Friday, 28 March 2008

Apes and syntax

In an earlier post, I pointed out why linguists reject the notion that apes (or birds, or dolphins, or other non-humans) can use human language. Sure, they can manipulate symbols to get what they want, just like we do. But human language is unlike anything we see in the animal kingdom.

Ask a linguist what's the difference, and she'll probably say it's a matter of syntax. In a human language, the words have to come in a certain order. 'John hit Bill' is different from 'Bill hit John'. Or if I say "The fluffy bunny exploded," you have an automatic understanding that 'fluffy' and 'bunny' have a special relation to each other. They've grouped into a structural unit. Non-human communication — and even apes who are taught human language — never shows any syntax of this type.

(If you're new to this area, here's a really good article about it. All the major players weigh in, and it's very readable.)

But beyond the 'language or not' issue, there's an even more interesting discussion. Namely, if it's not language, what is it?

Linguists break into two camps: There are the linguists who say that human language is something qualitatively different from animal communication. This would be Chomsky et al. They'd say there's a Language Acquisition Device in the human brain (as yet undiscovered) that no other animal has, and though they may be intelligent and communicate, they'll never 'graduate' to real language use. We humans have the principles of syntax — that all human languages follow — hard-wired natively into our human brains.

Then there's the other team that say human language is just more complex than animal communication. Maybe there's a continuum where animal communication can be more or less language-y, and all animals fall short of real language behaviour. Maybe if animals were doing something different, they'd slide up closer to language. Maybe syntax is something a very smart animal can do, and if other animals were smarter, they'd do syntax too. Maybe people use syntax to keep everything straight because talking is so demanding. And so on.

This view is interesting because if we suppose there's a scale of languageness, we can see how far up the scale animals can go. Which takes us to some interesting work from a while back.
Nonhuman primates are unable to grasp a fundamental grammatical component used in all human languages, researchers at Harvard University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland reported recently in the journal Science. Their work provides the clearest example to date of a cognitive bottleneck during the evolution of human language, suggesting a sharp limit to animals' capacity to generate open-ended communication and possible restrictions on other domains of thought.
The experiment was this: they played sounds of a man and a woman speaking nonsense syllables to groups of cotton-topped tamarinds. The actual syllables weren't important; what mattered was the male/female order of the voices.

One group heard patterns of male and female voices that could be generated by a regular grammar, the simplest kind of pattern generator you can have and still call it syntax. This generates very simple sequences like MFMFMF. Once the monkeys got used to the pattern, the experimenters broke the rules by switching up the sequences. Sure enough, the monkeys noticed; they would turn their heads to the loudspeaker as if to say, "What the?"

But other monkeys got patterns generated by a context-free grammar, one step up in complexity. Here the monkeys would hear patterns like MF, or FFMM, or MMMFFF. When these patterns were broken, the monkeys didn't even notice, which indicates that these grammars were too complex for them.

Most human languages are a step up even from that, following rules allowed by 'context-sensitive' grammars. So, conceptually, the syntax of human language is way beyond the capabilities of even these clever types.

Some animal researchers claim that their African Gray Parrots are understanding them and generating real English sentences. I'd love to see what kind of patterns these birds are capable of. Seems this kind of test could help sort out the difference between simple parroting and real language use.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Official Mormon doctrine

'Anonymous', who's done such great work on the Scientologists lately, made a comment in the last thread on bones from other planets:
Strange that he felt a need to defend an idea that, as far as I remember, is not part of official mormon doctrine.
Ah, yes, OMD.

But why isn't it official? How many Latter-day Saints (and what kinds) need to believe it before it becomes official? Is there a list? Determining official Mormon doctrine is harder than it ought to be.

Usually religions make statements that can't really be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical evidence, like 'God exists' or 'After you die, you continue to live on as a spirit'. But occasionally a religion will make a claim that can be tested and disconfirmed. For example, physical evidence indicates that the earth came together right where it is, instead of being smooshed together. People with dark skin who join the Church do not become whiter, contre the Book of Mormon and General Conference.

What's a true believer to do? Easy. Just say that the claim was never 'true church doctrine' in the first place. This is possible because of the LDS concept of 'continuing revelation': that later statements by church leaders trump older ones. So old doctrines can be dropped without much trouble; they've been superceded by new knowledge. This is why people in the know no longer teach that the whole of North and South America was populated by Hebrews, and they now say that the entire Book of Mormon narrative took place within a few square blocks in Guatemala.

'Official Church Doctrine' (which I'll hereafter call 'OCD') is a slippery notion. There's an incredibly high bar for a doctrine to be considered 'official', and even statements that meet the criteria for OCD can be disavowed if the belief becomes problematic.

An idea can be taught by Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, spoken from the pulpit of General Conference, written in Church publications, be widely believed by the membership and still be disqualified from OCD status if the need arises.

So what is OCD? The Doctrine and Covenants says that anything that missionaries say when they are "moved upon by the Holy Ghost" is scripture. Since there's no way to tell when someone's been 'moved upon' in this way, we need another definition.

Here's a page that addresses this question:
Virtually every religion has procedures for distinguishing the individual beliefs of its members from the official doctrines of the church, and so do the Latter-day Saints. In fact among the Mormons the procedure is remarkably similar to that of many Protestant denominations. An example of the procedure can be taken from the records of the Fiftieth Semiannual General Conference of the LDS church, 10 October 1880, when President George Q. Cannon addressed the conference:
I hold in my hand the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and also the book, The Pearl of Great Price, which books contain revelations of God. In Kirtland, the Doctrine and Covenants in its original form, as first printed, was submitted to the officers of the Church and the members of the Church to vote upon. As there have been additions made to it by the publishing of revelations which were not contained in the original edition, it has been deemed wise to submit these books with their contents to the conference, to see whether the conference will vote to accept the books and their contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and as a Church.
Subsequent changes of content in the standard works of the Church have been presented similarly to the membership in general conference to receive a sustaining vote. It is that sustaining vote, by the individual members or by their representatives, that makes the changes officially binding upon the membership as the doctrine of the Church.
In other words, OCD is anything that is

a) in the Standard Works, and
b) sustained by the membership.

In fact, this definition of OCD is a bit of a furphy. There are wide swaths of doctrine that Latter-day Saints believe to be true that aren't in the Standard Works, including 'bones from other worlds', policies on illegal drugs, almost everything concerning temple work, and lots of ideas about the spirit world. There are also some ideas that are in the Standard Works, but that Mormons don't really practice, like Jesus' views on divorce, and meat in the Word of Wisdom.

This is not a bad thing — it's completely normal, as religions go — but it does mean that Mormon doctrine can metamorphose to protect itself. It makes it very hard to disconfirm an official doctrine, which is probably the point.

What I think is happening is something I call 'revelation by prevailing belief'.

1. Joseph Smith et al. started a lot of ideas during the early fertile part of church history. Some were based on made-up stories in the scriptures, and others they made up themselves (Book of Abraham, King Follett discourse).

2. These ideas go to work within the general membership, and at times compete in the minds of members. It's those memes again: the ideas are involved in an evolutionary struggle for mindspace, and some ideas will prevail. What gets taught in church and at conference are the beliefs that are winning. For example, the prohibition on R-rated movies was folklore when I was a lad, but in 1986, Benson mentioned it in conference, which was certainly enough to get that idea canonised.

3. If by some chance the belief becomes problematic, the Church's immune system kicks in. We start to hear some members claim that it's 'not church doctrine' in Sunday School or Elder's Quorum. This retroactive expungement will take a while to propagate through the community, just as the original doctrine did. It's hard to expel an entrenched doctrine though. It takes about 40 years, if ideas about Blacks and the pre-mortal life are any indication.

The difference, then, between true Mormon doctrine and Mormon folklore is that True Mormon doctrine is doctrine that is considered to be true by most Mormons at any given time. It's not pronouncements from General Conference that gives the official imprimatur — those statements are sometimes disavowed. It's not being published in the Standard Works — Latter-day Saints can ignore scriptures that don't coincide with prevailing belief. It's whether Mormons believe it enough not to challenge it in church.

This is why we see Mormon doctrine change subtly from generation to generation as unpalatable or scientifically bogus ideas are dropped. It's not just a Mormon thing; it happens in lots of religions these days (I'm thinking Vatican II). It's people making things up, and then adapting their beliefs when needed.

Personally, I don't mind if Mormon doctrine changes. There are quite a few beliefs that need to go. And even the scientific method allows for change. The difference is that when scientific ideas change, it's because new evidence (in the form of empirical observation) renders an old theory untenable. But when old Mormon beliefs get discarded, it's based on no evidence at all, or because Mormon doctrine needs to flee from scientific advancement.

However, as scientific knowledge expands and the God of the Gaps shrinks, I think there may come a time when overwhelming evidence may come head-to-head against a core Mormon belief, such that members won't be able to ignore it without disavowing the scientific method entirely. That will be interesting.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Missionary chat: Paleontology

Every once in a while, the LDS missionaries find me, and every time it's a revelation. The contents of a missionary's mind are basically everything they remember from church, plus anything that gets them out of a scrape with some competing doctrine. Which means that I hear them saying mostly the same crap I used to say when I was a missionary. Not verbatim; the doctrine has evolved since I wore the badge. Think of it as Mormonism's Greatest Hits, but with bonus remixes. And so it was this Sunday.

The opening move was mine: I explained that I was an RM and now a vocal atheist. I think this threw them off a bit; they were expecting to visit a member.

They responded with the crafty "Look Outside" defense. It goes like this: Just look outside. If there's no god, than how did all those trees and plants get here?

My riposte, of course: Evolution is a very well-supported theory that answers many questions about the complexity of life on earth, and it doesn't require you to believe that goddidit.

I suppose to the senior companion, 'evolution' meant 'dinosaur bones', so he decided to impart. "You know that the Lord can make things seem older than they are," he said. "When he changed water to wine at the wedding in Cana, he was making something that was 'older' than water." I made a mental note that water is just as old as wine, but I let it slide. "In the same way," he continued, "he can make dinosaur bones that seem older than they are."

I promise you I never would have said anything like that.

"Why on earth would he bother to implant fake dinosaur bones just to fool us?" I asked, dreading the answer.

"Well," mused the elder, "when God made the world, he made it out of other planets. Some of those planets had the bones of animals already embedded in them, and those are our dinosaur bones."

The Stupid was strong in the room that day. I hardly knew where to start. Explain about the from earth forming, not from being smooshed together, but by a coalescing cloud of matter pulled together by gravity? Point out the absurdity of layers of fossils being preserved in chronological order despite the smoosh? Ask what orifice he pulled that answer from? Demand evidence for the claim?

The cognitive overload was too much. All my tools of scientific sophistry were helpless. I was paralysed before the sheer magnitude of Stupid presented to me. Well played, elder. Well played.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Do your worst

This is great: a rationalist challenges a magician to kill him with magic.

Of course, magic failed.
On 3 March 2008, in a popular TV show, Sanal Edamaruku, the president of Rationalist International, challenged India’s most “powerful” tantrik (black magician) to demonstrate his powers on him. That was the beginning of an unprecedented experiment. After all his chanting of mantra (magic words) and ceremonies of tantra failed, the tantrik decided to kill Sanal Edamaruku with the “ultimate destruction ceremony” on live TV. Sanal Edamaruku agreed and sat in the altar of the black magic ritual. India TV observed skyrocketing viewership rates.
India TV, one of India’s major Hindi channels with national outreach, invited Sanal Edamaruku for a discussion on “Tantrik power versus Science”. Pandit Surinder Sharma, who claims to be the tantrik of top politicians and is well known from his TV shows, represented the other side. During the discussion, the tantrik showed a small human shape of wheat flour dough, laid a thread around it like a noose and tightened it. He claimed that he was able to kill any person he wanted within three minutes by using black magic. Sanal challenged him to try and kill him.

The tantrik tried. He chanted his mantras (magic words): “Om lingalingalinalinga, kilikili….” But his efforts did not show any impact on Sanal – not after three minutes, and not after five. The time was extended and extended again. The original discussion program should have ended here, but the “breaking news” of the ongoing great tantra challenge was overrunning all program schedules.
After nearly two hours, the anchor declared the tantrik’s failure. The tantrik, unwilling to admit defeat, tried the excuse that a very strong god whom Sanal might be worshipping obviously protected him. “No, I am an atheist,” said Sanal Edamaruku.
I gotta hand it to the tantrik. He really thought he was the real deal, accepted a challenge, and was Unambiguously Disconfirmed.

Maybe he could take a few cues from Christians. They do a lot of spinning when their claims are disconfirmed. Pick any of the following:
  • He'll die... eventually! It may take 70 years, but the magic will work.
  • The important thing is not whether I managed to kill someone or not, the important thing is that we learn to accept Gods' will and build our faith in them.
  • Sometimes Kali says 'no'.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Australians inexplicably irked about 'beaver ad'

New limits on taboo terms? Not only can you not use bodily euphemisms, some folks get huffy if you even suggest them.
A tampon company may be forced to cancel TV ads that show an attractive, young woman going about her day with a beaver in tow.
Here's the ad.

Just think: every woman is walking around with one of those things. Interesting. But it got some people feeling all hot and confused.
The Advertising Standards Bureau in Canberra received a "large number" of complaints as soon as the ad aired on Sunday - the day after International Women's Day.
I wonder how large a number it was. Wouldn't you think someone that uptight would be too clueless to even get the reference? On second thought, nah. Anti-sex people have minds like sewers, and it scares them.

What might those two guys on the beach be saying, by the way? My guess was too predictable.

Friday, 14 March 2008

You better not mess with the Friday Random Five.

The quest for the perfect IDM/downtempo/ambient album has yielded some new candidates. Let's take it from the top.

Drøn's 2001 album Xenologic requires a bit of patience, and tends toward the random glitch a bit much for my taste. Take it track by track. Start with the otherworldly 'Spool', and then try 'Plateau'.

For something a bit more active, try the Push EP from Lusine. Sophisticated and listenable.

I'm really enjoying everything by Kiln, especially their 2004 EP Sunbox and the new Dusker. Both albums are more musical than I'd expected, which is a plus, and the effects are interesting instead of wearing, as is sometimes the case with IDM. Very worthwhile and sort of relaxing.

And now on to the random.

Flame (Demo 1) by Alphaville
Album: Dreamscapes
There's a lot more to Alphaville than 'Forever Young'. They're an extremely creative band with a gift for fantasy-laden electronic pop, which is better than it sounds. Dreamscapes is an 8-disc set (yes, eight) of demos, rarities, live versions, and remixes. Fans will be interested to hear these sketches of early songs from a great period in their career.

Adios Mi Chaparrita by Pérez Prado
Album: Our Man in Havana: The Very Best of Pérez Prado
I keep a lot of Pérez Prado in the collection, not only because it's great Latin music, but also because when it comes on randomly at 3 am, it conveys such a sense of strangeness. You're in a different place and time, and there's someone going "Uugh!" at odd intervals. Who needs drugs? Or even maté?

Cantara by Dead Can Dance
Album: Toward the Within
Even though I'm only a casual listener of CDC, I think this might be the best live album ever. Lisa Gerard, Brendan Perry, and a team of instrumentalists tackle an amazing range of eastern-influenced music. I'm impressed by two things: the astounding musicianship of a band that got it right on the first take, and the way the audience is clearly entranced.

Ashes to Ashes by David Bowie
Album: ChangesBowie
When was the last time you watched this video? That's too long. But we can fix that.

The image that stays with me is that of the grandmother. She's a bit of normal in this very strange world, where the heaving sea is black, and odd people make obsequies despite the oncoming and ominously silent steamroller.

Crystal (Digweed & Muir Bedrock Mix) by New Order
Album: Ministry of Sound: The 2002 Annual
A pretty good mix of the new-classic New Order track. I was so pleased to see New Order doing something new and sharp again. On a slightly related note, the producer of Get Ready, Steve Osbourne, has most recently been enlisted to produce the new B-52's album Funplex, and how could you not be curious about the first B's album in 16 years? Less than two weeks away, folks. There'll be fun. Have a listen.

A rational look at Steiner schools

I can tell I'll be browsing the pages of Australian Rationalist in my spare time. The latest issue is of some interest to me — the cover story is a rational look at Steiner (or Waldorf) schools. My sons went to a Steiner school, and Youngest Boy still does. While I can't speak for Steiner (or Waldorf) schools everywhere, I find my local Steindorf school to be dangerous in theory, but harmless in practice.

To the article (PDF). What did they get right?

Rudolf Steiner was a fruitcake. But a renaissance fruitcake. As a boy, he thought he was clairvoyant. As an adult, he promulgated his philosophy of 'Anthroposophy', and investigated what he called 'spiritual science' — an oxymoron. He invented biodynamic farming, sort of a mix of homeopathy, astrology, and organic farming. His followers today think he is the reincarnation of Aristotle. He believed in gnomes.

And because he was concerned about the development of children, he began what is known today as Waldorf education. But it isn't based on anything empirical. It's just whatever Steiner thought. From the article:
The whole basis of Steiner education... comes from Steiner’s excursions into what he called ‘spiritual’ or ‘occult science’, which was code for him going into a meditative state, free-associating around a topic, and writing down the results of his ruminations as though they were incontrovertible truth.
This is the essence of cultism — a group where the leader claims special knowledge, and adherents accept his or her teachings as indisputably true, whether the evidence supports them or not.
Using this method he came up with a number of amazing break-throughs in modern thought, such as the importance of burying stag bladders full of yarrow flowers in a field to stimulate the growth of crops!
Yes, it really does get that bad. The local Steiner school is full of this stuff. Homeopaths and crystal-wavers ply their wares at the Open Day. If a kid bangs his or her head in the playground, parents are quick to proffer Bach flower essences. Parents are also enlisted for 'stirrings': they use their hands to slosh around water mixed with tiny amounts of manure that has been buried in a cow horn at the Autumn Equinox, which is supposed to be good for crops. I'm not kidding. The Steiner hardcores don't even seem to want an empirical basis for their beliefs.

And the fruitcakery carries over into the education. Steiner kids aren't taught to read until age seven — that's when, according to Steiner, a child acquires its etheric body — again, no evidence for this is provided; Steiner said it, and acolytes believe it. One parent in Australia was told his child would be held back for an unusual reason.
"She thought his soul wasn't fully incarnated yet, which was strange thing for me to hear at a parent-teacher interview," he said.

"And then she pulled out some drawings that he'd done which showed him, I guess, looking down, like a plan view of what he was drawing.

"And she used this as evidence that his soul was hovering over the earth and looking down on the earth and so, therefore, she felt that he wasn't quite ready to move into the following year."
The point of all this is that if your philosophy of teaching is empirically based, at least you have a pretty good shot of getting it right. If you're going by what the Guru said, your odds of getting it right will be no better than random chance.
There is clearly no evidential or experiential evidence for such ideas, nor for the many other gratuitous absurdities that riddle Steiner education, so any resemblance between Steiner education and good educational practice is purely coincidental. That a number of children have survived it, and some even thrived, says more about the resilience of the human spirit than about the efficacy of this empirically groundless theory.
Steiner school promote religion in a way that is incompatible with state-funded secular education. This is the one that secular folks should be getting irked about. Steiner schools work as a separate alternative schools. I pay a lot in school fees to make up for the lack of public funding in the local school, and that's the way I think it ought to be. Anthroposophy may not be a religion, but it is based on esoteric mystic Christianity, and blending it into the state system poses an unacceptable risk of promoting religious beliefs.
Steiner education may not look 'religious' on the surface, but it is in fact a bundle of religious ideas dressed up as educational ones. This is what is insidious about it and this is why it has no place in the secular public system.
With all this in mind, I'd say the article somewhat overstates the hazards of Steiner education, especially in raising the specter of German fascism. As a Steiner dad, I haven't caught any hints of this at all. The tone at the school is warm and fuzzy.

If there is a saving grace for Waldorf education, it's that, in my experience, very few of the rank and file parents believe the hype. You do get a core of Steiner believers, including the teachers, but almost no one else takes Anthroposophy seriously. Many parents roll their eyes at Eurythmy and such. The kids are usually pretty down to earth about it, too. At a recent Winter Festival, some parents were trying to foster a reverent attitude during the bonfire, but the kids were chanting "More kerosene! More kerosene!" They keep it real.

I also think that the teaching of religion is handled well, as I've mentioned before. Many world religions are represented, and I think this has an inoculating influence on kids. They're more likely to fall for religion in adulthood if it hasn't been presented to them before, and the Christian myth is presented at school along with all the other myths.

If you're a rationalist, and you're considering Steiner education, or if (like me) you're already in and you're only just becoming more of a critical thinker, it's not impossible for it to work. My kids enjoy their school, and it's been pretty positive. But here are some suggestions.
  • It should be used only for younger children. I know perfectly intelligent and capable people who have gone all the way through a Waldorf high school, but I feel bad for anyone who's been under the influence of Steiner believers for so long. Anyone who believes in gnomes and Atlantis has absolutely no business teaching science at a high school level.

  • You must talk to your children about what they're learning. That way, you can help to moderate any strange ideas they encounter, like fairies. It can even be a good critical-thinking exercise.

  • Watch out for areas where they may be falling behind. Steiner kids start reading late, and some may have trouble. For Oldest Boy, some math problems went unnoticed late. This may be because of the absence of testing. Steiner teachers hate standardised tests, even to the point of encouraging parents to opt out of state-mandated tests. (Wonder why.) Give your kids the tests, and monitor the results for areas where they may be falling behind. Help them in a low-pressure way to grasp the concepts they're going to need when they get to high school. A simple math workbook or reading together can be all it takes. You may be doing those things anyway.
The greatest danger from Steiner schooling is to the rationalist parent, not the child; you may go insane from exposure to crackpottery, or you may eventually bite through your tongue.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Ethnicity v. religion

Islam is my least favourite religion. Has been, even before 9/11. It's a very problematic religion; it hasn't gotten a grip on its most extreme elements, it does the most harm to its believers (physically and mentally), and its adherents are, in general, the least tolerant of any religion I know. Its size and influence only serve to magnify the difficulty.

But I always felt uncomfortable about Islam-bashing, not because it was disrespectful of others' beliefs (they have to be true to earn my respect). The discomfort was this: take a walk around the seedier right-wing hate sites like Redstate or Malkin, and you'll see Islam-bashing in spades. So if I'm saying something against Islam, what's the difference between the right-wing haterz and me? Might I not be mistaken for the racists I despise? Even good ol' Christopher Hitchens, when he gets going on the danger of Islam, seems to blend in with the racists on the right. And it's taken him to some horrifying conclusions: the invasion of Iraq, and some saber-rattling on Iran. Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose anti-Islam cred is impeccable, isn't usually mentioned with Dawkins or Harris, and I think it's because the Left feels uncomfortable with her since she sits so comfortably with the anti-immigration nutbars in the Dutch right-wing. And so my criticism of Islam, if I were inclined to make any, has been muted.

Only recently have I been able to see a crucial distinction that would resolve this conflict. It's the difference between religion and ethnicity. I'll oppose the religion of Islam — by means of reason, science, and education — because it teaches absurdities, and it's dangerous. I'll oppose every other religion on earth for the same reason. I'm an equal opportunity opposer. But when it comes to Arabs, Indonesians, Africans, or any other ethnicity, I have nothing to say.

When I was a kid, there were lots of Iranian uni students in my hometown. This was at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Listening to the Charlie Daniels Band on AM radio does something to a kid, and some of those Iranians seemed pretty scary. Scarier than normal uni students, which is pretty scary anyway. Fortunately, I had a wise father who took me to some cultural events on campus and got me to meet the students. (He liked the lamb.) I came to realise that even though Iran had just gone crazy, there was a segment of Iran that was secular and moderate, and who hated the new government. Understanding the difference between religion and ethnicity could have helped me a bit.

In connection with this, I'd also like to echo the sentiments of Dave at, who feels that while opposing religion is fair game, being horrible to actual people sucks. I now feel embarrassed when I think about the believer I used to be. Some are okay people, I was not. I knew the truth, dontcha know, and Jesus was my homeboy. I was good at getting around objections to the one true faith, and I must have been an intolerable pain. Fortunately I reformed and learned to question my received wisdom without fearing the wrath of hypothetical beings. Maybe someone in a religion now might be a future unbeliever. No need to be horrible to my future friend. I'll point out bad reasoning, but I hope I'll spare the messenger. Just in case I can learn something from them.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

'Get Off the Earth' puzzle

Sam Loyd invented this enormously popular puzzle in 1898, and it's one of my favourites. You'll have to excuse the stereotyped artwork, though.

The puzzle shows some warriors around a globe. The inside circle is a separate piece of paper, attached at the center so that it can turn freely.

Behold the globe with 13 warriors.

But give the globe a turn...

and one warrior disappears.

What's happening here? How does the thirteenth warrior disappear? And don't say the Rapture.

If you want to print it out and try it yourself, you may want to use the very nice PDF available on this page.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Blasphemy laws dropped in UK

Time was, if you denied that gods existed loudly and publicly enough, you were considered a threat to the social fabric and arrested under blasphemy laws. This Wikipedia page mentions James Naylor, who in 1656 suffered flogging, branding and the piercing of his tongue by a red-hot poker.

No more. The little-used and anachronistic blasphemy laws have been revoked.
After an acrimonious debate in which the bogeyman of secularism was repeatedly invoked, the House of Lords on Wednesday March 5 2008 accepted the amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that abolishes the common law of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
I liked the comment from the Earl of Onslow:
On the question of blasphemy, it has always struck me that if Jesus Christ exists, and if Jesus Christ in his Godlike form was capable of creating the universe, then he could quite easily hack the bit of left-wing obscurantism and b-mindedness that writes things such as “Jerry Springer: The Opera”. If he does not exist, nothing will happen; if he does exist, it is up to him to get hold of the chap who wrote it and make sure that he does time in the diabolical house of correction. The offence is unnecessary.

It also seems that the provision applies only to the Church of England, not to the doctrines of the Roman church, as far as I can gather. You can be just as rude and insulting as you like about the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, papal infallibility, or what the Church of Rome says about contraception; you can be blasphemous about those without any possibility of being prosecuted.

Blasphemy is a crime that is open to intense mockery. As the Minister said, something that is open to mockery and has been used only four times since 16-something-or-other has no place on the statute book.
Please let us now get rid of the crime of blasphemy. It is unnecessary and otiose.
Not everyone was happy.
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: ...The fact that one has not had a flood for a very long time does not mean that one should destroy the floodgates. My fear is that the removal of this provision will be seen as encouraging people to make outrageous statements that are needlessly offensive to a great many people. They will only do it to annoy, because they know it teases.
He then burst into tears, sucking his thumb while rocking and whimpering quietly to himself.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

What happens when you stop believing in god?

Youngest Boy asked me, "What happens when you stop believing in God?"

"Absolutely nothing!" I said. "You're still the same person you were, and everything goes on like normal."

And that's one way to tell that God's not real. If you stop believing in cars and decide to walk out in the road, reality will soon disconfirm your belief. If you disbelieve in food and water and stop eating and drinking, you die. But if you stop believing in supernatural beings... it's amazing how irrelevant your past belief can seem, so quickly.

It's like Philip K. Dick said:
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
Youngest Boy thought about all this and said, "But you could not believe in atoms, and nothing would change." He's very smart. You have to watch yourself with this kid.

"That's true," I said, "With atoms, it would take a long time to notice you were wrong. You probably wouldn't know until you tried to do some research involving atoms. Then you'd realise that people who know about atoms could predict things you couldn't."

But what does belief in god help you predict? You can't work out who will be cured of illness when you pray. Most people get better with most diseases, some don't, and some die. Then you say, well, that was god's plan. It lends itself to loads of ex post facto rationalisation, but not prediction.

It's not all true that nothing changes though. You are finally able to embrace reason without having to fear it. Because, post-deconversion, reason has already knocked down your rickety system. There's no more harm it can do you. You are free.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Obama and religion

American secularists. Try bringing up god in relation to politics, and watch them bristle. And for good reason, too — did you see what the Christians did to the place once they got in power? We'll never get our bond back.

Expect a nuclear allergic reaction from reading them this passage (and others) from Barack Obama:
And during the course of that sermon, I was introduced to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, He could set me on the path to eternal life.
Ideally, a rational thinker would be in the White House. Someone who knows how to think critically, and who knows the difference between evidence and not-evidence. (Which disqualifies Grandpa McCain.) But until that day, we're stuck with either a politician who panders to religion, or (worse) a politician who actually believes it. Obama comes uncomfortably close to the latter.

But maybe we're not all sunk. Consider the situation we faced over here in Australia with Kevin Rudd, leader of the center-left ALP. From the outset, he made it clear that not only was he a believer, but that he didn't intend to abandon faith to the Right, and that his religious beliefs were going to inform his politics.

At the time, I found this inappropriate. Australia's secular! Couldn't we just let the right-wing have religion, and then the grown-ups can get on with the work? But of course, I voted Labor. (Well, Secular, with preferences to Labor.) And lo and behold, Labor did turf out the Liberals, and there was much rejoicing.

And then what did Rudd do when he got into office? He ratified Kyoto, he apologised to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal Australians, and he introduced legislation to dismantle Workplace Agreements (which allow employers to pay you less than scale if you 'agree'). He sent Navy ships to monitor Japanese whalers, for Pete's sake! And that's just the first 100 days. Not a bad start.

Everyone picks and chooses out of scripture. As a credit to his character, Rudd picked and chose parts of the Bible that happened to correspond to not being a moralistic cretin. The Religious Right loves Deuteronomy because that reflects what they like — especially hating on gays. Rudd's more of a Sermon on the Mount kind of guy.
But if our starting point in this debate is supposed to be Christianity (and therefore a Christian view of morality), then my challenge to the Coalition is as follows: isn't our preparedness to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless a moral value; isn't our preparedness to respond humanely to those who seek refuge in this country from political oppression elsewhere a moral value; and is not our response to the 1.5 billion people around the world in abject poverty also a question of moral values?
Obama's not as gung-ho on the separation of church and state as a Democrat ought to be (a bit like Rudd), but he does agree that faith has been hijacked (as does Rudd). He has reached out to non-believers. His rhetoric seems more inspirational than doctrinal. I think (or perhaps just hope) that Obama might be more a Rudd-style Christian, and less a Huckabee-style one.

I can live with that, at least until the coming Glorious Age of Rationalism bursts upon us.