Wednesday, January 31, 2007

War with Iran

I don't know if the Bush regime is really considering invading Iran. I can't imagine how they would come to the conclusion that this was a good thing to do. But you never know.

The regime has bungled virtually every foreign policy move it has made since taking power (remember, they started off right away with that stupid brouhaha about the spy plane that hit the Chinese plane, which was pretty much fumbling the opening kickoff in terms of foreign policy), and they've pretty much screwed the pooch on Iran too, and the only way it can really get worse at this point is if we invade.

Some history.

According to NPR a while ago, Iran cooperated with the US "War an an Abstract Concept Called Terror" after 9-11, in the hopes that such cooperation would lead to closer ties with the US, which the Iranians felt was a bit cool after being included in the infamous "Axis of Evil." The Bushies, naturally, took this as an opportunity to shun Iran, which caused the moderates to get kicked out and allowed our good friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the guy who both denies the right of Israel to exist and hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers a couple months ago, to come to power.

So, then, perhaps emboldened by the turmoil in Iraq diverting US attention, or perhaps not unjustifiably worried about the US invading them next, the Iranians re-started their nuclear program. After all, North Korea had just announced they had nuclear (or "nucular") weapons and nothing had happened to them. (I would like to point out here that I predicted, before the invasion of Iraq, that North Korea would go nuclear, if they hadn't already, if we invaded).

So, the Bush regime goes all "diplomatic" all of a sudden, saying up and down that Iran would be dealt with diplomatically, unlike Iraq, despite the fact that Iran is a definite state sponsor of terror and will soon definitely have nuclear weapons whereas neither were true of Iraq. (Which is not to justify invading Iran, but to point out the inconsistency of the regime's foreign policy). But, and I don't think this has been made widely known in the mainstream media, the regime has consistently refused to meet with Iran unless Iran first suspends its nuclear program.

Let's think about that for a moment. Why do we want to meet with Iran? To get them to stop their nuclear program. What do we make a precondition of meeting with Iran? Them stopping their nuclear program. Do you see a problem here? That's like telling your neighbor, whose tree is growing into your yard, that you won't meet with him to discuss the tree problem unless he first cuts the tree down. What the fuck is there to meet about then? Besides, the Iranians aren't completely stupid. The last time they cooperated with the US, the US slapped them in the face. Obviously, they aren't going to give the US what it wants without any assurances of getting what it wants, which is something you would talk about during the diplomatic negotiations! Why in the hell would they trust that relations between the US and Iran are going to improve if they do this thing, since they got jilted last time?

It's like Bush said, "Fool me once... you can't get fooled again." Or, at least in Iran's case, they aren't going to get fooled again.

So, what are your options if a country is developing nuclear weapons, messing around helping insurgents in a country you're trying to stabilize, and you've decided they have to give in on everything you want to negotiate with them about as a precondition of meeting with them? Well, I guess you'd pretty much have to invade them.

Which, boy, would be a great move. An overextended, depleted military occupying yet another hostile nation? We've already lost in Iraq, we're starting to lose in Afghanistan, let's take on another, identical challenge? That'll work out great. Oh, well, it will work out great in one way, at least for the Bush regime: It will distract from the debacles already ongoing. And, of course, we'll military crush Iran, because we can still do that, and Bush can say, "Mission Accomplished!", but that will just be the prelude to another intractable insurgency.

To say nothing of the fact that many Iranian, especially Iranian youth, actually have positive views of the US and would also like closer ties with the West, but are stuck under extremist rule. Because, let me tell you, they'll stop having good feelings toward the US the first time they see their father, mother, brother, sister, or friend dying from a US bomb. That'll be great.

I don't know if the Bush regime intends to invade Iran or not. But they're going to continue backing themselves into a corner as long as they keep up this ridiculous precondition bullshit and refuse to negotiate with them. Invading them will just make a bad situation worse.

You Can't Make This S*** Up!

Okay. It gets better. The guy who wrote the crazy "deceitful critics" article I just fisked has also "rediscovered" the cure for cancer! Guess what it is? C'mon, guess. No peeking.







It's drinking your own semen.

I am not making this up. He calls it "the Panacea or Universal Medicine."

Then, he says, "Let me add that in our days the Universal Medicine is called Human Genome, or rather the qualities of the Human Genome." And, of course, in his article he conflates the human genome with "human intelligence," so why do we actually need to drink our own semen anyway? We could just use our intelligence to cure cancer. Oh, wait, that's what freakin' doctors do everyday, but they have actual evidence as the efficacy of their treatments.

And the nutbags on a Intelligent Design (ID) site called, ironically, Overwhelming Evidence, in the comments to this article, don't instantly disavow this guy! Here's a comment from a guy who calls himself 'littlejon':

You simply cannot label revolutionary ideas "loon"; they laughed at Galileo
as you laugh at the idea of eating sperm to help your biophotons. Do not fall
for the materialist mafia ensuring such clearly true IDeas are not taught in
schools. How on earth people fall for ateistic [sic] nonsense like that humans have
DNA resemblance to chimpanzees, but not the new paradigm of Intelligent Design
biophotonsemenics is beyond me.

I can't remember what site I recently read where the author said that as soon as someone starts comparing a wacko idea to the ideas of Galileo or Einstein or Newton, you know the person doing it is batshit crazy. It's funny, though, because I did literally laugh at the "idea of eating sperm to help your biophotons." Just typing that sentence is making me giggle. And "biophotonsemenics?" They're just making shit up again, like whatever the hell "retsyn" is that is supposedly in Certs mints.

Another bold new thinker:

I appreciate that according to strict materialist dogma much of what the Prof
says does not make sense, but is that his fault or is that the fault of a
materialist prison which limits what we can speculate on?

According to "strict materialist dogma?" You mean, that tawdry little thing we call reality? So, the fact that what the author said doesn't make a damn bit of sense is reality's fault, not the fault of the batshit crazy guy who said it? Well, hot damn, I think my spentensotrons (word I just made up) are spedooling (also made up) today, and so I need to go on disability with pay until I can re-mopeleeter (made up) them, which is indefinitely. Oh, the doctor says there's nothing wrong with me? Well, is that my fault, or the fault of the materialist prison which limits what we can speculate on? Hmm?

Another future Nobel Laureate:

Although this topic may be (heck, definitely IS) somewhat gross, it may also be
the big breakthrough that ID needs to finally become as accepted as
Materialistic Science. Think about it. Why do so many people prefer materialistic science to ID?

Uh... I dunno. Maybe because it's true? How about that? Because it can actually be demonstrated to be true without resort to making up words, false analogies, and tautological reasoning? Because it's peer-reviewed, extensively studied, makes falsifiable predictions, and does a bunch of other things none of which involve crazy hand-waving? Jeez!

Plus, though they at first claimed that the crazy article this guy wrote was "peer-reviewed," they later in the comments admit that, in fact, it wasn't, but then the author says, "American Chronicle is not a peer-reviewed publication, but neither is the Bible, nor most of the publications we have. So what? "

If it doesn't make any difference, why bother to lie about it in the first place? Oh, that's right, so you can use it when legitimate scientists who don't drink their own semen say that ID hasn't produced any peer-reviewed articles. And I love the "neither is the Bible" bit. The fact that the freakin' Bible isn't science is the nub of the whole debate, but he acts as if it's settled. Good to see that he hasn't lost his propensity for assuming his conclusion in his arguments.

This site is supposedly for teens to get information on ID, but I'd bet you a lot of money that the only people there are skeptics and the DI people who run the site. If the site looks laughable to me, you can bet that cynical teenagers aren't going to think it's cool.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My Crazy Sense Is Tingling!

And this article is the reason. The author makes some amazingly nutty statements in his attempts to prove that the critics of intelligent design (ID) are "deceitful." Let us step through the looking glass and see what he has to say.

First of all, they allege that ID theorists failed to name the designer. The fundamental problem with this criticism is that intelligence in fact has been named as the designer--after all, the theory itself is called Intelligent Design. Thus the designer is intelligence. And because there is absolutely no demonstrable evidence that an intelligence above and beyond human intelligence exists, by default the credit for design in nature goes to human intelligence.

Huh? Wait a minute. Human intelligence is the "designer?" Humans designed themselves? That seems pretty incredible to believe. It's like the old list of dumb things that supposedly American high school students wrote on essay tests that includes, "Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin he built with his own hands." To quote Roger Zelazny, neat trick, that.

Oh, no wait, he's actually going somewhere with this, somewhere that he'd know he wasn't supposed to go if he'd read his ID talking points...

If ID critics want me to be even more specific, Christ identified himself as
that intelligence which created the universe to make reproductions of himself in
the form of human beings. In other words we find design in nature because Christ
constitutes the seed of the universe, or the cosmic system’s input and output.
As he disclosed it in Revelation 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First
and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

Uh... okay. So, the universe is a giant photocopier making copies of Jesus? And now Jesus is not only a door (read your Bible!), he's also a "seed." But a seed doesn't design the tree or plant it turns into. The seed contains the plan, it contains the design of what will become the tree, but doesn't actually make the design. I fail to see how this analogy works.

Is he trying to say that Jesus is the "designer"? I think he is, but he's being a little new-Agey and squirrelly about it. But if he is saying Jesus is the "designer," then apparently the Discovery Institute, Dembski, Behe, and the other supporters of ID are misinformed, because they claim that the identity of the "designer" isn't part of ID and isn't necessary for the theory to work. Which, of course, makes the author at best disingenuous and at worst deceitful himself, because it's not just critics of ID who say ID doesn't name the "designer," it's the ID movement itself!

Why is the "designer" left unnamed? Because the only reason ID exists is because the teaching of creationism in US public schools was struck down because it was clearly religion, not science, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, and so ID was created as "religion in a scientific theory's clothes" to get past the 1st Amendment problem. (Which, of course, it did not when it got its day in Dover PA in the Kitzmiller case). So the author is making a big boo-boo here in naming the "designer," if, in fact, that's what he is doing.

He’s asking us to meditate on any kind of seed-bearing plant, and if we are able
to infer based on our observations that the universe exists, and we exist
because the parent seed of the universe needed a “manufacturing” plant for the
production of human beings in its own image, then we’ll gain enlightenment.

So... the universe is like the soil that a seed grows in or something? Well, that doesn't solve anything. Seeds come from trees. Where did the "seed" that is Jesus come from? Some would say God, the Father, even though most Christian theology contends that the Father and the Son have both always existed. But even if we say God, then where did God come from? Seeds don't come from nowhere. And, if God, being much greater than man, doesn't need a "designer," then why does man? If God can just exist, then why not the universe?

Second, ID critics allege that the theory fails to provide testable claims.
Again, this criticism is demonstrably false: ID is eminently testable, has been
tested, and is being tested constantly. As a matter of fact, ID needs no testing
at all. The fact that design is the basic quality of intelligence is so
self-evident that anyone who doubts it has to be exquisitely ignorant or
entirely delusional.

Well, great! That wraps it right up. It's obvious to the author, so it must be true! No further evidence required. Hey, I think it's pretty obvious that I am the reincarnation of Napoleon, too, and if you don't believe this obvious fact, then you are "exquisitely ignorant or entirely delusional." Ta-da!

I also like how the author says that the criticism that ID isn't falsifiable is "demonstrably false," but then, rather than demonstrating how ID could be falsified, he immediately jumps in with, "ID needs no testing at all." Great stuff.

"ID is true."
"How do you know? Have you tested it."
"I could."
"Have you?"
"Why not?"
"Don't need to."
"Why not?"
"It's obvious, unless you're ignorant or delusional."
"Ah. So unless I'm ignorant or delusional... ?"
"You believe it's true."
"How do I know it is true?"
"Because I said so."
"And how do you know?"
"Because it's obvious."

Well, that's certainly an air-tight argument.

But then, the author decides to throw logic out the window with this gem:

What needs to be demonstrated is not the fact that design is the basic quality
of intelligence, but the abysmal absurdity that the formation of systems in
nature—from atoms to the universe--is the basic quality of zero intelligence.
Needless to say, the burden is on the critics of Intelligent Design to
demonstrate that structure formation in the universe is the product of zero
intelligence. Those who rabidly promote that nonsense are most qualified to do
the demonstrations, having near-zero intelligence themselves.

Er... no. First off, there is no such thing as "zero intelligence" to have qualities. He's just making stuff up now, creating some weird straw man to argue against. But, in any case, if he is arguing that proponents of evolution have the burden of proof regarding whether evolution is true, that is correct. And guess what? There is all kinds of evidence for evolution. The evidence for evolution is as solid as the evidence for gravity. The fact that the author chooses to ignore the evidence does not magically mean it doesn't exist.

Secondly, even if evolution lacked sufficient evidence to support it, that wouldn't say a damned thing about whether ID is true or not. ID and evolution are not the only possible options, and ID doesn't win by default if evolution is wrong. There could be a third option we haven't discovered yet. But creating a false dichotomy saying if not p then q is a fallacy. Arguments don't win by default in science. In order to prove ID, its proponents would have to do more than just tear down evolution: they'd have to present evidence for ID.

Of course, when your argument makes no sense at all, there's always insulting those who disagree with you, which the author dutifully does here.

Notice how the author hasn't yet told us just how ID is falsifiable either?

In short, the claim that zero intelligence is the cause of structure
formation in nature is pure speculation. Facts do not warrant it, and analogy
does not support it. On top of that, the constant generation of structures by
intelligence falsifies outright that lamebrained concept.

"Zero intelligence," whatever the hell that is, isn't the cause of anything. More straw men. Evolution argues that through a natural process that isn't the result of a guiding intelligence is responsible for speciation. That natural processes are responsible for speciation is anything but "pure speculation" and the facts do, in fact warrant it. Ignoring the facts doesn't make them go away, sir.

And I have no idea how in the hell "constant generation of structures by intelligence," whatever the hell that means, "falsifies outright that lamebrained concept." Once again, the author is arguing by "I said so, so it's true." If he has evidence that falsifies evolution he should definitely present and publish it, because he'll be world-famous instantly. He doesn't, of course.

When we wish to have an apple tree in our garden, we simply plant an apple seed,
and get a tree that bears apples. Voilá, Intelligent Design has been
demonstrated--the design we find in the tree’s structure comes from the seed’s
intelligence. Moreover, the design we find in a building comes from its
designer, and the design we find in our body comes from the human genome or
human intelligence.

Wow. Another paragraph of gobbledygook. The author's use of the word "intelligence" is as inconsistent as the quality of network television. In what sense a seed has "intelligence" is not clear to me. A seed has DNA, which is like a plan for a tree, but the seed isn't sentient. I don't see how this form of "intelligence" has anything to do with his earlier definition of "intelligence." But this is a neat rhetorical trick: just call the natural process that turns a seed into an apple tree "intelligence" and walla! ID must be true. Except that all he has done is change terminology. This sort of "intelligent" design isn't actually anything but evolution with DNA suddenly called "intelligence." Proves nothing.

And, once again, the author claims recursively that humans designed themselves, which still makes no sense whatsoever.

Seeing that any design we have is caused by intelligence, what makes the critics
of Intelligent Design believe that zero intelligence is the cause of structure
formation in nature? On what empirical evidence do they base the evidental
nonsence [sic] that zero intelligence can generate anything superior to itself? If the
initial cause of the universe had zero intelligence, how did it manage to boost
itself up to the level of human intelligence?

We are not interested in “just so” stories, but in facts. Who has ever observed the generation of intelligence from zero intelligence? What empirical evidence validates the rationality of the belief that an initial cause can yield anything superior to itself?
So many unfounded assumptions, so little time. The author has not proven that living creatures are "designed", so he begs the question right off the bat. He once again tries to beat up a straw man with his nonsensical (and undefined) "zero intelligence." And since I don't have a clue what "zero intelligence" is to even evaluate the question of how it can generate anything "superior" to itself, even assuming I knew what the author thinks is "superior" in the first place.

The next few paragraphs are more gobbledygook in which the author seems not to understand what a "cause" is and misunderstands causality, talking about how a "cause can't create an effect greater than itself," whatever that means. I can't even parse the craziness there, so I won't try.

Because the belief that zero intelligence caused the formation of the
universe is patently irrational, we have no choice but to posit that the initial
cause of the universe can be no lesser in qualities than what we find in the
universe. Thus this logical inference from a highly complex effect to an initial
cause no lesser in qualities than the effect itself points in the direction of
an intelligent agent that we may call the parent seed, universal common
ancestor, designer, or cosmic genotype of the phenotype universe.

Ah, the old "unmoved mover" argument. Theists just keep recycling these old, tired arguments over and over, dressing them up in new clothes as if they haven't already been refuted. Once again, even were it true that the "initial cause of the universe can be no lesser in qualities than what we find in the universe," then positing a "parent seed" does us no good whatsoever other than pushing the question back a step, because then we need an "initial cause" of that "seed" (God) that is "no lesser in qualities" than God. That is to say, we need a bigger God. Then, for that God, we need a bigger God. And so forth. "It's turtles all the way down." And, if you argue that God is not contingent and does not need a cause, well then, why don't we just posit that the universe is not contingent and does not need a cause. Especially since causality, being a property of things within the universe is not necessarily a quality of the universe.

Third, critics of Intelligent Design eagerly promote the fabrication that
the theory completely lacks predictive power. Of course, nothing can be further
from the truth. Because we know that human intelligence in Christ’s person is
the seed, creator or designer of the universe, we are in the position to predict
with unparalleled confidence that Christ is the universal common ancestor of all
things created. Also we predict that universal common descent has its source in
Jesus Christ.

Overwhelming evidence for the relation of all creatures to Christ by
universal common descent has been provided by paleontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, embryology, biochemistry, molecular genetics, and other scientific disciplines. Whereas evolutionists stick to Darwin’s invention
tenaciously--namely to the supernatural entity misleadingly named “natural
selection”--, we predict that universal common descent’s mechanism is
epigenesis. Thus the process of development from Christ’s genotype to the mature
universe for the production of progeny in Christ’s image is epigenetic.

Now, wait a minute here. First off, where is all this "overwhelming evidence" that all creatures are related to Christ? Do we have a DNA sample from Christ that we've compared to all the creatures in the world? Wow! I'm surprised I missed that. I woulda thought it would be big news. Also, if common descent actually proves ID, then why all the fuss to disprove it? And how, exactly, is evolution wrong if common descent is true?

So, the author's supposedly falsifiable prediction is that all creatures are descended from Jesus, who is God. That is to say, that all creatures are "made in God's image." That's not a prediction of ID, that is the primary claim of ID! So, ID "predicts" that its primary claim is true, thus making a "falsifiable prediction," eh? That if we could somehow test the DNA of a supernatural being we could prove that all life comes from that being? Uh... yeah. Of course. It's a tautology. He's saying that if we had evidence of God we'd have evidence of ID, but since ID is simply saying, "God did it," and since he claims one's DNA is also one's "intelligence," he's nothing more than that that if we had evidence that God designed life then ID would be true, which is saying that if God designed life then God designed life. If x then x isn't much of an argument and certainly isn't a falsifiable prediction.

All of these predictions are falsifiable, provided ID critics can demonstrate that instead of Christ the universal common ancestor is a minimal life form, and ultimately zero intelligence; that universal common descent is not a fact; or that epigenesis is not a viable mechanism for development from the seed of the universe.

Wow. He's getting more wacky by the sentence. No, my friend, in order for us to even discuss this whole line of argument you would have to have some evidence that Christ is, in fact the universal common ancestor of all life. You can't just assert it, which is all he has done. And, once again, it is the one making the claim who has the burden of proof, so I'll sit around and wait until the author presents his evidence that "universal common descent [is] a fact." I suspect I'll be waiting a long time. Same goes with the "epigenesis" thing. It's not incumbent upon scientists to prove that your gobbledygook is untrue, sir.

Based on the knowledge that Christ created the universe to have children in
his own image we also predict with great confidence that the cosmic system
yields end-product or output in the form of human beings. This prediction is
falsifiable, provided ID critics can present a being that exists beyond and
above human beings. If they have such a superhuman being in their closet, we'd
like to have it presented for our examination.

Wha-? When, exactly, did the author prove that human beings are the "end-product" or "output" of the universe? What does that even mean? And how would producing a "superhuman being" disprove this, exactly?

ID critics may raise the objection that man is not the cosmic system’s
input and output, or pinnacle of all life forms in the universe. Indeed, whether
it is true or not, we can’t be absolutely certain. Precisely for this reason the
theory of creation by Christ is tentative, just as scientific theories are
supposed to be.

No, no, no! A scientific theory itself is tentative because new evidence could always be presented which falsifies or changes the theory. But the evidence isn't. Here, the author is saying that one of the evidentiary pillars of his theory is, even in theory, untestable and unknowable. If the evidence on which your theory is based can't be falsified, neither can the theory itself. That's not being "tentative," that's not being falsifiable. The author has led us in a circle and now admitted what he was claiming to be refuting. Brilliant.

Because we are the cosmic system’s output, we predict that exclusively
beings have the potential to provide information feedback to the cosmic
system’s initial input for the purpose of self-regulation. Communication
with the universe’s parent seed is not only possible, but such exchange of
information is taking place constantly in the form of prayer. In other words
from the systems point of view prayer qualifies as information feedback,
where the cosmic system’s human output feeds information back to the cosmic
system’s initial input, which feedback to our cosmic parent ensures homeostasis.

The prediction that exclusively human beings pray to the Creator of the
universe can be falsified by the demonstration that creatures above or below the level of our intelligence pray to the Creator as well.

More craziness, gobbledygook, and unproven assertions. I can't even begin to follow this tortured logic, but as far as I can tell, he's begging the question: "The universe was designed by the Creator if only humans pray to the Creator" doesn't seem to really seem to address anything. The fact that humans pray to the Creator doesn't prove whether the Creator exists any more than people praying to Zeus or Allah proves that they exist. I don't follow this at all.

If a man is the genotype of the phenotype universe, then the parameters or
determining characteristics of the universe are exquisitely fine-tuned for our
production, just as the parameters of an apple tree are exquisitely fine-tuned
for the production of apples.
Indeed, in astrophysics we find that the universe is remarkably biofriendly and is fine-tuned for our production. ID critics, however, are invited to falsify this prediction by demonstrating that the universe is fine-tuned for the production of intelligence that is above and beyond human intelligence.

This seems to be a very tortured version of the argument that the physical laws and constants of the universe had to be exactly what they are in order for life to exist, so the universe must have been tuned for human life, and that can't be an accident. This argument fails in many ways, but the one I happen to like the best is that this argument assumes that there were other choices. That the universe could have formed in other ways. But it is entirely possible that there aren't any other choices, that the universe, due to natural processes, could only form with the laws and constants it actually has, and therefore it is not unlikely for the universe to be "biofriendly," but, in fact inevitable.

Also, I fail to see how one even could prove that the universe is fine-tuned for production of life "above and beyond human intelligence." I seriously doubt that if we discovered alien life that the author would take this as proof that God didn't exist. Besides, I don't see how this disproof follows from what he's said in any case.

As hopefully I made it clear, the charge by ID critics that the designer
remained unidentified is bogus. The designer of the universe is Jesus Christ, he
revealed himself as our creator, and he’s coming back to deal with his enemies,
who are the enemies of humanity as well.

Oh, the "designer" is Jesus! Great. Someone better inform the Discovery Institute, because they still seem to be unaware of this revelation.

The evolutionist paradigm is in process of decay, and is being replaced with the
paradigm of cosmic ontogeny or epigenesis.

Translation: We may be down 56-0 with three seconds on the clock, but they're about to crumble! We're winning, trust me!

Wow. Amazing that someone could actually type all that without having an aneurysm or something at the illogic being employed. I would have thought the author's brain would have one of those Star Trek "does not compute! Must destroy self!" moments somewhere during the creation of this illogical screed. Apparently not.

This is where one irrational belief leads. One spawns another, and that another, and pretty soon you're talking about "Jesus seeds" and that humans designed themselves.


Tighter Executive Control

I read in the newspaper today that Bush has signed an Executive Order putting control of policies put out by the various government agencies under the control of political appointees, rather than career civil-servants or scientists as has often been the case up until now. This is seen as a move to give the White House more direct control over the agencies and, perhaps, to reign in agencies the White House isn't happy with.

I must say that I'm ambivalent about this. On the one hand, my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes as the Bush regime makes another power grab in its quest to consolidate almost all the power in the Executive Branch. On the other, control of government agencies is one of the powers of the Executive, and if agencies aren't complying with White House directives, then the White House has the right to tighten control.

And there are times when I'm glad that some agencies have discretionary power and don't have to follow White House lead, but others when it angers me that they don't. For instance, it angered me when I heard that Bush political appointees were messing with scientific work in places like the EPA, where I want and expect the scientific work to be done impartially to determine what is actually happening in the environment. But, on the other hand, it also angers me that agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA, when ordered to work together under the National Intelligence Director, just don't listen and keep doing what they've been doing.

I don't know how the power to enforce greater control over government agencies can be given to the White House in such a way as to prevent powerful agencies from just blowing off the White House when it suits them, but doesn't allow for the White House to tamper with the legitimate work of those agencies for political reasons.

If You Seek Out God, You Will Find Him

Anon, in one of his comments, has made a request that theists, Christians in my experience, often make, that being that I should, in essence, 'Give [his] God a chance.' Spend some time in church, read the Bible, see where it leads. I have noted that he is wrong in his assumption that I haven't read the Bible, the Gnostic Gospels, or Aquinas, but I haven't gone into what spiritual journey or lack thereof led to my atheism.

Because I deny that it necessary or wise to seek out and "try on" irrational beliefs. I don't think it is necessary to learn in depth about Christianity or any other religion in order to reject them, nor do I think it is necessary to go through any kind of spiritual journey before rejecting spiritualism and religion. It is not necessary to entertain irrational beliefs in order to reject them, plain and simple.

When one makes a claim, it is not the responsibility of others to disprove that claim, but rather the responsibility of the one making it to provide evidence in support of his or her claim. If the claim is irrational, unlikely, or extraordinary and sufficient evidence supporting the claim is not forthcoming, we can safely dismiss the claim without further examination. As such, when the theist makes the truth claim, "A God or god(s) exist," we can simply ask for evidence of such. When evidence is not forthcoming, no further investigation is necessary. We do not need to falsify every unfounded assertion made to us; we can simply discount the ones lacking sufficient evidence.

I don't need to read the Bible "cover to cover" in order to reject the claims of Christianity. The lack of support for those claims is enough. I don't need to seek God out before rejecting His existence any more than I need to seek out Bigfoot, leprechauns, or magic fairies before rejecting their existence. I don't need to read the works of eminent Bigfootologists or leprechaunologists or fairyologists before I reject them, nor do I need to attend a meeting of believers in those things and talk to them before I reject them either. The evidence stands on its own, and it is lacking and does not warrant further investigation. And I certainly don't need to be "open" to the idea of Bigfoot, leprechauns, and fairies before rejecting their existence. I only need be open to claims that have sufficient supporting evidence to warrant further examination.

That is not to say that there is no value in studying religion and religious people. While the supernatural bases of religions do not exist, the religions themselves and believers of those religions do, and there is value in understanding the beliefs of others in order to better understand the world -- the real world -- in which we live. But it is not necessary to be open to the claims of these religions in order to study them.

I once had a girlfriend who was a Norse neo-Pagan, meaning she believed in the Norse gods. (She apparently believed that all gods exist but the Norse ones were the ones she chose to worship). I, of course, found her religion no more or less likely than any other, which is to say not likely at all. But, when I got interested in studying Christianity in research for a writing project I was working on, she got upset. She'd had a bad experience with Christianity both during her upbringing and also suffering discrimination of her pagan beliefs from Christians in her adult life, and was profoundly worried that, by studying Christianity, I might become a Christian. I, of course, did not. My extensive studies of Christianity did not turn me into a Christian any more than learning about neo-paganism from her made me into a neo-Pagan.

Why not? Because neither one was likely to be true. Neither one had sufficient evidence of the truth of its claims for me to seriously consider accepting it. By hanging out in Church I might get an enjoyable sense of community and belonging, and by reading the Bible I may get a sense of wonder at the stories that have survived down all these centuries, but I don't accept truth claims on the basis of whether the claim makes me feel good or not. I accept truth claims on the basis of whether the evidence supporting them is sufficient to demonstrate that the claim is likely true. And all supernatural claims fail that test.

My Very Own Troll!

Whoo! I've finally made it! Being linked to by the Washington Post was pretty cool, but you aren't really anyone in the blogosphere until you have your own trolls. Anonymous, if that is his or her real name, has graciously stepped in and filled this crucial position.

It's all upwards from here!

Monday, January 29, 2007


From a post on Pharyngula, my answers to the questions PZ was asked.

1.) Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

No. While some say that the word "spiritual" does not necessarily have a supernatural connotation, too many do see belief in the supernatural to be part of being "spiritual," and I would most certainly not consider myself a spiritual person on those terms.

2.) We hear time and time again of the disputes between the scientific and religious communities, what is your response to the phenomenon of scientists exploring their own spirituality?

Scientists have the right to do whatever they want as long as it's legal and doesn't affect their work in a negative way. I'd rather all scientists were rational and used reason and critical thinking to disabuse themselves of such notions, but I don't have the right to demand or expect it. But I do have the right to argue with them that they should!

3.) Dr. Charles T. Tart established an online journal dedicated to scientists who wish to share their own personal transcendent experiences in confidence, known as TASTE. Many feel that they would be shunned by the scientific community if they shared their experiences with their colleagues, are you surprised by this?

I suppose I am, to an extent. I've never worked in the science field, as such, but in engineering, where I have worked, theism seems to be rampant, despite engineers seeing themselves as rationalists. I was shunned, on occasion, in fact, by engineering coworkers due to my atheism. So, yes, it does surprise me that the science field is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

4.) Do you feel that a scientist can be spiritual? Why is this?

Clearly they can. See my previous post on the subject.

5.) What do you say to some scientists who claim that a strong sense of spirituality and morality are essential in [science].

Morality and ethics are required in every field. Spirituality is required in none.

6.) Do you think that this phenomenon could pose a threat to the scientific community, when one considers the current religious climate in the U.S?

Only to the scientific community actually in the US. If the US decides not to pursue new and exciting fields of research, like stem cells and cloning, it won't stop the scientific community at large from continuing to work and make breakthroughs in those fields. It just means the US and the scientists here will lose out.

7.) Finally, have you ever had an experience that you could not scientifically explain? If so, what was it?

Assuming that by "scientifically explain" the question means "explain without resort to supernatural explanations," then the answer is no. There have been times when I wasn't sure what the explanation was, but never an experience that I felt was inherently unexplainable without resort to the supernatural.

"We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski!"

An anonymous commenter on this blog noted,

For those that believe in nothing, then nothing is what they will receive.
This is the sort of comment that is interesting because it is somehow meant to be persuasive to the atheist or non-theist, but actually only makes sense within the religious (typically Christian) worldview. Only within that worldview do one's unfounded "beliefs" make any difference as to what one "receives" or does not "receive."

Because, only in the magical thinking world of the theist do beliefs magically affect reality. In my reality-based world, something is true or it isn't. Something exists or it doesn't. My "beliefs" on the matter don't actually affect the truth of a proposition. I lack belief in God or god(s) because, on the balance of evidence, there is no reason to think He or they exist. If God doesn't exist, whether I believe in Him or not makes no difference in whether I will get a supernatural reward for believing in Him, either here on Earth or after I die. Until and unless I am presented with convincing evidence to the contrary, I have no reason to believe anyone is going to receive a special reward for believing in a God or god(s). No matter how much I may wish it were true that I was going to live forever in some afterlife paradise, I know I won't. Wishing something were true, or choosing to believe it to be true despite the evidence, doesn't make it so.

Arguments along these lines commit the logical fallacy of arguing from consequences, where the arguer claims that X must be true because of the bad consequences of X being false (or vice-versa). "You should believe in God because if you don't, you'll miss out on eternal joy," or "You should believe in God because if you don't you'll go to Hell," say nothing about the actual truth of the claim "God exists," which is the question that is at the heart of the matter for atheists and non-theists.

Friday, January 26, 2007

I Coulda Been a Psychic

I'm reading Michael Shermer's book Science Friction and he has a chapter where he plays at being a psychic after only day of preparation in doing "cold readings." Cold readings are where the "psychic" has to read a person "cold," that is to say, he has to figure out things about the person without having met or spoken to them in order to make the person think the "psychic" is, indeed, psychic.

One of the main ways of doing this is to make vague, general statements that apply to virtually everyone, like, "You're sometimes awkward in new situations, but when you get comfortable, you can be the life of the party." People who visit psychics don't seem to notice that these sorts of statements do, in fact, apply to virtually anyone, but instead think the "psychic" has a great insight into them in particular.

I bring this up only because I thought of this when I was a teenager but never was enough of a jerk to actually do it to people. My thought, which again, I never carried out, was that you could call someone up and pretty easily make him or her think you were spying on him or her through the window. Now, remember, this was in the 80s, when people didn't have cell phones or wireless phones much. Since a good proportion of people had their phones in their kitchens, and since kitchens tend to have a lot of the same things in them, I figured I could say something like, "You're in your kitchen right now, near the refrigerator. There are some dishes in your sink. You've got a lot of stuff stuck to the door of your fridge." That kind of thing. Really freak 'em out.

It's basically the same trick. Like I said, I never tried it, but it likely would have worked. Would have been less risky in the days before caller ID, of course. But it's kinda funny that, on my own, I worked out how you could do that to people if you wanted to, but that the people it's actually being done to, the ones visiting "psychics," want to believe so badly that they don't recognize it for what it clearly is. Because everyone I've ever told the phone thing to got it right away, saw how it would work and why. It's obvious when it's explained to just about everyone. I guess it's like a magic trick: when you see how it's done, it's so clear, but until then, you just can't imagine how they did it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Anti-Abortion Irrationality

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, there's a post about the old anti-abortion argument that goes, "What if the fetus you're about to abort was going to cure cancer?" The logical response, as Ed points out, is, "What if that fetus was going to be a mass murderer or rapist?" Which, of course, is at least as likely and demonstrates the flawed logic of this argument.

In fact, I think this argument actually leads us in exactly the other direction: I argue that this line of thought actually would encourage abortions. How? Let's see.

Along the lines of the "what if he or she was going to cure cancer?" I would argue that rarely, if ever, is a good discovery made by a single person. That is to say that quite often new and groundbreaking ideas are in the zeitgeist at the time they are discovered and thus often there is parallel development amongst different people (or teams, in modern science). For instance, if we were to lose Newton, we wouldn't have lost calculus, because Leibnitz had the same idea independently at the same time. If we lost Darwin, we don't lose evolution, because Wallace had the same idea. We lose Einstein, we don't lose relativity, because others were working on the equations as well. There are few breakthroughs that depend solely on one person and would not likely have come about regardless.

However, there is a strong body of evidence, not indisputable, but strong, that a lot of bad things are very dependent upon a single individual. In Holocaust studies, there is an axiom that goes, "No Hitler, no Holocaust." This is because, while there was a nationalist, anti-Semitic atmosphere in post-WWII Germany, the proponents of such sentiments were broken up into various groups who spent their energy fighting amongst each other over small points of ideology rather than banding together to gain power. No one else on the stage of incipient German nationalism was able to get these various groups to come together, and when Hitler did so, the so-called Fuhrer cult quickly developed, whereby adherents were loyal to the person of Hitler rather than any particular point of Nazi belief or policy. It can be (and has been) argued that no one other than Hitler could have formed the Nazi Party and seized power over Germany as he did. In addition, relating to the Holocaust specifically, while most of the right-wing German nationalists at the time were, to some degree, anti-Semitic, almost no one other than Hitler actually intended to wipe the Jews out, and even virulent anti-Semites in the early Nazi movement assumed Hitler was being dramatic when he talked about extirpating the Jews. Even if some other right-wing German nationalist had been able to do what Hitler did and unite the factions, that person would likely not have led Germany to the Holocaust as Hitler did.

All this is speculative, of course, and there are counter-arguments to the so-called "Great Man" theory of history. But still, the "Great Man" theory of history is a valid, well-researched theory that at least we have to consider in light of the "What if this fetus was going to cure cancer?" argument. We have a great deal of evidence that indicates that few, if any, great discoveries or advances in science or human endeavor or contingent upon one person, while a great deal of evidence exists that for many of the great evils in the world, one "Great Man" is necessary.

As such, it would not be unreasonable to argue that, since any given fetus is less likely to be personally responsible for a world-altering beneficial discovery or event than a horrible one, it is logical to abort that fetus to avoid that chance. In fact, taken to its logical conclusion, the "What if he or she was going to cure cancer?" argument indicates that we should, in fact, abort all fetuses, since each one is more likely a Hitler than an Einstein. Which shows, I think, the logical vacuity of the anti-abortion argument in the first place.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Irrationality and Compartmentalization

Over at Pharyngula, in the comments to this post, there's a debate about whether holding religious beliefs impairs the ability of scientists to do good scientific work. Some say no, that scientists, like others, can compartmentalize their beliefs, so that while they may hold irrational religious beliefs they still are rigorous in their scientific work.

Empirically, I would say this is true. There have certainly been some theists and religious believers who have produced excellent scientific work without their irrational beliefs tainting it. The evidence is there.

However, the fact that some people can and have been good scientists despite the cognitive dissonance of working in a rational field and holding irration beliefs doesn't mean that it is a good idea. Because, logically, once a person believes one thing despite a complete lack of evidence, there is no rational basis on which to reject others. That is not to say that they don't; many people cling to their irrational beliefs while (correctly) pointing out the flaws in others'. However, while having one irrational belief does not always lead to others, I would contend that it often does. Once a person rational filters have been breached, even if they haven't been completely disabled, it will be easier for others to get through.

An anectodal example: I knew a guy who used to be, if not an atheist, definitely highly skeptical of religious faith. He once even mocked C.S. Lewis' arguments in Mere Christianity during a discussion with me. Then, after he screwed up his life but good, he suddenly found God.

(Aside: my personal opinion is that since he'd done something pretty bad, he felt like he needed a supernatural man in the sky to "forgive" him and thus relieve him of the guilt he rightly felt for what he had done. But I hate it when Christians try tell me why I'm an atheist -- they always frame it in terms of their belief structure and are always wrong -- so I will give him the benefit of the doubt that I don't actually know why he found Jesus right then).

Now, I'd found him to be fairly rational on most issues up to then. But, after he found Jesus, his entire outlook on many subjects changed. For instance, he'd never once said a word about homosexuals to me until after his conversion, but then, suddenly, he was against equal rights for gays and against gay marriage. When I asked him why, he said, "I don't know. I don't have a good reason, I guess, but I'm still against it."

Now, you might say this part and parcel of accepting Christianity, and thus isn't a separate irrational belief but part of the same one. But no, I disagree. Because it wasn't his sudden opposition to gays and gay marriage that was a new, additional irrational belief. Heck, for all I know, he always felt queasy about the gays and always, somewhere, wished they would go away. I don't know because we never talked about it prior to his conversion. No, what I think is the additional irrational belief that penetrated his rational filter is the idea that "Because I don't like it, it must be wrong, and therefore should be illegal." He had never expressed such a sentiment before his conversion.

I know that I am making a "Slippery Slope" argument here. Of course, despite what you may have heard, the slippery slope isn't always a logical fallacy. But I don't think I am making a slippery slope argument, because I'm not saying that having one irrational belief inevitably leads to others, just that it makes it easier. Not because people consciously think, "Well, I believe this crazy thing, I might as well believe a bunch of others." Obviously, few people believe that their irrational beliefs are irrational (which is the topic for another post sometime). But, I contend, that accepting one irrational belief makes it harder to recognize and reject others. Because whatever false logic one used to accept the first irrational belief probably applies to others, and so once one irrational belief looks rational to you, others can too.

So, while there are good scientists who are also theists, I'd bet that being a theist has rarely helped someone be a better scientist, while I guarantee that it has made a lot of people bad scientists. (William Dembski, just off the top of my head). Over at Pharyngula they're arguing over the wrong question. They're asking whether being a scientist is compatible with being a theist. Clearly, they're not incompatible, so strictly the answer is yes. But the real question is whether being a theist is more likely to improve one's work or detract from it, and I would say, firmly that is much more likely to detract. Ergo, while mixing science and theism isn't impossible, it's just not a good idea.

Monday, January 22, 2007

When is a Right Not a Right?

Ugh. At Dispatches From the Culture Wars I saw this little gem from the Attorney General Gonzales' testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week:

Specter: Now wait a minute, wait a minute. The Constitution says you can't
take it away except in the case of invasion or rebellion. Doesn't that mean you
have the right of habeas corpus?

Gonzales: I meant by that comment that the Constitution doesn't say that
every individual in the United States or every citizen has or is assured the
right of habeas corpus. It doesn't say that. It simply says that the right of
habeas corpus shall not be suspended.

Uhhhh... wait a minute. This word "right," I do not think it means what Gonzales thinks it means.

The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

(Note that the "privilege" here is presenting the Writ itself to enforce the right, so habeas is not just a "privilege.")

I think what Gonzales wants to say, in a blatant end-run around the Constitution, is that there is a middle-ground between broadly suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus across the nation and applying the right to everyone, or even every citizen. Just like the Bush regime is already defeating the entire purpose of separation of powers with his extraconstitutional "nuh-uh" signing statements, Gonzales is, I think, arguing that you can deny the right to some people without "suspending" it.

"You see? We're not 'suspending' habeas! That would be crazy and against the Constitution. No, we're just, ahem, 'selectively applying' it, you see. That's entirely different, and not forbidden by the Constitution."

Except, of course, if the government can just take people away when they feel like it without giving them the right of habeas, then habeas is unenforcable and meaningless. Any time someone asserts it, the government could say, "Sorry, this is one of those 'selective application' situations," and without ever officially "suspending" it, no one would have it anymore. That's not just peeing on the Constitution, that's taking a dump on it and then wiping your ass with it.

Gosh, if habeas is a meaningless and uneforcable right that can be taken away at the government's whim, then why did the Founders bother to put a whole line in about it? And why did they bother to enumerate the two exceptions if the government can just make them up as it goes along?

And, of course, Gonzales, as a lawyer, is aware of precedents and case law. He's just conveniently forgetting them in order to shove a shiv into the back of one of the most fundamental rights enumerated in the Constitution. In Ex parte Milligan, in 1866, the Supreme Court ruled that, even in times of war, the Writ cannot be suspended if the civilian courts are operating.

So, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that the freakin' CIVIL WAR wasn't disruptive enough to allow the suspension of habeas, and that the Supreme Court didn't allow for the government to claim any "'cause we say so" exemption like Gonzales is suddenly asserting. And Gonzales knows this. He just doesn't care. Like everyone else in the Bush regime, he just asserts that he has any power he wants with the flimsiest of excuses, like that the Constitution doesn't say, "Everyone all the time gets habeas with a super-duper cherry on top!"

The Hindenburg on Mythbusters

Mythbusters had an episode recently where they tested the hypothesis (not really a "myth") advanced by a NASA scientist that the doping agents in the paint used on the canvas were more a culprit than the hydrogen. The canvas outer shell was doped with iron oxide and powdered aluminum, two constituents of rocket fuel. I'd seen a special on, I think, Nova a few years ago where they explored this hypothesis, and so I was anxious to see what the Mythbusters would find out.

Unfortunately, as I have often found with Mythbusters, I was disappointed. I watched a little when it was first recommended to me, but the methdological errors, while not frequent, always came up in the experiments I was most interested in, so I stopped watching for a long time. I recently started watching again, and things have not changed.

In this particular case, they built three scale models of the Hindenburg: two doped just like the original, and one doped with pure thermite (a combustive mixture of aluminum powder and iron oxide that represented the worst-case, if unrealistic, scenario). They burned one of the ones authentically doped without hydrogen and it took way, way longer to burn than the Hindenburg. Then, they burned the other authentically doped one with hydrogen, and it burned much faster, but still slower than the real Hindenburg (it was on the order of, as I recall, a minute and a half for the model but only 34 seconds for the actual one).

They more or less declared the theory busted at this point, but still, for fun, they burned the model doped with pure thermite with hydrogen. In theory, this should have been much worse than the actual Hindenburg, but, in fact, it still took over a minute for the model, a 1:20 scale, to burn. Then, they declared the theory busted.

But wait a minute! Why couldn't they get a 1:20 scale model to burn up even as fast as the Hindenburg, if not faster? Why did it take so much longer for a model doped in pure thermite, which should have gone up like a torch compared to the actual Hindenburg, to burn?

I don't know. But the fact that none of their tests was able to get a 1:20 scale model to burn even as fast as the full-size dirigible means that there was something different between the real thing and the models that hasn't been accounted for. I don't know what it is, and I don't know why the models didn't burn the way they were expected to. But I don't think the doping theory can really be declared busted when there is a significant discrepancy between the simulation and the actual event. Whatever the factor is that made the Hindenburg burn so much faster than the model, despite being 20 times bigger, could also be the factor that makes the doping theory work.

Or, it might not. But I didn't feel the episode successfully proved anything one way or the other. I know that it's a TV show, so they have limited time, a limited budget, and have to have a show to put on whether they get conclusive results or not. I don't know if they have the option for a judgment other than Busted, Plausible, or Confirmed, but in this case the real verdict should have been 'Inconclusive.' I know an inconclusive result probably doesn't make good TV, but I would have liked at least a nod towards the fact that they realize that there was a flaw in the experiment somewhere, because otherwise I kinda feel like they're trying to put one over on me.

Materialism vs. Immaterialism

So, this may be so obvious that everyone knows it but me, but here goes anyway. I always thought it was interesting that the religious right is generally anti-abortion but pro-death penalty, while the secular left tends to be pro-choice and against the death penalty. You'd think, in terms of consistency, that you'd be for protecting life on both ends (anti-abortion and also anti-death penalty) or on neither end (pro-choice and pro-death penalty). Why is it that people can be so passionate about protecting one life but not another in this way?

After all, a lot of hay is made by comedians and others about this apparent inconsistency, such as jokes about how much the religious right gets weepy about a microscopic bundle of cells but has no mercy when demanding a guy get the electric chair, but I don't think I ever heard anyone advance an explanation as to why.

I'm not talking about proximate causes here. I am one of the people I'm talking about, after all, being pro-choice and anti-death penalty, and I know the reasons I believe both.* But, beyond the surface level reasons such as, "Abortion is murder," and "Since we can't give a wrongly-convicted person his or her life back, we shouldn't be willing to take it because it could be a mistake," is there a coherent reason that anti-abortion and pro-death penalty go together and why pro-choice and anti-death penalty seem to go together?

Here's my theory. The religious right, being, well, religious, spend a lot of time thinking about immaterial things, like God, angels, Heaven, etc. Whereas those of us in the secular left spend little time thinking about the immaterial and more about the physical reality we inhabit.

Right. So?

Well, you see, I suspect this difference in basic thought patterns is what drives the stances each side takes on these issues. Those on the religious right, in both cases, believe they are protecting someone they can't see, a potential human being in the case of abortion, and the victim of the crime in the case of the death penalty. Concentrating on the immaterial means thinking about things you can't, by definition, see, things that aren't concrete and standing in front of you, just like the fetus and the victim. They believe they are standing up for the rights of those who can't speak for themselves.

Those on the secular left, on the other hand, being rooted in the material world, are trying to protect the real person that they know exists right there, right then: the mother (by protecting her right to control her own body) and the death row prisoner. The victim, to the non-theist or irreligious, is beyond our help and protection, and a potential person is another way of saying a person who does not yet exist and thus does not have rights that trump the rights of the mother, who does already exist and have rights.

Which brings me something this line of thinking brought me to. A term used by the religious right to describe the secular left, meant to be an insult, is "materialists." This is meant to imply that the secular left is low, base, concerned with material things (which implies greed), as opposed to themselves, the noble, faithful, selfless ones. But why is it that the religious right gets to define the conflict as "materialism" vs. "faith?" Because, strictly speaking, "faith" is not the opposite of materialism, since you have faith in material things (like the people who believe in Bigfoot). No, the more apt opposite of materialism would be immaterialism.

And, as Thomas Jefferson said, "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings." And that's the fact. Immaterialists believe in nothings and immaterialism is the practice of putting the rights of nothings before the rights of the living, thinking, feeling, real inhabitants of this world. The famous saying, "Kill them all; God will know his own" isn't the result of an anomaly or perversion of Christianity and theism. It is a logical consequence of immaterialism, of putting the good of the immaterial (the soul) above the material (the body). What difference does it make if we kill a few good Christians along with these heretics, after all? Their souls will go to Heaven to be with God, after all!

But that's just another way of saying that nothing (their souls) will go nowhere (Heaven) to be with nothing (God). The deaths, unfortunately, are all too real.

* I believe in the right to an abortion because the rights of a woman to control her own body outweigh the rights of a potential person, and also because I believe that the anti-abortion movement is, in large part, about controlling women and their behavior. That's why anti-abortion activists not too subtly imply that all women who have abortions are sluts who wouldn't need abortions if they weren't.

I oppose the death penalty because it's not worth the risk of executing an innocent person. We can set free someone who has been falsely imprisoned (though we can't give them those years back), but taking someone's life is final and the system isn't foolproof enough to take that risk. Besides, I think executing someone is letting them off easy.

Toppling Saddam

While I'm thinking about, here are my thoughts on the stupid question supporters of the Bush regime throw at those critical of the war in Iraq, the old, "Do you wish Saddam was still in power?" saw.

It's a bullshit question. The person asking it doesn't care what the answer is, the point is in the asking. It frames the debate in a false dichotomy that either you're for Saddam being in power or you aren't, as if that is the only issue and you must be pro-Saddam in order to be critical of the war.

Here's the thing. Saddam was a bad, evil guy, and it was a terrible thing that he was in power in Iraq and able to inflict untold suffering on his people. But, as Calvin of "Calvin & Hobbes" fame once said, "Things are never so bad they can't get worse." Removing Saddam from power is not, in and of itself, a good thing, if you don't have a plan to replace him with something better. Don't break it if you can't fix it.

By focusing on Saddam and whether he is in power or not, those asking the "Do you want Saddam back in power?" question are missing the forest for the trees. The reason Saddam being in power was bad is because of the suffering he caused his people. Removing him from power is only a good thing if that suffering is going to be reduced (or at the very least, stay the same). Removing him from power is a bad thing if the people of Iraq are going to suffer more for it, and they have.

On NPR a while ago, I heard an Iraqi guy talking about the change from Saddam to now. He said, "Before, with Saddam, at least you knew what to do and what not to do to keep from getting killed. Now, you don't. Your shop can just blow up all of a sudden and you didn't even do anything. Things are worse now."

So, let's tally this up. In a purely selfish, US-centric view, has the Iraq war been a success? No. The US is not safer, and is, in fact, much less safe. The principal danger used to sell the war, WMD, didn't exist and were never a threat, and in addition, the country has now become a breeding ground for extremists and terrorists just the way Afghanistan was when fighting Soviet occupation, which spawned Osama and Al-Qaeda. Oil prices have not stabilized and our energy security is worse now than before the invasion. The US is now using up vast resources fighting a losing effort in Iraq which has emboldened countries like North Korea and Iran, one of whom now has nuclear weapons as a result and one which soon will. In no conceivable sense has the Iraq war been a success for US goals in the region.

And, on top of that, it hasn't even been a success in the altruistic, "we're going to liberate the Iraqis" sense, because while we liberated them from one form of terror and oppression, it's been replaced with a worse one. Fewer Iraqis have electricity and other services than before the war. The average Iraqi is far worse off now than before. We haven't done them any favors.

All toppling Saddam did was punish Saddam. It wasn't good for us and it wasn't good for the Iraqis. While trying to correct wrongs is a noble endeavor, replacing one evil with a worse evil does not make you a hero. Before you interfere, you better be sure you have a plan for making things better. And, full of hubris, that's exactly what Rumsfeld and the Bush regime didn't do. It's not enough, in international affairs, to be the white-hatted cowboy and shoot down the bad guy before riding off into the sunset. Things are a lot messier than that, and if you aren't ready to clean up the mess you made, don't make it.

"Do you wish Saddam was back in power? Huh? Do you?"

I don't accept the premise of the question. Neither should you. How would I answer it, then? I would say something like, "No. I wish the US, the Iraqis, and the world were safer now than before we invaded."

The argument implicit in that question is like if someone has a mosquito on their arm, so you cut their arm off, and then, when he or she sues you, you say indignantly, "Do you wish you still had the mosquito on your arm? Huh? Do you?"

By the way, just in case anyone tries to paint me as a non-interventionist, I'm not. I'm not one of those liberals who thinks the US has no right to interfere in the affairs of other nations or anything like that. But you have to pick and choose and intervene not only where there's a grave injustice being committed, but where intervention has a significant chance of improving the situation, or at least not making it worse. In cases like Darfur or the genocide in Rwanda, where there's a genocide going on, I believe the US has a duty to intervene, not in the least because our involvement can only make things better, because there's nowhere to go but up from genocide. Or, at least, we really can't make things any worse than what's already happening.

But Iraq wasn't like that. Iraq was stable. It was in the grip of a brutal dictator, but the nation wasn't on the verge of collapse into brutal sectarian strife and terrorism. We not only had the luxury of the time to be deliberate in our actions to improve things there, but the duty to be sure we only intervened if we could improve things. But it was plainly clear even before the invasion of Iraq that the invasion was not, in fact, going to improve anything either in Iraq or here. It was the worst sort of imcompetence and hubris to intervene where we could only make things worse for ideological reasons, as the neocons and Bush regime did. But that's not an indictment of US action in general, but of this foolish endeavor in particular.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Richard Dawkins' New Book

Over on blogs dealing with the struggle of science, in the form of evolutionary theory, vs. religion, in the form of Intelligent Design, such as The Panda's Thumb, there's a lot of discussion about the new book from Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. There are a couple of attacks being made on the book (well, one of the book and one on the title of it!) that I want to discuss.

First off, the title. Apparently, a lot of mental health professionals have objected to the word "delusion" in the title, because, in a clinical sense, a delusion is a false belief that results from some form of mental illness, and, as such, the title implies that all theists are mentally ill. Because, you see, by psychiatric definition, believing that aliens speak to you through a device in your teeth is a "delusion" and means you're mentally ill, but believing that an immaterial omnipotent being (or his Jewish son) is speaking to you isn't.

Why not, you ask? What's the difference, since neither is any likelier than the other to actually be happening? How do psychiatrists determine one is a delusion and the other isn't?

Guess what! They don't. The difference is that religious beliefs are defined, a priori, as not being delusional. Well, mostly. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says about delusions:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).
That is to say that if you believe in X, and lots of people in your "culture or subculture" believe the same thing, you aren't mentally ill. But if you hold belief X and "almost everybody else" disagrees, with absolutely nothing about you, your mind, or your brain different, you are suddenly mentally ill. Whether you are mentally ill is actually a function of what other people think or do, not at all a function of anything going on inside you. Whether you are mentally ill or not is dependent on what other people do.

Can you imagine if you defined, say, heart disease that way? "A clogging of the arteries resulting in reduced blood flow to the heart inconsistent with the amount of clogging of the arteries in other member's of the person's culture or subculture." You may be on the verge of a heart attack, but because you live in America, land of the clogged artery, you're not sick. If you lived with the fishermen in China, though, boy, you'd be in trouble!

Yeah, that'd work out real well when both have heart attacks. Sure.

Worse, the criteria used to diagnose a delusion gives us no objective way to discriminate between a valid, non-delusional belief and a delusional one:
* certainty (held with absolute conviction)
* incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
* impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)
Let's test it. I know a guy who is an evangelical Christian. He believes in young-Earth creationism "with absolute conviction," cannot be swayed by the undeniable evidence in favor of the theory of evolution and the age of the Earth being much greater than 6,000 years, and instead clings to and implausibe and bizarre belief that means that an immaterial, omnipotent being created a world containing a bunch of false evidence that it existed much longer than it appears. The criteria for a delusion, objectively applied, can't discriminate between a 'good' belief unsupported by evidence (a religious one) and a 'bad' belief unsupported by evidence (a non-religious one). Why? Because there is no discernable difference between any two beliefs unsupported by evidence. That's why they had to define one into existence to exclude the beliefs they don't want to label "delusional." It's a cheat. They just throw out the criteria when the results don't suit them.

Also, I don't think we can accept the logical implications of such a definition. Do we really believe that Himmler wasn't delusional in his beliefs that there was a vast Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany and rule the world when he was Nazi Germany's Reichsfuhrer-SS, but only became mentally ill when Nazi Germany fell and the German people repudiated Naziism? I think most people, and most psychiatrists, would say that Himmler's beliefs were pathological delusions whether or not they were shared by his "culture or subculture." Also, along those lines, does this mean that people who think they are vampires aren't delusional as long they are part of the vampire "subculture?"

Removing the subjective language in the definition of delusion that lets psychiatrists avoid including religious beliefs essentially by fiat and makes the definition so inclusive as to be worthless, we are left with delusion as "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained." Belief in a God or god(s), as well as creationism, are rooted in "incorrect inference[s]" about external reality when lack of understanding of the natural world led early humans to infer that "god(s) must have done it."

As such, complaining by the mental health community about Dawkins' use of the word "delusion" in the title of his book is disingenuous at best, since the only reason belief in God isn't a delusion by psychiatric definition is because psychiatrists made an exception just so it wouldn't be. "You shouldn't say belief in God is a delusion because it isn't by our definition, which we arrived at by deciding it wasn't" is just another of saying, "Belief in God isn't a delusion, though it meets the criteria for a delusion, because we say so. So there!" What utter posh.*

Secondly, the book has been criticized for failing to deal with the finer points of theology, and Dawkins for not being well-versed enough in theological arguments and study in his arguments against the existence of God. Bull. One doesn't have to study all the intricacies of astrology to know that astrology is bullshit. The fact of whether or not one can predict the future by looking at the positions of the stars and planets is disprovable without engaging each and every piece of bullshit ever written in support of it. And, I'd bet, the critics would not agree that it is necessary to study all the claims and all that has been written in support of Jediism (the religion based on the Force from the Star Wars films -- it's real, Google it and see, there's already been a schism resulting in various sects, and I'm not making that up) before rejecting it, now, would they?

Theology is a bunch of people writing about things that don't exist and needn't be addressed in its finer points until and unless it's proponents can actually present compelling evidence for their claims. But, instead, most theology assumes the existence of God and is thus irrelevant to the question of whether God exists, which is what Dawkins is discussing. Except for the parts of theology where they try to prove that God exists, but unlike Dawkins (supposedly) I have read a lot of theology and there aren't any such arguments that aren't logically and fatally flawed and haven't been successfully refuted many, many times. If there were, trust me, I would know, you would know, and Dawkins would know too, and theists wouldn't trot out the same tired old arguments time after time.

The fact is that questions of how many angels can dance on the head of pin have no relevance to the more basic question of whether God exists. Theological word games in which theologists and philosophers attempt to logic God into existence by clever tricks don't force God into existence, not matter how much they may try. In the end, theology has nothing new or worthwhile to say on the subject, its arguments have been successfully refuted many times by many other authors, and it is not necessary to deal with each theory about fairies before saying fairies don't exist. It's ridiculous for the critics to claim otherwise.

* I have the same problem with the clinical term "magical thinking," which basically means believing that the world works in illogical, noncausal ways. For instance, believing that stepping on a crack will break your mother's back is a form of magical thinking. Obviously, stepping on a crack has nothing to do with whether your mother receives violent spinal trauma. In exactly the same way as with delusions, psychiatrists avoided the problem that a lot of religious thinking, like the belief that sitting in a chapel asking for help from a nonexistent immaterial being will make an ill loved one well, is indistinguishable from magical thinking by simply exempting such thinking when it is based on religion.

The Surge (not the porn kind)

So, about this surge of US troops in Iraq, or escalation, or whatever the hell you want to call it that Bush is planning: Bad. Freakin'. Idea.

I could write up a post about all the reasons why, but really, it's so self-evident it seems like a waste of time. So, instead, for anyone reading this who actually doesn't know why increasing the troops in Iraq is going to be disastrous, a quote from Stephen Colbert:

"Those who don't know history... are in for a big surprise!"

Bush and Rumsfeld were in that boat in 2002, and you are too, if you think this is a good idea.


President Obama?

So, during this time in the election cycle, when all the wannabe Presidents start throwing their hats in the ring, I always take note of the names of the would-be Presidents and immediately discount all the fat and ugly ones, like Bill Frist (when he was considering a run) or Steve Forbes, since Americans aren't going to elect anyone weirder looking then George Bush Sr. or fatter than Clinton in the age of TV, and also those with funny, weird, or stupid-sounding names. If "President X" sounds weird to me, an equality-minded liberal, then it isn't going to play in Peoria, as they say.

This time around, so far, we have Tom Tancredo. He isn't a viable candidate anyway, given that his whole platform is immigration reform (or so says The Colbert Report, which means I probably should look it up before assuming it's true, but I'm lazy so I'm not gonna), but I mean, come on, "President Tancredo?" I hardly think so. Past candidates I've dismissed on this basis include Michael Dukakis (his name killed his campaign before the photo in the tank ever did), and Richard "Dick" Lugar (I doubt we'll have a "Dick" in the White House again after Nixon, even aside from the juvenile sexual connotation, and President Lugar just makes me think of WWII movies), and Dennis Kucinich (who I voted for in the primary in '04, but I knew it wouldn't make any difference since I was living in Massachusetts at the time).*

But then, I realized that somehow I hadn't automatically dismissed the anointed new hope of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama. Critics in the political realm were already noting that it would be hard to believe that people in the heartland would vote for a guy named "Barack" long before I realized it, as some research since has shown (though, of course, Obama was elected the junior US Senator from Illinois in 2004, the state in which Peoria is located, so his name has already, in fact, played in Peoria). And it made me wonder about my own prejudices and what other blinders I am unknowingly wearing, especially since I still can't dismiss Obama as potentially the best candidate for the Democrats in 2008 (though I'm not convinced yet).

Why didn't I apply the same standards to Obama as I did immediately to Tancredo? I suppose it could be because of all the media attention he's gotten, which makes his candidacy seem de facto reasonable and legitimate. But I can't dismiss the possibility that I dismiss candidates I don't like on superficial factors easier than ones I like, even though I don't think that I'm one of those people who wouldn't vote for an ugly guy or a guy with a funny name. I think I'm the more enlightened one who is just judging the passions of the rabble but not one of them.

It turns out, though, maybe I am one of them. Maybe I dismiss those candidates not for the reason I always tell myself, that the unenlightened won't vote for them, but simply because I won't vote for them. Maybe I'm just as superficial as they are.

Or maybe I'm not because I'm asking the question. It's hard to accurately judge one's self, isn't it?

*I also automatically dismiss anyone who is so milquetoast and boring that he -- they're always guys -- makes me, a middle-class professional from Ohio, look like a gang member from the hood, like Dick Gephardt (who also has both the "Dick" thing going on and has the word "hard" in his already goofy-sounding last name) or Bill Bradley, but that's neither here nor there.

They're Digging in the Wrong Place...

Proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) claim there's all kinds of evidence that life was designed by some intelligent designer, the nature of which they claim to have no opinion on. (But really, they think it's someone whose name rhymes with "please us.") They don't define what constitutes evidence of design, of course, nor what would prove or disprove it, nor do they have answers for why lots of life seems built from already existing available parts (as evolutionary theory predicts) rather than by any designer at all, let alone one meriting the title "intelligent."* But, what's funny, is they fail to see the very strong evidence for intelligent design in the very myths that made them come up with ID in the first place.

So, suppose you're designing a religion. Of course, your religion is true and all the others are bullshit, but how do you get people to believe the truth instead of someone else's bullshit? Hmmm. Well, for one thing, it would be good if your religion somehow encouraged believers to spread it, right? Because those pansy religions like Buddhism that don't inspire evangelists and missionaries aren't growth industries. Heck, Buddhism died out in India, for God's sake, and how many people are converting to Taoism or Shinto these days? But how do you motivate your believers to spread the word rather than just sitting on their butts waiting for enlightenment to come a'knocking?

Well, let's see. What do people love. I mean, love love love. So much that they'll choose it over sex? I know: Being right, particularly when you can be condescending and patronizing and rub someone else's face in it! (Ask yourself how many times in your relationships you chose winning an argument -- being right -- over sex. See?) There's a real rush getting to say, "You'll be sorry," and "I told you so!" So, if we can design our religion to give our followers an excuse to do that, we get both a bunch of self-motivated salesmen (evangelists, missionaries, proselytizers) and we get a big selling point for those salesmen to use ("If you join our religion you can go around being smug and condescending to the infidels too!")

So, what's our excuse? After all, even though people love being assholes about being right, they hate thinking of themselves as assholes. They like to feel like they're the hero even when they're the asshole. And what's better for that than when you get to say, "I'm doing this for your own good"? It's awesome when you can say that. You get do whatever asshole thing you wanted to do, like beat your kids, all the while feeling sanctimonious and not at all like an asshole. That'd be great if we could design our religion so you get to do that.

Eureka! How about this: Create a religion where we believe that those who don't believe will have bad things happen to them. Not like those wimpy old pagan gods whose followers believed that other peoples' gods protected them too. No! Because then we can go around being condescending assholes to everyone else and feel great about it because we're saving them from the bad things that will happen to them (that our God will do to them) if we don't. Awesome!

And that's exactly what Paul did when he designed what we now think of as Christianity. It's a perfect, self-protecting loop: I believe in Jesus. I believe only those who believe in Jesus will be saved. I believe those who are not saved will suffer eternal torment. So I have to go around knocking on peoples' doors at nine o'clock on a Sunday, don't I? Because I have to save them from the fate I know is ahead of them. Even if they don't want me to, because they're just ignorant children who need me to lead them to the light. I have a duty! The fact that I get to be right, smug, self-satisfied, sanctimonious, and condescending isn't really why I do it. I do it for them.

And another little brilliant aspect of the whole thing is that you always get to feel like you've won every argument. If you convert them, well then they admitted you're right, and that feels sooo good. But if you don't, well, they'll find out how wrong they were when they end up in Hell! Yeah!

I don't think it's an accident that Christianity, a religion largely shaped by one man (Paul), happens to be set up that way. It's clearly designed to take advantage of some of the worst impulses in people and make them seem like virtues (believing things for no good reason is another of those impulses). Paul learned from the mistakes Judaism had made that kept it small, such as being Jewish being a "burden" (not a good selling point), making new male converts cut off part of their penises to join (another bad selling point), and having a belief system that promotes killing unbelievers rather than converting them (which doesn't help increase your following as much as one might hope).

He took the concept of the one, true, jealous God of monotheistic Judaism and made him jealous of anyone worshipping other gods, not just the Jews. He added teeth that jealousy by throwing in a little eternal damnation. And gave his followers an excuse to be sanctimonious pricks and feel good about it. And, wah-la! Sanctimonious pricks have flocked to Christianity ever since.

Christianity wasn't designed by God anymore than species were. The intelligent design in Christianity clearly points to an earthly designer, because the god of Christianity just doesn't make any sense. (Three gods in one, that God dying on the Cross somehow saves us all from sins someone else committed, and that somehow an omnibenevolent God tortures people eternally for making a bad choice, just for starters). If proponents of ID can't even spot the clear marks of design in their own religion, how could they possibly spot them in life, even if they were there?

* Such as the mammalian eye having its light-sensing cells behind a bunch of other stuff like blood vessels and nerves that block the light, which no remotely competent designer would dream of doing.