Friday, December 31, 2010

The Sum of All Knowledge

When I was a kid I used to fantasize about future technologies, even before computers were widely available to ordinary folks. I would fantasize about owning a robot that would accompany me to school and help me with my lessons. I would fantasize about building electronic gadgets and wonder at the marvels of how electrons flowing through a circuit could do all manner of things not dreamed of 100 years before.

A couple of things I imagined when I was in my early 20s have actually come to fruition. While listening to a stack of 33 RPM albums on my stereo I imagined how great it would be to have all my music stored in a home library that would be randomly accessible through push-button technology. I still thought in terms of vinyl discs, but this super home jukebox idea would allow me to access any track on any album just by pushing a couple of buttons. I also imagined building a playlist of songs, similar to the way a jukebox plays all the songs that have been paid for in order.

Shortly after the widespread acceptance of the CD and as it was in the process of replacing vinyl, I imagined a new kind of music storage. I thought, one day, instead of going into a music store or Walmart and picking out a CD or vinyl record, one could pick out a memory chip, already loaded with an album of one’s choice. That led me to think, why not take your own memory chip in, plug it into a sort of kiosk, and order up a smorgasbord of music from different artists. Yes, that was in the days before the Internet became a must-have utility.

Today, of course, people store their entire music collections on a tiny music player or on their computer. People can buy their music track by track or in complete albums over the Internet. No music store is necessary. Media player programs can play back playlists of anything you own in any order, just as I imagined back in the ‘70s.

These days my musings about technology center around the instant retrieval of information from a database containing the sum of all human knowledge. Such a database is actually the goal of information technology giants such as Google and Wikipedia. And, in fact, the sum of all digital knowledge is pretty much already contained in their databases.

As a school child, and indeed until about 15 years ago, if I wanted to do research, I would have to trudge to the library and thumb through the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature or one of the several sets of encyclopedias. I don’t think it ever occurred to me how nice it would be if all the information I was tediously seeking could all be kept in one place where a simple search for a word or phrase would bring up everything I wanted to know about any subject. Today, of course, the Internet comes close to providing that ability right in my own home, or even while I’m relaxing on a park bench or dining in a restaurant. I can always pull out my smartphone and look up almost any information on any subject within a matter of seconds. Everything from the current weather radar image, to the traffic report for my trip home, to what recent tweak has been added to M-theory. It’s all right there at my fingertips. I can even pull up a scanned copy of, say, Popular Science magazine from the year and month I was born to read about what the big science news of the day was. It turns out that a $40 bomb shelter in your basement might save you from an A-bomb attack on your house. Well, it was the early ‘50s after all.

But as much information as is out there, there still is far more that is nowhere near being indexed yet. Can I read every book that has ever been written? Can I listen to every musical composition that has ever been performed and recorded? Can I view every work of art that has ever been painted or sculpted? No. Until very recently, I couldn’t even find any legitimate copies of “Please Please Me” by the Beatles.

Google has come under attack by those who are more interested in not showing their faces on the Internet than encouraging the spread of human knowledge for wanting to provide recent images of every stretch of road in the world. If someone said ten years ago that they wanted to get online and look at a picture of any storefront or any house in the world it would have elicited nothing but giggles and snide laughter. But the forward-looking folks at Google are making it happen. And over at Wikipedia they are inexorably working toward describing everything we, as humans, know. Between these two Web giants we may, indeed, one day be able to access any piece of information that has ever been created by mankind. And when it happens, will anyone even notice?

Advanced technologies have become so seamlessly entwined in our lives that we often don’t stop and just marvel at what has been accomplished. Young people have known nothing else. They have grown up in the information age. But to us older folks, to me at least, the information we are able to access at any time and from any place is nothing less than awe inspiring.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Are We Old Enough to Stop Believing?

How old is too old to believe in Santa Claus? And how old is too old to believe in God?

I’ve called myself an atheist only for about the last three or four years. Before that, I was an agnostic. Before that I was “spiritual but not religious.” And before that I was a Christian. I went to church every Sunday. I attended Easter Sunrise services and Christmas Eve service. I got myself baptized. I prayed.

I did many of those same things when I was a child, too. I went to the altar and prayed for redemption when I was 12. I attended Sunday School and took part in church Christmas plays. I went to Vacation Bible School in the summer. So it’s safe to say that I was a believer. I learned about God and Jesus early and I never questioned their existence, even well into adulthood.

Of course, when I was a kid, I never questioned the existence of Santa Claus, either. I knew he was real; he brought me presents every Christmas morning. It couldn’t have been anyone else but Santa. I would know if my parents were tricking me because I often stayed up all night on Christmas Eve and I would have heard them. It wasn’t that I tried to stay up all night; it’s that I couldn’t go to sleep no matter how hard I tried.

But apparently I went to sleep long enough for Mom and Dad to deliver the goods, because they were around the tree on Christmas morning and I hadn’t heard a thing.

Eventually, I started questioning whether Santa existed. I still wanted very badly to believe, but I realized that Santa was bigger than life and I was probably hoping for too much to believe he was a real man with flying reindeer. I wanted to believe so badly that I started asking my school friends if they believed. By then, most of them didn’t, and some of them made fun of me because I still clung to my delusions. That’s when I confronted Mom and asked her the big question. She confided in me. I was sad, but not very surprised.

But I still received presents on Christmas, so there was no real harm done. It was just a childhood fancy that I had outgrown, much as I had done with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy many years earlier.

It took me longer with God. But, looking back, I wonder if at some level I was always an atheist. Yes, I know what I said. I never questioned God’s existence. But on an almost subconscious level I did question the existence of heaven and hell, or at least the Christian view of them.

Sometimes when I’m halfway between sleep and wakefulness a thought occurs to me. It is an awful, dreadful thought. I’ve gotten this same thought on occasions, thankfully rather rare occasions, since childhood. The thought that enters my half-awake mind is, I’m mortal. I am going to die some day and I don’t know when. It is a very lucid understanding of my own mortality and it’s frightening.

These moments of clarity with respect to mortality last only a few seconds, then wakefulness sets in and whatever part of my brain is responsible for cloaking that clarity so I can get on with my life snaps back on. I still cognitively know that I’m mortal, but that veil of security separates my knowledge of it from the bare experience of knowing it’s real and imminent.

When I was young, I could comfort myself afterward with the knowledge that, it doesn’t matter if I die, because I’ll be in heaven. But, I also recall thinking, and suppressing, the lingering doubt that maybe heaven wasn’t a real place. I mean, how could it be? Everything I had ever heard about how good heaven was didn’t really sound very good to me. I didn’t want to sing and praise God for all eternity. I’d almost rather be in hell. And, that, too, was a distinct possibility, I remember thinking. I mean, what if I DON’T go to heaven? Maybe I won’t be on God’s list of chosen people because I have doubts.

But those doubts I had as a child were really quite ineffable. They didn’t come to the surface or spill into my consciousness until I was in my 40s. And even then, my conversion to atheism was rather slow. It’s because I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I wanted God to be real. I wanted heaven to exist.

But, alas, reality finally struck me square in the face. It doesn’t matter what I want. It doesn’t matter what I hope is true. It only matters what really is true. You can’t wish something into existence. I know there are people out there who claim that they really, truly feel God’s presence. They know for a fact, they say, that he’s real and abiding. But how can they really? There is no proof of God, not even any evidence – none at all.

People have been duped into believing that faith is a good thing. But all faith really does is mask the truth. Just like I so much wanted to continue to believe in Santa Claus, Christians want very badly to believe in God. Maybe, like me, they suspect way down deep that what they believe is a figment of an earlier age. Maybe they just want to believe so badly that they are afraid not too. Or maybe believing just gives them comfort and they don’t want to give up that security blanket.

If it makes you feel good, believe whatever you want, just as my belief in Santa Claus gave me pleasure when I was young. Just don’t let your skewed view of reality affect what I can and cannot do. I would have no real problem with religious belief if there were no laws based on it.

And at some point, people should stop believing in things unseen. It just gets in the way of reality. We as a culture and society are too old to believe in Santa Claus anymore. It might be uncomfortable to let him go, but the grief doesn’t last long. And in the end, we still get the presents.

Longing for a Faithless Society

I was at a Christmas luncheon at work the other day talking about my students and how some of them might do better with a home schooling option. I related how I had home taught my two kids for part of their secondary school career. Another teacher explained how she was home schooling her children and that she was using a curriculum that was prepared by a Christian organization.

My heart immediately sank. This was a well-educated young woman who was a teacher in the public school system and she had chosen the route of religious indoctrination for her kids, and she was proud of it. It obviously has never occurred to her that she is deluding her young children into believing fallacies and, in the process, is doing them an educational disservice. Even if she is teaching them a curriculum that is scientifically appropriate, which is unlikely, she still is presenting her children with false notions that the bible is somehow a book of morality and something to base one's life on.

I wanted to confront her with the truth, but that never works anyway and it would only cause hurt feelings. Religious people don't want to hear the truth; they believe they already know it. They have been brainwashed into believing that faith is a great virtue and they feel sorry for those like me who have lost our faith.

But the veil of indoctrination has been removed from my view. I now know what my subconscious suspected since I was a kid: The god of the bible is a fake. I can't say for absolutely certain that a god does not exist, and I'm willing to listen to proof of God's existence if anyone has it to offer. I can be convinced, unlike Christians or Muslims who are absolutely certain of the existence of their gods and cannot be convinced otherwise regardless of the evidence.

But my question to them is, Why do you believe? What is the basis for that belief? What makes you so absolutely sure? If they are honest in their answers, they must admit that they believe because that's what they were taught. They grew up believing and never stopped, because faith is reinforced by a powerful religious organization, their church.

No one comes to faith naturally. Faith goes against nature. Faith benefits no one except the church and its coffers. Faith means believing without evidence. Where else in our lives do we choose to believe something wholeheartedly without so much as a smidgeon of evidence to support that belief? It's only because we are fearful of what happens to us when we die that we succumb to the fairy tales taught to us in church. We would rather live our lives in complete denial of reality than to even consider the notion that our gods do not exist.

But think about it; if you believe, you do so because your parents or your pastor taught you to. But what if they're wrong. They are only people and they've certainly been wrong before. Maybe they believe only because they, too, were taught to. It's a never-ending cycle.

Believers might ask what if I'm wrong. Isn't it better to be safe than sorry? But which religion would you have me believe in? Why is one any better than another? What if I choose the wrong one? Isn't that just as bad as not believing at all? Many religions believe that it's their way or the highway - to hell that is. People who believe have chosen their particular belief and to them, it's true. But everybody can't be right, can they? If there is a god and if he is a personal god who cares what you believe and how you worship, then there is only one correct way to do it, his way. The trouble is, nobody knows what his way is. The bible is no help because it can be interpreted in many different ways, thus the many Christian denominations. And maybe Christianity is totally wrong. What if Muslims are more nearly correct? And then you have to worry about which branch of that religion has it right, Shiite, Sunni, Kurd? If there is one god and one true religion, then God is not telling anyone what it is in a clear fashion.

Although I might be willing to listen to evidence supporting the existence of a creator god, I know for certain that the god of the bible is not real. How could he be? He is supposed to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. And yet he allows suffering in the world, not just human suffering, but indescribable suffering of animals in the wild. Who could create living beings and then allow them to suffer so much?

Christians have a pat answer to these questions, but they are all cop-outs. They are all just excuses for their god because they can't come up with a reasonable explanation.

Anyone who takes an honest look at his or her religious belief, anyone who deeply contemplates what the bible has to say and the claims that are made, must come to the conclusion that their religion is bogus and the bible is baloney. Nothing in it makes sense in today's world. There may be a few common sense prescriptions for living a good life, but it is also littered with atrocities. Just take a look at what is apparently the worst form of sin – sex. Sex outside of wedlock is condemned throughout the bible. Homosexual sex is condemned. Lust is condemned. Incest seems to be ok, but only if performed for procreation. Sex for the sake of pleasure is always frowned upon. And that view is reflected in American society, where bloody violence in video games is tolerated, but nudity on TV is completely taboo.

Society can't be free as long as most of its members belong to a religion. Religion does nothing but hamstring society's citizens. And, of course, those who subscribe to a religion will say that's a good thing. That's because they want to make sure the rest of society's citizens live by what they believe is moral. Without religion, there would be no one to draw the line for you. You would be free to draw a line wherever you feel comfortable, as long as your line does not infringe on someone else's rights.

Consider a society where parents stop indoctrinating their children into religion. Eventually, the society would become more open and free. There would be no one to tell you that you can't do something because they don't believe it's right. Science would be free to blossom unencumbered by dogmatic anachronisms. It would be an enlightened society that puts its faith in human potential, not ancient superstition. It's a society I continue to long for.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More Excuses Made for God

It’s Christmastime and ‘tis the season for those holiday movies to reprise their appeals for kids who are on the cusp of becoming too old for Santa to “just believe” as the lyrics to Josh Groban’s song from Polar Express goes. To “just believe” in Santa is also a metaphor to implore a belief in God.

A belief in a god requires faith – a baseless, strong belief in something unseen. To have faith means that one must constantly make excuses for their god. Neglecting to make those excuses means accepting the fact that a god does not exist.

What excuses?

When a prayer goes unanswered the believer often makes the excuse that “God answers prayers in his own way and in his own time.” The alternative to that is to admit that prayers are seemingly answered randomly, much as they would be if God never answered prayers at all, or as if there was no god.

When evil people do things they should not, without reprisal, the believer is often comforted by a belief that the evildoer will get what’s coming to him in the end. That’s another excuse for God’s seeming procrastination in doling out justice. We don’t feel so bad that someone is getting away with murder if we believe that God will deal with them later. But we never really know for sure that’s what happens, do we? We just believe.

And why is it that so often those who do good works, who are kind and magnanimous, are sometimes stricken with serious illness or an untimely death? The believer makes an excuse for God, saying “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Really? It’s so mysterious in fact, that it’s almost like God doesn’t exist at all. Bad things and good things seem to happen at random, but since there must be a god behind it all, it only stands to reason that he works in mysterious ways.

The believer is quick to extol the loving nature of God. “God loves us all so much that it breaks his heart when we do bad things,” is what I’ve heard parents tell their children. But what about the parents of children who are handicapped or have some kind of genetic disorder? Why does God allow those sweet, young children to suffer so much? The believers I know make up the excuse that, “God will not lay any more on us than we are able to bear.”

Is that right? Or is it just a way of comforting oneself and others for not being able to explain why suffering seems to be bestowed at random. It can’t be random if there is a god, so maybe he is a sadistic god who wants us to suffer, but he doesn’t torture us any more than we can stand. If so, what about those who are tortured into committing suicide? Was it too much for them to bear? Did God miscalculate? Or is it actually just nature behaving randomly, like one would expect if God didn’t exist?

The easy answer to all these questions is that nature really does operate at random. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people in the same proportion as the number of good and bad people. Is that God mimicking nature, or is it simply nature behaving randomly, as expected? Does God really need us to make excuses for him so that we can comfort ourselves in our faith, or is faith something we should perhaps not hold in such high esteem?

If an omniscient overlord does exist, then one should expect him to behave in a rational manner. But if God does not exist, then events will happen at random. Things actually do happen at random. We can accept that and go on with our lives, or we can continue to believe in an omniscient, all-loving god, and continue to make silly excuses for why he behaves in such a mercurial and capricious fashion.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Blue Laws Making Me Blue

The Indiana General Assembly, during its upcoming session, will once again consider whether to lift the ban on Sunday sales of liquor. It tried last year and failed. Proponents of lifting the ban have higher hopes for this coming session.

Several states join with Indiana in banning the sale of certain items, such as alcoholic beverages or vehicles, on Sunday. These are called blue laws for reasons that are not entirely clear, but it is not because these laws were once written on blue paper or in books with blue bindings as some say. They date back to Puritan days when this ultra-religious sect banned certain activities on the Christian Sabbath.

In the U.S., blue laws are permissible as long as their purpose is allegedly secular, even though in almost every case the day on which the sale of certain items is banned is Sunday.

But there is no real purpose for blue laws and they should all be repealed. Decades ago, many states banned the sale of almost anything on Sunday. Why Sunday? It was obviously tied to the Christian day of rest and worship. But in 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blue laws were constitutional as long they had a secular purpose. I can’t imagine a true secular purpose for banning sales on Sunday, but the ban on liquor and automobiles remains in effect in at least a dozen states, including Indiana.

Most states no longer have or enforce blue laws prohibiting shopping on Sunday. In 1990, Massachusetts became the last state to lift its law requiring shopping malls to be closed on Sundays.

Sunday has become a major shopping day. As part of a two-day weekend, it is the time when most workers can spend the day at the mall. But in many states, they can’t spend their day shopping for cars. In Indiana, they can stop by the bar for a couple of beers, then proceed to drive home, but if it’s Sunday they can’t stop by the grocery store or liquor store to buy a six-pack of beer to consume while at home.

If it is true that the purpose of these remaining blue laws is to protect commissioned sales people from the undue stress of a highly competitive industry, or to protect Mom and Pop liquor stores from increased competition from chains, then why choose a huge shopping day like Sunday for the ban? Why not, as some states already do, allow the store owners or auto dealerships to choose whatever day they wish to close?

The liquor store lobby doesn’t want the ban on Sunday sales lifted. They want their day off, free from competition. But laws are supposed to be for everybody, not just the big lobby groups. If a liquor store owner wants to close one day a week, let him pick a day that typically has sketchy sales and close that day. It might be a Monday or a Wednesday, but it probably won’t be a Sunday.

If an individual store owner wants to close on Sunday, then that is his or her choice. But to force a Sunday closure smacks of religious intrusion into public life.

The time has come for adult consumers in general to have the right to shop for anything on any day they wish. The time for blue laws has passed, if it ever actually existed in the first place.