Human Sacrifice

It’s in the Bible. You’re probably thinking of Jesus and Isaac. Isaac almost got sacrificed because god wanted to test Abraham’s obedience, even though being an omniscient deity, you’d think he’d already know the outcome and spare the kid a traumatic experience. I take that back. The god of the Bible is a jerk, so he wouldn’t care about the kid emotional well being. Jesus’s sacrifice is a can of worms in itself. It’s not exactly a sacrifice since he got resurrected, according to the story. People like me are baffled by the contortions Christians go through to make it necessary. The whole trinity thing is just surreal with one entity sacrificing itself to itself. It gets nastier in some interpretations where Jesus replaces regular death with Hell and expects us to play Pascal’s Wager on his particular horse out of the infinity of metaphysical beliefs. This is familiar ground for a lot of us.

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Answering Theists #1

There are a lot of theists out there who type up what they think are “gotcha” questions for atheists. Theist trolls absolutely love these lists and to copy/paste them, often on a hit-and-run basis. Judging from the newlines I’m cleaning out, Michael Benson Ajayi copy-pasta’d such a list in a Pharyngula comment thread. (Or he wrote it in Notepad or something and word wrap tweaked it.) So I’m starting this series here.

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Anti-Doggerel #1: “I Don’t Know”

The beginning of wisdom is, ‘I do not know.’ [gestures toward the “hole in space” on the viewscreen] I do not know what that is.

– Lt. Cmdr. Data, “Where Silence Has Lease

“I don’t know” is a phrase that probably should get more mileage. When used appropriately, it’s humble. It’s honest. It’s open. The universe is a big place with lots of tiny details, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is still much that we don’t know as a species, let alone as individuals. Being aware of that ignorance inspires both caution and curiosity, virtues of science. We can devise hypotheses to explain unknown phenomena, but a scientifically minded person doesn’t jump to the conclusion that his hypothesis is true without carefully testing it. Sincerely admitting ignorance typically means being open to entertaining new ideas as well. Those ideas still have to be tested before they’re accepted as knowledge, of course.

There’s an annoying idea I’ve encountered with various pseudoscience trolls, quacks, and especially with Creationists. They treat any admission of ignorance from their opponents as a victory for their ideas. It doesn’t work that way. For an example, let’s say a particular type of cancer has no known effective treatment. Just because the scientific community doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean that we should accept a quack’s answer, especially if that answer wasn’t informed by scientific research into its plausibility.

Science is cautious by nature. The world is a complicated place, and there’s always the possibility of discovering new nuances and exceptions to the rules we’re familiar with. We can’t have absolute certainty in what we do know because of our human limitations. The language of scientists typically reflects this, since they will mention nuances, limitations, exceptions, and uncertainty from simple probability.

Pseudoscience doesn’t like humility or measured confidence, often characterizing it was “weak” language. Statements of absolute certainty and absolute rules are much more marketing friendly and easier to fit into a slogan. Religion is quite aware of this and sets up gods and holy books as absolute authorities with circular reasoning. Quacks and pseudoscientists often follow suit and enshrine their gurus and particularly the original creator and his texts. In either case, they often implicitly or explicitly claim they have all the answers in a convenient package. This tends to lead to stagnation. The scientific community knows that it doesn’t know everything. If they did, science would stop.

I think treating “I don’t know” as a concession taps on an unhealthy obsession with completeness and perfection that overrides the healthy desire to know the truth. One problem with many religious, supernatural, and pseudoscientific ideas is that they can explain anything. If you’re sympathetic to those sorts of hypotheses, that’s not a strength. If an idea can explain anything, that’s actually a big problem: It can explain things that don’t exist just as readily as those that do. It can explain failures and success equally. It essentially means that we can’t use it to make predictions to verify its accuracy. We can’t use it to make predictions or decisions. It’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’ Such ideas are essentially a way to deceive yourself with the comforting illusion of understanding without the practical benefits of real understanding.

There’s another idea that any answer is better than none. This is simply not true. Actions based on an incorrect idea can be more harmful than inaction. They can waste resources better spent elsewhere. I can understand desperation in the face of death and the desire to go down fighting, but that doesn’t mean I should rhetorically support those who can exploit desperate people just because I don’t know the true answer.

Bunkum: “If You Teach Kids That They’re Animals, They’ll Act Like Animals!”

It’s an old canard that popped into my mind recently. The vocabulary word for the day is “equivocation.” It’s slightly less direct than usual, but that’s what it amounts to.

First, we’re talking about the scientific definition of animal. I’m not familiar enough with modern taxonomy or cladistics to get the specific features that define animals and only animals, but the word amounts to a diverse branch of the tree of life. This branch includes vertebrates, which include placental mammals, which include primates, which include humans. We have a lot in common with our non-human kin, on the cellular level up to the anatomic level to varying degrees. We inherited animal features from our animal, non-human ancestors, therefore we’re still animals, though we have some polymorphism that makes us distinct from other animals. We don’t have any sort of difference that’s profound enough to place us into an entirely separate biological category, but thanks to that polymorphism, we do have enough to place ourselves in a sub-category: The species of homo sapiens.

The colloquial use of “animal” would be better described as “non-human animal.” In fantasy and sci-fi works, other sapient species also get excluded from the category. There is a pragmatic need for this version of the definition, since we place the needs and desires of human-level conscious beings over those of less conscious beings. Our higher level of consciousness means we can suffer in ways that other animals can’t. We also hold humans to a higher standard of responsibility for their actions because of that consciousness. Humans are moral actors who can understand the consequences of their actions.

The equivocation comes from the jump from the scientific definition to the colloquial definition. Funnily enough, it involves a contradiction in the process. The kids are human, therefore they can’t be non-human animals. If you choose to use the colloquial definition in both cases, that leads to essentially the same contradiction, since you’re including humans in a category that’s defined in part by excluding humans.

If you choose to use the scientific definition for both cases, it simply makes the sentence a tautology instead of the ominous assertion they want it to be: Because humans are defined as animals, the set of human behaviors is included in the set of animal behaviors. Writing poetry, building skyscrapers, and arguing semantics are animal behaviors, though they are specific to humans. All human behaviors are animal behaviors, but not all animal behaviors are human behaviors. Of course, teaching kids that humans are animals does not imply that humans are not humans. It simply doesn’t make sense to assert that such a fact condones or encourages the kids to act like non-humans.

There’s something rather arbitrary about the assertion, arguing that our behavior and morality should be dictated by one particular definition of a particular scope about us. The extent of “humans are animals” influence on morality would be about biological needs. “Humans need food to survive, therefore it is moral to provide food to starving humans,” for a simplified example. I find this rationale to be disturbingly similar to science fiction villains who discriminate against sapient robots because they aren’t biological. “Animal” is only one term we can use to describe or define humans, and we don’t have to settle for any one term. The fundies who use this bunkum should get acquainted with the general concept behind Venn diagrams. Things can fall into the overlap between different categories, including irrelevant and impractically broad categories. The category created by the overlap may be significant, but the entities in that overlap don’t cease to belong to the parent categories.

Doggerel #11: “You Skeptics Think We’re All Stupid!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. I’ve encountered my share of trolls who just seemed intellectually incapable of grasping the issue of the day. In some places, there are enough such trolls that some skeptics may start making hasty generalizations. While today’s doggerel has some grain of truth from that, it’s not that simple.

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Sharks at the Beach

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal posted a comic today that does a good job of illustrating a metaphor I like to use. “Sharks at the Beach.” The shark bit comes in at the little red vote button. The comic is about how bad people tend to be at evaluating risk, mixed with a dash of political commentary about the “War on Terror.” Educating a person about statistics or even simple probability can be a big help in getting them to understand the real risks in life.

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Authority

Welcome to the next post in this little series of one-word-wrongness in religion.

To scientifically minded thinkers, authority is a shortcut for time and convenience. If I want to know the answer to a physics question, I can ask a physicist with appropriate letters after his name and published peer-reviewed articles attached to his name. A doctorate degree and peer-reviewed publications generally indicate that the person has done the hard work needed to understand physics and has demonstrated that understanding to the scientific community. So there is a basis for trusting in the accuracy of his answers if I want to save time and effort researching it. If I want to investigate deeper, instead of relying on the physicist’s authority, I can choose to read the accumulated literature to find a consensus or even perform the experiments myself if I’ve got the resources. If the physicist abuses his authority to push unproven or disproved hypotheses as if they were proven, he will be criticized by his peers, hopefully making people more hesitant to just trust his credentials.

To people with secular morality and politics, authority is generally given by social consensus. We vote for our leaders, and in theory, they are obligated to serve our interests. If they fail in that task, we can vote for a different leader next term. If a leader abuses his authority and works against the public’s interests, we can feel justified in resisting in various ways, whether it’s public criticism to sway voters and lower his chances of being reelected, mobilize other officials as checks against the abuses, or, in the most extreme cases, openly rebel against their authority.

In both these cases, authority is provisional and circumstantial instead of absolute, and the possibility of abuse is acknowledged. In religion, however, this often isn’t the case. Gods are often given absolute authority, and the “Big Three” Abrahamic religions are well-known for it. Being an American, and particularly a Texan, I’m pretty familiar with Christianity’s take on it, and there are a lot of recurring themes in attempts to justify it that are equally applicable in other religions.

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