Carnivals: Godless, Feminists, and Pozitivities

Blog carnivals!

CarnivalCarnival of the Godless #79 is up at Aardvarchaeology. My pieces this time: How Can You Have Meaning Without… ? and The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many. My favorite other posts in this Carnival: Why I Am an Optimist by Franklin, on why he finds atheism to be a more optimistic philosophy than theism; Religious Privilege: How Religion, Religious Groups, and Beliefs are Privileged from Austin Cline at; and The Night I Stopped Believing by Susie Bright. This is, I believe, Susie’s first entry into the Carnival, so go say hi and make her feel welcome.

Carnival_1Carnival of Feminists #47 is up at Ornamenting Away. I don’t have any pieces in this carnival, but it still manages to be a good carnival nevertheless. My favorite piece: The Rule, by Natasha at Homo Academicus, on Alison Bechdel’s Movie Rule (“1. There must be two or more women in it; 2. Who talk to each other; 3. About something other than a man”) and how it applies to Pixar films.

Carnival_2And the International Carnival of Pozitivities is up at Slimconomy. This is the first time I’ve been in this carnival, a carnival devoted to HIV and AIDS, and I’m pleased and honored to be part of it with my piece Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance. My favorite other piece in this carnival: HIV/AIDS: The Brazilian Response at The AIDS Pandemic. Happy reading, everybody!

Macro-evolution” Vs. “Micro-evolution”: More Video Fun

Correction to this piece: I was apparently mistaken about the use of the terms “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution” by reputable biologists. My apologies. I still stand by the gist of this piece and the video it links to; but I regret the error and any confusion it may have caused.

And now, yet another video from my new science video hero, cdk007.

Transitional_fossilsThis one is on the supposed difference between “micro” and “macro” evolution. In case you’re not familiar: One of the arguments used by creationists is that, while of course “micro-evolution” (i.e., the evolution of small changes within a species) can be observed in the field and in the lab, “macro-evolution” (i.e., the evolution of one species to another) hasn’t been observed… and therefore it can’t happen by itself, and needs an intelligent designer to intervene and make it happen.

First, just so everyone’s clear: “Macro-evolution” and “micro-evolution” are made-up words concocted by creationists to make themselves sound scientific. Biologists don’t use them. They’re scientifically meaningless. They’re just different stages in the evolutionary process; “macro” is just “micro” over a longer period of time.

Also, “macro-evolution” (if people insist on calling it that) has been observed, both in the field and in the lab. Just so we’re clear.

So this video makes clear the absurdity of this argument, with a beautiful and elegant analogy. Video after the jump.

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“If he is infinitely good…”

Just got this in my Quotation of the Day email list, and thought I’d pass it on:

“If he is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him? If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future? If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him?”

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), from The Necessity of Atheism.

Damn. Leave it to a Regency poet to state the “Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent — pick two” paradox in such a beautiful, eloquent way.

Solipsism 101, Or, Why “What Is Reality?” Is Not An Argument Against Evolution, Or, Why Scott Adams Is An Idiot

I was having way too much fun at Friendly Atheist the other day, and Ingrid insisted that I share the joke with the rest of the class.

Warning: I have disabled my snark checker for this post.

Try_rebooting_yourselfSo via Friendly Atheist comes this story of Scott Adams — yes, of “Dilbert” fame — who is apparently some sort of anti-evolution Galileo fallacy crank. Except only sort of, and in this totally half-assed way. He said the following in an interview on the Freakonomics blog:

Q: What do you see as the actual flaws in the Darwin-esque explanations for evolution, and what possibilities can you see for alternate explanations of the phenomena and evidence?

A: Evolution passes all the tests of science to be treated as a fact. But if physicists someday demonstrate that our perception of reality has no connection to actual reality, which I consider likely, then evolution is just a point of view, albeit a useful one.

My main criticism of evolution has to do with the way it is presented to the public. And beyond that, I enjoy yanking the chain of people who think they believe things for actual reasons as opposed to taking a side.

Okay. Deep breath. Solipsism 101, for Scott Adams, the very slow student in the back:

EscherIf our perception of reality bears no connection to actual reality, then NOTHING we see or know or understand is true. NO theory of reality is better than any other. NO theory has more evidence to support it than any other theory — since all evidence is false.


We need to either discard the “our perception of reality bears no connection to actual reality” theory as both useless and highly unlikely (after all, how likely is it that our species would have survived if our perceptions bore no connection whatsoever to reality)…

…or STOP WASTING THE CLASS’S TIME WITH YOUR STUPID ARGUMENTS! If no theory is any better than any other, then why are you wasting all our time trying to convince us that yours is right?

ManusingmicroscopeNow, if your point is that our perception of reality distorts actual reality… like, duh. But that, in fact, is exactly why we have the scientific method — to screen out human error and bias and the distortions of our perception and understanding, as much as we possibly can.

And the theory of evolution is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific method, from every relevant scientific discipline there is.

In other words, that’s not an argument against evolution.

It’s an argument for it.

MatrixdvdI mean… “what is reality?” You’re really trying to argue “what is reality?” “What is reality?” is only interesting to college freshman. Maybe college sophomores, if they smoke too much weed. It’s an important point to understand… but it’s also an important point to move past already. As many commenters on F.A. pointed out — what, you think we’re living in the Matrix?

GalileoAnd as to the part about liking to yank people’s chains: Oh, for the love of Mike. Not the gadfly fallacy again. “Geniuses throughout history have gotten under people’s skin and made them angry. I get under people’s skin and make them angry. Therefore, I must be a genius.”

If that were true, then Bill O’Reilly would be freakin’ Einstein.

“What is reality.” Please. Grow up. As people in the F.A. comment thread pointed out, when your opponent starts saying, “Well, how do we know what’s real, anyway?” you know you’ve won the argument.

And on that note, I’d like to leave you with yet another video from cdk007, YouTube science video maker par excellence. Titled “All Ideas are NOT Created Equal,” it’s a very clear, very funny video explanation of why we don’t, in fact, have to give all ideas equal time and equal weight. Tagline: “Truth is not a democracy.” Video after the jump.

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Liar, Loony, or Lord; Or, How Atheists Make C.S. Lewis Cry

I hate this argument.

Jesus_1It’s the “Liar, Loony, or Lord” argument for why Jesus Christ must, in fact, be the divine son of God. It’s been cited by many Christian apologeticists (apologists?), most famously C.S. Lewis. It’s worded somewhat differently by different people, but it goes more or less like this:

Jesus Christ claimed to be the divine son of God, who everyone has to believe in if they expect to be saved. Anyone who would make that claim would have to be either crazy, a liar, or actually be God. But Jesus can’t have been crazy or a liar. Because…

Jesus_2…and right around here is where the argument starts to break down. But it usually goes something like this: Because he was so cool. Because he said so many wise things. Because many people who saw him at the time believed he was God. (I’ve actually seen it argued that Jesus had to have been God, because his Apostles wouldn’t have sacrificed their lives for him otherwise… as if nobody ever sacrificed their lives for liars or whackos.) Because he inspired so many people. Because he founded a major world religion. Because he just couldn’t have been.

That’s the “Liar, Loony, or Lord” argument.

And I hate it, hate it, hate it.

Bonnie_clyde_carIt’s not just that it’s a bad argument, shot through with more holes than Bonnie and Clyde. Although it certainly is that.

It’s that it’s such an emotionally manipulative argument. It’s an argument meant to make people who argue with you feel like mean, bad people if they keep arguing. It’s an argument designed to prevent further argument.

But let’s talk about the logical holes first.

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Humanist Symposium #10

Carnival_3The Humanist Symposium #10 is up at Letters From a Broad. This is the ultra-nifty “atheist blogging on what’s good about atheism rather than what’s bad about religion” blog carnival: it’s always full of smart, interesting godless blogging, and this round is no exception.

My pieces in this Symposium: How Can You Have Meaning Without… ? and The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many, on the meaning of life and the meaning of death, respectively. My favorite other pieces this time around: Why do I care? at Skeptic’s Play, on the excitement of being part of the current atheist movement, and The Universal Moral Grammar at Cafe Philos, on how a universal moral grammar could be hard-wired even though the moral languages vary from culture to culture.

If you’re a humanist blogger and want to get in on the Symposium, here’s the submission form. Happy blogging!

True Love Waits
 And The Rest Of Us Get On With Our Sex Lives: The Blowfish Blog

Wedding_and_engagement_ringI have a new piece up on the Blowfish blog — True Love Waits… And The Rest Of Us Get On With Our Sex Lives — about the not-so-joyful joys of waiting until you get married to have sex. The jumping-off point is a letter I saw on Scarleteen (the sex ed for teenagers website), about a couple who had decided for religious reasons not to have sex until after they got married… and found themselves stuck in a marriage with a seriously disappointing, incompatible sex life. Here’s the teaser:

There are so many directions I could go with this. I could talk about the ridiculous over-emphasis our society places on marriage: the absurdly high expectations we place on it, the idealistic glow we place around it, the assumption that it will magically transform everything, including and especially sex. (And that’s speaking as someone who is herself married — ritually, if not legally — and who does think that her marriage has changed both the relationship and the sex for the better.)

And of course, I could get on my atheist high horse, and talk about the fucked-up effect religion so often has on sexual happiness. That would certainly be a fruitful direction. Of all the dreadful sources of sexual misinformation and general bad sex advice in the world, religion has to take the cake — because it can’t be argued with. It isn’t based on evidence, it’s based on scripture and religious authority and personal faith… and it’s therefore singularly resistant to change, to adaptation in response to evidence or data. About sex, or anything else.

But I want to go in a different direction here.

I want to express my gratitude for the fact that I — and most of us — don’t live in that world anymore.

To find out why exactly the whole “waiting for marriage” thing makes me kind of sad — and why exactly I’m grateful for the sexual world I live in — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Blind Watchmaker Makes a Watch: A Nifty Video About Evolution

This is beyond neat.

This gets at both the precision and the beauty of the theory of evolution in a way that’s completely clear, and really fun to watch. (If you’re a nerd like me, anyway.)

It’s an animated video demolishing the “watchmaker” argument for creationism.

Watch_1If you’re not familiar with the “watchmaker” argument, it goes roughly like this: The awesome complexity of the human body proves that it had to have had a designer. It could not have evolved naturally, any more than the parts of a watch will evolve naturally into a watch. (Or, as the more modern version of the argument goes: The complexity of the human body evolving by “chance” or at “random” is as likely as a bunch of machine parts in a hurricane assembling themselves into a 747. “Chance” and “random” in quotation marks, because natural selection isn’t random chance… that’s the whole point.)

The main problem with this argument is this: Of course watches and 747s don’t evolve naturally. They’re not alive. They don’t mutate, and they don’t reproduce.

Clock_partsSo cdk007 (who has a bunch of other evolution videos on YouTube) created a computer program putting a bunch of clock parts together that could combine, mutate, and reproduce; put them in an environment where the ones that kept time the best were more likely to survive; and ran the program. Several times, with an assortment of different parameters such as rate of mutation and number of teeth on the gears, to make sure his parameters hadn’t been accidentally fine-tuned.

And got clocks.

Functioning, accurate clocks.

Several times over.

Transitional_fossilsWhat I really like about this video — apart from just, you know, everything — is how neatly it demolishes the “transitional forms” argument against evolution. You know: “Where are all the transitional forms? Why are there these sudden jumps in the fossil record?” Of course there are transitional forms in the fossil record — lots and lots and lots of them — but there are also some sudden (well, “sudden” by geological standards) jumps. This video makes it very clear, in a vivid, visual way, exactly how and why that happens in a completely natural system of natural selection. If a mutation comes along that’s a very big improvement, it’s going to spread very quickly indeed — so quickly that it probably won’t be captured in the fossil record. Note in this video the rapid transition between the Age of Pendulums and the Age of True Clocks.

BTW, you don’t need sound for this video. There’s a very nice song in the background by Coldplay, but the actual content is all visual. (Not that I’m saying you SHOULD watch it at work…)

Video after the jump, since putting videos before the jump screws up my archives.

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“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be

4rainbow_3“I think the soul is something like a rainbow. It is not a thing in itself, it is a relationship between physical things. The most important of these things is the body, and under all conditions we understand by evidence are possible, the soul dies with the body and sometimes expires before the body.”

This was said by Eric, in a comment in the Daylight Atheism post Emptying the Haunted Air. It struck me very strongly as both beautiful and true, and it crystallized a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately re: consciousness and selfhood. So I wanted to quote it and talk about it a little.

First, I should explain what Eric means about the rainbow. I’ll just quote him again:

Rainbow_2“Without science we might have mistakenly believed a rainbow is a thing just independently out there. It is not. A rainbow is a *relationship* between an observer, a light source, and water vapor.”

In other words, a rainbow isn’t an object or substance. Not in the same way that, say, the sun or rain are.

Yet it exists. Sure, it’s essentially a relationship between light and water and an observer — but that doesn’t make it not real. It’s not an object or a substance, but it is real. It’s an actual phenomenon, one that can be observed and studied.

And the same could be said for consciousness, and selfhood. (What Eric calls the soul; although I don’t like to call it that, since the word has strong metaphysical implications that I don’t like.)

Brain_2I think a lot of people are troubled by the idea of consciousness as “merely” a product of the brain. I certainly was during my woo phase. And not just because I was frightened at the idea of the permanence of death, and desperate for some hope that my consciousness and selfhood might somehow be immortal. It troubled me because it seemed so reductionist, so mechanistic. It seemed to reduce the ineffable amazingness of human existence to a set of biochemical stimulus-response machines. Lumps of meat in a massive Skinner box; dogs salivating at the sound of Pavlov’s bell.

In other words, it made it seem not real.

Phantoms_in_the_brainWhenever I heard or read the idea that consciousness and selfhood were constructs of how the brain worked, it made them seem fake. Illusions, self-deceptions. Stories we told ourselves in order to live.

But now I don’t think that’s true.

NeuronmatrixThe rainbow is essentially a relationship between light and water vapor and an observer. But that doesn’t make it not real. And if consciousness and selfhood are essentially a relationship between the billions and billions of neurons in our brains — and between those neurons and the rest of our bodies, and arguably between our bodies and the rest of the world — that doesn’t make them not real, either. It doesn’t mean that consciousness and selfhood are fake, or illusory, or self-deceptive. They are real constructs of our brains and the rest of our bodies, every bit as real as emotions and ideas and sensations.

Now, while the constructed nature of consciousness and selfhood doesn’t mean that they’re false, it does mean that they’re transitory.

And that, we’re just going to have to suck up.

Alzheimers_disease__mriBecause the evidence is overwhelming that consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain. Everything we know tells us that physical changes to the brain chemistry and/or structure — even very small changes — can make radical changes to our consciousness and selfhood. Illness, injury, drugs (recreational or medicinal)
 all of these can drastically alter consciousness and self, even eradicate them altogether, temporarily or permanently. Talk to a stroke victim, a person with Alzheimer’s, a depressed person on medication, a club kid on Ecstasy, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. And of course, the greatest physical change of all — death — seems, from all the evidence we have, to completely eradicate consciousness and selfhood, very permanently indeed.

Gravestone(Don’t talk to me about near-death experiences. I’ve gone over that at length elsewhere in this blog. Near-death experiences are simply another form of altered consciousness, and if they do sometimes produce an unusual state of mind, it’s no more unexpected than the unusual state of mind produced by sleep deprivation or LSD. Near-death experiences may tell us something about what happens to the mind when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a couple of minutes. They tell us absolutely nothing about what happens to the mind when the brain permanently rots in a grave for years until it crumbles into dust and nothingness.)

JudgementThe evidence is overwhelming, and it’s increasing every day: Consciousness and selfhood are not independent objects or substances. There’s no metaphysical energy, no aura, no invisible self leaving your body on death to ascend to Heaven or burn in Hell or move on to inhabit another body. Consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain and the rest of the body. They change when the body changes, and they disappear when the body dies.

But that doesn’t make them not real.

It doesn’t make them illusions or self-deceptions.

And it doesn’t make them meaningless.

The Usefulness of Anger: No. 864,726

ScreamIn case anyone was still wondering about the usefulness of anger in the atheist movement — or any social movement — I direct you to new blogger Lee of the Stone.

Who was inspired to start her blog by my Atheists and Anger post.

I got (and am still getting) an awful lot of amazing feedback on the Anger piece. But of all of them, this is the one that’s made me the happiest.

She started a blog because of me.

I’m kind of speechless.

And it’s a very good blog. A new one, obviously, since it started about a week ago, but it already has a nice body of smart, interesting, well-written stuff. I encourage y’all to visit — I definitely will be.