Sunday, August 24, 2008


The main problem with identifying as an atheist is that the word doesn't really have an independent identity. It literally means "not theist," but that seems a rather limiting description. I don't believe in unicorns, gnomes, elves, fairies (including the Tooth Fairy), the Easter bunny, Santa Claus, widespread alien abduction or alien visitation, psychic powers, or ghosts either, but I don't use those to define my belief system, and it seems pretty silly to suggest that I should.

I am perhaps more accurately a skeptic, wherein I don't believe in anything without some very good reason to do so. Start with the least number of assumptions possible and work from there. It's perhaps difficult to create a larger assumption than "assume god exists," so at least "atheist" gets that out of the way early. "Skeptic" is also mostly just a broader negative term though, mostly defined by not believing all of the things that people believe.

I would perhaps identify as a secular humanist, although that's rather a mouthful, and I can pretty much guarantee that 99% of the population wouldn't understand what I meant. At least I can be pretty sure that "atheist" will generally get the idea across, even though there will likely also be a massive misunderstanding of what I mean.

The word "atheist" does have some fairly negative connotations surrounding it. Partially this comes from the perception that, if you're not worshiping god, you are by default a satanist. There are also a large number of people who seem to believe that, were god not watching their every move, they would instantly transform into thieving, murdering and raping lunatics. I'm not sure if these people are just extremely cynical or if they have severe emotional problems, but if that sort of stuff is commonly bubbling under the surface in the ultra-religious, we should probably be Very Concerned Indeed.

Most of those negative connotations arise precisely because "atheism" is defined in terms that deny a specific thing. "Realist" is a term I hear thrown about, and while I think that is perhaps a reasonable term, it doesn't really supply any obvious tools for determining reality, which is really the whole problem.

I realized some time ago that doubt is the path to truth. Between the hard lines of "belief" and "not belief" there is a vast chasm of, "maybe, maybe not, let's gather evidence and information until we can be more certain." I drive people utterly insane with my default answer to most questions, which is, "I don't know." But when I really don't have good information (or often no information at all) I don't know what they expect me to say. I can make a wild, random guess as good as anyone, and sometimes that's good, but it's not reasonable or rational.

So what do I believe in? I believe that evidence, logic and reason will steer us in the right direction.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Believing in what you CAN'T know exists... either the height of pointlessness, or the height of stupidity.

I'm still trying to decide which.

Could be both.'s_Wager

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Computer Viruses vs. Mind Viruses

We treat computer viruses and religion very differently. If I write a computer virus and it copies itself across the Internet, I will probably be arrested, fined, and imprisoned, and quite likely denied basic civil rights if the authorities are panicked and clueless enough. If I create a new religion and it spreads across the world, I will probably be at least tolerated, and if such a thing happened long ago, celebrated in the name of multiculturalism and religious tolerance and freedom.

It struck me that computer viruses and mental viruses ("memes") are possibly more similar to each other than are memes and biological viruses. Certainly all three are very similar, and at some basic level are just propagations of information with different storage devices.

The question that comes to mind is, can religion be harmful? I don't think there can be that much doubt about that (although most people would strongly suggest that it's everyone else's that is harmful and not their own). So, why don't we treat harmful religions the same way we treat harmful computer viruses and harmful biological viruses? To me there seems to be a significant difference between requiring the state not to mandate a specific religion and the state protecting us from fraud or other harm under the guise of religion.

I have perhaps a few theories as to why, though each is more inflammatory than the previous, and that would simply distract from the point.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Harmful Information Part 2

I have heard it suggested as obvious that some ideas are harmful. For instance, the idea that faith healing has a better chance of curing you of cancer than modern medicine could certainly cause people harm.

I think we need to draw the line between the concept that ideas or information may cause people to do harmful things, and the concept that ideas or information can be inherently harmful.

The first we see happening regularly. The second seems to be the main concern of people who seem to think that they are superior enough to everyone else to be unaffected by information, but that it is their responsibility to ensure no one else has access to it, especially children. I can still remember being a child, and I don't buy it for one second.

Perhaps there are a couple forces at work here. First is the erosion of the principle that people are responsible for their own actions. The second is that harmful ideas have much less power in a well educated and skeptically minded population.

I have an inclination to believe that free will is just an illusion, or is at least a chaotic system such that it is impossible to predict the future without taking into account what effect predicting the future might have on it. That is to say, it's deterministic, but not necessarily predictable. However, I don't think this means we should act like people are not responsible for their own actions. Ultimately, if they do not, then we also are not responsible for our reaction to their deeds, so I think we can just call this one even.

Regardless, what this comes down to is the "ruining it for everyone" problem. When I was in school and the class was granted some special privilege or freedom, occasionally some joker would abuse it and result in it being taken away from everyone, hence "ruining it for everyone." It seems that every time someone does something bad, like shooting people in a school or crashing airplanes into buildings, it's everyone else who gets their privileges or freedoms taken away. The idea of freedom is that some of these things never get taken away, regardless of how badly others abuse them, but that appears to be lost on some people.

As to ideas being "harmful to other people," there are a few forces at work there. Some people seem to believe that, just because they do not wish to see something, they must force everyone else not to see it as well. This despite the apparent lack of evidence that the mere existence of information could be harmful. Critical thinking does not seem to be a significant part of education, at least it is not a main focus, or something educators proudly proclaim to have accomplished with their students. Perhaps it's too hard to test, or too hard for them to teach. That would be a shame.

So it's easy then. We just need a critically-minded and educated population, and the will to stand up to people who would take away our freedoms when someone else does something wrong.

Somehow, I'm still cynical.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Harmful Information

It seems to be taken as absolute truth that there is such a thing as harmful information. This has at various times been presumed to come in the form of comic books, rock and roll, a wide variety of television shows, video games, pornography (child or not), and Beethoven, among everything else "kids today" are doing or express an interest in. Really, read anything mainstream about the Internet or video games and you'll see that it's a foregone conclusion: information is dangerous.

Now, that might be just rampant anti-intellectualism, which is perhaps worth a good rant in its own right. Misinformation can be harmful (bad medical information for instance), however the people who propose that we need to protect children from information have obviously not been struck by the irony that the idea that information is harmful is the only harmful idea. I think this is perhaps a more modern expression of the concept of freedom of speech.

Anyway, under the assumption that there is deadly harmful information out there, I assumed that surely Google would be able to point me to it. Surely some joker would have put together a web page of fully weaponized information. The first hundred or so search results would seem to indicate that this has not happened. There is lots of presumption going on there that such information exists and that people (particularly children) need to be protected from it, but there is no information to be found about what this information actually is, or by what mechanism it is actually harmful.

So, what is "harmful information" then? It could be information that diminishes authority (of parents over their children, or governments over their citizens). It could simply be information that parents find uncomfortable discussing with their children. Both of those things are only harmful to the self-important delusions of those worrying about it, though, not the subject of such "concern."

OK, I'll admit, there may be a few images on the Internet I may prefer not to have come across, and there are certainly religious and superstitious ideas that I may prefer not to have been introduced into my head as a child... but again the irony meter is pegged, as it's precisely the people making the most noise about dangerous information that would instead prefer to fill children's heads with religious and superstitious ideas!

Many ideas have resulted in much trouble and suffering (Nazism, nationalism, communism, religion, etc.) However, I feel compelled to say, "Ideas don't kill people - people kill people."

If anyone would like to send me a link to the mythical "harmful information," I would be very grateful.

The thing is...

... if it were actually a high enough probability event to be worried about, it would happen all the time and not actually be interesting enough to be on the news.