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Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate

Occam’s Razor is a famous philosophical device, a pragmatic solution when faced with multiple competing hypotheses: always choose the one that necessitates the fewest additional assumptions.

Wikipedia contains this description:

Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor and in Latin lex parsimoniae, which means 'law of parsimony') is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian.

The principle can be interpreted as

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

In science, Occam's razor is used as a heuristic technique (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models, rather than as an arbiter between published models. In the scientific method, Occam's razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.

I’d argue, however, that the paragraph cited above actually contains at least the seeds of good reasons why it is more than a mere heuristic device. Consider: There is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis…. This means that for every concrete question, there is an infinite number of answers; one of them is maximally correct, some are plain wrong, and an infinite number fit the data but make unjustified and unparsimonious assumptions. But then, the simplest explanation that fits the data is actually very special, and not just because it’s more testable, but because of that privileged position. It alone accounts for the observed data without adding extraneous assumptions.

This leaves us with a choice, not just on a heuristic and testing level, but on an epistemological level, too: Do we accept only the one explanation permitted by the data yet spared by Occam’s Razor, or do we accept more explanations? If we do not restrict ourselves to only the simplest working possibility, I do not know of any reason why we should not accept all possibilities. Then, since we have an infinite number of possible explanations, whereof only one is maximally correct, the odds of our choosing the best solution are one out of infinity—which is to say, zero. Neglecting parsimony, then, does more harm than merely making it harder to test our hypotheses: it statistically guarantees that we will choose the wrong explanations!


Occam’s Razor provides a rule for choosing a single explanation with strong heuristic properties and avoiding the arbitrary choice of complex solutions that, statistically, are certain to be wrong in detail.

That’s perhaps a bit abstract, so let’s ground it a bit. This actually came up in a discussion on religious epistemology, where I set up something like this: Agnostic (sometimes called “weak”) atheists make a negative existential claim, not based on the existence of positive evidence for non-existence, but based on the lack of positive evidence for existence. Or, in plain language: I’m not an atheist because I have evidence there’s no god; I’m an atheist because there’s no evidence of a god.

But then, runs a certain standard counter-argument, the agnostic atheist is on the same rational footing as the theist. Neither has evidence either directly supporting their position, nor directly refuting the contrary. (Perhaps, this may go on to say, the ideally rational stance is ‘strict’ agnosticism, apparently meaning a refusal to commit to any stance on likelihood.)

This, however, I reject on the basis of a stronger Occam’s Razor.¹ The reason is this: Theists and I agree on the existence of physical reality, each other, rocks, trees, suns, moons, and so on. When we run out of established physical reality, I stop. The theist goes on to add unsupported assumptions—and that’s where the trouble sets in. After all, if you are willing to accept one god without evidence, why not two? Or three? Or a billion? If you accept (though you cannot demonstrate it) that the universe was designed by God, how can you be sure it wasn’t actually designed by aliens pretending to be God? Or wizards posing as aliens pretending to be God? Or Smurfs dressed up as wizards posing as aliens… Well, you see where this goes. I can extend this list into infinity.²

If you are willing to accept any proposition without positive evidence, on the mere basis of inability or to disprove it, or impossibility of so doing, then either you must regard all such propositions as equally valid; or you must have a method of separating your proposition from the infinite number of other propositions with the same property (the property that it hasn’t been disproven, or is not falsifiable); or you are being completely arbitrary and no longer rational. But you can’t have a rational method for separating it, for if you did, it would have to be positive evidence, and you wouldn’t face this problem to begin; so either you are being arbitrary and non-rational, or you must accept them all.

And if you hold that the infinity of possible explanations is valid territory to enter, then your preferred explanation is wrong. How do I justify this assertion? Suppose that each explanation can be laser-etched onto a grain of sand, and we take all possible explanations and let the wind carry them into the sandy desert. This is an infinity of explanations, and as the text is too small to read, you cannot know which is which. With no positive evidence to point to any one explanation, your choice is arbitrary relative to the truth. Maybe one of these explanations is the correct one—but it’s one grain of sand in the desert; and it is an infinite desert. When you bend down and pick out a single grain of sand, I can be confident that you chose the wrong one.

I prefer a more consistent principle of reason, Occam’s Razor: Choose the simplest explanation that fits observations (id est, that isn’t falsified). If our investigation has been thorough enough, it is the right explanation. If not, then it is a good explanation to start from as we investigate further, and our investigation won’t be cluttered up by arbitrary (and almost certainly wrong) assumptions.

That is why, in the absence of existential evidence either positive or negative, assuming the negative is more reasonable than assuming the positive. We should be agnostic in the strict sense of being prepared to admit additional evidence—but that does not mean we should be holding our breath.

¹ This is pretty close to Hitchen’s Razor; in a way, it’s the two razors put together: Occam’s and Hitchens’s. Mine is a two-bladed philosophical razor!

² Or if not infinity, then at least until the text of my post exceeds storage limitations. I wonder if I could write a Haskell program to generate an infinite list of increasingly unparsimonious complications…

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I recently watched a video of a debate between famous apologist and Liar for Christ, Dr. William Lane Craig, and well-known cosmologist and theoretical physicist, Dr. Lawrence Krauss. Obviously all my sympathies lay with Dr. Krauss, so it was with some mortification that I watched him apparently just fail to understand Craig’s distinction between epistemic and ontological basis for moral behaviour.

Those terms weren’t used in the parts I saw, but here is how I understand it:

  • An epistemic claim would be of the nature If not for God or revealed truth, we could not know what is morally right or wrong.
  • An ontological claim is different and asserts that God is the basis, not for the knowledge of moral truth, but the existence of moral truth.

In other words, the epistemic claim is concerned with how we can know what is right and wrong, while the ontological claim deals with how there can (supposedly) be a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’.

Craig, for example, claims that everyone is designed to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong, and therefore does not claim that religion is epistemically necessary to assess moral propositions, but does claim that his god is ontologically necessary. This distinction is what Krauss loudly and repeatedly failed to appreciate.

That’s not to say that I think much of the argument itself. The standard objection is a chestnut that’s been around for well over two thousand years and never convincingly resolved: the Euthyphro Dilemma. Its modern formulation when addressing Christian dogma runs something like this?

  • Is God good because he does what is intrinsically good, or because what is good is defined by what God commands?
  • If the former, then there exists an objective moral truth outside of God, who is therefore not ontologically necessary.
  • If the latter, then “God is good” is a circular and hence meaningless claim, and in fact whatever God commanded would by definition be “good”, regardless of whether it resembles what we in actuality think of as good.

Craig is a firm believer in the latter option, and to his dubious credit he carries it all the way by affirming the so-called Divine Command Theory. According to DCT, if God says to kill every man, woman, child, and head of livestock in the land you invade (1 Samuel 15), then it’s right and morally good to do so; and Craig has consistently defended this view: The genocide described in the book of Samuel¹ was morally right. It was morally good to kill all those babies.

Personally, I find this view reprehensible if not downright monstrous. But there are further problems with this view that I don’t see brought up.

If God defines Good, he cannot be trusted

If whatever God wills is (by definition) good, then “good” is arbitrary (as is often pointed out). But this is not merely a problem for ontological grounding. Christian apologists like Craig argue that it’s not arbitrary, because to do other than what is in fact (as we instinctively see it) good is against God’s nature…but so what? On the view that good is defined by God’s will, there’s no real reason to suppose that it cannot change tomorrow. Craig would probably raise a lot of arguments to the effect that God has promised not to, it’s not in his nature, and so on; but how does he know that? Under DCT, it’s not wrong for God to deceive Craig about what his nature is: if he wants to, it’s good by definition. It’s not wrong for him to change his mind about what’s good: if he wants to change his mind, that’s good by definition. In fact, it’s rather Nineteen eighty-four-ish: It is wrong to kill people. It has always been wrong to kill people and always will be. It is good to kill Amalekites…

Craig fails to notice the beam in his own eye

But there’s a deeper yet much simpler problem with Craig’s view, which is this: He says that what God wills is by definition good, and that God has the right to determine this because he created the universe, owns us all, and has the right to do with us as he pleases. But this is a naked assertion. Craig claims that DCT provides an objective view of morality, meaning presumably one with no arbitrary propositions accepted axiomatically, and yet ultimately even his own moral view is arbitrary and axiomatic, too. When Krauss says it’s bad to cause suffering, Craig asks Why?—fair enough, and I fault Krauss for failing to understand this question: I think Craig is right when he implies that Krauss is relying on what amounts to an arbitrary axiom.² But Craig’s own argument is no better, because when he says that God’s will defines what is good, even someone who agrees with him might well ask Why? Craig will say it’s because God created and therefore owns the universe and everyone in it: to this I would retort Why does creating the universe give him the right to do what he wants with it? Craig spends a good deal of time insisting that you cannot get from a factual to a normative statement—you can’t get from an is to an ought—and then he blithely goes and does that very thing in the very same breath.

¹ Fortunately, it most likely never actually happened.

² Philosophically arbitrary—of course, it’s not arbitrary in terms of our neural wiring.

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Of course, sex workers don’t actually sell their bodies: like everyone else, they sell services. The “selling bodies” line is used simply for shock value and adds an assumption that it’s wrong into the question itself. But still, you might ask, why those, why sell sexual services? I think it's for the same reason that men become fishermen, which is to say that it varies, and may include

  • They are forced into it, as happens with tragic frequency on fishing boats off the coast of East Asia. Literal slavery is unfortunately not dead.
  • They have no other options, though they wish they did. In some places there are no jobs, and even if you loathe the very sight of water, let alone the stink of fish, your choice is between fishing and starving.
  • They have no access to better jobs. If the choice is between fishing and cleaning toilets, you might choose fishing.
  • They see it as just another job. To some people, fishing isn't special. Everybody has to earn a living; why not through fishing?
  • The money tempts them. The king crab fishery is hard and dangerous work, but a captain can make $200k in a season and take the rest of the year off, if they want.
  • They genuinely enjoy the work. Personally I don't get it—I love the sea and enjoy fishing under certain circumstances, but turning it from a private pleasure to a job would make me miserable. But even if it wouldn't suit me, I have no reason to think that there aren't people who love it and cannot get enough, and even if some proponents are just putting on a brave face, it seems foolish and rudely dismissive to insist that someone who claims enjoy it must be lying. Different strokes for different folks.

Personally, I think the poor fishermen kept as slaves deserve help, to be freed and helped to find new means of subsistence, lest they have no option to go back to a now angrier and warier ship owner. Child labour is horrible and should never be tolerated. Those who regard the job as a foul, stinking drudgery should have better opportunities. And obviously all fishermen should enjoy the protection of occupational health and safety laws. But who am I to criticise the others for their choice? It would be foolish to judge their job satisfaction by how I feel about the job, and if some people sneer at the hands-on, blue collar work, that's snobbery and classism we are better off without. If they're treated poorly for their profession, it's the ill-treatment we should stop, not the fishing!

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It is curious how the debate after every Islamist deed of terror, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings, always results in a flood of Most Muslims aren’t like that!—in a knee-jerk response that reminds me of nothing so much as #NotAllMen. This may strike you as (needlessly) offensive, but before I bring up my caveats, please consider the parallels. (But before you respond angrily, at least do read through to the end.)

  1. It is true that most men aren’t rapists. By analogy, and in fact, it is true that the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists.

  2. It’s true that lots of men are vehemently against sexual assault and harrassment, just as it is true that lots of Muslims are vehemently fighting terrorism.

  3. The truth of the Not All Men reply, however, is secondary to its unhelpful deflectionism—yes it’s true, but the point is that although not all men—indeed, not even a majority of men—are like that, still a minority large enough to matter are, and the fact that it’s a minority does not mean that it isn’t an issue with men—much like, say, breast cancer is an issue for women (even though most women don’t get it and some few men do).

    Or maybe…much as how, although lots of terrorism is committed by non-Muslims, and the majority of Muslims are not involved in or sympathetic to terrorism, still it looks as though the issue is disproportionate, and mere deflection won’t do.

  4. Finally, many people writing today are complaining how unfair it is that Muslims are expected to stand up and proclaim that they’re opposed to extremism and terrorism. But then, strictly speaking it’s hardly fair that I have to speak up against rapists. Yet, I’m told, my silence may be mistaken for tacit approval (and worse yet, daring to treat it with levity—by telling or laughing at rape jokes, for instance—might make the true villains mistake me for a sympathiser). —I said I’m told—but, too, I agree, and extrapolate.

How dare I (you might ask) make this so general, as though Islam worldwide bore responsibility for what a bunch of lunatics in Paris did? You might have a point, were that and similar local incidents all there were to it, or if the appearance of sympathy were a rarity. But we know that’s not really true. The best example I can think of are the riots after the satiric cartoons in the Danish magazine, Jyllands-Posten. In outrage at some Danes’ audacity in portraying their religion (or their pedophile prophet) in an insulting manner, riots were nigh worldwide. It seems that people died in consequence in Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Let’s not pretend that there is no connection.

And there is always a predictable outcry that, although some Islamists may act like this, that has no bearing on Islam, or Muslims. #NotAllMuslims! To this I can only say, poppycock! As Jason Rosenhouse said,

I heard someone on television today lament the fact that when a Muslim does something bad, somehow all Muslims are expected to condemn it. This misses the point. The issue isn’t what anyone is expected to do. It’s what moderate Muslims had better do, loudly and unambiguously and with no “buts” at the end, because right now the crazies are the public face of Islam. No one is concluding that something is wrong with modern Islam because two Muslims did a bad thing. The conclusion is based on the chaos and despotism and illiberal attitudes that seem especially rife in the Muslim world.

More broadly, there is this constant insistence that when somebody does something, and says it is because of their religious faith and beliefs, much of the world credits it only conditionally: If what they did was good, then we’ll believe them. But if they did something bad, they must be mistaken or lying: It must be extremism, maybe a cult, or maybe it’s a response to imperialism, colonialism, racism… All of those are real, important, awful factors, but let’s avoid the No True Theist Fallacy.


With that all said, there are some extra factors to keep in mind. I loathe the term “Islamophobia”, as though a hatred of that vile religion were a bad thing. (Do you think it is pristine and blameless? Go forth and read up. The scripture itself is bad enough, quite apart from all the other stuff.) There is a strong implication, which I reject and resent, that being vehemently critical of Islam implies a hatred of Muslims, and further, that it results in—or perhaps based on—racism, in particular against Arabs (presumably, then, combined with ignorance of the fact that there are many white Muslims, although they’re a minority, and that most Muslims aren’t Arabs, and that the single largest Muslim population is found not in the Middle East, but in Indonesia).

On the other hand, there are factors of racism and irrational hatreds far beyond rational loathing of Islam. I’m not very familiar with Charlie Hebdo, but they certainly held a lofty moral high ground compared to their Islamic murderers—but now, a few French compatriots of the victims are working hard to give up that moral high ground by shooting and throwing grenades at mosques (and blowing up some poor restaurateur’s kebab shop). In the US, after the 9/11 terror attacks, I gather the FBI reported a 1,700% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. (And, to be sure, people whom racists mistook for Muslims. I may dislike the conflation of Islamophobia with racism, but if you assault people on the basis that they have brown skin and wear turbans, you’re a racist.)

There, then, is a very important difference between #NotAllMen and #NotAllMuslims: Men deflect in order to avoid self-examination, feelings of recrimination, or criticism. Muslims and their defenders deflect because, well, I agree with most of Rosenhouse’s article cited above, but there is one point where I’m afraid he is too optimistic:

Now, this is the point where the self-righteous types will accuse you of Islamophobia. They will lecture you about blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few.

But no one is doing that, and they know it. Almost no one thinks that all, or most, or even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for yesterday’s attacks. The problem, though, is that the attitudes underlying the attack are not those of a small, fringe minority. It is willful blindness to pretend otherwise.

I agree with the assertion that it is not a small, fringe minority, but unfortunately, I fear it is not true that Almost no one thinks that…even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for terrorist attacks. Deplorably—indeed, almost as deplorably as the murderous attacks themselves—it seems there are always people ready to take their vicarious vengeance on the nearest Muslim (or Muslim look-alike).

Here, #NotAllMen would only be comparable if the nighttime streets of our cities were haunted by roving gangs of actually-militant feminists, waylaying and beating men, and occasionally firebombing places that men like to frequent.

And, more, that attitude is probably very pernicious in subtler ways in its milder forms. I think that many Muslim-majority countries are—I’ll say it openly—barbaric. If the law sentences someone to being flogged for blogging critically of Islam, then the legal system and society that permits it are both horrid. But that doesn’t mean I’m ipso facto sympathetic to indiscriminate bombing, or drone strikes killing civilians at numbers I don’t care to guess at. But unfortunately, a sufficiently uncritical acceptance of the vilification of precisely the places and societies I am trying to vilify in a more nuanced manner, lays the groundwork for popular acceptance of—or at the very least, lack of resistance to—military campaigns that do just that. I reject the concept of Islamophobia, but I accept the sad truth that people in the Middle East (who may or may not be Muslims—I suppose most of them are; I don’t suppose it morally matters) die, every day, because people are uniquely unbothered by the idea of bombing Muslim-majority areas.

Under Bush, it was getting awfully tempting to think of this as Christian (or should that be Christianist?) terrorism on a large (and well-funded) scale.

#NotAllMuslims support terrorism. Most of them don’t. Yet it is disproportionately an Islamic problem, and toxic Islam should be excused no more than toxic masculinity. Let’s acknowledge this; let’s avoid euphemism and cowardly deflection and circumvention. At the same time, though, we should not loose sight of, nor fail to emphasise, that the goal here is to speak up—loudly, freely, offensively—and deplore violence, not return it.

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Or, Satirical depictions of religious leaders should be illegal, says Ottawa imam.

This is a fascinating study in the art of getting things completely backwards. It should be mentioned up front that this guy (wrong-headed though he otherwise is) does denounce the terrorist attacks and refer to the terrorists as disturbed individuals—he’s disingenuous but not an apologist for monsters. (Nor did he claim that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists bore the responsibility for their own deaths, unlike some old, white, male Christians¹.) That said:

"Imtiaz Ahmed...said it should be against the law to publish cartoons that depict religious figures in a derogatory way.

“Of course we defend freedom of speech, but it has to be balanced. There has to be a limit. There has to be a code of conduct,” Ahmed said."

“We believe that any kind of vulgar expression about any sacred person of any religion does not constitute the freedom of speech in any way at all.”

Ahmed said there should be limits placed on freedom of speech to prevent the publication of offensive material. He says that seems to be the case for events such as the Holocaust. Members of the public denounce those who say the Holocaust never happened.

It’s worth noting that his position is in fact against free speech. He’s for free speech…unless it’s just too offensive. However, the legal right to free speech is entirely about offensive speech; after all, it’s only once speech has been deemed offensive that anyone wants to silence it, and therefore only offensive speech ever needs, and uses, legal protection. In practice, “free speech except for really offensive speech’ is exactly equivalent to no free speech at all. (Incidentally, his words are incredibly offensive to free speech advocates; but of course he wants special protection only for religious speech, on the basis of…who knows?)

His remark about public denouncement of Holocaust denial is an even more stunning miss, because public denouncement of offensive remarks is precisely what free speech advocates strive for. Legal protection of free expression necessarily includes the protection of responses to said speech. That’s the whole idea of the principle: Let everyone speak their mind, and let those who are in the wrong be defeated by having their ideas exposed, rebutted, and rejected, not by shutting them up and forcing them to nurse their grievances and resentment in private.

¹ Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. Bill Donohue, everybody.

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Just got back from a helicopter flight to, over, and landing in the Grand Canyon. I have a bad track record with outings, but this was sublime (though I'm not sure if anyone could tell, as it was sublime in a manner that had me wrapped in my own headspace).

The Grand Canyon itself is, well, famously grand, but focusing so much on it does a great disservice to the surrounding landscape, which defies description. I was about to construct an analogy involving craftsmen and chisels, but to compare it to human art would be to do the country a disservice and to demean it: It was not carved, but magnificently eroded.

I would not have thought that a landscape so arid would be so shaped by waters, but the entire landscape was full of dry water-courses, canyons, and arroyos; there was little water to be seen, but its trace was everywhere. (Maybe this is because it is so arid, and the soil therefore contains much less organic matter to soak and bind up the water, so that when it does rain, it flows unimpeded?) It was interspersed with cliffs and hills and small mountains -- but never a rolling landscape. Rather, craggy ridges and scarps thrust into the air, seeming to defy geology. One hulking ridge was all rusty-red down one side (from, yes, rust), whereas the other crumbled away in a dark umber, nearly black. In places, ridges jutted up at forty-five degree angles, yet were banded with what for all the world looked like the bands of sedimentary layers. Were they sediments, and were those ridges thrust up tectonically? If not, what other process was responsible? In one place a stepped ridge was in at least four different colours, each step running along the ridge distinct -- the first white, the next yellow, then rust, and finally that dark umber.

Nor was it a dead landscape. Arid, yes, and probably that is why it is so geologically dramatic, because it is thus free of not one but two great sources of erosion, rainfall and organic factors; yet though the great part of the ground was bare and dry, still you'd never have been more than a few steps from a cactus, or spiny bush, or other plant (tough, dry, spiny, thick-leaved) that I cannot even categorise. I saw no animal life save flies, a crow, and a few sea-birds on Lake Meade (which barely counts), but there was a ubiquitous buzz of insects. Somehow this appealed to me even more in some ways than a forest (though I do love to walk in a forest), perhaps because it seemed comprehensible. I don't know the few dozen important plant species, nor yet the insects and many lizards and so on, but in this arid and therefore sparser, slower-moving ecosystem, it had an air, it looked as though one might with study figure it out -- not like even a temperate forest, where I wouldn't even care to guess the order of magnitude of the number of important species. This isn't to say that I dislike a forest just because its ecosystem is too far beyond my grasp, but rather that the lure of attainable comprehension was another attraction of the desert.

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Whenever a religious fringe group rises up in arms, be it Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Christian murderers of abortion providers, or whatever, pundits amass to fight at the steps of the podium to be first to proclaim that what those people do is not motivated by religion, that "real religion" is not like that. This is bizarre, and either dishonest or foolish.

Let's be clear: I don't like Islam, but there are about a billion and a half Muslims out there who aren't terrorists, the vast majority of whom would (I presume) be no more eager to decapitate people than I would. I am not suggesting that, for instance, ISIS aren't a fringe group. Of course they are. (And of course there are lots of non-Muslim Arabs, and the large majority of Muslims aren't Arabs to begin with.) Nor do I think that Islam is inherently more vicious than Christianity, though the latter has been somewhat defanged by the Enlightenment.

That said, it's very odd that these commentators always insist that any evil whatsoever cannot be motivated by religion, as "properly" understood. It's always other factors -- political, historical, cultural. Of course, all that context is always significant, and sometimes religious divisions are secondary (IRA?), but claiming that it's about history and culture instead of religion is an implicit assertion that religion has no influence on culture and history. If someone says that people are never motivated to evil by religion, they're implying that people's beliefs do not influence their behaviour; or perhaps that religious beliefs aren't important enough to be acted upon.

Well, that's what they would be implying, at any rate, were they not busily committing logical fallacies to protect, pardon me, the sacred cow of religion. If someone does something nice and credits “do unto others” or “whatsoever you do unto the least of my brothers”, if Muslims give to charity and say it's because the Quran tells them to, everyone is happy to accept their stated motivation. But the moment they do something bad, it is widely denied that their motivation could possibly be what they say it is, even if they can cite verses in their support. “No religion condones the killing of innocents,” said Obama, apparently unfamiliar with Psalm 137-9, Hosea 13:16, and other pleasant tidbits.

I don't believe in any of this. I believe that when someone claims to act out of religious conviction, the possibility should be entertained that they may be telling the truth, whether the act be good or evil; moreover, that even if an interpretation is a minority view, that doesn't disqualify it from being religious. I believe that many people take their religion seriously and do act on their beliefs, sometimes to great good and sometimes to great evil. Let me repeat that: Religion in general, and certainly the big monotheistic ones, can motivate people just as easily to good and evil. That, precisely, is the problem—not that people of any religion are somehow intrinsically evil, but that people mistake scriptures for moral compasses.

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When I think about the awful shit happening around the world right now—whether on the murderous level of ISIS (which I shall speak no more of qua too fucking depressing) or the sordid pettiness of the coproliths from 4chan behind #GamerGate, I often find myself in a state not so much of moral outrage as weary bafflement, unable to comprehend the kind of mentality behind it. I don’t think of myself as notably nice, and on occasion I can out of sheer irritability be petty and unpleasant (above baseline levels). Yet the thought of launching a campaign of black hat hacking, libel, and fraud to ruin someone’s career, livelihood, and life, merely because their opinions offend me, feels…unthinkable, quite literally: I can verbalise it, but I don’t know that I can actually think it per se. Thomas Nagel wondered what it is like to be a bat: to see the world through senses and perceptions completely different from those of humans. I do, too, but (albeit with less interest and more distaste) I also wonder what it is like to be that kind of active misogynist.

I read once, a long time ago, the claim that in order to truly understand something, you must believe it—that is, at least briefly entertain the notion, even though you will discard it in the next moment.¹ I do not know whether this is true, but it always seemed to me that it has a ring of truth to it.² I can verbally describe how bats perceive textures with sound modulation and motion via Doppler effects and shifting frequencies, how a particularly base and virulent form of religious extremism perverts people to cutting other people’s heads off, or how criticism of their preferred monoculture appears to stir some basement-dwellers into fomenting anger, but I have no sense at all of the qualia involved.

Sometimes I find myself wondering to what degree this is emotional self defence. Perhaps (part of?) the reason I don’t understand is that I don’t permit myself to understand—that I hesitate to gaze into and have that abyss stare back at me. Of course I don’t want to experience the qualia of being these people: after all, I find them vile and do not ever want to be like them. Perhaps that implies (in the logical sense) that I do not permit myself to understand them. It’s certainly pleasing to be able to honestly say that I cannot fathom what manner of mind would stoop to these levels.

That might not be an unalloyed good, though, because it sounds an awful lot like a defensive flavour of othering, of rejecting these people utterly and as morally subhuman³ to avoid having to suffer the quale of comparing myself to them and finding any moral similarities, however tenuous. Perhaps at the personal level, that’s OK, but on a larger scale, it leads to retributive justice systems where the focus is on ensuring that They—Those People who commit iniquities—suffer their Just Desserts: putting a priority on making rule-breakers suffer rather than minimising harm. Consider the difference between the dystopian prison system of the US with, say, Norway. My gut tells me that if I somehow found myself in the same basement with one of Zoe Quinn’s or Anita Sarkeesian’s erstwhile tormentors, the most satisfying course of action would be to hamper their typing, tweeting, and hacking abilities by breaking both of his elbows. Yet reason and data both tell me that the only way to solve these problems in the longer term is to despise the attitudes and behaviours, yet empathise and build bridges with the perpetrators.

I can’t do that. I couldn’t, even if the opportunity improbably arose—perhaps because I lack the interpersonal skills, perhaps because I lack the moral courage to attempt to understand these people well enough to talk to them, or perhaps because I’m just too judgemental and unforgiving. If, for example, your moral hackles were raised by my suggesting just now that we should on some level attempt to sympathise with the slime currently harrassing Quinn, Sarkeesian, et al, I want to point out that I’ve already described them in such terms as “sordid pettiness”, “coprolite”, “misogynist”, “vile”, and earlier in this sentence, “slime”. In my defense (on the rational side), I let this be my lodestone for personal views, not for voting in political elections—I wouldn’t want to base policy on classifying those people as slime (that and a bit of racism is how you end up with the world’s largest prison population).

Ultimately, though, we all need to remember: The #GamerGate harrassers aren’t sordid, petty, vile, misogynist, slimy coprolites. Like us, they are human beings—they just happen to be particilarly petty, misogynistic people with petty, sordid, coprolitic, and vile opinions, words, and deeds.

¹ If anyone knows the source of this idea, I should be grateful to hear it.

² Put it this way: At the very least, I feel confident that I understand the proposition.

³ I do not regard anyone as inferior on the basis of ethnicity, biological sex, gender identity, &c., but I do judge opinions harshly.

⁴ Not that I’m an expert on the Norwegian justice system, and I’m sure it has many glaring flaws, but surely the focus on rehabilitation and minimising recidivism is more useful to society than basically torturing criminals and teaching them them to hate.

⁵ Inevitably, alas.

⁶ See this Cracked list, item #3. I find it oddly touching.

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Thus spake WLC.

“Fine-tuning ergo God” is like saying “The odds of drawing just these ten cards are so small, it must be rigged!” when we don’t know the composition of the deck: A glib generalisation, as though every drawing of cards corresponded to a deck of Bicycle playing cards and a probability distribution we are, supposedly, intuitively familiar with. There’s a bait-and-switch here, since for all we know the deck we’re really concerned with is (meta?)physically constrained to nothing but straight flushes. For all we know, the deck might have only ten cards to begin with or the cards might be stuck together with string and Scotch tape.

Of course it’s entirely legitimate to wonder why the parameters of physics are just what they are (and on some level there is presumably a reason), but I find it highly suspect when someone asserts that they were a priori improbable—how exactly do you determine the probability? Can you demonstrate, from first principles of making universes, that there’s a wide range of possible parameters whereof the chemically productive parameters form a small proportion? I’m sure the cosmological community would be fascinated to learn the principles.

Point one—I must call them points, for they aren’t really reasons—point one is juvenile, point three is perversely ironic in the light of two millennia of unresolved theodicy (don’t you think the Cathars had a better idea, until the Catholics murdered them all?), point four is presumably included for the sake of hilarity alone (surely no one is expected to take it seriously?), and point five must have been added after Dr. Craig got drunk and forgot to activate GMail Goggles, but point two is offensive in its duplicity.

Oh well. For this particular atheist, Christmas—well, I think of it more as “juletid” in Swedish, precisely cognate with Yuletide, a pagan term that merged with Christmas when Jesus’s birthday was moved to mid-winter to co-opt older religious celebrations like Saturnalia and, elsewhere, Yule—was never much about religion but rather family, presents, a tree (of likely pagan origin), and good food (much of it based on pork and so presumably frowned upon by Jews like the Nazarene). Or at least, it was not about religion when I grew up. Now there’s always a heavy dose of news articles, editorials, and opinion pieces by Christians who hysterically complain that their holiday is under attack (because they’re not allowed a monopoly), that Jesus and Santa Claus are white, so there!, or (á la Craig) assert that people like me are echoing slogans rather than thinking. I don’t go pissing in his crèche, but ye gods! (both Jesus and the older myths he was based on), this editorialising gets on my nerves.

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Mail encryption

If privacy of your email matters to you, you may want to consider using end-to-end encryption. This is different from using a “secure” email provider: With end-to-end encryption, the sender of the email encrypts it before sending, and the receiver decrypts it after receiving it. It's not decrypted during transit—thus, even your email provider cannot read your email.

Without going into mathematics whose details I’d have to review anyway, suffice to say that PGP is a strong system of email security that, with sensible (default!) settings, cannot be effectively broken with modern technology and modern mathematics.¹ (Strong enough, in fact, that various US security agencies tried to suppress it, and when its creator released it for free to the world, he was taken to court and accused of exporting munitions. The case never really went anywhere.)

PGP uses something called asymmetric encryption. Technical details aside, the nifty and amazing thing about it is it’s what’s known as a public key cryptosystem, meaning that I can give you a bit of password (public) key that you can use to encrypt messages for me, but no one², not even you, can decrypt them…except for me, as I retain a special (private) key with the unique power to decrypt. My public key is here, should you wish to send me secure email.

My preferred solution is a plugin called Enigmail for my mail client of choice, Thunderbird.

PGP with Enigmail in Windows

There are some other solutions, none of which I have used.

PGP for webmail (like GMail) in Chrome

There's a browser plugin, currently for Chrome only though Firefox is in the works, called Mailvelope that will transparently encrypt/decrypt your webmail. There's a helpful guide. For now, there’s another plugin for Firefox, but it has received mixed reviews.


If you’re using Linux, this shouldn’t be a problem in the first place. Install your mail client of choice and it surely comes with or has an OpenPGP plugin readily available.


Apparently there's an Outlook plugin. There’s a plugin for OS X Mail.app.


As a reminder, keep in mind that your security is never stronger than your password; and your password is never safer than the least secure place it is stored. If your password is weak (password, your name, your date of birth…) there’s no helping you. If your password is pretty strong (|%G7j>uT^|:_Z5-F), then that’s no help at all if you used it on LinkedIn when they were hacked and their password database stolen, so that any malicious hacker can just download a database of email addresses paired with their passwords.

The solution is to use strong passwords, and to only use each password in one place—if you steal my LinkedIn password you can hack my LinkedIn account, but you can’t use that password to access my bank, email, blog, or any other account. The drawback of strong, single-use passwords is that you’ll never, ever remember them. The counter is to use software to remember them for you.

My preferred solution is a family of software called KeePass for Windows, KeePassX for Linux, KeePassDroid for Android (my smartphone), and so on. This has the primary feature of storing all my passwords in a very strongly encrypted file. I store this file in Dropbox, which lets me share it between my devices (work computer, home computer, laptop, phone). I don’t consider Dropbox fully trustworthy, but that’s OK: if anyone breaks into my Dropbox account, all they’ll get is a very strongly encrypted archive that requires either major breakthroughs or billions of years to break into (or a side-channel attack like reading over my shoulder, literally or electronically; but if they can do that my passwords don’t matter anyway). Thanks to this, I can use very strong passwords (like -?YhS\[q@V4#]F'/L|#*1z)_S".35/#T), uniquely per website or other service. Meanwhile, I only have to remember one password: the password for KeePass itself (which I shouldn’t use for anything else).

The KeePass family of software also tend to come with good password generators, which can generate garbled gobbledygook like the above, and/or include constraints if a given website won’t let you use special characters (e.g. you can tell it to generate a random password 10 characters long with letters and digits but nothing else, which includes at least one letter and one digit). You can also use it to store files, which is a nice way to keep track of things like PGP keys.

¹ It may be broken in the future if usefully sized quantum computers are ever build or if a major mathematical breakthrough is made in prime factorisation—mathematicians have failed to make this breakthrough for some centuries now. If this happens, then I still wouldn’t worry about my personal email: the communications of major world governments, militaries, and corporations will become as vulnerable as mine, and will be a lot more interesting.

² That is to say, there are no direct attacks known to be effective against the ciphers used. There are side channel attacks, which is a fancy way of saying that someone could break your encryption without defeating the mechanism. For example, they could be reading over your shoulder, or they could install malware on your computer that records keystrokes (when you type in passwords), or they could beat you with a $5 wrench until you talk.

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Some people feel that the Emperor’s attempt to turn Luke to the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi is a weak story element, in that there is very little in place to tempt him; that when we have heard of Vader being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, we should expect something more persuasive. Personally I feel that this misses the point. Certainly and trivially it’s true that “if you go with it, you can win the fight against Vader (your father!) and defeat me, the Emperor (although actually it will give me your victory)” is a rather weak argument. However, that entirely misses the point that it was never about an argument to begin with. Nobody ever said that Vader was persuaded to join the Dark Side. The Emperor was not depicted as a demagogue; his evil was blatant.

Ironically, the point that I think is missed by those who argue that the “seduction” of the Dark Side should have been more persuasive and had a more human element to it is that it was about…well, the Force. It was the Dark Side itself that was supposed to hold an unnatural and harmful attraction—not the course that took you there, not the goals it promised to, or actually did help you reach, but the power in itself: Once tasted, forever will it dominate your destiny. Of course Yoda turned out to be wrong in being quite so absolute, but if we accept him (as the story clearly intends) as wise, then we may infer that his error must ipso facto have been a rare exception.

I think of it more like a metaphysical drug, a psychic super-heroin: Use it once or twice and you’re going to be hooked, not because you enjoy it so much but because it gives you no choice—even if the exposure, as it were, is largely accidental, unwilling, and transient, as Luke’s enraged onslaught at the end of Jedi.

You might argue that this is not clearly stated in the films and that I’m just making it up as a post hoc justification. To this I say—well, maybe, to some degree. Still, regarding (as I do) the original trilogy as the authorative canon, it’s the only interpretation that makes sense to me. You don’t know the power of the Dark Side, Vader intones: I must obey my Master. This was not loyalty, which is still a matter of choice. Rather, the power itself left him no options; he was enslaved to it, using it and under its control.

It also explains the Emperor himself very nicely—twisted and physically distorted, gleefully malicious apparently gratia malice; corrupted, then, by long decades of addiction to the Dark Side. (Need I explicate that I find this a more compelling interpretation than having his face melted by Samuel L. Jackson?)

Speaking of the Emperor, his behaviour lends perhaps the strongest support to my view. I think it is safe to assume that he, within the context of the Star Wars universe, is no fool, and is certainly well versed in the ways of the Force. He has lived with the Dark Side for decades at least, and experienced first-hand whatever effects it has had on him, body and mind. He is, then, pretty well placed to judge its effects on Vader’s mind. Now consider his actions, and his terminal error: He provokes Luke into fighting Vader, apparently expecting Luke’s rage to snare him in the Dark Side. If he did not have good reason to think that this might work, his entire scheme to capture Luke makes no sense. And as he didn’t have anything compelling to tempt or persuade Luke, I submit that he must have expected the intrinsic nature of the Dark Side to do it for him—as his experience had taught him it would.

That’s not the end of it, though, for his behaviour becomes far more foolish on the “psychological view”. The Emperor, seeing Luke caught up in rage, encourages him to kill Vader, and take his father’s place at the Emperor’s side—this while Luke stands over the fallen Vader, who obviously hears every word. Consider this: The Emperor distinctly informs Vader that he’s ready to toss him aside, have him killed, and replace him. But when Luke refuses, and Vader gets back on his feet, the Emperor has no qualms about having Vader by his side again. So: The Emperor demonstrates he’s willing to have Vader killed; Luke refuses to kill his father because he won’t submit and keeps insisting that Vader is not beyond redemption; so the Emperor chooses to torture Vader’s son to death right in front of him, turning his back on this seven-foot cyborg while standing next to a deep shaft into the chasms of the Death Star. Unless the Emperor had strong reason to believe Vader incapable of betraying him, this is beyond foolish: it’s suicide-by-cyborg.

Now, of course it turned out that he was wrong—Luke could and did refuse, and Vader, under these extreme circumstances, proved that though his will had been constrained by the Dark Side of the Force, it had not been utterly subsumed.¹ He was able to make a final choice and redeem himself, though it killed him. (And was this from his injuries, or from the Emperor’s dying lashing-out, or was this because at last he denied himself the addictive substance of the Dark Side on which he had become dependent—and so effectively killed himself?) But unless his mind was constrained, Vader’s killing the Emperor was not a dramatic redemption at all. Of course he might well kill the Emperor, redeemed or not; he had just been betrayed.²

The only way the dramatic climax of the saga becomes a dramatic climax is if you accept that Luke’s resistance was rare, unanticipated, and difficult; and that Vader’s redemption was profound, unprecedented, and hitherto believed impossible by everyone we had met along the way, save Luke only.

Some of you may argue that the psychological view would have given us a better story. Personally I don’t mind a bit of fairy-tale Good versus Evil, so long as it’s not my only fare, but I will not insist that you are wrong. My point is not that a Star Wars version with metaphysical evil is better than a Star Wars version with purely ‘human’ motivations—but rather that judging by the original trilogy, and Jedi in particular, the metaphysical version is the one that was actually made.

You could also argue that if what we saw was a metaphysical conception, it could have been made plainer and it could have been written better. Well, that’s certainly true of all things Star Wars. Nonetheless I disagree with the specific criticism that Jedi is inferior to Revenge of the Sith in that sole aspect of Anakin having a “real temptation” versus the Emperor failing to really tempt Luke with anything. I could even argue that it’s the other way around: By giving Anakin a concrete motivation and casting his apostacy in terms of human motivation, we’re forced to consider the strength and credibility of his sudden turn from “I just want to save my wife” to “alright, I’ll go slaughter some children”, and in terms of human psychology—well, that doesn’t look very plausible to me. Precisely by invoking the mystical corruption of the Dark Side, the original trilogy can at least justifiably ask us to invoke suspension of disbelief.

¹ At this point the Emperor has evidence that the Dark Side was a bit less absolute than he (and everyone else) had hitherto believed, but he didn’t really have time to consider the implications. Seeing Luke resist him, maybe he could have predicted Vader’s redemption, but in any case he didn’t have time.

² It is perhaps a little ironic that the very extreme emotional circumstances at play for Vader are precisely the reason why the “psychological version” would take all the drama out of the climax of the film, by making the choice too easy.

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Some theologians and apologists (notably, I gather, the fairly famous Alvin Plantinga) hold forth a curious epistemic argument purportedly in favour of their theism. The argument in one form (not due to Plantinga) goes like this: Evolution optimises organisms for survival and gene dispersal, not correct beliefs, which would be favoured only if they enhance the above.

That is, because there’s no telling whether unguided evolution would fashion our cognitive faculties to produce mostly true beliefs, atheists who believe the standard evolutionary story must reserve judgment about whether any of their beliefs produced by these faculties are true. This includes the belief in the evolutionary story. Believing in unguided evolution comes built in with its very own reason not to believe it.

Now, the most obvious problem with this argument is of course that evolutionary theory does give us a reason to suppose that we can arrive at true beliefs, because it is difficult to conceive of any process whereby a tendency toward mostly false beliefs would be beneficial for survival or gene dispersal. I'm sure some scenarios can be dreamed up where fortuitous misconceptions would cause an animal to behave in a manner just as good, or even better, as correctness, and certainly we know of (and science corrects for) some tendencies toward, for instance, false positive errors and other biases, but here we must imagine something both subtler and more pervasive, and in particular a mechanism that accepts sensible input from the exterior world and systematically transforms this input into beliefs that are erroneous and yet more advantageous than the simpler mechanism of apprehending reality…

Still, I don't think that's the argument's worst problem. After all, the assumption of some divine entity provides no more guarantee that your senses are accurate than a naturalistic view! On the contrary: Although it's not a logical proof, I think I have outlined a good reason to think that evolution is in fact likely to produce brains capable of apprehending reality, not perfectly but with at least some fidelity. Assume the existence of an all-powerful being, on the other hand, and that all goes out the window. What grounds have you to suppose, if such a being exists, that the beliefs it chooses to have your brain produce are correct? It is completely arbitrary! The apologist might conceivably argue that his God is a God of truth and so forth, but those are just more of the same arbitrary beliefs. On the assumption that an all-powerful being exists, which can manipulate your senses and beliefs as it sees fit, your are at the utter mercy of its intentions; and its intentions are unknowable, because it can make you believe whatever falsehood it wants, and every “evidence” you might have that your vision of this god is the right one is equally susceptible to (infallible) falsification.

Ultimately, both atheists and theists must assume some fidelity of their senses a priori, whether they wish to admit it or not. Although every epistemology needs its axioms, the naturalistic world view introduces no more than necessary, and people like Plantinga and his fellow admirers of the Argument from Arbitrariness (if you will) would do well to avoid casting stones in glass houses, for once you assume the existence of ultimate beings, everything is arbitrary.

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Recently, Valve announced that they are working on a Linux version of the Steam client, along with a port of Left 4 Dead 2. Rumours of plans for a Linux version of Steam have floated around since roughly the dawn of time, but now it is official; now it is real.

Reactions are mixed, from gung-ho enthusiasm to RMS-style caution. Personally, I am enthused. This is partly because I am not a free software purist, and partly because I regard this as a win-win scenario.

Cards on the table: I run Steam, and I own games on Steam. Their DRM is not a deal-killer for me. That said, I prefer DRM free software, and I would rather buy games via Good Old Games, who are entirely DRM free. (If a game is available via both services, there is no contest: GOG every time.)

However, I think that this move can only be good for Linux. Even if you never run a Steam game in your life, this is a good thing. One possibility is of course that this effort of Valve's fails, in which case nothing really changes. But consider what happens if they are at all successful:

  1. Currently, there is no significant market for games on Linux, because gamers all run Windows (or, I suppose, OS X); and gamers all run Windows (…) because there are no games for Linux. It's a chicken-and-egg situation; there's no supply because there's no demand, but there can be no demand because there's no supply to demand from. Launch a few AAA titles on Linux and suddenly there will exist a games market. It may thrive or it may fail to thrive, but this kind of effort gives it a real fighting chance.

  2. Games are important. Gaming is a big piece of what computers are used for, and probably the only piece where the average consumer currently has any reason at all to go with Windows over a user-friendly Linux distribution. Having a games market will be good for Linux adoption.

  3. It will be good for indie developers. Even if, initially, only a few AAA games are ported, and only a few AAA developers care about the Linux games market, Steam remains a powerhouse delivery vehicle for games, now to a potentially new market. This should leave a lot of room for indie developers to exploit this new space in a way that cannot currently be done without a good way of reaching consumers.

    As a bonus, I expect indie developers are much better situated to port software, because they don't have massive, hard-to-port codebases to deal with (because indie games are smaller), and because they don't have bleeding-edge graphics and so don't need to worry quite so much about performance; thus a penalty from using a less-efficient cross-platform library, or a performance hit from a less-than-perfect port, is more affordable.

    And I gather that the Humble Linux Bundle proved that Linux users are quite willing to support indies, whose ethos more easily aligns with OSS mentalities than AAA corporations.

    So I regard this as Valve breaking the ice with Steam and an AAA title, whereupon indies will have the powerhouse delivery vehicle of Steam, along with a few larger players, to expand the market. Hopefully more big names will follow.

  4. As this market grows, so will the demand, now backed by real money, for better and better video drivers. The Valve team have already collaborated with Intel to improve OpenGL performance. And big players like Valve are well placed to put some pressure even on giants like NVIDIA and AMD if and when there are problems.

  5. Even if you hate DRM with a burning passion… If a games market is once established in the Linux world, there will be more room for niche players (like Good Old Games) to edge in. It may sound paradoxical to suggest that Valve moving into a virtual monopoly with Steam would improve GOG's position, but I think it may be so. Right now, there's no reason for GOG to target Linux because there is no market, and there are very few games. If a cultural shift of any statistically significant magnitude occurs, then there will be a market (ergo consumers to target), and game developers will be more motivated (and better equipped) to produce Linux versions of games.

We'll see how the ports actually work out, but I for one wish Valve the best of luck and regard the whole thing as a positive development.

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The oft-repeated saw is that to improve, what you need is to train with people who are better than you are—to swallow your ego and accept that you’ll get beaten in sparring, you’ll have to tap a lot; because you can only learn from people who are better than you (and therefore have something to teach) and in particular, you’ll never learn to defeat skilled opponents without practicing on skilled opponents. There is of course considerable truth to this, and I’m sure it is possible to get very good indeed in a meatgrinder situation where your every training partner from day one is a brown belt and up.

Personally, though, I feel that there is plenty to gain from training with people who aren’t better. Regarded one way, it’s certainly a lot easier to learn offence, and practice new moves that I’ve yet to master, on less experienced opponents with whom I have a greater margin of error. I’ll never pull off a brand new sweep on someone with whom I struggle to keep up to begin with, but with a brand new beginner, I can perhaps get my position and get a few reps in every round. When rolling with people at approximately my own level of skill, I get to practice a more competitive sort of game, because either may credibly “win” and neither is predisposed to play a super defensive, staving-off-inevitable-disaster game—and here those new moves are put to the test. Against superior opponents, well, I certainly get plenty of opportunity to pratice defence

This may be a psychological flaw on my part, but I will be honest and say that sometimes, I don’t feel like I gain anything at all from rolling with people who are better than me by too wide a margin. It’s one thing if I’m constantly forced to play at the edge of my capabilities; that’s fertile ground. When someone shuts down my every attempt before I can even get started, though, I don’t think that really teaches me anything because I get no useful feedback: I can’t tell the difference, then, between “that was a mistake” and “that was a good idea but this guy is just good enough to shut it down anyway”. Then it’s not a learning experience, but mere frustration. (I do my best, when rolling with very new beginners, to remind myself not to create that kind of situation.)

I also think that one should not scoff at the benefits of rolling even with very new people, or much smaller people. Yes, if I outweigh someone by 50 lbs and have 4–5 years of experience to their week and a half, I can probably sweep them in pretty much any direction I choose, but I should be able to make more intelligent use of our training time than that. For one thing, it is a good time to relax, roll without using strength or power, and isolate details, control using the feet only, and that sort of thing. For another, I find that helping people, providing hints, and talking them through those first few rolls can itself be a learning exercise for me as much as for the other person, because it forces me to analyse the situation carefully and isolate and highlight the most important essentials, which is hard to do in the rough-and-tumble of a more even match.

And, of course, it’s good to give back. The only reason I am where I am today is because other people (I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically mention Kabir’s name at least once here) helped me in this fashion, by toning their game down a few notches, give me room to try things, and help me out—and I have a long way to go still, during which I hope to receive more of the same. So of course I want to do as much as I can to provide the same encouragement, help, and guidance to others in the same community or, if you will, family. For all that you go one-on-one at the time when you’re facing a particular opponent, building grapplers is a community effort, and as in many things, the journey is to my mind more important than the destination.

Now I’m off to open mat at GBV (slightly late because I felt moved to write this post) where I will roll with people who may be any combination of better than me, worse than me, and roughly at my level, and I leave confident that either way, I’ll have room to learn.

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@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm I already told you once that is not a problem for me Things are defined as good because God says it in his word ,moral standard

@michaelAsmalls: @Pastorsmallwood @haggholm I'll go ahead and solve your little "dilemma". My moral standards are based off of what God says

The fallacy or incoherency of the above statement was illustrated over two thousand years ago by precisely that famous Dilemma that is here purportedly “solved”, in Plato’s dialogue Εὐθύφρων (Euthuphron or Euthyphro in English). Stated more simply and straightforwardly, consider the following hypothetical:

Suppose that the Christian god (henceforth “God”) exists. Suppose, furthermore, that he commands you to go forth and torture innocent babies to death. Would it be good to do so?

  1. “Yes, if God tells me to do it, it’s good by definition.” This is a logically coherent answer, but problematic in that it implies a morality that does not inherently condemn the torture of infants.

  2. “No; God would never do such a thing, because it is evil.” This is logically incoherent if you take the line that goodness is defined by God’s will: If good is defined by what God says, then he could very well say it and it would by definition be good. God cannot refrain from any action whatever on the grounds that it would be evil, because by definition whatever he does is good. He could torture babies, rape kittens, you name it—if good is defined by God’s will, it’s all good. In this case, the distinction between good and evil is mere caprice on God’s part.

    If you hold that Things are defined as good because God says it, then “God is good” means literally “God does whatever he wants”: nothing else. It is not really a meaningful statement.

    This can be resolved by saying that God would never do such a thing, because it is evil, and if he hypothetically did it, he would be evil. (Therefore, because he is good, it can only be considered hypothetically.) But in that case, God must be good according to some standard of goodness external to what he wants. Then he may be a moral authority (because, we might suppose, he’s been established as being very good), but not the source of morality (after all, it is only logically possible for him to be good in a meaning).

You might wonder how the intrepid Twitter posters from before respond to the Dilemma. The answer is of course that they faithfully, religiously, boldly, and forcefully stick their heads in the sand and refuse to answer at all.

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm Greek (geek) philosophy is simply intellectual arguments between those who have rejected God, God is supreme +the bible is truth

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm there is no dilemma in my mind God created the world and gave us his word to help to see our sin +show us his Son who alone saves

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm I'm about truth. Not hypothetical. Find me in the scripture where it says that and then we will discuss

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm don't make blanket statements.I will not discuss hypotheticals as asinine as the aforementioned of yours.it goes against Gods Word

Greek (geek) philosophy is simply intellectual arguments between those who have rejected God, God is supreme +the bible is truth—is that not marvellous? Explicitly dismiss logic and reasoning if it troubles you; it is better to recite by rote. I cannot help but be reminded of Martin Luther’s admonition that We know that reason is the devil's harlot, and can do nothing but slander and harm all that god says and does.

Even before I outgrew religion I always thought that if God had decided to give me a brain, I should probably use it. I suppose that is why I outgrew faith.

Addendum, after I responded to various “read the Bible it answers all questions and is the truth y’all” statements with a query into whether the man happened to be a parrot or a cassette player:

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm more insults , so biblical as Jesus hung on the cross people did the same thing thank you I'm humbled to suffer insults as he did

Even though Jesus’s mythical sacrifice wasn’t that big a deal, comparing my tweet to being crucified and taunted while slowly dying does sound not a little presumptuous and, well, flatly silly.

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm @Pastorsmallwood we don't have to reason. The Word is not up for debate. It is fact, facts in which we ASSERT.

Do I even need to comment?

haggholm: (Default)

I’m considering trying an IDE for a change, rather than just gvim, because exploring options is good. I gather the top three IDEs that get mentioned in the context of Django are Wing, PyCharm, and Komodo (none of which are free), or Eclipse with PyDev (which is free, but has the even higher cost of being fucking Eclipse: I think using Eclipse is a much higher price to pay than money).

PyCharm, by the IntelliJ people, looks more full-featured than I knew any Python IDEs were. It’s really quite nice, and its code intelligence is impressive. The only obvious drawback is that it’s slow (is it because it’s written in Java? or just because it does so much introspection to provide such good hinting for so dynamic a language as Python?), which might or might not drive me crazy; and that when its code intelligence gets things wrong, it can be irritating. For example, it’s wonderful that it warns me if a variable is nowhere declared, but annoying when I know damn well that it gets injected by a decorator.

Wing IDE feels much lighter and faster. It has an impressively accurate vim input mode. (PyCharm also has vim emulation, need to try it.) It also feels like a more native application. In addition, when I open a Django project, the Django support is…I don’t know if it’s superior, but it’s more explicit: I get a Django menu with manage.py actions like validating models, generating SQL, and so on. Its code completion feels slightly more limited, though—import a symbol from a project-local module and PyCharm clearly knows more about it than Wing does.

Both Wing and PyCharm do Django; highlight a template reference in PyCharm and it will go to the template, for instance.

Komodo…I wonder why discussions on IDEs with support for Django mention Komodo. It looks like a great editor, it may even be a great generic IDE, but Django support? My brief search for making Komodo deal intelligently with Django revealed this amazing screencast which seems to conflate syntax highlighting support for Django for supporting Django with the IDE. No: Syntax highlighting is a feature a GUI text editor can have. For an IDE to support a library should mean more. For example, if I open a Django project, it might at least have the decency to figure out what running it should mean (hint: not running the module I’m currently editing). Since it doesn’t do this right off the bat, nor make it trivially discoverable, I infer that even if there exist better Django integration features, it’s so far off the priority radar that I can not only discount Komodo as an option, but reiterate my surprise that it even gets brought up.

Currently I’m leaning toward PyCharm as the top choice, but feeling vaguely guilty about it.

haggholm: (Default)

From the Department of Obvious Epiphanies (BJJ Division):

When I first started out in BJJ, I learned early on that whenever I get to the top, it is good to be heavy—that is, to apply as much weight as I can; to ensure that as much of my weight as possible is supported by my opponent rather than squandered on the ground. For a long time, however, I was sort of indiscriminate in this. Take side control, for example: I would get to side mount, apply my cross-face, drive my shoulder in, and lean my weight onto my opponent via my shoulder, my chest, maybe even my other shoulder.

My current thinking is that this is, by and large, wrong. It is wrong because by sticking to my opponent using so much surface area, I am creating two weaknesses in my top pressure:

  1. I am distributing my weight over a large surface area, so that he experiences moderate pressure on his jaw and moderate pressure on his chest, rather than really pinning any one part to the ground.
  2. I create a lot of attachment points, and a lot of friction, so that although it is admittedly hard for my opponent to move, it is also hard for me to move.

These days I am approaching my top game with a very different strategy. Instead of indiscriminately applying my weight, I try as much as possible to pick one point where I apply it. It might be via chest-to-chest contact. It might be through my shoulder, in cross-face. If my opponent is pushing my hips away, I might pike up and drive all my weight into his chest, or his solar plexus, via my head, until I can get around his arms. But as much as possible, I make my pressure pin-point and localised.

I honestly think that I can today apply more effective pressure when I am up on my toes and driving via the top of my head than I could two years ago when driving indiscriminately with my chest, even though I was then some 20–25 lbs heavier.

  1. Because the surface area is smaller, the pressure is greater (provided I don’t get lazy and apply less weight!). Thus though my opponent’s chest may be freer under side mount, his head is even more pinned to the ground from the cross-face, and since he can’t escape unless he releases pressure wherever I apply it, this is more effective.
  2. Because I use only one point to pin, the rest of my body is free to move. This allows me to play a much more responsive and mobile top game.

With this has come the obvious observation that the best pin (in the sense of top control pressure and keeping your opponent confined, not the judo-scoring osaekomi sense) is not one that cannot be broken—there is no perfect pin—but instead one that if and when my opponent escapes is one that leaves me in a good place to adapt and stay in a superior position. Having more pinpoint chest-to-chest control, for example, rather than being sort of generically smushed across my opponent, means that if they manage to start turning in to escape, I’m in a pretty good place to pivot around the point of contact, spin to the other side, and stay on top, in the opposide side mount. (Alternatively, I’m in a good position to spin for the armbar, should my opponent expose the far arm.)

For the same reason, I have become extremely fond of knee-on-belly for top control. It’s very much in the nature of knee-on-belly to apply pinpoint pressure (via the knee, obviously), and it’s an extremely mobile top position that very easily lets me switch from knee to knee, or between side mount and knee-on-belly. This is in fact a game I sometimes like to play when I am paired up with a beginner whom I outclass and I don’t feel it’s a contest (or very nice) to apply constant submissions: Just sweep, get to the top, and hone my positional game, where instead of stuffing escape attempts I just go with them, flow with the momentum my opponent imparts, and transition to another top position. That way I get to practice something worthwhile, and they get to practice escapes (in a manner that is admittedly frustrating, but does have opportunity for success).

I do not think that it is a coincidence that this thinking has evolved in a period of time during which I have finished more armbars in an average week than I previously did in two average months.

haggholm: (Default)

Ever since I revived that damned RPG project, I cannot help but think about a proper setting, and while I enjoy the venerable old Drakar och Demoner for many of its rules, many of its races and selection of monsters, and most especially its magic system, still the chief campaign setting (Ereb Altor) is an unacceptable patchwork of unrelated adventure settings all tossed onto one big map, and many details are altogether missing, so my campaign setting will be my own. And this is what happens when I start thinking down those lines.

Details! )



Apr. 26th, 2012 04:03 pm
haggholm: (Default)
Political orientation

According to the test, and by approximating the chart positions of various figures.

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Tell a Christian that you are an atheist because you find the evidence for theism thoroughly unconvincing and the odds are pretty high that you will, at some point, be told that he doesn’t have enough faith to be an atheist, or that you need faith in the non-existence of gods just as much as he needs faith in the existence of his. At first blush, this sounds at once superficially reasonable, obviously false, and profoundly bizarre.

It sounds superficially reasonable, because the objection that my atheism is not founded on an absolute certainty and absolute proof is of course correct. It sounds obviously false because the word “faith” is typically used to describe a positive belief in something for which there is insufficient empirical evidence, and is not a word suited to describe skepticism, whether justified or unjustified. It sounds profoundly bizarre because many Christians use the word to describe a purported virtue of trusting in the existence and benevolence of their god in spite of the lack of such evidence (the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen).

Part of the problem is that the word “faith” is a vague one on which we may both equivocate and have genuine misunderstandings. I use it to describe belief that is not justified by rational evidence, because in any situation where there is evidence we have other words to describe it, but I recognise that anyone who uses the word in conversation with me may mean just that, or equally well something different, such as a religious belief that they perceive to be supported by evidence, as a synonym for “confidence”, or something else altogether.

Then again, a disingenuous approach some debaters will use is to conflate them intentionally, a logical fallacy known as equivocation. You might say that I have “faith” that if I sit down my chair will bear me up, just as you have “faith” that your god exists—but they are clearly not the same kind of faith, since I have ample evidence that my chair will support me, and furthermore this evidence is available to anyone who wants to inspect it: You could (if you truly doubted it) have photos, videos, contemporary eyewitness testimony, or if you were truly dedicated you could come visit me and see for yourself. Moreover, the supportive quality of chairs is not contrary to anything in common experience; it’s not (as Sagan would say) an extraordinary claim. This approach is apparently used to justify the evidence-free kind of faith by implying that it is equivalent to obviously rational forms. It is not. My confidence in chairs is based on facts and observations that could be amply supported against someone skeptical of chairs; unless you can provide facts and observations in favour of your deity, it’s not the same thing at all—and if you can then let’s talk facts and evidence, not “faith”.

More promising is the notion that I need faith to be an atheist—faith not quite supported by evidence, that is—just as the theist needs faith to be a theist. Some theists, indeed, are known to dismissively quip that “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” (by implication of which faith is a bad thing, since more of it leads to us sinful atheists—but that is by the way). However, this also falls down flat on closer inspection.

First of all, we all subscribe to most of the same basic premises or assumptions in dealing with the world, theists and atheists alike. We all operate on the assumption that the external world is real and that our senses provide us with systematic information thereof. Even a hypothetical, reductio-ad-absurdam biblical literalist has no choice: Without the empirical evidence of his eyes and ears, he could read no scripture and hear no sermons. So clearly, in terms of the basic appreciation of what exists, we start from the same position.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, as Occam’s Razor slices, and I choose to stop there. I accept the truth of premises that cannot be denied without resort to solipsism, but thereafter I demand evidence before I accept anything as true. This post goes into more detail, but in brief, since it is always possible to invent an infinitude of ideas, explanations, and purported entities, my choices are always going to be either refusal to accept any without evidence, attempting to accept all of them, or picking and choosing in an ad hoc fashion.

This all sounds rather abstract, so let’s consider this tweet from @repenTee:

@haggholm as I think about it ur conjectures are based on faith no evidence 2 prove that God doesn't exist somewhere in the universe.

(Pardon his spelling; it’s a tweet.)

The problem with this protestation is that although it is true that I have no direct evidence that no such thing as his God is floating about somewhere in the interstellar void, nor do I have any evidence that there aren’t two gods. Or three. Or ninety-six point four. Or, for that matter, a giant magic space-duck ’round whose mighty bill six supermassive black holes revolve. This shows the insufficiency of “there is no direct evidence against it” as an argument to accept any proposition: It opens the gates to all manner of silly things. I want to remain intellectually consistent, so I must approach all these disparate and sometimes contradictory claims (there is exactly one, are exactly two, three, four gods… cannot all be true) with the same approach. I do, and so accept only the ones whose existence is supported by good evidence. Therefore I am an atheist.

(This is of course what Russell’s Teapot was created to illustrate, along with its more modern successors—the Invisible Pink Unicorn, Sagan’s invisible dragon, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and so on.)

So as Bertrand Russell observed,

…I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

I believe that this sufficiently deals with equivocation, and dismissing the idea that the lack of positive disproof of a proposition (in spite of lack of positive evidence for it) is sufficient grounds to believe in it. We’re left, then, with the notion that the atheist’s confidence that there are no gods is on par with the theists’s faith in his because both positions have evidentiary support. The same @repenTee provided this frank and illustrative example in a blog comment:

…The faith we've entered into is not without evidence. Much as biologists observe cellular structures so we have observed nature and from it conclude that these things have been created by God. As we have observed people, places and things we conclude that something greater than ourselves must exist. Who this God is from that point we may differ but the theist never concludes that God exists apart from evidence....

Unfortunately, the analogy with biologists falls rather flat when we consider that the biologist’s inference from observation is only the first stage of scientific investigation. In the canonical simplification of scientific inquiry, this is observation leading to hypothesis formation. A biologist might for example observe cells in agar, see some interesting things, and conclude that cells reproduce by fission…but it doesn’t end there. If a biologist submitted a paper to a journal with no more substance than “here’s what I saw and here’s what I conclude”, it would be rejected and might not even receive the grace of a note explaining why. Rather, the biologist must use this point as a starting point only and ask questions. If I am right, what does that imply? What else should I be able to see? Can I follow up on that, and do I see what I expect? More importantly, what if I am wrong? What should I expect to see if I am wrong, and can I check up on that?

Indeed, some very great scientific truths have been discovered thanks to ideas that were arrived at in very ad hoc fashion, but turned out to be true. August Kekulé famously arrived at the structure of the benzene molecule from a dream of the Ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail. Einstein developed a lot of ideas from Gedankenexperiments and his sense of scientific aesthetics. The ultimate source of an idea is not so very important, whether empirical observation or irrational impulse—you may observe nature and draw the wrong conclusions; you may hallucinate and by chance have a correct idea. The key is not where the idea comes from, but how we can tell if it’s correct or erroneous.

This is of course the principles of falsifiability and (implicitly) replicability, two of the great cornerstones of the scientific enterprise. We accept no one’s word that something is true just because it seemed reasonable from what they saw. We expect them to explain in quantitative detail what difference their idea makes, so that we can make predictive statements and check whether it’s correct. Note that this goes beyond merely looking for consistency. I can make up all kinds of crazy ideas that are consistent with facts. I can claim that the world is such as it is because the giant magic space-duck willed it to be so, and this is consistent with facts. But it’s not an idea to be taken seriously because I cannot say “If the space-duck exists then we should observe X; if it does not then we should observe Y.” Before I accept the truth of a proposition, the existence of any entity, it must be clearly meaningful to say that it is false—and of course that meaning must turn out to be counterfactual.

So let us return to the quote from above:

…The faith we've entered into is not without evidence. Much as biologists observe cellular structures so we have observed nature and from it conclude that these things have been created by God.

At this stage, what’s been described is hypothesis generation. There’s nothing wrong with generating hypotheses, and no wrong way to do it (only more or less productive ones), but hypotheses must not be mistaken for validated theories, for truth. How do you know that your idea of divine creation is correct? What predictions have you (or any theist) ever made that would detect divine agency—what evidence should be sought to verify that your god created something rather than just natural processes? If you have not looked for it, then it’s not comparable to what a proper biologist does at all; it’s the brainstorming phase, not the publishable work that actually gets a scientist respect and tenure.

This is also the big problem with a deist god. Certainly it violates no evidence, but nor does it leave any evidence or make any predictions. To say that there is a god, but it leaves no traces of itself for us to find, only sounds less crazy than to say the same of a magic space-duck because we are culturally conditioned to take gods more seriously.

The objection to deism is also applicable to certain views of theism—that is, those that fall into the trap of the God of the Gaps. Over the centuries, some defenders of religious faith have insisted that what we cannot scientifically explain must be the work of their god—the orbits of the planets, say, or the origin of life. As Kepler, Newton et al explained orbital mechanics, these defenders of faith had to admit that the planets weren’t pushed along by their god—but “ah”, they’d say, “gravitation itself is surely the power of God”. Along comes Einstein and explains gravitation as geometry, the consequence of deformations in spacetime, and gravitation turns out not to be an intangible force after all. “Ah!”, exclaim the defenders (or their intellectual descendands), “but then spacetime must be due to God.” And so on—with every new discovery, their god is redefined so as not to conflict with facts. But this god can never generate a meaningfully falsifiable prediction, because every falsification is inevitably explained away with a new redefinition.

Indeed, earlier versions of these beggar-gods, deities who would hide in any nook or cranny that science had yet to illuminate, did generate falsifiable hypotheses, such as “the planets could not remain in stable orbits but for the mystical power of God”—which turned out to be false, neatly disproving them.

The only gods that remain to be dealt with are the ones with more meat on their bones—ones who generate falsifiable claims: Gods such that their followers ought to be able to come up and tell me: “These are the verifiable (or falsifiable) differences between two models of the world: One such as it is or would be with my god in it; one such as it is or would be without him.” That is a god that needs to be evaluated on an individual balance, the evidence for and against it weight—especially that against it (as attempted falsification yields better evidence than mere consistency-with-established-facts).

I’d welcome such falsifiable evidence.


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