Amorphous Intelligence

The Wand in the Stone: Harry Potter and the Social-Equality Allegory

Posted in Cinema, Current Events, Humanism, Humor, Literature, Logic by amorphousintelligence on November 15, 2010

Recently [Author’s note: that adjective was more accurate last year when I originally wrote this—AI], I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the seven-volume epic by J.K. Rowling.

I realize I’m quite possibly the second-to-last person living to do so (which is why I don’t feel too inclined to point out this review does contain spoilers, but only for that one dude, who probably can’t read anyway). But at least I finished it. And before the corresponding movie (which was wisely done in two parts). Now that I’ve read all seven, my thoughts:

It started off weak.

By the time I clued in to the enormous popularity of the books, the first movie was already released and the fourth volume was in print. Following the herd, I saw the cinematic adaptation…and enjoyed. Not necessarily in my top 50…but enjoyed.

Naturally, it was about that time I felt if I was going to amount to anything at all in this fast-paced, cold, unforgiving world, I had to read the Harry Potter books—or otherwise with certainty be left in the cut-throat, fantasy-world dust trampled mercilessly underfoot.

So I read the first one…first. It was kind of a letdown. I’m not saying it was bad. Just with all the built-up hysteria, it ended up seeming like a pretty straight forward, simple narrative for the youngsters; not the complex, brutal, and—so far—untouchable Lord of the Rings’ reincarnate I was envisaging. True, it had smatterings of clever wordplay (“Diagon Alley”/“diagonally”). But in the immortally pithy words of music-critic Simon Cowell, I was like, “So what.”

To be fair, I reminded myself there were more stories yet to come. I couldn’t honestly critique until I’ve read all.

So I trudged on, usually neck and neck with the release of the corresponding theatrical interpretation. Sometimes I read a book before the motion picture; sometimes after. And each tome progressively got thicker, more complex, more mature, and, frankly, better. (The movies don’t necessarily progress that way, but such is the curse of the inflexible time-limit of the cinematic format.) By the time I was on the third or fourth volume I started to comprehend the public’s hype. From there on, the books’ waxed pleasurably, and I was hooked.

My mind started to grasp minor metaphors: Harry Potter as an archetype of the young King Arthur; and the mighty wizard Albus Dumbledore? An archetype of the great wizard Merlin (the wise, powerful, white-bearded old-man being a typical archetype of many a story, including, but not limited to, Gandalf, Santa Claus, or the ubiquities God). I read somewhere or other (probably in Wikipedia) the understatement that Rowling is fond of T.H. White’s children’s tetralogy The Once and Future King (whose first book published in 1938 is the familiar The Sword in the Stone, which was more like the sword in the anvil on the stone, and is, obviously, the same upon which Walt Disney based his classic 1963 animated film).

White is by no means the first to write about the Arthurian legends. But he may be the most popular and influential for the past century. His influence on Rowling (not to mention Monty Python; and perhaps Bernie Taupin/Elton John; i.e. The Candle in the Wind) is apparent when comparisons are drawn—and I don’t just mean the obvious use of her initials as her penname: “T.H.,” “J.K.” Both stories largely take place in the English country; in and around an ancient castle furnished with four-poster beds, paintings that animate to life, and surrounded by deadly forests; with wizards, witches, & mythical creatures surrounding the plot (ogres, griffins, unicorns, dragons, talking trees, giants, etc.); and themes vacillating between times both ancient and modern.

The hero of White’s story, “the Wart” (a.k.a. King Arthur), like Potter, was orphaned and raised by relatives who treated him as less important than their own son, Kay (whose loose counterpart in the Potter stories could maybe be Dudley). Wart was friends with the pet owl named Archimedes; whereas Potter had a pet owl named Hedwig. Archimedes was Merlin’s pet bird; Dumbledore’s pet bird was the phoenix named Faux. Wart lived at and was educated in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage; Potter lived at and was educated in the castle Hogwarts (itself having the name “Wart” in it). Wart had the opportunity one day to morph into a fish and swam in the mote around the castle; Potter one day grew gills and webbed appendages and swam as good as a fish in the lake adjacent to the castle. Wart morphed into a peregrine Falcon one day, a thrush another, learning how to fly; by comparison Potter also learned to fly, whether by broomstick, enchanted car, hippogriff, or a dragon. Another day still, Wart spent time as a snake speaking snake talk with another fellow legless reptile; Potter spoke fluent parseltongue (snake talk) and frequently inhabited the body of Nagini, Voldemort’s personal pet serpent. On that same day, Wart spent time in “a secret chamber;” whereas Potter spent time in “the Chamber of Secrets.” And a different day altogether, Merlin used his magical powers on himself and Wart to instantly swirl them both to a different far-off place (teleportation; White calls those who do this “apparators”); Dumbledore and Potter also instantly swirled to different far-off places, whether by touching port keys, going through the flu network or, as most closely resembles White’s story, by what Rowling calls “apparition.” When Wart pulls the sword from the anvil (on the stone), it is pointed out how it chose him; by comparison, Potter’s wand, it is explained piecemeal throughout all seven books, chose Potter. The three main protagonists, close friends, and quarreling lovers of White’s stories are Arthur, Guinevere, & Lancelot; using a similar dynamic, in Rowling’s stories it’s Potter, Hermione, & Weasley. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at one point famously retrieved the near-unbreakable sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake; similarly, at one point Potter and Weasley retrieved the near-unbreakable Sword of Gryffindor from a lake. When Potter, Weasley, & Granger retrieved the horcrux that was a gold cup, it seemed reminiscent of King Arthur and his Knights in search of another gold cup, more famously known as the Holy Grail. White’s slimy character Mordred (whose name sounds morbid since it literally sounds like the word “morbid”) could easily have been inspiration to Rowling for such comparatively slimy characters as Snape (sounds like “snake”) and the Malfoys (similar to “malfeasance,” i.e. wrongdoing or evildoing; not to mention the morbid name Draco which is Latin for dragon, though some have suggested Rowling meant it to connote with the ancient Athenian ruler Draco and his cruel Draconian laws). In White’s stories, King Arthur married Guinevere who was called Ginny by her closest friends; Rowling’s stories end with Potter also marrying a Ginny, which was the nickname derived from her true first name: Ginevra.

Although fantasy is not my favorite speculative fiction, at times I enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, and The Once and Future King. But I feel more comfortable about the genre if I know the author is aware it is make-believe and doesn’t think this kind of supernatural magic exists in the real world (such as the case with the realist Phillip Pullman). And I’m even more comfortable if the author at least sort of tries to hint at that to their readers. (Although J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis knew their respective stories were make-believe, they thought of them as allegories to reality when in fact they are mostly allegories of mythologies. At least Lewis was open about the allegory; Tolkien denied his was—but, like the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, Gandalf the Grey was risen from the dead as the more powerful Gandalf the White. Need I say more?)

Although on the surface the Potter stories don’t seem it, the more I read the more I was of the opinion Rowling is (like Pullman) mostly on the side of reality. One example to illustrate this is Hermione Granger, which character I suspect Rowling has written, perhaps, as a reflection of how she envisions herself when she was that age: a studious know-it-all, adept in sound logic. If we can truly infer Rowling’s view of reality through the prism of her descriptions of Granger, there is a superb example in chapter 21 of Deathly Hallows when she is reading from The Tales of Beedle the Bard out loud to Potter, Weasley, and Xenophilius Lovegood. Potter seems surprised about the book’s personification of death. Granger responds, “It’s a fairy tale, Harry!” Perhaps Rowling knowingly saved the use of that simple expression for her final Potter book to remind her devout fans to apply it themselves to her books lest they get too piously carried away in delusion. These stories are only fairy tales, not to be taken literally.

Granger goes on in that same chapter to demonstrate her reasonable grasp of logic when she asks Lovegood how the Resurrection Stone could be real. “Prove that it is not,” he curtly and matter-of-factly answered. Lovegood’s belief in the Resurrection Stone is based on the logical fallacy dubbed argumentum ad ignorantiam; that is, the argument from ignorance, or the appeal to ignorance (which can be read about more in-depth here, here, and here). This fallacy is often summed up with the phrase, “You cannot prove a negative.” What that means, is, negative (or non) existence of evidence is not evidence (or proof) of existence; or, the converse, as Carl Sagan famously said it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” These are ultimately statements of inconclusiveness—not proof either way. Statistical probabilities can be inferred, however, depending on the subject matter. For instance, the existence of life beyond earth and the solar system, though currently no direct evidence exists, many scientists consider not necessarily plausible but at least statistically probable based on the extrapolation of circumstantial evidence (i.e. we know life exists in this solar system, we know there are billions upon billions of other galaxies and stars in the seeable universe that obey the same laws of physics we do, and we now have direct evidence some of those stars have planets similar to ours in the “Goldilocks Zone”). Lovegood’s Resurrection Stone, like Russell’s Teapot (below), however, while their existence may or may not be possible, the lack of even circumstantial evidence makes them statistically improbable. With that in mind, Granger calls Lovegood out on his argumentum ad ignorantiam (though, alas, without calling it by name):

But that’s—I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of—of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!

Rowling via Granger seems to be channeling the well-known parable called Russell’s Teapot. It was explained in 1952 (five years before the first human-made object was launched into earthly orbit—Sputnik 1, 1957—nine years before the first human in outer space—Yuri Gagarin, 1961—and thirteen years before the first spacecraft flyby of Mars—Mariner 4, 1965) by scientific philosopher Bertrand Russell:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Nonsense, indeed. Or, as Granger smartly noted with Lovegood’s rationale for his belief in the Resurrection Stone, “completely ridiculous!”

If Rowling truly is a realist, then, why write stories about unreal things? Answer: I think she simply utilizes fantasy as a hook; as sugar to help the medicine go down (to borrow a phrase from another Disney movie). It’s a means of conveying a coming-of-age story; and a brilliant tactic to get the younger generation—who are used to stories being presented via the multisensory, multimedia formats of TV, movies, and video games—to simply learn to enjoy the written word; and to recognize the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white.

No doubt Rowling enjoys the notoriety and enormous wealth, too. But I suspect her primary motivation was at first the sheer joy of writing stories. With success, that may have shifted to her concern of combating declining literacy, which is a noble cause. She seems to have made a sizeable dent in that arena, too, to which I applaud her.

But it wasn’t until the sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, that I finally clued into a much deeper message—something more profound that, I suspect, Rowling has been trying to convey in these stories all along, whether consciously or not.

I realize now these stories are an allegory for real-world conflicts of social inequality and discrimination of races, ethnicities, and minorities; inhumane treatments of animals (the non-human kind); and the social injustices of, perhaps, this planet’s worst nationalistic conflict: World War II, Hitler, and the Nazi regime.

Allow me to explain:

The stories loosely divide the characters into two groups, the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” or the socially fair and the socially unfair. This division is also reminiscent of the Allied Forces (good guys) and Axis Powers (bad guys) of World War II. The protagonists of the story, although not without faults, largely are fighting for equality. Whereas the antagonists of the story, though not necessarily in lockstep (or goose-step?) or even in alliance with one another, are fighting for power for specific groups of people at the exclusion of others; i.e. discrimination.

I will list three examples that I think demonstrate my points:

1) The family that raised Harry Potter, the Dursleys (being “muggles”—or non-magical—who would roughly be part of the antagonistic group), constantly make negative remarks about wizards and witches, the group our main heroes of the story—Potter, Granger, & Weasley—belong to. This sub-plot is a constant theme of tension, particularly in Potter’s life. It serves as a microcosm of the much larger macrocosm throughout this fictional world of tension between muggles and magicians (not to mention the tensions between humans, giants, centaurs, dragons, dementors, succubi, spiders, werewolves, merpeople, goblins, etc.). And it strikes me as suggestive of the real-world tensions of racism in all its various forms. Potter serves as the epitome of a minority group of one born as a magician, of which he had absolutely no choice, forced to be raised by the majority group of muggles who dislike magicians, epitomized by the Dursleys. If Potter himself was the one in power, he would love more than anything for magicians and muggles to get along in harmony and equality, but he’s forced to live with discriminatory treatment under the hands of the bigoted majority entirely because of his magical…race? ethnicity? (Rowling seems to think of magicians as a race as the stories use the phrase “the magical race.”)

2) There is the cause that the lead heroine of the story, Hermione Granger, takes up beginning with volume three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and is carried over into the proceeding books. She is of the very minority opinion—even her own best friends are not terribly supportive—that house-elves are treated not only unfairly, but inhumanely. She starts up an organization to counter this, called SPEW (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). This, to me, smacks of at least two organizations in the real world in the last couple of decades fighting for more humane treatment of animals, whose acronyms bear much similarity: The SPCA (Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and perhaps PETA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals…er, I mean, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

(Though I myself prefer humane treatment for animals, I’m not a fan of PETA’s tactics as lead by Ingrid Newkirk, who seems to be more interested not in equality—which alone might be pushing the matter a bit far—but placing animals in greater importance above humans, which I don’t agree with. My animal sensibilities are more in alignment with the SPCA, a division of the Humane Society. We should strive to treat animals humanely, but they are not necessarily equals. Whether in the real world Rowling is more of a PETA or SPCA supporter, I know not.)

3) This third example is the biggest source of conflict throughout the story and hits me as quite connotative of the Allied Forces versus the Axis Powers of World War II. The dark wizard Lord Voldemort, the pinnacle bad guy of the Potter stories, seems to be an allegorical character for German chancellor and dictator Adolph Hitler, largely perceived in the real world as the pinnacle bad guy of the twentieth century. Voldemort raises an army of Death Eaters whose sole mission seems to be to use whatever means possible, including murdering innocents ruthlessly, to have ultimate power over everyone else. The criteria that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has set to join his army seems to be 1) having magical powers, and 2) be a “pure blood,” meaning none of their ancestors can have been muggles (i.e. non-magical). This last criterion, being the most stringent and socially unfair, is, oddly, at odds with Voldemort personally, who, as it turns out, is a “mudblood” himself, an epithet often thrown at Hermione Granger. (While Voldemort is of mixed magical race or ethnicity—i.e. one parent being magical, the other muggle—Hermione was born with magical powers even though both of her parents are muggles. This pejorative “mudblood” is a recurring insult throughout the stories, especially as frequently invoked by the school bully Draco Malfoy, who later joins alongside his father as one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters.) The power-hungry contradictions of Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters can be likened to the power-hungry contradictions of Adolf Hitler and his army of Nazis. Hitler, as it is well known, wanted a Germany and ultimately a world controlled by what he thought of as the pure “Aryan race,” a sub-race of the larger Caucasian race. He is most notorious for the systematic execution of those not of his pureblood race, particularly the attempted genocide of the Jews, a race which, apparently, Hitler himself—like Voldemort—had ancestral ties to.

A couple more thoughts that also support my points but are of much minor themes in the stories and not expressed in allegory: Clearly having Hermione Granger as the lead heroine of the story, Rowling, a woman herself, was interested in showing that the female population should be viewed as socially equal and as capable in many if not most areas to the male population. Surely this has not gone unnoticed by many girl readers. And lastly, by revealing during a Q & A that in her mind Albus Dumbledore (without question the pinnacle “good guy” of the stories and seemingly without a married partner) is a homosexual, Rowling seems to be expressing, albeit timidly, her support of antidiscrimination and social equality for those of minority sexual preference; i.e. gays, lesbians, etc.

To recap, the Harry Potter books are, on the surface, fun coming-of-age fantasy stories, perhaps most inspired by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, understood to be works of fiction (“It’s a fairy tale, Harry!”) They progressively get more mature, complex, deeper, and better with each volume. They have inspired a whole new generation to simply love to read, and have overtly taught them the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white. (And the discussion of God and religion, unlike White’s stories, are seemingly absent from Rowling’s pages. Without quite crossing the line into the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, it is reasonable at least to ask if this silence is a timid, covert commentary by Rowling? While a professed Christian herself, does she regard those beliefs as personal and to be kept discreet? Perhaps fundamentally unnecessary for the good society at large?) But in conjunction with that, the real genius of these tales is they serve as allegories of the current real world which has been and continues to struggle for social equality, antidiscrimination, and justice for all.

As a secular-humanist, that’s a cause I can stand behind. And I bow down to Rowling for having subtly and covertly influenced (perhaps) a whole younger generation to think this way—even if they are not fully aware of it yet, and while simultaneously being under the radar of those who are opposed to such social fairness.

Such is the advantage of metaphor and allegory. (There are disadvantages, too, like misinterpretation. But that’s a different story altogether.)

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Prager University: Theism, Propaganda, and Misinformation

Posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Evolutionism, Humanism, Logic, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Skepticism, Theology by amorphousintelligence on August 16, 2009

Radio personality Dennis Prager’s third and latest installment of his “Prager University” YouTube videos, entitled “God, Part 1: What Would Make You Believe in God?”, argues for belief in God. (Presumably the Judeo-Christian concept of God; I know enough about Prager to know that’s the God he believes in.) He does this in just over five minutes. See for yourselves:

That’s not much time to cover all the myriads of arguments devised over the millennia to attempt to persuade such a belief. But his goal is to keep these on-line video “lessons” short and to-the-point for as large an audience as possible. Perfectly understandable. Pithiness is a virtue.

In that vein, then, I will try to do so likewise. But unlike Prager, I will try to be more intellectually honest. By that I mean I will refrain from using speculative arguments; I will avoid casting serious questions aside with a mere figurative wave of my hand; and I will not resort to “straw man” or any other logical fallacies.

Speculative arguments? Dismissivness? Straw man logical fallacies?

By matter-of-fact stating that if God himself literally and physically appeared before every human being, this phenomenon would not convince them to His existence, Prager is being quite speculative indeed. The fact that there is no testable, verifiable evidence that the Judeo-Christian God has ever appeared to anyone—let alone everyone, repeatedly for each generation—is speculation number one. And to compound that, there is no testable, verifiable evidence of how any or all humans would react to such a visitation, being speculation number two, whilst simultaneously dismissing a serious question: How would people react? And apparently God curing everyone of, say, cancer wouldn’t be convincing enough to His existence, either, Prager continues for his third speculative argument while framing it as such an obvious fact.

How could Prager know—and unquestionably know, at that—the answers to these questions? Is it intellectually honest to give answers to claims such as these without having actually tested the claims first? What if I said your car won’t start because your battery is dead? Would you assume I didn’t just pull this claim out of thin air but had actually tested the battery somehow to know this? But what you may be thinking is, that’s a silly comparison since the kind of thing Prager is talking about is simply un-testable. And you’d be absolutely right. Which, in such cases, seriously limits us to two options: 1) we can state it as unknown and perhaps ultimately unknowable, which is admittedly unsatisfying but nonetheless the intellectually honest approach; or 2) we can make the answer up out of thin air (or perpetuate an answer that someone else made up out of thin air), which for the majority is more satisfying to at least have an answer but is, notwithstanding, the intellectually dishonest approach.

Sadly, Prager chose the latter.

If I was to consider Prager’s question of “What Would Make You Believe in God?” (and I have considered this long before Prager posed it), I would say his suggestions sound very convincing, indeed. I’m not speculating, let’s be clear, as I’m speaking on my own behalf of what I strongly feel would convince me, personally. As such, it shows I at least am open-minded to being convinced. And I’m not alone. The well-known British scientist and atheist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was asked a similar question and gave a similar response. And my experience is that most rational-thinking atheists and agnostics agree.

But what if the tables were turned? What would convince Dennis Prager there is good reason to doubt God’s existence? Is he open-minded enough to accept that possibility—just the sincere possibility?

Is he willing to understand that since there is no testable evidence of the God he worships (such as God himself actually appearing before us all, and solving life’s ills, as Prager proposed as possible evidence) that that is reason enough to doubt?

What of all those people who have seen God, you ask? I would answer, just because they say they’ve seen God, does that provide compelling evidence they actually have? Lots of people say lots of things, and both common experience and scientific evidence teaches us not everyone should be a hundred percent believed in everything they say, for good reason. People can genuinely be deceived, and they themselves in turn are capable of deceiving, whether they know it or not. And since every claim to actual visitations from God—from Abraham to Moses to Mohammad to many others—is fraught with inconsistent and even contradictory descriptions and doctrines and commandments and theologies (not to mention, in these specific instances, unverifiable historical records), then there is good reason to be skeptical of these claims. They could very potentially be delusions, frauds, hoaxes, shams, and so forth. Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates how extremely susceptible human beings are to these kinds of occurrences, and likewise how common they are in our everyday lives.

But this blog post is not about that. It’s about Prager’s specific arguments in this video for theistic belief. In which he concludes his “lesson” with this thought: Some have stated that if enough monkeys were plunking away at typewriters and were given enough time, at least one of the monkeys would—eventually—type out word-for-word the Shakespearean play Hamlet. “Scientists” tried this, he continues, and the results were the monkeys defecated on the keys without even getting as far as typing simple English words such as “the” or “it.”

I’m not crystal clear on what Prager thinks the connection is with this thought and theistic belief or disbelief in his Lord, as he doesn’t outright say here. But in the context of this video, the not-so-subtle implication is he thinks, or at least wants his listeners to think, there is a connection. And the implying connection he seems to be making is that those who question the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God is based, at least in part, on the grounds that literal monkeys should be able to literally type at least some words? And since the “scientists” have shown us that literal monkeys only soil literal typewriters, there’s no good reason to doubt the literal existence of God? 

Prager is either naively unaware or purposefully invoking the “straw man” logical fallacy (which, briefly, is to attack a weak opposing argument rather than attacking the much stronger argument the opponent is actually making; you can read more in-depth about it here, here, and here). This “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a serious argument used by those who thoughtfully doubt the literal existence of the Biblical Almighty, or any other literal all-knowing, all-powerful deity for that matter. (And this blog post is not about those reasons, as that would take an entirely different, very lengthy post.) What’s more, this “Infinitely Typing Monkey” hypothesis is not a theological doctrine, nor a philosophical concept, nor a political ideology, nor a scientific theory or law.  Rather, it is merely a metaphorical mathematical exercise infrequently employed to illustrate enormous spans of time. It’s an analogy, if you will, to aid in visualizing massively mind-boggling amounts of numbers, usually invoked these days in reference to the “Theory of Evolution”—which is a scientific theory which requires a lot of numbers, and speaks nothing whatsoever about belief or disbelief in an Ultimate Man-Like Creator.

The intellectually honest approach to this issue of theism versus atheism (or agnosticism) would be to truly discuss the actual issues as to why some doubt and why some believe in the literal existence of the Judeo-Christian God. And to do this without resorting to rampant speculation, careless dismissals, and logical fallacies. While maintaining his format of brevity, Prager could easily have summed it up as those who believe do so ultimately on faith. This is belief without evidence. And those who don’t believe do so (or don’t do so?) ultimately on lack of faith. This is skeptically withholding belief until compelling evidence is presented. Matters of faith are ultimately un-testable beliefs, and as such there is no good reason for conflict between believers and disbelievers in these matters. Disbelievers have no testable evidence to contradict faith just as believers have no testable evidence to support faith. End of argument. It’s only in the false claim that matters of faith can be tested is where conflict arises. But since Prager avoided the more intellectually honest discussion here and tried to blur his un-testable faith with so-called science, this shows me that he’s more interested in propaganda with these so-called university lessons. He doesn’t appear to be searching for real honest answers here. As such, clearly his target demographic in this is twofold: those who already believe as he does and those he wants to convince to believe as he does. For those who already believe as he does, he is reinforcing that belief with misinformation rather than opening their minds to other genuine possibilities. And for those who don’t know enough about this issue to know whether or not they believe as he does, he is persuading them to believe as he does with, once again, misinformation.

And that’s a pity.

If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island What Three Books Would You Want With You? And, If You’ll Indulge Me, My Three Considered Responses

Posted in Aesthetics, Humanism, Humor, Literature, Logic, Philology, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Secularism, Skepticism by amorphousintelligence on February 10, 2009

 

I have heard (or read) this question (or some variation of it) presented over the years. I vaguely remember reading somewhere or other, about a decade or so ago, that the famed literary critic Harold Bloom’s answer was, as best as memory serves, 1) the King James Version of the Bible, 2) The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and, 3) uh, something else (I can’t remember what, but he may have said three was a wild card), in that order. I suppose that would be the typical answer for a learned man of letters such as Mr. Bloom , and so naturally I more or less adopted it as my own. Not that someone has ever posed that question to me—because no one ever has; or that I’m a learned man of letters—because (no matter how I wish it so) my lack of any degree says I’m not; but I tentatively accepted his erudite response as my own, or at least in my own mind I did.

 

Then in 2007 upon listening to a podcast of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe whilst Dr. Steven Novella and The Rogues were interviewing another famed literary (not to mention political and religious) critic, Christopher Hitchens, I heard that question offered again, to Mr. Hitchens. For a split second I partly expected him to say something along the lines of Mr. Bloom’s answers. Hitchens, however, is no Bloom. Somewhat to my surprise he didn’t name any book and flat out rejected the question by suggesting if he was to accept such a premise he would not actually be choosing for himself but rather have the choice forced upon him.

 

In complete disclosure of honesty I don’t entirely understand Mr. Hitchens’ point, but in fairness he was put on the spot and answered extemporaneously and with haste as he is so apt to do. Regardless of my understanding, or lack thereof, though, it was the way he said what he did that sounded clever to me. What’s more, it got me to re-think the brain exercise more ponderously and to perhaps alter my own position should such a theoretical query ever be posed to me in the flesh.

 

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

 

First response: a notebook. Indeed, a notebook; that is to say, a personal computer laptop, with the understanding that all necessary peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements accompany it; it is in new or like-new condition, with a fully charged battery with the ability to be re-charged, with unlimited high-speed broadband access to the Internet, as well as the costs of all on-line subscriptions and purchases fully covered, and so forth. (I suppose a fingerprint ID scanner would be unnecessary in such conditions.) Now, I imagine my having this notebook as my only book on this desert isle is something the average questioner could easily agree to; but what of all these peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements? It’s a modest request. One wouldn’t deny a fellow human being their auxiliary bookmark to go along with what few hardback or paperback yarns they poses on this barren islet would one? The absurdity of answering my analogous hypothetical with a denial doesn’t warrant one more negatively-charged neuron from firing off all helter-skelter, so I hastily move along with my pleasant and orderly thoughts unfettered. With this advanced technological book alone at my disposal I would have not but a mere one (or three) tomes in my clutches, but all the world’s libraries, past, present, and, to some extent, future (though I’m not quite sure how this would work). I would ideally have authorization to not only the digital repositories of any and all e-books, but audio books…or I could even pen my own books. Furthermore, I could have access to periodicals, motion pictures, stills, music, satellite television, news, blogs (of course), podcasts, streaming radio, video games, on-line social networking, weather reports, water temperatures, trading of stocks & bonds, and, most importantly, the ability to book a reservation with some travel agency or the nearest Coast Guard or Navy to extricate me off this unfashionable ocean-encircled wasteland.

 

Second response: If I’m to take this question literally and I was actually thrust into such an undesired situation, the furthest thing from my mind would be printed “books.” Oh, I do love to read books, but not when life and death are on the line. Pursuing any literary interests in such a socio-economic environment as a godforsaken desert island would have to be put on temporary hiatus, it seems to me. I would most likely spend my time somewhere between acting out Tom Hanks’ character in the film Cast Away and trying to recollect Bear Grylls survival techniques from the Discovery Channel’s TV show Man vs. Wild: oh, I don’t know, basically trying to keep Mr. Death in my pocket by scavenging, foraging, and hunting for food & drink, erecting shelters, protecting my emaciating body from nature’s harsh elements, guarding my atrophying tissues from harmful flora & fauna, and attempting any reasonable means to escape this uncivilized desolate hell-hole while simultaneously remaining unharmed, unscathed, and intact, if at all possible.

 

Third response: I would think that one posing this question doesn’t mean for the responder to take it literally anyway. It’s a metaphorical inquiry. What the questioner really wants to know is what is so-and-so’s all time favorite book or books; that is to say, what book or books does so-and-so enjoy so much that, given ample leisure time, he or she is willing—desirous even—to read it/them over and over, again and again, and hence might be a possible source of entertainment or mental stimulus the questioner may consider to devote personal time towards during a rare moment of quiet respite. It’s actually a question the recipient ought to be flattered to have been asked as the asker is curious to know what the receiving party’s tastes are on such sublime intellectual matters as “literature.”

 

In truth, I don’t think such a singular text ever has or ever will exist for me. I’ve read the KJV Bible cover-to-cover…once. I enjoyed it (or portions of it)…once. Don’t know that I’d want to enjoy it cover-to-cover again though. I mostly think of the Bible as a reference book these days anyway, something to look up quotes or verses in as one uses the dictionary to look up words in; and the chilling thought of being water bound on a desert island with only a dictionary to peruse is, well…okay, actually, come to think of it, to a self-described philologist that might not be too bad of a situation, especially if we’re talking about the voluminous OED…on-line. But I digress. I’ve read Shakespeare. I enjoy Shakespeare immensely. However, I would get weary of reading his verse and dialogue repeatedly with nothing else. To wit, there are a great many novels, mythologies, religious texts (or did I enumerate that one already?), histories, textbooks, children’s stories, biographies, fables, philosophical musings, and scientific hypotheses that I’ve both casually and pensively contemplated the words thereof from cover-to-cover…once.

 

I’ve attempted reading some books twice but find myself asking why I’m doing this and if my time so devoted is truly necessary and if perhaps my precious few spare moments of personal contemplation and soul-searching could be devoted to more worthwhile pursuits such as reading a different book, preferably one I have not yet had the pleasure to crack. I don’t recall ever playing through on the third hole of any hardback or paperback. And as of now I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading thrice or more…come to think of it I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading twice or more.

 

But if one was to directly ask my recommendation for a pleasant piece of fiction or non to gaze thoughtfully at, I may retort with a follow-up such as what one’s general interests tend to be or what genre one is thinking of delving into. I may also be so inclined to respond with whatever I happened to have on my nightstand at the time the question was presented. For instance, I just finished reading (“listened” technically, on my iPod, in audio book format, while driving and jogging and going about life’s limitless activities in full efficiency mode) a P.G. Wodehouse 1917 short-story collection entitled The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories. I found it absolutely delightful. I would gladly suggest it to another if asked (or even without being asked), especially if one was looking for a WWI-era romantic comedy, and who isn’t? But I have little to no desire to read it again. Well, maybe a slight desire; it was rather titillating. Regardless, my personal druthers is to move on to novelties. Reading a book for my first time excites my person. Reading the same printed and bound writings over and over sounds tedious.

 

Of course as I write this, I’m reminded that when I was a lad of, oh, ten or so, I would walk home from school, fix a grilled-cheese sandwich, then pop our video of Star Wars into the now antiquated VHS player to watch the 1977 space opera from opening to closing credits; and I repeated this monotonous activity near daily for the course of three semesters. I would guesstimate I watched Episode IV: A New Hope that year alone maybe a hundred times, give or take. What can I say? I was young, naïve, and caught up in the culture of my generation, hence I hadn’t yet learned the tedium of redundancy. My interests and desires were different in those days. What’s more, this was a “movie” (some say a six-part documentary expounding upon the secrets of the Jedi), not a “book.” Books typically take a great deal more time and effort.

 

As content as I am to read books, I take pleasure in other interests beyond books as well. (See previous paragraph.) As such, I think I’ll stick with my first response for now. It’s the variety, the possibility of expanding my mind, the constantly learning new ideas and exploring new frontiers, of growing and progressing, which keeps me satisfied. To be sure, to have the liberty to do this by reading sans constraints, and also by limitless means other than reading, is simply the only way to go, in my humble opinion.

 

Sunday School Anyone?

Posted in Humanism, Humor, Secularism by amorphousintelligence on November 17, 2008

 

Jon Lajoie anyone? Never heard of him? Yeah, me either. At least until yesterday, that is. Apparently he’s some anglophone Quebecer comedian who in 2008 (yes, this year) has plastered his sketch videos all over YouTube, Funny or Die, Facebook, and MySpace and has allegedly caught the attention of Will Ferrell. His style is similar to Jack Black’s in that he’s musically inclined while being rather explicit at times (which is a euphemism for all the time?). If that sounds interesting, and being the nature of this blog of mine, then start off your journey with him by checking out his SNL-style skit of his unique (and perhaps blasphemous?) relationship to God. None of his other vids are as theologically themed, but the pastiche music is well done with uplifting (yet, warning, gasp! vulgar) lyrics.

 

And for further portrayals of the Almighty but for those more interested in the family-oriented kind of blasphemy, check out Mr. Deity‘s non-vulgar, non-explicit, yet still creative and jovial sneak-peak vids of God in action.

 

Oh, is today coincidentally Sunday? Interesting. Guess I better appropriately alter my title for this.

 

Some More Blogs For The Blog

Posted in Humanism, Humor, Logic, Naturalism, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Secularism, Skepticism by amorphousintelligence on November 13, 2008

 

Since my very first blog post (Why Yet Another Blog, And What Could Amorphous Intelligence Possibly Contribute?, posted on October 18, 2008 ) in which I lavishly praise the gods of the godless blogging world (i.e., NeuroLogica, Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula, Swift, Science-Based Medicine), another new blog has arisen that nicely dovetails into that same genre. If you writhe in ecstasy over the supernatural abilities of these blogs, you’ll climax over…rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, da-da-DA-DA: SkepticBlog!

 

Naturally, since it is a collaborative effort with contributing writers from some of these aforementioned bloggers as well as some special new additions: Dr. Michael Shermer (publisher of Skeptic magazine), Brian Dunning (producer & host of Skeptoid podcast), Yau-Man Chan (of Survivor: Fiji & Survivor: Micronesia fame), Dr. Kirsten Sanford (This Week in Science radio/podcast host), Mark Edward (some say template to the new CBS TV show The Mentalist), and Ryan Johnson (videographer, filmmaker, TV director & producer). What do all these fine rationalists and skeptics share in common? They’re all rationalists and skeptics! Yeah…uh…but no. Not what I’m looking for. Rather, they are the team that makes up the hit new TV drama, The Skeptologists.

 

What’s that you say? Never heard of it? Well, of course not, because it isn’t actually on your television. In fact, it isn’t actually on anybody’s television. Confused? Then head on over to SkepticBlog or The Skeptologists to have all your perplexing conundrums answered. Or check out this 20-second teaser, or better yet this slightly longer trailer (which for reasons unknown to me I now see has been expunged from the Internet, so never mind).

 

And while I’m at it, I have one more blog to plug. Check this humorous, personal-anecdotal blogger I “discovered” who goes by Slick Friction, or Hulk Granny, not sure which. His world views are somewhat different from mine (as well as the previously-mentioned bloggers), but nonetheless he’s a very dear personal friend, and for good reason. You’ll discover well-written personal tales that anyone can relate to so long as you’ve had to pee during a biology midterm, been a proselytizing missionary who radiates the spirit of the Lord, or have had a friend with a raving lunatic of a father. The average reader can complete the entire blog in a matter of minutes as the author has posted merely two (check it: 2) blogs thus far for 2008. (Nothing for any prior years, to be clear.) Maybe if he gets more readers he’ll be encouraged to write more.

 

And if this blurb is not convincing enough, for no other reason check it out simply because of the marvelously wonderful comment I posted to it (being the only comment, so far). And yes, this last statement is a full disclosure that I have a vested interest in it other than a mere, silly concept you emotional humans refer to as “friendship.”

 

Amorphous IntelligenceJ

 

All Things Are Possible?

Posted in Humanism, Humor, Logic, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Secularism by amorphousintelligence on November 6, 2008

 

No. (If you missed it, the title is a question. No is my answer.)

 

At least I seriously doubt it.

 

“All things are possible.” I hear this impossible proclamation from time to time. Most recently, I heard it the other night, on TV, when Barack Obama used it in the first few lines of his acceptance speech. Of course, his usage here is the more humanistic, truncated version. The full version, derived from the Bible, is less secular: “For with God, all things are possible.

 

With or without God, however, there are, in fact, some things which almost certainly remain impossible: nothing can travel faster than light; energy can neither be created nor destroyed; monkeys can neither fly out of nor into our asses.

No? “Prove me wrong.” (ç .)

 

I think when Obama used the more humanistic, truncated version of the phrase, however, he meant it rather loosely. He’s a reasonable, sensible man. I don’t think he literally meant all things are possible. “All” just sounds better, and that wording, being Biblical, is most familiar. Rather, I suspect he meant, as I would mean if I were to use that phrase, that certain things, which previously seemed unlikely or difficult, have now come to pass.

 

My interpretational phrasing might be more accurate for the purposes of reality, but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in a Presidential-elect victory speech, does it? Especially not one in which, in the United States’ 232-plus-year history and 42 Presidents later, we now for the first time ever have a President-elect of African descent.

 

And what a grand precedent and wonderful example that sets from this point henceforth for generations to come—especially considering our nation’s unpardonable and horrific past treatment towards blacks (among others).

 

Besides the unprecedented historicity of the event, though, the pigmentation of Obama’s epidermis should be (and I believe mostly has been) considered irrelevant as to why Americans should and do support him. He should be supported because, while certainly far from perfect (whatever perfection might be), he is qualified for that office, he is a wise and intelligent human, and he is an exceptional, calm, cool, and collected leader. He is not these things because he is black; rather, he has these attributes and he also just so happens to be black.

 

Correlation is not neccesarily causation.

 

I turn now to the words of the most inspiring orator I’ve ever heard, the late Martin Luther King, Jr., from his most well-known speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “I have a dream,” he envisioned, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

 

America has now so done.

 

Let’s just hope that the Men in Black don’t assassinate Obama before—or after—the inauguration. Men in Black? Let’s just say I’m using that even more loosely than Obama was—I trust—using “all.”

 

Amorphous IntelligenceJ

 

Why Yet Another Blog, And What Could Amorphous Intelligence Possibly Contribute?

Posted in Aesthetics, Humanism, Humor, Logic, Music, Naturalism, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Secularism, Skepticism by amorphousintelligence on October 18, 2008

 

Probably not much.

 

As the title to this post implies, this is my introductory debut and thus my first excursion into the world of blogging (“blog” being a slang compound of “web” and “log”—or at least it was slang; by now as  I finally get involved it must be standard or nearing obsolete English). Oh, I’ve been a blog reader for some time now. But as of today, Saturday, October 18, 2008, I am now a blog writer.

 

So?  you think, with an impatient and flippant wave of your hand.

 

Well, I’ll concede that’s probably a valid dismissal. But if you have a moment, allow me to explain:

 

First off, I’m doing this so I can learn the craft.

 

And if that didn’t make you impatiently flippant, oh do read on.

 

Blogging seems to be the wave of the future—or at least the current trend—for unknown wannabe writers trying to get a foot in the door. So I might as well try to learn the tricks of the trade and (partly because I’ve been personally contemplating doing this and partly because my brother’s casual suggestion the other day that I should finally convinced me) I’m starting right now.

 

Second, I’m an unknown wannabe writer, and since this is the wave of the future—or at least the current trend—for such writers, I figure it’s high time I show off my writing prowess to the rest of the worldJ. Or at least it’s a good place for me to practice and refine my skills with the intended goal to someday achieve exceptional penmanship (or typemanship, or blogmanship, however it may be). Also I figure this is a good place to learn better how to explain my thought processes of how I go about tackling life’s many questions.

 

What about my thought processes, you ask? What about tackling life’s many questions, you implore?

 

I’m glad you asked. That really gets at the heart of what I want this blog to be about. Let me preface my answers (yes, answers, plural) like this: My personal favorite blogs, the ones that I try to peruse as often as I can, the ones that I admire and respect and bow down to in awe and shield my face in shame at my inadequacy, are blogs like NeuroLogica, Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula, Swift, Science-Based Medicine, and so forth. In other words, for those readers who know anything about those particular blogs and bloggers I’ve namedropped (and if you don’t, go ahead and click the links to find out), what I’m suggesting here is that my thought processes are—at least in my mind, and I’m too keenly aware this may be a stretch—similar to theirs.

 

However, I concede there is one infinitesimally small, tiny, itsy-bitsy, miniscule, wee-bitty difference between those other bloggers and moi. To wit: I’m not an academic neurologist at Yale University like Dr. Steven Novella, the blogger of NeuroLogica; I don’t have a PhD in astronomy and I haven’t published two books in the field like Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy; nor do I have a PhD in biology and teach as a university-level associate professor as Dr. P.Z. Myers, the writer over at Pharyngula; I’m not a world-class stage magician, mentalist, and escape artist (not to mention a contending challenger of frauds, shams, hoaxsters, the paranormal, and pseudoscientific making him the—pronounced thee—successor to the late, great Harry Houdini) as James “The Amazing” Randi who writes the Swift column (and has also written many noteworthy books); and I’m not a medical doctor, surgical oncologist, anesthesiologist, infectious disease specialist, Air Force physician & flight surgeon, hematologist-oncologist, pharmacologist, practicing internist (or any type of doctor, for that matter) like the many well educated and highly successful bloggers who post for Science-Based Medicine. In fact, I don’t have any sort of university or college degree, I have no published writings (unless you include this blog, and a Wikipedia article I added a few words to once), nor have I distinguished myself in any field of endeavor or in any way whatsoever.

 

Still with me? I’ll continue.

 

I don’t suppose the fact that I wished I could list some sort of credible credential that makes my blog worth anyone else’s while helps matters. But setting that aside, I do read and learn from these and many other great writers and thinkers, so in general I espouse their ideas, ideals, and thought processes, and I hope, to some degree, to mimic what they do at this very site. But with my own unique flair. After all, we’re talking about a blog here. So it’s merely a simple matter of arranging symbols, letters, words, and the occasional emoticon together in a coherent syntax, rightJ? Does that really require much formal educationJ? (And did I really want that to be a question?)

 

Don’t answer that yetL. (Sorry, just learned how to use these slick-looking emoticons. Probably overusing them with excitementJ.Oop, there I go again. My badL.)

 

Also, I hope to use this blog to perhaps partly network with the aforementioned, as well as other, bloggers. After all, not everyone on this pale-blue dot reads The Great Ones’ blogs, so if by an unlikely chance some lost Internet vagrant stumbles upon this humble blog of mine, then perhaps I can be of some meager assistance in directing them towards those other grandiose and mighty bloggers from whom I have learned and admire so much.

 

But in all practicality, I anticipate almost exclusively my family and friends to be the only participants to take the casual gander at my blogs—especially since I will personally let them know of their existence through means other than blogging, and through those other means I will insist they at least superficially browse them to give them a fair shake. And if they like (or even if they don’t), perhaps they can let others know of this debutJL? (Not sure which emoticon or punctuation to use here.)

 

So what of this worldview, thought processes, and ideas that I allege to share with those other untouchable and sublime bloggers? Well, in short, we all basically espouse science and reason. It is my intention (along with all the other intentions I’ve thus far exhaled) to try and type out the occasional entry to promote science and reason with the belief that doing so will help human society towards being a pleasanter society. (And I carefully chose that adjective “occasional.” I don’t expect to be writing in this blog several times a day or daily as those other god-like bloggers with their fancy 24/7 super-computers for brains. I’m not sure yet how often I’ll post. Maybe once a week. Maybe once a month. We’ll see.) And since I have not, as I’ve already firmly established against my better judgment, distinguished myself in any way so far in this world, I will be promoting science and reason in my own undistinguished way.

 

I don’t intend this blog to be like a MySpace or Facebook site, though, in which I would write and post pictures about my own personal, mediocre life and day-to-day activities and attempt to pizzazz it up by riding on the backs of the successful by playing popular music and videos…

 

 

…with flamboyant flashy things as I try to climb the social networking ladder of popularity. Rather, I intend to elucidate upon my day-to-day (or week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year) thoughts and ideas about current events and timeless issues coming from the perspective of one who strives to think scientifically and rationally about such things. So the focus, I hope, should not be so much on me (as that’s too broad a topic), but on the thoughts and ideas I have of issues that a large swathe of the human population should likewise share an interest in; including, even, the much more narrowly focused niches of science, reason, logic, technology, philosophy, theology, history, politics, current events, timeless issues, aesthetics, humor, literature, philology, cinema, music, television, and so forth. So not much.

 

For those of you who have read thus far on this, my first blog post, I’m much obliged. I realize it’s a lengthy introduction, but don’t let that deter you. I don’t expect most entries to be as such. Some might be only a few sentences. Some might be only a few emoticons. Some may be only a picture, or a short video clip, or a link to something else. So feel welcome here. Go ahead and post a comment and/or critique without any inhibitions. (Except for this one: I ask that those readers who know my true identity to not use my legal name in the comments but refer to me by my pseudonym: “Amorphous Intelligence,” or “Mr. Amorphous Intelligence,” or “Professor Amorphous Intelligence,” or “Dr. Amorphous Intelligence,” or just “Intelligence,” or some variation on that theme. And I’d exhort you not to use your real name[s] either. I will post another blog later explaining my decision to do this.) Feel free to recommend this blog to othersJ. Feel free to save it as a FavoriteJ. Feel free to Digg itJ. Feel free to visit back from time to timeJ. Feel free to freely inquire about Free InquiryJ. And bear with me as I go through the learning pangs and processes of trying to tame this wild website beast to carry out my every demanding and exacting whim and desireJLK.

 

Signing off for now,

Amorphous IntelligenceJ

 

P.S. For those keen observers wondering why I was attempting to ride the back of success by implementing a popular music video (at least it was popular back in the day), I was trying to figure a subtle way to insert John Lennon’s “Imagine” into this intro. (If you missed it, start re-reading from the top. ) Why? Because that song more than any other, as far as I know, fairly well epitomizes what I want to be about: rationalism, secularism, and humanism seamlessly interweaved with music, art, and poetry—a natural melding of science with aesthetics, if you will. Go ahead, watch it again. It is pretty goodJ