A logic textbook to the rescue: atheism again

The blogger I ripped on a few blog posts ago just wrote something really good. So, I'll have to go back and re-evaluate what I said about Stan at Atheism Analyzed. Maybe he was just angry while writing the antagonistic posts I read previously.

The current post is a beautiful example of the atheistic prove-there's-a-god dogma inverted and thrown back in the atheists' faces, with some philosophical jargon mixed in. I've used the same ideas before, but what makes Stan's post different is that, between the post and the comments, the proof is water-tight to an extent that I haven't yet seen, complete with all of the standard counter-arguments and rebuttals in the comments.

The highlight, however, was a comment under the name of Martin. He, in turn, quotes a standard text on logic [emphasis Martin's, but I like it]:

From Introduction to Logic by Harry Gensler: "When we criticize an opponent's argument, we try to show that it's unsound...But the conclusion still might be true - and our opponent might later discover a better argument for it. To show a view to be false, we must do more than just refute an argument for it; we must invent an argument of our own that shows the view to be false."

This quote says, more clearly and irrefutably than I ever have, what role logic plays in the atheism-theism argument. Informally, it says that atheists (or anyone) are not allowed to claim a coherent logical (or rational, or scientific) victory over theists without proving or at least providing evidence that their gods do not exist. Furthermore, atheists are not allowed to back away from the hypothesis, "there [very likely] is no god," without conceding that this hypothesis is exactly as coherent as the assertion, "there is a god." Thus, the general atheist intolerance of theist belief has absolutely no logical basis.

To conclude, I'll restate my position in all of this: If you'd like to fight the corruption and miseducation apparent in many religious organizations, I'll stand behind you every step of the way. But, if you attack theist belief itself, know that you are on a religious crusade, and that I will be against you, not because our beliefs are different but because you have no right to impose your beliefs on others.


Informal physics lesson 1: special relativity

A couple of weeks ago, I directed my web browser to Wikipedia. I was at work, of course--there's no better place to read Wikipedia--and I found myself on the page describing the "Twin Paradox". I'd been there before. I'd bet that once or twice per year for the past five years, I'd been on that page trying to understand what it's all about. I fancy myself a clever guy, and I was miffed that in all those attempts, I hadn't managed to grasp the ideas put forth on what is to me the most easily understandable general knowledge source in the world. Though, to my defense I hadn't yet visited the Simple English Wikipedia article on the topic. Perhaps I should have.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Twin Paradox, I'll briefly enlighten you. The Twin Paradox arises when twins who possess an extremely fast spaceship decide that one of them needs to make a quick run to Alpha Centauri to pick up some beer. Usually the slightly larger twin makes the run, since he's a bit of a pushover and the little one gets mad easily. The trip goes smoothly--the larger twin makes it to the best liquor store in the galaxy and back at half the speed of light (sometimes faster, when there are no police around)--until the twins see each other again and realize the little twin aged a couple of extra years. "WTF?!" both twins say in the parlance of their time, "How could this have happened?"

This, my curious friends, is the main question addressed here. I finally understand the basics behind this phenomenon, and I'd like to share them with you. I'm still not sure if I could derive the equations myself, but I'm sure I could give it a damn good try. I'll leave that for another day.

Let me take you back to my sixth grade science class. My science teacher, Mr. M, was a bit weird, though he got his point across. One day, he took our whole class outside into the school parking lot, got into his Ford Rustbucket, and drove away. That wasn't much of a science experiment, I thought. But, alas, Mr. M hadn't left; he had simply turned the car around and was coming back at 35mph, leaning on the car's horn. Several other cars' horns joined in the commotion, but that wasn't the experiment. No, the experiment was that, as the car passed us, the pitch of the horn got lower. At least that is what Mr. M told us afterward, as we student scientists began to theorize about collision avoidance and angry driver provocation.

The Doppler effect was, of course, the lesson of the day. Ask any child what a fast car passing by sounds like, and he can tell you, but he can't always tell you why. The Doppler effect explains how a noisy object coming towards you emits sound waves at regular intervals, and even as it (the car) maintains the same frequency, a stationary observer hears a higher frequency on the approach due to compression, and then a lower frequency due to decompression.

Light works in nearly the same way. Though the speed has to be incredibly fast, an object coming towards you will appear to be more towards the violet (higher frequency) end of the visible spectrum than if the object is stationary. Likewise, the color of the object moving away very quickly will appear to be more red (lower frequency), a phenomenon astronomers have named "red shift" in the context of far-away stars and galaxies moving rapidy away from earth. I should warn you that the color red has very little to do with the actual colors observed; in fact, the only reason the color red is singled out is that it is the lowest frequency light that humans can see with their eyes. Red shifts can and do start and end outside of the visible light spectrum.

Now, imagine we're back in the school parking lot and crazy Mr. M is driving by, honking his horn and screaming out the numbers one through ten. We know that the horn frequency sounds higher when he's approaching and lower when he's driving away, and the same thing happens with the numbers Mr. M is yelling out the window. He seems to us to be counting faster as he approaches and slower as he drives away, but Mr. M thinks he is counting at the same speed the entire time. In some sense, if you think about Mr. M counting along with the seconds on his watch, from our perspective it seems like time is going faster for Mr. M than for us as he approaches ("He's counting the seconds way too fast!") and time is going slower for him than for us as he drives away ("He's counting too slow!").

Here's the funny thing: if I were yelling out the numbers instead of Mr. M as he drives by, Mr. M would hear exactly the same phenomenon. In fact, if two people are travelling quickly towards one another, each one thinks that time is going faster for the other person than for himself. Similarly, two people going away from each other each think that time is going more more slowly for the other person than for himself.

Thus, the twins I mentioned above will both watch each other age very slowly as the big twin makes the beer run to Alpha Centauri, and they will see each other age very quickly as the big twin makes the trip back. In the past, always thought, If that happens, the twins should still be the same age when they chug their first beer together, but I was wrong. Here's why:

First of all, we still havent discussed exactly how fast each twin sees the other one aging. Now in the examaple of Mr. M, if we both count as he approaches, we both hear the other counting too fast, but the speed increase is not equal. In general, I would hear him counting faster than he hears me, due to the fact that sound travels through air. Think of it this way: if Mr. M broke the sound barrier (though I don't think his car could even break the speed limit), his one... two... three... would get to me after he did, and I might actually hear him counting in reverse. Mr. M would never hear me counting in reverse (not if I can help it!) since I am stationary in the parking lot and not moving with respect to the air around us. Therefore, it matters a lot if you're the one moving or the one standing still, with respect to an atmosphere of air.

But, that brilliant guy Einstein said that, in general (time and space), no one is moving and no one is standing still, absolutely; you can be moving only relative to one another. In fact, this follows directly from the assumption that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant no matter where you are and how fast you're going. In other words, chasing a beam of light is like having a stick attached to your head with a carrot dangling from the end of it; no matter how fast you run towards it: you can't get nearer, and it even speeds up whenever you do.

To the point: with sound and air, who you are matters, but not with light, time, and space. So, when the big twin is on his way to pick up the beer, he sees the little twin aging exactly as slowly as the little twin sees him aging. The same thing happens on the return trip. But, there is one little difference: the turnaround.

Like I said before, if the twins see each other aging slowly and then quickly, and they see the same rates of change, they would be the same age when they shared a beer. That is true if they see each other aging slowly for the same amount of time as they see each other aging quickly. However, if for some reason the little twin is sitting at home watching TV and doesn't realize that the big twin is already on his way back, he might think that the big twin is still aging slowly. This is more true than it sounds.

Let's look from the perspective of each twin. The big twin hops in the spaceship and puts on ZZ Top as he cruises to Alpha Centauri. Every time he looks back, his twin is aging slowly. Big twin gets the beer, switches to Aerosmith on the CD changer, and watches his brother age quickly for the entire trip back. Now, from the other end, little twin curses his brother's music tastes as the spaceship takes off, and he watches his twin age slowly while listening to Lady Gaga. When the big twin finally gets to the AC Carry Out, the little twin doesn't see it immediately. Light goes only so fast, and the little twin can't possibly witness the turnaround (possibly through the larger of two giant telescopes in the twins' house) until light has time to get from Alpha Centauri back to earth. That means that the big twin has already been on his way back for a while when the little twin finally sees him buy the beer and turn back.

Thus, while the big twin sees equal amounts of his brother's slow and fast aging (the big twin watches himself turn around at exactly the halfway point), the little twin sees more of his brother's slow aging than fast aging (the little twin watches the big twin turn around only after the light has time to reach him). And that is why the big twin is now the younger twin when they share the beers, well earned from this experiment.

The moral of the story is: if you are the one out there doing stuff, you have the advantage since you are there when you do it; it takes other people a while to realize what you did, and by the time they do, they're already behind. Or ahead. Something like that.

"Next time," says the little twin over his second beer, "I'll get the beer."


The good guys, and using definitions

Continuing along from my last post--where I typographically realized that most of my ideas are in fact not mine, but belong to dudes that are bigger, badder, and more thorough than myself--I'd like to draw your attention to an organization that magically appeared out of nowhere the instant I publicly called for a movement based on rational empiricism with a bit of humanism thrown in. Ladies and gentlemen, meet The Center for Inquiry and its affiliates. They even have representation at the U.N. here in Vienna, as well as Geneva and New York.

The Center for Inquiry defines itself based on--or in contrast to--religion, as do all of the major "freethinking" organizations I've come across, but I think I can forgive them for that if they do a real good job with the whole rational empiricist part.

In other news, there was an unassailably brilliant post at Rationally Speaking a few days ago. In it, Julia Galef concisely attacks the tendency to let definitions drift when under fire and directs some of her comments at her fellow blogger Massimo Pigliucci, who responded on the following day with a post that is equally unassailable, though less satisfying. If you fancy yourself a good arguer, reading these two short essays are well worth the time. In the end, you'll see that it's not only the definition that is important, but also how you use it.

If you're like me, you'll also find yourself with a renewed appreciation for philosophy. Until now, I thought that descriptive, linguistic definitions (as Pigliucci mentions) were the only definitions worth using. Now I realize that prescriptive, conceptual definitions can also be worthwhile, and they are in a sense the basis of many necessary branches of philosophy. My delay in coming to this realization is likely a byproduct of my mathematics education; mathematicians don't do prescriptive. Thus, I'm finding myself without the tools I need to intellectually pursue moral, ethical, and humanistic goals. I'm slowly getting there, though.


I've got a bad habit

Often, I state my ideas as if I'd invented them, and only afterwards do I realize that I'm neither the first nor the most eloquent person to arrive at the same conclusions. My lack of prior research (call me a shoot-first academic outlaw if you like) for my previous post on this blog once again became painfully evident as only days later I came across a couple of articles--by writers more educated than myself--discussing the exact same points, among others.

I've been reading whatever internet "literature" I could find on topics relating to my recent spate of posts on the politics of atheism, and I've come across a few worthwhile blogs. One of the first blogs that caught my eye was Atheism Analyzed, which is written by a self-proclaimed former atheist. The statements of purpose found in the blog header and in the margins seem to align nicely with my own, but in the first few articles I read I found more antagonistic and rhetorical jargon than interesting thought. In fact, one article attempts to dismantle the arguments presented in a blog post by Massimo Pigliucci but fails miserably. Between overgeneralizations and false accusations, the anonymous author of Atheism Analyzed ("Stan") misreads quotes taken from Pigliucci's post and incorrectly describes Pigliucci's conclusions in his own words. This was obvious even before I read the original article. Given that Atheism Analyzed--which reads more like anti-Big Science propaganda than anything else--took Pigliucci's words out of context, I find it amusing that the author didn't manage to make me doubt Pigliucci even for a second. I'd never heard of Pigliucci before, but even his out-of-context statements convinced me that he had a valid point. Before I left the blog, I made a short comment on the Atheism Analyzed post that refuted the statement that Pigliucci's "strawman" was somehow a fallacy (I'd been in the same situation before on my blog). I didn't understand the response I received, either because I'm not educated enough to understand the ill-defined jargon or because the argument wasn't coherent. Time might tell.

So, I went over to Pigliucci's blog, Rationally Speaking--which he shares with two others--and found something worth reading. I'm very impressed with the articles I've read, even though the informal setting leaves plenty of room for poorly defined terminology and colloquialisms. Despite this, the central message of the post that Atheism Analyzed so desperately wanted to refute comes through loud and clear. I might be biased, of course, but Pigliucci is absolutely correct in saying

Conceptions of gods are infinitely... flexible (or vacuous, if you prefer)... and they are thus simply not falsifiable. This is often (naively) mistaken to imply that no specific claim made by these theories can be rejected on empirical grounds. That’s as manifestly not true as it is besides the point: of course modern science can firmly reject the empirical claim that the earth is a few thousand years old; but since “the god hypothesis” doesn’t behave as a hypothesis at all from the epistemological standpoint, it doesn’t matter. In the cases we are discussing there is no science-like connection between theoretical constructs and empirically verifiable facts, so to “falsify” the latter is equivalent to shooting into a cloud of gas. It unnecessarily flatters and elevates religious belief to treat it as science.

I don't like how he judges religious belief to be figuratively below science, but other than that Pigliucci is spot on. He goes even further with an idea I hadn't thought of yet:

...even science itself is far from being an activity rooted in reason alone. A standard distinction in philosophy of science is made between the context of discovery and the context of justification. The first one deals with how scientists come up with new theories or ideas, the second one on how they proceed to empirically test or establish them. The notion is that the context of justification is where science works in a rational way, by logically connecting hypotheses and empirical facts. But discoveries are often haphazard and non-rational in nature, with scientists themselves being unable to account for how exactly they came up with a particular idea...

I think that's brilliant. If I didn't hate the phrase "thinking out of the box" so much, I'd probably use it right now to explain how unjustifiable (read: not empirical) thinking is beneficial--if not necessary--as an antecedent to scientific justification.

I'll be reading more from Pigliucci and his gang, and next time I have a brilliant idea, I'll make sure to check his old posts to see if he's already written about it.


By any other name

I've spent quite a bit of time lately arguing that some atheists have lost their way or that they are calling themselves by the wrong name. One particular atheist went as far as to say that "atheism" has nothing to do with faith. That's absolutely untrue, and I doubt that it will ever be true, even with the current rate of language evolution. It seems that most atheist bloggers and blog-commenters, however, don't deny atheism's roots in faith and put forth some version of the statement, "gods almost certainly don't exist".

If this is one of the main positions of atheists as a group, then that puts atheism much closer to a faith or belief than to a scientifically empirical position, due to the fact that there is no formal framework for cetainty or probability that allows such statement without any evidence at all. And, no, lack of evidence of existence is not evidence for nonexistence. A conclusion based on no evidence is one of two things: (1) a belief, or (2) wrong.

So, given these facts:
  • Most atheists agree that the scientific method is the only justifiable way to gain knowledge.
  • Self-proclaimed "atheists" cannot seem to agree on their position with respect to belief in gods (despite the definition of the word "atheist"), and the most popular position (above) is a statement of faith, not science.
  • There is no widely popular politcal movement whose main motivation is the scientific method and reason and whose roots or main positions do not lie squarely in beliefs or faith.
  • I don't want to talk any more about the existence of gods.
I propose that all proponents of the scientific method and reason join together under a different name, one that holds no position with regards to faith and deities, but takes a position only in the case of real, measurable evidence in its favor. I know it's not a perfect name--though surely better than "atheism"--but I think "rational empiricism" represents the cause well. "Empricism" because we draw conclusions if and only if there is evidence, and "rational" because we use formal logic and reason to draw any number of conclusions from a collection of evidence.

Yes, we might also be skeptics, agnostics, atheists, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, and Communists, but the one thing all rational empiricists have in common is a set of arguments (politically, socially, interculturally) based only on empirical evidence and logic.

The term "rational empiricism" has a well-developed philosophical background, and the difference between this philosophy and what I propose here is mainly political activism. The philosophy does not have a goal, but I do. My goal is:

All laws and regulations enacted by the power of any government should
  1. guarantee personal freedoms insofar as they do not harm others, or,
  2. given (1), guarantee fairness and equal opportunity for all participants in economic, social, and political exchanges, or,
  3. given (1) and (2), promote the general welfare.

We can adapt rational empiricism to a political ideal by using the principles of the established philosophy to achieve these goals.

Many of these ideas are not at all new, but it seems obvious to me that politics are driven by opinions and beliefs, which is something I'd like to see changed. The solution is of course reason and the scientific method, neither of which has their own political voice, as they are constantly bent and mingled with other less desirable ideologies.

In case anyone was wondering, no, I am not planning on putting my name on any ballots in the near future, but I do plan to spend more time here in the background, analyzing and commenting, preparing myself for a future where things might change.

Notes and references:

Atheism is a religion, my first post focusing on this topic
Atheism is not science, a second attempt at clarity
One more time, on atheism, a stab at the politics of atheism

A very good Blag Hag post, under which I put forth and defend some of my positions using the name "Brian".

Rational empiricism, a good description of the philosophy
Ignosticism, a word I learned today that describes some of my personal views very well


Why are people smart but groups stupid?

This is a magnificent review of a book that appears to be amazingly wonderful. I want to read it.

The book apparently explains why Americans, as a whole, listen to and believe so much nonsense from politicians and other powerful people, and includes references to Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and Sarah Palin, so it's not short on pseudo-controversial topics.

I had been wondering if collective stupidity was a new phenomenon, or if it had become apparent to me only after I became old enough to understand it. The book states that it is indeed relatively new, and the causes are many. Either way, the polarizing and sometimes ridiculous elections I have experienced in the past few years have driven me towards the None of the Above campaign (though I prefer Richard Pryor's approach). I hope that there's hope, and that we can get better. Here's one suggestion to fight extreme polarity, anyway.


One more time, on atheism

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but each day I think of a more precise--or at least different--way to make my main point about atheism. Today's version:

Let's assume that one of atheists' goals is political power. I don't think this is far from the truth; if they didn't want political power, we can just forget this entire discussion and let them preach ungodliness. Let's also assume that atheists want to use this political power to change society so that important decisions align closely with the scientific method. That is, they want laws and rules based on actual evidence and logical, provable conclusions.

If these assumptions are true, then atheists have done their cause an incredible disservice by excluding from their ranks the huge number of rational, logical, considerate, and tolerant god-fearing individuals among the voting public. Even a loosely affiliated church-going scientist would not label himself an "atheist" nor align himself closely with an atheist organization. There are many like him, and atheists have not only made him feel unwelcome, but have on occasion insulted his beliefs. In fact, it leads to polarization just like in the purely political world, where the moderates don't know which way to turn. Atheists could claim the voices and votes of passive theists, but instead some of them are alienating even agnostics and passive/weak atheists by speaking so loudly against belief and its institutions.

It's fine to debunk religion, but when it comes time to actually get something done, those people who politically promote science--and science alone--need to leave "theism" out of the main discussion and out of their name.

Side note: There is more evidence that some atheists still say that gods "almost certainly" don't exist and evidence that they have forgotten where the word "atheist" comes from at this Blag Hag post. The author's post itself is secondary evidence, but in the comments I posted after "Craig's" somewhat misled statements. I posted under the name "Brian". It seems like defending these opinions of mine is becoming my new pet project. Don't feed it after midnight.


Atheism is not science

Since I've been on an atheism/religion kick lately, I'd like to draw attention to an interview with Seth MacFarlane in the September 2009 issue of Esquire. The interviewer, Stacey Grenrock Woods, makes the main point of my previous post about the battle between atheists and religion by asking two simple questions:

ESQ: Speaking of which, I see you've recently become rather vocal about your atheism. Isn't it antithetical to make public proclamations about secularism?

SM: We have to. Because of all the mysticism and stuff that's gotten so popular.

ESQ: But when you wave banners, how does it differ from religion?

SM: It's like the civil-rights movement. There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.

ESQ: Right, but I think I'll still try
The Secret. Oprah raves about it.

I got excited reading this because I was starting to think that there was no one out there who agreed with me. It seems that Woods at least partially agrees with me anyway, so now I feel better.

MacFarlane, though, no matter how amazing his television shows are, runs the risk of polluting his "atheist" cause by positioning it as the antithesis to religion. I said the same thing a while ago about the humanist movement. I stand behind any organization whose main purpose is to promote the use of knowledge and scientific reason to make political decisions, and I fully oppose those people who impose their belief and faith on others, but the two ideas are not opposites.

Surely they are very different, but the lack of one does not imply the other. Therefore I will say again that the self-proclaimed atheists, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics--and all others who claim to base their decisions on only science--should not list religion per se as an enemy in their manifestos.

The enemy is not lack of scientific basis, but instead opposition of scientific basis.

A simple belief in a god does not preclude rational behavior, even if religious activities sometimes do. Therefore do not tell someone that they should not believe in a god, but remind them (as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg almost-heroically did) to keep their beliefs out of political decisions.

I have this funny feeling that decades from now atheists and theists will still be arguing about whether or not God exists and science will have slipped out the back door.

If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.
--Don Draper, Mad Men


Game theory of life

In my lifetime, I've wanted to be a lot of things. I wanted to finish college and be a mathematician, and I wanted to be a runner. I wanted to be a traveler in Italy and conference participant in Australia. I wanted to be a homeowner and a valued employee. I wanted these things, but I never would have called them my "goals".

Goals are hard to attain and risky to pursue. A goal has to be--let's say, conservatively--less than 80% certain to happen, and it must require sacrifice. Winning a race was my goal, just like becoming extraordinarily successful in my career, publishing an article in Science, or seeing my short story in The New Yorker.

There are two main ways to achieve a goal, two directions in which to focus my efforts. One is the narcissistic path: drop everything else and focus on the goal. The other is the holistic approach: build myself and my capabilities until the goal becomes a simple matter of reaching out and taking it. If the goal were, for example, to help poor and starving people, we might contrast a lifelong member of the Peace Corps with Bill Gates. The former gives bread to the hungry with his own hands while the latter becomes a notorious billionaire before founding one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the world. It's not easy to say which way is better. By age 50, who has fed more people?

Warren Buffett said that his time should be spent where his talents lie: earning high returns on capital. He'll let the people who are good at feeding the poor feed the poor. Buffett's talents cannot be disputed, but perhaps his motivation can be. What else is someone whose lifelong goal is to earn money, if not greedy? Or, is he simply preparing himself to do the most good he can possibly do in this world? Buffett has been astoundingly thrifty, considering his former status as richest man in the world. Another former richest man, Gates, spends a bit more freely on himself, but apparently intends that his life's work be--ultimately, like Buffett--to give aid to millions of underpriveleged and impoverished people.

I don't know if Bill Gates has ever handed a piece of bread to a starving person. There are certainly many people who have, people I've never heard of and who are very good at what they do. The world needs both kinds of individuals, but which kind am I?

Do I drop everything now and try to take what I want, or do I try to take over the world first and then bend it to my bidding? Buffett says it depends on where my talents lie, which way is easier for me. It's hard to decide. Goals take time, and the thought of dropping everything feels like a sprint and a flying leap as the floor falls out from under me; I don't know if I'll make it across. If I never jump, though, I'll never know, and preparation is never a goal unto itself.

I've always followed my talents, and I've been pleased wwith where they've taken me. I'm extremely lucky in that way. But I've found that sometimes my talents cannot take me to the places where my talents do the most good, or the place I want to be, and I have to find another way around. It becomes a question of strategy; how long will I have to fight my way through unpleasant territory before I get to where I'm going? I can always turn and head to the goal straight on, albeit weaker, less prepared, and more likely to fail. It's a flying leap, but I just might make it.


Atheism is a religion

Sometimes I find myself saying the same words over and over, to different people in varying circumstances. Each time I say them, my voice becomes angrier and more abrupt, and before the 100th repetition I am practically yelling, either in tone or in spirit. Before that happens---and it's not too far off---I'll write the words here (and in the title) for my contemporaries and posterity to read at their leisure:

Atheism is a religion.

That's right. Saying "there is no God" is exactly as strong of a statement as "there is a God". The rules of logic (i.e. common sense) do not allow both a statement and its negation to be true. Likewise, if a statement ("there is a God") cannot be proven true or false, its negation ("there is no God") also cannot be proven true or false. Therefore, one cannot snicker at deists and ask, "where's your proof?" while proclaiming to be an atheist.

I present for evidence a comment from the often thought-provoking blog Blag Hag:

You don't have to "prove" god isn't behind evolution, just like you don't have to "prove" leprechaun's aren't behind it. Evolution works as described. If you want to insert an undetectable director into it, the burden of proof is on you. [from this post]

I have yet to find fault with the logic of Blag Hag's author (she's exceptionally open-minded and rational), but her commenters often tell a different story. The "burden of proof", as this commenter so aptly put it, is not "on you". The burden of proof is, in fact, nowhere. No one has to prove anything to anyone. That is precisely what separates belief from fact.

I'm not saying that the above comment is wrong. Under certain contexts, this comment could indeed be correct, but for that we would have to assume that the unwavering goal of the other party is to scientifically prove the existence of God (a goal for which very few people in this world actually strive), and in addition to that, we would need a proper definition of a "god", among other things.

On the other hand, if we assume that the commenter I've been using as a scapegoat is not quite an atheist, but is instead a mere skeptic or agnostic, the perspective changes quite a bit, but the question remains the same: who must prove what to whom, and why? The answer is quite often the same: no one must prove anything.

Every time I find myself in the middle of a discussion between self-proclaimed atheists (often scientist-types who reject religion) and theists, I liken it to an argument between two fruit salesman in a marketplace:

Apple salesman: My apples are better than your oranges.
Orange salesman: You're wrong. My oranges are tastier than your apples.
Apple salesman: How illogical! My apples are much more enjoyable than your oranges.
Orange salesman: Poppycock!

Science deals in facts, and religion deals in beliefs. Neither is better than the other; they are merely different thoughts that we have the option of enjoying. The hybrid cocktails, scientific belief and religious skepticism, are useless. The first leads to statements which are wrong, and the second causes speech no one cares to hear, and which accomplishes nothing. Why not deny both? Let facts prove facts and let our imaginations determine our beliefs.

A fact will never prove a belief, and believing a fact is meaningless. By definition---whichever definition---a god is on a different plane of existence than we. There, only our beliefs dare go where fact cannot. Therefore, I say, believe and let believe. Prove and let be proven. Do not confuse the two. Whatever the belief, it is a waste of time, energy, and the lives of religious soldiers to argue and fight over proof of beliefs. Know simply that it cannot be done.

Atheists, unfortunately, often find themselves on the same soapboxes from which their rivals earlier endured anti-deist jeers. That is, atheists take time away from more productive pursuits to tell others that they are wrong. In my arguments with atheists, more often than not their strongest argument against religion relied on citing some measure of detrimental effects of organized religion on mankind. In every case, the detrimental effects had nothing to do with deism and everything to do with antagonistic leaders and blind followers. Atheists, they are our common enemies.

Here is one of the many ways that an episode of South Park, Go, God. Go!---in which rival atheist sects rule the world of the future---said it perfectly:

Shvek [member of the Unified Atheist League]: Our answer to the Great Question is the only logical one. Our Science is great. Let us not forget the great Richard Dawkins who finally freed the world of religion long ago. Dawkins knew that logic and reason were the way of the future. But it wasn't until he met his beautiful wife that he learned using logic and reason isn't enough. You have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like you. Prepare all the troops! We will level the United Atheist Alliance to the ground!

Atheism is a belief, and the idea that it is somehow related to science is as false as the religious "facts" from which it intends to save the world. Adopting any other standpoint causes only needless and harmful antagonism, the root of all religious evil.


HEADLINE: Avatar "Unoriginal" Says Local Woman

Chatanooga, TN -- Jane Tripsec, a tax accountant, was entertained, but not impressed by James Cameron's recent film release, Avatar, which had a budget of over $400 million.

"I mean, the special effects were good, I guess, but that story has been used a thousand times before," said Tripsec. "I can't believe they had all that money but didn't spend any on an original script. It was the most expensive film of all time, for God's sake!"

Concerning the digital animation, Tripsec said, "Yeah, of course it was good. And it looked real. I was wearing those 3D glasses, and everything looked so real. I jumped a bit when one of those hand grenade things came flying out of the screen. But the script was totally unoriginal."

"Those floating mountains were cool," Tripsec added, "and all of those glowing plants and crazy animals and stuff. I sort of want to take a trip to that planet, you know, if it really existed."

Tripsec commented that, despite the awe-inspiring scenery and effects, her overall impression of Cameron's latest blockbuster was negative.

"The story is the same as that of [Kevin Costner's] Dances With Wolves [1990]. It's so unoriginal."

When asked whether she thought Costner's film was better, Tripsec responded, "I've never seen it."


The Avatar Post, in 3D!

Here's my rundown of which three dimensions were included in James Cameron's Steve Austin of movies, which I saw last night:

The Three D's explained

D #1: The plot, the characters, the dialogue, the script. They were all one-dimensional.

D #2: The cinematography and visual effects. They were very good.

D #3: The cinematography and digital effects. They're worth at least two dimensions.

Overall, it was a fun movie to watch. I'd recommend it to all IMAX enthusiasts, since IMAX fans aren't concerned with what they're watching as long as it looks cool.

People who enjoyed these movies might also enjoy Avatar (and why):


Hero of the Day: The Usher at the Volksoper

Two nights ago I went to the Wiener Volksoper for a ballet version of Carmen, which you can read about in yesterday's blog post. Although the performance was disappointing, one of the theater employees was not.

This particular gentleman was standing next to the ticket window and a sign that read "Ausverkauft" ("sold out"). I asked the woman inside the window if there really were absolutely no tickets left.

The gentleman in the red blazer and name tag replied, "Im moment nicht." ("Not at the moment.")

"Würde später viellecht ein Paar Karten verfügbar sein?" I asked.
("Might a few tickets be available later?")

"Könnte was passieren."
("It's possible that something could happen.")

I thanked him and moved off to the side to wait. The greatest thing about the conversation is that the man had a serene, omnipotent air about him. At first I thought that was because he fancied himself The Keeper of the Tickets, but I later found out he had something else in store.

After ten minutes, I heard him tell a woman that there was nothing at all left, so I inquired again: "Gibt es noch gar keine Karten?" ("Are there still no tickets at all left?")

His only response was to look at me and put his hands out in from of him, palms down, and push them slowly towards the floor, an expression I might call "hold your horses". I nodded and moved off to the side again.

Within five minutes he walked over to me and asked if my ladyfriend and I were students. I replied in the affirmative, after which the gentleman procured two tickets from a room next to the ticket window. For €10 apiece, we had very good seats in the third row of the lower balcony.

For this, you are my Hero of the Day, Mr. Volksoper Usher.


An eclectic ballet: Carmen

I spent yesterday evening at the Wiener Volksoper watching a ballet adaptation of Carmen. I've seen a bunch of ballets in Vienna, but this was only my second ballet at the Volksoper; the first was The Nutcracker back in December 2008. I've also seen one opera at the Volksoper: an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in English.

If I can say only one thing about the Wiener Volksoper and its performances, it would be that they have a knack for screwing things up in the name of modernization and/or artistic freedom.

Shakespeare as an opera--in English--was pretty bad. The Nutcracker featured a five minute break in live action while a huge projection screen was lowered from the ceiling and we could all watch some primitive digital animation of what was supposed to be a video game that one of the children received as a gift. And, the intense lighting was distracting and obnoxious. I hoped the Volksoper might do justice to an opera classic like Carmen, but my hopes were all but dashed in the first five minutes when the usually-colorful first scene was drab and sparse. I can forgive bad sets and costumes if the dancing is good, but it wasn't.

I have nothing against modern dance per se, but the dancers in Carmen strayed too far from the classical notions of beauty and expression. I constantly had the feeling that no one was able to move their bodies in the way the choreographer has intended. They were flailing their arms and legs in a series of half-extensions and staccato movements that I found neither expressive nor beautiful. They mostly looked like they were trying too hard. On the other hand, maybe the choreographer intended it this way, and I simply missed the point. That's not to say there was nothing good about the dancing; there were some genuinely impressive jumps and turns onstage, but they were too few to make the overall impression a positive one.

Furthermore, the non-orchestra music (perhaps half of the whole score) needed work, and half of the story was missing.

Lastly, Volksoper, what's with the digital animations?!? For half of the show I thought I was watching the title sequence to a James Bond film.

While I was watching, I was trying to think of who could have possibly put such a ballet together, and I think this bill would sum it up:

Carmen, the Ballet
Written by Michael Bay
Music by Ridley Scott
Visual Effects by Albert R. Broccoli
and Choreography by Mick Jagger