Friday, December 18, 2009

Gay Marriage in DC!

I am extremely proud of my city right now -- Mayor Fenty just signed gay marriage into law. The City Council had to fight some pretty strong opposition, most notably the Catholic Church. The situation there was pretty complex; the city uses a lot of contractors to provide services like homeless shelters, and Catholic Charities is the largest such contractor. In order to qualify as a contractor, they have to follow the same rules the city does on things like discrimination and employee benefits, so they were already prevented from excluding gay people from working for them. Now that gay marriage is legal, they have the additional requirement of recognizing their employees' gay marriages for benefit purposes, which of course completely enrages the bigoted fucktard contingent. It is highly likely that the city is going to lose CC as a contractor, which will be a pretty serious blow; I'm really proud of the Council for being willing to do that in the name of civil rights.

The other thing the city had to overcome, of course, is strong opposition on the bad side of town. Northeast and most of Southeast are both pretty poor and very religious, and that combination has historically correlated to opposition to civil rights. There's been some race-based noise about this, because those neighborhoods happen also to be majority black and Proposition 8 created this "black vs. gay" myth, but the statistics are pretty clear that the correlations with poverty and religiosity are a lot stronger than the correlation with race.

There's still the possibility, of course, that Congress will overturn the bill, but I doubt it. They've got 30 days to it in, and they're on vacation for most of those days, and planning to spend the rest finishing up rewriting the health care bill into a feudal boon for their insurance-industry masters.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's Rational to Be Irrational (Sometimes)

A little thought experiment that will help lay the groundwork for later posts:

A rational being is one which always acts to maximize the likelihood of producing optimal outcomes. In other words: A rational being has some set of pre-rational preferences, and a body of available information. Using this information, the rational being evaluates the available courses of action and chooses the one that appears likeliest to produce the most-preferred (optimal) outcome.

We thus already see that a rational being cannot exist without something irrational, namely preferences. But there's a deeper way in which irrationality can be rational.

Imagine that you are in the jungle. You, like all human beings, have a capacity called agency attribution. This is, effectively, an alarm system that notifies you when a sensory input is caused by an intentional act. In other words, it's what distinguishes between leaves rustled by the wind (non-intentional), and leaves rustled by a hungry tiger stalking you (intentional). If you were perfectly rational, you would assign agency wherever there was evidence of an intentional being, and no other time.

However, here in the jungle, tigers are pretty good at hiding. There's a good likelihood that those rustling leaves are a tiger, even though there's no evidence that it's anything other than the wind. If you fearfully and irrationally shoot at every rustling leaf, on the knee-jerk assumption that it's a tiger, you are likelier to survive than if you're purely rational about it.

Increasing your survival chances is, generally, a pretty rational thing to do. So, in this circumstance, behaving irrationally on one level is actually rational on a higher level (meta-rational?) Indeed, I'd speculate that something like this scenario creates a selection pressure for a hair-trigger agency attribution, which would explain why it's a nigh-universal human trait.

Anyway, if this scenario seems oddly familiar, it should be: it's Pascal's Wager, only with a tiger instead of a vengeful God. I'm not arguing that Pascal's Wager should be regarded as a valid argument for belief in God (the difference is that tigers can be demonstrated to exist); only that the kind of irrationality which leads to Pascal's Wager serves a useful function.

Edit for Clarity: What I am arguing, in essence, is that there are circumstances under which a hypothetical, fully rational being, who prefers survival to death, will wish to be less rational. To put this yet another way: there exist selection pressures favoring certain forms of irrationality.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

*slow clap*

Every once in a while, in the midst of the seemingly unending flood of bigotry, hate, war, greed, and pointless suffering, I'm reminded why I love humanity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


The dread specter of real life has reared its hideous carapace. I will be returning shortly to pick up discussion threads left dangling, but it may be as much as another week.

Monday, October 26, 2009


One of my purposes in starting this blog has been to serve as a counterpoint to some of the atheists you tend to encounter online. You know the ones I'm talking about, I'm sure -- running around insisting religion is stupid and irrational, demanding that religious people prove God exists, and generally proving that fundamentalist Christianity by no means has a monopoly on assholes.

Part of my plan is a series of posts dealing with the serious flaws in standard Internet Atheist arguments. For this inaugural post, we'll talk about the burden of proof.

(Note: When I refer to God with a capital "G", I'm talking about a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient creator which is also a person. I also intend the term to include sets of persons who have those properties when considered collectively, for example some views on the Hindu pantheon. I use the male singular pronoun to refer to God, because that's the tradition used by most people who believe in such a God. I am well aware that not every religious person believes in a singular, personal, masculine, transcendent divinity, and that any given tradition may reject one or all of those descriptors. No offense is intended or, I hope, taken. Please bear with me for the sake of argument.)

The concept of burden of proof, as used by Internet Atheists, has to do with competing claims about existence. Imagine, for example, that I claim there is such a thing as a three-humped camel. You claim there is no such thing. Obviously, only one of these claims can be true.

If there is such a thing as a three-humped camel, then I can prove it by producing the camel. On the other hand, if there is no such thing as a three-humped camel, the only way to prove it is to examine every camel in the world. Quite a difficult task! So, my claim is easier to test, and the burden of proof thus falls on me. In the absence of evidence for a three-humped camel, it's best to assume there is probably no such thing.

This may seem counterintuitive: the easier claim to prove is the one you assume is false. However, it makes sense if you think about it. Since, if true, my claim is so much easier to prove, the fact that I haven't proven it is suspicious. In general, claims that something exists are easier to prove than claims that it does not: to prove it exists, you just have to produce it, but to prove it does not requires searching the entire universe. Hence the rule of thumb that the burden of proof lies with the person making the positive claim of existence. Closely related is the claim "It's impossible to prove a negative." You can't prove that three-humped camels don't exist, because there's always the possibility that you missed the one camel that does have three humps.

If you stop there, it might seem like the Internet atheists have a point: doesn't the burden of proof rest on the person making the claim that God exists?

Well... not always. Remember, the only reason the burden of proof rests on the person claiming three-humped camels exist is because that is the easier claim to prove. In the case of God... well, how exactly would you go about proving that God exists? People have been trying for centuries, and consistently failed. God is neither logically necessary (there is nothing known about the universe which could not be true if God did not exist) nor empirically detectable. There is no device or experiment that can detect an omnipotent being if it doesn't want to be found, nor is there any way to be sure that an apparent miracle is not actually a perfectly natural phenomenon we simply haven't figured out yet.

What about disproving God? Again, you can't. It's not just a matter of checking every camel in the world -- here we're dealing with a three-humped camel that can look two-humped whenever it wants to. The way God is defined makes it impossible to disprove.

So, both claims are impossible to prove, and thus equally (infinitely) difficult to prove. Neither claim carries the burden of proof.

What does that mean? Well, with the camels, in the absence of evidence either way, it is more rational to disbelieve in the three-humped camel, because there should be evidence of it if it's true. That doesn't apply to God. In the absence of evidence either way, and all other things being equal, it is not more rational to disbelieve in the existence of God, nor is it more rational to believe in the existence of God. Both claims are equally (ir)rational.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

First Cold Day

First cold day of the fall today. Not sure exactly what the temperature was, but I decided to wear short sleeves to work. The five blocks from my apartment to the Metro were a little too cold, but then once I got downtown the three blocks from the Metro to work were glorious. Clear and crisp and energizing. I love the cold; it makes me feel alive. Definitely a great start to the day.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Fluffy Iguana Cookies?

Iguanas are reptilian, leathery, kind of grumpy and evil-looking (albeit awesome).

A fluffy iguana thus seems like an odd contradiction. Kind of like being an agnostic atheist Jew.

Also, cookies are yummy.

Mostly, though, it's suddenly become the favored term for "the best possible thing ever" on my favorite blog, Slacktivist. And somebody suggested it should be used as a blog title or band name, and, well... I pounced first.