Fish in Space

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

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.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Modern Voter Suppression

For forty years it's been an article of faith that low voter turnout favors Republican candidates. It's one of the reasons why people attribute more electoral victories for Republicans in mid-term election seasons than for Democrats. The truth is that low voter participation favors extremism and further polarizes our politics, but that's neither here nor there. For at least the past twenty years Republicans have been working to discourage voter participation under the guise of voter fraud.

By the most amazing of coincidences, the voter ID laws being passed by Republican state majorities tend to discourage minorities and the poor more than anything else. Of course, conservatives are quick to argue that these laws aren't racist at all, that people disenfranchised by these laws are too lazy. But the fact is that these laws are responsible for lower voter participation among Democratic-voting citizens. The fact that it also tends to target voters who are minorities is apparently just icing on the cake; the racism is incidental rather than intentional.

Republican defenders of these laws insist it's about fairness and combatting fraud, but since Republicans have spent millions of dollars trying to prove voter fraud over ten years and have found only a handful of cases to support their claims, this argument falls flat. Instead we should listen to what Republicans are saying among themselves when it comes to these laws:

So yes, Republicans can argue that this is really about fairness but if your idea of fairness is to discourage a few cases of fraud at the expense of hundreds of thousands or millions of voters, I really have to question your motives.

Friday, July 17, 2015

God is intangible, unknowable and ineffable. Except when he isn't. (updated)

One of the fundamental flaws I often criticize about religious belief is when believers want their cake and eat it too. Specifically, I refer to when their arguments rely too heavily on special pleading. And no, adding caveats to the definition of a god does not bypass special pleading. I can redefine chocolate as the essential first cause of the universe, but that doesn't make the definition valid.

But other examples of special pleading include arguments like this: god is mysterious, unfathomable and uknowable but somehow believers are granted special knowledge of who this god is, what it is and what it demands. Believers typically justify this via "special revelation," that they or their religious founders have been granted special knowledge by that god to carry out the divine will. Each religion and sect claiming special revelation typically considers the special revelation other religions and sects as heresy or at least attributed to human error. But since there are so many special revelations, how does someone not raised or converted to one particular orthodoxy distinguish which are the truly divine revelations and which are heresy? This problem is informally called the argument from inconsistent revelations. One of the supporting criticisms against divine revelation is the way it tends to follow cultural and geographical boundaries.

A point I've made before is that no religion has any better argument or evidence to support it than any other. Believers aren't basing their claims on independently observable phenomenon, they're projecting what they think should be true rather than what they can demonstrate to be true. There's no common experience for believers to reference so revelations vary from culture and region and even among different believers. This leads us to the skeptical position that if a god does not leave any traces for us to observe, then we have no reason to assume that anything we see supports the existence of this god. If this god is unknowable and incomprehensible, then we have no reason to assume anyone understands anything about it and can accurately represent it.

So which is it? Is a god knowable or not? If not then the discussion is closed. If so then show us examples that clearly demonstrate how this knowledge is valid and not human bias. Excuses aren't enough.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hillary Clinton and the Democrats

The Democrats have a problem in the US. Liberals have been the media's favorite punching bag for quite some time, and a lot of Democrats have been running away from it for that reason. That leaves at least a quarter of the nation with little to no representation as the Democratic Party pushes farther to their right in a bid to poach the moderates edged out by right-wing extremists in the Republican party.

Enter The Third Way, a think tank with corporate ties looking to support the Democratic Party's move toward the center. They're distinctly against populist rhetoric and they want us to play nice with Wall Street and other corporate giants who have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of interest in playing nice with anyone else. They're closely aligned with the Clintons in the aftermath of Bill's administration and have dominated the conversation among Democrats ever since.

An attitude that I find infuriating in American politics is the notion that whatever's good for business must necessarily be good for America. The Third Way seems more interested in promoting business interests at the expense of all else, even if it means reduced consumer protections, growing income inequality or skyrocketing poverty. This is why I've been leery of Hillary Clinton ever since she became Senator Clinton and voted like a Third Way Democrat. In trying to please everyone she abandoned her liberal roots and tried to play to the center. Conventional political wisdom said it was the smart thing to do at the time.

Now of course Hillary Clinton has thrown her hat in the ring as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President. After electing the first black President a lot of Americans are talking about how it would be nice to have a female President, too. The problem is that we don't need people of specific identities to lead us, we need people of specific qualities and leadership to lead us. As much as I approve of electing a female President I don't approve of electing just any woman. Any candidate for political office, whatever their race or gender identification, needs to be qualified for the job before I vote for them. If they already have a voting record I want to see that they're representing me. I don't want another Obama who promises to fight for single payer health care and the restoration of civil rights only to turn around and pretend he never made those promises.

I have a lot of respect for Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton's Administration. He's a liberal, an economist and a keen political analyst. In his examination of Hillary's latest bid for President he acknowledges that she's disappointed liberals but reminds us of her roots and points out her liberal credentials aren't the problem. There's a reason that the Clinton-era health care reform debate lambasted the administration's proposal as "Hillarycare." The question is whether or not she'll stand up and fight for us again the way she did as First Lady? Can she remember her commitment to equal opportunity and upward mobility? Robert seems to imply she can, but it remains to be seen.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton is pulling to the left in an attempt to convince us that she hasn't forgotten liberals. Of course, Obama did the same before he tacked right and displayed a horrendous fetish for unrequited bipartisanship. I knew from the beginning that he was going to be a centrist and at the time I said "I'm not expecting more than a brief respite from the nightmare of the last eight years." I think that's what we've gotten, even though I was thankfully wrong about the economic crisis being worse than the Great Depression. Will Hillary be the one to turn it around? Not if she continues to be Senator Clinton, Third Way Democrat.

Let me be clear, I will not attempt to "punish" the Democratic Party if I don't get a more liberal nominee. I learned my lesson with Nader in 2000 and I'm not doing it again. There's no one capable of winning the Democratic Party nomination who is nearly as bad as the least objectionable candidate for the Republican Party nomination. The Republicans will not get my vote again unless they return to the politics of Abraham Lincon and Teddy Roosevelt rather than Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. But I am getting sick and tired of holding my nose and voting for the lesser of two evils.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

I'm An Atheist. Now What?

There's a stereotype about atheists and atheism, that we're nihilists and that our world is cold and lonely. The thing is, atheism is neither inherently meaningless nor is it inherently lonely. As an atheist I don't see meaning the same way believers do because I don't believe in a god to impose that meaning. As for being lonely, that's a consequence of embracing a minority position. Atheists in largely secular communities aren't lonely because they're not being constantly pressured to conform to religious values. Do you think Christians in communities dominated by Islam don't feel lonely? Do you think Hindus in communities dominated by Christians don't feel like outsiders?

A common question asked by new atheists is "what now?" They've finally taken that last step and they've abandoned belief. They've rejected what they were taught to embrace for so long, and they might still be hiding it to avoid social backlash or they might simply be looking for something to fill the void. Imagine you've just kicked a bad habit, like gambling. You aren't checking the papers to see which ponies won, you're not attending weekly poker games and you're not practicing your dice rolls. Imagine these things previously consuming your time but now you don't know what to do with yourself. How do you cope?

The answer is: any way you choose. Go back to an old, non-gambling hobby. Pick a new one. Read up on new events or trends that might interest you. Get involved in a group that doesn't revolve around the bad habit you just kicked. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister. Form new, healthy habits that will broaden your experience and teach you new things.

There's a big world out there waiting to be discovered. Go explore it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Does the Chapel Hill Atrocity Matter?

It's only the second day since Craig Stephen Hicks and a lot of atheists are already tired of hearing about it. Although the police have been careful to avoid accusing Hicks of a hate crime, everyone else has been quick to leap to that judgment. Of course, rather than blame anti-Muslim sentiment everyone assumes that atheism itself acted as motivation for Hicks' crime.

We've been saying it for a while but it needs repeating: atheism doesn't inform our actions any more than not believing in unicorns informs yours. That doesn't mean religion can't be a factor in an atheist's behavior, it means that our non-belief isn't justification for action. Religion can still motivate us to react, to speak up or act in response to something that believers are doing. It can make us fear for our safety, and fearful people are more likely to lash out. History shows us several examples of this.

In 1793 French revolutionaries passed a law outlawing religion and religious belief. This anti-religious behavior added to the atrocities that history now calls the French Reign of Terror, as priests and devoutly religious people of all social and economic stations were tortured and murdered. In 1917 Russian revolutionaries formed the Soviet Union and seized all property and wealth of the elite including churches, beginning an era where religion was discouraged, suppressed or drafted to support the leadership depending on circumstances. In 1966 Mao Zedong duplicated the Soviet uprising through his "Cultural Revolution" with similar actions and results. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh and began a Communist dictatorship that oppressed religion and cultural minorities alike, classifying people into categories and starving or executing them as they saw fit.

Atheists will quickly point out that these actions were political, and they're correct. But the fact that religious followers were explicitly targeted can't be ignored. Atheism doesn't justify this, but humans can use any excuse to misbehave as long as we have reason to categorize people as "other." Why do I bring this up? Not to suggest that atheism is a religion or that it's just as guilty of promoting atrocities as any religion. It's to point out that even though we don't believe in any gods or follow any religion we can still rationalize our bad behavior, just as Craig Stephen Hicks did in Chapel Hill.

Human nature being what it is, we'll probably never completely excise our violent urges, and I'm not sure that we would be advised to do so. It's one thing to channel such urges into productive action, but another to remove them completely. It's not that these urges are bad in themselves, it's that allowing those urges to provoke us to bad behavior is the problem. What we need is not a lobotomy, we need to learn self-discipline. Atheism is not a cure for violence or any other bad behavior, it's just one less excuse for it. We can still find motivation through greed, fear, politics and so forth but we can't claim a divine mandate for it.

Given our tendency to rationalize our behavior I think it's in our best interests to police ourselves rigorously when someone suggests we need to kill all the Muslims or lock up all the Christians. No, it's not something that comes up often but I do see it from time to time. And when I do I'm quick to stomp on it. For one thing it's a deeply immoral thing to suggest, and for another it doesn't solve the problem. Religion spreads through indoctrination and justifies itself through fear. We can try to suppress indoctrination by force, but that simply aggravates the fear. Indoctrination goes underground and gets enhanced by fear of discovery and oppression. It didn't take long after the fall of the Soviet Union for the Russian people to return to their old religious habits, minus the aristocracy. Their reasons for clinging to religion for comfort were never taken away, in spite of the promises made by Communists. The Socialists of Western Europe offer a much better model by taking away the insecurities that drive both conflict and religious devotion.