Dream diary, 1/13/08: The dream job

Laurel_wreathI dreamed that I was applying for a job as a professional dreamer. Specifically, I was applying for the job of United States Dreamer Laureate. The job basically involved having interesting dreams; writing about them was a part of it, but just having the dreams was the primary responsibility. I really wanted the job, and was concerned that my more recent dreams hadn’t been interesting enough to qualify me. I woke up feeling somewhat disappointed that there was no such thing as Dreamer Laureate.

Friday Cat Blogging on Sunday: Lydia: The Belly-Rub Series

And now, three cute picture of our cat.

Lydia_bellyrub_2

Lydia_bellyrub_3_2
Lydia_bellyrub_1

Last week, we had a photo of Lydia looking uncharacteristically noble and dignified. So this week, in the interest of full disclosure, I thought we should have some much more typical views of Lydia.

Lydia is an unbelievably sweet cat: a little dim, but affectionate, good-natured, unlikely to start fights with the other cats… and completely shameless in her bid to get scritching and belly-rubs. In many ways, she’s more dog-like than cat-like: she doesn’t have the aloof, stand-offish thing at all, and she sees no point in playing hard to get. And as a result, she probably gets more attention than both of the other cats combined. I feel that I have a lot to learn from her.

The top picture is of Lydia getting a belly-rub from our friend Tim (of Christmas Rhapsody fame). The second is of Lydia getting a belly-rub from Ingrid. And the third is of Lydia getting a belly-rub from me. The girl likes her belly-rubs.

The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much

Sunrise_over_the_seaThere’s a good piece over at Daylight Atheism, and I wanted to call it out and blog about it a little. It’s called The Curiously Postmodern Modern Apologists, and it’s about… well, the curiously post-modern twist that many modern apologetics for religion have been taking.

The gist of these apologetics: Nobody knows anything for 100% certain. Atheists and believers, scientists and philosophers: nobody can be 100% certain that the things they believe are true. Whether secular or religious, we all have some version of faith.

Therefore, religious faith is as valid as any secular kind. Believing in God, in angels, in reincarnation, in 72 virgins awaiting us when we die, in Jesus dying to save our souls, is every bit as valid as believing that the earth goes around the sun.

Let’s take a look at this thought process, and see if we can spot the logical flaw.

The thought process goes like this:

100_percentOne: You can never be 100% certain that you’re right about anything.

Two: Therefore, all ideas are equally likely to be true, and equally valid.

(Three: Therefore, my idea is right. But I think it’s pretty obvious why that one’s wrong, so I’m not going to bother shooting that particularly slow fish in that particularly small barrel.)

MatrixdvdOkay. First of all, Two does not follow from One. Yes, it’s true, we can never be 100% sure of anything (except perhaps our own existence). The history of knowledge is full of mis-steps and false assumptions… and besides, everything we see and experience could all be an illusion. We could all be in the Matrix, or something.

But the fact that we can’t be 100% sure of any idea doesn’t mean that all ideas are equally likely or unlikely.

Earth_axisThe fact that we can’t have 100% certainty doesn’t mean that we can’t assess which ideas are more or less likely. We can’t know for 100% certain that the earth orbits the sun — it could all be some horrible Satanic deception, or space aliens playing a practical joke — but we can be pretty darned sure that it’s very likely indeed. And we can’t be 100% sure that Bertrand Russell’s china teapot isn’t orbiting the sun — maybe it’s too small to be seen by our telescopes, or maybe it’s an intelligent teapot and is playing a cheeky game of hide and seek — but we can be pretty darned sure that it almost certainly isn’t.

Scientific_method_2And of course our beliefs are influenced by our preconceptions and assumptions, biases we can never completely filter out. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. That’s the whole point of the scientific method. Everything about it — control groups, double-blinding, placebo controls, peer review, transparent methodology, the expectation of replicability, all of it — is an open acknowledgment that scientists are just as prone to seeing what they want and expect to see as everyone else. It’s an open acknowledgment that scientists are fallible… and that they therefore need to try to screen out fallacy, as much as they can. These techniques don’t eliminate uncertainty — but they reduce it, and by a fair amount. They give us a significantly better chance that our theories might be right. They can’t give us absolute truth, but they can give us a pretty good approximation of the truth… an approximation that gets better and better over time.

Ted_haggard_1That’s why I’m always astonished by religious believers who accuse scientists of being arrogant… when it’s the scientists who are saying, “Yes, we can make mistakes; no, we’re never 100% sure that we’re right,” and the believers who are saying, “I know in my heart that I’m right, and my faith is all the evidence I need.”

And yes, for the record, I do think religious belief, while not 100% disprovable, is highly implausible. I’ve discussed why I think that elsewhere — here, and here and here and here, and here, and here, and here, and here and here, and here — and I’m not going to do it again here. Besides, I digress.

The point is this:

No, none of us can ever be 100% certain that anything we know is really true.

So what?

Does that mean we should give up on trying to understand the world? Does that mean we should give up on trying to separate the implausible from the plausible, the likely from the unlikely?

100percentNo, we can’t be 100% sure of anything. But we can be sure enough. We can be sure enough to make reasonable assumptions, and to make further explorations and investigations based on those assumptions. And if it turns out that one of our assumptions is wrong after all… well, okay. We’ll change it, and move on from there. Yes, it’s important to understand that we can’t have total certainty… but it’s also important to accept that fact, and move on.

Probability_bookWanting certainty is understandable. We all want it, and try to create it, and feel betrayed when we don’t get it. But I think it’s something of a childish desire. Grown-ups are supposed to understand that there are no guarantees in this world. We’re supposed to understand this, we’re supposed to accept it, and we’re supposed to work within the world we have: the world of likelihood and probability and reasonable educated guesses.

To do otherwise — to assume that, because we can never be absolutely certain about the world, therefore we shouldn’t even try to understand it — is like a child crying for the moon. It’s like never falling in love because you might get your heart broken. It’s like a stoned college freshman being backed into a corner in an argument, and trying to get out of it by saying, “What is reality?”

It’s an abdication of responsibility.

And grown-ups aren’t supposed to do that.

On Punishment, and the Lack Thereof: The Blowfish Blog

Note to family members and others who don’t want to read about my personal sex life: While the focus of this post is on sexual things that I don’t engage in rather than sexual things that I do, it still discusses my personal sex life, as well as my fantasy life, in quite a bit of detail. If you don’t want to read about that stuff, please don’t.

Crime_and_punishmentI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a bit of a departure for me; instead of talking about sexual stuff that I have experience with, I talk about some sexual stuff that I’ve tended to stay away from… and why I find it both interesting and unsettling. It’s called On Punishment, and the Lack Thereof, and here’s the teaser:

It may seem strange, but although I’ve been practicing SM for about twenty years now, I have almost never done what is almost certainly the most common form of SM play. As a top, I’ve done punishment less than a handful of times… and I’ve done it as a bottom exactly never, except in a jokey, “wink-wink,” kidding around way.

It’s not that I haven’t done role-playing. But the role-playing I’ve done hasn’t been about, “You’ve been bad, so I’m going to punish you.” It’s been about, “I have power over you, so I’m going to do what I want with you.” Punishment has just never interested me.

No, more than that. Punishment has actively freaked me out.

Lately, however, punishment has been sneaking into my fantasies with increasing insistence, and increasing stubbornness.

So I want to look at what it is about punishment that freaks me out… and what it is about it that I’m beginning to find so compelling.

For more on why I find this form of play both compelling and freaky, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

On Forgiveness

Mistakes_were_madeI’ve been reading this excellent, wildly life-changing book that absolutely everyone has to read. It’s called “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” and it’s about cognitive dissonance — the uncomfortable-at-best feeling you get when things you do, or things that happen, contradict your beliefs, about yourself or the world. And it’s about the justifications, rationalizations, and other defense mechanisms we use to keep that dissonance at bay.

CrossI’ll be blogging about this book a lot, and of course I’ll be talking about religious apologetics as a prime example of “rationalization to avoid cognitive dissonance.” But right now, the thing this book is making me think about is actually something that religion — Christianity, at any rate — does right.

It’s an important thing, a genuinely useful thing. And it’s a thing that atheists are going to have to find a replacement for if we’re serious about creating a more secular world.

What Christianity does is provide a framework for forgiveness.

Wicked_witchWe all want to think of ourselves as good people. No, strike that. We all do think of ourselves as good people. Contrary to all the movie villains cackling over their beautiful wickedness or trying to lure the hero to the dark side, even people who most of us would call certifiably evil usually think of themselves as good.

Excuses_for_dummiesAnd when we do harmful things that contradict our belief in our goodness, we’re extremely adept at coming up with reasons why the bad things we did weren’t actually bad. “I couldn’t help it.” “Everyone does it.” “The person I hurt was a bad person, so they deserved it.” “That resource-rich country will be so much better off if we invade it.” Etc. Like the Threadbare Excuse in the Phantom Tollbooth, chanting endlessly to itself, “Well, I’ve been sick — but the page was torn out — I missed the bus — but no-one else did it…”

All of us. You, me, everyone. This seems to be a universal human trait.

Helter_skelterAnd the worse the thing that we did was, the more likely it is that we’ll rationalize it… and hang onto that rationalization like we’re glued to it. I mean, it’s relatively easy to reconcile your belief that you’re a good person with the fact that you sometimes make needlessly catty remarks and forget your friends’ birthdays. It’s a lot harder to reconcile your belief that you’re a good person with the fact that you carved up a pregnant woman and smeared her blood on the front door.

So we have a truly fucked-up paradox: The more appalling your immoral act was, the more likely you are to have a rock-solid justification for it… or a justification that you think is rock-solid, even if everyone around you thinks it’s transparently self-serving or batshit loony. And the more solid you think your justification is, the more likely you are to do the bad thing again.

Jesus_blessingThe concept of Christian forgiveness cuts through this conundrum very neatly. It allows you to accept the fact that you’ve done genuinely bad things, and at the same time lets you continue to think of yourself as a good person… without coming up with a bunch of cockamamie justifications for why the bad stuff you did really wasn’t bad after all.

Circle_of_two_arrows_2Which is important. Justifications are very self-perpetuating… and they’re stubbornly resistant to logic and evidence. When we hang on to them, we’re a lot more likely to repeat the unethical things we’ve done. But when we can find ways to let go of them and accept that we’ve done wrong, we find it a lot easier to change, and to move on.

And I think the Christian concept of forgiveness helps with that.

Breaking_the_spellDon’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is an argument for Christianity. I still think religion does more harm than good, by a wide margin. If for no other reason, I think religion is mistaken, and I think mistaken ideas almost always do harm. What’s more, as Daniel Dennett points out at length in “Breaking the Spell,” religion is shot through with a whole passel of its own rationalizations and justifications… which stalwartly defend it against facts and ideas that contradict it, and serve to both justify and perpetuate its more grossly unethical practices.

Daredevil_bornagainBesides, Christian forgiveness is arguably just another elaborate rationalization. There’s a whole class of rationalization that basically involves saying, “It wasn’t really me.” I was sick; I was tired; I was drunk or high; I wasn’t in my right mind; etc. I did that bad thing, but I wasn’t myself… so it wasn’t actually me who did it. And it could be argued that Christian forgiveness is just another version of that. “Yes, I slept with the babysitter and told my boss I was visiting my sick mother when I was really in the Bahamas… but I did it before I was saved, and I was a completely different person then, so it wasn’t really me who did it.”

And in any case, an argument for why a religion is useful isn’t an argument for why it’s true.

Besides, it’s clear that Christian forgiveness isn’t the only way for us to accept our bad deeds and move on with our lives. Atheists — and for that matter, believers in non-Christian religions — are clearly able to accept responsibility for bad things that we’ve done, deal with it, and move on. At least some of the time.

South_africa_flagIn fact, there are already examples of secular structures for contrition and forgiveness. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the end of apartheid leaps to mind. So it’s not like we’d have to start from scratch.

I’m just saying: The tendency of human beings to justify our bad decisions and bad behavior isn’t going away. And we probably wouldn’t want it to. It can be very irritating and very harmful… but it’s also necessary. Without it, we’d be paralyzed with guilt and shame. Perpetually. We’d be having dark nights of the soul every night of our lives.

WickedAs long as there are people, people are going to make bad decisions and do bad things. And as long as people make bad decisions and do bad things, people are going to rationalize and justify those decisions and things, even when they’re neither rational nor just. We need ways of getting ourselves out of the self-justification loop… and we need structures to support ourselves and one another in doing it. I think this is one of the reasons people find Christianity — and the Christian idea of forgiveness — appealing. And if we want to move towards a more secular world, we need to find a replacement for it.

Dearly Beloved Pastor…

I just got this religious spam email that was so hilariously inappropriate, I had to share.

Dearly Beloved Pastor ,

Greetings from India! We are so glad to meet you through this mail. I happened to visit your website just now and so happy after reading the contents. First of all, I would like to introduce myself and my ministry: I am pastor Ravi, serving the Lord full-time for the last over 8 years. I am married and have a daughter & son. My wife Christina also works full-time in the ministry. We would like to fellowship and connect with your ministry. Would you please let us know your heart for our nation so that I can share more about my vision and burden of the Ministry. Thank you. !

In Christ,
Pastor Ravi (last name, city, phone number deleted), India

Okay. Let’s take this one step at a time.

SpamClue Number One that this is spam: “Dearly Beloved Pastor.”

Clue Number Two that this is spam: “I happened to visit your website just now and so happy after reading the contents.”

Really.

Which part of my site made you happiest, Pastor? Was it Why Religion Is Like Fanfic? If not that, was it perhaps A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside? Or was that beloved classic, Atheists and Anger?

Or maybe Christian Spanking Porn?

Clue Number Three that this is not only spam, but a scam spam, the opening gambit in what will almost certainly turn out to be a version of the Nigerian scam:

“…so that I can share more about my vision and burden of the Ministry.”

Money1In other words: Let me tell you about my burdens, so I can then hit you up for money.

I’m almost tempted to reply. If I had time and energy, I would. But I’m not sure if I’d go the “stringing him along and pretending to be a real pastor while gradually becoming more and more outlandish” route, or the more direct “Do tell, which part of my atheist porn blog did you like the best?” route. It’s a tough call.

How Can You Choose Just One? Bisexuality, Blonds, and Monogamy: The Blowfish Blog

Bi2I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s called How Can You Choose Just One? Bisexuality, Blonds, and Monogamy, and it begins very much like this:

There’s an odd assumption that often gets made about bisexuals. (It got repeated recently in a letter to Savage Love — third letter from the top — which reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write about it.) The assumption: Bisexuals are constitutionally incapable of being monogamous.

The logic goes something like this:

Bisexuals are sexually attracted to both women and men.

Bisexuals enjoy sex with both women and men.

Therefore, bisexuals are unwilling — even unable — to give up sex with one of those genders. We must have sexual access to both women and men at all times in our lives. Without both, we’ll be dissatisfied, restless… and eventually, we’ll be tempted to stray. We’re attracted to both women and men — how could we choose just one, forever?

Here’s an analogy, to show exactly where this logic goes wrong.

To find out exactly where this logic goes wrong, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Carnivals: Humanist, Godless, and Liberal

CarnivalBlog carnival time!

Humanist Symposium #13 is up at Faith in Honest Doubt. My pieces in this Symposium: “Let Them Make Up Their Own Minds”: Bringing Up Kids Without God, and Atheist Funerals. My favorite other pieces in this Symposium: How can we console others (and ourselves) without heaven or an afterlife? at Mind on Fire, and Political Considerations for Religious Belief at Atheist Ethicist.

Carnival of the Godless #82 is up at Axis of Jared. My piece in this Carnival: The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises. My favorite other piece in this Carnival: Respect is a two-way street at The Mutt’s Nuts.

And Carnival of the Liberals #54 is up at Neural Gourmet. I don’t have any pieces in it this time, but it’s still a great carnival. My favorite piece: A Comedy Writer on Strike at Writopia Lab.

If you’re a humanist, godless, or liberal blogger, and want to get in on the blog carnival fun, here are submission forms for the Humanist Symposium, Carnival of the Godless, and Carnival of the Liberals. Happy reading, and happy blogging!

Oscarology: The Readings

OscarThe readings are in!

A quick recap, for those of you just joining us: Oscarology is a system of astrology I invented — excuse me, that was revealed to me in a powerful mystical experience — based on what movie won the Best Picture Oscar for the year you were born. I blogged about it a couple of days ago, asking for people’s birth years… and have been spending the time since then communing with the Spirit of the Oscars and transcribing the visions it has vouchsafed to me.

CalendarFirst, to answer a burning question that has been asked: In Oscarology, your movie is the Best Picture that was released the year you were born. Not the one that was granted the award in the ceremony in the year you were born. (So John, if you were born in 1983, you are not a Gandhi. You are a Terms of Endearment. And Stacey, you’re not an Annie Hall — you’re a The Deer Hunter.)

FYI, some of these movies I haven’t seen, and am totally guessing based on the little I do know and what I looked up on Wikipedia. Unlike real astrologers…

So let’s get this started! And if you haven’t chimed in with your year yet, it’s not too late. Give me your birth year, and I’ll fill in the gaps. (Readings start after the jump.)

[Read more...]

Atheism in Pop Culture Part 8: Oliver Sacks

MusicophiliaI’ve been reading the new Oliver Sacks book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (a wonderful birthday present — thanks, L & K!). And on Page 35, he’s talking about how music can be triggered in our minds by association, and he says this:

As I write, in New York in mid-December, the city is full of Christmas trees and menorahs. I would be inclined to say, as an old Jewish atheist, that these things mean nothing to me, but Hannukah songs are evoked in my mind whenever an image of a menorah impinges on my retina, even when I am not consciously aware of it.

Neat! I like how casually he mentions it; not as a big “I Am An Atheist” announcement, but as a passing reference to explain a point. This may be the first time he’s come out in print as an atheist, though; he’s currently listed on the Celebrity Atheists site under the Ambiguous category. If that’s true, it makes me like the casualness of it all the better. It makes me think that the atheist movement is having an effect, and making it less of a big deal for people to declare their atheism in public.

Anyway. Neat.

*****

Addendum: He’s no longer listed as Ambiguous in the Celebrity Atheists list. I just updated the listing.