Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Movies: When exactly did this happen?

Warning! A somewhat nerdy rant is forth coming.
You have been warned!

I was wondering recently after watching the film Wanted (warning: minor spoilers) when it was exactly that Hollywood decided that the laws of physics no longer had any place whatsoever in movies. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not beyond a little disbelief suspension and Hollywood has always had a somewhat casual relationship with the laws of physics. What I am talking about here is the utter abandonment of them altogether.

I really like the first Matrix film. It was a reasonably interesting story with some really great action and fight scenes. I had no problem at all with the characters leaping about with no regard for gravity because their ability to do so was explained in a reasonably sensible manner. They were in a computer simulation so it was ok. I am happy to not examine the notion any further. Wanted though is an example of where Hollywood has been steadily heading over the last decade or so. People for no good reason can simply choose to ignore the laws of physics. Apart from the odd bit of completely outlandish aerial acrobatics in cars, the most ridiculous notion in the film was the characters utterly unexplained ability to curve bullets round corners. I am don’t just mean putting a really slight deflection on a bullet here, we are talking a full 360 degree circles no less. Why this was even included in the film is quite beyond me. I guess the hacks that vomited up this silliness just felt like they needed something more to make the film different.

On a side note, if you feel like a good laugh, take a look at James F. McGrath's post on the film. It is the perfect example of modern theology. Seeing meaning where there is none.

You might just scoff and think me a nitpicking nerd. Fair enough, I can understand the argument.

I am not suggesting that all films need to be 100% physcially plausible. I just would prefer it if they were not blatantly 100% phyically impossible. I think the reason I object to this sort of thing is that it is so completely unnecessary. Many a good action movie in the past has been made without the need to throw physics completely out the window. Maybe it is just the nerd in me but when something happens on screen that is not just physically dubious but ridiculously physically impossible I can’t help getting a little turned off the movie. I am of course referring to thing that are not supposed to be absurd or ridiculous on purpose. If for example a film about vampires has people bursting into flame when exposed to sunlight or Spiderman has people walking up walls I’m fine with it. It is intended to be fantastical. In a film like Wanted there is nothing about these people which should enable them to make bullets do impossible things. They just….do? I just can’t understand why this is done. Are there lots of people out there that find this kind of thing really enjoyable? Is there someone out there that thinks this film was better than it would have been if this particular talent had just been omitted? When action films employ this sort of impossible to ignore nonsense they reduce the film to the level of a cartoon. Consider the Bourne films. Matt Damon gets up to all kinds of improbable adventures as a super-spy/assassin. The action is intense and the story fast paced and gripping. Really enjoyable. Nowhere in the film do we see Bourne bending bullets around corners or performing impossible feats yet he seemed a far more dangerous and competent character then the bullet-bending super humans of the movie Wanted. I won’t even get started on the colliding bullets bit. I mean why?

I do realise that Wanted and Bourne are different animals but I just can’t fathom what a movie like Wanted is supposed to gain by the inclusion of this sort of thing. Suspension of disbelief is fine but do they have to make it this damn hard for us? There were some things I quite liked about the film. The depiction of the main characters depressing life was very well done and quite entertaining. I think most of can relate on the boring 9-5 front anyway. They took some tips from the likes of fight club in style for that part of the film.

If, unlike me, you have no issue with this kind of thing, you will probably find Wanted to be a reasonably entertaining film. If you share my irritation at this unfortunate trend in films, to place their stories in a different universe to ours, then this one will get on those nerves a bit.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Uncle Sam is packing heat!

This post started off as a response to James Elliot's post In Defense of the Self and the Second Amendment but I rambled so much I decided not to clog up his comments section. I do go a little off topic here but I know you love it (I don't know who you are but I know you love it!!!)

While I liked the post and indeed would feel fairly comfortable about the presence of large numbers of guns in my environment if all gun owners showed the same consideration as James has; gun control is only sought because large numbers of people don't treat firearms with any kind of respect. Freedom, personal and otherwise can and does exist in the absence of the second amendment. While it is certainly true that an individual can use other weapons of their own construction or even their physical body to attack others, guns allow an immediate and wholly disproportionate increase in one individual’s ability to coerce others. Guns are very simple to use, you can argue about their effective use but I suspect most people would not dismiss even an untrained child holding a loaded gun. It is very easy to kill someone with a gun, or even kill lots of people. I haven’t studied the American constitution or its amendments in great depth so correct me if I am wrong here but the amendment only seems to say that the people have the right to “keep and bear arms“. It doesn’t seem to address what kind of arms so it is open to debate in either direction. Presumably at the time it was referring to firearms then available but times have changed. Is it my constitutionally protected right to own a tank or a fighter jet or a nuclear weapon? I am assuming not. We can and must amend our rights in reasonable response to changes in technology or economic realities. I am guessing there is other legislation that prevents an ordinary citizen from owning a nuke. The common sense reason for preventing a private citizen from owning things like tanks and F-22s is that they are too dangerous. The question then becomes one of degree. What kind of “arms” are too dangerous for private citizens to own? Is a pistol ok; what about an M16 or go a little further to an M60? Is a .50 Barrett sniper rifle too much? What about RPGs and Racket launchers?

We must have some restriction on what arms a person has the right to bear. The second amendment seems fairly broad in those terms. It is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that guns in general (particularly modern guns) are too dangerous for general civilian ownership. The matter is certainly worthy of debate. On the point of self defence, a lot of private citizens in the U.S. own guns but the U.S. has the highest rate of gun death of any first world country. It is not unreasonable to assume that more guns will likely lead to more gun deaths, either as a result of accidents or of people simply making use of the greater availability of guns when settling disputes. Given the fact the many democratic nations have managed to remain free despite great restrictions on individual gun ownership and the fact the more guns just don’t make people individually safer, I am not sure either argument really holds much water. In the colonial times of the birth of the U.S. I’m sure it made perfect sense. I am Irish and in Ireland not even the police have guns. While gun related deaths are on the rise and I’m sure that eventually the police will be armed (I think they already should be) I doubt that arming the general public with a wide variety of firearms from pistols to assault rifles would do anything but raise the level of gun death. Despite the fact that I quite like guns personally and would love to own a few, I don’t really consider it a particular violation of my rights that I am not allowed to have one or at least not an unjustified restriction. The truth is that if I am allowed to have one, everyone around me is, at the very least, potentially much less safe; be it through my incompetence or my malice. That might even be considered an impact on the rights of those around me but that might be taking it too far?

In general Americans make a big fuss about liberty on this issue. I consider Ireland to be as free or freer than the U.S. at this point. I can ridicule our prime minister in public if I want to without being confined to a “free speech zone” or being investigated by any number of secret police like organisations. The police in this country seemingly have a harder time invading my private space than they do in the U.S. and the thing I am most thankful for is the notable absence of the huge number of government organisations that exist in the U.S. like the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the N.S.A., the D.I.A, the D.H.S. and many more; all removed from the already present local police and their own special divisions like S.W.A.T.
For a nation that prides itself on liberty and individual self-reliance there seems to be an almost paranoid quality in its approach to defence, national and personal.
Simply being allowed to own guns will never be a safeguard of freedom. In my opinion, the best safeguard of civil liberties and freedoms in a modern democracy is a free and objective press. Fox news and the slow and continuing slide of American press into that mode of highly partisan news reporting is a far greater threat in terms of your government becoming authoritarian than any restrictions placed on your rights to own guns. The G. “dubya” B. administration alone has demonstrated the means by which a democratic government restricts the freedoms of its citizens. It is not with tanks and bullets but with bills and legislation. A slow shifting of the boundaries of civil liberties heavy with terms like patriotism and freedom. America is no longer a land of patriots and it is well on it’s way to becoming a land of sycophantic nationalists. There is no better way to gain control over people than by getting them to think it is a good idea and of benefit to them and their security. That political objection can be effectively defeated by simply calling it “unpatriotic” or “un-American” is truly frightening. That the majority of votes cast on the patriot act were cast without the voter even having read it is not only frightening; it is dumbfounding.
It is such an obvious abuse of the democratic process but it was done in a reactionary “God bless America” moment so it was ok. Any country willing to abandon it’s democratic principles in the face of a relatively minor crisis (as opposed to say large scale invasion) is not really a true democracy at all. It is a democracy of connivance as much as conviction. It is like a man with a gun not interfering with your freedom only because things happen to be going the way he wants. I find it strange that American labels the invasion of a foreign country as an act of ‘defence’. The most powerful military an economic power on the planet invades a country about as geographically removed from it as possible and with absolutely no hope of mounting any kind of military threat to the U.S. and does to keep America safe and free…….WTF???? There is a pervasive idea amongst American soldiers and the America populace in general that a soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is defending the freedom of the U.S. This is complete horseshit. This is complete and utterly obvious horseshit. GWB and his henchmen have made good use of this culture of paranoia and persecution and have actively sought to exaserbate it for their own ends. But I digress !

Getting back a little on topic, the goals and ideals of the founders of the U.S. were in my opinion noble and worthwhile particularly so in the time they were living. I think their ideas were progressive and well intentioned. Modern laws and rights do not have to continuously replicate or maintain old laws and rights to successfully replicate the intent and the ideals and there might well be situations where maintaining obsolete notions is actually counter to those ideals. Whether or not gun ownership falls into that category is definitely debateable. It is absolutely true that as of this moment American citizens have the constitutional right to bear arms. That says absolutely nothing about whether or not they should have that right.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The origin of values

Eric left a comment on the last post suggesting that I respond to Evanescent here as I have been banned from his blog. For the sake of the readers sanity I will not reproduce the entire last post here but I will extract the arguments from it and respond.

I notice how you say “emotional desires”, instead of just desires. Didn’t you earlier say that desire is an emotion? So what you just said is like saying “emotional happiness” or “emotional sadness”; it makes no sense. But you must qualify the word “desire” with “emotional” because you realise (now) apparently that desires have sources. Desires from emotion can still have a rational source (they usually do), because reason can shape our emotions.

This is probably the main source of our disagreement. I believe that humans are first emotional beings and make use of our enlarged brains and our reason to further our desires.

I’ll try to make a clearer case for what I am getting at.

It was many moons ago when I was considering an artificial intelligence that the primary stumbling block of the effort to produce a fully fledged A.I. occurred to me. Machines can in theory think much like a human. If you had a complex enough neural network with the ability to alter it’s own weightings and maybe even expand the network as it goes along, you could produce a rough electronic simulation of a brain. There is nothing mystical or fantastic about the basic mechanism of the human brain. The brain is a truly amazing organ, no doubt, but the basic mechanism behind its functioning is relatively simple.

Lets do a little thought experiment then. Let us suppose then that we have produced a brain that functions like a human brain in terms of being able to process information in a massive neural network and adjust itself in response to information. The real problem as I see it is motivation. Why would the brain choose to do anything at all? Why would it think? Humans think in response to goals they acquire. If you get hungry, you respond by thinking on the goal of finding food. The biological urge creates the goal. When people go looking for food, they are not at first thinking about blood-sugar levels and specific sustenance requirements of their bodies. They are thinking that they are hungry and a built in drive, purely instinctual, drives them to find food. The reasoning process comes later. A good illustration of how these primal desires override our reason is the unfortunate mariner who finds himself adrift without water. He knows that drinking seawater will not help him and will in fact dehydrate him but when the thirst instinct becomes too great he will eventually drink the seawater. His instinctual drive overpowers his reason. He might even be aware of the statistics which show a drop of about 35% probability of survival for those adrift who drink seawater. In the end the temptation may be just too great. His desire to drink the water is not a rational thing. It is pure emotion. He doesn’t like being thirsty. He wants to drink the water. That’s it.

The same is true of almost any of the survival urges. When they get strong enough, reason takes a back seat. I’m sure the strongly christian Uruguayan rugby team stranded on the mountain top would have proclaimed with confidence that they would never eat a dead person before the events dramatised in the movie “Alive”. The survival instinct is incredibly strong and most people will abandon their reason and their morality when placed in the right (or the wrong) circumstances.

So getting back to our machine. It has no urges, it has no desires. You can hard code in instructions that tell it to do a certain task, much like conventional computers are programmed. In either case, it will do as it is compelled by it’s instructions but it doesn’t want to do it. Neither does it not want to do it. It just does it. It’s behaviour will never change in terms of it goals. It doesn’t really have any. It might even be able to reason but it will never desire. That’s the rub. Without motivation, without desire, it will only ever be a tool. A very smart tool maybe but it will never be anything more. Suppose the brain is self aware, why would it choose to do anything at all? It wants nothing. In all likelihood, such a brain would probably do nothing. If we found a way to give the brain feelings about things then you would have a personality on your hands. We rationalise and reason about the things we want. We consider how to make things better either for our own immediate ends or in a broader sense. Better means nothing objectively. Better than what? If you asked this brain if it wanted to continue on or be permanently switched off, it would have no preference. Why would it? Life is only valuable to us because we are programmed to feel it is. Consider life and death from a purely objective point of view - that’s objective not objectivist :)

Is it valuable. I don’t think the question even makes sense in a purely logical consideration. It requires emotion to give it value. Just as an unfeeling brain would not value life, neither would we if we were not the emotional creatures we are.
The objectivist here might suggest that this is their point. That life is only valuable to the living, that the notion of values only makes sense to the living. Fair enough. I have no argument with that but it is more a coincidence than anything else. What the objectivist is overlooking here is that living things are all instinctual entities. All life has the in-built motivation to stay alive. Life is not valuable to the living, life is valuable to all things that want to stay alive. The expression of this instinct is more overt in the more complex examples of life. While instincts are not emotions per se, they generate emotions. Instinct generates emotions. An animal, which could hardly be said to be a rational and reasonable entity will still value it’s life. It will feel fear when placed in danger or an unfamiliar circumstance. It values its life it would seem. Consider it this way. Imagine you are in a car crash and you suffer brain damage. Your ability to reason is not effected, only your ability to feel emotions. Now suppose a man walks up to you and points a gun at your head. You feel no fear. You understand quite well that if he pulls the trigger you will be killed but being unfeeling you are the epitome of apathy. So what if you die? Why is that a bad thing? You don’t value anything. You don’t feel any particular way about anything. You are alive, I don’t think most people would dispute that but you don’t value your life because you cannot feel.

Evanescent suggests that humans being primarily emotive entities is necessarily false. The only explanation of this that he gives is

Notice how you equate desire with emotion as if they are one and the same? They aren’t. Emotions are the instantaneous psychological reactions to our values being realised or frustrated. They are the RESULT of our experiences, not the guide to them. Humans, to be rational beings, must primarily act through reason and logic, and therefore attain happiness. It doesn’t work the other way around.
Chimp, if you think humans are “first and foremost emotive beings”, I would like you to PROVE this statement. That should be easy enough, huh? Hang on, you can’t PROVE anything without establishing a rational chain of argument based on logic and a process of reason. Therefore, in order to make ANY statement, you must presuppose that you have the capability of reason and rational thought, which means rationality is a prerequisite to any statement of knowledge. So to say that humans are primary emotive beings is blatantly false, and self-contradictory.
In real life “what if” terms, for the utilitarians out there, imagine you are aroused and want to have sex. An emotive man rapes the first girl he sees. A rational man doesn’t. Why? Which one are you?

I don’t agree with this definition of emotion. instantaneous psychological reactions to our values being realised or frustrated

If this definition were accurate, how does the objectivist explain something like clinical depression or bi-polar disorder. In the case of these disorders a person feels a certain way because of brain chemistry. Their emotional state is entirely divorced from their values being realised or frustrated. What you will notice though is that the individual suffering from these condition will think differently on account of the emotional motivation they are experiencing. They will often act irrationally?. Their reason is clearly slave to their emotions. Emotions can be instantaneous psychological reactions to our values being realised or frustrated but I think the definition is unnecessarily narrow.

To be brutally technical, emotion is a chemical reaction in you brain but that doesn’t really help us solve the chicken and the egg problem we have here. Evanescent argues that our rationality and our reason is where our desires come from, that while we can act on emotion, we learn our values thought he rational interpretation of our experiences. This is more or less backwards. Evanescent seems to be ignoring the fact that our reasoning about our experiences is emotionally directed. What do I mean by that?

Rational action would seem here to be an action that is consistent with what you value. But if it is by rationality that we learn our values we are entering into a circular reasoning process. I rationally conclude what it is that I value, rationality is acting in accordance with my values. How does an individual first determine what is valuable. In a purely rational sense, as we examined above nothing has value unless it is satisfying a desire. How then does rationality help us to determine our initial values? We need a starting point. We need a motivation or prejudice to inform our reasoning.
Killing is only wrong because we feel like it is. If everyone were to go about killing indiscriminately we would quickly become extinct. So what? Why is that ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? We decide what is right and wrong. I doubt the objectivist would disagree with that. We decide what is moral and immoral. These things are purely prejudice. There is no objective, free floating moral absolute. It is how we feel about things that determines our morality, not our reason. This is not to say that reasoning or rationality have no place at all in determining our morality. Of course they do, I merely contend that the impetus is provided by how we feel about things. Our reasoning is what allows us to expand our moral prejudice beyond our immediate circumstances and surroundings, to abstract basic urges into more complicated moral action.

you can’t PROVE anything without establishing a rational chain of argument based on logic and a process of reason. Therefore, in order to make ANY statement, you must presuppose that you have the capability of reason and rational thought, which means rationality is a prerequisite to any statement of knowledge. So to say that humans are primary emotive beings is blatantly false, and self-contradictory

The above is one of those statements that doesn’t really pass the ‘so what’ test. I don’t need to prove my emotions in order to feel them. Evanescent is asking me here to prove something using a rational chain of argument. Fair enough. What that has to do with the emotive states of humans is beyond me. Why should the proving of something, i.e. the natural condition of a thing mean that it must be predicated on the same rational thought process that was used to describe it. This is just non-sensical. The logical deduction that Evanescent attempts here is senseless. In order to make a rational statement you must presuppose you are a rational entity, therefore you can’t be primarily emotive. Lets just do a quick word replace here.
In order to make a rational statement you must presuppose you are a rational entity, therefore you can’t be primarily orange. Is there a logical difference I’m not getting. He is saying that in order to use a faculty you must be primarily predicated on the faculty. That is not logical or rational or reasonable.

Lets look at this statement again

NO OTHER PROCESS IS ACCEPTABLE, because only reason can identify the nature of man, the nature of existence, and figure out how the two can harmonise for one’s life to be maintained and flourish

This is apparently why humans must be first and foremost rational entities.

Only reason can identify the nature of man. This again is a highly prejudicial statement. What do we mean when we say the nature of man? His motivations, his desires, his values and his physical parameters? We are right back here it seems to talking about the values that mankind holds. The remainder of the statement is just words strung together. It is at absolute best, trivially true and unimportant to the discussion. It certainly does nothing to advance the claim that humans are primarily reasonable and rational. I stand by my initial assessment.

Animals manage to maintain their lives and flourish without identifying their natures though reason and similarly without reasoning out the nature of existence. They certainly so not devote considerate thought to harmonising the two. Some creatures operate on a purely instinctual basis and do just fine. Instinct generates emotional motivation. Does the sensation of being hungry drive a creature to eat? I don’t think the sensation itself does. It is just a sensation, much like the tactile sensation of heat. If there is too much heat the sensation becomes unpleasant. We don’t like it. It feels ‘bad’. We have immediate placed a value judgement on the sensation. It is bad and not good. We have not reasoned out that it may be harmful to our skin cells, we just didn’t like it. If you leave your hand on a hot radiator, you can reason that it will be detrimental to your hand but it is not this reasoning that makes you pull you hand away. You don’t like the sensation. In a purely rational sense, there is no difference between pleasure and pain. They are both sensations, each one just feels different. We like pleasure we dislike pain. Most people eat not to ingest calories but because they are hungry. We want to make the hunger sensation go away. We derive pleasure from doing so. Dessert has no rational place in our diets. It is purely an emotional addition to eating. We eat our desert, regardless of its nutritional valu,e (usually deserts are not the healthiest foods around) because we desire it. We like it.

“I take it this case is closed now: values should be rationally chosen, not emotionally. In fact, emotion is the physiological RESPONSE to our values. Your original error was to put the cart before the horse. “

A bug will act to protect its life, obviously valuing it. Bugs are not reasonable or rational in any meaningful sense. They are instinct engines. Purely reactionary. They react to stimulus. Consider a purely emotional realm, value most certainly can be present. In a purely rational realm, value has no meaning. Carts and horses are certainly being juxtaposed, no doubt.

This disagreement about the origin and nature of what we value is my first disagreement with what I take to be objectivist though on the topic. If I have it wrong I would be glad of an explanation. I should stress though that I would like an explanation not an assertion.

Eric says/asks:

I'd be interested in knowing why you think the dictionary definition is better/more accurate than the one Evanescent provided. Whether you accept Objectivism or not, the notion that anything is intrinsically valuable is difficult to defend.

The reason I consider the dictionary definition more accurate is because this is what I believe most people mean by the term value. The fact that it is the dictionary definition is fairly strong support for that notion. You cannot start redefining terms to suit your philosophy and expect not to be called on it. Objectivists will be right about everything if they define every term to suit themselves. Anyone will be. I am not an objectivist, why should I adopt their esoteric definition of a commonly understood term?

I am not suggesting that anything is intrinsically valuable in some totally objective sense. I am suggesting that our primary values are built-in. A derivative of the evolutionary process. Much like our higher thoughts are an emergent property of billions of highly simplistic neurons interacting, so too are our higher values and our morality emergent from baser instinct. Nothing can be reasoned to be valuable without an emotional bias.

Evanescent is at best unlcear on this point.

Me: If I were offered the choice between being kept alive but never being able to do anything, not only would my life lose all its value to me, it would be a burden I would seek to get rid off.

Evanescent: Well, there you go then! All the things you enjoy are a value to your life. You don’t live in order to value, you value in order to live!

Me: As I have already stated, many people believe there are concepts that are more worthy of pursuit than life. There are many things that people would accept death sooner than living with.

Evanescent: Yes, many people believe that. So what? I didn’t dispute that. People who pursue immoral irrational goals like slavery, religion, socialism, communism etc are not pursuing life.

…but I thought people valued in order to live. Am I missing something? This looks like he is contradicting himself.

When someone acts against the objectivist idea that values are rationally derived, indeed can only be derived by rational means. Remember: NO OTHER PROCESS IS ACCEPTABLE they are being irrational Isn't irrational the opposite of rational?

So when someone acts in a way that is clearly contrary to this notion they are acting irrationally……but I thought they couldn’t derive values by anything but rational means.

Life is apparently the end to which all values are directed but above, slavery, religion etc. are not pursuing life. Clearly then by his own statement not all values are directed at life. This is only a problem if you start with the presupposition that values are derived from rationality as opposed to emotion and that life is the end to which all other means are ultimately directed. What does irrational even mean here? Contrary to what Evanescent feels is rational? Can it be logically determined that slavery is irrational? I doubt it.
What does the objectivist suppose is the reason for people being irrational? Do these irrational people consider themselves irrational or is the 'irrational' we are using here subjectively defined in accordance with our values and our prejudices about what rational is?

I don’t think Evenescent has answered these questions or stated a particularly good case for his view. I would like to hear from more objectivists on the topic. I am not opposed to the notion, I just don’t think that the evidence leads to that conclusion. I am open to persuasion though.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Evanescent and objectivism.

Well, I had been told by db0 that I would eventually be blocked from commenting on Evanescent’s site and indeed I have been. I think db0 had a similar experience. It was in part terrible use of bad language that eventually got me banned (yeah right). Poor ole evanescent and his unassailable logic where not able to handle certain collections of letters.

Ole Evan has swallowed Randianism so completely that he is no longer able to think in a non-randian way. Everything he thinks and writes is drawn directly from Randianism to the point where it is the dictionary and presumably everyone else that is wrong and Rand who is right. A few fringe lunatics following a novelist is not quite a majority last I looked. Still, if redefining the terms to suit yourself is what it takes to try to pretend you can think, Evenscent is more than happy to leap in and start messing with meanings.

I don’t mind that he is bad at thinking or that he is unbelievably pompous about it (sure it is irritating but each to their own) but Evanescent has done the most cowardly thing you can do on a blog. He has banned me from comment even though he goes right ahead and responds to my last post. By the way, for anyone interested the foul mouth language I used amounts to two words bullshit and holy shit. So essentially I said the word shit twice. I had been under the impression I was debating an adult by I suppose all the “I’m better than you, nananana” stuff should have given away that I was in fact arguing with a child. A brainwashed one at that.

Objectivism is Evanescent’s religion. I say this because he accepts everything Rand writes even the redefining of commonly well understood words. He is literally incapable of thinking outside of Randianisms. This is evidenced by the nearly incessant asserting he does without justifying the thinking. He claims I don't know enough about objectivism to comment. He is overlooking the fact that I was commenting on what he wrote, not objectivism. I should say at this point that from what I have read from Rand was also full of baseless assertion. Objectivism is not a philosophy, it is a dogma.

If anyone wants to take a gander at our little spat you can find it here in the comments section.
According to Evanescent I embarras myself while he gives me the spanking of a lifetime. I am not worthy of even sharing blog space with the great and mighty intellect that is EVANESCENT. I was out of my depth.....well according to him anyway. It seems it is a habit of his to ban people who don't just accept what he is saying is right. It is sad thing.

Perhaps he should have some kind of proviso on his web site banner warning people that questioning the almighty Rand will not be tolerated and any dissenting voice will be silenced. Would save some time.

Shame on you Evanescent. Having to have the last word and then banning. Shameful and cowardly.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Playing with Ray

I posted a vary brief comment over on Ray Comfort's site on his latest horrible and pathetic attempt to explain away bible contradiction.

The comment was as follows:

That was the entirety of it. Ray did not allow it through, apparently the partial spelling of the word bullshit was too vulgar for his readers.

Because I don't like my job and spend most of my day not working, I decided I was going to try to sneak the entire word bullshit onto his site.....I know, I I said I was bored and at work.

I managed it by posting the following poem (although without the bold):

Bible stories are all a mess
unless you to your God confess
let not my senses find the cracks
let not my reason see the lacks.
so evident in bible tales
holes and gaps and epic fails.
it's so obvious and downright plain
that Christian simply can't explain

It got through :), even better, it might function on a subliminal level and a Christian or two might utter that horrible, offensive and downright disturbing word somewhere without even knowing why......I really need a new job.....

Almighty 101

Let us for humour sake consider a possible God of the twenty-second century. “101 the almighty”, the software engineer and technological God who laid the foundations of quantum mechanical law, biology and UML and who created on a mountaintop somewhere a computer circuit that reveals the new rules by which humans were always supposed to live. What might 101’s "1010 Commandments" be and will there be updates available free online. Will he be an electronic God who distributes his “1010 Commandments 2.0” from a magical server some people say exists even though no one knows the IP address or has ever recived a message from it?
Electronic temples with free wifi might spring up all over the world where the prime-geek will declare in his fancy costume (baring religious symbols such as the binary ‘01’) in a loud voice (CAPS LOCK)
To which the drone like congregation respond in unison
“101 is trans-format an will plug into any port”
He might then recount the tale of how 101’s chief designer was send to earth to upgrade our telecommunications infrastructure and how he managed by 101’s magical compression algorithms to cram the entirety of wikipedia onto a 2gig USB memory stick.

101’s Commandments

0001: Don’t worship any other magical programmer/biologist/engineer (every other God uses this rule so there must be something to it - right?)

0010: Be careful with my name because that’s really important…I think, ok maybe not. Knock yourselves out.

0011: Remember to celebrate Bob’s day, which is Monday. It is the day that Bob was compiling the universe and he put his feet up and had a double mocha latte. It someone wants to go off and be a wet blanket though, let them, their loss!

0100: Your folks may not understand facebook but if not for them using their ZX spectrums, you would not have X-BOXs. So be nice to them.

0101: Don’t make computer viruses. It is not cool, it just makes you look like a bitter nerd.

0110: Don’t log on to someone else account. Doesn’t matter what kind of account or even if they are using it anymore. It’s not yours, leave it alone.

0111: Don’t pirate software…well not too often anyway and definitely not if it is being offered at a reasonable price. Same goes for music and movies.

1000: Don’t flame people just because you disagree with them.

1001: Don’t feed the trolls.

1010: Exercise common sense when it comes to everything else. You don’t need me to tell you that killing people isn’t nice. In short. Don’t be an asshole.

If the world lived by 101’s commandments rather than Yahweh’s, would it be much different?

Why I think evolution theory is trouble for religion.

Throughout history there have been many scientific discoveries that have cast a long shadow on religious belief. From discovering the water cycle to heliocentricity. Of course, some people do still pray for rain. Undoubtedly these people would sneer at a tribal rain dance but think their own version is a serious and worthwhile undertaking. Some people just refuse to learn!

The one theory in modern science that really seems to make the religious uncomfortable is evolution. Evolution is an almost universally accepted theory amongst people who know anything about it. There are of course some dissenting voices in the scientific community but almost every theory has a few detractors. It is a reasonable statement to make that evolution is a proven theory is so far as any theory can be proven. There are libraries of evidence to support the idea. Infact, there is so much evidence that a lot of religious groups and organisations have been forced to accept it. They usually do so with some made up new idea that God started it off or something to that effect. In the modern world, educated people laugh at creationists. We laugh because they continue to believe something that has been shown to be false. They are sticking to their guns (and/or bibles as the case may be). The more reasonable theists out there are not quite so stubborn as to simply deny evolution. They know it happened so they instead try to go around it and pretend it doesn’t really matter to their faith. They decide that their reading of the bible as metaphor is more sophisticated that those silly creationists. This strikes me as one of the most intellectually dishonest things any large movement has ever done. They are claiming that the countless generations of people who came before them who were almost all creationist were wrong to read the bible literally. Silly creationists. The reasonable and honest conclusion would be that the bible is wrong and has been clearly shown to be. They can’t do that though. To acknowledge such massive errors in the bible would reduce its value to roughly what most atheists take it be already; for all but historical/mythological purposes: worthless. It would become much the same as a statue of Zeus. It may have some value as a cultural artefact but it has nothing to say about our reality. The standard tactic employed is to simply overlook the old testament. That is the part of the bible with all the really nasty bits where God acts like a complete asshole. If we can just overlook that half of the bible we can still hold on to the good stuff. Well, we will still pretend that the old testament stuff is still valuable but that it is written in a metaphorical way and you have to be really clever to understand it properly Lets pretend that instead of some ignorant babble written by a couple of ancient goat herders, it is actually really amazing and important insights into human behaviour! Cool.

So what about the New testament? That is surely immune to evolutionary attack. After all, it was only about 2000 years ago and evolution doesn’t have much to say about a time span that short. Right?…..well no, not quite.
We are apparently made in God’s image. People once thought that meant he looked human but the more modern evolution-friendly interpretation is that we are made in his image spiritually. Ah, right. We have souls you see, they are what make us like god and what elevate us above animals in the grand scheme of things. Uh-oh. Doesn’t evolution posit that we were once animals. Even worse, it suggests that we are still because evolution is a continuous process. We are still evolving. Maybe we are animal-like now in comparison to what we will become? If were animals in the past, did we still have souls back then? Could we commit crimes like murder? When a lion kills another males cubs in order to mate with the female, is he committing infanticide. Will God be angry with them? Was there some point in our evolution when God popped in and decided it was time for us to start having souls? That would have been an uncomfortable generation.
“Hey God, will I see my mommy in heaven when I die?”
“Nope sorry, your mother is an animal”

Evolutionary theory should and to the critical and unclogged mind does remove the notion of a soul and with it washes away most if not all religious belief.
Clinging to a concept long after it has been rendered obsolete is not the act of a rational mind. Neither for that matter is the belief in invisible people. We once believed in all manner fantastical creatures and happenings and powers, but all of these, every last one that has met the scrutiny of scientific investigation has fallen away. Most of the core doctrines of modern religions have also been shown to be false; the religious just refuse to notice. One day, Jesus Christ as the son of God will take his place along with Yahweh amongst the dead Gods who all lament those two powers they could not overcome. Reason and Science.

It is sad but I think almost inevitable that new religions will rise to replace those who that have fallen, making grand claims about the universe and all powerful entities who created and command it until the next wave of scientific progress washes away those fantasies with a torrent of fact and evidence. What form will these gods take? What will their miracles be in a technological society? Would you doubt for a second that the adherents of those religions will look back on the followers and Yahweh and Allah and shake their heads, wondering why people believed they were communicating with God? They might even ask their God about it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Do we really value the things we claim to? and do we tolerate too much nonsense?

If you asked anyone, they will probably tell you they value honesty and forthrightness for example. Do they really value honesty though? Men lie to women all the time. When a woman spends a figure comparable to the GDP of a small African country getting her hair done and her partner can’t tell the difference from the way it was before; he will generally tell that her hair looks great and that she looks beautiful. He will say this even if her hair looks decidedly not great and she unbeautiful. Most people will agree that there is no major harm in this kind of lie. I would agree. If he tells the truth in this instance lots of bad things will happen. She will probably go out the next day and spend a figure comparable to the GDP of a large African country getting her hair done again, her feelings will have been hurt and he isn’t going to be getting laid any time soon. On the other hand, the lie will have her feeling good about herself. Where is the harm? I really don’t think there is any.

Lets look at another situation though. Suppose our hapless friend is asked what he finds attractive in a woman. He responds truthfully and forthrightly by saying that he likes slim woman and that he finds excess weight to be extremely off putting. Is there a problem with this honest response? He is only taking about his personal preferences. In many situations it will be fine. It may not go down quite so well at a obesity conference. It is worth noting here that he would not have to lie to preserve tact, just omit some information. Consider instead if he said, “I like white women”. How many people would consider this a racist statement or an implicit suggestion that non-white women are not attractive? It is neither of course. It is a statement of personal preference. In no way different to saying, “I prefer blondes”. Is that a brunette-ist statement?
Regardless of how innocuous his intent with his honesty, we are well trained to omit or even lie about much of what we think in order to safeguard the sensibilities of others or possibly to avoid their anger.

There are things we all lie about instinctively. The facts is that not all babies are beautiful, neither are all women, the interior decoration of many a friends house might be even verging on the hideous. Big is not generally regarded as beautiful. It is not just what is on the inside that counts. We all judge books by their covers. Harry potter books are children’s books regardless of how many of your adult friends have read them. The car he has loving restored will likely always look old and tatty to her and will convince her that he really is just a large child. Men generally prefer to be taller than their partner. Women generally prefer to be shorter than theirs. Women are generally not very good at hand to hand combat, no matter how many American tv shows like to pretend there are. Men are not all sex-obsessed narcissists…well ok most of us are. Men do like to be in control. Women in general prefer a supporting role in most situations no matter how politically incorrect it may be to say so. We all think that killing a man is less bad than killing a woman. Yes, we really do and yes you do too. The glass ceiling does not exist. Shush, don’t say that in front of women. It may be true but that won’t save you. Men are not better at business than women. Both are equally bad at it. Women are not more virtuous than men but also they are not less so. I always find it funny how women can be portrayed as both the paragons of virtue and purity and at the same time, indulgent, materialistic temptresses. Women are more prone to illogical belief. Men are more prone to pretending they know things that they don’t. Men are afraid to appear weak. Women prefer it that way. Men are far more concerned with their partners appearance than women are. This does not make men shallower than women. It makes them different. Men are more prone to infidelity; it is their natural instinct. This is not so for women. This is not an excuse for men to cheat. Women are more social by nature. Men are more competitive and aggressive. Men are more violent. Men take more risks. Everyone, yes, you too! is capable of doing terrible things given the right circumstances/treatment. Some are more amenable than others though.

Here is some popular bullshit which most of us do not loudly decry (as we should): America is not the land of the free, it may have been, but is not anymore. Justice and fairness are not overly important concepts in American society. Most religious people to not have the courage of their convictions and most do not live by the tenets of their faith. Islam is not a religion of peace. Anyone who thinks it is does not know the first thing about it. Fine art is predominately utter crap. Liking it does not make you intellectual or cultured, it makes you gullible, tasteless and largely incapable of independent thought. Faith is not a virtue. It is synonym for gullibility. Positive thinking is a constructive thought process. “The secret” is some utter bollox which makes no sense. People who believe it should be institutionalised for their and others safety. There is no “law of attraction” unless we are taking about opposing magnetic poles. Stars and planets have no impact on your personality or on your life. You cannot be “in touch” with nature. You can like it, sure but you are no more “in touch” with it than the least environmental friendly oil barren who likes to burn oil just to see the smoke. Nature is not a force or an entity. It is the name we give to all the naturally occurring things that are not us. Homeopathy does not work; it cannot work. It is retarded. Depleting global oil reserves are a big problem. They do not signify the end of the world though. Recycling is a huge pile of rubbish at least at the current level of technology. With the exception of a few products, it generally cost more to recycle than to just dump something and make a new one. Recycling does hold come promise in the future but right now it is nothing more than a political gimmick and a handy way for people think they are helping when they are really not. Reducing your carbon footprint is very unlikely to have a significant effect on the global climate or ecology. A forecast on Chinas CO2 emissions expected an increase of about 2.5% to 5% each year from 2004 to 2010. As it turns out the rise has been around 11% per year. If you think that your driving a hybrid car is helping to save the environment, well it isn’t really. Don’t drive a car, don’t eat food you didn’t grow yourself, don’t use gas, oil, coal, peat or electricity in your home and don’t buy anything that is or contains plastic and I will be VERY impressed.
Ahhh, that’s better. Nothing like a good rant to clear the head!!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Response from Sam

Rev. Sam Norton has responded to the questions I posed to moderate christians. Sam’s post is here. Sam's answers are in blue Italics. Original questions in green. Some of these questions will have seemed simple, maybe even naive. The point is to get down to some very simple questions and use the answers to build up a more informed idea of what the other side really thinks about some of the really basic things upon which a faith has been built. Is it as irrational as I think? Maybe, maybe not. Let's find out. Thank you Sam for providing me with some answers to work with. I have some follow up comments/questions. I think it is important to mention also that when I ask for evidence, I am in this case asking for any kind of evidence, including biblical justification.

1. Do you think the bible is the inerrant word of God? If not, why not?

No, simply because Jesus Christ is the inerrant word of God. Treating the Bible this way is a Protestant innovation, by and large.

The first sentence is possibly a little confusing and I think exploring it more might be quite interesting. “Jesus is the living word”. What does this mean? My first reaction to this statement (quite a while ago) was to assume it was just a poetic way of saying something like “Jesus lived perfectly according to God’s word” or “Jesus was the epitemy of godly living”. I have since come to wonder if some religious people mean something more literal when they say this. If that is so, what exactly does it mean?
Also, saying that the bible in not the inerrant word of God because Jesus is, is a little vague. Maybe the answer to this question would bring more clarity. Do you think that all the actions/saying/teachings/commands etc of God and Jesus in the bible are accurate and are indeed from God and Jesus. If not, how reliable would you say the bible is in terms of it’s describing historical events?

2. If you answered no to question 1, why do you think that a) it is reasonable to believe that a man wielded magical powers and b) rose from the dead and c) was a god and a man at the same time; I am assuming that you do not generally believe in these things. What is it about the Jesus case that is so compelling as to make believing the impossible reasonable?

a) I don't think Jesus did anything which isn't (in principle) available to the rest of us to do.
b) I think i) the historical evidence is robust, and ii) science doesn't have anything to say about it.
c) My understanding of God (and man!) is different to yours.

On a). Are you suggesting that we could all perform Jesus like miracles? Have you any evidence to believe this is true (of any kind, biblical etc.)

On b) If I told you I saw someone come back from the dead after three days you would not likely believe me. If 1000 people all attested that they saw it happen, you would most likely still be sceptical. A very poorly corroberated claim from an age where such a claim was hardly unique can surely not be said to be historically robust. Are there any particular pieces of historical evidence you find particularly compelling? Also, I think science can comfortably illustrate that a corpse cannot come back to life after 3 days.

On c) Presumeably you think Jesus has some attributes or some essesence which was different from and unatainable by a normal human (i.e. he was not a regular human). Do you think there is good evidence for this and if so what is the most compellnig evidence in your opinion?

3. Why does God command and condone evil acts in the bible (genocide, Rape, slavery etc.) if he is good?

i) God is beyond good and evil, so my basic answer is 'I don't know'
ii) Some of what is predicated of God is a projection of local culture
iii) Some of what is predicated of God is about obedience or something else (Abraham and Isaac)

On i) God is beyond good and evil, what evidence is there for this? He seems to expect people to be firmly on the good side. If God truly was beyond good and evil (not sure that actually makes any sense), why would he prefer one over the other?

On ii) Are you saying here that God did not actually commit these acts? If you are, how do you know?

On iii) Does the idea of God having to test someone seem a little inconsistent to you? I am thinking of Abraham and Isaac. Would God not already know whether or not Abraham would do it or not, why the need for the test?

4. Why is it not more reasonable to assume that God is evil given his rampage of destruction throughout the O.T?

It's all in how you read the OT. I read it as the story of a people discovering that YHWH wasn't the bloodthirsty tribal God that they thought he was.

I presume you mean by this that many of the old testement stories where the authors wrongly interpreting what they thought God was like. Many times in the O.T. God speaks to people. Were they just making it up? There are many stories in the O.T. which simply can’t be viewed in a positive light no matter how hard you try. God’s orders to utterly wipe out the Amalekites for example.

5. In what way would an evil God have acted differently and can you imagine a way in which God might have acted more morally at any point in the O.T.?

I have no view on the latter part, but on the former part - he would have resembled the Baals and the Molochs.

Are you referring to sacrifice? YHWH fancied a bit of that himself. If you are referring to something else, can you elaborate.
Do you think God might have found a better way of dealing with sinners than wiping out all life on earth?

6. Why is Jesus’ character so different from the God of the O.T. if they are (inexplicably) the same person?

Technically that's Marcionism. The whole point of Christianity is that Jesus is NOT different to the God of the OT.

Do you think that the pacifist, ever merciful and forgiving character of Jesus is compatible with the jealous, violent, draconian YHWH?

7. It appears I can't count quite as well as I had formerly presumed. There was no question 7. :)

8. Is it conceivable to you that Christianity might not actually be true (in the sense that Jesus might just have been an irregular Joe.)?

Yes. It's perfectly conceivable that the resurrection didn't happen.

Willingness to accept even the possiblity that it may not be true (even if you believe it is true) is probably the single greatest distinction between the moderate and the fundamentalist. Glad to see you are in the moderate camp!

9. When considering the idea that there is no God, is your reaction one of distaste or disagreement and could you be happy living in a universe where there was no God?

More disagreement; specifically a sense that it was an incoherent perspective. I wouldn't know what to do with various things that I understand about the world (eg how to link together justice, integrity, knowledge and so on).

I would be interested to hear more about how your Christianity (or even just God belief) informs your views on justice, integrity etc.

10. Why do you think (assuming you do) that Mohammed was not in direct contact with God (Allah)? There is a holy book and many witnesses who profess he was. If you are willing to believe such things are possible, why do you not believe this?

Mohammed was a completely different character to Jesus. He was more like Napoleon.

Agreed. In fact, that may be doing Napoleon as disservice. But in what way does that make it less believable?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Questions for Moderate Christians.

Moderate Christians generally don’t like being pinned down about the specifics of their faith. My own opinion on the matter is that they just don’t want to shine too bright a light on their beliefs. Moderate Christians have a tendency to be people who just aren’t quite gullible or unreasonable enough to embrace their faith in full. Fundamentalism is really nothing more than believing everything your holy book tells you no matter how false to fact or ridiculous it may be. The moderate desperately wants to believe in their chosen faith but can’t quite bring themselves to believe that telling a single lie and not being sorry will see you literally roasting away in hell for eternity. In order to better convince themselves that it is reasonable to believe outlandish things (Jesus was the son of God etc. etc.) they engage in impressive amounts of “theology”. Theology might be well described as an academic attempt to make bullshit plausible. Speak vaguely enough, propose all kinds of insubstantial modes of communication and knowing and soon enough the existential possibilities are endless.

There are some bitter pills to swallow along the way though. The bible simply cannot be the inerrant word of God. It is way too full of holes for that claim to stand up. The moderate then will suggest all kinds of roles for the bible and how it is sort of from God but obviously influenced by the human authors. Another problem the bible presents is that it states a lot of stuff that the moderate finds distasteful so this requires that large sections of the bible be relegated to metaphor or an expression of a concept in the language of the time, etc. etc. It can be fairly solidly shown that the bible is not a reliable historical document. Most moderates will at the very least admit that it is not 100% reliable and some will go so far as to concede that it really is not all that reliable at all. They will often suggest though that historical accuracy was not the bible's purpose. It was written to convey a message and much of it is not intended to be factual, merely parable and metaphor to get the point across. Ok. Fair enough.

What bugs me about the moderate position is that after such admissions and concessions they will pipe up with a solid concrete statement such as “Jesus is the son of God”. This bouncing between a realistic acceptance of the bibles unreliability to a ridiculous belief that some guy knocking around two thousand years ago was some form of man/god is carried off not only like it is a reasonable move but with the insinuation that it rigorously thought through and intellectually robust. I don’t doubt that many a worthy mind has invested itself in the effort to make faith reasonable but this endeavour is simply not borne of a desire for truth but from a desire to make a comforting fantasy real.

Reality has many qualities that just don’t sit well with humans. It is not fair for example. Those who do wrong quite often get away with it completely. Many of the worst villains in history have never faced any kind of justice for what they did. They were arrogant, cruel, selfish, and vicious and served only their own desires and it worked out great for them. Our desire for things to be fair drives people to believe in all kinds of silliness. Karma, reincarnation (possibly with penalties), posthumous judgement and many more wonderful justice inducing cosmic guarantees.
Life ends. This is also something that doesn’t sit too well with most people. No problem, we’ll just pretend that death isn’t the end of life. Now comes the fun bit. Lets combine some of these ideas. There will be justice (not in this life of course, that would be too visible.), and you get to live forever. The real beauty of this combination is that you can start to control people’s behaviour by threatening them with undesirable posthumous punishment and at the same time reward good behaviour (or at least compliant behaviour) with paradise, no less!, beyond the grave. Throw into the mix the all too prevalent male desire to dominate women, all manner of social prejudice and a general desire for control and supremacy and viola!, you have religion.

Moderates are in general basically good people who want to believe God has got their back and is going to sort everything out. No harm in that right? Maybe, maybe not. I object in general to ignorance, be it mild or gross especially when wilfully indulged. I also think that most attitudes held by humans have a tendency to go through cycles. Moderate now may not be moderate tomorrow. A moderate teacher also does not guarantee moderate students. Moderate faith also lends a notion of reasonableness to more extreme versions. A religious moderate and a religious fundamentalist agree about many of the ridiculous ideas underlying their faith. The will of their common fictional overlord is where they differ.

Here are some questions then for moderate believers.

1. Do you think the bible is the inerrant word of God? If not, why not?

2. If you answered no to question 1, why do you think that it is reasonable to believe that a man wielded magical powers and rose from the dead and was a god and a man at the same time; I am assuming that you do not generally believe in these things. What is it about the Jesus case that is so compelling as to make believing the impossible reasonable?

3. Why does God command and condone evil acts in the bible (genocide, Rape, slavery etc.) if he is good?

4. Why is it not more reasonable to assume that God is evil given his rampage of destruction throughout the O.T?

5. In what way would an evil God have acted differently and can you imagine a way in which God might have acted more morally at any point in the O.T.?

6. Why is Jesus’ character so different from the God of the O.T. if they are (inexplicably) the same person?

8. Is it conceivable to you that Christianity might not actually be true (in the sense that Jesus might just have been an irregular Joe.)?

9. When considering the idea that there is no God, is your reaction one of distaste or disagreement and could you be happy living in a universe where there was no God?

10. Why do you think (assuming you do) that Mohammed was not in direct contact with God (Allah)? There is a holy book and many witnesses who profess he was. If you are willing to believe such things are possible, why do you not believe this?

There are many similar questions that could be asked but by now I’m sure you get the gist of it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Cracker has met it's grusome end.

PZ Myers has finally put the final nail (incidentally the only nail) in the cracker in what has been a study is crazy religous bullshit. PZ had promised to desecrate a piece of bread, resulting in enormous amounts of hate mail, attempt to get him fired, death threats against him and even death threats against his children. Christian tolerence and love!

Well done PZ. Perhaps if we all do things of this kind and the world doesn't end in fiery divine wrath maybe, just maybe the loons will begin to realise that crackers are just that and nothing more, that books are just paper and eventually that a guy wearing a fancy dress is juat a guy.
Probably too much to hope for.

Consensus on 'Sophisticated' Religion?

No more mr. nice guy has run a similar post to my own on 'sophisticated' religion and drawn much the same conclusions. I think he sums up the major criticism very well with the following

.....if we define God as Stevie Wonder, then God exists. If we define God as love, God exists as a concept in peoples' minds. And if we say God is that which cannot be defined, we are just making noise. If you claim that God exists, the first order of business should be to define what it is that you are talking about - at least in enough detail so that the hearer can meaningfully address your claim. Anything else is evasion. Personally, I don't think I've ever heard God defined in such a way as to make a debate about God's existence even worth engaging in.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My take on ‘sophisticated’ religion

This post contains a brief summary of my experience of “sophisticated” theology. I do not specifically address any particular argument, largely because I have yet to find one.

I have been taking a good look at fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity over the last few weeks. I find most fundamentalists to be incredibly rigid thinkers. If it contradicts the bible it must be false. It is that simple in the mind of the fundamentalist. Fundamentalists don’t like gay rights. Why not? Simple, the bible says they shouldn’t have any. In general, a fundamentalist will go to the most absurd lengths to defend the biblical position in any debate. Evolution did not happen. God made everything as is approximately 6,000 years ago. No amount of evidence will sway the biblical literalist from this ridiculous notion. A rational person not knowing what to expect will most likely experience the reverse of Poe’s law. They will assume they are looking at satire when in fact it is the real thing. I found it worrying and a little depressing that views which rightly belong in the realm of satire were being seriously expressed. Fundamentalist Christianity is absurd. That doesn’t stop it from having millions of adherents. You are left thinking “How could it come to this?” As absurd and, to no small degree, worrying as it is; the fundamentalist view is only one of innumerable views held of Christianity. It has been my experience that some people “of faith” derisively dismiss fundamentalist Christianity as a fringe element. They view fundamentalists as holding simple and unsophisticated views of God and the bible. Atheism is a similarly simplistic viewpoint for most adherents to the more “sophisticated” faith. Atheists are often portrayed either as narrow focus logic bots or angst-ridden teenagers rebelling against the establishment. So what exactly is the view that is so sophisticated and advanced?

No idea. I have not a clue. What it took me a while to realize was that the theists themselves don’t have a clue either. They will happily tell you what they don’t believe. They will discuss all day what is wrong with the fundamentalist approach or the Atheist position but if you ask them what they actually believe themselves, you get nothing. You generally get a whole lot of nothing containing lots of big words, flowery metaphors and hippy sounding pseudo-profundity. The one thing generally missing is a positive statement of belief. I should point out that I find most of these theists to be generally agreeable. I have often poked Rev Sam in the ribs but I think he is a decent guy. I mention the Rev. because he was the first such theist I tackled on his beliefs. I found his beliefs were extremely vague when directly addressed but yet he made statements about God, Jesus and so on that were almost in opposition to the very weakly described notions he had previously expressed. It seemed to me that there was a near schizophrenic nature to the beliefs. I will give an example to clarify what I mean. In the course of his discussions of “Sophisticated” and “humorless” Atheisms Sam speaks at some length about idolatry. In order to avoid this most grievous sin, theists declare, “God cannot be the member of any set”. The idea here, if I have correctly interpreted it, is that our ability to understand God and his nature is so insufficient that to apply and characteristic to God would be to create a false image of God. We cannot possibly correctly conceive God’s nature so what we are conceiving cannot truly be God. Now this is adhered to rather more stringently that I would have expected. For example, God is not a member of the set of all things that exist. You might be tempted to suggest that this is saying God doesn’t exist. You’d be right if we were speaking English here but we are in fact speaking in “religious” language. You see God is also not a member of the set of all things that do not exist. It is even worse than that. God is not a member of the set of all things that are not members of the set of all things that exist. Confused yet? God cannot be a member of any set.

The odd thing is that this source from a biblically derived prohibition against idolatry. The same bible that quite blatantly tells us about God’s nature. The bible is ignored in one instance and almost fearfully obeyed in another. Now you may have noticed that there are blatant contradictions above. Contradictions are ok in Christianity. A good example of a commonly held contradiction is the notion of the trinity. Many Christians think that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. That is of course, blatantly impossible. They get around this by appealing to God’s unfathomable and mysterious powers. “We can’t possibly understand….” There seems contained in this theology a kind of subsurface rejection of reason. Not that these theists see reason as a bad thing, more like they view it as useless or even a hindrance when attempting to experience God. This is, incidentally, a view shared by every psychic and medium out there with regard to his or her particular trade. “We don’t know how it works we just know that it does…..logic and reason can’t help you.” The reduction of reason to, at best a supporting role or, at worst a roadblock to enlightenment is the first step in persuading people to believe in something outlandish or even absurd. There is often a smug condescension towards people who do reason out religious beliefs and find them unconvincing. As though we are trying to measure the distance to the moon with a pocket ruler. I find dealing with this sort of thinking very frustrating. Theists are only too happy to point out humanity’s limitations with regard to what we can understand or perceive but yet accept calmly the notion that we have some manner of physics defying God-sense that facilitates “knowing” God. The far more plausible explanation of religious experience is those very same limitations that prevent us from intellectually understanding God. We have wants, needs, hopes, dreams, fears…..etc. Religious belief is the attribution of a unverifiable and unfalsifiable answer to vague and undefined questions. It provides the illusion of stability and permanence, a rock to cling to. It applies a benevolent intention to a perfectly apathetic universe. From my personal experience with religious people, I find the most common driving force behind religious belief is a fear of death. To their credit, it was rarely their own death that was the source of their fear but the deaths of loved ones; an entirely understandable fear. Profound fears are capable of generating all kinds of reactions, quite often, irrational ones. The sophisticated theist is usually someone who cannot hide from the absurdities encountered with more literal interpretation of the bible and needs to construct a more convoluted thought-trap to shelter their beliefs. Many of the statements made by such theists are just as absurd as those promulgated proudly by a dyed in the wool fundamentalist. The absurdity is not immediately as noticeable. You will not hear a sophisticated theist suggest that the earth is 6000 years old but they will suggest something equally absurd. Prayer for example, sophisticated theists in general will pray. They will claim God’s nature, his intentions and his will are unfathomable and yet they communicate with God making all kinds of assumptions all the while. The sophisticated theist hides behind limitations in perception and in knowledge. “We can’t possibly know…..”, “we can’t possibly understand….” They then utterly ignore these limitations and make positive statements about God. “God is X”, “God enables Y”…etc. etc. There is a near constant allusion to “deeper” meaning. The limitations of language are used as an excuse for the vague and insubstantial explanations that are given about what this deeper meaning is. I got the distinct impression that most of the verbose ramblings of theists are smokescreens that hide an uninformed desire for there to be answers and explanations. Much like an artist, who, fuelled by the desire for profound expression creates a mess and calls it art; an effort to inject meaning into the meaningless. The most frustrating thing about these theists is that they claim the bible is not the inerrant word of God but still believe much of its contents despite its obvious implausibility and unreliability. Belief of the religious variety is ultimately a choice. It is choosing to believe in something that is irrational because you want to. I have absolutely no objection to people making this choice. I do object to the pretense that religious belief is rational or necessary. Some theists take it even further and don’t seem to believe anything. Their musings are so ethereal and vacuous as to be rendered utterly irrelevant. Sophisticated theology is anything but in my experience. It is simply confused. Unwilling to either take a particular faith and all of its absurdities or walk away entirely from the comfortable myth they choose to hold to flexible beliefs. Notions might be a better word.

There is a temptation to applaud any take on religion that rejects the frankly idiotic claims of fundamentalists. The problem I see with the more vague interpretations though is that in many cases the theists still hold to many of the same dogmas as the fundamentalist but claim to be reasonable. Indeed they can be. They reason that the Genesis account of the beginning of the universe is ridiculous at least in a literal sense, but yet they believe that Jesus Christ was a God based on information from the same source. That in itself is not reasonable. Religious claims are not reasonable. Faith is not something to be proud of. It is not a virtue. Faith in the religious context is another word for gullibility. Millions of people are proud to be gullible. I can’t help but find that notion a little disturbing especially when they work so hard to make sure everyone else is gullible too. I remember distinctly when I was a young boy being forced to endure the grinding boredom of mass, the priest chanting (yes chanting, not saying) “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”. I am reasonably confident that not one single person in the congregation ever gave that phrase any thought but really this is one of the most ridiculous notions and it is repeated every mass. I’m not going to do any more than point at the phrase. You can see for yourself what is wrong with it. Mainstream religion is just one of the many irrationalities people engage in. Angels and angel therapy, crystal healing, communing with the dead, reading minds, psychically getting information from inanimate objects, ghosts, talking to trees, bending spoons, astrology etc. etc. etc. The list goes on and on. Religious beliefs are exactly like the beliefs listed. It is no more reasonable. It only has the appearance of being more reasonable because it has such a large following. Sophisticated beliefs are no different from the beliefs listed, they only have the appearance of being reasonable because they are couched in philosophy and verbosity.

P.S. I apologize for the rambling nature of this post. I may attempt to break out some of it and look at it properly at a later time.

Crackers have rights too you know.

The Barefoot Bum hits the nail on the head as to why people are so pissed off with the catholics with regard to the communion cracker incident.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Question for Christians.

Suppose you are contacted by God. Assume that you are left in no doubt that it is God who has just been communicating with you.

God commands you to fly a plane into a building full of ‘sinners’

Please try to actually answer the question. “God would not command this” is not an answer to this hypothetical question.
Would you obey God’s command?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Just how silly can one story be?

The excuse that most Christians give for there being so much pain/suffering/evil in the world is that ole chestnut about it being our own fault. Everything was rosy in the garden. Then we, more exactly Adam and Eve, ate some fruit and ruined everything. It wasn’t just any fruit; it was a fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Most important to note is that God dared told them, not to eat the fruit of that particular tree. They did though and death and all manner of bad things entered the world with Adam and Eve’s sin. Incidentally, Eve took the fruit at the behest of a talking snake.

Apart from that obvious silliness of the tale, it presents some puzzling questions.
Here are 5 that I have never heard any answer to, let alone a good one.

If God is forgiving, why did he not just forgive Adam and Eve’s relatively minor sin?
Baring in mind the pure innocence of Adam and Eve, was God’s damnation of not just them but their progeny ad infinitum a bit harsh. Given how in modern societies the notion of passing blame or sin to relatives of a criminal would be considered an outrageous wrong, why does God seem to think it is ok?

How could Adam and Eve know, prior to eating the apple, that disobeying God was a bad thing?
It is claimed in the story that Adam and Eve happily pranced about naked in the garden and were unashamed because they had no knowledge of good and evil. Let us ignore the bizarre implication that nakedness is evil and something to be ashamed of, even when the only two people in the universe are a married couple (de facto married anyway). The problem here is that Adam and Eve have no knowledge of good and evil. They literally don’t know right from wrong. How then were they to know that obeying God was ‘good’ and that disobeying God was ‘evil’. They simply are not equipped to make a sensible informed choice about it.

Why would God create man knowing he would sin against him?
God is omniscient. God knows everything, including what will happen in the future. Prophesy is often cited as compelling proof of the bibles divine origin. He must therefore have seen it coming. He knew it would happen and went ahead with the whole project anyway. Bizarre and a little perverse.

Why does the tree of the knowledge of good and evil exist?
What would posses God to somehow transmute knowledge into fruit form? Honestly, why? Not only does he do that though, he then puts the tree in the same garden as his completely innocent humans. Remember now that he had a universe of incomprehensible vastness in which to put the bizarre tree but he chose to put it within easy reach of the hapless humans. To digress a little, is there a tree of the knowledge of quantum mechanics? The tree of C++ programming….for dummies? Hey! There might actually have been a tree of the knowledge of the theory of gravity. Newton being hit by the apple was incidental; it was when he wrapped his kisser round that big ole granny smith that the magic really happened!!

How can free will co-exist with the notion of a prophesizing God?
Slightly off topic but I have been looking for an answer to this for a while now. Free will is often cited as the reason why God allows sin. I don’t think the concepts of an omniscient being and free will can co-exist. If God knows everything that WILL happen, the future is already laid out. You have no real choice. Everything you will do in your lifetime is already set in stone. You cannot deviate from the known path of your life. If the outcome of an event is known before the event occurs, there is no choice involved. There are no alternatives.

Can the Christians who might happen by please give me some answers, though anyone who can shed a little light on how these seeming inconsistancies can be reconsiled is invited to weigh in.

Monday, April 14, 2008

There are no moral FACTS

Chris Drost linked this post in a response to various moral relativism discussions. The post is by Thomas Metcalf. (couldn’t find a link. If you can help me with that please do)

Metcalf suggests that many people, especially atheists, do not believe that objective moral facts exist. I fully agree with this statement. Metcalf claims that he once felt this way but has come around to the view that O.M.Fs do exist. He gives four reasons for this change of mind. These are:

I. There is no evidence that they do not exist.
II. II. The competing positions to objective moral realism all suffer serious flaws.
III. The evidence for the existence of objective moral facts is intuitional.
IV. But none of this is a problem for atheism.

I would argue that all three of these reasons are terrible reasons to believe anything. I say three reasons because I’m not entirely sure that IV is actually a reason or was intended to be one in the context as the proceeding three.

Reason I - There is no evidence that they do not exist.

This can be true of any non-existent thing. There is no evidence that santa claus does not exist. There is no evidence that invisible, intangible fairies are not living on all our shoulders. Being fair to Metcalf, I will assume that he means the evidence does not rule out moral fact. Again though, I would disagree. Metcalf suggests

“People disagree about uncontroversially objective facts all the time, such as, for example, whether God exists, who shot JFK, whether Gulf War II has made Americans more or less likely to be the victims of terrorism, and so on. The only way widespread moral disagreement would be evidence against the existence of objective moral facts would be if another premise, "if people disagree a lot about something, there's probably no objective fact of the matter" were true. But there's absolutely not a whit of reason to believe that premise.”

The list of uncontroversial facts provided by Metcalf is a little odd. I am sure they are uncontroversial to Metcalf but could hardly be so described in general. He suggests that a guide to determining whether or not there is a moral fact of the matter is the amount of disagreement on the subject. However you choose to define a moral fact, I would suggest that moral facts should always be true. If they can be untrue sometimes then they are not facts. It would be fair say that stoning adulterers is a moral fact by Metcalf’s criteria as this was once an uncontroversial point of view. Very few people disagreed with the idea. It is, by today’s standards also a moral fact by this reasoning, just the opposite moral fact. I am speaking in terms of western societies here. Most people would agree today that stoning adulterers is morally wrong. Similarly, humans were once sacrificed to please Gods, which was not only thought to be morally acceptable but morally necessary. Things have thankfully changed on that score too. Strangely, these things are as close to moral facts as you can get. Morality is decided by how the majority feel about things.

Reason II - The competing positions to objective moral realism all suffer serious flaws.

This is not evidence that O.M.F.s exist. This is utterly irrelevant. Incidentally, I don’t happen to agree either.

Moral subjectivism

Metcalf raises three objection to moral subjectivism.

The first is a basically intuitive one. If personal subjectivism is true, then when the Nazi says "Killing Jews is permissible," she's making a true statement, because she's merely reporting the fact that she approves of killing Jews. If cultural relativism is true, then Oskar Schindler was speaking falsely when he said "Saving Jews from the Nazis is good," because he was going against his culture. But that seems crazy. "Killing Jews is permissible" is false, no matter who says it.

Metcalf is conflating epistemological truth with moral ‘truth’. ‘Killing Jews is permissible’ has no epistemological correctness or lack of it. It is akin to saying ‘Gareth Brooks writes good songs’. If we fight the intuitional urge to say ‘This statement is false’ long enough to give it some thought, it is obvious that this statement is neither true nor false in any objective way. It is a matter of opinion. Some people think it is a true statement, people with taste think it is a false statement. Hitler and others within the Nazi regime obviously felt that ‘killing jews is permissible’. Most people would not agree with this sentiment. The statement, however, is neither true nor false. Metcalf is attempting to criticize moral relativism by starting with the assumption that moral realism is axiomatic.

The second is this. If personal subjectivism is true, then basically, everyone is morally infallible. No one ever makes mistaken moral claims, because how could we be wrong about whether we approve or disapprove of something? In fact, I could say "Killing Jews is great" today, and "Killing Jews is bad" tomorrow, and be speaking truthfully, both times, if personal subjectivism is true. A parallel objection exists to cultural relativism: all cultures are morally infallible.

This reasoning suffers the same flaws as the objection above. Morality has always been decided by the majority. It is a purely subjective concept. Discussing moral fact is equivalent to discussing fashion ‘fact’ or flavour ‘fact’. While is may be a fact for anyone graced with vision that furry boots or anything made from spandex are simply wrong, it is not a fact is any meaningful sense. Similarly, whilst it may seem indisputable that cucumber tastes wrong, it is not a fact. Most people believe that ‘Killing Jews is bad’. It is not however a fact. The word fact simply has no place here. Most Palestinians for example would not readily agree. It is not a question of moral fallibility, no more so than you can have taste fallibility. Morality is an innate, in-built sense that most humans posses. I do not wish to get into why this is; it may be an evolutionary advantage, a result of living in a co-operative social environment, etc. It seems obvious that the foundation of our morality is instinctual rather than learned. Actions in opposition to this instinct and its consciously derived refinements such as genocide will be repugnant to most people. This does not make it an objective fact.

The third objection is the following. If personal subjectivism is true, then no one has ever had a moral disagreement with anyone. S says "abortion is permissible"; T says "abortion is impermissible"; and because they're both just making statements about their own approval or disapproval, they're not disagreeing. But it sure looks as if they're disagreeing, doesn't it? (Again, a parallel objection is available in the case of cultural relativism.)

This is bordering on the nonsensical. Making opposing statements is not disagreement?
Is there no such thing as disagreeing with someone’s opinion? Assuming in any disagreement, that one party is correct then the other party is necessarily just making a statement. Does that mean no disagreement actually exists? If I am missing something subtle here I implore anyone who knows what it is to let me know.

Moral non-cognitivism

Metcalf suggests here that people are attempting to assert objective fact when they discuss moral opinions, not merely expression an emotional position. I agree entirely that many people are asserting an objective fact when they discuss morality. So what?
Are people not also doing the same when they assert that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Metcalf does not believe that is true, would he even go so far as to suggest it is a belief based on emotion? Most people are asserting an objective fact every time they give their opinion on anything. I have never met anyone who thought their opinion was wrong.

Moral naturalism

I doubt very many people actually adhere to this idea. It sounds more like a creationist’s misinterpretation of ‘survival of the fittest’ than any seriously held moral view. I agree with Metcalf that this view point essentially dodges entirely the issue of morality. It simply ignores it.

Moral nihilism

is the thesis that all positive moral claims are false. In addition to there being no evidence for this view (see section I above), it is massively counterintuitive. I believe intuitions tip the balance, so I will move on to the next section.

Positive moral claims are false. Ironically, this view is more in line with objective fact than any of the others. It seems to suggest that there is a truth of falsity to moral claims if you take Metcalf’s interpretation. What moral nihilism really posits it that there are simply no moral objective facts. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad or anything else. I would agree with this claim in a purely objective sense. Morality is simply not an objective concept. It is a subjective, personal and cultural, concept dominated by popular opinion on what is moral. Where these popular notions come from would be an entire field of study in its own right. It is worth noting also that there cannot be any evidence for it, just as there cannot be any evidence against it. Any such evidence is necessarily going to be subjective, essentially of the ‘because I say so’ or ‘because all of those people say so’ variety.

Reason III. The evidence for the existence of objective moral facts is intuitional.

Metcalf’s third reason for believing that O.M.F.s do indeed exist it that they are intuitional. This is the worst sort of reasoning. Metcalf is suggesting that OMFs exist because he feels like they do. We are often completely wrong about things we have strong intuitions about. It has proven a very unreliable source of truth. If intuition was evidence for the truth of any given claim then the Sun orbits the earth as is overwhelmingly our intuition on the matter. The Earth is flat, stars are very small, jumbo jets cannot possibly get off the ground and a thousand other things that science has proven our intuitions completely wrong about. The most obvious reason though that intuition is a really bad reason to believe that OMFs exist is that intuitions differ from person to person. If there were OMFs and our intuitions pointed them out, shouldn’t we all feel the same way about things? Is torture morally acceptable to save lives? I suspect there would be a lot of disagreement about that question. If the answer is an objective fact which we are all intuitionally privy to, then there shouldn’t be much disagreement at all.

Suppose, however, that they aren't evidence. Most people think they are; that is, most people take seemings to be evidence. For most people, if something seems to them to be a certain way, they take that as evidence that it is that way. Then we have to be global skeptics. We can't have any justified beliefs of any kind. For almost everyone has the intuition that skepticism is false, but no one can give us any evidence other than that that skepticism is false.
I don’t believe people think about these things in terms of evidence at all. In fact, most people treat statements like ‘killing is generally bad’ as axiomatic. Evidence never enters the equation. Most people ultimately act according to how they feel about things rather than on a critical evaluation of the evidence. There is no evidence that skepticism is false. Intuition is not evidence. We cannot hold any epistemologically robust beliefs perhaps, but that says nothing about what we can agree to. Most of us agree that murder is generally wrong. We can believe this quite comfortably. We do in fact. Strongly enough that we make laws about it and punish those who break that law. This does not at all imply that there is any objective moral fact about the matter. Christians believe that even thinking about having sex with someone who you are not married to is a sin, morally wrong. Most sane people think this is just silly. Moral issues will always be a source of contention, exactly because there is no fact involved. Opinions will differ and debates will rage.

Reason IV. But none of this is a problem for atheism.

This isn’t a reason in any sensible way so I won’t treat it as such.

I happen to think that intuitions are evidence. If that's true, then objective moral realism obviously wins. If it's not, then we're global skeptics. So at the very least, the person denying objective moral realism must be saying "None of my beliefs is justified, but I believe that objective moral realism is false." That's at least very preface paradoxical.

Is it paradoxical to hold a belief that cannot be epistemologically justified? How much evidence can you provide me that fairies don’t exist? I assume that you are none the less happy with the belief that they don’t.

What relevance does this have for atheism? Some people mistakenly think that if objective moral facts exist, that's evidence that some god exists. It's not. No one has ever found a good argument with the conclusion that objective moral facts would depend upon a deity, or upon any sort of person, or really, upon anything at all. On the contrary, it seems bizarre that a necessary truth would depend for its existence upon anything at all. It makes much more sense to think of them as brute facts. The atheist is free, in the first place, to say that she doesn't believe in any god; she just believes in Moralo, a person (not a deity) who somehow explains the existence of moral facts. (The theist cannot give any reason that Moralo can't explain moral facts, but God can.) And then, of course, it's a short step to saying that the atheist can believe in objective moral facts as brute facts, themselves. This is much more parsimonious than the theist's brute fact, God himself.

This is only true if morality is an independent objective reality. That doesn’t make any sense. Morality deals principally with intent. For example, if someone kills another person by unavoidable accident, were their actions morally wrong. No? Why not? Most people would say because they did not intend to harm the other person. A concept such as morality is essentially an exclusively human concern. If morality can possibly exist without human presence as would be the case if were truly an objective moral fact then some other entity capable of intent would be required to explain it. Without conscious intent, morality doesn’t exist. Can a machine take any kind of moral action? Even if a mindless robot that looked exactly like a human was to butcher children, torture people and do every conceivable evil deed, it has at no point taken any moral action good or bad. Morality requires a mind capable of distinguishing good and bad. The term ‘brute fact’ suggests that morality is a free floating independent reality. How can this be? I would be interested in any theory on how morality could possibly exist without humans? As a good solid objective fact should be able to!

I had considered the possibility that Metcalf was actually joking with this post. I still hold a small flicker of hope that is the case. It is somehow disappointing to see an Atheist making what sounds and functions almost exactly like a theistic argument. The ‘reasoning’ here is horrible. If I have misinterpreted anything or if you feel like calling bullshit on me, please do!