosexuals, and that's hardly the only topic where apologists claim mistranslation to defend their religion.

Like I care?

It doesn't matter what the original text says or what theologians claim if they're not part of the common practice of religion. If you tell me that some theologian explains his god as a genuinely benevolent deity who doesn't intercede in the world and never sends anyone to Hell because that's not what his interpretation says, that's fine. That's what the theologian believes. In the meanwhile we still have the entire Southern Baptist Convention and hundreds of other churches and denominations teaching that their god changes reality in answer to prayer and sends people to Hell for trying to marry the person they love even though they're the same gender.

Don't give me excuses for how the religion went wrong. Own up to what religion is doing today.