Intrinsically Worthless

From a comment at an article “The Empty, Boring Atheism of Richard Dawkins” (from the Catholic World Report, naturally): “What is an “appetite for wonder” in an intrinsically meaningless universe but simply an appetite for diversion and entertainment?”

I love my spouse and children—
Well, I say I call it “love”,
But it doesn’t hold a candle
To what comes from God above.

I marvel at a symphony—
In this case, number seven—
But, of course, it sounds like screeching chalk
Compared to harps in heaven

A mountain, or an ocean,
Or a sunset or a birth—
But I know there is no meaning
In the things I see on earth

Intrinsically, we have no worth,
We really must admit.
Intrinsically, without a God,
Intrinsically, we’re shit.

The universe is meaningless
And all our lives, as well
Though I’ve never been to heaven
Clearly, life on earth is hell

I pretend to love my children
I pretend to love my wife
But I know that, once in heaven,
I’ll forget about my life

Cos it’s God that gives life meaning,
Not our family, not our friends—
Not our passions, not our pleasures,
All erased when this life ends

Life on earth is mere diversion—
Entertainment till we die—
Others strive to make life better;
I, myself, must wonder: why?

What’s the use of helping others?
What’s the use of pitching in?
When it’s God, not man, deciding
What is good, and what is sin

I can’t know what’s good or righteous;
I can’t know what’s bad or wrong
I can’t know that what I thought was right,
God hated all along!

I can’t trust my own perceptions
I can’t fathom what is true
All I know without a doubt is
I know better than do you.

You, who love your spouse and children,
Music, mountains, seas, and more
You, who love without a God to tell you
What your love is for

What a pity you’re so hollow
What a shame you have no God
What a horror that your world
Is just this “natural” façade

All your life amounts to nothing!
Can’t you get it through your head?
Can’t you see? The only meaning
We can have is once we’re dead!

But of course… I got it wrong (so did several others on the comment thread-and in truth, I wrote it after only his first comment, so I didn’t know). The commenter, identified as a moderator, on Catholic World Report, does not actually believe in a god. Go figure. His big deal is not the absence of a god, but rather the absence of intrinsic meaning. In an intrinsically meaningless universe, what we are left with is mere diversion, mere entertainment, nothing worthwhile.

And he is dead wrong.

I will, of course, grant the “no intrinsic meaning” bit, but there is no magic in the word “intrinsic” that makes meaning any more… meaningful. Money has no intrinsic value–it is paper and metal, or bits of information. The intrinsic value of a $100 bill and a $1 bill are the same. And when we ran on the gold standard, nothing was different–it was social agreement that made gold the standard rather than quartz, or chickens (I now have the image of a one-chicken bill, and making change for a goat bill).

And yes, what is meaningful in life–doing good, fighting for causes, creating art or music, advancing science–all are meaningful solely because we say so. Because that’s what meaning is. Specifying “intrinsically” before “meaningful” is a bit like specifying “invisible” before “pink”. We understand the words from other contexts, but they don’t belong together in this one. Noting that life (or anything) has no intrinsic meaning or worth is trivial, and suggesting that because life is somehow diminished–even worthless–because it does not have this characteristic which it never had to begin with. These fictional modifiers–“intrinsic” is one, “ultimate” is another–serve only to introduce an impossibility, our lack of which is somehow damning.

Just remember, that argument has no intrinsic worth.

Natural Experiment On Gun Availability

If you give the people weapons, is this good or is it bad?
I suppose it all depends upon their aims
Up to now, there’ve been no data, so the arguments we’ve had
All rely on someone’s a priori claims

“But of course we’d be much safer if most everyone was armed!—
Cos the criminals would know they could be shot!”
“No!—more guns would mean more shootings, and more children being harmed!”
But it’s arguments, not evidence, we’ve got.

Now a natural experiment (Missouri” is its name)
Has an answer—and for some, it’s no surprise;
Cos a jump in shooting homicides has policy to blame—
Ease of access means that murder rates will rise.

Via the BBC today, a report (from the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, like yesterday’s post) on a natural experiment on the effects of gun control legislation. Missouri, in 2007, repealed their requirement for licensing and vetting by local law enforcement before purchasing a handgun. So… was this good or bad? My gun-loving friends would predict an immediate drop in crime, now that handguns are easier to purchase, and potential victims are more likely to be armed. The data?

Reporting soon in the Journal of Urban Health, the researchers will say that the repeal resulted in an immediate spike in gun violence and murders.

The study links the abandonment of the background check to an additional 60 or so murders occurring per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012.

“Coincident exactly with the policy change, there was an immediate upward trajectory to the homicide rates in Missouri,” said Prof Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“That upward trajectory did not happen with homicides that did not involve guns; it did not occur to any neighbouring state; the national trend was doing the opposite – it was trending downward; and it was not specific to one or two localities – it was, for the most part, state-wide,” he told BBC News.

So… stopping a bad guy with a gun might involve making it harder for that bad guy to get the gun in the first place. According to the data. Which might explain why the NRA worked so hard to keep the data from being compiled and analyzed.

These arguments, these questions–they do have answers. There are data that could be examined. We need not simply argue from first principles.

And my friends who believe that the most important freedoms of all are those protected by the second amendment can start framing their arguments in terms of how many lives this freedom is worth. Freedom isn’t free, after all. We can *expect* a cost in human lives–like in war, some things are worth a cost in blood and lives.

So… 60 extra murders per year in just one state. Freedom isn’t free. But hey, these deaths buy you the ability to buy a handgun without a background check! So you can feel safer! Mind you, the actual data show that this feeling is an illusion, but you have a right to this illusion!

Templeton Funded Research Finds Science & Religion Compatible (or, that evangelicals have their own definition of “science”)

Evangelicals will tell us, they are unafraid of science;
They assume it proves the bible to be true.
There’s a scientific method into which they put reliance
But it looks a little strange, to me and you.

They’ll evaluate hypotheses experimentally
Then, conclusions will be carefully inspected:
Do results remain consistent with the bible? And we see,
If they’re not, then the conclusions are rejected.

Perfect science, thus, can never be at odds with Christian thought,
Clearly, science and religion coexist!
Any finding not agreeing with the bible, as it ought,
Is a finding simply stricken from the list!

When you’re truly doing science, then you do the work of God
He’s the author of the evidence you read
It’s a different sort of science, so at first it might seem odd,
But a Bible/Science mix is what you need!

The latest headline out of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago is that there isn’t really a any contradiction between Science and Religion… at least, when you (as the Elaine Howard Eklund did, supported by a Templeton grant) poll people to see what they think is the case.

It sounds all friendly and promising… until you look a bit deeper into the results, and realize that a good many people are using a very loose definition of “science”. For instance (as reported by,

* Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
* 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
* Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
* 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
* 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
* Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

I regularly read, in comment threads, claims that “actual science disproves evolution”, that there is a conspiracy by atheist scientists, who simply ignore the copious evidence of God’s existence. Science, I am told, has proven an afterlife, and ghosts, and dowsing, and ESP, and free energy, and more. So I am not in the least surprised that a poll of evangelicals shows that most of them have no problem with science as they understand it.

I also once read, in an actual print journal, an explanation of the scientific method that was remarkably like what you might find in science textbooks… but with one further step. After you crunch your numbers and draw conclusions, you “compare your answers to biblical truth.” I shit you not. So, yeah, when you do science this way (the right way!), it is impossible to find disagreement with biblical principles.

I have seen it argued that, were it not for God keeping everything following His laws, we would see pure chaos, so the fact that we can do science proves that God is there, doing His thing. But since God is always there, the laws are constant–that is, since God is constantly and consistently intervening, it looks like He is not intervening at all. And since you can trust God to keep the clockwork going, it is perfectly fine to do science without explicitly invoking (nor denying) His influence.

But that view, in which everything is a miracle, has no place for miracles as explanations for specific phenomena. That first bullet point quoted above would include the possibility that God could intervene at any point. “Then a miracle occurs!” would be a standard model, not the (arguably) most famous science cartoon ever. How exactly would that work? How would incorporating miracles into scientific explanation work? It can’t, that’s how. Can people believe that it does? Certainly, so long as they redefine either god, or science, or both.

Eklund has not found that science and religion are compatible. Rather, she has found that people’s definitions of “science” can be modified as needed to fit.

Random Thoughts On Alvin Plantinga’s Rambling Thoughts

So… there’s an interview with Alvin Plantinga on the New York Times’ “Opinionator Blog”. It’s… horrific. Embarrassing. Such a national platform for arguments from ignorance, false dichotomies, and special pleading. Really, it’s astonishing.

The questions, by Gary Gutting, are reasonable, and are followed up nicely; if anything, Gutting is not brutal enough, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for Plantinga.

There are so many times when Plantinga’s claims have reasonable answers in readily available science. One (or at least this one) gets the feeling he actively avoids the scientific literature. Ok, really, that’s unfair–science is so broad and specialized that if he were not both exposed to an extraordinarily broad swath, and sufficiently knowledgeable in depth about that broad swath (which, given time constraints, might reasonably mean that he would have no time to develop any expertise in his own philosophical areas), it is perfectly reasonable that he might miss the answers to his questions.

Fortunately, cuttlefish are very deep generalists and experts in everything, so I opened a word-processor and read the interview. (I would say “so you don’t have to”, but I actually really recommend you read it, so you can try out your own critical analysis. The weird thing is, Plantinga is not exactly a bench-warmer; when you–not “if you”–when you tear his arguments into tiny bleeding slivers, you are up against one of the best the theistic side have to offer.) Yeah, so it just so happens I take notes in rhyming verse…

In any debate between two points of view
Fifty-fifty, the odds must apply—
If we can’t prove it’s Christmas, beyond every doubt,
Then it’s likely the Fourth of July

Now, maybe the scientists figured it out
And it’s all there to read… which I won’t
Perhaps they have answers for all of my doubts
But I’m gonna assume, here, they don’t

It’s possible someone has studied this stuff
If they have, clearly, I’m not aware
So there may be a paper that proves me quite wrong
I’d go looking, but really don’t care.

My assumption is simply that nobody knows—
If they did, that would really be nifty—
In the absence of knowledge (well, knowledge of mine)
Let’s assume that it’s all fifty-fifty.

So my views on psychology? Pretty much crap
And biology, mostly, as well—
But let’s call it philosophy (really, why not?)
If it’s bullshit, most readers can’t tell.

So… go ahead, read the interview. Try commenting here–in verse, or not in verse, I don’t care. What do you think is Plantinga’s worst? Best? Anyone think he has a point?

Just for fun, two earlier bits worth mentioning:

When Alvin Plantinga’s Car Won’t Start
It’s All So Simple, Really

Which Team Is God’s Team?

You can hear the pundits prattle
Over Denver and Seattle
As they set off to do battle
In the Super Bowl today

And I’m left a bit befuddled
Cos the logic’s gotten muddled—
As I see the players huddled
Not for football, but to pray

Seems a strange thing in this setting,
But I think what I’m forgetting
Is, the Super Bowl means betting
So they’re working on the odds

We can’t tell at the beginning
Which team’s virtuous, which sinning,
But they’ll show us all, by winning,
So we’ll know which team is God’s!

As we approach game time, and every conceivable bit of trivia has been milked for its own 2-hour sports-TV retrospective, one of the variables examined is the role religion plays among the players. Yesterday’s article “Super Bowl, 2014: Religion runs deep for many NFL players and teams” examines the phenomenon:

Each Friday afternoon, about 10 players from the Seattle Seahawks gather around Karl Payne in a room deep inside the team’s headquarters in Renton, Wash. They come carrying Bibles, notebooks and pens, dressed in their team-issued blue-and-gray sweatpants and T-shirts for an hourlong Bible study.

Payne might lead a discussion on the Book of James, outlining lessons about controlling what you say, how the price of your soul is the same as the next man’s and how challenges can either bury people or spring them to success. Or he might open a discussion, inviting the men to share their thoughts and talk about the issues they are confronting.

I have heard fairly often about the strong role of religion in sports–from controversy over prayers before games at public high schools, to a recent article on a very religious college coach in Connecticut, to Tim Tebow–but it seems to me a subject with more popular than scientific writing. The above quote, for instance, describes what the article calls a team where, in particular, several players are driven by their religion. But in a nation of 80+% Christians, the 10-player bible study group represents under 20% of the 53-player roster. Naturally, more players are Christian than attend the study group, but is having a couple handfuls of very devout players unexpected? Or simply reflective of the population from which players are drawn?

Clearly, not all NFL players are Christian, or even religious. Tebow’s requests for others to join him in prayer have not always been welcome, for instance. I have not been able to find, in any journals of sport, psychology, & religion, any information as to actual numbers–are professional (american) football players any more religious than anyone else? (Vyse reports that superstition is more prevalent among better athletes–more chances to pair success with a superstitious behavior, so no surprise there–but there are good reasons to suspect that athletic superstitions are quite different from institutionalized superstition.)

I have written before about this silliness. At least, I always assumed it was silliness to think that praying about football would matter–especially when fans and players on opposite sides desire opposite outcomes–but no less than William Lane Craig assures us that nothing is too trivial for God:

I think the overriding thing I want to say is God’s providence rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event. That includes every fumble, every catch, every run. All of these things are in the providence of God, and therefore, we should not think that these things are a matter of indifference. These are of importance to God as well even though they seem trivial.

And I don’t want to hear about praying for everybody to be safe and uninjured, and to do their best. If you wanted them safe and uninjured, enough to do more than to pay lip service, there are real world things that can be done. As is, the very hits likely to be cheered the most also happen to be the ones most likely to cause brain injury.

Which cannot be treated with prayer.


Scannily, cannily,
Use pretty pictures to
Search for the mind;

Sadly, it’s no more than
Looking for lumps of a
Different kind

I think if I read one more article using fMRI (or any other brain scan) to find the substrate for this that or the other experiential phenomenon, I may have to hurt somebody.

And not just because it is technologically inadequate; it is also that they are looking at the wrong thing. What we call “mind” is not (and, I would wager all my ink, can never be) found in snapshots of the brain–it is extended both in time and space. Don’t get me wrong–I am not proposing any sort of supernatural mind, of non-physical stuff; rather, that which we call mind is inferred from our own and others’ behavior, as we and they interact with a changing world over time. Such things are no more reducible to instantaneous brain states than “War and Peace” is reducible to a limerick.