My take on burden of proof

While I’m criticizing Austin Cline, I also want to say something about his article on burden of proof in the context of the atheism vs theism debate.  Again, I have nothing against Cline, and in fact he brings up several points that I agree with:

A more accurate label would be a “burden of support” — the key is that a person must support what they are saying. This can involve empirical evidence, logical arguments, and even positive proof.

The “burden of proof” is not something static which one party must always carry; rather, it is something which legitimately shifts during the course of a debate as arguments and counter-arguments are made.

The part I disagree with Cline’s assertion that the (initial) burden of proof “always lies with the person who is making a claim, not the person who is hearing the claim and who may not initially believe it.”

This leaves open the question of who has the initial burden of proof when both people are making claims.  For example, what if the theist claims there is a god, and I claim there is no god?  According to Cline, atheism refers to people who make no claims about gods, and thus atheists don’t have the initial burden of proof.  However, I am part of the subset of atheists who positively claims there are no gods, so where does that leave me?

In my analysis, burden of proof is the answer to three different questions:

  1. Who wins if no further arguments are made?
  2. Who should win if no further arguments are made?
  3. Whose turn is it to advance the argument?

[Read more…]

Atheist definitions, according to atheism 101

In an earlier post, I discussed the need for better “atheism 101” resources.  One of my complaints about current resources is anything regarding definitions of atheism.  Part of this has to do with me being an opinionated contrarian, but you can judge that for yourself.

Here I will discuss, “What is Atheism? Overview of How Atheism is Defined in Dictionaries, By Atheists” by Austin Cline on  I don’t have anything against Cline, on the contrary he seems a decent writer, which is perfect to start this discussion.

Long-time readers may know that I already object to the title of Cline’s article.  Definitions are overrated.  Words have meanings, which cannot always be encapsulated by definitions.  As I recently observed, identity terms especially communicate a lot through subtext and connotation.  One alternative to definition theory is prototype theory (from linguistics and philosophy).  Under prototype theory, we have an idea of what an atheist looks like (i.e. a prototype), and we classify someone as an atheist if they look sufficiently close to the prototype.

But let’s just note the inadequacy of definitions and move on to the content of Cline’s article…

What Is Atheism? Why Atheists Define Atheism Broadly?:

[…] broadly defined, atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. Most disagreement over this comes from Christians who insist that atheism must be the denial of gods, or at least of their god.

Introductory atheist resources often hammer endlessly about the distinction between “absence of belief in the existence of any gods” and “denial of gods”.  And it makes sense–there are certainly people out there who lack any belief in gods, and yet they do not deny the existence of gods.  For instance, newborn babies have no coherent beliefs whatsoever.  But babies are besides the point. [Read more…]

Life lessons from board games: Hanabi

Just as we can analyze fiction for its meaning and implication on our lives, we can also analyze board games. In some cases, the analogy is direct, if the board game is heavy on narrative and flavor (“You are investigating strange occurrences in Arkham, closing portals to other realms while the Ancient Ones stir in their slumber”). However, a lot of meaningful content could be extracted from the underlying mechanics and rules. Hanabi is a card game with virtually no narrative at all (it’s about making a fireworks show), and yet it says something deep about the nature of communication.

A Hanabi box stands in front of some tokens, and cards with colored numbers on them. The box says 'Race the clock... Build the fireworks... Launch your rockets!'

Hanabi is a cooperative card game, where players, as a team, seek to play cards in the right order. The problem is that players hold their cards backwards, and thus each player can only see other players’ cards, not their own cards. You can’t just tell other players what they are holding, you have to provide them with a limited number of clues, each clue obeying certain constraints. The game is thus all about efficient communication.

Hanabi is easy to carry around and teach to new players, so I’ve played a lot of games with beginners. I will discuss a common beginner’s mistake, and what it says about communication.
[Read more…]

Regarding consent in nightclubs

Content note: abstract discussion of sexual assault, and by implication rape and CSA.

One of my perpetual complaints about gay nightclubs is that people think it’s okay to grope strangers without getting any permission. However, many people are unwilling to acknowledge this as sexual assault, because they argue that they themselves would enjoy being groped. I think this is besides the point.  Inspired by a recent post by coyote, I’m trying out a new approach (and this is really a way of explaining a model of consent by way of application).

Under conventional models, consent is an expression of permission. A person asks if they can touch me, and if I say “yes” then I’ve consented, and if I say “no” then I haven’t consented. However, sometimes I might only says “yes” because I felt pressured. Or sometimes I might say nothing at all. And so we have multiple fixes to this model, such as “affirmative consent” or “enthusiastic consent”.

Most of these consent models fail to allow for the situation where nobody asked for my consent, but I’m still okay with it. This situation often occurs in nightclubs–people don’t ask for permission to grope, and yet sometimes the people being groped are okay with it.

So here’s a different model of consent: consent is an internal state. If someone is okay with being groped, they are consenting, and if they are not okay with being groped they are not consenting.  Someone may also feel violated after the fact, and this also qualifies as non-consent.
[Read more…]

A need for atheism 101?

I often find myself arguing with people about what I see as basic points about atheists and the atheist movement. And a big problem is that I find these points to be extremely obvious, and can only discuss them with scorn or snark. I often want to tell people that it’s not my job to educate them, and they can educate themselves.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any good place to refer people. Despite the vast online presence held by atheists, decent atheist 101 resources are lacking.

I can speculate why: most introductory atheist materials address the adversarial relationship between atheism and religion. “Atheism 101” seems to consist of going over basic arguments for theism, and explaining why they’re wrong. And then there are a few extras, like why atheism doesn’t imply a lack of morality, and a lot of hairsplitting over agnosticism vs atheism.

Maybe the issue isn’t a lack of resources, but that the available resources simply aren’t to my satisfaction. When I want 101 resources, I often want them to explain “Yes, there is an atheist movement, no it is not a religion, why is this so fucking hard?” or “No, not every context is appropriate to argue about religion, but you’re effectively telling atheists to shut up,” or “Yeah some atheists are angry, and why shouldn’t they be?” Only, say it nicer than I would.
[Read more…]

Paper: First observation of gravitational waves

This is a repost from February, when LIGO reported its first observation of gravitational waves.  This is relevant because last month LIGO reported its second observation, also resulting from inspiraling black holes.

Today, the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) reported the first observation of gravitational waves. You can read about it in The New York Times (warning: autoplay), on Sean Carroll’s blog, or in comic form. I went straight to Physical Review Letters.

As an undergrad, I did some work on LIGO. Specifically, I was a data analyst looking for exactly the kinds of gravitational waves here observed. Anyway, I’m happy to play the role of your local expert, providing some context and answering any questions.

[Read more…]

Linkspam: July 11th, 2016

First, some blogging network news, FtB has added a handful of new bloggers.  You can follow FtB News to keep up to date on that sort of thing.

Also, last month Richard Carrier resigned from FtB last month amidst allegations of sexual harrassment, and here’s FtB’s official statement on the matter.  In case anyone is wondering about FtB’s governance structure, at the moment it’s an anarchy, but we’re aspiring towards more concrete policies.

Without further ado, here are a few links from the past month:

Erasing LGBTQ Muslims & Islamic Homophobia – Heina addresses the Orlando Nightclub shooting from a queer ex-Muslim perspective.

Sometimes, I think about this issue by making an analogy from Muslim/queer to atheist/woman. The sexism in atheist communities doesn’t justify anti-atheist hate, nor does it mean that “atheist woman” is a contradiction. At the same time, the topic of atheist sexism is one that needs addressing.

BTW if you haven’t figured it out by now, I almost never blog about current events. I don’t enjoy it.

[Read more…]