The Allure of Novel Ideas

I’m currently reading the book Snapping, which was recommended to me by Max Kolbe of the Escaping Atheism Project when I had put our a request for recommendations on books about cults. It’s interesting, so far, though I’ve yet to get to the really good part (I’ve only just gotten to chapter 5), but I encountered an interesting point I’d like to discuss in more detail than it appears here:

The first steps in that direction were taken by the poets and writers of the Beat Generation, who set off to mine the rich spiritual lodes of the East.

Those rich spiritual lodes weren’t really all that rich, as people eventually discovered. Protestantism is often pretty dry, though even it isn’t monolithic, but Catholicism has a rich mystical tradition which would not have been overly hard to tap into for the writers of the Beat Generation. And I submit that one of the major reasons why they didn’t is that they knew where Catholic mysticism ended up. It ended up in Catholicism.

The whole reason why Buddhism and Hinduism and various other eastern practices seemed to be so rich with potential is that no one in the west knew where those practices end up. But of course they end up in Buddhism or Hinduism; if the Indians are not all in constant bliss, which they obviously aren’t, there’s no particular reason to believe that borrowing their practices would lead to constant bliss.

This is a surprisingly common mistake—it didn’t work for him, maybe it will work for me! Usually, I think, the result of a salesman’s winning smile coupled with a hefty does of desperation.

Online Cults

This is just some preliminary thoughts about online cults—by which I mean purely online versions of cults like those of Jim Jones, Manson, or Moonie cults. (This is related to my post In What Ways is Atheism a Cult?) What actually defines a cult is a very thorny topic; in many cases the easiest way to define a dangerous cult (as opposed to a good religion) is simply by being wrong. Which isn’t very helpful; so I was sketching out a list of possible attributes common to most dangerous cults:

1. The meaning of life is found by being a cult member, exclusively
2. Thinking is discouraged
3. Dry runs with suicide pills
4. Traditional morals, especially sexual ones, are relaxed, not in service of a stricter law, but in service of the cult itself
4.a. Traditional morals are relaxed just for fun
5. Cult members have a powerful self-assurance vastly in excess of anything they can support
6. Heavy [drug use / sleep deprivation / fasting / etc] to reduce a member’s sense of reality
7. The leader is more than just a man (often divine in the sense of having special knowledge of divine things such that he’s more important than other men)

To some degree this list (which I emphasize is still just a sketch) is avoiding those aspects of cults which require physical proximity, such as:

A. Everything living together on a communal property / the leader’s property
B. The leader gets to have sex with most/all of the female cult members
C. Rigorous enforcement through physical abuse
D. Everyone gets a suicide pill

I’m actually having trouble thinking of many items to go on the second list, though that could just be exhaustion from little children waking me up in the middle of the night several nights running. But it does suggest that the most recognizable events related to cults may not be that integral.

And in fact there is a curious relationship possible to the virality of viruses (i.e. how destructive they are): it could be that the more of the proximity-requiring traits that a cult has, the shorter-lived it is since it tends to burn through members. Many of the proximity-requiring rates above are self-destructive rather than self-reinforcing.

Anyway, this is just some very preliminary thinking-out-loud on the subject, all of it subject to change without notice. 🙂

The Problem with Talking to Dimwits

Out of pity for some atheists who regularly show up in the comments to my videos, I’m working on a response video about the rest of Logicked’s video about my conversation with Rob from Deflating Atheism. If you’re not familiar, in that conversation, this exchange happened:

Me: “There are a lot of interesting things to say about atheism precisely because at the end of the day one values atheists. They’re human beings. They’re worthwhile. And therefore their lives actually matter.”

Rob: “Which is very easy to lose sight of when you’re in a position like I am and you’re constantly debating them and you see them almost as cockroaches that need to be stamped out. [I laughed.] Quite honestly, no, I mean, I feel like I’m a bad Christian because I feel no agape love for these people. I consider them pests. Quite honestly.”

Which Logicked took to be about genocide. Literally. Here’s a tweet he posted:

Hey nice job chuckling at the genocidal sentiment. Genocide is funny lol atheists are subhuman filth who must be destroyed 😃

And I eventually made this reply in which I explained in excruciating detail how Rob wasn’t joking about genocide:

So as I said, I’m taking pity on some atheists in my comments section and making a video about the rest of his video, which frankly was only marginally better and that only if you are counting the stupidity to be slightly hidden.

And here’s the problem I’m facing: it is really hard to explain something to a dimwit. If a man is merely unintelligent it’s not so bad if he respects you because he will tell you when he doesn’t understand and ask for clarification. But if that’s not the case he will assume everyplace he doesn’t understand you is your fault and it’s because you’re stupid. That would be the end of the problem if I was trying to address Logicked, but I’m not. Among other things, he has a financial interest in not understanding me (he makes $2200/video on patreon).

But if somebody thinks that Logicked’s rather stupid response wasn’t stupid, it means that they were taken in by his self-serving oversimplifications. And the problem when trying to help such a person out (assuming that they really are asking in good faith what I make of his response) is that his simple narratives will be massively tempting in the face of a more complex explanation I can give.

Worse, explaining how what Logicked said is irrelevant is not directly addressing it, i.e. it isn’t directly showing how it’s wrong, and so it will always feel like not addressing Logicked. But except for factual errors, it is impossible to directly address an argument. This comes from the fact that a fallacy doesn’t not guarantee that an argument is wrong. Consider the following argument, which is overly simplistic merely for the sake of making the illustration simple:

p → p
p
∴ p

Is that modus ponens or the fallacy of affirming the consequent? It’s both. But the conclusion follows from the premises, so it is a valid argument. That is the only requirement of a valid argument; the only requirement to be an invalid argument is that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. But the only way to show that is not to show that there exists a way in which the conclusion doesn’t follow (necessarily) from the premises, one must show that there is no way in which the conclusion follows (necessarily) from the premises. And the only practical way of doing that is to show how the premises can be true and the conclusion false. Which means ignoring the argument and showing the conclusion. Which means ignoring the argument.

In other words, a good counter-argument necessarily has a rhetorical weakness. When an audience is intelligent enough to remember both the original argument and the counter-argument and to relate the one to the other, this will not be a great weakness. Where the audience can’t hold these things in their head at the same time, they will always be left with the feeling that the original argument wasn’t addressed, and so may be valid after all.

In What Ways is Atheism a Cult?

My friend Max Kolbe has often described atheists, and especially prominent atheists on Twitter and YouTube, as cultists. I had always taken this as a metaphor, that is, as rhetoric. That is, that they had many of the qualities of member of a cult, such as an absurd degree of credulity, an astonishingly twisted and poor understanding of the outside world, and so on.

My problem was that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t realized which member of the cult he was saying that they are. For some reason I took him to be (rhetorically) saying that there was one giant cult and all of the atheists he was talking about were sycophantic followers in it. Obviously that wasn’t literally the case; they didn’t live on a giant compound and there was no leader for them all to have pledged allegiance to. And this sort of cult is always a cult of personality which requires a leader.

Then it finally hit me: he didn’t mean that these people were followers in one giant cult. He meant that they were each the leader of their own small cult. And that is way closer to literally true. It is, of course, possible to identify elements of a cult of personality in any popular figure because popular figures will have fans. Fans and sycophantic cult members do have some traits in common, and though I think that there are qualitative differences, it’s tempting to take the difference as being simply one of degree. But this is not what I mean here. First, the internet atheist’s relationship to his fans is one of revealing truth. Well, not exactly, since all the secrets of the universe he has to offer are that he doesn’t know any secrets of the universe, but this doesn’t seem to really bother the people involved. They still feel like somehow they have special knowledge.

They act like it, too. In a fair amount of talking that I’ve done with internet atheists, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that technically they are claiming to be ignorant. They invoke the words “atheism is a lack of belief” and “I haven’t seen any evidence” but then proceed in everything they say as if they said, “I know the truth: there is no God.” They like to talk about outsiders as deluded—which they are only in a position to say if they know the outsiders are wrong.

As we are moving from the era of YouTube ads to the era of patreon, we’re seeing more direct support of the leader from his followers, so I expect the cult-like aspects to intensify, but even in the ad-driven era, people will lead cults for affirmation even where they can’t get money out of it. And affirmation one clearly saw a lot of. And of course cults need to get to a certain level of success before the group sex with the leader begins; many would-be cults probably fizzle out before then. That they are not ultimately successful does not change the nature of the group dynamic. (Though of course that fact can be exploited to smear things which are in fact not cults.)

I’m also reminded of the gnostic heresy, in the second century. The gnostics were not a unified, hierarchical group, but rather a sort of network of cults where membership could be somewhat fluid. Cult members would be disciples of one or another gnostic leader, but the fringe members might learn from multiple teachers, though of course only the public knowledge, not the private knowledge taught to the trusted insiders. That structure seems very parallel to modern popular internet atheists, who work together to some degree and generally profess the same core principles. And you see similar dynamics where the existence of such an alliance is useful; it’s much easier to gain groupies from someone else’s group than from the general population, and the total population confers status by association on even the less popular members, but at the same time there will be vying for status and infighting, all of which we’ve certainly seen among internet atheists.

Why Science Fiction Will Never Die

Pictures like this are why science fiction will never die:

1024px-Messier51_sRGB

That’s Galaxy NGC 5194 in the visible light spectrum, with a smaller galaxy nearby. It’s pretty, but more to the point it’s full of possibilities. Every little white dot that seems to be a spec of dust is in fact a star, and we can’t help but imagine that many of them have planets in orbit around them. This is just too endless an amount of possibilities not to want to daydream about them.

That said, it also gives something of an indication of why galactic empires are kind of silly. NGC 5194 is approximately 60,000 light years across (our own Milky Way is estimated between 100,000 and 180,000 light years across). Galaxies are simply more immense than our imaginations are capable of comprehending. Even if one grants faster-than-light travel, a drive capable of moving a ship 10,000 times faster than the speed of light would require 6 years to cross NGC 5194. To put this in perspective, Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the Earth, is about 4.3 light years away. A ship traveling at 10,000 times the speed of light would get there in a little under four hours. Also to put this in perspective, according to Memory Alpha, that’s faster than the Enterprise at Warp 9. I should note, though, that Star Trek was never consistent about this and the chart is practically a joke since Voyager had an episode where Warp 7 was at least 4 million times faster than the speed of light.

To cross one tenth of NGC 5194, at 10,000 times the speed of light, would take seven months. That’s significantly longer than crossing the Atlantic Ocean by sailboat. Except instead of having a small colony with access to vast resources, one would get to an entire planet with an entire planet’s resources at its disposal. So if an empire located in the center of one tenth of NGC 5194 wanted to subdue a planet on the edge of its territory of roughly equal technological prowess, it would have to commit thousands of ships to a three and a half month journey to have any hope of mounting a militarily significant force when it arrives at the planet. If some other planet, especially on the far side of empire’s territory were to cause trouble, those thousands of ships couldn’t possibly help. This was the basic problem which the Roman Empire faced, and a big part of why it crumbled. Granted, there was degeneracy from rich living, but the empire was simply not tenable. Rome was big, but it needed far too many troops to possibly police the entire area. A galactic empire would face a very similar problem.

And there’s the further problem with a galactic empire that one must ask why it’s bothering with all this conquest. The Roman Empire conquered in order to steal, especially resources which were not easily available near Rome, and to enslave the conquered. But people who can construct tends of thousands of faster-than-light battle cruisers can presumably build themselves washing machines, and they already have access to all the resources that are going to be found within a solar system anyway. It would be possible for them to conquer just on the principle of the thing, but that’s approximately the only reason they might want to conquer anyone else. At which point administration would become a huge headache. It takes an awful lot of soldiers to pacify a few billion people. Probably the best bet would be some sort of insectoid species which produces millions of children per generation; they could at least populate a world fast enough to not need to send a tenth the population of their native planet in order to occupy someone else’s.

Anyway, all of these are solvable problems if one needs an evil galactic empire for a story, but I think it suggests that keeping things smaller is more manageable; one of the great things about vast distances is it gives people a chance to actually be different from each other. And surely this is one of the great things about science fiction, especially in the modern world where every corner of the globe has a McDonalds on it—we can tell stories about people who are genuinely different from ourselves.

Patrick Tomlinson Tries to Lie About Abortion

Yes, everyone’s talking about this stupid thread from Patrick Tomlinson:

Most people are talking about how it’s a terrible argument, but in some sense this misses the point. This is the argument, if we set it out in syllogistic form:

 1. A hypothetical situation in which you can only save 1 5 year old or 1000 viable human embryos
2. a human child is worth more than a thousand embryos
∴ no one believes that life begins at conception

None of it has any logical connection to any other part of it, so analyzing it as an argument is, while possibly helpful to people who’ve never studied logic and therefore mistake this for some kind of argument, beside the point. This isn’t an argument, it’s pure rhetoric. So let’s look at it as rhetoric.

The first thing to pay attention to in rhetoric is: to whom is this directed. You might be tempted to say that it’s directed at pro-life people, but that’s only hypothetical. If you pay attention, he’s actually addressing pro-abortion people. You can see that clearly in this later tweet in the thread:

He hasn’t changed who he’s talking to, and is unequivocally talking to fellow pro-abortion people. Rhetoric has two main uses (simplifying, obviously):

  1. To demoralize your opponent
  2. To encourage those on your side

And you can tell which object a piece of rhetoric has by the audience to whom it’s address. In this case, he’s trying to bolster the morale of his own side. Why, particularly? Because they are being swayed by the obvious fact that abortion is murder, so he is attempting to counter-act the obvious feeling that their position is unnatural.

His strategy is to then create a narrative in which the pro-abortion people are acting naturally and the anti-abortion people are acting unnaturally. Hence the wildly implausible story he creates which does exactly that, at least if you don’t look too closely. It’s not actually a great story for this purpose and hence this tweet:

He’s got to explicitly tell you that there’s a right answer, because it’s not obviously true. This is a classical rhetorical trick, by the way—state the non-obvious as if it’s just saying the obvious because someone has to.

You can see this in just how much he stacks the deck on his side: In one corner of the room he’s got a crying child. In the other corner of the room you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 viable Human Embryos”. The guy is a sci-fi author and has a decent enough sense of pacing and word-craft to gloss over how absurd this is. Who, looking for a 5 year old child, would take the time to read things inside of the frost-free glass-fronted freezer the fertility clinic presumably bought second-hand when a local grocery store went out of business? No one would, but this implausibility is relevant to the feeling produced. Whatever is inside of this grocery store freezer in a room with a crying child does not register to us as important.

And there are further issues he glosses over to get the desired effect. He never specifies that the box actually has so much as a single embryo inside of it.  The very fact that it’s a box inside of a grocery store freezer with a cartoon-sized label on it suggests that the box is incorrectly labeled. We have no knowledge that it in fact remained frozen and the embryos are still viable. By contrast, we know instantly that a 5 year old child is in fact a living 5 year old child.

There’s the even further problem that in our current legal environment, those human lives will almost guaranteedly die regardless of what the hypothetical rescuer does, even apart from the difficulty of getting them to another freezer quickly enough. The child still has legal protections apart from what men like Mr. Tomlinson would likely do if they had the power to change the law to permit infanticide up until the age of legal adulthood.

This is how extremely far he has to stack the deck in order to try to get his desired result. Consider how easily one could present the same scenario—as far as principles go—to produce the opposite effect. Here’s one example:

You’re in a fertility clinic and hear screaming behind a door. You burst it open and see in one corner an ugly man wearing a t-shirt that says “registered sex offender”. He’s screaming racist obscenities about how much he hates black people and that it should be a black Jew being burned to death in this fertility clinic, not someone as important as him. In the other corner there’s a man with a t-shirt that says “all men are brothers” crouching next to a small portable freezer and he shouts, “This freezer contains the frozen embryo of my only child. My leg is broken and I’m pinned beneath this fallen girder and I can’t save her. Please take it to safety so my wife can carry it to term as we planned and my child can live and know that her daddy loves her!”

OK, in this scenario there are 999 fewer human embryos being weighed against the one, but the point stands. It evokes a far different emotional response than the original, though obviously the principles being compared—in so far as there are any—are identical. And this is why Mr. Tomlinson insists on his scenario being exactly the way it is:

An argument can be put in any words that accurately represent the ideas involved, but a magic spell must be said with every syllable pronounced correctly in order to have any effect.

But again, don’t forget that the object of Mr. Tomlinson’s rhetoric is only ostensibly to convince anti-abortion people to become pro-abortion. It’s really directed at pro-abortion people to make them feel like their position is not as anti-natural as it in fact is. That’s why he spends two and a half tweets layout out his hypothetical and five and a half tweets talking about how powerful this hypothetical is to utterly smash the anti-abortion position. The actual hypothetical is of only very minor importance; what really matters to his rhetoric is that he has an invincible weapon which has stood the test of time (ten years!) and slain many opponents.

I will note in passing that Mr. Tomlinson’s tirade may have a slight demoralizing effect on anti-abortion people who read it, but if it does this is not because of any sort of assailing of their position, but rather that hearing the enemy rally himself and raise his moral is in itself demoralizing. Hence the prevalence in the ancient world (where sound had a longer range than weapons) of war chants, hakas, and the like, and in the modern world of psy-ops like radio broadcasts and air-dropping pamphlets. This isn’t an argument, it is men dancing to show their enemy that they’re fierce and united. But this is just one guy, if granted retweeted many times, and it does raise the question of whether “the lady doth protest too much”. He may be doing this merely to gain fame or do due his part, but he may well also see how the intellectual poverty of his side oppressing the spirit of his fellows and seek to raise them because they need raising. Coaches often give pep talks about how the obviously losing team can still win the game before they go on to lose in the second half of the match.

On a related note, Mr. Tomlinson is a science fiction author. Given that he has demonstrated that he is willing to use his talents as a wordsmith to lie for the cause of evil, it would be very imprudent to read anything else he’s written. To read any of his fiction is to gamble that his willingness to abuse his talents in the service of evil didn’t come up by some strange turn of events. This seems at best a very poor gamble. In short, to read a man’s fiction is to trust him, and it is a very poor policy to trust a manifest liar.

The God of the Gaps?

I’ve seen all sorts of numerous accusations about how I’m trying to prove “the God of the Gaps“.  (For those who don’t know the God of the Gaps is roughly the idea that you can identify God in those parts of nature which don’t work, i.e. in the gaps in our scientific knowledge.) I find this accusation hurled at me especially often if I’m discussing anything involving wonder at the natural world.  It’s often followed by assurances that atheists have a sense of wonder, though one is forced to wonder what it might consist of in the face of the unshakable conviction that we understand everything.

Anyway, I’ve been wondering where on earth the idea of the God of the Gaps came from, anyway. It feels like the sort of thing you might get from a Christian fundamentalist, though even they usually aren’t this obtuse. Oddly, Wikipedia isn’t much help. In the Origins of the Term section of the article on it, it says:

The concept, although not the exact wording, goes back to Henry Drummond, a 19th-century evangelist lecturer, from his Lowell Lectures on The Ascent of Man. He chastises those Christians who point to the things that science can not yet explain—”gaps which they will fill up with God”—and urges them to embrace all nature as God’s, as the work of “an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.”[2][3]

In 1933, Ernest Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham, used the phrase in a discussion of general relativity’s implication of a Big Bang:

Must we then postulate Divine intervention? Are we to bring in God to create the first current of Laplace’s nebula or to let off the cosmic firework of Lemaître’s imagination? I confess an unwillingness to bring God in this way upon the scene. The circumstances with thus seem to demand his presence are too remote and too obscure to afford me any true satisfaction. Men have thought to find God at the special creation of their own species, or active when mind or life first appeared on earth. They have made him God of the gaps in human knowledge. To me the God of the trigger is as little satisfying as the God of the gaps. It is because throughout the physical Universe I find thought and plan and power that behind it I see God as the creator.[4]

During World War II the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the concept in similar terms in letters he wrote while in a Nazi prison.[5] Bonhoeffer wrote, for example:

how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

All of its citations are Christians who are saying that this is a stupid idea (there are more, I’ve cut for brevity). And of course it is; the God of the Gaps basically postulates that God is incompetent and didn’t make a creation which actually works and has to be constantly patched up. I’m really wondering why on earth atheists are so obsessed with it, since it’s something serious Christians criticize heartily.

There are a few explanations which spring to mind or were suggested by friends:

  1. The atheists believe in a God of the Gaps, only they call it Science. (i.e. the mis-understanding of science commonly called scientism).
  2. They really want Christians to propose an idea they can beat up by some method other than denying  that human reason can reach truth.
  3. The sort of people who tend to become either atheists or fundamentalist Christians use this argument if they become fundamentalist Christians. As a result, non-fundamentalists never see it but atheists do since they’re almost the only people who regularly interact with fundies.

I’d be curious in hearing other explanations, if anyone has any to offer.

Freedom Or Not

An interesting discussion of the limits of and problems attendant to, freedom.

Amatopia

Hands breaking ropes

I wonder about how humanity goes about policing itself. Not only because I’m a lawyer and incentives, motivations, and systems in general fascinate me, but because human beings themselves are a never-ending source of wonder and amusement.

There’s one school of thought that says “Legalize all the things; people are going to do them anyway. Let them be adults!” The countervailing force is more restrictive that says “Ban all the things; people can’t be trusted!” Me, I’m generally against, banning things, but I do have a strong belief that people need limits.

“Prohibition of anything will lead to unintended consequences, and likely worse problems!”

Perhaps. This was the case with alcohol–prohibition was a failure that helped give power to organized crime. But it’s folly and flat-out wrong to think that organized crime wasn’t there, wasn’t dangerous, and wasn’t strong before America’s experiment in banning alcohol. (Have you read Gangs…

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