The Question Science Can't Answer

I’m pretty much an atheist. I think the whole notion of the afterlife is inconsistent with anything we see about how the universe works. It absolutely relies on a “specialness” of homo sapiens — that the universe is here just for us. This is absurd on every practical level. It is also true that, even if there is no afterlife, creatures like us homo sapiens would certainly invent one to insulate us from the horror of death. We’d all be nuts not to hope that when we die all sorts of cool stuff happens. That would be great.

But we can set aside the afterlife question and go one deeper, the question we all ask: why are we here? Yes, Big Bang nucleosynthesis and accretion disks and all this can explain it from the Big Bang forward, but why a Big Bang? Or better — whence a Big Bang? Where the fuck did all of this come from?

I agree with the likes of Carl Sagan who said something to the effect of, saying God did it but we don’t know where God came from is rather the same as saying we don’t know where the universe came from in the first place. You’ve only pushed the unknown one step further out. Maybe God did do it, no one knows for sure. But saying God did it does not advance our understanding, it’s just made-up words.

But still — how the fuck did we get here? I write, you read, we are fucking here, dammit, and I want to know why! Science cannot answer this. NO ONE can answer this, as far as we know. It is unanswerable.

So although I agree with the atheists, I say “pretty much an atheist” because to me, acknowledgment that we can’t explain why we are here or what created the matter/energy that started it all, means to me that those answers could be profound, profound in ways that we can’t conceive of. Imagine knowing where it all came from? What does that answer look like?

Does dying provide answers? That’s hard for me to believe. Can I say it is impossible? No. Can anyone? No. Yes, improbable as all fuck, but impossible, no.

We came from somewhere.

The Question Science Can't Answer

Israel and Palestine

I think that Israel is acting like complete idiots. Before anyone declares I am anti-Semitic and such let me add that I think the USA is acting like complete idiots and the Palestinians are also acting like complete idiots. I started with the Israelis because they are the ones, in my opinion, who have the power to make peace happen and yet they are doing the exact opposite — enflaming the war.

Now look — Hamas is not friendly to Israel. They are quite hostile and they basically if not actually have declared war on Israel. I believe that Hamas is part of the problem in a big way. But I also believe that the Palestinians voted for Hamas for the same reason that people in the USA voted for Bush — to greedily protect their interests, with a heavy hand if necessary.

Obviously, the notion that the Palestinians can wish Israel out of existence is nonsense. Any such goal should and will be crushed. The Palestinians do not get to decide if there is an Israel or not.

At the same time, I’d be pissed off if it was up to the Israelis if there was a Palestine or not. With countries and borders less than a century old, it is irrational to leave the fate of the Palestinians up to the Israelis. Israel rightly expects the world to stand up for their right to exist. I think it is time that the world stand up for Palestine’s right to exist.

You know, when people lob bombs into your neighborhoods, take hostages and kill people, you get pissed off. I can see why Israel is pissed off. But what do they do? They lob bombs, take hostages and kill people. You’ll remember from above that this pisses people off.

The military power of Israel dwarfs that of the Palestinians and this puts the impetus on the Israelis to be utterly measured in their military actions. Blowing up power plants and bridges is fighting the wrong enemy. How can they not see that? Arresting elected Hamas leaders leads away from, not towards, peace.

I’ve asked this before of both sides: do you fucking want fucking peace or not? The answer is obviously, no, you don’t.

The solution is obvious (in no particular order):

1. Palestinians stop killing Israelis.
2. Israelis stop killing Palestinians.
3. Palestine recognizes Israel as a sovereign nation.
4. Israel recognizes Palestine as a sovereign nation.
5. A multi-national, cooperative and good-faith negotiation occurs as to the logistics of #2 with neither Israel nor Palestine having veto rights. It is binding arbitration.

As long as the Palestinians are under Israel’s thumb, there will never be peace. That is the bottom line.

Israel and Palestine

On The Record

It’s funny, this blogging thing. It seems so spontaneous and throw-away. Many of us just dash things off when we get inspired or pissed off. I mean, who visits the archives anyway?

What is so funny about this attitude we have is that it is wrong. Thanks to Google-like entities and way-back-machine-type entities, each spontaneous quip is immortalized for all eternity. We who start our careers in the blogsphere and end up in politics and business are going to have our words read back to us at opportune times in the future.

I’m OK with that, myself. Just for fun, let’s say that I’m running for President of the United States. (This is, I’ll admit, rather unlikely.) I have eluded to drug use and sexual behavior. I have uttered profanity-ridden diatribes against politicians, writers and bloggers. I am mean sometimes, intolerant sometimes and plain ol’ wrong sometimes. All of it squirreled away on hard drives scattered throughout the globe, well beyond my means to destroy. These words would be used, in or out of context, to make me look like a looney. They have me on the record saying taxes are good, Bush is a complete moron, Republicans are hypocrites, all drugs should be legal, speed limits are too low, religion is evil, etc. ad infinitum.

But, provided I get a chance to address these issues if brought up, I have no problem with being on the record. There are really three things you can say when presented with your own words:

1. I was right and I believe that now.
2. I was wrong and I believe something else now.
3. I was right but I believe something else now.

None of these are hard to swallow. Present day coward politicians have a problem with #2 and I don’t get it. It is a sign of intelligence if you change your mind based on new information. Yes, I agree, you can’t blow with the wind but you can and should re-evaluate decisions. #2 means having to say you are sorry sometimes, as well. That’s not hard. I think people that can admit when they are wrong, say they are sorry and change their beliefs and behaviors are the very best kind of people. Nothing flips the bozo bit faster than someone who is more interested in winning than being right.

I’ll stand by my words from now until the end of time. There may be times I change my mind and disagree with my former self. There may be times I have to say I am sorry. I can handle that. I do very much enjoy the spontaneous nature of the blogsphere and it will suffer if we all get overly focused on the permanence of what we say.

Although, to be truthful, 99.9% of it will be pretty much gone like it never existed in fairly short time scales. Still, I suspect the presidential candidates for the 2032 election will have some Internet skeletons in their closet.

On The Record

Dude, Where's My Soul?

I’ve been thinking about souls lately. As an agnostic/atheist, this can be pretty entertaining. You don’t have to call it a soul, though. Even if you call it a mind or a personality, it is an odd thing.

First of all, between 50% and 80% of you is made up of water. Good ol’ H2O. I weigh (unfortunately) about 190 lb. (or 86 kg). That means that what I refer to as “me” includes 3 water-cooler sized jugs of water (about 14 gallons at 8.33 gallon/lb.). Does 3 water-cooler sized jugs of water have a soul? I would think not.

I found a site with the elements of the periodic table sorted by their presence in the human body. It looks like we are, in decreasing order of percentage, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, sodium and magnesium. Do any of those things have a soul? Do they have a mind?

A mind, we could argue, is a higher level brain function essentially involving close analogs to computers, with data storage, processing and interconnections. Thus a mind is explicable as a rather sophisticated “ghost in the machine” that can be fully explained by physics.

Where is the soul, though? What is a soul? Why do some believe in souls? A soul, they would say, is exactly that part of us which is not a function of the intricate arrangement of various elements. It is not physical. So people have souls and water jugs do not. Who decided that? A soul, apparently, is a special designation by God of supernatural permanence. Or, to be more objective, a soul would be some extra-dimensional aspect of human beings whose existence was not dependent on the “mortal coil” here incarnated. In this case the other dimension may not be study-able, i.e. literally beyond the capabilities of 4-D science, but if this soul thing plays any role in our dimensions, it can’t be completely beyond the realm of study.

I’m trying to be open-minded and thorough because it is an important question. As a hardcore agnostic slash light-weight atheist, it is still hard for me to completely relent to the fact that I am not special. Part of me just so wants to believe that somehow I am special. As someone decidedly non-religious, that translates to there somehow being more reality than we are able to sense. A more complex answer, really, to cosmological questions than the Big Bang/GR/Quantum ones we have discovered. In a way it seems somehow to deny my humanity if I deny the possibility that maybe there really is more than we think.

There is not the slightest shred of evidence for something like this, nor the slightest evidence for God, Heaven or Hell. While it is totally natural to speculate, the only rational answer is extreme agnosticism. Or perhaps atheism. All the rest is the wishful thinking of people that just don’t want to die.

You are going to die. That is a fact. I’m not scared of dying in the abstract. I’m not scared of being dead. My life is precious and therefore all lives are precious, regardless if, and especially if, when we die we are dead. That will not hurt. The fact that we are going where all people go, even if that is to an eternity of non-being, should give us comfort.

We don’t need souls. We are special, you and me, either way.

Dude, Where's My Soul?

Pet Peeves

You gotta like pet peeves. They give you something to do and something to feel superior about. Here are some of mine:

1. People who don’t walk on escalators. I totally don’t understand why otherwise able-bodied people stop walking the second they step on an escalator. They look so stupid standing there doing nothing. For the vast majority of us, time is something we want to conserve. In most cases, we do not need to conserve energy. When you walk on the escalator you are saving time. The moving steps makes the staircase shorter, in essence. You get up them quicker. When you stand there like an idiot, it actually takes longer than walking up normal stairs. For the love of God, people, walk up the freaking escalator!

2. People who write checks. This is something women seem to do much more than men. They go buy a $2 cup of coffee and write a check for it. W.T.F. So first they order and then they take out their checkbox, fill in the payee, fill in the amount, write out the amount, sign it, go to the ledger, write in the payee and amount, tear off the check. Then the cashier asks for ID and they get their ID out. Sometimes they are asked for their phone number. It’s insane. You can turn a 10 second transaction into a 180 second transaction for a cup of fucking coffee. I haven’t carried a checkbook around for at least 10 years. For anything less than $10 or so there is exactly one way to pay and it’s called CASH. Women manage to screw cash transaction up too, though, because they are so anal about putting their coins in their coin purse and their bills in the bills area, sorted by denomination and all orientated the same way. They have to do this while standing in front of the counter, too, they can’t step aside. (Yes, I am unfairly generalizing about women. It’s just the women that do that I’m bitching about.)

3. People who stand in line, like at McDonalds or a coffee shop, and then when they get up to the counter, they don’t know what they want. It takes me exactly 5 seconds to place by order at McDonalds’s or a coffee shop. For some reason I always get behind the person that needs to inquire about everything: “What’s in a Big Mac? Can I see the nutritional information? Is there nuts in that? Hmm….let me think.” IT’S FUCKING MCDONALD’S. YOU DON’T NEED TO THINK. JUST FUCKING ORDER. The same is true at the coffee shop. They all serve exactly the same drinks. If you’ve been to one coffee shop you’ve been to all coffee shops. Decide what you want before you get to the counter. It’s just not that hard.

4. People who don’t concentrate on driving when they are driving. This is just obvious. When you are participating in the most dangerous activity you will ever participate in, pay fucking attention. I was behind a guy once who was driving while practicing the trumpet. I’ve seen people smoke, eat and talk on the phone at the same time while driving. I’ve seen people turned complete around shouting at their kids. I’ve seen old people who can’t see, can’t hear and can’t turn their heads. No wonder your most likely cause of death is a traffic accident. If you are one of these people, quit it, now.

5. People who don’t know how to stand in line. Either they stand right behind you, practically touching you, because somehow they think they’ll get up to the front quicker if they press against you. Or they leave huge gaps in the line, as if they are so cool they needn’t be bothered with normal line standing behavior. This makes the line overflow its normal path and just pisses us all off. When you stand in line you should stand between 2.5 and 3.5 feet away.

Ok, your turn.

Pet Peeves

February and Thursday

I was thinking about how the calendar we use is based on a large span of time in the history of humanity. We have all the old gods in there. We have the whole A.D. (Anno Domini) thing. The days and months are, in a way, a constant reminder of our pagan roots. I was thinking about the whole utility of the calendar and how, if we were going to redesign it from scratch, there isn’t actually that much to improve. The calendar is an abstraction that we all agree to in order to provide order. It doesn’t matter much that February has 28 days vs 31 for January. February is an abstraction. It is funny, though, that there are billions of lines of computer code to accommodate our weird calendar. The astronomical basis of our calendar is, unlike so many astronomical things, quite variable. The earth and the moon and the sun and all of the planets make for a wobbly little clockwork universe to write code for. To think there are satellites in orbit worried about whether today is the day named after the moon or the one named after Saturn and whether we are in Octavius’s month or Julius’s is a funny thing.

But if we were to do it again, we could abandon the moon but we couldn’t abandon the sun. The seasons are an annual cycle thanks to our orbit around the sun and no calendar makes sense that does not acknowledge the utility of that. The New Year actually starts at a fairly logical time, as our orbit reaches an extreme. Months are the only thing you could really argue about. A year divided into 10 or so parts makes sense, and the moon does orbit the earth roughly 12 times per solar year. So really, the system we have is not so bad. Those ancients knew what they were doing!

Whenever you say the word “Thursday” you are really in touch with our ancient forebearers.

February and Thursday

Feminism

I’ve been arguing with feminists lately. I am a feminist, so it is an odd position to be in. When I say I am a feminist I mean that I support, in thought and action, equality in every way, shape and form for women. Professionally, personally, with my friends, family, strangers, I completely acknowledge the equality of women and the patriarchy of our society that has stacked the deck against them for the last several millennia.

There is one way in which I am not a feminist — I am a man. By that specifically I mean that part of the problem that feminists have with men is based on the way we are wired, deep in some genetic code. We can all argue about the relative effects of nurture vs. nature but the nature of men has been evident across all cultures. In the context of sexual relations, men are, at least to some extent, animals. (Women are too but someone else can write that blog post.) The reason that the porn and prostitution industries exist is because of this particular nature of men. Both of these industries relate to men’s desire (and, believe me, I don’t mean all men nor all men all of the time) to have sex without attachment, negotiation or compromise. I would say virtually all men, even if they don’t use porn or prostitution, understand the desire to have sex on demand, without attachment, negotiation or compromise.

This is kind of an ugly reality, I admit. It is one of the baser drives in men. It absolutely treats women as sex objects. The only real defense I make for this is that men truly wish for consensual, willing female partners in this. Men like being objectified, too. The drive is not to degrade or demean women, it is to live out fantasies with them.

Now again, I admit, that the way the porn and prostitution industries operate, they are hellish and prey upon vulnerable and abused people. They are industries of despair and addiction, in many cases. It is not my aim to defend these industries whatsoever. Yet I believe they are indicative of a reality of the nature of men, one that men can try to control but they cannot change. I think feminists look at these qualities in men and assume they are the result of a brainwashing by society and/or an intense selfishness. In a way, they think these impulses in men to focus on women as sexual objects should be eliminated. They see it as a direct assault on the feminist movement.

I think they are correct to a large extent. Where I draw the line, and I hope they agree, is that consenting adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want. I can’t explain why some women freely engage in porn or prostitution. Men in similar desperate situations may not have those options and probably turn to equally degrading professions, such as crime. Is that so much better? Can there be any expectation that men will change and lose their desire to treat women as sexual objects? I think not, anymore that we can expect people will stop smoking, drinking or eating at McDonalds. Things that prey to the most base impulses of people are hard to change.

What is important in my opinion is that the treating of women as sexual objects, if it happens at all, is happening to women who want it to happen, whether personally or professionally, or better yet, in the privacy of our own homes where consenting adults have all sort of consensual fun in ways that is not our business. It should not happen in the work place, in school or in the other many areas where women have historically been treated as second class citizens. Women have no duty whatsoever to play to men’s baser desires. But they always have and they always will. This is not a double-standard, as men are pretty damn willing to play to any base desire of women whatsoever.

Because the bottom line on all of this is that porn and prostitution are simply the extremes of what happens in magazines, movies and TV all day every day — the general worship of female beauty and portrayal of women as sex objects. I’d guess that a majority of the time, this portrayal is by women for women. Porn and prostitution are the tail of the bell curve in the systematic exploitation of women. The center is big media that caters largely to women.

Feminism

Research as a Natural Resource

When you think about mining you think about there being this stuff of value in, generally, a hard to reach spot and it costs you money to go get it. These days, things of value are of a less tangible sort but their value is self-evident. What is the value of mobile phone technology? What is the value of thermonuclear warheads? Or a vaccine against AIDS? Or an iPod?

These things have value and we can go get it, all we want, by supporting research. These things are the fruits of research. While you do see T-Mobile or Medtronic leveraging the latest technology, you don’t see the thousands of labs on colleges and universities around the world where students and faculty invented it. This is where the rubber truly meets the road. iPods and AIDS drugs are built directly on the backs of graduate students and faculty at universities.

I point this out because there are major economic and public safety reasons why it is in our best interest to create an academic environment which promotes research. The US government has been very good about funding science but that support is faltering. I fear we will make the mistake of micromanaging research funding, where bureaucrats are overly concerned with the practicality of research. Researching the atom did not seem practical 100 years ago. It turns out to be pretty practical. We need to fund the higher education system, fund scientific research and allow these students and professors to literally invent our future.

(We also need young people to choose to be one of them, too!)

Research as a Natural Resource

Republicans: Politics, not Policy

This is what we have learned — if we give the Republicans their way, we don’t get good policy, we get more politics. Even though they control every branch of government in this country, the Right is not concerned, apparently, about making good policy. They still use every possible opportunity to bolster their political power. I’ve always thought that if the Right was correct and I and the rest of us on the Left were wrong, then we would be seeing the proof of that right now. We gave them the keys and we said “OK, drive” and where have we ended up? NOWHERE.

A quick roll-call: Iraq is a mess. The debt and the deficit are at an all-time high. Oil prices are at an all-time high. People with health insurance are at an all-time low. The rich are much richer and the poor far worse off. Science is under attack in our schools by people who think that divine intervention is a more appropriate explanation than the results of rigorous scientific research. Many states have modified their constitutions to encode prejudice against same-sex couples. The globe is heating up, perhaps to an uncorrectable degree and the bulldozers are heading up to pave the last great wilderness in America so you can save $0.10/gallon when you fill your SUV.

The bottom line here, folks, is that if the Right is correct and the Left is wrong, it should be obvious by now. They’ve had all the power, they had their way on everything — where is the success? Where are the crowds of cheering people?

There are none. Even their own base is trying to keep down a gag reflex. The Republican agenda is not, apparently, about good policy, it’s about politics and power. What they do with the power is further a dogmatic agenda of class warfare and religious intolerance. Face it folks, they suck at this.

Over the next 3 years we need to show them the door and try to elect leaders who are results oriented instead of moronic ideologues. We can do better. We must do better. We will do better.

Republicans: Politics, not Policy

Polygamy

Katherine Kersten is making a good career out of being completely wrong.

Her latest missive, Once same-sex marriage is OK, polygamy’s next, is yet another example. There are many problems with her logic here. First of all, anti-gay people like her know that no law can be passed that will strengthen (or weaken) their marriage. They claim that anything but “one man one woman” hurts marriage but they can never say exactly how. Take, for example, her closing paragraph:

What’s the likely endpoint? Marriage may be redefined out of existence, and replaced by a flexible, contract-based system of government-registered relationships. So get ready. Today gay marriage supporters’ mantra is, “How does my same-sex marriage harm your marriage?” Down the road it may be, “How does my marriage of two men and a woman harm your marriage?” If we don’t answer the first question with resolve — making clear that “one man-one woman” is at the heart of marriage in Minnesota — we may not have a chance to answer the second.

What is clear is that Kersten has no idea how same-sex marriage harms marriages. She just knows she doesn’t like it. This is true of most anti-gay folks. They just don’t like it and their solution is government prejudice. Do the fucking math, folks, you are wrong on this one.

Now on to polygamy. First of all, polygamy as it is practiced is not a victimless crime. Particularly in the case of Mormons, women are brainwashed into utter subservience and polygamy is a tactic in the systematic abuse of women by people who think the Bible says that women are second class citizens. Our government has a responsibility to protect women against this abuse. By contrast, the government has no duty to protect one person from being in a committed and long-term relationship with another person of the same sex. Polygamy is not a victimless crime, same-sex marriage has no victims.

Now throwing away the evil Bible-thumping bastards who want to enslave women, is there a reason why the state can’t sanction polygamy? I think there are quite a few reasons why it would never make sense. First of all, contracts between 3 parties are much more complicated than between 2. What responsibilities does husband #1 have to husband #2? What about paternity? Are their parental rights for the “partner” which is not directly a parent? How is property and child custody handled in divorce? The complications go on and on. Unlike Kersten, I don’t have some Biblical rational for attacking polygamy. Unlike Right Wingers, I don’t think the government should invade my home and my privacy because the neighbor down the street disagrees with my lifestyle. I think government should have little oversight over my personal relationships.

Polygamy, though, is an unpopular practice embraced almost solely by religious fanatics and using it to attack the civil rights of homosexuals is a red herring and a symptom of the weak constitutional argument against gay marriage.

Polygamy