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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A humorous aside

Blogger has some basic tools for tracking posts, listing comments (when it occurs to me I might have any) and seeing how popular they are. Most of my posts average between five and fifty pageviews, some browsing in from reddit.com or twitter and some I'm sure from webcrawlers and other technologies. But one post in particular stands out. None of my posts have more than two hundred views except this one: it has over two thousand. So if I ever decide I want my blog to become popular or start up some ad revenue, I have to remember to post a silly comic with every entry.

I find that both amusing and saddening.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Literal Versus Allegory and Metaphor

Liberal religious beliefs came up again today, this time with the assertion that religious texts like the Bible aren't meant to be read literally. Mostly. Sometimes. Whenever we have verifiable evidence that whatever is being discussed has been debunked. Furthermore, someone claimed to me that most religious believers don't take their scriptures literally.

Naturally, this required some verification.

Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels. Literally. Why? It's largely driven by religion.

64% of Americans believe Jesus literally died and was resurrected. Not metaphorically but literally.

46% of Americans believe that humans were created, not evolved, in their present form within the last ten thousand years. Nothing metaphorical about it.

80% of Americans believe in miracles. Not allegory, not metaphorical miracles. Miracles on par with what's recorded in the Bible.

Tell me again why I should assume religious beliefs and texts aren't being taken literally?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why I Don't Believe In Objective Morality

When we describe something as "objective" what we mean is that it is "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: 'an objective opinion'" or "of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality." Since morals are value statements they are necessarily abstract concepts rather than material objects. They cannot be said to exist as part of objective reality. Furthermore, morality varies greatly depending on culture and circumstance which means it is never free of influence by personal feelings, interpretations or prejudice.

By way of contrast, what are examples of objective reality? Those things that can be confirmed through empirical observation: physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and so forth. Standing on the surface of our planet means that gravity will pull you and everything you carry toward the center; this is true wherever you stand and doesn't change based on perspective. We have objectively verified that gravity is a real phenomenon no matter who you are, what culture you belong to or what your opinion is. Any time you let go of something it will fall under gravity.

About the only reason I can think of for why people persist in asserting objective morality is that they want to define their moral values as supreme, trumping all other moral codes. The only way to do this is to back your moral values through authority, either legally or religiously. Legally mandated morality (e.g. laws prohibiting murder, rape, theft, etc) can be challenged depending on shifts in attitude by the people being governed. Bad laws are notoriously difficult to enforce like the War on Drugs. Bad morality is likewise difficult to enforce like blue laws. Typically we see morality successfully expressed in law when there's more objective justification for it, like prohibitions against murder and fraud. When we can't objectively justify a morality we see it expressed more often as a religious value.

Morality is a negotiated behavior between people on both an individual and group level. Nothing that can be negotiated can be accurately described as objective.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Divine Inspiration

One of the most common claims made by Christians is that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. How do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired? Why, the Bible says this about itself. Of course, what this means varies depending on the Christian you talk to. For some it means the Bible is perfect and inerrant, that any time we find something wrong in the Bible it's us who is making the mistake because the Bible can't be wrong about anything. For others it means only parts of the Bible are divinely inspired and the confusion comes because we have to sift the human error in the Bible to find the parts that are genuinely inspired.

The first claim, that the Bible is perfect and inerrant is easily refuted. Looking at the conflicting creation accounts in Genesis, the story of the Hebrews in bondage to Egypt, the prophesied destruction of Tyre by Babylon or the attempts to tie both Herod the Great and the Census of Quirinius to Jesus' birth in spite of Herod dying ten years before the census. From a scientific and archaeological standpoint the Bible is very clearly errant.

The second claim is harder to refute because it offers no concrete guide on how to interpret the Bible. It becomes an open invitation to cherry-pick what you like from the Bible and disregard the rest as "tainted" by humanity. The claim goes that we can't judge the morality of the Bronze Age Hebrews or the Iron Age Christians because they had different values. Slavery was accepted and commonplace. Likewise with dehumanizing women and treating them as property. The Apostle Paul wasn't really a misogynist no matter how many Bible verses he dedicated to telling women to submit to male authority. Divine inspiration, the explanation goes, doesn't make unreasonable demands of people.

Except there's a problem here. Paul tells us that no one is righteous and all are sinners. We have all fallen short of the perfect moral standard that is God. So why does the Bible not speak up against slavery and misogyny, two moral values that we're developing in modern civilization? One apologetic I've heard is that we weren't ready to hear those things so God let us figure it out on our own. But the Bible has no problem giving us impossible moral standards that we can't possibly hope to live up to before Jesus came along and added thought crimes. Why then would a divinely inspired book of morality not insist on a perfect morality whether or not we were ready to hear it? Another apologetic is that because of relative cultural mores Paul wasn't really a misogynist, but misogyny doesn't stop being misogyny because it's institutional.

If you claim divine inspiration for something, you're making a very specific claim. You're claiming that the divine inspiration made it better than it could have been with only human ingenuity. That is perhaps the most damning observation about the Bible and every other holy scripture I've ever heard of: the morality and understanding of those scriptures was strictly limited to the morality and understanding of the people who wrote them. There's no sign of any divine inspiration in any of them; no hint of superior morality or indeed anything that can't be attributed directly to human thought. This is why I continue to be skeptical of divine morality.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Tom Wheeler Betrays Us

Tom Wheeler, the latest chairman of the FCC, shocked the Internet by calling for approval for a "fast lane" proposal for the Internet. Effectively, in order to avoid having your site and services downgraded by ISPs you have to pay an additional premium for preferred service. It's the proposal that AT&T suggested back in 2005 which sparked the entire Net Neutrality movement. Remember that you're already paying for your connection to the Internet, and sites like Google, Amazon and Netflix are also paying for their connection to you. This proposal amounts to triple-billing.

Of course, Wheeler's betrayal shouldn't shock anyone who knew who he was. An industry insider and lobbyist, he was always going to be sympathetic to ISP demands and ignore the consumers. So now he's trying to get a vote on new rules giving AT&T everything it wants and the backlash has been so severe that the FCC can't handle all the phone calls they're getting. Instead they're requesting that you email them your complaints instead. So I sent the following email to openinternet@fcc.gov:

I STRONGLY oppose Wheeler's proposal of approving "Fast Lane" internet access in direct violation of open internet standards. This is the proposal that AT&T wanted to implement years ago and sparked the Net Neutrality movement. We do not want an Internet where service runs to the highest bidder. We do not want an Internet where ISPs are allowed to downgrade traffic or decide what we can consume. They have been and must continue to be custodians, not traffic cops.

I am extremely disappointed by this betrayal of our interests and I call for the immediate removal of Wheeler from his position with the FCC.

Denver, CO
I invite everyone to do the same. Email the FCC and make your voice heard.

Update: Wheeler turned around and did the right thing. Consequently, I was wrong about Tom Wheeler. I freely admit it. In fact, I will go so far as to say I'm glad I was wrong about Tom Wheeler. I apologize to him.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Milquetoast defense of religion

In discussing Deacon Duncan's examination of god belief I was hit with the following comment:
One can, however, acknowledge what inside of themselves is a story, and have gratitude and mercy for the stories one sees in others. It's the really hard-headed ones who become so convinced that their way is the "truth" and deem those who don't subscribe to their story as the "truth," who can be a bit of a pain, but who also miss out on the grandeur and the majesty of the world and the universe it hangs in.
The implication here is that everybody has their own perspective and they're all unique, beautiful and valid (except when they're not). I often see this Milquetoast defense of religious belief and superstition as religion is forced to concede more ground on the nature of reality. However, there are two claims being made here that I feel deserve attention.

"One can, however, acknowledge what inside of themselves is a story, and have gratitude and mercy for the stories one sees in others." This claims that religious beliefs are based on allegory about true fact regarding gods and divinity, a nod to Plato's Cave in which the god being worshiped is perceived imperfectly but is no less real because of it. The problem is that as I explored previously many of those beliefs are directly contradictory and can't all be valid. This god can't simultaneously reincarnate us endlessly until we all get it right and send us to hell or heaven if we reject salvation in this life. We can cherish these "stories" as stories -- fiction that we invent to amuse or comfort ourselves. However, the stories Deacon Duncan discusses in his essay aren't held as fiction, they're claimed to be accurate representations of reality with everyone's depiction of god a form of Mary sue characterization.

"It's the really hard-headed ones who become so convinced that their way is the 'truth' and deem those who don't subscribe to their story as the 'truth,' who can be a bit of a pain, but who also miss out on the grandeur and the majesty of the world and the universe it hangs in." Here the commenter makes the claim that sure there are some bad apples in the basket but they don't represent the vast majority of believers who keep their beliefs personal and don't take action on them. Do I really need to refute this again and again? Apparently I do. Maybe this overview will demonstrate my point.

Everyone wants to believe that their assumptions are correct and that even if they turn out to be wrong they're going to be ultimately harmless. When it comes to religion, I can't stress enough how the evidence shows that such beliefs are neither correct nor harmless.