Sunday, August 26th, 2012

image of religious theoremA guy shows up at the farmer’s market every week, sets up a table with lots of pamphlets and a backboard heavy with illustrations of dinosaurs and cave men, and props this sign on the sidewalk. I really don’t want to talk to him about evolution because I’m not an evolutionary scientist and, even if I was, I don’t think I would usually go to the farmer’s market carrying armloads of my published work, looking for a debate with a creationist. Assuming he’s a creationist.

But I’m perplexed by what he’s trying to say with this sign. It seems to start out with the first two posits of a theorem: “Evolution is religion. Evolution is science fiction.” If this is a theorem, then the last line should read: “Therefore, religion is science fiction,” right? Which would be true in the case of L. Ron Hubbard’s followers, but this guy doesn’t seem to be preaching Scientology. He seems to want to debunk evolution.

If debunking evolution as science fiction were his goal, then wouldn’t it make more sense to say something like, “Evolution is imaginary; Science fiction is imaginary, therefore, evolution is science fiction.” Even if he left off the final line and left the rest up to the reader, it would make a little more sense that what he’s got there now, don’t you think? I guess the part that confuses me is, how does the first line, “Evolution is religion,” even make sense? How is evolution a religion? Is Darwin supposed to be a god or a prophet? Does he think evolutionary scientists pray to Darwin? Is Darwin supposed to save us for ever and ever, amen?

I’d ask, but I want to be able to keep going back to the farmer’s market, munch on scones and people-watch without being drawn into yet another conversation about religion, because that would get old in a hurry.

| 8:18 am CDT
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Saturday, April 28th, 2012

As I was scanning the headlines on NPR’s web site, my eyes flitted across a headline that turned the crank on my admittedly already-cranky disposition: Blowin’ In The Wind Still Asks The Hard Questions.” Heavy sigh. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say something like, “Blowin’ In The Wind Asks Needlessly Cryptic Questions That Are Still Confused With Deep, Spiritual Meaning?”

I never got Blowin’ In The Wind. I could see that practically everybody else in the world felt it had the moral, ethical and philosophical qualities of the sermon on the mount, but to me it has always been nothing more than a lot of nonsense questions, strung together and sung to a repetitively simple tune that bored me silly.

I didn’t come to this conclusion quickly. Blowin’ In The Wind was once considered so spiritually significant that the Catholic congregation our family was part of back in the 70s sang it every Sunday during guitar mass, so aside from hearing it overplayed on the radio, I had to sing every line of it once a week in church, as if it were a prayer. Even with all that time to think about it, none of the supposedly deep, inner meaning of Blowin’ In The Wind has ever revealed itself to me.

This is a little maddening because I genuinely like Bob Dylan’s music, an appreciation I got from my Dad, who added quite a few Dylan recordings to the pile of 8-track tapes we kept in the back of the family shop. My favorite was Desire, an album I plugged into the Panasonic tape player and cranked all the way up to ten (this was back before anyone had ELEVEN) so I could hear it through the door of the darkroom when I had to work into the evening. Try overmodulating Bob Dylan on a cheap stereo sometime. You have never heard as many Mondegreens as I’ve heard listening to Black Diamond Bay.

I found a wife, Miranda
She wears a necktie and a Panama hat
Her pisspot shows a trace of
Another time and space
She cooks nothing like Spam

Now there’s a lyric that forces you to ask some hard questions, and I tell you honestly, as well as a little sheepishly, I’ve asked myself over and over again: What the hell does her pisspot have to do with anything? And Spam? Why Spam? In my defense, Dylan’s mumbling style of singing doesn’t make him easy to understand. Also, the water was running.

But even with all the words scrambled, Black Diamond Bay was a million times more enjoyable than Blowin’ In The Wind ever was, and it always will be, especially now that I know the words. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is for me to sing it without regressing to the screwed-up version in my head, though.

blowin’ | 8:38 am CDT
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Friday, January 6th, 2012

I had to visit the dentist. I’m fine, everything’s okay, it’s just that I made an appointment that I completely forgot about until yesterday afternoon, so it was too late to change it even if I wanted to. I had to go. Canceling at the last minute would have prequalified me to be a card-carrying douche.

My dental hygienist was not the overlychatty sort. She was very friendly, asked me if my holidays were happy and told me about hers, but once I was tipped all the way back in that chair and she was crouched over my head with her hands in my mouth, she was intent on her business. She didn’t ask me any chatty questions or expect any chatty answers. I appreciate professionalism like that.

But I, unfortunately, thought of all sorts of questions to ask her which, of course, I couldn’t because my mouth was full. Foremost in my mind was, “The first time you did this – how awkward was it?” It occurred to me that a dental hygienist must have to be the sort of person who’s not only comfortable getting into the personal space of a complete stranger, she (now that I think of it, every one of them has always been a she in my experience) also has to be okay with getting literally in your face to do the job.

I used to imagine that they pretended that teeth were disembodied, or were props rooted in some artificial, unfeeling material, and yet the best dental hygienists I’ve visited were always aware that there was a live human being at the other end of their sharp instruments, wincing at every poke that strayed to far into the gumline. I myself am a bit of a drama queen when it comes to wincing.

But that first time when they shove their hands into the slavering maws of real, live human beings – that’s got to be a little weird for even the most gregarious, easy-going people. I’m not talking about the ick factor resulting from all that spit, tartar and whatever else grows in the mouths of people who don’t take good care of their teeth, although that would bother me quite a bit, and that’s why I’m not a dental hygienist. This is strictly about getting so close to strangers as to be, for all intents and purposes, physically inside them. How weird would that feel?

I couldn’t ask her, so I’ll never know.

dental | 5:35 am CDT
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Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson gets all worked up about why the study of quantum mechanics matters:

In the 1920s, quantum physics was discovered. That is the science of the small: the science of electrons, protons, neutrons, particles, nuclei. At the time, you’d say, This is just physicists burning tax money. Who cares about the atom? I got a horse to feed, I got kids, I got – you know, you got issues in society, yet it’s quantum mechanics that is the entire foundation of our entire technological revolution. There would be no computers. There would be no – none of what you take for granted – your iPod, your iPhone, cell phones, the space program – without our understanding of the laws of physics at that atomic and molecular and nuclear level. The chemist has no understanding of the periodic table of elements without quantum mechanics. To them, it’s just a list of elements. Quantum mechanics tells you why this column is there, and that’s there, and why this mates with that, and why that makes a molecule with that – that’s quantum mechanics, and it’s unheralded. You ask me, Is there any discovery that has changed how we live? It is quantum mechanics. And I make this point because there are people who say, Why are we spending money up there when we got problems on earth? People don’t connect the time-delay between the frontier of scientific research and how that’s going to transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows the product that comes out of it. That is so short-sighted that that’s the beginning of the end of your culture.

quantum | 5:45 pm CDT
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Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Sometimes when I walk under a bird sitting on a wire I get a creepy feeling and have to brush the top of my head with my hand to make sure there isn’t any bird poop up there, even though I’m pretty sure I’d know if a bird actually pooped on me without having to reach up there and touch it. Wait, I take that back. A raven shat on me once and I thought I’d been hit by shrapnel, or maybe a bazooka. Even after I looked down to see my shoulder and most of my sleeve was covered in raven poop, for several minutes I couldn’t believe all of that came out of a bird. I thought a nearby kid might possibly have thrown a handful of mud at me, even though there was no mud around. All my life I’d never been pooped on by a bird, and then karma caught up with me and had to make up for all those years in one big, super-pooping bird.

How many birds do you suppose there are in the world? I ask because it seems as if, just in our little neighborhood, there must be enough to feed everyone for a year, to judge from the sound of all the chirping and singing going on. There’s got to be millions of them within walking distance of my house. I don’t know how trees can hold them. Which reminds me, I used to think that birds were the reason we have wind. No, really. It’s not all that far-fetched when you think about it: Millions upon millions of birds up there, flapping around, waves building on waves. It makes sense, in a sort of demented way. Much more than unevenly heated masses of low- and high-pressure air colliding with one another. Come on, I can’t be the only one who thought this.

But back to the poop: I take a walk around the neighborhood each morning, and it’s an older neighborhood with lots and lots of mature trees hanging over the streets, and the trees are full of birds. I take my walk very early in the morning when they’re all singing their hearts out. It must be great waking up and, first thing in the morning before you’ve rubbed the sleep out of your eyes while sucking down a couple mugs of coffee, feeling so good about life, the universe and everything that you’ve just got to sing a song. I’d sure like to wake up and feel that kind of hope. Maybe I ought to eat more worms, or sleep naked in a tree. Anyway, I can hear that there are millions of birds up there, right over my head, and yet every morning I return to the house unshat upon. How is that even possible? I put it to you. And I leave it to you.

birds | 6:09 am CDT
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Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, considering the inevitability of life:

If you had asked your chemistry teacher fifty years ago, once you looked at that mysterious chart of boxes that sat in front of your class, the periodic table of elements, Where did those elements come from? The chemistry teacher would not have had an answer for you. He would have said, Well, you dig them from out of the earth. That’s not where they come from. It took modern astrophysics to determine the origin of the chemical elements.

We observe stars. They explode, laying bare their contents. And what we have discovered is that the elements of the periodic table derive from the actions of stars that have manufactured the elements, exploded, and scattered their enriched guts across the galaxy, contaminating – or enriching – gas clouds that then form a next generation of stars populated by planets, and possibly life.

When you look at the ingredients of the universe, the number one ingredient is hydrogen. Next is helium, next is oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. Those are the top ingredients in the universe. Then you look at earth, because we like to think of ourselves as special … We say, We’re special! Well, what are we made of? What’s the number one molecule in our bodies? Water! What’s water made of? H-two-O. Hydrogen and oxygen.

Hmmm.

If you rank the elements in the human body, with the exception of helium, which is chemically inert, useless to you for any reason other than just to inhale it so you sound like Micky Mouse … number one is hydrogen. Matches the universe. Number two: oxygen. Matches the universe. Number three? Carbon! Matches the universe. Number four, nitrogen – matches the universe!

We learned in the last fifty years that, not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us. Had we been made of some rare isotope of bismuth, you would have an argument to say, We are something special! There are people who are upset by that fact, saying, Well, does that mean we are not special? Well, I think it’s special in another kind of way. When you look up at the night sky it’s no longer, we’re here, and that’s there. It’s, We are part of that! That association, for me, is quite enlightening and ennobling and enriching. In fact, it’s almost spiritual, looking up at the night sky and finding a sense of belonging.

So, now we have ourselves – are we alone in the universe? We’re made of the most common ingredients there are! Our chemistry is based on carbon! Carbon is the most chemically active ingredient in the periodic table! If you were to find a chemistry on which to base something really complex, called life, you would base it on carbon! Carbon is, like, the fourth most abundant ingredient in the universe! We’re not rare! You can make more molecules out of carbon than you can out of all the other ingredients in the periodic table combined. If we were to ask ourselves, Are we alone in the universe? It would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest that we are alone in the cosmos. The chemistry is too rich to declare that! The universe, too vast! There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. There are more stars in the universe than there are all sounds and words ever uttered by all the humans who have ever lived. To say we’re alone in the universe!

No, we haven’t found life outside of earth yet. We’re looking. Haven’t looked very far yet. Galaxy’s this big – we’ve looked about that far, but we’re looking. And how about life on earth? Is it hard to form? Just because we don’t know how to do it in the lab doesn’t mean nature had problems. So it may be, given that information, that, given the right ingredients, which are everywhere, life may be inevitable – an inevitable consequence of complex chemistry.

inevitable | 3:13 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, story time | Tags: ,
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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

This is a sea horse

And now, time for Ask An Atheist:

Q: How can you have any morals if you don’t believe in god?

A: For many years I’ve heard atheists dance around this question, claiming they can form their own perfectly respectable moral codes using logic or ethics or some rhetorical bullshit that sounds almost plausible, but here, for the first time, I’ll let you in on a little secret that we all admit to each other: You’re right. It turns out it’s definitively impossible to have any kind of valid morals without divine guidance. Self-control goes right out the window the moment you veer from the straight and narrow. Just as an example, I myself strangle four or five, sometimes even six puppies a week, for no good reason at all. On weekends I’ll drown as many as two-dozen kittens before lunch. It’s appalling, but I can’t help it. And that’s just one small way that I’m utterly and completely without moral guidance. Just don’t even ask me to babysit for you.

Your Argument Is Invalid | 9:00 pm CDT
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Sunday, February 27th, 2011

I was down on my knees this morning with my trusty toothbrush and a can of Ajax cleanser, uprooting all the fuzzy little plants and slaying the romping animals that grow in the grouting between the tiles in our bathroom, and I found myself asking this question: Why do they even make hard toothbrushes? See, I’m trying to keep my mind sharp as my aging body slowly deteriorates, so I exercise my synapses with deep, philosophical questions like these.

On every visit I’ve ever made to see a dentist, I’ve been asked – usually twice: once by the hygienist and again by the dentist – how often I brush my teeth, followed by the warning that I should only use a soft toothbrush. And I’ve read again and again that dentists agree – and I can only assume here that they mean more than two dentists, right? They mean the dental community in toto agrees, right? – that we should all brush our teeth with soft toothbrushes.

Yet whenever I go to the store to buy a toothbrush I find myself having to choose between hard, medium, and soft toothbrushes. This makes my synapes fire thusly:

1) Dentists are telling some of us to use soft toothbrushes, some of us to use medium toothbrushes, and some of us to use hard toothbrushes. Why?

1a) Dentists believe I am too dainty to stand up to long-term use of a medium toothbrush, that a hard toothbrush constitutes a mortal danger to my delicate dental organages. Could be, but I don’t think so. Dentists have always complimented me for having a great set of teeth. If they were great-looking but breakable as a cheap watch, I think they would have said, “Man! Those things are going to fall right out of your head the minute you use anything but a soft toothbrush on them!” Or words to that effect.

1b) Dentists believe that everyone should use only soft toothbrushes but are telling some of us to use stiffer brushes because, you know, job security. “George, you all right? Your mouth is bleeding!” “Yeah, I can’t figure it out. I’ve been brushing as hard as I can with a stiff brush, just like the dentist told me to, but it just gets worse and worse.” Doesn’t seem likely. Sorry, forget I said that.

2) Dentists are telling most of us to use soft toothbrushes and leaving the rest of us to figure it out for ourselves. Not sure why they’d do that, either.

3) Dentists are telling every one of us to use soft toothbrushes. If this is true, it brings me back to my original thought: Why do they even make toothbrushes with stiff bristles, dammit?

And if I can’t figure this out, how am I supposed to figure out the hard stuff, like whether to wash dark clothes in cold or warm water? I really hate complication. I want to go back to being eight years old, when people just told me what to do and I did it.

Softly | 12:16 pm CDT
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Friday, February 18th, 2011

How weird is life, eh?

I spent a (mostly) happy twenty-one year career in the military, then voted with my feet when a bunch of flag-pin politicians decided the military was a vital part of their regime-change policy and not, as I’d always believed, a means of defending the constitution.

After retirement I landed a job at a bank, probably the least likely place I thought I’d ever end up working, and put in five good years there, five years that culminated in the popping of the real estate bubble and the mortgage crisis that rocked the world economy. My job as a supervisor was eliminated. I started job-hunting again.

At that point I was fifty years old, my skill set was best suited for office work and my feeling was the current trend of job-hopping wasn’t going to work for me. I figured going back to government work would be a great idea, so I landed a job with the state: lousy pay, but good benefits.

Then what happened? Another flag-pin politician decided that state worker’s benefits make them the “haves,” and proposed the first step in transforming them into have-nots by trashing the state worker’s union.

Well, dammit.

I Ain’t No Job | 6:11 am CDT
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Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

image of facebook comment

I wouldn’t just like to know the argument that disproves atheism, I would love to know it, and not because I consider myself an atheist. That term would imply a knowledge of theism that I don’t possess. I’d still love to hear the argument, though, so I clicked the Facebook link I found this morning without thinking twice about it, anticipating a lively debate that tied up the many loose ends of fundamental questions regarding life, the universe and everything.

Sadly I have to report the link took me to a web page that was supposed to verify I’m a human by asking me to click on a green square. No matter how hard I tried to click on that square, though, it didn’t work. I can only conclude either I’m not human or I’m not privileged to know the argument that disproves atheism. Bummer, in either case.

I soldiered on, undeterred! After all, there are other ways to find answers on the interwebs. I did what anybody with access to the widest source of self-published opinion would do: I asked the google. The google knows all.

The first hit I got from a search for the phrase “argument that disproves atheism” took me to a web page at BypassFanPages.com, whose tagline, “See the hidden content on Facebook pages without the hassle,” sounds a little weird. Why would there be hidden content on Facebook pages? I did a quick review of the home page of BypassFanPages.com and found hidden Facebook content such as “Google Earth: Couple Caught Having Sex,” “10 Best Places to Make Love,” “10 Hottest Asian Women,” and “OMG: This 1 Year Old Girl Pregnant With Twins! SHOCKING!” Well, that might start to explain why people are hiding this stuff.

BypassFanPages.com’s link to the argument that disproves atheism took me to a page on the web side FaithClipArt.com where there were no hot Asian women or tips on where to make love without being immortalized on Google Earth. Whether or not it’s the correct web page where I was meant to find the argument that disproves atheism, though, is not something I can verify.

What I can verify is that this web page didn’t answer my questions. I’m not sure I should go any further than this, because my questions have always frustrated and, in the end, really pissed off quite a few of the people I’ve posed them to, a collossal bummer for me because I didn’t mean to piss them off at all. They were people I cared about then, still care about now, and would always like to care about.

But one of the most useful tools available to the blog writer is the SPOILER ALERT. The way I understand the SPOILER ALERT works is, after declaring a SPOILER ALERT and drawing a line or inserting a white space, the blog writer is apparently relieved of all obligation to not offend the reader. If you keep reading after a SPOILER ALERT, it’s your own fault and you can’t hold me responsible. Man, I love the internet.


The first thing written on the web page that disproves atheism is the flat statement, “Atheism declares that there is no god,” which came as something of a relief to me, I admit. I don’t have any declarations that sound anything like that, so I guess I’m not an atheist. Or human. Still a little bummed about that.

After reading the rest of the page, though, I’m really very disappointed that the argument that disproves atheism appears to be, in summary: I can disprove atheism by proving theism; the basis of theism is faith; faith cannot be disproved. Therefore, theism is true and atheism is disproved.

Disproving atheism by proving theism was not what I was hoping for. I was hoping maybe the argument that disproves atheism was a bit more, you know, argumentative, that maybe the writer would offer a reason or two that would demonstrate how atheism was wrongheaded. Not only didn’t I find that, I learned that theism can’t be disproved by argument. “[T]he Christian is not convinced of his or her theism based on sophisticated arguments or capable apologetic defenses. The Christian is convinced of his or her position based on faith.”

That settles the matter rather quickly, doesn’t it? Faith is all we need to finish this discussion. If that were true, then proving atheism is as simple as proving theism. An atheist need only have faith in his belief. This is not only my opinion; Threlfall says so: “Faith is even the basis for the atheist’s non-belief in God … Faith is not a pathetic baseless optimism for something that science disproves. Faith is actuality. Faith is substance. Faith is conviction.” If a theist’s faith proves his belief, then an atheist’s faith should do the same. What did I misunderstand here?

That works for the overall summary, too, now that I think of it: I can disprove theism by proving atheism; the basis of atheism is faith; faith cannot be disproved. Therefore, atheism is true and theism is disproved. This is one strange game we’re playing.

Quaint stories like this old chestnut don’t disprove atheism, either: “I know a Christian who had a friend who was an atheist. As the two discussed the issue of atheism vs. Christianity, the Christian man showed the atheist a passage in Romans 1 … the Christian told the atheist, ‘The reason you don’t believe in God is that you don’t want to.’ The man replied, ‘You know, I never thought about it, but you’re right!’”

Even in the unlikely case that an atheist had so poorly thought his convictions through that a statement like “you don’t believe in God [because] you don’t want to” had never occurred to him, I have my doubts that such an obviously circular argument would start his beliefs crashing to the ground. It doesn’t seem likely that being shown a passage from the Bible would do the trick, either. Maybe a combination of the two, like a quick one-two punch? Well … no.

Still Wondering … | 11:49 am CDT
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