There’s Miracles, And Then There’s Miracles

The stories in our narratives
Grow stranger in re-telling—
Man, you should have seen the fish that got away!
And a parent’s tale of family lore
Can often be compelling—
You’d have seen it, if you hadn’t slept that day!
They promote a faith in fantasy
They should, perhaps, be quelling
So they see their child’s thinking led astray
But it seems to serve a purpose:
It’s the Catholic faith they’re selling
So a miracle’s a miracle, ok? [Read more…]

Conversation With A Christian…

So… I had a long talk yesterday with someone. It was a ranging conversation, in which we touched on some issues near and dear to FtB readers (I doubt, though, that this person knows FtB exists). He lives in Texas, so one topic was what an idiot Rick Perry is, and republican politicians in general. He was at a loss to explain how any poor person (or any thinking person) could ever vote Republican, other than manipulation of religious views and tribalism….

Which led to a discussion of the republican and tea-party views on creationism and evolution—he offered that no one he knew was a short-earth creationist, but did think that people who thought evolution was “how god did it” were clearly a sort of creationist themselves, and misunderstanding important aspects of the theory. And anyone who thinks humans are special creations “clearly didn’t have a good comparative anatomy class”.

He’d been reading about the writing of the constitution—not Barton (he’d never heard of David Barton, and was appalled at the blatant attempt to influence lawmakers with disinformation), but Waldman’s “Founding Faith”, and when I told him of Chris Rodda’s takedowns of Barton, he put that on his list. He has faced up against people who want prayer in school, and found that the moment he starts talking details—which faith gets to pray on which days, for instance—the demands start to wither and die before he even has to tell them “no”. He knows of, and approves of, the Jefferson bible.

Seems to me there was quite a lot more in this conversation—it was nearly 2 hours—but I can’t think of it at the moment.

Oh, yeah, there was one other topic. He’s on three committees for his church, including the search for a new pastor—the current one is retiring. He’s a very active lifelong believer, and as knowledgeable about the history of the writing of the bible as he is about, say, first amendment school prayer cases, or evolution. He has read not only quite a bit of sophisticated theology and apologetics, but quiet a bit of critical history as well. Frankly, I’ve heard him argue against religious positions far more often than for them (he argues the position supported by evidence, and more often the religious view was being argued out of ignorance).

But he is a Christian, and in his experience more Christians are like him than like the stereotypical yahoos like Rick Perry. I am at a bit of a loss to understand why he is a Christian, but he certainly is one. And I don’t know whether his observation—that he is a more typical Christian—is at all true. (His brother, for instance, is a biblical literalist.)

Sorry, no point here, just thinking out loud…

Yet Another Case Of Ignorance = God

Science looks for laws by which
The real world is constrained
But, gee willikers—free will occurs,
Which physics can’t explain!

So… physics must be incomplete;
A reasonable conclusion—
Of course, there is another one:
Free will is an illusion.

A writer over at The Daily Paul (don’t laugh!–their motto is “Peace, Gold, Love”) demonstrates the problem of “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. And a pet peeve of mine along the way.

I don’t claim any special aptitude or deep understanding of the popular level physics I read, but I was well on my way to adopting the atheist position as my default simply because God was not mentioned as anything intellectually serious anywhere in my searching. To me God was just a made up person, and had no explanatory value.

I never heard of any logical or intellectual arguments for God’s existence, and never knew such a thing existed. There is just no information on that kind of thing available to a regular, non religious child. Public education, popular media, television, science books, all more or less assume atheism.

I was a comfortable atheist for over 15 years, not giving it much thought as a controversial matter, and simply enriching and coloring in my atheism with reading on biology, evolution, and science.

I spent my time and mental energy exploring every other area of contention and controversy — my true passion — and especially political and historical controversy, with a free open mind and the strongest stomach for unpalatable Truth I’ve ever come across.

A simple understanding of popular level physical sciences… and an unquestioned belief in a free mind. Really, it was only a matter of time until one or the other had to go. And since his passion was political (and, given where he’s writing, we can assume Libertarian), the notion that his own thinking was constrained by the same laws that describe the rest of the universe was inconceivable.

You can never know, so you have to either accept God as the ultimate answer, or else maintain a posture of permanent skepticism, and bear all the heavy weight of that skepticism your whole life, holding off all the temptations and comforts offered by a final answer, and the peace it brings.

I accepted that some people throw in the towel earlier than others and that atheism was a privilege of the few, requiring intellectual strength and hardiness.

But finally I actually started listening the the strongest proponents of theism and their strongest arguments, and realized that the matter is far from settled, and that there are powerful philosophical arguments for God, and also powerful defeaters for belief in naturalism, not least of which was the requirement that you adopt a total skepticism of all our reasoning and thinking faculties on a belief system where the mind is formed haphazardly for survival.

And since he feels he has a free, functional, and rational mind, clearly physics and biology cannot be trusted. Free will as a gateway drug to theism.

The thing is, all too many who look to science, for matters of religion or mind, are looking at the wrong sciences. Yes, there is a lot of pseudoscience under the big tent that is psychology, but the areas of sensation & perception, memory, and learning are where we can find that just because our thinking feels free, that doesn’t mean that it is. Turns out, the stuff between our ears does act the same way the rest of the universe does. No magic, either free-will or god, needed to intervene.

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.

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.

Technology VS Superstition

All the aliens and angels, all the monsters that we feared,
All the things that made you scared to be alone
All the poltergeists and angels, why, it seems they’ve disappeared…
Ever since they put a camera in the phone

I could credit XKCD, but Randall is hardly the first to notice.

(on the other hand, the rise in easily available technology must also be blamed for the increase in “ghost hunter” shows on basic cable, so maybe it’s a wash.)