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Friday, August 29, 2008

Stop Using Stupid Words

Well, I was pretty busy this week, so I didn't have time to write a real entry. I did want to point out something, though. Browsing around some other blogs reading about Obama and McCain and their vice presidential candidate choices, I noticed something that really irritates me. If you're one of those people who likes to use words like Rethuglicans, Republicons, Dimmycrat, Dumbocrat, John McSame, Barack Osama bin Laden, or any of those other plays on words, STOP IT! It's not funny. It makes you sound stupid.

As I had to get across to my daughter when she was even younger than she is now, a joke's only funny once. Repeating a joke ad nauseum just makes it look like you're unoriginal.

Please, just use the real terms for these things. Politics is bad enough as it is without resorting to childish name calling.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pascal's Wager

A discussion of Pascal's Wager seems nearly obligatory for a blog that deals with skeptical themes. So, even though others have already covered this more eloquently than I could hope for, here's my take on this argument.

Coin TossIf you're the type that gets involved at all in religious discussions (and maybe even if you aren't), you've probably heard some version of Pascal's Wager before, even if you haven't heard it referred to as such. The argument is named for Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher. It appeared in The Pensées, a post-humous publication of a collection of Pascal's notes. However, the argument is simple enough that many people have no doubt come up with it independently. So, rather than discuss Pascal's original description of the "wager," I'll discuss the version that I've heard most often, personally. (And, in defense of Pascal, I'ver heard that he never intended this argument to be concrete logical proof, but rather as a way to get people thinking about the issue).

The argument goes something like this. There either is a God, or there isn't. You either believe in God, or you don't. That gives four possible outcomes (these are usually shown in a table, but I'm just going to list them):

  1. God exists & you believe - You'll get into heaven when you die, an infinite reward.
  2. God exists & you don't believe - You'll go to hell when you die, an infinite punishment.
  3. God doesn't exist & you believe - You'll lose nothing (or, according to some, even live a better life).
  4. God doesn't exist & you don't believe - You can do whatever you want during life, a finite reward.

Presented this way, belief in God would seem to be the logical choice. However, there are definitely problems with the argument.

The first problem I'll note is the one that first occured to me when I was still a Christian - people cannot simply choose to believe in something. Take for example, leprechauns. Many people have sincerely believed in them in the past, but no matter how much I may want to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, I can't make myself believe that leprechauns actually exist. It's the same way with God. If you've given serious thought to the issue, you can't simply make yourself believe (or disbelieve) just because you'd like the outcome. To claim belief in that way would be insincere, and, according to most people's concept of Yahweh, God doesn't merely want lip service. He wants actual, sincere faith.

The second problem I see with the argument is the assumption that you'll lose nothing if you believe in God but he doesn't exist. Assuming you accept that the Bible accurately represents what Yahweh wants of us (which most Christians do), there are plenty of rules in that book. Granted, many Christians have found ways to rationalize their way out of following a good deal of them (no more dietary regulations, people can work on the Sabbath, many seem to disregard Jesus's lecture about rich people and heaven being compared to camels getting through the eye of a needle, etc.), but there are still quite a few Biblical rules that people do follow. Probably two of the most relevant right now are attitudes toward homosexuals, and attitudes toward stem cell research. The former keeps a large number of people from leading happy lives, while the latter is preventing research with the potential to greatly reduce suffering in the world. One could argue that these are finite costs, compared to the infinite cost and reward of heaven and hell, but they are still costs, nonetheless.

However, the biggest problem with Pascal's wager must be that it leaves out many other possibities. This becomes clear if you imagine the argument with Allah instead of the Christian God. The argument would then seem to indicate that you should be a Muslim. Obviously, they can't both be right. The problem is in that first statement, that either God exists or he doesn't. It's not a simple either/or choice. There are many, many gods to choose from - three versions of Yahweh (Jewish, Christian, & Muslim - not to mention all the sects of those three), Vishnu, the Bahá'í God, Krishna, the Sikh God, Ahura Mazda, Anu, Ra, Odin, Quetzalcoatl, Gukumatz, or Zeus, to name just a few of the deities people have worshipped in the past, or continue to worship in the present (and as an aside, there are many traditions, like Buddhism which don't concentrate on deities).

Also left out are the possibilities of how a god will reward or punish belief and disbelief. The Christian conception of God will reward faith and punish doubt, but with all the possibilities of gods, the other deities may have different ideas. It's conceivable that a god would reward honest inquiry, and punish blind faith, favoring the process over the end result.

Even though Pascal's wager may appear clever at first blush, it's unlikely to convince people who have given much thought to the question of the existence of a deity.

Website Update - New Photo Page Generator Program and a New Slideshow

I've put up an updated Photo Page Generator, version 2.3, on my Programming page. I reinstated the ability to generate lists to put in drop-down boxes for slideshows. I also added the executable version to my Downloads page. On a related note, I added a slideshow to my Florida Photos page. While I was updating the Programming section, I decided to make a few tweaks. Now, when you follow one of the links to view the source code (here's an example), it has a little description of the program at the top, followed by the source code below. I also went through each of those pages to make sure that they were valid html code (mostly replacing "&" with "&amp;", and "<" and ">" with "&#60;" and "&#62;".

With this third update to the main site for August, I'm up to 8 updates this year. That's got me caught up with my update per month goal. Now let's see if I can keep it up for the rest of the year.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Another Ray Comfort Tract

Going into the grocery store this past Friday, a lady standing by the door handed me this (click for higher res):

Million Dollar Bill Tract

This is similar to the tract I blogged about before, which I found in some Harry Potter and Golden Compass books (on another occasion, I found a tract in The God Delusion), but apparently, it's a newer, "better" version.

I was half tempted to start a discussion with the lady, but I was in a hurry to pick up a few things and then get home for my daughter's birthday party. Obviously, my daughter takes precedence over street corner debates, so I just chuckled to myself, put the tract in my pocket, and contented myself with knowing I'd be able to blog about it. There's not really much to say about the tract itself, though. It's pretty much the same old thing that's come from Comfort's organization before.

This incident did get me thinking, though. There needs to be some type of quick, easy handout to give to these people, as a kind of reciprocal gift to the tracts they're handing out. I found this, but that's a full brochure. It's not the type of thing I'd carry around in my back pocket, just in case I run into that pushy evangelical. There needs to be something business card sized, short and clear to get them thinking, without being obnoxious or mocking.

As an aside, I'd always given Ray Comfort the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was sincere, but just ignorant of science (and a few other things). I just found an entry on another blog that isn't quite so charitable.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Website Update - Top 10 Page List Updated

Top 10 ListWell, with the mention in my last update that I hadn't updated my list of 10 most popular pages since the end of March, it got me feeling a little guilty. So, I went looking through my server logs, and came up with new top ten lists for each of the months that I missed (the older months can be found here). I was a little surprised, actually. My Autogyro History & Theory essay is still the most popular page on this site, but one of my blog entries from about a year ago, A Skeptical Look at Masai Barefoot Technology Shoes, is starting to gain popularity and close the ground to the autogyro essay. Another surprise is the blog entry, Legalizing Homosexual Marriage, Part II. It's an essay I originally wrote for this site way back in 2005, and reposted on my blog in 2006. And now, all of a sudden, people have started reading it. Going back over it now, my views have changed a bit, but I still think it's a pretty good essay for religious people to read. There are a few other blog entries, such as this one, Physical Comparison of Humans to Other Animals, which have also started gaining more popularity as they grow older. I guess it just goes to show that if you concentrate on putting good information into a site, even if it takes a little while, and without any real advertising, people will eventually notice. So, I guess it's time to get back to creating some of that good content, and quit with the updates like these.

For any of you reading this on my blog instead of my homepage, here's the list of top 10 most viewed pages on this site for July:

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at Masai Barefoot Technology Shoes
  3. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  4. Blog - Just Because (picture of me in aircraft cockpit)
  5. Blog - E-mails and Misinformation
  6. Programming
  7. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  9. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool
  10. Blog - Legalizing Homosexual Marriage, Part II

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Website Update - Florida Photo Page

The Tide Taking a SandcastleBoy have I've been neglecting the non-blog portion of this site. I just completely missed another month, to make 3 months of this year, so far, without adding any new content. And I haven't updated my list of 10 most popular pages since the end of March. Well, I've finally gotten around to making something new - a Florida Photo Page, showing some pictures from my latest trip. This trip was spent mainly relaxing on the beach, so unfortunately for you, that means there aren't that many photos worth showing to the public. There were a few good ones, though, so it's still worth checking out. I also added the appropriate link on the main Photos page.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ask and Ye Shall Receive - A Dubious Left Wing E-mail

Turtle Eating Plastic BagI recently wrote an entry about a phenomenon I'd noticed - "that the vast, vast majority of dubious politically related e-mails I've received are from the right side of the spectrum." I went on to point out that, "In fact, I can't recall a single chain e-mail I've received personally that has denigrated Republicans, social conservatives, or the religious right. But I've received plenty that criticize or demonize their opponents, almost always by either stretching the truth or by outright fabrication."

Well, I've finally received a dubious left wing e-mail. It contained a PowerPoint attachment titled The Dangers of Plastic Bags, which uses some questionable "facts." I converted that to a .pdf, which can be downloaded through the link below:
The Dangers of Plastic Bags (pdf - 1.52 MB).

I'm busy this week with trying to make a new page for my main site, so I won't devote a lot of effort into debunking the claims in that presentation, at least not yet. Hopefully I'll have a chance to follow up on this in the future. Instead, I'll link to a rebuttal from an admittedly biased source, the Plastics Industry Trade Association. Again, this is a .pdf:
Progressive Bag Alliance - Top 10 Myths About Plastic Grocery Bags (pdf - 45.6 kB)

I agree with the general sentiment of the e-mail forward. Plastic bags last a long time without breaking down, are hazardous to wildlife, and it seems that they're being found in just about every habitat on Earth. It would be much better for the environment if we reduced the amount of plastic bags we used. Just buying a couple things from the store? Carry them out without a bag. Wanna be a real tree hugger? Take a reuseable canvas bag. But it does your cause no good try to further your agenda through misinformation. People will think you're a liar, or at best unreliable, and doubt the rest of the information you're providing.

Okay, so for the five years I've been living in Texas (I'm not going to try to remember farther back than that), I've received a grand total of 1 dubious left wing e-mail, and more dubious right wing e-mails than I care to count. I'd sure like to see the totals get reduced to zero for both sides of the political spectrum.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Book Review- Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text, the foundation of Taoism, and also important to Chinese Buddhism. Tradition holds that it was written by Lao Tsu around the 6th century B.C., although there is some debate as to the actual date it was written, and even whether Lao Tsu was an actual, historical person. There have been numerous translations of the text into English. The particular translation I read was that of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, which I've learned was the translation favored by Alan Watts. (Depending on the romanization of Tao Te Ching and Lao Tsu, or the attempt to express those words with the Roman alphabet, they can be written many different ways, with some of the most common being Dao De Jing for the text, and Laozi or Lao Tzu for the man.)

The text is poetic. It's fairly short, so you could read it pretty quickly if you wanted to, although it's probably better to take your time so you can reflect on what's being said. There are many parts of the text that make you stop and think, like the following passage from Chapter 2. This method of contrasting opposites was repeated throughout the text.

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ungliness.
All can know good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.

The text also makes a point about not always having to do things. Sometimes, inaction can be the best path.

Movement overcomes cold.
Stillness overcomes heat.
Stillness and tranquility set things in order in the universe.

And another passage with a similar message:

Keep your mouth shut,
Guard the senses,
And life is ever full.
Open your mouth,
Always be busy,
And life is beyond hope.

Though at times, I think the text went to far in this regard. There was one passage in particular that struck me as being rather counter to Enlightenment ideals (though I'm sure some student of Taoism will come along and tell me I could interpret this passage differently). You can't learn about the world simply by sitting inside and meditating - you need evidence, which you can only get through observation.

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

Here's another passage along the same lines, which seems even more explicitly counter to scientific observation.

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.

Thus the sage knows without traveling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.

There were other passages describing what Tao is. A less charitable review might call them "mystical mumbo-jumbo," but this review wouldn't go that far.

Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Thereore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
An unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
The form of the formless,
The image of the imageless,
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.

Aside from the text itself, the book I read was also filled with beautiful photographs on every page. Considering the price I paid to buy the book used, these photographs would have been worth the price in and of themselves.

Given that the Tao Te Ching is fundamental to some of the world's major religions, and given that it is so short, it would definitely be worth reading if just to gain a deeper understanding of how a substantial portion of the world's population thinks. However, the text stands on its own accords as well, even if you don't agree with everything it says. It will at least make you think.

There are many translations available for free online. There is also a Wikipedia entry on the text, for those interested in learning more.

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