Shelley, Atheism, Life and Afterlife

RE: This...


There are many things about these three essays that amuse me. The first is that this is claimed to be philosophy but is actually polemic. Shelley starts to try to deconstruct the problem into clear and fundamental ideas but, in each of the three segments, devolves into arguments about how society functions relative to these ideas and how that's bad. Nothing wrong with that but it makes a substantial part of the essay mere opinion and disagreement and, thereby, not so useful.

One thing I like, though, is his distinction between "creative god" and "theological god". This is a dichotomy that serves as a foundation in my own view on the matter, though I call the former "an independent, willful entity that can violate the laws of physics" and the latter, "cultural god". I believe that the latter is a real and important thing. The former, pure fantasy.

Even though, however, that last assertion suggests atheism, I do not include myself among people with that view. I define atheism as an assertion that the non-existence of god is a fact. A fact being something known for certain, eg, something like the fact of gravity pulling toward the center of the earth. No one who is not insane can doubt the reality of gravity on earth. I do not think it reasonable to claim the same certainty for the non-existence of god. Further, facts can be tested. The existence of god cannot.

I claim to be an agnostic. This word is used in several ways but, for me, it means that I believe that the existence of god, positive or negative, is by definition beyond the ability of humans to determine. It is my view that certainty of god's non-existence is every bit as ridiculous as certainty that it exists. The reason is that god, I'll use the shorthand, creative god, is a thing that can generate the entirety of reality. To do this, it must somehow be outside that reality (a creator that creates itself is too goofy for me to credit). A thing that is outside of reality is, in my view, outside our ability to perceive or correctly reason about.

That said, I am extremely skeptical of the existence of a creative god. I agree with Shelley's assertion that postulating a creator merely complicates the problem without answering anything. Where did god come from? If it has knowledge of creating a universe, does it create new ones every day? If not, what caused it to create this one? And, crucially, what caused the inspiration to do that, ie, what created the inspiration to create is no less a question than what created god or what created reality. None is any more satisfying than science or mystery.

He does pique a little interest in his opening evaluation of what causes "belief" though I think it would be more accurate if he had set up a structure distinguishing the ideas of agreement, belief and faith, not least because he is using the word 'belief' in reference to ideas that I would call 'faith'. In my taxonomy, belief straddles the two others. I believe in gravity. My view is more than mere agreement with the arguments in its favor but is not the same as a Christian's belief in the virgin birth but not entirely different, either. Were anyone to try to convince me that gravity is not real, I would not even consider the proposition. My perspective is nearly faithful.

I spent eight years in dedicated Torah study, hours each week, with real interest. One of the topics that especially interested me was the comparison of Judaism with Christianity. I concluded that the most important difference is that Christianity wants faith and Judaism wants performance. Do the Mitzvot and you are a good Jew. Do Good Works without Faith, and a Christian still goes to hell. Because I am a scientist at heart, I have thought a great deal about faith and what it is.

One thing is for sure: I am incapable of it. The love of my wife or children? I believe it exists. There is enough evidence that it is impossible to convince me otherwise. Evidence to the contrary that I cannot explain is ignored. I believe they (and my dog) love me. Period. But the views do rest on evidence, lots of it for a long time.

Fear is a sensation generated by a lump of meat in your head, mostly the amygdala. That is the part that calculates the difference between your current mental state and your expectations and generates some level of alarming ideas based on the difference. There is another lump of meat, the anterior cingulate cortex, that does sort of the reverse. It compares your current state to expectations and generates calming ideas based on the similarities. (Note that I am not only simplifying the explanation to the point of stupidity but I also know almost nothing about neurological topics.) The yin and yang of these two lumps seem to me to be important in figuring out what you believe or disbelieve. (Where something else entirely seems to be involved in 'agreement'. I claim that agreement is basically arithmetic about a topic.)

It is less clear what governs faith but I have read of brain surgery where they stimulated part of the brain and the subject reported feeling religious. The hippocampus, prefrontal lobes and anterior cingulate cortex are mentioned in this context. To me, it seems fairly obvious that there is some lump of meat or system that generates the sensation that Christians report when they talk about their belief in Christ. It is one that, in me, is fairly diminutive. In others, big and juicy.

So, what does it all mean? 1) We can never know if there is a god or not as a matter of fact. 2) Shelley is right. The idea of god does not offer any answers that are useful in understanding reality. 3) Faith in god is an explainable mental state. If you think it is divine inspiration, see point number 2.

A Personal Note

The other thing about Mad Men is that my father *was* Don Draper. He was an artist who did graphic design for packaging of grocery store products. Like Don, he made a boatload of dough in the second half of the sixties. He was universally recognized as a brilliantly intelligent and creative marketing graphic designer. He was attractive, well-liked and often hated. He was self-made and mostly tried to hide his very working-class roots.

He drove away the mother of his children with ego and condemnation. He arranged his life so that his children were unable to touch him. He married and then ignored a beautiful young woman making her feel insecure and unloved - much as he did with his first wife.

My mother didn't die young, but as far as her children were concerned she may as well have (I could write a similar comparison of her to Betty Draper). I was Sally. My sibs probably knew how to make toast but, we had to form a self-protective team as children and, I realize in recent years, I have spent my life feeling somehow responsible.

The comparison breaks down eventually. Don Draper turns his back on the money and seeks redemption. He has a fundamentally generous nature (which is so interesting and sort of surprising but, if you think about the advice he offered, the occasions where he stood up for people, his insistence on treating peoples' aspirations respectfully in the ad campaigns, it makes more sense) that, if it was present in my father, who did die fairly young, never was realized.

But, Don's journey to enlightenment is a lesson my dad could have used. Perhaps we all can.

"It's the real thing."

A Unilateral Conviction: Pardon Trump When the Hearings End

I have had many conflicted discussions with friends over my contention that Gerald Ford was right to pardon Richard Nixon. I agree with his reasoning that damage wrought by a prolonged trial outweighs the value of proving what everyone knew to be true.

Reading this, I am moving in the same direction for Trump, with some reservations. Basically every sane person in the country now responds to pollsters with agreement that Trump committed crimes. The House committee is doing a great job and will have produced a damning and detailed record of them.

I now think that Biden should, once the House hearing is over very quickly announce a pardon.

A pardon is an ambiguous benefit. It removes the possibility of punishment (which I consider 100% impossible for Trump) but it also removes the possibility of a trial. It eliminates the possible forum where Trump could parade his lies and showboating for literally years.

The announcement should be made with high-minded justification. It is important to bring the country together. We do not want the precedence of subsequent administrations prosecuting each other. Etc. Etc.

But the real message is: The President and the Justice Department join Congress in the belief that he did it.

I imagine Trump screaming that the Jan 6 riot was "PERFECT". With huge recriminations about his stolen election and how weak Mike Pence is. None of that will matter to anyone except that 38% of deluded shitheads.

For the rest of, it means that we can stop paying attention to him and his shenanigans. We can take him and his crimes and potential prosecutions off the table. When a Republican whines about the persecution of Trump, it will sound mighty hollow.

And it will be in the better interest of the country.

We Are Enough. You Don't Need Anything Else to be Worthwhile.

I read this passage and disagree. Well, I don't disagree with the final point. It is true that nothing matters to the universe. There is no 'god' thing watching us all. Our universe, I am convinced, is one of zillions constantly popping into existence as the physics of dark energy and virtual quantum particles continue their work.

But contrary to the implied bleakness suggested by this Weinberg guy assertion that it's "pointless", this vast multiverse idea seems to me to give our lives even greater meaning. The infinite course of the multiverse might not care about us but we still exist. Our lives matter to us and to those around us. 

That there is no grand external 'meaning' says to me, that our actions are the only thing that really do have meaning. It tells me that what we do is the only thing that is really important. 

The reality we construct, our actions in our society and culture, our reliance and support for each other, are not pointless. With the realization that we are less than a speck in the grand reality where nothing is any more important than anything else, we become the most important thing in the universe. 

All the rest is nothing, vast and empty. Only we are full of life and joy and love and hate and humor and meaning. As far as we can tell, that's all there is. That makes it infinitely more than pointless. It is everything.

It makes me think about those who say life can have no meaning without a god. In their view, their god has meaning. Our meaning is purely derivative, just as our liver cells are important to our getting an award. We just come along for the ride. Our liver cells didn't kill us by getting cancer and we didn't stop the god's glory by failing to worship it. 

This reality of the universe says that our glory is not subsumed by anything else. No other meaning is greater than our own. Our meaning is all there is. For twenty thousand years, humans have been fabricating meaning from whole cloth. With luck, we will continue for twenty thousand more. 

The multiverse might not care but we do and, apparently, that is everything.

A Brief Discussion About Light

Not me:

"From my limited understanding a photon is a photon. What it passes through gives it’s color. Pure light is white and cannot be detected. When something absorbs every wavelength of something except for a certain color value that’s what is reflected back. For instance a green leaf on a tree… it absorbs every color except green and bounces green light off. Same with infrared except we need special equipment to detect it because it’s not visible to the human eye"


You are correct in the idea that the photons that are reflected and not absorbed is what causes us to see color. The idea "what it passes through gives it its color" is not right. The color of a photon is determined by the amount of energy that goes into its creation and it never changes.

Absorption and reflection aren't exactly what they seem to us, though. What actually happens is that a photon hits an atom and is absorbed. The energy of that photon puts the atom into an unstable state. This causes the atom to spit out a new photon to get back in balance.

Sometimes the unstable energy state does not result in a photon being re-emitted and, instead, the energy participates in some other chemical reaction. Sometimes, there is energy left over from that reaction.

That energy is re-emitted. The new photon will have that remaining amount of energy, ie, it will be a new color. The original did not change. It contributed to the creation of a new one.

This is what happens with photosynthesis.

Roughly speaking, chlorophyl molecules in plants absorb the light that hits them. That puts each molecule into an unstable energy state but, instead of re-emitting (reflecting) all of the energy, it keeps part of it by changing in ways that are part of the photosynthesis process. The part that is not used has the amount of energy to re-emit a green photon.

You mention white light as "pure". This is not really correct.

White light is not actually a color of light and it's sort of the opposite of pure. It is always a combination of photons with different energy levels contributing to a sort of illusion created by the chemistry of our eyes.

Our retinas have three chemicals that absorb photons. That means the the energy they absorb with the photon participates in a chemical reaction. That reaction causes nerve signals to our brains that we interpret as color.

Each of the three chemicals responds to photons in a narrow range of energies (which are also, btw, equivalent to wavelength). We call the experience we perceive from those chemicals, red, green and blue.

When all three chemicals absorb roughly the same amount of photons, ie, equal amounts of reg, green and blue, our brain interprets the signal as white light. The photons are not white, there is no such energy level. It is a bunch of different photons that our brains interpret as 'white'.

We cannot see infrared because the chemicals in our eyes do not absorb infrared light in a way that creates a nerve signal. Instead, those photons cause the molecules to vibrate in a way that we interpret as heat. That's why warming lamps in restaurants shine infrared on the food.

Actually killing Russian soldiers is a very big step

In conversation with a friend , I responded to the importunings for Joe to become active in helping Ukraine. A number of people have insisted that we are already at war. I am not sure that I am opposed to America getting involved. I agree that letting this happen is very dangerous but it is not at all obvious what the right thing to do is.

We are absolutely not already at war with Russia. I get the metaphorical usage of the term and think it is appropriate. However, war means killing each other. Russia is not killing Americans and America is not killing Russians. This is their war with a friend of ours with whom we have no mandatory treaty obligations. It is strategic and symbolic. It is not war yet.

If Joe decides to do kill Russians, Russia will have a good reason to take off the gloves because America represents a very, very big threat. If I were Putin, when America steps into the battle, I would annihilate Ukraine to eliminate it as a threat. I would, at the same time, send troops into some other country or use some cruise missiles to attack as a diversion.

I would consider the use of tactical nukes because, if America starts attacking you, you better put it back on its heels very quickly or you are fucked.

That's the sort of arithmetic Joe has to do before he takes action in Ukraine, before he joins the war there.

This is a trageically difficult time. I am very sad and worried.

Privacy is a fundamental right. I consider corporations like Facebook and Google to be analogous to rapists

We all accept that a man has a right to expect an evening of pleasant company if he buys a woman a nice dinner. It's a reasonable expectation that makes sense.

We are all creeped out, despite the fact that it's ubiquitous, when a man assumes that the woman will have sex with him because he bought her dinner. We are downright angry if he acts on that it either by forcing her or by being mean to her if she does live up to his expectation.

Which is to say, there is an implied obligation incurred when we accept free stuff but that obligation is not unlimited. The distinction between 'pleasant company' and 'assumption of sex' is level of personal intrusion. They are divided over a boundary that all decent people understand as intrinsic to the natural human rights of a person.

I claim that it is reasonable to expect me to see advertisements but that it is creepy and makes me angry when they share my personal information with anyone if they feel they can benefit. I think it's wrong. I think it's dangerous and intrusive.

There are people who focus on the supposed benefit of targeted ads. "Why wouldn't you want the big old internet figuring out just what you want? It showed your new favorite band. What's wrong with that?"

To me, that's like saying, 'the guy was clean and a considerate lover. She even had an orgasm. Why are you mad that he coerced her into having sex with him?'

I am a huge fan of Europe's GDPR. It recognizes information about you as yours. Their constitution explicitly asserts that privacy is a fundamental human right, just as we all understand that we all have a fundamental human right not to be raped. (And no, I'm not saying that privacy violation is the same, or as bad, as rape, or murder. I am saying it is analogous.)

I would add that I think that the level of coercion is worse than expectations for after dinner. These corporations are holding my friends and livelihood hostage.

If I do not make myself vulnerable to their depredations, I do not get to talk to my friends on Facebook. I live in a remote location. I have very little social contact without it and its ilk. I would be alone. I need to use Google a hundred times a day to do my work. Practically speaking, I would be out of business without it.

These corporations are essentially saying to me, "You choose, starve and be lonely, or let us sell your information to anyone we feel like selling it to. You live your life seeing your secrets [one time I googled breast cancer about a friend; for the next couple of weeks, corporations made clear they knew about it in ads] spread all over the internet. Don't like that, Tough shit."

I am pissed. I do not grant them permission to share my information and consider their doing so to be unethical and when I notice it, I feel violated.

Meanderings on the sources of evil

Catholicism is famous for opposing divorce. One can only leave a marriage if the church allows it and, throughout history, women had no say. Abuse was rarely cause. Corporal punishment for wives was allowed. Marital rape was considered impossible. Women were kept in marriages against their will by the millions

Ubiquitous child abuse is not the only crime committed by the Universal Church in the name of Jesus.This does not, for me, necessarily color my evaluation of the belief system. I continue to think that Christianity is pretty. Knowing, of course, that all religions have vile fundamentalists, I started this note trying to isolate that from the nice doctrine.

I did a false start where I considered the idea of 'faith', per se, as the culprit and I will, after I think about it for awhile, probably conclude that faith, per se, is a bad thing.

But, I set that aside for now, party because I have to think it through and partly because it misses the point.

All religions have bad actors but only one has an organization embodied, for nearly two thousand years, in a global network of pedophiles and murderers. I readily concede that there has also been much good done but am very, very skeptical about the cost.

The reason I have a trouble separating the Christian wheat from the organization chaff is that, when Christians finally overthrew the pure tyranny of Catholicism, they chose Martin Luther to become a movement where bigotry replaced pedophilia while the murder and power mongering continued with zeal.

I might still be able to find a way around my distress over the singular damage Christians have done by comparing it to Islam, also a religion that uses it's 'prince of peace' concept as a shroud to conceal it's bloody minded attitude about those who resist its power. After all, it's not really just Christians.

But today, we have American Christianity showing huge support for every vile oppression the right-wing wants to put upon us. Anti-choice. Anti-vax. Pro-Trump. Pro-1/6. Pro-white-supremacy. Anti-environment. Anti-immigrant. Anti-science.

More than half of America Christians voted for Trump and all the vile practices he embodies as the leader of the most powerful country on the planet. The Moslems have done nothing that compares. Their influence in the world overall is small. Had Donald gotten another term, the Christians would have been the largest identifiable group that put him in a position to ruin the world.

Is it because of Christianity? Correlation is not cause. I still think that Christianity is a pretty doctrine. It is said that humans can mess anything up and with that, I emphatically agree. But, some things are easier to mess up than others. Nobody every committed genocide in the name of loving quantum physics.

The Fermi Paradox

I am of the opinion that life is probably common, an inevitable property of resource availability, like rust where iron and oxygen are present. I suspect it is *everywhere*.

I also think that the variation we see on Earth is an indication of both how varied life forms are and how parochial our perspective is. We live in a place that got DNA. All the life has DNA and we think that means that 'life' means DNA. Considering the fact that those lifeforms range from humans to bacteria to lichens and that we can only communicate with mammals tells me that 1) we are stuck in a local paradigm and, 2) we are not taking the lesson.

The Fermi Paradox seems apparent because we imagine that life out there resembles us but, there could be a thousand trillion civilizations of dolphins and we would never know because their life habit makes the sky and stars and radios irrelevant. There could be lichen civilizations that develop and communicate at glacial speed and, having no thumbs, don't build tools, only communicating by chemical signals.

There are forests of thousands of acres that are a, genetically, a single individual connected by their roots and chemicals they secrete into the air. There is absolutely no reason to think that the interactions among them are not some amazing form of poetry.

The final piece of the puzzle, in my view, is the fact a mobile, tool building lifeform stands a really good chance of killing itself off well before it could make itself apparent to us.

The Fermi Paradox reflects a failure of imagination based on an arrogant belief in our own superiority and importance.

2,404 Voluntary COVID19 Deaths Is Just Fine. I Think It IS Over.

I've been perplexed since I realized that, as of February 2022, 2400 people are still being killed by covid19 each day. I wonder how, even with exhaustion, that can be a number most don't notice or, if they do, feel. Certainly, we are calloused and fed up but, when we hit that number two years ago, we knew that the 876,000 anual covid deaths that number implies is horrific.

I have realized two things about it that are different. The first is that most of the country was in lockdown. If thousands of people are dying when we are truly doing our very best to avoid it, that is terrifying. Each of us could see ourselves in that number because locked down people were dying in droves.

The other thing is that those deaths are largely voluntary. The number of vaccinated people who die of covid is essentially zero. Those 2400 are almost all people who have chosen not to accept a free, safe, easy preventative. They deserve their fate.

It is truly terrifying to imagine what the mortality would be if we hadn't locked down and disciplined our lives in the other ways we did. It is heartening to realize that as we return to medical freedom, only those who choose illness and death are dying. They aren't my problem. I realize that it actually is pretty much over.