Saturday, October 23, 2010

What Does Appeal to Pascal's Wager Really Say?

Is This about Me or You?

Imagine this conversation:

Woman 1: So, anyway, at the end of the argument I just told my husband I thought he was wrong.

Woman 2: I can't believe you said that. Aren't you afraid he'll hit you?

When I put myself in Woman 1's place, I have two immediate thoughts:

1. Not in a million years would I be afraid my husband would strike me for any reason short of his own self-defense if I went violently insane.

2. How long was Woman 2 abused? Is she still being abused?

I wouldn't expect Woman 2's comment from a woman who has no history of abuse whatsoever. I suppose I could imagine a situation where someone was under a mistaken impression I was being abused, and was concerned for my safety? But as a general rule, that question would not be raised in seriousness by a woman who is not or has not been in a situation where she's been battered.

The question, while aimed at Woman 1, actually speaks volumes about Woman 2, and tells us nothing at all about Woman 1.

Language, questions and comments aimed at others actually carry within them information about those who are speaking. Even the most innocent language does this. If I see a friend making a Lasagna, and I see her using cottage cheese, and I ask "Oh, you don't use Ricotta?" I've just said, "I don't use cottage cheese when I make Lasagna, I use Ricotta." We spend our conversational time telling people all about ourselves, often without even realizing we're doing it.

What Pascal's Wager Tells Me about You

When we think of Pascal's Wager, we generally think in brief of someone asking "What if you're wrong?" The stakes generally are "something bad" if you're wrong (that you're risking), and either gaining reward or simply avoiding the "bad" if you're right.

The Wager itself has a host of problems. But that's not what I'm concerned with here. What concerns me here is what the Wager tells me about the person who puts it forward. When people ask, "What if you're wrong?," what are they telling me about themselves? What I hear when they ask this, is purely heartbreaking. And a letter writer recently put it in a way that evoked honest pity from me. Clearly directed to Matt, he asked:

I have watched many of your you tube videos, and from what I gather, you are a very intelligent man and you seem well educated.

But I wanted to ask you a question, just a simple question, perhaps a question that I myself toil with from time to time.

Q: "when the day is done, and you are sitting alone, or lying in bed, do you ever question your decision to be an atheist, are you ever scared at times, do you ever think that you might be wrong or fear what may or may not happen to you when you die"

Now, this question has no real direction, I just wanted to know if you were like so many others including myself, who at the end of the day either have a longing for an answer or experience doubts or concerns about the decision(s) you've made.

While he states the question has "no real direction," it does, like all communication, carry a message — and more of a message than what is merely being asked. It carries that message about the speaker, which I'm describing.

Matt submitted back a very thorough and well-thought-out reply. However, I kept thinking of this letter after I'd deleted it, and this morning I sent by a separate reply myself to the writer:

I know this was directed at Matt, and he answered it quite thoroughly. But I would like to add something. There are a number of people who have reported being horribly tortured at the hands of malevolent alien abductors. I don't believe these people's stories are true. They could easily ask me the same question:

Don't you ever worry about being abducted yourself? What if you're wrong?

Certainly if I'm wrong, I could also be abducted and tortured, but I can promise you I don't lose an ounce of sleep on it. I don't expend a moment's concern over being a victim of such an event. And I'm going out on a limb to wager that (1) you've heard these stories I'm describing and (2) you don't worry about being abducted by malevolent aliens any more than I do.

If I'm correct, then you have just experienced what I experience with regard to fear of being wrong about god. It's the indoctrinated believer who fears and who thinks that fear must plague others who weren't indoctrinated with that same fear. Just as it's the "alien abductee" who can't understand why I don't seem concerned about what these aliens are doing — not others who don't believe in alien abduction; it's the person either still in, or still suffering from the side effects of, indoctrination who can't fathom life without that fear, which was most often burned into their heads as defenseless children. It's put there as a mechanism to stop people questioning: "Even if you stop'll be plagued by fear and doubt the rest of your life...WHAT IF YOU'RE WRONG?!" But the truth is, as Matt pointed out, and as I provided an example, if you don't believe, then you don't believe in the consequence either. And it's just very hard to fear that which you do not believe exists.

This is why I consider religious indoctrination of children to be abusive. It scars people and they carry that fear of questioning well into adulthood far too often. Nobody should be made to fear asking questions, doubting, or not believing. Free and independent inquiry should be the basis for any sound ideology. Any ideology that puts mechanisms in place to impede free and independent inquiry — such as severe and exaggerated mental fear of such investigation, should be viewed very skeptically. After all, what sort of "true" ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?

And I suppose that's all I had to say about it?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

New LIVE Non-Prophets return this Saturday

The rabble are banging away at Martin's post with torches and pitchforks, demanding to know: when, oh when will there be a new non-guerilla episode?

Wonder no more! The first new "official" Non-Prophets Radio will air LIVE this Saturday, October 23. It will feature Matt, Denis, and me... and if all goes according to plan, a special phone-in mystery guest. (I've been known to make these claims before and look foolish later, so apologies in advance if the guest can't make it. Forget I ever said anything! What guest?)

Non-Prophets 9.9!

Well, here it is at last, gang. Probably the last of the guerilla episodes, as the regular series is set to resume, I do believe, this coming weekend!

Gia Grillo, Chris Conner and I reteam, and end up spending a lot of this episode wagging our fingers at some of our fellow heathens, expressing our dismay at the way some people in the atheist camp got caught up in the wave of Muslim-bashing that arose around the Park51 controversy. While none of us likes Islam, naturally, most of the rhetoric was simple hate speech from the Fox News wingnut camp that grossly generalized all Muslims, even those who are peaceful and loyal U.S. citizens, under the "terrorist" banner. That some atheists actually fell into that trap of emotion-clouded unreason is something we hate to see.

Then we smack around Phil Plait a bit for his "Don't Be a Dick" speech, and talk about accommodationism vs. confrontationalism.

Not to be a whiner, but holy hell balls this one was tough to edit. But I think the mix is superior to 9.6, even though our different mics and the fact we were basically recording a three-way Skype call means it still isn't audiophile material by any means. (I apologize for my harsh S's.) I hope you all enjoy it, and I'm off for a nap. If you'd rather wait for the iTunes feed, Matt tells me he'll do the necessary admin stuff to get it up on the feed either tonight or tomorrow, so you won't have to wait days and days like last time. And if you want art for your iPod, download the above graphic and stick it in yourself. With 9.6 Russell told me I inadvertently changed the art for the whole feed by embedding it in the episode beforehand. Durp.

Consider the comments to be an open thread on the episode.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mail...some days are better than others

"Hi name is not important. I have a comment. I saw your videos on youtube. I don't like your attacks on the christian faith. I think your program is full of shit. The Atheist Experience just what the hell is that means. As for prove, you don't need prove to believe or haven't you figured that out. Let me tell you something. Atheist is the devils work. So go ahead bad mouth god. Your community will be blowen up as long with you garbage or what ever happens. The christian faith is not to brain wash people. That's just you people spreading lies. Your community is dedicated to nothing and that how it's going to be.
The man"

Fortunately, messages like this aren't all that common. We obviously don't think this represents the bulk of religious thought...but it does demonstrate the results of insular indoctrination and poor education. While this sort of thinking isn't the norm, it's not yet completely relegated to the cast-of-"Deliverance"-minority...but someday, it will be.

Open Thread for #679

Here's the open thread for tonight's show - have at it!

Here's a recap of some of the conspiracy theories we've received by email in the last year or so. I've omitted names and summarized the claims to protect the anonymity of the authors. I see no need to feed anyone's persecution complex.

  • A guy wrote to us a few months ago with his cosmological model that he claims is better than the Big Bang Theory. He wanted us to review it. When I asked why he hadn't submitted his ideas to peer-reviewed journals, he said his ideas were too threatening and the scientific orthodoxy wouldn't let him publish them.
  • Vaccines are a Big Pharma plot designed to keep us from the knowledge that all we really need to prevent disease is sufficient vitamin D3. And maybe some colloidal silver.*
  • 9/11 was an inside job, and the proof is that the US government has previously engaged in conspiracies and genocide. Plus, Zeitgeist.
  • Christianity is a big conspiracy designed to keep everyone in line. The leaders of the major denominations all know this, but they are sworn to secrecy. Plus, Zeitgeist.
  • HIV doesn't cause AIDS. HIV is actually a harmless virus, but Big Pharma and the CDC need you to believe HIV causes AIDS. This is used to control certain segments of the population (gays), to generate profits for Big Pharma, and for genocide. It's actually the anti-retrovirals that cause AIDS. If you just exercise, take your vitamins, eat an organic vegan diet, and reduce your stress, you won't die from AIDS. If you actually do die of AIDS, it's because you made a mistake in steps 1-4.
Most of the people who write to us are pretty entrenched in their beliefs and can't be persuaded that their pet theory has no merit. The guy with the alternate cosmological model has invested about 20 years of his life in his theory, but he's never gotten around to getting that advanced degree in physics that would actually qualify him to do this kind of research. Why? Obviously, he'd learn enough to know what utter nonsense his theory is.

The 9-11 truthers are often a special case of conspiracy theorist. This is because many of them were convinced by evidence that was deliberately distorted or that was interpreted for them by people who simply lacked the qualifications to do so. Once presented with unadulterated evidence, it seems that many are willing to abandon their conspiracy beliefs and accept the conclusion that a bunch of religious zealots really did fly some planes into buildings on 9/11/01.

For more information on the self-justification that drives conspiracy theorists, as well as other a lot of other ways we deceive ourselves, I recommend a book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson called "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)".

Parting shot - in response to the call from Cesar this evening - if you're interested in what's been done in the field of abiogenesis since the Miller-Urey experiments, take a look at the book "Genesis" by Robert M. Hazen. It's an excellent survey of the kinds of research going on and the results of that research, written by a scientist who does that research.

*As I noted during the show, colloidal silver does have antimicrobial properties when applied topically. It does not have similar properties when ingested, which is a good thing. If it did, it would kill your normal intestinal flora and leave you open to colonization by something really nasty - like C. difficile. Oral ingestion of colloidal silver can also cause a condition known as argyria, so unless you want to look like a Smurf, you should probably avoid drinking it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

WTF do they know?

"As Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason."
-- Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth

My fiancee and I watched What the Bleep Do We Know? Why? Because it was there. By reputation it is a terrible new-age movie that claims to be about science. The film makers attempt to explain quantum mechanics and neurochemistry, in the service of a general squishy feel-good message similar to "The Secret" implying that if you send positive energy to the universe, good things will happen to you.

Some of the movie kind of, sort of, almost conveys some important ideas of science successfully. They describe the double slit experiment; they take a stab at chaos theory, in which small random interactions affect macroscopic objects. They also, unfortunately, attempt to have a plot. I want to focus in on that, since it doesn't seem to be discussed in many reviews.

Early in the movie they introduce a lady who is a deaf magazine photographer. She is portrayed as a severe grouch, so I pegged what this character was for right away. "Aha," I said. "I'll bet this character is going to be initially skeptical of whatever claims the movie is trying to make, and then she will be won over in the end."

It's a lazy technique that yields a required character in many styles of evangelistic tract: the converted skeptic proxy. It operates under the same principle as the old "I used to be an atheist" claim. The message is: "This character is you, skeptic. She has been where you've been, and she was convinced. If you are reasonable like her, you will be convinced too."

I say it's a lazy technique because the writers are not attempting to win you over through the legitimate strength of their arguments; instead, they want to lower your defenses by getting you to identify with their position. Last week on the show I mentioned that it's like a car salesman telling you "I've driven every car, and this one's the best." Oh, okay! No need for me to do my own comparison shopping then. This salesman seems like a reasonable and completely unbiased chap. (Analogy gratefully borrowed from Slacktivist -- Thanks, Fred!)

So yes, this lady does not believe in quantum mechanics or love or happiness, and sure enough, her life suffers for it. And when I say "suffers" I mean she appears to be experiencing a buffet table's worth of unintentionally hilarious mental disorders. She screams "I hate you!!!" at herself in the mirror. She suffers Vietnam-like flashbacks to her past bad relationship when a guy starts coming on to her. Later, while drunk, she starts to hallucinate her mental hangups as tiny computer animated blobby monsters. You see, reasonable people don't disagree with the movie's thesis. Only sad, sad individuals with massive emotional baggage. You aren't that kind of person, are you? I sure hope not! Now, about that car I'd like to sell you...

The first sign that this movie was going to infuriate me came when one of the Very Serious Narrators explained with a straight face how the minds of Native Americans operated when the Europeans arrived to conquer them. It turns out that they couldn't see the ships coming. I don't mean they were distracted and didn't happen to notice them. In a dramatic reenactment, the tribe's shaman was staring directly at the approaching ships, and he literally could not see anything. You see, explains the Very Serious Narrator, these massive ships were so far outside the normal day to day experience for these natives, that their minds refused to process them. Eventually, the shaman points out the ripples on the water, and as everyone tries to figure out what's causing them, POOF -- suddenly there is the ship, plainly visible to all, thanks to the magic of camera tricks.

This is, of course, straight out of Douglas Adams.

"Can you see," said Ford patiently, "the SEP?"

"I thought you said that was somebody else's problem."

"That's right."

Arthur nodded slowly, carefully and with an air of immense stupidity.

"And I want to know," said Ford, "if you can see it."

"You do?"


"What," said Arthur, "does it look like?"

"Well, how should I know, you fool?" shouted Ford. "If you can see it, you tell me."

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

"An SEP," he said, "is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That's what SEP means. Somebody Else's Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye."

There is, of course, a subtle difference between that scene and this one: Douglas Adams was deliberately writing comedy.

So naturally, while we were heckling this movie, the question that immediately came to mind was: "How The Bleep™ do they know that?" I mean, it's not like you can go back and question the natives about their experiences. They didn't leave a lot of written material about it either; and even if they did, how would you really know that the ships were actually invisible to them, and the shaman wasn't just covering his ass out of embarrassment?

This is a place where we can ask the film makers, because the question is right there on the official What The Bleep™ web site. You're going to think I'm making this up but I'm not, so prepare to be astounded.

My mother is stuck on the question of where the information on Columbus and the Native Americans came from. She can't seem to get past the part where the shaman 'showed' them the ships, and then they were able to see them. Where did this story come from?
Amy Proctor

[Good question, exactly what I was thinking. Thanks, Amy!]

The story of the Native American’s inability to see the clipper ships from Europe has two aspects to it: physiological and anecdotal.

[Ummm... evasive. Bad start.]

Any journalist is familiar with the phenomenon of asking three different people to relate the "facts" at an accident scene, only to receive three different versions of the "facts."...

[Yeah, people have bad memories. So... you're saying that the cars are invisible to some of them? Let's skip past this, seems pretty empty.]

Pattern recognition depends on familiarity. An example of this is experiments done by Colin Blakemore and G.F. Cooper in the 1960s...

[Blah, blah, blah, not answering the question. Skipping...]

I have personally experienced this as a truth, raising two wolves from 6 week-old pups. Frankly, I thought the male had brain damage. For months he never looked at me directly...


Now for the more anecdotal origins of the story,

[Oh good, FINALLY they're going to answer the damn question.]

which Candace Pert refers to as "A wonderful story I believe is true..."

[Aw, crap.]

Co-writer and producer Betsy Chasse says, “Other scientists related the same story to us.” And, apparently, there are references to the tale in an historical document made by an early missionary in the South Americas. This document, unfortunately, has not yet been found.

So now you know as much as we do about the origins of the tale!

[Are you bleeping kidding me?]

So that's it, right there, in their own words. The story is made up. They have a flimsy tale, told twelfth hand, and they have no source for it whatsoever. But they decided to treat it as fact in the movie in service of their point.

Elsewhere in the movie, they use more Very Serious Narrators to great effect, in one case citing the works of one Dr. Masaru Emoto, whose experiments in the exciting field of writing words on glasses of water have revealed that water can read and respond to English phrases by forming crystals that are "beautiful" or "ugly," depending on the sentiment behind the words. This is explained via an intellectual sounding museum tour guide, while soft classical music plays. That's how you know it's gotta be true.

In case you haven't got the point, someone bonks you over the head with it: "Makes you wonder, doesn't it? If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what they can do to us." And then that phrase returns through echoey aural flashbacks about five more times throughout the movie, as our deaf photographer skeptic proxy is sitting around wallowing in her own inadequacy and thinking about what a shallow, emotionless bitch she's been.

One of the worst scientific atrocities the movie commits is constantly confusing "subatomic particles" with "mental processes." Heck, they both involve little tiny things, and all little tiny things are the basically same, right? So they'll say something true ("The state of an electron changes when you observe it!") and something else true but completely unrelated ("Your brain is made of neurons!") and then they'll draw a nonsensical parallel from it, sounding superficially plausible but abandoning any pretense of anything you could actually research or falsify ("Therefore, if you imagine something existing, on some level it really does exist!")

The woman's story has a happy ending, of course: She scribbles little hearts all over her body with a sharpie, causing an instant attitude adjustment. People who knew her when she was one of those horrible skeptics come away reeling in shock because she was nice to them for a change. Or perhaps, based on her newly acquired facial expression of pure bliss, she is just intensely stoned.

The Very Serious People who explain things throughout the movie are a mish-mash of folks who are often bearded and are never identified until the credits are rolling. Some of them appear to be actual experts in real scientific fields, which explains why the movie occasionally manages to briefly make sense before cutting away from those people. Of course, the most sensible of the scientists is David Albert, who publicly disassociated himself from the film, saying:

"I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film ...Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed."

And then, of course, there's Ramtha.

Apparently this is common knowledge among aficionados of crackpottery, but I honestly had no idea that there was a sixty-something year old middle American lady who, since the late seventies, has been going around claiming to channel a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis. I found this out on the internet in between my first and second sittings (what, you think I could watch this drivel in one go??). Before I knew who she was, all I could think about her was: "Who is this ridiculous lady and why are they expecting me to take the stuff that's coming out of her mouth seriously?" After I learned more about her, my reaction was more like "OH GOD, OH GOD, THAT STUPID ACCENT, MAKE IT STOP." I guess my brain filtered out the crummy accent that she was putting on before, because it was outside of my normal experience and so I could not hear it. ("I thought you said that was somebody else's problem!")

Anyway, like Stephen Colbert, apparently Ramtha only speaks to the cameras "in character," which is why she is credited at the last minute, not as "JZ Knight," but as: "Ramtha, Master Teacher - Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Channeled by JZ Knight". Woohoo! Who needs scientific credibility when you have a Master Teacher at your disposal?

It was a terrible, terrible movie. Not terrible like a hilarious Mystery Science Theater target. Terrible like "If you locked prisoners in a room and forced them to watch this movie, you would be violating the 'cruel and unusual' clause."

Theism is the default position?

Michael Ochoa posted a link to a video and asked me to debunk it. Normally, I'd skip requests like this, as I have too much on my plate...but sometimes I get in a mood and just go for it. Here's the first (and only draft) of a response to the video:

"P1 - In order to accept that our rational faculties are reliable, initial sensory experiences of the world must be accepted until proven incorrect. In other words, these experiences must be considered default positions."

This might be true for infants, who lack the wealth of knowledge with which to assess and evaluate the brains interpretation of sensory input, but it is not necessarily true for adults who are cognizant of the ability of our brains to misinterpret sensory data and who have a wealth of comparative experience with which to assess initial interpretations.

For example, we understand that what we see (or, more accurately, think we see) is not always accurate and that our initial assessment of other sensory data ultimately proves incorrect. Realizing this, we are only acting rationally if we tentatively proportion our belief to the quality and quantity of evidence.

In his example about a mirage, he has no reason to question the mirage until he’s given evidence that it might be false. That’s true and it’s the infant position. However, the instant one becomes aware that one can be mistaken, both in perception and in inferences based on those perceptions one is no longer rationally justified in accepting all initial perceptions at face value.

Premise 1, in simplest terms, is simply an assertion that we are justified in accepting our first impressions until they are proven wrong. This is demonstrably false and intellectually childish. Anyone who has ever witnessed a conjurer's trick understands that the mental image their brain has compiled from the sensory data simply does not map to reality. The same is true for any number or other examples where we can understand that the brain simply doesn't have enough information to accurately perceive events.

Only someone convinced that they could never be mistaken could hold this sort of view and remain intellectually honest. The rest of us should try to think like grown-ups and reserve belief for those things which are sufficiently supported by evidence (unless, of course, we don’t care whether or not our beliefs are true).

Premise 1 is simply a denial of rational skepticism (he even uses the 'rigid skepticism' dilemma to underscore this - but ignores the truth about rational skepticism) and is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of propping up the rest of the argument. Rational skepticism holds that acceptance of claims be apportioned to the evidence, whereas this premise ignores the complexities involved in rationally determining if a belief is justified and instead simply attempts to shift the burden of proof by proclaiming that one is justified in accepting one's first impressions until they are proven wrong.

"P2 - The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe is an initially sensed experience."

No, it isn't. It is an inference that the brain makes by comparing the internal model of the sensed experienced to other things that the brain already holds to be true. It is, the conclusion of an argument by analogy - and it's one that we understand may be flawed. It’s also one that can be tested by scientific exploration.

We’ve done this and identified many instances where one may perceive intelligent, purposeful design where no such inference is justified.
Attempting to call one's inference of design "initially sensed experience" is a rather clumsy attempt to fabricate a predicate link to Premise 1.

"P3 - Hence, the belief in a designed universe, which automatically infers a designer, is in fact the default position until proven otherwise."

This directly follows from the first two premises and (given the flaws in the first two) it is unsound. (Nullifying the rest of the argument...)

The fact that he thinks this is where he'll get the most objections is rather silly. It is only when he asserts that the designer is an intentional, intelligent agent that he runs into trouble, but he doesn't do that until P4. As this stands, it is a direct conclusion from the first two premises… hence, the “hence”.

"P4 - The concept of God (a purposeful, intelligent agent outside the universe that cannot be detected by our senses) is the most tenable explanation for the identity of this designer."

There's no need to continue until the first premises are fixed, but I'd like to point out how really bad this argument is, so we'll keep going.
Premise 4 defines a particular god-concept and asserts - without demonstration - that this particular god-concept is the best explanation. Without a demonstration, this premise can simply be rejected.

Additionally, the definition given isn't simply a theistic proposition. It goes further and without justification. A theistic god need not be "outside the universe" or undetectable and, indeed, many would hold that their god is detectable and operating within the universe.

And here, too, we run into another bit of cognitive dissonance in his argument: outside the universe.

By what right can anyone invoke a claim that any such thing exists? Do we have any direct experience of ‘outside the universe’? Do we have appearance of this? Do we have any initial sensory experience of this? By what right can people assert ‘outside the universe’ or ‘before time’?

"C - Hence, Theism is the default position until proven otherwise."

This entire argument essentially reads as:

1. I'm justified in believing whatever my first perception is, until proven wrong.
2. My first perception is to infer design.
3. I am justified in believing the universe is designed until you prove me wrong.
4. I'm convinced that the best explanation for the design I perceive is God X.
C. Therefore, belief in God X is justified until proved wrong.

This argument is dishonest at virtually every point and it is nothing more than a denial of rational skepticism and a blatant shifting of the burden of proof. This isn't fundamentally different than the obstinate theist who claims "You can't prove me wrong!" - and thus it fails to all of the objections we would launch at that simplified argument.

The inability to disprove something doesn't make it a justified default position. You can't disprove the claim that there are clones of every one of us living on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy - but that doesn't mean that we're justified in accepting it as the default position.

It is trivial to demonstrate that our initial perceptions are often mistaken and we have a pretty good understanding of why some people see the appearance of design - and why their inference of intelligent design in nature is unsupported, at best, and incorrect, at worst.

And even if we didn't already understand how so much of this was wrong, sticking your fingers in your ears and demanding that someone prove you wrong is a childish argument – no matter how you try to dress it up.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Open thread on episode #678

Have at it. Personally, I was frustrated by the hour long format; there's a constant tension while deciding whether to cut people off, and as you probably noticed, it didn't get us any additional theist callers. The big studio, while neat, has spotty wireless, so only one person can be connected to the internet. Supposedly we now have four lines instead of three, but the fourth line was intentionally blocked during the show because we don't trust it yet.

We did get the one theist caller at the end, but I had to hang up on him, not because of the insult, but because we had no time left. Can't exactly blame this on the shorter time slot; it does happen even in the 90 minute show that people will not call until the very last minute.

Tracie did a good recap of her recent Intercessory Prayer post, and there were some decent questions. I had a good time.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

In which Insane Clown Posse reveal themselves to be, in fact, insane clowns

So by now most of you who get around on these here intarweebs know that we've all been having fun with this on Facebook and elsewhere all day. There is some amusement value to be had that Insane Clown Posse, a group of shitty hip-hip poseurs, have thrown back the curtain to reveal that they are actually shitty Christian hip-hop poseurs, and it was all part of a cunning plan. Surely this takes both the realms of Christian pop culture and hip-hop culture to all new levels of metashittiness.

But what I have to thank frontman Violent J for (did the "J" stand for Jesus all this time — who knew?) is his instant creation of a new online meme, the likes of which 4chan would die for. It all comes from these hilarious lyrics to their song "Miracles"...

Fuckin' magnets, how do they work?
And I don't wanna talk to a scientist
Y'all motherfuckers lying and
getting me pissed.

Pure gold. "Fuckin' [insert any noun you can think of], how do they work?" And atheists now have a new meme with which we can mock fundamentalists for pretty much the rest of our lives. "Fuckin' flagellum, how does it work?" "Fuckin' trees, how do they work?" See? This shit practically writes itself, yo.

Brief Comment on Intercessory Prayer

I got into an exchange with someone who insisted that prayer offers people something "inside"--even if it's not true that it actually changes anything in the real world. Ironically, I agree, which is why I think it's horrible. Here's an analogy inspired by the dialog:

Intercessory Prayer, a hypothetical: I put an ad in the local paper saying I am retired, but have experience and contacts in the business world and can help people find work. They need only drive out to my house--an hour outside the city--and bring me their resume and talk to me about their work history for 30 minutes. I don't charge anyone a dime.

You are a reporter and you'd like to do a story on me and the inspirational work I'm doing. I meet with you and you ask me how it works. How do I help these people find work? I say, "Oh, after the applicants leave, I throw their resumes and vitaes in the trash. I don't actually do anything to help them find work. I just like knowing that I provide them with a sense of hope and inspiration that things might improve for them--since they believe I can help them. In fact, I was a bus driver all my life and have no real business experience at all.

Am I a kind, caring helpful person offering a benefit to people? Or an asshole who wastes their time? Remember--it only takes 2.5 hours of their time, and they're still looking for work on their own. But am I helpful or a dick?

In the context of the church--organized religion--they do charge for this "service." And in addition, there is a story in the news just about daily of parents who didn't seek medical help for their children because their churches teach that god will heal if it's His will--and a doctor is a demonstration of a lack of faith in god.

So, let's redo the scenario above to say I tell people to give me 10% of their net worth if they want me to take their case, and that in some cases I tell them that I won't help them unless they cease all other independent job hunting.

Again--helping or hurting? Kind or asshole?

Is this really hard?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Non Credo in Unum Deum: Religion in classical music

Next weekend I'll be performing a concert with my group, Chorus Austin. We will be doing the Mozart Mass in C-Minor which is, in all honesty, a simply amazing piece of choral work. If you can make it, you ought to come. Schedule and details are here, and you can check out the nifty glossy flier here. If nothing else, you should see how I look in a tuxedo. :)

I'm taking a gamble by bringing eight year old Ben along. I expect he'll pay attention to some of the music for twenty minutes and then hopefully read quietly during the rest. In order to get his interest up, I've been playing some movements for him on my iPod -- I tried to get him into classical music early in life, and this video turned out to be a fascinating way to demonstrate how fugues work. (The beginning of that piece, the part that everyone has heard in scary movies, is the toccata. The fugue begins at the 2:50 mark. A fugue is like the instrumental version of singing a "round", with a single theme that gets repeated by different voices, usually in different keys.)

Separating form from message

Of course I also had to explain the words, which are roughly the same as words that are in every mass. My chorus has sung a lot of masses (with Bach's B-Minor being my all-time favorite) so I know the words pretty well. It is basically an abridged Latin translation of the entire story of Jesus. They all start out with "Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison" ("Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy"). Then they move on to "Gloria in exceslis Deo" ("Glory to God in the highest"). There is a statement of faith in the credo, which is referenced in the title of this post. ("Credo in Unum Deum" means "I believe in one God." The "Non" was my own addition.)

Eventually they work up to introducing Jesus Christ ("Jesu Christe") and how he was crucified ("Crucifixus") after being betrayed by Pontius Pilate; then dead and buried ("sub Pontio Pilato passus, et sepultus est") But then! Yay! He came back! ("Et resurrexit!") And everything was all better, and finally we live happily ever after, or at least we hope so. ("Dona nobis pacem", grant us peace.) There is also a bit in the about love for the one, true, holy Catholic church ("Et Unam Sanctam Catholicam et Apostolicam"), which you have to admit is an odd sentiment in the middle of Baptist country.

As a story, it's not too terrible. I mean, obviously I don't base my life around it, but you can look at it as a compelling superhero origin story. But it does get a little tedious when you consider the fact that it was virtually the only story expressed successfully through the song for several centuries in a row.

As I explained to Ben, not agreeing with the lyrics does not diminish the power of the music. The choral works of Bach and Mozart are among the greatest artistic achievements in human history, if I say so myself. Christians today are, of course, eager to take credit for this, saying that great art is made possible by the influence of God.

Secular Art

...Which is nonsense. One of my other favorite pieces of all time is "Carmina Burana," which I believe is in the short list of pieces that our director plans to put on the agenda in future seasons. Carmina Burana is essentially a satire of religious liturgies, full of Latin lyrics in full on praise of drinkin', gamblin', overeatin', and good old sexual frenzies. And it is a hell of a musical piece also.

As we've arrived in more modern times, there has been an explosion of creativity which for the first time in history is not mostly driven by the church. I'll stack up The Beatles and Rush against the musical greats of centuries gone by, and even John Williams (composer for movies such as "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones," "Jurassic Park," and "Harry Potter") makes a pretty good secular showing with an orchestra.

Religion used to largely dominate the art profession. Why? Because religious institutions were the ones with piles of money, and you needed rich patrons to survive as a composer or painter or sculptor. Writing a mass or a requiem made good financial sense, not to mention the always present nebulous claims of the church that if you offer enough stuff to God then it will make it easier to get into heaven, back when the rules of entry were not so sharply defined as in a Jack Chick tract.

Rock me, obscene child

It's kind of interesting, if you think about it, that religion no longer dominates popular art. I'm not going to pick on Christian rock. In fact, I've heard individual rock selections expressing sincere religious themes that I liked, musically, very much. (Don't press me for examples, please. I cannot think of any off the top of my head, and if I remembered some then I'd probably embarrass myself by exposing my tastes.) But the point is, religion no longer dominates the music scene the way it did in the mid-to-late parts of the last millennium.

Likewise, I can think of very few movies that exist primarily to promote a religious message that have gotten much traction. There's The Passion of the Christ, of course; that did very well. A handful of historical classics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. But here, again, religious contributions are dwarfed by the very large number of excellent movies that have been made outside the umbrella of religion; and movies that do treat religious themes frequently take a critical or ambiguous view of the church. Was Casablanca a theatrical mass? Was Citizen Kane a liturgical requiem? I think not.

For a good example of the intersection of movies and classical music, there's Amadeus, an Academy Award winner which presents an entertaining (though thoroughly fictionalized) account of Mozart's life and work. A running theme throughout the movie is that Salieri, the villain/protagonist, worships a God who simply does not make any sense. Salieri initially believes that God loves great music and will reward his own religious fervor with the gift of great talent and success. Instead, he watches helplessly as great music is channeled through a Mozart who is portrayed as a "giggling, dirty creature" and an "obscene child."

The whole story of his epic failure at life is told to a young and naive priest, whose look of complete shock and disillusionment at the end of the movie has to be seen and enjoyed. For me, the movie highlights the fact, not that the universe is malevolent, but that by all appearances it doesn't actually care about your piety. Artistic messages are still in the eye of the beholder, and that's just my interpretation. But unlike a Latin mass, Amadeus is great art that doesn't directly praise and glorify God.

Sturgeon was right

The percentage of artistic works that portray a positive religious message has declined over time. This is a statement evangelists would agree with, and they'd use it as a sign of the moral decline of our times. I see it instead as an obvious result of the fact that religion is no longer the only game in town, which I hardly need to this audience say is a good thing.

You can partly credit this to Sturgeon's Law, which states: "Ninety percent of everything is crud." Most new music that is produced sucks. Most new art that is produced sucks. Most blog posts suck. We romanticize the past because most of the crud has been filtered out by disappearing from the public consciousness. Now we are left with the impression that every playwright of the past was Shakespeare, and every musician of the past was Bach, and every painter was Rembrandt, and every statesman was Jefferson. There are just as many new great works of art being produced now; perhaps even more, since we have so many more tools to make art accessible; but it's buried under mountains of crud that hasn't been filtered out yet.

However, the crud of the past that is no longer with us, was also in large part financed by the church. Reaching back in history, we have much more material to choose from that is religious because that's just where artists went to get money.

I actually am kind of disappointed that so much of the art of the past has exactly the same lyrics. To my modern ear, it seems lazy (probably unjustly, given the circumstances). As I said, I'm not even saying that the gospels tell a bad story. It's just not the ONLY story they could have chosen. It's as if all movies had to be made about just one story. Maybe something from Shakespeare. Let's pick Henry V as an example. I really like Henry V, especially the Kenneth Branagh film version... his delivery of that inspirational speech cements Henry in my mind as one of the greatest military badasses of literature.

But suppose every movie was just a retelling Henry V, and not only that, they were expected to recycle most of the dialogue from the original Shakespeare version. Wouldn't that get boring?

I recognize, of course, that music is not a movie. The musical qualities of Mozart's Mass in C-Minor are on a separate dimension from the words they are expressing. Mozart also wrote a lot of symphonies, and those don't even have words. So you could argue that the lyrics don't matter.

I kind of think they do matter, though, because they are another piece of the art that could be employed to supply great and unique new sentiments, and they kind of don't. The music is influenced by the lyrics, so you can predict what kind of dynamic is called for at any point in a mass. Here's the Crucifixus again, it's all slow and somber like every Crucifixus. Then it gets loud and exultant with Et Resurrexit. Hosanna in Excelsis is joyful, etc. Now, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, they all wrote masses, and they all approached the subject with different sensibilities. They each have uniquely beautiful ways of capturing these emotions, but they're still just telling the same story. And I don't even think it's all that great a story.

Credo in intelligentibus

I want to wrap this up, so here's my credo. I believe that human beings are capable of producing massive amounts of crap and calling it art. I also believe that once in a while, some truly terrific stuff filters to the top which withstands the test of time. Sometimes the good stuff goes unrecognized and gets forgotten anyway. But I believe that people are sensitive enough that over time, a lot of great stuff has accumulated for all of us to share and enjoy.

I believe that people find inspiration in all different aspects of their lives. I believe that something doesn't have to be true in order to inspire beauty, but that truth is inherently beautiful and preferable. I believe that we should seek to understand more of our world, not less; and we should look for art and inspiration in all of the universe, not just a story that we tell ourselves to pretend that we know more than we really do.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Yeah, death to our readers too!

Well gee, it looks like Language Log and Pharyngula are BOTH taking a more, shall we say, aggressive moderation policy on unwanted comments. Since I do love jumping on bandwagons, I think it's only fair to warn you folks that any perpetrators of the following activities in the blog comments, email to the TV list, posts on hosts' Facebook pages, or calls to the TV show, will be hunted down and killed.

  1. "I have indisputable proof that God exists!" (Ten minutes of embarrassingly weak Poe'ing) "Nah, just kidding, I'm really an atheist too. I love you guys."
  2. "Hey, there's a movie I just discovered that really opened my eyes. It pretty much blows Christianity out of the water, and it's got some other interesting information too. It's called Zeitgeist. Ever heard of it?"
  3. "Dear sirs, I agree with nearly everything you say, but I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about your blind foolishness in accepting the official government story about vaccines."
  4. "Guys, this video seems pretty convincing. Will you refute it for me?" (Link to long homemade YouTube clip featuring several thousand-year-old apologetics that are addressed at Iron Chariots.)
  5. "I was trolling a Christian message board / harassing my religious acquaintance in Gmail chat. The guy said something that got me stuck. What should I say next?" (Copy and paste job of five days worth of conversation.)
  6. "The B**BQUAKE - 911
    Let me show you the FATE OF TRAITORS...
    they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION...
    they LOST THE WAR......
    the blood and bodies of the atheist movement...
    you mofos killed MICKEY MOUSE!!!!"
    (Cue frothing at the mouth and incoherent muttering.)

Consider yourselves warned!

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Matt's "Superiority of Secular Morality" Lecture

As there's no AETV today, you'll just have to be satisfied watching this instead. For those of you who have been clamoring to hear this lecture, here it is, as Matt presented it most recently in the afternoon before the Bat Cruise. The whole video runs just over 78 minutes.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Some updates

Hey all. I know there hasn't been a lot of activity here in several days. Sorry for that, I guess life has us all occupied at the moment. But you folks have done a fine job keeping the home fires burning here, especially as we've got a new theist who's turned up in the thread below. So go have a look at that conversation if you're so inclined. It could end up rivaling the thread we recently had with Parture, aka Troy.

Just to bring you all up to speed: No AETV tomorrow, due to that stupid pre-emption thing. But I hope you'll all be excited by the news that the geek trio of myself, Gia Grillo and Chris Conner have recorded one more guerilla Non-Prophets show, right before the resumption of the regular series. I hope to have it fully edited by tomorrow night or so, and up on the feed early in the week at the latest. This one will be a bit shorter than the nearly 2½-hour epic we recorded in July, and we deal with some more current topics of interest. In particular, we air our views on the recent rise in accommodationism and the "don't be a dick" flap.

Back soon. Until then, play nice (I expect the more mature of you to be off and running with "don't be a dick flap" jokes), and clean off your knives and put them away neatly before bedtime.