The Joy of Not Knowing

What is the meaning of life? Does it have any meaning beyond what we give it? Science is suspiciously quiet on this subject, so the answers have come almost exclusively from religion. There are literally thousands of competing stories to choose from – and of course each claims to be the only truth.

If only one of these stories can be true, the remainder are at best half-truths and mostly lies. It seems unreasonable to expect someone to discover which one, if any at all, is correct. Unfortunately, even presuming one of these stories is true, the myriad of choices also ensures that the vast majority of people following a faith are living a lie. 

I sometimes long for the certainty of blind belief. It is rewarding to be able to step outside the tunnel vision of such a dogmatic viewpoint and see all sides of an issue, but it certainly is not as comforting. The necessity of endless judgement and learning is wearying at times like these to be sure, but it’s ultimately more satisfying than capitulation to unreason. Still – it’s pretty hard not to be envious of those who see meaning and purpose in all of this madness.

I don’t know the answers. I’ve come to view my ignorance in these fundamental questions as good thing. There is no clear purpose to life other than the ones we create ourselves. A search for meaning generally leads people to mirrors of one kind or another, anyway. Kind people find meaning in service. Frightened people find meaning in assurance. I’m no different. My curiosity and skepticism lead me to find meaning in truth, discovery, knowledge, wisdom and insight.

I know this. Embracing learning as my primary goal keeps me challenging my own viewpoint. This endless search leads to so much wonder and beauty that it has become its own motivator. It also leads to boundless awe, deep pride in our accomplishments and vast humility regarding our collective ignorance.

The joy of not knowing is in the pleasure of finding far more than I sought.

On Leaving the LDS Church

I was born into a Mormon family and some of my earliest memories are of singing cute songs about sunbeams and apricot blossoms alongside things I didn’t really understand. Mormon indoctrination is highly systematic. They start with fun stuff, program you with rote learning by song, then load on important decisions and responsibility before you know how to say no or even understand what you are getting into. I would argue that eight years old far too soon for any kid to understand what baptism is or the implications of joining a church. But when your friends all get dunked and everyone expects it, you get dunked too. There’s a steady layering on of expectations as you get older. I’ll spare those who aren’t familiar with them the tedious reality. Let’s just say it gets to be a lot less fun and a lot more like a part time job by the time you are an adult.

My rejection of the faith of my family started with my voracious appetite for stories. I read incessantly in my youth and instinctively knew a good story from a poor one. Not that I spent a lot of time in my youth in contemplation of religion. At the time it was merely an increasingly tedious weekly prison made of uncomfortable clothes and boring, boring speeches. About age ten I found that science fiction and fantasy were far more appealing than reality and I was thus exposed to a multiverse of fantastic ideas and possibilities.

At the same time, I also discovered the magic of computing and largely due to the draw of video games learned everything I could about them. This bolstered my interest in math and science and in the process, taught me that the scientific method may not provide all the answers, but it was by far the most reliable way humans know of for finding the truth.

I was also strongly influenced by attending an LDS seminary in my early years of high school. But rather than further indoctrinating me, learning more about religion only made me realize that the deeper you look, the more inconsistencies that you find. At some point I realized that the only absolute truths I could depend on were rooted in logic and anything else was just someone’s opinion.

Church became a source of conflict toward the end of high school. I had no interest or intention to attend and my parents were insistent that I not shirk my duties as a church member. This finally came to a head and in a moment of frustration, I told them I wasn’t sure that I believed in the church. I was surprised at the time that this got them back off a bit and not push as hard for my participation.

My disillusionment regarding religion didn’t dissuade me from thinking about it or researching it. I was not convinced that I had found truth, only that what I was told was truth didn’t match up with reality. The only thing that I was certain of was that most humans believe some form or another of complete nonsense. I spent years looking, reading and even praying for answers.

I even had a prayer answered. That is to say, I had a religious experience while in a very stressful situation in my early twenties and was reaching out for any kind of hope. I was almost a Mormon again for a few months. As the afterglow of this experience faded, I kept looking and hoping for answers to my doubts, but I still found nothing to put a solid foundation under my experience. I eventually realized I had succumbed to the completely human foible of believing in my own fantasy. Realizing I was also able to believe complete nonsense was quite humbling. 

It was also incredibly freeing. I no longer strove and yearned for religious answers to the big questions in life. There was no reason to assume anyone else’s experience was more true than mine had been. I was also suddenly free of the dogma I had inherited. I had the ability and responsibility to evaluate the morality of every situation based on my understanding and empathy. I began to see far more nuance and shades of gray where only the black and white of good and bad existed before. I rejected many of the tenets of my former religion while keeping those that still made sense and found there is actually still a lot of good advice in scripture if you can get past the amorality, misogyny, contradictions and absurdities. ‘Moderation in all things’ is probably the best single rule for life, after ‘Don’t be a dick’.

Contrary to popular belief, someone who abandons religion does not abandon morality. If you weren’t in favor of murder before, you won’t be after. Your reasoning changes, but your character does not. The life you are living is all you can expect and living and sharing a good life here and now becomes your paramount interest. It may seem counter-intuitive, but abandoning your religion and being guided by empathy can also lead to a more Christ-like life hallmarked by kindness, kinship, acceptance and fairness largely due to a rejection of the exclusion, judgement and tribalism of a dogmatic religious viewpoint.

I have always been a seeker of truth and losing my religion further lowered my tolerance for falsehoods. I was keen to keep others from being fooled and to help others free themselves from their mental bondage so I went on a crusade. It was a good time to argue theology on the internet and oh man, I did. I soon discovered that I knew very little of all there is to know about Mormons specifically and Christianity in general. This drove me to do a lot of research that resulted in finding more and more and more and so much more that I was yet unaware was wrong with Mormonism, Christianity and theology as a whole.

The final nail in Mormonism’s coffin for me was that the archaeological record from the new world is completely at odds with the Book of Mormon’s descriptions of flora, fauna, events and technology. Potatoes and other crops are not mentioned, but barley and wheat are. Horses and elephants are mentioned but bison, llamas and alpacas are not. There are numerous examples of anachronisms and inconsistencies in the text and the apologist’s explanations are weak in themselves and absurd when viewed in the light of the book being a purportedly direct divine translation of ancient texts.

In short, the evidence says very clearly that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction and therefore Joseph Smith was clearly a fraud. His penchant for spinning such lies was illustrated most clearly and indefensibly by his ‘translation’ of several Egyptian papyri into the ‘Book of Abraham’. As you might imagine, his translation has no connection with the real meaning of the original documents that were later translated by real experts.

Finally satisfied that my abandonment of the LDS church was not only justified, but the only logical course of action, I have drifted away from the subject. In the last decade, I have come to avoid discussions of Mormonism rather than to seek it as I once did. I have no desire to offend or criticize those who still believe, many of whom I love and respect. The idea of picking a fight with someone over a belief system that gives them comfort is abhorrent to me. I officially left the church a few years ago when the fight against gay marriage was at its height. The total lack of empathy in the church’s public stance was simply one blindly hurtful act too many for me to take.

In closing, I’d like to point out that there are many wrong ideas about the irreligious peddled by believers for generally unkind reasons and I’d like to clear up one of them. I often hear some variation of ‘You’re just mad at God’ from believers trying to discount the experience or opinion of someone who has abandoned religion. Anger is certainly part of the process. I tried to be angry at my parents, but soon realized that they were victims, as were all church members. I tried to be angry at humanity for being so foolish and easy to fool, but I may as well be mad at a fish for swimming. However, I’ve yet to find a non-believer that is angry at God. That’s because it’s pretty hard to be angry with something you don’t believe exists. Ask yourself if you could be dazzlingly furious with Zeus.

American Guns

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Ask ten people what this means and you’ll get ten different answers. Is it a right to individual possession of revolutionary war era weaponry? A right for well regulated militias to possess the most modern available means of defense? A limited right to keep and bear a list of devices deemed not too scary for the current voting age populace?

Certainly, the founders could not fully understand how this decision would affect America’s legacy in light of the technological advancements of over two centuries. We’ll never know what other choices they would have made with greater foresight. And, frankly it doesn’t matter what they thought. Hindsight is always far clearer than any attempt to guess at the needs of future generations. What does matter is what we intend to do with our current situation.

Gun violence kills many times more people per capita in America than any other wealthy country. Contrary to the talking points of pundits and misleading posts on social media, research shows that it is not mental illness, violent video games, the breakdown of family values or other seemingly sensible explanations. By a wide margin, the strongest correlating factor for all types of gun violence worldwide is gun availability. The reason violent crime in America  is many times more deadly compared with other countries is just because we have many times more guns.

It’s not hard to understand. A guy bent on violence with a knife, a club or a bow and arrow generally kills fewer people than the same guy with a semi-automatic or a hellfire missile. A small percentage of any population will eventually turn to violence. It’s human nature. The difference is how much damage they can do.

What about defense from tyranny? I once thought it was good to have at least one big nation on the earth with an armed populace to allow them to hold off global tyranny. I’ve since realized that public opinion is easily swayed with sufficient resources and that gun owners are just as likely to be on the side of the oppressor in such a fight. If your purpose in owning a gun is to ensure you can take up arms against a tyrannical government then you need to accept that while guerrillas with guns can resist for decades, you are committed to a course of action that pits you against stealth fighters, drones and crazy new technology weapons like microwave rays on top of a whole lot of people with their guns. I’m not saying it’s hopeless, but you may want to consider voting first and shooting second.

For self defense, you are better off getting a bull terrier than a bull pup. Investing in a muay thai course or an alarm system will probably reduce your likelihood of death by gunshot, but investing in a Glock will probably increase it. Yes, guns are very effective for self defense. But statistics clearly show they’re more likely to be shot at someone who lives in your house than anyone else.

What do we do about the guns? No, we don’t need to get rid of all the guns. However, we could melt down 90% of them and still have as many per person as the average country. Perhaps we could afford to be just a bit pickier about who we let have them? You have to have a license to fish, for Pete’s sake. Some lightweight regulation could save a lot of lives without taking anything away from sportsmen, responsible owners and the odd prepper who thinks they may have to out-shoot Uncle Sam.

But wait! If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns! Trite, but not wrong. Outlawing things that are in demand doesn’t necessarily get rid of them. I’m looking at you, war on drugs. However, as many have pointed out, regulating drugs would likely be more effective than an outright ban. One thing is for certain. Public opinion is swaying against gun owners. Better to act now and organize self-regulation you can live with than to wait until the other side passes government regulations you’d rather die than comply with.

The Miracle Paradox

Miracles are what makes a god godly. No matter your idea of god, the truth is that no one would waste a moment worshipping a god that could not perform miracles.

What is a miracle? You could say a miracle is any action of a god that alters reality to a strongly positive outcome. You’ve probably heard someone call a comeback victory – or a cancer remission – or someone winning the lottery a miracle. Are they? Not really. Lotteries are well understood mathematical games that only lottery organizers really win. Cancer battles are actually won by doctors and researchers. Anything with causes that can be fully understood and explained by math, science and reason is not a miracle – the universe is just behaving normally according to known rules. 

Well, what if god acts too subtly for us to detect? Maybe god’s hand pulled my favorite numbers in PowerBall. Maybe the ball would have bounced out, but god’s hand guided it into the goal. Well, honestly who cares? If we can’t know one way or the other if god did something, then why call it a miracle? Any time a god’s changes are too subtle for humans to detect then there is no reason for us to presume the god made any changes at all. If you then posit that even the most mundane occurrences are acts of god because god is the prime mover, then we still need to reserve the term ‘miracle’ for truly exceptional, unexplainable outcomes, not the simple cause and effect of the universe acting normally.

A miracle must be a clear violation of natural laws. Worldwide flooding, virgin births, raising the dead and feeding a multitude with five loaves and two small fishes are obvious miracles. Why? Because they are impossible. The rules that govern reality are being bent, broken or ignored – the universe not acting normally.

Miracles defy logic. You could argue that virgin birth and raising the dead are actually within reach of medical science – at least from a certain point of view. However, no one seriously claims that IVF and CPR are true miracles. They are merely extensions of natural law and human ingenuity. Similarly, if aliens show up tomorrow and demonstrate that they can flood the earth at will, this would not be considered a miracle because there would be a logical explanation in some form of advanced technology, some discoverable knowledge. In short, a miracle that can be explained is not a miracle at all. A miracle must present some kind of impossibility; a paradox.

This is where it gets weird. The requirement for miracles to exceed the bounds of logic leads us into uncertain territory. If a god is unlimited by logic, then any statement about made about them can be both true and false.  Such a god can be both good and evil, powerful and powerless; they can be simultaneously Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Satan, Baal, Vishnu and Thor. All bets are off. Creatures who are bound by logic such as ourselves cannot know anything for certain regarding such a being.

We could back-pedal a bit and claim that god cannot perform paradoxical, illogical acts. God cannot make a circle with corners, divide by zero or any number of perfectly impossible things. This instantly begs the question of what the limits of such a god’s power might be. We suddenly need to find out what things are possible and true and what things are impossible and false so we can know the limits of any god’s power. 

Here’s where it gets even weirder. Every bit of knowledge we gain becomes another thing that is no longer considered miraculous. Once we understand that natural laws control a previously mysterious phenomenon, we won’t consider anything that follows those laws a miracle. Sooner or later, you realize that a logical god’s power to perform miracles is limited to an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.

What if god is innately logical, but not limited by logic? It doesn’t matter. Really. Either they are able to break logic and therefore already have and haven’t, are good and evil and… are unintelligible to humans just as noted before. Or, they follow logical rules and their miracles are limited to only the things outside our current collective knowledge about the natural world.

Miracles come with an inherent paradox. We either have to accept that god is unintelligible and is just as likely also the devil, or that god that never performs miracles regarding anything we can understand fully. I’m leaning toward the former. It certainly would explain a lot.  

This One Weird Trick Discovered by a Dad May Save Humanity

We all hate the endless parade of blinking, shaking, bouncing, gyrating ads vying for our attention. Little did we know how bad it could get. These days, we have to actively filter content because the ads look just like the news stories and every headline is carefully crafted to collect clicks, regardless of usefulness or relevance. Complete nonsense is placed right next to legitimate news and given the same gravity and presentation. You have to wonder. Do content providers really think that such disrespecting treatment of their users is a good idea?

Is frustrating your audience a good plan? We’ll, I’m here to tell you that it is. In a way.

The upshot of the click-driven insanity being played out between ad haters and ad creators is that ordinary people are being trained to be skeptical. Every time someone is duped into clicking some over-hyped bullshit link and hates the results, they become a little more cynical and a little less trusting.

This effect could have amazing benefits over time. Huge swathes of humanity could begin demanding evidence proportionate to claims. Whole hosts of humanity’s most worthless ideas could lose their audience and slowly die.

So, keep this happy thought in the back of your mind and smile as you scroll past the garbage. The internet is training billions of  people be less gullible. Maybe even you.

Bald is Not a Hair Color

Disbelief is not a claim. The particular argument that is pissing me off at the moment is the claim that atheism is a religious belief. This is absurd. Atheism is a religious belief in the same way bald is a hair color and hot water is a variety of tea.

Skepticism is the default position. The burden of proof is on the claimant. UFO abductees, astral projectors, snake oil salesmen and cult leaders all have the same responsibility to provide evidence for their claims as climate change scientists, biologists, quantum theorists and economists. (Well, maybe not the economists.)

Extraordinary claims with little or no proof should be treated as specious and/or unlikely. Telling someone that they have a ‘supernatural’ belief because they don’t accept your near death experience or a ‘religious’ belief because they don’t think Allah exists is to twist the meaning of the words beyond the breaking point. Not believing in invisible pink unicorns doesn’t mean you are a pink unicornian with a profoundly negative viewpoint.

Why does it matter? The danger in defining non-belief as a simply one viewpoint in that area is that the various believers in any foolish nonsense then feel justified in demanding equal stature and treatment with not only the default viewpoint, but any well proven scientific theory. The teaching of the baseless ideas of creationists in schools alongside Darwinian evolution is just one example of the damage this kind of thinking can do.

Gay Marriage

People seem to hear wildly different things when someone says ‘Gay Marriage’. The damned immoral liberals supporters hear equal treatment under the law; public recognition of a union and the end of oppression of a minority group. The soulless hate mongers conservative opponents hear a contradiction in terms; an impossibility; an absolute moral wrong. Sane people keep an eye out for projectiles and try to sneak off before it gets ugly. The problem isn’t gay marriage.

The problem is a failure to define terms. Marriage is basically two unrelated things:

  • The religious act of creating a divinely solemnized union
  • The secular act of entering into an enforceable social contract of pooled resources and shared responsibilities

The religious meaning of marriage is beyond any law. If a group’s faith demands that the only holy union that can exist is between three men, two women and a very nervous goat, neither legislative fiat nor popular vote is going to change their minds about it. Trying to legislate the religious idea of marriage is like trying to define the size and shape of raindrops in a bucket.

The secular meaning of marriage is just a legally enforceable partnership – a social contract. Governments can and should provide the legal framework for social contracts for the protection of all those involved.

When the ideas are separated, the solution becomes obvious. There is no reason that any number of persons of any gender cannot enter into an agreement to live together, pool their resources, and share their responsibilities. The age, race, gender, sexual orientation and number of participants is irrelevant. The simple fact is that people have formed such relationships informally throughout history and will continue to do so regardless of legal status. The only difference between this and marriage as it exists today is that members of an informal contract often have no legal recourse if the terms are violated or changed.

The way to get people to stop pissing and moaning about what marriage means is a good old-fashioned schism. Something like this:

  • The term marriage is solely religious.
  • Separation of church and state is needed so all governments are prohibited from using the word marriage in all forms of law. Current laws involving the word marriage must be rewritten or be struck down.
  • All religious institutions, congregations, groups and individuals retain the right to define and use the term marriage as they deem appropriate.
  • Equal treatment to any and all types of social contract, regardless of race, gender, creed, sexual orientation and number of participants, shall become legal and enforceable.
  • Laws will be created to provide a basic framework and default conditions for all social contracts including rules and procedures for forming, dissolving and breaking them.
  • Social contracts and all related laws shall be clear, concise and avoid legal jargon so they are easily understood.**
  • All participants must show that they fully understand and accept the content of their contract. Governments must ensure participants understand fully and appropriate fees should be charged for this service.
  • Existing marriages will be converted to social contracts using the default conditions in the law. Participants are free to reject this and have no contract or may choose to write their own contract and get it approved.
  • Right wing nut-jobs and commie liberals shall shut up about gay marriage and stop pissing the rest of us off all the time.

**This is possibly a deal breaker. Asking politicians to make laws that are clear and concise is tantamount to asking them to stop breathing. (Not a bad idea, but also not likely to yield results.)

(Late edit: Time has partly passed this post by. I still hold that my solution is better, but I am quite pleased that gay marriage is now the law of the land. Love is love.)


You could easily get the impression that my last post is an encouragement for people to be unkind. That’s not my intent. I believe that a reasonable rule for life would be to err on the side of kindness. This belief is not based on dogma – it’s based on science.

Kindness is a good idea because it works. Most often, acts of kindness improve your life and the lives of those you come in contact with. This is partly because your acts of kindness signal to those around you that you are a person who cares about others and that you will help rather than hinder. It’s such a good idea that humans appear to have evolved to take pleasure helping others nearly as much as helping ourselves.

It is nearly instinctive for us to treat others as we would like to be treated. However, this is not a complete strategy. Altruism inevitably leads not to world peace and universal brotherhood, but freeloading, dependence and disappointment. Any idea can be taken to its illogical extreme and this one is no different. One of the best strategies is to cooperate first and then do unto others as they do unto you. Put another way, be kind without being a sucker. Still, it’s probably better to be a bit of a sucker than a bit of a dick.

Heaping disrespect on ideas that are incorrect is not the same thing as heaping disrespect on the person espousing such views. If you can’t smile and joke while you point out the flawed views of others, you probably shouldn’t. If you are name-calling and trading insults, you’re hurting; not helping. Making someone feel silly is fine. Making them sad is just mean.

My Lucky Day

It’s Friday the 13th. An ominous day to start a new blog. Well, it would be if luck was real.

It’s amazing how much the idea of luck infects our thinking. We’ve all seen a cheesy meme with a vague promise of ‘good things’ that will happen if you ‘like and share’ and bad things that happen to those who ignore its dire warning. Casinos are filled with people pulling slot machine handles. Sports fans and participants alike have been known to sport lucky underwear that helps their team come out on top.

If you look, you’ll find references to luck everywhere. Try your luck. Your lucky break. Down on your luck. No such luck. Serendipity. Wish me luck. Dree your weird. Fortune. Fate. Destiny. Our language is full of luck-based idioms. It permeates our literature, film, and even products from cigarettes to jeans.     

I’m guilty too. I’ve avoided stepping on cracks and tossed salt over my shoulder and crossed my fingers and any number of things that must seem completely silly to anyone not raised with similar rituals. I used to say ‘Good luck!’ so frequently that it was practically my catch phrase.

Why? I wasn’t superstitious. I didn’t think it really helped, so what was I doing it for? The answer was really another question. Why not? What does it hurt? If luck is real, then you’re doing yourself a favor and if not, you don’t really lose much by keeping your umbrella closed indoors, right? It’s Pascal’s Wager lite, if you will. You can hedge your bets at a low (but non-zero) cost.

This seems like a great plan until you raise the stakes. Buy a lottery ticket? No real impact. Buy ten? A hundred? A thousand? The math says you will generally lose, but a person who thinks they are lucky will take that bet. Fortunes, lives and whole empires have been gambled and sometimes lost because someone believed in their own luck.

Luck is pure slag – i.e. the exact opposite of useful. Countless scientific experiments have shown that luck simply doesn’t exist. Instead, we have found that random chance actually follows mathematical rules and that what we tend to think of as extremely unlikely events are actually inevitable and perfectly normal.  

Believing in luck is not just useless, it’s actually dangerous. The real cost of this kind of thinking is not just in the wasted time one person spends on them. Ideas move from person to person and spread like pinkeye to undefended minds – particularly those of the young and gullible. Accepting such wrong ideas leads to a general acceptance of actions that show a lack of critical thinking, not just regarding the laws of probability, but in all facets of life.

You can’t summon this post with a magic spell. It will never come to you though direct revelation. Technology is the only way. Technology is based on science and the basis of science is reason and logic. You can read this right now because science, logic and reason are our greatest tools.

I have a lack of patience for bad ideas. Apparently, frustration with stupidity is a good way to motivate me to write. This lack of patience shows up as unflattering treatment of those who keep blunt and useless tools in their mental arsenal. This is intentional. The surest way of changing a bad behavior is for society to heap disrespect on it.

Luck is an idea that deserves to be ridiculed. Displaying such a lack of critical thinking in public should be treated as the mental equivalent of picking your nose. It’s up to you. Point and laugh. Break their balls. Make them feel foolish. You’re doing them and everyone else a favor. Don’t let bad ideas spread to make someone else dumber. Luck has had a frighteningly long run and it’s time for it to go.