November 23, 2011

Anton's Syndrome and Religion

I just learned of a new and interesting rare problem that a few people suffer from and think that it applies well to religious people and specifically how they prefer to answer one type of question. The idea to write this came from David Eagleman's book Incognito, so I'll just plug it for a second. It's a book that expands on the idea of how the mind constructs reality and the importance of the subconscious, so if I haven't jaded you from the subject it's worth a look at.

Anton's syndrome or Anton-Babinski syndrome is a problem that happens when there is damage to the occipital lobe. It causes a person to become completely blind, but the sufferers don't immediately report any problem at all. Not all that interesting so far. What is interesting is that this blindness is also coupled with two other symptoms, the lack of awareness of the blindness and the creation of the objects around them through the mind only.

All this means that the person will be completely blind, but will still think that they can see. Their condition is only exposed when someone else notices that what they say or how they act, turns out to be independent of the visual reality around them. A doctor will put up there hand and ask how many fingers they are holding up and the person will reply '3' when the doctor never lifted their hand in the first place, they will walk straight into walls and trip over anything put in front of them. What they are seeing is a complete fabrication generated by their mind and a fabrication that is independent of sensory information from the eyes. People with Anton's syndrome are living in completely in a visual world of their own creation.

This is what I feel like happens to an ultra-religious person and explains a nonsensical answer that is commonly given to a simple question. The questions of, 'Where is god?' or 'Where is the proof for god?' is commonly answered with the statement that "God is all around you." or "I see God in the leaves, the tide, and the stars....I see God in everything."

Now I have looked at many leafs and still have yet to find the God part of the leaf. These people are seeing what is an Anton's Syndrome like connection. There is something that makes it evident that God is a part of that thing that they are seeing, a part of the mind is coloring the view of what they are seeing. These people too are living in a world of there own creation that has no connection with reality, tripping over God and not noticing that the doctor's arm had never moved.

Now, it may be fair to criticize this view and say the people that are making these comments are making a metaphorical statement and surely some people are. It is always the charitable thing to take the strongest or most logical sense of what someone is saying. Yet, I don't think that the people making those kinds of blanket statements are always describing something metaphorically, they could be seeing the fingerprint of God on everything and must be taken literally when they say, "Yes, I see God in nature and not just his handiwork."

Perhaps, like in left temporal lobe epilepsy, there is a physiological mistake being made and people really are 'seeing something', but whether the connection is real or not Anton's syndrome provides an interesting way to interpret literally seeing God in the world.  

Then again they would probably use Anton's syndrome to deconstruct what I'm saying in the same way, I once was blind but now can see seems to imply exactly that.

The only problem with that is, I've never heard anyone say that they 'See evolution in the leaves' or 'The big bang in the rocks', although you could say that you hear evidence of the big bang in the cosmic background radiation.  You can't really see a process in a picture, in the same way you can apparently see God.

In one world I can point to the leafs and say "There are some leaves." and there can be an agreement, in the other you can look at leaves and say "I see God.", but you can't see it, and they tell you to look harder still, yet how hard must one look to see that emperor doesn't have any clothes?

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

October 25, 2011

A New Fallacy? The Infallible Person

I'm not sure if this fallacy has been talked about before in the depth that I'm about to talk about it or even if it is correctly identified as a new fallacy. What is clear is that it is an error in reasoning that hinders many peoples thinking without them even realizing they are making a mistake. That error is thinking that the mind works perfectly and is a perfect translator of external events to sensory information to rational understanding to memory retention and recall. Which could be encompassed in the argument from authority fallacy where any person is the authority of what they did/didn't do, but I don't think that, that description encompasses the totality of  different kinds of errors being made.

Any person considers themselves the authority on what they did or did not do. I was at the casino last night and played poker, lay down my flush draw when I should have but got criticized about it, and all sorts of other things. These are the types of things people hold unquestionably true.

The mind does a wonderful job taking different waves at different frequencies and turning them into something intelligible, but it does error and on top of that it makes systematic mistakes; to err is human, and people don't understand how truly human they are. This is because the brain and body do such a seamless job, most of the time, that unless these mistakes are being consciously looked for they are unnoticed or shrugged off. Forgotten almost immediately, escaping notice, leaving no reason to doubt a personal infallibility about what is going/went on in the world.

However, mistakes are made, remotes end up in the freezer next to the popsicle's and ice cream end's up in the fridge under the cheese slices. These are the common errors that the mind makes when it is busy and concentrating on something else, the programming was there so the mistake shouldn't have been made, but it was made anyway, due to any number of reasons.

Pareidolia took this Canadian bill off the market (See the Devils head?)
There are another class of errors that aren't mistakes, per say, they are errors that are purposely made or that are there for a reason. Pareidolia, the common misconception of memory, cognitive dissonance, implanted memories, and  intuitive measurement, intuitive probability (Monty Hall Problem). Yet, despite these and the more common problems like miss identification people normally don't doubt any of the knowledge they have.

This all accumulates into a host of unknown phenomena being understood as 'real'.  Ghost stories have started by objects moving and no one being able to account for who moved them, extraterrestrial visits have been caused by implanted memories and a host of other things,  lucky streaks happen because of the poor understanding of probability, and many other supernatural occurrences can be accounted for just with the fallacy of the person thinking that they are infallibly seeing the world, instead of seeing reality through a evolutionary crafted human lens.  

This failure is mainly due to the mind working so well that its non-perfect functioning is a novel amusement (the inward nose) and (balls rolling uphill). No one really thinks about how often their brain gets something wrong and the people who do think about it might fit into the category of people who look at the brain as the work of a divine hand that could craft a brain that sees the true picture of reality, instead of a product with limitations and made not for the purpose of understanding reality, but for being a successful gene package.

Pariedolia works, it has often been noted, because the 8 times you mistake a tiger being in a bush, your only out a couple seconds of your time, but the one time you don't see the tiger in the bush you may be out your life. Errors can be just mistakes or they can built into the mind itself for enhanced survival. Mistakes exist in categories that aren't the exception, but instead the rule.

So when a lady tells me she knows that a house is haunted because one day a hairbrush went missing and turned up in the kitchen cupboard, I don't doubt that hairbrush went missing, but I question the persons memory about things they have done. There needn't be ghosts when there are so many specters of the human mind. Seeing isn't believing.

Which pretty much covers the basics of this fallacy, the fallacy that the mind functions perfectly. People think that their brain works perfectly and their version of reality is what infallibly happened, instead of the brain producing a, usually, well working picture of reality through a human lens.

Thanks for reading,

September 15, 2011

Margarine, Cheez Whiz and Plastic - Turning Gold Into Lead

Well, doesn't that sound appetizing. It almost doesn't matter if the claim is true or not because, as soon as a product can be linked to imagery so unappealing as plastic than the damage is already done. This is the rare kind of reverse branding of a product, where something is linked to an idea that is unappealing, food to non-food. This of course is opposed to the normal branding where beer (or any other product) is linked to a lifestyle of being around beautiful women, which as many beer swilling basement dwellers tell me, doesn't require a lot of skepticism to disprove.

Yet, before I deal with the actual question, is margarine and Cheez Whiz really chemically close to plastic? It would be better to examine the questions premise in the first place, that being chemically close to plastic would make something less palatable or unhealthy.

The notion seems to make logical sense, because plastic isn't a regular food item and doesn't seem similar to food in anyway. It comes from a pretty good rule of thumb, when you don't know what something is then think about what the thing is like and treat it as you would objects of that class. If you went to the park and happened to see an object that looks like this odd contraption on the right, you'd probably look at it for a minute before wondering what kind of piece of modern art it was and you wouldn't be wrong for looking at it as such, although it happens to be a fork styled chair.

The treat the unknown like what it seems to be a category of works really well for larger objects, which is what the human mind exclusively had to deal with for almost the entirety of its existence, but it doesn't work so well with the world of the very small.

Scientists, and alchemists, before them spent hours and years attempting to change lead into gold because of the differences in value between the two soft metals. Lead and Gold are separated only by a few protons in the nucleus and with modern means of knocking protons out by speeding up small particles and slamming them through a target material, lead can be turned into gold, but despite their similarities the reactions they have to the human body are completely different.

Which brings the topic back to where it started, even if Margarine and Cheez Whiz were chemically similar to plastic it wouldn't really be a problem, outside of perceived repulsion, which in the case of a food product would seem to still be a problem. So are they similar?

Well the history of margarine is far more interesting then I thought it would be, and is linked to, of all figures, Napoleon. In 1869 Napoleon offered a prize for anyone who could come up with a cheap butter substitute for the army and the poor. The french chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries then patented a mixture of beef tallow and skimmed milk which was good enough to claim the prize from the French government. Eventually the beef fat was switched to vegetable oils. It didn't turn up in some science experiment trying to create a new polymer, or as snopes tells me, a turkey fattener.

While Cheez Whiz is a mysterious mixture, I mean it's already unsure of itself as a cheese and I have no idea what its good at. Besides that, finding out the ins and outs of how it was made is rather difficult, and the best information I could find came from an extended obituary for Edwin Traisman, who turns out to be the inventor of the spread.  He was a Kraft researcher who, "Led the team that combined cheese, emulsifiers and other ingredients into the bright yellow sauce called Cheez Whiz, a topping for corn chips, cheese steaks and hot dogs. It was introduced in 1953."

Now, Emulsion is the process of combining two liquids that normally wouldn't combine at all, think oil and water, and an emulsifier is something that stabilizes an emulsion...well that doesn't make Cheez Whiz sound any more appetizing.

Emulsion is used in the production of a wide verity of things, including creating things like paint, so it doesn't really help the case of Cheese Whiz, but this is purely guilt by association. Nothing about the processes makes something a non-food and recently cooks have been embracing the chemical side of cooking. I remember a set of cooks on Iron Chief using all sorts of contraptions and chemistry, so maybe Edwin was just ahead of his time.

Either way, the safety of eating cheese whiz or margarine has never really been in doubt, and in the world of the very small things that are similar still have very different reactions. A bear may be a bear whether it's a Grizzly in BC or a Asian Black Bear in China, but lead and gold will never be the same.

Thanks for reading,
-The Moral Skeptic

July 23, 2011

Rebbeca Watson, Richard Dawkins, and The Mountain of Molehills

This is a topic that came up in the skeptical community between to people I respect, and after listening to the latest SGU felt compelled to write about.

There really was two incidents. The first was a video Rebbecca Watson made where she made what was really a off the cuff remark about one night when she was doing an event and talked about sexism in the skeptical movement, which can be a problem, and then went out for drinks afterwords. Which led to her being proposition in an elevator at 4 am or incident one. The second incident is the reaction that has come from some of the big hitters in the skeptical movement, PT Myers, Phil Plait and Richard Dawkins.

Now the problem is that I agree with both Rebecca and Richard while disagreeing with them as well, which will probably lead me to be a misogynist to some and a panderer to others....not exactly the prettiest fence to find yourself on, but it's where I'm currently perched.

The initial point - Well this was simply the remark that Rebecca Watson made, that it wasn't a good idea to proposition a girl in an elevator at 4 in the morning, she said 'don't do that.' which is pretty hard to argue against as it isn't the classicist move in the players handbook. Yet, this simple, almost superficial, remark was the starting point of a debate, where mud would fly.

The scene of slinging would really start when PT Myers would blog about Rebecca's experience. PT Myers had to say that, propositioning a women like that shows that, "Women are lower status persons, and we men, as superior beings, get to ask things of them." and  that "Maybe we [men] should recognize that when we interact with equals there are different, expected patterns of behavior that many men casually disregard when meeting with women, and it is those subtle signs that let them know what you think of them that really righteously pisses feminist women off." and he finishes up by talking about Phil Plaits Don't be a Dick speech.

Richard Dawkins ended up writing a response to the blog post saying,

"Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


That's when the shit really hit the fan and the over-reactions started to pour in on either side, but lets step back for a second. Rebecca said, that it wasn't a good idea, fair enough. PT than is more general, and goes down the road of sexual objectification by those kind of actions, which I'm not sure qualifies at 4 in the morning after a night of drinking. Dawkins then says, whats the big deal? Which is a fair question because the drama over such a slight incident was making the molehill larger, but it would later become a full mountain when Phil 'Potential Sexual Assault' Plate would blog about the issue.  

Phil states that, "The real problem here is that Dawkins (and several others who left comments) didn’t see this as a potential assault scenario." and he goes further to say,

"You [A women] may not be able to just press a button and walk away — perhaps he has a knife, or a gun, or will simply overpower you. When there’s no way to know, you err on the side of safety. And what makes this worse is that most men don’t understand this, so women are constantly put into situations ranging from uncomfortable to downright scary."

Where did the knife and gun come from, how did the original question turn into a attempted rape? If that is the case than define what is a potential sexual assault scenario then. Is it anytime a women is alone with a man they don't know well? Who knows the man might have a gun or a knife in their sleeves.

The start was reasonable, it's a bad idea to hit on a girl in an elevator at 4 am and a little creepy, I might add, but calling it a potential sexual assault or saying that it was morally wrong is jumping into an over-reaction.

This wasn't a funeral for her mother, or someone who crashed into her car on purpose to proposition her, it was someone who asked a girl back to his room after a night of drinking, if it is morally wrong or a potential sexual assault in this case then it is a short step to being wrong to ever proposition a girl, which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

Don't be a dick, but don't put a knife in a persons words,
-the moral skeptic

June 29, 2011

Taking Something Away vs. Not Doing Something

I while ago I read Sam Harris's book, The Moral Landscape, which I have referenced a couple times in previous posts. Harris, at one point, talks about how taking away something is viewed as worse then not doing something, and gives an example using two people.

The first person is a girl who has an 160 IQ and great musical ability, this person isn't given the correct treatment and because of that her IQ drops to 100 and she looses her musical ability. This is contrasted with a girl who has an IQ of 100 and with a pill given at the right time would have her IQ go up to 160 and gain a great musical talent, but the pill isn't given so she remains the same.

Now the end result is the equal and each girl has lost something, but people view the first girl as suffering much more than the second. It is from answering questions like these that it is learned that an act of taking something away from someone is viewed as much worse then not doing something to help someone.

This I don't really have a problem with, because it is worse to lose something then never get something, because there is a greater appreciation of what was actually lost, the old adage, "You don't know what you have till it's gone."

I do have a problem when this line of thinking is combined with the belief that anything natural good, or is at least acceptable, and this recently came up in a conversation. Somehow the topic came of reincarnation came up and a older woman said that, "If it's true than you should be good or you'd come back as something like a worm."

Now I don't believe in reincarnation, but I wouldn't usually have had a problem with other people believing in it, or someone talking about it, but that statement I do and did take offense too. There are people with the belief that if you have done something bad in a previous life that you are punished in the next life for it, so nothing should be done for people who face a 'natural' problem and thus they should be left in a state of suffering, which is horrible. 

So I interrupted the person and stated exactly what I summarized in  the paragraph above, when another lady, who happened to be very well educated, disagreed with what I said and talked about how living with a problem could be a learning experience and lead to enlightened/diverse perspectives.

Only someone educated could come up with such stupid reasoning to accept the suffering of others, and actually come up with a justification for finding nothing wrong in doing nothing at all for someone in pain.

It's as if because something is natural then it can be said to be alright, so if someone goes blind it might lead natural path, but if I stabbed someone in the eyes then it's a bad thing. The scale has tipped too far in the direction of taking something away being bad and not doing something being thought of as alright.

Not doing something is bad, should someone have to live with ALS, MS, or Cancer because living with them might lead to a different life view, or should people born deaf not have the hearing restored because some deaf people don't see it as a disability.

Ask anyone with hearing if they would go back and make it so they couldn't hear when they young, and it'll be easy to see the ethics in changing somethings natural course. Not doing something may not weight equally with taking something away, but it still has weight.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

June 17, 2011

Sighting in A Field

Well, congraz to the Bruins and shame on the premeditated riot. Anyway, onwards and upwards to some skepticism about a local 'sighting'. A friend of mine has a field camera set up to catch pictures of wildlife, and got some pictures that were quite unexplainable to him and without further ado here they are.

I was asked what happened in these photo's and I didn't really have an explanation for what the blue thing in multiple camera shots was, although a camera flash illuminating a bug very close to the camera lens is a pretty obvious explanation for what happened in the cool looking next to last photo.

So this is the part where I say I used to be a skeptic, but! ... well not quite. Both my friend and I, looked at the pictures, didn't really have a good explanations as to what happened and thought the pictures were pretty interesting. Yet, not interesting in the fact that they were conclusive proof of Aliens, Ghosts or Telepathic Bigfeet, which is quite the opposite stance of what a lot of anomaly hunters would take.

This can really be seen in the literal meaning of the word UFO and what it's default explanation is now. The literal explanation is pretty accurate, an unidentified flying object. Which is pretty good, except 'flying' doesn't really cover planets/stars because no one would described either of those things as 'flying', but they do happen to make up the majority of UFO reports.

Thought that isn't the meaning that comes to mind when someone says, "I just saw a UFO!" Little green/grey men with large eyes and a saucer-like craft that carries them is what comes to mind. This often leads to a UFO being presumed to be of the nature just described, until proven otherwise, which turns the burden of proof on its head, like a person being presumed guilty until proven innocent.

As Hume describes and Carl Sagan popularized, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so a few photos that are interesting and unexplainable doesn't make me break out the famous "I used to be a skeptic line" and to my friends credit he made no assumptions as to what it was a picture either.

It is fine to admit that you don't know.

I am content in my stupor, but if anyone does know would would give a picture that sort of blue effect an answer would be nice to have.

Thanks for reading,

May 11, 2011

3 Stories from Nature: Don't look to Nature for Morality

Well, I think that my last post was the most widely read post that I've written to date, so to capitalize on that momentum I've waited a few weeks and made sure the previous interest has waned.  Now it is often said that humanity shows a truly unique notion of cruelty and evil; this is true. There is no animal equivalent to holocaust or genocide, and animals aren't able to possess  the 'guilty mind' that makes up part of a crime, yet the roots, even of such 'unnatural' behavior, can be been from the acts of different animals.

At this point a brief disclaimer is necessary, because despite what I just said in the previous sentence some people may accuse me of anthropomorphism. I am of the opinion that American Law got it right when they expressed that an animal cannot be charged with a crime, for the reason I stated above. The quick brown fox that jumps over the lazy dog to kill a mouse isn't doing so out of malice.

This leads many people to say that animals kill only out of necessity, and don't show anything that would be described at immoral behavior. These beliefs are like that of the noble savage that lives at one with nature and other people, they exist only in a romantic dream, not in reality. Nature is not where morality can be found like a rare fruit in the upper branches of a tree, it is where the roots of both moral and immoral acts can be seen.

Story 1 - The Necrophiliac Mallard

Natural law proclaims that things have a purpose and should only be used for that expressed purpose. This is the foundation for calling homosexual acts 'unnatural'. Now it has been shown that this unnatural act happens in many different types of animals, making humans no special case, but that's not really interesting and doesn't really have the feeling that comes with an act that is considered immoral behavior.  However, there is one case that I know of that does.

In 2001, the first case was described of homosexual necrophilia in Mallard Ducks. In June of 1995, there was a loud bang. The sound was that of a duck crashing into a window, but when C.W. Moeliker went to see what it was he saw two ducks not one. Next to the dead duck that had just crashed into the window was a male duck and from the title of this first story there will be no prizes for guessing what happened next.

"He forcibly picked into the back, the base of the bill and mostly into the back of the head of the dead mallard for about two minutes, then mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force, almost continuously picking the side of the head."

C.W. then watch as the rape continued for 75 minutes, with two short breaks. It was only broken up when C.W. approached to within 5 meters of the ducks and even then the other male didn't fly away, but walked a few meters away.

This may sound like a unheard of event, but 2-19% of ducks are in homosexual couples and there have been descriptions of heterosexual necrophilia in ducks, so while it may seem too strange to be true, it's really just a matter of probability that the two actions be observed together eventually.

That said, clearly even depraved sexual actions take place in nature and animals don't live in the the heterosexual harmony that most assume. The birds might wait until the bees get stunned and fly over to mate with them in their death....bringing a whole different meaning to the birds and the bees.  

Story 2 - A Killer on the Loose

In the Essay, "The Horn of Triton" Stephen J. Gould reflects on the power of different individuals to change the history of a local population by way of two rather chilling stories from the animal kingdom.

The first killers were two Chimpanzees from Jane Goodall's studies named Passion and her Daughter Pom.  In 1975 Passion began to kill and eat newborn babies of the other females in her band, but she could not easily steal the babies from their mothers watch, but Passion didn't have to work alone. Pom would work with Passion to steal, kill (biting the infants through the skull), and eat the infants of other community members.

This immoral act was seen by observes three times, and may have happened an additional 7 times, as over a four year period only one mother was able to keep her offspring safe.

This again isn't an isolated event, our closest animal relatives may be more inclined to kill that Gould and Goodall first though as new descriptions of this type of occurrence have been detailed since then.  Live Science has an article that describes infanticidal attacks by female chumpanzee's.  It describes an event where,

"Alerted to the killings by sounds of chimpanzee screams, last year Townsend and his colleagues directly witnessed one infanticide, where a bleeding mother with a one-week-old child in tow was pursued by six females, five of which had clinging infants themselves. After a 10-minute struggle, the infant was taken and killed with a bite."

They also found evidence for two more killings of this type as dead chimpanzee infants were found with bite marks in the skull.

These killings don't happen out of necessity, or defense, they are murders on community members and while done without the knowledge of being a crime are enough to show that the term murder wouldn't be completely out of context within nature.

Story 3 - Dog Days of Summer

The second story from "The Horn of Triton" essay by Stephen J. Gould takes place in New Zealand where Micheal Taborsky was studying brown kiwi's. The kiwi's had a population of 800-1000 members and Micheal had managed to tag 24 birds with radio transmitters.

August the 24, a dead female kiwi with a radio transmitter was found dead, and by September 27, over half of the tagged birds had been killed. The birds were mostly found burred and missing feathers in different areas. 10 other birds without transmitters were found the say way, running the death toll up to 23.

The culprit of this culling was not a new migrant species or even a group of animals. It was a single German shepherd. Distinctive footprints were found along with dog droppings of a single type and size, and on September 30th that single female German shepherd was shot and the killings abruptly stopped.

Now 23 birds may not seem like a big deal, but the sample is skewed, for there is no reason to think that the birds with transmitters were special. The percentage of there deaths probably provide a more accurate understanding of the true scope of the killing performed by that single dog.  The actual total wouldn't be 23, and Taborsky estimates the real number to be 500-800 of the birds who had a total population of 1000.

He gives 3 reasons for this seemingly high estimate, "First, given the remote chance of finding a buried, untagged carcass, the ten actually located during the interval of killing must represent the tiny pinnacle of a large iceberg. Second, other evidence supports a dramatic fall in total population: Taborsky and colleagues noted a major drop in calling rates for these ordinarily noisy birds; a dog trained to find, but not to kill, kiwis could not locate a single live individual (although she found two carcasses) in a formally well-inhabited section of the forest. Third, kiwis, having evolved without natural enemies and possessing no means of escape, could not be easier prey."

This leaves Gould to conclude that the romantic notion that animals kill only for food or defense is a complete misconception and this German Shepard was following the killing pattern of many animals.

These three stories from nature have shown the roots of behavior in indiscriminate killing of other species, perverse sexual acts, and even within the group group murder. Man and woman are only special in the regard of truly being able to appreciate the consequences of their actions. We are not special in being unique in committing the acts themselves, as they are only natural.

Nature isn't a place of ideals and morality, it is a reflection of the causes that created us as killers, rapists, and altruistic cooperators. Nature may be able give us a framework to tell us why we are who we are, but it can't tell us how we should act in the future or who we should be; Nature is no ethical guide.

Thanks for reading, 


April 24, 2011

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Well, it's finally time to write what I have been putting off for no good reason. I think of myself as someone pretty environmentally aware and conscious, and like most people, I had heard that, "There is a garbage patch the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean." 

I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but a picture came to mind of a landfill with water around it. Pepsi bottles sitting on top of Coke cans spread out as far as the eye could see...smell that fresh ocean breeze. Yet, that isn't an accurate description of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at all, despite what searching for pictures of the patch will show you.

The patch is actually more of a plastic soup than a true landfill style garbage site. It was discovered in 1997 when Charles Moore decided to take the route less traveled back across the ocean after a Yacht race and ran into a plastic minefield that he would only later understand. In fact, he would become the leader in studying and publicizing the problem, for instance here is a video from TED in which he explains what is going on.  He has such a tireless presence that it is hard to find an article about the GPGP where he isn't quoted as a reference, and you can probably thank him solely for someone telling you about the "Garbage Patch the size of Texas in the ocean."

He has done more than just sail through and talk about the plastic though, and took the next step to perform actual studies. In which he found that, "A total of 27,698 small pieces of plastic weighing 424 g were collected from the surface water in the gyre, yielding a mean abundance of 334,271 pieces/km2 and a mean mass of 5,114 g/km2." 

The questions then come up, how did all that Garbage get there? Why is it grouped together in one big patch? and What effect is it having?

Well the plastic is collected by the ocean currents which all circle one area. Discover does a great job in explaining how all this trash is collected, "When a plastic cup gets blown off the beach in, say, San Francisco, it gets caught in the California Current, which makes its way down the coast toward Central America. Somewhere off the coast of Mexico it most likely meets the North Equatorial Current, which flows toward Asia. Off the coast of Japan, the Kuroshio Current might swoop it up and yank it eastward again, until the North Pacific Current takes over and carries it past Hawaii to the garbage patch. These are the currents that make up the North Pacific Gyre." 

It has been concluded by Moore and the United Nations Environmental Program that 80% of the garbage comes from land-based activities, like the traveling cup described above. The plastic is literally gathered up and moved into the patch where it stays and breaks down. Yet, plastic doesn't really break down, and microbes haven't evolved to feed on it, but what it does do is photodegrade. Light causes the cup to be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. That's why the garbage patch is often described, more accurately, as a garbage soup. 

These little bits of plastic are really good for two things, looking like food and concentrating toxins; a great combination. PCB's, DDT, and PAH's are all absorbed from the water held in the plastic, only to then look like food pellets for fish/birds/mammals to eat. Which then get in the food chain to accumulate in the predators that feed on the animals eating the pellets.

Yet, researchers at Oregon State have shown some skepticism to what seems like a dire problem. While admitting that, "There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling." It is also argued that a lot of what is being said is blown out of proportion. 

Instead of looking at the area where high concentrations of plastic found and counting that as the size of the garbage patch, you could look at the amount of total plastic, and “If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded,” Angle White said, “the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line.”

It is also stated that the size of the plastic patches doesn't seem to be growing, but the reason for that isn't known. The plastic might be breaking down at a rate that the new plastic showing up just replaces what has been broken down, or less likely, that people have stopped littering as much plastic, so less plastic is making it out there.

The plastic patch isn't a huge blockade of bottles, but an area of ocean where the level of plastics is much higher than normal, and while there is a large area where there is much higher concentration, it wouldn't really be fair to describe it as a garbage patch the size of Texas. It's more like a bitter soup that no one wants to eat and is often claimed to be responsible for, "Killing a million seabirds a year, and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles."

So no matter how it is described, it is still a pretty large problem, but it's true effects are still being measured, after all it was only discovered a few years ago and still needs a lot of further studies. Yet interestingly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that 70 percent of marine litter sinks.

So who wants to be the Charles Moore of the Ocean floor?

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

April 5, 2011

Wouldn't A More Appropriate Response be to Burn the Bible?

In the spirit of the Canadian Election and politics in general I will once again put off writing about the Great Pacific Garbage patch and instead concentrate on a hot button political topic, making the environment, as usual, wait its turn behind sensationalism.

Now the issue that I really want to talk about is the burning of the Koran by an obscure Florida church, but this incident has so many parallels to the Mohammad Cartoon Controversy that I think that discussing it would give the appropriate background  to further understand what is going on now.

In 2005 in Denmark, there was a battle between what should be covered and what should be self censored, and at the culmination of this struggle the Jutland Post showed an article consisting of 12 political cartoons (shown above) some of which depicted Mohammad. Those cartoon images sparked over 100 deaths in riots that took place agianst them in many Muslim countries.

The deaths were a direct result of the hypersensitivity numerous Muslim people to what would be seen as rather routine political cartoons and what is comparable to many cartoons published about other religions.

In a question and answer on the BBC the answer to why the cartoons were received with such vitriol and venom was given. "Of course, there is the prohibition on images of Muhammad. But one cartoon, showing the Prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, extends the caricature of Muslims as terrorists to Muhammad. In this image, Muslims see a depiction of Islam, its prophet and Muslims in general as terrorists. This will certainly play into a widespread perception among Muslims across the world that many in the West harbor a hostility towards - or fear of - Islam and Muslims."

Hrmmm, the deeply puzzling thing is not the hypocrisy that it is alright to have political cartoons of other political figures, and religions, but not of Muslims or the Muslim religion. That hypersensitivity is pretty well understood by there being such a barrier to religious criticism, as Dawkins puts it in The God Delusion, ""A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts - the non-religious included - is [held] that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offense and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.(p.20)"

There is so great a barrier to criticizing anything Muslim that it isn't puzzling at all why there was a visceral response to the cartoons, but how that response played out is puzzling.  How is it that someone offended by being characterized as a terrorist could, in any way, think that the answer was in taking part in terrorism?

This is what happened again last week. A church in Gainesville, Florida put the Koren on trail, and burned it after a deliberation of  8, hard thinking I'm sure, minutes. A video of the 'trail' and burning was then placed on the internet and took a couple of months to resurface in Afghanistan last week, but it resurfaced in a big way. The video was shown and there was a call for justice during April 1st sermons and thousands took to the streets causing riots that have reportedly settled on Monday and a death toll around 20.

A United Nations building was surrounded, two people were be-headed and Nine people foreign to Afghanistan died including, "Five Nepalese guards, a Norwegian, a Russian, a Romanian and a Swede." No one from Florida was found injured.

Barack Obama in response released a statement saying, "The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry...However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity."

Now the act of burning the Koran has been rightly criticized as causing harm, and showing the intolerance of some people in the west, yet I do believe in a strong enough freedom of speech that it would allow someone to be extremely  intolerant and make political statements like burning the flag out of protest or holding a mock trail to burn the Koran (I'll post about this at a later time). 

So while the burning of the Koran showed intolerance, Barack and any sane commenter rightly condemns the mob actions as an atrocity that lies on a completely different scale than burning any book.

The appropriate response would have been to hold a trail, burn the Bible and declare Terry Jones and his followers hypocrites. It would have been a political act on the same scale and would point out the inconsistencies in the logic that Terry Jones was using, but I guess it might not been as immediately satisfying as beheading someone from the United Nations there trying to make your nation a better place, making Terry Jones's criticism justified. 

"What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?" p.27 The God Delusion. All this respect does is build up a barrier that makes people think that when that barrier is broken that they can respond with mob justice or purely unjustifiable actions.

There is a systematic self limiting of criticism of religion because of reactions like this and the answer isn't to demonize and alienate Muslims, it's to treat them like equals and let people have the freedom to make political cartoons and allow people to burn Koran as a political statement even if only to condemn the action afterwords as bigoted and intolerant.

The answer isn't to not talk about peoples religions at all, it's to be much more open about them.

Thanks for Reading,
-the moral skeptic

March 30, 2011

Mental Juggling

I was going to post about, the plastic formation the size of Texas in the Pacific known as 'The Great Pacific Garbage Patch," but that will have wait until my next post. This delay happened because I've been reading a fair bit of Steven Pinker and was looking through new comments and found something peculiar, yet it strangely matched up with what I've been reading.

AhmTaGoji was writing about what it would mean for a computer to pass the Turing Test and said that,

"What I was trying to say was that no matter how convincing or uncanny of a performance a computer does during a Turing test is only evidence of the what the test attempts to prove: that a human can be fooled about conscious identity via a computer screen. The computer would have to go much further than to fool one human about his identity, he would have to, for a lack of better words, fool himself. Long after the Turing exercise, if the computer learns from his experiences and starts asking itself questions like 'What am I doing here? How did I get here? I'm human aren't I? Or what am I?', and begins to autonomously prepare himself in the anticipation of future experiences, then he isn't yet conscious."

That's a funny, yet prefect way of putting it, 'The computer would have to go much further than to fool one human about his identity, he would have to, for a lack of better words fool himself.'

Besides the assumption that the computer is a man, I think that's a great understanding, because the more I read about consciousness, the more that fooling ourselves seems to be what we do as well. That act of the mind fooling itself and giving itself a coherent reason for doing the things is a large part of what it is to be 'human' and would also be a large part of what it would take for a lot of people to consider a computer program sentient.

 The Blank Slate, when talking about how the self is just another network of brain systems, on pages 42-44, gets into talking about how the brain tricks itself to give it a reason for doing certain things. This trickery can most dramatically be shown in people who have their corpus callosum cut (the thin layer that connects the two hemispheres of the brain). It can literally be described as cutting the self in two, and each part acts independently while the other half juggles to make sense of what is going on.

The example is given where an experimenter shows the word walk to the right hemisphere (by keeping it in the part of the visual field that only the right hemisphere can see and the person will comply and begin to walk. Admittedly not that interesting yet, but a strange thing happens when the person is asked why he got up and started walking (language is in the persons left hemisphere). The person doesn't say that, "I just got a feeling to" or that "Since my surgery where my corpus callosum was cut I do things without knowing exactly why."

Instead they say, in complete sincerity, that they were going to get a coke. They manufacture a logical reason for what they were doing, where it can be objectively shown that the reason was different.

That's the trickery coming in and Pinker concludes that, "The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient's left hemisphere is behaving any differently from outs as we make sense of he inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. The conscious mind- the self or soul-is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief."

While AhmTaGoji's point may be that for someone to consider a machine to be 'a person' the machine would have to do more than talk, it would have to claim adamantly for itself that it was a person, it also connects very well with the fool inside all of us.

Happy Spinning,
-the moral skeptic

March 17, 2011

A Showcase of Egoism

Thanks for those who commented on my last post. I'm taking a step back from the outside world, and I'm going to talk about a personal pet peeve, two types of statements that get under my skin. I'll try to convey what those statements are, and why they bother me and try propose a solution. Now, to anticipate future criticism, I know these statements are often used unthinkingly, and I don't expect to run into them any less often. I'll probably have settle for just being able to vent and maybe it might make you think the next time you hear one muttered. 

The first type of statement I've often seen talked about before, but I'm going to take it in a different direction than skeptics usually take it.

1. The arrogance of cause and effect - The example I will use could be picked from the hundreds I've doubtlessly heard throughout my years, but one sticks out as it is the one I heard most recently and was the inspiration for this post.

A lady told me that everything happened for a reason, as is often the beginning or end to a wild claim being made, and proceeded to tell me that not having room in a vehicle to take someone on a ride happened because that person would later become sick. Now this seemingly everyday chance occurrence may seem pretty trivial, but to her it was proof of everything happening for a reason. (Now it may look like I'm being ungenerous and blowing her statement's intention out of proportion, which is true in a way, but she makes these types of statements numerous times a day as a proof of life's plan. This was truly how the statement was meant to be interrupted)

Now when most skeptics or atheists look at that kind of statement they charge the person with making the error in assumption that the universe works according to a plan, which is a very good way of dealing with the question if you are talking to someone who wants to look at the comment logically. There is no evidence to the universal planning, or if it is a plan it has been so insidiously created that it doesn't look like a plan at all, good people get hurt and die, people are born with all sort of different ailments and even our existence seems to come from a number of steps built on chance.

As. someone I'm proud to share my name with, Stephen J. Gould would say, “History includes too much chaos, or extremely sensitive dependence on minute and unmeasurable differences in initial conditions, leading to massively divergent outcomes based on tiny and unknowable disparities in starting points. And history includes too much contingency, or shaping of present results by long chains of unpredictable antecedent states, rather than immediate determination by timeless laws of nature. Homo sapiens did not appear on the earth, just a geologic second ago, because evolutionary theory predicts such an outcome based on themes of progress and increasing neural complexity. Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness.”

Yet, I don't think that, that type of comment, as intelligible as it is, would do a lick of good for anyone who was willing to make a comment about life having a plan. They have seen the plan in everything around them, so I'd argue with them on there own grounds, and accept their view of a plan.

Even if life does have a plan and everything happens for a reason to fulfill that plan, how could it be that anyone would be so arrogant as to say that, "This is what the divine plan is and this is the absolute reason this particular thing happened!" after all, God is said to work in mysterious ways. I don't think that anyone would stand up and claim that, they indeed know the plan for life, and if they do good for them. They weren't worth arguing with in the first place.

It does avoid the root of the problem, a lack of critical thinking, but it will at least start the person on the path of thinking about how hard it might be to determine the reasons for somethings cause.

2. The self-centered universe - While my first peeve surrounded the issue of someone having the arrogance to claim that they know what I can only describe as 'god's mind', the second issue is one where people clearly don't see the forest for the trees. 

This happens when people say something to the effect of, "Thank god for helping me win", or "Thank god they are alright." Now the second one may seem like a non-issue except, again, for the problem of knowing it was indeed God that saved them, but it has another huge issue when used in times of a tragedy.

Recently, for anyone who is allergic to any news, there was an 9.0 magnitude earthquake that moved Japan two feet lower towards sea level, and expected to have a death toll of more than 10 000. A couple of relatives of mine were actually visiting Japan at the time, which caused a fair bit of anxiety and also a comment that I still regret hearing. It was the comment stated above, "Thank god they are alright."

Now obviously this was good news to receive, but given the situation I think the sentiment could have been far better expressed with different words. To attribute those two individuals safety to God and then not have anything to say about God's designing a world that causes such destruction, or his/her/it's inability to save those other 10 000 people, to which there was no relation, is simply to show a complete disregard to the devastation of others, whether it was intended that way or not.

If God is to bestowed thanks for helping save some people in that type of situation God should also be responsible for the blame of not helping the thousands of others, this isn't a dog that could only drag one family to shore, it's a omnipotent being that created the world after all. To 'Thank God' in that situation is to show a perplexing double standard that I can't even began to understand, and an egoism that I would never want to condone. There seems to be an implicit understanding behind the statement that they were worthy of God's help while the thousands of others weren't.

Now  I know that this is a common term and I often fail to even catch myself from saying 'god dammit', but I do think that even as so it does show both an egoism and ignorance to the plight of others.

I'm in no way endorsing any kind of limit on free speech to solve any problem that slightly bothers someone, but I do think that if those types of statements were really thought about they would be made a heck of a lot less often.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

March 2, 2011

Judging Computer Autonomy

Well I can say that I was satisfied with the content of my last post, but I did let a couple of issues slide past that I would have liked to address. I really let Ray have his way due to the time constraint of having to go to work. Damn work requiring its workers to be there at certain times and damn money needed to be gambled away.

Anyway, Ray Kurzweil has been criticized for making the statement that all technologies are progressing at a exponential rate rather than a linear rate, which leads people to overestimate the progress in the short term and grossly underestimate progress in the long term.

Yet, there is room for criticism because not all technologies are moving at an exponential rate. The progress of curing different cancers, gas mileage for cars, and the comfort of computer chairs hasn't progressed as the speed for decoding the human genome has.

So the criticism is semi-warranted because Kurzweil does overstate his case a little bit, but does it really matter? I don't think so. If only one technology continues to improve at the exponential rate that it has historically been on than the criticism is really just window dressing distracting for the implications that are fun to think about. That technology is, of course, the computer.

So long as the progress of computers is exponential (which it is) the implications will be vast enough to make Kurzweil's predictions for the most part correct. Looking at what 'Watson' has done a couple of weeks ago in understanding human language and being able to answer questions it is impossible not to look into the future and think about the possibilities, some of which were mentioned in my last post.

As Yogi Berra it attributed to saying, 'It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future', but Kurzweil has a good track record and there is really no harm done in being wrong. The people who foresaw the flying car never broke into your house and peed on your rug.

Apart from the flying car, one prediction seems to stand out from the rest, when will humans build something that can be described as having a self? When will something be built and said to be conscious? Well that's a tricky question to answer, for a number of different reasons.

The standard test for telling if an animal has the concept of self is the mirror test, which involves putting an animal in front of a mirror with a dot on their body that they could only view in the mirror. The great apes, dolphins, orcas, elephants and a couple species of birds have all passed the mirror test. To pass the test the dot has to be noticed in the mirror and connected to the body of the thing in front of the mirror, this shows that there is an understanding that, that someone in the mirror is 'me' and they are curious why there is a dot on my back. For control there is also a dot placed in an area of the animal that is out of site when the thing is looking in the mirror, so that it can limit coincidental actions.

This test has be used to show that babies up to 18 months, dogs and cats don't react to the dot in any way and therefore lack the concept of the self, which can be noticed by anyone who has seen very young or handicapped children play 'with the boy/girl in the mirror.'

Well this test wouldn't work at all for computers, because they could be specifically made to pass the mirror test and respond to a dot put on them. It really breaks our standards to think about how to test for consciousness in a machine, which is why people look to the Turing Test as the Mirror test for computers. The test involves being having two chat boxes one being another human and one being a computer program and a person talking to both. The person  then has to decide which one is a program and which is a computer, when the two are indistinguishable the computer has passed the test.

But not all people feel that the Turing Test demonstrates much, a few philosophers like John Searle have go so far to say that the Turing test proves nothing about consciousness, or in effect that a talking tree could never be seen as conscious (I don't remember the name of who argued that). I'm not in their line of thinking, but I do feel that some part of the self involves having goals and motivations and a chat program while a program can say it has those things, it lacks the ability to act them out. This is not to say that something that passes the Turing Test isn't conscious, just that I'm not sure that I would be ready to call it conscious yet.

Another problem is that the Turing test isn't looking for consciousness, it's looking for human consciousness, its by definition looking for something that makes human errors and talks like another person would. It's telling when Kurzweil says that the computer will have to dumb itself down to pass the test, because it's not an ideal test of consciousness, and there lies the rub; Nothing is. If the program was elegant enough to throw in a few spelling mistakes, vulgarities and misconceptions it could probably make someone think it was yours truly, but it would have used parlor tricks to do so. 

The mirror test doesn't work for programs and the Turing test only works to find something compatible with human understandings, and could be prone to programs taking advantage by making mistakes that people wouldn't think that "computers" would make.

In fact, the whole topic might be a moot point. People subjectively deciding what is and isn't conscious seems like a huge pill of worms. If this surly scientifically done poll done on Just Labradors Forum, with the appropriate measures to account for bias, is correct than 78% of people believe that dogs are self-aware, 21% are undecided and 0% think that they definitely not self aware.  People are biased into thinking that biological things have consciousness and that machines don't, and the first conscious machines will be abused due to that fact.

When a machine passes the Turing Test and shows reasonable signs that it is conscious, it would be ethical to just treat it as such seeing how the criteria is so poorly defined and no test seems ideal.

Thanks for reading,

February 16, 2011

And Along Came Watson

I, like a lot of other people, have been a very interested bystander in Jeopardy this week and for good reason. For those of you who haven't been watching, an AI named Watson has been playing agianst the two most successful Jeopardy contestants to ever compete on the game. 

The name 'Watson' refers to, "A cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers (plus additional I/O, network and cluster controller nodes in 10 racks) with a total of 2880 POWER7 processor cores and 16 Terabytes of RAM." and has already been the subject of a Nova documentary entitled Smartest Machine on Earth.

The documentary did a great job at highlighting the problems that the questions on Jeopardy pose to a computer, it really should be mandatory viewing for people with no background on the subject to gain an understanding of the significance of what is going on. They are not simply just asking a question, the question is disguised in riddles, puns, slang, and elements of humor. To be able to solve these questions Watson has to have a grasp of human language and also form an understanding of the importance of different terms. 

So how did Watson do? So well that I didn't have to wait until the final episode aired to write this post. Watson was tied for the lead at 5000 with Brad Rutter after the first round, but the next episode when double jeopardy took place was a different story. Watson answered nearly every question correctly, including both daily doubles  and ended the game with $35,734 compared to Jennings's 4,800 and Rutter's 10,400.  

Watson was an overwhelming success and his/her/it's/whatever you want to refer to Watson as, margin of victory was so great that it almost totally rules out it being a fluke. A computer is now the best Jeopardy contestant to ever play the game.

Now the question comes up to how the task of playing Jeopardy compares to that of a Turing Test, which is something a little different but more challenging. Watson has been designed to be as smart as possible and to pick out the right answer to any trivia question someone can think of, even if that question is shrouded in humor, or the other things previously mentioned. It would work well in a hospital diagnosing illnesses, and tasks that require sifting through a vast amount of information for a specific answer and who wouldn't want a Watson on there phone to answer a nagging question. The Turing test would be a lot different though a computer would not only have the common knowledge that people have, but be able to relate to peoples emotions on a personal level, to understand humor as more than language, and to even make human errors. 

Watching Jeopardy and writing about it brought up the question of 'What does Ray Kurzweil think about Watson and especially it's implications to the Turing Test?' Luckily for me and anyone who had their mind wandering in the same direction Ray has already written an article entitled the, "The Significance of Watson'. He actually wrote it before the episodes aired, because he knew that even if Watson didn't win and even looked bad, that it would only be a matter of time before they would be better than their human opponents. 

I'll summarize and pick out the most important things from the article he wrote. 

First he explains one aspect of human intelligence,

"Indeed no human can do what a search engine does, but computers have still not shown an ability to deal with the subtlety and complexity of language. Humans, on the other hand, have been unique in our ability to think in a hierarchical fashion, to understand the elaborate nested structures in language, to put symbols together to form an idea, and then to use a symbol for that idea in yet another such structure. This is what sets humans apart.That is, until now."

Then he makes an estimate on how long it will take for each of us to have a Watson at home.

"Computer price-performance is now doubling in less than a year, so 90 servers would become the equivalent of one in about seven years. Since a server is more expensive than a typical personal computer, we could consider the gap to be about ten years."

Then Ray gets to whats really important to him, the future of computers and a computer  taking the Turing Test.

"Mitch Kapor and I bet $20,000 ($10,000 each), with the proceeds to go to the charity of the winner’s choice, whether a computer would pass a Turing test by 2029. I said yes and he said no."


"What does this achievement with “Jeopardy!” tell us about the prospect of computers passing the Turing test? It certainly demonstrates the rapid progress being made on human language understanding. There are many other examples, such as CMU’s Read the Web project, which has created NELL (Never Ending Language Learner), which is currently reading documents on the Web and accurately understanding most of them."

Well I'd say, he is well on his way to winning some money for the charity of his choice because Watson is well ahead of what I expected for language recognition and would only need to expand his programing to understand more formally uniquely human things.

What is funny though is that for a computer to be human Ray realizes that it will have to dumb down what it knows, 

"It is important to note that an important part of the engineering of a system that will pass a proper Turing test is that it will need to dumb itself down. In a movie I wrote and co-directed, The Singularity is Near, A True Story about the Future, an AI named Ramona needs to pass a Turing test, and indeed she has this very realization. After all, if you were talking to someone over instant messaging and they seemed to know every detail of everything, you’d realize it was an AI."

He also knows what will happen after Watson performance is commented on, the significance of Jeopardy will be lessened and it will be looked at as a fact finding game, something computers should be good at, and emotions and humor are where humanness lies, but the door are being knocked on and human uniqueness is shrinking.  

"What will be the significance of a computer passing the Turing test?  If it is really a properly designed test it would mean that this AI is truly operating at human levels. And I for one would then regard it as human. I’m expecting this to happen within two decades, but I also expect that when it does, observers will continue to find things wrong with it."

Well we may not have to wait too long to find out, just ask Watson.
Thanks for reading,

February 2, 2011

Church in the Pub?

People who are even semi active in the community of skepticism will have known about different Skeptics in the Pub going on, as they are successfully  taking place in numerous cities all over the globe. If imitation is the greatest act of flattery, skeptics should start to feel good about themselves because at least one pub near my home town is starting to offer church in the pub.

The Tir Nan Og has started offering a church 'service' on Sundays from 7-10 in Kingston Ontario. During that time, "There will be live music, dancing and drama by local performers and an extremely brief address by pastor Steve Fritz-Millett, who was introduced to such services while living in New Zealand." This service obviously isn't aimed at the traditional bible thumping crowed, as it will be the bass that is thumping the bible now.

Now I could go a few directions from here, but I think I'll start with talking about the decline of the church and why church in the pub brings some of what it has lost back. Church used to be, in poker terms, the only game in town. Entertainment and social integration came through the act of getting together on Sundays and it was the only option for people who didn't have facebook or radios. Singing, and dancing weren't a inconsequential part of church service, and while the community building aspect is included in bringing people together to talk about morality, it's importance has also faded at a community level.

Now there are a plethora of free and dare I say more entertaining options for people, anything from clubs to internet sites. While, this has been the case for a while, and there were other options in the past as well, something has changed. Church as went from the only game in town, to being equal or nearly equal in the two previously mentioned categories, and now it has been far surpassed.

This also accounts for the information gained from a Gallup poll about religiosity in different countries, which points out that,

"Each of the most religious countries is relatively poor, with a per-capita GDP below $5,000. This reflects the strong relationship between a country's socioeconomic status and the religiosity of its residents. In the world's poorest countries -- those with average per-capita incomes of $2,000 or lower -- the median proportion who say religion is important in their daily lives is 95%. In contrast, the median for the richest countries -- those with average per-capita incomes higher than $25,000 -- is 47%."

Correlation doesn't mean causation, and there are numerous reasons for poorer people to be more religious but it would make sense with the numbers that as people get more options for community involvement and entertainment, they would rely on religion less for those things. I'd argue that a large factor is what I described above.

I think church in the pub goes a little way towards getting some of that back, while also creating some free press. I don't know many people motivated to see a choir, even when they have the ability to join in, but when you add a band, tone down the rhetoric and include some drinking everything inevitably gets a little more interesting, heck I'm not above taking a cheap shot here, it may even take drinking to make some of those passages make sense.

Yet, there is a question of what the bible says about drinking that remains to be answered. The pastor is quoted as saying that, "Jesus's first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding. Jesus was against people overindulging in alcohol, but not alcohol itself." and while that is true, as is the case with most arguments based on biblical words the opposite case could be made depending on what quotes you cherry pick.

A good list of them come from, What the Bible Says About Drunkenness and Why It's Wrong, from which I'll take a few and show them here:

Proverbs 23 - Verse 29 "Show me people who drink too much, who have to try out fancy drinks, and I will show you people who are miserable and sorry for themselves, always causing trouble and always complaining. Their eyes are bloodshot, and they have bruises that could have been avoided."

Isaiah 28 - Verse 1 "Destruction is certain for the city of Samaria - the pride and joy of the drunkards of Israel! 7 Israel is being led by drunks! The priests and prophets reel and stagger from beer and wine. They make stupid mistakes as they carry out their responsibilities." (The other sites emphasis)

Galations 5 - Verse 19  "When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, 20 idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin." (Sites emphasis again)

Ephesians 5 - Verse 18 "Don't be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill and control you."

So I think the case can be made that drinking isn't something that is actively encouraged within the bible, but there are also passages that don't demonize it to the level that those previous quotes do. Either way I think that more of this type of thing will begin to happen and I'm actually alright with it. I support peoples freedom to talk about whatever they like, especially in a public place like a pub, but it goes further than that as well. A bar is a more comfortable to raise questions and disagreement, somewhere much more conducive to an open exchange of information, and while I wouldn't buy what they were selling they can try to sell it to mature people.

In fact, I think all church should be held in pubs and bars. People, at least where I'm from, have to be 19 to go to the bar and as such they would be old enough to make decisions about what to believe for themselves, instead of being indoctrinated with beliefs. Now it may be argued that people are indoctrinated with scientific information from schools, but I'd think it would be wrong to term science in schools as indoctrination as whats really being encouraged is for people test ideas and to think for themselves. 

Thanks for reading,