Monday, 30 June 2008

A Forest Fire and Life

My Dad and I drove to Lac La Biche yesterday to get away from Fort McMurray for a day. It was an interesting enough trip. We saw some deer and a coyote on the way, and visited the Old Mission Museum. The lake itself is also quite pretty.

On the way back, almost in Fort McMurray (this was well after Marianna Lakes, for those who know the geography), we saw a forest fire--at least, something starting to be one. It was all smoky and you could hear crackling, but it was restricted to a small area and the road was still open. Forestry had it under control, I suppose. Anyway, there was a helicopter in attendence (seen here), dropping water. I caught a video of it, which I'll post when I get the chance. I always have difficulty with these blogger features.
Anyway, it was quite the sight.

And in other news, it was terribly hot today, and my brother is coming back tomorrow, bringing with him some computer games with decent game editors on them, so I can tinker with the mechanics and construct my own storylines, etc. Yay!

On Saturday, my Dad and I ran some errands before going to the open house at the local mosque. Actually, I'm not sure if it constitutes as a proper mosque, since the sign calls it an "Islamic Centre." However, it was an interesting tour, though I already knew quite a few of the details from my previous Islam course. I did pick up a free translation of the Qur'an, which I'll hopefully read sometime in the reasonably near future. Then we saw Get Smart. Perhaps later I'll post about some of these things.

The Dawkins Debate

I finished Dawkins last night. It had an interesting ending, I must say. Nothing to do with the topic of the book, no conclusion, but...interesting.

I'm not going to start my review/dispute tonight. I'm just too tired to start it now, ya ken? But I'll outline my process, and what I have in mind for future "Dawkins" labelled posts.

At the beginning of the book, I read at the computer with an open Word document in front of me, typing in various responses and comments under assorted headings (poor sportsmanship; needs explication/evidence; concessions I'm willing to make; faulty logic; places where he displays his ignorance of religion; interesting ideas). I realized, though, that I was hogging the computer when I did this, so I transfered to writing in a notebook. This allowed me to read and respond anywhere, including in my bunk before I shut the lights out. It also necessitated that I record everything strictly in chronological order, rather than under headings, but that's actually fine, since the headings limited my responses. As an interesting aside, the notebook I used was the one that I usually bring to church to make notes about the sermon[1]. I thought this notebook was the most appropriate of all my paper caches for this particular project.

I did begin to read The Dawkins Delusion? by the McGraths, but I won't be able to finish it before I have to return the books to the library. It did give me an idea about what the authors thought about TGD and what direction they were going to take in refuting it. This is interesting enough, of course, but I'd already started to sketch out a response throughout the notes I made about the book, and so I'm not too worried about trying to finish The Dawkins Delusion?. Maybe later?

I intend to structure my response to Dawkins' book in various series of sub-themed posts running concurrently. I'll begin with a straight-up refutation of the parts that I can refute and think are worth refuting. This includes the critical points of his book; if I succeed, he will have no remaining argument[2]. As I go, I will try to point out the assorted assertions with which I either wholeheartedly agree or am willing to concede because it isn't relevant/I don't pretend to know the answer. This series I'll likely call "Disputing Dawkins I, II, etc." In these I will stick to argument. I'll also run a series, maybe consistent of only one or two posts, that indicates the places where Dawkins' is deliberately offensive[3]. This will, of course, be non-exhaustive, as I can't be expected to write posts discussing better than half of the pages of a 300-page book. I'll also include assorted stylistic errors. These I will call something like "Dawkins' Style." The third more argumentative series of posts will correct the various misrepresentations of religion as a whole and religious traditions in particular, at least in so far as I know them. These will be something like "Dawkins' Misrepresentations of Religion."

In the interests of being fair, I will also include "Things I Appreciated when Reading Dawkins," which is fairly self-evident, and "Things I Learned Reading Dawkins," which is also fairly self-evident[4]. If there's anything else I want to post about that I isn't covered in any given series, I'll call it "Dawkins Moment 1, 2, etc."

And that's that, I suppose. Oh, I'll mention one basic methodological assumption I'm making. Unlike most papers I have to write for class, I'm putting the onus of Dawkins to make his point. I will try to provide evidence/argument for all of my points, but I want to indicate that Dawkins starts out his book stating that he intends to convert all of his readers to atheism. He sets up that his goal is to convince me, the reader, of his views. My only goal is to throw as many wrenches as possible into his argument. I seek not to convert anyone in these posts; I instead want to 'block' Dawkins from being able convince any of my readers, or to show them that Dawkins' book isn't in fact convincing at all. So if there is a case in which I will only be able to throw doubt on the issue instead of argue effectively for a certain position, than that is enough for me. [5]

That's all on that for tonight.

Goodnight, all.

[1] The practice of taking notes in church seems odd to some people, I realize. My church actually gives space on the bulletin for sermon notes, and provides pens in most of the pews. It is a student church, and notetaking is a habit most of us share. Usually, if I don't write it down, I'll lose the trajectory of the sermon.
[2] Some hypothetical readers would point out that Dawkins didn't actually have anything you'd call an "argument" in the first place. I'll get to this in the "Disputing Dawkins" posts.
[3] It will be convenient to point out at this juncture that I am constructing a fictional entity called "Dawkins" to describe the speaker-figure, and not the historical person of Richard Dawkins who did the actual penning of the book. I write the following for formalist readers who would prefer that I use "speaker" instead of "Dawkins," as per avoiding the Intentional Fallacy: most of my readers will be more comfortable with a name instead of a phantom construction, and I will always try to be clear that I cannot attribute any of the ideas I point out to the historical Dawkins himself. In this case, though, I think it's clear that the historical Dawkins is either deliberately offensive, or insensitive to the point of sociopathy.
[4] These things I learned will be more a self-discovery than the reception of interesting facts provided by Dawkins.
[5] And speaking of method, I'll talk about these footnotes. I noticed that I use parentheses too often, and so I will now try to point parenthetical ideas to important to omit but too tangental to include in the body into these footnotes. I hope it works.

Go to the Dawkins Directory

Friday, 27 June 2008

Halfway through Dawkins

Alright, I just finished the chapter on "Why There Is Almost Certainly No God."

Has anyone read this book? Has anyone gone past this chapter? Does he ever explain why (he thinks) there is almost certainly no God? Does he? If so, please let me know. Because I seemed to think it might happen in this chapter, and it didn't. (Or maybe I missed it...somehow?)

I especially thought it might have been supposed to happen in the chapter when he ended it by saying (paraphrased very slightly for effect), "And that is why there is almost certainly no God." I was left to think, "Wait, what is why...?"

As I said before, I want to wait until I've finished the book before a launch a formal response. However, if he is really done arguing for God's improbability, and is really now working on explaining 1) why there is religion and 2) why it is bad, there's going to be a bit of a problem. He hasn't even done what he said he had wanted to do/had succeeded in doing with this chapter, and the rest of the book promises to rest on this chapter having proved its point.

OK, he gives a shot at it. But he starts with all sorts of interesting premises (some of which I find problematic anyway), and then he tries to refute a few points, and then he makes some assertions, and then he assembles them all into a list. But he never explains where his assertions come from, he tries to justify his premises (or those he explicitly states) with reasoning by analogy (which will send any half-decent philosopher's alarm bells ringing, and I suspect that any self-respecting scientist--who really is a special type of philosopher--wouldn't even both with reasoning by analogy anyway). And then he touts his refutations as proofs. And the list, when assembled, doesn't even prove God's improbability anyway.

To break down what I just said into more logical terms: 1) his premises are problematic; 2) his method is faulty; and 3) he doesn't even arrive at his point.

Really, I must express shock and frustration. Shock because I had heard how rational this man was supposed to be, and frustration because so many people seem to buy into this.

If I have any readers at all, some of them will likely be angry at me by this point. I am assuming, angry readers, that you believe that Dawkins argument makes sense. Please, I ask you, if you made sense of it, explain it to me. It's possible, I suppose, that his style just sucks and I can't make out the argument because it's poorly presented.

Perhaps, though, you ought to hold on to your explanation until I post about my reading of it. Then you can see where I'm coming from, and what my specific objections to his "argument" are.

The point of this post, of course, was to vent about that chapter more than to refute it. It's a sort of, "Here's where English Clergyman is right now, emotionally and intellectually speaking." I was told by a friend that he prefers reading blogs about people's lives, which he finds interesting, and less about other stuff--perhaps he meant short fiction and links/excerpts I find interesting, which is what this blog started out as. Well, this is about my life today, I suppose. More accurately, this is about my general frustration in this last hour or hour and a half.

Bah. I no longer like this project. Also, I have to return the book on Wednesday. I likely won't have the time to read The Dawkins Delusion?, which I was looking forward to.

Thursday, 26 June 2008



Haven't finished Dawkins' TGD yet, but I'm working on it. I'm starting to see a real argument develop. I just got through his refutation of arguments for the existence of God; this interested me only in the rhetorical devices Dawkins used and the places where he betrayed his ignorance of religion. I generally don't stand much by the proofs of God, myself, and so don't care much whether or not he disproves them--he'd hardly be the first. Ever since I've been dissuaded from thinking that Pascal's wager is convincing, I've generally taken to shooting down proofs of God when I see them, too. Proof, really, is not the point, and most religious people will tell you that with no qualms at all. But I'll get to this later when I refute the book for real.

I'm just getting into his evolution bit, concerning "Why there is almost certainly no God." We'll see how that goes.

The problem is that I generally have much more fun reading Freakonomics, which is terribly clever and witty. I don't know whether it's good economics, but it's certainly thought-provoking. I don't want to get all jittery before I try to go to bed, and that's usually what an intellectual argument--even with a book--does to me. Freakonomics doesn't do that to me.

Well, I ought to go to bed soon. I wish I could relate some cool anecdote here, but, alas, I ought to go.

In that case, adieu.

The Philosophy of Wikipedia Part II

There was a comment on my original Wikipedia post, which I will (briefly) discuss now.

lorda presley says, "blah blah blah. wha's wrong with wikidpedia. are you mad that the truth is actually the element water. you cannot contain it, bro. rahthe kingdom of god is within you."

Well, I don't really think there's anything wrong with Wikipedia, per se, and I'm not sure that they article I posted does either. Even if it did, I'm more interested in people talking about Wikipedia than I'm interested in agreeing with one philosophy about it or another. I'm not particularly mad about anything, and I didn't think the original post gave that impression. I certainly hope it doesn't.

I'd like to say, though, that I appreciate both lorda presley's readership (and your own, any who are reading this), and his affirmation that the kingdom of god is with me--as I hope it is with us all.

Oh, and I've been getting a smattering of blog spam lately. What's up with that?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Moonstone the Skunk

Do you remember the guest professor I was talking about before? Professor G? Well, my regular professor had told us another story about her, which I will relate to you instead of going to bed, like I should.

Prof. G. once had a pair of companions living in her home. She has a particular affinity for animals, and in the summer leaves her door open for animals to come and go. At one point, she had a groundhog and a skunk living in her home. Specifically, they slept in her armchair. At dusk or so, the skunk would crawl out of the arm of the chair and wander outside. A few moments later, the groundhog would come in, pull a wad out of the arm of the chair, crawl in, and go to sleep. In the morning, the groundhog would come out of the chair, stretch, and wander outside. A few moments later, the skunk would come back in, stuff the wad back into the arm, crawl in, and go to sleep.

Now, both animals were wild. They weren't tame, and they certainly weren't pets. Prof G did, however, christen the skunk "Moonstone."

Moonstone liked to go for car rides (I'm not sure how Prof G and Moonstone discovered this). When Prof G went to lecture at university, she would wake Moonstone up and show him the cat carrier. If Moonstone felt up to a ride, he'd get in the carrier and away they'd go. When they got to the lecture hall, she'd put Moonstone's carrier behind the podium so nobody got nervous. No one ever knew...until the one day she didn't latch the cat carrier properly.

Prof G. was giving a lecture on Native North American worldview, and she hadn't noticed until Moonstone was halfway across the floor between the podium and the first row of seats. She kept quiet about it, knowing that if she pointed Moonstone out, there'd be a panic and he might spray. Moonstone wandered up to the front and started sniffing students' backpacks at their feet. Once Moonstone was satisfied, he sauntered back to his carrier and got in. Quickly, then, she latched the cage so he couldn't get back out.

Then she asked the class, "Did anyone just see anything unsual?"

At first no one put up their hand, but then one girl did: "Well, this sounds weird, but I thought I saw a skunk...except it can't be that, because there can't be a skunk in here."

Prof G. picked up the cat carrier, put it on the podium, and opened the door. A little black-and-white stripped nose poked out...and the class went into a panic, grabbing their bags and running from the room.

The moral, according to my professor, is that the post-Enlightenment way of thinking, for all of its benefits, has several problems, one of which being that we literally do not see something if we don't believe it is possible...and this has reprecussions in the study of religion, particularly Aboriginal religions. This theory may not be terribly interesting, so I'll leave it at that. You can post if you want more info.

However, is this not an awesome story? I now keep hoping for the day that I see a skunk in class, wandering around at my feet. If it happens, I plan to stay very quiet, and maybe I'll have the chance to pet him...and hopefully I won't get sprayed when the class freaks out and runs away.

Monday, 23 June 2008

The Philosophy of Wikipedia

I thought this article was somewhat interesting... I suppose I didn't realize that the philosophy of information discussions over Wikipedia in a certain sense originate with the passion (here, 'fundamentalism') if its founder.

Preview: Wikipedia was partially designed by this demi-celebrity who is an Objectivist (ie. believes in an objective, knowable reality). Many critics claim that Wikipedia is essentially relativist, a sort of meeting-point for different realities. This co-founder disagrees, claiming that it is a process working towards a consensus about reality. If philosophy of knowledge and cyber-politics interests you, then you should read the whole article. Oh, and it talks about Ayn Rand a lot.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Dawkins' book

Well, I started reading The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. It seems to be a book that is surrounded with controversy and has a lot of popularity in undergraduate academia...or at least the particular part I'm in. I was pretty sure from the outset (when I first heard the premise) that the book would be laughable, but given the amount of people, presumably reasonable people, who say it's convincing (albiet ones who were already convinced before reading it), I thought I'd really better read it before judging.

I had expected it to be either an intelligent book that was slightly infuriating in its good logic (ie. it wasn't easy for me to shoot down), or a book full of ridiculously transparent arguments. The latter would have been immediately satisfying, but worrisome in the long run (ie. how can so many people buy this? what's the world coming to?); the former would be more frustrating, also worrisome in the long run (ie. what if he manages to convince too many people?), but more rewarding when/if I puzzle my way through the argument.

What I did not expect is a book with no argument at all, but almost pure rhetoric, laced with logical fallacies. Now, I am not even half-way through yet, so I can't come down on Dawkins too hard. By now I know it's stylistically flawed and that, were I a TA, I would be forced to give him a poor grade for lack of explication and general organizational problems. But I cannot yet speak for the argument. I had just expected for there to be one by this point (page 70 something, I think?).

Anyway, when I'm done I'll post my assesment of it. Don't worry, atheist readers (if there are any--I don't really think my blog is terribly well-read), I will concede the good points he has made, and the parts that really are funny. But I will also point out the parts that seem calculatedly offensive (or at least some of them; there are many) and the parts where he claims to have proved his point when he hasn't even begun to prove it.

I have to take breaks when reading it, though, or else I get all hyped up on thinking and can't sleep, and then I'm all stupid at work.

Usher Cures Lesbianism

This is way too good to pass up:

Wow. If only we had known the "solution" was that simple.

Usually I regret reading MSN news, but every once and a while it's worth it. I wonder if anyone will make a really big fuss about this. Someone really ought to.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Pictures of insects

I thought I would open this with butterflies, since everyone loves butterflies. This one was quite "tame," and let me get very close.
This fellow (a tiger swallowtail) was out in the woods north of Fort McMurray.

The people in Alberta call these little fellas June bugs, but anyone who knows insects knows that this is not a June bug. Tarsands beetle is also a common name, but pine beetle or cedar sawyer are more accurate. Occasionally they bite, taking a chunk off your arm; that's only when they think you're a tree. It's fun to watch them fly, as their antennae poke way up and their bottoms (abdomen, if you prefer) hang down.

This is blurrier, but it allows you to see the length of the antennae.

This sphinx moth was in the stair well two years ago.

A bumblebee at work last year.
When I get my hands on more insect pictures, I will post them!
EDIT July 29, 2008:

This is an unfortunately blurry picture of a grasshopper. I tried to use my supermacro, but it, alas, focused behind him.

And this is a ladybug behind Drumheller.

EDIT September 13, 2008:

I have no idea what this guy is. He's awesome though. Pinery, last year.

EDIT 26 January 2009: a stick insect, a giant madagascar hissing cockaroach, and butterflies, from the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge.

EDIT: 4 June 2008; I think you call this a stonefly.

This is another tarsands beetle (see Wally the Bug above). He landed on the outside of the window, so I got some close-ups. Do you know what's cool about these guys (other than the length of their antennae)? They have pivoting necks. They can crane their head up to look around. The first picture captures this, I think.
Also, I should clean the window.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Writer's Block

Well, between being busy at work and wasting lots of time, I haven't posted in ages.

I suppose I'm posting just to lament about my terrible writer's block. I have no idea what to write about. I'm torn between just wanting to write "a story" (in the sense of Stephen King's critique...see his intro to The Bauchman Books and read Danse Macabre to get a sense of what I mean), wanting to write "prose like liquid poetry" (a phrase I just made up to both commend parody the style of Ondaatje, who I just read), and wanting to insert some level of meaning, significance, or emotion into it. The first two I can likely handle just fine, but the last... it doesn't jive well with the first, especially when you don't have a plot or really anything to say. C. S. Lewis once said something about not trying to be original; just tell the truth and by the time you'll probably find you were original anyway.

I mean, I have general some point I want to write something about the lives of folks in Fort McMurray. A collection of short stories, sort of thing. But I have nothing coming as far as short stories are concerned.

Well, that's enough whining. I'll sign off now.
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