Sunday, July 31, 2011

a la carte TV has arrived

...but probably not in the form or at the price that consumers wish. A recurring complaint has always been, "Why must I pay for 'packages' full of channels that I don't want? I'd rather pay for only the stuff I want."

With iTunes or Amazon, that's possible. Customers truly pay for only stuff of their choosing: no subscription to a package, channel, or even a program. Rather, they buy episode by episode, like buying a periodical off the rack every week or month. This degree of granularity and inconvenience is the opposite extreme of a channel package. It might be just right for some, yet others likely would prefer a moderate option; they'd be willing to pay more in return for a larger conglomerate of programs. Already, specialized "channels" both produce and aggregate programs according to specific interests of the audience. Is there a reason why they couldn't fill similar roles in the domain of digital on-demand entertainment?

Some object to the episodic prices, at two dollars or more, for fresh and in high definition. Of course, the bytes that constitute the episodes are undeniably cheap to transmit/copy, so the "per-unit production" cost is far lesser than the retail price. But the per-unit production cost is always a baseline and never the entirety of the cost to produce and sell. Producers and sellers must cover miscellaneous other costs, e.g. fixed bills like the company payroll or investments like R&D. (Although some products sell at a "loss" in order to stimulate future purchases.) The final price is what the "market will bear"; sellers and buyers settle on an amount acceptable to both. It seems to me that the price level could have a few reasons:

  • The most obvious is that the price should be greater than zero to compensate everyone involved in the creation and distribution of the episode. If professionals are to create episodes, then they can expect to trade their work for money. If professionals are to create and manage technology to store and send the bytes, then they can expect to trade their work and fixed-costs for money. Since advertisers aren't contributing (as they typically do during "free" Web streaming), the revenue must come directly from the audience. As with any product, the gross revenue is in effect spread throughout the full "supply chain".
  • Prices for fresh and well-encoded digital musical works, the experience of which lasts between three and six minutes, range from $0.69 to $1.25. At its cheapest this is $0.11 per minute of enjoyment ($0.69 divided by six minutes). At that rate, a 40-minute TV episode would be $4.40. This calculation ignores the fact that the TV episode is both aural and visual and therefore each minute is really superior to the song, whether in terms of raw quantity of data or in terms of the subjective impression.
  • The episode is bought, not rented. Presumably the price to see an episode only during a limited time frame would be cheaper, which is the rule for the movie "rentals" on these stores. What's being sold is the permission to stream (or download to a scrambled file) the episode for all time; in any case, certainly more than one viewing. While this is different than the traditional meaning of "ownership" (what happens when the seller/provider goes out of business?), it's not too far off. Generally speaking, the usual market alternative that's closer to "true" ownership, a DVD or BD stored on a home shelf, is relatively more cumbersome and expensive (per episode) and also not as timely.
  • Massive bundling in TV achieves large-scale economic efficiencies that wouldn't be possible if everything were unbundled. Hence the actual price per channel or program or episode will tend to be correspondingly greater. The supply and demand price curves for each item will vary. Items with greater production costs will cost more. Highly-desired items could cost more (because buyers are willing to pay more). Market competition will be more important than ever, assuming programs can act as substitutes for one another. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

omniduction formality

Formally, what I called "omniduction" seems to be universal instantiation running amok. The root cause is hastily asserting the universal qualifier over too large a set, thereby mistakenly asserting that one or more instance(s) are inside the set (and applicable to universal instantiation). Cramming the world into too limited of a logical domain.

omniduction breakdown

Apologies for flashing some political stripes, but here goes... Recently I read an angry online comment about the "threat of raising taxes by gradually reducing the mortgage interest deduction". 1) On one hand, the comment's writer believes in limited government that doesn't intervene in private markets. 2) On the other, the comment's writer believes that all rises in the effective tax rate are by definition terrible. So removing a tax cut, which is evil according to #2, would reduce government intervention in the housing market, which is good according to #1.

The attempt to derive an opinion by omniduction has produced a "SYSTEM ERROR". Perhaps policies in the real world have trade-offs and case-by-case factors to consider, and individual policies can't be attacked in isolation from the rest?

Friday, July 29, 2011

peeve no. 264 is omniduction

Two thinking processes generally receive attention: deduction and induction. Logical consequences and generalizations. Debaters construct their arguments from these basic blocks. Participants who rely on other tactics are subject to being systematically dismantled by opponents. (There's also abduction, but I'm ignoring it here.)

Au contraire! This is an incomplete account of actual reasoning in human society. Besides deduction and induction, I propose a third process: "omniduction". Omniduction is the creation of many small details from out of unassailable preconceptions. Its rallying cry is, "I don't need the data! I know what the data is already because I know that ___(preconception)___ could never ever be false!" The miracle of omniduction is akin to spinning gold from straw. Reality can be so simple just by producing facts through grandiose assumptions, not vice-versa.

Unfortunately, omniduction tends to be problematic when practitioners try to converse. Unless everyone happens to be applying omniduction identically, the produced universes could be in conflict. When facts follow directly from overall assumptions, discussion of evidence is futile.
  • "My theory is correct. Your information must be wrong." 
  • "The complex specifics of this situation must be irrelevant. My flawless system of beliefs doesn't require such minutiae to render a verdict."
  • "Truths cannot be complicated. If you'd only consider the issue from my perspective, you'd realize that a small set of self-contained opinions can explain anything."
Omniduction is so freeing and economical. Forget the collection and analysis of heaps of data. Acquisition of knowledge is for nerds. Omniductive reasoning provides ample justifications for taking whatever action is most intuitively appealing. Some can't see the forest for the trees. Omniduction is still better; there's no need at all to see trees when you're absolutely sure about the forest.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

drinking game for Choices of One by Timothy Zahn

Take a swig whenever you read:
  • a form of the verb "grimace"
  • "said grimly"
  • "mentally _____"
  • a form of the verb "growl"
  • a form of the verb "twitch"
  • the reply "Point", but that's actually very rare
  • Mara Jade deflecting a blaster shot back at the shooter
  • Luke thinking about the fact that he isn't a "real" Jedi or that he's not very good at doing _____
  • Han thinking about the fact that Leia's interested
  • "Firekiln" 
  • "Threepio" or "Artoo"...psych! Those two are missing!
Review? Oh, right. I liked it a lot. It feels like a character reunion hosted by Timothy Zahn. Like almost all Star Wars books, it isn't as consistently entertaining as the Hand of Thrawn duology.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

placing the Roku 2 upgrade expense in perspective

I belong to the group of Roku customers who bought a Roku device in 2011 before the arrival of the Roku 2. According to this statement, the better Netflix streams cannot be made available to "older" Roku, despite those Roku having 1080p/surround sound hardware support. Therefore we get to buy Roku 2 if we feel like viewing Netflix with the full capabilities of our entertainment devices. Since I detest negativity, I'm choosing to consider this situation through Happy Goggles, which to my knowledge do more than nothing...

  • Roku 2 are better appliances. I'm someone who connects it by HDMI and wireless, so no problems there for me. The new gaming features have no appeal. Technology changes; I for one never expected Roku's product line to stay the same as its competitors exploited advances in hardware. Or my Roku to have sufficient horsepower to handle every upcoming enhancement to the Roku "channels".
  • Older Roku will continue to work normally. In fact, future free software updates will ensure that it shall improve. If the older Roku was worth the cost before, then surely that remains the case. There's no loss. Nothing is being discontinued or crippled retroactively.
  • Prices for Roku 2 are hardly huge burdens. For HD video with comparable diversity and DVR-like controls to pause/rewind/skip, the dominant companies charge more per month than buying both two Roku in one year. $80 + $80, divided by 12 months, is $13.33. Add in the $7.99 monthly cost of a Netflix subscription and it's $21.32. I'll grant that a complete comparison is more complicated than this and not really "fair" due to differences in offered content, e.g. ESPN 8 "The Ocho" and the side-boob pay channels. Internet cost affects the overall calculation for a household budget.
  • My less-than-$400 netbook has HDMI-out. Yes, it sends audio along with the video. I merely mention this to remind everyone again that, technologically speaking, it's not too difficult getting Internet content or indeed any computerized content into a typical entertainment setup. (That doesn't change my opinion that, for several reasons, the Roku is worth buying.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

a story about a dynamic programming language

Every once in a while, I like to pretend that I can reload past mindsets like Smalltalk images. Today's story is about a dynamic programming language.

It loaded libraries at run-time. It sat at a level of abstraction from the actual computing hardware: there were no pointers. Memory management happened during execution in an automatic mechanism. Characters weren't single bytes. Checks of all kinds took place as code ran, affording a minimum of "protection". For smaller programs, start-up time itself was a performance constraint. Method dispatch wasn't fully resolved until the time of the call. Commentators often complained about the costs of all this dynamism.

Naturally, I'm describing Java as it was viewed a handful of years ago. This is why it's so amusing to hear that Java has somehow turned into the static language standard-bearer. At least where I was working, the original competitor to Java Servlets in the Web domain was Perl CGI, not C or C++. It was a battle between two dynamic options, in which greater simplicity of string manipulation and memory management trumped other concerns. Java was the company-pushed "compromise" solution that had better threading, Unicode, fairly easy C-like syntax, and so on, yet without some of the traditional downsides of the static languages. In retrospect, other languages could have filled that niche quite well (especially with a tweak or two), but lacked comparable levels of publicity, support, education, and engineering. Regardless of accuracy, the negative perceptions of Java's potential opposition were sufficient to leave an opening. As much as academic and research programmers would prefer it to be the case, programming languages aren't chosen based solely on the sophistication and self-consistency of syntax and semantics.

I'm not seriously proposing that the possibilities for dynamism in Java are comparable to the languages usually labeled as "dynamic". I'm only reiterating the truism that all the aspects of a language and/or its execution "platform", including and beyond the type system of its variables, are on a continuum between static and dynamic.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"feels dynamic" is a ridiculous expression

I should start out by saying that most of the actual information content in Scala: The Static Language that Feels Dynamic is great and worth your time. Scala deserves any attention it receives. And obviously any complaints I advance about what Eckel writes are gadflies to his cow.

Regardless, my reaction to "feels dynamic" is extreme annoyance. Dynamic typing has no feel. Dynamic typing is merely one of many aspects to a language. I might agree that languages have a "feel", although it still sounds risible in a serious technological discussion. Go ahead and mention "feel", but at least trot out numerous examples that partially convey your meaning. Fortunately, Eckel does go on to do this in the article, which as a communicator puts him above the typical Rubyist/Pythonista/whatever-stupid-name-they-enjoy.

I'd suggest an alternative expression "feels Pythonic". Still better, "is as succinct as Python syntax". Based on the text, that's almost exactly what Eckel intends. Distinguishing a "dynamic feel" from a "static feel" just sounds like someone has an astounding lack of programming language breadth. For instance, ML-family or Lisp-family languages, not to mention Prolog or Forth or J, probably have different "feels" than that simplistic two-state viewpoint. For frak's sake, a hypothetical Java "replacement" more or less identical to Java, but with a type-inferring compiler and a much more convenient standard library, would "feel dynamic" according to some language cheerleaders. Get thee out to read about not only Scala but Groovy++.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

reconciliation of frames of reference by hindsight bias

I missed an aspect of free will in wildly varying frames of reference. Namely, the confusion fades. As time passes, manifestations of free will, which were formerly judged as harsh failures of the decision-maker's character, begin to be judged as moderate mistakes, challenges, catalysts, or bridges. For the religious, outrage could have been the contemporary reaction to an outrageous act or abstention, but feelings change as someone is said to "grow wiser", "see the larger picture", "accept it", "learn the lesson". Through these transforming sentiments, the present rationalizations for the past confounding decision are assumed to be part of the original frame of reference responsible for it. It seemed like nonsensical or malicious evil at the time, but now it's an enriching albeit formidable episode in the saga. There were unseen reasons and side-effects that become retroactive justifications.

However, the mechanism is suspect. Healthy humans have resiliency and emotions that are ever-changing. Dramatic inner screams that the world is ending have been wrong many times. The impact of an old memory is less than the impact of immediate sensation, so it's natural to underestimate the severity of the recalled event. Intellectually, the "hindsight bias" is probably active during remembrance. Since it's pretty easy to invent a likely narrative once all the facts are already known, hindsight fools someone into thinking that random occurrences with little warning were "obviously" inevitable and predictable. History defuses complexity.

In the grip of bias, and all too eager to tame and exploit troublesome data, storytellers turn the lead of negative tests of a god's principles into golden "insights" that teach the surprising nuances of the god's frame of reference. Looming over the past as they remember it, humans are thought to be that much closer to approximating the transcendental view. Not so. A decision-maker who excludes nothing from the balance-scale is nevertheless inscrutable. The human frame of reference for any decision may be a simple "good" balanced against a simple "evil". Yet the sweeping global frame of reference for that decision may have mile-high stacks of evil implications intermixed with the "good", and therefore the simple "evil" choice is the cosmic better. Pity the foolish human who tries to accurately score experiments of an impenetrable viewpoint, or gauge the illusory value of a decision through the hubris of hindsight. 

Saturday, July 09, 2011

free will in frames of reference

One of my irritating habits is to flip around ideas and probe for holes. It's not always necessary for someone else to reexamine my arguments for weaknesses, because I do it before them. Combine this propensity with the blog format of publishing frequent tidbits, and expect a stream of entries on a theme.

"Free will" is worthy of extended treatment. Whether a sentient being is a human or god or fictional robot, I last asserted that free will is an inadequate excuse for failing to demonstrate its qualities through definitive actions. (The truth of having a quality is verified pragmatically.) I continue in this belief, but I've noticed a counterargument which needs to be addressed.

The potential problem with any real test or experiment of anything is an unavoidable entanglement with external facts. Interference should be minimized. Output data should be tied as closely as possible to the tested thing and as loosely as possible to all untested things. Setup should aim for isolation. Overall, tests should be carefully designed to confirm a single supposition without introducing extraneous factors.

In the case of a decision, the entangling external facts take the form of a "frame of reference". The decision-maker evaluates each choice by referring to the frame around the decision. Information, prediction, and inclination are all included. The frame of reference is how the decision reduces to a solvable puzzle. Apart from it, the decision-maker is lost and bewildered.

Its importance is felt in the common regret, "If I'd only known then what I know now." A decision evaluated through a disparate frame produces a disparate selection. Hence the frame is a crucial ingredient in judging what someone decides and reconstructing the rationale. It's indispensable in the assignment of blame or praise. An observer could commit grave mistakes without knowing more about the decision-maker's frame.

During a test decision, the frame of reference of the sentient is one of the test's complicating external factors. Simply put, the sentient may have greater or lesser knowledge than the tester! Then the disparity in knowledge leads to a disparity in frame and, crucially, a disparity in checking the result. Perhaps the tested sentient had the quality X all along but a divergent frame overrode/concealed quality X or demanded a convoluted expression of it. In order to dodge a test failure and continue to maintain that the tested sentient has tested quality X, an objector may propose that the sentient decides through a poorly-understood frame of reference. Checkmate!

As I hinted earlier, I think the "frame of reference counterargument" is shrewd but not devastating to my main point about testing sentients who have free will. Frames of reference certainly can be distinct, so I agree that there can't be an absolute guarantee that tester and tested concur in basic analysis of the test decision. My disagreement centers on how insignificant a problem it is.

To interpret an apparent "bad" decision as "secretly good" requires an alarming mismatch between frames of reference. If preserving the link between the sentient and quality X involves radically disconnecting the sentient's frame from the tester's, then I believe that even this solution throws quality X into question. For example, I'm stymied by the very meaning of "mercy" when a sentient's frame considers the killing of an unbeliever to be "merciful".

But not every gap needs to be that wide. As a matter of procedure, a tinier and less consequential test presumably avoids the frame-based inaccuracy that plagues weighty and thorny tests. A sentient with genuine quality X should show it in tests, no matter the size. Arguably, the most trivial decisions are the most revealing and the least able to afford excuses. Someone fixated on punctuality will arrive early to unimportant events. Yet there's a ready explanation too for failed tiny tests, which have barely any scope for frame ambiguity: the tiny "doesn't matter enough" to the sentient, who only bothers to act on the big stuff.

Finally, I'm dumbfounded by the apogee of the counterargument by frame of reference. The most extreme discrepancy is between the tester and a sentient whose frame is all-inclusive of space and time. A sentient with consciousness of everything is inherently not testable by decisions. The sentient's decisions are not understandable by the tester. Nobody can estimate a decision made by reference to everything in every time. Once again, instead of saying, "The god with quality X chose not to pass the test due to a frame of reference incomprehensible to us", the more honest summary is "The god with a frame of reference incomprehensible to us chose not to pass the test due to the utter worthlessness of characterizing decisions in that frame as having 'quality X'." Faith is trusting a god when a god's decision-making is irresistibly opaque. It may be true that the god isn't "beyond" good and evil, but how would anyone know which choices are which, when measured from that perspective?

Friday, July 08, 2011

some more about free will

The question that once haunted my being has been answered. The future is not fixed, and my choices are my own. And yet how ironic...for I now find that I have no choice at all. (Dinobot in "Code of Hero", Beast Wars: Transformers)
I mentioned in the previous entry on "god tests" that the religious can explain the gods' failing score as a manifestation of godly free will. Mystifying privileged knowledge, not included in the test, led to an apparent not genuine failure. In essence, the test was flawed, not the god(s).

Of course, this alternative interpretation hinges on the concept of free will. Humans have free will; why not the god(s)? Coincidentally, the opening quote suggests that the same is true for transforming fighting robots. The speaker, Dinobot (not the most creative of names), had been shaken by the possession of a future object containing historical information. Does a history already-written imply that individual actions aren't free at all? Not too many episodes later, Dinobot finds out two things: the future is indeed mutable, and the villain of the story plans to exploit the information in the "future history" to efficiently commit genocide through the murder of ancestors. Ergo Dinobot comments that although he believes in personal freedom again, only one path is in fact morally allowable: stopping the villain by any means necessary.

As Dinobot discovered, a free will is both more and less complicated than simple unpredictability; roulette wheels, shuffled cards, and dice rolls are poor models of free will. Free will is more complicated because the decision depends on numerous factors and constraints. Free will is less complicated because the tendency is toward very few options. Due to the latter, a single flip of a coin is sufficient to resolve a moral dilemma, but due to the former, deciding by coin flip is called insane precisely because the coin is independent of the dilemma's facts. A "hypothetical" Dinobot whose "decision processor" is a randomly-moving switch based on emissions of a radioactive isotope would on average opt for inaction half the time. The "actual" Dinobot opts to intervene with zero uncertainty.

Therefore, the idea of free will is shaky. Before a decision-maker executes the decision, multiple mutually-exclusive possibilities lie ahead. After, only one could happen. More possibilities beforehand correspond to a greater impression of free will. Then the key question is, who's listing the possibilities? A disinterested observer, with a vague mental model of the decision-maker, could build an unassuming list. A socially-invested observer, with a broad and proven mental model of the decision-maker, could imagine a differing list. Finally, the decision-maker could report a surprisingly lengthy list. All three of these lists are flawed since all contain excess, unrealized, misleading items. This experience of modeling error is "free will".

Regardless of the errors, humans attempt to model behavior because they live in complex groups. Some of the attempts work fine. Especially in a common culture, individuals have sufficient resemblances to the rest. They can use themselves as rough templates for their counterparts. They learn which differences to expect and which presumptions to accept. With the aid of language they further develop an advanced "third-person" viewpoint in which an abstract human, or more specifically a "mind", interacts with its environment in accordance with the found examples of others and self.

It's unsurprising that humans have difficulty calculating the actions of their companions, because they aren't able to analyze external brains' activity moment by moment. They cope somewhat through instinctual comprehension of facial expression and body language. The more telling contributor to the construction of "free will" is the purely subjective piece. Based on introspection, indeterminism in free will is supposedly more profound than an incomplete awareness of external "minds". For not even extremely intimate details of the self's "mind" are enough to absolutely foresee the eventual outcome when the time to act arrives. Meditative attention to the ongoing maelstrom often reveals an assortment of proposals in play. A decision is when one wins out and the losers are cut loose (the metaphorical origin of the word "decide" is from cutting). Free will is the result of the brain's unsurpassed parallelism! Ambivalence, or to be "of two minds", is a coarse description of competing firing patterns in one brain. Moreover, experiments have illustrated that the well-known battle between short-term/emotive/impulsive and long-term/logical/judgmental decision-making is a battle between brain regions. And the temporary suppression of either region, e.g. via alcohol, produces different behavior.

However, like most dichotomies it's a simplification. Evenly-divided plans, the sort that ethical and political philosophers study, tend to each have facets which appeal to emotion and reason. Principled compromise is symptomatic of creativity not indecisiveness. Synthesis is arguably a more impressive feat than unbending commitments that purposely disregard situational distinctions. "Free will" is a highly unhelpful construct when applied to a human who refuses to attack problems in dull fashion. "You have the free will to select A or B." "But I select Q because A and B are inadequate."

Thus, from a variety of angles, the essential connecting thread underlying free will is the ignorance of the observer, not inherent unpredictability of the actor. Brains certainly reach motivated and nonrandom decisions ("halfhearted" decisions may naturally cause a creature to move in fits and starts or trip over itself). To know free will is simply to not know the full contents and workings of others' brains or of one's own brain.

From this viewpoint, the prospect of applying free will to any god raises suitable questions. How similar is the god to the "mind"? Which motivations does it share? Does it experience something akin to pride? Envy? Lust? Love? Anger? Anxiety? What is its thought and decision-making process? Does it hesitate? Is it capricious? How many courses of action does it contemplate? If it's an "embodiment" of a particular set of abstract characteristics, then can it act contrary? Which factors does it seek to maximize by its decisions? Which constraints does it honor? There might not be complete answers to all these questions, but available data pertaining to the god should shed at least a little light.

Once the god's precise similarity to "mind" is established, no matter how tenuous, the boundaries of the god's free will should be clearer. And in a limited sense the god should be predictable and - here is the upshot - testable. Given a specific slate of choices, the god can be expected to fulfill the one within those identified bounds of free will.

Is this not a reasonable test? If the god doesn't pass, then there are two categorical opinions: 1) the god failed, 2) the god used free will to be unpredictable. Opinions in category 1 imply that the god's qualities are different than previously available data indicated. Opinions in category 2 imply that the range of the god's free will is wider than previously available data indicated. But the domain of action that's included in free will is itself restrained by the god's qualities. Either category leads to the conclusion that the god cannot be consistent with the assumptions behind the "test". An accurate follow-up assessment of the failed test is that nobody really knows for sure what the god is like, i.e. how to compare it to "mind".

Examples are easier, so back to Dinobot. If Dinobot is a hero, then when Dinobot is put to the test, Dinobot acts heroically. Otherwise, Dinobot isn't a hero, or Dinobot is a "hero" who just freely chose not to act heroically. The latter implies that Dinobot is a "hero" by a definition that, bizarrely, doesn't encompass choosing to act heroically. There's a third rather metaphysical avenue related to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: the figure of Dinobot is perfectly synonymous with "hero" and perceived conflicts are the observer's fault for trying to think of heroism apart from the single exemplar, Dinobot.

Free will is a self-defeating escape hatch from failing god tests. To say that a god has quality X is equivalent to saying that a god chooses ("free" or not) to act or abstain in ways that match quality X. To say that a god has quality X, and also that a god can and does choose to act or abstain in ways that contradict quality X, throws doubt on either the god or quality X. The religious may concede that they don't know for certain that god has quality X. Or they may concede that they don't know for certain what exactly quality X is, i.e. how a god with quality X would act. Ultimately, their likely response is faith, which is invincible immunity from evidence.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

god tests

In the previous entry, on the point of explanation behind why I accept the classification of "atheist", I tried to establish that disproof of specific gods is indeed possible, but only for carefully considered definitions of "disproof" and "gods". Namely, when the god(s) result in real indicators, the absence of those indicators is a valid chain of reasoning to the statement that the god(s) must not be present. By straightforward logic known as the "contrapositive", p implies q is equivalent to not-q implies not-p.

An instructive example is the famous failed theory of the luminiferous aether, the hypothesized medium and absolute reference frame (for the uniform constant speed c) of light. Wikipedia has thorough coverage, but the quick overview is that theoretical predictions weren't confirmed by experiments and competing theories with greater generality arose, i.e. relativity and wave-particle duality. Could the luminiferous aether exist? Maybe, but if it does then nowadays nobody has any pragmatic rationale to use it in mental or physical tasks. They can think and act on the basis that it isn't there. (Ethernet doesn't count.)

A god(s) "theory" is subject to similar pragmatic evaluation. All that's needed is to figure out and run the corresponding tests of reality. Unfortunately, this approach is typically not applicable by the religious. How come?
  • Foremost is a taboo against questioning religious propositions. Of course, the emphasis on the taboo can vary, and novices of the religion may ask questions as a normal component of instruction. Befuddlement is permitted. "Attacks" and/or suggested alternatives to the core essentials, especially by members who should "know better", is prone to responses ranging from insistent re-education to ejection. Not all groups are heavy-handed and hierarchical but most will take steps to forcefully prevent the spread of "corruptive lies". Admittedly, this feature is not peculiar to religion. Groups united by common beliefs, i.e. pretty much every lasting group there is, probably will remove naysayers for the sake of survival, akin to an immune system. Otherwise, the group wouldn't in fact be united by common beliefs! 
  • After a god test, the attendant religious measurement and interpretation is equivocal. Given that posited gods have freedom to make decisions, each test must be unsure. Either the test passes or fails, and either the god decided to show up for the test or not. And due to godly free will, the god and the test are statistically independent, more or less. That is, the correlation is zero between the test's actual outcome and the god's existence. For instance, as long as the god can possibly choose to not participate, all failed tests might mean nothing more than that. Thereby the god tests are inconclusive. According to the popular definitions, free will cannot be predictable because a decision known beforehand isn't "free". The more that an observer knows about the decision-maker, the more predictable the decision appears, and the less "free will" could be involved. A human who's known to be compassionate tends to predictably perform compassionate actions when the chance arises. Is this free will at work? What if this human, unknown to the observer, underwent tragic personality-changing brain trauma in the recent past (there have been well-publicized cases)? The ignorant observer could watch the human decide to act contrary to compassion and then exclaim "I see again that I can't predict what someone will do! That's free will at work!" What's perceived as free will could be a lack of knowledge. The nice occasionally are mean on their worst days, but who knows whether today qualifies? In like fashion, when a god test fails, and so the interpretation must be the god's exercise of free will, the "scope" of free will is customarily enlarged through greater and greater presumptions of a lack of knowledge about the god's decisions: "It doesn't make sense for my god to make that decision; my understanding of my god's qualities must be much more incomplete than I estimated". In the face of many failing tests for a god, the believer claims less and less to be attuned to the god's utterly mysterious and unlimited free will.
  • Mystery is far from a problem in religion. It's more likely to be honored, for without mystery there is no opportunity for faith. The religious scoff at the proposal of god tests, which serve no purpose for the faithful. Their god(s) simply exist, regardless of the experience or reasoning of lowly humans. Religion is concerned with great celestial realities, hence present human reality need not be entirely consistent with it. Temptation is an enemy, yet doubt is the most fatal. Letting doubt roam free potentially endangers the great panacea, faith. Intellectual discontinuities shall be overpowered by emotional flurries of trust and hope. Take a deep breath and let your troublesome mental conflicts gooooooooooo...
Postscript: the primordial god test

I don't wish to be seen as negligent for not addressing the primordial god test: isn't a universe an adequate clue that a god must be around? My answer is no. The problem with a god-creator theory is its startling incompleteness. It's really closer to being a sketchy conjecture. There's a solitary data point, which is the universe. That's not much to work with in order to distinguish between theories. What would be different if a god started the universe, as compared to, um, something else? To what can I compare the purported act of creation?

Moreover, this idea is very vague about the god. "This picture was painted." "By whom?" "The Painter, naturally." The creator-god is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Were there many creator-gods working together or at cross-purposes? Is the creator-god in the same form as at the time of universe creation or did it empty itself into its creation? Is it what humans call intelligent or a clumsy oaf committing accidents? Is it needy and/or accomplishing a goal? Is creating an effortless hobby? These are valid albeit mischievous questions. Remember, the metaphorical Painter could have been a hyperactive dog whose paws had firmly-attached rectangular paint sponges.

I suppose that I could be persuaded to hypothesize that 1) the universe started through an inscrutable process, whose placeholder label is "creation", and 2) the process was initiated and overseen by an inscrutable thing, whose placeholder label is "god". But after accepting the hypothesis merely for the sake of debate, it amounts to bupkis. It certainly doesn't follow that "universe-creation god" is all-powerful or all-knowing or immortal or a close personal friend of a proud species that scrambled to the undisputed top of the food chain on planet Earth orbiting around star Sol somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy (sincere apologies for the terribly sloppy address).

Friday, July 01, 2011

locating myself in the irreligious taxonomy

I chose to use "irreligiosity" as a broad category for four reasons. First, "areligious" is too easily confused with "religious" and it doesn't seem like a popular coinage. Second, I felt that the "non-" prefix on "nonreligious" sounds too, um, noncommittal. Third, on the other hand, "antireligious" insinuates excessive and active opposition. Fourth, "irreligious" shares the "ir-" prefix with "irreverent", which is appropriate. Irreverence merely indicates that, unlike others, someone doesn't revere something. As I understand it, irreverence of religion is an adequately-drawn yet far-flung border for irreligiosity. For irreverence could take many forms of thoughts or actions.

Nevertheless, after wading through Wikipedia, starting at the Irreligion page, I've learned of finer distinctions communicated by other terminology.
  • I hadn't considered the possibility of honoring or obeying aspects of a religion, integrating it into personal identity, but not believing its ideas. Religion may be a cultural/ethnic institution as opposed to a belief system. Therefore someone who doesn't claim the existence of any gods could deny being "irreligious" because religion retains importance in their lives. In my opinion, "irreligiosity" applies to the status of held conclusions rather than circumstances of birth or upbringing. I would say that irreligious individuals sometimes perform religious acts. For example, I've ceased personal religious behavior, but that won't stop me from participation in societal holidays of religious origin. Meaningless customs can still be enjoyable. I don't feel a need to associate myself with specific religion, but I comprehend that my situation is not universal.
  • I agree to the philosophical stance of naturalism or materialism. This is a stricter judgment than general irreligiosity. I'm dismissive of all supernatural speculation. But this need not be true of everyone who doesn't assent to religious notions. They might reject every religion they've ever heard and opine the positive existence of unknown or loosely-defined gods. Perhaps they're ambiguous on the "god question" and maintain that human spirits can exit bodily confines. Maybe they're fond of trusting that "someone" is always watching or they simply assume that there can't be a universe without a creative Force to jump-start it. Anyway, none of these beliefs in supernaturally-based things are sufficiently convincing to me.
  • Along the same line, I'm not impressed by the idea that the supernatural is unprovable. I understand that the absence of proof isn't a proof of absence. However, in my interpretation of Pragmatic philosophy, absolute proof isn't a realistic or necessary standard. Coming to the point, the dubiousness of supernatural hypotheses doesn't justify a provisional judgment in favor and/or changes to future actions. I can invent a multitude of unverified explanations, but I'm not obligated to incorporate the fictions into the working assumptions that affect my actual existence. Believable theories display Pragmatic truth through implications that are susceptible to human actions like experimentation and calculation and observation. Under these guidelines, supernatural "stuff" that has no effect detectable by human means, not even in theory, is...not..."true" like everything else is "true". Anything supernatural that supposedly has such effects has the possibility of being true. In short, imagined supernatural objects that are completely ignorable could only be "true" in a pitifully weak sense. Since almost all proposed supernatural objects impinge on reality, almost all proposed supernatural objects can be judged as true or false via the usual methods and evaluations. I can't prove that irrelevant gods cannot exist, but I think it's reasonable to pragmatically determine, by induction, that theoretical gods whose alleged traces are missing or indefinite do not exist. By and large, "atheist" seems like a label that closely approximates my perspective.
  • As I keep repeating, I don't wish to annihilate religion. I'm eager for breaking links between religion and political power. Religion shouldn't affect a citizen's status. Government shouldn't endorse or fund religions. Religious and irreligious can exercise their democratic freedoms. Furthermore, religion is beneficial insofar as it provides motivation for living with more considerateness and deliberation. I don't mind attempts at non-coercive conversion (I'll grant that all too many cases veer too close to emotional exploitation and manipulation). These opinions set me apart from "antitheism".
  • At this time, I'm unsure whether "Humanist" is an accurate description of me. I support happiness and freedom and not being egocentric, but surely Humanistic ethics has more substance than what I'm seen so far?