Max Kolbe’s Atheist Days

A discussion with my old friend Max Kolbe about his atheist days. I actually met Max when he was an atheist running a popular blog on politics and news (and other things), and still remember the post when he announced that he was no longer an atheist. As I recall, the wording was very simple: “He is risen.”

Some Common Incorporeal Things

I recently made this joke on Twitter:

There are of course plenty of non-corporeal entities which atheists ordinarily believe in, but many of them they have some alternative explanation for. Logical propositions are just expectations, as are mathematics, mathematical structures, etc. But they do tend to believe in the existence of agreements between people which are not easily reducible simply to expected behaviors.

In my tweet I chose one of the bigger agreements between people, the United States government, but really any sort of agreement will suffice, even something as simple as an agreement to borrow a shovel and return it when its use is finished. I like the example of the US government, though, since it exists not only through time but even through generations; it existed among people who are now dead and exists now among people who were not alive at its creation.

But clearly the United States government is not made up of any particular matter; there is no physical experiment one can device which would detect it. It has no weight, nor color, nor smell, nor sound. We know about it only through testimony and by its actions. And it only acts in the physical world through people.

In theory, if the principles that many atheists put forth were actually their principles, they would have to deny that the United States government exists, or at the very least claim that there’s no evidence for it.

But of course it’s not very hard to show that “their principles” are not in fact their principles. The much harder question is: so what are their principles?

That’s an excellent question I’m still trying to figure out the answer to.

The Irrational Rationalists

I was recently talking with my friend Andrew Stratelates of the Escaping Atheism Project about the odd topic of people who believe in both subjective morality and self-improvement. In my experience the most common approach to reconciling these two is along the lines of “I subjectively want to do things that I subjectively want to call self-improvement”. The Distributist made a good video about a thought experiment in which one is offered a pill which would instantly wipe out all traces of impulses to conventional morality, enabling one to live out a hedonistic life with far more success because of one’s ability to manipulate and use others without guilt. I strongly recommend it:

His basic point is that when one considers the idea, one knows that it is wrong, even though one’s theory holds that there should be no reason not to and perhaps even a good reason to do it. I recommend watching it.

That said, there is still the easy response that the person doesn’t want to because part of instinctive (arbitrary, groundless) moral impulses are to retain them. And this is, ultimately, unanswerable. If one is claiming that one wills something, not that it is true, this is unanswerable. One can debate truth, but one can’t debate will. (Which is why you can kill a man in self defense but not because he has a persuasive argument.)

And the whole thing would be utterly unremarkable except for the oddity that the people who are taking this easy out of disclaiming rationality in favor of pure will also claim to be the most rational people around. I’m not going to get into why—in part because I’m still working on the psychology of the thing and have no answers I’m yet confident enough to give—but I do want to note this oddity. The people who most often talk about being rational and being unwilling to be as irrational as their opponents also (when pressed) explicitly disclaim being rational on most every human subject. It’s ironic, but also quite interesting.

A Response to Logicked

The YouTube atheist entertainer Logicked made a video about a hangout I was on with Rob from Deflating Atheism. You can also watch this video on YouTube:

Out of sympathy for some of the atheists in my comment section, I should note that I also made a second response to Logicked, where I watched the rest of his video and realized that he’s a liar. As a result I’m not going to pay any more attention to this man (unless he repents, of course) because there’s no point in dealing with liars. Here’s the second video, if you’re interested:

A Brief Defense of Zarathustra’s Serpent

I should note that I was using the phrase “the overman” in a somewhat specialized way; I didn’t mean Nietzsche’s exact idea of the overman, but really just “anyone who creates values”. You can also watch this on YouTube:

I should also note that Arad (Zarathustra’s Serpent) and I had a conversation about Nietzsche’s philosophy in which some of this was clarified:

Writer’s Block

I’m finding myself in a very strange place with regard to my NaNoWriMo novel: I’ve got writer’s block. This isn’t something I’ve experienced before, as ideas come very readily to me. This problem isn’t universal, it only comes down to novels. I’m not sure whether it’s just science fiction or all fiction. Since what I really want to do is work on my video game idea (the order of the wilds), I’m inclined to say it’s not all fiction.

My NaNoWriMo novel this year is a continuation of one I abandoned due to lack of time when my third child was born, and it’s a science fiction story about space exploration. And to give background, while I don’t read much science fiction, I grew up on Star Trek and loved it, and also loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. I liked Deep Space 9 and grew cold on Voyager, but space exploration SciFi is something deeply engrained in me. And yet, I can’t help but think that it’s time is past. All modern Science Fiction is either magical fantasy or something that could as easily be set on the present day earth. But if one is writing magical fantasy, why wrap it in a veil of science-sounding language and pretend that it’s not magical fantasy?

That question has been occupying my mind for a while now, and I can’t think of an answer to it. The only answer I can think of is Sturgeon’s Law (this version being published in 1958):

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

I had heard this in my youth, mostly (as I recall) as a defense against the fact that Science Fiction had elements of adventure, which was considered immature by people who had grown old and tired and disliked fun. I’ve no doubt that that defense needed to be made, just as I’ve no doubt that Sturgeon defended science fiction in the time period of 1938-1958 against some unworthy attacks. But at the same time, I’m not sure that this defense really holds against the problem that I have with modern Science Fiction. I think a great deal of modern science fiction is very well written but ultimately serves no real purpose.

And to be clear I don’t mean that SciFi is escapism. I’m all in favor of escapism. I don’t mean that SciFi is childish. In fact I think that the real problem is that SciFi isn’t nearly childish enough. I’m coming to think that SciFi still exists for only two reasons:

  1. People like me remember it with fondness from their childhood.
  2. People unlike me aren’t hardy enough to hear wizards called wizards.

There is probably something of a case to be made for SciFi in the vein of #2, along the lines of why we give crutches to people with broken legs and feed mushed up food to people with broken jaws. It is right to be gentle with the weak.

But it seems to me that outside of truly hard SciFi like Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is just the story of a castaway surviving until he’s rescued which could as easily be told in a jungle or a desert island, Science Fiction is riddled with inescapable plot holes because it refuses to take its magic seriously.

And this brings me back to where I started—as an author, I have a huge, almost pathological dislike of plot holes. I don’t claim that all my plots have been perfect, but I certainly put a lot of work into making them consistent and coherent and as close to free of plot holes as I can make them. And I can’t explain to myself why I’m bothering with a genre where that is impossible, especially when I could have a lot more fun with magic if I just admit that the world is filled with magic.

Please bear in mind that this is basically me thinking out loud. These aren’t conclusions, and I’d be very happy to hear a strong argument that I’ve got it wrong.

Looking at CNN’s Article, The Changing Reasons why Women Cheat

It’s a despicable article, sure, but instead of just pointing out how awful it is, I think it’s worth looking at it from a different perspective, to ask why it was written at all, and what purpose does it serve to the author. You can also watch the video on YouTube:

What Is the River?

In the course of a small conversation I had with Mr. John C. Wright in the comments of one of his blog posts, I said that if moral agents persisted across time, they must necessarily be outside of time and therefore conjoined to time by something outside of both and one is then just a little bit of thinking-things-through from God. His reply contained this very interesting question which I’d like to answer at length:

If the Ohio river is inside time, and flowing, and the water changes from moment to moment, in what way is it wrong or illogical of me to call it by the same name “the Ohio river” on Wednesday as I had done on Tuesday?

(I should note, if anyone is unfamiliar with Mr. Wright and his work, that he is a Catholic ex-atheist and is discussing the idea of atheistic ethics in the grand Catholic tradition of taking ideas seriously regardless of which “team” they might benefit because nothing is more important than the truth. Christians are in the pleasant position of not needing to fear the truth, because Jesus Christ is the truth. And the way and the life, but that does not directly bear on the moment.)

Unfortunately the only way to begin to address this question is by asking another question, and one so basic as to make most readers understandably grown: when we say “the Ohio River”, what, specifically, are we talking about? I know, I know, but hear me out. I promise I’ll keep it short.

When we say, “the Ohio River”, we are in truth referring to the form of a river which is instantiated in a particular place, for a duration of time. If we want to talk about the matter of the Ohio River, we must use far more cumbersome language, such as “the present riverbed of the Ohio River” or “The water flowing at this moment through the Ohio River”. Now, I think that the only reasonable position with regard to forms is Scholastic Realism, which is a sort of hybrid between Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism; scholastic realism holds that individual forms participate in the ideal of their form which exists in the mind of God, and it is from that participation that we can refer to two things by the same name and actually mean something by it. However, we need not go down the path of scholastic realism for the present purpose because the Ohio River is not a moral agent.

Before I get to the obvious objection to scholastic realism, let me address the Aristotelian objection to scholastic realism. Which is that the form of the Ohio River exists within time because it is subject to change. The Ohio river came into being and will probably go out of being; it grows and shrinks and occasionally has changed course. But the problem is that something is needed outside of the particular form in order for this to be the same form, rather than one form giving birth to another form and dying in childbirth. Why is it one Ohio River rather than many Ohio Rivers, in the way that wood gives birth to fire but is not fire? Aristotelian realism isn’t wrong, it is merely incomplete. (Which is why Saint Thomas could baptize it.) And so we return to the obvious objection, which was raised during the Endarkenment (more commonly called “the Enlightenment”).

The obvious objection to saying that the Ohio River, as a single thing, participates in the idea of Riverhood within God’s mind is simply to deny that the Ohio River is really one thing, but is instead a collection of things so similar that we give them all the same name. In this view of the name “the Ohio River” does not describe a thing in itself but rather a relation to us. “The Ohio River” thus means, “all that matter which is related to us in the manner of the water currently in the riverbed located as you’d find it on a map labeled ‘Ohio River’.” More colloquially, whatever water happens to be in a particular set of places going in particular directions. As with all forms of reductionism, it is unanswerable in itself except by negation. If a man says that there is no chair, only a collection of atoms in a particular arrangement he finds it convenient to call “chair,” there is nothing one can do to help him, except possibly giving him a vigorous beating with the object in question. No one is a sincere reductionist.

But it doesn’t matter, for the Ohio River is not a moral agent. If the Ohio River does something destructive, such as flooding a man’s house and property, no one holds that justice demands that vengeance be exacted upon the river. And in the case of one who holds the functional view of the river, he holds that it is not even possible to exact vengeance upon the river, for the water which did him harm is long gone.

This is not the case with moral agents. If a man killed my brother yesterday, I claim the right to kill him today because it is the same man who killed my brother. If I told people, “I claim the right to kill this man because he reminds me of the man who killed my brother” they would laugh at me or restrain me, depending on how serious they thought I was. And if they asked me, “But is he the same man?” and I replied, “I call him by the same name as I called the man who killed my brother.” they would grow angry with me. “Is he the same man or not?” they might reasonably demand of me. And if my final answer is, “He is not the same man but I am accustomed to treating him as the same man”  it may well end with my fellow villagers striking me down. And if I were to say, “He isn’t but for convenience I will say that he is,” it would be to the shame of my fellow men if they did not strike me down.

Morality requires identity across time to be meaningful. There may be no such identity, but if so there is no such thing as morality. This is why, to uphold morality, is to uphold identity across time. And once a man believes in actual identity across time, it is just a short hop, skip, and jump to believing in God.

Which is probably why pagan philosophers so often did believe in God.

What If The Future Has Past?

(This is continuing thoughts from Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard and Why Science Fiction Will Never Die, both of which are related to a science fiction story I’m working on writing.) As I’m working on a Science Fiction story about the first ship from the Milky Way to explore the Andromeda galaxy, the various sorts of magic required to make any sort of space exploration story weigh on my mind because I tend to prefer hard SciFi to soft SciFi. I think that this is in part because if one is going for magic, why bother with the SciFi at all—why not just go whole hog and actually have fun with the fun parts?

But the problem is that you can’t do space exploration as hard SciFi. This was captured fairly well in a post by Jasyn Jones titled, Hard SF Does Not Exist. And he’s right. There are of course exceptions like Andy Weir’s recent book The Martian, but the sorts of stories one can tell in hard SF are not very different from the sorts of stories one can tell on earth. People get trapped for many months at a time on Antarctica, and there is nothing preventing someone from setting a story on a desert island. (For example, two women were recently stranded at sea for months.) But if you want to actually do space exploration, you need magic to accomplish it. To put things in perspective, it took 9 years for New Horizons to get to Pluto. Proxima Centauri, the closest star we know about, is approximately 5,400 times further away than Pluto is. Even if we could travel to Proxima Centauri ten times faster than New Horizons (which seems doubtful), it would still take more than twice as much time to get there as has elapsed since Julius Caesar became the emperor of Rome. Just the amount of fuel necessary to power a ship for 5400 years would be staggering (ball park, assuming a gigawatt nuclear power plant, it would need about 5.4M Kg of fissile material, according to this), to say nothing of the near-perfect oxygen and water reclamation necessary, the meters of shielding necessary to protect the people from cosmic rays, etc. It would take tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of rocket launches just to assemble such a generation-ship in orbit around the earth. And heaven help the people on it if they need any spare parts for their ship during those five millenia.

I should probably note that there are proposals, like Project Daedalus which can span that distance much faster—on the order of 50 years. But they involve fusion engines firing for years and consequently truly massive amounts of deuterium and tritium, both of which are extremely rare. Project Daedalus depends on a bunch of stuff which there’s no good reason to believe can reliably be made to work, and that in order to get a 500kg mechanical payload to do a flyby. To move people in a way that they can land on a foreign planet requires exponentially more mass and consequently initial fuel, etc. In short, the human race is not going anywhere outside of our solar system in real life.

And yet, as I said in my last blog post on the subject, I do think that exploratory Science Fiction is great because it is the heir to Greek epics like the Odyssey. (Of course, the Odyssey did have magic in it, but the magic wasn’t Odysseus’s, it belonged to the people he met.) But all exploratory sci-fi relies on what amounts to teleportation. Does this mean that Science Fiction is just bad fantasy? Is it just fantasy for people whose imaginations are too weak to entertain the explicitly fantastical?

There is another possibility, though: what if Science Fiction was possible in an earlier time, but isn’t now? The Science Fiction written from about 1850-1950, was often set in our solar system. There are a million counter-examples, I have no doubt, but what if it was the Science Fiction (scientifiction, as C.S. Lewis called it in the days when he was writing it) that was set in our solar system which was the source of vitality in science fiction?

Space exploration set in our solar system actually did have the right scale to it. One can get to the moon in days; one get can to Mars in months. The moons of Jupiter are more like a year’s travel time; and all these are the right time scales for the Greek epics. Stories set here were—when we didn’t know what was on the moons and the planets—actually were quite plausible for the future. The science involved in getting to these places was actual science, not merely magic with a veneer of science lightly glued on top.

Alas, time moved on and we found out that there are no civilizations to explore on the moon or on the other planets; any civilization which happens there will be human settlers living in very highly technologized dwellings. They will live there, if they live at all, in little bubbles of planet earth which they’ve brought with them.

I grew up on Star Trek; there is something utterly magical about Science Fiction. But it seems very possibly that true, hard science fiction is as much a thing of the past as the wild west is. We may be in the unfortunate position that to recapture the magic, we must capture it in a genie’s bottle. And that will always leave us with the question of where we got the genie’s bottle, and why we take it for granted.