Have we lost the ability to learn?

While I have been searching for a topic that heralds the return of spring, or at least something interesting on the science front, current events present their own topics that require broader examination. Though numerous pundits and bloggers are offering their own take on things, I would feel remiss if I sat back and ignored them myself.

The violence in Afghanistan over the burning of a qur’an is receiving all sorts of debate here in the States, not the least of which being whether some nitwit pastor of a podunk church in Florida deserves some portion of the blame. Let me be clear: he doesn’t. He was simply making a grandstand play for attention because he had nothing of any real importance to say regarding his own religion – you might as well try to blame Perez Hilton for, well, anything.

One could even blame the media for parading his actions into world exposure, but this, too, is like kicking a puppy for wetting on the carpet. It’s the media – they haven’t known what news is since 1974. You can’t blame them for making money off of the feeble-minded trailer-park denizens that still pay attention to their attempts to stir controversy. Somebody out there, and it appears to be a lot of somebody, thinks there’s some value in the refrigerator art that we get in lieu of decent information.

The only ones to blame are the members of the mob, the ones who gave any credit whatsoever to the encouragements of the posturing mullah and stormed the UN headquarters. The ones who couldn’t see the “lookitme!” cries (from both sides) for exactly what they were – pointless handwaving. The ones who never considered that a book is just paper with ink on it, springing from the same mass-production methods as newspapers, as children’s books, as toilet paper. The ones too stupid to think on their own, and somehow proud of this fact.

Or, perhaps, not proud at all, but actually ashamed – just too juvenile to admit it to themselves, much less others. Instead, defensively, they violently asserted their “rights” to be stupid as long as plenty of others did the same – this many people can’t be wrong, can they? I’ve been asked that myself far too many times to count, with absolutely no one ever accepting the simple answer, “Yes, they most certainly can.” How much more proof is needed than this?

What we need to recognize is that this is what happens in a theocratic state – what happens when we think that religion deserves some place among the laws of the country and the power of its citizens. And yes, I said “we” – human beings, the lot of us. I’m not stupid enough to think this is an aspect of islam any more than it’s an aspect of christianity or even buddhism. They all have their own admonishments for peace, against violence, but this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what the practitioners get up to when they feel they are “right.” Religion is not a force for good, it is a bastion of authority, and always has been. Seriously, we can’t look at the ideas of omniscience and omnipotence and see that these are intended as ultimate argument halters? Let’s not be naïve.

The only reason that anyone encourages religious “rights” and rules, anti-blasphemy laws and the inclusion of creation myths in the classroom, is because they know that such things cannot stand up on their own merits, on the very simple concept that they’re better. That they should self-evidently work, like gravity and electricity, or even like freedom and equality. We have countless people throughout the world crying for the protection of their precious little mythologies not because they’re such good systems, but precisely because they suck so badly that too many people simply can’t buy it.

Think I made a contradiction with that last sentence? That’s because you’re thinking that the blanket terms “christianity” or “islam” mean everyone has the same beliefs and structure within. Now consider it in the terms of how baptists view catholics, and how well sunni and shi’ites get along. Ponder why any town actually needs seventeen “christian” churches within three square miles of one another. New churches spring up faster than options at Starbucks.

Our founding fathers, those that drew up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, at least knew what the fuck “history” was, and made an astounding effort to try and prevent the huge mistakes of the past. The tenets of these documents are not up to voter acceptance, not up to mob rule, precisely because they could only protect the voters and the mobs by remaining out of their hands. Politicians and military officers and police officers swear to uphold them because, without them, we are far too likely to repeat the same stupid behavior of cultures long past. The separation of church and state exists to make the distinction between those that rely on mindless assertions, and those that have to make things work despite the vagaries of the populace and their flavor of the day religions. One has historical fact behind it; the other denies history, science, physical laws, human nature, and common sense in favor of, “because I said so.” While our culture has been steadily moving away from raising our children with such inane and worthless assertions, it still seems acceptable to many adults. You’ll pardon me if I call that hypocritical and asinine.

It’s amazing to me that we don’t even have to have a knowledge of history to see what’s happening in places like Afghanistan right this very moment, and still cannot see the implications. Religious authority is not concerning itself with proper conduct, and cannot handle the tiniest bit of questioning – they are proudly demonstrating this to anyone with two brain cells to rub together. Someone can make the case that Afghan citizens have simply had enough of US involvement, and receive no argument from me. But that’s not what the protests and violence are all about, is it? The mobs are not acting on some US-provoked incident in Afghanistan that’s a symptom of the problem and unrest, or on a new UN resolution. They acted on the provocation of their precious little fairy tales, and by relying on the authority of both the mullah and the mob, rather than applying their brains for just the tiniest of seconds and realizing that the book they held in their hands was not gone at all (not to mention how many more get destroyed every time a bomb goes off someplace.) They’re reacting because someone can actually call it a fairy tale and they have no good response for this. Yeah, please tell me that’s providing peace and comfort to the masses. Please tell me the theocratic state is making things so much better.

And for some reason, we have numerous dipwads in this country that want to do the same here. Anyone that thinks christianity is somehow different is obligated (and openly invited) to explain how.

By all means, we really do need to be teaching religion to schoolchildren – they need to know this shit. Our founding fathers certainly did, nearly two and a half centuries previously. Hey, I’ll be happy to do it myself, and can one-up the idiots crowing for “teaching the controversy” across our country right now – I won’t show any bias towards any religious denomination or sect in the slightest. Seriously, I’d love to do this.

I’m sure anyone reading can imagine how scary that sounds to many, but the real question is, “Why?” It couldn’t possibly be because I could sell this faster and more effectively than any religion named, could it?

It’s missing something

Mike Booth has almost got it pinned down:

I was about to add that he missed the part where you post updates to your “Wall” about things you should have found too boring to pay any attention to yourself, but think must become more interesting when shared. Then I asked, “And how is a blog post different from a status update?” and trashed the whole idea.

I can has virile now?

Free willy

Some time back I talked about the power of tradition, and why it even has this power. Now, as I approach a topic that’s been stewing in my head for a while, I recognize that this same power is one of the things that seems to be working directly against our understanding and use of a simple subject, so much so that scientific and philosophical debate are actually taking place.

That subject is free will. We all know what that is, right? Just like we know what consciousness is – until we’re asked to define it in a functional way. Then things start to get a bit fuzzy. So pause here, give it a shot now, and define “free will” in a way that you’re satisfied with, then forge on. Let’s see if we’re on the same page.

Merriam Webster says:

1: voluntary choice or decision <I do this of my own free will>;
2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

…while Wikipedia says:

Free will is the putative ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. Historically, the constraint of dominant concern has been the metaphysical constraint of determinism.

… and goes on from there, as Wiki does (did you ever see a short Wiki article?) Both hint at the historical source, which is basically scriptural; free will is what separates us from “the animals,” and is defined as the ability to purposefully choose between good and evil, or even know what those are. Chances are, your own definition included at least portions of these, and perhaps favored one in particular over the others. I put “the animals” in quotes, by the way, because it’s another concept that we still fall prey to, and it’s simplistic in nature: we are animals ourselves, by any definition of the word. Anyone doubting this just needs to watch me eat…

So, the original idea was really, “capable of sin,” the aspect that distinguished us from other species, the ones without souls. In working parlance now, it still distinguishes us, but in much vaguer ways. It amounts to capriciousness, the concept that we can do whatever we want, and engage in behavior on a whim, as opposed to merely responding to instinct and/or conditioning. It also implies, explicitly, that what we do is not governed by specific physical constraints such as a predetermined destiny or predictable chemical interactions. The other side of this, the idea that physical (or metaphysical) laws can account for everything we do, is referred to as determinism.

If you read that Wiki article, you can see that this is a deeply philosophized idea, with much debate over whether our minds are really as open to variation as we’d like to believe, or whether, given our particular individual backgrounds, our brains must arrive at specific conclusions or actions because that’s simply how they work – predictable electrochemical reactions. In other words, if I know enough about any particular brain, I could predict what someone’s reaction to specific questions would be, every time, because their reaction is guided by their past experiences and is not, for instance, random. Even if they consciously decide to be random, crazy, impetuous, this is only an aspect of their brain that called for departing from a first choice at that particular time, maybe simply to try and thwart my prediction and demonstrate their own free will.

All this is particularly pointless, however. Why we actually concern ourselves over free will doesn’t have anything to do with blindly following instinct, or with whether our past experience guides us irrevocably. The clue to this is when you think of phrases such as “against our will” – obviously, we have very limited functions within us that are truly involuntary, such as responding to pain or something getting in our eye. With a bit of effort, we can often overcome these, and exert our free will even over our own bodies.

No, the point really is whether or not we’re happy with our decisions, whether or not the behavior we engage in is, not voluntary, that’s not even necessary, but simply acceptable to us. That’s what we really want to have, isn’t it? Our past experience may tell us that a certain intersection is prone to idiots jumping the light, and this conditions us to be cautious when approaching it again. We don’t concern ourselves with whether this is an automatic function of our brains, nor with whether or not we can consciously overcome this if we wanted – instead, it’s obviously to our benefit to be wary. Or we may see a new restaurant, and impetuously decide to try it out – perhaps governed entirely by our hunger, desire for a better eating experience, time constraints, knowledge of that type of food, and so on. The impetuousness that we thought we had relies on a large number of factors, all of which may be dictated very specifically by the composition of our synapses – there was only one decision we were possibly going to make at that period in time, so we made it. This only bothers us if we feel that we don’t have control, because that lack of control may lead us someplace we don’t want to go. But the very nature of this determinism is that we approve of our decisions – it’s not involuntary, or at least not perceived as such.

This is where it becomes downright silly. We’ve got this concept, traditionally, in our culture now, and have a certain investment in it – “free will” is our ability to do as we please, not beholden to involuntary actions or reactions. It’s simply nonsense, a holdover from a time when we didn’t understand how our minds and bodies work, rooted in the fear of being unhappy – as well as being a feeble attempt to explain why a designed world seemed so random and callous to us, the Chosen Folk™. We had to have free will so we could choose, or not, to follow the deity’s rules. Why this was even necessary, why any such deity would base mankind’s entire mortal existence on whether or not we had the opportunity to be bad, still hasn’t been answered, and I suspect will continue that way as long as religion is viewed as useful. If you want to ponder it, you can also take a stab at whether one choice being punished with eternal torment constitutes anything remotely resembling “free.” When practiced across numerous cultures throughout history, it was considered “slavery,” but then again, no one could manage perpetual punishment, so maybe that’s the crucial difference?

All that has nothing to do with the plain fact that we function on past experience, for exceptionally good reasons, and act based on that experience. Would you have it any other way? We may jerk our hands away from a hot surface, or dodge a flying object. Does that bother us? Free will might be said to be the ability to plunge a sharp nail through our arm; survival and pain instincts, plus past experience, prevents us from doing it – do we have a problem with such self-preservation? We would have a much greater problem with having no such instincts, as well as engaging in truly random actions, even occasionally. Swerving in our traffic lane, for instance, or eating something unknown, just because we can. “Ha ha, look! I’m exercising free will!” Yes, perhaps very briefly.

It seems highly likely, given what we know about the makeup of our bodies and chemical reactions and so on, that our decisions really are deterministic. Given enough knowledge of brain synapses, for example, may mean we could predict the thoughts and actions of any individual. But so what? The amount of information that this would require, including the factors of the constant sensory input of experience, of merely living, is so far beyond our ability to capture, much less comprehend in real time, that such theoretical pursuits will likely remain forever theoretical. We could concern ourselves with the idea that it all has an inevitable conclusion, but so does every movie we watch, already committed as it is to celluloid (polycarbonate, silicon, whatever.) The places we plan to visit have a fixed set of properties, too: buildings here, oceans there, all distinctly determined – they don’t jump about at random. The appearance of a heron when I’m out pursuing photos might be deterministic as well, but I don’t know that. What we seek is the experience, the building of knowledge within that very organ that guides our actions, the brain. And these experiences provide different, and much greater, factors to build our actions upon – everything we learn colors our actions from that point on. That’s what interests and excites us, and always has (regardless of how you felt then or now about free will.) That’s all that’s really important.

Or is it Memorex?

I know I just did a comic, but this one was in progress beforehand. Regardless, I think Randall Munroe at xkcd understands:

I’m not much of a fan of philosophy, for several reasons, not the least of which that it can devote considerable time and effort into suppositions or posits that have little bearing on anything at all.

Plato’s Cave refers to a philosophical concept of how nature would be perceived by someone who could only see the shadows of people on the walls of the cave he was within, not the people themselves. It supposes that he would be happy with this, until he found out that the actual world held much more information and detail than he believed, whereupon he would find his former knowledge of mere shadows to be pitiable.

The comic also plays on a related concept, that of solipsism, which states that the only thing we can be sure of is that we exist; all else is perceptions. This is the idea expressed by Descartes when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” as well as the “brain in a vat” scenario: how do we know that we are really human beings experiencing the world, and not simply brains in a vat being fed simulated experiences by wire? How could we prove this?

Now that I’ve impressed everyone with name-dropping and conceptual knowledge, I can proceed to my standpoint on such: whoop de fucking shit. How can we tell? We can’t. So why bother?

The various “Matrix” (or “The Thirteenth Floor“) scenarios, where reality is something much removed from our perception, are fun to watch and contemplate, but they really don’t lead anywhere – they cannot, by nature. We’re a species set apart by our curiosity, our drive to figure out the puzzles and the causes, but scenarios like these can only deny this drive, ultimately petering out in frustration or confusion.

One of the more interesting aspects of philosophy, most especially in Plato’s time, is that it operates on the premise that truth can be divined by meticulous thought and logical debate; experimentation was actually eschewed. This attitude remains today in the occasional denigration of “materialism” and “methodological naturalism,” which underlie what we typical consider the scientific method. The emphasis was on how our minds could tease out the nature of the world without resorting to the physical limitations of the senses – an interesting (and, to my limited knowledge, unintentional) paradox since it failed to recognize the physical limitations of the brain itself. This may have been the fault of either the belief systems of the time, or simply conceit, by thinking that humans held a special place in the hierarchy of life – which also continues today to some extent.

This philosophical concept has been around for 2,500 years or so, and hasn’t really added a whole lot in all that time. Meanwhile, once observation and experimentation caught on, especially the parts where perception was required to be supported independently, our knowledge base expanded hugely. The past 100 years has been incredibly productive, starting to fathom even the workings of the very brain that is supposed to be contemplating the nature of reality. Medicine, astronomy, quantum physics, electromagnetic theory, biology, cosmology, evolution… all owe little to the idea of logical proof.

True, mathematics underlies much of experimentation, and mathematical/logical proof has been around for roughly the same amount of time. But mathematics is a bit hard to consider philosophy, unless you bend the definition to make it indistinguishable from much of anything else. Math, really just relationships between values, isn’t up for discussion and needs no appeal to reason. It’s also an abstract, and its applications to the natural world only approximations.

Science does not rely on proof and cannot – there is no amount of evidence or postulates that can demonstrate the irrevocable nature of something physical. Science relies instead on the weight of the evidence, probability rather than axioms. There are no absolutes. Even so, it still works amazingly well.

It almost certainly bothers some people that we cannot establish any facet of our knowledge beyond all doubt, but this is simply the nature of perception; beyond reasonable doubt, however, is attainable. Seeking perfection or absolutes is a pointless pursuit, but going with what functions dependably works just fine.

As for being a brain in a vat? Well, it’s likely that the beings inducing sensory input that we interpret as the real world get a real kick out of us wasting time contemplating “reality,” so I wouldn’t give them the pleasure, if I were you.

Meanwhile, you still have to relish the phrase, “There’s meat everywhere!”

Some changes a brewin’

Up until this point, this blog has been largely a singular effort, all posts but one guest book review being written by yours truly (what the hell does that even mean? I can barely call myself “mine truly.”) But now it appears this may be changing, because I’ve invited a few people to do some guest posts, or even become semi-regular contributors, and that offer may soon get taken advantage of.

This is great, as far as I’m concerned – there is no reason for me to hog all this adulation, and this space isn’t dedicated to any particular set of pursuits. We all have our own personalities and interests, and now you may get the opportunity to sample some more without the effort of clicking more links.

So watch the bylines now, and welcome the new facets that appear!

Is it faith?

I’m sorry, I’ve been doing a string of religious posts recently, and it’s because every time I turn around something else stirs some thoughts that I want to pass along. I’m trying to space them out with items of other interest, but because I know not everyone here necessarily wants to see me pick on religion all the time, I will break the post up between the teaser and the meat. Below, I’m going to approach the question of, basically, “Isn’t trusting science a form of faith?”

Continue reading “Is it faith?”

Yeah, that’s about right

Scenes From A Multiverse shows how parallelism works:
prayers to the same deity that initially caused the catastrophe are the most effective powerwise

Of course, the deity in an alternate universe like Aetherea IV might actually have a history of answering prayer, in which case such advice might be worth something. But in this one, even if anyone really believes in their deity, are they fulfilling their requirements for good works by chanting? I’m just wondering.

Yeah, I’m sure the whole mind-meld-with-the-maker thing is real convincing, but no one can argue that money (and hard work if there’s the opportunity) are effective, can they?

Ask me, and tell me

Two quick notes here. The first: I added a new standing page at top, “Ask An Atheist,” dedicated to fielding any questions anyone wants to throw specifically at an atheist. Credit to Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist for the idea. I’m game to just about anything – fire away!

Second, I noticed that my spam filter had improperly tagged a comment, and I’m not sure how often this happens. This site still gets plenty of spam, so I’ve been leaving the task to a common program, but it’s as dumb as most programs are. I only exclude spam or obvious trolls – I don’t censor comments, and feel that open exchange is very important. If your comment doesn’t appear within a day, let me know. If it was intentional, I’ll explain why – chances are it wasn’t. I honestly don’t like the idea that someone may be commenting, regardless of agreement or lack thereof, and not showing up.

Get familiar with it!

While I mentioned this before, people might still be surprised to know how often I turn the autofocus off when shooting pics. There are a couple of reasons for that. Mostly, it’s when I’m trying something like catching birds in midair, where they represent too small a target for the autofocus area within the camera to obtain enough contrast, so the focus winds the entire length of its travel and back again, throwing everything in the viewfinder so far out of focus that following a moving bird becomes impossible, and when it finally returns to a point that’s close enough to try and re-center the bird, the bird is nowhere to be seen. I can certainly miss the mark with manual focus, especially when (like my subjects above) the birds are changing altitude constantly and thus require perpetual corrections. But it still remains better than losing them entirely.

Then there’s the fact that autofocus is not always precise, and may be missing the subject I’m really after or simply not locking in tight enough. Autofocus works on contrast within the selected focus point, and requires a certain amount of light. Without enough light or adequate contrast, it can be balky or simply wrong.

The point is, know what your camera can do, and when it is unlikely to produce the results you want with automatic settings. I mentioned overriding the exposure settings and the color balance in previous posts, and to do these when your subject presents itself, you need to be familiar with just how to do it – preferably, by feel without even taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Digging out your manual simply means you’re not going to get the shot, so by all means, sit down with it ahead of time and go through it. It might seem tedious, but once you use some setting to your advantage, you’ll get the value of it immediately.

Another good habit is to check your settings routinely. Most especially when you turn the camera on, but also periodically when shooting. It’s very easy to change a setting accidentally, or on purpose and forget that you’ve done so. The time to find out is not after you’ve uploaded a busy photo session to your computer. Check mode switch, ISO, exposure settings, color settings, contrast settings – whatever you actually mess with. And one I was reminded of today: the diopter correction on the viewfinder, if you have one. This is often a little dial or slide switch right alongside the viewfinder window, which changes the focus distance in the viewfinder for your eyesight. Manual focus is really hard when the viewfinder isn’t showing you the clearest image.

Can you instantly shut off the autofocus and find the manual focus ring on your lens? If not, learn how now. When the subject is too crowded or too low in contrast for the autofocus to snag, or the light too low to produce decent results, or the teleconverter or extension tube reduces the light so that the autofocus doesn’t receive enough to work, you need to take over, and quickly, while your subject and composition are as you want them. It should be second-nature to you if you’re serious about getting the best shots that you can. It’s such a simple thing, not something to miss pics over.

And the same goes for exposure compensation. Against a bright sky, the camera will almost certainly select the wrong exposure, making things too dark because it’s programmed to expose for a midtone. And in fact, two of the cameras I’ve used have been slightly off for ideal exposure anyway, so my “neutral” setting is actually 1/3 stop overexposed anyway – with sky colors like above and below, I add an additional 2/3 to one full stop, and with overcast I often go as much as two stops over. While this blows the clouds out unnaturally white, it brightens a bird subject that is receiving too little ambient light because the clouds aren’t letting through enough to bounce from the surrounding air and surfaces.

So get that manual out, memorize those controls, close your eyes and practice. When the moment comes, it might just be that edge that you need. The pic below, while not as sharp as it could be, is also better than missing the shot entirely as these two red-shouldered hawks dueled over mating rights.

Missing the forest: religious violence

In the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (Vol 16 No 2), there’s an article by Benjamin Grant Purzycki and Kyle Gibson regarding religious violence, which raises the question: does religion cause violence, or are we mistaking correlation for causation? This is an exceptionally intriguing question. Confusing correlation for causation is one of the fallacies with which skeptics are usually quite familiar, having to correct it all the time when discussing such subjects as alternative medicine. Skeptics are not immune to blind spots, however, and pointing out where such exists is a valuable lesson and a great example of holding honesty and fairness above agendas. Moreover, I have argued myself that religious wars can often be shown to have the same motives as any other wars, such as resource control and power structure. So I read the article eagerly to see just what kind of study had been done.

Continue reading “Missing the forest: religious violence”