Monday, April 26, 2010

Colombia Cardinal is not just despicable, he's also technically wrong

From the Washington Post:

A senior cardinal defended the Roman Catholic Church's practice of frequently not reporting sexual abusive priests to the police, saying Thursday it would have been like testifying against a family member at trial... "The law in nations with a well-developed judiciary does not force anyone to testify against a child, a father, against other people close to the suspect," Castrillon told RCN radio.

Um... Castrillon is 80 years old, so he probably is not familiar with the internet abbreivation, IANAL. But he should be. Because this statement was not just despicable, it was profoundly stupid.

There is a nugget of truth in this when there is no prospect for the crime to be repeated, i.e. a person would typically not be prosecuted for failing to report a past crime of their spouse after finding out about it. But if you know another crime is imminent, you are not off the hook, even if it is a family member. That's called "conspiracy".

And family members I am pretty sure can be compelled to testify. I mean, if a father rapes one of his children, and the mother was an eyewitness, do you honestly think she would be excused from testifying? Please.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Comments are off for today

The terrorist won. For today.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

If you are over 50 and/or don't play video games, you are not qualified to talk about video games

Two otherwise very smart and insightful old geezers, Ebert and PZ, have decided to sound off on a topic on which they are completely and totally ignorant. It's especially galling coming from PZ, because he's always talking about how it's delusional when layman think they understand evolution better than evolutionary biologists, yet he thinks he understands video games better than people who actually play them.

I have no desire to take apart the argument point for point, because who would listen to either of these guys on this topic??? You might as well ask a dentist what he thinks about educational standards. Oh wait...

In a nutshell: Not all video games strive to be art, but some do and some achieve it. This is true both visually, and within the medium itself. If a piece of media makes you feel something in a deep way, how is that not art?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Physics/religion joke

Just heard this from a co-worker, I love it.

A Higgs boson walks into a Catholic church and tries to take Communion. The priest says, "I'm sorry, you haven't been baptized, you'll have to leave." The Higgs boson replies, "But you can't have Mass without me!"

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stupid probability question

I got conned into doing this Eat Well, Live Well Challenge where I work, and one of the things you do is try to walk 10,000 steps a day. So I've been walking to a place around the corner for lunch, which is about 5,000 steps round trip.

On my walk today, I was thinking about probabilities. Although it blew my mind at the time, I've come to accept that a probability of zero only means "almost impossible", not actually "impossible". The classic example is that if you pick a random point inside a unit square (0<=x<=1, 0<=y<=1), the probability of any given point being chosen is, necessarily, zero -- but that doesn't mean it's impossible.

Okay, that's great. Of course, you can take any continuous segment of the unit square and give the probability of that, e.g. the odds of landing in (0<=x<=0.5, 0<=y<=0.5) would be 1/4... right? Interestingly, the odds of landing in (0<=x<0.5, 0<=y<0.5) are also 1/4, I think, but that's okay, because the odds of landing exactly on the lines x=0.5 or y=0.5 are that whole "almost impossible" zero again.

So now let's extend it to, pick any random point on an infinite 2-dimensional grid. Again, the probability of choosing any given point is zero. No problem. But now, the odds of choosing any finite continuous segment are also zero... which I guess I can handle.

Okay, but now what are the odds that the point chosen will be in the infinite continuous segment x>0? I don't know how to show the math (I know it involves integration, but I can't seem to quite figure it out), but it's got to be 50%, right?

Okay... so what are the odds that the point chosen will be in the infinite continuous segment x>1? It's also gotta be 50%, right? I think? Which I guess is okay, because the interval 0<=x<=1 has our good old friend "almost impossible" probability of zero.

Can anybody who knows probability theory tell me if that's correct? And if so, how do you sleep at night? This will piss me off almost as much as the Banach-Tarski Paradox...

Edit: I'm guessing this is how I do the math, but I have to get off the computer now so many I can figure this one out tomorrow...

Why they'll get away with it

Mark Morford writes (emphasis mine):

Perhaps, then, the only thing that can truly change the church is the revulsion and outcry of its millions of followers, demanding change, revolution, upheaval. And millions of Catholics worldwide appear to be demanding just that; the Vatican is under unprecedented pressure to make amends, modify its repellant ways, maybe usher in a true reformist pope in the wake of one of the ugliest "holy" leaders in recent history.

The word I put in boldface is why the Catholic church will eventually be able to shrug this off as if nothing happened. Even if 11 million Catholics angrily demand reform, that will mean 99% of them are happy to keep on paying tithes to child rapists and their protectors.

Even if we are wildly optimistic and hope that this scandal will bring about the effective death of Catholicism in the United States and Europe, this hateful villainous institution will certainly retain its grip on Central and South America, where they may actually have some success convincing people that the problem is homosexuality rather than child rape. And while currently only about 1/8th of the total number of Catholics in the world hail from Africa, this monstrosity is making rapid inroads there by infiltrating their self-destructive dogma on the backs of supposed humanitarian programs.

No, Catholicism is not in danger. As Morford observes, millions of Catholics are voicing their outrage... but who fucking cares? It will only be when hundreds of millions of Catholics are sick of being told right and wrong by self-serving sadists that there will be any chance of meaningful reform.

The best we can realistically hope for is to reduce the influence of the Vatican over Western politics. That's it, really. This beast cannot be killed, but at least maybe we can protect our own children from it's claws, even as we watch helplessly as this abomination claims countless new victims in the developing world.

On the "Arrest the Pope!" thing...

Just a very brief comment on this: I agree in part with those naysayers who maintain that it's a futile effort. But the attempt needs to be made anyway. For one thing, it's the right thing to do. For another thing, whatever excuse is made to prevent prosecuting the Pope for his role in the cover-up, that will expose a deep hypocrisy and a shocking injustice for all the world to see. It will force the ICC and/or the gov't of the UK to in essence say, "We don't prosecute the Pope, ever." If you can force them to come right out and say that, that's a victory for secularism -- after all, you can't have a public debate to change that which hasn't even been revealed. Dawkins' and Hitchens' effort may not succeed in bringing the Pope to justice, but it will allow a public conversation to take place that was impossible before.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Even the Associated Press can't be neutral about the Catholic church's meltdown

Epic pwnage in this lead-in to an Associated Press article:

The Vatican's second-highest authority says the sex scandals haunting the Roman Catholic Church are linked to homosexuality and not celibacy among priests.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, made the comments during a news conference Monday in Chile, where one of the church's highest-profile pedophile cases involves a priest having sex with young girls.

Subtle, but the message is crystal clear. AP FTW!


Monday, April 12, 2010

Is Deepak Choprah a harbinger of things to come?

I have often said that it's not particularly interesting to me that the vast majority of scientists and other intellectuals who lived before Darwin believed quite devotedly in a personal God. At that time, there was a question which confronted us every day of our lives, and for which nobody had any answer that was even remotely satisfactory -- namely, "Where did all these animals come from?!?"

Now obviously, when confronted with a question one cannot answer, the "Let's just make shit up!" approach is not preferred. Especially if the shit you make up is the ol' "goddidit" refrain. But for a question so basic and so omnipresent as the origin of species, it's pretty forgivable, in my opinion.

Also prior to Darwin, there was no "Creation Science" movement to speak of. And why not? Humanity had all the tools they needed to do baraminology for millenia, and yet the idea wasn't even proposed until 1941, and wasn't formalized until 1990. And the bizarre clawing apologetics of idiots like Dembski is certainly a new phenomenon.

Why did it take so long? It seems as though in past centuries, a Creationist attitude was just the default. I forget who coined the term "promiscuous teleology", but it seems appropriate here. That's just the way we tend to think. So the majority of Creationists had no special stake in it. Now, of course, the only people who are Creationists are those who want to make some excuse for it, to keep this dumb old idea alive for some reason.

I wonder to what extent a belief in Cartesian dualism might follow a similar trajectory. And are we seeing the first wave of "dualist apologists" right now?

Yet another one of those elephant-in-the-room everyday questions that for most of history had no good answer is, "What is consciousness and why do we have it?" Much like the teleological explanation for the origin of species, believing by default in an immaterial "soul" that is the essence of consciousness would be an intellectual lapse, and far less preferred then simply admitting that we don't know -- however, it's such an every day question that, in the absence of any decent answers, people could be forgiven for taking the supernatural position. It's still wrong, but it's understandable.

As our knowledge of neuroscience advances, however, we are starting to have much better answers to that question. We still can't quite fully put all the pieces together, but we know from case studies of brain damaged patients that pretty much any facet of what we might call consciousness can be altered or destroyed by neurological changes. And as we start to understand more and more pieces of the brain, it becomes much easier to understand how the sensation of consciousness could emerge from this. (Particularly interesting are observations into how certain parts of the brain seem to be dedicated purely to coming up with a coherent narrative to give the appearance of all these disparate components acting as a single entity, but I digress...)

In the face of this, will dualism be forced to beat a retreat? In the future, will it no longer be the default position? And for those dedicated to the ideal of dualism, will they find themselves coming up with all sorts of pseudoscience-y apologetics to make room for a "science of dualism"?

Well goddamn, Deepak Choprah's already on the case! Could he merely be ahead of his time? Is he the Kent Hovind of dualism, proposing ridiculous ideas like a giant ice shield, before his more "refined" Dembski-esque counterparts come along with ridiculous mathematical "research papers"? Time will tell, I suppose...

Obama tells the future in 2008

It's kinda scary how much this infamous 2008 quote from Obama describes the Tea Party movement:

They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Yeah, that's pretty much Tea Partiers in a nutshell. It covers just about the whole range of faux "issues" they pretend to have something about which to say.

I'm becoming more and more of the mindset that, rather than focusing on how dumb the Tea Party thing is, we ought to try and remember what the root causes are of this populist vomit-rage. In the quote from 2008, Obama was referring to towns in the Midwest suffering from staggering job losses. While cynical GOP strategists, religion, and Beckian journalism have plenty to do with the Tea Party movement, in many ways the root cause is frustration with the lack of economic opportunity. Ironically, one might even argue that the Tea Party phenomenon might never have emerged if more liberal policies had been adopted throughout the country...!

So what does this mean in practice? I'm not sure, but one thing it reminds me of is why it's not okay to let the Red States twist in the wind, hoisted by their own petard. It bothers me when people say things like, "Well, who would want to live in Alabama anyway? Fuck 'em." First of all, children growing up in Alabama don't have a choice. Other people may not have much of a practical choice due to job or family situations, etc. And this is just another reason: When any state neglects the welfare of their citizenry, it breeds the kind of populist outrage that fuels movements like the Tea Party -- and that influences politics on a national level.

If Alabama doesn't take care of their own people, then pissed-off Alabamians are going to march on the capital and demand that New York stop trying to look after their citizens too.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Still the most hated group in America

Just found out about the little brouhaha over the Mississippi ACLU dissing the American Humanist Association in regards to a proposed donation to provide an alternative prom for Constance McMillen's school. The ACLU apologized, which is great. But still, is the AHA really up there with the KKK in terms of groups you can't accept donations from? Sheesh...

The PZ Talk

The lecture itself, while enjoyable, didn't really hold any surprises. Not that it wasn't insightful; it's just that I've heard just about all these insights before. PZ was a little more, eh, "strident" than I had expected -- closer to his blog persona than the persona I have seen in videos of other lectures by him -- but that just made it more enjoyable. Since this was at RIT, which hosts the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, there are always American Sign Language translators at all speaking events... and I think at least one of the translators was a little freaked out by the content. heh, she was a good sport though.

What was the surprise was how many dumb questions there were in the Q&A from angry theists, "militant agnostics" (I'll talk about this later), and general "why are you atheists so mean?" types. It's not even just that they asked so many questions, it's that it was all the same fucking things we've heard a million times. It was driving me nuts...!

So without further ado, a few thoughts about all that:

The One Intriguing Question
One young woman who identified herself as an atheist Buddhist had a question that I think could have been really interesting, though I think the way she phrased it was unclear, and PZ is part of the "there is no meaning" camp which I think has it slightly wrong. Well, let me back up.

The question, or rather statement, was, "I think you are missing the spirituality aspect." She went on to describe her experiences with meditation and argue that scientific studies back up the efficacy. PZ's answer was that, sure, meditation is great -- do that! And that "spirituality" was a dangerous word because it is unclear what it means... he point blank asked, "You don't mean that you believe in spirits?", and of course she said no, which is sort of an answer, but only half way there.

Reading between the lines, what I think the woman was driving at was to try and position Buddhist "spirituality" as a rebuttal to an assertion PZ had just made in answer to another question, that the answer to "Why are we here?" was "No reason at all." And this is where I diverge slightly from PZ, and where I think the woman's question maybe had a better answer.

When asking questions about meaning and purpose, the question is not fully parseable unless it is specified, whether explicitly or implicitly, what entity is doing the meaning or the purposing. We don't think about this very much, because usually the meaning-er or purpose-er is clearly implied in the question. If I ask the question, "What does 'verisimilitude' mean?", I don't need to specify who the meaning-er is, because it's pretty obvious by implication that the meaning-er is "a typical English speaker". It gets slightly more complicated if I ask "What does 'enormity' mean?" for example, because this is a word whose definition is currently in flux. A complete answer would have to answer the question for multiple different meaning-ers.

When asking a question like, "What is the meaning of life?" or "What is our purpose here?", it's critical to explicitly identify the meaning-er or purpose-er. Otherwise, the question is unaskable. When atheists like PZ deign to answer a question without an explicit meaning-er, I think they give a misleading answer. It's not so much that life has no meaning -- it's that the very concept of meaning without a meaning-er is nonsensical. Life very much has a meaning to me, and I suspect it does to PZ, and to pretty much everybody except the most hardcore nihilist. I don't like PZ's answer because it endorses this nihilistic position. It sounds cheesy, but a for more accurate answer is, "The meaning of life is whatever each person decides it means to them." (And even that is only half way, because you might be asking, "What does life mean to the government of North Korea?" for example, in which case we might answer more specifically. But in any case, any answer must specify the meaning-er, otherwise the answer is wrong.)

With this in mind, I think the questioner had a point in terms of Buddhist "spirituality" (though I share PZ's discomfort with that word) being one path to discovering this personal meaning. More generally, I think the questioner had a potentially excellent point in that science alone is not sufficient for finding this personal meaning. Science certainly ought to inform how we view life and how we find meaning in it, but ultimately the personal meaning each of us finds comes from a less rational way of thinking.

And this ties in with a theme I find myself repeating often, especially since I think a lot of the freethinking community disagrees with me on this: Science and rational inquiry do not have an epistemological monopoly. Science is always the preferred epistemology when it is practical, but sometimes it is simply more effective to employ a different, less accurate "way of knowing". The example I like to use is that science might be an excellent tool for discovering why people like me fall in love with people like my wife, but it's a lousy tool for helping me to discover the individual I am in love with. (I have a feeling that randomized double-blind placebo-controlled dating wouldn't work out very well...)

Of course I'm not going soft on faith here. While I don't believe science has an epistemological monopoly, it seems clear that religion and faith are epistemologically bankrupt. "In practice science can't provide a satisfactory answer to every question" does not imply that "Religion can provide a satisfactory answer to even one question."

The Stupidest Question of the Night
Somebody asked PZ, "What do you think about militant atheists?" PZ kind of stared at him for a minute and then said, "I love myself!" to lots of laughs from the audience. He continued, "Have you read my blog? Do you know who I am?" Funny stuff. PZ continued on to give the standard answer, that if writing books now qualifies one as "militant", that's a pretty low bar, etc. Still, it was funny that instead of saying, "Don't you think militant atheism drives people away?", he asked the question as if he was talking about some "other" atheists, with PZ being the nice respectful kind. heh...

Of course, I now think no answer to that question is complete without invoking Greta Christina's recent blog post about concern trolls. In a nutshell, she observes that the vast majority of people who are suggesting that maybe atheists' message would be better received if they were quieter and nicer are people who have a vested interest in getting atheists to STFU. Excuse us if we suspect an ulterior motive.

Two Questioners Ask About Morality Without God
Ho-hum. So fucking sick of this one, and it's not only tedious, it's downright offensive to boot. PZ answered it alright, but I was surprised he did not employ what I feel is the most powerful rebuttal to the idea that God is required for morality:

What if God commanded us that we all had to start raping children? Ignoring the obvious answer, "Catholicism!", would that mean that raping children was now good? I see three ways to answer this question.

"Yes". Um, okay then. Only the most fundtastic of fundies is going to answer this way, but even if you have the cajones to do so, this reduces "morality" to a worthless concept. "Morality" now means nothing other than blindly doing what a more powerful being tells you to do. That's "obedience", not "morality" as most people understand it. If people want to take this position, let them hoist themselves from their own petard.

"No". Boom, argument won. If God's commands don't necessarily line up with morality, then morality cannot come from God.

"Invalid question -- God is good so He would never command such a thing". Slightly trickier, but argument still won. This acknowledges a set of criteria external to God by which we can evaluate God's goodness. If "God" is defined such that anything he or she commands must be good, then God cannot also be used to define "good", or else you are stuck with a circular argument.

This, by the way, is why even the vast majority of modern theologians have abandoned the idea that morality comes from God. It is a philosophical impossibility.

"Militant Agnostics"
At least two questioners -- and maybe more -- were clearly pushing the agnostic position heavily. One used the tired old line about how it takes faith to be an atheist. PZ had already told the story about The Dragon in My Garage, and repeated it for this questioner, but he didn't seem to get it.

I think we need a name for these folks. Perhaps we should ironically call them "fundamentalist agnostics", in a hat-tip to the absurdity with which "fundamentalist" is now bandied about in regards to those to whom it could not possibly apply. Or perhaps "militant" would be even better, since "militant" is a label that gets unfairly applied to feminists as well as atheists. (And FWIW, though I would consider myself a feminist, I acknowledge that a tiny minority most certainly go too far... but you can't call them "militant" until they are suggesting retaliatory violence against men. Seriously.)

If I Were Two Rows Closer to this Fuckwit...
Near the end, a question was asked that was very much on my mind: How do you deal with raising a child in a skeptical/non-believing household, particular in such a god-soaked society? The questioner specifically alluded to fears of bullying and such as a result of his children's (lack of) beliefs.

PZ's answer was both enlightening and depressing. First, he said that raising a child to be a skeptic is easy: Just let them know from the start the daddy is not always right, and they will quickly realize that everybody else is not immune from questioning either. That's good advice, and I will take it to heart.

The second part of his answer, though, was that in many ways it is inevitable that a young skeptic/atheist will get picked on, and that you just need to be there for them as best you can. He acknowledged that his kids had a very tough time going through school. And then...

...this dickwad who had asked the first question (actually, the first three questions) and had been fairly confrontational, though more or less civil, muttered "Thanks to you!", to the titters of some of his nearby godbot friends. He was probably eight rows back, otherwise I would have turned around and given that asshole a piece of my mind.

You know what? I was raised Mormon. And I got shit for it. I got shit for fucked up beliefs like not drinking caffeine, going to church for three hours every Sunday (plus a two hour young men's meeting on Wednesdays!) (plus seminary four days a week for an hour before school started!!), and just generally being different. Is this fucking shithead going to now say that my parent's beliefs were invalid because I got picked on for them? (Their beliefs are invalid anyway, but that's beside the point) What about Jewish or Muslim kids who get picked on for being different? Is it their parents fault they are being picked on?

Does this shit-eating motherfucker really think that any good parent should raise their kids in whatever the dominant religion is in their society, for fear their children will be ridiculed? Is that seriously his contention?

If so, he should be kicked in the fucking nuts until he's sterile. If not, then he is bigoted against atheists in the worst possible way -- criticizing our parenting! -- and should also be kicked in the fucking nuts until he's sterile. What a fucking asshole. I could fucking punch that guy. Thinking now about everything that was wrong with what he said, I should have turned around anyway. What a worthless fuckhead.

On a lighter note...
I thought of a couple good questions after I left, but it was too late then of course. Still, I wish I had asked PZ the one question I did think of: "Did you bring any crackers with you?"

Thursday, April 1, 2010

At the PZ talk

Freaky, I most know a bunch of people here but I don't recognize anybody except PZ and Viktor Nagorny...

Secular grace?

My wife told me yesterday she'd like to start saying "grace" of some kind before our meals -- obviously nothing religious, but sort of just a moment to be appreciative that we have family and food. I'm not so sure how I feel about it... On one hand, I think there are some positives to this, not just in terms of mindfulness about what we have, but also I think that one of the challenges to families sitting down together for a meal is if there is no delineation as to when the meal actually starts, and having a pre-meal ritual can help with that.

On the other hand, like many "non-joiners" (as atheists tend to be), it is not just the philosophical objections to religion that bother me; on a personal level, I just don't like the trappings most of the time. I don't think I would like saying "grace" very much, even a purely secular one. Also, I think it will be easy to slip into things I that I do have a philosophical objection to, e.g. we tried it last night and I refused to participate after my wife said we should bow our heads. Who am I bowing my head to? Nobody, that's who! heh...

Does anybody out there do anything like this? Any suggestions?