The Fallacy of God and Art

Picture yourself given the following question: A woman becomes pregnant. She has tuberculosis and the father has syphilis. As a result she has already had four miscarriages. In fact, their only surviving child is deaf and intellectually impaired. You, as a doctor, are asked to decide whether they should terminate the current pregnancy. Yes, it is (one of the versions of) the Great Beethoven Fallacy. Would you answer “yes” your questioner would triumphantly announce “Congratulations, you have just murdered Beethoven”. Of course the queerness of the argument should be obvious (if not I can readily point them out in a comment), but this is just the introduction to my subject.

This tale, it doesn’t correspond to Beethoven’s real situation by the way, is an example of the Argument from Beauty which tries to affirm the existence of god. The argument is that since beauty transcends an object’s material state, and beauty is a quality of god, then god must exist. And from this there is also an argument that all great art must come from, or be inspired by, religion. But this is of course an incorrect assumption. To see why lets first look at some examples of explicitly religious art and architecture:

 

notredamedeparisgod2-sistine_chapel


uppsala_domkyrka_front

Of course these are impressive examples but is it impossible to find something that at least rivals these works? Of course not.

Statue of Liberty

hemispheric_-_valencia_spain_-_jan_2007

library_of_alexandria

sydney_opera_house_-_dec_2008

None of these examples have anything to do with religion, yet most would agree they are quite esthetically satisfying.

There are two things one can say about this. The most likely reason artists, architects, musicians and others almost exclusivly created religious art in the past ages were that churches were the only one who could support the creation of such works. God is apparently not a requirement for appreciating the wounderful and spiritual (for lack of a better word). One can also notice the fallacy of defining god as direct responsibility for certain properties in the world. If god is the beauty in a painting, the gentle surface of a lake, and in so many other things, what god is there left to talk about?

Steven Weinberg sums it up perfectly in his Dreams of a Final Theory, “Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is out better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’ Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.”

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How I Became an Atheist, by Roger

Since many of you would be wondering where I had gone by now, I thought I’d show some life signs. So let us not waste time and get down to business…

Now that Tyson has opened his heart for us by sharing his transition of thought on religion, I feel compelled to do the same. I now consider myself not only an atheist, but as regular readers know, I’m “aggressively” so.

I have never been religious, but I once thought most things the bible described were true, in that common cherry-picking way. From when I was young we went to church on Sundays. Sure, listening to the preacher was sometimes dull and boring, but I didn’t complain, I had enough patience for an hour or two.

I am the kind of person who values knowledge and reasoning and because of that I started to realize something wasn’t right. Christianity was described by this book, the bible. However, I started to understand that just because something was written down didn’t mean it was evidence, since it might not correspond how things really are. And the statements themselves seemed either very improbable or quite opposed to our modern life. My assurance of both the validity and usefulness of religion started to diminish.

Although this happened gradually there was a defining moment when, like a switch, my disbelief was affirmed. One of the members of the congregation had sustained a rare illness during the night of a hospital visit to which cause I am unaware. This illness is in normal cases fatal but he survived, but not without permanent disability. The “price” of being alive was a paralysis of most of the body and loss of speaking; he now communicates by (slowly) typing a keyboard which accompanies his mobility scooter. During the night he also had a near-death experience which strengthened his belief further. As a result he started missioning in our town.

One day, I was about 13 years old at the time, he found me in my usual neutral but slightly bored state in the church waiting for the church service to start. He asked me, with the help of his computer generated voice, “Do you believe in god?”. I actually knew he couldn’t know I wasn’t too sure of this god concept any longer, this was one of his preprogrammed questions I had seen him use in town. But the question taxed me. I remember asking myself what to answer. I could not make myself answer yes… I then knew I could not believe.

At that point my parents only occasionally required me to go to church, and they had me attending a public elementary school, not a religious school from the start — of both I am very grateful. This meant I had a free environment for contemplating the facts and arguments. I chose to call myself agnostic, and still do in a particular sense, because of the following: The existence or non-existence of a god have no bearing on the human situation. We would be humans, with the same conditions and possibilities, no matter what. God doesn’t matter (but would he reveal himself he is welcome to join us as our peer).

The last stop is a very resent one. The reading of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith a few years ago made me realize the cause and effect in religion was more involved than meets the eye. By reading books from the so called “New Atheists” I came to understand that I was atheistic by definition. Agnostic just didn’t suffice because when it comes to the assertions themselves –e.g. the existence of a god — there is an infinite number of unverifiable things, yet we don’t believe them. I also had to be, by the believers sense, aggressive. Of course this doesn’t mean “stop believing, or else… ” but rather “we have to talk… NOW”.

It seems to me that most people that follow a religion do it because they have been taught to do so by their parents. But in the end all societies are secular, they just doesn’t know it yet. It only takes them to understand what they gain and what they liberate themselves from in order to accept advancement.

Which Christmas?

Christmas is just around the corner, and I of course wish you a merry one. However, it makes me shudder when someone talks about the Christian christmas. Christoper Hitchens expresses some strong argumentns in a recent article The moral and aesthetic nightmare of Christmas, and while I share the sentiment it is not entirely fair to condem it altogether. Not all details fall under the same category.

In the Christian tradition Jesus’ birth is of course the central event but lets look where the other traditions of a Winter-Solstice-type holiday come from.  Most likely it orginates from the germanic pagan winter festival Yule (Jul in swedish) . In turn, Yule may have been influenced by the Roman winter festival Saturnalia where slaves and masters temporarily changed roles and gave each other gifts, although this is not confirmed.

The “Christmas” tree also orginates from Germanic pagan traditions and for this reason such trees are forbidden in some religious denominations. Santa Claus is a figure which has gone through many iterations, including early Christianity in Turkey and, of course, German folklore and pagan traditions. Contrast this with the Swedish tomte (losely meaning hob) which is much more sinister. A tomte is a “spirit” of the farm which helps the masters with the duties. But if you forget his rice pudding and snaps you are supposed to leave him on the yule evening, you can expect a bad year to come. Also, in Sweden christmas gifts have not always been given out of caring, but rather as crude jokes. Small logs with a note mentioning the intended receiver and the joke itself were thrown in after knocking on the door of the home in question.

The point is that Christmas is an evolved tradition which also differs slightly between cultures and countries. Christianity tries to get a free ride of instant an unquestioned respect — as it often does.

Another example is the blending of Halloween, a Celtic feltival, with All Saint’s Day, conveniently moved by Pope Boniface IV in 609 ad. So while saying Christmas is a Christian tradition is not completely wrong it is still somewhat dishonest.

I celebrate a secular christmas, one where you spend time with friends and family, eat good (and too much) food, and have a good time. Now, keep that religion away from me, thank you.

Science as a New Cultural Tradition

I was watching Richard Dawkins dialog with Aubrey Manning (approx. 50 minutes long) the other day and some of the points they discussed made me think.

Many of the traditions we practice have religious orgins, which of course needn’t be bad in itself. Obviously, tradition and ritual have a place in building solidarity and socializing individuals. However, it seems to me that the question many ask in an increasingly secular world is what will we have instead? As Manning points out, science is a human activity which has value in itself. It not only gives opportunity for wounder but also invokes both emotions of joy and dispare.

No science is too hard to understand, at least not on a principial level. One problem is that the papers submited for peer review obscure science from lay persons. Yes, there is a point to using certain kinds science-speak; however, scientists should be obliged to not only help us understand, but also to intrigue us and to appreciate their knowledge. Those school books with nothing but formulas and constants don’t do the job.

And this is why I recommend these videos. It is a Berkeley course called Physics for future presidents by Richard A. Muller. The emphisis is on concepts and an idea of magnitudes instead of formulas and specific numbers. In my mind it should have the title “Physics for Everyone,” and while it’s alot to watch (26 episodes of ~1 hour each) I consider it a duty.

Science is also an enterprise in which we all partake. Our current advancement in technology and welfare comes from science. We only need to take the example of penicillin. Before its discovery far more diseases ran rampant through our populations. Now one may say that science of medicine represents a moral good, whereas the science of physics does not. Yet I believe there is a moral component in simply getting closer to truth. In other words science should, indeed must, be central to a modern tradition.

In his book Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins wrote the following: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” We should celebrate our opportunity to be here, taking part in the world. Our means of celebrating should be through understanding — that is to say, through science.

Cassini

It is time to visit space again. This might be old news to some, but in 2004 – 2005 the Cassini–Huygens spacecraft reached Saturn after traveling roughly 3.2 billion kilometers over a period of seven years. Apart from performing 76 fly-bys of Saturn and 45 fly-bys of the moon Titan the Huygens probe was also deployed on the surface of Titan.

L Studio has put together a video from Carolyn Porco’s speech at the Pop!Tech innovation conference. Carolyn Porco is an American planetary scientist with a Ph.D. degree from California Institute of Technology. The video is a beautifully composed presentation, please have a look.

And here is Carolyn Porce’s speech (from the much faster loading RichardDawkins.net site). Continue reading

How Conservatives are Liberals

Last saturday Jerry Springer, the notorious talkshow host and former Democratic mayor of Cincinnati, held a 30 minute speech at the Clinton School of Public Service. The speech mainly addressed the income gap between rich and poor and the lacking healthcare system. There is also a shorter excerpt from the speech on youtube.

The speech and the Q&A session: http://cspanjunkie.org/?p=974
The YouTube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Sm743AQVsE

Although he inevitably speaks from a liberal viewpoint, he addresses issues which any viable political party tries to address. Springer elegantly puts his finger on what politics should be about, namely the demos in democracy — the people.

In a way we’re all more or less liberal because if we desire a strong and successful society in the end we must care about each other as much as ourself, and we must be tolerant of each other (that is, insofar as we do not limit the freedom of others by our actions).

I always find it amusing when the American right-wing compare liberals to socialism. Being Swedish brings another perspective to things. From our view, Democrats are on the “right” and socialists are just left of center… you can imagine what we think of the Republican party!

Condorcet, a modern voting system

I would like to continue the discussion of voting. One of Tyson’s previous posts illustrated the flaws of the electoral system, particularly the differences in “power” that residents of different states have. The winner-take-all system employed by most states also makes third parties effectively irrelevant. In order to gather electoral votes a third party would need to get more votes than both established parties in a state, which is near to impossible in practice.

These are obvious problems, but I would like to reflect on a more subtle point. I would like to “raise your consciousness” on the voting system itself, and to present an alternative. 

The most used voting system is the plurality voting system, or in layman’s terms, the simple majority vote system. This basically means voters can tick one alternative on their ballot. The candidate that receives the most votes wins (and in the electoral system, all the electoral votes for that state).

The simple majority vote, however, sucks — and there are mathematical reasons for asserting so. The majority vote only reveals an individual’s preferred candidate, but there are other criteria, e.g. the independence of irrelevant alternatives (IIA). That is a fancy way of saying your vote for Perot should not undercut your support for Bush Sr. and cause Clinton to win — or your support for Nader should not enable Bush Jr. to win, which it did, unfortunately for us all…

The simple majority vote system cannot account for such nuances. It forces people to vote — not for the candidate they prefer — but for the candidate who can beat the one they fear most, and as I say, that sucks.

The Condorcet voting method allows each voter to rank all alternatives instead of picking a single candidate. The benefit is obvious: voting sincerely doesn’t force you to waste your vote.

In practice, candidates are ranked from least to most preferred. They may be given equal preference and those left unranked are regarded as equal (but below the least preferred alternative). To calculate the winner all candidates are paired together. 

For example, if Alice is paired against Bob it is necessary to count both the number of voters who have ranked Alice higher than Bob, and the number who have ranked Bob higher than Alice. If Alice is preferred by more voters then she is the winner of that pairing. When all possible pairings of candidates have been considered, if one candidate beats every other candidate in these contests then they are declared the Condorcet winner.

If there is no clear winner, then their are other mathematical models for determining the winner. Check out the link above for more information.

So is this already used somewhere? Actualy yes. Most users can be found in the open source code community, but also Kingman Hall at Berkely, Music Television (MTV) and Wikimedia Foundation to name a few. Have a look at the whole list if you like.