On the incoherence of the Good and Bad Place

April 9, 2018

The Good Place uses comedy to explore the absurdities of the afterlife. More than that, the show does a great job of making moral philosophy accessible.

The show’s plot assumes salvation by works, i.e. that to get to Heaven, you have to be a good person. Christian denominations differ over whether salvation by works or salvation by faith (atonement through the sacrifice of Jesus) or some combination is required to get you to Heaven or, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, resurrected at some future time.

An early church founder, Tertullian, looked forward to being in Heaven so he could witness the eternal torture of the wicked in Hell.

Takes all kinds I guess…

While listening to an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast, I heard a short, simple argument, or perhaps a parable – to borrow a biblical word – that casts doubt upon the coherence of Heaven and Hell. I’ll paraphrase and extend it here.

Ruth’s daughter, Mary, believes in the literal truth of the Bible, salvation by faith, the reality of Heaven and Hell. She’s not quite sure what Hell is, but she knows it means eternal separation from God.

Mary is sad that that Ruth, who Mary believes isn’t saved, won’t be with her in Heaven, that she will be separated from her mother for all eternity.

And yet…

When Mary is in Heaven, blissfully worshipping God forever, won’t she feel sad about being eternally separated from Ruth?

If so, won’t that negatively affect the quality of Mary’s eternal stay in Heaven?

No problem, you say!

God can make Mary feel better. God can do anything! He is omnipotent after all. He can make her forget about how she feels. He can make her forget about Ruth, about what she meant to Mary.

Or perhaps that’s a step too far…

Maybe God won’t remove the memory, just change the way Mary thinks and feels about her history with Ruth.

But then…

Who will Mary become?

Like someone who takes a drug to forget…

Or like a person with memory loss or personality change…

Either way, surely, Ruth would become someone other than who she used to be in some important sense.

Is this a water-tight argument against the existence of the Good and Bad places? Of course not. The non-existence of a thing is generally difficult to demonstrate. But it does chip away at the coherence of such ideas and should serve to further diminish their insane hold over us.

Why do I care about this argument? Because I know people in a Mary-Ruth scenario, and because this is just another example of how religion poisons everything, as the sub-title of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is NOT Great, says.

Aren’t there enough interesting and complex phenomena to devote our attention to without inventing complexities? Without creating gods, principalities, eternal abodes or false dichotomies (heaven or hell, saved or damned, …)?

If the Universe itself was capable of having a perspective, our lives would resemble a one-shot pulse from a 555 timer, a non-repeating SETI Wow! signal, a single QRS complex on an ECG from a dying heart, each briefly punctuating a baseline of nothingness.

oneshotadjusted

And yet…

Up close and personal, it’s different, because we are meaning creators.

It’s what you do within that brief pulse that matters, to you, your fellow meaning creators, and the other beings impacted by your actions.

The plain truth is that we have a good understanding of what happens to living things when they die, homo sapiens or any other species, admittedly less so about the subjective experience of the hypoxic sapiens mind near death.

Every organism that has ever lived, or ever will, was not alive for 13.8 billion years, after the beginning of the Universe.

When the life of an organism comes to an end, it will once again not be alive for an even unimaginably longer time into the future.

What makes these two not alive events asymmetric is that mammals like us have memories of individuals who once were and an anticipation of the end, the falling edge of the pulse, the precipice.

It’s in the nature of mammals like us to remember, to worry, to grieve, to fail spectacularly to live our lives primarily in the present.

It’s from this that our musings about possible afterlives derive, for any version of which, no compelling evidence exists.

All of which underscores the importance, even the urgency, of living as if today actually mattered now, not for some imagined future, and of the need to be kinder to earthlings of all persuasions and species.

 

Nova Carina 2018 update #2

March 27, 2018

Shortly after my last post I observed the nova again. Within 24 hours it has dropped by a full magnitude after peaking at 5.7, a little higher than my binocular estimate of 5.8 from last night.

My two observations are in purple, as usual, with the observation an hour ago under the cross-hairs.

ASASSN-18fv-2018-03-27

 

Nova Carina 2018 update

March 27, 2018

A “happy snap” (with iPhone) of the sky over my backyard rooftop, with Luna peeping through cloud. The nova’s location is behind me from this vantage point.

After being away for a week and a cloudy sky on Sunday, I caught my first glimpse of Nova Carinae 2018 (ASASSN-18fv) in 7×50 binoculars minutes before the sky started clouding out.

I estimated it to be 5.8 (purple, at top right) at just after 11pm Adelaide time.

Note also the upward trend-line.

I had hoped to subsequently image the nova to carry out DSLR photometry for better accuracy but that didn’t pan out due to cloud.

At the time of submission to AAVSO the last observation before mine was 6.5, several hours earlier. Since then, others have submitted observations up to 5.9. So, I appear to have caught Nova Car 2018 on the rise and at its peak so far.

Nova in Carina

March 23, 2018

Nova Car 2018 or ASASSN-18fv was discovered by the ASAS Supernova network on March 21st and has so far reached around magnitude 6.5 from a progenitor magnitude of 19.9 within a couple of days.

Below is a Stellarium view of the location of ASASSN-18fv, very close to the 5.1 magnitude comparison star near the Eta Carina nebula and star, a variable whose brightness I often estimate.

A binocular finder chart with a slightly different orientation from the Stellarium screenshot is shown below:

This is a crowded area of the sky, and being so close to the 5.1 star, it may be tricky in a low power binocular field.

Rob Kaufman posted this image of the nova, with yet another different orientation:

asassn-18fv2c202120mar20201820text2030-sec

I have not yet had the opportunity to observe the nova; hopefully in a couple of days.

The AAVSO alert notice has more details.

Nova Cir 2018 Gamma-ray Space Telescope observations

February 3, 2018

AAVSO alert notice 613 for the nova in Circinus requests visual, DSLR, CCD and spectroscopic observations, with multiple observations each night if possible, in support of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope’s observations that are currently underway:

 

spacecraft

Source: https://fermi.gsfc.nasa.gov/inc/img/spacecraft.jpg

Target-of-opportunity observations requested by Dr. Mukai are taking place now through February 6 UT with the NASA Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. To support these observations, observers are asked to make several observations per night.

I’m processing DSLR observations of the nova from last night and plan to continue observing over the next few nights. Its visual magnitude is currently at around 7.2.

Here’s a spectrum taken by Rob Kaufman on January 31:

ncir201820spectrum2c203120jan2020182c2012-5420ut20text

Total Lunar Eclipse from Adelaide

February 1, 2018

Adelaide was largely clouded out for the eclipse but the cloud thinned at times well enough to get some reasonable images, especially after midnight. Taking more than 100 images also helped.

I used a Canon 1100D at the prime focus of my 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain Alt-Az (Meade LX-90) telescope.

Here are some images I thought were interesting enough to show. These are straight off the camera with no processing except RAW to JPEG conversion.

IMG_0013-low

Pre-totality umbral shadow through cloud. ISO 100, 1/10 second.

IMG_0064-low

Totality. ISO 800, 2 seconds.

IMG_0006-low

Not long before end of totality. ISO 800, 2 seconds.

IMG_0027-low

Soon after end of totality. ISO 800, 1 second.

 

What counts as good belief?

January 29, 2018

We watched Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus over the Christmas break. I’d never seen much of it and Karen’s interest in watching it again after a long hiatus encouraged me to sit down and watch it with her. Thanks Karen, it was well worth watching.

exhibits_online_yesvirginia_g14922

source: goo.gl/Xi5CDj

The true story and the TV adaptation we saw are both positive, moving tales. Eight year old Virginia’s friends tell her there is no Santa Claus so she writes a letter to the editor of The New York Sun asking for advice, since as her father tells her: “if you see it in the The Sun, it’s so”.

exhibits_online_yesvirginia_g4031

source: goo.gl/Xi5CDj

The author of the editorial: Francis Church, an atheist and cynic, having seen his share of suffering, writes an enduring letter that has inspired many since the editorial was first published in 1897. Here’s an excerpt (italics are mine):

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

There is something beautiful in encouraging kids to imagine.

I admit to some internal conflict when our kids were young regarding what to tell them about Santa, the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so on. In the end we encouraged such beliefs for as long as the kids were willing to imagine playfully with us.

Interestingly, Virginia’s 1930 PhD thesis was entitled The Importance of Play.

Although as an atheist I generally prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, the kind of belief in Santa that was the subject of Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter and the The Sun editorial, is, I think, perfectly okay.

Even in recent times I’ve heard the same sort of “there is no Santa” comment that prompted Virginia’s letter to The Sun, expressed between young children, encouraged by adults, who at the same time profess belief in God.

That brings me to the question in this post’s title: what counts as good belief?

What’s the difference between these two statements?

  • I believe in Santa Claus
  • I believe in God

Other than that the first refers to a particular individual while the second to any one of a number of possible gods, their form is identical. We can remedy this remaining difference by reframing the second statement as:

  • I believe in Jesus (or Yaweh or Jeohvah or …)

Too often, the second form is accompanied by exclusive statements, such as:

Hmm…and here I was thinking that the reason for the season was axial tilt. Not to mention Saturnalia.

1503931_333096903500225_1694979872_n

sourcegoo.gl/1nFcUZ

The worst that can happen, in the child’s mind, for not believing in Santa or for being on the naughty list, is that they will receive no presents. True, there have been other harsher myths associated with Christmas, but I’m thinking broadly about the contemporary situation in the western world.

The worst that can happen, in the believer’s mind, for non-belief in God or being wicked (i.e. not accepting either salvation by faith or works) is eternal separation from God and loved ones or eternal torment in Hell.

So, again, what counts as good belief?

In my view, it’s the kind that doesn’t hold you ransom, that encourages you to imagine things not yet imagined while not making threats or requiring you to be dogmatic or to abandon critical thinking. In short, one that allows you to be creative but still allows you to think for yourself.

Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. Christopher Hitchens

A key difference between encouraging a child to believe in a powerful being who can deliver presents to every house in a single night and childhood indoctrination into belief in a personal god, and the associated demands, is the exclusivity of the second. That and the lack of fun.

Here’s another excerpt (again, my italics):

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

I have some sympathy with Church’s view that:

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.

and especially:

In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater of course. As George Santayana says:

Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.

There is so much we don’t yet understand and we should approach the gulf between what we do and don’t know with humility. The universe as revealed through evidence by Science so far is stranger than anything we could have imagined:

  • We live in a universe in which everything we can see and touch makes up only a few percent of everything that is, the rest apparently being dark matter or dark energy.
  • On the smallest scales there exists a seething ocean of particle-antiparticle pairs coming into and out of existence.
  • If we travel fast enough, time will slow down and our mass will increase.

Alice’s world seems almost normal by comparison.

Science doesn’t claim to have the answer to all questions, yet the Scientific Method is the most successful and powerful form of knowledge acquisition we know. If new evidence comes to light to change our model of the world, then it will change after the dust has settled. That’s an important departure from dogmatic thinking, and skepticism is an important part of the Scientific Method.

There’s room for a child-like view of the world that encourages imagination and optimism, as well as an honest view of the world that requires careful thought and evidence regarding important questions, especially those with life-changing potential.

Kids will ask questions about early beliefs when they’re ready and that’s okay. Adults should encourage the fun aspects of early belief with a twinkle in their eye while accepting that questions will come.

It’s often been said that children are natural born scientists until society discourages them from asking honest, simple questions. I’d like to think that Francis Church the cynic and Virginia the child seeker-of-answers and adult teacher might have agreed.

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. Bertrand Russell

Nova Cir 2018

January 28, 2018

In my last post on January 20 about Nova Mus 2018, I said that another southern nova had been discovered, this one by John Seach in the early hours of January 19 in the constellation of Circinus, near alpha and beta Centauri. That post also showed a Stellarium context screenshot and pointed to an AAVSO finder chart.

This nova has slowly been on the rise for the last several days from around magnitude 8.5 to 6.3 by January 27.

The following 15 second DSLR images I took on Jan 22, 23, 26 and 27 show the nova brightening over time:

NovaCir2018Panels

If the images seem out of focus, that’s because they are. They were used for photometry rather than with the intention of being pretty; use of defocus is part of the procedure. See this talk I gave about DSLR photometry in 2015 for more detail. There’s some positional differences between frames, reflecting the difference in observation time from night to night.

The light curve below shows visual, Johnson V, and Tri-Color Green (DSLR) observations from January 19 to 28; mine are in purple. I’ve also submitted observations in blue and red bands.

NovaCir2018LCJan28

This light curve doesn’t appear to show a simple linear increase, so it will be interesting to see where the rise stops.

Rob Kaufman (discoverer of Nova Mus 2018) said that a low resolution spectrum he took on January 26 was essentially featureless.

The sky is largely clouded out tonight here in Adelaide at the end of a hot day (42° C), but I just caught a quick glimpse of the nova in 7×50 binoculars, but wasn’t able to check against comparison stars. It’s around the same magnitude as last night though. I’ll carry out more DSLR photometry as soon as I can.

In the meantime I have two more nights of Nova Mus 2018 (currently on the decline) DSLR images to process. I’ll write an update post for that nova too.

 

Nova Musca update (and another one)

January 20, 2018

It’s been several days since the nova in Musca was found by Rob Kaufman. The alert notice was sent out by AAVSO on January 16.

Below is the green filter channel of a DSLR image I took around midnight on January 17. The nova is shown via red markers with a faint satellite trail at upper right. Compare this with the narrow field Stellarium screenshot in my last post.

img-g13-cropped-annotated

That was one of 20 images used for photometry of the nova that night. I’ve repeated this on two other nights since submitting untransformed green (visual wavelength), blue and red band observations.

My visual band (binocular and DSLR photometry) observations are shown below in purple alongside visual band contributions from others:

NovaMusca2018Jan20

A polynomial fit makes the emerging pattern a little more obvious (if exaggerated in parts); up and down from night to night as is common with novae.

NovaMusca2018

This morning another southern nova was discovered in the constellation Circinus (near Alpha Centauri) by John Seach in NSW at magnitude 9.1. John also discovered a bright nova in Centaurus in 2013. I have not been able to observe this yet due to cloudy conditions tonight.

Here’s a Stellarium screenshot of this latest nova’s location:

Nova Circinus 2018

The AAVSO finder chart I will be using initially is this:

Nova near Southern Cross

January 15, 2018

Rob Kaufman in Victoria discovered a possible nova (PNV J11261220-6531086) near the Southern Cross (Crux) in the constellation of Musca on January 14 2018. All novae start out having the designation PNV or possible nova.

Rob’s discovery visual estimate was magnitude 7. I estimated it tonight with 7×50 binoculars at magnitude 6.7 relative to magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 comparison stars.

This context screenshot from Stellarium shows the nova’s location (cross-hairs at upper middle of image) relative to familiar stellar sign posts, including Crux and Alpha Muscae at 10pm Adelaide time (AEDT).
PNV J11261220-6531086 wide

The next shows a narrower field of view with the nova at right of the helpful triangular, A-shaped asterism.

PNV J11261220-6531086 narrow

Here’s a 10º finder chart from AAVSO
X22594EOand an 8º finder chart with the orientation closer to that of the sky around tonight’s observation time. The two comparison stars I used are circled in red.

X22594EI

After submitting my observation tonight to AAVSO I noticed that since Rob’s discovery observation, only two have been submitted other than mine:

  • another visual estimate by Sebastian Otero in Argentina (6.85);
  • and a tri-colour green DSLR observation (6.72) by David Blane in South Africa.

What I love about such transients, is their spectacular brightness rise and unpredictability.

Initial spectroscopy by Rob indicates a classical nova. I’d expect to see more amateur spectroscopy of this object in the near future.

Will it become visible to the naked eye like the similarly southern and close-to-Crux V1369 Cen did in 2013 (peaking at around magnitude 3.4)? One never knows with these things but it’s worth noting, as per the CBAT transient report page, ASAS-SN observations suggest the nova may actually have started in the first few days of January. If so, perhaps we’re a little too far down the track to expect naked eye visibility. All we can do is to observe it and see!

Being such a southerly object, it will not be as well observed as novae in the northern hemisphere, but it’s in a great location, so have a go if you can! I’ll be out every clear night observing it when I can in the days to come, visually and possibly via DSLR.