Thursday, February 23, 2012

Arguing With A Creationist...

Normally, I take the view that arguing with a creationist is like shooting the ocean. Anyone can do it multiple times, but the ocean won't know it just got shot. You could shoot holes in it all the live-long day but it wouldn't see the error of its ways. I normally just say "go to talkorigins.org and look up your argument, it's been refuted by people who know what they're talking about." However, because of one creationist named "Question Evolution", I am going to break my one rule just to show how bloody easy it is to beat down creation "science", after the jump.


Now, I agree with that creationist's website title. "Question Evolution"? Yes. Question everything. But question it in a way that makes sense. If someone who was acting plainly out of character said they were "fine", I'd question how fine they were, but I wouldn't say "clearly he was replaced by an evil robot clone." Likewise, I wouldn't say "I doubt this scientific principle, therefore, god did it." I also wouldn't say use arguments that are known to be faulty. And yet, that was the first article I saw on questionevolution.org (top left article on the home page). The amazing eye is a well known (and quite stupid) creationist argument. Hell, Darwin himself anticipated and refuted this line of argumentation:
Organs of extreme perfection and complication. To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.


You can read the whole thing in context here. I also recommend you watch/listen to this humourous video which properly uses the eye to defeat the idea of intelligent design. Now, to be fair, the post does bring up some counter arguments, and it makes more arguments than just "hey, the eye is really nice, it must have been designed." Regarding the multitudinous questions asked on that blog post, as I value my time, on this point I will simply say "read an actual textbook on human evolution, since everything you could ever ask about the concept should be found there." However, I will address the counter arguments quickly. The first counter is the "poor design" argument. I will note quickly that what this section of the article did would be called "plagiarism" in any serious academic circles, since the "Question Evolution" post lifts directly from the Johnathan Safarti article it cites without directly quoting it. It isn't what I'd call a serious breach of ethics, but it should tell you something. Either way, the creationist argument is simply that we were designed that way and we need to have our backwards-seeing eyes see things backwards, and that's that. Except they're proclaiming that the most powerful, brilliant and competent being in the universe did this, and simply couldn't design it properly. If we can make cameras smaller than our eyes that see just well as our eyes, if not better, why can't your god?
The other counter argument is an argument from incredulity from a guy named Dr George Marshall, who was also quoted in Safarti's argument. I don't know how credible Marshall is, since I can't find him anywhere, aside from one 1996 interview in Creation Magazine that most creationists talking about how eyes were created seem to cite. That interview is here, and it's literally all I could find of his writings. It doesn't help that there are literally eleven more famous Geoge Marshalls, but either way, all it says is "I don't know how this could have been done without god, therefore, god did it."

The other article I'll refute is this one. As the title implies, it seems to think that math destroys atheism. It's yet another misuse of probability, something common amongst creationists. Now, the blog I linked doesn't refute this argument, but it does close off another hatch. See, creationists are all about escape hatches. Prove that new species emerge via evolution and they shift to saying "micro-evolution happens" and that they're still the same "kind". Show that stars are billions of light years away and they'll say that the speed of light slowed down at some point. Find a "missing link" and they'll ask about the "missing link" between us and the newly-found link. Completely eradicate an entire argument and they'll move to the next one. It's like a child playing the "why?" game sometimes. Either way, I'd like to illustrate an issue raised here. The author says of Dr. Fred Hoyle's hypothesis of Panspermia that:

Hoyle believed that ‘life began in space, spreading through the universe’ and eventually coming to earth.. but isn’t that just passing the problem to another place? At some point life had to come from non living material and we know that scenario is an impossibility since the so called ‘simple’ living cell is more complex than a city!


Yeah, it does pass the problem to another place, just like creationism. I mean, if god created everything, who created god? Fortunately, we've shown that life can emerge from raw materials present at the beginning of our planet. Firstly, we did it through the famous Miller-Urey experiment, then a few years ago, this happened. Go read it, dear creationist. We have an explanation for how life emerged.

BUT WAIT! The probability of the universe supporting life is astronomical! Well, yeah. That's why, of all the billions of planets, only one (that we know of) has life. Look at it this way: I have six six-sided die. Imagine I roll them all six times. What are the odds I'll get all ones, all twos, all threes, etc. all the way to all sixes? Exactly the same as the odds I'll get any other result, really, but for the sake of this argument, they're absolutely astronomical. Now imagine I just keep rolling, every few seconds without a break until the end of this year (just over 10 months). The chances that six consecutive rolls will all be the same number, and would "count up", are much better at this point. Now imagine that I just keep rolling forever. I have the end of time to roll six ones, then six twos, six threes, six fours, six fives and six sixes, counting up in that way. The odds that I'll eventually roll that sequence if I never stop rolling are 1:1. From the beginning of the universe (the "Big Bang") until now, there were about 14 billion years for the right circumstances for some form of life to develop, and had no life developed by this point, we'd have until the heat death of the universe for life to emerge. And of course, the entire argument is based on the fallacious idea that the only possible life forms are the ones that we know about. How do we know that all life forms in this universe are carbon based? We do not. How do we know that some form of life can't survive or thrive in a differently arranged universe? On this very planet, we have species that breathe underwater and some that breathe our atmosphere, some that thrive in tropical areas that wouldn't be able to survive in the arctic, and vice versa. The fact is, that when calculating the probability of the emergence of life without a god (a useless endeavour because we already know life exists, and I have proven, twice, that there is no god) it would be considerably closer to 1:1 than 1:10 229.

Anyway, there's your refutation.
Read more!

Friday, February 17, 2012

An Open Letter To My MP

Have you guys heard of Bill C-30? This is a bill that would do for the citizens of Canada what the Chinese government does to Chinese citizens already, that is, allow them to spy on us without a warrant. It's a horrendous law that directly violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Now, the reason I'm scared of it is because a) it's proposed by a government that has shown time and again that it simply does not care about the laws of this land and b) it comes at a time when draconian internet laws are gaining traction in several areas. The only way we can stop this (at least before the inevitable challenge from the courts) is to tell our Members of Parliament, in no uncertain terms, that they will lose votes over this. To that end, here is my open letter to my MP, David Wilks. I encourage every Canadian reading this to alter the first paragraph to apply to you and send this letter to your Member of Parliament. I urge you to send this to any and every Canadian you know who is of voting age if you care about this issue in any way. If you're unsure as to who your MP is, as far too many of us are, you can find them here. This is most important if your MP is Conservative, but it's important no matter where you live in this great country of ours.


Dear David Wilks,

I am writing to you in regards to Bill C-30, also known as the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. I have been a resident of the Kootenay-Columbia riding which you represent for most of my life. If you vote for this bill, I will not vote for you in any future elections, and I will strongly urge everyone I know here to vote against you.

While this bill no doubt is being proposed in with good intentions, it would be an egregious violations of our civil liberties. Section 8 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms says
"Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure." Warrant-free police access to our online history definitely runs contra to this. By definition, since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of our Constitution, this proposed law is unconstitutional. Should the law pass, it will no doubt be challenged and defeated, meaning that a vote for this bill is a vote for wasting taxpayer money on an unnecessary trial, and in the time between the passing of the law. However, there are other issues with this law that I will briefly outline here.

While I am no fan of "slippery slope" arguments, or any logical fallacies (like the false dichotomy Safety Minister Vic Toews used Parliament when he said that all who oppose this bill are supporting child pornographers) it's not hard to see that this bill will not just hurt those who view child porn. The vast majority of internet users have downloaded or otherwise viewed things illegally, whether it's music, television, movies, literature or visual artwork. Giving police free access to our online history would make outlaws of many Canadians who simply wanted to watch an episode of a TV show they missed on YouTube. Even those who try their best to avoid piracy sometimes partake of it, as many sites that host pirated material also show material with the permission of the rights holders, and many pirate sites disguise themselves as legitimate sources.

Then, of course, there's the fact that this would probably not be effective at stopping the production of child pornography, who likely already know ways to distribute their materials securely. In fact, it would divert police attention to monitoring the millions of innocent Canadian web users, which would be counter-intuitive to stopping crime. How effective it would be even in catching those who view child pornography is something I'd question: These people already hide their habits and presumably use multiple proxy servers which would throw police off their trail. If anything, it would force them to go back to buying paper magazines or DVDs via mail order, something that would be much harder to crack down on.

What this legislation would do is ending Canadian freedom and lead to many people being falsely branded as sex offenders. The "sexting" phenomenon, where teenagers are becoming registered sex offenders for sending pictures of themselves to their boyfriends or girlfriends, is the most well known example of this. Another 2 famous examples are Traci Lords (a porn star who lied about her age and produced many pornographic movies while under 18) and Vanessa Hudgens (a celebrity who had nude pictures of herself leaked, which turned out to have been taken when she was 15). Even without such examples, people can have child porn put on their computers without actually seeking it via viruses, spam and malware. This legislation could turn people who did nothing wrong into sex offenders.

In conclusion, if you value your constituents' freedoms, please vote against this terrible bill.

Sincerely,

Ben Dobson Jr.
Read more!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Valentine the Comic




As a fan of fantasy comics, literature and movies, I've found myself rather under served as of late. Recently, to alleviate this, I decided to browse the comixology online store to see what kind of fantasy comics were available. Amongst them was Valentine, by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen, which I downloaded in its entirety. Thank no-god I did.

There were two things I noticed right away about this creator owned series. Firstly, it was completely free, which is really unusual for the comixology store. Aside from Mark Waid's The Unknown (which I strongly recommend) I haven't found any series that offers than the first issue, or a "preview" of the first issue for free. Not only are all 10 issues/episodes free, but they're Creative Commons licensed, meaning it can be republished in its entirety assuming that proper credit is given. The second thing I noticed was that it was available in several different languages, including Japanese, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Gaelic, and appropriately, French and Russian. There are comics in that store originally published in languages aside from English that are not available in their original language (I'm looking at you, Hetalia:Axis Powers) so offering this for free in so many languages is a very welcome sight indeed.

The story (which I'm doing my best not to spoil in any way) follows a young named Valentine, a Breton soldier fighting for France in 1812. After Napoleon's rather disastrous campaign where a force of half a million men was whittled down to 50,000, Valentine meets a man named Roland, from whom he obtains a magical sword that only he can use, which can open portals to other dimensions, amongst other things. From there, he becomes embroiled in a centuries-old conflict between two magical races: the savage, red-eyed Tenebrae led by a man named Belphegor, and Roland's as-of-yet unnamed people, who may not be quite as noble as they seem. Valentine is injured by some Tenebrae posing as Cossacks, and one of Roland's people, Nimue, uses some of her magic to save Valentine's life. Later, Nimue finds herself in a bit of trouble. It's up to Valentine to save her. That is literally all I can give away without giving away any of the many twists.

This is a series that was created for e-readers, mobile devices and tablets. I am aware of a debate that is currently ongoing regarding how well suited comics are to this particular format, and this is easily the strongest argument in favour of digital comics I've seen. With a single exception in issue/episode 10, it's all in Landscape (that is, you need to keep your device turned on its side) which is a much better use of the device than the alternative, in my opinion, and reduces the irritation of having to constantly flip the device around to properly see the action. The panels always fill the screen fully, unlike most comics for iPhone/iPad/iPod/Android/etc. which cut off parts of a panel, or show bits of other panels every screen. The shifts in panels also fully utilize the format. Text boxes appear after you get a chance to fully appreciate the artwork, word balloons change while the artwork remains the same (emphasizing the deadpan delivery of particular lines), and magical effects like Valentine's sword's glow appear suddenly, to more properly emphasize the his surprise at this. The use of colour is amongst the most ingenious I've seen in any comic. When on earth, it's primarily greyscale or muted, with a handful of exceptions, like the eyes of characters with some magical ability and the magic sword. However, when the story moves to the Dawn Country (Roland's homeland), everything is vividly and beautifully coloured, emphasizing the magic and wonder of the place. Tim Burning really outdid himself there.

The art is perfect for the story, and I found myself strongly sympathizing with Valentine. The pulpy feel of the story appealed greatly to me, yet the writing showed more nuance than most two-fisted adventure stories, and the violence is not graphic enough to turn off the squeamish. Every issue leaves you chomping at the bit wanting to find out what happens next, and with a clear end planned, this won't be one of those series that goes on past its best-used-by date (I'm looking at you, Marvel and DC). The closest thing to a real negative I found was that, in issue 7, the way the "pages" turned was right to left (though it still read left to right). It was confusing for a minute, since one has to tap or drag the page a specific way to make it "turn" on an iDevice, but ultimately it wasn't a problem. In fact, it added to the feel of that section of the work, since that's when Valentine ends up in the Dawn Country, where things work differently than they do in our reality. It ended up being yet another brilliant example of the potential of digital comics.

This is easily the best comic I've read in a long time, and I read a lot of good comics (Chew, the Walking Dead, Demon Knights, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, and classic Savage Sword of Conan are all on my current reading list). 10 out of 10. Get this now, either from comixology, Robot Comics or on the Kindle (note: the Kindle only goes to issue 8 out of the currently published 10, and does come with a pricetag, reasonable though it may be). A print edition of the first 8 chapters, with an additional story, will be published by Image Comics later this year, and Alex told me herself on both Twitter and Facebook that new episodes should return in Autumn or shortly thereafter, after a Kickstarter campaign. The backup story will be drawn by Cassandra James and the all new covers will be done by Steve Belledin. Be sure to watch for it, and expect a review of the backup story the moment I get it. Read more!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why "Atheism" Means Nothing

In my last post, I mentioned (however briefly) that atheism isn't really that big of a deal. Here, I will discuss exactly why that is.

Atheism says exactly nothing about one's personality, despite all the stereotypes and rhetoric from all sides. It's simply a lack of belief. Some are insistent (stupidly so) that it's a positive belief that there is no god/s. Even if that's true, it's a single, mostly unimportant belief. There are very few single beliefs that dictate overall morality, and our consciences are generally more shaped by society than anything else. Hell, one can still technically be christian without believing in any god. Furthermore, while atheists are more educated, generally speaking, atheism is not a guarantee of intelligence OR education, nor is it a guarantee of skepticism, as skeptics like Kenneth Miller, Sam Harris (who's into eastern spirituality) and Neil Degrassse Tyson (who is non-religious but claims some belief in a higher power) show. It's not even a sign of non-religion, as there are religions without any gods, like Buddhism, Scientology and Taoism. All atheism is is a guarantee of not believing in any god/s.

This is quite well illustrated by the current feud between theamazingatheist and several others including PZ Meyers. TJ is anti-feminist (even though his own views peg him as a feminist, he pretends that all feminists are feminazi man-hating stereotypes that exist in small numbers, if at all) and has been on this trip for months. Recently, in an almost-admitted attempt at shock humour, on a reddit thread he mocked a rape victim, though he later apologized. In a lot of ways, it's a continuation of elevatorgate (I'm linking the best post on it that I know of) which split the atheist community last year. While I do have strong feelings about this thing, that's not the main thrust of this post. The fact is, everyone involved in both those debates, and the general debates about sexism in the atheist community, or politics, philosophy, or any other thing has to rely on its own merits with atheists. There is no holy book that we must obey to tell us anyone is wrong or right here. I can't say "1 Darwin 3:10 says that thou shall not joke about rape." The only thing I can say is that rape is wrong and joking about it is deliberately hurtful. I can point out facts, construct moral arguments, but in the end people who disagree are not compelled to agree because it's the atheist thing to do.

Now, we do need some organized atheism. Until religious conservatives quit trying to force their beliefs on the rest of us, we need atheists and anti-theists to band together to fight for secular causes. However, we shouldn't make this one thing we have in common mean more than it really does. Deep down, atheism means about as much as not believing in UFOs.

Let's keep it that way. Read more!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tips for coming out as an atheist

About a week ago, a friend of mine who goes by TCC asked me about coming out as a nonbeliever to his friends and family. He's not the first who has asked me for advice on this, and he probably won't be the last. As such, I decided to use this blog to help any who may be wrestling with this issue. Tips after the jump.

  1. Timing is everything. If you're financially dependent on devoutly religious family members, i.e. if you're a minor or financially unstable adult living in their house, now is probably not the time. I've heard many accounts of teenagers being kicked out of their parents' house for leaving the parents' religion, and the reaction to atheism is especially harsh. After all, we're trusted less than rapists. So, you live with highly religious parents who you think may kick you out, wait until you can move out to tell them. For everyone else, it's best to pick a "neutral" time. You don't want to tell a religious friend who's going through a break up that they have to worry about your impending damnation, nor do you want to bring down a fun day at the park with serious talk (even though it might seem sensible to tell someone while they're in a good mood). Tell them during a more casual outing, preferably in a more relaxed environment. This brings me to the next point...
  2. It's not actually a big deal, so don't make it a big deal. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it's the truth. No one gets uptight about telling their friends they don't like rock climbing, or that they don't believe heavy metal music is any good, so why is this a big deal? The truth is, it's only an issue because we, as a society, make it an issue. There aren't really many differences between most atheist and mainstream religious people in the western world, despite public perceptions. Calling someone to meet with you to share a "big announcement" with them (as some atheists I've met have done) can add unnecessary tension by building up an expectation in the mind of your friend/relative. They expect to be shocked by this announcement, so it will shock them.
  3. But don't be too casual. Being an atheist is not everything to anyone, but it can be an important detail for some people. For people that you're certain will take it well (other atheists, people who are apathetic to religion, very moderately religious people) simply saying "oh, by the way, I'm an atheist" should be fine. For everyone else, the announcement should be made with at least a degree of formality.
  4. Know what you're going to say ahead of time. You don't need to script everything you'll say, but you should definitely have your thoughts collected. You don't want to be stumbling over words, nor do you want to say anything that might be interpreted as offensive.
  5. Understand their concerns. People who take their religion somewhat seriously will have concerns, and it's important to realize that they actually are valid, to them. If their religion is true, as they believe it to be, you may face real severe consequences for your unbelief. They care for you, and do not want anything bad to happen to you. They may also take it as a personal offense, just like many political ideologues take offense at the rejection of their ideology. While you do not want to get into an argument with someone who's in a potentially heightened emotional state, it's important to stress that your rejection of your old belief system, their religion, is at least as valid as their belief in it. It may not be truly satisfactory, but it is as close to a good answer to this. They may also have concerns for you that are not based in religion. Any major change in belief system or lifestyle can be a cause for worry for a variety of reasons, and they may feel that this is a symptom of a bigger problem. Of course, the stereotypes that we're a depressed, nihilistic group or that personal tragedy is the main cause of atheism in most people only helps this assumption, so it's important to assure them you're OK and that your atheism was not something that happened overnight.
  6. Don't make it too much of a surprise. This is something that I did tell TCC, as he said here. It's something I did. I'd drop hints at my atheism to my friends and family whenever possible. I'd criticize religious leaders, I'd attack anti-scientific religious beliefs such as creationism, I'd attack the theocratic positions of prominent right-wing politicians, and occasionally I'd even attack the notion of faith itself. This tactic has a few advantages. Firstly, one can be against theocracy, creationism, etc. without being an atheist, so you aren't going against point #3. Secondly, you're being honest, and so you can rightly claim you weren't deceiving anyone when the news finally breaks. Thirdly, and most importantly, by dropping hints at your atheism you may force them to privately come to grips with the fact that you may be an atheist, which can make their reaction to the news much better. They may even ask you about it outright, which would of course take the pressure off you. Granted, this could backfire, as someone you do this to may gossip about you and "out" you before you're totally ready, however, you can counteract this by not associating with total shitbags.
  7. Be prepared to answer questions. This should almost go without saying. Your friends and relatives will wonder why you've left the faith, and on top of that, you might be the first admitted atheist they've ever talked to. Be prepared to answer the question of "why", definitely, and probably the question of when it happened as well. You may be asked some other specific questions as well, and you may even be asked questions designed to lead into a debate. Do not take the bait. This is important. Answer the questions, but if they try to lock you into a sort of debate let them know, as politely as possible, that a debate is not a good idea at this point.
  8. Be wary of potential consequences. This is a big one. Even though this is not a really substantial issue, many people think it is. Unless you're employed by a church you can't be fired for your religious status, legally, but if you are fired for that, the legal fees for fighting it could be cost-prohibitive. Even if you aren't let go for that explicitly, it could be the real reason behind your termination. Atheism can, and probably will, cost you friendships or other relationships, even if you're not a dick about it. I've lost several friends for my atheism and I know of a few marriages that ended due to one partner losing faith. In some areas, being atheist can make you a social pariah, or worse. You need to be aware of this, and decide just how "out" you want to be. Do you just want your close friends and family to know? Do you want to keep some friends or family members in the dark? I know I did, I kept my atheism from my now-deceased grandmother because I knew it would have destroyed her. Are you confident enough to be fully out, or even become a non-anonymous blogger, advocate or activist? These are important questions you must answer, and it's even more important to not judge others for their decisions. As much as we need more open atheists, not everyone is in a position to come out.

That's about all the advice I can think of right now. If I can think of anything else, or if anyone else can, I may add it to this post or make a sequel post. Hopefully, this will help somebody.

Read more!