07/22/13

Hell 2.0


Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

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07/19/13

What in Hell…?


DemonHades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering around the afterlife without much purpose.

Sort of like former politicians or local bloggers.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you read books. And the sort of thing that gets me labelled a “pompous ass” by local bloggers for whom reading anything more complex than a soccer jersey is an elitist act. But I haven’t been on the library board for the last two decades just for my pretty face. I have that odd notion that books – and libraries and learning – actually matter.

Reading matters. You should never stop learning. When you stop, you start to die. Learning is how we grow, how we develop,how we expand our horizons. And we learn by reading.

After my post on The Know-It-All, I looked around my bookshelves for something encyclopedic to read, not quite Britannica (which I don’t have, yet); something readable in bed. No, not the dictionary (although Dr. Johnson’s has been a nighttime companion). Something zippier. I turned to my bookshelves.

The Encyclopedia of Hell caught my eye. Three hundred pages of minutiae about the afterlife. Well, one part of it. The downside, so to speak. From Abbadon to Zoroastrianism. The author, Miriam Van Scott, also wrote The Encyclopedia of Heaven, which seems a good follow-up once I get through Hell. Get both sides of the picture (I know, odd books for a non-religious person, but they’re part of my research). The EoH will be my guide for a while.

Of course, I’ll use the internet to follow along, picking up the extra scraps of knowledge not in the book. A bit like when my dog Sophie follows behind me when I have food, vacuuming those fallen chips and salsa bits from the floor. Wikipedia will be my mental salsa picante. Not the floor bit, of course.

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06/23/13

Review: The Life of Pi


Life of PiWe watched Life of Pi last night, a film that has garnered much critical acclaim and won four coveted Oscar awards (although it has not been without controversies). I had struggled somewhat with the book (for reasons given below), but the lavish praise for the film made me decide to try again.

I had read about the movie’s stunning camera work and CGI graphics, and these do not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and the CGI is amazingly lifelike. I puzzled over what was real and not in many scenes. But the story itself…

While sometimes described as a “fantasy adventure”, the novel is really an allegory about the search for meaning in religion. It’s also about the relativity of truth.

One of the delights of fiction is than an author can conjure up a situation, a landscape, an event and give his or her characters the chance to explore that imagined world and determine what it means to be human under those circumstances. That’s one reason I like science fiction: it has no boundaries to the imagination. But sometimes an author is trying not just to use this world to explore the human condition, but rather make a point, to teach, to pontificate what he or she believes is the message we readers need to absorb.

I felt Martel’s message, lumbering through the pages, was heavier-handed than his actual words. And that too often he meandered down his path rather than walked us towards it (compare the 300-plus pages of Life of Pi to  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brief little allegory, The Little Prince). Even Paul Coelho, that author of so many allegories, is briefer in his tales of self-discovery.

Martel’s writing is fairly smooth and light throughout most of the book, but I personally found it dragged, especially in the beginning. The core of the tale – Pi’s survival at sea with a tiger – doesn’t being until Chapter 37, a third of the way into the story. By then I was muttering “get on with it” to myself as I read through the pages.

The tale – when it finally began – struck me like a modernized Book of Job: a human suffering the vicissitudes of life and his hostile environment while struggling to keep faith, illogically at times, with an arbitrary, unresponsive or sometimes downright cruel deity. Again, I found it stretched on longer than necessary. Like Job, our Pi has to go through numerous challenges to test his faith. Continue reading

06/9/13

What if you’re wrong?


Great visualization of the now-famous response from evolutionary biologist, author, and well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, when asked in 2006 about his argument that there is no god, “What if you’re wrong?”

Flying Spaghetti Monster pin“Anybody could be wrong, ” he replies. “We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.”

All of these refer to various arguments used to illustrate the weakness in faith-based statements and arguments.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) was, according to Wikipedia, created as a satire against creationists (a group notoriously shy of a sense of humour…):

The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in 2005 to protest the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationist ideas by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there “changing the results with His Noodly Appendage”. Henderson argued that his beliefs and intelligent design were equally valid, and called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol used against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

The FSM has its own website and a huge following. You can buy FSM pins, T-shirts and other accessories from Evolvefish.com. You could even become an ordained FSM minister for a few dollars. Continue reading

06/8/13

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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05/24/13

Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes


Facebook image
What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

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03/26/13

Speaking with the dead


EVP hookumCan the dead speak to us from beyond the grave? No, of course not. But that doesn’t stop literally millions of superstitious people from believing they do. And some think they can use technology to facilitate the conversation. Of course, when you put technology into the mix, it simply cements the belief in place, no matter how ludicrous. And the internet has provided a platform for this silliness to reach worldwide.

A recent post on the BBC website made me do some investigation. The BBC story is really about EVP – Electronic Voice Phenomenon. EVP, as Wikipedia tells us, is:

…electronically generated noises that resemble speech, but are supposedly not the result of intentional voice recordings or renderings. Common sources of EVP include static, stray radio transmissions, and background noise. Recordings of EVP are often created from background sound by increasing the gain (i.e. sensitivity) of the recording equipment.
Interest in EVP surrounds claims that it is of paranormal origin, although many occurrences have had natural explanations including apophenia (finding significance in insignificant phenomena), auditory pareidolia (interpreting random sounds as voices in one’s own language), equipment artifacts, and hoaxes.

Hoaxes. Put that near the top of your list. The Skeptics’ Dictionary is more caustic, as expected:

Despite widespread belief in EVP, scientists have shown about as much interest in the phenomenon as they have in John Oates’s reverse speech theory, and probably for the same reason. We already understand priming and the power of suggestion. As Alcock says, the simplest explanation for EVP is that it is the product of our own wonderfully complex brain, aided by the strong emotional desire to make contact with the dead.

In other words, we hear what we want to hear and what we expect to hear, because our brains are designed to hunt for patterns in everything, even randomness. It’s not a picture of Jesus on your toast or your grilled cheese sandwich: That random pattern on cooked bread is just pareidolia.

I know, you’re thinking this is just another of those chemtrails or anti-vaccination idiocies that are rampant online. But these people are much further into the deep end than that. They bring in the hardware and, since few of us are electronic engineers, it sure seems to be doing something amazing. Well, it is, just not what you think it’s doing. Read on.

Browse over this report of an allegedly technical study. A causal reading would make it seem almost serious. Until, of course, you read about hooking up a “psychophone.”

Despite the belief by some, the device commonly referred to by this name wasn’t a device invented by Thomas Edison to speak to the dead; the first patented device of that name was a photograph designed to play subliminal messages while you sleep, and condition you for the next day (see here). The device referred to in the article is an electronic box; the “invention of Austrian scientist Franz Seidl for the reception of the alleged transcendental voices during his experiments with Raudive (Breakthrough pp. 362-365).” You can see more about this device here.

And what do the samples recorded on this device sound like? Take a listen here. None of those I listened to sounded anything more than electronic noise. In fact, most sounded like the old crystal radio sets of my youth; picking up bits of stations, fragments of transmissions, wrapped in that echo-y, chorus-y sound they used to make. Not a single one sounded to me like “Paul is dead,” either.

And likely that’s all they are: stray radio waves picked up by an unshielded receiver. The listeners just delude themselves into hearing something more in them. Could easily be snippets of cordless phone conversations, utility service walkie talkies, AM radio broadcasts, even cell phone calls.

As the BBC story notes,

The simplest explanation is that EVP voices are just stray radio transmissions. Usually they are so faint and masked by static interference that it’s hard to make out what they are saying, and the EVP investigator has to “interpret” them for you.

That might seem like a weakness but that’s also their power. As Joe Banks, a sound artist, points out, a dead person speaking in studio quality wouldn’t be nearly so convincing as a voice you must strain to hear.

The other giveaway in the article that they’re deep in the codswallop are the 12 references to the phase of the moon during the experiments. Wingnuts believe that the moon affects paranormal activity (not surprising since millions of them still follow astrology as if it was something more than entertainment):

Over the centuries people have associated the full moon with the paranormal and supernatural. And it would seem that the full moon phase can be a very favorable time to ghost hunt.

The new moon phase is another time people associate with ghost hunting. During a new moon, the moon rises at the same time as the sun. Because of the suns bright rays you can’t see the moon, making it really dark for ghost hunting.

But the best time to experiencing paranormal phenomena is two to three days before or after the full moon and new moon. Which would be a waxing crescent phase, the waxing gibbous phase, the waning gibbous phase, and the waning crescent phase.

I know, the words gullible and superstitious claptrap go through my head, too, when I read that stuff.

And if you can’t build yourself your own handy-dandy psychophone? No worry: just listen to your wireless router, says this guy:

As you may know, one of the theories out there is that “entities” use different frequencies that are flowing through the air around us on a constant basis in order to communicate through EVP. With that said, what else has increased in the past 10 years aside from occurrences of EVP evidence? The answer is Wi-Fi. Could they be using the unique frequency used by your every day wireless router to more easily communicate?

And I though all those little annoying voices were the sounds of pop-up ads or incoming email. So why don’t the spirits just talk to people through the air so others can hear them? One comment in this paper says they dead use radio frequency because they can “manipulate energy”:

The “departed” can somehow suppress those signals in such a fashion as to generate intelligible speech. As the machine was being tuned for the best operation, the technician was being “guided” by voice from the other side. A most interesting arrangement…

Since there is no physical matter on their level, all they have to work with is energy. By causing the energy to flow in a vortex, it naturally achieves a focal point which allows action to occur from their level to our physical level.
The technician stated that they were still learning how to “tap the spiral” which shows that the ever tightening spiral segments increase in power as they condense toward the center or focal point.

Amazing how much pseudoscience gibberish you can pack into a couple of paragraphs. The author also mentions “13 waves, the magic number” – numerology is another form of quackery the wingnuts pursue.

Listening to the original tapes made by one of the EVP pioneers, Konstantin Raudive, author of Breakthrough, the BBC reporter was not impressed:

According to a book published at the time by Smythe’s partner, a Russian voice at that session said “Stefan is here. But you are Stefan. You do not believe me. It is not very difficult. We will teach Petrus.” But on the tape there was nothing, just hiss.

Makes you wonder why the spirits can’t speak in coherent sentences. Raudive went from loony to huckster in a very short time, sounding more like a Monty Python skit than a serious investigator:

But once you start experimenting with EVP, it’s hard to stop. After Breakthrough was published, Raudive progressed from voices captured on tape to voices coming from animals, in particular a budgerigar named Putzi, who spoke in the voice of a dead 14-year-old girl.

Who says madness isn’t contagious? Decades later, the BBC reporter adds, other EVP “researchers” are hearing dead people’s voices in animal sounds, even in creaking doors:

Similar work today is being done today by EVP researcher Brian Jones in Seattle.

He records the noises made by seagulls, dogs, cats, and even squeaky doors and crunching pebbles. They all contain voices. One dog says, “Where’s Sheila?” referring to its owner. Another complains of its owners, “they always sail away”.

Jones thinks he can capture thoughts that somehow are in the air. “I have documented a lot of things that are pretty stunning that way,” he says.

If you read down towards the bottom of this report, there are several technical comments about the construction of these “psychophones” that identify them as noise generators with oscillator circuits:

I have carefully studied the schematic of this device and built a test unit, I have noted a few things. First, not every oscillator is a radio transmitter. Second, the oscillators in this device are highly unstable circuits, and have adjustable potentiometers that will literally allow you to make it talk. By rotating the knobs you can alter pitch and cadence. As for “transcendental voices to modulate” I
have yet to see that proof. What this device will do is allow any frequency present in the audio range to modulate the carrier. Twisting the knobs will also modulate the carrier. This thing is a win/win situation. If you don’t detect an EVP, you can generate one.

So you generate what you’re looking to hear. And another comment from a different author in that paper:

These boxes are essentially synthesizers, very similar to the one invented by MOOG in the early 1960’s. In fact I have an old synthesizer here in the lab and I can make say whatever I want. It certainly is no proof of voices from the dead, although I could make it seem as such.

I had an old Moog synth back in the 1970s, and now that you mention it, it DID sound like those sound samples linked above. Maybe they should just add small piano keys to it. At the end of this piece, the above author notes:

But the truly astounding thing is I have talked to witnesses that are firmly convinced that they spoke to a dead loved one… The same results could most likely be achieved using a white noise generator, a magic 8-Ball, or a deck of Tarot cards.

In this report from the same website, it says there is a “a correlation between EVPs and EMF” which suggests to me simple feedback from the electromagnetic fields of the recording devices.

So EVP is, like the rest of the psychic, paranormal world: just more bunkum to suck in the gullible. People “hear” voices in the electronic noise because they want to believe, desperately want to believe that death isn’t the end. They want to believe we can carry our ego on to another “realm” and maintain our individual selves. That when we shuffle off this mortal coil, we wake up in another world. We willingly suspend belief in logic to avoid the alternative: that death is the end. Period.

Sorry to debunk that for you.

I suppose it’s better to have these folks glued to their “psychophones” for hours on end than engaged in some social activity. Who knows, what they might be up to if let loose.