Video games were invented by THE DEVIL!!

Oh look, this is original! Some crazy lady blogging for the Orange County Register, who aptly calls herself “Frumpy Middle-Aged Mom,” thinks that video games are horrible influences on her kids! And she blames Grand Theft Auto for the misgivings that negligent parents had after they allowed their underage kids to play it! (Props to for bringing this to my attention.)

She also laments:

This is a huge dilemma for me, because I always had this fantasy that my house would be the one that all the kids congregated at after school. I would be the “fun mom,” the one who made popsicles, the one in the TV commercial with all the kids crowded around the kitchen counter, demanding more of those little pizza nuggets.

Unfortunately, since we have neither video games nor a swimming pool, this does not happen.

Seriously? Your fantasy is to provide frozen foods for neighborhood kids? And that’s what you think they’ll find fun? What a barren fantasy life you must have, lady.

I’ve got some other theories about why this does not happen, actually. Those TV commercials are fictional. They’re designed to trick people who fail at critical thinking into buying their crummy food products because, hey, if you stock your freezer with pizza rolls then kids with perfect teeth and cherubic ruddy cheeks will beam at you just like on TV! Here’s some more information for perspective: Real kids do not barge into your home clamoring for “More Ovaltine, please!” Also, the Kool-Aid Man does not break down your wall to help you out when you’re thirsty.

My kid plays plenty of video games, often right alongside me. He is also a voracious reader and a great student, and has an active imagination that constantly amuses me with drawings and lego structures — yes, some of which are based on video games, and some are not. I’m just sayin’, maybe if you lightened up and figured out how to connect with your son, tried to understand his hobbies rather than ineffectually demonizing him, he wouldn’t be a C student.

Oh, and I bet some people will think that FMAM is a Poe. I considered that, certainly, because she’s just too perfect a target. Her picture even bears a striking resemblance to the Jeanie Teasdale character from The Onion. But I skimmed her other columns and concluded that they are far too dull to be anybody’s attempt at comedy. So I’m pretty sure she means it, mkay?

Scientist portrayal in Avatar

I’ve seen Avatar twice now. I already reviewed it on my personal blog. I didn’t love it exactly, but I had to see it a second time because, despite its flaws, I knew my seven year old would think it was awesome. He did.

However, I do want to add one quick thing about it. In the past, I’ve complained often about the way movies portray scientists as closed minded eggheads who don’t understand the way the world really works, and skeptics are regarded as blind fools who wouldn’t recognize evidence that’s whacking them over the head with a cricket bat. For more of this discussion, see the Atheist Experience archive, episode #530 about “Skeptical straw men in fiction.”

One thing that Avatar really has going for it is that the scientist characters were clearly right. The military wanted to charge in with guns blazing; the scientists just wanted to study the planet’s ecosystem and establish diplomatic relations. The scientists emphatically were not egotists filled with hubris who were tampering with forces of nature they did not understand. And when they talked nerd talk, it’s presented as charming. They got geeked out and excited about the stuff they were seeing, and this was treated with affection for new discoveries. When Grace visits a new part of the world in order to try to treat her serious wounds, the first thing she says is “I have to take some samples!”

So the movie itself was thoroughly implausible all the way through, and the political aspects were annoyingly oversimplified. But treating scientists as real good guys and giving them believable reactions counts for something in my book.

Why I usually don’t argue with YouTube videos

This isn’t terribly important but I’m airing a minor grievance. People frequently email the TV crew to say “I saw this video on YouTube. Can you refute it?” Here’s why I usually refuse.

Frankly, I hate dealing with videos. Text is an asynchronous mode of communication, whereas video is synchronous. (“Synchronous” is a fancy-schmancy computer science major’s way of saying “dependent on time.”) See, when you’re arguing, the entire argument is part of an interconnected whole. Bits are presented that rely on other bits for validity. Grasping an argument is not like reading a story; you have you to bounce back and forth and cross reference things in order to understand them.

In a way, I think that’s why members of the creationist movement are so much in love with live debates, while being such miserable failures at validating their stuff through rigorous scientific publication. A weak argument is much more easily exposed when you can scroll back to an earlier part and double check for inconsistencies. In live format, once a point whizzes past, the words are lost in time and you have to rely on your memory of what was said. Obviously we do this ourselves on the Atheist Experience, discussing issues with callers in real time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it changes the viewer’s experience, and you have to rely a little bit more on the claimed authority of the speakers since you can’t fact-check effectively in real time.

So YouTube is not quite the same as a live presentation, because you can easily move the time slider backwards and forwards to review what was said. But I still hate doing that, because there’s no effective search tool. There’s no index. Also, it is much harder to accurately quote the passage you’re responding to. Text is something I can copy and paste. With video, all I can do is hunt for approximately the right spot on the video, sit through parts of the monologue that I’m not using for a while, and then painstakingly transcribe the text while pausing frequently and scrolling back to make sure I got it right.

And finally, it’s time consuming. In text, all the words exist simultaneously on the page, and you can flip through and skim to find what you need fairly quickly. If there are large passages of obvious nonsense that don’t need to be addressed, it’s easy to detect where they begin and end. With video, all you can do is… watch the video. In a real-time debate, you can at least respond and influence the direction of the conversation in real time. Video is a flat, dead expanse of time that doesn’t listen to you.

Incidentally, this is yet another reason why I can’t stand watching Zeitgeist. I don’t so much mind responding to all those horrible arguments when they are laid out in text format. But I refuse to waste two hours of staring at a screen if there is no effective attempt to entertain.

What I’m saying is that movies are simply a terrible format for holding a serious argument, and the majority of the time if I get a link to a movie saying “Watch this” and nothing more, it’s probably getting archived and ignored. Other people on the TV list might sometimes answer it. But if you want a response to a movie-based argument from me, all I can suggest is that you either find a written version of the argument and present that, or sum up the main points that you find difficult.

And don’t even get me started on YouTube comments. Whoever tries to hold a serious discussion with people through short soundbites that are presented ten to a page and cycle off the front within minutes… all I can say is, may the FSM have mercy on your soul.

End of rant.

You blog readers are so very silly

After I wrote my last post about Nazis disapproving of Darwin, Ruud pointed out that another reader had converted the post into film format on YouTube.

No reading, no dramatic enactment, just the text of the post — written in an old timey, grainy black and white film format, with German music playing over it. Watch it here!

It is my hope that Prophiscient will also give this post the same treatment, because that would lead to a delightful kind of double-infinite-self-reference loop.

Another reason not to blame Darwin

Atheist Experience viewer Ruud from the Netherlands just drew my attention to another excellent reason why it’s is ridiculous to blame evolutionary theory for Nazism extermination. Checking out the Index to Creationist Claims, I see that it’s already on there, but since it was new to me I thought I’d share it.

The University of Arizona’s site hosts a list of books that were banned in Germany in the 1930′s. Among them is… take a wild guess…

Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (Haeckel).

And just for good measure, there’s also this:

c) All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk.

That ought to settle the issue. But of course, you know it won’t.

Don’t fear to let bad guys talk

There are many lines that you can expect to hear on just about every episode of The Atheist Experience. One is “Tell me what you believe and why you believe it.” Another is “Promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state.” However, I think one of the most important repeated lines is: “If you disagree with us, then we will try to get to your call more quickly.”

To me, that’s a vital component of intellectual honesty. Anyone can barricade themselves in a mental fortress of belief, deciding on what is true “in their hearts” early in life, and refusing to listen to any evidence to the contrary. However, if you want to have as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible, you simply have to step out of your fortress and really listen openly to what people are saying who don’t agree with you. There is no other way to expose the false beliefs you hold and the true beliefs that you lack.

That’s why I generally want to make it a point in life to read the Bible, listen to Christian radio, argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and take all the callers I can.

That’s also why I’m kind of disappointed, though not really surprised, by the apparent terror that, ah, certain people seem to have these days over putting 9/11 terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in a civilian court.

As I understand it, there are two major concerns at play here, both of them (not to put too fine a point on it) cretinous. One of them is that Mohammed will escape from jail and go on the most horrifying killing spree the world has ever known. The other is that if Mohammed is allowed to defend himself in court, then the dulcet tones of his voice spouting terrorist propaganda will surely incite more violence against the United States.

Ezra Klein masterfully dismantles both arguments in just a few short sentences. Regarding their escape:

These guys took down a plane with box cutters. They used crude weapons to attack a far more sophisticated and effective fighting force. The most fearsome of them was captured at home, in his pajamas. It’s not like we’re putting Magneto on trial and need to keep him away from metal filings.

And regarding letting him talk:

Trying these guys publicly, as well as holding them in normal prisons like common criminals, is good public relations. Being a terrorist is a more appealing prospect if the world’s sole superpower appears to cower before your might than it is if you end up trapped in the American legal system, forced to submit to endless cross-examination and consultation with attorneys and other bureaucratic humiliations. Lots of people want to be super villains. But who wants to be a henchman? Being held on a fortified military island and tortured by a country that can’t seem to get you to talk is a much more glorious finish than a long and dull trial that ends with you serving time in central New Jersey.

When you come right down to it, Mohammed is really just another extreme religious crackpot, and talking and listening to religious crackpots is what we on the Atheist Experience want to happen. We want it to happen because crackpottery thrives on remaining mysterious. If you can frame your crackpottery in a few pithy sentences appealing to some seemingly high minded ideals, then it sounds superficially convincing. But when you start probing their beliefs in depth, that’s when you get to have conversations like this

“Tommy Davis previously denied the Xenu story, asking CNN reporter John Roberts if it ‘sounded ridiculous’ and saying the story was ‘unrecognisable’ to him. The Xenu story has also been denied by actor Tom Cruise and other famous Scientologists.”

And this

“Wait. Mormons actually know this story and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet? …No, it’s a matter of logic! If you’re gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you’d better have something to back it up. All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”*

And this

“Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man… living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you! He loves you. He loves you and he needs money!”

That’s what we want to have happen with the beliefs of fuckwits like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We want an American lawyer to stand up in front of this guy on the witness stand, and let him spout off his beliefs. And then we want our lawyer to shake his head in disbelief, and say “Mr. Mohammed, are you freaking kidding me????

What we don’t want is for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to get away with no trial at all, or a tribunal under cover of darkness. We don’t want him to be executed without a chance to air out his horrific, vile sounding views. We don’t want to give people an excuse to make a martyr out of him without laying his idiocy bare for the entire world to see.

I’m sure some people will object that someone will hear his words and say “Hey, ya know? This jihad business sounds pretty reasonable to me.” And I’m sure that that’s true; I can imagine that there are probably a (very, very, very small) number of people who were not already looking to sign up for the terrorist lifestyle, but will be persuaded by Mohammed’s silver tongue to join the cause.

But you know what else? I’m willing to take that chance, because I’m seriously betting that the number of people who will be moved to sympathy for America and disgust for Mohammed and his ilk would tremendously dwarf the number of people who would fall for his recruitment speech.

I am firmly of the belief that you can’t prevent bad ideas from being heard, but you can shed light on them and make them look foolish. I think it’s the ideal of free speech that we should all strive for. If I didn’t think that, then I would have to conclude once and for all that our little public access show is a bust, simply on the grounds that we have allowed so many more bad ideas to get air time than would have gotten it otherwise.

Call me a naive idealist for having some faith in humanity that they can be dragged to a reasonable position. The ones to really watch out for are the small-minded, pathetic people polluting the airwaves, who are afraid to hear Khalid talk. Somehow they must feel that his beliefs are so reasonable and so seductive that millions of people will become America’s enemies just by listening to a defeated criminal speak on a docket. And frankly, I feel sorry for them, for the fear of the world around them that they must feel every day

* Note: It was pointed out in the comments that the quote about Mormonism from South Park, while funny, is not an accurate representation of the Mormon story.

We get creationist email #2

This is a follow-up to this dialogue. Martin has politely asked me if I would increase my blogging activity over the next few weeks, so that we can make up for the lack of new shows. Since I enjoy writing posts that react to something else, I’ll probably carry on with this sort of thing as long as I can. Besides, it’s good to stay in practice.

This email will be abridged so you don’t have to see increasingly wide quote boxes.

From: thelambstruth

Hola :)

[Regarding Kazim's statement that "neo-Darwinian evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for how the diversity of life came into existence"]

Majority is correct? That’s extremely flawed. I’m sure you perhaps meant something differently?

Nope. This is not an argument from popularity, although you might regard it as an argument from authority. In brief, I am not a scientist, but I understand the scientific method and recognize that it relies on results that are repeatable and can be independently verified. I also recognize that among the people who devote themselves to the serious study of biology, i.e. published biologists, only a vanishingly small number of them have any beef with the claim that biological evolution occurred.

Science is based on converging consensus based on common repeatable observations. If you’d like me to explain the scientific method in more depth then I will.

[Responding to Kazim's statement that fossilization is a rare event]

However that was not my question. I was stating that in order for fossilization to occur, some pretty drastic things had to happen. So, what was this (these) process (processes) basically?

I’m sure you’re fully capable of doing your own research. But here, let me google that for you.

[Regarding Kazim's remarks about the temporal proximity of pyramid building to the flood]

Well there is: ” The building of the first temple can be dated to 950 B.C. +/- some small delta, placing the Flood around 2250 B.C. Unfortunately, the Egyptians (among others) have written records dating well back before 2250 B.C. (the Great Pyramid, for example dates to the 26th century B.C., 300 years before the Biblical date for the Flood). No sign in Egyptian inscriptions of this global flood around 2250 B.C.” However the Flood occurred 4400.

Reference, please? Where are you getting these numbers? As I understand it, there are two perspectives. The young earth creationist view is based on numbers cooked up by Bishop Ussher, who concluded that the flood occurred in 2348 BC.

The position of the scientific community, on the other hand, is that there is no indication whatsoever that a global flood ever occurred.

[When called out for posting long lists of objections to science from web sites, without providing detail]

Haha, my bad. I admit, I was in a bit of a hurry, which caused me to get some points from book/site. I’ll elaborate in a future message.

Okay. I’ve got time to wait.

[Further pressing for a reaction to the web site ostensibly showing ancient pictures of dinosaurs]

Yes it is subjective, however if you want to deny how amazingly (try to think objectively) accurate the paintings/carvings/etc looked, then whatever. How can someone do so with such accuracy? Has there been any other examples such as these? If it would’ve been a drawing of some random monster, then yea, so what? This is significant because they didn’t know anything about the dinosaurs (supposedly), so how can they just so happen to draw such pictures?

As I already said, I don’t think that they are amazingly close to dinosaurs. Although I will also note a couple of other points:

1. There is actually good reason to believe that people found dinosaur bones in ancient times…

2. There is nothing inherent in evolution that says that the dinosaurs could not have survived past the presumed extinction event. It’s unlikely, but wouldn’t fundamentally change the scientific understanding of how evolution works.

We get creationist email

I’ve alerted the author that I will be posting this, and even obtained his consent, so… everybody wave hello!

From: thelambstruth
I’m a creationist fundie first off, and I was wondering how one could be an evolutionists.

Hello, creationist fundie, nice to meet you.

The reason someone would accept evolution is pretty straightforward: It’s because neo-Darwinian evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for how the diversity of life came into existence. If one wanted to change the mainstream science, the most direct way to do that would be to study the topic and write papers proposing a scientifically reasonable alternative; request that the papers be peer-reviewed and published in a mainstream scientific journal; and then hope that your work would be persuasive enough to change the prevailing understanding of biology. It’s a tall order, sure, but it’s the way that scientific inquiry generally proceeds these days, and it’s been very useful at developing a body of knowledge that has resulted in the technology you enjoy today, such as that computer that you are typing on.

I could go into many topics, however I feel the need to just touch up on a few, being the geologic strata, the fossils, and anything else pertaining to that.

Firstly, the geologic strata are completely vague and arbitrary, the transition imperceptibly. A scientist cannot just go out and dig to a certain depth and know right then which stata it was. As said, they cannot even tale when they’ve transitioned into another strata until they run into fossils (will cover later) or conduct ‘radiometric dating’. Also within this vague and arbitrary strata, it is extremely variable and the stratas are only accepted when they coincide with the presumed fossil age; which the fossils are dated by the rocks and the rocks are dated by the fossils for some nice circular reasoning. So, say, if the scientist ‘knows’ the age of the strata and finds a fossil within that very arbitrary and undistinguished strata, then the fossil is the same age, while if the fossils are presumed to be a certain age and they find one in another strata then they date the strata accordingly along side the fossils. What is this? If a fossil is in the wrong spot, then they attribute that fact not to the flaw of evolution, however something cataclysmic, that no one knows what, moved it there. I thought science was supposed to be based off evidence and fact, not wishful thinking that some great event might have caused something to happen.

Jeff Dee has already pointed out to you an invaluable resource in the Talk Origins Archive. However, I would like to draw your special attention to a subsection of that site known as the Index to Creationist Claims.

If you do a word search on that page for “strata” you will find numerous articles, including one which directly addresses your question. There is a brief response on this page. There is also a longer explanation of the science of dating fossils, on this page.

If you read these articles, what you discover is that there are actually a variety of separate methods for dating a fossil, all of which tend to produce similar answers, and therefore are used to independently verify the age of a fossil. The geologic eras were thus determined after various dating techniques were already common, and after observing that similar fossils tend to fall in similar orders within layers of rock. The reason it’s now additionally possible to date fossils by the layer in which they appear, is because the strata have been so well established by other dating methods.

How come there are so many fossils? They would not formed over natural causes because in order for an animal to become fossilized, it must occur very rapid and a quick death. Surely not ALL of these fossils died like that. If they did, why doesn’t that happen anymore? We do not have anything close to that happening today.

Of course not all dead organisms form fossils. Only a very small fraction of the animals that ever lived are fossilized. Multi-cellular life spans over a period of about 3-3.5 billion years, and as you rightly pointed out, the vast majority of those organisms do not leave fossils.

So what caused it? Well the Flood did of course!

Unfortunately for your hypothesis, the idea that there was a worldwide flood is not taken even a little bit seriously in mainstream science. There are a multitude of problems with the flood idea, which you can brush up on here.

In particular, I think my favorite example of such problems is the fact that other cultures, such as Egypt and Sumeria, had thriving cultures which lasted right through the supposed dates of the flood. For example, the Egyptians were building pyramids both before and immediately after the supposed flood dates. That would be a neat trick — I wonder if the new Pharaohs were Noah’s grandchildren? And how many of their cousins were enslaved to do the work?

Here’s some quick little proofs for it (I could go into many biblical accounts, however I know that you atheists folk aren’t to keen to accepting it):
1. World-wide distribution of flood distributions
2. Origin of civilization near Ararat-Babylon region in post-flood time.
3. Convergence of population growth statistics on date of flood
4. Dating of oldest living things at post-flood time
5. Worldwide occurrence of water-laid sediments and sedimentary rocks
6. Recent uplift of major mountain ranges
7. Marine fossils on crests of mountains
8. Evidence of former worldwide warm climate
9. Necessity of catastrophic burial and rapid lithification of fossil deposits
10. Recent origin of many datable geological processes
11. Worldwide distribution of all types of fossils
12. Uniform physical appearance of rocks from different “ages”
13. Frequent mixing of fossils from different “ages”
14. Near-random deposition of formational sequences
15. Equivalence of total organic material in present world and fossil world.
16. Wide distribution of recent volcanic rocks
17. Evidence of recent water bodies in present desert areas
18. Worldwide occurrence of raised shore lines and river terraces
19. Evidence of recent drastic rise in sea level
20. Universal occurrence of rivers in valleys too large for the present stream
21. Sudden extinction of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals
22. Rapid onset of glacial period
23. Existence of polystrate fossils.
24. Preservation of tracks and other ephemeral markings throughout the geologic column
25. Worldwide occurrence of sedimentary fossil “graveyards” in rocks of all “ages”
26. Absence of any physical evidence of chronological boundary between rocks of successive “ages”
27. Occurrence of all rock types (shale, limestone, granite, etc.) in all “ages”
28. Parallel of supposed evolutionary sequence through different “ages” with modern ecological zonation in the one present age
29. Lack of correlation of most radiometric “ages” with assumed paleontological “ages”
30. Absence of meteorites in geologic column
31. Absence of hail imprints in geologic column, despite abundance of fossil ripple-marks and raindrop imprints
32. Evidence of man’s existence during earliest of geologic “ages” (e.g., human footprints in Cambrian, Carboniferous, and Cretaceous formations)

It looks to me like you’re just grabbing long lists of items that you found on web sites, but can’t be bothered to back them up with any detail. Hence, I can’t be bothered to respond to each one individually. If you would care to read more of the Index to Creationist Claims, you will find a lot of responses to these canards there. If you would like to pick out one or two of your bullet points that you find particularly persuasive, then I would be happy to discuss them in detail after you expand on them.

Finally, what about the dinosaur drawings in places like Arizona and Rhodesia and many others? In those times, they didn’t have a concept of a dinosaur, they supposedly didn’t know anything about those. So, how did they know what they looked like? Some are phenomenal at their accuracy.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing back from you. Thanks:

Whether they’re phenomenal or not is a matter of opinion, I suppose — I’m not all that impressed myself. Short answer: people imagine all kinds of cool monsters. Longer answer: here and here.

Russell Glasser
The Atheist Experience

Antichrist gonna getcha

This morning I was listening to Christian radio. (Yeah, I still do that. I’m not going to apologize for it, he said defensively.)

Thanks to my long commute, when I’m bored of the available audiobooks and podcasts, I occasionally switch to NPR or Christian talk for a few seconds to check if they say something interesting. In this case I caught a brief mention of Doubting Thomas, which was enough to hold me there for a while.

Christians love the Doubting Thomas myth, because (1) they get to claim that Jesus once provided incontrovertible evidence of his divinity, and (2) they get to chastise you for looking for any REAL evidence outside of the story. (“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”) Thus, the whole thing is an exercise in encouraging gullibility. In this particular case, the preacher was stating that it is not only a mistake to seek evidence, but it is also dangerous.

In particular, he repeatedly used the phrase “signs and miracles” to denote stuff that you should definitely not be looking for. Why? Because the antichrist’s a-comin’, and he’s going to have all the same outward superpowers as Jesus. And he’ll fool you.

I heard him refer to the antichrist as “the devil’s Superman” and say something like, “He’ll convince you that black is white, up is down, evil is good.” Then he spun a scenario: You pray to god asking for a sign that you are in accordance with his will. Then a really awesome miracle occurs, fire across the sky or something, and you think you’re covered.

But you die, and you never pledged your soul to Jesus. Oh noes! You go to hell, screaming all the way that you thought God gave you a sign. Ho ho, the devil chortles. You fool, that was ME!

Now this story provides some interesting insight, because I am often asked “What would it take to convince you that God was real?” And I usually say that if God knows me well, a fairly impressive personalized miracle (i.e., stars spontaneously rearranging to form words, with multiple witnesses verifying that I am not crazy) or even a personal visit from someone who appears to be demonstrably omniscient would probably go most of the way toward changing my mind. And I still say that.

But here’s the problem… Satan can fool you by performing the same tricks. Which would certainly put me in an awkward position, of course, but it seems that the Christians are just as bad off. Because if Satan is such a perfect deceiver that anyone can be fooled, who’s to say that he didn’t write the Bible?

Can beliefs be inconsistent?

Last night I listened to the podcast of last week’s show with Matt and Don. I am looking forward to being back in the “other” studio again, but not next weekend as scheduled, since I have plans to fly to Pennsylvania.

One of the responses to the callers caught my attention. Matt and Don, beginning at around 42:30 in the audio, were speaking to Gregory in Eugene, Oregon. Gregory first wanted to propose his own uninteresting (IMHO) redefinition of God. Then, later, he claimed that he “considered himself just as much an atheist as I do a theist.”

Matt asserted that this was ridiculous — which it is. To be a theist means that you believe in a god, while to be an atheist means that you do not believe in a god. Obviously these positions are mutually contradictory, and so it makes no sense to hold both of them.

But then Matt went one step further, claiming that Eugene could not hold both of these positions simultaneously, effectively accusing him of either lying or being deluded about his own beliefs. It is this point that I wish to respond to, because — as an enthusiast of formal logic — I think one can’t make such a blanket statement about other people’s beliefs.

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to assert that people should not hold contradictory beliefs, and to point it out vigorously when they try to slip that sort of thing past. However, it does not follow that one cannot hold contradictory beliefs, and in fact, I think that they do all the time.

Seen in abstract terms, you could say that a person’s state of mind is a set of propositions that they assert to be true. “The sky is blue” and “the sky is not green” are two such propositions; “There is a God” is another. Not all propositions need to be definite; they could be probabilistic, as in “There is probably no God” or “There may be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.”

Now, given a particular proposition P, P can be either true or not true; and according to propositional logic it must be one or the other but not both. However, just because a proposition is false in reality does not mean that it is not a part of someone’s belief system. Indeed, we know that some people have false beliefs — just consider that many people are theists and many others are atheists. Either there is a God or there isn’t, and therefore one of these groups clearly holds a false proposition to be true, and most likely a host of related propositions as well.

Still, believing a false proposition P does not make your belief system inconsistent; you can easily believe something that is false but does not contradict any other proposition in your universe of beliefs. However, my point is that there is no reason in principle why somebody cannot comfortably believe the assertion P1: “X is true” and P2: “X is false”, at the same time.

As a computer geek, I happen to believe (though not entirely backed by affirmative evidence) that the human mind can be represented as a formal system, not entirely unlike a computer could behave in principle if it was outfitted with the right software. I am a believer in the possibility of artificial intelligence, though I definitely do not believe it has been achieved yet, and it may not be achieved within my lifetime, or even the entire span of the human race.

There is a famous theorem formulated by Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel, which states that all formal systems are either incomplete or inconsistent. In other words, either there is some proposition P for which the system holds P to be both true and not true (inconsistent); or else there is some proposition P which really is true, but the system cannot prove it (incomplete, as P is true but missing).

Some opponents of AI see this as a fundamental limitation of computers, a proof that humans are somehow better than computers because they have intuition which is capable of somehow “jumping outside the system” and directly perceiving truths that cannot be proven formally. I see that as a fallacy. Sure, humans are capable of making logical leaps of intuition, but that doesn’t mean the leaps lead exclusively to true beliefs. We know for a fact that brains are often misled into believing things which are not true, and may even be contradictory, which we sometimes call “hypocrisy.”

Imagine a person who is completely insane, in the sense that he believes everything that is false and nothing that is true. Such a person must necessarily be inconsistent as well. Why? Well, consider the following untrue statements. P1: 2+2=3. P2: 2+2=5. These statements are contradictory — they cannot both be true at once. Yet the insane person must believe both, because they are both false.

But you don’t have to go so far as complete insanity in order to hold contradictory beliefs. In fact, I would speculate that everyone in the world probably has some beliefs that contradict one another. I do. Matt does. I’m not saying that this is desirable, or that you can’t minimize the number of contradictions you believe, but the mind is full of shortcuts and logical leaps and rules of thumb that let us analyze reality without becoming immediately paralyzed by an in-depth comparison of new information against every other single proposition you already believe.

In fact, I once read a beautiful proof by logician Raymond Smullyan that every person must necessarily be either inconsistent or conceited. It goes like this:

The human brain is finite, therefore there are only finitely many propositions which you believe. Let us label these propositions p1, p2, …, pn, where n is the number of propositions you believe. So you believe each of the propositions p1, p2, …, pn. Yet, unless you are conceited, you know that you sometimes make mistakes, hence not everything you believe is true. Therefore, if you are not conceited, you know that at least one of the propositions, p1, p2, …, pn is false. Yet you believe each of the propositions p1, p2, …, pn. So you believe at least one of these statements to be both true and false; hence you must be inconsistent.

Believing a contradiction does not make you crazy or a liar. Continuing to believe both “there is a god” and “there is no god,” even after the contradiction is explicitly pointed out to you, might make you a bit thick. But there’s no impossibility there. We know thick people exist, and most of us encounter them on a daily basis.