Happy Easter

WARNING: Offensive speech ahead. Hate-filled Creationists, please don’t read.

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A happy Easter to all, except to Creationists, who are not worth their religion.

They are worth nothing. They are worth less than nothing. They do harm by existing. They are worse than worthless, because they spread such a dilute and empty form of vacant thought, mixed with such dangerously unguided passion. They are not misguided; they are unguided. They are confused.

Somewhere in history, religion branched off and freed itself from the shackles of logic and philosophical rigor, divorcing itself from science, reason, common sense, and eventually all sanity. This rogue strand of religion is now floundering out in the ocean of blind faith, clinging to driftwood and calling it Science. Delusions have no lungs, and so can scream loudly while thus drowning.

There is nothing worth saving about this cult of Creation; their intellect is fit for criminals and liars, their theology is fit for fantasy and fanfiction, their enthusiasm is fit for children and lunatics who get worked up into frenzies about nothing at all. Creationism exists for no purpose, extolling a hollow shell of Christianity while promoting fanaticism for its own sake. There is nothing unselfish about this movement; it is laughable, yet painful, because it robs so many of purpose and of life, this selfish meme. It is a crime to raise a child in such an environment, although such a crime shall not be punishable by any law other than natural selection. Of course, they don’t believe in evolution…

I wish instead, to Creationists, the ability to understand, for instance, how lucky they are to have an Easter to celebrate. Or how lucky they are to have a brain, and should take advantage of that brain’s ability to become cognizant of what Easter is, and what religion is, and what it all should be. If you’re going to take the chance and assert that Christianity (or any religion) is true, you’d better be smart, and you’d better be aware of how absurd a thing it really is. Only then can you even pretend to have a right to believe it. Silly Creationists. Your IQ must be this high to believe in Jesus… ::smacks head against wall::

—– Added: —–

Ok, so I realize I’m a bit harsh, and that if I were a Creationist reading this I’d be upset. However, it is probably crucial for their own religion’s survival that they chill out and attempt to be reasonable. Perhaps they mistake their blind and pure faith for nobility and strength. Perhaps they think that God will forgive them for their inattention to intellect or theological rigor. Perhaps they really do think that Faith alone will save them. And that’s just pathetic.

I realize now that I am insulting most Christians in this country, but that’s the country’s fault, not mine. Perhaps this addition, intended to be apologetic, is in fact worse than the original post. Perhaps it will be unintentionally insulting in my attempt to further elaborate on my distaste for unfettered passion, where there should be calmly metered confidence in something you explore and attempt to understand.

See, even if you can’t prove something, you can attempt to display reason. You can exercise your head as well as your heart, and you can make full use of all the faculties your God gave you. While some seem to think laughably drastic claims are praise (see: http://spiritlessons.com/), there is an incredible appearance of insecurity in your God, if you have to lie about Him.

There exists a limit such that the plausibility of a claim approaches zero, as the fantasticalness of that claim approaches infinity. To avoid offending the sensibilities of, well, sensible people, it might be wise to display some sense in your argument.

In science, observations are considered “real” if they can be measured across multiple modalities (vision, hearing, mass spectrometry, etc). The more ways something can be observed, the more “real” it is considered.

God cannot be measured, as far as I know, across any modality (and if you know, please do tell me). But to seek Him through your mental as well as spiritual faculties, is to display an understanding of what reality is, and evidence of an attempt to move in that direction.

I honestly don’t think an atheist would have a problem with a theist who understood and was very passionate about reason and method and the logical objections most atheists have. If a theist understands all of these things, and can clearly demonstrate that, and still chooses to believe in God, well, that’s okay, I have no problem with that. They simply have some experience or understanding I lack. But since they have all the understanding that I do have as an atheist/skeptic, I will give them all the benefits of the doubt.

What skeptics hate about theists, specifically Creationists, is the confidence they have in being correct, while completely lacking an understanding for basic scientific theory (which includes degrees of empiricism and positivism), and seemingly lacking the courage or independence to question their tradition.

It is the kid who does not believe that 2+2=4, no matter how many times you explain it to him. And then, when he tells you he doesn’t believe 2+2=4, he hits you in the face and takes your lunch money, you damned offensive heathen, stop offending my religion. It’s truly offensive that people can use religion as a shield for stupidity. If I were a serious theist, I’d be angry.

If I were a Christian, I’d probably hate Creationists even more than I do now, for making my religion look bad, and for refusing to take the time to understand millennia of intellectual subtleties. Bastards… Giving a generation an excuse to be lazy, to be fanatics, to feel important, to feel safe, to feel saved.  To think hard is to suffer doubt, and doubt is the greatest sin of all. So to avoid sin they avoid thought, but to avoid thought is to avoid understanding Christianity in the first place, and thus never capable of understanding or even committing a sin to begin with. I’m not sure how to respond to this, except to replace Creationism with some other sect of Christianity.

Religion is too deep a part of human nature, it will never go away. But I’ll take the better of two evils; I’ll take thought over ignorance any day. So, my Creationist brothers and sisters, I will respect you as Christians if you demonstrate a respect for reason and truth. You may not have to be atheists, but you should not be afraid of skepticism. In being afraid of skepticism, you doubt your God’s ability to overcome tiny atheists like me. Your God will not fail you, if he is as you think. So start here, and we’ll all get along just fine…

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New Year’s Resolutions

So it’s nearly March, have you forgotten all your New Year’s Resolutions yet? That’s probably because your resolutions were the same, boring ones everyone always makes. Let’s face it, you haven’t lost 10 lbs, you haven’t quit smoking, you haven’t gone to the gym three times this week. You haven’t even finished that novel you started almost four weeks ago. However, there are some New Year’s Resolutions worth making — and keeping.

To properly welcome the New Year, we should consider some meaningful changes.

We will revert back to 100 BC, and live life meaningfully.

We destroy all modern technology, except high-speed wireless internet, water heaters, and mp3 players. No, wait. Water heaters are for pussies. Televisions will be abandoned. Philosophers will be running around in togas. Mathematicians will solve proofs while ignoring the violent battles happening around them. Congressmen will be willing to die for what they vote for — and they will always vote. We will eat only animals we ourselves hunted and killed — after roasting them on massive spits outside the houses that we built for ourselves. We will abolish the death penalty and revive gladiator sport. Our libraries will be open 24/7, they will contain massive papyri collections, and only be written in Ancient Greek (which, naturally, everyone will speak).

Sick and tired of doing chores? Conquer a neighboring town and capture slaves to do it for you. Gone are the days where slavery is an institution of hate towards a specific race! Simply challenge a city-state (don’t you miss that word?) to a war, and the winners get to enslave the losers, fair and square. Social Darwinism blossoms into its full glory. (If you’re still queasy, the children of conquered peoples are born free men, not slaves. No one pays for the inferior fighting skills of their parents.)

No one will live in foolishly cold places like Chicago; it’s all about the Mediterranean, baby. The Caribbean is acceptable, if we rename it the Medi-two-rranean. There will be no foolish students who only learn things because they want to get rich being a soulless doctor or corporate executive. There will be mandatory training in either sword-fighting or archery, preferably both. People will be educated in moral as well as intellectual matters. Civilizations will be sustainable again. Ideas will be the primary focus of society, without exorbitant amounts of money to distract ourselves with. We will combine the best elements of Persia, Athens, Sparta, and the rest of the Ancient World. We will have honour again. We will have heroes again.

This will be accomplished by the release of self-assembling nanobot swarms, without replication-limiting code. They will quickly and effectively destroy modern cities and dwellings, and relocate people to the suitable areas of the world. They will then self-destruct (or hide underground for a couple thousand years until they are necessary again). This, children, is why it’s important to study chemistry. If you support these resolutions, it is high time you started learning how to build these nanobots. If you oppose them, it is high time you started learning how to kill them. Similarly, prepare yourself by learning how to use a sword and a bow, as well as a dead language or two. Study up on edible plants, and how to fish with your bare hands.

Pre-med? Try, PRE-SPARTAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

Depletion Theory of Self-Regulation

This fascinating paper by Vohs and Heatherton discussed a resource-depletion theory of self-regulation: essentially, there is a limited amount of self-regulation one can employ to control impulses and desires, which can be fatigued or depleted by self-regulatory demand. This theory was strongly supported by a well-controlled experiment involving self-regulation in chronic self-regulators (dieters).

Naturally, such a theory raises many questions. If there is a limited and depletable amount of self-regulation available, is it also determinable? How does knowledge of this theory affect our ability to self-regulate in the future? How does self-regulatory ability replenish itself after being depleted? It is clear that self-regulatory ability (discipline) varies between individuals. It is also clear that this ability can be increased, presumably with practice. However, if Vohs et al’s hypotheses are correct, this practice comes at a cost (depleted ability). Research on the mechanism(s) of self-regulation (neurological, psychological, hormonal, etc) would be fascinating to see (and is surprisingly hard to find online).

It would appear that self-regulation is something that can be exercised and strengthened, much like a skeletal muscle, but the methods of achieving this are unclear. How much “heavy-lifting” must be done to increase one’s capacity for self-control, and how much “rest” is needed once the self-regulatory powers are depleted? What qualifies as “rest” in this case: a situation in which self-regulation is not required (sleeping, riding the bus, etc), or simple indulgence of impulses and desires (eating those M&Ms, smoking that cigarette, skipping the gym, etc)?

Furthermore, how much of this depletion is biological versus psychological? Since the line between these two subjects is admittedly blurry, the question would be better framed as to which is a better predictor of self-regulatory failure – situational knowledge/knowledge of individual, or knowledge of key biological factors (hormone levels, fMRI readings, etc). These questions, it seems, are important if we are to understand and improve self-control. There are several other theories of self-regulation (ie- hot-cold theory, selective disengagement, etc), but evidence seems to point to depletion theory as being correct.

How do those Buddhist monks and religious ascetics do it? We’d all like to see ourselves one day as paragons of discipline, but we all know that isn’t going to happen. Or is it? How can elucidating these and related mechanisms help us understand and exercise genuine self-control? How can we differentiate between “worthy” self-regulation and regulation that will merely deplete our self-control reservoirs? What does this mean for those of us (all of us) who face temptation every moment of every day? The wisdom of Uncle Ben tells us that great power entails great responsibility. How can we learn to live up to that responsibility, and be sure that we are doing it? How can we ration our self-control wisely, if we aren’t even sure how it’s depleted?

If I had to select a technique, I’d say, don’t bother with self-control. Look again at the Buddhist monks. They are not exerting unnatural amounts of self-regulation, well beyond their biological capacities for it. They are merely altering their objects of indulgence. Instead of junk food and video games, they derive satisfaction from the idea of becoming something greater, from achieving some sort of spiritual high-ground that can only be attained by relinquishment of worldly goods. It is in this respect that long-term thinking, and an emphasis on values (real or constructed), helps us with what is perceived or generally defined as self-control. In this way, sitting on a mountaintop for three weeks without food is indulging your impulses and desires — not depleting your self-regulatory powers at all. This does not, of course, trivialize what these great men are able to do. It simply reminds us that while there may be actual, biological limits to how much self-control we may have, there are other ways of attaining and exerting control over ourselves and our actions.

This is, of course, an easy segway into the problems of modern society — with the rise of relative morality, a pleasure-focused media, and a loss of education in systems of “constructed” virtues — there is little satisfaction to be had with anything abstract. Sure, we all want to be brilliant, disciplined, attractive machines with a jam-packed schedule to mark our busy, successful lives. But do we really want it? Is it hard-wired into the fabric of our thoughts? How can it be, when the “philosophy” of modern society tells us that, in the end, nothing really matters? If there is no absolute anything — no right, no wrong, no God, no truth — how can we rewire what tickles our sense of satisfaction? How can the actions taken for ideals we don’t consider real be anything but self-regulatory? At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the virtues themselves. No one really wants to be disciplined all the time, no one really wants to be good or honourable or chaste or brave — these values are old ones, dead ones, constructed by a society which needed them. Our modern, scientific age has no use for such things. We are above that. Beyond that. There is no discipline. There is only what discipline can get you.

Tell that to your next bag of Doritos.

Sam Harris and the Modern Atheist

It has come to my attention that Sam Harris is, in fact, an idiot.

Brief Biography:

He was raised by a Jewish mother and a Quaker father [1, 2], and he told Newsweek that as a child, he “declined to be bar mitzvahed.”[3] He attended Stanford University as an English major, but dropped out of school following a life-altering experience with the drug Ecstasy. [1] During this period he studied Buddhism and meditation, and claims to have read hundreds of books on religion.

After eleven years traveling the East, he returned to Stanford and completed a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience, [1] using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.[4]

  1. ^ a b c d Segal, David. “Atheist Evangelist”, The Washington Post, October 26, 2006.
  2. ^ Csillag, Ron. “Losing faith in religion”, Toronto Star, July 2, 2005
  3. ^ Miller, Lisa. “Beliefwatch: The Atheist”, Newsweek, October 30, 2006
  4. ^ “Biography for Sam Harris”, IMDb.

From this, we can infer that this man is not a serious intellectual, although that could have been inferred from any of his books. In his defense, he was writing primarily in repsponse to the ridiculous fundamentalist distortion of Christianity and Islam. He is clearly somewhat intelligent, having attended Stanford, although he lived for 11 years, after dropping out his sophomore year, on his mother’s money. He clearly believes that religion is a bad thing, and with good reason.

However, his attempts to assert himself as a scholar with “intellectual integrity” are frustrating, and insulting to the notions of both scholarship and intellectual integrity. This excellent dissection of both Sam Harris’ and Richard Dawkins’ takes on religion points out the utter lack of integrity in either of their books. Dawkins, for instance, makes the laughable claim that were religion not to exist, the Taleban would not have destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Because, of course, the buddhas themselves were not erected in the name of religion. Even more contentious, because of its malicious nature, is Harris’ tendency to quote scriptures out of context. For instance, he quotes the Koran’s encouragement of the murder of women and children. Completely omitting, of course, the sentence immediately preceding his quote which says that to attack an innocent group of people is forbidden, and that such murderous actions are only acceptable in retaliation — in other words, preemptive attacks are, ironically, forbidden.

There seem to be few modern atheist role models, the spirit of intellectual inquiry seems lost. Science, as it once stood, is a journey of discovery, a voyage filled with surprise and adventure. It has become a battleground for atheism, littered with the corpses of straw men. While it is important to understand the basics of the philosophy of science, it is a remarkably one-sided presentation. It disturbs me that there is not even a Wikipedia article on the Parson Naturalists, which Darwin himself aspired to become. This was a perfectly acceptable way of conducting science, unheard of nowadays. The nuance is lost; the wonder is gone.

Consider all the wonder there is to be found in such elegant things as the periodic table. It’s amazing! The elements are periodic! There is a stunning amount of order and beauty in this simple presentation of the physical world. I needn’t mention the bizarre world of high-energy physics to make my point here. There is clearly something amazing in the workings of the universe. This does not mean, or even suggest, that there is a God. But to rule this option out is not only unscientific, it ignores the centuries of work done by religious scientists. Yes, they were products of a religious environment. But their environment is what shaped their minds, and arguably what fostered their accomplishments. We should perhaps think twice before dismissing it.

“Unless we choose to ignore reality, we must find our values in it.”

-Albert Camus

//End rant. Out.

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Edit: There now exists a brief wiki article on the Parson-naturalists. It’s short, but feel free to improve it.

Magneto Lives! Well, sort of.

It looks like this guy managed to control the calcium intake of cells using nanomagnets. Their work, for anyone who hasn’t seen X-Men, is the first to prove that such a level of control over cells is possible. They asserted this biomagnetic control by hijacking an immune-system cell that normally mediates allergic reactions (normally, these are the guys who call for the release of histamine). Nanoparticles with iron oxide cores were used to mimic antigens in vitro, and each attached to a molecule that in turn attached to a single receptor on an immune cell. When cells bound with these particles were exposed to a weak magnetic field, the nanoparticles become magnetic and draw together, causing the cell receptors to cluster. This reaction caused the cells to take in calcium. When the magnetic field is turned off, the particles are no longer attracted to each other, the receptors move apart, and the influx of calcium stops.

Abstract: Complex cell behaviours are triggered by chemical ligands that bind to membrane receptors and alter intracellular signal transduction. However, future biosensors, medical devices and other microtechnologies that incorporate living cells as system components will require actuation mechanisms that are much more rapid, robust, non-invasive and easily integrated with solid-state interfaces. Here we describe a magnetic nanotechnology that activates a biochemical signalling mechanism normally switched on by binding of multivalent chemical ligands. Superparamagnetic 30-nm beads, coated with monovalent ligands and bound to transmembrane receptors, magnetize when exposed to magnetic fields, and aggregate owing to bead–bead attraction in the plane of the membrane. Associated clustering of the bound receptors acts as a nanomagnetic cellular switch that directly transduces magnetic inputs into physiological cellular outputs, with rapid system responsiveness and non-invasive dynamic control. This technique may represent a new actuator mechanism for cell-based microtechnologies and man–machine interfaces.

Man-machine interfaces? Not only do these guys want to be Magneto, they want to be cyborgs too. In all seriousness, though, this prospect opens up an incredible amount of doors for advances in medicine. Most medicine relies heavily upon chemical responses in cells — releasing hormones, inhibitors, and all sorts of drugs that cannot be immediately stopped if something goes wrong. However, with an immediate on/off switch (the magnetic field), we won’t have to administer a drug, then wait and see what happens. The allergic reactions or long waiting times would be a thing of the past, if we managed to correctly apply this type of technology.

Ingber’s lab began this project in response to a call by (who else?) the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for new cell-machine interfaces. He acknowledges that his work is in its early stages. In fifty years, however, he expects that there will be devices that “seamlessly interface between living cells and machines.”

“The Principles and Morals of Legislation” (Bentham, 1781)

Reading this text (Principles) by Jeremy Bentham, I am forced to like utilitarianism even less, despite the fact that it is difficult for an atheist with tendencies towards relative morality to refute.

Bentham was born to a wealthy family in London in 1748, and was immediately recognized as a prodigy. Reading large tomes as a toddler, learning Latin when he was three years old, and enrolling at Oxford University at the age of twelve, were early signs of his genius. How, then, can a genius be so unconvincing in his texts?

Chapter 1, “Of the Principle of Utility,” starts out by saying: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as determine what we shall do.” He goes on, several pages later, to say: “By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing), or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interests are considered.”

This naturally raises the question: when classifying words with wildly different definitions as synonyms (eg, pleasure, advantage, good, happiness), which definition is foremost in the author’s mind? Ignoring this, Bentham moves on to what appears to be an excellent description of how to consider pain and pleasure: 1) Its intensity, 2) its duration, 3) its certainty or uncertainty, and 4) its propinquity or remoteness. He goes on to describe the principles of utilitarianism in ways that make a great deal of sense, and are consistent with a materialistic, atheistic view of the world. It is this that bothers me the most — utilitarianism shares my assumptions, but I fundamentally dislike it. I say “dislike” because I cannot say where I disagree. I may disagree with his definitions (substituting, say, “good” for “pleasure”), but I can’t refute his points because if I follow my own assumptions, I arrive at the same place.

I dislike it because there is no room for honor in this system (excepting the honor atheists bestow upon themselves for accepting the difficult “truth”), no room for a good that is separate from pleasure (arguing that even things that are viewed as good” are done because there is some pleasure to be taken from the feeling you get when you have done something considered “good”), and no way to break out of the mundane properties of the materialistic framework we assume.

A biology/philosophy professor recently told me he had figured out some way to assert Free Will within this materialistic framework. I’m highly skeptical, since I don’t know if this is even possible, but if it is, he has figured out a way around something that has stumped philosophers for centuries. If this is the case, he has found some new, desperately needed ground on which materialists can stand, which may allow us to refute other things, such as utilitarianism. Without some new breakthrough as this, we atheist-materialist-determinists are doomed to the same circles that this leads. It is a fairly mundane existence, knowing everything as we do.

“Is it possible for man to move the earth? Yes, but he must first find out another earth to stand upon” (Bentham 5).

What is this other earth we must find? There is no need for religion, or constructed ideas of good and evil. But whatever we are missing, it is paralyzing us; we atheists/materialists/determinists are consistent when we are utilitarians, but is such consistency really worth it?

More on this later, I’m sure. Next up: JS Mill.

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Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781). Prometheus Books, NY. 1988.