Monday, August 15, 2005


I recently finished C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia.  These fantastical stories of youth visiting other worlds, talking with animals, fighting battles, and solving riddles are truly entertaining. There is, however, a non-subtle message about faith embedded within the stories, especially in the last book, The Last Battle

In The Last Battle, characters are presented with a false "god", and after realizing they were deceived, some give up altogether on the belief.  These characters are punished in the end for this "treachery", while those characters who continued to believe in the real god are rewarded.  This is a very common theme in literature, as well as many world religions. 

But there is a stark contrast between the faith we read about in literature and the faith we practice in real life. I will argue that this contrast is used to mask the fact that we are all rational and skeptical.  Belief is the core function, faith is simply an intermediary for evidence. Through a generalized literary discussion, I hope to show how faith is used to fill in the gap between what we want to believe and reality.[cut]

Justification for beliefPersonal experience, usually an expression of feeling or intuitionExternal pressure, poor decision making, blind to facts or signs
Status among othersEither strong leaders or noble outcastsPitied by believers
MotivationTo follow instructions given by the object of their faith.  To love and be accepting.Neutral to a detriment, attracted to power (some form of worldly wealth)
Character PortrayalWise, LovingIgnorant, blind, damaged
ResolutionThey are right to have believed.  Continued belief in difficult times is rewarded.Stubbornness and self-conceit trap them. They are wrong to not have believed and missed the "signs" of proof

Figure 1: Archetypes of believer / non-believer in literature

The chart here depicts the archetypes of believers and non-believers in stories.  These general statements fit many stories of characters in the throws of faith and belief.  Usually, their status as "Believer" or "Non-Believer" is very distinct, and little middle ground is provided.  In The Last Battle, the dwarfs went from serving the false Anslan, (demigod of Narnia) to the tune of servitude and hard labor, to completely giving up on the idea of Anslan once it was proved they were deceived.  In the rather poor movie adaptation/remaking of the Brother's Grim, one of the main characters refuses to believe in supernatural notions right until the end of the movie when the resolution of his "faith-full" brother impresses him.  This despite the dramatic evidence presented to his character throughout the movie that there were supernatural occurrences.

This characterization of "black or white" faith is inconsistent with reality.  Many religious people question their beliefs at some point.  A constant debate has existed throughout history on the merits of religion, religious dogma, and morality.  Pundits may pick a side to stand on, but the majority of practitioners do not accept the entirety of beliefs for any single religion. 

There obviously must be some middle ground that allows us to accept major tenets of religions, while rationally rejecting other, less important ones.  It is the attribution of importance to religious ideas that separates faiths.


But the table above contains more rifts between literature and reality.  My favorite is the justification.  Most "non-believers" (i.e. atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc.) attribute their beliefs (or lack thereof) to missing evidence.  The notion of evidence is prevalent in nearly every religion on earth.  The Bible is presented as evidence for many Christian and Jewish faiths.  There are also arguments about the inherent "designed" nature of the world around us, and the internal spiritual feeling and communion with god.  But none of these, save the Bible, are actually evidence. 

Evidence must be corroborated, objective, and impeachable.  That is to say any particular piece of evidence must be shown to actually exist (corroborated), be something that multiple people can hold, measure, observe, or otherwise handle and reach the same conclusions (objective), and be used in a theory that can be proven false (impeachable).  The following pieces of evidence fail one or more of these tests:

  • While alone in prayer, someone saw an apparition that communicated to him important information.  If this event can not be corroborated by witnesses, recording devices, trace evidence (like a light-bleached floor with the shadow of the man praying or information about a true prophecy that comes true) then it is not evidence.

  • A religious person claims to feel god inside him.  This may be a sincere claim, but it's not evidence, not even for the subject.  If the same type of feeling can't be felt by others under controlled conditions, then there exist too many variables to make any judgments.  In this example, the subject may be feeling sick, or drugged, or may by feeling something quite normal that has more to do with emotion than supernatural possession.  [NOTE: There are personal feelings that CAN be considered objective.  For example, the feeling we call love leaves trace patterns of electrical activity in the subject's brain.  These trace patterns can be seen in the brains of different subjects who are asked to think about someone they love.  From this evidence, we can conclude that there is a basis for our notion of love.]

  • An artifact is recovered in an archeological dig and said to be a position of a past deity.  While many scientists can pick this up, play with it, study it, and otherwise violate it, this cannot be evidence of the deity's existence.  There is no way to prove whether or not any specific object was used by any particular individual unless it is inscribed with their name (or has some other form of trace evidence). You cannot prove this statement false, thus it is not evidence.  The same goes for "Unicorns exist, they are just hard to find" and "Popcorn is made of gold, but turns back to popcorn whenever you touch or look at it."

I mentioned the Bible before as an exception in the list of evidence for religious beliefs.  The Bible is, by all counts, acceptable evidence.  It can be held, studied, verified, and proven wrong.  The accounts of tribes, battles and lineage in the Bible should, if true, should have other evidences to corroborate it's authenticity.  In addition, the Bible makes claims that can be proven wrong.  While for now I will simply state that in my research, the bible has been shown to be more a historical journal than a proof of any religious tenet, this website has plenty of information on it.

Given the above discussion on evidence, how do believers justify their convictions?  Here, the literature is overwhelmingly hypocritical.  Literature portrays the non-believer as ignorant, blind-to-evidence, and self-conceited.  Characters are seen in a bad light for not having faith, but what is actually going on is these characters are rejecting actual evidence.  If these worlds were the real world, there would be wide-spread belief based on this evidence.  This does not fit with why people believe in reality.

In reality, most religious people cite personal conviction as a top justification for their belief.  Additionally, evidence that is provided which conflicts with these beliefs is wholly rejected, without accounting for the merits of the claim.  Lastly, most of the faithful study very little about other beliefs, not by ineptitude, but rather lack of desire.  Why bother reading about someone else's claims if you already accept yours as true?  We often, paradoxically, seek out opinions of those we already agree with, and accept opinions we agree with from anyone.

So, in the story the guy that rejects all the signs is seen as having no faith, and in reality the same guy is a rejecting fact.  But also in the stories, the guy that believes on faith isn't actually using faith, he's simply accepting evidence. In reality, this person would be considered a skeptic or rationalist.


Most literary characters that exhibit bravery, strong leadership, moral character, trustworthiness, or resiliency have these characteristics tied to a system of faith.

In reality, these positive characteristics are not mutually inclusive with faith.  Rather, there are many non-believers with strong moral character, are trustworthy, and make excellent leaders.  Additionally, many individuals from dispirit faiths (like Buddhism and Islam) have these characteristics in common, unlike their faith.  Thus, it would seem that what makes a good man (or woman) is not necessarily faith.  A pity this simple fact is not written about

It's also worth noting that the lack of correlation between faith and character means that there are bad people on all sides of faith.  The religious leaders who encouraged the crusades in the middle ages, radical Islamic followers who create violence, and Chinese armies that invaded Tibet all acted out of a sense of correctness.  While we agree today that these acts should not represent the religions (or lack thereof) that their participants believed in, they would have, no doubt disagreed.  It's just as much a fallacy to only call Christian those who act positively (excluding the crusaders) than it is to only call American those that vote.  It's also unfair to judge Christianity by the crusades, just as it's unfair to judge America by the multitudes that don't vote.

Bottom line: Our actions are the results of personal decisions, environmental conditions, and a dash of chance.  Faith no more affects our character than the way we were raised, the friends we had in high school, and choices we made at work.  Only attributing positive characteristics to "faithful" characters in literature is prejudicial.


"Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not. We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them."
- John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801 - 1890)

While the faithful literary characters behave much like the objects of their creativity in the real world, portrayals of the non-believers are wholly unfair.  A character that does not accept the "signs" or evidence of the faith in the story is seen as ignorant, dull, or simply disinterested.  In some cases, the biblical "hardening of hearts" is used to justify a blatant disregard for witnessed events as evidence.  Such narratives are added as a logical extension of the justifications.  Remember, in literary stories, evidence of faith can be shown as booming voices from the sky, powerful apparitions, spine-tingling super-accurate prophecies, and more otherwise unexplainable events than you can shake a stick at.  All this is made possible by the medium, which, facilitated by our comfort with creativity, can put together a world with completely different rules.  While we may shrug at copious evidence at aliens in Roswell, literary worlds can have any evidence they need to make a point.

The result is a world in which the human experience is different. It would also make sense that our rules for interacting with it should change too, but this is not the case.  Human characters must always seem human, they are our tie into these fanticiful worlds: without characters to identify with, we loose interest in the story.  So how, exactly, is a human supposed to cope in a world full of supernatural events?  Just like religions expect us to cope with our current world.  The humanistic experiences remain the same.

In reality, a skeptic may make the claim that there is no direct evidence of God, and therefore does not believe.  A religious retort may include citations of evidence for consideration, but let's face it, all evidence for God is either personal (not corroborated) or ambiguous (not objective). If this weren't the case, then religious stories would not need additional "evidence" to make their cases, such as the elaborate miracles in the gospels or unequivocally true evidence in religious movies.  A skeptic is a fool in these created worlds because he amounts to holocaust-deniers, moon-landing stagers, and JFK assassination conspirators in our world.  Few have tolerance for people who refuse to accept the obvious.  If I existed in the world of Narnia, I would laugh at the dwarfs who refused to believe in Anslan and defiantly believe in him myself, not because of faith, but on the evidence.

This is an important point.  In literature, skepticism and rationality are disguised with faith, and hypocrisy and conspiratorial thinking are disguised with skepticism.  In reality, these things are not disguised- without evidence, you either reject (skepticism) or accept (faith).

Character Portrayal

SIDE BAR: The Big Ten

The Ten Commandments are seen as a pinnacle of law and religious thought.  A vocal minority claim that they are the basis for our modern law, and some even claim they are the basis for American law.  Lets look at this claim.  Here are the ten commandments.

Of these ten, only two can be said to exist in American law, or any secular government for that matter (don't steal or kill).  And even then, there are exceptions (corporal punishment, war, annexing).

Additionally, would any American (religious or not) want the government to enforce any of remaining commandments?  Do you want your government telling you what God to believe in, and outlawing any other beliefs?  Do you want government punishing youth for disrespecting parents?  Honestly, the ten commandments had their time, but no one wants them around in law today.

Most people want to be on the "good side".  Characteristics that universally seem good are bravery, wisdom, trustworthy, loyal, loving, etc.  Of course anyone who opposes the good guys must be bad guys, these are the self-conceited, power-hungry, immoral characters.  These categories work well for fictional stories, but in reality this is a false dichotomy. 

Only in our stories are people either truly good or bad.  Good and Evil are judgments, attributions given to people, objects, and events.  This binary categorization is always performed in a social, political, and religious context.  As the context changes, so do the attributions.  For example, slavery was way of life in biblical days, but now it's strictly forbidden.  What once was good, now is evil.  Other examples include Ptolemy, heliocentrism, divorce, debt, underage marriage, poligamy, corporal punishment, mental diseases and disabilities, etc.  There is no doubt that our concepts of good and evil change over time, making these not universal standards, but rather cultural appendages.  See the side bar on the Ten Commandments for an excellent example.

To reiterate, literary worlds hold on tight to the dichotomy of good an evil, portraying the good guys as good and the bad guys as bad.  Only in really good literature are allowances made for true humanity.


Much of religious-like writing has an end in mind.  The "faith" (remember, faith is an illusion in most literature, masking true skepticism and rationality) is payment for moving onto a better place.  Those who do not believe get punished.  The long journeys of trials and challenges test the characters' morals, standards, and values.  In the end, the person has either proven themselves "worthy" or not.  This, again, is a false portrayal of the human experience.

Every religion to exist has a way of dealing with "back-sliding", or temporary loss of faith.  It is a fact that most human beings come to challenge their beliefs at some point in their lives.  This is natural and good.  Most religions accept this as part of a journey, a test.  But you are always expected to return.  And therein lays the fallacy.  What if, after investigation, your original beliefs seem unreasonable? Those who hop from religion to religion are not seen as positive characters, but rather lost souls, troubled spirits, or blind wanderers. 

Challenging personal beliefs has a negative stereotype, as should be expected.  After all, it is very difficult to do so.  As mentioned before, we often look for opinions that match or reinforce ours.  It takes extenuating circumstances to make a true challenge. It often takes a change of environment, lots of new information, and time.  So why aren't these journeys valued in literature?  Where is the story about the boy who believed one thing, then after a long journey and self-inspection believed something else?

This, unfortunately, is a symptom of reality.  Literature will resolve religious stories just like we do in real life, because in real life we like to feel like we were right all along.  In every book of The Chronicles of Narnia, characters are challenged, become side tracked, but inevitable find themselves more resolute in their beliefs in the end.  Those that change their minds (the dwarfs in The Last Battle) are lost fools.


Perhaps the saving grace is a much broader concept.  That of belief itself.  Having a center, a purpose, a reason and direction in life.  This is the ultimate story which we live and write about.  Without some sort of belief, we are truly lost.  For it is in the warm bosom of belief that we find meaning in life. And meaning is what makes the sunrise beautiful, love powerful, and death scary.  Science will never give us meaning, but it need not, for there is plenty of it to go around.

Let's just keep some perspective though.  Having a belief is not an inalienable right. Beliefs should be founded on as much evidence and fact as possible.  This ensures that the meaning that comes from it fits with the world we live in.  If you believe that aliens are our creators and will pick us up in their space crafts sometime soon, you may miss out on the wonders of astronomy.  If you believe that a higher power created the world 10,000 years ago along with all life in their kinds, you miss out on the wonders of life itself, evolution, biology, genetics, and psychology.  Belief grounded in reality breeds the best kind of meaning.[/cut]

Friday, August 05, 2005

Critical Thinking

I took the bus home today.  It was nearly full, and as I sat reading a Steven King novel, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation taking place just behind me.

The discussion was about the most broad of philosophies.  It reminded me of the old British TV series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (the new re-make has better special effects, but excludes some of the best parts of the story), where the "ultimate question" is posed as: "What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?"  Of course, the famous reply (after thousands of years thinking) was 42.  Yes, the bus conversation was very much like that.

"Have you seen that movie What the Bleep?"

"No, what's it about?"

"It's about physics and how everything is connected and how anything is possible.  It just depends on what you believe."

"I read about quantum physics and how all the possibilities happen at the same time."

"Yeah, you just have to decide to do something, and it's possible."

The conversation drifted from eastern philosophies to Jewish history to and back to physics, never seeming to build to anything.  It occurred to me that many people make these intellectual journeys, reading books and assimilating philosophies, but they only seem to make sense to the person taking the journey.  Either that or they don't understand what they are learning.

It then occurred to me how much more productive the conversation would be with a little critical thinking.  In fact, all three of these strangers may get a lot more out of their journeys with it.  Critical thinking, or more specifically, objective processing of new information, is a topic not touched in school.  You're parents don't teach you how to think.  You just think.  You take for granted the information you get as a child, accepting every bed time fairy tale and each distant relative's war story as fact. 

Should this be encouraged? Here's my opinion: no.  Critical thinking includes certain measures to ensure the validity of new information before it's accepted. For example, if you read that physics is about how "things are all connected", you have to ask a series of questions about the assertion: what is the source? What is the context for the statement? How can it be corroborated? 

The pinnacle of critical thinking is the Scientific Method itself.  To be a true theory in science, the scientist must go through a series of steps:

  1. Observe: Using one or more of your senses, gather some data. This is the easy part.
  2. Experiment: Perform a test that ensures what you are observing is in fact what you think it is.
  3. Hypothesis: Based on experiments, form a guess about why what you are observing is happening.
  4. Test & Corroborate: Perform more experiments based on your hypothesis to test it's integrity.  Have others do the same. Over time, if not proven wrong, the hypothesis becomes a theory. 
    NOTE: Theories are never considered 100 percent true, only true to the extent that they have been not proven false. (the Theory of Gravity has been tested in many ways over decades, it's pretty close to 100%.  String Theory has not been tested a great deal, it's maybe at 50%.)

But this takes time.  Sure, critical thinking is hard because you have to actually work at it.  Rather than take whatever you read and like to be true, you have to determine source authority, internal consistency, and most important: repeatability.  If you read three books on a topic by respected authors who could be considered experts in the field, and find they generally agree, then you can start accepting new information.

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951)

But alas, stories are so much more interesting.  How pointless would it be to point out that quantum mechanics is a theory-based science that studies sub-atomic particles with great numerical prowess. The idea that we are all connected is a narrative with little correlation to physics. 

It's sad that these authors capitalize on our lazy minds to spew philosophical jargon under the guise of science.  It leave people with the mistaken impression that they have scientific knowledge, and more importantly, it dilutes and perverts what science really is: the study of the world around us.

A scientist who talks philosophy is not speaking as an expert.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Computer Power

To power off or not to power off, this is the question

I have heard various arguments for either side of this debate for years.  The "advice" I hear sometimes is that you should just leave your computer on all the time rather than shut it down at the end of the day because (choose one or more: It consumes less power than starting up each day, It's better for the hard drive, It wears down the computer less, Electrical components that expand or contract with temperature variations take less wear, Less chance of electrical power surges, or It's quicker than booting).

All but the last explanation are false.  Here is a refutation of each reason:

Leaving your computer on consumes less power than starting it up each day

FALSE.  While a computer is on, the processor is continuously using power to perform "Idle" functions, or tasks that hardware devices or the operating system need done periodically.  These may run once an hour (virtual memory caching) or one thousand times a second (checking for input from the keyboard or mouse).  All these tasks consume power on top of spinning the hard drives (if set to stay on), running the fans, and converting the power.  This last item is particularly important. 

All computers convert the standard AC (alternating current) power we all have in our houses to DC (direct current) power.  During this conversion some power is lost to heat.  This, in part is why your computer gets hot, and also why leaving your computer on does not, in any way imaginable, save power.

Finally, part of this claim usually contains the assumption that the initial "spin-up", or start-up of the hard drive, as well as the various start-up tasks the computer must do when starting from a power-off condition, consumes a disproportionately large amount of power.  This claim too is false. It can easily be shown false with a simple calculation. 

A standard computer operates at about 8 Amperes per second, or amps (see here for the calculations).  If it takes five minutes to start a computer up, then the most power a computer can possible consume without blowing up is 2,400 amp's.  Now, a standard transformer (mentioned above to convert the AC power to DC) takes at least 1 watt (at 12 volts that's .08 amps, source).  If, by some miracle, no more power is consumed in the computer all night (10 hours) accept for the transformer, 3,000 amp's are consumed.  So there you have it, a five-minute burst of all-out computer power is still less than just running one small component (not even the CPU) all night.  Add the idle processor functions, fans, and hard drive, and over night your computer can consume more than 20,000 amp's (Note: I pulled this last number out of my ass, so prove me wrong if you think it's inaccurate).

Leaving the computer on is better for the hard drive than starting it up each day.

FALSE.  There are two reasons.  First, unless you have changed the settings on your computer, it already turns the hard drive on and off all day.  Hard drives are manufactured with auto-spin-down feature that ensures less power is consumed when the hard drive is not being used.  It's a stretch to say that a core function of a hard drive (turning on and off) causes damage when a vast majority of consumer PC's do it every day without major problems.

Second, spin-ups and spin-downs are more simple, mechanically, than the read/write functions of the hard drive.  A hard drive consists of several main components: the platter, which is a flat disk where the 1's and 0's are stored magnetically, the head which moves across the platter to read and write the 1's and 0's, and the motors which drive these devices.  During a spin-up (or power-on), the platters must be brought to a particular speed (usually 7,200 rotations per minute) before any data can be accessed on the hard drive.  The time required to do this is reported by manufacturers of hard drives for each model they produce.  Typically, it takes from 1/2 to 3 seconds to perform this operation.  After a spin up, the head performs some basic hardware test functions, accesses parts of the platter to ensure the data is there, then is ready to operate.  The only thing different from a start-up and standard reading and writing that occurs with normal computer use is the platter spin up, which is a short, 3 second (at most) operation.  There is no more friction, resistance, or any other variable that would make a spin up more hazardous than just maintaining a spin other than a little additional power.

Leaving the computer on wears the computer less than turning it on and off all the time.

FALSE.  Wear occurs in two main categories: moving parts and non-moving parts.  Let's review the major moving parts of a computer: hard drive, CD-ROM, disk drives, power supply, keyboard & mouse, printer, fans, etc.  Of all these, the only that would run in the middle of the night are the hard drive (if forced or being used), the power supply, and fans. All three of these components will wear in direct correlation to the amount of time they are used.  Simple and direct, leave it on, it's used more, thus more wear.  Arguments that more wear is incurred when first starting up are refuted in the previous section.

The second type of wear is addressed in the next section:

Leaving the computer on reduces wear from the expanding and contracting of electrical components.

FALSE.  This seems like a reasonable argument, and is based on simple physics. According to thermal expansion equations, a metal will expand and contract at a specified rate as the temperature changes.  This equation assumes that the temperature change is happening to the metal, not just the air around it. 

Firstly, motherboards are made of materials, like silicon, gold, and copper that have low expansion coefficients (source). Secondly, the manor in which printed circuit boards are made, expansion and contraction is not an issue unless super-heated.  This is why all computers have recommended operating environments (see the sticker on the back of your computer).  As long as the computer stays within these temperature extremes, "it's all good." 

Additionally, in this case the opposite is true.  Heated components of the computer are more excited (more energy): the atoms move around more.  By cooling them down when possible, you reduce the frictional wear that occurs naturally when certain metals are heated.

There is more of a chance of power surges when starting up as opposed to leaving the computer on.

FALSE. There are two issues here, external power surges, and internal short circuits.  Power surges are caused by turning on and off electrical appliances, lightning, and faulty equipment.  While there is a risk of a power surge when initially starting up any electrical device, a computer is not necessarily free and clear once it's running.  Most power surges in the home occur as the result of air heating and cooling devices, hair driers, washing and drying machines, and electrical storms (source).  Thus, the longer your computer is exposed to these surges, the greater the chance of damage.  This is why everyone recommends that surge protectors are used with computers.  This is also why most computers have fuses, which stop electrical activity if an internal surge occurs.  Shortly, use a surge protector and you don't have to worry about surges. 

Short circuits occur in computers when the electricity inside the computer suddenly finds a quicker route through it's path, causing a brief surge in power.  Your computer will not short circuit unless the electricity is physically given a shorter path, either by putting your greasy hands on the circuit board, or by the failure of an electrical component.  While component failure is rare, it happens and it usually means buying a new computer.  Not running power through these components while they are not needed will ensure that the life for these devices is as long as possible.  Also, not putting your hands on the circuit boards is a great idea too.

It's better to leave your computer on because it takes too much time to start it up.

TRUE.  Hey, no argument here.  How much is three minutes worth to you?  Personally, the arguments "10 hours idle time is worth saving three minutes boot time", or "10 hours of power is worth less than three minutes of my time", or "The risks with increased wear are worth saving three minutes each day" are ridiculous.


Per the arguments above, leaving your computer on consumes more power, causes more wear, and produces more heat than turning it off.   If you think it's worth risking wearing out electrical components and consuming copious amounts of power to save a couple of minutes each day, more power to you (literally).  However, if you are blessed with a particularly objective and rational mind, you will see quite clearly, that turning your computer off (or using the hibernate feature) is for the best.

If you're not convinced, here are some additional reasons to turn your computer off (or standby/hibernate) every day:

  • Lower power bill (as proved above)
  • You're computer's memory (RAM) is fresh, thus the computer runs better.  Extended computer use results in memory fragmentation that slows operations.  Every time your computer boots (NOT when you standby/hibernate), the memory is cleared.
  • Windows XP downloads updates automatically that occasionally require restarting.  Simply booting each day takes care of this.
  • Allowing components to cool reduces wear.  Remember, heat = energy, and over time energy breaks down components.
  • Unless you're running a web server, there really is nothing a personal computer could do over night that it couldn't do during the day while you're using it.  The computer spends much of it's time waiting for you to do something anyway!

Happy computing!