Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Holy Spirits and Hogwash

During the seventeenth century when alchemy was beginning to give way to chemistry, it was becoming obvious that the traditional theory of four elements, earth, water, air, and fire, wasn't working.  For one thing, fire was discovered to be a process, not an element.
But just what sort of process was it, anyway.  Well, the new proto-chemists decided that whatever the elements were, one of them was phlogiston, and fire consisted of driving the phlogiston out from the other elements.
But there were problems with the phlogiston theory, so the new alchemists-becoming-chemists set up some careful observations to watch how this phlogiston was behaving, and discovered that the entire phlogiston theory was hogwash.
By contrast, when the Holy Trinity was defined, a dispute arose about whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, or from only the Father and not the Son.  However, instead of following the very successful example of chemists who made a discovery by making careful observations, theologians simply divided the Christian religion in half on the basis of their disagreements.  If they should bother to set up careful observations to watch the Holy Spirit proceeding so they'd know which is true, they would probably discover that the entire Holy Trinity is just as imaginary as phlogiston.
A further controversy arose as to whether the Substance of the Son and the Substance of the Father are the same, alike, similar, or different.  Theologians dare not try to analyze these substances for fear of discovering that they don't even exist.
In fact, if we made careful observations of all our religious doctrines, we'd soon discover that our entire cast of characters is no more real than imaginary fairies and leprechauns.
And that, folks, is why science has given us good things and religion has given us reasons to refuse to get along.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lame Apologetics

In general I find Christian apologetics rather dull, but I found this piece rather amusing.  It's called What Atheists Kant Refute by Dinesh D'Souza.
He starts out in the usual fashion, by fabricating a belief out of nowhere and pretending it's what atheists believe and base their arguments on.  In this case, it's the Fallacy of the Enlightenment, the belief that human reason and science can, in principle, eventually understand all of reality.  This was a popular Enlightenment belief but much less popular now.  In the first place, it may not necessarily be a fallacy, and in the second place, I've never met an atheist who believes it nor bases arguments on it.
Next, he brings up Critique of Pure Reason by Kant.  He appears to be blissfully unaware that this monumental tome was the beginning, not the end, of a 150-year-long massive revolution in our understanding of logic.
Then he claims that Kant proved that our knowledge is limited by our limited sensory apparatus, utterly unaware that technological gadgets, even in Kant's day, were already available to detect and measure things far beyond the scope of human senses.  I'm sure Kant was aware of these scientific instruments, but D'Souza appears not to be.
Then he observes (correctly, for a change) that atheists routinely dismiss religious claims for lack of evidence.  Of course they do!  Lack of evidence is grounds for eagerly seeking further knowledge, not for believing silly doctrines dreamed up out of thin air!
Somehow he has concluded that Kant's philosophy "opens the door to faith," which admittedly, Kant himself apparently claimed.  I'll admit I can't figure out how Kant justifies this conclusion.  It sounds like a suspiciously close relative to Pascal's Wager, which is not taken seriously by very many people any more.
D'Souza then dismisses what he calls the "ignorant boast" that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism.  Since theism, as far as I can tell, operates on the intellectual plane of children in their playpen arguing over whether their imaginary fairies are wearing pink dresses or blue dresses, I don't see why it's an ignorant boast to recognize your own intellectual superiority.
At last, in his final sentence, D'Souza strongly implies, without quite actually saying, that theistic belief offers a mystic pipeline to a form of knowledge beyond the scope of science.  I don't think so.  If something can't be known by methods accepted by science, it can't be known by mere humans.  Science uses observation and logic, the primary components of rational thought.  Theism uses doctrine and faith, the primary components of hogwash.
And now I'd better punch the Publish Post button so I can sit back and finish laughing at Dinesh D'Souza's jibberish.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Happy Birthday Sylvia Browne!

The world-famous Sylvia Browne turns 71 today, according to publicly available sources.  She's been pretending to be psychic since about 1974 according to this Wikipedia entry but her track record appears to be no better than random chance.  Anyone who keeps up on current events could do at least as well.  Nevertheless, she continues to receive incredibly high fees for psychic consultations and is apparently booked up solid for months.
James Randi has offered her his famous million-dollar prize if she can prove under scientifically acceptable conditions that she's really psychic.  But really, she's got no reason to take him up on it.  She'd never win the million, and her failure of the test might risk cutting into the megabucks she's raking in now.
She joins a long list of make-believe psychics, each with their own gimmick.
Uri Geller claims to use psychic powers to bend spoons, a feat accomplished regularly in school cafeterias by students using only their fingers.  I should think that straightening spoons back out again would be a more useful talent.
Jeane Dixon used to flood the mystery fan media with predictions of everything imaginable, then no matter what happened she'll have gotten something right.  Soon after President Kennedy's assassination, she announced that she had predicted it.  Nobody has ever found the publication in which the prediction supposedly appeared, but that didn't stop her from becoming the Official Psychic Advisor to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Edgar Cayce is alleged to have used his psychic powers to cure people by telepathy.  None of his supposed cures has ever been verified.
Psychic power has been a generously funded area of scientific research since about the middle of the nineteenth century.  No evidence of psychic power has ever been verified.  I don't think it's ever going to be, either.
I can already hear the shrill voices of True Believers whining, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!"  Sorry, True Believers, nice sound bite but total hogwash.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Global Warming

Now that global warming has happened, what do we do about it?
Sea levels are rising.  Do we spend billions on dikes and levees?  Or do we encourage lowland-using activities to relocate to higher ground?
Major rivers are likely to change their courses.  Do we spend billions on trying to confine the rivers?  Or do we relocate our river-dependent industries?
Agricultural zone boundaries are much farther north than they were forty years ago.  Do we spend billions trying to force nature to do our bidding?  Or do we learn to grow different crops, and grow our old crops in different places?
Formerly well-watered places are now arid, and formerly dry places are now suffering excess rainfall.  Same pair of questions.  Spend billions on dubious technology or learn to relocate?
Our current tax structure and land-ownership pattern makes relocation unduly difficult.  Land is too expensive to buy but too cheap to own for long term.  Relocation means abandoning now-worthless land that was initially bought at great cost, and buying new land at even greater cost.
Landowners are not making much from this scheme.  The only winners are banks who loan ever-increasing amounts of money for bigger and bigger mortgages.
What if we got smart and levied high real estate taxes on the location value of land, thus making it impractical to own land that's not immediately needed?  It seems that initial purchase prices of land would be greatly decreased.  Land that becomes worthless to to changes in the natural world would be much easier to abandon because new land could be more readily bought elsewhere.  The only losers would be banks, who would no longer have a market for huge land-purchase mortgages.
Of course there's still a need to curtail human activities that needlessly result in unnecessary global warming, but a more dynamic land usage pattern is going to be a necessary part of any solution.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New version of Opera

I'm just trying out this newly downloaded version of the Opera browser to see if it can be used to post my entries here.  The earlier version didn't work so I used Microsoggy Intermuck Exploder which I hate.  In fact, the only worse browser on the market is Netscrape Navelgazer.
It appears to be working.  Okay.  Now I'll hit "Publish Post" and if you can read this entry, it worked.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Getting old

A few days ago, a friend of mine who is a semi-retired psychologist presented a small seminar on aging. Since I'm only seven and a half months short of 65, the magic age at which one becomes a Senior Citizen, I decided to attend. It was very interesting.

First of all, aging is not purely biological, it's biosocial. Social experience can accelerate or retard aging. Many researchers have noticed that members of churches, Rotary clubs, philosophy circles, bicycle clubs, or whatever, appear to live longer than the general population. Party hearty! It's good for you!

Aging is also dependent on the quality of mental activity you choose for yourself. An epidemiologist named Dr. David Snowden (sorry I can't cite the exact reference) studied a large group of elderly people who had written their biographies in their 20's. He found that people who expressed themselves clearly, grammatically correctly, and with high "idea density" (presenting a maximum of ideas with a minimum of verbiage) aged with much less senility. A possible reaction to this finding is, "Oh, my God, it's all in the bag by the time you are in your 20's!"

Actually, I certainly hope my fate wasn't all in the bag forty years ago. I fondly hope there's still room to continue changing my attitude and lifestyle for the better.

And now for the bad news. Medical technology now exists for keeping people alive for months or years after they've suffered ailments that would have been fatal a century ago. Sometimes the person experiences a very high quality of life after the event, sometimes not.

A woman in her sixties suffers a stroke. She's rushed to the hospital, and after a few months of recuperation, returns to a highly satisfying quality of life. Then in her eighties, she suffers a relatively minor accident, is saved temporarily by high-tech measures, only to die in a nursing home after several months of expensive but pointless care. What if the doctors treating her twenty years earlier had decided she's gone anyway, why bother, thus cheating her out of twenty good years?

A man in his eighties is beset by a variety of ailments that weaken him and require progressively more and more medical intervention. Several years ago he was taking five pills a day and walked with a cane. After a few years, he required ten pills a day and walked with two canes. After a few more years he needed twenty pills a day and was just barely able to struggle along with a wheelie-walker. Now he's up to forty pills a day and needs expert help getting back and forth amongst his bed, wheelchair, shower, toilet stool, car, dining table, and so forth. At what point should he simply chuck the pills, forget the doctor appointments, and splurge on a wild party and go out in a triumphant blaze of glorious celebration?

These decisions are not easy to make. An ailment or an accident occurs for which an expensive cure is available. Will it restore the patient to full health, or will it simply prolong the pain and agony? Is it ever ethical to withhold the cure from a patient on the grounds they'll never recover anyway? Is it ethical to saddle society with the costs of expensive treatments that seldon work, just on the chance that this patient might be the rare one who'll recover?

So here I am at 64. Just short of Senior Citizenship. I'm taking only one pill a day, I needed a cane briefly for a few weeks for an ankle injury about three years ago, I can still dig my own garden, ride a bicycle, bench press 1/3 of my body weight, (Okay, laugh, you tough young dudes!), and generally do pretty much everything I've always done. I feel great! I'm also under the delusion that I'll still feel great in twenty more years. But then, the guy on forty pills a day described in a previous paragraph felt that way too, twenty years ago.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Great Cosmic Accident?

A popular pulpit-sport among Christian preachers is to dream up utterly preposterous notions out of thin air and then claim that these ideas are what atheists believe. One such idea is that the entire universe must have just randomly popped into existence as the result of a great cosmic accident. I have never heard that idea expressed by anyone in the atheist community, but it might be worth examining anyway.

Randomness is a well-studied mathematical subject. Mathematicians and theoretical physicists have used the principle of randomness to aid in describing many of the phenomena of the universe. Now, does this mean that randomness alone could have caused the entire universe to exist? Of course not, and no rational person could believe it. However, if randomness is part of Absolute Truth, it is capable of being an uncaused cause of a few of the features of the universe, and these features have been well-defined.

Chaos sounds a lot like randomness to me, but competent mathematicians have assured me that it's an entirely different principle. It, too, has been well-studied, and, if it's part of Absolute Truth, it's also a possible uncaused cause of certain well-defined features of the universe.

Is logic valid! Nobody has yet succeeded in publishing a rigorous logical proof that logic is valid, but an enormous body of empirical experience exists to overwhelmingly support the contention that logic is valid. If logic is valid, then all axioms derivable by using the principles of logic as the only premises are absolutely true in all possible realms of reality, and can be uncaused causes.

For instance, consider the axiom, "If A=B and B=C then A=C." If this axiom is true, then it is the uncaused cause of the measurability of all dimensionally definable things. For instance, everyone realizes that you don't need to take your entire washtub to the hardware store to buy the right size drain plug, you only need to take your little pocket ruler, after having measured for the size you need. A is the size of the drain hole, B is the mark on your ruler, and C is the size of the plug. (If that axiom is not a part of Absolute Truth then maybe there's another universe in which rulers do not work, but let's not go there just yet.)

Many other axioms are also derivable from logic itself, and these, too, are uncaused causes and their effects are known and have been well-studied.

Many apparently non-axiomatic mathematical principles are behind many of the laws of physics. We don't know whether these principles are part of Absolute Truth and thus are uncaused, or whether they are only true in our universe and thus have unknown causes. But at least we know that they have effects, and we know what many of the effects are.

Now, are randomness, chaos, logic, axioms, and non-axiomatic principles enough to account for the existence of the universe? Well, probably not, but at least we do know that these things have been empirically observed in ordinary reality and their effects are definable without resorting to supernatural explanations.

Can our esteemed clergy make equivalent claims about this God they so dearly want us to believe in? I don't think so. Every theologian's description of God is different, and none of them are supportable by observations. Except for a vaporous assertion about something called "Omnipotence" (a poorly defined weasel-word at best), no theologian I know of has ever provided a description of God that includes attributes that imply creative powers.

The explanation "God created the universe" sounds suspiciously like the Great Cosmic Accident that our preachers take such great delight in accusing atheists of believing in.

Now, don't get me wrong! I'm perfectly aware of the possibility that Ultimate Reality may consist of a non-materially hosted conscious intelligence of some sort. But I see no justification for believing any such thing until it's been verifiably observed by enough people to at least agree on a few of its attributes.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Judeo-Christian tradition?

Just what is this Judeo-Christian tradition anyhow? Did Christianity even have any Jewish origins at all?

Christianity appears to be largely based on man-god mythology, a recurring theme in Indo-European mythology, especially Celtic, pre-Zoroastrian Persian, and Indus Vally mythology. The idea that any God could ever appear in human form is utterly alien to Semitic mythology and downright blasphemous to Judaism.

Now, let's look at this list of more than half of the groups to whom Saint Paul addressed epistles: Colossians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians. Notice anything special about these groups? Yes, they're all in the fringe zone where Greek and Celtic civilizations overlapped. (In fact, the Galatians were entirely Celtic.)

Now, sometime when you haven't got anything to do that's worth doing, sit down and read these epistles. One of Paul's main aims appears to be to get them all to agree on a set of beliefs. It appears that all these groups had already developed their own separate man-god mythologies and Paul saw some value (perhaps political) in uniting them.

Here's another hint: the early Christians used the Septuagint as their version of the Jewish scriptures. The Septuagint was written for the benefit of Greeks wanting to learn about the traditional literature of their Jewish neighbors, and was never considered canonically sacred by any Jews, not even Greek-speaking Jews. There were other Greek translations of Jewish scriptures in use by Greek-speaking Jews.

And yet another hint: all four Gospels were written by people who appeared to have a rather poor knowledge of the geography of Palestine and the customs of Aramaic-speaking Jews in Palestine.

Here's my conjecture, which I'll admit I can't prove, but I think it sounds plausible. Soon after 36 AD when Pontius Pilate was relieved of his political career under highly scandalous circumstances, a number of existing Greek-Celtic man-god cultists (who had, for more than a century, been using the Greek title Christ, meaning Anointed One, to refer to their man-god) decided that Pontius Pilate would be the perfect ruler for their man-god to have been crucified by. Therefore, they had to make a few hasty modifications to their myths to give their man-god a Palestinian Jewish identity. Their meager knowledge of Jewish things was just barely good enough to fool the uneducated masses who formed the entirety of early Christianity.

So, it looks to me like Judaism was simply crammed onto the front end of Christianity as a convenient afterthought.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Fellowship or bigotry?

The Episcopal church is in a bit of turmoil right now. Does anybody care?

The conservative factions within the denomination are, on the basis of about a dozen vaguely worded Bible verses, denouncing homosexuality as sinful. The liberal factions are, on the basis of other equally vaguely worded Bible verses, moving toward accepting gay people into the fellowship.

Here's one issue: At least one openly gay person has been selected as a bishop. The conservatives are rejecting Bishop Robinson because of the sinfulness of his lifestyle. The liberals are supporting him to try to pacify the gay rights community. Nobody is bothering to notice whether he's managing his diocese correctly.

Here's another issue: Some liberal leaders are proposing to introduce rituals to celebrate same-sex commitments for gay people, apparently just to make points with the gay rights folks. Conservatives are opposing these proposals on the basis of a few Bible verses. Nobody is concerned with improving the quality of the church's fellowship.

The worldwide Anglican Communion is, for the most part, siding with the conservatives.

Should the Episcopal church break away from the Anglican Cmmunion? Should the Episcopal church split apart and part of it stay with the Anglical Communion?

This is the sort of thing that's bound to happen to an organization based on nothing. Yes, I'm calling the Bible "Nothing" because it's simply a haphazard collection of primitive mythologies of various bronze-age nomadic tribes. Nobody is examining it in the light of modern knowledge.

Continuing examination of relevant facts would enable us to come to a consensus, and later to modify that consensus when more facts become known. But we can't do that. It would involve regarding the Bible as being of merely historical interest.

Contrast this with Darwin's Origin Of Species and the modern theory of evolution. We now recognize that Origin Of Species contains many factual errors, as Darwin, himself, predicted would be found. As a result of scientists' willingness to examine new observations, the theory of evolution has been greatly strengthened.

Now actually, I think it would be good for Christianity to break up into as many squabbling denominations as possible. It would eliminate the possibility of religion regaining the immense monolithic oppressive power it had during the Dark Ages.

If that means that our church can no longer provide viable fellowship, I'll just quit. No heartburn, no hard feelings. Fellowship can be had elsewhere.