Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Do we have free will?

I recently interviewed professor of neuroscience Thalia Wheatley for an episode of Talk the Talk, but at the tail end of the interview, I threw her a curveball and asked her about free will. I've been trying to understand this for a long time. Do we choose something, or does our brain just… do it? And if it does, what does that mean?

Here's that part of our conversation.


If you want some prep, here's a video of Thalia with actor Alan Alda.


The rest of our interview will be appearing in an episode this August. Watch for it!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Daniel font rundown: World traveller edition

Stephan Wagner is using the Daniel font to show his travels all over the world. It gives his site a cool 'diary' feel.
I'm a sucker for books that use Yataghan, and here Pete Mahr has used it to psychotically good effect on his eBook festival. Get it here.

Josh Work loves the Daniel Black font, and he's included it as a watermark on his wonderful photographs. Head over to his Flickr page and check them out. But where's the text? It's in the lower right-hand corner of every picture. With his keen eye, he's reduced the opacity until it's nothing but a whisper, easy to spot if you're looking for it, but not distracting if you're not. 

Find and download all my fonts on the Page of Fontery. Thanks to everyone who keeps using them, and if you've made something great, let me know and you might see your work here!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Response to "Quit Acting Like Christ Was Accepting of Everyone and Everything"

A Latter-day Saint on my Facebook feed has posted a link to Greg Trimble's blog post: "Quit Acting Like Christ Was Accepting of Everyone and Everything".

It's partly a response to the Kelly/Dehlin excommunications, but also a call-to-arms for conservative Mormons to hold fast to their intolerance and authoritarianism. It says, in part:
I don’t care whether you’re Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, or any other type of Christian…one thing is for certain. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a ‘buffet’ that you can compile your perfect plate from. There is no salvation in building your own religion or customizing Christ to suit your needs and wants. The popular trend is to determine how you’d like to live your life and then to conform Christ to that lifestyle. It is done by appealing to Christ’s infinite love and mercy. But you can’t just go around rehearsing that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) and then be done with it. John 3:16 is awesome…but it’s just one verse! God wouldn’t have given you all of those other verses if he didn’t want you to read them and apply them.
In my response, I decided to ignore the fact that conservative Mormons are cherry-picking just like the liberal ones are, and to focus instead on the inflexible 'iron rod' mentality that I see in this piece.

Here's my Facebook response, written to a wall full of Mormons:
I'd like to respectfully share my thoughts, even though I'm coming from the perspective of an ex-Mormon atheist.

In a way, I completely agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. So many times, I've seen liberal religious people saying, "Jesus would have loved everybody! Jesus was all about the lerrrve." And my response has been, "While it's admirable that you're trying to emulate those good qualities, 'love everybody' is by no means the sum totality of Jesus' message."

Jesus was a 1st-century rabbi who knew the law of Moses, which required (for instance) gay people to be killed. While he was somewhat revolutionary in his willingness to teach women, there's no indication that he would have been aligned in any significant way with 21st century political liberals.

I confess that I have an ulterior motive in pointing this out to people: I secretly like it when religious conservatives (like the author) give voice to sentiments like these, because I know that this is the one thing that is driving people away from conservative religions like the LDS Church. The more hardened and stuck Latter-day Saints are in these attitudes, the fewer people will be attracted to the LDS Church and to Christianity, and as an atheist, I think this is a good thing. My biggest nightmare is that the Church will liberalise, because then it will become more appealing to people and actually become stronger. There is a lot that is (or could be) good about the church, but currently a small constellation of political issues and actions are making it less-than-appealing to potential converts, and churches who take this course are not surviving. This may not be a concern if you think that the church is true, inspired, and can't fail. From my outside perspective, I think members should be very alarmed.

I will say one thing about the liberal religionists: Yes, they are cherry-picking the good bits, and ignoring what's in the scriptures. But they are generally nicer and better people for it; less authoritarian, less likely to have oppressive attitudes toward women, less likely to reject their gay kids. I agree that a strict reading of scripture lends itself to the kind of conclusions that this author is arriving at. But I'd say, so much the worse for the strict reading. I don't think it leads to a good place.

I welcome your thoughts on this.
For religions like the LDS Church that fight social justice and inclusion in a world where doing so is less and less acceptable, there's only one way for the numbers to go. It will shrink and harden into a rump. Yes, it's sad that good people are getting harmed by the dogma of this church. But if it refuses to change, then I'm happy to watch it drive itself into the ground, and drive away its younger and more tolerant membership.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Font rundown: Looks good, sounds good.

Creative people have been doing things with my fonts lately that I just had to let you know about.

First, though, just so you'll enjoy this blogpost more, hit play on this bar, and listen to soop! "Ostrich of War" is the lead single from their new EP, Buffalo Buffalo. You're welcome.


And what's the typeface on that EP? Why, it's the Daniel face. You should totally buy this from their Bandcamp page. I bought it before I even knew it used my font because

  1. it sounds amazing and they are the future of pop
  2. I happen to know Stacy Gougoulis, a member of soop and someone who appears on some important episodes of my Talk the Talk podcast.
Get it in ya.


The next one uses Yataghan: a book by Tonje Torres entitled Hulder. The cover is eerily erotic, and I really like what they're done with the H. Maybe I'll be stealing that for a future version.

And finally from the desk of Form Productions, an advertisement for a project about our own dear  William Street. I love Perth because people can get sentimental about a street.

You can download my fonts for free on the Page of Fontery.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

I swam naked… and survived! Reflections on skinny dipping

Today I got naked with 800 people and jumped into the ocean. It was an attempt at the world's biggest skinny dip at Perth's Swanbourne Beach.

You may not know this, reader, but at one time I was a rather enthusiastic nude beach goer. In my Mormon days, no less. Even though I normally wore the g's, I loved the opportunity to throw off the constraints of clothing and swim freely with nothing on.

The first time I went to a nude beach was in Barcelona in 2004. I didn't know what to expect. What I found was people, doing people things. Some old, some young. Gay couples cuddled, a professor-looking type strode au natural across the sand. But the thing that stood out most to me was a young couple kissing. He drew a modest towel around himself, and he and she kissed like boys and girls have kissed on that same Spanish beach for millennia. I was seeing something primal and human. I was watching Orpheus and Euridice. The eternal dance.

I've had that kind of experience at nude beaches several times. Once on a stroll, I saw a nude man and woman, and as I got closer, I saw their baby was with them. The human family. Somehow the lack of clothing made the moment transcendant.

Then I would go back to church, with their conventional views on 'modesty' and 'morality', and I'd think, What a small worldview. This world is so much more than they can imagine. It was one more thing that got me thinking, and put some mental distance between me and the church.

The people at Swanbourne Beach are not much of a draw really — lots of dudes, some younger couples (shy female, won't undress), and gangs of leathery 60-somethings sitting around talking, being entirely too comfortable around each other. But that's okay; I don't care how people look. There's something about getting nude in public that's very come-as-you-are. Everyone looks fine to me. Which was the message of the Skinny Dip: everyone's body is fine. Proceeds are even going to the Butterfly Foundation, which raises awareness about body image.

So this was a good chance to get back to the dear old Swanny. Oldest Boy (now 19) opted not to come along because a) Dad naked, and b) there might be too much penis for his liking. He's quite right; these things do tend to get rather penisy.

I wondered what the headline in the West would be: perhaps Naked Skinny-Dip for Charity: 800 Nudists Hit Swanbourne for World Record Attempt. I actually ran into some friends at the event, and we chatted in our sarongs, provided by the organisers. It was a cold grey morning, but no one seemed to mind.

But when we all got to the water and got our gear off, there was a plot twist: choppy seas and huge waves. A horn sounded, and in we went, the front line getting battered by walls of water. Now the headline was Terror Dip: Sexy Swim Becomes Desperate Race for Survival as 3-Meter Waves Pound Shore. It was such a struggle to get into the water that I could hardly concentrate on the boobs. The trick to avoiding waves is to get out past them, but the 600 or so people who made it that far found themselves on a roiling roller-coaster that was quite worrying, but actually really fun. Good thing the Surf Life Savers were out there on their jet skis, watching everyone like hawks.

Did we make the world record? No, for that to happen we'd all have to be in the water for 5 minutes, and about 100 people looked at those waves and said NOPE. I don't blame them, especially if they didn't feel they were strong swimmers. That stuff was dangerous. I was dumped by a serious wave on the way in and lost my hat, but hats can be replaced. It was still fun, and I'd do it again next year.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Telling Mormons about Mormonism

It was O-Day at UWA, and I like to help out with the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society. Would you believe: our booth was right next to the Mormons.

I learned something rather surprising: faithful active Mormons seem to be completely unaware of the new essays on church topics. Could it be that there was a purpose in releasing them in the dead of night with zero fanfare?

So I took it upon myself to tell them about these wonderful resources put out by the church.














Friday, 21 February 2014

Is he gone yet?

Orientation Day has come around again at my university, which means religious groups are canvassing. And that includes a huge group of Mormon elders and sisters. They're nice, but it doesn't seem honest that they form an ad hoc campus club (the LDSSA) that never does anything during the semester. It's almost like it's — gosh — a front for getting missionaries onto campus. Oh well, Mormons gotta morm.

I was chatting with one of them, and then this happened.

















Saturday, 8 February 2014

Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit speaks on atheism, doubt, and life

I recently got the chance to speak with Scott Hutchison in an interview for RTRfm. He's the frontman for the acclaimed Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit.

I'd noticed that some of their songs discuss atheism, most recently the song 'Late March, Death March' from the album Pedestrian Verse, with its lyric "There isn't a god, so I'll save my breath" and "So unfurrow that brow, and plant those seeds of doubt."

So I decided to ask Scott about it. This part didn't make it into the interview, so here it is.

Link to file, if the player isn't working.

If you'd like to hear the rest of the interview, it's on the RTRfm website.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The LDS statement on DNA and the Book of Mormon

The LDS Church dropped their latest Big Essay this Friday. Friday's the day that PR organisations drop press releases that they hope won't attract a lot of attention. And that makes sense, because I don't think anyone at Church HQ was looking forward to writing this one. It's on DNA and the Book of Mormon.

There have already been some takedowns and discussion on the individual points it makes, and I'm not a population geneticist, so I'll just defer to them.

But from my perspective, here are the interesting bits. In the second paragraph, we hit this:
Although the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is more spiritual than historical, some people have wondered whether the migrations it describes are compatible with scientific studies of ancient America.
This was so jaw-dropping, I had to read it a couple of times. Are they actually backing away from the historicity of the Book of Mormon? It's a very common tactic in apologetics to kick things a rung or two up the ladder of abstraction so they can't be falsified, but this is a shift that I've never even seen hinted at. Weakening the historical case for the Book of Mormon is one step away from saying it didn't happen. And that makes me wonder if church leaders even believe it anymore. Make no mistake, this is a meme to watch in the coming years.

Another tack I noticed is the Church's retreat into obscurantism. Notice the kind of language they use:
Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples…

DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby.

Nothing is known about the extent of intermarriage and genetic mixing between Book of Mormon peoples or their descendants and other inhabitants of the Americas…

…the picture is not entirely clear.

One reason it is difficult to use DNA evidence to draw definite conclusions about Book of Mormon peoples is that nothing is known about the DNA that Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, and others brought to the Americas.

It is possible that each member of the emigrating parties described in the Book of Mormon had DNA typical of the Near East, but it is likewise possible that some of them carried DNA more typical of other regions.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, clear information of that kind is unavailable.

it is quite possible that their DNA markers did not survive the intervening centuries.

…the evidence is simply inconclusive. Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples.

As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed, “It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”

Retreat into the unknown

What a lot of mealy-mouthed vacillation. Is this the same group that boldly proclaims that a god restored the everlasting gospel, and that we know for a surety of its truthfulness? But now, when there are questions about its foundational text, they sound like Hans Moleman. When you have the facts on your side, you state the facts. If someone's trying to obscure things and retreat into uncertainty, you can bet they don't have the facts on their side.

The phrase "Nothing is known about…" is repeated four times. Gee, it's too bad they don't have a… prophet or something to help them with that. It's this kind of thing that made me realise that listening to a prophet is a really weird and unreliable method of getting information.

Possibilism

There's also a heavy emphasis on the idea that "you can't prove or disprove" the Book of Mormon story, with the implication that the probability of it being true or not is about 50-50. It's not 50-50. The bulk of the probability that the Mormon story is true is vanishingly small, and shrinking. Yet some people will hold onto that tiny sliver of hope, as long as they think it's still 'possible'.

I call this possibilistic reasoning, by which I mean 'a tendency to look only at the possible, holding onto one's preconceptions until they're conclusively disproven, one hundred and one percent'. This is how true believing Mormons hold onto their belief in the Church. God, Jesus, and the ghost of Joseph Smith could appear and tell them it was all a fake, and they'd write it off as the devil's deception. They'll ignore the bulk of probability, and hold onto the sliver. It's the same way some of them reject evolution and climate change. The possibility that it's wrong (and there's always a possibility) is enough for them to reject it and keep going with whatever they like.

By contrast, probabilistic reasoning looks at the bulk of probability. How true is a thing likely to be, given the evidence we have? By this reasoning, evolution and climate change are extremely likely — not 100%, but close. And the Book of Mormon, with no evidence on its side, but a lot of strikes against it, is likely false.

When discussing this with my friend Mark Ellison, he remarked, "I think possibilistic reasoning is responsible for a great deal of intellectual evil," and I'd have to agree.

So this DNA statement from the First Quorum of the Anonymous may be somewhat comforting to possibilistic reasoners who are trying to sustain their faith in the irrational, but it's falling flat with people who are concerned with basing their views on the best evidence.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

New Witnesses this time













And really, what terrible thing did the people in Noah's time (allegedly) do? Make fun of some 500-year-old duffer? Worth the death penalty for sure.

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