Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Secular vs. Theistic Information

Think of information on a scale of the most subjective to the most objective. I place them on a scale because it can be argued that no information available to us is entirely subjective or entirely objective. The closer we get to objectivity, the more the information is representative of truth. The lower the number, the more subjective the information. The higher the number, the more objective the information.

1. Information from Your Experience

There is a philosophical concept called naive realism which basically works under the assumption that the our perception perfectly represents the world as it truly is. This was an acceptable view for most of human existence, but science has shown us that subjective experience doesn’t match one to one with reality. We construct our perception of things based on senses that evolved to ascertain useful aspects of reality. What you see and hear is very different from what a snake or whale sees and hears. It’s even different from what I see and hear, albeit to a lesser degree. Paired with an incomplete input of reality is the imperfect way we recall it. Memories are reconstructed not replayed. Each recalling alters the events which will remain altered until the next time we recall them which alters them further. It’s the mental telephone game of our past. For these reasons, anecdotal evidence has little place in the lab and eye-witness testimony has lost much of it’s value in the courtroom.

2. Information from Consensus Experience

I put on a pair of black pants only to find my wife pointing out that they don’t match my shirt--because they are actually navy pants. Here we have two differing subjective perceptions and the only practical way to resolve who’s sensitivity to color is more correct is by crowd sourcing the rest of the family. When my kids, siblings and in-laws all tell me that my pants are navy, I have to admit that, regardless of my perception, the consensus is that my pants are navy.

Don’t worry, the majority of the time, your perception will be in line the perceptions of the consensus, but knowing how others observe things is still a big step in knowing that your observations are valid...especially if you’re a user of psychedelic drugs.

3. Scientifically Derived/Methodological Information

The entire point of the Scientific Method is to get as close to objectivity as possible in discovering what is true. Observations are still done with the subjective lens of the scientist’s senses, sure, but so are they recorded by machines. Data is computed and results are quantified to the most objective language, math. The biases of the researcher are overcome with placebos, controls and double blind studies. Finally, everything is peer reviewed and replicated independently. I consider this information as close as we can get to truth. That said, while there is no pragmatic reason to doubt it, I still recognize that it could be an illusion.

4. Philosophical Truth

Everything could be a lie covering the deeper truth of reality. I could be a brain in a vat and the inputs I believe I’m receiving could be electrical signals representing the whims of a mad man. I could be jacked into the virtual world of the Matrix. I could be telepathically manipulated by a trickster god. The only way to discover if there is transcendent truth beyond what I can perceive is, by definition, beyond my ability to perceive it. That is to say, there is the way. I find such a deception unlikely and at odds with notions like Occam's Razor, but the possibility is undeniable. Philosophical truth is a hypothetical that we may or may not be able to achieve, but even if we do achieve it--we won't know for sure that we have. Pragmatically we operate and reason using the axiom that reality as we understand it is, in fact, real.

What the religious often do.

The religious take philosophical truth, or Truth with a capital “T”, and believe that it is accessible via the deity they believe exists. They then elevate their belief that God exists to the level of Truth, which results in circular reasoning. Because I know God, I have Truth/I know God, because I have Truth. Outside of this circularity, the religious only have the least compelling class of information (1), to back up their claim of possessing the most compelling (4). Consensus and scientific information both trump what they label “Truth” which is a confusing and sometimes dangerous error of the mind.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Quick Take on Interstellar

I watched Interstellar last night and I have mixed feelings about it. Basic spoilers implied ahead.

From a science standpoint, Interstellar educates the audience about how relativity works (although inconsistently) in regards to time dilation and how it is related to gravity. On the flip side, the movie also propagates the myth that black holes transport people places rather than kill them. I don’t care if movies educate, but I don’t want them to pass on wrong information as if it is correct. Science fiction is at it’s best when it takes unknowns and fills them with what could be true, not when it takes things we know are wrong and misleads audiences.

The movie also implies that the emotion of love transcends the mind, a theme many religious types and romanticizers would like about the film. Love as a motivator for the characters involved would be enough to keep the story together, using it as an attribute of the universe makes the movie feel more fantasy than sci-fi. They might as well evoke the Force.

The ending feels contrived and there are the typical Nolan plot holes, but it was worth seeing. The cinematography, acting, and music were great.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I Eat Meat

A Christian apologist asks “what is the difference (according to your view of reality) between humans and other animals? And a follow up question, are you vegan?”

I know where this question comes from. Christians, and many other religious types, view humanity as categorically different from animals and assumes anyone who accepts evolution thinks they are on par with wildlife. Well, yes and no. I don’t believe man holds a special place in any mystical or supernatural way, nor do we have a unique link to the transcendent. Modern humans share a common ancestor with all animals, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t unique in several important ways.

Humans have a far greater potential for intelligence, reason, and self-awareness than animals. It’s hard to tell how far ahead of the second smartest animals we are in these regards, but it’s clear to me that we are far ahead. The apologist's question came up on a post about morality, so I will address the follow-up question in that context. I am not vegan. The moral distinction I make between killing animals and killing people, beyond the legality and public opinion of such actions, is this: humans have a far more awareness of self, of what happens to them, and of what will happen to them. Awareness for negative acts against oneself and the consequences thereof, paired with the actual sensation of pain, is suffering. I believe most animals can only feel the pain aspect, which doesn’t have to be a factor in humane deaths.

Painful deaths and torture of animals that feel pain is immoral, but the instant killing of animals that lack human-like awareness is not, at least according to my understanding of morality.

Here’s the rub. Since animals aren’t capable of language, it’s hard to tell how much awareness they perceive and how much pain they feel. There has to be a spectrum. Dolphins are likely more aware than chickens and chickens likely feel more pain than roaches. I wouldn’t eat animals I consider closer in the spectrum to humans and I try my best not to give business to companies that would painfully kill their livestock. I realize that being vegan would be more moral, but I also realize that not walking outside and potentially stepping on insects would also be more moral. And I also realize that this post could be, in part, a rationalization to justify not wanting to make a difficult lifestyle change, but I believe what I’m saying just the same. Humans are, by every account I’ve seen, at least an order of magnitude more aware than cows and chickens. I can do more to be moral, but the time spent seeking out how to help animals is better spent seeking out how to help my fellow man.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Quit Your Whying

I’ve been listening to comedian Pete Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird recently. A point of interest relevant to this blog is that Pete ends each episode with an exploration of his guest’s religious or atheistic beliefs. Most often his guest is a fellow comedian, a trade that fosters atheism almost as readily as scientific fields. Speaking of which, he’s had on scientists like Brian Green and Bill Nye as well as less scientifically literate types such as Deepak Chopra (that was a hard episode for me to get through even though it was about half the usual two hour length.) Pete himself is a lapsed fundamental Christian who still holds various spiritual beliefs while being sympathetic to the secular. I tell you all this to both encourage you to check out his show and to introduce a concept Pete often brings up--that science answers the “what”s and “how”s of the universe but offers little in terms of “why.”

The big “why”s were the last related questions I found of value as I left theism--most notably “why is there something rather than nothing?” Atheists don’t have a definitive answer to this and perhaps never will. Theists can answer it, but only with their go-to guess. They essentially answer “because God.” They then immediately stop asking questions, considering “because God” becomes more absurd when the question is “why is there God rather than no God?”

The only thing more frustrating than an empirical God of the Gaps argument is a philosophical God of the Gaps argument, which is what we have here. Pete is filling a gap with an assumption, as he has been conditioned to by his upbringing. While we should try to discover answers to every “why,” the problem with the question is that it eventually creates an unknown in any body of knowledge. When a “why” question is answered, a new “why” question applies. The result? A gap that keeps on giving. The better question may be this: with what degree of reductionism are you comfortable?

To illustrate this, here is another favorite comedian of mine, Louis CK, talking about kids.

Monday, September 8, 2014

For Heaven to be Perfect, You Can’t be There

If heaven is defined as the best possible afterlife, there are at least as many concepts of heaven as there are religions in the world. I’d argued there are as many different concepts of heaven as there are people who have ever considered it. Perfection is seemingly a subjective idea as strange as that sounds. Be it virgins, streets of gold, reunions with family, or nirvana, most agree that the bad things we experience in life, do not occur in heaven. They don’t occur because they fundamentally can’t.

If I’m in heaven and a fellow worthy dead guy wants to do something I don’t like, they just can’t do it because it would conflict with my perfect world. Yet if they can’t act on their desires, then their experience is lacking and therefore not a fulfillment of their ideal. The only way around this is to say, despite appearances, perfection is not subjective. There is one perfect experience for all of us, we are just not yet able to know it. This still poses a problem--that person who knows this hypothetical objective perfection, isn’t you.

Even predicting you will become that person is folly. That person is so fundamentally not you that I’m completely justified in saying that aren’t going to heaven. Heaven, as understood by believers, is an infinite dimension after our finite life. That means any being that can experience things will experience an infinite amount of happiness there. That being will also experience an infinite amount of sadness, guilt, suffering, envy, ect. In fact, an eternal timeline for any of us will result in an infinite amount of every positive and negative emotion and response. If the being who goes on to such a place is anything like us, it really doesn’t matter whether we go to heaven or hell--the experience is functionally the same. For heaven to be devoid of the negative, we must be rendered incapable of experiencing everything from pain to boredom. By the time you are a being who is like that, that being won’t bare any resemblance to you.

Think about yourself at five years old. You are likely made up of entirely different atoms today. You think entirely different thoughts and have entirely different knowledge. Some memories may be shared, but chances are most only feel the same and are different from what actually happened. That child is the you of the past, but is only tangentially related to the you of the present. Imagine how much more different the you of the future would be divorced from most of the experiential ability, intelligence, and freedom of will we’re capable of now. It would be like a saying a computer that has had all it’s software and hardware replaced is the same computer. No, you’re not going to heaven. If heaven exists, that other guy is.

Come to terms with the fact that collectively we aren’t compatible with a universal perfection and work towards a best-case world in which everyone gets a fair shot at social happiness.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Deity Shmeity Quickies

Faith, as unsubstantiated belief to the degree of perceived certainty, is the most anti-intellectual concept ever created. When applied to religion, it's effectively ignorance worship.

Last month's PewResearch data that shows how atheists are viewed relative to religious groups. (Spoiler: not great)

I find that theists tend to project their beliefs onto reality. Concepts--like right and wrong, the mind, love, truth to some extent--are all more than abstractions, they are considered real in some way beyond the use of the people that conceive them. The support for this is always along the lines of "I feel it's true" or, my favorite, "we all know it, even those who put on a show of denying it." You can believe something, you can even really believe something, but you can't believe something into existence.

You Are Not So Smart is becoming one of my favorite podcasts. Each episode goes over a topic related to the human experience with a focus on thinking and biases. This episode is particularly relevant to those who spend probably too much time arguing on the Internet (or anywhere.)

Religious apologists have a problem with infinite regress, but considering they believe in a being who has always existed, I don't understand why. If we ask when an everlasting being existed before any given moment, the answer would be the moment before, ad infinitum. If we ask what caused any given effect in an infinite causal series, the answer is the cause before it, ad infinitum. So far, no one has showed what the essential difference is between the two claims or why infinite regress is logically inferior. If you know, let me know.