If Obama’s An Atheist, He’s Sure Got A Funny Way Of Showing It

I’m certain Obama’s an atheist
The clues are all there, if you search—
Like the way he supports public praying
And the way he has long gone to church
His support for the faith-based initiatives
And his scripture reflections each day
Yes, I’m certain Obama’s an atheist
Cos the clues are all there on display.

You’ve likely heard by now–Richard Dawkins, on Bill Maher’s show, expressed his confidence that President Obama is actually an atheist… which, in the context of the show, put him in the company of other good atheists… like Pope Francis.

It all makes sense now. The Obama administration’s support of town council prayers in Greece, NY, is part of an elaborate scheme to disguise Obama’s atheism so that he can be elected for a third term…

When Oprah denied Diana Nyad’s atheism, the godless movers and shakers didn’t much like it. You don’t get to simultaneously deny and appropriate someone else’s beliefs when you can’t wrap your head around the fact that someone you admire holds views you disagree with. This goes for Oprah, and it goes for Dawkins and Maher, too.

For my thinking, I really don’t care what Obama (or Diana Nyad) believes; I care what he (or she) does. When they do admirable things, I admire those accomplishments; when they do deplorable things, I deplore them. People are complex; few, if any, are all good or all bad. Looking at actions, rather than pinning a label on the actors, allows us to recognize the good and the bad, and hopefully support the former and not the latter–in those we admire and in those we… not so much.

Simple

There is beauty in simplicity
When simple things are true;
But solving complex mysteries—
There’s beauty in that, too

There are simple things, and complex things,
And mysteries and more…
Sure, sometimes you have favorites,
But it isn’t either/or

Ok, so I saw this commercial, and it really bothered me:

Do you want to hear about the chemical composition of the sun? Or simply feel it on your face? Do you want to talk about all the muscles it takes for two hands to connect? Or just enjoy that they can? Do you want to debate why an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Or just take a bite? Do you want to talk about what it takes to make a miracle happen? Or just look at one?

To have a kid’s voice say these lines is, to my ears, just horrible! Kids want to know the chemical composition of the sun, and are fascinated by how muscles, sinews, bones and skin combine to make hands work. The ad writers have the kid certain that apples work, and that babies are “miracles”. Kids are naturally curious–why on earth would you base a “simplify” commercial around someone who probably makes Rube Goldberg machines out of kitchen appliances, clothes hangers, and tape. Kids see the beauty in complexity–in stuff that takes a lot of work to understand. That’s one of the best things about kids.

I can see why a healthcare plan might want to simplify. But damn, this commercial just grates at me whenever I see it.

Piecing Together The Fragments Of The Past

From fragments sifted from the dirt
We piece together what was here
An image forms, a poor mosaic;
Some details never will be shown.
The evidence of daily life—
A broken lamp, a shattered vase,
A stairway worn with countless steps,
The profile of a woman’s face—
These buried pieces, lost to time
We may discover, quite by chance
While off in search of something else—
An accident of circumstance.
So, too, it seems, with memories;
Forgotten, lost, for decades hidden
But then, while on another search
They spring to present mind, unbidden.
They feel complete, in every way,
As if no more than hours old
But how much is illusory?
It could be quite a lot, I’m told.
We reconstruct our precious past
And fill in gaps, the experts say,
To fit our present narrative
And lead to what we feel today

I found this verse—well, half of it—
I’d written several years ago;
I’ve reconstructed what I meant…
Or maybe not. We’ll never know.

Frieze fragment

Frieze fragment – image: Cuttlefish

So, yeah, I literally found the first half of this verse, in the back of a notebook I was using in Greece. I must have written it after visiting one of the many archaeological museums or digs we went to (the above image is, I believe, from Pella). The verse stopped after the word “Forgotten”, which (as you can see) is immediately after the shift from literal to metaphor, and a bit of an ironic place to have to reconstruct from. Some of the museums had pots that were considerably more filled-in than original shards; some were nearly complete. Sometimes you knew, or believed you did, exactly what the artist or crafter had in mind; other times, the effect was equal parts their imagination and your own.

Did I complete the thought I had started over 5 years ago? Probably not. Maybe. I’m a different cuttlefish than I was then.

Nike of Paeonius

Nike of Paeonius – image: Cuttlefish

Heh… if I were cruel, I’d link Schubert’s “unfinished symphony” as the autoplay music for this post.

Unintended Consequences; or, Get Off Of My Lawn!

My parents worked through poverty,
Through hardship and through strife,
In part so we, their children, had
A better chance at life

And we, their sons and daughters,
With our parents’ words well heeded
Have worked so that our children, too
Have better lives than we did.

To make the world a better place
Each generation’s toiled…
And when it worked, our folks complained
That kids these days are spoiled.

So I’ve been helping, these past few days, my niece move into her new apartment, preparing for grad school. My parents were also visiting at the time, and helping as well.

And so it is that we know how much bigger this apartment is than the one they started out in, and how they got by with just two cooking pans, cracked plates, mismatched cutlery, and let’s not even get started on things like a TV. “The one thing we couldn’t give you is the one thing that did the most for us, and that’s poverty.”

I’m calling bullshit. This is the same romanticizing of the past that leads people to vaccine denialism–people were stronger back when they had to struggle with measles, polio, and whooping cough. Kids these days have it too easy, with their vaccines, their child labor laws, their health care, and an infrastructure that puts the accumulated knowledge of the world at their fingertips. We didn’t have computers back then, and we are better for it.

Back when my parents actually were poor (and even then, I suspect their own parents had a different view of it–my dad’s father built their house by hand, even digging the basement himself, so quit your complaining about a small apartment someone had already built)… where was I? Oh, yeah, back when my parents actually were poor, poverty was not a character builder, it was something to be escaped, or better yet, avoided. Any decent human being would work so that their children would not have to experience the poverty they did.

And it worked. Well, it worked for some, my privileged self included. My parents gave me a start that their parents could not give them. I tried, and mostly succeeded, to do the same thing for my children. As did my siblings. As did countless other parents, generations of people doing their best to change the world for the better. Our power grid is better (well, at present it is aging); our water and waste systems are better; our telecommunication structure, our food distribution, our information superstructure, all better (again, for the privileged, including my parents and my family).

It worked. Now, my kids and nieces and nephews, and their generation, can answer questions in seconds, that we had to find a library and look for appropriate sources and hope they were available and yadda yadda yadda… and which my parents’ generation might not have even attempted to answer, or asked in the first place. The world is different; it always is. It was not better to have to work for those particular answers, it was just more difficult. Now that the answers can be found easily, the newer generation can spend that effort pushing the envelope. Look at the astounding progress of science in recent decades; in part, that is possible because technology has made the difficult tasks easier, so that the hard work can be devoted to the hard tasks.

We should not romanticize poverty. If we do, it is too tempting to choose not to fight it. And just as childhood illnesses could have long-reaching consequences that last decades, poverty has long-reaching consequences, that can span decades and cultures. Vaccines can spare us much of the cost of these diseases. Education and health care are a good start at sparing us the costs of poverty.

And when it works, we should appreciate that success, not belittle it. It makes no sense at all to promote doing easy things the hard way, when we have enough hard problems to go around.

So, yes, my niece has a nice apartment. Congratulations, Grandma and Grandpa–you have succeeded in making the world a better place for your kids and theirs. Thank you, sincerely and from the bottom of my hearts. We couldn’t have done it without you. And think–if she were starting out as you started out, all your hard work would have been for nothing.

So hush now, and be proud–of her, and of yourselves. And watch, cos it’s her turn now to work on the hard problems. And because we have some real hard problems, aren’t you glad you gave her a running start?

Oh, Nothing, Really….

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
Why, their nothing has nothing at all
No time, and no space, and no matter,
Not even the quantumly small

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
It’s a special and magical word
But it isn’t the “nothing” that physicists see,
Cos the thing is, it must be inferred

Now, this doesn’t much bother philosophers
As a rule, they are rarely unnerved
But you see, this philosopher’s nothing?
It has never—not once—been observed

When philosophers argue religion
And their “nothing” implies a first cause…
If you get to assume your conclusions,
You’re not looking for natural laws

If the universe started from nothing
Which it can’t, the philosophers say
Either “nothing”, or “nothing”, is faulty
So… why swing the philosophers’ way?

There are two different versions of “nothing”
Which the sides have us choosing between
One version says God isn’t needed…
And the other has never been seen

So it’s “nothing” to fret about, really
(and “nothing” seems overly broad)
And there’s nothing that needs a creator…
But it works… if you presuppose God.

Y’know, I would swear I’ve already responded to this… but my aggregator says no. Lemme show you a video by Peter Kreeft, explaining that belief in god is more rational than atheism…

Yes, Kreeft starts with Aquinas, because the 1200’s are so modern.

Ok… I was going to go through the whole video, but I think maybe I’ll save that for later. I want to mention one other thing first.

Now… what was that?

Oh, yeah… nothing. Nothing at all.

Now, Krauss has a book out about nothing. And he’s pretty damned good at talking about it, I hear. But there are those who say he’s talking about an entirely different nothing than the philosophers are.

Which is the point of my little verse. See… Krauss’s “nothing” has the decided disadvantage of being observable. Philosophers need not restrict their nothings with such trivial matters. There is “nothing”, and then, there is “nothing”. One is easy to understand… but has never been observed. The other does not match our expectations, but does match the evidence.

There’s nothing, and then there is nothing. The philosophers’ “nothing” is an assumption, not an observation.

Really…. It’s nothing.

Woof!

Thinkingly, winkingly,
Internet videos
Promise us puppies who
Patently plan;

Claim that it isn’t just
Anthropomorphism—
Clearly, these canines are
Thinking like Man

Over at NPR’s 13.7:Cosmos And Culture blog, Barbara J. King has another of her pieces on animal cognition. I very much enjoy these, even when I fundamentally disagree…like today.

The post is “Do Dogs Think?” (don’t jump too quickly–she explains her title very early on, and it is justified)–clearly, King is on the side of Yea. Which is fine–I also think dogs think… but I suspect that King and I differ on our conceptions of “thinking”. (I did comment at the article–I won’t reproduce those here.)

The trick is, the videos she uses to exemplify complex thought in dogs (at the link) are far too easily explained more “simply” in terms of conditioning (operant, in this case). Which gets me thinking, myself. First (as I say in my first comment, though not in these words), the videos necessarily narrow our focus onto an artificially brief segment of time; we cannot see the history of learning behind each performance. The segments end when the photographer wants them to, so we cannot see what happens next. Any editing of a segment of film may cut out important information; in this case, any trial and error, any shaping and differential reinforcement, that preceded the filmed incident.

(As an aside, the dear departed Cuttledog very cleverly put her paw on a plate to hold it still while she licked it clean. Very cleverly… until you realize that it took her 7 years to stumble on that little trick.)

King welcomed my skepticism, and asked whether it might be hypocritical (not her words!) to explain non-human behavior through conditioning, but not human. And she’d be right, except that a) I fully accept that human behavior (including thinking) is the product of our environmental histories, in a selectionist process many call “conditioning”, and b) I further assert that much of what our current view of human thought is, is utter balderdash. We are not able to feel ourselves thinking (no sensory neurons in the brain), so our introspective accounts are not a measure of our actual thinking, but rather a measure of the influence of our verbal community. For centuries, we have used a dualistic, mentalistic vocabulary (how often do you find the words “mind” or “mental” or “mentally” creeping into your sentences?), which does not correspond to what we know of the nervous system, let alone the interaction of our behavior with a dynamic environment.

So… Do animals think the way we think? I suspect that, very probably, they do. Do animals think the way that we think that we think? Almost certainly not. Do we think the way we think that we think? Again, almost certainly not. How do we think? Ah… an excellent question.

On Monsters

He’s a monster; he’s not human—
He’s the devil in disguise!
The embodiment of evil;
You can see it in his eyes!
No iota of morality
No evidence of soul
Where a man should have a human heart
This demon has a hole.

His behavior was horrific—
Inexcusable, in fact;
No real human could have done it
It’s a horrid, beastly act
If he’d had the slightest conscience
He’d be overcome with shame…
So let’s sentence him to torture;
We can treat him just the same!

Let’s imprison him with Bubba
Where he never will escape
Take his time, to learn the lesson
On the other side of rape
We can chain him; we can whip him,
We can break a rib or two…
Cos he has to learn, these things are not
What moral people do.

Wow. Now that God finally saved those three women in Cleveland, it’s become downright unpleasant to read through the comment sections on news sites. The argument seems to be “nobody should ever treat another human being like this man treated those women, therefore we should treat this man like he treated those women.” Or “he’s a depraved monster for doing what he did; we should do the same to him.” Or “what kind of sick fuck is capable of such behavior, he ought to be flayed alive in the town square, suspended by his testicles over a hornet nest and beaten with hot pokers.” Because we are more moral than he is.

I have seen a handful of people calling out the would-be official torturers and those calling for prison rape as a reasonable sentence. They are accused of taking the rapist’s side, of course–because if you don’t want the skin peeled off of his face with a garden trowel, you are soft on crime and a liberal communist.

No sentence we could give him could ever pay back what he took from those women. That would be impossible. That cannot, and should not, be the standard we hold ourselves to. But we should not allow him to take our humanity from us as well. If what he did is detestable (and it is), it should be detestable for anyone to do it (and it is). The internet commenters calling for such treatment should take a good hard look at who they are choosing as their role model.

“Men And Women Aren’t Equal”

“Men and Women aren’t equal”, she wrote—
Just one of those stories you read now and then.
The truth, which the article fails, though, to note:
Women aren’t equal, and neither are men.

You won’t want to read it without a central nervous system depressant of choice, but foxnews.com has an opinion piece “To be happy, we must admit women and men aren’t ‘equal’“.

How bad is it?

But the truth must be heard. Being equal in worth, or value, is not the same as being identical, interchangeable beings. Men and women may be capable of doing many of the same things, but that doesn’t mean they want to. That we don’t have more female CEOs or stay-at-home dads proves this in spades.

Unless, of course, you’re beholden to feminism. In that case, you’ll believe the above is evidence of discrimination. You’ll believe what feminists taught you to believe: that gender is a social construct.

Those of us with children know better. We know little girls love their dolls and boys just want to kick that ball. This doesn’t mean men can’t take care of babies or women can’t play sports. It just means each gender has its own energy that flows in a specific direction. For God’s sake, let it flow.

You can click through for more if you want, but I really don’t recommend it.

I used to run a daycare. I know boys who love their dolls, and girls who want to kick that ball (and even if the writer was accurate, we’d still be left asking why; “it’s a boy/girl thing” is not an explanation). The thing is, boys and girls (and women and men) are not monolithic. For someone so eager to see differences between groups, the author of the article seems blind to differences within groups. And the differences within groups–the differences among individuals–are what matter. I’ve had female (and male) students who were faster than me, stronger than me, smarter than me (no, really!)… and it is very clear: making policies that shut doors based on averages (or worse, on stereotypes) will shut those doors on tremendously qualified individuals.

And when that happens, everybody loses.

Ooooh! Cuttlecap tip to @JessicaValenti (via Twitter, natch), who notes that the photo accompanying the article is (unbeknownst to Fox News) a same sex couple!

Doing “Wrong” Right

Two experts, both alike in views
(So much, you can’t tell whose is whose)
Saw something on the evening news
Which challenged their belief

And something that they’d thought was right,
Believing in with all their might,
They now saw in a different light—
It brought them both to grief

The first said “well, I’ve got to change—
Although, of course, it’s rather strange,
My whole worldview I’ll re-arrange
Cos what I thought, was wrong”

The second, though, without remorse,
Declared, “I’d rather stay the course—
Deny the facts; dispute the source,
I’m sailing straight along.”

And when the first apologized,
Revealing that he’d realized
His former view was compromised,
The second was insistent:

“Your newfound view means naught to me—
Your reputation’s shot, you see—
Untouchable, you ought to be,
Because you’re inconsistent!”

Consistency, you can’t deny,
Is crucial in the public eye
But if your stance is just a lie
Perhaps it’s best to quit

We know, a fool’s consistent stand
When better data are at hand
Is often prized, throughout this land…
But still, it’s full of shit.

I just saw a truly rare and remarkable bit of video. You can see it here. Mark Lynas, formerly an anti-GM food activist (until 2008, when the data persuaded him he had been wrong) is interviewed on the BBC’s HARDtalk; the linked video is an excerpt.

First… this is how you do it. As a leader in the anti-GM food movement, it could not have been pleasant to make this change, but Lynas not only made the change, he publicly renounced his former views, and publicly apologized to those whom his actions had harmed. In the linked clip, host Stephen Sackur (to my thinking, anyway) really tries to rub Lynas’s nose in it, pushing him well beyond what I would have been comfortable with. Lynas sits there and takes it, admits some fairly embarrassing things (for instance, how flimsy the evidence was that led him not merely to protest, but to become a leader in the protest movement), and owns up to his past behavior.

Sackur prods: “So that leaves your personal credibility in shreds.” “So you’re ashamed of the entire approach you took; your complete lack of intellectual rigor.” Again, to me, this is a bit much, but Lynas does not get defensive; he admits that he is on the record apologizing for his actions, personally, to the individuals he has wronged.

This is a brief clip, but it illustrates a few things beautifully. First, what Lynas shows that an intelligent person, in the right surroundings, can easily be caught up in thinking something is right when it is demonstrably not. Second, he demonstrates exactly what we should do, but which can be so difficult to do, when confronted by solid evidence that this thing we thought was true is not. Third, he models how to take responsibility, how to own up to previous mistakes, how not to simply get defensive when called out. Fourth…tangentially, but importantly… the clip makes clear that our culture values consistency. A view that changes when new data are available should not be seen as a weakness, but all too often it is.