No Anxiety

The Frank Friar released an interesting podcast today.

He mentioned the difficulty he was having saying several masses which involve a lot of standing and walking, and that he didn’t want to appear weak by limping, but reminded himself that if this is carrying his cross and following Jesus, then he would do so. He called it his vanity—and certainly he knows himself, so I wouldn’t presume to say he’s wrong—but I can’t help but wonder if there’s at least an element of not wanting to let down the people who look up to priests to see the strength of Christ, which would not be vanity but a concern for the weakness of the congregation. Something to think about for those of us in the pews, anyway—do we sometimes let ourselves confuse the man with his office?

Be that as it may, it reminded me of my own minor struggle, which I mention not because it’s important but just because it’s a trivial and therefore potentially relatable example of the same sort of thing. Last night after the children were asleep (I have three young ones) I was getting ready to record a video when my almost-two-year-old started crying. So up I trudged from my office to see what was wrong, and she wouldn’t go back to sleep so I carried her around in the dark, her head resting on my shoulder, so she’d feel secure enough to go back to sleep (she declined the offer of a bedtime snack). And as I was thinking about how frustrating it was that I was about to record and instead here I was having to put her to sleep again, it occurred to me that at least I wasn’t partway through and so didn’t have any lost work, and then it occurred to me that in fact I didn’t have lost work because clearly at the moment caring for my daughter was the work God had for me to do.

It’s very easy to let ourselves forget that when we make plans they are guesses as to the work God has given us to do; it seems to me that part of how to live without anxiety is to remind ourselves as often as we can remember that our plans are nothing more than guesses, and when we receive more certain information as to what God has given us to do, it should not be cause for regret but cause for contentment, like when a parent turns on a night light for a child.

This does mean rather a large project of changing how we think of plans during the planning stages, of course. Something I learned in partner dancing (Lindy Hop) is that the problem usually starts several steps before you actually notice it.

The Theory of Unbelievable Stupidity

I’m going to start my explanation of the theory of unbelievable stupidity with an example. In a video of mine which was called The Dishonesty of Defining Atheism as a Lack of Belief, I took issue with the approach many internet atheists say should be the standard human approach of believing nothing until one is spoon-fed enough evidence to finally be won over. Of course many people misunderstand this to mean I’m in favor of people believing whatever they’re told, when all I’m suggesting is that people should actually try to find out what’s true rather than being as passive as possible. To try to convey that, at one point in the video I said:

In fact, scientific discovery is entirely predicated on the idea that you shouldn’t discount things until you’ve ruled them out. It’s also the entire reason you should control your experiments. You can’t just assume that other variables besides the one you’re studying had no effect on the outcome of your experiment unless somebody proves it to you, you’re supposed to assume that other variables do affect the outcome until you’ve proven that they don’t. This principle is literally backwards from good science.

I recently got this rather stupid response:

You have never taken a class is science, specifically experimentation, have you? In an experiment, you DO assume nothing special is going on, and then try to disprove it.

There is the tiny kernel of an idea inside of this idiocy, which I think is a good place to start in unpacking it. The idea he’s grasping at is related to the concept of the “null hypothesis” in statistical testing. In science, one sees it often used in drug trials, but there are other places too. The basic idea is to run an experiment and see how often some effect occurs, and then to ask how explainable it is by pure chance if there is no underlying causality in the experiment. This clearly has nothing whatever to do with not controlling one’s experiments because the default assumption is that confounding variables don’t confound.

Two questions arise:

  1. Why did this guy think something this irrelevant was relevant?
  2. Why does this seem so incredibly stupid?

Rather than answer these questions directly, I’m going to introduce the Theory of Unbelievable Stupidity, instead. So, here goes: People in the modern west are raised from a very young age in a standardized school system which needs to graduate everyone regardless of ability. Because it needs to pretend that it’s teaching students things rather than just running them through a fancy day-care, the general contract drawn up between teachers and students is: “I’ll teach you how to pretend to know the material if you agree to pretend to know it on the test.”

Now, you may think that this is a tad cynical, but if you do, I challenge you to talk to high school students or college students and ask them about the things which they (in theory) learned prior to the most recent test. In general, you’ll find that they don’t know any of it. How, then, did they manage to all pass the tests? The tests in school are designed to be easily fakable with a combination of a little bit of disconnected knowledge and a fair amount of knowing how to make knowledge seem like understanding.

The problem is that while the easily forgotten knowledge fades fairly rapidly, the habit of faking understanding persists. If you look at the example above, consider the first sentence: “you have never taken a class in science, specifically experimentation, have you?” The first part of it uses more words than is necessary. It would mean the same thing to say, “You never took” as “You have never taken”, but the latter sounds like what a college professor would say. Then look at the bolded section; it clarifies what he’s talking about with the word “specifically”. Again, this has an erudite feel to it. Specificity is an academic pursuit. And again at the end there’s “have you” which matches the “have never” in the beginning. This means exactly the same thing as, “You never took a science class about experimentation, did you?”

There is a further aspect of it talking about taking a class rather than merely having an experience. Discussing classes suggests college, since after all who doesn’t take high school science classes? This lends the further suggestion that the comment comes from a college-educated person. Hence, by implication, it comes from a place of education an authority.

The second sentence is less egregious, but there is an over-use of commas which is a sign of erudition—educated people are, I think, more likely to over-use commas than to under-use them, in cases where they don’t get it correct. Further, it says, “and then try to disprove it” rather than, say, “and then prove it isn’t”.

All of these things come together to suggest a well educated man who is making a carefully considered critique. And if that were the case, he should immediately burn his degrees and repent in their ashes because this critique is so far from sensible. Just to list a few problems with it:

  1. You don’t need to take a class in science to know how to experiment. Libraries are filled with books talking about it. (For example, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman has some very trenchant observations about experimentation.) Of course, he might being running this in only one direction—had you taken such a class you’d definitely have known, etc. in which case it’s not useful even as an insult-by-comparison.
  2. There is no such thing as a class in “scientific experimentation” since the nature of experimentation varies with the subject matter. The way that you determine the charge of an electron is radically different from how you determine whether a drug is safe and effective which is again radically different from how you try to figure out what PRM1 does in the human body. Let’s not even get started on astronomy.
  3. Statistical testing using a null hypothesis is relevant only to certain types of testing like drug trials. It would have no meaning in performing an oil-drop experiment to measure the charge of an electron to “assume nothing special is going on and then try to disprove it”. Nothing is either proved or disproved in taking measurements.
  4. In one of the great natural experiments of all time, that proved General Relativity, the position of mercury was accurately predicted during an eclipse. No one assumed GR was false and then tried to disprove its falsity, they made a prediction based on it (which is, technically, assuming it to be true) and then checked to see if observations matched.
  5. Even in drug trials you don’t actually assume that the drug has no effect. They’re quite careful with dosing in drug trials, which would be quite unnecessary if they were assuming the drug was completely ineffective.
  6. Also in drug trails they don’t assume that the drug is perfectly safe and then have to prove some sort of danger; a fair amount of experimentation is necessary to prove the drug safe before clinical trials are even allowed to begin.

The list could go on, but it’s long enough for my present purpose. A man as educated as the signals suggest should have known all this. The result is that he must either be extraordinarily stupid if he knew all this but couldn’t put it together, or he must be simply dishonest, knowing it but not caring in order to make a rhetorical point.

The theory of unbelievable stupidity states that it’s much more likely that the guy doesn’t know any of this and merely sounds educated because of the schooling he received in his youth which taught him how to sound educated.

I recommend looking out for this. In my experience, it makes dealing with such people vastly less frustrating.

Most Atheists Are Religious

If one spends much time amongst online atheists, one is likely to come across the definition of atheism as:

A lack of belief in God or gods.

I like to point out that two of the gods commonly worshiped in the ancient world were the sun and the moon. The response to this I get is usually some version of saying that atheists believe in the sun and moon, just not that they have an intellect or will.

I usually don’t pursue this any further because it is obvious that the original definition is not really what’s meant, but it is actually a topic worth considering why it is that the atheists don’t worship the sun and the moon.

After all, it’s not like the ancients actually thought that the sun was literally the wheels on a chariot—all you have to do is look at the sun and you’ll notice no chariot that’s even bigger than it, nor a man significantly taller than the wheel above it. You would see those things if they were literally there. Of course much of what’s misunderstood by modern atheists is that the poets of the ancient world were not the scientists of the ancient world, but the comic book writers of the ancient world (and TV writers, etc). They weren’t trying to explain the world, they were trying to tell cool stories. This explains why they followed the rule of cool so often. I guarantee you that in Hesiod’s Theogeny when he said that the sky bedded with the earth to produce the titans, the ancient Greeks did think that this was a history of a giant air penis thrusting into the earth.

But leaving aside whether the ancients who weren’t poets actually thought that the sun was intelligent, they did certainly think that the sun was very powerful. Because it obviously was. The sun is responsible for life on the surface of the earth, and not infrequently for death on the surface of the earth. The sun is enormous and powerful and we depend on it. Why shouldn’t an atheist worship it?

And here we get to one of the really interesting things about atheists which the noisy minority often called the new atheists tends to completely miss. Most atheists do worship something. For a great many of them, it’s humanity, or society, or science, or the state; but whatever is the object of their worship, they are clearly religious about it. They are generally not organized in their religious observance, so it’s easy to miss as no rituals have yet been codified, but it only takes a few minutes of watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey to recognize that you’re watching an atheist’s televised sunday worship service. Marxists are of course notorious for worshiping the state; so much so that even new atheists accuse them of it—if, granted, in order to get around admitting the many atrocities these atheist regimes committed.

Much has been commented on how the New Atheists weren’t really all that new, but in fact they did bring one new thing to the table: they don’t understand human nature even a little bit. They actually thought that most human beings can exist without religious observance. In consequence, it never occurred to them that it might be a good idea to formalize it, so that good—or at least harmless—ideas crowd out the bad ideas. Worshiping the sun and the stars has its dangers, but they’re very small compared to worshiping the state. The New Atheist movement was doomed from its inception because it really was the absurd attempt to get rid of religion. You can’t get rid of religion. You can only pick what religion will predominate. If you take away God, men will worship gods, and if you take away even the gods, men will worship far worse things.

The Problem with Consent

It is very popular for secular people to attempt to base morality on consent. That is, anything is moral to which all relevant parties have consented, and immoral if they haven’t.

Obviously there are a bunch of caveats to both, in the form of cases where consent must be violated for the good of the person (e.g. children, the elderly, etc), and cases where the people are deemed unable to consent (e.g. children, drunks, etc). These do give the lie to the idea that morality is based upon consent since there can’t be exceptions to the foundation of a principle. Obviously these exceptions tell of a deeper foundation for morality which is some conception of the good of a human being which is independent of the human being’s wishes. But if we set this insurmountable objection to the side for the moment, there is a further problem with basing morality on consent: no one can actually give consent.

In modern cant what I mean is that no one can give informed consent, but informed consent is a redundancy. Consent which is not informed is not consent. This is because consent, as a verb, is a transitive verb. I.e. it takes a direct object. You cannot consent in a vacuum. You must consent to something. But in order to consent to it, you must know what it is. It doesn’t mean anything to consent to something, you know not what. What is the content of the consent?

There are generally two ways to try to get around this: the partially correct way and the completely dishonest way.

The completely dishonest way is to arbitrarily terminate the consequences of an action at what is foreseeable. This is attractive to the intellectually lazy, but it makes as much sense as saying that a person can consent to another sawing off the tree branch upon which the first is sitting, but that consent doesn’t extend to the subsequent falling down because they didn’t realize that would happen. The cases where this happens are of course less obvious than this one, but no different in principle.

The partially correct way is to say that a person can consent to classes of action which have some discernible characteristic. Thus for example a person who is having sex in order to produce a child is consenting to becoming a parent, even though they have no idea what sort of child they will receive. The problem is that this depends on the ability to know the outline of the class of action being consented to. And this comes back to the fundamental problem with consequentialism—only God can be a consequentialist.

There are only two ways to know the outlines to a class of action:

  1. To be omniscient
  2. To receive summary information from someone who is omniscient

Being finite beings, option @1 is closed to us, so the only possible way to achieve consent is option #2. Option #2 is, however, closed to the secular people who are trying to base morality upon consent.

This is, in short, the problem with basing morality upon consent. The only people who might possibly want to, can’t. Those who can, have no reason to try.

The Orville

I caught the first half of the first episode of The Orville the other day. It was about what I expected from the trailer. That is to say: amusing, but not likely to be great.

I also suspect that the costumers, set decorators, etc. were all lawyers trying to get into their respective fields in show businesses because their instructions seemed to be: “make this as close to Star Trek as possible without getting sued”. And as has been observed, the comedy feels glued on the side. And not with epoxy, either, but more like Elmer’s that someone forgot to clamp.

There are several reasons I don’t expect The Orville, despite being pretty and light fun, to be worth investing time in.

First: Seth MacFarlane is an outspoken atheist. I’m sorry to say it, but at the end of the day the atheist worldview doesn’t admit of any rationally consistent stories to tell. Creatures with neither free will nor prescriptive natures can’t really be the protagonists of stories, and where good and bad are just feelings, it’s hard to come up with a reason to care about what fictional people fictionally feel about things that aren’t really happening.

Second: The comedy seems generally willing to sacrifice characters for laughs. In complete comedies this can work, such as in 30 Rock. 30 Rock didn’t have characters, it had what might be called loci of jokes. The complete lack of consistent characters made the sacrificing of characters for jokes tolerable. The Orville wants to be a drama as well as a comedy, so I think that the willingness to sacrifice characters for jokes will play out very badly, unless the predictions of the comedy being dropped altogether turn out to be correct.

Third: There isn’t much of an attempt at consistency in the characters even in the dramatic elements. I’m told that the third episode of The Orville involves a plot where the member of the all-male species gives birth to a female and wants corrective surgery for her. The problem is, to begin with, it doesn’t mean anything to say that a species is all male. Male only has meaning in reference to female, and vice versa. It would be like saying that it’s a species where all of its members are above average. What’s meant is that they all look like human males. But so what?

(I should note that in a science fiction context it would be possible to have an all male species if you were to invoke cloning, such that it was a species with females but the females died off and so the species only persists through cloning. That is not at all what was described here.)

Fourth: the hyper-intelligent science officer males an imply/infer error. I used to think that this was only a trope to allow the writers to show that a character isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and some other character is. The typical setup involves someone saying, “are you inferring that I stole money from the account?” and someone else says, “No, he’s implying it. You’re inferring it.” Or words to that effect. But this case seems to be a genuine imply/infer error. The captain asks the member of the hyper-intelligent species if they’re as racist as they’re reputed to be, and he responds something to the effect, “If you’re inferring that we regard other species as very far below us, that is correct”. He wasn’t inferring it, he was implying it. This is not auspicious for how the writing of the hyper-intelligent science officer will go. Granted, it could be a subtle tell that the species is not in fact hyper-intelligent and only think that they are, but I’ve heard this isn’t the case and the so-far-beyond-us-we’re-like-pet-gerbils-to-them aspect is played straight.

I don’t want to be this cynical about modern television, but as a Scottish chief engineer once said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”