Uncommon Sense

May 23, 2016

The “Truth” Behind the Promise of Eternal Life

Many evangelical Christians are constantly holding out the promise of “eternal life” if one just accepts their Lord, Jesus Christ, as your Lord and Savior. But what does this mean, exactly?

According to their beliefs, they are being more than a little duplicitous. They believe that each human being possesses an “immortal soul” that is the true “us.” When we die, our soul “continues” so that, according to their scriptures, we all “live forever.” That is unless the word immortal has a new definition.

So, if we aren’t being saved from death (everybody dies), what are we being saved from? According to the New Testament, we would be being saved from an eternity of excruciating torture. Those with faith in the One True Religion go to a place that is labeled a paradise, but is not described in much detail. No mention is made of having meaningful work to do or hobbies or whether we would still need to eat, etc. More than a little detail is provided for the torture palace, Hell.

So, “we,” aka our immortal souls, all live forever, so why are we promised “eternal life?” This sounds like one of those promises one gets from the various shopping channels: We guarantee our knives will cut things! Any knife that could not cut things could hardly be called a knife, I think. So, check that box as “done.”

So, we are promised something they insist we all already have. The obfuscation is they are really promising freedom from Hell, but they don’t want to mention Hell in their pitches to those they would convert. If you broach that topic, you end up with a very bad scenario. For example:
Q “Who created Hell?”
A “God did.”
Q “Who ordained we would go there if we didn’t get right with your Christian god?”
A “God did.”

The scriptures of evangelicals are rife with contradictions and confusions (why else would apologists be needed?) and one thing that pops up is you can find scripture that claims that whether or not you will be “saved” was determined, by their god, before you were born, in which case it hardly matters what you are going to do. In fact, the numbers of people so claimed to be “pre-saved” is quite small, so their god is consigning 99+% of us to eternal torture and there is nothing we can do about it.

Nice religion.

Their basic messages are: “Do as we say or burn in Hell.” and “Meh, do as we say and you’ll probably burn anyway.”

And this is offered as “a message of hope.”

And they say that politicians invented “spin,” sheesh!

May 20, 2016

Plane Crashes, Speculation at 11!

An EgyptAir flight (MS804) disappeared from radar recently and has been presumed to have crashed. This announcement set off a flurry of speculation as to whether is was mechanical failure or terrorism or a communications failure or some other cause of the purported crash. This was before a crash had been confirmed! Not only were the typical news outlets speculating as to why the plane crashed but so were our political candidates. (Yo, candidates, let the others speculate. The odds they are wrong are very high and then you can nail them for irresponsibility. Trust me, it works. True leaders recommend calmness, not running around like chickens with their heads cut off.)

We have seemingly fallen into a speculative trap. The 24-hour news cycle leaves many hours of time needed to be filled on various news and discussion channels and web sites and therefore we fill them with … uniformed comment, most of which is pure speculation, based upon nothing but the speculator’s imagination.

In sports programming, every game seemingly has to be preceded by predictions on the parts of the sport’s talking heads as to who will win the contest. Some sports even keep score as to how good of a predictor each sportscaster is. Who cares? It does not affect how the game will come out once played and nobody remembers who predicted what afterward (unless they are reminded ad nauseum).

I have a novel idea … let’s wait until there is some real information. (I don’t want to use the word “facts” and put off the Republicans who believe they are a liberal conspiracy.)

Soon enough the air crash will be confirmed or not. Soon enough the debris will be examined and a cause found or not.

In our current passion for “Breaking News! *** Breaking News!” we end up with coverage that supplies 90% speculation 9% noise and 1% fact. Casual listeners will only recall the speculation. And there are already enough people believing lies (Obama was born in Kenya! Obama is a socialist! Atheists eat babies!), we don’t need more people believing uniformed speculations are facts.

Just wait, people. All things come to those who wait.

Addendum Yes, this is an aspect of Class Warfare. remember the Roman strategy of “bread and circuses?” This is the circuses.

May 19, 2016

Our Broken Electoral System

As we are currently enmeshed in a process to select candidates for national elections, including for a new President, and people are often shocked to find how undemocratic the processes are.

Take, for example, that the rules for the various primaries and caucuses that are used to inform the party’s choices of candidates are made up by the parties themselves, and not by the national party, but by the state parties. This means that every state has a different set of rules, rules that candidates can run afoul of for no good reason other than not having piles of money to pay political operatives in each of the 50 states. Before you go off with a full head of steam, realize that political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. The word “party” shows up five times in the Constitution and none of them is a reference to a political party. Political parties are private organizations and are not affiliated with the government, state or federal.

Our electoral system is often referred to as a “two party” system which is not correct. There are myriad parties, but only the two major parties have sponsored elected presidents. There have been significant “third party” runs for president, attracting significant fractions of the final votes, but while none of these has been successful as to electing a president Bernie Saunders, for example, is a successful third party candidate for both the House and Senate offices he has held (representing Vermont).

The biggest sore spot in our “let the parties decide their own candidates” processes is that neither of the two major parties has a plurality of voters in is ranks. A larger percentage of American voters identify as independent (39 percent of the electorate, according to Pew) than as Democrats (32 percent) or Republicans (23 percent). Consequently, we allow a quarter of the registered voters decide who the Republican nominee will be and a third of the registered voters decide who the Democratic nominee will be. That means 45% of the nation’s registered voters have no say. Which is crazy.

Some states have decided to have open primaries, which is to allow anyone to vote in any one of the categories of a primary election, regardless of stated political affiliation. While this allows some independent voters a voice, it also allows for some manipulation by party stalwarts crossing over to confuse the ballot of other parties when their candidate is a shoo in otherwise.

This madness must stop. For national elections, we need an independent branch of government to set the rules and run the primaries and caucuses for all national offices (President and Vice-president, Senators, and Congressmen). Why should minority parties get to choose who has any chance of winning?

And, if there is any doubt about the declining influence of political parties, realize that the parties used to control the bulk of the funds involved in campaigning. Now the candidates do (or their SuperPacs, etc.). The parties have taken various steps to exclude outsiders from swooping in and taking a nomination. Politicians are supposed to work their way up the party ranks to “earn” the next level of support for higher office. Now, we have Donald Trump, a Democrat Independent Republican for the purposes of this election (there are no qualifications for party membership other than the ability to sign your name) and Bernie Saunders, an Independent Democratic Socialist as two of the last three standing viable candidates.

That there are no qualifications for party membership other than the ability to sign your name and no dues, no meetings with required attendance, no required duties, and so on it makes the unpopularity of the major parties more stark. Basically all you have to do is check a box when you register to vote and you are in, but more and more people will not do even that. Apparently there is something … loathsome about being affiliated with either of those two parties.

I think we would be better off without political parties right now, an opinion I share with more than a few of the Framers of the Constitution.

Trump, Political Correctness, and the New Racism

If you view the 20th Century from afar, you can see the tide of racism at ebb. The reasons for this reduction in racism were both political and social (hard to separate the two). It became more and more illegal to discriminate against someone for superfluous reasons (gender, skin color, ethnicity, sexual identification, etc.) and socially it became less and less acceptable to utter racist comments. A stereotype was created, for example, of one’s racist uncle who said things as family gatherings that were quite inappropriate, but those statements were common fare for all those gathered not that long ago. But slowly we achieved a society in which saying anything appearing to be racist or sexist acquired swift approbation.

Then along came “political correctness,” the criticism of which is pushback against the pushback against racism. As this pot slowly bubbled on the back burner, along came the Internet. The Internet allowed anonymity to people making comments, freeing them from any social approbation for making racist or sexist comments and Internet Trolls were born (some with their own websites). Then along came Trump.

Internet Trolls acquire their power from their namelessness and invisibility to social checks and balances. But Candidate Trump has openly made racist comments, under no such protection, and has been very, very successful. If a candidate for the highest political office in the land can make racist and sexist declarations and succeed politically while doing it, then why should others refrain? Who has higher political and social standing than our President, the first among equals?

The New Racism is, yes, the Old Racism. It hasn’t changed but it was slowly being driven out of our culture. I fear now that, as we continue as a society, its expression will be more and more open. Those criticizing it will be accused of rampant political correctness. Those freed from such societal constraints as were being constructed will become more and more prominent in our discourse.

The source of this cancer on our society is the inability of people to accept responsibility for their own lives. Instead, if their life is shitty, it is the fault of “Others.” We are not responsible for all of the negative impacts on our lives, we are only responsible for how we respond to them. Blaming groups of “Others” in a blanket fashion can salve an ego, but only a very small ego, one possessed by a very small person.

If I were to urge all of us to adopt the wisdom of the ages, I would refer us to the wisdom of Rodney King: “Can’t we all (just) get along?”

(Note: Mr. King did not include the word “just” but we have added it collectively because the question then more closely conforms to the desire of people to just get on with their lives without being judged based upon irrelevant criteria.)

May 18, 2016

A Follow-up to the Post “Free Will and the Perfect Pool Table”

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 9:12 am
Tags: , , , ,

I got many interesting comments on my free will post, including a link to an article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “There is No Such Thing as Free Will.” This reminds me that communications about complex topics, like chemistry and free will, often lag behind the subject by many years. This may or may not be the case regarding free will as many seem to be perfectly happy making profound conclusions based upon simple experiments. I warn my archer students about this failing all of the time: “Beware of conclusions based upon small data sets.” Those students are archers who shoot two arrows, both of which are a tad below the spot they wanted to hit and conclude that “something is wrong.” I, on the other hand point out that those shots are within the typical range of the landing points of their arrows and they may have just come before the higher shots that would balance out their group of shots. There are some archers who can conclude something from just one or two shots, but my students aren’t one of those … yet.

So, while people are going overboard interpreting just a few studies on this topic, I probably err on the other side. Thinking too much and doing too little to make a dent in this topic.

I think but cannot prove that there is another problem with the definition of free will and it has to do with who has that will, or rather what. Throughout Western history, we have cultivated the idea that human beings were “special,” that we had the likeness of a god molded into us and also we had a divine spark or soul/spirit that inhabited us and differentiated us from other animals. In fact, they thought and still think, that that soul is them and it will live on even when their bodies give out.

Scientifically, we seem to be, instead, an organized set of cells of various types, the nervous ones being partly organized into an organ that can think and is self-aware. Your brain is 100 billion neurons and each of those neurons has multiple, often many, connections to other neurons. Also, the brain’s tissue seems to be organized into substructures designed to process certain kinds of information (visual, tactile, olfactory, etc.) plus we have a massive (proportionately) cerebral cortex that seems adept at higher levels of thinking.

The physical bodies that support these brains can be damaged severely without the loss of life. We can lose a finger or a hand or an arm and still live. We can lose an arm and a leg and still live. We can lose both arms and both legs and with assistance from others, still live. But there are critical aspects to this organization. Organs like our hearts we cannot do without. If our brains are severely damaged, we can live on but our life is not necessarily still recognizable as obviously human. We can go on in a vegetative state, again with the help of others.

No divine spark or soul seems readily apparent in this picture. But the idea has a residue. In discussions of free will, experiments show that our genes, inherited from our parents, determine some of our behaviors. Other studies show that our brain’s neurons seem to be acting before we are consciously aware that a decision to act has been made (sometimes by multiple seconds of time!). This leads some to deny free will, saying that we are being “controlled” by our genes like the programming of a robot, or that our brains are responding to some stimulus in a deterministic fashion, indicating behavior that physically or socially is hardwired in. “We” are not responsible for our behavior because of these mechanisms.

Apparently these folks think that “we” does not include our genetic or cultural heritages, that our mental programming is not a part of us. That “we” are somewhere off to the side and these things are controlling us … rather than “are us.”

We now know that as we experience the world outside of us, our brains are restructured. Our brain structures are malleable. That memories are invested in certain neurons and how they connect with one another. That we to some extent create “ourselves” through these interactions with the physical world and other humans.

Personal anecdotes are of little use in such a debate but I will share a couple in any case. My father had a temper that flashed from time to time (he was never abusive, just loud). As I became a young man, I too had a temper, an extravagant one. (I blamed it on my red hair and Irish heritage!) At some point I felt this was inappropriate and decided to change myself, and I did. While I still have an observable temper, it is no longer extravagant. This I did quite a while ago.

While in my 40’s I took some personal transformation courses to heart and in a sit down conversation with my boss he shared with me that I was forcing him to change his viewpoint regarding people (and he was a very astute observer of people). His prior contention was that people never changed, you could always count on them “being themselves.” I, on the other hand, was a counterexample to his hypothesis. He had seen me substantively change who I was. And the changes I went through were small compared to some others I have read about.

It turns out that we have control over bodily processes we though were completely automatic. We have some control over who we want to be. I cannot decide to be taller or shorter, but I can decide within the framework of my physical structure, to be more … or less … kind or more understanding, or a more loving person.

This I call free will. It is not limited by my conscious mind, nor is it based upon some vague notion of who “I” am. “I am” a collection of cells arranged a particular way, dictated by my genetic structure and what I have learned from the world and other people in it. To quote Popeye, “I am what I am.”

May 17, 2016

Free Will and the Perfect Pool Table

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 11:49 am

pool_table_3Being of a philosophical bent, I enjoy discussions of philosophical concepts such as free will. Recently I had a reverie that shows to me that we do have free will, even though there are a great many people who claim that free will does not exist and that it is only an illusion. My reverie began with a pool table.

In physics we can make great progress in a situation by removing extraneous factors, solving the situation without them and reintroducing them while making corrections. So, to begin with, our pool table has all of the accoutrements: felt, bumpers, pockets, pool cues, ordinary pool balls and a cue ball, etc. Allow me to remove the felt and replace it with a frictionless surface, something infinitely slippery. The bumpers have to be replaced also and are replaced with perfectly elastic bumpers. These bumpers return every erg of energy transferred to them by a colliding ball, back to the ball. The pockets have to go (for now) and the balls have to reconstituted with some also perfectly elastic material of exactly equal mass and size and shape. (Ordinary cue balls are ever so slightly larger than the others and they will have to be made equal to the others (in all ways) for a time.)

Now, once these ball are set in motion, they never stop. When they collide, momentum is conserved, momentum being the product of the mass and velocity of a moving object. So, if one ball hits another and some speed is transferred, since the balls are of the same mass, the amount one ball slows is equal to the amount the other speeds up. This is true even if one ball hits two others simultaneously, the total speeds lost equal the total speeds gained.

This situation is analogous to a sample of gas trapped in a bottle. The gas molecules are analogues of the balls and the bottle is effectively the bumper. As long as the bottle and gas are the same temperature and that doesn’t change, the analogy is perfect (albeit the molecules are much smaller, move much faster, etc.). We can describe this state mathematically perfectly and we can predict any particular situation in either the past or the future of such a system (where the molecules are, how fast they are going, etc.). This is a fated or deterministic mini-universe.

But now let us add the real-world pool table items back in. If we were to just add the pockets back, some of the balls would leave the table by falling into the pockets and the balls that remained would have to have paths that repeated themselves and which didn’t involve colliding into a pocket. If the felt is added back, so is friction and the balls in motion will then stop at some point due to that friction. Also, the not perfectly elastic bumpers will absorb some of the energy of the balls colliding with them. We end up with an imperfect, non-deterministic game, one in which the result of any balls being set in motion becomes quite uncertain. The only thing we can say for certain is the balls will come to a stop after each “play.” The motions are somewhat but not perfectly predictable, which allows for the skills of elite pool players.

Every time the cue ball is struck (the cue ball being made slightly larger than the other balls so it strikes them ever so slightly above the equator, minimizing the chances of a ball being hit slightly below the equator which can result in the struck ball flying off of the table (now you know)), the table ends up in a new state, that is the positions of the balls involved in collisions is almost guaranteed to be different as well as somewhat unpredictable.

So, as a player of any pool game, you must make decisions based upon the state of play. Some of those games require the balls to be sunk in numerical order (they are numbered to facilitate this) while others just require the balls be nudged into any pocket through a collision with the cue or other balls in any way one can. If a ball is sunk during a play, another turn is earned. So, decisions have to be made. Should I try to sink this ball or that ball? If I sink that ball, will the cue ball be in a position to sink another ball (or the next numbered ball in the sequence) and, if it won’t be properly positioned, can I make it properly positioned by some skill of my possession.

All of these “decisions” involve free will. I make this claim because two different pool players will sometimes play a particular situation differently. It is not the case that the “state” of the table determines the next play. The skill set of the player is involved. One is better with short shots, another excels at longer shots. One player can make very fine massé shots, another not so well. One player excels at bank shots, etc. So, the universe cannot dictate how a table will be played, and a player cannot either. Even giving a player’s particular skill set, occasionally they will play a shot that invokes a weakness rather than playing to their strengths time after time. When queried about that “decision” later, they invariably acknowledge the multiple approaches they were considering. And occasionally state that “they don’t know why they chose the route they did” or they felt more confident “in the moment” in that path, or…. And sometimes they get frozen in a state of indecision, that is they have two paths forward that they cannot distinguish between and they get “stuck” not being able to decide. And other times we make decisions to be perverse out of a desire not to be predictable (e.g. a chance averse golfer taking a big chance to win a tournament).

I think much of the debate about the existence of free will is based upon a faulty definition. Most people describe free will as a conscious decision making ability. But many, many of the decisions we make are subconscious, that is we are not aware which of our thoughts or feelings added up to the decision involved. Such decisions come up most obviously when we struggle with making a decision consciously and go with a “gut feeling.” Your gut may have a great many neurons, but I doubt it thinks per se.

If one uses a definition of free will that includes both conscious and unconscious decision making, I think it is quite clear that we have free will, that we can choose to do things one way and when faced with the exact same situation again, choose to do it differently.

The reason free will is important is that if we do not have the ability to make our own choices, that our response to situations was either hardwired into our brains or programming in by social conditioning, then we are not responsible for our actions, our engineers and programmers are. How could we punish criminals or send sinners to Hell without them having the ability to do other than what the situation triggers? How indeed?

May 16, 2016

Ow, Ow, Ow, It Hurts My Head

I have written often enough about the poor level of thinking I see, often associated with religion. I have recently been reading Sean Carroll’s new book The Big Picture, which I heartily recommend, in which Dr. Carroll addresses issues both scientific and philosophical (including the meaning of life!). Last night I read a principle I had forgotten about, created by German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), as stated by Dr. Carroll:

The Principle of the Best according to which God always acts in the best possible way, including in the creation of the world.

Leibnitz made the usual arguments that God is all-powerful, all-good, etc. and therefore he argued, essentially as an axiom, that everything God did was perfect and good, including His Creation.

So, if I understand the Book of Genesis right, God creates a great many animals, one of which is designed to be both his gardener and to worship him. The being and his helpmeet become disobedient quite quickly and incur God’s displeasure and banishment from his direct presence, so apparently God did something less than perfectly. Not only did he lose his worshipers but also his gardener. Then, his created beings went forth and populated the planet with animals of all “kinds” as well as people, but God was so disappointed in the behavior of the people that he decides to kill all but eight of them with a massive flood, incidentally killing the vast majority of the innocent animals at the same time. After doing that, he repents his action and promises not to do that again.

This is a shocking number of changes of mind from someone who can see the future like we can see the past. And the only reason we can think of for such actions is he looked at His Creation and thought “This is not good.”

Now, Leibnitz was no idiot. He also knew that the lifespan of an atheist in the 1600’s could be counted in days if that fact became known, so he had to espouse some sort of faith in the existence of a god. But, his Principle of the Best, seems irrational in the extreme and certainly is not supported by scripture. Did he design it as protection from potential critics or did he believe it to be true? If he believed it to be true, he must have had a very unusual reading of the first book of the Bible.

It also seems that a great many people still believe this Principle of the Best, even though it is irrational in the extreme. And while people are capable of wishful thinking, I know I am, this is massively counterproductive thinking, if one could call it thinking in the first place. If I may paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems using the thinking that got us into them in the first place.

May 13, 2016

Religion: You Couldn’t Make This Up

Filed under: Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:19 am
Tags: , ,

According to the Asian Correspondent (asiancorrespondent.com):

“Indonesians living in the remote village of Kalupapi believed that an inflatable doll was an angel which fell from heaven, but later discovered it was a sex toy. One of the villagers by the name of Pardin had discovered the doll while fishing and brought it back to his village where it was revered for its supposed divinity. After rumors and reports about the ‘angel’ spread rapidly, police arrived to investigate, quickly concluding it was instead an inflatable sex doll.”

Clearly the definition of an “angel” needs clarifying.

And isn’t needing minions to do one’s work a tacit admission one is incapable of doing it all oneself? Why are angels needed?

May 12, 2016

American Exceptionalism Triumphs

In the most recent New York Times Magazine there is an article with the intriguing title “When Do You Give Up On Treating A Child With Cancer?” I am sure that title was carefully crafted by some editor to evoke a significant emotional response. Unbeknownst to him/her, the American Healthcare System, the Best System in the World (according to Donald Trump and most conservative drudges) has made this question moot.

Parent’s need not struggle with heart rending existential problems any more, at least not in the medical arena. The answer to the question “When do you give up on treating a child with cancer?” is answered by the system itself. The answer is …

… when you run out of money.

Biblical Explanations and Justifications

In a religiondispatches.org review of the book The Lost White Tribe (The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent, Michael F. Robinson, Oxford University Press, April 2016) which addresses the somewhat perplexing desire on the part of mostly nineteenth and twentieth century white explorers to find white people in previously unexplored (by white people) places.

At one point the review’s author, Michael Schulson, comments:

“… as they entered Africa, Europeans had another tool with which to understand all the new people they were meeting, trading with, and sometimes enslaving. The first 11 chapters of Genesis offer a fairly comprehensive account of human diversification. The text shows how and where people originated (Eden), describes the lineages of early humans (all those begats), explains the origin of languages (Babel), and mentions the dispersal of people after a catastrophic event (The Flood).

“Most importantly, there’s Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, who is cursed to be “a servant of servants” in Genesis 9 (a verse used by plantation owners to justify the enslavement of black people). But as Robinson chronicles, an alternate Hamitic hypothesis was also deeply influential. In this version, Ham’s descendants did go down to Africa, but they stayed white. Once there, they ruled over the dark-skinned locals.”

I assume that this is fair telling of some of the justifications in circulation for what people were finding as they explored. Remember that the initial purpose of biblical archeology was to confirm what we were told through the Bible, not to discover anything per se. The Bible had a profound effect as a source of “wisdom.”

But, egad, the amazing poor level of thinking involved!

Consider the “the dispersal of people after a catastrophic event (The Flood).” Hello … the people of the Earth had been dispersed and the Great Flood killed all of them, save eight. The remaining eight could comfortably sit in a ten by ten foot space. I’d say that was a fantastically non-dispersive event. And, brilliantly, since the people pointing to this evidence regarding how people came to be dispersed all over the planet, they were operating from the understanding that … people were dispersed all over the planet! So, the Great Flood was a setback in that trend, not a feature. (Talk about evolutionary/genetic choke points!)

Then consider “In this version, Ham’s descendants did go down to Africa, but they stayed white. Once there, they ruled over the dark-skinned locals.” According to the depiction of the Great Flood, everyone subsequent to that event has to be a descendant of Noah and Noah’s wife, Whatsherface. Everyone has to be of the exact same race, the race of Noah. And there could be no pre-existing “darkies” for Ham to rule over as they had all been killed by the Flood, so where did they come from? Was there another Creation we were not told of?

Granted we are talking about the thinking ability of white supremacists, basically all white people of the time, but the level of thinking is stupendously bad. It is, though, quite in keeping with the bulk of the biblical justifications and explanations being bandied about even today. If one looks at the performances of professional Christian apologists as being appallingly poor, consider that most of the apologies are being made by amateur apologists, who are far less adept.

The book looks fascinating but I do not think I could read it. I find the accounts of the oppression of various peoples so vile as to cause frequent stops in my reading to allow my blood pressure to recede. I have pushed hard to educate myself on subjects closer to home, the treatment of native Americans by U.S. white supremacists for example, but even then frequent stops are needed for my bile to be dealt with.

When it comes to justifying our actions, people apparently have a very low bar. It is as if we have all agreed that “if you accept my bullshit explanation, I’ll accept yours.”

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