Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oh, you poor babies

Memo: to Rush and the other so-privileged-they-can't-even-see-it chickenhawk-cons crying about Joseph Lowery's words.

A little word of advice.

Harden. The. Fuck. Up.

Thank You.


The man has earned the right to talk about race in such terms. You have not. Your bleating about racism is the babyish whining of people who have no notion of just how good they have it. It's extremely unbecoming. Just cut it out.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Religion and the utility argument

I was just reading Greta Christina's post on hope.

It's a wonderful post. I just wanted to explore an aspect of one of her themes and head down a little side-track.

There is an argument that is sometimes made: "but religion brings people hope".

This is a claim that religious belief is useful, even when it isn't true.

I have several issues with this claim.

Firstly, it often comes during a discussion of whether or not a religious belief is true - a discussion in which it has no place whatever - and in that context, such ground-shifting is tantamount to an admission that it isn't true (or that the support for it is so weak that such ground-shifting is required).

But let's examine an argument about its utility even if it isn't true.

That some religion might be useful in some circumstances may well be the case. Is it always useful? Is it sometimes harmful?

The answer is quite plain on its face - religion for its own sake (i.e. irrespective of its truth) is not always useful, and there is plenty of evidence that it can be harmful, or that it can be used in harmful ways. I have different examples than Greta Christina, but I think she addresses this fairly well, so I won't spend time on it here.

The problem is the argument is used to justify religious belief outside those specific circumstances where it has utility. The exact circumstances where it is useful are not examined, because it isn't really being used as an argument for its use in those specific circumstances alone, but instead for its general use. It's another form of bait-and-switch; the underlying aim is to turn off the arguments against religious belief, so that religious belief can be maintained generally.

However, let us go further, and start with the assumption that in fact religious belief is useful in some circumstances, and we happen to be faced with exactly such a circumstance. Here we find a second bait-and-switch. The point is actually to support the theist's specific religious beliefs. Are they really willing to consider other religions? If we examine, say Ásatrú, and find that it's better (more useful) in these specific circumstances, will they abandon their current belief when in that circumstance and embrace Ásatrú in that situation instead?

The emptiness of the argument is immediately apparent.

If utility is what is sought, their religious belief must be put into competition with all religious belief, with incompatible religious belief, to find the belief(s) that are most useful. If the point is really about utility, it is the high-utility beliefs that should be maintained, and the theist's beliefs will very likely lose. There are many thousands of extant religious beliefs, many thousands more extinct ones, and uncountable infinities of potential beliefs (indeed, including lack of belief in anything supernatural) - if "religious belief" is a useful thing, we should try to work out which specific beliefs help the most. Is the theist willing for their beliefs to undergo such examination? If not, they undermine their utility argument - if they actually want religion for its utility, they'd be willing to find the most useful beliefs, not the ones they're currently infatuated with. The fact that they simply don't do this shows their argument for the bait-and-switch that it is.

Friday, January 9, 2009

On not fooling yourself

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool" -- Richard Feynman

(not fooling yourself is a favourite theme of mine - on my personal blog as well as here - so I found this quote particularly appropriate)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

There are no legal numbers

This appears to establish that all integers* are illegal, via a less formal version the following argument.

*(and by a fairly obvious extension, all numbers)

  • Some integers are illegal (in the sense, for example, that you can't publish them without violating certain laws)
  • Publishing encoded versions of illegal integers (say via some publicly available encoding algorithm) is also illegal
  • Assume there is some smallest illegal integer, k
  • It is presumably legal to publish k-1
  • However, if I publish an algorithm to convert k-1 to an illegal integer (such as "add 1"), it would then be illegal to publish k-1, since with the algorithm it's an encoded version of the illegal integer
  • Hence, k-1 is an illegal integer
  • Therefore, since the algorithm for converting one less than an illegal integer to an illegal integer has already been published, there is no smallest illegal integer
  • A similar argument applies to any integer one larger than an illegal number (with the algorithm "subtract 1"), so there is no largest illegal integer.
  • therefore, all integers are illegal.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't do my arithmetic homework. It's against the law!"

Light-weight reporting?

This item is a story saying that the Milky Way is bigger across and more dense than previously "thought" (it's not particularly clear on who thought this; I assume that the writer means "widely accepted by astronomers" - but that's not always the case).

The story contains the following: "More important, it's denser, with 50 percent more mass, which is like weight."

Why not just say mass? Why confuse it with weight, which has a different meaning?
Or if you must explain what mass is, why not take a further sentence to explain it in a way that isn't, well, wrong?

Thursday, January 1, 2009


A nice shiny new year and a bright morning. Let's not screw this one up so bad, eh?