Philosophy & Skepticism

Tea Time and the Causation Fallacy

I was sitting at work, minding the business of someone else I would otherwise care not to, when I was alerted to this news story produced from The Record and reposted on northjersey.com: New Study Looks at the Potential Heart Health Benefits of Tea. As a semi-hardened skeptic, I couldn’t help but pointing out the informal fallacy present in this story, and used this as a teaching moment for my unsuspecting and, albeit, unenthusiastic coworkers. Here is my response:

I would be interested to know more about the sample group and their particular health habits. Drinking tea for medicinal purposes has been around for more than a millennium and I suspect that those more likely to drink a cup of tea would be more health conscious overall, possibly explaining the results of the study. This reminded me of the informal fallacy “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” or “after this, therefore because of this.” That being said, I wonder if people who drink tea more often have less heart problems because of a causal relationship between something in the tea and their cardiovascular system or if it is merely a correlation which has arose from the fact that some people who drink tea are more health conscious and, if not anything else, decidedly avoid the extra 10-12 grams of refined sugar and ounce of cream. Just a thought.

 

It’s always fun to wax on about the pitfalls of any particular science or health related news items, especially when it could provide an opportunity for a very light-hearted discussion about logic and skepticism for those who care to engage. Yes, it could make me [you] seem like a know-it-all douche, but that’s far less likely when the topic at hand concerns a beverage that most people regard as “less-than coffee.”

The response I received, from the original distributor of the article no less, was, “Unfortunately, the study was basic and didn’t dive deep enough to answer your questions. Perhaps you should do some research and send out a follow-up response.”

Touché.

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My Letter to God: Assuming One Exists.

Dear God-Elohim-Adonai-Yahweh-Jehovah-Lord-Almighty-Creator-etc.,

If you are there, I hope you get this. Considering my current state of belief regarding the issue of your existence, this feels kind of masturbatory – and not in a good way – but I think I would like to write to you anyway. I have to ask you a couple of questions and no, I am not expecting answers, so I guess that makes them rhetorical. As you might know, I also have complaints and, considering they have to do with you, I figured I might as well discuss those too. Consider this a way of clearing the air between us. Of course, this is assuming there is an “us” and I’m not just writing to myself.

To start, I would first like to address the hypocrisy and general insanity of your followers. I admit, to start with such a topic is a bit heavy handed, but I would like to start with one with which I am the most vexed. I am going to concentrate mostly on the fanatical and most pious because the moderates in all of the religions that worship you function quite well in your average society. It is the egregious actions and, so-called, moral standards of the fundamentalists that really need a lesson on the proper way to conduct oneself around others. Most of them are not violent, but the ones that are, really are and they start wars and spread havoc, and have used their hateful doctrines (which you gave them, I might add) to justify rape, murder, oppression, war, discrimination, segregation, genocide, slavery, molestation, harassment, and civil injustice, just to name a few. This is not to mention the countless numbers who have slaughtered each other because they happen to believe a different version of a book that you had someone write or listen to what a different prophet of yours had to say. Come to think of it, why did you have to send more than one prophet? Do you know what trouble you’ve caused [see: above]? I don’t think you do, because if you did, you would fix it by sending another one and ending this incredible mess you have made. Just make sure to have this new one have a little fun and make sure to let everyone know that he is it: the last one. Also, be sure he makes us legalize pot and like gay people. Trust me on this, he will be well received and you will make life here much more enjoyable.

Speaking of this whole “life” thing that you gave us, why did you even bother with it in the first place? What could I possibly learn here among people like me that I could not learn someplace else among people like me? The only thing I have gathered from it, is that you are waiting for us to do something that you have deemed wrong so that we will get sent to that bad place all those men in funny hats that we listen to tell us about. I am just not convinced there is anything I could not do here that I could not do as a little ball of spirit stuff somewhere else. I have heard that you are testing us, but what is the test? Especially considering that failing the test results in an eternity of suffering. Even someone like Hitler should not receive an infinite amount of suffering for a finite crime. For someone that is supposed to essentially know everything, you have seemed to miss this tiny flaw in your own logic.

That is another thing, logic. It just seems to get in the way of things and the fact that you would create us with such an ability is astounding. If I were to create beings that I wanted to believe, follow, and trust me, I would never instill the ability for logic in them. I would hope that they would never be able to use such a thing as logic to ask me, their creator who, like you, would tell them I was all powerful and all knowing, if I could make a stone large enough that even I could not lift, create a law that I couldn’t break, or make a decision that I was not aware of my already making. Our basic ability to use logic also gets in the way of the whole faith thing, too. Since we have logic to work with, we like to use evidence in order to support our claims and make a clear distinction between what is part of reality and what is not. It is why we do not buy that whole “Eden” thing, and rightly so, when we look at fossils, geology, carbon dating, tree rings, and the process of natural selection. Your requirement of faith simply asks us to abandon this. What is it with faith and why now all of a sudden? The people of your many holy books, including the bible, not only heard you speak, but were witness to both your wrath and occasional blessings. Why make us abandon basic logic and accept something with which there is seemingly no evidence for? It seems sort of cruel, if you ask me. Especially, since all you have to do is say, “hi”.

Let us talk about the aforementioned “Eden” creation for a second, and why you would create a universe so vast and magnificent only to place us on a tiny little sad insignificant microscopic chunk of rock somewhere near the outside of a massive galaxy at the end of an arm of a massive supercluster and make the laws of the universe such that it is near impossible to navigate. I could not possible imagine the purpose of making so much “stuff,” especially when you consider how we are never going to see most of it. Also, why claim to care so much about life if we are the only [known] things you have created?

I mentioned your cruelty before and I wanted to get back to that for a second. In all of your texts you seem to obsess over the mundane and redundant. You chastise us for ridiculous things like eating the wrong kind of dead thing, not slicing off a chunk of our penises, and forgetting to cover our hair, among so many countless others. What’s the point? Why would you make a species in your image and tell them to chop, cover, remove, replace, stitch, and cinch themselves in ways that make them uncomfortable, because you just don’t like them the way they look otherwise, anyway? It seems easier to just make us the right way to begin with so you don’t have to bother with all the nonsense.

Speaking of nonsense, I cannot forget to mention the ridiculous way you have chosen to speak to us. I understand that what we have has been translated several hundreds of times and that we do not even have the full version on account of some early Christians voting out some text, but why speak with such indetermination, especially when addressing incredibly important topics? Do you know how many years we’ve spent trying to figure out what it all means? If you mean to say something, just say it. Don’t use ridiculous metaphors or those parables that your son was so fond of using all the time.

Lastly, I just have to mention the large mammalian in the room because it’s old and it stinks: What is your issue with gays and women? I can’t help but notice the way you’re constantly putting men on a raft and leaving women out during high tide. It’s like a girl dumped you in high school and you just can’t get over it so now you have to make everyone else miserable. I’m not going to dwell, because you know what I’m talking about, but it is really annoying to me. Oh, and about us gays, do not make us if you do not want us, and if you do, rewrite those books of yours –  they still seem to be in a rough draft [see: above].

So, if you really are out there listening, I hope I was not too much of a bother for you, God-Elohim-Adonai-Yahweh-Jehovah-Lord-Almighty-Creator-etc. I mean that sincerely and I know that you must be really busy at the moment, so it is here I will let you go. Thanks for your time, among a few other things.

Nobola!, and the case for Skepticism.

It is evident, by the mainstream media and various social networks, that many people in this great, but often neurotic, nation of the US believe that the terrible and often fatal disease, Ebola, is beginning to spread throughout our population. I couldn’t help but notice the health alerts and unscrupulous reports seeding themselves in the minds of helpless citizens for not much more than a slight increase to their ratings. The way they haphazardly pasted horrific symptoms of the disease as  if a casual encounter with someone from West Africa or a sick child of any ethnic background would cause such an affliction. Some people, and this is just a small bit of what’s to come of this, have already started to buy gas masks, hazmat suits, tarps, and bulk sanitizer from the reports. A pseudo-mass-hysteria (“pseudo” because people are too lazy in this country to truly become hysterical and, when they are not too lazy, they feel safe enough with their tarps, tape, and tinfoil hats) is on it’s way from this, like everything else that the media digs its claws into to sensationalize and monetize. The way that people tend to overreact to such things that never come to fruition is so curious to me. It’s as if they have forgotten about 2012, Nancy Lieder, Pat Robertson, and Harold Camping – and those are just a few from this past decade. Sure, I have sited a few failed predictions about the end of the world, from Wikipedia no less, and I know that predictions from crazy uninformed people about the end of the world has nothing to do with falsified news reports from unethical money-grubbing monsters, but their is a common thread: Ignorance. In all instances, people were discrediting the evidence, all the evidence, from the whole of the scientific community in favor of nonsensical dribble that was convenient and easy to digest. I am not trying to pretend that I am above all those who fall for such chicanery (yes, I just used “chicanery” in a sentence), I am easily fooled as well. It was just a couple of days ago that a close friend of mine called from her Mother’s home in Connecticut about two cases of Ebola being found in Atlanta, Georgia. My immediate reaction was a slight bit of panic and fear – I took what she said at face value and let my anxiety get the best of me. Though I have something in my arsenal that most people don’t: Skepticism. The tools awarded to me by Skepticism allowed me to take a step back from this and properly do my research. I didn’t do a google search for Ebola and click on the first hit because that, I knew, would only deliver the most sensationalized articles with the most hits which doesn’t necessarily mean the most accurate. I immediately went to the Center for Disease Control’s website, CDC.gov, and typed in Ebola. The information I found was extremely informative and let me in on a little secret: That the United States is at almost zero risk for an Ebola epidemic, that the epidemic is only in West Africa at the moment and has infected about 1600 people, killing 800, and while this is a very depressing statistic, it is nothing close to the numbers the media made it seem were effected. So, it pays to be aware. It is not criticism, denial, or cynicism. It is simply a case of choosing to have the facts, vet all sources, and listen to people who do this sort of thing for a living.

Death, Dying, and the After-party (that you’re not invited to)

The_Death_of_Socrates_croppedBefore I begin, I would like to give credit to the Athiest Experience TV Show, specifically Episode #865, which has persuaded me to finally post this and has given me many more insights on this topic and others. I would also like to point out that at no point in the proceeding will there be any appeals to an afterlife as this is another topic altogether that I will discuss in another post.  I am simply addressing my idea of life after death and coming to terms with the fact that there probably isn’t one.

All too often I find myself laying in bed, the covers wrapped around me, my cat cradled against my side, thinking that one day, in the future, at some time currently unknown to myself or anyone, I will simply cease to exist. My heart will stop beating, my breath will subside, and my brain, now deprived of oxygen, will slowly begin to die. I think about the colors I’ll see and the visions of past loved ones – the result of my dying brain releasing endorphins. Then, like a wilted flower, I will cease to be anymore. I’d be lying if I said that there isn’t a very large part of me anxiety ridden about the notion of not existing, but I think it’s just that – not existing; like Christopher Hitchens put it shortly before his own death,

“It will happen to all of that at some point you’ll be tapped on the shoulder and told, not just that the party is over, but slightly worse: the party’s going on but you have to leave.”

It is not death itself I’m worried about because there will be nothing to be worried about – no one to continue on worrying. I, like an extinguished flame of a candle, will simply be no more. To me, I will not exist much the same as not have ever existed. Though, it’s more than that, there will be no “to me”. I will not have the experience of not existing because the very thing that is “me” or “I” will cease to be. There are so many people who obsess about what death might be like and it simply won’t be like anything. The closest we could get is to imagine where we were in the year 600 A.C.E or any year before the year we were born. You have no recollection because there was no you to recollect. Like Mark Twain said,

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

I sometimes think of the notion of infinity and scare myself by imagining how, when I die, I will never exist again, ever. Even as I write this, I feel a chill, an unsteadiness, that once I am gone I will always be gone. I often always thought of death as sleeping, mainly because I think the idea of sleeping is comforting and familiar. Though, there is a massive difference between sleeping and death: you don’t wake up from death and sleeping isn’t infinite. I enjoy falling asleep knowing that there will be a largely unnoticed passing of time and then I will wake up again, the next morning feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world (at least, that’s the idea however, my mornings never quite go that way), but death isn’t like that – it isn’t comforting in that respect; death feels cold, foreign, and, again, infinite. I feel as though I’ll be waiting to exist again and that the infinite expanse will be an unavoidable hell that will never end.  So, I’ve tried to console myself from this uneasiness by remembering that I won’t be yearning for anything because, I won’t be me. As I keep on saying, there will be nothing that I can miss or want or feel because I am no longer. And if I did exist at all, why would I be yearning for existence?

It seems settled, the fear and unknowing, but I still can’t shake this uneasiness. Even though I am completely aware of the fact that I will cease to be, I still manage to be consumed by this feeling of dread. Though there will be nothing to be worried about – nothing and no one to feel any feelings. My brother once said that his “main issue with death is the fact that you’re here and conscious now and soon you won’t be”. It seems to be the experience of life and living that makes us fear our demise – the very fact that we can reflect on it. Maybe this fear is the price of having self-awareness. It is not a stretch to imagine that the complexity that arose during our evolution largely depended on our desire to self-preserve.

So here I sit, again, writing this, still feeling the same uneasiness, but comfortable in the fact that I, me, can sit here at all – if even for a little while. I can not help but reflect on and end with this lovely yet poignant quote by Richard Dawkins:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

Suffering for Revenge for Suffering

The proceeding is a response to the general consensus of comments posted to the article, CHILD RAPIST RAPED, Stitched By Medics, and RE-RAPED BY 20 PRISONERS.

The difficulty with language is that sometimes it fails to capture the essence of one’s emotions. Every word , being defined by other words, leads to a circular reasoning, which only serves to become more abstract and meaningless the more you try to understand it. It is no wonder why words, as deep as they cut, cannot draw as much satisfaction as actual wounds. It seems natural for us to desire justice akin to the suffering endured by the victims because, “talk is [just so] cheap” and sitting around all day having your needs met by the law-abiding tax payers hardly seems like justice anyway.

Let’s reflect on that last, often overlooked,  statement – a tired point raised by those who never bothered to think about what it is they’re actually saying. Yes, we strive to make the prison system as comfortable as possible with three meals (and snacks!) a day, gym facilities, activities, religious service, therapy, healthcare, education, etc. The reason we try to treat hardened (and not so hardened) inmates like this is because we are not punishing them – we are rehabilitating them. We have moved from the vengeful torture and suffering days of old to the enlightened modern era where we now have a better understanding of why people do the things they do. The purpose has always been the same, which was to change bad behavior, but now we realize that there are different, more successful, and more humane ways of getting there. As a victim, I realize this would not satisfy me, but this is why victims of crimes do not get to decide how justice is best served. Closure for the surviving victims of all crimes come in all sorts of different forms, but it should not fall on the suffering of the convicted. Bad things happen for all sorts of reasons, most out of our control. If we are always reliant on the suffering of others who may have caused us anguish to gain closure, what then of the things caused by things without people to blame? I just think that we are better off with a shift in our thinking when it comes to our emotions; they should belong to us and not have to rely on the well-being (or lack thereof) of another.

The last point is a quick one on suffering itself. There is no benefit to the suffering of others. None. There will be nothing gained by anyone. That satisfaction one might feel from seeing another in pain is nothing compared to the humanity they loose as a result and the never ending desire to want to see more. As long as they are wreaked by the pain of their loss or enveloped in the cloud of their own suffering, they will never be satisfied.

Influence and Sort of Free Will…

This is a rant. Just a brain that is bored. A boring brain being bored and boring.

I am not one to believe in hype or superstition. I don’t subscribe to the notion that the universe acts in accordance with your wishes or has the ability to even reflect on them. The idea that such catastrophes such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and anything by Deepak Chopra has managed to wind their way into the stream of public consciousness is disturbing, to say the least. I would like however, to reflect on the realm of influence – better known as “cause and effect” and why it is completely incompatible with the reality that we have come to love so much.

We like to believe that every single decision we make is somehow magnified in the latter part of our lives; that every single thing that has ever happened must have happened exactly as  it did in order for the world to look the way it does. I propose, as many before me, that this is a mere construct of our mind’s willingness to make sense of the world around it. There is perfectly good reason – evolutionary speaking – to believe that everything we do has a direct effect on everything that happens (or most things that happen, anyway). It serves us to believe that killing that animal gave us food and making that shelter kept us warm or even, hurting that person stopped that person from hurting me. The problem with this view, aside from the fact that there are a multitude of things outside of our direct influence, is that the things that have happened in the past that supposedly influence the things that are happening in the present already happened and therefore, no longer exist.

I do realize that it is undeniable, based on the reality that we have come to accept, that if I throw a ball and it breaks a window that broken window was directly caused by me throwing the ball, but it makes absolutely no logical sense why the world actually functions that way. Between throwing the ball and it breaking the window time had passed making my initial decision to throw the ball nonexistent. So, how did the window break? Who or what broke the window? There is an issue with consistency here that I just cannot pretend to know the answers to.

There is also the issue of free will and making the decision in the first place. If every decision that is made depends on those decisions and actions made prior, every decision made by everyone at anytime would be predictable. If decisions that people make are predictable then, they do not really have a choice. Everyone already knows the decisions that they are already going to make and those decisions will have a direct effect on the decisions of others. Free will is incompatible with cause and effect. So, if we are just a massive Rube Goldberg machine with no real choice on the matter, why does it feel like we have choices to make and a will to protect?

It is amazing really, how we have come to understand life and the reality that we are a part of. We seem to be under such delusion that we cannot even conceive of a world without either one of these influences even if they are both completely incompatible. It is truly a triumph of the human mind…or a reflection of our stupidity. Either way it’s interesting.

It’s that thing you feel.

I’m constantly in a state of half awareness. I mean, I know where I am, but I never quite know what I’m doing there. I’m somewhat like a moth or beetle fluttering around a lamp and thinking it’s the moon guiding me home. Sometimes, I think it would be nice to feel a purpose as others propose to think they have – sometimes I think I do. It’s that thing you feel when suddenly the whole world around you feels connected and every single atom composing your being seems indistinguishable from those around you. I have become such a cynic within my skepticism that, sometimes, I feel I’m denying myself the simple pleasure of feeling like I belong. Though, part of that is true – that the atomic particles we are composed of have influence on those nearby – it has yet to be established that any sense of connection we have with the world and each other is anything more than the firing of millions of synapses in our brains. It would be nice to feel like I have more reason to exist than existence itself. However, when looking at the alternatives, the many beliefs that cloud our judgements, and deceive our reality, I suddenly realize the consequence of such an appeal to that sort of thinking. I think life has meaning in itself. I am alive, I want to have a purpose, I could assign purpose to myself, therefore I have purpose. This seems so rudimentary as a foundation as I’m sure many have provided much more sufficient reasons and appeals to the purpose of our existence, but it is simply enough for me. My conscious mind is a self-contained system; to describe it as anything more would add a layer of complexity that is wholly unnecessary. So it seems that, for now, it would be easy to accept my own purpose for my own individual existence. But what becomes of my self-ascribed purpose when I’m dead? If my purpose is my own, would it not follow that it would also cease when I do? Here becomes the crux of the problem. If I once had a purpose and now I don’t, would I have ever of had a purpose in the first place? If death is the end of my existence, why would life ever really matter? If even the universe itself will end, what is the purpose of it all? This would be applicable only if one assumes a purpose must be eternal. Time itself is not eternal or infinite, but it would be hard to argue that time does not have purpose. Then, there is the issue of having to be conscious, and even sentient, in order to reflect on that purpose. A cave, or rock, river, or plant all could have purpose and they are not, in the least, cognizant of it. I’m not proposing much. Well, maybe I am. I just feel that life is so much more interesting when it could have meaning and purpose even if we have to assign it ourselves. After all, who else is watching us? Looking at life as a mundane routine fails to motivate. I’m trying to look at my life as something just a bit more important than I previously thought it was. I’m hoping it will help me make better decisions and follow through with my desires.