Ineffability of Success; Necessity of Humility

SuccessI wrote before that I was listening to the This American Life episode, 20 Acts in 60 Minutes. And one of the stories was about a sausage manufacturer that had moved to a new high tech facility, but found that their premiere product was not the same. It still tasted as good, but it was the wrong color. They tried everything, but they couldn’t find the problem. Eventually, they learned that the problem was an idiosyncrasy of the old factory. They manage to recreate the idiosyncrasy and got their old sausage color back. Hooray.

Ezra Glass noted that he liked the story because it showed that we don’t usually know the source of our success. That really hit me. I’ve found that to be so true in life. In general, if you are involved in some venture, you need to do a whole lot of things that are probably pointless. But you just don’t know what is important and what isn’t. For example, here at Frankly Curious, I’ve written about 7,000 articles. but there are just a few that have gotten much traction. What’s more, they are generally articles I didn’t think much about. I’ve never gotten a lot of traction for an article that I thought very highly of while writing.

Where we get into trouble — as individuals and as communities — is in thinking that we are a success because we are good.

This is why I continue to work this blog. I really don’t know what I’m doing. What usually makes for a popular article is a single person finding what I wrote to be interesting. If that person has a hundred thousand people following them, it makes a big difference. And then we are into Horatio Alger territory where what really matters is impressing “important” people — this traditionally leading to a good job and marriage to one their nubile daughters. But this isn’t the way I want to think about it, and it isn’t the way I think about it. You can’t think about it that way.

I used to do IT for a real estate investment company. And the head of sales explained the process to me as follows. There was no such thing as a great sales person. There was just a certain percentage of people who are open to your pitch. So you pitch to as many people as you can. And that’s how you make sales. Obviously, there is a skill element to it. But in general, you get that skill by giving your pitch over and over again. And that’s how I look at writing.

Indeed, it is the skills that I learned writing excessively here that led to my day job. Five years ago, I was a decent enough writer. But I wasn’t able to grind out a thousand palatable words on any subject at all in under four hours. But that’s not the main thing. The main thing is the grinding itself. It’s the constant working that leads to success. But obviously, not a lot of success — at least, not necessarily. And that’s because success is ultimately about luck. To whatever extent that we succeed, it isn’t something that we really control. And it was never my intention to write a lot to get better; it was my intention to write a lot because I enjoyed it.

Where we get into trouble — as individuals and as communities — is in thinking that we are a success because we are good. Perhaps you saw this headline at The Hill, Trump Takes Credit for Iran Prisoner Release. Trump is, in an important way, the perfect president for this country. He also represents the absolute worst aspects of who we are.

We could all of us use a great deal more humility.

Specious Atheist Arguments Don’t Mean a Thing

Born Again AtheistElizabeth sent me to this very interesting Luke McKinney article at Cracked, 5 Atheist Arguments Which Aren’t Helping Anyone. It is written by my kind of atheist: one who seems constantly frustrated at the state of atheism today. Back in 1990, I started going to local atheist meetings in Portland. And they were filled with the most extreme group of oddballs you have ever seen. But look at atheism today: it is so much more “normal” and acceptable. So I think people now can be more delusional about it. They think the day when religion is gone is nigh. And they really do sound a lot like missionaries.

In the past, it was enough to know that Christians were silly and to find others who knew that too. But here’s a big thing, most arguments I got into in those days were extremely open-minded on my side. I would have loved for my Christian friends to have been able to convince me. Such cheap salvation! Just believe one silly thing and your life has meaning! Who wouldn’t want that to be true? Of course, on the other side of those arguments were always the most closed-minded of people. There was no way they were ever going to yield a point because they had discovered that One Weird Trick for endless ecstasy.

Atheists have decided that they should have faith in science. And that’s good! Science is about the best thing we have going. But it doesn’t provide us with ultimate truth. There are limits to science.

One of the most annoying things that Christians do is make really lame arguments. How do you know that heaven is real? It says right here in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Oh, that explains everything. So I know that heaven exists because someone who thought heaven existed wrote it down in a book. This is the kind of closed-minded and closed-loop thinking that drives atheists crazy. And with good reason!

Today, there are far too many atheists whose thinking is every bit as closed-minded and closed-loop as the worst Christians. And a lot of atheist arguments are just a bag of tricks that they think just destroy Christianity or whatever other religion you want to talk about. The most annoying of these are the paradox arguments. I wrote about this before, No Contradiction in Genesis Eve Creation. My main point there was that paradoxes are found everywhere — even in deductive systems. And certainly the existence of the universe is a paradox, so why wouldn’t a creation story have paradoxes? (I then go on to show that there isn’t really a paradox to begin with.)

But the biggest problem with these kinds of trivial atheist arguments is that they really only address Biblical literalism: the most primitive kind of belief. And it isn’t just the smug Twitter atheists who do this. I’ve read atheist books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and many others. And not one of them deals with religion as it is practiced by intelligent, thoughtful people. Now that’s fine! The vast majority of people do practice a kind of brainless fideism. But these same authors seem to think that their atheist arguments have wider currency. And they don’t.

What I hate in all things is hubris. (I hate it in myself most of all.) When Penn Jillette wrote his pathetic book God, No! his main argument is that we just don’t know and that we shouldn’t believe in things that we don’t know about. It’s a nice thought. But of course, Jillette is lying. Atheists are as certain of their worldviews as everyone else. And the vast majority of them have far more faith in science than they should have. They suffer from some a kind of literalist-like error regarding it, “Science says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Well, no. That’s the thing about science: nothing is ever settled.

Atheists have decided that they should have faith in science. And that’s good! Science is about the best thing we have going. But it doesn’t provide us with ultimate truth. There are limits to science. (If there are limits to logic, there are limits to science — see Kurt Gödel.) But with regard to the atheist debates, we are stuck with the fact that most religious people have just as much faith in science. Read Carl Sagan’s interview (pdf) with the Dalai Lama.

I complain so much about atheists because I expect better of them. When a Jehovah’s Witness comes to my door wanting to explain how we know that God loves me because John said so, I don’t much care because they are idiots. What I can’t tolerate is people thinking that just because they believe in science, they can make equally specious but atheist arguments.

Morning Music: Happy Birthday

The Birthday PartyLet us move on to the second album of The Birthday Party called, appropriately enough, The Birthday Party. And the song is “Happy Birthday.” It was a group composition when Nick Cave was starting to become the dominant songwriter (he never really did succeed in that regard). I love the song. Now you could listen carefully to the lyrics and come to the conclusion that it is a happy song. Many people think it is. But it’s not. When I was 17 years old, I wrote a song for a friend of mine’s high school graduation called, “Goodbye Graduate.” It was much more clear, with lines like, “You’ll get a wife and work for Dodge.” But “Happy Birthday” is about the same thing: aging and the fact that life just gets worse. Happy birthday!

One thing I find interesting is that Wikipedia refers to The Birthday Party as a “post-punk” band. How exactly is The Bithday Party post-punk? They sound very punk to me. But then Wikipedia insists upon calling every impressionist painter you’ve ever heard of as post-impressionist. Anyway, this song sounds like a lot of California punk from the late 1970s to me. But just remember, the boy in this song was eleven years old. That means he’s 47 years old now and his life sucks! Or he died of liver failure like one of the writers.

Tomorrow I might get to an actual Nick Cave song. In the mean time, enjoy this one:

Anniversary Post: Martin Luther King Jr Day

Martin Luther King JrOn this day in 1993, Martin Luther King Jr Day became an official holiday celebrated in all 50 states. The history of this is bizarre. It became a national holiday starting in 1986, even though Ronald Reagan signed the law in 1983. The holdout was Arizona, which actually lost the hosting of Super Bowl XXVII, because its people just couldn’t manage to support it.

There were two ballot measures in 1990. One (301) would have replaced Columbus Day with MLK day and the people hated it — voting it down by almost 51 percentage points. The other (302) would have just created a new state holiday, and it lost narrowly by 1.6 percentage points. Finally, in 1992, the people of Arizona approved Proposition 300 that combined Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays into President’s day and created “Martin Luther King Jr/Civil Rights Day,” by a wide margin of almost 23 percentage points.

Interestingly, the difference was not the specifics of the measure or that the people had had a change of heart. The difference was that Propositions 301 and 302 took place in 1990 — an off year. Proposition 300 took place in 1992 — a presidential election year. If you look at the numbers, you will see that roughly the same number of people voted against 300 as voted against 302. It’s just there were a whole lot more liberals who showed up to the polls to vote for Bill Clinton (who still lost, but only barely).

It still kind of bugs me that in the state of Arizona, Martin Luther King Jr Day is “Martin Luther King Jr/Civil Rights Day.” It isn’t the only state to do this. Idaho and New Hampshire do similar things. Now understand: I am in favor of turning Martin Luther King Jr Day into Civil Rights Day. I am in favor of this because I don’t like these celebrations being about specific people. King is a symbol for a wider movement and that is the thing that we should be celebrating. But I think that adding “civil rights” or “human rights” to the name is meant to diminish Martin Luther King. And that is not my wish, as King would always be an important part of any such celebration.

But I can deal with that. What I cannot deal with is what we find in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Virginia. In each of these states, they combine celebrations of Martin Luther King with Robert E Lee. We can forget that Lee was a slave owner whose military brilliance doubtless cost hundreds of thousands of extra America lives in the name of maintaining the enslavement of African Americans. Let’s just make it simple: Robert E Lee committed treason against the United States of America. He should have spent the last five years of his life in federal custody. He certainly shouldn’t have holidays named after him. The the southerns who can’t understand that are unpatriotic America haters who should be shamed at every chance.