Tag Archives: Call and Response

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The Case Against Free Trade

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

I spend a lot of time arguing on Facebook. It comes and goes as a use of time. It’s often frustrating, but in the best moments, it feels like there’s a real opportunity to change someone’s mind. Facebook has become this distilled part of the Internet where enough smart, thoughtful people spend enough time that it’s like tapping into a collective town square. The greatest democratic theorists always talked about the proverbial town square, the marketplace of ideas, a place where concepts are freely exchanged and rebutted and synthesized into the best decisions for our future.

Granted, my Facebook feed may be more like this than the average feed. In a world where people talk about their feeds being overly siloed and sectioned off from disagreeing opinions, the majority of my Facebook friends have been associated with APDA, the American Parliamentary Debate Association. This league of collegiate debaters has its flaws, but it does bring together a group of intellectuals who care about persuasion and the future of the planet’s people. And that’s pretty cool.

It also has plenty of people who disagree with me. Then again, the main reason my feed is probably not siloed into people who agree with me is because there are very few such people, if any. There’s a reason my site is called the Blue Pyramid, after all.

Anyway, a recent argument, primarily with some former Boston University debaters, but also with some former Cornell debaters, enabled me to distill a response to one of the most prominent arguments against free trade. And I feel like I want it to be in a more prominent and permanent place than a Facebook sub-comment thread. Both because I live to try to persuade but also because it proves that all the time spent arguing on Facebook doesn’t have to end fruitless with a feeling of unsettled angst. It’s not just wasted time. Even if a lot of it is.

As background, the initial discussion topic was Democrats and leftists, including Bernie Sanders, celebrating Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I am one of those leftists celebrating this, as a lifelong opponent of free trade. We then got into a lot of the reasons I’m against free trade. Part of my case could be the entire book The Shock Doctrine. But I see free trade as problematic for even more reasons than Naomi Klein does. I see it as the proliferation of unfettered capitalism, the system that creates waste and worships waste as a value above all others. It places corporations in a superior position to nation-states – while I’m not a fan of either institution, I’d choose nation-states every time. They at least try to have popularly utile motives, whereas corporations care only about the bottom line.

But I’ve always believed the most damning thing about free trade, especially in its recent incarnations as something that mainstream establishment politicians want to see sweep the globe into one giant market where enormous Western multi-national corporations (MNCs) run wild and free, is that it’s telling a false story about competition. The narrative is that a level playing-field will enable those with the most talent and merit to rise and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. The reality is that the playing-field purported as level is anything but. Free trade is giving some groups a 200-year head-start on a race and then celebrating how fair it is because everyone was allowed to run. Worse, those with all the monetary and power advantages of having been competing in a capitalist marketplace for vastly longer are the ones who write the rules of how the race will be run. The idea that this is passed off on the developing world as a fair fight is laughable.

I got two key counter-arguments in defense of free trade, though, which I want to reprint my responses to because I think they’re the most clear and cogent articulations of my beliefs on this complicated issue that I’ve put forward. And then I’d like to invite y’all to join the debate on this critical issue of our time if you have further counter-arguments.

The first counter-argument questioned, essentially, why I would advocate for protectionist trade when that essentially divides the world and what I ultimately want is a united world under the banner of a more socialist structure. Isn’t free trade a possible stepping stone to a united socialist world? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face here?

My response:

Think of it like harm reduction vs. the AA model of addiction cessation.

Ultimately, I want the AA model for capitalism – no capitalism, nowhere. That’s my ideal. I recognize how unlikely it is, but that’s not going to stop me from railing against capitalism my whole life until other people see its flaws too.

But, in the meantime, we can also seek harm reduction. This is why I’ve spent most of my career in non-profits and why I’m not a pure accelerationist. I see protectionist trade as harm reduction. With free trade, the top-dog best-funded MNCs end up owning everything and superseding governments. They are able to make the rules and will turn the globe into an unfettered capitalist wasteland. Protectionist trade, while riddled with innate flaws of capitalism, curbs that outcome that the MNCs so desperately want. It enables some countries to protect themselves and their interests rather than being overrun by greedy colonialists.

Protectionism in America doesn’t really *directly* protect anything I care about, which is why people often assume I believe things I don’t when I align with Bernie and Trump on this issue. I don’t care about the American worker. I care about the Nigerian worker. And if the most powerful country in the world that holds most of the rapacious MNCs takes a big step away from free trade, it extends that trend around the globe, making it more likely the people I care about are saved from free trade’s devastation.

It’s kind of weird, I guess, that I vehemently agree with both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump about the importance of opposing free trade, but not for the reasons they do. But it’s also why the typical rebuttal to economic populism doesn’t resonate with me. People are basically saying “those jobs ain’t coming back, fools!” And it’s true. Automation has killed American manufacturing, permanently. But I don’t care about that. Automation and free trade are both killing everyone’s jobs, pretty quickly, and part of our thread was about the need to develop safeguards in a post-work society. Which, by the way, will not be aided by allowing corporations to sue governments for implementing protections that limit profits. If we need to give universal basic income or benefits or even just the right not to be enslaved by a corporation to former workers who have been edited out of the economy, we will need to tax corporate profits to do that. Both of those things could be clear violations of the TPP as written. This is bad.

But then I got the seminal argument, the one I see most proliferated in defense of free trade, the golden myth propagated by everyone to carry the torch of free trade forward for a new generation. And my response to it was actually liked by the folks asking the questions and arguing against it. If I didn’t change their minds, I at least offered something to give them pause. So this is the main focus of this post and what I want people to think about.

The question:
“What do you make of the statistics that show that this sort of trade and development has reduced extreme poverty ($1 or $2 a day) to single digit percentages in 30 years from 60-70 percent, if I’m right…for all its manifest problems? And before industrial capitalism virtually everyone that lived in extreme poverty.”

My response:

I feel like what’s being calculated is highly misleading. On a capitalist spectrum, the numbers have slightly increased. But people have traded functional subsistence economies for being enslaved by a capitalist machine that destroys their countrysides and makes them all the property of foreign sweatshop-owners and foreign resource exploiters.

This is a complicated question, but there are a few key points in evaluating this widely propagated (mis)perception of free trade:

1. Comparison to pre-colonialism. The only suitable comparison of current standards of living is to pre-colonial days. Because I see free trade and directly colonial ownership as two phases of the same trend. And if you started with chattel slavery and then went to Jim Crow, you don’t get congratulated because Jim Crow is better than slavery. You get blamed for enslaving people in the first place. Developing world poverty was not an innate state of being as it’s represented as being – it was manufactured by colonialism. A shitty quick fix that puts everyone in the GDP matrix does not count as “lifting people out of poverty”. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on an unending disaster.

2. What is counted. My argument would be that if you’re living in a functional pre-colonial barter economy, or even a somewhat feudal economy, all of your labor and standard of living is invisible to conventional contemporary capitalist metrics. You may be making $0/day because you’re not paid in money or you’re paid in a money worthless compared to the American economy. But this does not mean that your life is awful or that you are even functionally poor relative to your actual sphere. Globalization puts everyone in the same race without recognizing that there are different definitions and perceptions of the good life in other countries and different scales of magnitude.

3. Winners and losers. These averages and things are often calculated with the few robber barons of each developing country factored in. Not only can this skew the math, but it recreates the wealth inequality situation over and over again in societies all over the globe. This is deeply problematic because capitalism tends to recreate its own kind of aggressive feudalism where the few rich people functionally own everyone else in society and can abuse them and get them to do whatever they want. That’s actually somewhat new in the US and it’s giving us Trump, endless government corruption and cronyism, and will eventually replace democracy with kleptocracy. That’s bad for everyone’s quality of life.

4. Materialism. The problem with poverty and quality of life as measured by GDP stats is that it puts the innate value on materialism. The ability to own toasters and cars and other things, regardless of how wasteful and problematic these things are. Are these really necessary for the good life? Refrigeration increases the convenience of your eating experience so you can run back to your 16 hour/day job. But that 16 hour/day job in the West is prompting the world’s largest stream of anti-depressants and people trying to mortgage their schedule to have one day at home where they actually cook a meal and taste their food. How to compare this to a pre-colonial society where people lived on the land, took 3 hours for each meal in a three-generation family under one roof, and took time to appreciate each other as people? It’s a hard question. Capitalism dismisses the latter situation as poverty because it doesn’t cut the mustard in dollars and cents. I think it’s probably objectively a preferable way to live. I don’t see someone being forced out of that to go work in the sweatshop so they can eat processed food that gives them cancer in the middle of a tenement as being “lifted out of poverty”. But that’s how it gets calculated.

5. Access to health care, the internet, etc. This is the one area where I think there may be some ground to argue that modern life and culture does improve quality of life across the board. The problem, though, is that the more unequally things are distributed, the less you can make arguments from this vantage. If socialism were the overriding philosophy, or even protectionist trade, then equal access to improved modern medicine, the internet, and quality education would be priorities. Unfortunately, free trade has created kleptocractic neo-feudalism in most developing countries, meaning that these fundamental improvements are proportionately accessible only to the rich. This is part of why I’m advocating for protectionist trade. If you run the state-run oil company and have some capitalism, you can still use those oil profits to give everyone hospitals, schools, roads, and internet-accessible phones. If it’s everyone for themselves in the MNC-run rat-race, those are only going to be accessible to the people at the top. I think this is the best conduit to improving lives and the best argument for the capitalists. But free trade actively hurts this benefit.

What do you think? Is free trade an unfettered step in our ever-upward trajectory of progress that only Luddites and idiots would oppose? Or is free trade a bill of goods being sold to us by ever-hungrier MNCs controlled by a Singularity-like focus on cancerous growth? Or something in the middle?

I welcome your responses and thoughts. Send me something, post on your blog and send me the link, argue with me on Facebook. This is an important discussion to be considering as we face the future.

If you’re connected to me or the debaters I was debating against on Facebook, you can also see:
The original post with all comments
The specific comment thread where we discussed these aspects of free trade at length

Using this image ought to stoke some reactions!

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What I Learned on My Day with Pro-Gun Facebookers

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

ProGun

Yesterday, my recent post on mass-shootings and the second amendment garnered a wide response on Facebook. Most of it was from people who are rabidly pro-gun.

What’s kind of fascinating about the experience is that I had forgotten there were a wide number of people in the country itself who are so adamantly pro-gun. I knew there were corporations in favor of gun proliferation, and politicians bought off by the NRA. But the thing we often forget about the NRA is that it has a wide membership. Since my wife left me five years ago, I had lost touch with my last real bastion of gun ownership in my day-to-day life, that being her family who had an arsenal in the basement and regularly went to the shooting range as a Sunday outing. It was easy to get lost in my own Facebook echo-chamber in the wake of mass shootings and believe that it really is only politicians and corporations who are fueling these disasters.

I really shouldn’t have been as surprised by the reaction as I turned out to be. Like all people trying to promote content on the Internet, I chose an attention-grabbing headline and a controversial picture and blurb. I wanted the experience of seeing the post to be dramatic since I see this as a dramatic issue. And I know, deep down, that Donald Trump is highly likely to win the Republican nomination, arguing against folks who for months have said he’s a flash-in-the-pan and even now maintain that the flash is six or seven months, but certainly not the eighteen he needs to be President.

Who do I think is voting for Donald Trump if not rabid gun-nuts?

That said, there were some really interesting interactions. I had several back-and-forth threads with some of the more articulate gunners which ended in a conclusion of begrudging mutual respect that we’d each argued our positions well and kept things civil. A couple of people for banning the second amendment valiantly did battle with the gunners, but it mostly ended in name-calling. There was, incidentally, an unbelievable lack of accurate spelling almost across the board.

I tell everyone I discuss the subject with that I deeply love Facebook. While I regret its impact of filtering the previously wide-open Internet into one primarily used portal of information, this is vastly outweighed by the contact it engenders between people. I love that I can post an open-ended crowd-source poll on income inequality and generate a thoughtful discussion between twenty different people, many of whom never met each other. I love that thirty people will respond to my random question about which month most symbolizes winter to them. I love the randomness and the sense of loose affiliation we all have.

And I’ve never really found the critiques of Facebook to be all that compelling. Especially when the main one is about artificial presentations of happiness. Though I recognize that I, perhaps somewhat uniquely, really don’t mind expressing frustration, depression, or despair on Facebook. But if others are more inhibited there, then doesn’t Facebook just reflect how they’d be in other public settings? Which I guess brings me to the issue that I’ve learned from this run-in with gunners: garbage in, garbage out. Maybe the only reason I like Facebook is because I like my friends and they are easy to deal with. There are even some pro-gun folks among my Facebook friends, many of them from the five years I spent in rural Oregon in my childhood or from the West Point debate team. But because we have the bond of friendship, we are able to be respectful in a way that many of the gunners were not yesterday.

So perhaps the critique of Facebook, like so much of the Internet, as a siloing echo-chamber, is valid. Most every algorithm that the primary holders of the Internet, be they Facebook, Google, or Apple, have developed in the last half-decade has been designed to customize our Internet experience to be more reflective of what we already believe. What we want, what we think, what we feel is just shot back at us in search results, the friends whose posts get bumped higher in our feed, and the ads we see. And much of it is, ultimately, about advertising. People want to customize and tailor advertising to get precisely in our head, to be as close to intercepting our inner monologue as possible in order to understand exactly how to sell us goods and services. This little capitalist worm that infects everything has inspired the tailoring, but it is probably not the only thing that drives it. Certainly we are comfort-seeking beings, no matter how much harm being comfortable ultimately does us. And it’s comfortable to wrap ourselves in a cocoon where only the like-minded surround us.

The problem is, of course, that there aren’t ground-rules for debating on the Internet, so it’s not possible to learn quite as much from Facebook comments like “With such a outrageous statement for a title no sane person will even read your article …. If the title is bullshit your article most likely is to!” or “Blue Pyramid sounds like the name of a Butt Plug…” or even just the classic “STFU” as I might from, say, a 45-minute ordered discussion on the topic. But maybe I’ve been spoiled by decades of formal debate experience. Maybe it’s good to just get down in the mud and wrassle with folks who spew invective in lieu of argumentation.

I guess I’ll close with the most popular article I saw yesterday from my actual Facebook friends, who were not the folks commenting at length on my Blue Pyramid post. The title was Your opinion on gun control doesn’t matter. And I think that kind of sums up where we stand at the ideological divide here in the United States in 2015. People just don’t think the other person’s opinion matters. They will rarely engage with it or interact in any real way. They will rarely regard it as something to be considered. They will simply hold their opinion and observe that the other person’s doesn’t matter.

And look, I’m not holding myself outside of this in some way. I have strong, firmly held beliefs that rarely change. My goal when I talk to others is usually to persuade. As a lifelong student of persuasion, I see that as core to my purpose here.

But at a certain point, I wonder how we’re going to rebuild bridges of discourse when everyone is getting swallowed up into their own cocoons and bubbles and silos. For all the world’s burgeoning connections, we seem to be building just as many walls.

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Pancakes Make Me Hungrier

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,

I know they look like food.  But in my experience, they are a pill to make you want more food.

I know they look like food. But in my experience, they are a pill to make you want more food.

That term: “pancakes make me hungrier” appears nowhere on the Internet as a phrase. Until now.

I had pancakes for breakfast yesterday, the second time in about a week, at a place that New Orleanians seem to adore called the Ruby Slipper. It’s a brunch place, but doing brunch all the time, and breakfast is normally my thing. It’s also the closest breakfast place to my work, which is convenient on mornings when Alex has to drop me off at 6:55 AM because she needs the car that day. I’ve been regularly opening my office at around 7:45 after having breakfast – going in at 7:00 foodless would be doubly problematic. So it’s the Ruby Slipper for me, so named to honor those who returned to NOLA post-Katrina because (you guessed it) there’s no place like home! It’s a neat place.

The problem is that I’ve been rolling around the menu, a very rare habit for me (I’m the find one thing I like to eat and stick with it type) in the quest for my one thing at Ruby. The quest is made difficult by the fact that most things come with breakfast meats and the only reasonable substitution is usually potatoes and the potatoes at Ruby are just not my thing. Which is crazy for two reasons – 1. potatoes are always my thing and 2. the potatoes are too burnt. Two wouldn’t be a crazy thing for anything else, but “too burnt” isn’t really in my vocabulary as an eater. I always want things crispy and overdone and burnt, especially bread and potatoes. Honestly, if they were hashbrowns, they’d be perfect, but instead they are these charred little nuggets of homefries that honestly seem like someone took day-old homefries and stuck them in the fryer for an hour. They just taste like char. I dunno, maybe it’s a Southern thing.

Well last Thursday, I landed on my one thing at Ruby. The full stack of pancakes with fresh fruit. They’re filling and delicious and fresh and sweet and everything you want from a pancake. Even crispy on the edges! And they’re cheaper than a lot of the menu and the fruit-for-meat substitution is already a given option (I often get tired of always asking for exceptions) and there are no little burnt nuggets of potato to have to push around the plate. And I only let a tiny bit of me worry about what would happen to my stomach long-term with that much pancake in it.

I should have been more concerned. Right on cue, around noon, the bottom fell out of my stomach and I started getting ravenously hungry. There is a type of hungry I get occasionally, and got much more often when I was younger, that makes me feel like I’ve become a diabetic overnight. I call it “panic hunger” and it involves a cold sweat, an immediate need to eat, a craving for bread products specifically, and extremely sudden onset of the hunger. I’ve experienced it enough (say, 50ish times) in my life to be able to identify its taxonomy and traits so that its sudden hitting doesn’t actually make me panic anymore. The protocol in my late youth and early adulthood for this was to go to the kitchen (it disproportionately hits late at night), eat two slices of bread, put two more in the toaster, eat the toast, and then eat two more slices of bread. As fast as I physically could consume all that. Only by slice #6 does the panic start to subside and then I just wait for all the other bread to hit my stomach like the filler it’s designed to be.

But I was on a work call on Thursday when this started happening and I was quickly losing the ability to functionally respond or be a person. And I had to walk a mile to get to a purveyor of bread, Panera. By the time I got there, I ate a grilled cheese sandwich, asiago cheese bagel, cinnamon roll, and tomato soup in minutes.

Pancakes are one of two foods I’ve identified in my life that usually, and definitely increasingly, cause this or a similar level of sudden hunger relatively shortly after their consumption. The other food, which behaves almost exactly the same way, is injera, the spongy bread that is served with Ethiopian food. If you think about it, pancakes and injera are pretty similar foods, with lot of air-holes in the middle and that same general fluffy texture. For some reason the heavier utthapam, the South Indian savory discs often described as pancakes, don’t seem to elicit the same reaction.

This is problematic because 1. I love pancakes and injera and 2. I can’t seem to find anyone else who has this issue to be able to relate to it. For years, every meal of pancakes or Ethiopian shared with someone has prompted me to discuss how these foods make me hungrier afterwards and I only get blank looks in return. Injera specifically is noted on the Internet and personal testimony for its filling nature. Injera works so quickly on my stomach that I have joked that I could literally eat infinite injera for the rest of my life because Ethiopian meals are usually leisurely enough that I’ve started to get hungry again by the time we’re wrapping up the meal – I’m the guy who orders another small entree and another plate full of injera in hour two, or used to until I realized it could be an infinite loop.

A quick Google search for “pancakes make me hungry” yields 14,600 results, but almost all of them are people writing salivating comments on foodies’ Instagrams about how their fresh-made hotcakes are making them yearn to eat. And, as mentioned up top, changing that last word to hungrier yields a phrase that, until Google indexes this post, doesn’t exist on the Internet. Am I the only person in the world that feels this way about pancakes and injera??

It would feel less isolating if it were just a feeling, although part of that is a testament to how we belittle feelings in our society while making the body of paramount concern. But it’s a physical reaction that I can’t control. Granted, my behavior around food is typically unique – no one else agrees with me that food can never be “too dry”, for example – but this is actually just a type of food affecting my physiology in the opposite way it affects everyone else’s. It seems troubling. There should be at least one other person out there who experiences this!

The best explanation I can come up with for this physical reality (remember that I’m not much of a sciencey guy, so if this is laughably wrong, go easy on me) is that these spongy breads are designed to absorb water. Just look at how quickly pancakes drink up any syrup you add to them. And at any given time, because I’m a constant water-drinker, a ton of my stomach’s contents are water. And that water, as water does, gives me an artificially inflated sense of being full. In comes the pancakes/injera and it sops up all the water very quickly, draining my stomach of its normal contents. Enter the panic-hunger.

This process seems to make sense physically and certainly works with the given timelines – it’s not like I’m hungry 5 minutes after eating pancakes. The average time for pancakes is probably about 3 hours or so and injera closer to 2. Which seems like a reasonable time for the given food to travel to the stomach and start soaking up all the water it can find. I’m not sure that explains why the hunger, once the requisite time has passed, is so sudden and so extreme, but it’s the start of a theory. And I guess it explains my uniqueness with this phenomenon – I probably drink more water than most others.

That said, the main impetus for writing this post was to find the other person(s) who feel this way. It is just crazy that no one has imprinted our web with the words “pancakes make me hungrier” until now. Or “injera makes me hungrier” (also unprecedented). Where are you, people? Have you figured out this phenomenon for yourselves? What’s your work-around? Or have you just given up on those foods unless you’re trying to jump wrestling weight-classes?

Inquiring stomachs want to know.

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Revisionist History

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Call and Response, Know When to Fold 'Em, Metablogging, Primary Sources, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Think of the past as a mirror...

Think of the past as a mirror…

From time to time during the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve added new categories for indexing the various kinds of posts one sees on this page. I’ve long eschewed the notion of a specialized blogging pursuit, such as focusing only on the Mariners or on my statistical analyses of the flaws of the stock market or on periodic stints of writing a weekdaily webcomic. It’s likely that choosing any one of these as a singular path would yield greater readership, or at least more strangers reading since they could come to that page specifically for one pursuit or interest. Instead, StoreyTelling ends up being about all of these things and a lot more and really only offers the category/tag clicks as a way of sorting out the kind of content a given reader might be most interested in.

The problem with that, of course, is that the nature of my interests and their specificity can change over time and these categories can then fail to be fully representative of their content. I think the best example of this phenomenon is in the Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading category, which has come to include everything from actual voting in American political campaigns to any major story covered by the news to individual myopia to the plight of others to any matter of international concern. This broad brush isn’t all that surprising given that I probably think every one of my posts is political in some way (small-p political) and I have been known to say that all art is political. What exactly politics means is contextual and thus that category is my third most-used, behind Duck and Cover (740 posts, almost all of which are just blog-displays of the comic) and A Day in the Life (621 posts, as my default for just about any written post). But it also means that the category starts to lose its meaning when it discusses such a wide range of topics.

The solution to this would seem to be to subdivide the categories, to try to divide international relations from American politics from commentaries on more tangentially political issues. I guess this is why categories and tags exist as separate entities, though I’ve only used them interchangeably herein. The problem is that any effort to recategorize past posts interferes with one of the cardinal rules of this whole project for me: namely, to not revise or edit past posts. Now, it’s certainly debatable to what extent adding or dropping or specifying categories/tags is really changing the context of a post, and it’s a question I struggle with. Categories like Strangers on a Train or It’s the Stupid Economy were created after a few posts in those directions made it clear that such a unique category was necessary, or at least a good idea. But then the question immediately arises of whether to back-categorize other posts that fall into the genre but predate the actual creation of that category. Does this somehow interfere with the nature of this blog as a time capsule of the person I was in the past, of my perspective, or the authenticity of those observations? Or does it just make it easier for people to find posts they might like?

I think, as is so often the case, the purposes of this blog for myself and for others wind up at a bit of cross-purposes. If this blog were primarily/only for readers, it would likely be trivial to just go back and try to recategorize. Granted that scouring 1,384 posts (though half are just D&Cs, so maybe we can exclude those) for possible re-examination of content through the lens of later-created categories is a big project. But it might be fun to go through everything and re-examine, as I periodically attempt to do anyway. This, after all, gives me the opportunity to use this blog as one of the tools that I prefer it to be, as an educator about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and hopefully how I can screw things up less in the future. But once I’ve altered those categories, I’m saying something just a little bit different from what I said at the time. And then it seems an easy addition to fix typos. And then it’s all too easy to start trying to justify taking out that particularly immature statement, or that awkward phrase, and soon we’ve lost the document’s integrity altogether.

Now, look, I know the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. That said, I also know that almost every road to evil or mistakes is paved in sequential tiny jumps that each make sense in the micro-view and end up becoming a horrible leap downward in the macro-view. I’ve periodically discussed this under the ungainly appellation of the A to B, B to C, C to D Problem. No one would ever go from A to D directly and to consider D from the vantage of A would be absurd. But A to B is just enough of a little compromise/sacrifice/change/jump. And then from the new vantage of B, once adjusted, C doesn’t look nearly so far away as it did before – it’s just as far as A! And so on.

I honestly think it’s hard to explain anything we find regrettable in human history that was caused by sentient thought that doesn’t conform to some version of this progression. This is part of why I don’t really believe that there are evil people. There are a whole bunch of fallible, possibly selfish, but largely well-intentioned people who get caught on these roads and make little hops all the way to really disastrous decisions.

In any case, I care a lot about the integrity of this body of work, combined with the previous blog and even the Waltham Weeklies and other saved documents before that. Because as long as I leave them untouched, they aren’t subject to the kind of revisionist history that our memory naturally is. I have a pretty darn good memory as these things go, with multiple distinct and powerful memories from before my fourth birthday, which I’m told is relatively rare.* But as debates like those sparked in my family about whether I saw E.T. or Tron first prove, my memory is imperfect, or my parent’s memories are. I firmly remember a certain order of events and my parents recall another. And these memories are important for us in shaping our view of the past on which we base our notion of both the present and the future. But there is a truth of the matter. The memory is serving a different purpose than the absolute truth about what happened. And I have a bit of a bias toward the truth as I think it’s a little more stable and informative.

That said, there’s really no way to make memories conform wholly to the truth, or at least not to be damaged by the end results. Obvious example: my marriage. How I felt about my marriage before Emily cheated on me and left me is wholly different than how I felt about it afterwards. But the fact of the experience at the time remains unchanged. In memory, there is no possible way to recall a particular anniversary dinner or a shared moment or some sacrifice she made for me outside of the context of her ultimate betrayal. There is no possible way for me to just envision that pure memory without the tarnish that time and subsequent events put on it. And yet, the actual event was the pure version, without the eventual damage of future events. As a temporal extant being who must constantly remember the past through the new lens of the ever-changing present, that event is fundamentally lost to me, its context forever altered. But with this blog, I can at least read my actual reporting on the event from the precise time it happened and get the most accurate possible rendition of how I truly felt about it at the time, unspoiled by the knowledge of the future.

I think, for what it’s worth, this is what makes betrayal, especially romantic betrayal, so fundamentally devastating. Because it takes all your good memories, all the little buoys of confidence and hope that get us through the tough days, and spoils them. No matter what the actual content of their validity was at the time, they are not only lost, but actively ruined, turned against you to now be little taunts of what you didn’t have. Even if you, in a sense did have them, at the time. This is why I was able to seriously say things like maybe it would have been better had I died in the October 2009 car accident (scroll down to the italicized postscript in that post) after Emily left me – because then I would have died with all those good times intact and unspoiled in perpetuity. As the Smiths put it, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” This is not just about the joy of a particular moment; it is about the knowledge that this moment will never be so great in the long-term future as it feels right now. The course of events will destroy it.

Now, there is no illusion that this blog, merely by existing here as unaltered testament to the daily updates of a temporally changing being, can actually capture and preserve that magic wholly in a way that is meaningfully useful to combat the damage of, say, betrayal or loss. Because even in reading about the past, no matter how pure or unadulterated the past’s testimony is, the overly introspective ruminative person (that’s me!) will find clues that were never there.

Prime, recent example: in looking for a particular nugget of past testimony in my blog sometime last week, I started reading various posts from the past, as I often do. It’s like getting to hang out with my past self, a close but sometimes annoying friend. And then I discovered, to my absolute horror, that my post about my plans for the summer of 2010 was entitled, by my own choosing, April Come She Will. In the context of my choice at the time, it was innocuous. The post was dated 6 April and I talked about the inevitability of April and how the month often troubles me. But in the context of how that summer unfolded, well, here are the lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song which shares a title with that post:

April, come she will
when streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
in restless walks, she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
and give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
the autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September, I remember
a love once new has now grown old

Now, I don’t need to go through a full blow-by-blow of the events of those months in 2010 to demonstrate just how chilling this discovery was to me. After all, you can go read the archives of those months on this page! Isn’t that the whole point? Suffice it to say that this could be a chronicle of the critical months that ended my marriage, down to July being the time of betrayal after an unhappy and searching June for Emily in Liberia, yielding to her cruel indifference in August and everything being over in September. I mean, this could’ve been a poem I wrote about the experience. And I know that this is about a trivial love affair that starts in that same April and is over by summer’s end and I know that I’ve been listening to this song since I was thirteen, but this is exactly the kind of experience that prompted me to spend a fevered day in senior year running around telling all of my friends that we have the key but we just don’t know how to use it. And when they asked me what the hell I was talking about, I just said, in hushed reverent and slightly goggle-eyed tones, that it was “the key“.

What I was talking about, then, was that PLB had told me a story in the midst of our relationship about her father’s first marriage and how his first wife had gone crazy on their wedding night and had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t handle the commitment or the situation and basically disappeared and that it broke her father’s heart and made him kind of a sad, distant person. We were doing a close reading of either Conrad or Kafka in AP English and something in the work triggered the memory of this story and I came to see it as a parable, a warning she was giving me, that had about as much truth-content as her average statement. (Full disclosure: I have no idea whatsoever if this story was entirely true, entirely made up, or some mixture.) At that moment, I felt that this was the one glaring clue she had given me that she was in over her head, was crazy, and that our relationship was doomed.

Now, talk about your revisionist history! It’s probably just as nuts to believe that this was her deliberate warning as it is to believe that I knew the next six months of my life would mirror a Simon & Garfunkel song on 6 April 2010. But doggone it, this stuff gives me the shivers. You can call it irrational pattern-seeking if you want, you can call it confirmation bias, you can call it the deliberate and willful search for something that isn’t there. But I will never be able to see these things without the feeling that there is a deeper code to be cracked in all of this, that things are more embedded that we can imagine. Or, to quote the Doctor Who episode I saw last night:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
-The Doctor, Doctor Who, Season 3 of the new reboot, “Blink” episode

How else to explain that I actively try to send my past self psychic messages about the outcome of certain hands at the poker table to be received by my previous self? Or that I sometimes feel I receive those messages? I rarely trust these messages, especially when they are about subpar hands, but the messages of certain strong feelings have a scarily remarkable track-record of being right. And this practice definitely predates poker and probably goes back to a deeply embedded series of beliefs that most people would consider “magical thinking” to be polite and “crazy” to be realistic. And, mind you, no one has been less successfully psychic than me. I still dated PLB, still married Emily, still hired Baia. No wonder I’m obsessed with trying to beat the future.

No, this isn’t all just about having some perfect script of the past to serve as a blueprint for some mosaic of the future, though that’s not none of it either. But the preservation of the perfections, oddities, insights, and tribulations of the unadorned past still feels like the single most meaningful aspect of the project of blogging. And why it will probably be just a little bit harder for you to navigate to the type of content you personally most want to see. As though I didn’t make it hard enough by calling a category that most would label simply Music as “All the Poets Became Rock Stars”. Or by choosing, it would appear, nine categories for this post. Maybe, future self, I just want you to read it. (But not “Read it and Weep”. That’s the Books category.)


*Which reminds me, as a total sidenote, that it just occurred to me how crazy it is that I remember seeing both E.T. and Tron in theaters at a little younger than 2.5 years old. These may even predate my near-drowning experience in swim class that I have always classified as my earliest memory. I’m sure my Dad can weigh in, especially after he rebutted my Ms. Pac Man-post‘s discussion of those two movies with the following:

“The first point about Tron was that it was a DISNEY movie. I grew up loving the Walt Disney movies, the color (not black & white), the animation (though not all were animated). My first drive-in movie (in Carson City) was to see a re-release of Dumbo. I saw Bambi (alone in a matinee) on a big screen one block away from the White House in 1957 in Washington. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in Carson), Another film at the drive-in was Old Yeller, about when I got my dog “Jamie”. Pinnochio and Cinderella were seen several times, my mother loved Fantasia, so I endured that movie (once), but I found the Bald Mountain sequence very scary (like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz).

The 70’s and early 80’s were a bad time for movies. Bigger theaters were broken up to create small rooms with small screens (for small audiences). Then they started building “multi-screen” places (not really real theaters), like where ET was shown, out on south Mooney (in Visalia). I generally hated the “small room” mall type movie experience. I loved (best) the movie “Palaces”, like the Grand Lake in Oakland, or the older (depression, WPA mural, type theaters, like the Kimo in Albuquerque and the old original movie house in downtown Visalia. [Note: In many cities in the US West the only place the WPA Arts Project was visible was in the murals painted on the walls (for free) by WPA artists. Often, this WPA art was both the biggest art (and the best) anywhere in town. In time, most WPA movie murals were painted over. Now, most WPA era movie theaters are torn down, converted, or closed. There seem to be NO articles about the movie murals on the web, just modern day full wall posters that date (in concept) from the WPA Art period that still was very alive in the 1950’s.]

Anyway, Mom and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, in San Jose (actually in a theater in Sunnyvale or Mountain View) the first time you were “babysat” while living in San Jose. Raiders (July 1981) was not as scary as Star Wars (Darth Vader), but still had a few scary (for children) scenes. I can’t recall any other movie that your mother and I saw until I took you to Tron (Mom, then as now, was not interested and didn’t go). I worked for cable (afternoons, evenings and nights). We bought the RCA discs, mostly Disney movies (Mary Poppins, Dumbo) and Seseme Street and Muppets. Had the (new) Disney Channel on TV.

So, Tron was a DISNEY MOVIE, playing at an old WPA real theater downtown, that had a balcony (just to be safe).

I re-saw Fantasia in an old WPA theater in Berkeley (California Theater, about 1971, before it was broken up), because “everyone else” in the group wanted to see it. It was crowded, so we ended up in the balcony seating. The Night on Bald Mountain scene wasn’t nearly as scary sitting ABOVE Bald Mountain.

We sat in the balcony, in Visalia (at the Visalia Fox Theater), when we went and saw Tron. It was the furthest left re-screen configuration, based on the left side entrance to the balcony seating. The theater was old and fairly shabby then, not impressive. I don’t think I ever went back. Also, for a “cherished” Disney film experience I found Tron very boring and I was very worried you didn’t (wouldn’t) like it, and might not ever want to go to another “real movie” again. I guess I was wrong.

Anyway, Mom had heard good things about ET from other parents. She thought it might be a better movie “for kids”, maybe you, more exciting, better plot. I was more concerned about the “alien” (sci-fi), Star Wars angle. I almost said, after the failure of Tron, “let’s not go.” But “Disney had failed me,” so why not try something new, out in a new theater on Mooney. On Mooney, we sat on the floor (floor level seating), the theater was crowded, unlike an almost empty Tron theater experience. The whole thing WAS scary, even for me.”

-E-Mail from Donald Clayton, 8 December 2014

I love my Dad. You can see I come by this obsession with the past, memory, and context pretty honestly.

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Why No One is Voting

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Get it?

Get it?

Turns out my Facebook feed is the exception. No one is voting in the United States. According to the New York Times, the elections earlier this month set a 72-year low for voter turnout, with 36.3% voting. (For context, Catalonia’s recent non-binding independence vote was widely disregarded as totally irrelevant because it garnered only 41.6% turnout.) The NYT excoriated this turnout in its Veteran’s Day editorial, concluding somewhat baselessly that “The reasons are apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns.”

Now I agree that the turnout is appallingly low. However, blaming negative ads is only a small part of the picture as to why voting seems utterly irrelevant to people these days. The much larger issue, which may be what they mean by “apathy [and] anger”, is that there are no real choices being offered in the elections. The two major parties are increasingly indistinguishable and care about their own careers and self-preservation far more than any sort of issue or agenda. And most people have been beaten into the belief that third-parties are irrelevant and a waste. So you know what saves you from all this frustration? Just not voting.

After all, as a Princeton study concluded earlier this year, the United States is no longer really a democracy. For all our self-aggrandizing hype about the principles this country was founded on, we no longer adhere to anything like a recognizable government of the people. So-called “special interests” are really the only interests that lawmakers find relevant and the only policies worth pursuing for all but a tiny handful are those which pave the path to further re-election.

There are manifold and complex proofs available of this reality. I already discussed last week how the referenda that passed in red states demonstrate a far more progressive electorate than is reflected in the Republican landslide. But most people are not thinking about going to the polls to support state-wide initiatives, so turnout remains low. Although, while the NYT editorial tries to draw a link between ballot access (e.g. vote-by-mail and other turnout-improving efforts) and turnout, there seems to be a stronger link between major initiatives and turnout.

Only seven states (Maine, Wisconsin, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, and Iowa) had turnout over 50%. Of them, three had huge, widely publicized statewide ballot initiatives. Oregon was voting on marijuana legalization (plus six other referenda), Colorado on a so-called personhood amendment (plus three other referenda), and Alaska on both marijuana and raising the minimum wage (plus an additional referendum). Maine had seven initiative referenda on the ballot, although six of them were standard-issue bonds and one was about (no kidding) bear hunting. Wisconsin had just one question, about creating a transportation fund. And, admittedly, the last two, Minnesota and Iowa had no referenda.

But South Dakota (10th in turnout, 44.6%) had 3 referenda, including the minimum wage question. North Dakota (12th, 44.1%) had 8 and Louisiana (13th, 43.9%) a whopping 14. Meanwhile, the seven states in turnout below 30% (Indiana, Texas, Utah, New York, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) averaged 2.1 referenda each, below the national average of 2.9. And none of them were particularly major or significant.

There’s certainly some correlation here, but I’ll admit it’s not an open-and-shut case. After all, there’s Minnesota and Iowa near the top of the charts with no referenda, plus New Hampshire (11th, 48.8%) with 0. Major referenda will definitely bring people out to the polls, but it doesn’t seem to be the only driver of voting interest. So what’s going on in these other states?

Let’s start with Maine, because it’s at the top of the charts. And while, yes, bear hunting is a pivotal issue and bond issues are always popular, the seven referenda here are a little weak in content compared to the hefty measures passed by Alaska and Oregon. Well the additional thing that stands out about Maine is that 8.4% of its gubernatorial vote went to an Independent, third only to Alaska (3rd, 55.3%, 3 referenda) and Wyoming (27th, 39.1%, 1 referendum), who split 8.6% of the vote among two third-party candidates. Alaska elected an Independent as Governor with 48.1%; an additional 5.5% went to even fringier Independent candidates. 4.7% went Independent in Colorado’s Governor race, 5.5% in Oregon, 5.4% in Minnesota, and 3.6% in Iowa.

Among those voting for Senate as well, the numbers are high for third-parties and Independents in the high-turnout states as well. While Maine didn’t have any third-party candidates, Alaska went 5.6% third-party, Colorado 5.5%, Oregon 6.8%, Minnesota 3.9%, and Iowa 4.1%. So there seems to be a decent correlation between strong independent voting and turnout, especially where it’s combined with referenda.

The big exceptions to this that stand out are Wisconsin (2nd, 56.9%, 1 referendum) and New Hampshire. Wisconsin notched just 1.2% for two third-party candidates in the gubernatorial race and didn’t run a Senate campaign. Granted, Wisconsin’s Governor race was perhaps the most talked-about in the nation with embattled and controversial incumbent Scott Walker defending his office. And New Hampshire had 0% for third parties (do they ban them from running in the general election?) in both their Governor and Senate races. But to be fair, they had both of those races and among the closest races across the nation in both, with the margins of each election below 5%. So their turnout seems explicable, if not following reasons for high turnout in other states. After all, Indiana (50th, 28.0%) had no state-wide offices on the ballot, nor any referenda.

So people like statewide referenda on major issues, they like third parties, and they like close races that seem to matter. Which helps explain why turnout is so low when the main thing we get to vote on every two years is our local representative in the 435-seat House of Representatives. This is the body that composes half of Congress, which is running at around 11% popularity in this country. And yet 96.4% of House incumbents were re-elected.

There was even a meme about this:

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

Politifact fact-checked this on Veteran’s Day (apparently that was the day to do political analysis this year) and found the claims largely true, even if Congress’ approval ratings might have surged to 14% just before the election. The re-election rate in the House appears to be even higher, at 96.6%.

This points to a well-known phenomenon that everyone hates the House in general, but kind of loves their representative. Something that I just learned has been dubbed Fenno’s paradox, for the original coiner in 1978. The main reason for this, obviously, is intensely gerrymandered districts that are shaped like all manner of absurdity in order to make safe districts for the major parties. These districts destroy voter interest because it’s a foregone conclusion who will win, incidentally making it easier for corporations in those districts to give to only one candidate because they know who’ll take the race. And in the two-party-or-bust belief structure, Democratic districts still like checking the D-box and Republican districts the R-box. After all, straight-party voting is still a literal time-saving checkbox in many states.

A secondary reason well below gerrymandering probably has to do with pork-barreling, that people remember the project that their Congressperson brought home to their district, like a manufacturing contract or a military base. This of course relies on the idea that voters are paying attention to the fine print of Congressional bills which is not bloody likely. But admittedly this is probably part of a re-election flyer that some House members mail out using their free-mail privilege from DC, so it probably influences some people.

Confoundingly, this is the New York Times’ solution in the wake of all this information about disastrously low turnout:

Showing up at the polls is the best way to counter the oversized influence of wealthy special interests, who dominate politics as never before. But to encourage participation, politicians need to stop suppressing the vote, make the process of voting as easy as possible, and run campaigns that stand for something.

The first sentence is one of the most willfully unaware statements I have ever read in American print. Yes, wealthy special interests dominate politics as never before. But what on Earth is showing up going to do to combat that? Unless an army of non-voters decide to show up and all support the same third-party candidate, no amount of voting is going to overturn special interests’ chokehold on American government. Both parties have been bought and paid for. Special interests donate extensively to both parties. If you show up to the polls with the intent to beat back special interests and then pull the lever for either a Democrat or a Republican, you’re just kidding yourself.

The second sentence is more tolerable, if a bit trite. Yes, voter suppression (by definition) lowers turnout. And making voting easier is a good idea, though we’re still a long way from people making Election Day a national holiday or anything like that which would actually help. But there’s something really insidious in that last part of the sentence. “campaigns that stand for something.” This is not the problem. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign stood for all sorts of things (and, notably, drove voter turnout way up). But his Presidency has stood for the exact opposite, most notably in continuing and expanding the most draconian of Bush militarism and deportation. So I guess the NYT is kind of right, that campaigns that make claims get people in the voting booth. But that seems like less than half the battle. The issue is having politicians who make their time in office stand for something, and that something being beyond what special interests want.

I don’t really think anything can save the American “democracy” at this point, realistically, which is why I think most people aren’t voting. But if you want to make recommendations for what will help, it seems more efforts at direct democracy through ballot initiatives that bypass elected officials are good. Stronger third-party candidates that people take seriously are good (can’t stress enough that Maine and Alaska were #1 and #3 in turnout, both above 55%, and both had their gubernatorial vote swung [or won] by an Independent). And making races close and contested helps.

There’s really not much point in increasing ballot access if the only people they’re going to vote for are the same major party candidates that have already been bought by a power with much more influence than the mere voter.

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Engaging Alex Zhao on the Irrationality of Atheism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Hypothetically Speaking, Tags: , ,

Alex Zhao, former debater from the University of Chicago, was the first to take up the mantle of refuting yesterday’s post on what I would (and did) call the irrationality of atheism. So consider this part two of what may be a series. I will not reprint the response in full, since you can read it here. But I will engage with the bulk of his argumentation and sometimes quote it.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture!  Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture! Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Zhao (as I will refer to him hereinafter, since half of APDA’s alumni are named Alex and most people online call him Zhao anyway) makes three fundamental arguments:
(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe

Let’s take them in turn.

(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
This is the argument I probably find most frustrating from Zhao. He is basically asking me to put forward an entire holistic theology in a blog post that engages with the idea that people ought not be sneering knee-jerk atheists who believe that their perspective is more rational than that of believers. I would love to do this and it is in fact one of my five to seven outstanding book projects that I am toying with working on. However, it is a book and not a blog post and would probably be the product of at least three to six months of diligent work. So I’m sorry that I cannot fully flesh out the God that I see evidence for in our universe, which we can both refer to rigidly as the Benevolently Sorrowful God (BSG, if you like) that I referenced last time.

Zhao extra-frustratingly goes on to try to pigeonhole me into some version of the Christian God because I didn’t say “Allah” and I didn’t call God unnameable, about which conceptual frustrations I have recently posted. Let me be clear: I do not believe in the Christian depiction of God or the divinity of Jesus, etc. I do not privilege those versions of God. I believe that the entire point of God is to have a personal relationship with God that most organized religions seem to tacitly or overtly interfere with. Again, my entire definition of God is a book at least, maybe a series. It’s something I think deeply and thoroughly about, but have not crystallized all of my thinking about into a readable version, yet.

So let’s give Zhao some credit with his frustration and say I should make more of an effort to define terms. I will acquiesce to a standard tri-omni God because it gives us something to talk about and is pretty approximately close to what I believe. And here Zhao’s refutation is interesting and meaningful, because he extrapolates my argument to say that a “higher power” running a simulation including us could include “Vulcans from Star Trek” or “Jedi’s from Star Trek” [sic] and so on. Fair enough. My argument may be equally good for Vulcans and for God. But here’s the thing: if our universe is created by an entity that controls everything therein, it is meaningfully synchronous with the concept we attribute to God relative to our own existence. Nothing, for example, prevents there from being a nested series of universes and Gods that control subsequent universes by (a) creating them, (b) overseeing them, and (c) possibly judging them in any number of conceivable ways. Now we can have theological arguments about where that puts us vis a vis this God concept, but an entity that creates and oversees our entire universe looks a lot more like God than it does like atheism, logically speaking.

Even Zhao himself says: “It may perhaps be reasonable to leap from these two premises to a higher power: it does not therefore follow that Storey’s god exists.”

Again, my argument here is that you should be open, logically, to the idea of God. I’m not trying to convert you to the BSG or my vision of God – that would be what my future book would be for. If you’re willing to concede that there’s a higher power that could have created the universe, then much of my work is done.

Which brings us to:

(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
This is easily dispatched. Zhao simply restates that simulation is a hypothesis, not a theory, and that as such it has not gained universal traction among scientists, is speculative, and may not be true. Sure. I agree. My argument is if/then… if you are willing to seriously entertain the simulation hypothesis, you must also then logically seriously entertain God. If you think the simulation hypothesis is baloney, then this half of the argument is not for you, as I believe I made relatively clear. I still find it weird that the simulation hypothesis is getting so much play in the popular consciousness and no one is circling it back around to God conceptually, which is why I spent a lot of time on this argument. But by all means, I’m aware that the simulation hypothesis has way less traction overall than the Big Bang Theory, which is why I made the latter half of my post too. So:

(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe
This is a critique I’m getting all over the place these days and I find it intellectually insulting, but it seems to be popular for people to throw at anyone’s belief in something that is not science, even though science starts out with a premise and then tests those results, just like any other belief pattern. It just feels like this cynical cop-out that people paste onto anyone believing differently than they do: you must want to believe so much that you find patterns that aren’t there and only take the evidence you want to take! (This recently came up in a discussion of the merit of Myers-Briggs tests on Facebook and again my experience was just labelled as something that must be confirmation bias. By this logic, reality is confirmation bias and we should all retreat to solipsism.)

But in the main of this argument, Zhao completely punts my challenge to explain how everything came from nothing in less than a fraction of a second. Instead, he just says “the Big Bang is almost certainly imperfect at this time, and thus probably is a poor basis for belief in a god,” which is a surprisingly humble statement about a Scientific Fact, which I like to see. But if it’s a poor basis for a belief in God, isn’t it also a poor basis for a belief in not-God, or science, or anything else we believe about the universe? People who ardently believe in everything contemporary science tells them do not go around much saying that we poorly understand evolution or genetics or the origins of the universe and thus let’s not worry about the conclusions reached by these beliefs. I would be a lot less defensive and upset with them if they did. Rather, the typical experience is the sneering superiority I referenced before, the underlying idea that “my beliefs are logical and yours are crazy” that inspired the original post’s tone in the first place.

But then Zhao says something interesting:

It would be as if Storey saw a wasp’s nest, realized it was intricately designed, and then demanded to know why people didn’t seriously entertain the possibility that humans made them all as homes for wasps.

But here’s the thing: wasp’s nests are made by some intelligent being! I actually think Zhao has put forward there what I would consider a pretty good argument for vegetarianism (not that a lot of people eat wasps specifically, but you get the idea), which is that wasps have a sophisticated intelligence capable of creativity. This does nothing to propound the idea that there are things which were made by nothing intelligent. It merely says one type of intelligence created something rather than another. Okay, fair enough. The fundamental premise is sound.

But that’s not even the main point – I do believe that many things about the design of the universe, most specifically that there are fundamental, discoverable, and provable laws that remain consistent throughout time and space (y’know, science) that indicate intelligence and forethought behind them. No matter. That’s not the essence of the issue here. My issue is another if/then: if you believe in the Big Bang, then it indicates God far more than not-God. There is nothing we find anywhere else in the universe or the world of science where all-matter is instantly created from no-matter. This description is very much like the description of God creating things and very much unlike any description found in the rest of science. If science’s best working description for the origin of the universe is that all-matter instantly came from no-matter, doesn’t that seem to imply a creation of some type? And if not, why/how did it happen? Zhao makes no effort to engage with the fundamental question except to say that now he may be doubting the Big Bang because we don’t have all the answers about it yet.

Zhao postscripts that he is an atheist who is open to the possibility of God, which already puts him ahead of a lot of the people I was implicitly refuting in my original post. But he doesn’t really explain anything of what evidence or indications he specifically puts forth to lean toward atheism, just that his holistic judgment is that atheism is more likely than God. Which is fine, because he chooses certain premises to focus on and then draw conclusions from those premises and form his belief set. We all do this, it’s called thinking. But this is a far more humble and nuanced atheism than most scientific atheism, which seems to assert that atheism is Rational and God is Irrational. I will be happy if most people conclude from my post that both are, fundamentally, based on chosen premises and thus not wholly Rational in the way that science/atheism tends to claim. This was my conclusion of my original post. At the end of the day, we are all making choices about what to believe based on decisions to, say, trust our senses or believe what the person next to us is saying. And that puts all beliefs on more or less a parallel footing. The only arguments that we can ever logically make from that are if/then arguments. If premise x is true, then conclusion y follows. And I would posit there is absolutely no irrefutable premise.

So my point in calling atheism irrational is saying that there are premises which most atheists would seem to accept, and the conclusion leans more toward God than atheism, so ardent atheism seems irrational. But an equally important point is that everything we believe is if/then, and your ifs are not necessarily any better than mine. Believing that you don’t have any ifs which are refutable is perhaps the biggest irrationality of all.