Okay, so Christmas Eve may be an odd time for an atheist to “come out”.

Gentle Reader, for an unknown reason my thoughts have turned toward the philosophy of religion and toward my own beliefs on the matter. My understanding of faith is belief in the absence of evidence. I obviously can’t prove that reading this entire post carefully is worth your time, but I ask it of you anyway. If we are close, long-time friends and any of this still comes as a surprise, I beg you to give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t feel offended: in the specific example of which I’m thinking, we’ve been friends longer than I have been able to say the words “I am an atheist” even to myself, and our friendship means more to me than keeping you posted on belief changes that I believed would strain that friendship for you, perhaps past the breaking point, at the relatively young age at which I got honest with myself about what I really believe.

I have raised my children to believe that there is nothing worse than lying, and it is vital for me to live by what I teach my children, and, conversely, to teach them by example. A lie of omission is no less a lie, and fear of how the hearer will respond to the truth is no justification.

Yes, this IS an odd time, but I hope that my friends know better than to think that my intent is to insult or offend.

Below is a communication I sent to a friend who I came to know relatively recently and whose friendship and wisdom I came to value immediately. In it, I refer to Pascal’s Wager and the high value I place on my own intellectual integrity. Allowing others to simply assume what they will about my beliefs on religion doesn’t seem like the action of someone who values his intellectual integrity so highly, does it?

I believe that all people have a spiritual side, and we have for thousands upon thousands of years…even prior to the Neolithic Revolution, back when our species still lived as hunter/gatherers, driven by the annual cycles by which our wild food crops became ripe and edible. In every era, that which cannot be explained by the practical knowledge of the day, which we’ll call “science” or “nature” for succinctness, was attributed to the supernatural (again, “gods” or “magic,” for brevity). Given that we as a species have existed for thousands and thousands of years, and that we did not develop the ability to directly see things that were much smaller or much larger than ourselves until about 500 years ago, it was natural that, to paraphrase badly, whatever could not be explained by science was attributed to magic and the gods. Many people whose spiritual nature is expressed through religion may look at the birth of a child or a majestic mountain view and see these as “proof” of the supernatural. My having the same experiences fills me with awe, too, even though I see it as “nature just doing its thing.” My unaccounted-for spiritual (for want of a better-understood, more precise word) feeling in these situations made me question everything else I believe about the way nature and logic work…until I remembered something unstated that I consider an axiom: regardless of what we BELIEVE, myself included, we don’t KNOW everything about ourselves or the universe. The honest among us will be the first to distinguish between our beliefs about the universe and our knowledge about it. Knowing the science and STILL being able to experience the sense of wonder is A Very Good Thing, I think.

For my Christian friends, with all my heart I wish you a wondrous and Merry Christmas.

For those looking around for the unfriend button, or on the ground for the first stone, please take a moment to read my message to my friend, in full.

Dear (my valued friend whose name I have omitted for your privacy),

You might have surmised that we don’t share the same religious belief. That doesn’t cause me any discomfort, and I want to humbly and respectfully take the initiative to ensure that it doesn’t cause you any, either.

I am an atheist, and I have been for as long as I can remember throughout my adult life. The word “atheist” is so over- and misused that it doesn’t convey any reliable meaning, so I shall elaborate. I am not what I call a “militant atheist” – a kid who mistakes belief for knowledge and thinks he knows better than the rest of the world…or who has suffered some tragedy and reacts by railing against his religious belief system. I was raised Baptist as a child, though I never believed that what I was told was literally (or even figuratively) true. It’s just that, prior to my late teens, I felt that I wasn’t free to assert what I DID believe. Part of that was apprehension about the ramifications with my family.

I explored other religions, particularly Buddhism, as a young adult, but ultimately I reached the same stumbling point – the supernatural element.

To summarize my worldview, when I look at physics and biology, I believe that everything that exists can be explained by the laws of nature and logic, without a need for some supernatural force. I also believe that the laws of nature and the laws of logic tend to rule out the existence of a being with the attributes of the Christian God. Of course, it is impossible to KNOW that God (or the enlightened Buddha, etc.) does not exist, known as proving a universal negative, because one cannot see every nook and cranny of existence at the same time.

I believe that the vast majority of those who believe in a religious worldview learned their beliefs from their parents and the culture in which they happen to be born. They never pause to question why they believe as they do. That’s understandable – religion is a great comfort, and its absence can get cold and lonely.

That sums up what I BELIEVE. I freely admit that I could be wrong and you could be right.

Pascal, in his famous Wager, would argue that I should conduct myself as though I am a Christian, because I have everything to gain and little to lose if Christianity is fact, and I have (in his view) lost nothing in life or death if atheism is fact.

If I could respond to Pascal, I would say that my intellectual integrity is a very high price to pay in order to go through the motions of being a Christian, and that doing so would be an affront, not only to my beliefs, but to yours, as well.

I live a life of integrity, as best I can. I strive to conduct myself in accordance with ETHICAL teachings that Jesus, Siddharta Gautama (the man who became the Buddha), and the Dalai Lama would recognize and, I believe, approve of.

Beyond that, I will take my chances, with my eyes open, if my beliefs turn out to be erroneous.

Finally, I don’t teach my beliefs to my children. I try to keep them from forming ANY beliefs about religion until they are old enough to think rationally, weigh evidence, and articulate why they believe what they believe.

I just want to be truly understood, and I want there to be no discomfort between us if the topic comes up. As I said publicly (and tell my grandmother repeatedly), it doesn’t bother me in the least if someone says they are praying for me. I take any well-wishes in the good faith in which they’re intended, and as damaged as I am, I’ll take all the help I can get!

And yes, when my son was gravely ill with meningitis as an infant, I prayed to God, Allah, Buddha, every benevolent Hindu, Greek, or Mayan god I could think of, along with the Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge!

I deeply hope I haven’t overstepped any bounds or your comfort level.

With love and respect,

Jeff

“In the whole wide world there’s no magic place,

So you might as well rise and put on your bravest face.”

– Neil Peart/Rush, “Bravest Face”

 

This is My Mind on Crutches. Any Questions?

For the past two decades, I have grown accustomed to having my body let me down. A shipboard accident at the age of 18 left me suffering from knee injuries that never resolved and devolved into osteoarthritis and other degenerative joint conditions. That disability cut my Navy “career” extremely short – if my knees had failed while I was working in my normal workplace, a carrier flight deck, my life and likely others’ would be endangered.

After leaving the Navy honorably due to my knee disability, my life was without direction, and I was still coming to grips with the fact that I was limited to desk work for the rest of my life. I had a hard time psychologically, going from a literal lean, mean fighting machine to someone facing a limitation I had thought of a concern for old age, and it was hard for me to even grasp old age.

Given my reliance on my intellect throughout my life, it isn’t really earth-shattering that I would end up working with my mind, rather than with my muscles, but the sudden closing of all of those doors was extremely depressing. I was fortunate that a family friend was the Chief of Police for a small city in the Atlanta area, and his department was in need of a dispatcher. It turned out that I was very good at the work, and, like my service in the Navy, I had the personal satisfaction that I derived from public service. The job turned into a career, culminating in my working in the communications center of the state Emergency Management Agency, a position which let me turn my lifelong interest in computers into one of my duties: information systems administrator for the communications division. I was given a lot of leeway in developing applications. I was proud to develop the software that the communications division adopted for statewide  incident management. It remained in service for several years after my departure and marked the point when my career really changed from public safety or emergency communications to information technology, especially infrastructure systems and database administration. The same small city where I had started as a 911 dispatcher years earlier hired me as its first IT manager.

Actually, I was the entire IT department, and although the city had created the position, it had made no preparation for me to actually start work. I had to find or commandeer literally everything I needed: an office, computer, telephone, furniture – everything. The city’s computer systems and network were completely undocumented.  The flipside of having to do literally everything myself was the rare opportunity to design and implement everything from the ground up.

I had enough on my plate to justify at least three full-time-equivalent positions, supporting the life-critical 24/365 operations of the 911 center,  fire/rescue, police, and jail.  Since those additional l FTEs didn’t exist, I was never truly off duty. I stayed so engaged that I didn’t recognize the toll it was taking on my family life. The heavy work pressure seemed necessary to support my family, and, as long as I had a good, hands-off supervisor (the city manager), the extreme stress felt like “good” stress. It was rewarding.

When circumstances changed, particularly the replacement of the city manager by a new one who had never held that position before, my ideal career quickly started to unravel. The new city manager was a micromanager in the extreme, made worse by his mistaken belief that he knew anything about information technology and his habit of praising performance one day and condemning the same performance the following day.

My major depressive disorder, which had been chemical/organic in origin throughout my adult life and well-controlled by medication for several years, began to become reactive to external life situations – a development with which I had no experience and for which I had no coping tools. In addition,  I began suffering from acute panic and anxiety attacks. I began finding reasons to work at night or at locations other than my office in city hall. Within a few months, the anxiety/panic reached the point of my seeking medical attention for it, and my psychiatrist starting me onto anti-anxiety meds (benzodiazepines).  As I continued to worsen, I was compelled to seek an ADA accommodation and formally notified the city of my intention to take FMLA leave. I was utterly speechless when the city manager fired me the following afternoon with no warning. I suggested to my then-wife that she might want to go ahead and take the kids to her parents’ – I didn’t want them to see Daddy have the complete breakdown that followed – one from which I still haven’t fully recovered, despite improvement with the anxiety disorder. The separation from my family…and then the marital separation…there seemed to be no bottom to the abyss of my depression.

Enter the knees again. They continued to degenerate, as my daily life had sunk to the point that muscle atrophy was inevitable, and my orthopedist referred me to a pain management clinic, adding OxyContin and then MS Contin (due to intolerable cognitive side effects with the former) to the potent mix of psychotropic drugs I was already taking.

Despite  the generally effective antidepressant and anti-anxiety regimen (and the generally ineffective pain regimen consisting primarily opiates due to an allergy to NSAIDs) and the addition of therapy with a psychologist, things have remained fairly constant over the past few years – unpredictable depressive episodes, often with suicidal ideations, persist, and I still experience cognitive effects such as short-term memory loss. The military and other organizations have a maxim that “if it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist.” For me, that has become literally true. My memory can’t be trusted, which is part of why I write down what many consider Too Much Information. Putting it in a publicly-accessible location allows me to reach it from any computer, and, perhaps more importantly, it might let people in similar situations know that they are not alone.

It took me years to fully come to grips with my physical disability. The awareness that my mind is letting me down, and that it MIGHT not get better, is a much tougher pill to swallow. My life feels like someone in a waking coma – the machine is still working, but it is very difficult to control the input/output: focusing my mind on a new problem or adding new capabilities is often beyond me.

I have worked hard throughout my life to make the contents and capabilities of my mind valuable, not just to myself, but in the marketplace, and if I’ve lost that,  I can’t envision a Plan C.

Published in: on 2010 08 01 at 09:11:35  Leave a Comment  

Georgia’s Water Crisis and A Potentially Collossal Train Wreck

Georgia residents, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE take a moment to contact your elected officials in the Georgia General Assembly about this CRITICAL issue: Protect Our Waterways from Harmful Water Grabs

These water diversions would be devastating, not only to our river ecosystems, but also potentially to our drinking water supplies. In particular, the withdrawal of an additional 200 MILLION GALLONS every day from wells in South Georgia is of particular concern, even if you have no interest in protecting our beautiful state’s environment. The aquifers in South Georgia are already strained to or beyond their sustainable capacity. The Floridan Aquifer, in particular, is already being overdrawn, leading to seawater being drawn into municipal water supplies along the coast from Hilton Head, SC to Jacksonville, FL. The Floridan and other aquifers, in their natural state, are recharged with fresh water by rainfall in certain inland areas of our coastal plain. The water is filtered as it seeps through the ground , and it flows into the ocean through vents in the seafloor. By withdrawing more water from the aquifer than it receives as rainfall from the recharge zones, we effectively cause it to operate in reverse, drawing seawater IN through the vents in the ocean floor. No drinkable water on our coast would mean no tourism. What would the seawater do if introduced into Metro Atlanta’s water supply? What would it do to Atlanta’s antiquated sewer system? Or to the Chattahoochee and those downstream who rely on it for THEIR drinking water?

There is no time to lose. The 2010 session of the General assembly begins on January 11, 2010. Find Your Legislator – Project Vote Smart

Published in: on 2010 01 07 at 08:09:19  Leave a Comment  
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More Thoughts on Healthcare

The current state of healthcare isn’t literally about healthcare at all. It is about the enormous and continuing rise in the cost of healthcare due to the separation of healthcare consumer/patient and the entity that pays for the care, typically an HMO or the government. To give an example of “HMO-driven inflation,” before transferring my care to the Veterans Health Administration (VA), more than one of my providers had a “standard” rate at which they billed HMOs and presumably Medicare, and a second, significantly lower rate that they charged to individuals without health insurance or other third-party payer. I was shocked to find an example even within the VA. Under certain circumstances, such as lack of available bed or inability to provide a service in within a mandated time limit, the VA contracts with private healthcare providers to handle their overflow (at no cost to the veteran – the cost is billed directly to the VA). I had occasion to be treated by a private provider on behalf of the VA, and I came to learn that my care was billed to the VA at a rate that was TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT above the standard rate that was billed to HMOs or other payers. As shocking as that is, I suspect it’s more of an example of the government ironically being price-gouged because its needs are frequently immutable, rather than being a major contributor to “HMO inflation.”

The problem and its causes are no great mysteries. More important are solutions that avoid a massive new Federal government entitlement (when some major current programs are of questionable sustainability) and pricing healthcare out of reach of more Americans, straining non-profit hospitals by further turning the ER into a primary care clinic. I don’t advocate the abolition of HMOs, but I do propose doing away with absurdities like the “sky’s the limit” surgery in exchange for a $20 copay.  We need to look at reviving features of “traditional” 80/20 insurance (which has never gone away for small businesses or the self-employed), such as DEDUCTIBLES and a reasonable, realistic (for patient and provider) percentage match. Nothing onerous that would prevent a person from obtaining needed care, an amount sufficient, if only symbolically, to restore the patient/consumer’s awareness that increased consumption of medical resources costs proportionately more, a basic lesson of economics that seems to function normally until someone with a lab coat and stethoscope enters the picture.

Published in: on 2009 08 16 at 01:25:12  Leave a Comment  
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Near-Death Experience of the Day – Cheating Natural Selection

For reasons that aren’t really important to anyone who doesn’t know me personally, I take MS-Contin for chronic pain. I have since late 2007. Since that time, I have simply accepted the fact that I could no longer drink alcohol. The extreme danger of mixing central nervous system depressants such as alcohol and opiates is probably the one thing I retained from a high school drug-awareness course more than two decades ago. Today was an extraordinary day. I had an opportunity to reconnect with an old friend from my high school days, and it appeared that that would coincide with a chance to relive some long-dormant Rocky Horror Picture Show fun. In my excitement, two critical things happened: I forgot to take my MS-Contin this morning, and I allowed myself to forget for a few moments that I could no longer drink alcohol. While waiting for my friend to arrive at the small theatre she runs, I sought shelter from the heat in the pizzeria next door to the theatre and had a beer. Or rather, I had less than half a beer, followed by panic as I began having difficulty breathing and realized that, unusually, I was not carrying an epinephrine autoinjector (drug allergy). I clutched my cell phone, tried to hide my distress as I asked the waitress to bring me a soft drink, and waited it out. Ten minutes later, I was fine, but only because, by sheer luck, I had not taken the MS-Contin that should have been near peak plasma level at about that time,

Published in: on 2009 08 16 at 00:50:21  Leave a Comment  

Some Thoughts on Healthcare

As a brief preface, this post was precipitated by the current disagreement within the United States about President Obama’s healthcare proposal. As with any writing on a political “current events” subject, it is doomed to eventual irrelevance. I must confess at the outset that I have not read President Obama’s proposed bill, in part for reasons based on MY source of healthcare.

I am a disabled Navy veteran. For two years now, I have received all of my medical care from the Veterans Administration (VA) at a VA Medical Center in a major city. I interact with my healthcare providers far more than the average person (merely intuitive assumption) and have for over a decade, and I feel as though my more frequent interactions with a broad spectrum of providers gives me a bit more insight than the average bear on at least a comparison between HMO care and VA care. There are a few things that are the same: one will not always agree with one’s doctor, specialist appointments take longer to get than primary care appointments, and PCPs are the gatekeepers for specialists. There are also some differences: though both can change doctors, the VA has a smaller pool than an HMO in all but the most rural areas, specialist appointments are generally much faster in the VA, all of my VA providers, as well as the pharmacy, work from and contribute back to a master electronic medical record, which contains documents as well as all labs and diagnostic imagery I have ever had, the VA is quicker to adopt evidence-based procedures and standards of care, and if I am dissatisfied with a situation and cannot resolve it with my doctor or his/her clinical supervisor, I can go beyond them to a patient advocate who can navigate the bureaucracy much better than an outsider such as a patient.

In general, I am more satisfied with VA care, though I miss several of my former providers personally. I have heard it suggested that a solution for Medicare might be to give Medicare patients access to VA facilities. I don’t support that particular idea, though some of my reasons are purely personal, such as the sense of cameraderie with other patients, and some VA staff, as fellow veterans.

I think that requiring those hospitals that are significantly subsidized by federal funds be brought to VA standards would vastly improve the care experience, and outcomes, for patients who, perhaps due to “falling through the cracks” between heath insurance and Medicare eligibility, use the county hospital-of-last-resort as their primary source of care. Mandating that hospitals use VA-style electronic medical record and prescription system would improve care/outcomes and reduce errors.

Having said all that, I DO NOT support required government healthcare (or being able to decline it only at your disadvantage or peril). My VA care is a benefit of a specific contract between me and the federal government, basically “Workers’ Compensation” for the Armed Forces. It is a valuable benefit to me, but I am still free to seek care anywhere, from anyone. If the government required me to surrender that liberty in order to avail myself of VA care, the VA wouldn’t know I exist.

If one wants to improve healthcare, don’t start by thinking about what liberties you must take away from the American people. I do not believe, however, that the free market will fix this as long as the current HMO system exists, where people pay their premium, then feel entitled to consume all the medical resources they want for a $20 copay. The economics of paying, say, a $40 copay for a medication that costs $900 just don’t work. There is no free lunch. So the choices appear to be status quo, government regulation, or quite a bit of temporary pain if we want the free market to shift the system of medical payment to something closer to reality. Even the status quo is, I think, merely delaying deciding between the other two.

Green Energy from The Southern Company

Are you a customer of an electric utility operated by The Southern Company? I buy my electricity from Georgia Power, a unit of The Southern Company. I can’t be sure that my experiences hold true for other states served by The Southern Company or by EMCs that operate in some parts of those states. If you spot an error, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Georgia Power offers a program called Green Energy, where customers can elect to purchase power generated from renewable sources for a monthly premium of $3.50 (for wind, water, and biomass. $4.50 per month for solar) per 100 kWh each month in addition to the normal charge for the electricity consumed. That’s less than a cup of gourmet coffee per month to have 10% or more of the average home’s electricity produced from renewable sources! In starting my own experiment in a new (to me) house, I started off with a single block of solar energy. At this moment, I could add 45.00 to my electric bill, and ALL of my energy would come from solar. NO coal. NO nuclear power plants. And I can do it NOW, without saving up or taking out a loan to pay thousands of dollars for a home solar installation.

I have not lived in this house to have a year-round baselineof its energy consumption. That’s my first priority, followed by maximizing opportunities to conserve energy – the cheapest option is not to consume the energy at all! After that, I’m planning to set up budget-billing and and purchase ONLY solar power for my home. This is a powerful alternative within reach of every Southern Company customer. Even buying a single block of Green Energy – $3.50 – will reduce by about 10% the amount of coal or nuclear power, and the resulting pollution, that must be generated for your needs.

Where else can you make a difference for such a tiny investment?

A note about comments

Philosophy is central to my purpose for originally creating a  blog, and philosophy is, perhaps above all things, a conversation.

This most amazing conversation has continued, more or less uninterrupted, from the time of Thales of Miletus, roughly 2600 years ago, to this very day. There have been tangents that turned into dead ends. Like side conversations during a keynote speech, some of the participants stepped out of the room to continue their particular discussions, and thus the sciences and nearly every other field of human study or endeavor were born from this grand discussion.

As it is a discussion, rather than a lecture, it is appropriately a conversation in which many may join in. That is my goal with this web log. As it is my first web log, I am erring on the side of caution and moderating comments at first. As I get more comfortable and step a little deeper into the pool, so will the moderation gradually disappear, remaining only as needed to control spurious posts. Regardless, unless your contribution refers to penis enlargement, for example, the moderation will not affect content of your post. The place for discussion of the arguments (in the philosophical sense, free of personal animosity) is here, in the light of day, not behind the curtain with my red pen.

In addition, I welcome (and BEG for) your comments or suggestions about the style of the site or similar contributions. My stylistic ideas about web design tend to toward the Spartan, utilitarian side. Some call it hideous. I prefer to think of it as “lynx-compatible”.

In summary, WELCOME!

Published in: on 2008 01 17 at 23:32:52  Leave a Comment  
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