Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Thirty eight years and going...

On the afternoon of February 13, 1981, I was visiting the campus of Boise State University to visit some friends. I'd dropped out because I thought I had no money (not realizing that I still had thousands of dollars in unclaimed financial aid). I'd given blood and it was cold and snowy. I had just missed a bus and it would be half an hour before another would come along so I decided to duck into the nearest public building to stay warm. 

It was the science building, not a building I'd visited before. 

I'd completely read the campus newspaper that I had with me and hoped to find something else to read. 

There was a piece of paper on a bench. Both sides were covered with handwriting. 

These weren't lecture notes and there was no name. 

Someone intended for this paper to be found. 

The page's creator had written numerous quotes from famous people, most of whom were familiar to me.
Religion is all bunk! (Thomas Edison)
I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose. (Clarence Darrow)
But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. (Thomas Jefferson)
Both sides of the page were covered with similar quotations from Thomas Paine, Mark Twain and others. In the top, right-hand corner of one side, there was a word I'd never seen before.


I knew enough of Greek from my Bible studies to know that the root word of this was theos meaning "god." A theist was a person who believe in a god or gods. 

I also knew enough to know that the prefix "a" in this word meant "no" or "not" so atheist must mean a person who didn't believe in gods. 

A few years earlier, I'd given up on the idea of the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the same god... just differences in doctrine). But I didn't know there was a word for what I was. 

Suddenly, the bus didn't seem that important. I rushed across Capital Boulevard to the Boise Public Library to see if I could find out more. 

Remember that this was 1981. Christopher Hitchens hadn't published any books yet. Richard Dawkins had only one published book that was about biology (a topic that was of no interest to me at the time). David Silverman was 14. 

Pickings were slim. 

However, one of the quotes on the paper (which I kept for years) was from Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth." The library had a copy of that which I checked out and kept until it was so much overdue that I got a call. It pained me to return it but I did. 

Fortunately, a friend who owned a small bookstore found a copy later in the spring and I still have that copy.

That silly little piece of paper might have been found by anyone. Maybe it would have just been thrown away. But I found it and it planted a seed that has grown and still lives in me today.

Today, I no longer prevaricate when someone asks me which church I go to. 

I just smile and say, "Me? I don't go to any church. I'm an atheist."

And, thanks to folks like the aforementioned Hitchens, Dawkins and Silverman, I've got the tools to explain that position.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Help! Help! I'm Being Repressed!!

I've been involved in a conversation about an old song that some radio stations are refusing to play because it offends some members of the "#metoo" movement. There are folks on both sides of this argument.

I'm not going to discuss that. It's neither here nor there.

What I'm going to discuss is censorship especially what it is and isn't.

First, some questions:

  1. Is this song readily available if you wish to purchase it or otherwise acquire it?
  2. Has the government issued an official ban on this song?
  3. Are you in danger of arrest or other legal action if you are found with this song in your possession?

If your answers to these questions are yes, no, and no, congratulations! This song isn't being censored.

Now people may choose to engage in a form of self censorship by refusing to listen to any radio station that chooses to play it. That's their right.

A radio station may see that playing this song has cost them a segment of their listening audience and they may decide that this segment is significant enough for them to stop playing the song. Again, that's their right.

Neither of these actions has removed the song from your playlist if you want to keep it there.

Here's the surprising thing: you can say, write, play or perform any work you want (within reason*) However, nobody anywhere is obligated to give you a platform for distribution of that work. That's not censorship. That's an editorial or marketing decision.

You can still go somewhere else to get it.

*Within reason means that you can't publish child pornography or similar exploitative works. Nor can you publish works that incite people to violence although with the advent of certain "news" organizations, that's becoming questionable.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Implies what?

The above image came across through a friend's news feed on Facebook. I like the original message but it was the reply from one of his friends that caught my eye (misspellings notwithstanding).

There is so much in that reply that needs correction that it reminds me of what one of my professors said when one of my classmates answered a question incorrectly.

"No. That's not right. It's not even right enough to be wrong."

The first problem with this is that of infinite regression. If we assume something that exists had to have a creator, it implies that this creator, in turn, had a creator. And that creator had a creator ad infinitum.

If there is ultimately a creator that needed no further creator of its own, can't we just cut out all these creators and just decide that the universe came into being on its own with some outside agent acting deliberately?

And every creator has to be more complex than its creation. Is there a complexity limit? 

Next, the only thing the existence of the universe implies is that it exists. Nothing more. We cannot imply anything beyond that.

Moving on, just because we don't know the origin of the universe doesn't mean that the idea of a creator is justified. That creator simply becomes a convenient placeholder for human ignorance.

Not that long ago, people didn't know where lightning came from so there was a god that created lightning (Zeus in Greece, Thor in Norse mythology, etc.). But since the work of early electrical pioneers such as Benjamin Franklin, we have a perfectly understandable and rational explanation of the origin of lightning.

So the creator becomes smaller and smaller with every new discovery we make.

These discoveries also reveal as much about human beings as they do about the universe: what we don't know today, we might know tomorrow. Unexplained doesn't mean inexplicable. It simply means we don't know yet.

The moment you introduce a creator into the mix, the need to understand more deeply vanishes. The human drive for knowledge ceases. We stagnate and find ourselves once again plunged into the Dark Ages.

So let's keep exploring. Let's be willing to accept "I don't know" as a perfectly acceptable answer as long as we follow it with "Let's find out!"

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mad as Hell? No...

In the 1976 film "Network," the character Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) tells us to go to our windows, fling them open and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

With the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine's Day, I'm beyond mad as hell. There aren't even words for how angry I am.

Enough is enough.

If I had my way, guns would be gone. All guns. Everything from BB guns to ICBMs would disappear. Then the problem goes away.

But I don't have the capability to do that. Nobody does. That genie is out of the bottle.

We have a problem and that problem is the ease with which anyone can get a high capacity firearm in this country.

Before you post a comment about how this isn't about guns, look at the rest of the world. Australia had a mass shooting in 1996 (it's called the Port Arthur massacre). As a response, the Australian government enacted some of the strictest gun control legislation ever. More than 640,000 weapons were turned over to the authorities. There hasn't been a mass killing in Australia since 1996 and other gun related crimes dropped drastically.

The United States is the only major industrialized country that has this problem. People in other countries have mental health issues, too, but only in the US do those problems manifest themselves in this way because we have easy access to weapons that can allow us to act on our worst impulses.

"But what about the second amendment?" I hear you cry.

The second amendment to the Constitution was written in 1787 when the highest capacity weapon fired two shots per minute if you were well trained and in a hurry.

It also contains a section about "well-regulated" militia which is further spelled out in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. If you read that part, you'll realize that the second amendment was never about private gun ownership.

And the Constitution has been amended to repeal earlier amendments. We have the ability. What we lack is the will.

"But if someone wants to kill, they'll find another way to do it." Ah, there's that hoary old chestnut again.

It's possible. In fact, the greatest mass murder at a school was carried out by someone using explosives and a homemade timing device.

In 1927.1

Since then, explosives have been more highly regulated. And we don't see this kind of mass killing occur every other day.

The Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh resulted in regulations involving the purchase of fertilizer.

The simple fact is, in order to kill someone by another means usually involves a more personal and up-close commitment on the part of the killer. Stabbing, beating and even bombing means you have to get close to your intended victims.

The Las Vegas massacre killer was able to murder 58 people from a distance of 1200 feet in less than 10 minutes.

Yes, I'd like to see this sort of thing made impossible. If giving up guns means that another high school girl gets to plan for her graduation rather than her parents planning for her funeral, I say give them up. If giving up guns means that another 6 year old gets to fret over his lost tooth rather than his parents lamenting over his lost life, I say give them up.

Children screaming at a school should be with delight because they're having fun on the playground. It should never be in fear because someone with a grudge has had easy access to the weapon that will kill them.

It's time to give up the guns. You've played with them long enough.2

1The Bath School disaster carried out by Andrew Kehoe.
2When you mourn the loss of your guns, I'll send you my thoughts and prayers.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Objective Morality vs. My Personal Ethics

On Twitter, someone was going on about objective morals.

Sorry, my friend, but there are no such animals.

Morals are determined by the society in which they are formed. And what may be acceptable to one society may be abhorrent to another.

Consider the Yanomami people of the South American rainforests. They practice female infanticide. It's a form of population control. They know that females are the key to a society's population. Simply put, if you have 10 fertile females and 1 fertile male, you can wind up with 10 pregnant females. On the other hand, if you have 1 fertile female and 10 fertile males, you can have no more than 1 pregnant female (this is the same reason that neutering a male cat is far less effective than spaying a female cat).

It's vitally important that they keep their population in check because they have limited resources. Too many mouths to feed threatens the entire tribe.

A larger number of males also means a larger number of warriors because these folks wage war against neighboring tribes the way Americans have barbecues... just something to do on the weekend.

A Yanomami man will let his wife know how much he loves her by smacking her on the head with a small club. The knots on her head are an indication of love and worn as a matter of pride.

To our western sensibilities, these are horrible practices but among the Yanomami, they are a part of their society. They'd see the unchecked reproduction of our society and its effects on the environment as immoral. And a woman with a smooth skull must be unloved.

There is no objective morality.

So that brings me to the subject of ethics.

Ethics are my personal gauge of what is right and wrong. Some of it was imposed from without (societal indoctrination, parental influence, peer pressure, etc.). But at some point, I had to sit and seriously consider what I thought of as right and wrong.

I can't list them all in this space. I'm not sure I can put all of them into words. But here are a few of my ethical guidelines:
  1. Don't hurt anyone unless absolutely necessary and unavoidable.
  2. Don't cheat anyone in business or other dealings.
  3. Speak your mind honestly. 
  4. Consider the feelings and needs of others. Go back to rule 1.
  5. If it doesn't hurt yourself or others, don't worry about it.
  6. Help whenever you can. 
  7. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  8. The person who raises his voice or his fists has run out of ideas.
  9. Don't be a doormat. Take a stand when necessary and be prepared to show the strength of your convictions.
  10. When making a statement, be prepared to back it up with evidence.
Pretty simple. And I don't need the promise of reward or the threat of punishment to abide by these rules I've established for myself. I do them because I know they reflect how I want others to treat me.

It's called empathy and it doesn't spring from a book, a preacher or a god. It's just what good humans feel towards one another.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Let's Talk About It

I have been debating religious folks for more than 35 years now. In 1981, as a newly minted atheist, I stood on the statehouse steps in Boise as Jerry Falwell held a "Moral Majority" rally.

At one point, he was about three feet from me and shouted, "I'd rather dig a ditch then take a handout!"1

I glared at him and shouted back, "You do nothing but take handouts. How many hard working people send you money for nothing in return?"

His people stepped between us and made it clear.

Kid, you'd better back off.

Since that time, I've had debates in person and online. Some of them were a bit more structured while some of them were just free-for-all.

People ask me why I bother debating religion at all.

I have a few basic reasons.

There is an outside chance that I may expose my colleague2 to an idea or evidence that he or she has never encountered or considered before. I know the possibility is remote but you never know.

There is an outside chance that I may be exposed to an idea or evidence that I've never encountered or considered before. If it's compelling, I might change my mind. Again, it's a remote possibility but it has been known to happen (although not anything that has changed my mind or gods or religion).

Sometimes, these debates have onlookers. If any of them are on the fence, I'm obligated to present my best arguments with reason, logic and evidence. There's a less remote possibility that I might convince them that my position is the more tenable and I might get them on my side of the fence.

But probably most important is to let my colleague know that his/her ideas won't go unchallenged. This is especially important in a world where religion and nationalism go hand in glove. Many would use religious justifications to rob people of basic liberties and, in some places, their lives. Even in our own country, we have people like Alex Jones calling for civil war because he and his kind aren't being allowed to turn the US into a theocracy overseen by middle-aged white men who have twisted their god and messiah into some bizarre wrathful monsters.

I have to be the person who stands up to these people and says, "No, that's not right!"

It's my obligation to my country.

It's my obligation to my world.

It's my obligation to myself.

No, sir. I won't back off.

1Even then, being in poverty and needing assistance was seen as some kind of character flaw.
2I don't see them as opponents. The moment I do, it's not a debate; it's a combat.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Searching for Meaning in the Shadow of the Moon

In our solar system, there are 8 planets.

Of these 8 planets, four of them are gas giants with no solid surfaces so no place to stand to make observations.

Of the four remaining planets, two of them have moons.

Of those two, only one has a moon of appreciable size.

You live on that planet.

In the early days of our planet, the moon was three times closer than it is today. So it looked three times larger. But the moon always appeared larger than the sun.

The moon is moving away from the Earth at a rate of about an inch per year. There will come a time when the moon will always look smaller than the sun.

It has now receded to a distance so it subtends an angle of about half a degree in the sky. The sun also subtends an angle of about half a degree.

You live in a rare time when the sun and the moon are almost the exact same angular size in the sky.

The moon isn't always the same distance from the Earth. Sometimes it looks slightly larger and other times it looks slightly smaller. Only when its at its closest, perigee, does it appear the same angular diameter as the sun, every 27.55454988 days

The path of its orbit isn't parallel with the path of the Earth's orbit around the sun so these two paths cross about twice per month or twice every 27.212221 days.

It aligns on the same side of the Earth as the sun on the day of the "New Moon," every 29.530588853 days.

About twice per year, all of these numbers line up so the moon casts a shadow on the Earth.

This is a solar eclipse.

Much of the time, the inner part of the shadow, the umbra, is cast into space and only the outer part of the shadow, the penumbra, falls on Earth. This is a partial solar eclipse. These are fairly common.

At other times, the umbra is cast on the Earth but, because we live on a planet that's covered more than 70% by oceans, it often falls on the ocean or in a remote, hard to reach place.

This year, the shadow of the moon will cross the entire continental United States.

The last time this happened was in 1918 and it won't happen again until 2045.

It's not a common event for any given location. Most "eclipse chasers" have to travel around the world to see a total eclipse of the sun.

For a good share of people living in the continental United States, it won't be such a journey.

Yes, there is a lot of hype going on about the so-called "Great American Eclipse."

We live in a world where there is so much nonsense that's celebrated that it's often difficult to get excited about events like this. People are talking about watching it on the Internet or ignoring it all together.

However, this isn't just a matter of the rarity of the event. It's also a celebration of humanity's ability to make predictions about this kind of thing. Astronomy is, arguably, the best predictive science known to man.

This eclipse is a celebration of that science.

In antiquity, people were able to predict eclipses with a fair degree of accuracy, often getting the date within a day or two or the path of the eclipse to within a few hundred miles.

Today, we can predict where the path will be within a matter of meters and predict the beginning, middle and end of totality for a given location within fractions of a second.

That's amazing.

That's worth celebrating.