Friday, December 12, 2014

Just bring the cops to trial to save money and lives!

There have been a number of news stories lately about white cops who have shot black men, and even children, who were basically defenseless.

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/nov/27/white-teen-gilbert-collar-killed-by-black-cop-trev/?page=all
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/14/michael-brown-ferguson-missouri-timeline/14051827/

(there are quite a few more, but you get the point)

In all of these cases, at least most recently, the cop was not indicted and the case will never be brought to trial.  Some people think this was a good decision because cops should be given the latitude to make such judgements, as a part of doing their job.  It's true that it's hard for a non-cop to put themself into the mind set of the cop.  It's a very different situation when you're out there, being shot at, than when you're sitting in your living room casually reading the account.  Others think that it's very clear that the case should at least come to trial.  Otherwise, cops will be given free reign to shoot anyone at any time with little or no accountability.

My view is that neither of these arguments matter at all.  That's right, it simply doesn't make any difference whether you side with the police force or with individual citizens.  I maintain that both of these are missing the real issue.  The real issue is saving lives and, to a lesser extent, saving money, such that the remaining funds may be used more productively.

There are really only two possibilities; let the case come to trial or do not let it come to trial.  Let's simply look at the outcomes of these two possibilities.  If we do not let the case come to trial, what when happens?  People will feel more threatened by the police force (especially black people), people will protest the decision, more police will be brought to bear on the protestors which will lead to more protesting, more money will be spent to restore the peace.  Probably people will be injured or possibly killed due to the chaos of the protesting.  Businesses will be looted.  Isn't all of this obvious?  No, it's not "right".  Yes, we can bring more force to bear to restore peace.  Again, that's not the issue.

What happens if we let the case come to trial?  Either the cop is found guilty or not.  In either case, more facts are brought out about the case.  The public becomes more educated about exactly what really happened and why.  There will probably be less protesting over a trial.  People will feel as though justice is at least being addressed, even if the decision is not what they want.  People will feel safer in that it is being demonstrated that cops can not shoot anyone without accountability; we would actually see some real accountability, regardless of the outcome.  With less protesting, less money will be spent on keeping the peace.  That means more money put toward keeping people safe and letting the police do their jobs.

So, regardless of the outcome of a trial, it's actually a trial which would save lives, keep the peace, help with public relations, and save money.  What's the downside to a trial?  Some people in the police force will be side-tracked into the trial, instead of doing their job.  What's the upside to a trial?  Most police will not be side-tracked into handling protestors and will thus continue to do their job.

Overall, a trial saves money and saves lives, regardless of the outcome.  Did anyone think of this when they decided to not let these cases come to trial?  Sadly, probably not.

I'll leave you with a graphic depiction of the time, money, and stress, which could have been avoided by simply going trial:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/11/eric-garner-map-twitter-world_n_6301352.html




Thursday, April 24, 2014

Religions will always have crazies - deal with it!

Religions have many problems, but one of the biggest issues which religious people have constantly to deal with is that of dealing with "The Crazies".  One is constantly hearing people of various religious beliefs making statements such as, "Well, they're extreme.  I'm not like that."  How can a religious person deal with these extremists and still have a religious identity?  It's hard.  Muslims in many countries are very non-violent, however Islam is still viewed as a very violent religion by many people.  Christian Fundamentalism is considered an extreme by many Christians, yet when a person identifies as "Baptist", it still brings with it thoughts of dancing with snakes and miracle healings.

One of the problems with religions such as Islam is that there are extremists, such as terrorists, who also claim to be devout Muslim, and yet many Muslims do not want to be associated with them.  It's hard for a Muslim to separate their religious views from those of terrorists because, well, they originate from the same holy book.  As a matter of fact, the Koran even has statements which clearly say that a devout Muslim should kill "infidels".  (Yes, it also has statements about caring for everyone, but it's not clear if the "everyone" in those statements is really talking about non-Muslims.  In general, non-Muslims are thought to be the equivalent of non-human, so killing them is no big deal.  This is stated in the Koran as well.)

Christian Fundamentalists are well known for their extreme views, such as claiming to handle wild snakes without being bitten, claims of miracle cures, claims of "speaking in tongues", even "Young Earth Creationism", and literal interpretation of the Old Testament.  While most main stream Christians do not associate with these beliefs, they are an integral part of many aspects of the religion.  It can be embarrassing to have to admit to being "Christian" because of the close association of these ideas.

I would maintain that "The Crazies" will exist in pretty much all religions and I'll explain why.  Religious ideas are based on nothing but a single person's interpretation of what they have read, heard, or learned from others.  When "God speaks to you", it can clearly be demonstrated that this amounts to little more than your conscience talking to you.  (Isn't it interesting that "God" always likes the same people you like and hates the same people you hate?)  Even though most religions have a "Holy Book" of some type, this book was always written by someone quite a long time ago who thought differently from us today, due to societal changes.  Thus, the "Holy Book" must always be interpreted by the reader.  Some make this interpretation in as literal of a fashion as possible, but we all know that if you literally followed the Old Testament rules, you would end up in jail very quickly!  (Leviticus 20:9 and many others)  So, interpretation is always there, no matter how "literal" a person feels they are taking the text.

Since interpretation is always there, then ultimately the understanding of any religion is always inside the head of the individual.  If religion were more like Science, then a person could appeal to facts and evidence to back up and to "ground" their understanding.  Since religion really does not have any such grounding, then every idea which is part of every religion is ultimately a matter of opinion!  That explains why there are so many!  There are many people in the world with many different life experiences and backgrounds.  Thus, everyone's opinion will be slightly, if not completely, different.  This can not really be avoided and religion has no grounding in anything which can be demonstrated in the real world, religion will always be "all over the map" with interpretations.

So, sorry to say, "The Crazies" will always be part of any religious belief system, since there is no grounding in the real world.  I guess religious people will just have to continue to fight for their own beliefs and as we have more people in the world, we will also have more religions!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Nones" or "Don't Cares"?

We, in the Atheist community at least, keep hearing about the "Nones"; those people who profess no religious affiliation.  We hear that the percentage of "Nones" is rising.  This is a good thing, for us.  It sounds good to talk about our numbers increasing.  I'm sure, however, that we can really claim all of that.

Some "Nones" aren't really Atheists; but then this gets into the definition of "Atheist".  Many people think that "Atheists" are people who believe there is no God.  Since it's well-known in the scientific community, however, that we can't prove a negative, then a person who is basing their understanding of the world on science and what can be proven will never say that they "believe there is no God".  They will, instead, say, "I believe there isn't sufficient reason to believe in a God."  So, the term "Atheist" is, increasingly, becoming defined as, "Lacking a belief in God."  This is not the same as "Believing there is no God."  A "Theist" believes there is a God.  An "Atheist" simply doesn't have that belief.  An "Anti-theist" believes there is no God, but that's an extreme view which isn't, and can't be, supported by science.

So, if an "Atheist" lacks a belief in God, then anyone who doesn't have a belief in God is, by definition, an "Atheist".  The problem with this, however, is that there are a large number of people who simply don't care!  These people generally don't have a belief in God, but they also simply don't care enough about the question to even investigate it or think about it.  I know a number of such people personally.

So, can we really claim all "Nones" (people who profess no religious affiliation) as "Atheists"?  I don't think so.  We need to re-ask the question in a different way.  We need to recognize the difference between the "Nones" and the "Don't Cares".

Friday, December 28, 2012

Religion doesn't really help dealing with the real world

I just finished watching the movie, "The Tree of Life."  While the movie lasts a long time and some parts of it tend to get slow and tedious, I did gain one new observation from it; probably not the one which was intended, however.  While watching and listening to all of the pleas for God to help, to explain 'why', to give comfort, it occurred to me that religion really doesn't prepare a person to deal with the real world.  Many people say that religion gives comfort in times of need, but I'm not really sure that's the case.

The movie dealt with a mother losing her young son (about 15 years old).  It never says how the son died, probably because that doesn't really matter to the story.  The mother undergoes extreme grief, of course, and turns to her religion, and thus to God, for explanation of "why my son?", and "why now?" Of course God never answers, which leaves the mother to wonder, "do you even care about us?" and "do you even know what happens down here?"  Of course, God never answers those questions either.  Eventually, at the end of the film, the mother gives in and tries to find some solace in "giving my son to you, as you want."

When we're young, religion gives us the feeling that someone is looking over us, which can be very comforting to some while being very threatening to others.  We eventually come to find solace, and even companionship, in a God who "watches over us" and who also seems to "know what's best" for us.  I maintain, however, that this is an erroneous view of the world and thus leads to trouble later.

When we're young, and first learning about life and religion, we're told that we should care about our fellow mankind, we should always do what's right, we should not lie, we should not cheat, we should not fight, etc.  However, just a little later in life, we are told that we should learn to look out for ourself, we should do what's in our best interest, we should not tell the whole truth in all cases, we should do whatever we can to get ahead, and we should take up for ourself and fight back.  It seems as if the "real world" is diametrically opposed to what we're taught via religion!  This creates uncertainly, doubt, fear, and generally gives rise to the whole idea of "sin" in which we continuously view ourself as "not perfect."  Religions have, of course, learned to make a huge amount of money off of these problems!

I see no reason to teach children to "be good" based upon some unrealistic, religiously based, ideas, which will only lead them to struggle with the conflict between the world "as religion would have it", and the real world "as it really exists."  Why can't we teach our children to live in the real world, as it really exists, and still to be good citizens?  Why can't we teach our children that treating others in "good" and "helpful" and "kind" fashion will only serve to help create the type of world in which they, themselves, would like to live?  If you treat those around you in a kind and helpful way, then they will treat you in a kind and helpful way in return; at least most of the time.  As Buddhism would say, "you create your world, every minute of every day."

We should teach children that, yes, they should be kind to their fellow mankind when that person is not being mean to them, they should always do what's right in the larger scheme of things, they should not lie unless lying will help the situation, they should generally not cheat unless they are being cheated in return or if it's for a good cause, and they should not seek a fight however they should be willing to defend themselves.  We should teach children that there is no one out their looking out for them, so they should be careful and look out for themselves.  We should teach children that, no, their loves one will not go to a magical place in the sky and they will never see them again after death, so they should appreciate their loves ones today, let them know they are loved, and learn well the lessons they can teach, because once they're gone, those lessons will be forever lost unless someone remembers them.  (This is why I refuse to remove birthdays, anniversaries, and other information about deceased friends.  They were a part of my life and I don't want to forget them and the lessons they taught.  This is their only lasting legacy.)

By learning how to understand and deal with the real world, we will be better prepared to deal with exceptional circumstances in this world.  Doing so is much better than the empty, non-existent, and thus unresponsive, God of religion, who offers only empty promises and who only "delivers" answers via the questioner's reinterpretation of whatever random events happen.  Don't depend upon religion to give you any real answers at all.  Learn more about how the world really works, understand more about your own emotional reactions to it, and there will be all of the answers you could want.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chaos Theory says that "Free Will" is a moot issue.

"Free Will!"  Sounds so good, doesn't it?  Everyone wants to think that they have complete control over their thoughts and actions.  Sorry, no.

Scientists have found that using an fMRI, they can actually see a decision being made long before the person making that decision recognizes that they have made it.  Ok, maybe that doesn't mean you don't have Free Will.  maybe it simply means your thoughts are being made at a level below where you realize it and only later do they arrive at a conscious level.

How about the argument which says:
You are the sum total of all of your genes plus all of your experiences.  If you could start again with the same genes and have the exact same events happen to you, you would end up in the same place and make the same decisions.
Interesting argument, but can this ever really happen?  Is this even a realistic scenario?  Certainly not.  We know that the exact same series of events can never happen exactly the same way, especially if they are complex events.

This ties into Quantum Physics and Indeterminacy.  If you haven't learned much about Quantum Physics, then watch this entertaining video about the famous "Double Slit experiment.  This talks about particles appearing as both waves and particles.  Related to this is also the topic of "Super Position", where a particle or wave can be in multiple states at once.  As if this isn't enough, let's also look at the issues brought up by "Delayed Choice".

So, with multiple possibilities existing simultaneously, can we ever really know the complete state of a system, enough to really predict the outcome, especially a system, such as the brain, made up of billions and billions of neurons?  Well, this actually should make you think of "Chaos Theory".  Here's a video showing how even a very simple system of two pendulums will produce what appears to be "random motion".  Notice that even a small change in the initial position of 1 degree will produce a wildly different result!  Here's a video of a real world example of the same experiment.

So, what have we learned?

  1. The brain is performing actions, creating thoughts, and reacting to both itself and the outside world in ways about which you can not have any knowledge.
  2. At the most basic level, all of nature is made of probabilities, not particles.  These probabilities can interact with each other in unpredictable ways.
  3. Chaos theory shows us that even the smallest change in initial conditions can make even simple, Newtonian, systems perform in unpredictable ways.  If this is true of even simple systems, then we are incapable of imagining the complexity of any "real world" system.  (This is, incidentally, why even today, with very powerful super-computers, we still can not predict weather very reliably.)
So, when you take all of this into account, do we really even need to discuss the topic of "Free Will" any more?  No, you don't really have "Free Will".  Everything you think or do is completely a result of the starting conditions of your brain, followed by all of the events and thoughts which came before the action.  But, does it matter?  NO!  It doesn't matter at all, because there is no way that you or anyone else could ever reliably predict any outcome, even if the entire series of events were known and all of the connections inside your brain were known.  The organ which is contemplating "Free Will" is such a complex system, based upon other incredibly complex systems, and ultimately fabricated out of probability functions, such that for all practical purposes, it may as well be "Free Will".

The "Free Will" discussion is ultimately seen as a senseless discussion by those who understand more of the ways in which the world actually works.  To even have such a discussion, is to admit that you have no idea of the complexity of the world.  Now we understand more about Quantum Physics and Chaos Theory, we can clearly see that the "Free Will" discussion is entire moot.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Definition of Agnostic, Atheist, etc.

A friend of mine recently stated what I'm sure many others have also heard, "I'm not a Theist or Atheist.  I'm Agnostic."  Many people seem to equate "Agnostic" with "Undecided" and they think this is a safe place to be, because it puts them beyond the entire discussion.  Well, it's simply not true.  Let's investigate these terms.

Looking at my Dictionary program, I see:

gnostic |ˈnästik|
adjective
of or relating to knowledge, esp. esoteric mystical knowledge.
• ( Gnostic )of or relating to Gnosticism.
noun( Gnostic )
an adherent of Gnosticism.
ORIGIN late 16th cent. (as a noun): via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek gnōstikos, from gnōstos ‘known’ (related to gignōskein ‘know’).

So, a "Gnostic" is someone who has knowledge, especially of the mystical type.  The word comes from the Greek word "to know".  Relating to a "God" claim, a "Gnostic" is someone who thinks they know; i.e., someone thinks such knowledge is possible.


Ok, so what's "Agnostic"?

agnostic |agˈnästik|
noun
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.
adjective
of or relating to agnostics or agnosticism.
• (in a nonreligious context) having a doubtful or noncommittal attitude toward something: until now I've been fairly agnostic about electoral reform.
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from a-1‘not’ + gnostic.

An "Agnostic" is the opposite of a "Gnostic".  With respect to the "God" claim, an Agnostic" is someone who thinks that "nothing is known or can be known"; i.e., they do not believe that anyone can know either way.  So, it now becomes somewhat clear why a person may equate "Agnostic" with "Undecided".  An "Agnostic" would say, "I do not think it's possible to know whether or not a God exists," thus they are remaining undecided on the matter.

But to say, "I do not think it's possible to know," is not the same thing as saying, "I'm remaining undecided."  It's actually possible to make up your own, personal, mind on the topic, to the best of your knowledge, even in the face of no evidence one way or the other, and I maintain that just about everyone has already done so many times.  For example, how many modern adults remain completely undecided with respect to the existence of Faires?  Most sane people have decided that Fairies do not exist, but they do not have any firm proof this is in the case.  It could be the case that all Fairies simply have a method of making themselves invisible to all humans such that you can't detect them.  Regardless of this possibility, most sane people have made a decision on the matter, even though they would have to admit that they are really "Agnostic" on the existence of Fairies; this is, they would have to admit that they really really believe "nothing is known or can be known" on the topic.

Scientists and people well versed in Logic would tell us that "one can never prove a negative."  There really could be an ancient Chinese teapot in order around Saturn.  You can not prove that there isn't.  You also probably can't prove that there is.  Thus, all people must be "Agnostic" about an negative proposition.  All we can ever say about, "X does not exist," is, "The statement can not be proven or disproven, thus we are Agnostic on the topic."

"Fine, but I'll never be an 'Atheist'!  Saying that God doesn't exist is simply too strong of a statement and, besides, you can't prove that anything doesn't exist."  Very true, but what, exactly, does an "Atheist" think?  Does an "Atheist" believe God does not exist?"  That is, obviously, not a very rational position, as has been shown above.

Let's investigate this term, "Atheist."  What does the dictionary say?

atheist |ˈāTHēˌist|
noun
a person who does not believe in the existence of God or gods: he is a committed atheist.

So, an "Atheist" is not a person who believes God does not exist.  The definition doesn't say that.  The definition simply says that an "Atheist" lacks a belief in God.  In other words, an "Atheist" somehow lacks this "belief in God" which others seem to have.  The "Athest" isn't saying that "God does not exist," they are simply saying that regardless of the question of existence or nonexistence, they lack a belief in that God.  By comparison, a "Theist" does have a belief in God.

So, we can now create a matrix of all possibilities:

Gnostic Agnostic
Theist Gnostic Theist Agnostic Theist
Atheist Gnostic Atheist Agnostic Atheist

I would maintain that most so-called, "Theists," are actually "Agnostic Theists."  That is, they would gladly and readily admit that they can not prove the existence of God.  After all, most Christians would maintain that if God could be proven, then there would be no need for faith.  That is an "agnostic" position.  However, while readily admitting that God can not be proven, they also have a belief in God, which is what makes them a "Theist".

I would further maintain that most so-called, "Atheists," are actually "Agnostic Atheists."  After all, recognizing that the existence or non-existence of God can not be shown is central to the definition of what most people mean when they say, "God."  For most people, God, if he/she exists, is outside of this universe (how can God create something of which he/she is already a part?), and as such can not be  demonstrated using knowledge which is part of this universe.  Being "Agnostic Atheist," is really the only possible, rational, version of "Athiest," since it recognizes that non-existence can never be proven.

For the most part, we're all "Agnostic."  Saying you're "Agnostic" doesn't really say anything more than, "I don't think anyone can really know for sure," but most rational people would admit this is true from the outset.  The question, which still remains unanswered, is whether or not you, personally, have a believe in God, even though he/she can't be proven.  You can't use the term, "Agnostic," to side-step the real question.  Either you have a belief in God ("Theist"), or you don't have such a belief ("Atheist").

If you "don't really go along with all of that God stuff," then you're "Atheist" and you'll have to admit it and become comfortable with it.  "Atheists" can be good people, especially if they're "Secular Humanists!"

Saturday, September 8, 2012

More on Atheism+ and Secular Humanism


Having just read Greta's post about Atheism+, I have some responses and comments on the issue.  Yes, my previous post basically stated that I didn't see any difference between Atheism+ and Secular Humanism, but now that I've read Greta's clear statement of her view of the differences, I think I'm seeing things a little differently.

Let me first address definitions.  Right up front, she says:
Several people who are more familiar with humanism than I am have informed me that Christian Humanism is not, in fact, humanism, and that a basic principle of humanism is non-theism. I stand corrected.
Well, I think she's listening to several uninformed people.  Let me try to set things straight.  "Humanism" simply means a focus on what is best for humans, here and now.  Anyone can be "Humanist" and still have some other-worldly "religious" views as well.  Thus, there are "Christian Humanists".  There are definitely "Jewish Humanists" (but that gets into the whole issue of how Jews view God a little differently from everyone else - a fascinating topic, but not one for now).  Any religion can have a "focus on humans" aspect and thus have a "Humanism" version.  "Secular Humanism" is a focus on humans in a totally secular (i.e., non-religious) fashion, thus it's the one which Atheism+ is most like.  It's true that the term, "Humanist," has come to mean the same as "Secular Humanism," so anyone who says they are "Humanist" is usually also declaring a non-belief in God.  It's true, also, that some religious forms of "Humanism" seem rather strange.  "Christian Humanism" seems odd because Christianity is all about a focus on Christ, God, and the after-life, so how can it also be focused on humans here and now?  Just doesn't make a lot of sense without modifying the idea of Christianity, at least a little.  So, going forward I think we can assume that when we say "Humanist," we mean "Secular Humanism," and thus are declaring a world view without God.  For convenience, I think we can also agree that "Humanism" refers to the same thing, at least in this post.

Next, Greta states the primary differences between "Humanism" and "Atheism+".

"Humanism, on the other hand, is generally perceived as more diplomatic. More easy-going."
"The word “atheism” is clear. ...  The word “humanism” isn’t nearly as well-understood. Lots of people don’t even know what it means."
"And then there’s the matter of public perception, and public understanding."

And this is actually one of my major points.  "Humanism" isn't clear.  That's true and it's a very convenient truth.  Because "Humanism" isn't clear to people, and "Secular Humanism" as well, it means that people can't bring any preconceived notions to the discussion.  The time you say, "Atheism+", many (most?) people can immediately think they have a good idea what that is (Some type of super-Atheism which tries to convert people?  Atheism along with other evil ideas which I really don't want to know about?  Atheism on steroids!)  At this point, they don't feel the need to investigate or question.  They think they know, thus they do know, in their mind.

"Secular Humanism," on the other hand pushes people off center.  They're confronted with something they absolutely don't understand.  They can't possibly have preconceived notions, because they have to admit to themself that they really have no idea!  Just a few weeks ago, I responded to a friend's Facebook post saying, "You sound as though you may be a Secular Humanist."  Their response was, "Really?  I don't know what that is.  I'll have to investigate it."  I then followed up with pointers to the American Humanist Association web site, which led to my pointing her toward the Humanist Manifesto, something with which a lot people agree without even knowing it.  (I say I'm "Atheist" when I'm being visited by Jehovah's Witnesses, at which point they immediately say, "Ok, have a good day," and leave!  It has worked every time so far without fail.  I think they've been taught to just leave if they encounter "Atheists" because there's no hope for such people!)

I'll mention here that Greta's next comment re. Humanist organizations was totally "on the money":
"Many humanist groups are overwhelmingly made up of older, middle-class, college educated white men"
This is so totally true of the local Humanist organization here in Santa Barbara, that they do not seem interested in reaching out to younger people at all!  I'm forced to choose between an organization run by people who could be my parents (and who didn't even know who Mr Deity was, even though they had invited him to talk!), or an organization at my local college which is quite active, "in your face," and fun, however I could be their parent!  "Secular Humanism" seems to be the Atheism of older people and "Atheism+" is the "Secular Humanism" of the younger generation.

So, I think the biggest difference between "Atheism+" and "Secular Humanism" is really mostly a matter of focus.  In the same way that a scene can appear quite different depending upon the source of the light and the position of the camera, "Secular Humanism" and "Atheism+" are different views of the same scene, each bring into focus different aspects while glossing over, or leaving in shadows, other aspects.  Each has their advantages and disadvantages.  "Atheism+" is good for being "in your face," current news, active in the world, and generally trying to make things happen.  "Secular Humanism" is good for being a more gentle approach with which many people already agree, however they just don't know it.  Each has their place.  When talking to a more progressive, younger, person, who may feel as though they're searching for a way to "make their mark on the world," the term "Atheism+" is definitely the way to go.  When talking to a more conservative, older person, who is somewhat secure in their social situation but feels as though religion really isn't helping them, "Secular Humanism" would be more appropriate.

I'll take them both and I'll use them each in their appropriate place.  There isn't any one way toward freedom from religion.  Each person has to come to an understanding in their own way and in their own time.  The best we, as Atheists, can do is to make sure we're there to help when they're ready for some answers.  "Atheism+" is definitely a good movement and I'm totally behind it.  Just recognize that "Atheism+" and "Secular Humanism" are two different views of the same larger scene of learning to live life, in the world, with others, and realizing that ultimately all of the rules must come from us, not God.