Archive for January, 2008

Well, is he? Leaving alone an analysis of any particular Biblical claims here, let’s just look at how much sense this assertion makes in its own right. If this is something you believe, I’ve identified some key points of likely disagreement. Feel free to let me know where you think my argument falls apart. First:

1. Do you think that it’s necessary for a person to accept Jesus in order for them to achieve “salvation”?

If not, then I agree with you, and we’re pretty much done here. But not everyone’s with us on this, so I’d better press on.

A central tenet of Christianity (though certainly not one held by every Christian I know) is that only through accepting and praising Jesus Christ as the son of God can any of us be “saved” – referring, in this case, to a state of being worthy to enter Heaven. Anyone who fails to meet this simple criterion will be destined instead for an eternity of… well, something less desirable, be it Hell, or the somewhat more vanilla terminus of Purgatory, or something else which, however you look at it, doesn’t equate to an infinite reward. Well, that sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Hardly seems like God’s asking for a whole lot, just that you “accept Jesus into your heart” and pray for his blessing. And think of all the things he’s done for you lately, what with creating the Universe and bringing you into existence and everything. You can’t do him this one little favour? You wretched ingrate.

But srsly, folks.

The biggest fly in my frankincense about all this is that I’ve also been told a whole bunch of other stuff about what’ll be good for me after I’m dead, and when I compare all that other stuff to this particular claim about Jesus, it all looks damn near identical as far as I can tell, in style, conviction, and realism, while being totally different and mutually exclusive in content. Surely the least that a respectable omnipotent deity could do would be to make his own divine word stand out a bit, from the numerous tribal legends and other stuff that people just made up. Especially if there’s really so much riding on it, and if God actually gives a crap what happens to our eternal souls (which most religions claim he does, though they call it ‘benevolence’ more commonly than ‘giving a crap’). If you answered “Yes” to question 1:

2. Do you agree with my premise that a number of other religions make similar claims about the importance of adhering to their tenets, and that many people of differing faiths seem to believe that theirs is the only path to salvation?

If that’s a “No”, then I’m stumped. Clearly there are other gods in the world who are widely worshipped, and who are said, by their worshippers, to demand said worship. Even if you’re sure that your own exclusive claim to salvation is the right one, you must at least admit that many people are sincerely mistaken.

But let’s imagine for now that the requirement that we accept Jesus is convincingly authentic. Still, this doesn’t seem like an obvious thing on which everyone’s eternal fate should rest. If your supreme overlord’s biggest concern really is how much time his subjects spend singing about how great he is, then fair enough. But many religions, including Christianity, also place a lot of emphasis on how we actually behave towards each other. This may sometimes have some connection to a person’s divine ass-kissing quotient, but they’re not the same thing.

You might ask – as I rather flippantly did a few paragraphs ago – whether God doesn’t deserve some praise for all the hard work he’s put in over the years, towards the creation of, well, Creation, and its subsequent maintenance.

3. Do you think that the original claim can be justified by insisting that God deserves credit for his work, and we lesser mortals really ought to give him his due?

I’ll happily admit that, if it does turn out that I have some divine being to thank for all that’s good in my life, then I have a lot to be grateful for. But whether or not his latest work deserves any five-star reviews is a different matter entirely from whether this earns him the right to be petulant about getting the credit for it. Even if he were real, I’d have no interest in bowing and scraping to someone immature enough to throw such a strop as to eternally condemn anyone who dares to be unimpressed by his magnum opus.

Actually, that’s a lie. The only appropriate response to the true knowledge of the existence of such a monster would be to cower in terror and do anything, everything, to keep him from punishing us to the full extent of his omnipotence. Write a hymn? Done. An hour a day in silent contemplation of his glory and wonder? Have two. Sacrifice of my first-born son? I’ll get the kitchen knife. Never was that attached to the kid. But to respond like this, it’d be necessary to actually believe in such a god in the first place.

And I don’t. There are many reasons why people believe things, but broadly speaking, because I’ve not had the idea hammered into my skull throughout my upbringing until it became a part of my worldview that it would be unthinkable to abandon, and because I’ve never been at a particularly emotionally vulnerable point and turned to religion for solace or been taken advantage of, and because I’m not that irrational, I don’t believe that a god exists who expects and demands that I accept him as my saviour before allowing me any kind of post-mortem payoff. (Pardon the ever-so-slight generalisations there.)

If he did, though, then the issue of “spreading the word” would become pertinent, and unavoidably problematic. Many human lives will unquestionably be lived out in entire ignorance of the name of Jesus, or of even the concept of the Christian God. Many children die in infancy, or grow up in cultures where other faiths rule and Christianity is never heard of.

4. Is a full and comprehensive embrace of Jesus really the only way that anyone is going to avoid an infinite and undesirable fate, even the poor saps who never had any opportunity to know him, to accept him, or conversely to do anything to anger him?

If your god allows the whole experience of existence, for thousands upon thousands of people, to amount to nothing more than a small handful of confusing days in the world with no language, little motor ability, and a barely developed cognitive capacity, followed by an eternity in torment, then he’s a more fucked-up and evil piece of work than I have any wish to consider. It’s his doing, directly and utterly, and no sanctimonious and pandering bullshit about baptism or free will or predestination or “mysterious ways” can change the fact that this scenario paints him as a twisted sadist.

Boy, is it me or did the buzz just totally die in here? Toning down the indignant rhetoric, this is still a big problem for anyone making the “Jesus is the only escape hatch” claim. What precisely does this mean? Where are the exact boundaries? Who, specifically, is going to go to Hell (or otherwise miss out on the heavenly delights on offer to those of the correct faith)? Maybe an exception can be made for kids who haven’t had the chance, but where’s the demarcation? Does it become a person’s responsibility to accept Christ or face damnation one they reach a particular age? What if they’re mentally handicapped in some way and can’t understand the choice they’re supposed to make? What if they’re perfectly mentally capable, but still don’t either understand or accept the limited options allegedly available to them? Are they to be punished for stubbornness or stupidity?

What if they live in some obscure part of the world where the Gospel is never preached? If people who never hear about Jesus are safe from Hell, since the option of accepting him really isn’t open to them, then isn’t going out there and telling people about Jesus the absolute worst thing you can possibly do to someone? We should try and destroy all evidence of his existence and never mention him again, so that future generations can be safe, if that were the case. This, from any perspective, is a fairly screwed-up state of affairs.

Even if Christianity does have many benefits, such as being the only way to “know” God or to live a truly fulfilled life on Earth:

5. If you’ve rationalised away some “special circumstances” by now, mightn’t it make more sense to suppose that people earn their place in the afterlife, wherever that might be, through the life they live, regardless of which god they happen to believe in?

6. If 4 is a “No”, but 5 is also a “No”, then where you draw the line?

To stretch the point, if merely knowing about Jesus does suddenly make us obliged to follow him, what degree of knowledge necessitates this?

“I said, uh, pass the salt.”

I’m guessing that, if ignorance of Jesus is enough to let you off the hook, then a passing mention like this also wouldn’t condemn you for subsequently failing to obey God’s word.

7. If you can escape God’s wrath for not worshipping him by never having heard of Jesus, is the above exchange sufficient to land you with the responsibility of accepting him as your saviour or suffering the consequences?

If that’s another “Yes”, then… wow. But I’m guessing this reductio ad absurdum won’t really be the first stumbling block for anyone. So, crediting you with a few more marbles than that, when does it become a vital requirement to be a Christian? If you passed somebody in the street, smiling slightly maniacally, handing out spiritual books with great enthusiasm, and telling people how wonderful the world is once you accept the love of the almighty Krntqz, I’m guessing you’d move on swiftly and try not to make eye contact. People in cultures far different from our own have undoubtedly had identical reactions to a similar scenario, in which the word “Krntqz” is merely replaced with “Jesus”. Would you have earned Krntqz’s anger, any less than they should incur the wrath of God?

Imagine a person who is, by some unlikely mechanism necessitated by this thought experiement, unaware of any religion. This person – let’s call him Jeff – has never stopped even to consider the notion of a god before, and is a naive, impressionable, good-natured sort of chap. One day, Jeff is suddenly and simultaneously set upon and evangelised to by two different religious fanatics.

“Hey,” one shouts, “have you heard the good news about Jesus? He’s the son of God, and the one truth path to righteousness and salvation is through him!”

“No,” cries the other. “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet! Honour him and you will be spared his wrath!”

“Here,” continues the first, “read this Bible, it is the inspired word of God! It tells the truth about his purpose for us and the laws by which we should live if we are to honour him. Praise Jesus!”

“No, ignore this blasphemy!” retorts the second. “Read the Qur’an, and learn about Allah, the one true God, or face eternal hellfire!”

Then they both start fighting and ignore Jeff before he can ask for clarification.

On the face of it, what should our hapless, hypothetical fellow do? Both of the ideas he’s had thrown at him would be massively important if they prove to be true, but neither one is obviously superior or more likely yet. This is all entirely new to poor old Jeff, remember, and neither one of these strangers accosting him and shouting things is any more persuasive than the other, from his unfamiliar position. His entire experience of both religions has been to be briefly proselytised at by two equally enthusiastic proponents. What is our protagonist to do?

For one thing, he might try reading both of these holy books he’s just learned about, and try to decide whether one or other of them really is the word of the all-powerful creator of the Universe. He might try to reach a decision about this by examining what’s written in these books, and the claims they make for these religions, and doing his best to determine which one (at a minimum) was most probably made up by some humans in a more primitive society, who were struggling to understand the world and whose lack of modern knowledge shows through in what we now see as misconceptions in their writings. Presumably, any text actually inspired by an omnipotent and omniscient deity would look decidedly different from that.

If you think that studying and scrutinising each available text, seeing how well it corresponds to the world around him, and measuring it up to what seems to be real, is the correct way for Jeff to proceed, then what you’re supporting there is something called the “scientific method”. Science is all about doing this kind of testing, finding out what’s probably real by seeing how it looks from every angle of scrutiny possible, and if there’s any way that something can be shown to be wrong.

If, in the case of our intrepid researcher, he reads one text and find it to be just a bunch of ramblings from some jumped-up tribespeople with delusions of grandeur, but the other speaks to him deeply and describes great and profound truths about the world which could not possibly be attributed to mere mortal man, then he’ll have come to a conclusion by applying the scientific method, however rigorously.

8. Is this kind of empirical approach what God wants us to do in order to learn the true nature of his existence?

If so, then I’m afraid the modern scientific concensus overwhelmingly rejects the need for the God hypothesis, as do I. Personal testimony can do little to counter the reams of scientific literature supporting the assertion that the natural world is entirely explicable without getting him involved. The research done in every field strongly implies that books like the Bible and the Qur’an are significantly composed of myth, fable, and other inaccuracies. From looking at the world, and studying the way things are, it seems entirely reasonable not to conclude that any particular deity is necessarily real, making it rather unreasonable that any paticular deity should punish us eternally for omitting him from our beliefs.

The only alternative to this kind of investigation seems to be to ignore any kind of process of observing the universe and testing one’s ideas about how it works, and just have faith anyway. But just have faith in what? How can you tell whether it’s Jesus or Mohammed you should be blindly praising? Without making observations, testing them, and trying to refine an accurate picture of the Universe, how can you hope to distinguish between divinity and story-telling in your own belief system?

Any answer which attempts to justify this by giving a reason to believe on way or the other, is necessarily subject to scientific enquiry. Faith, a belief in spite of an absence of evidence, is by definition arbitrary in its object. There are endless possible beliefs which lack supporting evidence, in which one could decide to have faith – and yet, without evidence, how can the superiority of any one claim be attested? Why is faith in Jesus any more valuable or virtuous than faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if both are equally blind?

If I’m yet to address the point at which my logic seems to veer off track, let me know what I’ve failed to consider. Two more questions to leave you with.

9. Does God turn people away from heaven because they chose to have faith in the wrong unproven, unsupported idea?

10. Can you significantly differentiate this notion from the thought of choosing which souls go to Heaven and which to Hell by flipping a coin?

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hey, he’s right, pie *is* good

My new favourite thing ever is the art of removing Garfield’s thought bubbles from Garfield comic strips.

This thread has a fantabulous list of examples of people playing on this theme, and this webcomic, Arbuckle, is reimagining and recreating the entire comic strip from this perspective.

To quote their explanation: “Garfield” changes from being a comic about a sassy, corpulent feline, and becomes a compelling picture of a lonely, pathetic, delusional man who talks to his pets. Consider that Jon, according to Garfield canon, cannot hear his cat’s thoughts. This is the world as he sees it. This is his story.

The thread has gone on for 25 pages and is yet to stop being funny. Almost invariably, it improves upon the original cartoon in every respect.

This is one of my favourites. The poignancy is almost unbearable.

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I’ve just watched an official Scientology orientation video. It has probably the largest terrifying-hilarious product of anything I can remember seeing. The footage isn’t great quality, having been taken by someone with a hand-held camera in a theatre somewhere. This makes me wonder whether the person who shot it went this far, and got this involved with the organisation, just to obtain the footage for the purposes of mockery, or whether they were initially interested but put off when the insanity became apparent very shortly into the screening of this film, or whether this was uploaded with the genuine intent of being an instructive and informative recruitment tool. I’m going to guess the first one.

The following paragraphs are among the thoughts I had while watching the video, in no particular coherent order.

I keep waiting for Tom Servo to chip into the middle of this guy’s rambling, with something snarkier and funnier than anything springing to my mind.

Something about how he chose instead to give his discoveries to the public, rather than collude with the government or corporations to restrict knowledge and keep the populace supplicant, for their own gain of power and money. And that’s why, to this day, the Church of Scientology will never ask for any sort of remuneration in exchange for their help and wisdom.

“Man’s been looking for them for an eternity, and there they are.” Yes, these are the answers to everything which we’ve been seeking for centuries, they’re all here. We can all stop looking and asking questions now, guys, it’s all been sorted.

I keep getting struck, again and again every ninety seconds or so, with the thought, “Really, people think this is all real. And scarier, people think this video is persuasive, and not remotely creepifying. It’s supposed to make them seem friendly and appealing and definitely not sinister or whacked-out.”

She’s explaining to us the meaning of the word “founder”. Yeesh.

They’re using many quotes from legal decisions to establish that Scientology really is a religion. Why are they so keen to push this? What’s so important about this claim? I mean, what else would it be? The only idea I can imagine they’re trying to steer you away from is that it’s a cult, but they’re hardly mutually exclusive.

Oh, look at how Mr. Moustache is too nice and charitable to badmouth that dastardly evil of psychology, despite how horrid it’s been to the Church, attempting to block the progress of all the advances they’ve made in the way of healthcare and helping people. Advances like… well, like whatever those graphs were about that we just saw. Some guy had a line on a graph which wasn’t good at all, and then after he had lots of scientology done to him, his line was different, which means he was better. Honestly, what more do these “scientists” and “researchers” want?

Discoveries that actually mean something don’t have to use film of people smiling woodenly and attempting to look charismatic to convince people, they get submitted to peer-reviewed journals and analysed as critically as you like to see if they actually stand up to any level of scrutiny. If this was just advertising some fun community and talking about the great social activities and stuff they have on offer, then fine, I’ve seen cheesier films than this for local recreation centres, or instructing me on health and safety at work. But this is a religion founded by a fucking sci-fi author. Why would anyone not be creeped the hell out by this?

Hey, they’ve even got a black guy!

And a bunch of random testimonials from people, proclaimed on-screen to belong to such prestigious professions as “Watercolorist”, “Asian art expert”, and “Mother”. Ooh, there’s Isaac Hayes. Hey, was that Kirstie Alley?

From the closing monologue: “Right this instant, you are at the threshold of your next trillion years. You will live it in shivering, agonised darkness, or you will live it triumphantly in the light. The choice is yours, not ours. If you, this minute, say ‘I will, for better or for worse, go on in Scientology’, you will open the door to your own future. If you say otherwise, you slam tomorrow shut in your own face. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it really is.” And the very next words: “We are not making any claims for Dianetics and Scientology.”

And now he’s dismissing all those other religions, which say you have to believe in them if you don’t want to get burned at the stake or condemned to Hell. With absolutely no visible sense of irony.

“If you leave this room after seeing this film, and walk out and never mention Scientology again, you are perfectly free to do so. It would be stupid, but you could do it. You can also dive off a bridge and blow your brains out: that is your choice.” Wow, the nature of the rhetoric’s really changed in these closing comments. He’s not smiling so widely any more, either.

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Is Hell ever a justifiable punishment?

Some thoughts on a particular theological concept, again remixed from my earlier work on The Hungry Atheist.

So let’s start with the premise that God loves us, and also that he has the power to do pretty much whatever he wants. Why, then, would he choose to send some of us to Hell, generally agreed to be a place of eternal and infinite suffering?

Maybe we simply deserve this punishment. Most belief systems that include a Hell will also describe their god as just and righteous. Presumably, then, when he sends us to eternal torment, it is entirely fair of him to do so. Really? An infinite punishment meted out for a finite crime? Totally fair? Seems counter-intuitive to say the least. It also doesn’t allow for the chance that, eventually, people might start to feel a tinge of regret for whatever it was they did. I don’t know what the recidivism rates are like in this (or any) country, and to be honest I don’t care to do the research, but even if many people don’t turn themselves around after a decades-long prison stretch on earth, surely a few thousand millennia of unceasing pain might induce a smidgen of remorse.

And even if somebody’s not remotely sorry for what they did, infinite punishment? Really? Look, however many people you’ve raped and murdered and taken to Westlife concerts, it’ll be no time at all in cosmic terms before every trace of suffering you’ve caused has been wiped clean and forgotten. Sure, if there really is a God, then the rapists and murderers and criminally insipid boy-bands might have a bit of explaining to do if they ever bump into him. But the punishment here is 100000000000000000000000000 times worse than any compendium of crimes a person could ever commit. And way more than that, too. Infinity’s pretty huge. (More on that later when I introduce the Happy Funtime Maths Hour to this blog.) If we’re supposed to accept that a just god could do this to us, then I’d want to be let in on the logic supposedly at work here. At least give me a hint.

In Christian doctrine, there is one truly inforgivable sin, namely that of “blasphemy against the holy spirit”. Mark 3:29 reads, “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” (KJV) Quite what this Holy Ghost character would take as blasphemy is debatable, but whatever it is, he sure don’t like it.

The thing is, y’see, is that God is the one being offended here, and he is infinite, so therefore a crime against the infinite god is an infinite crime and deserves infinite retribution. This, if you’ll excuse my using some technical jargon for a moment, makes no motherfucking goddamn sense. If you’re arguing that your God’s ego is infinitely fragile, then you might have a point, but that’s not a thing I’ve heard anyone proudly proclaim in so many words.

Maybe it works both ways. “Hey, God, lookin’ sharp today.” Is that enough to win me an eternal reward in paradise to balance out the endless punishment I already earned by tossing out an equally casual one-liner? No? So we have to work really hard for any hope of happiness, and one little momentary lapse into sacrilege is enough to bollocks up the whole thing. We’re all sinners, and the only thing that can save us from a hell-bound life of depravity is if we ask for God’s grace – from the right god, obviously.

So… why does it work that way around? I mean, is it just me, or does this God guy seem just a little bit eager – for someone who loves us all infinitely, at any rate – to watch us have our genitals skewered on pitchforks by all the demons of Hades? There are a number of people whom I love, but very few of them I would enjoy watching scream in agony while Satan eats their intestines and rapes them with swordfish for more than… I guess ten thousand years or so. Very few.

Our relationship with God is often compared to that of a child and a parent. God allows the existence of human suffering for the same reason parents don’t protect their children from every possible harm: they don’t want to cause them the greater injury of preventing them from truly experiencing life by shielding them from the world. We’ve been told how to behave, and like a naughty child, sometimes we must learn the hard way what happens when we flout the instructions of our more knowledgable authority figure.

Really? That’s what some people go with to justify the existence of Hell? You don’t think there comes a point where maybe a parent should intervene for the good of their children – to protect them from, say, I don’t know, the worst thing that it’s possible to imagine? Even if it might diminish the richness of their experience of life, or impinge on their free will? (Oh, Christ on a cracker and Mary in a cheese toastie, don’t get me started on free will.)

Sure, letting your kids graze their knees from time to time with mildly dangerous activities is important, but that doesn’t begin to compare with what’s at stake here. A good, loving parent might be standing by with a bottle of Witch-hazel and an elastoplast. God, in this metaphor, is telling us, “Well, you used your free will to ride your bike across the roof, and it would’ve been wrong for me to intrude on that, and now you’ll never have the use of your legs ever again. Let that be a lesson to you.”

Taking a blame-the-victim mentality to the extreme, the excuse is sometimes made that anyone who is sent to Hell has in fact chosen this path. They are responsible for their own fate, which could have been easily avoided simply by accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation, or by following God’s law and repenting their sin, or whatever else it is we’re supposed to do. Those who ignore these handy escape routes will be punished for their foolishness, and it’ll be their own fault. So, it’s not only disobedience and insufficient sucking-up which merits torture without end from our benevolent creator, but also making an honest mistake as to which improbable and incoherent mythos to buy into.

If you really think that a person whose only crime is subscribing to a belief system that’s different from yours is choosing pain and suffering without end, you really need to choke on the nearest sharp and pointy thing. Nobody walks up to the gates of Hell, accepts its reality, understands the exact nature of what lies inside, and genuinely decides, “Well, I think I’ll go in here and be brutally maimed and tortured for eternity or so”. It’s still God making the decisions about what happens to us.

To stretch the analogy further, imagine a parent telling their young son or daughter, “Now Wayne/Ingrid, mummy and daddy love you very much, but if you spill any more food on our nice carpet, I’ll bash you around the head with a shovel. It might seem disproportionate, but because I’ve told you exactly how to behave and how to be safe, if I do have to smash your face in, you’ll only be doing it to yourself.” Better yet, imagine that, rather than talking to their child directly, the parent leaves several notes lying around, all of which contradict each other about what the child should do, make similar threats about what’ll happen if they get it wrong, and are all signed “Lots of love, Mum and Dad”. This is obviously unhinged, and none of the qualities so commonly attributed to God give him any more of a right to be such a dick.

If you believe in Hell, and also believe that God is unfair, cruel, and evil, then at least that’s consistent, if a mite cynical. But if you think that the kind of loving god so many religions claim to worship is also capable of allowing such barbarism as this, then this is a sure sign of either the puny and pitiful nature of your imagination (in conceiving of quite how atrocious this barbarism would be), or the flimsiness of the charade that you are any kind of a reasonable human being.

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Lowering the goalposts

So, I transfer the entry from my LiveJournal about my new mission to blog daily, and hopefully interestingly, and then the next day I have a crappy headache, can’t be bothered to organise myself to writing anything, feel shite about bailing on my resolution (even though it’d certainly lasted longer than most), and don’t get anything done for the rest of the week. Oh, it’s like a no-smoking sign on your cigarette break. Anyway, there follows a minor reevaluation of things.

The current plan for this blog is that it should serve as an extra motivator for me to get stuff done, and nothing much further. I’ll still try and post here with some regularity, and spend some time crafting articles into an approximation of Good Writing which I can put up here, but I won’t be holding myself to any particular deadlines, and won’t be actively seeking any kind of audience (though if you’re here and reading, you’re quite welcome). There’s no question that I’m going to keep writing, and that I still love doing it – I got 600 new words of the novel down yesterday and felt better about myself than I have done all year – but there are also days when I just really don’t want to do it, and those can’t be confined solely to weekends.

This blog will still have a predominantly scientific and skeptical slant, and I’ll be posting detailed reviews of any books and films that I find it worth the time to expound upon at length. The LJ will be more about personal gossip and such. And my goals are going to be way less lofty; if I expect too much of myself, I’m just setting myself up for disappointment. And I really don’t like those moments of “This all totally sucks, I should just pack it in and give up on the whole idea”, especially when they’re drawn out into an entire evening, and especially when I think I’m vaguely serious about it.

Novel word count: 26,586

That’s more like it.

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Precision apathy

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I enjoy doing, and am moderately good at, a whole bunch of stuff. I can write interestingly, when I’m lucky and put my mind to it. I can juggle three balls or clubs pretty well, and four somewhat less consistently. There are only a couple of tracks where I can’t score 5 stars on hard mode in Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II. But I excel at none of these. This has prompted me – particularly where a large part of my purpose for doing something is to get better at doing it – to start overthinking some things.

I learnt the piano for ten years growing up, and I used to be pretty damn good. Recently I found an online archive of sheet music for computer game theme tunes, and the idea of being able to play the main riff from Monkey Island rekindled my interest. I brought my electronic keyboard back here the last time I got a lift back with my parents, and started playing again, planning to master a few numbers and casually impress a few people at some future, hypothetical, and perhaps rather idealised social situation.

You know what, though? Playing the piano is hard.

If I want to be able to do this well – like people who can, y’know, really play the piano – I’m going to have to practise it a lot. Like, for way more than ten minutes now and then when I feel like it. Way more. And, well, I’ve decided that it’s just not worth my time. I used to love playing the piano, and I really was good at it, but I’ve lost the knack, and it would take a significant portion of my life to recover it to a worthwhile level of proficiency. So, I’m pre-empting my own half-assed approach, and just bowing out here. It’s a shame, but I don’t think I’m going to play the piano any more.

I’m also an occasional writer, and for quite a while was happy to be nothing more than occasional. I’d make a start on something now and then when I’d had an interesting thought, but rarely follow it through anywhere. Mostly I was adding yet more half-baked half-pages of prose to the vast gulf of purposeless words scribbled by people the world over, in the first enthusiastic moments before they decide that the effort of writing, merely to attain the goal of having written, isn’t worth their time. But I seem to have more staying power than most; I’m making a point to get some words down every day, even if it’s only some drabbling that goes nowhere, and 26,000 words of a novel is indicative of some reasonable level of commitment (hell, in my dad’s case it means he’s almost finished). And now I’m sitting at my computer, without tea, at 11.30pm after a tedious and tiring eight-hour work-day, because I’ve been promising myself I’m going to blog today and I want to stick to my plans on this. So, writing seems to be something that I enjoy and feel strongly enough about for it to be worth giving up quite a chunk of my time.

I forget how Penn Jillette expressed the idea I’m aiming for here, except that I’m sure it was better explained and way more concise. But I think he suggested that there’s only one real difference between professional magicians like him, and regular punters who see a magic trick that momentarily piques their interest from time to time. For people in the latter group, our reaction to seeing the three of clubs leap out of a deck of cards at us will generally amount to, “Wow, that was great. I wish I could do that. In fact, I’d like so much to be able to do that, that I might be willing to spend upwards of a whole afternoon learning how.” The difference between us and him is the replacement of the words “a whole afternoon” with “thirty years”.

And what’s been concerning me lately is the idea of being stuck somewhere in the middle. I’ve tried my hand at magic tricks before, but my interest in it won’t sustain me for long enough to actually reach any impressive level of proficiency. I can kinda rock at Guitar Hero, but there are many people intimidatingly better than me out there, with whom I don’t care to compete. Juggling I haven’t quite abandoned, but maintaining a level of skill where it’s interesting and fun actually wouldn’t be that hard now. But there’s been a number of things lately about which I’ve been making the decision simply not to proceed any further, lest I waste my time failing to be remarkable. This might simply be a variation on the “fear of being average” cliché, but if I’m not going to love learning to do something really well, and if learning to do something only moderately well doesn’t interest me, then is there much point?

This does mean, though, that if writing is one thing (worryingly, it sometimes seems like the one thing) that I decide definitely is worth the effort, then I’m going to have to really put the hours in, and not slip back into half-assed middling-ness again, otherwise I might as well go and find something better to do with my time right now. The rewards will totally be worth it if I stick with it. I just hope I have what it takes. So far, it’s looking good. My goal with this blog is to write one substantial entry each weekday. I think that should be about enough to keep me working at it more than I usually would, without intimidating me into caving in under the weight of an unmanageable workload.

Has anyone else come to any decisions after thinking along these lines, or also berated themselves unhelpfully for not being awesome at everything?

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My parents and I have some very different interests in some areas.

There’s a lot of overlap in the TV we watch, with a general emphasis on hour-long American dramedy, and a particular focus on Aaron Sorkin and David E Kelly. Music, not so much, but we can agree on plenty of classical, and I’ve no objection to buying my dad the occasional Emmylou Harris CD for a birthday now and then. We can usually trust each other’s film reviews, and can generally tell when one or other of us is more or less likely to be put off by something that appealed to us. (Though I am still having The Railway Children pushed at me, despite much resistance. To be fair, I haven’t given up recommending the Saw series either.) But sometimes the utter tosh that they concern themselves with is so baffling that I thank Xenu for the likes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams and Firefly, to make sure that we always have some solid common ground.

What this is all about is that, for Christmas, I gritted my teeth, bit the wax tadpole, and bought my dad some craptacular book from his Amazon wishlist, with some title about “harnessing the power of your emotions” or some such – and in return, my parents braced themselves similarly and got me a copy of God: The Failed Hypothesis, by Victor J. Stenger.

And it’s pretty awesome. There’s not a whole lot in it that I didn’t know already, at least broadly speaking, but his approach of considering God (in particular the Judeo-Christian-Islamic character, though various generalities are addressed too) as a scientific hypothesis is wonderful, and something I’ve not seen being done nearly enough in this way, and in such depth. Sometimes the technical rigour leads to a somewhat dry and flavourless style of prose, but it usually remains fairly readable.

In most cases, the chapters each address a different type of evidence put forward in God’s favour, and each conclude the same way: that the observations made here fit quite satisfactorily with what we would expect to see if God did not exist. So much of what we see is entirely consistent with that idea, and it all makes for a powerful argument, especially when considered in conjunction with some suggested observations that might have falsified the God-less hypothesis, and supported a theory of his existence, had they been seen instead of what’s actually here.

There are moments where the author loses track slightly – some of the arguments against the specifics of, say, creationism, don’t need nearly so much detail given the asinine nature of the whole subject matter, and describing the insignificance of the medical effectiveness of prayer felt a little hand-wavey (which it needn’t, with a bit more thoroughness) – but mostly it was a great ride. The sections about the history of the Church’s position on slavery was a particular eye-opener.

So, two prehensile thumbs up. Next up: Pratchett’s The Last Hero, or John Hodgman’s The Areas Of My Expertise, whichever I get finished first. Sneak peak: they both rule.

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Which nobody can deny

Today I am 4! years old. And I don’t anticipate making it to 5!, so this is a special occasion indeed. I’m posting this from work, but so far it’s been a nice day. My new socks are warm and unholey (and my parents did get me other stuff too, Sara, they do too love me). I have weeks’ worth of fab new reading material. I finally splashed out on an electric fan heater, which has provided more joy than anyone under the age of 60 ought to be able to derive from such a thing. And a certain very special someone has gifted me with both a selection of nekkid ladies and a goat. It doesn’t get much better than this.

I think I’ll go and let someone make me tea now. Happy St. Paulinus of Aquileia day, everyone.

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In brief

Total word count: 25,509.

Yes, that really is more than it was last time. Hundreds more, even. I haven’t actually done much writing, just typed up some notes from the last few days, but if it’s not progress then it’s a damn convincing illusion.

Anyway, today’s entry will be found in the “Pages” section, which you can now see up near the top somewhere. It’s a fascinating and deeply personal insight into the mind of the author, and is entitled “What kind of sick weirdo are you?” So, enjoy. Tomorrow, a birthday special.*

*Specialness not guaranteed. Items posted here may in fact be entirely ordinary and in no way hazardous to your health.

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Total word count: 25,246.

No, this isn’t the story of the ill-fated conversation I had many years ago, which resulted in the surprising appearance of my ground-breaking and terrifying vision of the future on cinema screens around the world. (Though I shall say in passing that, should you ever meet a guy in a pub claiming to be a “professional Steven Spielberg impersonator” who loves to chat about movies and wants to buy you a drink, be careful you don’t let the bastard rip you off without even a storyline credit. I speak from absolutely and totally true experience.*) No, these oodles of moneys are different oodles altogether. A brief history lesson is first in order.

In the beginning, things began, perhaps most famously the Universe. About 13,700,000,000 years later, James Randi informally offered $1,000 of his own money to anyone who could provide “objective proof of the paranormal” (quoting the Wikipedia article). This sum increased over time to the $1,000,000 currently on offer, and the challenge became more formal, as the James Randi Educational Foundation was established, and the precise rules of the challenge were devised. In early 2008, it was announced that the challenge will be discontinued as of March 6th, 2010, by which time it will have existed in its present form for twelve years.

I’ve been a little slow in getting to this; the challenge has been widely eulogised over the past week, and repeatedly described as one of the most “powerful weapons” in the skeptics’ arsenal. Although I wouldn’t argue at all with Randi or his Foundation themselves being so described, I wonder if this isn’t perhaps overstating slightly the impact of the Challenge itself.

It’s certainly useful, not to mention fun, to have a concrete and specific demand to throw at anyone claiming something ridiculous. Snappy, too. “Well hey, if you’re right, Randi’ll give you a million bucks.” But examining the scientific evidence to support a claim is something that can and should be done to anything, and is constantly going on in numerous areas of investigation, across the spectrum of scientific credibility. One advantage the Challenge has is that it’s more public than most lab-based research, but given how freely people will pay as much or as little attention to such things as they like, I’m not at all sure how much good it’s doing. Apparently the JREF directors have been thinking along similar lines.

One thing you may notice about the Challenge is that, whenever it’s talked about, the focus of conversation is rarely its potential value in the context of discovery, or its motivating influence to any innovative paranormalists out there seeking to make a breakthrough in their field. In many other areas of study, having a prize like this on offer would be hugely inspirational. The Clay Mathematics Institute, for example, has offered seven separate $1,000,000 prizes for solutions of each of the Millennium Prize Problems. The Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, however, is often railed against and lambasted, its existence even denied, by those who look like they ought to be in with the best chance of winning. This is quite a different response than most organisations receive who offer to reward achievement.

There are two obvious ways to account for this disparity. The first is to declare that Randi is obviously being unreasonable in his demands. Putting a substantial portion of one’s funds into a verifiable account with Goldman Sachs, and expecting people to be able to actually do what they charge large sums of money for doing, in controlled conditions designed and agreed to by themselves, is clearly absurd. If somebody says that she can make people urinate with the power of her mind, what sort of perverse request is it that she come and prove it?

The other explanation for the lack of excitement exhibited by the mind-benders and spoon-readers of the world at this chance, not only to pocket a nice wad of cash, but to vindicate their entire field of research and earn heaps of undeniable kudos from much of the scientific world, is that they can’t really do it. There’s a great deal of special pleading that tends to go on when a psi practitioner fails to make anything happen, and it’s clear that many of them are well aware that their claims have no chance of standing up to scientific scrutiny.

I’ve written before about the nature of scientific and rational investigation, over here. If you can no longer successfully dowse for something when you’re provided with no prior knowledge or visual clues, or if the accuracy of your future predictions suddenly falls apart in the presence of someone who doesn’t believe in fairies, then you’re hardly in a position to object if your credibility is called into question.

Hopefully it’s clear which of these explanations I favour. But if you’re the sort of person who’ll genuinely question whether such-and-such a thing is true, and take evidence on board with the rational consideration it merits, then you’re probably going to hold out for something fairly conclusive before placing much trust in it anyway, and are already outside of the obvious target demographic for being duped. On the other hand, if you’re the type to gape in amazement when someone predicts that you have a close relative whose name begins with a consonant, and that there’s a date that’s important to you in a month with an ‘R’ in it, then you probably won’t be dissuaded by the fact that no psychic anywhere seems to want a million dollars. (And yes, those are the only two types of people that exist. Life is not a spectrum, it’s a series of neat, pre-determined categories. Remember that.)

It’s quite possible that I’m being overly cynical. I’m certainly doubtful that the existence of a challenge like this will make much of a difference to some individuals, who’ll continue to focus on the arguments which support whatever they already believe, even palpably false claims such as that the money doesn’t exist or that Randi will demand impossible criteria. But it undoubtedly adds to the general hue of skeptical inquiry in our culture as a whole, and the many such prizes available surely provide a gentle but significant gravitational pull toward the side of reason. They’re out there, they exist on the edge of many people’s consciousness, and every now and then someone who isn’t already firmly planted in one camp or the other might take a closer look, and ask, “So… remind me why nobody’s won this thing yet?”

On balance, though, there’s probably more that an organisation like the JREF could do with a million bucks, and doing their utmost to assist the applications of some people I’m not ashamed to call nutters is taking up a lot of their time and effort, not to mention funds, with very little obvious or useful result. The discontinuation will no doubt be proclaimed by many to be an act of fear, an admission that the foundation is worried about the risk of losing face – just like if anybody ever did win, it would be seen by some as retroactive and global vindication of every batshit crazy idea out there. So, if you can actually do any magic, you’ve got two years’ notice if you want to be a millionaire. Hop to it.

*This is all absolutely and totally untrue. I mean, obviously. I don’t even know why I’m using Jurassic Park, which was released when I was nine and based on a book anyway.

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