Monday, June 30, 2008

Not 50/50

Professor Richard Dawkins had a chapter in his recent book The God Delusion that was devoted to the probability of God. The idea is still very much ingrained in the minds of theists (committed or not) that the probability that a god exists is exactly proportionate to the probability that a god does not exist. Many people think it's 50/50. You can't prove nor disprove the existence of god, so that gives him a 50/50 shot at being real, right?

Know When To Walk Away...
Wrong. Those who think so don't truly understand the laws governing probability. Suppose you are in your car driving toward an intersection. The choice is: do you stop at the sign? Well, you either will or will not get hit by an oncoming car, so your chances are 50/50, right? Again, wrong. I hope this simple analogy illustrates the point that just by having two choices doesn't automatically place said choices on equal footing. This should be obvious to anyone -- but if you still don't think so, I hope I won't meet you out on the highway.

In his chapter on the God Hypothesis, Professor Dawkins looks at a "spectrum of probability", with seven benchmarks ranging from "I KNOW there is a god" to "I KNOW there is no god". Both such claims require evidence to be taken seriously. Dawkins then goes on throughout the book showing the so-called "evidence" for God's existence is nothing short of infinitesimal. In short, there is more evidence in favor of no god than in favor for it.

Because We're Here...
But Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Janists, Zoroastrians, or any other God-believing school of thought would say otherwise. It is in the area of scientific inquiry that the claims of evidence for the existence of deities must be tried and tested. So far, those tests have shown absolutly nothing supernatural or God-like. Perhaps one day we'll find a nugget of evidence that can't be explained any possible way other than appeals to God, but such a day would also morn the loss of science itself. For simply concluding "god did it" is not an answer. There will always be questions. How did "god" do it, exactly? With what? And what IS this god anyway? To throw your hands up and say "god" is to embrace ignorance and bemoan true understanding.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Forest for the Trees

I was recently accused by a New-Ager for "not seeing the forest for the trees"; he claimed I was too concerned with the physical, observable, material universe to see his god. Poor thing. If only there were some way to make sure he was right without having to wait on my own divine revelation...

I hope I've already made it absolutely clear on this blog why we can't just trust people's word of personal revelation. It's frightening how many people think that science is an enemy of mankind and if we just trusted our gut feelings we'd be better off. As Carl Sagan best said, "I try not to think with my gut. If I'm serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble."

If we are to entertain the ideas that a transcendent, eternal, spiritual something-or-other exists (though not in any honest sense of the word) and has feelings, thoughts, and desires for us, it's best that we try to determine the validity of those ideas within the current framework of understanding that we possess -- a framework that has made our more longer and more enjoyable. If that's paying too much attention to the bark and ignoring the beauty of the forest, so be it. At least we'll be able to tell if the trees can talk, or at the very least be able to tell what kind of tree it is, where in the world it might be, and how best to get out of the wilderness.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John McCain Flunked History

McCain thinks America was founded on Christianity, that his Christan faith is the best one, and that "In God We Trust" was put on our money by the Founding Fathers.

What a total fucktard.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

But I Got PERSONAL Experience

Nine times out of ten -- after all their arguments are laid bear, torn apart, and scattered on the ground, soaking in the tears of the theist who produced them -- a believer will resort to one of two (or perhaps both) arguments left to defend his beliefs: "I just have faith!" which we've covered here before; or "I have personal experience".

Very Superstitious
The uselessness of that argument should be clear to see because anyone can say anything about anything. We can't just take someone for their word. And calm down; I'm NOT saying you're lying. I think you really believe what you're saying. The issue is that people can be fooled.

It's no surprise that a lot of magicians are atheists. Guys like Penn and Teller or Jamie Ian Swiss or Steve Shaw understand how easy it is to fool our senses; to make people think that experienced something that can't happen. Magicians have intimate knowledge about the tricks and nuances of human perception, and the better ones know how exactly to work them.

So why is it that whenever you see a magic trick and you exclaim " did you do that?", you are never satisfied with the answer "It's magic"? Don't won't you accept that as an answer? Probably because you know that magic isn't understand that there must be some explanation for it. Saying "it's just magic" is equivalent to saying "invisible card-changing pixies did it", or "supernatural forces altered your perception of reality", or "God did it".

It's Always Personal If You're A Person
Not only can you not always trust your senses -- especially if your brain is experiencing some kind of trauma -- but other people can't always trust your judgment either. Again, it's not always that you're actively lying. Maybe you saw/heard/felt something you didn't. Maybe your mind was/is in a state that interpreted the actual event unfaithfully. Or maybe you really experienced something.

There's no doubt that experiences can have profound effects on a person's life. Many people have religious experience, and it changes their life. But this doesn't have to mean that the experience was real. Read that sentence again.

It is very possible to have experiences that are not real. Think about this scenario: Sally Sue spends the night in a house that she's told is haunted by evil spirits. She believes in ghosts, but she doesn't know exactly what they are or how they got there, etc. Her personality drives her to seek out strange things like haunted houses, but she's never actually seen a ghost before. She hopes she will tonight. As Sally is creeping around the dark upstairs hallways with her partner (come on, no one in their right mind would stay alone in an old abandoned house!) they exchange stories of the murders, suicides, and tortures that went on in this old house, all the while "building the suspense".

Ever been in a situation like that before? Where you psyche yourself up? Ever notice how fragile and easy-to-spook a mind can get when its in that hairpin-trigger state? Anyway, back to the scenario...

Sally Sue's mind is busy conjuring up images and sounds of these horrible stories, when a sudden "pop" breaks the darkness. Sally and her ghost-hunting partner freeze and look each other in the eyes. Suddenly, Sally feels something brush her arm, and she screams and starts to run. Another loud popping, cracking sound rings out, but Sally is running full-tilt toward the stairs. Other sounds echo from seemingly all around her as she turns back just in time to see her friend disappear through the floor. An instant before she rounds the corner, she swears she sees a face or a figure in the dust through her tears.

Years later, Sally still remembers the night her friend died. They said the rotten floorboard gave way and she fell through, embedding herself on a large piece of wood. Perhaps she could have survived if someone had been there to help her. Sally's life was changed.

Ya Know, I've Learn Something Today...
Look, I don't want to make this some kind of moral lesson, but I do want to convey the way in which our perceptions alter reality FOR US. Let's take an honest look at the story.

Here we have a girl who's hoping to see ghosts. She believes they're real, and wants to have an encounter. So, her emotionally-charged is fueled by ghost-stories (anyone ever had this experience as a kid around a campfire?) and by her friend. We scare easily, but even more-so when we're with someone. We scare each other in a back-and-forth, domino-effect kind of way. When they heard something, they looked at each other -- something common to all humans and a lot of animals. It's how we gauge what's going on when we're clueless about something. We watch each other for signs of how we should act. Should we run? Do you know what it was? Are you afraid? Should I be?

By this time, Sally's nerves are bristling. One touch -- could be an insect, a spider's web, or even just the air moving mites around on her skin -- was enough to start a chain reaction of scare-me-scare-you. Her brain was telling her what she wanted it to; what she had conditioned it to. But what about that face in the dust? Was it the figure of an evil ghost killing her friend? Or was it the way the light played off the dusty hallways and refracted against her tears? Or is it something her mind filled in later, after the fact?

I hope none of you are actually thinking to yourself, "maybe it was a don't know". I do know. I made it up. If you're really trying to reason it out to be an actual "ghost attack" you might be too far gone in the realm of fantasy to ever hope to understand the lesson here. That lesson is this: Sally's life was changed. Her experience actually had a real, life-altering effect on her. But her experience wasn't real (not just because the story is fake). She lost a friend and suffered serious emotional trama.

So the next time you claim "You can't say God isn't real because I've had an experience that changed my life!" or something along those lines, think about Sally and think about how I can't take your word about experiences I didn't have. You try telling Sally it wasn't a ghost!


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Thank God

Frivolity of Language
Most of what people say these days is due to tradition and/or habit. Our little small-talk banter and useless fragments of words and sounds are a remnant of the messy way in which language evolves. But what I want to focus on today is the tradition and habits of our language (probably in any language, not just the one you're reading this in).

I was recently told that because I use the phrase "oh my God", I'm not an atheist. After picking myself up off the floor from laughing hysterically (I'd heard of people who use this kind of "logic" but I'd never encountered it personally), I showed the person that my simple use of a colloquial phrase isn't any addition of me believing in anything I said in that phrase. I can say "Santa is coming to town" without believing in a physical, actual, real-life Santa Claus.

Our culture is permeated with slang and colloquialism, just as any other culture is. People say things like, "that's cool" in reference to something other than temperature. We say "oh God" when we fuck. Some people even say "thank God" just out of habit alone -- I sometimes still do it. I'm not actually thanking any "god". It's just words.

But how did this tradition come to be? Why do we have the slang phrases and colloquialisms with respect to God (or god -- lowercase or upper-, it doesn't matter)? I'm no linguist nor do I claim to know the origin of language or religion, but let me paint a picture of how religious iconography could be tied to our early language.

Thank The Great One
An early Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthal -- let's call him Adam, sits patently while his mate picks fresh berries, some 50,000 to 200,000 years ago. Adam's has evolved over millennia to equip him with the ability to be cooperative and social. Adam has a deep appreciation for what his wife is doing; perhaps he consciously realizes it, perhaps not.

This feeling of appreciation has its roots stretching back through his ancestors. The gratitude is feels reinforces his bond with his mate -- we'll call her Steve (har har) -- whether he understands it or not. But perhaps Adam is also grateful for the berries being there, maybe a little more plentiful this harvest. Who is Adam to thank? He doesn't understand how the berries grow, or the mechanisms behind why. Yet he is thankful...he feels that same feeling of gratitude -- the same kind of appreciation as for Steve.

The thing you have to realize is that our internal feelings don't have to rely on the existence of an external object of those feelings. We can feel happy without needing an outside entity to tie it to. We can feel elation, fear, and splendor to the universe without the universe needing to be conscious or have the faculties to reciprocate. But we've bred those feelings through dealing with other people and entities. When we suddenly feel those same emotions being triggered from something that's not a person, we get weird. Some want to "thank God" for the sunlight or the sudden divergence of a deadly storm (overlooking the fact that God killed 38 other people, but you were saved). Some want to "thank God" for things because all throughout our history, we've thrown the ball of thanks to an entity with open hands, if my analogy isn't stretched so thin it's transparent.

But there's no God to thank even though you may feel the need to thank it. It's just fluff inherent in our language, culture, and habit. Thank God there's no God to thank, so I'll just thank you for reading; you've earned it.