What’s In A Shirt?

It took me a little while to figure out my own particular problem with what has become known as the #shirtstorm. Oh, believe me, I was and am on the side of those who saw the now-infamous shirt as problematic. And I am on the side of those who currently are insulted by it.

But… see, I used to run a daycare. I see things, as often as not, through the eyes of those who have not yet learned to be as cynical as I am.

It is all too easy to claim “free speech” from the point of view of a comfortable, privileged majority. To say “I have every right to wear this shirt”… which, while showing off an edgy sense of fashion, also happens to show off a message which will tell the next generation who is in charge and who begs for scraps. Anyway…

Twinkle, twinkle, little shirt
How I wonder how you hurt
Who is watching? Who is there?
Who expects that you might care?
Twinkle, twinkle, little shirt,
How I wonder whom you hurt.

Twinkle, twinkle, what you did,
How you change tomorrow’s kid
When she asks what can be done,
Glad you had your day of fun
Twinkle, twinkle, what you did,
How you’ve hurt tomorrow’s kid.

Twinkle, twinkle, no surprise,
Outer space was meant for guys
If she asks if she can play
Yes she can!… some other day…
Twinkle, twinkle, no surprise,
Outer space is filled with guys…

Spock, Kirk, Atheism, and Freethought Blogs

I’ve just met a straw-man called “Spocking”; it’s shocking,
But some might believe it’s how atheists act!
Where logic is king, not emotion—the notion
That every decision is based upon fact
These atheists put their reliance in science
Forgetting illusory “feelings” or “dreams”
Eschewing all base superstition; their mission
Is reason, perfected… or that’s how it seems.

What all people need, to be working, is “Kirking”,
Humanity’s hero—with all of his flaws
Kirk’s quirks are not bugs with space creatures—they’re features!
And Spock’s an affront to humanity’s cause!
It’s Kirkish to strive, boldly going—no knowing
The odds, cos what counts is emotion, not thought
The godless feel nothing, quite clearly (or nearly)
They’re cold, heartless bastards… except that they’re not. [Read more…]

Money To Burn

There’s a lesson here, somewhere,
If only we’d learn it
Yes, people love money,
But working to earn it?
Much better to win some
Why, no one would spurn it—
With no guarantee, though…
You might as well burn it.

A radio station in Calgary has been (and, currently, still is) conducting an experiment of sorts. They are asking the citizens of Calgary to vote:

Over the next couple of weeks there’s $15,000 that could be yours…But the money could also be BURNT. Set on fire. Completely destroyed.
Should the money go into someone’s BANK or should we BURN it! YOU DECIDE!

This is entirely up to the people of Calgary to decide whether we give the money away or if we burn it…let’s make the right decision together. All you have to do is vote #BURN if you want to see it destroyed or #BANK & what you would do with the money.

If #BANK wins, then everyone who voted for that with all their info is in to win…but if #BURN wins, then we will live up to our promise and completely destroy the cash!

By all accounts, they did not expect people to vote to burn the money. After all, a small chance is better than no chance at all, isn’t it? Who would vote to deny themselves a chance, just to deny everybody else that chance?

54% of the voters, that’s who. So, true to their word, the DJs burned $5,000 (and posted the cremation on youtube). They’ve gotten a *lot* of flak for it, though they probably would have gotten shit for not following through, even if they had given the cash to a perfect charity.

And now, there is another $10,000 on the line. Voters, this time, know the station is not bluffing; will that change the vote? Or is the first result going to be replicated?

I could use that money. I know how I’d vote if I were in Calgary.

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.

In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Strong-ily, wrong-ily
Tout their position:
“The self as the brain”

Finding our cause in our
Sadly, it’s fictional:
Lemme explain….

(tl;dr–“brain as self” models are dependent on a particular philosophical model; the conclusions are more a factor of the requirements of that model than of the evidence.)

Mano presents a clip from the Colbert Report, in which neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland tells Colbert that neuroscience shows there is no such thing as, among other things, a soul.

True enough… but damn, does she have to say the brain is responsible for consciousness? That is just plain… well, dependent on a set of philosophical assumptions that are rarely if ever questioned. Which leads to bad questions, which leads to crap answers, which leads to “deep philosophical questions” that are a pile of horseshit.

“We (some mammals) have the same neural mechanism for pair bonding” (paraphrased from Churchland’s interview) is not at all the same thing as “the brain is responsible for pair bonding”. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. And, oddly enough, the difference is philosophical.

If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist. The notion that your life history is stored, is somehow represented in the structures of your body, is mechanistic. The requirement that any change in your behavior is necessarily the effect of some immediate cause, some proximal cause stored in body or mind or wherever… is mechanistic. That is, these things which make so much sense, make sense because they are framed in terms of a mechanistic world view which you (not just you , of course) have been fed since you were knee high to a jackalope.

But, you see, mechanism is not A) the only philosophy you can use in such scenarios, nor B) the way you live your life and learn the terms used back in that mechanistic scenario. See, the thing is, events in your life unfold over time. And that time need not be compressed and represented as some instantaneous thing. Mechanism’s metaphor is a clockwork, and you can stop a clock, look at its gears, and infer what happens in present, past, and future. A clockwork represents all of that information in an instantaneous slice of time/space. That’s a requirement of the model. That’s not a requirement of reality.

You see, there are other models. A contextualist model recognizes the contributions that happen across time and across situation, and does not require that they be “stored” inside you, since they actually do exist outside you, and are part of the context of your actions. Your actions can only be defined as embedded within context—the environments that promote or suppress a given range of behavior, the consequences that select for or against a range of behavior…

In other words, what you do in a given situation depends on what has tended to work in similar situations. An evolutionary model, really.

“Fitness” is not stored within an individual; fitness is defined across populations, across generations, with respect to environments. Fitness is necessarily dependent on variables that are defined across extended time and space. To place “fitness” inside an individual, as the presumed cause of their success or failure at something (sex, say, or foraging), is to misrepresent the concept. (alas, yes, I have seen it presented this way—that is precisely the problem I am writing about.)


The same, exact misrepresentation is constantly used in human behavior. There are concepts (again, like “fitness” in biology, and “consciousness” in behavior) that are only definable in a manner extended over time, and dependent on environment. Those wonderful brains that are the “cause” of the self? They have been shaped by the environment, in (at least) two very important ways, across two very different scales of time. One, of course, is evolution—this is at least given lip service in the “brain is self” camp, though it seems all too often as if they want to think of our modern brain as the ultimate product of evolution, rather than an ongoing work. But yes, over millions and billions of years, the environment has selected this behavior over that, and the brain structures that support this behavior have thus been favored. It is not, of course, the brain itself that is being selected for or against, but the behavior (and in our case, the flexibility in behavior) it allows.

The second sort of environmental influence, I don’t think I have ever seen credited in a “brain is self” claim, although it is every bit as important as the evolutionary history. Every brain that a researcher runs through a PET scan, CAT scan, X-ray, FMRI, or EEG… is part of an actual person, a whole organism that has been interacting with an environment, including a culture, for all of its lifetime thus far. This brain is part of a person who behaves—over time, and with respect to environment (including social and cultural environment as well as physical environment)—and whose behavior can only be seen as unfolding across time.

You cannot slice open a person’s leg to see where they have walked. A person’s accent is not stored in their vocal cords while they are not speaking. Where they have walked, and how they talk, are dependent on where, and with whom, they lived. We speak of stored abilities, or traits, or habits, but these things are only seen unfolding across time, and their “storage” is not observed but inferred under the assumptions of that clockwork model. The inference comes as a requirement of the model, not as an obvious part of the behavior—where is my walk stored, when I sit down?

Consciousness does not arise in the brain. It is a property of our interactive behavior, unfolding over time. Everything about what it means to be conscious, what it means to be aware, takes place across time and in interaction with an environment; to say it is caused by some brain part is to neglect the history of the environment shaping the brain. “Brain as self” is, functionally, as dualistic (and as wrong) as Descartes’s substance dualism. The brain does not control the body; the brain is part of the body. If there is metaphorical puppetry going on, it is not the brain as puppet master—rather, the environment (across genetic time as well as individual learning) is the puppet master, and the brain acts as the strings.

Ah… Memories…

I remember it so clearly
It’s as if it just occurred
I remember every image,
Every moment, every word;
I remember every instant,
Every story, brief or long,
I remember it forever…
But I just remember wrong.

I can tell you all that happened
On a day ten years ago—
I can tell you, I remember,
All my memories, I know—
I can summarize my knowledge,
All the lovely things I feel
All these things are in my memory
But it isn’t really real

It’s a perfect reproduction
It’s the best you’ll ever find
Every detail, trapped forever,
In the amber of my mind
All the flowing stream of consciousness
Is trapped in memory’s cup…
It’s astonishing to realize
Just how much of it’s made up

If your memory’s often fuzzy
Then you might have thought it best
To believe it, when they told you
Half your recollection’s guessed—
But for those with minds of crystal
Those whose memories are clear—
Why, the thought they might be faulty
Is a foreign thing to hear

But the truth, or so they tell us,
Isn’t difficult to see—
We will manufacture memories
And believe them, you and me
And our confidence is faulty,
Though so strongly we believe…
We build worlds upon our memories,
But our memories… deceive.

So, yeah, TIME (remember when they were a magazine?) has a neat (though incomplete, necessarily, given the scope of the subject and limitations of space) piece on false memories–even among those with “highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM)” (in other words: not me). Seems the evidence shows (color me unsurprised) that even those with incredibly good memories are likely to misremember, and to systematically show biases that distort our memories. (Seriously, worth reading, and with a frankly stunning video which I cannot embed here.)

Even the best are flawed. Sounds very human. And it is. (Not that other species don’t display such flaws, but rather that it seems a characteristic of humanity that we do, despite our opinion of ourselves.) The evidence we send people to execution for… is flawed. As certain as we are, it ain’t necessarily so.

I remember being ready to testify in court as to a person’s guilt… only to find that I was looking at the wrong man. I remember being the person another thought was guilty (they were also wrong, I hasten to inform you). Memory is a nasty and crude tool, but we have been told that there are some among us who claim to have mastered it.

Seems likely they are wrong.