No God? No Problem.

So a comment from one of my students put me in mind of this one. For that, this verse is dedicated to a bunch of people who have no idea this blog exists… my students.

I’ve got absolute truths by the dozens
They depend on the god that you cite
And, my brothers and sisters and cousins,
I have to decide which is right.

Each claims their morality’s better
They’re divinely inspired, you see;
So I’d follow their laws to the letter,
Except that they all disagree.

Whenever I look to the bible
To see how a person behaves
I can trust that the info’s reliable,
Like how I should punish my slaves.

I don’t wish to be petty or selfish
I just want to know I am right
Is it worse to be gay, or eat shellfish?
Both are wrong, in Leviticus’ sight.

Is it sinful to kill and eat cattle?
Well, the Hindus, of course, would agree
But then, kosher’s a whole different battle,
Although bacon tastes yummy to me!

I’ve got absolute truths if you want ‘em
Each according to different gods
Some keep them, and others will flaunt ‘em
But you’re breaking some rules, say the odds.

When religions make war over quarrels,
And they claim that their god is the source
Can a person have humanist morals?
Of Course!

Headline Muse, 9/25

Though the world thought the odds were remote
It’s a milestone that’s worthy of note
Though they can’t drive a car
So it’s kind of bizarre
Saudi women will now get to vote

Headline: Reforms will allow women to vote but not drive

Of course, this story is everywhere. In the comments of the NPR article, one comment began “[t]he right to vote is not a king’s to give.” Beautiful iambic pentameter; I was sorely tempted to bust out a sonnet. But it is also one of my favorite debate topics, on which I have gone many rounds on many occasions. I’ve never liked the concept of “rights”; they make no sense to me. In this case, it is very clear that the king has the power, in Saudi Arabia, to grant women the right to vote. But the commenter would call this “recognizing their right to vote”. It is as if only god or nature could “give” a right to vote, or that (as a libertarian friend once claimed) “rights are a property of people like inertia is a property of matter.”

Except that, quite clearly, they are not. If I can, with a bomb, a gun, or a blunt or pointy object, take from you your life, then your “right to life” is clearly a different sort of stuff than an object’s inertia. A “right of way” is yours if and only if someone else yields it. Rights are a social construct. A useful one, at times at least, but clearly a social construct, dependent on agreement by the parties involved.

And in that sense, yes, the king granted (or rather, is granting or will grant, given that it is not taking place immediately) women the right to vote. Which, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction.

The Unknowable and the Unknown

I ponder the unknowable
I do it all the time
I introspect and navel-gaze
And most of it in rhyme
It gives me job security—
A niche to call my own—
Unknowables are permanent,
Unlike the mere unknown.

Unsolvable conundrums
Are my favorite sorts of stuff
Impossibly attractive, I
Just cannot get enough
They have no real solution,
So you can’t get too involved—
It’s really so much easier
Than solving the unsolved.

A question that’s unanswered
Is an open invitation
To poke around, to sniff for clues,
Begin investigation
I much prefer unanswerables
And have since just a pup
Cos none can know the answer, so
I get to make shit up.

A bit of context, after the jump:
[Read more…]

38 Percent

Some say God used evolution
As His “how it’s done” solution,
As a way that they can reconcile the two opposing views
But that reconciliation
Lives in pure imagination
It’s a compromise that’s simply not available to choose
Middle ground, which they’re demanding
Shows a lack of understanding
Intervention means the process wasn’t natural at all
Darwin’s process of selection
Doesn’t need a god’s inspection
Saying “both” is just redundant; clearly, one of them must fall.

I saw a link to this story (about Rep. candidates’ creationist views). In it, the Gallup poll I showed my ignorance of yesterday is brought up:

In its most recent polling on the topic, Gallup found that 40 percent of Americans believe God created humans just as they are today. Another 38 percent said they believe God guided the evolution process. And 16 percent believe human evolution involved pure science

I have somehow lost the link I saw, but it implied that the 38% who believe in a god-guided evolution are as scientific as the 16% who believe in an unguided evolution, with the differences between them philosophical and not scientific. I’m not certain if that is possible in theory, but in practice it is dead wrong. In practice (and by “practice” here, I am simply looking at the comments to the Fox News story linked above), the people (in this admittedly biased sample of convenience) who claim that god guided evolution are just plain wrong about natural selection. It is not that they understand natural selection and thing god guides it, rather it is that they think god took a long time rather than a short time to create things supernaturally.

If god played a role, it was not natural selection. If it was natural selection, god’s role has shrunk to nothingness. Philosophically, it may be true that evolution does not require the absence of a god. It does not eliminate god, it simply renders god superfluous for this particular purpose. Practically, though, I suspect that taking the “god guided it” position may simply identify the people who believe in evolution but do not understand it.

Frankly, it is good that they believe in it. It would be far better, though, if they understood it.

Heckuva Job, God

Either God is such a duffer
That He’s left us all to suffer
Through omnipotent incompetence and falsely random chance
Or He’s outsourced pain and hatin’
To His alter-ego, Satan
So He’ll dodge responsibility and let the devil dance.
Is He callous and uncaring
Or just really bad at sharing?
Either way, it seems our suffering is had at his behest
So Plantinga wants to gulp a
Bitter cup o’ Felix Culpa:
Though God punishes His children, it is all done for the best.

This morning, Jerry Coyne gets around to reacting to Dennett and Plantinga’s back-and-forth on God and evolution. Turns out, Plantinga says we are living in a “best possible world”, which of course turns out to require a great deal of suffering.

I really wish the various different arguments for God would get together and hammer out their mutual disagreements. I mean, the ontological argument starts with “if I can conceive of a great thing, it exists in my thoughts–and since an even greater thing would exist not merely in my thoughts, then this greater thing must necessarily exist in reality.” (yes, I have overly distilled it). So, Plantinga, if our world, suffering and all, is a best possible world, what does that say about being able to conceive of a world where David Attenborough would not point out that a parasitic worm can burrow into a child’s eye, eating it and blinding him.

Maybe this is the best possible world for parasitic worms.


So, today, instead of a pack-rat post, I want to write a little bit about … well, writing. Specifically, yesterday’s writing, as a bit of a window into my skull. You see, somebody asked whether I just whip these verses out, or whether I have some of them tucked away somewhere, to pull out for a particular comment—so I thought I’d use yesterday as the example.

None of Yesterday’s verses were planned out in advance. You may recall, I am only just recently back off a hiatus, and I am sort of stretching my writing muscles a bit, not sure of my steps just yet, not quite re-accustomed to this sort of writing. (When I first stopped, I had a bit of a withdrawal period. I could not read the news without hearing a potential verse, but I knew I had to have other priorities. I could not allow myself even to write down the ideas, because I knew myself; I knew that writing down the ideas would never be enough. Best to nip it in the bud.)

I have been looking for topics to write about. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes it is chore. I have a few topics I really want to write about, but I need either A) a really good idea for a verse, or B) a lot of free time to crank one out the hard way. I usually (but not always) prefer the former. So yesterday (Saturday) found me reading the newspapers (at the table and online), checking out news sites, mulling over this turn of phrase or that. Then off to Pharyngula, which generally (but not always) has the densest concentration of stuff that I find versible. Ah… the first one I see is “Pinky Swear!”. I would love to write something about this; the whole concept is annoying. I look to the website; not for me. I am reminded of Marx (Groucho, of course): “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” If I act that way, why sign? If I don’t… why sign? But the problem is, none of it comes to me in verse. Move on.

A novel creationist argument” is next. One of the most concentrated veins of stupidity ever mined. Even better? “Drool.” What a great word—it has tons of rhymes (at this point, I am privately going through the alphabet—bool, cool, fool, ghoul, houle, jewel,…), and a good number of synonyms. Serious versical potential. The only delay on the first verse was the kind of school. I started with “graduate school”, but that had a syllable too many. “Grad school” had one too few. Once I had “business”, the verse was done more quickly than I could type it. Next… I knew I wanted “fitness”, which really limited the rhymes; I also decided right about then that I wanted lots of references to drooling—thus, the “mouths agape”. I toyed around with the “sensation” rhyme attached to the “swimming pool” rhyme—it may fit better there, but separating the two allowed two verses, so I cheated. The last verse, I don’t particularly like. I wanted to get a “slobbered” rhyme in, and I was running out of “-ool” rhymes.

10:00 AM –
I knew a girl, in business school,
Of perfect constitution;
Her looks made all the fellas drool–
Refuting Evolution!

Her outfit at the swimming pool
As everyone could witness,
Left mouths agape, and made a fool
Of reproductive fitness!

She gave to every slavering tool
A ticklish, warm sensation
Which they relieved, cos nature’s cruel,
In furtive masturbation.

It’s God’s design, not nature’s rule,
When life has left you clobbered;
We know that Darwin wasn’t cool–
In fact, I’ll bet he slobbered.

Then I go out and weed part of the garden. In the rain. Have some lunch. Plant some herbs (three varieties of basil, and some cilantro—too wet to plant much else). Come back inside, and check Pharyngula.

Damn. I wanted to write about that. It’s the New Hampshire Same-Sex Marriage bill. I wrote “Oh Noes! Teh Sanctity!” about New Hampshire’s civil union law, and it needs updating. Unfortunately, I am experiencing serious writer’s block on this one. Maybe it is too important; I don’t know. I will keep trying.

Oh… damn, again. Cool video. And I missed out on the Friday Cephalopod, which was a cuttlefish, too!

Truth in labeling? Ok, this one is a four-inch putt. See, there are very few words that rhyme with “selves”, and one is “shelves”. (“Elves” did not come into play.) I knew the first and last lines, and the whole thing took not much more time than it took to type it out. (Confession—the vast majority of the things I have written as Cuttlefish are what I would ordinarily consider initial rough drafts. The blog format does not really lend itself to coming back and editing.)

2:03 PM –
If God helps those who help themselves
We might find God on self-help shelves;
We’d take a book, and look inside,
But God’s the sort who likes to hide.
In time, one hopes that when we look
We’d find a different sort of book,
Like these we see upon the shelf:
“There is no God, so help yourself.”

Go talk with neighbors. Walk the dog. Go to the greenhouse and buy tomato plants (22 plants, 12 varieties). Have supper. Note that entire family is away doing separate things. Get ready to watch some basketball. Watch basketball/drink beer. Somewhere around 9:30, check Pharyngula again.

Another edition of stupid creationist questions.” Bingo. I think maybe three or four comments were up already. So, I start my process somewhere around 9:35, more or less. First verse zips by, but the last line is “since babies are delicious!”, which I intended to rhyme with “nutritious” in V2. “Means-genes” was a natural rhyme for V1, and as soon as I hit on “teens”, the form was decided. I knew I wanted something with “fitness” or “fit” or something like that, so “baby on a spit” suggested itself. I could not use the word “baby” in both verses, so I re-examined L4—I could have used “since toddlers are delicious!”, but “taste like veal” was such a sweet phrase that I had to use it. About now is when I realized that the final line of the poem had to somehow bring in the idea that “fitness” was defined by having healthy babies… or perhaps, by having babies who themselves have babies. So, “babies” as a last word sounded good, which left me with very few options to end V3. The “need-breed” rhyme showed up quickly, and the alphabet search quickly came up with “creed” to finish that verse. I was a bit stumped for a bit, trying to figure out L1-3 for V4, since my structure called for three consecutive rhymes. I know I tried out a few different phrases, none of which panned out, before hitting on “eat”. I think I actually hit on “complete” first, and tracked back to “eat-sweet”. Even then, I was stuck on “babies taste so sweet”, which lacks syllables; “barbecue” was tried and initially rejected, in a different form, because “barbecue” is a noun in the American West, and a verb in the American
Northeast, and the first structure did not work in both. (No, I don’t recall what it was.) When I came back to it, I had the structure right, and it stuck. The whole process took just over 15 minutes. Longer than it took to type it, but hey.

9:56 PM –
“Survival of the fittest” means
Regardless of related genes
My kids should never reach their teens
Since toddlers taste like veal.

And I can make myself more fit
(As Darwinists should all admit)
By roasting baby on a spit
For one delicious meal!

Nutritionists all know I need
My protein, if I’m going to breed
It’s Evolution’s sacred creed–
No ifs, no buts, no maybes!

A healthy mom has got to eat,
And barbecue is oh, so sweet;
Well-fueled, I’m ready to complete
My task of having babies.

I then spent some time ego-surfing, to see if anyone had noted my previous verses. Yeah, I admit it. Shut up. Noticed, to my great surprise and delight, that two more people bought my book. Very cool. Looked at Pharyngula… Saw the Bill Donohue post very early, and thought “no”. Too serious, and too horrendous. The man is beyond contemptible. Thought some more. Tossed around the “mote/beam” bit for a while with no success. I knew I wanted to juxtapose his concern for the true victims, the priests, with the “victims” anointed by the press—the greedy, money-grubbing raped kids. I hit on the notion of BD focusing on the one kid who was not in desperate trouble… and this is what showed up.

11:04 PM –
If just one boy somehow escaped
While all his friends were being raped
Bill Donohue would soon be there
To give the lad his tender care
He’d cater to his every need…

While all around, his playmates bleed.

In truth, it is not an accurate portrayal of BD’s views. But that fits—nothing BD has ever said has been accurate.

All said, I have spent much more time writing this analysis than I spent writing all four verses. I think I’ve touched on all the major points. If anyone is interested, and I did not answer something, just ask. Oh, yeah, and buy my book.

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

Broke Down On The Road From Albuquerque To Seattle–I Need A Quantum Mechanic

More action from the Dennett thread, and more of me beating the anti-reductionist drum. Reducing isn’t explaining.

Although it’s true, the quirks of quarks
Are what we find when we reduce
The laws of rocks, of tuning forks,
Of cats, of cars, of orange juice,
The truth is, if I know the quirks
Of quarks, and qualms of quantum states
They don’t tell how my pencil works
Or what to do with roller skates.
If (knock on wood) my car should stall
And leave me stranded in a panic
There’s many folks whom I could call,
But none of them a quantum mechanic.
Explosive oxidation of
The hydrocarbon molecules
Is many many leaps above
The quantum tale of fossil fuels;
If, at my car, some stranger spoke
Of many-worlds hypotheses
Instead of just: “your fuel pump’s broke”
He might as well speak Japanese.
Indeed, if one is told a tale
Of how an engine burns its gas,
Of how exhaust comes out the tail,
Of how they make the windshield glass,
Of shock absorbers, front disc brakes,
All sorts of automotive prattle
It would not tell which road one takes
From Albuquerque to Seattle—
Which, if that was what one needs,
Is how the answer should be phrased;
Reductionism here impedes,
And only leaves ones eyeballs glazed.

The actions of a single nerve
Or even of a given piece
Of one, we clearly may observe—
Say, neurotransmitter release—
Where ACH or dopamine
Released in the synaptic cleft
By vesicles, which we have seen,
A process at which cells are deft;
The process may be understood
At many different levels, such
As cell, or body, or a good
Example of a chemist’s touch;
An organ’s function, or perhaps
A function in some social act—
Each level different, each one maps
A different view of one same truth.
The quantum level cannot say
The others now do not exist;
Reducing won’t explain away
A higher explanation’s gist.
Your quantum invocation means
You simply wish our current views
Left something there behind the scenes—
Some agent, with the power to choose.
Alas, there’s nothing there to find;
This entity does not exist—
No moral agent, causal mind
That all of science must have missed.
The science shows no secret curse,
No need to travel back in time
To save Cartesian minds—and worse,
We’ve done it, once again, in rhyme.

The Introspection Fish

Another comment from the Dennett post.

I have no eyes to look behind
And view my brain, much less my mind;
I cannot know your thoughts, and you
Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
These are the facts; we can’t deny
We have no working “inner eye”
Nor any form of ESP;
Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.

Your claim—that we can know ourselves—
Is countered by the miles of shelves
Of self-help books. Our knowledge hides
From where you tell us it resides!
If we could simply take a look
Inside our minds, why need a book?
We’d never ask “How do I feel?
Could this be love? Could it be real?”

If God or Science offered me
Some cranial transparency
So you could see my every thought—
The change of mind; the urge I fought,
The censored comment never spoken,
Secret kept and promise broken—
What fabled treasures! Wondrous finds,
If we could read each other’s minds!

But we cannot. Make no mistake,
Our skulls and minds are both opaque
We do, instead, what we can do;
We read the things in public view
We see the song, the poem, the kiss;
Infer from these that love is this.
In turn, each element we find
We sum, and call the total “mind”.

If I could see inside my head,
(A place where angels fear to tread)
And see how thinking really works,
The jumble of selected quirks
And if (what wonders “if” can do!)
I saw inside your thinking too
I think that I should never see
What now makes up philosophy.

Hard Determinism and the Meme of Free Will

Oh, the Greeks knew what they wanted—
Strong determinism stunted.
It is clear that if the populace was driven by free will,
Then society was blameless;
Truth be told, it was a shameless
Grab for power, and the senators were showing off their skill.
These philosophers were cunning
And in truth it was a stunning
Bit of framing—we can tell, because it lingers to this day.
We will claim we chose it freely,
Though the evidence says really
Our behavior was determined, and there’s nothing more to say.

You may cherish your illusion
It’s an understood confusion
But the truth is, you’re mistaken—it is nothing but a meme.
For the culture, it’s adaptive
Cos it keeps the people captive—
If you chose, then you’re accountable—a blame-the-victim scheme!
If the murder rate has risen
We just build a bigger prison
Cos it’s better than admitting that society has failed—
Better jobs and education
Can prevent incarceration
But denial of determinism keeps our people jailed.

Punishment, but not prevention,
Always focuses attention
On the action and the consequence, but not the prior cause,
So instead, we claim we see a
Mental state we call mens rea;
This reliance on an inner cause is written in our law.
If we look beyond the actors
In our quest for causal factors
Some environmental factors are quite easy to discern;
If mens rea and true freedom
Are illusions, we don’t need ‘em
We’re not stuck in ancient Athens—we can change, and we can learn.