8 April 2014

Faith is irrational

In my previous posting I discussed any religion's Achilles heel. That is, belief. And I argued that without belief any religion falls into pieces. All religions demand belief. And some demand it so vehemently that any follower must feel fear: the fear that he or she will be punished (by the mullahs, the priests, the devils, the spirits...) if he or she does not confess belief.

Belief in belief has become a "virtue". Religion has succeeded in not only demanding belief but also in elevating the concept of belief into nobility. Even non-religious people are supposed to respect those who believe. Belief in belief has become a de facto concept. And we are not supposed to question it.

I watched (on youtube) a great debate on the question of  "does science refute god" which took place last August, under the auspices of an organization called intelligence-squared. The party supporting the proposition consisted of Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer and those against were Dinesh D'Souza and Ian Hutchinson (an MIT engineer). Krauss and Shermer spoke based on logical arguments. The other two appeared reasonable at times but could not escape the fact that they are both supporters of a particular religion (and, of course, this immediately weakens any kind of arguments they may have). I had never heard D'Souza before but he appeared to have nothing novel to say. In particular, I was totally taken aback when he reached the point to defend faith. He said: "faith is rational". I found that amazing. He gave an example. He said that if 95% people in a village believe that there is a guy called Bill (but have never met him) and 5% don't then we must accept their opinion. Same is with god, he implied. Krauss (or Shermer--I can't remember) replied that there is a subtle point: we know that there are Bills in this world. :-) Both D'Souza and Hutchinson claimed that, through religion, they seek (and find) knowledge which is not provided by science. And, by this, they meant questions like "what is the purpose of our existence?" or "why did I make a cup of tea?" and the like. As usual, the fail to see that some questions are non-questions. Why should one even suppose that these questions are answerable. Why should there be a purpose at all? Cry as you like, there might be no purpose in your being here and no purpose in the existence of the universe. This (answers to these questions), they call "knowledge". And they claim they obtain this knowledge through religion. Not just any religion, but through the particular religion they happen to support. D'Souza was asked how come he doesn't see that religion is so much connected to someone's background/location. He replied that he grew up in India where most people are Hindu, Jain, Muslim, and Christianity is a minority. He didn't understand the question: even if he himself chose an uncommon (for his milieu) religion, the fact is that there is a very-very strong correlation between one's religion and one's place of birth. Besides, I checked it on wikipedia and saw that he was raised in a Catholic family (kind of obvious from his surname, a remnant of Portuguese colonialism).

Faith is rational, they said, and this is something I've never heard before from, supposedly, intelligent people. Hutchinson is a prof. at MIT. I don't know what D'Souza's job is. He appears to be someone who doesn't like Obama and is paid to prove that the Republican party will save the world. And then, of course, he must be a Christian. He has to be. He can't be involved in American politics without showing how much of a believer he is.

Belief/faith are not virtues. They are to be avoided. We use them, unavoidably, because we don't have infinite amount of time to check everything, but we are free to question anything. The fear to open one's mind up and ask questions (or dare express doubt) is what leads to faith. The fear of punishment also leads to faith. People in North Korea must believe in the superpowers of their leader. They must have faith. They must appear to be professing this faith publicly (else their heads will be chopped off). Tit for tat when it comes to religious faith. Or any kind of faith for that matter.

Sorry Dinesh, but faith is irrational. It makes sense only in the presence of fear or in presence of monetary incentives (being a political advocator of the Republican Party without publicly proclaiming that you are a good Christian believer will reduce your monthly salary. Guaranteed.)


4 April 2014

The weakest point of any religion

Religion is a term which does not have a very good definition. Attempts for it can be found in the literature. For example, the father of sociology, the philosopher Emil Durkheim, defines religion as
a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
My fellow blogger Sabio spends quite a bit of blogging energy to elucidate this point. I am not a scholar of religion, neither a philosopher, and certainly not one who would devote time to come up with definitions of religion. (I don't have much time to waste.) Nevertheless, I think I know what religion is when I encounter it.

I am talking in rather vague terms because "religion" is not just a system which calls itself a religion. Example of these systems are Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism (all of which have the common feature of being monotheistic). It is also a system which resembles what one traditionally would call a religion. For example, the North Korean Juche is a religion. When people blindly obey someone else's orders and have reached a point where questioning them is inconceivable, then this is religion.

One can argue, based on what almost all religions proclaim, that the main requirement of every religion is the concept of belief. Now, the word itself can have many meanings. Religious belief, however, can be characterized rather precisely. After all, all religions require belief. They require faith. Have faith and you shall be saved! Have faith in god. Tony Blair established his Blair Faith Foundation in order to teach how religion influenced his politics.

Religion requires belief. Religion requires faith.

Belief is a complex concept. It is a word that can have many meanings. But religious belief has a very important feature making it uniquely distinguishable.
Religious belief about a concept X is an increasing function of the amount of evidence against X.
That is, the more we learn about the ridiculousness about X (say X=miracles), the stronger the religious belief about X is.

But belief is the weakest point of any religion. What religious people cannot get is that any time one is asked to believe without asking, without investigating, then they are possibly being tricked into something untrue. I grew up understanding that the concept of belief is terrible. I can, of course, temporarily accept something in order to go on, but I have to question it at some point.

People believe for various reasons. One is that belief is easy. It is much easier to convince yourself to believe rather than to understand, for example. Because believing takes little work. But understanding often takes a lot of hard work. Any rational person can obviously see the flaw of the (religious) belief concept.

When I teach I ask my students not to believe me. This is tough. Students have been conditioned on the idea to believe their teacher. Again, this is because it makes life easy. A student is tuned to believe that a continuous function, which takes value 1 at the beginning of an interval and 2 at the end, must take any value in between. Sure, the teacher says so. But a proof is needed. Belief is the easy thing. Proof is, typically, the hardest.

In the recent years, a number of so-called apologists (mostly of the Christian kind, but there are Muslim too) have  sprung. See, e.g., here and here and here. There are many examples of that kind. These are people who appear to be intellectual and are typically holders of advanced degrees, awards, have done serious work on some (non-religious) subject but, at some point, go crazy and start arguing that (their particular version of) religion is explained via logic, science, empirical observation. And they have lots of supporters. Sure, people are thirsty to believe; to believe that their religion is explainable because this is what these famous, important, outstanding public "intellectuals" advocate. They become the heroes of the unthinking masses. Despite all their attempts to "scientifically prove" that belief is not the main characteristic of religion, they fail, and fail badly. Religious belief remains religious belief and none of these pseudo-intellectuals have provided a gram of evidence against it.

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John, 20:29]

God will test believers to make sure they believe and are afraid. If they fail a second test they will suffer a painful punishment: 
O you who have believed, Allah will surely test you through something of the game that your hands and spears [can] reach, that Allah may make evident those who fear Him unseen. And whoever transgresses after that - for him is a painful punishment. [Quran, Sura 5:94]



29 March 2014

Swedish Nazis

I wrote about the Greek fascists in the past. But the situation in Sweden doesn't seem to be much better. According to a local newspaper, there are several groups of neo-nazis, as well as political parties, which go around causing trouble, from publicly exhibiting fascist symbols, often tatooed on their skin or shaved heads, to organizing demonstrations and distributing propaganda. In 2012, there were 1824 organized public activities by various neo-nazi groups in Sweden, whereas in 2013 the number went up to 2333. Their presence is not equally distributed. For example,according to Aftonbladet (a Swedish tabloid), the number of activities were
Skåne  115
Stockholm  66
Västra Götaland  62
Dalarna  60
Gävleborg 36
Uppsala  34
That means 10 events per month in Skåne, the south of Sweden, and 3 per month here in Uppsala. I have seen the neo-Nazis downtown and I have been told that Greek neo-Nazis have been flown in to show their support. Some of those groups have a very scary ideology.

Neo-Nazi fascistoids are on the rise in many places in Europe, from Ukraine, to Greece, to Sweden. Apparently, they all support one another, and, in some cases, like in Greece, the social situation is such that they have a lot of support. Statistics are not clear in Sweden, but it appears, from the time when Breivik massacred 80 innocent people in Norway, that the numbers are not small at all.


27 March 2014

Making fun of geocentrists (and flat-earthers)

I admit it I find it amusing to be making fun of "scientists" who are trying to prove stupid things. What is extremely interesting is to see the responses of them and their followers. My favourite crackpots are the self-proclaimed geocentrists. Their head is someone called Robert Sungenis who paid some money to a place called Calamus Extension College offering degrees (by correspondence) on Holistic Studies, Homeopathy, Contemporary Spirituality, Regression and Reincarnation Studies, etc.,  and obtained a PhD in geocentrism!

Armoured with the panoply of such advanced studies, he started a mission: to prove that the Earth does not rotate and that it is fixed at the centre of the Universe!

He has even written a "scientific" book titled Galileo Was Wrong described in this way:
Galileo Was Wrong is a detailed and comprehensive treatise that demonstrates from the scientific evidence that heliocentrism (the concept that the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun) is an unproven scientific theory; and that geocentrism (the view that the Earth is in the center of the universe and does not move by either rotation or revolution) is not only supported by the scientific evidence but is admitted to be a logical and viable cosmology by many of the world's top scientists, including Albert Einstein, Ernst Mach, Edwin Hubble, Fred Hoyle and many more.



I admit that I secretly enjoy seeing the reaction of those lunatics. I wrote about them before, and did manage to attract the attention of Sungenis himself. But when I pointed out his qualifications he kept silence. I, too, would be ashamed to be associated with Calamus Extension College.

Map of the Square and Stationary Earth, by Orlando Ferguson (1893)
There used to be many people believing that the Earth is flat (i.e. approximable by a manifold with zero curvature). I quote from wikipedia on their beliefs at the beginning of 20th c.:
Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who in 1906 took over the Christian Catholic Church, a Pentecostal sect that established a utopian community at Zion, Illinois, preached flat Earth doctrine from 1915 onwards and used a photograph of a twelve mile stretch of the shoreline at Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin taken three feet above the waterline to prove his point. When the airship Italia disappeared on an expedition to the North Pole in 1928 he warned the world's press that it had sailed over the edge of the world. He offered a $5,000 award for proving the Earth is not flat, under his own conditions. Teaching a globular Earth was banned in the Zion schools and the message was transmitted on his WCBD radio station.
Unfortunately, they have been in rapid decline ever since.  They established a Flat Earth Society in 1956 and made some hilarious remarks:
The idea of a spinning globe is only a conspiracy of error that Moses, Columbus, and FDR all fought… If it is a sphere, the surface of a large body of water must be curved. The Johnsons have checked the surfaces of Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea without detecting any curvature.
Nowadays, there is a certain Daniel Shenton who proclaims that nobody has proved that the world is not flat:
I haven't taken this position just to be difficult. To look around, the world does appear to be flat, so I think it is incumbent on others to prove decisively that it isn't. And I don't think that burden of proof has been met yet.
Flat Earth: A 1922 illustration from the Swedish and Norwegian magazine Allers Familj-Journal.



20 March 2014

Alcohol in Sweden

Alcohol in Sweden is very much restricted. There is only one company, Systembolaget, from which one can buy alcohol. And it only opens certain days, excluding Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Also, their prices are extremely high and the selection limited in quantity and in quality (which is to be expected if there is a monopoly). I'm being told that things are good now because, in the not-so-distant past, that company was allowed to be open only one day per week, resulting in huge queues consisting of people taking time off work in order to buy their wine.

The company claims that the only reason they exist is because they care about people's health and they have conducted scientific researches to show that if the monopoly seized to exist then catastrophic things would occur. They present their case here in flash form. The page contains the whole scientific report too. Here are some of the "catastrophic" consequences that would result if the monopoly seized to exist. (Images are captures from their page.)
So? What's wrong in being able to buy alcohol in more places? And what's wrong in buying wine where I buy my food? I DO want both of them. But, according to Systembolaget, these are among the dire consequences of abolishing the monopoly. Totally absurd, isn't it?

In another place, they claim that
They don't explain, but, presumably they mean deaths occurring by drunk drivers. So, I suppose, they care about maintaining safety on the road. This is good. I am all for that. However, it's not entirely right that they care about safety. To wit, of all the countries I know, Sweden is the only one where you can drive your car and speak on your cell phone at the same time. It's ok for drivers to chat, text, whatever. It's funny how such an obviously dangerous activity is legal, while, at the same time, consumption of half a bottle of beer will get you into trouble while driving because the alcohol limit is zero. Although I'm not an expert in these things, I maintain that speaking on the cell phone, like many idiots around, is far more dangerous than having drank half a bottle of beer. This is, then, dishonesty.





T H E B O T T O M L I N E

What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant