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?

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Twisting, Tumbling and Rapidly Expanding Space-Time

This is the sort of news that excites me.  It's when there's a huge revelation towards advances in science that shows some hard progress.  It's the sort of thing that, when I read it, makes me think humanity isn't entirely 120% doomed.  I mean, this coupled with the additional pleasant news that Fred Phelps won't likely be alive that much longer (fingers crossed for Pat Robertson to follow along next)...  it's like there is some reason to get up in the morning and not feel unbounded shame for being considered part of the species Homo Sapiens.  I'm talking about the news regarding the direct evidence of the Inflation hypothesis.

I will warn you, that as a science geek, I'm going to get a little involved here, but I'm going to avoid getting all too technical, as I am merely a geek, and not an actual student of astrophysics.  My level of understanding of the actual mathematics down to its nitty-gritty details is nowhere near that of someone who is actually in the field.  That said, I am more aiming to take it down to some level of detail in the interest of putting those details out in a way that should be somewhat understandable to a novice.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dialogues with Hopeless Delusional Idiots ep. 3

This is a little switch from the prior entries in the series, but still fitting in the theme.  My previous two episodes involved religion and religious beliefs as the core topics of discussion.  This one is more on the alt-med end of the spectrum, mainly regarding anti-vaccine and autism-related nuttery.  Nonetheless, I'm still dealing with a hopeless delusional idiot here.  Let that be a reminder that idiocy of this scale is not limited to religion alone, and that this blog is about all kinds of stupidity.  It's things like this that make it bear mentioning that the moniker of "grumpy anti-theist" isn't enough by itself.  I'm "anti-" all kinds of insufferable stupidity.

There are several sub-movements within the set of alternative "medicine" believers, with a relatively minor amount of crossover between them.  It's not necessarily the case that someone who is anti-vaccine is also a believer in Ayurveda, or that someone who buys into homeopathy is also a reiki healing fanatic.  That's not to say, though, that such people don't exist.  In this case, I'm dealing with one such person.  It is pretty clear as things carry on that this person wasn't drawn to alternative "medicine" (read : quackery) because he really found them believable on their own terms, but because he was so staunchly opposed to real medicine that anything that was different was inherently better.

This conversation was taking place on an online forum for a site that is ostensibly about video games (one for which I was formerly a contributing editor for their press outlet back when I was still working in the games industry), but like many forums, they have sections dedicated to "off-topic" or "general" discussion, and topics like politics, current events, "new cool stuff" was always going around.  While I'm no longer super-active with this forum or the site that owns it, I still appear now and then.  This one started with a guy who was posting a lot of anti-medicine nonsense shortly after Steve Jobs died...  I ignored it for a while, and the thread carried on, but after a few posts in, it also started including some anti-vaccine and all the vaccines-cause-autism bullcrap that rested on the outlandish idea that a former Playboy bunny knows more about human biochemistry than all medical doctors in the world combined.

Friday, February 14, 2014

If This is How You Question Darwin...

After the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate that showed just how clearly Ham has no hope of ever being considered scientifically-minded to any degree, there's been a lot of stressing the point.  All over the web, there's a lot of harping about the most important moments of the debate, and most of all, the Q&A where Bill gives examples of evidence that would change his position, while Ken Ham says flatly that nothing would ever change his mind.  The biggest thing about this is that it completely shatters Ham's contention that science is closed-minded and locked on to philosophical naturalism, while simultaneously showing that it is he who is indisputably closed-minded.  It's amazing how clear-cut he makes it for us.

Well, not long afterwards, HBO aired a documentary that featured Ham as well as plenty more incredibly closed-minded people who think...  uuhhh...  well, maybe "think" is the wrong word...  approach reality with the same fractured intellectual modality as Ken Ham and his ilk.  Doing the rounds through the atheist blogosphere are clips from the film, specifically of die-hard creationists and fideists who make even Chuck Missler (Mr. "Comets-aren't-made-of-ice-because-ice-cubes-don't-form-a-tail!") look almost sane.

See the video on Gawker for yourself, and read my thoughts below the jump --

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Transcendental Mental Masturbation

People who straddle their primitive belief system with all that science and engineering and logic have put forth have always put up a sort of wall between the reasoning skills that guide them towards acceptance of scientific facts and the shameless elimination of reason that guides them to believe in the supernatural.  Without some sort of barrier, you end up with a sort of universal cognitive dissonance.  Often times, it's the margins of scientific knowledge that give one room to erect a barrier, but this is also the route that creates a lot of dishonesty.  If your god exists in the margins of science, you end up with a need to make those margins appear wide, and whatever inane mental gymnastics you do to convince yourself of that only means you're sabotaging your capacity to think.

So another avenue you've probably all heard is this whole "transcendence" bollocks.  This tries to erect the mental barrier between brilliance and bullshit by creating this alternative context that is largely unexplored by any rational system of thought because it isn't rational in the first place.  This is exemplified by the quote posted here in the G+ Anti-theists community --

I should add that the original poster is merely quoting someone else and asking us how we'd respond to a thesis like that.  Below the jump is my response.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham : Post-Debate Review

So I, like many of you out there in the atheist blogosphere, watched the big debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Answers in Genesis' Ken Ham.  Going into it, I was expecting not too much from Bill and pretty much the same old same old from Ken Ham.  Mainly why I wasn't expecting much from Bill had not to do with his scientific understanding (which is quite considerable), but because of tactical practices that are part of the process of formal debate. The problem with the practice of debate with its rules put in force is that it is less about what is true and more about who argues well, and how you lay traps and keep someone from really being able to make the actual point.  Simultaneously, if you can get someone into a trap, you never have to actually make a point of your own or provide any real reason for your position.  This is why people like Duane Gish or William Lane Craig are generally successful in debates.

WLC likes to strawman and lie about his opponent's positions and lie about science.  The lies about science are obscure enough that it would take some serious effort or existing knowledge of a subject in order to uncover them.  The lies about the opponent's position are designed to rouse ire and goad the opponent into wasting time reprimanding WLC for his crime.  Gish, on the other hand, takes the tactic of rapid-fire switching between subtopics, ensuring that people can only really respond to a fraction of the questions posed (note that because creationists set up this false dichotomy, they assume that if a given question isn't adequately answered by their adversary, they win by default).  This latter is the primary tactic that Ken Ham used in his opening statement.  From there on, it was a lot of the usual fallacies of "historical science vs. experimental science" and a lot of "you weren't there" and "the Bible is automatically true" bullcrap.  The most cringeworthy example of this for me was during the Q&A where Bill was asked about the origin of matter, and in Ham's response to Bill's answer, he said "there's a book out there that actually tells us where matter came from."  Ugh...  right, the book says so, therefore it's the right answer.  He did it again with the "where did consciousness come from" question as well.  I really felt like wringing Ken Ham's neck right there.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Theodicy is Really a Contraction of Theological Idiocy

The problem of evil is something of a troubling issue for Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology, and it also stands as one of the more common arguments used by atheists to raise doubts against the theist position. To be honest, I do think a lot of atheists misuse this argument, or at least fail to follow through on it properly. A lot of times, you tend to see Epicurus' famous quote which concisely essays the argument or something along the lines of bringing up a minor counterexample and declaring checkmate.  Really, the problem of evil (or its corollary, the problem of suffering) does not actually have the power to disprove a god, nor does a "solution" to the problem have the capacity to prove it.  Rather, the attack that the problem of evil poses is that it undermines the logical consistency of the theology itself, which at best shows that if there is a god, it's not the god of particular religion X.  Theodicy, for those who aren't familiar, is basically an entire field of philosophy dedicated to the defenses against the problems of evil/suffering which aim to show that a theistic belief system can still be consistent with the existence of evil in the world.

Notably, I did limit myself to Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology here.  For a lot of older religions, there really is no "problem" of evil/suffering to begin with.  Hinduism and all of its offshoots (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, etc.) have concepts of reincarnation and karma which explain evil/suffering someone experiences as a result of past evil/suffering they caused potentially in prior lives as well as purporting that in the long run, good and evil, pleasure and pain, etc. come out balanced such that the game of life is a zero sum game.  Hellenistic and Norse mythologies tend to imbue their deities with the same character flaws and emotions that humans have, and they rarely ever act in interests other than their own.  No one god was fundamentally good or evil in an absolute sense.  In short, these religions have no "problem" of evil and/or suffering in the same sense because the presence of evil is something that is expected, making it quite consistent with those theologies.  Judeo-Christian mythology, on the other hand, is faced with a problem because its monotheism also means referring to its god in absolutes and infinites.  Thereby writing themselves into a corner.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Believers Never Look in a Mirror

"You atheists are so intolerant!"

How many times have you heard this?  Chances are, it's happened enough times that you want to choke somebody...  and chances are good that the person who says it is himself/herself entirely intolerant of everyone who doesn't agree with them on matters of faith.  It's staggering the sheer level of hypocrisy that is inherent when someone who is religious actually dares to talk about others being intolerant.  Pretty much all religions espouse some form of intolerance and hate.  While you can argue that the individual followers do not necessarily share properties with just every view of the doctrine itself, that doesn't mean they don't agree on some looser level (which can be evidenced by their voting patterns).  But even beyond that, following anything on faith primes you to follow more harmful ideas because someone with a certain level of charisma conflated something horrible with some faith-based belief you do agree with.

Even the more moderate religious folks will still at some point fail to show a moderate attitude about something when really pressed to certain limits.  That's where we have to start saying -- if you are religious and you dare talk to anyone about being intolerant, that makes you in every sense an extreme hypocrite.