Archive for October, 2012

Richard Dawkins has a new series going on at the moment, about Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life. The sex and death episodes have been interesting so far. You can watch them online at that link if you’re in the UK.

It has a godless leaning to it, but it’s not all about arguing with religious claims. Instead, it’s covered some useful thinking on how to live well once you’ve done the relatively easy bit, and progressed far enough intellectually to give up on the failed God hypothesis.

One idea in particular was crystallised for me when he met with a couple whose child had died in infancy. During pregnancy, the scans had shown that the developing fetus had no kidneys. It was an uncommon, horrible medical condition. There was nothing that could be done for it, and it had absolutely no chance of survival. The standard medical advice in these situations, I gather, when it’s detected early enough, is to terminate the pregnancy.

This couple didn’t do that. They allowed the child to come to term, prayed for a miracle, and decided to make the most of what time they had with it. They got to spend about half an hour with their baby before it died, as had always been inevitable. They felt sure that this was the right thing to do, and those few minutes they had as a family were incredibly precious to them.

What this crystallised for me is that there are two things in this world which are absolutely vital.

The first thing is reality. If this couple’s decision was based on a hope that things might somehow turn out okay for this child, then it was misguided. Miracles do not happen. Infants developing with such severe problems cannot, with our current level of medical science, survive in the world. A developing embryo is different in a number of crucial ways from a fully developed human. The world is a certain way, and the extent to which our beliefs match up with the way the world is matters.

There’s no god to help make things better when babies die unfairly. None of us will ever meet our departed loved ones again in some other world.

The second thing is each other. These two people were facing a terrible situation, and they deserve powerful, continuous compassion from anyone analysing and discussing that situation and their decisions. I don’t know what it’s like to love a child the way they loved theirs. The closest I can come to that feeling is for the cat, who’s only been around a month or so. If the love people have for actual human children scales up from cats as much as some people say it does, then, well, I don’t think I understand how other people aren’t all crying all the time.

Everyone deserves all the compassion you can possibly spare for them.

The important thing – or perhaps I mean, the thing it took me longer to realise, and which I need to keep reminding myself of – is that it’s an and, not a but. Kindness and skepticism.

Not: “Yes, it’s important to feel for these people and their difficult situation, and not judge them for the decisions they’ve made, but…”

Not: “Yes, it’s important to believe things based on evidence, and not be swayed into irrationality by emotions or other cognitive biases, but…”

Humanism isn’t about but. At least, mine isn’t. Care about reality, and care about people. Both these things are vital, and there’s no reason they can’t complement each other.

Picture related:

(via Indexed)

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So, this thing I was sorta doing officially wrapped up a few days ago. To be honest, my attention had drifted from it somewhat by then, and for the last ten days or so I hadn’t really been engaging. The Facebook conversations were becoming more frustrating than anything else, and the praying itself was just dull.

Seriously, when you’re not even particularly hoping for God to be there, talking to him gets really tedious. And I had very little of note to say. When I have things to say, there are people I say them to. Or there’s Twitter – admittedly I don’t tend to get much more of a response there than from God, but he’s never even RT’d me once.

Still, Justin’s asked for some feedback from the participants, and I feel like I ought to give some closing thoughts here too, rather than just leaving that whole thing hanging. My weekend was busy and it may be too late for this to be any help now, but here goes anyway.

1. Was God revealed to you during the course of the Atheist Prayer Experiment?

No. Which isn’t to say that nothing noteworthy happened to me over the course of a month or so, but if God can’t reveal himself in any way distinguishable from life simply taking its course, then he’s not worth paying attention to.

2. Did you find any value in taking part in the experiment?

At first I did, I think. It’s something that might be arguably worthwhile for an intellectual honest atheist to try, to see if it helps them understand what the rest of the world gets out of this strange activity. Most of what I got out of it was the chance to analyse other people’s arguments for or against the experiment (or prayer in general), and critique some of the assumptions (religious and non-religious) that many people seem to work with. It put me in a place to wrangle with some interesting theology in ways that are new to me, at least.

But there was an inescapable feeling of fruitlessness to it all, what with God’s non-existence.

Please share any relevant thoughts, experiences or feedback

Concise version: The god debate is ongoing and immensely multi-faceted; the Atheist Prayer Experiment has one small but potentially interesting part to play in it. Its significance (and the importance of its “results”) shouldn’t be inflated, but it needn’t be dismissed out of hand as an effort to engage people in an interesting discussion.

Less concise version:

If I’d been more inclined to verbosity over the past 40 days, I’d have stood up for positive atheism a lot more vehemently. Because the context demands it.

There’s no point paying any attention to something like the APE, if you’re just going to go along with its superficial aims, make an honest search for God, and admit when he doesn’t turn up that, well, this doesn’t prove there’s no god out there, in a way that the believers can nod and smile about and suggest that maybe if you keep searching with an open heart you’ll find him one day.

There’s only any point to it if you challenge the normative assumptions behind it. I don’t care what get-out clauses theists come up with about their god being picky in who he chooses to reveal himself to – God doesn’t need disproving any further than the obvious facts of reality have already done so. There is no god, for the same reason there aren’t any leprechauns who live in my beard.

In considering how a “revelation” for a praying atheist might go, it’s suggested that, until we actively seek God out, he may just “not want to intrude on your atheism”. But this is privileging a very particular hypothesis – one no more likely on the face of it than a god who doesn’t want to be bothered, likes atheists the best for leaving him alone, and takes every prayer directed at him as a personal affront.

Frankly, if your god is anything like Christians describe him, and is sitting out there and waiting patiently for me to drop everything, stop debating his existence, stop asking rhetorical questions, stop analysing the arguments of believers, and talk directly to him as if he were there, in direct conflict with what I strongly believe – and only then is he going to make his presence clear to me in even the vaguest of ways…

… then your god sucks.

My openness to the evidence for his existence has been amply demonstrated by the many times I’ve publicly announced my commitment to that very thing. I’ve been explaining for years, in as coherent terms as I can put together, why none of it seems convincing to me yet. But because I haven’t closed my eyes in silent contemplation lately, because I haven’t hit enough of his Christian-normative buttons, he’s still in hiding?

This is yet another arbitrary barrier, a hoop which no god has any reason to expect us to leap through. If there’s anything good to be got out of our knowing that he exists, he could do something about it at any time. If this kind of pettiness isn’t beneath him, he’s not worth my respect, let alone worship.

He also continues to let us murder and enslave and torture each other, without intervening to end all human suffering, because free will. This guy’s priorities are fucked.

My various other scattered thoughts about this are going to wait for another time, or I’ll just let them go. Suffice it to say that nobody’s isolated data points resulting from the APE should be considered persuasive in any direction. Ample data already exists in all the relevant areas, in forms much more amenable to appropriate critical analysis. It can be a useful way to acquire some direct experience, but there’s no need to tacitly support the continuation of the religious default setting.

There is no god. The fact that he didn’t answer my prayers needn’t even come into it.

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Wow. Cracking down on medical marijuana, protecting torturers, casually murdering foreign civilians… One of the candidates in the upcoming US Presidential election sounds like a pretty terrible choice.

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We got our first unsolicited mail through the door today asking us to vote for someone as Police and Crime Commissioner.

Having taken a look at the options available to me, I’m relieved to be able to let go of any remote possibility I might be trekking out to a ballot box on November 15th.

The Labour candidate, Harriet Yeo, is the only one to have provided us with any literature so far. She has five campaign pledges, which I can only presume she’s telling me about as some sort of misguided effort to win me over.

The third of these pledges is to “Catch the really bad, not the merely bad”. The sole example she gives of the “really bad” – the worst of the worst, the most virulent blight on our fair county which she intends to urgently crack down on – is cannabis farms.

There’s also a postscript to the pledges list, which begins: “By the way I am ruthless on drugs” (emphasis in the original). I’d love to read this as warning: “Be careful around me when I’m off my face on coke, because I get fucking mental”, but I don’t think that’s how I’m supposed to parse that sentence.

Another of her pledges is: “Victims before Villains”. It’s quite a feat to make a statement in favour of Victim Support programmes annoy me as much as hers does. She expands on it on her page at choosemypcc.org.uk, and even adds a hashtag, #vb4v, suggesting that she’s even more pleased with the pithiness of this sound-bite slogan than the others. And why not? Dehumanising everyone who’s fallen foul of the law and completely ignoring the option of social reform and rehabilitation is quite an accomplishment in itself, let alone compressing that message into a five-character tweet-segment.

I’m inclined to agree with her opposition to the privatisation of the police, though. And she has nice hair.

So, won’t be voting for her. But at least she’s not the Conservative candidate, who manages to bring up the typical Tory divisive canard about people “paying their fair share” within the first paragraph of his election statement. He’s just as keen as the others that we see him as tough, uncompromising, and all the other things we’re supposed to want from an authoritarian arm of the law. “Zero tolerance of all crime, particularly drugs” isn’t just a policy, it’s his “key priority”. There’s not many areas of life in which intolerance is so proudly announced and so widely respected.

He’s also a chartered accountant. His hair’s fine.

The Lib Dems don’t seem to be bothering to get involved, but the English Democrats sound close enough. Their guy intends to have the police “relentlessly pursue” criminals, and will consider it a successful outcome if those criminals “remove themselves physically from Kent to continue their trade elsewhere”. No mention of considering the social circumstances which might lead to criminal behaviour here either; but if they push off to another bit of the country, he considers his problem solved. Fuck you, Surrey!

He’s also not going to tolerate the “politically correct culture”. Rejecting this culture apparently means “treating all the people of Kent in an equal and fair manner, and not special treatment for minorities”. Because that’s been the main problem with Muslims and gays and all that sort of crowd: they get given too cushy a ride.

His hair’s nothing special either.

Very similar to the last chap is our friend from UKIP, who also presents some of the only statistics to be found on any of these pages. The amount by which the national police budget has apparently been cut (£2.4bn) is no doubt relevant, but unfortunately he only brings it up in order to snipe at the Tories (no bad thing) and compare it unfavourably to the budget for overseas aid. Any analysis into the effectiveness or value of such aid spending is of course absent; apparently the lone fact that the UK devotes comparatively large amounts of money toward efforts to help the less well-off in other countries ought to be shocking enough.

Hair: grey, mostly gone into hiding. Forehead: shiny.

And then there’s the two independent candidates. Ann Barnes sounded like the most promising choice at first, when all I knew about her was her name and the fact that she was unaffiliated with any political party. Unfortunately, that’s most of what she has going for her. Her track records looks solid, but her priorities and promises don’t include anything that makes her stand out. Anyone can declare the importance of transparency and fighting massive spending cuts, or that “I never make promises I don’t keep.” Shouldn’t all that stuff be a given?

Her hair looks a bit triangular, but that’s probably just down to an unflattering photograph. It’s got a nice wave to it.

The other independent candidate is just as uninspiring and cookie-cutter. I suppose one part is slightly more eye-catching: “Most of my salary will be allocated to developing this aspect of technology” – referring to his aim of “maximising the use of social media”. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I wish it didn’t make my heart sink. Social media awareness could play a significant part in such a role, if it were well thought out by someone closely acquainted with social media’s actual place in society, but until this guy’s elaborated on the details enough to convince me that he knows what a youtube is or how to google some tweeters, I just don’t see it ending well.

His hair looks like a losing entry in a “photoshop this guy to look like someone’s just dropped some ice cream on his head” contest.

So. What was my point with all this? I’m not sure. But I haven’t blogged anything in ages, and this morning’s junk mail rejuvenated some interest in complaining about politics. Not in voting, Christ no. But still.

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Remember how some awful people protested against vaccinating young people against HPV, not simply on the grounds of any anti-vaccine quackery, but because they thought it would turn teenage girls into shameless sluts?

Well, you knew they were full of shit, and now it’s official. Routinely protecting children from a dangerous infectious disease does not turn them invariably toward any kind of flagrant immorality, like daring to enjoy sex, any more than usual.

Just a quickie from me today, but it’s worth mentioning.

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Someone asked Amanda Palmer recently about her health insurance situation. She then asked the rest of the world.

#InsurancePoll is trending! EVERYBODY ANSWER & RT! 1) country? 2) occupation? 3) have health insurance? 4) why/not? (cost to you/employer?)

This post is a summary of my ensuing twitrant.

#insurancepoll 1) UK, 2 & 3) doesn’t matter and nope, because 4) thank Loki for the NHS

There presumably already exists more and better quality data than is emerging on that hashtag, but not more human stories.

It was a long while before I really got the conversations on American TV shows about health insurance. Because I’ve never had or needed any.

Because I’ve always just gone to the hospital and gotten anything sorted that needed sorting. Because we have an NHS.

Because some bloke called Nye Bevan had this crazy idea about treating people based on medical need rather than how rich they are.

I only slowly came to understand the American situation through the gradual absorption of pop culture. It got scarier the more I learned.

I still don’t get it. You have Medicare, so, what? Old people can’t be expected to provide for all their health needs but poor people can?

When did a profit-driven health service start seeming like a *good* idea to anyone, anyway?

Seriously, if your infrastructure for dealing with medical emergencies is driven by a compulsion to make money, what the fuck do you expect?

“But government’s so incompetent and inefficient!” Sure, let’s let rich people make our decisions for us instead. No way that’ll backfire.

Government *does* suck, so don’t just nationalise healthcare, socialise it. Let doctors et al. run things and let’s all of us support them.

A poorly formed, un-nuanced, tweet-length soundbite of an idea? Yes. And I wish anything else being said made any more sense.

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This is interesting. A quote from Atlas Shrugged shows how objectivists – or one objectivist, at least – kinda sorta get it, before completely failing to get it.

When you live in a rational society, where men are free [to think and] to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.

When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing.

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for [a thinker]? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from [those who choose not to sweat, but to think].

So, there’s a valid observation in there. People’s marginal productivity can, indeed, be greatly influenced by other people. How much I can get done in an hour, and what that output is worth to anyone, is hugely boosted by the inventions, creations, ideas, and hard work of my colleagues, other workers, managers, and numerous people who’ve been dead for centuries.

A labourer can produce much greater output when assisted by the ideas and creativity of a “thinker”. This seems trivially true. But what exactly would be the productive output of a thinker if there weren’t any labourers to do the actual, y’know, labour?

Innovation’s great and all, but without thousands of pairs of nimble Chinese hands working round the clock for years actually making things, Steve Jobs is just a nerd in a garage.

So why does Ayn Rand stop at lauding the miraculous contributions of her thinkers, without recognising any comparable virtue in back-breaking labour? I mean, she’s half there. People can do much more in collaboration than working on their own. We are more than the sum of our parts. So why doesn’t she get that it’s a two-way street? Is it just a contempt for anything so vulgar as doing work, which leads someone to hold those who manage to avoid it in such high esteem?

I mean, all that the millions of people in the working class do is toil really hard getting stuff done for forty hours a week or more. The CEOs and entrepreneurs and “thinkers”, though – they had a neat idea one time. (And then got the government to force everyone else not to use their idea without giving them money.)

Who are the real heroes we can’t do without?

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Christians don’t want us to be rational.

That’s a slightly unfair summary of a lot of the conversation around this experiment. I’ve been told a few times that I should “remain open” to “ways in which my prayer could be answered”, for instance. Is it a rational approach that’s being encouraged here? Nothing sounds unreasonable about keeping “open” to possibilities.

And yet, “open-mindedness” is a virtue often espoused by people who really just want you to accept their claims at face value without “closed-mindedly” asking any critical questions. Sometimes they’re so wrapped up in their own world that any reaction other than immediate acceptance is seen as debate-stifling ideological closed-mindedness; sometimes, they’re just on the defensive somewhat because they’re so used to having their extraordinary claims questioned and picked apart.

QualiaSoup has a great video about the real meaning of open-mindedness. Less helpful is the perspective of someone on the Facebook group earlier today:

It’s not that I’m closed minded to the idea, it’s just that I already know what’s true.

Sigh. It’s this kind of thing that prompts me into championing belief in Thor and leprechauns, so that the people on the other side can see what it’s like.

Any good rationalist should be “open-minded”, in that we should be willing to honestly consider the worth of new ideas when they’re put to us. But you can’t dismiss us as being closed-minded when we’re unimpressed with your anecdote of someone who had cancer and then prayed and then didn’t have cancer any more (yes, these have been put forward as arguments for something-or-other in the group) – especially when we explain why it is that common coincidences are not convincing.

What some people seem to mean when they say “just be open-minded” is something akin to “go anomaly hunting and cherry-pick your evidence to support our conclusions”. If anything good happens to you over the 40-day course of this praying thing, maybe that’s God making himself known in your life!

Sure. Maybe. Maybe every time the cat over-excitedly claws my legs, that’s God punishing me for supporting gay rights and not sacrificing any goats in his honour lately. Maybe.

There’s also a lot of suggestion that something we need to ask God for – rather than simply that he provide any evidence at all that he’s actually there – is some sort of a “change in myself”. What sort of change isn’t very precisely specified, but I’ve never heard any suggested prayers that sound even remotely like “Lord, please help improve my powers of critical thinking, so that I may more rationally analyse the evidence for your glorious existence.”

If their claims about God are true, then a greater capacity to accurately assess truth claims is the only kind of change that makes sense. But I don’t think that’s the idea. I think the implicit message behind this “change in myself” idea is that the change should be “stop resisting and just go along with it already”. God, please make me more gullible so that I might believe in you.

I’m ready to assess any evidence as best I can. But I’m waiting on something pretty special before I start believing in any god. It’s ludicrous to believe something without a reason, so give me a reason.

If you disagree with that claim, you should give me all your money. Why? No reason. Just believe.

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In the paper by which this experiment is largely inspired, the author notes that Bertrand Russell, when discussing what he might have to say to God in the afterlife if such things turned out to exist, reported that he “would chide Him for not having provided enough ante-mortem evidence of his existence”. I think Richard Dawkins has made similar comments, and it’d be near the top of my own list of questions too in such an unlikely eventuality.

The author suggests, however, that God might shoot back: “Well, you didn’t ask me for any, did you?” – thus apparently emphasising the potential importance of atheists following this Christian rigmarole of prayer to a god they don’t believe in, as I’m doing.

The paper ends on that rejoinder, but it’s not hard to imagine that Russell or Dawkins or I might have a slightly prickly response of our own. For my part, it might go something like:

No, but then I also didn’t ask any of the other thousands of gods humans have believed in over the centuries. Nor did I address every pixie, imp, sprite, or other mystical being sometimes alleged to exist, but who seemed far more likely to have been an entirely human creation. I guess I could have devoted every second of my waking adult life to personally imploring every imaginable supernatural entity to reveal themselves, but since none of them had ever given me a reason to expect they existed, asking them all for a reason seemed like a waste of time – yourself included. I did, however, ask your self-proclaimed earthly representatives – the priests and evangelists and so forth – for some scrap of evidence, on numerous occasions, but they always came up short. So what, exactly, was I supposed to conclude?

If anyone wants to play the role of God and fill in the next part of the conversation, feel free.

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Just a very quick update on this today. There’s still no God, so there’s not a whole lot to report on.

And, while I don’t particularly want to be unkind, I thought I should briefly draw your attention to a comment from the Facebook group. I won’t insult you by explaining why it made me laugh as much as it did.

One thing I have found interesting. According to my understanding of the Bible God wants us to believe in him out of our free will. He doesn’t want to force us in any way to follow him. Therefore isn’t providing empirical evidence of his existence, in effect, taking away free will? In other words if we had clear evidence of God’s existence wouldn’t we kinda be forced to follow him? Just a thought.


Christ, that’s desperate.

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