Swing and a Miss – A Psychic Failure

He got him on strikes!

Yeah, I listened to a baseball game on the radio at work last night, and Dan Dickerson’s catchphrase [wow, Googling Dan Dickerson got me off one hell of a rabbit trail — fifteen minutes later, I now turn back to this blog] is stuck in my head.

But that’s exactly what happened here.  Swing and a miss.

With some regularity, stories will pop up wherein a psychic has predicted a certain outcome and it comes true (in this case, it was a World Cup “psychic octopus” named Paul).  Believers point to these stories as proof that psychic phenomena are real.  After all, the prescient cephalopod was perfect in World Cup predictions.  But Paul the Octopus represents this story perfectly: the hits are remembered, the misses are forgotten.  Were there other WC-predicting devices?  Who knows?  Ryan Raburn of the Detroit Tigers went 1-4 the other night, and his one hit was a grand slam.  No one cared about his other three at-bats.  If Paul had gone 2-5, there probably wouldn’t be a lot of talk about him.

Occasionally, however, the misses make news.  When a batter strikes out with nobody on and nobody out in the second inning of a tied game, well, whatever: it goes into the box score, but nobody makes a big deal out of it.  If that same batter strikes out with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth in a World Series game seven, that makes headlines.  I don’t know if the comparison is precise, but here’s a story about a psychic to waved at a 93-mile-an-hour fastball and hit nothing but air.

Cold reading and an over-emphasis on high-percentage hits are common methodologies for so-called psychics.  One might hear a story about how a psychic predicted that the authorities would find a missing child “somewhere near a beach.”  When it turned out that the child had drowned in a river, believers say that the psychic must have had a supernatural connection to the child’s spirit in order to make this prediction, instead of assuming that it is more likely that the child wandered off and, not being too keen of wit, walked in to the river and couldn’t swim.

My contention (and it’s by no means an original one) is that these stories get legs when the psychic happens to be even close to correct.  Rarely do they get legs when the psychic is totally wrong, and so the misses fade into obscurity while the hits  are trumpeted by the believers.

So, let’s look at some of the facts from this case, from the local article, which you may choose to contest if you’d like:

The investigation began after the sheriff’s office received a
tip from a psychic who claimed that many bodies, including those of children, were in the house.

Why start an investigation based on a psychic’s tip?

Evans said authorities took the tip seriously in part because the caller had details about the interior of the house that only someone who had seen it could have known. [….] “We have to take tips like this very seriously,” [Liberty County Judge Craig] McNair said. [….] McNair said deputies found blood on a back door and detected a foul odor coming from the house, leading to the search warrant.

Okay, I have no problem with that.  The tip seemed credible, and you have to investigate that.  However,

No bodies were found Tuesday at a Texas farmhouse where a person claiming to be a psychic told officials multiple bodies were buried, a sheriff’s official says. [….] Asked if authorities thought the tip was a hoax, Evans said only that they found no bodies or anything to indicate a homicide had occurred there.

But, there was blood, and the person knew the house and—!!!

Property owner Joe Bankston said he was shocked by the reports of bodies on his property. “This is like something out of a novel,” Bankston said by phone from Dallas. Bankston said his daughter lives in the house and that there was blood on the porch and in the house because his daughter’s former boyfriend tried to commit suicide a couple of weeks ago. “He got drunk and cut his wrist,” Bankston said. “It took me all day to clean the inside of the house. I’m not sure I got it [the blood] all.”

So something bad went down at this house.  If someone’s getting drunk and slitting their wrists, there’s a real problem, and I have sympathy for this family.  But unless Bankston is part of some vast conspiracy, he has no reason to lie about this.  (But maybe he’s the killer!)  So, someone familiar with the house and familiar with the experience of its residents calls something in hoping to use the blood to spur an investigation (a plan that actually worked), hoping that they might get a hit: maybe a body was buried somewhere on the “rural property.”  That plan having failed, surely the so-called psychic would concede.

But the tipster called back Tuesday morning to say deputies had the wrong house, Evans said.

Well, just keep looking until you find a body, then the psychic will be proven correct.  It will be a one-hundred pitch at-bat and eventually the kid will hit a bloop single into shallow left and then it will be proven that he’s a major-league hitter.

And by the way, who is this psychic?

He said authorities have a name and number for the caller and were working to track the person down. [….] “We are going to continue our investigation and find out how this individual had this information in the first place,” Evans said.

Well, as the Zen master said, “We’ll see.”  You can’t prove a negative, of course, but until something truly amazing happens, it’s worth noting that psychics miss all the time, and this is one of their big, bottom-of-the-ninth strikeouts.

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Another Example of Self-Exceptionalism

It has always struck me that people always assume that they are better than the “others.”  People might be willing to make excuses for close friends or family, and will certainly make excuses for themselves.  But, when it comes to other people, well, they’re all a bunch of freaking idiots.

There’s a lot at work here.  It seems well documented (though I don’t have all the sources in front of me currently) that a) when something good happens to you, you credit your own skill, work ethic and value (e.g., I totally earned and more than deserve this promotion!); b) when something bad happens to you, you blame outside forces (e.g., I got fired from my job because my boss had it out for me); c) when something good happens to others, you credit it to outside forces (e.g., The boss just really liked them); d) when something bad happens to others, it’s totally their fault (e.g., Well, he got fired because he’s totally incompetent).

I always have a problem when I hear people say, “Well, people are just idiots!”  It goes without saying that you, of course, are not in said group of idiots.  But I always wonder if it occurs to these people that the people they are calling idiots are likely calling them idiots for things they didn’t realize they were doing.  For example: you’re driving down the road, and someone in the lane to your right starts to drift into your lane.  You honk, they look up, you see that they are texting on their cell phone.  “What an idiot!” might be among your more G-Rated responses.  Later, though, you’re texting, and all of a sudden  you hear a honk, only to realize that you’ve drifted slightly into the next lane.  You might flick them off, and argue that you weren’t really that close to hitting them, and, Hey, I got an important conversation going on here!  My wife is telling me which brand of bread to pick up from the store.  Hey, c’mon.  Hey!

You’re not an idiot, of course: you’re a smart capable person who had a small lapse in mental focus.

Thus, we have an extremely pervasive dual-standard.  And, I think, this double standard is very well represented by this study.  The preamble is standard and dated.  Here’s the bit that I think is important:

In March of 2011, the AAOS [American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons] commissioned a Harris Interactive Survey, the findings of which revealed how American drivers feel about multitasking, their own behavior behind the wheel as well as the choices of other drivers.

  • Of the more than 1,500 driving-age adults surveyed, NONE of them reported their own driving as unsafe. In fact, 83 percent claim to drive safely. And, yet they believe only 10 percent of other drivers drive “safely.”
  • Although drivers are aware that distracted driving compromises the ability of others to drive safely, one in five (20%) agree that they are a good enough driver that they can do other things while driving without compromising [their driving ability].
  • Among those who self-reported distracted driving behaviors overall, 30-44 year olds seem to be the worst offenders having more likely admitted to eating or drinking, talking on a cell phone or reaching in the back seat of the car while driving.
  • Many drivers that have experienced a near-accident due to their own distracted driving behavior say they will continue the behavior that caused them to swerve or slam on the breaks to avoid an accident.
  • The results showed that 94 percent of drivers in America believe that distracted driving is a problem in the U.S. and 89 percent believe it is a problem within their own communities.

I don’t think we have to look any further than this study to see how broken we are, frequently, when it comes to making logical interpretations of the actions of ourselves and others. Again, zero out of fifteen-hundred people admitted to being bad drivers, but, as a whole, the respondents think that only ten percent of people drive safely.

The disconnect is obvious.  Logically, it’s not possible that 90% of drivers are unsafe while 0% of drivers are unsafe — which is what the respondents of this study claim.

I think, at the end of the day, it’s a little bit difficult for any individual to say, “Hey, I screwed up, I made a bad decision, I was at fault.”  It’s much easier to to simply claim that the other is an incompetent idiot, and that’s why you almost got in an accident.  But maybe if we realized that we’re all just as likely to be at fault as the other, then maybe we could admit fault when it was our and have others admit fault when it was theirs, and move forward in a productive manner.

I guess it just seems frustratingly obvious to me that we can’t all be right when everyone thinks everyone else is a dolt while we ourselves are a last bastion of common-sense.  Yet that belief persists, and I think this study just sheds a little more light on it.

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One Battle: A Snapshot in the Hawking-Cameron War

Much has been written and discussed in the last week about, first, Stephen Hawking’s recent interview with the Guardian.  The main bit that’s getting pulled from the interview, for those who haven’t read it, is as follows.

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

So that’s a pretty bold statement, of course.  I agree with Hawking, though I understand the objections to his “strong atheism” here.  He has been critiqued for saying there “is” no heaven, rather than “I don’t believe in a heaven and we can’t prove there is one.”  I wonder if sometimes atheists get tired of constantly having to couch their beliefs thusly.  When Hawking says this, the natural reaction is, of course, to accuse him of having just as much faith as the religious, which is an interesting accusation from those who are indeed religious.  In any case, if asked to explain at length, he would probably say that, sure, you can’t PROVE there’s no heaven, but as we’ve said many times, you can’t prove there’s no flying spaghetti monster (I’m just going to keep using that analogy; it might be over-used, but I still think it’s apt, albeit “much-sung”), but I think most people, and most religious people, feel okay living their lives as if the FSM doesn’t exist.  And I think that’s what Hawking is saying here.

Interestingly, the most vocal opponent — or at least the one that’s gotten the most attention — has been…Kirk Cameron?  TMZ’s got a little bit on his reaction here, and it just wouldn’t be right to not give just a little bit of the Cameronian context.  His main point is a combination of “you can’t prove it!” and the argument from ignorance/straw man/internal inconsistency that is the “it’s logically impossible for something to come from nothing” argument.

A lot has been written about this, but through my link-chasing I found my way to this site, which discusses the Hawking article.  It seemed like fun to pick apart a few of the comments on this page, so we’ll see how this goes.  First, a quick-hitter:

He will find out soon enough.

The Gloating Christian is an interesting character to me.  I witnessed this a lot growing up, not realizing what it was until after I’d left the church.  Basically, the Gloating Christian has the same attitude as the poker player who has bluffed his opponent into calling his Royal Flush; it’s a smug, smirking glee that can’t wait to see the opponent realize how wrong they actually are.  I see my sister Sarah being upset by both this sort of Christian and by my characterization of them, though I don’t want to put words in her mouth.   There are Christians who pity the unsaved, and there are Christians who care for the unsaved.  Then, there is the Gloating Christian, who relishes the unbeliever’s destruction.

On to the second (selected) comment.

For someone who is so smart, he is really a moron. Sorry to say this guy has lost reality. He wants to dwell in the illusion of life that has crippled him completely, instead of seeking Heaven that will free him from all his frailities. I feel sorry for this. God gave him a great brain, but he is not using it to discover the Lord and acknowledge Him as the creator of all the cosmos. May our Lord enlighten him and remove his blinders.

That first sentence is funny.  Among those I strongly disagree with, I feel there are some idiots; I also feel that many of them are very, very smart and for whatever reason have come to totally different conclusions than me and the other much-smarter-than-me people that influence me.  I wouldn’t call the smart people I disagree with “morons,” though I’m sure you can find tons of atheists calling smart Christians morons.  So, whatever.

Anyway, a couple of ideas I wanted to touch on based on this comment.  First, there’s the whole argument from final consequences, “the afterlife is the only thing that makes this life worth living” idea.  All the old songs talk about the crippled walking  in heaven and so forth.  For me, that’s a tempting idea to believe in.  Again, I can’t say that it’s not true, I just don’t see any reason to believe that it is.  Second, this poster assumes that the only end of all intellect is to discover God.  Yet, “the mind of a child” can comprehend God to a sufficient degree to be saved.  So, from God’s perspective, what’s the point of some of us having extraordinary intellects and powers of logic?  If, after all, the ultimate (perhaps not only, but certainly most important) goal of the mind is to discover God, why create a mind that can logically and rationally understand a universe in which God doesn’t exist?  It seems to be another example of God making it as hard as fucking possible to believe in him, yet damning us for doing otherwise.  Moving right along.

Stephen Hawking: “Heaven is a fairy story…”
God: “Enjoy your fancy chair.”

Hmm.  I read a lot of atheists making really mean remarks, so I’m not going to say that I have a problem with this quote because it seems “mean.” I certainly appreciate quality dark humor (I actually think this is sort of funny, from a certain point of view), but for whatever reason it always seems weirder and more off-putting when a Christian makes this sort of a sardonic crack.  [I’m wondering if I’m setting up a double standard here, because while I argue that you don’t need religion to have morals, it somehow seems less fitting of Christians to see them make this sort of remark.  Maybe it’s the whole judging-people-by-their-own-system idea? Not sure.  Anyway…]  First, it seems strange to cast God as a sarcastic, spiteful asshole (although that might match up with his OT character); second, there always seemed to be the whole peace/love/goodwill thing, which maybe was only meant to be for other believers.  But, like the first quote, it just seems weird to me.

Okay, last one.

And the wicked rail against God’s throne in Heaven. He has no concept about what is soon coming on the earth in judgement from his non-existent God. The Japanese would never have dreamed of atomic weapons prior to them being used on the homeland to take out Hiroshima. That was just a “man thing”. The Bible says it’s writings are all foolishness to those who are lost and perishing. This guy fits the description. Yet, God in His mercy allows him to live long after he should be dead; continuing to give him a chance to repent. That’s a loving and merciful God, full of grace and truth. This guy is full of lies.

The first bit is something that I’ve found frustrating about Christianity ever since I left it.  Because their claims are non-falsifiable, like conspiracy theorists they take any evidence counter to their belief and make it evidence that their belief is true.  Any thing bad = the devil did it!  Anything good = God is merciful!  So, by the internal logic, anyone who questions God is only doing so because they are wicked, and because they’re wicked, they question God.  Boom.  All objectors are immediately dismissed without even having to listen to their arguments.

Next, he likens God to a surprise nuclear attack.  Nice.  Again, there is evidence for this God in the OT, but it doesn’t seem to be the god that progressive Christians advocate (based more on NT passages; the beatitudes, for example [“blessed are the peacemakers”]).  This is another iteration of the Gloating Christian: “Just wait ’till our God nukes the fuck out your outsider asses!”  Without the language, maybe.  Plus, and this might be nit-picking, but it’s not like the Japanese had no idea what an atom bomb was before the Americans dropped it on them.  He makes it sound like we nuked the freaking Aztecs over here.  It was an arms race, and our side won.  For better or worse, that’s how history played out.  In reality the Japanese had a much better understanding of the situation that we have of the God situation (i.e. the Japanese had much better evidence for the Americans’ activities than we have of God’s).

After that, he goes back to his first logically-circular point that the Bible says that anyone who questions it are liars.  I mean, I could write the same thing in this blog post: PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU THAT CTFT IS LYING, AND WHEN THEY DO, IT JUST PROVES THEY CAN’T HANDLE THE AWESOMENESS OF MY SUPER-META-TRUTH!  Me saying that doesn’t actually make it any more true.  A lot of people have believed in the Bible for a long time, but it’s still just a self-reinforcing document that says, “This book is true because God says it is and God’s word is ultimate truth because this book says it is.”  Once someone is totally convinced of this, I’m not sure there’s any way to reach them other than maybe, very slowly, suggesting counter-arguments to them in hopes that maybe, at some point, they’ll at least give it a critical thought.  But when it’s, “No, the Bible is true because it says it’s true, and everything it says is true,” and when someone’s whole worldview is based on that, there’s probably very little use arguing.

Since I’ve been so long-winded since the full quote was posted, I’ll repost the very end of it again.

Yet, God in His mercy allows him to live long after he should be dead; continuing to give him a chance to repent. That’s a loving and merciful God, full of grace and truth. This guy is full of lies.

Let’s take this “should be dead” statement on a little bit.  Obviously, this commenter is referring to Hawking’s health condition, which doctors say “should have” (or “was most likely to have”) killed him in his twenties.  To my understanding, all conditions like Hawking’s exist on a bell curve, with the vast majority succumbing in an “average” amount of time, while some die very early and some die very late.  I would think that Hawking’s extended survival rate is merely a coincidence, and he happens to be on the very far-right end of the bell curve.  If he’d died at an early or even average time, he probably wouldn’t have gotten that much attention, and so it wouldn’t be remarkable that he’s vastly outlived his diagnosis, and then one couldn’t make the argument that it’s God’s will, somehow.

And, again, this is just retro-fitting the actual events to be a part of God’s will.  If Hawking had died early/on time, he would have either been forgotten or, perhaps, been God’s example for what happens to atheists, or a warning to other atheists that we never know when we’re going to die, or whatever.  But, as it happens, since Hawking has lived for so long, well, then it must be that God is showing him mercy.  Granted, this is the same God that this very author suggested was going to use the nuclear option on Hawking after he dies, and the same God who has, as part of his plan, miscarriages (God terminates 1/3 of all pregnancies, but Christians don’t rail against him like they do Planned Parenthood) child drownings, third-world hunger and disease, suicide, and so forth.  I’m really glad that God decided to let Stephen Hawking have a miracle victory against this disease while seemingly not paying any attention to millions of other people.

It’s pure retro-fitting.  The idea that “God works in mysterious ways” is just a way to justify that there’s absolutely no way that life can be predicted: why does an atheistic astrophysicist get spared while a devout eight-year-old girl in East Africa die of malaria?  It seems more likely that it’s an accident of time and place of birth.  But, we can see here, someone directly contradicting themselves in order to post hoc make the actual events make sense in their worldview.

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Myers, Chesterton, Facebook: Some Thoughts

In my admittedly amateurish and youthful pursuit of truth, reason, emotion, spirituality and logic, I, as we all do, look to longer-tenured and brighter minds to illuminate our steps along the path of our belief journey, which is likely never ending.  About 18 months ago, I guess, I was first introduced to PZ Myers‘s blog, Pharyngula.  He is known as a sometime fire-breathing atheist and an outspoken liberal, and a professional biologist.  His biology seems spot on, to me; his atheism seems similar to mine, if a little more fierce and a good deal more refined; his politics are unapologetically liberal, and while I often agree with his stances I’m uncomfortable with his stark left/right dichotomy, and I feel it worthwhile to distinguish his scientific/philosophical stances from his political stances, as I almost always agree with the former but feel quite conflicted about the latter.

In any case, I excerpted a line from a recent blog of his (about junk DNA, which I don’t know that much about, though I’m learning more about and I find the conversation very interesting) as my Mombook status: ‎”[T]hey find comfort in the idea that everything in the universe must have a purpose, because if it doesn’t, maybe that means they are nothing more than spots of dandruff on a dead rock hurtling blindly through space, and we can’t have that then.” (“They” are, of course, Christians, specifically Young Earth Creationists in this case…but anyone with faith in (a) god(s) more generally.)  For me, this was yet another confrontation against what I’ve seen as the argument from final consequences, an argument that I’ve had a few times in person and a few times on Facemom.  It’s the idea that a) if the universe doesn’t have a purpose, then life has no purpose…then why even try to have a good life; or b) if there’s no life after this one, then there’s no point in caring about this life.

It might go without saying here that my feeling is that while I might only be a little bit of dandruff on a dead rock hurtling blindly through space, I am fortunate to have a sufficiently evolved brain that I might connect on an emotional level with other bits of dandruff — only, they aren’t “bits” to me, they’re my family, my loved ones, my dearest.  And I don’t think it takes away from me or them to suggest that we are only a tiny speck in the universe.  It’s still our fucking speck, and we’ll have it, thank you.

So, I’d posted that blerb from PZ as my Facebook status.  Shortly afterward, a G.K. Chesterton quote was appended to said status by a dear friend.  An uninvolved reader might only be interested in the quote, but since zeros of people read this blog, I’ll give a quick backstory on the poster.  Basically, we’ve been “BFFs” since forever, growing up in a church nursery together, playing in the woods and with LEGOs as young children, playing in a Christian rock band as high schoolers, and still speaking frequently despite living in faraway states.

I’ll grant here that I don’t know much about GKC; he was a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century writer, a Christian apologist, an ontologist, among other things.  I’ll say that there is a group of Christians that I know and respect that tend to quote GKC (Sarah, Zak, Karl); they are deep thinkers, careful, wondering — they are not the dogmatists that I have a really hard time even communicating with.  So, here is the quote that Karl raised in seeming opposition to my PZ quote:

Atheism is abnormality. It is not merely the denial of dogma. It is the reversal of a subconscious assumption in the soul: the sense that there is meaning and direction in the world it sees.

A few things I’ve read about GKC have indicated that he’s not the most philosophically rigorous thinker, as even some Christians have said (though some disagree).  I am certainly among the amateur thinkers.  But here’s my take on this quote.

First, and this might be something that GCK addresses elsewhere — and I hope that readers who know more about him might enlighten me — there is the argument that Hitch and Dawkins and others have made repeatedly, that any Christian or Hindu or Muslim or Anamist is an “atheist” in some sense, in that each individual (aside from the most relativistic unaversalists, I suppose) does not believe in most gods that have been conceived of throughout human history.  Thus, one could argue that one woman’s belief in a god is another man’s atheism; that is to say, which god or gods are you not believing in?  There are counterarguments to that (i.e. “my” god is the only plausible god that should be believed in, a la Yahweh vs. Baal in the OT), and I want to address them in later posts.  But that’s the first point.

The second point is that it seems to me that GKC makes a hasty generalization for the general human subconscious.  Might it not be arguable that some worldviews (which might be called subconscious assumptions) point to little or no meaning in the broad scale (see the above PZ quote)?  Because he and those in his tradition have come to the conclusion a priori that there is meaning, they see it everywhere.  It can be argued that this is simply an expression of pareidolia, an evolutionarily beneficial trait (vis-a-vis survival) that overly identifies patterns and meaning because it’s better to see a non-threat as a threat than it is to see a threat as a non-threat (and by extension, meaning and design in randomness rather than randomness in meaning and design).  Thus, might not GKC’s “subconscious assumption” merely be an artifact of evolution?

Third, he assumes a “soul” here.  He frames the argument to include something that is inherently dualistic and spiritual, so that an already-agreeing reader might immediately latch on to the soul concept.

Fourth, and finally, the point (with one subpoint) that I think is most important.  Assuming that GKC is correct in that all humans have some subliminal feeling that there is meaning in the world/cosmos (which I disagree with, but nevertheless…), how in the hell can you argue that because we have this feeling that that is any basis on which to make a truth claim?  We know how fallible we are.  Unless I am either really, really good at doing the most perfect thing in every situation, or unless I am really, really good at lying to myself, I have to assume that I am wrong in a fairly high percentage of situations — again, unless one is willing to accept a totally relativistic worldview (which could be up for discussion at a later time) there have to be situations in which people think they’re right when they’re actually wrong.  As such, the whole, “This world/cosmos is really complex and intricate, and that just makes it seem like it has meaning,” seems awfully flimsy.  The subpoint here is that even if one were to convincingly argue for an ultimate goal (or purpose) for humanity, there’s still a lot of work to do in order to argue that it’s not the purpose of the Olympian gods, or Allah, or Vishnu, or whoever.  The argument from popularity or antiquity simply aren’t strong enough for me.

****

So, I know this is really long.  I’m really interested in this topic, and especially interested in discussing it with people I know.  If you have thoughts, please comment.  If not, writingn this was at least one more good step for me, as I work through these complicated issues.

With all love,

Matt

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Flatland: Reductionists vs. Believers?

Well I’ll be gorramed: two posts in less than a fortnight.  I’ll have you know that I’m giving up my daily regimen of Xbox to write this post.  I’ll have you know!

Since ones of people read this blog, I don’t really attempt to blog about the latest news: hundreds of bloggers do that more regularly and better than I.  So, when I find something interesting, I’ll write about it.

Rob Bell is in the news of late, what with his perhaps-heretical book Love Wins hitting shelves a few weeks ago.  I haven’t read the book, and since I’m not a Christian, the whole debate — while interesting — isn’t one that I really belong in, and that’s not what I’m writing about today.  Instead, I’ll address a Youtube clip of his (which I think was actually posted by a non-affiliated source).  It’s a ten-minute segment from his Everything Is Spiritual tour, which I attended myself a few years ago, back when I was teetering on the edge of Christianity.  At the time, I enjoyed the talk, as it was a bit of a release from the more stringent evangelicalism in which I was raised.  Looking back, I realize that, ironically, Rob was a “gateway” towards my eventual journey to atheism.  I don’t say that haughtily: I won’t pretend that he was so foolish that his own plans worked against him.  (I also say that with the knowledge that his critics would use such a statement as exactly the ammunition they are looking for, and I feel badly about that, because I still have a soft spot in my heart for Rob and his people — I like the guy, I like his church, and I prefer that kind of Christianity to most others.)  He helped me think outside of the small box I was raised in (not so much by my family as by the church) and the consequences are, as they say, what they are.

In any case, I mention all this because I want the reader to know that I’m not out to tear the guy down (as I might be if I were referencing a Kent Hovind lecture), but simply to provide context.

So.  If you have a few minutes, watch the video, or at least the first six-or-so minutes (as that’s all I’ll get to in this entry).  If you don’t, I’ll briefly summarize it as I briefly (in theory) discuss it.

He describes a theoretical world, conceived by Edwin Abbot, called Flatland, in which there are only two dimensions.  From what I understand, the points Rob makes based on the Flatland concept aren’t really the point of the novella, but it provides an interesting basis for analogy.

Essentially, Rob sketches a picture (well, literally sketches it, in the video) of this 2-D world populated by two 2-D actors.  They can only perceive two dimensions because, of course, they are two-dimensional.  He then hypothesizes what these two actors would perceive if a three-dimensional object were to interact with their flat land.  He first envisions a ring passing through their space.  Since they would not have the ability to see the ring in three dimensions, they would first perceive a point (where the very edge of the ring crossed the plane of Flantland), which would broaden to a short line, then diverge into two lines (each the length of the ring’s thickness) that would grow further and further apart until the ring’s full diameter had been reached, at which point the process would reverse until the trailing edge of the ring passed through Flatland, and the last perceived point disappeared.

Rob then wonders how these two actors would process what they just experienced.  The first actor, who we’ll call The Reductionist (or Rationalist, or Skeptic), describes exactly what he saw: a point, a line, two lines further then closer, a single line, a single point, then nothing.  The second actor, who we’ll call The Wonderer (or The Believer) [choosing names is tough here because I don’t want to predispose the reader one way or the other, but I think the titles for either actor encapsulates what Rob is trying to convey here] thinks he saw something more.  “I think it might have been a ring,” he says.  We’ll come back to this later, because it’s important.  But for now, let’s carry on.  The Reductionist asks The Wonderer if he’s ever held a ring, seen a ring, seen a picture of a ring.  No, he hasn’t.  Do you have any evidence or proof of this so-called ‘ring?’ the Reductionist asks.  Can you test it in a lab?  No, says the Wonderer, I sense, feel, trust, have faith.

For the next part, I agree with Rob: this does reveal two divergent worldviews.  The Reductionist says: Flatland is all we have, it’s all we can measure, it’s all we can know.  The Believer, on the other hand, can’t point to evidence, but only “nudges and hints and sense and feelings and beliefs and maybe even have to use words like ‘faith.'”  (Direct quote from the video; 4:05+)

For the next part, he wonders what would happen if instead of passing a ring through Flatland, he simply held his hand very close to Flatland.  On a 3-D scale, he’s very close to them, but because he’s outside of their dimension, he’s effectively unreachable to them.  Here, the Believer/Wonderer intuitively sense the “hand of Rob,” while the Rationalist experiences nothing because, since nothing has passed into either of his dimensions, he has nothing to observe or measure.  At this point he contends that the Rationalist/Reductionist/Skeptic would tell the Wonderer/Believer to “give up the superstitious, mythic stuff” because there’s nothing to observe.

Then, here comes the big hitter: “And what if I really wanted to mess with them and I jammed my hand right through their world?”  He then goes on to describe how his fingers are of different lengths and widths, and so five circles would appear in Flatland at slightly different times and with slightly different sizes and proportions.  The Believer then asserts that all five circles are related, while the Reductionist points out that they came at different times, they’re different sizes, and so forth; thus, you have to give up this “superstitious, mythic nonsense.”

“And the other one,” Says Rob, “sounds like they’ve completely lost there minds, but in fact, they are dead on right.

There’s a lot more to get in to, of course; we’re only five minutes into a ten minute video that is a part of an hour-plus lecture that is part of a whole system of belief.  Maybe we’ll get into that in later posts, but for now, let’s focus on these points.

We’ll take these from the top, as it were.  Do you remember when I said, “well get back to this later, because it’s important”?  That was in regards to the whole idea that The Believer could hypothesize about the ring in the first place.  I don’t think this idea is totally absurd, that one could imagine things beyond the dimensions they exist in, but it’s interesting that in this scenario The Believer has an a priori and, coincidentally, objectively correct idea about what a ring might be, when he really has no reason to have exceptional insight, except for perhaps in the case of special revelation, the dispensation of which is omitted in this scenario but is nevertheless assumed.  In such a simple example as a ring, it’s easy to look down on the Rationalist for not seeing what is obvious simply because he can’t empirically observe it.  Perhaps Rob set that scenario up in order to express that exact point.  If so, however, he defeats himself with the example of the hand.

When Rob sticks his hand through Flatland, The Believer somehow intuits the existence of the hand despite the lack of evidence for a three-dimensional, physical hand.  The Rationalist/Skeptic is made to seem a fool by refusing to accept the obvious truth that it is, in fact, a hand.

But this scenario is entirely coincidental, and this is the real point that I want to make here.  In this scenario, we, as the outside observer, know that it’s a hand, and when The Believer has faith that it’s a hand, we can objectively see that he is correct.  Thus, credence is given to his nudgings, feelings, sense, and faith.   But what if the five circles that appeared in Flatland were simply five hotdogs shoved through their two-dimensional plane?  What if they were created by five test tubes inserted into a petri dish for experimental purposes?  Or, conversely, what if The Believer felt a nudging that five hotdogs had been crammed into Flatland, when all along it was a hand?  This is where the problem arises.  In Rob’s scenario, The Believer’s hypothesis is confirmed ahead of time, and so we are lead to believe that what we believe to be the cause of seemingly-inexplicable events (i.e. the five circles in Flatland) is, of course, what we thought it would be.  In other words, if a third actor were introduced into Rob’s Flatland scenario who argued that the circles were caused by a quintuple invasion of multi-dimensional butt plugs, he would of course be considered a loon despite the fact that he has precisely as much evidence as Rob’s Believer.

Further, if the hand were an actual, objective thing that reached through Flatland on something that was at least a little more than a completely random, arbitrary basis, The Reductionist/Rationalist/Skeptic could actually study the aberrations in Flatland.  So, he might reason, when one circle is introduced, four other circles appear at such and such a time, grow and recede in such and such a ratio,  and do so consistently.  Thus, he might be able to generate a multi-dimensional model of the hand despite his own confinement to two dimensions.  Such experiments happen now when experimental physicists theorize about, say, eleven-dimensional constructs despite the fact that we can only readily observe four (including time).

In sum, Rob asks us to trust the vague feelings of The Believer, and it’s easy to do so in the context of his lecture because The Believer’s conclusions are already proven, even while Rob is arguing that The Rationalist is missing out on true reality because he can’t prove it.  He doesn’t answer, or even consider, the question that it might be a trans-dimensional spaghetti overflow or a multi-universal octopus or anything else that might be making the holes created by the “hand of Rob.”  Any one of these theories has just as much validity in the Flatland scenario if the actors are unable to step out from their 2-D world and observe reality from a more “objective” point of view.

I need to write more often, because there are ton of other things to get in to here.  I can already hear some of the counterpoints, and I want to address them.  But, instead of making this blog even more unreadable than it already is, I’ll let them go until such time as they’re not addressed by my zeros of readers.

Have a good day, everyone.  And keep thinking.

Posted in Religion | Leave a comment

In God We Trust?

Well, as always, seventy-five years pass between each blog post.  But, I have a little bit of a break from work (and work) and (finally) got around to reading the CFI (Center for Inquiry) take on H. CON. RES. 13, which “reaffirms ‘In God We Trust’ as the official motto of the United States and supports and encourages the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.”

Now, I generally find it a waste of time to get all bent out of shape over these kinds of more-or-less trivial issues, and, if I’m being honest, I don’t feel overly upset about the idea of “In God We Trust” being the motto of the United States.  Certainly, I oppose it: it makes a claim for all Americans that has nothing to do with our loyalty to our country, and while it ostensibly remains vague on the definition of God — it does not say, “In Yahweh We Trust,” or “In The God of Such and Such Christian Denomination We Trust” — it’s clear from the wording of the bill which god they’re alluding to. CFI’s CEO says, “This proposed resolution is a slap in the face not only of the nonreligious, but also of every American who supports the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state,” and I agree with that, except I’m either more apathetic or less militant.

Ultimately, I have nothing personally to lose from the passing of such a bill other than a moment of time wasted on the mild annoyance I might feel walking in to a public building.

There are a few points to be made, though.  First, it seems silly to spend Congress’s time on such a bill when there are a myriad of more pressing, vital issues which need attending.  Though, if the country’s motto and God are both really important issues to someone, they might see this as a relevant issue.  Second, though I’m not personally greatly offended by seeing “In God We Trust” on, say, the nation’s money, it can be argued, as implied above, that making this kind of generalized declarative statement infringes on what should be a non-religious government.

Certainly, such a motto is better than, say, “In Jesus of Nazareth We Trust,” or, “In Mohammad the Prophet We Trust,” but it’s still a religious claim, and canonizing it (or continuing its canonization) in federal law is, at best, suspect.

The bill is short, and I won’t get in to every line, but there’s a few premeses that I wanted to address.  (The full bill can be read here.)

Whereas the sentiment, ‘In God We Trust’, has been an integral part of United States society since its founding;

Argument from antiquity.  And the aptness of the word “integral” is probably debatable.  The bill mentions ‘the sentiment’ because, of course, “In God We Trust” wasn’t officially adopted as the national motto until 1956, at which time the US was embroiled in the Cold War, fighting a communism that promoted atheism (though it should be noted that the two are not mutually dependent).   I don’t contend that most if not all of the white, male, slave-owning founding fathers (is that poising the well?  Probably.  In any case, slave ownership wouldn’t contradict the god of the Bible, anyway) fell somewhere between a removed deism and a fundamental Christianity.  But to argue that simply because something was a certain way in the past makes it, therefore, correct and appropriate for current times, is a logical fallacy.

Whereas in times of national challenge or tragedy, the people of the United States have turned to God as their source for sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength, and direction;

Sure, there’s some truth to this in a general sense — throughout all of history, people of all cultures and religions have turned to (and/or created) gods as a means of coping with difficult situations or unexplainable phenomena.  Zeus explained lightening to the ancient Greeks, and I contend that most Christians wouldn’t disagree that these people created a god to deal with their inability to understand and control nature.   There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that.  But, again, arguing that because some (perhaps most) citizens of this country have found comfort in a bronze-age mythology in difficult times necessarily requires that mythology to be adopted as official language by the government is, in my opinion, a non sequitur.  Certainly, it’s unlikely that one could produce evidence that God has actually provided “sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength, and direction,” but they’re only claiming that people turned to God for these things, not that he actually provided them.

[Man, this bill really isn’t that long, and I’m tempted to comment on every line.  But this blog is already getting long, so I’ll skip some.  But, if anyone comments and points something else out in omitted lines, I’ll gladly address it.]

Whereas the oath taken by all Federal employees, except the President, states ‘I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.’;

Interesting that the most important office is exempt.  I actually didn’t know that until reading this bill.  So, thanks, guys!  In any case, I say things like, “Oh, my God!” or, “Jesus Christ!” as swears.  We could put this under the umbrella of the genetic fallacy: simply because the phrase “So help me God” began as, perhaps, an appeal to a specific deity, it has become something less specific.  I might use the phrase “so help me God” as a colloquialism to mean, essentially, “I’m not f*****ng around here, pal.”  I’m sure that won’t convince people who seize on to any mention of God in anything official, but that’s how it seems to me.

Whereas John Adams said, ‘Statesmen may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.’;

Quote mining.  Also, John Adams was one dude; Jefferson cut up the Bible because there was a lot of stuff in it he wasn’t down with.  Additionally: argument from authority.  I won’t contend that Adams isn’t an important historical figure; I won’t contend that he wasn’t instrumental in the development of this nation.  But simply because he had an opinion about something a few hundred years ago should not have much bearing on what we choose to do with our nation today.

Whereas if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured;

This is probably the most frustrating bit to me.  It does not follow that by no longer having “In God We Trust” as our national motto that therefore religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace.  No one is saying you can’t believe what you want to believe; that you can’t tell people about it; that you can’t argue that your religion is superior or more correct that other religions; that you can’t have discussions on religion, morality, ethics, or anything else you’d like; that people shouldn’t be allowed to trust in God if they want to.  If anything, the marketplace is more open to religion and morality and ethics if one particular set of them aren’t canonized into federal law.  In my opinion, the authors of this bill defeat themselves here by making the exact point that condemns them: if nothing else, the United States was based on an imperfect freedom that has continued to improve (e.g. black rights, womens rights, gay rights, etc., that were not rights at all when the country was founded but either are or are in the processes of becoming so now).  Thus, by making the religious beliefs of one (albeit large) portion of society as our national motto, if anything, reduces freedom.  (I don’t think it really reduces freedom that much, since it’s not making me believe in God,  but it certainly doesn’t make the marketplace more open.)

I could write pages on this, though they probably wouldn’t be very good.  Anyway, last bit:

Whereas President John F. Kennedy said, ‘The guiding principle and prayer of this Nation has been, is now, and ever shall be ‘In God We Trust.’

Well, balls: if JF-fucking-K said it, it must be both true as well as law. Again, it’s a simple argument from authority mixed with an argument from antiquity.

This whole thing is shallow and hollow, in my opinion.  But people have a really, really strong feeling that America is supposed to be a Christian nation, and they’ll ignore logic and reason wholesale, so long as they get to keep they’re motto.

Well, let them have it.  I’ll just keep ignoring it.  Maybe I’m being a little soft on the subject: Ron Lindsay, CEO of CFI is certainly actively opposed to the legislation.  But he says this, which I love, and which will close out this blog.

God—if there is one—does not need the government as a publicist.

Posted in News, Religion | Leave a comment

A Few Notes on Homeopathy

Turns out it’s been one billion years since I posted on this blog, and what was going to be the most revolutionary blog in the history of the known universe has, like, two posts.  However, in my other life, I’m battling a severe case of writers’ block, so I thought typing out a few notes on here might be a way to get the proverbial juices flowing once more.

Preamble aside, I thought I’d take a break from the topic of religion and faith (though I’ve got a great article up my sleeve I’m just waiting to get in to) and tackle a little bit of pseudoscience: homeopathy.  A brief but representative (in my experience) primer from a pro-homeopathy source can be found here, and this fairly straight-forward video explains it; an outline and history of homeopathy from a skeptical perspective can be found here (for some reason Chrome on my PC loaded the page strangely — I hate to admit it, but it loaded fine in IE and in an IE-tab on Chrome [see, Chrome is still better!]), and the wikipedia page, while it shouldn’t be trusted in and of itself, is chock-full of external references for your reading pleasure.  In a nutshell, homeopaths dilute chemicals into water to treat various maladies.  The chemical — which of course is “natural” (though arsenic is “natural” as well) — is chosen based on the symptoms.  As ABC Homeopathy states, “[I]f the symptoms of your cold are similar to poisoning by mercury, then mercury would be your homeopathic remedy.”  Whatever the chemical or substance is, it is massively diluted, usually making up from around one part per billion to one part per trillion of the final solution.

There are, I think, a few reasons why homeopathy is attractive.  First, it’s “natural.”  Natural things are trendy, and the association between “natural-ness” and “better-for-you-ness” has grown steadily in recent years, though (and this is a topic for another blog — one with more specific research) the legitimacy of that connection is controversial (one example of “yes,” one of “no“).

Second, it’s anti-establishment.  The ABC Homeopathy site links to this video, and in this video, a prominent homeopath accuses a prominent skeptic of being a stooge for big phrama, a theme you’ll find repeated in many youtube videos (ex-pharma employee, Bill Mahr, etc.) and websites.  Not being an expert myself, I still feel inclined to believe some of this stuff.  Although the aforementioned skeptic is truly a personal hero of mine, one of his positions I have a hard time with is his dismissal of the argument that it is in the interest of pharmaceutical companies to treat rather than cure disease.  (There are some good arguments from both sides, but I won’t get in to them here.)  In any case, it feels good to raise a fist and yell, “Damn the man!”  It’s worth noting, though, that there’s a false dichotamy between the ominous big pharma and the prescriptions of homeopathy: finding flaws in the current medical system gets you no further in proving that homeopathic remidies work.  But, I digress.

The third reason flows nicely from the second: in its anti-establishment nature, homeopathy allows its followers to feel as though they’ve beaten the system, as though they’ve been let in on a bit of secret knowledge that the rest of the world is too stupid or too blind to understand.  This is a common theme of any ideology: many religions claim to have exclusive access to the one, true god of the universe; self-help books give themselves names like The Secret; infromercial superstars like Kevin Trudeau peddle books along the theme, What They Don’t Want You To Know.  So, not only are we against the system, we’re smarter than it and we’ve beaten it.

The fourth and last reason I’ll list here, though there may be more, is that, perhaps more deliberately than conventional medicine, homeopathy purports to treat every person as completely unique.  So, while conventional medicine provides only a few drugs for all migraines, homeopathy tries to figure out which among a myriad of chemicals, hormones, animal fluids (such as snake venom), or common seasoning will best suit your migraine.  This sense of individualization is, I think, very powerful among those who feel alienated and hurried by over-worked doctors in under-funded hospitals.

The reason I’m blogging about homeopathy is because of this video.  You have to watch it.  I’m not even kidding.  Watch it.

Did you watch it yet?  I hope so, but just in case you didn’t here’s the rundown: Charlene Werner, a behavioral optometrist, begins by saying, “I’m going to explain to you exactly, actually how it [homeopathy] works.”  After asking the audience if they’ve heard of Einstein, she goes on to explain.  I’m going to quote her verbatim first (with some “okays” and “ums” of natural speech omitted) , but I fully acknowledge that a transcription of unscripted speech, especially if the speaker is nervous, which she may have been, is going to read awkwardly.  I’ll distill it all in a moment.

“You know that when light is energy, and he [Einstein] gave us the theory that energy equals mass times the speed of light.  E=mc².  If you take that formula, and we think there’s a lot of mass, right?  If you collapsed all the mass down into the universe, so there’s no space between the mass, do you know how much mass there is in the entire universe?  You think you’re a lot of mass, right?  I’m a lot of mass, right?  Well, the whole universal mass can be consolidated down into the size of a bowling ball.  That’s all there is in the whole world — in the universe.  So, how much mass are you?  That’s right: and infinitesimal amount.  So if you take that formula, E=mc², you can almost cross out mass.  So, the formula ends up being, energy equals the speed of light.  And that’s why the vision system is so important, because we have lots of photo receptors that recieve light.”

[ Check the bottom of the page for a few tangential notes on this quote. ]  She then goes on to invoke Stephen Hawking (whose surname she irritatingly augments with an “s”) and string theory.  I’m not an expert on string theory, but even an amateur such as me can discern the difference between Hawking quantum vibrations and the vibrations that our ears detect, which are the vibrations produced by sound waves.  She then argues that because cells don’t have a lot of mass, they’re basically energy.  Then, after listing some scientific-sounding words (electrons, etc.), and building on her completely arbitrary and absurd cancellation of mass, she blasts this gem out:

So the whole body has an infinitesimal amount of mass, but what is the remainder?  Energy.  So I am energy, you are energy.

The remainder of what?  Just because each individual is a relatively infinitesimal amount of mass in comparison to the universe, the galaxy, the solar system, the Earth, or even our town, that doesn’t mean that our 80-or-so kilograms of mass is infinitesimal in comparison to our apparent mass.  What I mean by that is this: simply because we are small doesn’t mean that we can’t be all the mass that we are.  She seems to be assuming here that because our mass can be defined as “infinitesimal,” depending on your scale, that what you see as a person must be made of only a small percent of mass.  Just like her blatant algebraic fallacy, she commits a hasty generalization and incorrectly assumes that our bodies are mostly mass-less, which is absurd.  Granted, atoms are mostly empty space, and that’s where she gets the bowling-ball idea.  I’ll accept that.  But that in no way proves or even suggests that the intervening space is filled by some mysterious “energy,” and even less suggests that such energy can be influenced by homeopathic methods.

She then says that disease is “not mass,” but, instead that “we have transformed our energy state in to something different.  that’s what the definition of disease is.”  Because cancer is “energy,” not a tumor that has physical mass.  Obviously.

There’s still half the video left, but I’ll let you pick through it on your own, and find gold or coal depending on your perspective.  Basically, she argues that homeopathy makes use of this mystical and totally undefined “energy” to create solutions that “fix our vibrations,” and so forth.  Even some homeopaths might argue that she’s on the fringe, and I’d listen to those arguments.  But I would argue that one must be credulous to an absurd level to give credence to anything Werner says in this video.

I’m certainly very late to this party: if you Google Charlene Werner, the vast majority of the results pan her quite mercilessly.  So, if there are any questions left pertaining to this specific video, I’ll let you search them out on your own.

On a broader scale, if you have any comments on homeopathy, big pharma, pesudoscience, alternative medicine, conventional medicine, or any of the other topics discussed herein, please comment.

Until my next post seventeen months from now, this is Close to Finding Truth.

Appendix.

Regarding the “you can basically cross out mass” bit, one Youtube commenter says,

And then saying you can cross out mass… this requires you to pretend to know chemistry but fail basic algebra.

Another says,

You can just take out mass? You fail physics forever.

I’ll also note here that she may not be generally incorrect in saying that the entire mass of the universe can be condensed into a very small size — within an atom, there’s mostly space.  I’m too fat and lazy to get a legit article (and that admission will certainly undermine this whole post for some, but I’m getting sleepy) but here’s a discussion on the topic which expresses what I understand to be the general scientific consensus that over ninety-nine percent of each atom is “empty space.”  Thus, if you cut out all the empty space out of every atom, and crammed all the electrons, protons and neutrons together (in a way that they wouldn’t ever act in normal space), you could condense the universe down considerably.  Her “bowling ball” claim is unsubstantiated, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true — I also wouldn’t be surprised if it were an exaggeration.

End.  Notes.

Posted in Science | Leave a comment