Thursday, August 24, 2006

Religion and science

You know... I don't always agree with the writers at Pandagon, but god damn, they have some interesting discussions brew up there, and that's enough.

In one such discussion, I got to bring up something that's precious to me. See, I've been happier since I recognized that there was a scientific way to deal with religion.

No, really.

But first, you have to understand what science is. Science is where people try to create models that they hope mirror reality. Now, some people think they're on a quest to discover truth, but really, good scientists know that they won't find truth. They'll find a good model, one that they hope models the truth... but they're finding the model, not the truth. I sometimes wonder if a better understanding of this would have helped the early folks studying quantum mechanics... because there's a lot of QM where you have to ignore common sense, and just hold to the model, to get the results, even if they don't make sense.

(Actually, more often than not, they do. For example, you know that bit about "the act of observing affects the observed?" Well, see, if you look at a person across the room, you're not really affecting that person; you're seeing light that would be bouncing off their body anyway. But when you try to observe an electron, which is so small and light that it just barely exists at all, you have to do something to it. Light doesn't just bounce off of it like light bounces off of a person; when light hits an electron, it moves the electron, which means the electron is not only somewhere else, it also has a different momentum. Congratulations, you now understand the basic idea that led to Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty. (Okay, yes, I know, some of you knew it already. This parenthetical passage is too long already!))

Anyway: science is about models. And that's important to those people who think that rejecting "Intelligent Design" means rejecting God, or even rejecting God as the creator. You see, no matter how life came about, the best model we have suggests evolution was the cause. If God created the heavens and earth in 144 hours (and on the seventh day, rested), he did so in a way that made it look like life had evolved through natural selection.

So, evolution and natural selection, that's the best model. Intelligent Design doesn't make the model any better, so it's not science, and shouldn't be taught in science class.

Damn, got on one of my hobby horses, and lost my point, didn't I?

Science is about finding the best, most useful model, and working with it until you find a better model. When it comes to science, you can use the scientific method to determine when one model is better than another.

Now, that's where science and religion diverge... there is no way to apply the scientific method to a religion. You can still recognize that each religion is a model of what's "out there"... and you can look at each model, and determine what use it holds for you. What does it allow you to do, that you couldn't do without it?

This is one of the many reasons that I feel sad for the state of Christianity, at least in the United States. I reckon if you took a poll of Christians, the number one reason to be a Christian is to not go to Hell. I hope that wouldn't be the majority response, but I'd bet that it would be the highest vote getter.

Now, not having an "all loving, supremely good" deity torture you for all eternity isn't much of a gain, since truly loving, good deities don't do that whole "torture for all enternity" bit. (Yes, I just said a lot of Christians misunderstand the nature of God. Deal.)

I think Christianity can be a truly wonderful religion; my take on it is that Jesus told his followers to transform themselves through love, and by understanding that this life is not all there is, that there's something more important. I think that transformation is an amazing and wonderful experience, one that would be a truly great thing that Christianity could give a person. All too often, I think Christians are cheated of the chance to attain that, by people who don't understand the message and the mission.

I think that this vision of Christianity, where it calls you to transform yourself through the love of what is good and right, and love of all of humanity, gives you a heck of a lot more than the "get out of Hell (almost)free" vision of Christianity. So I think it's better, in all ways.

But it's not the model that works best for me... so I've chosen another, because it brings me closer to the divine. The model I've chosen gives me a better model of what's "out there" and a better model of my relationship with what's "out there", than the other models. So that's what I've chosen to follow.

Because, you see, everything is a model. We don't see reality ourselves; we see a model of reality constructed by our minds, and all of our minds are different. As such, we each need different models to best understand the nature of reality. Some people will need different models of what's "out there" to gain a better understanding. Heck, some folks will be perfectly satisfied with accepting a model that says there's nothing out there.

While it's nice to think that there's a "one size fits all" religion, the fact of the matter is, people see everything in subtly different ways, and that gets even more obvious when you start thinking of ephemeral (but essential) things like ideas about justice, good, evil, and our place in this world. How, then, could any one set of ideas work for everyone? People who seek the truth, will find the truth, if they seek it with a willing spirit, and an open heart and mind. It might not seem that way to someone with a different heart, mind, and spirit... but then, why should it?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Criticizing sloppy moral thinking

Wow...

I knew that if I was blogging and willing to surf links, I'd see some truly disturbing shit. What I didn't know was that I'd find disturbing shit that was masquerading as moral philosophy that was so plainly incompetent.

Folks who know me well are probably looking at me, wondering if I've gone kinda-darkside here. I haven't. But god damn. Check this bullshit out. For maximum shock value, read the comments.

I've been digging in my brain, working on a series of posts on morality, and moral reasoning. I wish I'd written them already, because then I could reference them here, but I haven't, so I can't, and that's life.

I'm going to ignore some of the fallacies that build a false picture of reality (yes, many children died in the war in Iraq; no, it wasn't because they were being used as human shields), and instead work simply with the main, over-riding fallacy in moral reasoning.

There's a very common principle of western moral philosophy, that it's okay to cause something bad to happen, if it's the only reasonable way to prevent something worse to happen. It's okay to knock someone to the ground (possibly causing injury) to prevent that person from being run over by a car. It's also okay to beat up an assaillant who wants to beat you up, and to use deadly force to protect your life. This assumes, of course, that no gentler action will succeed. It also assumes that the risk of the preventative action balances properly against the consequences of inaction. Before I tackle someone to prevent their being hit by a car, I'd better be sure that the chance they'll be hit by the car is sufficiently high to make sure that it justifies the risk of injury from being tackled.

Since the above link refers to the deaths of children, let's run with that. The certainty that children would die was no reason to refuse to fight against Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II. Not fighting back against armies of conquest would lead to worse things than the deaths of innocent children. The certainty that bad things would have happened if we didn't fight back was absolute; the amount of harm done to innocent people by fighting back could be reasonably balanced against the harm of not fighting back.

So, what's wrong with the essay I've referred to? Well, there is no mention of the cost. There is no mention of the certainty of harm; there's no mention about the reasonable balancing of harm done with harm prevented.

There's simply a naked assertion that it's okay to kill children, because those horrible evil people are using them as human shields. The sooner they learn that those tactics won't work, the sooner they'll stop using children as human shields.

Like I said, I'll ignore the denial of reality; there's a lot of paranoia among people these days (and I mean that in the semi-clinical sense, where it refers to delusions). It completely misses the entire moral principle.

It would only be moral to harm innocent people (children or adults) if the risk of inaction (or of less harmful action) was greater than the harm of the action. You don't get to say "we're fighting evil people, so it's okay to kill children." You need to be able to point to a real threat, and a real and imminent danger if you don't act.

I imagine the author of that essay would insist that we're the good guys, which means we care about the lives of the innocent, and that's completely backwards. We are only the good guys insofar as we care about the lives of the innocent. The moment we stop, the moment we decide that it's okay to kill the innocent for our own benefit, we're the bad guys.

Those who ignore the need to balance the risks would cheerfully make us the bad guys, killing the innocent without regard to the moral, much less the pragmatic, costs. And that's not just amoral, it's stupid.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ouch... a correction

Did you ever write something, and you thought it said exactly what you meant? And then someone reads it differently, and suddenly you realize it sounds horribly wrong?

Yesterday, I wrote this:
If a guy groped me, and I decked him, not a jury in the world would convict me, and they wouldn't bother asking if I said "no". They'd only care that he couldn't prove that I said "yes".


And ick. For the record, I don't go around worrying that I might have to defend my manhood from some gay man finding me attractive.

What I meant to say there was, "look, it's well accepted by society that you're allowed to protect yourself from unwanted touch, especially erotic touch. For examnple, if a guy is groped by another guy, do you really think you can find twelve people who'd vote to convict the grope-ee for decking the groper? Well, now let's look at how people think about women dealing with unwanted touch... big difference, eh?"

If a guy made a move on me, I'd have to feel like I was in real danger before I'd use violence. Or, he'd have to persist, even after I told him to stop (of course, if a guy kept groping at me after I told him to stop, I'd assume I was in real danger...).

And I don't think it's a happy world we live in. It's true, if a gay man put his hand on the shoulder of a man (just to get his attention), and that guy is a bigot or a homophobe, that guy might be able to beat up the gay man with impunity, claiming he was sexually assaulted. If that didn't work, he might still be able to claim he panicked, and didn't realize he was over-reacting. I'm not claiming that it's right, but it is the way the world is, all too often.

It was just an example I grabbed to point out that we accept that unwanted erotic touch is a bad thing... that it's not just a theoretical question, it's something that's well understood.

But still... ick. I'm glad people tend to read blogs in reverse chronological order so they're likely to see this before seeing the previous entry.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Thoughts about sexual violence

I was reading a thread over at Pandagon , and it started me thinking. I decided not to post my thoughts there, because, well, the theme of this particular thread is how some rape-defense classes talk about choosing to prepare to defend against rape.

And there's a way to tilt that towards blaming the victim; "why didn't you choose to (learn to) defend yourself? Why didn't you choose not to be a victim?"

Because, after all, when a seemingly-nice-enough man suddenly turns into an animal when you're alone, and you can't quite believe what's happening, and you're hoping there's some alternate explanation, hey, isn't the first thing society tells you is that it's a good idea to put a stop to it with some violent action?

No, society doesn't say that? Well, you're right, no, it doesn't.

And that's one of the things that really piss me off about rape.

(I want you to understand, rape infuriates me. "Infuriates" is much, much stronger than "pisses me off". But this is one of the things that just adds a huge glob of insult on top of a terrible injury.)

A lot of rapists count on that. They depend on the fact that women won't believe it's really happening. They depend on throwing their victims off balance. As far as they're concerned, if she can't form a coherent thought that says "I'm being raped!" until after the deed is done, that's all to the good.

Because, once the rape is completed, the rapist can now say "well, why didn't you try to stop me?" and make the victim question her own memory. She thought her lack of consent was blindingly obvious; was he really confused?

Probably not. He probably just set up his defense. Odds are, she'll be so confused that by the time she realizes that she sure-as-hell was raped, it'll be too late to prove anything.

And wouldn't it be terrible if that woman then accused this fine upstanding gentleman of a horrible crime like rape when it can't be proven?

And that's why I asked that question above. Does society say it's okay for a woman to get violent when she feels a guy is moving too fast on her? No.

But I think it should.

If a guy groped me, and I decked him, not a jury in the world would convict me, and they wouldn't bother asking if I said "no". They'd only care that he couldn't prove that I said "yes".

But if a guy make some violent, direct gesture, a woman is all-but expected to treat it as an awkward social situation, instead of as an incipient assault.

And it's stupid, because the basic principle is easy: we are allowed to determine who touches us in a sexual manner, and are allowed to protect ourselves, even if it requires appropriate levels of force. And while you can argue long and hard about what might be appropriate, and when force is actually required, the principle is impossible to argue against.

So why do we have to have classes that teach women that it's okay to fight back?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Update notice...

New update at ForTheDream.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Okay. I have two blogs I use to talk about political issues, and they can intersect. ForTheDream is my place for idealism and ideas. This is the one where I want to be a human being, with quirks and foibles and the ability to rant, get sarcastic, etc..

In that vein, let's use this journal for it's intended purpose.

Time for a little lesson in US politics. As many of you know, the Democrats executed Joe Lieberman. No, wait... they "purged" Joe Lieberman. No, wait, they declared that they revile Joe Lieberman, because they want terrorists to murder us all in our sleep, but Joe Lieberman, with his superhuman Senatorial powers, was protecting us.

Um, no, wait.

First, the Democrats, as a whole, did nothing whatsoever to Joe Lieberman.

However, Connecticut's Democratic voters decided that, given a choice between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont, they'd rather have Ned Lamont running as their party's candidate for the US Senate in this year's election.

It has nothing to do with execution, purging, or declaration of hatred. It has to do with making a choice.

Now, for those who are claiming the Democrats did something terrible by this, let me explain, in small words, a bit of US philosophy, 'kay?

The power of government is derived from - sorry, I promised small words, "comes from" - the people. That's ordinary people, every day people, those working stiffs who make this entire country what it is.

We hold the power. It's ours, to do with as we please. There are certain things we can't do; we can't decide to restrict voting rights to people without a damn good reason. We can't decide that one religion occupies a special place of privilege in the public life, though we can certainly revere any religion on our own. We can't demand that the government shut someone up just because we don't like that person's opinions... but we don't have to listen.

The reason we can't do these things is that every single person on this planet is important, and we have to respect that each person has certain rights because of that. But when it comes to governing within the limits that demand freedom for us all, we are the ones ultimately responsible for the decisions that are made.

So: the power is ours. It's not owned by anyone else, not even a three-term Senator from Connecticut who was a vice presidential candidate six years back.

So, you see, no one took anything from Joe Lieberman. No one did anything harmful or hurtful. He asked the Democrats in Connecticut to allow him to represent them as the Democratic candidate for Senate, and they said "no, we'd prefer Ned Lamont."

Why did they do this? Well, I'm sure part of the reason was demonstrated when Lieberman lost. He insisted that the Democrats had made a really stupid mistake in endorsing Ned Lamont. What kind of an arrogant cuss tells the people that they were wrong to vote for his opponent? What kind of an entitlement complex do you have to have to say such a thing? He asked them for a chance to serve them, they said no, and he tells them that they're all wrong to make that choice? Geez!

But there's more. Keep in mind, I haven't been polling Connecticut's Democrats, so I can't really speak for them... but these are my reasons, and why I think Lieberman lost.

Joe Lieberman is proud to be "bipartisan", and to be respected by the Republicans. He scolds Democrats for not being more "bipartisan", and for being called weak on national security.

Are Democrats weak on national security? Well, the Republicans call them weak on national security, because they aren't in favor of a long, horribly costly war that has killed tens of thousands of innocent people... but is that a fair criticism?

The war in Iraq has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Can you imagine a way to spend a hundred billion dollars to make our contry safer?

Remember, Saddam Hussein had junked his weapons programs. He couldn't support them during the sactions. We were fed a pack of lies about how he could launch a chemical weapons attack in 30 minutes. We were told that we not only knew what he had, but where he had it. We were told that he was one of the greatest dangers to world peace at the time.

And we now know that there were no weapons except some degraded weapons that were over 12 years old. Nothing that had been produced recently; nothing that could be used as intended; nothing that was any meaningful threat to anyone. (Okay, if some damn fool started playing with the old weapons without proper protection, yeah, that'd be dangerous; they are very toxic chemicals. It's also dangerous to play with drain cleaner, but it's "Liquid Plumbr", not "Liquid WMD", you know?)

And we also know that the CIA had estimated that he was no threat to the United States (he knew if he hurt us, we'd hurt him back, ten time worse), and wasn't going to do anything that could get him in trouble with us.

So we spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a war that didn't get rid of dangerous biological and chemical weapons. It got rid of a terrible dictator... but not a meaningful threat to world peace.

Oh, but we're doing it to spread democracy. Yeah, and Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war. If Iraq turns into a thriving democracy at this point, I'm sorry, but it's got nothing to do with the US invasion. It will be because the Iraqis managed to pull off a minor miracle in spite of the troubles we brought by invading them.

Lieberman has not only supported this war, but he has scolded Democrats who dared criticize the President during this war.

It must be nice, to be able to be President, order a war - a war costing hundreds of billions of dollars and the lives of thousands of our soldiers, and making a whole bunch of people angry about the tens of thousands of innocent people who've died - and not have to face any criticism from the opposition party... but that's not how a democracy works.

It's not that Joe Lieberman has supported George W. Bush... not to me, at least. it's that he's scolded those who opposed George W. Bush.

Maybe the Democrats in Connecticut could have forgiven the support for Bush... but I know I can't forgive his contempt of those who opposed Bush.

Even the best of Presidents deserves to have honorable opposition. Opposing the war (which was, at its kindest, fought based upon misinformation), opposing torture policies, and demanding that the President obey the law, all counts as honorable opposition. Joe Lieberman didn't seem to think so.

And that, in my opinion, is why he lost the Democratic primary.

Okay. I have two blogs I use to talk about political issues, and they can intersect. ForTheDream is my place for idealism and ideas. This is the one where I want to be a human being, with quirks and foibles and the ability to rant, get sarcastic, etc..

In that vein, let's use this journal for it's intended purpose.

Time for a little lesson in US politics. As many of you know, the Democrats executed Joe Lieberman. No, wait... they "purged" Joe Lieberman. No, wait, they declared that they revile Joe Lieberman, because they want terrorists to murder us all in our sleep, but Joe Lieberman, with his superhuman Senatorial powers, was protecting us.

Um, no, wait.

First, the Democrats, as a whole, did nothing whatsoever to Joe Lieberman.

However, Connecticut's Democratic voters decided that, given a choice between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont, they'd rather have Ned Lamont running as their party's candidate for the US Senate in this year's election.

It has nothing to do with execution, purging, or declaration of hatred. It has to do with making a choice.

Now, for those who are claiming the Democrats did something terrible by this, let me explain, in small words, a bit of US philosophy, 'kay?

The power of government is derived from - sorry, I promised small words, "comes from" - the people. That's ordinary people, every day people, those working stiffs who make this entire country what it is.

We hold the power. It's ours, to do with as we please. There are certain things we can't do; we can't decide to restrict voting rights to people without a damn good reason. We can't decide that one religion occupies a special place of privilege in the public life, though we can certainly revere any religion on our own. We can't demand that the government shut someone up just because we don't like that person's opinions... but we don't have to listen.

The reason we can't do these things is that every single person on this planet is important, and we have to respect that each person has certain rights because of that.

Anyway: the power is ours. It's not owned by anyone else, not even a three-term Senator from Connecticut who was a vice presidential candidate six years back.

So, you see, no one took anything from Joe Lieberman. No one did anything harmful or hurtful. He asked the Democrats in Connecticut to allow him to represent them as the Democratic candidate for Senate, and they said "no, we'd prefer Ned Lamont."

Why did they do this? Well, I'm sure part of the reason was demonstrated when Lieberman lost. He insisted that the Democrats had made a really stupid mistake in endorsing Ned Lamont. What kind of an arrogant cuss tells the people that they were wrong to vote for his opponent? What kind of an entitlement complex do you have to have to say such a thing? He asked them for a chance to serve them, they said no, and he tells them that they're all wrong to make that choice? Geez!

But there's more. Keep in mind, I haven't been polling Connecticut's Democrats, so I can't really speak for them... but these are my reasons, and why I think Lieberman lost.

Joe Lieberman is proud to be "bipartisan", and to be respected by the Republicans. He scolds Democrats for not being more "bipartisan", and for being called weak on national security.

Are Democrats weak on national security? Well, the Republicans call them weak on national security, because they aren't in favor of a long, horribly costly war that has killed tens of thousands of innocent people... but is that a fair criticism?

The war in Iraq has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Can you imagine a way to spend a hundred billion dollars to make our contry safer?

Remember, Saddam Hussein had junked his weapons programs. He couldn't support them during the sactions. We were fed a pack of lies about how he could launch a chemical weapons attack in 30 minutes. We were told that we not only knew what he had, but where he had it. We were told that he was one of the greatest dangers to world peace at the time.

And we now know that there were no weapons except some degraded weapons that were over 12 years old. Nothing that had been produced recently; nothing that could be used as intended; nothing that was any meaningful threat to anyone. (Okay, if some damn fool started playing with the old weapons without proper protection, yeah, that'd be dangerous; they are very toxic chemicals. It's also dangerous to play with drain cleaner, but it's "Liquid Plumbr", not "Liquid WMD", you know?)

And we also know that the CIA had estimated that he was no threat to the United States (he knew if he hurt us, we'd hurt him back, ten time worse), and wasn't going to do anything that could get him in trouble with us.

So we spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a war that didn't get rid of dangerous biological and chemical weapons. It got rid of a terrible dictator... but not a meaningful threat to world peace.

Oh, but we're doing it to spread democracy. Yeah, and Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war. If Iraq turns into a thriving democracy at this point, I'm sorry, but it's got nothing to do with the US invasion. It will be because the Iraqis managed to pull off a minor miracle in spite of the troubles we brought by invading them.

Lieberman has not only supported this war, but he has scolded Democrats who dared criticize the President during this war.

It must be nice, to be able to be President, order a war - a war costing hundreds of billions of dollars and the lives of thousands of our soldiers, and making a whole bunch of people angry about the tens of thousands of innocent people who've died - and not have to face any criticism from the opposition party... but that's not how a democracy works.

It's not that Joe Lieberman has supported George W. Bush... not to me, at least. it's that he's scolded those who opposed George W. Bush.

Maybe the Democrats in Connecticut could have forgiven the support for Bush... but I know I can't forgive his contempt of those who opposed Bush.

Even the best of Presidents deserves to have honorable opposition. Opposing the war (which was, at its kindest, fought based upon misinformation), opposing torture policies, and demanding that the President obey the law, all counts as honorable opposition. Joe Lieberman didn't seem to think so.

And that, in my opinion, is why he lost the Democratic primary.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Not updating much...

I haven't been updating much, but there is a new post at ForTheDream, if anyone's interested.

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