Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Carnival of the Godless #78

Don't forget to check out Greta Christina's Halloween-themed Carnival of the Godless. Oooh! Scary!

Blood Passes to Shadow

There is a hole in the empty air
There is an ocean in the shell of air
A voiceless ocean cries to me

The world of stone is hollow
I am prevented from the heart
My hands wetly splinter
They are a softer rock

There is a hole in the empty air
My broken hands cannot open
Darkness stains the invisible air
Darkness spills on voiceless stone

Darkness pools under the sun
There is an ocean in me
Blood passes to shadow
Blood passes to shadow

--BT Murtagh

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Frog

Ha, you thought I'd forgotten the Friday Frog, didn't you, my vast hordes of silently devoted followers? But no, I was just waiting for a friend to get around to re-sending a mangled link in a video, which I finally got but which turned out to be a cruel hoax. Never mind, here's a pretty frog for you.

The Green and Golden Bell Frog, Litora aurea, is a ground-dwelling tree frog from eastern Australia. Sadly, it's what ecologists delicately call a vulnerable species, mostly I gather due to crass industrialists and deranged golfers. (Must watch that tendency toward redundancy...) Beaut, isn't she?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Seinfeld On Studying Scientology

There's an article in Parade which has been making the rounds and raising some hackles, wherein Jerry Seinfeld makes some comments about Scientology.

“You would just understand that there’s this kind of voice, and then there’s this kind of voice, and then there’s this kind of voice... Just a little thing like that, understanding that really helped me on stage to understand how you have to invade the space of the audience a little bit. I learned that early on. It was a very helpful thing to learn. You have to invade them just a little bit. Not too much, because then it’s obnoxious. But you can’t be short of them either, or you won’t control them."

Note that he's not a fan of Scientology the religion at all - there's an episode ('The Parking Garage') in which he takes a bit of a jab at it - he's just appreciative of some of the mind-control techniques they use, and how he's been able to adapt them to his comedy routines.

Given how effective those techniques seem to be at screwing up the brains of otherwise seemingly intelligent people, I'm not sure that's any less scary.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Frog

Yep, it's blog the frog day again. Today we have almost the opposite of the first frog I blogged - a simply enormous specimen of Lithobates catesbeianus the North American bullfrog. As you can see these guys can get pretty hefty, providing delight to small boys' hearts!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Conversation With A Theist

You detail some aspects of your philosophy, which seem to me to boil down to that your god made everything, including you, to the purpose of glorifying him, including giving you the power of rational thought for the limited purpose of enabling you to dominate and subdue the world in order to glorify him even more (presumably because, short of granting you rationality, he would be left unsatisfied by the amount of glorification the world he created could provide). In amongst all that you note that you believe he gave you moral standards to live by, and I think it reasonable to presume that if you live by them you will further glorify him, and that is a sufficient reason to do so.

You then go on to tell me and every other atheisr what our philosophy is, viz. “According to you, there is no God.” The first sentence is accurate; you could address it to any atheist without argument, since by definition an atheist is one who believes there is no god. Well done.

“According to you, all there is, is matter and motion.” The second is not so accurate; there may be atheists who would agree with the premise, once it was made intelligible by explication, but it doesn't form a part of the definition of atheism and needn't apply to all atheists. Any argument you follow with which presupposes that all atheists believe only in “matter and motion” fall into the straw-man fallacy; you are not arguing against atheism, you are arguing against a cartoon version of atheism of your own devising, one specifically designed for the purpose of being easy to refute. If there are some atheists who believe only in “matter and motion” then your arguments may well apply to their philosophy, but it no more applies to atheism in general than arguments against my local Christian snake-handlers, based on their beliefs about handling serpents, apply to Christianity in general.

“I realize that when I give you evidence of God’s existence, and the truth of Christianity, for instance; that a man named Jesus rose from the dead, his opponents couldn’t disprove it, those who believed it were willing to die for it, I give you evidence of those things, and I draw the conclusion given my philosophy of life, He has given historical evidence of who He is and that we should follow Him.” Give me some evidence and we can talk about that. There is no contemporary historical evidence for the existence of Jesus outside the Gospels; that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't exist, but it argues against it. The contemporaneous Romans kept pretty good records, as did the contemporaneous Jews, and a fair proportion of those records survived to this day; not only do they not note the death and resurrection of Jesus, they fail to note the earthquake, the curtain rending, and the opening of graves and subsequent perambulations of the dead. It seems terribly unlikely that only the followers of Jesus were astute enough to notice such things, or sufficiently struck by them as to make a note. That they alone were willing to die for it seems more likely, I'll grant you; it's not a normal reaction of rational beings to be willing to die for unsubstantiated rumors. I would note that the lunatic asylums are full of people willing to die for strange beliefs, though.

“I am going to argue now from the impossibility of the contrary. That is, within my worldview I can explain to you why there is logic... causality... moral absolutes, why I believe that human beings are free and have dignity. But in your worldview, there couldn’t be any logic.” Only the latter constitutes arguing from the impossibility of the contrary, actually. The attributes you assign your worldview, viz. logic, causality, moral absolutes, and human freedom and dignity, may be equally well attributed to an atheistic worldview or may be unnecessary to it. Still, let's see how you do with logic.

“Why not? Well, matter in motion, that’s your worldview, the logic isn’t material and its not in motion.“ You're arguing against your straw man, not against atheism. An atheistic viewpoint does not require that abstract entities don't exist, it doesn't even require that the abstract notion of gods should not exist; an atheistic worldview requires only the understanding that gods don't exist as genuine independent entities outside the imaginations of human beings. An atheistic viewpoint is entirely compatible with logic and other abstractions lacking materiality.

“On what rational basis, as an atheist, do you justify belief in the inductive principle?“ I don't need to justify it in order to be an atheist, any more than a theist needs to justify it in order to believe in a god. The inductive principle is a tool for thinking, not a god, and belief in it is entirely orthogonal to a belief in gods. As a tool the inductive principle is either useful or not, and whether it proves useful is determined by experience after the fact of its use, by comparison of the predictions produced by its use against the reality which exists independent of whether you use it or not.

“As you observe the life of a the atheist I want you to observe that the life of an atheist is riddled with inconsistency and thus has exposed it as being utterly irrational.” Well, again, I have no reason for doubting your assertion that you want me observe these things, but that really has no bearing on whether I actually observe them or not. I don't.

“Atheists will presuppose human dignity and attend the funeral of a friend or to honour a relative, but then they will turn around and argue that man has no dignity and he’s no different than any other product of evolution like a snail or a dog or a horse.“ Will they, indeed? Here we have another straw man for you to demolish, and a mistaken conflation to boot. Some atheists presuppose human dignity, others do not, but in neither case does this bear on the question of whether a god exists. While I have no doubt that somewhere out there there exist atheists who will argue that man has no dignity, just as there are theists who so argue (there being ample scriptural support for such views), that also bears not at all on atheism per se. Beliefs about the relative dignity of dogs and horses is likewise well distributed among both theists and atheists, as is attested to by the number of pet cemeteries out there.

“The atheist will insist that people are nothing more than complex biochemical factors that are subject to the laws of physics and yet he kisses his wife and his children as though there is something called love.“ Quite apart from the fact that not all atheists insist that people are nothing more than complex biochemical factors (more straw man arguing), there isn't even a contradiction for those who do. I observe a thing (or a disposition, rather) called love every day, both in myself and, by inference from their actions, in others; what explanation I give myself for it bears not at all on its existence.

“The atheist will argue that in sexual relations, anything goes there are no moral absolutes, don’t impose your views on others. They will even defend prostitution but then indignantly condemn child molesters or morally repudiate necrophilia.” Will you never run out of straw and cloth? Atheism is the lack of belief in gods; that does not necessarily entail a disbelief in moral absolutes, only a disbelief that gods are the source of them and/or the enforcers of them. Most (not all) atheists believe that mutual consent is the sine qua non of ethical sexual behavior, which is entirely consistent with not condemning prostitution but disallowing sexual congress with those too young to give informed consent; necrophilia would be condemned by most (not all) atheists because of the disrespect it shows harms the surviving family. In any case it really doesn't matter whether or why atheists or theists consider any behavior acceptable, sexual or otherwise; it's completely orthogonal to the question of whether gos exist.

“The atheist is just a bundle of contradictions. He can’t bring his worldview into harmony with itself.” Sorry, but this is simply laughable coming from a Christian. Your god issued a blanket prohibition against killing and in the same book both committed and ordered genocides, and that's one amongst a plethora of contradictions within your holy scripture..

“He’ll suggest that things that happen in the universe, happen randomly; that it just is that way arbitrarily. He’ll say it just happens but then he’ll turn around and he’ll look for regularities and law like explanations for events, he looks for uniformity and predictability in things that he studies in natural science. ” I'm developing a straw allergy here. An arbitrary universal genesis (which would cover even one initiated by a god), or even a random one, does not imply that all subsequent events are either random or arbitrary. It is equally justifiable to assume that all events from that point of genesis onward follow discoverable patterns, and it is reasonable to assume that those patterns ('laws') are universal and invariant. Theists normally assume that events can occur which are contrary to the patterns set down at the genesis (whenever their god sees fit), while atheists generally do not, but thus far no event has indisputably proven miraculous. The laws of physics seem to work indiscriminately for all, regardless of their personal belief structure and whether it agrees with said laws.

“The atheist doesn’t have a workable worldview.” See two paragraphs above.

“The atheist will simply say, ‘everyone knows there’s uniformity in nature, everyone knows there are moral absolutes. Everybody knows these things.’ And on that I agree with the atheist, everyone does know these things, but the problem is they don’t comport with atheism.” They do, at least as far as uniformity in nature is concerned, at least as a practical matter (when your iPod stops working, you assume it to be a due to a defect of some kind, not due to a change in the laws of physics pertaining to your particular iPod). Moral absolutes are another matter; there are some few (such as I) who deny that moral absolutes exist or are necessary for the continued existence of the universe. Certainly it's difficult to argue that the Moon could not exist if homosexuality were considered a harmless eccentricity.

“You can claim that events are just random, that there’s no personal plan or control or purpose in the universe. You can claim that reality amounts to nothing more but matter in motion but you can’t act, live or reason in that way.” Well, yes I can. Not that I do, mind, because I'm not made of straw, but I could. Whether I did or not would have no bearing on how the universe actually behaves, of course.

“Consider this parallel. Its like someone arguing against the existence of air yet he continues to breathe air all while he is arguing against it.” Okay, I've considered it, and concluded that it is a stupid analogy which has nothing to do with the question at hand. Let's move on.

“Atheists work hard to hide this intellectual poverty from themselves, that’s why they try to look up verses in the Bible and try to ridicule things rather than getting down to the basic issue of do you have a philosophy of life in terms of which you can reason about anything at all?“ Some atheists... (yawn). Sorry, straw allergy.... Some atheists, when arguing with Christians, will try and succeed in looking up verses in the Christian Bible which either contradict observable conditions in the world at large, or other parts of the Christian Bible, or both. It's an easy book to ridicule, because it is a compilation of stories sourced from ignorant agrarian peoples and insufficiently edited to weed out inconsistencies.

As for whether atheists have a philosophy of life which allows reasoning, I would say we do. All that is necessary to pass that small hurdle is to ask, “Can a person reason without believing in gods?” A single example will suffice: I do not believe in any gods, yet I am able to reason. I would add that it is also possible for one who believes in a god to reason; it may not be possible for such a person to closely reason about their particular god-related beliefs and retain them, but theism does not in and of itself preclude reasoning, It often does limit the range and effectiveness of the theist's reasoning, though.

“The response about the claims in the Bible is always that its just implausible. But remember that what you think is plausible is a reflection and a function of your basic conception of reality, your underlying worldview and how you know what you know and how you should live your life. Plausibility is rated by your worldview.” Well, yes, and whether it meets the test of agreeing with real-life experiment. It's a common idea amongst poker players that their luck will turn around if they turn around their hats; I've actually taken the trouble of writing down the results, and I can tell you that it did not work in the case of three poker players I looked at. Virgin births and dead people walking about haven't been claimed recently by Christians (not mainstream ones anyway) but given the dearth of evidence why should I believe they ever did? Why should I believe either ancient or contemporary claims of miraculous healing, given the lack of evidence?

It isn't simply a difference in underlying worldview, it's a difference in underlying evidence. I didn't believe in quantum physics, either; the idea that a single particle's path could be determined by whether there were multiple paths it could have taken is to say the least counterintuitive, but I came to believe it because the experimental results worked for me just as well as anyone else. I can do them again, with a doubter present, and they will work the same way, Plausibility is is rated by experiment.

“Atheists say ‘we can’t understand and explain every natural phenomenon’ Well you’ve missed my point. I’m arguing that you can't explain ANY natural phenomenon, and so every time you say I want natural proof, I want empirical verification, my point is your worldview can’t account for anything in the world; miraculous or not miraculous. My whole point is that all of our normal analytical procedures presuppose God in order to make sense of the inductive principle, moral absolutes, human dignity and all the rest.” Quite honestly, we've missed your point because you don't have one. Your analytical procedures may presuppose the existence of a god, but that doesn't mean that presupposing a god is necessary in order to effect an analysis. I might add that analyzing the implications of, say, a theory that the Sun's light results from the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into heavier elements does not depend upon moral absolutes or human dignity.

“I have shown that the atheistic presuppositions violate the conditions of rationality and that the Christian view does not.” No, you haven't, in either case.

“Atheists can’t show why they’re not being arbitrary when they condemn one thing and condone another.” What you mean is that when we condemn one thing or condone another, we cannot say “because God told me so.” Can you tell me why you are not being arbitrary in your belief that God told you so, or why God is not being arbitrary in his decision that it should be so?

I (an atheist) condemn theft, and believe that stealing should be punished by the community (rather than await divine justice) because it disrupts the orderly flow of commerce which benefits everyone; I will be upset if the system of justice lets too many thieves get away with their crimes, though I may allow for a few getting away with it in order to protect the innocent from railroading. I will also allow for exigent circumstance; if a poor woman steals to feed her children, reduce the sentence.

Contrast me with my neighbor, who believes that theft is wrong because her god says it is, and believes that no matter what happens here on Earth, the thief will be punished in an afterlife. Unlike me, my neighbor will under no circumstance elide the 'majesty of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike from stealing bread or sleeping under railway culverts' – my neighbor has her law directly from her god, and her god has set out moral absolutes which forbid stealing under any circumstances.

Oddly enough, even though my neighbor is assured that the thief cannot escape punishment in the afterlife, she is still determined that punishment is needed in this life – not restitution, mind, which anyone could see the justice of, but vengeance. Even though the thief is automatically going to be burned in sulfurous flames and poked with pitchforks for all eternity, it is morally necessary to throw her into a dank, rat-infested hole for years – or exile her for life from her family by sending her to Australia – or cut off her hand - or simply hang her from the neck until dead, prior to the aforementioned automatic punishment. Such is the power of moral absolutism.

“You can't coherently make moral judgments if people are nothing more than bags of biochemical stuff.” (Spelling and punctuation corrected.) Prove it. I just made a moral judgment. Can you prove (not simply assert) that I am not just a bag of biochemical stuff? Of course you can't, any more than I can prove that there isn't a god. Neither assertion is proved, nor is either likely to be any time soon. I'd have to say, though, that the evidence I can point toward the theory that we're all just bags of biochemical stuff is a lot deeper than the evidence that points toward a god – any god.

“Atheists spotlessly profess and they are emotionally committed to an underlying worldview that happens to render the reasoning science of ethics they want to do, unintelligible.“ That sentence, and the following paragraph, are what is unintelligible.

“The atheist is satisfied to ignore the need for intellectual justification and explanation, the need to gain consistency within his total beliefs and the need to demonstrate systematic cogency in his overall perspective on the world, man and values.” Actually, most atheist I know have come to that position because their religions failed spectacularly to justify assertions those religions were making – from cosmological assertions about the nature of the universe (such as that the Sun circles the Earth, or that the Earth is flat) to ethical assertion which were untenable (such as that it is desirable to stone to death upon her father's doorstep a bride who turns out not to be virgin). It is the theist who is typically disinclined to examine closely arguments and evidence which contradict the theist's viewpoint.

“'It’s the fool that says in his heart, ‘”there is no God.”’ Paul says, 'Professing themselves to be wise, those who are unbelievers, they became fools.' That is not name calling, it is description of what happens to reasoning when you will not admit the obvious.” By obvious do you mean things like “Not all animals lived within walking distance of Noah's house” or things like “It isn't reasonable to apply the death sentence to people who choose to work on Sunday”?

“You as an atheist are in a lot of company. But the fact that there are a lot of people who believe that sort of thing does not make your thinking any less superstitious or arbitrary. The atheist is simply taking his intellectual autonomy for granted.” I invite you to substitute the word Christian for the word atheist, and see how well it fits.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I dream of Kal-El

Someone sent me this. I have no doubt it's wildly out of context, but it definitely tickles my funny bone!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friday Frog again already?

The thing about having a weekly feature is that it really makes it transparently obvious when you've been slacking off all week... which is my lame segue into presenting this week's transparent (or at least translucent) frog, a specially bred variant of Rana japonica the Japanese brown frog. Clever boffins led by led by professor Masayuki Sumida at Hiroshima University’s Institute for Amphibian Biology bred in a recessive to make the world a little better for frogkind, so they say, since fewer will have to be dissected given that their internal organs are reasonably visible through the skin.

Hat tip to Pink Tentacle., where further details may be found.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Friday Frog

I've always liked Pharyngula's Friday Cephalopod, so I've decided to do something similar. Much as I like squid, octopi and cuttlefish, though, I've long had a particular soft spot for frogs. (Long time fans [ha!] will remember that Dr. Alcmaeon Frog is my occasional alter ego.)

My first little frog friend is indeed a tiny one. This cute li'l fellow is Nyctibatrachus minimus, or night frog. Only a centimeter long, this frog hails from the rainforests of the Western Ghats of Kerala (sounds like a locale from Weird Tales, don't it?) and is the smallest land vertebrate in India. That's a 5 rupee coin under the frog.

The photo comes courtesy of CryptoMundo, which features all kinds of cool cryptids. A hat tip to bOINGbOING for alerting me to it!

Capitulating to crying is not proper parenting

(The following is a copy of a letter sent to Cary Tennis at

Cary Tennis' advice to one of his correspondents in his Salon column today ('Unholy Father', Oct. 4 2007) seemed to me to show up an enormous hole in his objectivity. In a parental disagreement between an evangelical Christian mother and an atheist father (the correspondent), he simply assumes that it is preferable to allow the daughter to accept the religious viewpoint without question, and he even advises the father that his own beliefs should be subordinated.

The letter writer explained that his child is being raised mostly by her mother, who is deeply Christian, and that lately the child has become fearful that her father, who is an atheist, is heading for the fires of Hell. When he attempts to explain to her why he thinks this isn't going to happen (viz., there's no such place) she cries. Naturally, he finds this distressing and wanted some advice from Cary on how he can communicate with his daughter about such issues without the tears.

Cary's advice? He should just start going to church, so that his daughter won't worry so and to show his 'open mind' on such matters. I find this wildly inappropriate, and wonder how Cary would have approached the same problem if the letter writer had been a member of another religion rather than an atheist. Would he have advised him to skip the synagogue or mosque and go to church instead, because it would make the daughter more comfortable?

Mind you, this is not a 'default atheist' who simply doesn't believe but otherwise has no opinion on the matter. He states in his letter that he believes organized religion is actively harmful to her development into a rational adult. Despite this, he is certainly not trying to deny her mother the right to take her to church. He is, in fact, just trying to help her see that other people believe other things and that having an open mind is a good thing.

So the father's position is that he's willing to let her mother raise her in her beliefs (which also include such positions as denial of evolution and intolerance of homosexuality, naturally) but he wants to provide the rationalist viewpoint also, which seems pretty open-minded to me already, and he's writing to ask for advice on how best to communicate his views without upsetting his daughter.

Cary Tennis thinks the girl's father should start paying lip service to those beliefs, even though the man considers them wrong-headed and harmful. He thinks that caving to the child's tears, which were induced by those same irrational beliefs, and going to church for a few years will somehow give the father additional parental influence in these matters. When the man's daughter is grown and no longer so impressionable, why then her father can reveal that he was only humoring her and shamming his way through those masses, and she'll then be in a position to discuss these ideas reasonably.

What utter tosh. Being a hypocrite and denying his own beliefs is not going to gain this man his daughter's respect, and it is during childhood that it is most important for a parent to encourage open-minded thinking. As the Jesuits well knew, if you want to ensure that a fixed set of ideas are unshakably embedded in a person's mind for their entire life then you have to embed them, without competition, while the person is a child. In their hearts all religionists know this, which is why they so strongly discourage questioning of their dogmas - especially by the children.

Why not suggest that the mother should give up on church for a while? Obviously, because the child's already been taught to fear that idea, fear it beyond the point where it's even a viable consideration. It's the irrational fears which brought the tears! Humoring them is not going to help in the long run.

Note that the atheist isn't afraid of a fair competition of ideas - it's the theist who needs to frighten children out of even considering an alternate viewpoint. Truly, the father has it exactly right; subjecting a child to organized religion without a countering dose of skepticism is harmful to their development. It is child abuse, in fact, though the father stops well short of saying so. No doubt religionists will say that they are only trying to keep children out of their mythical hell and get them into their mythical heaven, but the only reason they hold such absurd beliefs is because they have been subjected to the same abuse themselves as children, without the moderating influence of a rational authority figure like this father presenting a better role model.

End the cycle of abuse. Teach your children critical thinking, and encourage them to apply it to everything. That will make them independent and strong, rather than hagridden by baseless fear of imaginary horrors.

A Rational Father

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Happy Sputnik Day!

(picture courtesy of NASA: check out their Sputnik informationals at and
Yes, 50 years ago today, Russian scientists put the first arteficial satellite in orbit. It didn't crash into a crystalline sphere of Heaven, it did orbit around a spherical Earth, and in doing so (and sending back its telemetry by radio) it demonstrated the power of science to increase humanity's understanding of, and power within, the natural world. It inspired many a youngster to awe and excitement and a deeper interest in science, and many an American politico to fear and envy and a determination to show that Americans could do just as well as the Russians or better. (Fortunately that's true; science works equally well for everybody, regardless of ideology, if its methods are followed honestly.)