Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Two-Carnival Day!

The first Humanist Symposium is up at Daylight Atheism! Go see!

Also, Carnival of the Godless #65 is up at Light Remembered, and the post I submitted made it in--and so, I note rather to my bemusement, did the post I submitted for the last COTG. I was a little late with my submission last time, so I'm not surprised the post didn't make it into the carnival then, but I really wasn't expecting to see it show up in this issue! Ah, well.

Anyway, open thread, but here's an optional topic for discussion, in case you need one: What would be the impact on the national economy if Pepto-Bismol were green?

Basis For Belief, Part Two: The Proof of Prayer

Okay, I'd intended to have this post up much earlier, but my sister's wedding reception was yesterday, and I'd been busy helping the family prepare for it, and then get everything taken down afterward. It was...a lot of work.

Anyway, I ended my last post (and to get the full context for this post, you should probably read that one first, if you haven't already) with the mention that many theists do claim to have a reason for believing in God besides just the lack of ironclad, completely undeniable reasons for not believing--and that the first commenter I had quoted had alluded to that reason at the end of this comment. So let's start by revisiting that last paragraph of his comment:

If peace of mind in this matter really is important to you then an honest investigation and perhaps a reevaluation of some other basic beliefs might be [in] order. Moroni 10:4-5 would be a great place to start from. It's not called a Promise for nothing. Of course the positive aspect is usually spoken to in reagrds [sic] to this scripture, but the opposite is equally true. If you come away from a genuine application of the principles mentioned in that scripture and still don't believe then it's all good. Peace of mind will be yours.

The mention of "Moroni 10:4-5" isn't likely to mean anything to anyone not familiar with the LDS church, but among Mormons that's one of the best known and most quoted scriptures of all. As the commenter refers to, these verses from the Book of Mormon (along with the preceding verse 3, which is usually included with them) are often known in the church as "Moroni's Promise", and they read as follows:

3 Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

These verses are particularly often quoted by missionaries, who use them to challenge their investigators to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it and ask God if it's true. This is what the commenter is suggesting that I do as well--the fact that, having been raised in the church, I've already done it many times having apparently not occurred to him.

Yet another comment, to my post "Temple Trip", put it a bit more succinctly:

I dont think that u should be going to the temple if you are not worthy. Yes the church is true and u obviously have not prayed and asked about it.

Actually, yeah, I have; been there, done that, thanks. (I find it amusing, incidentally, that this commenter chooses to write of what he apparently considers sacred truth in what seems like chatspeak. It makes me imagine a chatspeak Bible: "Deuteronomy 7:2: And when the Lord ur God will deliver them b4 u, u will smite them, and utterly pwn them; u will make no covenant with them, nor show mercy to them. LOL!" Coincidentally, a few days later I discovered that something similar does, in fact, already exist...)

Of course, while both those comments apparently came from Mormons, I know that the concept of praying to find out the truth isn't unique to Mormonism, though the LDS church does put especial emphasis on it. Want to know the church is true? Pray about it. Want to know that the Book of Mormon is true? Pray about it. Want to know Joseph Smith was a prophet? Pray about it.

This is often taken beyond such weighty matters as the truth of the church as a whole, though, to more personal affairs. Often when I've disagreed with my mother about something, she's told me to pray about it. At one point--and this was back when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon--I finally told her that the way she was saying this, she was being extremely arrogant; she was basically saying that she was sure God would agree with her. She hadn't seen it that way before, but when I told her that she said she could see my point. (Which hasn't stopped her from still saying that occasionally, though she does it less frequently now. At least that'll be one positive side effect when I finally come clean about my atheism--she won't be telling me to pray about things anymore. Well, she probably will at least for some time try telling me, as these commenters did, to pray about the truth of the church.)

But arrogance isn't the only problem with the exhortation to prayer--and really, in a way, the apparent arrogance is understandable. I mean, the people who are telling you to pray about it presumably have already done so themselves and think they've gotten an answer, so they think God's told them they're right. But there's a bigger problem with trying to say that if you don't believe in the church, you haven't prayed about it enough. To highlight the problem, let's consider a hypothetical situation.

Readers are almost certainly familiar with James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. Conclusively demonstrate a paranormal ability under appropriate controlled conditions, and you win one million dollars. (The local Independent Investigations Group has a similar challenge with a more modest $50,000 prize but a slightly lower bar for entry, but for the purposes of this hypothetical situation I'll use Randi's challenge because it's better known.) Now, the rules for Randi's challenge do explicitly say religious claims aren't acceptable, but let's suppose for the purposes of this hypothetical situation that that rule wasn't in place. So, suppose a missionary approached Randi and told him that if he read the Book of Mormon and sincerely prayed about it, he would know for sure it was true and that angels had appeared to Joseph Smith.

Would Randi accept this challenge? Well, no, of course not. Why not? Because of the lack of observable results? Ah, the missionaries might say, but if the Holy Ghost bore witness to him, Randi himself would know beyond a doubt, even if nothing physically changed. Other observers would be welcome to read the Book of Mormon and pray, too, and they could receive similar witnesses. Let's assume for purposes of the argument (improbable as it is) that Randi agreed on this as acceptable evidence. So, would he consider this a valid challenge?

If you're not familiar with the rules for Randi's challenge, look them over. Notice any guidelines (besides the one about religious claims, which we're ignoring for now) that this proposed challenge wouldn't meet?


See, that's the problem. Saying that you can know the church is true by praying about it is meaningless as evidence, because there's no way to disprove it. Suppose Randi, in a fit of temporary insanity, accepts the missionaries' challenge despite its incompliance with his guidelines. He reads the Book of Mormon, cover to cover. He prays about it, three times a day for a week. And at the end of that week, he comes to the missionaries and says that no, he didn't receive any witness from the Holy Ghost that it was true. Would the missionaries accept that as evidence that the Book of Mormon wasn't true? Not likely. They'd point out that the scriptures specifically said you had to pray with a sincere heart; is Randi sure he was honestly open to the possibility of its truth? Or maybe they'd say he just hadn't prayed enough; sometimes it takes time for an answer to come. The guidelines are too vague; there are too many outs.

Now, it's true that the first commenter I quoted does at least pay some lip service to the possibility of disproof. "Of course the positive aspect is usually spoken to in reagrds [sic] to this scripture," he says, "but the opposite is equally true. If you come away from a genuine application of the principles mentioned in that scripture and still don't believe then it's all good." But does he really mean what he's saying here? If I met him on the street (again, we're speaking hypothetically here, since he commented anonymously and I don't have any idea who he is), and told him I had in fact read the Book of Mormon and prayed about it, and that I still disbelieved, would he really accept that, and decide the church must not be true after all? More likely he'd just say that, well, maybe I hadn't genuinely applied the principles. Maybe I hadn't really been open to the Spirit; maybe I hadn't been praying with a sincere heart. Or, again, maybe he'd just tell me to keep praying. It's all well and good to say that you can pray about something and know it to be true, but there are never any limits set. There's never any way to falsify it. There's seldom a time limit set, so if you've prayed for three weeks and haven't received an answer, they can always say to keep praying.

Similar arguments, incidentally, are often applied to matters other than prayer. In 1996, the president of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, was interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. At the end of the interview, Wallace remarked that he'd thought about LDS beliefs, but had "not been able to persuade [him]self." "You haven't thought about it long enough!" Hinckley replied. He didn't, of course, but Wallace could have responded just as cogently that Hinckley hadn't thought long enough about the possibility that LDS doctrine wasn't true. Telling someone he hasn't thought about something enough, again, is no argument at all, because (while in many cases it may be true) it's not falsifiable; however much someone claims to have thought about it, you can always just tell him to keep thinking about it. And, of course, this argument isn't just used in religious matters; in discussions on other contexts, too, sometimes a disputant dismisses an argument solely on the meaningless grounds that his opponent just hasn't thought about it long enough. It doesn't work any better on other matters than it does on religion.

But telling someone he hasn't prayed about something enough is even worse, because there are even more outs. Not only is there no time limit, but there's also the fact that the arguer can always just say you weren't really praying with an open mind or heart. (I suppose even in the case of thinking about things, one could make the accusation that you weren't thinking honestly, but that's not nearly as common.) It's like Moroni's Promise says--you have to ask "with a sincere heart". And since you can't prove you were really being sincere, the theist can always say you didn't get an answer because you weren't.

It's like Linus van Pelt on Halloween. If the Great Pumpkin doesn't come, it's not because it doesn't exist; it's because your pumpkin patch wasn't sincere.

So with all those outs, there's absolutely no way to falsify the claim that you can pray about something get a witness that it's true, which renders it pretty much meaningless. But really, that's only half the problem. Not only is there no way to falsify the claim--there's not really a way to verify it, either. But that'll be the topic for Part Three.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Basis for Belief, Part One: The Burden of Proof

This is part one of a projected series of four posts, inspired initially by a couple of comments I received to old posts on this blog. The main purpose of these posts, of course, isn't to reply to the comments--I've already done that in the appropriate threads, and in any case I suspect that both comments in question were "drive-bys" and that neither (anonymous) commenter is ever going to return to see my response anyway. But the comments raised some issues that I think may be worth addressing.

Comment #1, in response to my post "Callings, Part 4":

Naturally, the gift of the Holy Ghost is only available to those who ask God for it and who are faithful and believing. Which means that, if that doctrine were true, then as an atheist ... I definitely shouldn't have had the Holy Ghost with me, and my lesson should have been completely uninspired. The fact that people still told me afterwards what an effective lesson I'd given... and that not one person remarked on the absence of the Spirit that was supposed to be such an important part of the process, is then perhaps rather telling.

Not really that telling actually because of two basic principles:

1) You're right that the full Gift of the Holy Ghost is only available to people who meet the criteria you listed above. However, the Light of Christ, which is a function of the Holy Ghost, is available to all - member, non-member, less active or atheist. A classic example of this is when missionaries identify the influence of the Holy Ghost when teaching investigators.

2) The Holy Ghost's prime role is to confirm truth. Put simply, it's more about the message than the messenger. As long as you are speaking truth then the Holy Ghost can confirm it. The speaker doesn't "channel" the Holy Ghost they can only help invite its presence by speaking truth. The fact that you don't feel you have the Spirit with you or even believe in what you're saying does not change whether it is true or not or whether the listener can recognise and have truth confirmed by the Holy Ghost.

This is standard and basic church doctrine. It seems to me that you are clutching at straws to justify your "deconversion" (great term by the way) which is apparently not as firmly based in logic as you might believe.

If peace of mind in this matter really is important to you then an honest investigation and perhaps a reevaluation of some other basic beliefs might be [in] order. Moroni 10:4-5 would be a great place to start from. It's not called a Promise for nothing. Of course the positive aspect is usually spoken to in reagrds [sic] to this scripture, but the opposite is equally true. If you come away from a genuine application of the principles mentioned in that scripture and still don't believe then it's all good. Peace of mind will be yours.

Yeah, because it's not like I grew up in the church and had been genuinely applying the principles mentioned in that scripture for decades, or anything like that. (Hint: The previous sentence was sarcasm. It actually is exactly like that.) And yes, I have indeed found greater peace of mind since coming to terms with that and finally rejecting the church, thanks.

I should note, incidentally, that this commenter is a little off base with his "standard and basic church doctrine". (Look, I may not believe in the church anymore, but I'd been in the church long enough I'm quite familiar with its doctrine.) It simply isn't the case, according to church teachings, that "[a]s long as you are speaking truth then the Holy Ghost can confirm it," and that "[t]he fact that you don't feel you have the Spirit with you...does not change whether...the listener can recognise and have truth confirmed by the Holy Ghost." The church puts a lot of emphasis--for missionaries in particular, but for instructors in church classes as well--on teaching by the Spirit and on avoiding things that drive the Spirit away, and is quite clear on the matter that the Spirit will not be present to testify where conditions are incompatible. (I think the church actually has a very good motive behind this emphasis on not driving away the Spirit ("good" in the sense of well-devised and effective, not in the moral sense), but that's something I'll get to in the last post of this series.)

Which, in any case, is beside the point, since this one teaching experience the commenter focuses on was certainly not a defining moment in my deconversion (it couldn't very well have been, since it happened afterward). I even included a "perhaps" in the statement the commenter bolded, so clearly I didn't think this was a particularly important argument myself. The fact that it's this argument that the commenter chose to focus on (and that he did so by misrepresenting church doctrine, though I don't know whether that was intentional or out of ignorance on his part) seems to suggest that I'm not the one who's clutching at straws here.

But there are some hints, I think, that the commenter may be assuming there were certain other factors at work in my deconversion (I guess at least I'm glad he liked that term). But before I address that, let's get to:

Comment #2, in response to my post "And Yet Another Ex-Mormon..."

I am a Universalist-Unitarian. So I am a Christian of sorts, I guess. I guess? Well that’s a strange thing to say. Either you proclaim your faith in god and accept Jesus as your lord and savior or you don’t- right? Well no- there are degrees to everything. And I guess that’s my corny way of pointing that out. Although mainstream Christianity might advocate strong lines between good and evil/ atheism and a belief in god, I believe spirituality to be a complex issue beyond any church authority's comprehension. So the point to my rant? Well, I guess I'm just disturbed at your all or nothing approach to Christianity. I just don't like thinking that a person who grows away from the Mormon religion should become an atheist. If you become disillusioned with a particular sect of Christianity, it does not mean that you are an atheist. If you read a biology book and realize a world full [of] scientists can’t be wrong, it doesn’t mean that god is dead.

I don't really see why the commenter's "I guess" should be considered a strange thing to say. The commenter's apparent assumption that I'm unaware that other denominations of Christianity exist and that they have different beliefs...okay, that's a little strange.

There are other things I want to discuss about this comment, but first, I want to touch on what seems to be a common thread between these two comments. They're coming, you'll notice, from rather different perspectives, and the commenters have rather different goals. The first commenter is trying to persuade me to remain in the LDS Church, the latter to look into other Christian denominations. But they both make similar assumptions about the reasons for my having left Mormonism.

"If you read a biology book and realize a world full [of] scientists can’t be wrong," the second commenter says, "it doesn’t mean that god is dead." The commenter is almost certainly alluding, of course, to evolution; she* is saying (as I interpret the comment) that evolution and Christianity aren't incompatible, and that just because I couldn't reconcile evolution with Mormonism doesn't mean that I should reject other versions of Christianity that are more congenial.

(*For some reason I tend to think of the first commenter as male and the second as female. I'm not sure why; I don't actually have any idea what their actual genders are. Still, I'll go ahead and use masculine pronouns to refer to the first and feminine for the second, if only to avoid the awkwardness of writing out "he or she" every time I refer to either of them.)

The first commenter didn't ever refer to evolution directly, but there are some things that make me suspect he was thinking of it. In particular, his statement that "a reevaluation of some other basic beliefs might be [in] order." Quite possibly he didn't write that with evolution in mind specifically, but it still seems that he assumed that I decided I didn't believe in the church because its doctrines conflicted with scientific findings--and it's his view that it's these findings, not the church doctrines, that are in error.

Now, in actuality, my deconversion had nothing whatever to do with evolution (well, at least not directly), or with other sciences either. I didn't decide that Mormonism was false because I couldn't reconcile it with evolution. As a matter of fact, I could reconcile it with evolution--as I mentioned in one of my first posts (a post, incidentally, that I'll be referring to again in the last post in this series), I did come up with an explanation of how I thought the church's creation account could be reconciled with modern paleontology, geology, and cosmology. Now, Noah's Ark was harder, and I never did come up with any way to make any sense at all out of that (and no, a local inundation doesn't do it; the church's doctrine is quite explicit about the fact that the Noachian flood was supposed to be worldwide)--but there I just more or less told myself that maybe there was an explanation that I hadn't thought of.

I guess what I was doing, although I didn't think of it in those terms, was practicing a personal kind of apologetics. I was aware of some problems with the church's doctrine, in light of modern science, but I was doing my best to find ways to get them to mesh. And there almost always are ways, if you're creative enough, and willing to be as broad with your interpretations as you can get away with. There's a prominent institution in the LDS Church (it's not officially an arm of the church, but it's unofficially strongly supported by the church leadership) called FARMS (the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) that does nothing but pump out apologetic material to try to explain, for example, why the Book of Mormon mentions horses, which aren't known to have existed in the Americas in pre-Columbian times...its responses are often elaborate and imaginative and presumably very reassuring to believers, but utterly unconvincing to anyone who doesn't already believe. Still, be that as it may, their explanations, while not necessarily very plausible, aren't entirely impossible. It's true that, for example, the lack of evidence of horses in the pre-Columbian Americas doesn't actually prove, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that the Book of Mormon is false.

And even if, after all one's efforts of imagination, one still can't think of a way to explain something, well then there are still a few options open. One can--as some of the more rabid ID proponents do--simply accuse the scientists of lying or incompetence, and assert that the scientific evidence doesn't exist, though this is obviously a rather desperate ploy. Or one can do as I did concerning the matter of Noah's Ark and just concede that one doesn't know how to reconcile matters, but retain faith that some way to reconcile them must exist. This isn't without precedent in the scientific world--after all, for years scientists knew that Maxwell's Equations and Newton's Laws contradicted each other in certain respects, but kept on using both, confident that there was a way to reconcile them, even if they didn't know what that way was--and of course the reconciliation did finally come, in the form of relativity. By the same token, one might perhaps justify believing in both modern scientific findings and in religious beliefs that seem to contradict them, confident that some reconciliation exists that is merely beyond our present understanding.

So, from that standpoint, both commenters are right--one need not necessarily discard religious belief because of apparent conflict with science.

And that's not why I discarded mine.

The problem is that it's not enough not to have an ironclad reason not to believe something. There has to be a reason to believe it. And that's what I realized was lacking. It's not that I thought science and reason had disproved Mormonism. It's that there was nothing that proved it. There might have been nothing to establish definitively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was false...but there was also nothing that gave any good reason to indicate it was true.

So, when the first commenter says that my deconversion "is apparently not as firmly based in logic as you might believe", what he overlooks is that my deconversion wasn't based on logical arguments that Mormonism wasn't true, but on the lack of any good arguments suggesting that it was. And when the second commenter says there's no reason to believe "that god is dead", she fails to supply any reason to believe that God is alive.

I know I'm not saying anything new here, but it's important enough to be worth reiterating--the burden of proof is on the positive assertion. The burden of proof is on the person who says that something exists. You say that I don't have any absolute and undeniable proof that there is no God? I agree. But I don't have any proof that there is a God either--I have no real evidence of God's existence at all, in fact--and in the lack of evidence, the default position is one of disbelief. Is there, at this moment, a purple lawn gnome on top of the Empire State Building? It's a safe bet that there isn't. It's not outside the realm of possibility, but I have no reason to believe that there's any such lawn gnome there, and it's more reasonable in the lack of such evidence to suppose that there isn't than to suppose that there is.

Like I said, I'm not saying anything new here; it's been said before in many forms. Russell's Teapot. The Invisible Pink Unicorn. Carl Sagan's Dragon in the Garage. But it's an issue that some theists--the two commenters quoted above, for example--seem to be unable to grasp. It's not enough to say that you don't know for sure something isn't true. Just because you don't know for sure something isn't true doesn't mean it is. It's not enough not to have absolute ironclad unanswerable reasons for knowing something to be false. You still need some reason to believe it's true.

Of course, theists do claim to have such a reason--and the first commenter above did allude to it at the end of his comment. But that'll be the subject for the next post in this series...

The Poetry of Skepticism

The 59th Skeptics' Circle is up at Pooflingers Anonymous.

As seems to be the tradition at other blogs with posts announcing carnivals, I guess this is hereby declared an open thread.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Brand New Carnival

I ran across an announcement a few days ago at King Aardvark's Kick in the Nuts of a new blog carnival, and it just occurred to me that I should probably mention it here, too; the more people who spread the news the better for the new carnival to catch on.

Originated by Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism, the new carnival is entitled The Humanist Symposium. It's another atheist/freethinker carnival, but with a bit of a tighter focus than the established Carnival of the Godless--rather than just any posts from an atheist perspective, the Humanist Symposium is intended to focus more on posts extolling the benefits and advantages of a life not based on religion and superstition. I think it's a great idea; it's easy to point out the problems with religion, but there's certainly value in taking a more positive view and showing what's good about our philosophy, rather than just what's bad about the alternative.

Anyway, the deadline for submissions for the first issue of the Humanist Symposium is this coming Saturday. I don't know how many have been sent in so far, but there's almost certainly still room for more (for my own part, I submitted my post from yesterday, "The Wonder of What We Are"). If you're interested in submitting something, or just finding out more about the Humanist Symposium, you can go here.

Pass the word on!

Find That Flaw!

It's time for a rousing game of Find That Flaw! Where you can see if you can find the fatal flaw in a pseudoscientist's arguments!

Today's bit of nonsense comes courtesy of a book called Universe Alternatives: Emerging Concepts of Size, Age, Structure, and Behavior. I've had a copy this book for years, having picked it up at the "gratis table" at the USC Doheny Library, where the library leaves free for the taking books it has somehow acquired but decides not to place in its permanent collection. Almost certainly, the author had mailed a copy of this (self-published) book to the university at his own expense (and no doubt to many other universities around the nation), and the university had, quite understandably, decided it didn't want it.

(And yes, I knew the book was pseudoscience when I took it. But it was free, and I figured it might be amusing.)

The author--I won't bother mentioning his name; almost certainly no one here has heard of him--is a fairly typical pseudoscientist. He's convinced that his ideas will someday be seen as the truth, and that the only reason they haven't been accepted is because of the closed-mindedness of the scientific community. He doesn't limit himself to one specialty, but thinks he can revolutionize all of physics in one fell swoop. Alas, his understanding of the theories he wants to overturn is superficial at best; he's clearly read a few brief popular accounts, but has no real comprehension of them. (By the author's own admission, he has no relevant academic credentials, but is a "Dermatologist" (yes, he capitalizes it).) The entire book is riddled with fundamental misunderstandings so glaring that it leads one to marvel that anyone could convince himself he was qualified to speak authoritatively on subjects he clearly knows so little about. Most of the author's arguments boil down to little more than the assertion that because he doesn't understand something, therefore there must be nothing there to understand, and the scientists are just playing "a carnival con game".

While he takes potshots at everything from quantum mechanics to astronomy, though, his particular bête noire, the concept he spends the most energy attacking, is relativity. To try to debunk relativity, he marshals the longest argument in the entire book, and its only illustration. And yet his whole argument falls apart because of one simple oversight on his part. I thought it would be fun to invite readers to see if they can spot the mistake for themselves--especially since, in this particular case, the mistake doesn't require any knowledge of relativity to see. (Well, okay, maybe a little, but everything you need to know about relativity should be inferable from the excerpt itself.)

(As a side note, I think there's a reason why relativity is so frequently the target of pseudoscientists' attacks, and it has a lot to do with the fact that it's generally so poorly taught. There are a number of problems with the ways relativity is often presented in textbooks and popular accounts, and one of the most significant is the frequent claim that the ether theory was disproved by the Michelson-Morley experiment, in which, in 1887, two scientists tried to measure the speed of the ether relative to the Earth and found no result. But that didn't lead scientists to reject the ether theory, as far too many textbooks say they did; they didn't have any other explanation for how light could be transmitted, so instead they sought ways to reconcile the theory with Michelson and Morley's results. (There were exceptions, most notably Ernst Mach--but then Mach disputed not only the ether theory, but also atomic theory and seemingly everything else that crossed his path, and it seems as likely as not that he opposed the ether theory just because he liked being argumentative, and that the fact that he turned out to be right was completely coincidental.) Each of these refinements of the ether theory was in its turn disproved, and it wasn't until Einstein came along with a viable alternate theory--relativity--that the ether theory was finally laid to rest for good. (Einstein would hardly have felt it necessary to say in his 1905 paper that "the introduction of a 'luminiferous ether' will prove to be superfluous" if scientists had already decided the luminiferous ether was superfluous almost twenty years before!) Naturally, pseudoscientists familiar only with the inaccurate textbook explanation love to seize on the fact that there are other explanations for the Michelson-Morley experiment, an insight they think is original to themselves, totally ignorant of the real history of the ether theory's downfall. So when the author of Universe Alternatives proposes, for example, that the Michelson-Morley experiment's null result was because a part of the ether moves along with the earth, he's completely unaware that this is the very same idea that Michelson himself subscribed to after his experiment--and which was subsequently tested and found to be untenable.)

The author makes a lot of misstatements in setting up his "thought experiment", but they're not really crucial to his point; for the most part, it's possible to conceive of his scenario in a consistent way. The mistake I'm looking for comes after he's laboriously explained the ground rules for his experiment, and once he's finally trying to show the results--it's in the latter half of the argument, after the diagram. If you're not sure whether or not you've found the mistake, you probably haven't; once you see it, it should be fairly obvious.

So, here's his full "disproof" of relativity (warning: it's long!). The argument is reproduced exactly as presented, with no changes or omissions (unless some have accidentally been introduced by my transcription), though I've added a few comments in square brackets. See if you can spot the mistake:

In the following model and thought experiment, we will first try to establish the verifiable reality of simultaneity and synchronization within one light system or reference frame where there is distance but no motion between members of the system. Later, a second system that has constant speed relative to the first will be added. Then, a series of simultaneous events will be constructed that are true and equally acceptable in both systems. And finally, the model will be used to show the contradictions and logical inconsistencies that flow from following the assumptions and perceptual dictates of special relativity.

(Readers who might prefer to avoid the details of yet another thought model refutation of special relativity are advised to skip the next 8 pages.)

Envision a model in which two physics labs (A and B) are located in a volume of intergalactic space that is far removed from large gravitational objects. The distance between A and B is a measured and constant 1,800,000 km, or six light seconds. The space medium between A and B (if such a medium were conceptually allowed) would be static relative to both A and B. The labs at both locations have synchronized clocks that constantly send out light pulses at one second intervals. These pulses contain messages of time and date information so that when A's clock reads 100 sec. into January 25, 1995, he will be receiving the message from B at that same instant which reads 94 sec. into January 25, 1995. Of course, the reverse of this situation concerning B's clock readings is also true. Establishing this synchronization and absolute or proper time frame between A and B to the satisfaction of all observers will be analyzed a little more at this point.

The clocks at A and B can be used to establish or confirm the accuracy of the pre-measured distance of 1.8 million km between A and B in the following way; a light pulse sent from A to B and reflected by a mirror back to A will have a roundtrip time of 12 sec. as measured by A if the distance between A and B is 1.8 million km or 6 light sec. Also, the times required for light to span each leg of this roundtrip will be an equal 6 sec. in both cases. This is true because there is no light media movement relative to either A or B--a fact that can be confirmed by conducting 90° light interference (Michelson-Morley type) experiments at both A and B. The expected negative results in these experiments means that the speed of light is the same in both directions and that the 12 sec. duration of the reflected roundtrip is composed of two equal 6 sec. legs rather than a 5 and a 7 sec. leg for example, which could be the case if there was movement of the light transmitting medium relative to A and B. Thus we have established synchronized clocks and a confirmed distance between A and B as well as setting the stage for simultaneous events.

Any accidental aberrations in the relation values between A and B would be detectable in the following ways. A change in the A-B distance would be manifest as a progressive and cumulative change in the 12 sec. roundtrip message time between A and B, while the date and time synchronization remained unchanged from day to day. Conversely, a malfunction in B's clock (running slow or fast) would be seen as a cumulative day by day mismatch in the original time and date synchronization between A and B, while the 12 sec. roundtrip pulse time remained unchanged. In the event that movement developed between the light medium and the AB observers, the above two values (12 sec. pulse roundtrip and time-date matching) would remain the same, but the results in the Michelson-Morley experiments at A and B would show changes. Lastly, in the case of clocks that were synchronized before separation, any temporary change in clock function due to the separation process would cease when the clocks reached their permanent points of separation at A and B, and it would also be detectable in the subsequent AB exchanges as a small aberration in the original time-date synchronization that would not change from day to day.

So, in summary, any changes in values pertaining to the relationship between A and B, such as clock function, relative clock motion, media movement, or distance changes, would be detectable and identifiable as to their type and quantity by the particular signature left on the messages between A and B or by the results of the Michelson-Morley experiments conducted at both sites.

I would suggest that the concepts of synchronization and potential simultaneity of events between two distant but static observers should be accepted as verifiable realities. However, most written accounts on the subject reveal that relativists still tend to disparage or question the concepts of synchronization and simultaneity by artificially limiting the permissible deductive methods to only that information that can be gained by the exchange of current light speed messages between observers. (For convenience, the term "relativists" will be used to designate those who adhere closely to the postulates and predictions of special relativity.) [Yes, of course the author's claim about "artificially limiting the permissible deductive methods" is untrue, but that's not a mistake in his model.]

The next model component to be introduced is another fully equipped physics lab called TR (for Traveler). TR is self propelled and maintains a constant speed of 1/2 c (or 150,000 km/sec.) in his straight line trip from A to B. It is pre-arranged and understood by all synchronized labs that TR should pass through A at the instant designated as time zero. TR's clocks and instruments are synchronized with those at A by direct physical contact as TR passes through A. Then TR and B exchange all their recorded information at the instant TR passes through B. For example, this exchange information would include (among other things) B's assertion that his clock reads 12 sec. after time zero, and TR's report that he has received only 6 of the 12 pulses emitted by A during the time of the trip. [I'm not sure why a lab should be male, but yes, the author does in fact use masculine pronouns to refer to it for some reason. My guess is he's thinking of TR as the human observer inside the lab, even though the text equates TR to the lab itself.]

In order to emphasize the absolute and non-negotiable nature of the measured distance between A and B, we will now introduce a measuring device in the form of a wheel with a circumference of one meter. The wheel rotates on an axle that is fixed to TR's lab and it also rolls in a track along the A to B route. A device on the wheel's periphery makes a mark at every meter of the entire AB track--1.8 × 109 meter marks along the 6 light second track. The same marking device allows TR's lab to record 1.8 × 109 wheel rotations during the AB trip.

The purpose of this wheel scenario is to show that TR and AB observers should be in agreement about the AB distance because they used the same measuring device at the same time to arrive at a single distance of 1.8 ✗ 109 meters. Of course, relativists might try to claim that TR perceives the wheel in a different way. This, however, might be difficult to sell, since it would imply that one wheel in one location at one instant must have two different and equally valid sets of dimensions. [Which, in fact, is precisely the case, however "difficult to sell" the author thinks it--and the same is true of the track. But those facts, while certainly problematic for his argument, aren't the blatant flaw I'm asking for. That comes later. (They are related to the blatant flaw, though; it's important that his assumption of agreement about distance is wrong.)] Incidentally, it is understood that some of this model's assumed hardware, like the AB track material and the wheel structure, is mechanically impractical considering the distances and speeds that are used. Just presume that the wheel is composed of a virtual reality material that would not explode when rolling along at a speed of 1/2 c. [Unsurprisingly, the author evidently has no idea what "virtual reality" means. Oh well.]

It should be established at this time that all value determinations concerning distance are properly derived only at the source in their reference frame of origin. So, numbers like the A to B distance, distance between pulses from A and B, and wavelengths of light originating in the AB system are all unchangeable or absolute values that should not logically be vulnerable to alteration by observers in other inertial systems. TR, as a moveable recipient, can conceivably claim that he perceives time and its related values, like frequency and velocity, in a way that is different from the perceptions of AB observers, however distance values from the AB system are not directly perceivable to TR. He can only accept the distance values furnished by the AB observers, or re-calculate the numbers using his already distorted perceptions of time as a basis for those calculations. In other words, measured distances in one system are not negotiable quantities that can have different values for different observers. [The author is seriously begging the question here--this whole paragraph is essentially an assertion of much of what he claims to be trying to prove! (Either that or he's simply unaware that special relativity involves length contraction as well as time dilation--which, now that I think about it, is more likely the case, though it makes it all the more astonishing that he'd try to disprove something he's so ignorant about.) But, again, this isn't the mistake in his model that I'm asking for; just ignore this paragraph and move on...]

The next model addition will be the introduction of 6 more physics lab substations (labeled S1 through S6) that are evenly spaced and located at one light second intervals along the AB track. Please become familiar with the diagram on page 52 [shown below this paragraph] and note that there are a series of 3 simultaneous events occurring at each of the 7 labs located at A, B, and the substations. Each triple event represents a confluence in which TR and light pulses from A and B come together at a specific lab location. For example, at 4 sec. into the experiment (4 sec. from time zero), the number 2 pulse from A, the number zero pulse from B, and TR, all arrive simultaneously at the S2 lab. The importance of the event combinations lies in the fact that these undeniable realities are actually experienced at the same instant by TR and the observers along the AB track, so they must necessarily be perceived in the same way by all observers, including TR. Working from this platform of agreement, the manipulation of logic imposed by the constant light speed postulate can be more clearly shown by models involving paired comparisons of closing velocities. However, to avoid lengthy side trips, the pursuit of details in this argument will be left to the discretion of the reader.

Now, getting back to the perceptual consequences of relative motion between two frames of reference as interpreted by various observers, we can trace the events that occur during TR's constant 1/2 c trip from A to B. Recall that both A and B send out light pulses at 1 sec. intervals while TR traverses the 6 light sec. between A and B.

During the single time interval of the AB trip (12 sec. as determined by AB observers), TR receives 18 light pulses from the B direction but only 6 from the A direction according to the following explanation; A sends out 12 pulses during the 12 sec. it takes TR to travel from A to B. Six of these pulses pass through TR and the other 6 are in transit between A and B when TR reaches B at the  12 sec. mark. In the other direction, TR impacts the 6 pulses that are in transit from B to A at the moment the model begins (time zero), plus the 12 additional pulses that are emitted by B during the 12 sec. of TR's A to B trip. Thus, a total of 18 B pulses are impacted by TR. In terms of distance along the AB track, TR impacts A pulses every 300,000 km and B pulses every 100,000 km. This means that TR and the light pulses from B approach each other with a closing velocity that is 3 times as great as the closing velocity between TR and the light pulses from A. Recall at this point that the distance between successive 1 sec. pulses from A and B is a constant 300,000 km. Now, the special relativity postulate holds that TR must perceive the closing velocity of all light pulses from any direction as being 300,000 km/sec. (c). To resolve this impending conflict, TR first considers the 6 pulses from A in the following manner. He sees that it will be necessary to change the 12 sec. duration of the trip to a lesser number by changing the function of his own clock. If he did not make this adjustment, he would be in the position of perceiving 6 evenly spaced A light pulses (300,000 km apart) in a 12 sec. period, meaning that he would be receiving light at the unacceptable speed of 1/2 c. So, by slowing his own clock and reducing the total trip time, TR is able to raise the unacceptable 1/2 c closing speed toward the proper speed of c.

Rather than being concerned with the math equations and the use of the L.C. [that is, Lorentz contraction] factor in these changes, it is more important in the current argument to remember the direction of these time changes that TR makes because of the problems created by the nature of the pulses from A and B.

Now, if TR's only contact with the world outside his frame of reference was the 18 pulses from B rather than the 6 of A, things would be different. His observations would then indicate 18 light pulses (with 300,000 km spacing) arriving in a 12 sec. period with an unacceptably high closing velocity of 1.5 c. So, following the previous reasoning, TR would have to speed up his own clock and lengthen the trip duration in order to reduce the closing velocity with the B pulses from 1.5 c toward the acceptable value of c. However, since this model was arbitrarily set up to include pulses from both A and B, TR is confronted with the problem of having two sets of equally valid trip duration numbers (one higher and one lower than the determination of AB observers). He cannot logically report two values for the duration of a single trip without revealing that his methods are in error. Of course, this paradox or impossible duplicity is the result of the off-base assumption that two observers receiving light from a single source must receive that light at the same speed of c regardless of relative motion between the two observers.

It should be pointed out that in this model TR is a "naked observer" in that all of his instruments are on the outside of the vehicle. In other words, there is no volume of light transmitting space medium surrounding and traveling with TR and his instruments. This point is emphasized for the purpose of avoiding the same type of misinterpretation that came out of the Michelson-Morley experiments when the static nature of the medium in the vicinity of this earth bound experiment was assumed to be an absence of light transmitting medium.

Nearing the conclusion of this A-B-TR discussion, it seems appropriate to summarize the non-relativistic reality of the model in the following way; the one sec. interval light pulses go back and forth between A and B with a speed of c because of the fact that the light transmitting medium between the two is at rest relative to both A and B. Since TR is moving relative to this medium, he receives the 6 pulses from A at 2 sec. intervals and at a perceived and actual speed of 1/2 c. TR also receives the 18 pulses from B at 2/3 sec. intervals and at a light speed of 1.5 c. Both of these sets of recordings indicate a trip duration of 12 sec, that of course matches reality as well as the clock readings of all observers, including TR's. TR is able to perceive these light velocities above and below c because he is a "naked observer" in that he is not surrounded by a cocoon of light transmitting medium that moves along with him.

Furthermore, this thought experiment could have been constructed so that TR was accelerating during the A to B trip, in which case the math would have been a little more complicated, but all of the important paradoxes, denials, affirmations, and conclusions would have been the same. The relativists' idea that accelerated motion should cause anything more than the expected algebraic changes in the results of the single velocity model is probably best interpreted as an attempt to theoretically bind gravitation to light speed perception by using the presumed equivalence of gravity and acceleration to justify the claim that acceleration has more than the normal mathematical effect on light speed perception. More will be said about this in a subsequent chapter.

The essence of the preceding model involves the construction of a series of paired events in which the postulates of special relativity demand that there should be a certain symmetry. To the extent that asymmetry has been demonstrated, it can be seen that these postulates are in error. To summarize it in another way; we have demonstrated that two observers in relative motion, receiving light from a single source, are not interchangeable as far as both perceiving light at the same speed is concerned. This is because the speed of light is tied to the movement of its transmitting medium which cannot have a single velocity relation to both observers.

So, did you find the mistake? Go ahead and post it in the comments if you think you did. If no one has by Friday, I'll post the answer myself...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Wonder of What We Are

So we're cousins to moles, to fish and tadpoles,
  Don't smile friends, beware--that's called "science" today...
Those are the first two lines of a bit of verse written by Arthur I. Brown, M.D., possibly the most prominent creationist of the second quarter of the twentieth century, though he may not be remembered much today. (Source: The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, by Ronald L. Numbers, University of California Press.) Brown's intent, of course, was to ridicule evolution, and the "smile" he had in mind was one of derision; at the end of the poem he insisted that "Not one ape roosts in my family tree!"

That shows an attitude that's characterized creationists up to the present day; the very idea of relationship with apes and lower animals seems to strike them as distasteful at best. But why should it? What's wrong with being related to other animals? Though frequently it's claimed that this reduces man to the same status as beasts, no more moral and no more valuable, this is a complete non sequitur. Man certainly has something that other animals don't--high intelligence, sentience, and consciousness of our status--, and while the question of animal rights may be a valid issue, it's one that's entirely independent of our biological relationship.

I don't see the fact that we're related to other animals--and, for that matter, much more distantly to plants, fungi, and even protists and bacteria--as anything to get upset about. On the contrary, I think it's wonderful to contemplate that the squirrels we see running across the grass, the birds we hear singing in the trees, even the very trees they're singing in, are in fact very distant relatives, that many millions of years ago we came from the same stock. Even in the case of household pests like the cockroach and the mouse, reviled as they may be, there's something marvelous in knowing that they and we share the same ancient ancestry. We may not be literal children of God, but we are something far more fascinating and more spectacular; we are the result of billions of years of complex processes and slow changes, culminating--for now--in the current life on Earth, humanity as well as other organisms.

Recognizing our relationship to the rest of the biological world doesn't debase man; it uplifts us, more than supposing we're arbitrary creations of some supernatural being ever could. It's often been said (though I've been unable to track down the originator of the phrase) that man is "a little higher than the beasts, a little lower than the angels". Many modern Christians disagree with the first part, insisting that we're more than a little higher than the beasts, but all (as far as I know) agree on the second, which is straight out of Psalms--however high we may be above the beasts, Christianity teaches that we're a little lower than the angels. But the truth is that in a sense we are the angels. We are, again, the only representatives of life on Earth to have attained full sentience and consciousness and the potential to be aware of our condition, and so it falls to us, in a way, to be the messengers (which is what "angel" literally means). In a sense, we do, as the Bible says, have dominion over the other creatures on the Earth--but not because God gave it to us, but because we're the only beings on Earth with the capacity to exercise that dominion.

As awe-inspiring as it is to think on the processes that have led to humanity today, and our relationship to the creatures with which we share the Earth, it is, of course, humbling too. It's humbling to realize that we arose from the same processes that gave rise to the slug and the fly and the dandelion, that we and they operate by many of the same internal mechanisms, that we're much more similar to even the lowliest of our fellow creatures than we may outwardly appear. But it's important not to confuse humility with contempt--I don't think an understanding of humanity's place in nature makes man at all contemptible. Humility is a healthy attitude that even Christianity recognizes as a virtue, and a proper humility allows us to recognize, among other things, that while we may have dominion over other creatures, we also have the incumbency to use that dominion wisely and responsibly.

Of course, it's not only evolution that fosters these feelings of transcendence and humility. Pretty much everything we discover about man's place in the natural world is similarly awe-inspiring. Take cellular biology, for instance. What we see--and experience--as a continuous organism is really a colony of trillions of cells, each in a way a separate organism in its own right. I, at the same time as I am a discrete and conscious entity, am also a community of trillions of smaller entities, working together in concert to make a gestalt whole that I experience as, well, me. Moreover, there's evidence that individual (eukaryotic) cells may themselves have originated as colonies of smaller organisms, that some of the organelles within the cells--the mitochondria, specifically--can also in a sense be regarded as symbiotic organisms in their own right. I am a colony of colonies, a community of communities. So are you. What can be more wonderful than that? Especially when one considers that each cell is itself made up of many billions of atoms. Or when one thinks on the other end of affairs, and considers whether we may in turn be part of larger "organisms", whether, just as the cells in our body combine to give rise to us as conscious entities, there may be a sense in which our communities, collections of people, may in turn be living organisms of which we are parts...

And then, of course, there's astronomy. The Earth on which we live, and on which also live all the other organisms that have been mentioned here, is one of a handful of planets orbitting the Sun, a star a million times the Earth's size. Moreover, the distance from the Earth to the Sun is more than ten thousand times the Earth's diameter, and some of the other planets are an order of magnitude farther out still; relative to the size of the entire solar system, the Earth, the stage of all humanity's existence and experience (the jaunt a handful of humans have made only as a far as the relatively close moon aside), is absolutely minuscule. And yet the Sun itself is just one of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is a hundred million times as wide as the orbit of the outermost planet in the solar system. The Milky Way, in turn, is an average galaxy, possibly one of literally infinitely many in the universe as a whole...And yet, for all the vastness of the universe, we still have something in common with it, and we still have a place within it. We're made of the same basic constituents, the same fundamental particles, as the stars themselves (and presumably as the dark matter that seems to permeate much of the universe, though scientists aren't quite sure just what that is yet). And the stars play an important role in our own development. The atoms that make us up, with the exception of the very lightest, were fashioned by fusion in the hearts of stars, and most of the heavier ones in particular are probably the debris of supernova explosions. The billion-year cycles of star life and death play an essential role in enabling our own much more ephemeral existences. We are made of dead stars. And, though as of yet humanity's impact on anything outside our own solar system has been negligible, who knows what the future may bring, and whether perhaps, as our technological abilities increase, we may yet leave a significant mark on areas beyond the tiny provinicial sphere we've hitherto been confined to?

All of this, it seems to me, is much more interesting, much more awe-inspiring, much more humbling, than any mere supposition that we were simply placed here by some supernatural being, that the Earth and our fellow creatures are nothing more than such a being's relatively recent creations. Contemplating what science has revealed to us about life, about the Earth, about the universe, and about our place in them all, can lead to about as profound and transcendent and--in a sense--as spiritual a feeling as one could possibly hope for.

So yes, Dr. Brown's mockery notwithstanding, we are cousins to moles, to fish and tadpoles--and to mushrooms and lobsters and paramecia and, less literally, even to stars and comets.

And, yes, it is something to smile about.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I Think, Therefore I Blog (or something like that)

Hm, well, my attempt to post for seven consecutive days didn't work as well this time around as the last; I had a busy weekend and missed two days in a row. All right; I'll try to post for seven consecutive days starting today, I guess. (And I may post more than once some days, to try and make up for the days I missed, but we'll see.)

Actually, today's been busy too, but this was going to be a brief post anyway. I'll make the post I had intended to make on Saturday--and which I really should have made several weeks ago. This is in response to another "meme" of sorts I was tagged with, and this longer ago than the one that was the subject of the previous post (which means I probably really should have responded to it first; hmm...)

Anyway, last month Akusai of Action Skeptics tagged me with the "Thinking Blogger Award", "because reading posts by someone so recently out of the church (and still kind of in the church) is a new and enlightening experience". (You know, though, to some degree I can't help but suppose that if I were really thinking about things as much as I should have been I'd have left the church a lot sooner than I did.) Actually, it's come as a surprise to me how interested people seem to be in the esoterica of the Mormon church; my post on Mormon missionary methods seemed to interest readers much more than I expected, and I'm frequently asked questions at the CFI about Mormon doctrine and practices. This took me aback a little at first, because after all to me these are all things that I grew up with, and that I guess because of that I'm sufficiently accustomed to that they seem unremarkable; it didn't occur to me that all these things might be so interesting to people who weren't familiar with them--but it's become clear that they are. Accordingly, I've been kind of considering making an irregular series of "Mormonism 101" posts, along the lines of my Mormon missionary methods post, describing different facets of LDS lifestyle and beliefs. (I'm still thinking of doing that, but probably won't get to it till next week.)

Anyway, apparently I'm supposed to tag five more bloggers that "make me think". I actually don't read all that many blogs (and lately my time's been constrained enough I haven't even been keeping up with the ones I do read), so choosing five blogs to "tag" is a little daunting, but...actually, as I've mentioned previously, I think that reading some blogs was a factor (not necessarily the biggest factor, but definitely a factor) in my finally coming to terms with my religious beliefs and realizing how unfounded they were, so in that respect, those blogs certainly did make me think, in a very significant manner. Therefore, I guess I'll "tag" some of the blogs I read at the time that contributed to my "deconversion"...although most of these are "big-name" bloggers that (a) have quite possibly already been "tagged" by someone else (though I've at least avoided duplication of those already tagged by Akusai), and (b) almost certainly will never read this and know they've been "tagged":

  1. Pooflingers Anonymous, for finding a way to use fecal matter as a force for truth.
  2. Pharyngula, for sticking to the truth even in the face of armies of trolls.
  3. Cosmic Variance, for maintaining the beauty of science free from superstition.
  4. The Bad Astronomy Blog, for taking the time to show the evidence against bad science.

And--hm--well, that's only four, but those are the only four blogs I can think of offhand that I was reading at the time of my "deconversion" and that haven't already been "tagged" by Akusai. So I'll add as a fifth a new blog that's just been started within the last week, which is by someone who I didn't meet until after my "deconversion" but who--along with others I met at the Center for Inquiry--I think did play some role in helping me to work through the ramifications.

  1. The Skeptic Review, for bringing another fresh skeptical voice to the "blogosphere".

(Yeah, there's some overlap between the blogs I "tagged" this time and the ones I "tagged" in the previous post. Like I said, I don't read a lot of blogs...though I know there are a lot of other really good atheist, humanist, and skeptical blogs out there that I ought to find time for. My blogroll has been expanding over time, albeit very slowly, and will probably continue to do so.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Blogging Rationale

So, I've been memed by King Aardvark, with the request for me to post about why I blog. I'm a week and a half late responding to this, but better late than never, I guess. (This is part of why I decided to go for a week of posting every day again; there are a number of things I've been meaning to post about but haven't had time for, some of them going back much longer than this.)

I wasn't quite sure whether to explain why I blog in general, or why I have this blog in particular--because those are two different questions, with different answers. So, I guess I'll answer both.

This isn't my first blog, you see. I've had a LiveJournal, where I post reasonably regularly, for more than three years now--I won't link to it here, because, well, it's not so anonymous as this blog is, and I'm not quite to the point yet where I'm comfortable publically revealing my identity here. But anyway, that was my first entry into blogging. (I guess maybe one might argue that a LiveJournal isn't the same thing as a blog, but it seems to me that's a hard argument to sustain.)

So, as for why I started that--it was because I realized I was already more or less blogging anyway, and I may as well make it more official. It all started, more or less, with a webcomic that I launched in August 2000. (Again, no link here, to maintain my anonymity. I suppose if you were really determined, you could try to track down all the webcomics that started in August of 2000, and figure out my identity that way, but I'm gambling that nobody's going to be determined enough to do that.) In the beginning, I'd generally write a little bit in the "news" posts below each comic about that comic, or the circumstances surrounding my making it. Over time, this grew into little snippets about what was going on with my life in general, whether or not it was comic-related, and then those little snippets grew into long essays. It got to the point sometimes the comic was delayed because there were things I wanted to write about in the "news" posts that I hadn't had time to write about yet.

Well, I'd noticed by then that a lot of other webcartoonists I respected had their own LiveJournals, and I figured I may as well get one too, and that way I could shunt all of my writing about my life there, and leave the "news" posts on the comic page to things that actually related to the comic. And so I did. The end.

But of course, in a way that sort of begs the question. Basically, I started blogging "officially" because I was already doing so "unofficially", via my webcomic "news" posts. That doesn't really answer why I was doing the latter in the first place. And honestly, I'm not sure I could explain that too well. I guess...I guess I just like sharing my life. I like putting my deeds and thoughts and misadventures out in a public venue, where anyone can read about them. I don't know if I can really explain it any better than that.

So I guess that does it for the first question. Now for the second: Why this blog, in particular?

Well, that's a question I've already answered before, in my very first post. And I won't repeat here everything I said there--you can always go back and read that post if you really want to know. But, to briefly summarize: to help come to terms with my realization that there was no basis behind my religious beliefs. I wasn't ready to come out publicly as an atheist just yet (which is why, for example, I haven't mentioned it on my LiveJournal--my mother and my brother both read that), but I didn't want to keep my newfound atheism entirely to myself either; I felt like I had to say something about it somewhere. Hence, this blog, where I could do so anonymously, having an outlet for my feelings about what I was going through, my reevaluation of my beliefs, and my thoughts on religion and atheism, while still keeping my atheism a secret, for the moment, from my family and from people I knew in the church.

Since then, I've found other avenues for that--the Center for Inquiry, most notably, where I can interact with other skeptics and atheists, some of whom have gone through similar "deconversion" experiences. In some ways, that's better than the blog, because these are people I can talk to face to face, on a more personal level. Of course, though, the blog allows me to interact with people from beyond my immediate vicinity, so it still serves its purpose. So I'm not saying I'm going to discontinue the blog just because I have found other people I can talk to about these matters.

As a matter of fact, I've thought of on another purpose the blog might serve, since, well, there's another matter that I think it might be healthy for me to discuss. But...this is a subject I'm still psyching myself up to broaching, so it's not going to be just yet. I'm planning on making my second big confession, so to speak, on the day of this blog's first anniversary--May 30, a little over a month from now. I'm both kind of dreading bringing up something I'm not really comfortable talking about, even anonymously--and also kind of looking forward to it, because it's something I think I really should talk about, even if--or maybe even especially because--it makes me uncomfortable.

But that's another matter, and it'll wait. For now, I guess I've answered the question--both questions--to the best of my immediate ability.

Apparently by the terms of the "meme" I'm now supposed to "tag" five other bloggers. I've never liked that aspect of these "memes", but I guess I'll do so anyway, but with the explicit caveat that their response is optional, and that they should in no way feel bad if they choose not to answer. (Not that anyone should feel bad about choosing not to participate in any case, but I figure I may as well make the matter explicit.) That being said, I'll point to Akusai of Action Skeptics, Austin Atheist, Ross of The Skeptic Review,, just to round out the five, throwing in a couple who I'm pretty sure will never read this and never even know I tagged them, Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance and Clifford Jones of Asymptotia. There we go. (If you're curious, you can see the "meme"'s track here...)

[EDIT: Oh, wait, looking back at the original version of the meme, we were supposed to give five reasons in list form. Um...huh. Okay, fine; briefly, and combining the reasons concerning both my LiveJournal and this blog:

  1. As an outlet for my thoughts.
  2. To publicly share some interesting experiences.
  3. As a place to show work-in-progress
  4. To help me come to terms with changes in my life and outlook
  5. To be part of a worldwide community


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wedding Jests

Okay, once again there are a lot of things I've been wanting to write about but haven't had time for, so I think I'm going to make an effort to post every day for a week again, starting today. That seemed to work the last time I tried it, even if it didn't have the desired long-term effect of getting me to post more often.

But anyway, one of the things I've been meaning to post about is something that happened just last Saturday. My sister got married.

As an active Mormon, she was, of course, married in the temple--the San Diego temple, to be exact. (She lives much closer to the Los Angeles temple, but I guess she liked the look of the San Diego temple better, or something.) I've said before that I'm not going to renew my temple recommend when it expires--since that would require directly lying to the bishop and stake president in response to many of the temple recommend questions--but that's not till August, so I was able to attend the wedding. I'm not going to go into full details here, but there is one thing I wanted to comment on.

The core of the LDS wedding ceremony is the "sealing ceremony", where the bride and groom are united "for time and all eternity". The sealing is performed by a temple ordinance worker called, naturally enough, the "sealer".

Well, the sealer at my sister's wedding apparently fancied himself a bit of a card, and slipped in a bit of (what he thought was) humor when he explained the ceremony. When he talked about the consequences for unrighteousness, for example, he said, addressing the groom, something to the effect of, "When you make mistakes--and we all know she's not going to be making mistakes; it's going to be you..." Later, when he pointed out that, according to the wording of the ceremony, the bride gave herself to the groom but the groom did not give himself to the bride, he explained that as being because--again addressing the groom--"you're not much of a catch". He did state afterword that he was just joking--but still it seemed a little mean-spirited.

On the way back from the sealing room, I talked to the groom about it, hoping to salve any hurt feelings. "I was feeling kind of bad for you back there," I said. "It seemed the sealer was making all his jokes at your expense."

"You noticed that too, huh?" he replied. "Yeah, I felt kind of bad for me too."

I can guess at the sealer's motives for making his jokes at the groom's expense instead of the bride's. Women, he was probably thinking, are more delicate, more to be respected; the men can take the joke better. Men don't have to be protected like women do; it's okay to poke some fun at them.

The problem is that, in this case, frankly, the woman could have taken it better. The groom had had a rough life, in some ways, and he had made some mistakes, which he'd done his best to recover from. Moreover, he already considered himself below his bride-to-be in some respects; she has a graduate degree and makes good money as a physical therapist, while he has no college education and doesn't have a real career. He already questioned whether he really deserved this marriage, and whether it was going to work out. So given the groom already had, well, something of an inferiority complex, the sealer's jokes were about the worst things he could have said.

I'm not saying, of course, that this in itself is proof the church isn't true, and that the church as a whole should be held responsible for this one sealer's errors. While church doctrine does hold that people in priesthood positions--such as that of the sealer--are supposed to be inspired by the spirit and speak the words given them by God, it's acknowledged that they're still human, and do make mistakes. So this, by itself, certainly wouldn't have been enough to make me question the supposed truth of the church, if I hadn't already done so. Still, though, I thought it was kind of an unpleasant way to launch a marriage...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Something For Nothing

This month's selection for the Skeptics' Book Club was Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I thought it was an interesting book and a good read, but I won't say much about it here, or about the discussion at the book club, because (previous blog entries notwithstanding) that isn't really the point of this blog (insofar as this blog has a point). I bring it up mainly to mention that it was as I was reading this book (the day of the book club meeting yesterday, since I kind of put things off and didn't end up buying it till the last minute), a thought occurred to me that I thought might be worth blogging about here. It really wasn't related to the book it all; it just happens that as I was reading a short bit about gambling, I thought about the attitude toward gambling in the LDS church--and realized (what I see as) the essential hypocrisy of it.

First of all, though, I want to make it clear that this post isn't meant as a defense of or apology for gambling. I may not believe in the doctrines of the LDS church, but that doesn't mean I've suddenly started gambling just because I no longer believe that God said not to. There are good reasons for not gambling, and God has nothing to do with it. So I agree--to an extent, anyway--with the church's stance on gambling. I just think it's not consistent with some aspects of the church doctrines.

Why does the church come out against gambling? Well, for a fairly concise explanation, we can turn to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism--which, while technically not an official church publication and certainly not considered on the level of canonical scripture, draws from statements by church leaders, has been (unofficially) sanctioned by the church leadership, and generally gives an accurate description of LDS doctrines and attitudes. Here's (in part) what the Encyclopedia has to say about gambling:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns gambling, games of chance and lotteries as moral evils and admonishes its members not to participate in them in any form. Gambling is based on the morally wrong philosophy of getting something for nothing, of taking money without giving fair value in exchange. Not only is gambling morally wrong, but is also bad economics for customers. The lavish gambling centers around the world stand as ample evidence that the chances of winning are weighted heavily in favor of the establishment and against the bettor.

Now, that latter part, about the bad economics, I have absolutely no quibble with. Gambling certainly is bad economics, and if the church excoriated it on that reason alone, that would be entirely defensible. But that first point, about the "morally wrong philosophy of getting something for nothing"...let's take a closer look at that, shall we?

I have a great deal of sympathy with the church's viewpoint on this, actually. I don't particularly like the idea of getting something for nothing; I honestly wouldn't much want a fortune to fall into my lap with no effort on my part--largely because then I'd never know whether I could have succeeded on my own, and I think I have a good deal of potential to do so (though admittedly my current financial status doesn't provide much evidence toward that hypothesis). Whether or not it's really a moral wrong, getting rich by pure chance, with no work or talent involved, isn't something I'd be comfortable with. So, at least for the sake of argument, I'm willing to go along with the church's condemnation of this on general principle. the church really opposed to getting "something for nothing" on general principle? Hm...well, let's see. What about the whole doctrine of the Atonement?

The Mormon church, like other Christian churches, teaches that Jesus Christ suffered for our sins...though some of the details are a little different. By His death on the cross, and His later resurrection, he enabled all of us to someday be resurrected as well. By His taking upon Himself all our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane, He made it possible for us to get forgiveness and exaltation.

Now, some other Christian churches criticize the LDS church for its supposed focus on works--for its insistence that man has to follow the commandments and undergo certain covenants in order to gain full exaltation. This contradicts some other denominations' teachings that all you have to do is accept Christ into your heart and you'll be saved--a clear case of "something for nothing" there. Nevertheless, the LDS church's position isn't really all that different. We aren't saved because of our works, the church teaches; we could never be saved by our own effort. Our following the commandments, and so forth, isn't what saves us; it's just something we have to do to take advantage of Christ's atonement. But the atonement, the offer of redemption, is a free gift, something we'd never have the power to do ourselves.

So the Atonement is something for nothing. Or at the very least it's taking something of value--eternal salvation--without giving fair value in exchange. Again, this is a point that's made over and over in church teachings, that nothing we could do could possibly make up for what Christ has given us. Quoting Mosiah 2:21 from the Book of Mormon:

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

That seems to me like a pretty explicit statement that we're not giving fair value for what we're getting.

Of course, there are other examples, too. There's resurrection, which according to church doctrine is even more of a freebie, in that we don't even have to follow the commandments to get it--everyone who lives or has ever lived on the Earth, regardless of how wicked and sinful they are, will eventually be resurrected. And, of course, there's Pascal's Wager, which is often used in some form or another to try to justify religious adherence (frequently by people who seem to think they've invented it themselves and to be unaware of its ubiquity). Heck, it's even called a "wager". The reason I focus here on the Atonement specifically, though, is because it's so central to the church's teachings. Christ's Atonement is supposedly "the most important event in the history of the world"; it's the keystone of the church's doctrine.

That's one of the big appeals of religion, I think--not just the LDS church, but many other religions as well. Getting something for nothing. Being able to affect our destinies through prayer--which involves negligible effort. Gaining eternal bliss and salvation for nothing more than--in some denominations--just saying you accept Christ. The popularity of gambling shows that the chance of getting something for nothing is a big motivator--and I think it may be what motivates a lot of people to be religious, too.

So, yeah, if the LDS church wants to condemn gambling (and of course similar remarks could apply to many other Christian denominations too)--I'm fine with that; I'm no fan of it myself. If it wants to proclaim that the idea of getting something for nothing, or for less than fair value, is a "morally wrong philosophy"--I don't have much problem with that view. But you know, if the church really feels that way about getting somethng for nothing, it seems a bit inappropriate for it to center its entire doctrine around it...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Conversation With An Old Friend

Phew. I've been busy enough lately that I still haven't had much time for blogging--there's a lot I've been wanting to write about, but I just haven't found the time to write it. (And yeah, I know I've been saying that in almost every post lately; sorry for repeating myself.) But I just had a conversation this evening that I want to write about while it's still relatively fresh in my memory.

One of my oldest and dearest friends is a Jew from New York City named David. I mention that he's Jewish because it's relevant to what follows. (The fact that he's from New York City, on the other hand, isn't really relevant at all, but I guess I mentioned it anyway.) When I say that David is a Jew, however, I mean only ethnically and, to some extent, culturally. In terms of religion, the impression I got from our talks about the subject--though I don't recall whether he ever stated this explicitly--was that he was an agnostic. He had an intellectual interest in religion--at one point, he even asked me for a Book of Mormon--but he didn't seem to have any real religious beliefs himself.

That is, until he got married, whereupon he seemed to become much more religiously active. He got married in a Jewish wedding ceremony; he even put up mezuzot by the doors of his apartment. I wondered to what extent he had really become a believer, and to what extent it was just a cultural thing, but I never directly asked.

A similar source of puzzlement was the fact that David had joined the Freemasons. I had had some interest in the Freemasons myself, though I'd never gotten around to making any serious attempts to join, but that David had become a Freemason surprised me, since I knew one of their requirements was the belief in a Supreme Being--which, at least from our conversations during our college years, was something I thought David didn't have. I did actually ask him about that, in one e-mail, but I didn't get a response (possibly the e-mail had been accidentally filtered out as spam and he'd never received it), and I didn't press the issue.

Nowadays, I don't see much of David--he lives on the East Coast, and I on the West. I think in the last five years or so I've only seen him three times--once for his wedding (I was one of the groomsmen, and, like all the male members of the wedding party, wore a purple kippah with gold trim), once for his daughter's Brit Bat, and once when he was in Los Angeles on business and we made arrangements to meet up. I don't even talk to him on the phone much; we're both busy enough we don't often get around to calling each other, and when we do it often involves extensive sessions of phone tag before one of us finally finds the other available. Still, even though circumstances prevent us from being in frequent contact, I still consider him a close friend.

I don't remember how long ago it was that I last talked to David before today, but recently I decided it was about time I got in touch again and found out how things were going with him. As usual, it was hard to get in touch with him, with his busy schedule, but this evening I finally caught him at home.

I hadn't planned on discussing with David my atheism, but I knew there was a chance it would come up. He'd been encouraging me to join the Freemasons (I had mentioned to him I was interested), and if that came up again, well, I'd have to tell him I no longer met the requirements.

Well, it did come up, and as it turned out we had a long talk about religion and skepticism. And it cleared up some things I'd long wondered about David's religious beliefs.

David had started out, as I'd surmised, as an agnostic. His grandparents had originally been practicing Jews, but had turned away from religion when his mother was still quite young due to a family tragedy that made them doubt the existence of a benevolent god. His mother was a hard-line atheist, at times vehemently anti-religious. (I knew David's mother, but hadn't realized she was so opposed to religion--oddly, despite my being an active Mormon, she always seemed to like me, and considered me a good influence on David.) David took a somewhat more moderate path, and considered himself, as I said, an agnostic, until he took a class on existentialism that made him reevaluate his thinking. While he couldn't know for sure whether there was a god or not, he came to realize that there was really nothing he could know with an absolute certainty, and that it was best to behave as if anything that had more than a 50% probability of being true was the case, and anything with less than a 50% probability was false. (I'm sure this is an oversimplification, but that's how I remember him having put it.) In any case, he didn't--and still doesn't--believe in any sort of personal God.

As for his seeming conversion to practicing Judaism after his marriage, it was all, as I'd surmised it might be, a cultural thing. I guess I hadn't realized just how powerful a force Judaic culture was--even David's strongly atheistic mother bowed to Judaic tradition when it came to naming him. (There's an interesting story behind that--two stories, in fact--but I'm not sure whether I should share them here; while I write this blog anonymously, and I haven't given any real identifying information about David (I'm sure there's more than one Jew from New York City named David), the possibility still remains that eventually my identity will come out, and it then wouldn't be too hard to figure out David's identity, and I'm not sure these are stories that he'd want made public. I'm only saying here things that I'm reasonably certain he wouldn't mind being stated in a public venue; matters that he might consider too personal I'll omit.) In fact, for his wedding, he'd specifically sought out a rabbi who was willing to perform the ceremony in such a way as to avoid all mention of a personified God. It wasn't easy; the first rabbi he and his then-fiancée had talked to flatly refused, and even questioned why, if they felt that way, they would want to have a Jewish wedding at all. The rabbi they finally chose for their wedding was of a reformed faith, and opined that, in fact, real Judaism didn't include belief in a personal God, and all the references to God as a person in the scriptures were metaphorical and were only there to make them easier for man to understand. If David and his wife-to-be were beyond those crutches, he was certainly willing to perform the ceremony accordingly.

As far as the profession of belief in a Supreme Being required for Freemasonry, David told me that, while he didn't believe in a personal God, he did believe that there was something that was greater than man--be it mankind as a whole, or the physical forces behind the universe, or what have you--and that after much soul-searching (so to speak) he eventually decided that that was enough for him to feel comfortable saying he believed in a Supreme Being. I'm not sure how much I agree with him on that point--while there may be things that are in some sense greater than man, considering any of these entities or forces to be a Supreme Being in the sense that seems to be intended by the principles of Freemasonry doesn't seem quite right to me. But David said he considered the matter for years before coming to that decision, so apparently he had some trouble with it as well. As a matter of fact, David claimed that rationalistic, humanist thinking is very common among Freemasons, and that 90% of those he'd met had attitudes similar to his--although I'm a bit skeptical about that, since it doesn't really jibe with what I've heard about Freemasonry elsewhere, or for that matter with the fact that it requires a belief in a Supreme Being to begin with.

Anyway, though, David was surprised to hear about my turning away from religion, but he was supportive of my decision, and sympathetic to what I was going through, and to my reluctance to talk to my family about the matter--David knows my family well enough to understand my concerns about how they might react.

At any rate, David isn't the first person I've told about my atheism, but the others I've told are people I've only known for a few years at most. David, as I've said, is one of my oldest and closest friends, and it was really good to have the opportunity to talk to him about the matter, and to know that he supported me. I mean, I know several people have commented telling me that true friends would stand by me through my deconversion, and I knew that on an intellectual level, but actually talking to an old friend about the matter and knowing that our friendship remains as strong as ever...well, it's a good feeling.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Becoming A Pickle

Okay, any increase in posting rate achieved by my making myself post every day for a week was apparently short-lived; my posting here has once again become rather sporadic. But I have a reason; I'm kind of going through a hard time financially right now, and so my time has been occupied by, well, trying to get things worked out; blogging has, for the moment, had to take a back seat. But anyway...

Twice a year, the LDS church has a "general conference", in which normal church meetings are replaced by discourses by church leaders. In the old days, when the church was small and localized, I think all the members were expected to personally attend the conference meetings; now, of course, they're broadcast over cable TV and over the internet, although many members still do make the trek to Salt Lake City to be there in person.

This weekend was one of the weekends of general conference, and I had no plans to watch or listen to it. However, my mother called a few hours ago, and asked if I'd watched that morning's conference session, saying that there were things said there that had really touched her. Now, I'm still not quite ready to tell my family about my disenchantment with the church, but on the other hand I'm certainly not comfortable with outright lying about the matter, either. Still, I managed to avoid the subject, implying that I'd watched conference without actually saying so (which I suppose is arguably still a form of lying, even though I didn't actually say anything false--but, as I said, I'm really not ready to tell my family about my atheism yet).

Still, though, I decided I may as well listen to this morning's session, if nothing else just so that I could respond appropriately if my mother wanted to discuss specific talks (as well as out of some curiosity to see what had touched her so much). It wouldn't really be a waste of time, since I could just have it on in the background while I was doing something else; I wasn't going to focus all my attention on it. (Actually, I listened, I just realize, to the wrong session; today's Sunday and I listened to the Saturday morning session. Eh. Oh well.)

As I expected, I hadn't been missing much. The last talk, by the first counselor in the church's First Presidency, and the next in line to become the president of the church when the current one dies (which, at his age, may not be long off), was particularly annoying (and rather disingenuous), starting with a deceptive selection of culled quotes to foster the impression that all agnostics and atheists are ignorant pessimists who place no value on human life. But one talk...well, one talk featured what may be the most bizarre religious metaphor I offhand remember ever hearing.

This talk, by recent addition to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles David A. Bednar, centered around a metaphor likening the change that a convert undergoes through the Holy Spirit when he comes unto Christ to the change that a cucumber undergoes when it becomes a pickle. Yes, seriously. This wasn't just a comparison mentioned in passing; this was the central metaphor of his talk.

I certainly didn't start this blog to mock the LDS church, or religion in general. I don't believe in God; I think religion does a lot of harm to the world and has done a lot of harm to me personally; there are a lot of members of the church I like, but the church itself, as an organization, I harbor little goodwill toward. But I don't know that mockery is the most suitable attitude. For the most part, I'd rather couch any criticism in clear and direct terms, rather than hiding it in sarcasm and parody.

But this--this pickle metaphor is so utterly ridiculous it's hard to let it pass without mockery. Except that it's so absurd on its own face that there's not much left to mock; it's hard to make it seem more ludicrous than it already clearly is.

If you're curious and want to hear it for yourself, you can find it online here. Just click on the "MP3" link to the right of the name "David A. Bednar" in the "Saturday Morning Session" section. Normally I wouldn't necessarily recommend listening to the General Conference talks, but this one almost has to be heard to be believed. (Or read, I suppose, but the text won't be available online till Thursday or so.)

So, remember. The Gospel of Christ is like brine, and taking Christ into your heart is like becoming a pickle. An Apostle of the Lord said so.