Saturday, December 18, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Self-validating belief systems

Just a quick note: This paper on self validating belief systems is very interesting. More reading needed, but a quick thought that occurred to me while I am part way through it; The human mind's ability to believe things that are not true, and hang onto those beliefs, may be evolved into our way of organising our thoughts and memories to process things that are useful to us to remember and act on. We attach an importance to continuing to remember that a belief is true, otherwise we would be too forgetful, so we have to hang on until other evidence is provided. This is short-circuited by a mistake in the processing, where the importance of keeping the previous concept labeled as "valid" or "true" is mis-prioritised over the need to correct erroneous thoughts.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Christmas Myth and the rest

Andrew Sullivan adds to the controversy of the "You Know it Is a Myth?" billboard in the US. I think this entry is an excellent example of why Sullivan is so hard to read sometimes. He comes across as a lucid, thinking conservative (a rare and endangered species in the US) but then he says something that is so monumentally absurd and contradictory that I just don't know why I bother reading him. To wit:
The Christmas stories in the Bible - and they are multiple and contradictory - are obviously myths. They are obviously not to be taken literally.
So far so good. Then it goes off the rails:
They are meant as signs to the deeper, profounder truth that Christians hold to: that the force behind all that exists actually intervened in the consciousness of humankind in the form of a man so saturated in godliness that merely being near him healed people of the weight of the world's sins.
How to begin? First of all, there is no "force behind all that exists" in so far as a god or Deity is concerned. Certainly there is no evidence for one, so there is no reason to make the assumption that one exists. This "profound truth" is no truth at all, as there is no evidence to support it, which makes it Orwellian newspeak. It is only an assumption, one that is perpetuated in this 21st century by intellectual dishonesty.

It is a good thing that I am reading God is not Great at the moment, as this sort of thing is covered in chapter 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell. One point in this chapter is to show how events that were considered miracles thousands of years ago are looked upon now as just cheap magic tricks that any stage conjurer could perform.
This is so enormous and radical an idea that it is not suprising that
early Christian writers told stories to bring it more firmly to life.
If the christ-the-miracle-worker and son-of-god (doncha know) incarnating on this Earth is such an enormous and radical idea, why would it need a fictional embellishment? To do so is to cheapen it and debase it. Or maybe as at that time and place "miracle workers" were to be found on every street corner and market place, to make this particular myth more outstanding it had to be given the whole special effects routine to make it stand out and give it mass-market appeal.

But they were stories, telling of a deeper more ineffable truth. If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary fact of the Incarnation.
How can a false story told as a true story tell a deeper truth?

The serious problem with this is the lack of intellectual consistency. If the Christmas story is "obviously" a myth, why does the rest of the stories about Jesus get a free pass? If part of the story is complete fabrication, the rest of the stories have to be suspect as well. At what point does the myth become fact, and how can we determine where that delineating point is? It would be more intellectually honest to acknowledge that it the more miraculous the tale, the more of a myth it becomes. This sentence "If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary fact of the Incarnation." should really read "If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary myth of the Incarnation." If that truth were told, however, the point of the whole exercise would be lost. Maybe 2000 years ago the admonisment to be nice and charitable and forgiving had to be clothed in the cheap trinkets of magic tricks and fabulous tales to get the illiterate and uneducated masses to follow it. But now we live in a more enlightened, advanced world that, I hope, has learned something new in all that time, and that we can get along and live meaningfull lives without the baggage of supersition and myth-dressed-as-fact weighing us down.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Note to self - Draft

Self: Currently reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. In reading, I recall an idea I had a little while ago, about the need for religion and salvation, and the somewhat common theme that the purpose of religion is to ultimately leave this suffering Earth behind us. There is a common theme on the suffering that one must endure in this world, and the lack of suffering in the next (nirvana, heaven or a place with grapes and lots of virgins) or if you are a "bad" person, a go to hell or return here to try again. (Respawn!)

In the modern western 21st century world it seems an anachronism to describe life as a continuous stream of suffering until our eventual, inevitable demise. This is most likely why the rise of secularism and rationalism, with its concordant fall in religiosity, is happening now. However this is only a very recent and modern event, that would require picturing what life was like 200 years ago to appreciate why religion has held on for so long. Looking at the previous post which shows life expectancy vs income over time, at the beginning of the 19th century life expectancy was only on average 40 years. This is a good indicator that life was harsh for most people all over the world, so the teaching of religion that "all of life is suffering" was evidenced all around you. There was no escaping that concept to be a truism, and the only offered salvation or release from this suffering was faith and progress after death.

Q: when was germ theory accepted? Standards of hygine and so on?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Visualisation and animation of data

This is so very, very cool. If you want to play with the data, and more, go to the source web site: GapMinder

h/t Pharyngula

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hitchens' Razor

I get tired of having to assert in many words something that Christopher Hitchens has already stated quite well.

Hitchens' Razor: what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

This phrase is found in a Christopher Hitchens Slate article on Mother Teresa. To me it is a beautiful phrase that can be used to save a lot of time, as chasing down why someones non-supported statements are wrong is wasteful. It puts the onus back onto the asserter to give evidence to support their baseless assertion. Much less tiresome than the refuter having to argue, yet again, why it is that when there is no evidence for an assertion it is not the refuters job to find it for them.

So, when someone tries to tell you that faeries live at the bottom of the garden, just because! Just apply Hitchens' Razor.

Important Edit: The correct use should be Hitchens's Razor.  Please see my entry for the correction.