Openly Secular

2015/04/23

openly-secular-logoToday is Openly Secular Day. It’s a reminder to non-believers of the benefits of being open about your non-belief. It’s also a gentle nudge to those of us who are able to be open, to tell friends, family, and others who we are and what we believe. At the Openly Secular website, there are videos of many people, of varying levels of fame, discussing their atheism.

I don’t think anyone reading this blog will be surprised to learn that I am not religious. But maybe some of you also identify as atheists, humanists, or some other non-believing label, and have not yet told anyone. If you want some practice, I invite you to try it out here.

Or, if you need a venue that’s a little less public, message me privately.

Now, I also know that there are many people in my circle of family, friends, and readers who are not secular – who hold some form of religious belief. That’s awesome. But this post is not the place to hash out the arguments (any more than a church service is a good place for an atheist to start putting forth arguments against God’s existence or Jesus’ divinity).

Oh, and if you’re reading this one some other day, it’s still a good time to come out, however you are able and comfortable. And if you are not able to come out, that’s okay. There are certainly times and places where it is not only uncomfortable but frankly unwise to talk about this stuff. I may be open about my atheism, but I never, ever discuss it in my university classes. It just isn’t the place for it – my role there is as an authority on linguistics, and I don’t want any student to get the impression that they would experience negative consequences for being open (vocally or visibly) about holding some other belief.

Cranky about voting

2015/04/22

500px-Flag_of_Alberta.svgIt’s election season again here in Alberta.

Last time I ranted about this (here, here, and here), I was living abroad. Now, I’m right in the thick of it. I’ve been living back in Alberta with my family now for four years. We have put down roots here – bought a house, established good jobs in the city in our chosen fields, reconnected with family and friends.

And I have a whole new swath of rants. Most of them, I will confine to private complaints shared with Deena, but I think a few deserve to be aired more widely.

First, on a personal note, I want to declare my deep dissatisfaction with politics. It’s an ugly, depressing, foul window into the dank recesses of human nature, recesses that are more concerned with power and image than with substance. So, you know, politics. What are you gonna do?

With that out of the way, I want to offer a little meta-observation. I noticed, as I was browsing the platforms of our parties and candidates, that my own impulse to tribalism kept wanting to take over. For candidates or parties that I identify with, I want to let vagueness slide. “It’s a platform – they only have room for so much detail.” “I’m sure they would work that out in a way I like.” And if I don’t identify with them – especially if I identify myself in opposition to them – they get the opposite: “They’re evading responsibility by offering empty words.” “I just know they’d find a way to wiggle out of that (apparently sensible) commitment.” Even when they’re not vague, I am inclined to trust or distrust specifics according to my own prejudices.

This is a very important thing to remember. I really don’t like the idea of identity politics – of saying, “This is my team, so I’ll ignore their faults and exaggerate their virtues and treat anyone on another team as the enemy.” That’s divisive and unhelpful, but it is a deeply human way to look at the world. One of many human traits that this humanist strives to overcome.

And, getting past that, I see that most of the parties are essentially saying exactly the same thing. Even when it sounds like they’re not. For example, the Wildrose Party* promises to “Expand the use of clean burning Alberta natural gas and propane for industrial and residential electricity production and transportation”. Which is all about promoting Alberta’s fossil-fuel-based natural resource economy. On the other hand, the Liberal Party promises to “phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025″: a clear commitment to cleaner energy, reducing our reliance on the worst-polluting energy sources.

But, on reflection, it occurred to me that both of these policies could be met with the same action (moving from coal power plants to gas and propane power plants). The same action, with two very different spins. (I don’t know that both parties have the same actual plan in mind, it’s just that their promises aren’t as different as they first seem.)

None of the parties are very heavy on specifics (except, it seems, for the New Democratic Party, the NDP**). And where they give specifics, I confess that I’m not qualified to judge what they really mean. I wish we had the folks from BBC’s More or Less program reviewing our election campaigns. Listening to their recent election coverage (round 1, round 2), I feel a twinge of numerical envy. (If anyone out there knows of people who are doing this, in Alberta or in Canada more generally, please let me know!)

At the end of the day, I have the same choice that citizens in democratic countries everywhere have to make: which person or party is the least bad?

I am zeroing in on my favorite. I don’t think I’ll have to resort to ballot eating. But I would like to close with two pleas which I have made before.

First, if you can votedo it! For all that we whinge and complain about the type of people that we have to choose between in our political system, democracy is still less bad than any of the alternatives. And if you’re going to vote, have a little respect for the power you are wielding and try to get informed. Don’t just vote along identity lines. Find out who is actually promising what, and vote for the person you think will create the change you want (or prevent the change you don’t want). I honestly mean this, whether you vote the way I do or not.

And second, can we please, please try something more informative than a single-mark ballot? Transferable votes are easy to fill out, and give me the option to vote my conscience without worrying that I’m letting the Awfuls in by not voting for the mediocre-but-more-likely-to-win party. As it is, I am sometimes inclined to give the whole thing a miss because it seems so likely my vote will end up counting for nothing. Electoral reform could help to solve the voter apathy problem that is rampant in Alberta, as in so many other places.

Okay, I’m done for today. Maybe my next post won’t be a rant. Have I become a cranky old man? Might have to merge with The Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist (written by an old friend of mine). Or start the “No Longer Friendly Humanist”.

Footnotes:

* The Wildrose Party is our current contender for far-right – think a slightly more moderate Republican party. (Oh, how I’m glad to be Canadian!) The wild rose is the provincial flower of Alberta.

** The NDP is the most left-leaning of the main four parties. Roughly, from left to right, they are conventionally ordered NDP, Liberal, PC (Progressive Conservatives), Wildrose.

Apologetics

2015/04/22

Hi, my name is Tim, and I have a problem with apologetics.

On the one hand, I want to remain open-minded: open to new ideas that don’t fit with my existing beliefs; open to the possibility that I’m wrong about important things. I want to be a person who can see both the positive and the negative of an idea, whether it’s an idea I want to believe, or one I want to reject, or one that I’m indifferent to.

On the other hand, I’ve read a few works of religious apologetics. They have all been singularly lacking in philosophical rigour, scientific literacy, or open-mindedness. They have been disappointing. And that makes it hard to give the next work of apologetics a fair hearing, because I can already hear all of my well-exercised objections starting to clamour for attention, almost as soon as I open the cover.

So, when I crack into a new work of apologetics, I feel the cynicism, the disgust, and the contempt start to bubble up. And that’s not the type of person I want to be. I am not a cynic. I am not a contemptuous person.

My solution, for the moment, is to go cold-turkey on reading apologetics. No more giving them the benefit of the doubt. No more slogging through mind-numbing obsequiousness or self-congratulatory drivel to determine whether some new apologist has an amazing insight that I haven’t yet come across.

If you are a believer and think there is a knock-down argument, or even just a thought-provoking speculation, that I should be exposed to, please share it with me in the comments section. I am still determined to remain open to dialogue.

Anyway, rant over. Also, happy Earth Day everyone!

Cosmic Calendar: The Big Bang

2014/12/31


fireworks_white_red

Thirteen billion seven hundred ninety-eight million years ago (give or take thirty-seven million years), an unimaginably small, massive, timeless point erupted. Time and space sprang into being.

What came before that is a question that may or may not make sense (as time itself is said to have been tied up in that initial singularity). At any rate, for now it is a question for philosophers as much as for scientists. Whether there was a “before”, either temporally or causally, we pick the first moment of the singularity’s expansion as our starting point for this calendar.

The earliest moments of January first on the Cosmic Calendar are taken up with a fury of growth and change. There was a period of exponential expansion. Speculation is that some (still mysterious) process generated a slight excess of matter over antimatter (one part in 30 million), leading to a present universe with matter dominant over antimatter.

About ten nanoseconds in, the universe cooled to the energies we can produce in particle physics experiments today. Around a microsecond, we started getting protons and neutrons out of the particle/energy soup. In the first few minutes, we started getting deuterium and helium nuclei forming.

That’s actual nanoseconds and microseconds and minutes. On the one-year scale of the Cosmic Calendar, all of this is happening unimaginably quicker. Why not watch a (safe and responsible) fireworks display. If a firework happens to go off right at the stroke of midnight, then the chemical reactions driving that explosion could be thought of as an extremely slow-motion recreation of an event that is materially, energetically, and temporally completely unlike the big bang. (But it makes a nice symbol, no?)

Following the initial explosion, it was all about energy. Most of what there was in the universe was just energy. After several thousand years, matter (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc) began to dominate the picture. Exactly when did this happen? I am unable to pin down a clear answer. This scantily-referenced paragraph on Wikipedia says 70 thousand years, which would point to a calendar time two minutes and forty seconds after midnight. This university teaching page says 50 thousand, which is one minute 54 seconds into the year. At any rate, if your energy levels to drop in the first three minutes of the year, I suggest consuming some form of matter – nachos perhaps, or vegetables. Aside from hydrogen, the most common element (bare nuclei, not stable atoms at this point) was helium. But I am very definitely not recommending that you use helium balloons to alter your voice. It might be appropriately reverent, but we are past peak helium, so it would also be irresponsible.

Between 377 000 and 487 000 years after the bang (that’s 00:14:22 to 00:18:33 on New Year’s Day), recombination and decoupling occurred. Recombination is when the first complex atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and helium, formed. Decoupling meant that photons started being able to fly free, rather than always slamming into bits of matter. This meant something new – something that we can observe today. You see, some of those photons are still zipping along. We can detect them now as the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. If you like, you could celebrate this by spending those four minutes watching snow on an old analogue television set. Or you could listen to John Cramer’s audio reproduction (available in 20-second, 50-second, 100-second, 200-second, and 500-second versions).

Now we’re well into the New Year – on our way to the universe as we know it. I don’t have any more milestones for this first day, so perhaps we should all get some sleep.

What is your favorite part of this opening fiesta of generation and diversification? Can you spot any interesting events or transitions that I’ve left out of this description?

Scientific References:

National Research Council of Canada article on age of universe
NASA WMAP report
ESA Planck report

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Timeline of the Big Bang
Wikipedia: Recombination
Wikipedia: Decoupling
Wikipedia: Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
Audio version of the CMBR

Fireworks image: “Fireworks white red“, by Tuan Hung Nguyen, Public Domain

 

Back into the Cosmic Calendar

2014/12/01

In the past, I have talked about the Cosmic Calendar. It is a grand idea, first introduced (to my knowledge) by Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series. Since then, though, I’ve sort of let it fall off the radar. I still think about the Cosmic Calendar, particularly in the last half of December with the Evolutionary Advent – interesting events virtually every day, and several on the last day of the year.

Anyway, I am currently working to build a more complete tour through the year. This renewed interest is inspired partly by my own children’s blossoming curiosity about everything, and partly by the new Cosmos series, hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson (available, among other places, on Netflix in Canada). He recapitulates the Cosmic Calendar in the first episode.

Next year, I plan to post along with the cosmic calendar, going into a little more detail on each event: what happened, how it fits into the great epic of cosmic history, and some thoughts on how science-minded folks might celebrate it.

The basic idea is not my own: as far as I know, that credit goes to Carl Sagan and his collaborators on the original Cosmos series. What I will present is my own riff on it, expanding the basic idea to a full, year-long cycle of celebration and education. I will include figures that are as accurate as my layman’s research can get. I will offer suggestions about how humanists and other science fans might celebrate each cosmic event throughout the year

I will try to keep the technical language light, but not at the expense of glossing over important or fun details.

If you want to plan your own celebrations for any of the events, do check out my Cosmic Calendar page, where I list all of the events I have been able to identify and verify (already over fifty), with links to my own posts on them individually. I have also linked to other sites and individuals who, like me, want to evangelize this awesome idea to anyone interested.

I still maintain the Google Calendar with all of these events, which is open for anyone to link to or copy.

While I would love to just jump in now, as the events start to come more quickly, I have decided instead to start fresh on January 1st – the Big Bang. I am already composing and lining up the posts. I will carry on through the full year. I currently have 50+ events lined up, and I’m looking for more. Depending on the interest and feedback I receive, I may continue this in subsequent years. (In particular, things shift a little in a leap year, because the cosmos-to-days scale is adjusted by one day.)

If you have any Cosmic events that you would like me to cover, please feel free to leave a comment on this post and I will look into it. If, during the course of the year, you notice any scientific blunders on my part, let me know and I will verify and fix them.

The duality of humanism and atheism

2014/10/07

P.Z. Myers has a touching reflection on the two sides of being a nonbeliever these days.

On the one hand, there are so many things in the world – attitudes, laws, beliefs, and actions – that can drive you to the rejecting, negative stance embodied in the term “atheism”.

On the other hand, the world abounds with amazing facts to discover, delightful experiences to savour, and inspiring goals to strive for – all things that fuel the more affirming, positive stance that is captured in the term “humanism”.

Like Myers, I oscillate between the two. Sometimes it is important to rally around the flag of No, to assert the value (sometimes even the simple right) to withholding assent or belief. I am an atheist. At other times, it is more fulfilling, more productive, and more honest to focus on what we do value, what we do believe. I am also a humanist.

It sounds like Myers is beginning to despair at the state of organized atheism lately – the prevalence of sexism, tribalism, and of unthinking, reflexive responses to criticism. This is disappointing. Not that any other community is better, but we like to define ourselves specifically by our self-correction, our openness to criticism, and our freedom from dogmatic groupthink.

But, just as I refuse to let religious conservatives own the language of morality and family values, I am not about to let the negative elements own the atheism brand. Neither is Myers.

Atheism does not justify sexism. It does not have prophets or irreproachable spokespeople.

Nor (contra what Myers seems at one point to suggest) does humanism ignore the ugliness in the world.

Still … like Myers, I find myself sometimes drawn to one of these labels, sometimes to the other. Do you find that? Are you more inclined to cling to one label in certain moods, and another in other moods? Do your oscillations fit the angry=atheism, optimistic=humanism map that Myers expresses, or do you have different associations (or labels)?

Podcast review: Quirks and Quarks / Science Friday

2014/10/04

As a kid, I remember CBC radio being a regular background in our kitchen. Particularly on Saturdays, there was always an interesting lineup. Basic Black is one show I remember fondly. The other – the one that fit with my already-healthy love of science – was Quirks and Quarks. It has gone through at least one change of hosts since then (the current host is Bob McDonald), but the same basic structure remains: a science news show with interviews and the occasional cheesy pun. There are two podcast feeds – one with the whole hour in a single download, and one with a separate download for each segment.

When I lived in Scotland, I was pointed to another show that has an almost identical format, but is based in the US: Science Friday, hosted by Ira Flatow. Its podcast feed has each segment in a separate item.

Both of these shows are essentially no-frills world-science-news digests. Each news item is normally given only a few minutes, so they are very digestible. Quirks has a slightly Canadian bias in its topics and guests; SciFri has a slightly American bias. But they are essentially the same show from different sites. And because there is far more science news than can fit into a single hour each week, they often cover completely different news items. It’s worth listening to both, if you have the time.

There are other science shows that are more … well, showy. But these two are reliable news sources which I feel I can trust to give me a relatively bias-free survey of what’s going on.

Can you tell up from down?

2014/10/01

Secular morality is relative.

Therefore, there is no ultimate, absolute, universal right and wrong in secular morality.

Because of this, there is no reason for anyone to follow secular moral rules.

It amazes me how often I hear something like this line of reasoning trotted out as a defeater for secular morality. I have long seen that it’s a completely vacuous argument, but I haven’t been able to articulate the problem with it.

Now I think I have a nice illustration that can demonstrate why it fails.

Consider the concepts of “up” and “down”.

These are obviously very useful concepts. They are important directions when dealing with actions like standing, lifting, dropping, flying, etc. They also serve as anchors for other concepts like “above/below”, “top/bottom”, “upside-down”, and so on.

It is often very important for someone to be able to identify which direction is “up” and which direction is “down”. To pilots, for example, it is regularly a matter of life and death.

But “up” and “down” have a dirty little secret: they are relative. “Up”means “away from the centre of the Earth”.

But no, even this is too geocentric.* If you’re on Mars, “up” is “away from the centre of Mars”. And if you’re in space … well, it becomes muddier. Does an astronaut experiencing microgravity in orbit around the Earth consider “up” to be “away from the Earth”? What about if you were orbiting the Sun away from any planet? What about the Voyager probes, shooting away from the Sun in orbit around nothing (except, perhaps, the galactic core)?

You see, the concept of “up” is relative. Even if you’re just on Earth, “up” is a different physical direction for someone in Ghana than for someone in Siberia.

An obvious and necessary corrolary of this is that there is no ultimate, absolute, universal “up” or “down”.

So far, “up” and “down” are the same as “right” and “wrong” in a moral system with relative underpinnings (such as one that is based on the shared psychological underpinnings of human nature – ie, relative to the species): they work only within the local frame of reference.

So, is the idea of “up” basically meaningless? Does it have no bearing on individuals? Do we have any way of deciding whether one direction is objectively “up” in a given situation?

Of course, the answer is obvious. If I am in Edmonton, Canada, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Edmonton. If I am in Kumamoto, Japan, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Kumamoto.

Similarly, for many secular moral systems, even if there is a relative element in them, it is still relative to something concrete. For example, my current inclination is to base my moral reasoning on principles that I think most people would share, such as valuing individual freedom and preventing harm. So, although my moral system is relative to these human values, the reasoning works as long as I’m talking to people in the same location: that is, as long as the people I’m speaking to share these principles.

This is not proof that secular, relativist morality is superior to theistic alternatives. I don’t know if one can prove such a thing about moral systems (except in cases where a moral system is inconsistent with itself, of course – that is a mark against any set of ideas).

But I hope that the “up/down” analogy will help people understand the faults with the most common objection to relative systems of morality.

Footnote:

* It’s also very imprecise. Due to gravitational effects of mountains and other stuff, the gravitational pull at any particular point on the Earth’s surface isn’t necessarily straight toward the Earth’s centre.

Greta FTW

2014/09/30

This is why I like reading Greta Christina.

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

(If you don’t know the backstory, do follow her links. It’s an interesting back-and-forth.)

This is a sentiment that I need to express more often. It’s something more people – especially those in positions of authority – need to say (and mean it) more often.

I’m so glad we have people of this calibre in the humanist/atheist community. We’re all human, all fallible and emotional and irrational. That’s just fine, so long as we are ready to change direction when we make mistakes.

Sometimes this means setting aside your ego. Or, perhaps even better, learning to see this sort of self-correction as a win. To really feel that owning up to a mistake is a noble and rewarding act.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Yay Greta Christina!

Podcast review: More or Less

2014/09/28

The BBC in general is a rich source of content – I imagine anyone reading this could benefit from a perusal of the Radio 4 offerings. Pretty much every show has an associated podcast you can subscribe to.

More or Less is unique among podcasts (or shows in general). I have listened to mathematical podcasts that were fascinating, but shortlived. Other shows have a passing interest in math, but do not regularly cover math topics. On More or Less, host Tim Harford and his colleauges not only do numbers, and do them regularly, year in and year out; they do them in a topical, fun, engaging manner. They show how important numeracy is in day-to-day life. Not only that; their focus is on statistics, one of the most-maligned areas of mathematics. The general format is to probe numbers that have been presented by prominent figures, or disseminated in the media, to see whether they stand up. Listeners will learn, almost by accident, what sort of questions to ask when someone tries to convince them of something with numbers.

 


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