Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I recognize that I may have a problem of empathy when it comes to conversing with, or choosing not to converse with, people that express religious belief in public. Clearly, having a personal connection motivates me to use extra care when considering conversation.

An example: a friend that has a boy in the military who's deployed to Afghanistan. She has maternal feelings that I cannot have, and may feel a lack of control. Her religious upbringing - as tangential as it may have been in her teens - may be a source of strength in the face of uncertainty and lack of control she encounters today. This divergence in the way that she responds to life's crises, and the way that I respond to life's crises, leaves me far from her emotionally. I recoil at her expressions of belief, yet look for non-verbal signals that indicate that I support her hopes and dreams - that I am with her - without expressing support for her (apparent) religious views.

In the sense that I described above, I can see why people believe in "X", whatever supernatural thing "X" is. Various stressors - cultural upbringing, familial and social pressure, lack of control, lack of love, other emotional pain - combined with predispositions and transient knowledge and emotions, may all converge to encourage a person to seek shortcuts that attempt to balance their mental state. It may be that's what religion is good for.

I didn't go down that path. Right or wrong, good or bad, I stumbled through the uncertainty and pain, and survived to reach a place where I could consider life and its causes and effects from a more serene and level ground.

I try to remember that "i got lucky" to be on serene and level ground, but my luck took decades of persistence and pain tolerance. And I try to remember that other people are on different paths, and are different distances along their journey.and I think that that is being empathetic, too.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

God is...

God never appears to us. We might then infer that God is impotent, negligent, absent, disinterested, indistinguishable from nature, indistinguishable from non-existent, or non-existent.

My Sunday devotions are now concluded for today.

Thinking you can flap your wings

Thinking you can flap your wings and fly is not a fact about the universe in the same way that the observable, measurable interaction between bodies having mass is. Until you flap your wings and attempt to take flight, the feeling that you ***could*** fly if you flapped your wings is only a "fact" to you, it is not observable nor measurable to anyone else. It does not change the state of matter or energy, space or time in any meaningful way. No one is cognizant of your speculation that you could, indeed, fly if you flapped your wings. Until you demonstrate that you can fly, your internal state - your thoughts, speculations, desires, intentions - are not real in any sense that can be detected by anyone. Even you, the person having the thoughts, speculations, desires, intentions - should recognize that they are thoughts, speculations, desires, intentions until the moment you achieve flight.

Religion is much the same way. People believe "X". But "X" never appears, never influences the state of matter, energy, space or time. People, acting on the belief "X", may change matter and energy within the framework of space and time, but that is not "X" in action, it is people in action.

Flapping our lips about the existence of "X" is not the same as "X" demonstrating it's existence.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A punch in the aura

There are so many great parodies of religious claims that cataloguing them might take years. My favorite today is "Having a believer threaten me with eternity in hell is like having a hippie threaten to punch me in the aura."

Assuming we can suppress giggles long enough to consider them seriously, what is the epistemic difference between the two threats? Can the person making either threat claim to have knowledge that the threat can be carried out in this - or any - lifetime?

Compare the existence of Hell with the existence of a human aura. First, let's define Hell as "a place of suffering and punishment in the afterlife." Second, let's define an aura as "a field of subtle, luminous radiation surrounding a person or object" How can we claim with some certainty that Hell or auras exist? The most direct and effective way is to look for evidence.

Do we have evidence of Hell? No.

Do we have evidence of auras? No.

So far, they're equal in terms of what we can know about them ... that is, we can only speculate, therefore we must conclude they're speculative. Either or both concept might be "real" in that they are accessible to us during the life of the universe ... but their probability is now about the only thing that we can explore further.

Elaborating somewhat on the concept of Hell - we can say it presupposes the existence of an afterlife, and of a "you" that survives your bodily death to persist somewhere else that we living beings do not have immediate earthly access to. Furthermore, this "somewhere else" provides at least two possible states after death - one of relative non-pain, and one of pain; and that the differences between the non-pain and painful states of the afterlife are sufficient to cause desire for the former, and cause fear of the latter during the duration of your corporeal existence; and that those emotions are sufficient motivators to cause you to consider changing your beliefs and behaviors in accordance with the threat-bearer's avowed world view.

Elaborating on the concept of an aura - we can say it presupposes that there is a field related to your being that indicates something about the being, and may influence or be influenced by entities, relationships or events.

Which is more likely?

Applying Occam's razor ... there are more variables in the description of a person being consigned to Hell than in a person having an aura that can be punched. Therefore, the possibility of having an aura has less points at which it can be falsified, than the possibility of having a soul that can then be condemned to Hell. And we all know that personal auras, as we defined here, are a bunch of baloney.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What is true in the world?

What is truth?

I'm sure there are better explanations, but I consider truth to be any proposition for which there are examples in the world, and for which there are no counterexamples. The truthful proposition must be consistent with the real world. The more examples that exemplify the proposition, without a counterexample, the more confidence we can have that the proposition is true.

Take for example the rising of the sun. It happens every twenty-four hours, give or take a few seconds. I'm in my late fifties, and I can say that there's never been a day that the sun did not rise. Over 20 thousand times the sun has come up in the morning - not once did it not come up. I consider it to be true that the sun always comes up every day. Combine my personal observations with those of the billions of people alive today, and my confidence level increases several billion-fold. Sixty or eighty trillion observations that confirmed the proposition that the sun comes up every day, without a single counterexample. We can extend this to include all people who ever lived ... maybe 106 billion since homo sapiens emerged as a species. We as a species have pretty solid confidence that the sun rises in the morning.

Let's assume a different scenario. Let's assume that ghosts are observable in the real world. I personally have never observed such a thing. That doesn't mean they don't exist. I haven't seen a single serving president of the United States either, but I'm confident that they do exist based on numerous reports from allegedly reliable contemporary and historical sources. Do I have the same sort of confirmation from reliable contemporary or historical sources that ghosts exist? No.

Contrast scenario A - that the sun comes up in the morning - with scenario B - that ghosts are observable in the real world. Just using our contemporary observers, the consistently rising sun has approximately 70 trillion out of 70 trillion observations - without exception - that support the proposition. It could be true that one day the sun will not rise, so let's assume that in the next 70 trillion separate observations, one day the sun does not come up. All of us will notice this - unless it's the day after Saint Patrick's Day, in which case several million folks in the U.S. and Ireland (at least) will be extremely hung over, and may not be conscious or competent to make an observation that day. But on one day, we all see that the sun did not rise.

If, on the day the the sun doesn't rise, we then can say that yes, that does indeed happen. The best we might be able to do is to project that the event "the sun does not rise one day" now might conceivably happen once every five or ten thousand years - or whatever duration we can use as a yardstick.

Turning to scenario B - we - as a species - have no credible observations of ghosts. What's more, a single credible example doesn't increase our confidence much. If one person in 7 billion observed a ghost, and it could be verified that such a thing was probably true, without a second similar observation to lend confirmation, there is not much evidence to move the needle from "it is extremely improbable that ghosts can be observed in the real world" to "it is slightly improbable that ghosts can be observed in the real world".

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, that gods, and specifically the Abrahamic God Yahweh, are specialized and highly specialized cases (respectively) of the supernatural. Ghosts are less specialized examples of the supernatural - they are, presumably, not capable of creating the universe; nor supervising it; nor intervening in the lives of its inhabitants; nor judging the conjectural souls of these inhabitants when they expire; nor consigning these conjectural souls to places of punishment or reward for all eternity - places that are not observable nor verifiable to the inhabitants of the universe; nor maintaining these places of reward and punishment alongside, but completely undetectable from the universe in which the real inhabitants live their brief lives. So gods, and specifically the god Yahweh, are even more improbable than ghosts.

There's just no reason to believe that such a being exists.