Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: 1949 -2011

A uniquely intelligent and witty man who informed many of my opinions of the last few years. In a time of anti-intellectual pride, he was not afraid to truly think about things.

And as he predicted and hoped, there was no deathbed conversion. He died as he lived, seeking truth.

He will be missed. I will miss him.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Darwin's Children

Darwin's Radio is the second book by Greg Bear that I've read, The Forge of God being the first. I liked both as they are both good examples of my favorite type of sci-fi: near-future hard science fiction.

Set in the U.S. but with excursions to Europe, Darwin's Radio plays like a plague outbreak novel early on, not unlike The Hot Zone/Outbreak, and progresses to a more traditional science fiction later on.

The rapid spread of the endovirus SHEVA is seen as a typical, but deadly virus that seems to threaten a whole generation of newborns. The story is told through the actions of the scientists and researchers that would be involved in the containment of outbreaks. One of the primary scientists is an archaeologist who sees a link between a mummified family of neanderthals found in a cave in the mountains of Europe and the current "disease". Another is a research biologist who first sees that this may not actually be a disease but rather speciation ... the creation of a new species of human.

The reader can tell that Bear really researches his subject matter and if you are not careful, you can get buried by the minutiae of whatever he is writing about. In this case, evolutionary biology and infectious diseases. The premise is that evolution hasn't necessarily always been a gradual progression. In human history, and in current time in the case of this book, drastic changes have happened in as little as a single generation. It's a radical idea that has been realized in lesser species, but not in humans (as far as we know). That would explain some of those gaps in the fossil record.

Now Bear is not saying that this is really what can happen, and he goes out of his way in the afterward to explain that the biologists that he spoke to say as much. But he fills the story with enough details and plausible science, that the reader doesn't feel it is far-fetched. That suspension of disbelief is generally important for me and why I have always tended towards hard science fiction as opposed to fantasy. Explaining away things as "magic" can be a turn-off for me when reading fiction. Not always, however, as I obviously love Lord of the Rings and greatly enjoyed Harry Potter. But, in general, I like that foundation in science. Perhaps, it's the scientist/engineer educational background in me.

Darwin's Radio explores hot button topics of abortion, internment, the role of women and mothers in society, the government's role in outbreaks, religion and evolution, just to name a few. I like the book's exploration of how many different people (scientists, politicians, citizens) may do things that they feel are right but perhaps for the wrong reasons such as religion, fear, and intellectual pride.

Darwin's Radio won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo (sci-fi's most prestigious awards) in 2000. These accolades were well-deserved and I recommend this book. I own the book, but oddly enough, I read it electronically on my wife's Kindle. We've been checking out a lot of books through our local libraries' digital collections and I saw it listed there. Wanted to give her reader a test drive, I downloaded it. I have to say, despite still loving physical books, I thoroughly enjoy reading on the Kindle.

I also have this book's sequel, Darwin's Children, and will certainly read it soon while this one is still fresh in my memory.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Remember ...

"I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillence coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well, certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you ... More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives ..." - V in V for Vendetta

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Greed is not a virtue

Greed is Not a Virtue by David Koren of Yes! Magazine

We humans are living out an epic morality play. For millennia humanity’s most celebrated spiritual teachers have taught that society works best and we all enjoy our greatest joy and fulfillment when we share, cooperate, and are honest in our dealings with one another.

But for the past few decades, this truth has been aggressively challenged by a faith called market fundamentalism—an immoral and counter-factual economic ideology that has assumed the status of a modern state religion. Its believers worship the God of money. Stock exchanges and global banks are their temples. They proclaim that everyone does best when we each seek to maximize our individual financial gain without regard to the consequences for others.

In the eyes of a market fundamentalist, to sacrifice profit for some presumed social or environmental good is immoral. The result is a public culture that proclaims greed is a virtue and sharing is a sin.

Having established control of the institutions of the economy, media, education, government, and even religion, market fundamentalists initiated a global social experiment to test their theory. The results are now in.

The prophets of the older faith traditions were right. Our common future depends on rediscovering their truth and redefining our public culture and governing institutions accordingly.

The following are some of the more visible elements of Wall Street’s global campaign of moral perversion.

  • It uses control of media outlets, advertising, and politicians to shape and spread a global culture of individualistic greed, material self-indulgence, ruthless competition, and moral irresponsibility.
  • Through the pursuit and celebration of financial gain at any cost, it provides role models for immoral behavior.
  • It undermines democracy and the legitimacy of government by buying politicians to do its bidding.
  • It uses student loan programs to get the best and brightest youth mired in debts they can repay only by selling themselves to jobs that serve Wall Street interests.
  • It buys up and monopolizes control of the world’s land and water resources in anticipation of extracting monopoly profits by charging what the market will bear as scarcity increases.
  • It uses its financial power and creative accounting skills to manipulate markets and obscure market signals, as when helping governments hide their debt or helping corporate CEOs hide their insider bets against the future of their own companies.
  • It buys the deeply discounted debt obligations of hapless underwater homeowners and countries on the open market and then demands full value payment from governments or philanthropists who step in to lend a helping hand to the afflicted.
  • It puts in place global rules requiring that if a government introduces regulations that prevent a foreign corporation from harming or killing people with its toxic products or discharges, the country’s government must compensate the corporation for the profits it estimates it will lose.

By capitalism’s perverse moral logic, if a person sells toxic assets by knowingly misrepresenting them as sound, the fault lies not with the misrepresentation of the seller, but rather with the lack of due diligence on the part of the overly trusting borrower. When the assets prove worthless and threaten both the solvency of both the seller and the borrower, the logic says the party responsible for the misrepresentation has a moral obligation to demand redress from the government, “Buy my toxic assets at face value and make me whole so that I return to my trade in toxic assets, or I will be forced to stop lending and crash the economy.”

Step back to take in the big picture, and it turns out Wall Street market fundamentalists have proclaimed the seven deadly sins of pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth to be virtues. In turn they have proclaimed the seven life-serving virtues of humility, sharing, love, compassion, self-control, moderation, and passion to be sins against the market.

There is a widespread sense that with Wall Street’s apparent recovery, the window of opportunity for serious structural change has passed. Such a judgment, however, is premature. Far from closing, the window of opportunity for serious change continues to widen as public awareness of Wall Street corruption grows and true and appropriate moral outrage builds.

Most psychologically healthy adults recognize in their heart of hearts the moral perversion of the old economy, but may fear to speak up because so many experts—including even some religious leaders—continuously assure us in so many words that greed is good, even that God wants us to be financially rich and financial wealth is a mark of God’s favor.

If all who share a mature moral consciousness find the courage to speak the simple truth that greed is driving us to collective self-destruction and cooperation is essential to our common salvation, we can put the perversion behind us and secure the future of our children.

While I don't share his assertion that the "prophets of the older faith traditions" had the right idea in general, I understand what he is saying. The concepts of common good and moderation have been turned into socialist mandates. Gluttony and selfishness are considered virtues. And our modern organized religions are at the front of the line of preaching a Rapture mentality that encourages consumption and fomenting of war. They will get what they wish ... an end to the world. But, they will be disappointed when there is nothing on the other side. Everyone has to understand that this planet, right here and right now, is both our Heaven and our Hell. It is what we make of it.

"We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all — by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians — be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us. How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing." -- Wendell Berry

Sunday, October 30, 2011

We all got it coming ...

The Schofield Kid -- [after killing a man for the first time] "It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever… how he’s dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger."

Will Munny -- "It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have."

The Schofield Kid -- "Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming."

Will Munny -- "We all got it coming, kid."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Don't "beware the Ides of March"

The Ides of march (from March 15 in the ancient Roman calendar; the day in 44 b.c. on which Julius Caesar was assassinated.

Obviously, the naming of the new George Clooney directed movie, The Ides of March, is not coincidental with the subject matter. The death of Julius Caesar was borne of a conspiracy and by its very nature was political. Ostensibly, he was killed because the senators feared the march toward tyranny and the end of the Senate. Ironically, it was his death that did just that. They compromised principles to do what they believed was in the best interest of the republic.

While there is no assassination in The Ides of March, there is plenty of political intrigue and the compromising of principles in the name of idealism.

Ryan Gosling's character Stephen Myers, a campaign manager for Clooney's character, governor Mike Morris goes into the campaign full of idealism and believing the man he is working for has that same idealism. Through the machinations of the film, the integrity of Morris and the political process is called into question and leads to Myers' loss of innocence. He is faced with the quandary of opting out altogether or scheming for what he perceives as the greater good. Does he make the right choice and how can it really be for the "greater good" if one compromises one's principles? Don't expect the movie to answer that question.

There's no "happy ending". Along with the fucked up political process it represents, the movie ends ambiguously.

When we start down the road of compromising and selling our soul, when do we lose ourselves?

The casting is good. Gosling is believable as a slick and confident pitch man for a candidate. If anything, he comes across as too slick and you have a hard time buying that he would have a crisis of conscience. Clooney is Clooney. Because of his ideas and charisma, you wish that he would actually run for office.

But the actors that steal the show are the vets, Paul Giamati as the opponent's lead adviser and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Morris' adviser. Would we really expect any less from a couple of Oscar winners? They have the unique talent to be perfectly cast in whatever they play because they are just that good. Jeffrey Wright is also outstanding.

Clooney is very clever in making the candidates in question Democrats. It removes a lot of the tendency by the Right to write off the movie as another example of Hollywood liberal propaganda. Clooney rightly sees the larger point that the problem is the process and not necessarily the political ideas involved. There is no moral high ground when it comes to behavior of the two major parties' campaigns.

This is by no means a "great" political thriller. It would not be mistaken for All the President's Men or The Candidate or even The Contender. But it is good and topical. Grade: B

Monday, October 10, 2011

I’m not going to quit until I absolutely have to

Showing his usual wit, but also a dignity and grace that I'm sure I wouldn't have if I were in his position, Christopher Hitchens accepted an award from Richard Dawkins at the Atheist Alliance of American Convention in Texas recently. This speech is his direct acceptance of that award (but also check out the other two videos here)

It saddens me to know that we will not have too many more of his speeches to enjoy. But it also heartens me to know that even at the end, he sticks to his convictions and does not give in to fear over logic. Because, and he knows this well, his contributions will outlast him and will give him an immortality that the religious will never have.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

I have to admit, I was more than a bit miffed at one of my favorite scientists, Stephen Hawking, after reading a quote on God attributed to him recently,

"I am not claiming there is no God. The scientific account is complete, but it does not predict human behaviour, because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model, which can include free will and God."

Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Complete agreement with those I admire is not a requirement. There are several political points that I fundamentally disagree with Christopher Hitchens on, but those beliefs of his are consistent with his own logic. I'm OK with that. He's otherwise brilliant and one of my favorite writers and thinkers. Hawking's the same for me. The above quote, however, seemed to go contrary to everything I knew of Hawking. And after reading The Grand Design, I have to feel that the quote was misleading or taken out of context. I realized quite early that my reservations about Hawking's quote were probably unfounded when I saw this in the first chapter,

" ... this book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism which implies … that there are no miracles, or exceptions to the laws of nature"

Continuing on, The Grand Design serves as a good recap of the history of physics and scientific thought ranging from Kepler and Descartes to Newton and Laplace:

"It is Laplace who is usually credited with first clearly postulating scientific determinism: Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. The scientific determinism that Laplace formulated is the modern scientist’s answer to question two. It is, in fact, the basis of all modern, and a principle that is important throughout this book. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene. Recognizing this, Napoleon is said to have asked Laplace how God fit into this picture. Laplace replied: ―Sire, I have not needed that hypothesis.""

And we don't need it either. The Grand Design (co-written by Leonard Mlodinow) is quite a beautiful book with color artwork and photography. Far from being some dry, technical tome stretching for a thousand pages, the book is a quick moving refresher on the drive to unify the various theories of physics (gravity, electromagnetic, etc.) into one Grand Unified Theory. Besides being probably impossible, it is also untestable within our current level of understanding. But it doesn't stop people from trying. Clocking in at 180 pages, you can polish off The Grand Design in a night. There is no math and just a few Feynman Diagrams to wrap your noodle around.

Don't expect The Grand Design to provide in-depth explanations of the string theory and M-theory with mathematical proofs.  Hawking (and Mlodinow) assume the reader either already has a deeper understanding or doesn't need one.  I come somewhere in between.  I have read much deeper explanations in some of Hawking's other books and by other scientists.  But, I would be lying if I said that I completely understood them.  I don't think (and Hawking as well) that it's required to get the gist of the concepts.  The supposition, however, did give me a little pause because Hawking seems to want to wrap up M-theory as the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. You're just flying along in this short book, getting whisked from the microscopic to the unbelievably humongous and all of a sudden you end up at M-theory ... answer to everything ... The End. I couldn't help getting the feeling that a few steps were skipped and that Hawking might be a little presumptuous to say that it is "the" answer.

There are other books of this nature that give an overview of modern theory. I read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe not too long ago, just to name one. New theoretical ground is not broken in The Grand Design, and that is probably just as well, as most normal people like us wouldn't understand it. I certainly wouldn't. Science geeks are not the only ones that will get something from the book as philosophical concepts such as the anthropic principle are discussed as well. When you are getting into the field of extra dimensions, it's really approaching philosophy. Perhaps not coincidentally, scientists used to be called natural philosophers. Anyway, if you are curious about how the universe works ... or if you are just curious, The Grand Design is not a bad starting point.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

My lack of movie and book reviews is not from a lack of viewing, or reading, but rather from laziness. It's time to play catch-up. I'll start with the most recent and will try to work my way backwards, one a day.

I just saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes late last night. It's nothing special but holds that elevated position of being science fiction, and as such, has to try harder to disappoint me. Because, as I've said ad nauseum, even the worst science fiction still has something to say. Where they fail in execution, they make up for in effort.

In effectively establishing how the "Planet of the Apes" came to be, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is useful. The movie's premise: development of a potential Alzheimer's cure has led to primate testing. Unintended, and unexpected, the cure (in the form of a controlled virus) actually enhances cognitive ability of the test subjects.

The virus establishes both how the primates get their intelligence and how the humans are decimated and subjugated (it appears to kill humans). The launch of a Mars mission and its subsequent loss establishes how human astronauts may, in the future, return to a vastly changed world. In their care for setting these things up, it is obvious that the filmmakers intend on making more movies (as if there was any question). It's all about the benjamins, baby.

The special effects of the primates are very good, from a technical standpoint, but are most obviously aided by the unique motion capture talents of Andy Serkis. Serkis, whose genius has been witnessed in Lord of the Rings (as Gollum) and King Kong, gives a humanity to Caesar without anthropomorphizing him. Serkis is truly a unique actor whose actual role is both hard to describe and quantify, but whose skill is obvious on screen. He is a normal actor as well, with roles in 13 Going on 30 and other films, but it was through Lord of the Rings and a position that was given larger significance because of his talent in motion capture. He'd actually do every scene both in studio for motion capture and on location for the benefit of the actors acting opposite Gollum.

The acting is nothing special, despite having some great actors in it, including Franco (as scientist Will Rodman), John Lithgow, and Brian Cox. Lithgow is really the only one that gets to show his chops. He plays Rodman's father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and who is Rodman's motivation for developing a cure. Freida Pinto, despite being gorgeous, does nothing to show her acting ability. I thought she was very good in Slumdog Millionaire, but she either does not get the opportunity to show her ability here, or fails to take advantage of the chances she does get. The script doesn't really give her a purpose.

Where I believe that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does itself credit is in its treatment of the role of science and ethics. It's like that quote by the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park:

"Don't you see the danger ... inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun ... I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done, and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you, you've patented it, and packaged it, you've slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it ... your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

While it is admirable to be thinking of a cure for Alzheimer's, we have to be aware of the unintended consequences.

If I have a criticism of the movie, it is in its moral stance of the James Franco character. He seems happy, or at least content, that his pet/friend Caesar gains his freedom, which is fine. But he seems unconcerned that what has ultimately led to the intelligence leap of the primates is also the virus that will virtually wipe out the human race. No time is spent to examine whether he has any concerns of this. He is complicit in wiping out humanity. But, I guess, at the end of the movie, he doesn't yet realize the pandemic that has started. Hopefully, it's something that will be addressed in a future movie.

Anyway, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. Grade: B-

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Our belief is not a belief"

I've just started reading the Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great. Hitch is as erudite and acerbic as ever, wonderfully so, but also humorous. I've had the book forever, but there are only so many hours in the day and entirely too many good books to read (a not altogether bad problem to have). I'll do a bigger review later but I couldn't resist putting up this quote from just the first couple of pages:

"And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically ... We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul." -- Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great

I couldn't not have put it better myself. Actually, I don't think any living writer could have put it better.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Look up ... not down

A nice response to those that would cut funding to NASA:

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my favorite science popularizers and a worthy warrior against the rampant anti-intellectualism of today.

"I don't want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don't understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity. The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don't understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before." -- Neil deGrasse Tyson

Friday, August 12, 2011

Atheism is NOT fundamentalism

1570s, from Fr. athéiste (16c.), from Gk. atheos "to deny the gods, godless," from a- "without" + theos "a god" ...

"Without a god" ... that's it. That's all that atheism means. But almost all theists, and a remarkable number of skeptics/agnostics get this wrong. They believe that atheism implies certainty that there is no god. Many people that I know that are actually atheists believe that atheism requires the same amount of belief and intractability as fundamentalist Christianity. So they call themselves "agnostic". Hell, I used to call myself an agnostic because I had the same exact misconception. I know these are just words, but words have some importance. People base their opinions on these words. And to me, agnostic, is a much more dangerous word, especially for those that call themselves inquisitive and curious:

... a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable ...

I don't hold anything as being "unknowable". Why would we even go on if we didn't believe that we could discover the nature of things eventually? Not knowing something is not scary to me but making the decision that something couldn't ever be known is.

The term skeptic doesn't bother me as much in that it is a more philosophical term. I get the line of thinking that posits that nothing, really, is absolutely "known". But that is in a much more abstract sense of the word.

Anyway, the whole reason why I was reminded of this whole subject was by a tweet by the great blogger, vjack, today that linked to one of his older posts:

Atheism Does Not Require Certainty

Check that post out, and his blog in general. Consistently good stuff.

And to my friends who are scared by me calling myself an atheist ... don't be. I don't believe there is a God because I'm not going to apply one way of thinking to one part of my life and another to the balance. I take nothing on faith in my daily life and why should I when it comes to spirituality? I don't "know" there is no God, but nothing that I have ever experienced or seen would lead me to believe otherwise. Christians "know" there is a God. Now, you tell me which side is fundamentalist?

Atheism is not a religion and as such does not require faith. All that it requires is a good healthy dose of skepticism and curiosity.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Facebook ... haven for morons

From one of my Facebook "friend's" pages:

When you carry a Bible, the devil gets a headache.
When you open it, he collapses.
When he see's you reading it, he faints.
When he see's you living it, he flees.
And just when you are about to re-post this, he will try to discourage you.
I just defeated him. Copy & paste this if you are in God's Arm

I'm at a loss for words. You can't make stuff like this up. Facebook and Christianity ... a match made in idiot heaven.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Faith no more

For good, and relatively brief summations of some popular scientists' and authors' takes on God, I highly recommend you read Faith no more by Andrew Zak Williams, in the current New Statesman. They are very entertaining, save for a rather puzzling (and disappointing) answer by Hawking. I've highlighted just a few of them. There are many more at the above link.

Philip Pullman -- Author
The main reason I don't believe in God is the missing evidence. There could logically be no evidence that he doesn't exist, so I can only go by the fact that, so far, I've discovered no evidence that he does: I have had no personal experience of being spoken to by God and I see nothing in the world around me, wherever I look in history or science or art or anywhere else, to persuade me that it was the work of God rather than of nature. ...

Kenan Malik -- Neurobiologist, writer and broadcaster
I am an atheist because I see no need for God. Without God, it is said, we cannot explain the creation of the cosmos, anchor our moral values or infuse our lives with meaning and purpose. I disagree.

Invoking God at best highlights what we cannot yet explain about the physical universe, and at worst exploits that ignorance to mystify. Moral values do not come prepackaged from God, but have to be worked out by human beings through a combination of empathy, reasoning and dialogue. This is true of believers, too: they, after all, have to decide for themselves which values in their holy books they accept and which ones they reject. And it is not God that gives meaning to our lives, but our relationships with fellow human beings and the goals and obligations that derive from them. God is at best redundant, at worst an obstruction. Why do I need him?

Susan Blackmore -- Psychologist and author
What reason for belief could I possibly have? To explain suffering? He doesn't. Unless, that is, you buy in to his giving us free will, which conflicts with all we know about human decision-making.

To give me hope of an afterlife? My 30 years of parapsychological research threw that hope out. To explain the mystical, spiritual and out-of-body experiences I have had? No: our rapidly improving knowledge of the brain is providing much better explanations than religious reasoning. To explain the existence and complexity of the wonderful world I see around me? No - and this is really the main one.

God is supposed (at least in some versions of the story) to have created us all. Yet the Creator (any creator) is simply redundant. Every living thing on this planet evolved by processes that require no designer, no plans, no guidance and no foresight. We need no God to do this work. Where would he fit in? What would he do? And why? If he did have any role in our creation, he would have to be immensely devious, finickity, deceitful and mind-bogglingly cruel, which would be a very odd kind of God to believe in. So I don't.

Richard Dawkins -- Evolutionary biologist
I don't believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them, and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.

Even given no evidence for specific gods, could we make a case for some unspecified "intelligent designer" or "prime mover" or begetter of "something rather than nothing"? By far the most appealing version of this argument is the biological one - living things do present a powerful illusion of design. But that is the very version that Darwin destroyed. Any theist who appeals to "design" of living creatures simply betrays his ignorance of biology. Go away and read a book. And any theist who appeals to biblical evidence betrays his ignorance of modern scholarship. Go away and read another book.

As for the cosmological argument, whose God goes under names such as Prime Mover or First Cause, the physicists are closing in, with spellbinding results. Even if there remain unanswered questions - where do the fundamental laws and constants of physics come from? - obviously it cannot help to postulate a designer whose existence poses bigger questions than he purports to solve. If science fails, our best hope is to build a better science. The answer will lie neither in theology nor - its exact equivalent - reading tea leaves.

In any case, it is a fatuously illogical jump from deistic Unmoved Mover to Christian Trinity, with the Son being tortured and murdered because the Father, for all his omniscience and omnipotence, couldn't think of a better way to forgive "sin".

... Why is religion immune from the critical standards that we apply not just in courts of law, but in every other sphere of life?

Paula Kirby -- Writer
I stopped being a believer when it became clear to me that the various versions of Christianity were mutually contradictory and that none had empirical evidence to support it. From the recognition that "knowing in my heart" was an unreliable guide to reality, I began to explore other types of explanation for life, the universe and everything, and discovered in science - biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology, geology, psychology - answers that genuinely explain, as opposed to those of religion, whose aim is to shroud their lack of substance in a cloak of mystery and metaphor.

All-importantly, these scientific answers, even when tentative, are supported by evidence. That they are also far more thrilling, far more awe-inspiring, than anything religion can offer, and that I find life fuller, richer and more satisfying when it's looked firmly in the eye and wholeheartedly embraced for the transient and finite wonder that it is, is a happy bonus.

Sam Harris -- Neuroscientist
The most common impediment to clear thinking that a non-believer must confront is the idea that the burden of proof can be fairly placed on his shoulders: "How do you know there is no God? Can you prove it? You atheists are just as dogmatic as the fundamentalists you criticise." This is nonsense: even the devout tacitly reject thousands of gods, along with the cherished doctrines of every religion but their own. Every Christian can confidently judge the God of Zoroaster to be a creature of fiction, without first scouring the universe for evidence of his absence. Absence of evidence is all one ever needs to banish false knowledge. And bad evidence, proffered in a swoon of wishful thinking, is just as damning.

But honest reasoning can lead us further into the fields of unbelief, for we can prove that books such as the Bible and the Quran bear no trace of divine authorship. We know far too much about the history of these texts to accept what they say about their own origins. And just imagine how good a book would be if it had been written by an omniscient Being.

The moment one views the contents of scripture in this light, one can reject the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam definitively. The true authors of God's eternal Word knew nothing about the origins of life, the relationship between mind and brain, the causes of illness, or how best to create a viable, global civilisation in the 21st century. That alone should resolve every conflict between religion and science in the latter's favour, until the end of the world.

In fact, the notion that any ancient book could be an infallible guide to living in the present gets my vote for being the most dangerously stupid idea on earth.

What remains for us to discover, now and always, are those truths about our world that will allow us to survive and fully flourish. For this, we need only well-intentioned and honest inquiry - love and reason. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.

Daniel Dennett -- Philosopher
The concept of God has gradually retreated from the concept of an anthropomorphic creator figure, judge and overseer to a mystery-shrouded Wonderful Something-or-Other utterly beyond human ken. It is impossible for me to believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods, because they are simply ridiculous, and so obviously the fantasy-projections of scientifically ignorant minds trying to understand the world. It is impossible for me to believe in the laundered versions, because they are systematically incomprehensible. It would be like trying to believe in the existence of wodgifoop - what's that? Don't ask; it's beyond saying.

But why try anyway? There is no obligation to try to believe in God; that's a particularly pernicious myth left over from the days when organised religions created the belief in belief. One can be good without God, obviously.

Many people feel very strongly that one should try to believe in God, so as not to upset Granny, or so as to encourage others to do likewise, or because it makes you nicer or nobler. So they go through the motions. Usually it doesn't work.

I am in awe of the universe itself, and very grateful to be a part of it. That is enough.

A C Grayling -- Philosopher
I do not believe that there are any such things as gods and goddesses, for exactly the same reasons as I do not believe there are fairies, goblins or sprites, and these reasons should be obvious to anyone over the age of ten.

Stephen Hawking -- Physicist
I am not claiming there is no God. The scientific account is complete, but it does not predict human behaviour, because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model, which can include free will and God.

Michael Shermer -- Publisher of Skeptic magazine
I do not believe in God for four reasons. First, there is not enough evidence for the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent being who created the universe and ourselves and hands down moral laws and offers us eternal life. Second, any such being that was supernatural would by definition be outside the purview of our knowledge of the natural world and would necessarily have to be part of the natural world if we did discover such an entity. This brings me to the third reason, Shermer's Last Law, which is that any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God. (Because of Moore's law [of increasing computer power] and Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns, we ourselves will be able to engineer life, solar systems and even universes, given enough time.) Fourth, there is overwhelming evidence from history, anthropology, sociology and psychology that human beings created God, not vice versa. In the past 10,000 years there have been roughly 10,000 religions and 1,000 different gods. What are the chances that one group of people discovered the One True God while everyone else believed in 9,999 false gods? A likelier explanation is that all gods and religion are socially and psychologically constructed. We created gods.

Richard Wiseman -- Psychologist
I do not believe in God because it seems both illogical and unnecessary. According to the believers, their God is an all-powerful and almighty force. However, despite this, their God allows for huge amounts of suffering and disease. Also, if I were to believe in God, logically speaking I would have to believe in a wide range of other entities for which there is no evidence, including pixies, goblins and gnomes, etc. It's a long list and I don't have room in my head for all of them. So, I am happy to believe that there is no God. We are just insignificant lumps of carbon flying through a tiny section of the universe. Our destiny is totally in our own hands, and it is up to each of us to make the best of our life. Let's stop worrying about mythical entities and start living.

... and, PZ Myers, not surprisingly, has the harshest (and funniest) criticisms of religion:

P Z Myers -- Biologist
I am accustomed to the idea that truth claims ought to be justified with some reasonable evidence: if one is going to claim, for instance, that a Jewish carpenter was the son of a God, or that there is a place called heaven where some ineffable, magical part of you goes when you die, then there ought to be some credible reason to believe that. And that reason ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book.

Religious claims all seem to short-circuit the rational process of evidence-gathering and testing and the sad thing is that many people don't see a problem with that, and even consider it a virtue. It is why I don't just reject religion, but actively oppose it in all its forms - because it is fundamentally a poison for the mind that undermines our critical faculties.

Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because God says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with God. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a God when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren't, a God will set you on fire for all eternity.

These are ridiculous propositions. The whole business of religion is clownshoes freakin' moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behaviour, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an in­visible big kahuna.

It's not just fact-free, it's all nonsense.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

I'm a masochist

Because I'm apparently not already spreading myself too thin, I've started a Tumblr blog here. I just wanted to try something that is a lot easier to post to from a mobile platform ... in my case, a Blackberry. I'll mostly be posting quotes, pics and shorter blog posts there. Hopefully, it will encourage me to post stuff more frequently and as I think of them. For now, my Tumblr posts will show up as an RSS feed on this site (at the top on the right) and also to my Twitter feed. I'm trying to research if there is a way for my Tumblr posts to automatically post to Blogger where normal posts are.

I'm not stopping my Blogger blog. Rather, I'm just trying to figure out ways to enhance how and when I post to it. To be continued ...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Things I like: Science Popularizers

I like science without having to be convinced to like it. But I'm not necessarily the common audience. That's why I'm a big fan of those scientists and authors that are able to 1) bring science down to the level of the non-scientist without being condescending and 2) make it interesting in the process.

I grew up in the age of one of the best science popularizers ever, Carl Sagan. His knowledge of physics and astronomy was perhaps only exceeded by his enthusiasm for the same. He made it semi-cool for a nerdy kid to run around saying "billions and billions". OK, even he couldn't have made me cool. But at least I was interested in science.

As I got older, others including Stephen Hawking became popular. When my wife, who could not care less about science, is aware of a scientist like Hawking, then you know someone has entered pop culture.

Despite the obvious anti-intellectualism that seems rampant in society, I still think we are in the heyday of science popularizers and that gives me hope. And maybe we are not as anti-science as it appears. There is a very vocal segment of society (much of Congress, all of FOX News) that has a high moral regard for the Dark Ages, but maybe they are just a loudmouth minority and don't represent most of society. That is what I hope.

If society is going to be brought back from the brink, minds such as these will play a big part:

Brian Cox, broadcaster, musician and physicist
Paul Davies, physicist, author and broadcaster
Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author
Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist
Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist, physiologist, biogeographer and author
Brian Greene, physicist
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and author
Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist and essayist
Jamie Hyneman, special effects artist and television personality (MythBusters)
Lawrence Krauss, physicist and author
Robert Krulwich, broadcaster
Bill Nye, broadcaster and mechanical engineer, known as the "Science Guy"
Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and author
Adam Savage, special effects artist and television personality (MythBusters)
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and author
... and many others

I've had the fortune to have seen a couple of them in person, Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, and Lawrence Krauss (and spoke to Krauss).

What makes many of them so relevant is not their knowledge, but their willingness and ability to use that knowledge to educate. Please don't get me wrong. I don't anyone to have to dumb themselves down. But, let's be honest ... if people like Hawking and Greene were to talk to us as they speak to each other, they might as well be speaking ancient Greek. And this is coming from someone who took 5 college level calculus courses, calculus-based physics, and astrodynamics.

deGrasse Tyson, for one, is funny and very active on the talk-show circuit, having appeared on the Daily Show and Colbert repeatedly, plus he has podcasts and a PBS show called Nova Science Now that I regularly watch with my son. Just yesterday he was on Jimmy Fallon:

Pointy-headed academicians are not going to be the ones that convince Joe Schmoe of the dangers of climate change, the importance of pure research, and why we should continue the space program. It will be through people like deGrasse Tyson that sway the common man with humor and a sense of awe. One can hope that a sense of wonder will replace fear and mysticism. We'll see.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Catapult the Propaganda"

I have to give credit where credit is due. It takes a special kind of stupid to be able to consume FOX News on a daily basis. We ate dinner at BJ's Brewpub tonight and among their bank of TV's, FOX News was on ... with no sound. Even without sound, within 5 minutes I was ready to put a gun in my mouth. In that small time frame, I was able to discover that Obama is the worst imperialist President ever, that he was going to take my home through imminent domain and was going to tax me into submission. That's important information that I was lucky enough to have beat into my brain without so much as a convincing argument.  I was able to tick off at least a half dozen of the classic propaganda techniques without even trying.

A reasoning FOX News viewer might be concerned by the turmoil of News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch, but as evidenced by my short indoctrination, there couldn't possibly be any reasoning FOX News viewers.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Quantum Typography

Courtesy of Garry Tan at garry's visualposterous

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy 4th of July

"I despise my own nation most. Because I know it best. Because I still love it, suffering from Hope. For me, that's patrotism." -- Edward Abbey

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Things I like: Bluegrass music

My musical upbringing was all over the place. An Iowa-born father and west coast mother brought the music of those two arenas together in our household. Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard intermixed with The Fifth Dimension, The Mamas and The Papas and Elvis. Growing up in small town Iowa, I was sheltered from more rebellious art forms like punk, so instead was exposed to a heavy dose of Kasey Casem Top 40 on my little transistor radio. Teen years ... New Wave, Duran Duran, The Police. In college, I finally got outside of the confines of programmed radio. Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Prong, Front Line Assembly and the real coming out party for college radio: REM, U2, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Pogues. Just as I was graduating ... Nirvana, Pearl Jam.

As I've gotten older, I still listen to most of those things but have developed a real appreciation for the most original of those American musical art forms: Jazz, Folk, and Bluegrass. Once you start listening to the older music, you understand that most of the later music that you like was greatly influenced by what came before. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were just giving their interpretations of American blues music. Country music largely derived from bluegrass, gospel, folk and blues. Now, I can't really stand what is now called country music, save for those few acts that seem to understand where it all came from.

I'm by no means a historian, but I know what I like listening to and my recent fascination with bluegrass music spawned from a singular angelic voice, that of Alison Krauss. Those elements of bluegrass that I most like and that comprise most bluegrass is the vocal harmonies, and the great instrumentation of the banjo and the fiddle. And you get that in spades with Alison Krauss and Union Station.

I understand the real progenitors of bluegrass were players like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and I have listened to them, but they're probably a little too old school for even me. I prefer Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the college age groups like The Punch Brothers:

The Punch Brothers are unique in that they are ostensibly playing bluegrass but their song structure are more classical. Mandolinist Chris Thile's earlier band, Nickel Creek, is also very good.

Bluegrass is not for everyone, but I dig it. It may seem like hillbilly music, and to a large extent it is, but to write it off as such would be selling it short. There's a lot of history of our country in those sounds and many other places that originally influenced it, including Africa, the UK and Ireland.

Next up, tomorrow: Philosophy

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Things I like: Science Fiction

For regular readers here, this is no surprise. And I mean that I like science fiction in all its flavors: books, movies, TV, graphic novels. And it doesn't even have to be great science fiction. I've said this before, but I believe that even bad science fiction has merit. This is because even the worst science fiction is trying to make a point or send a message. It may fail miserably, but it's still trying.

Science fiction is allowed to address important social and political issues that traditional genres would not be able to without being considered preachy. Most recently we saw this with Battlestar Galactica, addressing torture, fundamentalism and terrorism, among other things.

My early beginnings in sci-fi were the novels of Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. As I got a bit older, Larry Niven became probably my favorite hard sci-fi author. It might be cliche, but for a brainy and shy teenager, the escapism of science fiction was one of the few things that brought me solace and joy for those tough years.

In my adult years, I gravitated to the cyberpunk of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. But, I'm still discovering authors that are fantastic, like Greg Bear and Iain M. Banks, and fantasy authors like Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman.

Obviously, as with all males of my age, one of the most formative experiences of my youth was seeing the original Star Wars movie. In those days, there was no Internet, no DVD's, and VCR's really weren't prevalent yet. Going to a movie theater and seeing something like Star Wars was an indescribable experience. It's so indelible that I remember that it was at a drive-in in Salem, Oregon and we watched it in the back of my folks Jeep.

It was through Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Alien movies and the books of my youth that my interest was cultivated. The 70's and 80's were, however, NOT the heyday of science fiction on television. You had the original Battlestar Galactica (which may prove wrong my theory of all science fiction having merit) and Space 1999, both unintentionally campy and embarrassing. I had no exposure to Doctor Who until I was in college. It's really just been the last 15 years or so that science fiction has come into it's own through things like the X-Files, the Stargate shows, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, the new Doctor Who, and many other shows. Something that was often an afterthought in programming now has a channel dedicated to it (SyFy) and just about every traditional network has at least one program that could be considered science fiction.

I just don't find issues of science, philosophy, consciousness, religion, the environment, war, etc. being addressed in such an entertaining manner as I do in science fiction. I don't read a lot of fiction, but when I do, about 75% of it is science fiction.

Top 5 favorite science fiction/fantasy books, no particular order: Dune, Lord of the Rings, Snow Crash, Neuromancer, Contact

Top 5 favorite science fiction movies, no particular order: 2001, Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Children of Men

Next up, tomorrow:  Bluegrass music

Monday, June 06, 2011

Things I like: Chess

Over the years, I've immersed myself in both the mythology and history of chess, which is endlessly fascinating, but also the actual playing of it. I probably own about 100 books on arcane chess theory and have went through entirely too many of them.

The main reason that I started reading so much about chess theory was that as a teenager I was tired of my dad handing me my ass on a plate every time we played. He'd never studied chess but is much more of a natural chess player than myself. Learning some theory helped me to level the playing field a bit.

An upcoming documentary on HBO on Bobby Fischer was what got me thinking about chess again. Fischer, a nut job and possessing of unforgivable opinions on many things in the real world (Jews among them), was, nonetheless, a genius and probably the best chess player of all time. Both his play and his unusual life made for great drama and the documentary should be interesting. Another movie that delves into Fischer, but more tangentially, is Searching for Bobby Fischer. It's the true story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. It's a great movie with a nice cast: Joe Montegna, Joan Allen, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy and Ben Kingsley.

For all my interest in chess, I don't play a lot. The wife knows how to play but usually does not want to. My ingrained competitive nature does not make for an enjoyable leisurely game for her. My son seems to be developing a similar interest in chess and tries hard.

I'm not sure what fascinates me so much about chess. It's not a game or sport in the traditional sense. Chess prodigies have more in common with math and music prodigies than those that excel in other games.

The rules are relatively simple but the possibilities are endless. You could play all your life and never master it. Maybe that's what attracts me ... chess as a metaphor for life.

"That's what Chess is all about. One day you give your
opponent a lesson, the next day he gives you one." -- Bobby Fischer

Next up, tomorrow, Science Fiction

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Things I like: Modern Design

I'm going to start a new series of posts about the things I like. Nothing necessarily deep, but rather an idea, a concept, a movie, an artist, whatever, that I like. One a day for as long as I can stand it. I'm not going to overthink them. I'll just pick something and riff on it for awhile. Too often I use my blog to complain about something ... and that's definitely necessary and not something I'm going to stop ... but it's important to talk about those things we have a positive view of also.

Of course this seems incredibly narcissistic. Why, you would rightly ask, would anyone really give a shit what I like? And I would answer ... wait, I don't really have a good answer to that. Ultimately, it's an exercise to encourage me to write more often. Through exploring what it is in daily life that I truly enjoy, I might better use my time.

First up is Modern Design

And by Modern Design, I mean that architecture, art, furniture, etc. that rejects tradition. I'm certainly not an expert in any of those but I know that I really like the modern architecture as demonstrated in the works of photographer Julius Schulman and the design of architects like Wright, Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry. I like the furniture designs of Eames. Of course, I can't afford either. My tract home with Ikea furniture is a far cry. But the names aren't the point. The aesthetic is the point.

Modern Design appeals to be because of the practicality and functionality, especially as it pertains to sustainability. It's the classic "form follows function". In my own life, I try to get to what is essential and get rid of the clutter. We spend every day wasting time and money with those things that are not really essential to us.

My interest probably started with my interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. Growing up, my family lived in Oregon for a time and some friends of the family were architects. And they designed very much in the Wright style. I was hooked and well into high school, I thought I'd go to college for architecture, but life and finances derailed me into the more generic engineering. But, my interest never waned. Some day, when money is no object, I'll have that modernist house and that Eames chair:

For the 2nd year in a row, I'll be going out to LA for the Dwell on Design show. We go out to LA a couple times of year anyway because of having relatives in Manhattan Beach but the show is a compelling reason for me to go out at that particular time. We're hopefully going to get to the Getty Museum as well.

I've subscribed to Dwell Magazine for several years and it is a great source for ideas on modernist design.

Next up, tomorrow: Chess

Monday, May 30, 2011

Bring 'em Home

"You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." -- Albert Einstein

The best way we can honor our soldiers on Memorial Day is to bring them all home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dear Human

This is good (click the pic to see the whole comic strip):

Tweeted by @michaelshermer. Webcomic by Zach Weiner at SMBC Comics.

Monday, May 23, 2011

There's nothing like a Guinness ...

You gotta like a man that drinks a Guinness:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

There but for the grace of God ...

Roger Ebert tweeted about this a day or so ago. It's a short film/documentary about the Salton Sea in California called The Accidental Sea:

The clip's only about 6 minutes, so take a look. Powerful stuff about the hubris with which we fuck with nature and how nature will ultimately fuck us back. Some of the scenery you will recognize if you've ever seen Into the Wild, as Chris McCandless' adventures led him to the Salton Sea for a time. I couldn't help but think of The World Without Us as well because of the manner in which the desert reclaims the land ... and quickly. One of my favorite lines from the clip:

It's easy to look at the Salton Sea and say, 'Of course it failed' ... But I look at it and think 'there but for the grace of God go the rest of us'. (paraphrasing)

And by this he means that basically anywhere we try to alter nature for our purposes, we are in danger of some push-back. We need to work in harmony as much as possible so as to mitigate these wild swings. This has been said before but it bears repeating: "Saving the planet" is really a misnomer. The planet doesn't need saved. It'll be just fine and will outlast us. We are merely a blip in its timeline. What we do need to do is make sure that we do our best to make it livable while we are here.

"... in the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house - our houses." -- Alan Weisman in The World Without Us

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Obi-Wan Kenobi is dead ...

Laura posted a link to this on Facebook:

Obi-Wan Kenobi Is Dead, Vader Says

It's hilarious! Be sure to read the comments as well. They're even better than the article.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Going Green Update

Short of me getting into a completely different line of work and abandoning my company, I'm going to drive a lot of miles. Undesirable, but unavoidable at least for now. So, to make the best of it, we finally got a Prius today. 90% of my driving is city driving at about 40 - 45 mph and that is in the sweet spot of a Prius. At this speed and slower, it primarily runs as an electric car and thus gets some crazy good gas mileage. Our Hyundai that we traded in (may it rest in peace ... 186,000 miles) got pretty good gas mileage, about 30 in the city. With the Prius, I'm hoping to double that. I'll report back here after a month or so with my results. One of the nice things about the Prius is the on-screen readouts that report whether you are running from the gas engine or electric, or both and what your current MPG is. It's very easy to see how your driving habits, the road conditions, and even having the A/C on can affect the gas mileage. So count on me trying some "hypermileage" techniques.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Jeez ... I never blog. Gotta change that.

As I mentioned earlier, I just recently finished Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape.

Of the Four Horseman of "New Atheism", Harris is probably my favorite author. I've previously read his Letter to a Christian Nation, a very good book and I highly recommend it.

That book, as the title implies, is shorter and is a good introduction to Harris. The Moral Landscape is significantly more scholarly and incorporates a lot of research from Harris particular field of expertise, neuroscience, which he has a PhD in. In The Moral Landscape, Harris not only makes the compelling argument that morality can be defined scientifically but also takes on the criticism of atheists as being moral relativists. If anything, a morality that depends on the well-being of others, as his science-based morality does, is anything but. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, completely independent of religion. For example, murder is not wrong because the Bible says it is. People would know it is wrong if there were no Bible. The Bible merely reflects many of the universal moral truths that we already know. When religion seeks to dictate morality outside of that is where it runs into problems. Now, obviously, his explanation is not as simple as mine, but that is the general gist of it.

One of the most important things I took from the book was that the morality of separate cultures is not necessarily equal and should not be respected as such. This is a valid criticism of many liberals and where the charge of moral relativism often comes from. As he says, "the moment we admit that we know anything about human well-being scientifically, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it."

The "moral blindness in the name of 'tolerance'" allows "highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully ... before condemning practices like compulsory veling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage ..." This learned confusion is the same thing that blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa or the Danish cartoonists for the Mohammed controversy.

Other parts of the book delve into the neurological reasons for belief and why those who believe reason in a certain manner. Creationism and general Christian distrust of science can be explained by the fact that "people tend to seek evidence that confirms an hypothesis rather than evidence that refutes it. This strategy is known to produce frequent reasoning errors. Our bias toward belief may also explain the 'illusory-truth effect,' where mere exposure to a proposition, even when it was revealed to be false or attributed to an unreliable source, increases the likelihood that it will later be remembered as being true."

Why people initially pick up their beliefs is due to several factors that are "more emotional and social than strictly cognitive. Wishful thinking, self-serving bias, in-group loyalties, and frank self-deception can lead to monstrous departures from the norms of rationality. Most beliefs are evaluated against a background of other beliefs and often in the context of an ideology that a person shares with others. Consequently, people are rarely as open to revising their views as reason would seem to dictate."

People often have certain beliefs because they want to feel good or as Harris says, "to hew to a positive state of mind - to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt ..." Because their happiness is dependent on those beliefs, any evidence that runs counter is ignored.

The ideas that he espouses here are not necessarily new, and I believe most of us already know them to be instinctively true, but he does a good job of establishing a scientific basis for studying and quantifying morality.

In my next post, I'm going to try and touch on some of the possible evolutionary reasons for belief and will also go further into Harris' criticism of noted science/religion reconciler Francis Collins.

"We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side; one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach." -- Bertrand Russell

Friday, April 22, 2011

Saved! ... or not

I just finished Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape (a great book BTW) and I will review it later, probably doing several posts on different topics, but, in honor of Good Friday, I thought I'd tease with the following bon mot. Harris was speaking of Francis Collins, the head of the NIH and a scientist that Christians like to parade out when trying to say that religion and science are compatible, because Collins professes to be a Christian.

Thus, Collins’s faith is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba and do not even merit an hour on cable television somehow become especially credible when set in the prescientific religious context of the first-century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts. It is on this basis that the current head of the NIH recommends that we believe the following propositions:

  1. Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days. 
  2. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven” -- where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings. 
  3. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on Mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truths ever revealed about the cosmos. 
  4. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified. 
  5. In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

Just how many scientific laws would be violated by this scheme? One is tempted to say “all of them.”

"... And you stare at me
In your Jesus Christ pose
Arms held out
Like you've been carrying a load
And you swear to me
You don't want to be my slave
But you're staring at me again
Like I need to be saved, saved ..."

Jesus Christ Pose by Soundgarden

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pregnant with knowledge

Again, from Roger Ebert's Journal, on the importance of reading:

"... At the end of the day, some authors will endure and most, including some very good ones, will not. Why do I think reading is important? It is such an effective medium between mind and mind. We think largely in words. A medium made only of words doesn't impose the barrier of any other medium. It is naked and unprotected communication. That's how you get pregnant. May you always be so."

What to do when meeting an alien ...

From Roger Ebert's Journal:

click to enlarge

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Philosophy/Religion Song of the Day: "New Dark Ages" by Bad Religion

Yeah can you hear the call in our rambling land
Susurrations that can expand beyond all hope of light
and plunge us into into unrelenting night

A pall on truth and reason,
It feels like hunting season

So avoid those lines of sight
and we'll set this right

Welcome to the new dark ages
Yeah, i hope you're living right
These are the new dark ages
And the world might end tonight

Now come ye children one and all, let's heed Ezekiel's call
And bide until the word is good and ripe and get plucked clean out
of sight

The world will be erased
Our kin will be immaculate ejaculate in space
Before the kind of king's love, he'll snatch us
From above, brothers help me sing it

Welcome to the new dark ages
I hope you're living right
These are the new dark ages
And the world might end tonight

So how do you sleep? “ there's nothing to keep“
This is deep
Because we're animals with golden rules
Who ... who can't be moved by rational views

Welcome to the new dark ages
I hope you're living right
Welcome to the new dark ages
And the world might end tonight

"An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it." -- James Michener

Monday, March 21, 2011

The so-called "wrath of God"

A former Phoenix Mercury (WNBA player) tweeted this Saturday on the subject of the earthquake/tsunami in Japan:

"What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes."

"u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can't expect anything less."

And, to add insult to injury, in a remarkable example of Christian condescension, she tried to apologize:

"I wanna apologize to anyone I may hurt or offended during this tragic time," the tweet said. "I didn't realize that my words could be interpreted in the manner which they were. People that knw me would tell u 1st hand I'm a very spiritual person and believe that everything, even disasters happen 4 a reason and that God will shouldn't be questioned

Besides revealing the obvious fact that celebrities should self-edit prior to releasing brain droppings to the world, it brings up the more important subject of religion.

Now, I want to get this out of the way right now -- I'm not intimating that this is how all Christians think. But, by the same token, we all know that this isn't just the lunatic fringe that believes that disasters are God's retribution.

But that isn't even the subject of my post. My beef is with how religion is deemed to be the source of morality when statements like this show it to be something very different. People that are bigoted, or racist, or in Pondexter's case, remarkably ignorant, use the veil of religion to justify themselves. When you feel that God himself is behind something, you have the moral certitude to make statements that an atheist would be pilloried for. After all, "he makes no mistakes". And that's exactly the point. I have no problem with an atheist being judged upon his statements and beliefs. But that is how all people should be judged.

Godless people are deemed to be immoral and anarchistic, but I suggest that most are the exact opposite. I believe that all my actions and statements must be held to an even higher standard and must stand on their own. I don't have the luxury of misinterpreting some ancient text of dubious origin to justify a belief that outside the protection of religion would be considered bigoted.

If any other segment of society had done the atrocities to children that Catholic priests have, imagine what would have happened.

Within the framework of religion, it is considered godly and moral to be against gays, or to subjugate women. Under any other criteria, those would be hate crimes or speech.

I am not saying that religious people are universally immoral. I am saying that they are not moral because they are religious. Religion does not define one's morality. A religious person can be good or bad, as can an atheist.

And natural occurrences like floods, and hurricanes, and earthquakes are not caused by God. And they do not occur to present a moral or punish us for sin. They may present a lesson or warning to us insomuch as our actions or inaction may contribute to them or our lack of preparation leads to additional suffering. If one feels that God is infallible and omnipotent, then every happening has to mean something. But most things don't mean anything. Life can be beautiful and wondrous sometimes ... but it also can be a cruel bitch. Learn from life, but don't attach causality to random events. To think that God would punish the Japanese for Pearl Harbor while letting the US off the hook for Hiroshoma, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. is an example of not only Christian blindness but also a scary kind of nationalism.

So, Cappie, keep your tweets and your religion to yourself. You are entitled to your opinion and your free speech, but you are also entitled to be criticized for such.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There must be some kinda way out of here ...

"There must be some kinda way out of here"
Said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief ..."

Lyrics by Bob Dylan. Song covered numerous times, most notably by Jimi Hendrix

I'm not posting this for any particular reason. No tie-in to a current political or cultural event. The excerpt I quoted above certainly describes how I feel sometimes about work, life, the world ... whatever. But, I'm just posting it because it's a damn good song.

I just heard Hendrix's version on the radio the other day and realized how much I love the song. Dylan's version is great as well, but Hendrix imbued the song with a fire that even Dylan had to acknowledge. Dylan has even admitted that the manner in which Hendrix played the song informs his own performances since that time.

The song has obvious allusions to the Bible (as do other Dylan songs), but what strikes me is the out-of-order manner in which the lyrics unfold. The thematic start of the song is at the end, both lyrically and musically. Kinda like you would expect if Quentin Tarantino wrote a rock song. This propels the song forward and gives one a sense of anticipation or urgency for it to repeat. It's this sense of bottled-up repetition that makes it perfect as a recurring plot element in season 3 and 4 of Battlestar Galactica and really an encapsulation of the series as a whole.

"All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again."

This is a performance by Bear McCreary, the composer for the series, with a little help from Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck):

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tyranny of the Fortunate

"Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone." -- John Maynard Keynes

Is it any wonder that we've lost our way (not that we ever really knew "our way") when tragedy happens and the things we are worried about are our stock portfolios? Capitalism is broken. Our media is broken. People are broken.

Larry Kudlow Devalues Human Life With Japan Earthquake Freudian Slip

In these tough economic times, isn’t it nice to know that calamitous natural disasters needn't have an adverse affect on your investment portfolio? After the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan failed to induce a market nosedive, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow expressed his relief in terms that seemed to appall even his fellow cheerleaders for capitalism: “The human toll here,” he declared, “looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”

I detest the trolls that populate these channels and I detest the sheep that hang on their every word. Go and get real job. Build something. Make something. Help someone. Don't profit from the suffering of others. We need to stop rewarding people for just moving money around. Insurance agents, mortgage lenders, bankers, stock brokers, venture capitalists, CEO's ... my garbage man contributes more to society than you do.

"Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate." -- Bertrand Russell