I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Free Robot!

I bought a new Roomba yesterday. Sears had the base model 405 for only $129.00, so it was really a no-brainer just to buy a new one. My old roomba has served me well for two years, but it's reached a point where the battery won't hold a charge for more than ten minutes, and it's showing it's age in a lot of small jury-rigged repairs I've made to it. The plastic clips that hold in the rotating brushes broke a while back and I wound up just using screws to hold the whole assembly in place. I haven't bought a new filter since I got the unit, choosing instead just to wash the old filter with soap and water every few weeks, which got the job done.

It seems a shame just to toss the old roomba in the trash. If the battery still held a charge long enough to finish a room, I'd still be using it. It occurs to me there may be some engineering class out there somewhere that would like to get their hands on a free robot for a class project. I'll even pay for ground shipping in the US. Just drop me a line at nobodynovelwriter (at) yahoo.com.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Two proposed ammendments

I'm not an economist. Nor am I particularly an expert in government, or the constitution, or law. I am someone who attempts to keep informed, but I confess, a lot of stuff that our government does defies any attempt to keep informed.

The stimulus bill, for instance. The house drafted one enormous bill in only a couple of days, the senate drafted a different enormous bill in a similarly short time, a committee got together and melded the two into a third bill in under a week, a bill that was over a thousand pages long, that was voted on for final approval so swiftly that no average person could possibly have sat down and read every single line of this bill. I'm guessing that congress and the White House have teams to tackle the work of actually reading and writing these things; a couple of dozen people draft it, a couple of dozen people read it in chunks and give the actual lawmakers a two page memo with a lot of bullet points. It goes into law with no single legislator actually having read it.

When Enron collapsed, or the Wall Street investment firms crumbled, the CEOs were trotted before congress to be publicly berated for their irresponsibility. The CEOs often blame their woes on bad information from underlings. Congressmen rightly ask why were the CEOs collecting multimillion dollar salaries to run businesses when they now admit they didn't really understand everything that was going on.

Yet, how is our government any different? Not one elected official actually read the largest spending bill they've ever voted on. Obama is a very smart man by all accounts, but he cannot possibly be enough of a speed reader to actually go through this bill line by line and understand precisely what it is he's enacting.

I'm not defending auto industry executives, oil barons, peanut processing bosses, airline CEOs, or the titans of Wall Street, but for all the failures of their various industries, no single firm or business has ever found itself 12 trillion in debt. Where are the hearings where congressmen are called to testify before a panel of American citizens under oath and explain how they managed to run our country into the financial ditch?

Actually, minus the part about being under oath, we have the chance every two years to hold our congressmen to account. With the exception of a tiny handful of citizens, we can't be bothered. The percentage of voting age Americans who can even name their congressional representative is a joke. And, I'm no better; for all my ranting about the duty of being an informed citizen, I have representational fatigue. I can name my congressman and senators at the federal level, but I don't have a clue who represents me in Raleigh, nor can I think of the name of the mayor of my town as I type this. I'd probably recognize it if I heard it, but right now it's all lost in the brain fog.

I doubt we'll ever see another constitutional amendment passed in our lifetime, but I do have a modest proposal for a 28th amendment:

Congress shall pass no bill longer than 1oo pages, double spaced, 12 point courier font, with one inch margins on a standard sheet of legal paper (8.5x14).

This means bills like the annual budget and the stimulus bill, or funding for various wars, couldn't be voted on in huge omnibus bills that no one can possibly read. Every law would be of a size that there would be no excuse for a representative not to actually read it before passing it. Also, breaking bills up would clean out some of the crazy stuff that gets stuck in.

And, how about this for the 29th:

No representative may vote on a bill without signing an oath, under penalty of perjury, that he has read the bill in full.

I wish I could think of some amendment that would fix the American public, but perhaps that's asking too much of my brain on a lazy Sunday morning....

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Burger

I leave work at 11pm, dead on my feet, starving, nothing to eat since lunch. Just past the interstate there's a Waffle House. I pull in, grab a newspaper, sit at the counter, and order a double quarter pound bacon cheeseburger.

I can smell it on the griddle as it cooks. I watch them slide the cheese on with a spatula. It stays on the griddle until the cheese melts over the patties like a perfect coat of golden paint. These are stacked onto a bun and served up with a paper thin slice of red onion that goes edge to edge. Pickles, lettuce, onion, tomato, mustard, and, oh yeah, the bacon crisp and salty ... every bite of this thing is like eating sunshine and music and America.

Five AM. I wake to heartburn. My sweat smells like onion. There's an undercurrent of mustard and bacon to my spit. My stomach feels twice as heavy as it should. I'm two weeks away from my 45th birthday. I know better than to eat such meals in the shadow of midnight.

I'd do it again. I'd do it again.

The glory....

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Unthinkable Alternative

First: The stimulus package. Ever since it became an issue, I've resolved myself to the fact we would get this stimulus whether it was a good idea or not. And, while I would rather see congress and the White House work on tackling the deficit, I did at least look forward to getting the $500 check Obama had talked about on the campaign trail. I find myself wandering through computer stores looking at netbooks. I have daydreams about a computer I can carry in my pocket. $500 can buy a nice netbook.

Now, the $500 tax rebate is a $400 rebate. Good enough. Except, congress isn't cutting checks for $400--they are just going to tinker with your withholding and the $400 will be spread out over several months. It works out to about $13 a week for most people.

On NPR today, they said that by handing out money in this slow dribble, it would ensure that people would spend it rather than save it. A lot of people would just put a large check in the bank, but an extra twenty bucks they'll spend on eating out.

Sadly, I suspect this is true. But now, we get the debt, and I don't get my netbook. But I do get to grumble on my blog, which is still a source of pleasure. All things have their upside.

Now, back to my ongoing atheism rant. Sorry if this blog has turned into "atheism central" in recent weeks. I've been getting a lot of feedback on these posts in emails and in person. Naturally, the more I talk about a subject, the more I think about it, and the more I have ideas for posts.

This time, I'm going to tackle # 7 in my list of ten good reasons to believe in God: The Unthinkable Alternative.

By chance, Joseph Farah at World Net Daily just posted a very nice summary of this argument in an essay he titled "Atheism - a lose-lose proposition." The article is really more of a rehash of Pascal's Wager, but in the middle of it he has this nice summary of the "Unthinkable Alternative" argument for believing in God: Because life without meaning is so empty. Because life without truth and justice and accountability is unfulfilling. Because, at the end of the day, in this case your life, you still wind up with nothing. This empty, unfulfilling life of injustice and misery is all there is. ... Who would want to have no hope? ... It's not that I believe in God because I hope He's real. I know He's real and that gives me hope.

This is an argument I've heard a zillion times. If there is no God, then life has no meaning or purpose. It's just a tedious trudge through an ever decreasing number of days before we vanish from this vale of tears. One variant of the argument goes, if there's no hope of heaven, what's the point of living a good life? If we're just random blips of animated matter, why don't we all just kill ourselves?

I think this argument reveals a lot about the people who make it. Apparently, this world is so terrible that it's a given that life is full of injustice and misery, and the only hope is an external one: A savior is going to clean up this earth, punish the wicked, and take the righteous to heaven where things will be just peachy.

I think this is rather depressing way to look at the world.

First, I don't believe there is an external force providing meaning and purpose to our lives. But that doesn't mean that we can't find our own meaning and purpose. We are not alone in this world; we are surrounded by fellow members of our species. For that matter, even other species... there's a surprising amount of purpose and meaning in life that can be found just in hanging out with a good dog or cat. It feels good to make a cat purr; it feels even better to make other people smile. It feels good to laugh, and sometimes to cry, and sometimes to take long walks, and sometimes just to nap. Life isn't pointless; the point of life, I would argue, is to live. Enjoy life while you're here rather than placing all your eggs in the basket of an uncertain afterlife. Really, the whole heaven argument breaks down to, "We'll all be so much happier when we're dead!" That's kind of pathetic.

There is injustice and misery in this world. But rather than asking God to take us away from all these woes, maybe we can roll up our sleeves and get to work on trying to fix things. As much as I dislike our present government, it is so much better than any government that existed anywhere 1000 years ago, or 500 years ago. We can argue that there may have been points in American history when things were better than today, but it would take a very cynical person not to see that we are collectively making progress on a whole slew of problems that were once seemingly impossible to solve. I mean, in the span of a human life, we've gone from a country where blacks couldn't ride at the front of a bus to a country where a man with an African father is elected president. We've mapped the human genome and are scraping away at diseases and conditions that were once certain death sentences. Our cars are cleaner and safer than they were even twenty years ago.

It's true that all our solutions seem to lead to other problems--the astonishing freedom provided by automobiles has empowered oil rich countries that don't have our best interests in mind, for instance. Or, treatments to improve fertility have wound up producing the current scandal of the unwed octo-mom. But... we'll keep fixing problems as they arise, create new problems, fix them, and so on. Life won't get boring. And that's fine by me.

I don't need God to have hope. All I need for hope are a few good friends and eyes willing to look at the world objectively to see that progress is possible. And even if the world is falling apart.. even if it's short and you are beset by problems that are going to kill you... even when all hope is gone... if you're breathing, you can still find joy.

Two weeks before Laura passed away, she was so sick she could barely eat. She was uncomfortable sleeping, or standing up, or sitting down. Walking from room to room exhausted her. She had a lot of stuff to worry about; her insurance was coming to an end and it seemed like everyone she tried to work with in the government aid services was either burned out our just plain mean. Her car wasn't passing inspection, and she'd thrown too much money she didn't have at trying to fix it. If anyone had a reason to sink into despair, Laura was a candidate.

I have a photograph of her from that last weekend before she went into the hospital. She's outside in the yard on a sunny April day, with her daughter, placing plants into flower pots. She's got a small yellow flower in her hand.

And she's smiling.

If you can't find a reason to go on living in a sunny day, with flowers, with family; if all this is hollow and meaningless for you if there isn't a God waiting to carry you away... then I'm honestly sorry. I wish you all the best in the next life, should there be one. I'm sorry you couldn't find more joy in the one you're living now.

For me, giving up on this life, this world, is the unthinkable alternative.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Ten Reasons to Believe in God (or Why I am an Atheist)

While I frequently discuss atheistic themes on this blog, I've never thought about writing an actual book on the topic before. But, today while I was out for a walk, a book title popped into my head: Ten Reasons to Believe in God (or, Why I am an Atheist).

The book would take the very best ten arguments for the existence of God, or at least for reasons we should act as if there is a God, and tackle the arguments one by one.

In the comments of my previous post, I found myself playing devil's advocate with Mr. Cavin over "evidence" for God. But, the truth is, while I put forth this evidence tongue in cheek, plenty of people take holy documents as literal truth, and believe eye-witness testimony. There are others who look at DNA and see a code that could only be the product of intelligent design. Some people see evidence all around us that humanity has been visited and guided by superior intelligence since the dawn of time.

Still, I wracked my brain trying to come up with ten reasons that weren't obvious straw men. Here's the best I could do:
  1. Argument from design (life is just too complex to have arisen randomly... AKA the watch in the beach argument).
  2. Documentary evidence (various holy texts)
  3. Eyewitness testimony (plenty of people have talked to God directly)
  4. The Super Alien hypothesis (see the previous post)
  5. The God Shaped Hole (Something in the human psyche needs God. Why would this be if there was nothing there to fill that need?)
  6. The Master Plan (Life is too full of meaningful coincidence not to think there isn't a guiding intelligence behind it.)
  7. The Unthinkable Alternative (We must believe in God because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Take God away and we'll all be cannibals inside of fifteen minutes.)
  8. Pascal's wager (You have more to gain by believing in God than you do by believing in no-God.)
  9. Respect for tradition (My father, my grandfather, my greatgrandfather, etc. all believed in God and it worked out great for them. Why disrespect a winning formula?)
  10. Just because. Nyah! (When all else fails, you can't argue with faith.)

So, am I missing something? Do any of these feel like overly obvious straw men (even if some are worded somewhat playfully)? Is there an even better argument than these that I'm overlooking?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Imagining God

My last post generated what may be the most comments I've ever gotten on a topic that didn't involve pictures of my cats. John Brown, a fellow SF author, whose Dark God trilogy is being published by Tor soon, has heroicly been refuting my critiques of Biblical based theology. I felt like his last post was interesting enough that I didn't want to take the risk that it might get overlooked by folks who didn't want to dig down through multiple levels of comments. So, here's John's argument on why it's not difficult to imagine there's a God:

I find it interesting that any lover of science and science fiction has a hard time imagining a God. I can see how it might be difficult to accept some of the specific Gods offered up over the centuries, but the idea of a God in general?

We can imagine man terraforming planets, we can imagine immortality, genetic manipulation, technological singularity, even FTL travel, but we cannot imagine that there's a being out there who has already learned all this stuff?

I find this as geo-centric a view as any astronomy that suggests the universe was created solely for the inhabitants of this earth. Is it not possible that somewhere else in this vast universe life exists and progressed long before humans ever arrived on this earth?

If so, then why is it so hard to imagine that they have progressed far enough to do what we say God has done? Build a world. Terraform it. Do things people not of his technological level find hard to explain.

It seems to me that it's difficult for science and SF not to lead the mind to a belief in supreme beings. Maybe not the specific beings described by any given creed, but certainly supreme beings. And if this is a possibility, then why is it so hard to imagine that they just might be involved with us?

Of course, then we find it hard to imagine anyone without human failings. Anyone with that much power just pulls out a Death Star and begins to blow up worlds. Again, why do we limit ourselves to such a homo-centric view? In all the vast universe, nothing arose more benevolent than men?

Are you truly saying that you find the idea that life has arisen elsewhere and progressed past the intelligence found here on earth fantastically remote?

John, these are some interesting arguments. But I think they are arguments for atheism, not for theism.

I don't in the least find it implausible that intelligence greater than our own could have arisen elsewhere in the universe. Of course, the evidence of our own world would argue that intelligence sufficient to produce beings capable of such basic technology as writing is exceedingly rare. Still, I can definitely imagine hundreds or thousands of worlds with intelligent beings that might know more than us. Unfortunately, even if there were ten thousand such races, they would be scattered randomly among the 70 sextillion stars currently visible using modern telescopes. They would exist at such vast distances that our odds of actually discovering and interacting with them is exceedingly low.

But, let's say that the odds are improved greatly if a highly involved intelligence on a nearby star decided to make our world a test lab. They spot our world forming billions of years ago, do some math and figure out it's going to be in the sweet spot in our solar system where liquid water is going to be possible, and decide to seed the world with genetic material. Then, since they are very patient aliens, they just wait four billion years for intelligent life to arise. From time to time, they send messages to the intelligent species to nudge along their development into good neighbors. They are benevolent, kind hearted aliens who want mankind to evolve out of its more animalistic tendencies toward war and violence and self destruction until, eventually, they can be full partners in the galactic community. But, it's important that they don't just drop in and give mankind all the answers to everything. They want to make sure man figures out the toughest problems on his own. It's the only way he will ever become a mature, intergalactic being.

I can definitely imagine this. (Although Eric von Daniken and Charles Forte beat me to it by several decades.) It seems plausible. I could write a SF novel on this premise and sell it, and folks who would read it would willingly accept the premise.

But here's the key point: The fact that I've imagined it doesn't make it real. In fact, I am able to recognize it as specifically unreal, an artifact of human imagination, since I was present as it was being imagined. When I write my books, I create worlds that feel real to me as I write them. The characters seem to come to life... I have plans for them as an author, but then the characters somehow defy me and create their own actions and dialogue. I wind up talking about Bitterwood and Jandra and Burke as if they are real people. I have readers who get emotionally invested with the characters as if they are real people.

They are not real people.

Given how easy it is for me to imagine worlds and peoples and new gods and new religions, it seems highly likely to me that all such religions are the product of human imagination. Some just happen to hit the right mix of gut level plausibility that they become wide spread, at which point tradition and culture start reinforcing the plausibility of the imaginary God, taking it as real and regarding those who think God unreal as kooks for disbelieving what everyone knows to be true. Religions also evolve to reflect the dominant mores of society; today's Christianity has no problem with rich people getting into heaven, for instance, and we revere the Ten Commandments even though, if asked what they were, most folks could probably name about four before getting stumped.

Just because a majority of people believe in something isn't evidence of reality. A recent survey found that 58% of Britons thought that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. And why not? We know a lot of facts about his biography; we know who his friends were, we know approximate dates of important events in his life, we even know where he lived and you can visit that very address on a tour of London. There are photographs and drawings of him. I'm betting somewhere there's a building where you can go and look at his pipe and hat.

My problem isn't that I find God difficult to imagine. My problem is that I find God very easy to imagine. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are easy to imagine when you're a child. But part of growing up is learning to separate what's imagined from what's real. I think the fact that it's so easy to construct a plausible God purely from imagination is an argument against his reality, not an argument for it.

The fact that other people believe in imaginary things doesn't bother me in most circumstances. If a person believes in bigfoot or ghosts or King Arthur, it does me no harm. Where things get tricky, though, is when people take the advice of their imaginary friends and try to make other people live by this advice. An imagined God said a few discouraging words about men sleeping together a few thousand years ago, and suddenly this becomes a factor in picking our presidents. Or some guy wanders in from the desert in the seventh century and claims to have been talking to God, and today people are willing to blow up busses based on their interpretation of this wisdom.

Hopefully, one day, we'll get better at sorting out imagination from reality. At least, I can imagine such a day... even if there's not a lot of evidence for it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Atheism's worst kept secret

An author by the name of Ray Comfort has recently launched a campaign to "pull the plug on atheism" at this site. It may seem odd that I, an atheist, would waste time promoting the site, but, honestly, the first argument I read there was so mind-bogglingly bad that I can't help but think he's going to be doing atheism a big favor.

In a post titled "Atheism's Big Secret," Comfort makes this supposedly shocking statement: "An atheist is someone who believes that nothing made everything." He considers this to be the ultimate intellectual absurdity. He goes on to argue: "if I say that I don’t believe that a builder built my house, then I am left with the insanity of believing that nothing built it. It just happened. " In another article he states: "You cannot have a creation without a creator. You cannot have things made without a maker."

It doesn't require a lot of effort to see the fallacies in all of these statements. Working backwards: First, I suppose it depends on what you mean by "made." If you simply mean "come into existence," then things come into existence all the time without the efforts of a conscious maker. No one makes mountains or oceans or storms. These things come into existence unguided by any sentience. A tree makes other trees, a chicken makes other chickens, but I don't think that's what Comfort has in mind. The fact is, it doesn't take a lot of effort to see that most things exist in the world without the active guiding hand of a creator. While I may wax poetic about the world and call it "creation," I do not, in fact, regard it as a creation.

The classic argument against atheism is, suppose you were walking on the beach and found a watch. You would assume that there was a watchmaker. But the main thing I find when I go walking on the beach is a bunch of sand. Do I therefore assume there's a sandmaker? It seems more plausible that the sand I'm walking on is the finely ground remnants of former mountains, which ceaselessly churning natural forces have turned into a nice place to get a suntan. Show me a beach covered in watches and you'll have an argument. (Though, if I actually found a beach covered in watches, I'd look for an overturned tanker with "Timex" written on the side.)

As for the builder who built Comfort's house: I don't think any atheist is going to argue with him. Yes, houses are obviously built by designers who plan for men (and occasionally birds and dogs) to dwell in them. The earth, alas, doesn't show such careful and intentional design for human dwelling. We are a species that lives on land and drinks fresh water. The world is 80% saltwater oceans. Of the 20% land, vast chunks of it are covered with ice, or deserts, or volcanos, or disease-ridden swamps. Man has, of course, made footholds in just about all these environments, but, still, despite the panic attacks of environmentalists, there's a lot more of this planet where people either can't live or don't particularly want to live than there are really sweet spots. If the world was created for humanity, it was created somewhat carelessly, I would argue.

Which brings us back to the first argument... the damning one that's supposed to shatter any intellectual pretense left to atheism, the idea that something can arise from nothing. First, I'll quibble a little: I don't think that most scientists would agree with the contention that our universe arose from "nothing." I think it would be more accurate to state that if you wind the clock of the universe backwards far enough, you reach a point beyond which the laws of physics fail and we are left with the unknown and the unknowable. I don't think you can factually argue for or against nothing beyond the point of the Big Bang. All evidence for what went before has been erased. It is this big void of the knowable that gets the "nothing" tag hung on it.

Some people would like to insert God to fill this void of knowledge. What came before the first click of the clock? God! But... where is the evidence? There is no more evidence of this than there is of "nothing." However, let's say for a moment that you make the serious argument that God existed before the first tick, and was the one who was there to wind the mainspring. If this is a scientific argument, then the question arises: What are his properties? What existed before him? Who made God? Most religious people would argue: No one made God. His properties are unknowable. Nothing came before. An infinity of time existed in which there was nothing... and then suddenly, God decided there would be something.

So, the very same absurdity that supposedly wrecks atheism is present in the God argument. You reach a point where you cannot know what came before. Here's the point where the atheist and the theist differ, I think: Atheists are tough enough to look at that inpenetrable moment of nothingness and shrug it off. So what if there's a wall to the knowable? We'll muddle through. Theists, however, seem crippled by the thought of nothing. What came before creation? What was God doing before us? Why did he wait for infinity before deciding it was time for some company?

Theists hold a very human centric view of "creation." All time and space exist so that we may exist. Distant galaxies, billions of years of star formation and destruction and formation and destruction and planets forming and dying and forming again all occur so that humans can exist for a few thousand years on a moral testing ground created so that God can judge their behavior and decide whether or not he wants to spend more time with any given individual, or whether any given individual should suffer unending punishment for a few decades worth of sin.

Atheists, on the other hand, can see that humanity occupies a very, very, very tiny speck of all time and all space. We aren't the point of the universe. We're not even an afterthought, or any thought at all. We're just brief blips of improbability, having fun while it lasts.

I can live with that.