Saturday, February 26, 2011

Faith defeats Intellectual Humility

Dr. Coyne has a good post where he exposes the arrogance of Intelligent Design (ID) theory once again.

I am often a critic of religious thinking and I realize that makes some of my friends angry but this post by Dr. Coyne exposes the danger of how too much religious faith presents a problem to knowledge and explains my criticism (in a way).

One of the leading proponents of ID is William Dembski and he gets biology wrong again so he might cherry pick observations in service of his preferred religious belief.

Dembski seems like a nice guy but his credulity is beyond reason.

He wishes we all would be subject to his level of credulity and ignore the foundation of health science rooted in Darwinian evolution for the sake of Christianity.

William Dembski is an engineer and a fundamentalist Christian and a smart man but he is not an evolutionary biologist yet feels he has the authority to try to falsify known science for the sake of Jesus. He is either a cynic or a dupe animating the Intelligent Design community's political campaign to over-turn Darwinian evolution because it defeats the notion of a personal creator god. He fails with facts, intellectual charity and reasoning but believes he is right (and is well-funded in this belief) due to the emotional benefits Jesus belief brings.

It is obvious to me that his assertions have no intellectual humility because he wishes to be an authority on a subject he has no formal training in simply because he has made an emotional commitment to a creation myth with societal privileged protection.

It frightens me because it undermines the course of intelligence in intellectual humility which can make us all better for a faith commitment that makes the believer feel good despite its dubious claims on reality (like Mr. Dembski's experience with the faith healer and his son).

It also angers me because when I challenge the theological assertions by believers (e.g. The phenomenon of an invisible intelligent agent known as "The Holy Spirit" that becomes part of a human's reasoning faculties when an acceptance of Jesus is entered) I am told that I don't know the theology I am citing. My inexpert stance obviates my criticism despite the fact I am simply relating the theology taught to me when I was a Christian but Christians have no problem avoiding the intellectual charity they demand of critics when looking to challenge ideas that hurt their thesis.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Closing Argument on the Supernaturlist's claim to "Evidence"

A commenter named clamat over at "Common Sense Atheism" added something to a comment string I'm participating in that I find to be brilliant writing.

It creates a perfect argument as to why supernatural-centered thinkers fail to impress me.

He frames his POV as a closing argument to a court case because a fundamentalist Christian "challenged the atheist to present a compelling, rational, and evidential case for your views."

I recommend reading through it and wrestling with the ideas therein.

Here it is:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury;

You understand the cases being presented by both sides. Your duty is to weigh the evidence supporting each case, and determine whether that evidence satisfies the respective burdens of proof.

[dramatic pause]

We all agree that the Natural exists. When we look outward from the tiny little space we occupy, the Natural appears to be…well…pretty much everything. The Natural stretches out in space and in time as far as we have the ability to measure. Every element of our existence appears to be built on the natural, from clay bricks down to charm quarks. From our daily bread to our nightly dreams, the immediate explanations of virtually all of our experiences appear to be Natural. Indeed, the progress of Man is measured by the ever-increasing set of things for which once we did not know the Natural cause, but now do. This includes the “intangible” qualities that define us as people. For example, its appearing more and more that love really isa matter of chemistry.

In short, the Natural exists on a scope so brain-boggling that we humans, in the infancy of our species, are only just beginning to understand how very little we know about it. The evidence supporting the case for the Natural is so ubiquitous, so omnipresent, that only a madman would deny it, and it satisfies any standard of proof.

But some among us claim there is something “beyond” or “outside” or “other” than the Natural. And not only this. These people claim that this thing is actually greaterthan the Natural. Super-natural. Even more amazing, some people claim this Supernatural expects the people living on this lonely speck of dust in a backwater of the universe to live our lives in very specific ways, and will inflict all sorts of punishments on us if we don’t.

On its face, this is a pretty amazing claim, isn’t it? Doesn’t it demand an extraordinarily high burden of proof? I mean, if you, ladies and gentlemen, were sitting in a criminal case you would be told you could convict only if the evidence showed “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the accused was guilty. Some call this the standard of “moral certainty.” It’s a very high standard. But surely this claim of the Supernatural– which some people think would convict every single one of us of a crime — demands an even greater standard of proof?

So what evidence do the Supernaturalists offer to satisfy their burden?

They don’t offer any evidence of the Supernatural that can be directly seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched, or measured in any way. Indeed you’ve heard expert testimony that it’s not possible to measure the Supernatural scientifically becauseit is Supernatural. This isn’t evidence; it’s an explanation for why there is no evidence. Ladies and gentlemen, doesn’t it sound just a little too convenient to you?

They can’t say where the Supernatural exists; they can’t point it out on a map. They claim that the Supernatural “created” and affects the Natural, but don’t offer any evidence of a mechanism or how the process actually works. Lots of times, they don’t even really say what it is, and instead say what it is not, using words like “immaterial” and “timeless.” Do you actually understand what these words mean, ladies and gentlemen, because I sure don’t. Whatever they mean, one thing is clear: They are not evidence.

So, I ask you again – where is their evidence? Saying “You don’t know capital-E Everything” over and over again is not evidence. Saying “but it’s possible” over and over again isn’t evidence. Saying “but I’d really, really like it to be true” over and over again is not evidence.

The closest they come is to offer “philosophic” evidence. Now, we lawyers are accused all the time of speaking unclearly on purpose, of using jargon and big words to confuse things and make juries see things that aren’t there. And, ladies and gentlemen, I must admit, sometimes we’re guilty. But don’t the Supernaturalists take the cake? I mean, you remember the witnesses say things like “the impossibility of an actual infinite” and “irreducible complexity,” right? This sounded awful smart, I admit, but I ask you again, do those things actually mean anything to you? Is thisevidence?

I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that it is not. I submit the Supernaturalists have not offered any evidence at all, and simply want you to take it on their say-so. To take it on faith. Don’t let them get away with it.

Creative Handles and Creativity

One of my most creative and insightful friends, Pat Foltz, sent me a link which shows once again how the creative industry may deny itself creative thinkers by over-simplifying creative challenges.

Corporate creativity (e.g. advertising and marketing) when it works really well emulates the creative arts (e.g. Theater, Music, Dance etc . . .) because it sees itself as a craft which demands intellectual orientation; rather than as an automation that is best enabled by logistical organization.

For example, the latest theory in advertising is that creative solutions will best be wrought by professionals who grew up with the Internet. This theory recognizes communications has gone digital and therefore young people should have the greatest facility for digital communications due to the inference that they grew up with it. The theory offers intuitive appeal because we know that psychology follows the theory of evolution where environmental pressures define traits selected for future success but I struggle with the implications because the theory folds into itself a concern for craftsmanship with what appears to be an automated solution. I think this due to how the industry defines the theory relative to the people working in the industry.

The segment handle to organize the theory reaches for superficial considerations and I question the validity of it due to this.

Young people who are supposed to lead the creative and strategic charge in advertising are called "Digital Natives". Those not age appropriate are known as "Digital Immigrants". One's citizenship in the land of Digital (Native vs. Immigrant) is rooted in one's age.

For one to say that the Millennial Generation are "Digital Natives" because they grew up in the age of the Internet is equivalent to saying all Librarians are quiet and shy because they work in a silent environment.

A person's age relative to media is predictive of their creativity with that media as much as any creative person's age is relative to a problem that needs solving; incidental at best.

The Fast Company article articulates this well when they say, "(Digital Natives) need to behave more like improv actors - 'story building' instead of 'story telling" - so they can respond in real time to an unpredictable audience."

It seems that digital "citizenship" has less to do with age and more to do with mindset.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Beliefs I've evicted and some new tenants

I've been examining my beliefs to identify those that have proven to be free-loaders; ideas that don't "pay rent" (beliefs that fail to lead to predictive realities).

Here's a list of beliefs I've evicted followed by new tenants I will further evaluate to see if they pay their future fair share.
  1. Free markets make free people has been replaced with the more predictive belief that free markets must exploit portions of its population or the population of other countries to maximize economic profit
  2. A middle class is a by-product of Capitalist competition has been replaced with the belief that a middle-class is a result of Socialist policies that allow workers to own their labor
  3. Subjective conscience is evidence of non-material realities has been replaced with the belief that subjective conscience is best understood by seeing it as a combination of brain chemistry interacting with one's external environment
  4. Spiritual terms as actual realities has been replaced with the belief that spiritual language is a metaphor leveraging present culture to describe #3
  5. A requirement for career satisfaction is that one's primary source of income needs to correspond closely with one's passion has been replaced with the belief that a job can subsidize one's true vocation
More to come . . .

Friday, February 18, 2011

Making Beliefs Pay Rent

Eliezer Yudowsky of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has a tantalizing notion I hope to practice further. He calls it making your beliefs pay rent. His simple description is as follows,
"Any belief (the mental state in which an individual holds a proposition to be true) should restrict which experiences to anticipate, to be potentially useful and thereby pay rent and earn its keep in your mind, so to speak. If a belief does not affect what you anticipate experiencing—if the world would look exactly the same whether the belief is true or whether it is false—then how could you possibly tell if it were false? And if there's no circumstance under which you would be able to notice your belief were false, then why do you believe it now?"
This principle illuminates my vague notion that there is something wrong with my past respect for intuition as master of reason. I used to be drawn to big personalities who said bold things and referenced vague language that seemed to access intuitive revealed knowledge.

I remember one boss who would encourage those that worked for him by declaring that each one of us were forces of nature who held vast creative power to change the world.

This is good rhetoric but the reality is we would have been more comfortable working together if we admitted the limits of our powers and sought to maximize our efficiencies by recognizing that simply being human does not give one phenomenological abilities to bend the laws of space-time.

I think the belief we had "force of nature" powers was not true and probably was a product of our inferiority complexes and our boss's fear.

I also have become uncomfortable with creative folks I meet either in my day job in advertising or my vocation in play-writing who invoke a devotion to irrationality as a way of understanding reality.

A few folks I know have said recently that logic is good as far as it is practiced in science but within living life one must surrender to something other than logic (they never say what exactly, maybe they mean intuition) as the compass for understanding truth.

I recognize the sentiment to embrace the power of now by sounding my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world (because I've sung this song of myself in the past, usually accompanied by anxiety or nervousness) but no longer see that expression as a disciplined way of seeking after what is true.

It seems more like an energetic blast of belief to rationalize what I'd like to be true.

The beliefs we hold might allow us to enjoy emotional experiences based on their imagined causative links to real experiences but if the belief does not anticipate an actual external experience then the rent it is costing to take up brain space is, to quote Jimmy McMillan, "too damn high!"

I'm going to blog further about what I discover when practicing this principle.

I can see now that the first lesson it teaches me is that what I held as beliefs are not true and the intelligence I thought I had, I don't.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Evangelical Atheism

Two days ago I was told that my blogging and reading and posting on atheism and/or the real conflicts between religion and reason in our culture is the existential equivalence of Christian Evangelism.

It was done as a dismissive criticism. It fits the epistemic game of offering rhetorical equivalence in terms between ideas to damn an action by aligning it with its apposite.

It is the current apologetic tactic of sophisticated Christians who deconstruct the meaning of "faith" to show that "faith" is practiced by all, even those who choose skepticism.

It seems silly to me because it is rooted in shame (which always seems silly to me) but also because it needs to make its argument by risking equivocation to provide some perceived equivalence between skeptical criticism of supernatural "truth" and the promotion with certainty of supernatural "truth".

The accusation upset me.

I was upset not because I disagree that there is an "evangelical" quality to those of us who once were held sway by religious nonsense and have come to see that critical thinking is a more sustainable and moral choice but because the accusation was so poorly reasoned.

I guess in a simplistic way anyone who has a concern for a given topic, follows thought leaders in that topic, writes about it on his or her free time and disseminates this information would be considered "evangelical".

The person who made this claim on another occasion talked to me about the liberating effects heavy marijuana consumption has and how America would end their trade deficit if we stopped subsidizing farmers and instead legalized pot so that it could become the international cash crop it deserves to be. I thought it was an interesting point but didn't dismiss it by saying, "Man, you sound like some Evangelical Christian trying to convert me."

The online etymology dictionary traces the term "evangelical" to the 16th century meaning one who spreads the Gospel. Gospel in that context is proper and it relates to a specific authority on reality with the aim of conversion to that authority.

My aim is not conversion. I don't want anyone to believe anything I say simply on my authority or the authority of my character or the authority of any inquiry I make into belief or atheistic argument I entertain.

I want people to reason.

I would imagine people would enjoy reasoning.

It also seems that what people dislike about me through this blog is the tone I choose when communicating the ideas I have. I'm told that my point of view promotes my "rightness" at the expense of others "wrongness" and the position I'm suggested to take is a laissez faire association to ideas that endorses either the "rightness" of all ideas or the celebration of another's subjective unreal assertions because that makes life beautiful.

I find those arguments unconvincing. Here's why:
  1. I aspire to be a writer. The writer's job is to be critical of assertions and promote ideas that give insight into truth not subjective comfortable belief
  2. I was emotionally and psychologically harmed by theologies that suggested self-hatred is a sacramental holiness and see these theologies continuing to animate the need for supernatural belief today. I think it moral to help others who may be trapped in self-punishing premises to realize that there is little logic or reason to the belief they are held sway by invisible forces
  3. I have a 9 month old son who I need to protect from religious people who will try to convince him that his opinions or desires are evidence of his depravity or weakness and if only he give over to authority he will be safe
  4. 80% of the US population denies or misunderstands the mechanism of natural selection within Darwinian evolution and in this misunderstanding seeks to interfere with science education because it is onerous to their beliefs
  5. George Bush's gut level thinking regarding weapons of mass destruction became the electorate's approved method for international politics because there seemed to be an adoration of instinct over analysis
  6. The major theologies of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism contradict one another but all lay claim to Jerusalem thereby stoking nuclear intentions in the Middle East and even leading many people to believe a nuclear incident there would be "good" (based on their theologies)
  7. The fastest growing Christianity in Africa is Pentecostalism which has led parents to accuse their children of witchcraft (sanctioned by the bible) and has led these parents to set their children on fire or have them drink battery acid
  8. Traditional Islam demands that a woman's clitoris be cut out and her vagina sewn shut to ensure that she is a virgin on her wedding night
  9. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has been uncovered as an institution that used its wealth and influence to collude to keep child rapists protected within its walls and continues to obfuscate on these crimes despite evidence that criminal collusion occurred at the highest levels of its clerical authority. It also has intellectual influence over the fastest growing economic populations in South America and continues to obstruct women's reproductive rights despite evidence that a tight correlation exists between poverty alleviation and a woman's right to choose if she will be pregnant
  10. Pastor Rick Warren of the Purpose Driven Life (NYT Best Seller) has supported the Ugandan legislation that would make homosexuality and colluding to keep homosexuals safe a capital crime worthy of the death penalty
So yes, I guess I am an Evangelical but to associate me with an Evangelical religious person (specifically Christian) is to ignore the facts we are facing as human beings.

I will continue to be Evangelical in my atheism and I have very little shame in it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The danger of apostasy

It seems to me that most people maintain whatever religious association they have not because they experiment with their theology to test its veracity against reality but because the shared ideas that make up that theology allow for social acceptance.

I think it is why people like me who call for proof of the claims made by their former religions are seen as mean-spirited, hostile, bigots or crazy.

We've broken the rules of polite social engagement.

The apostate's sanity or honesty are called into question despite the objective evidence one has to justifiably infer a religion's theology is bunk.

For example, I've come to see that a post-enlightened world of common descent, quantum mechanics, and the double-helix of our DNA does not afford much space for the interventionist god of abrahamic theism or the unmoved mover of classical theism. I therefore think it is silly to call myself Christian or Spiritual in any substantive way.

The metaphors that make up the definition of Yahweh, Jesus or spirits are unconvincing in the discoveries science has provided.

I don't think many modern believers if challenged would argue for supernaturalism when faced with naturalism's victories either.

Of course there are the Pat Robertson followers who will seek to understand god's "to do" list by analyzing natural disasters (e.g. The Haitian earthquakes as god's vendetta against Voo Doo or the snow-storms hammering the US East Coast as god's retribution against the gays) but the pre-enlightened "experimental religion" of Jonathan Edwards is resigned to the cultural scrap-heap of faith-healers and Tarot card readers.

I doubt anyone who has built their career on the observation of Christ-centered teleology will be named President of Princeton, as Edwards was, anytime soon.

These modern institutions rely on both methodological and metaphysical naturalism for their invention (e.g. the germ theory of disease as a basis for inoculation rather than spirits as a source of affliction) and therefore avoid supernaturalism as a cause.

The supernaturalism for most functioning believers in a modern world has regressed to a personal philosophy that allows emotional spikes to be framed by terms that offer a short-hand method for admitting them or justifying them.

For example, in my former experience as a Calvinist Christian, sin was a reality evidenced by the lack of perfection I experienced in either my thinking or behavior which in turn motivated a theological practice towards better behavior. I couldn't however point to a generator of sin because it was a function of my soul and therefore a product of a non-investigatable entity. Thus sin operated more as metaphor in explaining the basic reality of what I've come to see as biological and brain functions rather than being basic unto itself.

The result of metaphors like sin become theology and theology offers easy access to a social group and belonging based on the shared belief that the metaphor is basic. I don't begrudge this. It feels good to count on a society that will agree with you and always love you.

It does suggest however that a belief in unseen agents (e.g. "God" or "gods") is a function of emotional experience rather than testable ideas and therefore it seems to be more about wishful thinking to navigate one's inner life rather than understanding what makes up our shared external world.

I also think it is why when one admits apostasy towards a given religious tradition it often invites both aggressive and passive hostility from the people with whom the apostate once shared religious belief.

A person who sees theology as metaphor, and admits its usefulness is in providing comfort for those believing in the symbols of that theology, seems to be behaving like a bully telling another their organizing ideas of reality are of no deeper substance than "Goodnight Moon".

I of course believe that all theologies are of the same essential substance as fairy-tales, and don't mind believers who wish to admit this, but also find the need to justify these stories in ritual as ineffective to any real moral or intellectual aims.

The difficulty however is that believers who will dismiss the efficacy of their theology when faced with real circumstances modernity has tackled (e.g. antibiotics as first-line therapy for Streptococcus rather than the laying of hands by elders and the anointment of oil) will not admit the subordinate nature of their metaphor when considering reality.

They insist that their metaphor is real.

I've offended many people in my short time as an atheist because I've challenged the assertions they feel to be real as real in any meaningful way outside of their feelings. I once was concerned that I needed to apologize for this unintended offense but now see it as the inherent danger of apostasy. Now that I admit the function of religion as a natural phenomenon I can understand why I make so many of my former friends uncomfortable and, while sad for the friendships I seem to have lost, I no longer worry about what I could have done to change the outcome.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Humility before the Facts or Religious Shell-Games

Eric Macdonald at Choice in Dying has an excellent post that illustrates why I get angry with religious people in their doctrinal certainty and why religious leaders like Al Mohler seem immoral to me. 2 things I disagree with Dr. Mohler in regards to his latest post on the dogma of atheism.

  1. He distorts Sam Harris's thesis towards religion by painting him as a person who seeks to eradicate religious liberty. It is a lie about Mr. Harris's thesis against the moral sustainability of competing religions and Dr. Mohler offers no attribution to support it. His slander defeats his premise that the new atheists engage in scientism by necessitating an unattributed assertion to support his conclusion.
  2. Darwinian evolution offers a theory on the diversity of organisms and not abiogenesis or cosmology. He conflates scientific terms to make his claim and relies on what seems a non-sequiteur to damn Dawkins with scientism when the theory Dr. Dawkins adjudicates Christianity as false is mute on the subjects Dr. Mohler claims.

When I was a Calvinist Christian I would have been cheering Dr. Mohler's authority without any knowledge of my ignorance or possible immorality. As I have moved to disbelief I find Dr. Mohler's position immoral and am sad that he has influence over people who will be confused to the difference between biology (Darwinian evolution), chemistry (abiogenesis) and physics (cosmology) while claiming perfect knowledge in the bible.

I also can infer from my experience that the hardened certainty Dr. Mohler asserts and the epistemic pride his ideas will engender will not lead to the shame it should. The "faith" that will be felt by the believers in the depravity of atheists will be justified in the moral good evidenced by their obedience to their thought-leader with no comprehension how he needs to misrepresent facts as a means to proclaim absolute truth.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How do you deal with your doubts?

My friend and pseudonymous author of "Confessions of God" JohnThomas Didymus asks me a question regarding my post focused on faith vs. evidence.
"Allow me to ask you a question, friend. In what way do you conceive of the reality of your own existence in its subjective dimensions?"
This is a tough question to answer and often seems to be the stopping point for epistemology (the nature and scope of knowledge). I mean do I live in Chicago, Illinois or The Matrix?

What we say we know is predicated on certain basic facts which ultimately we need to accept otherwise we get to an infinite regress of "why?"

The heart of JT's question challenges this basicality and seems to challenge me to consider the nature of my doubts relative to how I come to my knowledge (subjectively speaking).

I of course concede that I am a novice of evidentialism where some sort of objective method must be practiced when considering claims otherwise we become subject to our intuition which, given subjective license, has shown itself to be a poor predictor of what is real.

Therefore I take faith-claims as poor evidence but JT challenges this in fairness by illustrating how my comfort with deduction demands a faith proposition in set-theory (the foundation for mathematics) due to set-theory's honest criticism (like Wittgenstein's critique of set-theory relative to infinities and thus its illusory nature).

I don't share JT's concern however when addressing the question of religious faith vs. testable evidence and my apparent "faith" in set theory.

Set theory works at a primitive level when cultural noise is included.

It simply is and is basically real.

2+2=4 has the same meaning across cultures but not necessarily across all religions as my friend Lady Atheist pointed out when she wrote me and said that 2+2=4 can mean,
"For Unitarian Universalists 2 + 2 = well, that depends on who's counting
For Mormons 2 + 2 = not enough wimmin
For Creationists, 2 + 2 = 22
For UFOlogists 2 + 2 = 42
For Scientologists 2 + 2 = 2384792.19827"
and so although deduction may depend upon faith in the subjective "realness" of set-theory; set-theory can't be twisted by the subjective popular or social response a set-theory believer has in it (or we would have to see Lady Atheist's illustration as computational rather than satirical.)

The question brings to the front for me the nature of doubt. It seems that there are at least two types of doubt when considering faith and what we know. There is emotional doubt and epistemic doubt.

Emotional doubt can use religion as a resolution of it (although the practice of certain theologies like my former Calvinist Christianity actually feeds the doubt due to concepts like sin) while epistemic doubt demands an analysis of data hygiene through methodological means like set-theory.

If one wants to assert that they have had a subjective experience with God and it has resolved their fear of death then it seems the subjective nature of this information offers resolution to a real emotional doubt and it can't be analyzed for its fact or fiction but, if the same person then seeks to extend this experience to an assertion that God is a triune being detailed in scripture, I can comfortably assess the data set of the bible (e.g. it's reliance on similar ancient Near Eastern myth for its narrative, its noted redaction, geographic dependence on discrete Christian tradition) and question the level of epistemic doubt still unresolved by this assertion.

I can further cross-reference the believer's assertion to the fact of a biblical God by inferring motivation due to psychology, anthropology or other sciences.

Subjectivity as JT so rightly challenges me is an essential property for all of our knowledge but how we understand it's meaning relative to the type of doubt it resolves helps indicate how trust-worthy it is.

I have no problem if someone wishes to assert that they know who god is but I do have a problem if they try to convince me that this knowledge is beyond doubt.