Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Not So Gamey

Amongst my usual reads
there has been a large number of posts concerning religion, lack thereof, belief systems, and other topics in a similar vein, so I thought I might present a bit of how I approach things.

Certain analogies often strike people as particularly good, even if they aren't particularly descriptive, and these analogies become a semi-permanent frame.

Such, I believe, has happened with many discussions on atheism. I use the small 'a' because I have yet to see any kind of unifying belief structure which might warrant a proper noun. In fact, the idea that atheism itself is a belief system doesn't make any sense at all to me.

If there were no religions, there'd be no need for atheists.

By which I mean that my own atheism has no meaning except where I encounter religion, specifically the worship of deities. Very clever people often say 'but you have such faith in your atheism - and that's a bit like a religion!' - and those people have no idea what they're talking about.

I don't interpret my day-to-day actions from a framework of atheism, not in the same way that a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist might evaluate their actions. There is no equivalent in my life for 'What Would Jesus Do?' Atheism, despite the claims of its detractors, does not have a holy book or sacraments or a strict moral code.


Here's an analogy which I happen to like, mostly because it doesn't attempt to equate strict belief structures that demand adherence to complex codices with the lack of those belief structures.

Most people don't believe in unicorns. There is no proof for such creatures other than old stories.
Let's say there is this woman, Jen. Jen never really thinks about unicorns as she goes about her day-to-day life. She might read books which feature unicorns, but she recognizes them as a shared imaginary cultural element and leaves them at that. She never stops to ask, "Would a unicorn approve of what I am doing?" She might have other ways of evaluating her own behavior, but they have nothing to do with her disbelief in unicorns.

In other words, unless she encounters a unicorn in media or feels the urge to form her own narrative utilizing the idea of a unicorn, she never really thinks about unicorns. She does not even consider their absence.

One day Jen meets a Unicornist, Melvin. Melvin believes very strongly in unicorns and not only that, but has a whole list of proper ways of behaving which are approved by unicorns. Speaking with Melvin, Jen says that, no, she's never really believed in unicorns.

Jen has found out that she is an A-Unicornist, and that is indeed a vile thing. Melvin begins to rattle off a host of other beliefs that A-Unicornists must believe, and it strikes Jen as odd, because she doesn't believe half of the things he says.

Of course, none of that placates Melvin, who has formed a whole group of Unicornists. Jen finds this behavior odd but doesn't really care so much. Not at first.


There are people who seem to think that a life without religion would be meaningless and cold and without joy; Maybe it's just a coincidence that they're all religious.

That's the snarky response.

But the sincere response is that my world is not meaningless or cold or without joy. I enjoy my own imagination and the imagination of my fellow human beings (and animals, for that matter), and am continually astounded and surprised by the discovery of the world around me and the way in which scientific inquiry has both broadened knowledge and deepened the mystery. I run through the gamut of emotional responses and have had both a shamanic transcendence and general feelings of unquantifiable awe, but those experiences did not trigger a desire to adhere to any particular belief or pretend to an understanding of feelings I cannot place into images worthy of context - and all that with the knowledge that those feelings were governed by processes which could probably be broken down into discrete sections and reproduced, given enough information and computing power, which diminishes them not at all.

I've heard the sentiment before that atheists cannot live a moral life, that without religion a person cannot have any kind of rules or principles. That idea is so incredibly absurd on its face that I don't have a great defense prepared, since it seems so obvious to me that there are plenty of ways to adhere to principles or morals sans religion.

Part of the difficulty in defending against charges of immorality or nihilism is that my own personal belief system has no official formulation, no scholarly texts, no accepted nomenclature. As a result, there is very little common ground between my reality tunnel and one formed by religious thought. My beliefs are a result of my own interactions and evaluations and my wariness at adhering to any ideology or authority too closely.

(All people, I think, are made up of their interactions and evaluations, but many choose, or are heavily indoctrinated, in specific belief systems that demand at the least the outward appearance of conformity and often much, much more actual conformity.)

I've never been much interested in 'converting' people away from religion. But I'm also not afraid to point out what is, to me, intractable bullshit, the kind which infests every religious text from the Bible to the Tao Te Ching (though both are filled with wonderful poetry and beautiful images). This tendency has not always served me well. As someone with an endless supply of questions, I've never had the credulity required for theism, mono- or poly-.

That being said, I've also never favored the tack taken by, for example, the Secular Web. Their atheism page attempts to formulate some kind of ideology in order to combat religion and, while admirable, just seems pointless. It might be useful to see some of the arguments and logic all laid out, etherised upon a table, as it were, but 'strong' or 'weak' atheism means nothing to me - I just don't care, the belief's not there.

For the curious, however, they can be an edifying resource.

There are many ways, however, to respond to religion, and providing atheism with a framework of philosophical gobbledygook while attempting to promote direct atheist evangelism doesn't seem very productive to me.

Now, much of the framework of this big-'A' Atheism appears to be humanism and science and logic and lots of Enlightenment values mixed together - but why the pretense that atheism contains these doctrines as part of its essence?

Why make such a cobbled-together something from such a big nothing?


Of late, especially as concerns the political arena, there have been many attempts to cast Science as an ideology, or to presuppose that scientists are all beholden to the same set of values. Or even to tie it into liberalism or elitism or any of a number of familiar labels.

This is especially noticeable in the anti-intellectual ramblings of David Horowitz and ilk (retreads of Lagarde's railings against Germanic education in the 1870s) or the Intelligent Design supporters or the entire Bush Administration (from the lying lackey George Deutsch to its attempts to silence climate experts).

But the scientific method is just that, a method. It is a way of doing something. Its strength is in discerning methods of repeating certain outcomes, then parlaying those conclusions into other avenues of research, all with an eye to constantly verifying previous experiments and concocting new ones.

Some would argue that science pretends to be the only way of discovering things about the world, and there are certainly people who might agree.

But it hardly matters one's emotional attachment. The question to ask is: Is science a method which seems to bring to bear the most intersections of reality tunnels? That is, does it seem that the results of science can be shared by more people than other methods, say, astrology or the I Ching (both are arguably methods for discovering things about the universe around us)?

The question to ask after those, then, is: Would society as a whole be best served by a method which seems to provide the best communal results?

I would argue that society has already been served as such, in terms of practical results, though the application of scientific discoveries has not always been toward society's health. Science, again, is a method of achieving those results, it is not the sole method of determining how its conclusions are applied (and then we get the luddite vs. technophile debate) - how science is used depends upon the methods of social and technological and political organization.

There are other methods out there, certainly, and many of them give an even higher shared precision than science. Both mathematics and logic provide incredibly accurate results, but they don't always correlate to physical observations (there are many unknown factors which can throw off even the most careful equation or argument). There are also methods that are specific to certain jobs that do not demand applicability to the world at large.

And there is a whole cornucopia of junk methods that can be playful and stimulating but are typically filled with little internal consistency and never produce results of any utility except as mental placebos. We have astrology, phrenology, any kind of scrying or fortunetelling, psychics, televangelists, recovered memory therapists, UFOlogists, channelers . . . any kind of hucksterism which pretends to repeatability with no understanding whatsoever of any possible mechanism by which the feat is performed.

While it may appear to be the case, I regret to inform you that your vagina does not, in fact, control men's minds.

All that mess being said (and this post is one long mess), a few strengths of the scientific method are that:

-It encourages and often demands verification by independent scientists to discourage falsification. It's a cheap trick of the creationists to rattle off a list of all kinds of scientific forgeries (in order to tar the whole of science with mistaken or improper use of the method) because they then fail to mention that such things were found to be forgeries by the application of the scientific method.

-It provides a clear framework for forming conclusions without demanding strict orthodoxy (though when enough data has supported a theory - evolution, for example - it becomes a generally accepted fact, with the stipulation that it will be subject to revision and clarification). In fact, the IDists often point to the papers that provide challenges to previous experiments as if such things were proof that science is somehow at war with itself when, in fact, challenging research with new, improved, revised findings is central to the scientific method (it's the old political formulation claiming that the strength is really a weakness).

-It predicates itself on the testability of certain kinds of knowledge. Empiricism is a method people employ every single day, whether consciously or not, and it has been crucial to our survival and continues to be crucial.

For more on science (and from a real scientist, not me wearing some fancy hat cackling madly in front of a Tesla coil) especially as it relates to atheism, see PZ Myers' posts here and here.


I wanted, too, to respond directly to Chris Bateman's post on Skeptics.

Skepticism lies in a grey area for me, because I don't quite see it as an ideology and it's a little more than a method. It seems to be a method of science and logic coupled with an emotional admixture of antagonism and curiosity, as well as the desire to be a bit of an iconoclast.

"From a philosophical vantage point, Skepticism involves as big a leap of faith as most religions, requiring as it does the absolute belief in a value system containing 'true' and '‘false,' and the capacity to reliably ascertain these truth values."

I'm going to argue against this notion, because I have noticed the word 'faith' thrown around without regard to the degree of its use.

Religious thought requires what might be termed strong faith, because it requires belief without evidence, or often in the face of
contradictory evidence.

Other kinds of ideologies require what I'll call weak faith, which is simply confidence in a system that yields beliefs about different propositions where there are very few to no contradictory claims.

These two types of faith are often conflated without regard to any kind of distinction. Thus, I have heard religious people say, "So, you believe the sun will come up tomorrow. Then you have faith it will come up," and then they look smug as if I'd convert then and there.

But my faith in the sun rising is mostly habit coupled with knowledge about how strongly the solar system maintains its regular motion. And, if the sun failed to rise, I would say only that I was mistaken, and would endeavor to discover exactly how a system of belief that worked so well for so long failed. Then I would adjust my 'faith'. I hardly think that's how most religions work.

If the sun randomly failed to rise, I would have a whole different belief worked out about its behavior, but this would in no way equate to a religious belief in regard to its motion. Again, habit mixed with knowledge. Maybe that's a good description of religion, but I doubt it (I would, in the manner of Ambrose Bierce, suggest religion, then, is habit mixed with ignorance).

Also, in regards to the Ganzfeld: There is hardly only one remaining objection. The whole premise of the experiment is flawed; There has been no attempt to describe the mechanism of parapsychology or how to physically detect it with anything but an ambiguous experiment. At its best, what it shows are (through the framework of statistical analysis) highly unlikely results.

But 45,000 to 1, however long the odds, does not an impossibility make. Wikipedia points this out, but then states that this does not rule out telepathy.

Problem is, without any other supporting evidence or experimentation, it does rule out telepathy. Remaining agnostic is interesting, and certainly I will allow that "everything is possible; nothing is forbidden," but that doesn't demand anything more than a "wouldn't that be nice" from me followed by discounting it until a case can be made.

That's the fuzziness of things, I suppose.

I'm a bit in agreement with Chris when he discusses alternative therapy techniques, but I think relying on the placebo effect is a bit too risky. However, I would think that some of the same effects could be achieved with transparent changes to medical care itself. In other words, I don't think there's any reason to fool people into maybe getting better, but also that expecting real change in pill form is ludicrous (and an idea that is long-familiar, no doubt, to old acidheads - leary's LSD experiments with prisoner rehabilitation might warrant some research).

As for the case of Wilhelm Reich, it wasn't so much an extreme Skepticism that led to his books being burned, but more than likely cultural aversion to the kinds of sex experiments that formed much of the backbone of Orgone research (a good reason to study it, even if I'm not convinced it has any merit) and an establishment willing to exercise its power to censor salacious material.

I also want to point out to Chris that the study he links that supposedly shows that those with religious belief systems are happier does not quite make that point. Instead, the study states that spirituality or a sense of purpose lead to happiness, when considered against pursuit of material wealth. By that token, then, Skeptics are probably quite happy, since they have a clearly-defined sense of purpose.

All that being said, I thank Chris for his discussions. I've stated elsewhere that at times he seems a bit too credulous for my tastes, but if he weren't, then I'd have little reason to respond. And he usually responds in a gracious manner that makes such dialogues more a salon than a fight for control of a narrative.


Hopefully I've gotten these kinds of thoughts out of my system for awhile.

But you never know.

I could subject you to such outbursts at any time.

You have been warned.


Chris said...

Wish I had more time to do this long post justice. I believe you correctly understand my position in that I desire to promote people to think for themselves; I'm often attempting to encourage people to think in the corners of what is normally considered. I do not desire to impose my will on others, but encourage them to look with fresh eyes.

I often seem credulous, because people often fail to understand the points I'm making (because they're hard points to get across, and I can only do my best in this regard, which is rarely enough). I'm willing to take that risk, though, because what people think about me isn't that important, really.

Regarding the Ganzfeld, I am fascinated as to the belief system you have as regards 'The Scientific Method' that *requires* theory before experiment, and can dismiss experimental results on the basis of absence of theory! :) You've seriously put the cart before the horse here - I encourage you to research the issues further. It really is a fascinating case study if you listen to all sides of the debate - far more interesting than the Intelligent Design non-debate which does nothing but demonstrate that atheists and theists don't know how to talk to one another! :)

Remember Robert Anton Wilson saying "every experiment which sets out to prove psi concludes it exists and every experiment that sets out to disprove psi concludes that it does not?" Well he was close to the mark on this one, except for one small thing...

As for '45,000 to 1' - that's just Honorton's result. The results over all experiments of this kind (2,549 sessions) is overall hit rate of 33.2 percent with odds against chance beyond *a million billion to one*. Where do you want to put the threshold of impossibility? :) Check it out - I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried! :)

(Also, there *are* psi theories in circulation, but they are as wildly speculative as most quantum interpretations or cosmological theories, and anyway, this is rather beside the point).

Go on - dig on in and see what you discover! :) Or don't, if you prefer. I don't mind either way. And just to clarify, I'm not trying to convince people to believe in telepathy. This is much more interesting than that in my eyes!

Onto other issues...

The trouble with your Unicorn example is that it is a hypothetical with no underlying social experience to support it. The metaphor of God is deeply embedded into culture, as is the metaphor of "Country" (c.f. 'Do you believe in Burkino Faso?'). You could take *any* model of God you liked - you could take a psychological model, a philosophical model, an absurdist model, a pragmatic model... you don't have to take an atheistic model - but you *choose* to. That takes belief in some degree. It doesn't seem that way to you, because you compare your faith to religious faith and find them different. But if it did not take faith, would you not be agnostic? Atheism is a stance on God(s). Every stance requires belief - no matter how trivial.

I ask you: if you can disbelieve in God so easily, where do you stand on nations?

Also, religious faith absolutely *does not* require strong faith. Perhaps living in the US (my assumption - forgive me if I'm wrong) skews this perspective for you. Here in the UK I am surrounded by people who identify as Christians but have markedly *less* faith in Christianity or in God than you appear to have in athiesm. (In fact, one has to build a position of trust with them before they are willing to identify as a Christian in many cases!) Therefore, your degree of faith seems markedly different through my eyes.

Regarding the sun, I don't quite trust your account here. You clearly believe strongly in induction (as most scientists do - and I do too - most days!), and therefore I doubt your conclusion as to how you would respond were the sun to 'randomly fail to rise'. :D

And yes, I'm aware what that particular study says. Examine *all* the studies of this kind (there are many!) and my conclusion is supported. Yours remains untested. Go have a dig, if you have time!

Thanks for taking the time to chew this through and share your views.

Best wishes!

Simon said...

Well thought-out post, Johnny.

When god-people start branding science and atheism "faith", they are denying 500 years of human discovery (at least).

So, if they wish to discard it, let them. But I don't see many emmigrating to some deserted wilderness and setting up home in a mud hut.

That's why it is hypocrisy.

Simon said...

But if it did not take faith, would you not be agnostic?

I hear this. The answer is "no". We're not talkiing about some possible creator, some unseen god who exists somewhere unseen, possibly.

We're talking about very specifically described gods, of whichever variety.

By examining the description of these gods we can dismiss them as fiction beyond all reasonable doubt.

If you're going to claim everything we know requires some kind of faith, fine, but that reduces all knowledge to dust and leaves us sitting in our mud hut gazing, stupified, at the physical heavens.

If you want to do that, Chris, go ahead. I'm not stopping you.

Anonymous said...


The hit rate of 33.2 percent for Ganzfeld is found using meta-analysis. The actual efficacy of using that method, instead of relying on the results from the actual experiments, is unclear at best. It's not convincing, and other (less invested) analyses have shown more statistically average numbers.

The premise of the experiment is flawed, not due to the absence of a theory, but because it relies on the self-reporting of the judges as to what constitutes a "hit" or a "miss." See also: fortune telling and the "cold read." Because of this, even if there were a validated hit rate of greater than 25%, I would still raise questions as to whether or not the experimenters themselves were influencing the data by identifying hits where the description is "close enough."

That's bad science. And I would argue that we have a moral imperative for good science. I come in to work every day at a place where the motto is "Our dream is a world free of poverty." And whether or not we succeed, I couldn't say. But when people are dying of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, or can't get enough to eat, these problems will not be addressed by hopeful thinking and clever philosophizing. When global warming threatens us, it does nobody any good to question whether we need to have faith to take action. We have to do something about it. Science provides us with reliable, useful tools for understanding and fixing those problems. I have yet to see an alternative that does better.

And for that reason, while I personally find it irritating when people advocate mysticism and New Age thinking as equivalent to science, I also find it immoral. It provides cover to the NGOs who won't provide condoms and vaccines to developing nations, the politicians who won't do anything about carbon output, and the fake psychics who take money from people who--thanks to the faithful--will never be informed of just how unreliable those psychics are. Perhaps a placebo can cause cancer remission some of the time--but it's not going to stop HIV, ever. Science might, if people will stop devaluing it by acting like it's just another "faith."

Chris said...

Hi, sorry, thought I'd be talking to Johnny; not looking for an open debate on this topic on someone else's blog. I have enough trouble making myself understood on my own turf - I have no hope taken out of context! :) Some other time, perhaps.

Johnny Pi said...

If it makes you more comfortable, Chris, you can always just e-mail me. I've got no problem at all with that (just see the address in the footer of the page).