Unknown Unknowns And Atheism

You atheist types are an obstinate sort
You could choose to believe, but you won’t
You say there’s no god in the world we can see…
Ah, but what of the world that we don’t?

What percent of reality really is known;
What percent have we left to divine?
With an unknown infinity left to explore
Who says your view is better than mine?

I choose to believe in the things we can’t see
In the not-yet-discovered reality
With no data at all, I still choose to believe
That there’s something transcending mortality

I won’t limit myself to observable facts
I won’t bow to the mere scientific
While the views I’ll admit are remarkably vague
My religion is very specific.

My God thinks as I do; what’s right and what’s wrong
His will is as clear as can be
You atheists want to know why I believe?
It’s all there… in the things we can’t see.

So at my previous post, I got a comment:

There is an important question which needs to be asked here.

How many percent of reality do you know?

How many percent of all the parallel universes?

How can you consider it unlikely that there might exist entities somewhere else who are so wonderful and powerful that they cannot be comprehended by a human mind?

I’ve never read or heard convincing answers from self-proclaimed Skeptics.

Kind regards from Europe.

It linked, by the way, to a post which approvingly linked to a very poor argument attempting to shift the burden of proof onto atheists by narrowly defining atheism (in a manner which few atheists actually agree with–I, for one, much prefer a privative definition) and by conflating knowledge and belief (thus arguing for agnosticism as an alternative to atheism, rather than as orthogonal concepts).

But, yeah, it always seemed odd to me to play the “there’s so much we don’t know” card against atheists. There’s a quote, attributed to Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Josh Billings (with a variant attributed to Ronald Reagan), “it’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble, it’s what we do know that just ain’t so.” To claim that the vast amount of the universe we do not know may hide something akin to a god, flies in the face of the claims of religions, who are awfully specific about the attributes and adventures of their gods. It’s not that some god might exist in a parallel universe, it’s that they lived atop Mt. Olympus. It’s not that some hidden corner of a far-off galaxy might have time-traveling magicians, it’s that one was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. It’s not that maybe on some distant star there are levitating humanoids, it’s that one ascended to heaven from a rock in Jerusalem.

Atheists are not discounting the possibility of unknown things occurring in unknown places. We don’t have to. These events and places are unknown. No one is making a positive claim that needs to be evaluated. There is nothing to deny, nothing even to comment on. But that has little or nothing to do with the actual and specific claims of religion. If, tomorrow, a time/space traveling alien materialized at, say, MIT, and provided evidence (the alien equivalent of DNA, and demonstrations of technology) of something “wonderful and powerful”, then A) skeptics would evaluate the evidence and (assuming it is sound) conclude that their world had just been expanded beyond their previously wildest beliefs, and B) it would not provide the slightest bit of evidence for any of the world’s religions.

And if, by some extraordinary chance, it turns out that this alien provided hard evidence that its alien race was behind the miracles of the bible, that they had actually occurred just as written, and that some version of Christianity (not all of them; they disagree with one another) was absolutely true… then skeptics and atheists would largely say “well, damn, I was wrong.” But that extraordinary evidence would not change the fact that, up until that evidence was provided, there was no reason at all to suspect it ever would be.

And right now, that alien has not visited, and right now, the existence of unknown mysteries in unknown corners of the universe is not, in the slightest, an argument in favor of any religion.

Atheism’s “Impoverished Narrative”

The universe’s marvels, which our Holy Books revealed,
Simply cannot hold a candle to the things that stayed concealed
But Holy Men weren’t worried—no, they knew just what to do;
When science showed new wonders, they just said “God did that, too.”

My aggregator threw me a strange one today–”Atheism and girl guides“, a post mostly grousing about the changes in the Girl Guides’ oath, removing the religious language to make it more inclusive. And an early paragraph sums it up nicely:

At one level, the atheist reworking of the Girl Guide oath to drop mention of God makes absolute sense: if you have disparate groups, you try to find a common level on which they can all agree. In the past, Catholics, Muslims, Jews etc managed to meet on a non-denominational theism. Now, theists and atheists meet on a programme of shared morals. It’s about compromise and agreeing on what we share rather than what divides us.

Although it is not an atheist reworking, but a secular reworking. As the author says, this is common ground, not exclusion of believers.

And then…

For a Christian, however, what you have is a serious impoverishment of a culture. Particularly in an organization which is devoted to the character formation of the young, that formation essentially consists in getting young people to see the difference between what they think or feel, and what is actually the case; what they want to do, and what they should do. There are (at least) two elements to this: a cognitive element based on understanding the world in a certain way; and a narrative element which provides us with a network of stories and heroes that provide analogies for our own behaviour. So, eg, a Christian formation will regard the world as meaningful and directed by the will of God, and will refer to (eg) the Bible as a stock of narrative on which we can draw.

From a Christian perspective, the more attenuated the stock from which the formation is drawn, the worse that formation. At best, the formation of character is weakened. At worst, it is actually poisoned by a pernicious alternative: to replace, “love my God” with “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is to replace an objective source of values with feeling.

*sigh* Yes, god’s values are objective. That’s why there are so many different versions of them, and why god always seems to agree with the person quoting him.

In the end, this is not just about atheism vs theism, but an impoverished narrative vs a rich one, and relativism vs objectivity. A lot of modern atheism is simply dumb: it’s the sort of thing 18 year old computer geeks would come up with. Christianity is being dumped, but instead of being replaced by a rich humanism soaked in the classicism and literature of the past, it is being replaced by a void. The better sort of atheist realize that but most don’t and even fewer have any sort of viable proposals to fill that void.

Impoverished vs rich is all? The Greek and Norse mythologies are incredibly rich–I loved reading those as a child, and studying them up through college (and one of my favorite books is the Mythological Atlas of Greece, which locates the physical areas that gave rise to various myths. It’s not just that the gods existed, but here, specifically, is where they did this or that. Frankly, the rich narrative was lost when the girl guides decided on “god” rather than “the gods”. And as for the void that god fills and atheism can’t? Please, take a look at how much of “creation” is in the bible. When the bible was written, our understanding of the universe was tiny. The notion of a galaxy, let alone of a universe full of countless galaxies, was unimaginable. Mind you, a god giving revealed truth to his chosen representatives could have mentioned something about it (along with suggesting that people wash their hands regularly), but it wasn’t until humans discovered it that suddenly it was part of God’s Great Universe, and evidence of How Much He Loves Us. (This bit was the inspiration for the opening verse, btw.)

From a Catholic point of view, there is simply nothing that will work in the long run beyond a true religious formation. I don’t expect atheists to agree, but I do expect them to start provide suggestions which go beyond simply using the delete key or suggesting that four year olds study Darwin.

Nice. As wonderful as Darwin’s view of life is (and it is far richer than the tapestry you claim the bible and religion in general present), it is a tiny fragment of the astonishing world we know now that we did not know when the universal and objective truths of religion were revealed. We can and do apply science to all of the questions that religion pretends to give answers for. We know more about human nature, we know more about our environment, we know more about our universe… Go to any modern college or university library, or major public library, and separate out the information therein into to piles–what religion has taught us, and what we learned apart from religion.

Then tell me which world view is impoverished.

This Bullshit Is Brought To You By The Letter “A”

A is for Alligator—look at that bite!
A is Albino—he’s totally white
A, Acupuncture; let’s poke him with pins
A, Anecdotal; the evidence spins
A is for Alt-Med, which doesn’t do shit…
A is for Asshole: I hope she gets bit.

Via the Beeb, a story (with video I can’t embed here, but he’s a cute little guy) of an albino alligator being treated with acupuncture at a Brazilian zoo. And for the record the “asshole” in the last line is me–if I am objecting to an alligator getting its jaw taped shut and pins stuck all down its backside (which you’re damn right I’m objecting to), it is a bit of an asshole move to cheer on the hypothetical alligator-bite injury of someone who is just (sincerely, I believe) trying to help.

The acupuncturist is not evil; she thinks she’s helping. The evidence strongly suggests that there is nothing beyond a placebo effect in acupuncture (or an expectancy effect in the case of animal acupuncture). It’s not easy to have double blind acupuncture, but the most methodologically sound studies I have seen have shown no difference between the “real” and control conditions (whether sham needles or wrong needle placement). My favorite report of this, though, came from an alternative magazine my sister sent me–it claimed that not only did acupuncture work, but so did sham acupuncture! (In other words, there is a significant placebo effect–and placebo is much different from “no effect”–but nothing beyond that.)

So I am not really angry with the acupuncturist. She’s trying to help. It’s the superstructure of alt-med pseudoscience that allows people to poke with needles, give sugar pills or distilled water, wave their hands vaguely, or think happy thoughts, and think they are helping. “But it can’t hurt–anything is better than nothing!”, I have heard… but there are people foregoing real cancer treatments (with their nasty side effects because the medicine is actually doing something) to gamble their lives on this institutionalized fraud.

Impeach… um… Eisenhower!

In my in-box, there was drama—
We must now impeach Obama!—
And a screed without one comma
Made the case why this was so.

Since he won his last election,
This is cause for insurrection!
(It’s assumed there’s no objection
And the man must simply go)

Once the president’s elected
It has come to be expected
The mistake must be corrected
When the losers raise their voice

But it seems, each generation
Has the chance to save the nation
By suggesting usurpation
Of the people’s lawful choice

Oddly enough, I got a bunch of spam email this morning telling me how wonderful it is that there are Republican lawmakers making noise to their constituents about impeaching Obama. They’ve reached the bottom, the email rejoiced; this has replaced even the meaningless posturing about Obamacare that had previously represented the dictionary example of “exercise in frustration”.

And then, in a bit of synchronicity, NPR has a story up today about how pretty much every president gets the impeachment rhetoric from somebody. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter… and the reason I am writing today, Eisenhower.

But this post is not really about impeachment. Rather, it’s about poetry, and yet one more example that what I write is not poetry (and I’m cool with that–it’s verse, or better yet doggerel, and I am proud enough of it without calling it poetry). You want poetry about impeachment? The NPR story linked to a poem, “Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower“. Now, that’s poetry (and anyone who thinks that not rhyming makes writing easier, I’m here to say otherwise). Read and enjoy.

Headline Muse, 8/27

While for some, it seems almost a game
And for others, a new way to shame
It can give you the blues
As you look through the News
And discover just “what’s in a name?”

Headline: Who is still calling Chelsea Manning ‘he?’

Some news organizations—including The New York Times and the Associated Press—that were initially reluctant to accommodate Manning’s request or were weighing their options, are now using the female pronoun. Meanwhile, conservative media outlets have predictably been resistant not only to using the name and pronoun preferred by Manning, but to the entire concept of transgender identity.
Below, a rundown of how news organizations are handling the issue: (Who have we missed? Let us know in the comments.)

Y’know what? Don’t even look at the comments. Just don’t.

Oh, and if you have not yet read this, please do.

(unrelated note: Classes have started again, so priorities must change. Writing verses isn’t what’s time-consuming; rather, finding things to write about is what takes time. And it’s more important for me to read my students’ stuff right now than a dozen news sources. So I’ll be less of a predator and more of a filter-feeder for a bit, at least until I find out how much work my new prep is. Or longer, of course.

Feel free to send ideas; some of you already do, and I try to do my best to answer the Cuttlesignal.)

National Dog Day

So, yeah, I only found out a bit ago from Mano that it is National Dog Day* here. Knowing that I have written quite a lot about dogs, I thought I’d do the lazy thing and see what sort of dog verse (doggerel?) I could dig up. I’ve written quite a few doggy things, from celebrations of rolling in garbage, to wedding weirdness, to religious metaphors, to sirius serious science… and a verse that is taught in schools in India. (And there is so much more–I keep forgetting how damned much I have written over the years–and a non-trivial percentage of it is actually pretty good.) And then I saw this one. And I cried. And kept crying for quite a bit. So, for National Dog Day, the saddest verse I have ever written.

I hope we did what’s best for you
I know, at least, we tried.
I took you to the doctor
And I stayed there at your side;
I talked with you for one last time
Then held you as you died.
I kissed your head, and said good-bye
And cried
And cried
And cried.

Yeah, well… happy National Dog Day.

* I was supposed to post pictures of my dogs, apparently. Problem is, the cuttledogs are weaponized cuteness, and the internets couldn’t take it.

Everything Old Is New Again (Or, Sex With Robots)

As predictable as clockwork,
Or some finely crafted gears—
We forget about the last one
So the latest one appears

It’s designed to gather eyeballs
Both to titillate and vex—
It’s an article (with pictures)
Probing human-robot sex

Yup… this time, it’s the BBC with “Will we ever want to have sex with robots?“. In 2007, the now-defunct Cognitive Daily asked “Will humans marry robots in 50 years”, which prompted this bit of musing from me. In 2009, the big news was HRP-4C (also mentioned in the Beeb’s current piece), which also got its (her?) own verse here. I may have missed the 2011 version, or perhaps I just reposted the old verses… but now enough time has passed that we are once again being asked if or when people will be having sex with robots.

But something is different this time. In 2007… well, here, something from today’s piece:

In 2007, the British chess player and artificial intelligence (AI) expert David Levy said in his book, Love and Sex with Robots, we would be having sex with robots in five years – and be capable of falling in love with them within 40 years.

His argument is based on improvements in robotic engineering and computer programming – and extrapolating from the income generated by the porn industry each year.

Such robots would be a “terrific service” for mankind, he argued.

Well… a terrific service, in that it finally rids us of the need to treat our sexual partners as human beings. Because that is a huge, pressing problem, and the way to address it is not to teach us how to treat one another properly (really, honestly, is it too much to expect people to find enthusiastic consent sexy?) but to invest in machines that allow us to have absolute control instead.

But… for once, the old faithful story addresses this, just a bit:

“It is time to reconsider the premise that a robot is better than nothing,” says Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Because, if you are trying to solve the problem of care and companionship with a robot, you are not trying to solve it with the people you need to solve it with – friends, family, community.”

There’s a bit more there, but they did the job of writing it, so you can give them the traffic.

“Investigating Atheism”

So, my aggregator is weird; I’ll completely miss stuff from here at FtB, but find something from halfway across the world on a user-generated news forum… this is one of those latter times. The News24 people in Cape Town, South Africa have such a user-generated section, and in it, a regular commenter is trying to understand atheism.

After posting similar questions on the comment section, I decided to take it a bit further. I just need to understand the atheist stand point more. I am looking for honest answers on the below questions. Also take time to really think of the answers before you start answering.
1. Where do you come from?
2. What is your purpose on earth?
3. Does life have a meaning?
4. What is just and fair for you?
5. God forbids, if your child is murdered and the person is never caught and brought to justice, how would you handle it, seeing that life has no meaning and we are just here on earht to live and die. Where would you get justice from?
6. An intelligent, thinking child brought up by atheist parents becomes a Christian how do you respond? Oh and becomes preacher and starts a new church, would you say your child has a problem?
7. What about all the injustice in the world that goes by unreported, where must everyone else get justice from?
8. How do you answer your own child that is searching for meaning and purpose in life?
9. Why does research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships mean anything if it all ultimately comes to naught anyway?
10. Is death the end of life?

Yes, some of the questions are insulting, but it’s possible this person is really actually trying to understand. Assuming that, then, honest answers might be the best way to replace insulting stereotypes with actual understanding. My own answers, after the jump: [Read more...]

Sorry, California, But You Have To Pay The Atheist *Something*.

A godless drug offender who was serving his parole
Was remanded to a program where they tried to save his soul
He denies a god exists—a “higher power” is their phrase—
So they threw him back in prison for another hundred days
Now, this differential treatment was unlawful (also, rude)
So the godless drug offender (and his lawyer, likely) sued.

The state had caused him injury, the judge could not deny
100 days in prison cos he wouldn’t tell a lie
The atheist could not deny, the bible isn’t buyable,
And since California locked him up, the state was clearly liable
A convicted drug offender, he was clearly no one’s hero,
When the judge awarded damages—the jury added, “zero”.

Now the Circuit Court has spoken, with the facts beyond dispute;
Sent the case back to a jury, with the warning “don’t get cute”

So, yeah, jury, you may not like the fact that an atheist convicted drug offender sued the state (of California) because they did not have a drug treatment program that did not require him to believe in a god… but seriously, the man was thrown back in prison for 100 days because he wouldn’t say he believed in a higher power, and this is worth nothing?

SAN FRANCISCO — California should compensate an atheist parolee for returning him to prison after he resisted participating in a religious-based drug treatment program, a federal appeals court decided unanimously Friday.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should award Barry A. Hazle Jr., a drug offender, compensatory damages for his loss of freedom and could consider possible punitive and emotional distress damages as well.

What was the case about?

After Hazle served a prison term, California ordered him to spend 90 days in a residential 12-step program. Hazle said he was atheist and asked for a secular program instead. But state officials told him they had none to offer.

Staff at the state-required treatment center reported that Hazle was disruptive “in a congenial way.” The state revoked his parole and put him back in prison for 100 days. He sued.

A Sacramento federal judge determined that Hazle had clearly suffered a violation of his constitutional rights and ordered a jury to assess monetary damages. The jury awarded zero damages.

100 days in prison, that any religious believer (or non-believer willing to lie) would not have had to suffer. But hey, he was on parole. A drug offender. An atheist. The judge asked for a reasonable damage amount, and the jury stepped up and said “nothing.” That was back in 2010 (the initial sentence was in 2007)

“Given the indisputable fact of actual injury resulting from Hazle’s unconstitutional imprisonment, and the district judge’s finding that the state defendants were liable for that injury, an award of compensatory damages was mandatory,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, wrote for the panel.

The court said another jury must be convened to determine Hazle’s compensation.

The comments at the story are actually not terrible, too, if you go for that sort of thing.

Edit–there is also the actual court decision here (thanks, screechymonkey), which is well worth reading.