Friday, October 18, 2013

Why I am an Atheist (and not an Agnostic)

--- first posted to OKCupid journal 8/2/09 ---

Someone recently emailed me asking why I call myself an atheist rather than an agnostic. It puzzled her, as my profile describes me as an intellectually curious person. To her, agnosticism seems more open-minded, by allowing for the possibility of deities.

The following was my response.

First off, there is the "Intelligent Design" argument: how could anything so complex as, say, the human eye, come into being without being designed by some intelligent being? I think evolution is the ONLY explanation that makes any sense, and an excellent one, well-founded in the physical evidence we have. Richard Dawkins sums it up well at the end of The Blind Watchmaker:

"If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naive Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it!"

Next, there is the absurdity of being asked to disprove the existence of something for which there is absolutely no evidence of existence. To me, accepting the possibility of any gods (christian, greek, babylonian, mayan, or otherwise) is akin to accepting the possibility of leprechauns. Can I *prove* leprechauns don't exist? No. Therefore, should I be "agnostic" about the existence of leprechauns? No, because the probability that leprechauns (and gods) are folklore, simply creations of the human psyche, is entirely credible (there are abundant examples of all manner of fantasies dreamed up by humans, to satisfy our need for order), whereas the actual existence of such mystical beings has no real evidence, ever, anywhere. 

Just because one can postulate something that can't be proven doesn't mean one should give such arguments any weight, unless there is real evidence to indicate it is worthy of consideration. I could say that the moon was once inhabited by human-like creatures who stood 10 feet tall. Can you prove me wrong? No, no more than I can prove there isn't a christian god or a roman god. But is my statement worthy of consideration? Not unless I can actually show real evidence that would indicate 10 foot tall human-like creatures may once actually have lived on the moon. Likewise, there is absolutely no evidence any godlike creatures have actually existed. None. On the other hand, are there creatures that create stories to explain that which they don't understand? Yes! Humans regularly make up and believe all kinds of crap that has no basis in reality.

So, on the one hand, no actual evidence of gods; on the other, mountains of evidence that humans are prone to make up and believe fantasies to satisfy their own psychological needs.

As for the labels, I think most who call themselves agnostics are really atheists, but as not to ruffle the feathers of god-believers, they accommodate by saying "hey, not for me, but what do I know?" As for "curiosity and open-mindedness," I think atheism is far more so than agnosticism. Agnosticism gives weight to a narrow-minded human-centric (egocentric, narcissistic) view of the universe: that we are special, God/Daddy/Mommy made us in his image and will take care of us. It's the same mindset that had us believing the sun revolves around the earth. It's natural for humans to project their neediness (and desire for Mommy/Daddy love/structure) on the world even after we've left childhood and our families (we see the same projections in our political system; read George Lakoff). However, the atheist takes an objective "open-minded" perspective and sees these manifestations of human emotional needs for what they are.

It's also arrogant and narrow-minded to think we can know everything. Creating an entity called "God" to tie up all those disturbing loose ends about the nature of time-space is not, as it might appear,  an example of human humility, but rather another manifestation of human arrogance, and our need to label everything, in order to feel in control. I have no problem with not understanding the complete nature of time-space. Though we may continue to draw better and better maps of reality, we may not EVER be capable of perfectly doing so, given the limits of the senses we have and the limits of the cognitive maps our brain cells allow us to draw. So what? It's still fascinating- no gods necessary.

Thus, I am an atheist. I also don't believe that angels exist, nor pigs with wings.

I certainly understand why it's comforting for people, especially those with exceedingly difficult lives, to believe in gods and other fictions. I'm sure it makes many of them happier, and many of them better kinder people. But I think the overall destructive downsides of belief in such fictions more than outweighs any benefits to society.

[NOTE:I've no interest in debating the existence of deities with those of you who choose to comment on this post, anymore than I care to debate the existence of Santa Claus or leprechauns. If you believe in deities, it's a matter of faith, not logic, and as such, can't be debated. Comment, if you feel like it, but it's quite likely I won't respond.

Also, for those of you who have not seen the Mr. Deity sketches, I highly recommend a visit to the website. They are brilliantly done. ]

Friday, May 08, 2009

"Brutal" Honesty

Whenever I hear a person embracing the trait of being "brutally honest," I always wonder if they intend it the way I hear it.

There are several elements to the expression. First, I generally take it to mean the person means honesty in the context of telling another person what they think or feel about that person. Second, it's implied that the person being "brutally honest" is willing to say what they think or feel even if the other person will likely perceive the honesty as hurtful (hence, "brutal"). Third, there's is an implied self-congratulations, that the purveyor of honesty has the virtue of authenticity, being true to oneself.

I'd certainly agree that it's generally best to be truthful about one's feelings even when it might not be what the other person would want to hear. In the context of dating websites, for instance, rejecting the advances of suitors is always going to be the outcome of the majority of interactions, and it is not helpful to the rejected one to make them believe otherwise.

However, being "brutally honest" always sounds to me like an unwillingness to filter oneself, to only express raw "pure" feelings and thought with the purported virtuous goal of self-authenticity. In reality, one can be truthful without being "brutal"; it is entirely possible to be "compassionately honest," which is simply filtering what one says by first considering what is the most kind and helpful way to express the truth to the other person. It is in no way less authentic as result of the filtering, the purpose of which is not to hide what one feels, but simply to express those feelings in the most kind and helpful way.

One could say: "Date you? Ohmigod, you're such an old, ugly, fat, stupid pig! No way!"

Well...that's certainly..."honest."

One could also say: "Thanks very much, but I don't feel we'd be a fit."

Thus, being "brutally honest" does not signify virtuous honesty and authenticity; to the contrary, it is merely a self-serving rationalization for behaving selfishly without thinking. Further, I think "brutal honesty" is intentionally mean-spirited; whether they are aware of it or not, they EXPECT their honesty to cause pain (no wonder; as they've never reflected on how to be honest AND kind, they've seen only the results of being honest and unkind). They take a perverse pleasure from these "brutal" interactions; the hurt they cause others appears to them, unfortunately, as a confirmation of the authenticity from which they derive their sense of self-worth: "when I am honest, people get hurt; so, if you are hurt, then I must be honest."

So when someone claims to be "brutally honest," what I hear is "I'm unapologetically selfish." Now, maybe some people have adopted the term because of common usage, without really considering what they are implying about themselves; if they simply mean to say they are honest and direct, I hope they find better ways to describe those qualities than to use this utterly distasteful phrase.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Perfect Songs

I'm an aficionado of hooky pop/rock songs: engaging melodies, satisfying chord progressions, clever bridges, and tasteful arrangements.* My playlist is full of them, from one-hit wonders like "Stay" by Lisa Loeb, to a banquet from the best pop/rock songcrafters such as Crowded House, The Police, The Pretenders, Billy Joel, Guster.

(*Many people would include lyrics as part of the criteria on which they judge songs; as that is not a primary part of my listening experience, I leave it out here. I hear songs viscerally as sound, not as a verbal cerebral experiences.)

Even among the best songcrafters, each has tunes that stand out above their others. These are simply better crafted: the hooks are catchier, the bridges make more sense, the arrangements are so sonically delicious as to make us want to hear them again and again. Though The Police's "Murder By Numbers" is a perfectly fine tune, it's just not in the same league as "Every Breath You Take" from the same album.

And even among these well-crafted tunes, a few songs are so perfectly conceived and executed that they span entire ranges of the pop music spectrum as the ne plus ultra: they are without flaw, and there is simply nothing better. They are perfect exactly as they are: nothing extraneous, nothing left out. One can't imagine them being anything other than what they are.

While perfect songs are endlessly listenable and might end up on one's "desert island" playlist, the two groups don't necessarily overlap exactly. My desert island list might include "Back In Stride" by Maze, which I don't consider to be a perfect song. There's not much in the way of a chord progression, and the bridge is passable but not terribly interesting. However, its infectious groove always makes me feel so happy, I'll never get tired of listening to it.

So here are some notes on a few of my candidates for "perfect songs," songs that I simply can't imagine being improved upon, which I think stand as quintessential examples of their niche in pop/rock music:

1. "What I Like About You" by The Romantics. Save for this gem, I'm not a Romantics fan. Many of the songs on the same album have the same beat, and even sometimes the same chord progression, but they are not even in the same league. The band members aren't exceptional musicians. But in this song, everything comes together. You can't do a I-IV-V-IV chord progression better than this. The vocals, including the "yeahs" and shouted "heys!" couldn't be placed any better to add to the build and flow of the song's energy. The hooky slashing guitar chord opening comes back at the end of the song, played as an exciting and surprising counterpoint against the main I-IV-V-IV progression. The ending is abrupt and just in time; "leave them wanting more" has never been more perfectly executed.

2. "Midnight Train to Georgia" by Gladys Knight and The Pips. This song is all about the conversation between Gladys and the Pips, set against a chord progression that embodies the song's affirmation of love and understanding even while acknowledging loss. Gladys is the woman testifying her love for her man through hard times, and the Pips are her Greek Chorus of calm supportive friends encouraging her and affirming she's doing the right thing. Gladys has an idiosyncratic voice that, out of context, might be annoying, but here it serves perfectly to express the storyteller's feelings. The arrangement is one big hug: the warm throaty horns, the subdued organ, the delicate piano, the gorgeous vocal blend of the Pips. We are going to experience loss, but our love will go on and grow stronger, oh yes it will.

3. "You Wreck Me" by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. This is the quintessential power chord rock song, that builds a simple but immensely satisfying progression out of its initial three-chord hook. It's perfect in its economy: all power chords, but only as much as necessary. Don't use four bars when two will do. The song starts with two bars sans drums, then two bars with drums, and then we're right into the vocals. The bridge take the chord progression in a surprising direction, builds the harmonic tension even higher, then releases into a perfect short and sweet snarling guitar solo. A breakdown gives us a rest before we come back into the vocal. The ending doubles up the main hook to increase the intensity, then smashes all into the final chord. Now THAT's a resolution, baby!

So...what are your candidates for perfect songs?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Full Disclosure

I was amused to see the following on my local Freecycle list:
Offer: 2 toothbrushes-
Both are unused.
I suppose someday we'll see this:
Offer: 2 puppies-
Both are alive.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

We *Will* Get Fooled Again

Oh yeah, a change is gonna come...

...but don't hold your breath when it comes to economic justice in the USA. Both McCain and Obama express populist outrage at the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac mess, but there's the talk, and there's the walk...and they both walk hand in hand with the thieves.

John and Barry, c'mon, tell us: Who's your Daddy?

'08 Rivals Have Ties to Loan Giants
Published: September 9, 2008

WASHINGTON - Senators Barack Obama and John McCain each cite the mess at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as a consequence of the corrosive coziness of lobbyists and politicians that they promise to end. But each man and his party also have ties to the fallen giants that will complicate the next president's job of reshaping the mortgage finance companies that have been essential to the economy.

The Republican nominee, Mr. McCain of Arizona, has numerous close relationships with and contributions from current and former company lobbyists.

Mr. Obama, his Democratic rival from Illinois, is second among members of Congress in donations from the firms' employees and political action committees.

The Democrats and Republicans...reminds me of the old joke, let me rework it here:

Two Average American Working Joes are captured by a tribe of politicans, and are told they must participate in the Great Rite of Democracy. The captives are bound and led up to the sacrificial altar, "The Voting Booth." The Booth has two levers: one marked "Death" and the other marked "Ooga Booga." The leaders of the politicians, (named, coincidentally, Obama and McCain) tell the AAWJs they must each pull a lever and choose their fate.

"You must choose," says McCain. "Death"-

-"or Ooga Booga!" says Obama. "You first!" he says, pointing at one of the AAWJs. "Choose!"

The first AAWJ thinks. Figuring Ooga Booga must be better than death, he steps up and pulls the lever. "I choose Ooga Booga."

The tribe of politicians roar their approval. "Ooga Booga, Ooga Booga, Ooga Booga, Ooga Booga!!"

"His choice is made!" announces Obama. "Ooga Booga! Let the Ooga Booga begin!"

At Obama's signal, the politicians descend upon the first AAWJ, strip him, and violently sodomize him one after the other, leaving him barely hanging onto life.

The leaders then turn to the second AAWJ, who has been watching in horror.

"Now it's your turn to choose," says McCain solemnly. "Death"-

-"or Ooga Booga!" says Obama. "Choose!"

With little hesitation, the second AAWJ steps up and bravely pulls the lever. "I choose Death."

The tribe of politicians roar their approval. "Death, Death, Death, Death!"

"His choice is made, Death it is!" announces McCain, beaming at the eager crowd. "A brave and patriotic decision. But first...Ooga Booga!!"

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Berkeley Pedestrians In The "Driver's Seat"

Lest anyone believe I am a kneejerk P.C. liberal, this is a Letter to the Editor I recently sent to our local rag. The context: a recent pedestrian death from an oncoming car, one of four such Berkeley deaths in 2007. Local pols are starting to get on their soapboxes and, predictably, they are placing blame on the drivers, rather than holding pedestrians responsible for the dangerous situations they create.

This is short and inflammatory to fit the LTTE format. I'm working on a much longer version that will present a well-reasoned rational argument, including the choices Berkeley pedestrians make, the alternative choices possible, letting the reader decide which is safer and more rational.

To state the glaringly obvious: the greatest danger to pedestrians in Berkeley are the pedestrians themselves. Whatever the many virtues of walking, the overwhelming majority of pedestrians consistently behave ignorantly, arrogantly, and/or selfishly when entering our roadways, putting themselves and others at risk. They seem to believe their moral superiority ("I'm an ecological pedestrian, you're a planet-killing driver") or perceived legal right-of-way ("All cars must halt for MEEEEE") will magically stop all vehicles. Or maybe they are just too busy zoning to their iPods, or exchanging important gossip on their cell phones to care. Unfortunately, in the real world, vehicles don't always stop in time.

The collisions are not, as has been suggested, predominantly a result of Berkeley car culture, but rather of Berkeley pedestrian culture. Instead of rushing to blame speeding cars, we should be asking why pedestrians are in such a damn hurry to cross the street. If Berkeley pedestrians simply treated cars as the dangerous 2.5 ton missiles they are by 1) avoiding crossing streets in front of nearby oncoming vehicles, and 2) crossing cautiously under all conditions, vehicle-pedestrian collisions would be entirely eliminated except for the most unique unfortunate circumstances. Regardless of whether drivers behave recklessly or responsibly, pedestrians are nearly always "in the drivers seat" in regards their own safety. Right now, they invariably choose to drive their safety off the nearest cliff and take their chances. "Precaution" does not exist in the vocabulary of the Berkeley pedestrian, and THAT is the problem.

Having spent nearly 40 of my 50 years elsewhere, and speaking as both a driver and pedestrian, the lack of regard Berkeley pedestrians show for their own safety is appalling. I'm amazed the injury and fatality rates aren't much higher. It's time Berkeley pedestrians grew up and behaved responsibly- that is, if they truly want to protect themselves instead of digging up scapegoats to fit whatever irrational ideology they've adopted to support their narcissistic behavior. I look forward to the day when a Berkeley pedestrian actually looks both ways before crossing a street (especially when they are pushing a baby carriage; even looking one way would be an improvement), or waits for a line of twenty cars to pass instead of forcing them all to brake and idle, wasting gas and spewing emissions, so one single solitary self-absorbed "green" pedestrian can mosey across.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Tie That Binds

"I believe that's the first time anyone's said that to me," I replied to the checker at the grocery today, as she bagged my items.

"What's that?" she said.

"'Would you like me to put a twist tie on your...garbanzos?'"

Ellipses mine. ;)