A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic

I got an email from a young man named Ken who asked me about an analogy Matt Dillahunty presents about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. I originally did an unscripted answer but a lot of people missed the point so I did a scripted video which should be a lot clearer. You can of course watch it in YouTube:

A British Lieutenant Playing A Star Wars RPG

If you haven’t seen this video where Owen Stephens tells the story of the time he was running a Star Wars RPG playtest and an (probably World War II) British Lieutenant showed up to the table, it’s well worth the six minutes:

I really love that they blast through the material because the Lieutenant, being an officer, does what an officer does: he leads them. He lays out plans which make sense and in which the boys at the table can see their parts and so they do what people do in the presence of a competent leader: they follow. And together, they did what people cooperating do: a lot more than they can do on their own.

I think my favorite part is when he explains to the boys at the table what a commando raid is.

There’s a lot that could be said about how young men need older men and it is one of the great follies of our civilization that we separate the two groups so completely, but I think it’s sufficiently obvious in this video that it actually does go without saying.

A Easy Way To Filter Out Bad Faith Atheists

On the internet it’s very useful to quickly tell whether someone is asking questions about Christianity in good faith or just trying to waste your time. There are lots of ways, I’m going to show one easy one.

It’s this: Point out that the existence of gravity cannot be empirically verified, it can only be shown through its effects. Then see what they do.

Now, this is unarguably true. Something which can be empirically verified is something which can be directly observed by the senses (possibly with the aid of an instrument, such as a magnifying glass or stethoscope). Gravity:

  1. Has no color and cannot be seen*.
  2. Has no taste.
  3. Has no smell.
  4. Does not feel like anything. (if you push on it, there’s no resistance. Your arm might feel heavy, but the gravity itself doesn’t feel like anything.)
  5. Has no sound.

It is easy to discover that there is gravity, though the difficulty depends on exactly what you mean by gravity (gravity as described by general relativity is hard to discover), but it must be done by observing the effect of gravity upon things. After observing this effect one can then infer the existence of gravity, but the gravity itself cannot be observed.

Gravity is, in this regard, like observing wind purely by sight. You cannot see the wind, you can only see the effect of the wind.

This is not a controversial point, and it’s not a difficult point. If you can empirically observe something you can say what color it is, how loud it is, what it tastes like, what it smells like, or what it feels like. You can do none of these things with gravity. This is what makes it a useful test.

If an atheist acknowledges this point (and proceeds in a manner consistent with acknowledging this point), he’s probably sincere and not merely trying to waste your time. If he twists himself up into self-contradictory knots trying to fight this point, he’s just trying to waste your time.

The only reason anyone ever has for denying something which is obviously true is because their primary goal is not the truth.


*This is not quite 100% true as one can argue that gravitational lensing is actually directly observing gravity. The only problem with this is that no one has actually seen gravitational lensing. It has been observed in radio frequencies by radio telescopes, but humans do not see in radio frequencies. Once you have an instrument which translates what we cannot see (etc) to something that we can, you have to make arguments for why the translation is correct, and those arguments cannot be empirically verified. Thus anything which rests upon observations through translating equipment is not empirically verified by rests upon indirect observation and argument.

The Marbles of Matt Dillahunty

I got a request to look at an analogy originally presented by Matt Dillahunty, so I explain why it’s a bad analogy. (Oddly, some atheists don’t seem to understand that to call something trivial is to say that it’s true. They seem stuck on the idea I’ve missed the point that reserving judgment is not identical with affirming a negative; which is true but only important in cases where one doesn’t have to act on the truth or falsity of the proposition, which has nothing whatever to do with whether God exists.) There’s a correction or two I should note, such as the original example was gumballs instead of marbles, and in some examples he specifies whole gumballs.

(I’m coming out with a scripted version of this video which will be much tighter, by the way.)

You can of course watch it on YouTube, too:

Deflatheism on Good People Doing Bad Things

Over at Deflating Atheism, Rob examines the quote, “For good people to do evil, that requires religion.”

I love that he tackles it by just taking it at face value. I don’t come across this quote much—it’s the sign of a complete idiot if you see someone think there’s anything to it, and I tend to avoid complete idiots—but the few times I have I just look at how ridiculous the idea is that people are naturally good. As if theft, murder, rape, adultery, lying, and so forth never occurred to anyone on their own but only came from directives they were taught!

So I found it especially fun that he demolished it from the opposite end.

Models vs. Reality

A little-known change in the attempt to learn about nature happened, in a sense, several hundred years ago. People replaced Natural Philosophy with mathematical Science, in which the attempt to know what nature is was replaced with mathematical models of nature which can predict measurable aspects of nature.

The difference between these two things is that a model may, possibly, tell you about what the underlying reality is. On the other hand, it may not. Models can be accurate entirely by accident.

Trivial examples are always easier, so consider the following model of how often Richard Dawkins is eaten by an alligator, where f is the number of times he’s been eaten by an alligator and t is the time (in the sense of precise date):

f(t) = 0

This model is accurate to more than 200 decimal places. If you conclude from this model that Richard Dawkins is alligator-proof and throw him in an alligator pit to enjoy the spectacle of frustrated alligators, you will be very sadly mistaken. But it’s so accurate!

This is of course a silly example; no one would ever confuse this model or its accuracy for a full description of reality. However, there’s a very interesting story from astronomy where people did exactly that.

I’m speaking, in particular, of the long-running Ptolemaic model of the planets and its eventual overthrow of the Copernican model. The Ptolemaic model was the one where the earth was at the center of the solar system and the planets traveled in cycles and epicycles around it. The thing about this model is that it was actually extremely accurate in its predictions.

(If you’re wondering how it could be so accurate while being so wrong, the thing you have to realize is that Special Relativity actually means that it’s just fine for the earth to be taken as the center of the coordinate. The math just gets harder for some calculations; this is basically what happened. The Ptolemaic model was, basically, a close approximation of that more complicated math.)

However, there is a yet simpler example of incorrect models producing correct results: just consider, for two minutes, that for most of history everyone believed that the Sun orbited the earth and yet they still had highly accurate calendars. Despite not thinking of a year as the time the earth takes to orbit the Sun they nevertheless recorded the years and predicted the solstices with great precision.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in a full history of the shift from the Earth being the center of the solar system to the Sun being at the center, be sure to read the extraordinarily good series of articles by TOF, The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown (originally published in Analog magazine). It is very well worth your time.

Accuracy vs. Charity

A curious experience I have from time to time is when discussing some sort of sin or other moral error, when I identify the lesser good aimed at, I’m told that I’m very charitable. This confuses me somewhat because my goal is not to be charitable, but merely to be accurate.

All sin is the seeking after of some lesser good in place of a higher good. The clearest and easiest example is idolatry—this is worshiping some created good as if it were the Creator. But that means that the idolater is seeking God in a creature. It’s not particularly charitable to note this; it’s simply accurate.

To take a slightly less obvious example, when a person is wrathful—i.e. indulging in excessive anger—they are placing the rectification of some wrong above the good of the injured party and the culprit. In true justice, a wrong done is rectified and a balance restored between aggressor and victim, so that they can return to their proper relationship of friends. When one is wrathful one seeks only to redress the wrong done to the victim, but not to restore the relationship between creatures. By giving an infinite weight to the good of which the victim was deprived, the wrathful person is never satisfied at the restitution and therefore ignores the greater good (once proper restitution has been made) of restoration of the proper relationship between sinner and victim. But saying that the wrathful person goes wrong by over-valuing the victim (or the good of which the victim was deprived which constitutes the injury to the victim) is not—in any way that I can see, at least—being charitable to the wrathful person. It’s just being accurate.

I suppose it’s possible that this is taken for charity because commonly people ascribe sin to the desire to do evil, but this is not actually possible. It’s simply a point of metaphysics that the will can only move towards some good, though it can move toward a lessor good in place of a greater good. As such, whenever a person goes wrong, you know with iron certainty that they were seeking some good, however minor. This doesn’t lessen their sin since it’s inherent in their sin being sin that they are seeking some (lesser) good.

Perhaps people think I mean that the one whose sin I’m explaining must therefore have sinned by accident, or been misled through no fault of their own? That certainly does not follow; we know from the fact that sin is voluntary that one can knowingly choose a lesser good over a greater good.

Oh well. Perhaps some day I’ll understand this.

Reality vs. The Meaning You Give to Life

I suspect everyone who knows atheists has encountered people who say that atheism does not entail nihilism, because “life has the meaning you give it”. I just want to mention a small point regarding that.

My favorite definition (more a description) of “reality” is:

That which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.

It’s not a complete description, but it’s a pretty good working description, especially in our confused times. Anyway, it’s worth noting that “the meaning you give to life” goes away when you stop believing in it.

The atheist retort that atheism does not entail nihilism thus amounts to:

Life doesn’t have any meaning, but I can pretend that it does.

Which no fool ever doubted.

Pride Vs Stupidity

Over on his blog, Mr. John C. Wright asks the question:

Why is the proud man angry or peeved with the stupidity (real or imagined) of his fellows? I ask because one would think a saint would be very patient with someone who was stupid, if it were honest stupidity, and not merely laziness in thinking. Whereas the devil (or Lex Luthor) is always in a state of haughtiest annoyance, because he is brighter than those around him. Their stupidity proves his superiority – yet it irks him. Why?

To answer this question we have to first answer the question, “what is pride?” (I’m taking the distinction between pride and vanity as a given.) A generally workable description of pride is an inflated sense of the worth of the self. This is, however—when properly considered—a symptom rather than a cause.

The cause of pride is a mistake about the nature of the self. This is inescapable because the value placed on something is inherently a description of its nature. (I should probably clarify that pride is an inflation of the inherent worth of the self—it’s not a utilitarian measure of the worth of the self to someone else’s purposes, as a means to their end. That’s actually a form of vanity.)

There are two possible mistakes to make about the nature of the self which aggrandize it:

  1. That one is a higher creature than one is, but still subordinate to God
  2. That one is God

While #1 is possible, I suspect it’s not the common mode of pride since it’s too subject to correctives. A human being who thinks that he’s an angel, for example, will have a hard time not noticing that he has a physical body and is, therefore, actually a human being. If he still thinks himself subordinate to God, he will in humility accept this recognition. It is, therefore, hard to see how #1 can be a long-lived error. Even Gulliver couldn’t think himself a Houyhnhnm for long at a stretch.

This leaves #2 as the common form of pride, and it is this form of pride in which stupidity angers the proud man. It angers him because it is proof that he is not God. The proud man wills that the people around him are not stupid and yet they are. This proves his limitations and therefore disproves his opinion of his own power. The larger the difference between what he wills reality to be and what it is, the greater the proof that he is not God, and therefore the greater is his anger.

It’s the Same Old Song

There are a lot of traps which humanity falls into over and over again. The one on my mind lately goes something like this. Some atheist, proto-atheist, or other person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature says:

People have been evil because it never before occurred to them to be good. I have gotten the idea that I will be good. Come, follow me, and you will be happy in the perfect society I will construct because it has occurred to me to do a good job this time!

And some other atheist, proto-atheist, or person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature replies:

Finally, someone has explained why it is that things are not perfect. Life would be much better if things were perfect, and here is a man who is setting out to make them perfect. Since I would prefer life to be perfect, I will follow him and live in the perfect society he will build. What fools my fellow men are to stay in their imperfect world when perfection is so easily attainable!

Then the first atheist, proto-atheist, or other person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature tries to build his perfect society and things go wrong. He refuses to acknowledge this and tries to hide it. In time this is noticed. He blames his followers. They say, “He lied to us!” But they do not agree after that. Some say:

The problem was that we followed a bad man. Let us find a good man to implement the good ideas and all will turn out well.

Others say:

The problem was that we trusted a man. Let us no longer trust anyone for all ideas are bad.

The children of the first people would go on to distrust organizations because their parents were so often duped. The children of the second people would go on to trust organizations because their parents’ life was difficult, working entirely on their own.

And along came an atheist, a proto-atheist, or other person who has never studied history nor thought about human nature who said:

People have been evil because it never before occurred to them to be good. I have gotten the idea that I will be good. Come, follow me, and you will be happy in the perfect society I will construct because it has occurred to me to do a good job this time!

Atheists Want to Feel Smart?

I’ve heard the explanation that some atheists become atheists because they want to feel smart. That never made much sense to me, but I’ve recently gotten some insight into what it might mean and I present that interpretation of the idea for consideration. You can also watch this on YouTube if you prefer:

I’ve Got You, Babe

I recently came across a performance of I’ve Got You Babe done by Sonny and Cher in 1987:

This performance was approximately 12 years after their divorce (if you’re not familiar with Sonny & Cher, they were a husband-and-wife singing duo in the 1960s and 1970s). This makes many of the lyrics quite ironic.

They say we’re young and we don’t know
We won’t find out until we grow

You were young and didn’t know.

Well I don’t know if all that’s true
Cause you got me, and baby I got you.

It was true.

[HER:] They say our love won’t pay the rent
Before it’s earned, our money’s all been spent

To be fair, here, their love did pay the rent. They were a very popular singing duo. But like many things in this life, it did until it didn’t. After their divorce, they ceased to be popular.

They would each eventually recover in their own way, but their attempt to continue singing together failed. There’s an interesting subject here about popular figures selling an idea, not themselves, and when the idea turns out to be an illusion, the figures cease to be popular. It’s an interesting subject that popular people often have to deal with—that it’s not them that their fans love, but who they are when they perform. And yet, who else could their fans love?

Fame is a very curious thing, because while not bad in itself, in this fallen world it makes all sorts of very empty promises.

[HIM:] I guess that’s so, we don’t have a pot
But at least I’m sure of all the things we got

Yeah. That turned out to be mistaken certainty. There’s a great line in either C.S. Lewis or Chesterton which I cannot find again, which was itself quoting something that was, if my memory isn’t deceiving me, a line given to a fictional pagan:

In this way can man best the gods: he can keep his promises.

The Greek and Roman gods set a very low bar for behaving better than them and yet so often human beings fall below it all the same.

Anyway, back to the song:

[HIM:] I got flowers in the spring
I got you to wear my ring

That’s a start. Alas, the promise implied in wearing the ring turned out to be a false promise.

[HER:] And when I’m sad, you’re a clown
And if I get scared, you’re always around

Well, not always.

[HER:] So let them say your hair’s too long
Cause I don’t care, with you I can’t go wrong

Eventually he cut his hair and, according to her divorce filing, she went wrong with him. (Cher alleged involuntary servitude for his withholding of money they made together.)

[HIM:] Then put your little hand in mine
There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb

But long before the end, they couldn’t climb any hills together. Let alone any mountains.

[HIM:] I got you to hold my hand
[HER:] I got you to understand
[HIM:] I got you to walk with me
[HER:] I got you to talk with me
[HIM:] Igot you to kiss goodnight
[HER:] I got you to hold me tight
[HIM:] I got you, I won’t let go
[HER:] I got you to love me so

[BOTH:] I got you babe
I got you babe
I got you babe
I got you babe
I got you babe

They did. Then they didn’t.

It’s a truism of human life that promises are easy to make and hard to keep; the trick to making a lot of money as an entertainer is to sell the illusion that you’re keeping a promise when all you’re doing is making it. (That enables you to make mutually exclusive promises, increasing your revenue.)

And then figuring out a new shtick when people find out that all you were doing was making promises you weren’t going to keep.

For some reason I always connect this song with Cher’s much later song If I Could Turn Back Time.

There’s no actual connection between these two songs, of course. If I could Turn Back Time was released in 1989. Sonny and Cher had long-since moved on from each other and by this time Cher’s public persona was utterly disconnected from Sonny’s. Moreover, given her desperation for fame (fun fact: Cher was 43 at the time the music video was filmed and it was her creative decision to be semi-nude), it seems unlikely that Cher actually had regrets about not fulfilling her personal responsibilities.

And yet. And yet, the songs do go really well together as a pairing. One of those odd coincidences of life, I suppose.

When Mary Met Sue

At his inimitable blog, author John C. Wright has an interesting blog post (which is mostly a quote of one of his readers’ comments) about what makes a Mary Sue. The key insight is that the defining characteristic of a Mary Sue is not that she is super-awesome. It’s that she’s super-awesome but we’re supposed to treat her as a young, innocent ingenue:

Rey is great at everything she does. The reasoning behind that may be justified…but that is not the issue.

The issue is that Abrams clearly expects us to think of her as a sort of female Luke Skywalker. Except Luke was nothing like that! We are asked to accept that she is a natural born pilot, better mechanic than Han Solo, better natural Jedi than Luke was at the same point of his training, and a natural swordsman…but we’re ALSO supposed to think of her as a plucky orphan farmgirl.

I think that’s right. A 35 year old queen who is beautiful, intelligent, a skilled warrior and a crafty statesman wouldn’t be a Mary Sue if she’s presented as someone with a past who’s used her 35 years to good effect—if she’s someone who’s already been on the hero’s journey and come out of it having learned some lessons. The real problem comes in when she’s all of those things and only 16 years old.

The commentor which Mr. Wright is quoting calls it fundamental dishonesty, and while I think that he’s right, I’d prefer to call it a fundamental contradiction in the character. What really makes Mary a Mary Sue is when she’s got all of the benefits of experience without having any of the experience. I think that it really comes down to sympathy.

Growing up is rough so (sane) human beings have sympathy for people who are still doing it. We are willing to tolerate all sorts of mistakes in those who are young and inexperienced which we will never tolerate in the old and experienced. (This is why it’s so important to not waste one’s youth and to learn how to be competent while people will still be forgiving of your mistakes.) The upshot is that young protagonists are much easier to write—the audience will naturally be sympathetic with them. The author’s mistakes will get much of the forgiveness that the character gets since the author’s mistakes often are also the characters’ mistakes.

The other thing is that this makes character development a snap. Children don’t know anything and make (nearly) all the mistakes one can make, so giving them something to improve about is trivial. Because of the instinctual forgiveness given to children, they don’t cease to be sympathetic merely because they start out awful, either.

This creates a temptation on the part of the author to make his character younger than he should be because it’s easier to write. A competent adult is much harder to make sympathetic, especially if he has a character arc. It’s easy enough to give him a character arc if you make him start off as a bastard who deserves to be shot. (This is the reason why the Loveable Rogue™ is to popular, by the way—just be careful to say that he’s a rogue rather than show it or the sympathy goes away. Show don’t tell does not apply to flaws in characters you want the reader to like!)

What’s really hard is writing a competent adult with a character arc who starts off as a decent human being. The reason this is much harder, of course, is that the writer has to be better than minimally decent. Because one can’t give what one doesn’t have, one can’t fake wisdom. And the character arcs of decent adults are all about growing in wisdom. A child has the (easy from an adult’s perspective) task of becoming a minimally competent adult. A minimally competent adult has the task of becoming a wise old mentor. Children generally succeed; adults often fail. For that reason, nearly anyone can write a coming-of-age story. It takes a real man to write a story about someone who already came of age.

A Mary Sue is the attempt to have it both ways—to write a coming-of-age story about a competent adult.