The Stuff of Thought

My blurb on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought (2007).

the-stuff-of-thought

For me, this book was a brilliant journey through linguistics and how language shapes the mind. It is the third book in a trilogy, but it is completely readable on its own.

The book starts strong with a very captivating introduction, which does a good job at convincing somebody why linguistics matters. But, the second chapter, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” seemed very much like a textbook. It felt like I was in Intro to Linguistics again. Of course, I found it interesting that many words can only be used with certain phrasings, for example, “fill the glass with water” is fine whereas “fill water into the glass” is not; however, the treatment seemed a bit too drawn out for a general audience. In addition, the vast majority of technical terms introduced in this chapter were not used again for the rest of the book, nor was there much immediate followup. But after this, the book skillfully takes off, and in fact I went from chapter 3 to finish in one run.

The most interesting chapter to me was number 4: “Cleaving the Air.” This chapter deals with how our perception of space and time is shaped by our language. Due to the subject matter, the chapter includes a (masterful) mix of linguistics, philosophy, and physics. Referring to grammatical time, as opposed to physical time (190):

Sometimes the past and future are subdivided into recent and  remote intervals, similar to the dichotomy between here and there or near or far. But no grammatical system reckons time from some fixed beginning point… or uses constant numerical units like seconds or minutes. This makes the location of events in time highly vague, as when Groucho told a hostess, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”

In Chapter 6, “What’s in a Name?”, Pinker analyzes the art of naming, including his own (279):

…I repeatedly found myself surrounded by Steves. In school I was always addressed by an initial as well as a name, since every class had two or three of us, and as I furthered my education the concentration of Steveness just kept increasing. My graduate school roommate was a Steve, as was my advisor and another of his students (resulting in a three-Steve paper), and when I started my own lab, I hired two Steves in a row to run it.

Chapter 7, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” is one that is both amusing and amazing. It is a short treatment of profanity in language, dealing with words that are considered obscene or taboo. Quite carefully, Pinker uses euphemisms even when discussing the use of euphemisms (345):

The dread of effluvia, of course, can also be modulated, as it must be in sex, medicine, nursing, and the care of animals and babies. As we shall see, this desensitization is sometimes helped along with the use of euphemisms that play down the repellence of the effluvia.

That paragraph is gold.

Finally, Pinker explores some game theory in Chapter 8: “Games People Play.” Namely, when does one say things directly vs indirectly, truthfully vs politely? When does one offer (or conceal) a bribe? When does one take a bribe? This and many more questions are explored. Not surprisingly, the results fit what an economic intuition would imply, but it is interesting to see such games from the perspective of linguistics.

Overall, this is a brilliant book. It reminded me of Gödel, Escher, Bach, which also was multi-disciplinary and made extensive use of humor.

My Spring 2013 Semester (Part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

I’m finally done with the semester. As I wrote in part 1, this has been my busiest semester at college. Most of the time was spent on one class: CS 3410, or Computer System Organization and Programming. I’ve probably spent twice as much on this class than all of my other classes combined.

On the other hand, I did learn a lot from this course. While I do not regret taking it, this kind of workload does call into question the decision to go for the CS degree. As I wrote before, going for the CS degree will negatively affect my ability to take more advanced math courses. Even this semester, I felt I had almost no time to study math on my own. In my math classes I was pretty much doing the bare minimum so that I would have time to work on CS. Next semester I will most likely be going pure math.

Relatively-Prime-Grid-Points

Anyways, for the summer I have an internship in New York City, with one week in London.

Why Do I Care?

Ever since I started to write about politics and religion on this blog, people have asked me why I care, or have questioned (with good intention) my time spent on it. Especially considering that I am studying mathematics, probably the field most removed from reality, why do I care about public affairs?

Apathy

In fact, just two years ago, I used to be a very apathetic person. I even wrote an article on apathy. Though the article does not explicitly mention social or political issues, that was the implication.

apathy_poster

Due to my apathy, I managed to blog for 3 years without a single direct mention of religion or politics. Mainly, I was following the social norm in which it is discouraged to discuss such things. In addition, such things never had any negative impact on me. Even as an atheist in Texas (thankfully Austin is a liberal city), I never felt discriminated against, nor had I ever seen firsthand what religious discrimination looked like. As for the broader social issues, I was pro-choice, for example, but never cared about enough to raise it in a discussion, nor did I realize at the time how connected it was to religion.

Things didn’t really change when I went to college. Cornell is just as liberal, if not more liberal, than the city of Austin, and thus I never felt any push. In fact, the apathy article I wrote was during my first year of college.

So what caused the change?

It started last August with a debate about motivation. I was shocked when my opponent claimed that the ONLY motivation there is to do good in this life is the promise of reward in the afterlife. More strongly, he claimed that his only motivation to do anything at all is rooted in the afterlife.

Being the logic-focused debater that I am, I wanted to test whether he really stood by that claim. So I asked, “What if there is no afterlife?”

His response: He would commit suicide.

That was the first time I had ever heard that line of thought. It was the game-changer for me. Before that, I had never realized how much irrationality could hurt someone or distort their views.

Later, even when discussing topics that were not religion or politics, I realized how much of a pain it was to argue with someone who would not listen to reason, would not look at the facts, and would not use logic. Upon noticing these signs, I wondered if this person was only irrational for this particular debate or if he got that from somewhere else, which I had suspected. So asked this person whether they believed the Earth was created in six days. The answer was yes.

Given that the context of this was a policy decision (of something rather minor), I suddenly had great concern about policy decisions of things that actually matter. Only then did I realize just how many members of Congress were creationists. (This was 3 months before the 2012 election.) Shortly after, I found out the shockingly low proportion of nonreligious people in Congress. From data slightly later, the nonreligious, who comprise 19.6% of the US population, have not a single member in Congress.

After that, I started realizing many other things. For example, I realized how closely (and negatively) correlated religion was to modern-day social progress (in particular on same-sex marriage and abortion). I learned about the modern status of religion in some of the theocratic states of the Muslim world, and how dangerous it is for non-Muslims (both Christians and atheists) to live there.

Due to my apathy, I had previously thought of Richard Dawkins as a hateful preacher of atheism who was “just as bad” as evangelists. Not because I had actually read any of his books, but because that’s what the (even-liberal) media portrays him as. I started watching some lectures/talks on Youtube, with notable speakers such as Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. I learned that they weren’t the hateful, mean people who they were misconstrued by popular opinion to be, but rather, some very intelligent, logical people who tell it as it is.

I watched Bill Maher’s documentary (Religulous) as well as Richard Dawkins’ (The Root of All Evil?) and was shocked at how absurd and dangerous people’s religious beliefs can really be. As someone who cares about the future of humanity, I was highly disturbed by this particular interview.

Last, but not least, I read this article called “Evangelical Apathy,” by Miri Mogilevsky. It makes a strong case against apathy in today’s world:

I’ve found that in my personal life, I tend to have a much harder time getting along with these people than I do with conservatives. With the latter, while we disagree, we can have a good time debating each other or at least bond over our mutual concern for what’s going on in the world. But with evangelical apathists, the very fact that I care about stuff seems like a thorn in their side.

Interestingly enough, this applies very strongly to my previous post, “Religious Logic: Fundamentalists vs Moderates/Liberals,” in which I defended fundamentalists for actually caring about other people, whereas many religious liberals seem to simply take on the most convenient view and bash fundamentalists and atheists alike.

Anyway, that is my answer to why I care. I care about politics and religion because I care about humanity.

Religious Logic: Fundamentalists vs Moderates/Liberals

You might expect from my politically liberal views that this article is going to bash religious fundamentalists. But in fact, this article offers a defense of one aspect of fundamentalism: its use of logic. The criticism is of the inconsistent beliefs of religious “moderates” and “liberals”. (Note, from here on out, the words “moderate” and “liberal” will denote degree of religiosity, not political views, though the two are often related.)

Disclaimer: I am an atheist and would be the last person to try to justify religion’s countless atrocities and impediments of social progress. However, this article was written to give a different perspective of religious fundamentalism, especially on the liberal criticism of conservatives or fundamentalists for taking things too far.

Disclaimer 2: This article is written with Christianity in mind. Many of the arguments do not apply to other religions due to the specific position of Christianity in the US.

Fundamentalists Hold More Consistent Worldviews than “Moderates” and “Liberals”

First, consider the following thought experiment. You’re standing in the middle of a highway, with no cars around. However, there are two people standing on the curb. They both think that a giant truck is going to appear out of nowhere and slam into you, killing you. However, you don’t think such a truck is going to appear.

One of the people on the side is more “respectful” of your beliefs, and just lets you stay in the middle of the highway, even though he sincerely believes you will be run over any minute. The other person, also sincerely believing you will be run over, starts yelling at you to get off of the highway. When you ignore her, she runs into the highway and shoves you out of the way. Which is the better person?

Of course, given that both of them sincerely thought you would be run over, the person who tried to save you (even by knocking you over) is a more sympathetic person.

In case the analogy wasn’t clear, the highway can be thought of as some path of sin, the truck is Hell, the onlooker who did nothing is the moderate or liberal religious person, and the one who yelled and shoved you out of the way is the fundamentalist.

Westboro-Baptist-Church

I hate to support even a tiny aspect of the Westboro Baptist Church, but you gotta consider the situation from their perspective. They are being very logical, given what they think to be true. Remember that in a logical argument, one makes axioms (aka. hypotheses, assumptions, premises) and deductions (or a deduction system), and then draws a conclusion. Of course, even if the logical deductions are perfect, the conclusion can be nonsense if the assumptions are false. I would guess that their logic is something like this:

  • Premise 1: The Bible is true.
  • Premise 2: It is good to save people from horrible things.
  • Result 1: From Premise 1, homosexuality is a sin.
  • Result 2: From Premise 1 and Result 1, one burns in Hell for being homosexual.
  • Result 3: From Premise 1, Hell is the worst possible punishment.
  • Result 4: From Result 3 and Premise 2, it is good to save people from Hell.
  • Conclusion: From Result 2 and Result 4, it is good to stop people from being homosexual.

The reason this is a bad argument is that Premise 1 is obviously false (at least, obviously to atheists).

However, I know some Christians who consider themselves moderate/liberal, yet still trust main points in the Bible (such as the concept of hell and that homosexuality is a sin), even if they do not interpret it literally.

So if you are in this group, my question to you is, why do you NOT actively try to save people? Again, I am nonreligious and I think the Bible is absurd; however, if you believe in heaven and hell, and if you believe that a certain behavior from your friends is going to send them to hell, and if you value that friendship, then why are you NOT trying to guide them away from hell?

I can think of a few possible answers for this:

  1. You are secretly nonreligious, and are afraid due to social/economic concerns to come out.
  2. You actually do NOT accept concepts from the Bible like heaven and hell, or sin.
  3. You actually hate people and want them to go to hell.
  4. You can’t do simple logic.
  5. You never spent time thinking about these things, and only go with the flow. For example, you only support things like gay marriage because it’s the popular thing to do, not because you came to the conclusion from a rational perspective. (In this option, you can still support the concepts of heaven/hell and sin, be a supporter gay marriage, and be good at logic—it just didn’t occur to you to actually apply logic to this situation. This could be due to social norms.)
  6. You can both keep the idea that homosexuality is a sin, and at the same time support gay marriage by using doublethink/cognitive dissonance.
  7. You are mentally ill.

In any case, #1 is easily understandable  #4, #6, and #7 we cannot really do anything about. #5  just means you should think about the issue some more (or at all). #3 means you are a sociopath. And if it is #2 for you, then why are you still a Christian? (Though the answer to that might tie in with #1.)

Going back to the truck analogy, why would the passive onlooker NOT try to get you off the road? The corresponding bullets:

  • He does not actually believe that a truck will appear and kill you, thus it would be absurd to try to shove you off the road.
  • He believes some aspects of the truck myth, but believes that a the truck is benevolent (for example) and will not injure you.
  • He wants you to be run over by the truck.
  • He cannot conclude that saving you is the correct move.
  • He was brought up in a household/society where it is a social norm to NOT warn people of oncoming trucks, and to NOT try to shove people out of the way, even if it saves their lives, and he has not questioned those norms yet.
  • He used doublethink to simultaneously believe that it is correct to save you from being run over and that it is correct to not save you from being run over.
  • He is mentally ill.

On the contrary, fundamentalists at least speak and act on what they think is right. After all, if you really believe that some sinful action will lead someone to hell, then isn’t the right thing to stop them from doing that? Again, I am against the views and actions of the WBC (e.g. I support marriage equality), but the way they come to their views makes a lot more sense than how many liberal Christians arrive at the opposing views. Here is a WBC member speaking in a Russell Brand interview (1:39):

He seems like a nice person but is just playing with the wrong set of facts. Of course, immediately after the statement the audience starts laughing, but did they even catch the logic, let alone understand it? I know it might be comedy for them, but to solve the issue we need to understand what the other side is thinking.

This is one of the qualms I have with religious liberals. When a fundamentalist does or says something bad, religious liberals are quick to defend their own beliefs by calling out the fundamentalist, with sayings like, “He’s not a true Christian,” or “He is misinterpreting the Bible.” This is absurd, since fundamentalists are taking the most literal interpretation of the Bible, taking it as the word of God, and are in a sense the most Christian.

Instead of addressing the root cause (the Bible and its outdated, barbaric myths), Christian liberals blame the fundamentalists for taking the book too far, yet they themselves never criticize the book. So what they do instead is cherry-pick the currently convenient quotes from the book. In other words, they are the ones deciding which laws from the book are moral and which are not. Does this not directly contradict their belief that morals come alone from God? At least the fundamentalists are consistent about it. And, by not criticizing the book, religious liberals are only helping fundamentalists to impede social progress. (On the other hand, atheist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins directly criticize the Bible/Quran/etc.)

I challenge religious moderates and liberals to re-examine your views—both religious and social views. Are they really consistent with each other? Do they contradict each other? If so, how can you proudly embrace both?

I want you to show your true colors.

Two Laptops

The XPS 13 arrived today, so I am now on a 2-laptop setup: one for portability, and one for performance.

2013-05-08 01.49.59
An XPS 13 (left) and an Alienware M17x (right).

For a size comparison, that is a Galaxy S3 sitting in front of the Alienware. The XPS 13 weighs 3.0 lbs, while the Alienware weighs 9.4 lbs. Below are the specs of the XPS 13 (and here is a link to the Alienware specs):

 Model Dell XPS 13
Picture XPS-13
Bought May 2013
Purchase Cost $575
Processor Intel Core i5 3317U @ 1.7 GHz
RAM 4 GB (2×2 GB)
Primary Storage 128 GB Solid State Drive
Graphics Card Intel HD Graphics 4000
Operating System Windows 8
Screen (Resolution) 13.3″ HD Widescreen (1366×768)
Wireless Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235

A “Hated Minority”?

There is a pretty funny article on CNN’s opinion blog today: When Christians become a ‘hated minority’ by John Blake. The reason it’s funny? Well, just take a look at some of the ideas expressed in it:

When Christians become a ‘hated minority’

This is nonsense. 73% of the United States is Christian, and that is a deeply entrenched majority.

oppressed

Neither are they hated: 90.3% of the US Congress is Christian. If anything, Christians comprise an over-represented sect of government. Who is the real voiceless minority? The Unaffiliated, at 19.6% of the general US population, comprise 0% of Congress.

Evangelical Christians say they are the new victims of intolerance – they’re persecuted for condemning homosexuality.

Intolerance of intolerance is not intolerance. If you don’t want to be criticized for condemning homosexuality, then stop condemning homosexuality. “The KKK say they are the new victims of intolerance – they’re persecuted for condemning blacks.”

A Laughable Comparison

…a new victim: closeted Christians who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality but will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled a hateful bigot.

Perhaps because using the Bible to condemn homosexuality makes you precisely that: a hateful bigot. It is funny how the term “closet” has turned around here.

The conservative media culture is filled with stories about evangelicals being labeled as “extremists” for their belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Yet they pick and choose their sins. It would be universally considered fundamentalist, for instance, if one were to express their belief that wearing clothes of mixed fabrics is a sin (Deuteronomy 22:11).

“It’s easier to just go along,” says Carter, who is also author of “How to Argue Like Jesus.” “You don’t want to be lumped in with the bigots. That’s a powerful word.”

It’s a powerful word because it describes a detestable attribute.

“They are incapable of comprehending that someone may have a view different than theirs,” Johnson says. “For them anyone who dares to question the dogma of the tribe can only be doing so out of hatred.”

This was said in reference to supporters of homosexuality, I kid you not. If only those who condemned it would listen to their own advice.

Some evangelicals say Christians can’t change their view of biblical truth just because times change. But some scholars reply:

Sure you can. Christians do it all the time.

Denying a woman’s ability to preach in church was justified by scriptures like 1 Timothy 2:11-12 – “… I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

No further comment needed on this one. I actually didn’t believe the quote was true, but apparently it’s actually there.

Until the debate over homosexuality is settled – if it ever is – there may be plenty of evangelical Christians who feel as if they are now being forced to stay in the closet.

Oh no! How will society function without bigotry? How will I live my day without condemning others for their way of life?

My Spring 2013 Semester

I am sorry for not having posted in a month. My schedule has been busymainly from some heavy projects in computer science courses.

pipelined_processor

For instance, one of our projects was to implement the above with fully functional logic circuits. If anyone is wondering, this diagram outlines the high-level design of a pipelined computer processor. We then wrote some assembly code to run on this processor, specifically to compute the stopping time of the hailstone function.

As a result of the CS workload, I haven’t had much time to do math—my math blog has not been updated since March.

Anyway, this has been my busiest semester yet at Cornell. Now that classes are over, I will get back into a weekly posting schedule.