Friday, November 24, 2006

Truth and reconciliation

These two posts do a pretty good job of elucidating the point I've been trying to make (badly apparently) about what is wrong with the confrontational style of atheism promulgated by Richard Dawkins et al.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Confessions don't start with the word "if"

God help me, I cannot believe I am actually writing about O.J. Simpson, but the number of people taking seriously the proposition that his book ought to see the light of day because it's a confession really steams my clams. Hello! Earth to Timothy Noah! Confessions don't start with the word "if". If O.J. waned to confess he'd go to the police and say, "I killed them. I'm terribly sorry. Lock me up." Or at the very least he'd start to pay the civil judgement he owes to the Goldman family. But "If I did it" is no confession, it is twisting the knife. It is a spoiled narcissistic scum-sucking murdering brat whining about the fact that no one pays any attention to him any more. "Hello," O.J. is saying, "I got away with murder, remember? Everyone pay attention to MEEEEEEE!" It's a scene more suitable to an episode of South Park than to real life. Anyone who treats this animal or anything that he says or writes with anything other than unmitigated contempt ought to be ashamed of themselves. That is, until he drops the "if".

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I've found my spiritual home

So here I am writing all these rants lamenting what a jerk Richard Dawkins is when this falls in my lap. It took me less than half an hour to see the light: I am a Realist! Halelujah!

Seriously, I think this guy has a much better approach to spreading the Word than Dawkins does. Joining the Church of Realism also comes with fringe benefits.

Holy crap, this guy is prolific. And some of his writings are real eye-openers. I'm gonna be up half the night.

Monday, November 20, 2006

What's so great about evidence?

Right on cue Richard Dawkins answers the charge of being an atheist fundamentalist :

"Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books."

To which I respond: What's so great about evidence? Is not your belief that evidence is a reliable guide to Truth just a matter of faith?

I can only imagine how Dawkins would respond to that, but there is only one answer that I can think of so I'll argue with myself and say: the difference between evidence and faith is that the holy books are mutually and internally contradictory, and there is no principled way of resolving those contradictions. Scientific evidence, by contrast, is consistent and independently reproducible, and therefore everyone at least agrees on what the evidence is even if they might differ from time to time about the implications.

The problem with this is, interestingly, a manifestation of the Universal Asymmetry that I pointed out in my last post on this topic. Dawkins may have come to his beliefs by studying "the evidence" but very few people have this luxury. The vast majority of the people in the world do not have direct access to "the evidence." At best they have access to books written by people (scientists) with access to the evidence. And the vast majority of such books are written specifically to be inaccessible to the layman. (To be fair, many of Dawkins' own books are notable exceptions to this rule.) Take me, for example. I believe in evolution, but not because I have actually studied the evidence. I don't have time for that. I believe in evolution becuase it makes sense to me. And people who believe, say, that Christ died for their sins, believe that for the same reason: because it makes sense to them.

Make no mistake: I absolutely believe that those who deny evolution are wrong. The difference between me and Dawkins that I understand how someone might reasonably come to a different conclusion and Dawkins doesn't. He believes despite evidence to the contrary that all non-scientific worldviews are unreasonable. They are not. They just start with different premises and life experiences. Until Dawkins and his ilk come to understand and accept this (and adjust their rhetoric accordingly) I predict they will make little progress towards their stated goals.

P.S. It is not true, as Dawkins claims, that there is are no corrective processes in religion. The text of the holy books may not change often (although it does happen) but the interpretation of the holy books is in constant flux, just as the interpretation of scientific evidence is.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now he tells us

Henry Kissinger says that victory in Iraq is no longer possible.

Damn those latte-sipping sandal-wearing terrorist-mollycoddling liberals. I'm sure it's all their fault.

The elephant in the atheist living room

Richard Dawkins shows off his finest fundamentalist form when he attempts to discredit any possible reason an atheist might have to tolerate religion. Dawkins to my mind is no better than the assholes who work the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica waving their Bibles and spouting off about the evils of homosexuality. [UPDATE: This is worded too strongly. I should have said something like: some of Dawkins's rhetoric is no better than...]

I personally subscribe to a variant of I'm-an-atheist-but-ism #2: people need religion. There is palpable irony in seeing the Great Logician himself trying to refute this argument by saying that it is condescending. Even if it were (I don't think it is), so what? Aren't we supposed to judge the truth of falseness of a proposition by the evidence rather than on whether or not we think someone might be offended? By rejecting this argument on the grounds of political incorrectness Dawkins shows himself to be just as much of a hypocrite as all the other religious fundamentalists.

But the problem runs even deeper than that because not only is Dawkins arguing ab-political-correctness, he is also knocking down a straw man: It is not that people need relgion, it is that they want religion! Some people, to the perennial chagrin of people like Dawkins, simply prefer existence with the sense of purpose that faith can provide (and frankly I can muster a great deal of sympathy for that position if jerks like Dawkins are the role models for the alternative). This is simlpy a fact. People choose religion of their own free will. It is the height of condescension to suppose, as Dawkins does, that choosing religion is ipso facto an unsound decision, and to appoint yourself as the arbiter of what they should have chosen for themselves.

It gets worse still because there are manifest sound reasons why someone might reject science in favor of religion, not least of which is that there are important questions that science cannot answer. Science, being objective by definition, is by its very nature unsuitable for addressing questions of subjective experience. We can tease out, say, all the chemical reactions that occur when one eats a chocolate bar and still have made no progress towards an understanding of what it is like to eat chocolate.

Science is likewise impotent in the face of mystical experience. Scientists tend to write it all off as delusion, but that is unjustifiably facile. Imagine that there were a genetic mutation that made one unable to taste chocolate, a sort of color-blindness for your taste buds. (When I was in my twenties I caught a weird virus that actually made me completely lose my sense of taste for a few days. It was a very distressing experience.) Someone with this mutation would be utterly unable to grasp the subjective experience of eating a chocolate bar, and if there were enough of these people they might suppose that all the folks waxing rapturous over the wonders of chocolate were (no pun intended) nuts.

Although we are making astonishing progress in understanding how the brain works, the mind is still a deeply mysterious phenomenon. Science cannot yet eliminate the possibility that some minds might be in contact with something extra-physical (or even just complex and subtle, but nonetheless real that we do not yet understand), and so to dismiss religion on the grounds that it is a priori untenable is, at best, premature. But, as ever, it's actually much worse than that. There is an elephant in the atheist living room, a question that is both obvious and unanswerable by science. It is this: why am I me? From my point of view there is this very obvious asymmetry in the Universe that the symmetric laws of physics not only cannot account for, but with which they are in fact fundamentally incompatible. The facile answer -- that the situation is symmetric because everyone experiences this -- is not an answer but an evasion. It does not address the question, which is why do I have this particular subjective experience.

I am personally content to let that question remain unanswered and revel in the delicious mysteriousness of it all. But I see no rational reason for passing judgement on those who might choose to do otherwise.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Chasing a dream

After watching the events of the world unfold over the past few years I've grown a pretty touch hide, but this still made me cry.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The terrorists win

If George Bush is to be believed, terrorists around the world have won a major victory as Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Good thing George Bush is not to be believed. It's a little early to say that my hope in the American electorate is restored, but just maybe there is hope for the world yet.

Good night, and good luck.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Sniveling cowards

Just when you thought the policies coming out of the twisted little brains of the Bush administration couldn't possibly get any more perverse we learn that they want to prevent torture victims from talking to lawyers because

"Improper disclosure of other operational details, such as interrogation methods, could also enable terrorist organizations and operatives to adapt their training to counter such methods, thereby obstructing the CIA's ability to obtain vital intelligence that could disrupt future planned terrorist attacks"

And what of the innocent people who are accidentally caught up in this secret web of kidnapping and torture and God only knows what else because of bad intelligence or vendettas or political agendas or less-than-iron-willed people who are willing to say anything to stop the pain? Unfortunate but necessary "collateral damage" in the war against terrorism you say? Then what exactly is it that distinguishes us from the terrorists?

Actually, I can think of one thing: the terrorists are not willing to sacrifice their principles to save their own skin.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

It just keeps getting better

From AP via Yahoo! News:

"A Republican congressman accused of abusing his ex-mistress agreed to pay her about $500,000 in a settlement last year that contained a powerful incentive for her to keep quiet until after Election Day, a person familiar with the terms of the deal told The Associated Press."

Ye gods. Are there any Republicans left who aren't involved in some kind of scandal?

Idiocy has a silver lining

This is supposed to be funny, but it's actually the inevitable result of following Dubya's rhetoric to its logical conclusion. Surely if it's true that "if the Democrats win then the terrorists win" then anyone who votes Democratic is supporting the enemy and can therefore be rightly declared an enemy combatant.

Happily, Dubya has never been very good at logic. But there is staggering irony in the possibility that the only thing keeping the opposition out of Gitmo is Dubya's inability to reason.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Disaster looms

Ars Technica has a good round-up of why we can expect chaos come election day.

Bye bye, Democracy. It was fun while it lasted.

Found and lost

Not 24 hours after John Kerry found his backbone he lost it again.


Porn prevents rape

It has always seemed plausible to me, and now there's scientific proof that internet porn reduces the number of rapes. This is not speculation, not overhyped extrapolation from some laboratory experiment. This is real data from the real world. Where the Net goes, reduction in the number of rapes inevitably follows. Having had a little firsthand experience with the annoying effects of hormone overdose (no, not that -- I'm talking about the natural kind that comes along with puberty), this result is not too surprising. If you provide a safe way for randy boys (ah, youth!) to vent their excess testosterone, so to speak, in the privacy of their own homes they will be less likely to take out their frustrations on other people.

Voting fraud continues

First it was Florida, now it's Texas. (Gee. Imagine that.)

Friday night, KFDM reported about people who had cast straight Democratic ticket ballots, but the touch-screen machines indicated they had voted a straight Republican ticket.

Some of those voters including Lamar University professor, Dr. Bruce Drury, believe the problem is a programming error.

Ya think? Wow, those profethorth are tho thmart. I wish I wath ath thmart as them.

John Kerry finds his spine


Beginning of the end? Or the end of the beginning?

Iraq is starting to unravel:

Sunni insurgents have cut the roads linking the city to the rest of Iraq. The country is being partitioned as militiamen fight bloody battles for control of towns and villages north and south of the capital.

As American and British political leaders argue over responsibility for the crisis in Iraq, the country has taken another lurch towards disintegration.

Well-armed Sunni tribes now largely surround Baghdad and are fighting Shia militias to complete the encirclement.