Archive for September, 2014

Greta FTW


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


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.


What really matters


Dug up from the draft pile – the opening is a little out of date, but the content is quite relevant.

Here is an interesting piece in the Calgary Herald on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but fussing over that is not the point of this post. (See here and here for some thoughts on that.)

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, my MP3 player for podcast listening on my commute, the bicycle I often commute on, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important than any of that is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I can get stuck in computer games or TV shows when there are people I could be visiting with.

I fight such tendencies in myself using the framework of my humanist values and worldview. I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

Christmas is a good yearly reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give last year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game – a gift that, itself, encourages socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with others to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not find personal resonance in religious beliefs.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings or Unitarian church, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. The odds are that you do too: have a look around. Join a Meetup group. Start your own. Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids. They are growing up in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.

Microedits and Macroedits


I’ve been dipping my toes in the Stand To Reason apologetics website – mostly through its podcasts Stand To Reason (with Greg Koukl) and Thinking Out Loud (with Alan Shlemon). This post is a response to Shlemon’s assertion in this episode that macroevolution is a whole separate thing from microevolution.

This is a familiar trope among those of us who try to keep an eye on the creationist pushback against the science of biological origins. Many many people have countered it – in books, in articles, in encyclopedias and FAQs, in blog posts and videos, in debates and other personal interactions.

I have nothing new to add, really: the science is in, and creationism fails the test. There are ways to work God into your worldview without contradicting reality, but many people aren’t willing to adapt their beliefs to the evidence. Their loss.

Anyway, as I was listening to Shlemon smugly dismiss the scientific objection that macroevolution is simply the accumulated effects of microevolution over large enough time spans, I was thinking how I might respond. If an acquaintance were to offer that argument, how could I respond in a way that might get them past the cognitive block they have?

Here’s what I came up with:

Imagine that each species can be described by a (potentially very long) line of letters. Let’s say we only use letters corresponding to the four basic elements: A (aqua, for water), C (combustia, for air), G (gasea, for air), and T (terra, for earth).

Now, imagine there are ways of changing the sequence of letters, so that a child doesn’t have exactly the letters of its parent or parents. Let’s call a single letter change “microevolution”. That could be, for example, a “C” changing to an “A”. Or a “T” being inserted between a “G” and another “T”. Or an “A” being lost altogether.

And let’s say that “macroevolution” means a wholesale change of the sequence: no letter is the same as it was before.

Can you imagine a way to do microevolution over and over again and eventually get macroevolution?

I sure can.

And that’s it.

Oh, there are some constraints. Biological evolution requires that each stage – each mutated offspring – is viable and is not at a substantial selective disadvantage relative to the other variants present in its population. So, in the real world, it is not the case that any species could evolve into any other species by any textually-sufficient chain of genetic mutations. But that’s not the claim of modern evolutionary science. The strongest claim it makes is that there has been at least one such path leading from life’s early progenitor(s) to each species that has ever existed on Earth.

Anyway, what do you think of my illustration? Does it replicate what someone else has produced? If so, please point to them in the comments. Does it seem clever? Useful? Scientifically accurate?

Podcast review: Grammar Girl


As a linguist, I am trained to look at language descriptively. I am also inclined to dismiss the prescriptions of grammarians and language mavens; they often reflect a narrow view of language. I found the Grammar Girl podcast because it was given as a model of the prescriptive attitude in a colleague’s slides. In it, Mignon Fogerty gives advice about how to use words and grammatical constructions in English. I thought, “Excellent. I’ll listen, and get a window into the other side – see how the prescriptivists go wrong, and be able to formulate arguments against them.”

But Mignon Fogerty foiled my plans. Rather than advocating a blind adherence to arbitrary rules (as some prescriptivists do), She and other contributors make an effort to understand language as it actually works. They tell listeners where forms come from. They advise based on how language is actually used. They do sometimes fall back on usage guides. (See this article from a far more accomplished linguist than me to understand why “usage guides” are not held in high esteem by linguists.)

I had to listen for some time before I came to a full appreciation of the subtleties of her perspective, and I’m afraid I offered her one or two snarky tweets along the way (from my other Twitter account, @TimPhon).

I still don’t agree with everything she says, but I stay subscribed because I know there’s plenty that I can learn from her. And because the episodes are short and fun.

Anyway, here was one attempt to redeem my behaviour to her:

(Yes, someone has already pointed out my idiosyncratic spelling of “weird”. Thankyou.)

God and morality: beyond Euthyphro


I am currently trying to deepen my understanding of the basic nature of morality. My main go-to for this investigation is philosophy. Yes, you can read that as “secular philosophy”, but only in the sense that I’m not presupposing any gods exist or play a part in morality. I’m not ruling them out either.

Many people (now and in times past) have thought that the existence of a god or gods was important to morality, and many people have pushed back on that idea. I’ve had a thought or two on that back-and-forth that I’d like to share.

I’ll start at the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato. It is a response to the claim that morality comes from God, and it has two prongs:

1. Is something moral because God commands it?

If so, then God could command the reverse and that would be moral. This goes against our intuitions. For example, rape is bad, whether God commands it or not. So this prong seems to fail.

2. Then does God command it because it is moral?

If so, then the morality of an act is logically prior to God’s command. God becomes the messenger of morality, but doesn’t really ground it. So this prong undermines God’s role in grounding morality.

That’s it.

In my experience, most atheists see the Euthyphro dilemma as fatal to the religious position that God grounds morality. I lean this way myself.

And, so far as I can tell, most theists disagree. (For samples of their responses, see Wikipedia, Stand To Reason, or CARM.) The best responses I’ve heard are along the lines of this: “Things are not moral because God commands them. Rather, their morality or immorality is derived from God’s very nature.”

I don’t know. On the one hand, this certainly avoids the first prong: morality doesn’t hang simply on God’s commands. But what about the second prong? I feel that one could restate the defense like so: “God’s nature partakes of the moral grounding, and so morality is fundamental to who God is.” So, while not temporally prior, the moral grounding is logically prior to or separate from God.

This response probably has holes in it too – I’ll leave that to more detail-oriented philosophers.

But, regardless of the nature of morality – objective, subjective, external, internal, whatever! – there is one thing an all-knowing God could help us with. They could share that understanding. They could say, “Actually, morality is fundamentally subjective. I’ve shared My top ten in this Holy Book, and I have a special prize for anyone who chooses the same morality as Me. But you know, take it or leave it. It’s not Ultimately better or worse.” Or, They could say, “I ground true morality, and it works like XYZ, and anyone who goes against it is Objectively Wrong.”

In other words, God could be a teacher.

So, while I’m not sure that gods’ existence has any material implication for the nature of morality, it would certainly have implications for our understanding of morality – if any god were inclined to communicate such things.

Based on this, and contrary to things I have thought and perhaps voiced in the past, I’d have to say that it would be nice if an all-knowing, good god existed.

So … why don’t I then look deeper into the morality of the Bible, or the Koran, or the Gita? Same reason as before: all the evidence suggests to me to point that these books came entirely from the minds of humans. And I have found better human expressions of morality elsewhere: more thoughtful, more humble, more true.

What would convince me that this ever-so-handy teacher-god existed, and was behind a particular work of moral philosophy? I don’t know. I suppose the appropriate kind of evidence would depend on the proposed traits of the god. But, as others have said before me, it is unlikely that a finite mind (like mine) could competently identify an infinite anything (which most modern conceptions of God are), so I don’t think there is any rational basis for me asserting to know that some perception of mine corresponds to an infinite being.

On the other hand, someone doesn’t have to be unboundedly good, knowledgeable, or powerful to be a valuable teacher. So even a more limited god might be handy to have around.

Still, I see no evidence even for that more modest, more comprehensible being.

Oh well. I guess I’ll have to carry on doing my best with what I’ve got.


Podcast review: The Atheist Experience


The Atheist Experience is actually a public-access cable television show based in Austin, Texas. But if you’re just after podcasts, there is a regular podcast feed and an iTunes feed. They also have a blog on Freethought Blogs.

I listened to the Atheist Experience podcast for several years. It is an hour-long show that generally starts with a brief discussion between the hosts, followed by interaction with callers. Some of the callers are atheists asking advice; many are religious people wishing to argue or discuss points of disagreement. Some calls are very short; some take a large part of the show. The hosts have no control over who calls (though they can and do hang up on people who are clearly wasting their time).

It is a great listen, because the hosts are able to articulate responses quickly that address callers’ questions or comments. I have picked up some useful tips for such discussions listening.

Over time, it became a little repetetive for me. I knew how the hosts would respond to most callers. I wasn’t getting much more out of it personally, so I stopped listening. I may pick it up again – it is still a valuable resource for atheists and believers alike who want to hear a clear, quick articulation of atheist perspectives on various topics.

I think that new atheists and people looking for arguments and responses to arguments for belief could find this useful. I expect that most believers would find the abrupt style of certain hosts grating – though from my perspective I really can’t fault them for their approach.

Though I don’t currently listen, I think this is a superb resource and I recommend you check it out.

People are animals too!


A recent edition of Science Friday talked about mental illness in non-human animals. One of the guests pointed out that this may involve anthropomorphizing other animals, and that got me thinking.

Whether it is malice attributed to stinging insects, propositional thoughts projected onto pet fish, or a sense of humour read out of a pet cat’s funny antics, there are plenty of cases where people are almost certainly reading their own mental states into other animals’ minds. It is a *failure* of empathy, a failure to understand the capacities and limitations of the other creature.

But there is another side to this. When someone objects to the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms, there are those who will say that they are just animals, and cannot feel pain. There are those who will say that, even when a zoo animal displays all the symptoms that would point to depression in a human (social withdrawal, lack of appetite, etc), it can’t be actually depressed because it’s “just an animal”.

This anti-anthropomorphizing is no more rational or correct than the over-anthropomorphizing of the other side. The one is assuming that other animals are more like humans than they really are; the other is assuming they are less like humans than they really are.

Well, as I was listening to the Science Friday episode, I had a thought. Perhaps a way to bring both sides closer to a realistic assessment of other animals’ mental states is to look at it the other way. Instead of thinking of other animals in terms of human traits, why not think of humans in terms of animal traits.

After all, humans are simply one kind of animal. We are apes; we are mammals; we are vertebrates. Just like we share certain biological traits with other apes (such as long post-natal care period of young and fine motor skills in our hands), we probably also share certain psychological traits. Why? Because our brains, which shape our mental states, are similar in many ways to those of other apes. We also share some traits with other mammals (though fewer than with the apes, because we are related more distantly). And some with other vertebrates. And so on.

Anyway, I don’t have anything more specific to offer just now. Just something to think about. Don’t anthropomorphize other animals; zoomorphize humans!

Podcast review: Skeptics Guide to the Universe


The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is a juggernaut of skeptical commentary, this long-running show is hosted by neurosurgeon Steve Novella. He is joined by the “Rogues”: Bob and Jay Novella (two of Steve’s brothers), Skepchick Rebecca Watson, and Evan Bernstein. I learn something every episode, but after a few years, I think the main reason I listen is because it’s part of the background of my life. I want to know what’s going on with them. I want to keep up on news in the international skeptic community. I want to see if I can ever improve my results in the “Science or Fiction” quiz.

There is a lot of personal interaction, and it may take new listeners a bit of time to get up to speed on that. But it is also packed with regular features, all with a science/skepticism theme, such as:

  • This Day in Skepticism (neat historical tidbits)
  • A news roundup with commentary (keeping abreast of breaking news in science and pseudoscience)
  • Who’s that Noisy? (try to identify where the sound comes from, or who is speaking)
  • Science or Fiction (try to identify which science news item is the fake; listen to the rogues’ reasoning as they try to puzzle it out themselves)
  • Quickie with Bob (short nuggets of fun science news)

One might glean, listening for long enough, that one or more of the hosts are atheists, but that isn’t what the show is about, and I think that this is generally a believer-friendly podcast. Only when religious figures step into serious science do they become fair game. I think anyone who identifies as a fan of science in any way should enjoy this show. Give it a try.



This is a beautiful idea: a funeral urn with a tree growing in it.

My family already has a tradition of cremation, with ashes spread on a particular hill at the farm. It is a deeply personal connection with the land I grew up on, and if my family is willing, I would like any part of me that is not used for transplants or other practical purpose to be cremated and put there.

But this … this seems to take the whole idea one step further. Beautiful. Simple.

It connects directly to the idea of cycles, of transformation. It provides the most beautiful kind of monument to a loved one; one that will itself cycle in time, back to the earth.

The website selling the urns prices them at $225. (I’m guessing that’s US dollars.)

I’m torn – I think an idea like this should be congratulated, rewarded.

On the other hand, what would make it even more personal, even more meaningful, would be to make the urn myself before I die. Or for my loved ones to make it. And to select a tree that reflects my own identity and the identity of the land it will grow in. (Spruce? Maple? Birch? I’ll have to think about that.)

That’s the problem with great ideas. They spawn more great ideas, without end.