26 July 2014

Everyone wants to be happy. So, Jesus.

For some reason, YouTube's ad targeting has stuck this video in my ad rotation, usually when I'm watching music or, as was the case today, a review of a guitar. Totally logical.



The video is pretty standard-issue Christian evangelizing, and whenever I hear the quasi-profound rambling that constitutes the pitch for Christianity, my bullshit detector goes into hyperdrive and I find myself recalling many of the reasons I think Christianity is ridiculous.

This video is notable for really being only a worthy pitch to cultural Christians — y'know, people who have a sort of latent belief in God and an intrinsic association of the church with positive things. That's because it's only moments into the video before the narrator explains that there's this all-powerful being who gives our lives purpose and will judge our eternal souls when we die. I could unfurl a scroll with a list of all the unsubstantiated assumptions underlying such a deceptively simple statement.

Here's the thing. You don't have a soul. Of course, nobody can 'prove' that souls don't exist, but that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Moreover, a deity cannot possibly give your life purpose (a topic for another blog post, perhaps). You have to decide for yourself what is most important to you. And here's the really dirty secret: religion doesn't actually make you happy [1, 2]. Your piety will not make your life any more fulfilling than a non-religious person's.

That's the great thing about being a non-believer: you can live a happy, fulfilling moral life, and you don't have to buy religious bullshit to do it. You don't have to accept, as Christians must, the extraordinarily absurd claim that an all-powerful God picked the people of tribal Israel as his 'chosen' people, established several systems of failed salvation covenants involving gruesome ritual sacrifices, then 'fixed' his own broken covenant systems by sacrificing himself to himself. You don't have to buy the lie that a book of fragmented, often uncorroborated history and dubious authenticity that is full of misogyny and genocidal barbarism was the work of a deity who cares whom you marry or whether you say 'fuck', and that this petulant deity will judge your soul when you die and send you to either The Good Place or The Bad Place forever and ever. It's a fairy tale, and fairy tales are for children.

Never lose sight of the fact that the quasi-academic gobbledygook of apologetic arguments are, at their core, designed to defend beliefs that are indefensible. The core claims and assumptions behind Christianity are unabashedly ridiculous, and I'm increasingly convinced that the only reason such religious pseudo-philosophy exists is to distract people from the prima facie ludicrousness of the central tenets of their beliefs. Maybe the idea that you can literally turn a cracker into a god, and that you then eat the god, and that eating the god has magical sin-cleansing powers, is a proposition that's more palatable if you immerse yourself in the esoteric lexicon of Thomism.

Live your life. Be happy. Be morally accountable to yourself and to others. Do things that bring you a sense of fulfillment. Appreciate the small things. When your time is up, go with the smile of a life well-lived. The sooner you're freed from the shackles of religion, the sooner your sense of purpose, morality, and happiness can blossom.

25 July 2014

A farewell letter to arguing over the internet

I had a thought tonight. Maybe I'll stick with it, maybe not. I'm gonna try.

I'm juggling a lot. My business (including the marketing and design side), my fiance and our impending wedding, guitar, reading, writing, upkeep on our house, etc. etc. Granted, it's nothing extraordinary. I don't have kids, thank goodness, and my schedule could be a lot more crowded.

Nonetheless, I have to prioritize. Guitar is a big deal to me, definitely much more than just a hobby, and I haven't been satisfied with the amount of practice I've been getting in. I also don't read as much as I'd like, and it's just kind of a running joke (with myself) that I have this massive back catalog of half-read or untouched books. I also have a totally bitchin' gaming PC, so when I have some free time I like to bust out some Assassin's Creed IV or some graphics-whoring FPS.

The two biggest non-essential time drains for me are 1) dicking around on the internet, and 2) debating people online. The first is easy to reign in, and I'm doing a better job of not sitting there mindlessly clicking as the hours waste away. The other is harder, because I like debating people. It's healthy to be challenged and to think through those challenges, even if minds (including mine) are slow to change. But going back and forth with people in blog comments, especially writing out point-by-point rebuttals, is a massive time drain — one which certainly isn't made easier by Disqus' lack of formatting shortcuts and the perpetual cut-and-paste bug.

So, I've gotta bow out. I'm not saying I'll never respond to challenges or participate in the comments, but I can't get sucked in to overlong debates that inevitably end in a frustrating impasse anyway. Instead, I'll make a habit of using my blog posts to respond to challenges I feel are important. I'm confident I'll have no trouble churning out new content, and indeed staying away from debates will likely free up some time I can use for more original content.

Time is a precious thing, and I for one suck at managing it. But if I'm gonna do a full cover of Jeff Loomis' The Ultimatum, I gotta do some serious woodshedding. Peace.

22 July 2014

The best thing ever happened

Just kidding. My hard drive died over the weekend. I've been building my own gaming PCs since 2006, and I've never had a hard drive fail. The one that died was a solid-state drive too, which are supposed to last much longer than mechanical drives. But by 'last longer' they apparently just mean the read/write cycles, because the memory controllers? Oh yeah, they're crap.

So, I've unexpectedly upgraded my PC. My nifty new drive (Samsung Evo 840) is twice the size of my old one, and it's pretty crazy how much faster and cheaper SSDs have gotten since I bought my first one some five years ago.

Long story short, that's why I haven't blogged lately, and I'm now in the exciting and fun process of reinstalling all my programs, games, and apps, and of course there's the breathtaking suspense of reconfiguring Windows to my preferred settings. I've been following the conversations in the comments of my recent posts though, and I have plenty to add. Stay tuned!

15 July 2014

Me and Steven Jake on metaphysics: bonus round

This is well-trodden territory, but I just spent some two hours typing up this massive reply to Steven's post Brute facts and naturalism, so I thought I'd repost the comment in full, and clean up the formatting a bit. It's long. Grab a sandwich.

————————————————

Steven, I'm going to attempt to tie everything back together. I agree that things have strayed a bit and I applaud your patience and the not-insignificant time you've devoted to combing through my arguments, so I want to attempt to redirect and summarize. I'll quote you when I feel it's relevant to my reply, but otherwise I'll try to address your arguments more broadly.

If I were to phrase your original argument into a syllogism, I think a fair summary would look something like this:
  • An explanation is the process by which something becomes intelligible (your words)
  • The universe is something
  • Ergo, the universe must have an explanation, or it is unintelligible
But I think your definition of 'explanation' is both nebulous and idiosyncratic. When we describe something as needing an explanation, we are always referring to some particular process which accounts for its current state — i.e., there is a specific context by which we abstract the concept of an explanation as being meaningful and applicable. If the question is "What is the explanation for the universe", then we have to ask what about the universe demands an explanation. Is it the mere existence of the universe? Is it why the universe has certain physical laws and not others? Or perhaps why certain constants are not different?

My argument has been and remains that it is not clear (though perhaps not 'disprovable') that "The Universe" can coherently be said to be in the same ontological category of objects which demand explanations, since the very idea of an explanation is an emergent concept whose existence utterly and completely depends on the universe itself. You cannot derive a concept from the universe, then predicate it of the universe — to do so is inherently question-begging. Whether the properties, constants, or laws of the universe could be different isn't germane to the conversation, because we have no way of knowing whether they could be different. In order to be different, the universe would have to be subject to external causal forces, and we have no way of knowing if such forces can or do exist. And the fundamental properties of the universe do not admit to belonging in the same empirically-derived ontological category as "things which need explanation" simply because you demand it to be so.

This is also why I bring up transcendent realities and forces — because your arguments require them to exist, and there is no evidence that they do. For your conceptualizations of essence, act, and potency to be valid descriptions of reality, you have to operate on the assumptions that:
  • Physical objects have the invisible, undetectable property of 'essence'
  • The force of 'act' invisibly and undetectably affects physical objects' invisible, undetectable property of 'potency' to instigate observable change in the universe
  • This undetectable chain of act and potency (the only way to alter something's essence) somehow — i.e., ineffably — transcends physical reality and all spatiotemporality, terminating in a being which, frankly, you've only been able to define as paradoxically impotent.
When I pressed you on how we could know these properties and forces are real, you replied, "they're metaphysical". That response just takes us right back to the same points I've argued in the past, such as:
  • There is no agreed upon definition of 'metaphysical'
  • There is no agreed upon set of metaphysical axioms
  • There is no agreed upon criteria which defines a metaphysical problem, nor any criteria by which metaphysical dilemmas can be solved
In other words, calling those phenomena 'metaphysical' is just a deflection, because the term is so nebulous and pliable as to be virtually meaningless. In calling these mysterious properties and forces 'metaphysical', you've tacitly conceded that their exact nature and the means by which they comprise and influence the universe are unintelligible. This is textbook magical thinking!

This is also why I cannot take claims like this one seriously:
There is nothing about essence or existence that logically restricts them to this universe. Anything that exists has properties, and if it has properties then it has an essence. Contrary to your claim, essence can and must apply to all existents, ontologically in or out of the universe.
You cannot make statements like this without the question-begging assumptions that:

  • The concept of existence is just as meaningful in describing non-physical, non-spatiotemporal, timeless and changeless things as it is in describing empirical phenomena
  • The concept of 'properties' is meaningful in describing timeless, non-spatiotemporal yet literally real things (i.e., they are not merely abstractions)
  • The concepts of 'outside' or 'beyond' the universe are meaningful and,
  • Given that they are, that things actually can or do exist outside/beyond the universe.
Steven, in every single case you have to adopt the semantics of emergent phenomena whose very existence and coherency are derived from the universe and conjecturally cantilever them into speculative realities in which they not only cannot be observed, but their very context that gives those concepts their meaning in the first place is stripped away, rendering the concepts nebulous at best and meaningless at worst. Notice that you use the phrase "in or out of the universe". What does that even mean? In and out are spatiotemporal concepts, and the universe is not some sort of container in which the concept of "outside" can coherently apply — saying something is "out of the universe" is like saying something is "South of the South Pole".

—————————————————

And, this is already running long. Bathroom break.

Okay.

Onto necessity and being. You claim,
My criteria of necessity is that one’s essence is identical to its
existence. The universe’s essence is it being all matter, energy,
space-time and physical laws. Notice that this essence is not existence, and therefore the universe is contingent.
Two things here. One is that (and forgive the backtracking) you said earlier that you're not relying on the ontological argument. You'll have to explain it to me then, because I do not see a meaningful difference between "God's existence is identical to his essence" and "Existence is an essential property of God" — the very crux of the ontological argument. The latter seems perfectly consistent with not only your own semantics, but with the arguments of a great many theologians. And it's utterly incoherent to demand that existence be described as a property of something, since 1) things which do not exist cannot have properties, merely conceptual properties, and 2) it would paradoxically suggest that "properties" are more fundamental than "existence", in which case it begs the question of what it means for properties to exist.

The other issue is that I'm not seeing why, given your own semantics, God can be said to have this essential property of existence but the universe cannot. Earlier in your reply you state,
The problem with this, which is demonstrated by your examples, is that when imagining God to be different ways, one needs to realize that
imagining something does not make it metaphysically possible—oddly you
seem to recognize this for the universe, but ignore it when it comes to
God.
But Steven, you aren't providing any reason for me to think that what I'm proposing isn't metaphysically possible. You're just asserting that God is x, and could be no other way. God could be, using your semantics for example, both pure actuality and pure potency (which seems no more illogical to me than suggesting that Christ was both fully God and fully human), capable of infinite being and infinite change, thus possessing perfect free will and transcending limited human conceptualizations of good and evil. In fact something like this would have to be the case under Thomistic assumptions, since a being of "pure actuality" which possesses no potency is necessarily inert (absence of potency is, by definition, impotent!) and cannot instigate change in the universe or otherwise, rendering Aquinas' conclusions self-defeating. But even your argument regarding evil as a privation is question-begging, since good can just as coherently be argued as a privation of evil; only apathy and indifference are true privations of good or evil (a fine example of this is nature itself).

So.... if the question is simply whether it is metaphysically possible for either God or the universe to be different, adding God to the equation seems utterly superfluous. God, under your definition, clearly has essential properties besides "pure being" (goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, being a disembodied consciousness, being capable of transcending physical and supernatural realities, etc) that could logically be different, just like the universe would have other essential properties that could logically be different; you simply tack on "existence" to God's essential properties and ambiguously deny that the universe could have the same essential property. So not only have you inadvertently cornered yourself with the sheer absurdity of the ontological argument (despite your insistence that you're not employing it), but you've failed to provide any reason why, even given your own semantics, "existence" cannot be conceived as an essential property of the universe. Your continued assertion that the universe is 'contingent' is question-begging; you simply argue that it doesn't possess essential existence, but God does. That's not an argument! You have to demonstrate why it is logically (or... ugh... 'metaphysically') impossible for the universe to possess the same property that you ascribe to God, and you have thus far not even attempted to do so!

The best semblance of an attempt I can find from you is this:
So, you’re attempt to define energy and the universe into necessity does not work, especially since, contrary to your claim, they do not satisfy the criteria of necessity. The criteria of necessity, on Thomism, is for one’s essence to be identical to its existence, of which energy and the universe are not. That is, there is nothing inherently in the essence of energy that tells me it exists. I have to observe reality to know it exists.
You cannot directly observe the fundamental laws and properties of the universe; you can only reason their existence through deduction following the observation of empirical phenomena. How is this any different than Aristotle and Aquinas' reasoning about causes, essence, act, and potency to deductively infer God's existence following their observation of empirical phenomena?

In other words, the observation of empirical phenomena tells you that some underlying set of properties gives rise to them (i.e., they are emergent phenomena). If the properties of the universe could be different, our conceptualization of emergent phenomena would be different too (assuming they could emerge at all), making those fundamental properties necessary. If the universe as we know it did not exist, then the concepts of existence, causality, properties, etc., would also not exist as we know them. Bearing in mind that I think it's nonsensical to try to pigeonhole the universe into the framework of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, even adopting that outlook cannot lead to the conclusions you are asserting without an extra layer of unstated assumptions. There is simply no contradiction at all in saying that the universe itself has existence as an essential property, and thus no reason to add the extra layer of "God", along with the litany of unstated assumptions you must adopt in the process.

So, that's where we are. I see no reason at all to adopt your semantic framework or take your basic 'metaphysical' assertions seriously. But even if I adopt them, it becomes readily apparent that your conclusions don't follow from your assumptions — at least, not without a litany of unstated and unjustifiable assumptions you must pile on in order to make your metaphysics work. When you have to toss parsimony out the window to 'prove' God exists, and then your deductions lead you to infer a necessarily impotent being anyway, it's a good sign your core assumptions are fundamentally misguided.

—————————————————

I'm exhausted, so I'll leave it there save for a couple of quick footnotes:


• I'm not asserting that abstractions are spatiotemporal, but that they are representative processes of the conscious mind and thus not analogous to timeless, spaceless, transcendent things

• I agree that 'something' is best described as a fundamental state of reality over 'nothing', but my point is that you cannot assume what you are trying to prove. Necessarily existent things only exist if existence itself is necessary and fundamental, and while I see no reason to give 'nothing' any special metaphysical privilege over 'something', I also don't see any reason to do the opposite. The contention that 'nothing' is a privation is itself question-begging, as (like most things) the concept of a privation is only sensible in a specific context of already-extant things.

13 July 2014

Quote of the day

A friend of mine on Facebook posted this to his page some time ago, and I totally love it. It definitely comes to mind whenever I see some pretentious blowhard accusing someone of speaking out of turn for not having read this or that obscure academic work in some esoteric sub-discipline of theology or philosophy.



My response to the church invitation

Earlier this week, I wrote out a hand-written response to the family friends who invited my fiance Vanessa and I to their church. Vanessa read it and suggested some changes (with a nod to alert reader 'Lunaticus'), so to save time I opted to reply to them via email. Here's my reply in full:
Vanessa and I both appreciate the invitation, and we both know that it comes from a place of sincerity for both of you. As non-believers, Vanessa and I often feel a bit marginalized given that we live in such a religiously-minded society. To that end, we tend to keep our religious views to ourselves. Our beliefs have, on occasion, caused some friction within our families so we generally feel it's a topic best left alone.

Over the years, she and I have both been invited to countless church services, implored to talk to church leaders (we have), given books on Christian theology and apologetics, and drawn into debates in which our beliefs are put on the defensive. Just this week, Vanessa was cornered by a priest at her aunt's funeral who questioned her decision to get married outside of the Catholic church. Imagine if a non-believer wrote to you and said, "I know you usually go to church on Sunday, but this Sunday why not stay in and I'll loan you my copy of Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion' to read", or if a Muslim invited you to their mosque imploring you to open your heart to Allah and his prophet. Vanessa and I don't want to disabuse anyone of their religious beliefs, but we also don't want to be marginalized or treated as though there is something missing in our lives because our beliefs are different — we are living fully happy, purposeful, moral, and meaningful lives without religion.

I feel it's important to emphasize that Vanessa and I both left the church for deeply studied and well thought out reasons. Our shift in belief was gradual and reflective, not impulsive and reactive. The impasse we feel with the church runs to the core of historical and theological claims, and they are not the types of issues that could be resolved by attending a service and hearing an inspiring message. We both agree that if anyone is interested in what we believe and why, the best course of action is to approach us with a sincere sense of curiosity – in other words, to simply ask. So while we are grateful for your invitation, we must respectfully decline.

Are we on the verge of a new quantum revolution?

When faced with the bizarre nature of quantum indeterminism, Einstein was convinced that there was something wrong with the equations, quipping "God does not play dice". But the mathematics couldn't be denied, and the idea that nature is fundamentally probabilistic became ingrained in quantum mechanics. The bizarre, counter-intuitive implications of this have vexed physicists and philosophers for nearly a century.

If the hype is to be believed, the stage may be set for a paradigm shift. There's an article from Wired that's been making the rounds recently which describes researchers in fluid dynamics being able to create quantum-like effects in classical systems, such as the interference pattern in the famous double-slit experiment:
In a groundbreaking experiment, the Paris researchers used the droplet setup to demonstrate single- and double-slit interference. They discovered that when a droplet bounces toward a pair of openings in a damlike barrier, it passes through only one slit or the other, while the pilot wave passes through both. Repeated trials show that the overlapping wavefronts of the pilot wave steer the droplets to certain places and never to locations in between — an apparent replication of the interference pattern in the quantum double-slit experiment that Feynman described as “impossible … to explain in any classical way.” And just as measuring the trajectories of particles seems to “collapse” their simultaneous realities, disturbing the pilot wave in the bouncing-droplet experiment destroys the interference pattern.

Droplets can also seem to “tunnel” through barriers, orbit each other in stable “bound states,” and exhibit properties analogous to quantum spin and electromagnetic attraction. When confined to circular areas called corrals, they form concentric rings analogous to the standing waves generated by electrons in quantum corrals. They even annihilate with subsurface bubbles, an effect reminiscent of the mutual destruction of matter and antimatter particles.
In each test, the droplet wends a chaotic path that, over time, builds up the same statistical distribution in the fluid system as that expected of particles at the quantum scale. But rather than resulting from indefiniteness or a lack of reality, these quantum-like effects are driven, according to the researchers, by “path memory.” Every bounce of the droplet leaves a mark in the form of ripples, and these ripples chaotically but deterministically influence the droplet’s future bounces and lead to quantum-like statistical outcomes. The more path memory a given fluid exhibits — that is, the less its ripples dissipate — the crisper and more quantum-like the statistics become.

According to the article, pilot-wave theory is nothing new — but it's had a rough history. Nonetheless, some researchers think it could potentially revolutionize quantum mechanics. Quantum physicists, though, seem less enthusiastic. The biggest pitfall is that the pilot-wave theory adds assumptions without yielding new or more accurate calculations, and the potential of pilot-wave theory remains conjectural.

It's easy to overlook the fact that the standard model of quantum mechanics is the single most successful theory in the history of science. The degree of accuracy with which it can predict reality is unprecedented — Richard Feynman famously remarked that it's like predicting the width of the United States to the accuracy of the breadth of a human hair. The idea that there is a superfluid-like substrate underlying reality currently lies somewhere in the realm of conjecture analogous to string theory and its Planck-scale, 1-dimensional vibrating strings. It's a theory that could show its hand as physicists are able to probe deeper and deeper scales, but no one's about to rewrite the most successful scientific model in history anytime soon.

And really, that's the most intriguing possibility with pilot-wave theory. It doesn't stand a chance of rewriting quantum mechanics as we know it, but it could someday provide a means of understanding quantum gravity and advancing the long-coveted unification of quantum mechanics with general relativity.  For now, though, it's just hype, and the researchers have a long, long road ahead.

Read the full article on Wired here:
http://www.wired.com/2014/06/the-new-quantum-reality/

09 July 2014

I was invited to church, and I found it kind of offensive

Yesterday my fiance Vanessa and I received a letter from some friends of my family, saying that they had found a new church and wanted to invite us to come. To some, the letter might have seemed well-intentioned and innocuous, but I couldn't help feeling a bit offended by it.


The text is probably not very clear, but the gist of it is that they found a new church and wanted to invite us. Now, they know that Vanessa and I are non-religious. In this case, the wife asked my mother for my and Vanessa's address, and explained why. Knowing how touchy the subject can be, my mother was wary, which is why the women who wrote the letter emphasized that my mother didn't put her up to this. In her words, she was "moved" to write me.

Now, I'm sure in some people's universes this is a kind gesture. But here, I just felt it was somewhat rude by virtue of being insensitive to my and Vanessa's religious beliefs (or lack thereof). I'm sure they would feel the same if a Muslim friend invited them to come to their mosque with "an open heart". Vanessa and I are not lapsed Christians. We don't secretly believe in the Christian god deep down. We're non-believers, period. We think the claims of the Bible and Christian theology are false. That's not the kind of thing that you can waltz into a church service and change because you hear a message that "touches your heart".

Generally speaking, there are two reactions when people find out I'm an atheist. The most common is defensive: Why don't you believe in God? Where did the universe come from? How do you explain __________? So you think everything is here just by random chance? These types of questions are consistently parroted out as though it's the first time I've heard them, or I've never thought about them. The other reaction is like this letter, reflecting a somewhat detached sense of concern. I'll be praying for you. Will you consider coming to church with us?

The reason it's mildly offensive to me is that they didn't take the time to try to understand our religious beliefs. They know we're non-believers and we don't go to church, but they don't have any real understanding of why, or even what our non-belief really entails, simply because they haven't asked. Interestingly enough, when Vanessa and I went to pre-marital counseling, the pastor (my parents' pastor) asked us about our beliefs. But, surprisingly, it was genuine curiosity. He didn't try to debate us, and he didn't invite us to a church service. If even a pastor can approach the issue with grace, why is it so hard for so many others?

I don't wish to disabuse anyone of the comfort and meaning they may find in their religious beliefs. Sure, I like discussing my views on things — which is why this blog exists — but reading this blog is optional. I don't print out the posts and send copies to all my Christian friends. I don't broach the subject in my day to day interactions with others. I'm very much a live and let live kind of person. And having gone through the process of deconversion and knowing first-hand how difficult it is, it'd be nice if more people who were concerned about my religious beliefs would approach it with a sense of respectful curiosity and humility, rather than debating me or inviting me to church.

I wrote a letter back, in which I said that we "respectfully decline". My fiance and I are happy, fulfilled non-believers and we have neither the need nor the desire for religion in our lives — especially the religions of Western monotheism. I've thought for a long time that is something that doesn't sit well with people of faith. They think we have a God-shaped hole in our heart, or that we're not really atheists. Well, sorry to disappoint. Deconverting has deepened my sense of purpose and my sense of morality, made me appreciate my life much more deeply, and injected me with a renewed sense of awe and wonder at the universe. Even if I could go back, I wouldn't want to.

03 July 2014

Man heals people with amazing stare

Here's one to make you lose faith in humanity: a man who goes by "Braco" claims to be able to perform miracles of healing (among others) through his "silent gaze":


Gawker has the full story here. Let this be a reminder that people believe this stupid shit today, in our modern, scientific era. But if it happened 2,000 years ago in antiquity and the reports weren't documented for many decades afterwards, well gosh, it must be true!

29 June 2014

Hide your kids, hide your wife: crime and the availability heuristic

The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias in which we overestimate the probability of events we can readily recall examples of, and underestimate the probability of events that are harder to recall examples of.

Recently in Tulsa there's been a series of rapes purportedly committed by the same person. There are eight reported assaults so far, and police are on high alert and have released a sketch of the suspect:


Several of my friends have remarked that they're taking extra precautions, and my mother has express concern for my and my fiance's safety because we live in 'midtown', and most (but not all) of the assaults have been in midtown, and one was around two miles from my house.

There are several interesting things to think about.

Crime exists on a spectrum of probability. Even if you live in the safest neighborhood in your city, there's still some probability that you'll be the victim of a crime, be it a burglary, some kind of assault, or even murder. When crime is reported on the news, it becomes part of our availability heuristic and we overestimate the probability that we'll be the victim of an assault. In reality, the crime most likely fits the normal pattern of probability for crime in the city, and you are in no more danger today than you are any other day.

The appearance of the suspect is another problematic issue. I was talking the other day with one of my clients who is a defense attorney, and he was telling me about all the problems with eyewitness testimony — especially that from victims. People tend to recall details rather poorly, and this deficit is magnified by trauma. Victims exaggerate details of the subject's appearance (the size of the nose or jaw, height, skin color), thus making police sketches, in the sense of "Be on the lookout for this person!" to be next to useless. In the case of the alleged serial rapist (the idea that all eight assaults are connected is somewhat speculative), victims gave fairly diverse descriptions of supposedly the same person — he's black, he's white, he's light-skinned black, he's "thin" but also "muscular", etc.

I did a cursory check on the accuracy of police sketches, thinking that their reliability is likely quite low. And sure enough, the consensus seems to be that sketches like the one above are quite unreliable indeed [1] [2] [3].

Steven Pinker had to spend a good chunk of The Better Angels of Our Nature presenting both mountains of data and impressionistic arguments that we really are in the most peaceful era of human existence. It's counter-intuitive precisely because of the availability heuristic — we watch the news, and of course crime (especially violent crime) makes the top of the new because it is so out of the ordinary. But that gives us examples we can readily recall, and we go on to overestimate our danger of being victims. Next time you see something in the news about a crime spree, just relax. It's one thing to take sensible precautions to protect yourself (Sam Harris did a phenomenal job of explaining what those are), but life is simply too short to live in a constant state of paranoia.


UPDATE: Police now have a suspect in custody, whose DNA was found at some of the crime scenes.: