Wednesday, November 28, 2007
You too could enjoy a fabulous 3D experience if you go see Beowulf 3D!
If in fact you do go to see Beowulf 3D, you can expect a number of interesting things. First, unlike virtually any other "3D" movie I've ever seen, it's stereoscopic the entire movie. Considering how incredibly distracting it is to have to constantly put glasses on, then take them off, then on again - not to mention the irritating icons that pop up and interrupt the movie to tell you to do so, this is a fabulous improvement. The cool thing about a movie that's entirely in 3D is that eventually you forget about the glasses and just get into the film... until you get a spear shoved in your face! It really screws with your perception when that happens, I'm here to tell ya.
As I'm sure you know, Beowulf is the oldest surviving piece of English literature and is one of the most epic stories imaginable. Naturally, Zemeckis takes some liberties with the story, but considering it's a multi-millennia-old viking epic poem I'm really not going to get bent out of shape about that. For the uninitiated, Beowulf is a mighty warrior who travels with a small group of heroes seeking glory through great battles with monsters and demonstrations of skill. In the saga, as in the film, Beowulf has answered the call of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) to help defeat the disturbing creature called Grendel.
Grendel is a huge beast who for no apparent reason enjoys dismembering people and eating parts of their bodies - especially when good times are being enjoyed by all. It comes as no surprise when Beowulf defeats him (though why he must remove his clothes to do this is a bit of a mystery) and proves himself the worthy hero. Unfortunately - Hrothgar's kingdom is far from out of the proverbial woods. Grendel, though certainly a problem, is nothing compared to his demoness mother... as portrayed (through remarkable motion capture animation technology) by a "close enough to naked for 12 year-old Roger Ebert", Angelina Jolie. Should I be embarrassed that I'm turned on by her slithery tail and high-heeled feet? ...Nah!
This is where the plot (written by one of my personal favorites, Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary) goes on an interesting departure from the saga, but upon some reflection, the twist actually makes a lot of sense - at least if you're a guy.
There are some fine performances by Hopkins and his young wife played by Robin Wright Penn, but as per usz, the most attention grabbing work is done by a slimy, cowardly, but yet somehow not altogether bad John Malkovich as Unferth, Hrothgar's "trusted advisor". Ray Winstone is fine as Beowulf, but let's be honest, the vast majority of his lines are spent either stating his own name or shouting at people... and also grunting. A whole lot of grunting happens too.
If you want a pretty kickass action movie done up in an animation style that unabashedly stomps all over the uncanny valley line - I'd definitely recommend Beowulf 3D. And hey - who doesn't want an illusory spear in the face?!
**(Though I've only seen the 3D version, I have serious doubts that the animation would be particularly enjoyable without the stereoscopic component - the movie was designed for the glasses, so if you do go, spend the extra buck and do the 3D experience.)
I suppose this is the part where I create an arbitrary rating system isn't it? Hmm... ok, I think I've got an idea! Out of a possible 5 reels...
THE MUSIC REVIEW: I'm not going to spend a ton of time on this score because honestly, it wasn't that memorable to me and it's been about 10 days now. Alan Silvestri has worked with Robert Zemeckis for a bazillion years now and they certainly seem to sync up nicely, but this wasn't Silvestri's best work. Now, there's nothing "wrong with it" per se - what emotional scenes were present were certainly appropriately handled, and as always, Silvestri's action writing is ballsy and epic. However, if you were to compare the score for Beowulf up against one of Silvestri's earlier over-the-top epics; Van Helsing, you'd find that the themes are bolder, the orchestration more outrageous and in general the whole scale more epic. In some ways, I think he treated Beowulf more seriously than the story itself really warrants. It may just be one composer's opinion, but I always say - if you're going to go over-the-top, go with gusto!
Arbitrary rating for the music (also out of 5):
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Government representatives and full-time scientist members of the panel first write and approve a rough idea of all the topics to be covered in the specific report to be published. Ostensibly this step is only there so that the report can have a theme, but whenever you write an outline in advance of the data you're researching, you have already committed to a series of assumptions about the data you're going to find. Imagine if I were doing a double blind study of a new cancer treatment and I'd written the outline of my findings prior to even doing the testing? Then I proceed to step two... the cherry-picking stage.
Step 2: Governments, Organizations Nominate Experts
Now that we know what we want to say this is the part where the government officials on the IPCC get to decide which scientists they will be using to make their case. Also... a great opportunity for bias to influence the overall results. We do this all the time as ordinary individuals of course, and I'm fine with that in general, but I don't have the power to force someone else to agree with me whereas the IPCC ultimately will in many ways. So... good times here as well.
Step 3: Bureaucrats pick the specific authors
So - NOW that we've already chosen the group of scientists we'd like to use to support the outline we already wrote for the report, now we should choose the specific scientists we'd like to have author the report itself.
Does anyone else not see a bit of a pattern here? Government officials - non-scientists - have an amazingly large amount of control over the way this report comes out simply by being in control of the level of diversity of opinion represented.
So... Skipping ahead a bit, we find that after one round of purely expert (peer) review - we get a 2nd Draft written by the selected authors...
Step 7: Government & Experts Review Draft
Out of curiosity - why exactly would the governments represented by the IPCC need to verify a scientific report?
Perhaps they need to make sure it conforms to their original outline... Just a thought.
Now, this goes through a few other government review steps, and that's all well and good, but then the government officials on the panel get to write the Policy Summary...
This is what (as I'm sure many have noticed) really chaps my ass. Because at this point, the politicians can monolithically make sweeping recommendations about what new laws to write, new programs to invent and new tariffs & taxes to pay for it.
So, just to review:
1. The policy makers write an outline.
2. The policy makers nominate scientists to write a report based on said outline.
3. The policy makers pick the specific scientists from their pre-selected pool to write the actual text of the sections of the report again based on said outline.
4-5. Draft 1, peer-reviewed (GOOD!)
6-7. Draft 2, government (and peer) reviewed... what!?
8-9. Final draft, government reviewed... what1?X10
10. Panel approves the report and publishes to the world.
And bonus step 11: IPCC gets to make authoritative recommendations of policy.
Anyone ever heard the term "selection bias"? For some strange reason, it keeps popping up in my mind.
Now, to be clear, I don't think the scientists are purposefully doing bad research! I think people who need backing for policy positions are put in a very easy position to generate reports and authority through selecting the people who are likely to represent their views. And just to be sure, they get to write the outline in advance.
Where did I get all this you might ask!?
Oh yes, the IPCC website itself.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Tonight, there's going to be a news segment about "The Great Fast Food Deception".
It's really not going to end is it? The mainstream media and virtually every politician on the planet are absolutely convinced that we are all a bunch of retards, aren't they?
First they tell me that "NO one knew that smoking was bad for their health!" Which might have been true 100 years ago, but considering it's a habit that makes you cough most of the times you use it I kind of doubt even that. Besides which, many studies had shown adverse affects by the 1950's and far more have been written since. But wake up news people! No one who starts smoking in 2007 is "deceived" by Big Tobacco
Now I'm being told that fast food, foie gras, and trans-fats are tricky little deceits too!?
Are you kidding me!? NEWS FLASH: Fatty foods make you fat! How dumb do you people think we are? I don't need any help from the government or from media blowhards to figure out how to count calories or to make sure I go to the gym. And if I don't go to the gym - it's none of their damn business anyway.'
There's really two separate problems here unfortunately...
1. Mainstream media's annoying tendency to condescend and treat us like morons who aren't capable of making our own choices... oh no, everything is some conspiracy assuredly cooked up by "Big Business".
2. Government - which is significantly worse - uses its (unconstitutional) "authority" to force us all to make what they consider to be the right choices about our health and well-being.
Who else is just sick of it? My weight, blood pressure, level of stress, eating habits, exercises routines, whether or not I drink or smoke or do anything else to myself has to do with me and no one else. Furthermore, FREEDOM means nothing if people aren't allowed to make choices other people consider stupid. Perhaps the joy I get from the occasional double bacon-cheeseburger is more valuable to me than the time I'll have to spend at the gym working off the 1000 calories.
Eating right is a great idea... of course it's better for us if we try to stay healthy - but since when did we decide that government and national news reporters can do a better job than we can as individuals knowing what that means?
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Yes... they really do...
Writers barely get paid compared to directors, producers and even actors and quite often, don't even get a share of residual royalties.
That said... Here's a great article explaining the current WGA contract rights:
According to the current union contract, as a WGA writer on a prime-time television series, you would make over $30,823 per episode and an additional 8,634 for each rewrite. Conservatively, (very conservatively!) lets say writers only have to do 1 rewrite per episode, that means they are getting paid $39,457 per episode. A full season of TV is now around 22 episodes... Most shows have teams of writers and not everyone is credited on all the episodes, so generously, lets say this hypothetical writer only gets credit on 17 of the 22.
That's $670,769 for the year! (And that's just for the per episode payments, NOT including their monthly or week-to-week salaries and a whole host of other built in fees, or royalties!)
By contrast... the Median income of the United States is about $50,000.
Soooooooooooo... I don't know about anyone else, but I don't feel that bad for them. Especially considering I'm a highly trained, experienced and (not to be immodest) quite talented composer with a masters from a highly respectable university and my income is definitely not yet anything close to that range... Hell, it's not even at the "average" American range yet either!
But this isn't about me and I have absolutely no grudge against people who provide a product millions of people want getting filthy rich...
This is about the 90-95% of people who work in entertainment and are making $20-40,000 a year on either part-time hourly wages or working 14+ hours a week on salary. Because every time one of the bloated Hollywood unions strikes it's not the $200,000 or $1,000,000+ a year writers, directors or actors who gets hurt, it's EVERYONE ELSE!
One of my best friends is a costume designer and wardrobe supervisor. She recently complained about Katherine Heigl bringing food to the picketing writers. "Where are my donuts Ms. Heigl?" She quipped.
Where indeed? As we approach Christmas time and the other winter holidays, you can rest assured that Tina Fey and her family will have enough to eat, fun times, possibly a nice vacation in a beach-house and assuredly presents for all. The same cannot necessarily be said for all those who really make her show and all the others run. In a previous Variety article, one of the crew members on NBC's "The Office" made note that while there are 12 writers on the show, there are well over 100 other members of the production staff - and she didn't include post production people like editors, music supervisors or (yes) composers! ALL of whom are out of work.
This whole thing doesn't just affect the writers and the management, it affects everyone. And because of the economic structure of the entertainment industry, even if the writers win this battle - everyone else loses. Including the average viewer!
Let me explain:
Say writers get a salary bump to $40,000 per episode, $10,000 per rewrite, some sort of royalty agreement that generates residual income for them including the big money issue du jour, internet revenue. (Which by the way, is way better than they will be able to do in reality!)
Where does that money come from?
Well - maybe we should first ask; where won't the money becoming from?
Since directors and actors have extremely powerful unions and have the most clout due to the nature of "name brand" recognition, we can rest assured that none of them will be taking a cut (they make vastly more than writers per episode already). We might also assume that if writers get residuals from internet broadcasts as they want, directors are probably not too far behind and eventually actors will gorge at that delicious trough as well. It might as well go unsaid that the executives at the major networks aren't going to be seeing a reduction in pay either. In addition, it's probably safe to assume that no money will be taken out of advertising budgets, since when the writers return, the entire industry will desperately need viewers filling every theatre seat and watching every prime time sitcom available.
We also know two fun financial facts:
1. any time there's a major strike the entertainment industry takes an enormous hit - last time the WGA writers went on strike in 1988, the industry as a whole took a 500 million dollar loss.
2. The internet has radically changed the way media is distributed and a wider variety of options have already meant significant financial problems for Hollywood.
So again, you have to ask, how will studios pay for all this?
Well, my guess is that the money is going to come from two places:
First, it's going to come out of budgets set aside for the development of new programming. This is assuredly a bad call from a long-term stand point, but then, when does the entertainment industry think long term? What that really means is that if you think TV is a waste of time now, just wait a year or two! Furthermore, what new shows will be developed are probably going to be as cheap to produce as is humanly possible......... thus - you guessed it - MORE REALITY SHOWS!! YAY!
Secondly, a reduced budget in this regard also means that existing shows are going to have to make some cuts across the board. What this most likely will mean is this: the $20-40,000 a year crew I referred to earlier won't be getting raises or bonuses, and the fact that their salaries have not remotely kept up with inflation as it is will only get worse. It also means that shows will start opting for other cheaper means of production - this might include reductions in wardrobe budgets (more costume pulling from existing greenrooms and less buying and probably zero actual costume design or fabrication), reductions in budgets for special effects and props, reductions in staff, more obsiquious unpaid interns, and the one that most concerns me directly; reductions in the music budget.
Music in television programming is already shit.Absolute garbage.
To dispel any illusions held by those who think they know how this works, the majority of music you hear on TV anymore was not composed specifically for that project but rather came out of a "license library". The market has been flooded recently with companies offering to get "placement" in film and TV for unsigned bands and "producers" of crap. And they work because they offer music to people who know nothing about music or the interaction of music with film for much cheaper than anyone like me can legitimately provide and still afford to eat. Expertise doesn't come cheap afterall... The bands and "producers" (the reason I am putting producers in quotations is a blog in and of itself...) get a couple hundred bucks at best for their songs and the slim chance that one day their band will be known outside the world of myspace. The library companies make a few thousand on a temporary, non-exclusive license or maybe $10,000 on exclusive rights for a year or two (after which time the music just goes back into the pool). No composer has to be paid, no director has to have the unpleasant experience of working completely out of his element and putting his trust in another artists expertise, and a moderately shitty soundtrack can be inserted at (comparative to the rest of the process) almost no cost! Sounds good... only, it actually sounds like crap.
A reduction in music budgets mean fewer composing gigs and perpetually worse music in entertainment. So that's my specific complaint...
Now, apply that complaint to any skilled artisan and multiply by 50 and you start to see the magnitude of the problem in priorities.
Yes, writers are extremely important to the process, and are the architects behind all of the rest of us having jobs in some ways. For that they deserve just compensation (which they are really not getting at the moment). But for entertainment to work, a well-oiled and highly complex machine with lots of gears must move smoothly. Most of those gears aren't writers, or directors, producers or actors. Most of them are on-set costumers who make sure the actors fit their parts and look great, gaffers who use light to make the clothes look great on camera, cinematographers who get interesting shots and keep our eyes on the screen never missing an important moment, sound recordists who make sure the actors can be heard.......... and literally a hundred other people on even the smallest shows. Most of these people are no less talented at what they do than WGA writers are. In fact, many, like myself, have even studied longer, trained more and developed more expertise and skill. It is not an easy undertaking to learn the skillset it takes to be a competent film maker - writing may be important, but in many ways, it's the "easy part".
The WGA strike is bad news for everyone. Unfortunately, if they're successful, everyone else except a tiny few are still radically underpaid and because the revenue is simply not going to increase by $100,000 or more per union writer, everyone else is going to suffer. The crew, the PAs, the staff, the post-production staff, the music, the overall quality of production...
...and most of all, the viewer.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Examining our Premises
The Importance of Clearly Defining “God”:
It is an imperative first step in any argument or debate to first clearly define all of the major terms to be used in the discussion. Though it may seem obvious, this step is one often overlooked in religious debate and subsequently allows the debaters excellent means of avoidance simply by claiming to have been referring to a different definition of “God”.
For an example of this; check out Christopher Hitchens’ debate with Rev. Al Sharpton – towards the end of this debate, Sharpton shifts the definition of God away from the traditional Christian conception (which Hitchens clearly believed he was discussing) to one much more nebulous and limited. Essentially he changed the debate mid-stream by first using the standard conception of God “the Father” then morphing it into God “the Holy Spirit”.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am hereby defining God in the most commonly used sense in the United States and around the world. That is to say, the God of the Q’uran and the Bible (in its various incarnations) – this god has many names; Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, God, Jesus, even Haille Selassie according to some, but in each representation, this god has the same basic characteristics. Thus, any use of the term “God” shall be furthermore interchangeable with the following attributes:
- Omnipotence: God can (literally) do anything. He is the “all-powerful” creator of the universe – there is nothing beyond his ability to create, materialize, or invent. It is crucial that this be fully understood as part of the intrinsic definition of God. There are no limits to his power. Any and all laws of physics or generalized rules of nature that humanity has discovered within its entire history do not apply to God.
- Omniscience: God knows everything that has ever been, is now and will ever be. He knows what every living creature in the universe is thinking and feeling simultaneously.
- Omnipresence: God exists everywhere simultaneously, or at the very least can be anywhere in the universe instantly. Omnipresence is in a sense a result of the combination of being all-powerful and all-knowing in that God exists above and outside the laws of physics such a complete extent that time and space have no meaning. As such, God is by definition immortal as well.
- Omnibenevolent: God is all “good” or all-loving. This is much harder to define, but presumably it means that God’s primary motives all fall into the category of outwardly beneficial to the other life-forms in the universe he created.
The first three traits are the basic defining characteristics of any all-powerful supernatural being. In tandem, this means that God has ultimate understanding of everything that is (and everything that exists only in the imaginations of anything that can possibly imagine), the power to mold the universe into whatever shape he deems best and the ability to do and know anything simultaneously. The final trait is the most crucial component to the vast majority of religious thinking because it is this single characteristic that provides the positive incentive to believe, to worship, to follow and to obey.
Consider the idea of an all-powerful – omnimalevolent (all-evil) God for a moment:
What would the world of an all-evil creator look like? What type of people would populate such a universe? What would this mean to us?
Many philosophers have postulated this idea while observing perceived “evil” in the world and attempting to reconcile various atrocities with the assumption of a creator who (1) Is aware of the atrocities as any all-knowing being would have to be, and, (2) has the power to stop any and all atrocities effortlessly as any all-powerful being would be able to do and the fact that any all-loving creator would take action to correct things like war, suffering, disease, murder, and anything else that is commonly thought to be bad. The conclusion by some philosophers, like Calvin or Hobbes (I just couldn’t resist), is essentially that we are predestined to exist in a world which is essentially evil and God alone decides our fate in the afterlife (at birth) – at which point we will either continue as eternally damned in hell or be elevated to a non-evil plane of existence called heaven. Other, much older philosophers believed similar things – for example Greek, Roman & Norse gods are all petty, and vindictive creatures who toy with humanity primarily out of amusement. These gods are not all-evil by any means, but they rule purely out of fear – and eventually fell out of favor for a god which presents more positive incentives for worship.
Omnimalevolence is an interesting topic to discuss to be sure, however, it provides no incentives to the religious for belief – only the most masochistic and sadistic of individuals would be remotely interested in that type of existence or God, and even then, they wouldn’t benefit either.
So, I am going to deal exclusively with the idea of an omnibenevolent creator.
There is significance in this exact a definition (as opposed to the one Sharpton slid into at the end of the Hitchens debate) because it distinguishes God – as a supernatural being not bound by any physical laws – from a highly advanced “Intelligence” or alien. (Note: The “Intelligent Design” hypothesis will be discussed at a later point in some detail.)
If one takes a more loose definition of God – the “personal” type of deity that many sensible Americans believe in instead of an active all-powerful one – what results is that “God” becomes effectively no different than an extremely technologically advanced alien species would be. At that stage, the very concept of God shifts from being super or supranatural, to being bound by the same laws of physics that govern human existence.
And at that point, we move into a scientific and secularly philosophical (rather than theological) discussion and are no longer talking about the same God described by nearly every religious text in the world.
So, to reiterate: God, for the purposes of all further discussion in this essay, is hereby defined as being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent.Supremely powerful & supremely good.
And yet - that is an impossibility. Let’s actually examine our premises.
Omnipotence - The Basic Paradox:
Can an all-powerful God create a rock so large he himself cannot lift it?
Well… No.I know that this argument appears to be set up as a straw-man, but the truth is, most people’s conception of the Judeo-Christian/Muslim God (and many others!) is that of supreme immutable power and thus it is important to examine.
The problem lies in the initial premise that anything could be “all-powerful”. By simple reasoning alone, anyone can come up with a number of intrinsically impossible paradoxes like the question at the outset of this segment.
Thus the mere existence of paradoxes forces omnipotence into the impossibility category.
Again, according to the very definition of omnipotence, NOTHING is beyond the ability of an omnipotent being – yet, there are only two ways to answer a paradox such as “Can an all-powerful God create a rock so large he himself cannot lift it?”, and because there are two aspects to the question that are irreconcilable, either answer results in the omnipotent being failing to do in some way.
1. God can lift any object regardless of its mass, volume, size, scale, etc. – thus resulting in a no to the question of whether or not God can create such a rock.
2. God can create anything, including a rock he can’t lift – thus resulting in a God which is unable to lift an object.
In either case, God cannot do something.
But it’s not “God’s” fault! The premise that omnipotence can exist at all is completely fallacious due to these types of paradoxes. No being can do “anything”! The whole idea is really just an over simplification, quite likely created as an explanation for another premise: God created the universe.
If God created the universe, it’s logical to ask the question, “How did God create the universe?” To which the first and most basic answer is very likely; “God is all-powerful and is capable of any feat, regardless of how inconceivable it is to humanity.”
Unfortunately, this over simplification has perpetuated and grown over the ensuing centuries and the concept that God is all-powerful gives rise to many false conclusions – one of the most essential ingredients to fundamentalist zealotry is the belief that one’s own interpretation of God is completely infallible (as any all-powerful/all-knowing being would have to be) and thus, the way you believe is absolute truth. Of course, many theologians will take issue with that statement as a human problem rather than one with God, but the overall point is that omnipotence cannot exist. In and of itself, it is paradoxical and thus to base any belief on the premise of an omnipotent God will result in flawed conclusions.
Remember; even the most rational conclusion based on a false premise is still going to be wrong!
Omnipotence & The All-Good Dilemma:
Though omnipotence can be clearly established to be an impossible paradox, assuming that it was possible for a being to be all-powerful for the sake of argument, and also assuming that said being is all-loving or omnibenevolent, what would our world look like?
Certainly there are things that happen in the world at large that the vast majority of people would unanimously consider as, “bad”. Three of the major ones in general are 1. Theft, 2. Rape, and 3. Murder. These respectively violate our right to be secure in property, our right to be secure in person (and to have our decisions respected) and lastly our most essential right to exist.
However, thefts, rapes and murders happen every day!
So do countless other types of atrocities… and not just isolated cases, but in simply absurd proportions! There is genocide happening currently in Darfur and other parts of Africa. In fact, the 20th Century alone has seen dozens of mass murders from fabulous dictators such as Kim Il Sung, Mao Ze-Dong, Jozef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Che Guevara, to Fidel Castro, and on and on…
As obvious as this is, if we assume God is “all-good” and that he is “all-powrful”, and we agree that genocide is not good at all, the question must be asked: Why would God not stop genocide?
If God were both omnipotent & omnibenevolent, it is only reasonable to conclude that he/she would stop the terrible atrocities that happen every day. There is an alternative of course – that God has a much larger, all-good purpose for which genocide is a key component. But that requires us to assume a large number of premises that have absolutely no supporting evidence, for the sole purpose of being able to maintain those premises – which is all quite circular, and extremely flawed logic.
Omniscience – Conflict with Omnipotence and the Free Will Dilemma:
Though there is no direct conflict, in that if any being was all-powerful it would inherently also be all-knowing, the concept of omnipotence has a flaw.
To know all is for everything to be complete and unchanging. In a strange way this does present a problem for an omnipotent being because nothing would be created that wasn’t already known. This isn’t necessarily a problem for the supreme being if one accepts that even an all-powerful God cannot generate or create any idea or thing which he did not already know he would have. Which means that omniscience (though an inherent component to the concept of omnipotence) actually negates the possibility of omnipotence.
The whole concept is definitely a bit of a brain twister… So, to clarify:
1. Definition of Terms: Omniscience means knowing all ideas, actions, feelings, events, etc. from all times past, present & future.
a. That would necessarily include all ideas, actions and feelings past, present & future that were experienced by the all-knowing being (God) in addition to those of every other sentient creature
b. Omnipotence means being able to do, create, alter any reality to any other reality at will – to be able to do anything with no limits.
2. Thus, an omnipotent being cannot be omniscient as it would render the being incapable of producing a thought or action that was previously unknown.
Essentially, this is just another way of pointing out that omnipotence is a completely impossible and paradoxical concept.
But again – for the sake of debate - assuming that omnipotence was possible and by extension, omniscience, this does present an enormous problem to the concept of free-will among those of us who are not the all-powerful God.
At this point, we have to come back to the real issue of omniscience – which is that for a creature of any kind, even a God, to know everything, than everything that was, is and ever will be is completely unchangeable.
An Analogy: Say you have just finished reading your favorite novel, perhaps the book is “Sock”, by Penn Jillette. As you’ve completed the entire text, you now ostensibly know everything there is to know about the text of that book – you’ve read and understood every word. You are now “all-knowing” on the subject of the book, Sock. But you are only all-knowing so long as the text doesn’t change. But perhaps let’s say that Penn decides to write a new edition of the book and change a few chapters. When the book has been rewritten, you are no longer all-knowing about the book until you read the updated version. Penn’s free-will and ability to change the text rendered your knowledge of the book incomplete whereas without change, your omniscience in this microcosm could continue. Ultimately, it must also be noted that if you had supreme knowledge of the past, present and future, you would have also known the text of the updated version – which in essence renders the author powerless against fate.
This understanding has led many philosophers to believe (rightly so given the premise) that the existence of humanity has been entirely predetermined by God. If God already knows all that can be, then the future has ostensibly already been written and humans have no legitimate control over their own destiny.
Fate and free-will are mutually exclusive concepts.
At this point, we come to a philosophical crossroads: If God is omniscient, then fate (or specifically all life being managed by God) is in play. In this event, human existence is predetermined entirely by God – so we can now decide whether we believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, or the worst? In other words, good and bad are completely out of humanity’s control, so it’s up to God to decide which to provide in which situations and to whom. In the past, certain philosophers have chosen to believe that God controls everyone’s destiny and the result is the best of all possible things, and some have chosen to believe that God is more vindictive and the result is the worst of all possible things. Ironically, in either case, the belief in fate or God’s plan for human existence would mean that whether or not an individual was optimistic or pessimistic, God (and not the individual) made that choice.
As a bit of an aside, if we all can agree that our lives aren’t perfect and there is a mixture of good and bad in every-day life then we are going to have some difficulty taking the position that God, who is in control of our destiny, is “all-good” or “all-bad”. However, that would contradict God as omnibenevolent and also would suddenly open up a Pandora’s Box of mystery as to God’s intentions.
Note: Shifting back down for a second… This is a very complicated issue precisely because religious philosophy over-complicates itself as a result of accepting ridiculous root premises. In order to successfully maintain the axioms that it holds true at the most basic levels – e.g. the existence of an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful creator – it paints itself into an intellectual corner that can only be escaped by avoiding dealing with the issues that it raises. The theologians of centuries past did not always shy away from these issues, and as a result, entire movements of religious thought realized that to account for some people who are accepted as good and some who are accepted as bad while also maintaining that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, God must favor some people over others by predetermining who enjoys the good and who suffers the bad. And while that might account for why there is a mixture of good and bad in the world, it certainly wouldn’t explain why an all-good God would allow any non-good to exist in the first place. In either case, humans have no control over their actions – and all because of an exceedingly complex set of philosophies that are based on premises that defy reason.
"All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one." (Occam’s Razor)
We need to ask ourselves – is it more likely that an all-powerful being mysteriously controls our every action in completely intangible ways and although he is ostensibly all-good, actively promotes horrific atrocities perpetrated by a select group of people he has chosen to act out in violent, murderous ways as a means of creating ultimate good on Earth, and that because all that was, is and ever will be is already known beyond all doubt by this being, people’s behavior, morals, social values and the entire future of humanity is already predetermined and completely impossible to change…
Is it more likely that people aren’t being unwittingly controlled by a magical being but instead are simply freely thinking animals capable of making their own decisions and with that freedom comes good or bad choices as a result of fallible senses and limited intelligence?
Besides which, again it bears reminding that we’re only delving into this topic as a hypothetical exercise… Omnipotence is a paradox in and of itself and cannot exist – and neither can omniscience.
Omnipresence – Proving a Negative:
In this one instance, after having established that nothing can be either Omnipotent nor Omniscient, we are still left with a common feature of most Gods, which is Omnipresence – or the ability to be in all places at once.
Ironically, since it is impossible to prove a negative (i.e. that God “doesn’t exist”), it’s also impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist everywhere at once. It is important to note that this is only true if we accept that God takes no active role in shaping the universe or our lives, for the alternative would necessarily provide us with ample evidence of his omnipresence. Unfortunately, there is no such evidence.
Notes & Conclusions:
Understand that because it is impossible to disprove the existence of any God, no rational person can, in good conscience, entirely rule out the possibility – provided that the God people refer to is highly limited in his abilities and not of the hyperbolic nature most average people attribute to him.
With that in mind, let it be stated that if God did exist and was omnipresent, he would be relegated entirely to a clawless, toothless being that in essence only had the power to observe and not alter the universe directly in anyway – OR – if God did exist and was not omnipresent, he could have some mysterious powers to alter time and space, but not by any means would he know everything or be able to do anything, in essence, he would be much more like the Gods of Greek or Roman mythology. Powerful in certain ways, but certainly not all powerful… not even the Titans were truly immortal.
But, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, how many of us believe in Zeus? Odin? Saturn? The Sun-god? Sun Wukong, the Chinese Monkey-god?
We’ve long discarded the concept of specific, petty and highly anthropomorphic Gods of our ancient history. We don’t sacrifice virgin girls to the sun each night in order to ensure the morning light. And we no longer believe that a drought will be in any way ended if only we dance and chant.
But I would certainly contend that the modern, all-powerful version of God is filled with the same level of silliness as any of those ideas! And assuming that there is a God who has some limited powers, but is not magically (paradoxically) all-powerful brings us all the way back to the beginning of this segment in that such a being would be indistinguishable from a technologically advanced alien.
Again, for a God to be supernatural, he must operate outside of the laws of physics. An advanced alien might be inconceivable to humans and be mistaken for a God, but that creature would definitely not be supernatural. However, though the definition of God as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving certainly makes God quite different from some curious alien species interested in genetic tampering, it has a problem… It just can’t work!
The default position needs to be skepticism (not cynicism!), and extraordinary claims of supernatural beings who have vast powers actively employed to alter the universe into whatever shape suits the whims of said being should be backed with extraordinary evidence of that claim. Logically, the burden of proof has to be on the claimant – if a person walks up to you and says, “There is an invisible fire-breathing dragon standing next to me”, then that person says, “prove that I’m lying”, you will find it impossible to do so no matter how ridiculous that idea might be because you cannot prove a negative. The same applies to God – it is absolutely not enough to say, “An anthropomorphic, omnipotent being created the entire universe instantly, and actively controls the fate of mankind although one cannot hear, see, smell, touch, taste or measure his existence in anyway – prove that he doesn’t exist.”
I can’t. No one can… but do not ever make the mistake of thinking that lack of a disproof is remotely the equivalent of a proof, much less even a reasoned argument. Proofs are positive things that demonstrate an idea clearly and directly and are precisely what faithful believers are missing. So just because I am logically responsible in not claiming to “disprove” God entirely, that does not endorse the likelihood of a God in any way.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
To recap our re-examined premises:
- God is omnipotent:
- Entirely paradoxical and simply cannot happen due to the existence of mutually exclusive (oppositional) objects & ideas
- Would present enormous problems to also viewing God as all-good since he has the power to make everything in the world “perfect” and doesn’t
- God is omniscient:
- If God cannot be all-powerful, he cannot be all knowing, as at least some forces outside his control would be acting upon the universe
- If God were all-knowing, that would indicate that all events, thoughts, feelings, actions, and every single atom of the universe was able to be accounted for from the beginning of time to the end of time – which would mean that no one, including God, has the power to alter their existence in any unexpected way. In addition, even if people don’t know that it is God’s divine decision to create their lives exactly as they are would not change the fact that those lives are controlled by God/fate
- This leads to a number of depressing philosophies: Determinism, Calvinism, “original sin”
- Absolves any human (or animal, etc.) from any responsibility for their action
- Since an all-knowing God would need to be an all-powerful God, and yet humanity regularly experiences violent evil, there would be no evidence-based way to suggest that God was also all-loving
- God is omnipresent: Since there is no evidence to support an active God, it is possible, however extremely unlikely, that there is a relatively powerless being floating invisibly among all life in the universe
- God is omnibenevolent
- If we assume God is all-powerful & all-knowing, we cannot reasonably conclude that he is also all-loving, as there is no correlation between religious belief and susceptibility to disease and perhaps more obviously because multiple tribes who even believe in and worship the same concept of God routinely kill each other, none of whom are magically protected by having pleased the right deity.
- If we assume God is not particularly powerful, but is perhaps omnipresent, God could also be all-loving. However, since that God would have almost no power to do anything to help or change human existence, it really is an academic point then.
When we break down the premises on top of which people build entire religions and life-guiding philosophy, we find a crumbling foundation not fit to stand on, much less build empires with. From those bad premises onward, we have to start making wild assumptions about the world in which we live and operate under the solipsistic notion that we can consciously understand what God says or believes while simultaneously explaining that he is beyond our understanding as a species. The whole thing leads to innumerable contradictions and overly complex circular philosophies. Yet…
“Contradictions do not exist. Every time you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises, one of them is likely to be false.” – Ayn Rand
The concept of God is built on premises that fail the most basic inductive logical scrutiny – and that’s before taking into account the utter lack of empirical evidence related to the subject matter, which only serves to make the whole idea more suspect. People are often content with this however, I imagine, due to their desire for simplistic aphorisms and feel-good platitudes. It’s really nice to think that there is a plan for your life that will all be for the best and that we as a species exist because a grand creator placed us deliberately in his universe. We are cosmically loved, and if that weren’t enough, when we die, we’re actually immortal and get to spend eternity in paradise! Yes, that sounds good, but only works so long as we avoid taking a deeper look at what it all really means and so long as we can remain ethnocentrically positioned to assume that no one outside of our group has access to God - for the success of another group who also claims the favor and good-willed platitudes of being loved by God, if conceptualized even slightly differently, would mean that there is a chance that God might favor the other group! That idea of course, has lead to countless on-going wars and many of the previously mentioned mass-murders. This isn’t good.
Critical thinking is man’s greatest tool for advancement in a rough universe and we need to apply it to our core beliefs if we hope to truly live up to our potential. Beliefs based on nonsense can only lead us astray, no matter how benign people wish them to be. That is why it is imperative that everyone understand this first concept:
"...otherwise logical arguments do not create true conclusions from false premises, regardless of how frequently or confidently they are repeated."
If the belief in God itself is based on false premises, it doesn’t matter how many conclusions about the nature of God people would like to draw – they are all going to be wrong. The very definition of God is impossible, and anything short of that definition is less than godlike.
Our core beliefs are what guide us and what help us deal with the universe. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to operate with beliefs that represent the universe as it truly is. But when we adopt fundamental principles that are flawed at their very core, we have no chance of seeing the world accurately – and in turn, we destroy our ability to exist in it at our fullest potential. So check your premises!
Preface & Introduction
Bad Premises and the Importance of Critical Thinking:
"...otherwise logical arguments do not create true conclusions from false premises, regardless of how frequently or confidently they are repeated."
- Gary Galles (Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and Ludwig Von Mises Institute of Economics contributor)
Galles quote is nothing new, philosophers from Aristotle to Ayn Rand have said the same thing – and anyone with basic reasoning abilities could figure this out on their own anyway… but I thought it bore repeating before I start the arduous journey of discussing religion at length.
One of the biggest obstacles to debating, not only religion but in fact nearly every topic, is that people typically wind up focusing their attention on specific points rather than taking a few moments to examine their root premises. This is disastrous in a number of ways because without examining the foundation on which our arguments are based, we can go through innumerable perfectly reasonable steps in a chain of logic and wind up being completely wrong.
Children do this all the time simply due to a lack of experience or information about the world around them – to a child without a more complete understanding of the world, a lot seems like magic.
Adults do it too though, and it’s usually not quite as cute…
For example (to take a page from James Burke), let’s briefly look at the width of suburban streets and make some connections:
Though few make the connection, the codes which govern the width of our streets are largely dependent on emergency service needs such as the width of fire trucks. Fire departments have consistently increased the size of their trucks over the years and thus they struggle to get down the smaller streets of older neighborhoods and subsequently push city governors to update codes so that new streets are wider. They do this via the usual “burning baby” argument; that is to say, they claim that without wider streets, their larger trucks can’t get through to your burning house resulting in the destruction of personal property and the loss of life – most grievously of course, the horrific fiery death of babies.
Now – we don’t want that do we!? Of course not! No one wants babies to die horrific fiery deaths!
And because firemen can keep the argument focused on burning babies and the fearful imagery that goes along with that idea, no one bothers to go all the way back to the beginning and asks the really important question: Why do they need bigger trucks?
There isn’t a logistical or safety related reason that bigger trucks are needed. Suburban fire departments don’t need tankers – there are fire hydrants everywhere! They don’t need 100’ ladders – they are servicing neighborhoods of 1-3 story homes at most! So the truth is, we don’t need giant fire trucks to put out residential fires and thus we don’t need wider streets and yet we spend millions on both unnecessarily because no one checked their premises and no one wants burning babies.
This may seem like a digression, but it’s actually analogous to the way most people deal with religion. If we base our morality and guiding philosophies on the premise that there is an all-powerful, all-loving and all-knowing God who has a specific plan for our lives, we can come to all sorts of conclusions about the world around us. Sometimes that leads us to innocuous enough ideas – perhaps it makes people feel better when their mother or father dies of cancer, after all, even though our parents die at least there is a valuable (albeit unknown) reason. In fact, we have no choice but to assume there is a good reason for these deaths since we have already accepted the idea that there is a God and he (or she) has the power to stop death and that God is all-loving - inherently meaning that God could have prevented this tragedy but chose not to for some "all-good" reason. There is simply no other way to reconcile the pain we feel over the death of loved ones and the belief in an all-powerful, all-good deity than to assume that the death serves an all-good purpose.
Certainly nearly anything a person does to better cope with the incomprehensible grief over the loss of a loved one is beyond judgment. It goes without saying that many beliefs are extremely comforting, especially in times of great need.
So if belief in a false premise is just making people feel better, why worry about it? Why write this at all? And what’s the big deal anyway?
Because sometimes the conclusions people come to aren’t quite so benign.
Sometimes the exact same gap in logic at the root level leads people to fly airplanes into office buildings. Their conclusions (based on the same premises that console grieving widows) are that anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do should be killed.
And some other people conclude that the death of 3000 innocent people is God’s punishment for living in a society which tolerates “sinners”.
Both Jerry Falwell & Al Q’aeda operate under the following idea: God exists, God is all-powerful & all-good, God gave man a way to understand his intentions through holy literature and most importantly; failure to comply with God’s stated intentions will and should result in severe punishment. Again – BOTH the Islamic terrorists responsible for the murdering thousands of American civilians at the World Trade Center AND American Christian minister Jerry Falwell are operating under the exact same set of basic principles.
These ideas and actions aren’t just the result of another culture or one or two bad eggs, they are the absolutely plausible logical outcomes of the same basic concepts – in this case the premise is that an all-powerful God exists, we are capable of knowing what God wants us to do and of course since God created man, all of God's commands supersede the rights of any human. How many times have we heard even the most loving and kind of ministers say "The laws of God are more powerful than the laws of man"? In secularist America, that statement is interpreted much differently than in a theocracy like Iran or Pakistan, but the underlying premise here is exactly the same one that brings Jihadism and other holy wars.
Yet religion refuses to examine that premise. Religion can only exist if people who believe in a Supreme Being can also be convinced that it is possible to know what that Supreme Being’s thoughts and desires are
So the big deal here is that religion has motivated many people throughout the course of history to aggressively seek the death of others for no other reason than they have different thoughts and different beliefs. Often in fact, the bloodiest battles in history have been fought not by believers against non-believers (with whom the religious have significantly deeper differences), but by believers against other believers whose interpretation of the Supreme Being’s desires are different! The big deal is that the underlying philosophy of God and religion in general subjugates individuals to an inconceivable deity and in doing so promotes anti-intellectualism and sacrificial servitude. In short, it requires religious followers to abandon their own minds as their guide and replaces their reasoning abilities with unquestioned faith.
The big deal is that in the 21st Century, with accurate information about the natural world and other cultures as readily available as it is, fighting over which ridiculous belief is better than which other ridiculous belief is simply unacceptable.
(Note: The operative word is “ridiculous”. Many belief systems are demonstrably better than others, which is what this whole thing is about ultimately – I am in no way saying that every belief system is as good as any other. I am saying that any idea based on a false premise cannot possibly result in anything but bad conclusions.)
Now, in most discussions related to religion, as an atheist I am constantly called on to “prove that God doesn’t exist”. This is silly, because:
Proving a Negative…
I cannot prove that God does not exist anymore than I can prove that a Leprechaun or the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. I don’t intend to prove God doesn’t exist and I never have. However, I can prove that the anthropomorphized, sentient, omnipotent, all-loving, omniscient and omnipresent God commonly conceptualized by most major religions is impossible.
But ultimately, and this is a crucial point: The burden of proof isn’t on me!
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If a supernatural, all powerful, Supreme Creator of all things exists and has an active impact on the world as we live and breathe, there must be supernatural, all powerful, supreme evidence to support that claim.
Ultimately the real trouble with religion in particular is that it asks us to abdicate our reasoning powers and requires us to avoid questioning our premises. From that point on, it fails to answer any questions about reality, the universe, morality or life adequately simply because it is based on a premise that cannot be correct.
So with all this in mind, as I embark on the most lengthy written discussion of religion, God and rational thinking I’ve ever created, I hope everyone who reads this will check his or her premises and try to evaluate them systematically. Fortunately, in the United States we still have enough freedom to live in a marketplace of ideas – if you don’t like what I have to say, you don’t have to read it. If you do read it and hate it, feel free to respond directly. I have no power to coerce you to agree with me, I use no force, no threats. I won’t be shouting or blowing up things. And this, I think, is the crucial difference.
The Bill of Rights isn't fairing too well these days.
And noooooo... it's not ALL President Bush's fault (though he certainly hasn't helped too much)! Liberals do their fair share too.
Recently, I was writing a lengthy rebuttal to some left-wing dumbassery about Ron Paul's voting record, it was insanely long, but I had the time and it needed to be done. Essentially the complaint with Dr. Paul is that he is consistent about strict Constitutionalism - and (although he has never remotely claimed to be) not a "progressive".
Regardless, this diatribe on Paul's record was representative of modern liberalism in a number of ways - first of all, the interpretation of his record was filled with hyperbole and in many cases the same Bill was repeated multiple times... I can only guess that was to make it seem as if his record was longer and thus more horrific than it really was - either that or the person who wrote it was just kind of stupid, but I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt in that respect. At any rate, throughout my rebuttal, I found myself regularly repeating to myself the 10th Amendment to the United States Constitution... That's the one that says that any rights or responsibilities not specifically stated in the Constitution are to be granted to the States or to the people - of course, this has been routinely ignored, and within the last 100 years or so, it's as if it doesn't even exist!
But this got me thinking about the rest of the Bill of Rights...
...and you know what? I came to the conclusion that they're all pretty much bloodied and beaten at this point. Think about it:
- First Amendment (Freedom of speech, press, religion, right to assembly): Between the FCC, decency laws, hate speech/hate crimes legislation, and the general public seeming to believe that speech should be free - so long as no one is offended (the irony of that is certainly lost on most people)... not doing well. Conservatives push the decency end and Liberals push the "hate speech" or intolerance end, though both despise the very essence of truly free speech. Of course, both also talk about it's importance all the time... go figure.
- Second Amendment (Right to bear arms, keep militias): Gun-control legislation is prevalent to begin with regardless of how ineffective it is, but worse than that, this amendment is attacked routinely by the left and other varieties of pacifist. Typically the 2nd Amendment is attacked on practical grounds (i.e. people with guns will shoot people!) - although those arguments are most often incredibly ridiculous, but any argument at that level misses the point of the Amendment... Quis custodies ipsos custodiet.
- Third Amendment (Protection from soldiers commandeering your house): The ONLY Amendment not under some kind of attack, and I'm betting that's only because it's just not an issue.
- Fourth Amendment (Protection from unreasonable search & seizure): The Transportation Security Administration has dutifully put a bullet in this one thanks to the Bush administration (yep, that one is his fault).
- Fifth Amendment (Right to due process, protection from self-incrimination, etc.): Another Bush administration bonus - Suspension of Habeas Corpus and illegal wire-tapping have really thrown this amendment to the wolves recently.
- Sixth Amendment (Right to a fair and speedy trial): I'll give this one a bit of the benefit of the doubt, but in many states, California for example have insanely high instances of DNA exoneration and mistrials. Failure to really abide this particular Amendment often rests more with the press than with any courts.
- Seventh Amendment (Right to a trial by jury): I'd love to blame this on Bush too, but unfortunately I can't forget about World War II and FDR's internment of German and Japanese immigrants... Trials and juries just aren't for everyone in 20th-Century America... awesome.
- Eighth Amendment (Protection against excessive bail, punishments & torture): The obvious example would be the torture of prisoners of war, although since they aren't American citizens subject to our laws, it's not quite as apt as a more fun example: This week the RIAA was awarded a $222,000 verdict to be paid by a college-aged defendant who downloaded perhaps $150 worth of music... if a fine that is 1,480 times greater than the monetary damages in the crime isn't "excessive", I'm really not sure what is. [2009 Update: And now we have ACTUAL torture to add to the resume as well! Awesome.]
- Ninth Amendment (Rights not specifically granted by the Constitution aren't to be denied to the people): Government inherently operates on the opposite side of this idea... Liberals & "progressives" especially like to use government force to affect the rights of the people which are in no way in the Constitution - imposition of authority to regulate businesses, health concerns (smoking, foie gras, trans fats, etc.), levels of tolerance, "environmentalist" concerns, etc.
- Tenth Amendment (Rights not granted specifically in the Constitution are left up to the States & the people to decide): Where to even begin... The Federal government is involved in local schools, morality, religion, sex, drugs, appropriate levels of racism, business ethics, science, art, various types of licensing, management of the economy... none of which is mentioned specifically in the Constitution...
I would note that many of the abhorrent destructions of liberty that have occurred in the United States over the last 100 years have been as a result of the ambiguity of some passages in the articles of the Constitution granting Congress various open-ended powers... of course, perhaps this wouldn't have been such a big deal if politicians were required to have read the full writings of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, George Washington and others... bonus points for also reading Voltaire, David Hume and John Locke.
I'm really not sure what can be done to revitalize Individual Liberties in America... I'm not naive enough to believe that even if we did miraculously get a pro-Constitution president like Ron Paul that would change too much, considering the executive branch has a lot less power than most people credit it with (which people misunderstand because of our desire to see only one person as a leader rather than hundreds as it actually is). The legislature would also have to suddenly and impossibly become pro-Constitution as well. This would require politicians to stop being motivated by power and for majorities to stop being interested in imposing their values on all people.... A bit unlikely?
Yeah... and by the way that's why we are supposed to have a Bill of Rights!
"Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual)." ~Ayn Rand
Oh... and in case anyone was wondering, yes, I did the Bill of Rights from memory.