Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The First Lever

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "Men are moved by two levers only—fear and self interest." Today, I'll be (quite appropriately) talking about the first of those two levers: Fear.

Fear is our most primal emotion (possibly tied with lust). In a hostile environment, fear is what alerts a creature that it's in jeopardy and triggers its "fight or flight" reflex. Fear is the emotion responsible for keeping you alive. In the wild, when your life is frequently threatened, fear is your most valuable emotion.

But we don't live in the wild. Our world is a lot safer, and there's a lot less we need to fear. Of course, there still are cases where you should be afraid. If you're crossing the street and notice a car speeding towards you, apparently not having noticed the red light, you're right to be afraid, and the reflex to run will be quite useful (just don't try to fight the car). But these cases are a lot rarer than they would be in the wild.

This doesn't mean that people don't find much to fear, however; it just takes on a different form. Instead of a primal fear of danger, we have more abstract fears. The problem is that our fear reflexes didn't evolve to handle these more abstract fears, and it can often lead to people acting irrationally.

Take the case of someone who is afraid to be wrong about a certain subject. Them being wrong is akin to the death of their worldview. So, if their worldview is threatened by someone espousing a different view, fear may kick in. Their instincts tell them to do whatever they can to preserve their worldview, and their actions from this point on are guided by this. They look for arguments that will support their worldview in an attempt to defend it. Their goal doesn't become determining whether it's right, it becomes proving it is right.

An outside observer should immediately see the problem here: What if the person actually was wrong in the first place? How would they ever learn this, if this is the approach they're taking? The answer is that they probably won't. They'll see only evidence that supports their worldview, and they'll either deny or twist any evidence that contradicts it.

But even when you realize that, you most likely still don't want to be wrong. That's perfectly fine, as I have an alternative approach for you. If you're afraid of being wrong, focus you efforts on finding out what's right, and then advocate that. Once you've done that, congratulations! You've now accepted the key tenet of the Scientific Method.

Of course, there's another big area in life where fear plays a role: Religion. Almost every religion has as one of its key tenets the belief that those who don't believe are faced with certain doom. Nothing illustrates this better than the Christian belief that those who don't accept Jesus Christ as their savior are doomed to eternal torture.

If you view this as some sort of actual justice system, it doesn't make much sense. Why would a loving god give out infinite punishments for a finite sin? On the other hand, if you look at this as an invention of humans in order to scare people into believing, it makes perfect sense. What better way to make people believe than by telling them that they're in for eternal torture if they don't? And while they're at it, they pull the second lever as well. They promise those who do believe an eternity of bliss, effectively doubling the stakes. People are simultaneously scared of the consequences of not believing and enticed to believe.

Of course, the problem with this is that it's all an argument from consequences. The consequences of something being true or believing something to be true have no bearing on whether or not it actually is true. The human mind is normally set up against this; it naturally believes what it sees evidence for, not what it wishes were true. Sure, it would be nice if you could walk through walls, but there's no evidence for it. So your brain believes that you can't, even though it being true would have good consequences.

So, why then do people end up actually believing in religion, rather than simply paying lip-service to it? Well, part of it is indoctrination from birth. Another part is people lying and using logical fallacies to convince them. But this doesn't cover all of it; there are still people out there who believe that the evidence out there actually supports religion.

What happens here is just the same as in my previous example, only these people are coming at it from a different direction. People want to believe in religion because they're afraid of the consequences of not believing. But if the evidence they've seen causes a contradiction in their minds, they have to find some way to resolve it. What often happens is that they start to look for evidence to justify their beliefs. Their goal is no longer to determine whether they're true, but to find reasons that they are true. Once they've done this, they've successfully fooled themselves into believing.

The solution here is even easier than in the previous case. Here, all it takes is to be aware of what's going on. If someone tries to seduce you with a belief by appealing to the consequences of it, point out that the hypothetical consequences have no bearing on whether or not it's true. All that should determine whether or not you believe in something is whether or not it's true. Keep this in mind, and you'll never end up trying insanely to prove something insane just because you wish it were true.

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, October 30, 2006

Distilled Wisdom Index

Well, I've hit the third post in my Distilled Wisdom series, and the first two are buried deep within my archives. So with that, I think it's time to create an index post I can use to keep track of them, and you can use to check out any you might have missed.

Also, if there's an aspect of debate you think would make a good entry, the comment thread here is a good place to let me know. Just remember that this all comes down to my own knowledge and experiences, so there may be fields I can't cover.

The Index

1. How to Sound Intelligent
2. How to Sound Reliable
3-1. How to Sound Reasonable (Part 1)
3-2. How to Sound Reasonable (Part 2)
4. The Principle of Charity

Coming Soon

?. (Title held secret)
?. Trolls

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Godless Holy Day

Head on over to Skeptic Rant for the 52nd Carnival of the Godless. Just be careful not to mention the word "holiday" while you're over there; I won't be held responsible for the consequences if you do.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Skepticism: Where it is, Where it isn't

Where it is: The lates issue of the Skeptic's Circle, over at Left Brain/Right Brain. Read. Learn.

Where it isn't: The campus newspaper, Imprint. Last week, it included an article which took the merits of organic foods for granted. I sent in a letter trying to set them straight. This week? Letter wasn't published, and no word on the issue whatsoever.

UPDATE: Okay, they've now published it, a week later. Better late than never, I guess.

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Distilled Wisdom #3: How to Sound Reasonable (Part 1)

Welcome back to Distilled Wisdom, where I boil out all the impurities and useless information I've taken from the sea of knowledge and serve you up a nice tall glass of distilled wisdom!

Yes, it's been a while, but I'm finally getting around to doing the third part of this series. This time I'll focus on how you can be (or, failing that, sound) reasonable in online debates. This subject is quite a big one, so I'm going to have to split it into two sections.

Some of the advantages to sounding reasonable are obvious, such as that it makes people more likely to listen to your arguments. If you debate reasonably, people with opposing views might actually listen to you. If you debate unreasonably, they'll ignore or even mock you.

For instance, ever heard of Fritz Zwicky? No? That's because he wasn't very reasonable. He'd made a huge scientific discovery back in 1933, deducing the existence of Dark Matter, but he didn't get much regard for it, and the theory stagnated for quite a long time. No one was willing to work with him on it, so it got nowhere. The reason for this is that Zwicky was, quite simply, a jerk. He called all of his colleagues "spherical bastards" because "They're bastards whatever way I look at them."

Another important advantage to appearing reasonable has to do with the fact that internet debates take place in front of an audience. If you debate reasonably while your opponent is frothing at the mouth, the audience is more likely to assume that you've come to the reasonable conclusion.

So, enough with the "Why?" and onto the "How?":

In Part 1:
1. Don't yell
2. Answer all questions

In Part 2:
3. Don't pursue
4. Explain your logic
5. Hold back your insults

1. Don't yell

IS YOUR SHIFT KEY STUCK DOWN? THEN WHY ARE YOU TALKING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS? One of the first things you should learn in internet discussions is that Caps Lock is the equivalent of yelling. Many veteran 'net users (myself included) mentally read capitalized words as yells. This is helpful if you want to illustrate that you actually are yelling about something, but incredibly annoying if you do it for no reason.

This can even be bad if it's used on individual words to add emphasis on them; they aren't interpreted as being emphasized, but instead being yelled out. Take the following paragraph, excerpted from a comment on Wikipedia's Telepathy talk page:

Selmo, this quote, "No amount of evidence is enough to convince a skeptic," further suggests you really don't understand how science and scientists work. Scientists are expected to remain skeptical until they see compelling evidence. And compelling evidence is NEVER based on the "amount of evidence." It is based on the QUALITY of evidence. While one well-designed and well-conducted experiment can convince most scientists, a million badly conducted experiments will convince almost none. And another point is in order: Wiki editors are NOT supposed to edit based on "faith." They are supposed to edit based on the best-sourced evidence they can find.

I happen to agree with the argument that this guy is giving, but his style leaves much to be desired. I chose this paragraph as it illustrates this particular point: Three words are capitalized for emphasis. They probably should be emphasized, but italics is much more appropriate. As it is, it's like he's yelling out those words rather than stressing them. Of course, this is just my personal opinion on the matter (hey, this whole blog is my opinions!), so you can take it or leave it.

Okay, so I've said that capitalization isn't appropriate for emphasis there, and that italics is. To give you a complete picture, here's my personal guide to different forms of emphasis:

Italics - Use italics whenever you want to simply stress a word as it's being read. Italicized words don't jump out at the reader until they come to them, so they don't divert attention like capitalization and bolding do. For instance, instead of the capitalization used in the paragraph above, the words should be italicized like, "It is based on the quality of evidence." Doesn't that look much better, yet still get the point across?

Other uses for italics:
  • In narrative writing, a character's thoughts are often italicized instead of put into quotation marks in order to distinguish them from what the character says aloud.
  • If the <blockquote> tag isn't available, italicizing a large block of quoted text helps distinguish it from your own.
  • Titles of books, movies, television series, and the names of newspapers and magazines should be italicized.
Italics can be applied in html by surrounding the text you wish to be italicized with the <i> and </i> tags. Some message boards require you to use the bracketed tags [i] and [/i] instead, and wikis let you use pairs of apostrophes ('') instead of html tags.

Bold - Use bold text when you want a particular word or phrase to stand out. Watch how this jumps out at you. Be careful, however, as it can easily be overused. Making your entire post bold is like begging for attention, and just annoys people.

Other uses for bolding:
  • Bolding can be used as a virtual highlighter. If you're quoting a large section of text, and you want a particular section to stand out, you can make it bold. Just be sure to add [emphasis added] at the end.
  • Bold text is also convenient for titles, subtitles, and section titles. This helps make the titles stand out to the reader.
Bold can be applied in html by surrounding the text you wish to be bolded with the <b> and </b> tags. Some message boards require you to use the bracketed tags [b] and [/b] instead, and wikis let you use triplets of apostrophes (''') instead of html tags. In general, text that you wish to be both bolded and italicized can be formed simply by using both tags (in wikis, putting five apostrophes (''''') before and after the text, the combination of the two tags, does indeed work).

Underlined - In general, underlining should be avoided on the internet, as it's easily mistaken for hyperlinks. However, it is generally appropriate in titling, either alone or combined with bolding. One other rare use of underlining is when your text will appear in a typeface which doesn't italicize noticeably. Here, it can be used as a substitute for italics.

Underlining can be applied in html by surrounding the text you wish to be bunderlined with the <u> and </u> tags. Some message boards require you to use the bracketed tags [u] and [/u] instead. Wikis generally have no special tags for underlining, though html tags may be used. Some message boards and websites prevent you from using underlining since it may be confused with hyperlinks.

CAPITALIZATION - Capitalization is very rarely appropriate. In most cases where you'll be tempted to use it, bold is a better choice. It can, however, be useful in titling on occasion. Also, when writing in a plain text medium that can't support other forms of emphasis, capitalization can be appropriately used instead of bolding.

Of course, if you actually are yelling, then go ahead.

EDIT: Ow, my mental ears! I found this excerpt from a chain letter presented in a post at the recent Skeptic's Circle. This is a really good example of what not to do:

These are just SOME of the things our Doctors never tell us. ONE out of every 55 women will get OVARIAN or PRIMARY PERITONEAL CANCER! The "CLASSIC" symptoms are an ABDOMEN that rather SUDDENLY ENLARGES and CONSTIPATION and/or DIARRHEA.

And that's not even the worst of it. For those equipped with mental-ear plugs, go check it out at the post.

2. Answer all questions

If you have the time, check out this trolled thread at Rockstars' Ramblings. In in, the troll tries to claim that Intelligent Design is scientific and "takes the supernatural out of the equation." I eventually got him to admit that ID requires a supernatural designer, but he then immediately started pretending he'd never claimed it didn't in the first place. (Hey, here's an extra tip to sound reasonable: Don't lie. I know I had it in my last Distilled Wisdom as well, but it fits here, too.)

At one point, Bronze Dog challenged the troll's claim that ID is scientific by asking him to show that it's falsifiable (one of the core criteria of science). For a long time, he completely ignored the question, even though it was repeated many times. Then, he eventually said that he'd answer it if we answered one of his, which had to be over on his blog (a ploy to get more traffic there, I suspect). His question turned out to actually be three, but I answered them anyways.

He still didn't answer. More arguments ensued. He used a ton of other poor arguing tactics, with plenty of deliberate misrepresentations of the truth (read: lies). Eventually, I gave up in disgust with his repeated lies and refusals to act rationally, so I left. Not long after, so did Austin Atheist Anonymous, who was also over there arguing with him.

Weeks pass. He realizes that we actually did leave, so in a desperate ploy for attention, he acts all magnanimous and answers the question he should have answered the first time it was asked. Except, there was still a little problem: he answered the wrong question. We asked what evidence would falsify ID. Here's what he gave:

To falsify intelligent design, it is enough to display specific, fully articulated Darwinian pathways for the complex systems that, according to intelligent design, lie beyond the reach of the Darwinian mechanism (systems like the bacterial flagellum).

Notice what he's asking for there. That's not evidence, that's an explanation. An extremely long explanation, at that. For the pathways to be "fully articulated," they'd have to include every single organism along that path, plus all of its competitors, and show why each step gives an advantage. Given the timeframe that evolution takes, this is obviously unreasonable. No human could possibly set this up within their lifetime. Ever heard the phrase "Moving back the goalposts"? Well, his goalposts just broke the speed of light.

* * * * *

Questions posed in a debate generally serve one of two purposes. The first and most common purpose is when the opponent is asking you to clarify some aspect of your position. Why should you do this? Well, first of all it's just plain courteous. Secondly, if you don't answer it, you're denying him or her information about your position. Doing this makes it harder for him to argue with you, but it's likely that anyone reading the exchange won't care about that at this point. What they will care about is that you're refusing to answer a simple question about what you're saying, and then using that lack of information on your opponent's part to squeeze out an advantage.

The other purpose a question in a debate can serve is to demonstrate that you can't answer it. If you ignore the question (like the troll mentioned above did), you're just proving your opponent's point. On the other hand, if you can answer it, doing so is significantly to your advantage.

There are problems with some questions, however, which makes a simple, direct answer impossible. Sometimes the questions will be assuming a false premise, such as in one question this troll gave: "Do [the new fossil finds] overturn Darwin’s bleak assessment of evolutionary theory?" The invalid premise here is that Darwin had a bleak assessment of evolution, which is patently false.

The question should still be addressed, however, and in this case it's best to first explain why the premise is false, and then address concerns in the question. In this case, I ended up answering this question as follows: "As I showed above, Darwin didn't have a bleak view of evolution... What these finds did do was support his hopeful view of evolution."

Other problems with questions should be addressed differently. For instance, if the question uses ambiguous terminology, it's best to ask for clarification on it. Use your best judgment, but never leave a question unaddressed.

* * * * *

Distilled Wisdom Index

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Cavuto on Campus

The question mark: A harmless punctuation mark or a way to get a way with saying anything ridiculously subjective without sounding biased? Jon Stewart explains:

Stewart Lampoons Cavuto

I ran across another interesting poster on campus this week, with the headline "Does God Exist? An informal debate." Reading closer, I noticed that this debate was sponsored by "Campus for Christ" and "UW Debate Society." With that, I knew that it wasn't a question mark being used in the headline, it was a Cavuto, covering up the fact that the headline actually said "God exists. Watch as an atheist fails to prove a universal negative in our 'debate.'"

Read more about this at the website they've made, with plenty of articles on the subject as well. But, of course, every one of these articles supports the belief that God exists, without one explanation of why he doesn't (or even might not). So, with that in mind, I'm taking it upon myself to write a reply to their "God exists" article. Before reading on, make sure you've read my previous post on The Ultimate Answer.

It starts off tamely:

"You can't prove God exists and you can't prove God doesn't exist." This is the response one often hears when the question of God's existence is raised.

It is true in one trivial sense, but quite misleading in another critical sense. If we are using "prove" in the strict sense of absolute certainty, it may be true that we can't prove or disprove God's existence.

I'd argue that it in fact is true that we can neither prove nor disprove God (or anything).

But this does not mean that there is no good evidence or arguments for God, which might make belief in God's existence very reasonable. We know very little (if anything) with absolute mathematical certainty, so certainty is neither a reasonable or necessary standard. Like virtually all of our other knowledge, I think we can show that it is highly probable that God exists.

And already they've dropped the masquerade of presenting both sides in order to answer a question. *sigh*


There is no shortage of good arguments for God's existence. Alvin Plantinga, arguably one of the world's more brilliant philosophers, once delivered a paper outlining two dozen or so theistic arguments. Space will limit me to two.


Premise 1. Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.
Premise 2. The Universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefeore the Universe has a cause.1

Whatever begins to exist must have a cause. Most of us have no problem accepting this principle. We assume its truth in virtually every aspect in our daily lives. Our experience always confirms it and never denies it. But surprisingly philosophers have been unable to prove its veracity.


Nevertheless, it has always been a fundamental first principle of philosophy and science that "from nothing, nothing comes", "being cannot come from non-being".

Most people may have no problem with the first premise, but I'll flat out deny it right now. I'll also deny the claim that science agrees that "from nothing, nothing comes." This may have been believed by scientists at once, but not anymore. A new potential phenomenon has been theorized which literally is something coming from nothing.

What I'm talking about here is Pair Production. When one zooms down to the quantum scale, one can see fluctuations going on even in a vacuum. Some of these fluctuations result in a particle and its negative version (a version having negative charge, mass, spin, and every other conserved property) being created simultaneously, then quickly recombining into nothing. Now, it's also commonly theorized that negative-mass particles would travel backwards through time, so one could observe this as a particle orbiting through one spatial dimension and one time dimension. There's no innate cause to the particle being there, it just does exist.

This could also be theoretically applied to the universal scale. We know that our universe started out at a quantum scale, so the fluctuations could have theoretically allowed pair-production of universes. Of course, this is just one theory. Other theories of the creation of the universe postulate that this universe is the result of natural processes in an outside "universe" of possibly infinite time.

The article mostly continues along this line of argumentation, and then goes to explain why God is exempt from these rules:

Most Common Objection

"What caused God"

The question "What caused X?" only makes sense if there was some indication that "X" had a beginning. There is nothing that indicates that the cause of the Big Bang had a beginning. In fact since time did not exist beyond the Big Bang, the cause of the Big Bang must have existed timelessly. Thus it could have no beginning, and hence no cause. We may want to say this about the universe, but we can't, since as we have seen, the evidence is the universe had a beginning.

Let's start with "time did not exist beyond the Big Bang." This is presented as simply a fact, with no supporting evidence. If we allow that time did exist before the Big Bang in some sense, then this argument starts to fall apart.

This attempt to answer the question of "What caused God?" mostly revolves around the claim the God is "timeless." The problem here is that "timeless" is never well defined. So, let's see if we can figure out what it means, and what possibilities are allowed. Normally, we think of time as being a dimensional axis with special properties leading to change, causality, and with laws of conservation. We also have spacial axes which, if viewed as if they were time, would exhibit change, but no reasonable causality or conservation laws. There's also no reason we can't also extend this to have multiple time-like axes, where a variance in one would show change to the entirety of our universe's existence.

So, what would it mean for something to be timeless? The Oxford Desk Dictionary defines it as "not affected by the passage of time" or "eternal." God is already defined to be eternal (that is, existing at all times), so this does us no good. The other alternative is that he's not affected by the passage of time at all - that is he's static. Given that the Bible shows him thinking and doing things, this is obviously untrue.

That covers all existing definitions, and since neither of them covers how they seem to be using it, "Timeless" now meets the qualifications for Doggerel. Okay, so let's try to think about what they likely mean by it, then. What possibility is left? I planted a seed in a previous paragraph about this that could explain how they're thinking: God exists on a separate time-like axis. This seems to cover all that they're claiming. There could legitimately be no time (on our axis) before God created our universe, but there's still a time (on his axis) for this before to actually exist. It's also time-like, so he could sit there and think in it. And, since he's omnipotent, there's no reason not to limit him to stay in that axis; he could easily switch over to our time axis once it's created.

But the problem with this is that it still requires the existence of a form of time for God. Whatever they may use to explain this (aside from meaningless appeals to "It's magic."), the problem still remains that God must experience time, with or without our universe. Once this is clear, we can still demand an answer to "What created God?" If they don't deny they're in a corner here, the only options they have are that God was either created from nothing, or he's infinite. The former is unlikely to be used, as it would leave open the possibility that the universe could be created from nothing. Now, let's go on to the latter.

Say God is infinite. This means that at the bottom level of the universe, God just exists. The bottom level is the existance of a being of ultimate power and knowledge. It doesn't sound too reasonable to me, but that alone isn't an argument against it. What is an argument against it, however, is the existence of other possibilities. I already pointed out a couple of these. One of these is pair production from nothing, and the other is natural processes in some other, infinite universe. Both of these are fundamentally simpler than a being of infinite power, and thus more reasonable to hypothesize. But the existance of these possibilities does nothing to disprove God. What it does do, however, is provide a reason why their line of argumentation does not necessitate a god, and thus provides no actual evidence for him.

There's one other key argument they use in this article, the fine-tuning argument:

Astrophysicists have been discovering that the Big Bang appears to have been incredibly fine-tuned. Stephen Hawking describes the situation,

"...the universe and the laws of physics seem to have been specifically designed for us. If any one of about 40 physical qualities had more than slightly different values, life as we know it could not exist: Either atoms would not be stable, or they wouldn't combine into molecules, or the stars wouldn't form the heavier elements, or the universe would collapse before life could develop, and so on..."7

The numerical values of the different natural forces like gravity, electromagnetism, subatomic forces, charges of electrons, etc. "just happened" to fall into an extremely narrow range that is conducive for life to exist. Minute changes in any one of these forces would have destroyed the possibility for life and in most cases destroyed the universe itself.

At first glance, this seems like a valid argument. But let's go back to the two scenarios I hypothesized earlier for the creation of our universe. The first is pair-production from nothing, which leaves open the possibility of this happening at other times in other places in the "nothing," giving a potentially infinite number of universes. The other possibility was natural processes within an outer universe, which also leaves open the possibility of replication, creating multiple universes.

The article lists a few examples of physical laws and constants that appear to be fine-tuned. Some of these we can easily see being variable in different universes, such as the expansion rate (and similarly, the amount of matter). Since we're allowing an unlimited number of universes to be created, certainly many (infinitely many still) will meet the requirements of these variable constants.

But what about other constants, that aren't apparently variable, such as the proton-electron mass ratio? The Christians claim that God can just set this to be whatever he wishes, so they're already saying that they can be varied. When we get down to think about it, there's no concrete reason that we also can't hypothesize that these constants (and possibly many laws of physics as well) are in fact variable outside our universe, and they're chosen randomly at the creation of the universe. Once we've allowed this, there will exist some finite (if miniscule) chance of a universe being created that meets all the needs for intelligent life to form. Once it does, and chance also leads to intelligent life existing in that universe, we'll exist right there wondering why we exist there.

So, the problem comes down to plausibility. Is it more plausible to assume a god, a being of infinite power creating one universe so that intelligent life will be created there, or to assume the random creation of an infinite number of universes, some of which will be amenable to life, allowing life to form? The latter takes up much more space, it seems, but at the bottom has very little necessary complexity. The former, on the other hand, has an extremely high level of complexity at the bottom level. In fact, what seems unlikely here is that in the beginning things would be just right to have this infinitely powerful being. Don't the arguments of Intelligent Design advocates themselves say this can't happen?

As before, this doesn't disprove God. But it does provide an alternative, which is possibly more reasonable. Given this, it would be fallacious to say that the fine-tuning of the universe implies the existence of a God. After all, wouldn't the God need to be fine-tuned to be so powerful? No appealing to the supernatural here, let's keep it to logical explanations.

Now, just to clarify. What I've done here isn't intended as evidence that there is no god, or even that God doesn't exist as the Christians picture him. This is just a rebuttal of their claims of evidence for this god. I could get into evidence that their view of a god is unlikely, but this post is long enough already, and plenty of people have already gone into it.

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Can you feel it, see it, hear it today?

If you can't, then head on over to The Inoculated Mind where you can not only see, but also hear the Skeptic's Circle #45. Can't feel it quite yet, but I noticed that there's a project in the Engineering department of my university working on creating an affordable Braille computer display. Hopefully it won't be long before they get it up and running, so the blind can finally join in with the rest of us on the internet.

(And yes, I'm still on a Faith No More kick.)

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Ultimate Answer

This is it, people, a landmark post. Nope, it's not some cliché post number like 25, 50, or 100. This is bigger than that. This post number is the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything.

This is post 42.

Now, of course, the problem becomes, what's the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, to which this is the answer? Most who've read through the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series come out saying, "It was never revealed. And no, 'What do you get when you multiply six by nine?' is the corrupted answer." But they're wrong.

You see, Douglas Adams was clever. Marvin, the android with a brain the size of a planet had actually scanned Arthur Dent's brainwaves, and after some planet-sized calculations, come up with the real Ultimate Question. It's revealed in the following piece of dialog between him and the mattress:

"...I am at a rough estimate, thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number." [said Marvin]
"Er, five" said the mattress.
"Wrong," said Marvin. "You see?"

The Ultimate Question is thus "Think of a number, any number" and the answer is 42. Of course, since this is a bizarre universe, this doesn't all make perfect sense. First of all, the question isn't really a question. Secondly, the "question" asks for "any number," but only 42 is correct.

(Aside: Yes, that's only a theory as to the ultimate question, but it's by far the best theory.)

Now, back to our universe. For a while yesterday, I spent some time force-feeding logic to a creationist troll over at Rockstar's Ramblings. He eventually trotted out the tired old line "Science doesn't have all the answers!" Of course, neither does religion. In fact, there's huge debate among Christians as to the ultimate meaning of life. "Why the hell did God put us here?" they wonder. Yet they can't come up with an answer.

This problem exists in almost every religion and non-religion. It's the ultimate "Why?" of existence that plagues everyone. And today, in retaliation for this troll's claim that Science doesn't have all the answers (and his assumption that his religion is better), I'm going to finally lay the matter to rest.

The Ultimate Question: What is the meaning of existence?

My Ultimate Answer: It's epic.

"Wait, what?" you ask. Let me explain.

Let's take a trip through history. We don't have to go back to Biblical times for this, or even Medieval Times. Nay, our answer is found in 1990. It was in this year that the band Faith No More (awesome name) released their breakthrough hit single "Epic" (awesome song).

"Wait... you're saying that song's the meaning of life? Am I missing something here?" you're likely wondering now. Well, no. It's a good song, but not that good. Let's delve into the lyrics a bit.

Can you feel it, see it, hear it today?
If you can't, then it doesn't matter anyway
You will never understand it cuz it happens too fast
And it feels so good, it's like walking on glass
You want it all but you can't have it
It's in your face but you can't grab it
What is it?
It's it

The song seems obsessed with some mysterious "it" which is never explicitly defined. There are many theories, though. Some think it's sex, masturbation, or rape. Others say it's the current hit trend. Still others think it's referring to life itself, or possibly the meaning of life. So, is that what I'm claiming now, that it's the meaning of life? Close, but nope.

The truth eventually did come out, but most people never heard about it. Mike Patton explained in one interview:

I think that too many people think too much about my lyrics. I am more a person who works with the sound of a word than with its meaning. Often I just choose the words because of the rhythm not because of the meaning.

All that wondering, and there really was no answer. The lyrics to that song were just put together because the rhythm felt right. No reason, just rhyme.

And here we get to the answer. The answer to the ultimate "Why?" is the same as the answer to Epic's "What is it?" That is, despite all the debate that's been going on, there truly is no answer. The assumption that there was an answer was faulty.

So, let's go into why this must be. First of all, let's take on the question of whether there's an ultimate beginning to time.

First, imagine the case where there is no beginning to time. In this case, it extends infinitely into the past. For every point back, there's something even further back that led to this. Even if everything has a reason, there's no stop to this, no ultimate reason. This infinite amount of time, in the end, just exists. But let's say we go into another time-like dimension that somehow caused this one to come to be. Then there's a reason for all of this infinity, but we've got something else to find a reason for, and we're back to square one.

On the other hand, time might be finite. It might have simply started at one point, before which there's nothing. What is the reason for this point of beginning? Reason implies some form of intelligence, or at least a cause. But we've already stipulated that there's nothing before this, no intelligence, nothing to cause it. It just exists. That's all.

Now, let's apply this to the Christian universe. According to them, within our universe, time had a finite beginning and will have a finite end. Causing this beginning was the omnipotent God, who they define as infinite. What caused God to exist? Nothing. He simply does. There's no ultimate meaning to his existence, and thus to our own.

And there we have it. I've gone and solved the problem of the ultimate answer to the meaning of life using nothing but logic. Do I expect people to like this result? Not at all. The link to the comments section is below. Criticize away.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

What should skeptics think?

I was walking through the Student Life Center after lunch today, looking at random posters that were up on the bulletin boards. One of them caught my eye. It was titled:

Same-Sex Marriage
Public-Policy Making

What should Christians think?

So, this is the position of Christians in power, eh, that Christians need to be told what to think? For the self-proclaimed faithful, they're showing a surprising lack of faith in their own. Maybe they're afraid that if Christians start to think for themselves, they might realize some of the numerous problems with the religion.

This isn't a fluke occurence. A Google search on the specific phrase "What should Christians think?" gives 267 results (some of which are probably repeats, though). Christians are told what to think on a wide variety of subjects, from homosexuality to the Fourth of July. The only thing that should really be uniting Christians in their thoughts is Christianity itself, but a search for "What should Christians think about Christianity?" returns zero results. (Though once this post is up, you might get this when you try it out yourself.) I can't say for sure whether this is limited to Christianity or not, as I'd have to figure out translations into different languages for most other languages. A few stats that might be relevant, though:

"What should Jews think?" - 2 results
"What should Atheists think?" - 0 results
"What should skeptics think?" - 0 results
"What should Humanists think?" - 1 result
"What should Agnostics think?" - 0 results

Looks like it's the Christians that have the big problem here.

Now, a little story about my personal experiences with Christianity. My parents are both Christian, but my father is Catholic and my mother Anglican (though she's grown more Deist in the past years), so they couldn't decide on which form of Christianity to raise me and my sister in. So, we were brought up as just generic Christians, but religion was never a big part of our lives. We'd only go to church on holidays, and the only time we really studied the religion was when I had to know about it for the Cub Scouts (the version of the Boy Scouts for younger kids).

After one of the many moves of my childhood, I ended up going to an extremely crappy public school, where I spent an entire year learning absolutely nothing. My parents decided that it would be best for me if I went to a private school, and the only one available was a Catholic school. It was here that I finally became fully exposed to the religion. I only stayed there for half a year before we moved again, but the experiences there were very enlightening (or should I say "delightening"?) for me. I was about 9 or 10 at this time.

My naturally inquisitive nature led me to ask a lot of questions in class. The most frustrating one for the teacher was "How do you know that?" Picture, if you will, the following exchange:

Me: How do you know that?
Teacher: The Bible says so.
Me: How do you know the Bible is right?
Teacher: Because it was inspired by God.
Me: How do you know that?
Teacher: Because it says so.
Me: How do you know it's right?
Teacher: Because I have faith in it. You should, too, if you want to avoid going to Hell.

Circular logic backed up by an appeal to consequences. I couldn't name the logical fallacies at the time, but it didn't sit well with me. So, I was asked to believe things on faith. I was trying to be good, so I made an honest effort to do this. There was a problem, though. The things my gut told me were true didn't match up with what the Bible said. For instance, I was particularly fond of the idea of reincarnation, but this didn't sit well with the teacher. So, we had to base our beliefs off of faith, but my faith was wrong. It wasn't as if there was any evidence we could consult to settle the matter. I just had to think what they told me to think, and that was that. I didn't end up deconverting right then, but it left the seeds of doubt in my mind that would later sprout once I had the intellectual tools to analyse the religion properly.

So, let's go back to the title of this post: What should skeptics think? The answer here is that skeptics should think for themselves. Hell, everybody should think for themselves, but this is one of the defining characteristics of being a skeptic. You should be analysing all claims for yourself, even those of skeptics. If you go along with everything some skeptic says, then in the end, you're just another gullible sheep who follows a skeptic, and not one yourself.

And if there's something in this post or any other one of mine that, when you think about it, doesn't sit right with you, the "Leave a comment" link is right at the bottom. Use it.

Proceed with your information binge...