Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Catholic Moment

Had this happen to me today.

"You know... pretty sure Martin Luther was in large part responsible for all the splits in the church. Major figure. How come I never hear anyone quote him? I mean, I see lots of quotes from Calvin, from Johnathan Edwards, from various popes, from other religious leaders and figures... why not Martin Luther?"

*reads some Luther quotes and writings*

"...Oh, THAT'S why."

(Seriously, I'm having trouble figuring out who's worse to have as your faith's nominal founder: This guy or Henry VIII.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Just wanted to get that in there.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Common Atheist Question

"Why don't traditional religious believers - who, as I and my fellow atheists often and loudly say, are ignorant, stupid, irrational, child-like, evil, twisted, crazy, and dangerous - feel comfortable with the idea of an atheist president? It's so bigoted."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Music To My Ears

One thing I've seen more and more online as of late.

"I'm an agnostic."

'Oh, are you a New Atheist?'

"Holy hell, no! Those guys, geez..."

I have to admit, I have more patience - a lot more - with a sincere agnostic. You can have a conversation with one. And I admit, I'm tickled to see that the long-lasting contribution of the New Atheists will likely be to convince people that atheism is a hotbed of irrationality, with at least a 'moderate' theism to agnosticism being vastly preferable.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Something frantic in the air.

There's something I notice about typical blog-comments advocates of "Gay Rights", Global Warming legislation and PETA members: They typically all so fucking frantic and emotional.

In the Gay Rights case, merely saying you're against gay marriage or that you think homosexual acts are immoral too often quickly turns into screams about phobia and how you're the reason homosexually inclined teens commit suicide and how you're personally responsible for some "good ol' boy" (it's always the southerners) tying someone to the back of his truck.

In the Global Warming case it's this frantic declaration that the world is doomed unless we take action *this year* and the only reason people don't is because they're greedy and they know the world is doomed and don't care and... etc. Incidentally, this frantic insistence that we have to act *right now or we're doomed* has been going on for years. You'd think at this point anyone who really believed in the direst AGW forecasts would say "Too late for preventive measures. We should be preparing for the warming itself." Oddly, never comes up.

And of course the PETA case is simply one melodramatic, emotional display after another. People whose imaginations are askew and now they're very convinced that their housecat "really hopes they pass their biology test" because clearly the cat can tell this is important to them and so on.

I think the common thread winding up all three is this: Frantic emotional investment. There is no stepping back and evaluating the questions reasonably, because a reasonable evaluation is the exact opposite of the point. It's all about the drama, the story-book nature of the evils being committed, the good guys and the bad guys and the unsung heroes and so on. To actually pull back and discuss the topic rationally is almost seen as insulting - why, that would sap the emotional high of CARING so damn much. People love their drama, after all - and if they need melodrama to get it, that's just the price to pay.

There's a place for emotion, of course. But when it's the driving force of thought, when too much of your argument comes down to "I just feel so STRONGLY about this!", it's time for either a reality check.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Disadvantages of Rail Travel

This blog is now about religion, politics, philosophy, and good comedy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Bush Uncertainty Principle

Watching all the discussion about the TSA, I think it's time to suggest a new natural law for political discussions: The Bush Uncertainty Principle.

The principle states that whether or not a proposed law or act of government is just or unjust, extreme or reasonable, cannot be known if the political party or political identity of whoever is proposing it is also not known.

So, if you don't know whether the decision to mandate body scans and full-body searches in airports was proposed by a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican, you also can't know whether it's a just or unjust decision. However, if you know it was proposed by someone from the opposite political part of you then you know it's unjust. And if they're of your political party, you know it's just.

On the flipside, if you know it's just, you also know it's a decision by someone from your political party. And if unjust, from the opposite party.

So there you have it. The Bush Uncertainty Principle. Later, I'll teach about how you can tell if underage groping or sex was a horrible crime or merely amusing. It involves a complex calculation that factors in whether the underage person was a boy or a girl, whether the molester was a man or a woman, and whether the molester was a priest, teacher, filmmaker or unknown.

This is also called the Bush Uncertainty Principle, but for unrelated reasons.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Species Extinction - Evil to Who?

A few years ago, I heard John Lennox on a radio program, talking with what I assume was an agnostic about his religious beliefs. At one point the interviewer asked, basically, why are only humans saved? What about fish? Trout for instance? Lennox's reply was that trout don't really seem to care about salvation. The host quickly shot back, "If I were a trout I'd want to be saved!"

All I could think is, well, if you had thoughts like that you damn well wouldn't be a trout, now would you?

Now, I'm actually not too decided on the question of animal salvation. For all I know, every blessed thing in the universe is going to be somehow saved and redeemed, living or non. Man's salvation seems clear by Christian teaching, but everything else - aside from God calling it "good" in Genesis - is up in the air. And between Job and the task of us trying to save ourselves even individually, I think we have our hands full. If you believe God exists, it seems entirely proper to at least sometimes say "That's not for me to worry about."

I bring this up because recently I've seen this claim resurface: The idea that the extinction of past species on earth indicates that God doesn't exist, or is evil. What I find odd about this is that it's not a complaint about the individual deaths of the animals, but the collective death - as if the individual death would be A-OK, but the species death is somehow intolerable. But if you accept that the deaths of individual animals is okay, what exactly is the complaint about the deaths of species?

Do the animals (to say nothing of the plants!) themselves care if they go extinct? Contra Lennox's interviewer the answer seems to be no, they really don't. In fact, they seem unable to comprehend the idea of species, much less extinction. Death, perhaps in some cases (and even there, arguable), but again - individual death isn't the issue here.

So who is species extinction a wrong against, if not the constituent members of the species? Some objective moral standard? Possible, but the only ones who could conceivably be making such a claim that ultimately stands, other than the theists themselves, would be the platonists. And I more and more have trouble seeing how platonism, particularly platonism about morality, doesn't land you right back in the theistic court anyway.

Oddly enough, the one answer I've gotten is that species extinction is an evil against humanity. These species no longer exist for us to see and enjoy, therefore an evil has been committed.

First, I wonder how such people would react to the idea that God intends to resurrect animals as well, ultimately. In which case the species are all coming back. Second, I wonder how they'd react to such species evolving again in the future (perhaps evolution is even more convergent than we think), or for humanity to bring them back via DNA cloning or outright design based on their study and remains.

But third, and most importantly, I have to wonder - why is the assumption that every damn species that ever existed somehow was made not only for our sake, but our sake alone? In Genesis, God doesn't wait until humanity is on the scene before saying that what He created is good - it's all good then and there. We're given stewardship over the earth, but it's hard to see everything as being made for man and man alone even biblically. Nor do I see why any species would have to last forever, without temporal interruption, to avoid being 'evil' - much less to positively be 'good'.

In the end all I can ask is, what kind of crazy-ass God are these people imagining when they come up with this stuff? Some kind of strange cross between Willy Wonka and Hitler is all I can come up with.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

But Is It Atheism?

I just read another one of John C. Wright's stories about his atheism days. Splendid reading as ever, and I find a tremendous amount to agree with. Except for the core of his story.

I have trouble accepting that John was an atheist.

Now, I don't mean that John was actually Catholic and never realized it. Nor do I think he secretly believed in God-as-commonly-presented. But the atheism of John C. Wright was an atheism that denied materialism, believed in objective (and seemingly platonic) moral values, duties, formal and final causes, and so on. He was - and I think even he must realize this - miles apart from what is, especially in the past 10-20 years, typically meant by atheism. Maybe he was a pagan of sorts. A pantheist or a panentheist.

But atheist? It just doesn't seem right.

I now and then run into this problem, and here's one way to express it. The thomists argue that God is simple. No ontological parts to speak of. God does not have goodness, God IS goodness, and so on. So if someone believes in goodness* - say, the platonic form of 'The Good' - do they believe in God? It seems to me they do, as far as the Thomists say. They may be confused about some details, but so what? So are baptists, from the Thomists' viewpoint. And classical theists may have a lot of criticisms of theistic personalists, but they never mistake them for atheists. (Do they?)

As I've said before, I think the number of actual 'atheists' out there are thinner on the ground than expected. Sure, some are (or at least present themselves as) atheists in the materialist sense. In fact, I think a most promising apologetic for evangelizing the secular world would be "Why you are not an atheist" style approaches.

(*Naturally, I'm excluding 'bullshit goodness' for lack of a better term. 'Goodness' which melts into 'Stuff we do because blind meaningless evolution' and so on.)

Rorschach Contra Manhattan!

Normally I keep my commenting light on deeper, more philosophical issues - there's a reason for that which I hope to blog about one day - but Edward Feser's recent posts on natural law got me thinking.

See, Ed Feser reminds me of Rorschach on this topic. And I don't consider that an insult. In fact, Ed is doing a marvelous job of convincing me that his is the correct position to hold - and he's making consequentialism seem much harder to justify. So much so that I feel like offering up my own perspective on an aspect of the subject.

But I don't feel like I have the abundance of philosophical resources and the linguistic finesse to come at this question like Codgitator or Bill Valicella or the other more heavy duty philosophical thinkers. And certainly not of the philosophical caliber of Ed himself. So, I have to work within my limits.

That's right. I'm going to conduct an imaginary dialogue between Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan in the aftermath of Veidt's scheme. And I'm going to do it in philosophical imaginary dialogue style!

Introduction: For those of you who don't know, the scene is set this way. Adrian Veidt, self-made billionaire and super-genius, sees that the cold-war era world he inhabits is on the course for an inevitable nuclear war between superpowers. In order to avert this, he's unleashed mass death upon a major population, killing millions of innocents, and laying the blame on an extraterrestrial threat. He reasons - correctly - that this threat will shock the world into getting past their differences to work together, and in the process avert an even worse nuclear war. This already happened (35 minutes ago!), and while the heroes who discover Veidt's plan are horrified, they realize it's too late to stop his plan - and if they reveal it now, they'll have millions dead AND they'll undo the world unity, putting the world back on track for the nuclear war. All but one hero - Rorschach - agrees to take this secret to their grave.

Rorschach's moral code - "never compromise even in the face of armageddon" - compels him to leave and tell the world of Veidt's crime. Doctor Manhattan is sent after Rorschach to kill him, lest the millions died in vain.

And so we begin.

Manhattan: Rorschach, I can't let you do this.
Rorschach: Veidt murdered millions, Manhattan. He's a criminal, and he needs to be exposed.
Manhattan: Yes, Rorschach - murderED. He's a monster, but those millions are already dead. This won't bring them back.
Rorschach: Turning in a murderer has never brought back a victim.
Manhattan: This is different! If we keep this secret...
Rorschach: If we cover up Veidt's crime.
Manhattan: Fine, call it what you want. But if we do that, we save billions of lives! If you expose Veidt, you're dooming them!
Rorschach: And if we don't expose Veidt, we're covering up for a murderer.
Manhattan: One murderer we would have stopped if we could! But YOU will be murdering billions if you expose him!
Rorschach: I won't be causing any nuclear wars.
Manhattan: Others will!
Rorschach: That's their crime. Not mine. The only crime I can commit here is covering up for a mass-murderer.
Manhattan: Your crimes will be theirs if you expose Veidt! You KNOW what the consequences will be!
Rorschach: ...Assume that I do, Manhattan. I'm not as smart as you or Veidt, but assume that I do. That changes nothing. I would stop the coming war if I could...
Manhattan: Then don't DO this!
Rorschach: ...Without committing an evil. But covering up for Veidt is an evil.
Manhattan: Sentencing billions to die is an evil!
Rorschach: It sure is. I'm not a fan of our idiot leaders either.
Manhattan: You really don't think you'd hold any blame for their deaths?
Rorschach: I know I wouldn't. I'd do everything I could to save them, short of anything immoral.
Manhattan: What if you're wrong? What if doing what you're doing is as immoral as Veidt's actions? Worse?
Rorschach: I could ask the same of you, Manhattan.
Manhattan: Argh, this is getting us nowhere.
Rorschach: ...You're right. Why are you trying to stop me, Manhattan?
Manhattan: Because what you're going to do will lead to the deaths of billions!
Rorschach: What I'm going to do will lead to a mass-murderer being exposed.
Manhattan: And the result of that will be billions dead.
Rorschach: And what will the result of you covering up for Veidt be?
Manhattan: What..? I'll save those billions!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: ...And then what?
Rorschach: Exactly. What happens after they're saved?
Manhattan: They live!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: They work together!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: (frustrated) They live happily ever after Rorschach. I don't know what you want!
Rorschach: Happily ever after. Do you really believe that?
Manhattan: I know too much about human nature to do so. But I don't get what you're aiming at.
Rorschach: Aiming at? I'm aiming at nothing, Manhattan. I don't even know for sure that the war you and Veidt claim will happen, really will.
Manhattan: It will, Rorschach.
Rorschach: So you say. But you don't know what will happen after some period of peace. You're many things, but omniscient isn't one - even you know that.
Manhattan: So what?
Rorschach: So, you don't know what the ultimate consequences of your actions will be.
Manhattan: Ultimate, no. But I know some of their consequences.
Rorschach: But for all you know, those consequences will be even worse in time.
Manhattan: For all I know, they won't be. And I know that in the short-term, some of the consequences are better with one choice than another.
Rorschach: But you don't know about the long-term consequences.
Manhattan: So?
Rorschach: If you did know, would they matter?
Manhattan: I suppose they would.
Rorschach: And for all you know, any choice you make actually has worse consequences than the choice you forsake.
Manhattan: In an ultimate or very long-term sense, sure.
Rorschach: So, the consequences are all that matter, yet you never know the consequences of your acts.
Manhattan: Totally untrue. I know some of the consequences.
Rorschach: But *some* of the consequences don't matter. What matters is *all* of the consequences. Even you have to admit that my exposing Veidt would have at least some good consequences.
Manhattan: Not enough.
Rorschach: But you don't know that, remember? Your ability to deduce the future has a limit. For all you know, the ultimate consequences of letting me expose Veidt are better in total than the consequences of you hiding his crime.
Manhattan: There are limits. If you wipe out all of humanity with your act, how could good consequences accrue afterwards?
Rorschach: By avoiding excessive bad consequences that could potentially come from humanity's continued existence, for one. Maybe Veidt's future will yield many in unending torment. For another, even assuming humanity couldn't recover from a nuclear holocaust, how do you know some species would not fill our void?
Manhattan: Or maybe they won't. Or maybe the consequences will be even worse in your scenario.
Rorschach: Maybe indeed. But you can't know. By your own admission, the totality of consequences is what matters. But you never know the totality. You only know a tiny sliver of the consequences from a vastly - perhaps infinitely - greater list. You may as well know none of the consequences at all. You're deciding blindly.
Manhattan: Let's say I accept that for the sake of argument. Then how should I decide what to do?
Rorschach: Exactly the way I do, Manhattan. There is good and there is evil. Do only what is good. Even in the face of armageddon, do not compromise in this.

...And there we have it for now. Naturally, I can imagine some additional replies Manhattan could give, some replies Rorschach can give to those, and more points Rorschach could raise. (In fact, the setup itself is a bit tricky since it takes place after Veidt's act, not before.) But the issue I want to stress here is that consequentialism is, of course, focused on the consequences of acts... but the entirety of consequences is never known to anyone but God. If "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", but I can't be sure if I'm siding with the many or the few, I'm in trouble. How can I live according to the 'rules' of consequentialism if I never fully grok the consequences?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Was George Carlin an atheist?

This is a question that came to me while reading a recent entry over at the Cogitator's blog. I admit, Carlin had deep dislike for Catholicism and Christians generally. He mocked the usual image of a 'bearded man in the sky'. But I finally had to ask myself... did Carlin ever call himself an atheist?

Oddly enough, the two obscure references I found to Carlin on his own beliefs said otherwise. One had Carlin quoted as saying he was neither an atheist nor an agnostic on the subject of God's existence, but an acrostic: That the very question puzzled him. Another source was a second-hand report of Carlin denying he was an atheist, specifically because it struck him as a worldview.

Either way, now I'm intrigued. See, I've been a fan of Carlin since I was a little kid. (Sam Kinison and Eddie Murphy too, for what it's worth.) I'd like to know where he stood... and I have a suspicion that where he stood is closer to Bill Maher than anyone else.

So, any of you guys got a lead for me?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What Problem of Evil?

Been seeing some philosophers discussing the problem of evil and theodicy lately. My response is "eh". I admit, the problem of evil hasn't struck me as a real problem for years - especially since the objection has, by even most atheist accounts, switched from a logical to an evidential problem.

I realize that the PoE is thought of as one of the two main, actual problems for the theistic position. I think that says far more about the emptiness of atheism than anything else. And it's actually one reason I have some qualified respect for the Intelligent Design guys - since most of them will flatly say, "We're merely defending design, not saying anything about the designer - theodicy is another field. If malaria looks like it was designed, then sorry, design is inferred."

Which leads me to a comment I made in Feser's thread: What I find funny about 'evil god' arguments is that they strike me as more plausible than atheism. Vastly less plausible than classical theism or theism generally, but yeah - the case for Cthulhu or Ares is actually better, by my estimation, than for atheism.

Flying spaghetti monster, indeed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

When is a virus not a virus?

Susan Blackmore throws in the towel on the "Religion is a virus" schtick.

Blackmore, who has largely functioned as a seneschal in the service of Dan Dennett's philosophy of mind (as well as a CSISOP member), bought into and promoted this idea for... you know, I'm pretty sure it's been for years now. So it's rather noteworthy that she's throwing in the towel on this one, and in a very thorough manner. From Blackmore's perspective, religion is no longer a virus from a genetic or societal point of view.

Now, I never bought into this idea to begin with because 'viral' in the way Blackmore is defining it (even as she defines it in the article) requires speaking in terms of harm, which in turn gets into value judgments. Now, I believe in objective goods and intrinsic values, but I know it's not the stuff of science, so her project was irrelevant to me from the start. Still, I thought, interesting to see that even on her own terms the idea failed.

Interesting enough, right? But there's one problem, easy to miss.

See, the data that turned Blackmore on this question was comparative data: Stack the religious up against the irreligious and measure their traits. On sizable number of them, the religious fared better.

But... what if we reversed all the results in question? Switched the irreligious with the religious?

And there's the problem. Blackmore isn't abandoning her position because of some fundamental flaw with the 'theory' in question, but because the data that informs the theory went the wrong way. But if the religious are performing so well compared to the irreligious... then isn't secularism, or atheism, a virus itself by those very same standards?

When is a virus not a virus? When the right people have it, apparently.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coyne versus PZ Myers!

So, Coyne and PZ Myers are squaring off against each other. Atheist fight! I'm sorry - Gnu fight.

In the left corner we have Jerry Coyne, the Shemp of the New Atheists. He would believe in God if a 900 foot tall Jesus appeared to him, or if a man claiming to be Jesus descended from the sky, turned a prominent atheist's arms into tentacles, mocked him, turned the arms back into arms, then disappeared again. If the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man appeared in Manhattan and started to scale 55 Central Park West, I assume Jerry Coyne would worship it. But it hasn't yet, so he's an atheist.

In the right corner we have PZ Myers. PZ Myers believes that there is no possible evidence or argument for the existence of God or gods, and if he personally witnessed any kind of miracle or if the Virgin Mary appeared to him personally, he would conclude it was just a "natural" thing that science hadn't figured out yet, or that he had brain damage. Myers claims that nothing, nada, no event or argument is possible to make a rational person conclude 'the divine' exists.

Watch in amazement as the barons of internet atheism exchange blows! See Coyne meekly suggest Myers is not approaching the question rationally, and whimper at the embarrassment of having his position on atheism derided as irrational! See Myers imply Coyne is an accomodationist as he jousts for supremacy to the cheers of his followers! See the accomodationists warn that acting like Myers is a sure way to make everyone think atheism is for misfits and idiots! See the anti-accomodationists engage in flights of fantasy about the coming atheistic age! Watch their comments-section flock alternately cower in confusion as the leaders of the Gnu herd squabble amongst themselves! See some of them pick sides and declare the others' beliefs anathema!

But mostly, see how hilariously petty, egotistical, and just plain Goddamn dumb these guys are. And by "see" I mean just ignore it, because you have better things to do with your time.

Now and then, I see atheists talk about how they have to fight back against theism, and get in people's faces and... you know, basically be an asshole on the internet. Well, I have advice for theists - maybe it's time to fight back against atheism. And by that I mean, stop treating it as worthy of consideration among the rational and well-read. Stop seeking out debates with these attention whores. It won't happen though. Too many egos in play on all sides.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Here come the gnus!

Incidentally, if you've noticed the more slow and obnoxious internet denizens referring to themselves as 'gnus' lately, be noted that this is apparently the latest trend of "New Atheists".

I imagine it's a step up. Previously being known as a "New Atheist" largely branded a person as stupid, ill-mannered, loud and socially autistic. But being known as a gnu? They can keep all those labels, and pick up "herd thinker" and "suspiciously cultlike" too!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Speaking frankly.

Pardon me, but I want to speak frankly, and briefly, on the subject of homosexuality.

In fact, I'll be polite here and put the frank language past the click. If you don't like frankness, come back later. I'll be talking more about Stephen Hawking or the like.

When's the last time you remember anal or oral sex coming up in a conversation about homosexuality?

See, I've been arguing about this for years, and somehow this aspect of things - largely the point of it all - has never come up. So I decided to bring it up with a religious friend of mine who is also liberal theologically and politically.

Friend: (finishing up giving his view) ..And I just think that if two people love each other, then their having a relationship is beautiful and right.
Me: What about the anal?
Friend: Bweh? What ?
Me: You know. Cock going into the ass. Anal sex. Oral too, but the anal sex is sorta central and...
Friend: What does that have to do with anything?
Me: Everything? It's not like the problem is that two guys like each other a lot and spend a lot of time together. It's the..
Friend: Right, okay.
Me: ..the ass-fucking.
Friend: Quit saying that!
Me: Why? I'm just getting to the point.
Friend: There's a lot more to homosexuality than THAT!
Me: Yeah. Most of it is beside the point, though. You take out all the sodomy and the sexual stuff and what's left? It's not like I have a problem with two guys going on boating trips together.
Friend: ...Fine, but...
Me: 'cause that's the Navy. Nothing wrong with the Navy.
Friend: Right, sure, but...
Me: Unless they have an--
Me: Yeah, but like I said. Hey, if there's more to it than that, there's no problem, right?
Friend: What do you mean?
Me: Guys can hang out together, do stuff, share each other's company and so on. Just nothing sexual, and none of that stuff you won't let me talk about.
Friend: That's like asking married couples not to have sex!
Me: I don't think they should be ass-fucking either, so...
Friend: It's different!
Me: So, you're pretty much saying assfucking is a non-negotiable part of the relationships in question, at least for the guys.
Friend: ...
Me: Doesn't that strike you as really odd?
Friend: I don't want to talk about this anymore.
Me: Fine, fine...

I mean, I have this right, don't I? I flip through my CCC and go back to the teachings and all, and it's not like the church has a problem with guys who go camping together or even live together. It's the sodomy. Sure, and the inclinations towards sodomy, but those are just like any other inclinations sin-wise.

And yet, this never comes up. Ever. I mean it when I say I've been reading a lot of these debates for years, and the damn central issue has been danced around.

Well, to hell with it, I'm speaking bluntly about it from now on. I don't care if two guys enjoy each other's company, even quite a lot. It's the sodomy, the anal sex, and the cultural and personal aspects connected to it that's the problem.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Reverse-Strawmanning

This is a pattern I've seen repeatedly when it comes to discussing New Atheist arguments online:

1) New Atheist writes an article about religion or science, making several claims or arguments.
2) The claims turn out to be inane, or the arguments horrible and muddled.
3) An atheist faithful rushes in to excuse and defend their hero.
4) Their "defense" doesn't involve defending what the New Atheist actually wrote and meant. Instead, they either attempt to get to the same conclusion as the NA by using different (if broadly similar) arguments the NA in question did not himself use in the article, or they use the "what I think he really means is..." trick to have the NA say something entirely different than he did with different points and conclusions.

I could tack on 5) Even these reworked or imagined arguments tend to be crappy, but the real point is this: When you start to explicitly change what your hero is saying in the hopes of making him sound less idiotic, you're not really helping him out. If anything you're silently arguing that not only is the NA in question a sloppy thinker, but he can't even communicate his own thoughts well. Or that you're willing to make excuses and just imagine someone is saying what you prefer them to say for whatever reason, probably because it's emotionally important to you.

Case in point: Brandon's post over at Siris points out how Coyne's recent USA Today piece is just horrible. The man can't even think up analogies that actually work, much less provide arguments that get him to the conclusion he's trying to arrive at. So what's the response from one commenter?

"I think what Coyne, and others are doing, without ever saying so is using science as a synonym for rational methods or thinking. Thus, they include mathematics, logic, some philosophy and the various sciences under the term science. In a way this makes sense, after all, science is an offshoot of philosophy and you'd be hard pressed to do anything much in science without a lot of maths. But science as a discipline can't explain half of what we claim to know."

I wonder why "Coyne and others" are doing this "without ever saying so"? I mean, it's not for lack of opportunity - by any measure most NAs tend to run at the mouth. But hey, it can't be that "Coyne and others" actually mean what they say when they say the word "science", right? Because "science as a discipline can't explain half of what we claim to know", and you'd have to be pretty uninformed or confused or just plain dull to think otherwise, and guys like Coyne... well, they can't have stupid ideas, can they?

So no, Coyne can't possibly be saying something stupid. Therefore, he has to mean something utterly different than what he's saying, without ever saying so.

Of course, the rest of the reply includes bold claims that science, and apparently some philosophy, has proven that "we don't have souls" and that "mind arises from the brain". At the very least he's sure that Catholic ideas about the soul can't be true because... well, "because strokes", apparently. I won't even go into how credulous and uninformed the kid in question is. But I will mention a side point.

See, the New Atheist movement did have some modest success in one particular aim that no one likes to talk about. I'll put it bluntly: New Atheism appeals to idiots. And I'm not saying that you have to be an idiot to be an atheist (It doesn't hurt!), or that the New Atheists tried but failed to attract intelligent people. I'm saying New Atheism, dwindled though its star may be, was crafted right from the get-go to pick up numbers among unintelligent people, and that some success was had here. In part because New Atheism was marketed as a way to become very smart overnight: Just become an atheist, and (it was strongly implied) you'll be more intelligent than your peers! You'll have a higher IQ overnight! You'll be a Bright!

And before you point out that that's an easy marketing gimmick to see through, I'll just remind you that this wasn't a ploy aimed at actually intelligent people. Rather like how Ponzi scheme artists don't seek out people who have a good understanding of economics, and in fact would prefer they did not.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Out of Nothing... Part 1

I now and then complain about the claim that something can arise out of nothing. Usually I focus on the more exaggerated claims - namely that something's arising out of well and truly nothing is A) Observable or B) Has in fact been observed by scientists. There are other criticisms as well, such as equivocations on "nothing" (where "nothing" is actually "something", and therefore leaves a "something" in need of explanation.)

But I want to consider a different direction for a change. Namely, what exactly are we opening the door up to if we assert - contrary to reason, contrary to one of the most fundamental rules of logic - that something can in fact arise out of nothing?

I'll have more to say about this later, but for now I point at an article by Bill Valicella where he argues that if a universe can arise out of nothing, then so can minds.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Obama, you prick!

I have trouble believing this is serious.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't like Obama, and I also think this teenager sounds like kind of an ass. "It's the sort of thing teenagers do" doesn't sound like a very sincere or well-considered excuse, coming from not only a teenager, but the one whose action is in question.

Maybe he threatened the president (apparently he was 'drunk' and forgot what he actually wrote). But being banned from the US over insulting the president in an email? That just doesn't seem realistic.

On the other hand, maybe he called Obama a pig instead of a prick. Then the banning would make sense, because that's a pretty grave insult to a muslim.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Burning the Koran!

The Vatican weighs in on some goofy church's decision to burn the Koran as a publicity stunt. Looks like most of the world is rising up against the act.

You know, I've expressed my sympathies for muslims in the past on this blog. And I'll go further. But as someone who still remembers the "piss Christ" 'art' fiasco, I admit this irritates me.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Stephen Hawking on God!

So, apparently "God did it" was a scientific idea but now isn't, because Hawking thinks the laws of the universe will do the job reserved for God.

I suppose I should get all charged up and incensed over a scientist utterly mishandling the God question once again, but really, at this point my response is more one of "Man, not this shit again." Arguing that God is not necessary to explain this or that because your theoretical "physical" explanation can describe the event/phenomena in question without talk of God is like arguing that giving a complete physical description of a computer and software renders talk of a programmer redundant.

My main question is wondering if, like Vilenkin, Hawking is suggesting that the universe did have a beginning (it seems so), that this beginning was one of complete and utter nothingness and marked the beginning of time (it seems so), but that what seems to have happened is that the "laws of physics" existed even when there was nothing - not even a quantum vacuum - and thus 'made' the universe spring out of utter nothingness. I'd written before about how thinking about the laws of physics in that way rewrites what is typically meant by the "laws of physics" or "laws of nature" or such.

However, a little more pre-emptive digging indicates that, oddly, Hawking may be making an even stranger move:

This multiplicity of distinct theories prompts the authors to declare that the only way to understand reality is to employ a philosophy called "model-dependent realism". Having declared that "philosophy is dead", the authors unwittingly develop a theory familiar to philosophers since the 1980s, namely "perspectivalism". This radical theory holds that there doesn't exist, even in principle, a single comprehensive theory of the universe. Instead, science offers many incomplete windows onto a common reality, one no more "true" than another. In the authors' hands this position bleeds into an alarming anti-realism: not only does science fail to provide a single description of reality, they say, there is no theory-independent reality at all. If either stance is correct, one shouldn't expect to find a final unifying theory like M-theory - only a bunch of separate and sometimes overlapping windows.

So I was surprised when the authors began to advocate M-theory. But it turns out they were unconventionally referring to the patchwork of string theories as "M-theory" too, in addition to the hypothetical ultimate theory about which they remain agnostic.

So, if this reviewer is correct, Hawking's move is to deny that there is a Theory of Everything - and he seems to also be going for an instrumentalist picture of science. All while, of course, claiming that philosophy is dead. To me, this seems shockingly close to saying that science has shown that God is not necessary to explain anything, in part because science never tries to explain anything anyway - instead science is restricted to utterly pragmatic, predictive theories which don't even have to mesh with each other in some ultimate sense, and since "God did it" is never pragmatic and can never be confirmed/denied by science besides, God is unnecessary.

Like I said, "Man, not this shit again."

So not much interesting seems to be in play here. At least, not the way it's being spun or understood by most - "Science has figured out something and has shown God is unnecessary as an explanation!" Instead, something close to the opposite seems to be in play: Science is starting to hit some limitations, so much so that loosening up the definition of "science" is now becoming required to offer "explanations". I really look forward to seeing if Hawking really does do what the quoted reviewer suggests he does - rejecting a TOE seems explicit, but if Hawking really is taking an instrumentalist or "perspectivalist" view of science, I'd say the game is over for scientism, and possibly science as we know it. Maybe what we're seeing out of Hawking isn't misplaced triumphalism, but a little bit of panic.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tea Parties Costing Republicans Seats?

So suggests Jeremy Pierce at Parablemania.

From what I've heard and read of the Tea Party, while they obviously have some (very?) conservative leanings, one thing I've heard out of many tea partiers or those sympathetic to them is that they don't want to be "the guys who help the Republican win just because he's a Republican". In fact, there seems to be a heavy feeling of being anti-incumbent, period, rather than just anti-Democrat. It wasn't like Bush or the Republican house and senate did a bang-up job when they were in power - not exactly the era of small government, that. (The SCOTUS appointments were the best things to come out of Bush's presidency, and that involved a near revolt by the Republican base.)

Coming from PA, I recall how many times Republicans were told how important it was to support Arlen Specter, to turn a blind eye towards any problems that anyone may have with his policies or his voting record, on the grounds that he was the Republican incumbent and Republicans support Republicans no matter what. It turned out Specter himself wasn't too keen on that advice, because he bailed on the party the moment that seemed like the best move for his political fortunes. Of course there was also Jim Jeffords and all manner of other incidents.

I suppose what I'm getting at is, even if it were true that Tea Partiers are costing the Republicans seats (On the whole, I doubt it, but you never know), I think the response of many would be "So what?" Should they vote for the candidate they dislike purely to get a Republican in office? Better yet, why regard it as a failure of the Tea Party as opposed to a failure of the Republicans themselves? If a given candidates' actions or political leanings result in the base abandoning him, is it the base's fault or the candidate's fault?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Los Angeles' 578 Million Dollar School.

All for the children, of course.

From the article:

"There's no more of the old, windowless cinderblock schools of the '70s where kids felt, 'Oh, back to jail,'" said Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal. "Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning."

I wonder what he means by those "districts" that want these things. People living in the area? Elected officials? Teachers? Construction workers?

Of course, not everyone is impressed.

"New buildings are nice, but when they're run by the same people who've given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they're a big waste of taxpayer money," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education. "Parents aren't fooled."

Parents aren't fooled? Back to the "who makes up this district" question. Maybe the parents really are fooled. Maybe they think an impressive building will yield smarter students. Or maybe they don't really care too much about whether the students' educations will benefit from this, and are more concerned about a showpiece for the community and really impressive environments.

Still, all I can do is shrug at the display. It's like trying to combat obesity by purchasing a ten thousand dollar art deco refrigerator complete with a diamond encrusted crisper. "Look at that thing! You can tell I'm really serious about dieting by how much money I spend making sure my food is kept in a luxurious, modern environment."

Mind you, I'm sure a lot of rationalizations can come in. "Environment and aesthetics are important! They encourage focus and..!" etc, etc. But at the end of the day, it just seems so damn cargo cultist to me. Food and money not falling from the skies? Well, clearly we need to build an even *better* fake landing strip. Let's make sure that guy speaking into immaculately crafted bamboo radio puts his heart into it!

Superstition is alive and well in Los Angeles.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More Islamic News!

Saudis considering paralyzing man who paralyzed another man!

Some comments in brief.

* I notice that no one is saying that the man in question isn't guilty of what he's accused of, nor that his actions were accidental. So frankly, this is a hard case to work up much emotional sympathy for. Intellectual? Oh, absolutely. But emotional? Nah. I think many people in the civilized, progressive, whatever-other-nice-word West - if they or a loved one were injured this way - would, even if secretly, approve of such a penalty. Especially since blood money remains an option.

It doesn't justify the Saudis, but it's a point that has to be mentioned.

* Human rights groups are appalled of course. But then, who are these human rights groups and why should I give a **** what they think? What makes a person a "human rights" advocate as opposed to - pardon my language - some ******* with an opinion? Last I checked, Amnesty International considered abortion a "human right". If I oppose them, am I a human rights advocate? And if anyone with a conflicting opinion is a human rights advocate, why bother with the label? Because it sounds good?

I guess what I'm saying here is "human rights groups" can go **** themselves, at least in the abstract sense.

* "No hospital will cut this man’s spinal cord. Any doctor who did could find himself in court,' said a senior Saudi journalist, who did not wish to be named." Oh, that's precious. You need a doctor to cut a man's spinal cord? I'm pretty sure the defendant in question isn't Doogie Howser. You just need one steel-hearted guy with good aim and a guarantee of no liability.

* "Extremist ideology." "Ultra-conservative." "Bizarre religious decrees." How come words like this rarely hit the mainstream press whenever Peter Singer crawls out of the ivory tower that serves as his lair? Why is his song and dance inevitably portrayed as "provocative thought" or "questioning popular ideas" and so on? Why aren't abortion proponents accused of clinging to "ultra-conservative, classical pagan ideology" that viewed children as property of their parents or their country? It's not as if abortion was some new idea no one ever heard of before the 1970s.

But, there you go. Incidentally, a momentary glance at the comments section of that page shows quite a lot of civilized "western" people talking about what a great law the Saudis have. You gotta admit, it'd make Court TV one hell of a lot more interesting.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Obama Muslim Polls!

White House says Obama is obvious a Christian and he prays daily!

Now, I've never been onboard with the whole 'Obama is a muslim!' thing. But, what stands out to me is that the defense of "Obama is obviously a Christian. I mean he prays daily!" seems bizarre. The implication is... what, muslims don't pray?

I'm waiting for Newsmax or Freerepublic to add in their own details. Namely affirming that, yes, Obama does pray daily. Three times a day. Facing Mecca.

Deism: Advantage Theism, or Advantage Atheism?

One thing that always tickles me about modern atheists is their attempt to 'count' deists in the atheist column. I think part of the appeal comes from there having been a number of deists who were highly critical of Christianity - Voltaire, Paine, etc. And since - let's face it - modern atheists tend to be concerned with Christianity first and foremost, I think two things go on: A "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" attitude, and a kind of wishful thinking of "he was probably just an atheist but pretended to be a deist so people would listen to him" move.

Of course, the most well-known deist in modern times is Anthony Flew, who admittedly shook things up in a major way - primarily because Flew didn't transition from Christianity or any other religion to deism, but from atheism to deism. Worse, he claimed (and given his deism, he could not help but claim) that this was not only a result of the arguments he was exposed to, but that the types of arguments that persuaded him were 'natural', even scientific: Natural law in the universe, DNA and the origin of life, etc being prominent.

What interests me most about Flew's conversion is that it establishes something that I always lament more apologists and believers in general fail to appreciate or take advantage of: The realization that deism can and does function as a kind of two-way bridge between atheism and Christianity. Instead the perspective is that deism is a kind of one-way slide - namely, a deist is a Christian or muslim or, etc, whose faith has fallen. It's easy to make that mistake, since the sort of deism freshest in people's minds is the deism of the enlightenment, where pretty much everyone started out as a Christian and thus any change in belief would have to go 'away' from Christianity. But I maintain that it is a mistake, and that apologists in general should view deism as something worth arguing for, one more tool in the apologetics array.

The funny thing is, as near as I can tell, most atheists would rather choke than fight deism. No less a rabid atheist than Jerry Coyne flat out concedes that deism is compatible with science, Dawkins himself once made a concession in a debate with an ID proponent that sounded an awful lot like him finding deism reasonable (he backed off, but not before the damage was done and a number of internet atheists suddenly came out of the closet as either being deists or deism-sympathetic.) In other words, strangely enough, there seems to be one type of God most atheists aren't willing to talk about.

One anecdote I have is about a time an internet atheist approached me wanting to engage in a public forum debate over the existence of God. I agreed (this was back before I realized how useless internet arguments really are), and when he started to rattle off on criticisms of the Old Testament, etc, I informed him that while I was Catholic, that wasn't the discussion I agreed to: I was there to defend the existence of God, period, and therefore all I had to defend was deism. The result? He flipped out and immediately refused to engage me at all unless I defended Christianity specifically - he flat-out refused to argue against deism. Now, let's point out the obvious here: The sort of people who love to debate on the internet, who out and out challenge people to a debate, don't shut up very easily. Forum/blog warriors who walk around challenging people to debate tend not to drop opportunities to run at the mouth. So to see someone cut and run - not even mid-stream, to do so before the argument even began - was enlightening to me.

The dirty little secret is that once that minimal deistic God is seen as reasonable to believe in - and I maintain that this is ridiculously easy for an unbiased observer to be persuaded to - 99% of the atheist's position is dead in the water, and 90% of Christianity's case is made. But sadly, this just doesn't get discussed by apologists, who seem to want to talk about mere deism as minimally as possible. Even Bill Craig, a fantastic philosopher and debater and whose arguments are compatible with deism, never really develops this line fully. Instead he seems to want to run past that mere God, or mere deism/theism, as fast as possible and get back to the topic of Christianity.

Either way, some philosophers and writers do dwell on this point to a degree. Aquinas himself via the Five Ways, Edward Feser's The Last Superstition (It's fun to watch critics react to TLS as a Christian book, when Ed stresses in it that if it establishes anything, it establishes mere classical theism), arguably the Intelligent Design movement is merely deistic or only broadly theist formally, etc. But I'd like to see more along these lines, precisely because A) Deism is more reasonable than atheism is or could ever hope to be, B) I am convinced that deism creates a bridge that would take on more irreligious towards Catholicism, and C) I think the reaction of many atheists alone would be worth the price of admission.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Interesting Side-Effect

Possible side-effect of "limiting homosexuality" found in a new drug?

For anyone who thinks having homosexual urges is very, very important, don't worry: Bio-ethicists shall do their best to ensure that no one takes this or any other drug in order to ensure their child is lacking such urges. That will be considered completely unethical. Besides, taking out children with unwanted traits is the abortion industry's turf.

Mind you, I'm skeptical of all of this. I just find it funny. Gallows humor and all.

Edit: To make the point as blunt as possible: While there being a "gay gene" is fantasy (and morally, beside the point), that there may be some biological and environmental factors that go into influencing a person's sexual urges and preferences is more reasonable. But the cost of identifying those will be - surprise - most people who choose to have children noting those factors, and doing their best to minimize them. After all, while the bio-ethicist may stubbornly insist "homosexuality (or homosexual inclinations) is not an illness to be cured!!!", a matching idea is that a child - particular one still in the womb - is pretty much the personal property of the woman in question. At the end of the day, those proclamations inform a public piety far more than a private one.

If the option is on the table to help ensure a child - possibly the only child in a family - have as least the likelihood to be gay as possible, what do you think most families will do? Answer: They will tell anyone listening and who they are afraid they may offend "I would love my child no matter what their sexual preference they were!" and then do their damndest to make sure their boy likes girls or their girl likes boys. The funny thing is, they may not admit it in public, but it hardly matters. It's a modern, liberal piety - like the gun control advocate who has a pistol in their nightstand because "It's different, my neighborhood is dangerous!"

Those most looking forward to the Brave New World are likely not going to enjoy how it actually plays out. And, on the flipside, some of those currently decrying it may end up grinning and saying, "You know, this could actually be more positive than I expected."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Atheists & The Fake Concession.

If you've watching a lot of internet atheists discussing God or Christianity, you've probably seen this move employed at one point or another:

"Look, I'd be more than happy to believe in God! I would change my mind immediately if the evidence were simply there. If God spelled out "I exist" with the stars in the sky, I'd believe. If a 900 foot Jesus appeared outside my window, I'd believe. If some powerful angel appeared, really seemed to be an angel, and claimed to be a messenger from God Himself, I'd believe. Supposedly God has performed miracles, and all of these would be easy for Him to accomplish, so why not do any of these if He really wants me to believe in Him?"

Now, there's a lot going wrong with this kind of claim, but I want to focus on one problem in particular: This is typically going to be a skeptic for whom, on any other related question (Christ's resurrection, healing miracles, the hard problem of consciousness, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of information, etc), they will continuously play two different cards: The "logically possible non-miraculous and/or non-intentional explanation for the issue in question" card (Christ had a twin! The universe just got lucky! We live in a multiverse and things like that happen now and then! Etc), and the "we have no answer for that now but eventually we will" card (Cosmology awaits its Darwin! Consciousness will be shown to be totally physical some day! That miracle will be explained in time! etc).

But that opens them up to the charge that, between their imagination (X happened and a lot of luck was involved!) and their delays (promissory materialism), they've placed themselves in a dogmatic position for which any contrary evidence or experience will simply be explained away. In other words, "evidence", empirical or otherwise, doesn't mean diddly to them due to their prior commitments.

Hence the reply of, "That's not true! Why, I'd be willing to believe if (listed, particular) miracles happened!"

But here's the problem: The examples of miracles given always, in principle, could be explained away in the same manner the atheist explains away any other report of miracle or evidence of God. It's not as if "luck" or "deception by a non-God agent" or "delusion" or "I don't know, but we'll have an explanation eventually" can't be deployed to explain away even the miracles the atheist says would convince him. The distinction is arbitrary - what was a God of the Gaps argument in all other cases becomes, inexplicably, a theoretically compelling argument for the same atheist.

And the inclusion of these arbitrary exceptions are supposed to serve as demonstrations that the atheist isn't dogmatic after all. Because hey, you can't be accused of dogmatism if you can name something, anything, that would change your mind, right?

Naturally, I find "I would just believe if..." claims like this to be utterly insincere. But, psychoanalyzing someone in a discussion is almost always going to be a dead end.

So, my reply to claims like this tends to be as follows: Point out that the "miracles/evidences that would make me believe" are subject to the exact same criticisms and dismissals the atheist deploys against current miracle claims or evidences for God, and thus constitute utterly arbitrary exceptions. But if an arbitrary exception to the atheistic/skeptical norm constitutes a valid and reasonable justification to believe in God, *then far and away most skeptical arguments against miracles-as-proof-of-God, natural revelation of God, and otherwise die on the spot*. If arbitrary exceptions to the norm are permissible and reasonable, then citing anything from the Miracle of the Sun to fine-tuning to the mere existence of coded language in the natural world (Perry Marshall's DNA argument) to otherwise work just as well. The only difference is that the atheist's arbitrary exception concerns miracles and evidences they don't believe have happened yet, and other people's arbitrary exceptions concerns miracles and evidences they do believe have happened.

Of course, the atheist still has some options open: Retreat into utter dogmatism (Okay, fine, no miracles or evidences could EVER compel a reasonable person to believe in God!), sacrifice the very idea of atheist apologetics (Alright, reasonable people can come to vastly different opinions on this subject, ergo theism and religious belief are not enemies of reason, ergo the evangelical atheist project is dead in the water), plea for more time (There's a response here, I'm sure of it, I just don't know what it is yet!), etc. But trying to salvage the specific, subjective preference of miracles is going to be nigh impossible while at the same time holding onto the favored skeptical moves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Universe is Information! And other gems.

Vlatko Vedral says the universe is information.

Thankfully the article is very blunt: Information, not particles, is the ultimate building block.

Of course, Vedral isn't the first physicist to take this line, and whenever they do the Intelligent Design people smile and nod their heads. And the Aristo-Thomists, I take it, yawn and say "Information is fundamental? What else is new."

Vedral himself seems to give this a kind of anti-religious spin, regarding humans as 'just atoms' (But what do you think atoms are, Vedral?), and there's always the God-as-complex canard (Cue the classical theists' arguments, and cue the ID proponents pointing out that if the universe is information/computational, it implies a programmer.) Apparently in his book he tries to connect all this to a kind of hinduism, and that idea that "information comes from nothing! it just happens according to the laws of physics!" Of course, then we ask where the laws come from and... well, we're right back to pure act and God after all, it seems.

I find it all interesting, anyway, because it backs up some suspicions of mine: That the New Atheists (remember them? they're kinda absent nowadays) are a red herring, as is materialism of the kind we've seen before. No, the future for naturalists and naturalism is... Intelligent Design. Paganism, or unusual kinds of theism. Materialism, as we know it, died a long time ago.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Frank Tipler on Science!

From the blog entry in question:

Immediately after his definition of science, Feynman wrote: “When someone says, ‘Science teaches such and such,’ he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, ‘Science has shown such and such,’ you should ask, ‘How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?’ It should not be ‘science has shown.’ And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments (but be patient and listen to all the evidence) to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.”

And I say, Amen. Notice that “you” is the average person. You have the right to hear the evidence, and you have the right to judge whether the evidence supports the conclusion. We now use the phrase “scientific consensus,” or “peer review,” rather than “science has shown.” By whatever name, the idea is balderdash. Feynman was absolutely correct.

When was the last time you heard a scientist - an academic - say those words? That *you* have the right to judge whether the evidence supports a conclusion that is supposedly from "science"? That there is no "science says", there are just conclusions of scientists, and that you not only are able to question them - but you *should* if you think you have reason to?

Or have you heard that you should holster your opinion and just accept what scientists - better yet, "the consensus" - has to say on any particular topic? That if you disagree, that's more a defect on your part than anything, and something you should get past. Not by understanding why you're wrong, mind you - that's considered quite unlikely. Scientists and academics don't want your understanding. They want your loyalty. In fact, they think they deserve it. They would explain why, but that would require understanding psychology, philosophy, and other subjects that you - pitiable layman - can't hope to grasp.

Funny how that works.

Science Turns Authoritarian!

At least, that's the suggestion from this investigation.

From the article:

In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.

But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.”

I'm skeptical that this is some recent turn. In fact, I suspect the prime difference between now and in the past is that now scientists attempt to lecture the laity directly, whereas before their lectures were aimed at political leaders and other in the right social circles.

If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority. Hey, you know, perhaps Biba has something there—maybe science does need better PR!

Of course, left aside here is that science isn't all that great at "telling us what is" either, at least in some respects. Actually, anthropomorphizing "science" in general tends to be something I'm wary of. Science doesn't say a word. Scientists do. Human beings examine and extrapolate data. They make models. And, they also exaggerate, misrepresent, misunderstand, rely on consensus, etc at times too.

Sadly, I suspect many scientists would view the suggestions in the article as pointless. After all, what's the point of having a great reputation if you can't do anything with it? What's the point of being respected for knowledge if you don't cash out that reputation in the form of political and social currency?

Recursive Theism and Atheism!

I once got in an argument (back when I still did arguments) with an atheist over whether or not our universe was designed. He took the tack that if our universe was designed, then (wait for it) who designed the designer? And if the designer was designed, who designed him?

And so on, and so on.

Now, I'm aware of the classical theist responses to this - about a necessary being, about that which begins to exist versus that which is eternal, etc. But I was arguing this from a kind of Intelligent Design "heavy on the empirical observation primarily" perspective, and leaving most theology aside. So my response was simple: Sure, those are valid questions. Maybe there's an infinite change of designers, maybe the chain terminates somewhere for one reason or another.

But that question is moot for the atheist. If the inference is that our universe is designed, suggesting that there is perhaps an infinite number of designers doesn't make atheism more credible: A single designer responsible for our universe is enough to clear atheism from the table. An infinite number of designers each designing each other's universes doesn't change that.

Granted, this doesn't get one terribly close to the God of Christianity. Ed Feser would say that it doesn't get one even a step closer to that God (at least, not to the God of classical theism.) But I think there's value in the general ID/deistic approach, though it's often mishandled by its loudest advocates.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

GEDs for 13 Year Olds.

Just to sweeten the pot that was my previous post, I want to throw out some suggestions I'd have for reforming education.

* Allow 13+ year olds to take their GED, with or without parental consent, and utterly without consent of their teachers. If a child has the knowledge and personal dedication sufficient to acquire the necessary skills to pass a well-tuned GED at a young age, more power to them. And every new school semester, all students should be informed of this opportunity clearly and immediately.

* All universities receiving public funds should be required to make all class materials (Lectures, lecture notes, course outlines, reading assignments and references, class assignments, etc) available to the public, free of charge, and available online.

* All universities receiving public funds should be required to institute certification options for the majority of their classes, and all classes at the 400+ level, with certain exceptions for particularly sensitive professions (Medical).

* The diploma system should be overhauled and largely phased out, replaced with certifications and aptitude tests on a class by class basis. No more "majors" or "minors" or degree programs for most subjects: Classes are a la carte, with the only prerequisites coming in the form of certification and testing.

I know I'm not exactly taking a popular position here. Hell, it would spell the end for the university system as we know it. But it would be vastly preferable to the travesty that is modern adult education.

Crude, the Post-Academic.

I'm not sure when my respect for academics took a nosedive. My respect specifically for scientists and science... that loss I can recall with greater clarity, and I'll write about it someday. But for academics? That's a question lost to me. It could be I never had much respect for them - I don't remember being beholden to the teachers at my (Catholic) high school. I certainly didn't have much reverence for them when I attended a (Public, state) university, where the manipulation and politicization was more striking.

Whatever the case, the short story is I'm an academic skeptic. When I read a newspaper article and I see words like "(PersonName), a professor of sociology at (University), had this to say:", my gut reaction is "Well, here comes some weak bullshit." For "sociology", you can swap in just about any soft science or liberal arts degree you wish. Or, if the question is one set in the sphere of the soft sciences or liberal arts, a professor in any field whatsoever.

That's not to say there aren't certain academics I hold in esteem, or that I dismiss what they say simply because they're academics. It's just that I rate their view on the same level as "Some random guy on the street who has probably read a few books on the subject in question", rather than "An authoritative voice". I'm not that impressed by consensus on these subjects either - if the majority of philosophers of ethics were to decide tomorrow that it's ethical to steal from people with six figure or higher incomes, my response wouldn't be to argue with them, or to seek out some philosophers in the minority who agree with me. I'm quite capable of saying "Those guys are a bunch of fuckwits" all by my lonesome.

Let me put it this way. You've heard of post-modernism? Well, I'm a post-academic. Where the Enlightenment sought to remove power (secular and intellectual) from certain traditional sources (The Church, the nobility, etc), I'm all in favor of removing power and authority from professors and members of academia in general. In fact, I'd like to see quite a lot of them fired and replaced by a combination of certifications and autodidactic habit.

I'm not mounting any arguments against academic authority or credentials or what have you here. I'm just saying where I'm coming from, in part because I now and then get the feeling that most people feel they need to fight fire with fire - or in this case, academics with academics. "Did sociologist or economist or psychologist or philosopher X say Y about subject Z? Well, now *I* need to go find a sociologist or economist or psychologist or philosopher who will say A about Z!" As far as I'm concerned, that simply feeds the problem. Instead of fighting over who controls these individuals and these institutions, they should be made as irrelevant as possible.

That's not to say there aren't numerous philosophers or academics I hold in esteem, even if I disagree with them on this or that subject. But that esteem for those individuals in no way trumps my dislike for the system, culture, and structures in question.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Errors? What Errors?

A Nature Magazine page, explaining one of the standard causes of mutations in evolution.

Let's go down the list, see what problems I can turn up. I warn you: This is me arguably at my most monotonous.

Let's start right with the first question.

Cells employ an arsenal of editing mechanisms to correct mistakes made during DNA replication.

See, this is a line that wouldn't so much as bother a Young Earth Creationist, much less most full-blown Theistic Evolutionists. What is there to find objectionable?

Well, I don't know if I'd call it objectionable. But there's something odd going on with this language. Let's go piece by piece.

* "Cells employ an arsenal of editing mechanisms". Hey look, it's teleological language! Right in Nature! Now, those of you who have found my blog know I have zero problem with teleology. In fact, I think it's impossible to eliminate while still fully and adequately describing nature - chalk me up for the fifth way and all that. All that's important here is to notice that arguably the biggest science journal around, right on their homepage, is quite happy to make with the teleological language without qualification. Cells employ various programs towards an end.

Let's move on.

* "to correct mistakes made during DNA replication." And here's where the problem comes in. Mistakes? What mistakes are being made?

Now, I know what the immediate response is. "Well, the cell is trying to make a perfect copy during DNA replication, and it's failing to. Those are mistakes!" But, why is it assumed that a perfect copy, every time, is the goal of the cell - or of anything else?

There's another response. "Well, most of the time those errors are harmful to the organism!" While "harmful" is a loaded word, that still leads me to say: Fine, let's accept that for the sake of argument. Why is it assumed that the goal of the cell is to avoid all harm?

Let's skip down to the bottom of the page to illustrate why I find something disturbing and wrong with this rendition of cellular functions. Those of you who lean TE or see evolution as teleological may know where I'm going with this already.

Here we go, with some emphasis added: Of course, not all mutations are "bad." But, because so many mutations can cause cancer, DNA repair is obviously a crucially important property of eukaryotic cells. However, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. If DNA repair were perfect and no mutations ever accumulated, there would be no genetic variation—and this variation serves as the raw material for evolution. Successful organisms have thus evolved the means to repair their DNA efficiently but not too efficiently, leaving just enough genetic variability for evolution to continue.

Well there we go. If every replication were utterly perfect, it would be disastrous for life. No way to fill a new niche. No way to adapt at the biological level. It turns out some amount of "errors" are essential - at least if you want impart direction and development to life. But that speaks against regarding these changes in transcription as errors.

And there lies a major problem. How does evolution start to sound if an aspect of the process so fundamental to it is no longer described as "error" or "mistake" or "accident", but is instead recognized and treated as purposeful, essential, and evolution "working as intended"? And before it's pointed out that teleological language is supposedly verboten, note that the page in question is loaded with teleology anyway - it's doubtful they could scrub it all if they wanted to, but if so, "Error" and "Mistake" would have to be scrubbed too. It's just a different flavor of teleology, after all.

As I said, I'm focusing on something monotonous here, so monotonous that even the most critical ID proponents - who constantly (and with some justification) wage war against Junk DNA - tend to overlook. But I think this sort of re-evaluation of evolution and evolutionary language is key and essential. It's almost a kind of poisoning the well, trying to paint evolution in so negative a light that certain people would rather choke than consider it as teleology revealed.

Stupid Atheist Tricks!

Have you ever seen this one?

"Atheists have no beliefs about God! In fact atheism is entirely about the LACK of certain beliefs! That's it!"

And then immediately, by the same person, maybe even the next sentence...

"Atheists believe in the importance of (insert various moral / ethical / laudatory traits here)!"

A related move is this: "Being an atheist doesn't mean you can't be moral! You can value honesty! Or compassion!"

Which leads me to ask, "Can you value killing hookers and making a parka out of their skin? Is that compatible with atheism too?"

I imagine that works better if you're wearing an apron and a hockey mask at the time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fast Thoughts on Buddhism!

Just finished scanning over a comments thread on another site, where Buddhism came up.

I admit, I've always had trouble taking Buddhism too seriously. Partly because it seems that Buddhism doesn't take itself too seriously, and the Buddhists I've run into don't take Buddhism seriously.

There's a few aspects to that. First, Buddhists in general seem allergic to definitive statements or rational discourse, to the point where their whole religion seems very fideistic. I've run into very little in the way of defending or even explaining buddhism philosophically, etc, certainly in a definitive manner. Oh sure, there are some core principles - the four noble truths, the eightfold path. But beyond that?

For instance, I've heard - repeatedly - that Buddhism is an atheistic religion or philosophy. That's far from apparent, even after setting aside all the small-g god / Buddha / boddhisatvas. Apparently Buddha had a bone to pick with Hinduism, but didn't lay down a teaching about God's existence or non-existence, regarding the question as a distraction. Belief in some kind of theistic ultimate ground of being is not only possible, but it shows up in some Buddhist schools and Buddhist thought.

But hey, that's besides the point, right? Buddha just regarded those questions as distractions. Buddhism focuses on important things, the matter at hand - enlightenment, extinguishing the self! But then you're going to find that there's wide disagreement over what this damn "self" or "no-self" is. Which I suppose is fine, since you can also expect to be told "There is no self, and there is no no-self." As usual, the Buddha didn't seem too concerned with making this question clear, and again that helps to explain the various traditions. It isn't like this is a minor question either, since the issue of self is central to the entire philosophy and approach.

And this is all just as well, since the earliest Buddhist scriptures are dated to roundabout the first century AD. And when did Buddha live? Roundabout 600 to 400 BC. So take all the various hyper-skeptical views you see people subject Christianity to and multiply it by ten or so. And it's not like you can say "Well, Buddha's word for word teachings aren't important. Buddhists have experienced what he taught for themselves!", because there's disagreements between various Buddhists over some damn essential issues.

I'm not mounting anything approaching a serious argument against Buddhism here, and I'm being very damn cursory as I give my impressions of what I've read about it. And I'll say right away that Buddhism, in terms of moral teachings, has quite a lot in common with Christianity. There's a lot of common ground there. But it seems like, more than any other major religion, Buddhism does not even attempt to provide a rational argument for or defense of itself. It's almost purely a matter of accepting it at face value and committing without argument to one of a number of views that fall under its banner.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

WHO Wants Power?

I quoted this a few days ago:

“[T]he majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.”

– Harold Pinter, Nobel Lecture (Literature), 2005

Mostly as a throwaway, because "we feed on tapestries" line just struck me as yet another one of those "Poignant, until you think about it. Then actually somewhat silly." moments.

But there's an additional problem I have with the quote now. Rather, something it implies.

The majority of politicians are interested in power and the maintenance of that power rather than truth? Sure, I can get behind that.

What I can't get behind is two things I see it as implying.

First is the idea that politicians have access to "the truth". I suppose they do in certain senses - there are coverups, there are backroom deals, and so on. To call that a problem is an understatement.

But suggesting that politicians and those in power are privy to "the truth", such that they consciously keep the public away from "the truth" at all times? I'm skeptical of that. I think there is this tendency to assume that those in power have direct and certain access to The Truth of matters in order to make their excesses seem that much more sinister and blameworthy. Why can't it be that those in power are just plain deluded? Perhaps even more deluded than normal in virtue of their commitments to power, among other things? Is a person who spreads ignorance or deception always doing so knowingly and willingly?

The second problem is the implied idea that "the people" don't value power and maintaining their power, even at the expense of truth. As if it's only billionaires and senators who are frantic about acquiring and keeping power. They just happen to have more of it. But many people frantically pursue even tiny scraps of power - or, put another way, absolutely any power they are capable of getting.

Power doesn't only come in the form of bought votes on a senate floor, or billion dollar bailouts or government contracts. It also comes in tiny, meager amounts: Unemployment checks, government subsidized health care visits, a bonus at work. Rewards and entitlements, public and private. Find a person who thinks they deserve and should get a given entitlement, and they really don't care who pays for it or even if it can be paid for, and you've found yourself someone pursuing power without concern for truth.

I suppose what I'm getting at here is that the quote, while stirring, is actually far more optimistic than I think is warranted in a way. Having a clear dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys, the ruling class and the oppressed, the corrupt and the honest. No, it doesn't seem so clear cut. The sicknesses that afflict us are everywhere. They are in all three branches of government, at all three levels of government, on TV channel after TV channel, website after website. It is a very cultural corruption.

And in spite of it all, I think there are ways - God willing, of course - to combat it, to soldier on, to improve. But part of that improvement is realizing the sheer scope of what we're dealing with, and what it means for change to start at the individual level.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Anne Rice No Longer Christian!

Well, she's still a Christian insofar as she still believes in and follows Christ, but apparently she wants out of Catholicism and out of... well, hard to say. "Christianity" altogether, it seems, insofar as Christianity is typically associated with specific teachings (On homosexuality, on abortion, and in Catholicism, on contraception) she rejects and has always rejected.

I have mixed reactions to the announcement. Honestly, I still admire her for making a major switch on a fundamental belief and remaining committed to that switch even if she clearly has some problems with the specific (and in my opinion, important) teachings of the Catholic church. I find her move of "I am not a Christian, but I still believe in God and Christ and I worship Christ" to be kind of needlessly dramatic and superficially confusing. But hey, some people are dramatic.

Of course, I'm against the particular things she came out as "for", so I have only limited sympathy on those fronts. I wonder if she was under the impression that it was just a (short, no less) matter of time until the Church started to approve of some abortion, or gay marriages, or... etc, etc. I've heard before that, for all the problems with the church, the liberal advocates within it haven't fared well at all. A couple of decades ago, I suppose a pressing question the "liberal" wing of the Church had was "When will Hans Kung's teachings become the teaching of the church?" Not if, but when. Now the most pressing question for that wing is "How come next to no one knows or cares who Hans Kung is?"

So, it's not really a "good riddance" moment for me. She seems sincere in her faith, and honestly torn about these questions - as opposed to seeming like a primarily political person who had little concern for God but wanted to work against an organization she didn't like from within. So what can I do but pray for her, hope for the best, and take it as a lesson that traditionalists need to approach these questions not only with sturdiness but a voice that can reach people who may have emotional disagreements.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Digital Cameras!

A break from the philosophy, theology, and politics.

I need to use a digital camera for my job. What bothers me is how there isn't a really straight line from the cheapest camera to the best. The features all mix and match. I picked up a Kodak Z981 Easyshare. Huge optical zoom! ~270 buck camera! Nice features all around. I was replacing a Samsung S1050 I got for 100 bucks a few years ago.

Well, the Samsung has a custom white balance option. The Kodak, even though from what I read that's purely software rather than hardware? No go. Presets only.

I'm guessing there's a corporate logic to this, but I wish I could figure it out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Debating Internet Atheists!

Just a side note about some exchanges I've been watching recently, between various internet apologists, blogging philosophers, and a certain wannabe internet atheist desperate for notoriety. Which is why I won't be saying his name, but man, anyone can likely guess who I'm talking about.

* I have rarely seen someone who is as blatantly seeking praise, money, and what passes for internet "stardom" as this guy. He practically oozes insincerity. So much so that I suspect, for all of his "I am a supreme champion atheist scholar!", this is actually far less about scholarship, or even atheism for him. He seems as interested in atheism as, say... Jim Bakker did in Christianity.

* His track record is atrocious. We're talking about a guy who was caught red handed starting up a fake blog to attack people on some theology/apologist website through while insincerely pointing at it as if he was some surprised third party, but didn't cover his tracks enough, and was exposed. If any other so-called "scholar" was caught doing that sort of thing, to say nothing of his other exploits, it would shred his credibility. But again, I'm sure Jim Bakker had some true believers even after his scandal.

* His arguments are inane. He keeps insisting that everyone should take his "test", but if you take his "test" and remain a Christian (or anything else, I have to say) he insists you didn't do it right or are deluding yourself. Also he never deludes himself! He knows this for certain! He's basically a self-parody.

* He rarely actually shows up to debate anywhere. Instead he shows up in comments sections and typically insists anyone talking about him has got him completely wrong, and that they'd realize such if they'd read his arguments. Which he insists he cannot argue for himself, as it requires buying his book. And conveniently he has no rights to his own books and can't offer up a copy of his own. And he'll call his lawyer if you quote too much of his book while you review it. Ultimately, his argument is "Buy my book and you'll be convinced!" Buy his book, read it, review it, point out all the flaws, and he'll insist that the reviewer got everything completely wrong, and readers will realize that for themselves... but they have to buy his book!

I could go on, because the guy in question just strikes me as ridiculously insincere. Again, I'm saying this guy doesn't even care about atheism or Christianity. Hell, I'd say he's the Jim Bakker of atheism, but that would imply vastly more success, suaveness, and skill than this guy has. At the end of the day, he's just yet another wannabe PZ Myers. Except one who is decidedly more slimy than normal.

I bring this up only because I'm waiting for the inevitable day he screws over his blogmates and "co-writers" and they start bitching about him in forums. Regardless, in the off-chance I talk about this guy again, I'll use the following designation for him: "Some asshole in a hat."

Nobel Prize for Literature!

“[T]he majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.”
– Harold Pinter, Nobel Lecture (Literature), 2005

While I can see this meshing well with my previous post, all I can think is "So... what, we're eating the tapestries? Is that where you're going with this?"

The Fact Handlers: Side Note!

While I still need to write up an entry about the bizarre gulf between the research and the reporting as mentioned in this entry, in the meantime I decided to have a look at the wikipedia entry for confirmation bias.

I could make comments all day about it, but this part stood out to me right away:

Oddly, the section devoted to confirmation bias in science is rather small:

A distinguishing feature of scientific thinking is the search for falsifying as well as confirming evidence.[96] However, many times in the history of science, scientists have resisted new discoveries by selectively interpreting or ignoring unfavorable data.[96] In the context of scientific research, confirmation biases can sustain theories or research programs in the face of inadequate or even contradictory evidence;[57][97] the field of parapsychology has been particularly affected.[98] An experimenter's confirmation bias can potentially affect which data are reported. Data that conflict with the experimenter's expectations may be more readily discarded as unreliable, producing the so-called file drawer effect. To combat this tendency, scientific training teaches ways to avoid bias.[99] Experimental designs involving randomization and double blind trials, along with the social process of peer review, mitigate the effect of individual scientists' bias.

Some notes.

* Searching for falsifying evidence is a "distinguishing feature" of "scientific thinking"? But confirmation bias is described as "is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses whether or not it is true." A person engaged in confirmation bias would certainly be seeking falsifying evidence. They'd just be seeking it for views other than what they privilege.

* It's noted that there has been a history of confirmation bias by some scientists. Fair enough - as Vox Day as pointed out, scientists are not "golems animated by the spirit of the scientific method". The field of parapsychology has been singled out, and while I'm skeptical of parapsychology, I'm also skeptical of the skeptics of it. Going back to the previous point, wouldn't determined skeptics of parapsychology be open to charges of confirmation bias? And they as a group would marvelously illustrate that someone engaged in confirmation bias could be dedicated to finding "falsifying evidence" - again, so long as what was being falsified was the view they were biased against.

* It's noted that steps are taken to mitigate against confirmation bias on the part of scientists. Of course, is there scientific evidence these steps do the job they're advertised as doing? How could there be? And couldn't peer review in particular end up exaggerating the problem of confirmation bias? Peers can be biased, both individually and in a group sense.

I'm not making or trying to make any great or deep point here, really. But it seems to me that the mere acknowledgment of confirmation bias as a widespread (call it "natural") phenomenon opens up a can of worms that isn't easily closed.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Absence of Mind and Other Notes!

A review of Absence of Mind by the ever-pleasant David Bentley Hart.

It sounds like a nice book, though it's almost depressing that such a book has to be written given the subject matter. Which is, apparently, a defense of such controversial ideas as self-consciousness. Yes, apparently there are places where that's controversial, now.

I don't say that as a surprise - I've read a fair amount about the Churchlands, Dennett, Blackmore, etc. To me it's something closer to black humor, like hearing there are still ardent communists, or people who believe the Y2K bug is still going to lead to catastrophe even now.

Ah well. Some other notes.

* According to the wikipedia, champion of evolutionary thought E.O. Wilson is a deist. Funny how I never heard this brought up in all the debates over evolution, though it only backs up my belief that many so-called atheists are, in fact, either closet deists or deeply sympathetic to a deist view. I've seen too many of them buckle on the point when pressed. I also note, curiously, that no one seems to bat an eye at a calling a deist a naturalist. Yet more reason for me to call myself a naturalist traditionalist Catholic.

* Also a deist? Infernus! ... Okay, he's apparently a serious satanist, but for some reason wiki lists him as a deist. Still, something to note in passing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Homosexuals, Christians, and Approach!

You know, I'm what most people would label as very "socially conservative". But I have to admit, my own views about how to approach so-called "homosexuals" as individuals, and organizations that generally advance a "gay agenda", tends to differ pretty deeply from what I tend to see when people discuss it.

For one thing, I don't like the label "homosexual". It seems like a modern invention in many ways, borne out of identity politics (accent on the politics), and I try to avoid it as a result. Put short, everyone else's "homosexual" is my "human being, with urges of type X". I reject any attempts, by either side, to define a person so thoroughly by one urge or another. As usual, I'm hypersensitive to language, only because I think it matters tremendously. Very Catholic of me, I suppose.

I also think it's important to differentiate a person with such urges from the larger cultural mentality or network of organizations. Organizations and ideas are in large part abstract things that can be fought and resisted, and I consider it important to do so. Individuals are people who, to a man, I think must be saved from those corrupt organizations and ideas. As ever, it's very easy to confuse the two. I'm sure I slip on this sometimes, on all manner of subjects (Especially with figureheads and leaders.) But it's important to keep it in mind, always.

But for the people in question, that strikes me as the important first step. If someone says "I'm queer!" or "I'm a homosexual!" or "I'm gay!", my response is "No, you're not a label. You're a person with certain desires, even certain views. It does not define you wholly. People are more complicated than that." And this is only a first step.

But it's a first step that sidesteps the whole mistaken path about "The Gays", this mistaken - and, from my socially conservative perspective, counterproductive - idea of people with certain desires as a kind of monolithic group, or individual embodiment of a warped idea. And it's a first step towards helping people understand that defining themselves as "Gay, lesbian, or bisexual" is never something wholly thrust upon them, regardless of their urges or the reasons for them. They really can reject those labels, because they do have and make choices.