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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A few of my favorite things

Those who know me are aware that I have a deep appreciation for music, particularly classical music. I'm also a big fan of heavy metal; they have more in common than people realize. My Lady is frequently amused when I'll be listening to the radio and be able to successfully identify the composer and often the composition. I'm not the music geek I could be, but I know what I like.

What I really like is when a band combines both rock and classical music. For years my favorite example of this was Apocalyptica's rendition of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" but today I've discovered a new favorite. This is 2 Cellos playing "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC.

You're welcome.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

It Gets Better

I occasionally interact with people online who confess that they're deeply depressed and entertain thoughts of suicide. My heart goes out to such people, and I try my best to help them. I was diagnosed with depression once (you sit around unemployed for three years and not be depressed!) but it was never serious enough that I needed to seek help for suicide prevention. Simply put I'm far too egotistic to contemplate prematurely ending my life. I'm just too important for that. I'm sure this surprises no one.

All joking aside there are some very good resources for people who are contemplating suicide. On the web there's It Gets Better where there are countless video testimonials from others who have struggled with depression and suicide. If you don't have the web and you're in the US there's 800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline who come highly recommended for talking people through their problems and exploring alternatives.

Sometimes people ask me what reason I have to continue living as an atheist since I have no hope of divine intervention or salvation. The easy answer is because this is the only life I have; why would I want to end it prematurely? I have no reason to believe there's any hope of coming back from death. Youtube contributors TheraminTrees and QualiaSoup collaborated to put together an uplifting video exploring this topic called Why Live?

In a recent discussion about depression and suicide someone replied to my comment to invoke a common phrase: "They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." I replied that I was even going to use that, but decided against it at the last minute. It occurs to me that one reason people contemplate suicide is because they don't see their problems as temporary. They literally can't see an end to it, or any way that it will end unless they make it end permanently. The problem, as I pointed out, is that once you take that step you can't go back and change it later. There's no fixing it if it's a mistake. That's how permanent it is.

What we both agreed on is that suicide really isn't a viable solution. The problem is I recognize not everyone contemplating it is necessarily going to agree with me so I prefer not to set myself up where I might have to defend such a claim. Subjective statements are inherently subjective.

I can't claim to sympathize with people suffering from deep depression and suicidal tendencies because I've never experienced those feelings. That doesn't mean I can't understand their position and empathize with them. Not having experienced it doesn't mean I don't care.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Arizona's economic problem

Anyone following current events is probably aware that Arizona's legislature passed a blatantly anti-gay bill masquerading as religious freedom. Today the news reports that Governor Jan Brewer is likely to veto the bill which would dodge a bullet in this dangerous legal precedent. But this leads me to the question of why she's probably going to use her veto. Is it because discrimination is wrong? No. Is it because it's a blatant violation of our First Amendment? Also no. It's because the economic price would be too high.
But privately, sources closer to Brewer say she's more likely to bend to warnings from business interests who say the law would unleash an economic backlash similar to the one that followed the state's controversial immigration law in 2010.
I'm all for people doing the right thing, but I prefer to see them done for the right reasons. If the reason you're doing the right thing is centered entirely on economic calculation then you're not doing the right thing but the practical thing. If that economic consequence appears to fade you can bet they'll try to do it again.

Once again I come back to my earlier problem with morality that isn't grounded in reality. If you can't show me why your morality is demonstrably correct I must question your moral foundation.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Faith versus Knowledge

Alternative title: Why is knowledge so important?

In the atheist and skeptical communities there's an awful lot of emphasis on the role of knowledge or its lack thereof in determining what we believe. We think it's vitally important that we be able to verify what we think is true because our beliefs inform our actions; no one crosses the street or buys a product unless they can justify to themselves why they think it's a good idea or at least better than the alternative. Some believers, including members of my family, claim that faith is superior to knowledge which is why it's better to believe than to know.

I've been struggling to come up with a succinct argument to describe why I feel knowledge is so important to our beliefs. I think it crystalized when I read this open thread in the Guardian about whether or not aliens are atheists. Of course there's lots of back and forth about how they'd be believers because that's obviously true or whether they'd be atheists because there's simply no evidence to support belief in any gods. In almost every case the argument revolves around what the person making the argument believes to be true. I think that's the crux of the matter. So here's my judgement:

Since aliens haven't been discovered and we can only speculate of what they might be like, I'm free to project my bias on them all I want.

In the end, that's what faith offers. It presents an empty canvas that we can paint with our feelings and bias that no one can refute because no one has concrete knowledge that says otherwise. It's just as valid to say that aliens are Hindus as to say that they're Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or atheist. Each claim has an equal amount of justification as any other, making all such claims useless. That's why there are approximately forty-one thousand different Christians denominations around the world and no one can demonstrate that their claim is more valid than any other. They don't have anything concrete on which to base their claims so they fill in the gaps with their own opinions and call it divine revelation. The informal name for this phenomenon is the argument from inconsistent revelations.

At this point some believers like to quibble over the definition of faith. I have faith in science which places it at the same level of religion, right? No it doesn't, which brings us back to the importance of knowledge. Science is a process, not a belief. One of the criticisms believers use against science is that it's constantly changing and updating its claims based on new evidence and conclusions that better fit the facts. It relies on what we can verify as opposed to what we want to believe is true.

We know the Big Bang really happened because it best fits the evidence available to us. That led to speculation about a Big Crunch in which everything collapses back into a point of singularity which sparks a new Big Bang, but for that to happen the inflation event would have to end and gravity would have to pull everything back together. However, the evidence tells us that isn't happening and instead everything continues to accelerate away from everything else suggesting a more likely scenario is what they call the "Big Rip." Rather than attempt to explain my layman's understanding I'll let Lawrence Krauss give his expert opinion. But that too may turn out to be abandoned as our understanding is clarified by new evidence. We don't know what the future will bring. Science requires us to test our assumptions and not cling to them based on faith. I don't have faith that my chair will hold me up because some god wills it; my faith is based on past experience and should the chair fail on me as physical objects eventually do then I will change my position on the trustworthiness of that chair, prompting me to abandon it and use a new one. Faith will not require me to keep using the same broken chair long after its usefulness has come to an end as religion demands.

Everyone approaches religious beliefs differently. Not everyone clings to the religious claim of Young Earth Creationism but many do. Not everyone claims an intercessory god but still many do. Many people try to reconcile science and religion, refusing to admit that it's a losing proposition; either religion is true or not, and if its claims can't be tested then it isn't compatible with science. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained this best:
Does it mean, if you don’t understand something, and the community of physicists don’t understand it, that means God did it? Is that how you want to play this game? Because if it is, here’s a list of things in the past that the physicists at the time didn’t understand [and now we do understand] [...]. If that’s how you want to invoke your evidence for God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on - so just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem.
Where religion is concerned faith has only one definition that accurately describes it, and it's summarized best in the Bible, specifically Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." This is why I reject the faith required by religion, because it is not superior to knowledge. It is demonstrably inferior.

The Problem of Evil

Today I ran across a discussion that rehashed the Problem of Evil, specifically some problems I had early on with how an all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent god can create an entire universe knowing that the fate of its creation is to have 99% of it suffer in eternal torment that it inflicts on them. Some Christians try to reconcile this by saying that their god isn't truly omniscient, or doesn't exercise his omniscience all the time (ref: Mr. Deity). Others claim that he willingly refrains from exercising his omnipotence in order to preserve free will and so forth. None that I've met are willing to concede that if he exists he saw the wholesale death and suffering of humanity and did nothing to correct it because he either doesn't care or wants that result.

The problem, as far as I see it, lies in magical thinking. You have this god who is supposed to be looking out for you and your best interests. The world doesn't really seem engineered to give you the best life experience; every day is a struggle and it often seems that events conspire against you. But this can't be possible if your life is being overseen by a loving, all-knowing and all-powerful god. Therefore there must be another reason for it, one that is beyond your comprehension because the alternative is that one of your assumptions about your god is wrong and if you follow that thought process you might discover that all of your assumptions are wrong and you might have to abandon the idea altogether. So we fall back on our default assumptions and assume it'll all make sense later on, probably after we're dead. "Jesus, take the wheel."

It's one way to cope, although the cognitive dissonance it necessarily creates is never comfortable. But Christianity has an answer for that, too: "Blessed are those who suffer for doing what is right. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them." Of course, in doing so you run the risk of ignoring obvious solutions to temporary problems in the name of validating your religious beliefs. Simple, easy things like making the world a better place instead of assuming it's pointless since your god will wipe it all away to create a new earth to live on.

Naturally, different Christians will have different answers for how they attempt to reconcile this problem. Some will deny it's a problem altogether. Others will present different variations or apologetics. Nevertheless, I haven't seen any answers that don't fall back on magical thinking. Their god created the world by magic (divine, but still magic), therefore the answers must be magic as well. You just have to have faith that it's true.

And of course, SMBC Comics offers the simplest explanation possible.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Appeal to Confirmation Bias

Debating online as I do I'm frequently presented with an argument that begins with some variation of this: "What seems more likely?"

I have a problem with this question.

Lots of things that "make sense" to us have turned out to be false. It used to make sense that it was impossible to fly. It used to make sense that order could not arise from chaos. It used to make sense that things couldn't spawn out of nothing. However, we have verifiable evidence that the reality is different from what made sense to us. There are ways for us to fly. Order can come from chaos. Quantum mechanics have produced something from nothing. These assertions were all based on our personal bias, not because we actually know the answers. That's why we have to check our assumptions and avoid relying on our gut when making proclamations when deciding what is or isn't preposterous. Reality is always the final judge.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Growing Up

Becoming an adult is a scary process. At some point you realize that when a problem arises, you can't keep running to your parents to fix it. You have to take responsibility for the problem yourself. It's now your job to be accountable for what you think and what you do; no one else can do it for you.
Stepping away from religion is the same way. It was comforting to think that you always had an "out" from death and sin. Now that comfort is being revealed as a lie, and what are you going to do? That's why so many people are genuinely afraid of death, because they don't want to abandon that feeling of comfort.

Once I finally came to terms with the fact that I alone am responsible for the good or bad in my life, I realized I am truly free. I don't have to live up to a set of standards that are conflicting. I don't have to win the approval of a score-keeper who never gives me feedback on how I'm doing. I don't have to interpret vague events and feelings to decide if that means I have that score-keeper's approval. It's up to me to do the best I can, and if I fail I have only myself to blame. If I want immortality, I have to create it in the legacy I leave behind me.

It's not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Skeptical Celebrities

I'm a fan of Bill Maher. He's not my favorite comedian (that distinction would go to Robin Williams; his stand-up comedy Live at the Met still makes me laugh) and his humor is frequently hit or miss, but he does provide moments of pure genius. His "documentary" Religulous scored some hard hits, but he enjoys a lukewarm reception at best from the atheist and skeptical communities.

I find it ironic that Stephen Colbert, who in his private life teaches Sunday School is more popular with atheists than Bill Maher who goes after religion like a rottweiler with a sore tooth. We swoon over Hitchens in spite of his neoconservatism and make excuses for Dawkins' dismissal of feminism and male privilege. They're all controversial positions and where people stand on them is of less interest to me than the fact that the atheist and skeptical communities still show them unconditional love -- but not Bill Maher.

Maher fucked up with his opinions on vaccinations. He failed in his skepticism on the issue. But since when does a single issue invalidate everything else he says or does?