Radical Atheism

On the taxonomy of Dragons

This is deeply nerdy but still oddly fascinating. AronRa gave this talk at DragonCon about how to fit the dragons of literature and film and fit them into modern cladistic taxonomy.

 

AronRa is a giant of a human who is physically intimidating and has this astonishing knack of churning out these 45-60 minute talks at an alarming rate. There are tricks that I've had in nearly every show I've ever done for over a decade and I don't think I've ever seen him give the same talk more than once.

Messages of Hope from a Juggler and a Magician

Magician Penn Jillette explains in this video how he converted to Christianity:

And then after a suitable awkward pause and the gotcha moment, he goes on to share a very sincere message of hope explaining what's wrong with the term islamophobia and how to go about helping people you disagree with.

Maybe we're doing this all wrong, trying to listen to politicians and academics. Maybe the way to a better tomorrow is by listening to magicians and jugglers.

The Non-Conference

This coming weekend, I'll be performing at a rather unusual event — The Non-Conference. Contrary to its name, it is a conference. It's a one-day conference for non-believers in Niagara Falls, Saturday, August 13. Non Con 2016

Speakers at the conference include Maajid Nawaz (who recently co-wrote a book with one of my favourite authors), Catherine Dunphy (a former executive director of The Clergy Project, Scott Clifton (I'll let you figure out on your own why they invited a three-time Emmy winner General Hospital cast member) and several more. If you're free to attend, it will be a terrific event. Tickets are $159 for the day.

My part comes in at the special sit down VIP dinner on Friday, August 12 where guests have a chance to sit down with the speakers. I'll be doing some good old fashioned magic with a skeptical bent. I believe there are still a few tickets left for the dinner.

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I've found the Church for me

I was raised on Monty Python. British comedy just tickles me in all of the right places. So I'm delighted that John Cleese, one of the groups five surviving members, is starting his own church. Of course it's satire... although I'm tempted to tithe a small amount anyway.

In recent years, Mr. Cleese has been very publicly interested in human psychology, in particular applying that psychology to creativity. You'll see some very pointed remarks about human nature that are most instructive.

Just a con game?

I just came across this video from Big Think with Maria Konnikova which is very interesting. (Full disclosure, I haven't yet read her recent book on cons but it's in my pile.) The video is provocatively titled What Do Con Artists and Religious Leaders Have in Common?

The claim is that we have an insatiable hunger for meaning and certainty and that con artists are prepared to provide that — although not necessarily honestly. While I agree that religion superficially satisfies the hunger for meaning and certainty, even in the presence of better explanations, I'm not entirely sure that's what con artists do.

I'm currently reading a different book on cons: The Art of the Con by R. Paul Wilson. The principle force driving cons, according to that book, is not satisfying a thirst for meaning, but offering potential financial rewards — offering what can be loosely classed as "investments" that have essentially zero return so you are essentially handing your money over in whatever quantities they can get from you.

On the other hand, about twenty minutes before I was reading this, I found his formula for convincing people to accept false information. It's framed, not quite correctly as an equation: X + Y = Z when it really should be something more like a syllogism. Either way:

Z is the conclusion you want your mark (victim) to agree with. X is a fact that is verifiably true. Y is a fact which is false.

X and Y taken together imply your desired conclusion, Z

The idea is that if you can provide legitimate sources for X, and Z is desirable (you want it to be true), then people will just quietly accept Y without questioning it too much. And when you try to reverse engineer your own thinking, you feel as though you've just carried out a proper logical argument because X + Y really does imply Z. You don't realize that the reason you accepted Y as true is because you wanted to believe Z was true. It makes the argument circular in a way which is extremely difficult to detect.

This is most definitely not how you do logic, but that's the point. It's about convincing people to believe things for irrational reasons. I see this used all the time by people who are trying to use logical arguments to convince you of religious truths. So perhaps that's what they have in common.

The Big Picture: Sean Carroll Explains It All

I recently completed Sean Carroll's most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfIt is, undeniably, one of the best books I've read in the past few years and one that I will start recommending to everyone forthwith. 9780525954828

It's a book written entirely about physics which somehow manages to be a book about religion in spirituality. The closest comparison I can think of is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. It demolished a large number of rather deeply held religious beliefs, not by attacking them, per say, but simply by explaining what we actually knew about science.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist that works at Caltech. (I found out in one of the interviews that the desk in his office used to belong to one of my other heroes, the late Richard Feynman.) What Watchmaker did for biology, this book does for physics and cosmology and it's been long overdue.

Most people who stop learning about science in high school simply don't know just how much we actually know about the universe. It's very easy to make the (fallacious) leap from "I don't know" to "nobody knows" without skipping a beat. But the information is out there, and has been for a very long time.

Spirituality and religion survives largely by leveraging the unknown. Narratives about how the universe began and what happens after we die survive because very few people are willing to put in the years it takes to learn the science to prove them wrong. And for the most part, science stays politely silent in what is usually called "tolerance". But — as is extremely well explained in the book — the science that definitely disproves notions like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and an anthropomorphic deity that takes an interest in our lives is really well understood.

It's gotten slightly worse in recent years because of the magical-sounding properties of quantum mechanics. They're only magical when they're poorly understood, so it's nice to have someone who actually understands them and their predictions explain them.

But establishing what we know is only part of the book. In the latter sections, he outlines the consequences of these scientific facts for more philosophical matters like meaning, purpose, free will and morality. It's a wonderful resource to have all of this addressed in one place.

If you don't want to splurge for the whole book, the author gives a fantastic interview at Inquiring Minds that's worth checking out. The interviewer, Indre Viskontas, says that some of the later sections actually made her cry. I didn't go quite that far, even though I cry at mostly anything, but I still definitely recommend the book, more or less to everyone.