Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Twitter Updates Up!

Check out the sidebar, I've added a new twitter widget (sounds dirty).

A nice atheistic post

...to lighten your god-fearing day.

I was in the park today--I'll soon write a post on my sister blog explaining why--when I unexpectedly began to have some profound thoughts. Nature will sometimes do that to you. I thought about the grass, and the trees, and how the sunlight filtered through at such a low angle that the rays scattering through...sorry, got into nature-mode again for a moment. What I meant to say is: today I experienced a brief nature moment.

So I sat there, considering the grass, and the trees, and how the sunlig...whoa...did it again.

I considered...those things...and how often I've heard them used as fodder for religious arguments. The convenient fact that trees scrub carbon dioxide from the air in exchange for oxygen is often brought up as one of those "well isn't that a coincidence?!" arguments from design. Though I must say, my favorite example of this: that the grass was put on Earth by god so that we could have something soft to walk on, never fails to make me laugh. Nevertheless, I was considering these "arguments" and considering the fallacy with which they operate. This kind of argument assumes that everything exists for a (usually Homo sapien-centric) reason.

I, for one, argue wholeheartedly against this idea. In fact, as we learn more and more about the evolution of life on this planet, we find that we're really just specks on a piece of rock, as cliche as that analogy is. For example, take a deep breath. Is that oxygen (and nitrogen, et al.) that you're breathing? If so, then you should be thanking a particular type of cyanobacteria (the first major producer of oxygen, and earliest descendent of plants as we know them today), which came into sudden abundance, early in this planet's lifetime.

"Haha!" you may say to me, "but that just proves it! The cyanobactera were placed here to create a hospitable environment for humans! Hah!"

Stop being stupid, is my reply. You're still thinking in terms of grand reasons and schemes and determinism. Those bacteria found a niche in which they could live, and exploited it. Apparently before they showed up, the atmosphere was full of delicious carbon dioxide, which happened to be this bacteria's favorite food. Yum. All that was required was the ability to use it, which the bacteria obtained through chance mutation. These bacteria were therefore able to thrive based on the same mechanism which produced all of the plants and animals we see today:

Life, finds a way to live, and lives. It's pretty much as simple as that.

Sure, you don't get the same kind of cheery take-home message as, "God has a plan for everything," but there's still hope. You can still be consoled in the realization that: You're an evolutionary winner! You see, because Humans, along with the grass, and the trees, and the way the sunlight filtered through at such a low angle that...damn you nature!...what I'm trying to say is that, at least for now, we're winners in the evolutionary sense. Sure, weren't created perfectly by an omnibenevolent being, but we were made--fairly well--by evolution. Every living thing around us is the product of a couple billion years of trial and error. I'm trying my hardest not to get too mushy with this message, but hear me out just a bit more.

Next time you're outside, pluck a blade of grass. Better yet, pull it out by the roots, admire the complexity of the system, and realize that grass exists, solely because it can. That bit of grass came from an early proto-grass-form that said, "hey, I think I'm gonna grow on this flat ground here," and nature said, "okay."

Obviously though, speech was not necessary for the grasses' survival and was removed by natural selection.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Back from break!

...a shovel-post.

Hey there, speed racers. I've just found an amazing new site for you all to try out. Personally, I've spent about three hours here today.

You know those magnetic poetry kits you see in bookstores? Well we have the first online, collaborative fridge for your poetic enjoyment.

Check it out here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Last Three

"Jesus Christ, close the door, CLOSE THE DOOR!" Nathan shouted as he dove into the room, with Taylor slamming the steel door behind him.

"What the hell is going--"

The entire room shook in reply. The lights were doused by the electricity failing in counterpoint. It was silent, for a time, as the three frightened figures assessed their situation.

"They've done it. Haven't they?" came the first question, from a voice which sounded like Mark's.

The emergency lighting system flickered on, casting his face in a thin, red light. They were five kilometers deep, in a glorified storage closet whose only connection to the upper world was a rarely used mine shaft. A mine shaft which had very recently been sealed. Nathan did the best to shake the clinging dust from his clothes before joining the others, sitting on bare concrete amidst dark steel barrels stacked two-high.

"Come on, man, I don't wanna breathe that stuff in, do that over there," said Mark, gesturing to the far corner of the room.

"Really? Do you really think it matters--at all--what we do anymore?" came Nathan's reply.

The room again fell silent as the three contemplated the gravity of the question. On the one hand, the dust on Nathan's jacket likely contained several milligrams of Uranium-238, an alpha emitter tracked in from the mine, but on the other, the barrels around them carried more death than they could imagine. Taylor took this time to stand, and, staring at the ceiling, tried his best to peer through the vast amounts of concrete, metal, and rock which separated the three from ever seeing the sunlight again. Mark sat up and said, "Look, we just have to find a way to reopen the door, and, call for help, or something."

"No way. This door seals shut in the case of an emergency, and I'm pretty damn sure this classifies as an emergency. We're not getting out unless they let us out. And, seeing as how the shaft is no longer connected to the surface, I'm not seeing that happening," Taylor replied, throwing down his ID badge. The piece of plastic was useless now, even with the built-in radiation detection. He knew the room better than any of them, he knew exactly what was contained within the containers stacked around them, and he knew that there wasn't the slightest hope for any of them getting out alive.

Taylor had brought his two friends down here, thinking that if the inevitable occurred, they could wait out the aftermath comfortably in one of the radiation-shielded employee areas, deep within the vast uranium mine. The deepest bunker on Earth would be the perfect place to hide, since the site was evacuated shortly after the first alert. What he hadn't considered were the reasons why the facility was evacuated, namely, that it would be a high priority target for the incoming warheads. Needless to say, they hadn't made it to the employee areas. They were several hundred meters away from the first of the "bunkers" when they heard the first explosion, the catastrophe which nearly cut power to the service elevator which was ferrying them down the shaft. The second and third explosions were the ones which forced them into this waste storage area, the coffin in which they would spend the rest of their lives. 

"Well," said Nathan, "what do we do next, guys?"

They would die of starvation, or of thirst, or take their own lives in desperation, long before the radiation poisoning set in. But even so, they would suffer a much kinder fate than that of those still on the Earth's surface.

The nations above had spent decades outwardly pushing for non-proliferation treaties while secretly developing more and more powerful weapons, each nation desperate to have the one weapon, the ultimate passive deterrent to keep it safe. These were the superpowers whose collective motto went something like "the best weapon is the one which never needs to be fired." Fission bombs were a thing of the past, the new technology had rendered those as useless as TNT on the battlefield. But the new bombs came with a price. These weapons were so theoretically powerful that not a single nation dared to test them at their full capacity. Regardless, the weapons sat in their silos, strapped to missiles no one ever intended to use. Now, the anti-matter fallout would continue to ravage the world above, raining gamma rays onto the fallen cities for several days. Even then, the dark clouds which filled every sky caused the global temperature to plummet. The food chains were destroyed in a single day, leading to the mass extinction of life on the planet. Eventually, the only organisms on Earth would be found in the deep seas...and a small room, buried now in the Earth's crust. For the three remaining representatives of humanity, there was only one answer to the question of what to do next:

"We're going to have to wait and see."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My Submission to Rama One

...not that kind of submission. I sent in a short story. Well, we can keep the gag. (Which is dirty, and a pun! Oh man, so much connotation density)

Anyway, the real reason I've brought you here today is to tell you that I've submitted a slightly updated version of my short story, A Chance Encounter, to the newly established "Open-Source Sci-fi" blog, Rama One. It's called open source because of the novel way in which the site works (there has been a lot of contention that they're not really using the term "open-source" correctly, but I think it sounds good and conveys the general point, so why not keep it). Here's how it works: basically, every story sent in gets published, which is great, except that half of the stories are going to inevitably be Halo fan-fiction. So, to get around this little nuisance, they've added a very special feature: you get to vote on the stories you like (via a subReddit) and the more valuable stories rise to the top, like the sweet, delicious cream they are. Comments are handled through a similar system. It's pretty sweet.

At the time of this writing, I am, however only the third submission. But, I'd like to bring attention to Rama One, not because I'm especially altruistic, but rather because I'm not altruistic: that's right, Shameless Self-Promotion! So, I'd like you all to mosey on down to the site by clicking here. Read my story (it may still be on the top), forget about all of the rest of the submissions, and then vote on my story by using the link at the right-hand side of the page (you may need a reddit account to do this, I'm not sure).

So there you have it. Everybody wins. I get exposure, you get to read my fabulous writing, the Rama people get some site traffic, and the internet continues to rule my life.

I'll post updates on the story if anything interesting happens. Thanks.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review - Is God a Delusion?

...By Dr. Eric Reitan, religious philosophizer extraordinaire.

I really wanted to wholeheartedly disagree with this book, I really did. I turned the first few pages, with my thinking cap and goggles of pretension firmly fastened, ready to scoff my way through the roughly 225-page text (this being the way I read most religious "non-fiction" these days), and while I can't lie by saying that this book was completely unscoffworthy, I will say that I had a very hard time disagreeing with the spirit of most of Reitan's philosophy. You see, he comes from a very different intellectual place than most of the religious folks you likely encounter in your daily lives, in that he strives for a religious worldview which is also completely philosophically rational.

*Gasp!* I know.

I should mention a few things before I continue further. This book, entitled Is God a Delusion? is a direct answer to the wave of "New Atheist" literature, or as he puts it in the book's subtitle, to "Religion's Cultured Despisers." (the last phrase is used as a callback to the theologian Friedrich Schliermacher, whom you'll be hearing a lot about when you read the book). These New Atheists include the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and, I suppose, myself. These are the authors who not only had the audacity not to believe in God, but also the gall to enter into the religious/philosophical realm to attempt to prove their atheistic worldviews.

*Gasp!* It's true!

Reitan therefore sets out not only to debunk the claims of the New Atheists, but also to champion a religious worldview which is simultaneously rational and pragmatic. He does so in a practiced and disciplined philosophical style which, as he points out with devastating effect, the atheistic literature is sorely lacking. It is precisely this thorough approach which makes this book intellectually appealing for the lay-religious reader and theologian alike.

*Gasp!* I'm sounding way too much like an actual book review here, I'm going to have to tone it down a bit.

I mentioned earlier that I had a hard time disagreeing with Reitan's philosophy. This is not to say that his arguments immediately convinced me (I'm still an atheist, after all), but rather to point out how well this book is structured and thought-out. Several times during my reading, I would begin to find what I thought were key weaknesses in his arguments--chinks in his intellectual armor which I could soon exploit for a easy victory over his theology. And precisely at the point at which I was sure I could win the debate, he would inevitably roll out his counterpoint and completely destroy my fledgling argument with his philosophical prowess. It's either a testament to my lacking as a philosopher (something which I've never denied) or Reitan's skill as a wordsmith. I think it's probably the latter.

Regardless, I would strongly suggest (nay, I demand) that EVERYONE read this book, whether you're an atheist, agnostic, christian, or pastafarian. Too often do atheists read Dawkins or Hitchens only to have their existing beliefs parroted back at them (perhaps with a more sophisticated British tone), and similarly Christian readers delight at reading the latest Strobel, only to be shown the same arguments that they've been taught their entire life. This is not so when reading Reitan's work. Atheists and Christians alike will have plenty of new intellectual fodder to contemplate while enjoying this read.

In short, this is the type of theology I wish every religious person would ascribe to (if they must, of course). No longer would we have the superstitious, vengeful God of the old testament looming over our heads, or the too-often-used interventionalist God who helps you find convenient parking spots. Rather, we would be treated to the God of Reitan and Schliermacher, the benevolent fulfiller of the "ethico-religious hope."

What's this ethico-religous hope business? You'll have to buy a copy to find out.

And hey, it's just in time for the holidays!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Little Tiny Nietzche

...to help me with my philosophy paper.

I know that recently I've been writing a bit to overwhelmingly about religion, but sometime this week I'm going to cap the whole thing off with a review of my Phil of Religion professor's new book, Is God a Delusion.

So far it's a fantastic book. He's written it to counter the wave of "new atheism" (eek! scary!), which basically means he spends half of the book attacking Richard Dawkins.

But it's a very good book, with a very fresh and well thought-out Christian perspective. Did I mention that you can buy your copy in time for the holidays on amazon.com?

In the meantime I've drawn a picture of Friedrich Nietzche to remind you that "Gott ist tot." Have a nice day.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Different Interpretations - A Religious Musing.

...or, why are we still stuck with religion?

It's no secret that I feel that religions really don't make any sense (at least when looking at them with a modern perspective). Sure, they made a lot of sense back in the day, when our humble, bronze-age progenitors were still seeking answers to their own physical and philosophical questions. I mean, really, it made complete sense, given their historical position, to look at things like storms or earthquakes and attribute them to a supernatural source. Even the purely philosophical questions like, "Why am I here" were usually given meaning through appeal to deities. And you know what? That's forgiven. In fact, what I'm going to argue here, is that the earliest theologians, the ones thinking about the complex issues of their time, were doing a very early version of the scientific method. But somewhere along the way, they got hung up on the theology and left science behind.

Allow me to illustrate with an example. All of this is a gross oversimplification, by the way, but it's a musing, so I'm allowed some creative license. Throw a comment my way if you've got some ideas.

Put yourself in the place of an ancient thinker. You walk out of your hut/cave/townhouse early one morning and notice something strange. There's a mountain in the distance, spewing fire and ash, causing the earth to shake, burning villages, and generally causing destruction on a magnitude you've never heard of.

Holy crap! Right?

You, at the time, have no idea about things like, plate tectonics, or convection currents in the mantle, or that the orange-glowing-death-liquid is actually just molten rock, spewed from deep within the earth. You don't know any of this, precisely because these things won't be understood for another couple thousand years. But your mind starts thinking. What in the world could be causing this? Quickly and subconsciously you begin to scour your mind for past experiences which might account for this phenomenon, and you're left with nothing. To you, this is something completely new--something completely supernatural.

And we all know that supernatural problems need supernatural causes. Boom. Angry mountain god. It must be.

And before you accuse me of making fun of early religions, let me state for the record that scientists use this kind of reasoning all the time. If you've ever heard of this stuff called "dark matter" or "dark energy," you've already seen the angry-mountain-god reasoning at work. In this case we looked at cosmological problems like, "Hey, there's not as much mass here as there should be," and "Hey, why is the expansion of the universe accelerating?" and we've taken our first, fairly meaningless baby steps into understanding the causes. But just because we've given the supposed causes snappy names like dark matter and dark energy doesn't mean that the problem is solved. Not by a long shot. We're no closer to understanding these problems as the ancient thinker was to understanding vulcanism. But the point is this:

We've taken the first step.

Just as the ancients would often answer their questions with help from the divine or the supernatural, scientists today usually answer the questions by proposing new physical laws. It's the same process. But, it's the second step where the tree of new knowledge split, into the scientific and religious. Where the scientist would attempt to solve the volcano problem by going to the mountain, taking soil samples, or waiting for another eruption, the religious branch would study the mountain god, and why he's so angry. They would spend countless hours, creating theories about the mountain god, laying offerings at the foot of the mountain, hoping to stay its wrath. The early theologian would eventually forget all about the mountain which initially spurred the thinking and spend all his/her time on the invented solution.

So much of theology today is so intent on studying the properties of God (and usually only the one of the big-three gods in which you believe, because, come on, those other two gods are ridiculous), that the theologian forgets to include the real world in his/her philosophy. Too much of it is related to squabbling over petty issues and semantics. They fight over whether or not people like me are going to hell, they fight over whether or not an omnipotent god is still bounded by the laws of logic, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and so on. I say, leave all of that behind, and look at the world in which you live. When you look back, and see the origin of the supernatural, you'll see that it's all unnecessary. It was all constructed to explain the world our ancestors found themselves in, and somewhere along the way, they became more interested in their own constructions than the world itself, building upon layers and layers of abstraction, until the gods we're left with today are studied down to the tiniest bit of banal minutiae possible.

I hear you cry, "but without religion, life would be meaningless, and cold, and horrifying." No, it isn't. These are things you've trained yourself to feel, as a defense mechanism.

We need to step back, and look at the world as it really is.

So what if there isn't an afterlife? That just means you should enjoy the life you have now.
So what if there isn't a higher purpose to all of this? Just realizing that the world is beautiful, even given all of its flaws, is purpose enough.

Stop worrying which god might be the correct one, stop worrying if there is any god whatsoever.

This is what a worldview based on science means to me. It doesn't look for any kind of higher purpose (no matter how mystically theorists talk about their unified theory), but rather realizes that this is the universe we've got. We'd better try and understand what we're dealing with.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Late Night Blurb

The day had broken softly; he hadn't noticed the sun when it first crept through the window, tipping toe across the carpet as time translated into angle. The world exists only as a blur of color and motion, which becomes the whole of his vision as the daily fight for waking eyes commences. His brain will start to switch on, soon, like the flickering of fluorescents in an empty warehouse.