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Thursday, October 29, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-one: The Sandbox Tree

Many thanks to Silver Garou for tipping me off to a tree in desperate need of a better PR agent. The sandbox tree is a native to Central and South America, and so-called because its unripe fruit was used in colonial times to make "pounce pots," also called "sandboxes." These devices hold ink blotting materials such as talc powder, finely-ground salt, or even actual sand. This is perhaps the most boring quality of the tree, rather like calling your automobile a "portable cupholder." The only way they could have named the sandbox tree in any more boring a fashion would be to call it "the bark-having tree," or perhaps "the leafy tree." See, look, it has those things:
This is a tragedy because the sandbox tree, AKA "monkey no-climb," is about the least boring tree in the world. In order from least to most impressive, it can stab, poison, or even shoot you: not only can it kill you with its caustic sap, not only can it kill you with its spiny bark, not only can it kill you with its toxic leaves and seeds, but this tree can fuck shit up for anyone within a football field by way of its explosive fruit.

Read that again. It's better the second time, I promise.

To be fair, the sandbox tree is also called "the dynamite tree" due to the loud report of its seed-spreading antics. But a still-more-accurate name would be "the poison-blooded spiny-armored grenadier tree," though it would make casual conversation on the subject something of an ordeal. This tree quite simply does not fuck around. Its sap is both caustic and poisonous, its bark is also poisonous and covered in very sharp spikes, its leaves are poisonous and grow to two feet wide, and its fruit is poisonous even before it explodes. When the fruit does explode, it can throw its flat seeds about a hundred meters through the air, injuring anyone stupid enough to stay in sight of the damned thing. Although I guess I wouldn't really want to turn my back on this bastard; I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if the tree could uproot itself and walk into my home to strangle me in my sleep. Y'know, in keeping with the whole "kill anything in the area" ethic it's got going on.

Bearing all of that in mind, of course we found a way to harness such power for good or for awesome. Indigenous people rub their hunting and fishing implements on the tree, and this gets them sufficient amounts of toxin to aid them in hunting their quarry. Eat a seed and you'll get vicious cramps while your bowels evacuate both ways, while a "large" dose (consisting of two seeds) can fucking kill you - or just give you delirium and convulsions, if you're lucky. Although somehow these properties have been harnessed for recreational purposes, as some derivative of the plant is sometimes used as an additive to Ayahuasca.

For further reading, there's Cracked's Six Things That Shouldn't Explode (But Did Anyway), and Julia Griffin's Something Wicked This Way Grows, both of which come highly recommended. There's just so much interesting stuff out there!

Costume Update: As of this morning, things are looking good - I just need to hurry now.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty: The Sieve of Eratosthenes

I frequently get bored at work, because being a quality consultant is not an interesting job to me on a day-to-day basis - it's new problems and challenges that I find interesting, and everything else is grunt-work. So when I've got absolutely nothing to do (much less anything new), I sit around and give myself problems to solve, such as finding a way to recognize a prime number generator if I saw it (and thus, by extension, how to design a prime number generator and also what that prime number generator would be). I sometimes find it useful to attack a problem visually, so I started writing numbers to see if any pattern jumped out at me once I had all the primes through 200 isolated in a picture.

I realized that, since prime numbers have no factors which are also integers, I could eliminate all the non-primes by crossing out all multiples of two (except two itself), then all the multiples of three (except three itself), and then things get interesting. You see, I don't need to cross off multiples of four, since I've already done that by crossing off multiples of two. Five is another prime number, so cross off every number ending in five or zero (except five itself), but six has already been taken care of, thanks to the joint efforts of two and three. Whoah.

I realized at some point that if you cross off all the multiples of a prime number from a list, it will eliminate all non-prime numbers until the square of the next prime (which will have been isolated by this very method in the immediately previous step). Crossing off multiples of two eliminates all primes until 32, and crossing off multiples of three (starting with 9) eliminates all remaining non-primes up until 52, and crossing off all multiples of 5 (starting at 25) eliminates all remaining non-primes up until 72, and so on and so forth. I then despaired because I was looking for a pattern that would use a non-eliminative method to determine what numbers don't fit any pattern; I was trying to describe a pattern of patternlessness as a pattern itself. Uh-oh.

The next day, I despaired some more, because I was walking through one of the campus buildings and saw a poster on the wall describing the sieve of Eratosthenes (easy mode). Shits! I mean, I could have sworn that there used to be a poster there showing how to make 3D hearts and smiley faces with mathematical equations, and decidedly not stealing this great idea I had and taking it back through time to ancient Greece! But no matter... I might have seen it the day before and forgotten about it, or learned it in my misspent youth and forgotten it, or merely come up with a good idea independently. Doesn't matter, the sieve is awesome and I know it. Now you know it, too - and knowing is half the battle.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let's Play Dress-Up! Halloween '09 (part one)

I don't always go all-out for Halloween; actually, I usually make a point of not putting much effort into my costumes. One year I went as Wonder Woman for a "Low-Rent Superfriends" theme; then I went to a superhero costume party as The Raving Objectivist - I dressed up and did my hair like Ayn Rand's, and wore a name tag - my friend Andrew said I was her spit & image, which I took as a compliment, but it was still kinda creepy (to be fair, he was also creeped out by my appearance, even though he said it was awesome, so I guess we're even). Perhaps my favorite costume was "Zombie Apocalypse Survivor," because I got to make a mess all over myself and carry around a crowbar.

Well, one of my roommates, Rhodopsin, informed me of someone he'd seen at DragonCon who fabricated a prosthetic blade arm from Prototype, and I started thinking about how I could do such a thing, because I want one. I came up with a workable idea, my friends helped me scale it down a bit at our D&D session Friday night (what?! I'm a huge fuckin' nerd, OK?), and then I had a plan. I bought some materials on Saturday, and combined them with a few tools I had lying around the house:

...and Sunday was building day. I screwed up and made it too bulky at first (more like Nightmare's sword than Mercer's blade arm) and I wanted to make it thin and sharp-lookin'. I took a look at some online photos to get an idea, because I didn't feel like reinventing the wheel at this point, so I'm using what I've got to improvise and scale it back some more. Fortunately, I've got enough time left to start over and still end up with a product I like. So, starting over! I unwound some wire hangers for my wireframe and assembled them like so, with a handle and a styrofoam housing for the blade:

Then I taped over the frame/handle assembly and added a plastic sleeve (so I don't duct tape the whole thing to my arm - hooray for recycling grocery bags!). The whole bit looks like this:

Notice the wire "tendrils" sticking out; those will be important later on. Next, I cut cardboard to size for the blade proper, and glued it together three layers thick so it's nice & sturdy:
I have some shaping to do on it yet, but the hard part's over and the rest is tedium. I have to spraypaint and assemble the thing, then paper mache several layers over the non-sharp-like bits, add a coat of paint and rubberize the details. More later; wish me luck!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Axe of the Apostles, book one: "Genesis 2: God Takes a Mulligan"

I wrote this for NaNoWriMo 2008; but I never finished, because satirizing all 66 books of the Bible is too much to do in thirty days. But I thought it started out well, even though I was bored and sick of it by the end of Deuteronomy, so I thought I'd share here. Enjoy!

In the beginning, there was nothing - which EXPLODED! God, never one to miss an entrance, did his best Clint Eastwood impression and walked menacingly into reality, squinting partly from the brightness but mostly to look like a badass. After staring down the young Universe for some time, God was about to deliver a witty one-liner - but then he realized that the Universe was expanding at the speed of light, which is much faster than sound, and he hadn't yet created other life, and sound can't travel in the vacuum of space anyway, so he gave up.

"Screw this," thought God, "I'm starting over."

In the beginning, there was nothing - except for God, who thought he was pretty hot shit for being the first one on the scene. Later sources would disagree, but they weren't around at the time and didn't see it for themselves, so who cares? Not God, that's for sure.

At this point, God decided he was perfect - able to do anything, aware of everything, and supremely good. As he was the only one around, a logical consequence of this situation is that he was also the most vile and despicable being in existence, but God hadn't invented logic yet and so was not concerned with this fact. At any rate, God got bored and lonely after contemplating his own perfection for a few minutes, so he decided to make some company for himself.

His first creation was called Lucifer, the star of the morning, the lightbringer. Lucifer was beautiful to behold, and lovely in every way. As God was the only other one around at the time, and beauty is relative, it is left to the reader to determine what conclusions may be drawn from this - remember, no logic allowed! After creating Lucifer, God immediately began feeling jealous, so he created a bunch of angels in order to get back to feeling superior.

There were many classes of angels: the cherry-pickers; the sycophants; the shark-angels; and of course the garden variety angel, a Mexican named Angel who was Heaven's groudskeeper - as there was no Heaven yet, this explains why God made Mexicans lazy). God, who by this point was back to feeling supremely awesome, then decided it was time for a speech.

"Hey, everyone. My name is God, and I made you all, so you all need to do what I say. Dig?"

"Laaaaaaaaame," Lucifer said, rolling the most gorgeous pair of eyes you ever saw.

"Well, you can go to Hell," God shouted angrily. "I've had enough of your shit!" With that, God created Heaven at one stroke, just so he could kick Lucifer out of it. Then he created Hell, and he stuck Lucifer there on infinite time-out. "You think about what you've done! And then maybe you can come back up to hang out with the cool kids."

"Hey, don't you think that was kind of harsh," one of the angels asked.

"Well, if you feel so sorry for Lucifer, then you two can hang out together!" And God cast that angel, and anyone who looked like him, out of Heaven and into the depths of Hell with Lucifer. This worked out to be about a third of the Heavenly host, as God isn't very creative, and by that point God had pretty much spent his temper tantrum and was feeling a bit better. "OK, now as I was saying, I made you all, so you have to do what I say, or I'll kick the shit outta you. Capisce?" None of the angels spoke Italian, as there wasn't a Vatican or a pope or anything, but they nodded their heads in agreement because Heaven was pretty nice and they didn't want to ruin their fun.

"All right, then," God continued, "I've got some work to do, so keep it quiet out here, OK?" Then God locked himself in his room for seven days.

In those seven days, God was working hard. First he made a star, and then a planet to go around that star, and then he tried to put stuff on the planet. Trouble was, he made the planet entirely out of sky, and it quickly started storming and made it a generally rough place to be. So he tried making a planet out of rock, but he put that one too close to the star, and it quickly became too hot for even God to handle, so he just left it there. The next rock was way too far away and was so cold that God's nipples got hard just thinking about it, so he tried making a sky-planet again, but it still didn't work out. This went on for a while, but finally God was able to make a planet out of rock which was just the right distance from the star, give or take, to allow for truly excellent beaches and some pretty sweet sunsets, too.

After that, God started putting other things up in the sky. First he made a moon, because moons are sweet, and then he tried to make some more stars so the night would have that neat "night-time" look to it. But the stars were too bright, so instead of making them smaller, he just put them really far away so they looked small. He put some of them way too far away, though, and there was no way to see them without melting some sand into glass and putting that into space and taking teeny-tiny pictures with the focus way zoomed out. But God figured that someone would eventually try that, so he just left well enough alone.

Next, God started putting plants and animals on the planet. First he made some wicked-cool looking things, like scaly trilobytes and giant lizards and humongous spiders and rather epic sharks, but then he decided that wasn't really how he wanted to do things, so he buried them all one at a time in a very specific order which would later confuse scientists into thinking they had actually lived and died in that order. Then he moved the land masses around, since he was bored by the whole cluster thing he had going on the one side. Then he made some more animals, but smaller this time.

Then God got lonely again, and those angels sure were a bunch of pricks, so he decided to make someone different to hang out with. This time, he made someone who looked just like him, and called him Adam.

"Hey, buddy," said God, "Your name is Adam. I'm God. My middle name is 'I Am,' and my last name is 'Awesome.' I guess you can have those middle and last names, too, because I think you're pretty awesome. I would know. I made you, after all."

"Neat," Adam said. "Right, then. What do I do?"

"Well, you know, stuff. There's chilling, hanging out, lounging around, passing the time, all sorts of stuff."

"I see. And what's this bit hanging off me here, then?"

"Oh," said God, blushing a bit, "That's a penis. I don't really know what it's for, I only gave it to you because I had one and I wanted you to be just like me. Really, though, it just makes me confused and angry sometimes, especially when I think about Lucifer."

"Who's that?"

"Huh? Oh, nobody. Nobody! Don't worry about that, forget I said anything. Anyway, yeah." God started trailing off at this point.

Adam got bored about now, so he wandered off and started looking at things. God felt a little snubbed by this, but he didn't want to let on, so he just said, "Oh, yeah, I gotta go, too. I'll see you around."

Over the next couple days, God watched Adam wander around on the planet he had made. He didn't seem to have a care in the world, and that frustrated God, because he was still feeling bad about what happened between him and Lucifer. That's when God decided that he would put Adam in a similar situation, and see how Adam reacted, and then if it worked out OK, then God would try the same thing.

That night, while Adam was sleeping, God created someone who looked just like Lucifer.
"Why, hello there," the new creation said.

"Hi," God answered, feeling a bit nervous. "My name's God. You're Eve. This is Adam. You should chill with him, he's pretty awesome."

"I dunno, he looks kind of lame," Eve said, looking over the snoring man next to her on the ground.

"Oh, that's only because he's sleeping. He's way more exciting during the day, I promise."
The next morning, Adam woke up and saw Eve next to him on the ground.

"Hey there, hot stuff," he said.

"Good morning," Eve said after waking up and rubbing her eyes a little. "So yeah, what do you want to do?"

Adam thought about this for a moment - there were a whole lot of things he wanted to do, but he didn't know which would impress this vision of loveliness the most, so he just said, "I don't know. What do you want to do?"

"Well, this is lame," Eve said. "God said you'd be way more exciting during the day."

"Oh, you want excitement? Well, there's this waterfall just through the forest over there, we could jump off it, it's great times!" This sounded like a good idea to Eve, so off they went.

God was watching this from the bushes, and he followed Adam and Eve and watched them have a great time at the waterfall. None of this was helpful - he had already gotten off on the wrong foot with Lucifer, and he didn't put any waterfalls in Hell, and he sure wasn't about to let her back into Heaven, so he couldn't see as how any of this applied to his situation.

With Adam and Eve getting along so well, God was starting to feel frustrated, so he decided to give them some rules to make their life harder. He planted two special trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, and then he brought Adam and Eve over and laid down the law.

"OK, you two" said God, "Fun's over. I called this meeting so I could tell you what the rules are. I just put these two trees here, but you're not allowed to eat them, because I said so."

"Why not," asked Eve.

"Because I fucking said so, that's why! Don't ask stupid questions."

"All right, whatever you say," Adam said. "What are the other rules?"

"Umm," God stammered, "Well, you can't eat from that one tree, and you can't eat from the other tree, either. It's just wrong. And if you do, you'll die. Those are the rules, for now. I'll let you know if I come up with any other rules."

"What's 'die' mean," Eve asked. She had never seen anything die, and was curious what it meant.

"It sucks and you don't want it to happen, that's what it means! What did I tell you about asking stupid questions?"

A few days later, Adam and Eve still hadn't eaten from either of the trees, since they didn't want bad things to happen to them. God was apparently in charge, and they didn't want to piss him off, so they just went about their business of having fun and generally enjoying life. This was very frustrating to God, because he still didn't see how any of this could help him with Lucifer, and he couldn't really think of anything else to do with his time. Then God got an idea.

God went down to Hell and knocked on Lucifer's door. During her time in Hell, Lucifer and the exiled third of the Heavenly host had done wonders with the place. There was a coffee table with magazines in the living room, some nice paintings in the hallway, and a fresh paint job to boot. God, who had told his remaining angels just to sit tight while he locked himself in his room, was a bit embarrassed at the comparison. He To Whom All Is One was taking this all in when Lucifer answered the door.

"Hey there, Lucy. Long time, no see! I like what you've done with the place."

"Um, thanks, I guess. We made do with what we had, it seems to have worked out well."

"Yeah, so, do you mind if I come in?" Lucifer glanced about for a moment.

"I don't see why not. Mi casa, su casa."

"Thanks," God said, ambling inside. "So yeah, I was wondering if you would do me a favor?" Lucifer rolled her dewy, beautiful eyes.

"I should have known."

"No, no, it's not like that. Look, I'll tell you what: you give me a hand with this, we'll let bygones be bygones, you come on back up to Heaven and we'll have a grand old time. What do you say?"

"Well," Lucifer cocked her head to one side and weighed her options. "Yeah, OK, that sounds like it could work out. What did you have in mind?"

"See, it's like this," God began, "I went and created some more, after the angel thing kinda fell apart. I was playing around, and these humans kinda cropped up, but I'm trying to show 'em the rules, dig? They don't quite seem to get it - I mean, they're obeying the rules just fine, but I don't think they understand what will happen if they break the rules, you know?"

"I'm not sure I follow," Lucifer said.

"It's kind of hard to explain," God said, stroking his chin. "It's like, they're fine with following the rules for now, I just want them to see what happens if they break 'em, so they'll know not to do it. We show them an easy case, they learn from it, then things work out just fine forever!"

"Wait," Lucifer asked, looking confused. "So, let me see if I've got this straight - are you asking me to play the bad guy to teach your new friends a lesson?"

"Erm, no, it's not quite like that," God stammered, "But - yeah, I suppose that's the thrust of it. Afterwards, though, we'll all have a meeting, everything's gonna be out on the table, it'll be just fine. I promise."

"Full disclosure? We'll let them vent and everything? I mean, this seems pretty manipulative, they might be upset."

"I know, but it's for their own good. I'm sure that if we explain it together, they'll understand. What do you say?"

Lucifer mulled this over for a few moments before responding.

"OK, I'm in."

Adam was off for one of his walks in the wilderness. Eve had tagged along on plenty of those, and wanted to take a look at these trees they weren't supposed to eat from. She was a curious sort, and wanted to know just what was so special about them. When Lucifer came up from Hell, she saw Eve contemplating the tree of knowledge, and decided to make her move. Not wanting to be stuck with a bum rap in the event that things went South, Lucifer took on the shape of a serpent, in the hopes that she'd have plausible deniability.

"Hey there, sweetcakes," Lucifer said, after twining herself in the tree's branches.

"Oh, hi!" Eve was a bit startled, but quickly regained her composure. "Didn't see you there. What's up?"

"Well, I see you've been looking at this tree."

"Yeah," Eve said, looking back at the tree of knowledge. "God said we weren't supposed to eat from it, or we'd die, and that's bad. I'm just trying to figure out what could be so bad about eating this one kind of fruit."

"Oh, really? What kind of tree is it?"

"God said this one is the tree of knowledge. That other one over there is the tree of life."

"Knowledge, huh? Well, I'll tell you something: God knows everything. He said so himself. It doesn't seem to have done him any harm, eh? I bet there's more to this than he's letting on."

"Yeah, maybe," Eve added thoughtfully. "But it's more than just that, it's the knowledge of good and evil - you know, right and wrong, all that morality stuff. It seems hard."

"Meh, it's not really all that tough," Lucifer said. "It actually clears things up quite a bit. In fact, I'd bet that nothing bad would happen if you ate of this tree. Seems like the knowledge of good and evil would be a useful thing to have."

"Yeah, you're right," Eve said. "I mean, God talks about all these rules, all this right and wrong stuff, I'm not quite sure what it's all about."

"You know," said Lucifier, "I bet if you ate this here fruit, you might have a better idea of what he's talking about."

"You know what? That's a good call. Thanks for the advice, I think I'll take some of this and share it with Adam."

Eve reached up and plucked the ripest, juiciest looking fruit she could find, and went off to find Adam.

"Hey, honey. How are you?"

"I'm doing just fine, babycakes." Adam was all smiles - he always seemed to be full of energy after exploring some new area of the Earth that God had made.

"Well, check this out: you know that tree in the middle of the garden back home?"

"Uh, you mean the tree of knowledge?"

"Yeah, that's the one. I got some fruit from that tree right here."

"Hey, sweetheart," Adam said hesitantly, "God said not to eat that. I'd be careful if I were you."

"Well, listen," Eve countered, "I had this talk with a serpent in the tree, and it really doesn't seem so bad. I mean, God knows everything, right? So how bad could it be for some of that knowledge to pass on to us?"

"Umm, I don't know," Adam said, glancing about nervously. "Look, God said not to eat it, or else we'd die, and that dying is bad. I don't want to have to deal with that, really."

"Oh, come on," Eve implored. "How bad could it be? I mean, God himself knows all this stuff, and he seems like an OK guy, right?"

"I guess you've got a point there. Ahh, what the heck? Why not? I'll give it a shot."
So Adam and Eve each took a bite of the fruit from the tree of knowledge. As they did so, knowledge - all knowledge - flowed through their minds. A torrent of information swept through their consciousness, so enormous that they were barely able to understand any of it. But from all the chaos, one thing stood out: they saw themselves as God saw them, as mere tools, as means to an end. They looked upon themselves as the window dressing that God had built them for, and they were ashamed.

As quickly as it came, the flood of knowledge left their minds, blown away like dust in the wind. But the emotional impression of their role on Earth remained with them, the sense of their place in God's scheme of things would not be rubbed out. They knew God's mind for but a moment, yet their hearts were scarred for life.

Adam and Eve walked back to the garden in tears.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Machina Ex Deus, part two (cl)

I left off yesterday vaguely gesturing at my transition from fundagelical Christianity to non-denominational Christianity. I didn't know whether I could trust the Bible or not, and the Bible itself is no help here (if I doubt a book, then I clearly can't take the book's word that I shouldn't doubt it!). I want to clarify right up front that my problem with God thus far isn't that I don't want to believe in him - after all, if there is in fact a Heaven which is the Best Thing Ever, then I certainly want to go there! - it's that I want to believe sensible things and I can't make God make sense to my mind. God could make it make sense to me, though, if he wanted (because he knows what I mean by "sense," and he knows that I want to believe in what makes sense).

But wait... even if I get to Heaven, is there still a Hell? If so, then if I'm in Heaven and know about Hell, it's gonna make me fuckin' miserable! I barely manage to get by as is, knowing that people starve to death every fucking day; how much worse would this be if I knew that people were being tortured forever?! I came to the conclusion that this could go three ways: either there is no Hell, or God needs to give me an empathy-ectomy at the Pearly Gates, or I need to forget about Hell. If there is no Hell, then... no problem! I don't even need to worry about it myself! But if there is, and God gives me an empathy-ectomy or makes me forget a rather key fact of reality, I don't really see what makes such a being worthy of worship. Not being dismissive, I just don't see anything good in a being that says with its actions, "Forget about those losers, they don't count; come hang out with us cool kids."

I don't know what it is, but all my role models, all my favorite superheroes, everyone I admire and even myself, we all have one thing in common: we are unable to stand idly by and watch others suffer. How is it that God is able to do such a thing, but still call himself good? I looked into the literature and found a whole lot of stupid bullshit.

Theodicies, in my experience, are categorically failures, more or less because I buy into Epicurus' dilemma: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" Who gives a flying fuck about our precious free will? Not God - he hardened Pharaoh's heart several times, he chose Moses and Saul of Tarsus despite their wills, and when Jonah flew the coop, God wouldn't take "no" for an answer. No, abiding evil when you don't have to, compromising with it when you have the advantage, allowing it when you could do otherwise, this strikes me as "knowing better but doing worse." This is a long-respected definition of "evil."

Let's briefly switch gears and talk about relationships, starting with figure 4:
In a parent/child relationship (and I mean a minor child, not a grown one), the parent has the child at a disadvantage. The parent is older, wiser, and possessing of more self-control than the child is (usually). This makes the relationship asymmetrical, and it places responsibility for the child directly on the parent because the child can't take care of itself. Ideally, the parent raises the child to be a peer, another adult among many, capable of making intelligent and mature decisions autonomously. This is done with one-on-one interaction, an adult teaching a child step-by-step to become an adult itself. And this is done, at least in part, because the parent loves the child and cares for its well-being. Now consider the relationship between God and humanity:
It's a similar relationship - again, God has the advantage, and again, he damn well ought to be older, wiser, etc. than we are. How has God contributed to raising me as his child? Am I to reason from his lack of in-my-face involvement that he cares less about me than my own parents do? As far as I can tell, he wrote a letter and walked out before I was born - the letter is the Bible, walking out is Jesus' ascension into Heaven. To the best of my ability to tell, any moral shortcomings on humanity's part are the direct result of God's total failure to either make us right or raise us right, both as individuals and as a species.

Once I saw that, I couldn't un-see it. Good parents don't let their children do whatever the Hell they please; good parents make themselves a known presence in their childrens' lives, they raise their children by hand and guide them into becoming better people. Good parents do whatever the Hell it takes to protect their children and raise them to be the best people they can be. Any parent who allows her child to upset her has failed to control her temper; any parent who strikes a child in anger is at fault for not remaining in control of the situation. Why? Because children don't know what the fuck they're doing. I would know: I was a child once and I did some really embarrassing shit!

The parallels don't stop there. Households have rules, and parents are their authors; similarly, reality has rules (yay physics!), and God is their author. Why didn't God include any of these rules in his instruction manual? People understood math long before the Hebrews put quill to scroll, so why does the Bible have precisely zero interesting math in it (with the exception of a botched calculation of pi)? Moreover, why a holy book, instead of something more impressive? Every religion has holy books, but no religion has a holy organism that sings the holy text aloud and has no natural predators. Or how about a holy computer, a machine from God that can answer all our questions and also preserve God's language? The machine could also self-replicate and self-assemble, like a glorified RepRap machine. And a million other things, too - in short, why is God so boring?! Why did God do nothing to distinguish the one true religion from every other religion? Why is Yahwism, to all appearances, the same stuff in a similar package? I just don't get it.

But most importantly, if God exists, then why is he hiding from me? Silver Garou came up with what I think is an excellent argument on exactly this point, and it proceeds as follows:
1. God is omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore cannot be stymied in his efforts (or at least not by humans).
2. Since I myself know what would convince me of God's existence, God too must also know that thing.
3. Thus, God knows what would convince me of his existence. (from 2)
4. God has not convinced me of his existence (my mother did, once, but that wore off).
5. "Being hidden" does not necessarily imply the intention of "is hiding," since ruins can "be hidden" in the forest but obviously have no intentions of hiding. Yet until they are actually found, they do in fact remain hidden.
6. An entity that chooses whether to remain hidden or not, and has this as its option, does so with intent insofar as it is intelligent.
7. God is intelligent.
8. Thus God cannot remain hidden unless he also intends to be hidden and therefore "is hiding." (from 1, 6, 7)
C: Since God has not yet convinced me of his existence, then he is either hiding while waiting, or hiding forever, or does not actually exist as such (as omnipotent and omniscient, or at least enough of those things to actually convince me). Or he just doesn't want me to believe in him, which I guess is cool, too, except that it tells me he wants me to go to Hell (if there is one). (from 1, 4, 8)
God knows where I'm at, and God knows what it would take to make another Saul, Thomas, Jonah, or Pharaoh out of me. I can think of many reasons for him to do so, but none at all for him to wait or not do so at all.

OK, whew! That's it from me on why I don't believe... in this discussion... so far... today. It's been a little rough, but that is the gist of why theism makes no sense to me. So that's enough out of me: what do you think, cl? Where do you disagree with me, or at least diverge, and why? I'll make the assumption that you've still got what you think is a better way, and I'm curious to know what it is that you think is a good justification for theism, and why I should endorse it. Or, if it's a matter of personal revelation, then I'm curious as to how you can comfortably and honestly distinguish that revelation from insanity - no joke, this is an honest question on my part here.

I've pretty much said my piece and will wait to write anything as substantial as this until either I'm asked a direct question, or something else piques me. Ball's in your court!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part twenty-nine: RepRap

Rhodopsin told me about RepRap the other day, and now it's hard to think about anything else. RepRap is a contraction of Replicating Rapid-prototyper. Modern CAD machines can already translate 3D cyberspace designs into 3D meatspace objects, and a RepRap is basically a 3D printer that can make its own parts.

Oh, shit yeah.

Check out what it can make! (All images taken from that link.) For starters, RepRap parts, themselves made by a RepRap:
Who needs a new pair of shoes? Not Daddy, he's got a RepRap!
Oh no, my door handle busted! Why go to the store when I can make one in my home:
Dammit, I need an adapter to fit tab A into slot B - but nobody makes one! Except RepRap:
Man, all this sitting around making things from nothing like a god has made me thirsty! Time to get my drink on:
OK, yeah, enough. Look, this is pure awesome. I need one. Who's got half a grand sitting around for me to buy one? I'll mail you the first copy, double-promise! Or, even better, send me your parts!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Machina Ex Deus, part one (cl)

The Story So Far: cl and I are arguing on the internet! I outlined some metaphysics and epistemology in my last installment, and cl commented.

I used to be a theist; specifically, I was a fundagelical Christian. I saw God's hand in all things, I saw the Goddamned Devil at work in the world, I had promised my soul to Jesus several times and in several ways (I needed frequent fixes of God-smack), and I lamented that there should ever be anyone to not hear the glorious Word of God. I tried to be hopped up on God-smack as often as I could, and I'm not saying that to be pejorative: I thought the God-smack was good stuff at the time, and I thought that I was at my moral best when I was on it (full of Christ's love, in awe of the Maker's creation, etc.). Today I'm going to outline what changed - this is something of an autobiographical parable, inasmuch as I intend to gesture at my philosophical development while more or less ignoring everything else that was going on in my life and the world at large at the time.

Like all good parables, this one sets its tone with a metaphor. As I pointed out before, reality is ambiguous - or, rather, the relationship between reality and our perceptions is fundamentally unknowable because we are not omniscient, and therefore any perception of reality we might have is intrinsically ambiguous. So if I wake up with a headache and want to know what caused it and how to get rid of it, I have to do some brief testing: did I drink last night? I might have a hangover. Did I fight last night? I might have a bump on my head. And a million other things, too. Let's suppose for the moment that I don't remember what I did last night, but the two best competing explanations are that I either have a bump on my head, or I am hung over, or both (hooray for the inclusive "or").

A fairly direct method of testing whether I have a bump on my head is to feel around for one. But it might be the normal shape on my head, so it probably ought to be painful; that pain, in turn, could also be explained by a special sensitivity in that area for entirely bumpless reasons (for example, all people might have sensitive bumps in that spot on their heads - I don't know yet). To directly test whether I have a hangover, I could in principle do some bloodwork to check my BAC or look for metabolites or something, but that would be a pain, so I may just drink lots of water and see if the headache goes away. I could also take hangover medicine and see if it goes away. But in any event, if I take some action and then my headache clears up, I cannot tell for sure whether those two things are related at all; I can only make an "inference to the best explanation," or IBE.

Metaphor over, parable is go! Some years ago, I had an existential headache, and the two best explanations I could come up with were that I either had a sinful hangover, or a theistic bump on my head. I'm not sure quite what I did, but the headache went away. I realize that I may have merely taken a metaphysically naturalistic pill to mask the symptoms of my sinful hangover, which by rights I damn well ought to be feeling right now. That's a possibility. But the IBE I'm going with for now is that I had a theistic bump on my head from repeated doses of the fundagelical medicine stick. I stopped dosing, the bump went away, and my existential headache disappeared with it. So... what is my existential headache a metaphor for?

My existential headache consisted of an inability to reconcile any coherent idea of God with the observable facts of reality, to the best of my ability to interpret them.

One of my first understandings of morality was that "good" is a continuum, where a "lack of good" constitutes "evil," and a maximum of good would be perfection. Something like figure 1 here:
I now consider this a rather naive understanding of morality, mainly because it's grossly oversimplified, but it's not entirely without its merits. However, what I noticed is that if tolerance is within the "goodness range" of which humans are capable, then why can God not tolerate sin? Humans are able to live with each other's iniquities, to forgive those who trespass against us even if they keep doing it. I mean, hurting each other without meaning to do so is part of being human, and we can get over that, so why can't God tolerate sin in Heaven as he does on Earth? Well, I was told that it doesn't work like that, and rather something more like figure 2:
Here we see that there is God, who is Heavenly, and "other," which is Hellish. In between, overlapping with each but also having things all their own, is humanity. God is holy, and for that reason cannot abide sin in his presence, and so has withdrawn from the world until his final return. Humanity, being made in God's image, is able to understand some holy goods, such as mercy, justice, and compassion; but we are also capable of tolerating sin only because we ourselves are sinful. After all, if we dealt with each transgression as God says we should in the Bible, civilization would rather quickly collapse as we put to death everyone who violated pretty much any rule at all.

This explains why God tolerates sin on Earth, but not in Heaven, and by extension why we are on Earth and not in Heaven yet (because we still sin). But... wait... what exactly do we mean by sin? Definitionally, sin is that which God abhors, but why does God abhor it? Because he is holy? Then what is holiness? If it is mere godliness, then we have defined ourselves into a circle: whatever God does is holy because God's doing it, and whatever God abhors is sinful because God's abhorring it, and so to say that God is good is merely to say that God does as he pleases. I had not yet learned of the Euthyphro dilemma, but this is more or less how I arrived at it.

I realized at this point that there must be something about a particular thing which is sinful or holy, regardless of what God thinks of it; God's opinions, then, are the result of an interaction between his perfect perceptions of reality and its nature as sinful or holy, as the sinful or holy nature of the thing itself causes God to experience pleasure or disgust because of facts about God's personality. After drawing up tables and tables of sinful and holy things, however, I was unable to find any rhyme or reason behind the particular things that God told us were holy and sinful. It honestly looked to me like the Biblical deity was like a child with a sandbox, laying down arbitrary rules because he made everything, and wrecking our shit when he got upset with what we did just because he could. I see such a being as unworthy of worship, and if this is what God's like - an authoritarian dick-waver who thinks that merely being causally responsible for us (all by itself) gives him the right to tell us how to live - then I think we should all try to gang up on him Tower of Babel style. This is the behavior of a tyrant child, not of the rightful king of all existence.

How do I know this? Because if morality is fundamentally arbitrary and God's at the helm, then all he has to do to eliminate evil and suffering is get over his bad self and change his own mind. Moses did it (Exodus 32:9-14). Anyway, my own personal ethics has evolved somewhat, moving from a moral idea space to a "morally-charged" multidimensional idea space, as seen in figure 3:
Between then and now, my understanding for the best of all possible Gods morphed from any religious type of deity to something like Nick Ifkovits' idea as laid out in his novel, Cloud Drops (he's a friend of my mom's): in this story, God is more or less a laid-back hippie who really only cares about people being good to each other. You do that, you get to go to Heaven and have crazy orgies all day long; don't, and you are a lost spirit, destined to stick around on Earth stewing in your own existential angst. I believe that in the story, those who die without becoming either good or evil are "recycled" after a fashion, but don't quote me on that (I haven't read it in a while). But religious faith is absolutely meaningless to this deity, it truly is works alone that get one into Heaven on this view; you don't even need to be a theist! So if this is the real deal, then I've already got it made and thus have nothing to be saved from. Even if I didn't get to Heaven, I've striven to eliminate angst from my life, so I think that hanging around on Earth as a specter wouldn't really be all that bad.

Yet it seems almost too obvious that I might be wrong on this one, and I might need to believe this or that particular thing, even if I don't buy the whole kit & caboodle. For instance, it might be the case that I really do need to accept Jesus into my heart to get into Heaven; but the rest of the Bible might be pure hogwash!

This is where things get really complicated; part two on Friday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

NaNoWriMo Looms Nigh!

For any who might not know yet, November is National Novel Writing Month. This year, I am at a cross-purposes, because I have no less than three ideas for what I want my book to be about. But I sure as Hell won't be writing 150,000 words next month, so I can't win at all three. Bearing that in mind, I wanted to see what you, the General Reader, thinks of the following three ideas.

1. The Quantum Mechanic: A superhero story of ethic contortions. The first person to truly understand quantum mechanics finds himself at the command of an incredible new power: the ability to manipulate reality at the quantum level on a whim. Able to go anywhere, be everywhere, and do anything, Frank Calhoun quickly finds himself shoved to the front of the world stage and faced with a truly unique ultimatum: take on the role of a god he has never believed in, or watch the world fall apart due to his refusal to accept such responsibility. Philosophers, pundits, tyrants and citizens alike compete for the attention of the Quantum Mechanic as he tries to balance the world upon his finger.

2. Thirty Seconds: Intelligent design in an unintelligent Universe. I was inspired by someone on the History Channel's The Universe, who said in one episode that by observing the entire Earth for only thirty seconds, an observer from another planet could probably piece together the human life cycle and a good deal about our technology and culture. I had originally conceived this as short fiction with no dialogue (only narration), but that gets dry after a while, so I was thinking of injecting some characters and explaining the scientific method through their analysis of the thirty seconds of observation, as more and more tidbits are discovered from thirty seconds of planetary observation. Oh, and the observation is of another planet where life actually is intelligently designed.
EDIT: I've changed my mind about this. I'm doing it as short fiction, no matter what. I'm too passionate about my other two ideas to let them take a back-seat to this.

3. Breath to Breath: The philosopher's zombie apocalypse novel. I finally got around to retroactively posting the last of Rendezvous today. I don't really like where it ended, mainly because I increasingly felt shoe-horned into it by the whole inexorability of it all (I planned the book around the ending, and now I don't think that it fits very well with the rest of the story), plus I learned quite a bit about writing and did some pretty egregious author insertion (because it's "me and my friends survive a zombie attack, the book" - duh!). Well, I have a way better idea for a zombie story now, which is pretty much going to require redoing everything, which I'm OK with. I mean, it's practically a new book, so I intend to treat it as such.

So yeah, what do y'all think? This is probably most of what I'm going to do for November, so voice your choice!

Bullshit Pulpit: Prehistoric Crocoduck [Analogue]!

I just caught up on Pharyngula today, and I saw a neat little bit on the discovery of an offshoot along the transition from pterosaurs to pterodactyls. First, I should probably say that before today, I didn't even know that there was a difference between pterosaurs and pterodactyls! But you learn something new every day, and as Garou's grandfather says, if you didn't then you weren't paying attention.

Anyway, the main differences between pterosaurs and pterodactyls, as PZ points out, are that the earlier-living pterosaurs have shorter snouts, more skull holes, some neck ribs, rather long tails, and a membrane between the hind legs called a "cruropatagium;" whereas latecomer pterodactyls have a much longer schnoz with fewer skull holes, no neck ribs (or fewer/smaller ones), much shorter tails, and a significantly reduced cruropatagium. Behold darwinopterus modularis, the psaurodactyl:
What makes it a psaurodactyl? Well, morphologically, it looks like someone glued the head of a pterodactyl onto the body of a pterosaur! Kind of like that 'shop of a crocodile's head on the body of a duck:
So there it is, the mighty psaurotactyl, prehistoric crocoduck par excellence! It's about literally half of one thing, and half the other thing, so this should be a valid transitional form to Creationists, right? Right, guys? Ray Comfort, I'm looking at you! You and that airhead Kirk better send in your applications to become card-carrying evolutionists soon!
EDIT: I realized today (10/21) that this is more in keeping with Bullshit Pulpit. Fixed.

Look Out, Nonsense: Here Comes Science!

They Might Be Giants really took a page from the theists' playbook with their latest album, Here Comes Science: hook 'em while they're young (the Jesuits were famous for saying, "Give us the child for his first seven years, and we will show you the man"). I've been listening to Here Comes Science more or less every day since I got it. I know, I know, it's supposed to be children's educational music. But I like it! And it's a breath of fresh air! And it's a big "fuck you" to a whole bunch of superstitious nonsense without even making a big deal out of it! OK, it probably wasn't meant as a "fuck you," but still, that interpretation is available for almost every song (well, sixteen of the seventeen "real" songs, anyway). Here, watch:

1. Science Is Real: The message is clear in this song: "Science is real, your superstitious crap is imaginary." And people complain about this, which is awesome.
2. Meet the Elements: This one's kind of a stretch, but a belligerent interpretation is available. I imagine this song undermining homeopaths and other such hokum. Everything we think of as an "object" is made out of elements: nutrients are elements, medicines are elements, poisons are made out of elements, pizza places are made out of elements. It's all chemicals, and "chemicals is just chemicals." Keep in mind here that there are people who seriously believe that there is a difference between the ascorbic acid you find in an orange and the ascorbic acid you find in a vitamin C tablet (pro tip: there is no such difference, because ascorbic acid is ascorbic acid no matter where you get it from).
3. I Am a Paleontologist: One line: "It's so fun to think about how a species has evolved." Field scientists are the rock stars of their respective fields of inquiry, because they're out in the (sometimes literal) trenches looking at the world, and showing that to kids will help prepare them to laugh off Creatards & IDiots who don't know just how awesome a dig really is. Or all the science behind it, and all the science that goes into analyzing and interpreting whatever is found. For further reading, see Ardi's recent news spotlight on Easy Mode or Hard Mode, as well as PZ's coverage of the media circus to see the landmark discovery ignorantly dismissed as trivial, and abused to support homophobia.
4. The Bloodmobile: (Right song, but couldn't find the actual video.) Blood is life, which at least one holy book can tell you, but no holy book can tell you why. This song explains why. Oh, and all that crap you hear about "toxins" and whatever? Yep, that's what your blood is for. No pseudoscientific woo required, your body already takes care of it!
5. Electric Car: I love this song because it's unapologetic propaganda for electric cars. Y'know, to counterbalance all the anti-electric-car propaganda... right, guys? But you see, the USA makes guns which it sells to certain oil-rich nations (as Pat Condell put it, "It would be hard to think of a more oily place than Saudi Arabia"), and things like electric cars are inimical to such profitable business relationships. Y'know, now that I'm actually writing this, I can't say that this one is anti-superstition, but it is counter-anti-scientific progress, so I don't care.
6. My Brother the Ape: (Live performance.) All the world is kin, the end. We are not only related to apes, we are apes. Naked, brainy, hifalutin apes; but apes nonetheless. The best part: "They all kept saying how much we look alike. I don't think that we look alike at all, but I'll admit that I look more like a chimp than I look like my cousin the shrimp, or my distant kin the lichen, or the snowy egret, or the moss." Tru fax - the very truest.
7. What Is a Shooting Star?: (Live performance.) Oh, man! I'm excited about this one! See, there's this building called the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam. It's so fucking holy, it's why Muslims face Mecca to pray, no matter where in the world they are. So what's so goddamned special about it? Its eastern cornerstone is a black stone, which according to legend is a "piece of Heaven" that fell to Earth, showing Adam and Eve where to build the first shrine. Piece of Heaven? Fell to Earth? Sounds like a meteorite to me, or the firmament is falling! But Hell, it might just be obsidian or pumice instead - we haven't exactly been able to do any proper science to it, for stupid, stupid reasons.
8. How Many Planets?: One of the great things about science is that it is self-correcting (ideally). Rather than claiming absolute authority forever, scientists instead make provisional claims about what they can test and show. So when the IAU revised just what it means by the word "planet" back in 2006, they realized that they'd have to either cut out Pluto, or welcome in a bunch of other stuff, or engage in some rather egregious special-pleading shenanigans. Well, they picked option one, to the outrage of third-graders and small-minded adult-type persons alike. This song shows that reality is fuckin' complicated, and that planets aren't people and thus can't get their feelings hurt.
9. Why Does the Sun Shine?: This is just a groovy song. It also shows that the Sun is not a god, it's a naturally-occurring object just like any other star. The Universe has a few of them about, you see. One more metaphysical explanation supplanted by science!
10. Why Does the Sun Really Shine?: ...And one more scientific explanation revised by better science! Like How Many Planets?, Why Does the Sun Really Shine? shows explicitly that science is self-correcting: "The Sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma, the Sun's not simply made out of gas. The Sun is a quagmire, it's not made of fire, forget what you've been told in the past." Because, you see, we have something better now.
11. Roy G. Biv: Rainbows occur as a necessary consequence of the properties of light and water vapor in the air (such as after a rainfall). Rainbows are absolutely not the sign of a covenant between God and humanity to not blow up the world again because some people stick it in the naughty place. Besides, we see how well God's plan to wipe out evil forever has worked... over and over and over again. What a fuck-up.
12. Put It to the Test: When I'm away from my computer at work, the screen flashes with my favorite line from this song: "Find a way to show what would happen if you were incorrect; a fact is just a fantasy, unless it can be checked." I can't install electric sheep at the office, you see, so I put up something else that makes me smile instead. But yeah, falsifiability is important - I recently raised this point with cl, the idea being that a god who cannot be detected is epistemologically indistinct from a god who does not exist.
13. Photosynthesis: (No video available.) This one is pretty obvious. "Photosynthesis is why plants need light, and photosynthesis is why humans need plants, because through photosynthesis plants make oxygen, and humans need oxygen to breathe." But you see, there are some tool-bags who believe (as this person evidently once did) that it doesn't matter what we do to the planet because Jesus is returning soon, or even that the environment's decline is a sign of his impending arrival! ("So many incidents and elements that indicate the end of times have been taking place. First sign is the depletion of our natural resources...") Yeah, so... 'nuff said. Nutters.
14. Cells: (No video available.) Life, which includes people, is made out of cells. Not dirt, or clay, or mud, or spit, or ribs, or anything else that could be sculpted by an intelligent and magical creator. Just cells.
15. Speed and Velocity: Surprise, kids! Some words which are used interchangeably in common parlance have specific meanings in scientific contexts! It's an amazing fact, I know, but as it turns out, we sometimes need to watch our mouths when discussing matters if we wish to speak of facts and not bullshit. Because, y'know, words have meaning & all that jazz.
16. Computer Assisted Design: "See how you get from a thought to an object." It's not "God said 'Let there be light,' and lo, there was light." It's more like, "And humanity said, 'Let there be stuff,' and lo, with the aid of machines, there was stuff." No magic required!
17. Solid Liquid Gas: (No video available.) Yeah, so I spent this whole time trying to think of how the three (most commonly encountered) states of matter is anything in the face of superstitious nonsense. I got nothin'. Not even a stretch. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed what videos there are, and you should go check out the album, it comes with a DVD with all the videos that you can watch at your leisure under the intoxicant of your choice!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Epistemology and Truth (cl)

So yeah, cl and I are arguing on the internet. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me personally, but I am ruled by my passions: I do almost anything that I do in fits and starts. Arguing with cl is now, like, near the top of my list, right beneath "Don't get fired" and "Don't starve or dehydrate." But "Maintain an interesting blog" is up there, too, and I know that this will not be of interest to everyone. To that end, I shall post arguments with cl no more than once every other day, and I'll make sure to have anything else up in between - but still, that means if I post every day, this blog will be half-cl for quite some time (hopefully).

The story so far: cl wrote a post that really piqued me (in the good way), so I responded and then things got hairy. Today I will be addressing what are, to me, the three most interesting things about cl's last salvo - knowability, a response to his argument from probability, and rhetorical gamesmanship. I'll close with a bit on truth, which I offer up as another direction in which the discussion might proceed.

First, a bit about knowability, which will touch on epistemology, the study of the nature and content of knowledge. cl posted an interesting logical argument involving this, and then clarified his meaning in a comment at my request (thanks for that, cl!). From what I can gather, cl and I agree in at least a vague way that the "awesomeness" of a claim has something to do with its grounding in experience: in his own words, "That which can be verified by experience is knowable; that which cannot be verified by experience is not." Or, as I say, "Knowledge must be grounded in empirical observation." However, cl then goes on to say,
We can make inferences about that which cannot be verified by direct experience - for example the claim that life exists in some other corner of the universe, or that George Washington was the first president of the United States - but that's it. Does this mean we can't "know" the planets revolve around the sun? In a sense, yes...
Well, I actually agree with this as stated. However, we must also infer that our direct experiences as we remember them are valid in any way at all - and they in fact might not be. For instance, I may hear a voice and believe it is God, but it might also be the Goddamned Devil, or a person in another room, or my own internal narrator, or butt-puckering insanity - and at first blush, it seems awful hard to tell how some of these possibilities might be sorted out. This puts us in an interesting position with respect to truth (see below), but for now I shall simply say that not even direct experiences are immune to the leap of inference at which cl so precisely gestures, so long as those experiences are in the past (since all experiences not currently being had are in fact remembered - or misremembered, sometimes). It is self-evident, after all, that we do in fact have experiences, and anyone may verify this with the briefest of introspection - however, the content of those experiences, and their bearing on reality, are always subject to question. This is because, in short, we cannot directly perceive causality itself and may only infer it from the constant conjunction we perceive between suspected causes and their alleged effects (thanks, Hume!).

There is no getting around this. Thinkers of all stripes have tried, and failed, and whined about it (even me!); but we must all live with this doubt as our constant companion. As I said earlier, echoing Descartes: de omnibus dubitandum. So, if even direct experience is subject to question, what are we left with? I go with testability, which moves the goalposts for knowability quite a bit.

I realize that when I encounter an argument, or even a proposition, I do not decide whether to endorse it as logical or dismiss it as ridiculous right away - I first perceive either agreement or disagreement. It took me a while to get over this, but the instantaneous reaction I have of either "OK" or "No way" is itself a matterer of perception, at least in my own mind. Hell, others might be different. At any rate, if I have trouble determining whether I am perceiving thoughts of "OK" or thoughts of "No way," that's when I start to think about the claim itself. And I have agreed too readily to a great many things which I have later gone on to regret, ranging from trivial mathematical mistakes to the embarrassing thought that my mother must hate me for feeding me vegetables (I love vegetables now, and feel like an absolute twat for ever being a child, pretty much). But if, when I think about a proposition and then have difficulty trying to sort out just why I am perceiving agreement or disagreement with it, I then feel an urge to check. In the past, I felt the urge merely to decide.

Checking is important because then I can tell whether I am remembering something correctly or incorrectly. After all, I have mis-remembered in the past. So if I have trouble justifying a particular belief I hold, and can't remember what it was that made me think that in the first place, I then go see what I can check. And if I can't check to my satisfaction, I tend to withhold belief and write it off as unimportant - after all, that which leaves no effects to check is mighty difficult to call "relevant" on several well-respected definitions. This is more or less how I live my life, with respect to epistemology, anyway - more on this when we get to truth.

Whether or not you agree with cl's argument that it is more reasonable to believe that consciousness persists after death, I see a real gem of wisdom in there, which is a matter of perspective: cl's argument shows that, depending on how we define our terms, we can get to some surprisingly different conclusions about how we ought to form our beliefs. A great many people seem to form their beliefs - or at least a great many of them - in something resembling a binary truth table: X is true, Y is false, Z is true if A is not, B is true if and only if C is also true, and so on. Whether or not any particular person does, I cannot say, but this is in keeping with the overwhelming majority of my experience among humanity. When we say, "I don't know," most people usually mean, "I haven't thought about it," or, "I haven't decided."

Not me. My truth table has "true," "false," "not applicable," "I don't know," and "it depends." Other people might include "maybe," "probably," and "not if I have anything to say about it!" When I drop my hackey-sack, it falls to the ground: true. Two plus two equals five, for extremely large values of two: false (but funny!). This statement is a lie: not applicable (or "nonsense"). There is non-Earthly life in the solar system: I don't know. The Earth goes around the Sun: it depends on your frame of reference - if we define Earth's core as the center of our solar system, then of course the Sun goes around it, but then the rest of the planets and other stuff get a bunch of weird epicycles which we can rather handily avoid by adopting a heliocentric perspective instead. God exists: I don't know. God doesn't exist: I don't know.

Buh? Yeah. I don't know whether any sort of supernatural critter exists. I really don't. However, if some kind of supernatural critter did exist, then it would be this-or-that way, and not thus-and-such. In other words, it might be Thor-like, or Yahweh-like, or leprechaun-like, or FSM-like, or unicorn-like; and if it's one of those, then I sure don't want to pick the wrong one! But what if it's none of the ones that humans have come up with, and something totally different? What if it's aggravated by people believing in false gods, but has no "actual" religion of its own for followers to believe? What if it wrote no holy text, but instead tricked people into writing false ones? What if Richard Carrier's End of Pascal's Wager actually is the case?

I don't know.

I don't know, and so I withhold belief. In all of them, and in consciousness after death, and in live on other planets, and in parallel universes, and in any particular version of the maybe-even-not-approaching Singularity, and in a great many other things. Even if there is a supernatural critter, which there may well be, I do not believe in any particular one - and so I am not a theist. Since I am not a theist, that makes me an atheist. I am also an agnostic, because I don't know either way for sure, and so in that way I am an agnostic atheist; moreover, I'm skeptical of anyone who does think they have "all the answers" (or even a great many of them!), and so I am a skeptical agnostic atheist; and I'm a humanist, and a homo sapiens, and a house-renting-type person, and all sorts of other designations. But I am not a theist, for lack of evidence alone. I just don't know which way to go, so I don't go any way on that question. As for ethics, relationships, economics, and so on, well, my views get more complex and my "titles" keep on stacking up. But I am only an atheist because I am not a theist, I am not an atheist because I think I've "disproved God." Nobody can, that's just silly. I just won't believe until I can poke my fingers through some holes like the apostle Thomas.

A quick note on rhetorical gamesmanship before we get to truth. First, some may have noticed that I called cl a rhetorician and described his blogger's statement as platitudinous. I did each of these things for exactly one reason each: I called him a rhetorician because I thought I had discovered that the central motivating factor in his internet activity was honing his argumentative skill, and I called his blogger's statement "platitudinous" because some of his most interesting sentences sounded like platitudes to me. In the first place, I did not mean "rhetorician" as an insult, as I explained to cl in an e-mail; I think it is no bad thing to be concerned with how persuasive one is as a first priority, I think it is only bad if one then does bad things with such a skill. I mean, I want to be persuasive, for cryin' out loud, and so I too am a rhetorician. And in the second place, I was mistaken on the meaning of platitude! I thought "platitudes" were just simple-sounding phrases, more or less, some of which are trite and meaningless and some of which lend quite easily to deep wisdom. But I actually checked just now, and as it turns out, "platitude" only means the former thing (trite and meaningless), whereas I had honestly meant to indicate the latter thing (lending quite easily to deep wisdom). So yeah, foot-in-mouth for the win. Mea culpa!

So yeah, finally, on truth: there are two prevailing theories of truth in philosophical circles, the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of truth. To steal Scotlyn's turn of phrase and boil a whole lot of argy-bargy down to one sentence, "correspondence" means "is the case in reality," and "coherence" means "is consistent with the greater body of true propositions." I couldn't tell you why this is a serious debate if you put a gun to my head, because both are important to me: true things ought to correspond to reality, I think, and true things also ought to cohere with one another. I think if either one of those is lacking, then you don't have truth; and if you can only get one but not both, then any claims to truth are suspect. So when I check to see if something is or is not the case, I'm satisfying the correspondence quotient; when I integrate that bit of knowledge with the rest of my knowledge, I'm roughly checking for coherence. They both matter.

So when I define "knowledge" as "justified true belief," understand that "true" means both "corresponds to reality" and "coheres with other true propositions." So for a claim to be "knowable," to me, means that I have to be able to get a justified true belief out of it. If I don't believe it, I can't be said to know it; if it's not true, then I can think I know it without actually knowing it (and even justify that thought process); and if it's not justified, then I merely believe a true thing without knowing it. That last one's sketchy, so here's a quick example: I've believed that the Earth is round as long as I can remember, but I also remember that I was told so by my teachers and parents. As I began to question my teachers and parents, I found that they were not always right on things (such as math teachers insisting that the French word macabre is pronounced "MACK-uh-bray" and not "muh-KAHB," despite the correction of a seventh-grader such as I was at the time). Yet I never stopped believing that the world was round, even after losing my justification; instead, I learned how Eratosthenes calculated the Earth's circumference while trying to check whether it was round or flat, and so found a better justification.

Sometimes I have had to revise my beliefs based on observations so that they cohere with others, as alluded to above on why "checking" is important. As an easy (and real) example, I used to have many fears and superstitions as a child, some of them based on things I was told by others. I heard from my mom that ending microwave oven cook times in zero (such as 1:30, 2:00, etc.) would result in your food getting burned, so you needed to end cook times in non-zeroes. I don't know why I ever listened, but one day I actually checked by seeing how long cookies took to burn in a microwave, and I found two interesting facts: first, that cookies burn within a few seconds of the same general time, no matter what digit is last when the machine starts cooking; second, that my mom was wrong on this matter. So I wrote off what I thought was a whole bunch of superstitious hogwash along with that, and now we fast-forward to last year when my then-roommate, Amy, tells me that cool water boils faster than warm water, and warm water freezes faster than cool water. I called bullshit, because I had tested many of the superstitious claims I'd gotten from my mom, but then I went and checked: turns out, the Mpemba effect is real!

Sometimes, bullshit-sounding claims are actually true. But you can never know for sure until you check, and you shouldn't believe if you can't check yet.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part twenty-eight: Immortal Jellyfish

So there's this joke I sometimes tell about how I used to study marine biology until I found out that porpoises never die if you feed them seagulls, and it turns into a long story that ends up with a cop arresting me as I step across a sleeping lion, a sack full of seagulls on my back, on my way out to the pier for feeding time. You see, it's illegal to take gulls across sedate lions for immortal porpoises.

There are no immortal porpoises, but Ebonmuse informs me that there are immortal jellyfish! Meet turritopsis nutricula:
So yeah, this shiny little number starts its life as a polyp, the juvenile form common to most hydrozoans and almost all cnidarians. These polyps are spawned in colonies of eggs, from which they hatch after just two days, then mature in two weeks to a month. But after spawning, rather than dying as most jellyfish do, our friend turritopsis does something different.

It turns back into a polyp. Then it grows back up into a medusa. Then it turns back into a polyp.

We have not found a way to stop them from doing this, barring some removal of the nervous system from the body proper. Unless you break or dismantle it, it lives forever, to the best of our ability to tell. I, for one, buy into Dr. Dawkins' idea that individual death may be valuable at the species level because "obsolete models" are given an intrinsic expiration date, so that the genes keep on shuffling. That's a gross oversimplification, but it makes intuitive sense to me and Dawkins makes a good case for it in The Selfish Gene, I believe. While individual death may or may not be valuable to a species in the long run (I'm sure there are ways of checking, though it seems like it would be really tough to test both rigorously and ethically), this jellyfish demonstrates that individual mortality is biologically optional.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: A public response to a public challenge.

cl over at the warfare is mental recently issued a public challenge. I, uh, replied, and then he replied back, and then it got a little long so I figured I'd at least put the big main part on my own soapbox. For some rather more immediate background, I said, "If the King of the Universe decided to try to trick me into thinking he doesn't exist, then I quit." cl replied, "I don't believe that our lack of God's manifest presence entails God trying to trick us." But... that doesn't quite address my issue. It's not just that there's no super-obvious manifest presence of God, it's that there seems to be no way at all we can check for God's existence that doesn't amount to us merely deciding to believe it anyway. And wouldn't you know it, but the same would seem to be true of unicorns and Mother Goose.

cl, I'm not at all interested in suspending my disbelief doubt, just as you're obviously not interested in suspending your own central tenet of whatever holds your own worldview together. For me, it's doubt: doubt is how I understand the universe, doubt is how I come to science, doubt is how I go about forming my beliefs. I echo Descartes, "de omnibus dubitandum." I'm just saying, any scientific idea I believe, I would relish the opportunity to prove to your satisfaction that I am right, should you call bullshit. I should hope that you, too, would enjoy demonstrating in some manner why I ought to believe this or that thing you propose to me? I mean, in the marketplace of ideas at large, this is why I'm not interested in stuff I can't check out: I can't think of a way to tell it from total nonsense. If you think you have a good idea, then please show me why it's a good idea, because I very much want to collect good ideas! (While at the same time keeping nonsense out of my collection.) What exactly is just plain awesome, either epistemologically, or morally, or metaphysically, or even scientifically, that you can show me about your belief system? I want you to teach me something new.

Oh, wait a second. I'm not switching gears here, this is live argumentative progress. cl, you've been accused of being a sophist; what I've just now realized is that you are a rhetorician. You want to find the best arguments so that you can tear them apart, honing your skills in the process (and if your opponent du jour doesn't "get that," well, it's their loss! There's plenty of opponents about!). You just happen to also believe in some supernatural critters, and so in the sense that you don't buy what you see as our own version of dogma ("Yay metaphysical naturalism! Boo supernaturalism of all kinds!"), you call yourself a freethinking theist. You don't even appear to have much of a creed at all, at least not that you've laid out in non-platitudinal language. Have I got it so far?

OK, so with that in mind, I understand the rhetorical move you're making in the OP. You offered to convince me why I shouldn't believe God exists, despite my own hypothetical best evidence. This can be done for any such evidence besides second-order knowledge (which I believe is impossible, and so I cannot honestly employ it in my defense). What this would accomplish rhetorically would be to show me that my own position is silly since you would be showing how a principled application of it will lead me to a contradiction. What this involves, though, whether by chance or design, is the promise to tell me why I should not trust the results of an empirical test of my own design, should it be performed. Yet you just asked me what results of an empirical test would I in fact trust? You'll set the very best of my very own argumentation against itself, hoisting me by my own petard as soon as I've done the hard work of putting my actual belief on the line for you. And you know what? You'll always win that rhetorical game against people like me, because every individual experience is subject to doubt, so we maintain. No empirical test proves anything once and for all, and God is no exception - there is always some argument or thing that could happen to undermine my God test. What makes me vulnerable to this attack is not a flaw in my position, however, but rather the simple fact that I deny myself the pseudo-justification, "just 'cuz." Every belief system that doesn't rely at some level on "just 'cuz" must perforce be subject to this kind of rhetorical maneuver, including yours, whether you admit it or not (unless you actually believe that saying "just 'cuz" is a legitimate justification). So... do I explain what would convince me, only to watch as my own argument disembowels itself? Or do I try to patiently explain that of course I can never "really" prove God with science, because science is fundamentally provisional?

Oh, double-wait. You asked me what would "prove God" to me, and that's a subjective question. Now you're going to explain why you think I shouldn't be convinced by it, and the only way you can do that is to show some way that I might be wrong. Which, yeah, simply is correct: at any given moment, I might be wrong. This is what honest skepticism is all about, buddy. But can you show me that I'm actually wrong on this or that thing I believe? If I got evidence for God and you didn't buy it, how would you convince me that your decision not to accept it is a legitimate one and not mere stubborn obstinacy? Is there something that makes it stand out as more worthy of further scrutiny than ideas upon which we might agree? After all, I'm not saying that this or that evidence should convince everyone of God, I'm simply saying what I think would probably convince me, which is itself a testable claim because I can be presented with such evidence and thus can in principle determine whether I put my ontological money where my epistemological mouth is. Any counterargument changes the situation, so the old prediction no longer properly applies and I need to come up with a new one. And so, I hope you see, I try to believe only things which I can check, so that we can sort out which is right and which is wrong. And so, if we disagreed on an interpretation of this or that evidence, we can also devise a test as I briefly outlined back in your sandbox.

But we already agree that I, personally, might be wrong in any given case. I know that already. This doesn't advance our discussion in any way, ever, because it's always true. It's true of you, too, for that matter, which is why I haven't bothered pointing it out before now; I thought we were taking this bit for granted. What I'm interested in is working from where we agree, to things on which we disagree, and you showing me where things I believe are actually wrong, and not just the status quo of possibly wrong.

That's a truly slick move, though: you just about got it past me, you almost baited me into choking on my own argumentative tail. Bravo! One problem. Unlike others, I'm not just going to call you a sophist and bug out; I want to run with this rhetoric deal, and so I say, "Now what," and the ball's in your court. You can either start poking your fingers into holes of doubt which already exist in everything that I believe I know, which will get us right the Hell back here every time; or you could effectively ask me to start poking holes in something you believe by proposing to convince me of it. Eventually, you're going to tell me that I as a skeptic ought to be skeptic even of my own positions. I'm just saying, "You're preaching to the choir, buddy; now let's cut to the chase."

So now you've got me intrigued. I want to know what's "double next," now that I've conceded your rhetorical point and, for good measure, all legitimate permutations of it. Now spill: what is that all for? I know all about the flaws and shortcomings I've got, and learning to live with them has been a wonderful journey so far, so what more have you got for me? What more can your brand of freethought do for me, which I cannot do for myself with my own brand of freethought? I'm honestly asking you what you have to teach me, because I'm expecting an opportunity to learn here. Hit me with your best shot.

Full Disclosure: Ultimately, the question I'm getting at is, "What does theism do for you that you cannot get from your freethought sans theism, and how can I get that, too?" Or, "Why do you believe things that I don't, and is there any reason at all why I should believe them, too?" Or, "Can I have freethinking theism, too? And how?" And if you can't explain why I should believe what you believe, then I'm awfully curious as to why you do in fact believe what you now believe, and not something else - or are there beliefs of yours to which you do not apply the beautiful freethinking rhetoric which you just now so clearly displayed? I just gotta know, now that you've convinced me that you truly understand why I can't protect my idea of God from an all-pervasive doubt, how you do that thing. Or is your own medicine not for you here? And if not, then how come?

Or, more plainly: What's the lesson you ultimately want me to learn from that rhetorical game of yours? How does this play help us in our work as freethinkers? What's the point of this if we already assume you win that first part?