Above us, Only Sky

Politics, Philosophy, Science, and Everything Else.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Monday housekeeping

First, I'd like to brag that I've been included in the Carnival of the Godless #5, hooray for me, and for all those others with whom I'm lucky enough to be included. Keep the reason coming! Long live the carnival!

I've been away from the blog for a few days, not just because of my continuing addiction to WoW, but also because of a series of long work days and a cold that I’m finally getting the better of. This is my long winded explanation of why I haven't responded to Tom' last comment, which I'm going to do now.

Tom's first point is that we need a higher power creating higher laws or powerful people will selfishly dominate the rest of us. First, I'd like to ask Tom where God was for the vast majority of history on the vast majority of the planet- when powerful people DID selfishly dominate the rest of us. If there is no consistent enforcement of law, it has no meaning. You can say god will punish bad people in the afterlife- but that isn't much comfort to their victims in the here and now. Laws for which there is no credible threat of enforcement are meaningless. As a rational being looking at the world, I have never once seen God or any apparent godly agent do anything, so I can rationally conclude that the pattern will hold and such agents will not punish MY bad behaviour. It's like a red light camera- if you put it up in secret and never tell anyone where it is, and send the tickets out six months later with no specifics, you're going to collect some additional revenue but you're not going to reduce the number of people running red lights. If you do it with great fanfare and publish it's location and put a big sign up at the intersection, you're going to cut down on people running red lights. Surely if there was a higher power who was responsible for the creation of humans, it would understand this aspect of human behaviour and wouldn't expect us to mild our behaviour on vague threats and promises delivered thousands of years ago.

Tom's next point is that reason cannot lead to the creation of laws. I couldn't disagree more. first of all, the powerful have every reason to create and implement laws. This is because laws often benefit the powerful more than the weak- the laws are just another tool for control. Even in the case where laws are fair, they still benefit the powerful. In a lawless state everyone is at risk, the rich man or warlord is just as vulnerable to random violence as the poor. Laws can be developed by reason and selfishness alone with the simple question of whether living in a society governed by that law is better or worse than in one where that law is absent. It is better for me to live in a place where murder is illegal than where it is legal, because the benefit of being able to murder people legally is far outweighed by the cost of potentially being murdered myself. There you have a selfish justification for all homicide laws that doesn't invoke god at all. You can go right down the list of all the things that are taboo or illegal in every society, and you'll find for the most part that they conform to this system. Is it better to be able to steal at will or to have property rights? Is it better to be able to drive any speed you want or to be able to drive on safe streets? There are costs and benefits to every law and we can see them and judge them without any input from higher powers.

Tom points out that he doesn't hate homosexuals, which I felt was implied when he said he hated homosexual acts. Given his view that orientation is a choice, this is at least a forgivable position, but I still can't conceive of how he could believe that sexual orientation is a choice. In the history of the world, the current western society, including the United States, is a shining beacon of tolerance for homosexuality- in most societies, including the western ones, through most of history, being openly gay was in effect a death sentence. It still is in many parts of the world. Yet, despite this, despite the shame of family, the fear of damnation, the guarantee of persecution, there have always been gay people. How is this possible, if it is a choice? Are we so perverse a species that we would choose to bring that down upon our heads? I don't believe so. I believe that it must be a fact of human nature that some people are born with a sexual attraction to those of the same sex, and that they have no more choice than they do about the number of fingers they have or what colour their eyes are.

Tom says that Christianity has always been about love and other nice things. I can believe that Tom’s beliefs are about that, that the beliefs of those he worships with are about that- but I cannot believe that this is the case of all Christians. What about the crusades? What about the gentlemen carrying the ‘god hates fags’ signs at the funerals of HIV victims? These people are not about love. These people see religion as a weapon, those of other beliefs as enemies, and while some of them might mouth words about love and forgiveness, they don’t feel any themselves. These people are the most vocal and obvious face of Christianity to be seen by those of us not involved in a church. So while I’m perfectly willing to accept that many, even most Christians are good people with good intentions, so long as these hatemongers are allowed to go around shoving their crosses and bibles in the face of everyone without an uproar of challenge from the more tolerant Christian community, I will continue to feel free to proclaim my disgust with Christian practices when what I’m talking about is what these people have to say. If you let them speak for you, you cannot ignore the responsibility for what they say.

Regarding Tom’s claims that the human race will die out if we let the behaviour spread, I ask him where is the vast Christian outcry against couples who choose to go childless? Shouldn’t you try to prevent the marriage of anyone who plans to have no children, because this practice will surely spread and result in the extinction of the species? The instinct to reproduce is as strong as any we have. Witness the vast lengths couples go to have children, the huge sums spent on fertility treatments, and so on. Part of the debate over homosexuality comes from the desire of these couples to have and adopt children. If everyone on the planet decided to be gay tomorrow the species would face no threat from dying off because people would still be willing to go through the steps to have children even when those steps didn’t include the fun of sex with someone you’re attracted to. From a human population perspective there is more ill you can say about the people who refuse to stop having children than about those who don’t feel attracted to people they can breed with. Don’t take this as an avocation of population control- I feel that people should make their own choices about how many kids they want and it’s nobody else’s business to tell them how many they should have or what methods they should use to achieve that number.

Tom also made some comments about AIDS which I felt were deeply ignorant. Disease will come in any form that allows it to spread. There are plenty of sexually-transmitted diseases that have not been linked to a particular style of sex. We have diseases of the air, in our food and water, that are spread through every kind of regular social contact. That one disease was first noticed among gay men in the United States is not an indicator of unnatural behaviour- disease is nature at its most basic, and anything we do can become a vector for its transmission. To conclude anything about the victims of disease based solely on their sickness is logically without merit and morally questionable.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Responding to Tom

Somebody put a comment on one of my posts. This is very exciting. Now I need to respond to it, because Tom is both polite, respectful, and in disagreement with me on almost everything.

We agree that reason is a tool, but you argue that with only reason humans would engage in all manner of anti-social activity, because we would reason that stealing and murdering would be good for us when there are no consequences. Well, that would be true if the only possible way to have consequences was that there was an omnipotent god watching everything. Actually it is entirely possible for other human beings to police our behaviour, and that is in fact what happens. When society breaks down and the rule of law broken, people do go out and steal, kill, and rape to their hearts content. The level of religiosity in a society won't affect bad behaviour when there are no earthly police to actually enforce laws and punish offenders. Reason is a necessary component of this because it allows us to understand when we're breaking laws and when our stated moral principles are at odds with our actions. Religion is superfluous to this process at best, at worst it can gum up the works by creating different streams of 'justice' for believers and unbelievers, or by trying to reconcile contradictory religious rules within the legal system.

I see nothing in Tom's discussion on homosexuals to ease my fears about Christian homophobia. The problem here is that homosexuality is not a choice, it is a fact inherent in nature, just as heterosexuality is. It is akin to gender or race- something that people are born with. If you were to say 'I don't hate African Americans, I just hate people who are being black', it would be equally meaningless. Christianity has made an attempt to reconcile this by never acknowledging that it is a fact of nature, moving sexuality into the realm of choice and therefore into a fair arena for moral scrutiny, but it doesn't wash. I am straight. I could not choose to be gay if I wanted to. I know I would never enjoy sexual relations with a man- so I therefore know that those who do engage in them must not feel the same way that I do, that there must be something different about how they feel about the world. I can't then turn around and say that it is a moral choice they are making- how can what you feel about the world, how you are born, be a moral choice? The choices you make are how you are going to live- honestly seeking what you desire, or trying to conform to what other people want you to do? Of course some desires lead us to harmful behaviour, and when we choose to seek fulfillment of those desires we face moral consequences. But there is nothing intrinsically harmful about who people are sexually attracted to. There are a whole slew of ways that people engage in immoral activity to satisfy their desires- rape, incest, pedophilia, even unsafe sex- because people can be harmed by these activities. But when two adults with no other commitments desire each other there are no other stakeholders, so whatever they choose to do is between them, and none of the business of the rest of us.

So when you say you hate homosexuality but not homosexuals, I see only hatred, and no morality. This bible you like so much says you should stone them or something, but it also says you shouldn't suffer witches to live or tolerate people of any divergent faith at all. If Jesus was a real person, I don't see how it matters, so was Buddha, so was Muhammad, so was Nietzsche, the fact that these people existed doesn't mean that what they said, or what was said about them, is true.

Finally, I am accused of hating Christians, which is a reasonable judgement given the tone of most of my posts. I don't, at least not as a class of people. There are a good group of people who are Christians for whom I do feel deep contempt, but there are also some people of other faiths who fall into that category. What I despise about them is their immunity to reason, their unflinching demand that others conform to them, their readiness to use whatever tools come to hand to achieve their goals, which all too often includes violence. I do have Christian friends, I admire a great number of people who also happen to be Christian, but I have to say I admire them and like them in spite of their beliefs, there is always a bit of the sceptic in me that wants to challenge them.

So thanks for your comment Tom, I doubt I'll convince you of anything here, but I think just airing out my arguments every once in awhile is good for me, and I hope you (and others) will feel free to comment in future.

Rhetoric and Truth

I just left a comment on this post over at pharyngula, a blog I really enjoy even if I can't understand a big chunk of the science stuff they talk about- I'm a science fan but I have no formal education in it and so when they get down to the nitty gritty, I tend to get lost.
In my comment I talked about how truth is only a rhetorical tool for those on a certain side of the evolution debate- if an argument that happens to be true supports your argument, then you can use the fact that it's true to support it, but you don't limit yourself to true arguments, nor are you any more convinced when someone else's position is supported by such arguments. I don't believe this use of truth is confined to that one side or that one issue. I think that to a greater or lesser extent, all politicians, everywhere, have to see everything through the lens of rhetoric. Why? Because they live or die on public perception, and convincing people of your position is the bailiwick of rhetoricians, not scientists. It has always been thus and it will always be thus. If my argument is true and yours is convincing, who is going to convince more people? There is a clue in those words. How can those of us who value truth take any solace, if what is true will not necessarily triumph? Because truth can become a key component of any rhetoric if the audience demands it. When you're speaking to a bunch of five year olds, you don't discuss global macro-economics, even if somehow what you’re trying to convey has something to do with that subject. So you can either talk down to them- which is what politicians have done since they invented themselves, or you can bring the level of your audience up. Education. The key to the success of a society is the education it's people receive, not just because a better educated populace will be more productive, but because they will demand more productive leaders.
And thus it comes full circle- the evolution/creation debate. This is an issue for Americans more than anybody, those of us in the rest of the western world don't have any serious worries on this particular issue. I take an interest because it's interesting, and because if the U.S. takes a nosedive we Canadians will not be unharmed. The point is that the educated, intelligent Americans, and there are many of them, have to win this fight for the minds of their children. Evolution must be taught, not merely because it is a vital part of understanding biology, but because of the truth it stands for. Lose on Evolution and what will be next? Win on evolution and maybe you can take back some of the other ground that has been lost. Every American who grows up with a real understanding of the theory of evolution will get with it a host of other benefits, like the ability to think critically, and an easy window into the irrationality of those who claim to be creationists, among other things. Every one of those will demand a modicum of reason and truth from those they vote for, and the more such people there are the more the politicians will have to address truth. Make truth a part of the political landscape and the rhetoric will adjust- Darwinian fashion- to survive.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Reason, Religion, and Morality

Reason is a tool. You use it to accomplish goals, but the goals you have, at least the ultimate ones, do not come from reason. The need for food, for sex, for the admiration or our peers, for safety and comfort and health and love- these things all have rational reasons to exist in evolved beings, but as those beings, we do not choose them. They are us, and we simply act upon them. A mother does not love her child because she has reasoned out that it is a carrier of her genes and therefore represents the best chance for those genes to exist into the future, she loves her child because that love is a part of her being, it comes before reason. Therefore, all of our goals in this life are effectively irrational- not because they are wrong or stupid, but because they exist prior to our reason- they drive reason, and without them we would have nothing to be reasonable about.
This having been said, reason is still the very best tool we have for achieving our goals, and thus for being happy. It's like reason is a man driving a car and emotion is his pregnant and due wife in the back seat- every time she yells for him to go faster he feels a strong need to do so, but if he is in heavy traffic it's better for him to go slowly and avoid an accident. Reason allows us to put off some of our drives in order to fulfill all of them better in the long run. It is absolutely necessary to survive as a human being.
Religion is a thing of emotion. It capitalizes on every drive we have- the need for community, the fear of pain, it even tries to control our sexual behaviour so that only with religious sanction can it be satisfied. The problem comes in when religion makes truth statements- things about science, about morality, about race and sexuality and biology and family- statements not based in a reasoned understanding of the topic, but in a need to appeal as much as possible to the emotions. Religion allows us to abdicate our reason when it tells us uncomfortable things. Think gay sex is gross? Religion will tell you it's a sin, and viola, you're not a bad person for hating gays. Never mind that two guys doing it in the privacy of their own home can't possibly hurt you, and reason tells us that the 'lifestyle choice' explanation is highly flawed, as long as we have a bronze-age living manual that tells us it's bad, we can keep saying it's bad in good conscience. Except we can't.

Reason is necessary for morality. Morality must be based on mutual rules about behaviour between individuals. Those rules have to be equal, and have to be governed according to a rational principle, or they can't possibly function. This is because if you declare morality to be something based in emotion, it will always be biased. Some 20-year-old guy gets drunk and causes an accident, hurting your family, you'll bay for his blood, or at least a serious jail term and permanent suspension of his licence- but what if that 20-year-old is your brother or your son, you know he's a good kid, you know he can turn his life around if given a second chance- which side of this is right, if you go according to the emotions? Neither, both- there is no right answer, because both have validity, and a solution is impossible because there is no way to judge between the validity of each perspective. Only if you create and maintain a rational set of rules can a moral system or legal system or any other such thing function.
Religion, however, applies only to the emotions when it speaks of morality- 'do what I say or I’ll torture you forever' is typical, 'eye for an eye' competes with 'turn he other cheek', killing witches is out but shunning gays is ok. Religion allows people to ignore reason and still claim to be moral, but what it is really doing is denying the key component of morality- reason. Religion demands or at least allows for people to abdicate their reason. Without reason, morality is impossible. Therefore religion is not just morally bankrupt- it is necessarily immoral.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

What to say to them

I was over at a friends place yesterday when some witnesses came to the door. My boddy did what most people do, what I would probably have done, and politely nodded his head, took their literature, and got rid of them as fast as he could. I made myself scarce during the ordeal because I was overcome with giggles. This is what these people are: an affliction that is unfortunate but mild enough that you can laugh at those who have it. Yes, you can get upset that these people come to your door and inturrupt your saterday to let you know that everything you believe is wrong and you're going to hell if you don't do what they say, but as with most mildly retarded people you can manage them and get rid of them quickly. If you show up at the door looking calm and reasonable they know they're not goign to make a catch today anyway, religion requires emotional vulnerability to spread, these guys are just putting themselves out there hoping to catch somebody when they're feeling lonely or sad.
Really, the best course of action is to smile and nod and see them on their way, but I like to pretend that I'd have the foresight to be one of those who would brace them on their beliefs. While it would probably be impossible to inject some reasonable doubt into their worldview (unless they were feeling emotionally vulnerable at the time), perhaps I could be sufficiently convincing of my own conviction that they wouldn't bother to send a delegation to my door then next time round.
I have plenty of objections to religion, but there are a couple which I feel would be most useful when actually dealing with a fundie. Like putting the burden of proof on them- they're prone to ask (in an incredulous and disapproving tone) why I do not believe in Jesus (or whoever) but really, shouldn't the burden of proof be on them? If a person came up to you under any other pretense and told you to re-arrange major portions of your life, you'd want some reason why, but with religion there is this weird assumption that you have to have a big powerful reason not to believe. For them, the statement 'Jesus loves you' seems to be enough. I'd like to say to them: TYou have a hypothesis- Christianity (or whatever), I have a competing hypothesis- secular humanism (or atheism or whatever I'm calling it that day) Provide me with a single piece of evidence that is explained by your hypothesis but not by mine. They'll stammer about miracles and I'll ask then to provide documentation and then they'll babble of faith being better in the absence of proof and I'll say I have faith in what I believe AND proof, and so on, but if they start to lead me down another path I'll always get to say, but wait, what about your proof, my theory still hasn't been disproven or yours supported by anything you've said.
Another fun thing to do is point out the deep logical flaws in their religious arguement, something especially easy with the the many branches of christianity because they all rely on one big skydaddy. My favorite is the Problem of Evil, because I think it's a little sick that they believe in a being capable of inflicting all of the suffering that exists in the world just to make a point, and worship this evil thing. They babble about evil being brought into the world by people- but if people were created in 'his' image, and we have the capacity for evil, doesn't that make 'him' evil as well? There is also the arguement that evil is nessesary because it allows for brands of good impossible absent evil- but to that I ask, why are there brands of good impossible without evik? Why doesn't his all-powerfulness create the universe in such a way that all forms of good are possible while all forms of evil impossible? You can't have an alpha/omega creator type presiding over creation with enough micro-management to care about what I think about my neighbors wife while being totally unresponsible for all the wars and disasters that befall us all the time.
ANother one they like to trought out is the 'what do you believe then' line. I can say the big bang, or quantum waves or some such, and I'd be being honest, I do honestly believe that whatever the physicists are working on is an honest view of where the universe was before it was here, but I don't really understand all the theories, I got lost when they started talking about curving time. This, the theoretical crazy-person at my door, might be considered hypocasy- why do I take what the physicists are saying on faith? I could point out that science has done some useful things like cure disease, but when it comes to the far out theoretical stuff the the phisicists are working on these days, I don't know about any useful products they've developed (not to say there aren't any, I'm just not well informed enough to name any), so why DO i believe their strange 13-dimensdional, dark matter/dark energy view of the universe over that of the theoretical crazy-person at my door? Probably because the physicists aren't telling me I should live my life in a certain way bercause of what they've dsicovered. If a person claiming to be a physicist showed up at my door and told me that dark energy was going to devour my soul if I didn't give him a tithe, I'd probably treat him much as I treat the others.

I guess

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Random thoughts

No energy for a full post right now. Spent the day writing and WoWing, so looking at the screen kinda hurts. Plus my nearly-a-month-long now headache is back in full force, in spite of what I thought was a new and effective pain drug. Hopefully the doctors will figure it out soon and give me some sort of relief. I'm not too concerned that it is something 'serious', because I haven't had any of the additional symptoms that donote that sort of thing, basically I feel fine except for this unrelenting dull ache in my head.
Something I've long want to say but never had the right context to say it in, regarding when the Christians complain that they're being descriminated against or that things aren't Christian enough (like in the recent moves towards legalizing gay marriage in Canada- this makes me a very proud Canadian). What I'd like to say to these people is: the whole of europe was run by Christians for a thousand years. It was called the dark ages. Organized religion has stood in the way of every important social advince since the dawn of time. It DOESN'T WORK.
Ok, having said that, I'd like to qualify it by saying I've known many very smart, tolerant and good people who also happened to be christian. In fact, the majority of all people of faith I've known have been reasonable and compassionate. Only one group, american baptists, that I encountered in high school fall into the category of Bad Christian. So all my ranting against religion seems to apply only to a minority. It's just that this vocal and vicious minority seems to be able to speak and act with impunity as though it is representative of the larger group. Only when large numbers of Christians step forward to denounce the homophobes and creationists will I really be able to consider the group as a whole in a positive light. If you let someone else speak for you, you are responsible for what they say.