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It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas December 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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In a New York Times piece entitled “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks tries hard to avoid saying anything too concrete or specific that might cast doubt on his faith that faith is The Bestest Thing Ever. Between mind-numbing platitudes (“faith is unpredictable and ever-changing”) and word salad (“trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience”), however, those readers who remain awake should be able to see why he’s wrong.

It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?

Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.

These glimmering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith…

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

To see what a sneaky trick Brooks is trying to pull here, imagine he’d said that the experiences of childbirth, music and love justify faith in Jesus’s resurrection. Or in Allah’s revelation to Mohammed. Brooks goes on to assert that “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason” — but that’s just false: religious faith is defined as belief without evidence, which is the antithesis of reason. Appreciating the awe-inspiring moments of our lives, even those we do not fully understand, does not require that we accept any unjustified beliefs about the nature of the universe. In fact, doing so can be extremely dangerous, which Brooks fails to acknowledge — though we need only consider how his idealized picture plays out in the real world:

All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves… They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

Indeed: That’s exactly what ISIS is doing when it enforces sharia by the sword. And that’s what the Catholic Church is doing when it fights contraception and abortion and gays. Who’s to say what it is that the creator loves? Or hates?

The problem with religious faith is that it fills the void of doubt with conviction that cannot be argued with. Brooks tries to make it look respectable, but faith is a thief taking credit it hasn’t earned. We are better served by letting the wonders of our universe inspire us to expand our knowledge through careful reasoning, one step at a time. As for those mysteries we haven’t yet solved, we should reserve judgement — never surrender them to faith.

(via Pharyngula)

A gift that keeps on giving December 21, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science.
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  • Prepare 5 blank papers, and number them (#1 to #5).
  • On paper #1, write: “Prepare 5 blank papers, and number them (#1 to #5).
  • On paper #2, write: “Start a fresh page, and copy the contents of paper #1 onto it.
  • On paper #3, write: “Then, for each of the numbers 1 through 5, write on the fresh page:”, followed by quotation marks, followed by “On paper #X, write:”, followed by quotation marks, followed by “, followed by quotation marks, followed by the contents of paper #X, followed by quotation marks (where X is replaced first by 1, then by 2, etc. — five lines in total).
  • On paper #4, write: “Then copy the contents of papers #2, #3, #4, and #5 onto the fresh page.
  • On paper #5, write: “Give the page to a friend.
  • Start a fresh page, and copy the contents of paper #1 onto it.
  • Then, for each of the numbers 1 through 5, write on the fresh page: “On paper #X, write:”, followed by quotation marks, followed by the contents of paper #X, followed by quotation marks (where X is replaced first by 1, then by 2, etc. — five lines in total).
  • Then copy the contents of papers #2, #3, #4, and #5 onto the fresh page.
  • Give the page to a friend.

Judge sentences 11-year-old to death by tradition November 18, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Law, Superstition.
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Not in Saudi Arabia. Not in Afghanistan. In Canada.

An emotional dispute over a family’s decision to pull their cancer-stricken daughter out of chemotherapy ended Friday with a potentially far-reaching constitutional decision, as a judge ruled First Nations’ people have a legal right to seek out traditional native remedies.

Which apparently trumps the right of the child to not die.

[Ontario Justice Gethin Edward] rejected a request by the hospital that had been treating the 11-year-old girl to force the local children’s aid society to apprehend her so she could resume chemotherapy. Doctors have said her kind of leukemia has a 90% cure rate with modern treatment, but is an almost certain death sentence without it.

Earning applause from many in a packed courtroom Friday, the judge said traditional health care is an integral part of the family’s Mohawk culture and therefore protected by the Constitution.

What if beating children were also an integral part of the family’s culture? Or sacrificing them to the gods? What good is a constitution that fails to protect children from needless harm?

Evidence showed the mother from Six Nations reserve is “deeply committed to her longhouse beliefs and her belief that traditional medicines work,” said Judge Edward.

So the court relied on evidence to show that the mother’s beliefs are sincere, but didn’t care what the evidence says about whether those beliefs are true. Because everyone knows that statistics don’t apply to you if you don’t believe in them.

“This is not an eleventh-hour epiphany employed to take her daughter out of the rigours of chemotherapy,” he said. “Rather it is a decision made by a mother, on behalf of a daughter she truly loves, steeped in a practice that has been rooted in their culture from its beginnings.”

Harmful practices need to be rooted out, not perpetuated, no matter their pedigree. A child could understand that. How many more children must die just so a tradition might live?

Playing by the rules November 15, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Game theory, Logic.
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chess-cube“Want to play a game?”

“Sure! But first we need to agree on the rules.”

“Of course. I propose that we take turns proposing rules.”

“Agreed, and since you just proposed the first rule, I guess I get to propose the next one.”

“Wait a minute: I didn’t propose a rule for the game itself — I merely proposed a rule for how we ought to go about proposing the game rules.”

“Apologies; yours was indeed a meta-rule. In that case, let me propose a meta-rule of my own: Any disagreement about a proposed game rule will be decided by flipping a coin.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that.”

“Well, we haven’t yet agreed on a method for resolving disagreements about meta-rules. Do you have a suggestion?”

“How about we take turns: one of us gets to decide the first disagreement, the other decides the next disagreement, and so on.”

“OK, then: following your meta-meta-rule, I now get to decide our meta-rule disagreement about how to resolve disagreements about game rules.”

“Hold on: Who said you get to decide the first meta-rule disagreement?”

“Well, I let you determine the meta-meta-rule on how to decide meta-rule disagreements, so now it’s my turn.”

“Nice try, but we never agreed on how to resolve disagreements about meta-meta-rules. You can’t just make unilateral assumptions.”

“Well, how come you got to propose the first meta-rule to begin with? If you get to propose the first meta-rule then I should get to decide the first meta-rule disagreement.”

“Then I get to propose the first game rule.”

“Agreed.”

“First, I propose the following meta-rule: If the first rule proposal is challenged and loses the coin flip, the challenger must propose the following as his next rule: ‘The winner is whoever proposed playing the game.'”

“I don’t agree to that!”

“Noted, but according to our meta-meta-rule, it’s my turn to decide in case of disagreement on a meta-rule. And now for my first proposed game rule: The winner is whoever proposed playing the game.”

“Even if I disagree I still lose. Nicely played.”

“Thanks! That was fun.”

“Indeed. But maybe we should play a different game next time?”

“Sure! As long as we can agree on the rules…”

If gerrymandering were allowed outside politics November 2, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics.
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  • “So what if I was driving 10 mph over the speed limit? Yesterday I drove 15 below.”
  • “You may have won two out of three games, but I scored more points in the first three quarters of the first game and in the last three quarters of the last game. So I win the series.”
  • “I know you’re entitled to a refund for unused items, but since you bought four items and used two we’re considering all the items half used.”

Gerrymandered

Bewitched October 12, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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Some horrifying yet hardly unprecedented news from the year 2014:

Tanzanian police have charged 23 people with murder after seven villagers were burned alive on suspicion of witchcraft…

A Tanzanian human rights group estimates that 500 suspected witches are killed in Tanzania annually…

Witnesses say some of the victims were attacked with machetes and their homes burned…

Belief in witchcraft is prevalent in many parts of Tanzania.

Between 2005 and 2011, reports say around 3,000 people were killed after being accused of being witches.

Several of the victims were old women but witch doctors — village healers who are sometimes involved in the witch hunts — have also targeted young children and albinos, the latter because their body parts are thought to bring prosperity.

Some obvious and uncontroversial observations:

  • There’s no such thing as witchcraft. People who believe in witchcraft are wrong.
  • Belief in witchcraft motivates some people to kill innocents (who they would not otherwise kill).
  • The fact that people believe in witchcraft is bad: our world would be a better place if no one believed in witchcraft. We should actively and unambiguously criticize the belief in witchcraft, in an attempt to eradicate it.
  • The fact that a majority of those who believe in witchcraft are nonviolent and condemn murderous witch hunts doesn’t mean that belief in witchcraft isn’t a problem and shouldn’t be criticized; nor should such criticism be conflated with bigotry or discrimination towards peaceful believers in witchcraft.

In other horrifying yet hardly unprecedented news from the year 2014:

As the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has seized vast territories in western and northern Iraq, there have been frequent accounts of fighters’ capturing groups of people and releasing the Sunnis while the Shiites are singled out for execution.

ISIS believes that the Shiites are apostates and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam…

In a chilling video that appeared to have been made more than a year ago in the Anbar Province of Iraq, ISIS fighters stopped three truck drivers in the desert and asked them whether they were Sunnis or Shiites. All three claimed to be Sunni. Then the questions got harder. They were asked how they performed each of the prayers: morning, midday and evening. The truck drivers disagreed on their methods, and all were shot.

I was going to make some observations about Islam, but I wouldn’t want to be a racist imperialist fascist bigot.

Freedom of superstition July 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Religion, Superstition.
2 comments

You keep using that term, “freedom of religion” — I do not think it means what you think it means. The problem is that everyone thinks their own religion is eminently reasonable and wise, while all other religions are mistaken at best. And there’s no way to ever work out which is right, since they’re all equally unsupported by evidence. So, while people shouldn’t be persecuted because of their religious beliefs, the flip side is that those beliefs don’t (or shouldn’t) confer any magical “get out of jail free” cards, either: the law must be strictly secular, with no religious exceptions. People often conveniently forget this when their own religion is the beneficiary (at the expense of those who don’t share it).

So here’s my proposition: “freedom of religion” will be renamed “freedom of superstition.” That should help clear up any confusion about what is and isn’t included. You’re free to be as superstitious as you want in your private life; it’s just that you can’t force anyone else to respect your superstitions, or expect to be exempted from any laws because of them.

Let’s give it a try: Your superstition tells you that your neighbor is a witch? You’re free to shun her, but not to burn her. Your superstition forbids contraception? You’re free to eschew it, but not to make it less accessible to others. Your superstition demonizes gays? You’re free to not have sex with people of your own gender, but not to discriminate against those who do.

What’s that? You don’t like your sacred, heartfelt convictions referred to as superstitions? Well, then, all you have to do is bring forth good evidence to support them — at which point we can all get on board, no special pleading necessary. Until then, I wouldn’t talk so loud. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts and you’re not entitled to your own laws.

Numerous heart-wrenching stories June 1, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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PETA: Hello, parent! I’m with “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”

Parent: Are you going to present an ethical argument for why eating animal products is wrong?

PETA: Well, let me ask you this: Did you know there’s a link between dairy products and child autism?

Parent: No! That’s pretty scary!

PETA: Yes, indeed. More research is needed, but scientific studies have shown that many autistic kids improve dramatically when put on a diet free of dairy foods.

Parent: Wow, that sounds serious. How many studies are we talking about?

PETA: Two.

Parent: And how many children participated?

PETA: 36 and 20.

Parent: I see… When were these studies published?

PETA: 1995 and 2002.

Parent: You weren’t kidding when you said “more research is needed.” Has any additional research been done since?

PETA: We’re just trying to alert the public to the link between autism and dairy products.

Parent: Let me check for myself… Actually, there was a systematic review of 15 articles (published in 2010), which concluded that “the current corpus of research does not support” the use of gluten-free or dairy-free diets in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder. And another systematic review of studies since 1970 (published in 2014) concluded that “the evidence on this topic is currently limited and weak,” and recommended that restricted diets only be used if a food allergy is diagnosed.

PETA: But on the other hand, did you know that the Internet contains numerous heart-wrenching stories from parents of kids who had suffered the worst effects of autism for years before dairy foods were eliminated from their children’s diets? Would you like to hear one mother’s story?

Parent: Did you know that the world contains numerous heart-wrenching stories of kids who suffered needlessly because their parents were taken in by unscientific bullshit?

PETA: To learn more about a diet free of dairy products, order our free “Vegetarian Starter Kit” today.

Parent: Fuck you, PETA.

Fuck you, PETA.

Fuck you, PETA.

(via IFLS)

To see it as it is May 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Science.
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In his essay “The Place of Science in a Liberal Education”, Bertrand Russell argues that one of the benefits of a scientific education has to do with “the temper of mind out of which the scientific method grows”:

The kernel of the scientific outlook is a thing so simple, so obvious, so seemingly trivial, that the mention of it may almost excite derision. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. Stated thus baldly, this may seem no more than a trite truism. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing our passionate partisanship is by no means easy, especially where the available evidence is uncertain and inconclusive…

The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be…

The instinct of constructiveness, which is one of the chief incentives to artistic creation, can find in scientific systems a satisfaction more massive than any epic poem. Disinterested curiosity, which is the source of almost all intellectual effort, finds with astonished delight that science can unveil secrets which might well have seemed for ever undiscoverable. The desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances, and even from the whole recurring human cycle of birth and death, is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else. To all these must be added, as contributing to the happiness of the man of science, the admiration of splendid achievement, and the consciousness of inestimable utility to the human race. A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.

With him or against him May 17, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Religion.
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It was sixty years ago today that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools; and it was ten years ago today that Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Michigan courts are attempting to follow suit, and you’d think members of a minority that had previously been denied equal rights for no reason other than prejudice would be sympathetic — but you’d be wrong.

Gay marriage would “destroy the backbone of our society,” said the Rev. Stacey Swimp of Flint at a Wednesday morning rally held by African-American ministers at First Baptist World Changers International Church in Detroit…

The ministers criticized people who compare the struggle for same-sex marriage to the black civil rights movement, saying such a comparison is offensive and historically inaccurate. Noting that millions of blacks were killed by slavery and public lynchings, Swimp said that backers of gay marriage who compare their movement to black struggles are being “intellectually empty, dishonest.”

Yes, gay people should wait until millions of them have been lynched to death before making a fuss about discrimination.

By the way, what exactly is the ministers’ problem with homosexuality?

“We believe in the Judeo-Christian conception on which America was founded upon,” said the Rev. Rader Johnson of Greater Bibleway Temple in Bay City.

Many quoted from the Bible and the history of Christianity to back up their beliefs. They also portrayed themselves as under attack from a secular culture that’s hostile to religion.

“God does not agree with this kind of behavior,” the Rev. James Crowder, president of Westside Ministerial Alliance Of Detroit, said of gay sexual acts. It’s “despicable, an abomination.”

Or, as Pastor Roland Caldwell put it:

Either you’re with God or you’re against him. If you’re against God, you’re against me… Anybody that’s an enemy of God is an enemy of mine.

And that’s why religion is so pernicious: it combines the (unjustified) belief that we know God’s will with the (immoral) conviction that obeying it is a virtue. This combination can produce positive behavior when what’s attributed to God’s will is actually good (amounting to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons); but so long as obedience is encouraged and critical thinking discouraged, there is always the potential to slide into doing evil (while thinking you’re doing good) — whenever someone decides to take the Bible seriously, for instance. Because the God of the Bible is fine with slavery (as the slaveholders of the South were fond of pointing out). And genocide. And stoning children.

If that God does exist, we should all be against him.

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