Thursday, June 30, 2011

Revisiting the Watchmaker - Bayes' Theorem

I have previously explained the watchmaker argument and the inherent circularity, but I thought I would expand my objections with a bit more mathematical rigor.

As a brief review, the watchmaker argument involves a cute little story about finding a beautiful gold watch in the middle of nowhere and, how silly it is to conclude that the watch was not manufactured by some intelligent being.
The main thrust of this argument is this:  the likelihood of the existence of a complex universe containing life is very small if there is no intelligence to deliberately create it.

Now I will briefly explain Bayes' theorem.
If P(A|B) is the probability of A given B
and P(A) is the independent probability of A (not given any other variables),

Then P(A|B) = P(B|A)*P(A)/P(B).

Now, let's look at the watchmaker argument.  We have two propositions:
G = God Exists
L = Life Exists (in a complex universe)
(Not G is written ~G)

We are to assume, from the argument, that P(L|G) is much, much larger than P(L|~G).  This is debatable, but there are some arguments in favor of this.
The watchmaker argument would have you believe that P(G|L) is large because P(L|~G) is so small, that is, if there is life, god likely exists because life is so unlikely to exist without god.  Essentially, the statement is that P(G|L) = 1 - P(~G|L) = (approx) 1 - P(L|~G).

However, inverse probabilities are not so simple as this naive argument would have you believe.  In reality:
P(G|L) = 1 - P(~G|L) =  1 - P(L|~G)*P(~G)/P(L).
What we don't know here is the relative magnitude of P(L|~G)*P(~G)/P(L), because the likelihood of god's existence (independent of other variables) is unknown.  Therefore, no conclusions can be drawn.  If P(L|~G)*P(~G)/P(L) is close to 1, then P(G|L) is actually very small, close to zero.

Now, I think I've made my point, but I'd like to venture into the realm of speculation now, so take this as you will.
Does god count as life?  If so, then P(G) < P(L) assuming that life besides god can possibly exist.
If that is the case, then P(G)/P(L) < 1, so P(G|L) = P(L|G)*P(G)/P(L) < P(L|G).
This gives us the rather minor conclusion that life must give god's chance less of a boost than god give's life's chance.  Thus, the watchmaker argument is inherently weaker than it purports to be.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I haven't been writing much at all lately.  To be perfectly honest, things have been changing rapidly in the last few weeks.

I'm happier, for one thing.  I have motivation once again to get things done,  and I can take satisfaction in my work, something that seems pretty novel after months of deep depression.
I'm on good terms with my family, and I'm open about how I feel about religion.  I am actually trying to be friendly at church... if I'm going to remain more or less active for my wife's sake, I guess I'd better start learning to be comfortable in the community.

My political views have been evolving as well.  I have actually been thinking a lot about libertarianism and the role of government lately... something I have avoided doing out of sheer horror at the obnoxiously-uninformed rhetoric of the teabaggers.  Not that I'm becoming libertarian, but I feel that it's healthy to seriously consider views other than those I've become accustomed to holding.
To be perfectly honest, I've actually become more pessimistic, politically.  I don't feel like there is anything that can be done at this point to save our civilization... our society is consuming resources and energy at ever-higher rates despite the decreasing cost-effectiveness of all of our resource-gathering operations.  But I suppose all civilizations must fall.
I may write more about all this later... I'm still considering a lot of things.

I have been taken by surprise at how quickly things seem to change.  I'm almost afraid of the feelings of hope and contentedness that I have recently begun to experience... like I can't trust them.  Maybe I can't, maybe life sucks and I'm only in denial if I feel otherwise.  I'm still not convinced that life can have any meaning... but at least I'm enjoying it a little, now.  Perhaps what I'm most afraid of is a loss of objectivity... I have no desire to simply become caught-up in my own affairs to the point at which I'm not thinking constantly and thoroughly about the state of the world around me.
I'm still not completely convinced that a healthy mind is a sane mind.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rebellion, or Something More?

It has been a very eventful and draining few weeks, and I haven't posted on here in a while.  I do, however, have a lot of things I've been thinking about.

I've had the chance to talk recently with some people pretty frankly about my lack of a testimony.  It's awkward to have to tell people (when they seem like they might invite me to go to the temple) "um... I should probably let you know that I don't have a temple recommend."  I always follow it up with "I'm not involved in anything horrible, I just don't have a testimony and can't answer 'yes' to the questions about belief in the interview."  I don't know exactly why I feel like I have to justify myself in this way.  I guess, with most of my family and friends being strongly Mormon, I don't want to be seen as "weak and sinful" so much as "questioning."

I really don't think the church is correct.  It's history is filled with silly inconsistencies, and it's doctrine doesn't seem to match what I perceive as true.  I was told recently that it is silly to judge the church based on statements by a previous, imperfect prophet (like Brigham Young, who even Mormons will admit had some wacky ideas).  I defended myself by saying that yes, but if there is going to be an ultimate source of "revelation" on the Earth, it had damn-well better stick out in some way.  I don't find that the LDS "prophets" tend to be much more correct in their statements, predictions, and assertions than any other person claiming to be in close contact with god.

I guess what has really been hitting me is the fact that I'm probably never going to believe in the church again (or god, for that matter), and that is going to have a profound impact on my relationship with my family and friends.  Many in my family will always think somewhat less of me because of it.  I will be excluded from family events and activities, like temple weddings.  I really love my family, and it makes me sad that my lack of belief puts distance between them and me.  It's almost enough to make me want to pretend to believe, just so I can avoid all of that.
But, I just can't live a lie.  The LDS church is very likely based on fiction, as far as I can tell.  I am interested in truth, and I want to seek truth, not accept (or even pretend to accept) what some others around me insist is truth. 

I've had moments of extreme elation as I've learned to think for myself and question my own unfounded beliefs, but it's definitely not all fun and games.  I know there is a certain entertainment I get from the rebellious aspect of the change in my life, but this is not about rebellion, ultimately.  I am very sad, sometimes, that I will never be to my family what I could be if I just never questioned the religion of my upbringing.  At these times, I review my present conclusions, earnestly trying to determine whether maybe I'm just being rebellious or have some other ulterior motive for my lack of belief.  I haven't once concluded that this is the case... I have very real reasons for doubting god's existence, and I just couldn't go back to believing given my present knowledge and experiences.  I need integrity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Curious Case of Korihor

Korihor is a character who turns up in the Book of Mormon in Alma 30.

Korihor is an atheist.  He works hard to try to tell people that they don't have very good reasons to believe what they believe, and maybe they'd better take a good look at their leaders and their beliefs.  He tells them that Christ will not come, because why would you believe someone who says he knows the future?

Korihor ends up having a showdown with Alma.  Korihor welcomes to opportunity for dialogue, and explains why he is trying to get people to doubt the gospel.  Eventually, Korihor keeps saying that he won't believe in god without proof, so Alma gives him proof... he strikes him dumb by god's power!

Here is where the nefarious aspect of Korihor's story comes out.  Alma accuses Korihor of lying about Alma and other church leaders' taking advantage of the people, while in actuality they don't get a dime for their service.  The account seems to support this accusation.  Alma also says "can you prove that there isn't a god?" and Korihor is duped.  Finally, the truth comes out: Korihor had been approached by Satan (in the deceptive guise of an angel) and set on his blasphemous task.  He is the literal, willing servant of Satan, who manages to preach so subtly that even he starts believing his own lies.

Korihor is a very cleverly-made caricature of a skeptic.  Initially, his arguments seems reasonable enough, and he seems to be concerned for the welfare of his fellow citizens.  However, the righteous servants of god soon reveal that he is a fake who is literally in the employ of Satan himself.
The beauty of the Korihor story is that it gives LDS theology a delightful straw-man with which to equate all atheists, skeptics, and critics.  Sure, these people might seem like they are honestly out to make a point, but they are all really just working for Satan for their own selfish purposes.

Now, I can't honestly speak for all atheists, critics, and skeptics.  But I consider myself a skeptic, atheist, and critic of religion, and I haven't seen any angels.  I know some accuse the leaders of the church of taking the money of the church and enjoying their positions of power, but I honestly think that they probably work pretty hard for what they believe is right and correct, and don't get all that wealthy doing it.  I don't find a whole lot of similarity between Korihor and myself.  I'm content to leave those who are not interested in skeptical inquiry alone.  I haven't talked to Satan lately.
But I do happen to agree with Korihor on a few points.  I don't feel that there is sufficient evidence generally available to justify the insistence on the existence of some intelligent, paternal god.  I fear that religious leaders intentionally obfuscate the issues with their rhetoric, though I think that in many cases their intentions are good enough.

The point of Korihor is to show the LDS church that all those who criticize their unquestioning belief must be evil satanists with ulterior motives.  I must be just like Korihor, right?  The thing that makes Korihor really effective is his humanity, his believability as he is introduced in the text.  Subtly and slowly, it is revealed what a real liar he is.  If he had been presented immediately as a satanic man with clear ambitions of power and influence, he would be hard to compare to a lot of skeptics out there, but as he starts off as a more believable character, it is easier to equate actual skeptics with him and then assume that they are hiding similarly-nasty secrets.

All-in-all, the story of Korihor is a master stroke in creating preconceived prejudice against those of a more skeptical nature.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hooray for America

Osama Bin Laden is dead!  Whoopdy-hoo!

We managed to kill the guy we wanted dead, and it only cost thousands of American lives (not to mention the casualties on the other side), trillions of taxpayer dollars, and the respect of the international community.

But, of course, we are completely justified in calling for the blood of such a bloodthirsty killer, right?  He killed Americans, so he's evil, and we killed him and his buddies, so we're heroic, strong, and brave.

After all, we're a Christian nation, right?  And Christianity is all about revenge.
Matthew 5:39 -  “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him [and rip his freaking head off!]”

America: ruthlessly disposing of and dancing on the graves of those who oppose us since 1776.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

There's no "My" in "Myself"

Am I my own?  If I belong to myself, what part of me is the owner, and what part the property?  Can property own itself?  It seems that such words start to lose their meaning once you hit this level of abstraction.

I think there are those who would have me believe that I am "my own person."  My life, body, consciousness, abilities... these all belong to me.  But when my makeup and circumstances define what I want to do with this "property" of mine, these things are my rulers, not my slaves.  It all seems contrived, but then, so is the general concept of ownership.

More interesting still are the folks who would have me believe that I am not my own person, but that my whole being is on loan from god.  I guess it's not inconceivable that I'm god's little pet.
My question is, does god own himself?  Or is it equally blurry for him as it is for us?  If god can't change his nature because of his nature, then he's as much a slave as any of us.
God's ownership of us is at least in keeping with the general idea of property rights.  God has supposedly claimed us as "his," and has the power to whack anyone who tries to ignore his claim.  We are his to destroy or give away or bake into a hot-dish.  If you owned a sack of flour, the same would be true about you.  Ultimately, some people respect your property in order not to get whacked by someone (some are respectful out of moral principle, but we know for sure that this is not true of all).  You can do what you like with it.

However, I don't see why I have any reason to respect god's ownership of me.  Okay, he could pound me to bits like any defective toy and toss me out with Monday's trash, so if I want to avoid that I should behave.  But when a piece of property malfunctions, we usually find it quite juvenile to get all mad and blame the object in question.  There are a couple of terms that I like that refer to the cause of computer error: GIGO (Garbage in, Garbage out), and PEBCAK (Problem exists between chair and keyboard).  How about human error?  God made us, so it's all his fault, right?  Design flaws?

If, however, we have free will or some germ of existence that is independent of god (as is stated in LDS theology), what we do is no longer god's fault.  However, in this case I would call into question the justice of god's claim of ownership.  Sure, god can still cause us pain and suffering and maybe even nonexistence of some sort, but "might makes right" is not a just moral precept, only an effective one.  If I was an intelligence before I was a spirit, what right did god have to pick me up, stick me into a spirit somehow, and then claim ownership over me as my "creator?"  As I understand it, he, too, is nothing more than a little chunk of intelligence that got stuck into a spirit and then a body, and then eventually got pretty powerful.
Come to think of it, this is starting to sound like abusive behavior toward children propagating down through multiple generations.  Perhaps god is as much a victim as we are, and is dealing with us the way he learned, the way he was dealt with.

I don't really think there's a god, but I sure like to try to figure out what the existence of a god would mean for ethics and reality, not to mention our bizarre relationship with him.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reductionism and the LDS Faith

Reductionism is the idea that, simply put, all phenomena are comprised of simpler phenomena, down until only a few basic rules govern the whole thing.
This view supports the concept that human behavior is just psychology, which is just specialized biology, which is just specialized chemistry, which is just specialized physics, which is ultimately knowable through mathematical models only.  Thus, human beings and their behavior are nothing more than the interactions of many, many particles based on a few basic rules.

I tend to be reductionist in my thinking.  Religious folks, of course, tend to reject the idea of reductionism, because it demotes human beings to somewhat-less than "the image of god."
However, I have noticed a very peculiar aspect of Mormon theology (especially of liberal Mormons who tend to accept modern ideas of ethics and fairness).
Any person is accountable for his or her own actions, right?  The body, of course, is in under the control of the spirit, somewhere in which consciousness lurks.
However, when a person is a sociopath, or has a disability that affects his or her behavior, these things are clearly linked to certain aspects of the formation and operation of the specific brain in question.  The funny thing is, Mormons are totally accepting of this fact, as long as the behavior explained is outside the realm of what is desirable to Mormons.
"You're depressed?  Well, that's a trial you've been given, not your fault.  Your brain is broke!"
"He killed himself during a manic episode?  Well, it wasn't him.  It was his malfunctioning brain."

At the same time, anything good is a result of a person's conscious and deliberate decisions, which are made by the true essence of that person, the spirit.
"I am happy because I have chosen to live the gospel of Jesus Christ."
"I just know that the way I feel couldn't be coming from me, it's the spirit."

Would these people be offended if I were to suggest to them that maybe their reactions and feelings were the result of brain chemistry?  Would they be mortified that I thought that behaviors like kindness and a sense of justice are solely the result of millions of years of natural selection?  I suspect they would!

Then why is it okay for these people to tell me that my depression is a result of my brain chemistry?  It isn't part of the "real me."  It is part of the transient trials in the life that come with a my body, and will go away when I die.  Okay, great.  What about my desire to do good in the world?  Oh, well that's the real me!  I'm a good person because my spiritual essence is good, in spite of my body and brain chemistry!

This can be applied very broadly.  The most liberal of truly-believing Mormons will kindly try to tell Homosexuals that they are "broken."  They have this trial, but if they just wait, they'll find out that who they really are is not gay, but actually conforms perfectly to every Mormon ideal.

Mormons, therefore, seem to be selectively reductionist.  (and that's the nice ones...)  They are willing to ascribe things that are undesirable that people "can't help" to neurobiology, but not anything they experience which strengthens or confirms their own faith.

Ultimately, I prefer this view to condemnation without exception.  But it still seems to fall short of truly "open-minded," because it discourages introspection in all aspects of a person's behavior.  It is blasphemous and demeaning of god to suggest that anything good comes from somewhere other than him, but it is more blasphemous and demeaning of god to suggest that anything bad comes from him.  If you believe this, there is no actual way to scrutinize god or his involvement in the world.  It is automatic a priori acceptance of a complete worldview, with a clause built right in that these beliefs can never be disproved.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Making Molehills out of Mountains

I recently had a long conversation with a good friend who is tbm.  I talked about my qualms with the LDS faith and with faith in general.  His advice to me was to stop sweating the small stuff and have faith in the simplest way, the way a child believes.

More recently, I talked with my mother about a similar subject.  She mentioned that she thought that I find fault in things that LDS leaders have said and with specific points of doctrine. 

I understand where both of these people are coming from.  Not seeing the forest for the trees, I could miss a lot of good things in life if I were to reject anything and everything that did not seem perfect to me.

However, I am not convinced that it is wrong to heavily consider details in this situation.  The is absolute truth we're talking about, it's a big deal if one religion happens to be true (making the others all false to various degrees).
So I guess I probably shouldn't attack the church because Brigham Young was misogynistic and racist in his personal opinions... nobody's perfect, but they can still be right about some things even if wrong about others.  However, when church doctrine seems unlikely or patently false, I think that this is relevant.  And when the so-called prophet speaks to the church, he is supposed to be standing in for god.  So I could care less what Ol' Brother Brigham said to friends, family, and acquaintances.  However, when he spoke in general conference or wrote things down for the church, that is the stuff that is supposed to be guaranteed.  What's the point of a prophet when he could always be "speaking as a man?"  (And he always turns out to have been when he said something wrong.)

I countered that the prophet is pointless if you are never sure of the validity of what he's saying.  The reply that I got asserted that one does not need to believe the prophet necessarily, that one can receive one's own confirmation of what the prophet has said.  I think this is a refreshingly liberal thought from members of a faith that is sometimes frighteningly dogmatic and protective of its leaders.
However, I think that this argument puts the final nail in the coffin of the "necessity of prophets."  If we are not to believe anything they say until we go ask ourselves, why not just ask god ourselves in the first place?  I mean, the whole "stewardship" thing, where you need a certain calling or priesthood to be able to reveal things for a certain group, is useless if nothing they say is to be trusted anyway.

 So if I'm a little upset about what they didn't tell me about the Book of Abraham, is that me throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  (frankly, as an atheist, I would never waste a perfectly tasty baby in such a way)  I don't think so!  The book is fraudulent.  The "translation" is fiction.  The facsimiles are inaccurately reconstructed and  the symbols on them wildly misinterpreted.
And then people try to tell me "Joseph Smith was just a man!"  Well, I never doubted the fact, but what happened to "the prophet will never lead the church astray?"  The fact that millions of Mormons believe that the Book of Abraham is a direct translation of some papyrus that Smith got from mummies being sold (the tiny little archaeologist inside me cringes) on the American frontier seems to fall within the realm of "astray."

There is a great analog of this from the world of physics.  The Michelson-Morley experiment performed in the 19th century failed to confirm what it was designed to confirm: that since the Earth is moving through the fixed "ether" of space, there should be an "ether wind" that makes light travel faster in some directions than others (because the ether is what the waves propagate through).  The physics community was puzzled, and kept building bigger and better experiments to try to figure out how they'd missed the ether wind.  Then, a bored patent-office clerk named Albert Einstein decided to take this seemingly-small discrepancy out to its weird logical conclusion: that light propagates at the same speed in all directions as observed from any reference frame.  Thus the theory of relativity was born, a theory which has repeatedly been confirmed by various experiments, has fundamentally changed our view of the structure and behavior of the universe, and without which GPS navigation devices would be accurate to within tens of miles instead of tens of feet.

Did Einstein err by making a mountain out of what so many regarded as a molehill?  If by "err" you mean "make the most important discovery made by the physical sciences in centuries," then yes.

Near the end of the 19th century, Rutherford (the physicist responsible for hiring the grad students who discovered the atomic nucleus) noted that the Physics community had solved nearly every problem about how the world works.  He described two little dinky things, two discrepancies that were about all that remained:  The Michelson-Morley experiment and the behavior of black-body radiation.
Rutherford is frequently mocked for his assertion that physics was almost "done,"  but I think he was quite astute.  As I've already mentioned, the M-M experiment's results led to the development of the theory of relativity.  Black-body radiation is one of the very first things that made certain physicist start noticing that quantities which were assumed to be continuous only came in certain discreet values, an idea that led to the development of quantum mechanics.  Thus, 19th-century physical science was completely swept aside by radical, powerful new theories that arose from curious investigation from the last, dinky little discrepancies that seemed to exist in the models of the day.  These are not just abstract physics, either.  Relativity and quantum mechanics are essential to things from NASA's calculations of spaceship trajectories to the operation of the tiny electronic circuits printed on silicon microchips.

I think that the "put it on the shelf" attitude is misled.  Just ignore anything I have qualms about, because ultimately the gospel is something much bigger?  Just because lots of parts of it are consistent with each other (which I readily admit... I would have become atheist quicker if I had been of a denomination other than LDS,
I suspect) does not mean that the entire structure is not misled, as was the case of 19th-century science.
Disregarding things like the Book of Abraham and the inconsistency of church doctrine through the years is not a path to truth.  It is making molehills out of mountains, keeping the bathwater sitting in the bath forever (yuck) just in case the baby's in there, and missing the ravenous tigers for the forest.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Email Address

Since I get a reasonable number of hits on this blog, I thought I would create and email address that anyone reading it can use to contact me:

I welcome all emails, whether they be condemnation, praise, spam, offers for enlargement pills, or the entire text of the Bible! (that might not fit...)

If you're having doubts about your faith and need someone to talk to, email me.  I promise not to try to talk you out of your faith, I just know what it's like to feel like there is no one to listen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

We Hate Thee, Oh God, For Your "Prophet"

Someone who I have come to consider a good friend approached me today and told me that, in a nutshell, he no longer believes in Mormonism or Christianity, and god isn't looking too hot either.  I have been pretty open with this friend about my own beliefs (or lack thereof).  I was surprised, because he was always debating me with the more Christian/Mormon stance, and while I had no intention of attacking his faith, I have always enjoyed a good debate.

We talked for a while today.  He told me about the hurt feelings he has, the immediate rift that has seemed to form between him and his family.  It was like I was listening to myself from just a few months ago.  To be honest, I'm still quite shell-shocked, and I hope things go better for my friend.

My feelings are mixed.  I am delighted at the prospect of having a friend around who thinks like me.  I remember how lonely I was all those months ago.  I'm also glad that myself and another friend were around and known to this friend of mine, so he can hopefully feel a little less alone.
At the same time, I feel a little sad.  I know it's stupid, but I feel like I helped get my friend into this process by being vocal about my own qualms with faith.  I don't want to destroy anyone's faith if it makes them happy, so I try to be careful.  In addition, I know how hard the process can be.  My life has gone to pieces in the last year, in some respects, and I wouldn't wish the emptiness and confusion I've felt on anyone.

I know I cussed and ranted about this recently, but this is what I feel the most anger about toward the church.  The fact that it lied to me for 20-something years, and I gave it everything, and now I can't even be open with the people around me because of the church.  There is a whole huge part of what I was that is gone, and I've spent the last several months gradually picking up the pieces.  I still have a long way to do.  How dare they do that to me?  How dare they do it to anyone?

Can I blame disillusionment on the perpetrators of the illusion?  I guess I can't really, since they are operating under the illusion themselves.  Except for Joseph Freaking Smith, and his freaking friends who helped him start a freaking false religion that would one day make so many miserable.  And even the credulous fools who followed them.
I was brought up to believe... I was trained pretty hard-core.  Those people?  My ancestors who joined the church?  They believed all the insane stuff the church claims after reaching adulthood and having a decent amount of experience.  Believed that charlatan Smith and his henchmen.

But... I guess we're all looking for something in life, and I can't fault someone who tries to find it.  After all, I held out for decades against frequent doubts, because it was all I knew to rely on.
So... I guess my ancestors did what was right by them, which is all we can ever ask.
Smith?  Power-grubbing deluded liar?  He sucked, and he was a scumbag.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Economics and Human Morality

Once again, I depart from my usual themes of atheism, religion, and how silly everyone is to ramble on about other things I've been thinking about.

I have been reading a lot of Vonnegut lately (as everyone should), and it has helped me fill out some thoughts that I was already tossing around:

Endless debate concerns the ideal system of economics.  Alarmed cries of "socialism!" rise from the conservative crowds, many of whom have no idea what they're talking about.  However, a few of them actually do know a thing or two about economics, and their advocacy of a purely market-driven economy is reasonably defensible.

Pure capitalism is superior to socialism in terms of its respect for property rights.  Property rights include the assumed right that my future self has to control anything my present self has and does not willingly give up.  In addition, they include the assumption that it is my right to decide what happens to "my" things when I kick the bucket.

What are the ethical origins of property rights?  They seem to be inherent to human beings, and they seem to be a good idea from an evolutionary standpoint.  The cleverest/sliest human beings accumulate the most property.  To propagate one's genes, one would be well-advised to accumulate wealth, reproduce, and then make sure that one's offspring receive that wealth so they, too, can successfully live and reproduce.
However, property rights don't have much else going for them in the ethics department.  It is horrifically unfair that some children should be born into great privilege while so many more are born to circumstances so poor that their chance of survival to adulthood is significantly reduced.  It may well even be unfair that someone who works hard early in life can become rich and slough later in life, and someone who sloughs early in life must work hard later in life just to survive.

However, because of how human beings are built, we don't really function without property rights.  The socialist experiments of the 20th century were not very successful for various reasons, and one of these reasons is the innate desire to claim what one is holding as one's own.  In fact, the human race is so attached to property rights that we are more than willing to suspend our other moral intuitions, like that we shouldn't kill people, in order to retain or accumulate more property.

Socialism, on the other hand, is quite disrespectful of property rights... it is built around the idea that wealth should be distributed, or jointly-owned, or some other such scheme that means that I do not necessarily keep the economic value that I manage to create.  It seems unfair in relation to property rights.  However, socialism is built around ideals serving other moral intuitions, like the consideration of the implicit costs to society incurred by society's allowing certain members to go without many very basic needs.  Very few of us could honestly say that we feel that the situation of malnourished children born into filth and poverty is just, and may even feel a little guilty as we cram down doughnuts in front of our wide-screen TVs.

Can these two desires, the altruistic desire that everyone have enough and the desire for "just" property rights where value created is kept by the creator, ever coexist?

Probably, they can never perfectly be reconciled.  We can do what we've always done, which is argue about it and sort of shoot down the middle somewhere, and somewhat satisfy both.  Or we could try to argue that if the haves were more philanthropic, the have-nots would become have-enoughs, and both principles would be served.  However, this does not seem to be the case; many people have unnecessary luxuries like pools or exotic pets or sports cars when people all around them can barely afford shelter, much less education, insurance, or decent medical care.  Philanthropic giving hasn't ever covered the wide disparity between the wealthy and the desperately-poor.

So I am forced to conclude that, in our present situation, there is not ideal system of economics.  Human beings hold to both of the mutually-exclusive desires for property rights and the humane treatment of fellow humans.  We are contradictory beings who want to have our cake and eat it, too.

Lest I end on a terribly-depressing note, however, I will concede that certain circumstances could remedy this dilemma.  A post-scarcity economy, where essentially anyone can have anything they need and much of what they want for very little effort, might remove the problem.  Basically if we find a way to make replicators from Star Trek and also unlimited energy.  Space is still a problem, of course, but the situation is much improved, and if birth control is also widely available, that problem might diminish.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Nature of God

Who is this "god" fella?  Why are so many people so concerned with him... or her... or it?

I don't care which euphemism you use.  Supreme being.  Creator.  First cause.  Prime mover.  Higher power.  Greater intelligence.  Spirit of nature, life force, big cheese in the sky, invisible pink unicorn...  None of these actually describe much about the thing they refer to, so I think most of them can be used interchangeably, and are by religious persons.

I guess, if we aggregate the qualities of all of these names for god (at least the serious ones), we find we are talking about something that is smarter and more powerful than human beings, existed before anything else (and is responsible for the existence of everything else), and is not subject to the laws of nature as we understand them.

This leaves a lot of fudge room.  Consider the following gods:

Jehova -- God of the Bible, with an affinity for certain Semitic peoples.  His main purpose seems to be to make sure all of his creations do what he tells them to do.  Is extremely nervous about sex, can be contacted via some sort of telepathy.  Sent/is Jesus, who had to die horribly so that he could forgive us of all of the bad things that we do because of how he made us.  Generally human...ish.

Mork the Incinerator -- God I just made up, lives on the moon.  Did not always live on the moon, because she had to create it first.  Her main purpose is to get her creations to do her work for her.  The human race was created so that we could perfect maple syrup.  Visited earth in the form of Agatha Christie for unknown reasons.  Can be contacted via invisible laser phone to the moon, which is built into the cells of all living creatures.

Both of these fit the basic criteria, as far as I can tell.  As a side comment, I'd like to say that I prefer Mork.

So when someone asks me if I believe in god, what am I supposed to say?  I mean, I say no, but then sometimes people will go off on this whole thing about where did the universe come from and science can't explain the beginning of all things!  Sure.  I agree.  Then they say "So you believe in god!"

Okay... so I guess before I answer their question, I should ask them to clarify what they mean by "god."  For all I know, god is a toaster in a bed-and-breakfast in South Dakota.  And sure, if by "god" you mean "the abstract concept that human science is inherently deficient and can't account of the existence of something rather than nothing," sure, I believe in god!  But that does not mean that I believe in a bearded busybody who gets really upset when people eat pigs or talk smack about him.
I won't even grant that it must be intelligent!

But Dave!  The universe must be designed, because if certain physical constants were only slightly different, matter could not exist as atoms!
Yeah, big whoop.  I bet there are quark-gluon plasma people out in some universe saying the same thing, except they believe in their strange charm god because they are so lucky that things aren't just different enough for quarks to combine into hadrons.  (Among which are protons and neutrons, essential for our existence.)

Okay, I know I'm getting a little snarky.  But frankly, if the universe were incapable of supporting life, who would notice?
And regardless, why be grateful that you exist?  It's not like you'd care if you didn't.

The thing is, individual religions each have a reasonably well-defined description of god, but there are a lot of religions, and they all differ in their views.

If there is an intelligent god, is he really messing around with us?  Homo sapiens has existed for less than a million years, out of the 13.75 or so billion years the universe has probably existed.  That's less than 0.007%.
Assuming that humanity regularly travels anywhere from any point on the earth's surface to the orbit of geosynchronous satellites (which are quite far out), there are approximately 18 billion cubic kilometers of area that has anything to do with us.  The observable universe is about 134 followed by 117 zeroes cubic kilometers in volume.  The part that mankind get around in is is about the same percentage as the percent chance of you getting struck by lightning... twenty time... in one given year.

How much could we possibly matter?  We have existed as a species for 0.007% of the universe's existence, and even then we've (at maximum!) only occupied such a small percentage that I gave it to you in lightning strikes.  It's somewhere around 4*10^-107, if you want the numbers.

If we are the apex of creation, god sure took his sweet time getting around to making us!  I think the creationists aren't scared of what science will do to god's image... I think they are afraid of just how insignificant we are as a species.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Absolute Morality 'n' Me

Certain things seem to be largely considered universally wrong.  Other things have a lesser wrongness, a subjective wrongness, it seems.

Absolute Moral:  Killing children is bad.  We regard anyone who does it deliberately as sick and unfit for our society.  It is appalling on a pretty deep level.

Subjective Moral:  Living together before marriage.  All of the arguments about this one involve assumptions that are not expected to be universally accepted, usually an appeal to some theology.  This seems to be an intellectual sort of moral judgment rather than an intuitive one.

Absolute Moral:  It is good to be kind to people.  We feel that this is right by virtue of the pleasure we derive not only by having it done for us, but also by doing it for others.

Subjective Moral:  It is good to read the Bible every day.  Once again, an intellectual sort of judgment dependent upon one's personal opinions and worldview.

This distinction is known to most people.  I mean... as a child, a Mormon may condemn anyone who drinks coffee or alcohol.  Adults will find this amusing, because they know better:  this little piece of morality is subject to assumptions that people do not have to make in order to still be considered moral.  Even if those people are wrong wrong wrong, they are simply misled, not bad.
If you happen to belong to a cult that regards random murder as awesome, very few people are probably going to give you the same benefit of the doubt.

This whole idea occurred to me recently while I read part of a talk by Boyd Packer.  He was talking about the sanctity of marriage.  Nothing he said was what would be considered an appeal to absolute morality... it was all subjective, all dependent on Mormon theology.  No one who didn't belong to the minority he belongs to could be persuaded in the least by his arguments.

I don't know that there is something innate or biological about this "absolute" morality.. I'm sure it's subject to culture as well.  However, even if these rules are not technically "absolute," it seems that they are absolute as far as anyone from the society we inhabit is concerned.  They certainly seem absolute relative to the "subjective" rules accepted only by this minority or that.

And so we get the following:

Atheist:  Homosexuality = Okay, Killing = Not Okay
Mormon:  Homosexuality = Not Okay, Killing = Not Okay
Can you think of a group that finds homosexuality okay and killing okay?  If there is such a group, they will not be accepted as even roughly moral people by society.  They will be locked away or killed.

"Absolute" morals ought to be reflected in law.  "Subjective" morals probably shouldn't be in most cases.

Not to say that the prevailing morality is necessarily right, but it certainly is widely-held, and what else do we have?

Friday, March 25, 2011

I Am Sucks!

That's how my Japanese companions would have said it.

Normally, I stick to issues in this blog, but occasionally I just complain about life.
This is one of those times!

I used to pull a 4.0 almost every semester, and not in super easy classes, either.  At the same time, I was working one or two jobs, and always taking at least 14 credits (as stipulated by the scholarship I once had...)

I was freaking good!  I even managed to be social and pursue a few of my hobbies during that time!

Now?  I can't do jack-shit.  I'm already in school half-time, and I'm totally failing my classes.  I suck at both of my current jobs, and I know at least one of my supervisors is a little frustrated by me.  I avoid people a lot of days.  I've been skipping class several times in a row recently.  And these are classes I should like!
I don't help my wife around the house enough, either.

So maybe it's been a rough year, losing my religious beliefs and all.  I'm still working on forming opinions and reconstructing my life plan based on this new information.  I have no idea where my place is.
I'm on two drugs for depression to keep me from offing myself.  I'm on one more drug to lessen the awful insomnia that has come along with everything else, and it makes me really groggy for the first part of the day.

I have no motivation, no dreams, really.  Life is boring, a constant stress and anxiety but not interesting.  The pills keep the edge off of the most horrible bits of depression, but they do nothing for my motivation.  They just numb me, I guess.  Which is still preferable to the alternative.

And I just know that if my more pious acquaintances read this, they would tell me that it is a direct result of my rejecting the gospel.
To anyone who might think that way:  Yeah, my depression got really bad and I started sucking at life about the same time I finally started giving up on those beliefs.
BUT!  There are lots of people who don't accept your precious gospel that do just fine in life.  In fact, most happy people are probably not Mormon!  Correlation is not causation, my friends.
And if this can be regarded as god's "punishment" for "betraying" him, god sucks.  That god could have been a character in Mean Girls.  I tried damn hard to contact this dude, and nothing meaningful came of it.

I think that religion is partially responsible for my becoming  a complete basket case;  I was raised with a firm belief in a worldview that I can no longer accept.  My life plan, opinions, and actions were all made to fit this worldview and its supposed "truth."  This huge chunk of what defined me is now completely, utterly gone.
Had I grown up learning, I don't know, that I should take what anyone sets up as absolute truth with a grain of salt, maybe I wouldn't have to go through this ongoing crisis.  But I guess there's no use trying to shut that barn door now.

It was all a freaking lie!  I mean, the people who told it to me almost certainly believed it, but the whole thing is a crock.  I spent so much of my life on a freaking mythology.  I bothered thousands of people in Japan, trying to persuade them to accept something for no good reason at all.  I was a self-righteous little bastard as a kid, an adolescent, and even a young adult.  Because I thought that I had the truth.


I spent two years in my prime and a lot of money on a DEAD GUY!

And now I have to suffer just because I happen to be interested in truth.  Like my RELIGION freaking TAUGHT ME TO BE!

I don't intend to be a lifelong opponent of the church or anything... not my bag.  Sure, I'll be a critic, and I'll be there in a blink for anyone is the process of becoming disillusioned.  But I can sure as hell understand why so many ex-Mormons "can't leave the church alone."
The church sucked me dry!  The church has helped ruin a good deal of my life!  And they are doing the same to young people who might end up like me some day!

I hate religion.  Normally I'm pretty level-headed about my atheism, but right now I'm obviously ranting and raving because all this shit has been building up inside me for a while.  And right now I freaking HATE religion.  And if there is a conscious omnipotent being who is basically human and actually pays attention to the world, he can go to hell (unless I'm there, then he can stay the hell out).  Seriously... if the Christian god exists, he SUCKS.  And he can go boil his holy head.

Okay, I took a minute and calmed down.  Woof... I didn't really mean for this to turn into a rage-fest.

In any case, depression sucks, religion sucks, and life sucks.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect 200 happiness.  Reality is your jail, and you can't roll doubles in life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Irate Letter

I know this is the third post I'm putting up today, but I finally got around to sending an anonymous email to the Honor Code office.
It read as follows:

I am a current student at BYU.  I am technically LDS.  I have lost my faith, but I am still required to attend church and keep my true feelings hidden.  I am not engaged in any Honor Code violations, but there is no way for me to change my religious status and maintain my enrollment because I am LDS.  Were I officially of any other persuasion, I know for a fact that I could easily change my religious status.

I am not the only one in this situation.  We feel that this situation is unjust.

You should know that there are students among the student body who cannot speak their minds in class.
You had better tell your bishops to start "discerning" a little better, because we are among you, spreading our evil and subversive atheist ideas among the student body.  If we could openly be atheist, no religious person would take us seriously, but as we must pose as LDS, we may be damaging to the faith-promoting atmosphere of the University.

Don't bother trying to respond, the email address is a fake.  I just wanted to express my frustration with you.

So that's how it went down.  Hopefully they read it...

I realized recently that my temple recommend expires soon.  Not that I ever go anymore, but this is probably the last time I will be a "current temple recommend holder."  I looked up the questions just for kicks, and I would fail around half of them... all the ones that involve believing in stuff, plus the one about associating with people whose teachings or practices are not in harmony with the gospel.  The other ones I'm more or less pretty solid in, except maybe the one about striving to attend meetings... I couldn't honestly say I "strive" when I read books in my car every week during Elder's Quorum.

What America Needs to Get Over

1)  Evolution happened, and still happens.  Sorry guys.  You can't reject it without rejecting the scientific method as a source of truth.

2) Bill O'Reilly is a moron who doesn't understand anything.  Stop listening to him.

3) Glenn Beck is a dangerous moron.  I'd prefer that you listen to Bill.

4) Abstinence education raises the incidence of STDs.  That's why the USA has 100 times the incidence of venereal disease of European nations that educate about safe sex.

5) America basically sucks in every regard compared to other first-world nations.  We are no longer the leaders in science, industry, or culture.  In a matter of years, we will not be the leaders in terms of economic power or military strength.  Soon, our space program will be surpassed by India and China.  Pax Americana is over, get over it or look like a fool.

The Holey Babble

The Bible is the WORD OF GOD!

So you know how Jesus' divinity is declared in the Bible?  Those parts were added to the gospels later.  As were the accounts of the resurrection.  Really, it was likely Paul who helped Jesus evolve from great reformer to god.
"But Dave, how likely is that?  It sounds like a conspiracy theory to me!"
I'd like to point out that many, many great teachers have been deified by supersticious peasants and power-hungry preachers.  Buddha?  Not originally a deity, in fact he took great care to make the fact explicit.  Now?  Pretty much most buddhists regard him as a deity.  The founder of Taoism?  Same thing.  Even Mohammad has a quasi-deity status in Islam, which is the most adamantly-monotheistic religion in recorded history.

Why do we ignore the archeology behind the civilizations in the Bible?  It's a great mythology, parts of it are somewhat historical, but the Bible is just not a good source of accurate information.  What?  The stringent standards of sexual morality espoused by the Old Testament were actually something that evolved through time with the onset of venereal disease?  What?  The Israelite were originally polytheistic?  What?  The account of the flood is a Babylonian myth?  Naaaahhhh....

Religion just doesn't seem... credible.  Or likely.  Or trustworthy.
I'm excited for the day when I can be openly atheist.

For anyone who has a Kindle, by the way, there is a great book that I am reading called Germs, Genes, & Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We Are Today.  I got it for free, but now it's $10, apparently.  But if you are someone who knows me, I could lend it to you.  In any case, it is a fascinating analysis of how epidemics shaped history, how modern diseases came to be, and even how religions like Christianity came to dominance because of disease.  I pretty much can't put it down.

Brief sidetrack... what the hell is up with the History Channel?  When did it turn from "cool documentaries all the time" to "shows about hicks?"  And when there are documentaries, they're all about the abominable snowman and how aliens built the pyramids.  Actually, I thought that this was a really great sum-up of what it has become.
Basically, American are becoming increasingly credulous, self-centered, uneducated, and proud of all three.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where the Hell is Hell?

Mostly I liked that title.  I actually want to write about: where is god?

So... it doesn't seem that god has done anything in a while.
Sure, there are anecdotal stories about god's intervention.  But I've written before about how god's interventions does not happen to come along in the majority of cases.

And, of course, we're told that bad things are all god's wrath.  Seriously, Japan, god has tolerated your low crime rates and refusal to engage in warfare long enough!

I think god's greatest show of power must be his amazing ability to influence events without ever leaving a statistical fingerprint.  Run an analysis on earthquakes, and they seem to occur randomly along stressed fault-lines.  God sure is clever to kill a lot of nice people, and occasionally hit barren wilderness.  We'll never be able to tell that the earthquakes were related to him at all!

In addition, god sure is sneaky when he miraculously saves as many heathens as Chrisitians, while allowing most Christians who have contracted terrible diseases to die, just like everyone else.  The fact that he conceals his hand in all of this is incredible... you'd think there would be some kind of pattern if these things were deliberate.

You know what one of the most fun passages of the Bible is?  1 Kings 18:26-27
The priests of Baal and Elijah have a mountain-top showdown to settle once and for all who's god is the real one.  The Baal guys dance and sing and cut themselves, and nothing at all happens.  Elijah makes fun of them while they do this:
"Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked."

After this, Elijah douses the sacrifices and prays, and the fire of god comes down and burns up not only the animals, but all of the water and the stone altar.  Pretty persuasive, no?

But wait!  Where the heck is that god now?  Hunting?  Sleeping?
Or maybe we need to get with the times:  he spends all his time on World of Warcraft! 
Or Minecraft (if that's the case, I'm very Christ-like).

Seriously, where is the guy?  Remember how the Mormon church started on the principle of "God is not silent?"  The whole continuing-revelation thing?
And yet, nothing significant has been said for decades by modern-day "prophets."  It's all basically the same as it was, doctrinally, as the way Brigham Young left it.  Sure, we get a couple more tiny bits of D&C after this, but it's really nothing new.

Pretty much, god is dead.  He does nothing.  He can't even get the "faithful" to all be on the same page!

I think it's time to stop waiting for god to fix things for us.  Maybe we should give up on the jerk until he decides he'll start being consistent (or even just apparent).

Damn, I get sick of the self-righteous we-know-everything attitude of some of the religious folks around.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bad Analogies

My wife and I were discussing this last night, and I thought I'd write a bit of it down:

Have you ever noticed that confusing religious doctrines are often "explained" using poor analogies?

Example 1:  The Trinity is like water.  It has three different states, but is still water.
-The "three states" are just a matter of convenience, water molecules in any given state are the same, just have different kinetic energy.  In addition, there are multiple types of ice, all taking on different crystalline stuctures.
-If we actually apply this analogy, we conclude that god behaves differently based on his energy, but can only exist in one state at a time.
-The analogy is unhelpful... the trinity makes no sense whether is has a vague linguistic reflection in a description of the physical world or not.

Example 2:  We all have faith every day, otherwise why would we think the sun will come up in the morning?
-We understand the mechanism behind the sun's "rising" quite well, as opposed to whatever we are being asked to accept on faith.
-We do not anxiously await the rising of the sun every morning, instead we take for granted that it will rise.  This is not faith or hope, it is simply acclimation.
-Someday the sun will not come up.  Until that happens, however, the overwhelmingly-regular pattern of the rising of the sun is obvious to our pattern-seeking minds.  If such overwhelmingly obvious patterns existed in relation with faith, there probably wouldn't be a whole bunch of religions.  (Very few people would argue that the sun will not probably come up tomorrow.)
-Ironically, the sun has only departed from its regularly-scheduled routine in the Bible itself (Joshua 10:12-13), never in legitimately-recorded history.
-Once again, the analogy is unhelpful.  Faith is still nothing other than the decision to believe in something in which there is no reason to believe.

Perhaps these "parables" are hidden from me because of my lack of belief?

This is not an uncommon trend in theology.  A comprehensible definition is not available for the strange abstraction that the would-be believer is asked to accept (I ranted about that in another post), so they make up an analogy base on common human experience that jabs in the general direction of the glorious, self-contradictory truth that is ultimately meant to be conveyed.

I am not attacking analogies as a teaching tool; they are often incredibly helpful and relevant.  Human beings run on similarities.  However, analogies that make no sense and are ultimately irrelevant to all but the barest shadow of the concept are simply obfuscation.  They are engineered to make doctrine seem plausible until it is satisfactorily situated in the believer's mind with a healthy shield of cognitive dissonance.  Milk before meat.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Meaningful Dialogue Impossible with Religion?

I have been going back and forth on my opinion of religion lately.  Fundamentalism bothers me, but I am a big fan of free speech, so I guess the religious should have their say as well.  Cencorship, even of falsehood, seems criminal to me. 
I think I just hit upon one of the major problems with religion in the public square.

To make the right decision as a group, a good way to go is to spend time discussing options and weighing outcomes.  Open discussion is huge: even if I have a great idea, you might point out a flaw in this idea and we'll have to further plan before we proceed.  Once we've discussed thouroughly, we can put it to a vote.  If the vote is divisive enough, we can discuss and vote on compromise.
This is supposed to be the idea behind democracy, right?  And I think sometimes it actually happens this way.

But when you put stubborn dogmatism into the mix, everything breaks down.  Dialogue is impossible with fundamentalists, because they will not even listen to the opposing viewpoint:

"Hey, don't you think we should let same-sex couples marry?"
"No!  Person X, who I believe speaks for god, says that that is wrong and evil and terrible and an attack on the institution of marriage, which GOD INVENTED."
"I understand your point of view.  But consider-"
"Well I thought if we could discuss-"
"Perhaps then, if we can never agree on this matter, we could compro-"
"No! NO! NO! NO!"

This is not dialogue.
I am aware that there are many things that destroy dialogue in this way.  Even stubborn atheism might.  Opinions are okay, and values are okay, and worldviews are okay, but in a society which is populated by a variety of people, we can't afford not to have meaningful dialogue and open, honest exchange of ideas.

Still, it seems like religion really does this a lot.  Like when a church leader says that atheists are only rabidly fighting the level-headed Christians because they are sinning and can't face their own indecency.
A.  I'm behaving quite well, even by your standards. 
B.  That is ad hominem, and has absolutely no relevance to the discussion at hand.
C.  I'm willing to discuss things calmly with you, but you keep shouting me down.

So I guess I can't, through this line of reasoning, condemn open-minded religion, if there is such a thing.

I'd like to discuss my philosophical questions with people around me, but they're all LDS, and after a certain point discussion breaks down.  Usually it ends up with them saying "I feel sorry for you."
I hate that line.  I said something similar to a friend once in high school, and he angrily called it "unwarranted pity."  That has stuck with me.
The thing is, "I feel sorry for you" means "you obviously don't understand, are too pigheaded to understand, and I pity you for not being as humble and enlightened as I am."
Discussion over.  It's like playing tic-tac-toe, but the fundamentalist gets to place as many Xs as she wants, and I only get to place one O.  I can't win, not because of my strategy, not because of my mental capacities, but because the outcome is already decided by the other party's unwillingness to play by any rules that make the game a game at all.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Demoniac Madness

Life is absurd, is it not?  If there is purpose to existence, we can't ever really know it, can we?  Since rational value judgments are ultimately impossible, there would be no way to persuade an individual that such a value judgment is correct.

Kierkegaard wrote about the absurd, all the while defending religious faith.  He called acceptance of the absurd "demoniac madness,"  and said that a person who refuses to accept unfounded beliefs "rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!"

Kierkegaard defends the "leap of faith," the acceptance of something that is not necessarily true.  He admits that there can be no rational purpose to life; even if life's purpose is determined by god, what is the purpose of god?  So the absurdity of human existence is not in anyway assuaged by the concept of god, because god's existence is equally absurd, if not more so.

I, as a human being, am doomed to die.  Likely, this will be the end of my awareness, something to which I feel a strangely powerful attachment.  So, I experience fear, though I know nothing of what it will be like to die, and can hardly expect that existence following death will be in any way unpleasant... or in any way anything!
Yet, as a "sane" person, I go about my daily life, working, resting, talking, engaging in a repetitive life that seems as if it's always been, and will always be.
This is absurd.  Would I really be doing the dishes if the shear, animal terror of death were truly in my mind?  Looming at the end of my short life, with the seconds flying by and completely out of my control, lies my end. My decease.  The black pit that I hurtle toward every moment.
All that I do to "improve" myself will be gone in that instant.  All that I am will be forgotten not long after.  This flourishing planet, covered in life, is just in a transient state, but will eventually reach the steady-state: lifeless, cold, silence.

And we take ourselves so seriously!  It's hilarious, really.  We think we matter.  We think that anything matters!

And when we can't ignore death, we turn to the wild realm of fantasy.  Religion, superstition, spiritualism, pantheism... all coping mechanisms evolved by a bunch of primates who have been the victims of runaway brain evolution.  We are too smart, and so our nature is to cling to denial.

What separates man from the animal?  Not a whole lot, genetically.  Tool use, abstraction, language... these can all be found in the animal kingdom.  But no other species does much of what we do... why?
Maybe it's because no other species has stumbled upon the ability to clearly and systematically describe their own existence.  Human beings are the one species that we know can gaze into the abyss and realize that all we have, all we are, and all we do is for naught.
In response, we become nature's masters of self-distraction.  We fight, we pray, we pretend the dead are still around somewhere.  We build, we make up words like "destiny," and we try to force a place for ourselves on the uncaring universe.

As someone willing to distract myself by undertaking pursuits that will allow me to further distract myself in the future, I am called "sane" or "well-adjusted."
And when a person talks about the absurdity of life and existence, others dismiss her.  They smile knowingly, having perhaps experienced a tiny hint of existential crisis in the past.  But they are beyond such things.  They have managed to not believe in death.

The ultimate human triumph is denial, for without it, the human race might see themselves clearly.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In the Way of the Spirit

There seems to be some sort of concensus that depression is capable of completely blocking the spirit of god.

I have pretty bad depression, especially for the past year.  I'm on several medications and still not doing great.  And I understand where people get this idea that valid religious experiences are impeded by depression; I have trouble feeling joy or even interest in anything.

I'm pretty sure my parents, who have stopped trying to convince me to cling to my former faith (for the moment), expect that I'll be somehow spiritually viable again once my depression is under better control.  I know some other people think this of me.  My father-in-law has severe depression and left the church years ago, and I know people think the same of him.

I don't know what to think about this... It's certainly better than having people say that I'm either sinning or offended, I guess.

The thing is, I'm pretty convinced in my atheist ways.  I don't know if I could ever go back to the doublethink of my former self, holding conflicting ideas in my mind simultaneously.  I'm addicted to thinking clearly and completely, now.  So if I'm ever in better shape at some point, I don't know that I'll be returning to my previously pious self.

The other thing is, my mom always assures me that the way I see things is tainted by my depression, and I could see things more accurately if I weren't depressed.
I'm skeptical.  The fact that depressed individuals are unhappy is unrelated to the question of whether or not they have an accurate view of the world.
In fact, it's been shown that most people have a "personal fable," a view of themselves that is better than the reality of the situation.  Nearly everyone will list themselves as "above-average" in categories that they value.  Guess who doesn't do this?
You got it, people with depression.  They tend to pretty accurately assess themselves, turns out.

The world around us is a terrible place.  The human race is on the fast-track toward its own destruction, people are killing each other brutally all over the world, and the human condition is based on the concept of living in hope of whatever comes next, ending finally in death and probably-false hopes of an afterlife.
I mean, damn, we live in hell!  So is it the happy people who are really accurately viewing the world, or is it the unhappy?

I actually really enjoy entertaining the concept that the most "well-adjusted" and happy are actually victims of some kind of insanity that is built into human beings to keep us from dying of despair as a species.
So your religion makes you happy.  So what?  Yeah, me losing my faith coincided with the worst depression of my life so far, but what of it?
Does you being happy about something make it true?  If so, how exactly does that make any sense?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Waitin' fer Jeezus

How long have we been waiting for Christ to come back?  I mean, it has been a while.  What's he doing?

Well, let's see how long the Mormons have been waiting:

Dec. 25, 1835  -  D&C 87:8  "..until the day of the Lord come; for behold, it cometh quickly, saith the Lord."
Time elapsed:   175 years, 1 month, 14 days.

Feb. 4, 1831   - D&C 41:4  "And I will be your ruler when I come; and behold, I come quickly..."
Time elapsed:   180 years, 4 days.

So, our latest update was 180-ish years ago?  What, exactly, is the lord's definition of "quickly?"  180 years is easily 6-7 generations.  So... "I'll show up quickly, as in about when your great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren read this."  Someone needs to let god know that his use of 'quickly' is really confusing us.

Okay, so let's go back to the later New Testament books:

Traditionally 95 C.E.   - Revelation 22:20  "He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."
Time elapsed:  ~1916 years.

So... now I'm really concerned about this whole 'quickly' thing.  Okay, so maybe 200 years is nothing to god, but 2000?!  Isn't that, like, 1/3 of the age of everything or something?  And he makes very clear that it's Jesus we're talking about in this passage.  And, if we want to put this in generations, we can probably say that here, the lord meant "quickly as in when your great^74 grandchildren read this."

Okay, let's see if Jesus himself was a little more clear and accurate:

Around 30 C.E.  -   Luke 21:27-32  "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory   ... Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled."
Time elapsed:  ~1981 years.

And no, this is not taken out of context, go read it.  Well, Jesus was way more specific, right?  Same generation, so anywhere from 20-50 years, depending on how you define generation.  Oops!  That's somewhere around 5500% error.  Remind me again why we listen to this guy?

So... Jesus seems to be taking his sweet time.  Everyone is so sure that the second coming is right around the corner because of the state of the world...  just like people were during WWII... and WWI... AND the Civil War!
And that's just a few examples from the U.S.  All over the world, people have been feverishly declaring the coming of the lord since... well, just after 0 C.E.

I mean, jeez guys, how long do we have to wait?  Ten thousand years?  A millions years?  A billion freaking years?
Seriously, once the sun goes out, I think we can be pretty sure he completely blew off the whole party.

'Of course, if I were Jesus, I probably wouldn't be too excited to come back either:
"So I went to my people and told them I was god, and then asked to be nice to each other for a change and to stop being such big jerks.  They nailed me to a freaking tree!  
So I went back for a bit to tie up some loose ends and figured I'd show up in a generation or so, but it turns out.. my followers suck!  They don't love each other, for one thing, and anyone who isn't one of them, they kill!  
I mean, the idiots fought for centuries over the hometown of all the jerk-offs who killed me in the first place!  And they burned anyone who even had a clue at the stake for thousands of years! 
Anyway, no matter how enlightened they get, they are total jerks everybody, including each other.  I'm not going back until my 'followers' are at least mildly pleasant to be around."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Superstitious Apes and the Utility of Religion

A number of conversations, as well as a few snatches of back-to-reality moments, have given me some thoughts about religion lately.

I have stated before that I don't believe religion will be gone anytime soon.  In fact, I think the majority of the world will always be religious.
From what I know about human beings, religion is built into us.  Every culture in the world has religious beliefs that developed with it.  We are very superstitious apes.

You can argue for the spread of atheism and agnosticism in modern, educated society, but it's still not that much.  The nation in Europe with the highest fraction of its population admitting no belief in god or a higher power is France, at 33%.  And only 4 nations of the 32 studied are above 25%.  That means that at least 2/3 of the populations even the most godless nations in the most godless continent believe in a higher power beyond the reaches of rigorous human science.
 You could argue for China, but studies vary from 20% to 70% of the population being religious.  It is hard to measure behavior in places where a specific belief system is forcibly imposed on the people, because those who believe differently are better off not to admit it openly.

And imagine what would happen if something disastrous seriously upset the global economy, throwing the former first-world nations into poverty, famine, disorder, and misery.  There is no doubt that at some time this will happen, disasters are too common to expect otherwise.  Will people turn away from god?  Some perhaps.  But the world is full of people who have lost so many of their friends and family, whose lives have gone from opulent to desperate, and most importantly, whose modern society with all its science and technology has failed them.  In times like this, people turn to whatever they think or hope or even just wish could help them.
 I don't think these facts will change unless the human race makes some biological (not just sociological) shift.

But what if we could abolish religion, right now?  Gone, somehow, in a day, or a year, or something.
My wife asked me a potent question about this scenario: Would drug abuse and suicide rates go up or down?
I had to admit that they may well go up.  People take a lot of comfort in religion, and not everyone can handle the idea of no higher power, afterlife, etc.  Sometimes I don't think I can handle it.

So though I still don't believe in a higher power, I would not advocate the abolition of religion.
I would, of course, limit the political power of religion.  I would love to quell the more violent and bigoted aspects of certain religions.
But if the whole world moved steadily toward a new-age feel-good "god loves everybody" kind of religion, would it be so bad?  Tolerant religion without political agendas.  It can exist, I think.  Strong adherents of religions with strict doctrines scorn these religions, but I think I like them.

So, my policy now is that I don't want to actively persuade people not to believe in god, but rather I'd like to point out the arguments against the hell and damnation and strict Victorian morality aspects of religion.
Seems more realistic, in any case.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Experiment Time!

Okay, so we are encouraged to find out for ourselves what religion is true, right?

So I thought, why not be scientific about it?

If you feel good after reading the Book of Mormon and praying like Moroni says, that's one data point.  Completely useless.  The same goes for other religious experiences as well.

The thing is, you need a decent number of trials, a good sampling of the available hypotheses, and a well-constructed control group.

It is obviously not a good idea to try to take on each of the tens of thousands of religions in the world.  Best to try a good, generic example of each major category thoroughly.  If one stands out above the others zoom in on that category of religions and start testing some.  Hopefully, by "hunt and peck," you can narrow it down to just a few in not too many steps.

But, each religion is going to have to be tested thoroughly.  Praying on a bad day and feeling comfort can't count... too many variables.  Praying on a good day and feeling a swell of gratitude is a poor data point as well.  No, you need your most normal, meh days.  These days are the ones you are most familiar with, and therefore anything out of the ordinary would be much easier to separate from statistical noise.  Plus, you have lots of these.  So, make a questionnaire for yourself.  Do all the religious things some days and none of them other days.  Record your experiences, well-being, apparent luck, etc each day.  Even better, have someone close to you fill out a questionnaire as well, but don't tell them if it had been a religious day or not.

However, there are still too many variables.  Maybe the religious practices make you feel good, but aren't based on truth at all.  So we need a control group.  For each religion you test, take a couple of other religions and do the same things for them.  Pick maybe one other religion from the world (so, read the BoM and pray to Buddha), one obsolete religion (pray to Baal or Hermes), and one religion you make up yourself (pray to Dyith, the great chili god).  Obviously, you can't approach this without bias, but you have to do your best.
Additional helps:  listen to new-age music while you pray for each of these, then don't.  This will hopefully give you a very rough estimate of how much you can trust feelings during a movie or presentation created by the religion in question.

This is a very rough outline: I haven't covered how to write up the questionaires, how to run a decent statistical analysis, etc.

Why don't we hear about this kind of procedure at church?

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Dualism is the idea that people consist of two parts, one material (the body) and one material (the spirit).
The point at which these two interact has been debated for centuries (Descartes thought it was in the pineal gland).  In addition, which functions belong to which side is also a topic of debate and speculation.

Now, I can see how one might think this.  There appears to be a part of me that is not my body, for some indescribable reason.  Like you lose a finger, and it's not like part of you goes with the finger, right?  Not your identity.  But, the thing is, lose part of your brain, and some part of your identity often does go with it.  So this casts some doubt on the idea.

So I was musing on how this seems to basically be an excuse for ignorance.  Does anybody really talk about the soul of a bacterium?  No, because we can explain exactly what goes on inside a bacterium in physical terms.  Biology has come far enough that most cellular processes (especially primitive ones) are well-understood chemical processes.

So that brings up the question: where do things start having souls?  How about eukaryotes?  They have nucleii, and complex organelles separated from the rest of the cell by membranes.  This is a ridiculous jump in complexity, though it's on such a small scale we often don't realize it.  Evolutionary biologists talk about the great "geneses" that constitute huge, unlikely leaps in complexity.  The formation of the first DNA, the development of the cellular nucleus, the formation of multi-cellular organisms, etc.

Does life get a soul at any of these stages?  Multi-cellular organism span everything from primitive algae colonies to incredibly-more complex mosses and worms, all the way up to us and organisms of similar complexity.  It seems silly, though, to insist that these must have souls.  Theses are parasites and pond scum on the lower levels.

Okay, how about complex plants?  Conifers?  Their more-advanced cousins, deciduous trees?  Incredibly complex life-cycles.  Usually each plant contains separate male and female reproductive capabilities.  Plants evolve to interact with animal life in complex ways, like flowers and fruit.
But we understand everything that happens inside a tree.  There is no reason to insist that there must be some immaterial component that is responsible for certain functions when we can see all of the tree's functions taking place in complex-yet-well-defined biological processes.

Okay, so we move into the animal kingdom, and we'll skip over the amoeba and worms, because we already rejected those.  So let's move on to jellyfish.  Still pretty simple... how about coral?  Sea cucumbers?  All those invertebrates that don't really have brains?  No?  They are still pretty easy to describe.

Okay, so give them a spine!  Fish?  Have you ever looked into a fish's eyes and thought "I can't see those without seeing a soul?"  Fish are pretty dumb, even though they are a quantum leap above sea-cucumbers.
So maybe it's not the spine, it's the brain!  The octopus, the cuttlefish, and the squid are intelligent creatures.  They have been compared to certain "higher" mammals, in fact.  So do these have spirits?  Well, we certainly can no longer 100% account for their behavior.  So it seems that we have crossed some barrier here with a complex brain.

So let's go to things with brains between the complexity of the octopus and the fish... maybe shrews, or cardinals? (..a dumb bird.  Don't believe me?  I have a story about cardinals.)  How about ants, their behavior is extremely complex, but their brain is relatively simple.  Frogs?  Lizards?  This class of creatures seems pretty ambiguous.  They are not entirely predictable, but they are pretty well understood, and it doesn't seem reasonable to demand a soul for these.

But what is the difference between a frog and a dog?  Do dogs have souls?  They have large brains, and have emotions and personalities that seem similar to a human's.  Ultimately, though, the difference between the frog and the dog seems to be one of scale.  Does god decide to start shoving souls in when things are smart enough to pretend to have one?

I know I've rambled a little, but I just want to demonstrate that the difference between a human and a worm is simply one of scale, and fish are practically our cousins.  Where do we start insisting that there is some incorporeal part that accounts for the behavior of an animal?

So let's pretend for a second that humans and only humans have souls.  Never mind that almost all human behaviors are not unique in the animal kingdom (though there are a few little gems, like fearless use of fire).  (And no, texting doesn't count.  It's just communication and tool use that is more sophisticated than, but not fundamentally different from, that of apes and dolphins.)
Psychology is rapidly unlocking the secrets of the human brain.  There are things that are interesting (like the guy who had a certain brain injury and couldn't tell his wife from a hat, or even my professor at BYU who has a disorder that makes it nearly impossible to recognize faces).  There are things that are terrifying (like those scientists who figured out how to influence you decisions using magnetic fields!

So what behavior remain, that our brain is not responsible for?  In the spirit world, are we utterly incapable of recognizing one another?  Does the magnetic field mess with our spirits?  (that violates the immaterial aspect, which, incidentally, is already violated by the idea that the spirit influences the body)

The whole thing gets a little hokey when you try to reason with it.
Couple that like some questions like "if god can create souls, they can be created.  Can they be destroyed?"
Kinda defeats the purpose, if our souls are not invulnerable.  It gets worse with each question.

When we are little kids, we actually ask our parents about things like this!  Remember?  The questions that really seemed pertinent to us, but prompted nothing more than knowing smiles?   "Oh, maybe we'll know that someday..."  Why is it not okay anymore?  Because it is taboo for religious adults to openly admit to thinking logically about their belief.

And now, I rip off j-dog.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bring It

I've been posting a lot recently.

When I used to think about myself as LDS, I felt insecure as a Mormon.  As a minority, really.
This was in spite of the guarantees of the church that one day the world will all be Mormon, and anyone who doesn't believe it now will know it's true some day (even if it's after they die).  Basically, even though I mostly believed that I knew the truth, and everyone would admit I was right one day, I still felt nervous about believing things not too many people believe.

Now, I find myself in another minority: atheists.  I entertain no notions that the world will slowly-but-surely give up the superstitious religions of the past, I've admitted to myself that the world will probably always be largely religious.  I also admit that most people who believe wrong things will probably never know they were wrong (given that there is no afterlife where god gets to say "gotcha!").

So why am I so much more confident?  I don't give a damn now, where I was so uncomfortable before.  I have never felt like I understood my own beliefs like I do now.  I don't need people to stop attacking atheism (although I guess I do get irked by the stupid reasoning behind, I don't know, all of the arguments).  Basically, everything I am says "Bring it on!"

I never wanted to organize protests and boycotts as a Mormon, I really kind of didn't like them.  Now, I'm ready to march!  Get something together at BYU, like some of us were talking about the other night at the gathering of atheists I attended the other night.

Maybe this is the first time I have really believed in a cause, even if it's just getting fair treatment for myself and those who think similar to myself.  I was timid as a Mormon (the mission really sucked, even after I learned to swallow my disgust at my own desperate tactics), but I feel bold as an atheist.  True, I don't admit it to everyone around me, because I need to keep hidden from administrative eyes if I want to finish my degree at BYU.  Once I'm done and have my diploma in hand, I'll make no pretense.

You know what?  I might just write up a mocking email to the Honor Code Office (from an anonymous email address) telling them that they'd better get their bishops discerning better, because I've had two so far who've missed that fact that I'm an apostate.  Tell them that if they don't want people coming up with blasphemous lyrics for the hymns under their breath in sacrament meeting, they should let Mormons change their religious status.  Tell them that I happily disseminate truth about church history (though always under the pretense of being a well-studied believer), shoot down arguments I hear against atheism, and otherwise sow my tare seeds of apostasy among their unsuspecting student body.

If I do end up sending something like that, I'll be sure to post it.

Tool Time and Game Time

If you asked any leader or member of the LDS church, I am a tool of Satan.  However, most of Christian America regards tehe church as a tool of Satan.  America itself, of course, is regarded by the rest of the world as a tool of Satan.  Of course, "the world" is the ultimate tool of Satan, according to the church... but now we're caught in a recursive loop.
Basically, I'm going to be considered a tool of Satan no matter what I do.  This thought has liberated me from some of the anxiety about the judgment of LDS church members; in all that, what's one more level of tooldome?

So maybe I'm just posting silly things to try to make up for my political rant of a few days ago, but I totally made up a new game today.  Take a Mormon buzzword  (for example, "worldly").  Replace it with a word that fits into how you view things (for example, "reasonable").  Go to and search for the buzzword, and laugh yourself silly at the new-and-improved quotes from prophets, apostles, and seers.

Worldly -> Reasonable:

While providing us with this opportunity, the world also presents us with many challenges, temptations, and pressures. Teenagers, particularly, are faced with great pressures from a reasonable society.

We must learn, as Samuel did, that the body and the person are not to be judged using reasonable criteria.

Reasonable preoccupation with self surrenders to sacrifice, consecration, and the other holy covenants of the temple.

Modern -> Fictional:

Ancient Israel had leaders before Moses, and fictional Israel had a prophet-president before Brigham Young.

Brothers and sisters, the special language of prayer is much more than an artifact of the translation of the scriptures into English. Its use serves an important, current purpose. We know this because of fictional revelations...

 Two companion qualities evident in the lives of our pioneers, early and fictional, are that same quality is evident in the conversion stories of fictional pioneers.

I'm getting a kick out of this.  If anyone comes up with some good ones, please post them in a comment!