Almost… there…

Lack of updates caused by experiments, lack of sleep, and invigilation.

In the meantime, some excellent music from South Africa. Cover of a song originally by one of my most favourite bands ever.

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Morality in conflict

15/11/2011 5 comments

I find myself in a bit of a moral quandary.

On Monday our club had a meeting with the Campus for Christ group, to talk about proselytization. It started with us sitting in a kind of awkward circle, and went from there. We were slightly outnumbered, but given how much most of us like to talk, it wasn’t really an issue.

First off we argued about proselytization. Essentially, they prefer the term “evangelize”, and we agreed that both groups use persuasion to attempt to convince people of the correctness of their position. The main C4C guy brought up an idea I understand from Aquinas, that Christians use rational arguments to convince people of the truth of theism, and then allow God to convince them of Christianity. I have an issue with those arguments being rational (since, you know, I don’t think they are), but I agree that Christians do use rational-type arguments at times, separate from discussions about faith alone.

We talked a bit about what evangelists hope to achieve by evangelizing, and they replied that it would be selfish not to spread the good news, and the joy they’ve experienced through their personal relationship with Christ.

Both of us agreed that we tend to aim our arguments at undecided people, as well as reinforcing and examining the positions of people who already share our view.

There was a lot that came up, including some finer theological questions about Jesus and redemption, and how original sin created a gulf between God and man, which could only be bridged by God through Jesus (via some hand-waving about our inability to understand God’s omnipotence). But the major thing for me what when I asked about hell, and whether non-believers and those who’ve never heard of Jesus (separate groups, to my mind) go to hell.

They’d mentioned earlier than Hell is necessary for God to be both merciful and just, but we hadn’t really examined that idea. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised, since Hell seems like such an indefensible doctrine that I sort of assumed most mainstream Christians glossed over it. But C4C explained that Christianity holds three major positions on the question of hell.

In universalism, everyone goes to Heaven, regardless. In inclusiveness (which is apparently the Catholic position, post Vatican-II), everyone goes to Heaven through the Church, regardless of their religious beliefs. And then there’s exclusivism, which goes by John 14:6, where Christ says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is the doctrine held to by C4C people, where the only way to avoid Hell is through Jesus.

There was a lot more argumentation and discussion, some of which I have problems with, especially as we never got to discussing that a lot of these doctrines come with an enormous number of assumptions – particularly the existence of the Christian God. But afterwards the above point about exclusivism kept coming back to me.

We spent most of the evening sitting and having a civil and polite discussion with some nice, fairly intelligent people who sincerely believe that I and my friends will be in eternal agony after death. And not only do they think this, it’s a feature, not a bug. We sort of changed the subject after exclusivism came up, but in retrospect I wish we’d kept on this point. I don’t understand how people can believe this and still think of themselves as good people.

From the discussion, I think they’d talk about God’s role, and how without the connection provided by Jesus, we’re cut off from God. But that’s not really an excuse, just an abdication of moral obligation to God. The more I think about it, the more monstrous it seems.

A lot of the Freethought people seemed a bit surprised at how much this was affecting me. But I wasn’t in the Church when I was old enough to really think about these things. And since then, I’ve always sort of though these ideas were the province of racist Southern white Baptists, not normal, friendly Christians. It might be part of mostly knowing Christians of a fairly liberal persuasion, but now I wonder if they believe the same thing. How can you be friends with someone who is alright with you suffering eternally, and who thinks this is just and merciful? How can you even have a civil conversation with them? It makes me wonder if it’s even moral for me to participate in another discussion with C4C. And what seems even stranger is that not only do people not seem to think this point of view is monstrous, but they think people who believe it are laudable, upstanding members of society.

We think Christians are incorrect. But we don’t think their mistake or misbelief will result in them being punished. As much as people think atheists are arrogant or superior, I can’t see how thinking someone is mistaken measures up against someone thinking it deserves eternal suffering.

More things to work on. And by work on, I mean knock the fuck off.

28/10/2011 8 comments

I don’t usually criticize the atheist community a lot. Oh, I call stuff out from time to time, but I don’t like doing it. I have enough trouble with my friends on the left who think atheists are all white privileged dudely types. Which is itself a problematic attitude, but it’s true those people currently dominate the community.

Now, there’s been some positive work done on feminism in atheist circles, and there are plenty of female atheist writers. There’s obviously issues with this, as Elevatorgate and various things I’ve complained about indicate, but I think it’s better than outside the community, still. We’re lagging a bit on race, partly because the English-speaking atheist community doesn’t have a lot of contact with the atheist-humanist-skeptical communities in non-English countries, especially outside of Europe, and partly because of the preponderance of white people starting out. There’s also some interaction with problems of non-religious space for people of colour in their own communities, but I’ll leave people like Sikivu Hutchinson to explain that to the rest of us.

Apparently, though, we’re still mired in the fucking dark ages when it comes to ableism. For the example that has me so mad, see this post on the normally good Pharyngula site. EDIT: Have been reminded PZ has a history of using “crazy” and “deluded” to describe opponents, so a certain degree of ableism’s shown up in the past. Must have been thinking normally good on gender and race.

It’s part of the “Why I am an Atheist” series. Most of them have been alright. I don’t really like testimonials, so I haven’t paid them much attention, but the few I’ve skimmed have been alright, if unpolished. Unpolished is fine – I certainly can’t throw any stones there.

But the sheer condescending dickery on the post above isn’t a lack of polish. It’s indicative of one of the worst tendencies of the atheist community – to be smugly superior. Think Dennett’s attempt to create a “Bright’s” movement. It thankfully never took off, but there is a tendency in certain quarters to assume being an atheist automatically makes you cleverer than anyone else. I can see where this might crop up, especially in the States, if the only religious people you ever encounter are Tea Party-esque evangelicals, or Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. But for the most part, atheists are not smarter than anyone else, just (in my view) right about a single thing.

I would critique the post line-by-line, but I’m not sure I can make myself go back through it in any kind of detail. Suffice to say, it represents the worst sort of “inspired by disability” attitudes, as well as a “it’s almost like mentally disabled people are real people” mind-set that makes me want to reach through the tubes and smack people.

I’m most disappointed with the comments. So many people don’t even see a problem here, and it’s mind-boggling. Apparently you shouldn’t be condescending, or use insults as endearments, to women or black people or GLBTA people, but if they have a mental disability, why, it’s perfectly alright. After all, it just shows off their child-like wonder with the world, right?

A question of science and art.

09/10/2011 2 comments

I’ve been informed that I really ought to stop using “So I…” to begin posts. I kind of like doing it, since I feel it drops people right into things, but I’m open to advice.

My thoughts here are coming from a friend talking to me about her anthropology class. Anyways, they were talking about structuralism, and apparently the discussion turned to how our brains register and receive images, “and whether there’s an ‘unmediated moment of pure experience’ before you start dissecting it with interpretations.” As she put it, this conversation took place “without knowing shit, or being required to know shit about brains.”

Now, I’m well aware that people talk shit about things they have no real expertise in all the time. Certainly people in my lab discuss art theory, social theory, politics, anthro, and all sorts of things without any particular education in it. But we rarely do this in class. And I’ve notice this in other contexts, where someone from OCAD was doing a project on neuroscience and how it represents data without being aware of pretty much any of the literature on the topics they were considering. I often get this sense that non-scientists are skeptical of some scientific claims or methods, but then never see if those things are covered in the scientific literature, and start to investigate these claims or methods using art, introspection, or theorizing. For OCAD, they were very doubtful that EEG could measure brain waves, or tell when people were thinking differently, despite this being pretty trivial in any field that uses EEG, such as sleep research (polysomnography) or cognitive science (event-related potentials) or motor studies (using motor-evoked potentials).

My friend’s anecdote bothered me because there is in fact a huge literature on vision and the pathways taken through the brain by visual signals, and how they’re processed. Even just a quick look at this page shows there’s a large amount of data and theory, based on rigorous experimentation using a broad range of techniques, from physiology, single-cell recordings, EEG, functional neuroimaging, clinical research, etc.

Furthermore, experiences are never unmediated. Even if you ignore any kind of linguistic interpretation placed on an experience through conscious awareness of it, all of our senses are transduced into an electrochemical signal. Light rays hitting retinal cells, sound waves hitting our ear drums, chemicals locking into receptors on our tongues, kinetic energy being transferred to our skin (ie heat), are all sent as electrochemical signals from our sensory nerves to our brains as action potentials. It is the source, frequency, and destination of these action potentials that determine our experience of sensations.

This bugs me. It’s one thing to go on about something in ignorance in a casual conversation – it’s another to do so in a classroom. These questions have answers, and there’s no good reason for people not to look at them. Otherwise you’ll assume your guess is as good as anyone elses’. And it isn’t.


As an aside, there was another thing that bugged me. There was someone in the same class arguing “[the fact that] that we always operate within language was a privileged western worldview.” The class eventually determined that “by language, [they] had established that we meant ‘systems of meaning'”. Which, by the way, is how all communication occurs. Through systems of representation and symbolism. Pretty much one of those few universal human experiences. As I told my friend, I often tend to assume people who talk like that are fetishizing east/west dichotomies, which often strike me as modern orientalism under the guise of anti-privilege positions. Especially given the person was essentially saying ‘eastern culture finds its greatest meaning in silence’, which is complete BS, given the huge amount of writing the Chinese and Indians (who are usually who’s meant by “eastern”), among others, have done on every topic. Even a division of “East” and “West” is a problem, given the large numbers of disparate groups that are being crushed together under those arbitrary labels.


I think people should look at work that’s been done previously. Scientists need to consult economists, musicians, anthropologists, sexologists, etc, if they want to make claims involving those subjects. That’s usually acknowledged, even if it often doesn’t happen in practice. People in the arts and humanities, on the other hand, rarely seem to see any need to consult with scientists on topics touching on science, even if they’re actively critiquing scientific facts or methods. This may have something to do with the different ways the disciplines have of building or creating knowledge.

While I don’t think experts are always right, or irrefutable, there is a reason they’re experts.

Souls and samosas.

03/10/2011 2 comments

So my club had a samosa sale today. Apparently, not everyone is aware of this form of food, but it’s sort of like a curried Shepherd’s pie in a pastry. Selling these is a pretty common method of fundraising at McGill, and they’re way more popular than baked goods.

As a promotion for our club, you could either give us money, or sell us your “soul”. We had little contracts for people to sign, and they could leave them with us or take them with them, according to comfort level. By the end of it, we were down 100 samosas, and up 14 souls and some cash.

It was interesting to observe people as we explained the offer. Some people were pleased with the idea and signed a contract right away. Other people, strangely enough, demanded to know why we wanted their souls and what we planned to do with them (I still think we should auction them to Campus for Christ, but 14 souls is probably small potatoes for them). One man approached us with money in hand, and when we explained our offer, walked off mumbling that he needed to find some change. I don’t think he came back.

Surprisingly, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, myself. There’s a strong social push to view the term “soul” to mean conscience, self, essence, identity, etc. We’re asking people to sign that over symbolically, despite the fact that there’s no real effect. I often put more meaning into symbolic gestures than I ought to, given how superstitious it is. I think it’s partly to do with being raised in a Christian culture, where gestures like baptism, crossing oneself, maintaining your faith in the face of adversity, not swearing using God’s name, are pretty big things even for people who aren’t especially religious. Obviously, these things aren’t limited to Christianity, but they do feature in it.

I don’t like to say the shahada. I don’t like being in churches, and I especially don’t like having to participate in religious ceremonies. I don’t like verbally wishing people ill, and I sometimes feel worried if I say things like “I’m sure so-and-so is alright.” Some of it’s my dislike for deception. Letting people think I’m religious, or am participating in a religious rite with them feels like lying about who I am and my relationship to them. Like shaking hands with your neighbours during a wedding ceremony, to “join in the community of Christ,” or however it’s put. Doing so says “I am one of you and share your beliefs,” and I don’t like doing it.

It’s often talked about in atheist circles that, in a theocratic situation, we wouldn’t stand firm in our non-faith. If required to convert or die, we’d convert, because why not? We don’t believe in any spiritual punishments for apostasy, and it’s a pragmatic sort of thing to do. Seeing it as somehow harmful to yourself seems to me to be very much a religious ideal of what’s moral, rather than an actual moral deed. The wrong lies with the ones threatening you, not the reverse.

But here, I’m not entirely sure I would. Apart from the lying (and atheists definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with lying to protect yourself or others from harm), I do have something of a superstitious discomfort with the idea. Selling my soul would seem like somehow signing away my own agency, even just symbolically. Obviously I’m not worried about an afterlife, but there is a small part of me that nibbles at me, wondering if I’ll somehow be a bit emptier afterwards.

It’s probably a social thing. There’s so much about the “soulless” in novels, games, movies, etc, that it’s difficult to think rationally about it. This is one of the benefits I see to events like this. It’s uncomfortable for lots of people, sure. But if we can overcome that discomfort, we’ll find we have a wider range of options for our own behaviour and thoughts. It reminds me of George Carlin, being ask if he felt swearing was somehow a sign of a limited vocabulary in his act. He’s quoted in the book Satiristas (by Paul Provenza):

“Yeah, that “You don’t need to; you’re a funny man, you don’t need that stuff” thing. Well, my argument is that you don’t need paprika or oregano or a few other things to make a stew, technically, either — but you make a better stew. If you’re inclined to make a stew of that type, “seasoning” helps.

I know from Bill Cosby’s work, he clearly feels that way, and I’ve always felt that by taking that stand and developing a body of work that didn’t include it, Cosby can never now choose to use that language. I, however, can choose either.

I can do six minutes on The Tonight Show with none of that in it — I can use other parts of my tool kit that work for me; I’m good at them, too, and can do that no problem — but I can also be more of my street-corner self elsewhere, with language of the street if I want to do that, too.”

Atheism, rationalism, skepticism: these broaden our options, giving us additional tools and removing barriers that we’ve placed, not for social protection or order or good, but to prevent us from thinking clearly about certain things.

Seminar ick.

28/09/2011 2 comments

So there’s going to be a seminar series on religion and neuroscience at McGill. Given that it’s being hosted by the religious studies group, I don’t have high hopes. I’m kind of wiped now, but please anticipate some ranting on the misuse of neuroscience, neurorealism and neurofetishism, and just generally why I get annoyed with this kind of thing.

Jesus from pop culture

via Skepchick Elyse:

My friend Jamie Bernstein (Skeptical Ninja and VP of the Women Thinking Free Foundation) recently admitted that she has never read the New Testament. Not once. Not a little bit.

I mean, I guess it makes sense, she was raised as a secular Jew… so she didn’t really have a whole lot of use for Jesus things in her life. But after learning this fact, I took it upon myself to shame her into making a humiliating video for my amusement… with the promise of posting it here on Skepchick for your amusement. When I told her that Jesus would have wanted her to do it, she didn’t really have an out. So she agreed.

Yeah, it’s about as funny as it sounds.


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