Romantic interlude

A few weeks back now, a horde of unidentified caterpillars descended on flowering trees of a certain species in the backyard, devouring leaves at an alarming rate. I naturally took the opportunity to add to my photo stock, including some interesting compositions. This particular one always strikes me as enigmatic, for some reason. Seeing the two of them working towards each other on the same leaf puts me in mind of the spaghetti dinner scene from Lady and the Tramp. Somehow, I think the eventual face-to-face (or whatever it is caterpillars have) encounter would have been considerably less charming.

While a few were observed to have made it to chrysalis stage, most seemed to have disappeared rapidly, I suspect due to the influence of the titmice raising young nearby – more than once I spotted the adults with larvae of similar appearance clutched in their beaks, delivering food to the hungry offspring. Current films can be quite creative in how many different ways of thwarting romance are mustered up, but so far as I know, none of them have included being seized and fed to another species. I want to see Tom Hanks charm his way out of that one. If you’re a Hollywood producer, I get 4% of the gross and ten points…

Not gonna happen

I’m, very slowly, catching up on some of the blogs (mostly there in the sidebar) that I was reading semi-regularly before I went out of town. Even before that, I’d slowed down a bit, so “catching up” is not going to happen, and some of the more interesting posts that I might have commented on are well past their sell-by date now. One at Friendly Atheist featuring a clip from Dan Savage, however, caught my attention because it’s the same thing I’ve been saying for a while now:

First off, Dan can turn a phrase, I have to give him full credit for that. And he has a great point – christianity doesn’t have a firm definition; nor, for that matter, does islam, judaism, et al, making them all interchangeable for my topic here. This allows the followers to do largely what they want and consider themselves faithful. However, when atheists uses the term “christian” (“muslim,” etc.) we are often taken to task for lumping moderate, tolerant religious folk in with the frothing fundamentalists who probably just need a good laxative (or electroshock therapy.) I’m rather divided on the issue, myself (favoring electroshock – no, sorry, I mean the moderate/extremist thing); while I make it a point to judge individuals as individuals and not as labels, I can’t deny that many of these same individuals don’t bother to make the distinctions themselves, and will happily use the labels to describe themselves when it appears that this will be seen in a positive light. They only decry the labeling when some other interpretation of “christian” is in effect.

I don’t really care, one way or another – I just wish they’d settle it amongst themselves, as Dan suggests. Lots of people want to wave the christian flag but there’s no agreement on what army this actually represents. If you find that some self-professed christian blowhard doesn’t represent what “true” christianity is, take it up with them, not with me for using the same damn term they use themselves.

But, I’m well aware that this isn’t going to happen. First off, the issue isn’t with what christianity really is, because nobody actually knows – look at how many different ways this is interpreted. For ideologies that represents “truth,” as I am so often reminded, the followers seem to be all over the map (this is why I like science much better – it pins this shit down.) Let’s be real, “religious” is generally taken to be a synonym for “good,” which is one of the few common denominators among the various interpretations of any particular religion. You get people protesting only when their religion is demonstrated to be intolerant, racist, bigoted, hateful, xenophobic, elitist, and so on – all words that don’t really fit with the idea of “good.” But this cannot possibly be the fault of christianity, no no, so it’s really evidence that some of the people calling themselves christian are just posers.

No self-identified christian, however, can afford to take it up with the posers. What can they possibly say? “Real christians don’t hate homosexuality!” Except that it really is right there in the scripture, such as a couple of passages in leviticus as well as others. Such sources conflict with the ideas of tolerance from new testament passages, certainly, not to mention the various “judge not” bits and the overall idea that the omniscient deity has a reward and punishment program already in place. Things bog down pretty quickly when one attempts to use scripture as their authority, since all of it is ridiculously contradictory and vague. Basic logic tells us that “truth” cannot be self-contradictory, so the only argument that can come up is that at least some (heh!) scripture is inaccurate, if not entirely fable. Well, fine, it’s not the first time that’s been advanced. So… how do you tell the “true” parts from the fable? Which of two contradictory passages can be determined to be the one that should be followed?

Well, that’s what keeps theologians busy – for twenty centuries and more, now, though you might have noticed that they haven’t agreed on any answers yet (maybe they’ll make it by humanity’s end – too bad if you died before the guidelines had been set.) Most religious folk, however, haven’t the faintest idea what kind of theological support there is, or is not, for their position, and simply notice the bits that agree with what they were already thinking, conveniently ignoring the rest. When “the rest” rears its ugly head, they really have no way of dealing with it. When you base your worldview on following scripture as the inarguable word of the deity, because it’s much easier than bothering to make a logical case and also allows you to be as bigoted, homophobic, and intolerant as you want to be, you’re kind of in a bind when the scripture says something that you don’t want it to.

Which is why agreeing even on what “christianity” means is never going to happen, and why religion will never be a force for peace; scripture can only be followed selectively, and fails completely when any effort is made to tie it in to demonstrable reality – you know, like a round earth, evolving animals, and light coming only from stars. In fact, it usually sits so alone in its assertions that theologians seeking to resolve those contradictions can do nothing but refer to scripture itself with circular arguments, since external confirmation isn’t possible. It’s like Trekkies arguing over stardates.

Immoral atheist that I am, I figure it’s easier to earn a “good” label by doing those things that we routinely consider “good.” Granted, some people can’t instantly tell this because I have no icon to wear around my neck denoting my certifiable goodness, and they would have to perform the difficult feat of actually paying attention to what I do – this is asking a lot, I know, since thinking is so hard. It gets easier with training, though.

UPDATE: I no sooner post this and start cruisin’ the intersnarl, when I come across a nice take on theology in today’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Note that hovering over the little red dot in the lower left provides a secondary comic…

Poking around

So, after the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, we poked around Jekyll Island a little bit. This was a day trip and we weren’t staying long, so there wasn’t enough time to do a proper exploration of the place, and while I normally would dig in and wander off into the hinterland, I was with friends who weren’t all into exploring. So our target was the north end of the island, where the island was eroding away into an old oak forest which gave it the name Driftwood Beach. It was appropriately named, decorated with elaborate tangles of dried grey trunks and branches in many places, while perched on the inlet end where wave action was practically nonexistent, at least while we were there. I would have loved to have been there at sunrise or sunset, because this is the kind of subject that benefits from low angle, contrasty light and deep sky colors – most beaches do, but driftwood and rocky beaches especially. That wasn’t going to happen on this trip, which was a shame, but you work with what you get. Sometimes you’re simply scouting locations, planning your return during more opportune conditions, which is why I recommend longer photo trips whenever possible. The weather won’t always be ideal, and some areas or subjects benefit the most from multiple visits. You may find that this image is nice enough, but it can be even better, and pursuing that is what makes the better photographers.

When you travel to another climate area, such as the sub-tropics, you enter into not just another set of weather patterns and average temperatures, but local flora and fauna as well – obvious, perhaps, but sometimes I forget that this means some of the more subtle things. I’m notorious for finding fire ant hills, and since I’m always in sandals in areas like this, I find them the hard way – as I type this, there are several welts still on my feet, and one toe looks like it’s recovering from trauma. I would have no compunction against hastening the extinction of such species, regardless of the consequences, and I can generally find something good to say about anything.

But that wasn’t the only abuse my feet took on this trip. Taking my friend’s cue and wandering off the trail a short distance, we both ran afoul of another hazard to unprotected feet – my collection here was gathered when I stepped over to help her with her own, so she kindly took this picture after her own was removed. That’s the kind of gal she is. While they don’t look like they were embedded in more than the sandals, I had three deeply lodged in various places on my foot, and luckily had my pocket knife. Instead of attempting to grasp the little caltrops, I simply slide the blade between my foot and the bulb and pried them out gently. I made it a point of reminding my friend how much my foot still hurt, long after it had stopped, because that’s the kind of guy I am ;-)

The entrance to this beach featured a small bridge over a wetlands channel, and I ventured down there briefly. The peatlike, boggy bottomlands are greatly favored by fiddler crabs (genus Uca – there are far too many species for me to pin down which I was seeing,) and they were having a grand old time down there in what appeared to be a mating frenzy. Doing justice to this would have resulted in getting more than simply muddy, so I settled for a few quick shots and moved to catch up to the others. If crabs creep you out, don’t wander into marsh areas anyplace in the southern US, because the ground is absolutely alive in some areas and appears to be moving on its own, something that only video will do justice in portraying. Fiddlers are harmless of course, and will dash away to avoid contact, so walking in such an area poses no danger of encounters or crushing them. But the widespread shifting of what appears to be solid ground is eye-bending at times, because one often doesn’t notice them until they move.

The fiddlers weren’t the only crustaceans in evidence, as the thin-stripe hermit crabs (Clibanarius vittatus) liked the submerged portions of the driftwood. Here, one that I’d caught wanders back to the surf as The Girlfriend does some ground-level portraits with my old digital camera, which seems to have finally given up the ghost on this trip (as a quick aside, my first serious film camera is at least ten years older than this digital and still going strong, and I have several which are much older still.) And of course, now you know what The Girlfriend looks like.

Georgia, and most especially Savannah, is known for its Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides,) and this epiphytic bromeliad drapes the trees in huge quantities, giving them a charming, somewhat prehistoric air. The plant is almost completely innocuous, feeding entirely from the air and humidity and doing no damage to anything else in its vicinity – even its weight is negligible, and some southern companies use it as a quaint packing material for local crafts. Up close, it’s simply strands of twisted thin vegetation, completely dry and pale grey in color with a hint of olive. The only negative effects are that it hampers the growth of the host tree at times by blocking some of the sunlight, and may contribute to storm damage from its greater wind resistance, but I would think this is minimal because it pulls free easily and is unlikely to exert much drag on tree limbs. It is, naturally, something that must be photographed while in the southern states, and this example here remains my own favorite. On Jekyll Island, several areas of thick woods take on a delightfully untamed appearance from the twisted trunks and the thick moss, but in maintained, mown areas it simply adds a rustic, aged charm to the trees.

I will, most definitely, be returning, both for the Sea Turtle Center and the photographic possibilities of the island, since I haven’t done it justice yet. I’m sure there are a lot more critters to be seen, and a few sunrises and sets need to be examined on those beaches. I recommend that you check it out yourself if you get the chance. Just stay on the trails…

Doing it right

I’m back from the trip, having extended the stay by a few days, and found that you all began tearing up the comments while I was away. I guess I expected no less.

The Girlfriend and I spent some time with friends in the Savannah, Georgia area, and got around a bit to check out some interesting items in the vicinity. The first thing we visited, and thus the first I’ll talk about, is the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. Having worked with wildlife rehab and visited several centers devoted to such, I can easily say this was the most impressive, and well worth a visit if you’re within even a few hours of the area. If you’re into turtles or wildlife, involved with rehab in any way (even as a donor,) or simply want to see something different, this should be on your list.

Started just a few years back in 2006, the center is housed within the old power station buildings for the island, through the cooperation of the Jekyll Island Foundation, which maintains the historic portions of the island. The Foundation recognized the attraction of a decent public wildlife center, as well as the need to educate people on the species that routinely nest on the beaches. But there’s more to it than that, too, since the Georgia Sea Turtle Center is far in advance of any rehab or education center I’ve visited save for the NC Zoological Park, and it’s obvious a lot of emphasis has been placed on the outreach portions of their mission. I can’t stress enough how important this is; non-profit organizations run on public support, and the only way one can forge ahead with funding is by creating and maintaining a compelling public presence. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that think that directing their funds towards development and education would take money from actual rehabilitation services, and this is complete nonsense, bordering on the ignorant. Development funds are an investment that, properly managed, pays back hugely, and this center is a prime example of how it works. This is evident even before you enter the building, from the parking lot with bus unloading areas to the “Walkway to Wonder” brick entrance, positively loaded with engraved messages from donors.

Inside, the education area has plenty of interactive and engaging exhibits, and as a model-builder, I can vouch for the effort that went into these. The entrance ticket serves as a prompt to have visitors check out stations around the hall, receiving an embossed seal from each that reveals another aspect of turtle life – it’s amazing how much attraction such a simple thing like a surprise seal provides, since there are multiple unrevealed embosser choices at each station. Big screen TVs roll video loops of excellent footage, including such things as testing of turtle excluders in commercial fishing nets (a real example of which stretches overhead in the vaulted ceilings of the old power station,) and the sand writhing as newborn turtles emerge from buried nests and make their frantic way to the ocean.

But to one side sits the observation window, where visitors can observe the rehabilitation technicians and veterinarians actually administering to patients in the adjoining medical room. Because turtle eyes are sensitive to bright light, there is no flash photography permitted, so be prepared and boost your ISO a bit to allow sharp images. The staff throughout the center are not only helpful, they’re directly engaging, offering advice and interesting tidbits as well as taking a distinct interest in the visitors. Even the rehab technicians will bring patients up the the glass for a brief good look before returning them to their housing. Little things like that do a lot for creating a positive experience, as opposed to the demeaning and snotty attitudes I’ve seen from some rehabilitators, who seem to feel the public is just there to make them suffer. No, seriously, this is a trait I’ve encountered frequently. The “public,” either through indifference or well-meaning ignorance, does indeed contribute to lots of wildlife issues, but for some reason many rehabbers seem to think this is intentional, and take it personally. If this is your attitude, let me help you out right now: get the hell out of the business. The “public” is what makes wildlife rehab actually work, and annoying them isn’t going to gain any funding. It’s nice to be at a place where they recognize this.

Attached to the main building sits the big enclosed pool area. Sea turtles, naturally, need large tanks of clean and maintained water to recover within, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center provides a public hall down the center of their facility to let visitors see the patients. More clever touches were evident here: mirrors were set above some of the tanks, allowing a better view of the residents, and the education interns are fitted with microphones wired into a PA system (or if you’re British, a tannoy) that could be heard throughout the chamber. Each tank bore the resident’s name, and info stations on the rails provided the background of their injuries and treatments. Questions were welcome and encouraged, and the raised platform allowed a little better visibility of the patients. We were lucky enough to be there for the feeding time presentation, which a staffmember kindly alerted us to. The fee for all of this, by the way, is less than you’d spend for lunch.

Even the gift shop is impressive. Nicely laid out and with a wide variety of interesting items, from t-shirts and decals to fantastic artwork, it’s another aspect that shows what a bit of effort can do for a center. Proceeds, of course, go towards funding the center and its efforts, so even somewhat unreasonable prices are excusable, but actually the items were very competitively priced. Even here, the staff noticed visitors’ interests and volunteered pricing information or fetched an item to be examined. Sometimes little things like this go unnoticed, and I want to emphasize that it’s a nice touch, and I’m pleased with their attention to this.

Since we were visiting the area briefly, we didn’t get to see any of the educational programs, or take part in a turtle walk – the center does not stand alone. But we’ll definitely be returning, and in the meantime, I can only urge you to check it out, most especially if you’re involved with wildlife rehab in any way. Make sure you thank the staff you see there, too – non-profit organizations don’t exactly provide competitive salaries, and most people working there are volunteers. But it’s through their dedication and efforts that such centers exist, and a lot of turtles owe their health and well-being to this drive. And by all means, check out the website, which also reflects this effort.

A lot of the images I shot on this trip are actually on film, so more details about what we got up to will wait on the processing (I ship it out since the local labs have stopped handling slide film.) As a teaser, I can just say that it’s good to go back to the sub-tropics from time to time.

But how? Part two: Designed just for us

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 2

This continues a new trend that I began here, where the concepts that support a religious (or at least, in this case, deistic) worldview receive critical examination. The topic of discussion this time around is the Anthropic Principle, or (sticking to the way it is normally wielded) “things are too perfectly suited to life for the universe to be random!”

First off, the fact that this has a scientific-sounding moniker is what causes some of the problems, but it isn’t exactly a scientific principle (at best, it is philosophical,) and in fact, there are several variations of it. It’s also rather contentious even among its supporters, so holding it up as evidence that science supports a divine creator shows a poor understanding of the overall issue, much less the various discussions of individual aspects.

The aspect that is sometimes referred to as the weak anthropic principle essentially states that what we see in the universe is what we can see; the parts that seem encouraging of life forming are what we notice simply because those conform to the senses that we developed. In other words, we’re aware of gravity because we need it, and the catalytic effects of liquid water and oxygen because life as we know it could not have formed where it doesn’t exist. This is, in effect, the opposite of how the anthropic principle is often used by religious apologists, because it makes it clear that the only things we’re likely to see is what favors us – a universe with the conditions for life is where we will reside and thrive, as opposed to someplace that was directly hostile. Kind of a “duh!” argument, and completely ignoring that our existence in a hostile environment would be far better evidence for divine intent.

Douglas Adams presented the idea of a (curiously self-aware) puddle of water looking at the basin it filled and thinking that the basin fit the shape of the puddle so well, it couldn’t have been an accident. This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in with invoking the anthropic principle, where vanity makes this very contemplation something that must revolve around us as a species rather than exactly what we should expect to find. Life will only exist where the conditions are right, just as fire will only exist where there is adequate fuel, oxygen, and a high enough temperature to start the process.

Life on this planet does indeed require a confluence of conditions, from a narrow range of temperatures to the ability for chemicals to catalyze and exchange energy, and several factors are key – remove any one, and no life can form. This seems, at first, to be very intriguing, but it requires careful examination as well. It is very hard to look even at the tiny fraction of the universe that makes up our solar system and think that we’re someplace special. Out of eight planets, 166 (known) moons, and countless asteroids and comets, we know of only one place where life has occurred – that’s not exactly encouraging for an “ideal” set of circumstances. Even on this planet alone, there is only a narrow shell just a few miles thick where life can be supported, from lower atmosphere to a fraction underground and under the surface of the sea, and the places where humans can survive are even fewer. We are, in essence, trapped within a tiny thin sphere, and venturing outside of it exposes us to conditions so hostile that we would die extremely quickly, due to everything from lack of air to large doses of unshielded radiation. Few people know that, had a solar flare occurred during any of the moonwalks, the astronauts would have died on the surface, none too pleasantly. We also can’t go very far underground, and that’s where most of the planet is. Earth is not exactly our home, just a attractor of the atmospheric shell on its surface.

So, if life in a tiny fraction of the known universe is evidence of conditions being “just right,” what if instead we saw life on nearly all planets and moons that we could observe? What if the conditions between planets did not suffer from inadequate pressure, or wasn’t bitterly cold and rife with stellar radiation? Is that less likely to be “ideal for life”? Funny, I’d consider that to be much better evidence for the argument, myself. This is one of the problems with such arguments – they rely solely on the bare fact that we exist, not that this seems rare, common, limited or abundant.

One can assign many different numbers to the conditions we have now, and make them appear to support whatever standpoint we like – this is actually a cheap debating ploy. How many forms of life are visible on this planet? It numbers in the hundreds-of-thousands to millions just for suspected species, in the trillions-of-trillions if you’re counting individual occurrences (like bacteria.) But what is the percentage of matter sustaining ‘life” in our known solar system? So tiny it can barely be expressed, and in fact, cannot even be observed from more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of our planet. What percentage of matter in the galaxy (not universe, mind you) is in conditions conducive to life? We have no freaking idea. So is this supportive of “ideal” or not? It’s easy to shift the influence of the argument simply by making leading statements, but this is only evidence of a lack of perspective.

There’s even more to the anthropic principle argument than this, however. Variations of the strong anthropic principle point out that the very nature of atomic physics, the four key forces that dictate how every last bit of matter forms, stays together, and behaves, are necessary for the universe as we know it to be here. Fractional changes of any one of these would mean that matter could not bind, gravity could not cause suns to coalesce, and planets would never form. Such things are just right to even make a universe as we know it – what are the chances? They must be so low as to be nonexistent.

First off, this is exactly the same as the weak anthropic principle – if such adverse conditions exist, or had they ever, there’s no way we would ever know about it, since we require those four known forces to be present before we can exist or function. We could make the same argument for light itself: without it, we wouldn’t be able to see anything! But plenty of species get by just fine without vision, and we evolved vision because that form of energy we call “visible light” is abundant. To say that it is “necessary” is arguing backwards – in areas where visible light is scarce, species have evolved other means of detecting their environment. And again, the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that we call visible light form a very narrow band of the spectrum of electromagnetism, of which we can detect virtually none on our own. Visible light just happens to be the most abundant to penetrate the atmosphere, so the easiest for most life forms here to take advantage of. We mostly ignore the other aspects because we don’t use them, but to then consider them insignificant in our calculations of “just right” is being incredibly self-centered.

Then there’s the “fractional differences” part of the argument: if gravity, or the strong atomic force et al, were just a teensy bit different, the universe wouldn’t be here. But we have no idea what kind of variation could occur, if any at all. We assign numbers to these forces, and can change the numbers, but this doesn’t mean the forces are changeable, nor does it mean such changes are either drastic or infinitesimal. We have never observed these being any different at all, nor even know where they came from. This doesn’t make them arbitrary. It’s kind of a nonsense argument, like supposing that unicorns exist and then breathlessly asking, “What are the chances?” Well, zero, to be honest.

No, that can’t be right, can it? But yes, it can, and this is where people constantly miss the boat. Orders of probability can only be calculated from things with known variables. You may have a one-in-six-million chance of winning the lottery, because that is the number of combinations possible from the little ping pong balls in the machine. However, if we have never observed any variations in something, there is only one order of probability able to be calculated, and that’s one-in-one, otherwise known as “guaranteed.” While this does not rule out something else actually being possible, it also doesn’t make it possible, and no order of probability can be assigned in the slightest. All we can do is speculate, and this relies solely on imagination, not on anything resembling science or mathematics in any way.

To then take such imaginative speculation and assign it a very low order of probability, and therefore claim that this is evidence of some higher being, is what we call sophistry at best – I myself call it utter bullshit. It’s not an argument, it’s a method of trying to justify a preconceived notion in an exceptionally pathetic way. We have never witnessed any variation in gravitational force based on mass either, which is good, because we use it for everything from weighing bananas to calculating successful orbits of planets and moons in our solar system (let me take this opportunity to give a shout out to Cassini.) Imagine if someone claimed that gravity could change any second, and we’d fly off into space, therefore we should all anchor ourselves firmly to the ground. We’d consider him an utter loon, wouldn’t we? But arguments such as, “if the universe was different, we wouldn’t be here, therefore god,” are just as fatuous. Pay attention, because this is one of the biggest failings of philosophy as I see it: the word “if” is not magical, and does not grant the possibility of existence. It is merely a factor in argument, pure imagination when you get right down to it. We only start talking about having real value when “if” becomes “when.”

There’s even another aspect that people continually misunderstand. Very low orders of probability, even if we have an accurate and useful way of calculating such, do not cross the line into “impossible” or into making a supernatural explanation even slightly more likely. If the chance of conditions being right for life were/are one-in-five-hundred-trillion, this doesn’t prevent it from having happened, and the weak anthropic principle argues that these are the only conditions we’d see if it did (again, “duh!”).

While we’re on the subject of abusing statistics and probabilities, there’s one aspect you’ll never see addressed: the probability of a supernatural, causative, and hyper/omnipotent being. If the chance of four forces being right for life is so low, how much lower is the chance for an extra-dimensional being with such inordinate powers? But this argument never rears its ugly head, for it is assumed that if an order of probability for random life is low enough, then a supernatural being becomes the default explanation. There is nothing that supports such an idea, however; no way that one can posit a “default” option. Even more interesting, if one allows for special conditions that give a supernatural being expansive powers and abilities, ones that we cannot witness or comprehend, such an argument can be applied to simple physical rules that shape the universe’s forces as well. This makes far more sense than a super potent being that nevertheless has thought processes so similar to our own.

It’s absolutely true that science does not have all the answers, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it never will. The mistake that is made constantly is believing that “we don’t know” is an opening for some other explanation such as “goddidit.” In fact, religious apologists (and countless vapor-brained new age nitwits) constantly remind us all to be humble and not assume that science can explain everything, never tumbling to the fact that they then attempt to explain things without even a vestige of evidence or reasoning – and worse, that these explanations all somehow put human beings in the bin of something special, rather than just another species on the planet. “We don’t know” doesn’t mean, “but we’re allowed to guess and consider it valid,” it means we don’t know. As we’ve demonstrated millions of times throughout history, the only way we find out is through careful examination, not wild-assed guesses based on emotional desires. Lightning is not from Zeus, Fulgora, or Tlaloc, and the claims in ages past that if we couldn’t explain it, then it must be one of those gods, certainly didn’t hold true. If we want answers, then we should seek them, not accept something because it’s convenient or self-validating. Life may or may not be exceptionally rare; the conditions that caused the creation of matter in the universe may or may not be highly unlikely. We cannot assign such properties without actually seeing some variation of them in the first place.

Frustrations, part six: You can plan…

[Since I’m out of town, this post was scheduled ahead of time to appear today.]

The image at right is an example of a planned shot, kind of. For years, I’ve had the idea of catching a falling autumn leaf in a gap of clear blue sky, surrounded by branches of fall colors – the idea is that the leaf would be close and dominating the frame, but clearly in free-fall. On the face of it, this may not seem so hard: simply pick a photogenic spot and wait for the wind to shake loose a prime subject. But from numerous attempts now, I can tell you there’s a lot more to it than that. Leaves fall surprisingly quickly and very erratically, dodging sideways in almost random directions. The requirements of maintaining tight focus and timing one within an ideal gap are demanding and, so far at least, beyond my abilities.

This is one of the more distinctive ways that nature photography differs from many other forms, like commercial, portrait, and artistic. While we may certainly plan a particular style of image, all too often it relies on vagaries of weather, light, animal behavior, and other such factors that we have little control over. It’s reasonable, and in fact recommended, to plan out some shooting opportunities, such as arriving in a photogenic locale before sunrise to be ready for the early morning colors, but it must be recognized that this is usually hit-or-miss; the sky colors may not be cooperating, or the sun may be blocked by distant clouds or cloaking fog and haze. The wind may be too stiff to capture the subjects we’re after, or a drought might have drastically changed the appearance of the foliage. Some things we have control over, and some we don’t, and must work around. This is naturally part of the challenge.

Thus it’s important not to sell oneself on the prospects of a good day of shooting, or of achieving the one special image we had in mind – that can lead very often to frustration, which can ruin our spirit for shooting. There is always another day. Meanwhile, other opportunities and ideas may be available when our sights aren’t set too narrowly, and this is one of the reasons I carry more than just one lens, everywhere I go. Even if you’re planning on nothing but landscapes, the rare insect might save your day, or some cooperative deer or raccoons might put on a show. Carrying a bunch of equipment can be tiring, but you’ll get over that with a good night’s sleep – the same can’t be said for missing the mating display of an egret because you left that lens behind; it “wasn’t in the plans.” Luck plays a large part in nature photography, but at the same time, so does being able to exploit it. Remain flexible and ready.

Yes, that background mountain you might have seen before – this was the same day, just a few klicks up the road. Or you may simply know it from visiting it yourself, since Pilot Mountain is a fairly well known natural attraction in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

They were wrong, ergo I’m right

[Since I’m out of town, this post was scheduled ahead of time to appear today.]

There are a lot of methods that fall under the blanket term of “critical thinking,” many of which are expressed in the Baloney Detection Kit, but if I had to pick one that I favor the most, it’s being able to deconstruct arguments. I mentioned before about the sound-bite style of arguing, which is common these days, but overall, many debating points are based on either subtly misleading statements, or simply on points that sound convincing. The tricks are to resist the direction that such arguments lead in, and to not allow the wording or posits to dictate how we approach them. But all that’s kind of vague, so let me be more specific.

Let’s say we’re talking about ghosts, and someone throws this down in counterargument to your point that we have little more than blurry photos and witnesses feeling spooked: “Scientists all said that the coelacanth was extinct, and they were wrong!” And by this argument, apparently they have opened the door for the existence of ghosts.

Now, you can have all sorts of fun if you simply say, “So? What’s your point?” in response to this, forcing them to detail the nature of their argument until it bogs down in illogic. Or you can grab one of thousands of subjects like, “Priests said that convulsions were caused by demonic possession, and they were wrong!” – it is vitally important to say this in as snotty a tone as possible to convey your message clearly. It’s childishly easy to find things that science proved wrong, and improved our lives drastically as it did so.

But this isn’t deconstructing the argument at all, which is just as much fun and conveys the idea that your own standards of debate are much higher. Start with the actual statement itself: “Scientists said the coelacanth was extinct.” But, to be truthful, scientists never said anything of the sort. We have fossil remains of a fish remarkably similar, quite possibly even an ancestor of today’s coelacanth, but the only reason that species (yes, biologists would certainly treat them as separate species) was considered extinct was that we had no living examples. The same thing can be said for trilobites, velociraptors, and great auks.

Which brings us to the second part of deconstruction, and the most effective. Scientists did indeed change their mind about living examples – once one hit the table in front of them. In other words, no one gave credit to the idea until it was firmly in evidence. And this is exactly how it should be – seriously, is it even worth considering having it any other way? Should we give credence to any and all eyewitness accounts, stories, anecdotes, and whatnot simply on the basis that they might be right? While this works just fine for the person arguing for ghosts and such, it also works peachy for those seeking investment money for the mineral rights they assure us that they have, and for the authentic holy artifacts that they’re selling, and the repair history on the used car that we’re looking at. There are plenty of people who would simply hug themselves with glee if we started giving them the benefit of the doubt, rather than treating their claims with at least some form of skepticism.

And of course, for science to accept something like a coelacanth, it takes more than even a detailed description from a villager. Taxonomy, biology, anatomy, habitat, diet, life span, habits, reproduction… this is the kind of information that we typically seek, for a multitude of reasons. So yes, evidence has to be distinctive and plentiful to be of the slightest use. That’s what science is: information.

And finally, even if scientists did indeed make such wrong claims, what bearing does this have on anything else? The argument is put forth as if, once one instance of inaccuracy is found, “science” can then be considered dubious at best. Again, you can turn this around on the arguer, pointing out that they have been wrong in the past too, so why should you even be listening to them now? While they splutter or fume, you can then go on to say that yes, mistakes do indeed happen – but the way we find them is not through mystics, psychics, intuition, or grabbing onto some arcane concept, but once again with evidence to the contrary. In other words, for every case where “science” is wrong, it is also right, because it took science to find the mistake.

Another subtle aspect of such arguments, which applies for very few other subjects, is the idea of scientists as a body of identically-minded people. Imagine if you argued about what “civilians” think, or “South Americans;” that “priests” were wrong, or “pilots” made mistakes – seems to be overgeneralizing, doesn’t it? This is an example of where we can be blinded by cultural concepts, assumptions and traditions that aren’t borne out logically.

All of this, from just one sentence. Sometimes arguments really are that full of holes, but you have to be alert, and willing to examine them, to find all of the fallacies. The frightening thing is, you should be doing the same with your own arguments as well. We can fall for assumptions and convincing-sounding debates too. We can’t make our point too effectively if we’re guilty of the same bad practices.

It’s important to remember that the goal is to be convincing, not to score points or win a round. When you deconstruct an argument, what you’re demonstrating is how invalid it is to approach topics in that way – this is not done triumphantly or as a challenge, and you’re not out to show someone to be ignorant. You’re just introducing them to the idea that arguments should be solid, not merely convenient.

The camera sees all

A few years back, I snagged what is sometimes called a “grab shot” of my cat Ben perched in the bathroom, and liked the effect of his glowing eyes in the depths. So I captioned it, a la LOLCats, but never bothered to submit it. More amusing to me is that Ben lacked any shred of threat or ominousness (you don’t think that’s a real word, do you?), being one of the most mellow and friendly cats I’ve known. Also one of the least bright, but those are stories for another day…

Unfortunately, I’m one of those people where half of my offline reading is done in the bathroom, and to the right of Ben’s pedestal (all cats have one, you know) sits my reading table. When I stumbled upon this image again recently, something there caught my eye, and I had to go in for a closer look. The original was shot much wider than this and cropped down, and done with a low-resolution digital camera yet, so the result isn’t exactly TV forensics quality, but it suffices.

As I suspected, the book is recognizable, and indicative of a skeptic’s bathroom for sure. In fact, I had a friend tell me that he’d picked up the book in my bathroom while visiting, became too engrossed, and ended up having to get his own copy – so now I even have a rough timeframe of when that occurred.

At this enhanced resolution, however, something that almost escaped attention now becomes obvious – there’s a sprite or orb or whatever in the shot! Don’t try telling me that it’s just a reflection of the flash, because reflections don’t have dark edges like that! Nor is there any reason for them to be purplish. No, the arcane processes that comprise photography served to capture the evidence of something not visible to the naked eye. I’d suspect the ghost of some past resident but the building was only about twenty years old, so perhaps the ghost of some previous structure on that location, though since I’m in North Carolina there’s a good chance this was a still. Then again, they do call liquor “spirits”…

Undoubtedly, it was locked in mortal combat (well, okay, immortal combat) with the spirit of the book. Which also explains why Ben was in there, because everyone knows cats are attuned to ghosts and such. He was probably refereeing.

I still have the book, but have noticed no arcane stacking behavior or anything. I’ll keep watching…

On composition, part nine: It’s a drag

Going through a slow posting period right now, due to several factors, not the least of which was a nasty virus that masqueraded as a different illness each day, just for the variety it seems. But this also might continue for a little while longer while I leave on a trip, whereupon I should be back with lots to post (right?). So for now, let’s talk about what’s sometimes referred to as “dragging the shutter,” better known as long exposures.

If this is not something that you’ve ever tried, you need to, because it provides a whole world of photographic options on its own. The first real benefit is working with existing light, which might be very dim. But exposure is cumulative, which means that you can keep adding light until you have enough. Slow shutter speeds cannot really be done with a camera handheld, except in rare circumstances, so you will need to be using a tripod, preferably a sturdy one. You may also need some kind of remote release for the shutter, whether it be a strictly mechanical cable release, an electronic one (mostly for the newer cameras,) or even a wireless method such as an infra-red remote. The purpose behind this is to open and close the shutter without physically contacting the camera, because such contact can shake the camera and blur your exposure.

There is a wide variety of subject matter available, though. In the image at top, there were two reasons to use a long exposure: traffic motion; and the very limited light coming in with infra-red photography. At right, we see one of the more common uses: making moving water go soft and cottony. It can also be used for night photography, especially by moonlight, stroboscopic effects, and even time-lapse video. You’re limited only by your imagination, and I’ll even help with that from time to time.

Judging a proper exposure can be difficult, and sometimes it takes trial-and-error – this is another of the benefits of digital, in that you can at least get a general idea of exposure right after you’ve closed the shutter, with the preview image on the camera’s LCD. Don’t trust this, though, especially at night – the screen brightness often isn’t comparable to what the image will look like on your computer monitor. Bracket your exposures, which means shooting a few frames both brighter and darker than you think is “proper,” just to be safe. I’m betting you’ll find, at least occasionally, that one of the other exposures suits your needs better.

In cases of rapidly moving subjects such as waterfalls, you won’t need a particularly long exposure – you might get by with something as short as 1/10 second, but typically you’ll get nicer results in the 1 to 4 second range. It depends on how much motion across the frame there might be. It doesn’t matter how many centimeters-per-second something might be moving, because this produces entirely different results in the image depending on whether you are shooting very wide, like a landscape image, or zoomed in tight with a telephoto lens. In the latter case, the motion crosses the frame much faster, needing less time to produce a blur, so you can get by with fairly brief shutter speeds.

Often, you don’t need a lot of motion to make a decent image, and too much can produce a mess in the frame. When doing something like traffic or moving people, only a few cars or people are needed, and often only for short distances to convey the idea. Once they begin to overlap, they start getting muddled. For things like bird’s wings or moving wheels, even less time is needed. For star trails, though, it usually takes at least ten minutes for something noticeable, and an hour or more for really distinct trails. This even depends on where you’re facing. If you’re pointing towards one of the poles, for instance, you may need several hours for really good arcs – remember that the stars will produce a full circle by themselves in 24 hours, because you’re actually capturing the movement of the earth. Aiming towards the plane of the ecliptic, basically the equatorial regions, produces much more apparent motion, and you can get by with shorter exposures.

But how do we allow the shutter to remain open without making the image far too bright? The first two steps are by choosing the lowest ISO you can, and by closing down the aperture to a small opening, like f16, f22, and so on. Both of these limit the light coming in, so the shutter speed can go longer to compensate. You can also use lens filters such as a circular polarizer, or something called a neutral density filter. ND filters are named backwards, because they are high density filters (reducing light through the lens) which are neutral in color – basically, they’re sunglasses for your camera (as is the circular polarizer.) ND filters reduce light without changing the color cast or appearance of the image in any other way, and so can help reduce light so a longer shutter speed can be used, for instance in bright sunlight conditions. While these are available in threaded mounts to fit most lenses, you are probably better off finding the versions made for filter holders such as Lee and Cokin, which are large enough to use on all lenses and much less expensive. They have varying values, typically referring to the number of stops they reduce in light transmission. For very long exposures, such filters require a good holder, but for briefer ones like a second or so, you can simply hold the filter over the lens, taking care not to disturb the camera or leave a gap between the filter and the front of the lens.

Circular polarizers, by the way, can be used to cut reflections from water, not only reducing glare, but allowing you to see beneath the surface when used at the right angles. They can also cut reflections from non-metallic surfaces such as glass, and can deepen sky colors.

Also bear in mind that tripods are not the perfectly stable supports that they might seem. It’s easy to make a camera twitch atop one, and if this motion is a significant enough portion of the exposure time, it will show in the image. It will especially show if there are point light sources within, such as streetlamps or bright reflections. This is where the remote release should be used, and if your camera has a delay function among its repertoire, now is the best time to use it. In SLR cameras (including DSLRs,) there is a mirror inside that bounces the image from the lens path to the viewfinder, which slaps quickly out of the way just before the shutter opens, but this often produces vibrations on its own. If the shutter then remains open for periods from 1/15 second up to perhaps ten seconds, this vibration can show in the image. The delay function slaps the mirror up and lets the camera sit for a couple of seconds for that vibration to die down before opening the shutter.

The higher the tripod is extended, the more prone to vibration it is, and even things like a breeze can cause camera motion, something that may not be apparent until you see the resulting image. As a general rule, avoid extending the center column whenever you can, since this is the weakest point, and leg sections should be extended as thickest first, leaving the thin leg sections retracted if possible.

There are some experimental aspects you should try, when you start your forays into long exposures. Something that is present for perhaps half of the exposure will show up, but as a ghostly image that lets the background show through (because, for half of the exposure, the background was not blocked.) Firing off a flash or strobe unit during the exposure can illuminate and “freeze” a foreground subject, sharply overlaying it against the blur of its own motion. Some cameras have a flash setting called “rear-curtain sync,” which fires off the flash at the end of the long exposure, rather than the beginning, and this can be used to have a moving subject lead up to its sharply-defined flash-illuminated portion. A handheld flashlight can be used to illuminate select portions of your subject, or can be used to trace bright lines across the image if facing the camera. Be aware, however, that bright lights straight into the camera lens will produce glare, so flashlights that appear in the image should be minimized or hooded, and car headlights should be at an oblique angle, never directly towards the lens.

Exposure relies, naturally enough, on the light actually reaching the film or sensor. In the cases of either partial exposures (where the subject moves or leaves the frame) or multiple exposures (where the light hits the film/sensor multiple times in a single frame,) lighter-colored subjects will overcome darker colors. Note the differences here between the moonlit portions of my shirt, and the shadowed side, even of my face – the transparency shifts according to brightness. And now you know how many “ghost” photos are accomplished ;-)

Another thing you may want to try are multiple exposures – that is, overlaying more than one exposure on the same frame. Some film cameras have this built in, but this isn’t something that digital has been blessed with – or is it? “Exposure” doesn’t have to refer to opening and closing the shutter; that’s simply one method of doing it. What it refers to is capturing light, and this can be done different ways. In very dark conditions, you can provide light for the exposure by firing off a flash or strobe unit, and in fact, this is how those images of extremely fast subjects is typically done, since the shutter can only move so fast, and focal-plane shutters have a certain negative effect (that I’ll go into within another post.) But a flash may be exceptionally brief, perhaps 1/1,000 second down to 1/10,000 second. As long as there’s no other light reaching the sensor or film, the shutter can remain open, and the light for exposure comes only from the flash.

The second method is so simple it’s laughable. Leave the shutter open, and cover the lens with a thick black cloth. Uncover it to expose the film/sensor. Again, it works best if the environment is mostly dark, and you may want the light sensitivity reduced as much as possible, since I’m guessing you’re not that adept at removing a dark cloth for only 1/125 second. At night, I’ve covered the lens with a hat between exposures, so as not to shake the camera. If you’re really into experimenting, some people have taken lenses that have the shutter within them, such as Hasselblads and most large-format lenses, and mounted them via adapters to their SLRs. Then, the SLR shutter is locked open, but the lens shutter is opened as needed for the multiple exposures. A little creativity can add a lot to your photography.

So give it a shot or twelve, and use your imagination. It’s far too interesting to leave out of your stable of techniques.

But how? Part one: Good and Evil

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 1

When you examine the justifications and reasons given for religious belief, there are numerous common factors that come up regularly; at the same time, identical or similar factors are what are presented in the face of atheism, secularism, and even the “scientific model” of the universe – if [a] god does not exist, how does one explain this?

Given how often I see these, I have decided to outline some of the more common ones. To me, it was the realization that yes, such things could indeed work very well without guidance or influence by anything more than natural physics, that made a non-religious view of the universe not just viable, but the most supportable. Not everyone will agree, and that’s fine – discussion is welcome. The posts prefaced with “But how?” are my own attempt to explain, not how it could be, but why it is likely. Why something could be is a poor rationale, one that assumes an answer first and then looks for support – this can be done with any viewpoint you care to name. One valuable lesson that the scientific method provides is looking at what actually stands in the way, attempting to disprove a particular standpoint, in order to test its strength.

So with all that said, let’s talk about good and evil.

Many, many people profess that one of the strengths of religion is its moral guidance; a significant percentage of those believe that one cannot even know what morality is without religion – this is perhaps the most distasteful thing about atheism, if you were to ask those who recoil in horror at the mere thought. Yet, at the same time, when someone points out that countless aspects of religious scripture not only outline behavior we find abhorrent, they even contradict other portions and laws therein, you will immediately (and without fail) find people excusing such aspects, pointing out the “good” portions and the “real message.”

Unfortunately, this defeats their very argument. How can someone fathom what the real message is from the very source of their criteria, the books that tell them what right and wrong even are? How does one figure out what the “good” aspects of scripture are (such as prohibitions against homosexuality and bestiality) and what sections can/should be ignored (such as prohibitions against cutting hair and sowing two kinds of crop in the same field)? These examples are from the same book, by the way: leviticus. Of course it’s idiotic to stone blasphemers, or to whip children, or to keep slaves. We just didn’t get these ideas from scripture, which condones such acts. These aren’t even parables or metaphors that let the reader determine for themselves what the subtle message was supposed to be; these are distinct laws. So where did we get the ability to choose among these?

We judge people and actions all the time, not by referring to some particular list of rules, but by how they align with our own interests, and what we consider beneficial. “Good” is not an absolute value, but a variable that depends on how our society works, on how we interact with each other, and even sometimes based on arbitrary values. As I mentioned before, many of our ideas of “good,” like traffic laws, marriage laws, business obligations, citizenship, discrimination, child abuse, and so on, have no basis whatsoever in scriptural guidelines, even vaguely – we managed to come up with these all on our own. Some of these aren’t even common agreement, but widely variable across the world. How young is too young for someone to legally engage in sex, or vote, or drink alcohol, or serve in their country’s military? In this country alone, those are (almost) all different ages, but why? Can anyone name any source for this distinction based on calendar days since birth? Is there any reason whatsoever to believe, boom, on the morning of your nineteenth year, you now know how to vote properly, or are competent and mature enough to die in battle? These are just numbers picked almost at random, mostly because something was needed as a guideline.

But okay, let’s go back to the things most people think about when they get into the realm of moral behavior. Is it possible to be moral without referring to scriptural guidelines? First off, we need to define what morality really is, and since this is one of those things that relies more on personal ideas than a dictionary definition, I’ll urge you to pause for a moment and pin down your own concept of “moral” in your head before we go on.

Merriam-Webster Online defines it thusly:

a : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical <moral judgments>
b : expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior <a moral poem>
c : conforming to a standard of right behavior
d : sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment <a moral obligation>
e : capable of right and wrong action <a moral agent>

… which is no help at all, because it relies solely on other definitions. If we refer to the long-winded and often ridiculously philosophical Wikipedia, we find it not a hell of a lot better, and very frequently coming back to the idea that we should know what “right” and “wrong” really are. That, naturally, is the opening that is filled by many with religious scripture. Did your own definition head in this direction?

Okay, how about this: “behavior or principles that result in the greatest benefit for the largest number of people.” Close, perhaps, but still open for things like majority slave-ownership. Perhaps we add in, “recognition of the equality of individuals,” and maybe, “valuing trust, fairness, and community.” Is it starting to look like what you defined, and are you seeing how hard it might be to define it distinctly for every situation?

You might have caught on to something in there, too: we actually want such things like this, and not simply from the standpoint that it’s convincing in its benefit, but that we respond very negatively when such principles are violated. Again, it’s easy to say that this is drilled into us by religion and/or parental ethics, but is it? Or is it possible that we have this as an innate drive?

Now, such vaguely-defined principles aren’t usually something that we have “instinctively,” but there are many things that can be. Empathy, for one. We really do feel bad when others feel bad, right from birth, as any parent who watches crying behavior spread among infants knows. We worry about causing pain, even to animals, and try to help when others are depressed. Scriptural guidelines? Not really – they tend to be quite vague on such things, and certainly not an influence on babies, or indeed other animals which also display similar traits.

When we start thinking in terms of animal behavior, we begin using terms other than right and wrongbenefit and detriment, for example. While these largely have the same meanings, such terms dodge the implication that right and wrong have some deeper moral division – these are strictly human traits. If we look at the end results, however, we find them to be indistinguishable; something that provides a benefit to an individual or species cannot by its nature be determined to be either the result of “morality” or simply an innate drive for improvement, or even survival. To determine morality, we need to ask what the motivating factors were, something we can pretty much do only with our own species. There is an assumption that such decisions must have been reached through conscious and reasoning thought, one not supported by the decision itself.

But let’s say that we, for a moment, argue that “good” behavior is inherent, a trait evolved into us and thus subconscious rather than learned – does this make sense? Is there a way that such behavior could be rewarded by selection, that it would provide enough of a benefit to propagate through a species? Certainly, and we have no problem seeing it within species other than H. sapiens. Group behavior, cooperative efforts, packs and hives and flocks and colonies, all provide a huge benefit, that of many individuals working towards a common goal, gaining survival strength through numbers. And it’s easy to apply this to humans, from millions of years ago right up to today, with farming, cooperative hunting, protective tribes, community child care, and on and on. Any individual might develop selective skills, learned over years and even handed down through generations, and trade such skills for the fruits of another’s skills, education, or efforts. In this manner we can develop beyond the “here and now” survival and reproduction of individualistic species, and gain benefit from shared efforts. We can only accomplish this because we like socializing, and want a cooperative society. While we’d like to think that this is different from the flock behavior of sparrows or the pack behavior of hyenas, we have to ask ourselves: in what part of our education did we learn how to favor society over individuality? If this is cultural, it should be radically different among cultures, rather than exceptionally common. We don’t view anti-social tendencies as simply other personality traits, similar to music tastes, but we consider them to be almost an illness, indicating that there’s something wrong with such individuals.

So, does this translate into “good” and “evil”? We can start with trying to define those, of course, or take an alternate route and try to determine some behavior which is always “good.” But there really is no such thing; good and evil are abstracts, and virtually require one another to contrast against, rather than being defined as some particular state of being or specific actions, meanings, or attitudes. To illustrate, many people, upon seeing images of Adolf Hitler with happy children, consider them staged and propaganda, refusing to believe that such an evil person could possibly like children, and they like him in return. But evil is not absolute, and even the most reprehensible human beings can be found to possess some trait most consider “good.” We have difficulties with recognizing this because we want decisions to be easy and distinct, so we can classify someone irrevocably into a category and never have to consider them again – they must be one of two choices. It’s a shame, because our minds (that we consider so advanced) can handle much more nuanced concepts, but we often ignore this entirely in favor of black/white categorization.

Even more interesting is our overall attitude towards ourselves, in that we often feel that if some individual is truly bad, it’s a product of mental illness, an imperfection in their native instincts towards community, fairness, and cooperation. Very often, we’re right.

But if people are inherently good, why, then do we find so much evil in the world? The abrahamic religions offer the explanation of satan’s influences, and/or that such things must exist to produce a willing decision for mankind – in order for there to be free will, there must be choices. Both of these fail to explain anything, however. We do not, for instance, have the ability to choose whether or not we obey gravity, or whether thermodynamics guides our actions; these are forced upon us. But simply being “good” must be a choice? This makes no sense, and serves only to highlight how little religion can explain. Could we not simply have been made without free will? Also note that, in a system that supposedly has ultimate arbitration on mortal behavior once all is said and done, we can’t sit still and wait for that to happen; we mete out our own punishments, we have our own laws, apparently feeling that the omniscient creator needs constant help.

The other argument fares no better, but provides some clue as to what may be going on. Being influenced by satan still means that our goodness is not absolute; certainly a valid point, but satan becomes extraneous in such a case, because the key factor is the variability of “good” behavior. It is not some kind of soul-altering magic that satan wields, but merely coercion, to which we’re already susceptible (otherwise we’d be innocent of being corrupted, since it would be outside of our ability to resist.)

Ask anyone that is guilty of doing bad actions, and find out what the reasoning is. “Retaliation” leads the way by a wide margin, whether it be for Bobby stealing our favorite Hot Wheels or for society denying the privileges it bestows on others. Everything from feuds to conflicts between countries and cultures very frequently runs back to some point in time where “we were done wrong,” where the guilty person was minding their own business, being good, and got shafted for it. This can only affect us if we have a sense of fairness in the first place, if we desire that antisocial or divisive action receives consequences. This goes right back to the idea of a cooperative species, one that needs community to thrive. Let’s be real, crime is often a lot easier than following the rules, certainly better than working for some giant corporation to put money in someone else’s pocket. But it ultimately results in chaos, the breakdown of community and the severe hampering of progress, as a species and as a culture. Even criminal organizations have rules, and levels of trust.

The nature of life, however, is competition, and with competition comes conflict – that’s kind of how it’s defined. I’ll pause for a moment here to point out that if we argue for a created, purposeful universe, there is no reason for it to be this way. Any being that could create the entire world in six days, or even put the process of evolution into motion, could certainly manage a system of balance, where populations maintain zero growth and resources are always adequate to the need. But that’s not at all what we see, is it? Life is not self-limited, but expands to take advantage of the resources, halting only when opposed by competition and/or the lack of adequate environment and food, whereupon it gets reined in, not by halting its own expansion, but by malnutrition, disease, and dying off. Because of this struggle and competition, all species survive only by coping with this adversity, and this means they also must have some drive to protect themselves, gain an edge over other species, and coerce or force an advantage. Of course, the process of natural selection means that those that do this best pass along their genetic heritage. So we, as a species, can indeed have a conflict, between traits that make us favor community cooperation, and traits that make us seek an advantage just to survive.

Contrast this with the idea of a learned moral system, one that espouses good behavior and punishes bad, often perpetually – our brief existence as mortals serves only to define where and how we spend eternity. One would think that, if this was not inherent but instead drilled into us by religion, there would be few, if any, bad actions or behavior – there really is no argument in favor of eternal torment, is there? One would also expect to find that the religiously devout were noticeably more “good” than average, but this is not only anecdotally unsupported, it’s denied by countless studies and statistics the world over. Prisons are not populated solely, or largely, by atheists and agnostics – quite the opposite, in fact. Churchgoers can not be determined by any method of moral measurement, and countries with a higher percentage of devout do not have substantially lower crime rates, even taking into account that what constitutes a “crime” is determined by such cultures themselves – what another culture might determine as “immoral” has nothing to do with it. If we have learned how to be good, we suck at it.

However, consider (again) that humans might instead have conflicting desires, internal systems such as endorphins that reward behavior fitting certain criteria. Such a system would not produce overall attitude patterns, it would simply respond to immediate stimuli. This could mean that we might respond positively to social constructive stimuli that could benefit our reproduction, such as returning the smile of an attractive person, and almost immediately curse out the idiot that cuts us off on the road. Neither one really has any guidance whatsoever from scriptural moral platitudes, but fit easily within the basic drives of cooperative survival – remember, we may also have drives for “fairness.”

Fairness is a particular aspect that we have difficulties with, as well. Misfortunes that befall us, such as fires, floods, cancer, and so on, frustrate us to no end. We feel we didn’t deserve any such treatment, and in times past, we actually believed we must have – such misfortunes must have had some explanation in a universe designed by a loving god, so someone must have done something wrong and was being punished for it. As noted above, it usually wasn’t hard to find something that someone did wrong – and of course, we have parasitic religious figures today who maintain that this really is the case, in a loathsome and perverted attempt to capitalize on tragedy. Seriously, if your religion needs that much help to gain converts, it must have fuck-all going for it.

The desire for “fairness” doesn’t seem to fit very well in such cases either, because we should expect fair treatment only from other humans, right? Except that evolved traits are usually not that precise – remember that it’s not what works ideally that is selected, but what works better from the small variations at hand. So we have instincts to protect and care for infants, regardless of species. We respond competitively to countless scenarios, whether there is active competition for needed resources or not. We can be well past reproductive age or status and still play that game. And we can expect “fairness” from everything we encounter, not just other people. It’s misplaced, perhaps, but religion completely fails to explain it.

Most notably, however, is that “good” and “evil,” while relative and inadequately defined, are still functioning concepts in a world not dictated by scripture, provided we see them from the standpoint of a cooperative society. We function only through community, and to be blunt, that’s really the most functional definition of “good” in the first place. We tend to forget that Asia, Africa, and the Americas had functioning, in fact thriving, communities and cultures long before any influence from judeo-christian-muslim scriptures, and still maintained very similar concepts of moral behavior. Religious apologists might maintain that these are still vestiges of the moral code retained after the dispersal of the seven tribes or whatever, but doesn’t it seem odd that the concepts of morality remain while every last other detail, from creation to judgment day, haven’t the faintest traces to be found? Or is it easier, and far more explanatory, to see it as simply a trait developed by natural selection, one that exists in countless other species at the same time?

So should we follow our instincts, then? Well, yes and no. As pointed out above, inherited traits can be functional, but not necessarily ideal, and they can remain in constant conflict. Yet the very aspect that we feel sets us apart from other animals, the rational part of our brains, also plays an important part, and always has – accepting natural selection does not mean acting like savages. Despite such drives as reproduction, we can keep our pants zipped long enough to recognize that child-rearing requires lots of time and effort, and demands a certain amount of external support, like a job and a place to live. Most of us, anyway. And the same goes for good behavior. We can (and do, every day) recognize that we have our greatest strength in cooperative community, recognizing the rights of others and maintaining constant concepts of fairness. At the same time, we realize that not everyone holds fairness to us as high as, for instance, their own personal gain, and we maintain a certain level of distrust, as protection against manipulation and being taken advantage of. Being good only requires that we think in terms of community being more valuable than individuality, cooperation holding higher esteem than competition. For a race that can handle income taxes and Microsoft operating systems, this isn’t exactly challenging.

Moreover, this is head-and-shoulders above the religious aspects of good and evil, which spends no small amount of time defining where divisions lie, mostly between “us good” people and “those bad” people; this often (see the part about simplistic, black/white decisions) consists of “those catholics” or “those muslims” or, really, anyone not within our particular church group. Such divisions aren’t for any purpose of establishing morality, and has nothing to do with it – they serve only to elevate “us” above others, feeding our desire to be better. Hint: that’s competition, not cooperation. You do not create community by building walls.

We are, undeniably, all the same species, which means our community should be defined solely as “human.” We all have the same drives, desires, and needs – provided that we do not introduce competition where none exists, or favor it above cooperation and group advancement, we can function as a species, which is much better than functioning as tiny tribes. But it does take the realization that we’re not perfectly designed in a carefully controlled world, and our improvements rely on our conscious decisions to be better.