Saturday, 28 April 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 17

Sunday (22/04): Tangled Thoughts of Leaving - Deaden the Fields
Monday (23/04): Liturgy - Renihilation
Tuesday (24/04): Wavves - Wavves
Wednesday (25/04): Locrian & Mamiffer - Bless Them That Curse You
Thursday (26/04): Torche - Harmonicraft
Friday (27/04): Azarath - Blasphemer's Maledictions
Saturday (28/04): Sigh - In Somniphobia

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Blind Faith (My Encounter With A Mormon)

I live in an apartment, so one thing I don't get is doorknockers. It's not like doorknockers have been a problem for me in the past, but however sporadic it feels somewhat intrusive. Instead, intrusion comes in the form of flyers and having to dodge people who for some reason want to talk to me in the street.

Of course, I should have seen the signs today. To be fair, two days ago, someone stopped to ask directions and it was near a bus interchange. But a man in a suit coming up to introduce himself? I had my mind on getting back to work. So the conversation starts with "I'm from the church." I ask "which church?" as my mind starts to comprehend the situation. As if taken aback at how preposterous that there could be more than one church, the reply comes "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." And good news, they wanted to help me with my happiness and family relationships! I was asked if I was familiar at all with their teachings, and I said I was.

And from there, the conversation took an odd turn, instead of being told of the no doubt wonderful account of who Joseph Smith was and how the Book Of Mormon was God's final testament to humanity, I was asked if I had any questions. And with this offer to learn from the master, all I could think to ask was one of those irritating reflexive questions that highlight the spiritually tone-deaf approach so characteristic of new atheists: "Do you really believe that the Garden of Eden is in Jackson county, Missouri?"

At first he blamed his lack of argument on poor communication skills and that it was because English wasn't his first language (fair enough). Then later, after I had given a scientific argument against the existence of Adam & Eve, all he could do was say "Well, I believe it." Any ground for the validity of the position is conceded right there, as my second spiritually tone-deaf utterance saying that belief in Santa doesn't make Santa true, and that the way to assess whether or not Santa is real is to look at the evidence. By that stage, I needed to get back to work, so I in as polite a way as possible declined the offer of a Mormon business card and left.

As I was walking back to work, the thing that bothered me about the exchange was how unaware he seemed of his own position. Perhaps it was the pressure of speaking a second language, or being challenged in a way that wouldn't normally happened, but he didn't do much of a job at all in giving any indication he knew what he was talking about. That last comment of "I believe it" summed up the problem for me. Here's someone who didn't really know what they were talking about, nor could offer any defence of what they were trying to convince others about, yet they were happy to stop a stranger in the street to have that conversation.

It's fair enough to an extent that we have beliefs that we can't properly articulate, and that we hold things to be true largely on the basis of the authority they have come from. Given the question at the very beginning, I was wondering if this person really cared much at all about the nuances of Mormon theology and instead had devoted part of his life to preaching to strangers on the basis of what the church had done for him personally. If that's the case, and it's purely speculation on my part, then what chance did I have to expect a reasoned defence of theism?

But to stand out on the street and try to convert strangers to a system of belief that you don't yourself properly understand is problematic. If he doesn't know what he's talking about, and manages to convince someone else on the matter, then that's now two people who believe without really knowing why. It's ignorance propagating ignorance, and nothing good can come of it.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 16

Sunday (15/04): Radiohead - OK Computer
Monday (16/04): High on Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis
Tuesday (17/04): Faust - Faust
Wednesday (18/04): NOFX - Pump Up The Valuum
Thursday (19/04): Lair Of The Minotaur - Evil Power
Friday (20/04): The Strokes - Is This It
Saturday (21/04): Elysian - Wires Of Creation

Thought Of The Day

The fight against piracy isn't so much a fight for royalties as it is a fight to control information.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Owning The Narrative

I've been loosely following the reports of the Anders Breivik trial. What Breivik did was despicable; there's no justification for murder - let alone in that manner. What did those teenagers do? Yet according to the media, how Breivik justified his action was that of necessity. He saw himself as doing good.

It will come as no surprise that I'm not keen on the idea of living under any form of theocracy, it's an affront to human dignity and to freedom of conscience. I'm very lucky to be living in a country that not only has a strong focus on civil liberties, but will largely still work towards them. That we live in a country where there's a public debate over gay marriage is something to be proud of, not for the fact that homosexuals are still treated as inferior in the eyes of the government, but that we have a society that is focusing on a question like that. So it goes without saying that I'm against any incursion onto society that's going to limit individual rights, and especially rights of minorities. And on that, I am in opposition to fundamentalist Islam.

Yet Breivik doesn't speak for me. In that we might be (barely) bedfellows on opposing fundamentalist Islam, I don't think that Breivik in his words or actions embodied any of the liberal democratic values that are at the core of my opposition. I'm all for multiculturalism, and think it's a measure of a healthy society. And I don't care whether or not someone is a Muslim any more than a Christian or an atheist, provided that belief doesn't by necessity be forced on others.

So again it should be no surprise that I have no love for right-wing nationalist groups or those who wrap themselves in patriotism and try to place a barrier between our culture and others. Yet it's the right-wing nationalists who are trying their best to be the voices of opposition to particular aspects of culture that people should genuinely be afraid of. That people can live in multiple ways and bring different experiences and perspectives on life should be a good thing, there's nothing to fear in someone eating falafel instead of sausage, or being Buddhist instead of Christian. Yet the prejudices that can and do follow need to be vetted in the same introspective light we do our own society.

It shouldn't be those right-wing groups who are the voices of opposition to any fundamentalist Islamic incursion of values, it should be the domain of all those with conscience and a respect for human dignity. That there are problems with immigration policies shouldn't be a matter of being racist or xenophobic, nor conversely that it's hating one's own culture or wishing for a destruction of society. There's got to be some way to have the conversation in reasonable terms, so that unreasonable voices don't dominate it.

Breivik, apparently, is trying to put his views on trial, with desired witnesses including right wing bloggers and Muslim fanatics. And that is what should be a concern, that a man who felt "doing good" involved personally killing 69 people - most of whom were teenagers - and killed 8 more by setting off a bomb, is trying to be the frontlines against the problems that have arisen from Islamic migration in Europe. Some of his concerns are no doubt imagined, overblown, and taking extreme cases as being the norm. But that he's the voice speaking out, like the jingoist political parties, is what should be of real concern. They, by being the voices in opposition, are the ones owning the narrative by which the discussion is framed.

Monday, 16 April 2012

No Place For Civility?

I was reading Pharyngula today, where PZ Myer's account of a protest outside the GAC got me thinking about how the conversation between believers and non-believers is meant to happen. One could say that it's just human nature that any exchange of this matter will be hostile - we're born believers, not born reasoners after all - but for all the talk of having a fruitful exchange on the topic of religion, how can we possibly do it?

Depite the amount of flyers I get in my mailbox, it's not like I can just walk into a church and start up a spirited, yet respectful, exchange. Likewise I think that any bible study that would have me through the doors would find me a disruption - and in any case my desires are more to talk about the philosophical rather than theological nuances of belief. Where can we go to have this spirited debate?

When I see books like The God Delusion, blogs like Pharyngula, and events like the Reason Rally, what it represents to me is the pushing for a voice in the current cultural climate. I was an atheist long before I found a voice for atheism, but there was little I could do about it other than annoy anyone and everyone with long rants on the topic. Lucky there is personal blogging where I can (mostly) keep it to myself while exercising that desire to speak out. The atheist movement, if movement isn't overselling what is a very small action, in its totality is being one minor voice in a huge sea of voices and topics. One might speculate that the impact it has had in part due to the lack of previous representation.

And even with those few voices and fewer outlets, there's already quite a strong push back. Even among secularists there's at best lukewarm support for the people who have become prominent voices. And at every push to make beyond the most banal of points, there's the accusations of arrogance, stridency, militancy, etc. Jonathan Haidt, in a piece on moral psychology (very interesting stuff, I must add), felt it necessary to take any flaw in the works of the new atheists as being symptomatic of a morally-based militancy. Case in point, that Dawkins didn't spend enough time talking about group selection in The God Delusion as being an example of his moral reasoning rather than scientific reasoning on the process. Hold secular voices to a higher standard? Perhaps. But hold them to an impossible one? Dawkins isn't the only voice sceptical of David Sloan Wilson on group selection...

To make some sort of point with all this, the calls for a civilised conversation are noble. It would be really nice to be able to have civilised conversations, to have constructive dialogues, to have informed and respectful exchanges where being learned was an asset. The question is how that can be achieved. It seems that however a respectful dialogue is meant to be achieved, it's not the way it's going now. And maybe that's true, but it seems that a little incivility is needed to even start the dialogue. Because what other option is there?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 15

Sunday (08/04): Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events
Monday (09/04): Karnivool - Sound Awake
Tuesday (10/04): Atheist - Unquestionable Presence
Wednesday (11/04): Coliseum - No Salvation
Thursday (12/04): Split Cranium - s/t
Friday (13/04): Devo - Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Saturday (14/04): Dragonforce - The Power Within

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Articulating Reason

I went to see a discussion between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins tonight. I'll see over the next few days if I feel like writing up some of the things that came to mind. But for now, I want to focus on an incident during the Q&A, where a young self-identifying Catholic accused science of being a religion. I was facepalming as she tried to get it out, and I'm sure I wasn't alone on hearing it yet again. But what was interesting was that after she asked it, she first stormed back to her seat, then got back up and went to the microphone and resumed arguing. At one stage it sounded like she was about to burst into tears.

I don't mean for that emotion-laden account to dismiss what she had to say. Her question was hostile, and in the course of arguing implicitly accused Dawkins of thinking George Pell was a paedophile. It would be easy to just dismiss it as inane, but what it seemed to me was that the problem was largely her inability to effectively communicate her point. And on that, at least I would hope, this is something we can all empathise with.

Language, despite it's potential power, is often very limited in how well we can use it to share ideas with others. Our experience of what it's like to see a sunset, for example, is vastly richer than any verbal account. The best writers and poets, in my view at least, aren't the people with the richest vocabulary but the ones who can best articulate what most of us can only experience. It's important to remember that for all our intellectual musings that much of how we see the world isn't something that can be so abstractly expressed.

I tend to think that if she asked the question in a different way that there may have been a different response. It was just silly for her to try to argue that the reason Dawkins disagrees is because she dared to challenge him, but what was not silly was an underlying point about the nature of scientific authority and inquiry. Questions about what it is science can know, and to what extent it can know it; questions about the role of "other ways of knowing"; questions about the potential dogmaticism of science. Putting it that way, the questions seem downright reasonable - or at the very least pertinent to ask.

In that exchange, I think there's an important lesson. Krauss and Dawkins did well in handling the questioner, but such exchanges aren't confined to experienced educators. It's certainly something I've come across multiple times before, and I somehow doubt I'm alone in that. In any case, it's given me pause to think about how to handle questions like that; not to dismiss them as incoherent ramblings of people who haven't thought through properly, but to take them as what they are: attempts to articulate that which does not come easily to us.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Who Pays For All This? A Review Of Inside Job

When poker machine legislation was being proposed in Australia, despite the harm that poker machines can do, the legislation would not have outlawed poker machine use. Indeed, very few people who used poker machines would be affected by it at all. The proposed legislation was targeted specifically at problem gamblers, and predominantly the rules would have helped to limit the damage that problem gamblers could do. The response was a targeted campaign against the government, that it would damage clubs and communities, and that the government was being a nanny state trying to restrict our freedoms. If a few lives needed to be wrecked so that clubs could take in as much money as possible, so be it.

Inside Job is a look at the financial services industry and the practices that were said to lead up to the global financial crisis. The lack of regulatory oversight was the central theme; starting with the story of Iceland's banking sector then moving onto the major players in the American story. It's the story of greed, excess, risk-taking, and the complete lack of any regulation on the industry. Even when companies were violating what little regulation there was, the regulators didn't do anything about it.

A movie like this isn't going to be able to tell a complete or detailed account of the events. It's good in how it presents the information, though as to its economic accuracy I cannot verify. It did very little in the way of offering practical advice, so it differed in the hopeful manner of An Inconvenient Truth. The question is left as to why the government is doing nothing about this, which leaves a somewhat bitter taste. The message: we're fucked and the people who fucked us are still there fucking us, and worst of all the people in charge are oblivious (or at the very least indifferent) as to how they are fucking us.

For me, though, the worst part was the lengths at which those in the financial industry went to denying that a problem even existed, let alone whether or not their practices needed to change. It reminded me of the personality types described in The Authoritarians, people who were apologists for the power structures and practices irrespective of their merits. The film tried to paint them as slaves to ideologies, unable to see the world any other way than the failed way in which they adhere to. Whether or not that's accurate, that the people who had a strong influence couldn't even answer in the affirmative about a simple conflict of interest question doesn't leave me with much hope for the future of the financial industry. That these corporations could lawyer up, had people in high places, and had people who would defend their interests no matter what is chilling. It got me thinking, on no account should anyone who wants to be in the financial sector be allowed to be in such a position.

One question I did have was how the influx in revenue in the financial sector was going to be accounted for. When we talk about poker revenue, it's understood that the revenue is the money that is lost by those playing. Anyone's winnings is going to be at the expense of those others who tried, and the money on top of that is what the operators make. If the financial system is in such a way that profits are going higher, that there's huge salaries and bonuses, that there's large fines being dished out that can be absorbed, and there's even a lobby group that has billions of dollars a year at its disposal - then where is this extra revenue coming from?

The documentary gives a number of causes of this: artificial inflation of the house market, excessive corporate borrowing, people taking on more debt, predatory lending, etc. With a system that promoted certain behaviours financially, the argument was that such practices were inevitable - each part of the system acting in its own self-interest, with the whole thing eventually falling apart. Possibly the most egregious moment of the film were the ratings firms defending their dodgy (and well rewarded) ratings as being mere "opinion", which seems about as much opinion as yelling fire in a crowded theatre after being paid by the usher to make a scene.

If nothing else, any industry, especially an otherwise well-established offering no new service, making more and more money should warrant investigation into how that money is being generated. How is it the financial services could become so lucrative for those involved without that money coming from somewhere else?

Getting back to the analogy of the poker machine reforms, the obvious disanalogy is that the poker machine reforms are there to try to help specific individuals who have a problem. Their negative effects are largely sociological and confined to the immediate family and friends of problem gamblers. When the financial system collapses under its own bad practices, nearly everyone is affected. If that's not reason enough to try to put some regulation in place to prevent there being such huge potential collapses in the system, then what would be?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Motivated Reasoning And The Historical Jesus

Since it's Easter and I have four days off, I want to write a post I've been thinking about for a while. When I learned about Christianity, there were two things that my teachers put a strong emphasis on. First was the need for faith, that religious belief would prove itself invaluable as our lives went on. Second was that the biblical narratives were accurate accounts of God on Earth.

The second point is quite an interesting one in that we're compelled to have at least some form of opinion on the matter. My general thinking on the matter was what I later found out Hume was talking about with the problem of miracles - there's really just no way one can take personal accounts as proof of the miraculous. Yet even if one takes this position, the question of how the gospel accounts came about remains.

Somewhere between complete fabrication and accurate historical retelling the truth lies. As to the historical development of the accounts, it's really a question for historians. Most of us are arguing for a particular conclusion, and it's one that's much more theological than historical. And on that, the historical questions in so much as to how much the historical Jesus matches a theological one.

God Incarnate Conclusion
In various discussions with theists, the historical Jesus seems an inevitability. Going back to my days in scripture class, I remember a video telling us that Jesus was the most well-attested historical figure from that era. It was then a surprise later to find out that all this really means was that there were lots of copies of the bible made, and a reference in Josephus that at the very least was embellished by Christian scholars who "preserved" the text.

Yet that is what I'm often told is the clinching evidence that Jesus was who he said he was and did what people say he did. I'm given all sorts of reasoning about the way that the ancients preserved knowledge through oral traditions, claims about eyewitness nature of the gospel accounts, that particular narratives of the gospels couldn't have come about any other way, etc. While the arguments are dependent on the history, they're trying to massage history towards a particular conclusion.

What really stuns me is how tenuous the links are between the facts and the conclusion. There's incredible accounts with very little real evidence supporting them, and making claims about the nature of the evidence that can only lead to that conclusion. There may be a case if it were the other way around, that people followed history to theological conclusions, but who can honestly claim this is how it happened for them?

The best hope is that while it may be today that any sense of addressing the question is tainted by the theology, that the theology is the natural development of historical events. While this could be the case, it still requires many assumptions about the nature of the original authors and events that would be difficult to separate from the motivation to see the theological Jesus as the historical figure.

Jesus Myth Conclusion
One of the more memorable "explanations" of Jesus I've heard is that Jesus was a skilled magician, which I would assume comes from that same vantage point of hearing about the gospel accounts then thinking how they can best be explained. Us as pseudohistorians are meant to be the judge on the biblical accounts as we are presented them, making sense of it with the best understanding we can bring.

Yet it should never be forgotten that we are talking about a proposed time and sequence of events in history. In terms of what heuristics are best to apply, it requires an understanding of more than just the claims themselves. It's understanding the origin of the claims, how they came to be written and in what context the claims are made. It's also having to understand the period itself, what exists there and what ought to exist. This is why it's not really wise to try to theorise on what really happened - not only do most of us not know, we don't have the right tools to change that.

When I hear "Jesus is a myth", it's one of those statements that requires clarification in the same manner as J.L. Mackie's "there is no objective ethics". Even among scholarly proponents, there's several overlapping meanings, so what one means by myth is not apparently obvious. In at least a trivial sense, anyone who denies the biblical accounts as accurate is putting forward a mythic view of Jesus. But obviously there's a big difference between embellishments on a historical figure and the invention of one; in the former then many Christians would be considered proponents of the Jesus myth hypothesis.

But if we are to take the question seriously, blanket statements like "Jesus in a myth" are unhelpful. It's framing the premise wrongly. To illustrate this, consider the statement that Uri Geller is a myth. If one made the statement that it just meant that a Uri Geller who had psychic powers couldn't exist, then it's not really saying much. A Uri Geller does exist, and he did claim to have psychic powers and developed a following on that basis. Even if one takes the accounts as not being possibly true, it doesn't say much at all about how the accounts came about. In Uri Geller's case, Uri Geller did perform the tricks ascribed to him - only that they were tricks.

A Reluctant Search
The history of Jesus matters to a lot of people, even if the historical nature of the question does not. It's important to understand not only what evidence there is (and what evidence there isn't), but what that evidence can show. It's not a question I'm particularly interested in exploring, but it's one that I feel I have little choice but to at least have an awareness of the relevant evidence. Beyond that, any specific conclusion about what the evidence says is going to be more a product of motivated reasoning than an accurate reading than of careful scholarship. For myself, I'm going to push through a Bart Ehrman lecture series on the historical Jesus - so then I can get back to learning about something of actual consequence.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Album Of The Day: Week 14

Sunday (01/04): Ayreon - Into The Electric Castle
Monday (02/04): Dark Tranquillity - Fiction
Tuesday (03/04): The Dillinger Escape Plan - Miss Machine
Wednesday (04/04): Eagles Of Death Metal - Death By Sexy
Thursday (05/04): The Saints - (I'm) Stranded
Friday (06/04): Syven - Aikaintaite
Saturday (07/04): Agalloch - Marrow Of The Spirit

Thursday, 5 April 2012


"Not pretending to know things that you don't know is a virtue." - Peter Boghossian