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.