“Other views” indeed.

Gay Marriage in San Francisco

Image by Dave Schumaker via Flickr

If I were to believe Katherine Kersten’s latest screed, I would expect to page through the rest of the newspaper and find report after report detailing how gay marriage opponents are being attacked, beaten, or bullied into suicide merely for expressing their views.  Instead, what I find are story after story about gay people being attacked, beaten and bullied into suicide for being who they are, and editorials like Kersten’s calling for even more discrimination.  Her victim card gambit is practically Orwellian in the way it claims the mantle of suffering on behalf of the very people who have been responsible for discrimination and abuse.

But then she ratchets up the ironic rhetoric another notch, and doubles down on the claim: she is, if we are to believe her, just like someone speaking out against Jim Crow laws in the South.

She misses completely the point that Jim Crow laws were meant to maintain status quo oppression against a group that wasn’t allowed to freely marry the people they loved, using the exact same reasoning she uses to in her rally calls in opposition to gay marriage.   The fact is, there ARE a lot of similarities between the situation then and now: the mistake Kirsten makes is understanding what side of the fence (and history) she stands on.

 

De-Rationalize Your Beliefs Day

Fear your selves

Image by alexrheadrick via Flickr

With yet another failed Rapture prediction under our belts, I hereby unilaterally declare October 22nd to be “De-Rationalize Your Beliefs Day”.  What would YOU continue to believe in, even after being proved wrong, by just coming up with a more complex rationalization for doing so?

Remember how many groups there are out there that will continue to create excuses and workarounds for their beliefs in spite of failing prediction after prediction. Harold Camping’s failed May prediction was rationalized as a “Spiritual Rapture”, which means it really, really, truly did happen, just without anyone noticing.  Other failed prediction groups have come up with similar rationalizations: in the case of the Seekers, God was “so impressed” with their faith that he decided to spare the world his wrath.  Many others rationalize the violence and immorality prescribed in the Old Testament as something that “no longer applies” to us today, which somehow implies that stoning adulterers, gay people and disbelievers, or forcing rape victims to marry their rapists was morally OK at ANY point in time. Mormons continue to believe Joseph Smith’s “revelations”, in spite of the fact they have been proved wrong over and over (e.g. the Native Americans were one of the lost tribes of Israel). Scientologists, believe… well, Scientologists believe the wackiest things out of all the religions, and yet even they have thousands of adherents.  After decades of decrying other nations’ use of torture, many people rationalizes the U.S. use of waterboarding as either “not torture” or “justifiable under the circumstances”, eerily echoing those they had previously condemned.  Cognitive dissonance is a pretty strong engine for us to come up with justifications for the things we believe even in the face of overwhelming evidence, and religion seems to be one of its greatest energy sources.

What I have found most amusing is the number of comments in posts and articles that attack Camping with some variation of “Of course he’s wrong, he’s a false prophet, if you knew your Bible you’d realize that, it’s all in there if you know how to interpret it correctly”, without a trace of irony. Camping’s predictions have been biblically-sourced and interpreted from the beginning, and his claims of having discovered the truth are only different from everyone else’s in that he made a specific, testable prediction and failed.  There’s no reason to feel superior just because you’ve had the good sense to NOT make any predictions that could test your beliefs: your approach demonstrates lack of faith far more than more any better approximation to the truth.

What beliefs do you hold that, in the absence of proof behind them, sound as crazy to outsiders as Camping’s “Biblically-proven” Rapture predictions? And is there anything that could happen or you could learn that would disprove those beliefs, or would you probably just find a slightly more complex rationalization for them?  If you would continue to believe something in spite of volumes of evidence against it, exactly how does that make you more rational or your belief more sensible than Camping’s and his followers?

And remember the Mother of All Rationalizations: “his ways are unknown and mysterious, so we cannot understand them”, which is used to rationalize the Problem of Evil, why good things happen to bad people and bad things to good, or anything else that becomes theologically difficult to explain.  It’s the carte blanche rationalization, the universal throwing up of hands to say “I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense, there’s no proof for it at all… and yet I still believe.”

So let’s take “De-Rationalize Your Beliefs Day” and re-ground ourselves a little.  Science progresses by constantly re-researching basic principles, re-analyzing core concepts, and sometimes discarding them when the rationalizations required to keep them going become more complex than the principles themselves (see epicycles, for example).  It’s not a bad approach, and will eventually cure more people of malaria than the laying-on of hands.  So let’s try an approach that seems to work, systematically roots out inconsistent and incorrect beliefs, and gets us as close as we can possibly get to the truth: let’s go back to basics and start removing the rationalizations, and discarding the beliefs that are left ungrounded.

Cue R.E.M., one more time

Rapture sign -- Holding up well after 14 years...

Image by marcn via Flickr

Harold Camping‘s third apocalypse/Rapture prediction will be here tomorrow.

Instead of mocking him today, I’ll remind everyone that his multi-million dollar Family Radio network is funded almost exclusively by donations, comprises 65 stations around the United States and has a worldwide reach. People believe this guy, to the point of giving him millions of dollars. I can guarantee that many of those donors can ill-afford to give away their money, just to give a lunatic a massively large megaphone.  And all things considered, this guy is small bananas.

Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of Dallas First Baptist Church, a horrid little creep of a guy who briefly made the news a couple of weeks ago at the “Values Voter Summit” calling Mormonism a “cult”, says Camping’s a loon. By this point, the pot and the kettle have settled their differences, made some popcorn and are sitting back to watch and learn from the masters.

I’ll resurrect (hah!) a post I made back in May for Camping’s second blown prediction:

If you think Camping is mistaken about the Rapture only because he predicted the wrong DATE, all of the jokes on the Internet over the next couple of days are about you, too.

Have a fun End of the World, everyone.  I’m going to spend it thinking about things I believe that may be wrong.  Thank goodness I haven’t spent my life savings on any of them yet.

Oh if we could all just get along…

Freedom From Religion Foundation

Ping!

Oh why can’t we just let people of all religions believe what they want?  Why do you atheists insist on picking fights and disturbing the peace when everyone just wants to believe what they wish and live their lives in peace, free from criticism?  Why are you atheists so confrontational and just plain angry?

If only it were that simple, or if that statement were at all true.

If everyone held their own beliefs, and could have rational, non-screaming discussions about them, could listen to other sets of beliefs and points of view without condemning every disbeliever (in their faith) to eternal damnation… and most importantly, refrain from continued attempts to impose their beliefs on everyone else in the world, we would all get along just swimmingly.  But no: every other day you hear about people using their faith to justify imposing laws and rules on everyone, regardless of whether the law has a beneficial secular purpose that is independent of the religious belief behind it.

You see, they don’t want to leave you alone in the first place: not while you believe things that are different, and while they can stir things up by trying to create laws that impose their beliefs on everyone, not just the members of their faith.  And as long as they insist on trying to force their religious beliefs on everyone, they’re the ones picking the fight.

Case in point: Minnesota’s Catholic Bishops Want to Run Your Sex Life

Stop meddling in the affairs, the relationships, the happiness, the love lives, the freedom of people who don’t believe in the same myths you do, and odds are they will return the courtesy.  But the problem arises when your beliefs aren’t designed to exist in the category marked “we’ll leave you alone if you let us have ours”: they’re designed to be imposed on everyone around you, by definition.  You can’t reconcile that with “let’s just all get along and let everyone believe what they want”, it doesn’t work that way.  You’re really saying “let’s just all compromise on living by my rules, then we can all be happy, right?”

No.

There are too many belief systems out there that depend on evangelizing, converting, meddling, interfering, imposing, disturbing, FORCING themselves onto everyone else: as long as these exist, then those suffering the proposed imposition have the right to complain, to be vociferous and angry, and to fight against it.  If that’s what being confrontational and angry means, then at least just have the honesty to admit it’s the same thing you would do if someone else’s beliefs were being imposed on you.

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Archbishop Nienstadt

Archbishop Nienstadt: thank you for your opinion on what you consider “detrimental” to society. Allow me to respond by noting what I find truly detrimental to the peaceful, collaborative society I live in.

The society I inhabit depends on our ability to live together in harmony. This means I refrain from marginalizing any group of people simply because they are different, because they hold different beliefs, or because ancient texts force me to. That may be what society used to mean, decades and centuries ago, when we trusted religious authorities to inform us who God had told them we were supposed to hate. But we no longer live this way. If we intend to live together in unity and peace, we must recognize that we are all too different and living too closely together for the exclusionary attitudes of the Middle Ages to ever hold sway again. Good riddance.

This means we treat each other with respect, it means we don’t bully each other, it means we respect the rights of those who, historically, have had those rights trampled on, and we uphold human rights FOR ALL when they are under attack. It means we support each other, and it means we do not organize witchhunts to attack, discriminate and remove rights from people who are different.

It means we do not impose our religious visions on people who do not share them.

What I personally find “detrimental” to this society is bigoted and hateful attitudes towards my friends: wonderful people who have provided stability, friendship, love and support to my community for years. What I find “detrimental” is people spreading lies and divisiveness, particularly when they do so from an unwarranted position of authority, and “in the name of” someone who would most likely be disgusted at the hatred you promulgate as your interpretation of his message of love and compassion for EVERYONE. What I find “detrimental” to the society I live in is people who actively try to force it apart.

Archbishop Neinstadt: I don’t recognize you as a spiritual or moral leader, and with very good reason. You don’t speak for me, you don’t speak for my friends. My sincere hope is that you don’t speak for more than a small fraction of the people of Minnesota, the majority of whom I have found to be loving, caring and respectful, regardless of who they choose to love.

You have the right to hold an opinion and express it, despicable as many of us find it. I fully defend your right to do so, as I would expect you to defend my right to express my opinion on your views, which I trust you can infer. What I don’t defend, and in fact I will fight to defeat, is any and all work you do to impose your antiquated views of what is “detrimental” to society on those of us who have looked around and recognized the 21st century is already upon us.

Archbishop Neinstadt, you are free to recognize the 21st century, and this is your opportunity to do so. It does mean giving up your claims of absolute ownership of morality, but in any case that is ownership your organization long ago renounced any valid claim to. To mix and match metaphors a little: the beams in your eyes have been far too damaging to the glass houses you live in. A little humility in admitting that your organization’s “infallible” interpretations of your god’s will over the course of the past two thousand years have been… let’s just say “less than stellar”, might help you understand why you are wrong in this case too.

While my hope in this regard is not tinged with undue optimism, I would ask that you join the 21st century and work with the rest of us, enlightened Catholics and non-Catholics alike, in affirming basic civil rights for all. There can be nothing detrimental in a society in which we are all, each one of us, free to find happiness, stability and love with the partners that we choose; and furthermore, to know that our unions are granted the recognition, respect, and all appropriate rights necessary to promote the ongoing stability of our society.

With hope that you decide to judge less in the future, lest you yourself be judged, I remain (unfaithfully) yours.

-d

Emergent properties of society

Empathy (software)

Empathy as communication (image via Wikipedia)

Morality and purpose are emergent properties of society.  They are not externally-imposed by an entity above/beyond itself (the “self” being either at the individual or societal level) any more than the organization and physical structure of an anthill is imposed by an external ant deity.  They emerge from the interaction and collaboration (and sometimes conflict) between the individuals that form it.

When someone asks you what the “purpose” of your life is if you are an atheist, the perfectly acceptable answer is that (at the simplest level), your purpose is to assist in creating and maintaining an environment in which the genetic material of your overall species survives and flourishes (sometimes even at the expense of your personal genetic code).  As such, it can never really be an individual, isolated purpose, since there is no purpose that is independent of defining your role and level participation in society, even if that participation is to reject it and live as a hermit.  At a higher level, this translates to helping your community thrive; this, by the way is why altruism appears at the societal level, since altruism only makes sense if you assume the existence of an independent recipient.

Your “purpose” is the process of discovering what your role will be in that society, which can be something as simple as being a good father or mother to your children, or a more complex role, e.g. driving change at a large scale, where the number and nature of your relationships to the other members of the society you are affecting are far more convoluted.

In the same way, when someone asks you how you can have morals without  a religious book telling you what they are, the perfectly acceptable answer is that living in a society allows you to interact with other people and understand how their actions make you feel.  Because we have evolved a finely honed “theory of mind”, we can at the same time imagine how others would feel as a response to our actions.  In other words, we have empathy, which is the very characteristic that has made a collaborative society possible in the first place.  No empathy, no society: no empathy, no morality.  It’s a very simple step from there to the Golden Rule, which was around in multiple forms centuries before it appeared in the New Testament, and can be expressed thus: when dealing with other people, always imagine yourself in their position.  Strive to make that interaction a positive one.  We couldn’t do that unless we had empathy.

But as an emergent characteristic, this goes both ways: yes, we can’t have a society without empathy, but at the same time we can’t have empathy without society either.  We can’t have purpose with society, and we can’t have society unless our purpose is tied up in it.  Morality and society are equally intertwined: they define each other, and are in a sense the different sides of the same coin, which cannot exist independently.  To ask “who gave you your purpose/morality” with the assumption that there has to be an external “cause” or creator of that purpose or morality is the equivalent of asking which religious authority the ants consult when deciding the role they will have in the colony, and which holy book they read to discover how to build the anthill.

You can live a purpose-driven, moral life without a God imposing that purpose on you.  All it requires is that you participate in your surrounding society: the method in which you do this is up to you.  I would hope that you, as a human being with a developed sense of empathy, recognize that it is in your own best interest to participate in a positive way, to help build up and not destroy: only someone who hasn’t fully considered the consequences could think that abandoning purpose and morality is a natural consequence of no longer believing in a deity.

Infinite deja vu

Simulated view of a black hole in front of the...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m thoroughly convinced that this is not an original idea of mine, but I probably heard it and half-misremembered it from some lecture or sci-fi story or something else.  Or possibly in college, after something mind-bending was consumed.  Anyway.

Let’s assume the Big Crunch is the way the universe is going to end.  The expansion of space eventually stops, reverses, ends up collapsing into a huge black hole into which all the stuff of the universe (including us, since we are star stuff and all) is sucked.  There is already a theory that says this could initiate another Big Bang, launching another universe which would itself then do the same thing and the universe might yo-yo back and forth forever, from Big Bang to expansion to contraction to Big Crunch to Big Bang again.

But here’s a slightly different thought: black holes deform space and time around them (and by the way, check out the gravitational lensing simulation at the black hole wikipedia page… so cool).  In fact, at the center of a black hole you have a gravitational singularity, which is defined as a region where the curvature of spacetime becomes infinite, and all kinds of weirdness ensues.  But in certain types of black holes it is hypothetically possible to use this weirdness to travel to a different spacetime by using the black hole as a “wormhole”.  Very cool stuff, but purely theoretical and probably only ever achievable as individual particles, not something we would be able to actually, you know, use as humans.

But what if all black holes… scratch that, what if the single black hole singularity at the end of the Big Crunch, the voracious Jabba the Hole that has consumed all, is actually is one of these wormhole-types of holes, and instead of spitting intrepid explorers out all over the placetime, it actually only has ONE spacetime endpoint to which it connects: this very same Universe’s Big Bang event.  So, a supermassive black hole, containing the entire physical contents of our universe, funnels all of that content into a single point in spacetime that happens to be in its own distant past… the moment/place of its own birth?  Feeding it over time, mind you, from the perspective of us as observers, but feeding it all at once, in the single instant/location of the Big Bang, from the perspective of an observer at the other end of the wormhole.  To us it looks like this black hole has been consuming matter over billions of years (and from our perspective it has), but the end point to which all the matter is fed is not across multiple points in spacetime: it’s one single point.

What I appreciate about this thought is that we have the concept of the Big Bang/Big Crunch yo-yo, but instead of an infinite number of universes being created sequentially (for whatever the meaning of that word is when spacetime is created at the point of the Big Bang), you only have one universe, continuously creating and consuming itself at the same… well, “time” is the wrong word.   So the causality problem of “what came before the Big Bang?” (so beloved by people attempting to insert a god into the picture) goes away: what came “before” the Big Bang was the same Klein bottle of a universe, consuming itself to be reborn.  The universe’s history then has the same curved shape as its physical existence, where you can travel for a very long time in the same direction and end up in the same place you started (and vice versa).  The destructive, all-consuming process that we theorize and observe in black holes today, is actually one side of a fiber-optic lens whose other end terminates billions of years ago in a single point, lather rinse repeat.

So technically, I guess if you look deep enough into this black hole, you would see the beginning of the entire universe that contains the black hole you are looking into.  Gaze into the abyss, and the abyss gazes into the back of your own head.

A fun thought experiment, and I know little enough about the implications of black holes and wormholes to know that a theoretical quantum physicist can probably poke an Avogadro’s number-worth of holes into it.  But in the short term, I’m thoroughly convinced I’m half-remembering this from somewhere or someone or something I’ve seen or heard before.  If I were a New Age nutcase I’d say I’m probably experiencing the deja vu of me experiencing myself remembering myself in this infinite loop of a universe, but then I’d have to conclude that my head is full of rocks.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

[Edited 10/5/2011 to tack on some comments from a G+ discussion of the above]

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I think this whole thought came from the fact that when you have a black hole-caused wormhole, it spits out whatever traveled through it into a different point in spacetime. But in the case of the black hole singularity, there is no other space to spit things out to, so what becomes the only variable there is time. It’s at that point possible that over enough time (from the singularity’s perspective) all particles eventually travel through wormholes that end up at a different point in time in the same universe.

Since that point in time might be variable, sometimes the particles seem to appear “out of nowhere” randomly throughout the history of the universe. Who knows, the end point of the wormhole could actually be TWO end points traveling in opposite directions with regards to time, so what we see is a particle and its anti-particle appearing and then annihilating each other, but they are really just the same particle encountering itself while traveling in opposite time directions. Eventually (again, at random) they appear at the moment of the Big Bang, and just as at the event horizon of the black hole you have radiation from one of the particle/anti-particle pair escaping the hole’s gravitational pull and the other being absorbed, at the Big Bang you have the concentrated output of all of those absorbed particles. Ignore most of this paragraph, though, I’m just throwing words around.

I don’t know, I’m not trying to get into Time Cube territory here, but it seemed a plausible (albeit somewhat far out) response to the causality problem: it’s really a response to a religious argument more than anything that I actually think has a high scientific probability of having happened. But if what came “before” the Big Bang was the very same universe itself, then the argument that says “What caused the Big Bang? A-ha! You don’t know, therefore it must be God!” gets a bit of a mind-blowing (and to me, rather pleasing) answer. Do I believe it actually happened? Probably not, but the explanation tickles my endorphin producers in the same way a well-thought out time travel sci fi story does.