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?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On Teleological Thinking...

On this blog, I tend to take somewhat different tacks to classical arguments.  It's not so much because I think the old counterarguments are invalid, but simply because I think there is so much more that could be said that simply isn't being explored.  Reddit's atheism channel had quite a time with my earlier approaches to WLC's favorite -- the Kalam Cosmological Argument -- for a little while because I put forth points and thought experiments that nobody else had apparently considered up until then;  in particular, in part two.  The thought experiment I mentioned has been brought to WLC's attention, but he has not responded in these years since -- either he has nothing to offer without straw-manning it (which he can't afford to after I spent so much time pointing out how often he does that), or he simply didn't care enough to pay it any mind.  Given how long ago this was and how new I was to blogging at the time, I'm inclined to believe that it's the latter.  To be honest, though, I don't think it was a particularly esoteric or brilliant counterargument, but it's merely one that never really gets explored because people don't typically have to go to that extent.

In that sense, I'm going to try in this one to get at some of the hardly -- if at all -- covered issues with the teleological argument, aka the argument from design.  We all know this one : a watch implies a watchmaker, a building implies a builder, therefore life, which appears designed, implies a designer.  Well, the obvious counterargument here is that the analogy falls apart when you compare to living things that can reproduce. Buildings don't have sex with other buildings to make little baby buildings that grow up to become skyscrapers and what not...  that would be terrifying when you think about it.  Living things have that option and the imperfections of the process coupled with natural selection can yield changes in the average probabilities of alleles throughout a population over generations.  That's the obvious counterargument, and most would stop right there;  but you could go further and really start to tear down the concept of teleological thinking to begin with.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Arguments That Need Amending

Being in the atheist community means being exposed to the way disbelievers handle the believers.  There is a wide array of behavioral patterns ranging from the sorts of immature crowing that lends some credence to the accusations that we atheists are so "angry" and "miserable" all the time to the broadly academic and thorough.  People who throw out the clever insights and people who make idiotic misappropriations that are no better than religious nutbars accusing us of wanting to sin all the time.  It's all over the place.  And yes, this is largely a sign of the fact that atheism as a community flag has nothing unifying it beyond a common lack of belief.  At the very least, a religion has a large set of overarching dogma and therefore multiple things you have to share with your fellow believer to be part of the same club.

Well, even Answers in Genesis goes as far as to include a wide array of common YEC arguments that YECs should stop using.  So that at least says that they are willing to recognize that some arguments just don't work, or at the very least need some sort of modification to bring them up to a meaningful status.  It's a little ironic to think that even the side which is run by a man who unwittingly brags about the inherently illogical and irrational status of his position would be willing to apply at least some criticism to his own brothers-in-bollocks.

In theory, atheists are supposed to be the side that shows more reason, rationality and skepticism on the whole, though that is at best a loose generalization.  Nonetheless, we, as a community, tend to get things wrong quite often.  Atheism by itself is not really tied to intellectual rigor in particular, but the reverse is typically the case.  Those of us who are more open and out there about our atheism (and as such, will be active in the atheist community) will be those who are more likely to make silly mistakes as well.  It's no surprise really, because these are the people who are most vocally frustrated with the venom in religion's bite.  That kind of frustration only leads to errors in thought processes clouded by the righteous ire that is so abundantly roused by the idiocy with which we are adversarial.  That coupled with the nature of internet community dynamics means that one can very easily fall prey to memes and patterns that other people used just because they were there.  The very same people we usually might see as critical thinkers (e.g. Thunderf00t, Jaclyn Glenn, PZ Myers, Matt Dillahunty, et al) all make the occasional slip-up because they're just too angry and too fuming to temper their thoughts.  It's only natural.  We're human, too.  What becomes problematic is when those little missteps spread more than the better, more well-thought out arguments.  So here are a few arguments that I feel are really being misused, misstated, or are just plain wrong and just too popular.  Note that I'm largely avoiding the more rare or obscure ones, so this is about those that appear to be a little more widespread than, say, 2nd decalogue arguments.