Tuesday, May 20, 2014

150! (What do I get?)

This being my 150th post (well, 151st if you count the post I took down a few years ago when I decided it was too personal, which is a shame since it was such a good post) I thought I ought to do something special. Of course it's exactly that sort of attitude of expecting "specialness" that's bound to give me a horrible case of writer's block, and as soon as I started thinking that way, my well of post ideas instantly dried up.

It's really a shame that Google seems to be doing some sort of search blocking, as I can't do one of my old posts where I'd talk about interesting search terms that brought people here. What I can tell you is that my most popular entries are on the 2006 Comic-Con and Milhouse as an internet meme. I guess that's good as the Milhouse one is one my personal favorites.

Maybe the thing to talk about though is that while I do seem to be getting a pretty good number of hits, I don't get a lot of comments. Most of the time, the thing that I'm thinking when I write blog posts (and this goes for my other blog as well) is, "What will my readers think about this?" Of course I have no idea what the answer to that is unless someone posts a comment.

The thing that I really like about the internet is the opportunity for dialogue with people you might not otherwise have a chance to come into contact with. Currently, when I'm not online the only people I really get to talk with are a few old high school friends and people from my current church. Sure, these are all people I do want to have interaction with, but I hate limiting myself. I'm not even looking for agreement; some time ago there was a guy that read through a bunch of my posts and largely gave rather eloquent explanations of why he thinks I'm full of crap; I can easily and honestly say that that guy was one of my favorite commenters!

Maybe what I'm missing is more questions? Maybe if what I'm looking for is discussion, I should end each of my posts with a number of discussion questions. What do you think about the Second Amendment? Have you ever had a serious disagreement with a Facebook friend? Do you have an interesting perspective on the evolution/creation debate? Is this what I'm missing?

Then again, maybe as I suspect is sometimes the case, I may be missing the whole point of blogging. Maybe it's just about generating hits and doing so as simply and uncontroversially as possible. If it is, is that what I really want? Lately I've been playing around with redefining what success means in my life so that it becomes something realistic and yet achievable; how should I really define success in blogging?

You know, maybe one of the things that's especially frustrating for me is that I know a large number of friends and family are aware of the fact that I blog, and yet I get virtually no feedback from them. Maybe that's odd to say since that's sort of complaining the opposite of what I was complaining about three paragraphs ago. Still, why shouldn't I have feedback from IRL people as well? There's something maddening in the cycle of, "Oh, you blog?" "Yes, here's the address!" followed by apparent complete silence from those who feigned such intense interest. (I did have an old friend read my blog and give actual comments recently, and even though it was just a couple comments, it really felt good!)

Anyway, I don't know if I have anything of substance to add to this, so I'll just leave it off now with a few discussion questions in hope that it will spark something. How do you define success in blogging? Do you think that I should expect feedback or dialogue from my blogging efforts? What, if anything, do you like about my blog(s) and what would you suggest, if anything, would improve my blogging?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Are guns "froofy"? A "well regulated" post on the 2nd Amendment

I think I've written a fair amount in the past about the 1st Amendment, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to write a bit on the 2nd Amendment, as it's probably the most controversial section of the Bill of Rights. Generally, I consider myself to be pro-2nd Amendment, but I'm pretty sure most of the opinions I have on the matter would be less than palatable to the average NRA member. No matter; if there's disagreement, I hope it can spark dialogue.

So first, on a very basic level, I do think that people should have the right to protect themselves, and if they choose to do so with a gun, then in general, the Constitution says that's okay. At the same time, I personally have no desire to own a gun; they don't appeal to me in any manner. Perhaps it's my distaste for guns that leads to my nuanced views of this law, although I think if I did want to own a gun, I'd still expect some reasonable boundaries to my rights.

Just because the founding fathers wanted to guarantee us certain rights about guns doesn't necessarily mean that they intended ordinary citizens to own fancy automatic assault rifles. I've heard some people say that the argument that the founding fathers couldn't have imagined the sorts of guns we have today is invalid because you could draw similar parallels to the 1st Amendment: that the founding fathers couldn't have known about things like the Internet, so maybe we should curtail freedom of expression with respect to media types that are more modern than the 18th century? This is supposed to sound ridiculous, but I don't think it is. Why? Because the Internet really has changed the way we communicate and express ourselves.

Let me tell you a story. Back around, oh, I think probably 1995, I had a friend that had one of the first home PCs I'd seen that was web ready. He had AOL. One day I was at his house, and he was showing me all the cool things that he could do on AOL, and he paused. "Do you want to see something scary?" he asked me. I wasn't sure I was, but I was curious as to what he meant. He popped into a chat room and typed, "Can anyone send me nudes of 13s?" Before I could parse what that meant, his computer chirped repeatedly "YOU'VE GOT MAIL!" and he opened up his inbox. There he showed me that he had just been sent several nude pictures of underage girls, including one of someone having sex with what was claimed to be a 12-year-old. I'm feeling pretty confident that the founding fathers never intended the 1st Amendment to protect that sort of artistic expression. I would suggest that when technology changes, our understanding of the world changes with it.

So back to guns. I don't see why an average citizen would have a practical need for guns of a certain firepower. (I'll admit freely that I'm a person who knows very little about guns, and I don't feel I have the confidence to say that I can draw the arbitrary lines between acceptable and unacceptable guns. I do feel that there are lines that are reasonable to be drawn, however.) I don't think people should have machine guns, and I have a hard time believing that the average citizen has a need for armor-piercing rounds, for instance, but this is just my personal view.

Perhaps we should take a look at the 2nd Amendment?

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
I think a lot of people, myself included, are confused about the meaning and significance of the first half of this law. I mean, if the 2nd Amendment were simply the text that follows the comma, it would be pretty simple, but the stuff before the comma leads to so many questions. What precisely is a "militia"? What does it mean for one to be "well regulated"? What's the real meaning of "the security of a free state"? Let's deal with these in turn.

Going to the dictionary for the first question, we find various definitions of "militia". The first definition given is "a body of citizens enrolled for military service, and called out periodically for drill but serving full time only in emergencies." This sounds like a group of people who are serving and protecting the government. But look at the fourth and final definition: "a body of citizens organized in a paramilitary group and typically regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government." This sounds like virtually the antithesis of the group in the first definition to me. While surely there are a lot of people today who believe it to be their right to be in a militia of the latter type, is there any evidence that the founding fathers meant that definition? Yet even if they didn't, does that make it wrong?

When something is "regulated" in any official sense (whether "well" or not) it's usually regulated by the government, isn't it? Once again, that would seem to rule out the latter definition of "militia", but I don't know I could say so with 100% surety.

The thing that's funny to me is how with all that lack of specificity so far, there is still more lack of specificity to be found in the last phrase, "the security of a free state". If the militia is guarding the security of the state, then it seems that it's working for the government, but I'm sure some would argue that the addition of the word "free" in there could imply that the militia could be fighting for a "free state" against a state that is not free. While that seems like an admirable cause, it's also quite open to differing opinion, and when people with (arguably) excessive guns are fighting to protect the right to have said guns, isn't the logic sort of circular?

Anyway, it's just awful strange. The 1st Amendment, as well as most if not all of the others in the Bill of Rights, doesn't give a reason why the people are given rights, it just gives them. Why does the 2nd Amendment give a reason, and unfortunately a reason that is, in the end, quite confusing? It's the difference between saying, "All children should get a lollipop on Friday," and saying, "Seeing as lollipops are so froofy and the well-being of children is dependent on overall froofiness, all children should get a lollipop on Friday." You find yourself suspecting that if you knew what "froofy" really meant, you'd have a better idea as to the validity of a weekly lollipop, and without that meaning, you might suspect the whole thing's garbage.

But there are a lot of people who defend the right to own a seemingly (to many) ridiculous amount and kind of gun with the argument that it does serve to keep us safe from an oppressive government. I'm not sure that I buy this in the end, for two reasons. The main reason is that if the government is truly going to turn on you and take away all your beloved freedoms, I don't think it matters what kind of guns you have. The government has tanks and bombers and chemical weapons and if they decide to come for you, guns just won't be enough, no matter how many you have.

The second reason is one that may just appeal to me as a person who doesn't love guns: The world has repeatedly been changed by a group of citizens who armed themselves and fought against oppressive governments, this is true, but the world has also been changed by people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela who never picked up a weapon, but were simply willing to lay down their lives for the cause of freedom. I'd just like to believe that the world can be changed without having to kill people to advance worthy causes. There are those who have shown that it can be done.

They say that guns don't kill people, people kill people; and that's true. But a gun is a tool that is specifically designed to cause harm, and while I respect people's right to defend themselves, a gun is something that I'll never be 100% happy with.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

About-Facebook

So I got "unfriended" today on Facebook. It was kind of an odd experience. I think what was particularly odd about it was that it was in the middle of a political discussion, and the person who unfriended me is someone that I find myself frequently in agreement with regarding political matters.

The place where we most certainly do not agree is in the area of religion. As I'm sure just about anyone knows, I'm a Christian. My former Facebook friend (FFF) is an agnostic, and a pretty hard-core one. Even though it was a political discussion going on with no perceptible religious undertones, my FFF took a moment to imply that my religion was a big part of the problem.

I'm having a hard time relating the story without simply copying and pasting the discussion here, but I think it's an important story nonetheless, because it largely defines the kind of person I am on a broader scale than just calling me a politically liberal Christian. See, my FFF implied that those people involved in the conversation that weren't liberals simply weren't worth the time having a political discussion with, and I disagreed. So he said he just had to unfriend me because he'd had enough of the "bullshit" that my religion was bringing on me.

I'm thinking that, given the context, he wasn't just talking about religion. Not really. After all, I'm even less of a preachy person outside of my blogging. I think the thing he had a problem with is the fact that so many of my Christian friends are (as Christians tend to be) very conservative. Yeah, he essentially said that he hates religion, but knowing him, (and I've known him IRL for over 20 years) I think the thing that really bothers him about Christianity is that so many Christians are conservative. If we all agreed with his political views and just happened to also believe in God, I'm sure he'd find Christians much more palatable. (Heck, he's put up with me just fine, so that's something, right?)

I know it's difficult to put up with people whose views you don't agree with, but this is where I know I also depart from his view, and this is the thing that, as I said, defines me as a person. I feel that shutting people out of my life because I disagree with them is just going to make the quality of my life (and maybe theirs) poorer. Just because I'm a Christian, I'm not going to forsake all my pagan, atheist, and agnostic friends. Just because I'm a Democrat doesn't mean I'm going to hate my Republican and Libertarian friends. Just because I love America doesn't mean I'm going to ignore anyone who lives outside of this country. I just believe that there's a fullness of life that you get from interacting with people whose viewpoints have the potential of broadening your own. If you only expend your time on people who have the same views as you, how will you ever learn anything new?

I guess I accept that my FFF may simply be dealing with anger issues (he also hinted at that) and just felt it was something he had to do for his sanity, but still, isn't there an easier way to deal with such things than cutting off your friends?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Bill Nye - Ken Ham debate

I don't know if I need to explain this as it seemed to be a pretty big media event, but Tuesday there was a creationism/evolution debate between Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") and Ken Ham (CEO of "Answers in Genesis"). As far as such debates usually go, this was a good one, and I felt that since it was a topic I like to cover on my blog from time to time, I'd give a sort of after-commentary here outlining what I think each debater did well as well as what they did poorly.

Interestingly, Bill Nye did extraordinarily well, considering that he is not a biologist, nor does he seem to know much of anything about the Bible. It seems to me that for debates like this, the evolution side would best be served by a debater who really knows their biology. I don't think that ended up being as big of a handicap for Nye as his lack of knowledge about the Bible in the end, as he made some arguments against the Bible that any reasonably-informed Christian could sweep aside as misinformation.

But I wanted to start with Ken Ham, both because he was the one who won the coin toss to speak first, and because I was far more impressed with his arguments than I think I ever have been with a creationist. As I think I've said before many times, creationists seem to often have a near-complete lack of knowledge of what evolution really means or how it works. Ham, however, seems to have a good grasp on the science, and doesn't make the mistake of outright denying evolution in any form. Rather, he points out what are really some near-obvious facts: Darwin spent a lot of time studying finch beaks in the Galapagos, and while there really is a striking amount of variation to be found there, the fact remains that with all that variation, they're all still finches. The point that Ham makes here is that while evolution definitely occurs, it's hard to show that animals evolve into entirely different kinds of animals. Yes, lions, tigers, pumas, and housecats all have a common ancestor, but they're still all cats.

Ham furthermore makes an important distinction between what he calls "observational" science and "historical" science. Observational science is science where you do experiments and make real-time observations of phenomena, while historical science is where you take what you know about natural phenomena and extrapolate that knowledge into the unobservable past. Since the past is unobservable, then historical science consists largely of guesswork, and standard evolutionary scientists have suggested that all life comes from a single, large family tree, while Ham is suggesting that we should think of all of life as being comprised of a sort of "family orchard" where different classes or "kinds" of animals all branch from a single ancestor that is completely unrelated to any other "kind". He points out that this model fits in just as well with biology as we know it today, but happens to also fit with the Biblical account of creation.

Also, a minor, but vital point that Ham makes is that there are plenty of young-earth creationist scientists that are doing just as much for innovation and technology as any atheist scientist. One of his chief examples is that of the inventor of the MRI, which revolutionized modern medicine, and yet that scientist/inventor believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Bill Nye, however, had plenty of interesting things to say, many of which were seemingly pretty devastating to Ham's position. Nye had a lot to say about the fossil record, which consistently progresses from simple animals to more complex organisms, showing evidence that the modern species that we know must have had simpler biological ancestors. Also, he points out that if all the animals in the world at one time were kept on Noah's ark, which landed after the flood in the Middle East, then there should be fossil remains of Australian animals like kangaroos in the Middle East, but no such fossils have ever been found.

Actually, Noah's ark was a big point of contention for Nye. Mathematically he showed that if the ark had had only a few thousand "kinds" of animals that led to the millions of species that exist today, that would imply evolution that operated at a rate of 11 new species daily for the last 4,000 years. Evolution like that would be hard to miss!

One of Nye's last points was that the standard model of evolution has actually at times predicted archaeological finds, and one of the things that is considered the hallmark of a scientific theory is that it has predictive ability. Nye suggested that Ham's model does not have predictive ability, a challenge that Ham never addressed.

As for weaknesses (apart from the fact that neither debater seemed to me to successfully rebut any claims made by the other), Ham at one point made the claim that science is being forced into a naturalistic mindset, and it needs to be opened to other possibilities. While I agree that alternative theories like creationism need to be considered, I can't say that I'm convinced that there is a value to non-naturalistic science. Nye repeatedly attacked the validity of the Bible by using the "telephone game" metaphor, which implies that the Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation, etc., when in fact each new version of the Bible that is published makes use of better textual evidence than previous ones, and is usually a translation directly from what are considered the best ancient texts.

In the end, I think both men really knew their stuff well, and presented their own arguments excellently, but like so many debates before, I don't think either of them was at all swayed by the opposing argument, and I bet both men considered themselves the winner. I found it entertaining, but I'm not sure that anything really useful was accomplished on either side.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Moral relativism is driving me batty

Perhaps this is a topic better suited for my other blog, but I think as it doesn't pertain to a specific scripture but rather a number of different Biblical topics, it would be better to discuss here. It's very common when people are arguing against the Bible that they bring up one or more topic of contrast between common understandings in Biblical times and modern understandings. Often, it's a matter of morality, such as "Why does the Bible allow slavery?" or "Why does marriage in Biblical times seem to treat women as just slightly above livestock?" While those are good questions well worth asking, sometimes there are questions of a scientific nature that seem nearly as pressing, such as "Why does the Bible seem to indicate that the earth is only a few thousand years old?" or "Why does the Bible consider bats to be birds?"

A friend of mine posted a link recently on Facebook to an article about church-sanctioned prostitution in medieval England. The article made me think about the way morality changes from age to age, and how "traditional values" are a questionable concept, especially faced with stories like this. The article says that while prostitution wasn't quite considered a good thing, it was figured that it was better that men solicit prostitutes than practice masturbation or sodomy. While I think most conservative Christians today would consider masturbation less serious than prostitution (sodomy would depend on exactly what you meant by the term, which tends to be fluid in meaning), it only goes to show that even among Christians, ideas of what is moral and immoral are fluid from age to age and culture to culture.

Really this fact shouldn't come as a surprise to most people. Of course morality is fluid. I think we conveniently forget this, not only as Christians, but as Biblical skeptics. In respect to the former, I think that it is right for non-Christians to suggest that it is questionable for Christians to (as it is often phrased) "impose iron-age morality on modern society." Really, I think most Christians see the wisdom in this to some point; we don't stone people to death for committing adultery anymore, do we? And I think we're all glad that such a barbaric practice is out of style. I know I want nothing to do with it.

But when it comes to the Biblical skeptics, I think there is a similar problem going on. How can we think it makes sense to impose 21st-century morals on iron-age nomads? Doesn't it go both ways? Don't criticize an ancient culture for not classifying bats according to your modern taxonomy rules when all they really needed was a guideline for which winged animals they could and could not eat. Furthermore, why would you impose your 21st-century morality on anyone when most likely people in the 22nd century will look back on your morals as abhorrent? We're far from an enlightened utopia that has done away with racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence, and science has tended to show that the things we think to be true and good today will be proven to be twisted and harmful to us tomorrow.

In the end, what I think I'm really saying is that everyone should be willing to question their assumptions of morality and reality. Not just their own, but the morals and world-views of people they assume to be wrong. You don't have to change your mind, just keep it open, you know?

Monday, December 09, 2013

Writer's block party

It's funny, and I don't know in which sense of the word I mean "funny", but when I was in college, I took a number of creative writing courses, and something that haunts me to this day about them is that I had a large portion of my classmates tell me that I was the best writer in the class. It haunts me because, well, while I do recognize that I wrote a handful of really good short stories in the mid-'90s as I was taking these classes, I've really never written much of anything else since then, at least fiction-wise.

Yeah, I've been blogging, and some of it is probably pretty good, but when you think about being a "writer", don't you tend to think about someone who writes stuff that's more than just a handful of self-published random musings? What I'm saying is that I've always wished I could be a novelist, because it somehow always seemed like writing a novel is something a "real writer" would do. But even back in college when I was getting all this praise dumped on me, it always got to me that however good my writing might be, I'd never written a piece longer than about ten pages. Really, that's only a proper short story because unlike terms like "novel" or "novella", there's no minimum guideline for what qualifies as a "short story".

It's a kind of writer's block for me: I can think of stories, but generally only very, very short ones, and sometimes not even that. Where do stories come from, anyway? It boggles me that there are writers out there with dozens of novels to their names, people who just seem to be a wellspring of ideas that are worth committing to paper and distributing to thousands of readers. How do they do it?

I can barely get a blog post out.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Is blogging an ethical act?

From Goosing the Antithesis:

Alison really hit the nail on the head when she told me the real issue was that people actually believe in the act of belief itself. Indeed, the Christians have been positioning themselves as being part of the "belief-based" side and that they support religion against atheism, instead of their regular exclusivism. Because of this, a most vital debate that should be taking place right now, and which people like Dawkins and Harris are starting, is "is belief an ethical act?" (and by ethical we mean: as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments)

That is the real issue that should concern all of us, atheists and religious alike.
Francois Tremblay's writing is very interesting to me, because despite the fact that I rarely agree with his conclusions, he is indeed very adept at cutting to the heart of an issue. The problem with this issue, however, is that he seems to be making some assumptions that I don't completely agree with.

Actually, almost more than the assumptions, the thing that I have issue with is the definitions of the words used in the question. If "ethical" is taken to mean "...a social rule or judgment, group norm..." then the default answer is "Yes!" and really can hardly be anything else. As most if not all societies throughout the world are composed of a religious majority, the answer becomes a default. It seems to me that Tremblay (being an atheist) must either be sarcastic or far more lax in his wording than his usual writing in the above piece.

So I'll make some assumptions of my own to try and simplify the issue just a bit. The easy assumption is, from the larger context, that by "belief" we mean here "religion", that is, faith in a higher power of some sort. That being the case, however (or even if not) I question the use of the word "act", as belief, while something that oftentimes leads to action, is not really an action in itself.

Restating the question as "Is belief ethical?" still leaves us with items to sort out, though. Actually, it may be the reason that Tremblay phrased the question in that manner; are we asking if belief leads to ethical behavior, or if belief itself is ethical? Furthermore, are those two issues at all separable? Most religions come with a code of ethics built in, but such ethical codes may have difficult wrinkles in them that seem to be flaws: The God of Israel forbade human sacrifice, but ordered Abraham to kill his son. What happens when a supposedly moral God (who demands obedience as part and parcel of His moral code) orders a person to do something apparently immoral?

That issue in turn leads to another, probably more important one. How do we effectively define ethics apart from belief? There are many people who feel that there is a need for a supernatural basis for ethics and that without such a basis, ethics is meaningless. This has never been proven to me in a satisfactory manner, and as many an atheist has pointed out in one way or another, taking such a position robs us of our ability to reason out the true nature of ethics. (If you can't say that God is at least possibly immoral, then how is it meaningful to say that God is moral?) It seems that ethics need to either be relative or anchored in something even more fundamental than a supreme being. If a theist wants to propose otherwise, they would need to explain why, rather than take it as a given, I think. However, at the same time, moral relativism is something that needs some explaining; as one person implied in the comments of the original post, if morality is relative, then you once again are not able to say that God (or anyone else) is immoral.

A further wrinkle that I don't believe came up in the comments is that there is perhaps an assumed false dichotomy. If the answer to the question is "No", does that mean that belief is immoral? What if the answer is that belief is amoral? Indeed, I have heard it claimed by devout Jews at times that belief in God is not a prerequisite for being a good Jew; the Torah contains laws that are mostly prohibitive, and among those remaining laws that are requirements, belief in God is not one of them, so even the religious can believe that belief itself is not an ethical issue. If belief is amoral, then what does that imply? Does it make the question more important, or less?

While Tremblay's post is truly meaty food for thought, I fear that the question he raises has no obvious answer in the end.