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.

Too Good To Be True

This is Bob, from Widget Industries—I work in personnel—
I’m just checking up on references for one Ignatius Shell,
Who assures us, as his manager, you really knew him well
So I’m hoping you can help us out a bit.
Yes, I’m looking at his resume, and he looks like quite a catch
Since it seems he built your company, and pretty much from scratch
You’d have bit the dust without him, so we’re hoping he’s a match
His experience implies he’ll really fit.

Now, there’s something I remember… just a minute… here we are:
How he saved the boss’s son, who’d been run over by a car,
When he lifted up the vehicle, then gave him CPR,
And a method he’d developed by himself!
When the papers heard the story, how he lifted up that Ford
And they offered him a medal, a parade, and a reward,
He refused it—every penny—‘cept a photo he adored
Of the rescued kid—he keeps it on his shelf

Did he really lead the office in their summer softball games?
Cos it isn’t in his letter (he would never make such claims)
But his fellow workers wrote it (though they would not give their names)
And it seems like such an “Iggy” thing to do.
This is mostly a formality—there isn’t any doubt
Shell’s the sort of dream employee that you only read about
So we’re hoping you’ll confirm that he’s too good to do without
Cos he really seems too perfect to be true

Via CNN, a story that sounds too good to be true–a company that, for a fee, will lie about your past.

“We can replace a supervisor with a fictitious one, alter your work history, provide you with a positive employment reputation, and give you the glowing reference that you need,” Paladin’s website states.

Mind you, there is some question as to whether the story itself (let alone the enthusiastic recommendations) is true:

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota said it had never heard of Paladin Deception Services and will be “keeping an eye on them going forward.” The company isn’t registered in the state of Minnesota. Green claims it is registered in China instead and he declined to share any tax forms to prove the company’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, Facebook pulled Paladin’s ads from its site in May because it deemed the company inappropriate and misleading.

I am reminded that a post-rapture pet-sitting service that seemed too good to be true… was in fact, too good to be true. So this service may or may not turn out to be real.

Meanwhile, it could be fun, coming up with bogus items for a resume. I know I get called only very rarely to check up on recommendations I write. Maybe I should start claiming that my students are even more remarkable than they are…

The Wedding Of John And Jim

This is the story of John and Jim;
Jim loves John, and John loves him;
Twenty years, six months, and eleven days
Already married in many ways,
They finally got to say their vows
With every right the law allows

Just watch the story—don’t ask why…
And I fucking dare you not to cry.

I don’t always cry at weddings. The last wedding I went to, my nephew’s, I bawled like a baby–but that’s because this was my nephew, and every detail was perfect, and I just love him to death.

I don’t know Jim or John. Never heard of them before about an hour ago. But thanks to the internets, I cried at their wedding, too. It was another perfect day:

John Arthur’s been a patient of Crossroads since March, but it wasn’t until June 26 that he settled on his notion of a perfect day. That morning the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. As he watched the announcement from a medical bed in his Over-the-Rhine condo, Arthur and his partner of 20 years, Jim Obergefell, decided that they wanted to marry.

A wedding for the couple would not be easy. Because same-sex marriage is illegal in Ohio, and because the Supreme Court ruling left marriage bans at the state level intact, Arthur and Obergefell couldn’t marry here. The prospect of travel was difficult because Arthur is bedridden with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neurological disease that robs patients of their ability to walk, talk and eventually breathe. Within minutes of the Supreme Court decision, the couple started working the phones, email and social media to figure out how they might legally wed.

The full story is well worth reading, and it is a tear-jerker. I was going to write and tell you about it even before I saw the video.

But, oh. Watch the video (I’ll embed it just below, and if that isn’t working, it can be viewed at the link). It takes a while, but it’s just so beautiful. Yes, I cried. You will, too. I can only hope (vainly, I suspect) that Ohio will soon (sadly, they don’t have much time) allow them to renew their vows in the state they fell in love in, and did not want to leave.

(ok, it’s embedded below the fold–the video is on autoplay, and I don’t know how to fix that, so be aware before you click through. It’s still very much worth your time, though Ok, I’ve deleted the video until such time as I am able to embed it without autoplay. Again, here’s the link to the video, and you do want to watch the video!.)

Anyway… Here’s to John and Jim, or Jim and John, husband and husband. Congratulations!

Replacing Prayer

What should I do, when I used to be praying,
When now I no longer believe?
No longer a god who can hear what I’m saying,
No heaven that I can perceive.

There’s really no need; there’s no formal injunction,
You simply don’t pray any more
But should you desire, just examine the function
Of just what your praying was for:

Some prayers are a message directly to god
Singing praise, or a note of thanksgiving
Such notes may, of course, though at first it feels odd,
Be directed at those who are living—

The doctors, the farmers, the builders, the teachers
Society’s helpers, too many to name;
Your coach and your teammates; your mom in the bleachers
Who, much more than god, helped you out in the game

Some prayers are intended to say you’re repenting,
And humbly requesting forgiveness for sin
If you’ve done someone wrong, perhaps prayer is preventing
Your focus from where the real damage has been—

If you’ve done someone wrong, and need some forgiving,
Not god, but that person, is whom you should ask
It’s harder to ask of a person who’s living
But you’re in the wrong, and so that is your task

Some prayers are petitions, for health or protection,
For knowledge, or favor, or rain, or success
To make the world good (since we can’t have perfection)
Without too much work, or a whole lot of stress

There are things you can do to prepare and be ready
To limit your loss when the world goes berserk
When disaster might hit, you can keep your hand steady,
Then you—and not god—can just get down to work.

So, yeah… one of the search terms that led someone to my blog today was “what to replace prayer with now that i’m an atheist”. And I have to admit, my first thought was “what? why? I just found out I’ve been doing something useless–what should I replace it with?” And of course, there is no need to do any particular thing instead of praying; anything at all, from walking the dog to writing poetry to trimming your toenails, will be at least as useful as prayer.

But of course, that’s a pretty shallow analysis–my faithful friends all tell me that prayer is very meaningful to them. That is, it has a purpose, or rather, it may have several purposes. And so, the real answer is to analyze the function of prayer, and to see if you can accomplish the same function (or even more) in an alternative fashion.

It is not difficult to find multiple different functions of prayer, given the number of faith communities on the internet. I looked at a few functions; the same analysis can be done for any more.

Two separate but related functions are praise and giving thanks–respectively, “attaboy, god!” and “thanks!”, both offered as a response to something about the real world (yes, you could offer these in response to the promise of heaven, but my assumption is that the new atheist won’t be missing this particular function). “All glory to god”, says the winning athlete, or the tornado survivor, or the rescued miner, or the hungry person looking at a bountiful table. What to do instead? Thank the actual people who have helped! Thank your teammates, coach, trainers… the parents who brought you to practices for years, and the organization (school or club) that made facilities available. Those people are actually there, and actually did something, and deserve every bit of the praise and thanks that you are giving to some invisible proxy figure.

You may pray for forgiveness. I’m told this is difficult. Frankly, what’s difficult is finding the actual person you have wronged, and asking that person’s forgiveness. They may not give it. You may have to earn it. You may have to undo the damage you have done. Asking forgiveness of an invisible proxy might make you feel better, but if that is what you miss and want to replace, honestly, you were doing prayer wrong.

Prayers of petition (intercessory prayers) plead with god for rain, or recovery from injury or illness, or guidance, or (frankly) money. I am told that these prayers are never (ha!) taking the place of actual action; to the extent that they are not said while actively working, they at least compete for valuable time. But rather than pray for rain, work for water conservation. Rather than pray for recovery, work for better 911 coverage, better training for trauma teams, regulations curbing ineffective quackery and promoting evidence-based treatment. Rather than praying for the hurricane not to hit, get your disaster kit ready. Rather than pray for good grades… study. Rather than… you get the idea.

So… what to do instead of praying? If there are real world things you were praying for, these are things you can work for. If you were praying just to keep from actually having to work for them… I dunno–try masturbation?

By Human Intelligence I Mean…

I haven’t yet written a symphony
And my poetry? Crude, simple verse.
My theorems, my physical theories
And technologies, frankly, are worse

I question the meaning(s) of living,
And I question the Meaning Of Life…
Do my shortcomings say I’m not human?
That’s the viewpoint of some (take my wife*).


(**I can quote Henny Youngman, though.)

So, yeah, this is a followup to yesterday’s. In the comments over at NPR, Gleiser is challenged by his colleague Barbara King for his claim that dinosaurs were “stupid”. He clarifies that he means human intelligence, rather than animal intelligence:

By human intelligence I mean the ability to create symphonies, poetry, theorems, physical theories, technologies, to be able to question the meaning of existence and the meaning of intelligence.

Of course, I am reminded of the scene from “I, Robot”: Detective Del Spooner asks (mostly rhetorically) “Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot take a blank canvas and turn it into a masterpiece?” Sonny replies, simply, “Can you?”

Does Life Have A Purpose?

What does it mean to be alive?
What is life’s purpose, if any?
Material stuff that wants, that strives,
To turn its one self into many

What does it mean to have an urge?
What does it mean to struggle?
Must we ensure that our gametes merge,
Or is it ok just to snuggle?

What does it mean to have purpose or plan?
Who choreographs for the dancer?
These questions have plagued generations of man…
Most of all, cos we don’t like the answer.

This was just a bit of musing in response to a piece (Does Life Have A Purpose?) by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. In particular, my verse is inspired by this bit:

The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.

For those who don’t click through, my comment from there:

In my opinion, the vocabulary of the article is a bit misleading, albeit clearly not intentionally so. In the same sense that “design” in nature leads creationists to infer a “designer” (when in actuality, the process of natural selection suffices), terms like “want”, “urge”, and “strive” perpetuate the notion of a functionally dualistic “self” that drives the process of life. When the larger view (across time and environment) is taken, natural selection discards those individuals whose actions were less conducive to survival and reproduction in their particular environments; those whose behavior matches what we now call “purposeful”–wanting, striving, urge-driven–were the ones more likely to live long enough to reproduce.

“Purpose” is imposed on us from outside. Our mentalistic vocabulary claims this purpose as our own–even when we expand “us” from just humans to all living things. The struggle for life is not always a “struggle” in any meaningful sense, but the phrase we have chosen to describe it.

Bottom-Up Vs Top-Down Morality

The pope is opposed, as of course are the bishops;
The church says they’re living in sin.
But the priest gave his blessing; their parents approve,
And St Christopher calls it a win.

The position, long held by the Catholic Church
Is incredibly bitter to swallow—
But as Gandhi has said, when the people do lead,
The leaders are forced, then, to follow!

Their supporters are Catholics—family and friends—
And God works in mysterious ways
Their trials have drawn the two closer to God…
I just hope he approves of the gays.

A fairly sad (to me, anyway) story from NPR, in which two married (to each other) women are awaiting a Supreme Court decision to determine whether they will be able to stay in the US.

Ok, the first thing is, they are a wonderful couple with a fantastic story, well worth reading. Really. Their families accept them, their clergy have blessed their union… they have twins on the way. It’s really beautiful.

Oh, yeah… Fabiola is Peruvian. If they were heterosexual, this would not be a problem, but since both are women, Kelly cannot sponsor her spouse for permanent residency status. So, they might have to have the twins in Peru.

Ok… at this point, I had begun a verse telling their story. The above is not that verse. See, I was thrown for a bit of a loss with this bit:

“She’s my best friend, she’s the love of my life,” Morales says of Costello. “We knew that we were going to be together forever — always together, we could do anything, and guided by God.”

The women say they are sustained in times of vulnerability, including Morales’ struggle with multiple sclerosis, by family and their strong Catholic faith. They attend Mass weekly at a nearby church, and a priest gave a blessing at their wedding.

They wear matching gold St. Christopher medals on necklaces, and pray together daily.

“We understand that the Catholic Church maybe still has to change a little bit more to love everybody, like people like us,” Morales says. “But we have found support from the Catholic Church. Not everybody is against gay people.”

Costello, who says she has become more devout since meeting Morales, adds: “As my Dad always says, we are all God’s children.”

Bully for them, I say! But… but, damn. Their parent, their families, their local clergy, and of course themselves… are all supportive of their situation, while the larger Catholic Church is not. Nor is the US government, at least not yet.

Once again, it is not the individuals within the church who are the problem. Individuals are human, and as such, make exceptions (well, sometimes. Maybe even often) when they are called for. It’s the institution that is sick.

Against that nagging voice deep within me, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that some day I will see the institution itself dragged kicking and screaming into a position with which a great number of its members are already comfortable. Failing that, I suspect that the institution will die, shedding good people like Kelly and Fabiola, their friends, their family, and their clergy.

The folks at the ground level have got it right. Their own priest blessed their same sex wedding. Their family and friends approve. I suspect that they don’t care that I wish them well, but I do. The higher levels of the Catholic Church, though, disapprove.

From the bottom up, people are people, and they are good. From the top down, the Catholic Church is inhuman, and does not recognize love, nor happiness, nor family.

I can only hope the US government sides with reality and not with the church.

Why Can’t You Just Meet Me Halfway?

I love to start fires; it’s just what I do—
I’ve started them all over town—
But recently, folks have begun to complain,
And they’re working on shutting me down.

I’m just having fun, but they say that it’s wrong;
I’m a danger, or that’s what they say
I want lots of fires; they’re screaming for none:
Why can’t they just meet me half way?

I’ve asked them to sit and negotiate terms
But they’ll call me “extremist”, I’ll bet—
They’re ranting and raving; I’m asking politely…
Just how many fires can I set?

Cuttlecap tip to Dana, under the radar.

Call Me Crazy, But…

It’s difficult, looking for just the right word,
So it’s tempting to get a bit lazy;
And critics of someone’s behavior might claim
The behavior they’re seeing is crazy.

Unless there is reason (most often, there’s not)
To suspect that the cause is insanity,
You’re dissing the mentally ill with your slight,
But the group that’s at fault is humanity

Now, why should I bother? It’s only a word—
No reason to make such a fuss—
But it matters, which people you label as them
And which ones you label as us.

Hey, maybe I’m over-reacting a bit;
Your intentions were perfectly nice
And maybe you think there’s no need to complain…
But maybe you need to think twice.

And no, I’m not telling you what prompted this.

A Rare And Beautiful Thing

I know, I know.

I’m not really here–but you know what happens; as soon as you say “I’m taking a break“, something shows up you just have to respond to.

In this case, it’s NPR’s 13.7 blog, asking the big questions about “defining our place in the universe“:

A widespread critique of science is that it tells us that the more we know, the more insignificant we are. It’s the famous after-Copernicus blues: everything went downhill ever since Earth was moved from the center of the cosmos. Since then, the Sun was pushed out from the center too, our Milky Way galaxy is but one among hundreds of billions of others in an expanding Universe. Even the atoms we are made of are less that 5 percent of the total stuff out there.

It’s the old “science tells us we are the insignificant product of a series of random accidents”, but (hey, it’s NPR’s 13.7 blog) written rather better than the average.

And the nice thing is… having been writing this blog since, what, October of 2007? Yeah, I already have a response. I know my place in the dance of the universe.

Or, as the 13.7 people conclude:

In a complete reversal of the “we are cosmically insignificant” discourse, the more we learn about the Universe, the more precious we — and all of life — become.