Thoughts On: Mourning Celebrities

Note: this is an old post, as will be clear by the references. However, it is a topic that has come back up with the recent passing of people like David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Prince, so I decided to post it again.


OK so Whitney Houston has died, I’m sure the entire world has heard by now. I still have the same opinion as before on how obsessive people seem to get when a celebrity dies, but this time I wanted to address the opposite extreme. I don’t know if it’s just the people that I know and hang out with or if it’s my entire generation that tends to be this cynical, but the overwhelming number of comments and statuses that I’ve seen on this go something like this:

Ya I heard, so sad,
like I know all those children that died from malnutrition or war or poverty or whatever,
but I mean,
I know she was addicted to all manner of things and recently, 

But still,

Now I don’t think that this argument makes any fucking sense, but I hear it all the time. Yes, Whitney Houston was just one person. As was Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger. Yes, it is true that there are millions suffering and dying around the world that we tend to care far less about, if at all.

But this argument doesn’t make sense because human emotion is not governed by numbers. You could also say that your mother, your sister, your cousin, your friend or your lover are just one person, one in the millions that die around the globe, so why the hell don’t you care about their death 1/1,000,000th of what you feel for the million children that died in the world? Of course you’re going to care more about someone you knew and cared about, regardless of why they died, because you have an emotional attachment to that person. It’s a bond, it’s the monkeysphere, it just matters to you more. So how does this translate to celebrities?

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What Stalking Can Come To

080840110-78992cfb-0132-46cb-99c4-99b221c564c0The violent murder of women by current or ex partners is a reality that every country battles with. On Friday my own hometown was struck with a particularly gruesome example, when 22-year old Sara di Pietrantonio was burned alive by her ex boyfriend while she was going home after a date. The articles on the subject are in Italian, but the gist the following:

  • It was 3:30AM. Knowing her route home and that she was going to drive by on her way home from her date, he waited for her and ran her car off the road.
  • He got in, they fought, and he started covering her and the car with ethanol.
  • She ran from the car, tried to stop two cars who were driving by at the time, but they didn’t stop.
  • He caught up with her, set her on fire, torched the car and left.

He has been charged with first degree murder, which I think is the most obvious sentence in the world. However, there are two parts of this story that I want to address.

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What If You’re Wrong?

Note: old post, essentially my take on the “what if you’re wrong”? question many of us get from religious people.

If, like myself, you make no apologies for your atheism and are quite open, if not eager to discuss it with others, you will have definitely heard this question from the religously affiliated at least once in your life. It came to me over the weekend, and I could not have been more delighted. Why? Well, I had had a couple of beers and I was pleased to get such an easy one to respond to.

This question, at least in my experience, almost always comes from a genuinely nice and engaging religious person, and frequently from Christians. The Bible-bashing crowd tend to go for either the angry “you’re going to Hell! Repent!” or the even more annoying condescending “I feel so bad for you, you’re so brainwashed, you poor soul”. Because of the uncharacteristic friendliness and openness to discussion from this other breed, some atheists can be slightly taken aback from this seemingly innocuous question, and instead of responding logically simply revert to a “well let’s just agree to disagree shall we? You’re nice, I don’t want to be insulting and tell you I know you’re full of shit, cause I get very annoyed at the bible-bashers who do the same to me”. I am not advocating for getting arrogant or condescending with your questioner, but I feel that there is a perfectly civil and rational way to respond nonetheless.

The question essentially bolis down to this: What if you are wrong about your beliefs? If you’re right and there is no heaven or hell then nothing bad happens to me when I die, I just cease to exist. But if I’m right and you’re wrong, you miss out on heaven and have to spend the rest of eternity in torment and hellfire. I have nothing to lose, but you have heaven to lose.

There are two aspects of this question that make it a poorly thought out question. The first part is the one that we have seen from Bill Maher in Religulous, for example. It can be viewed as a slight deflection of the question, but it makes a valid point nonetheless. The gist of it is that fear of a God and hell is not a good reason to become a Christian. Plus, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, wouldn’t he be able to call your bluff? Wouldn’t he know that I think you’re religion is stupid and that I’m only joining just in case he exists, without truly believing that he does? If I think it’s silly it’s just silly, joining your church wont save my soul.

A good point, true, but missing the central core of the problem with this question.  Richard Dawkins did adress this second part somewhat, although the heated way in which he responded and the words he chose made some people miss the point he was making.He mentions that the only reason said person believed what they did was because of the time in history and geographical location they were born in, and that is true, but he hits the nail on the head when he turns it around and says: what if you’re wrong?

The central fallacy that this question is based on is the idea that there are only two possibilities to chose from: the religion that the person happens to believe in, or atheism. If that were the case then yes, they’d have a slightly better point to make with this question. However, that is obviously not the case. There are thousands of denominations of Christianity alone, never mind all the other religions out there, and many of them believe that their religion is the one true religion and that everyone else is going to hell for being mislead and worshipping in the wrong church. What if you picked the wrong denomination? You’d be on a fast train to hell same as I am, except at least I would have enjoyed my life in the process. Worse, you probably have converted others to your faith, and therefore are responsible for their souls eternal torment as well. So, what if you’re wrong?

This is generally followed by a split second of wide-eyedness, then a condescending smile, then something along the lines of “well, I don’t really believe that only my specific church is going to heaven. If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you lead a good and honest Christian life, then it really doesn’t matter what specific denomination of Christianity you adhere to.

And this is where you press your advantage, not shrug your shoulders and agree to disagree. It doesn’t matter what you believe, what matters is that there are many denominations that do believe that their version is the only true version and that everyone else is going to hell, regardless of whether or not they are just “a different kind of Christian”, Muslim or Atheists. So, what if you’re wrong? If you’re right, and you all get in to heaven, then great, everybody wins. But if you’re wrong you go to hell and the Mormons/Westboro Baptists/whomever was lucky enough to get it right will be laughing at your burning tortured soul from heaven. So what is stopping you from joining a much more extreme version of Christianity? I mean, you have nothing to lose right? What if they’re right and gay bashing and abortion-clinic protesting and evolution-denying is the only way to get your ticket into heaven?

Is it perhaps because you think they can’t be right, because their version of religion is a little ridiculous? Is it because you think they have been brainwashed at a young age? Is it because you just like your version better? Since when does what is real and what is true depend on what we like or want to be true? I would want and like a world with no wars, torture or rape, but I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that none of those things exist because that is what I would like reality to be. Is it that you think that if these people just reasoned with themselves, really thought about what they were saying, then maybe they would fall into your category of Christianity?

So, when is the last time you applied the same logic and reasoning to your own beliefs?

Holidays With Crys: Naturkundemuseum

On our second day in Berlin, we decided to wander Berlin Mitte and try to see a few art exhibits and museums. We found some very, very elegant parts, gorgeous in their own right, and some cooler parts of the neighborhood as well. We had little luck with the art exhibits: one was torn down, one was closed, and one needed to be booked well in advance because it was in an old bunker, so they do not let visitors wander it on their own lest they get lost. We ended up in Berlin’s Natural History Museum almost by accident. Little did I know that I had just stumbled into the best Natural History Museum I have ever been in. The world’s largest fully assembled Brachiosaurus skeleton in the world greeted us at the entrance, and I stopped in my tracks, feeling a little emotional.


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Just Got Back…

… and my colleagues are already sick of hearing me ramble on about how awesome Berlin is. I have more posts about it, which I will put up shortly. Honestly, posting from my phone over intermittent wifi was a disaster, so I saved some posts for a proper computer. So, more to come, and some regular posting also to follow!

When A Negative Statement Becomes A Claim

Note: old post, but still relevant

The other day I got into a bit of a strange discussion with my colleagues, which involved me being alone on my side of the debate defending the existence of male bisexuality.
It all started with the observation that our culture is far more accepting of a fluid sexuality for women, as it is less acceptable for a man to admit to having had the occasional male partner but still claiming to prefer women. While initially the people I was speaking to decried this double standard as unfair, at the end they still claimed that they also thought that any man who has had male partners, or wanted to have male partners is probably actually gay, and that the Kinsey Scale is probably only applicable to women. I disagreed. There are plenty of men, some of whom I know personally who claim to be bisexual, on what basis can they claim that in reality male bisexuality doesn’t exist? Personal experience is not science! I was told. That is not evidence! Who am I to say that it does exists? I have just as much justification to claim it does as they do to claim that it doesn’t.
The details of our discussion are not that important to what I want to talk about here. The point is that this whole thing got me thinking about positive versus negative claims, and how sometimes making a negative claim is actually the one requiring a larger burden of proof.
The burden of proof lies on those who make the claim. This is a very common statement used to explain atheism, and why the absence of evidence leads one to assume the negative. There is no evidence that fairies exist, therefore I do not believe they exist. Same goes for unicorns, or dragons. I cannot prove that they don’t exist, it is impossible to prove a negative, but I am not going to believe in them until I have good reason to do so. What is more, personal accounts of having seen a fairy or unicorn or dragon (or, for that matter, God) does not count as evidence in the slightest. Given this logic, I am the one with the burden of proof, no? I am the one claiming that male bisexuality exists. They are claiming it does not. Shouldn’t I be the one who has the burden of proof in this case?
Their claim that male bisexuality does not exist struck me as a much bolder statement than my claim that it does, and then I realized why.
The fact of the matter is, when it comes to something as personal as sexual attraction, personal statements do count as evidence. With something as complex as human behavior, there is very little in the way of objective evidence that one can collect, akin to something like finding an actual fairy. That doesn’t mean that one cannot attempt to design experiments which attempt to collect more objective evidence in order to verify these claims, but in this case the claims themselves do hold significant weight.
Imagine for a moment the more extreme version of this argument. There is no such thing as gay people! People who engage in gay sex are just abusers! Or people who have been abused! Or people who just want to engage in extreme sex! That seems like a very bold statement, no? It seems as though someone who believes that would have to do far more legwork than someone who believes that gay people exist in order to prove their point, even though they’re stating the negative.
In this scenario, it’s not that any of these people would need to prove that male bisexuality, or homosexuality doesn’t exist. This encounters the same problems as trying to prove that fairies don’t exist. However, what they would have to do is start by finding a plausible, evidence-backed alternative to explain all of those people who do identify as gay, or bisexual, or whatever. They need to do a lot more legwork to bring the conversation back to an even 50:50, maybe it exists and maybe it doesn’t, equal evidence on both sides. Without finding evidence that there is an alternative explanation for all of those people, it is actually far more reasonable to assume that male bisexuality does in fact exist, in lieu of further evidence.
Do you see where I’m coming from? Any thoughts?

Cultural Differences: Respecting Your Parents

Note: old post, updated
As I’ve mentioned, my father has come to Germany to spend some time with me. Given that I only see him once a year, and usually only for a few days, I am both excited that he’s here and newly reminded of how very, very different our relationship is, compared to the one I have with my American family.
I have not spoken about my father much on this blog, and that is primarily because we do not have any real conflict, especially compared with the tension I have with my mother. However, given this visit, it reminds me of a weird moment I had when I was visiting my mother’s side of the family in the States, and highlighted a deep seeded cultural difference that may go a long way to explain why I clash so badly with my mother.

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A Baby Skeptic Stares At The Stars

Note: post from old blog
Yesterday’s post had me thinking a lot about how I formed my views on reality and the universe as I was growing up. Yesterday I wrote about how my experiences led me in the wrong direction, away from reason. However, there were other aspects of my reasoning that betrayed the skeptic that I would eventually become. One such example was my pondering on how we perceive time and space.
As an only child I often needed to entertain myself, which is probably one of the many reasons I thought about the nature of reality so often to begin with. So when we would go to the countryside I did what countless children had also done before me, and that is lay back and stare up at the stars. Staring into space gave me vertigo the way that looking over the edge of a cliff never did. It was scary, but once I assured myself that there was no danger of falling into the abyss of space it was exciting, and brought on many thoughts about how limited our understanding of space and time must be.
I realized, based on my experience of space and time, that the linear perception of time was just not going to cut it when it came to the vast universe above me. That X comes before Y which comes before Z was all well and good when looking at the timeline of my life, but I realized that this linear perception of time was very limiting. So what came before the Earth? What came before that? And before that? If time is just purely linear, where did it all start? How could something just start? Doesn’t there have to be something there for it to start from? The same went for space. Beyond this field is this country, beyond that is the world, beyond that is the galaxy, beyond that more galaxies and the universe, but what about beyond that? Could there be such a thing as true, limitless space? Doesn’t it have to end somewhere? But if it does, what lies beyond it? Of course, my Catholic upbringing gave me a very easy answer to these concepts: Beyond space is heaven, before time there’s God.
But even that seemed like a cop-out to me. How is pondering the possibility of a timeless God any easier to wrap your mind around than a time which has existed forever? How is conceiving of an infinite heaven any easier to comprehend than an infinite universe? Despite the whole “oh well one is natural and one is supernatural” explanation, it didn’t seem like an answer so much as more of the same question. Because of this I came to my own conclusion: I just don’t get it. And that’s O.K.
I realized that we describe what is going on around us as best we can, but we (or, at least, I) don’t have the capacity to really visualize such huge concepts as the beginning of time or the ends of space. My brain can’t reach that far, and that’s kind of cool. Like not being able to describe colors to someone who was born blind, there could be concepts completely beyond my realm of understanding, and there is nothing wrong with that.
I think the makings of a skeptic is to let go of the fear of the unknown. There are legitimate biological reasons why we are predisposed to fear that which we cannot see or perceive, but when it comes to certain concepts there is no need to invent and answer to fill in the blanks. Not knowing, or really coming to grips with the limits of our understanding doesn’t have to be scary, it can be amazing.