Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Sport of Reality

The universe is a vasty changing sea of strangeness and wonder.

The indoctrinated want to wrestle it into submission and nail it down.

The educated want to go surfing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

So Ron Paul's a racist and a homophobe. I...

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So Ron Paul's a racist and a homophobe. I wasn't really planning on voting for him before this, but this certainly seals the deal.

See, I agree with libertarians about the whole "leave me alone" thing when it comes to some things, but for the most part I really, really don't. I think most people are assholes to all but their close friends and families, and I don't think that's a good thing. If that weren't the case, we wouldn't need government, and I think it's manifestly clear that we really, really need government.
Ron Paul's Racist Newsletters
I have written many times before of one of the primary reasons why I can't support Ron Paul, despite wanting to stand up and cheer for his views on important issues like civil liberties, executive power...
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Monday, December 19, 2011

Whence Religion?

If there's no good evidence for the god hypothesis, then where did it come from? What purpose does it serve? Why do people keep believing it?

I'll answer these questions briefly and in order.

Whence religion?
I think religion is a by-product of two different drives. The first is general to all thinking creatures (ie. most animals), the second isn't specific to humans, but has definitely found, I suspect, its greatest expression in humans. The first is that we learn, the second is that we teach.

I don't know that all animals learn; sponges and other brainless animals certainly do not. At least one researcher believes the primary purpose of the brain is movement, and other purposes are all secondary. I'm not sure I agree, though he makes a compelling argument. However, one of the things our brain does is allow us, and many other species, to learn. We are pattern-seeking creatures, we seek to master our environment, we want nummy candies and to win in fights and to get laid and all the other things that will help see to it that we have grandchildren (which the first step to evolutionary success).

To that end, we can become addicted to gambling and coffee.

Actually, that's an unfortunate by-product of the learning process. If you know someone who loves his coffee in the morning, you may notice he has a certain way of doing things. It has to be a certain brand of coffee. A specific flavor, region, roast... He might grind it himself and prepare it in his own little French press. He definitely, no question, has his favorite coffee mug, and probably drinks it at a certain time of day; usually it's part of a larger set of "getting up in the morning" rituals.

One of the things caffeine does is short circuit the part of the brain that lets you know you've won. Whether it's a good grade on a test or solving a puzzle or getting a new iPhone, you know that feeling when part of you lights up and does a little happy dance. Of course, a week later that test is crumpled up on the floor of your locker, the puzzle is in the recycle bin, and your phone is no longer to be carefully placed on its own altar on your dresser, but to be thrown casually onto the bed with all the other crap in your pockets. That feeling goes away because you need to move on to the next challenge, figure out the next thing, master your environment more fully.

Caffeine cuts right to the chase and gives you that happy without having to actually solve, win, or buy anything. Your brain, trying to figure out what it's won at, just randomly attaches importance to whatever's going on when you get your buzz on. Over time, the importance accumulates on things that stay the same: the time of day, the kind of coffee, the coffee mug, the way you prepare it... All of these things become important to you not because they actually make the coffee better, but because your brain has been wired to say WRONG if any of that changes. What was a valuable learning tool has been totally screwed by chemistry.

And gambling? That learning process is meant to find patterns so that we can take advantage of them. Dice don't have patterns, so our system goes completely haywire and, again, starts attaching undeserved importance to meaningless rituals. That is to say, gamblers are superstitious because their brains are on their metaphorical knees, crying their metaphorical brain-hearts out. Okay, that's just why gamblers are superstitious. Addiction is more complex and has to do with the fact that losing feels much more bad than winning feels good. As with any other addiction, you do it not because it feels good but because it feels bad when you don't. How good does it feel? The more certain something is, the easier it is to figure out and the less incentive their is to master it. I'd venture a guess that the most popular games at casinos are very nearly 50/50 odds (played correctly, craps and blackjack are, I'd say that, in the long run, so are competitive games like poker).

Anyway, we aren't the only creatures to develop superstitions in the face of an uncontrollable and somewhat random universe. Psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered that pigeons, given food at regular intervals with no reference to the pigeons' behavior, quickly developed superstitions regarding what causes food to drop. Lest you think, "Well, pigeons, yeah, they're stupid. Terry Pratchett said so." and believe yourself immune, more or less the exact same thing has been observed in humans in Dungeons and Dragons Online. Players rapidly conceived the belief that using a certain skill absolutely improved the loot dropped from treasure chests and could not be dissuaded from that belief (note: they were wrong). When the developers made it impossible to use that skill on treasure chests, there were massive fan complaints that their skill had been rendered useless.

In the face of a large and uncaring world where small mistakes can cause massive dying, superstition was and is inevitable. We are all of us autodidacts to a degree, and we all develop these silly habits. Thus learning can make fools of us all.

What about teaching? Animals teaching their young has been observed in the wild, but nowhere to the degree that it's found in humans. Compared to pretty much any animal you care to name, we are weak, blind, and deaf. We might as well not have noses, and our teeth and claws are a joke. We are completely helpless for several years after birth, and our maturation process is an incredibly protracted part of our lives. How the hell do we manage in a dangerous world? By passing accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next. Far more than any other creature I know of, the human animal passes knowledge from one to another. Long story short, if our children didn't listen to us, credulous to a fault, it would be much, much more difficult for this to happen. And, yes, I mean that literally; children are credulous to a fault. They'll believe any damn thing you say.

What this means is that children, lacking critical thinking skills and, I believe, primed to believe everything they're told, absorb their parents superstitions as readily as their hunting skills, their knowledge of interpersonal relationships, and how not to poop in your food.

This notion has spawned the study of memetics, essentially a branch of information theory that might be considered an analog of biological evolution, where ideas and information travel through their space (inside our heads) and warp and mutate based on a much more loosely governed analog of genetic evolution. Think of it this way: a good idea, how to make a really awesome spear, say, maintains itself because deviations make the spear less effective and its demonstrable efficacy discourage deviations; a bad idea, like repeatedly stabbing yourself in the balls to control the urge to masturbate, weeds itself out because it's demonstrably not effective, and anyway masturbating's not actually a bad thing; a neutral idea, like turning around three times and spitting when you jinx something, can just hang around and mutate and warp because it doesn't have any impact one way or the other. After all, since there's no such thing as a jinx, whether you turn before or after you spit doesn't make much difference. Though the schism and five generations of bloody warfare between the preturners and the posturners were quite hard to watch, and let us not speak of the genocide of the widdershin turners by the sunwisers.

Thus it's quite easy to see religion as another superstition and the result of thousands of years of memetic evolution, an evolution that continues today as sects split and diverge and merge and mutate. Whereas most superstitions hang on just because and we don't necessarily attach much importance to them and really belong just to the individual (like the unfortunate ball-players who neither change nor wash their underpants...), religion is a collection of self-supporting memes. It piggybacks on the morality of sanctity by forbidding the questioning of ideas, on on in-group loyalty by providing visible markers of kinship. It produces an internally consistent structure with little or no external reference, nor much need for one. When it does impinge upon the outside world, it but co-opts other learning (societies that were originally pastoral show it in their myths wherein they hate farmers, see Cain and Abel. Societies in arid countries all hate pigs, which require lots of water. Populations prone to bee allergies learn to despise honey.).

In short, modern religions are crude amalgams, a cobbled together attempt to understand and explain the world consisting mostly of superstitions, the crude xenophobias of the world in which they were born, and occasionally useful rules of thumb from bronze age culture. Useful only in a bronze age culture, mind.

Okay, so much for talking briefly. That's where religion came from. Next, what's it for?

What Does It Take? (God Proof III)

What would it take to get me to accept the god hypothesis? Theists often accuse atheists of being as dogmatic as they are for rejecting all of their purported evidence, for being bound to refuse to believe, for being religiously faithful to our unbelief. So what evidence would convince me? Allow me to reason by analogy. What would it take to disprove evolution? What would it take to get me to stop believing in that scientific theory? Popular mythology has it that JBS Haldane once growled "rabbits in the Precambrian". That is, if fossil rabbits were found in Precambrian strata, that would disprove evolution, because a derived form cannot precede that from which it is derived. More complex forms do not precede less complex forms. Such a counterintuitive datum would require extraordinary explanation.

This is precisely why tetrannuative* fundamentalists have desperately sought things like that, have desperately sought little niggling things that would prove a chunk of the theory false. If something like the crocoduck were to show up, it wouldn't be proof of evolution, as the farcical Kirk Cameron claims, but rather proof of creation. Such a hippogriff or chimera would completely explode evolution.

Is that what it would take? No. I declare myself totally intransigent. I won't stop believing in evolution, because a century and a half of being pounded against the anvil of disbelief has not caused evolution to birth such a chimera. Mermaids and hippogriffs and all the rest have been frauds, some more creative than others. At this point, evolution is a theory so firmly grounded that to concede something might overturn it is as idiotic as conceding something might overturn gravity or physics.

Again, someone who hasn't read Asimov's "Relativity of Wrong" might be tempted to claim that physics was overturned. No it wasn't. Physics was supplemented. Updated. Improved. Aristotle's intuitive and non-scientific mechanics were indeed overturned by Newton's scientific and calculus-based mechanics, but Einstein supplemented Newton, he did not supplant. Newton's mechanics were not incorrect, they were incomplete. If something appears which challenges the current evolutionary model, it will not prove it wrong, but incomplete. It will supplement rather than supplant. Darwin's theory, crude and incomplete as it was, has not been overturned in more than 150 years despite rigorous scientific testing because, to the limits of that testing, it is entirely correct.

So what will it take to get me to accept the god hypothesis? Nothing I can imagine will convince me to do so. Alternative explanations will always be better because they always have been better, not least because the god hypothesis isn't even an explanation. In the infamous words of Pauli** "Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!". "Not only is it not right, it is not even wrong!" The god hypothesis in most of its forms is wildly unscientific and flies in the face of all evidence. The most reduced forms are scientific (though very unsatisfying to believers. Seriously, who wants to be a deist?) but still wholly lacking in evidence and still face challenges from better supported hypotheses.

Perhaps a theist will surprise me and come up with a new argument, some new kind of apparent evidence. This would be a surprise because it's typically not a creative endeavor, relying instead on retreads from centuries in the past. However, new evidence always has to be considered and I always will. However, the evidence so far suggests that any new evidence will fall in one of the previous categories and will be at best evidence of nothing, or at worst more evidence for a stochastic universe with no god at all. The god hypothesis has always been an answer in search of a question, and science has been the rather kid coming in and saying, "Nope. That question's mine, too."

Does this make me different from a dogmatic theist? Absolutely. The theist refuses to look at evidence, claims it's a lie made by the devil to trick you (sometimes it's a test by god). I look at the evidence and realize it's irrelevant, fraudulent, or simply not even evidence of anything at all. I will always look at new evidence with as much open-mindedness as I can muster. I hope, however, you can forgive me for being a bit cynical. After all, how much open-mindedness could you bring to bear for a flying carpet, a magic crystal, or a fully functional Ouija board?

* Four years old. As in they close their eyes and plug their ears and scream until the thing they don't like goes away.

** I'm not claiming Pauli was an atheist, but he did leave the church in 1929.

Absence is Absence (God Proof Part II)

Read part one, here.

I've said before that absence of evidence is evidence of absence, but I want to expand on that a bit.

Once I decided to make a sandwich. As is my wont, I mused quietly to myself whilst I pulled items off of shelves and out of the fridge. I grabbed my bread, my turkey, my cheese, my mustard, and where the fuck is my mayonnaise? My mayo's gone! I just bought some at the grocery store yesterday! I checked the fridge again. No mayo. I checked a third time, carefully perusing the mostly empty shelves. No mayo. For about five seconds, I briefly considered the possibility that someone had broken into my apartment for the sole purpose of stealing my mayonnaise; a brief checked showed me that, yes, my TV and video games and whatnot were still there so that notion was beyond absurd. I turned and looked again and, it's a miracle! My mayo was sitting on the counter next to the mustard. I'd already gotten it out of the fridge and hadn't really noticed because when I talk to myself I tend to not pay attention to what I'm doing. This is how I've occasionally gotten lost on the way to the bathroom or driven to the wrong campus on my way to work.

No one, on hearing that story, would find it reasonable to ask, "But how did you know the mayonnaise wasn't in the refrigerator? Just because light failed to reflect off of a jar of mayonnaise and impinge on the cones and rods on the back of your eye doesn't mean that there wasn't any mayo in the fridge! Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, after all!" Unless, of course, they were philosophy majors. Twenty-year-old jackasses love to say things like that, mostly because they don't know how ignorant they are.

But the absence of evidence for something can be evidence against it. When you're talking about the abstruse realm of particle physics, in which you have to accelerate things nearly to the speed of light and smash them against each other and pick up the pieces (a method unfairly compared to hitting a watch with a hammer to learn how it's put together), not finding a particle doesn't mean it doesn't exist; unless you designed your experiment such that it would be unreasonable for it not to show up. When you're talking about a jar of mayo, arguing that just because you didn't see it doesn't mean it wasn't there is just fatuous. I didn't see it in the fridge because it was on the counter.

So, what about god? I've already discussed why I dismiss the purported evidence (miracles, scripture, revelation) in favor of the god hypothesis. Most everyone who says they don't believe in god state that they lack belief because they haven't seen any evidence. It bothers me that they then go on to refuse to say the believe there is no god (the two aren't equivalent positions) because they claim science can't talk about god. Then why the hell don't you believe? Agnosticism because of a lack of evidence is a scientific position; it's the default scientific position. Why, then, do I go on from there to say that I believe there is no god? What is my evidence in the other direction? I feel that the god hypothesis, if true, would have a measurable impact on observable reality and the lack of that evidence is a compelling argument against the hypothesis.

For example, scripture. I've already stated that if there were a deity, there wouldn't be many mutually exclusive scriptures. There would be one, it would be definitely accurate and demonstrable true. It wouldn't contradict itself and there would be no pretenders purporting to give an alternative truth. A deity so moved as to provide a scripture would also be able to censor false competitors. The celestial dictatorship would have no trouble silencing opposition or critics.

Revelation, miracles, and scriptures, in the face of a true god hypothesis, would be so evidently and clearly true that there wouldn't be the need for the fatuous notion of faith. It wouldn't be received truth but perceived truth. I reject the god hypothesis as firmly as I reject the invisible jar of mayonnaise and as I immediately rejected the notion that someone had broken in and stolen my mayonnaise; the lack of evidence was obviously evidence against the hypothesis. I don't believe, at all, because when the universe is presented with the question, "Is there a god?" the response is a deafening silence.

Next: What would it take for me to believe?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Is There Proof for God?

A friend asked me what I would view as evidence for God and it's a question I have to take seriously. I view the God hypothesis as falling within the realm of science. I don't view much of anything as falling outside the realm of science; she brought up the example of love as an unprovable, which I contend it isn't. Just because something cannot be perceived directly doesn't mean it doesn't leave evidence behind. I can't see UV light, but I can still get a sunburn. I can't see my friend's love, but I can see him doing lots of really stupid things and generally acting like a soppy asshole saying things like, "Don't you just love love, man?"

So, what would I view as evidence for the existence of a deity or other supernatural element? At this point: Nothing. There is no evidence for anything supernatural, that hypothesis has been rigorously tested for the last 200 thousand years by every human agent produced on this planet and the result has always been an astounding null. Every single supposedly supernatural phenomenon has been proven to have a natural causative agent, to in fact not have occurred, or to be a fraud practiced upon a credulous public.

First, why do I dismiss all the supposed evidence? As I understand, most supernatural claims come in three forms: anecdotes and miracles, revelation, and scripture.

I separate out anecdotes because I'm referring to things akin to cryptozoology. That is to say, big foot and the creature of Loch Ness. I lump these in with the supernatural because they have all the same foundations in personal experience and credulity and because skepticism deals with them in the same way. Amazing creatures still wait to be found and studied; living fossils are encountered all the time and extreme and distant environments are full of wonderful and surprising things that we don't know about because they're really damn hard to get to. Loch Ness and the mountains of the Pacific Northwest are neither distant nor extreme. To give one example: the Loch Ness monster and similar aquatic sightings is best attributed not to an illusive large animal, but to common smaller animals. Otters and other aquatic mammals behave in fashions that cause an optical illusion of a single large creature. The effect is said to be arresting and almost impossible to dismiss from a distance (basically, they like to play follow the leader). These and other types of things (when not fraudulent) are best ascribed to honest but mistaken reports of less fantastical phenomena. In other words, there is no yeti, no alien abductions, and no Nessie.

Miracles are of a category with the anecdotes of cryptozoology.  When they're not outright frauds for deliberate profit, or a portion of the brain going hyperactive and seeing things that aren't there, like the face on Mars, they're either easily proven to be accidents and natural phenomena or completely impossible to track down.  For example, the healing power of Lourdes is 67 (according to the Catholic Church) out of more than 200 million, and none of those are self-evidently miraculous, like the regrowth of a severed limb.  As with most miracles, it's always in the realm of the nebulous, the distant, and the (at best) unimpeachable.  In the face of better explanations (many diseases go into remission), frauds, and simple absence, why believe any miracle has occurred?

Perhaps you feel yourself to have been witness to or beneficiary of a miracle.  Perhaps something astonishingly unlikely happened that you witnessed.  This is not a miracle.  Everything is coincidental.  Any two things that happen at the same time, any two incidents, are co-incident.  Some may appear to have connection, as when you are thinking of your grandmother as she calls; but you forget the thousands of people you think of who don't call.  Everything is unlikely.  A pin falling on any particular spot in a square meter of space is unlikely, it is one in five hundred thousand.  And yet, it will land somewhere.  No matter how unlikely, unlikely things happen.  They are not miracles.  Only if something is genuinely impossible could you call it miraculous.  Even then... it probably isn't.  What is not yet explained need not be called inexplicable.  Not yet having an explanation doesn't mean it won't be explained in the future.

As an aside, part of what spurred this is a rash of other blogs considering this question.  What it boils down to is this: if you witnessed a miracle, who's to say it's your god doing it?  Even if A two hundred foot tall statue of Yeshua Bin Yusef appeared, floating two feet off the ground, what makes you think it's Yahweh rather than space aliens?  Or Loki tricking everyone because that's what he does?  Or Coyote just having fun with the pale-faced devils?  In other words, it's bad enough that miracles either simply can't be tracked down or have better explanations such as fraud, but they aren't even proof of anything.  A miracle doesn't explain anything.  "Miracle" is as much a non-explanation as the god hypothesis.  It enshrines ignorance in protective "DO NOT TOUCH" bubble.  An explanation fits all the available data and makes predictions for the future.  Miracle just says "Something happened and I don't know why."  So does the god hypothesis. And what predictions can these non-explanations make? That tomorrow something else might happen that you will also fail to understand? That may be true, but it certainly doesn't enlighten.

Revelation might appear to be harder to dismiss. After all, can one prove that a supernatural entity didn't put voices in someone's head (a non-psychotic someone)? I think the argument can be made. Pop someone in a machine and scan his brain while asking him about morality. Ask him about the morality of others and a part of his brain lights up. Ask him about his own morality and a different part of his brain lights up. Ask him about the morality of his god and the same part of his brain lights up. A cynic is unsurprised to learn that a person claims his god's morality matches his own. The cynic is less surprised to learn that it's neurological in nature. It's not just god's morality, either, everything about god may be egocentric. And it's not just the penitent's relationship with his deity, but the very basis for believing an experience is numinous, since science has identified "the god spot", AKA the part of the brain that lights up during revelation. It's located in the temporal lobe, which is responsible for, among other things, processing speech and vision. In other words, you think you're hearing and seeing things that aren't there. Why ascribe this to a deity who happens to match your own opinions point for point when you can instead ascribe it to a misfiring of a portion of your brain and then an attribution of your own feelings to a wholly internal experience?

Scripture is perhaps the most pathetic of all possible evidence because it's the only so-called evidence that's actually evident. They contain factual errors and contradictions and the most horrific barbarity. If they were actually inspired by something more than human, you wouldn't expect errors or contradictions. If they were actually morally superior, you wouldn't expect barbarity. You would expect a morally superior being to say that rape is bad. The Christian bible, for example, never condemns rape. It condemns vandalism in the form of sex with someone else's property (daughter, wife), but not rape, because the Chrsitian bible never considers her consent an issue. After all, property can't consent, nor can it withhold consent; consent belongs to her owner, whether that be father or husband or eldest living male relative. That's why spousal rape wasn't legally a thing until the last decade or so. Now it is, because we're morally superior to the Christian bible. Rape, slavery, genocide, these are all things not merely condoned by the Christian bible, but all three were encouraged by the Christian bible against conquered peoples. Well, not "people". As far as the Christian bible and other holy texts are concerned, foreigners, heathens, and apostates are like women: not human, but property (at best) or dead (at worst).

The argument that a supposed miracle could be, rather than a sign from your deity, a trick from someone else could equally apply to these texts. While this diminishes some of the strength of the argument that the texts are wholly human creations, it also weakens the argument that any is divinely inspired or created. However, if you're arguing not for generic multiple supernatural entities with superior knowledge (from which true morality rises) but rather for a single entity, the multiplicity of holy texts is particularly damning. If there were one entity capable of inspiring a holy document, there would be only one document. When it comes to a cosmic dictatorship, there can be no more effective censor. One god, one book. No god, many books.

In the end, the holy texts are at best not evidence at all or evidence of maltheism (being the work of a trickster). Miracles are either nothing at all (being the unfortunate result of human predilection for seeing patterns), another bit of maltheism, or evidence of nothing in particular because, being a non-explanation, it cannot be connected to anything in particular. And again revelation is again no evidence at all or et cetera.

So there is at best absolutely no evidence for the god hypothesis. Next up, Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence.

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