Monday, August 28, 2006

My neighbor's dog can say "Hello", and I think she's a lesbian

Two dogs are having a conversation. One of them says to the other, "Woof!" The other replies, "Moo!" The first dog is perplexed. "Moo? Why did you say moo?" The other dog says, "I'm trying to learn a foreign language."
I was planning to eventually do another piece on homosexuality, and my opinion on what the Bible says about the prospect of "reforming" homosexuals. I was putting it off since it seems to have turned out to be much more of popular topic for my blog than I meant it to be, and I wanted to do some more stuff on comics as an art form. Then I was reading some of the archives on and came across a link and commentary on this: (Note that many of the things linked to in this post require Flash to view.)

Okay, um... There are a number of interesting current events that I like to comment on, and I'm rather fond of constructing a good metaphor to illustrate my point, as anyone who has read my stuff or talked to me in person knows. (Yes, readers, I actually talk like I write if you get me started, just with less parentheses.) I don't always know when a metaphor is particularly good, but I sure think I can spot a bad one.

Let's summarize: Colorado doesn't need domestic partnerships because DOGS DON'T GO "MOO"! Wow, you've got to hand it to them; if there were any valid points to be brought up about this issue, they were completely overshadowed by the ridiculousness of the really awful metaphor. Although the dog is pretty cute, I guess. I really do think they brought up some good points, but before you really get to them, you get loaded up with some really odd baggage. Let's walk through it, shall we?

When I first opened the site, I didn't have my headphones on, so what I saw was a dog with a line connecting to the word "sherman". That alone was quite odd, as it looked like the sort of simplified quote balloons some cartoonists use, and in fact, the very same animation uses only two seconds later with "woof". My first thought was not that this dog was supposed to be Sherman, but that the dog was calling to Sherman, and we were about to be treated to a new episode of . I expected, "Sherman! Come set the WABAC machine for 1955, when even liberals had respect for traditional family values!"

Okay, once the short animation (so short and simple that it's hard to understand why they bothered with flash at all) was over, it was clear this wasn't going to happen, but instead, we're treated with the claim: "If dogs were born to bark, why are some people trying to convince you they can moo?" Wow, I thought, who's trying to do that?

After some web searching, I discovered that they really exist, apparently. I'll get to them in a moment. For now, let me just say that I found the site rather confusing because I had no idea what they were talking about. A reference to the original mooing dog would have been quite a bit helpful in determining that while they were partaking in this nonsense, at least they weren't the originators of it. I guess they assumed that residents of Colorado would know about it, and that's what's important.

They're talking about , which apparently is an ad campaign to convince Colorado residents that homosexuality is just as normal as a dog that goes "MOO". Boy, if I wanted to convince people that gay people are weirdos, I think I'd be behind this message 100%. Which brings me to a new strange thing about the "No moo lies" site that I wasn't even thinking of when I began to write this post: If these guys are trying to be taken serious for their mooing dog, I'd think the best way to counter their message is to echo the message back and say, "Gay marriage is as natural as this dog who moos? We probably couldn't have put it better ourselves!" As I myself said in a comment to the site:
Moo? This doesn't make any sense. What does mooing have to do with sexual orientation? I don't think making Norman your spokesdog if you will is winning too many points. Some dogs hump their owner's legs, which comes closer to the concept of sexual orientation than mooing. Is this a connection you want people to make? If you're gay, you're just another person. If you're a dog that moos, you're a freak for the sideshow. C'mon, now.
A commenter back at Wonkette says (in response to the Sherman site's question "Why can't we base our behavior on what animals do?"):
Indeed. I'm off to lick my balls and take a dump on the sidewalk.
I'm not sure who that sarcasm was aimed at, as I'd originally thought it was at the anti-gay marriage site, but the link given goes to a page that is intended to point out the ridiculousness of the idea. As they say on that page, animals do a lot of stuff, including (as I said, but they refrained from, no doubt in order to be family friendly) attempting to have sex with other species. I don't think the pro-gay marriage people want to support bestiality, as that would just be begging for a slippery-slope argument that, well, nonetheless might be worth pondering.

Now, one of the odd things that get brought up by both sites is the timely, important issue of . I wish I could have made this up, really. Born Different points to the story of two male penguins in New Zealand that have been nearly lifelong partners, choosing each others' company over that of female penguins. For some reason, they refer to them as the "unlikeliest gay couple". I don't know if that's because they have some stats on how penguins are the least gay species on the planet or something, or maybe it's because, as the article says:
"They don't actually bonk," says [bird curator Rochelle Deane]. "But they're totally out there."
You know, in college I had a roommate for three years. We were both men and we lived together, cooked food for each other, went to movies together, and spent far more of our free time with each other than with members of the opposite sex. We didn't "bonk" each other, though. Still, I suppose we may have been gay and I just missed it. No-Moo-Lies points to another same-sex penguin couple in New York, who not only kept a monogamous relationship with each other for several years, but was allowed by the zookeepers to hatch an egg and raise a daughter together. They of course point to this because of the twist ending: a female named Scrappy was introduced into the mix, and one of the "gay penguins" became "perhaps the world's first documented ex-gay penguin". You know what I like about the way the traditional-values people bring up these penguins in response? Two things. First, the way they refer to Scrappy as "a hot little bird" or "a saucy female penguin". I'm wondering if there are any sites out there that refer her as a "darling little God-fearing penguin seductress"? I guess I just did; can I copyright that? Second thing to note is that it's funny that the anti-gay marriage folks want to point to the ex-gay penguin as evidence of anything (perhaps I'm misunderstanding their intentions), because it seems like they're giving credence to the idea of gay penguins meaning something in the first place. If so, what does all of this really mean in light of the fact that the little girl penguin they raised is now apparently in a committed relationship with another female? There's some sort of gay animal soap opera happening at that zoo, I tell you.

Both sites talk a bit about sexual orientation and genetics. Born Different points out that there are identical twins that are both gay, such as Canadian musicians . (Pretty good musicans, actually, I've heard their stuff.) We are told that "[I]f one twin is born gay, there is a higher chance (52%) that the other will be gay as well. [S]ince identical twins share DNA, this tells us that genetics plays a part in sexual orientation[. T]hat means some people are born gay." While there is no citation given for the initial statistic, I'm more than willing to believe it. However, I don't buy the claims that follow. Consider replacing the word "gay" with "blond" in the first sentence. What would you expect the percentage to be? I'd expect 99%, maybe more. There may indeed be a genetic component to sexual orientation, but I don't think the stats given are showing anything of the sort, and it certainly is not proven that people are "born gay". They may be, but I know of nothing (certainly not this statistic) that would prove this. (Forget "blond" now and replace "gay" with "affluent"; genetics thus plays a role in personal net worth, right?)

Now, despite the (suggested) fact that people are not born gay, the people at No-Moo-Lies admit that "Same-sex attraction results from a combination of factors...which can begin in the earliest stages of childhood." Now, while I don't see them explicitly making a bad assumption here, it does seem to be implicit all over their site: that if you weren't "born gay" then you must have chosen it, as though those are the only two possibilities. Both my mother and I were born with blond hair. As we entered our late teens, our hair turned more of a light brown, and then eventually, in our early 30's started going rather grayish. I wasn't born gray, but I didn't choose it either. Nor do I mind, I rather like the look. Of course, I could dye my hair whatever color I want, and be an "ex-gray".

Does genetics make something right to do, or wrong to deny? I knew a guy in school who strangled his girlfriend to death. His older brother did, too, a few years later. It was later found out that their father (who had not raised them, and therefore only influenced them through his genetics) was in prison for strangling his own girlfriend to death. It seems like this family carries a genetic disposition towards girlfriend-strangling. Does that make it right? Of course not. Is homosexuality the moral equivalent of girlfriend-strangling? Let me be crystal-clear that I don't want to imply that at all! I only point out that genetic inclination doesn't imply a moral high ground. It seems that some gays can change. (And I assume that not everyone who has a desire to kill their significant other acts out that desire.) Maybe all can, who knows? Maybe it's all an illusion, and as some people have claimed, "ex-gays" are really reoriented bisexuals. I don't know. No-Moo-Lies doesn't really address the issues of homosexuals who failed to be changed by the therapy, and Born Different doesn't address the few successes as far as I can find. One report linked to states:
To date, there are no scientifically rigorous outcome studies to determine either the actual efficacy or harm of "reparative" treatments. There is sparse scientific data about selection criteria, risks versus benefits of the treatment, and long-term outcomes of "reparative" therapies. The literature consists of anecdotal reports of individuals who have claimed to change, people who claim that attempts to change were harmful to them, and others who claimed to have changed and then later recanted those claims.
In other words, we all seem to have opinions, but nobody seems to have conclusive hard data. In lack of such data, where is a Christian to turn to? Maybe this is a place where the Bible gives some insight, at least if you're of the theological stripe to recognize the Bible as the Word of God. From :
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Gee, harsh words. Some people love to trot out this verse to condemn homosexuals, probably because it's one of the very few that actually mentions homosexuality. But note that "homosexual offenders" is only one of ten different types of people that are mentioned. I think there are few people who won't find themselves on this list somewhere, if not in more than one of the items. I know most of them would have been appropriate labels for me at some point in the past. So where's the hope? Did we forget to finish out the paragraph? Next verse:
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
A good lesson not to take a verse out of context is here. If you are a Christian, and you believe that God will not change some aspect of you because there is nothing wrong with it, then that's a moral position that may be defensible. If you are going to claim that God cannot change you, you're making a theological statement about the power of God. Maybe God thinks being gay is alright. Maybe not. I do think it's quite likely that God would rather see us spending time and energy on things other than mooing dogs and .

Oh crap, and I just wrote my longest post ever on the subject, too.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Rising to the Challenge, part III: Dog on, "Well, it's DNA!" and still, "Ew, no God."

I'm going to take a moment to go back to the comments of both Zondo Deb and Jono, and continue to expand on a concept I touched on in part I of this series of posts.

What if there was found in nature a message that unambiguously pointed to a higher power? Call me naive, but I still think there is. It's a message found inside every living thing on the planet, and it's called DNA. Now I admit I'm no biochemist, or whatever it is one might need to be to become an expert on DNA and all related sub-cellular information-carrying and processing molecules, but there is something fascinating going on at the microscopic level in living cells. Maybe it's the sort of thing that one would write off as creationist propaganda, but while I realize some creationists like to grasp at scientific and pseudoscientific straws, a lot of the things I plan to discuss here were things that I had mused over back in the days before I was a Christian, and I've never been a strict Biblical Fundamentalist Creationist. (Some of my views on creationism can be found at my other blog, mostly back about a year ago.)

What is DNA? It's a complicated molecule that carries within it a sort of chemical code. The code is written in four different chemical letters called "bases" which essentially come together to form various three-letter words that spell out sentences called "genes". Those words correspond to amino acids, which according to the gene they are in will be strung together to make a protein. Human DNA has about 3,000,000,000 bases which code for about 30,000 genes.

Now, admittedly human genetics are more complicated than those of lower forms of life, but you have to consider that the complexity goes down to a cellular level. Each individual cell of any living creature is made up of complicated little machineries which exist to process fluids, move minerals and burn fuel. The various genes coded onto DNA are accessed to formulize the creation of all the little proteins that make the parts that run the machinery of the cell.

Imagine trying to create a functioning automobile out of tinker toys. (Such a car would be huge, but scale isn't so important in imagining it, as the tinker toys at the cellular level aren't visible to the naked eye.) Just imagine fitting together tiny little pieces to make a machine that can transport things from one place to another under its own power, and has the standard amenities like power steering, anti-lock brakes, etc. That's an approach to the complexity that exists in a cell, but a cell is actually far more complicated than that. And aside from the complexity of the structures that make a cell simply function, there's also the fact that living cells have the property of self-replication. That is to say, imagine not only building a car out of tinker toys, but in the engine of your tinker toy car, you've got a sort of tinker toy encoded blueprint of the car that, rather than sitting there statically waiting for some tinker toy virtuoso to come along and read it to build another car, the car itself will gather loose tinker toy parts it finds and build more tinker toy cars as part of its normal function. Imagine building a car like that made from any material! And that's just a cell; imagine the further complexity of building a whole body!

Irreducible complexity is a popular concept among "Intelligent Design" proponents these days, but has some serious flaws scientifically, some of which I expect to address at a future date. The thing that really fascinates me, and something I've never heard addressed by any ID people, is a sub-cellular chicken-or-egg problem. (I actually heard this from an author who I believe is an atheist.) You've got DNA, right? It's a coded message that tells you how to build a human being, an amoeba, a redwood tree, whatever sort of massive "tinker toy car" it's a part of. How is the code read? Well, there are various sub-cellular structures such as RNA that serve various purposes like reading the code off, gathering the appropriate amino acids, stringing them together, checking the code for errors, making copies of DNA, and even cellular-level immune systems to protect from virus intrusion (these are totally separate from the system-level immune systems such as your white blood cells). All of these structures and systems are like the hardware on which the software of the DNA code is run.

Where does that hardware come from? Answer: it's built from certain parts of the code integrated into DNA. So you can't have the machineries that build living things on the cellular level unless you have the machinery to build them already in existence. Put raw DNA in a beaker and wait to see what happens. Nothing. Try with water, cold or hot. Nothing. Add a bunch of carbon, nitrogen and trace amounts of other important minerals. Still nothing. How about a warm soup of amino acids in varyingly oxygenated and heated environments? It will do nothing. Nothing whatsoever. No, DNA only functions in its natural environment, surrounded by a living cellular structure. And living cells don't come from nowhere.

So as usual, getting to the point after a wild series of paragraphs of blah-blah-blah-blah... Where does life come from, if not from an intelligence that is not life, at least, not as we know it? A DVD without a DVD player is useless, and vice versa. DNA without life does nothing, and if you somehow could remove all the DNA from a living organism, it would cease to function in fairly short order, and certainly would never fulfill its primary evolutionary function, which is to reproduce itself. So it seems logical, to me at least, that there must exist (or once have existed) an intelligent being that is not an earthly life form. While that intelligent being may not be "God" in the sense we tend to think about it, I have a hard time thinking of any alternate ideas that don't approach ridiculousness. It is for this reason that I have been fairly confident that there is a divine Creator, even in the days before I was a Christian.

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Rising to the Challenge, part II: A freakin' miracle!

Back from my short vacation (or maybe longer one from the Internet if I don't finish this until Monday) I resume my commentary on the responses to my "" inspired in part from my posting on Goosing the Antithesis.

I might as well address the response given by Sharon, who, although not an atheist, is very close friends with one who makes an interesting suggestion that God might simply alter our brain structure so that we become believers. Aside from the logical problems I have with that and address there, my desire is definitely to address the question with the understanding that free choice continues to be a part of the process. (On a side note, if free choice does not exist anyway, then the question is in many ways meaningless.)

Finally getting back to the response by bookjunky, he makes one of the best suggestions I have heard, I think. He suggests that if the earth's rotation were reversed without harm being caused to life on the planet, that would be a clear-cut miracle, as such a thing should simply not be possible. I think this is a good answer, as this indeed would be hard to explain, and pretty much impossible as a natural phenomenon, as he suggests. The following suggestion that God would need to give an explanation to everyone on earth is probably a necessary part, as the miracle itself would have no reference. Some people might find it hard to fully understand why, but Jesus coming back from the dead or raising someone else from the dead is more meaningful than someone coming back from the dead without some sort of prophet around. A miracle without context is interesting, but meaningless.

Other suggestions given are parting the Pacific Ocean, and moving of the stars to spell out a message in all languages (possibly a logical impossibility). This latter suggestion is also essentially given by Jono. All interesting responses, but I believe flawed at their heart for the real reason I think is at the center of this question. As bookjunky says:

Would I then believe in a Christian version of God? Hell, no.
Ouch. I think this is significant. Is it enough to simply believe that there is a higher power out there, or is it necessary, in God (be it the Christian God or not) wanting us to believe, that we believe properly? This seems to be a foundational truth of most religions, despite some people claiming the contary. It's not enough just to "be sincere in your belief". You have to be sincere in the belief of the right thing.

Hey, maybe there's a good reason somebody has to disbelieve in the God of the Bible. Then again, there are some people who feel that they have good reason to disbelieve that God exists at all in any form. That's part of what makes Francois' response so appealing to me. He doesn't simply say he has no answer, he positively asserts that the answer does not exist! Even though I happen to believe in God, I, too believe there is no answer to this question, specifically because of our will to deny whatever we will. It may be faith, it may be logic, it may be a number of things, but there are people out there who do believe, people out there who would be willing to believe (or think they would), and people who will not believe. I don't think God can please them all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Rising to the challenge, part I: My goose cooked?

Well, as I may have hinted in my last post, I have a number of subjects on deck, so to speak, and just haven't gotten around to polishing them up and posting them due to them being not up to my usual quality (insert self-deprecating blog humor here). In particular, let me foreshadow that I had a few things to say about the evolution vs. creation debate that I think will be thought-provoking, but maybe I'll break it down into several posts like I did with the separation of church and state posts (1 2 3 4).

At the moment, I am going to go back and revisit one of my previous posts that's one of my favorites, and has now become a much more popular one thanks to my sneaking a link into a much more popular blog. I think the post itself doesn't need much in the way of restatement, but various responses I have finally received lead to further discussion.

Francois Tremblay says something that I think cuts to the heart of the matter, partially because I asked for an opinion on whether the suggestion of God proving Himself or my responding challenge really has meaning. He says "it is quite impossible for us to know that any given event is non-natural" which I hope believers in the supernatural will see to be quite true! Hypothetically, if there was an event that was non-natural, how would we be able to tell? (I may take this in more detail as a future post soon.) He also points out that believing that God could exist implies living in a completely different mind frame than believing that God could not exist. What little significance the "atheist challenge" has, if any, depends largely on what sort of atheist a person is. A person who knows God does not exist will see it differently from a person who is of the opinion that God does not exist, who will in turn see it different from someone who simply doesn't know whether God exists or not.

On a side note to this last point, I've heard atheists make the clever comment that most people are atheists of some sort or another. I may believe in Jesus, but I am an atheist in respect to Zeus, get it? So one interesting restatement of the original question that will allow Christians and other theists to play along in this sort of philosophical train of thought is:

3: Give a hypothetical undeniable proof of the existence of the God of the Quran. (If you're a Muslim, you could still use the wording of challenge #2.) Essentially, suggest a way that "Allah" could send an unambiguous message to the world so that everyone could understand fully that our purpose in life should be to follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. You may have a good answer, or you may see from this perspective why the original question is not so meaningful.

Bookjunky makes some suggestions that I think are very good, but I will save for my next post. Partly because I he reposted much of his comment in my blog, and I'll respond to those posted here separately, and partially because his response is in an odd fashion related to Zachary Moore's response, in which he points out that while surely there may be miraculous signs that would make you give consideration to God, you might still not "worship a being so immoral". This is oddly enough a more difficult hurdle for people who do not believe than lack of physical evidence. People don't believe because they don't want to, and they feel perfectly justified in denying a perceived cruel deity.

Zendo Deb refers to the ending of Carl Sagan's book "Contact", which he says was "expunged" of all religious references when made into a movie. Oddly enough, I found "" to be an incredibly spiritual movie myself, so I'm more eager than ever to read the book, which is high on my list of books to read sometime soon. His suggestion?

Obviously non-random information would have to be hidden in various computations. The digits of pi, when expanded to some large number of digits would be seen to contain certain messages, and so on for other non-rational real number representations.
I find this a fascinating suggestion, and one that I could devote a whole series of posts to. I may do at least one. My thought on this? In the movie "Contact", Jodie Foster's character hears some radio pulses coming from outer space and says, "Those are primes! 2,3,5,7, those are all prime numbers and there's no way that's a natural phenomenon!" If the pulses did come from a natural phenomenon, say a radio source that had a fifty/fifty chance of either pulsing or pausing, the chance of that particular sequence coming up is one in 1,048,576. That alone was enough to convince her that this was not natural, but on top of that, there was encoded within the signal the blueprints for a massive and complicated machine.

For me, the idea that we could discover a complicated code that gave instructions for the building of an elaborate machine that was not created by human intelligence would be evidence enough for me to assume a higher intelligence was out there and was interested in talking to us. Of course, as far as I'm concerned, that's a good description of DNA. Living things, down to the very cellular level are perplexingly intricate machines that are far beyond the ability of any human engineer to design. This message is obviously not unambiguous enough for everyone to believe there's something more than mere random effects of evolution walking about on our planet, but for me it tends to be enough to wonder. Is it enough for Zendo Deb or any other skeptic to at least consider agnosticism?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Awakening the sleeping dad

After complaining about my own lack of consistent posting in my other blog, I've now gone over a week without posting at either of my blogs. It's not like I have a big enough audience of regular readers that I really need to explain myself, but I guess I personally feel the need. Plus, it gives me a chance to vent and complain, which we all really enjoy don't we? Or is it just me? (I noticed a few years back that I am actually entertained by the rants of people who seem to complain all the time. Whether it's an unexplainable personality quirk of mine or whether hearing other people's complaints makes me feel better about my own life, I don't know. I've always said that that's why I enjoy listening to The Smiths, who, for those of you not familiar, here's the lyrics of one of their biggest hits. I pop in an old tape, and the more pathetic Morrissey gets, the more cheerful I get. Go figure.)

Anyway, the thing that's getting me down is just life in general. As I'm sure I must have mentioned, I'm working two jobs right now, and it's wearing me out. I like a good solid eight hours of sleep, but tend to get four most nights these days. It's not fun making just enough money to get by while you don't get sufficient sleep or time together with your family. The way it's affecting my blogs is that I don't seem to have the mental energy to think coherently enough to write in a manner that feels proper to me. I actually have several unfinished posts stored up in this blog, and one in the other, but when I go to write on them, it doesn't sound right. For now, writing a little post of personal complaint, I feel more accepting of sloppiness, but the post I was working on this Monday seemed like an important one, and pretty much every post on my other blog is one I consider important. (And anyway, Exodus 21 is a really tough chapter to comment on!) The random gibberish that I type in a half-sleeping haze just doesn't seem sufficient for some topics.

Perhaps the worst of it for me personally was Tuesday. Blogs aside, which in the grand scheme of things are of course nothing, I got up before the sun, and came home after dark, never seeing my family at all. That sucks. I remember the one thing I worried about when I got a second job was that I'd turn out to be like my father.

Time for personal disclosure here. When I was two, my parents divorced, and so I really have virtually no memories of my parents together. (I do have a few, which surprises me, as I don't know that many people remember being two years old.) Most of my early childhood was spent with my mom, with something like twice-yearly visits to my dad's house. My dad at that time worked as a nurse, pulling the graveyard shift at the hospital. He always told me that doing graveyard was a great opportunity, because he was able to pull down lots of hours, since nobody wanted the shifts. However, on those twice yearly visits, he didn't often take time from work, and I would sit and watch television while he slept off the night shift. I wanted desperately to spend time with my dad, and grew to dispise his work and his dedication to it. Oddly enough, as an adult, I get a feeling of comfort rather than unease that most others feel when visiting the hospital; somehow I associate it with something warm and parental.

When I was discussing with my wife whether or not to get a second job, it was something I mentioned to her: the fact that my dad was someone who, from my point of view, seemed to sleep through my childhood. I didn't want to be that for my children. I wanted to be someone who would hear "Yay! Daddy's home!" rather than "Shhh! Daddy's home." and have my children wonder who I was beyond a snoring lump in the master bedroom.

The thing is, this is the sort of thing that I hope people only do because they have to, while I suspect my father did it because somewhere inside, he valued money more than relationships. This is the part where I start to feel sad about other people's problems rather than enjoying hearing complaints, because the people with the real problems in life hardly ever seem to be the ones complaining; they're too busy working to dig themselves out of their problems. I can complain, but in the end, this is only a temporary thing. My wife will be going back to work soon part time, as my childen are now old enough to start preschool. I'll drop my second job, and get some training to start a new career that will bring me more income. I've got a Bachelor's degree, and am looking to get a Master's in the future, and I have a lot of opportunity for upward mobility, even though my present situation is far from ideal. I'm not looking to own a big house and a fancy sports car, only to live my life with my family with some savings in the bank for emergencies and knowing that I will be able to send my children to college some day if they choose to go there (which I hope they will). I really think that I'll get there some day, maybe even within the next year or so. I also realize that there are many, many people who are not only not there, but will never get there.

There are people out there with families to support that they have to work two full-time jobs at minimum wage in order to do so, and their children must hardly know them. They sacrifice having the sort of personal relationship that (I hope) we all want to have with our children, not for a brighter future, but so that they don't starve. Sometimes it seems like one of the biggest injustices in life: that there are people who are trying hard to make life and families work, and are contributing to society in an irreplaceable manner no doubt, but never quite make things work out for themselves. Call me an anti-capitalist, but I have a hard time stomaching people who make millions of dollars who are doing it only for the purpose of making tons of money while there are others making next to nothing who only want to feed their children and put a roof over their heads.

So, depressed over my blog, depressed over my own problems, depressed over other people's problems, and even depressed over other people's successes, I take a moment out to complain. I hope I have entertained.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

What is the soul?

There is a question that has plagued people for all of history, in one form or another: What is the soul? I thought I'd take some time to muse on the topic, not that I necessarily have some great insight into the matter, but simply that it was on my mind this morning for some unknown reason.

Firstly, I'd like to lift from a comment I left in Hellbound Alleee's blog (italics are H.A.'s words) :

Brucker, what reason to you have for believing that there is an essence of who we are?
I think Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" is rather convincing. I don't know that the sorts of conclusions Descartes inferred from this position follow so logically as he might hope, but the central concept is there.

I feel that I can know that I exist, despite the fact that I can perform no experiment to tell me if my true essence is the sum parts of my body, just the brain, a disembodied spirit, or the hallucination of Hindu's Brahman. From a radically skeptical perspective I can doubt just about anything other than the basic fact that I exist as a conscious entity.

How about this: we have a body that perceives, metabolizes, feels emotion, and has a memory?

Who is this "we" that owns this body? Do you "have" a body, or are you a body? Choose your words carefully when talking about consciousness and self-identity.

There is no reason to believe in an "essence," a "soul," a "spook," a "homunculous," or a "self." If there is a reason, you should be able to point to something other than a body.

Is there reason to believe in your blog? I read some words on my computer screen, but is your blog on my computer? If so, does it cease to exist when I turn my computer off? Perhaps it's on a web server somewhere? If you took me to this server, would see your blog, or would I just see some boxes sitting in a room humming softly to themselves as electrical impulses passed through them?

The world has room enough for things that are not located spatially such that one can "point" to them, without having to even consider the spiritual realm. Indeed, where is the Internet? If you can't point to it, does that mean it doesn't exist?

There isn't a little man inside feeling and seeing. We already have everything we need in our bodies to do those things.

I agree. I would in no way advocate the concept that the soul is some sort of smaller self contained within the larger self. The soul is frankly something that I cannot define, but suspect resides in the physical body in much the way software resides on one's computer.
Since the discussion came to an end after my comment (I doubt I "stumped" her, she probably got bored and moved on.), I figured I might as well continue it here, since there are concepts I think are worth mulling over.

As I said, there are some things that Alleee said that I agree with. Our physical bodies are in no way lacking anything needed in order to function. (Well, one might argue that there is that mysterious "spark" of life that makes us alive, and is the difference between a live body and a dead one.) Despite what some philosophers have said about the soul being attached to the body via the pineal gland, it seems to me that if the soul is an entirely discorporate entity, a specific spot for the soul to attach itself to the physical body seems like a strange concept. Indeed, in Hindu philosophy, the purusha (soul?) is in no way connected to the prakriti (body?), and as such, when studying that religion, it was hard for me to understand the relationship between them, if indeed there was one at all.

As I said, I think there may be a possibility that what we term the "soul" may in fact be as much a part of the physical world as the "mind" is, or the "sense of self". That is to say, they exist, and in some way are localized within the brain, but rather than being a specific tangible object are instead an abstract concept that is an outgrowth of the function of that organ. (If I haven't made this clear, I'm not claiming it to be the case, only speculating it as a possibility that has merit to me.) I think the Internet comparison is a good starting point. The computer that I am now using has internal memory and a hard drive. To some extent, both of these are currently storing information about the program "Internet Explorer 6.0" which I often use to access this web site and create posts. Is IE6 a real thing? Most computer users with a good amount of knowledge know exactly what IE6 is when I refer to it, which suggests it is a real thing. Yet it has no mass, nor does it (as a concept) occupy physical space. Before my computer was set up with all of its software, the hard drive and the memory chips started out empty of information. After the software was installed, these components of my computer had the exact same gross physical characteristics they did before the installation. No mass was added, the shape did not change, and everything stayed in pretty much the same location until it was time to ship it off somewhere to eventually end up under my desk. If I wiped the memory clean, then like a dead body without a soul, it would still be there, looking exactly the same, but no longer functioning.

It's weird to me, but 100 posts into my other blog, after writing thoughts for a year (and more elsewhere) and creating page after page of information, I really have "created" nothing. Electrons have shuffled around, disks have spun, photons have fired out from monitors, but indeed, nothing was created. Go back to those hundred posts and replace every character with a "space", and in the purely physical sense of "you should be able to point to something", all would be the same as it was before.

Years back, I had a computer that had some serious problems, and ceased to function. When this happens, you've got a hunk of largely useless plastic and silicon. I got a new computer, a bigger (memory-wise), faster, and generally better one; and what did I do with the old computer? I opened it up, removed its hard drive, and hooked it up to the new computer. I cleaned out any viruses or spyware, took off the files and programs I wished to keep and voila, I had a new computer that carried all of the pertinent information from my old computer! Could the soul function like that?

But Brucker, you say, when you die, there is no hard drive to remove and plug in, your brain deteriorates like the rest of your body. True, but on the computer I am using now, most of my files are kept on a server down the hall. I could shut down my computer, smash it with a sledgehammer, come to work tomorrow with a new computer and pretty much pick up right where I left off. A lot of my personal stuff is kept on the Internet in places like this site. All of these storage sites are backed up repeatedly with redundancy. The building I am in could burn down, could go offline, and I'd probably be able to get all this stuff back in a matter of days. Who says our souls, as "software" are not being constantly "backed up" on another plane of existence?

Software concept aside (as much as I obviously enjoy toying with it), who said the soul has to be "other than the body"? Most sane people believe in the "mind", but this thing is not floating somewhere out in space, but accepted by just about everyone to be located between one's ears. But the mind is more than that. My mind is here in my writing, and as such, pervades wherever someone logs on to one of my blogs, anywhere in the world. My mind is in the words that I speak through my mouth, and thus is experienced by anyone within a certain range when I talk. My mind is in the people that I influence through communication. It is part of my body, and it is filling out my sphere of influence. If my "mind" and "soul" may in fact be the same thing, then no wonder the soul is such an important thing for God and other "spiritual" forces to control.

Perhaps the thing that most fascinates me about the soul as information, be it static (like a file) or dynamic (like a program) is that knowing what we do about how flexible information is in the physical world, I see no reason that the concept of a soul has to defy materialist philosophy. A materialist would strive to deny that souls exist, based on the premise that things which you cannot clearly define, point to, and perform scientific experiments on are not real. (This is probably an oversimplification.) If the concept of a "soul" is only suffering from a bad reputation afforded it by inaccurate definition, then it may be no more or less real than the "mind". A materialist of course may deny the existence of "mind", but I think that puts them on shaky ground, as so many people are more than prepared to accept that concept, and not prepared to deny it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

TV or MTV? That really is the question!

Today over lunch, a friend of mine mentioned that today is the 25th anniversary of MTV. He joked, "I wonder how many people know that MTV stands for something?"

Of course, what he meant is that MTV is an abbreviation of "Music TeleVision". Most people know that MTV stands for something, although it's not always clear exactly what. The point that the "M" stands for music seems like it ought to give a hint that MTV stands for bringing music to cable television, but anyone turning on MTV at any point in its history might have reason to doubt that.

In its early days, I'm sure there were many people of varied ages and backgrounds who, upon tuning in, could be found to declare, "THAT'S not music!" While these people might be written off as "fuddy-duddies" (and I fear only a true fuddy-duddy would actually use the term) there is an innate problem with music in that few people like all kinds of music, so a radio or video station can play a little bit of everything and manage to find something to turn everybody off some of the time, or play a very specialized selection of music and therefore turn somebody off all of the time. Back when I was in high school, and I actually had MTV, I wasn't a big fan of either rap or metal, which made up a large portion of what music was played on MTV. Although I've since grown to appreciate both of these musical genres in their own ways, I probably still wouldn't sit and listen to either kind of music for extended periods of time.

The real issue of why MTV fails at actually being a music channel (the real point of this train of thought) isn't the genres they choose to air. If that were true, 95% of the music radio stations that are out there would cease to exist. Stations play nothing but metal, rap, R&B, "classic" rock, "oldies" rock, "alternative" rock, "hard" rock, "soft" rock, classical, jazz, or polka, and they get along just fine. The problem isn't the kind of music, it's the fact that it *is* music.

It seems like it was just a few years ago that MTV launched this major ad campaign in which they heralded the forthcoming "MTV2" which was going to be a cable TV station dedicated to (catch this...) music. It was a funny moment in the history of MTV for myself and many of my friends who looked nostalgically back on MTV's early days; MTV was essentially admitting that MTV wasn't music television. Tune in to see what's on MTV at any given time in the last ten years or so (maybe longer) and rather than catching a music video, you might see the latest episode of "The Real World", "Cribs", "Pimp My Ride", or "Celebrity Deathmatch". This is what MTV stands for, they stand for a lifestyle of some sort, and that lifestyle may or may not have anything to do with music. There's nothing wrong with this per se. These days, most cable channels (and even a few traditional broadcast channels) stand for a lifestyle, and it may even be admirable. If you're really into food, you watch the Food Network. If you're into partying and having a really great car, watch MTV. If you're gay, I think you watch Bravo. Your television watching habits become a part of your culture, and helps you build identity.

So, MTV2 was supposedly for people who like music, right? But wait, they're showing "Celebrity Deathmatch" too? A cartoon called "Where My Dogs At?" and "Wonder Showzen", which is not the first phenomenon I've heard called "Like Sesame Street on crack", but seems to fit it better than anything I can recall. Where did the music go?

See, the real problem, I think, is encapsulated by something from the early days of another cable channel, Comedy Central. They used to have a show in the early days called "Short Attention Span Theater" which was hosted (at the time I used to watch it) by Jon Stewart. While it was an apt title of that show--which, like many early Comedy Central shows, played short clips of stand up comedians around two to four minutes long--sometimes it seems like an appropriate description of the original format of MTV.

Less like your standard sorts of television, with hour- and half-hour-long shows, and more like radio, with a constant stream of five-odd-minute musical presentations, MTV was in a way the ideal television for people with short attention spans. Can't get yourself to concentrate on a complicated 24 minutes of "WKRP in Cincinnati"? Maybe you'd rather watch six minutes of Billy Idol rocking out to cool special effects shots and light shows? Maybe Madonna's latest attempt to be shocking that only further numbs you to the very concept of "shocking"? I know, how about Van Halen's "Jump" for the five hundredth time? That one never gets old!

Well, the way I see it, MTV ends up being the solution for viewers with short attention spans, and thus at the same time, their own downfall. If they had existed in the days before TV remote controls, maybe they would have stood a chance, but the attention-span-deprived viewer is also the one whose itchy trigger thumb is ever hovering over the channel-changing buttons, waiting for any excuse to bolt. When that first commercial comes on five minutes into "The Cosby Show", you're going to hang around because you want to know how Theo's date turns out. On MTV, when the commercial kicks in, the "show" you were watching is already over. In fact, even if the video you were raptly watching is followed by another video, it may be one you don't care about, and off you go! While with regular TV, if it can get you hooked, it's got you for thirty minutes, MTV can only keep you enthralled until the current song ends. Maybe not even that long, if you've already seen the video and don't care to see it again.

Viewers love the early MTV format, but it doesn't suck them in the way a successful television presentation really needs to. Witness the success of daytime soap operas and prime-time miniseries: what else can account for such notoriously mediocre TV having such a devoted following except the fact that these are designed to drag you back, glued to the screen, day after day? Bring the viewers back, make them watch compulsively, and the advertising dollars flood in. The only reason radio stations work is that most people listen to them in their cars, or at other times when they are stuck someplace for an indeterminate amount of time.

For there to be a station like the early MTV that's just about the music, there has to be a company that doesn't care how much money they make in producing a cable TV channel. I don't know who's out there like that.