Friday, January 23, 2015

The pope backpedals (sort of) on limits to offensive speech

Two days ago Pope Francis issued a clarification (which I would characterize more as a wishy-washy retraction) of his implicit endorsement of physical violence as an appropriate response to free speech that he made last week.  I enthusiastically endorse the excellent analysis by Jacob Sullum (thanks to regular commenter Luke for pointing me to that link!) and I encourage everyone to go read it in its entirety.

I want to reiterate the nature of my disagreement with the pope: it is not about human nature.  I agree, of course, that many humans instinctively want to respond to insults with violence.  That is not the point.

My disagreement with the pope is two-fold.  First, the pope strongly implied in his original remarks that the human instinct to respond to insults with violence is a fundamental fact of life to which we must (perhaps even should) simply resign ourselves.  I disagree, and so does Jesus (hence my leveling a charge of hypocrisy against the pope).  This aspect of human nature is not a feature, it's a bug, and the pope should have said so.  He should have said, "Insults make us angry.  We want to respond to anger with violence.  I get that.  But Jesus teaches that we should respond to anger not with violence but with compassion and forgiveness, because anger is usually a result of emotional pain.  This is the thing that those who insult religion need to understand: their insults cause pain to their fellow human beings.  And while they have the absolute right to say whatever they want, we all have a moral responsibility to temper our actions with compassion."

That's what the pope should have said.  (And, Frankie, if you want to hire me as a PR consultant, I'm available.)

But the second aspect of my disagreement with the pope is that he singled out insults against religion for special treatment.  The problem with offensive speech is that offense exists only in the mind of the offended.  In the case of physical violence there is no disagreement about the harm: the life is lost, the bone is broken, the nose is bloodied.  But offense is subjective, a matter of taste.  I, for example, do not find the Charlie Hebdo cartoons at all offensive.  In fact, I think they are well within the bounds of reasonable socio-political satire (unlike, for example, "The Innocence of Muslims" which I did think was offensive.)  This raises the same unanswerable question that all matters of faith inevitably lead to: on what basis do decide who is right?  Are Muslims "legitimately" offended or are they being hypersensitive pussies?  (And, of course, if someone takes offense at my use of the (deliberately provocative) phrase "hypersensitive pussies" the same question applies recursively.)

Personally, in the Charlie Hebdo case I come down on the hypersensitive-pussy side.  This idea that creating an image of the Prophet is a grievous sin is a relatively recent invention.  Muslims used to create images of Mohammed themselves.  But it doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong about that (there is no way to tell, that is the whole point).  If we give in to the offense of Muslims, what about other people's offense?  What about my offense?  I am deeply offended by many things the pope says (like the garbage he continues to spew about homosexuality being sinful, women not being suitable for the priesthood, the unacceptability of birth control, yada yada yada).  Should the pope stop saying those things because they offend me?  Of course not.  Why should Muslims be entitled to more consideration than anyone else?

The elephant in the room is that the actual answer to this question is: because there are a billion Muslims, and some of them riot in the streets and blow shit up when they get offended.  But the correct response to terrorism is never to capitulate to the terrorists.  That simply emboldens them.  The correct response to terrorists, as it is to any bully, is to stand up to them, to say fuck you, no, you do not get special treatment simply because some of you are willing to violate the social contract.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Open mic night on Rondam Ramblings

Whew, I have just spent an inordinate amount of time responding to various dangling comment threads.  Despite my best efforts, I fear I may have left some points or questions unanswered.  If I did, I apologize.  If there's anything you'd like me to respond to that I haven't, please post it in the comments section of this post.  (If you're picking up a thread from another post, please include a link.)

My thanks to Luke and Publius for ongoing lively discussions!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Apparently the Pope needs to read the Bible more carefully

Pope Francis showed his true colors the other day:
“If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said while pretending to throw a punch in his direction. 
He added: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
So... the pope just endorsed the use of violence against those who "insult the faith of others."  Well, you know what, Frankie?  Fuck you.  After taking the cardinals to task for developing spiritual alzheimers I thought you might be cool, but apparently you're just another in a long line of walking talking hypocrites.  It is you who seem to have the spiritual alzheimers, as you have obviously forgotten Matthew 5:39.  Or don't they teach that one in seminary any more?


Yes, I really did just tell the pope to go fuck himself, I'm that pissed off.  You know what you don't do if you want to advance yourself as an advocate of peace?  You don't fucking endorse violence as an acceptable response to speech, no matter how fucking offensive it is!  So fuck you, pope Francis, and the horse you rode in on.  Think of all the suicide bombers who will hear your words and conclude from them that they are on the righteous path.  The blood of their victims will be on your hands and your tongue.

God damn what is the world coming to when an atheist has to school the pope on his own scriptures?

My parents neglected me when I was a child

I wasn't aware of this until today, but my parents apparently neglected me when I was a child.  Every week day from the age of six until ten I walked to school by myself. And back.  0.8 miles each way according to Google Maps.  I even walked in the rain and the snow (though I have to confess it was not uphill both ways).

Well, OK, I wasn't actually alone.  There were lots of other kids walking to school, and usually I would walk in the company of some of fellow neglected waifs.  Oh, and there was the crossing guard near the school.  But no parents hovering over us.  That was just the way things were done back in the day.

But apparently, letting your kids walk by themselves is child neglect.  Who knew?  I sure didn't.
It was a one-mile walk home from a Silver Spring park on Georgia Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. But what the parents saw as a moment of independence for their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, they say authorities viewed much differently. 
Danielle and Alexander Meitiv say they are being investigated for neglect for the Dec. 20 trek — in a case they say reflects a clash of ideas about how safe the world is and whether parents are free to make their own choices about raising their children.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The one question faith cannot answer

Sometimes things don't go as planned.  My Parable of the Free Beer seems to have landed with a resounding thud, so perhaps a word of explanation is in order.

First, in case it wasn't obvious: yes, it was intended to be an allegory about theology, and Christian theology in particular.  Replace "free beer" with "God's grace" and you have an almost verbatim transcript of sermons I have heard street evangelists deliver.  In fact, I remember one street preacher in Santa Monica back when I was making my movie literally take a five dollar bill out of his wallet and ask, "Who would like five dollars?" and then go on to say that God's grace was infinitely more valuable and "all you have to do is take it."  It wasn't literally free beer, but in those days you could still get a beer for five dollars.  (Maybe you still can.  I don't actually much care for beer.)

Second, it was supposed to be funny.  If you didn't think it was, well, go get yourself a sense of humor.  You can order one from Amazon nowadays.

Last but not least, the Parable was intended to make a serious point, namely, that without an independent standard (like evidence) how is an honest Seeker of the Truth supposed to choose from among the many religions on offer in today's market?  You've got Christianity, which comes in so many flavors it is like the Baskin-Robbins of theology.  Islam comes in two major varieties and handful of minor ones (like Sufism).  Then you've got yer Buddhists and yer Hindus rounding out the world's major religions.  But wait, as they say in the trade, there's more: there's Jews, Jains, Mormons, Scientologists, Raelians, Bahais, Satanists, Wiccans, and good old fashioned neo-pagans.  (Give me that old time religion!  It was good enough for grandpa so it's good enough for me.)

This is the question faith cannot answer: on what basis should one choose where to put one's faith?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Parable of the Free Beer

There is a classic logic problem that goes like this: you are on an island where some of the natives always lie and others always tell the truth.  You find yourself at a fork in the road where one branch leads to the village, the other into the jungle, and you wish to determine which branch is which.  There is a native standing at the fork, of whom you may ask one yes-no question.  What do you ask?

The usual, nerdy answer goes something like, "If I were to ask you if the left path is the way to the village, would you say yes?"  The problem with this answer is that the native may as well decide that by the time he sorts out the hypotheticals, the cannibals will have emerged from the jungle and had both of you for lunch.  So in the real world (and I may as well warn you now, this post will require a certain level of suspension of disbelief) he is as likely to say, "Bugger off" or "WTF?" as he is to say yes or no.

Martin Gardner suggested a brilliant, practical solution: you should ask, "Did you know they are serving free beer in the village?"  Then you ignore the answer, and just follow the villager whichever way he goes.

This solution is cute, but not without its issues.  It assumes, for example, that your interlocutor likes beer, that he doesn't have urgent business in the jungle, that he is not an "artful deceiver" willing to forego a shot at free beer in order to mislead a foreigner, etc.  Furthermore, it assumes that the native is not considering the possibility that you might be a deceiver, and that you are asking the question not because there is, in point of fact, free beer in the village, but that you have (as indeed you do) some hidden agenda that has nothing at all to do with beer.

In this post I want to consider the inverse problem: suppose you know the way to the village and a native comes up to you and says, "Did you know they are serving free beer in the village?"  How would you respond?  Assume for the sake of argument that you like beer, and all else being equal you'd rather pay less than more.  But in this case all else is not equal.  To act on the information that is (apparently) being provided to you, you have to walk to the village.  If you get there and discover that they are not, in fact, serving free beer then you have incurred, at the very least, an opportunity cost.  Since you are wise in the ways of wily natives, you decide to make further inquiries, and the following conversation ensues:

You: No, I did not know they are serving free beer in the village.  Are they in fact serving free beer in the village, or are you trying to trick me into showing you the way to the village?  Because if it's the latter, all you have to do is ask.  This isn't a logic puzzle.

Native: Oh no, I assure you, there is no trickery, and I have no hidden agenda.  They are indeed serving free beer in the village.  Do you like beer?

You: Indeed I do.

Native: Then why are you not at this very moment rushing off to the village?  It's right over there.

You: It's because I'm a little skeptical.  It seems odd that they should be serving free beer.  As far as I know, there is no reason for them to be doing so.  Is there a festival going on that I didn't hear about?  Or maybe the beer company is running a promotion?

Native: No, nothing like that.  The barkeep is just a particularly generous fellow.

You: I see.  So he sometimes serves free beer just out of the goodness of his heart, does he?

Native: Not sometimes.  Always.  Twenty-four by seven.  All you have to do is walk into the pub and ask.

You: That seems a tad implausible.  How does he stay in business?

Native: Tips.

You: You'll have to pardon me if I'm not convinced.

Native: Oh, it's true.  Ask anyone.  Say, Fred, come over here a second?

Fred: What can I do for you?

Native: This foreigner here doesn't believe that they serve free beer in the village.

Fred: Oh, they do.  I've availed myself of it many times.

[So you go to the village and enter the bar.]

Barkeep: Welcome, stranger!  What can I get for you?

You: I hear you're serving free beer.

Barkeep: Indeed we are.  And not just any old beer.  It's the best beer you've ever had.

You: Can't wait to try it.

Barkeep: Well, as soon as you're dead, you can.

You: What?!

Barkeep:  Oh yeah, didn't they tell you?  You can only have this beer in the afterlife.

You: I knew there had to be a catch.

Barkeep: It's not a catch.  This beer is so good that if you had it while you were alive your head would explode.

You: Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?

Barkeep: Yeah, I know, but it's true.

You: What makes you think so?

Barkeep: Oh, the evidence is overwhelming.  People have written books about the beer.  2000 years ago people were actually able to try it.  And even today, while you can't actually drink it until after you're dead, you can experience it.

You: How?  (And what does it even mean to experience beer without drinking it?)

Barkeep: You have to believe in the beer, and then the beer will reveal itself to you.

You: That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard in my life.

Barkeep: Be that as it may, you really want to believe in the beer.

You: Why?

Barkeep: Because if you don't then when you die you will go to the Hostelry of Eternal Liquor Lossage, which is a very bad place.

You: What makes it such a bad place?

Barkeep: No beer.

You: Hm, that does sound unpleasant.  Can I take some time to think about it?

Barkeep: Sure, but don't take too long.  Once you're dead, that's it, no do-overs.  And you never know when you might get hit by a bus.

You: I'll be careful.  Thank you, and good bye.

Barkeep:  Good bye. Oh, before you go, take a copy of the Beer Insider's and Brew Lover's Encyclopedia.  It will tell you all about the beer.  How it was made, what makes it so special, why you can't get it any more except after you're dead...

[He hands you a thick book.]

You: Thank you.

[You exit the bar, making a mental note to be very careful to look both ways before you cross the street.  On the sidewalk outside you encounter another villager.]

Villager: Say, stranger, did you know that they are serving free wine in the next village?

Monday, January 05, 2015

Reframing theodicy

The latest round of my recent interaction with Publius made me realize that there might be a new move in the theological chess game known as theodicy.  The usual opening gambit is, "Why would an all-powerful God allow the existence of evil?"  And the usual reply is that evil is regrettable collateral damage caused by God's granting us free will, which is necessary for our salvation (at least that's the Arminian response.  I actually have no idea how Calvinists deal with the theodicy problem.  If I have any Calvinist readers perhaps you could enlighten me?)

But it occurred to me that evil is actually a red-herring.  The real question is: how can there be unsaved souls in the presence of an all-powerful all-loving God?  To put this in the starkest possible terms:

1.  Either it is God's will that I be saved, or it is not.

2.  If it is not, then God is not all-loving.

3.  If it is, and I can thwart God's will (by e.g. not believing in Him) then God is not all-powerful.

I think this formulation is more powerful than the usual one because it prevents playing evil off against salvation as the greater good.  Unsaved souls in the presence of an all-loving all-powerful god are simply a logical impossibility.  Hence, if I (or anyone else for that matter) reject God, then that rejection in and of itself is proof that God cannot be all-loving and all-powerful.

(Note that this argument does not depend on free will.  It doesn't matter why someone rejects God, only that someone does.)

Take that, Descartes!


Note: this argument does have one tacit (i.e. unstated) assumption.  See if you can figure out what it is.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Why I believe in the Michelson-Morley experiment

Despite the fact that I haven't been writing much lately, I'm still getting a few hundred pageviews a day according to Google, and I also picked up a few new subscribers over the holidays.  Whoever you are, welcome, and thanks for reading.

Regular commenter Publius and I have been mixing it up in the comments section of an old post about being an AI in a box.  In it, Publius asked:
Even Michelson & Morley looked for the Luminiferous Ether. You replicated that, right? Just didn't read about it in a book?
The answer, of course, is that no, I have not personally tried to replicate the Michelson-Morley experiment.  And yet, I believe the extraordinary claim that the speed of light is the same for all observers (with a few caveats).  So why do I believe that even though I "just read about it in a book" but I don't believe in Jesus despite the fact that I can read about him in a book too?

The glib answer is that I don't believe in Harry Potter either, despite the fact that I read about him in a book too.  But the real answer is much deeper than that.  It's "obvious" that Harry Potter is fiction and the Michelson Morley experiment is not.  But the reason this is obvious is not at all obvious.

The first-hand evidence I have for Harry Potter's existence is actually much, much stronger than what I have for Michelson-Morley.  I have seen actual photos of Harry Potter.  Not just still photos, but high-definition video.  Hours and hours of it.  And all of it is consistent with the written accounts, of which there are seven volumes written in my native language (so no concerns over mistranslations).  By way of contrast, I have no idea what Michelson or Morley looked like.  I wouldn't even know their first names if I hadn't looked them up.  I have never read their original paper, only second-hand accounts in text books and Wikipedia.  I have no idea whether the people who wrote the accounts upon which I rely ever knew Michelson or Morley (I suspect they didn't) or even read their original paper (I suspect they did, though I would not be totally shocked to learn that they didn't).

So it would seem that the actual evidence I have in hand even for the existence of Michelson and Morley is pretty thin, let alone that they actually performed the experiment they are purported to have performed, or that it had the outcome it is purported to have had.  After all, special relativity at first blush seems to border on the miraculous, and my acceptance of it on such thin evidence does indeed appear to be a leap of faith.

But it's not.

To see why, let's go back to Harry Potter.  I reject the proposition that Harry really exists (or existed) despite the overwhelming evidence that he does (or did) because there is a theory that explains the (apparent) evidence for Harry's existence better than Harry's actual existence.  That theory is: Harry Potter is a work of fiction.  It was originally written by J.K. Rowling, and then turned into films as a commercial venture.

Why is the Harry-is-fiction theory better than the Harry-is/was-real theory?  Let me start with a bad argument: Harry is fiction because there is no evidence of the wizarding world outside of the books and the movies.  The reason this is a bad argument is that this lack of evidence is actually explained by the Harry-is-real theory: the wizarding world takes great pains to keep itself concealed from the muggle world, so it is not at all surprising that there is very little evidence of it in day-to-day life.  Moreover, the reason that the wizarding world conceals itself has a plausible explanation: if the muggle world were to learn of the reality of the wizarding world, social order would collapse.

A better argument for the Harry-is-fiction theory is that it's consistent with our current understanding of the laws of physics.  If Harry Potter really exist(s/ed) that means that magic really exists, and all of our understanding of physics goes out the window.  This is a stronger argument, but it is still weak because it is in fact possible for our understanding of physics to be wrong.  But the ways in which it can be wrong are not open-ended.  For example, the odds that even the most radical revolution in physics would permit a violation of the law of conservation of energy are indistinguishable from zero.  And yet, that is exactly the sort of change that the reality of magic would require.  In every nook and cranny of Harry's world there are vast quantities of energy being employed with no apparent source.  (Indeed, that is almost the defining characteristic of magic.)  But even that is not really the slam-dunk argument.

The slam-dunk argument for the Harry-is-fiction theory is that it explains a lot of additional observations that the Harry-is-real theory does not.  It explains the fact that everyone -- including J.K. Rowling, her publishers, the filmmakers, the booksellers -- all of these people insist that Harry Potter is fiction.  It explains the fact that all known photos of Harry Potter bear a striking resemblance to the actor Daniel Radcliffe.  It explains why none of the Harry Potter films were ever nominated for an oscar in the "best documentary" category.  It explains why no university in the world has a department of wizardry.   It explains why even on the fringiest fringes of tinfoil hattery you will not find anyone who seriously advances the theory that Harry is/was real.  The scale of conspiracy you would have to envision to explain all that in the face of the proposition that Harry Potter is/was real surely boggles even the most credulous mind.

The situation with Michelson-Morley is exactly the opposite.  We have a huge community of scientists all insisting that Michelson and Morley were real people, that they really did the experiment they are purported to have done, and that it really did have the result that it was purported to have had.  Moreover (and this is crucial) this community insists that Michelson and Morley's results have been replicated many times since the original.  How many times?  I have no idea.  Can I name even a single person who has ever replicated the M&M result?  No, I can't.  So why do I believe it?

It's because I have a GPS in my phone.

What does GPS have to do with the Michelson-Morley experiment?  It's because of the way GPS works.  The receiver in your phone listens for signals transmitted by a few dozen satellites orbiting the earth.  By measuring the timing of those signals and comparing that with the known orbits of those satellites, a GPS receiver can figure out its location.  To be accurate, the math has to take the results of not only the Michelson-Morley experiment into account (which demonstrates special relativity) but also has to make corrections for general relativity, because clocks on the surface of the earth run more slowly than clocks in orbit.  If Michelson-Morley were not true, GPS could not possibly work in the way that it is purported to work.

The fact that my GPS does in fact work is something I can directly observe every single day.  I can walk around my block or drive around town or even travel to distant lands and see that my GPS at all times reflects exactly where I am to an astonishing degree of accuracy.  There are only three possible ways to account for this:

1.  GPS works exactly as advertised, and is therefore direct, firsthand evidence available to me (and everyone else) of the correctness of the theory of relativity

2.  GPS works some other way, and there is a vast conspiracy afoot to promulgate a false story of how GPS works for some nefarious reason that I cannot even begin to imagine

3.  GPS does not actually work at all, and the fact that it seems to work is some kind of freakish coincidence

I leave it as an exercise for you, dear reader, to work out which of these is most likely to be true.

Now, applying this sort of analysis to God is not nearly as straightforward as most people (on both sides of the debate) seem to think.  The situation is not nearly as cut-and-dried as it is in the case of Harry Potter and Michelson-Morley, where the overwhelming consensus aligns with all of the available evidence.  The reason God is problematic is precisely that the majority view does not align with the scientific evidence.  The result is two bad arguments, one on each side of the debate.

On the atheist side, the bad argument against God is exactly the same as the bad argument against Harry: God is not real because there is no evidence that He is real.  There are two reasons this is a bad argument.  First, most theories of God account for the fact that the scientific evidence for Him is thin: God doesn't want to beat you over the head with proof of His existence.  He wants you to come to Him of your own free will, and you can't do that in the face of incontrovertible proof of His existence.  And second, it's simply wrong.  There is overwhelming evidence, even more accessible to you as a human than the GPS evidence for relativity, that there is something crucial missing from the scientific account of reality.  That evidence is: the laws of physics are symmetric with respect to space and time, but you have a privileged reference frame that you call "here" and "now".  The laws of physics cannot account for that.  Most atheists deal with this by sweeping it under the rug and deciding it's not important.  But if you choose to attach cosmic significance to your own experiences (and, ultimately, your own experiences are all you have, so it is not at all unreasonable to choose to attach cosmic significance to them) then you have no choice but to go beyond (our current understanding of) physics.

On the religious side, there are a whole host of bad arguments.  Most prominent among them is the argument that God must be real because He has revealed Himself through the Bible.  Or the Quran.  Or the Book of Mormon.  Or the writings of L. Ron Hubbard.  That's the thing, there are so many versions of God's Word available, and they contradict each other, so they can't all be right.

Even if you just take the Bible and ignore all the others, it just doesn't hang together, and it particularly doesn't hang together with what most Christians seem to believe: that there is one God (though somehow made of three parts), that this God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-loving, that the OT and NT describe the same God.  Frankly, I don't understand how anyone who has read Leviticus or Joshua can believe that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is the same deity.

In fact, the whole idea of an omniscient, omnipotent deity who requires blind faith to avoid eternal damnation makes no sense to me at all.  Omnipotence and omniscience are logically incompatible with free will, but free will is a pre-requisite for moral culpability.  So either God punishes people for things over which they have no control, or man has the power to thwart the will of God (and hence God is not omnipotent).  I see no other possibilities.

Another bad argument for God is that He must be real because the idea of a world without God leads inexorably to unbearable existential despair.  That's a bad argument because the truth doesn't care what you want.  The truth is the truth, and there's no reason to believe a priori that the truth doesn't suck.  Even if there is a God, there's no logical reason He has to be all-knowing all-powerful all-loving.  There isn't even any logical reason there has to be only one of Him.  Maybe the truth is not that there is a God, but that there are many gods.  Or maybe there is one God, but he's a trickster (or a spoiled brat), more like Loki or Trelane than Jesus.

An only slightly better argument is: I know God is real because I have personally experienced Him.  I've never heard anyone give an adequate account of how they know that what they have experienced is (say) Jesus and not Loki.  Somehow they Just Know.  And again, people claim that God tells them things that are mutually inconsistent.  Some people claim that God tells them to love thy enemies, others say God tells them to engage in jihad.  They can't all be right.  Since God has not seen fit not to reveal Himself to me in this way, I have no basis for separating the true claims from the false ones.

This same credit-assignment problem exists for ontological and cosmological arguments as well. Even if these were good arguments for some god (they aren't, but it's a moot point because...) they are not at all arguments for any particular god.  Fine-tuning could be achieved as well by a super-intelligent alien as by the God of Abraham.

A final bad argument is: look at all the sacrifices made by believers for their beliefs.  People would not endure such suffering if their beliefs were not true.  This argument is plainly false, because people sacrifice themselves for mutually-incompatible beliefs.  Early Christians martyred themselves for Jesus.  Today, Muslims martyr themselves for Allah.  In 1978, over 900 people died for Jim Jones and gave rise to the popular aphorism "drinking the Kool-Aid."

So there might be a good argument out there for believing in God, but I haven't found one, and it's not for lack of trying.  I've read the Bible (and the Quran, and the Book of Mormon, and the Bhagwan Bible, and a few others).  I've talked to Christians and Muslims and Jews.  (I've even talked to a few Scientologists, though frankly they scare the shit out of me.)  The theory that makes the most sense to me is that there are no gods, and people believe (or pretend to believe) because of a mixture of indoctrination, social pressure, and as a palliative against existential despair.

This theory explains most of the observed data, but not all of it.  In particular, Luke is still an unexplained anomaly, and that keeps me a little humble.

Happy new year, everyone!