Thursday, January 27, 2011

Addendum to My Top Free Software

You might recall my previous post on my favorite 10 free programs. Well, I have just discovered something that may top them all in sheer amazingness. It solves a problem I previously thought was impossible: it actually converts video formats, for free. And it works.

It is Miro Video Converter. With it I was actually able to take a video format playable only in Windows Media Player and convert it to a .mp4 that Quicktime will accept. It's pathetic that this is such an amazing accomplishment, but it is literally the first program I have found that can do that. Tell your friends.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On Prayer and Reasons for Unbelief

I've been reading a book I purchased at TCX (Campus Crusade's winter conference): Timothy Keller's The Reason for God. Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church highly secular New York City, where he comes into contact with thousands of skeptics and has necessarily built up a good deal of apologetics experience. In the first half of the book he addresses some common reasons for unbelief (Christianity's claim to have the truth is arrogant, science disproves God, the existence of Hell...), and in the second he gives some reasons to believe in God. It's a good strategy, and Keller argues simply but effectively. Definitely a good book to give to skeptics.

But I got really into apologetics a few years ago, when I was starting to get really into my faith, or at least think about it a lot. I bought books by authors like Lee Strobel and Norman Geisler. As I learned the answers to seemingly every question skeptics could raise, I thought I had all the answers. Just let me at those nonbelievers! But of course, really being a good apologist takes more than book knowledge: it takes wisdom, compassion, and experience (all traits that Tim Keller seems to be blessed with). Many of the arguments Keller gives in the first part of the book were familiar to me, which reminded me that I still wasn't getting a complete picture of the reasons people keep for unbelief. Maybe at heart they're as simple as the ones Keller brings up, but just like Christian faith they have become the foundation for someone's life and worldview, concealed behind countless justifications and rationalizations.

The point of all this rambling is that I decided to see what actual skeptics are saying to try to improve my apologetics further. I found a website for ex-Christians that I plan on looking more into. The first page I visited was a "logical proof that God does not exist"--the frequent failure of prayer. There are various things I could say about  the argument, but I wanted to comment on the motivation behind it--an expectation that if God exists, he will give us whatever we pray for. (Sounds sort of like what I uncovered on summer project!) It takes Biblical promises that God answers prayer and turns them into the assumption that God is a cosmic vending machine that turns the currency of prayer into whatever we want. If we don't get it, then we didn't pray enough.

Take a closer look at this assumption. If God is powerful enough to control the universe, perform miracles, and know our thoughts, why should He make himself so easily manipulable by our prayers? Might He know more about the situation we're praying about than we do? At the core of this view is the belief that we know better than God and that our plans are more important than His, so of course He should give us whatever we pray for.

But God is bigger than that. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Thank goodness! Imagine a world where God answered every prayer! (If you've seen Bruce Almighty, you have an idea) That's not to say our prayers don't have power--we are told that they do. (James 5:16) But their power isn't as simple as put-prayer-in, get-miracles-out--we have to trust God to answer prayer in His way, on His schedule. That's what I think prayer is, above all--deliberately entrusting our troubles and questions to God, as well as just talking to Him. If we go into prayer expecting to get stuff out of it, we miss the point entirely.

I also read a testimony (if the word is applicable here) from a man who was born into what from his description I would definitely call a cult, was shuffled between churches in his childhood, and found his religious curiosity stifled and his questions about God unanswered. He was constantly told he wasn't old enough. Bad experiences with bad Christians raised more questions that went unanswered, and he became an atheist in college.

This is a tragedy. How can someone like this come to believe if his attempts to learn about God are constantly frustrated, and he equates Christianity with fanaticism and closed-mindedness? I wonder if he ever really heard the gospel?

I suspect that a great deal of skeptics are like this--their reasons for unbelief aren't intellectual but emotional, and deeply personal. They are disgusted with what they've seen of Christianity--perhaps rightly so--and just aren't interested. As they grow into whatever faith they instead choose (we all put our faith in something), they might develop intellectual justifications for their beliefs, but these aren't the real reason for it.

This is all just my rampant speculation. I wonder if I just gave a good description of many skeptics. Anyway, the fact that people are falling away from faith because of experiences like this should be a wakeup call to the church. Of course no one is going to find Christianity attractive if they don't see Christ in us. I don't blame them. I suspect that the God that many, many skeptics don't believe in bears little resemblance to the God I do believe in. If only they knew Him!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Well, blagonet, much has happened since I lasted posted. The semester from hell is over! Two days after my last post, I turned in my last group project. It was one of the happiest days of my life. After that the rest of the semester was trivial, though my last algorithms assignment gave me quite a headache. (Asymptotic complexity is quite powerful--a few small changes made a test go from 12 minutes to 2 seconds) I had two finals, both of which were jokes--I barely studied and finished in half the allotted time. Since then I've been enjoying my break, getting reconnected with old friends and God at TCX(!), and playing tons and tons of video games. Steam isn't helping with its ridiculous deals. ($5 each for Knights of the Old Republic and Bioshock?)

But anyway, this isn't a blog about what's going on in my life, it's a blog about what's going on in my brain. And somehow I've gotten into some pretty deep thoughts despite all the Super Mario Galaxy 2. It all started when I noticed an ad on QC for a site called Quibids. It showed some big-name electronics items apparently being sold for deeply discounted prices, with timers counting down the last few seconds until they were sold.

Don't worry, I wasn't tempted to click on any of the auctions--I know a scam when I see one. But I was strangely curious about how it was a scam, so I did some Google-powered research. Apparently Quibids and other such "penny auction" sites allow users to bid in one-cent increments in fast-paced auctions for valuable items, which can result in their being sold for well below retail prices. The auctions have seconds to go, but each bid increases the time remaining. (Reminds me of a speed run challenge in SMG2) That all sounds well and good, except that you don't just make one-cent bids--you have to buy them, often for much more than a cent. And the money you spent on the bids is gone regardless of whether you win the item. I read stories about the nightmare this creates--people intending to try out penny auction sites eventually went away empty-handed after pouring money into an unwinnable auction.

This led to a Wikipedia crawl where I looked up some of the psychological and economic concepts at work, namely the sunk cost fallacy. (Also known as "throwing good money after bad") It refers to peoples' tendency to incorporate past spendings in their decision-making, even though this information is irrelevant. This manifests in many ways: the government feeling "locked in" to a project after pouring millions of dollars into it, even if it wouldn't be worth the remaining cost, Britain and France keeping the Concorde flying after it became economically inviable, or people continuing to fork over money for bids for an item that they probably won't (but might!) win. The only way to win these penny auctions is not to play.

But just Googling "penny auction" got me none of this information immediately. The results fell into three categories: penny auction sites, tips for how to win at penny auctions, and sites that claim to "expose" penny auctions but are actually disguised ads for a site (some disguised as blogs just like this!). It makes me worry about how many people actually believe this hysteria and are pouring their money down the drain hoping to win a $22.54 iPad. The internet seems to amplify just about every negative trait of human nature, and greed is no exception.

So that was an extremely random mental journey and I'm not sure why I wrote any of this. (But that's pretty standard for this blog) Until next time, remember that storing up treasures that won't last isn't very wise, but wasting resources with nothing at all to show for it is just stupid.