Archive for February, 2009

alphabet quirks

February 24th, 2009

Have you noticed that every language seems to deamonize a particular letter of the alphabet? Users of the language either refuse to pronounce it, or they pronounce it as a different sound, or they banish it altogether.


Polish has excommunicated the V. This is really strange, because all its linguistic neighbors use the V all the time. All words get rewritten with Ws instead.


Norwegian vowels are heavy, industrial strength. Somehow this has made the O into a Polish U or an English OO. To compensate for this lacking, the Å was invented as a makeshift O.


English has caught onto the fact that V and W are really the same sound, and have co-opted the W for a completely different sound. Polish has a ready made letter for this sound: the Ł.

English also disfavors the J, and uses the Y as a J when need be.

Needless to say, the R was mutated into a sound that defies definition. This is lost on many English natives who plainly assume that the crazy English R is the standard for all languages.


French refuses to pronounce the H, yet it keeps using it in written form.

French also uses the J as a Polish Ż.

The R, of course, is the most eccentric of them. It was made into a gargling sound that stings the throat.


Dutch will pronounce the G only as an H. And the H.. er.. also as an H. It may be that the G and the H are slightly different in speech, but if so it still eludes me how.


Spanish doesn't like the J. In its place it improvised the LL (but also the Y is used for this). The J is used as an H, in place of the real H, which refuses to be pronounced. Sounds pretty obsessive, doesn't it?

And the V becomes a B, depending on who you ask.


Like all its latin friends, Italian pretends the H doesn't exist, but still keeps writing it.

the cliché of "bad music"

February 20th, 2009

One thing that has been pretty much a constant in my life is the regular attempts I observe at cultural stigma by condemning someone to be a fan of "bad music". Of course, this type of cultural stigma is no different from other kinds of stigma based mechanisms that play a part in the daily social power struggles and hustles over group membership.

But it's interesting to me that it works despite how flawed it is. Obviously, the premise for the "bad music" stigma is that we all agree on some common standard for what makes good music. This may have been possible in the past, with three radio stations to choose from and little selection in a record store. But today, with the amount of choice we have, and especially among people who discover music online, it just isn't.

You just can't make a meaningful statement about bad music when just about every person you meet has something in their collection that's just awful. And half the people (or more) consider this something a cornerstone of their collection.

As far as I'm concerned, metal was invented to help us agree on the definition of bad music. But that's actually not the whole story. It turns out that if you take groups like Metallica and Linkin Park, and make them stfu, they do sometimes produce interesting instrumental music. It's just that all the yelling gets in the way.

There are subtler examples. Take Katie Melua. She has a nice voice, her melodies are pleasant, nothing wrong with her it would seem. But then you hear the lyrics. And I often don't even notice (or care) about the lyrics, but hers are so simple minded and annoying that I can't stand it. Same goes for Maria Mena.

And so forth.

But the practical impossibility of a consensus is not even the biggest problem with the "bad music" category. The more serious problem is that we still don't know why or how music affects the brain. In the future, perhaps, we will know why particular harmonies or rhythms induce a positive response. And composers over the ages have surely understood this intuitively, using precisely those "atoms" of composition that please us. But noone has been able to explain why those. So for the time being, musical taste can only be a purely subjective matter. And "bad music" continues to be a contradiction in terms.

Atheism: the case against god

February 13th, 2009

I was recommended this book by a friend and it is above and beyond the most relevant address of the question of religion I have so far encountered. George Smith sets out to argue that the notion of a god in general, and the god of Christianity in particular, cannot be supported rationally. Other authors of atheist books have addressed the social and historical impact of religion, but none have gone straight to the foundation of religion in order to refute its logical premises. To follow Smith's reasoning takes effort, but he is persuasive.

After discussing the concept of god in the most general sense, Smith proceeds to show that Christianity is stacked high with self contradictions in its various doctrines, all of which makes it even more absurd (if one can say such a thing) than merely the idea of a god itself. The central problem in knowing god is that of assigning attributes to an inherently supernatural and transcendental (that is to say unknowable) being. Either a proposition is unknowable or it isn't. It makes no sense to accept the premise of unknowabability only to then assign attributes that are contingent upon knowability. Christianity attempts to jump the fence by making all attributes infinite. Instead of temporal he is eternal. Instead of finite he is infinite. The obvious problem is that the meaning of such attributes is predicated upon finiteness. To make an attribute infinite is to make it meaningless. So all that can be accomplished is to assign unintelligible attributes to an unintelligible being. This is most characteristic of the Christian doctrine, which essentially drapes layers of rhetoric in order to create the illusion of a god that is effectively not distinguishable from nothing at all.

why agnosticism is a pointless stance

February 8th, 2009

Disclaimer: Depending on your definition of atheism and agnosticism, I may actually be advocating agnosticism in this text. These two terms have any number of definitions and what follows simply reflects my perception of them. The point is not that one term is better than the other. What I'm trying to argue is simply that one type of thought process associated with agnosticism is not particularly useful.

The more I think about agnosticism the more I think it's just the politically correct face of atheism. It's a way to say "Hey, listen guys, you say you know god exists, and we're skeptical. But that doesn't imply we think we're better than you, we just think it's impossible to know at all." That is the gist of it, but does it really differ from the atheist position in any important way? I don't think it does.

Does an agnostic believe in god? If he did he would be a believer. Which he isn't. So the answer is no. Of course, the agnostic slogan is "I don't know", but in a question of belief, there is no such thing. There is no way to not know if you believe in something. You either believe or you don't, and if you "don't know" that means you don't. You fail to give a positive answer.

The problem with agnosticism is that it gets you into meaningless statements about probability. An agnostic who adamantly repeats "I don't know" is likely to be seen as low hanging fruit for believers and unbelievers alike. "Okay then, what do you think is more likely?" Agnostics in their drive to be even handed get pushed into saying that both are 'equally likely'. Well, what on earth does that mean? Is that a statement about statistical probability? So in a repeatable experiment where the universe is created god appears 50% of the time? That's absurd reasoning. We are not talking about something measurable and therefore there is no way to say 'how likely' it is.

Wrong question, wrong answer

A philosopher once said "as a philosopher it is not that I can produce more answers, but I can make sure we don't ask the wrong questions".

Religious people claim to know with absolute certainty that god exists. And thus they seek the equivalent answer from the unbeliever. "Can you say with absolute certainty that god does not exist?" It is the wrong question. And to see why we need only ask a different, obvious, question. "Is there anything at all you believe with absolute certainty?" Again, the answer is no.

What does 'absolute certainty' even mean? It would have to mean, I think, that notwithstanding circumstances you know nothing about, your faith would still hold. If nothing else, that strikes me as just about the most foolish statement imaginable. Religious people claim to have this certainty, and that's their business.

In any case, we know that life is unpredictable, and it is possible that anything one has established as knowledge may be overturned. Is there any knowledge at all you have that holds beyond the constraints of sensory perception and reason? No, there isn't. Everything is theoretically subject to change.

So why on earth should I have to answer the question of god to a greater degree of certainty than I have about any other question in life? Agnosticism exists only because we need an answer to this incorrect question.

Atheism is the realization that the question is incorrect. An unbeliever simply does not have an equivalent answer to the question of absolute certainty. Atheism is not about absolute certainty, it is about giving an answer to a question that has a reasonable answer. Does god exist? No. Do you know this with absolute certainty? Irrelevant. I know god doesn't exist with the same certainty that I know Superman doesn't exist, and that's perfectly sufficient.

Atheism is the realization that the difference between a hypothetical "no" and a practical "no" isn't worth dwelling on. Because when it comes down to choosing how to live life, there is no agnostic option. You either live your life according to religious observance or you don't. No agnostic will sit in the 'waiting room' until the answer comes in. Thus there is no practical difference between the agnostic and the atheist, only a theoretical one.

This also resolves the misunderstanding that "atheism is faith just like theism". Atheists do not have an equivalent belief, that is what the a in atheism means.

Political correctness

How does political correctness factor into it? I think the answer is obvious. Religion is such a big issue in our culture that we have the intuition not to take these questions lightly. Religion is not just an issue of faith, it's also a question of world view, of social institution, of tradition, of family ties. To reject the god hypothesis is to reject religion, because what sensible religious observance could follow if you eliminate the cornerstone of religion itself? And to reject religion is to make a big life decision.

That is the paradox of the god question. The fallout may be complicated, but the question isn't. So people hesitate to say what they would so easily say if it wasn't for the collateral damage.

To say "I don't know" to a question of belief, I think, is to say "I don't believe, but I'm not sure what the consequences are going to be". We are not so hesitant to answer other questions of faith. Do people say "wait a minute, you can't be dead certain that Superman doesn't exist"? Actually, I can. He's a fictional character from a comic book. Do I need to be more guarded in my reasoning? No, I don't. I'm never going to get a more useful answer than "no".

Are you still on the fence about Santa Claus? Of course not. Because there is no reason not to say just say "no".

when people stop believing in god

February 5th, 2009

I decided to brush dust off this old chestnut that I've seen trotted around recently:

When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing— they believe in anything. ~ G. K. Chesterton

People seem to be using this rationale as a warning. "Now listen, if you stop believing in god, bad things could happen." And apparently the same people insist that it's true. Supposedly new age medicine is on the rise, people join various cults, the world seems to be acting more gullible on the whole. Perhaps.

But let's go back to Chesterton. Let's see what he's saying there. And this is not just my reading of it, this is how I perceive people are interpreting his statement to make a point:

When people stop believing in god they start searching for something else to believe. And they end up believing the most ridiculous things, they turn to superstition.

On the face of it, that seems like an insightful observation. But when you think about it for a minute.. what could be more ridiculous than god? I mean if you believe that story, how much more gullible could you get? Superstition? You mean like supernatural beings?

You know how people say "don't do drugs, they'll mess you up"? I wouldn't know, because I've never taken any. But it seems to me people are messed up already without the drugs.

The only difference between religion and your run-of-the-mill superstition is that religion is institutionalized. It is the accepted (or if you will, tolerated) superstition. It's the emperor's new clothes. It's Santa Claus. It's "sssh don't say it out loud, those people over there still believe it".

Chesterton was half right. People will believe anything. They do this not after rejecting god, but from the very beginning. And god is very much a part of of this "anything".

We see this again and again, how easy it is to trick people into doing things that are not in their best interest. How advertising makes us desire things we don't really want. How phishing attacks get people to give up their password by telling them lies. It's absolutely true. This is our weakness, and everyone is vulnerable.

I do it myself. I somehow got this idea that I have an impact on the results of my team. The situation is like this. I'm not watching the game, and I don't even know there is a game underway. So I just randomly check the scores to see if anything is happening and I notice my team is playing. If I then start following the scores until the end it often seems like a positive starting point turns into a bad result. What started out as a lead results in a draw or loss. I seem to have a bad impact. So what do I do about it? I don't follow it. I try to put it out of my mind and just check the score when it's all over. (Inevitably, of course, I forget. And I check before the game is over, by which time it might be a draw, so that just fuels the superstition.)

So what is that? It's superstition, plain and simple. Of course, I know that I don't have any effect on the result. And I would never try to suggest to someone that it's better not to check the scores underway lest you impact the result. It's totally irrational. But I still kind of believe this, my behavior proves that I do.

Superstition is a common thing, a lot of people have one thing or another that they kind of secretely believe despite knowing better. It's who we are. But to say that one man's superstition is gullibility, while another's is virtue? Let's cut the crap.