Archive for December, 2010



Here’s a post from the vaults. I wrote it almost a year ago, but never got around to finishing it and posting it.

We are a categorizing species. We like to divide the world up into distinct types of things: animals and plants, men and women, natural and artificial. This tendency is useful – perhaps even necessary – but it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these distinctions are artificial. They are products of our perception and our thinking, rather than inherent features of the world.

I’ve just listened to a conversation between atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell (audio link here), which has me thinking about another distinction that is prominent in many people’s minds: that between religion and atheism.

I encourage you to kick back and listen to it. Hitchens is in fine form as always, barbed and eloquent. Sewell is pleasant, and doesn’t let Hitchens’ thorns throw her off. Come back when you’re done.

Ready? Let’s carry on …

In the conversation, each of the speakers expresses some ideas and attitudes that I agree with, and some I disagree with. I am an atheist and a member of a Unitarian community (a state seems contradictory, or at least dissonant, to many atheists).

My own way out of this apparent problem is to see it from the perspective of my  primary “worldview affiliation” (for lack of a better term): humanism. This is a label that I think applies equally well to both Hitchens and Sewell (and generally to both atheists and Unitarians).

I agree with Hitchens (as did Sewell) when he says that there is no moral act that can be motivated by religion but not by an atheistic worldview. I accept this “atheist” claim that religious belief is unrelated, in general, to ethical behaviour.

Sewell asks, however, whether Hitchens can accept that some people are motivated by their religious beliefs to do good. It seems clear to me that some people find inspiration for doing good from their religious beliefs. Others, like Hitchens and me, find our inspiration for good behaviour from personal experience, or from science, or from philosophy. I suspect that many people draw on both religious and non-religious ideas to motivate their good acts.  Hitchens evades that question in the conversation. Rather than admitting that at least some people act better because of religious belief, he falls back to his customary reel of evil deeds motivated by religion.

I think he could acknowledge her point without conceding that religion is always a good thing, or even that, on balance, it produced more good than harm. But it does sort of weaken the punch of his book’s subtitle: How religion poisons everything. Everything, Christopher? No.

On the other hand, Hitchens and I (and many other humanists, I think) are frustrated with the Unitarians’ definition of themselves as religious. Sewell uses the Bible as inspiring literature.

I consider myself a Christian.  I believe in the Jesus story as story, as narrative, and Jesus as a person whose life is exemplary and that I want to follow.  But I do not believe in all that stuff [referring to the crucifixion as redemption for sin] … (around the 10:15 mark in the audio)

She doesn’t think it’s literally true, but the stories embody common human themes and metaphors. She prefers Biblical stories to other stories perhaps – so I (a science-fiction enthusiast) would call her a “bible enthusiast”. But religious? Not in any normal sense of the word. (Perhaps I’ll cover that in a future “definition” post.) With apologies to my Unitarian friends, I have to agree that it’s odd and often misleading to call themselves religious.

So, where does that leave us? Like I said above, I think I basically agree with both of them about the important stuff.  I share Hitchens’ dislike for the Christian story – either as literal history or as an inspiring fictional tale.  I agree with Sewell that religion does inspire some good, and that it works for some people where the non-religious alternatives might not work for them.

I still haven’t completely resolved, for myself, the odd identity thing with Unitarians – are they “religious” (in which case I’ll need to accept a very eccentric definition of the word “religious”) or not?  I think it is around this question that my own reluctance to call myself a Unitarian revolves.

Hmm … that gives me an idea. Stay tuned …

(Thanks to Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, for pointing out the exchange between Hitchens and Sewell.)

Happy Southern Solstice!


For everyone more than 23.4 degrees south of the equator, happy longest day of the year!  For everyone more than 23.4 degrees north of the equator, happy shortest day of the year!  For everyone else … hmm, you know, I’ve never actually learned how the seasons work in that zone of maximum insolation around our planet’s belly.  Well, maybe you can enjoy the fact that you don’t have several inches of snow (as we do here in Boston).  Or the fact that you actually have days of relatively constant length.

Anyway, have a great solstice everyone – the cause of the season.

Also, don’t forget to celebrate Newton’s birthday on Saturday.  Reason in the season.

(I’m not blogging the Cosmic Advent this year, but you are free to follow it yourself on my Google Cosmic Calendar.)

Exploring language


Thanks to Steve Novella of the Neurologica blog, I have discovered a new toy to play with: the Google Ngram Viewer. I’d like to share it with you, and encourage you to play as well.

You may have heard of all the books that Google has been digitizing for their Google Books project. (It caused some stir among publishers and writers – it seems to have been sorted out now.) Well, the Ngram Viewer is a very Google-esque* way of looking at word count statistics from that huge collection of books.

Let’s say you’re curious about the relative popularity of two words – say, “humanist” and “atheist“. Well, you enter them as search terms, and voila:

humanist/atheist unigram graph, 1800 to 2000

Relative frequencies of "humanist" and "atheist" in the Google Books corpus, from 1800 to 2000.

We can watch the relative frequencies of these words over time. Unexpectedly (to me at least), we see “humanist” (blue) overtake “atheist” (red) during the first half of the twentieth century, following a couple of decades (20s and 30s) tracking together.  I’ll leave it up to readers to try to infer the reason for this inversion.

The term “n-gram” (yes, pronounced the same as “engram”, but there’s no connection to neuropsychology or Scientology) is used in corpus-based linguistics to denote sequences of words. A unigram is a sequence of 1 word; in the graph above, we compare the frequencies of two unigrams (relative to the total number of unigrams in the corpus). A bigram is a sequence of 2 words. Trigram: 3 words. From there on, it is common just to use the number: 4-gram, 5-gram, etc.

One more unigram comparison that I thought was interesting: function words. Check out this graph comparing “the”, “and”, “of”, “for”, “a”:

Unigram frequencies for selected function words, 1800 to 2000.

Unigram frequencies of "the", "of", "and", "a", "for", from 1800 to 2000.

What is interesting here is that the relative (and even the absolute) frequencies show very little change over two centuries. Think about all of the change in the language that those two centuries represent – from shortly after the founding of America to around the time of the latest millennial fever. And these five words have shown such amazing constancy. Sure, there is some change, but compare those to the changes in other graphs, and the difference is clear.

So, let’s check out a bigram comparison. Here’s a chart of “national debt” and “social security”:

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security"

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security" from 1800 to 2000.

I’m no political scientist, but it looks like interest in social security leaped onto the scene in the late 30s, and has been slowly climbing ever since, while talk about national debt (in the English-speaking world) has steadily declined basically since the earliest samples in this corpus.

I could go on all day about this, but I’d rather leave it to you now. Before you take off to do your own informal surveys of this delicious data repository, let me offer a couple of caveats.

First, the numbers are only as reliable as the sources. What are the sources? Google gives some information on this. They note some sources of error; they also acknowledge some inherent biases. For example, there are more computer books in recent years than in the 1800s. Whether this is a problem or not depends on the sort of question you’re asking, and how you are interpreting it.

Second, there are different numbers of books in different time periods. They actually go back as far as 1500, but you get problems when, say, a particular year only has one book published. (Check out the results for that nice constant graph of function words, if you go back to 1500.)

Third, always always keep in mind what it is that you’re measuring. These graphs do not measure belief (search “bigfoot, ufo, unicorn“). They do not measure popularity or approval (search “murder, charity“, or the “national debt, social security” illustration above). They simply measure how often people mention the words (or bigrams, trigrams, etc) in published books. (Periodicals are excluded.)

Having said that, it is still a delightful way to while away a day. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a couple of classic sources of interesting patterns:**

  • What are the relative frequencies of different number words? Is there anything systematic here? Any surprises?
  • What are the relative frequencies of gender-marked pronouns (“he, she”, for example)? How about gender-marked nouns (“man, woman”)?***

Have fun, my merry scientists!


* Google-esque: powerful, easy to use, with the potential to distract me from real work with its endless possibilities to explore.

** Before doing any search, see if you can guess what the results will be. Form a hypothesis, give a reason for your expectation. If the results agree with your expectation, congratulations! If not, see if you can explain why. Does this new explanation generate predictions about some other word frequency pattern that you could now test?

*** There is at least one pair of gender-marked nouns that seems to reverse the general trend. Can you find them? Why would they be different?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 74 other followers