Plan, action

As a follow-up to an earlier entry.

The tattoo is now done.

Crappy picture, I know, but it was from my cell phone. I don't plan to use it as an LJ-icon as such, I just didn't feel like dicking around with photobucket.
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Calvinism...oh, my stars and garters

So, I did what I said what I wouldn't do, and I got into another online debate with Rhoblogy. He was commenting on a news article right wing apologist piece regarding the CIA's use of torture. Ostensibly, the Jack Bauer image of, through one means or another, beating the information out of the prisoner isn't accurate--rather, the "enhanced interrogation" is used to break down the detainee's resistance to the point where they become willing to cooperate. They can then be transitioned to regular debriefings, and it is in these sessions when duress is no longer present that the real information extraction is taking place.

Now, this is interesting, because the article holds that under Islam, prisoners are required to resist as far as they're able, but once their limits are reached Allah will not hold them culpable for being only human. As the article had it, the torture effectively removed the "moral burden" to resist. Now, Rho's interpretation of this was just unbelievable to me--he apparently read that as the hand of God weighing on the souls of the terrorists for their misdeeds.
Even jihadists who are hardened to the murder of women and children feel the weight of God's law on their hearts, convicting them of guilt. May the Holy Spirit be pleased to bring them all to repentance, not just conviction of moral burden.
The whole point is that these people don't believe they did anything wrong and are because of the torture, cooperation isn't sinful either because they are in a no-win situation and have essentially no choices left. Allah is still waiting for them in paradise. At any rate, I challenged Rho to justify why torture could be considered moral, under any circumstances.

I knew I was probably wasting my time, but I don't regret this particular debate, because I did learn some things along the way. Going in, I knew that Rho was one of these Christians who believe god is like Richard Nixon. Seriously, if God commands it, then it's not immoral. Murder, torture, human sacrifice or genocide are just peachy if it's God's instruction. But, I did put my foot in something of a bear trap, because I came in with the claim that torture is immoral. When you make the claim, you have to back it up, that's just the rules of argumentation. Rho wasn't making a claim directly, he was just waxing rhapsodic about how wonderful it was that people could be tortured into having their souls saved. And before you could say "No wait, Chewie, don't!" I'd taken the bait.

So yes, an atheist trying to explain the basis of a morality to a fundamentalist that doesn't appeal to the commands, nature, or intercession of a deity is not only time well spent, but a deep and illuminating exploration of the base issues involved, I'm here to tell you. In between the endless variations of "you're just making unsupported assertions," "prove to me there's anything objectively wrong with XYZ" and "obviously you're ignorant of the deeper philosophical history of these issues," I at least got in a good exploration of the Euthyphro dilemma with one of the other commenters, and I learned something else that was interesting.

You see, Rho isn't just a Christian. He isn't just a fundamentalist. He is a self-professed hard-core Calvinist, so much so that he spends as much time attacking Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as he does atheism and empiricism. I've since read up on that particular philosophy, since I hadn't really gone over it since the chapter on the Protestant Reformation in Senior year of high school. I knew they believed in predestination, and I knew they believe that not everybody can get saved, and that's it. There's a lot that Rho believes that is now much clearer to me.

I've debated morality with Rho once or twice before this, and I noticed that he has this strange doublethink that I didn't quite fully perceive. You see, the only reason people can be moral without God's Word is that it is on some level written on our hearts. I replied then, if that is true, and the Bible is God's word, then anyone, Moslem, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Atheist should be able to read the Christian bible and at least recognize that this book is MORAL front to back. But oh no, "Typical atheist--forgetting the doctrine of sin in Christianity." At the time my reply was along the lines of "dude, I do not believe in your Special Pleading and Ad Hoc rationalization."

I now realize what specifically he was referring to. Calvinism holds that our natures are so polluted by sin (not sure if it's Original or the workaday temptations of life*) that we humans instinctively reject God's morality. Not only that, it is only through divine intervention that our hardened hearts can even desire salvation. All things being equal, we're born into sin, we live sinful lives governed by sinful thoughts, and after we die, God's judgment for our sin casts us into hell, unless God decides at some point to take us off this road.

This made things more clear to me, as to why he'd implore the Holy Spirit to bring the terrorists to Christ. But quite frankly, it does make me more certain than ever that I should not waste any more time talking to him. Certainly his faith allows him to dismiss my arguments out of hand; as far as he's concerned, it's just the Sin talking. But now I really, really don't care what he thinks, because the God he believes in goes beyond the "Chaotic Neutral" character of the Biblical Yahweh. As far as I'm concerned, the Calvinist god is actually evil.

Picture this: you are drowning in the torrential floodwaters of a swollen river, hanging on for dear life. Above you, a National Guard rescue helicopter is dropping lifelines and flotation devices. But you notice that only a certain percentage of the people struggling to survive are actually getting rescued, and others are ignored. Then you look up again, and realize that the motherfucker in the chopper door is the guy who pushed you into the water in the first place.

Calvinists believe that only the "elect" are saved. Remember, if God doesn't see fit to touch your hardened heart, your fallen nature rejects his teachings and you don't get to ask him to do so. Only the elect get coverage under the Christ Damnation Insurance Plan. So, apparently, the reason I'm an atheist is because he's okay with me going to hell, and the twenty years after the age of reason before I stopped believing were completely pointless, because God never really entered my sinner's heart.

As if that weren't bad enough, the Bible also says God made me, and that he knew me in my mother's womb. I didn't have any say in getting born. I didn't have any say about whether I'd get burdened with sin. So not only is god a capricious rescuer, he's the reason I'm in the river! And then, he gets to decide whether I even wake up to how much peril I'm in? What kind of a universe has god made, that is so polluted that he can't endure the presence of anything tainted by it, who chucks in his "beloved" creations in to suffer eternally unless he saves them MAYBE, if they're among the lucky few?

Quite frankly, if I need that god's intervention to start believing that black is white, up is down, faith is knowledge and the Bible is moral, I'd rather stay as I am. And I'm not going to give someone who thinks I deserve that the time of day, I'll tell you that much. I have to consider his scorn to be high praise.
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Memories upon seeing Jesus Camp

Human memory is extraordinarily fallible--it's a known fact of neuropsychology, but one which very few people think about. Human can remember facts, data quite well under most circumstances, but images, events, narratives--people by and large don't realize that, to a first approximation, everything you remember is going to have some inaccuracies, sometimes to a startling degree. It's one reason why "recovered" memories are frighteningly unreliable, because it is so easy to instill false memories, or for original memories to be corrupted.

One case in point. When I was in high school, I went to a party where a bunch of us piled into this rusty white pickup truck and went cruising around the neighborhood. We were all piled into the bed, and after a few minutes, the tailgate popped open and three or four kids went tumbling out onto the road. I almost did, and was hanging half out the back of the speeding pickup truck with my right hand literally two or three inches from the pavement.

My mother, being religious and fearful (justifiably, I might add) of me going to this party, was praying for my safety at or near the time. I convinced myself that a guardian angel had literally taken hold of my left wrist to prevent me from falling headfirst out of the truck. I have a memory of not holding on to anything with that hand, with my center of gravity over empty space. I also have a memory, "recovered," if you will, once I stopped believing in such things, of hanging on to the lip of the truck bed by my fingertips. I can interchange them freely in my mind, even now. Which is true? At the time, I was quite preoccupied by fear for my life, the fact that I had a CD case in my hand scraping the asphalt, and a snapshot image of a dropped cigarette rolling on the ground, giving off sparks as it slowed. I simply have no data from my left arm at those moments. I assumed, once I stopped believing in angels, that I must have found a fingerhold somehow, and I don't know whether my memory of such is real or is the result of my brain filling in the details.

It's not of any consequence, really. But I'm trying to remember how I felt about some spiritual issues in years past, and it's difficult to feel like I have a real handle on it. In 1997, my sophomore year, I remember being surprised and dismayed as I learned what other Christian denominations thought about the doctrine of Sin and Substitutional Atonement for salvation. It's hard to remember a time where I didn't know that, as my present knowledge is projected backwards. I'm trying to pull an "archived version" of my adolescent understanding of the liberal Christianity I was raised under.

I can pick out a childhood, Sunday school-level memory of being told that if you believe in Jesus, it erases all your sins. I also know that while growing up, I was taken to Hindu, Moslem, Baha’i and Jewish services, participated in interfaith ministries, and been a guest at many other Christian denominations very different than my own. Nobody even hinted that these others were completely or even partly false. I think I must have had some notion that there are many roads to god, and that god is like a jewel with more facets than any one religion can see.

To be confronted, at the age of nineteen, by fundamentalists who believed in one facet of god and one road to get there must have seemed strange to that thinking. Like I said, I remember being shocked to find out what some Christians believed. I thought you really had to earn your way into hell, and realizing that I didn't sufficiently loathe myself to believe that, all things being equal, I deserved to go there. I know all about it now, but trying to remember when I didn't know about it makes everything foggy.

I've kind of been in a funny mental place ever since I watched the documentary Jesus Camp a couple of weeks ago--I know for a fact that the theology on display there was far different than I was raised with. I have no memories of fearing hell as a child, we didn't do "speaking in tongues," we didn't get politics involved or images of warfare or violence. I know they taught me in Sunday school that I should "witness" for Jesus, but I didn't understand the ecclesiastical meaning of the word at that time, not in any real sense.

I was powerfully affected by one scene in which the children were encouraged to think about all their sins and how wretched they are, and how Jesus would forgive them. There was shot after shot of children weeping, their faces wrenched in pain as the adults, rather than soothing their fears, urged them to sink deeper into guilt and anguish. I know this was meant to be an awful, heart-rending sequence. Screenshots from the scene would be, and were meant to be, indistinguishable from excruciating pain.

The reason I had to keep telling myself that were the overwhelming memories of HOW GOOD IT FELT. I know it wasn't "real," I know that powerful emotions are rooted in the brain and that human beings are powerfully affected by the emotions of those around them. I remember times where I was the one breaking down and crying, rocking back and forth at how much God and Jesus loved me and wanted to forgive everything I'd ever done wrong or ever would do...that everything would be okay, no matter what. The only word I can use to describe it was ecstasy, awful pain and wonderful relief combined until I hardly was aware of time or place.

While I was watching, I kept having to force myself out of my memories, and to see it dispassionately. I can't resolve the cognitive dissonance. I don't remember being emotionally tortured or encouraged in self-loathing, but I knew that those kids were achieving a state of bliss that, I now realize, is almost literally addicting. I wonder if this is how a recovered heroin addict feels while watching Trainspotting. I wonder if that was part of the message of the film, that these people have to be considered as under the influence of a powerful, mind-controlling drug, and dealt with accordingly.

If I found myself dragged along to some church camp these days, I don't know how I'd do. Would I be able to just observe, and keep my equanimity? Would I try and blend in and get swept up in it for the duration of the service? Would it be too much, forcing me to walk out in disgust at my own easily-swayed limbic system? I just don't know, and I'm not sure I'm keen to experiment.

I have heard Christians say that atheists really do believe in god, they're just rebelling, rejecting, denying what they know in their hearts is true. In some ways, they're not entirely wrong. I don't believe in god, but I do believe in spiritual ecstasy. My brain wants that connectedness, that solace. For me not to be ruled by those emotions actually is a deliberate choice. I make the choice because, while the emotions are very real, I don't believe they are true. I know I'll never feel that way again. I'd rather be awake.
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Baffled, and yet...I can't look away.

I don't know what to make of it...a site so--I can't call it "stupid," the guy is obviously educated and intelligent--I don't know, I just look at it and remember the Marquis de Carabas in "Neverwhere" saying "what a refreshing mind you must have; there really is nothing like total ignorance, is there?"

A Christian apologetics/philosophy/creationism blog so brazenly arrogant, a Nietzschean abyss of utter boneheadedness that I sit at my computer, stupefied that I could ever even think of having a reasonable conversation with this person. I have seen statements, logical fallacies, bald unfounded assertions that literally left me unable to form a coherent reply--there's literally no level on which we could meaningfully communicate.

Anymore, I go there to inoculate myself of the desire to comment. Then I have to go wash my hands and read some nonfiction science book to cleanse my mental palate.

Okay, if you're that masochistic, google "rhoblogy." But remember, he who would fight stupid must see to it that he does not, in the process, become stupid--for if you look long into the Internet, the Internet looks back into you.

Transcendentally Long

I've been chewing over TAG for a week or so now. It bugs the heck out of me, as it's the most inscrutable of the logical arguments for the existence of a god, and I got into a tiff over it a couple of weekends ago that didn't end in a satisfactory manner.

The easiest Logical argument to shoot down is the Ontological Argument.
  1. God is the being of which nothing greater can be imagined.
  2. Something which exists is greater than that which does not exist.
  3. Therefore, god exists.
This one just begs the question outright.* By necessarily including "existence" in the definition of greatness, you define god as a being which is omniscient, omnipotent, and omniexistent. I can define a unicorn as the most perfect animal possible in step 1, but that doesn't mean unicorns exist once I get to the end. Imagining something that would be greater than something else which doesn't exist doesn't make that thing's existence necessarily so.

A slightly thornier proof is the Cosmological Argument, also known as the Kalam argument, after the most recent and popular variant.
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
Two problems here. First, Step 1 assumes that there are things which do not begin to exist. If only gods fit in this category, then it's begging the question. Or if one accepts that something other than gods have a beginning, not only does that complicate how you can define "universe," it more directly defeats the argument because, of course, the cause wouldn't necessarily be a god, and the argument's pretty useless at that point. Second, we don't actually know that Step 2 is true. We can't actually observe the singularity of the Big Bang, let alone what happened before. Since we don't know, #2 is merely an unproven assertion, not a fact.

It's worth pausing at this point to say that just because individual arguments may fail does not prove the converse, that God does not exist. We will see this principle come back around as we discuss the Transcendental Argument for God, but suffice it to say that to my knowledge, gods' nonexistence has never been definitively proven save for satirical versions of theistic proof.

There are far more long-winded versions, but to simplify it as much as possible (which is not to say that I'm intending to set up a straw man) it says essentially this:
  1. The Logical Absolutes are transcendent. [Transcendent: adj. Perfect and absolute. Not variable; not dependent on time, place or circumstance. The Logical Absolutes themselves are axioms of symbolic logic such as the Law of Identity, Law of Non-contradiction, etc. but ironically are not actually directly germane to the argument.]
  2. The Logical Absolutes are not physical in nature, and are not dependent on the existence of the universe.
  3. The Logical Absolutes are conceptual. Things which are conceptual are dependent upon minds.
  4. Because the Logical Absolutes are transcendent, they must be dependent upon a mind which is likewise transcendent.
  5. We call this mind "God."
If you want your head to explode, feel free to debate this one with someone who buys into it. Chances are they've memorized pages upon pages of arguments and counterarguments, and can use them to expound upon any given point until the argument is almost lost in a swamp of philosophical doubletalk. To me, it comes across as willful obfuscation. Suffice it to say, there are MANY objections to the argument, and the counterarguments are slippery as a greased priest.

I want to focus on what, to me, are the most substantive problems, and leave the nitpicking to those with more free time. The first problem I have is in step 3. When I was talking about this last month, the other guy tried to lay out as a ground rule that "if only two possibilities are possible, if one is disproven, then the other is proven by default." To which I answered "No." The argument hinges on disproving that the Logical Absolutes are physical, that "conceptual" is proven by default, and defining "conceptual" to their advantage.

Unfortunately, it simply can't be supported logically, though any TAG supporter will refuse to admit this.** However, since the premise is that Physical/Conceptual is a truly exclusive dichotomy, they have the responsibility to demonstrate that this premise is true–-proving that no other possibilities exist is their job, not yours. Personally I have yet to see a valid objection to "intrinsic aspect of reality" as something which is neither physical nor conceptual, but I had lengthy and incoherent arguments leveled at me nevertheless. However, the argument itself contradicts itself on this point, and I made a mistake last month with this guy by making my stand on the false dichotomy, rather than the next objection which I think is actually more damning.

To the best of our knowledge, nobody has ever come up with evidence that minds are not physical; that is, as a function of an organic brain. Minds are at the mercy of pokes, prods, chemicals, and damage to brains. If you shoot a person in the head, their mind is destroyed along with it. To assume that a nonphysical mind can exist begs the question.*** Until we have an example of a mind that does not exist as a function of a biological brain, it’s just an unsupported assertion.

This does involve a true dichotomy: Physical and Not Physical. Proving what something is not does not demonstrate what it is, or define any attributes of it as a result. There's a reason that I didn't just start talking about "to assume a Conceptual mind exists..." because it's nonsensical. Conceptual things, in the context of the argument, are dependent on minds and to say that minds are dependent on minds is incoherent, let alone the Transcendental Mind that TAG demands must exist. Upon what would that particular Conceptual thing be dependent? A brain? What cosmic expanse of grey matter could possibly be the mainframe to conceive of universal truths that hold sway in all possible places and circumstances? If they allow that a Transcendant mind is not dependent upon itself or another Transcendant mind, then they've just contradicted the categories they allowed for the Logical Absolutes.

Of course I have no trouble accepting a perfect, absolute, and transcendental disembodied mind being dependent upon brains, even human brains--it's why I don't necessarily object to the first point of the Ontological argument: just because we can imagine something greater than ourselves doesn't make it necessarily existent. That's why they're called "imaginary."

What this comes down to is the same reason that the original Cosmological Argument got so easily shot down centuries ago. It was originally phrased as "Everything that exists has a cause, the universe exists, therefore the universe had a cause." They set up this syllogism to try and create a paradox, then they bring in this god to cut the Gordian knot because the rules don't apply to him, whether it's dodging the "who created God" question or "is God's mind physical or conceptual?" William Lane Craig, the Christian apologist, inserted the "begins to exist" language in an attempt to avoid the Special Pleading, but as we've seen, that introduces problems of its own.

*used in its formal sense: that a conclusion is being assumed as an unstated precondition, thereby making it a circular argument. “Begs the question” to mean “raises the question” is technically incorrect, but so common it’s ridiculous.

**They will demand you give an example of something that is neither physical nor conceptual, and then any possibility you submit will be dismissed by endless hand-waving and special pleading.

***Since any religious/spiritual/theistic person takes the existence of souls and other disembodied minds for granted, it's no surprise this is a blind spot. Hell, it took me two weeks to realize it. But something taken on faith isn't valid for rational argumentation.

Obligatory capsule review:

Go see Avatar. Go see it in 3D, and get there early so you can sit as close to the center line of the screen as possible so the polarization is optimal. Message repeats: GO SEE AVATAR.

(Yes I know it's not Citizen Kane in the plot department or what we'd call subtle in its morality, but as an excercise in world-building and cinematography it's absolutely stunning.)

And this is why I left the theater grinning ear to ear, because I'm a science nerd. [SPOILERS blah blah]