Wednesday, September 26, 2007

That fateful comment

It's not often that posting a comment on someone's blog has a substantial effect on your life, but this one crystallised a lot of stuff for me.

The backstory: for various reasons, Amanda is feeling that she'll be better off if she stops agonising over God's existence and just takes it as given for the moment. Although of course I defy God and all of His works, I can see where she's coming from, because I've been feeling the same way about my atheism.

After several years of arguing about God's existence and/or involvement in the world, I'm in the process of realising that one of the accusations directed at atheists is actually true of me: I'm actually rather insecure about my atheism. That's why I go looking for religious arguments, why I spend so much time creationist-battling online, why I read so many books on the subject, why I'm so obsessed with it all. It's a very Freudian situation.

But here's the thing: I don't need to feel insecure. I've put an insane amount of effort over the years into understanding the philosophy, science, history, psychology etc, enough that I can have near-total confidence in my chosen religious stance. I can stop wondering whether the next evangelical I meet will pull a valid proof of God's existence out of their hat. I should remain open-minded, but there are better uses I can put my energy to.

I feel like I've been waiting for this realisation to strike for a long time now. In just a day, I can already see differences in my outlook. Last week I was approached by a proselytising Christian, and the conversation inevitably devolved into deep discussion of evolutionary biology. Today I bumped into the same guy and found I was more interested in his experiences as part of a faith community.

Last week I was horrified that people were more persuaded by good marketing and a sense of community than by rational skepticism. Today I find myself pleasantly impressed at how much effort some Christians go to to make potential converts comfortable. There's a lot that I can learn from this.

Last week I was pondering how someone could be weaned away from religious groups. Today I'm more interested in how such groups are set up. What would it take to plant a "church" of skeptical atheism?

I'll still keep up my usual level of science self-education, because I've discovered that I thoroughly enjoy evolutionary biology. I'll carry on reading up about the early Church (my current area of investigation), because I'm struck by parallels between the Christians' situation then and the atheists' situation now. I'll happily discuss religion with anyone who raises the subject, because I am in serious need of non-cyberspace debating practice. But although my behaviour may be unchanged, the driving force is becoming very different. I don't need to prove myself to anyone any more.
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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Spectral regrets

I've just been rewatching Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera". I absolutely love it, and not just because Emmy Rossum is cute - I'm uncultured enough to really enjoy the music.

There are a couple of things that just piss me off, though. Firstly, in the final showdown between the Phantom, Christine and Raoul, Christine utters the couplet:

Pitiful creature of darkness
What kind of life have you known?
God gave me courage to show you
You are not alone!

I just can't stop my inner atheist kicking in at this point. As a child, the Phantom was sold to a circus by his parents, who were disgusted by his deformity. A few scenes earlier we saw the young Phantom, dressed only in loincloth and a sack for a mask, clutching his stuffed toy monkey as a full-grown man brutally beat him to the delight of a jeering audience. He only got away by killing his "trainer", and since then he hasn't been able to show his face (literally). Where was God all this time?

Decades later, someone deigns to show him affection, even if only on the level of "aww, poor puppy". And suddenly God gets the credit? WTF?

I realise I'm taking this way too seriously - it's a frickin' musical - but I see the same phenomenon all the time. "A plane crashed, 127 people and a dog were killed, but one child survived with third-degree burns - what a miracle!" This is confirmation bias taken to a ludicrous extreme.

More seriously, I think the characters are painfully two-dimensional, which is tragic given they have so much potential. Raoul is played as just a well-spoken variant of the classic brainless hunk of meat. I personally lack meat, voice control and striking good looks, so this isn't exactly a persona I can relate to. They could at least have given him a couple of interesting flaws.

Christine is basically just the servant of whatever plot twist comes her way. The only slight twist is her ambivalence over the Phantom, which in the film just comes across as a mild Electra complex.

The Phantom at least gives some impression of being interesting - in the first hour there's a huge amount of uncertainty as to whether he's an evil manipulative bastard or a tragic blighted hero. Sadly, the second hour can basically be summarised as "yup, he's a bastard". This is a bit of an anticlimax, and completely destroys the most sympathetic character in the film. They could have drawn the ambiguity out so much better.

I'm especially sensitive to the Phantom's plight after reading the excellent books "Banewreaker" and "Godslayer" by Jacqueline Carey. If even a Sauron-style Dark Lord can be shown in a more noble light, what could Webber have made of Leroux's antihero?

Given my mild obsession with this dramatisation, I definitely need to check out the original book. I've currently got three separate academic courses to revise for, but once I've finished them I'll have to relearn my French and start getting genial with Gaston.
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Sunday, September 23, 2007

How maths works

It's amazing how many people really don't get mathematics. Just as the popular image of science involves test tubes of bubbling stuff and cries of "eureka", most folks seem to think that maths is what happens when Russell Crowe attacks a poor innocent blackboard with greek graffiti.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, maths is a climbing frame.

Bear with me here.

Maths proceeds as follows. First, find a bunch of factoids about some area of the mathematical world. Then "climb the frame" by placing them into some sort of abstract context. Then explore the internal workings of that paradigm*. Then climb back down from the general rules to the specific.

If you've done this right, you may find that you've descended to Earth somewhere quite different from the point where your feet left the ground. That's mathematics.

* Philosophy-of-science geeks will note that the process I'm describing is very similar to Kuhnian paradigm formation. The two are very similar, but there are some differences - maybe I'll do a post on it.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My guilty secret

Sometimes I just get these... urges. It's like an itch I can't scratch, a voice in the back of my head that says "go on, you know you want to". I know it's wrong, but I just can't hold myself back.

Yep, it's true. I've been reading my old maths textbooks again. Galois theory is even cooler second time around. Seems that it's mathematically impossible to draw a regular septagon using only compass and straightedge. That's so weird.

I'm aware that saying "I know that the quintic is not in general solvable by radicals" is not as snappy as "I know kung fu", but I'm comfortable with that. Just as long as the plain brown cover doesn't fall off my Number Fields book.

I think the next stop for me is Algebraicists Anonymous. "Hi everyone, my name is Alex and I'm a mathematics geek..." And I'm off the wagon, baby!

I'm also a little hyper. Could you tell?
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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Spooky skepticism

Early this morning, I was getting dressed in my bedroom when I heard a horrible groaning noise. On inspection it was coming from my acoustic guitar. Untouched by human hand, the guitar was making strange, discordant noises. It sounded like a bad tape recording of someone trying to talk to me.

Whoever they were, they were in great pain - a few of the noises were absolutely heart-rending moans. Without human fingers on its soundboard, a guitar shouldn't even be able to make noises other than the specific notes of the strings - certainly not a hellish wail of torment. What the heck was going on?

I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Was I receiving some sort of visitation from a fiery afterlife? Would I have to mend my ways and start buying oversize turkeys for coworkers? As it turns out, the answer was...


After watching the "haunted" instrument for a few minutes, I finally figured out what the cause was. I'd rested the guitar in upright position on a sports bag that was itself precariously balanced on some books. At some point, I'd stomped on the floor just hard enough to destabilise the bag. As a result, the guitar was sloooooowly sliding off it, and its head was being imperceptibly dragged down the wall.

The slight rasping motion was enough to create a resonant vibration in the body of the guitar, which was making the strings sing out. And the jerkiness of the guitar's slide was enough to make it sound a little like distorted human speech.

The moaning effect was because the guitar would only move a little way before coming to rest, so the last millimetre of motion was the slowest. This meant that the guitar's vibrational frequency dropped, so only the deeper strings would respond. The result was a descending wail as the frequency of the sound, averaged across the strings, gradually varied.

So much for my ghostly visitor.

What would have happened if I hadn't approached this phenomenon with a skeptical mindset? Well, for a start I'd have been out of that room before the dust had settled! I wouldn't have had the nerve to go back in until evening, by which point the guitar would have "magically" completed its slow fall off the bag and dropped dramatically to the floor. By then I'd have been convinced not only that a ghost was trying to speak to me but that it could levitate objects, poltergeist-style.

As a skeptic, though, I knew that what I thought I was experiencing - a ghostly conversation - was not necessarily what was really happening. As a skeptic, I knew to control my emotional response, to avoid leaps of logic, and to look for the most parsimonious explanation. With these powerful tools of thought in hand, I was able to fight back my instinctive superstition and come to a more accurate conclusion.

If I hadn't had that skeptical mindset, what you'd be reading here would be a story of how my guitar spoke to me, and that story would have been a lie. Speaking as someone who places a high value on truth, this incident demonstrated once again that skepticism can be our salvation.
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Saturday, September 01, 2007


Tactical blunder on my part. As part of my ongoing debate with my friend (who I'm hoping to test the power of prayer with), I've been attempting to point out inconsistencies in his pattern of beliefs. For example, he doesn't believe in ghosts. I pointed out the Biblical passage where the Witch of Endor raises Samuel's ghost for Saul, and commented that the Argument from Scripture "proves" ghosts just as much as it "proves" God.

To my amazement, he agreed with me.

He now believes in ghosts, too.

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