On the Inability to Prove or Disprove Religion

I recently felt inclined to respond to one of the less enlightened posts on Slashdot (slashdot.org) about the argued nature of the existence of deity.  This is, as some of you might be aware, a topic that comes up at every possible opportunity on /. discussions, and it usually devolves into a conversation that goes something like this:

A: God exists!

B: No way!  Prove it!

C: You suck!

D: Science says you’re a butt-head!

You get the idea.  Of course, there are some people who try to discuss the subject in reasonable and/or logical terms, but even those comments tend to lack a certain something in the realm of analyzing the nature of that very discussion–which I find must be done before any such discussion can be productive.

Normally, as you might expect, I don’t bother engaging in such asinine debate, but on this occasion, I decided to take the time and bother to prove–with logic–just how pointless a typical incarnation of religious discussion is.  My response is below (omitting content related to other, mostly unrelated parts of that thread.)  This quote, immediately below, is a response to my prior statement (in-passing) that atheism and agnosticism are, despite common conceptions, beliefs about God, and could thereby be reasonably considered religions of a sort.  (This has, in point of fact, been argued in several US court cases, so as to allow certain angry people the rights to do certain angry things–as well as to affirm the sensible right to avoid having religion unreasonably pressed upon them–but in normal conversation, most atheists and agnostics seem to take offense at such a claim.  Such is human nature, I think.)

Being theism-free is “being theism-free”. Understanding that superstition is not supported by evidence is not strictly necessary to being free of theism, as one may merely be indifferent to teachings of witch-doctors.

Prove your god exists or f*** off [censorship added for civility and child-safety]. Do it now. Here. Immediately, with no Faith as a requirement for belief. If your Sky Fairie is real, prove it and end the discussion for all time.

–couchslug on Slashdot

Excellent points, but the points you’ve just made are not the ones you think they are.

If I understand correctly, you believe that being concerned with deity is invalid. Hence, you have a specific belief about how ideas of deity ought to be treated. Thanks for the clarification.

Furthermore, I would note that the concept of “faith” and “proof” are yet at-debate amongst mathematicians, who have yet to determine what about geometric proof or logic–in any of their various forms (current/past)–make them provable at all. According to Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglass Hofstadter (with works cited therein), this very problem of circular proof requirements (called “Strange Loops”)–such as, “geometric proofs are valid because we can prove them with geometric proofs” (or with logic, which, itself requires proof; and on and on)–has been a topic of major debate and study since before the 20th century, and remains so to this day. Principia Mathematica was written to deal with this problem (through the creation of non-self-referencing sets, and complex rules that govern them), until an enterprising individual by the name of Kurt Gödel proved that the system of Principia Mathematica can only function insomuch as it can prove that it is, itself, valid–which violates many of the essential, core doctrines that make it valid at all, since in P.M., no system or statement is allowed to refer to itself; thus:

“Principia Mathematica is valid because of X Y Z…”

…violates hierarchical set theory, and therefore INVALIDATES Principia Mathematica. Of course, further systems have been developed, but as Dr. Hofstadter so well indicates in his Pulitzer-winning discourse, none have adequately exorcised the problem of Strange Loops, and as such, no form of mathematical logic (including that used in a formal debate) has yet been determined to be indisputably valid, itself.

So, with relation to proving that there is or is not a God (or multiple):

Religion cannot prove the existence of God, even if he manifested himself in-person and said “hi,” because the idea of a deity is an inherently religious belief, and could be seen with roughly equal validity as a manifestation of technology, biology, or physics; thus, no miracle at all can ever possibly be considered a miracle, unless one first subscribes to the religious idea of miracles–and thereby violates any prohibition against circular logic by requiring self-evident proof.

Likewise, religion cannot be DIS-proven, since in order to do so, one must accumulate the sum total of all possible knowledge and understanding, and then use that understanding to say, in essence, “there’s nothing else out there”–which, itself is a “circular” statement, in that it’s predicated on the truthfulness of the presumption that all knowledge has, in fact, been acquired and understood, already.

Therefore, the best that either side can ever prove, in isolation from faith of any kind (A.K.A. assumptions)–whether it be faith in the completeness of the set of knowledge being used, or faith that an un-provable religious belief is correct, despite a lack of deductive evidence–is that neither position is, in fact, able to be proven at this time.

Therefore, to state that a conversation or theory about religion or deity is, in the first place, invalid commits the “begging the question” logical fallacy by requiring the conclusion that deity cannot exist to be true, before one can deduce that conversation about deity is invalid–which, as deduced above, cannot be done with logic or mathematics as we currently understand them. In point of fact, sensible theologians are willing to admit that religion is something that you essentially “know in your heart” or some such–which is a flowery admittance that religion is a strictly personal belief system (regardless of what certain organizations want people to think) that can only be “proven” by inference internal to whomever wishes to believe. This, incidentally, cannot be logically termed valid or invalid, in a factual sense, for the reasons noted above. One can, of course, say that the “road” to such a conclusion of religious belief exists outside the realm of logic-as-we-know-it; and that would be a correct statement–but still wouldn’t invalidate any conclusion reached in that fashion, since a correct conclusion can be reached by incorrect premises and still be correct.

So, my dear couchslug, you have committed at least two logical fallacies with your assertions and demands above:
1) That the existence of deity, or lack thereof can be proven at all depends upon the ability of our current logical systems to self-reference in order to prove truth–which our current systems prohibit (via the broad description of what makes a “non-sequitur,” essentially).
2) That discussion or belief about God is already proven to be invalid, since God cannot be proven to exist, which itself is an assertion based partly upon the conclusion that he/she/it does not, in fact, exist–which requires your conclusion–and ultimately the outcome of the issue at-debate–to be true, in order to prove your conclusion (“begging the question”).

In conclusion, it should be noted that I do, in fact, have a specific set of religious beliefs that are almost entirely encompassed by the official doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  (The remainder are things I’ve discovered on my own, which have not [yet] been declared in any official statements.)  I simply choose to admit that my beliefs cannot be proven to an unbeliever; such a person who wants to know/understand what I do about religion simply must find a way to get there by faith, as logic has demonstrated itself to be an entirely inadequate tool for determining religious truths.  I think this is as-intended.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_mathematica [wikipedia.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godel_escher_bach [wikipedia.org]
(as well as the text of the above book, itself)


A Briefing On Clinical Depression and a New Treatment That Offers Hope

For those who don’t know, clinical depression is very different from the “bad mood” that most people call depression.  It’s driven by bad brain chemistry, and won’t just “go away,” no matter how hard the depressed person tries to be cheerful.  Such depression is usually genetic, or at least physiological, and as such, requires certain drugs to combat.  Talk therapy (as with a councilor or psychologist) can help, but typically only once the underlying chemical problem is dealt with; the therapy seems to be in the role of cleaning up the aftermath of life-long pain, rather than that of a primary cure (in most cases).

There are many drugs that try to treat depression, including SSRIs (Prozac and others), tricyclic antidepressants (like Tryptomer), SNRIs, NDRIs, and about a dozen other categories.  Often, taking a dose of antidepressants won’t help, and such drugs must be combined with other types of medicine, such as atypical antipsychotics, which sometimes function as “enhancers” to whatever else is already being used.  Most people with severe clinical depression (like myself) are saddled with taking 6 or more psychiatric drugs every day, for life, only to find that after a while, the drugs cease working and make the depression worse, instead of better.  To top it all off, nearly all psychiatric drugs have serious (and sometimes life-threatening) side effects, including major weight changes, chronic fatigue, possible organ damage, sexual dysfunction, endocrine imbalance, and even (counter intuitively) life-threatening depressive episodes.

To be perfectly clear: severe clinical depression is an excruciatingly painful, life-threatening disease.  It never goes away, and the pain of it–both mental and physical–can be more than enough to drive a person quite literally insane.  It should be no surprise, given this, that many people who have this torturous disease decide that continuing to live in endless, agonizing pain is not a decent prospect.  (Those who rail against severely, chronically depressed people who commit or attempt suicide only show their ignorance about how awful the disease is.  Of course, I don’t recommend any such attempts, but I can absolutely understand the need to end the pain of living.)

At this point, it’s worth noting that psychiatric drugs are only effective in about 40% of depression patients (according to the numbers I’ve seen).  This means that for most people, treatment for depression–while essential–involves a long and drawn-out process of trial-and-error while the doctors scratch their heads and (basically) try random-ish stuff until they find something that seems to work.  Those who are familiar with this process become acutely aware that medical professionals have basically no idea why the brain does what it does, or even why psychiatric drugs work when they do.  If you don’t believe me, watch a commercial for antidepressant medicine, and listen for phrases like, “it is believed that <drug name> works by…”  Even the names of the drugs (e.g. Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitor–SSRI) are purely speculative, since it’s only reasoned that they do what their names imply.

Finally, in order to see if a given treatment regimen will do what the doctors hope it will, one has to take the medicines religiously, for at least one month (sometimes longer), before enough of the drug is in the patient’s system to do anything at all.  Of course, at that point the drug will either work (perhaps enough, perhaps not), not work at all, or make the symptoms even worse!  Thus, many people with depression eventually (or quickly) decide to give up on treatment and do their best to otherwise not be miserable–or kill themselves.

For completeness, I’ll outline a sample of what such treatment regimens cost.  Without insurance, back when I was taking about 8 medicines each day, prescriptions alone (that is, not counting doctor visits) would have cost me upward of $2,000 every month.  WITH insurance at a premium of about $470 per month (yes, you read that right–nearly $500 for just me), the co-pays for my prescriptions lingered around $500 per month.  So, to be able to take a large number of drugs that kind-of worked sometimes, and made things worse the rest of the time, and which also destroyed parts of my body (and which created very nasty withdrawal symptoms–including shaking, pain, hot and cold flashes, etc.), and to attend doctor visits in order to change the regimen, hoping for better results, I paid around $1,300 every month with insurance in order to attempt to treat my depression.

Eventually, my symptoms (and the economy) caused me to lose my job and be unable to get another one.  I therefore was abruptly without medicines (and facing withdrawal), and without income or health insurance of any kind.  I’m not entirely sure how I managed to stay alive until I managed to impress upon the government that I needed financial aid.  Ultimately, though, I was given disability benefits (SSI and Social Security; don’t ask me why they’re two separate things from the same agency; I don’t understand it), and Medi-Cal.

The New Treatment

Not long ago, my mother showed me an NPR article, online, that outlined a new kind of treatment for depression, using drugs previously thought to be completely unrelated.  The article is here:


To summarize, the street drug, “Special K” (ketamine–a schedule 3 pain reliever) has been in common use as a “self-medicating” drug amongst those with depression.  Of course, ketamine has some powerful and potentially harmful side effects, including addiction, so it’s not ideal–especially for self-administration.

Researchers of depression eventually took notice of this and conducted some trials.  It was soon found that ketamine can, indeed, relieve depression better than any of the other drugs commonly used for this illness, and a whole lot faster, too.  Patients reported remarkable changes to their mood within hours or days, rather than months, and it proved highly effective in treating cases that had been resistant to all other treatments.  Soon, it was discovered that Riluzole (used to treat Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Scopolamine (for motion sickness and surgical nausea) also worked just as well, and weren’t nearly as dangerous.  Patients who underwent these treatments reported lasting, remarkable improvements in their moods, and the sudden ability to start doing the things they loved and needed to do.  It should be noted that Riluzole and Scopolamine both have potential side effects, but that their side effects are pretty manageable, compared with ketamine, or depression, itself.  (If you’re interested, this relief seems to be a result of increasing the level of glutamate in the brain, so theoretically, any drug that does this, like those above, may provide a like benefit.)

So, shortly after reading this article, I asked my doctor (a physician’s assistant, technically) to look into prescribing me one of these drugs.  After a week of looking into it, he prescribed me Scopolamine patches (transdermal, 1.5mg), and told me to discontinue use and contact him if I experienced mania, deliriousness, excessive fatigue, hallucinations, very severe dry mouth, major dizziness or other symptoms.  Of course, all but fatigue, dizziness, and dry mouth are very rare, and only tend to surface among those with a predisposition for them (e.g. those with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.), but the responsible thing was to warn me, so he did so.  As it turns out, the biggest symptom I have from it is dry mouth (which is a bit irritating to my asthma, but not unmanageably so), and I mitigate it with sugar-free chewing gum.  I do sometimes get tired for no apparent reason, but it’s rare, and since my depression made me exhausted nearly all the time (I also happen to have fibromyalgia, which the treatment is also helping me against), I’m overall a lot more energetic than I’ve been in years.  More than that, I’ve been able to renew my interest in music (guitar, theory, and composition), creative and philosophical writing (as evidenced…), learning about various sciences (including electronic theory), designing a RPG gaming system and campaign setting, etc.  All in all, this has been an amazing improvement to my quality of life.

I still don’t feel well enough to work reliably (partly, I think, because the Scopolamine patch only comes in one dose, and I don’t think it’s large enough), and as such, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to earn my own living at any time in the foreseeable future, but I’m now able to volunteer a bit in answering Linux-related questions, teaching music theory, and other things that I deem to be of at least some benefit to society.  In short, I no longer feel like quite so much of an outcast.  Maybe someday, I’ll find a way to fully and truly re-join society and the workforce thereof, but in the meantime, I’m at least not in much pain–which is a major step in the right direction.

If you or someone you know has been struggling with a “resilient” case of depression (or fibromyalgia), please feel free to contact me via this blog.  It’s possible that I’ll be able to get my doctor to send over some anonymized data to the acting health professional, so that he/she can make a better assessment on whether such a treatment would work well in your case.  Several medical professionals where I live have taken an interest in this new treatment as a result of my using it, and I expect that it can help a lot of people, if only those in charge of health care were to learn about it.

One final note: Scopolamine (and Riluzole) aren’t cheap.  Scopolamine comes in packs of 4 patches (3 days of use, each), and each pack costs between $50 and $75 (usually $75, depending on where you buy them).  Thus, one ends up paying that amount every 12 days.  My doctor was able to get Medi-Cal to pay for them, so now I get them at no charge (thank goodness!); otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to afford more than the first couple weeks’ worth. So, if your insurance doesn’t pay for it, initially, bug them until they do!  Medi-Cal’s authorization process seems to work based on flipping a coin, so if at first you don’t succeed, a good strategy is to have your doctor give you another (conventional) drug to try, and then, when it doesn’t work, re-apply for the authorization, citing that the latest treatment was also inneffective, and that you therefore “really do need Scopolamine (or Riluzole).”  Rinse and repeat.

On the State of Linux GUI Development

Posted on the Ubuntu-Devel-Discuss mailing list on 4-7-2012 (just a few minutes ago).  I don’t yet know how this will go over, or even if those on the list will have the patience to read it all; but I can hope.  In any case, I’m increasing the potential audience of this essay/letter, since I find the subject important and oft-neglected.

I’m not keen on getting involved in a debate, but since this issue affects my ability to be productive on Ubuntu, as well, I find it appropriate to inform the developers of it.

I’m aware that there have been numerous complaint threads on this mailing list and others about some people finding Unity (and Gnome 3) basically unusable for their purposes.  I’m in the same boat, and while I realize that “+1” on this issue is basically pointless, the continued postings on the subject raise an important issue that’s only being obliquely touched upon, for the most part:

Ubuntu has decreased in usability for many people due to the all-out “war on the old GUI.”  At this point is where someone says, “use Gnome classic!”  This, however, proved rather problematic for me, and continues to be so for many others; also, it’s both condescending and counterproductive to insist that users with genuine problems with the direction of development simply “deal with the new GUI” or switch back to a somewhat broken Gnome 2 that lacks significant pieces that made Gnome usable before these changes started.  I’ll mention a couple of examples, just to cursorily illustrate that I’m not simply “blowing smoke,” but ultimately it’s something you have to use and have problems with to fully understand.

1) No system menu; everything is shoved into Applications > Other.  Having 30+ items here is utterly impractical, and I found that not everything even made it into a menu after System was removed.  I often had to search the web for the program’s actual name so that I could then open a terminal and type the command to let me do some basic administrative or customization task.  This is greatly compounded when much of the menu is full of things that were designed for Unity or Gnome 3, and therefore do nothing useful for Gnome classic–or just as often break things.

2) Even if you can find everything in Gnome classic that you used to use in Gnome 2, half the stuff on a recent Ubuntu installation is stuff that breaks Gnome 2, or is only usable with Unity (and therefore Compiz), or Gnome 3.  Furthermore, if you reset as much as you can to “default” for Gnome classic (delete config files in ~, etc.), you’ll end up with programs that require working Unity/Gnome 3 components, but since you’re no longer configured for those desktop environments, they’ll be unpredictable and crash frequently.  This is especially bad because Compiz breaks Unity (and its components) when not properly configured.  I experienced crashing window manager, freezing, and even segfaults about every hour while using a stock install of Unity with just a few minor Compiz customizations.  These crashes also carried over into Gnome classic, once I stopped using Unity.  (Yes, I disabled Unity support and enabled Gnome support in Compiz.)

Ultimately, I’ve been forced to switch to KDE on Linux Mint–neither of which I’m particularly fond of.  The thing is, though, they work *for me* 10 times better than Ubuntu has since it dropped Gnome 2, so it’s the best of several undesirable options.  I’d love to go back to stock Ubuntu, but as long as the GUI is busy being re-invented (not just in Ubuntu, notably), I’m finding myself stuck dealing with Windows a lot more, and Linux–which I generally like much better–a lot less.  I used to boot into Windows only to play games, but now I find that staying in Linux means spending lots of time arguing with unnecessary GUI problems.  (I’m personally quite fed-up with it all, but I’m trying to be civil and rational so as to be productive, rather than a problem, in and of myself.)

…But all the above is only marginally relevant; the real problem, as I see it, is the development trend being espoused.  I understand that it’s great to invent new, exciting software, and I don’t begrudge anybody of it.  In fact, the mere fact that you bother to write for a free OS is admirable, and I commend you for it (for whatever that’s worth).  Unfortunately, it’s been a consistent-but-growing trend in Linux development, generally, and Ubuntu, specifically, to make a piece of software *pretty* good, then whimsically decide that instead of making it *really* good, it’s more fun/better/whatever to invent a completely new thing, based on better principles, technology, and so forth.  Unfortunately, these good ideas rarely get fully realized before yet another set of good ideas emerges and causes working systems to be abandoned in favor of alpha-stage projects.  This is a problem endemic to Linux as a whole, but it’s been especially disappointing to see it infest the otherwise amazing Ubuntu.  For an example, I note that Red Hat 7.2 had a rather good built-in, cross-environment menu editor.  Then, the underlying software changed, and it was about 5 years until Gnome had a menu editor again (which Ubuntu’s developers helped to create, as I understand it).  Similarly, KDE3 had a good menu editor, but now that KDE4 is out, it’s all but impossible to simply organize items by alphabetical order.  So, while the underlying technology got better, the useful, basic features that we all expect to “just work” (as they do in Windows and Mac OS X, which are the main competition to Ubuntu and Linux) have *repeatedly* gone by the wayside because it’s somehow more appealing to re-write things than to polish them.  I encourage those who still don’t believe me to look for other examples, themselves, rather than fixating upon the ones I’ve given; productive conversation would suffer from arguments over inane details like these.

Since the release of Warty Warthog in the early 2000s, the Ubuntu developers turned the quirky-and-barely-functional Gnome desktop into a darned good system for getting things done.  With a couple years more polish, it could have been truly competitive with GUIs by Apple and Microsoft.  But as soon as it had really come into its own–and before it became “really good”–folks decided to completely redesign a working system, producing the magnets-for-complaints we call Gnome 3 and Unity.  (When you get rid of something that works, in favor of anything at all that’s different, you WILL have complaints–some for good reason.)  I don’t at all doubt that those systems will one day be at least a little better than Gnome 2 ever was, but since in the meantime we have nothing but half-baked new systems and gutted old systems (i.e. Gnome classic and its oddly-more-faithful fork, MATE), the state of the Linux GUI has brought adoption back to a matter of just how much time a competent computer user wants to waste on learning something new, rather than sticking with a system that already works for him.  For a lot of people, the question isn’t even reasonable.  Until this trend of “fixing” things that aren’t broken (from the end user’s perspective) by inventing “shiny-yet-incomplete” things ceases to hold sway, Linux will truly never garner a solid place in the desktop market.

So, here’s the “thrust” of my dissertation: Please, developers, stick with something that works until it’s become something truly great; then when public demand requires it (or your foresee that requirement) make something new and better–but under no circumstances take away what we already use and love!!  It feels like a betrayal of the user base (those who don’t like the new system, at least–and you know there are plenty, if you read these mailing lists), and it puts users in the very awkward and problematic position of deciding to limp along with a broken system or just revert to a commercial offering.  I personally have a somewhat fanatical love for Linux, but for me, anyway, no amount of fanaticism can compete with a gross lack of usability (for my purposes, of course).  I beg you, the developers of this otherwise great OS and superior Linux distribution, to consider the awkward place you’ve put your (existing/potential) user base in, and allow us to install and use the FULLY-FUNCTIONAL version of what’s previously worked for those of us who don’t want the new system just yet.

I know that I’ve been wordy and dissertated at length, so if you’ve read all the above, you have my sincere gratitude.


–Dane Mutters


UPDATE (4-18-12): As it so happens, somebody’s actually found a term for a big part of the problem with the new GUIs: The Principle of Least Astonishment.  Now, if we can only get the Gnome and Unity devs to take a look…

First Post

I’ve finally decided to get my own blog.  For the record, “blog” is a silly word, and I think that most blogs aren’t particularly inspired.  That said, below is why I’m doing this.

I spend quite a lot of time thinking.  I think on a very wide range of ostensibly disconnected (and often apparently irrelevant) things.  Some examples are:

(1) Since it’s possible to exceed the speed of a wave moving through the mediums of gasses, (and presumably) liquids, and solids (i.e. exceed the sound barrier), then why should it be impossible to exceed the native wave transmission speed of the medium of space-time (i.e. the speed of light)?  (I’m aware that current models of physics declare this to be impossible; I’m just not fully convinced.  In fact, I consider quantum mechanics to be a dirty, even lazy kludge; and I’m not sure that relativity has yet been fully understood.  I’m sure most physicists will gripe about that appellation of their current pet theory group, but I’m cantankerous enough not to be worried about it.)

(2) Why is the Republican party currently working so hard to make most non-million/billionaires hate them?  Aside from the die-hards who will go along with anything the party hegemony says, much of the public-at-large is coming to loath the exceedingly corrupt way in which this party does “business.”  (That is, even worse than the Democrats, at present.)  Could it be that they’re actually “playing the heel” to the Democratic party’s reluctant/disadvantaged hero?  It makes more sense than the explanation that the Republican leadership has simply “gone stupid,” and would prove a deft counter to the current wave of political activism by way of ensuring that only a minimum of changes need to take place to make the public feel like we’ve “won.”  (Business can then continue as usual.)

While I don’t suppose that my musings are infallible or even irrefutable (even if they’re right, mind…), I do find that I have good intuition about the motives of groups of people, and my brain moves in a fortuitous kind of “sideways” so as to make my other theories at least interesting, and possibly even correct.  Frequently enough that insight leads to correct or nearly-correct conclusions and predictions of things to come.  So, while it probably sounds both hubristic, vain, arrogant, and/or egotistical to do so, I’ve determined to write my ideas and predictions in a public place, where they can be easily reviewed later with an eye toward judging just how good/correct those ideas and predictions were.  Furthermore, I intend to use this medium as a means of presenting strange, original(-ish) ideas for how to begin digging our trashed and antiquated society (speaking of norms, not technology) out of the smelly rut we’re currently in, and have endured since roughly the industrial revolution.  I’ll hereafter dissertate on, among other disparate topics, what about the industrial revolution was good (and worth keeping), and what was a step in the wrong direction–which produced greater misery for humankind, rather than the opposite.

I don’t know if my ideas will be useful to anyone, but by making them freely available, I’ll offer them up toward those with a more respected social status than myself, and–should these ideas gain any traction–it will increase the credibility with which I can speak in the future.  Of course, anybody and everybody is encouraged to read and consider my words, but I’m less interested in commentary and debate (which, I really would prefer to avoid the latter, at present, owing mainly to lack of health and energy) than I am in the exposure and testing of whatever I write.

That’s all for now; I make no promises or predictions about when I’ll write next or in the future, but I plan to do so at some point, and repeatedly.

A bientot.