Thought of the day

I just spent the weekend on North Hero island on Lake Champlain and it was great. I’ve been to a lot of states and I have to say, Vermont is definitely one of the best. The people are always nice, the landscape is hard to match (especially in autumn), and Burlington is just about my ideal city. Plus, best of all, I like to imagine how much someone from Alabama, Mississippi, or some equally terrible state would hate all the recycling, hybrid cars, and general awareness of the world around us that one finds when in Vermont.

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English degrees

When I started by college career, I began as an English major. I enjoy writing and I think language is very important. However, I soon found I disliked the historical focus in my English courses. It isn’t that I dislike history – I love it, actually – but I didn’t feel I needed to know all the details of whatever issue of the day had influenced a writer. For instance, knowing that children were chimney sweepers helped me understand some of William Blake’s work because it gave me context, but the detailed politics of child labor in the 1800’s were for another type of course. And so I moved on. At first I simply went to the nebulous Liberal Studies degree. My passion was biology, but I really despised math courses, so LS allowed me to minor in biology while avoiding most math. Of course, that wasn’t quite satisfying enough for me, so I eventually just bit the bullet and declared my major to be biology. I now have two B.A.’s, one in Biology and one in Liberal Studies (with a philosophy minor), but I still think back to that English degree. I’m not going to bother ever obtaining it, but I do want to defend it.

While I was still majoring in English, I didn’t usually try to hide it. I thought, why should I be ashamed? It was a degree in a subject where, sadly, most people are utter morons. It isn’t exactly a money-making degree, but it fit a passion of mine. Of course, we can’t forget an important fact here: People are assholes. Admittedly, an English degree isn’t as hard to obtain as many other degrees, but it’s still a degree and it still requires a lot of work. Moreover, despite the contrary popular myth, an English major does not graduate with a lack of real life skills. I should know. I use my writing skills every day – and not just on some blog in the corner of the Internet. I’ll explain.

My job involves describing and interpreting a huge variety of college level textbook images. I mostly specialize in math (ironically enough), but I also do science and other books. One of those “other” books is one on which I’m working right now: an engineering mechanics dynamics book. I barely understand the title, much less anything to do with engineering. Or so I thought. The material is a lot of pre-calc and algebra II stuff on the math end and a lot of physics for the remainder, and I understand all that, but that doesn’t mean I understand engineering on a deep level at all. However, I’ve been able to easily work around that due to a higher level understanding of English. (My two or so years as an English major definitely helps, but my general interest in language is the bigger factor here.) Because I am able to write well, I am able to do this job well. In essence, because of my background in English (both formally and informally) I am better prepared to tackle a very difficult topic. I doubt the average person with an MBA could do this job.

So here’s my point. It may be true that English majors aren’t setting themselves up, on average, for huge financial success with their degrees, but it isn’t true that their degrees are of a low utility. Quality writing is one of the more important skills in society, even as we move more and more towards a money-driven corporate, business culture. I use my skills in English every single day, making me more money than I’ve made doing anything else – including making vaccines. My science degree is what really got my foot in the door where I am now, but it is my English background that has brought me success.

So, hey. Stop shitting on English degrees and the people who obtain them. They have more skills than you realize.

Let’s examine faith for a moment

It’s a common definition amongst New Atheists that faith is merely belief without evidence. The occasional theist will accept this, often going further and purporting this to be some sort of virtue, but many Christians will reject this. They will argue that faith bears some relation to evidence, reason, logic, or even all three. But does that make sense? I don’t think so.

Let’s take the most populous religion in our culture: Christianity. If faith was more than belief without evidence, we should expect to find people with Christian beliefs that originated from somewhere other than the bible. That is, if faith is just a synonym for reason or logic or evidence, then a person ought to be able to discover all the information necessary to finding Christ.

Think about it. Calculus has been discovered at least 3 times (twice in Europe and once in Japan). The history of chemistry tells us certain elements have been found by several different people (usually with just one getting the credit). Atomic weapons have been created by multiple nations. All these things happen independently of each other. And why? Because math and science have methodologies behind them that progress on the basis of logic, reason, and evidence. Discoveries can repeat themselves in math and science. This is what we should expect of a type of inquiry that is more than belief without evidence.

When has faith produced the same result in independent people at independent times? Has anyone come to accept Christ in their hearts without the bible? Has anyone even come to know anything of Christ without the bible? Why is it that we don’t have any recorded instances of a Chinese person in, say, 80 A.D. writing about the Christian Savior? The answer is simple and obvious. It isn’t possible to discover anything offered on faith except through faith. To even know the name Jesus Christ, the original source of that name and of that man is always the bible; the original source is never found freely in the world, completely independent of the known Christian traditions. A tribesman in a remote part of the Amazon jungle will never know anything of what it means to be a Christian, no matter how hard he searches, less he find himself a victim of missionaries. Beliefs found on faith are beliefs without an evidential basis. Indeed, faith is nothing more than belief without evidence.

A thought experiment on Down Syndrome

I’ve written about thought experiments quite a few times on FTSOS. I think they’re one of the most powerful tools we have in philosophy, yet people unfortunately have a distaste for their occasional inconvenience. That is, thought experiments lay out a host of parameters, generally, and it is often difficult for people to accept them all. This tends to betray a misunderstanding of the entire point of a thought experiment.

I want to present a thought experiment on Down Syndrome, but I need to emphasize the importance of the parameters I’m going to lay out. They are not meant to be realistic at all. They are simply a method for isolating one or two factors in a situation. It’s like someone asking, “If we had flying cars, do you think we would have traffic signals like we do for the roads or would it all be radar?” There are many appropriate ways to answer this, however, one of those ways does not include saying, “Cars don’t fly.” Yes, we know cars don’t fly. This is a hypothetical thought experiment with the key parameter being that cars do fly. Noting that they do not, in fact, fly is the type of comment that should be saved for lazy sitcoms.

So here is my thought experiment. Suppose it is up to you to decide whether or not pregnant women with Down Syndrome fetuses will get abortions. This is your decision, whether you’re a man or a woman. You can say, “Yes, abort them all”, or you can say, “No, don’t abort any”, or you can say, “Abort some given percentage.” An explanation is needed for any answer, but the last one especially requires explaining.

Now, I want to be sure the parameters are clear. This is your decision. Whatever you choose, it will hurt no one. The women involved will take a pill that causes an abortion (provided that’s your choice). They will agree with your decision no matter what you choose. The same goes for the father of the fetus. And the sister. And brother. And cousin. And grandmother and grandfather. And everyone else in the world. Your decision will cause no financial hardship, no emotional or physical pain, and it will take place in a developed nation like the US. EDIT: I should be clear on this point: the lack of financial/emotional/physical hardship only applies during pregnancy, not after. That is, the hardship of pregnancy itself shouldn’t be considered a factor here. Assume all the women are of equal socioeconomic standing. You cannot ask them anything and you don’t know any of them. If you don’t make a choice, the entire planet will be destroyed immediately (and for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that you do no want that to happen). (Some philosophies argue that passive and active decisions are one and the same, but for this thought experiment, you must make an active decision. You cannot stand by idly and let nature take its course; if you stand by, Earth is immediately destroyed.) All the fetuses are no more than 4 weeks along.

Again, let me emphasize: This is your decision to make for every woman. Personal autonomy, liberty, freedom, etc are all irrelevant here. (And if it helps you to recognize that this isn’t an issue having anything to do with women’s rights, pretend this all takes place 100 million years into the future at a time when we’ve somehow evolved into an asexual species, so there are no males or females, but Down Syndrome or the asexual genetic equivalent still exists.)

Finally, if you’re of the position that abortion is always wrong in every situation, then your answer is already known and not especially interesting in this context.

So, what is it? Do you choose to abort (a decision with which everyone, including those taking the pill, will agree) or do you choose not to abort (a decision with which everyone will also agree)? Or do you choose some percentage between 0 and 100?

What would constitute evidence for God?

As a so-called New Atheist, one of the cornerstones of my worldview is that evidence is absolutely key in coming to any sort of important conclusion. To believe otherwise is to believe dangerously, at least when it comes to anything important. (Our belief that, for instance, a bridge isn’t going to collapse beneath us is an assumption, and so I exclude such beliefs when I use the word “important”.) That is, to believe something without evidence is to believe on faith. And, of course, that is entirely random; faith is not a method of belief by any means, but rather an arbitrary basis that can lead a person to absolutely any conclusion, including abortion clinic bombings, giving a homeless person a dollar, and committing war atrocities. In short, faith is the worst thing the world has ever seen.

So all that said, I reject faith fully. This is why I call myself an atheist: I am without any form of theism because there is no evidence in its favor. Indeed, there is no good evidence in favor of even deism. (I’m also an anti-theist, but for different reasons.) But I’ve often wondered, what sort of evidence would I accept as pointing towards a knowing, intervening creator? I recall Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers having a back and forth prior towards everyone in the New Atheist movement, including Coyne, shunning Myers for various reasons, so it was a civil exchange, but I don’t recall the details. All I remember now is that Coyne said there is possible evidence whereas Myers took the faith-based position in saying that no evidence could convince him. I won’t bother finding those posts since they aren’t especially relevant here. What is relevant is this B-level Onion article:

Researchers at Harvard University announced today that they have found what appears to be a message from God written inside the human genome.

In a little-explored section of non-coding DNA, a team of top geneticists discovered a 22-word snippet of ancient Aramaic in which God confirms his existence and his role in creating life on Earth.

The stunning finding represents nearly irrefutable evidence of God’s existence and his role in creating the process of evolution by natural selection.

The message was discovered when researchers noticed strange mathematical patterns appearing within a certain section of the genome.

“Hello my children. This is Yahweh, the one true Lord. You have found creation’s secret. Now share it peacefully with the world.

Again, this is an article in the style of TheOnion, a tongue-in-cheek piece meant to be funny. It comes from The Daily Currant, which has had some success in fooling people with its articles (not that that was their intention), but I’m not a big fan.

At any rate, this is a perfect example of what it would take to show me evidence God exists. It isn’t that if we find there are no hidden messages in our DNA we’ve falsified the God hypothesis. No, rather it’s that something like this would be strong evidence for the existence of a creator, I think. The odds that natural selection would, by chance, produce something so precise as this is very, very small.

Of course, let me take this moment to point out that natural selection is not actually a chance process. I only describe it as such in the above instance because natural selection acts to increase an organism’s ability to survive – it does not act to produce linguistic codes that translate into multiple sentences in order to form a coherent message. That is, natural selection is not a chance process, but for it to produce a lengthy message would be insanely freak chance since no part of its regular process leads to anything like messages. That old creationist chestnut about a tornado producing a 747 would actually have some applicability here.

So there we have it. There certainly is possible evidence for the existence of God, and I think this brings us to an important conclusion: God is a refutable hypothesis that can be subjected to the rigors of science just like anything else postulated to exist and/or have an affect on the Universe. The problem for theists is that they’ve never been able to present a test their particular, cultural god could pass.

Thought of the day

Hockey.