Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Square Circle

I've been watching a lot of debates recently on YouTube between believers and non-believers. If I were to recommend only one channel it would be this guy: ProfMTH. His videos are very well produced and he is an extremely clear and entertaining speaker. Plus he gives patient and well thought-out replies to almost all the text comments on his videos. You can find other good channels by looking at what he has subscribed to as well.

In Prof's debates and elsewhere, believers (usually Christian apologists) have replies ready for almost any contradiction that is brought up. It's almost as amazing as the ability of seasoned Trekkies to retcon things like where the Klingon forehead bumps came from. Suddenly I realized that no contradiction could ever shake a believer's faith, because I too have the ability to explain away any contradiction as good as the best apologists. I will give it a go here with some classic contradictions that at first seem impossible to explain.

1. The square circle. How could a circle be a square? You see it is quite simple, sometimes the object is a circle and sometimes it's a square. It might depend on the time of day. Or maybe the original language "square" was translated from actually meant "circle." Here's my best explanation: the following looks like a circle, right?

But lets zoom in:

Aha! The circle is made of squares.

2. One equals two. Another easy one. Isn't it obvious that one coin has two sides? Or that one apple can be split into two halves?

3. Black is white. Well, white things are black if there is no light. Or a black object might appear to be white if it is smooth and the light reflects off it at a certain angle. Maybe the white object is black on the inside, or only half of it is black.

Can you think of a contradiction that can't be explained away? I guess the Bible, like Star Trek, really is completely free of any contradictions.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


I recently read a short book by John Allen Paulos called Irreligion. Being written by a mathematician, it has a different tone from that of the other popular atheist books out there. The sub-title sums it up: "A mathematician explains why the arguments for God just don't add up." Paulos briskly reviews three main categories of arguments, and also inserts some insightful commentary including a fictional dialogue with God himself.

The first category he calls the "Classical Arguments". First he deals with the argument from a first cause. Paulos points out that if everything has a cause, then that statement includes God as well. I think some believers would reply that the premise is that all physical things have causes, but God isn't physical. I think such assertions are baseless. Paulos also makes the important point that the term "cause" only makes sense if time is involved. A causes B only if A is before B. I've heard William Lane Craig say that God's first cause was simultaneous with the beginning of the universe, but I find that idea to be nonsensical.

He also covers the argument from design making an analogy to our complex free market economy that has emerged with no central planning. Finally he goes over the anthropic principle and ontological argument. Paulos was not impressed with either of them.

The second category was subjective arguments like coincidence, prophecy, personal experience and miraculous intervention. As to be expected, Paulos finds the evidence lacking. One interesting bit of information regarding prophetic testimony is that "...testimony that someone is telling the truth is self-undermining if the likelihood of truth-telling is less than 1/2. If people are confused, lying, or otherwise deluded more often than not, then their expressions of support for each other are literally less than worthless." Paulos goes on to prove this mathematically.

In one interlude between the main arguments Paulos talks about Jesus and says how surprising it is that people take the stories about Jesus in the Bible at face value. He compares it to recent events like the JFK assassination or Watergate which were covered in detail by the modern-media with recordings on film and tape, yet we are still clueless about so much of what was going on with those historic events. Paulos also discusses the silly idea in the Da Vinci Code story that a single family descends from the line of Jesus. He shows mathematically how if a person from 2000 years ago has any descendants alive today they must number in the millions.

The final category is called psycho-mathematical arguments. Here he talks about the arguments from redefinition, complexity, cognitive tendency, universality and gambling (aka. Pascal's Wager). There is a lot of good stuff here, but I'll just end with this fascinating excerpt:
[Researchers] exposed fourth- and fifth-grade students to a variety of intriguing mathematical games and measured the time the children played them. They found that the children seemed to possess a good deal of intrinsic interest in the games. The games were fun. After a few days, however, the psychologists began to reward the children for playing; those playing them more had a better chance of winning prizes offered. The prizes did increase the time the children played the games, but when the prizes were stopped, the children lost almost all interest in the games and rarely played them. The extrinsic rewards had undercut the children's intrinsic interest. Likewise, religious injunctions and rewards promised to children for being good might, if repudiated in later life, drastically reduce the time people spend playing the "being good" game. This is another reason not to base ethics on religious teachings.
If you're tired of reading all the recent atheist books (as I was) I highly recommend this little book with it's refreshing perspective on these old arguments.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


My Christian blog friend/debate opponent J.K., left some links to a couple of articles about pantheism. Now, I am not a pantheist but I admit I find ideas like pantheism, panentheism, or deism to be orders of magnitude more compelling than metaphysical ideas expressed in popular religions like Christianity or Islam. Now I saw "compelling" in a very vague sense. I see the epistemological ladder laid out like this:

1. What's a "god"? I don't get it at all. (ignostic)
2. I don't know anything about gods. Maybe knowing is in fact impossible. (agnostic)
3. OK, maybe there is some "ground of all being". We could call it "God". (deism, pantheism, etc.)
4. I believe or know the particular nature of God. (Christianity, Islam, etc.)

To brush dangerously close to making yet another post about semantics, levels 1 and 2 are both compatible with atheism (in its weak sense.)

I'm not sure how to jump from 1 to 2, or 2 to 3, except for idle speculation. I think the last leap from 3 to 4 is quite large. For the sake of argument I'm willing to imagine the possibility of 3, but again, only in a very vague sense. I don't see how we can move from that to reliable specifics claimed at level 4.

Here are the two articles by Dr. Norman Geisler:

Pantheism—Part 1: An Exposition [PDF]
Pantheism—Part 2: An Evaluation [PDF]

Part 1 is a general summary of all the flavors of pantheism that have existed or exist today. I won't comment on that one, but it is interesting. I certainly don't come anywhere near most of those types of pantheism since most of the ideas expressed there tip completely over into level 4 with lots of unfounded specifics.

Here are my comments about the criticisms Geisler makes in Part 2. His words are in quotes, and I only quote a few sentences out of many so you should read the article to get the full idea.

1. "The most fundamental criticism of a strictly pantheistic world view is that it is actually unaffirmable by man..."

I agree with him there. I also think that is true (at least so far!) for any other religious or metaphysical idea.

2. "Second, granting that there are no real finite selves or “I’s,” then there is no such thing as an I-Thou relationship between finite selves nor between men and God"

So what? Maybe that's the way it is, or maybe not. As in the first criticism, there is no way to know. He says some pantheists like Alan Watts try to get out of this "problem" by saying the relationship between the pantheistic god and humans is similar to the Christian ideas of the relationships between the parts of the Christian Trinity. Geisler writes, "This move, however, will not suffice, since the persons of the Trinity are not anchored to finite and changing natures. They interrelate in accordance with the perfect and unchanging unity of one absolute and eternal nature."

I don't think Watts or Geisler accomplish much by referring to the incomprehensible Trinity. I also don't understand how Jesus could be unchanging. Didn't he have a brain which grew and changed over time developing memories and learning new things? Anyway, there is no evidence for either of these ideas.

3. "Third, the basic metaphysical assumption of monism begs the whole question."

OK, I really don't know what he's talking about here, but that's from my lack of education. I do like to see the proper use of "begging the question." Don't let your friends use it incorrectly!

4. "Fourth, the ship of pantheism is wrecked on the reef of evil. Pronouncing evil illusory or less than real is not only hollow to those experiencing evil, but it is philosophically inadequate as well."

Maybe so, but I don't think any religion adequately explains evil and suffering. I suppose as a Christian philosopher Geisler blames suffering, in part, on a fallen creation. I don't see how that is satisfying, let alone being supported by evidence. To play "pantheist advocate" for a moment, I guess one argument would be that God can't (being the universe itself) do anything about evil and suffering. That's just the way it is.

5. "Fifth, there is neither ground for absolute Good nor an ultimate distinction between good and evil in a pantheistic universe."

Once again, so what? I guess a pantheist would say, that's just they way things are, sorry it doesn't appeal to you! Those are the breaks.

6. "Sixth, the pantheistic God is not really personal. Strictly speaking, personality is at best a lesser or lower level of God."

See 5.

7. "Seventh, the pantheistic God is incomplete without creation; he is dependent on the creation that flows from him for the attainment of the perfections that lie latent in his own infinite potentialities."

I don't see how this is different from Geisler's Christian idea of God. He tries to contrast it by saying, "the theistic God is eternally conscious and complete and without need for anything to realize latent potentials. Indeed, the traditional theistic God is pure actuality without any potential in his being whatsoever. While a pantheistic God creates out of necessity and need, the theistic God creates out of love and desire."

Why can't we say it's the other way around? I could say the pantheistic God becomes the universe out of love and desire. Why can't the pantheistic God be eternally conscious too? I don't see any reason to believe one idea over the other.

8. "Eighth, if God is “All” or coextensive in his being with the universe, then pantheism is metaphysically indistinguishable from atheism."

What's the problem with that?

He also writes, "What is more, statements that include everything, such as “God is All,” are vulnerable to the charge that they say nothing."

I agree with that. But the pantheist would respond that it doesn't disprove his position either.

9. "Ninth, pantheism involves a contradiction within the nature of God as infinite."

I don't really understand this section either. Why not just say the pantheistic God is finite if there is a problem with the infinite version?

10. "Pantheism’s stress on the unknowability or ineffability of God is self-defeating."

I agree with that point. I think the same criticism can be directed at Geisler's own religion though since I always hear talk about God (Yahweh) and his mysterious ways.

It seems like some of these criticisms are aesthetic in nature in that Geisler just doesn't like the pantheistic model of God. In some forms of pantheism, their God is not good, but beyond good and evil. I sense Geisler finds this idea distasteful, which is ironic to me because I often hear Christians say the unattractiveness of some of their own doctrines lends weight to their veracity since nobody would choose to make up such an inconvenient state of affairs! Why can't this also work for the pantheist?

To reiterate, I've said I find the ideas like pantheism to be interesting but I don't have any specific beliefs in that department. I suspect the true nature of reality is completely different from any human religion. I don't have any evidence for that suspicion but I base it on the fact that ancient humans had absolutely no idea about things like quarks, galaxies or DNA. Ancient people weren't just wrong, they were at a completely lower level of ignorance, incapable of even imagining anything close to our current conception of the world. I suspect any inkling of some kind of "ground of all being" is far beyond our current knowledge, many times the difference between the level of ancient people and where we are today.

Thanks for the links J.K., the articles were interesting!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dennett Q&A

Today Daniel Dennett gave a Q&A session after the screening of a couple segments from The Atheism Tapes. I've seen the video before, but one of the segments was my favorite one with Colin McGinn. The other was, of course, the interview with Dennett.

The Q&A session was done by collecting written questions from the audience which were read by the moderator Massimo Pigliucci. You can read his account of the event at his blog.

I took horrible notes, but here is my record of the questions asked:

1. What's the basis for atheistic morality? I think his answer was similar to Dawkins' "cultural zeitgeist" ideas. I'm pretty tired of that topic.

2. Why don't students read more Plato? Dennett laments the fact that curricula don't make time for the Euthyphro.

3. What's the deal with free will? Yes, we have souls, but they are made of little machines. I'm not sure I understand Dennett completely, but you can find a summary at Wikipedia.

4. Is religion adaptive? Dennett suspects religion is like an infections meme. It does what's good for itself like the common cold. There are many documented cases of biological parasites influencing the behavior of their hosts. Dennett wonders if it's possible that an STD could make the infected "hornier" to encourage it's spread. (He knows of no research looking into that idea.)

5. The questioner says he is still an agnostic because of the existence and mystery of qualia. Dennett is famous for saying qualia are illusions. I still don't get it, and I'm not satisfied with his answers but I haven't read about them deeply enough.

6. How many unbelievers are there? (Incomplete notes here.) I think Dennett made another plug for the term "Bright" here. He almost convinced me but I'm still leery.

7. Does there have to be a conflict between science and religion. Dennett says yes. I agree in so far as religions making truth claims about the natural world.

8. Was Colin McGinn right about the exact weakness of the ontological argument being undecided? (Incomplete notes here, but I think Dennett says that although no all philosophers disagree he thinks the argument is worthless.)

9. Is there progress in philosophy? Dennett says yes, and talks about how fields like physics and psychology used to be part of philosophy in the past. I wrote down this quote he said which I liked, "Philosophy is what you do until you know what the right questions are."

10. Why don't people understand what Dennett calls the "simple" idea of evolution? I don't have complete notes here, but he mentions giving his students a short quiz on evolution and how nobody scores over 50% despite the fact that many of them think they understand the concepts quite well. I want to see that quiz!

Afterwards Dennett was very accessible and many folks crowded around him asking additional questions and getting books signed. He was very patient with the inevitable atheist weirdos and kooks. One guy particularly annoyed me by talking loudly across the entire crowd to someone else drowning out what Dennett was saying. But I suppose he can't help it, being a walking zombie of churning chemicals.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

NYC Atheists Table Report #4

It's atheist tabling season again! Maybe I'll be able to squeeze out a few more reports this year. What's an atheist table you ask? You can click on the "table" tag on the left, or read the first one.

I arrived bright and early to set up at 10 AM. It was my first time setting up. In the past I usually did the "late" shift and helped tear down around 6 PM. It was too windy and a bit cold. I only stayed till about 1:30 since I had to skedaddle to eat lunch and get some work done.

The main characters were:

The "Other" Atheists
The Cabbie
The Vanilla Christians
The Stalin Quoter
Seth MacFarlane
The Deist
Cocoa Herpes Lady

As usual most of the people coming up to the table were either atheists, or supportive of church-state separation. Their positive comments and incessant agreeing doesn't make for interesting blog reports.

The "other" atheists were members of the Society for Ethical Culture. They set up a table nearby muscling in on our turf. The nerve! They didn't have a canopy though, which I envied a bit since it was a bit warmer to be in the sun.

Right behind our set up is part of Columbus Circle where taxis pull up. Sometimes the drivers talk to us. One cabbie was ranting to me about "the Church". I couldn't really understand what he was talking about, but I sensed he was anti-Catholic. He handed me a pamphlet titled "Does GOD Love You?" I didn't read it until now. It's a Q&A with lots of Bible verses. Aha, one question is "Should I attend a Church? Answer: Definitely Not!" Huh! A lot of it seems focused on the end of the world.

The Vanilla Christians were the most interesting to talk to. They were a youngish man and an oldish woman carrying Bibles. They were pretty friendly, but they wouldn't tell me what denomination they were or the name of their church. (Maybe they got the cabbie's pamphlet?) They were "just Christian". We had a pretty good argument about historical evidence and determining truth. They seemed a bit stuck on the circular reasoning of "God's word is the Bible. How do we know that? Because the Bible says so." etc. I also couldn't follow some of the woman's logic. At one point she said something along the lines of "If you think scientific evidence is so great, what about the scientists who showed evidence that abortion was good?" Um, what?

The Stalin Quoter was also what I call a "dive bomber", which are those people that swoop in with some religious sound bite then zoom away before we can give a pithy atheist response. He was hovering near the table reading one of the signs another member put up, when suddenly he pokes his head over the table with a big smile and says, "you know what Joe Stalin said? Joe Stalin said, 'may no one ever die in the name of religion again'". Then he walked away quick. Did Stalin say that? A brief search doesn't reveal anything like that, but who knows? What was the point of the quote? It wasn't the usual "Stalin was an atheist you know, neener neener" type of statement. Maybe they guy screwed up the quote.

Seth MacFarlane wasn't really Seth MacFarlane but there was a resemblance. This guy was a great speaker and debater. He got involved arguing with Vanilla Christians and later Cocoa Herpes lady. I had to shut up and listen since he was doing a much better job arguing than I was. Way to go Seth! The Deist was also there. I got nothing to say about him since I got hardly any complaints about deism. I could be a deist myself if pantheism wasn't so sexy. He had no love for the Christians though.

Cocoa Herpes lady was loud and incoherent. Seth was very patient with her, but I had to leave before they finished arguing. She claimed God cured her herpes because she ate a whole can of cocoa. Apparently you can't eat cocoa if you have herpes since it causes it to flare up. (You know, I'm not even going to google that.) She talked about the cocoa with her hands stretched about two feet apart so it must have been a very big can. She also said God teleported money into her pocket. I didn't know God was such a micro-manger, but who am I to doubt her testimony?

I wonder if any crazy things happened after I left. I always miss the good stuff!

Hey look, G-mail says I have 6666 MB left. Is that worse than 666? I thought Google did no evil.

Finally if you're bored you can read the latest long blog discussion I'm having at a Christian blog. We've debated before here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Four Horsemen of The Atheist Apocalypse

I decided to add some more detailed tags to the blog posts here. I had one little post all by itself with the "4 Horsemen" tag and coincidently I came across this comic afterwards allowing me to use it once again! Thanks to Friar Zero for letting us know about it on Hemant's blog.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Double Dose of Dawkins

This past weekend Richard Dawkins was in NYC for two separate events. The first was on Friday March 14th at a Barnes & Noble book store. He read from the new paperback edition of The God Delusion, did a Q&A, and signed books. The second event was a lecture at the Ethical Culture Society. Since I have been a fan of Dawkins since before the whole "new" atheist movement I went to both events.

The Friday bookstore event started at 7 PM and being hard core I arrived at 5 PM. I wasn't the first though. There was one guy there ahead of me. They started setting up chairs and soon we could sit to wait out the two hours. I sat right in front of the podium and signing table. As I joked too many times I could have given Dawkins a foot massage as he sat there. Luckily an interesting physicist from Binghamton sat next to me so our conversation made the time go quickly. But I was kind of hoping a religious nut would sit next to me to help pass the time in a different way. (A nice heated discussion to keep the blood pressure up.)

I think the seats filled up soon after 6 PM and by 7 the standing crowd was who knows how deep. I couldn't see very well from my sweet spot in the front. Dawkins arrived but just walked by generating anticlimactic applause. I guess they don't have a back door to the green room. (Yes, B&N has a green room. I overheard a worker mention it earlier.) Dawkins came out sporting a zebra tie (I mean a tie with pictures of zebras on it, not zebra stripes) and a nice red 'A' pin. The pin looked very fancy and I can't find it for sale anywhere so it must be a custom job.

I've already heard and read the new paperback preface in various forms so I kind of tuned out during the reading and just enjoyed his nice accent. (You can see another reading of it here.) I was more interested in the Q&A session and I hoped there would either be thought provoking questions or bat-shit insane questions. Anything in between is too boring. I was somewhat satisfied. I can't remember them all, but here they are in the approximate order they were asked:

1. A journalist (supposedly) asked if Dawkins was invited to some conference about a new aspect of evolution called the theory of form or something like that. Dawkins knew about it but couldn't remember anything about the conference. It has something to do with the basic forces in physics causing the form of living things to change over time. I couldn't find anything during the 10 second span of my patience for google searching just now. Dawkins seemed to say it was important and needed more research but it couldn't explain adaptation as fully as natural selection does.

2. Someone asked Dawkins how he became an atheist. Didn't she read the book? It would be hard for me to think of a more boring question than that one. In any event I'm sure Dawkins makes various evolution proponents cringe with his albeit honest story of how Darwin's theory led to his atheism. The fears of the Bible Belt school boards are confirmed!

3. There was a good question about why there seems to be a correlation between science fiction fans and atheism. The questioner mentioned Dawkins various references to people like Asimov and Douglas Adams. I certainly could be included in those data points. Dawkins commented that no one asked him that before and had to think for a moment of an answer. He suspected it had something to do with having a good scientific imagination. Good question whoever you are! That is why I never bothered to ask a question because I could not think of anything unique enough.

4. A large man in my front row with a clip board asked a longish question about why Dawkins doesn't consider the large numbers of Christians (he mentioned Joel Osteen's mega church) as evidence. Another boring question and not quite crack-potty enough to pique my interest. You could tell Dawkins switched on the various set answers he has memorized to these set questions he gets asked over and over and over.

5. Finally we got a nut. He was a bit far away, and I had to crane my neck but he seemed to resemble Wilford Brimley. He asked Dawkins why he had to go to the extremes of atheism with the "Hitlers and Stalins" instead of more reasonable agnosticism. He said a lot more and had to be shouted down by the crowd and the no-nonsense B&N lady. It was funny because just a little earlier I joked to my physicist friend there that we should make an atheist drinking game that included drinking whenever Hitler or Stalin are mentioned. Dawkins again gave the standard reply basically saying what he has already wrote in his book (level 6, not a 7 atheist.) that the angry man has obviously never read.

6. Another guy asked a question regarding Sam Harris' (now I know what I should have asked: how Dawkins (and Harris too) make their last names possessive. Dawkins's? Dawkins'?) research on the neurology of belief. He didn't express the question clearly and Dawkins hasn't read Harris' paper so he skipped that question.

7. An attractive young woman asked him what she should say to those annoying subway preachers. This led to a funny moment where Dawkins asked if there were really preachers on the trains and all of us New Yorkers in the audience started yelling out yes! welcome to NY! etc. Dawkins said it would depend on what the person was saying, but in general he doesn't engage those people (he mentioned e-mails and debate requests too) because they never let you go.

8. The final question asked Dawkins what his long term goals are. I can't remember what he said exactly here. Sorry! (Probably something about raising consciousness...)

Being right in the front I got my book signed super quick. I brought my Japanese copy of the God Delusion which caused Dawkins to pause a bit to exchange a few words with me about that. (I mentioned there was a Richard Dawkins fan group on the Japanese social network Mixi.) Here it is:The next day was a Saturday so I figured I should get there even earlier. I arrived 2.5 hours early at 4:30 PM. A substantial line had already formed on the sidewalk. By the time the doors opened after 6:30 PM I heard the thick line had already stretched across the entire long city block. I think most of the people got in but the 800 seats were full and some were turned away.

By chance a couple of guys from NYC Skeptics were on line near me. Along with a friendly chap who drove all the way from Boston, we passed the time having a deep and witty atheistic conversation. Being a captive audience on line, various folks were handing us pamphlets for things like veganism or Lyndon LaRouche. A man claiming to be a playwright wearing a Satanic red shirt was soliciting interviews with atheists from the line. Regrettably I missed a chance to speak with him which would have given me some more material for the blog here.

Eventually we got in. I felt no need to sit in the front row a second time so I stayed with my NYCS buddies. Dawkins gave a great lecture which I enjoyed a lot because there was a lot of new material and the multimedia slide show was very well done. One point I thought was interesting was that we don't think it's strange that we can color a world map based on the various religions in the world. (Blue for Christian, green for Islam, etc.) But imagine a similar map for a scientific controversy like how the dinosaurs went extinct. (Blue for asteroid proponents, Red for climate change believers, Green for scientists supporting a viral theory for the extinction, etc.) There was a lot of other good stuff I could mention, but there will probably be a video available eventually.

Next was the Q&A. Surprisingly the question quality wasn't as interesting as the ones from the day before. However I did record these more diligently:

1. A medical social worker asked about comforting the bereaved and terminally ill. Dawkins talked about how death as oblivion isn't so bad. He reiterated the Mark Twain quote which was in his lecture, "I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."

2. The second question was my favorite because it was a bit of a pet peeve for me as well. The questioner asked why Dawkins always uses the term Darwinism or Darwinist when physicists aren't called Newtonists or Einsteinists, etc. This point of Dawkins language has always bugged me since it seemed like the only people using the term "Darwinism" as if it were a personality cult were creationists and Dawkins. Dawkins thanked the guy for raising his own consciousness and promised to refrain from using it improperly. Good show! I give this questioner the gold star of the evening.

3. This guy asked about Dawkins' point that certain issues like the "In God We Trust" slogan on money are a waste of time for activist atheists. The questioner claimed that these issues could also be consciousness raisers. Dawkins agreed that he could possibly be convinced of that, but he thinks other things deserve higher priority, like his proposal to teach comparative religion to children in schools.

4. The next question was about Dawkins being too cruel or rude to religious folks. The questioner mentioned how the audience laughed a bit "perversely" at some of the humorous bits of Dawkins' lecture. Dawkins said yes we should be careful of being mean spirited, but often passion is mistaken for nastiness. Dawkins stressed we should be polite to reasonable religious people, but for people who think the Earth is 6000 years old, they are just "idiots" who deserve no respect. Zap!

5. A woman not so much asked as read a statement about how the colonizers of history have fallen away from religion, yet the colonized have clung fervently to the faith they have been converted to. Dawkins didn't have much to say except, yes how ironic. He did amusingly point out that, "I'm just really repeating what you said!".

6. This questioner asked Dawkins if he thought the media's glorification of anti-intellectualism was a way for "them" to keep the populous ignorant and properly indoctrinated into the economic machine. Dawkins doubted that religious leaders were cynically brainwashing their followers for a vast economic conspiracy.

7. The last question was more of a warning about the proposal to teach comparative religion could be abused by teachers who would take advantage of it and try to convert students to their particular belief. Dawkins agreed it was a danger and the curriculum would have to be controlled carefully.

That's right, there were no crazy nuts this time. How disappointing! Dawkins did get a long standing ovation and then set about signing books. The line looked too long for me so I headed out to grab some grub with my atheist pals.

Thanks for coming to NYC Dr. Dawkins!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Words Words Words and Dreams

I hope you aren't waiting for that post I was working on about Alan Watts. Consider it on the back burner. I just have to make a short post on the meanings of words because it came up in a comment I just replied to which I found buried in an old post.

I've written before about how before I can claim I am an atheist or agnostic I have to say I am an ignostic. I see Firefox 2 doesn't think that word exists, but it does. You can look it up. It's a shorter way of saying "non-cognitivist with respect to god-talk."

If you think I am lost and that I am searching for God then you are both right and wrong. If we mean "God" as in the great unknown Truth out there, then the answer is yes, but if you mean something else, well first tell me what that is. I really have no idea what "God" means to most people. I think definitions like "supreme being" or "creator of the universe" are not very helpful. "Supreme" in what sense? What kind of "being"? Is it made of atoms? If not, then what? How do you know? (etc.)

It isn't just the word "God" though. It's words like "soul", "spirit", and even "ghost". I kind of know what these words mean in fictional stories, but not in our reality. In the movies a soul or ghost is a glowing gas in the form of some dead person. This gas seems to move and think like the body did. The gas can even pass through solid objects! What kind of gas is that? Words like "soul" can't be defined in our reality.

I'm not saying I know everything or current scientific theories explain the universe completely. However, useful words must be defined using things we can sense. I know what a tree is because I can see and touch it. When I was a baby my parents pointed at some objects and said "trees". Useful words point to things we can experience, even non-physical things like dreams. Yet even non-physical things correspond exactly to physical events in the brain.

Some people do have some kind of mystical experiences which they choose to label with words like "spiritual" or "god". They could be right for all I know. But I haven't experienced anything like that. I have had dreams, but so have almost everyone I have met. Scientists can scan the brains of people who are dreaming, so words like "dream" are useful and point to something real. I haven't seen the same consistency with so called "spiritual" experiences among different people as I have seen with experiences like "trees" and "dreams".

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Exciting Meetup

Last night was the meetup for the NYC Atheists. It was quite exciting. I didn't realize the meetup was being filmed. Here it is:

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Believe In

People often use the phrasal verb "believe in" when they ask you questions about gods or certain scientific theories. I think this phrase causes a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. It's probably best to avoid using it.

Off the top of my head I can think of three meanings for “I believe in X”. (Later while browsing at a bookstore I checked a big fat unabridged dictionary and my initial guesses below proved to be mostly correct.) Here they are:

1. I think X exists.
2. I have a trust or confidence in X. (eg. I believe in America! Of course the person isn’t saying America exists, or I believe in you honey, said to a spouse or child.)
3. I approve of X. (Usually used in the negative. Eg. I don’t believe in watching TV.)

Depending on the meaning intended by someone asking a question using "believe in" quite different answers are appropriate.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Natural is Super

Happy New Year. My New Year's resolution is to increase my posting to once a month. Oh wait, that's what I'm doing already.

I'm working on a post about Alan Watts. I have no idea when that will be finished. Watts basically says the material world IS spiritual. All that is, whatever it is, is natural. There is no supernatural, but the natural itself is SUPER!