Monday, January 26, 2015

Asymmetrical Skepticism

Christians are skeptical.

Christians, and theists in general, are skeptical of life arising from non-life and the universe originating from quantum fluctuations they’ve never observed. They don’t feel inclined to believe that consciousness as deep and self-aware as ours can arise through random mutations that are built upon guided by selective pressure.

Don’t make fun of them for this.

They are right to be skeptical of these things. These are counter intuitive concepts with evidence that can’t be assessed directly by laymen and requires a large commitment to gain any competence.

Make fun of them for believing in miracles.

Where does that skeptical instinct they methodically apply to naturalism go in regards to virgin birth, resurrections, and transubstantiation? One one hand they deny living matter arising from unliving matter, but one the other they freely accept living matter arising from non-matter. It’s okay to be extremely skeptical of both--they are extraordinary claims that are so rare that we only have clear reason to believe one or the other happened once in the history of the universe--but be consistent.

Why? What specifically makes walking on water and the magical duplication of bread and fish more believable than quantum mechanics or a multiverse? Why be understandably skeptical about some extraordinary claims and so faithful about a host of others?

I've asked Christians these questions and the answers, when given, are never satisfying. If I had to distill their varied answers to a core principle, it's an emotional connection to their indoctrination. In lieu of understanding, embrace what is comfortable.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Consensus & Source

I see both atheists and theists finding a scientific study or paper from somewhere on the internet and posting it as a central support to their argument or claim. This study or paper might even be written by someone with a degree in a relevant field. That's great, but the internet is a big place and there are all kinds of people who use it. The interpretations of data and the conclusions to be drawn from them can vary as much as the agendas and biases of the article writers. The best thing to do is to only look at the data and apply your own encyclopedic knowledge gained from being an expert in the field to draw your own conclusions.

Oh, that’s right, I’m not. I only know the broad strokes of evolution, TV cosmology and pop-quantum physics. In other words, I don’t know shit. I know a lot more than the average guy walking down the street, but it’s relative. If I know anything, it's my limitations.

Which brings me to the conundrum. In order to talk about issues beyond my pay grade, I need to trust some of those papers and studies by the professionals. The best way I see to go about this is by focusing on consensus and source. Papers from respected journals with no clear agenda are more valuable than those from publishers with a vested interest in certain kinds of conclusions. The assessments supported by the majority of the community should be taken more seriously than fringe assessments by outliers.

I know this is the road to the fallacious arguments from authority and popularity, that’s why it’s important to consider source and consensus not as markers of truth, but as markers for a better likelihood of truth. It’s not perfect, but I can think of no better way. Can you?

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Gap In Every Argument

Many arguments for god(s) take something the apologist intellectually doesn't understand and compensates with an assumption that reinforces the belief they've been taught is true. Sometimes they disregard or deny the available information because it doesn't jive with their indoctrination (committing the fallacy of personal incredulity) and sometimes there is no information available in which case they are filling a gap in knowledge with their divine explanation of choice (called the god of the gaps.)

Example time.

Those who use the cosmological argument: "I don't know if the universe has an ultimate origin or what that might be, so let's assume there is and it's God."

Those who use the fine tuning argument: "I don't know if the constants that apply to our universe could be different nor how different nor do I know if there are other universes or variables, but let's assume they can differ wildly and our universe is unique because God designed it that way."

Those who use the argument from design: "I don't know how the diversity of complex organisms could have came to be as they are now, so let's say it's God."

Those who use the moral argument: "I don't know why I feel so strongly about certain things being right and other things being wrong, so God must have made me aware of those moral values."

In the case of the cosmological and fine tuning arguments, humanity hasn't nailed down the mechanics of the origin of the universe nor why the universe has the constants it does. We have theories that cover part of the answer and hypotheses that speculate the rest, but there is enough that we don't know that I consider these arguments, in part, god of the gaps arguments.

The argument from design and the moral argument are different. Since the Theory of Evolution, the only way to find the argument from design convincing is by sticking your head in the proverbial sand to avoid the evidence. Saying they are personally incredulous of evolution doesn't an argument make. The moral argument is more nuanced and, depending on definitions, suffers the same fate of the argument from design. There is enough selective pressure to be altruistic, especially within one's own gene-mates (which some call their family), that that feeling to be good is also covered with evolutionary theory.

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.