Monday, September 29, 2008

The Unknowable God

While I'm on the subject of agnosticism, it's not uncommon to see God depicted as unknowable or so far beyond human comprehensibility that we couldn't possibly make sense of God's will (this coincidentally happens to be around the same time some aspect of God is criticized).

Yet, in churches around the country, not only is God knowable, people assert a surprisingly large body of claims about God: he's male, he's white (if the speaker is white) or black (if the speaker is black), he created the universe/life on Earth, he punishes some and rewards others based on what they do or do not believe, he begat himself in human form and got himself crucified to atone for sin, he prohibits certain kinds of sex and certain kinds of food, he boldly makes his presence known through slightly burnt toast, he's responsible for certain hurricanes and other (super)natural disasters, he blesses and punishes whole countries, and some even go so far as to assert that they know which political party or candidate God endorses.

That God seems pretty darn knowable to me. His followers stop just short of listing his favorite color.

So what gives? I thought God was unknowable and couldn't be comprehended by our feeble human minds.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Atheism and Agnosticism

This has long been a frustrating issue for me personally, because it seems the general public has a very poor grasp of the terms and wrangling over them is quite a pastime among atheists, it's basically the atheist version of the hat dance. In particular, there are a few train wrecks floating around in the blogosphere about it, like this one.

So I'd like to take a few minutes to explain what they mean and help clear up misconceptions.

Among the public, it's not uncommon to see atheism defined as dogmatically "denying" God and agnostics defined as metaphysical fence-sitters who give equal credence to both atheist and theist claims.


In actuality, it's really very simple.

Do you believe in a god?
Theist: Yes
Atheist: No

Can one know whether a god or gods exist?
Gnostic: Yes
Agnostic: No

(author's note: I'm using "gnostic" here as a polar opposite of agnosticism for convenience's sake. The belief that God can be/is known has generally been expected as a default belief of the religious group, and therefore a separate terminology has never really been needed)

It gets a little trickier than just that, because the more observant reader might respond, "Which god are we talking about here?" Are we talking about the Christian god or the Deist god or the Greek gods? Further, shouldn't "God" be properly defined before I answer? Excellent points, and I wholly agree. But assume for the moment that your generic, all-powerful creator God is meant.

Atheism is about belief, agnosticism is about knowledge. Since they answer different questions, they're not necessary mutually exclusive. In actuality, agnosticism is not a third path between atheism and theism. Either you buy into theistic claims or you don't. If you do, you're a theist. If you don't you're an atheist. You might be agnostic in addition to being theistic or atheistic, but you can't define yourself as a non-theist non-atheist any more than you can pick a creamer that isn't dairy or non-dairy. Whatever your stance may be, at the end of the day, you either worship and believe in a god or you don't. Atheism is merely a broad category of people who take the latter approach. (Right about here is where the hate mail floods in from people who aren't theists but intensely dislike the atheism label, often narrowly defining atheism with traits they dislike, like atheism's perceived arrogance or alleged god-denying omniscience)

Think about it this way: do you believe in unicorns? Nope? Well, do you know whether or not they exist? You have at least two options here: You could claim to not know for sure whether or not unicorns exist, but you don't believe in their existence, at least not without solid evidence that they do exist.

Another option is that you could claim that you know that unicorns don't exist because the surface of the Earth has been pretty thoroughly mapped out with no unicorns in sight. But then the unicorn believers claim that unicorns are adept hiders who only reveal themselves to the faithful, or exist in an alternate dimension and only project themselves into our world for a brief time, etc, etc. Wow, you're quite the arrogant sod for claiming you know they don't exist, aren't you? And thus, you're forced to concede the possibility, however slight, after being bombarded with a series of increasingly unfalsifiable and dubious claims. Meanwhile, unicorn believers are quite free claim to "know" unicorns exist without much examination. Dreams, football victories, natural disasters, and unicorn-shaped toast are all taken as proof of unicorns. That's essentially how existence of God arguments play out - double standards galore.

As for myself, my own views closely match agnostic atheism. I don't "know" whether or not gods exist, but I don't have a single good reason to suppose that any of them do exist, so I'm functionally atheistic regarding any conceivable god. But show me credible evidence to the contrary and I might change my mind.

Is this arrogant atheism? Hardly. What is arrogant is blind belief in a god parading itself as informed by knowledge when it clearly isn't.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dark Flow

I love a good scientific discovery, but oh man, this is just plain weird.

Dark Flow

Apparently, some star clusters are moving towards a region in the sky as if by gravity, but nothing we know of in the observable universe could conceivably be responsible. It's as if there's something outside the observable universe pulling them there.

Now, it's important to understand that the observable universe isn't necessarily the totality of the universe - there may be lots of matter out there that we can't see yet because it's so distant that its light hasn't made it here yet.

But still this is a pretty amazing and bizarre discovery.

In my geekiness, I'm tempted to call this the Beyonder Force. :D

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ghosts: the only logical explaination for anything strange

101 signs that you've encountered a ghost

Written by a "clairvoyant advisor" from, so you just know the advice is bound to be deliciously bad.

Apparently, any unusual or strange phenomenon at all (ranging from unexplained foul odors to daily screams in the distance) is a good indicator that ghosts are afoot. Even your nephew's imaginary friend is probably the bodiless soul of someone who died and now wanders the Earth spooking people. Nothing else could possibly make more sense than that, right?

And the list even has really freaky stuff like your house's walls bleeding, talking to your dead grandma on the telephone, and seeing someone at the mall who doesn't have a face. Oooh, spooky! face? Seriously??

Most of the "ghostly" activity people report seems wholly explicable (if sometimes a bit unnerving). For instance, I've seen a rocking chair rock by itself, and doors blow open and shut, and I've heard newspapers rustle without anyone else nearby. It's called the wind.

And it's interesting just how quickly people just to ghost explanations when there's a near infinite number of potential supernatural or mythological beings that are equally reasonable to assume. Why can't demons be blamed for the bloody wall? Or rearranged furniture be the work of mischievous fairies? The culprit is whatever the person imagines it to be. And for about a third of the American public, that culprit is a ghost.

So watch out fair reader, for the next time you get a unexpected massage from someone who isn't there, it might be a ghost! o_O

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Spore Review

If you're not living under a rock, you already know most of what I'm going to say. Let me put this very simply: I love this game. It has some flaws (like DRM, which only lets you install 3 times until you have to phone up the company and beg them for more) but it's still amazing. It's just incredibly fun to play, and the humor is great.

Cell Phase

Plays like: FlOw

The good: You get to swim around in a primordial pool teeming with life. It's very beautiful.

The bad: Most of that life is MUCH bigger than you and is determined to eat you. For every creature you can beat up on, there are 5 that could easily own up your zooplankton behind. Your only option is to get on land ASAP.

Creature Phase

The good: This is my favorite phase, hands down. You start out as a single individual of your species on a vast, unexplored continent. You can periodically come back to the nest for healing and mating. As you explore, you encounter the nests of other species, and you can then choose to mercilessly exterminate them or complete a bunch of emasculating and somewhat tedious befriending games with them. I chose the exterminate path and had a blast leading my warband and carving swaths of destruction with them.

The bad: It takes a long time to unlock all the upgrades, tier 1 walking is painfully slow (so upgrade fast!), and sometimes other species' nests are hard to get to when they're on hills, anything more than a 10 degree incline is apparently beyond your species' ability.

Tribal Phase

The good: As a fledgling tribe, you get a small camp to build up, and a handful of troops to command. Similar to the creature stage, you can either exterminate or befriend your rivals with instruments. If you befriend another tribe they'll periodically send over some food, and the spectacle is adorable (plus the Mariachi music is hilarious! :D)

You really have to be on your guard on this one, as at least one of the 4 other tribes will attack you aggressively. Fortunately, the combat is pretty easy.

The bad: At max pop, there are sometimes pathing issues. I made the mistake of telling my army to eat up all at once and a couple of them (including the chieftain) got stuck somehow and almost starved. And if you made a non-humanoid creature, it's quite hard to dress them up in tribal gear. Putting a grass skirt on a centipede-like monstrosity is quite the challenge.

Civilization Phase

Plays like: a scaled-down version of Command and Conquer

The good: As a fledgling city-state, you have to conquer/purchase/convert enemy cities to win. If you go military, it's extremely easy, you can just tank-spam the entire continent to death fairly quickly, then build airplanes to quickly demolish any cities that aren't on your starting continent. Converting isn't much more difficult, but it seems to take a little longer (but makes up for it with the menacing hologram). I haven't figured out purchasing yet, so I don't know about that.

The bad: It's a little too easy, especially considering how difficult some of the other phases are. (see below)

Space Phase

Plays like: A space version of Civ 4 set to deity difficulty.

The Good: Here it is, the big enchilada. The endgame. The sandbox. And for the most part, it's extremely well done for something this immense in scale. You get to command whole planets and fight wars on a galactic scale, and battling other spaceships on the planets is incredibly fun, as well as the struggle to unlock the huge array of badges and powers. But since it's 90+% of your gametime, its flaws are extremely noticeable and persistent.

The Bad: It's not really much of sandbox when you keep getting hit up with missions all the time. And even worse, many of them are timed missions. Whether it's an ecological disaster (with a 3-minute timer), one of the frequent pirate raids, a Grox attack, one of your allies under attack, etc, you are guaranteed to be nearly ceaselessly occupied with crisis after crisis, with little time to explore or even figure out how to play this phase.

The enemy empires are extremely aggressive, right off the bat. I had several nearby empires demand tribute constantly (with ever-increasing demands). Eventually, they gave up on the charade and attacked me. I also had empires that I hadn't even heard of yet declare jihad on my species (the religion aspect of the game really is pretty annoying, with a surprisingly large percentage of alien races acting like a cross between the Ur-Quan and a drunk Mel Gibson). Almost immediately after one attack was fended off, there would be another one, and they had huge empires in comparison to mine.

Terraforming: unless you have all the cool terraforming powers, it's extremely long, hard, and expensive to make any T3 colonies. The learning curve is pretty rough, so I had a tough time stabilizing the ecosystems with the right plants and creatures.

Money: there's never enough of it. All you get is spice, but trading it only gets you a few thousand. Meanwhile, you're practically guaranteed to have ginormous rebuilding bills for all your constantly-attacked planets in the upwards of hundreds of thousands. You get broke and you stay broke.

Lastly, and this is a minor criticism compared to the other stuff: the ship's tracker isn't very good. Sure, you get an audible ping and a fairly ambiguous arrow every few seconds, but it's not especially helpful. It'd be nice to get a colored trail to the object or at least get your target highlighted on the screen, but that doesn't happen, so it's a squint-fest hunting for the barely visible critter you desperately need for your colony's biosphere (all while being bombarded with missions to defend your empire or timed ecological disaster missions).

So, unless you're a masochist or have access to some excellent cheat codes (I bit the bullet and used the money cheat relentlessly), you might want to stay away from the space phase until it gets patched up to something playable.

Final Grade: A-

Despite all my complaining, I really did love this game to pieces. For the immensity of what it tries to do, it does most of them extremely well. And the deluge of user-created content is great. I love seeing my old creations roaming the myriad worlds of the Spore universe.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The End of the World - Day 2

The end is nigh.

I went over to the local gas station yesterday night and it was jammed pack full of cars. I didn't think anything of it at first, I just thought it was a busy but normal day. Oh man, was I wrong.

Apparently, the hurricane headed for Texas caused them to temporarily shut down their oil refineries. And news of this sent consumers into a paroxysm of panic and fuel hoarding. So everybody and their mother was at the gas station yesterday, pumping every last drop of black gold into their hummers. It wasn't long after that the station ran out of gas entirely. The lingering sense of fear and chaos was incredible, it was like something out of Asimov's Nightfall.

So today: no gas at all. Not a drop anywhere that I know of nearby.

I was fortunate to be clairvoyant enough to still have 2/3 of a tank left on my surprisingly fuel-efficient car, so I think I'll outlast whatever stupidity-inducing crisis is currently plaguing my fellow Americans. But if this keeps up, it might get pretty nasty out there. I really don't want to wake up tomorrow and see something like this:

Update: Gas was mostly restored a day or two later, but there were sporadic shortages and a price increase of 40-50 cents practically overnight. :/

Friday, September 12, 2008

Liberal Christians

This might seem strange coming from an avowed atheist, but I really do feel a sort of kinship with liberal Christians. Unlike their conservative or fundamentalist brethren, liberal Christians do not advocate rejecting reason and science in deference to faith and don't try to force their beliefs on others. To the contrary, they are often in the same trenches as us atheists, fighting for religious freedom and sharply opposing religious extremism and violence. They try very hard to meld Christianity with secularism, human rights, and religious pluralism. Liberal Christians and atheists tend to agree on many social issues, and only differ significantly on religious matters.

But oh what a difference it is! Criticisms abound: that liberal Christians provide cover for fundamentalism by praising and defending the concept of faith, that they often decry legitimate criticism of religion and religious practices as "intolerance", thereby protecting it from being confronted, and that they cherrypick the Bible while simultaneously calling it the word of God. Also, it's not uncommon to notice an atheist suggest that since liberal Christians take much of the Bible figuratively, it suggests that they don't truly believe in the Bible.

However well intentioned they may be, I of course am relatively certain that liberal Christians' religious views are wrong. And however level-headed they may be on all other topics, they still ultimately believe a lot of superstitions and absurdities, like God, miracles, and the afterlife. My main objection to their views is that they try to update superstitious stuff, stuff that didn't even fare well to a skeptical eye in its own time, and bring it into the 21st century as a reasonable belief. And such things involve a torturous reworking of beliefs (hell isn't really hell, Eden wasn't really Eden, and Jesus was a liberal) and redefinition of terms (Christian means being Christ-like, therefore many non-Christians are Christians). I've seen one person say that God is love, so believing in love is the same thing as believing in God. Or that whatever one believes is bigger than oneself is that person's God.

And honestly, it's somewhat unnerving to see otherwise brilliant people's brains turn to mush when the subject of religion comes up. For example, Francis Collins, a geneticist who allegedly saw a frozen waterfall which convinced him of God's existence.

But, for good or bad, these people make up a large portion of the general public. And since they oppose fundamentalist attacks on both science and secular governance just as much as atheists do, we really ought to keep working together for the common good, because honestly, neither group would be able to stop fundamentalism alone.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Poll: 9/11 caused by US gov, Israel

Today is the 7th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, and it's irritating to see that apparently significant portions of many countries still favor conspiracy theory version of events.

36% of respondents in Turkey, and 30% in Mexico believe that the U.S. government staged the attacks. Yeah, apparently some folks at the Pentagon thought it would be fun to blow up the Pentagon. Makes perfect sense.

Meanwhile, 43% of respondents in Egypt, 31% in Jordan and 19% in Palestine think it was Israel. Let's think about this: jews decided to blow up a financial building in New York City, the city with the largest jewish population in the entire United States. Uggh.

I remember when 9/11 happened. I actually had read a lot about Al Qaeda beforehand because of the devastating embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and then-President Clinton's retaliatory airstrike on a suspected terrorist camp in Afghanistan, so after the second plane hit, I had a pretty good guess of who would pull something like that. And since they had already attempted to bomb the WTC in 1993, it wasn't too hard to put two and two together.

Sadly though, much of the world still clings to denialist fantasies about these events, including some American citizens. And that's sad, because easily mislead citizens can be easily lured to support bad policies. The Bush administration and Republican legislators capitalized on the confusion by suggesting that Saddam Hussein and 9/11 were somehow related, and succeed in deceiving a surprisingly large percentage of voters.

And now that we're poised for another election, with its own share of sabre-ratting, another outbreak of misinformation and denialism could usher in another disaster.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why I Weep for Democracy

The great thing about popular government is that the people get the leader that they want. The horrible thing is that the people get the leader that they want.

The way the system works, the candidates have to compete for the smallest common denominator in order to clinch a victory.

And here he is:

Or, as the BBC puts it, the redneck vote.

The great, befuddled masses of America, yearning to elect the world's most powerful leader as if it were American Idol vote. Oh rapture. And marching to the polls with some seriously underthought and inadequate beliefs, anxious to impose them on everyone else.

The article has an excellent summary of exactly what beliefs they'll try to vote into office this fall:
"Belief that no law is above God's law, not even the US Constitution."
And we've seen how well this has been working so far - abstinence-only sex ed, creationism (and attempts to blot out actual science education), marriage denied to homosexuals, etc. And the great thing about the "God's law" bit is that any social engineering disaster can be justified by appealing to God's will, no matter how wrong the call is or harmful the consequences. And since these opinions are presumed to come directly from God (rather than the fallible people who actually came up with this stuff), it's a showstopper for debate or even doubt that such policies are feasible. So, there's simply no reasoning with such ardent crusaders, they simply will not stop until their puritanical notions dominate both government and society as a whole, and they don't care who suffers as a result.
"Hyper patriotism. A fighting defence of native land, home and heart, even when it is not actually threatened: ie, Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Haiti and dozens more with righteous operations titles such as Enduring Freedom, Restore Hope, and Just Cause."
Essentially, believing that just about any war is justified as a "defense" of America, even if it isn't. We've seen that with the Iraq War. A repeat of the experience would be disastrous.
"A love of guns and tremendous respect for the warrior ideal. Along with this comes a strong sense of fealty and loyalty. Fealty to wartime leaders, whether it be FDR or George Bush.
And we saw this unconditional "loyalty" during Iraq, fawning over a guy in a flight suit for his photo op and cheering on the carnage as the casualties mount. That's not fealty, that's insanity.
"Belief that most things outside our own community and nation are inferior and threatening, that the world is jealous of the American lifestyle."
Good ol' fashioned arrogance and xenophobia. Us Americans mostly really do have great living standards compared to much of the world, but only an idiot would say that our way of life is superior in every possible way to every other country on the planet. Our influence in world affairs is massive, but we simply can't live as though the rest of the world is beneath us. We have to work together to build a better world, not hide from it.

I'm really not looking forward to this year's elections, and I made the mistake of bringing it up with people. A black woman said she was voting for Obama because he's black, and later on that day, a white man said he was voting for McCain because he's white. Go USA.

Monday, September 1, 2008

VP candidate Gov. Sarah Palin

Wow. What a shock decision from McCain. I was positive he'd pick someone more in his league, like Brownback. Someone you know for sure would carry on Bush's legacy of faith-based invasions, non-torture waterboarding, and domestic spying.

But apparently, he picked a little-known governor of Alaska, who has only really been in high office for 2 years. And, in her opening speech, she certainly made a good impression with me - claiming to be a no-nonsense politician who fights corruption and pork barrel spending, who supports energy independence and sees political service as an obligation to the common good rather than party ideology. But most importantly, she came off as a decent human being (which is unusual in politics).

I almost wondered if a democrat had snuck into republican ranks. But her record is strongly conservative on the social issues: against abortion unless the mother's life is in danger, against gay marriage, and in favor of teaching creationism in public schools as a viable alternative to evolution.

So the Religious Right must love her, right?

By and large, they do. But a few of the knee-jerk variety decided that she's anti-family. And here's why: she works for a living. How radical!

Sheesh. I'm surprised those wackos didn't demand that she cover up her ankles, lest the impiety bring down God's wrath.

One particularly muddle-headed commentator wrote that being a stay at home mom is "the zenith of human accomplishment." See, I was going to say the works of Shakespeare or da Vinci or Claude Monet. Or the Hubble Space Telescope or the Large Hadron Collider or ITER (a nuclear fusion power plant). Or mapping the human genome or eradicating smallpox. Those are pretty awesome accomplishments. Child care and domestic chores, not so much. Sure, I agree that raising children is certainly a necessary and rewarding experience. But the zenith of human accomplishment? I don't think so.

UPDATE: Wow, in the news, there's a veritable torrent of stories (and scandals) about her. Suffice it to say that my initial, meager supply of goodwill is being quickly eroded by all these allegations flying about her. I'm not at all pleased at the prospect of someone a heartbeat away from President being a religious basketcase with a subpar knowledge of American history.