Monday, June 29, 2015

The All Boy's League

I was once arguing with someone about science vs religion and he said the current system, where scientific evidence is required for something to be considered “proven” was an unfair system. He compared it to an all boys basketball league. The rules of that league said girls could participate but, to prove that girls were acceptable, an all girls’ team would have to win in some sort of tournament. He left some detail out. The point was, it was unfair to expect the girls to win at that level without some experience of playing on the boy’s teams or being coached by experienced coaches. He compared this to the rules of science, requiring evidence of natural phenomena.

I couldn’t get him to see that the old system, where if you questioned Catholicism, you were tortured, is exactly the old boy’s system. But that aside, he also couldn’t see that science is precisely designed to be fair. That’s a little harder to see. He pointed out that if something supernatural did occur, science would approach it as a natural event and try to find a natural explanation. That’s what science does. If there is not a natural explanation it is considered a mystery to science.

Without going into the philosophical details of this, I want to apply this to Friday’s Supreme Court decision to make marriage available to any two consenting adults. The reason it happened is that for about 100 years, we have been determining what it means when people say they feel attracted to the same sex in the way most people are attracted to the opposite sex. In a fair system, it’s not enough to simply say you feel that way. If that were true, then those who say they feel oppressed or offended by this new law would have to be given equal consideration. There is no way to justify the law one way or another if we simply go by what people say they feel.

A big part of determining what is actually true about our biology based on what people were reporting came to us via psychology and psychiatry. That system had a lot of flaws and was essentially a boy’s basketball league 100 years ago. It took years of lobbying to change the manual from saying homosexuality was a disease that needed a cure. Hopefully we have learned from the errors made during that process and improved our methods.

Another big factor has simply been getting to know the people that are willing to let us know they feel differently. In the “boy’s league” days, you were shunned or banished for openly expressing those feelings. Many still are. It’s hard to understand someone who has an attraction to something that you are repulsed by. But it’s not impossible, as we have seen millions of minds changed over the last few decades.

The Supreme Court simply put a stamp on what most of us have already figured out. But it also made it official that the boy’s league has to change  it’s name. Not everyone was ready for that, and they are now experiencing the same feelings that everyone who wasn’t invited to play used to feel. If we forget that, then we’ve made no progress at all. If we forget that, then we’re just a majority rule society and not much better than “might makes right”.

Getting back to science, if you remember what it was like to be treated unfairly, or see your friends being treated unfairly, then also remember what it took to get to where we are now. The colorful parades were fun, but there was more than that. There were logical arguments being made and long discussions between psychologists and pastors. If you missed those, get to know them before you thumb your nose at the losers in this debate. Someone listened to the queer kids in class when others were making fun of them, now it’s your turn to make that choice.

If someone mentions the Dred Scott decision and you don’t get the analogy, look it up. If someone says marriage is about children being raised by their biological offspring, look at how adopted kids do in healthy homes. If someone says gay marriage is an abomination, find out what they mean by “abomination”. If Scalia's dissent doesn't make sense, find someone who can help you make sense of it. It’s okay to say you don’t know or hadn’t thought about it. If someone thinks it makes them the “winner” because they thought of something you didn’t, that’s their problem.

The LGBTQ movement was and is an incredibly successful one. It is especially notable for its lack of violence. I’m not ignoring the horrid violence perpetrated against them, but pointing out that there was never a gay terrorist group or band of gay freedom fighters hiding in a mountainous region somewhere. This is what we need to see more of in our revolutions in the modern world. That is, we need to see less violence and more peaceful resolutions to our differences.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The King is Dead, long live the Westphalian nation-state

Kings and Queens are pretty much an anachronism these days. England has their royals but they are figureheads, they don’t have any real power to rule. Where there are kings, we think of them more like dictators. With a few exceptions, as always. But in the time of Kings and kingdoms, it was unheard of to not have a King.

If a King died, whether it be by old age, in battle, or more suspicious circumstances, he was replaced by another from a royal lineage. Hopefully the transition was a clean and peaceful to the eldest son, but if that wasn’t possible, a nearby King would likely move in and claim the territory. Sometimes a Queen or child King could hold the kingdom together, but that was less likely to last.

This was seen as some sort of natural order. As if the very blood in your veins made you a royal. Being born a peasant had equal meaning for what you would do with your life and what you were capable of. The many notable exceptions didn’t seem to matter. Royals who inherited their position failed miserably and peasants rose up to be great men and women. Power rested in the hands of a few and overcoming it seemed impossible.

We got rid of kings because we got tired of their childish bickering destroying so many lives. In 1648, after a century of wars, mostly over details of how to worship Christ, a peace treaty was signed that created the modern nation-state. Some argue that the wars were actually over territory and resources, and of course all wars include those goals, but the treaty specifically stated religious freedoms as part of the deal. The King could have his territory, but he couldn’t punish people for worshiping differently than him.

I tell this story not only to explain where religious freedom comes from, I’ve been over that. I want to point out that something that appears to be the natural order can be changed. The natural order that is accepted in the modern Western nation-state, dominated by capitalism is, that if you are rich, you deserve it. Because we are free, we can gain and accumulate wealth freely. We can use our intellect and energy to create value and be rewarded for it. If you work hard, you will be rewarded. Sounds good.

It is good. But it only works if people are honest, if they don’t lie and cheat their way to fortune. We know people do it, but we so want to believe in the power of the free market to select the best people and reward them accordingly, that we ignore that. We dismiss those who are caught as outliers. We punish the little cheaters, the starving boy who steals an apple, and let the bankers charge outrageous fees and the insurance companies deny benefits.

This corrupts the system and wealth accumulates at the top until all of our politicians are millionaires because it takes millions of dollars to get elected and laws get past that you can spend billions on an election because the thing that is supposed measure your value in a free market is now a commodity that can buy more freedom. “More freedom” is not a lie like “more equal” was in George Orwell’s 1984. Freedom can be bought at the expense of others. But as we did with kings, we can change that.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

AJ Stephens Birch Beer

I don't remember the last time I had a Birch Beer, but I think it was better than this one. The sugariness was fine, the fizz was fine, but the flavor left something to be desired. Maybe I was expecting more rootiness, this was more like barkiness. I'll have to find some other Birch beers for comparison.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What Are We Doing?

I’m not the first one to notice this, it’s really nothing new. There are some recent books covering it if you want more details. I’m not sure what got me thinking about it in the first place. Possibly the book I’m reading by Howard Buffet, son of billionaires Warren and Susan Buffet. His father made sure he got a regular job first, he’s now a farmer, but his parents also funded his non-profits. On top of all that, he volunteers as a local deputy and at local food related charities.

What are we doing?

The average amount of time spent watching television in America is 4.8 hours every day. That puts us firmly in first place in the world. For me, that’s all of my free time on a week day. Which means I’m bringing the average down and someone out there is doing virtually nothing but channel surfing. I bring up my average a bit during football season but generally I don’t lay around watching TV on weekends. Also on average, I sleep an hour more, and I’ll bet that hour less of sleep is spent watching TV for many. Only on occasion do I watch TV while eating, so there’s another hour or so that could be affecting the average.

But the question is, what else are we doing? “Social networking”, a nice name for watching cat videos is up to around 3 hours per day. Again, either people are laying awake doing this, or multi-tasking.

We read 19 minutes per day. Those who are in monthly book clubs, think about how many non-readers it takes to bring that average down.

I couldn’t easily find numbers although they are out there, but I suspect physical activity and attending civic events is also quite low.

Karl Marx had a theory that capitalism is designed to keep some people in poverty. It provides a pool of labor to draw from when needed and keeps lower income people afraid of slipping into that group, so they work hard and put up with bad management. If he were alive today he would see a relatively stronger and healthier work force but he would also note that once people get far enough away from that feeling of slipping into poverty, they quickly forget about it and do nothing to work on changing the system.

It was easier then to rally the proletariat to action because they could see the benefit and understood their solidarity. I joined a union a few years ago, and most of the work of organizing is convincing people that have a common cause with people in basically the same situation but slightly different job function.

The good news of this is we now have a pool of volunteers to draw from like never before. I don’t like fear tactics, but as more people slip from middle class into poverty, more will understand that it’s time to turn off the TV and take control of the world they created. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Courageous Pastor

I'd like to walk you through another post about one of those liberal pastors that I often write about. This one does not end with me being disappointed about how much like a fundamentalist she is. She takes a step beyond any pastor that I ever met. She is not afraid to let us know what she actually learned in seminary school. She's not afraid to challenge her leaders to move forward with her, even if it threatens her career.

In a letter to those leaders, she says belief in “the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined...” can lead to violence. There's a little more to it if you read the full article, but even in her more nuanced form, it's pretty strong stuff. She says something, that if I say it, I'm told I focus too much on the negative aspects of religion, and that Christianity has “reformed itself”. She says, “This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory.”

That's going pretty far, admitting that religion still has work to do to bring itself into a modern world where wars must be justified on grounds other than a difference in theology. Unfortunately this rather obvious statement has to be made by someone who is considered progressive and when she says it, someone calls for her resignation just for saying it. I think Christianity and all religion needs to go a lot further. She goes a little bit further with this statement, “If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.”

First, in case you don't recognize it, or don't know much about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, she is saying, all religions can't be right. Dawkins and Hitchens take this a step further and say, therefore, most likely all of them are wrong. But without going there, we are left with the choice of figuring out which one is right using some sort of method of discernment that we can all agree on, or killing anyone who disagrees. The latter has not worked out too well and the former is now called science. Like it or not, meditation and divine revelation are increasingly unacceptable in government or any institution, except theocracies and churches. When governments or businesses need a question answered, they turn to science.

But put that aside if you must and consider the implications of what she says. She is asking you to consider the consequences of choosing a supernatural explanation. By definition you have no natural explanation for that. You can't prove it, except by personal experience, and you are giving up the need to prove it, it's a choice made on faith. If you can do that, how can you turn around and deny someone else the right to do the same? Obviously you don't deny your fellow parishioners that right, but how do you feel about someone from a different religion, a different denomination, or someone who just doesn't understand Jesus like you do?

Greta simply asks that you extend the same courtesy to all believers that you would to your grandmother. I don't know enough about Greta, but my guess is she is calling for this level of tolerance because she believes it is a request that religious people will consider. I don't know if she sees it as a step toward something else, or as an end in itself. We all know that asking people to not believe at all is very unpopular.

But what is she trying to accomplish? This article was written right after a couple major events of religious violence. We look to the purveyors of reason and peace at those times, but is that the church? The argument is that if we lose the churches, we lose the holders of the rules, the houses of ethics, the ones with the soup kitchens and the shelters. Without them, it's anything goes. This works when the religion is in complete control. People do survive without it as history as shown with religions that have collapsed, but the culture is lost.

But look again at what she's asking. She's asking, let me choose my system of ethics based on nothing but tradition and I will leave you to choose yours based on a completely different tradition. Traditions that are well known to include justifications of violence. She is saying she has the right to choose an institution simply because it exists and has some history of doing some good. Well, Nixon opened negotiations with China and Clinton reduced the deficit, but I have a lot of other reasons for thinking which one of those is the better president. But I'm not arguing with her right to make that choice. I prefer a free world where such choices can be made and I'm willing to live with the consequences of that.

It's a bit ironic here that in her attempt to promote a world of reason, she suggests that anything goes. She ends up allowing for what all religions say about atheism. They say that if you are choosing atheism, you are choosing hedonism. Religions say they have the right set of rules to live by and they have the moral authority to set them. Some go as far as to say it is impossible to base moral rules on anything except their god. Without their god, there can be no basis for morality. Most at least claim a long standing tradition or the authority of many generations who have refined those rules.

We now have better ways of determining rules. We listen to the voices of not just those with land or weapons or those who happened to be born where the ground is more fertile or the animals could be domesticated or whose parents were in positions of power, but to everyone. These new systems still have some of the old problems, but solutions for them are not coming from the old voices.

Oddly enough, although I believe in freedom, I also believe in holding others accountable for their actions, in requiring explanations for actions. I don't accept someone else's moral system with the agreement that they will accept mine. If they are going to share my government, my schools, my health system, I expect some pretty complicated negotiations about just what is agreeable. I'll defend everyone's right to be free, but that doesn't include the right to restrict my freedoms without reason.

In a separate interview, Greta said her church has stopped most of the traditional rituals of a church. They stopped teaching the children the Lord's prayer because the parents said they didn't want them learning that they should believe those things and have to figure out for themselves later if they choose not to. If you have ever thought this, I encourage you to bring it up with your church leadership. If they aren't supportive, ask around, you might find out there are more just like you.

Interestingly enough, around that same time, a different pastor posted a statement that went quite a bit further. Greta even links to him via her blog page. I can't evaluate what this guy is doing, or if I'd join his “belief-less church” without spending some actual time there. But it's starting to sound like something that is truly workable in a tolerant pluralistic world.

Honey Cherry Vanilla

I grabbed this at the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth to go with my slice of bacon and dried tomato pizza. That's real Wisconsin honey! Not that Wisconsin honey is any different than any other honey, but they make a point of it. And you better like honey if you get this pop. It was the dominant flavor with my first sip. I looked in the bottom of the bottle and could see something syrupy swimming around there. I assume that was more honey, so I gave it a gentle whirl to mix it up. Not too fizzy, so no problems there. The honey definitely subdued the tartness of the cherries, which is fine I guess. But there wasn't much room left for the vanilla. A little less honey and a little more creaminess would have made this a better soda. But pretty decent, if you like honey.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Out of the philosophical trilemma

I stumbled across this little gem the other day. It expresses a misconception, that rational thought is not rational. This is common across every level of Christianity and other religions that I know, from the most fundamentalist to pagans and nature worshipers. I’ve seen it expressed by the highly educated, like the editor of the religion page for Washington Post. C.S. Lewis had a popular version in his time. This particular web page has a fundamentalist bent, but the graphic is laid out nicely and gives me something to build from.

This trilemma, 3 choices that all fail on some level, has been around since the Greek Skeptics. There is no ultimate solution, but a path can be built out of it. That path discussed here is the same, regardless of what belief system you start with.

The idea was first proposed by Agrippa in the 1st century. Although famous, religion continued to be tied into daily life with its clear rules and rituals, no dilemmas. Then Descartes sat down and tried to think his way out of the problem of not knowing where thoughts come from. Like the option on the far left of the chart, he theorized that maybe we don’t exist as we think we do, but our thoughts are being controlled by an evil demon. For Descartes, this was just a thought experiment. For some that is a real possibility, but it’s one I won’t pursue here.

Descartes determined that even if he was under such control, he still had the awareness that he was separate from that demon. That he existed. But Descartes still couldn’t solve the basic questions of knowing what is true or what is right. He decided that since he could conceive of perfection then perfection must exist, and that must be the God of the Bible. This was a bare assertion and dumps him back into the trilemma, and we’ll leave him there.

On the other side of the chart, we have the answer of divine revelation. Although different terms may be used, this is still widely used as a solution to the problem of a basis for knowledge. It is regularly invoked by elected officials at the highest levels of public office in modern democratic countries. In the WaPo editorial I mentioned, the woman explained how she grew up religious, then became an atheist, then thought about the difference and thinks either is a faith decision. She says she read a bunch of books with good reasons for religion, but doesn't share much of those reasons..

I admit it's a problem. We weren’t there in the beginning, so we don't know how we got here.

We came into consciousness in a world that was already over 4 billion years old. If you count the earliest proto-humans as having some kind of awareness, it took a few million years for us to figure out where we are in the universe. We’re still working on what that means. I don’t have an answer to that, but I have some thoughts on how to get there.

Digging into the trilemma, if you haven’t already, we are faced with three choices, circular reasoning, infinite regress, or making some bare assertions. The last one is expressed in a variety of ways i.e; axiomatic, self-evident argument, bedrock assumptions and others.

Circular reasoning is the easiest to spot, and to dismiss. The article that gave me the graphic does a horrible characterization of atheism, saying it assumes god doesn’t exist in its effort to prove god doesn’t exist. This wouldn’t be so bad if so many didn’t make the circular claim for god. There is even a verse for it, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness .” That's in the Bible, proving the Bible is the word of God. This usually gets confused during a discussion with some version of the Aristotelian solution to infinite regress.

Infinite regress is also easy to understand if you’ve ever played the “why” game with a 5 year old. They keep asking “why” until you run out of answers. Aristotle solved the problem by saying there must be some uncaused cause at the beginning. Descartes did something similar. A more sophisticated form is Anselm’s Ontological Argument. Spinoza also requires some sort of prime mover, although his is more of a pantheistic creation. Contemporary “spiritual but not religious” have some concept of how consciousness existed before the physical universe. All of these lend credence and intellectual rigor to the possibility of a real supernatural being of some kind. They all fail, but I'll leave those long arguments for another time.

Formal logic can deconstruct and find the flaws with these arguments. But those discussions are not satisfying for the average person on the street. Finding flaws with an argument does not mean the conclusion is wrong either. Worse, we still don’t know where our thoughts come from exactly, how we developed morals, when life began, or where the universe came from. The Big Bang seemed like a solution for a few decades, but we don’t even have the language to describe what that was. How do you say when time began? Beginnings imply time. They imply something existing to create creation. We have a mathematical language for it, but very few understand it and even those who do, don’t agree. We still have questions.

Bare assertions may be the easiest to identify. There is no reason given for them, circular or otherwise. They only have value when they are such a bedrock of an assumption that no one argues. Of course there are always a few out there who will argue anything. Some examples:

  • All complex things come from something simpler things.
  • With regards to morality, pain hurts, I assume you experience it the same as me.
  • Consistent rules of nature that we figure out today were the same in the past and will be the same in the future.

Problems with the given solution

Our friend in the article suggests the trilemma is false, that by leaving out the possibility of God, it presents an unsolvable problem that actually has a solution. But his solution falls back into the trilemma. “Personally verifiable” is a bare assertion. Something that is true for you may not be true for someone else. I can only verify things what we can share and demonstrate. Your thoughts and feelings are true, but I have no way to know if you are lying about them or not. Or maybe you are not lying in the sense that you are misrepresenting your thoughts, maybe you are convinced of your own truth, but if I don't know how you arrived at it, I don't know if it is true or not.

“Whoever seeks Him finds Him” is circular. This is shown when people don’t “find Him”. They are told to go back to the scripture, and to repeat the rituals, because if they didn’t “find Him” then they must have done the seeking wrong. I actually have more respect for someone who states that they are in the “Assume God therefore God” box. They are being honest with their thoughts and reasoning and letting me know where they stand rather than attempting to apply logic and failing and then not accepting their failure.

There are also worse ways to do this. Attempting to apply Quantum Physics to escape our cause and affect universe for example. These states of matter that we have recently discovered, where the same particle exists in two places at the same time or things just appear and disappear, can only be maintained for fractions of seconds. They have only led to new theories, not to new principles that we can apply. We can’t apply these new data to psychology or spirituality. If you do, it is pure speculation. Not that there’s anything wrong with speculation.

Speculation is also something I respect. As long as you say you are speculating. It is the beginning of science. If we didn't look up with awe and wonder, we wouldn't have started asking questions in the first place. Sometimes science does not give us satisfactory answers and we can look to our dreams, our stories filled with allegory. Mythology opens our minds and leads us to new thoughts. Just call it what it is.

Building our way out of the trilemma

There’s one box in this chart that shouldn’t be a box. It's called “infinite” so it's representation in the chart should go on infinitely. We can't do that, but even if we could make a box that contained all human knowledge it would still go on for, well, quite a few pages. We may not be able to ever answer every question “why”, but we can answer a lot of them. We've done that by choosing a starting point and building on it.

Darwin did this when he theorized about where species come from. His theory was incomplete, and he freely admitted it. He had evidence for differentiation within a few specific species and speculated on how that could explain where all of life came from. DNA was not discovered until after he was dead. How life came from non-life is still an open question. But having an open question does not destroy Darwin's answers.

This is the box where most people live. The box where there are no philosophical problems. There are answers that allow us to have lives, get to work, raise our children, see a movie now and then, enjoy a decent cup of coffee and hopefully enjoy old age. If you go to church, you may not be sure what the sermon is about every week, but it's close enough and the community offers you something, so no need to question it. There's nothing terribly wrong with living in this box. We accomplished quite a bit without knowing that we are a lonely planet on the edge of one of many galaxies. It's only a problem when people start defending the boundaries of their box and hurting others in the process.


But even a finite regression needs something to base itself on. This is where we finally get to the base assertion that religion has such a problem with; There is no supernatural. It's not proven. It's an assertion. When teachers in Catholic universities in the 13th century started considering it, they shut the schools down. They did re-open them, but with the agreement that the Church would decide about the supernatural. If they said it was a miracle, the philosophers were not to question that.


Some say this was suppression of science. Others say this was a clear boundary that allowed science to begin to define itself outside the walls of religion. There's no doubt that science began to take off after that and has not slowed down. The rules and guidelines are continually questioned and refined. There is no one place to go for a list of those rules. Like scientific knowledge itself, each generation builds upon the work of the previous. There are no authorities. The authority is the accumulation of evidence and logical reasoning that interprets that evidence. New evidence is accepted and new interpretations are made all the time.


The difference between religion's base assertion that the supernatural exists and science's base assertion that only the natural exist, is that science, by its own rule, allows its base assertion to be questioned. The difference is, you can question it without pulling the rug out from under it. So far, questioning scientific facts has only led to new facts. We look back in time when we look in a telescope and we don't see anything but the natural physical universe. If we ever see evidence of something else, we'll have to accept it, but provisionally, we'll stick with the original premise.