Thursday, October 30, 2014

How Much Context Matters

Recently, I walked in in the middle of a conversation about microwave cooking, and as soon as I walked through the door, the first words I heard were "microwave food is not good, right?"  That sort of question has a few meanings, but the most common meaning I am used to hearing about is just about how food cooked in a microwave generally doesn't taste as good as other modes of cooking.  To this, I agreed, as I generally find this to be the case as well.  Then it went off on some tangent about "killing everything" and how that supposedly doesn't happen with regular stovetop cooking...  and so I replied that that only happens after you reach a certain temperature (presuming that he was talking about killing microbes).  After some shouting where I couldn't quite follow what people were saying because it was too many people talking at once, I figured we were still talking about taste, so I made the point about being unable to achieve certain effects like searing the outsides of foods, applying dry heat, etc...  and then I got a question about radiation going into the food.  Well, that's technically how a microwave is supposed to work, so that is ostensibly true, but not much of a meaningful question in the context.  It wasn't until much later that I was informed that the discussion was about the safety of microwave cooking, and so I found myself unwittingly agreeing with people who held an absurdly misguided and factually dead wrong position.

A lesson in just how much context makes a difference, and how far off the mark one can go if they make presumptions about what that context is.  It is within context that meaning is derived, and getting that context wrong can really destroy your sense of what people mean at times.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Beyond Logic Lies... NOTHING

I briefly mentioned in my diatribe on astrology that I could dedicate an entire blog post to one particular argument.  Specifically, the argument that certain delusional beliefs are "beyond logic."  While it came up in the context of astrology and tarot card readings, I'm pretty sure we've all heard this dodge with respect to things like "spirit science" and most certainly theistic belief.  It's a convenient little cop-out for people who feel that the burden of proof is a yoke too heavy to wear.  Rather than actually try to back up their beliefs or pretend there is any substance to them, it is easier to proclaim by fiat that the rules of rational discourse don't apply to them.  It's also particularly amusing that they don't just say that logic and reason aren't applicable, but that they're "beyond" logic...  as if to imply that being reasonable and applying some measure of sensibility is beneath one who believes in bullshit.  While the example that I'm referencing was brought up in regards to astrology, it's just as common in nearly every nonsensical belief.  New age, "spirit science", religion, alt-med woo-woo, and anything that carries the hallmark of Deepak Chopra.

You've probably heard it in several extraordinarily patronizing forms.  "You can't begin to understand XXXXX with logic."  "YYYY is above the limits of mere human reasoning."  "There's more to life than evidence and logic and all that."  "You're too dependent on your science and facts."  "There are things about the universe we cannot begin to understand with our limited reasoning."  And so on and on...  and on...  and on.  You might even occasionally see the roundabout form of "for those who believe, all things are possible" -- which is essentially saying that whatever they're selling works beautifully so long as you're gullible.  It's especially funny to see how they try to make it sound as if it's the rational thinker who has the problem, and not them.  Is there really such a thing as "beyond" logic?  Well, perhaps... if you want to spit on the very idea of true and false.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Stars Have no F@$ks to Give

Recently, I was invited to take part in a discussion on the validity of astrology.  Specifically, this was a Desi audience, so the particular brand of stellar stupidity that people leaned towards is so-called Vedic astrology.  I say "so-called" because the oldest sources for it are two collections of texts called the Vedanga Jyothisha and the Brihat Parashara Horashastra (both ca. 700-600 BCE), which at best indicates that this might have been part of the original Vedanta when it was still an oral tradition or at least draws off of something taught therein.  No real indication that the Vedas actually contained it until people appeared to start combining texts together a few centuries later.  Even then, it was largely treated as an "auxiliary discipline" of learning often treated as valuable, but not crucial for an individual unless they sought an ascetic lifestyle.  The term "Vedic Astrology" seems to be a more recent term coined during the early 1980s with the influx of Indian woo-woo self-help and Ayurvedic wishful thinking from the likes of Deepak Chopra.

As if it wasn't obvious from the mention of that second text, I happen to share my name (Parashar) with the person credited with authoring one of those two (and generally considered the more comprehensive) foundational texts.  Apparently, some people still believe that because I'm apparently named after this person, I would also be a believer in the cosmological claptrap that is astrology.  Because...  the name makes the man...?  That would imply that the guy I knew at my previous job named Scott Peterson must have murdered his wife and the guy I know in my current job who happens to be named Andrew Wakefield must be anti-vaccine...  except that neither of those things are true.  Apologies to Scott and Andrew for "outing" them as people who actually love their families and believe in actual medical facts.  Well, that aside, the vast majority of Desis are believers, and that's largely attributable to how deeply entrenched it is in the culture.  It isn't merely some newspaper entertainment page, but a core component of religion that births a bedrock industry that is viewed as being every bit as fundamental as electricity and water.  In India, people aren't just talking horoscopes to pick up girls in a night club; corporate entities are having astrologers guide them; doctors refrain from providing care when the stars aren't right; a handful of courts and several rural panchayats (village governing chiefs) will not recognize marriages between people of incompatible birth horoscopes...  this is no minor amusement for entertainment purposes -- people view horoscopes as a roadmap for life.  In that light, I was somewhat eager to get into this discussion and seek out and demolish everything anybody had to offer to support this mark of shame unto the subcontinent.

A little too eager, it seems, as the pre-event commentary drove enough people to play the victim to drive the organizer to cancel.  The truth hurts -- and therefore, people who reject truth as a matter of course are somehow automatically justified in hurling insults, while those who call a spade a spade are the hurtful ones.  Sound familiar?

I kind of expected some people to raise points about the history of astrology and how it is, at its most basic level, an early precursor to modern astronomy.  People developed methods of calculating and predicting the apparent motion of celestial bodies through the sky and that set the stage for the real science of astronomy to follow.  This much is true, and at best, it makes astrology a significant idea in the history of science not that that makes it science.  Nonetheless, this argument never really showed up, so I was kind of surprised by that.  Maybe people wanted to save that for the actual event.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Supreme Church of the Corporate States of America

Monday's decision saw the so-called Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood to determine that corporations have religious rights.  In the most basal of responses, we would most likely see this as a problem of religious encroachment or the anti-science , but in practice, I'd put this down as an issue of corporate power and the corporatist state of the serving Supreme Court justices.  The thing is not just that corporations run things in accordance with their religious beliefs -- that happens quite often.  Hobby Lobby themselves does give a lot of money to religious charities.  Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays and religious holidays as well as printing Bible references on their containers.  There's nothing really problematic about that per se.  These sorts of actions, though, really operate on a scale of funds, when you get right down to it (i.e. what they do with their money).  What this decision really allows is for the religious beliefs of the owners of corporations to determine factors on the lives of their employees.  Now, you're not really dealing with the money alone, but with the lives of employees.

Why I say this is really a matter of corporate power is the fact that it rather blatantly ignores the religious beliefs of the employee and favors the rights of the employers.  In the case of Hobby Lobby, they qualify as what is known as a "tightly held" corporation, where a small group within the family owns at least 50% of the stock, which makes them the sole controlling interest.  In theory, this implies that company policy is theirs to decide and no one can override them, even if all other shareholders are against it.  But there are things corporations generally can't do regardless of how much they might like to.  Generally speaking, when we are dealing with issues of basic rights, the rights of one individual end where another individual's rights begin.  This is basically the inevitable flow of equal protection under the law.  One person's freedom of religion is all well and good, but they can't take their religion to the point of its destruction of another person's free exercise of their beliefs.  Herein lies the core problem with the idea of giving a corporation the privilege of religious exercise -- a corporation doesn't just consist of a single religious belief.  You will have employees who are of different beliefs and different views.  The Supreme Court's decision is basically saying that the rights of those who own the company are more important than the rights of the employees...  although in a sense, this is practically equivalent to saying that only the rights of the corporations can ever matter.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Scripture as Metaphor

Recently, I was speaking with someone on the value of religion (or rather, the absolute lack thereof), and he raised the question of whether I think the stories themselves have any sort of value.  I've said on numerous occasions that I do think that at least being aware of the tales within religion is an unavoidable quantity because of the fact that religion has imbued every corner of culture wherever you might happen to be.  For a lot of Westerners who travel anywhere where Christianity is not prevalent, they find themselves completely unable to comprehend any of the cultural norms because they generally don't have a clue about religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, etc. in the first place let alone how they have influenced the local culture.  Common expressions or phrases that are somehow rooted in Biblical reference are pretty widespread here in this corner of the planet, but you will find similar use of references to Hindu religious literature and the works of religious philosophers throughout India.  That, too, most of us who are atheists are atheists because we know about religion.  We know it well enough to spot the absurdities.  So even in that sense, I think it's worth knowing about the religions themselves.

So in short, I will admit knowing about the religions gives you a lot of information that sets up a sort of cultural backdrop for understanding where people are coming from.  You can't avoid that religion is deeply seated in the extant nature of society, and that even if we grow out of it someday, it's worth knowing that we as a race were once this stupid.  But one question posed to me was that even if you treat all the religious texts of any religion as fables and folklore, do they hold any value in that respect?  We can look at the fable of the boy who cried wolf and at least see that it teaches a valuable lesson.  Do the stories in the Bible hold that kind of value?  Do the Puranas teach those kinds of meaningful lessons?  Do the tales within the Avesta?

Well, to that, I have to ask...  which stories did you have in mind?