Thursday, August 28, 2008

Seeing in four dimensions

Have I mentioned I love the Internet? Only with this type of communication medium could I just accidentally happen across a series of videos, made by people with the ability to picture things in four dimensions, explaining what it looks like.

I still don't completely "get it", but some people appear to, and I'm going to keep re-watching these videos until it clicks in my head. My favorite evidence of the fact that these people are smarter than me was having it explained to me what the second "regular" four-dimensional object looks like (where "regular" means it's got symmetry, like how a cube is made of squares, or a pyramid has triangles for each of its sides). The description is:

Look: 600 vertices, 1,200 edges. Four edges start at each vertex. A completely regular structure. All vertices and all edges play the same role. It’s a pity that the projection breaks the symmetry.

[pause while the camera zooms around the 3 dimensional projection of the 4-dimensional object]

Now, let’s work your imagination a little...

For anyone who's new, and hasn't read this whole blog, seeing a static 4 dimensional object is how I think God might see the universe. My analogy involving an ice cream cone and a laser beam is the same as the analogy used to explain 3 dimensions to 2 dimensional lizards in this video. Except they have actual moving pictures, and then take it a level beyond what I'm able to picture. It's well worth looking at.

The videos are here.

Videos 1-4 (about an hour) walk you through the steps to understanding the fourth dimension. There are 5 other videos after that, but they deal with separate mathematical concepts, like visualizing imaginary numbers, working with fractals, etc. Also, you can download these videos from that same website if you like - they can be freely distributed, and if you use the torrent download you'll get good download speeds (I got about 300 kilobytes/second, which is about as fast as my Internet ever goes).

This is my blog entry for this week. I'm going to take the time I would have used writing on Saturday to wrap my head around these videos.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Motivators for morality

After a previous post, which compared moral development to an exercise program, I read a very interesting essay by a guy named Michael Dayah which did the same thing, from a slightly different perspective. You can find it here. I went ahead and read a couple more of his essays, and they seem very interesting and thoughtful, so I have added a link to a feed of his essays to the sidebar on this blog (a long while ago, actually - this essay was written several weeks before it was published because I decided to start spreading out my work so I don't spend so much time at it each week). You do have to watch very carefully for his biases when you're reading, though, as some things can seem reasonable which aren't when you think more carefully. Keep your eyes open for blanket statements without support. :)

His basic idea was this: Studies into how internal vs. external motivation work have something to say about our motivation to be moral people. Now, his argument appears to come from a pro-atheist viewpoint, and his other essays do cross over into sneering-at-religion territory at times, but the thought process is still interesting.

First, let's define our terms. Internal motivation is the kind of motivation an artist gets from creating something beautiful, or I tend to get when I solve a particularly tricky programming problem. How he relates this to exercise was to say that most of us start an exercise program because it feels good. Anyone who has gone on and off an exercise program can attest to this. There are some endorphins released during exercise that are quite nice.

External motivation is something given to us as a tangible reward. Some people go to work because they like their jobs (internal motivation, likee me most times) but many go to work because they're paid (external motivation, like me sometimes). So for example, (parents will like this one) a child might help out around the house because he/she wants to be helpful and wants to do what the adults are doing (internal motivation). Or he/she might do so because you've agreed to give him/her a quarter for making the bed each day (my mom did this, but it was more about teaching me about money than anything else). Thing is, once someone comes to expect external reward, the internal motivation dies. You take away that quarter, and the child no longer wants to help with the housework in the way they did before. You start seeing external results from your exercise program, displacing your internal motivation, and then the external results slow down, and you become demotivated and quit.

Dayah's argument is that the same concept can be applied to doing good in the world - either you get some internal satisfaction out of it, or you believe there will be an external reward or punishment (heaven or hell) based on your behaviour in life. He says that atheists commit significantly less than their share of crime (without citing any sources) but he can understand how externally-motivated religious people would think that without the motivation of heaven or hell, society would collapse. He argues that for those externally motivated people, this is true, and he expresses concern that studies have shown that in children once you displace the internal motivation with an external one, if you remove the external motivation, the internal one doesn't come back. This scares him because he wonders what happens with people whose main motivation for doing good is wanting to get into heaven and avoid hell, but who for one reason or another lose their belief in heaven or hell, and therefore have no motivation to be good at all. So he views religion as sort of an "amoral person factory", displacing our natural internal motivation and then (when we eventually come to our senses and drop religion - remember, he's pro-atheist) letting people loose on the world with no moral structure. I can't help thinking that this would cause atheists (many of whom were formerly religious) to commit a greater share of crime than average... So his assertion about the goodness of atheists doesn't really support the argument he's trying to make, although it might get a thumbs up from an atheist-dominated audience for his work.

Now, it seems to me that the number of people whose sole motivation for goodness is external is probably pretty small. A lot smaller than this guy seems to think. And I'll lose my motivation for exercise for a while, and it will eventually come back, so I reject the idea that once internal motivation is gone, it's gone for good. But he makes a valid point that in those few cases where someone is solely externally motivated, there is a danger if the external motivator gets removed. It would be the same with a criminal whose only motivation not to commit crimes is fear of going to prison. If you remove the police, those type of people will cause a lot of damage. And I suppose it is legitimate to say that for people whose main motivation towards good relates to heaven and hell, if they lose their belief in those things, they will go through a dangerous time when they are morally lost. But eventually I think their internal moral motivation will reassert itself. Dayah ends his essay by asking how we can help externally-motivated people to reestablish interal motivation. I think if I was a parent I would have some examples of how this could be done, aside from just waiting around for it to happen naturally. Would any parents out there like to share some ideas? And question for the religious: what's your guess at the number of people who are mainly externally motivated, and/or think that without the idea of heaven or hell, society will probably collapse?

Update: Very soon after publishing this post, I got a message on Facebook from Michael Dayah. He thanked me for pointing out the inconsistency between his statistics and his theory, and said he appreciated that I read his work "for what is written, rather than what [you] want it to say". Open-mindedness is rare, I guess. So, in my turn, I'd like to give him a thumbs up for open-mindedness and responding gracefully to what some would have taken as criticism.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More thoughts on moral codes

After some more thought, I've realized why I have such trouble with absolute moral codes, and why religious people may not.

My first principle is that I must follow my conscience above all else. If ever there was a situation where a particular moral code passed down by a church conflicted with what my conscience said to do, I would have to violate the moral code. So in effect, if there is no conflict, the moral code is fine, but when it comes right down to it what I'm following is my conscience. Yes it's personal and thus can be argued about, yes this means I have to think harder, and yes, it can lead to mistakes. But I'm concerned that taking moral codes given to me by someone else without asking why they are right or wrong will lead to even bigger mistakes. And if I have to understand why something is right or wrong, then I'm back to questioning the moral code and using my own judgement instead.

I think a key difference with me is that I don't have faith that, even if there is a God, any social institution can perfectly express the moral imperatives I should follow. My view is that there is always some level of political influence, communication/translation error and sheer incompetence in any organization. And the way to ensure that the level of these things in the organizations you are a part of is as low as possible is to keep questioning those organizations, and keep pushing them closer to perfection. And the idea of taking on faith that an organization's pronouncements are correct seems wrong, even when the organization has been around for thousands of years. Unquestioning faith opens the door to an abuse of power, and as humans if a door is open someone, somewhere is likely to step through. So even though I now have a much greater appreciation for the benefits of absolute moral codes than I had a few days ago, I am going to have to maintain my position against them as a personal guide to right and wrong. They can still be good for guiding society in a positive direction, and as the basis from which we start asking moral questions, though.

Another thing that became clear to me during a discussion this past week is that if you subscribe to the idea that your moral code is absolute, and applies to everyone, it can look like someone who subscribes to moral principles rather than a code (list of do's and don'ts) is a moral relativist, when that's not the case. I think there are certain moral principles that are always correct for everyone (although we may not have a full understanding of them yet). But on the other hand, I don't think any given behaviour (such as lying or adultery) must necessarily be forbidden in all cases. So I subscribe to absolute principles (which I am still trying to discover - it looks like a combination of utilitarianism and empathy works well) but I'm skeptical of whether any given behaviour should be forbidden/praised in all cases for everyone, and I think there's great value in asking why any given moral code makes sense, and thus coming to an understanding of the principles from which it is derived.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Another plug - for a ridiculously thoughtful Christian blog

Hi all.

I'm adding another blog to the left hand side of this screen -

This blog is by a guy with the screen name Uncle E. I've read a lot of his posts on some of the forums I've been on. Darwin, he would be a worthy debating partner for you. I'm going to follow his work, and I think thoughtful people on both sides would benefit from doing the same.

He also has some thoughts posted on a website called Reason and Belief, summarizing what we can determine from both science and faith on questions surrounding happiness and meaning in life. It looks like a lot of thought and research has gone into this, and it's well worth a read.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The benefits and drawbacks of moral codes

I am so glad I've started this site - I've been able to have some great discussions with people who comment (thanks, by the way). One of the discussions that started from my post on valuing religion as a source of good ideas was about adopting a moral code, as opposed to just judging your own morals as you go based on certain principles.

This is a key difference between the religious crowd and the non-religious crowd - those who are religious can say "Look, we have a list of things we're not supposed to do, and a bunch of things we are, too". Whereas the non-religious say things like "We live by empathy + doing that which causes the greatest good for the greatest number". And they both argue that their viewpoint is best. I thought first that the distinction was that the religious people had an absolute set of rules, whereas for the non-religious their morals were based on their own personal judgement of how to apply various principles. I've come to realize the distinction is a little less stark than that, and it's not just absolute/relative.

So which is better, moral codes or moral judgement-calls? I spent considerable time arguing for judgement-based frameworks, because they are more flexible. I hate when a set of rules gets misapplied, such as when "thou shalt not kill" prolongs the life of someone who is in great pain and has consented to end their life, but is unable to do so themselves. I know, assisted suicide is probably going to be very contraversial for lots of people, but it's the best example I can come up with.

The fact that that's the best example I can come up with says something, actually. It says that although religious people have written frameworks, they are, in fact, somewhat flexible (or I would have been able to come up with something less controversial to discuss). For example, "thou shalt not bear false witness" doesn't stop people from telling a little fib so they won't spoil a surprise party (or at least it wouldn't stop a lot of people). And with all of the other moral judgements that they have to make, they do have some flexibility. And it helps a lot, when the situation is ambiguous, to have a clear code to go back to and say "nope, not going to do this, the book says no." Sort of like my principle "When your moral principles are in conflict, that means you stop and think", except without the thinking, which saves a bunch of time and can be critical when you have to make a quick decision. Written moral codes are a safety measure.

That was a key insight I gained - the difference between religious and non-religious moral codes was that the religious ones were writen down and formally accepted by all members of the religion, whereas the non-religious ones were in everyone's seperate head. Not that we couldn't all appeal to higher principles we could agree on, but there was a lot more debate involved. And after discussing it, what I thought was a strength can also be a weakness.

Ok, this is getting longer than I thought. Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to list the pros and cons of each approach, and as I think of more or discover more during discussion, I'll add to the list on an ongoing basis. Why is this important? Because I want to decide whether I really do object to the strict moral codes of religion. I didn't think they were a good thing at first. I thought developing your own judgement skills would give everyone better results over the long run. But they have merit now which I didn't recognize at first.

Judgement-based (non-codified) moral frameworks:
- More flexible: Can handle grey areas and tricky situations
- Encourage thoughtfulness when dealing with moral issues
- Can take new issues such as cloning, genetically modified organisms, etc. in stride - each issue is treated seperately anyway.

- Not agreed upon by all adherents
- More complex, can lead to personal confusion or inconsistent moral positions
- Require intelligence and careful thought to apply correctly (not suitable for 2 year olds)
- Subject to problems of human cognition (self-justification, incomplete information, probably many others I'll think of later)

Codified moral frameworks:

- Everyone agrees what they are (or at least can agree what is written as a starting point for argument)
- Easier to apply in complex situations (less ambiguity)
- Even those who are not all that bright can just memorize and apply, with non-terrible results most times
- Time-tested approach works for many situations


- If misapplied it can be harder to get someone to agree they've done something wrong
- If application in a particular situation is unclear or conflicting, people can become more entrenched in positions, and/or not be as used to having to weigh alternatives
- If elements of the moral code conflict, resolving the conflict can be difficult as there doesn't seem to be any prioritization of elements
- Not flexible. Changing the moral code to account for new scientific developments requires formal proclamation of change.

Overall, at this point, I think my position is that moral codes are good for society as a whole, but as you develop as a moral individual granting yourself some discretion can be beneficial if you've really thought it through. Yes, that's right, I'm sitting on the fence on this one!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Unitarian Church

Wow. I don't like starting off my blog posts with that, especially when this is likely not to be news to anyone but me, but I genuinely didn't know there was a church out there where you didn't have to believe in God to sign up. I thought believing in God was kind of the point, which is why I kept saying churches are missing the real point of it all.

I found out today that I was wrong. As it turns out, there's this thing called unitarianism. They're trying to do what I'm trying to do, sort of. Provide a place where you can be a person with some kind of faith (or none, if you prefer) and be supported in working towards goodness, without having to buy into any particular religious conception of God.

Here's what the website of my local unitarian church says:

This is a church of people. It is for spiritual explorers and free thinkers. It is for people refining their values and parents wanting to teach those values to their children. It is for people who are sure about God, and for those who are not. It is for people who are concerned with injustice and people who are accepting of differences.

In other words, if they're not kidding, this might be the type of church I could go to without feeling like I have to lie and say I believe something I really don't. Anyway, it's worth a try, as I've mentioned I really would like something churchlike without all the mythology and ritual of a typical church.

Does anyone know much about the Unitarians? I find it unbelievable that in all the times I've gone "I wish Church was like this" nobody has gone "But wait, this one is."

Sorry, no heavy philosophy tonight. That's a full week now without it. I'll have something good on Sunday, I promise.

Update, August 17, 2008: I've just come from the Unitarian service. It was exactly as the website indicated. Some very thouhgtful people there, with various beliefs, but otherwise very much like regular church, right down to the hymns (with lyrics about building and teaching and working in the world, rather than praising the Lord). I think I'm going to keep going.

Update, August 23, 2008: After some more looking into things, it turns out unitarianism (and universalism) don't mean what it sounds like they mean, or what the people at my particular Unitarian Universalist church were practicing. Unitarian means they don't believe in the trinity (father, son and holy ghost), and universalist means they believe everyone gets into heaven. Both are Christian ideas. The practice of my particular Unitarian church seems more like what I was looking for than that - somewhere where all beliefs were accepted, and the underlying truths of many of the core beliefs of those relgions were acknowledged, with an effort to bring people together around those core truths rather than get caught up in the details of a particular belief system. But still, if the meaning of the name they have chosen for themselves has those roots, it's debatable whether I wouldn't be better off just continuing outside of a church. We'll see.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Shameless plug for a new forum

Over the past week, I've been involved in a discussion on the Why Won't God Heal Amputees forum, abcut how the approach the atheist community there takes can be improved. It was started off by this ranting, raving millitant atheist who basically wanted to turn the whole thing into something like the Black Panthers of Atheism, as far as I can tell. I and some others spent a lot of time arguing the case for moderation, and in fact that the far more effective approach is to become less directly adversarial, not more.

Anyway, many good and thoughtful comments were made, but also a lot of frustration was expressed. And eventualy the discussion degenerated to the point where people just walked away. But as a result of that discussion, some of the brighter and more moderate people on the WWGHA forum have started a new one. The best summary of their purpose is on the text of their opening page, which I have copied here.

Welcome. We have started this forum because we want to discuss questions relating to God, religion, ethics and life. We think these questions are at the very least interesting, and mostly we think they are important. After all, if God exists, that must be the most important fact we can know. And if he doesn't, then believing in him would be a waste of time. Some of us think religion has enriched the world, some think it has caused too much misery. So we want to discuss, to find out what other people think and hopefully to find out the truth.

But we have found that too many discussions end up in argument, name-calling and anger. This may be fun for some people, but we don't think so. And we think most people don't think so either. That's why most forums are made up mostly of people from only one viewpoint - they may be an atheist forum or a Christian forum or something else, but in the end, people of other viewpoints don't much want to join in because of the bad vibes.

So here we aim to be different. There are atheists and theists in the group who set this forum up. We want to treat each other with respect, as friends and acquaintances, even while we might disagree. And if occasionally we get a bit hot under the collar, we also want to have a laugh, and stay friends. So our rules make it clear we don't want nastiness, insults and mockery, and we'll politely ask people who persist in those things to go elsewhere.

But other than that, anything goes. We understand one person's beliefs may be offensive to another person, but we can accept that. We just want to discuss, and we hope you do too. If so, please join us.

I've asked the forum moderators' permission to promote it here. I don't know all of the people on it (I'm fairly new to this whole discussion - hadn't gone on any religious forums at all as of a month ago), but the ones I am familiar with have posted intelligent and thoughtful things. So if you're interested in this type of discussion, I'd reccommend heading on over to I've put my last post on logic traps up for discussion there, you can find it under the "Philosophy" category. Even if you're not interested in a big discussion, but you are interested to know how people with different religious views (or atheists) think, and want to ask a question without getting your head bitten off by people who are hostile to other viewpoints, then this might be just the place to go.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Logic traps

Simple question for you: How many possible answers are there to the question "Does God exist?"

Many people would answer that there are two – either God exists, or God does not exist. End of story. And this is a huge problem, which causes a lot of fighting, and it’s completely unnecessary.

The way we think about logic is as a way to determine which of two categories – true or false – a given statement falls into. The implicit assumption is that there is always enough information to come to one of these conclusions. And it's built into our language and our thought patterns that these are the only two valid alternatives. But what happens when you don't have enough information to determine whether a statement is true or false?

When someone put up a discussion thread on an atheist forum looking for either positive physical evidence God exists, or positive physical evidence God does not and cannot exist, neither side could come up with anything. We're talking about a mix of militant atheists, fundamentalist Christians, and everything in between, and nobody had a firm answer. In this situation, all of the traditional logical tools fall short. There's very little built into our way of thinking that lets us say "God may exist" and go from there to determine reasonable conclusions about what God might be like if he exists, or what it might mean if he doesn't. We've trained ourselves to be like computers processing Boolean logic, but even computer scientists are trying to give computers "fuzzy logic" capabilities. We ought to try to rediscover our fuzzy logic abilities ourselves.

People are very uncomfortable with all this. We've been trained to seek certainty, absolute truths. So people invent lines of reasoning which suggest that it is more or less probable that God exists, or decide that they have felt the hand of God in some unverifiable way (been "possessed by the holy spirit and made to speak in tongues" for example) and that's good enough for them to be certain. And once they reach a level of probability that satisfies them, they make a true or false assertion on the existence of God (and once they've made it, boy do they stick to it sometimes!). And so we have two camps – the "God exists" camp, and the "God does not exist" camp. They fight constantly, and neither one can prove themselves right or the other side wrong. And the agnostics go "I don’t know, and thinking in uncertain terms makes my head hurt. I’m just going to be nice and hope people will leave me alone".

What I'm trying to say is that, as reasonable people, we ought all to realize we don't have enough evidence to draw a 100% certain conclusion. That is the truth, although many people on either side have convinced themselves it's not so they can say their belief systems are based on certainty. But if instead we can all agree that God might or might not exist, everyone can move towards respecting each other's views on how probable God's existence is, and we can all start to have a sensible, non-dogmatic discussion. We just have to accept the reality that we don't know what the reality is – there are two possibilities, and since we can’t eliminate either for certain, we must consider the implications of both.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Upcoming posts

UPDATE: I've decided to change to a once-weekly posting schedule, on Saturdays. Thoughtful posts take time, both to write and for others to process, and once a week, prior to the traditional Christian day of rest, seems like a good time.

Hi all:

These are things I am thinking of writing about, or already have written about and just haven't published yet. I'm going to keep to a twice-weekly posting schedule, so that I don't get overwhelmed and spend all my time writing things for the Internet (which I have been doing recently).

My plan is that something will be published on Saturday of each week. Upcoming topics (in no particular order) include:

- A continued discussion of the priority of conscience
- The thin line between us and other animals
- How I value life (Hint: Human = "valuable", non-human = "about the same as inanimate matter, except with some animation" is FAR too simple).
- The other-centered life
- How ideas spread through society
- How to reconcile "There is an absolute standard of Good shared by all of humanity" with cross-cultural differences in moral priorities
- Why faith might be beneficial
- The surprising (to me) link between beliefs about the inherent goodness of the universe and beliefs in God

This list will be updated as I come up with new ideas.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Universal truths

I was reading an article in the Economist recently. In it, the main idea is that we can explain moral principles in evolutionary terms. It provides evidence from studies of the social structure in other species that certain elements, such as treating others as you would like to be treated, and sacrificing for the greater good, are not merely human constructions arising from our superior intelligence, but are favoured for evolutionary reasons, and are present wherever social structures exist.

"Aha!" the non-religious people say "All that doctrine about goodness coming from God, and Religion being the path to greater moral/personal development/happiness - it's garbage! We don't need Church to be good people, as we've always said!"

I'd agree with part of that sentiment, and I'd say many religious people who have really thought about it would as well. Even the person who wouldn't even talk to me about my idea because it contradicted the bible said to me "I know the path to greater goodness isn't through the Church, but through God." (Paraphrase, but that's what she meant). It's entirely legitimate to reject religion, and yet still seek goodness.

But let's move away from the "moral/personal development" realm for a second, and consider how we approach problems in other areas of our lives. When you want to lose weight, do you do it alone? Most people get "exercise buddies", or tell their friends and family about their dieting plans and goals, so they're more motivated to stick to them. We get gym memberships and personal trainers. We buy into "proven weight loss strategies". Not everything we do works (in fact much of it doesn't, bad habits die hard) but we recognize that expecting we can know and understand every strategy and objectively evaluate its worth on our own is not realistic, and we recognize that having a group of people who share our goals and can provide support is valuable.

I turn away from religion because I don't think heaven and hell makes sense. I feel like a lot of religious people (although not all by any means) are just willing to accept most answers someone who leads their congregation gives them without thinking about them, because of their "faith in God" to guide what the leaders of the church say. And I don't know enough about other religions (or have access to a place where they're practiced, as far as I know) to even give them a try. I'm not now arguing that that's a wrong choice. But looking at religion as a source of good ideas, of "proven strategies" for greater happiness, makes more and more sense to me the more I consider it.

Religious people often say that after they joined a church, their lives showed improvement. The thoughtful ones can then explain why and how the strategies that religion or a church suggest work. And then, they go on and attribute their success to God, saying they could never have made the changes they have made in their lives on their own, and the non-religious people roll their eyes. But the fact is, it may be true that without going to church they would not have succeeded, because peer support helps a lot, and we don't have many other organizations that provide the same kind of support that churches do. But then, they often add a nice story about how when they prayed once, they received a burst of strength when they really needed it, and they believe without that they would have fallen back into their old habits. And the non-religious people walk away in disgust. To many of them, the credibility of this person's explanations and ability to think rationally is now compromised. They think that Church practices must be fundamentally based on ideas like this, so it's got to be garbage.

This approach is dead wrong. We're not perfectly rational, any of us, no matter how much we would like to be. So if you're someone who walks away in disgust, stop and think for a second. Consider that church practice in fact doesn't come from an idea that just popped into someone's head one day in a divine vision. Often it probably comes from people observing the world around them, seeing something that works, and saying "We should try this in our church". (And then attributing the discovery to divine providence... sigh. Not that I'm saying we shouldn't be thankful, and if you think God caused everything, thanking God is reasonable, but... just make sure to recognize your own role too.) And the practices that work get kept, and ideas that don't work out get dropped. Since this process has been going on for thousands of years, church is bound to be a source of good ideas. So, just like you should with any person, drop the rule of thumb that says "if one of their arguments is nonsense, they're irrational and not worth listening to." Consider that they might be right about some things and wrong about others, just like you are, and the smart thing to do would be to learn from the things they're right about.

Also, thinking about this makes me wish we had a general "non-religious support group" where we could go each week, with some basic values and strategies and practices that work, where being a good person was recognized and supported. Defining what values and strategies we should have is tough, but maybe after some time and some argument on this site I can make a summary that works...