Plato, Linnaeus, Darwin, and Atheism

Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s NPR piece, “A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists“, put two thoughts in my head. The briefer first: Taking a look at religious sectarian violence the world over, isn’t BBH impressed at how atheists handle alleged disagreements?

The second will take some time. You might want to pour yourself a drink first.

Plato’s view of reality proposed that there were ideal forms (platonic ideals) which we mere humans could not perceive—our abilities limited to seeing only imperfect copies of these ideals. We did, however, recognize kinds, as approximations to those ideals. We saw and recognized triangles because of their similarity to the ideal triangle, cats because of their similarity to the ideal cat, and so forth.

Linnaeus, in categorizing species, followed the platonic tradition. A species was defined by a representative of that species, a prototype, and by limited variation from that ideal. There was an ideal cat, but of course some are larger or smaller, striped or solid or tortoise-shell mottled or calico, with longer or shorter tails, faster or slower, more or fewer toes. This view of life made it very difficult to conceive of one species becoming another, or splitting into two.

Darwin rocked the world when, in his “Origin of Species”, he essentially rendered the word “species” obsolete, at least as it had previously been known. The average or ideal cat was no longer of any great interest; rather, the population of cats, individuals varying from one another, was what was important. There is, if I may abuse a metaphor, a spectrum of cats, a spectrum of pigeons, a spectrum of finches on each island of the Galapagos. The spectra vary for each species, but we could no more treat one individual as “the ideal” than we could suggest that any one wavelength represents sunlight, or fluorescent light, or incandescent.

Religions, arguably, may be described platonically. Using Linnaeus as our guide, we could arrive at Homo catholicus, “catholic man”; H. orthojudaicus, “orthodox jewish man”; H. australobapticus, southern baptist man, and so forth. We may do this because there does exist a set of beliefs that defines each religion (whether or not its followers adhere to those beliefs). There is no requirement for H. orthojudaicus to believe in the divinity of Christ, nor of H. australobapticus to follow the ex cathedra pronouncements of the pope. Each species religion has its own defining dogma, so a positive definition is quite appropriate. Many individuals fall short of that defining dogma, so variation (or “error”) is also expected.

Note, though, that these positive definitions are quite limited. To know that someone is H. catholicus tells us a few things to expect about this person. Knowing only that someone is not a member of this species tells us very nearly nothing at all. The non-catholic may be Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Pantheist, Wiccan, Polytheist, Deist, any of thousands of other belief systems… or may be atheist. The non-Sunni may be Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu… or atheist. The non Orthodox Jew may be Jew, Christian, Muslim… or atheist. A negative definition (non-X) tells us almost nothing at all about someone.

Atheism is, and must be, negatively defined. It is the “none of the above” alternative to the list of thousands of religions and sects. There is no creed to which all atheists must cling, even in theory. There is no defining characteristic shared by all atheists—even “they don’t believe in god” is incomplete, as the majority of religious believers also do not believe in the other religions’ god(s). (Recall that the first people to be called “atheist” were early Christians, because they did not believe in the Greek pantheon!)

As a privative category (defined by what it is not), there is no ideal atheism from which to have schisms. There is, instead, a spectrum of beliefs. To the extent that we take this spectrum and attempt to split it into black and white (or any segments, even ROY G. BIV) , we are artificially imposing boundaries where there are none naturally. The “hard atheism” and “soft atheism” dichotomy is not about atheism, but rather about the presence or absence of a completely different and orthogonal set of beliefs—after all, the people most likely to positively affirm the statement “there is no Zeus” are people who also positively affirm that there is a Yahweh. “Hard” atheism can only be defined one deity at a time, which makes it something other than “none of the above”. It is an attempt to use the vocabulary of religion to describe the absence of same.

A Darwinian, population-centered approach, is more accurate. Atheists are bigger or smaller, smarter or stupider, louder or quieter… pretty much like the rest of H. sapiens is. And, in truth, H. catholicus varies pretty widely from its alleged ideal form, so much so that the term “cafeteria catholic” is commonplace. The entire Order Religiosa will, in fact, contain tremendous variability, both within and between species. We should not expect all catholics to behave alike, nor all jews, nor all muslims, nor all protestants (let alone all denominations within these broader groups).

The truth is, no matter where we look, we see spectra. We see variability. It is not unexpected; it is not diagnostic; it is not evidence of schism. It is nature.

Writingly, Bitingly,
B. Bradley Hagerty
Writes about Atheists,
Finding a schism;

Godlessness, organized
All of humanity
Seen through her prism.


Icarus, Daedalus, Falcon, and Richard Heene

Daedalus wanted a show on TV
Which his fans, by the millions, would view
Where he’d show off his theories, inventions, and stuff,
And be famous, and maybe rich, too.

Daedalus worked on a flying machine
With his wife, and his children as well
Which Falcon er, Icarus fit right inside—
And they thought that it really looked swell!

A weather balloon and some duct tape and mylar,
Supporting a small plywood box
Which Daedalus (“Dad”) claimed would carry a charge
For potentially dangerous shocks

It looked like a saucer—A UFO ship
Which they knew that the networks would love
They were right, and by millions the people tuned in,
Holding breath as it drifted above

While Icarus hid in the attic for hours,
Dad cried for the cameras below
The cops and the networks took in every word,
Each doing their part “for the show”

Though cautious at first, police are now saying
The whole thing is likely a hoax;
And now that potential disaster is moot,
Be prepared for a windfall of jokes

All Daedalus wanted was cameras and lights,
For people to all know his name
But his cunning plan melted, came crashing to earth
When his family flew too close to fame.

Context, for those living in caves.


Missed It By *That* Much

So there I was, just twiddling my tentacles, trying to come up with something to write about, when the wonderful Ava, from The Reef Tank, emails me to ask if I might be willing to write some stuff for that site. Willing? Delighted! So we kick around some ideas, and eventually settle on the notion of an occasional piece built around the alphabet (though not in alphabetical order!). The first installment, A is for Aquarium, is now up at The Reef Tank (and for once, I am just gonna let you click through to read it!)

Why, then, my title? Well. The verse was ready about a week ago, save for a few minor edits. Then, PZ posts this on Pharyngula, with his concluding line: “I hope we can take better care of it, so it isn’t all confined to a few large tanks here and there.” Yeah, I could have had the first comment, with the perfect verse, but this one wasn’t for Pharyngula, but for The Reef Tank. So I write to Ava, advising her to link TRT to the comment thread… and she was away for the weekend.

Missed it by *that* much.

The message is the same, in prose or in verse (or, most eloquently, in video). The truth is, it is already too late to prevent some of the damage we have done and continue to do. Some of the effects of our current lifestyles will be felt for generations. I want my children, and theirs, and theirs, to have a world where fish don’t have to live indoors.


Booty And The Priest (A Tragedy)

Tale as old as time
Crude as it may be
Nothing was amiss
Then he gave a kiss
Did not keep his vows
Sad, to say the least
Father was a cad
Now Father is a dad—
Booty and the Priest

Happens all the time
Rarely a surprise
Cover what he did
Too bad about the kid
It’s time to tell some lies

Tale as old as time
Act as old as sin
Tell her to abort
As a last resort
Call the lawyers in
Certain as The Church
Wants the claim released
Tale as old as time
Act as old as slime
Booty and the Priest

Tale as old as time
Act as old as slime
Booty and the Priest

The New York Times reports the story of “A Mother, A Sick Son, and His Father, the Priest“; the Rev. Henry Willenborg (seriously, is he still “Reverend”? Lemme check the dictionary. ok, yeah, the prefix to the name of a member of the clergy, check… worthy to be revered; entitled to reverence, uncheck… pertaining to or characteristic of the clergy… I get it–it’s an oxymoron!) abused his position of authority (with more than one woman, according to the story), Fathered (pun intended) a child (after asking the mother to abort), and did pretty much everything in his power, with the aid of The Church, to avoid taking responsibility in any meaningful way. An absentee Father.

Oh, yeah, the kid, now 22, is dying of cancer. The sort of thing that would make a normal parent move heaven and earth to help their child. Hell, I’m ready to donate bone marrow if the Cuttledaughter gets a cold… and don’t get me started on the Cuttleson’s diabetes! Surely cancer would…

“We’ve been very caring, very supportive, very generous over these 20-something years. It’s very tragic what’s going on with Nathan, but, you know?” said Father Willenborg, before trailing off and ending the interview.

Bastard. The Father, not the son. Oh, yeah, and the Church are also bastards:

Father Willenborg’s Franciscan superiors were aware of his relationship with Ms. Bond well before Nathan was born. A year earlier, Father Willenborg and Ms. Bond had conceived another child. Ms. Bond said that Father Willenborg suggested she have an abortion, which she found unthinkable. He finally informed his Franciscan superiors of their liaison.

Anyway, the whole article (first link above) is worth reading, if you are in the mood to really get mad at somebody. Oh, and here is an audio slideshow. I am very impressed that they managed to mention the fact that the Father has sent his son a get-well card, without making a snarky comment. I don’t know that I could have managed that.


The Flight Of The Falcon

The Flight of the Falcon, on cable TV,
Was followed by millions (including, yes, me),
Who watched as the media chased a balloon
And hoped against hope that they’d find the kid soon.

You ask why a knowledge of science is needed?
The info was there, though it wasn’t much heeded:
The size of the craft was decidedly small,
And it couldn’t have lifted young Falcon at all.

At five feet in thickness, and twenty feet wide,
The saucer held 600 cubed feet inside;
A hundred and fifty (or more) feet too few,
So flying was something the boy could not do.

(I cynically picture some geek on the staff
Who ran through the numbers and had a quick laugh,
Alerted the bosses: “there’s nothing to fear!”
“–But the ratings!” they said, “get your ass outta here!)

I realize, just now, at the end of my verse,
I really can’t figure which option is worse!
A cynical network, just jerking our chain,
Or science too tough for the news to explain!

Context, in case you live in a cave.


Someone Is Wrong On The Internet

Someone Is Wrong
…On The Internet,
And I won’t get to sleep for a while,
Cos I’ll stay up and fight if it takes me all night
When I know I am right and my coffee is strong
Because Someone Is Wrong!
…On The Internet
And the cases they cite are all lame;
I don’t mean to be picky, but hell, it’s not tricky,
Just google or wiki, you’ll see before long
Because Someone Is Wrong!
…On The Internet
And I’m not going to idly sit by!
What he says is a crock! So I’ll teach, tease, or mock
Till my internal clock thinks I live in Hong Kong
Because Someone Is Wrong!
…On The Internet
On a topic of interest to me,
And the rancor’s increased; I’m becoming a beast
And that glow in the East is becoming quite strong
Because Someone Is Wrong!
…On The Internet
Which I’ve stayed up the whole night to say
But his head is cement, and I’ve made not a dent
And one hundred percent of the gathering throng
Says that Someone Is Wrong!
…On The Internet
But it looks like they’re siding with him.
They are here not to cheer for the points I’ve made clear
On this fight I’ve used sheer force of will to prolong
Because Someone Is Wrong!
…On The Internet
It’s beginning to look like it’s me.
I can hardly admit that my logic is shit
But it doesn’t quite fit, ‘less I twist it a bit,
So defeated I sit, at the end of my wit…
Since time will permit, I will land one more hit:
Declare victory, quit, let that be my swan song,
Because Someone Is Wrong!
…On The Internet

image source XKCD, as if I had to tell you


Shakespeare’s “Linguistic Fingerprint” Solves Mystery

We crave to know: Did Shakespeare write this play?
The academic types love to dispute
This work or that; the tool they ply today,
A software program, used in the pursuit
Of plagiarism in college papers. Now
It serves to tally up the phrases seen
In this and Shakespeare’s plays, and thus allow
Comparisons made, among them and between.
Two Hundred matches found, of phrases three
Words or more in length. (In truth, they did
Find as many for another—thus, we see
That Shakespeare shared the task with Thomas Kyd)
“Linguistic fingerprints”, it seems, have shown
He wrote the play, but did not work alone.

The software program “Pl@giarizm” was intended to catch cheating students. It may have caught an entirely different fish. Scholars have disagreed as to the authorship of The Reign of King Edward III, although at least some Shakespeare anthologies include it. Much of it seemed… just not Shakespeare.

We may have an answer:

Sir Brian Vickers, an authority on Shakespeare at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London, believes that a comparison of phrases used in The Reign of King Edward III with Shakespeare’s early works proves conclusively that the Bard wrote the play in collaboration with Thomas Kyd, one of the most popular playwrights of his day.

The program found about 200 matches between Shakespeare and the play, and about 200 between Kyd and the play:

The Shakespeare matches came from four scenes, about 40 per cent of the play. The remaining scenes had about 200 matches with works by Kyd, best known for The Spanish Tragedy, a play known to have influenced Shakespeare, indicating that he wrote the other 60 per cent of the play.

Nice work.

But according to the software, some of my students must have collaborated with some pretty impressive researchers! I should show them a bit more respect!

NPR’s Brain On God

Image (and story), NPR

Part 1: The God Chemical

Serotonin, in the human, is found mostly in the gut;
It helps peristaltic motion not to quit.
Serotonin—“the God chemical?”—If true, I’ll tell you what:
In both processes, the end result is shit.

Neurotransmitters will regulate the way we think and feel,
Or hallucinate or daydream, just the same.
We may feel a holy presence, but that doesn’t make it real;
It’s just serotonin, playing at its game.

Part 2: The God Spot

Teasingly, seizingly,
Neural activity,
Mostly confined to the
Temporal lobe,

Looks diagnostic to
Pointing to Abraham,
Moses, or Job.

Part 3: Spiritual Virtuosos

The brains of those who meditate (or speak in tongues, or pray)
Exhibit odd activity, or so researchers say.
It shouldn’t be surprising that their brains are acting odd—
That’s quite a lot of work for them to do… creating God.

Part 4: The Biology Of Belief

Can I influence things with my mind?
In experiments, run double-blind,
The clear answer is “no”;
But the money will go
To the studies more poorly designed.

The data, so far, have been clear;
Your mind won’t, when you’re gone, persevere.
Once you draw your last breath,
There’s no life after death,
Though that isn’t what some want to hear.

And the numbers are clear about prayer:
No effect (maybe God isn’t there?).
And I don’t find it funny
To hear that my money
Is spent on this sordid affair.

Part 5: Near-Death Experiences

The cases all vary, as well you might guess—
There cannot be “standard conditions”
The end of a life is a terrible mess—
Too bad for the researchers’ missions.

Reports of a “near death experience” may
Involve seeing a light, or may not.
Did your life flash before you, as some people say?
(I guess sometimes, they simply forgot.)

Was your heart being monitored? How ‘bout your brain?
You may guess that such cases are rare.
The claims may be many, but sometimes we strain
To find something reliable there.

But always the stories will grow in the telling
To tales we can hardly conceive!
(Especially so, when there’s books to be selling)
Some people just want to believe.

A couple of comments… I really really really found this article annoying. In what appears to be “showing both sides to the story”, weasel-like language is used again and again. “Scientists are looking at…” um… how many scientists? What percentage of the people looking at this topic are looking at it from this perspective? “[A] small but increasing number of scientists…” increasing from what to what? Again, what percentage of relevant researchers fit your description?

In this case, I have taught courses in relevant subject areas, and I know that they are presenting a very highly distorted view of the picture. But you don’t have to believe me; there are libraries and databases you could check. Libraries and databases that NPR must have studiously ignored.


Greed And Woo Kill Two In AZ

In Arizona news, today
A tale involving James A. Ray—
As seen on Oprah, he’s the man
Who tells us all, that Yes! We can!
Can make more money! Gain more wealth!
Can grow our spirit, mind, and health!
Create the life of which you dream!

He’s hit a speed bump, it would seem.
He hosts a lodge, where people meet
At his Sedona health retreat
His guests lined up—they chose to pay
Perhaps nine thousand bucks to stay
And join with other open minds
And other guests of many kinds
(I’ve seen his website—all you need,
To wish to join this group is… greed.)
At Angel Valley, host James Ray
Was with the others, there today,
Inside a sweat lodge, close and hot,
Where people learn what they have got—
A journey of the spirit, and
The mind—at least, that’s what was planned.
A leap of faith; a show of trust;
They’d brave the sweat-lodge if they must;
And when they started feeling funny,
Concentrated on the money.
Like Oprah’s “Secret”, here you’ll find
Success is found inside your mind—
Mind over matter! Just be tough!
You’ll win, if you are strong enough!

With sixty-four shut tight inside
A score fell sick, and two have died.

A brief story in most of the major news providers, but an interesting backstory. This was a retreat hosted by an Oprah favorite, James Arthur Ray, who is one helluva motivational speaker, apparently. From his website: (wait, seriously, is that a pyramid? How can anyone offering wealth on the internet put a pyramid on their website?)

Anyway, he hosts retreats at Angel Valley in Arizona, where people pay a bunch of money to do stuff.

Self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray rented the facility as part of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat that began Oct. 3 and that promised to “absolutely change your life.” The schedule had few details about what participants could expect, other than thrice-daily meals and group gatherings that started at 7 a.m. and ended 16 hours later.

The details came in a lengthy release of liability that acknowledges participants may suffer “physical, emotional, financial or other injuries” while hiking or swimming, or during a multi-day personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness without food or water or the sweat lodge.

Some participants told detectives they paid up to $9,000 for the event. In a testimonial on the Angel Valley retreat’s Web site, Ray said it “offers an ideal environment for my teachings.”

Source: AP.
Woo-inspired mind-over-matter bullshit led these people to stay in that lodge after they felt sick. If they leave, it is because they are weak, because they lack faith, because they aren’t good enough.

I only hope Ray has the balls to accept responsibility. It would certainly be consistent with his message to blame the victims, and that would be horrible.

Again from the AP:

Ray’s most recent posting on his Twitter account said: “Still in Spiritual Warrior … for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?”

The posting and two others were deleted Friday afternoon.

No comment.


Cephalopod Awareness Days!

I am reminded (thank you, Cephalopodcast!) that today is the beginning of a three-day orgy… erm… celebration… recognition of cephalopods! That’s right, these are the Cephalopod Awareness Days!

The time has come! (What time, again?)
October 8, and 9, and 10!
Each year, this time, We play the odds
And celebrate the cephalopods!
(See, Pascal’s wager must apply
To more than just that Yahweh guy—
And crosses, crescents, pentacles
Cannot compare to tentacles!)
You need to hug a cuttlefish,
Or, yes, a squid, if you should wish,
Or octopus, if you insist,
But someone, somewhere, must be kissed,
With lots of arms to hold you tight,
And though we could, we will not bite.
(I would not even make a fuss
If you should snogg a Nautilus)

If you should think these days are Holy,
You do not grasp the concept fully—
The cephalopod, the fish, the eel,
Unlike the God, you see… are real.