Tag Archives: Belief

Humans are Inexplicable

brainWhether it be in science or business or politics or popular culture, we expend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to figure out why people do whatever people are doing. We seem to have more analysts than actors, all desperately trying to explain what motivates people, either by asking them directly or by making inferences about them. For the most part, this is not merely a colossal waste of time and effort and money in itself, but it stimulates even greater wastes of time and effort and money chasing wildly incomplete or erroneous conclusions about why we do what we do.

Asking people why they did what they did, or why they are doing what they are doing, or why they are going to do what they are going to do, generally yields useless and misleading information. It is not clear that people actually have distinct reasons they can recognize let alone articulate. It is quite likely in fact that most of the decisions we make are made unconsciously based upon a myriad of complex neural network associations. These associations need not be rational. These connections don’t need to be internally consistent to each other or related to the actual outcome in any way. But in our post-rationalizations and post-analyses we impose some logic to our decisions to make them feel sensible. Therefore, the reasons we come up with are almost completely made-up at every level to sound rational or at least sane to ourselves and to those we are communicating to.

The truth is, we can’t usually hope to understand our own incredibly complex neural networks, let alone the neural networks of others. Yes, sometimes we can identify a strong neural network association driving a behavior, but most determinative associations are far too diffuse across a huge number of seemingly unrelated associations.

The situation gets infinitely worse when we are trying to analyze and explain group behaviors. Most of our shared group behaviors emerge from the weak-interactions between all of our individual neural networks. The complexity of these interactions is virtually unfathomable. The challenge of understanding why a group does what it does collectively, let alone figuring out how to influence their behavior, is fantastic.

If you ask a bird why it is flying in a complex swirling pattern along with a million other birds, it will probably give you some reason, like “we are looking for food,” but in fact it is probably largely unaware that it is even flying in any particular pattern at all.

So why point all this out? Do we give up? Does this imply that a rational civilization is impossible, that all introspection or external analysis is folly?

Quite the contrary, we must continue to struggle to understand ourselves and truly appreciating our complexity is part of that effort. To do so we must abandon the constraints of logic that we impose upon our individual and group rationalizations and appreciate that we are driven by neural networks that are susceptible to all manner of illogical programming. We must take any self-reporting with the same skepticism we would to the statement “I am perfectly sane.” We should be careful of imposing our own flawed rationality upon the flawed rationality of others. Analysts should not assume undue rationality in explaining behaviors. And finally, we must appreciate that group behaviors can have little or no apparent relationship to any of the wants, needs, or expressed opinions of those individuals within that group.

In advanced AI neural networks, we humans cannot hope to understand why the computer has made a decision. Its decision is based upon far too many subtle factors for humans to recognize or articulate. But if all of the facts programmed in to the computer are accurate, we can probably trust the judgement of the computer.

Similarly with humans, it may be that our naive approach of asking or inferring reasons for feelings and behaviors and then trying to respond to each of those rationales is incredibly ineffective. It may be that the only thing that would truly improve individual and thus emergent thinking are more sanely programmed neural networks, ones that are not fundamentally flawed so as to comfortably rationalize religious and other specious thinking at the most basic level (see here). We must focus on basic fact-based thinking in our educational system and in our culture on the assumption that more logically and factually-trained human neural networks will yield more rational and effective individual and emergent behaviors.

 

Cloud Angels

CloudAngelA recent article in People Magazine was entitled Texas Driver Spots ‘Spectacular’ Cloud Shaped Like an Angel: ‘How Awesome Is That?’ (see here).

Although the question was rhetorical – well actually it was meant as more a statement than a question – I’ll answer it anyway.

Not very!

The reality is that at any given moment of any day from any point anywhere on Earth, there are clouds that we could imagine bear some resemblance to something other than a billowy mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere.

Some of these clouds might resemble boats, or alligators, or elephants, or pretty much anything really. The limit is our imaginations. So it is fun, but not particularly newsworthy, to take note of the wacky shapes that clouds happen upon. That is, unless the image is religious, and in that case it is apparently quite newsworthy.

The truth is that of all the clouds, or pieces of toast, or rotten peaches, or paint stains, that look like something, we don’t get really excited about these random resemblances unless they resemble an angel, or Jesus, or Mother Mary, or some vague Saint. All this random stuff is just random, unless it has a religious connotation. In that case, random stuff is inspiring, proof of gods hand in the world, miraculous, and fascinatingly newsworthy.

This all speaks to our powerful mental ability to create patterns that conform to our particular confirmation biases. Moreover it also speaks to our intense desire and interest in any confirmation of our religious bias in particular.

And I can see how a cloud pattern, or some lichen on a rock create powerful imagery. I had one such experience.

I was on the beach in Costa Rica watching baby tortoises dauntlessly plunge into the ocean only to be thrown back onto the sand over and over again by the uncaring waves. It was late afternoon and I glanced up, only to stare in wonder at the sky. Directly in front of me were the very gates of heaven. A glowing pathway lead up from directly before me to a shimmering cloud platform. Upon it stood two gleaming pearly gates, connected by a vibrant golden archway, highlighted by dramatic halos of light. Within the great arch, in the distance, was a glowing point of light so divine that it could only have been the glow of god almighty.

The sight was so photo-realistically detailed and delineated with vibrant color and perfect proportions that it made the Texas cloud angel look like a child’s watercolor. I gaped in wonder for a moment before I thought to reach for my camera. But by the time I fumbled to work it, the lines had begun to blur, the light to diminish, and the effect to become far more abstract. That singular moment was past. Within minutes the gates of heaven were once again just one more set of abstract cloud shapes.

Given that experience, I can understand how primitive people might be so inspired as to believe they had actually glimpsed a heavenly place revealed to them in the sky. I can understand how they might have taken this as proof of heaven. Or, perhaps, thousands of years ago someone glimpsed a sight very similar to my own and created our modern imagery of heaven based upon that one powerful awe-inspiring moment.

But what I cannot understand and cannot excuse is any modern person today believing that some vaguely angel-shaped cloud is particularly inspiring or reassuring, let alone believed to be a message from god. And I find it doubly disappointing that a news outlet, even one that is merely reporting human interest stories, would preferentially pick out these kind of “sightings” to report, thereby depositing yet another straw of religious delusion on the already straining back of the reason and rationality of our culture.

 

Time To Stop Debating

argumentAs has every successful movement before it, the atheist movement must now move past the debate stage. There are no new arguments to be made, no new evidence to be presented, and further debate only distracts us, legitimizes ridiculous claims, and introduces unfounded doubts about objective reality itself.  As long as we continue to treat religious fantasy with undue respect, we are not fighting back but rather are complicit in perpetuating mass delusion. 

For example, we must quit debating creationism as if it were a legitimate theory. We must stop quibbling over biblical interpretations and contradictions as if they matter. We must cease the sham of conducting research to disprove prayer. We must stop discussing faith-healing as if it were merely a cultural difference. Rather we must quietly assert, through our refusal to entertain religious claims and rationalizations, that the reality-based world has moved on. 

It is not closed-minded or insensitive to simply discard out of hand any claims or opinions based upon religious authority or dogma. We don’t feel conflicted about summarily dismissing assertions that are based upon a belief in white supremacy or a flat Earth and these who espouse them are rightfully marginalized.  

Of course, we cannot eliminate delusional beliefs, but as with many other anachronistic ideas, we can denormalize and marginalize them so that their influence is kept to a minimum. And make no mistake, many religious beliefs are dangerous, and even laudable religious beliefs inherently undermine our capacity for rational thought. 

None of this suggests that secular society can or should relegate religious citizens to voiceless second-class status. On the contrary, we must engage in social justice debates with everyone. But like a judge who rules on the admissibility of arguments in court, we should reject out of hand any religiously based argument that is not consistent with objective facts and universal humanistic values. Practically speaking, a pluralistic society cannot function in any other way – unless it becomes a theocracy. 

This stance is already standard for any number of groups who hold bizarre beliefs. Many people believe in ghosts, or discredited conspiracy theories, or Bigfoot. The difference is that those groups do not attempt, or are not powerful enough, to substantially influence public policy. We don’t have a political Bigfoot-wing fighting to introduce a Bigfoot curriculum in our schools, to build Bigfoot memorials on public property, and to push through legislation based on the teachings of Bigfoot. That makes it all the more important that we do not continue to indulge and normalize religious belief. 

The gap between our secular and religious worldviews is deep. At times it seems like a bottomless chasm. But that gap is not wide. Our common goals and needs as humans bring our two sides close enough together to form strong bridges on a wide range of social justice issues. But atheists must insist that where we disagree, those bridges have to be built upon facts and reason and universal values. Religious beliefs cannot serve as the foundation to bring together those who do not share them. We must insist that our government limit itself to the real-world in which we all live. 

Although even atheists can get caught up in silly debates, the main reason we are activists is because we see powerful religious interests, perhaps unwittingly and with sincerely good intentions, pushing America toward delusional thinking and theocratic behaviors. And both, at any level, are anathema to our American ideals, including the free exercise of religion. Ironically, while we do not believe in religion, we atheists actively defend the separation of church and State that ultimately protects religious liberty. 

So, in order to move forward, we must refuse to engage in arguments over fictions and get to work in the real world. We must listen to any reasonable, fact-based arguments. But we must insist that if religious believers wish to inform social policy in keeping with their religious beliefs, that they do so by sticking to objective facts and sound logic. 

Atheism Still Matters

SaveThePlanetWe live in a period of grave social challenges. A woman’s right to choose is under serious assault. No haven seems safe from deadly outbreaks of gun violence. Our core institutions of democracy and social justice are being misused or methodically dismantled by self-serving leaders. And while there is so much demanding our immediate attention, looming above it all is our inexorable march toward catastrophic upheaval brought on by global climate change.

In the face of all that, it seems kind of silly to fuss about whether someone believes in god or not. Individually and collectively, don’t we have far more important things to worry about than some philosophical argument over purely personal beliefs?

Besides, the atheist movement has achieved their goals, right? Atheists are out of the closet. They can host talk shows on HBO after all. Religion is on the decline. So let’s move on already! Maybe the atheist movement should just wind down gracefully instead of clinging to their increasingly obsolete and unnecessary cause. Declining numbers of attendees at atheist events suggests that even among hardcore atheists, other priorities are taking precedence and passion is waning.

It’s unfortunate that energy for atheism as a cause is being diverted,  because here’s the thing. Religion is not actually in any danger of disappearing. Organized religion may also be in decline, at least for now, but “disorganized” belief-based thinking in the form of New Age and more recently Post Fact worldviews are very much on the rise. And despite their declining numbers, the influence of organized religion is nevertheless still growing. Our separation of church and state is as besieged as ever and atheists are still reviled and grossly underrepresented at all levels of leadership.

So the atheist movement is definitely not obsolete. On the contrary, it is needed more desperately today than ever. It is needed because at their core atheists are simply people with a deep respect for facts and reason and humanist ethics. Make no mistake, we atheists are not activists just because we want others to acknowledge that god is merely a silly fantasy. We atheists are activists because we care deeply about truth and facts and reality. We are atheist activists because we care deeply about bronze-age myths driving our public policies and infiltrating our educational systems.

And we are atheists because we understand that belief-based thinking can only compromise and harm the critical rational faculties that we desperately need to solve the urgent problems confronting us in our modern world. We atheists understand that “harmless” beliefs prepare people to be receptive and vulnerable to post-truth, post-factual, and even post-reality arguments. We know that belief-based arguments and false claims of factual equivalence generally serve only to manipulate people to act and to vote contrary to facts and reason and therefore against their own self-interest.

We atheists understand that you can chop at weeds as much as you like and they will just keep popping up. To eradicate harmful belief-based rationalizations, you have to pluck out the roots. It is those deep, insidious, roots of belief that atheism fights against. Religious conditioning to accommodate irrational belief prepares people to rationalize inaction on climate change, for example, or to accept fallacious logic and fantastical authority in supporting guns or racism or the restriction women’s rights. And that is why belief in god or the denial of evolution are legitimate litmus tests of our capacity for sound thinking, both individually and as a society.

Therefore, if you care about making making sane, fact-based, ethical decisions regarding women’s rights, or gun violence, or climate change, or anything else – you should care about atheism as well.  Pick another cause and champion it. But also support atheism because it strives to erode the foundation of belief-based, irrational, and dogmatic thinking that probably supports and enables whatever injustice you are fighting against.

Whether you are fully atheist or not, whether you are agnostic, or have no opinion, or are a None, even if you are an Evangelical or a Muslim, you don’t have to fully deny the existence of god to join us in solidarity for facts, for reason, and in promoting ethical and socially conscious humanist values. Whatever your cause, if you are battling against belief and manipulation, atheists are probably your allies. And regardless of whether you believe the universe was created in seven days, you can still join us in wonder and appreciation of our natural universe as revealed by science.

So even as you fight your day-to-day battles, join with us atheists and support us in our still essential movement to combat the belief-based thinking that probably underpins the social wars you are waging. Join us to support and encourage the humanist, fact-based solutions that will move us forward with reason and compassion and sanity.

 

You can read my other blog articles on atheism by clicking on the “Atheism” category on the right side of this screen and scrolling down through them. Or you can type in a keyword and search, try “Ken Ham” for example.

I have also written about these topics and much more in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief. If you’d like a little more meat but aren’t big on reading, check out my short video called Factuality for the Cliff Notes version.

 

A Spoonful of Superstition

Anyone who follows my blog or has read my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief, well knows that I argue passionately against most forms of belief-based thinking. But I do have to admit that sometimes a teeny tiny bit of false belief is helpful.

I rarely ever steal anything. If I realize that I was given too much change at the market, I’ll invariably drive back to return it. I don’t do the right thing because I’m such a noble upstanding person. I do it because of superstition.

You see somewhere I picked up this deeply ingrained notion that if I keep that money, the universe will somehow take revenge on me. I’ll stub my toe, or get a traffic citation, or spill coffee on my term paper. In some way I’ll pay tenfold for my dishonesty.

Of course that’s silly. I know that’s silly. Something bad will happen eventually, and when it does I will falsely ascribe the cause to be my earlier bad behavior. But nevertheless, the feeling of wanting to avoid this bad karma is so powerful that it still compels me to do the right thing.

Perhaps this belief in karma is just something learned from popular culture, but I rather suspect that our species carries the hardwired seed of this idea which gets reinforced by false associations acquired during ones lifetime. It makes evolutionary sense to me that such an assumption is a helpful genetic trait. Within social structures, what goes around does in fact often come back around.

Our innate fear of karmic payback is almost certainly a component of what we perceive as our nagging conscience.

karma

Here’s the danger in this. It leads many people down the rabbit hole into religion-land. If we believe in a little auto-karma, why not an almighty god who personally ensures payback? If a little karmic fear is good, then the fear of eternal damnation is even better. If our sense of personal karma is hardwired, then so is our belief in god!

But one essential principle you learn in toxicology class is that everything that is beneficial at low doses becomes toxic at higher doses. A little superstition may have some positive benefits. But a full-blown belief in god requires a level of superstition and a perversion of logical thinking that is so extreme as to be dangerously toxic. This level of belief is so debilitating to our logical faculties that it can compromise our ability to think rationally about critical issues like climate change.

So feel free to embrace a healthy sense of karma like you do a magic show, with a full and complete understanding that it’s not real. But don’t let that indulgence lead you down the treacherously slippery slope into religion.

Atheists Can Be Deluded Too

rollAs webmaster for New York City Atheists (see here), I recently found myself on a mailing list for a man named Michael Roll, pictured right. While he considers himself an atheist, Mr. Roll is also a self-professed spiritualist who has undertaken a personal mission to sell his particular fantasy as a non-religious, science-based idea. Since the 1960’s his “campaign for philosophical freedom” (see here) has tried to promote his spiritualist delusions.

Following are just a few of the ideas that he puts forth with great intellectual soberness and gravitas:

  • There is no god, but there is an afterlife that is part of the natural world. This spirit world exists on a “different frequency” and accounts for the unaccounted 95% of the energy in our universe.
  • While the religious beliefs of others are nonsense, his essentially identical beliefs are based on “experiments and mathematical models.”
  • His evidence is largely based on the “research” conducted by Sir William Crooks between 1871 and 1874. Crooks observed the manifestations produced by several “materialism mediums” which he claimed proved the existence of a vast afterlife (see here).
  • The media is in cahoots with the Vatican in a conspiracy to discredit legitimate science on the paranormal including work linking subatomic physics with the afterlife (see here).
  • According to Roll “famous television scientist Professor Brian Cox […] is let loose on the public because his false model of the universe is no danger to the Vatican and their powerful materialistic agents.
  • Roll also states “2018 could just be the year that a few billion people will find out that the great philosopher Jesus started from the correct scientific base that we all have a soul that separates from the dead physical body. But most important of all, that Einstein started from the incorrect scientific base that the mind dies with the brain.

I am not going to waste any of your time refuting all of Roll’s clearly delusional fantasies, any more than I would waste your time refuting the Narnia-really-exists theory. Here is a video in which you can hear his “logic” directly from him (video here). It particularly saddens me that Roll appears to be a student of Carl Sagan and quotes him extensively, yet manages to do so in a way that is a blasphemy to everything Dr. Sagan stood for (see here).

What interests me more than debunking this one clearly delusional individual is the more general observation that atheists are not immune to magical thinking. While atheists may not believe in god, they may certainly believe in lots of other equally nonsensical ideas. Just calling oneself an atheist does not immunize one from delusions. Michael Roll’s secular form of rationalizing his magical thinking with “logic” is no different than the “logic” put forth by Ken Ham to rationalize his biblical fantasy (see here).

Atheist delusions can be unique to an individual, but are more often propagated by non-religious movements and fads. Spiritualism and New Age thinking are examples of non-religious structures of fantastical delusions about the world.

Even smart, logical, sophisticated thinkers are not insulated from spiritual delusion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the brilliant creator of the paragon of rational thought, Sherlock Holmes, was another passionate proponent of spiritualism. He clung to his belief, even after Houdini proved to him that his magic tricks were merely tricks. Even after that irrefutable evidence, Doyle refused to be swayed from his insistence that they proved spiritualism was real (see here).

That these kind of spiritual belief systems can so compromise the thinking of one such as Conan Doyle demonstrates that they are both highly seductive and tenacious. Many of my atheist friends do not share my concern about these non-religious movements because they do not have the institutional power of an organized church behind them. Fair enough. However, they still contribute significantly to a culture in which magical thinking is encouraged and rational thought diminished. They legitimize and normalize public debate on important matters in which “alternative facts” are even entertained.

I argue that while misguided atheists like Michael Roll claim not to believe in god, their belief in essentially the same kind of pseudoscientific thinking supports faith-based thinking in all its forms. To attempt to use phony science fiction to rationalize a delusion does not make it less harmful than a purely religious belief. Indeed, the false invocation of the facade of science may in fact make the delusion far more harmful and damaging.

In my book “The Science of Belief,” (see here), I tried hard to not focus too much on religious thinking specifically, but on all non-fact based thinking in general. My thesis was that we cannot successfully attack religion or other secular forms of magical thinking directly. Rather we must teach real, authentic scientific ways of thinking and approaching the unknown. If we succeed at that, religion and spiritualism will crumble away to dust on their own.

Swarm Stupidity in Humans

swarmI am eternally fascinated by swarm intelligence and emergent behaviors. These terms describe the phenomenon by which individual organisms, following only simple local logic without any wider intent or awareness, contribute to highly complex and far-reaching behaviors that “emerge” or arise out of their collective activity.

The most observable examples include bird flocking, animal herding, fish schooling, bacterial growth, and ant colonies. Ants, as the most dramatic example, collectively create extremely complex bridges and nests, even though no particular individual organizes that activity or is even aware of it.

The amazingly complex creations of ants emerge from very simple individual logic such as “if another ant is on top of me, stop moving.” From this kind of deceptively simple behavior, ants collectively exhibit astounding feats of mass migration, swarming, tactical warfare, nest construction, and engineering. If however, a significant number of ants were to abandon their “belief” that it is their responsibility to hold still while another ant is felt upon their back, then their ability to create bridges and nests could collapse, and perhaps their species would as well.

What intrigues me most about this sort of swarm intelligence is the intriguing certainty that we humans collectively exhibit our own highly complex emergent behaviors. Even though none of us intend it, each of us nevertheless contributes to the emergent behaviors of our collective population, just as if we were merely cells in some greater human super-organism.

Therefore, the basic rules of logic that we live by as individuals likely do contribute rather more directly than we imagine to the large scale behavior of our species. For example, if we base our everyday logic on the assumption that god does or does not exist, we profoundly alter our collective behavior accordingly. Belief is not then merely some personal thing. It has profound consequence. Religious believers intrinsically know this to be true, that their belief fundamentally shapes the world we live in, and that is why it is so important to them to internalize, express, and evangelize it.

While Christians inherently believe that their religion produces what they feel are desirable emergent behaviors, many atheists conclude that they are wrong. We conclude rather that a personal religious worldview results in highly damaging emergent behaviors like bigotry and intolerance, gullibility, susceptibility to manipulation, disregard for the planet, and even warfare. We conclude that a personal belief in god is, in significant part at least, responsible for swarm behaviors like gun violence, terrorism, torture (see here), and jihad.

Therefore, we atheists should trust that there are no “benign” religious beliefs. We should never doubt that our simple rule of logic, that we believe in facts and reason not in gods, serves our species far better moving forward. We must trust that our personal atheist thinking, when expressed through a sufficiently large number of individuals, will indeed result in emergent behaviors that are more ethical than dogmatic, more fact than fantasy based, and more focused on our lives and our planet right now rather than life ever after. We must trust that atheism will better give rise to the more enlightened swarm intelligence that we so desperately need if we are to survive as a species.

Religion is a prime example of “swarm stupidity” in humans.

 

 

 

 

 

But I Know What I Saw!

A while back I wrote a blog about the likelihood (or unlikelihood rather) that we could ever meet aliens from another planet (see here). Even though it is highly unlikely we’ll ever meet them, I also wrote another article about what aliens probably look like (see here). In response to the latter article, I received the following comment and question. I thought it might be useful to respond in some detail.

Hi my name is Mark. 2 days ago around 1pm I had a encounter. It almost brought tears to my eyes and my emotional state was altered with unknown feelings. I was sitting on my patio when I noticed something watching me. I looked up at it. And it was aware of me spoting it and its prescense. The alien was a pure white flame/orb??? It flew down wards looked towards me and dissapered. I wrote all I could down about it and what and how I thought it worked or functioned. Some ppl wait there whole life to see what I saw. It was real!!!!!!!! It was so different. The light was extremly bright yet it had no glow to it. It was alive. (It somehow uses the golden ration to dissaper. Such as folding our perpective dimension. Only my theory ) Help Me………. I wanna let the world know how beautiful diffrent strange and awe strucking it was. The scariest part was it was spying on me. It came close and vanished??? Into nothing. Thank you this is no joke please let me know of what u think.

Let’s consider the rational way to respond to such an incident. First, I cannot completely accept this report as is. It could be, Mark, that you are just profoundly delusional. Or it could be that you simply cooked this up to troll and get a response. Or it could be that this was not actually your experience, but something someone told you that you are representing as a first-hand account. Crazy stories like this get started all the time (see here).

But Mark, let’s assume that you are not insane and are not pulling a joke but that you truly believe this experience happened to you. There are still many, many ways of intellectually and emotionally responding to such an incident that do not require you to suspend all of your rationality and accept incredible explanations.

Indeed, such an incident happened to me. I write about it in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here). I highly recommend you read it as it goes into far greater depth about how one should interpret unexplainable experiences. Indeed, it is not particularly rational to acknowledge that you have five fingers. Only when our rationality is sorely tested can we truly discover whether we are really rational thinkers. It is only when  we refuse to accept easy explanations, when we reject the ridiculous beliefs of others, that we can claim to be rational. If we believe ridiculous propositions like alien visitations, psychic powers, ghosts, or even gods – no matter how many other people may believe these things – then we are not truly rational.

As to your particular experience Mark, there are many explanations that are far more likely than that you were visited by aliens. First, you may be remembering a dream. I have difficulty differentiating some dream memories from actual memories. You may have had a waking dream. And realize that none of us are either fully sane or insane. None of us are immune to an occasional delusion. It is only when these episodes become profoundly persistent that they become a mental illness. We are all somewhat susceptible to paranoid delusions (see here), and frankly your report has elements of paranoia.

I’m sure, Mark, that you’ll insist that none of those things apply to you, and they may not. But that doesn’t mean that therefore you are at liberty to believe that you were spied upon by aliens. When we don’t understand something, the truly rational response is to suspend any judgement, forestall any conclusions, until if and when we learn more. A rational person, as does any good scientist, accepts not knowing what happened rather than accept some implausibly easy fantasy as a substitute for knowing.

My ghost-encounter happened 30 years ago Mark, and I still am far happier not knowing what happened than to accept that I actually saw a ghost. By remaining in the dark with my eyes open, I leave open the possibility of one day seeing the real truth, even if that truth turns out to be that I simply had a momentary brain-fart.

 

 

Data, Data Everywhere…

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There seems to be no better way to describe our situation today with regard to information. We sail upon a vast ocean of data and yet we die of thirst. Indeed, we are too often deluged by great waves of facts that batter us relentlessly to and fro upon treacherous seas of data.

It feels particularly disconcerting for me to write this article. In my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), I promote the importance of elevating facts above beliefs. After all, facts should reflect reality. They should be the basis upon which truth is known. Today however, data seems to be used far more effectively to support beliefs, fantasies, and lies than it is used to reveal truths. Indeed, those who wish to sell us nonsense don’t often bother to invoke the bible or faith anymore – they invoke their own “facts” instead.

One reason that facts have become the new champions of beliefs and cons is the sheer amount of it. We now have so much data that one can mine anything they want from the endless mountains of the stuff that we have produced. Misrepresented facts can now be dredged up to fabricate lies far easier than spinning magical stories of gods and devils.

Nowhere is this new perversion of facts more true than in politics. Today politicians like Donald Trump incessantly cite completely misleading facts to support their beliefs and positions and to outright lie. Even if the majority of people do not believe their “trumped up” facts, they nevertheless conclude that all facts are suspect and that no facts can be trusted. This tangibly undermines the level of rational thinking of our entire culture and leaves us without any sound basis for making good decisions as a society.

In his excellent Op-Ed (see here), William Davies points out that “they [facts] seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” According to Davies, there is clear agreement that “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” This new age of bullshit is fueled not by assertions of faith, but by assertions of facts. As Davies further points out, “Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

So facts have become the new bullshit. We claim to care about facts, but only because, as with the bible, we can always find something in them to support our beliefs and prejudices and self-interest. Our abundance of data seems to be only serving to diminish and undervalue it; to make it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, misrepresentation, and lies by half-truth. The sheer volume of it makes it far more difficult to say anything with certainty without some other bit of data seeming to contradict it.

And this perversion and misuse of facts is not just true in politics but has become the new normal in all walks of life. All too often journalists and pundits do not pursue facts to reveal truth, but rather invoke them to advocate for opposing sides of an issue. This makes great theatre, but does little to advance the important questions that we face. It instigates and perpetuates conflict rather than help reach a sound fact-based consensus.

Even scientists, our gatekeepers and guardians of fact, all too often emphasize only those facts that advocate for their positions rather than serving the far greater goal of advancing science as a quest for truth.

Abandoning facts is simply not an option. Allowing the manipulators to turn all fact-based thinking into rationalization games and data manipulation exercises is not an option because without sound facts good decisions simply cannot be made. If we allow facts to be coopted by magical thinkers, by self-serving politicians, or even by well-meaning advocates, we might as well put the psychic hotline staff in charge of our fates.

What is the answer? We must reclaim facts. We must become smarter consumers of facts who are no more likely to be fooled by the bogus facts cited by manipulative politicians or corporations any more than we are by laughably ambiguous bible citations and interpretations. We must learn to recognize valid data and sound conclusions amidst all the cherry-picking and false claims. We must learn to treasure and respect fairly presented facts as diamonds amongst all the heaps of rubble and fool’s gold that we have to sift through every day.

Our overabundance of data should make us value – and demand – sound analysis and conclusions based on that data all that much more.

 

Agnosticism Just Won’t Die

I know I run the risk of beating a dead zombie with my blog, but I feel compelled to write yet one more article about the rotting abomination that just won’t die – agnosticism.

The reason I simply must respond yet again is because news articles and opinion pieces touting the intellectual purity of agnosticism just keep getting published everywhere you look. And these aren’t written only by religious proponents, but by scientific and academic intellectuals as well (here’s one). Like most of these agnostics, this author contends that agnosticism is misunderstood. Being agnostic is not merely being undecided or ambivalent or apathetic, but rather it’s a highly principled position that upholds sound scientific skepticism and empiricism.

The author gleefully notes, as do all agnostics as their go-to-proof-by-authority, that even Richard Dawkins admitted he is agnostic! This well-intentioned but misguided and tactically disastrous statement of philosophical agnosticism by Richard Dawkins, given who he is, has caused incredible harm to reason and rationality. Don’t follow his lead on this one.

Skepticism is indeed a hallmark of the scientific method. But skepticism is not synonymous with gullibility and science does not require you to abdicate logic and reason and common sense. Good scientists can and do reject an infinite number of ridiculous propositions out-of-hand every day. Healthy scientific skepticism does not require you to doubt everything. It merely requires that you withhold drawing conclusions regarding plausible assertions until sufficient evidence is obtained.

This is where the agnostics think they have an iron-clad argument. Since supposedly science cannot prove a negative (e.g. god does not exist), then despite the lack of positive evidence, any good scientist must be agnostic regarding anything and everything! Gotcha!!

First, scientific rigor does not require that scientists disprove every possible ridiculous statement. Imagine anything that is clearly untrue. Take for example, my claim that my banana is actually a sentient life-form named Ned from planet Zorcon that just happens to exactly resemble a banana right down to the molecular level. Ned is in a coma right now and cannot respond or do anything un-banana-like but he deserves the rights of personhood. Healthy scientific skepticism simply does not require scientists to admit that my assertion might be true. It certainly does not require that they perform studies to try to prove or disprove this claim. Scientists have no burden whatsoever of disproving my absurd claim about Ned the comatose alien banana. It is entirely my burden to prove it and until I do good scientists can and should simply reject it out of hand.

And keep in mind, these agnostics do not claim god is a plausible belief, they rather claim that regardless of how implausible it may be we must allow that it may be true nevertheless.

Next these agnostics will – cleverly they think – point out that science cannot prove a negative. This fallacy is typically summed up by quoting Martin Rees who famously pointed out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What this correctly points out is that just because we see no evidence of something doesn’t necessarily mean it does not exist. In fact, this quotation would be far more accurate and less misused if stated as “absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. When this phrase is quoted by agnostics they fail to recognize that a sufficiently conclusive lack of evidence absolutely can prove a negative.

Let’s contrive an example for fun.

I do not need to even look in my bedroom to assert with 100% certainty that there is no dragon in it. There is no such thing as dragons and no reason to even consider that possibility, so therefore I can dismiss this proposition out of hand. Further, as a good scientist it is my obligation to dismiss such claims with prejudice.

elephant-in-roomBut what if the claim is not a dragon but an elephant. Well, elephants do exist and while I cannot imagine how one would get into my house, I can easily prove or disprove this claim just by glancing around my bedroom. Having done so, I can legitimately conclude with 100% certainty that there is no elephant in my bedroom. If there were an elephant hiding under the bed or behind the curtains, I would reasonably expect to have seen at least some evidence of it. Therefore, I do not need to remain agnostic with regard to the sincere heart-felt beliefs of the elephant-in-every-bedroom cult to prove I am a good scientist. I have sufficient proof to conclude with certainty that my bedroom is elephant-free and that all claims of an elephant in my bedroom are delusional.

God is like that elephant. He is SO huge that if He existed we would certainly have seen evidence. There is none.

But let’s argue that god is more elusive and secretive – like bedbugs. Let’s say that the bedbug cult claims that I have bedbugs in my bedroom. Even though I don’t see any bedbugs just by glancing around, it is still possible they may exist and as a good scientist I take the advice of Martin Rees to heart and withhold conclusion pending further evidence, positive or negative. So, I bring in trained dogs and bedbug residue detectors. I carefully examine all the places where they would be found if they were there. If, after that, I find no evidence of bedbugs I can conclude beyond any reasonable doubt that my bedroom is bedbug free. I do not have to remain agnostic about whether dragons or elephants or even bedbugs are in my room to prove I am a good scientist. Such agnosticism would only prove that a fool exists my bedroom.

Similarly no legitimate evidence of god, however secretive he may be, has ever been found, despite the fact that believers make extravagant claims about his tremendous influence over our world. 

In fact, unhealthy agnostic skepticism is the exact opposite of good science. Science, unlike mysticism, relies upon the certainty that our cosmos is knowable; that it follows rules. Not just anything is possible. If it were, the cosmos would not be knowable at all and science would be meaningless. In science, things are true, observable and logical, or they simply do not exist and are untrue, period. To say that good scientists cannot know anything for certain is to turn science into mysticism.

To be frank, agnostics are not the champions of science and reason they imagine themselves to be. Ultimately their position renders science and reason invalid. If they insist that we cannot disprove things for which there is no proof, then they are necessarily saying we cannot positively assert anything at all. For anything you could assert as true, you could simply make up any story to cause all that evidence to be in doubt. Agnostics are required by their dogma to accept that.

You can have fun with agnostics. Make up some unprovable reason to claim something silly. Agnostics will be forced to admit you might be correct because they cannot disprove your un-disprovable fantasy. This exposes how bereft of any meaning their position really is. Truth and falsity, science and mysticism, evidence and belief all collapse upon themselves into a meaningless jumble of pseudo-intellectual nonsense if you accept the agnostic view of reality.

So agnostics have a huge problem. They think they are purists in being “open-minded” enough to admit that god might exist by making a philosophical claim that we cannot really disprove (or thereby even prove) anything whatsoever. But they don’t actually apply their intellectual purity to every possible ridiculous proposition. They only selectively apply it to this particular ridiculous god assertion. Though they might stubbornly claim to apply this thinking to everything universally, clearly they do not do so in practice. In the end either these are just smart people applying convoluted logic to rationalize a particular ridiculous proposition that they want to believe or they are misguided atheists who mistakenly believe that agnosticism demonstrates their sophisticated and superior intellectual standing.

What harm does agnosticism cause? It undermines logic and reason and moves us toward a pseudo-scientific kind of mystical thinking in which anything is possible. Moreover, if we accept the agnostic argument, if we give it any credibility whatsoever, then we accept that god might exist. And if we accept that god might exist, then we must accept Pascal’s Wager and concede that it makes some sense to assume he does. And if we assume he does, then it only makes sense that believers proselytize and fight to shape government and public policy in accordance with their delusional religious thinking.

Agnosticism is the brain-eating zombie of philosophical nonsense that just won’t die. Accepting agnostic arguments is to follow them down their rabbit hole into Wonderland where the ridiculous is accepted as the norm and crazy ideas are rationalized with insanely inescapable logic.