Archive for November, 2008

Controlling a conversation

November 30, 2008

I hereby resolve that I will never again let someone else control a conversation and lead me around by the nose so that I end up feeling like a fool.

To keep this from ever happening again, I will remember the following:

Ask questions and challenge assumptions.

Be careful to make the other party explain his argument to my satisfaction before trying to refute it.

If I disagree with a positive statement the other party is making, do not let him go on making it until he has convinced me of its veracity.  I am not responsible for proving him wrong; he has to prove his statement true.

And never, under any circumstances, agree to a presupposition “for the sake of argument” if I would never under any other circumstances agree.

PS: for fuck’s sake, figure out how to politely tell someone they are full of bull pucky.

[grumbles] 50-50 odds for God’s existance, my ass.

Pascal’s Wager

November 29, 2008

If there’s anything that I dread, it’s having to memorize something.

Also, I really resent being challenged by an older male, especially Christian.  By this I am referring to a religious challenge, which I can generally handle.  But it has been imprinted on me that the older male knows more and is someone to be deferred to, especially in spiritual matters.  It doesn’t always happen that I feel like a deer in the headlights just because someone is asking me a bunch of questions.  I can explain why I don’t believe in gods.  But I’ve never had someone come up to me and, knowing I am an atheist, just say, “What about Pascal’s Wager?”  It put me off stride.  Mostly because, as I said, I hate memorizing things, and while I had studied Pascal’s Wager and rejected it (many times), I had not prepared a defense; and in this case, it was an older, intelligent, Christian, male friend who was asking me.

Hell, I rejected the validity of Pascal’s Wager even when I was a Christian.  It’s basically a logical magic trick as far as I’m concerned– it’s too easy, and anything that seems too easy is suspicious to me.  And when someone throws me an argument that seems suspicious, I am never sure how to respond, especially when it is someone that I generally respect and when the topic is one that I am not ready to debate.

So Pascal’s Wager makes the claim that it is only logical to believe in God because if you do believe and he doesn’t exist, then you don’t lose anything.  But if you do not believe and he does exist, then you go to Hell.

So here I am, ambushed (in a well-meaning, friendly debate sort of way) by an argument that sounds suspicious to me and I can’t articulate why.  Plus, my friend is a pretty smart guy and I was surprised that he thought Pascal’s Wager was so good when I had thought it was weak at best.  So that threw me off, too.

I start by trying to make my friend define God, and he evades this (I don’t remember how he did this, the clever bastard).

I end up agreeing, for the sake of argument, that it’s a 50-50 chance that there is a God– which I totally think is false, but  I could not come up with a reason off the top of my head (see above about memorizing things).  So then, my friend asks simply, “Why not believe?”

“You’re assuming I could just make myself believe,” I say.

“Oh, but you can make yourself believe; it’s easy,” my friend says, and something about cognitive dissonance.

I get more suspicious and I say, “even if I could make myself believe, I still don’t have a reason to believe– or a God to believe in, technically.” 

“Just any God,” my friend says, and I say “fine, just any God.”

“But why,” I continue, “Would God want me to be a hedge-betting fence-sitter?  How is that what God wants?  Why would that get me out of Hell?”

But at this point my friend starts to look a little frustrated.  I think it’s because he thought it was a simple argument, but I wasn’t buying his premises (or lack thereof), and he thought the math was easy.  So, why not believe? 

To him, this was like a game where there are 50 cards, 1/2 red and 1/2 blue, and you’ve got a 50-50 chance of guessing the right color of a card you pick at random.  But then you learn that you have to bet your life on being correct, and if you bet your life on blue but it turns out to be red, you are tortured forever; but if you bet your life on red and it’s really blue, you just fall asleep forever and never wake up.  So obviously, red is the only logical bet.  Anything else would be basically insane.

To me, it’s more like a game with a hundred cards, but God is holding all of them.  I ask him to show me the cards so I can understand my odds better, but he refuses.  And then tells me to guess which card he’s holding right now.  And then he disappears forever.  But I know I have to guess the right card before I die or else he will torture me forever.  So I can choose: either guess a card and hope it’s right, or say to myself, “That’s can’t be right.  The odds are too low of me picking the right card, I can’t believe God would do that to me!  It’s much more probable that I dreamed the whole thing.”  And then!  I have another dream (?) where someone tells me, “There’s a trick to beating God at his game!  All you have to do is say, ‘That one,” and it counts for all the cards and God won’t torture you forever!”  And when I wake up, I have to choose between saying “That one!” or “I need to quit eating Chinese food before I go to bed.”

Got it?  Good!

At this point the conversation took a turn because I started to talk about evidence as opposed to faith, so we started talking about how we could quantify and test God (or, more accurately, test the claims of religion).

But back to Pascal.  There’s only one thing his Wager assumes, and that is this: that the sort of God we are talking about will send everyone to Hell who does not believe in him.  That is counter-intuitive enough to need some supporting evidence and make God’s existence less likely.  If he sends people to Hell for being bad people, that makes sense, and then we wouldn’t need to believe in him.  But let’s take Christianity, and this God who cannot forgive the sin of disbelief even though there is no way to prove his existence.  Going into a bit more detail, we see that we all have the sin of disbelief or doubt because of Adam and Eve’s sin.  So not only are we punished (eternally) for something they did, but God directly caused them to do it because he is knows everything and therefore knew they would do it, and he made them curious and doubting regardless.  There was only one way this could go for Adam and Eve, and now everyone has to make this Wager that God will be impressed enough by our response to the mere threat of Hell (again without evidence).

Do you know how much everything in me rebels against the idea of a God who will torture me eternally because I can’t believe he would be willing to torture me eternally?

Enough to make me call myself an atheist, that’s how much.

Now, just a God related to no religion, a watchmaker God who doesn’t do anything or Spinoza’s God who does not exist outside Nature and Physics, is easy to say, “Fine, I can see how maybe that exists,” but there’s no point.  He won’t be offended if I don’t confess, he doesn’t demand any worship or acts if I do believe, so I can get on with my life.  It’s more-or-less atheism with a touch of agnosticism.  That’s close to the 50-50 sort of God.

But the one who knowingly sets in motion a chain of events that will damn my soul to eternal suffering– that makes me suspicious.  And when I get suspicious, I only want to say two words: “prove it.”  At this point statistics don’t convince me, and “Why not believe?” is not the right question.  The right question is, “Why believe?”

Because there’s still the problem of Hell and why God would condemn me to it; and if free will is so great, why would it send me to Hell; and if there is free will in Heaven, can people there sin and get sent to Hell; and if not, why couldn’t God make this world with no free will and just populate Heaven without making Earth at all?

Let me just say here that I’m sure you can come up with an internally consistent answer.  But the more explanations there are, the more unlikely it is– unless you have evidence.  And not just evidence that your religion’s claims can be verified, but evidence that your God is real.  Because if he’s not real, and I believe in him just in case, and if he puts me in Heaven just because I was afraid to go to Hell, I’m not sure that’s the sort of God I want to be spending eternity with.

Think about it.

Imposing morality

November 26, 2008

Proponents for gay marriage argue that their opponents are imposing their morality on other who disagree; i.e., people who think that being gay is wrong are legally and socially imposing their opinion over people who think that being gay is not wrong.  Now my brother, who voted Yes on 8 but claims to not really care, is trying to throw this argument back.  Backstory:

We have been discussing gay marriage and California Proposition 8.  He took offense when I told him he was a bigot (I put it much more gently than that, but he got it) and tried to defend himself.  I said bigots take away rights and discriminate, and he said that I am also bigoted by that definition.  I succeeded in showing him that being anti-gay marriage is bigotry by definition.  I think he accepts that even while he struggles with it applying to him personally (he is a liberal Christian; probably would align himself with what I would call part of the Emerging church movement or Postmodern church– I love those people).

I am trying to show him that he would not be compromising his opinion or religious conscience by fighting for gay civil rights.  He could even stay neutral for all I care; that may actually be the more appropriate response.

But he accused gay rights activists of imposing their views of morality on others. 

First of all, I had to point out that disagreeing with religious people is not bigotry against religious people.  Bigotry is acting against a group based on discrimination, or acting on the assumption that another person does not deserve the same rights that I have.  So gay rights proponents are by definition not bigots.  (There was a faulty assumption involved, because some people assume that gay rights are by definition opposed to religious rights, but I can demonstrate that that is not true.  Of course, if someone wanted to discriminate against religious persons and take away their rights, that is bigotry, but Prop 8 was not about religion.)

So then, my brother tried to argue that gay rights proponents are trying to impose their morality (lack of morality?) on others.  My response was that it is not imposing on another person’s rights to demand those same rights be recognized for gay couples.  Besides, gays having the right to marry does not take away anyone else’s civil rights (this is a tricky point, though, because religious people are often mistaken about the rights that they have).  I realised, though, that his argument was begging the question of this whole idea of morality and all civil rights movements.  When women and minorities and the disabled demanded their rights, were they imposing their morality?  In a sense, you could say that they were.  But were they not correct to do so; were they not entitled to those rights that they were being denied? 

Why would you want to classify a group’s struggle for equal protection as “imposing morality”?  It sounds like a euphemism for “the gay agenda.”

I think I might almost have him convinced  🙂

It’s worth every second of conversation when you try to convince people of the rightness of this cause!  Don’t give up and do your best not to get angry.  Know your facts!– because this will help us win.

side effects

November 24, 2008

I just started taking a new medicine, and I think I am getting an unfortunate side effect.

I can’t add.

I just added 2 and 7 and got… 7.

Then I said, wait a minute!  And counted on my fingers.  Still 7.

What the!

I had been starting with 2, and instead of adding 7, I was just saying, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.  Seven!

Real News versus Fake News

November 24, 2008

Do you know the difference between fake news and real news?

Fake news skips out on a crucial part of newstelling: what next.

Now I know that news stories are supposed to tell who, what, when, where, why, and how.  But that’s the easy part.

I just read an article about rape in Congo.  The descriptions of women’s suffering were graphic– and gratuitous.  How dare you tell me where, when, why, and with what women are being raped if you don’t tell me how I can help?  Who can I donate to?  Can I put up a refugee in my home?  How do I find out which humanitarian aid groups are over there so I can contribute to the cause?

Now I am a librarian and I can research these things.  But what good is a reporter in the Congo if she doesn’t tell me how I can help?  Why publish a story about horrible thing?  Am I supposed to just sit here in my office, perfectly safe, and think, “Oh my god, how terrible!” and then go refill my coffee?

Fuck no!  I am sitting here in horror wondering what I can do to help.  A good reporter– a good human being— would understand this and would be advocating on the behalf of rape victims in the Congo.  Reporters reach hundred of thousands of people a day.  But they don’t really expect me to care about this. 

A Real News organization will end every story or every program with action points and aid organizations and congresspeople to write to.

I don’t think there is any such thing as Real News.

A regulatory story

November 22, 2008

Today I am going to tell you a story– the story of a library invoice who goes to live in a corporate library.


The little invoice arrives in the mail room downstairs, and is delivered to the assistant.


The assistant opens the envelope and stamps it and puts it in a stack of other newborn invoices.


The stack is eventually brought to me, and I do the library processing: stamp it for accounts payable and enter the data in our tracking system, using library fund accounts.


The invoice then goes to the library supervisor, and she signs it and brings it to department AP.


Department AP does primary processing and enters the data into the department’s tracking system, using appropriate cost centers etc.


Then it goes to be signed by department AP supervisor.


The department processing is finalized, and the invoice goes to the company AP.


They finish the processing, making sure that the data is entered correctly in the company’s tracking system with department financial codes (that makes three tracking centers, though the last two interface).


Finally the check is cut and mailed to the vendor, and the invoice goes to live in the giant file cabinet in the sky.


There are slight variations, but I’ll spare you.


The point is, this is absurd.  We all know it is absurd.  And we do it anyways.


We work in energy, a partially regulated industry.  Everybody watches us, so we have to track everything and justify every penny spent, especially if that money comes from rate payments (your electric bill).  And even knowing how absurd it is, I would choose this any day over the current embarrassment that is the financial crisis.  Everyone who is connected to the power grid relies on regulation and accountability– not just accountability to shareholders, but to the customers and to the government.  Sure, you can hook up a generator in your backyard and keep potatoes in your cellar; sure, you can make your own clothes and cook over an open fire.  But for those of us who prefer civilization, we rely on community and accountability.  If that means government, so be it. 


Unless anyone has any other ideas.

Annoying people

November 21, 2008

Don’t you hate it when someone asks you about your opinion, but only because they want to tell you their opinion?

“Oh, how did you like that book?”  [“Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrel,” sitting on my counter]

“I really enjoyed it.”

“I liked it at first blah blah blah plot blah blah character blah blah.”

Can’t he see I’m reading Dinosaur Comics??  Gosh.

Re-defining marriage

November 21, 2008

People talk about re-defining marriage as if it hasn’t been continually re-defined since, well, Adam and Eve. Let me define Marriage as it has been understood historically.  

  • One man and one woman (or many women, historically, but always just one man).
  • The couple’s parents were traditionally responsible for making the match (in order to control the line of inheritance).
  • Marriage between persons of different ethnic backgrounds are illegal, immoral, and contrary to the church’s teachings
  • The wife’s property (that is to say, the property her father gives her upon her marriage) is controlled by the husband
  • A married woman does not retain her status as a legal individual.
  • The wife does not work outside the home
  • The wife stays at home to raise children– and there ARE children unless someone is infertile
  • The husband is responsible for all decisions; for example, it is not a joint bank account

And let’s not get into the various abuses, including rape, which were not illegal or immoral because the man was married to his victim.

Then we can compare that to the modern definition of marriage (prior to gay marriage):

  • one man and one woman
  • who are in love
  • and commit to partnering together, as equals, for the rest of their lives
  • in a sexually exclusive agreement (usually…)

First of all, you can see the impressive gains that the women’s movement has given us. No longer are women property to be passed along so that her father can have someone help manage his accounts and pass on the family line. No longer are children a requirement or an expectation. Women often have careers outside their role as mothers. Women often manage their own finances or the household’s shared finances. Both men and women marry whomever they like without the necessary agreement of their parents. And since 1967, people of different ethnic heritage can marry one another.

What you’re seeing here is gender equality and the re-definition of marriage.

(It’s interesting, is it not, that the Republican party, ostensible proponents of individual rights, want to make laws about who can marry who. It looks suspiciously like they want people to have the freedom to run their own lives and make their own decisions– unless they make decisions they disagree with. But I digress.)

Now, gay couples have always been gay couples. They fall in love, set up a household together, raise children, share bank accounts, and very often spend the rest of their lives together in a monogamous relationship. It does not spell doom for the human race to admit this– not unless you honestly think strait people are going to magically turn gay and stop making babies together.

People often say that a marriage and a domestic partnership are the same thing. And while it is true that legally, in California, domestic partners are considered the legal equivalent of married couples (Family Code 297.5a et seq), it is not the same thing. Setting aside the point that in many states, this is absolutely not true of domestic partnerships or legal unions, think about the social implications of marriage. When you know another couple who are married, you actually know a lot about them. You understand that they have the unquestioned right to make medical decisions for each other, that they share rights over co-parented children, they own property together (like a car or house or furniture or a toothbrush holder), and they have rights to life insurance and social security benefits upon their spouse’s death.

When you marry someone, you send a message to the world: this is the person that I love and trust more than my family; this is the person who understands me and is sympathetic to my opinions, lifestyle, and wishes. We’re in love and we have shared goals. We’ve got each other’s backs without exception or need for an explanation: all you have to say is, “We are married.” Everyone gets it.

Married people have made an official, mature, public decision, and even the most unconventional couple is together because they want to be together. When you apply for a marriage licence, you don’t have to verify that you want children, that you will share a bank account, or any of those other socially-understood reasons to marry. We know you’ve got reasons to marry. So all you have to do, young couple in love, is put your names on the line. That’s it.

I got married in less than an hour; any man and woman can.

And then people have the audacity to say that another couple in love cannot marry because of their loved one’s gender.

Let’s stop pretending, shall we? If it looks like a marriage and acts like a marriage, it is a marriage. Quit with the prim euphemisms like “domestic partnership” (which no strait couple would choose over marriage) and leave your opinions out of it. You don’t judge the appropriateness of anyone else’s relationship– or if you do, you don’t actually try to take away their right to be married– so why do you take it upon yourself to judge gay couples?

Yeah, it’s the redefinition of marriage. Get over it.

Then, you might actually be thankful that we live in a country where women are not treated like property and adult people are permitted– expected— to make their own choices and do everything in their power to live happy, healthy lives. It’s no different than you expect yourself.

The proof that there is no God

November 19, 2008

The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’

‘But,’ says Man, ‘The universe is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’

‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

–Douglas Adams, with slight editing.

Creationism + Christianity 4 ever

November 18, 2008

I got an email forward from a coworker with a lot of those cute questions like, “Why do you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?”  And one of them was, “If man evolved from apes, why are there still apes?”


My response, that I replied-all to, was, “We didn’t evolve from apes; we share a common ancestor with modern apes.  That’s why there’s both.”


My coworker emails me: “And who or what would that ancestor be?”


Australopithecus africanus, for one.  Probably Pierolapithecus catalaunicus also.”


Her response: “I was made in the image of God!  Not ape!”


Once the exclamation marks start coming out, the conversation is over. 


She gets the last word for now since I work in close proximity to her and would like to keep that peaceful.  Looking back, I should have said that regardless of what God did or didn’t do, it wouldn’t hurt to know what the theory of evolution actually claims.  You can’t really reject something unless you understand it, after all.