Thursday, September 24, 2009

A-Theist Does Not Mean A-Moral

Greta Christina is a blogger who writes about atheism (among many other things, not always suitable for work or family) over at the cleverly eponymously monickered Greta Christina's Blog. She has begun a new project -- The Facebook Atheist Meme of the Day. See here, here, and here.
I'm doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I'm going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme... in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through.
Her project, and many of the reactions to the Facebook posts, started me thinking about one of the anti-atheist memes that still is very widespread. This is the theory that the lack of belief in a god leaves one without any moral grounding. In other words, without gods (or God), anything is permissible. Or maybe even ("Horrors!"), encouraged. This particular meme is #2 in Greta's Eleven Myths and Truths About Atheists --
2: Atheists are immoral: without religion, there's no basis for morality.
Now, for must of us who take life seriously, thinking about morality is an important part of what we do. There's the old "An unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates, I think.) There are the problems of dealing with other people and institutions. There are the issues of raising children to be prepared to go out into the world by themselves. Atheists are no different from anybody else in these concerns.

Greta will probably come up with some nicely worded pithiness that summarizes her position if a sentence or two. Her post from March of 2008, The Not So Logical Conclusion: On the Morality of Atheists and Believers, probably lays out the direction she will go.

So, I set myself the task to come up with an atheist meme about morality. I'm sure it won't be as good as what Greta produces -- she's a much better writer -- but the exercise has been be useful.

I think most people who believe the myth are still very much in thrall of Strict-Big-Daddy-In-The-Sky-Ism.  Without a strong father figure, we're all going to hell in a handbasket. Even this statement reveals the sexism, dominance and fear-mongering that is crucial for this particular brand of Control-Ism to succeed. But this view isn't at all necessary for a coherent and effective morality.

First, we need to now what morality is. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy starts its definition of morality with this:

The term “morality” can be used either

  1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons

In either case, morality is a code of conduct. In other words, it's about behavior, not thoughts. The old saying that you can't legislate morality is wrong. In fact, most of our legislation is about morality -- the ways people behave towards other people. You can't legislate what people think or feel, however, which is what the saying is trying to communicate.

As an atheist coming from at least a cultural Judeo-Christian background (see here), starting with the acknowledged sources of some of our moral sense is useful. The Bible contains two major concepts of exemplary morality -- the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the Golden Rule (ethic of reciprocity) of the New Testament. Although the Ten Commandments are a hodge-podge of prescriptive and proscriptive injunctions, they are mostly a descriptive code of conduct. Just as the Bible itself becomes mostly gentler and kinder as it moves from the chronicles of an Iron Age society to the inspirational message of a more modern world, the basis of morality becomes more universal by the time of the New Testament. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is an ethical normative meme that spans countries, civilizations, and time. The commandments that deal with human interactions can be seen (with some slight rewording) as examples of the Golden Rule.

Similarly, Western culture has absorbed the prescriptive meme of karma -- "What goes around, comes around" and "Instant karma's gonna get you" -- and has begun to unravel the ramifications of the normative meme of Pay-It-Forward-Ism.

In game theory as applied to social interactions, the tit for tat and tit for tat with forgiveness tactics in the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma seem to be the best deterministic strategies. Cooperate until betrayed and then respond in kind (maybe with a little "I forgive you for defecting that last time" thrown in.)

So, where have I gotten? So far, the best I can come up with is:

Atheists know that morality is the human response to issues of social interaction, not delivered from on high. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not just a rule – it’s a Good Idea.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Power of Visualization

One of the things that the development of computers has made possible is incredibly powerful visual images. It's almost impossible to find a movie made in the last 10-20 years that doesn't make some use of CGI (computer generated imagery.) Stick around through the credits of any recent realistic movie and you will see that somebody is being credited with computer imagery or enhancement. And we're not talking Beowulf or the latest Pixar flic but all normal, "realistic" movies.

But that's not the only kind of visualization that computers have made possible. A very powerful tool is data visualization. This involves taking data and devising a visual presentation of it. There need not be anything new about the data -- just the presentation.

The folks over at have developed just such a tool. The video below shows some of the kinds of things you can notice and learn just by visualizing data that used to be presented in pages of numbers with the occasional chart or three.

If you find this intriguing, head on over to GapMinder World where you can play with a large number of different datasets from the convenience of your own browser. Maybe you'll come up with some insights that others haven't seen yet.

How Cute ....

... and a transitional fossil to boot!

One of the constant complaints of IDers and creationists is that there aren't any transitional fossils. This, of course, misses the point that all fossils are transitional fossils. But here is evidence (not the drawing, but the linked article with video) of an early cousin of the awesome Tyrannosaurus rex.

This is a conception of the Raptorex.
Despite what many newspapers will assuredly tell you, Raptorex isn't the ancestor of Tyrannosaurus although it probably looked very much like what this hypothetical animal would have done. It's more like an early cousin, but one that's clearly more closely related to T.rex and its giant kin than any of the other smaller species so far discovered.

You can read all about it over at the marvelous Not Exactly Rocket Science blog. And watch carefully for the depiction of the teeny-tiny brain these creatures had (but apparently a very good sense of smell.)

Music and Aerodynamics

I suppose if Philip Glass can create a piece of music/theatre called 1000 Airplanes On The Roof, it makes sense for Karlheinz Stockhausen to create the Helicopter String Quartet. From the Wiki:
A performance requires: four helicopters, each equipped with a pilot and sound technician, television transmitter and 3-channel sound transmitter, and an auditorium with four columns of televisions and loudspeakers, a sound technician with mixing desk, and a moderator (optional), as well as the members of the string quartet. The piece focuses on the simple idea of a string quartet, with the rotor blades acting as a second instrument, with microphones placed so the helicopters may blend with the instruments themselves, whilst the instruments remain louder than the blades. The piece is played as follows. A moderator, who may be the sound technician, introduces the quartet, and then explains the technical aspects of the piece. The players must then walk, or be driven if necessary, to the helicopters, always being visible to the auditorium audience by camera. The embarkation is also shown, the musicians and instruments remaining constantly in the view of the cameras, with no camera changes. Behind each player the ground can be seen, as well as the glass. Then the piece begins. The original version lasted approximately 18½ minutes, but the 1995 revision was extended to 21½ minutes. The helicopters circle at a radius of 6 km from the auditorium, changing altitude constantly to create the 'bounce' of the piece. All 12 incoming signals are controlled by the sound technician. The descent lasts five minutes, with the decreasing sound of the rotor blades acting as a background as the quartet re-enter the hall. The moderator then takes questions and leads applause.
Here's a short excerpt:

Well, It Didn't Just Happen ...

Probability is one of those things that people are just not very good at unless trained. There are probably some good reasons why evolution didn't help us come with the intrinsic Calculators of Large Numbers we would need to not be misled so easily.

Psychologically, we seem to be much more attuned to the false positives in our data gathering than to the false negatives. Of course, interpreting a rustle in the grass as a possible snake and taking action is much more prudent (in terms of survival) than to dismiss the rustle of a snake as just the wind. Combining this tendency with inadequate number-crunching skills leads us down many a garden path (or blind alley.)

Coincidences fool us all the time. The Gambler's Fallacy helps drain bank accounts every day. Lucky numbers become signposts on our journeys. Superstitions are usually born from misunderstood coincidences.

The folk over at QualiaSoup have addressed this issue with another fine video that begins with one of my favorite examples, the Birthday Paradox. The Birthday Paradox, of course, isn't really a paradox but just something that is counter-intuitive — which just shows how our intuitions about probability aren't very good.

Political Rhetoric Explained by Steven Pinker

A bit from a talk by Steven Pinker, one of the more interesting writers on psychology, mind, and language. I particularly liked his quotation of Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe:

... a gaffe is when a politician says something that is true.
His discussion of how words can become colored like swear words is intriguing. Liberal in America connotes something much different than in does in Canada.

This clip is just an excerpt from the full video. See info in the clip to get the whole thing.

Friday, September 18, 2009

John Cage (Unplugged)

Nowadays, when a musician's performance is characterized as "unplugged" it means that the normally electric instruments are not used, just "acoustic" ones. In this historic footage from 1960(!), avant garde composer John Cage is featured on the TV show "I've Got A Secret." Network television (when there were only three networks.) Prime time (when Prime Time actually was prime time.)

Figuring, I suppose, that the game of guessing his secret would be too difficult and, as host Gary Moore explained, to allow for sufficient time for the complete performance to take place, the game portion of the event was eliminated and Cage's secret was just announced. He would perform his composition Water Walk using: a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, 2 cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a seltzer siphon, 5 radios, a bathtub, and a grand piano.

I suppose guessing the secret probably would have been a little on the difficult side.

There was, however, a glitch in the system. Two different unions were contesting which should plug in the radios. There was no resolution so the radios were to be unplugged for the performance. Cage explained his workaround before beginning the performance and the radios were not played although they were still used.

I haven't figured out yet why the other electrical gadgets (tape recorder and mixer) did not enter into the dispute. Maybe the sticking point had something to do with music or actors being broadcast over the airwaves.

Enjoy! Oh, yes, TV was mostly in black and white back then.

Originally from: WFMU's Beware of the Blog — A Radio Station That Bites Back

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thinking Inside & Outside the Box

QualiaSoup has nailed it again with a video about a box, theistic claims of existence, and the logical traps of asserting non-physical characteristics (among other things.)

Tip o' the hat to Hemant over at

Our Diverse History Is Even More Varied & Interesting Than We Have Been Taught

My long-time friend Kathleen Thompson is one of the founders of the site

Kathleen's background includes being a bookseller, an author, a playwright, an editor, an educator, and — throughout it all — a feminist (she co-authored the classic Against Rape). Her diverse interests have reached a new stage with OneHistory.

Let's face it, American history is not what most of us have always thought it was. It is not a neat story written in a book or even a hundred books. Not only is it far from finished -- we're living it right now -- but it is far from being recovered, reclaimed, and recorded. So many voices have been silenced for so long that our historical chorus has often sounded like a brass band with only one trumpet and a beat up tuba.
So, what is OneHistory trying to do about it?
OneHistory was founded ... for students, teachers, and the general public. Our aim is to have high-quality, accessible content for all levels of learners and for a variety of interests. ...

Because of both personal experience and professional exposure, we are acutely aware of the educational difficulties faced by many children. That is why we have a number of features designed specifically for Hi-Lo readers. In addition, after witnessing the power that images from our book The Face of Our Past had on a huge variety of audiences, we began to explore the power of imagery as a teaching tool.

We at OneHistory are passionate about historic images and this site has a number of features designed to help people understand their power. Like a diary or other text document, an image is a primary document. And like a text document, a historic image must be read with care. In others words people must become visually literate. Toward that end, we have included an entire section of the site devoted to visual history.

As an example, I was pleasantly surprised to find an early plea for religious freedom — freedom of and freedom from — by an early (Native) American.
Red Jacket (c. 1750-1830) was a Seneca leader and spokesman for the Six Nations. He gave this speech in 1805 in response to appeals by missionaries that his people convert to Christianity.
An excerpt:
Brother, continue to listen. You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to His mind; and, if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right and we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a Book. If it was intended for us, as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given to us, and not only to us, but why did He not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that Book, with the means of understanding it rightly. We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?

Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do not all agree, as you can all read the Book?

If you get some time, go browse around I'm sure you'll find something new or interesting. If you can, recommend it to other students, teachers, or parents who might find it useful.

Let's keep more of our heritage from disappearing into the dustbins of history.  

Sunday, September 6, 2009

When You Design and Build Watch Factories ...

... everything ends up looking like something a watchmaker would do.

Jim Manzi (of Lotus Development and Lotus 1-2-3 fame see comment below) has a piece over at Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish in which he takes on Jerry Coyne's review of Robert Wright's book Evolution of God that was published in The New Republic.

I read about this at Coyne's blog where you can read his response to Manzi. You can follow the twisty maze on your own by clicking on the above links (including responses, responses to responses, etc.)

My point here, however, is another train of thought. Shortly before discovering this kerfuffle, I got a status update via Facebook from an engineer friend. It was early Sunday morning and A new day breaks, a glorious Sunday to worship our Lord and Savior. Just the coincidence of these two pieces of input got me thinking about the observation that Intelligent Design proponents and some Creationists often come from backgrounds of math, physics, or engineering rather than biology or philosophy.

When all your training has been to successfully design and build things, it is a natural thought that something successful has been designed and built. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail is a less sophisticated version of the same thought.

The ID luminaries who have some real scientific training come from outside the field of biology — which is the field in which evolution does its handsprings. Manzi comes from the world of software development.

They are all used to the idea of designing and building as the natural mode of changing the world. Their tools are crucial to the world we live in — airplanes fly across great oceans, sewer systems allow giant metropolises, Facebook is filled to the brim with our minutia, genetic algorithms guide our computers through designs, small boxes of magic carried in our pockets let us listen to music or talk to people around the world.

The engineering design and manufacture paradigm has been overwhelming successful in our attempts to tame the savage world and provide sustenance, enjoyment, and longer lives. We no longer have to survive on what we find. Or what we learn out how to hunt. Or what we figure out how to husband. Or fitting the family into a cave.

But just because a method is successful there is no reason to assume that it has any relevance outside of the realms that are amenable to its use. Even within a field, careful use is required for some concepts. Something as simple as the average of a collection of numbers requires well-grounded analysis. Is the mean, the median, or the mode the correct concept to use? Statistics and probability are minefields for the unwary. Why is the Birthday Paradox so .... paradoxical?

I think understanding how the engineering paradigm influences the ideas and analysis of those who wish evolution wasn't true will be a useful beginning to more constructive dialogues and partnerships. There are millions of interesting engineering problems in the structure and development of this thing we call life. Tapping into the engineer's expertise would be useful where it is appropriate.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Deconstructing (Literally) a Pocket-Size Box of Magic

Over at YouTube, I found this piece of "pure nerd porn" in which a MP3/camcorder device is deconstructed before our eyes.

We Might All Eventually Have Machines This Powerful

I ran across another interesting demo of early computer hardware and software. Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad program was developed in the very early 1960s. Here are a couple of clips about a slightly later version from 1963 demoed at the MIT Lincoln Laboratories.  

Part The First:

Part The Second:

Hat Tip to BoingBoing.
The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism
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