Thursday, January 27, 2011

What if?

What if Jesus had died another way? Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro has contemplated this. And so have I. Having just seen Piraro's cartoon handling the electric chair, I thought I'd post my own similar unfinished comic. It doesn't seem original now, but here it is anyway:

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Bow to me (and squander your potential) my robot!

When we create a robot or an AI or a new breed of dog1, do we program it to worship us, its creator?

Isn't the thought that a creator would infuse its creation with a supreme desire to worship it above and beyond anything else just repugnant? And ripe with arrogance and vanity?

When humans create something, we try to give it autonomy, intelligence, free will, etc. Our last concern is that our gadgets turn around and praise us. That would be utterly ridiculous! What do i care if my robot glorifies me or not? What kind of creator would I be if I did? (Imagine further if we did create gadgets to worship us, but also programmed them to not be able to see or hear us... clever...)

It seems highly more likely that the true test a creator would present us with is not how many times we can repeat creeds, but how much we can achieve and evolve and progress independently.

What would you prefer in 50 years? A robot that followed you around chanting your praises and leaving offerings on the kitchen table, or one that solved your problems and those of the people around you in cool and fantastical ways. (If you said "both", please read the last sentence of paragraph 2 again.)

1 Admittedly, dogs worship us, but it's in their nature, plus, dogs are a bit unsophisticated.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Religion is the best Deception

If you're a thinking person, then you've got to be skeptical of something which demands belief based only on faith. You just have to be. Why? Well, look around. How many religions are there in the world which require blind faith from their followers? How can one choose the "correct" religion from among these many options? One cannot. There is absolutely no way. So, people end up adopting the religious faiths of their family, neighbours, or countrymen. (Thankfully, a growing number of us don't bother choosing at all.)

An alien landing on the earth confronted by its various faiths would have no clue as to which, if any, of the religions were true. The claims are all the same: "I've got an old book! It's got some good stories in it! You need it to live a good life! You need to believe in this one particular god and this one particular prophet! You want proof? No, no, there's none! You must accept everything on faith! And if you don't, you will suffer eternally in a horrible place!" There is absolutely no reason for the alien to choose one over another, and in fact, there is no real reason to make a choice in the first place. (In this scenario, one hopes that the alien has all the answers, and proceeds to enlighten our little planet rather than destroy it.)

Those who have made this choice (or have had the choice made for them) are imprisoned but are unaware of it. It is extremely difficult to break out of this prison because first and foremost, the inmates are content (indeed begging) to stay! Secondly, once their leap of faith is made, the believer is strapped into an almost unescapable philosophical straightjacket. This is why I call the deception in the title the "best" deception. It is so strong, and so unwielding to any argument. The deception can come from anywhere (one's self, one's priest, one's parents) and it's almost never recognized as deception. The only time someone recognizes this kind of deception is regarding the "other": in another culture, country, or religion. If a Christian contemplates someone of a different faith, the Christian is quite ready to say "that poor guy is deceiving himself" or "is being deceived". But it's just inconceivable to the Christian that he himself is in exactly the same situation.

If I were a believer, but could still construct logical arguments, I would have to conclude that religion was created not by a caring god, but by a devil. Faith in something without evidence is not noble or honourable, it's sinister. Why are we so gullible and so willing to be deceived?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Religious Awe is the Lazy Man's Awe

I experience just as much (if not more) awe than a religious person does when considering nature, life, the universe, etc. But whereas I know that I can come to a fuller understanding of these things through hard work and diligent study, a religious person more often than not simply says "God did that". To me, this is a lazy man's appreciation of nature. It is the behaviour of a person happy to not understand, or not willing to put in the effort to come to a better understanding of the world.

The other day, I had an idea for a skit, which featured two young boys, one scientifically-minded, and the other not. I imagined the first boy running through a field or forest, excitedly looking at flowers, plants, and insects, and trying to understand the connections between them, and wondering about their origins and evolution. With each object this boy marvelled at, the other little boy would pop into the picture and quickly blurt out "God did that!" Each time, the first boy would answer "Oh" and continue looking at the next object. With each successive "God did that!" and "Oh", the first boy's curiosity would start to wither. Perhaps it would be better to have a religious parent instead of the religious boy. More realistic that way. And sad.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Do mathematicians create or discover?

The answer to this question will significantly affect the idea of my previous post. I have a feeling that in general they discover. For example, a Tyrannosaurus Rex probably couldn't count, but that doesn't change the fact that it had 2 arms, 2 legs, 1 tail, and "x" razor-sharp teeth. So numbers "existed", but they weren't really being thought about carefully.

If mathematicians always discover (rather than create) mathematics, then my analogy in the previous post becomes quite weak. However, my faulty analogy might not change my acceptance of the (rather unlikely) possibility that an advanced civilization had a hand in the creation of the universe.

Thinking about Mathematics: The Philosophy of MathematicsI should do some reading on the philosophy of mathematics and then post what I've learned. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oh my god. Did I just become a deist?

I just had an idea about the plausibility of some form of creator, which is quite odd as I'm a diehard atheist (and quite possibly an anti-theist.) I was brushing my teeth, and suddenly I conceived of an idea that, unlike all other arguments I've heard for deism, seemed to have non-zero probability.

To get a grip on my idea, I must introduce some relatively simple concepts from mathematics. Mathematicians typically don't deal explicitly with numbers, they deal with objects. They are very good at converting practical ideas into abstract concepts for the purposes of research. For example, take the integers: ..., -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, ... along with simple addition '+'. (The ellipses, by the way, imply an endless continuation to the left and right.) Mathematicians take the integers and addition and abstract them into an object which they call a "group". (Please completely divorce this mathematical term from the normal definition of the word "group" which you are thinking of right now.)

In mathematics, a "group" is a set of things (possibly finite, possibly infinite) along with an operation which describes how the things can be combined, resulting in other things from within the same group. In groups, there's one very special thing called an "identity", which actually doesn't do much of anything. Also, for each thing in the set, there exists exactly one other thing called an "inverse", and when a thing and its inverse are combined, the result is the "identity".

Making this a bit more concrete, consider the group of the integers along with addition. The special thing called the identity is zero (i.e. 0) which clearly doesn't do anything since 5 + 0 = 5. For each integer, there is one inverse. For example, the inverse of 3 is -3, since 3 + (-3) = 0. (Remember, 0 is the identity of this particular group.) As another example, the inverse of -897 is 897, since (-897) + 897 = 0.

The integers are a very large set of numbers, in fact it is an infinite set. But this infinite set can be generated by only the number 1. 1 is called a "generator" of this group. [Just continue adding 1 to itself to get all of the positive integers: 1, 2, 3, 4, ... . Then take the inverse of 1, namely -1, and continue adding it to itself to get the negative integers. To generate 0, simply add 1 + (-1).] The idea of a generator is important as it shows that a very large set can be generated by very few members (and sometimes only one).

Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical DiversionsGroups seem like quite simple things, and they sometimes are. But their simple definition can be misleading. Once we cast away numbers and just focus on the abstract definition and objects, we start to uncover many very interesting properties. Shelves and shelves of books have been written on Group Theory and current mathematicians are expanding the theory monthly in numerous journals on the subject. (There are one or two other properties of a group, but in the interest of concision, I hope you will trust me when I say they are not very important to this argument.)

So, what is my point. How does this relate to the possibility of a creator? Well, when mathematicians first started thinking about groups, they had relatively little idea of the complexity, unexpected features, or beauty of the characteristics and theorems that would result after intense study. In a similar way, it is not so difficult to imagine a creator establishing its own kind of "cosmic group": a small set of elementary particles or energies (the generators), coupled with some initial rules dictating how these particles and energies interact (the operation). Over billions of years, the world we see today could have evolved from this very simple beginning, as the generators interact with each other, creating new matter and new energy.

This idea does not do away with the infinite regress question: if there was a creator, who created it? And who created the creator of that creator, and so on ad infinitum. This idea does however alleviate a concern I've always had with the idea of a creator. Looking around me, I've always wondered why our omnipotent God (assuming one exists) didn't create a much simpler universe, with no evil, no disease, and no mosquitos. Well, perhaps a creator did create the simplest of universes, using only simple initial conditions, but really had nothing to do with any of its evolution into the current complex and mosquito-infested universe we call home. I'm in no way saying that I could believe in any of the man-made gods that my fellow humans worship. But I could see myself contemplating the possibility of an incredibly advanced alien civilization (probably indistinguishable from God, as Asimov puts it) seeding our universe with the requisite primeval elements.

Of course, this is all a mathematical analogy, and doesn't prove a single thing. It has simply allowed me to consider (however minute) the remote possibly of some kind of creator. Since there is absolutely no evidence for such a creator, I could never bring myself to "believe" what I have just described. However, I will certainly not deny its possibility until a philosopher or mathematician pokes holes in my reasoning.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Missionaries, part 1

The Samurai (Reprint) (New Directions Classics)
I'm currently reading The Samurai by Shusaku Endo. The book follows the lives of a Spanish missionary in eastern Japan and a poor samurai caught up in the political manoeuverings of his domain's councilmen. The missionary, Velasco, is driven by an overzealous ambition to become Bishop of Japan, and plans a trip to Nueva Espana and then to Spain with some Japanese envoys and merchants in the hopes of establishing a trade treaty in exchange for full missionary rights for Spain. The novel recounts some very interesting historical events, the details of which have unfortunately been lost over the last few centuries.

I have read two of Endo's books (Silence and The Samurai) and they both deal with missionaries in Japan. The other day, while reading The Samurai, I was suddenly struck (actually restruck) with the realization that I am thoroughly against missionary work. In fact, I loathe it. I find it shameful, xenophobic, classist, racist, and baseless.

There are two cases to examine when considering missionary work. The first case assumes the religion being sold is valid. The second assumes the opposite.

The second case is easiest dealt with. In The Samurai, Velasco is expounding the Roman Catholic faith. If Christianity is false, then men and women embarking on missionary work throughout the world is an absurd waste of resources. Since, in general, most religions are exclusive, a given Christian missionary happily believes that while his or her work is worthy, that of all the "other" missionaries is not. Of course, in this scenario, all of the work is worthless. Even more damning and unforgivable in the second case is that the proselytized are torn from their native beliefs and culture for absolutely no reason.

The first case, although highly unlikely, supposes that a particular religion is in fact true. In the case of Christianity then, we are meant to believe that God revealed "himself" to a few people in a very localized area, ignoring all of the other humans on the planet. His plan then being that over more than 2000 years, his word would be preached to, taught to, and forced upon the rest of the world in an eons-long struggle. How much easier it would have been had the all-powerful one made himself known to all nations at once, or at least on successive days? Perhaps in a few weeks, the whole world would have been happily Christian, Jesus wouldn't have died, and we would no longer have Easter. I think it would have been more than a fair trade.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blogging again.

Wow. It's been over a year since I posted anything to this blog. I guess that was about the time when my Twitter-ing began to eclipse my blogging. Twitter is addictive and too easy to use. Blogging requires thought while tweeting does not. You can already see that these sentences are short and useless; a result of too much Twitter use.

The reason for starting up blogging again is a little embarrassing. It's due to an article about the relationship between writing and thinking. However, I didn't even read this article, I skimmed it. But the gist of it was enough to make me rethink blogging vs. twittering. The writer claimed that if one doesn't write, then one doesn't have any serious thoughts. Writing certainly involves thinking and the organization of thought, so I bought this writer's claims quite quickly. I don't want to be guilty of not thinking about serious things, so I will start writing again.

So, here we go...

Monday, November 10, 2008

A truly mad scientist

This doesn't get any closer to our shared idea of a "mad scientist". Enjoy this TED Conference talk from February 2006 given by Clifford Stoll, a U.S. astronomer.

(If you see a Player 7 or Player 8 message below, just click on one of them and the video will start.)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

There's a little child up there.

The people upstairs are too loud. I live in an apartment building west of Tokyo, and a few months ago, a family moved into the apartment above ours. This family has a young child. This young child likes to run around and bang on the floor at all hours of the day and night, as many children like to do. I have never met this child (in fact, the child is a boy). I'm sure he is quite cute and adorable, but since I've never met him, his representation in my mind is quite blurry and chaotic. I imagine a crazed kid running back and forth with heavy shoes on, pounding on the floor with bats, balls, and rocks; gleefully jumping up and down, knowing full well that he is bothering (no, terrorizing!) the apartment-dwellers below; and more than this, his parents encouraging him to jump from ever higher places, encouraging him to use bigger and bigger bats and rocks, encouraging him to never stop, to stay up late, to wake up in the middle of the night to further annoy us, ... You can see that this has had quite an effect on me. We have spoken to our landlord on a few occasions, and in fact, the flooring above has been worked on on 2 or 3 separate occasions. However, not once did anyone enter our apartment to check whether or not the sound had been diminished. So, in response to repetitive noises from above, I or my wife stand up, make a fist, and hit our ceiling in quick succession. Often, the sound stops for a good 30 minutes to an hour. But, just as often, the kid (or his parents, I'm not sure which) replies with echoing hits to his floor. The mother came down soon after they moved in to apologize for the noise, and once when I met her at our building's entrance she did the same. However, apologies mean nothing when behaviours don't change. I realize children are active and must run and jump and play, but they should do so in a park, or in a zoo, or in a detached house. Apparently, this family's last residence was in fact a house, so they aren't used to having neighbours below them. I'm tired of the noise, and I'm tired of hitting my ceiling. I guess it's time to find a new apartment.

Hit by a food cart

(She looks so innocent doesn't she? Photo thanks to Girl Least Likely To)

At a recent conference, I overheard some talk about flight attendants. Someone said:
"I hate sitting in aisle seats. If you sit in an aisle seat, you are going to get hit in the head with a food cart."
Everyone nodded in agreement.

I started wondering if a flight attendant's blog is filled with sentences like: "Today was a slow day. I only hit 4 passengers. Fingers crossed for tomorrow." If this isn't a central theme on their blogs, it must be something they frequently discuss behind the curtain as they do their "work". On the few occasions that I've had the misfortune to step into flight attendant territory, I'm quite sure I saw a few scoreboards and Fantasy Foodcart charts hanging on the wall.

(When flight attendants play Quake, do they use the drink cart weapon mod?)