Saturday, November 08, 2014

In a Democracy, it's all about Voting

It has now been a few days since the election, when many supposedly close races were decided definitively for the Republican candidate in a wave rivaling that of 2010. My disappointment was at least partially mitigated by the fact that it wasn't really a surprise, though I continued to hold out hope. I've had time to reflect on what happened and why it happened. There have been lots of hypotheses put forth to explain the election anomaly. One is that it wasn't really an anomaly after all, since mid-term elections often go for the party in opposition to the one in the White House at the time. That's true, but it doesn't fully explain why so many Republican senate candidates and gubernatorial candidates across the country won handily in what were predicted to be close elections. And why a few GOP candidates won in races where the Democrat was favored.

A backlash to Obama seems to be a popular explanation, even though with the economy improving, more than five years of steady job growth, record high stock market performance, and the fact that millions more people are now able to afford health insurance, it's hard to imagine what the backlash is all about.

Low voter turnout is also blamed, thanks at least partly due to voter suppression measures in several states. Regardless of the GOP efforts to keep poor and minority voters from the polls, it really is possible for those who are determined to vote to jump through all those hoops the Republicans set up for them. Those potential voters just need to be helped over the hurdles by grassroots support.

This year saw only 37 percent of eligible voters make that trek to the polls. This compares to a high of 70 percent in the 19th century. What would have been the result if that large a percentage turned out this year? Well, just look to Oregon, where more than 69 percent of voters actually cast a ballot. In that state, democratic challengers won handily. But if younger and minority voters don't begin claiming their American right to vote, they may always remain underrepresented in the Congress.

One way that might encourage more people to vote is to make it more convenient for them to do so. Bernie Sanders has suggested making election day a national holiday. This has always sounded like a no-brainer to me. We are the world's premier democracy, and yet fewer people turn out to exercise that right here than in 120 other democracies around the world. This is out of 169 total. Our leaders are always touting democracy as the answer to the oppression that exists in countries around the world, but we ought to be ashamed of how our citizens treat democracy when they have it.

If we don't want to go all out and make election day a holiday, there should at least be a law passed that would mandate that all employers give at least four straight hours during the day to go vote. An employee working a standard 9 to 5 shift would, therefore, not have to come in until 10:00 AM, since polls open at 6 o'clock in Indiana. That would give everyone four uninterrupted hours to arrange to vote. Or the employer could let their workforce go home early, at 2 o'clock.

Another way to encourage voters to actually vote is to make the process easier. We already have mail-in voting. But what is the holdup for allowing voting online? Everything else can be done online. You can pay your taxes online, shop online, do your banking online, and renew your license plates online. All of those require very secure data connections. Yet voting online remains elusive. And I don't understand that.

I'm sure our country will survive the GOP onslaught and a potential shift to the right that usually comes with such election results. I can live with the economic policies or the foreign relations policies that usually accompany a GOP-controlled Congress. But it will be very hard for me to take the policymaking to come that is based on opinion over science and fundamentalist religious belief over actual data. It will be tough for me to watch more states further restrict a woman's right to an abortion or even to have low-cost access to birth control. It will be agonizing to watch individual rights, like gay marriage, be undermined time and again at both the national and state levels. And it will be scary to know that the environmental fate of the world may be in the hands of policymakers who do not accept data-driven science but who, instead, rely on their own opinions and bible verses to inform policy decisions.

I keep wondering why the reality-denying crazies on the right keep getting elected. And I think it still comes down to the fact that there are just not enough informed voters who can see through their bullshit and lies. And there is not enough incentive to compel the left-leaning minorities to get out and vote. Until that changes, mid-term elections will continue to be an afterthought in American politics, fueled more by knee-jerk backlash to the administration currently in office than by any kind of pride in our democratic way of life.

Monday, November 03, 2014

A Definition of Time

Time is something that can be measured with relative ease. Humanity has been measuring time for thousands of years. But scientists and philosophers have been struggling with the definition of time since, well, time immemorial. The best definition of time should be one that does not include references to time within the definition. So words such as rate, before, after, since, passing, sequence, speed, etc. should not be used. So let me give it a go.

Time is that character of a frame of reference caused by the changes that occur within that frame of reference down to the quantum and/or subatomic level.

These changes can manifest themselves macroscopically as any physical change in an object, such as its position, or at the subatomic level, such as changes in spin or energy level of an electron. Qualities such as rate (amount of change per unit of time) would be governed by the number of Planck time units that were involved in a certain change. Planck time is the theoretical smallest unit of time possible.

Think about how we measure time. It always involves a change that occurs in a repeating pattern: the swing of a pendulum, the vibration of a spring or the frequency of radiation emitted from an atom. Cyclical changes are what we use to keep track of the flow of time. But it doesn't have to be cyclical changes to cause a sensation of time. A banana gets ripe, then rots as time passes. A vehicle passes by, thus changing its position. If there were no changes occurring at all, then time would be irrelevant and, basically, non-existent. Even thought processes are the result of changes in electrical patterns in the brain. Ions flow from place to place, resulting in sensations of time passing.

Time absolutely requires changes to take place, and if none did, even at the quantum level, there would be no time. So the definition of time must, therefore, include the fact that it depends on things changing.

But does the term "change" require time within its own definition? If it does, then I can't use it in my definition of time. If we define change as the processes whereby an object ceases to be in a particular state or position because another state or position is manifest, then we can avoid the use of any reference to time in that definition, and it is a definition that is adequate for our purposes here.

Therefore, I think my definition of time is fairly all-encompassing and accurate. However, I will admit that it potentially results in a chicken-and-egg scenario. Are changes what cause time to flow or is the flow of time the cause of changes? I welcome feedback.

New Clock May End Time as We Know It

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Why is Faith called a Virtue?

Suppose you needed some work done on your house so you get an estimate for repairs: $1,500. Now suppose a stranger comes up to your door and offers to do the repairs for only $1,200 payable in advance. Would you hand him the money and tell him to get busy, or would you at least do some research, read his online reviews, check his references first?

We all know the obvious answer. The same is true of every aspect of your life: You don't blindly trust random strangers with anything important. Yet people of faith do it all the time. Faith is a virtue, they say. You have to believe in something. But what reason can anyone give to support that contention? If you don't have faith in random strangers why would you have faith in anything at all that hasn't been tested and proven? Why have faith in God or the bible? Neither have been proven. Neither have earned anyone's trust. It's fine to have faith in people you know well or in yourself. It's fine to have faith that is based on tangible evidence. But it's foolish to have faith that ancient traditions are real.

I know, you might say that you don't have faith in strangers because they are humans and humans are fallible. But God isn't fallible. But you are starting off with an assumption that you don't know to be true. How do you know that God isn't fallible, or that he even exists at all?

You will probably say that it says so in the bible and the bible is God's word. But let me remind you that the bible was written by humans, thousands of years ago. And as we all know, humans are, indeed, fallible. They were also quite superstitious back then.

But you may say the bible is God's word and that God is the one that either dictated the bible to the humans or at least inspired them to write certain things. But again, you are assuming that God inspired them or that God dictated his message. The only way you know that this is true is because these same humans who wrote the bible also wrote in it that it was God's word.

Any way you slice it, your faith in God has to start out with faith in humans, humans who are dead now and that you didn't know personally, humans with agendas and who were very superstitious. These are the human beings that you have put your faith in - the bible writers, many of whom aren't even known.

This is the most puzzling thing for me about Christians and other religious followers. Most of them are smart enough to realize that the bible, or any other holy book, can't possibly be corroborated by any other external source. Oh, sure, there are mentions of real places and real events, but that occurs in most other ancient books of fiction, such as Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. The only difference is that these books have always been taken to be fiction whereas the stories in the bible were passed down as being true. But, again, they were proclaimed to be true by ancient superstitious men whose religious beliefs twisted their grasp on reality. In other words, they had an agenda.

So people grow up being told these stories over and over. They are told by pastors and parents that these stories are true. They don't give it much thought even as adults. That was me. I was a science major who called myself a Christian because I never gave it much thought. Of course I believed because I was supposed to, and most people I knew believed as well. I never attended church so it was never front-and-center on my mind. But then, when I did start going to church following my father's death, to be closer to family who also attended, I eventually started paying attention to the stories. I finally realized that they were all just legends. No one who reads the bible from a neutral perspective could possibly believe all those stories are true. They are based on legends and superstitions. The majority of Christians today know that the bible is not to be taken literally. But why take it at all? Every story in the bible is fiction. Some of it might be based on real events or places, but they have been highly embellished by agenda-laden authors. I can say this with confidence for many reasons, but mostly because I know that the many claims of miracles and acts of god magic remains completely unverified by neutral sources. The only way I can accept any of these stories as being true is to just simply believe it because I want to. And that means I would be dishonest with myself. I would be denying reality based on what I wanted or hoped was true.

Some people go through a period of grief, abandonment, even agony when they finally realize that their cherished beliefs are based on false claims and legendary accounts. My transition was much easier, because as a man of science, I always relied on facts and empirical evidence to guide my thinking. So when I finally realized that the bible has nothing important to say to me and that the existence of God is unlikely, I was fine with that. It made more sense than having to make up excuses for why God seems to act randomly most of the time, and why a perfect and good god allows suffering.

I would be fine with people who still believe in the bible and in God if it weren't for the fact that they make decisions based on those beliefs. They elect politicians and school board members who believe as they do, who then try to pass laws based on their perception of religious morality instead of based on what is truly best for society. The laws they pass are always restrictive and tend to trample on the rights of others. But laws based on secular values tend to allow for greater individual freedom. And that is why I will continue to be an evangelical secularist. It's all about whether we want to allow for personal liberty or whether to quash it.