18 January 2014

A quick word about The A-Unicornist Facebook page.

Once upon a time, I thought a Facebook page would be a cool way to attract new readers to the blog and help people keep up with new posts.

Facebook has been integrating some new strategies to help monetize pages. First, for a fee, they'll promote your page so that you can get more 'likes'. I don't think there's anything wrong with that – it's just basic advertising. But then they do something sneaky. Once you've got all those 'likes', you can expect posts to engage, based on my experience managing several pages (including the page for my personal training business) roughly 10-15% of that audience. And by "engage", I mean that your posts actually show up in people's news feeds.

If you want to engage your full audience – y'know, all the people that you paid to advertise to and who decided your page was interesting enough to follow – you have to pay Facebook again. Every time I post something to the A-Unicornist page, I'm prompted with an option to promote the post. For anywhere from $5 to, well, as much as I want to spend, I can pay for my post to reach my subscribers. If that sounds a little shitty and shady, that's because it is. As a content creator, I'm basically getting charged twice: to gain an audience, then to deliver content to that audience. Case in point:

This pops up on my page, and if I click it, I'm taken here:
... where I'm prompted to pay Facebook for "reach".

Well, I have found promoting my personal training business through Facebook to be mostly a waste of money. Google advertising in my local area was vastly more successful in getting good leads, even though it's more expensive. And since I don't actually make any money at all off of this blog, there's no way in hell that I'm actually going to pay money (twice!) to promote my content.

The best way to follow the blog remains the old-fashioned ways: bookmarks and RSS feeds.

17 January 2014

Is there new evidence we live in a holographic universe? Don't get too excited.

I know I'm a bit late commenting on this one, but there was a story floating around the interwebs a few weeks back claiming that there was new evidence that the universe is a holographic projection, bringing to mind (of course) one of the greatest modern metal albums in existence. My admittedly lazy investigation pinpoints a story from Nature.com as the source, which was parroted around by a variety of other websites. From the article:

[Theoretical physicist Juan] Maldacena's idea thrilled physicists because it offered a way to put the popular but still unproven theory of strings on solid footing — and because it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum physics and Einstein's theory of gravity. It provided physicists with a mathematical Rosetta stone, a 'duality', that allowed them to translate back and forth between the two languages, and solve problems in one model that seemed intractable in the other and vice versa (see 'Collaborative physics: String theory finds a bench mate'). But although the validity of Maldacena's ideas has pretty much been taken for granted ever since, a rigorous proof has been elusive.
In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Maldacena’s conjecture is true.

Well, hold on just a second here. We go on to learn that the "evidence" is just a mathematical model. And don't get me wrong, a mathematical model is an important thing in physics; it may be an important step toward String Theory making some bona-fide falsifiable predictions. But I'm reminded of something Sean Carroll often says: mathematics only tells us the consequences of axioms; it can't tell us which of those axioms actually correspond to reality. That's why physics is an empirical endeavor – if you just "solve" your way to the secrets of the universe, there'd be no need to build multi-billion-dollar particle colliders.

The fact that this "evidence" is really nothing more than a mathematical conjecture is really driven home by this rather huge caveat nonchalantly tacked into the tail-end of the article:
Neither of the model universes explored by the Japanese team resembles our own, Maldacena notes. The cosmos with a black hole has ten dimensions, with eight of them forming an eight-dimensional sphere. The lower-dimensional, gravity-free one has but a single dimension, and its menagerie of quantum particles resembles a group of idealized springs, or harmonic oscillators, attached to one another.
They're cool ideas, but until they produce something testable, that's all they are.  But at least we still have this:

15 January 2014

Eight totally non-polemic books you should read to be a better atheist (or to learn about atheism)

I spied a link today in which the venerable Neil deGrasse Tyson lists eight books "every intelligent person should read". So I thought to myself, Hey, what's so great about this Neil deGrasse Tyson guy anyway? Then I snapped out of such foolishness, but still realized that I've read plenty of great books myself that have made me a more learned non-believer.

I have a caveat though: I've excluded polemics, like the famous "new atheist" books The God Delusion (Dawkins), God is Not Great (Hitchens), or The End of Faith (Harris). I don't think there's anything wrong with polemics, and you can bet that those authors have a place in my library. But the truth is that honestly don't feel like I learned that much about atheism from polemics. My non-belief was influenced more by Stephen Hawking than by any new atheists, and my education on key issues related to atheism have come almost exclusively from books dedicated to science. It's my view that atheism is not a starting point to some kind of materialistic worldview, but rather an outcome of rational thought and critical inquiry. With that in mind, it's worth building a solid foundation of science and philosophy with some well-chosen books. Here are eight of my favorites.

1. Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer

Pascal Boyer is an anthropologist who is Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University. Religion Explained takes a cognitive and anthropological approach to studying why we have religious beliefs, how they are formed, why certain beliefs flourish while others pass out of existence, and the utility that religion serves in social hierarchies (including how it informs moral norms). It's almost overwhelmingly thorough, and I loved it because of how incisively it breaks misconceptions that even non-believers have about religion. Think people are religious because it's a way of explaining profound philosophical or existential questions, or because it gives them comfort? Think again. Boyer's forays into cognitive science take some careful reading, but he takes the time to explain his thesis thoroughly and review key concepts before new ones are introduced. It's not the easiest read, but given the scope of the material it's exceptionally well-done.

2. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking should need no introduction, nor should this modern classic on theoretical physics. As one might expect with a book on such an esoteric and difficult subject, it's slow reading; and it's almost a running joke that lots of people have bought A Brief History of Time, but not actually read it. Hawking injects his exposition with plenty of analogies and a healthy dose of humor, but it's still difficult to digest it all, particularly with only one reading. However, where it really gets interesting is in chapter 8: The Origin and Fate of the Universe, in which Hawking tackles some of the biggest questions of all. Having been raised to believe in God, the biggest "gotcha" we could toss at non-believers always seemed to be: If there's no God, where did the universe come from? At the risk of a minor spoiler, Hawking doesn't give an answer. But he does show that it's a question that can be explored scientifically, and that we don't need to assume that "God did it" is some sort of default explanation.

3. Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Richard Dawkins is undoubtedly known most among atheists and Christian apologists as the face of evolution, but it's this provocative book from cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett that delves into the real religious and philosophical implications of evolution. Most notably, it's the loss of teleology, or purpose, that makes evolution such an uncomfortable fact for even liberal theologians. Evolution removes human beings from any privileged place among the animals, and its nonrandom selection of randomly varying genes shows that if we were to start the clock of evolution from the beginning again, all probability is that the resulting biodiversity would not even include humans at all. Quite simply, evolution is not a process designed to produce humans. Dennett later expounds on the evolutionary origins of morality and proposes a naturalistic, rather than divinely-imbued, view of ethics and purpose.

4. Knocking on Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall

 Lisa Randall is a physicist at Harvard to whom I was introduced with her mind-bending book Warped Passages when I read it in 2009. This is her latest book as of this writing, which serves as both a nice primer on the state of theoretical physics and a great overview of epistemology. The book is informative and clearly written (as with A Brief History of Time, books on theoretical physics can be tough for laypersons to absorb), and while its explanation of recent developments in physics and their practical implications is certainly gripping, I most loved this book for Randal's provocative admonishment of magical thinking and her provocative thesis on the importance of science in rational thought. It's not the type of convoluted epistemology you're prone to trip over in discussions of Kant or Descartes; it's concise, clear, and most importantly informed by our modern understanding of the universe.

5. Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff

If you're after a reflection on the epistemological speculations of Western philosophy's most famous thinkers, Randall's book won't suffice. But Philosophy in the Flesh certainly does, and it's as well-written and well-argued as it is ballsy. Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, argues that modern developments in cognitive science have demonstrated much of Western philosophy to be wrong; that while the great philosophers often correctly identified important conundrums, they lacked the means to properly test their theses. The Cartesian person of dualistic natures, the Kantian autonomous person, the utilitarian and phenomenological persons, the Chomskyan syntactic person – are all non-existent. The mind is inherently embodied, abstractions are metaphorical constructs arising from the mind (contra Platonic realism), and much of reasoning is unconscious – rendering a priori introspection a futile model for understanding the self and reality.

6. Primates and Philosophers by Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal has gotten to be fairly well-known among non-believers in recent years, and even stirred up some controversy for his admonishment of vocal atheists (despite being a non-believer himself). But regardless of his personal views, he's done some extraordinary work in studying what, exactly, morality really is and how it evolved. Primates and Philosophers is one of his more accessible works, bogged down a bit by essays from some colleagues and critics that seem superfluous. But the central thesis is vital: morality is not some sort of transcendent or objective set of rigid ideals, but a means by which social-living creatures cooperate for mutual benefit. We have evolved as interdependent individuals living in a complex social hierarchy, with moral norms serving as a mechanism that allows us to cooperate and thrive. De Waal rebuts the thesis that morality is a triumph of human reason, arguing instead that it is an evolution of more primitive social behaviors in our evolutionary ancestors that can still be observed in our modern evolutionary cousins today.

7. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

It's a common sentiment that as our society has become more technologically advanced and more socially crowded and interdependent, we as a species have been in a downward spiral of self-destructive violence. Pinker's almost overwhelmingly detailed book can be roughly divided into two sections: one, showing that sentiment to be wrong – humans are living in the most peaceful era in all our existence, with the statistical likelihood of violent death at an all-time global low. And two, his thesis as to why this has happened. While many a Christian I have encountered like to credit their religion with civilizing human society, the truth is that most of this civilizing process occurred despite the influence of religion, and religion has molded and adapted itself to the needs of modern humans – not vice versa. Understanding the social constructs underpinning our behavior is an invaluable insight into debunking the perceived utility of religion, and Better Angels makes a great companion to Boyer's cognitive and anthropological exposition in Religion Explained.

8. Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman

Since so much importance is placed by Christians upon the words of Jesus, it behooves us to understand just how the records of those words were produced. Christian apologists would have us believe that Jesus' words were meticulously remembered through oral tradition, then meticulously copied by highly skilled scribes such that we have thoroughly reliable accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. The truth, Ehrman argues, is far different – the New Testament transcripts were copied mostly by amateurs, and the copies are rife with contradictions, errors, omissions, and additions. Many widely celebrated texts held as infallible truths by believers are in fact belated additions tacked on to ancient tales. It's not that this is a secret among New Testament scholars, but it's Ehrman's insight into textual criticism that proves most troubling for Christianity. If we're to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, it's certainly harder to accept that claim when it's difficult to know exactly what those words were really intended to be in the first place.

11 January 2014

Hey atheist! Go read ________!

One of the most reliable hallmarks of debating with a theist is that sooner or later they're going to tell you to read some book or listen to some lecture or watch some film that, in their mind, fully supports their argument. It doesn't matter how well-read you are, because with many thousands if not millions of books arguing for a litany of theological views, there's always something out there that we haven't read.

In years past I spent countless posts countering arguments used by apologists like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Eventually I was told, by several theists, that those guys weren't the really sophisticated theologians; I needed to study Thomism via guys like Ed Feser. I did, and found it to be as much a waste of time as any other line of theological thought. My fault, I was told, for not reading more of it and understanding it properly. As long as you disagree, you can never be well-read enough.

This evening, yet again, I was hit with this not once, but twice – first by someone who contact me via email claiming that the Shroud of Turin represents incontrovertible evidence of the Resurrection (emphasis mine):
I'm not surprised that a straight picture of Jesus Christ before there was a camera doesn't convince people, the same reason you swear logic and reason doesn't sway most believers. People believe what they want all the time, regardless of facts.
The Resurrection is a poorly supported doctrine? A question begging epithet, or non-evidenced assumption. Try "The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach" by Michael Licona, it has a recommendation from Yale, good evidence for the Resurrection without the Shroud.
This of course isn't the first time I've been told to read this book or that, and tonight I was even challenged by Randal Rauser to debunk, in the format of a comments section of a blog post, an entire field of religious thought encompassing dozens of possible points of view:

These kind of tactics are remarkably commonplace in my debates with theists, and I always find them to be ludicrous for the same reasons.

It's a given that none of us have the same background or education. We've all got a different perspective – however slight – formed from our unique experiences, education and critical self-reflection. The entire purpose of public discourse is to bring these perspectives together, with each interlocutor articulating his or her position as concisely and clearly as possible.

I don't know anything about the chap who contacted me via email. But Randal, for his part, is a professional theologian. Surely I'd be disappointed if I found that I was more widely read than he on various topics of theology and exegesis, since that is of course his field of expertise. But his education and experience ought to make it that much easier for him to concisely articulate the flaw in my objection and summarize why his particular point of view presents a more rational alternative. Instead, he challenges me to impugn an entire discipline of theology spanning centuries and about as many divergent viewpoints – as though if I am not as widely-read as he on this particular topic, I have no business making such objections. Those who've followed my discussions with Randal will not be surprised to see him stoop to this red herring yet again.

This tactic is designed not to clarify, share, and enlighten, but to stifle relevant skeptical inquiry and open public discourse. If one wishes to engage only with others who are comparatively read in the exact same topics, why engage in public discourse at all and not simply confine oneself to the enclave of Christian academia? I'm confident that I'm far more widely read than many Christian academics on science, philosophy of science, and secular philosophy; but you won't see me resorting to that as a crutch in our discussions (though, I ought to point out, the tactic certainly can be swung both ways).

When I participate in public discourse, I accept responsibility for articulating my own opinions clearly and concisely to the best of my ability. It's often said that if you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough. Apologists, it seems, revel in the esoteric ambiguities of academic theology and unless you are part of the enclave – in which case, you are already convinced! – you don't understand it well enough to question it. How convenient it must be not to have to justify one's opinions!

10 January 2014

Thoughts on Heaven

Some of you know that my hiatus is only a quasi-hiatus. Well, this week my fiance has been out of town and several of my clients have been sick, so I've had plenty of time to sit on my can at home. I've been chatting it up over on Randal's blog, and today I responded to a post of his on Heaven and I just wanted to re-post my comment here. One of the biggest problems with Christianity, as I see it, is that if you're not interested in what they're selling then they have nowhere to go. To me, the concept of Heaven is an incredibly incoherent, jumbled mess of a thing and there is nothing about it that appeals to me at all.

In any case, my response to his thoughts on whether there will be deaf people in Heaven. To me, the paradoxes raised by even such an innocuous-sounding question illustrate very well the absurdity of Heaven:
Why assume that the concept of "deaf" would even make sense in Heaven? Is there air in Heaven by which sound is transmitted? If there's air, does that mean there's atmospheric pressure?
I'm honestly not just trying to troll here. I just don't see any logical reason why a believer would assume that Heaven, which is a non-physical realm, would have physical properties. Much like Islam describing Heaven as being filled with milk and honey, it just seems like a natural inclination to infer our experiences into a realm that (assuming it exists) is utterly beyond current comprehension. Now perhaps there's something like sound, so everyone can still somehow listen to their favorite Creed album in Heaven. But it's not sound per se, so it all seems a bit jumbled.
These stairs look dangerous
I think your thesis has a couple of problems too, though. You make the distinction between primary cultural identity and a secondary qualifier, but you don't give a reason why the latter couldn't be experienced in Heaven aside from "no one wants to experience that kind of suffering in Heaven". Well sure, but perhaps someone who died of cancer decided to live life to the fullest in the last six months, had the best experiences of their life which became all the more monumental knowing that the finality of death loomed overhead, and wishes to experience them again. Or consider the photos that recently went viral of a man who recreated his wedding photos with his daughter after his wife died of cancer. While it was sad, it was also a beautiful moment between a father and daughter brought closer together in their grief.
That's one of the many reasons Heaven just does not appeal to me at all. Human experience is defined by suffering and tragedy every bit as much as pleasure and happiness, which Taoism and Confucianism recognize in Yin-Yang. I don't think "sweet melancholy" like you described in the book makes the cut. Our struggles and triumphs through loss, grief, depression, pain, and ultimately death shape who we are and make us appreciate what we have. It seems like in Heaven, with all of that essentially wiped away, we'd have lost something crucial to ourselves. And the only 'cure' would be to sort of "plug into the Matrix" and experience an illusion.

I think that your analogy also overlooks people who lose their hearing later in life. If I were in a terrible accident and lost my hearing, I'd be devastated. I'm a musician and a music lover. I'd be crushed knowing I could never play guitar, listen to my favorite Justin Bieber albums, or hear my fiance's voice. It's really only people who have been deaf for most or all of their lives who are so well-adapted, and that's because they really just don't remember any differently. It's like Morpheus said: we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.
And yes... that's two Matrix references in one post.