24 November 2013

Am I biased against Christian music?

I'm a metal head. As you might expect, metal isn't always the most religion-friendly genre of music. The frontman for one of my favorite bands, Behemoth, has stood trial in Poland on blasphemy charges (the charges, filed by the Catholic church, were was dismissed). I listen to plenty of music that's overtly anti-Christian, and today I was scrolling through my YouTube subscriptions and found this gem:

Hell was originally part of the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" in the early 80s; they re-formed in 2008 and have a new album coming out this year – from which the song above is taken.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the video. One, because I like the NWOBHM style – they're clearly a throwback to bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and even Black Sabbath, and the singer has some seriously impressive vocal skills. But I also really dug the occultish theatricality of the whole thing. I think too many mainstream bands have forgotten about the value of theatricality, so it's great to see a band still putting on an awesome show.

In any case, over in the sidebar, I saw that 80s Christian rock titans Stryper also have an album which came out earlier this month. And I rolled my eyes.

I caught myself in the act – why would I be annoyed with a theatrical Christian band, but not a theatrical anti-Christian band? Am I just biased against their music (and performance) because I'm a deconverted Christian and an anti-theist? But as I thought about it, I concluded no. That's not really why I think Hell is entertaining and Stryper is kind of lame. There are good reasons why I think it's not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Firstly, occult-type bands are generally tongue in cheek. Most people aren't stupid enough to really believe in demons, devils and other minor deities. Their aim is primarily theatrical, not evangelical. They're not trying to lead the audience in prayer to Satan or tossing out copies of LeVay's Satanic Bible or maybe The Necronomicon. Meanwhile, Stryper does lead the audience in prayer, and tosses out little Bibles. Their primary aim is evangelical rather than theatrical. If some occult-type band were really trying to win converts, I'd be just as annoyed.

Secondly, the occult is counterculture. Somewhere between 70 and 80% of Americans are Christians. In England the number is lower, but Christianity is still by far the most prominent religion, and England still has a state church. If the same number of people worshiped the Devil instead, then bands like Hell wouldn't be nearly as interesting to watch. Part of the entertainment is that they're not really worshiping the devil, but poking fun at  the whole enterprise of religion.

And finally, I thought of one great example to the contrary: Megadeth. I'm still a big Megadeth fan. Dave Mustaine is a total uber-Christian and he supported Rick Santorum for President. Dave Ellefson is studying to be a Lutheran pastor. They have plenty of songs about Jesus, but I don't care because Mustaine is just singing about what's meaningful to him. Unlike Stryper, their music isn't evangelical. I saw Megadeth fairly recently, and there was no prayer-leading or Bible-tossing.

At least, that's the convoluted rationale I've created for myself. Maybe I do just think Christian music is stupid. One thing's for sure though: I missed out on a lot of awesome music back in my religious days out of plain old Christian fear and guilt, so it's nice to to enjoy blasphemous bands without beating myself up about it. 

21 November 2013

The atheist heroin addict who got schooled, why prayer is stupid, and my psychic connection to The Simpsons

You may have spotted this viral video being spread around social networks: a 30-year-old man struggling with his faith, addicted to heroin and who had hocked his son's toys for drug money, receives a generous monetary gift the day after praying for help. It was too good to be a coincidence – it must have been God. Here's the vid:

Years ago, my local Fox affiliate used to run reruns of The Simpons twice a day, five days a week. With the new episodes airing Sundays, that made for eleven episodes of the show each week. I watched them all. I was – and still am – a huge fan of the show.

But a funny thing would happen. Sometimes, I would think of a random joke from a random episode. It'd just pop in my head. And then the next day, that would be one of the episodes that aired. Well obviously, when you're watching eleven episodes a week, certain ones are bound to repeat. But it happened with such frequency that it freaked me out for a while, and then eventually I just stopped being surprised by it. The episode would come on and I'd think, Of course this is the episode they air today – I was just thinking of that joke.

Flash forward many years later. I no longer own a TV. I still watch The Simpsons on Hulu, but not reruns. One night, because I'm a goofball that way, I had the thought of announcing on Facebook that I was going to change my name to Bill Plimpton. I dunno, I just thought it sounded funny. But before I wrote it, I had the thought that maybe there was someone out there actually named Bill Plimpton, so I Googled it. Sure enough, there is a Bill Plympton, who is an Oscar-award-winning animator.

A few days later, I logged on to Hulu to watch that week's episode of The Simpsons. The couch gag was really weird, and quite long, with a very distinct animation style. At the end of the gag, a signature draws itself on the screen: Bill Plympton. My jaw dropped. No. Freaking. Way:

Now, I'm not a superstitious person. Those really are just freaky coincidences. Such things do occasionally happen, after all – probability dictates that improbable things do happen from time to time. But I think that both my "prediction" of episodes and my improbable encounter with Bill Plympton are far more remarkable than the Christian charity depicted above.

One of the biases associated with psychic phenomena – and, I should emphatically add, prayer – is that people tend to dismiss the misses and only count the hits. Billions of people pray for all kinds of things every day. The vast majority of time, nothing happens. A friend of mine just posted on Facebook that a friend of hers needed prayer because her son has cancer, and while it had gone into remission it was now back with a vengeance. I've seen such things before, like the tragic story of Layla Grace. So God can give some deadbeat heroin addict a hundred bucks, but he won't help a kid with cancer?

George Carlin famously summarized the stupidity of the whole endeavor:
Pray for anything you want. Pray for anything, but what about the Divine Plan?
Remember that? The Divine Plan. Long time ago, God made a Divine Plan. Gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the Divine Plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along, and pray for something. Well suppose the thing you want isn't in God's Divine Plan? What do you want Him to do? Change His plan? Just for you? Doesn't it seem a little arrogant? It's a Divine Plan. What's the use of being God if every run-down shmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can come along and fuck up Your Plan?
And here's something else, another problem you might have: Suppose your prayers aren't answered. What do you say? "Well, it's God's will." "Thy Will Be Done." Fine, but if it's God's will, and He's going to do what He wants to anyway, why the fuck bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn't you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will? It's all very confusing.

This is all just confirmation bias. But another problem is that people tend to be really bad at estimating probabilities. One of my favorite YouTube users (who's been disappointingly quiet for a long time), 'Qualia Soup', did a fantastic video on this phenomenon:

There's yet another problem with the video, though: atheists can't pray – at least not with a modicum of sincerity. You can't pray to something you do not think actually exists. An atheist would see prayer as futile, and could only engage in it cynically. I can accept that this guy had felt disconnected from his religion, but he clearly had some degree of religious faith. And the fact that some guy gave him a small amount of money the next day really is just a friggin' coincidence, just like my discovery of Bill Plympton was not evidence that I have psychic powers.

13 November 2013

Ted Cruz's dad on how atheism leads to child molestation

Senator/dillhole Ted Cruz is an apple that evidently did not fall far from the tree. His father, Rafael Cruz, recently spoke here in Oklahoma and told an audience of gun nuts that atheism leads to sexual abuse:
Let’s look, for example, at the behavioral consequences of these two foundations.Well, if there is nothing, if there is no God, then we are ruled by our instincts. There is no moral absolute, which means we operate by situational ethics.
Of course, when there are no moral absolutes leads us to sexual immorality, leads us to sexual abuse, leads us to perversion and, of course, no hope. No hope!

You hear that, atheists?! No hope! No hope for you!

Well, here's the problem with that whole "God gives us moral absolutes" thing: nobody has direct, objective access to the mind of God. At best, even if (for the sake of discussion) we were to grant that the Christian God is real and does indeed have a standard of moral absolutes, God's messages are inevitably filtered through ordinary human beings who tend to not agree on exactly what God is, how God does things, and what God wants from us – much less how God wants us to treat each other.

The whole "moral absolutes" canard is just a shell game that results in a bunch of idiots shouting that their God told them this or they think the Bible clearly says that while some other bunch of idiots shouts that God told them the complete opposite and the Bible clearly shouldn't be interpreted that way.

In the end, the more liberal Christians end up engaging in morality as an exercise in applied rationality just like the atheists and secularists and then mold the Bible into whatever they want, while all the Pat Robertsons and Rafael Cruzes of the world end up looking like nutjobs.  

Novella on skepticism

Skepticism is about the serious business of doing science, which combines open-minded curiosity with rigorous methodology. Of course what happens is that whenever skeptics point out a lack of rigorous methodology the true believer claims that we are trying to kill their curiosity.
– From Steve Novella

He's talking about Deepak Chopra's penchant for pseudoscience, but I think it's an apt description of theologians as well.

10 November 2013

Toward a science of morality?

I listened with great interest during the recent exchange between Lawrence Krauss, Dan Dennett, and Massimo Pigliucci, particularly the section in which they discussed the increasingly popular thesis (at least among popular gnu atheists) that morality can be a science – that it has objectively right and wrong answers that can at least in principle be answered by empirical data.

I capped this off with a read of Richard Carrier's take on it*, as well as Pigliucci's responses to Carrier over at Rationally Thinking. It's likely that none of these conversations would be occurring without Sam Harris' controversial book The Moral Landscape. I've always been intrigued by Harris' ideas, but being a bit of a novice myself on the whole meta-ethics thing, I can only really take what seems the most sensible to me. For the most part, I've agreed with folks like Harris, Carrier, and Michael Shermer, and I confess that I've been a bit dismissive toward people like Piglucci; I often felt they didn't quite grasp the argument. But I've picked up on some nuances in the discussion that I think pose challenging questions. I don't pretend to have the answers, but I can at least illustrate why I'm leaning in the direction that I am.

The big question up for debate is whether moral questions are scientific questions. If they are, then questions like this...
  • In a crisis that causes a hospital to overflow with patients, how should patients be prioritized, and how many resources ought to be devoted to each person?
  • Is it right for me to pursue my career to ensure greater financial stability for my family, but in doing so sacrifice the amount of time I will be able to spend with them?
  • Is collateral damage justified in war, and to what extent?
 .... all have objectively correct answers that can be answered empirically.

I'm inclined to part ways with Carrier, Harris and Shermer and side with Pigliucci in that while I think moral dilemmas must by informed by science, it's misguided to think that moral reasoning is itself a science. That's because of a simple problem which Pigliucci highlights in his response to Carrier:
The reason all of this is relevant is because I agree with Carrier when he says — as part of his argument about why science answers moral questions — that “all imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.” But there are still differences between hypotheticals, so just because one can make a parallel between a moral imperative (if you want to maximize human flourishing then these actions are “right”) and an empirical imperative (if you want to grow your crops then you need this kind of soil) it doesn’t follow that ethics is a branch of science.
The main reason, as I see it, why ethics cannot be a science is that while I acknowledge that moral values exist (as abstractions, at least), objective moral truths do not exist independently of the concern of conscious creatures. So while one can draw a perfectly sensible analogy like the old "surgeon" one (which I am paraphrasing) repeated by both Harris and Carrier – which simply states that a surgeon concerned with maximizing the well-being of their patients ought to sterilize their equipment – it doesn't follow that we should assume that the surgeon ought to be concerned with the well-being of their patients. And I'm not raising that objection because of the possibility that the surgeon in question is a Nazi doctor or some such thought experiment – I think Harris pretty well tackled those type of objections in his book. Rather, I'm raising that objection because there is no empirically discoverable ought in nature. It's not a part of our external reality. Moral proscriptions, or 'how we ought to behave', only arise from the interrelated concerns of conscious creatures living in cooperative social hierarchies in which the moral behavior is seen as an end to some other goal.

Harris himself famously describes this goal as the "well-being of conscious creatures". He views that as intrinsic to the very definition of morality. I think he's right. Carrier by contrast describes the goal as maximal self-satisfaction. Both maintain that these (well-being and self-satisfaction) are empirically knowable facts about human beings. And I think that while in practice quantifying self-satisfaction or well-being is probably a pipe, in principle it's true that they are empirical facts. Carrier goes on to argue that desire for self-satisfaction is also an empirical fact of conscious minds. So by the moral realist account of these gentleman, we can come up with this sort of empirical chain of events:
  • Humans desire satisfaction and well-being, which can at least in principle be quantified
  • Humans live in cooperative social hierarchies in which their own needs and interests intersect with those of others [that's my own]
  • There are objectively correct ways to best maximize satisfaction and well-being to the benefit of all
Now, to the degree that these gentleman would say that moral reasoning must be informed by science, I'm totally on board. But I still don't think these kinds of ideas succeed in establishing morality itself as a science, it is simply not a fact of science that we ought to value satisfaction, well-being, or even our mere survival. There are no oughts in nature – we're just meatbags on a rock in space whose existence is but an imperceptible blip on the cosmic scale. And while our common humanity ensures a degree of commonality on how we define those concepts, there will still be variance and outright statistical outliers. So being able to quantify well-being or self-satisfaction does not ensure any sort of universal acceptance of the terms; we could just as well find that humans vary great in terms of what satisfies them or what they envision as well-being.

So I don't think that the moral realists have achieved their goal of establishing morality as a science. But so the hell what? Frankly, I don't really understand why there seems to be such a desire to do so; I think moral reason functions just fine without being scientific in nature, and even if it were truly a science, do we really think such data would help us resolve questions like the three above in any real-life circumstance? Part of the dilemma is that even if we could define satisfaction and well-being quantitatively, we have to know the possible consequences of our actions to make moral decisions. That's what moral reasoning is: weighing the consequences of various scenarios and choosing the one we feel best suits our goals. But we mortals can't actually know which of the possible consequences will be the case, so we cannot predict which moral actions actually would maximize satisfaction or well-being.

Fortunately, I don't think there's any need for morality to be a science. That's because moral values aren't rigid ideals of unimpeachable behavior, but guidelines we use to facilitate our lives as self-interested, empathetic creatures living in a cooperative social hierarchy. We recognize that if we want others to respect our own needs and interests, we must in turn respect their needs and interests. These guidelines can and do change as our cultures evolve, precisely because they are not objective, absolute truths but shared values that facilitate our cooperative, interdependent existence.

*I just have to say, after reading Carrier's essay and his replies to critics and skeptics, that not since the incorrigible David Marshall have I encountered someone so incessantly patronizing and antagonistic towards their interlocutors while displaying such an appalling degree of egomaniacal grandstanding. It's disappointing that someone who actually does have some interesting things to say on the subject is such a petulant dickwad. This is not the first time I've seen such behavior from Carrier, and indeed perusing his blog reveals his childish behavior to be the norm. Shame that someone right on many counts and otherwise perfectly intelligent is so utterly insufferable. Right or wrong, he has a lot to learn about charitable debate. 

06 November 2013

Tristan Vick is tearing apart The Swedish Atheist

Okay, so, y'know how I was doing this review of Randal Rauser's book? Well, I got a new guitar, Battlefield 4 on my totally sweet gaming PC, and I've been spending more time thinking on more broad (and to me, more interesting) philosophical issues. I watched a great talk between Massimo Pigliucci, Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss that has spurred some deep thought and inspired some new content that I'll have up soon.

Long story short, I haven't really had the interest to finish Randal's book. It's yet another apologetics book, for crying out loud. How many of these stupid books do I really need to waste my time on? Besides, if I've learned anything, it's that after I take the time to read and deconstruct one book, some theist will come along and tell me that of course I shouldn't have wasted time on that book, because such-and-such book is the really sophisticated one. There's no winning with some sheeple.

In any case, the mighty Tristan Vick has done a really, really superb and thorough job of deconstructing Randal's book, so much so that I'm not really sure what more I could really add. If you're in the mood to hear an atheist put a professional theologian to shame, definitely read his entries on it.

Meanwhile, I'm interested in talking about the value of semantics in philosophical discussions, nonscientific elements of moral reasoning, and how philosophy and science intersect. Not apologetics, really.

Here's the talk I mentioned. Long, but well worth every minute.

02 November 2013

Do you really need to wash produce before you eat it?

I'm curious about something. We generally take it as a given that we should wash produce before we eat it. But I've never actually seen any evidence that washing produce at home makes it safer to eat. I'm highly skeptical that rinsing produce under cool water would be sufficient to wash away bacteria or pesticide residue in the first place, and I have never seen any evidence that ingesting trace amounts of (most) bacteria or pesticide residue produces any long-term health consequence.

In the cases where bacteria has contaminated produce, it's either inside the produce itself or washing isn't enough to get rid of the bacteria (case in point: surface-contaminated bean sprouts). It seems like most regulations deal with the handling of produce before it's shipped, and I can't find a lick of research that shows that washing produce at home improves food safety at all. Google Scholar and PubMed were dry, mostly with studies about food safety in third world countries. All I could find was this:


Anyone know any more about this? Any actual evidence that it's not a waste of time to wash produce?